Chapter 9 – Thera
Something woke Barrenger, leaving him blinking in the dark. A tap on the chargestone timepiece on his bedside table showed that it was an hour until dawn. What had made him wake up? He almost turned over to go back to sleep when he heard it again, more clearly this time: voices, unfamiliar, outside his window. Barrenger shifted silently, turning an ear towards the open frame that let in the cool night air.
“Nah. They’re all sacked out after that feast. Wouldn’t have minded getting in on that action, the smells were fantastic.”
The first voice snorted quietly. “You mean you’d actually want to take part in that farce? It’s sickening.”
“Well… his mother is the Prophetess…”
“That only makes it worse; they got into her head years ago. You heard that Fasha witch. Their blood taints everything.”
“I don’t know…”
“If you don’t believe that, you haven’t heard about him getting in a fight with a temple guard yesterday morning.”
The second voice growled softly. “What… you’re serious? And they didn’t do anything?”
“They never do. But that’ll change now that he’s shown his stripes.” Metal clinked, the faint sound of two guard spears touching to signal post trade-off. “Your turn to stand watch. Just remember, we don’t want anyone getting in or out of this place.”
“Huh. Does the Council really think he’ll—?”
The first whisperer shushed the second. “All I’m saying is, some parties higher up don’t think it’s worth the risk.” Soft footsteps signaled the first guard walking away, but not before he whispered to his squadmate, “Just don’t turn your back to his window.”
Barrenger stared up at the ceiling for a long time, a frozen fist in his stomach. Eventually, with some effort, he leaned up on his hands and peeked through the window, just able to see the silhouette of a guard with a spear at the edge of the frame. A spear that might just be inserted into his gut if he made a wrong move. Barrenger rolled over, stuffing his head under his pillow as the happy feelings from a few hours ago melted like morning frost in the suns.
They’re wrong. He turned back and forth restlessly, glaring into the gloomy night. They’re here to protect Mum and me until the city calms down and the Rukilef threat is gone. High Councilor Trian knows I’m not going to join the Rukilef. He knows that. But some part of his brain, probably the same part that wouldn’t let him fall back asleep, wondered if that were really true. Had that guard just been spouting his own prejudiced thoughts?
Or was the High Council really worried about keeping Barrenger in?
Morning finally crept over the horizon, and Barrenger was up with the suns, hair a messy white mop on his head. He’d finally nodded off, but only just enough to leave a blurry haze over his brain. At least it served to block out the troubling things he’d overheard last night while he sleepily yanked on his day clothes. He stepped into the hall and was almost run over by a startled Luelli as she tried to dash past his room.
“AH! S-sorry, Master Barrenger!” The pretty maid danced back from him and ducked a hasty bow.
“My fault, Luelli,” Barrenger said, putting up a hand. “Is anyone else up?” He wasn’t sure yet if he should mention the guards’ talk to his mother. Who knew how she might react?
Luelli dipped another anxious bow. Since when was the spunky maid so jittery around him? Maybe she’d been one of the staff charged with cleaning up after the night’s party. “Ah, it’s, it’s no trouble. Mistress Marta is still asleep, but Master Raysho and Master Dama left to teach their early martial classes. Cartien is working with Frai to coordinate the day’s meals. And the visiting captain had to make a trip to the High Temple; he just left.” She said the words in a rush only to bite off the last one, then swallowed, bobbing from foot to foot. “I-is there anything else you need?”
Barrenger shook his head, rubbing the back of his neck distractedly. Why would Captain Lan’Quin have rushed out so early? Maybe he had a meeting with the High Councilor, or duties at the temple. Still, it seemed strange. And Barrenger couldn’t say he felt particularly comfortable having the man’s guards watching over his house without supervision after what he’d overheard.
“I-if you’ll excuse me, Master Barrenger.” Luelli gave a third quick bow and hurried away. Barrenger stared after her, feeling as if he’d missed something.
“Something” seemed to have made all the servants uneasy this morning, glancing at him or excusing themselves from the room when he entered. Even Cartien looked on edge as Barrenger passed him in the hall. With hope that a bit of air would clear his head, Barrenger headed for the back door that led to the sloped garden behind the house. The day was fine, and he wanted to try and recapture some of the good feelings from last night.
But a guard stepped in front of the door as he tried to exit. One of Lan’Quin’s men. “Excuse me,” Barrenger said politely, but his eyes narrowed a fraction.
The guard stayed put, face blank. “Captain’s orders that everyone stay in the house until he returns.”
Barrenger stared at him in disbelief. “It’s my backyard. Are you telling me you think I could be attacked out in broad daylight?”
The guard’s eyes flickered, and there was a familiar unfriendliness in his voice as he muttered, “Can’t be too sure. Sir.”
Barrenger knew that tone well enough not to mistake the implied threat buried in it. His fingers clenched, but he put on the neutral mask he wore around the unfriendly. This could have been one of the guards outside his window that morning; better to not give them more excuses to spread slander. Or worse. “Alright then. Thank you for your service.” He turned and stalked into the dining room, feeling the guard’s suspicious glare stabbing his back.
Chef Frai already stood in the room, laying out two plates of honeymeal bake on the white linen tablecloth. But even the sight of his favorite breakfast couldn’t take the edge off of Barrenger’s nerves, especially when Frai cast him a worried look he couldn’t help but notice before she disappeared back into her kitchen. Barrenger forced down a few bites of bake, unable to shake the growing sense of wrongness in his house.
The last straw came when Cartien tried to skirt through the room without meeting his gaze. Barrenger set his fork down and called sharply, “Cartien, what is going on with everyone this morning?”
Their house’s head manservant turned slowly, his face carefully schooled to give nothing away. Never a good sign, Barrenger thought with a frown. The two men stared at each other for a long, tense moment until Barrenger lost the last of his patience. “For fel’s sake, Cartien, could you please just spit it out!”
Cartien blew out a reluctant breath, fingers fidgeting at the hem of his forest-green servant tabard. “I apologize, Master Barrenger. There was a… well… the news scrip was delivered early this morning.” His eyes looked everywhere but at Barrenger as he tensely continued. “There was… coverage… of yesterday’s events at the Council meeting.”
A shadow of foreboding crept over Barrenger. He pushed his plate away. “Bring it to me.”
“Young master, perhaps it would be better to wait until your mother—”
Barrenger fixed him with a green glare. “Cartien. I’m not in the mood. Just bring it to me.”
The man paused for a half-second longer, only increasing Barrenger’s tension, before sighing and bowing. “As you wish, Master Barrenger.” He left and returned shortly with the thick news scrip that was delivered daily to their house. The man held the wad of printed paper at his fingertips, as if it were a dead shalt. But he had the decency to wait at Barrenger’s side after the young man took it.
Barrenger turned the scrip over and froze, cold horror freezing him to his chair. On the front page, bold in the center article, was an artist’s rendering of the Council Meeting yesterday. It showed Salein on the Council Room floor, cool and confident, all her insolence and pride radiating from her evil smile. She looked remarkably lifelike; the artist was either extremely talented at life drawings or possessed a gift that aided in replicating images.
And diagonal to her, on the upper balcony, was him.
The paper shook as he drew it close, wishing the image would evaporate before his eyes. Although drawn in black ink and charcoal, the artist had cleverly rendered the picture to indicate the glowing selah radiating off Barrenger’s narrowed eyes and clenched fists. Remar’s kerchief had fallen from his face, but his hood was still up, concealing his white hair. All that could be seen was his black skin, glowing eyes, and nose stripe – and the look of absolute rage that disfigured his features into a frightening mask.
He looked like a monster.
He looked like a Rukilef.
Almost against his will, Barrenger’s eyes crept to the headline, then skimmed over the rest of the article as if lingering too long in one spot would burn them:
RUKILEF FASHA DEMANDS LONG LOST HEIR RETURNED
The Meeting Room of the High Council was in upheaval yesterday thanks to the unprecedented presence and demands of the Fasha Salein Szor, leader of our Rukilef enemies. The Bloody Queen, as military minds have labeled her, showed scorn and contempt for the holy authority of the High Council and the Prophetess of…
…shocking revelation that traitor Drago Szor, once the supposed convert Benide Teshma and husband to our Prophetess, is indeed a brother to the Fasha, and his son is therefore in line to the throne…
…Barrenger Teshma losing all control, devolving into a mad rage. Several guards in attendance were forced to restrain him lest he harm himself or others in the assembly…
….Prophetess clearly shocked at her half-blood son’s reaction…
…chronicler can’t help but wonder: was this the anger of a son for his mother’s honor, or the true nature of a cursed line revealing itself at last? Only time and Élo may tell, but may they tell soon. The Council will reveal their verdict on—”
Barrenger couldn’t take any more; he slapped the paper down as if it were on fire and scooted his chair away. Sweat pricked his brow. This was the biggest scrip in the city! Everyone would see this! He turned to Cartien, wide-eyed. “Cartien, I… have they all…”
The sorrowful look in the man’s eyes told him enough. The whole household had seen the story. No wonder the other servants were acting uneasy around him this morning – no wonder the newer servants like Luelli were scared.
He stood and paced around the room, raking both hands through his hair. This was a disaster. If the city hadn’t been out for his blood before… Élo above, how am I supposed to fix THIS?
“What’s the matter?” Marta’s voice made Barrenger turn sharply, hands dropping to his sides. She stood at the door to the kitchen, brows furrowing further as her gaze darted between him, Cartien, and the news scrip. “Barrenger?”
He couldn’t very well hide it from her. Barrenger flicked the scrip across the table with a papery skid, watching with fists clenched as she picked it up. Marta’s eyes widened, staring fixedly at the picture for a moment before darting over the article more thoroughly than he had. Understanding crept over her face, lips turning down at the corners before parting to reveal clenched teeth. She finally looked back at Barrenger, sorrow and anger making her chin tremble.
“I cannot believe they would do this,” she said heatedly, dropping the paper to the table as if touching it disgusted her. “Lies, half-truths, and fear-mongering! Is this what our news scrips have come to?” She made a disgusted sound and turned to Cartien. “Have Frai burn this piece of ronag scat and any others like it in my house.” It wasn’t a swear, but Cartien’s eyes still widened at her coarse language. “Make sure everyone knows that if they have a copy and don’t relinquish it, they will be docked pay. And make sure they understand why.”
The manservant bowed and ducked quickly out the door, leaving the Teshmas alone. Marta hurried around the table to her son, sitting in the seat next to him and taking his hand. “Barr…” For once, she seemed at a loss for how to comfort him.
Barrenger didn’t blame her. This was all his fault, but now they were calling him an heir? And implying that he was either out of control or had been deceiving everyone? Barrenger’s knuckles hurt from clenching so hard, but he couldn’t seem to relax them. He’d worked so hard not to do anything that would attract the attention of the merciless news scrips. This was a harsh reminder of why.
“We’ll figure this out, Barrenger,” Marta said softly. “We’ll—”
She was cut off by Lefl, one of the senior house watch, appearing at the door. The lithe, retired soldier was currently the only non-Haweyh on the house watch, her butter-yellow skin, plum hair, and bright lavender speckles declaring her Tielgen heritage. Any doubts about what country she claimed as her own had been firmly laid to rest by decades of service in T’lani Suun’s army, however – and years in the Prophetess’s personal homeguard had solidified her personal loyalties. The look she gave Barrenger, stoic but touched with genuine sympathy, gave him a small sense of reassurance.
Lefl bowed deeply to the Teshmas, her angular face even more serious than normal. “I apologize for interrupting, Mistress and Master Teshma, but Captain Lan’Quin is returning. I thought you should be informed.”
Marta rose fluidly from her seat, regaining some of her calm veneer. “Why did you feel I should be informed?” she asked quietly, clearly expecting a sensible answer. Lefl was not one to overreact.
Lefl’s shining purple eyes sharpened. “Because he comes with more temple guards.”
Marta and Barrenger exchanged concerned looks over the thick wooden dinner table. An instant later, Barrenger was up and following his mother as they wound their way down the back stairs and came around the sunside gardens to the front yard, just in time to meet Captain Lan’Quin and his contingent of ten more temple guards marching smartly up the cobblestone walkway. The broad-shouldered captain marched to the Teshmas and stopped, offering a perfunctory bow to Marta. “Prophetess, I hope that this morning greets you well.”
“Let us please skip the preamble, Captain,” Marta said flatly, her simple tan and blue day dress fluttering in the stiff morning breeze. The suns had topped the hill and were already warming the air, although the heat had little to do with the sweat on Barrenger’s temples. Marta nodded to the armed men standing behind Lan’Quin. “Why have you come with even more guards? Have the Rukilef delegates shown signs of planning an attack?”
“Blessedly no, Prophetess,” Captain Lan’Quin said, his voice perfectly respectful. But the glance he spared her son set off every one of Barrenger’s internal alarms. “I have just returned from the High Temple. The Council has formally denied the Rukilef any possibility of Barrenger Teshma joining their ranks, and the Rukilef delegation subsequently departed as of one hour ago. They have been permitted time to gather their camp but should be departing the city limits by highsuns.”
Barrenger wanted to feel relieved, but unease continued to prick his shoulders. Something was still off. Several somethings, in fact – one of which he realized just a moment before Marta pointed it out in a voice drenched in controlled outrage. “And why did the Council conclude these decisions without informing me that they would be meeting?” While not required to attend Council meetings because of her separate religious duties, the Prophetess of T’lani Suun always had a seat available at such proceedings – assuming she was informed of their time and occasion. Several of the shoulders actually leaned back slightly from the Prophetess, her dignified indignation lending her an imposing presence beyond what her short frame should have allowed.
Lan’Quin, however, did not look impressed; his expression remained polite and unyielding. “The Council sends their apologies, but they felt that, due to the personal nature of this situation, even the revered Prophetess might be swayed by emotion. The sensitive matters that were discussed revolved specifically around your son, and there was concern that you might be biased in your judgment.”
Barrenger’s fists clenched, but Marta, sensing his tension, put a hand in front of his chest. Her eyes did not leave Lan’Quin. “What sensitive matters? The Rukilef question has clearly been answered in the way all parties, including I and my son, wished it to be.”
The captain sighed, and for just a moment, his formal façade was broken by a flash of genuine discomfort. Lan’Quin worked his jaw, eyeing the woman who, in many ways, was the most important religious figure in the entire city, and who now stood defiantly between him and her son. With a small bow to the Prophetess, Lan’Quin gentled his tone. “I apologize if the orders I am about to impart cause you distress, Prophetess. But the Council has decided.” He cleared his throat and adopted a more officious cadence, as if he read from a Council Proclamation. “Due to the public revelations concerning your son’s lineage, the Rukilef Fasha’s interest in obtaining his allegiance for reasons unknown, and his erratic behavior, and due to the unrest said revelations have and are continuing to cause amongst the city populace, the High Council has decreed that the house and person of Barrenger Teshma be placed under temple authority.” Lan’Quin’s sharp gaze fixed on Barrenger, as impassive and indomitable as stone. “He is not to leave this property unless accompanied by five guards and with my permission, and he shall be escorted by a temple guard at all times, except in his own quarters. So the High Council decrees, and so I must obey.”
Shocked silence claimed the courtyard, leaving Barrenger with only a faint buzzing in his ears. Marta was the first to summon her voice, but it simmered with a fury few besides Barrenger had ever witnessed. “For how long?”
Lan’Quin continued to look into Barrenger’s eyes, as if trying to read something there. “Until we know why the Fasha of the Rukilef really wants him.”
Every word had fallen like a hammer, knocking the breath from Barrenger’s body. But this was the strike that shattered him. He stumbled sideways, catching himself against a marble statue of a Lafei to the side of the path.
They’d never have the Fasha in hand, not while this war raged – and it hadn’t shown signs of slowing for over a century. This was the final bar in a cage that he’d always suspected was forming around him, but tried to ignore, tried to fool himself into believing he could unlock before it closed. No more illusions of pretending he was just another citizen of T’lani Suun with an unfortunate lineage. He would be a prisoner in his own city, his own home, guarded like a beast who might bite at unwary hands.
Acid burned in his stomach as Barrenger searched the faces of the implacable guards before him with futile desperation. He’d never been welcome here, he knew that; he’d even, to some degree, accepted it. But at least he’d always had some freedom.
“The Council cannot do this.” Marta’s voice trembled with the effort to keep her emotions under control, but her selah markings and eyes glowed fiercely. “It is a gross miscarriage of Élo’s justice, and I will not stand for it. The Council will hear from me before the suns reach zenith.”
Captain Lan’Quin didn’t argue; he simply nodded once. “As you wish, Prophetess. But until that time, I have my duty to uphold.” He turned to his men, barking commands. “Tansin, Caral, take your teams to the guard quarters to be updated on—”
Barrenger couldn’t take any more. He spun and walked hurriedly across the lawn towards the garage and stable building, only long-trained survival instincts preventing him from bolting for all he was worth. The captain snapped out, “O’dara, follow him,” but it didn’t register through the roaring in Barrenger’s ears. He needed to get away from everyone. Now.
Before he did something they would all regret.
The garage and stables were a single building off to the left side of the Teshma household, walls of dark, paneled wood layered over sturdy stone. There was a tiny old tack room at the back of the garage, past the hoverbike that was Barrenger’s pride and joy, just before the open-air stalls that held their three corbay riding lizards. And it was here, in this small, stone room away from load-bearing walls, that Barrenger trained his force transference.
Any tulinai gifted with force transference quickly learned the necessity of the adage “know your own strength”. Ever since the gift had manifested for Barrenger at age six – shortly after he’d accidentally punched a hole through his bedroom wall trying to squash a ten-tickler – the little room had been given to him as a place where he could punch and kick and pound to his heart’s desire, learning control in an environment that wouldn’t crack too easily and wouldn’t mind any new cracks it was given.
But it had another use – one that became more and more its primary purpose as Barrenger grew older. Here was the one place he could safely vent when the pressure of bottling up his anger or hurt or frustration became too much.
As Barrenger walked into that ten-by-ten room and slammed the door, green energy blazing from his stripes and undulating around his hands, it was certain the room was about to receive its greatest test yet.
“Why?!” The first strike hammered into the floor, deepening a crack underneath Barrenger’s closed fists. It was an old crack, a memento of a childhood pain that seemed happy compared to his current despair. Barrenger raised both fists above his head and brought them down with enough force to send stone chips flying. “WHY?” he roared again, his fist denting the wall next. “Why are you letting this happen?!”
The empty room offered no answer. Barrenger attacked that silence with everything he had.
It could have been minutes or hours before his selah lost the battle of keeping up with him, leaving a wake of new cracks and chips and a haze of dust that clung to Barrenger’s now-parched tongue. Barrenger finally stumbled to a stop, chest heaving, sweat dripping down his shirt, selah sputtering around his hands and stripes. Only then did he feel the tears that had been running in streams down his cheeks. He slumped to the floor at last, burying his head in his hands.
“Why are you letting this happen?” he pleaded. “Can’t you stop this? I’ve tried, haven’t you seen I’ve tried? I messed up, I know that, I’m sorry!” Bile roiled in his stomach, and he jerked to his feet, pacing to keep from throwing up. He threw more words at the ceiling, hating how they rebounded back at him. “Do you even care? Or do you like whipping me in the face with everything that’s wrong with me? Is this in one of your plans Mum always talks about?”
Barrenger pounded his fists against the cracked and pitted wall, not bothering to summon his exhausted selah as his voice pitched louder and louder. “I know I’m not worth the trouble, but why are you doing this to her?” he screamed. “Why won’t you talk to me? I just want to know what I’m supposed to do!”
Barrenger stilled, the echoes of his tirade fading until the room panged with silence. Hairs prickled on the back of his neck, eyes darting towards the ceiling. It could have just been a thought from his own head, but for a moment, he could have sworn…
Is that you?
Something soured in his belly. “No.” Barrenger clutched his head, heart pounding furiously. “You can’t be telling me to just… just be still! I’ve been still for ten years!” A fresh storm of anger welling in his chest, bringing a surge of selah with it that enveloped his fists. “I’ve followed every rule, given every respect, done everything I could to show I was faithful to you, and, and look where it’s gotten me!”
He lashed out at the wall, wishing he could punch that traitorous sense of hope that had failed him again. For a second, a second, he’d been foolish enough to hope that he was finally, finally hearing something from Élo. But he could not accept the idea that Élo would finally speak to him, the half-blood son of a Rukilef traitor, just to tell him that he could do nothing but wait. This wasn’t a problem that could be solved by just sitting around, not when the entire city had turned against him. The Threefold God would know that!
A spike of guilt pierced his anger. He couldn’t blame Élo for letting his stupid temper get the better of him. The Fasha may have instigated it, but he’d made the mistake. That truth loomed over him like a tenfold weight: if he could only fix it, somehow undo that one mistake, perhaps things could at least go back to his better-than-house-arrest version of normal…
But how? Barrenger leaned back against the cracked wall, feeling his exhaustion in more ways than one. There were no avenues left, no way to build trust with the people of this city; at best, he’d never had their trust so much as their tolerance. Even the hope of accepting Trian’s offer, probably the best chance he’d ever get to prove himself, was gone. The High Councilor wasn’t very well going to reverse an edict placing him under virtual house arrest to instead plant him in such a sensitive position.
Of course, he had declined for the sake of his mother. He didn’t regret that. But she couldn’t have known that this was the alternative. If he could only go back in time, show the Councilor his willingness to help take down the Fasha from within and set things right…
Barrenger’s breath caught. He held it, afraid the thoughts flitting through his head before he could weave them together. What did Captain Lan’Quin tell me? Barrenger tried to picture the man’s piercing yellow eyes staring into him, mouthing the words:
“Until we know why the Fasha of the Rukilef really wants him.”
What if the Fasha is the answer to everything?
Barrenger ran his hands through his hair and over his neck stripe, as if he could rub away the chills that weren’t all from the sweat cooling on his back. An idea was taking shape – a dangerous, crazy, longshot idea. It was complete madness, but—
Barrenger whipped around at the unexpected voice, jolting upright into a Twa’ki defensive position. There in the open door of his practice room was Samlin O’dara. The guard stood with arms folded over his golden breastplate and off-white tunic, examining Barrenger’s handiwork. He nodded appreciatively, his eyebrows raised. “I’ve never actually seen power transference in action before. Thank Élo you didn’t punch me back yesterday; I might not have a jaw.”
Heat blazed in Barrenger’s face. How long has that scatpile been standing there? What did he overhear? The last person Barrenger wanted to see right now was a guard, especially this guard, and he neither had nor wished to dredge up the self-control needed to stay calm. Selah undulated from his fingers as he took an aggressive step towards the other tulinai. “Get away from me.” The words twisted his mouth into a snarl. “Or I’ll throw you out myself.” Part of him knew it wasn’t exactly wise to threaten a Temple Guard even when he wasn’t under suspicion. But considering how he felt today, it might be therapeutic to punch something that could punch back.
Samlin didn’t rise to the challenge, merely shifting his weight. He wasn’t holding the standard-issue spear he’d been carrying earlier. “I apologize for invading a private moment, Master Teshma,” Samlin said with a small bow. The unexpected courtesy made Barrenger pause in confusion. “The captain ordered me to stay with you. When I got here, there was a commotion behind this door, so I thought I should check and make sure I wasn’t needed.” A quick grimace crossed his rich brown face, wrinkling the selah marking on his cheek. “It sounded like you were being attacked, but I figured out pretty quickly that something else was being assaulted.” His wry inflection and quick glance at the cracks in the floor spoke volumes.
Realization of just how long Samlin had been watching hit Barrenger. The feeling of exposure made his skin crawl, and suddenly he wanted nothing more than to get Samlin away from this room. How much of that did I say out loud?! Heat flushed his cheeks as he shouldered past the guard and turned towards the house, expecting his unwanted new personal guard to follow.
He’d taken four steps before he realized with a start that Samlin had gone into the room! Barrenger bolted back to the door, eyes blazing as he watched Samlin crouch down and run a hand over an inch-wide crack in the floor. Did he have anything left that was sacred?!
Samlin whistled, long and low. His brown mid-calf boots straddled the crack. “You can really pack a punch. Just how strong are you?”
Barrenger snorted, his left hand strangling the doorframe. “It’s not strength, it’s power transference. Now get out of my practice room.”
Samlin did not comply, instead shifting in his crouched position to look up at Barrenger. “I admit, I always had trouble following explanations of the different gifts. How is power transference different from enhanced strength?”
The unexpected topic change put him off-balance. Barrenger combed a hand through his hair and responded on reflex. “Enhanced strength is a selah gift that increases the performance of a person’s muscles. It can lift and push down immobile objects. Force transference deals with the energy of movement. The faster something is going and the greater its mass, the more force it has. My selah lets me change that force, like increasing the impact of my punches as if they were faster and stronger.” There was much more to it than that, but suspicion caught up with his mouth, and he clamped it shut.
“Wow,” Samlin said again, unfolding back into a standing position. The left corner of his mouth quirked up. “That’s useful to know. I’ll count my blessings that I haven’t had to experience it yet myself.”
There was something strange about Samlin’s behavior: the casual and respectful tones, his carefully relaxed body language. When recognition struck, Barrenger almost dismissed it out of hand. This temple guard, the same one who’d punched him without a thought and was a member of the squadron sent to watch him like a prisoner, acted as if he felt sorry for him.
Anger flashed through Barrenger, his hands clenching to fists. “No.” The word cracked like a whip, making Samlin start. Barrenger pointed a finger at the guard, growling every word. “Do not act like you’re on my side. You think I don’t know this trick? I’ve seen it dozens of times: people who either treat me like a wild animal or a pet that needs to be tamed.” He’d gotten very, very good at detecting both strategies over the years. He almost preferred the first one; at least it was honest. The memory of what he’d heard outside his window resurfaced, and Barrenger’s eyes narrowed to slits. “And I already know how much I can trust you. Spreading the story that I attacked you must have made you look like a real hero to the rest of the temple guard,” he sneered.
To Barrenger’s surprise, Samlin jolted as if struck. The guard threw his shoulders back, his brown features hardening. “Who told you that? I never told anyone about yesterday. I certainly didn’t say that you fought me!” he exclaimed hotly, his own fists balling.
Confusion stole some of Barrenger’s steel, and he stared blankly at Samlin. Could it be true? Samlin’s scowl looked genuine, which wasn’t impossible to fake, but… Barrenger eyed the guard, cautiously explaining. “I overheard it this morning. One of the guards in your squad said that he’d heard I attacked a temple guard yesterday. The only temple guard I had a problem with was you, and I wasn’t the one doing the attacking.”
Samlin had the decency to look ashamed, which cut another notch out of Barrenger’s righteous indignation. “I meant my apology for that,” the guard said quietly, studying the floor. When his eyes raised, the look he gave Barrenger held unexpected amounts of respect. “I give you my word on my honor as a guard of Élo’s Sanctuary, I didn’t spread that rumor. And I promise,” he added firmly, “that I am not trying to ‘tame’ you.”
Barrenger shook his head, not even bothering to hide his bafflement now. “Then… then what are you doing in here?” He gestured at the practice room, including Samlin in the sweep. “You’re supposed to guard me, not engage me in conversation,” he deadpanned.
Samlin blew his cheeks out and looked at the floor, then up at Barrenger again. “I talked to Magela after we… after I attacked you. She speaks very highly of you.”
Heat of a different kind swept through Barrenger’s face, leaving him briefly grateful that dark skin didn’t show blushing very well. Magela spoke highly of him? Sure, they were sort of friends, and her family had him over for dinner once in a while and gave him a fair price on produce, but… but she was Magela.
“And I trust her judgment,” Samlin went on, not noticing Barrenger’s confounded state. “Besides that, I was at the meeting with the Rukilef delegation yesterday. I’ve been assigned to help uphold it, but I don’t agree with the High Council’s decision. Any decent son would have reacted to that snake-tongued Fasha’s insults on his mother, even if she weren’t our Prophetess.” He stepped back and dipped a deeper bow to Barrenger – a gesture of great respect. “I just wanted you to know that.”
The golden-eyed young man straightened and slipped past an utterly dumbfounded Barrenger, nodding once. “I’ll be outside. I have to stay nearby, but take whatever time you need.” Then he was out, clicking the door shut behind him.
Did that just happen? Barrenger stared at the closed door, running over the entire conversation in his mind. He’d had practice detecting liars and weedlers, but nothing Samlin said or did fit the profile. Maybe Magela’s friend wasn’t out to get him like the others.
Magela. Barrenger’s face began to warm again, but he smashed his feelings down with a grimace. He’d seen the intimate way those two had stayed close to each other, Samlin’s protectiveness of her when he’d perceived Barrenger as a threat. She’s just a friend. Don’t read too much into it. It wasn’t as though he’d ever have a chance with the shopkeeper’s daughter, and he could admit (however grudgingly) that it would be nice if she married someone who didn’t hate his guts. Barrenger rubbed his eye, remembering the pain of the punch, but… Samlin had apologized three times now. Few people apologized more than once unless they felt honor-bound to make amends.
A small flicker of hope rose in his chest at the possibility that he’d found an ally. And with it came the whispering idea from before – louder, darker, more compelling, and taking the form of voices he knew.
“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…”
“You know perfectly well what skills you possess. Now use what brains you have in that thick head of yours and find a solution!”
“He is not to leave this property… Until we know why the Fasha of the Rukilef really wants him.”
With suddenly, frightening clarity, he knew what he needed to do. The only action that could prove his loyalties once and for all, erase his mistake, and perhaps even end a threat to his people. Barrenger took several deep breaths, arguments raging back and forth in his head. You can’t! But you have to. It’ll crush Mum. She’ll understand someday. You’ll be a criminal. You’ll be a hero! You’ll never make it. But with Samlin’s help, you might.
It’s the only way.
Ten minutes later, Barrenger left the room, searching for Samlin. He found the guard leaning casually against the corbay pens, clearly unbothered by the pungent odors of bedding, rock lizard hide, and hoverbike lubricant as he scratched Chuffa’s neck. The pebble-backed corbay murred ecstatically, her ear fins folding open and closed with pleasure. Samlin looked up and straightened when he caught sight of Barrenger striding towards him.
Barrenger came to a stop in front of the guard, staring him in the eyes. “Do you hate the Fasha as much as I do?” he asked bluntly.
Samlin’s eyebrows rose, then came together. “What self-respecting Haweyh doesn’t?”
Barrenger nodded, hoping against hope – but not praying. Some part of him feared this plan wouldn’t meet higher approval. But it’s the only way. “What would you say if you had the chance to stop her once and for all?”
If he hadn’t had Samlin’s full attention before, he did now. Samlin’s eyes took on the same hard, yellow gleam as his golden breastplate reflecting the sunlight outside the pens. But he tilted his head, his tone measured. Apparently he did possess the ability to be level-headed when he wasn’t reflexively punching people. “What’s your plan?”
Barrenger gritted his teeth, forcing a grim smile that covered the doubts still roaring in his brain.
“I’m going to kill the Fasha.”
Oof, man. I fretted about this scene quite a bit – getting the riot of emotions and the sequence right. That crucial scene where Barrenger hears something got rewritten slightly with a small change to the message, and I am happier with it now. Perhaps if Barrenger had taken a longer moment to ‘be still’, he would have gotten more clarity, but… unfortunately, we aren’t all good at listening when we’re focused on our emotions and problems. I know I’m not (although I think I’m getting better!)
I’m going to skip next week and relax over the holidays, so I will see you in two weeks! Happy Thanksgiving and God bless!