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Ring of Truth
Bezzi-ibbi watched his two friends, no, his two brothers stare at the wall for a moment after Dolos left. Henry snorted and the spell of silence broke. “Well, that just happened,” said Jason in Luda.
Bezzi-ibbi felt the ring weigh heavily in his pocket. He knew that if Henry saw it, he’d probably be more suspicious about it than Jason was. Henry learned first-hand that a ring can be more than it seems on Ludus.
He felt another surge of pride for these two idiot older brothers of his. He couldn’t understand what they said in their language with Dolos, but they’d talked without bending their backs or showing their bellies. He got the idea they probably didn’t get very good news, but that was what Dolos did; he used mortals for his own goals and always got more out of his bargains than he gave. Always.
Bezzi-ibbi absently patted Jason’s arm and said, “Family.” It was one of the only Luda words he didn’t hate saying. He knew some people assumed that he couldn’t speak Luda very well, but they didn’t know he loathed his old language instructor. Bezzi-ibbi said he’d never speak Luda again. As he got older, he realized this vow wasn’t very realistic, but he could still speak Luda badly!
Henry and Jason started talking about boring things like escaping the warehouse and the fire. They were both there and they were still alive. It was obvious that Jason got out through a sewer or something, so what more was there to talk about?
As Henry and Jason kept babbling on, filling each other in about what the other had been doing, Bezzi-ibbi went to go find Mareen. He knew there was probably going to be a family meeting soon and Henry acted funny when she was around. It was funny. He’d only known these people for a short time but he already enjoyed being around them. They didn’t treat him like most other people did in the city, much less the Jaguar Clan. Henry in particular didn’t treat him like he was stupid or powerless.
As he walked to the other side of the house, he came across his father. Hajim-ibbi didn’t really understand Bezzi-ibbi’s reluctance to speak Luda, but he respected it. He said in Panum, “Ah, there you are Bezzi-ibbi. Where are our guests?”
“They just met with Dolos and now they’re catching up.”
“What?” Outwardly, his father seemed only mildly surprised but Bezzi-ibbi knew he was shocked down to his toe claws. “Where are they?”
“They’re in the side room of the hallway by the pantry.”
Hajim-ibbi took off at a fast walk, almost a jog. Now Bezzi-ibbi was sure there would be a big meeting. He loved his father but he was overly fond of meetings in Bezzi-ibbi’s opinion.
As he walked, Bezzi-ibbi reflected on how he was still a captive less than a day ago. It was pretty impressive that Henry and Jason were still so lively even though they did most of the fighting during the escape. In fact, Jason even had energy to get angry at Henry for interrupting his mating ritual. Still, even though he’d actually seen both men kill, Bezzi-ibbi couldn’t help thinking of them as goofy. Well, goofy older brothers now.
He smiled and admitted how happy he was that everything was changing. Without everything else going on, he knew people would be fussing all over him and barely letting him move. He didn’t want that. It was his fault he got captured in the first place. He didn’t want to be pampered or reminded of his weakness.
Mareen was in one of the guest bedrooms. She went to take a nap a while ago and asked to be woken up if anything important happened. Bezzi-ibbi figured she would consider a Family meeting important. Then again she’d probably consider anything important that Henry was involved in.
She had it bad. Even Bezzi-ibbi could see that. He personally had not been interested in a specific female yet but he could sort of understand the attraction. Sometimes when he saw a particularly sleek Mo’hali girl of one of the predator clans, when the light caught her fangs or her tail moved a certain way it snagged his attention like a hook. He felt almost entranced. It was a curious feeling and he didn’t entirely like it.
He knew he had to understand matters of the heart eventually. Bezzi-ibbi’s dream was to be a warrior poet, a jaguar troubadour. He couldn’t do that if the leaders of his Clan kept trying to keep him locked away from the outside world, though. He never asked to become the heir. But it was irrelevant; everyone knew the best Clan leaders were traveled and wise. How was he going to travel if they never let him leave the city?
He felt the ring Dolos gave him through the fabric of his pants and sighed. It was still surreal he possessed such a thing. In any other situation, he wouldn’t be crazy enough to ask Dolos for a boon, and he definitely wouldn’t be foolish enough to actually use it. But Bezzi-ibbi knew a chance when he saw one, a chance to reach for his dream. Almost any amount of risk was worth that.
He wouldn’t use it for anything less than an emergency, though. He just wished he wasn’t so sure that such a thing would probably happen soon.
Bezzi-ibbi found Mareen sleeping in the guest bed. She was slightly drooling. Bezii-ibbi chuckled; Terrans were so goofy looking. Their ears were so small and useless. In the past he didn’t understand why so many people were afraid of Terrans until he saw Henry and Jason fight. They were powerful, ruthless, and efficient. Bezzi-ibbi wanted to learn from them.
He poked Mareen awake and she groaned. “Meeting soon,” he said. “Big news.” Then he left. Mareen would either get up or she wouldn’t. Bezzi-ibbi didn’t dislike her, but he didn’t want to miss any of the coming entertainment either.
By the time he made it back to Henry and Jason, his father was already calling a meeting together. He was requiring all present Jaguar Clan leaders to attend. He was probably going to make the conversation with Dolos a matter of Clan knowledge. Bezzi-ibbi also suspected the Clan Elders were going to require Henry and Jason to prove themselves worthy of the Clan and the meeting would be where such a thing was announced.
He hoped it wouldn’t be too dangerous. If it was, the leaders would be less likely to let him come along. No, they would let him go. He desperately didn’t want to use it, but he a trick behind his claw. How do Terrans say it? Trump card? Trick up their sleeve? Bezzi-ibbi liked Terrans but he thought their idioms sounded kind of stupid.
Everyone crowded into the main room of the house including the branch member leaders. Some of the older Clan members were grumpy about getting up, it was night and some had been asleep after all. Bezzi-ibbi had a feeling they’d forget their gripes after hearing the news that Dolos visited the Clan house. He himself was still curious what Dolos said to Henry and Jason. He’d have to find out with everyone else.
Everyone gathered in record time. In fact, once all the Clan members realized the meeting was probably something important (which meant interesting), lower ranked Clan members began jockeying to be in the room too. They blocked all the hallways, trying to get a better view of the proceedings. Bezzi-ibbi, his father, his mothers, his siblings, and all the other leaders all had their own stools. The Ibbo and Abbi branch leaders were all in attendance. As was custom, all the wives sat slightly forward of their husbands.
On the side of the room, Henry, Jason, Mareen, and Uluula sat. Bezzi-ibbi owed Uluula for trying to take care of him while they were imprisoned, but Areva made him nervous sometimes. Uluula in particular was intimidating. Bezzi-ibbi heard stories of what Areva armies did to Mo’hali worlds in the distant past. After he met Uluula, he believed every word.
He examined his two Terran brothers more closely. They slumped forward like they weren’t used to sitting on stools like those the Mo’hali used. Chairs with backs weren’t very comfortable to sit in for people with tails. Bezzi-ibbi didn’t mind chairs with backs, but he knew he cared less about tradition than most of his people.
That was the real problem he might have tonight, though, wasn’t it? Tradition. He shook his head and paid attention to the meeting.
First, at his father’s prompting, Henry and Jason told everyone what Dolos said. Bezzi-ibbi was proud of them for speaking in the first place. He knew these men weren’t the quickest to trust, but he explained to Henry earlier how much of an honor (and how much Bezzi-ibbi risked) to adopt him. Bezzi-ibbi was also old enough to know that the two men being somewhat adrift and desperately needing some stability didn’t hurt either. His mother Henna-ibbi always said, “A smart hunter always knows when to break camp instead of going for the kill.” His birth-mother Banna-ibbi said, “Don’t get so tired you get stupid and kill yourself.” Bezzi-ibbi thought both saying were wise.
Bezzi-ibbi was shocked when he heard what Dolos said to Henry and Jason. Well, he was honestly a little excited too. War! All the greatest jaguar troubadours experienced war! Intellectually he knew war was terrible, but if war was coming to Ludus, his Clan had to realize they couldn’t keep him locked up anymore, right?
After the men were done speaking, the leaders all turned to look at Bezzi-ibbi and get his acknowledgment as witness. Had he really seen Dolos? He nodded and the leaders looked troubled. The fact that such reserved people looked worried meant with less self-control, they’d probably be running around, screaming and scratching the walls.
Still, this was the Jaguar Clan after all, so eventually they calmed down and resumed the meeting. The leaders all stared meaningfully at the Clan Chief and Henna-ibbi. She stood and began giving Henry and Jason the difficult news. “The Clan Elders have acknowledged that Bezzi-ibbi, the heir of the main branch Clan has adopted you two as brothers. Such a thing has not been done in over one hundred years. You must perform a task to be worthy of this honor.”
Henry’s expression fell, “Oh no.”
Jason shook his head at him. “Go on,” he said.
Henna-ibbi looked apologetic but continued, “What we’re about to tell you we would never tell anyone but Clan. We are running out of money and losing influence. This clan’s power was built on trade, but our caravans are disappearing. We need people to investigate and take care of the problem, but we can’t hire mercenaries or adventurers in case they talk and we can’t send a large group out or it would alert our enemies and leave us with fewer defenses. We didn’t have anyone within the Clan that we could send… until now.
Henry frowned, “So what you really mean is that we might be able to do the job, but we’re still expendable until we’re official Jaguar Clan, right?”
Some of the Elders bristled at Jason’s words and tone, but Bezzi-ibbi grinned. He liked Henry. Henry was like the hunter who was so brazen his prey didn’t think to run until it was too late.
Henna-ibbi didn’t look very happy about Henry’s tone either. She was a traditionalist after all, but she was also the Clan Mother and she knew her duty. “Your words are not untrue.”
Henry shook his head, “So let me get this straight. We just got word that your entire world could be under attack in a few years and we’re at least notionally part of your Clan right now, but you’re going to send us out on… what, an assassination mission? Some bullshit quest? How big are these caravans that are disappearing?
“About 10-20 people at a time have been disappearing, all trusted vassals.”
“So realistically, we’re talking about tracking down and killing at least that many bandits. Probably murderers, people who will not go quietly.
“What makes you think you have to kill them?
“Come on, lady. You’re only sending us? You didn’t mention sending any support with us and there’s no way me and Jason can capture twenty bandits alive. No, you’re asking us to kill for you and your Clan but you won’t even let us be part of it yet.”
The Elders and some of the others watching flexed claws at this outburst, but nobody moved. Henry-ibbi was baring his fangs but he hissed truth. Henna-ibbi was directly challenged but she couldn’t retaliate or save face. Henry saw right through the Elders. Bezzi-ibbi felt the power dynamic change. Henry-ibbi probably didn’t even realize what a terrible blow he just dealt to Henna-ibbi’s authority.
Jason put a hand on Henry’s arm, his friend kept frowning but he stopped talking. Jason’s voice was colder than usual when he asked, “What about equipment? I don’t think you’ll send us out there with just our knives and the clothes on our backs. It’s in your best interests if we succeed, after all.”
Bezzi-ibbi’s uncle stood to speak. “I stand as Yanno-ibbi, Clan armorer. As the Clan Mother said, we are out of resources. We can’t help you buy more armor. However, you are free to use anything in the armory in this house. Due to your status, it will be considered a loan until you complete your task, though.”
“I guess that’s better than nothing,” grumbled Henry.
Jason held up a hand, “I trust that since we’ve been told of the Clan’s problems, our participation in this venture is not a choice, correct?”
Yanno-ibbi sat down and Henna-ibbi answered, “That is correct. I apologize for the necessity. If you try to leave the Clan while knowing such vital information, we will have no choice but to count you an enemy. However, should you succeed, you will be granted main branch Clan status and privileges including a stipend.”
Bezzi-ibbi was shocked. The Clan problems were worse than he realized. The Elders were making an all or nothing move here. That would be foolhardy and illogical if another clan wasn’t actively planning to destroy them. It seemed Bezzi-ibbi wasn’t as well informed as he thought. He vowed to get to the bottom of the matter later and find out who their enemy was.
“But for this job, we will get paid, right?”
“Yes, but to transfer payment to you legally, you will need to be registered with either the Adventurer Guild or the city and the country for mercenary work. It will have to wait until you are full clan members.”
Mareen elbowed Henry in the leg. He made a confused face for a second until he grinned, “That won’t be a problem. We have the paperwork necessary to start our own Adventuring company.”
“That is surprising but lucky. It should save everyone time if nothing else. Do you have any other concerns?”
Jason looked at Henry before saying, “We will need a few days at least to prepare. Henry and I haven’t even been on this world that long. We need time and resources to plan. That means maps, gear, and space to practice our magic.”
Bezzi-ibbi knew the last portion of Henry’s request could make the Clan uncomfortable. Mo’hali usually didn’t pursue being mages and most weren’t gifted in magic, resulting in many of them fearing and mistrusting it. Still, Henna-ibbi nodded, representing then entire clan.
She said, “With that, I believe everything has been covered. Is there anyone else who wishes to speak? Do not whisper behind bushes, make your claims in the day.”
Bezzi-ibbi tensed. It was time. He stepped forward and said, “I stand as Bezzi-Ibbi, heir of the main branch Jaguar Clan. I wish to make my claim in the day.” Bezzi-ibbi spoke formally and in perfect Luda. Some of the Jaguar Clan members in the room looked more surprised at Bezzi-ibbi formally recognizing himself in Luda than they had at the news of an impending invasion by Dolos’ rival.
Henna-ibbi tensed warily. Bezzi-ibbi loved his mother, but he knew she didn’t really understand his wild heart. His father and his mother Kinwe-na-ibbi tolerated it, but only his birth-mother and Yanno-ibbi seemed to really understand him.
Bezzi-ibbi reverted to speaking in Panum, “I will be going with my brothers Henry-ibbi and Jason-ibbi. It is my responsibility and my right. I wish to make this known now so there is no confusion later.”
Henna-ibbi seemed to relax. She responded in Panum, saying, “That will not be happening. You are close to adult age but you are not there yet.”
Bezzi-ibbi bristled, “And when I become an adult, I will be weighed down with responsibility and kept safe with tradition. No. It was not my choice to be the Clan Heir, but since I am, I will become a great Clan Chief. To do that, I must leave this city or I will never understand the greater world. I am going with my brothers.”
His mother shook her head. Bezzi-ibbi glanced at his birth-mother and even she was not supporting him. The elders and leaders stared at him, wishing for him to be quiet and adhere to their expectations. He’d been in this argument before and he knew how it normally ended. So be it.
“I have made my decision.” He took the ring out of his pocket. “Since my Clan will not respect my wishes, I have no choice. I asked Dolos for a boon today and he gave me a Hero Ring.”
The entire Clan was very still. The Terrans had no idea what was going on, they just looked confused since everyone was talking in Panum. Only Uluula seemed to understand the language. She looked curious. Bezzi-ibbi wished he’d tried talking to her in Panum now when they were imprisoned together. He truly did hate speaking Luda.
Henna-ibbi whispered, “Bezzi-ibbi, please stop. If you put that on it will probably kill you.”
“I would rather die than live as prey in a cage. I would rather die and let someone else take my place than be anything less than the best chief I can be. I would rather die than not take an active part in saving my Clan. And I’d rather die than live without ever experiencing the path of a jaguar troubadour.”
Bezzi-ibbi’s father slowly stood. “I, Hajim-ibbi, Clan Chief of the Jaguar Clan forbid this. Bezzi-ibbi, stand down now!”
Bezzi-ibbi shook his head, “Father, I respect you and I will bow my back later, but I must do this. I cannot put out the fire in me that tells me to explore. Please forgive me.” Bezzi-ibbi slipped the ring onto his left hand.
The next few moments were confusing. There was a lot of noise and many people spoke at once. He felt hands on him and someone put a wet cloth on his forehead. He realized absently that he was on the floor. He kept hearing someone scream. As he drifted off to unconsciousness, he realized the screams were coming from his own throat.