Outcasts & Runaways – Part 1.6

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Chapter 5 – Thera

The small group made its way quickly through T’lani Suun’s streets, ascending a sloping hill towards the High Temple. Marta had listened to Remar Jantra’s message and burst into action, bustling herself and Barrenger off to change into more formal attire while passing instructions to the servants about continuing feast preparations while they were gone. Barrenger appreciated the few minutes alone, changing clothes in a daze as he tried to sort out Remar’s startling news. Rukilef were in the city, had waltzed in under a flag of sacred truce. It was unheard of. And the Teshmas were going to see them. He was going to see them. He’d never seen another Rukilef besides his father in his entire life.

The knowledge that he was about to left a bottomless hole in his stomach.

Within ten minutes, and upon the priest’s recommendation, they left the house with only two guards – enough to buy them easy passage through the city without drawing too much attention. Not that the sight of the Prophetess of T’lani Suun marching with purpose towards the High Temple in ceremonial robes didn’t already part the crowds. They could have taken a lizard-drawn cart or hover transport, but Marta wanted time to grill Remar about the situation.

“When did they arrive?”

“Roughly an hour ago now,” Remar answered calmly. Despite his somber attitude upon arriving at their door, he seemed in no hurry now. The elder tulinai passed a few coins to a pink-haired girl selling wheset cakes on the sidewalk, chewing his sweet snack thoughtfully as they continued on. “It – mmm – caused quite a stir at the gates, as you can imagine. They were waving the sacred flag of truce, so someone sent a runner up to the Council to find out what should be done. It took quite a bit of back-and-forth to decide anything, but the law is clear, and it extends even to our blood feuds.”

Barrenger blinked in surprise as he walked behind the two, head covered and hands tucked into his wide gold-thread sleeves. He’d never heard the generations-long war between the Haweyh and the Rukilef referred to as a “blood feud” before. Most of the Haweyh viewed it as a holy war, started by the Rukilef and destined to end with their defeat and elimination by Élo’s people. Calling it a blood fued seemed disrespectful, somehow.

A sharp gasp drew his eyes to a young Haweyh lady who had looked over at just the right time and angle to see his glowing green eyes. She stifled it when she recognized the robes of the Priest and the Prophetess, but the fear on her face… was it stronger than normal? Barrenger checked himself to be sure his features were still schooled to the passive mask he wore in public before he nodded and hurried past the woman, grateful for his mother’s fast pace.

“And do we know who has come with this truce delegation?” There was an edge to his mum’s voice that drew Barrenger’s attention back. Her fists were tightly clenched, a sharp energy in her step that spoke of more than ceremonial urgency. The selah patterns on her hands and hair glowed noticeably, even in the full light of the suns.

Remar also noticed the Prophetess’s demeanor and gave her a significant look. “It’s a small group, only ten. Two have been allowed to maintain their alternate forms, but last I heard, the rest were required to remain in their natural shapes. They are led by the Fasha herself.”

Barrenger didn’t know what shocked him more – the news of the Fasha’s presence in the city, or the flash of selah that pulsed from Marta’s fists. His mother never lost control of her selah. But he’d barely regained his balance before she took a deep, calming breath, and the lights on her markings cooled. Marta looked at Remar with renewed composure. “You came to us very quickly,” she said, eyebrow raised as they detoured around a group of tulinai working together to levitate a large couch across the street, pink and orange and blue selah mixing in the effort. “When did you arrive back?”

“Yesterday morning. But you know I have always been quick on my feet,” Remar chuckled, taking another bite of his cake. “No, as soon as I heard word of who was at the gates, I knew what was coming. And you know how the Council overdoes things. With the panic this city will likely go into once word gets around that the Rukilef are marching through our front door, the sight of an armed contingent of Council guards collecting the Prophetess and her Rukilef-blooded son would only stir the pot.” He glanced back and winked at Barrenger. “As much fun as that might be, I think we can all agree this will go more smoothly if you two just pop in quietly through the back door.”

Understanding, Barrenger ducked even further into his cloak, glancing warily at everyone they passed. Now that the priest mentioned it, Barrenger could detect a scurrying undercurrent of tension in the crowds; surely an hour was more than enough time for the first rumors of a Rukilef delegation to get around. And where he usually dealt with merely hostile or mildly fearful glares in public, now more of the faces turning towards them showed something akin to… dread. A low current of nervous murmurs tainted the usual noise of the city, like a swarm of buzzing vibre beetles. No, it would not have helped city morale if he’d been rushed to the High Temple under heavy guard. This didn’t make Barrenger feel any better about the coming meeting, though.

It won’t have anything to do with me. The Rukilef probably don’t even know I exist, he assured himself, trying to project confidence. He’d long since decided that ten years of no word meant either his father had never told the Rukilef about him… or he didn’t want anything to do with a half-Haweyh son. That thought hurt in a deep place Barrenger tried to ignore.

A sudden thought gave Barrenger a cold chill. Did this meeting have any connection with his father? Was he about to find out for certain what had happened all those years ago?

Did he really want to know?

The crowds grew thicker as they approached the High Temple; people unlucky enough to be riding hovercarts or lizards or hairy chamoose mounts were deadlocked in the streets for fear of trampling one of the milling onlookers. Some enterprising news rag had gotten into the action, with blue-haired Forgas flying over the crowd and calling out headlines lost in the hubbub. The noise ricocheted off the high stone pillars lining the outer courtyard of the four-story tiered building whose peaked, reflective rooftop highlighted the surrounding area in soft gold. Barrenger drew closer to the priest and Prophetess to avoid getting separated, glancing furtively through the milling crowd. He wasn’t sure which would be worse right now: seeing the Rukilef already arrived or being seen by the nervous crowd.

A guard, recognizable in the uniform of off-white, long-sleeved tunic covered by golden shoulder guards, bracers, and breastplate, spotted the Prophetess’s retinue entering the courtyard and hurried to meet them. The guard stopped short, however, when he saw Barrenger. “Master Teshma?” he said warily, taking a half step back.

At first, Barrenger thought the guard must be referring to his mother. But then he looked again and jumped backwards himself. “You!”

It was Samlin, the “friend” of Magela’s who had punched him that morning. Barrenger’s stripes flared as he braced himself for another attack. But the young man only ducked his head, clutching his chargestone spear with pale-knuckled hands. “Yes, uh… Lasar Third Class Samlin O’dara. I just transferred to the High Temple last month after my graduation from training in S’tani Ko,” he said quickly, selah patterns glowing brighter to match his flush.

Prophetess Marta looked the young guard up and down, eyebrow raised. “So, you are the source of my son’s eyelight this morning,” she said in a neutral tone.

Samlin flushed even more deeply and suddenly bowed his head almost to his knees. “Un… unfortunately yes, Prophetess. I want to offer my apologies to you and your son. I broke Élo’s peace by attacking someone who is not my enemy. Please lend me your forgiveness.” He glanced quickly at Barrenger. “Both you and Master Barrenger.”

Barrenger blinked, frozen in a defensive posture while his brain caught up. The guard didn’t look ready to leap into the bonds of brotherhood with him, but he did sound genuinely apologetic. Was it just because he’d offended the city’s Prophetess? Barrenger squinted, studying the still-bowed Samlin. Marta stood watching them both, a thoughtful frown on her face.

Barrenger’s fist clenched for a moment; but, with a sigh, he let it relax. “Thank you,” he said formally, dipping his head in a small nod. “I accept your peace.”

Samlin looked to the Prophetess until she nodded her acceptance as well, then straightened, visibly relieved. The young guardsman snapped to attention without further preamble, gesturing towards the right side of the courtyard. “We’ve been watching for you, Prophetess; I had the honor of seeing your approach first. If you’ll allow me, I will escort you in.”

“Thank you, guardsman,” the Prophetess replied, straight-faced. As Samlin turned and led the party and their two guards towards one of the discreet side doors used by staff of the temple, Marta caught Barrenger’s eye under his hood. He saw the flicker of a grin crossing her face. Barrenger managed a wry smirk in response. Considering how his day had been going, it was nice to get a pleasant surprise for a change.

After the heat and noise of the courtyard, the inside of the temple with its thick stone walls felt refreshingly cool and quiet. Too quiet, in fact. Barrenger glanced down one of the marble-tiled halls, letting his hood fall back onto his shoulders now that they were away from the public eye. “Where are all the guards?” he asked, instinctively lowering his voice to match the reverent hush that surrounded him.

“A wise question,” Remar murmured. “Security is rarely lax, but this would be an inopportune time for it to start.”

“The Temple Guard has been dispatched to escort the Rukilef delegation through the city, Isa Jantra,” Samlin explained. His confidence seemed to have returned now that his awkward apology was out of the way, and the guardsman moved briskly through the halls, spear gripped readily in hand and boots clicking against the polished stone. “The Council thought they would be more… useful on that assignment.” Samlin’s stiff tone suggested he didn’t agree but was too honor-bound to disparage the city’s leaders. As they ventured further into the building, more temple personnel began to appear; aids and scholars and priests occasionally passed them in the hall, most of them going the same direction. Barrenger recognized one or two, but few of the temple staff had ever interacted with him more than was required.

Remar snorted softly. “The Council is showing their thick-headed side. Sending the majority of the Temple Guard for a party of ten is unnecessarily dramatic, but they could have at least considered the possibility of other enemy agents taking advantage of our lightened security.” Samlin’s brows rose as if he were surprised to hear military strategy coming from the mouth of a priest. Remar turned to Marta and Barrenger, a dry smile creasing his crusty brown face. “At least this means we’ll have an extra moment or two to prepare.”

“Would you like to go straight to the Council Room, my lady?” Samlin asked, already turning towards a hall that would lead them there.

Yes, Barrenger thought, at once stiff with nerves and anxious to get this over with. But his step in that direction was forestalled when his mother said, “No.” Marta met Barrenger’s startled gaze before looking at her friend and then at Samlin, giving them all a small smile. “First things first. Take me to the Meeting Chamber.”

The three men fell silent. A slight chill crept up Barrenger’s spine. It always did that when he realized his mother was going to use her Maker Gift. Remar cleared his throat and said gently, “Of course that would be wise, but the delegation may be here shortly. Are you sure there is time?” It was a fair point; the Prophetess could be in council with Élo for hours, depending on the message He decided to send.

“There is always time to seek Élo’s will,” Marta said firmly. She nodded to Samlin, who had been staring at her with reverent awe. He snapped his jaw shut and dipped a quick bow.

“Of course, Prophetess. We’ll go at once.”

The Meeting Chamber lay at the very center of the High Temple. As the group entered the sacred room’s outer chamber, Barrenger felt his neck hairs stand up; the reverent hush normal to the rest of the temple felt more… palpable here, somehow. Their footsteps echoed off the tall, curved ceiling and flat marble walls, all of which were decorated in masterful friezes of Élo’s miracles.

Two hooded temple attendants stood on the opposite side of the room, flanking a surprisingly unassuming wooden door. As Marta approached, the attendants bowed and stepped aside, each quickly and skillfully lighting seven candles positioned in sconces along either wall. There were always attendants watching and maintaining the Meeting Chamber antechamber, but only the current Prophet or Prophetess could enter through that small wooden door. Marta put up the hood of her own robe, covering her white and gold hair in respect. Her two guards took up their stations beside the attendants, and Remar stood to the side, bowing deeply as Marta put her hand on the doorknob. “We shall await you here, Prophetess.”

“Thank you, Isa Jantra. I’m sure I won’t be long,” she said. She turned to Remar, a troubled smile on her lips. “I am happy to have you home, old friend. Would that you had arrived on a more peaceful day.”

Remar patted her arm with grandfatherly comfort. “Élo’s will leads us. I’m just glad I can be here to help how I am able.”

She nodded, stepping towards the door. But she abruptly paused and turned to Barrenger. There was a strange light in her eyes that he couldn’t decipher, and he tried not to flinch away when she unexpectedly put a hand against his cheek. With another small, strained smile, Marta turned and entered the room, her selah already beginning to glow brightly as the door closed behind her.

No one spoke for several minutes, the tall, airy chamber whispering with echoes of rustling clothes and soft breathing. As the minutes passed, Barrenger caught himself shifting uneasily. He must not have been the only one uncomfortable standing inactive near the holy chamber, because a moment later, Samlin quietly coughed to draw Remar’s attention. “If I may be dismissed, Isa Jantra,” he said, bowing respectfully, “there are other duties they’ll want me to perform before the meeting.”

“Of course, my boy,” Remar said with a wave of dismissal. Samlin bowed again and turned to go. As he passed Barrenger, the young guard hesitated – and for a brief moment, their eyes locked.

Barrenger stared at the Haweyh guardsman, trying to read him. Trying not to be jealous of him. It hit him like a sharp blow that Samlin was exactly who he could have been in a better worldwide: pure Haweyh, dedicated to Élo and country, using his selah to protect and serve. They were even similar ages and body types – tall, broad-shouldered, trim from regular combat training.

And he’d probably have that same conflicted look Samlin had in his eyes right now, staring at the son of their Prophetess – the son of a possible traitor and enemy. Wondering if evil lurked in that green selah. Barrenger kept his face blank, hiding any sign of the twisting in his gut. I’d probably hate what I saw just as much as him if we were switched.

So he was a bit surprised when Samlin broke the brief staring match with a short, respectful nod before hurrying away. Barrenger stared after him until the young guard disappeared out into the hallway. He shook his head and tried to put the odd encounter out of his head. He’s probably still trying to recover face from that punch this morning.

Silence settled over the room again, and as Barrenger leaned against a wall to wait, the murky questions and anxieties he had started with before Samlin appeared bubbled back to the forefront. In only a little bit of time, he was going to see real, full-blooded Rukilef. They wouldn’t have his white hair; they almost certainly wouldn’t have the warm smile that was one of Barrenger’s strongest memories of his father. But, like Samlin, they would be an example of what he could have been. Barrenger shuddered.

The pains of his existence hadn’t really been clear to him until he was eight. Things hadn’t been perfect before that – just more discrete. He’d be playing with the neighbor kids and overhear an adult make a scathing comment about the Prophetess’s barbarian husband. The biggest boy at Barrenger’s Twa’ki combat lessons would knock up against Barrenger’s shoulder while they trained and mutter that he was a green-skinned savage. Barrenger had gotten home tutoring after that came out. But he’d had a few friends, and his parents were warm and loving. He remembered sitting on the second-story patio of their house, playing with his soldier toys while his night-green father and sand-brown mother sat watching the suns dip behind the green mountains. Looking back, those seemed like golden years.

Then it all came down like a collapsing bridge, dropping Barrenger’s childhood out beneath it.

Confusing images still troubled Barrenger after all these years, flitting through his mind, trying to order themselves into something that made sense. Heralds in the streets crying news of the surprise Rukilef raid on an outskirt town near T’lani Suun. The army gathering in the promenade by the North Gate, just visible from the Teshma balcony. Benide Teshma kissing Marta goodbye hours after the promenade had emptied, telling Barrenger to look after his mother before racing out the door with only his light armor and a short sword. Mum had tried to explain to a confused young Barrenger that he had an urgent message to deliver to the army commander before battle was struck.

“He’ll be fine,” Marta had reassured her little son, but the strength with which she’d gripped him in her arms had made him uneasy. “He is a warrior for Élo, and they will know it by his colors.” Barrenger hadn’t understood then that she was reassuring herself against an old fear – praying to Élo that Benide’s friendship with the Haweyh and the gold colors of his tunic would be enough to keep his own side from mistaking him for the enemy and cutting him down.

If only that had been the case… perhaps it would have been less horrifying than what had happened.

Days passed with little news. And then… the return. The outrage in the streets. The whispers and the wailing. The army had been tricked. Betrayed. Barrenger remembered hiding in the doorway of his room, listening as one of the Teshmas’ trusted military friends explained to his mumma what had happened. The camp had been ambushed by a horde of Rukilef warriors in full bloodlust just after Benide Teshma had been spotted running into the tent of the Haweyh’s esteemed military commander, Geran Mashou. Geran and his keen military strategy had been their great hope of routing this newest attack. They said Benide was unmistakable in his golden tunic. But when Haweyh soldiers entered the tent to look for their missing commander, they found three soldiers slaughtered and the commander lying facedown. Dead.

With Benide’s own shortsword through his gut.

Barrenger hadn’t believed it. His mother hadn’t believed it. But that didn’t matter, because plenty of others believed it: that the fault of the unexpected attack and the many dead and injured Haweyh lay at Benide Teshma’s feet. Fresh forces finally drove out the invaders days later, but the shock of it, so close to the capital and involving a Rukilef the people had been learning to trust, bled the wound.

Being the son of T’lani Suun’s Prophetess had provided Barrenger some protection, but it could do nothing to stop the hostility and fear that gravitated towards the most visible reminder of the false convert Benide Teshma and his betrayal. No Rukilef could truly come to Élo, people whispered. And perhaps having half the blood of a Haweyh wasn’t enough to purify the traitor’s green-selahed offspring from joining his father’s course.

Barrenger stared at his dark hand in the present, a sick churning in his stomach. He’d started getting into fights after that. Some he had started himself to defend his father’s honor, back when he had more readily believed his mother’s promises that Pap couldn’t possibly be a traitor. Other fights were sprung on him. Mum’s healings became a more frequent necessity, and all his lessons had to be given at home. His few friends drifted away. He got better at bottling up his temper, but that only seemed to make it worse when it exploded. Eventually, he learned how to wear the mask: a calm and polite façade for the public that hid away any emotions others might whisper were signs of his dark Rukilef nature coming out.  

It hadn’t taken very long for him to start wondering if the whispers were right.

And now he was going to face these people, the kin of his possibly sleeper agent father, and he had to wonder… if his darker nature was going to take control at some point, would this be the time?

Élo, give me strength, he prayed, but it was a rote recitation with little feeling behind it. Élo had never deemed him worthy of answering in any way that made sense.

“You’ve been rather quiet,” Remar said. Barrenger straightened sharply, trying to hide that he’d forgotten about the priest standing a few feet away. The man had clearly been studying him. A smile suddenly crinkled the brown skin of his face. “It might not be as bad as all that. Who knows? Perhaps the Fasha of the Rukilef has softened since the last time she sent a battalion against our outer provinces. That was, oh, a whole month past. Plenty of time for a change of heart.”

Barrenger snorted on reflex, surprised out of his dark thoughts by the humor. “No need to make me feel better,” he said dryly, stuffing his hands into the pockets inside his robe. He was surprised at how comfortable he felt around this man that he hadn’t seen in several years, but he could feel his public reservations relaxing. “Really, Isa, I’m not worthy of such comforting words.”

Remar chuckled. “Good, she raised you with a sense of humor. No, it’s probably going to be every bit as terrible as we all imagine.” He paused, stroking his short-cropped beard in thought. “Well, perhaps not as terrible as we ALL imagine. I’m sure there are a few creative minds who believe this lot will turn to beasts and slaughter the entire Council.”

Barrenger mirrored the priest’s easy posture, although he couldn’t bring himself to relax. His muscles felt like steel cords stretched to their limit. “Have… have you ever met the Rukilef?” he asked cautiously.

“Once or twice. Perhaps that’s one of the many reasons Élo has graced you with my presence today.”

Remar’s light tone put Barrenger a little more at ease. He’d never been very close to the older man, but he had pleasant enough memories of visits in the past. The priest had worked closely with his mother years ago, although the question remained where he had been more recently. But any familiar, friendly face was welcome right now, and the priest had seemed familiar with the Rukilef situation when he spoke about the Fasha. “Is there anything you can… well, tell me about them?” Barrenger ventured.

The priest shot him a raised eyebrow. “My boy, I should think that you would know more than anyone.”

Barrenger flushed, which on his dark face showed only in a slight brightening of his pupils and the green stripe across his nose and cheeks. “Of course I know some, but I’m not sure how much of it is…” He trailed off, suddenly wishing he hadn’t brought it up.

Remar considered him more closely. “Do you believe that your mother has lied to you about something?”

Barrenger shook his head. There was no reason to take the long road now. “No, but discussing Rukilef culture in my house wasn’t exactly encouraged.” He felt too uncomfortable to admit that he had been the one who hadn’t encouraged it. His mother probably would have told him more about his father and his ancestry, but he’d tacitly avoided the subject since he was twelve. Perhaps that had been a mistake, but that was spilled te’coa. “I just want to know anything that might help me prepare to… meet them.”

Remar barked a laugh. “My boy, if your mother and I can help it, you shall not meet them at all. The Prophetess may have an inspiring amount of hope for the souls of all tulinai, but we must still be practical: the Rukilef are not known for their fair dealings. The fact that they have rarely shown their faces to peace summits is not due to our lack of invitations in the past, and there have been unfortunate events resulting from the ones they did attend. If this delegation were not so few in number and declaring with that flag their willingness to speak peaceably or be destroyed where they stand, we would not even risk them in the city. They can be deeply underhanded, and the Fasha is the least trustworthy of them all. While I don’t know what they may do if they find out about you – or, frankly, whether they already know of your existence – your mother and I would not leave it up to chance.” Remar shook his head firmly. “No, you should stay in the background if at all possible.”

Barrenger’s fists clenched involuntarily. Some part of his brain knew that the priest’s words made sense, but another side of him rebelled against the insinuation that he needed to be protected. Hating how he always seemed to need protection. “What, are you worried they might taint me just by being in the same room?” he muttered, glaring at the stone floor. The fact that he’d been wondering that very thing a moment ago only added to his irritation.

Remar suddenly appeared in front of him, planting his hands on Barrenger’s shoulders so that they had to face each other. The priest was the shorter of the two, but his commanding stare made Barrenger’s back straighten. “It has nothing to do with taint. This has nothing to do with you, Barrenger. Your mother is very proud of you and trusts you completely. I can see that just by the way she looks at you, and there are few tulinai whose judgement I trust more highly than hers.” The priest’s eyes narrowed. “But the Rukilef leader is clever. We don’t want to give her any excuse to use her trickery in this place and time.”

Barrenger stepped back, face warm. He rubbed a hand through his white hair, unable to meet the priest’s gaze. Before he could think of anything to say, a wry smile crossed Remar’s face. “Your mother has said you have a bit of a temper hidden under that hair. Perhaps it would be prudent to remind you to reign that in. We do not need an upset in a meeting with our most volatile enemies.”

Barrenger straightened sharply, fists clenched as he glared at the priest. “I would never do anything to endanger my mother or my people,” he said hotly. A beat passed before he noticed Remar’s raised eyebrow and noticed that his stripes were pulsing. Maybe that hadn’t been the best example of his ability to hold his temper. “I… er, I understand,” he muttered, warmth spreading into his face again. Barrenger grabbed onto another question, eager to change the subject. “How do you know the Council will even let me into the meeting? Didn’t you say they just wanted to know where I was?” The idea that he might not even be allowed to see this Rukilef delegation made him feel equal parts hopeful and sick.

Remar raised a finger, a sly smile on his face. “Ah, yes, a fair point. Never fear, though; I have a suitable seat in mind for us. It’s not every day that one gets a visit from his distant relatives.” A shadow passed over his face. “And, ill-blooded or not, everyone should know where they come from.”

Barrenger grimaced, and Remar’s face suddenly softened. “Poor choice of words, Master Teshma,” he said quietly, patting Barrenger’s shoulder with one wrinkled hand. “I only mean that the Fasha herself has proven her hostile attitude towards our people, and this delegation is led by her and her closest soldiers. That has nothing to do with your lineage, boy.” A troubled frown creased his face. “There are forces much deeper at work in this land.”

Before Barrenger could ask about that cryptic statement, there was sudden, bright glow beneath the edge of the door to the Meeting Chamber. A moment later, the door opened, and Marta stepped out. Her eyes were fading back to normal, but they had clearly been filled with the light of a powerful selah session only a moment ago. She looked slightly tired, and her face was still drawn; but when Barrenger gave her a questioning look, she only smiled. “Élo’s message was brief this time,” she said, tucking her hood back down around her shoulders. “No specific details about the meeting. But I received reassurance that He has a hand in what is coming.” Still, there were lines around her eyes that told Barrenger something else in that session had bothered his mother. But it was improper to demand a Prophetess divulge more of Élo’s messages than she deemed fit, even for her son.

Remar bowed deeply. “As He always does, Prophetess. Shall we continue to the Council Room?”

“Yes, please.” The three exited the antechamber together, quickly joined by a new guard to replace the absent Samlin. They had walked only a few steps when Marta unexpectedly reached over and clasped Barrenger’s hand. He stared at her, mystified by the strained smile she sent him. “Keep praying, Barr,” she whispered. “Élo is watching over you.”

Hearing those words right after his mother had been in a session of prophetic communication with Élo sent an odd chill down Barrenger’s spine, but his mother turned away before he could respond. Barrenger followed, hood up and hands buried in his sleeves again as they approached the Council Room. Perhaps his mother’s message was supposed to comfort to him… but all Barrenger felt as he stared at those doors was a deep spike of dread.

The group entered the Council Room via a side door to avoid the crowds, coming out near the wide platform that held the Council’s meeting table. It stood in the middle of a large, circular room, with semicircles of tiered seating reaching up twenty rows high. This was not the main worship hall of the Temple, and the Council were not technically priests of the temple; but seeing as the leaders of the Haweyh were meant to be guided by Élo himself, they kept their most important meetings in His house. And since the decisions of the Council affected all members of the Haweyh nation, the hall was open for any Haweyh citizen to enter and watch the proceedings. Most of the Council already stood or sat around the half-moon table, which faced the lower audience floor where petitioners – or, in this case, foreign delegations – could present their requests.

Barrenger stiffened at the sight of the High Councilor, instinctively ducking himself behind Isa Jantra. He’d never had much success with getting on the good sides of the Council members, even when they finished their years of office and traded off. Perhaps the idea of having their enemy’s blood in their city was too much a stench for any politician to bear. And High Councilor Trian made a point of giving him the stinkeye any time they met. Still, he’d most likely hold his tongue in the presence of the Prophetess herself. Being her son did have its benefits. He’d probably’ve had me thrown out of the city ages ago otherwise, Barrenger thought sourly.

Marta approached the table, and High Councilor Gamilon Trian stood from his seat. “Prophetess,” he intoned, dipping his chin slightly. “I assume you have been told the purpose of this meeting.” The thin man cast a disparaging glance at the priest next to her. “We had intended to inform you sooner, but the guard could not find you at your house—”

“It is alright, Isa Trian,” Marta said. She was fully in her element now: serene features, straight back, hands folded lightly in front of her, her entire being radiating calm and wisdom. “Isa Jantra came to me less than an hour after the Rukilef arrived at our gates.” She walked around the table towards her seat. Although she did not have ultimate authority in the Council and was in many ways considered to be a separate entity, the Prophetess of T’lani Suun held a permanent and powerful position in the leading order of the Haweyh nation. One of the Coucilmen drew a chair out for her, earning a gracious nod as she took her seat.

Remar took advantage of their distraction to furtively wave Barrenger into the crowd. Barrenger caught the hint and quickly ducked into the masses filing towards the witness seating. Most of them wore gold clothing similar to his cloak out of respect for the holy building, and he exhaled once he reached the shadows by the wall unnoticed. It was a relief to get away before the High Council got their barbs into him, but nothing would be more awkward right now than someone noticing his forest green hands and coming to the panicked conclusion that the Rukilef were already among them.

He could still hear the conversation at the Council table. “—then why have you only just arrived?” Trian was demanding. “A delegation from Rukilef is on its way at this very moment, and—”

“I have been apprised of the situation,” Marta said impassively. “I went first to the Meeting Room to seek Élo’s guidance.”

That settled everyone; none of the Council members would argue against the importance of seeking Élo’s guidance in a situation like this. “Yes, well. That’s fine, then,” Trian said coolly, smoothing the gold embroidery on his robes. He turned and nodded at Remar. “Thank you for your efforts, Isa Jantra. You may join the witnesses.” His hand began to lift in a dismissive wave, but froze halfway, alarm jumping onto his features. “But where is the son of Benide?” The Councilor lowered his voice to an anxious hiss, staring around the room with wide yellow eyes. “We must know where he—”

It seemed to be a day for interrupting the High Councilor, because Remar politely interjected, “I have him in a safe place, High Councilor. I assure you, he will be secreted away where no one in the proceedings will see him unless he need be called to the floor.”

Trian did not look excited by this vague information, but when a glance at Marta made it clear that she was not going to be any more forthcoming, he gave a reluctant nod and finished his dismissive wave. Remar walked away at a quick pace, aiming towards where Barrenger hid beneath the witness seating supports.

“Becoming High Councilor has made that boy a little too big for his hat,” Remar murmured as he swept Barrenger along in his wake. The dark-skinned young man couldn’t keep a small grin from slipping onto his face as he followed.

Remar slipped along the circular wall until he led them to a narrow door, which opened into an even narrower staircase that wound up and up in a tight spiral. It was unlit but clean, and Barrenger’s green mingled with the soft yellow of Remar’s selah in a faint backlight as they ascended the smooth stone steps. The door opened onto a small wooden balcony near the ceiling of the room – a guard station. The temple guard stationed there immediately created a large yellow selah shield around the doorway as they came through.

“No one is to be up here. By whose authority?” he growled. He apparently was not one to be phased by golden priest robes. Remar nodded to the guard and showed him his badge of priestly office, and Barrenger did the same with his family crest. The guard looked startled when he glanced at the twin golden birds with crossing tails that represented House Teshma, and he peered with extra suspicion under Barrenger’s hood. But finally, apparently satisfied, he dissipated his shield and returned to his station at the shoulder-high railing.

Barrenger and Remar moved to the other end of the small platform and peered down. At forty feet above the main floor they had a perfect bird’s-eye view of the meeting circle, with the Council table on one raised side and the open petitioners’ floor on the other. Four other guard stations were pocketed discreetly around the upper level, giving the five Haweyh marksmen a view from all angles. The guard at this station fingered a chargestone-powered three-shot pistol at his waist as he studied the room with beaming eyes. Likely he possessed selah-enhanced vision.

“This will do,” Remar said, nodding with satisfaction. “But make sure you keep that hood up, boy. We don’t want to take any chances. In fact, here,” he added, rummaging through his robes to withdraw a brightly-patterned handkerchief. He held it out to Barrenger. “Cover your face with that. It’s see-through enough, and we don’t want to risk one of those lot looking up and seeing green eyes staring down at them.”

Barrenger took the handkerchief with great reluctance. Remar noticed and chuckled. “It’s clean.” Barrenger grinned in sheepish thanks before tying the handkerchief around his eyes beneath his hood. It dimmed his view considerably, but as the priest had promised, he could see well enough through the weave. Barrenger slid closer to the railing, gripping the bars to peer over the guardrail. This is it, he thought, throat tightening. The room buzzed as everyone waited anxiously for the mysterious meeting to begin.

They didn’t have to wait long. Moments later, a gong rang out, and an official herald in red-striped surcoat stepped to the center of the petitioning circle. The meeting was about to start.

The crowd fell into pensive silence. Barrenger leaned over the rail so far that Remar gave his jacket a warning tug as the herald addressed the Council. “Announcing the delegation of Rukel,” she called, and hushed whispers raced across the room. “Led by the Fasha of all the Rukilef people, Lady Salein, and her nine companions. They come under the Flag of Sacred Truce and request an audience with the Council of the Hawath capitol, T’lani Suun. Does the High Council grant them entrance?”

High Councilor Trian stood from his seat, hands folded into the sleeves of his white robes. His voice echoed against the high ceiling as he recited in measured tones, “All who come in peace are welcome in the house of Élo. The High Council grants them entrance.” With a nod, the herald ducked aside, and the two massive main doors swung wide. Barrenger and the crowd below leaned forward as one.

The first figure to stride into the Council Room was a thin but well-muscled female, skin as dark green as Barrenger’s. Her clothes were both striking and unsettling: a fur-lined halter top of blood red with bird skulls attached at the shoulders; knee-length pants of fine red silk, decorated with black symbols like sharp-toothed shadows; leather weapon sheathes of all sizes, now empty, tied to her arms, waist, back, thighs, ankles. Her feet, as well as her followers’, were bare. Her black hair, heavily streaked with bright green selah, stuck a few ragged inches above her scalp as if carelessly hacked short with a rough blade. And everywhere her skin was exposed, jagged green selah stripes glowed. Where Barrenger’s own stripes were fairly symmetrical – six on each arm, four down his back, one on the back of his neck, and one across his nose – the Fasha’s were many and erratic, like a hundred knife wounds. There could be no doubt in anyone’s mind who she was: the Fasha, undisputed leader of the entire Rukilef nation.

Barrenger was so fascinated by the sight of the arch-nemesis of the Haweyh that he didn’t notice the others until sharp gasps and outraged cries tore his gaze away. The new sight made him stagger back from the rail. Of the nine remaining delegates, seven resembled the Fasha: varying shades of medium-to-dark green, clothes that left their arms and lower legs bare, selah glowing in vivid stripes. Oddly, one had deep blue hair, and another’s green skin was almost as light as his selah.

But the two who strode in last held all attention, because those Rukilef were nightmares.

The two hulking, fur-covered beasts stood taller than their compatriots by a full foot, covered head-to-toe in night-green fur. No, that wasn’t right: the dark was frequently marred by huge neon stripes of fur that glowed with brilliant intensity. A tail extended from each one’s backside; the legs they walked on were raised at the heel, like a canine’s; and their eyes were solid green, as if they were using selah at full power.

But their heads… that was the worst part. Their heads had lost all identification with tulinai. Mouths and noses had blended and extended outward into animal snouts, one feline and one canine, ears extended from the tops of their heads in sharp, ever-rotating points. The more feline beastwoman had four ears, and the canine bore two huge white fangs jutted from his upper jowls like a saberdog’s. That was what he looked like, Barrenger realized: as if a tulinai had tried to morph into a giant saberdog and gotten caught halfway.

So those are the Rukilef beast forms, he thought dully, bile rolling in his stomach.

Over the years, whenever Barrenger became frustrated while developing his force transference – or if he lost his temper and broke a wall – he would calm himself by thanking Élo that at least he hadn’t received the other, more infamous of his father’s gifts. Shapechanging was its proper name, and the priests did not dare disparage the gift itself, for it did appear occasionally as a random gift in non-Rukilef. But the way the Rukilef used their racial gift was terrifying. Nightmare stories were told of the green men and woman transforming into monstrous half-beasts, perversions of nature with incredible strength and agility who devastated on the battlefield. Those stories had long haunted Barrenger’s darkest thoughts.

Now that he was seeing examples for the first time, he found himself fervently reiterating that prayer of gratitude. They really are monsters.

Apparently, he was not the only one to share this sentiment. While fearful and outraged cries rang about the room, the High Councilor remained where he stood, tracking the Fasha with his eyes. The lithe Rukilef woman came to the center of the petitioners’ floor and folded her arms, cocking a snide smile. “Your milksops don’t seem to appreciate our most blessed power, Councilman raknef,” she said, her voice a low purr. The alarmed shouts in the crowd were quickly replaced by offended rebuttals to the slur. “I thought you Haweyh celebrated all of the “Great Élo’s” gifts?” Her smile slipped for a moment, as if she wanted to spit that name onto the wooden floor.

To his credit, Trian and the other Councilors didn’t flinch at her offensive manners. Trian gravely intoned the official opening to the meeting. “Welcome, delegates of the Rukilef nation. You have come to the High Temple of Élo, in the territory of the Haweyh people, under our Flag of Sacred Truce. By doing so, you have been granted the right to a peaceful audience before the Council, to make whatever declarations or petitions you deem fit. You do so under the guarantee that you mean no violence nor subterfuge to any within these walls during your stay, and that any indication of such ill intent will result in your immediate deaths. Are you in agreement with these terms?”

Salein glanced around the room, as if weighing the defenses and mulling over how well the Council could enforce their threat. Barrenger ducked back when her gaze swept up to the five overhanging guard stations. Finally, she flipped a hand in the air. “Fine, fine. Let’s get on with it so I can be gone from this putrid cesspool.”

Trian may have bristled this time, but he regained his composure too quickly for Barrenger to be sure. “Then we welcome you to T’lani Suun. Please state your intention.” The Head Counselor retook his seat and gestured to the Rukilef woman. “Fasha Salein Szor, you have the floor.”

If lightning had crashed through the ceiling and struck Barrenger on the spot, he could not have been more shocked. “Szor?” he gasped, suddenly finding it hard to breath. Szor had been his father’s surname before he’d converted to the Haweyh and taken Marta’s as part of his new identity. Was it just a common name? Was his father related to the Fasha of the Rukilef? Am I related to her?! Barrenger’s throat constricted, his heart pounding in his ears. Why wouldn’t his mother have told him?

A hand on his shoulder startled Barrenger, and he whipped around. Remar held a finger to his lips. “Now is not the time,” he whispered. “Remember your promise.” Barrenger clenched his jaw, selah pulsing with his raised heartbeat. But the priest’s no-nonsense stare and Barrenger’s own ever-increasing curiosity gave him the willpower to get himself back under control. When they were both sure he wouldn’t make a scene, Barrenger carefully broke away from Remar’s grip and turned to stare back over the railing.

Fortunately, he’d only missed a few words. The Fasha – his aunt? His cousin? What? – paced in a slow circle, studying the room and people around her with casual contempt. “…would happily have done without this simpering ritual of yours, but it seemed the quickest and simplest way to settle our little problem. When you hear what I have come for, I’m sure you’ll be quite amenable.” She shot a quick, sly smile towards Marta, who sat staring intently at the green woman. “Most of you, anyway.”

High Councilor Trian emitted a low sigh. “Just what is it that you want, Fasha?”

Salein didn’t look at Trian, keeping her eyes focused on Marta. Her grin grew into a deadly smile as she spread her arms wide. “Why, I’m here to claim my darling nephew, of course.”

First lightning, now ice. Blood pounded in Barrenger’s ears as he clutched the railing, frozen with shock. “Can she do that?” the guard near Barrenger muttered, apparently forgetting that he was standing right next to the topic of the conversation. Confused and startled exclamations grew to a tumult in the witness stands until High Councilor Trian raised his hands and let out a burst of pale yellow selah, capturing everyone’s attention again.

“Order!” he commanded. “We will have order in this council!”

Before the noise fully died, Salein continued speaking. Her voice carried well in the circular room, words taking on a mocking, sing-song quality. “It will no doubt take a bit of work on our part to cleanse him of whatever coddling you’ve inflicted over the years, but my advisors and I agree that it is high time the bloodson of my brother be returned to his rightful place. To be honest, I’m surprised that you’ve allowed the whelp sanctuary for this long, considering your self-righteous aversion to superior bloodlines. But then, you were always a disgustingly sentimental lot.” She paused to pick her teeth with a sharp fingernail, as if bored of the entire proceedings. “Tell me: does he bear any of the weak features of your race? Or was he blessed by our Underlord with the appearance of true strength?”

 “You will not speak that name in this holy place!” one of the Councilors shouted, jumping up with a golden brightness to his facial markings.

“How do you know of the son of Benide and Marta Teshma?” Trian said, cutting his fellow Councilor off with a look. “And what makes you think that we would turn him over to your people? He is…” The High Councilor swallowed slightly, but continued with great composure, “He is a child of the Haweyh. You have no claim on him.”

Barrenger blinked, startled out of the freeze that had locked down his brain. That was the kindest thing Trian had ever said about him, even if it was just to spite the Fasha. A tiny flicker of gratitude surfaced in the boiling pot of other emotions Barrenger was struggling to tame.

“Oh, I know many things,” Salein purred. Her movements seemed less like pacing and more like a hunting prowl as she circled the room. Her nine clanspeople never moved, but their bodies stood poised with feral readiness. “I know that our brother whelped with your simpering prophetess. I know that today is his coming-of-age day, wherein your society dictates that he be considered an adult.” Salein paused and sniffed disdainfully. “It spins the mind that you hand that designation out so easily. Our young have to prove themselves deserving of that designation.” An agreeing mutter rose from the other Rukilef, several of them barking quiet laughs. Salein spread her arms wide again, face full of mock benevolence. “But regardless, the facts stand. He is of age, and so he is free to make his own choices. My ‘petition’ is merely this: let us speak with the boy and see how he feels about rejoining his true people.” She ended with a grin as sharp as a yelnar fish’s bite. “And if he should choose to join us, we are willing to negotiate a temporary ceasefire in our current hostilities.”

Mutters swirled around the witness stands again, people exchanging befuddled or worried looks. Barrenger’s head hadn’t stopped swimming from the first shocking revelation; now his eyes clamped and his jaw clenched in the effort to calm down and focus. This is idiotic! he thought balefully. I would never join the Rukilef. Never! They’re murderers and liars. We can’t trust any deal they make!

But a prickle of fear crept up his spine as Barrenger looked at the Councilors murmuring among themselves, too far away to overhear. Some of the Haweyh crowded below were tilting their heads with calculating expressions. What if they actually wanted him to go? No one in this room besides his mother, and perhaps Isa Jantra, truly cared about him. Would he even be allowed to refuse if they decided it was for the good of the nation?

Could he refuse, himself, if it came to that?

Sweat dotted his brow, but Barrenger clenched his teeth, forcing his frantic thoughts to calm. No, they wouldn’t do that. Everyone knows you can’t trust a Rukilef’s deals. Besides, I’m too valuable. I know the inner workings of the city, of the guard. I’m no expert, but they couldn’t allow someone born and raised in the city into the hands of the Rukilef.

As if echoing his thoughts, Trian spoke up in a dangerous tone. “What you are asking is foolish. Even if Barrenger Teshma wished to join you, and even if we did trust you to keep your word to temporarily cease hostilities, it would be treason. We do not allow traitors with valuable intelligence to simply walk over to the enemy side.” Barrenger growled in his throat, the earlier flicker of gratitude dying. Thanks for making it sound like I’m already a traitor, Councilor.

Salein’s grin widened, as if the mention of this point delighted her. “Ah, but that’s not quite true, is it? Bloodlines are very important to you Haweyh. It’s why you’re so prudish about intermarrying with other races.” She smirked as murmurs passed through the witnesses; marriage between Haweyh and other races, while not outlawed, was generally discouraged. “I suppose it’s a fair worry for a line so easily polluted. The Rukilef have no such weakness; our blood is strong. I would bank my entire army on a wager that my nephew has more appearance and selah in common with us than with any of your Haweyh.” Several of the Councilors exchanged uneasy glances, which did not go unnoticed. “Then you begin to see my point,” Salein continued with satisfaction. “Rukilef blood always conquers, in war or birth, and that boy is more one of us than one of you. As such, it would be no treason for him to join his true family.” Her voice dropped low, as if sharing a secret. “Just as his father did, in the end.”

Marta rose suddenly from her seat, her face set in stone. “What do you know of the fate of Benide?” she asked. Despite her calm, the light of the selah streaks in her hair shone brighter. Barrenger leaned back over the railing, holding his breath.

Salein turned to face her. A long moment passed as she pointedly looked the Prophetess up and down, the corners of her mouth twitching. “So,” she said off-handedly, hand on hip. “I finally have the pleasure of meeting the shrieking felnapi my brother, Drago, chose to breed with. I can already see why he could only stand your presence for so long; truly, he deserves a medal for lasting nine blasphemous years.”

Fury on behalf of his mother made Barrenger’s strips flare beneath his shirt. But Marta did not flinch, her golden eyes staring unwaveringly into Salein’s green. “My husband forsook his Rukilef birthright,” she said in an even voice. “He exchanged the name Drago Szor for his new name, Benide Teshma. He bowed before the Threefold God and committed himself to the Haweyh people. And he loved me and our son.” Her conviction was a palpable force that seemed to affect the whole room; people from every seat leaned forward in rapt attention. Her powerful presence in that moment made the Fasha seem small by comparison.

“I will ask you again.” Marta’s eyes narrowed as she stared down at the Fasha from her elevated position. “What do you know of his fate?”

Salein’s green glare met Marta’s for a long moment, and the quiet contest of wills plunged the whole room into silence. Barrenger could hardly stand it, his knuckles paling to moss green against the railing. What does she know? What happened to Pap?

Abruptly, Salein broke the staring match with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Pah! You are as delusional as he said. My brother is none of your concern anymore, Haweyh waste. He is back where he belongs.” Her arrogant demeanor returned with another dagger smile, causing the stripes across her cheeks to bunch like a second pair of leering eyes. “Drago returned to his people, as we always knew he would. It is in our blood. All Rukilef come back to the care of the Underlord eventually.” She barked a laugh that sent shivers through Barrenger’s insides. “I am eager to see what kind of warrior my nephew will prove to be once he is home.”

No. No, that can’t be true. Barrenger leaned heavily on the rail, staring down at that smirking, self-satisfied witch who claimed to be his aunt. Her words danced through his head like mocking demon chants, echoing the fears he’d been trying to silence for years. If what she was implying was true… then his father had betrayed them. Was it really in his blood, after all? Did he even have a choice in the matter? I’m not one of them! I’m not! his mind screamed.

But whispers of dread stole his conviction. Barrenger stared down at the crowd, searching the faces desperately. The brief spell of Marta’s sure words had been broken. Barrenger had sharp eyes; he could see the grimaces of distaste so like the ones that had been shot at him all his life. Some were actually nodding, probably congratulating themselves on knowing the truth all along. “Rukilef are rotten down to the marrow; the traitor only proved it.”

Barrenger’s stomach twisted into tighter and tighter knots. No, no, Élo above, don’t let her make them distrust me even more!

I hate her. Rage seared through him like spreading brimfire, a haze falling across his vision. I hate her. I HATE her. Élo, why don’t you strike her down where she stands?! Someone put their hand on his shoulder, but he shrugged it off roughly. He didn’t even realize his arms were trembling, or notice the ripples of neon green selah flickering from under his gloves. All he could see was that despicable Rukilef woman directly below him.

Marta’s voice rang out, cutting through the rumblings of the crowd. “I don’t believe you, Fasha Salein.” She turned to look out into the audience, and it was as though she looked each member in the eye. Silence fell again, and many heads turned guiltily away. “I have stood against the lies you would spread about my husband for ten years, and I continue to do so now. My son is with his true family, and as his mother, I renounce your claim on him.”

“Well, that hardly matters,” Salein replied. “You can deny the truth all you want. Living in denial seems a revered trait in your urine-selah’d race. But it won’t change the fact that Drago returned to us. Nor the fact that, as far as my people are concerned, your relation to him matters not a drop.” Puzzled murmurs spread through the room, including among the Councilors. Salein shook her head pityingly, taking on the lecturing tone of a teacher with a particularly dense student. “Do you Haweyh have no ears to speak of? I’ve already told you: Rukilef blood is strong. Frankly, all blood not of the Rukilef is weak by comparison, but occasionally one of my kin gets a taste for a different color.” Her shrug labeled the point as a frivolous but unimportant fact of daily life, even as Haweyh faces twisted in disgust at her crass language. “Because the blood of other races is so weak, it has no real influence on the child’s creation. So a child born in such a relationship is a child of the Rukilef alone. In this case, that would mean that Drago is his only parent.” She smiled that dagger grin again. “So you see, Prophetess, he is not with his family. Your existence is of no more importance than if a bilge fly claimed to parent him. Not that the difference is noticeable,” the Fasha added in a venomous hiss, “as I would be equally happy to smash either one like the worthless tripe you are.”

Barrenger never heard the crowd burst into angry shouts, or High Councilor Trian shouting for order, or the two hulking, shifted Rukilef stepping forward to flank their leader. The bubbling anger in his head had only grown with every word spewed from that green stalviper’s rotting mouth, narrowing his gaze to a red tunnel, until… something snapped.

With a roar, Barrenger leapt at the top of the railing. A distant voice yelled, “Grab him!” and hands fell on his shoulders, stopping him just short of jumping over the side.

“Take it back, you raknef!” Barrenger screamed, straining against the hands of the guard and the priest struggling to keep him on the balcony. Remar’s handkerchief slipped with his jerkings, settling down around Barrenger’s neck and giving him an uninterrupted view of the green monster below, the one he wanted to punch in the teeth with the full strength of his force transference. “Take it BACK!!!

“Barrenger! Barrenger!” The distant voice barely penetrated the pounding of blood in his ears, but some rational thought at the back of his brain registered it as Remar’s. Two sets of hands clutched him now, and suddenly Remar was bellowing in his ear. “BARRENGER! Remember your promise! Control yourself!”

By now every head in the chamber had turned to look up at the commotion. Salein stood hands akimbo at the very center of the room, a delighted smile on her face. She roared back at the enraged figure overhead, a laugh in her tone. “So, my nephew is with us already! Well met, my little bloodkin! It’s good to see you inherited your father’s prize temper!”

“Shut UP!” Barrenger roared, his thoughts blurry with hatred. He wanted to leap down there and tear her stripes off. Some remaining iota of sense kept him from punching the two men holding him back, but still he strained forward in a haze of tunnel vision. The mocking, the lies, the hateful truths, the gross insults to his long-suffering mother, all at the center of an onslaught of every dark look, caustic word, unearned beating he’d ever received. She was everything wrong in his life, she needed to be taken off her pedestal, she deserved to—!

Barrenger!” Suddenly Remar Jantra stood in front of Barrenger, clasping the young man’s head in his hands and staring fiercely into his eyes. “You are shaming your mother, Barrenger! You are shaming yourself! You are giving the Fasha exactly what she wants! For the last time, stop this and control your temper!

Barrenger stilled, his breathing coming in heavy gasps. Some sense emerged from the soup of rage, a stab of understanding and dismay. Barrenger closed his eyes, willing his emotions to bottle down, to go back to that special place where he could keep them under control. Lizard scat. Waste bung. What did I do? The fierce liquid light wavering around his hands and eyes blinked off, leaving Barrenger with a hollow feeling in his stomach.

“Well, since you’ve been here all along, my nephew,” Salein’s voice called, “I suppose you’ve already heard the question.” As Barrenger swallowed the sour taste in his mouth and Remar and the guard continued to hold his arms, the Fasha turned on her heel and mock-bowed to the stone-faced High Council. “I believe we are just about done here. My proposition remains: if the boy comes with us willingly, we will negotiate a ceasefire on your outer villages.” Her lip curled in a sneer. “Decide for yourselves how much the supposed knowledge of a whelp you’ve no doubt ostracized already is worth.”

The High Council looked to each other, and then at a nod one of the female guards standing at attention nearby lifted her hands, bright yellow light extending from her fingers. The selah flowed out into an impressive bubble shield over the table, cutting off the deliberations going on inside. As soon as the shield was up and the Councilors obviously talking, chatter sprouted like weeds throughout the audience.

Barrenger wanted to throw up. Understanding of how badly he had messed up punched him in the stomach. Losing control like that, in front of the Council and all those witnesses – he had probably looked like a raving Rukilef berserker, Haweyh clothes or no. Chills swept through him as Salein’s words repeated through his head: Rukilef blood always conquers. Barrenger turned to look at Remar, swallowing against the dryness in his mouth. “Isa Jantra… I’m sorry, I didn’t—”

“What’s done is done, Barrenger,” Remar said. He looked resigned, but his tone was more reassuring than cross. “I don’t fault you for your anger, though I don’t condone the outlet. Now we’ll simply have to deal with the damage as needs dealing.” That didn’t remove the rock from Barrenger’s insides, but he felt gratitude towards the priest for not making him feel even worse. The guard sharing the station with them had his hand on his chargepistol, eyeing Barrenger warily.

Down below, Salein turned to the saberdog Rukilef, a hulking, furry brute with selah stripes like war scars across his neck and shoulders. “Isn’t it as shameful as I said, Brinak?” she said loudly, cutting through the whispers. “They squabble like children, too weak-willed to make bold decisions. Or perhaps the presence of real soldiers destroys their courage.”

Brinak chuffed air out his nose, as if the room and its occupants smelled foul. “Indeed. It is difficult to restrain myself from ripping their entrails from their bodies, my Fasha,” he rumbled plainly, running his tongue over one of the long fangs jutting from his upper jaw.

“You would be cut down where you stand,” a temple guard growled. Barrenger looked, and his sick sense of dread was briefly broken by the wry thought that he shouldn’t be surprised the guard speaking was Samlin O’dara again. The guy clearly had a penchant for purposely jumping in front of Rukilef threats. The other guards shifted uneasily as the beast warrior leered down at Samlin with a bloodthirsty smile, green and gold selah glimmering brightly in the circle. Then the captain of the guard barked a quiet command, and Samlin sank back to his position, looking completely unashamed of his outburst.  An almost perceptible breath of relief escaped the crowd watching.

“Ah, so there are a few spirited pups in this lot,” Salein chuckled drly. “We may yet have hope that our new brother will not be a complete milksop.”

“You shall not find out, Salein,” Marta said, and all eyes turned to her. The shield had dropped at first sign of the altercation on the floor, and the Prophetess stood by her seat, head held high.

 “So that’s your decision, is it?” Salein mocked, her eyes narrowing. “I thought this was a council. Don’t you make decisions as a group because you’re all too weak-willed to take control?” High Councilor Trian stiffened angrily in his seat.

Marta ignored the jibe. “I can say that my son will not be yours, Fasha Salein,” she said with dangerous calm, “because unless Élo Himself wills it, you will have him only over my cold, dead body.”

 Salein bared her teeth. “Wonderful. Then I would have two of the things I crave most in this world.”

“Enough!”

Marta settled into her seat at Trian’s command with all the cool aplomb of a lady sitting to dinner. Salein folded her arms and tilted her head to the side, eyeing the High Councilor with disdain. Trian took the floor again, glancing between the two women, Barrenger, and the crowd, his lips tight.

“This is a perplexing proposition you have brought to us, Fasha Szor. The Council wishes to discuss it further and seek Élo’s will. But know this: many in this Council are not agreeable to the idea of handing over one of our young ones to the Rukilef while there remains any hope that he is loyal to Élo.” Trian looked sideways at Marta, who had not taken her eyes off the Fasha. “But you have evidence enough that Barrenger Teshma has heard your proposition,” he continued firmly, “so there will be no need for you to meet with him. We shall give you our formal answer on the morrow.”

“As you wish.” Fasha Salein Szor snapped her fingers, and her warriors – no one could honestly mistake those nine for peaceful delegates – shifted into a triangle formation around her as she walked towards the doors, the hulking saberdog beastman at its foremost point. “We greatly anticipate my nephew’s answer.”

Just as she reached the door, the green-eyed Rukilef turned and looked out over the assembly of rapt witnesses. “But think on this,” she declared, her voice echoing in the silent hall. “He is of Rukilef blood, and our blood always bears true. You have tasted it yourselves today. Should he not come with us now, well.” She gave a throaty chuckle. “I’ve no doubt he will join us later, under less amenable terms to your precious homeland.”  

With a heavy guard surrounding them, the Rukilef delegation left the Council Room. Noise erupted in the stands as the large doors slammed shut. Barrenger shouldered free from Remar’s grip, but the guard continued to watch him with stone-faced caution as Barrenger leaned against the railing, looking for one face in particular.

His mother still sat at her seat, eyes closed, lips tight. As if sensing him, she looked up suddenly, her golden eyes meeting his green. Whatever misgivings Barrenger had already had, they doubled at what he saw in her gaze. It was a rare and unwelcome day when Marta Teshma showed fear.


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A/N: Boy, I forgot how LONG these chapters start getting at this point! One of the challenges to the back-and-forth setup I decided on between Barrenger’s and Mercury’s stories was that I HAD to keep it to a certain number of chapters – there are only six chapters for introductions on Mercury’s side (seven counting the prologue – one for each of the seven kids), and seven total chapters for Barrenger. I think I got the spacing worked out nicely, it just took me longer than expected today to reread the chapter and make a few final edits before posting! I’m glad I have been taking the time to do that; the biggest change in this chapter was adding more detail about what Barrenger’s experiences were in the aftermath of his father’s betrayal.

I’d really enjoy feedback on this scene, as my own perspective feels limited from reworking it multiple times. Did you think Barrenger’s outburst felt natural? Were the reasons clear? What are your thoughts about Salein? Or Samlin? We haven’t seen the last of that guy, lemme tell you. Whether that’s good or bad for Barrenger, well, you’ll have to keep reading to find out. 😉

Thanks for reading! =D

~Jenn/River

3 thoughts on “Outcasts & Runaways – Part 1.6

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