Urus Noellor wondered what it felt like to die.
He leaned over the edge of the roof. Below, the glowing orange spiderweb of sunstone buildings and cobbled walkways spread outward from the palace, pushing back the cold dark of the moonless desert night.
Nestled along a strand of the luminous web of Kestian streets, the student barracks, by now filled to bursting with celebrating graduates, shone like a beacon of shame. Here on the roof, all was silent.
But even if he were among the graduates, Urus still would not be able to hear the cries of joy or the shouts of victory. He would never again be among those warriors.
He climbed onto the flat parapet and straightened his clothes—a futile gesture. The simple white tunic and pants of a novice were torn and bloodied from the day's attempt at defeating the gauntlet, the last rite of passage into adulthood for all Kestians.
He had failed.
The wet, stiffened cloth clung to spots of dried blood on his knees and elbows, bruises leaving purple and yellow patterns on his olive skin. Even his long, straight black hair hadn't escaped, tangles and knots glued to the back of his neck with a mixture of blood and dried sweat.
None of that mattered now. It would all be over soon. He was just one step away from relief in the afterlife. He would never be at the vanguard leading a charge to victory, nor would he even be at the rear.
No, he was doomed to a life away from the battlefield, and to a Kestian, a life without battle was no life at all.
He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and teetered, about to step off the roof. A firm hand gripped his shoulder.
Urus flinched, then cursed himself for flinching. His mind returned to the gauntlet, returned to the scene where he'd faced off against a boy a hand shorter and two stones lighter. The boy had come close to landing a blow to Urus's face. Urus had flinched then, like he had done since he was a boy, and his opponent wasted no time in using that instant to defeat him.
Urus knew whose hand it was on his shoulder before he turned. He knew the strength and confidence of that grip, the grip that belonged to the commander of the First Fist of Kest, second in command of the entire city, and his uncle.
Urus stepped back off the parapet and turned to see his uncle looking down at him with an awkward smile, his face clean, his salt-and-pepper beard neatly trimmed, and his fine silk tunic the golden, gleaming opposite of Urus's tattered uniform.
His uncle folded his arms across his chest, making horns with one hand, the sign looking like a charging bull mid-stride. It was the name sign his uncle had given Urus the day he had come to take him from his father.
Urus loved that sign. It was one of the few things in the world that made him feel special, and it represented his identity more than any spoken name ever would.
"Get into a mess playing with Goodwyn today?" Uncle Aegaz signed, his hands moving rapidly as he mouthed the words. His eyes had that uneasy look they always had when trying to relate to his nephew.
Urus frowned. He doesn't know.
As usual, the man was too busy doing important things like keeping the city safe and being a war hero to know what was going on in Urus's life.
"Today was the gauntlet," Urus signed, wishing he could look away. "I failed."
Aegaz looked stricken, eyes wide with surprise. Urus couldn't tell whether he was more surprised that Urus had failed or that he didn't know about the event.
"That's all right," his uncle began with slow and gentle signs, as if trying to force feelings of reassurance out through his fingertips. "You still have two more attempts."
Urus scowled, his feelings of self-loathing and despair shifting outward to anger at his uncle, a man so busy he could barely tell what day of the week it was.
"Uncle, I failed my first attempt two weeks ago, and the second just this past Fastday."
Aegaz stared at Urus for a moment, letting the impact of the statement sink in. He looked horrified.
"But that means tomorrow you will be—" Aegaz signed, cut short by Urus's hand.
"Culled," Urus signed, trying to keep his anger in check.
"I am so sorry. I don't know what to say."
Urus shrugged. "There is nothing for it. It's done and my fate is sealed."
"There is still life in Kest for the culled. There are plenty of professions in need of young men like yourself. Why, even today the trade guild expressed interest in you," Aegaz signed, trying to force a smile.
"No!" Urus shouted aloud, startling both himself and his uncle. "Life as a culled is not a life. Life without a sword at your side is not worth living."
"That's not true," his uncle countered.
"It is and you know it. Where is Falk, the boy culled at last year's ceremony?" Urus asked. He knew the answer but asked anyway, the pain growing in the pit of his stomach, feeding on the sadness and anger.
"He died a month after the ceremony," Aegaz signed.
"He didn't just die. They found his body a day's ride from the city gates, buried up to the neck. The crows had eaten the rest to the bone."
Aegaz shifted his weight from one foot to the other, unsure of what to say.
Urus gave in to the despair, and it filled the emptiness within him. "You should know better than anyone. It doesn't matter what the law says about the culled. No one will accept me or even speak to me after tomorrow. My life is over."
"We will find a way, Urus," Aegaz signed. He leaned forward hesitantly as though he might attempt a hug, but stopped short.
"I just need to be alone for a bit," Urus signed.
"Just come inside with me—"
Urus cut his uncle off again. "Please, I need to be alone."
"All right," Aegaz signed, looking defeated. "I'll put on some of your favorite stew. When you're ready come inside we can talk."
His uncle turned to go, giving Urus the "I love you" sign before disappearing through the small wooden hatch leading down into the palace.
Urus let the pain well up inside him until it pushed the tears out, his nose running. He gazed through the fog of his tears back down at the glowing street and wondered if he would feel any pain before he died. He climbed back onto the parapet.
Aegaz's standing in the palace would be threatened by being the guardian of a culled. No true warrior would ever take his own life, but there was no shame in a culled doing so.
There's nothing I can do that would be more shameful than my own existence, he thought.
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He was ready to go, ready to end his life before it got any worse, end it now rather than spend the rest of it as some worthless cook watching everyone else bask in the glory of the battlefield.
He held his hands out in front of him and signed a prayer to Hol, the Protector: Hol, protect and shield me in the afterlife. Though I may not deserve your notice, I beg for your benevolence.
Urus stepped forward and fell from the roof.
He squeezed his eyes shut, his imagination conjuring up an image of a vast battlefield below, the desert sand red with the blood of his enemies, the sky black with the smoke of their burned villages. This was the dream of all Kestians, and he still wanted that dream, even in death.
The impact came without warning.
He slammed into the ground, though it felt more like the ground swung upward at his face like a hammer. Pain radiated throughout his body then vanished a moment later.
He wiggled a finger, then another, then wiggled his toes. He tapped the ground to make sure it was solid and he wasn't floating somewhere in Hol's realm.
Opening his eyes, he half expected to see fantastic scenes of the afterlife only described by books or traveling bards. Instead he saw the hard cobblestones glowing beneath him, only a few steps from the palace wall, some of which had sunken deep into the ground and cracked in half.
He looked at his hands and, for a moment, thought he saw tendrils of blue smoke drifting up from his fingertips. He shook his head, inspected his hands again, and the smoke was gone. It must have been a vision brought on by the blow to the head.
He jumped to his feet, surprised that he could even stand.
Maybe this is the afterlife, and I'm a ghost, he thought.
He certainly didn't feel dead.
Would I even know I was a ghost if I was a ghost?
He took a few steps back and craned his neck to look up at the palace roof. The height was tremendous. How he could have been foolish enough to jump from up there, he couldn't imagine.
Then he saw the silhouette, a dark outline of a man cast in the soft orange glow of the palace stone. Urus knew the man from his outline alone.
It was his uncle, his arms held in the sign of the charging bull.
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