Chapter 7 – Thera
The guard hustled Barrenger and Remar quickly and quietly down the staircase, escorting them through a back doorway that avoided the loudly clamoring crowd in the Meeting Room. Several more guards joined them along the way, including Samlin, although the young Temple Guard was clearly not in good graces thanks to his stunt if the scowl of his superior was any indication. Barrenger let himself be herded into a conference chamber used by the High Council for smaller meetings, still too shell-shocked to protest. Not that he felt he had any right to. Barrenger slumped into one of the comfortably padded wooden chairs, staring up at the low diaphragm arches of the ceiling. He’d blown that meeting as violently as a stick of blaster compound.
High Councilor Trian slammed into the room, stalking across the wooden floor towards Barrenger with Marta Teshma and two other Councilors close behind. “What happened?” he roared. Barrenger leaned back involuntarily from the fierce flush brightening the High Councilor’s eyes and selah as the man slammed his hands onto the thick shayoak table. “Can anyone enlighten me as to how this childish whelp who can’t control his own temper managed to make a disaster of one of the most volatile Council Meetings we’ve had in the past fifty years?!” Although the man’s question was directed at others in the room, he continued to glare balefire at Barrenger.
Remar stepped closer and bowed respectfully to Trian, his golden robes still fluttering from the draft stirred by Trian’s violent door-slamming. “The fault is mine, High Councilor Trian. I felt that the boy should be privy to the meeting, as it pertains to his past. The emotional strain he endured thanks to the Fasha’s coarse nature and other revelations proved greater than I had anticipated.”
“Yes,” Trian said coldly, turning his glare from Barrenger to the priest. “And now he and the whole city of T’lani Suun will be privy to information about his lineage that, frankly, I would rather have never come to light. We face daily strains already from the fact that we harbor the son of a Rukilef, whatever his noble parentage on his mother’s side.” Marta raised an eyebrow at his less-than-subtle attempt to pacify her while openly disparaging her son. Trian continued as if he hadn’t noticed, swatting his hand through the air in a gesture of frustration. “That he is the son of one of their royal line only makes my job that much more difficult!”
“Careful, Priest Jantra,” Trian growled, his eyes brightening as his tone lowered. “You are already on thin ice.”
“Remar is right,” Marta said sternly. “And what’s more, he would not have taken Barrenger into the Meeting Room without my permission.” The Prophetess brushed past the guards in the room and stood by her son, placing a hand on his shoulder. She met the High Councilor’s eyes with raised chin. “He is my son, under my training on proper decorum and etiquette. I accept the blame for this situation.”
Barrenger gritted his teeth, guilt momentarily disappearing behind a sour taste on his tongue. He bolted up from his seat and stood at attention before the three Councilors, knocking off his mother’s hand. “I am an adult today, Councilors. Even if I… did not act like it in the Meeting Room,” he admitted, flushing with shame. “The blame for my behavior rests completely on me.” He clenched his fists for a moment, then relaxed them, breaking Trian’s gaze to look deferentially down at the floor. “You have my sincerest apologies. My behavior was completely out of line, and I have shamed myself, my mother, and the people of T’lani Suun.” He took a deep breath before throwing his shoulders back. He may have messed up, but he wasn’t going to cower behind his mother and her friend like a scared little pup. “I will accept whatever punishment you deem fit.”
“Hmph,” Trian muttered, straightening his robes as he tried to hide apparent surprise at Barrenger’s speech. He looked the dark-skinned young man up and down speculatively for a moment. A slight squeeze on Barrenger’s wrists and a whiff of zum flower perfume made him aware of his mother at his shoulder, silently conveying her approval. That made him feel slightly better; he’d shamed her most of all.
Silence passed for a few moments, the guards standing at attention but casting uncertain glances between the pensive half-breed and the engrossed-in-thought Councilor. Suddenly Trian turned and began to pace, murmuring quietly as if to himself. “This is a mess, but what’s done is done, I suppose. As all things go, the meeting theoretically could have gone worse. Prophetess, you did us no favors by speaking your will over the Council; as head of the Temple, your word holds much weight.” The brown-skinned man held his hand up as Marta opened her mouth to protest, his mouth pulled down at the corners in a look of resignation. “But I suppose I cannot, in all honesty, fault a mother for defending her child. Nor…” He looked askance at Barrenger and huffed a sigh, tugging at his short beard. “Nor a son for wishing to defend his mother from such vile slurs. However ill-advised his methods were.”
Barrenger could barely believe his ears. It almost sounded as if Trian were being… understanding. He and Trian had been at odds since the day the man came to office three years ago. Trian had made it clear, both in action and in passive-aggressive word, that he would be more than happy to see the back of the Rukilef halfblood in his city. Barrenger bit his tongue, resisting the urge to comment and potentially land himself back in more trouble.
Trian stared at Barrenger again, his expression unreadable. He stopped in front of the other two Councilors who had followed him into the room. “Councilor Taia, Councilor Jyalin, would you please inform the rest of the Council that we will convene in half an hour to discuss this matter? I wish to have a few moments alone with the Teshmas.”
Councilor Taia raised her eyebrow at him; her white hair was so dark as to be almost blonde, tied back in a complex, interlocking set of braids that glimmered with yellow. “If it is related to the Rukilef delegation, High Councilor, you know that we should be present.”
Trian waved impatiently. “I don’t know if it is viable to go before the Council or not, and I wish to explore further before presenting it, as is my right. No decisions will be made.”
“Very well,” Councilor Jyalin said, dipping his head to the High Councilor. He gave a slightly deeper bow to Marta, and a respectful nod to the guard captain and Remar as he and Councilor Taia exited the room. To Barrenger, he paid no notice beyond a glance.
Trian nodded to the guards standing around Barrenger as the Councilors stepped out of the room. “Captain Lan’Quin, I would like you to remain. As for your soldiers, please have them wait outside. What we will discuss is for private ears.” He smirked without humor. “I am sure that young Master Teshma will cause no further trouble.”
The guard captain raised his eyebrows but beckoned his soldiers to obey. They moved past Barrenger, most not looking at him – except Samlin. He met eyes with Barrenger briefly, and there was a flash of something in that look that Barrenger couldn’t decipher before the door closed quietly behind them, leaving five figures remaining in the room. Trian scowled at Remar, but the priest somehow managed to look both deferential and as immovable as stone.
Barrenger’s senses tingled as the High Councilor continued pacing the room, and he shot a glance at his mother. She looked as mystified as he. What could the High Councilor want to discuss with him that was too unformed to even suggest to the Council?
Trian paused by a mural of the Bread-Giving Miracle on the long wall opposite the door, seeming to study it. He spoke again without turning. “This offer the Fasha has brought to us is most unprecedented. For her to request – nay, demand – a citizen of our city to be turned over to them would normally be an act of war in and of itself. But, of course, the factor of lineage does come into play.”
The still-fresh memory of the Fasha and her taunting suggestions about his father hit Barrenger afresh. Could it be true? Had his father really deserted them? Was he living with the Rukilef right now? And the coldest thought in the back of his mind: If I joined them, would I see him?
He slammed the door on that thought and focused on Trian, letting his selah burn bright for a moment. “I will never join them, High Councilor,” Barrenger declared. “I would never betray the Haweyh. Or Élo,” he added, covering a sting of guilt for leaving their Sovereign as an afterthought. But he wasn’t feeling on the most stable ground with their God at the moment.
Trian turned back to face them from across the large table. He stroked his short beard again, eyes gleaming. “The truth is, Barrenger Teshma,” he said, picking each word with care, “that I am considering the benefits if you did.”
Barrenger froze, and Remar made a small exclamation. “With all due respect, Gamilon, you cannot think that the Fasha will really honor this ambiguous truce offer,” the Priest said reproachfully. Trian’s eyes flashed at Remar’s lapse in using his title.
Marta marched to the table between them, planting her hand firmly on the wood. “The High Council will notcondone driving one of our own from the city when he is still loyal to our nation,” she said with quiet force. “No matter his lineage. Not if our people are yet loyal to Almighty Élo and his commands.” Her eyes narrowed. “And I would stake my life on my son’s loyalty, whatever soul-blind eyes may think.”
Trian bristled. “Of course not. I am not a monster, whatever misgivings I may have about your son.” He eyed Barrenger again, as if studying an interesting puzzle. The comparison did not bring Barrenger comfort. “No, I was thinking something of a more voluntary basis. The promise of truce is tempting, but, loathe as I am to agree with you, Jantra,” he said, receiving a bland look from Remar in return, “I doubt it is trustworthy. But if your son, Prophetess, is truly as loyal to us as you claim, then his defection may have… other uses.”
Barrenger gawked at Trian. “You… want me to become a spy?” he yelped, then grimaced. Great job, Teshma, just sqauwk like a sunstruck keeti.
Trian’s chuckle lacked any real humor. “If you prefer the term. It has been very difficult to plant agents among their forces before. But to send in a person they would willingly accept… someone with combat training, and loyalty to our nation…” The man’s tone and gaze were heavy with implication.
Barrenger stared at Trian as the full scope of his suggestion sank in. A spy. A double agent. Going into dangerous enemy territory to learn secrets that might help win this war. This was an important mission, and he might be the only one who could fulfill it.
A shiver passed down his spine. This was his chance. He could finally prove himself. He could be useful. The words burst out before he’d fully formed the thought, his selah bright with the adrenaline rushing through his veins. “I’ll do it.”
“Barrenger!” Marta’s alarmed cry made Barrenger jerk. His mother had a hand to her breast, her face a ghostly pallor. She caught herself and gentled her tone, but anxiety sparked in her eyes. “Don’t simply rush into this. What he is suggesting is extremely dangerous – no, it is outright foolishness.”
“Your confidence in my strategic sensibilities is noteworthy, Prophetess,” Trian said dryly.
Barrenger could barely stand still for excitement, but something in the snobbish set of Trian’s face reminded him why he didn’t have many reasons to trust this man. He took a deep breath, shooting his mum a chagrined look. “My apologies.” Barrenger let go of the seatback he’d been strangling and straightened his tunic before meeting Trian’s eyes again, doing his best to project the calm air of confidence his mother had perfected. “I will hear you out, Isa Trian.”
Trian smiled beautifically and gestured for them all to be seated. Naturally, he took the head of the table, with Barrenger at his right and Marta on his left, the woman’s face lined with disapproval. Remar took the seat next to Barrenger. Trian steepled his fingers, settling into the same officious posture he had adopted in the Council meeting. “The plan is beautifully simple. We use their own request against them. The Fasha is arrogant and overblown with her own sense of superiority; she clearly believes that young Barrenger will join them eventually, regardless of his circumstances.” Trian tilted his head at Barrenger, yellow eyes calculating. “So we give them what they want. We send Barrenger to them under the guise of reclaiming his birthright. Being the nephew of the Fasha herself, he will no doubt receive consideration beyond that of a simple Rukilef foot soldier. This makes the plan even better: it heightens his chances of uncovering useful military information.”
Hearing the facts of his relations reopened the pit in Barrenger’s stomach, but he ignored it, intrigued by Trian’s plan. He glanced regularly at his mother, though, and saw with little surprise that a deep frown remained fixed on her face.
“Now, I am aware that you do not have the selah for Longspeaking, Master Teshma,” Trian continued, “but I have word that the university’s science corps is close to perfecting a chargestone device that can mimic this ability. We would test you with them tonight to ensure it works, in which case you could send messages to high command. It would be simple enough to disguise from the Rukilef, as they would not recognize its design. And we would, naturally, keep a contingent of soldiers nearby,” Trian added towards Marta, “at least to the border of Rukel, in case he sends word of being discovered.” The High Councilor sat back, hands spread as he gave Barrenger a half smile. “There are other details to be worked out, which we would determine tonight when I bring this to the High Council, but that is the basis. If you will only say you are willing to consider it, I will take the proposal forward right now. We could have everything arranged well in time for the Fasha’s deadline.”
Silence settled over the table as Barrenger, Marta, and Remar looked at each other. Every fiber in Barrenger’s being wanted to jump forward and accept right that moment – fel, he was half ready to race out the door. But the open distress on his mother’s face made him hold his tongue. He’d already shamed her enough today; he wasn’t going to do it again thoughtlessly. Maker, let me convince her! he prayed, hands fisted beneath the table. He needed this!
Remar was the first to speak, one hand tugging distractedly at his long beard. “What you are suggesting, High Councilor… sending an untrained civilian to gather intelligence on our most dangerous enemies? It would be suicide!”
“He will know nothing of their culture, or techniques for avoiding detection of his real motives,” Marta joined in, her fingers tightly intertwined on the table. “He has no training for such a task.”
“And that is an even greater reason why it would not be expected!” Trian insisted, leaning forward eagerly. “Fasha Salein insinuated her belief that he has received little regard among our people. Perhaps not unjustly,” he added with only the barest hint of apology. Barrenger narrowed his eyes. “They would not expect us to send someone who could have had little to no training in the field of espionage,” Trian finished.
“Unless the ones doing the sending had very little regard for the one being sent.” Remar’s mutter was so quiet that it just reached Barrenger’s ears.
Barrenger swallowed at the implication, but he wasn’t going to give up on this so quickly. “I do have some experience, Mum,” he said, looking pointedly at his mother. “Masters Raysho and Dama have given me top marks for my twa’ki and swordsmanship skills, and I’m decent with staff weapons and the autobow.” He wasn’t a great shot with the autobow, but that didn’t seem worth clarifying right at this moment.
“Yes, I have heard of your prowess in twa’ki, Master Barrenger.” Trian gave an approving nod. “My sources tell me that you are quite capable with the twinblades, as well.”
“Considering your fondness for spies, that seems unsurprising,” Remar commented dryly.
“Combat is the least important skill in this scenario, Barrenger,” Marta retorted. “The only reason a spy should have to fight is if he is discovered. And even then, you have no experience in life-or-death combat. It is an entirely different animal.”
“I’d say a few of my fights have gotten close,” Barrenger muttered less quietly than he’d meant to. His mum went quiet, looking at him with mute sorrow.
“Your focus on his combat training blinds you to our greatest advantage,” Trian interjected impatiently. “They will not expect him to fit in. He was raised in an entirely different culture, and whatever their beliefs about his… base nature, the Fasha cannot be fool enough to believe he would automatically be versed in their customs. In fact, were he to know a great deal about them, it would likely make him more suspect.” He thumped his fist on the table. “Don’t you see? His ignorance is his advantage!”
The validity of this argument cast a brief, uneasy silence over the table. Trian saw an opening and took it. “Captain Lan’Quin,” he said, turning to the captain who had been silently watching them all like a guarding felraptor. “You have helped train several of our agents in the past. Do you find my suggestions unreasonable?”
The captain glanced at Barrenger and shifted uneasily in his armored boots. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man, with a tan scar across his dark cheek and a choppy military cut. He spoke with slow caution. “It’s difficult to say. Given the timetable, his civilian status, his lack of experience… I don’t know if I would advise it outright, Isa.” But the man paused, tilting his head and studying Barrenger with a more critical eye. “Even so… I can’t say that the possible merits don’t warrant giving it a try. We might never get another chance like this to infiltrate their ranks. And he’s capable enough, from what I’ve heard.”
Barrenger’s back straightened, surprised and flattered that a Temple Guard captain knew enough about his combat training regimen to be convinced he had some skill. Trian spread his arms, tipping his head towards Marta. “You see, Prophetess? Our skilled captain has some faith in your son. Do you not have any of your own?”
“Do not play political word games with me, Gamilon Trian,” Marta said flatly. “I have more faith in my son than this entire city put together. But that does not equate to encouraging him on a fool’s errand.” She let out a deep breath, fingers twisting more tightly as she glanced at her son. “I cannot condone this course of action. The risk is too great.”
Trian folded his hands into his robes, his chin raised. “Pardon my bluntness, Prophetess, but the simple fact is this: your son, by tomorrow morning, will be considered a man according to our traditions. And men may choose for themselves how they will make a difference in the lives of their people. Would you deny him the right to make his own decisions?”
Marta continued to glare at him, but her right hand worked at the rings on her left fingers, twisting and turning. It was a sign of her deep agitation, and the sight of it made Barrenger’s stomach clench.
“Consider your choice carefully, Master Barrenger.” High Councilor Trian leaned upon the table with both hands, watching him intently. “This may be your only chance to prove once and for all that you are loyal to this city.”
Barrenger gritted his teeth, studying the whorls in the tabletop in order to block out the expectant stares coming at him from all sides. The man might as well have offered him his heart’s desire on a platter! Please, Élo, I want this, I want it so badly… But that niggling suspicion wouldn’t let go of him. Suspicion, and guilt, as he stared between the man who had always hated him and the woman whose eyes pleaded with him in silence.
“Barr.” Marta’s quiet plea forced him to meet her eyes. “Please, before you choose, allow me to make my final argument. Then…” She took a deep breath, a grimace flashing across her face. “As he says, it is your decision. And I will honor that.”
Barrenger swallowed, and nodded sharply. “Of course, Mum.” Trian started to speak, but Barrenger shot him a glare that, surprisingly, shut the man’s mouth. For all that he feared his mother was going to give an argument he couldn’t deny, he wasn’t about to shame her with his disregard again.
As Marta spoke, she tenderly rubbed the ring on her left middle finger – her wedding band. “All in this room are perfectly aware that the Rukilef as a culture are violent and distrustful – I have my husband’s own stories on the truth of it. And your aunt, Barrenger, is the most dangerous of them all. She has already seen that you are loyal to me.” Marta’s hands pressed into the tabletop, as if drawing strength from the ancient wood. “They will expect something like this, because it is exactly the sort of tactic they would use in our place. And while you have had combat training, my heart, you have no experience in the subtleties of espionage, least of all in a culture where they are taught deception from childhood. The likelihood that you would be discovered is so high that I fear we would find your head at our gates within a week.”
Barrenger swallowed. She wasn’t as right as she thought; the many nights he had snuck out to run across the city’s rooftops had taught him skills in sneaking that she knew nothing about. And every day that he went out hooded and cloaked, trying to hide what he really was – wasn’t that a deception?
But the wiser part of him had to grudgingly admit she made good points.
“I understand why you want this, Barr. You are brave, protective, and capable. You want to be useful.” Barrenger’s heart burned at the words; sometimes he really wondered if his mother could read minds. “But I beg you to wait on Élo’s timing, Barrenger. There has to be another way. And I—” Her voice broke, and Marta closed her eyes as a single tear trickled down her cheek. “I can’t lose the rest of my family,” she whispered.
A knife might as well have stabbed him through the heart. Marta Teshma, strong and regal and confident, so in control and compassionate and loving, did not lose control of her emotions like this. Not in front of someone like Trian, whose stony face spoke his irritation louder than words.
The choice was clear. He could either choose his dream or choose to break his mother’s heart. And he just didn’t have the stomach to handle that second option.
Barrenger reached across the table and took his mother’s wringing hands, breathing deeply as he sought the calm place inside where he stored his emotions. With a steady gaze, he shook his head stiffly at High Councilor Trian. “I’m sorry, High Councilor. Thank you sincerely for the offer, but I… I have to respectfully decline.”
Marta wilted slightly in relief, her hands squeezing his. The High Councilor frowned, and Barrenger braced for some silvertongued argument. But finally, the man nodded.
“Very well. In that case, I will let the Council know that you have formally declined the Fasha’s invitation. We will no doubt need to cover additional matters regarding this meeting, but those will not require your input. In the meantime, Captain Lan’Quin and his detachment will escort you to your home and remain on guard there until this matter has settled.”
“That won’t be necessary, High Councilor,” Marta said, straightening her robes and returning to the use of her formal deportment. “Our house watch is very capable. They may be dismissed once we reach our home.”
“I’m afraid I must insist, as a courtesy of the temple,” Trian said forcefully. “Surely you must realize how unsettled the city will be after this. We don’t need to invite any incidents from one of the more overzealous and misunderstanding members of the population. It is for your family’s safety, I assure you.”
Marta’s lips flattened in a line of suspicion, but she nodded and walked to the door, her hand in the crook of Barrenger’s elbow and Remar close behind. As they exited, Barrenger glanced one more time at the High Councilor. A pang of regret made him miss a step. As if he hadn’t already had too much thrown at him today, now he had to combat the feeling that he was walking away from his only chance at vindication. A dull ache pounded in his head, and Barrenger let his mother lead him, eager to get home and rest.
So much for keeping positive thoughts today.
Before Captain Lan’Quin followed the Teshmas out of the room, he looked questioningly back at the High Councilor. Trian was still standing by the table, looking at something on it. Without glancing at the captain, he said, “You think I gave up too easily?”
Lan’Quin tilted his head to the side, peering at him. “For you, Your Grace? Just a bit.”
Trian chuckled quietly, turning his attention to one of the thick religious tomes resting on the meeting table. “We will see. I have a feeling that our impetuous young friend is not quite so convinced as he wishes his mother to believe.” He stroked the ancient leather thoughtfully. “We will see what the city’s unrest does to his resolve. Let me know if you see or hear anything promising.”
The captain gave a short nod and left to gather his charges. Trian stared intently at the book, but his mind was far away from religious texts. Oh, yes, he had seen the look in that young man’s eyes. And that temper… someone with that kind of temper would be prone to rash action. By the Tree, this was too good an opportunity to pass up, but Trian could be patient and let things come together on their own. He had planted the seed, and he strongly suspected that the boy’s own insecurities and the city’s natural animosity would help it to grow. The boy would finally be useful.
And if Marta Teshma’s concerns turned out to be well-founded, well. It wasn’t as if the loss of the Rukilef taint in their blessed city would be a great waste. Trian’s mouth tightened as he slid the book roughly across the table and left the room.
Barrenger could hardly believe the suns were still shining; it felt as if days had passed. Remar parted with them at the gates of the temple, stating that he had urgent business to take care of. “But I will make sure you are informed of the High Council’s decisions in this matter as soon as I can,” he promised. Marta thanked him for his support with a hug she might have given a close relative – her hands on his arms, leaning her cheek against his. Remar returned the gesture and nodded to Barrenger before departing.
“Heed your mother, Barrenger,” he murmured for the young man’s ears alone. “This deal of Trian’s is foolhardy at best.” Then he clapped Barrenger warmly on the shoulder and smiled. “Now be off with you both, and may Élo bless you with a joyous feast untroubled by these worries.”
The walk back to the house was both quiet and noisy. Quiet, because no one in the guarded party spoke; noisy, because everyone outside of it spoke at once. The streets were packed, every Haweyh living in the city and a number of foreign visitors all wanting to be involved in the shocking gossip that had spread over T’lani Suun like wildfire. Barrenger hunched lower in his cloak, face burning with alternating indignation and shame, as voices both whispered and unashamedly raised filled his ears the entire journey home.
“—heard the Rukilef want him—”
“—went berserk, almost killed the witch, good riddance—”
“—not even if he wanted to, too valuable—”
“There he goes now! Do you think they’re guarding him in case he—”
“—protect him like she always does—”
“Nonsense! You didn’t see the time he helped my little girl with her—”
“—rid of that disgrace once and for—”
By the time the guards ushered Marta and Barrenger into their district, Barrenger wanted to hide in the lowest mukdragon den he could find and never come out. Captain Lan’Quin and his guards had kept a tight perimeter, but not since the first few weeks when his father had vanished had Barrenger felt so in danger from his neighbors. At least the Temple Guards were there to keep back the crowd, but the hostile glares that followed him the entire road home hung over him like birds of prey.
The house bustled with servants when they arrived, and fantastic smells rushed at them through the door, breaking Barrenger out of his dismal preoccupation long enough to realize that he was very hungry. Cartien rushed to the door as they entered, concern lining his face. “Mistress Marta, Master Barrenger. Are you alright? There is a most unseemly clamor going on outside. We feared for your safety.”
Marta smiled warmly at her loyal head of staff. “We’re fine, Cartien. The meeting with the Rukilef delegation did not go well, but that was to be expected.” Barrenger stared intently at the earthy ceramic tiles that decorated the floor. His mother gestured to the soldiers waiting just beyond the threshold. “Until the current upset has had time to settle, the High Council sent us these additional guards to ensure the safety of the house. Will you please see that they are introduced to the house watch and given sleeping quarters?”
Cartien bowed. “Of course, m’lady.”
“It would be preferable if some of my soldiers could remain with you and Master Barrenger at all times,” Captain Lan’Quin spoke up. “Respectfully, Prophetess.’
Marta drew herself up, her small face etched with the knowledge of her own authority. “Your respect is noted, but your request is denied, Captain. You and your men are guests in my home, and we are grateful for your protection. But this is the Feast of Becoming for my only son, and I will not have it further disrupted by unfamiliar guards hovering over his shoulders. You may maintain a perimeter around the house, but only our watch may enter the upstairs unless your men have my permission. Is that clear?”
The captain eyed her for a long moment. But it was obvious that the Prophetess of T’lani Suun would not be denied in this. Lan’Quin dipped a bow, his craggy face impassive. “As you wish, Prophetess. Men!” he snapped out. “Take up positions on all entrances, and I want a full report from the house watch on existing security measures…”
Marta and Barrenger watched the guards march off, both feeling a considerable amount of relief. Marta smiled at Cartien. “Could you give us a moment, please?”
“Of course, m’lady. The meal is almost ready; we will have everything prepared when you wish to come up.”
Then – finally – they were alone. Just Barrenger and his mother, the sounds of moving servants and the delicious smells of the waiting feast fading into the background as they looked at each other in uneasy silence. Barrenger hesitated for only a moment before the dam broke, spilling all of his guilt out in a cascade. “Mum, I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have—”
“Shhhh. None of that!” Marta abruptly wrapped him in a firm hug, her face buried in his jacket. Barrenger gently hugged her back, eyes closing as his heart burned. “None of that,” Marta murmured again, voice muffled in his shirt. She drew back just enough to meet his eyes. “You made a mistake. Were it any other circumstance, we would be having strong words about the terrible breach of decorum and loss of self-control you displayed today before the High Council and an assembly of Witnesses,” she added, with just a hint of steel. Barrenger flinched, knowing he deserved every word. But then his mother’s face softened. “But what you had to endure on the walk home is more punishment than you deserve, and I don’t see any reason to pursue the matter further. I believe you will learn from this and do better in the future.”
He should have felt relieved; but all Barrenger could do was stare bleakly over her shoulder. “They’re never going to trust me now, Mum. Not after that.” He wanted to punch something, and the guilt that had been weighing him down morphed into anger as he replayed the events leading up to his outburst. “She did this on purpose. Talking about me like I’m one of them already… and I fell for it, I jarking helped her with my own stupid temper!” He looked at his mother, and a cold rush flooded through him. Marta tensed, sensing the change, expecting what was coming. Barrenger gently gripped her shoulders in his hands, silently begging her to tell him something other than the truth he knew and dreaded was about to come:
“Mum, is… am I… is that witch really my aunt?”
The shadow of pain and regret in Marta Teshma’s eyes confirmed the fear that had beat at his door since the meeting. Barrenger gripped a hand to his head, dragging at his white locks of hair. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he finally rasped.
Marta looked at him with genuine sorrow. “Barrenger, my heart…” She sighed, touching a hand to her brow. “When your father married me and became a follower of Élo, he rejected everything about his past. His family, his people, his titles… He wanted nothing more to do with them. I thought… we thought it best if you didn’t have to deal with the knowledge that you were related to the evil deeds of his infamous family’s past.” Her eyes begged him to understand as she stood there in the hall. She seemed so small and vulnerable for a moment, all her Prophetess regality and confidence faded to show the short, troubled woman beneath. “I didn’t keep this from you out of deceit, Barrenger. I truly believed that these ties could be ignored, and… you struggle so much with your identity already.” She sighed and combed a hand through her own hair, playing with a strand of gold as it slid through her fingers. “I couldn’t see any reason to tell you when knowing would do nothing but add to the weight you already bear.”
Barrenger pushed both hands through his hair now, turning to face the door. Maybe she had been right – he certainly didn’t feel better for knowing the truth – but what good did it do them now? The ugly truth of his father’s heritage had come to light, and Barrenger didn’t have any time to process it as the fallout hit all around him.
“What does she want with me, Mum?” he groaned.
Marta’s eyes narrowed, as if she glared at an unseen foe. She put her hand on his arm again, her voice as firm as steel. “I don’t know. But she will not have you. You are my son, and you are Élo’s. Never forget that Élo has you in His hands, Barr.” She smiled up at him, eyes bright with conviction as she held his hands in hers. “We will get through this. We just have to be patient a little longer.”
Barrenger stared down at her, feeling tired and overwhelmed by all of the questions and fears running circles in his head. He didn’t want to be patient anymore. Hadn’t he been patient his whole life? Hadn’t he done everything he could to keep his temper under control, to stay out of fights, to prove himself a harmless and acceptable member of society? Was one public blow-up going to ruin what little ground he’d gained in all that time?
He had so many other questions, but after everything they’d been through in the last few hours, he couldn’t bring himself to argue with his mother. What he wanted most at that moment was to not have to deal with any of this. As if summoned by the thought, a captivating smell caught his attention, listing his nose into the air. Barrenger latched onto the excuse.
“The food sure smells good,” he said thoughtfully, taking a loud sniff. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to wait ‘til the dessert course to try those freja pastries.”
A laugh made sharp with relief burst from Marta’s mouth, and she accepted his offered truce with a playful smile. “Same. And there may be a special surprise waiting in the meat course!” She winked at her son as she hooked her arm through his elbow and guided him towards the stairs to the upper floor. “Let’s just say that I wasn’t sure it would arrive on time, coming all the way from the Baltin Sea.”
Barrenger’s face lit up with genuine excitement. “Seacat?” The knowing grin on his mum’s face told all. Barrenger laughed and playfully raced a few steps forward, dragging her along. “Well, what are we waiting for? Hurry up, shorty!” Marta giggled and lightly slapped the back of his head before rushing up the stairs ahead of him, beating him to the dining room. She was immediately accosted by Chef Frai with last-minute questions on the order of the courses. Servants milled around busily, filling the last of the vases with zum blossoms or adjusting the bright banners of yellow, red, and blue strung along the timber-beamed ceiling. The household staff of the Prophetess were the best to be had, and they were fiercely determined to prove it on this special night.
Barrenger slowed in the hallway, his grin fading. He really needed to practice this “staying positive” thing more; his dark mood felt like a flock of black corvin that kept trying to land no matter how many times he swatted him away. The sounds of marching soldiers reached him through the open windows. Servants slipping past him on their way to and from the dinner preparation sent uneasy or curious glances his way. He swallowed at the thought of what he would have to deal with in the coming days. Or weeks. Or, Élo forbid, years.
Élo, he thought, the prayer feeling weak and desperate, what do you want me to DO? Why do things keep getting worse? Please, just show me you have some kind of plan in this. Give me something to know I’m not going to turn out like that viper-tongued witch. Please!
He waited for a long moment, clinging to the faint hope that he would hear words spoken, have a dramatic epiphany, something to prove he was heard. But nothing came.
Barrenger rolled his shoulders, as if that might brush off the familiar disappointment. With a shake of his head, the young man walked into the dining hall, and was more than a little startled to be met by a rousing cheer.
While Masters Dama and Raysho were laughing at him for jolting an inch off the ground, Cartien escorted him swiftly to the seat of honor, past almost a score of guests. Normally, a Haweyh Feast of Becoming would include family and very close friends; but Marta had been an orphan, and most of their closest friends already lived and worked in their household. A few priests and scribes Barrenger was on good terms with from Marta’s work attended, but he couldn’t help casting a longing glance at the space that would have been reserved for the one missing family – the ones he’d put off too long inviting. And then had failed to invite due to being unexpectedly assaulted that morning. Oh well. It was probably too short notice anyway, he thought glumly. He tried not to think of the possibility that Magela was entertaining her new friend, Samlin O’dara, while he took his seat at the head of the feast table.
Garlands of golden and purple zum blossoms and flags of celebration flapped in the open stone arches of the west windows, and a temperate breeze swept in at just the right moment, mixing the smells of the table into a mouthwatering perfume. The laughter and chatter stopped as Marta Teshma sang a long, sweet note… and then room burst into the traditional song that started the celebration of a new young man’s eighteenth year.
“From out the stumbling youthful days,
Another son of Élo walks!
To seek the high and wiser ways,
To take his place among his kin!
Haweyh, Haweyh, lift up your voice!
For we are stronger now tonight!
Haweyh, Haweyh, rejoice, rejoice!
And welcome our new brother in!”
As the music washed over him, full of warmth and light and encouragement, the reality seemed to truly sink in for the first time. Barrenger felt an unexpected lump in his throat. Tonight… I am a man.
I wish Pap could have been here.
But before that painful thought could grab hold, Barrenger forcefully shoved it aside. There were so many other people here, so many smiling faces – smiling for him. His mum looked so bright and happy, energized by the others joining her in celebrating her son’s special night. Barrenger returned that smile, chest expanding with fresh resolve. Whatever what trouble still lay in wait for him, tonight – at least tonight – he was going to put aside everything except enjoying the celebration of his fresh start as a grown man.
By the end of the second course, Barrenger was also willing to set aside his irritation with Elo’s silence long enough to thank Him for sending them Chef Frai. If anyone could make a person forget their troubles by sheer force of good food, it was that Corlan and her kitchen mastery. Barrenger and his party guests dug into fried and breaded seacat, honey-glossed blue freja pastries, savory t’wana pie with chopped pok root, baked fingerbreads stuffed with fruit and spices, iced lema milk with chocolate drizzles, and a never-ending assortment of jellies, salads, tarts, quiches, and rich, fruity drinks. Barrenger felt as if he might burst by the second hour, but he kept filling his plate, unable to resist the tantalizing dishes and the warmth of friendly company.
Laughter and casual chatter spread easily through the large dining room, especially as the eating began to slacken speed. Master Raysho toasted Barrenger from the chair next to Marta, his arm wrapped around his wife’s shoulders. “Here’s to my best twa’ki student in the last twenty years! He’ll have me outmatched with the twinblades in another six months if he doesn’t keep sliding his left heel like I’ve told him a thousand times not to do!” the man proclaimed, banging his mug against the table.
“And if he doesn’t impale himself on a spar-lance,” Dama quipped, her umber-streaked orange hair done up in an intricate topbraid. “Honestly, why you can’t handle weapons longer than a sword blade without tripping over them like a cor chick, I cannot understand.”
Barrenger grinned sheepishly at his two trainers as laughter rippled around the table. He felt warm and full, the troubles of the day fading to a dull background rumble under the force of the festive atmosphere.
As the dessert course was being brought out, Marta stood at her place, calling for attention and quickly settling the room. She smiled warmly at her son, radiating motherly affection and pride.
“Thank you all for your services to our family, and especially to my son, Barrenger. Your friendship and support have meant more to us than you know. Although he has seen many trials over the course of his life, he has become a man of whom I am very proud. And today, he becomes a man in the eyes of the law. Will you all join me in a toast?”
Everyone except Barrenger lifted their glasses, as was proper. Marta beamed at her son, reciting the words that would normally be spoken by a father figure. Right now, though, Barrenger couldn’t imagine anyone saying the words but her.
“Today, Barrenger Teshma, you are a man. We who love you send you out into the world to seek Élo’s path for your life. May you go and find peace, purpose, and honor, for as long as you walk in the light of our Maker. Élo, bless it be!”
“Élo, bless it be!” the room chorused, and everyone took a drink. There was a rousing cheer when the cups came down, and Barrenger stood and held out his hands as Marta brought him the ceremonial gift of a pouch of money and a new pair of travel clothes. It was an old custom, from the days when young men newly come of age would go on a three-month journey to gain experience out in the world. Barrenger couldn’t wait to try them on; even folded, he could see they were hardy and suited for the dust of travel and hard work. And the colors were brown and yellow, as if to clothe him in the colors of the heritage he most wanted to claim as his own.
As Barrenger accepted the gift from his mother’s hands, golden light flashed across her eyes. Her gasp was lost in the celebratory noises, but she came out of it quickly, if a bit shaken. Barrenger put a hand under her elbow for support, leaning close to her face. “Mum, what is it? Are you okay?”
Marta touched her other hand to her temple, shaking her head. For a second, Barrenger thought he saw something – fear? – flash through her eyes when she looked at him. But it was gone too quickly to be real, and she gave him a wobbly smile that quickly grew in strength. “Yes, I’m fine – it’s alright.” She forestalled any further questions by leaning in and kissing him on the cheek. “I’m so very proud of you, Barrenger. And I will always love you with all my heart,” she added with a fierce, unexpected passion. As if she were trying to push her words deeper into him by sheer force of will.
Strangely cryptic, but then his mother broke away with her usual smile. Barrenger didn’t have time to worry over it. Master Raysho loudly called for music, and two of the servants pulled out a lumharp and a timbrepipe and struck up a catchy tune. Barrenger wasn’t much of a dancer, but he clapped and sang along with the others, doubling over in laughter at Cartien’s terrible attempts at a cadrill twirl and hooting his approval as his mother whirled with the maids during the line dance.
The party lingered long, and it was late into the night when the last few guests and servants excused themselves to bed. Barrenger lingered in the dining room for a few minutes after kissing his mum goodnight, memorizing the askew plates, the drooping decorations that would be tidied up by breakfast. He wanted to remember this – the joy, the acceptance, the sense of reaching an important stage in his life in spite of everything that tried to trip him up.
But finally, even he wandered to bed, slumping onto his covers in a bath of warm contentment. Whatever else happens… I am finally a man, he thought as he drifted off to sleep.
If only the good feeling could have lasted until morning.
Something I try really hard to do in my story is balance the sadness with hope. There is a LOT of sadness in my characters’ lives, but I don’t want it to seem like there is ONLY sadness. That’s exhausting for the reader and also inaccurate for the characters; even in the worst times, there are often little blips of light. Plus, with what Barrenger’s about to go through, I really wanted him to have one totally positive event as a buffer. ^^; Poor guy doesn’t know what’s about to hit him…
On another note, I always felt that I hadn’t elaborated enough on Barrenger’s celebration feast, and finally, while getting this chapter ready for posting, I did! It’s more detailed now, and the song was also a new addition. I use a rhyme scheme of four lines per verse, with the fourth lines of two stanzas rhyming. I don’t know if there is an actual equivalent to this style of poetry in real life, but I wanted something a little unusual because, frankly, other cultures have different definitions of poetry than we English-speakers do! 🙂
Great news, by the way: I finished another scene in Part 2! It’s not a LOT, but every goal I reach gives me more hope of actually finishing this book in the nearish future XD; I try not to think too hard about how long it will take to finish the ENTIRE SERIES, one step at a time! In the meantime, thanks for reading along with me, and I hope you continue to enjoy!