NOTE: For any of you who have read Legacy, I recycle names in this story but they're definitely not the same characters.
"I got just two words of advice for you: don't die."
Strife's eyes flew open and an instant later he tumbled out of his bed, filled with a wild panic that he'd be late. He frantically looked out the only window in his room and was relieved to find that the sun hadn't even risen yet.
He had slept fitfully the night before, and waking up with his friend's grim 'advice' ringing in his head didn't help calm his racing heart. It only reminded him that he and Siren would fight today, and one of them would die.
Strife felt nervousness twist a leaden knot in his stomach. He was up early, but there was no chance he'd be able to get any more sleep. So he changed into the loose shirt and pants dyed a deep earthy red that was the uniform of the full-fledged Nari Warrior. He usually felt pride and at least a small sense of belonging whenever he wore the outfit, but today, all he could think about was how it was the same color as old blood. His hands began shaking so badly at the thought that he couldn't tie his sword-belt.
Get a grip, Strife said sharply to himself, taking a few deep breaths. You've been preparing for this for the past year and you've practiced with Siren every day for the last three months. You're better than her. You know it.
He felt calmer, and his hands steadied. He securely tied his belt. He then picked up his crimson bandanna, folded it carefully, and bound it across his forehead, right below his hairline. Finished, he quickly left his room before he succumbed to the urge to hide in his bed until the day was over.
As he walked down the cold, stone hallway, he passed by his father's chamber. He glanced inside and then thanked the gods for small blessings. Early as it was, his father was already gone. Relieved, Strife headed for the kitchen.
"Strife! I had a feeling you'd be awake," Yana greeted him warmly when he entered. His old nurse smiled at him and gestured towards the table, where a large breakfast awaited him. "These are just the leftovers from the Shukar's meal, I'm making you some more right now. Eat up!"
"Thank you," Strife replied. Her cooking smelled marvelous, as usual, and he saw that she had thoughtfully prepared all of his favorites. Yet even as he sat down, fully prepared to gorge himself, his stomach suddenly turned.
This might be the last meal I ever eat…
"Sorry Yana…but uh…I'm not really hungry," he said to her over the sound of her cooking.
"Don't be silly," the petite, aging woman admonished him, not turning away from the stove. "How do you expect to win on an empty stomach?"
Strife didn't reply. Instead he abruptly stood up and left the room before she could discover that he was gone. He knew that if she had noticed him leave she would've smothered him in an uncomfortably tight hug. She'd probably begin to cry too, because even she, his staunchest supporter and the only mother he'd ever known, knew that he could die today.
The door slammed shut behind him even as he heard her call his name. He hurriedly ran down the steep steps that led him into the village before she could chase after him with her frying pan.
He spent the next thirty minutes meandering towards the center of the village at the slowest pace possible. When the clouds to the east glowed with soft pinks and yellows and smoke began rising from chimneys as if to greet the sun, Strife knew he had stalled long enough.
He quickened his pace and soon found himself in front of the great wooden doors of the gyresi, his heart racing once again. The huge stone building was the oldest and most important structure of the entire village. Here was where he had learned what it meant to be a member of the Nari clan, had performed the rituals for the gods, had received his Clan-name, sword, and crimson bandanna on the day he became a Nari Warrior. Here was where every single clan member would gather for the most important ritual of all, for the maitsen; the death-duel.
Strife took a deep breath and then pushed open the heavy doors. He entered the gyresi with the same sense of awe he had of the building since he was a small boy. Tall pillars supported the high, arched roof and there were many large windows, giving the gyresi a majestic, airy feel. The floor was mostly meticulously polished stone, except for a great circle in the center of the building that was made of smoothly sanded wood. Stone benches radiated outward from the wooden ring, creating a large assembly hall that centered on the patch of sunken floor.
His father was standing in the wooden circle and ordering around his attendants with the imperious authority only the Shukar of the village had the right to wield. Despite his graying black hair and lined face, he looked as imposing as ever in his formal red and gold robe and stood proud and straight.
Don't know why he'd need a replacement, considering the shape he's in, Strife thought sullenly.
His father had heard him enter, although the doors were a good fifty paces away from the wooden circle. The wiry, middle-aged man turned his head and caught his son's gaze. Strife had to force himself from looking away, for his father's disapproving black eyes sent a chill down his spine.
"Hey," a low voice suddenly said from the shadows.
Strife started and turned quickly in the direction of the voice, just missing his father's deep frown. He sensed who it was almost immediately.
"Do you always have to pull this little stunt of yours, Edge?" Strife snapped, exasperated.
Edge stepped out from behind one of the pillars. He was dressed head-to-toe in the close-fitting black garb of the Shinobi, complete with the inscrutable mask that hid the bottom of his face. Yet Strife knew his friend was smiling.
"As long as it keeps on working," Edge replied wryly.
"Practice your spying skills on someone else. I'm kinda busy right now. You know, what with the whole I-might-die-an-hour-from-now business," Strife said sarcastically.
"You have nothing to worry about. Just take my advice," the Shinobi said mildly.
"Very funny. You know it kept me up almost all night? You're sick."
"Well if you don't die, you win. What's so sick about that?" Edge asked innocently, his brown eyes glinting with amusement. But he quickly picked up that Strife was not in a joking mood, and so his next words were grave. "I'll be monitoring the maitsen for the Shinobi today, Strife. I'm supposed to be completely impartial, but I wanted you to know that if things get ugly…I'll be watching out for you."
"Don't worry, I'll win," Strife said with supreme confidence, hiding how much the Shinobi's words had affected him. Edge's past put him in a precarious position within both the Nari and Shinobi clans and he would be endangering his own reputation if he helped Strife.
"And here come the masses," Edge said with mock contempt, jerking his head towards the door to indicate the villagers streaming into the building. "I better get back to my seat before some snot-nosed brat steals it."
"Yeah," Strife said reluctantly, sorry to see his friend go. There was a sense of finality about their conversation that he didn't like, and yet he couldn't seem to find anything to say that'd fix it. All he could do was stop himself from saying 'goodbye.'
"Well, don't get your ass kicked," Edge called over his shoulder as he joined the crowd.
"You're just full of good advice, aren't you?" Strife shouted back.
Edge merely thrust his black-clad arm above his head and flipped him off.
Strife started to laugh, but it died in his throat as he suddenly saw the face of his father over the heads of the crowd. The Shukar's expression was one of open wrath.
Strife sighed and hurriedly pushed through the crowd, trying hard not to feel like a foreigner when surrounded by his small, dusky, dark-haired, dark-eyed people. He hated being with other people from the village because they only accentuated how different he was. When he finally stepped into the circle, everyone seated around him could see him clearly and he could feel hundreds of critical eyes absorbing his height, his pale skin, light hair and shockingly blue eyes. Strife desperately searched the rows for Yana and Edge, for he knew that they would not look at him with contempt, but the old woman and the Shinobi were lost in the crowd. He was alone, a strange specimen under the scrutiny of unforgiving eyes.
"Mommy," a young boy said from one of the closer rows, "how can the Shukar be his daddy?"
His mother quickly hushed him, but not before Strife and his father heard the child's words.
Strife blushed and looked at the ground, fervently wishing that he could somehow sink into it. He waited miserably for his father's swiftly approaching feet to stop in front of him.
"I ask myself the same question every day," the Shukar said to him in a low, cold voice. "I can't believe that you were chosen as one who could succeed my office," he spat, his words dripping with scorn. "But if you fail me today, if you can't beat that woman once and for all, then you are not worthy of being my son."
Strife whipped his head up and looked his father in the face, anger and shame overcoming his fear. "My mother loved another man and you killed them both for it," Strife said with quiet intensity, "You punish me because I look like her. Tell me, father, what else do you have to do to make up for your bruised ego?"
The Shukar's face contorted with fury and he raised his hand as if to strike his son, and then suddenly stopped himself as he remembered where they were. The previously noisy crowd was now deathly silent and all eyes were fixed on the people inside the circle.
The Shukar slowly lowered his hand, shaking with pent rage. Strife looked at him levelly, feeling a curious thrill at openly defying his father.
A low rumble came from the crowd seated near the path that opened up into the wooden ring. From the sound of it, Strife's opponent had arrived.