Prism lounged in Kaeral's room, tired from a day of hard labor. Master Vinh had made good on his promise, working him from dawn to dusk every single day since Prism had sneaked out. Prism refused to tell the Master the nature of his visit and bore his labors in near silence.
Today afforded him a rare moment of respite, as Valkean had called the Masters to council several hours earlier, and once Prism completed the tasks Master Vinh had already assigned him, he finished a few more for good measure, then went to find his friend.
Kaeral had recently taken to returning to the city again. Winter had receded, and the sea waters had warmed once again. Prism longed for news of the outside world, as his chores often kept him cloistered.
As soon as he finished exchanging pleasantries with Kaeral, he asked, "What news do you have from Kobinaru? I know you went down last night."
Kaeral, who knelt in front of his mirror, shaving his head with a straight razor, turned to Prism with a grin. "Did you hear a man spat in President Caliphar of Oligan's face?"
Prism leaned forward from his place on Kaeral's bedroll, eager to hear about this strange, and likely untrue, rumor. Most of Kaeral's stories were exaggerated big fish tales, but this one held the promise of at least being inventive. "No. Master Vinh doesn't leave enough time for me to catch up on the news. What happened?"
"Apparently one of the engineers-some guy named Neredos-behind Oligan's new rumored weapon?" Kaeral paused to gauge Prism's recognition of the name or the technology. When Prism didn't react, Kaeral sighed and continued. "He didn't like that they made his designs into a weapon, apparently he hoped it would create technology for the people, not the military. When Caliphar held a ceremony to honor the scientists behind it, Neredos spat in the president's face." He laughed fondly at that, as he always did at anything anarchic in nature. "It gets weirder though."
"How could that get weirder?" Prism asked. "Did they decide not to imprison him? Because that would be weird for Oligan. They imprison people just for speaking their mind, I hear. Though I guess that isn't much different than here."
"They say Neredos is currently in Gor territory, so I guess he escaped or something," Kaeral replied. "He's the entire reason we know about the weapon. Who knows how long the Ultakan government has known."
Prism shrugged. Government secrets didn't constitute weirdness, and this story lacked Kaeral's usual exaggeration. No fantastic elements or supernatural beings appearing from nowhere-that's what usually constituted a Kaeral story. "But what's the weird thing?" Prism asked.
"Oh," Kaeral said, his eyes lighting up as he lowered the razor, flicking off the bit of lather from the end and dipping it in the bowl of clean water to rinse it. "Apparently a huge bird swooped in on the ceremony and stole the rag the president used to wipe his face." He turned to Prism and grinned. "It just came out of nowhere."
"That is weird. Do you think it's true?" Prism asked, glad Kaeral hadn't lost his touch.
Kaeral chuckled and said, "I don't know. I mean, it sounds at least more believable than the brain thing."
"Refresh my memory . . ." Prism asked. He couldn't remember anything about brains, but he could've lost it in all the other fantastic tales he'd heard in the eleven months he'd known Kaeral.
"Supposedly there're human twins with a telepathic connection," Kaeral explained. Carefully shaving the other side of his scalp, his words took on a precision to match the delicacy of the procedure. "One worked in the Oligani government, and the other was a farmer in Lodan. Supposedly the farmer was selling Oligan secrets from her sister's mind to the Ultakan government. The Oligani found out and executed the one on their side, and her twin died of an aneurism in the same instant."
Prism groaned. "You believe the strangest things."
"What makes it even stranger is that both brains went missing within days of each other. Just disappeared," Kaeral said, not bothered at all by Prism's disbelief.
Prism barked a laugh at the absurd story. "Where do you get this stuff?"
"Tala," Kaeral said. "This is all they're talking about in the taverns on the Kobinaru docks. A lot of strange stuff happening in the world."
"Sounds like tavern legends to me," Prism said. "Though I think I've at least heard of Neredos. One of the new initiates was talking about him last week. They say he's building a flying city on the northern edge of the continent. That sounds just as farfetched, but I guess if he's an engineer, maybe it's true?"
"That part is true," Kaeral confirmed, finishing his shave. He dried off the razor on a clean towel as he went on, "He's using the same technology he designed for Oligan, but with some help from Gor magic. Apparently, he married a Gor shaman."
"Really?" Prism asked. Considering Gor relations with humans in Ultaka, this initially seemed the most unlikely part of the story so far. Yet Neredos came from Oligan, and things could be different there. Marhys Elrhanadan, Kaeral's wife, was half-human, after all.
Kaeral shrugged and said, "That's what they say."
"I'm surprised Oligan is letting him get away with using their technology," Prism said.
"Their attention has been divided recently. Seems Ultaka isn't the only place with problems. Mining revolts have disrupted their production recently, and the problem is only getting worse." Kaeral sighed and turned a smirk on Prism as he finished putting his shaving kit away. "Tala says the Elroks have joined forces with the miners."
Prism didn't have much to say about that. Other nations' politics had never factored into his education, and though he found them interesting, the ability to offer a relevant comment escaped him. Instead, he took the safer route and changed the subject. "And how's your son?"
Kaeral beamed at the mention of his son. "Villar's doing well. It's only the second time I've seen him, but I'm excited for next month so I can go there without sneaking out."
"And Marhys?" Prism asked quietly. "Have you heard from her?"
Kaeral's eyes lost a bit of their luster as he said, "Still no word. She's been gone since Villar's birth. I assume she went south, to start her search near her mother's people. She could be frozen in the Dobrag by now."
"Are you going to look for her once you've completed your sentence?" Prism asked.
"I haven't decided yet. Villar will need me, so I'll do what I must to make the life he needs," Kaeral replied. "You know, it's a strange thing. The only reason I stayed here at the Temple is because of Marhys' insistence. Even with the dogged determination of these monks and their threats to hunt me down, I could've gotten out. Easy," He sighed and added, "but Marhys thought I needed to stay out of trouble and learn something other than thievery. She wanted me to make a different life for our son than the one I had growing up."
"You're going to be a good father," Prism said. "Not that I know much about good father's."
Kaeral moved over to the bedroll and sat next to Prism, putting his hand on Prism's arm and saying, "I'll miss you, Prism, when I get out of here."
"You could still come visit me," Prism said.
Before Kaeral could respond, the door to his room opened and a young initiate poked his head into the room. In recent months, young men were joining the order in droves. Kaeral theorized most wanted to avoid the brewing war and didn't have any actual interest in pursuing enlightenment.
Prism rarely had time to engage with the initiates, except when Master Vinh assigned him to assist with their training. They all looked the same to him, too. Young, scared, eyes filled with regret over their decision to live the monk's life . . . with shaved heads and identical clothing, the only physical difference for most was skin color and body shape. They'd come from all over Ultaka, from a dozen different ethnic groups at least.
This initiate was no different than most, his only defining features were his brown skin and narrow eyes, and Prism didn't even know his name. The reverse proved to be untrue, as the initiate addressed him directly. "Prism, you are wanted in the Masters' Hall."
"What is this about?" Prism asked, rising to his feet in one fluid movement.
The initiate bowed and said, "I've been told to fetch you. That's all I know."
Kaeral shrugged and said, "I guess we'll finish this conversation later?"
"I guess so," Prism replied. He let the initiate lead him from the room, down the hall, and up to the second floor. The Masters lived here, with bedrooms on both the eastern and western sides of the Temple. In the center, running almost the entire length from North to South, was a large room which served as both a training hall and a meeting place.
When Prism entered the room, he found himself facing every Master currently residing at the Temple. Most of them-twenty-six in all-knelt in two separate groups of thirteen, facing the center of the room. Five Senior Masters, who led the council, knelt at the far end of the training hall, facing the door from which Prism entered. Only Grandmaster Valkean remained separate from the total group of thirty-one, kneeling in the center of the room and facing the Senior Masters.
"Prism, please, kneel before us," one of the Senior Masters, Jovun, said. Prism complied, picking up on the subtle signal from Grandmaster Valkean that he should kneel beside him. As soon as Prism settled, Master Jovun spoke again. "Do you know why you're here?"
"I do not," Prism replied.
"Lord Grimfaeth of Kobinaru came to visit us this morning, requesting a training partner," Master Jovun explained. "Grandmaster Valkean suggested a person of age and size to him might be most appropriate, and we agree."
Prism fought hard to keep the flutter of excitement within him from overtaking his expression and betraying his emotions to the council. He summoned all the ugly thoughts he could, to keep his face stony. "Am I to report for assignment?"
"Not yet," Master Jovun said. "Concerns have been raised regarding your suitability for this assignment. Master Vinhkroludar, you may speak."
Master Vinh prostrated himself from his position on the eastern wing, then rose to his feet, his face a mask of perfect solemnity. He paced the floor in front of Prism and Valkean, his eyes locked on his pupil as he made several passes. He stopped directly in front of Prism and asked, "Prism, how do you feel about your time in the Order of the Mountain?"
"I have learned a great deal here, Master Vinh, particularly under your tutelage," Prism replied automatically. "I was directionless in my youth, but over the past year I have learned a more enlightened way to live."
"On this assignment, you would serve as a representative of this order at the Duke's personal court. You, who has shown no remorse for breaking the rules and venturing into the city four months ago," Master Vinh said.
The first signs of dread formed in the pit of his stomach. "I've fulfilled every duty you assigned me since. I have shown discipline."
"Discipline yes, but honor?" Master Vinh asked, letting the question linger for a moment before answering it himself. "No. If you'd come to us, contrite for the wrongs you'd committed, you would have proven your integrity to me."
"There are many different paths," Prism said, staring straight ahead, his eyes locked on the hem of Master Vinh's robes. He could not meet his mentor's eyes and face the judgment there. "Was it not you who showed me this?"
Master Vinh resumed his pacing, completing several more paths before stopping before Prism once more. "Different paths, yes. But each path comes with consequences. Each path comes with dangers, obstacles, pitfalls . . . ways to trap yourself. Are you remorseful? Did betraying our trust weigh on your soul for even a moment?"
"No, Master," Prism said. Lying would do no good here. He could omit truth but refusing to answer at all would also work against him. The monks would see refusal as an admittance of guilt. They would see lies as justification for their distrust, and rightly so. Prism had to tell the truth. "No, it did not weigh on me. I learned the truth of myself on that journey."
"Would you care to share that truth, Prism?" Master Jovun offered.
Prism met Master Jovun's eyes and said, "I cannot. Another's safety hinges upon my silence."
Master Vinh understood the implications of Prism's statement and supplied the answer for the council. "Love."
"Love, Master Vinh," Prism confirmed.
Master Vinh paced again. Seconds became minutes, and Prism's heart counted every one a hundred times. When Master Vinh spoke again, the dread in Prism's body raced to catch up to his pulse. "For eleven months and two days, I have taught you martial skill, I have trained you in matters of agility and strength. I have educated you in discipline, and I have attempted to show you honor. You honor your love, but you do not honor us," Master Vinh said. "I have also taught you perspective. Understand ours. What has been asked of you is that you represent our Order. Grandmaster Valkean has brought this matter to us, has raised your name for our approval, but if you go as a monk, you must act as a monk. You've shown that, when left to your own devices, you put your own needs above those of the Order. This will not be acceptable."
He walked several paces then turned back. Prism finally risked eye contact and found Master Vinh's eyes filled not with judgment, but empathy and sadness. Prism's heart leapt in a different direction; his mentor had tried to teach him something. Now, in the face of the most difficult decision of Prism's life, he tried to teach him the lesson for a final time.
Master Vinh spoke, maintaining Prism's gaze. "You may choose to accept or refuse this assignment. If you refuse this assignment, you will be allowed to continue as you have, the same paths open to you. If you accept this assignment, however, to act as a representative of our Order, you must swear the oaths of service." Each word hung in the air like the apex of a juggled ball. Prism's mind raced to catch them all. If he failed to catch the meaning of his lesson here, he would lose out on the greatest lesson Master Vinh had to teach him-that of sacrifice.
Prism maintained Master Vinh's gaze as Grandmaster Valkean asked the council, "Do the rest of you agree with this assessment?"
"We do," Master Jovun responded. "As it was agreed, dependent upon Prism's answers."
Prism understood Master Vinh then, when his mentor offered a single, barely perceptible nod. Nearly insubstantial robes weighed on Prism's shoulders, but it was a bearable burden, if it meant serving his love. He prostrated himself before the council and said, "Masters, I am prepared to swear the oaths of service for the duration of my sentence."
"Will this suffice, Masters?" Master Vinh asked.
"It will," Master Jovun said, "But a single deviation from the oaths will end your assignment immediately and permanently, and you will return to us to serve out the remainder of your sentence."
"I understand, Master Jovun," Prism replied as he returned to his kneeling position. "And I agree to the terms of this agreement."
"Then swear the oaths before this council," Master Jovun declared.
Prism took a single, meditative breath, and sealed the contract of his soul. "I vow to uphold the sanctity of the Mountain in all my dealings."
The Masters answered in chorus. "So witnessed."
Prism continued with the second vow. "I vow to defend the innocent, the helpless, and to resort to violence only to the magnitude it is necessary."
"I vow to stand as an example to the community, a pillar of strength, a steadfast obstacle in the path of impurity."
Panic washed over Prism, as his mind raced back to Grim's soft skin, the taste of his lips, the ecstasy of their bodies locked together in a moment of pure, uninhibited bliss. But the Order demanded a sacrifice of him. Words came, dragged from him like drips from a leaky faucet, impossible to stop no matter how much he wished he could. "I vow to maintain physical purity, to forgo the carnal pleasures of the flesh, to avoid contact with all beings except in accordance with my service to the Mountain."
"So witnessed," the chorus answered.
Master Jovun addressed him again, his voice projected as he proclaimed, "The four oaths of service have been sworn. In accordance with the sacred rites of the Mountain, you are afforded the rank of Junior Master, probationary to your term of service to the Order of the Mountain. You are assigned to the court of Duke Selfaeth of Tehir Province. You will serve as a training partner to Lord Grimfaeth, youngest child of the Duke, and second heir to the Duchy of Tehir. Your duties will include the training of your charge in techniques of self-defense, and to serve as protection to the personage of Lord Grimfaeth."
"I understand my duties, Masters," Prism said.
"You will report for evaluation on a quarterly basis, where a review of five Masters will determine if you are to continue to serve the Order and Lord Grimfaeth in this assignment," Master Jovun said.
"I understand, Masters," Prism replied solemnly.
"Report to the Duke's palace immediately," Master Jovun added.
Prism rose to his feet and bowed to the council. "Thank you, Master Jovun."
He turned on his heel and descended the steps, walking straight to his room to pack his few belongings. One life had ended and another had begun, and he mourned them both.
Prism walked to Kobinaru, which took him the better part of the day. Despite the length of the journey, his months of training and the ease of the terrain made it simple. Barely a bead of sweat graced his skin when he arrived at the Northern gates of the city wall.
A familiar face surprised him, though it took him a moment to remember the Captain's name. Captain Tson, who commanded the soldiers who captured him when Boggi brought him to Kobinaru almost a year earlier, had transferred to the Northern gates.
As Prism neared the checkpoint, he readied the sealed letter he'd received from Grandmaster Valkean at the gates of the Temple. Captain Tson watched him approach, wearing an amused smirk. "Well, well . . ." he said, sizing up Prism with his gaze. "I didn't expect to see you back here. Has it been a year already? By my accounts, Spring had already hit when we met."
Prism bowed to Captain Tson and handed him the letter. "Captain Tson. Grandmaster Valkean directed me to report to this checkpoint to give my credentials."
Captain Tson opened the letter and reviewed its contents, his eyes widening with each word. "Official order from Duke Selfaeth requesting your presence . . ." he let out a bewildered sigh and said, "Very well. If the Duke has ordered your presence, I cannot stop that."
"So, I may pass?" Prism asked.
"We'll have to search you first," Captain Tson stated.
The weight of Prism's recent oaths made him take a step back as he said, "I have taken my monk oaths. I'm not allowed to touch anyone."
"Your oaths do not keep you safe from the law, Junior Master. This would be consistent with your service to the Mountain, as the monks believe in the protection of society, and laws are a significant part of that protection," Captain Tson said. "I will perform the search myself, if that will make you feel better."
Prism hesitated, then complied with a nod. Captain Tson gestured for him to step away from the road and patted him down. "You don't care for the Order, do you?" Prism asked after a moment.
Captain Tson regarded Prism curiously. "What makes you say that?"
"You argued with Grandmaster Valkean the day we met," Prism said.
"You were a criminal; my responsibility is to keep criminals off my streets," Captain Tson explained. "Have you not learned about responsibility during your time at the Temple?"
"I have. I bear the weight of it now more than ever," Prism said.
"Grandmaster Valkean overstepped his bounds with you when he took you as pardon. You were my prisoner the moment you ran away from your Constable and attacked Lord Grimfaeth. I was the one who could determine your fate. Grandmaster Valkean is allowed a pardon, but state criminals are pardonable only at the discretion of their custodians," Captain Tson said. He stood, having finished his search of Prism's person and said, "Grandmaster Valkean insisted, and I allowed him to take you."
"Why?" Prism asked. "It seemed it was against your better judgment."
"I was a pardon in my youth, and I owe Grandmaster Valkean my trust for the reforms he made in me," Captain Tson replied quietly. "Don't take it to heart, but based upon your merits as a thief and attempted assassin at the time, I would have sent you away for life if it had been up to me."
"You seem different, and clearly the Order has been good for you. Grandmaster Valkean's instincts are as sharp as ever," Captain Tson replied. "But that doesn't mean I like you, Prism. If you make one wrong step in my city, I'll know about it. If you harm the Duke or his family, I will personally ensure you pay for it."
Prism nodded and said. "I understand."
"Will you need a guide to the palace? I would hate to keep the Duke waiting because I let you get lost."
"No. I can find my own way."
Captain Tson smiled politely and beckoned him through the gate. "Very well. Welcome to Kobinaru."
The soldiers guarding the Duke were expecting Prism when he arrived, and they allowed him to enter with little fanfare. Prism was escorted to the Duke's study by a pair of soldiers, who never took their hands off their weapons.
His training kept him calm, but also allowed him to pick up on the unease spread throughout the palace staff. Soldier and servant alike darted nervous glances his way, both at him and his assigned soldiers. Here, more than ever before, Prism understood the growing uncertainty in the world.
Kaeral spoke of it often, but the Temple had kept Prism sheltered enough to avoid it. He could no longer do so. These people were as terrified as were the young men who'd joined the Order to escape the threat of war.
Prism entered the Duke's study at the instruction of one of the two guards standing beside the door, who announced his presence as Prism stepped inside, "Junior Master Prism, of the Order of the Mountain, reporting as summoned."
As the door closed after him, Prism bowed low to the Duke, who had stood from his desk to greet him. "Master Prism, you do not need to bow low to me. I don't stand on ceremony." Duke Selfaeth said, coming around the desk to stand before Prism. "I wanted to speak to you before you see my son, so thank you for coming."
"Of course, Duke Selfaeth," Prism said as he straightened.
The Duke smiled politely and gestured to the chair in front of his desk before retaking his own. "I will speak freely here and trust you to do the same," the Duke said and waited for Prism to nod in agreement. "You are in love with my son?"
Prism sucked in his breath. "That is a dangerous question, Duke Selfaeth."
"Dangerous for you, but not for me," Duke Selfaeth said, folding his hands over his chest, his index fingers tapping against each other. "There are no humans here but you, so you needn't fear any form of reprisal. Now, please answer the question, are you in love with my son?"
Prism hesitated. Only honesty would serve him here. "Yes."
"But you are Junior Master of the Order now. You've sworn your monk oaths. I assume that was a condition for the Masters to allow you to come here," Duke Selfaeth said.
"That is correct."
"Do you have any intention of violating that Oath?"
"No, Duke Selfaeth."
Duke Selfaeth nodded. "Even if I told you I would protect you and your relationship with my son?"
"No, Duke Selfaeth. I would not violate my oaths for any reason, until my sentence is up," Prism answered. "Though I am perplexed you would support such an action."
The Duke grinned wide and said, "I wouldn't. That was a test. While I do support my son's attraction to you, and yours to him, in these troubled times I can only afford to have people I can trust reside within my home, and to stay around my family." His smile faltered as his eyes grew serious once again. "If you'd been willing to give up your oaths, even with the promise of protection, I would've sent you back to the temple and told them I'd changed my mind."
"I love Grim," Prism replied immediately. "I would not do anything to jeopardize our future together."
Conflict crossed the Duke's face before a fond smile replaced it. "You believe you have a future together?"
"I can only hope for such a world," Prism said.
Duke Selfaeth closed his eyes, chuckling almost imperceptibly before he looked at Prism again. Moisture drowned the Duke's piercing gaze as he said, "I ask you to take an additional oath, Master Prism. Will you vow to protect my son at all costs, even unto the sacrifice of your own life?"
"I have already sworn this vow within my heart," Prism said. "I will defend him to my dying breath, and I will always seek to save him, unless he himself releases me from that duty."
Duke Selfaeth nodded in thanks. "Master Prism, there are people within my own household whom I cannot trust. Unfortunately, I do not know who they are, so I must distrust almost all of them. I need you to be vigilant. I am counting on you to keep my son safe," he said. Pausing for several breaths, he continued, "May I ask a request, in addition to the vow?"
"Why a request instead of a second vow?"
"Because I do not wish to compel you to something beyond your duties, to either your Order or to yourself," Duke Selfaeth explained. "My daughter may also require protection, from threats I do not yet perceive. She is strong, and already has her protectors, but I would consider her safer with you looking out for her as well. Will you please protect them both?"
Prism bowed his head in respect and said, "I am already sworn by the oaths I hold sacred to protect the innocent. Your daughter is already in my charge."
Duke Selfaeth rose to his feet and said, "Then you are welcome here. I will have someone take you to your quarters."
"Thank you, Duke Selfaeth," Prism said, rising as well and bowing once more. "I am honored to be here."
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