Chapter Four: A New Path
It was a full year before Adesina was called back to the Sharifal’s tower. The time seemed to pass like an eternity.
The amount of information she had received daily was almost overwhelming. It took constant effort to retain it all. Every time she won a victory, Kendan would twist it and take it from her. She never got the same amount of sleep two nights in a row and sometimes she went for days without food. Yet, through all of this, Kendan continued to push her harder and harder.
There was no regularity in her schedule, which was something every Shi was accustomed to having. Some days were spent on only one subject, and others covered them all. Adesina also struggled because her body was still changing as she matured. Every day was an adjustment physically, and a battle to remain disciplined and unemotional through the ruthless pace of her studies.
Adesina’s sixteenth birthday came and went without note. Her only consolation on that day was that she was allowed three meals; however unlikely it was that her birthday was the reason for that.
In spite of all of this, her life was not without its pleasant moments. There were times when Kendan was sweet and understanding. Unfortunately, he seemed to be nothing but extremes. When he was harsh, his words and actions would border on cruelty, and when he was kind, he treated her with tender affection. His inconsistency was, to Adesina, the deepest cut of all.
His was the opinion that she sought in all things. His approval meant more to her than she even cared to admit to herself. Most of all, she felt a warm admiration for him that she often hoped he returned.
They strictly adhered to the code of conduct between a Shar and a Shi, but Adesina was closer to him than she had ever been to anyone else. The hours upon hours that they spent together every day made it difficult for them not to grow close, in spite of the days when Kendan treated her sharply.
It was now mid autumn, and Adesina sat in the Sharifal’s office reflecting on how her life had changed since the last time she had stood in that room. Signe walked into the office and sat down across from the young woman.
“I have been watching you closely, Adesina. I am pleased with the progress you have made.”
She stared at her hands. She did not feel she had made much progress. The past year had seemed like one failure after another.
Signe studied Adesina’s grave expression. “Is something wrong, child?”
Adesina slowly shook her head. She didn’t think she could put into words what she felt, let alone how to make Signe understand.
When Signe saw that Adesina wasn’t going to give more of an answer she sighed quietly. “I have an assignment for you.”
Adesina looked up, almost unable to believe what she had just heard. “What about my training?”
“You have received sufficient training for what I must ask of you, and this cannot wait.”
A brief nod was Adesina’s only response.
“There is a northern organization that threatens the southern lands of Sehar. Essentially, it is a cult of magic-users who try to force others to submit to their rule. We have been fighting against them covertly for several years. Certain political considerations have prevented open warfare. I need you to position yourself in a place where you can be of use to our resisting forces.”
The young Shi shifted in her seat nervously. “How am I to do this?”
Signe handed Adesina a stack of papers. “There is a city in the central lands that locals refer to as the High City. It was founded by a group of people who felt the world was too corrupt and sought to cease any sort of association. They built the city so that it is practically impenetrable and set a strict standard of living for those within the walls. Few are allowed into the city, but if you can establish yourself as a citizen there, you will be untouchable from those outside. This is the first step of your mission: to establish a solid alibi as a citizen at the High City. Everything you need to know is in those papers—a detailed background for the identity you are to assume, and so forth.”
A wave of uncertainty washed over Adesina. The past year of training had proven to her how much she still had to learn. More importantly, she was aware that she had never put her skills to use in a real life situation. Her only associations had been with those at the Shimat fortress. How could she possibly pass herself off as a normal citizen?
Adesina did her best to keep these doubts from her face, but Signe sensed that something was wrong. “What is it?”
She quickly shook her head. “Nothing. Is there anything else?”
The Sharifal gave her an appraising glance before replying, “Yes.”
She placed a beautifully carved wooden box in front of Adesina and opened it. Lying on a bed of deep red velvet was an exquisite sword. It was slender and slightly curved, with intricate engravings etched down the center of the blade with the greatest skill. Beside the sword was a simple sheath with the image of a diving falcon near the top.
Signe smiled at the stunned expression on Adesina’s face. “Upon graduation every student is given a special weapon made specifically for them. The weapon is infused with a few drops of their blood, making it truly theirs and no one else’s. This is your Blood Sword, Adesina. I have never been more proud to present one to a student than I am now.”
Adesina picked up the sword as she would have a newborn child, the importance of this moment falling upon her shoulders. She tested the balance of the blade, which was flawless, and twirled it experimentally. It was the perfect weight and length for her, and in her hand the gleaming metal seemed to come to life.
She placed it back in its case somewhat reverently. “What does the falcon mean?”
A slight smile played at the Sharifal’s lips. “It is to be the symbol by which you shall be known—one who attacks from above. Now, child, kneel before me.”
Adesina did as she was instructed. Signe turned her penetrating gaze on the budding young woman before her. “Do you, Adesina, swear eternal loyalty and unquestioning obedience to the Sharifal of our order, even should it cost you your life?”
Signe smiled. “Rise, child. I declare you a Shimat.” She indicated to the sword and stack of papers. “Go and prepare for your mission. You leave tomorrow night.”
Adesina hurried back to her room, where she found a pleasant surprise. Folded carefully on her cot was a Shimat uniform exactly like the one she had worn for her final test the year before. Next to it sat a set of nondescript travel clothes that she was to wear the following night. She was tempted to try on the uniform immediately, but she resisted the urge. Instead, Adesina made a detailed list in her mind of everything she would need for the journey. As she was assembling a medical kit she heard a tentative knock at her door.
It was Zadok.
“The Sharifal said I am to give you whatever weapons you want.”
She jotted down a list and handed it to the bulky man, who left as quickly as he came. Adesina was uncertain what kind of preparations would be needed because she still didn’t know the specifics of her mission. She tried to account for every situation when putting her things together.
When she had done all that she could, she settled on her cot to read the stack of papers Signe had given her. She read each sentence repeatedly until all of the information was ingrained into her memory. Once she had done this, she tried to get some rest.
Zadok returned at first light with the items she had requested, which Adesina hid carefully in her bags. She checked and rechecked her mental list of preparations, anxious to take care of everything.
Her motion seized up as a sudden thought occurred to her, and she hurried to the courtyard where she usually met Kendan to begin her lessons. He was standing with his arms folded expectantly.
Adesina bowed with a sinking sensation in her chest. “Forgive me, Shar Kendan, I did not know if I had a lesson in light of my new assignment.”
Kendan raised an eyebrow. “Why would you not? All who are resident to the fortress are students. All students have lessons.”
Adesina nodded. “Of course, Shar Kendan.”
He beckoned to her and walked down the corridor that eventually opened up to a large training area. As she followed him, she had an unpleasant feeling that he was going to make her pay for keeping him waiting.
Her fears proved to be well founded.
Kendan took her to an obstacle course he had set up on the range. It was arranged in such a way that Adesina could only see the obstacle immediately in front of her, and the rest was hidden from view. The wooden walls formed a kind of maze around each of the puzzles she was to solve.
He turned to face her with the familiar challenging gleam in his eyes. “There are guards patrolling the area. You are to neutralize them without harming them. Each obstacle in the course is to be dealt with in a manner of your choosing, but you are not to influence the servants assisting on the course. At the end of the range is a box you are to return to me. Do you understand?”
Adesina nodded, her mind already working on the task.
Kendan pointed to a raised tower that overlooked the entire obstacle course. “I will be watching you from there.”
He walked away, leaving Adesina to her exercise.
She entered the maze on velvet feet, making no noise even though the ground was covered in gravel. The first obstacle was a wall of wooden boards. There was enough room at the bottom for her to squeeze under it, but it also was a height that Adesina could climb over. She crouched by the wall, closing her eyes and focusing on what was on the other side.
Adesina could hear two guards breathing. They were standing stationary, and there was a third guard patrolling.
She pursed her lips thoughtfully. It would be tricky getting all three at once. She reached into her belt and detached three darts, which were coated with a special compound that Adesina had invented during her sixth year of training. The result of the mixture was almost immediate unconsciousness.
She jumped lightly and grabbed hold of the top of the wall, raising herself up slowly and silently. Peering over the edge, she verified the positions of all three guards. Then, gathering her energy, she vaulted over the wall.
While in midair she threw a dart at the patrolling guard with pinpoint accuracy, then she landed between the stationary guards, jabbing both of them in the shoulder with the remaining darts.
Not one of the three guards had time to react before the drug on the darts took effect. Adesina gathered the darts and immediately turned her mind to the next obstacle.
Just beyond the fallen third guard were a series of moving targets and a small servant girl standing on the path that led out of the enclosure. The girl looked to be about seven or eight, and was holding a bundle of various weapons. Adesina walked over and took the bundle from the girl. As she did so, the girl looked up at her with undisguised admiration glowing in her young eyes.
Children who were brought to the fortress between the ages of five and nine were put to work as servants. If they were younger, they were taken to the nursery. The fortress rarely accepted children over the age of nine because at least one year of service was required before training began. Being that Adesina had begun her training so early, she never went through that particular process. This was yet another part of what engendered the feelings of hostility between Adesina and the other Shi. All of them had paid their dues, except for her.
Adesina rummaged through the bundle of weapons and picked out a bow. The girl smiled and handed Adesina five arrows—one for each target.
The young woman stood and faced the targets. They were small, round wooden shields painted with a red circle and an X through the middle. Their movements were reasonably paced, but it was also clear that their course was random. Adesina knew that this would take a bit more time and skill than if they had had a clear pattern.
She drew the bow and took careful aim. The arrow was released with a soft twang. Adesina didn’t need to look to know that she had hit her mark, but she checked just in case. The arrow stood quivering in the center of the red painted X.
Adesina drew her bow again, and dealt with the other four targets in a similar manner. A brief smirk crossed her face, but she quickly banished it. The course was far from done.
The young girl took the bow from Adesina and stepped aside to let her pass to the next section of the challenge.
The path led to an open area that looked a lot like part of the final test of her fifth year of training. The ground was spread with a yellow substance that showed clearly on any clothing. The objective was to cross the area without touching the ground. Adesina studied the course, mapping out a path in her mind. When she decided on the best strategy, she began.
The entrance where Adesina stood was in the corner of the open area. High up on the outer wall that ran away from the entrance hung a sturdy, draping fabric. Adesina braced herself in the doorframe and climbed up slowly in order to reach it.
There was still quite a bit of distance between Adesina and the fabric when she reached the top of the doorframe. Focusing all of her energy in her legs and feet, Adesina jumped toward the fabric with all the force she could muster.
She hit the wall much harder than she anticipated. Her slender fingers automatically clutched at the fabric, even though her breath had been knocked from her body.
It took several moments for Adesina to steady herself. Her hands were beginning to ache by the time she was able to breathe normally again.
There was a trick that Adesina had learned when she was quite young. If she focused hard enough, she found she could trick her mind into thinking her body was incredibly light. Adesina closed her eyes and did so now. Years of practice made it fairly easy. She immediately felt the pressure on her hands ease.
She began climbing along the wall, careful to control her momentum so as not to lose her grip. The fabric ended after about fifteen feet, leaving her no direction to go but out into the open area.
Ten feet away from the wall stood a series of tall wooden poles. Adesina pushed off the wall with her feet, leaping to grab the closest rod. From there she jumped to another, and then to another. The fourth pillar had a tiny platform nailed to the top. Adesina climbed onto this platform and paused to reorient herself. There was a rope strung tautly from the small platform to another on a pillar twenty feet away. Adesina balanced herself expertly and slowly crossed the rope.
From there, there was a section of many thick wooden rods that varied in height and size and were placed fairly close together. Adesina found herself jumping and climbing from pole to pole with relative ease.
At the end of this section stood a platform and a rope hung from a rod high above. There were about half a dozen ropes hanging at intervals that led across to another platform, but the first one was the only one that touched the ground. She would have to climb straight up the first one, and then swing to reach the next rope. As soon as Adesina began to do this, three young Shi appeared on the far wall with bows in their hands. They immediately drew their bows and began shooting at Adesina as she climbed.
The tips of the arrows were dull, but they were coated with the same yellow substance that covered the ground. Although a hit would not be physically harmful, it would be clear that she had been careless.
Adesina quickly began to swing the rope as she climbed, making sure she never remained stationary. Luckily, the archers were still fairly inexperienced and also a good distance away, giving her a split second longer to move out of the way.
Arrows whizzed past her ominously. As soon as she was high enough, she leaped to the second rope. Adesina had just enough momentum to get her hands around the rope. She knew she would have to swing harder to reach the next one safely.
Adesina soon discovered that each rope was further away than the last. Each one took a little more time and strength to reach, all the while dodging the arrows that flew past. In spite of this, she landed on the platform as gracefully as if she had been doing nothing more than a dance. One last arrow shot in her direction, which she dodged with an expression of contempt.
The platform led out of the open area and into a small room. As soon as she entered, the door slammed shut behind her. It was completely dark, and Adesina was not equipped with anything to produce light. The soft sound of falling sand led her to the right side of the room. She searched the wall with her sensitive fingertips, finally coming across the shape of an hourglass.
She was being timed.
Adesina’s mind kicked into high gear. Based on the size of the hourglass, she only had about ten minutes to solve this problem.
Before the door had closed behind her she had seen that there was a door on the opposite side. She made her way over there and began examining the door by touch. There were a number of knobs on the door of various shapes and sizes. Some had carvings in them, others had bumps in different patterns, and some were smooth. Some of the knobs turned with a soft clicking noise, others had notches that allowed them to be pulled out to different lengths, and some were set in a slot and could be moved to different positions.
As Adesina began experimenting with the different knobs, she discovered that certain knobs would lock into place according to how she positioned other knobs. She also found that some knobs would lock some in place while releasing others that had previously been locked. Adesina turned the puzzle over in her mind, looking for patterns and trying out various sequences. She also listened carefully for the sand in the hourglass, using the tone of the falling sand to judge how much time she had left.
There were so many knobs, and several that refused to lock into place no matter what Adesina did. She knew what she had to do to solve the puzzle, and her mind raced over the fastest way to find the correct series of motions.
Some of the knobs could only be locked in place by a single one of the others, but the movement of any other knob would unlock them again.
Almost there. Adesina was fairly certain she knew the sequence needed to lock all of the knobs in place.
The last knob locked into place and the door swung open. Adesina took a deep breath to slow her heart rate. That had been much closer than she liked. A Shi was usually given more time for a puzzle of that complexity, which was probably why Kendan had given her less.
It took Adesina’s eyes a moment to adjust to the light before she stepped out to the last section of the obstacle course. The door from which she emerged was obscured from the rest of the open area. In the center of that arena stood a pedestal, on which rested a small wooden chest. Patrolling around the chest were four guards.
Adesina ducked out of sight and mulled over the problem. She only had two unused darts in her belt. That left two more to be neutralized without being harmed. Adesina muttered darkly under her breath as she peered around the corner to check the guards’ positions. After marking the two on which she felt it would be the most advantageous to use her darts, she took a steadying breath and moved into action. The darts flashed out of her hand, flying straight and true. Adesina launched herself from her hiding spot, sprinting across the uneven ground to the two remaining guards.
She misjudged her footing as she ran and stumbled slightly. It wasn’t enough to throw off her attack, but the pain in her ankle hindered her agility. She did her best to push her discomfort to the back of her mind as faced her human targets.
The first one received a sharp blow to the side of his head, rendering him unconscious before he had finished drawing his weapon. The second guard proved to be harder.
Adesina had to move quickly to evade the sword wielded by the remaining guard, clenching her teeth against the pain of her twisted ankle. They circled each other slowly, each assessing their opponent. Almost as if by luck or fate, the guard’s footing on the gravel gave ever so slightly.
Adesina was moving before he could blink. She took advantage of this momentary loss of balance to sweep the guard from his feet entirely. Another sharp blow rendered him unconscious as well.
Once again, Adesina had to repress her smile. The triumph she felt didn’t last long, as her throbbing ankle brought her back to reality. She retrieved her darts, limped over to the chest and picked it up. It was quite a bit heavier than she expected. Curious as to what it held, Adesina opened the latch and looked inside.
There were two crystal-like stones, each about the size of her fist. When the light fell upon them, they slowly turned from a soft pink to a deep red. Adesina furrowed her brow thoughtfully as she closed the lid to the chest.
She turned and walked back to the puzzle room, expecting the door to close behind her again. This time, however, it did not. On the opposite door there was a small plaque with four words engraved on it next to a set of four dials. Each of the dials was numbered to one hundred.
Adesina’s eyes quickly scanned the words in front of her. They were written in one of the more obscure dialects of the far south. Her knowledge of those dialects was limited, but she did recognize the words: moon, child, anagallis, butterfly.
The moon has a twenty-eight day cycle. She spun the first dial, and stopped on the number twenty-eight. There was a faint click as it settled into place. Adesina felt a bit disappointed at how easy this door would be.
It took nine months for a child to be born. She turned the second dial to nine, but nothing happened. She thought about what she had learned in her anatomy classes. Technically a woman was pregnant for approximately forty weeks. She tried again, this time stopping on the number forty. There was another faint click.
Anagallis was a flower with five petals. Adesina turned the third dial and heard it click on the number five.
A butterfly’s life span was six weeks. Adesina tried the number six on the fourth dial, but to no avail. Six weeks was forty-two days. She tried again with the number forty-two.
The door swung open. Adesina walked through and continued onward. The way back through the rest of the obstacle course was more difficult with the chest in hand and with her injury. She had a couple of close calls with the arrows as she crossed the first area. Clutching the chest between her legs, she swung carefully from rope to rope, all the while trying to keep her motion random enough to avoid getting shot.
The closely set poles were easy to get across, as was the tight rope strung between the two platforms. The individual poles and the draping fabric, however, were difficult to manage. Adesina had to do them one-handed, using the other to hold tightly to the chest.
The last area seemed empty, but Adesina had the feeling that something was amiss. The three unconscious guards lay where they had fallen, but the small servant girl was nowhere to be seen. As soon as Adesina stepped into the open, three more guards sprung from their hiding places with their weapons drawn.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Adesina hurled the chest at the head of the nearest guard. It struck him with a sickening thud and he dropped to the ground. Undaunted by this, the first guard tried to come up behind Adesina while the other slashed with his sword from the front.
Adesina dodged the stroke, and the sword cut into the first guard instead. While the guard was distracted by this unexpected wound, Adesina roundhouse-kicked her, sending her crashing into the wall.
The agony in Adesina’s ankle resulting from this attack was enough to mar her focus momentarily.
The final guard lunged again, bringing a heavy fist across her face. Lights exploded in Adesina’s eyes, disorienting her with pain and dizziness. She staggered for several steps before she was able to catch herself and reel back with a counterattack.
He was bringing his sword around, and didn’t expect her to recover so quickly. She grabbed his hands and spun, disarming him and bringing his own sword to his throat.
He spoke in a deep, rumbling voice. “I yield.”
Adesina nodded and returned his sword to him. She limped over to where the chest lay and picked it up. It seemed to be undamaged, so Adesina tucked it under her arm and walked out of the maze. Due to the pain and fatigue she felt, Adesina decided to go under the fence instead of over it. After nonchalantly dusting herself off, she handed the chest to Kendan, who was waiting for her on the other side.
Adesina recognized the expression in his eyes and braced herself for the verbal fencing that was sure to come.
“You were told not to harm the guards.”
“Nor did I, Shar.”
Kendan raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
She hated when he did that. She took a breath and reminded herself to stay calm and unemotional. “No lasting damage was inflicted.”
“Blood was drawn.”
Adesina raised her chin defiantly and said in a cold voice, “I am not responsible for the carelessness of other Shimat.”
He smiled, and there was a brief pause as he looked at her admiringly. “Very well, then.”
Her breath caught in her throat when he smiled like that. She quickly lowered her eyes to compose herself. Kendan had a knack for reading her thoughts through the subtle expressions in her eyes.
He held up the chest. “Did you open this?”
Adesina frowned slightly. “Were you not watching?”
Kendan didn’t answer, but looked at her expectantly.
“Yes, I did open it.”
“And what did you find?”
She was confused by this line of questioning. “Two stones, Shar.”
Kendan seemed satisfied by this answer. He nodded and set the chest down. “Come. Your weaponry could use some work.”
Adesina stifled her feelings of indignation at this slight on her skill. Sometimes it felt like he was incapable of letting her have a single moment of triumph. It was not enough that she had overcome the obstacle course he devised; it was not enough that she was pushing herself to exhaustion. None of it was enough.
She swallowed back the tears she suddenly felt forming and lifted her chin in a gesture of confidence she didn’t feel. “Yes, Shar Kendan.”
They practiced first with the spetum, then daggers, then axes. None of which were really favored by Adesina, but were still wielded with great amounts of skill. After he was satisfied, Kendan made Adesina run at full speed until she was gasping for breath and her eyes were filled with tears from the pain in her ankle.
When all of this was done, Kendan surveyed Adesina with a passive look on his face. “You may go to your room now. Finish preparing for your journey and get what rest you can. You will be summoned when it is time.”
Adesina nodded, not trusting her voice. All of the physical exertion as well as the lack of sleep were catching up with her. While walking back to her room she went over her mental checklist. By the time she reached her door she was reassured that she had taken care of all of her preparations. The time was hers to get some sleep.
She wrapped her injured ankle tightly, and assessed that no lasting damage had been sustained. She washed herself thoroughly before laying down on her cool, welcoming cot. She blew her breath out in an audible sigh and closed her eyes, instantly falling asleep.
High in the Sharifal’s tower, Signe gazed out the window at the training students below. She felt a wave of satisfaction as she watched the sixth year Shi going through their maneuvers. These were the students who were halfway through their education. There was much that they had learned, and even more that they would learn in time.
So much talent. So much potential.
There was a soft knock at the door.
Signe did not need to turn around to know that Kendan had walked into the room. His quick, deliberate step was easily recognized. “Well?”
Kendan required no clarification. “Adesina is in top form. There was some blood drawn, but not by her.”
“And did she open the box?”
Kendan hesitated before answering. “Yes.”
“You verified this?”
A quick nod went unseen by the Sharifal. “The stones were already red when I opened the chest.”
Signe sighed and turned to face the young Shar. Kendan’s expression hardened slightly. “She freely admitted to opening the box. That is something, is it not?”
The Sharifal raised an eyebrow. “That does not change the fact that she took matters into her own hands. She was not given permission to take that action.”
He scowled at the floor. “I do not think that this exercise should be held against a Shimat’s promotion.”
She studied Kendan’s handsome face intently. “You did not feel so in the past. Why is this different now?”
Signe, who knew Kendan far better than any other being, watched the almost invisible signs of emotion flicker across his face. She could see clearly the inner struggle that would have been hidden to anyone else.
“Adesina is naturally inquisitive. I did not order her to not open the chest.” His voice was suddenly defensive.
She smiled softly. “I will take that into consideration. What of the other matter?”
His expression became strangely guarded. “I will see to it. I intend to begin immediately.”
There was something in Kendan’s tone of voice that didn’t ring true. Her eyes narrowed slightly, becoming speculative. “What is it, Kendan?”
Neither spoke for a few minutes. His eyes had returned to studying the floor. “You are sending Adesina to the High City?”
It was more of a statement than a question. Signe could hear the discontent in his voice. “Yes.”
Kendan’s gaze flashed upward. “Do you think that wise? The conflict is most apparent in those lands.”
She waved a strong hand. “The High City is neutral. They have always been quite firm on that point.”
He snorted quietly. “That means nothing. The political intrigue is stronger there than any other city. You are thrusting a brand new Shimat into a war zone.”
Signe was unmoved. “She has been trained, Kendan. She knows how to handle herself.” She studied his face for a moment before continuing. “That is not what is troubling you.”
He stiffened ever so slightly, but merely shook his head. “It is nothing.”
The thoughtful silence persisted for another few moments. “Very well.” Her tone was indifferent, but she kept her sharp eyes on the young man before her.
Kendan took a deep breath. “I must go prepare for my journey.”
A tilt of the Sharifal’s head indicated dismissal. “May fortune favor you, my nephew.”
“Thank you, Aunt Signe.”