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Authors: Callie Kanno

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BOOK: The Threshold Child
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All of them wore the black uniform that Adesina and her peers had
been privileged to wear for the night’s activities. Black clothing, knee-high
boots, gloves, a high-collared black leather vest, and a hood and scarf that
only left the eyes visible. These glittering spheres watched the two young
women closely, but the guards remained otherwise still and silent.

Basha fumed inaudibly as they walked. Her burning glare was fixed
on the ground and her fists were clenched at her side. When they passed through
the gates, she turned to Adesina and said venomously, “I can go to the medical
wing by myself.”

Adesina shrugged indifferently and walked away. Less time spent in
Basha’s presence was always a good thing, and she wanted to get what rest she
could before dawn. Basha took the corridor to the left and Adesina turned
right, back to their sleeping quarters.

Each of the rooms that served as sleeping quarters held ten to
fifteen students. There were two or three metal washstands per room, and one
large mirror on the wall in which they could thoroughly inspect the neatness of
their personal appearance.

Every Shi, or student, was instilled with a strict sense of order,
which carried over into every aspect of their lives. The uniform had to be
meticulous, the hair combed back from the face, proper hygiene attended to, and
so forth. All such rules for personal care and general cleanliness were set
down in what was called “the code.”

Keeping this in mind, Adesina resisted the urge to simply plop
into bed fully dressed in spite of her fatigue. She took off the Shimat uniform
she had been given for her assignment, folded it carefully, and placed it on
the small chest located at the foot of her cot.

Under normal circumstances, a student wasn’t allowed to touch such
a uniform. They were only worn by full Shimat, and had to be earned. For
certain tests, however, that rule was waived.

Adesina put on her sleeping uniform, unpinned her hair from its
tightly braided knot, and climbed carefully into bed. With a weary expression
on her face, she settled down for some much needed sleep.

Chapter Two: Lives of the
Fortress
 

It seemed to Adesina that she had only just closed her eyes when
she heard the bell toll, signaling the time to rise. The clear resonating tones
reached every corner of the fortress, keeping every Shi punctual.

With a heavy sigh, Adesina rolled out of her cot and straightened
it to its normal tidy state. She walked over to the washstand, splashed some
cold water on her tired eyes, and began preparing for the day. She put on her
loose, dark gray training clothes and tied back her long straight hair.

Like her eyes, Adesina’s hair was unusual in color. It was a
silver so lustrous that it could not be mistaken for gray in any light. The
locks that framed her face, however, were black.

A quick glance in the mirror showed Adesina that all was in proper
order. She made a small adjustment in the tie of her belt, but nothing else
seemed amiss. She allowed her eyes to stray from the details of her clothing
and take in the rest of her appearance.

She was a bit undersized due to the extreme physical toll of her
training, but she was not disproportional. She was slender but strong, pale but
healthy. A light sprinkling of freckles dusted the bridge of her nose, and her
almond-shaped eyes were narrowed in a speculative gaze. She tried to decide if
she was beautiful, but had no frame of reference with which to judge.

Her gaze lingered on her hair and her eyes, the two features that
seemed to isolate her from the rest of humankind. She had never been given a
satisfactory explanation as to why she looked so different from everyone else.
It set her apart--made her feel like an outsider.

Such social and emotional isolation had hurt her as a child. As
she had trained, she had hoped that her growing skills would create some sort
of bond between herself and her classmates. Her unique acceleration merely
added jealousy to the list of things that alienated her from her peers.

With a heavy sigh, Adesina turned and walked briskly out of the
room. She joined the throngs of students walking from their sleeping quarters
to breakfast. Most of them had businesslike expressions on their faces, but a
few of the younger Shi looked anxious. Adesina could relate, for she remembered
all too well what it felt like to be a new student in the Shimat fortress.

She was greeted in the mess hall by a petite girl her own age
whose name was Lanil. Her diminutive stature, in combination with her large
blue eyes and benign expression, often led others to underestimate her as a
warrior. Adesina envied her this advantage. No one who looked at Adesina took
her for granted. Her abnormal coloring alone was enough to make people think
twice before approaching her.

Lanil glanced at Adesina’s undamaged cheeks and smiled confidently.
“Whom did you mark?”

“Basha.”

Lanil giggled in delight and clasped her hands together. “Good!
She deserves it.”

Although they were the same age, Adesina had five years of
seniority over Lanil because of her early start in training. Lanil and Adesina
were both “Shar Children,” meaning that they had been raised in the fortress as
opposed to being brought to the Shimat by their parents when they were old
enough to train. They had been the best of friends until Adesina was taken away
from the nursery--the only friend that Adesina had ever had. They remained
closer than most students, but the years had changed them.

Lanil remained caring and sympathetic, in spite of her rigorous
training. It was generally assumed that she would take a job in the fortress
after she finished her schooling, rather than being given an assignment as a
warrior. Adesina, on the other hand, had become more hardened with every year. Her
peers treated her harshly due to her youth, and the level of expectation of her
teachers drove her to extremes she would not have known otherwise.

Now this unlikely pair stood in line together to receive their
rations, one of the few times they saw each other anymore. It was a nutritious
but boring meal that was calculated to give them enough energy until their
midday meal. Adesina received her wooden tray with a sort of weary resignation.

Lanil smiled at Adesina and hummed to herself. Most of the other
students resented Adesina’s youth, but Lanil was genuinely happy for her.

“So? Does this mean you advance?”

Adesina shook her head and held out her bowl for her portion of
porridge. “I still have to meet with the Sharifal.”

Lanil’s expression of excitement turned to fear and dismay. There
were many Shar, or instructors, at the school, but there was only one Sharifal.
She was the leader of the Shimat, and rarely involved in student affairs. When
she was, it was usually for disciplinary action. Severe disciplinary action.

“The Sharifal? Why?”

Adesina shrugged uncomfortably. “All students are interviewed by
the Sharifal at the end of my year of training, whether they are marked or
not.”

Lanil shuddered. “I do not envy you.”

Adesina and Lanil parted ways. Each student was required to eat
with the others of their year of training. As Adesina ate her simple rations,
she looked down the table to see who had been marked and who had passed. For
the most part she wasn’t surprised at what she saw, but there were a few marked
who she had thought would pass.

Basha was seated at the far end of the table, a dozen or so
stitches in her cheek. She and some of the other marked students were muttering
darkly amongst themselves. Basha threw Adesina a look of utter detestation and
malice. Her thin mouth was pressed into an almost invisible line, and her eyes
flashed with undisguised fury. Adesina could only imagine the tale of treachery
and woe that Basha was spinning about Adesina to soften the disgrace of being
marked.

There were twelve Shi in her year of training. When they had first
begun as children, there had been twice as many students. Nevertheless, yearly
advancement was never a guarantee, and proving oneself quickly became a daily
requirement.

Adesina felt an all-too-familiar twinge as she reflected on her
life as a student in the fortress. Her childhood ideas of what it would be like
to train as a Shimat had been far from the reality. Her initial reaction to her
early training had been one of excitement. She had been anxious to prove
herself worthy of such an honor. That excitement had rapidly been replaced by a
form of desperation. Nothing she did ever seemed like enough, even if it was
more than what her classmates could do. Her Shar pushed her more and more each
year, expecting her to go beyond her best.

Half of her knew that it was merely part of the process of
becoming all that she could be, but the other half of her continued to feel
that desperation--that secret fear that she would fail. She hid this fear with
bravado, but it was ever present in the back of her mind.

Shaking away these dark thoughts, Adesina turned her attention
back to her meal.

After breakfast the Shi proceeded with their daily schedule. It
was a review day, so most of their morning was spent in a classroom. Over the
years, Adesina had been taught a variety of subjects from botany to psychology,
tactics to languages and cultures of the world. Adesina retained information
very well, and usually found these review days to be tedious.

Today was different, for there was a palpable tension in the air.
They were being taught by a substitute Shar, which meant that their Shar were
most likely meeting with the Sharifal. Adesina, along with all of her
classmates, had a hard time concentrating on their anatomy review.

To get her mind off of her anxiety, Adesina began studying the
Shar teaching them that day.

She was a young woman in her mid to late twenties with striking
auburn hair and sharp gray eyes. Adesina assumed that she was still training to
be a Shar, based on how she reacted to teaching a class of near graduates. Her
emotions were kept in very tight check, but Adesina could sense a bit of
underlying nervousness.

The Shar walked with a slight limp, perhaps from a broken leg that
had been poorly set. She was also quite tall for a woman. Adesina wondered if
such height was an advantage or a disadvantage as a Shimat warrior.

Adesina also began to speculate on what kinds of missions this
woman would have been sent. Potential Shar were required to give at least five
years of service before training as teachers, so this woman must have had some
experience.

Perhaps she had been a bodyguard to an important Shimat. Perhaps
she had been a messenger. But it was most likely that she had been a spy. Most
Shimat were trained to appear as normal citizens and then placed in cities and
towns in every nation. The Shimat always knew exactly what was going on in
every part of the continent.

Such thoughts carried Adesina over into the midday meal at noon.
All the students then massed back into the mess hall where they received
rations only slightly more ample than their breakfast. Lanil gave Adesina
another friendly smile, which Adesina had trouble returning. Her nerves were
starting to wear thin.

After the meal the Shi were sent out to the courtyard for time to
practice their skills in weaponry and horsemanship. The courtyard was a large
open area, divided into sections that each served a different purpose. There
were obstacle courses for those on horseback as well as those on foot, target
ranges, circles drawn on the ground for sparring and hand-to-hand combat, etc.
The stones on the ground were worn smooth from many years of use, as were the
blocks in the surrounding walls. Shimat guards patrolled along the top of the
wall like caged panthers pacing back and forth, watching those within the
fortress as well as any that might be without.

As usual, Adesina kept a close eye on Basha and her cohorts, who
had the unfortunate tendency to “miss” their mark and send some sort of weapon
hurtling in her direction. The first few clumsy attempts had been in their
youth, so Adesina’s injuries had been minor. As they grew older and more
skilled, so did Adesina’s capacity for sensing danger before it arrived. In a
way, Adesina was grateful for the unintentional training she had received from
those who meant her harm.

Adesina began sparring with one of her classmates. They both held
long wooden staffs, and wielded them with precision and force. In spite of
this, it was clear that both of them were merely going through the motions, for
they each had their minds on what lay ahead. Adesina’s thoughts kept turning to
the tallest tower, where the Sharifal lived.

While there were plentiful rumors among the Shi about their
revered leader, little was actually known. Those students who were taken to see
her never returned, regardless of the reason for their summons. Adesina
wondered what the Sharifal looked like and if she had seen her before; for it
was said that the Sharifal disguised herself as a Shar and walked among the
students.

Adesina’s sparring partner seemed to be thinking along the same
lines. “What do you think she is like?”

Adesina blocked his blow and returned with one of her own. “Who?”

“The Sharifal.”

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