Chapter 11 – Thera
Time crawled as Barrenger waited for night, prowling the hallways of his home, avoiding the suspicious stares of the temple guard and the worried whispers of the house staff. Marta was gone most of the day, no doubt up at the temple chewing the ears off the High Council. Even Raysho and Dama, the only other people he felt he could really talk to, only stopped in briefly to check on him before barging out again with the apparent aim to threaten the publishers of the heinous article into issuing a retraction. He wished he could have gone to see that; it was comforting to have someone besides his mother be downright angry about the slander against him, instead of just uncomfortable or pitying or afraid.
Barrenger half hoped that one of them would come back with something like good news, but as the hours grew long, he knew he couldn’t bank on it. The plan would have to move forward.
It had taken a little convincing to bring Samlin around – the temple guard was perfectly aware what his part in this, an honestly rather half-baked scheme, might mean for his military career. And yet, in the end, it didn’t take as much convincing as Barrenger had feared. Zeal burned in the young Haweyh’s eyes, a zeal Barrenger had experienced firsthand through a reflexive punch to the face. Assassinating the leader of the Rukilef nation ultimately made sense to a soldier like Samlin O’dara – it was an impossible feat now within reach, an act that would strike a harsh blow to the Rukilef nation while boosting the morale of all Haweyh.
He had an ally. He could get out of the city, reach the Fasha, and distribute justice once she was out of Haweyh truce territory. He could do this.
And yet guilt kept dogging Barrenger, a tiny rezeptor nipping at his insides. He shoved it down again and again as the day wore on, arguing his doubts into submission. This is the only way. I’ll be back in a few days. Mum and Raysho and Dama will see, they’ll understand, and everything will be better. It certainly can’t get any worse.
He would later remember that thought – and hate himself for how stupidly wrong it was.
Marta returned at sunset, her eyes pinched with fatigue and frustration. Remar Jantra joined her. Barrenger wanted to be happy to see the priest again, but the intelligent sharpness of the man’s gaze when their eyes met made him squirm. The ability to read minds was a Maker Gift, the priest couldn’t possibly have it. Right?
Marta hugged Barrenger immediately upon entering the house, and Barrenger savored it, trying to ignore the flash of fear that questioned when he would feel those warm hugs again. No! I’ll be back soon! She looked up at him, her mouth flattened to a thin line. “They are as stubborn as Chuffa with egg. But I won’t have you worrying, Barr; I’ll be back up there every day until I get through their thick skulls.” She managed a small, almost cheerful smile. “And I’m told by reliable sources that Dama and Raysho are staking out that newscrip’s printing house until they are given an audience with the publisher. Perhaps they’ll have good news for us tomorrow.”
Remar chuckled. “Seeing the way you dug into them gives me hope I’d not had, Prophetess.” He squeezed Barrenger’s shoulder once with a wrinkled yet surprisingly strong hand. Barrenger glanced away from the priest’s searching look. “I am sorry for you and your mother, my boy, but you aren’t without allies in this fight. Don’t give up hope; the Maker has a plan in all of this.”
The familiar platitude, spoken so sincerely, stirred the pot already bubbling in Barrenger’s gut. But he gave a short nod, striving to keep his thoughts off his face. “Thank you, Isa Jantra. We appreciate the support,” he said, then quickly turned. “Come on, Mum, Frai has dinner all set up for us. I’ll tell her we need another place setting.”
Compared to the joyous feast one night before, the dining room felt bare and lonely, enhanced by the gloom that hung over the diners. Remar gladly joined them, trying to nudge his friend and her son out of their thoughts with light comments about the delightful food and Marta’s lovely decorating. But Barrenger’s tension at the thought of the priest or his mother discovering his plan turned the food to ash and the pleasant chatter to empty noise.
“…but it sounds as though they’ll be sending a battalion to the outer provinces soon, just to make sure the Fasha hasn’t been planning something while our backs are turned.”
Barrenger startled as he realized the conversation had turned back to the Rukilef. He laid down his fork, his expression carefully neutral. “What have you… I mean, is that where the Fasha’s delegation was heading?” he asked.
Marta and Remar looked over at his question. Remar nodded, but his eyes studied Barrenger thoughtfully. “Yes, although it should take at least three days for them to reach Dailek Pass. Unless they transform; I’m told they move much more quickly in beast form.”
The Prophetess pursed her lips. “Perhaps once they are out of our lands, the High Council will calm down and be more willing to listen to reason.” She cast a loaded glance in her son’s direction, as if weighing him on some unseen scale. “Until then, perhaps it would be best to keep a low profile?”
Barrenger shoved a forkful of food in his mouth to hide his nervous swallow. Did she suspect? No, she couldn’t. “Mm-hm,” he mumbled noncommittally. Clouds rolled over his mother’s eyes, but she didn’t push. Marta nodded at Remar. “I’ve invited Isa Jantra to be our guest for a few days while he is back in the city from his travels. I’m eager to hear what has been happening in our sister cities during your sojourn, my friend,” she added with a half-smile.
“Nothing too out of the ordinary, which is disappointing for years of travel, but I will try to entertain in exchange for your chef’s fine food,” Remar chuckled.
The tension laying over the table – or maybe that was just Barrenger’s nerves – made him cringe inwardly at the prospect of extending dinner. He pushed away from the table and stood, mustering a smile. “That sounds great, but I think I’ll head down for the night, Mum.” He paused for a moment, then bent at the waist, offering the most respectful bow he could to Remar. “Thank you for coming, Isa Jantra. We need friends right now.” Conflicting desires warred in his chest: part of him hoped that Remar would hear his genuine appreciation and nothing further. The other part hoped that the priest would catch the terribly subtle message he was trying to send. Watch out for her while I’m gone.
Marta’s eyes flickered, bright against the darkness that had descended outside the open windows. She smiled back at him, but her voice was strained. “Sleep well, Barr. May Élo watch over you while you sleep.” Her smile trembled, and suddenly his mother looked unbearably small. “I will see you soon.”
There could almost have been a question at the end of her sentence, but Barrenger dismissed it as his overactive conscience. He went over and kissed her on the head, like she’d done so many times when he was little. “See you soon, Mum.”
He thanked heaven that she hadn’t said “tomorrow.” It would hurt too much to lie to her face.
Hours passed. As agreed, Samlin claimed watch duty over his room, standing outside of Barrenger’s door. Only now he wasn’t striving to keep Barrenger in; he would let Barrenger know if anyone was coming. Barrenger closed his window shades and went to work, stuffing a pack with supplies in case he was gone longer than planned. You mean if you don’t come back at all? He grimaced at the dark thought and shook it off. No, he was going to make it back. If there was a Maker Above, he would not leave his mother without family.
You’re apparently willing to risk it, though.
From the back of the closet came the clothes he wore only when he wanted a few hours of freedom on moonless nights: dark trousers, a hooded jacket, gloves, and a mask with a see-through shade that would partially dim the glow of his eyes. All the clothes were closer to the dark green of his skin, which he’d learned blended more seamlessly with the night than true black. He would have preferred to travel across the rooftops without being covered up like a thief, able to feel the cooling wind on his face. Perhaps even wearing the new travel clothes his mum had gifted him the night before. Barrenger paused over that brown and orange pile for a moment, wavering.
But no. Tonight, stealth was more important than comfort. He took the still-folded garments and placed them gently on top of his dresser, ready for when he got back.
The last hour came, and finally, all except the house watch within and the temple guards without had settled down for the night. Barrenger waited perched on his bed, tense as a wound spring, until a light rap came at the door.
“All down for the night,” Samlin whispered through the crack. His eyes widened slightly at the shadow-like wraith Barrenger had become, but he said nothing. Barrenger shouldered his pack and turned to grab the last tool he would need. But he hesitated with his hand partway out.
The swords, his father’s twinblades, gleamed dully in the dim light. He’d never actually held them before. As Barrenger took one from its hanging rack and drew the blade from the sheath, chills prickled up and down his arms. In a day, maybe two, he wouldn’t just be using these for the first time. He would be using them to draw his first blood. The blood of the woman who had killed so many and ruined his life in more ways than one.
The blood of your own kin.
“It’s justice,” he muttered.
“What’s that?” Samlin whispered, glancing cautiously down the hallway. “Come on, hurry it up.”
“Right.” Before he could talk himself out of it, Barrenger took down the other sheathed twinblade and tied the short swords to either side of his pack as Master Raysho had taught him, ready to draw free at a moment’s notice. Barrenger slipped past Samlin like a shadow and led the way through the halls, avoiding the windows. All the temple guards were stationed outside, but if Samlin’s information was correct, there wouldn’t be anyone on the rooftops—
Samlin grabbed his arm as they reached the rooftop stairs, but his warning came a hair too late. Barrenger caught his breath as they came face-to-face with Lefl rounding a corner. The Tielgen watchwoman stopped so suddenly she might as well have turned to stone, her sharp purple eyes examining first Samlin, and then black-garbed Barrenger.
Barrenger’s heart pounded in his ears. “Lefl,” he whispered, eyes pleading as his glanced towards the staircase. “I…”
Lefl silenced him with a raised hand. After another second of intense scrutiny for each of the boys, the woman turned and walked up the stairs towards the rooftop. Barrenger and Samlin exchanged matching looks of relief and hurried to follow. Barrenger sent up a quick prayer of thanks for the loyalty of their household staff. Lefl, Raysho, Dama, Cartien… Remar, his mother, Magela… maybe even Henrich the gate guard. At least there were a few people in his life who believed in him.
Then why are you leaving them? Aren’t they good enough for you?
Barrenger twitched at the guilty thought as they crept through the wooden hatch that was the flat doorway to the rooftop. Lefl stopped them with another upraised hand, her eyes brightening from purple embers to hearty flame. Samlin opened his mouth to speak, but Barrenger backed a hand to his chest, watching the guard. After a beat in which only insects and the distance shuffling of patrolling men broke the night air, Lefl pointed to the corner of the roof facing towards the West Wall. Then she turned and swept past them, disappearing back down the stairs as silently as she had come.
Samlin stared after her, then gave Barrenger a baffled look, but Barrenger was smiling under his hood. Samlin hadn’t seen Lefl touch his arm as she passed. It was as close to a well-wishing goodbye as the quiet old fighter would give. And her gift of farhearing ensured that no one was immediately coming their direction; the way was clear. Barrenger led the way, gesturing for Samlin to follow, and climbed up onto the border ledge that separated them from a two-story drop.
Cool wind whipped across roofs that alternated between sloping red tiles and flat stone tops all the way down to the wall surrounding T’lani Suun. Glowing chargestone lights in a multitude of colors dotted the city, spreading their warm glow over ancient earthcrafted houses or reflecting off the glass and metal accents of the newer stone buildings. If he turned, he would see the High Temple outlined against the night sky, its four belltowers reaching for the moon. Barrenger breathed deeply, the stirrings of doubt fading briefly beneath the exhilarating sensation of freedom.
Samlin slid to his side and looked down over the rooftops, brow furrowed. “So what do we do now?” he murmured, just loud enough for Barrenger to hear.
A smile crossed Barrenger’s face beneath his mask. “Jump.”
Then he did.
High Councilor Trian sat at the vast glorywood desk in his private office, the lacquer shining in honey tones beneath gentle candlelight. The natural flicker and faint charring smell of candles had a charm that the ambient light of the chargestone lamps couldn’t achieve, in his opinion. Trian shuffled a few of the papers on his desk, but his mind had been drawn elsewhere.
A light rapping on the door called his attention back to the present. “Enter.”
His aide slid open the door and poked his head in. “Captain Lan’Quin of the Temple Guard is here. He says he has an important message for you.” Despite the oddity of the request at such a late hour, the aide kept his face professionally void of expression. It was one reason he had held the position so long.
Trian nodded, smoothly tidying the papers on his desk. “Send him in.”
A moment later, the captain entered his office, standing at attention. Trian leaned his elbows on the desk, fingers folded in front of his chin, until the door clicked shut. “Well?” he asked.
Captain Lan’Quin nodded once. “Barrenger Teshma did just as you expected. He left the house roughly half an hour ago, headed toward the West Gate where the Rukilef exited the city. My men are attempting to track him.”
The captain’s mouth flattened. “He somehow evaded my guards. We lost sight of him before proper tracking could be established.”
It was a small setback, and Trian waved it off. A humorless smile tugged at his lips. “Sometimes it only takes a few subtle pushes to send a person in the direction they were already headed.” He didn’t say the more crass idiom that crossed his mind: A cornered skaithra will fight to the death for freedom. He paused, then narrowed his eyes at the captain. “What else? You have more to say.”
The captain glared at the space over Trian’s head, and a low growl escaped him. “The new Lasar Third Class from S’tani Ko. He’s helping Teshma.”
Trian skimmed his mental roster of all the staff at the temple. His eyebrows rose. “That is surprising. I wouldn’t have taken that one for a Rukilef sympathizer.” If anything, the boy’s brave, if brash, challenge to the Rukilef beast warrior yesterday had suggested the opposite.
“Neither did I,” Lan’Quin replied. “Or I wouldn’t have accepted him into my squad. But he’s shown an insubordinate streak in the month he’s been here – questioning orders, showing attitude. After this stunt, he’ll be lucky if he doesn’t end up in prison, to say nothing of keeping his post.” But the reserved captain faltered, concern shadowing his face. “Even so, I don’t like the thought of losing one of our own in this.”
Trian nodded, staring into the middle distance. “Yes, that would not be optimal. Even so, he clearly made the choice to involve himself on his own. Plus sending soldiers in to pull him might curtail Barrenger Teshma’s escape.” He leaned back in his chair, face somber. “Find them if you can, Captain. If your man can be extracted without diverting the Rukilef boy from his goal, do so. If not…” He fingered the papers on his desk, face grim. “We’ll simply have to hope that his gambit succeeds.”
Marta sat up in bed, heart pounding. She’d lain there all night, waiting, praying against the fear building in her chest. Now a terrible certainty crept over her like a double eclipse. Slipping from bed, Marta wrapped her shawl around her shoulders and hurried through the house on bare feet. The air leaked from her lungs like a deflating waterskin as she crept down the stairs, silent as a ghost.
There was no guard outside his room. The last of her breath escaped in a rush as she swung the door open and saw his empty bed.
Remar was at her side before the first tears could fall. Marta crumpled to the floor, carried gently down in the arms of her childhood mentor, struggling not to wail aloud. The elderly man put his hand to her hair, making soothing noises as the Prophetess of T’lani Suun disappeared, leaving only a grieving mother behind.
She had known something like this was coming. She had glimpsed it the night before, brief impressions imparted through her Maker Gift as she handed Barrenger his departure gift – a bitterly fitting moment, she now realized. She could recall the images with painful clarity: Barrenger walking away down a long, winding road. A hole in the world. A girl with silver eyes. A man with red wings. Her husband, and a dark face with evil intentions. She’d been given no understanding of where he was going, or why, but only a fool would think it was unrelated to the Rukilef and this despicable edict that had severed her son’s last illusions of freedom in the city of his birth – a city that should have embraced and accepted him as one of their own.
“Éloi, Éloi, sa natath coepi tio,” she whispered in the ancient tongue. Father, Father, it is as you foretold. “I tried, Élo. Oh, forgive me, I tried to help him see…” The words trailed off on her tongue, and Marta gazed long at the empty bed. Her eyes slid to the rack on the wall, the swords she had placed there the day before, gone. She’d hoped to inspire her son with some good reminder of his father’s bravery, but now… fear made her heart trip.
Something had begun – or perhaps it had begun long ago, and this was simply the catalyst through which her son would enter it. Whatever the case, he had made his choice. Would that his choice not bring him – and her – so much pain.
“Will he come back?” Marta whispered into Remar’s robes, irrationally hoping that he might know.
Remar looked out the window over her head, the night sky full of stars. “I don’t know, Marta,” he replied, stroking her hair like a father soothing a child. “What has Élo told you?”
She breathed a shuddering sigh. “Only to trust Him.”
Remar nodded. “Then that is what we must do.”
They stayed there together long into the night, until the first sun turned the horizon to muted gold.
And there he goes. Will his plan turn out for good or ill? It may depend on your point of view. Barrenger has a rough road ahead, but praise God that He works all things – even our really dumb decisions – for the good of those who love Him. We will see Marta again someday, but for now, time to head out into the unknown… even further than Barrenger could guess.
Thanks for reading!