One of the people in these formal black and white robes did a censing at this point, trailing the delicate scented smoke through the room in circles and whorls and curliques that would have suited the taste of the most ornate-craving person.
As it tickled my nose and the distant murmur of voices... Chevenga’s? The black and white wearing elders? I couldn’t tell. As it tickled my nose I realized that my mind had been hopping from frivolous thought to flighty idea for one reason; to avoid feeling how serious this was.
It was what Chevenga had to do. And he looked as though it was a fate so close to dying it was the toss of an ankarye which he would more happily do. Would he choose otherwise? Would Surya let him? This, for all that it had none of the trappings of what I understood as serious ritual, was as possibly deadly as the Ten Tens. Kall had said things about it that I had just not applied my concentrated attention to. I took a deep breath. I’d been afraid to see it. I’d been afraid to go so deep.
Some part of me whined that I was only nineteen. I told that part to shut up and began breathing deep, trying to sit down more groundedly, more as if I were meditating, to try and prepare myself to be a good witness for this thing... this ritual, and that was when Chevenga came into the gathering room, guided from the room where they kept their sacred ‘Sword of Saint Mother’.
The old sword master, Azaila, whispered a word in Chevenga’s ear and he took off Chirel and gave it to him. Was that it? But the old man slung it on over his own shoulder, reverently enough and turned to us all and raised his voice so every corner of the room was filled by it.
“First Virani-e Fourth Chevenga Shae-Arano-e comes today, to go asa kraiya, to cease being a warrior. By his free will, to undergo the ceremony by which one lays down the sword, by which one relinquishes the obligations, and the privileges, of a warrior. To this we are joined together to bear witness.”
The two of them stood next to an armour stand and Azaila touched Chevenga’s helmet and received it from him as he said. “By his own word, Virani-e comes to this in certainty that it is his choice.”
Both Chevenga’s greaves came off to two more statements.
“He chooses this in full knowledge of its meaning to himself.” And “He chooses this in reasonable knowledge of its meaning to others.”
Every time the war master touched another piece of Chevenga’s armoured shell and he removed it, his hands moved more and more deliberately. It was like watching a sea creature removing its own shell hide, exposing the delicate and tender self underneath.
“He chooses this without intention to regret it.” Chevenga himself said, and had said to me more than once. ‘Do nothing you regret. Regret nothing you do.’
“He chooses this in acceptance that many will not understand.” By this point Chevenga’s hands were shaking.
“He chooses this knowing that he will become one of those who will not fight and so much be protected by those who do.” That was for the breastplate and Chevenga gasped as if drowning, his eyes clenched shut as he moved. Sweat stood out on his face. All around me I could feel the intensity of us all watching. Kall was matching breathing with Chevenga as if he could help him. Water welled up in my eyes. He was doing it. He was managing to open himself up, to emerge from the shell of war, bare to a world that had taught him it was both deadly and dangerous.
He was willing to make himself so open to the world that had cut into his soul hard enough, nearly, to destroy him. He had to crack himself open and I suddenly had the image of a water-lion forcing itself out of the depths of the Arkan Lake or river where it had lived and breathed safely, into a harsh alien sunlight, Muunas’s gaze drying and cracking its skin, its shell, its life.
We were in a safe, comforting space so that he could even bear to attempt this. The water-lion could not know that beneath the mud and steel coloured carapace soft, vulnerable, fiery wings waited to unfurl. What kind of metaphoric fiery wings were those who were asa kraiya capable of? I was not enough a warrior, to ever find out. I managed not to let my tears spill for his struggle, and told myself that – like a Yeoli – I would be most with him to watch, to witness his struggles out of his old life.
Azaila whispered more encouragement to him. At least I thought it was encouragement. Perhaps it was instruction. But Chevenga began to sob. I was reminded of my new half-sister. Didn’t all the newly born weep?
“He chooses it knowing that it means he will have to refuse if he is called upon to help defend Yeola-e,” Azaila said, relentlessly, even as Chevenga wept and knelt to remove his own boots. I could see the tiny wet circles upon the floor, swept aside as he rose, barefoot. The water-lion dragged himself out of the salvation of water, into what it must see as Hayel, instead of Selestialis. For a water creature the air was not deliverance or escape.
“He chooses it by the urgings of the God-in-Him.” Chevenga, emerging from his armour was as wet as if he were truly a water-lion newly emerged, frozen, claws clinging doggedly to the alien dryness.
“He chooses it for the reason that it is his wish.” Azaila reached out and touched Chevenga’s wristlets as he said this, dropped his hands and waited.
Chevenga was no longer weeping, though the tears stood on his face, unwiped. He shuddered all over and seized control of himself. The wristlets that had saved his life so many times in the Mezem and on the battlefield, the wristlets that were the mark and sigil of a Yeoli warrior. The wristlets he had earned, by sending enemies of Yeola-e to whatever afterlife they envisioned. They might as well be tattooed on in bloody ink around his wrists.
His teeth chattered as if he were icy cold in this room that was almost as warm as Arko, but even as he gazed through and past us all, to somewhere else, to some other realm of spirit or mind, his hands moved and he gently, almost delicately, removed first his shield-hand wristlet, then his sword-hand wristlet and laid them softly in Azaila’s knobby old bare hands.