“Young Lions” by Zachary Jernigan

Vedas watches the square through a crack in the stockroom door.

The pulse pounds in his throat and temples, causing his vision to shudder slightly. He is calm despite this, assured by the familiar sensation. As the street scene grows lighter, its doorways and alley angles more defined before him, he settles into the comfortable hum of readiness.

The black fabric of his suit hugs his powerful frame like a second skin. He stands in the traditional waiting stance of the lo fighter, feet shoulder-width apart, hands resting lightly atop his staff, which comes to just below his chin. Back straight, knees slightly bent. A man can stand in this posture for many hours, minutely shifting his weight from foot to foot, meditating on the subtle tense and release of muscle.

Behind him, sixteen young recruits are trying and failing to contain their nervousness. They are a quiet group. Nonetheless, Vedas hears and recognizes every movement behind him. After eight hours cramped together, he has come to identify each child’s breathing and nervous habits. They scratch themselves, sniffle, sigh. They finger the black sashes tied around their upper arms, needlessly adjusting the fabric.

The acrid smell of vomit is everywhere. Someone always throws up, first time out.

At least, Vedas reasons, he was not forced to knock the weak-stomached girl unconscious. She had covered her mouth and leaned back, causing the sick to run down her shirtfront. The only sound had been a few drops of fluid hitting the floor. Vedas reminds himself to reward her afterwards. New recruits do not typically think so quickly, especially after standing for so long.

He watches the square. The abbey master, Abse, assured him the meeting would occur within an hour of dawn. Vedas closes his eyes for a moment and projects wellbeing to Abse, to his brothers and sisters. He imagines them walking straight-backed and proud, staff ends clicking on the paving stones, muscles shifting under smooth black fabric.

It will be a good day, he tells himself.

He turns from the doorway and regards the recruits. Those who can shuffle back against their neighbors. Vedas memorized their faces and names the night before, checking off which he thought would hold up well. He is heartened to see he was wrong about a few of them, and right about those he appraised highly. As usual, the youngest prove the most resilient, though not always the most patient.

In the dim light of the stockroom, their faces are washed out and grim, smudged with dirt, painted to look like fierce animals or demons. Not a real whisker among them. Surely, they spent time in front of mirrors, pumping themselves up. A brief vision of Vedas’ own first fight flashes before him. He was a little more experienced, but not much.

He reaches into the fold of his hood for the sound-isolation spell, holds up the vial so that the recruits know what to expect, and breaks the seal. One boy curses softly as the pressure in the room suddenly changes. Several pinch their noses and pop their eardrums.

When Vedas speaks, his voice sounds as if it comes from a great distance away.

“The moment is almost upon us. You’ve done a good job of waiting.” A brief flash of white as he smiles. His skin is only a shade lighter than the suit he wears. “I’m proud of you. It seems I’ve chosen well.

“Remember the signal.” He holds up two fingers, one finger, and then his fist alone. “At that instant I will open the door and we will surge out. Follow me closely. I will lead you to the enemy’s back. Locate unsuited enemies. Double up on them if you can and don’t play by the rules. Aim for the genitals and the eyes. In close quarters, remember to use your elbows and the weight of your feet. Most importantly, remember to keep focused on your target. Don’t get distracted by anything else. Make me proud.”

Vedas drops the spell just before it abates. The pressure lifts. He meets the eye of each recruit before stretching the hood over his shaved head. The children regard the tall, wide-shouldered shadow before them, gazes lingering on the two small horns on his temples. Slowly, he lets the hood crawl over his face until only his eyes are visible.

He sees momentary fear in the recruits’ stares. They shuffle against one another. Most likely, few of them have seen a cloaked Black Suit up close, and only half-believed the rumors that a man could wear fabric made from the skin of a jerouni and let it become a part of him, an extension of his will.

Now you know, Vedas thinks. He nods and turns back to the door. He dislikes the drama and manipulation the moment requires, but is used to it. Perhaps it is even necessary, as Abse claims, a brief spell of almost religious awe to steel the mind for what is to come. You become a symbol, the abbey master says. More than a man, a figure worth following into battle.

And indeed, the children have become jittery behind Vedas. The fear has not abated, but they are eager.

He watches the square. Before long, from the east he hears the sound of staffs clicking on paving stones: His brothers and sisters – the Followers of Man. Softer but growing in intensity, from the west he hears the answering rat-a-tat of dueling sticks clacking together: Rivals – the Followers of Adrash, the One True God.

The recruits will not have to wait much longer.

***

Just before Vedas’ seventh birthday, his parents relocated from Knos Min in order to assume a diplomatic post in Dareth, almost two thousand miles from the only place he had ever known. At first frightened by the city, Vedas soon came to think of it as home. Knosis were well regarded in the east, and he was treated with respect. A natural athleticism endeared him to his peers.

His parents discouraged sectarianism – in fact had never subscribed to a faith – but they could not prevent their son from allying himself with the other children of Smithtown, the vast majority of whom had been raised Anadrashi. In his tenth year, Vedas was recruited by the Black Suits of the Eighth Order and began taking part in legally sanctioned fights. His parents disapproved, of course, but traditional Knosi culture considered a ten-year-old boy an adult, free to make his own decisions.

In Vedas’ twelfth year, Knos Min raised the tariffs on Ulomi tobacco products. Relations between the countries took a sudden downturn, and Dareth Ulom began expelling Knosi nobles and political figures from the country. Vedas’ parents, on a brief sabbatical on the northern coast, were forced to leave without their adolescent son. For a brief time, Vedas lived in the homes of various friends, and then he lived on the street.

Word reached him of his parents’ death in the Month of Royalty, almost a year after their departure. By this time, he had become messenger and errand boy to Saatreth, the abbey master of The Seventh Order of Black Suits.

Messenger, errand boy, and plaything.

The Seventh had successfully kept their history of pederasty a secret from the city’s other twenty orders for over three centuries. Upon discovery of their transgression in the spring of the following year, Abse volunteered The Thirteenth Order to right the wrong. They removed the recruits, killed the men who had once been their faith-kin, and left the abbey a charred pile of rubble.

“I can send you back to Knos Min,” Abse told Vedas. “There are a few other boys orphaned by the debacle between our two countries. But that trouble has long since abated, and the recent succession of the dictator in Nos Ulom has resulted in an oddly peaceable country. Your passage across the continent would most likely be safe.”

Vedas parsed the master’s language. “My parents are dead.”

“Yes. I have heard.” Abse offered the somber, black-skinned boy a stiff smile. “Surely you have relatives?”

“Yes,” Vedas answered. Of course he did, two uncles and an aunt, but he had no interest in leaving Dareth Ulom. He only half understood why the abbey of The Seventh had been destroyed. True, Saatreth had not been a father or a friend. He had hurt Vedas badly enough to leave scars for years to come. Nonetheless, it was the abbey that had provided shelter and given Vedas an identity.

“Relatives are often a great comfort in times of change,” Abse continued. “On the other hand, I have heard that you are a talented young man.” He held up a finger. “I am not obfuscating my meaning. No one in this order desires the services Saatreth desired. By talented, I mean only that word has reached me of your martial prowess.”

Vedas interpreted again. Fighting. Here was an area in which he excelled.

“I want to keep fighting,” he told Abse. An awful thought occurred to him. “I killed a boy during practice. Is this why you’re making me go home? I didn’t mean to do it.”

Abse pursed his lips. “I am not making you go home, boy. If you choose to stay in the order, you will undoubtedly kill someone again. Sectarian fighting is dangerous. That is why it is so tightly regulated in Knos Min.” He paused, pale eyes fixed on Vedas, before speaking again. “If you want to continue fighting, you must stay here. You will be an acolyte for two years. If you pass martial training and your doctrine classes, at that point you will be offered a suit.”

Vedas stared at the man whom he would come to know as master. The odd, fine-boned face that appeared only a few years older than Vedas’ own. The small frame sheathed in black. The light in the room changed as clouds moved outside, revealing the barely noticeable designs on the man’s suit. Vedas regarded the abbey master’s face again, and for a moment it seemed that cracks formed upon it. A mapwork of fine lines. Paper crumpled and ironed out.

“Is this what you want?” Abse asked. “To stay here?”

Vedas agreed without a moment’s hesitation.

***

The Black Suits enter the square first. Twenty men and women, clothed from head to foot in seamless black. Some have formed relief designs on the surface of their skin-tight suits. Others have thickened the fabric in strategic areas, creating body armor and helmets. A few have even formed bone-hard striking surfaces along the forearm or shin, spikes at knee and elbow. Few choose, like Vedas, to go unadorned, and fewer still mask their features completely.

All skin tones are represented, for Vedas’ order culls recruits from each of Dareth’s major ethnic neighborhoods. Diversity is a strength, Abse often says, and so allows the brothers and sisters a great deal of freedom. Plaited and matted hair grows from faces and sprouts from helmets. Tattoos curl around eyes. Plugs of bone pierce lips and brows.

The men and women of the Thirteenth Order have little in common beyond the color of their suits, the hardness of their bodies, and the horns on their hooded heads. They have become brothers and sisters through physical pain. They pray and fight for the downfall of Adrash together, proudly displaying the color of opposition.

More than half their number prefer weapons other than the lo. These drop their staffs upon entering the square and lift hammers from their shoulders, unsheath swords, twirl flails, and ready razored shields. Those few who have formed weapons out of suit material eschew handheld weapons altogether.

They stop in the center of square, eyes locked on something Vedas cannot yet see. Abse, a thin, diminutive figure holding two broadswords nearly as long as his body, takes a step forward from the group and stamps his foot, as if anchoring himself to the spot.

A howl sounds, a ragged-edged bellow that offends Vedas’ ears and causes the recruits to mill uneasily at his back. He recognizes the sound and curses inwardly.

A second after announcing itself, the hellhound catapults into the square, skidding a mere body length from Abse’s feet. A crest of purple fur bristles along its broad back. Smoke rises from its mouth. It stands at the shoulder taller than the abbey master.

Abse neither flinches nor gives ground. Bringing a hellhound is a serious and dangerous breach of etiquette, only technically allowed because Vedas’ order was allowed to choose the location, but Abse will not allow this as a distraction. His eyes never leave the advancing line of White Suits that follow the dog.

The Thirteenth has never fought this order, the so-called Soldiers of The Appropriate Desire, but Vedas has done his research. He has briefed every brother and sister of the Thirteenth, assuring their preparedness as best he can. Superficially, the Soldiers are a similarly outfitted, magic-free order, legally registered with the city. They have not gone south of the law for three years. Abse and Vedas predicted a clean fight.

The hellhound says otherwise. As do the two white-suited women at point, the tops of whose staffs glow with green magefire.

Their numbers, at least, are correct. Including the hellhound, Vedas counts twenty Soldiers, accoutered in a similar if more conservative manner than his own brothers and sisters. They have only gathered eleven new recruits, he notes in relief, and have not encouraged them to wait in hiding before the attack. The children follow at the order’s back, peering through the mass of white-suited figures, trying to locate their rivals and failing.

Small blessings are never discouraged.

Best not to waste it, Vedas reasons. A small risk may be taken to assure his own recruits.

He speaks softly to them without turning his head.

“You heard it. They’ve brought a hellhound. Doubtless some of you’ve seen them at the carnival. They are dangerous, yes, but this one can’t touch you. The White Suits don’t have the authority to allow that.”

This is technically true, of course, but it is not the whole truth. Though intelligent enough to understand instructions, hybrid dogs do not always follow the rules of the fight. Sometimes the primal urge to hunt cannot be denied. The chances are slight, but there is a risk.

There is always risk, Abse is fond of saying.

“You needn’t be afraid,” Vedas continues. “No one can touch you but other recruits. Keep your eyes on your enemy. Close out everything else.”

No one answers. Vedas frowns within his mask. Any minute now. He focuses on a White Suit, a heavily built man standing well over seven feet tall. A warhammer with a head that must weigh over thirty pounds rests on his shoulder. A thick chain at the end of its handle leads to a viciously pronged grapple, which hangs from the man’s right hand.

Vedas notes the giant’s sinuous midsection, calculating how much speed it can generate. He guesses the man will create a vacuum around himself. No one will want to get in close and risk having their head torn off. Nonetheless, the man will have weaknesses. He will be slow to recover from swinging those huge weapons.

You’re mine, Vedas thinks. He holds up his hand, two fingers raised.

Abse whistles, and as one the two groups leap forward. Vedas catches a brief glimpse of the abbey master’s small frame ducking under the hellhound’s body, both broadswords thrust toward its belly, and then loses sight of him amid the press of bodies. He wishes Abse luck. A smart move, taking out the animal early.

Black and white mix. The White Suits’ new recruits back away from the roiling crowd.

Vedas lowers one finger.

Magefire arcs over the brawling bodies, finds its target. A scream goes up. Vedas recognizes the voice of a sister and shuts it out. He sets his knuckles against the stockroom door.

The White Suits’ recruits cluster together, casting confused looks about.

Vedas makes a fist, pushes the door open, and shoulders the frame aside.

Two hundred and fifty pounds of tempered muscle charges up the stairs, followed at the heels by sixteen scared children. They scream as they flow forth, as if the sound will drown out their fear.

***

At the age of eighteen, Vedas lost his first recruit – a boy of nine or ten, a blue-eyed face all but indistinguishable among the other children. An accident no one could have predicted. Abse paid the death-wage to the boy’s family, but Vedas’ guilt could not be contained. He found the boy’s home and tried to make amends. He soon realized that, though he was allowed to assist in the funerary rites, no amends could be made for the death of a child.

After a week, the abbey master summoned Vedas to the meditation gardens and demanded he account for his mood.

“The boy was Vunni. His father asked me to spread his ashes,” Vedas said. He spoke slowly and with great care, betraying no emotion. “I don’t know why he did. He and his wife clearly didn’t like me. He held his son’s skull in his hands while we talked. He pointed to the skulls above the hearth. Sawje’s brother, he told me. Sawje’s uncle and grandmother and great grandmother.”

Abse shrugged. “The Vunni are fond of such displays.”

“He wouldn’t look at my face. He told me his son’s favorite spot in the city was just under the Physickers’ Bridge, on the Quarriton side. I used to go there as a boy, too, before the Eighth officially recruited me. The place feels apart from the city somehow, like someone set it aside for children. Even the homeless avoid it. The way down is tricky, dangerous for drunk feet.”

Abse said nothing.

Vedas let the silence stretch while he remembered. He had rolled drunks once – what seemed life a lifetime ago – under the illusion of punishing Adrashis for their false piety. His gang of eleven children, not one above the age of ten, enjoyed the implicit patronage of the city’s Black Suits. The orders provided information: This is how you identify an Adrashi, and the like. They armed the children and informed their rude faith, giving them the confidence to push drunks from bridges.

At eighteen, Vedas could see how naïve his nine-year-old self had been. Taking a life was no small thing. Faith was no small thing. It made men into heroes, and children into monsters.

Vedas counted among his blessings the fact that Abse had rescued him. Among Dareth’s orders, only the Thirteenth abstained from supporting the youth gangs. His brothers and sisters conformed to a code of ethics that ran deeper than mere theology. They watched over their recruits, educated and fed them, offered something better than a life on the streets.

“Faith,” Vedas said, focusing on the ceiling, the floor – anywhere but Abse’s eyes. “The boy’s parents couldn’t understand my faith, even though we are both Anadrashi. They had no idea their son had become involved with our order. It seemed to disgust them, as though the boy had joined a cult. We’re devout, the mother told me. She held her sickle-moon pendant before her, as though she thought it would protect her from me.”

Abse cleared his throat. “You did not cover your suit?”

“No.” Of course he had not. He would not hide his suit for something so minor as his visit to Sawje Io’s home.

But it was not minor, was it? Vedas had not slept well since the boy’s death. He dreamt of the boy, over and over again, saw him slip on the wet pavement, saw his face crushed under a White Suit’s steel-shod boot. The dreams had begun leaking into the waking world. Looking at any child, he saw Sawje Io.

On one mortifying occasion, he had dreamt of the boy rolling out of the way of the boot. Instead of informing the boy’s parents of his death, Vedas had gone to congratulate them on his accomplishment, to welcome him into the order. He woke from the dream, suffused with warmth, only to have the cold realization seize him again. That day had been the worst.

He felt the cords binding him to his past. He imagined all but two of the cords snapping, one by one, leaving him untethered to anything but the memory of the boy slipping, the White Suit stamping down. He had allowed the boy to die. The boy would keep dying unless Vedas found a way to exorcise the memory from his mind.

“Vedas,” Abse said. “Did you spread the boy’s ashes under the bridge?”

Vedas’ mouth was very dry. He moved his tongue around, but no moisture came. “I did,” he finally croaked. “I took his ashes to the Physickers’ Bridge. I slipped down the hill and located a spot to sit under the bridge. The place I used to go. I wanted to feel something. The tide was low, so I hopped rocks out into the center of the river and smashed the urn. His parents gave me no directions, but this is the ritual among Knosi. They let water or wind carry the ashes away.”

“And still you felt nothing? No release?”

Vedas shook his head. “I don’t know what I expected to feel. I’ve taken recruits out before. Many times. I did all that I could to insure their safety. Still, I knew the risk. I’ve seen men die. I killed a boy in practice when I was only a child.”

For a moment, Vedas resisted asking the question. It felt too much like defeat, admitting he could not deal with his own problem.

He asked it anyway. “Why do I feel this way now?”

Abse sighed, but did not move. Silence stretched again. Vedas admonished himself for a fool. Of course Abse had nothing to say. What was the man supposed to say? He was not Vedas’ friend. He was master, not father or brother. Having ascertained the root of the problem, he would likely leave his disciple to work it out.

Vedas tensed to rise. “May I – ?”

“Stop,” said Abse. “I have questions. Why did you go to the boy’s house? What did you hope to accomplish?”

Vedas had no answer.

Abse squinted, as though trying to see deeper into Vedas. “I have answers to my questions, even if you do not. Do you know what your brothers and sisters tell me about you? They say you are alone, all the time. At meals, you are alone. You have never taken a lover. They struggle to understand this. Nonetheless, they say you are a good man. You are a closed book, but this has nothing to do with honor. Honor is another matter entirely. Honor makes a man.”

The abbey master blinked, and the squint was gone. “You visited the boy’s parents because you had no one to talk to here. Alone, you struggled to understand your actions. You struggled to understand the sacrifices a faithful man must make. You could not begin to do that without first doing the honorable thing, and so you tried to make amends. You wanted to be clean, and now you are – regardless of what the boy’s parents think. Let it go.”

***

The giant’s grapple catches the end of Vedas’ staff and rips it from his hands. The rounded edge of one prong grazes his temple, spinning him to the ground. He shakes the stars from his eyes and rolls to the left to avoid the swiftly descending warhammer, which lands, shattering pavement less than an inch from his leg. He rises into a crouch and immediately leans back, planting a hand on the ground to steady himself as the man swings his grapple at Vedas’ face a second time. He feels the compacted air of its wake as a soft slap.

The giant grunts, obviously surprised that he has not connected. Off-balance, he twists to bring his weapons back around. Before he can do so, Vedas shifts his weight forward, sweeping his right foot into the man’s left ankle. Though it feels like striking a concrete pillar, the joint breaks with a loud snap. The man does not cry out, and manages to twist so that he falls on his back. The ground shudders.

Vedas sees the counterattack coming. Admiring the White Suit’s persistence, he rolls to the right just as the warhammer falls, slamming into the street where he just was. Momentum carries him onto his feet as the grapple arcs over the man’s prone body. From the ground it is a clumsy throw, and Vedas catches it easily. The man reacts quickly, jerking the chain back, but Vedas is already moving in this direction. He stamps his left heel into the man’s left inner elbow, deadening the arm holding the hammer and simultaneously using it as a springboard.

Vedas calculates in the second before his right foot lands on the giant’s face. He notes the thick fabric armor covering the bridge of the man’s nose and reconsiders his attack, angling his foot for the neck rather than the head.

Cartilage crunches satisfyingly under his sole. The giant’s roar becomes a gurgle and then a wheeze as Vedas lands in a crouch beside his head.

Vedas drops the grapple and rolls clear before the giant can attack again. But he knows even before completing his turn back that the giant is finished, dead or in great need of medical assistance. Vaguely, Vedas hopes the fight will end soon so the man can get the help he needs. Death is an unfortunate fact of sectarian fighting, best for the orders if kept to a minimum.

One must always remember, Abse often reminds the brothers and sisters, we are tolerated in this city only as long as we are not a problem.

Besides, Vedas is not without compassion. He hopes the giant’s faith in Adrash lessens his pain. The sentiment conflicts with the views of Vedas’ order, but this troubles him not at all. He has risen above such trivialities. His faith is unassailable.

Vedas stands at the center of a fight still going strong. Everyone has either paired off against an opponent or moved to assist a weaker brother or sister. Several Black Suits have fallen, but so have a handful of White Suits. Through the thick of fighters, Vedas sees Abse at the gathering’s edge, engaging one of the mages. The other lies at his feet, face disfigured by burns. The staff he has taken from her spins in his hands and strikes, spitting magefire.

On the opposite side of the square, Vedas spots the recruits. He can hardly tell his own from the opponents’, and starts to jog in their direction.

Howling, the blurred form of the hellhound comes at him as he rounds a fierce melee. Vedas has only half turned when its shoulder slams into his right hip and lifts him into the air. He spins three times before hitting the ground face-first. His limbs whip into the pavement and the suit stiffens to minimize the impacts, but he feels them all the same.

Apparently, Abse was not successful in taking the hellhound down. The beast had not uttered a sound since the beginning of the fight, and Vedas foolishly assumed it had been incapacitated. Banishing the embarrassment from his mind, he rises.

The dog is headed straight for the recruits.

Vedas runs, knowing he will never get there in time to stop the animal if it intends violence.

What else could it be intending? he asks himself.

He is still twenty paces from the children when the hellhound closes its jaws around the girl’s head. She disappears under the creature’s body, but not before Vedas sees the black sash tied around her left arm.

***

Three months after Vedas turned twenty-six, an opponent’s clumsy sword stroke disemboweled a pair of recruits. A boy and a girl, perhaps eleven and thirteen years old. Their wounds – so unexpected and shocking – stopped the fight in its tracks.

Vedas knelt by the children. The girl was already dead, the stroke having severed her spinal cord. The boy did not so much as twitch. He lay in the street as if he had decided to take a rest there. His eyes searched the sky. He tried to lift his head but Vedas clamped a hand around his jaw, holding him in place.

“Hurts,” the boy said. “What – ?”

Vedas looked up, instinctually searching the crowd for Abse.

“Shh,” he said without looking down. The smell struck him, and he winced. “You’ll be fine.”

“I want–” The boy swatted weakly at the arm holding his head immobile. “Mommy. My legs hurt. Sara.”

At once, Vedas remembered. Farris Jol. Sara was his sister – had been his sister.

He still could not meet the boy’s stare. Abse was nowhere to be seen.

“Don’t worry,” Vedas said. “It’ll just be a second.”

The boy spoke no more. His body shuddered. He inhaled three quick, shallow breaths and died.

After dinner, Abse and Vedas conferred in the library to discuss the incident. A wax paper packet lay on the table between them: The death wage, an ounce of bonedust for the children’s parents. Nearly half a year’s standard pay.

“They came to Dareth from the badlands of southern Casta a year ago,” Abse said. “They knew their children had been recruited and approved. We have no reason to expect recriminations. The man who killed them has reason to worry, of course. Perhaps his order does, as well. It was reckless, allowing that man to fight.”

Vedas’ hand closed around the wax paper packet. “I will take it to them.”

Abse frowned. “Very well, though it is not your responsibility.”

“Whose responsibility is it?”

“What are you looking for, Vedas? Let us be direct. You want someone to blame other than yourself. You want someone to suffer as you suffer, and so you try to shame me by implying that I have not taken responsibility. In your guilt you cannot see that it is not your fault when a recruit dies – not your fault, or mine. The recruit is a warrior, just as you and I are warriors. The recruit is a weapon for our cause, just as you and I are weapons for the cause. You need not seek someone to blame, for there is no one to blame.”

A breeze came through an open window, causing the magelamps to suddenly brighten.

Vedas regarded Abse. He noted the fine lines at the corner of the abbey master’s mouth and eyes, which looked like cracks in porcelain. At times Vedas imagined he could see the sutures of the man’s skull, as if his skin was merely thin veneer over a death mask. The abbey master was an enchanted creature, it was generally agreed, but no one in the order knew just what sort.

Nonetheless, Vedas discerned one thing for sure. Abse possessed an odd mind. Even at his warmest, his emotions were never quite believable. At times it seemed that a construct stared out from behind his dull eyes, measuring the world in weights and figures instead of souls and personalities. Sectarian fights were mere arguments, a number of triumphs. Deaths were inconveniences, a number of setbacks.

Abse rose, and still stood only a little taller than the sitting Vedas.

“You are a good leader,” the abbey master said, “and not least because you accept responsibility for the young lions in your charge. I know you watch over them better than anyone else would. Having you as their teacher will make them champions for the cause, but you should be careful not to confuse the role of teacher with the role of father.”

***

Vedas is summoned to Abse’s chambers after the post-fight toilet. The two sit, knees nearly touching. They eat cold dumplings and mutton, and wash it down with hot fahl tea. The reason for the meeting hangs unspoken between them as they chew and sip. The abbey master does not like to rush things.

Finally, he sets his chopsticks down. “I think it best you not leave the abbey for a time.” He reaches forward and grips Vedas’ shoulder. “It is not impossible that someone will hold you responsible for the girl’s death. We have been lucky in the past, but we have never lost a Tomen recruit before. I do not want to see you get hurt. Not for something so trivial.”

Vedas nods. His hood is gathered at his neck and he has made his large, well-formed features blank. The smell of vomit and blood has not left his nose. The girl’s ruined face has not left his eyes. With some effort, he manages to keep the moment of her death from replaying itself in his mind. It always takes a bit of time to wash such thoughts away. Time and solitude.

The abbey master’s smile does not reach his eyes. “We have been over this.”

Vedas nods again.

“Vedas.” Abse speaks the word as if it exhausts him. “For all your intelligence, sometimes it seems you lack something. Some understanding. I wish you could see the world as your brothers and sisters see it. We are not engaged in a trivial pursuit. Our actions have consequences in this world, as do our enemies’ actions. There will be losses in this war.”

Vedas simply waits. It has been some time since he has been called to the abbey master’s room, and the man’s pious tone bothers him. At thirty-four years old, having spent twenty-two years in the abbey, Vedas has heard each of Abse’s speeches many times over.

Undoubtedly, Abse knows this as well. Much of their interaction is routine. They are like father and son. The same waters of love and resentment flow between them. That they were so unalike makes no difference, for the same truths bind them.

The same truths, and the same fictions.

“To be exactly truthful, Vedas,” the abbey master says, as if his thoughts have lingered on the same ground, “I have stopped trying to understand your guilt. I have stopped hoping that you will be anything but what you are.” He gestures with his hands to encompass the whole city. “In Dareth there is not another soldier with the strength of your faith. If this pain is the price of such strength, so be it.”

Vedas searches the abbey master’s face. “And the price the girl paid?”

Abse frowns. “As I have said time and again, losses occur. Often they give the survivors strength. Still, I wish they did not occur. It is no small thing, losing a recruit. Now the child’s parents need to be paid their wage, and tomorrow a magistrate will need to be paid. We have an excellent record, but no one is above examination. Perhaps we are long overdue. Making matters worse is the child’s ethnicity. Someone will have to visit her family and help with the funerary rites. Of course, there is no guarantee that this will mollify the Tomen community. They might even assault whomever I send, but to do otherwise is to invite a sure riot.”

Vedas raises his eyebrows. “Someone?”

“It will not be you.” Abse waves his right hand vaguely. “I will assign another person to the task – maybe two or three.”

“I will go.”

“You will not.”

Vedas breathes deeply, trying to calm himself. He fails. The hellhound’s jaws close around the girl’s head. The weight of its body carries her to the ground. Vedas banishes the vision, only for it to be replaced by the memory of breaking the hellhound’s neck, knowing he is too late. Picking the girl’s limp body up, surprised at how heavy she is in his arms. The smell of vomit rising from her shirt.

“I lied to her,” he says. “I lied to them all.”

A look of annoyance crosses Abse’s features. “About the hellhound? You had no way of knowing it would happen.”

Vedas clenches his teeth, shakes his head. “This isn’t the first time I’ve lied. I’ve told them not to worry, over and over again. I’ve minimized the danger so that their fear won’t cripple them.”

Abse opens his mouth.

Vedas stops him with a gesture. “I wanted them afraid, but not too afraid. There’s a reason I’m their teacher. I’m good at what I do.”

He stands. He looms over Abse.

When he speaks, his voice is low, his tone calm, almost conversational.

“I thought you had taken out the hellhound, but you didn’t. I wouldn’t have made that mistake.” He pulls the hood of his suit over his head, but does not allow it to cover his face. “What would you do if I attacked you? How would you feel if I brought you to the brink of death, held your chin so that you couldn’t move, and told you not to worry? I could do it. I could make you feel like Farris Jol felt.”

Abse does not move, but Vedas knows the man is ready. An abbey master knows the risks of his position.

The tension does not pass. Instead, it spreads throughout Vedas’ body, suffuses him until his limbs feel as light as air, as strong as oak beams. His fingers close into fists.

The pulse pounds in his throat and temples, causing his vision to shudder slightly.

He is calm despite this.


.

About the Author

Zachary Jernigan lives in Portland, Maine with his roller derby girlfriend, her cantankerous teenaged daughter, and a cat with an eating disorder. His fiction has recently appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction and Murky Depths. One of his stories, “The Succession of Knoorikios Khnum,” was recently shortlisted for a Spectrum Award. “The Succession…” and “Young Lions” both take place in the world of Zachary’s first novel, No Return. He blogs at zacharyjernigan.blogspot.com.