Leona R Wisoker: A Small Price To Pay

A Small Price To Pay


Leona R Wisoker

Patterns on patterns, stripes on slant on curve: darkness on almost-darkness. Cuna stood still, eyes half-shut, trusting sight least of all, and breathed through her nose. Two heartbeats later she stepped one precise measure to her left and struck out with that hand, bent knuckles stiff; knuckles rammed into a yielding softness that tumbled away with a low grunt followed by a rattling thud.

He’d fallen on the ib, the loose bamboo rod trap: Cuna stood still, unsmiling, and waited.

“Enough,” the maka said from his spot on the observation balcony high above, and light flared throughout the room.  “Cuna takes this one.” His voice sounded displeased with that statement, as he had the last four times.

Cuna shut her eyes completely to avoid dazzlement, and heard her opponent climb to his feet, kicking at least three rods aside in the process. Then she opened her eyes and looked up at the ledge: the maka glared down at her, dark face dour.

It was inappropriate to speak to the maka. She bowed instead, then addressed her opponent. “Kitchi maka-chi,” she said: grace to your grace, an outsider might have said.

But an outsider wouldn’t be seeing this. Even the insiders weren’t being allowed to see this yet: a female training among the nitta-hei of the teyanain. Outsiders never saw a tenth of teyanain life. It was their best protection, that aura of mystery, of danger, of secrecy and caution. They ruled the Horn–well, as Cuna’s father had said in the past, the teyanain should properly be ruling the world, but the Horn, a nearly unavoidable nexus between northern and southern lands, would do for now.

“Kitchi maka-chi,” her companion said, then dropped his voice to a near-whisper. “How did you know I was to your left? I’m positive I didn’t make a sound!”

The maka spoke before Cuna could answer. “Cuna, you have bested Dehan, a sworn and trained junior, in five separate matches. We cannot assume this is because of your gender serving to distract him. You have proven your skill and won your place. You may be sworn into training with the other supplicants at moon-rise tonight.” His tone turned the words into a challenge and a warning: last chance to walk away, girl seemed to hang in the air. He withdrew from the balcony without another word.

“Kitchi maka-chi,” Cuna murmured, and shut her eyes for a moment to focus on controlling her breathing and heartbeat. That steadied, she raised her head and met her companion’s gaze for the first time since the lights had gone out. “You smell, Dehan,” she said. “You always eat the red almonds, and it flavors your breath. I can smell you a room away.”

Dehan ran a hand across his lips, scowling. He was short and dark, like Cuna herself, like all proper teyanain: although the Calcen–Lord Evkit–had begun allowing the huerg, the outsider-tainted, to take up residence along the fringes of the Horn, as of yet he hadn’t been so brazen as to allow them here, into the heart of teyanain lands. And certainly none were being permitted into nitta-hei training: that matter lay outside of even Lord Evkit’s control.

The nitta-hei kept their own law, took their own counsel, and obeyed Lord Evkit only insofar as what he told them accorded with what the maka deemed acceptable. They were the only ones, among the teyanain, with a historical independence from the Calcen’s authority–and that was precisely why Cuna had chosen to join them.

Dehan motioned to the door of the training room, a gesture allowing her precedence not through gender, but through right of victory. She gave him a long, level stare, then said, “I bested you in five matches, Dehan. That usually means kii tafli, doesn’t it?”

His nostrils flared. “Oh, njetzi, Cuna,” he said. “You’re not serious? You’re not even sworn in yet–I’m a full junior–you can’t ask that of me–”

She lifted an eyebrow and said, “All true–but I beat you five times in a row. I’m standing on my rights of custom, Dehan.”

He shook his head, scowling. “Fine.”

He crossed to the door, opened it with exaggerated care, looked out in both directions–then stepped through and laid, face-down, across the outside of the doorway.

Kii tafli,” he said, grimly formal. “My body for your safety. Vicinahna–” the last in a barely audible mutter: you are going to regret this.

She walked forward with serene grace, stepped over him, then turned to help him to his feet. “Kitchi biti nahn,” she said. “Your grace saves me from regret. Come on, Dehan, let’s go get a flask and celebrate.”

He glowered at her sideways. “Normally,” he said, breath sour and words bitter, “we get a flask and a kathiz to celebrate someone being accepted. I don’t suppose that would interest you.”

“No,” she said, “you’ll do just fine, I expect.”

He stared, eyes narrowing: moved forward a step, then another, crowding into her space far past what she normally would have allowed. “Are you calling me kathiz?” he said.

“Not at all,” she said, staring unflinching into his black gaze. “I’m saying I don’t see the need for a kathiz with you around. Unless you don’t think you’re . . . up to celebrating?”

His throat worked, his eyes dilating: he took another step forward, pressing her against the cool, smooth rock wall, and set his hands on her hips. “I’ll celebrate enough to make you late for the moonrise ceremony,” he growled, his breath hot in her ear.

“You won’t last that long,” she retorted. “Especially not if you try anything here. The maka isn’t but a room away! Meet me at the endless room. With a flask.”

Quick as a desert asp, she pushed him back, twisted free, and took off running, well clear before his curses faded from the air.

Cover art by Mike McPhail.

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