Chapter Thirty-six: Flight
“Who is this Basha?” asked Aleron as they hurried back to the inn.
“My enemy,” Adesina replied shortly. “A fellow Shimat.”
E’nes, who knew more about his sister’s past than the others, shook his head in confusion. “I thought you said that you defeated her in your final test. How could she possibly be so far from the Shimat fortress before her training is completed?”
This was something she didn’t understand either. “I do not know. She should still be there, finishing her training and making up for her defeat.”
“Is there any way she has gone rogue?” asked Sa’jan.
She gave a short, bitter laugh. “No. The Shimat order is perfect for a woman like Basha. She would never think of leaving, nor would the Sharifal let her go. She is ruthless and without conscience—a valuable asset to the Shimat.”
They arrived at the inn, and went straight to the stables. The newly purchased supplies were packed in the saddlebags and the horses were prepared for the impending departure.
Adesina noticed Aleron standing off to the side, watching them forlornly.
“What are you waiting for?” she quipped. “Saddle your horse.”
He stared at her in disbelief. “You mean…?”
Aleron needed no other encouragement. He rushed over to his horse and began saddling it with haste.
L’iam frowned slightly. “Are you sure that is a good idea?”
She tightened a buckle with more force than what was strictly necessary. “No. In fact, I think it is a bad idea, but we have few other choices.”
“Because Basha has seen him with us,” she explained. “If he is left without protection, she will certainly take advantage of that. She would question him about our destination, torture him and most likely kill him.”
“But he poses no threat to her,” protested L’era.
“That does not matter,” Adesina retorted. “She would do all of that to spite me, if for no other gain.”
Aleron paled when he heard this. “I could not tell her anything anyway. I do not even know the details of your mission.”
She pressed her lips together. “You know more than enough to let her know exactly what we are doing.”
He straightened his back. “Well, I would not tell her.”
Adesina fixed him with an icy gaze. “You would be begging to tell her by the time she was finished with you.”
An ominous chill ran down the spine of every member of their group. Adesina shook her head and went back to her preparations. “I am not leaving you behind to die like that.”
Nothing else was said as they prepared to leave. They mounted their horses and rode out of the village as quickly as they could without attracting too much attention.
L’iam led them east, just in case they were being followed. “Do you think she will come after us?” he asked as he rode next to Adesina.
She stared bleakly at the horizon. “Probably. Nothing would bring her more pleasure than discrediting me to the Sharifal. In order to do that, she needs more proof than merely seeing me in the company of L’avan. After all, they most likely still believe it a possibility that I have been captured.”
“What happens when she finds this proof?”
A heavy pause followed.
“We had better hope to have found my father by then.”
Me’shan heard the approach of his tormentors with a sense of despair. Why would they not just let him die?
After the customary rattle of keys, the door swung open, bathing the cell with torchlight. He cringed away from it, shielding his eyes and praying that it would all be over soon.
Instead of being beaten, however, Me’shan was joined by another prisoner. The guards threw her to the ground with as much force as they could muster, laughing when she cried out in pain. The door was then closed again, and the echoed footsteps faded away.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness again, but he could see clearly much sooner than his companion. She sobbed quietly, huddled on the cold stone floor.
Me’shan felt pity for her, but was also cautious. It would not be the first time the Shimat had tried to trick him in one way or another.
“Are you hurt?”
She gasped and scrambled into the corner of the cell. “Who is there?”
He hesitated before answering. “A prisoner, like yourself.”
“Are you from the High City, too?”
Me’shan smiled at the irony of her question. “That is where I was taken,” he said evasively.
She sighed in relief. “I was afraid that they had killed everybody else. Do you know how many survived?”
He frowned in confusion. “Survived? The High City was attacked?”
Her voice was weighed down with disappointment. “Oh, you did not know? I thought…that is…I assumed they took you the same time they took me.”
Me’shan shook his head, even though he knew she could not see it. “I have been in this dungeon for a long time.”
“What is your name?” she asked quietly.
He gave the name of a good friend of his who lived in a village north of the High City. “Trayse.”
She considered this for a moment before replying, “My name is Faryl. I owned an apothecary shop in the High City.”
Me’shan was amused by the defiant tone in which she stated her lifestyle. He recalled seeing the little shop in a corner of the Square, and hearing whispers about a woman running it. He had never had reason to enter the shop, but he would not have hesitated to if the need had arisen. Unfortunately, that was not the mentality of the people surrounding the High City, and that was where he was pretending to come from.
Measuring the proper amount of disbelief in his voice, he said, “A woman? Is that why you were arrested?”
“No,” she shot back. “It is not against the law for a woman to run a shop.”
“Then why are you here?” he asked quietly.
There was a brief pause. “I do not know.”
He could tell that she was lying, but did not press the point. He was weary, and his voice hoarse from disuse. Perhaps she had been put there to get information out of him, perhaps she was a prisoner in earnest. Either way, they would have plenty of time to talk later.
He turned on his back and closed his eyes against the darkness of their stone tomb, filling his mind with bright memories of the ones he loved the most.
The traveling L’avan had no more encounters with Adesina’s former rival, although they continued to be cautious. They knew they could not deviate off course too much longer, for time was already running short. Eventually, they turned south again, picking up their pace.
One by one they began to relax, but not Adesina. She remained as alert as she had been the first day she spotted Basha.
“If she is not following us now, why would she begin later?” reasoned L’era.
Adesina merely scanned the surrounding area with a grim expression on her face. “It is because she is not following us that I am worried. If she is not behind us, then she is somewhere else. She could be doing any number of things to cause us trouble. It is when Basha is not seen that she is the most dangerous.”
The farther south they rode, the more agitated Aleron became. He finally became so distracted that he began dropping things and bumping into everything around him. The third time this happened when they had stopped for the night, Adesina turned to him in exasperation.
“What is it, Aleron?”
He started. “What?”
“Something is making you awfully jumpy, and it is driving me crazy.”
His expression was immediately apologetic. “I am sorry, Adrie. I do not mean to be a burden on the group.”
She restrained herself from rolling her eyes. “Do not apologize, Aleron. Just tell me what is wrong.”
His eyes wandered south. “It is…just that…”
“Yes?” she encouraged.
Aleron clasped his hands in front of him, staring at them as they wrung. “We are getting closer to the High City.”
Adesina nodded slowly, finally understanding the cause of his distress. “Yes, I know.”
He shrugged uncomfortably. “I thought we would be…avoiding it.”
She sighed softly. “I am afraid we cannot do that.”
“Why?” he asked in a tortured voice.
She looked at him with sympathy, speaking gently. “Kendan was stationed just outside the High City. In order to find him, I need to go there first.”
This caught the attention of the entire group.
“Who is this Kendan?” asked L’era.
Adesina felt her cheeks flush, and prayed that her heightened color was hidden in the darkness. She leaned back against Ravi’s side, away from the firelight. “He was my trainer. I know he would be willing to help us once he realizes the truth about the Shimat.”
“How do you know that he does not know the truth already?” asked Sa’jan.
“He is an honorable man,” she replied, feeling her blush deepen. “Also, he is…young. He has not been a Shimat for long, therefore it is doubtful that he would be privy to such knowledge.”
L’era noticed the waver in her voice and gave her a questioning look. Then she turned her eyes to her brother, looking for his response to this revelation.
L’iam kept his eyes fixed on the flames of the campfire, his expression giving away nothing. “If you believe you can trust him, then we shall as well.”
He stood and moved away from the group, leaving them in silence.
“Well,” ventured E’nes, “how are we going to find this trainer of yours?”
Adesina wrapped her arms around her knees. “He was my Shimat contact while I was in the High City. If for any reason there is a break in that contact, instructions are to be left at the meeting place.”
“Where was your meeting place?” asked Aleron hesitantly, as if he wasn’t sure he wanted to know about the double life of one he had believed to be his friend.
She understood the tone of his voice and gave him a sad smile. “In a cave in the forest west of the city.”
“Do you think he had anything to do with the attack on the High City?” Aleron asked more harshly than he intended.
She instantly shook her head. “No, his duty would have been to organize and lead the search for me.”
He only looked slightly consoled by her words. “What if we cannot find him?”
“We will,” she assured confidently.
“But what if we cannot?” pressed her brother.
In all honesty, she doubted this was even a possibility. Two Shimat looking for each other could not help but find one another. Still, she had considered the options if that happened.
“Then we will go on alone.”
“If we can go on without him, then why contact him at all?” came Ravi’s unexpected voice.
Adesina looked at her guardian in surprise. Why was he questioning her plans now? “Kendan’s aid would be valuable to our mission. He knows the fortress much better than I do, and he may have overheard important information. Also, he can move about the fortress freely—something we cannot do on our own.”
This was enough for the other L’avan, but Ravi still did not look convinced.
She frowned in concern. “What is it, Ravi?”
He shook his head in worry. “My Dreams have not been as clear as they should be. I feel as if I am going into this venture blind.”
She quirked an eyebrow. “We are hardly blind, dear friend. Much thought and planning has gone into this.”
His words were chilling as they fell on every ear. “It may not be enough.”
Adesina was speechless for several moments. “What should we do, then?”
A heavy silence followed as Ravi went deep into thought. They all hoped he would have a solution for them, but he offered none. No one felt like talking after that. They all curled up in their blankets and pretended to sleep.
The only one who didn’t join them was L’iam, who continued his watch until well past midnight. Adesina was still awake when she heard him being replaced by Sa’jan.
She stared up at the stars, reaching up to them with her vyala. They sang strange and beautiful songs when one was connected to their vyala, and she understood why Ravi loved them so much. Sadly, the comfort and inspiration she sought in them could not be found that night. Her mind remained a blank darkness, and she found a feeling of desperation welling up from deep within herself.
She needed help.
Admitting this to herself did nothing to help her discover what she should do. The only person she could think of to help her was Kendan. That was why they were looking for him. He had the answers she needed to finish planning the mission. Without him, she was at a loss. There were too many variables, too much unknown.
They had to find Kendan.
Repeating this to herself, Adesina finally fell asleep.
The next morning dawned brightly, filtering through the trees and gently waking the L’avan. They glanced at each other warily, none of them saying what was on all of their minds. Today was the day they would arrive at the High City. Or, at least, what remained of the High City.
Aleron was the most affected by this knowledge. He finally began singing softly to himself to help cope with the overwhelming emotions he felt. Adesina listened to the words of his sad song, once again caught up in the spell of his music.
Fly upon the wings of night
Lose yourself in the abounding darkness
To hide your scars, your wounds from the world
Is to be free from the past that haunts you
Find solace in the arms of night
There your tears are seen by no one
Hope is swallowed by black despair
But at least the facade is kept intact
Wander through the maze of night
Wish for light, but shy from the reality
It’s easier to let go of broken dreams
Instead of clutching the shards to your heart
Lose yourself in the mask of night
Anonymous faces surround you
Doubt of your existence may flood your mind
But perhaps it is better that way
Adesina sighed to herself, contemplating how she herself was a creature of the night. In the darkness she felt most free, most powerful, and most invulnerable. In the light of day, and more importantly, in the light of her vyala, she was stripped completely bare. All of her faults, all of her weaknesses, every small truth lay exposed. She preferred staying safely hidden in the darkness, even if it also brought solitude.
This train of thought was interrupted as they mounted their horses and once again began their journey. Adesina noticed Ravi walking alongside Aleron, speaking in his deep, calming voice.
“You sing very well.”
He laughed nervously, still not at ease with Adesina’s guardian. “Thank you.”
“Music is an important part of my culture. It is a way of connecting with the soul and allowing it to express itself in ways beyond words alone.”
For a moment, the clouds lifted and Aleron’s sunny smile could be seen again. “I feel the same way.”
As simply as that, Ravi had eased the burden on the young man’s mind. They chatted about their favorite songs, the ones they had grown up with—talking about how they had learned the many verses of this song, or how they had attempted to woo with that song. When they discovered songs they had in common, they sang them together. Their rich voices blended together in perfect harmony, creating beautiful sounds that cheered up everyone’s spirits.
Unfortunately, the hours of pleasant forgetfulness didn’t last.
By late afternoon, the High City could be seen in the distance. At first Adesina didn’t even recognize it. Where high white walls had stood surrounding the city, only blackened rubble remained. The meticulous streets were literally torn apart, and there were corpses strewn everywhere.
L’era paled at the sight. “Why has no one cared for the dead?”
Aleron shook his head. “All of the survivors left as quickly as possible, before we were attacked again.”
“What about the surrounding villages?” she demanded indignantly.
L’iam looked at his sister sadly. “I suppose no one wanted to interfere, lest they become the next target of attack. Besides, it is an insurmountable task caring for this many bodies.”
He was right. Thousands of people had been massacred in that city. It would take just as many living people to care for the dead.
“Is there anything we can do?” asked Aleron with a trembling voice.
“Not if you want them buried,” answered Adesina. “We could cremate the remains using another massive fire, but that is just about all that we can do.”
His head hung low as he accepted her words, tears running freely down his boyish face.
“We could pray for them,” suggested L’iam gently.
Aleron nodded eagerly, glad to be able to do something. They all dismounted their horses and bowed their heads as L’iam offered a prayer in the ancient language of the L’avan. Adesina didn’t understand the words he spoke, but his voice was earnest and full of pity. She could see her friend from the High City taking comfort in the loss of his loved ones.
When L’iam finished praying, they remounted and rode on. They skirted the ruined city as well as they could, but it was not enough to escape the overwhelming stench that assaulted their noses.
The harsh smell of charred plant life, the greasy remains of burnt animals, the sickening scent of decay. All of this mixed with the savage smell of fire, even though the attack had taken place weeks ago.
The travelers escaped into the shelter of the trees, hoping to shield themselves from both stench and sight of the slaughter.