I am finally releasing a new chapter of To Look Skyward. I know it's been months, I know that my goal for this semester was to release one every week, and that I've already failed that, but I'm going to start here and keep going onward. I am not necessarily promising a chapter every week. But I'm sure going to try.
Welcome back to the story. Let's take a look at what Kirelon's doing.
Kirelon heard the noise somewhere in the back of his mind, but he tried to push it away as his body began to draw him back toward the realm of wakefulness. He was having such a nice dream. Tral and Liss were back and the three of them had gone on a hike on the western ridge. They were talking of old times and none of them had mentioned the fight they'd been in before the couple had left for Scolia. Kirelon didn't ask why they had returned. They were smiling and it seemed to Kirelon like all his worries had vanished in a puff of smoke.
He was rushing back to the surface of conscious thought, faster and faster, but he reached longingly backward as he was drawn away. No, please, I don't want to leave... But he had to. His body knew he did. It was time to wake up. Time to go back to the world and live with the mess he had made.
He opened his eyes and saw rock above him--far above him. The roof of the cave. Stalactites hanging...he was laying on his new cot in the cave. The Revolution. And everything came back at once. He felt water drying on his face. Had water from a stalactite dripped down on him? Was that the noise he had been hearing--the patter of water on skin?
Kirelon turned his head to the left and saw a puddle a few dozen feet away from him on the cave floor, rippled from recent contact. No, that was the source. He reached up to his cheeks and wiped away the dampness, but he felt another trickle slide down his face. Oh, they were tears. He was crying. He choked back a sob as he struggled to stem the flow of water down his face.
Get a grip, he scolded himself. You're not a child. They're gone and they're not coming back.
He wiped the unwanted tears away and cleared his throat, glancing around. He had no way of telling what time it was, not really, but from the looks of the soldiers around him still dozing on their cots, it was still early yet. Most of them were required to be up by sunrise--though that was, again, difficult to determine from inside the cave. Kirelon had never really witnessed a real military going about their daily life--not even the Upper City police forces, since he had never really liked the general as a politician and tried to stay away from him--but he imagined that this makeshift army was at least as disciplined as the Argosson military, maybe more so. Whoever had gotten it up and running knew what they were doing.
That was a question that was still yet to be answered. From what he had seen so far, none of the core members of the Revolution were particularly military-minded. The man who was currently in charge of the soldiers was a grizzled captain by the name of Rizo, but even he seemed like a regent rather than the man in charge. No one had said anything that had given Kirelon a clue as to the identity or whereabouts of this unknown progenitor, but the Speaker was fairly certain there was one--or at least had been one. Of course, he wasn't about to go prying into business that no one seemed to talk about, since there may have been a tragedy or hard feelings or maybe just something classified behind it. But it still bothered him. He hated a scratch that couldn't be itched.
Alright, well, I'm already up. Might as well do something instead of sitting here pontificating. He wasn't trying to suck up to Nast or Mikis or anything like that, but it couldn't hurt their perception of his loyalty to the cause to be seen up before he was required. Besides, he could be first in line for breakfast this way. Kirelon trotted off to the back of the cave where a spring provided the camp with clean water, brandishing a towel. But I might as well get washed first. From the lack of pleasant aroma floating around, I don't think the kitchens are quite ready to serve food. Or maybe that's just my own smell blocking it out. Either way...
Kirelon splashed the cold water of the spring on his face, trying not to flinch from the icy shock. He had never particularly liked bathing, especially with spring water, but he had never particularly liked stinking either, so you took the least of the two evils. Which one was which depended on the day. Kirelon sighed and stripped to the waist, splashing cold water on his arms, face, and neck until he shivered like a cliff after a rockslide. He thought for a moment to take off the rest of his clothes, but he decided he wasn't quite comfortable enough with his new surroundings to go completely naked. Besides, the cots were too close and he didn't want to make any more noise than he had to. He would have to wash his lower half later.
The Speaker reached for his towel. It wasn't there. Water streamed down his face from his black curls, blurring his vision as he looked towards where his towel had once lay. There was a figure standing next to him, and it looked like they were holding his towel in their hand. Kirelon jumped in surprise and sputtered something unintelligible, trying to wipe his wet hair from his face. When he had managed that, he looked up and saw Matri smirking at him as she twirled his towel up and down.
"You're really funny when you're scared," she said, obviously trying not to laugh. "Did you know that?"
"Glad I can be your source of amusement," Kirelon said, pleasantly surprised at his own grasp on diction. He didn't feel all that dignified at the moment. "Skyman knows that I can use a bit of humility every now and then."
"Are you ready?" Matri asked, some of the humor gone from her voice, though not all of it. He knew what she meant. Am I ready to be a soldier? Am I ready to hold a sword? Am I ready to take a life? He wasn't entirely sure. He had never killed anyone before, of course. But he imagined that many of the people in this cave had never done that. He would just have to try to prepare himself for that possibility, like he had promised Mikis two days ago.
Two days ago... It seemed longer than that. Almost a lifetime. Integrating himself into the routine of the camp had also disconnected him from his memories of anything outside it. It was somewhat frightening to him how easy it was to get caught up in a new life. A new monotony. He had been through several of those sorts of changes throughout his years, and each time he felt like he was being drawn further and further from his true identity. This time, it wasn't just about changing his routine. It was about changing his way of thinking. From a noble to a lowborn. From a politician to a soldier. And hopefully, from a weak, childish man to a strong one.
He smiled as he looked at Matri. And this woman would teach him that. How to be a man. Makes sense, with my luck. "About as ready as I can be," he said. There was a moment of silence before Kirelon coughed. "Um, can I have my towel back now?"
"Oh, I guess," Matri sighed, throwing the article at him. Kirelon caught it somewhat awkwardly, slipping on the wet stones below him and almost falling into the spring. But he managed to catch himself and buried his face in the dryness of the towel so Matri couldn't see his embarrassment as she hooted with laughter. "Again," she said between her waning chuckles. "You're funny."
Their relationship was an interesting one, Kirelon had to admit. Nast had been busy with other things, presumably at the tavern, so Matri had been stationed here to help him with the transition. At least, that's what the official story was. Kirelon was positive that the real reason she was here--and why she was to be his teacher--was because Nast still didn't trust him enough to let him out of his proverbial sight. Kirelon wanted to think differently, wanted to believe that Nast trusted him, finally, but as hard as he tried, the Speaker couldn't lie to himself.
He liked Matri, he really did. She had been nothing but helpful and friendly to him since the day he had woken from his semi-comatose state what seemed like months ago. But there was still this tension between them. Unspoken, but lingering in the background, always seen in the corner of Kirelon's eye. He could sense it from her, too. The humor and the teasing was just her way of pretending that things were normal.
He was probably overthinking all of this. He overthought everything. He glanced up at Matri in between bouts of drying himself off with the towel. She was watching him, which made Kirelon more than a little uneasy. His discomfort must have shown on his face, since she blushed and turned away. Every day, Kirelon had found himself thinking more and more of Matri. She was nice. More than nice. Maybe he...
He stopped that line of thought before it could get any further. Not here, not now. Not in this world. He slid his shirt back on and glanced up at Matri, who was looking off towards the smoke rising from the kitchens. "So, why exactly did you come out here, Matri? I didn't think you were usually up this early." Matri wasn't really anyone special in the makeshift hierarchy of the little rebellion. Just a common soldier, though obviously working in close proximity to Nast most of the time. It stilled confused him that it was to be Matri training him, even if Kirelon already understood the reasoning behind it.
"I'm not," Matri replied, making a face. "Nast wanted me to get you started as soon as possible today. No time to waste and all that. Are you hungry?"
Kirelon nodded. "Do you know what we're having today?"
"Something edible, I'd imagine," she shrugged, then smirked. "Yeah, I don't have a clue. Wanna go find out? Even if the food's not ready yet, I could give you some on-the-job training as a sneak thief and have you filch a few morsels anyway." She gave him a devious look.
"My first real day as a soldier and you're going to get me in trouble. You're overwhelming sometimes, do you know that?"
"Overwhelmingly convincing, I hope. At least my stomach hopes."
Kirelon laughed, letting some of his tension go, and followed Matri down towards the cook fires.
The food was ready, which seemed to mildly disappoint Matri. "No stealing today," she huffed glumly as they got in line behind the two or three early-risers that had gotten to the meal before them. They could hear the rest of the camp waking up on the other side of the cave, which made Kirelon glad that they had gotten here when they had. He'd rather not wade through an ocean of sweaty soldiers to get a scrap of bacon when it was so much simpler without the bustle.
The two of them sat at one of the far tables, joking and laughing like school children before Captain Rizo gave Matri a disapproving look. After that, they kept their banter to a low murmur and their laughter to broken chuckles between bites of cheese. As Kirelon licked his fingers after a particularly good bit of sausage, an image of his uncle flashed in his mind. His Aunt Mele's husband, the one that she had gone travelling the world with. He had been a wonderful cook, and this sausage tasted just like the ones he used to make. He supposed it should have surprised him more, the excellence of the food here. But after growing up with the finest Argosson had to offer, you came to expect excellence more than mediocrity. At least in the food. That saddened him a bit. Though lowborn never starved--Skyman forbid the perfect structure of the Argo government fall that far--he couldn't imagine they ate this good on a regular basis. Maybe he should have abstained from the rich food of the nobility more often. It would've made him feel less guilty, anyway.
The more he lived in the Lower City, the more Kirelon came to understand just how much he had always taken for granted. And the more he scoffed at his meager attempts to play politics in the grand scheme of things. Had he ever truly understood these people? You liked to think you did as a noble, especially a Speaker, since that was your job, but it was easy to get entangled in the day-to-day monotony of any situation. Enough that you got good at ignoring things that could disrupt that routine.
"What are you thinking about, Melos?" Matri asked. Kirelon realized that he had been staring at nothing while his mind had run in circles. He blinked and glanced at his friend. Her eyes were twinkling mischievously. "You always look so dramatic when you're thinking, did you know that?" She seemed to have forgotten her own question.
Kirelon let out a small chuckle. "No, as a matter of fact, I did not know that. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?"
"That depends on whether or not you want to be considered dramatic."
Kirelon pushed his empty plate back--it seems that he had unknowingly finished his food while he had been lost in thought--and stood up, stretching. "I can tell that this conversation is going to go in circles." He tried to sound teasing about it, but it came out a bit more forceful than he had imagined.
Matri seemed to blink away the mischievous look in her eyes and stood up, grabbing her own empty plate and clearing her throat. "Yeah, we should probably get started, anyway." Kirelon moved to take his plate but Matri grabbed it and put it atop her own. "Don't worry about it," she said, jerking her head towards the training field on the eastern side of the cave. "Go ahead and get one of the practice swords from the rack and stretch a bit."
Kirelon stood for a moment longer, watching her leave. Part of him had wanted to sit there and talk with Matri for hours. But he didn't want to get himself emotionally invested in something that wouldn't happen. Not for him. Not now. Not in this world. He sighed and trotted over to the training field, trying to think of anything else but the way Matri had been looking at him.
The training "field" was actually just a flat strip of rock cleared of most scattered rocks by Pohn and his team. There were several racks of weapons, real and practice, and a few similar racks of armor--leather and chain mostly, but there were two suits of Argosson military plate as well. Where they had gotten those, Kirelon couldn't imagine. The police tended to keep a very strict eye on their equipment, especially in the Lower City. Lowborn revolutions just like the one he was a part of right now had always been a threat for as long as the history books could remember, and there had been a few rather bloody ones too, on account of military equipment or personnel being used on both sides. When Kirelon had been lobbying to change some of the laws governing lowborn, he had stayed as far away as possible from the military jurisdiction. No one would have given him an ounce of ground on that front.
It looked as if this would be another one of those revolutions, and not for the first time in the past few days, Kirelon wondered if he was making a mistake. He had read the history books. Lowborn revolutions always got put down. And things were always worse for them afterward. Even the one rebellion that had actually managed to succeed--around a hundred years ago, a group of lowborn had escaped Argosson and started their own settlement independent of their former masters--wasn't really considered a success by anyone. Most recent news suggested that they were having a bad crop this year, but the little town had always barely survived all sorts of natural disasters and infestations.
Kirelon wandered over to one of the racks with leather armor and started putting it on over the simple brown clothing that was Lower City standard. One buckle at a time, he strapped himself in the hide, his thoughts still scattered. He went over to a weapon rack and picked up a fake sword carved out of two pieces of wood, one consisting of the blade and hilt and the other a simple crossguard. Whoever had made them had been showing off just a bit--it really looked like the real thing, not some halfhearted attempt at a pointy wooden board. He gave it a few test swings. It felt pretty solid. He picked up one of the real swords and found to his surprise that the two felt pretty equally weighted. There weren't very many trees with dense wood near Argosson--most were rather light and easily broken. Kirelon had found in his wanderings as an adolescent that most of the natural world was really rather fragile, relying on mobility or stealth to protect itself rather than toughness. Except for the mountains themselves, of course.
"You should probably put the real one away before you cut yourself," Matri said from behind him. Kirelon glanced back and smirked."No, I'm serious, they're pretty sharp."
Kirelon blinked and then put the sword back on its rack. "Well, Master Matri," he said, bowing. "What will you teach me first? How to fend off thirty men at once?"
"No," Matri said. "First I'm going to teach you how to breathe."
And she did. Kirelon felt like he was going to pass out after the first few minutes, but eventually he found a sort of rythym that worked. In and out, in and out. Matri was deadly serious about the whole thing, and so Kirelon didn't say a word, didn't dare break the pattern of breathing to ask why in the world they were doing this.
"Fighting, battle, killing," Matri listed after what seemed like hours. Kirelon perked up and was just a little bit ashamed of how quickly he broke his pattern and was an inhaling and exhaling mess again. He had almost got it. "It is a very spiritual experience." Matri was holding her arms in front of her, hands clasped together, and her face was wrinkled with concentration as she looked Kirelon in the eye.
Kirelon nodded, not entirely sure what else was expected of him.
Matri continued on. "Most people can't kill. Or at least, it's incredibly difficult for them to do so. You have to be broken down. You have to be desensitized to violence. It can be brutal, horrible even, to systematically break down the walls surrounding your conscious mind, forbidding you from taking someone else's life. But that's what we're going to have to do."
Kirelon swallowed, exhaled, and shivered.
"It's going to take quite a while, Melos, to get you to the point where you could stick a sword in someone's eye and not even flinch. Maybe you're one of the few who already don't care, but I doubt it. You would probably know by now."
With no change in facial expression, no tentative pause after her last words, or even a single flinch before moving, Matri burst into motion, grabbing one of the wooden training swords from the rack and swinging it straight at Kirelon.
The Speaker cursed as he feebly tried to block her with his own weapon, but he took the blow straight to the chest and was knocked to the ground. The wind was knocked from his lungs and took his cursing with it, leaving him breathless and still on the cave floor. The first sensation he had, after a brief moment of nothingness that stretched out like an eternity, was a flush upon his cheeks. The next sensation, of course, was the aching of his rib cage.
"What was that for?" he gasped, his cheeks flushing further in spite of his fervent wish that they would go back to normal. Why was it that the first thing he had felt was embarrassment? That, more than anything, embarrassed him. "I thought we were learning about breathing."
Matri looked down at him with cool eyes as he gasped and sputtered, trying to rise as he winced and prodded his chest with his fingers. "It looks like you're learning plenty about breathing to me."
He looked up at her with what he knew must have been a hurt expression. "And I suppose you're about to tell me something like 'the enemy isn't going to wait around for you to finish breathing before they hit you right in the--'"
"On your feet, soldier." It was a tone she had never taken with him before. He felt a stab of aching pain. It wasn't his ribs. "And stop complaining. We have a lot to get through, and I expect you to do as you're told."
There was one more pregnant pause before Kirelon got to his feet, trying as hard as he could not to wince. Or make a rude gesture. "Yes, ma'am," he said. "What's next?"
Matri cleared her throat. "It depends on the enemy, Melos. Some men are born killers and they won't give you a second glance. Most people will always hesitate before they go for a kill. That doesn't mean they won't hurt you--of course they will. But they're going to be trying as hard as possible to avoid killing if they don't have to.
"And that's why it's so important to train you to be in the first category. So you can kill them before they can kill you."
Before she had finished her last remark, she was already swinging the sword again, this time at Kirelon's head. He was ready for it this time, though, and felt quite satisfied with himself as he ducked the swing and came back up again. He grinned at Matri and started to say something when her backswing took him in the shoulder and knocked his sword out of his grip.
Kirelon grimaced and cried out, holding his shoulder and involuntarily glaring at Matri. She gave him a cool, appraising look. He closed his eyes and sighed, taking his hand away and steeling himself. So, this was how it was going to be. No fun and games, now. Alright, he thought. I can do this. This is what I signed up for.
He opened his eyes, ready for another swing, but Matri had lowered her weapon. "You're too trusting, Melos," she said without changing her expression. But something in her tone had softened. "You have to be as hard as steel if this is going to work."
I don't know if that's who I am. He wanted to say it out loud, but he bit his tongue instead and nodded, trying to look confident.
"I want you to hit me."
"I want you to take that piece of wood of yours and swing it at me as hard as you can." She turned around so that she was facing away from him, causing the tail of her hair to bob. "And don't tell me when you're going to do it."
"No more words, Melos. Swing."
Kirelon stared at the back of her head for several eternity-spanning seconds. Is she crazy? All this will accomplish is Matri getting hurt for no reason. What's the point? But beyond his initial hesitation, Kirelon knew what she was trying. She was trying to get him to be ruthless--to break through that block she had been talking about. He had thought that it would be easier than this, but he was standing here and just staring at her, and he hadn't moved a muscle. He didn't want to hurt her. He would rather swing this practice sword at himself.
"Melos..." Her tone was fierce. Even angry. Everything was happening slowly all of the sudden--Kirelon noticed Matri's knuckles turn white as she gripped the hilt of her own training sword with iron in her fingers. And then she started to turn. He knew, in an instant, that she was going to turn around and hit him in the face with her sword. He reacted, bringing up his weapon and swinging with all his might at her head.
He closed his eyes. There was a scream.
His weapon didn't connect with anything. Instead, his swing went wild through the air and he stumbled, off-balance and confused. He opened his eyes and saw Matri running away. It took a moment for his mind to adjust to what was happening. What was she...? And then he saw it himself. A soldier was limping into the cavern from the west entrance, his face red with his shouting and his body slick with blood.
"I'm sorry! I'm so sorry!" he was screaming. "Speaker! There was a Speaker!"
Kirelon's blood went cold.
The entire camp was in chaos. The soldiers, who had been alternatively relaxing or training, were now bustling about the cavern, arming themselves as quickly as possible and getting into position to guard every entrance. They were treating this breach with an almost overbearing seriousness, but Kirelon supposed he couldn't blame them. In the short time he had been among the lowborn, he had come to understand all too well the paranoia one could develop when one knew that Domination and death could happen any time there was open sky.
Or when someone else knew too much.
Kirelon hesitantly skirted the edge of the training field, heading towards the spot where Matri and Mikis were now in a heated discussion about the fate of the wounded soldier. The man had collapsed shortly after his frightened proclamation, and Matri had dragged him towards the field of cots that covered a large portion of the cave. Even from where Kirelon had stood in the middle of the training ground, he could see that her face was grim. He knew what that face meant. This lone soldier's allegiance was going to be called into question. Once a Speaker was involved, everyone started suspecting everyone else of being traitors. It had always been one of the saddest parts of being a Speaker, for Kirelon.
As he made his way towards Matri and Mikis, he tried to decide how he would go about doing what he had known he was going to try as soon as he had seen Matri's face. Kirelon would be able to tell with ease whether or not this soldier was being Linked with. In a perfect world, he would be able to share this information and the man wouldn't have to be imprisoned, or worse. Of course, the moment he revealed to everyone that he could sense that there was no Link, everyone would probably try to kill him. And that would be the end of everything he had tried to accomplish in the Lower City.
It frustrated Kirelon to no end that he couldn't use Domination or even the Link here in the Lower City. Though he was very confident in his abilities--it was one of the few things about himself he seemed to have any confidence in these days--he had never found a time when it had been worth the risk to try to subtly use them. That hadn't stopped him from craving it, though. As Kirelon started to come near enough to his shouting allies to start picking out intelligible words, he was slightly repulsed by the realization. He was addicted to Linking. Not incredibly so, of course--he had never been as obsessive in the practice as some of his fellow Speakers had been, but going for so long without indulging in the practice did seem to have a physical effect on him. That scared him.
"He's too dangerous," Matri spat at Mikis, her face red with anger. From her tone and Mikis' face, this was probably the seventh or eighth time she had proclaimed that bit of information. Matri's vehemence brought Kirelon out of his thoughts. He sighed and shook his head. Why was his head always somewhere else when he needed it to be here, on the problem at hand?
"He's one of our own," Mikis said, eyes narrowed. "I won't even think about it."
Matri lowered her voice and said something that Kirelon couldn't hear.
Mikis gave her such a furious look that she took a step backward. Kirelon stopped where he was, a few dozen feet away from them. He had never seen Mikis so passionate about anything. Granted, he hadn't known the man for longer than a few days, but even he could tell that the look was off on Mikis' face.
"Don't you ever invoke her name like that again, soldier." The words were not shouted, but they might as well have been. Matri looked stunned, ashamed even. "She went through a tragedy. And to try to bring that up again, just to get your own agenda across. She would have hated it."
Matri looked away. Mikis put a hand to his brow and turned back towards the wounded soldier, who was lying on a nearby cot. "We have time to decide what to do. I won't make a final judgement yet. Maybe we can contact her..."
"She would have been wary, sir," Matri said, then put a hand to her mouth, as if she was surprised to have spoken.
"I know that," Mikis said, not looking back at her. "I also know that she wouldn't just abandon one of her own soldiers just because there might be a chance he's being Dominated. It's not like it's the boy's fault."
Kirelon took the silence that followed to make his way up to the both of them. He glanced at Matri, but she refused to meet his eye, looking away again at some distant point. He went up to Mikis, standing beside the cot. "One of our own was Dominated, then?" He realized that it might not have been the best moment to jump into the conversation. He was just a new recruit, after all, no special authority. But he had to know. He had to try.
Mikis nodded. "Apparently, they were guarding the west entrance--the one Nast showed you--and this man's companion suddenly drew a knife on him and tried to kill him. He was seriously injured; lost a lot of blood. Barely made it into camp before he passed out from it all. Now we have to decide what risk it all brings. Are there more Dominated in the camp? And so on."
Kirelon waited for more explanation, but when none came, he asked the question he knew had to come next. "And you think he might've been lying? You think he might be Dominated himself--maybe tried to kill his companion and something went wrong, so he had to make up this story?"
Mikis' silence was all the answer Kirelon needed. The Speaker nodded to himself. So, he was going to have to try to Link with the man. He had to know if he was a threat. Not just to himself, though he remembered hearing back at Nast's establishment that there was a search party looking for him, but to the camp. If this man was Dominated, they would probably have to move locations again, and fast. He glanced at the man lying on the cot. He had thick bandages wrapped around his lower torso--it looked like he had been stabbed near the stomach. Kirelon had a momentary flash of uneasiness as he realized that this was the position he was deliberately placing himself in--he was going to have to deal with injury, maybe death. He forced himself to keep looking at the soldier, forced himself to notice the redness seeping into the bandages.
"Is he going to live?" Kirelon asked.
Mikis grunted. "Probably. Our surgeon happens to be out right now--he doesn't have a lot of time to be able to come here, and he's too valuable to always be risking him coming in and out of the cave. If he can hold out until then, he should be fine. The problem right now is bleeding. But we got him bandaged up pretty quickly--he should live."
Kirelon knew that somewhere in the back of both Mikis and Matri's minds there was a perverse hope that the man would just die and relieve them of the responsibility of figuring out if he had betrayed them all. Kirelon looked closer at the man's face. He had lighter brown hair matted across his face and to his head by sweat, smallish features, and a few freckles. Kirelon didn't recognize him, but that was nothing new. He still didn't know most of the other people in the cave. There were many revolutionaries, and they were all on rotating shifts. You saw lots of faces, but you didn't really remember many of them or were able to place a name to them. It was probably better that way.
He tried to think of the best way to Link to the man. It might be risky to try it while he was sleeping. If he was out strongly enough, it would be relatively easy for Kirelon to Link with him, figure out what he needed to know, and move on without waking the man. If he was closer to consciousness, though, it was entirely possible that he could sense the intrusion, wake up, and be able to identify Kirelon in a matter of moments for what he was. And that was a prospect that was very unpleasant. Especially after the ferocity Matri had shown. Kirelon decided to take the risk. He sent out a probing tendril of thought, feeling the pressure of the man's mind against his reach. He hesitated for only an instant more before he Linked with the soldier.
The sensation was entirely different from normal Linking. He had only done it this way a few times before, but without the normal sensory input of a fully aware person, a Link with someone who was sleeping felt more like a dream than anything. Any sensations he felt from the soldier were infinitely muted, as if he was trying to hear the skittering of insects from the other side of a huge canyon. Everything echoed endlessly. Kirelon hoped that his body wouldn't be showing overt signs of dispossession. He silently prayed that there wouldn't be any terrible shocks in the man's mind--if Kirelon keeled over during the midst of this, he would have to do some quick explaining to not be suspected of being Dominated himself.
He probed as boldly as he dared, trying to find the telltale signs of another Link. He didn't see anything initially, but that didn't prove that were was nothing to find. It just meant the signs might be hidden deeper. After what was hopefully only a few dozen seconds, he relaxed his mind with a flood of relief. There was nothing here. The man was innocent. He swam back up through the thickness of the subconscious mind and severed the Link. He was once more standing in front of the soldier laying on the cot.
Mikis had asked him a question. He could tell by the look in the man's face. Try to look natural. Like you've been contemplating something. That shouldn't be too hard, given that it's basically all I ever do. "I'm sorry," he said, blinking and trying to look surprised. "I didn't hear you. My mind was somewhere else." Oh, that was subtle, he chided himself.
Mikis frowned. "I asked you what you thought we should do about this."
Kirelon took a deep breath. He would have to play this off carefully. He knew the man was innocent. They didn't know--couldn't know. How could Kirelon clear the soldier's name without implicating himself?
"I think we should be wary, of course..." He noticed that Matri had stepped up beside them. He could sense her eyes on him, but he focused on Mikis instead. "But he's one of your own. I mean, one of us. We can't start fighting each other. We're going to have enough trouble fighting them." He pointed skyward. Or...cave-ceilingward.
"You're both being too soft," Matri said, and though her tone was just as heated as it had been, her words were spoken quietly. "Da--" she hesitated. "She wouldn't want us to be betrayed again. So much could be lost."
"Of course she wouldn't," Mikis said, looking away from Kirelon and to Matri. "But she also wouldn't want us to kill her own cousin!"
"I know that," Matri said, not backing down. "But it's not what she would have wanted that matters. It's what we need now. It's about what she taught us to do. Whatever is necessary."
"Bah," Mikis said, waving his hand dismissively. "You're just saying that because... Forget it. Fine, have it your way, Matri. We'll give him a sky-cursed trial if that's what you want. Just stop talking about her as if you know what she would say if she was here. Because you don't." And he turned on his heel and stormed off.
Silence. Kirelon stared at his feet for a long time, wondering about the slip up that had just been made. Had Matri been about to say the name of this mysterious leader who he had suspected existed? That seemed like the most obvious answer. Why were they making such a big deal about not saying her name? Kirelon was quiet for as long as he dared, refusing to meet Matri's eyes, before he glanced up and spoke. "Listen, I don't really understand what's going on here." He thought for a moment about pressing the issue of the person they had been speaking about, but decided against it. Not the time. "But we can't just condemn someone to death--someone who has sworn to fight for the same thing we have--just because it would be more convenient for us."
"It's not about that. It's about checking every angle, every possible risk, before deciding to give someone, even... Even him--" she pointed at the wounded woman as she spoke. "--the benefit of the doubt."
Kirelon frowned. "But, if we start fighting each other--"
"You don't get it, do you? There can't be any mistakes in any of this, Melos. One misstep, and the whole sky-cursed mountain falls on us. How can you not see that? I see that. It's what I was just trying to teach you back in the field. It's what I was taught. We have to be careful. We have to be ruthless. Willing to go to any lengths to buy our freedom. If we aren't willing to do that, we've failed before we've even begun."
Matri started to walk away. Kirelon grabbed her arm. "If that's who we are, then how are we any better than the ones above us? That's their mindset. That's the same sky-cursed ideology that got us into this mess. History tells us--"
"Save it, Melos," Matri said as she pulled her arm away. "History is not on our side. It was written by them. Even the stupid histories that were written by those lowborn scholars you love so much. That's what living in the Lower City is. Always knowing that lowborn aren't in control of their own lives, that we're being constantly toyed with and controlled by our oppressors. You always have to expect someone else of being the traitor, because if they aren't...then it's you."
She walked away, and Kirelon found himself standing alone by the cot. His stomach churned as he thought about the overwhelming hopelessness that lowborn must feel every day living in this place. He remembered how he had felt that night, what seemed so long ago, when he had sat in his favorite tree and tried to visual himself at the head of a lowborn army.
He almost laughed.
He looked down at the man on the cot, watching as his chest moved up and down with the shallow rhythm of his breath. They both knew that he was innocent. And because of that knowledge, Kirelon had just set himself against the mindset of every other person in the camp. In that brief moment of realization, he felt lonelier than he had in a long time.