“No,” said Cory firmly. “I’m not going to Eastbridge or joining the Army now. Dad and I agreed that we’d discuss it when he comes home.”
“His replacement was killed and that war’s gotten hot again, so your father’s posting’s been extended,” said his grandfather patiently. “You’ve finished school and now it’s time to take your next step.”
“That next step can be university until Dad comes home,” replied Cory.
“Young man,” his uncle sounded a lot less patient than his grandfather, “until your father comes home we’re your responsible adults and you’ll do as we say. No lollygagging – the commencement ceremony is in two days’ time. We’ll pick you up at eight thirty in the morning, and if you’re not dressed ready to go, I’ll dress you myself.” The older, larger man’s glare was a threat in itself.
At the appointed time on the appointed day, Cory was on a Tribal-flagged ferry crossing the Northwest Strait and more than technically no longer in the same country as his grandfather and uncle. Two days later he was in the Northern Tribal Alliance’s capital and enrolling in university. He assumed a local style patronymic and spent the time before classes started doing intensive work improving his grasp of the local language.
His uncle found him at first snowfall. Cory and his study partners, Tatarra and Rudvig, were crossing the main quad on their way from the library to their dormitories and they first thought the three men were associated with the big dinner in the Main Hall that night. “You’ve had your fun, boy. Now it’s time to come home.” His uncle’s voice wasn’t quite loud enough to echo off the surrounding walls. People who were associated with the dinner looked around.
“Not until Dad’s back.” The two large men flanking his uncle moved forward.
“Make this easy on yourself and come quietly,” said one just before they grabbed at him.
Cory dodged. Tatarra screamed and hit at one with her book bag. One thug off-elbowed Rudvig into the ground as the other dodged the book bag, extended a flexible shockstick with a flick of his wrist and swung it at Tatarra. Rudvig wasn’t moving but Cory pivoted, grabbed the arm holding the shockstick, and broke it across his knee. The second man moved to support his colleague but now Cory had the shockstick in his hand.
“How much do you really want to try that again?” Cory’s voice was trembling, maybe from adrenalin.
“You think you’ve been clever?” His uncle’s words were laden with sarcasm. “The Tribal Alliance’s laws regarding minors are much stricter than ours. I just have to go to the nearest police station, show them my papers, and you’ll be in my care, on a plane home by dawn.”
“That rather depends on him being a minor, doesn’t it?” The new voice floated across the open space, charming, erudite and lightly accented because it was speaking Cory’s native tongue, not its own. The owner was tall and male with shoulder-length dark hair and dressed for a formal dinner. “And why didn’t you do that in the first place? As the Ekkanru Lawspeaker and Lorespeaker, I can assure you that age isn’t the only method of attaining adulthood.” He smiled genially. “There’s trial by combat, for instance. In front of competent witnesses. Such,” he looked over his shoulder, “as the participants in the Tribal Leadership Convocation.”
A solid body of people, mainly men, stood outside the door and down the steps of the Main Hall. Some were on their phones, talking. Several others were filming. There was a lot of whispering going on, and some note passing.
“So, young man,” the Ekkanru Lawspeaker and Lorespeaker turned to Cory, “who are you?”
Cory didn’t turn his eyes from his two assailants and didn’t lower his acquired weapon while he answered, “Cory surl Henrix.”
“No grandfather’s name?” There was a sense of raised eyebrows in the question.
“He’s one of the people who want me to break my agreement with my father.” Cory risked a glance at Rudvig. “Uh, my friend needs an ambulance.”
“Being arranged,” the Ekkanru assured him. “So, what is your agreement with your father?”
“That he comes home again from the war.” Cory’s voice was grim.
“Ah,” the Ekkanru nodded. “One of the high magics indeed.”
“Magical thinking!” Cory’s uncle snorted. “Ridiculous in this day and age.”
“Oh,” the Ekkanru turned in place to face the older man, “are you so certain that this agreement isn’t central to your brother’s mental resilience? What would you do if knowing that his son is waiting for him is what’s keeping him alive and sane?”
“That’s nonsense.” Cory’s uncle was scathing in his dismissal.
“On the contrary. One of my PhD theses was on mental resilience in warriors and you’d be surprised.” The Ekkanru smiled sweetly.
Well, it should have been a sweet smile and fortunately there was an interruption from the crowd on the steps before anything else could be said. “This impromptu session has reached a decision!” It was a ringing voice and the older man who owned it wore his hair in braids bound with metal rings. “It is the view of the Combined Chiefly Councils of the Northern Tribal Alliance that the youth, Cory surl Henrix, has demonstrated by feat of arms in the face of attack and threat to his companions that he is fit, ready, and capable of carrying out the part of an adult in this world. These assembled Councils therefore recognise him as such and direct that he take up those responsibilities in truth.”
Cory’s uncle opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again, the thought that, yes, they could do that obviously running through his mind.
“So,” said the Ekkanru Lorespeaker and Lawspeaker cheerfully, “now you just need a clan, a tribe and a totem.”