Chapter IV: Yhera

            “You told us he was trustworthy,” Lhara’h purred.  “Now he’s gone and disappeared.”

            I swallowed down my growing hysteria.  “He’s around.”

            She narrowed her eyes.  “And what led you to that conclusion?”

            “His clothes are all in his room, as is his knapsack,” I replied.  “The innkeeper said so.”

            Ohna had been pacing, as was her wont while she gathered her thoughts.

            “Still, you let us down, Yhera,” she murmured.

            My heart leapt to my throat.  “I… I can’t watch him 24/7, Ohna!”

            “Yet you were ready to dismiss our assistance,” she continued, unperturbed.  Her movements were smooth and graceful, as was the angle of her head as she cocked it to the left.  “We will come with you to the capital, with or without your consent.  If he shows up alive.”

            My throat felt tight.   I struggled to swallow.

            I was aware that Lhara’h was watching me, but I did not care at this point.  If Karane was dead, how would I live with myself?  He would have died on my watch.

            “You think he’s dead?” I gasped.

            Ohna shrugged.  “Who knows?  If, by the end of the week–“

            A thump outside my door had me whirling into action.  I pulled the door open and Karane fell to the floor with a thud and lay there, pale as a sheet of paper.

            I knelt beside him, noting that he was wearing the same clothes he had worn before he disappeared.  There was an astringent smell about him as well as the sweet coopery smell of blood.  Beneath the collar of his shirt, I saw a bandage.

            “He’s hurt and bandaged,” Lhara’h commented.

            I looked up at her.  “Help me get him to the bed.”

            She shrugged and bent, picking up his shoulders while I struggled with his feet.  We got him to the bed and laid him upon it.   I sat at the edge of the mattress, taking his right hand in both of mine.  It was icy.  I began to rub it to bring warmth and blood to the surface.  He moaned and began to roll his head left and right.  He raised his other hand and touched his chest.  When I looked at his face again, his eyes were open and focused.

            I let out a whoosh of breath.  “Karane!  What happened to you?”

            His eyes traveled past my right shoulder to where the nuns stood, silent as death.   His gaze slid to me once more.

            “I was kidnapped,” he croaked.

            Ohna moved, striding to the bedside table, and pouring some water from the decanter into the mug.  Wordlessly, she handed it to me.

            I took the cup, lifted Karane’s head and fed him sips of water.

            Lhara’h shifted restlessly.

            Ohna took a step forward.  “Who kidnapped you?”

            He closed his eyes and frowned.  “I don’t know.  Men who wore black clothes.  They asked me to join them and forced a ceremony on me.  I now have a slow-acting poison coursing through my body. If I betray them, I will die.”

            “What do they want from you, besides another body for their cause?” Ohna demanded.

            “They want the Empress gone, but they wouldn’t tell me what their ultimate goal is.”

            The older nun grunted.

            “Who could they be?” Lhara’h asked her.

            “Don’t know.  Could be any group – new or old. We can’t worry about this.  We need to go and soon.  Things will move quickly from now on.”

            They turned to go.

            “Feed him,” Ohna told me over her shoulder.  “Then make ready to depart within two days’ time.  I’ll get us passage on a trade ship or a freight carrier.  We’ll contact you soon.”

            I turned to watch them go, turning back to Karane only when the door had clicked shut behind them.

            I fed him the rest of the water and set the empty mug on the table.

            Karane lay meekly on the thin pillow, his eyes studying me.

            “Were you afraid for your life?” I asked him.

            “No.  But I was afraid of them.  Of what they would do to me, but I never feared for my life.”

            I rose with a sigh.  “You are quite the commodity.”  I walked to the window and gazed down at the busy boulevard.  I was seeing shadows everywhere.  A man’s gaze held a blade, a woman’s too pointed.  

            “I will bring your knapsack here,” I told him.  “You will not leave my sight now until we are on a ship and headed north.  Understood?”

            “I still want to visit Bah’nah’s Oracle.”

            I frowned.  “No.  I’ve been given my orders–“

            “I didn’t ask,” he snarled.  “I came to do something, and, damn it, I will do it!”

            I turned from him, feeling helpless and angry.  I was sick of people telling me what to do.  I was sick of being dismissed and ignored.

            “Fine,” I spat.  “It’s your life!”

            “I want you to come with me,” he stated quietly.  “I’m too weak to travel alone.  We have two days.  Let me rest and we’ll go early tomorrow.  I need you, Yhera.”

            His words soothed my ruffled pride a bit.  

            I sighed.  “Rest then.  I haven’t slept in two days since you disappeared.”

            “Two days?”

            “Yes.  I thought for sure–oh, well, you’re relatively well, except for the poison.  Are you sure they weren’t lying to you?”

            He shrugged.  “Could have been an elaborate ruse, I suppose, but I don’t know.  I won’t take any chances.”

            “No,” I agreed.  “I’ll bring your knapsack here. Where is the key to your room?”

            “I don’t know.  In the room still, perhaps.”

            I turned, opened the door and strode across the hall.  Karane’s room door opened when I turned the knob, and I stepped inside, gathering the knapsack and laundry bag before picking up the key where it lay on the bedside table.  I pocketed the key and returned to my room.  

            By the sound of Karane’s even breaths, he slept deeply.  I envied him.  Dropping the knapsack next to my travel bag, I placed our laundry in the same bag and carried it downstairs to the innkeeper.

            “You would like me to wash the laundry for you?” she asked, giving me a pleasant smile.

            “Yes, ma’am.  We will be leaving the day after tomorrow.”

            She nodded once.  “Enough time to dry, I suppose.  Give me those.”

            I handed her the bag.            

            “I’ll bring the clean laundry to you the day after tomorrow near sunrise,” she told me.

            I thanked her and made my way back up to the second floor.

            In the room, Karane slept on his back undisturbed.  I locked the door and went to stand at the window.   I studied every mouth of every alley I could see.  Nothing seemed amiss. Finally, I turned away and went to the bed, crawling across it to lie facing Karane.  He was still pale and deep shadows bled along the soft tissue under his eyes.  I swallowed.

            I thought Karane knew who had kidnapped him but was not going to tell me or the sisters.  Perhaps because he feared letting the secret out would result in his death.  I did not blame him.  I would try to charm the answer out of him, however, if only to assuage my own curiosity.  I needed to know the players on the gameboard if I was going to get out of this alive.

            Karane’s moans woke me.  I came up on an elbow.  He was sound asleep but rubbing his chest, his brow furrowed into a deep frown.

            “Karane,” I said and shook him gently.

            He did not wake.

            The shadows outside the window were lengthening to evening.  My stomach gurgled.  When had I last eaten, I wondered?

            “Karane,” I said with more force and shook him.

            His eyes blinked open and he turned his face to me.  “What?”

            “Does your wound pain you?”

            “It burns and aches,” he replied.  “What is the hour?”

            “Near sunset.  Come, we need to get you fed, and I need to eat as well.”

            I helped him sit up and then I fetched his military boots.  I began to pace distractedly while he pulled on his socks and boots.  Afterward, as if the simple act of putting on shoes exhausted him, he rested his forearms on his thighs and sighed.  I strode to where he sat and began to unplait his braid.  I combed his hair with my fingers, idly noting its heft and softness.  Then I re-braided it, letting it fall to his upper back.

            “Come,” I said more gently.  “Food will help you recover.”

            I put my arm around his waist and led him slowly down to the main floor and then out into the busy early evening.  The air smelled sharp with the tang of the sea today.  Overhead, clouds gathered. It was close to monsoon season.  The air had a certain cool, damp feel.

            “It’s going to rain,” he muttered, gazing at the sky.

            “More than likely,” I agreed.

            I chose the first cafe we came to.  He was leaning on me heavily and losing strength rapidly.  I led us to a table near the back, away from windows and prying eyes.  He slid into the booth lengthwise, his back to the wall.  I took the seat on the opposite bench and hailed the serving girl.

            “What are your specials today?”  I asked.

            She gave Karane a concerned look before turning to me.  “An’we with root vegetables and spicy side sauce.  A side bitter salad with a citrus-honey dressing. Fresh bread.  Is he alright?”

            “Yes.  Just a little under the weather.  We’ll take two specials.”

            The girl curtsied and, with one more glance at Karane, hurried away.

            Karane sighed and sat up.  His pallidity was beginning to concern me.

            “Is your wound bleeding?” I asked him.

            He pulled his shirt away from the bandage.  “No.  I just feel weak is all.  Food will help me.”

            I rested my forearms on the tacky tabletop and threaded my fingers.  “How are we supposed to get to the Oracle, if you can’t walk?”

            “We’ll hire a carriage, if we have to,” he replied, his voice thready.

            I sighed and shook my head.  “You are so stubborn!”

            He gave me a wan smile.  “I aim to please.”

            A few minutes later, our sandwiches arrived.  We tucked into our food after I ordered some cider.

            We ate slowly.  I savored every bite of the meal with relish.

            Karane’s hands shook as he fed himself, but some color began to tinge his cheeks.  

            After we were done, we sat back in our seats and sipped the sweet-tart cider.  The smidgen of alcohol in the libation brought more color to his cheeks.  He finally sat back and grinned at me.

            “That’s what I needed,” he told me.  “Thank you.”

            I nodded once.  “You’re still going to return to bed once we get back. Won’t you?”

            “I’ll lie down.”

            “Good because I haven’t slept in two days, wondering what befell you.”

            He started and gazed up at me.   Anger had crept into my voice until I almost shouted the final three words.

            “I’m sorry.”

            I pressed my lips together tautly and nodded.  “I know you are. It isn’t your fault.  You scared me though.”

            He paid for our meal and we made our way back into the early evening.  Round, colorful paper lamps had been lit along the boulevard in celebration of the coming monsoon.  The breeze was fresh as it scampered ahead of us, creating dust devils in its wake.  By the time we made it to the inn some minutes later, I heard the boom of thunder then we were running for the inn door as the skies opened to disgorge the first rain in months.  We stood leaning against one another under the inn awning as the torrent fell.  Beyond our shelter, people hurried to find a place to wait out the worst of the storm.  They laughed joyously as the rain soaked them.  Some danced, arms outstretched, palms up, faces turned up to the dark sky.   It was a holy moment.  I felt my throat close.

            After a few minutes, we headed to our room, closing the door quietly behind us.

            Karane removed his boots and socks and doffed his shirt, folding it neatly and setting it on top of his knapsack.

            I removed my ankle boots and set them next to my travel bag.

            I heard as Karane lay down once more.

            “I would like to take a look at your wound,” I told him.  “I would like to smell to see if it is infected.”

            “As you like,” he said quietly.

            I knew there was an apothecary not far away.  I would have to fetch fresh bandages and disinfectants.

            “I’ll return shortly,” I told him.  “Don’t fall asleep!”

            He nodded.

            The druggist sold me a small wooden bowl, cloths, a roll of bandages, and a vial of disinfectant for the wound.

            “Wash the wound twice a day,” she advised as she placed the items in a cloth shoulder bag.  “Let the wound dry in the air before applying the disinfectant and rebandaging.  Clear?”

            “Yes, ma’am. Thank you.”

            I paid her from my funds and took the shoulder bag.  I hurried through the rain, hugging walls, and standing under awnings until there was an ebb in the downpour.  Nevertheless, I returned to our room soaked and cursing under my breath.  

            Karane was sound asleep.  I cursed him, too, as I removed my wet clothes before donning dry trousers and shirt.  I spread my wet clothes along the floor near the window to dry.  Then I hurried downstairs to fetch some water before the inn closed for the night.

            When I returned carrying a wooden bucket filled to the brim, I set it next to the bedside table.  

            I sat at the edge of the mattress, pouring water into the wooden bowl.  I set the bowl on the bedside table.  Untying the bandages, I woke Karane as I removed them.

            I could smell the wound was off.  As I bathed the wound and applied the antiseptic medicant, he began to thrash about wildly, speaking nonsensical words.  I could not rebandage him while he kept moving.  I decided he could remain unbandaged until morning then set about picking up the room.  I chucked the dirty water out of the bedroom window and set the bowl to dry on the bedside table.

            Finally, after locking the door, I lay down next to him and closed my eyes.

            Outside the open window, rain pattered soothingly. The worst of the storm had passed; now it would be gentle rain for several days.

            The breezes rifling the curtains were cool.  I pulled up the bedclothes to cover Karane and myself.  

            Sleep came easily that night.

***

            Karane’s moaning woke me early the next morning.  I touched his forehead.  Fever raged through his body, fighting the infection.  I got up and took the bucket downstairs for fresh water.  

            “How is the young man?” the innkeeper asked.

            I bit my lower lip.  “He’s feverish this morning.  Is there a healer nearby?”

            She handed me the bucket filled with fresh water.  “I will send for him, if you’d like.”

            “Please.  I am grateful to you.  Tomorrow our ship leaves and I am unsure if he will be well enough to travel.”

            “Hire a coach to carry him to the wharves,” she suggested.  “If you cannot afford a coach, then we own a wagon and lir’tah and can transport him to the ship.  My husband and son can carry him onboard.”

            Relief washed over me, and my eyes filled with tears.  “Thank you!  Yes.  If you don’t mind, we’ll take the wagon.”

            “Very good.  I’ll bring up the laundry tomorrow and my husband and son will be with me.  The wagon will be parked out front.”

            I thanked her again and hurried upstairs to wash the wound before healer arrived.

            Karane did not wake while I applied some water with the disinfectant to the wound.  

            The healer arrived as I made to carry the bucket back downstairs.  He was a foreigner – black hair and brown eyes, pale flesh, freckles across the bridge of his nose and splaying along his sharp cheekbones.

            He bowed to me.  “I am the local healer.  Where is my patient?”

            I stepped back and to the side, leaving him a clear path into the room.  I followed him inside.

            He gasped at the wound and shook his head. “Who would do such a thing?”

            “I don’t know, sir,” I replied honestly.

            “You’ve been cleaning it with this?” He held up the vial of disinfectant.

            “Yes, sir.”

            He nodded.  “I’ve something stronger.  It’s in an oil base so that it clings to the wound better.  Hm.”  He touched Karane’s brow.  “I’ll leave you an antipyretic also.  You give him a mug of tea with three drops and then apply this oil directly to the wound.  The antipyretic must be given thrice a day, every eight hours or so.  The oil can be applied twice a day after the wound is cleaned.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            He cleaned the wound again with the remaining fresh water and applied the oil to the wound.

            Karane had been still all this time.  Now he made to touch the wound and began to thrash about on the bed once more.  

            I hurried to assist the healer, holding Karane down until he settled into an uneasy sleep.  The healer rose and pulled Karane into a sitting pose and held him there.  He asked me to wrap new bandages around Karane’s chest.

            I worked as quickly as I was able.

            “I’m having you reapply the bandages because he absolutely must not touch the wound while it is healing,” the healer murmured.  “If he is awake and aware, you may leave the wound uncovered so that it heals more quickly.”

            When we were done, Karane lay there quietly, his breaths even and deep.

            “This disinfecting oil eats at necrotic flesh,” he explained as he set a vial of the substance on the bedside table, followed by a vial of the antipyretic.  “It hurts when it goes on, so you will need assistance when you apply it.”

            I pushed some hair off my face and undid the braid impatiently, re-plaiting it tightly.  I wrapped the braid on the top of my head and pinned it in place.

            “You look tired,” the healer noted.  He rose from the bed and gathered his shoulder bag.  “I will come again tomorrow to assist you.”

            “We’re leaving early in the morning,” I told him.

            He nodded.  “The innkeeper told me.  I’ll be here to assist you.”

            I studied him for a few seconds.

            “You’re Uedjnouri?” I asked.

            He bowed.  “Guilty as charged.  I’m not an empathic healer, I’m afraid.  Just a plain doctor.”

            “Uedjnourahn is very far away from Bah’nah.”

            He chuckled.  “Don’t I know it?  My people, we breed talented healers, both empathic and non-empathic. Our mission in life is to travel and assist cities and towns where there are not enough doctors or healers.”

            I closed the bedroom door and locked it.  Then we walked side by side down the hallway.

            “We devote 20 years to our respective missions,” he continued.  “I’ve been in Bah’nah eleven.”

            “And once your twenty-years are up?”

            He shrugged.  “Then I return home when my replacement arrives.  I go home and marry and provide children for our nation.”    

            “Laudable,” I murmured although, honestly, it just sounded strange to me.

            He bowed.  “Thank you.  I will see you tomorrow then.  Don’t forget the antipyretic.”

            He bounded down the remaining steps and hurried from the inn.  

            I found the innkeeper in the kitchen and I begged her for a cup of tea so I could feed Karane the medicine.

            She took pity on me and boiled some mjish leaves in water.

            “Any milk or honey?” she asked me over her shoulder as she poured the tea into a ceramic mug.

            “No.  I believe he drinks the tea straight.”

            She wrinkled her nose.  “There is no accounting for taste.  Would you like a mug?  No charge.”

            “Thank you.  Milk and honey for me.”

            I carried the mugs back upstairs and set them down on the floor while I unlocked the door.

            Karane still slept.  It was almost criminal to force him to wake, but his fever still raged.  Setting the mugs on the bedside table, I returned to the door and locked it.

            I sat at the edge of the mattress and opened the antipyretic vial, counting three drops as they fell into the tea.  I shook him.

            He frowned but did not wake.

            I shook him harder until he was blinking owlishly at the ceiling.

            He looked at me and frowned.  “Who are you?”  He sighed and shook his head.  “Yhera. I remember.”

            “Sit up, Karane,” I told him.  “Drink the tea.  It has medicine for your fever.”

            He needed help sitting up. Once again, I wondered how we were going to make it back to Da’hrisjah with Karane intact.

            I fed him the tea, forcing him to drink when he just wanted to lay down and sleep.

            “I’ll have to wake you again at midday and then at sunset so you can take the medicine.”

            He blinked at me and forced himself to continue sipping until the tea was all gone.  

            I helped him lie down once more and covered him, even though a light sheen of sweat gleamed on his skin from the hot tea.  

            Outside the window, rain pattered against the outer wall and window pane.  In the distance, a woman sang an exquisite song that nudged the edges of my memory.  The hairs on my arms stood on end.  I went to stand at the window to gaze out at the gray early morning.  People hurried past the inn, bundled against the rain, or carrying umbrellas.   The street glistened, clean and full of puddles.  Tree limbs bobbed in the occasional breeze.  The stillness of the day fell upon me.  Suddenly, the world seemed too large, too still, too empty, mirroring the hollowness that lodged in my chest.  My throat constricted.

            I sighed and rubbed my eyes.  I needed more sleep.  That’s all.

            Turning, I took up my mug of tea and sat at the foot of the bed, sipping and humming at the sweet, creamy taste.  Once more, I wondered at my choices, where I had allowed my life to drift.  Yes, I wanted to change things in my nation.  Yes, I wanted the Empress gone.  The royal family gone.  But…I had had no inkling how dangerous the game would get.  I had been so hellbent on revenge…I sipped the tea without tasting it.  

            Once the mug was empty, I set it on the bedside table and crawled under the covers to lie on my side to watch Karane sleep.

            “Don’t die,” I told him.  “Not while we might become friends.”        

            He slept on, unperturbed.

            I snorted and shook my head.  “Talking to sleeping people, are we, Yhera?”

            I closed my eyes, listening idly to the noises drifting up from the street and Karane’s even breaths.

Chapter III: Karane

               After Yhera and I parted ways and went to our respective rooms, I did some stretches and strength exercises before doffing my shirt and using it to wipe the sweat from my skin.  I then dropped the shirt into the laundry bag and lay down on my back on the narrow bed.  The wind was cool and fragrant, and the street below was quiet.  I began to drift, my ears alert for suspicious sounds.  Despite the company and the drinks I’d had, I still had not forgotten that we were being followed by a person or persons unknown. 

          The inn creaked and popped around me.

          I turned onto my side and opened my eyes to gaze at the swaying curtains.  It was then that a shadow moved.

          I sat up quickly, reaching for my dagger under the pillow, when I felt the sharp point of steel under my chin.

          “Pull it out and it will be the last thing you do,” a male voice murmured close to my face.

          I slowly retrieved my hand from under the pillow.

          “Good boy,” he said and pulled me to my feet.

          He threw me hard against the wall.  “Sit and be good.”

          I dropped to the floor with my back to the wall and rubbed the soreness from where the wall had connected with my right cheek and shoulder.  I watched as he lit the candle.  The hiss preceded a measly glow and the smell of tallow rose into the air.

          He was covered head-to-toe in dark colors.  His head was hidden under a black hood, only the eyes and nose showing.  He wore tight shirt and pants and went barefoot.  Like Yhera, he had a broadsword strapped to his back and several daggers strapped to legs and arms.

          At the moment, he was rifling through my knapsack.  When he found the permission signed by the Empress, he read it quickly and pushed it back into the bag.  With a sigh, he dropped onto the bed and turned to look at me.

          “Why are you in Bah’nah, soldier?”

          “The permission says,” I replied.

          He chuckled and shook his head.  “And I don’t believe what the Empress writes or says or does.  Why. Are. You. Here?”

          I rubbed my face with both hands.  “Apparently to go to the Temple to ask the Oracle my fate.  But I keep getting accosted and followed and threatened.”

          “You rich ones don’t have a faithful bone in your bodies,” he spat.

          “Nevertheless, I am here because I have disturbing dreams and I want the Oracle’s help.  Ask my friend across the hall.”

          He looked towards the door and looked back.

          I shrugged.  “You can torture or kill me or continue to follow me.  Nevertheless, I am here to speak to the Oracle.”

          “Huh,” he grunted and scratched the right side of his neck.  “Interesting.  The Resistance has approached you?”

          “Yes.”

          “And you’ve joined?”

          “Not yet. It depends on the morrow and what I learn from the Oracle.”

          He laughed quietly.  “What you learn from a young, naked girl who is insane or drugged up?  Good luck there, soldier.”

          “My name is Karane.”

          “I know who you are.”

          “You’re not from the Resistance.”

          “No,” he replied.  “I belong to a third organization that is not the Maidens or the Resistance.  We all have the same goal but expect different outcomes.  Some of those outcomes sought by the other organizations do not benefitt us.”

          “Oh?”  I licked my lips. My mouth and throat felt parched.  “What is the name of your organization?”

          “We are the Shadows of Khahn.”

          I went cold inside.

          “I see you’ve heard of us.”

          “Yes.  Lawlessness and chaos are what you espouse; destruction and death.”

          The man snorted.  “Hardly.  You speak like you suckle at Cera’s tit, soldier.  There is necessity for my god in the Pantheon, else no one would die, and it would be chaos indeed.”

          “Is there a place for Khahn in the pantheon?”  It was hard to believe the black god of death was a necessity in any Pantheon.

          “Yes,” he replied.  “You don’t know my god, only what that bitch of a High Priestess tells you.  Khahn has two facets, just as Sene has two faces.  Sene is the god of war and peace.  Khahn is the god of death and rebirth.  It is not always a literal death that the God causes, you know. Sometimes it is a figurative one.”

          Philosophy from an assassin.

          “I’ve never heard spoken Khahn as being a god of rebirth,” I said.

          “That is because he has been oppressed by the Pantheon to the point of obliteration.  We live in shadow because, if it became known we followed the God, we would be struck down in the streets.  Worship of Khahn was supposedly annihilated years ago.”

          He rose.  “Dress and come with me.  I’ve been sent to bring you to my master.”

          I rose and walked to the bed, where the knapsack rested.  I turned from him and dug into the bag for a fresh shirt.

          There was movement in the corner of my eye.  I made to turn when I felt the bright sting of a needle in my neck.  I made to move away but the drug quickly coursed through my body.  I fell face first onto the mattress.

          “Relax,” I heard someone say from far away.  “Don’t fight it.  We don’t have much time.”

          I was turned onto my back.  My eyesight dimmed as the edges of the room began to darken.  The last thing I saw was the assassin bending over me.

***

          Whispers woke me from a dead sleep.  Movement followed by someone’s curse.

          I heard someone moan.

          “He wakes.  Quickly — get Phenosj.”

          I heard footsteps receding into the distance.

          “Give him water.”

          Someone lifted my head and fed me cool, sweet water.  I drank thirstily.

          “Easy,” a man said.  “Don’t choke.”

          Memory came then, a piece at a time.  I could taste the drug on my tongue.  I pushed the glass away and forced my eyes to open.

          My eyesight was blurry.

          “Your sight will return momentarily,” the man said.  “Come. Sit up.”

          He helped me to sit up, and then he pulled my legs over the side of the bed.  Beneath my feet, icy stone.  The air smelled dank and damp.  I shivered in the unfamiliar cold.

          I blinked several times.

          “Here.  Drink some more.”        

          He handed me the glass, and I finished it in one swallow.

          I could hear the echo of approaching footsteps.

          Slowly, my eyesight returned.  I looked up and saw five tall, sturdy, muscular men staring at me blandly.

          “Who are you?” I asked.

          “In good time,” said the one in the middle. His voice was unknown to me.

          “Are you hungry?” another asked.  It was the voice of the man who had given me water.

          “Yes.”

          He nodded, walked to a table that held a tray covered with a white napkin.  He removed the napkin and handed me the tray.

          The man in the middle broke away from the others and began to pace. He seemed to be in his late thirties or early forties, with brushes of gray along his temples.  Yet neither his face nor the corners of his eyes were lined.  He looked as strong and fit as any military commander.

          “I am Phenosj.  I lead the Shadows in this city.”

          I swallowed.  “The Shadows of Khahn?”

          “Is there another?”

          “No.”

          “So.  Yes.  The Shadows of Khahn.”

          I finished the cheese and bread and set the tray to one side.

          “Why am I here?”

          He turned and raised an imperious eyebrow at me.  Beneath his heavy brows was a pair of warm hazel eyes.  A commoner then.

          “We’ll ask the questions for now,” he told me.  “And then there will be time for your questions.”

          I said nothing, just watched him steadily.

          “Why have you come to Bah’nah?” he asked.  “Why has the nephew of Maraia Ma’ta’mahr come all this way alone?”

          “I told your lackey – I am here for the Oracle of Bah’nah.  Nothing more and nothing less.”

          “Yet you met with two Maidens of Sene, did you not?”

          “Yes.  They came to me to try to recruit me for the Resistance.”

          The men glanced at one another and some unspoken understanding passed among them.

          Phenosj turned to me. “You expect me to believe that the Maidens are working with the Resistance?  Is that the case?”

          Something told me to hold my tongue.

          I nodded.

          “Speak!”

          I started.  “Yes, sir.  As far as I can tell.”

          “Why are you telling me this?”

          “I have no loyalty to either of those parties,” I replied honestly.  “Nor to you.  Only my unit and my superior officer.”

          He took three steps to where I sat and clamped his left paw around my jaw, squeezing and pushing my head back until I looked into his eyes.  The warmth had seeped out of them.

          I heard myself swallow.

          “I would like you to know that we interrogated you while you were under the effects of the drug, and you told us the same thing. You are lucky you did not lie.”

          My jaw ached.  “What reason have I to lie?  I don’t know anything!”

          He pulled his hand away, leaving my face throbbing.

          “We will tell you our side and see if you would like to join us.”

          “I have a feeling there is no choice.”

          He chuckled and patted my head.  “There is always a choice, Karane.  In this instance, the choice is life or death.  Your choice.”

          He clapped his hands and smiled cheerily at his companions.

          “Make sure he dresses and bathes before you bring him to holy ground,” he told them.

          They bowed.

          “I’ll see you shortly, Karane,” he told me and strode off.

          Two men stepped forward, and I started, having momentarily forgotten they were there.  I rose.

          “Come with us, soldier,” one said.

          I was taken to a large room with several old wooden tubs.  There was a table against a wall stacked with folded towels and washcloths and cakes of soap.  The room was over-warm.  A large brazier stood against another wall.  I began to sweat.  I suddenly felt sick.  Saliva flooded my mouth and I turned. Someone placed a bucket under my face. I vomited all I had consumed.

          The man I’d followed sighed.  “The unfortunate side effects of the drug, I’m afraid.  We’ll get more food.”        

          “I’m alright,” I told him, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand.  “I don’t need to eat right now.”

          He gave a nod.

          “Bathe, Karane.  We’ll keep you company.”

          I turned and approached a tub that had been filled with steaming water.  The surface glistened with aromatic oils.  The strong musk of the oils made my stomach lurch, but I managed to swallow down whatever wanted to come up.

           I doffed my shirt and trousers, stepping into the too-hot water.  I hissed and slowly lowered myself down.  Someone handed me a washcloth and soap and I bathed under the watchful eyes of four guards.

          Afterwards, I dressed in fresh dark shirt and trousers.  We went into the hallway, two guards in front, two behind.  They led me down the left-hand hallway.  Perhaps it was the remnants of the drug in my body, but the hallway was a maze of twists and turns. The walls were faded brick and the doors were identical to one another – tall, wooden and painted dark brown.  I would not have been able to return to where I had awakened if my life depended on it.

           The floor began a gentle incline as we turned yet again.  Torches lit the way.  The hallway was thick with the smell of the oil used to light them.  Sweat broke out along my forehead and neck, and I almost threw up again.  I leaned upon the wall as we made our way up the incline to a pair of brass doors.

            Two heavily armed men stood outside the doors. As we approached, they reached for the door handles. We walked through undeterred.

            Beyond the door was a large space unlike the rooms I had been in.  Rich, blood red curtains covered one area of the wall.  Religious tapestries covered most of the rest of the walls.  There were thick, beautiful Lethyan rugs over the stone floor.  A large, high backed chair stood directly before the curtains.  A man in black monk’s robes sat there.  On either side of him were two small tables filled with vials and bottles and a mug.  The room smelled closed-in, of chemicals and tallow and dust.  The ceiling was high, all exposed brick and beams.  There were tall, high backed chairs along the walls.  

            As we stepped within, the doors snicked shut. The monk lifted his head to reveal a pair of milk white eyes and a handsome visage.  He was about a decade older than myself.

            “Ah, the prisoner,” he said in a silky voice.

            “Yes, Father,” the man to my right replied.

            The monk – no, priest – nodded and indicated that we should approach.

            Someone gently pushed me from behind.

            I was allowed to take five steps closer before I was forced to my knees before him.

            The priest cocked his head and rose.  Someone hurried to place a cane in his left hand.

            “Thank you, brother,” he murmured.

            The man bowed and backed away.

            The doors behind me opened once more and Phenosj hurried in.

            “Apologies, Father,” he murmured and bowed.

            The priest waved his words away.  “No matter.  Come here.”

            Phenosj strode to where the priest stood and turned to face me.

            “Describe him to me,” the priest murmured.

            “He has her looks and eyes,” Phenosj said at once.  “Her complexion and hair, but not her hauteur or disdain.  His eyes are clear of malice or sadism, Father.”

            The priest nodded and smiled.  “Good, good.  Uncorrupted.”

            “Very much so, Father.”

            The priest walked away from Phenosj and, using the cane, touched my left knee.  He paused and reached out, placing his hand on my hair.

            “You must be beautiful then,” he said to me conversationally.  “Even if such things hold no meaning for me.  I’ve been blind since birth, you see.  I am Heh’lohsj, Karane.  This city is under my auspices.  Your coming is not entirely a surprise to us, my son.  Neither is your purpose.”

            He ran his fingers gently through my hair.  “You are a godsend to us, you know?  A member of the royal household.”  He smiled absently, his pale eyes gazing into the distance.  “What a wonderful event this is!”

            He let go of my hair and began pacing, his cane tapping gently before him.

            “Ask what you wish to ask,” he said after a time.

            I licked my dry lips.  “Why am I here?”

            “You know why,” he replied quietly.  “For the same reason others pursue you.  You are a feather in our cap or will be.  I would answer your questions now, within reason, of course. Ask away.”

            “Why are you not part of the other groups – the Maidens or the Resistance?”

            He smiled and nodded.  “Fair question.  The Resistance seeks to remove your aunt’s family from power, while retaining the status quo.  Another woman would be chosen from an aristocratic family and she would rule as head of a new dynasty.  The Maidens wish to increase the power of women and diminish our own.  To follow I’A or Lethya in their cultural ways.”

            “And the Shadows?” I asked when he fell silent.

            He smiled again.  “Ah, the Shadows!  What do the Shadows want?  Their time in the sun, of course.  A return for Khahn to the Pantheon.  To build monasteries and churches in His name.”

            He turned.  The tap-tap of his cane’s tip soothed me.

            “And no more?” I dared, for I did not think he was being honest with me.

            He laughed a delighted laugh.  “How polite he is, Phenosj!”

            “Polite and clever,” Phenosj agreed.

            “Yes,” Heh’lohsj said and chuckled again.  “We want other things, too.  But not to be discussed right now.  Any other question?”

            “What is it you expect of me?”

            He nodded.  “Your cooperation, of course!  Your word not to betray us and your loyalty.”

            I licked my lips again.  “You have those, I suppose, if I wish to live.”

            He grinned.  “Yes, if you so wish.”

            “I so wish.”

            “Then welcome to the Brotherhood of the Shadow of Khahn.”  He moved away from me and retook his seat in the chair that was more throne than chair.  “We will take your oath and you will forfeit your loyalty to the Maidens or the Resistance while working with them.  You will report to us periodically, Karane. You will be watched at all times, for your protection as well as ours.   The Maidens are fierce but too public.  The Resistance not fierce enough.  We shall tip the odds in favor of change.  Rejoince, Karane!  You are on the right side of history!”

            He handed his cane to Phenosj.  “Now, you will be sworn in and prepared for service today.   A monk will approach you in Da’rhisjah to teach you of the God.   Your inculcation will take many, many months, but it will be done.  He will come as a friend and you will accept him and let others know he is your friend, which will explain why he shares your rooms.”

            “My–”  Blood rushed to my face.  “I live alone!”

            Heh’lohsj chuckled.  “Not anymore you don’t.  The monk will live with you and teach you our beliefs.”

            I sighed, resigned.  “I understand.”

            He laughed outright.  “No, you don’t. But you will.”

***

            The swearing in and preparation took about an hour.  I was stripped naked and rubbed with aromatic oils.  My hair was unbraided and oiled.  Then I was taken to Heh’lohsj where he stood before an altar made of precious metals and gems.  The god stood nine feet tall on his black marble pedestal, draped in a red sheet.  One hand held a scepter, another a sword.  The sword was held tip down, the tip painted bright red.  This god could not be called handsome:  his brow was too heavy, his lips thin, his entire visage severe.  His hair was plaited, and the braid was draped lovingly over his right shoulder.  Behind him hung a large silk tapestry that portrayed his fall from the Pantheon.  

            The priest stood behind a black marble table which held a gold decanter and chalice, two fat white candles in copper holders, and a curved dagger.  When I saw the dagger, the hair along my arms stood on end.

            “Approach,” Heh’lohsj intoned.

            As I approached, I saw Phenosj climb up to the altar just ahead of me to stand just behind the priest and to the left.

            Someone pushed me from behind none too gently.  I almost fell but recovered and walked up five narrow steps to the altar.  When I looked behind me, I saw that the entire room had filled with men dressed in dark colors.  There were no women amongst them.

            “Lie on the altar,” the priest demanded.

            I swallowed thickly.  “But–“

            “Silence!” Phenosj cut through my protest.  “Do as you are told.”

            I gazed at the altar.  It frightened me no end. I felt the tip of a sword at my lower back.  It pricked me and a drop of blood meandered down to the swell of my buttocks.

            I did as I was told.  The marble was ice cold against my skin. I clamped my teeth against a yelp.  I felt feverish.  

            The priest began to chant in the Old Tongue that only clerics and other holy people seem to know.  I heard the rustle of cloth and, when I looked to my right, all the men gathered within the room had fallen upon one knee, save for guards at the doors.  I looked back at the ceiling.  The room seemed to be from another time.  The exposed, worn brick walls and ceiling had an ancient look about them.  Cobwebs clung to the beams.

            I felt something cold slide against my chest.  I started and glanced down.  

            The priest was pressing the side of the dagger blade against my skin.  The blade winked in the buttery light from the torches along the walls and on either side of the god.   I looked at the god.  His fierce visage seemed to watch hungrily.  I shuddered.

            “Fear not,” Heh’lohsj intoned.  “Close your eyes and pray.”

            Before I could do as he said, he used the dagger to cut a deep line into my skin from clavicle to sternum.  The sharp pain left me voiceless.  At once, I smelled blood in the air and something pungent and astringent.  A fire coursed through my skin as if something were burning its way out of me or into me.  I began to thrash violently.  It took four of them to hold me down while the priest poured something into the wound. The liquid boiled in my wound.  I screamed.  Around me, men chanted and sang.  I felt as if my entire soul poured out from my mouth.

            You, too, will learn, said a voice in my head.  The voice cut through the madness.  As quickly as the fire had begun, it died down to a glower.  I stopped struggling and the four men let me go, stepping back from the altar.

            Heh’lohsj dabbed at the blood on my skin.  

            Someone helped me sit up.  I slowly swung my legs over the side of the altar.  I was helped to my feet and forcibly held up.

            “Drink,” Heh’lohsj told me and pressed the chalice to my mouth.  

            I swallowed a mouthful of a sickly-sweet concoction and then I was half-carried from the altar, down the steps and out of the room through a throng of watchful, eerily silent men.  Outside the double doors, someone threw a robe over my shoulders.  The rest was a blur until a while later, when I awoke in the same room as I had awakened when I first arrived there.  

            My chest throbbed and I reached up and touched bandages.

            “It’s already healing,” someone said.

            I dropped my hand and turned my head to the right.  A young man sat next to the cot on a short stool.   He gazed steadily at me with curiosity and something I could not define.  He was a whelp from the lower Southern Continent, with dark hair and skin and hazel eyes, fine of features, if a tad thin.  His thick hair was plaited in a single braid down to his mid-back.  He, too, wore dark clothes:  a black, high-collared shirt with long sleeves, black pants and a dark rust-colored heavy coat over those.  A black sword belt was wrapped twice around his narrow waist.  The sword had a round, copper handle.

            He shifted.  “Are you hungry?  Thirsty?”

            I groaned, touching my bandaged chest once more before attempting to sit up.

            The young man rose at once and helped me.

            I closed my eyes against the wave of nausea and dizziness that swept over me.  Sweat broke out on my forehead and back.

            “I’ll get you some fruit juice,” he told me and hurried off.

            I stiffened so I would not drop over onto the cot again.   I started to shiver and shake as acid rushed to my throat.  I swallowed with effort.

            “Here,” I heard from a great distance.

            A cold ceramic mug was pressed to my lips, and I sipped the tart fruit juice.  He fed me the drink slowly until my stomach settled and the sweat on my skin began to dry.  

            I opened my eyes as he began to dab my forehead, cheeks, and neck with a warm, damp cloth.

            I watched him as he sat down on the stool once more.  I gazed into his eyes. They were warm, concerned.      

            Suddenly, I felt rage rush through me, and he leaned back as if I had reached out to strike him.

            “What did you do to me?” I demanded.

            “I gave you juice,” he replied evenly.

            “The priest – your people – what did you do to me?”

            “He knows nothing,” Phenosj stated, stepping out of the shadows along the wall.

            What day was it?  What hour?

            I gazed up at him as he made his way to the cot.  “Then you tell me what was done to me!”

            He pursed his lips and considered my question.

            “You are in no position to demand answers,” he replied after a time.  “But the Holy One has instructed me to inform you nonetheless.”  He put his hand on the young man’s right shoulder.  “This is Estenosj.  He will be your handler, your teacher, your companion, and friend.  When you reach Da’hrisjah a monk will take over your teachings.”

            I sighed and wiped the dampness from my face with cold, shaking hands.  

            “You cannot betray us now,” Phenosj continued quietly, conversationally.  “The Holy One has placed a slow-acting poison into the wound of your chest.  Fear not.  We have the antiodote.  We will supply Estenosj with some of it.  You must be on your way now, Karane.  Things are about to change and quickly.  We need you back in the capital.  You are under our protection; we have eyes and ears everywhere.  You are quite safe.”

            I closed my eyes and began to laugh.  The laugh started in my belly and took over my body.  I laughed so hard; I could not breathe.  

            Phenosj slapped me hard across the cheek and mouth.

            The hysteria passed just as quickly as it had begun.  I tasted blood in my mouth.

            I looked up into Phenosj’s cold eyes.  

            “You won’t die,” he told me.  “The poison takes years to destroy the body.”

            “So, there will be damage,” I heard myself state.

            He shrugged.  “It is inevitable.  But, as I said, you’ve nothing to fear.  You are young and strong.  You’ll outlive the damage.”

            I snorted.

            His eyes went flat.

            “You are to get on a ship and go home today,” he told me coldly.  “Estenosj and other Shadows will keep an eye on you.  Now, dress and go.”

            Estenosj rose and made to assist me.  I pushed him away.

            “Keep your filthy hands off me!” I growled.  

            I rose slowly. My body, my legs felt weak, shaky.

            I reached for my clothes and dressed slowly under their gazes.

            Estenosj produced a blindfold.  “I need to put this on you before I escort you out.”

            He walked around me until he was at my back before placing the blindfold over my eyes and tying it securely at the back of my head.  I felt his arm around my waist as he began to lead me out of the room.

            Sorrow and despair threatened to overwhelm me as I followed him meekly.  The way out of the Shadows’ lair took what seemed like an eternity, although, in all fairness, it was probably a quarter to half an hour’s time.  I realized at once when we stepped out of the buillding.   I was assailed by the fresh scent of the sea and the musk of flowers.  The air on my skin was damp and cool.    

            “Come,” I heard Estenosj murmur.

            We kept walking for some time before he stopped and removed the blindfold.

            “We are around the corner from your inn,” he told me.

            We stood in some alleyway filled with the chittering of dasja.  I shuddered.

            “Don’t mind the vermin,” he told me.  “Go to the end of the alley, turn left then right.  The green door is close by.”

            He turned to go.

            “Wait!” I said, plucking at his right sleeve.  “What am I to do now?”

            “Leave,” he said without turning around. “You will be contacted by an operative within the month with your first assignment.  I will be on your ship.”

            I watched him hurry away.

Chapter II: Yhera

          Karane had a certain air about him that allowed me to trust him.  Almost too quickly, as Ohna and Lhara’h later pointed out with some amusement at my expense.  They’ve alway believed I am too soft, but then, I am no Maiden of Sene.

          We walked out into the hallway, and he closed his door quietly in our faces.  I let my friends into my narrow room before we spoke.

          “Is he trustworthy?” is the first thing Ohna wants to know.

          “I believe so, as far as what I’ve observed,” I replied.  “He shows great integrity in his job and dealings with the other castes.”

          “That does not make him trustworthy!” Lhara’h hissed, narrowing her eyes.

          As unpleasant as she was, why was I so drawn to Lhara’h? I had seen her gut both men and women for the cause and shown no remorse.  A scar traced her dusky skin from temple to mouth on the right-hand side of her face.  She was as slender as a blade of grass and as strong as a tah’lir.  And lonely as the moon is beautiful.

          “I know,” I replied wearily.  “But my gut instinct tells me that I can trust him.”

          “Would this be your 18-year-old gut?” Lhara’h mocked savagely.

          “That’s enough,” Ohna told her colleague without heat.  She looked at me with her reasonable, compassionate eyes.  “What else leads you to your conclusion?”

          “He is being tugged in two directions between his love of his family and his best friend and his acceptance that the Empress is wrong and cannot heal this nation.”

          Lhara’h shifts.  “Tugged not torn?”

          “Too soon to tell,” I answered honestly.  “But I think he is not yet at the torn stage.”

          “I see,” Ohna murmered, turning to the window.

          Of the two of them, Ohna frightened me the most.  Lhara’h was impulsive and irascible, but Ohna was precise, thoughtful, and patient.  She never missed.  She never forgave.  She always remembered.

          Lhara’h and I watched her as she slowly paced before the open window.  She was ageless, Ohna was.  She could have been 40 or 90, for all I could tell.  Her dark face was unlined, her slender body strong and capable.  Her story was quite sad – her husband, wife and children were put to the sword for stealing food.  She was in the army at the time, only having attained a middling commission because of her caste.  She was almost killed outright, too, when her youngest child was caught stealing by the city guards, but she managed to escape and disappear into the southern deserts and hills.  When she reappeared, she had a new identity and a new cause.

          She turned to me.  “I will take your word and trust you on this, Yhera, but we are walking a fine line here.  This was your call to approach him.  I don’t trust any aristocrat.”

          Lhara’h spat on the floor and went to squat against the wall, her gaze trained away from me.

          “I don’t necessarily trust aristocrats, either Ohna, but I am a good judge of character—”

          Lhara’h rose in a blur and spun towards me.  “You are all of eighteen!  What do you know of character?”

          The taunt stung.  I squared my shoulders and stuck my chin out.

          “I happen to own a character, Lhara’h.  Not every aristocrat supports the Empress.  Enough have hung for their beliefs.  Or are their sacrifices worth nothing?”

          Ohna sighed.  “No, you’re right, child.  They did not die in vain, and we will remember them.  Now, Lhara’h—keep. Your. Voice. Down.  We drew enough attention to ourselves when we came in here.”  She shook her head and cleared her throat.  “We’ll proceed with caution.  I don’t want to murder the nephew of the Empress and bring the entirety of the armed forces to the island.  So, we will watch him with you, Lhara’h and I.”

          I stiffened.  “I am well able—”

          She turned to face me, her eyes cold, blank.

          I almost swallowed my tongue.  There’s the killer, I thought helplessly.

          “We will come with you to the capital when the boy leaves.  We will go in commoner dress as indigents seeking work.  When we get to Da’hrisjah we will contact the local chapter of the Maidens of Sene.  You will come with us, won’t you?”

          I did not have had the courage to refuse.  “Yes.”

          She nodded once.  “Then we’ll leave you to keep an eye on the boy for now.  Send a message if aught happens.  We’ll contact you shortly.”

          I watched them leave and found I had been holding my breath for several seconds.  As soon as the door closed, I expelled my breath in a whoosh, the blood rushing to my head.  I went limp against the wall.

          Without being aware of it, I dropped on the bed onto my back to stare at the white ceiling.  My eyes found two cobwebs and marked them without conscious thought.  I could feel the dagger strapped to my right thigh and the one to my left calf.  There was also one strapped to my left inner upper arm.  A lot of good they would do me against Ohna.  I would be dead before even thinking of reaching for one.

          I shivered as I broke out into cold sweat.

          Goddess help me! I thought.  What have I gotten myself into?

          Soon my eyes closed, and I dozed fitfully.  My thin dreams were of Ohna and Lhara’h and running from some unseen assailant.  Finally, the assailant caught me.  It was my dead father, eye sockets empty, face haggard, the flesh hanging from the elegant bone structure.  A scream lodged in my throat as I sat up, dagger in hand, before I was even awake.

          I looked around the room.  The light slanting across the window was honey-gold and the breeze was cooler.  The evening was pregnant with the musky scent of flowers and dust.  I could hear laughter and conversation from outside the window as people went about their day without a care.  I swallowed and sheathed my dagger.

          “Father,” I said to the quiet room.  “I promised I would avenge you and I shall.  Forgive my momentary cowardice and doubt.”

          I closed my eyes and said a prayer for my mother’s goddess, the gentle Ras’lah.  My god was Kahi, the dual-sexed god, the dancer on gore, the madness-maker; god of sex and excess; desire and personal loss; also, the god of all atoliye.  My lips twisted into a smirk.  Of course, give the atoliye to the god of madness and personal loss.  How predictable of the domeinsji.

          I wiped the sweat from my face with a handkerchief and undid my braid, combing it out with my fingers before twisting a new plait into place.  I rose from the bed to stand at the window.  The streets were not as crowded now that the sun was reaching its nadir, but there were still those partaking of meals in outdoor cafes or walking the boulevard for exercise.

          Out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement.  A shadow near the mouth of an alley across the way.  Too swift for me to be sure there was someone there, which made me think there was someone there.  Probably Lhara’h.  Shadows guide her, I prayed.  It was a dangerous obsession I had with the woman.  It would surely get me killed one way or another.

          A knock on my door brought me out of my musings.

          The knock came a second time.

          I went to the door and opened it.

          “Hallo,” Karane murmured and indicated the room behind me.  “May I come in?”

          I stepped back and he strode in, went straight to the window, and shut it with a thud.  He turned to me and indicated the door with his chin.

          I closed it.  “What is it?”

          “I went to find the Temple of Bah’nah and was followed the entire way there and back.”

          “Women?”

          “Men.”

          I frowned.  “Men?”

          “Do you know who’s following me?”

          “No,” I replied honestly.  “I thought the Maidens might…but men?”

          He began to pace with all the grace of a caged maltika. I watched him for a few minutes.  He wrung his hands and shook his head.

          I stepped forward to stand before him as he made his way back towards me and put my hand out, palm to chest.

          “Stop,” I said.  “There will be more of this, I assure you. You can’t worry yourself to your grave this early.”

          He sighed and rubbed his face with his hands.  “Is there a time I should worry myself into my grave?”

          I smiled and put my hand down.  “What did you find out about the Temple?”

          “They’ll see us tomorrow at sunrise.”

          “Us?”

          “Yes.  You are on a journey also; you should get to ask the Oracle.”

          “The auguries are all drugged out of their wits, Karane.  When they give you an answer, it’s hardly decipherable.  Priests and nuns spend years trying to find the key to their questions’ answers.”

          He frowned.  “Oh, I know.  But something tells me I should be here.  I should consult Bah’nah.”

          “Well, you should trust your instincts, I suppose.”

          We stared at each other for a few minutes in silence.

          Finally, I broke the silence.  “Well, I’m parched.  Shall we get a drink somewhere?”

          Bah’nah is not the god of the fruit or the grain or their fermented drinks.  That is the purview of great Kahi, lord of madness.  I sought a little madness that night, so I led Karane to a small café that sold alcoholic drinks to those who were in the know.  I had not been in the know when I got to the island, but I had had time to kill on my hands before contacting Ohna and Lhara’h and did a little reconnaissance.  It paid that I was pretty enough for both genders and could milk information from any idiot male that approached me.

          From my nosing around, I found this one café that operated apart from the respectable ones.  It was a spot known to many sailors and soldiers who passed through.  And so it would be to Karane and me.

          We walked side-by-side, garnering many appreciative glances, because Karane, as a member of the highest family in our nation, could not help but be pretty.  My beauty was more exotic because of my red hair and pale complexion that I inherited from Eda.  I got my mother’s slender figure, but my looks are all my father’s doing.  I gather more information when I wear my hair down, but I was not looking for information right now.  I needed to decompress.  The nap had only wound me up further.

          Karane shot me a curious glance when I led him to a tea shop with iron wrought tables outside under bright parasols.  All the tables were full of noisy customers eating cold meals and drinking tea or fruit juices.  I led him inside to a large candlelit room with more iron wrought tables covered in white tablecloths.  The legs of the tables and chairs looked delicate and easily breakable.

          “Ah,” said the young man I had charmed information from.  He wore a pristine white apron.  “You’re back.  Table out front.”  He lowered his voice.  “Or behind.”

          “Behind, please.”

          He nodded once and led us to a hallway behind a beaded curtain.  The beads made a slithering sound as he pushed his way through.

          “What’s this?” Karane demanded softly.

          “Hush!” I said and gave him a lopsided grin.  “You’ll see.”

          The hallway was dimmer than the front room.  There were several unremarkable doors through which came voices in conversation and the occasional raucous laughter.  The young man led us to the end of the hall and opened the door.

          “Here you go, for atoliye, as you desired,” he said and winked.

          I hit Karane on the chest with the back of my hand.  “Pay the man.”

          Karane sputtered for a moment before controlling himself.  “I am not made of money, you know!”

          “Your eyes give you away,” I purred and entered the room, leaving my companion to barter as best he could.

          Beyond the door was a wonderland of sorts.  There was a vast, open room with a second floor filled with open doors through which I could see all manner of sexual activities.  The rails on the balustrade were set far enough apart to allow for the view.  Stairs against the right-hand wall led up to the top floor.  Somewhere, a woman’s dulcet voice cried out in ecstasy.  I went hot and cold at once.

          The main floor was taken up by wooden tables and booths.  Every table and booth seemed to be filled.  I scanned around for an open table as Karane came to stand next to me.

          “What is this place?” he demanded.

          “A bar, my friend, on the island that allows no such establishment.”

          He looked around. He gaped, his face flushing when he took a gander at the upper level.

          “What in all hells—”

          “Hush, let’s find a table.”

          We found a table tucked into a dim corner.  It was warm in that vast room due to all the crammed bodies.  There was a back door, but it was firmly latched against entrance from the outside.

          We took our seats and ordered drinks.  I wanted wine with a spike of ekila.  He took straight mi’disj without water or anything.  When we ordered and he paid, we sat back to study the room.  More than one pair of eyes were studying us with appreciation and curiosity.  It’s not every day that one sees an aristocrat with a half-Ynhan in the interior of Tjish.un.  Well, perhaps Bah’nah was different since it is an island and not strictly in the interior.

          I sat back with my drink and sipped it quietly, slowly.  I did not want to lose my edge, just decompress.  

          Karane took his shot glass and swallowed the liqueur in one go.  The server, standing close by, poured him another.  He swallowed that one down, too, and allowed himself to be served a third before I placed my hand on his wrist.

          “That’s enough for now, my dear,” I purred.  “We need to talk.”

          The server bowed and hurried off in search of a more lucrative table.

          Karane leaned forward, forearms on table.  “Talk.”

          “I’m afraid I can’t protect you against those who are keeping an eye on you, Karane.”

          “I didn’t think you could,” he stated callously.

          I removed my hand from his wrist.

          He shot me a glance.  “I meant no disrespect, but even I cannot protect myself from two Maidens of Sene.  That’s all I meant.”

          The stiffness eased from my shoulders and back.  I shifted forward to hear him better and to keep our voices from being overheard.

          “I’m sorry.  I did not know they would want to meet you.”

          “They’re your friends?”

          “Friends is a strong word and imprecise.”  I sipped my wine.  “They are acquaintances of mine from when I was recruited.  They recruited me. Ohna is literally my mentor…”  I bit my lip.  “But I am afraid of her.”

          “I can see why,” he replied quietly.  He gazed directly into my eyes, disarming me for a second.  “And the other?”

          I shrugged but even I could tell it was forced.

          “You like her,” he continued.  “Maybe even love her.”

          I flushed and bit back a curse.  Damn wine!

          “Don’t worry,” he told me.  “I know the feeling. Try loving a domeinsji boy who has eyes only for girls.” He smiled, his green eyes warming considerable.  “We are in the same boat, you and I.”

          “But your boy is not an assassin that I should fear.”

          “No,” he agreed.  “But he is the Crown Prince that it seems I must betray.”

          I gaped.  “Heavens!  You don’t aim low, do you?”

          He chuckled, but it sounded sad.  “Yes, I suppose I don’t.”

          We sipped our drinks in silence for a few minutes.

          Two pretty men started making their way over to our table, but one glare from me had them putting their hands up and walking away.  It helps that I wear a sword strapped to my back.

          We sat back in our seats to watch the crowd.  It was pleasant sitting in that dingy part of the café, immersed in the conversations that surrounded us.  The people seemed friendly and happy, something that one does not experience in the rest of Tjish.un.  Not that I have been further south than Ras’lah.  The denizens of the bigger cities seem to suffer the most from our corrupt ruler’s habits.  The Empress is not interested in the smaller towns that contribute so much less to her coffers.

          Karane moved forward in his seat and placed his forearms on the table. He motioned for me to draw nearer.

          Setting my empty glass on the table, I leaned in.

          “If I decide to join the resistance – and I haven’t made up my mind yet – what is expected of me?”

          I thought for a few seconds before I answered.  My answers were part of the culling process.  If I did not go about this the right way, I could lose an ally and he could lose his life.

          “I couldn’t tell you right off,” I replied, choosing to go with honesty.  “Your name would be given to an elite member of the resistance.  Someone high up in our circles.  He would pass your name on to a contact.  You would never meet this elite member.  Elite lives are shrouded in secrecy.  If you betray us, the contact is just a messenger and of no import.  He or she would not reveal too much about us.”

          “I see,” he said, gnawing on his lower lip.  He looked up.  “Why me, Yhera?”

          “You would mean a feather in our collective cap.  A coup.  You — a member of the aristocracy and the Empress’ own nephew.”

          After a moment, he nodded.  “I see. Makes sense, I suppose.”  He frowned. “I haven’t had a tragedy happen to me, not like you and Lhara’h have.”

          I shook my head.  “Tragedies are not the only reason men and women join our cause.  Some people see what is going on and it doesn’t sit well with them.  They are principled enough to want to help us.  And you can join in any capacity, Karane.  As an operative, for example.”

          “A spy?”

          “Call it what you will,” I replied mildly.  “You can be a handler, a messenger – anything you feel comfortable doing.”

          He splayed his hands.  “I don’t feel comfortable with any of this.  Not really.  But I also know circumstances don’t change without some catalyst.  My dear aunt’s ways haven’t set well with me for years.”  He leaned closer and I mirrored him.  “I saw what she does in that maze under Cera’s ziggurat…Seeing such acts made me realize she is evil.”

          I sighed.  “She isn’t evil.  She’s a powerful, callous, and sadistic woman, but we don’t know what led her down the path she has chosen.  I think individuals commit heinous and evil acts, but these acts are very much human and not supernatural.”

          He gave me an assessing glance.  “Thank you.  That helps.  She is my aunt, all things considered.  What will become of her, if – when we win?”

          “We?” I asked with a grin.

          He shrugged.  “More than likely.”

          I sobered.  “I don’t know her fate, Karane, but you can’t stand in the way of it.”

          “I can’t make any promises,” he said with a heavy sigh.  “I often act spontaneously.  You’ll have to knock me out, I suppose, if I make to save her, though I just can’t imagine doing so.”

          “So noted,” I said.  “Finish your drink, Soldier.  We’ve a temple to visit tomorrow.”

Act I: Chapter I

               In those days, a great privation had fallen upon the populace of the nation of Tjish.un.  It was nothing new, unfortunately; it simply worsened with the current Empress. No one wanted to speak against the High Priestess and Empress, for she was the incarnation of the Mother of the Gods, Cera.  As High Priestess, she was devout and strict, awake in the wee hours of the morning to conduct animal sacrifices so to read the fresh entrails through which the gods spoke.  One could see her, atop the towering ziggurat, holding a curved dagger and bending over the steaming offal.  Afterward, she would descend the pyramid, arms and white robes bright red with the blood of a tah’lir or a dosi.  She was an exquisite woman, even to a man like me who preferred the company of other men.  Tall and willowy, with girlish breasts and narrow hips, long of legs, with a perfect, cunning face and large, bright green eyes.  Her copper-colored hair fell in ripples down her back, except when she wore the famous conical hat of her office.  As unapproachable as she was statuesque, yet the people loved her for bringing the Goddess back to earth.

             As Empress, she was cruel and spoiled, holding feeding orgies for days on end while, under the shadow of Faithful Hill, the poor died of hunger.  Her eyes glittered coldly at servants, haughty and superior.  She was known for loving perfection and, if a servant fell short of expectation, she or he could well be beaten to death.  I had seen so with my very eyes while friends held me back from interfering.  As young as I had been at the time, I knew I hated her, even though her blood ran in my veins, for she was my aunt and the most powerful woman in the world.

             The year before things began to change, I traveled alone to the Isle of Bah’nah to visit the ziggurat of the God for which the island was named, Bah’nah, God of wisdom and beauty.  He was also the God of healing.  The isle was far from Da’hrisjah, the capital, where I and my family lived. Tjish.un is a long, narrow peninsula jutting out from the Southern Continent.   The journey from the tip of the peninsula, where Da’hrisjah was located, to the Isle of Bah’nah midway down the land, took six weeks by sea but more than two months by land.  I had taken an extensive leave from the army on the understanding that I was going to fast and pray and ruminate upon the future.  I had asked it of the High Priestess, knowing she could not refuse a pilgrim’s journey.  She signed my permission of travel, narrowed her eyes at me and waved me away impatiently.   I bowed deeply and backed out of her presence.

              I boarded the ship a week later, my friends coming to see me off, eyes full of questions that they dared not voice.  This was a holy matter, between me and the God.  They might not approve of my going on an extensive leave, but they could not anger the Gods by challenging my right to do so. In the meantime, my second-in-command, my stathos, Rayosj, would look after our company of soldiers.  I am not a fool, nor was I then.  I knew this leave would set me back from any expeditious advancement in the armed forces, but I felt strongly enough at the time that it hardly mattered.  And, truly, once things changed a year later, advancement of any kind became a fantasy for boys and young men.

             The capital, Da’hrisjah, was in the north of the country.  She was in the valley where the two tributaries of the great Kahi River emptied into the Sani’rath Sea. As a result of easy accessibility to trade vessels and a richer, loamier soil, the capital was a wealthy city, boasting more prayer houses than any other.  All her streets and alleys were paved.  Tall, majestic palms and hardy deciduous trees grew along the main boulevards, providing shade for the body and beauty for the eye.  Da’hrisjah’s government (and, by extension, her Empress) controlled the lands to the east and west of the River.  Great fields of black earth were used to grow crops, while in the north, near the city itself, were endless fields devoted solely to vineyards and orchards.  When I rode the great trading ship south to Bah’nah, I looked upon these fields which were full of heavily armed guards there to prevent theft of crops by indigents.  Such a sight began to open my eyes, especially when I already knew that a poor person caught by a guard did not receive a trial before execution. She or he was stealing from Cera, Celestial Mother, and so would be judged by Her in the afterworld. The most common form of execution was hanging and leaving the body to rot in the fields to deter other thieves and to keep the kites and vinah occupied.  As my ship traveled in placid waters along the endless, uneven shore, I saw countless bloated bodies hanging black against the sky.  Even from this distance, if the wind shifted just so, you could smell the sickly-sweet reek of death.  The guards patrolling the perimeters of the fields wore heavy masks across their noses and mouths.  I knew that a blot of certain essential oils just at the philtrum could forestall the grisly odor.

             It was an awakening of sorts for me, for in the capital most killing sanctioned by the state is done away from prying eyes.  The disappearing and killing of thieves and other undesirables are done in the bowels of the ziggurat.  There, people are tortured for the pleasure of the High Priestess and her priestesses and followers.  It is said men, women and children are boiled alive in oil and then set to fire, their bones interred in the earth, never to see the light of the sun again.  They are not given rites or prayers and, so, their souls are doomed to wander forever.  This I heard when I was twelve and just entering the army. I thought it was a tale to frighten children, but since then I have come to know better.  I have seen with my eyes what I was not meant to see.  It is by the grace of the gods that I was able to escape from that hiding place undetected. I am not a favorite of the Empress, even though I am her relative.  Only the High Priestess’ favorites get to witness the grisly events in her ziggurat.  Every day, I give thanks that I am not her favorite.  

             The Isle of Bah’nah is located at the mouth of a nameless bay that is parallel to great Cera Lake.  The land down there is drier than up north, full of windswept grass land and the occasional forest of dusty deciduous trees and palms.  The earth is red and fine, so that, if there are windstorms, one must cover one’s mouth and nose and eyes as best one can.  This far south, the Sani’rhath loses much of her fury, so Bah’nah is sort of a fairytale place, mild of weather and filled with all sorts of trees and flowering plants.  It is a clean place, smelling of the fragrance of flowers and the sea.  I was enchanted by it and wished I lived there, momentarily deciding I would become a priest and devote my life to Bah’nah before sanity returned.

             At the time I traveled to Bah’nah, I was on the cusp of seventeen, having been born near the end of the season of hal’tath.  I will be honest, I am not sure what reason led me to Bah’nah, except I had been troubled by horrible dreams and a crippling sense of foreboding.  I did not trust the High Priestess (which made me a sinner twice over), so I would not have told her anything about my dreams or sense of dread.   I wanted a God known for wisdom and kindness, love, and generosity, and that was not Cera nor her incarnation.  Even though Bah’nah is not the god of the atoliye (those who love their own gender), I have always been drawn to Him.

             Even to this day, there is a marble statue of Bah’nah in the center of the island, where many of the priests live. Servants and guards of the temple live in the outskirts of the island, near the shoreline. When I disembarked from the ship, knapsack over my shoulder, I followed the paved road on foot from the wharves to the statue and paused there to look upon the God’s countenance. I am a shallow man. Amongst the gods, there is none finer of visage than Bah’nah. As I stood under his placid, kind gaze, I noted his beauty with something like shame. He was well formed, and my eyes took in his broad shoulders, narrow hips, and outline of broad thighs before I turned away, fearing I would anger Him. Thankfully, whomever carved the statue had had the forbearance not to carve the genitals bare, but to drape them lovingly with a tunic that fell to mid-thigh. I have never understood the artist’s insistence that a goddess must be shown with bared breasts or a god with bared cock. It is indecent.

             Now that I was here, I was not sure how to proceed. I gazed about the square, with its stone benches and its treelined paved paths and felt a peace within me I had never felt before. A sweet, heavy musk filled the air, overpowering the briny scent of the sea. I looked around until I saw that some of the trees were heavy with large pink-petaled flowers. I thought once more that perhaps I had missed my calling, that I should have been training to become a priest. But my caste is strict in that the second born is always a warrior, and I was second born.

            I left the statue and the square and walked down a walkway that led to what looked like storefronts and shops. That took me aback somewhat, but I suppose servants, priests and guards must eat and purchase goods. So, I looked around until I saw a small teashop that advertised cold meals. The shop was not full. There were some five tables empty. The shopkeeper came to meet me at the door, his lively hazel eyes taking in my knapsack and rumpled uniform.

            He bowed. “Welcome to The Vinah’s Flight, soldier,” he said.

            He was a completely forgettable man in his late 40s or early 50s, with a bald pate and wispy copper-colored hair around his florid face. Although his heavy linen apron was stained, the white shirt under it was clean, as were the dun trousers. He pushed his hair from his face with an impatient hand and indicated an empty table by a small row of windows.

            “Would you like tea or some food as well?” he asked.

            “Both,” I said. “Mjish, if you have it.”

            “Ah!” he pronounced and nodded. “You must be from the capital. Not many favor the Torahni tea this far south.”

            “I am from the capital, sir,” I told him. “What is in the offing, as far as food goes?”

            “A salad of spicy cold seaweed, cold pickled vegetables, and a loaf of fresh baked bread.”

            “I will take it, thank you.”

            He bowed once more and shuffled away.

            The food came first, followed by a teapot and a mug. He also brought a small serving dish full of honey and some tah’lir’s milk. He would not have known I take my tea black.

            As I ate, I listened idly to nearby conversations.  My attention was mostly taken up by the simple, nutritious meal.  

            Those who follow Bah’nah do not consume meat, although they do eat products made from animals, such as cheeses and milk. Bah’nah is the only to god to whom a sacrifice means burning grain or fruits or vegetables.  The Bah’nahist priests communicate with the god by reading tea leaves or the smoke produced by sacrificial fire.  It is all very civilized.  

            The conversations around me were banal and commonplace:  how to breed tah’lir to get more nutritious milk; how to rid dosi of bloodsucking insects; when it is most propitious to plant crops.  Things that interest a farmer but not me. My mind soon wandered.

            It was due to inattention that I failed to notice when a young slip of a girl slid into the seat across from me.  When I glanced up to gaze out the window, she moved and I started.

            She snorted and shook her head.  “You usually do better than that, Karane Truvesto.”

            I finished chewing and swallowed, gathering my thoughts, taking a sip of tea to forestall an answer.

            She looked rumpled, too, and vaguely familiar.  

            I frowned.  “Do I know you?”

            She leaned forward, placing her forearms on the table.  “I might tell you, if you buy me some tea.”

            I hailed the shopkeeper.

            “Yes, soldier?” he asked, flicking a glance to the girl, his hazel eyes taking her in with appreciation.

            “Another pot of tea, her choice, and a meal for her,” I replied.            

            “I’ll have what he’s having,” she said with a smirk.

            The shopkeeper bowed and hurried away.

            “Now,” I said and sat back, full but wary.  “Do I know you?”

            She mirrored my stance, sitting back in her chair.  “Maybe.  You may have seen me here and there.”

            She was pretty, with amber eyes, a rarity in our people.  She wore her russet hair tied tightly in a bun on her head.  Her face was lean, all angles, with a generous, smiling mouth.

            I cocked my head. Suddenly, it came to me.  “On the ship!  You were on the ship.”

            She smiled.  “Very good, Stathoisen.”

            She knew military rank.  She must have read the insignia I wore on the left lapel of my uniform coat.

            She continued to smile.  “My father was in the military, as was my mother.”

            “Ah.  But I don’t really know you, do I?”

            “No.  You don’t.  Not yet.”

            My heart lurched.  Was she seeking companionship?

            She snorted again as the serving girl set a new teapot and mug, as well as a plate of cold vegetables and a loaf of bread, on the table, curtsying before hurrying off.

            The girl pulled the teapot closer and looked inside.  “Mjish.  How typical of a northerner.”  She shrugged.  “Will do in a pinch.”  Her amber eyes danced.   “First, let me clear up the issue of you thinking I am wanting your company for sex.  I am like you, atoliy.  Second, I will not answer any further questions until we have some privacy.”

            I rose. “I am going to find out about lodgings.”

            She gazed up at me as she poured the tea into her mug and doctored it with honey and milk.  “Good.  I need a place to sleep as well.”

            I bowed.  “I’ll be back shortly.”

            I found the shopkeeper at the serving window, speaking to a tall, sturdy man with wide shoulders and a heavily stained linen apron.

            As I approached, the two men turned to me.

            “Soldier,” the shopkeeper said.  “Ready to pay?”

            I reached into the hipbag and withdrew two coins, handing them over.

            “I am in need of lodgings,” I said.  “Would you recommend some place that is reasonable?”

            He bowed.  “Yes. Of course!  There is an inn down this street a few doors down. It has a bright green door and window frames.  You can’t miss it.”

            By the time I returned to the table, the girl had almost consumed her meal.  She ate quickly and efficiently, the way we eat in the military.  I stowed away that piece of information.

            I took my seat across her while she finished her meal and poured myself a third cup of tea.

            She looked up occasionally, but she did not speak to me again until we were out in the bright, warm late morning.  I led us down the boulevard, under the canopy of the fragrant trees, to the inn the shopkeeper had suggested.  There was too much foot traffic to allow for a private conversation, so we said nothing to each other as we came to the green door. I allowed her to enter first.

            Inside the inn, it was cool and quiet.  The window next to the door allowed for fresh air and light to enter the foyer. We stepped to the left and through an archway into a rectangular room with a dark wooden counter.  Behind the counter, the wall was made up of dark shelves filled with folded towels, washcloths, bars of soap and vials of oil.  The room smelled of fragrant oils and tallow.  

            A tall, matronly woman stood behind the counter.  Her salt and pepper hair was pulled severely away from her face and formed into a single braid.  

            She glanced up from her books as we stepped into the room.  “Good morrow.  How can I help you?”

            “We’d like two small rooms,” I said.  “Preferably close to each other.”

            She ran her eyes over both of us, skeptical and curious, then nodded and named her price.  I paid for the week for both the girl and myself.

            “There are bathing chambers in the basement,” the innkeeper told us.  “You come get your towels, washcloths and soap here.  Hot water is extra.  Please sign the register, and I’ll show you to your rooms.  If you cannot write, mark with an X.”

            After we had signed the register, she reached into a drawer and withdrew two keys, walking around the counter and heading back towards the foyer.

            Past the foyer, to the left, was a wide white door.  It was closed now, but she pulled it open, revealing a set of whitewashed stairs.  She proceeded to climb the stairs, and I motioned for the girl to go before me.  I followed after.  The walls to were white as well and scuffed in places.  Even though the stairs and walls were free of cobwebs, the narrow space smelled of must.  The steps looked worn.  

            The steps ended on the second floor which consisted of five sets of closed doors facing each other.  The worn floor was covered with a long, narrow throw rug.  It had once been deep navy blue with white edges but was now mostly faded.  At the end of the hallway was a white table with a blue vase filled with flowers. Behind it stood a narrow, open window.  The air filtering through the window was warm and fragrant.

            “Your bedrooms are at the end of the hall,” the innkeeper said.  

            She strode to the door to the right of the window.  

            “This is yours, young sir.”

            She unlocked the door and stepped back.  

            I stepped into a long, narrow room with a single bed.  It was bright with white walls and floor and a window with a filmy blue curtain that swayed in the warm breeze.  A white table stood under the window.  It, too, held a blue vase filled with flowers.  The bed was covered with blue sheets and a white pillow.

            “This will do nicely,” I told her.

            She smiled and bowed.  “Happy to be of service.”  She turned to the girl.   “You are across the way.  Come.”

            When they had gone, I closed the door and dropped my knapsack on the mattress, taking in the space and deciding if it would allow me to exercise and stretch.  I decided it would and rifled through my knapsack to find something clean to wear.  I needed a wash badly.

            I stepped out into the hall just as the women did as well.        

            “I will be in need of hot water for a bath,” I told the innkeeper.

            She bowed.  “An extra coin for the hot water.”  She looked at the girl.  “For you, too, miss?”

            The girl lifted her chin, flicking me a glance.  “Yes.”

            “Very good.  It should be ready in about 20 minutes.  Come down then.”

            She hurried off.

            I indicated my room.  “Come inside and we’ll talk.”

            She bowed slightly and preceded me, taking a seat on the narrow bed and looking up at me expectantly.

            I closed the door behind me.  “Who are you and what do you want with me?”

           She rose and faced me.  “Who I am is not important.  I’ll give you my name.  It is Yhera Aemathi.”

           I cocked my head.  “Aemathi is not a Tjish.unen name.”

           She squared her shoulders.  “Neither is Yhera.  My father was Ynhan; my mother was Tjish.unen.”

           “Go on,” I said, squatting against the wall facing her.

           She looked at me warily for a moment before perching down on the bed once more.

           She swallowed.  “I was sent to recruit you.”

           I frowned.  “What do you mean – recruit me?”

           For the first time since meeting Yhera, she seemed uncertain and nervous.

           “I am here to recruit you to join the Resistance.”

           I went hot and cold inside. Join the Resistance? Me?

           “I don’t understand why you are recruiting me.  I am no one.”

           “You are nephew to the Empress,” she retorted.  She rose.  “And we’ve been watching you closely for some time now. You don’t like her. For good reason, too.”

           I stood up.  “Out of the question.  Joining the Resistance would be going against my caste–my friends, my family, my future.”

           She scrunched her nose as if she smelled something off.  

           “How typical of the highest caste – to put themselves above the welfare of the poorest, the most defenseless.”

           “I am not unaware of the horrors of our society, you know–“

           “Yes, we know,” she spat.  “But yet you continue to put yourself ahead of everyone else.”

           “That’s unfair!”

           “Is it, Karane Truvesto?”  She swallowed.  “Let me tell you my story and maybe you will see.  My parents, as I told you, were military.  My father rose to the rank of Atheloth.  He–“

           “Your father was Ather Aemathi?”

            “Yes.”

           “But he was a traitor!”

           She stiffened, her eyes growing hard.  “He was a patriot.  He cared about the indigent, the helpless, the trampled.”

           “He conspired against the Empress!”

           “Lower your voice,” she hissed.  “Yes, he conspired against that woman.  As a result, he was hung and so was mother, even though she was innocent.  The only thing that saved me was that I was rescued by the Resistance and hidden, given a new name, a new city to live.  The Empress hunted me and my twin brother.  Yeron, too, escaped.  But to Ynha to live with my father’s family.”

           She was controlling her emotions with a physical effort.  I could see her trembling and fisting her hands.

           “I’m sorry,” I told her softly.

           Her eyes flashed.  “I don’t need your platitudes.  We need you.”

           “And how do I know you weren’t sent by my aunt to nose my out?”

           “You don’t.  But I’ll give you intel you may not know.”

           She began to pace, wringing her hands.  “Your Empress has made a fatal mistake.  When she sent that military contingency to put down the rebellion in Ras’lah city, we already knew, so the rebels were long gone by the time the military got there.  But her soldiers went into homes and forced out men, women and children, putting them to the sword on the streets until the streets ran red with blood.  She said there was a mole in the army, so now soldiers are turning against one another, pointing fingers and killing each other in a desperate attempt to come out of this alive.  Things are descending into chaos.  It’s only a matter of time. Our time is coming, sooner than you think.”

           I went cold inside. I had heard rumors of soldiers turning against one another down south, in Ras’lah. It seemed inconceivable at the time.

           “What is it you expect of me?” I asked, my voice sounding far away to my ears.

           “Here is my proposal:  You become a member of the Resistance.  We need your ears and eyes, your ability to contact your connection as soon as you hear something of import to us. You are to share this with no one, not father, not mother or sibling.  Not friends or lovers.”

           “I wouldn’t put them in harm’s way.”

           She nodded. “They may be anyway.  I am being blatant with you.  I don’t want you to come to us under false pretenses.  The putrescence of this corrupt government has to be excised and burned, leave the nation clean and healthy.”

           “In that we agree,” I said.  “When do you need an answer?”

           “We will approach you again,” she replied.  “I am here to answer your questions, within reason.”

           “I need to think,” I told her.  “Let me bathe and we can resume our conversation here when we are done.”

           I made to turn and she took three swift steps towards me, putting her hand out and pressing the palm to my chest.

           “Do not think of betraying me,” she said.  “They won’t take me alive, and you will become our enemy as well.  You and your family.”

           “I won’t betray you,” I promised her, placing my hand over hers on my chest.  “I give you my oath.”

           She pulled her hand free.  “Then we should bathe before we talk some more.  Come.”

            We gathered our clean clothes and wandered down to the main floor in search of the bathing chamber.  The innkeeper lent us towels, washcloths and soap and led us down a brick stairwell into a surprisingly clean and fresh basement.  There were windows that looked out into the alleyway.  Dark blue curtains provided privacy.  A dark, heavy curtain hung from a brass rod with brass hooks and stood between two bathtubs.

            “You each take a bathtub,” the innkeeper suggested.  There are stools over there for you to lay your clean clothes.  I do laundry on the third day, two days from now.  It’s is a nominal fee to get your laundry done.  If you are interested, there is a folded cloth sack in your bedroom.  Put your dirty laundry in there and I will collect it on the third day. Questions?”

            “The hot water?” I asked.

            “I’ll bring that shortly.”

            She spun around and hurried up the stairs.  We could hear her footsteps receding directly overhead.

            “Which tub do you want?” Yhera asked me.

            “I’ll take the one closest to the windows,” I told her.

            She gave me a disarming smile.  “Such a gentleman!”

            I went to the left-hand corner of the room for a stool and brought Yhera one as well.  I set hers next to her tub and began to take my shoes off.

            Yhera, I noticed, had undone her braid and began combing her hair with her hands.

            The innkeeper returned, a young man in tow, each carrying two large buckets of water.  The hot water was poured into the tubs.

            The innkeeper set a bucket next to each tub.

            “Cool water comes out of the spigot in the wall there.  Let me know if you have further questions.”

            They were gone before I could answer.

            Yhera chuckled and picked up her bucket, carrying it to the spigot and turning the knob.  Clear water rushed out.

            By the time I got to the wall, Yhera had filled her bucket and was drawing the curtain between the tubs. I heard her undressing and pouring the cold water into the tub before stepping in.

            I followed her lead, except I filled two buckets of water before I was satisfied.  I doffed my clothes and folded them, setting them on the floor next to the stool.  Then I stepped into water that was hot still. I wondered how Yhera could stand it with only one bucket of cool water.

            The water came to my waist. I lathered a washcloth and began to scrub my body with the citrus-scented soap.  My mind wandered as I bathed.  I own that I must have been in some sort of shock at the time.  I felt paralyzed to give Yhera an answer.  Even though I had seen many, many injustices in the brief history since I had been out of the nursery, to go against one’s ruler and High Priestess went against everything with which I had been inculcated.  It did not sit well with me, even as I recalled every person’s murder I had witnessed.  A war began in my mind and heart that day.

            “I can hear you thinking over there,” Yhera teased in a sing-song voice.

            “I have much to think on.”

            “I daresay,” she agreed.  “I have a week to convince you.  Will you hear me out?”

            “I will.”

            I owed her that much at least, even if I did not know her.  She had put her life on the line to give me a choice.  I envied and respected her for that.

            After scrubbing head to toe, I used the bucket to rinse and rose, reaching for the towel.  I grimaced at the sight of that water, grungy with soap residue and dirt.  I dressed quickly, using my wooden comb to unknot my hair, re-braiding it into a single plait down my back.

            On the other side of the curtain, I could hear Yhera stepping out of her tub and beginning to rub the dampness from her skin.  Do not misunderstand me.  I serve in the military with women.  I see women naked in the common baths.  This usually does not affect me, but something about Yhera made me question my values.  I turned my back to the curtain and strode to the windows. I pulled back the curtains and gazed out at the bright early afternoon.

            My eyes felt gritty from lack of sleep.  One does not sleep well in a cargo ship, and I traveled in a cargo ship for six weeks.  It had given me the opportunity to go into different trade towns and learn the lay of the land.  The cargo ships traveling up and down Tjish.un’s coasts usually stopped in more than one locale to empty freight and pick up more.  On the west coast of Tjish.un, there is only one major city between Bah’nah and the capital – A’leumih, named for the god of the world. We stopped there for three days.  It gave me the opportunity to walk around its dusty streets and see how things were there.  Not good.  Same hollowed-out faces and sickly children.  Same angry stares.

            The towns we stopped in (and there were only three large enough to boast a pier large enough for a cargo ship) fared better.  The people looked healthier, better fed.  The ship lingered only a day or so in smaller locales, so I had to make quick reconnaissance.  The intel I gathered gave me hope.  The children seemed well fed and happy. The men’s eyes, though watchful of a stranger, were not angry.  But there still had been a tightness around their mouths, a wariness in their gazes.  It made me wonder.

            “I am ready, Karane,” Yhera said, pulling back the curtain.  “May I call you Karane?”

            “You may, Yhera,” I replied and turned.

            “What are you going to do this afternoon?”

            I shrugged.  “I thought of taking a nap, but I also want to take in the sights.  I need to find the main temple to ask a question of the Oracle.  Then I need to find the ziggurat.”

            She cocked her head.  Her eyes held a question that I dared her to ask, but she nodded.

            “Perhaps you can do both,” she told me.

            “What will you do?”

            She smiled enigmatically.  “I’ve something important to tend to, but I should be back in a couple of hours.”

            “Join me for dinner?” I asked her.

            She shrugged.  “Alright.  Come.  I must be going soon.”

            We spoke of irrelevant topics as we made our way up to the second floor.  At our doors, we both paused, keys in slots.

            “I’ll see you when you return,” I said first.  “Wake me if I am not already.”

            She nodded. “Thank you.  I will.”

            I entered my room and locked the door behind me, dropping the soiled clothes on the floor against the wall.  Then I took my army coat off, leaving only the undershirt and lay down on my back.  I lay there, hearing Yhera leave and lock her door.  Then I listened idly to the sounds drifting in through the open window.  I could hear the rustle of the curtains as they belled and settled, over and over, in the warm breezes.  Sometimes someone would call or whistle in the distance.  Sometimes an animal would bleat.  My mind was abuzz with questions, thoughts, worries.  I turned restlessly unto my side and firmly kept my eyes closed.

            I must have drifted off, even though I was aware of the sounds coming through the window.  I heard a firm knock on my door that had me swinging my legs over the side of the bed and onto the floor before even fully waking.  I had not put my boots on yet. My commanding officer would throw a fit if he found out I answered a door out of uniform.

            Well, he wasn’t here, was he?

            I padded to the door and cracked it open.

            Yhera stood on the other side, smiling.  She held up a bag.

            “I got us some lounma!”

            Pleasure coursed through me.  “How did you manage that?  Is the fruit even in season?”

            She snorted.  “You live in the capital?  Lounma is always in season down further, in I’A and Setkai.  Can I come in?”

            I opened the door and stepped back.  Yhera stepped in, followed by two willowy figures draped in nun’s robes.  Their heads were covered fully, and they kept their eyes trained on the floor.

            My heart lurched in my chest, but I made myself calm down and I closed the door quietly, turning to face them.  They stood in a line, Yhera between them.

            Yhera dug into the bag, pulled a green fruit out and tossed it at me.

            I plucked it from the air and indicated my bed.  “Please, sit.”

            The two women wrapped in robes pulled off their head covers, revealing bald heads.  Dozens of tiny royal blue studs pierced the helix and scapha of their ears.  Blue tattoos showed along their slender, graceful necks.

             I bowed, hands palm-to-palm at my clavicle. “I am honored, Sisters.”

            My mind raced:  What were maidens of the war god Sene doing in Bah’nah?  More importantly, with Yhera, and in my room?

            My heart raced and made me lightheaded.  I straightened my back.

            The women were grinning at me.

            “He’s mannered, at least!” the one of the left said.

             “Yes, he is,” Yhera agreed placidly

            “Pretty, too,” the one on the right commented drily.

            My heart lurched again for a different reason.  One did not turn down a maiden of Sene if she asked for sex if one wanted to live.

            Yhera snorted and slapped the girl on the chest with the back of her hand.

            “Leave him!” she told the nun.  “He is like us, atoliye.”

               “Ah,” the nun purred in response.  “But I am atol-domeinsj, aren’t I, Sister?”

               Meaning she slept with any gender she chose.

               I kept my face in a bland mask as they ran their eyes over me, assessing me.

               “Sit, soldier,” the nun on the left told me.

               I went to the wall and squatted there.

               They mirrored me, squatting with their backs to the bed.

               “These are my friends and colleagues,” Yhera said.  “We are here to try to sway you to join our cause.”

                “And do I have a choice?”

               The nun on the right of Yhera smiled coldly.  “You may well guess.”

               “Yes,” I replied.

               “We are not threatening anyone!” Yhera hissed.

               She gave her friend on the right a withering glare that had no impact, as far as I could see.

               “What is the old saying from colonization days?” I spoke.  “You catch more bees with honey than vinegar.  Whatever bees were.”

               The nun on the right flicked her wrist.  “They were insects.”

               I had the sudden absurd impulse to laugh, but I did not.  I clamped upon it and swallowed it down.

               “I’m listening,” I said.

               “Good, soldier,” the nun on the left said.  “I am Ohna.  That is Lhara’h over there. You know Yhera.”

               I inclined my head again.

               Yhera turned to Lhara’h.  “Tell him your story, Lha.”

               Lhara’h frowned.   “Alright.”  She looked at me with reptilian eyes.  “I was in the armed forces, on the way to being a promoted.  But my family was poor, you see.  The Empress came to our city (Ras’lah) to see how her armed forces were doing—”

               I recalled that the last time the Empress had gone to Ras’lah was four years ago, when I was twelve.  I remembered the production she made of leaving the city – the costly parades and celebrations.  She even hung several opponents from the city walls as a tribute to her journey.

               Lhara’h continued.  “She was beautiful, I thought.  I was in awe of her.  She was beautiful but as cold as the moon’s glow. Anyway…she came with all the pomp and circumstance she could muster.  People turned out in droves to see her.  My family was, as I said, poor.  We were fishers, you see.  I was the only one who went into the armed forces and learned my letters and numbers.  We went to see her; I was on leave from the army at the time.  My family waited all night by the side of the boulevard to see her.

               “In the morning, we had a good seat up front.  She did not arrive until noon.  My father was feeling sickly because of the heat. We had not eaten that day.  She came in a procession down the avenue, her eyes taking in the crowds with hauteur and disdain.  As she passed, one of her precious jewels fell from the filmy robes she wore.  My father bent and picked it up – without thinking, I’m sure.  A guard saw him and took the jewel from him and made him kneel on the ground.  I tried to explain what had happened, but the guard backhanded me.

               “The Empress looked at us and looked away.  ‘Kill him,’ she said tonelessly.

               “Before I could react, the guard unsheathed his sword and beheaded my Eda!  I screamed and it took several men to hold me back from the guard.  The Empress looked at me and then at the guard.

               “’She is no longer in the army,’ she told him.

               “I was stripped of my commission and not paid for that year.  Almost an entire year!  That…woman…she does things with impunity! I…”

               She recalled herself and grew quiet.  Her eyes, which had flashed with rage as she spoke of the injustice suffered by her family, became flat as pond water.

               “My mother killed herself next day.  I left the city and went to Sene city to join the war god’s maidens.  And here I am.”

               Yhera put her arm around the girl’s shoulders.

               The girl looked away, her eyes bleak and tearless.

               “I’m sorry,” I said into the silence.  “I know that may sound like a platitude, but I have seen many such things in the capital.”

               “She is your aunt!”  Lhera’h spat.

               “But that does not make me blind to her faults.  Her second born son is my closest friend.  You are putting me in a difficult position here.”

               “Aren’t we all in such a position?” Ohna asked.  She rose from her squat and sat down heavily on the bed.  “One young man is not worth the lives of thousands upon thousands.”

               I swallowed thickly, seeing bright green eyes and a rakish grin.  “No. You are correct.”

               My heart twisted in my chest. Yes!  He is worth all those lives and more, it insisted.

               “I would like to consult with the Oracle here before I give you an answer,” I said.

               “When are you consulting the Oracle?” Yhera asked.

               “As soon as the head priest will see me.”

               The three stood, and so I rose as well.

               “I leave on the fifth day, with or without seeing the Oracle,” I continued.  “I will give you an answer on the fifth day.”

               Ohna inclined her head.  “Very well, soldier.  We will meet you here in the pre-dawn hours of the fifth day.”

               I bowed.  “Thank you.”

               I watched them leave, Yhera with them.  They had words outside the door, which stood ajar.  I walked to the window and gazed down at the boulevard.

               In a few minutes, Yhera returned and closed the door quietly behind her.

               “Now what?” she asked.

               “Now we go to the Oracle and ask for an audience.”

Epilogue: Part Three

            oun D’jir took up the sack cloth full of dried curatives.  He strode into aun Sjir’phal’s hut and paused.  aun Sjir’phal slept on his pallet while oun Belihe sat against  wall, sound asleep.

            oun D’jir expelled a frustrated sigh.  He was surrounded by incompetents.

            He strode up to oun Belihe and gave him a vicious kick in the leg.

            oun Belihe snorted awake and blinked owlishly for a few seconds.  

            oun D’jir watched as comprehension dawned in his eyes.  His ears flattened out.        

            oun D’jir would have laughed mockingly, had he not felt fed up with all of this.

            He turned without a word and went to the firepit, where the fire had begun to die.  Setting the herbs to one side, he built up the fire and put a clay pot on the cooking stone.

            “Please send oun Satishe to me,” he growled over his shoulder.

            “Ye, High Priest!” oun Belihe replied and hurried out.

            oun D’jir poured fresh water into the clay pot and dug into the cloth bag to retrieve several herbs.  He dropped the dessicated leaves into the rapidly heating water.  A pungent smell arose with the steam.  The tea would have to boil and cool before being consumed.

            He heard a sigh from behind him and turned.

            aun Sjir’phal rubbed his eye.  

            oun D’jir rose and strode to the pallet, dropping down to sit at its edge.  He took aun Sjir’phal’s hand in both of his.

            aun Sjir’phal’s face was thin and worn. He looked older, although he did not smell sick now.

            oun D’jir wrinkled his nose.  “We should bathe you.”

            aun Sjir’phal’s eyes danced.  “Do not make such a promise and then withdraw it, my heart would not survive such a thing.”

            oun D’jir pursed his lips to keep from hissing in laughter.  He shook his head.

            “You are an idiot,” he said, aware that it sounded fond.

            aun Sjir’phal squeezed his hand.  “I know I am idiot.  I have been since I laid eyes on the beautiful High Priest.who sits before me now.”

            oun D’jir preened a little, his laughter escaping.  “You are a flatterer.”

            aun Sjir’phal sobered.  “I am serious.  You are beautiful and quite capable, strong and enigmatic.  I am in awe of you.”

            oun D’jir’s heart gave a lurch. “Why are you telling me these things?”

            aun Sjir’phal sighed.  “Because I have begun to bleed.  Down there.  I think I am beyond curatives, High Priest.”

            A feeling of despair filled oun D’jir.  The second emotion he felt was anger, at the Goddess.  He scrabbled to contain his emotions.  It would not do to blame the deity.  He sent a prayer to Her, asking forgiveness.

            aun Sjir’phal watched him fondly.  “You make a good High Priest; a good leader for our people.”

            oun D’jir swallowed down a mewl.  He let go of aun Sjir’phal’s hands and rose, walking to the firepit and pouring the tea into a clay mug.  He brought it back to the pallet and sat down.

            “I will not drink that,” his patient stated firmly.

            oun D’jir frowned.  “I will not give up and neither will you.”  He set the mug down and lifted aun Sjir’phal’s head.  Picking up the mug, he fed the tea to the aun Deuil.  

            oun Satishe rushed into the hut.  “Forgive me, High Priests.  One of the kits had a stomach ache.  He is well now.”

            oun D’jir relaxed.  “That is good.”

            oun Satishe walked to the end of aun Sjir’phal’s pallet and knelt.  “How is he?”

            oun D’jir sighed.  “He is not well.  Leave two priests with the kits and the rest come here.  We will do a prayer circle.”

            oun Satishe sucked in a breath.  “He fares so badly?”

            “Ye,” oun D’jir said, swallowing down panic and sorrow.

            “I will do as you say, High Priest.”

            oun Satishe hurried out.

            oun D’jir turned back to his patient and continued to feed him the tea.

            When aun Sjir’phal finished the tea, oun D’jir set aun Sjir’phal’s head back on the pallet and sat back, setting the clay mug on the floor.  He took up aun Sjir’phal’s hand.  They sat quietly with one another, oun D’jir watching his patient closely.

            aun Sjir’phal sighed impatiently.

            “What is it?” oun D’jir asked.

            “I have been praying to the wrong deity. The deity of the oun Shi’ehli is not the deity of the aun Deuilli.”

            oun D’jir felt a surge of hope.  “You speak truth. You must pray.”

            aun Sjir’phal looked at him.  “I think it’s too late.”

            The fur at oun D’jir’s scruff rose in ire.  “I told you, you stupid aun Deuil.  I am not giving up and neither are you.  Pray.”

            oun D’jir rose, stretching his lower back with a groan.  He needed to rest, but he was afraid to.  He was afraid aun Sjir’phal would succumb to the poison.

            He paced as aun Sjir’phal prayed.  At some point, he added more wood to the fire and made a second batch of antidote.

            oun Satishe sat quietly praying.  They would pray in tandem.

            By then, aun Sjir’phal had fallen asleep once more.

            It was at that moment that a scream tore the quiet afternoon.

            oun D’jir turned to oun Satishe.  “See what has happened.”

            “Right away, High Priest.”

            The oun Shi’ehl ran from the hut into the overcast late afternoon.

            oun D’jir turned to aun Sjir’phal, but the aun Sjir’phal slept undisturbed.  It said something to the state of his health.  He made to move to his side when the doorflap was pushed to one side and oun Satishe ran inside, ieh Desja in his arms, limp.  

            oun D’jir went cold inside.  “What has happened?”

            oun Satishe’s eyes were fevered with emotion.  “Poisoned.”

            It took an inordinate amount of effort for oun D’jir to remain on his feet.

            His voice came from far away.  “Is the kit dead?”

            “Ne, High Priest.”

            “Bring him here,” he said.  “And bring me the rest of my kits.”

            oun Satishe gently laid the kit in oun D’jir’s arms.  He then ran out of the hut once more.

            “Give me the little one,” aun Sjir’phal murmured from the pallet.

            oun D’jir turned to him.  “I must feed him the antidote.”

            “And you shall,” aun Sjir’phal replied.  “But I will pray over him.”

            oun D’jir–who had not looked at the kit–laid the limp little body along aun Sjir’phal’s thighs.  

            aun Sjir’phal bent his knees, raising the kit up.  He tsked sadly caressing the little face.

            oun D’jir hurried to the firepit, where he poured some tea into the mug.  He heard aun Sjir’phal’s voice droning a prayer.  Turning, he returned to the pallet, sat down at its edge and took the kit again.  

            aun Sjir’phal kept a hand on the little one as he prayed.

            Slowly, with the kits glazed eyes watching him listlessly, oun D’jir fed him mouthfuls of antidote.  The kit swallowed reflexively.  He saw aun Sjir’phal had taken up the kit’s small hand and was caressing it as he prayed. A mewl of distress and mourning filled his mouth like a bitter drink.  He swallowed it down with a shudder.

            oun Satishe, oun Belihe and oun Kelzi hurried in with the remaining five kits.  The rambunctious little ones were quiet for once.

            oun Kelzi approached, arms cradling a kit.  “How it the ieh kit?”

            “We are trying to save it,” oun D’jir replied cooly.  “Please sit over there and take care of my litter.”

            oun Kelzi bowed.  “Ye, High Priest.”

            When he finished feeding ieh Desja the tea, he handed the kit back to aun Sjir’phal.  He then went across the hut to the other kits and examined each one carefully.  Their eyes were clear and focused.  He sighed his relief and turned his ire on the priests.

            “How did this happen?” he demanded.

            They firdgetted under his glare.

            “We have not left the kits alone,” oun Satishe pronounced.  “There has been at least one of us with them.”

            “They are too young to eat meat,” oun Belihe piped up nervously.

            “But they drink water,” oun Kelzi said with some reluctance.

            oun D’jir sighed.  “Go bring aun P’ata’lyh, oun Kelzi.”

            The oun Shi’ehl set the kit he was holding on the ground and rose, bowing. “Right away, High Priest.”

            oun Satishe stared at oun D’jir as the High Priest picked up the kit oun Kelzi had set down.  He gently bounced aun Perisan, but the tiny kit only laid his head on oun D’jir’s shoulder..

            “They just woke up from a nap,” oun Belihe explained.

            oun D’jir walked to aun Sjir’phal’s pallet and laid aun Perisan gently on the bedclothes.  He clapped his hands.  The kit started and blinked, then reached up his tiny hands to oun D’jir”s, bringing one of oun D’jir’s hands to his mouth.  He suckled, his tiny sharp teeth scraping the skin at the end of oun D’jir’s finger.

            oun D’jir opened his robes and brought the kit to his chest.  aun Perisan fastened on the nipple and nursed.

            His remaining priests looked scandalized.  

            oun D’jir did not care.  He did not care that aun Sjir’phal was there.  He did not care he broke one of the most sacred mores of the Sha’jeen.

            “Listen to me,” he stated coldly.

            The three priests jumped.

            “aun Sjir’phal is a priest–“

            oun Belihe frowned.  “He is another gender!”

            Careful of the kit, oun D’jir rose.  “You forget yourself.”

            oun Belihe rose as well.  “As do you, High Priest.”

            oun Belihe stalked from the hut into the downpour outside.

            oun D’jir sighed.  He gazed down at the kit in his arms, which continued to suckle, his little hands fisted to oun D’jir’s robe.

            He glanced at the remaining two priests.  “You may go as well.”

            “Ne,” oun Satishe replied evenly.  “You are changing our ways. I am shocked almost daily, but I am not leaving my post.”

            The kits had begun to crawl and fight, hissing.  

            “Can two of you care for four kits?”

            “Ye, oun Kelzi pronounced with a firm nod.  It will be a challenge, but we willl prevail.”

            oun D’jir sat down once more and finished nursing aun Perisan.  When the kit was done nursing, he immediately crawled towards the firepit and was intercepted by a chuckling oun Satishe.

            oun D’jir turned to aun Sjir’phal, who slept soundly, the kit on his chest. The ieh boueli kit lay limp still, but his eyes were focused and its mouth turned up in one corner, showing small, sharp little teeth.

            There was a knock on the doorjamb and them aun P’ata’lyh stepped through, running his eyes along the gathering with interest and some surprise.

            oun D’jir laid aun Parisan on the pallet and rose, tucking the robes around his body.

            “aun P’ata’lyh,” he said.  “Someone has tried to poison my kits.  Can you investigate?”

            The aun Deuil looked shocked.  “Of course, High Priest.  At once.”  He glanced aun Sjir’phal’s way.

            oun D’jir swallowed.  “He lingers periously close to death.”

            aun P’ata’lyh’s feature subsumed with sorrow.  “I see.”  He squared his shoulders.  “I will begin my investigation into the matter of your kits.”

            “Thank you.”

            aun P’ata’lyh bowed and stalked into the early evening.

            oun D’jir looked at his remaining priests.  “Please have ieh boueli bring our pallets and bedclothes.”

            oun Satishe rose and bowed.  “At once, High Priest.”

            oun D’jir made more antidote and fed it to aun Sjir’phal and then, when it was cool, to the kit.

            When the ieh boueli arrived with the pallets, he had one assist him in cleaning up aun Sjir’phal and removing the bloody robes and bedclothes.  New bedclothes and a robe were brought.

            They watched quietly as the ieh boueli curtained off a corner of the small hut.  There, weak and trembling, aun Sjir’phal bathed, refusing assistance.  When he was done, he lay back on the fresh pallet, the little poisoned kit on his chest.

            oun D’jir was charmed by the aun Deuil’s affections for the little kit.  The little kit, of course, often neglected by the other priests, lapped up every ounce of affection given it.

            oun D’jir dragged his pallet next to aun Sjir’phal and he lay the four remaining kits between them and lay down.

            oun Satishe watched from the firepit.  He rose and tied the door flaps ties to the wall, securing the door against intrusion.  If someone wanted to come in, they would have to make a racket.

            oun D’jir thanked him and he bowed to the High Priest before laying down near oun Kelzi.

            He lingered awake for a time while around him others slumbered.  His eyes ached.  Next to him one of the kits mewled softly and he placed his hand on his tiny stomach and dandled him gently until he settled down.

            He must have fallen asleep, for he dreamed:

            Priest.

            oun D’jir stood on a rise of land.  Below him was a valley, flat and filled with grass.  The air was warm and redolent of the smell of wet earth, although the skies were clear of clouds.  There were copses of trees here and there and a river in the distance.  The jagged teeth of mountains rose around the valley and behind him.  

            Your kits’ kits will find this land and it is here that the Sha’jeen will flourish.

            “What is this land?”

            It has never been named, so it will be called Sha’j. Teach your kits and let them know the land is in the east of the world.

            “I will.”

           Your kits roles in the future of your people are most important.  Keenly so.  So I demand a sacrifice of you, Priest.

            “I am listening.”

            You must renounce your role of High Priest.  Your people will not attain greatness here, among old mores and beliefs.  Your kits’ kits will take the future with them.

            oun D’jir fell upon his knees, feeling shocked and betrayed.

            You will teach, oun D’jir. That will be your role.  Teach your kits and their kits and those who would listen.  Let the rest of your people fall by the wayside.  They will kill your offspring if you push them too far.

            oun D’jir felt his distress and horror as a distant thing.  Rising quickly was rage.  

            He lifted his face to the bright blue sky.  “I have done everything you asked!  You promised I could be High Priest!”

            Aah.  The capricious nature of mortals.  The voice had grown cold and distant.  Listen to me, although I am not obliged to explain myself to you, oun Shi’ehl  The Dark One grows in power daily, in the very midst of your village.  He has surprised us.  Although he is a small thing right now, the priests left behind by oun Ei’dhar’s departure are more clever and cunning than he thought himself to be.

            “Tell me who they are and I shall excise them from our midst!”

            It doesn’t work that way, oun Shi’ehl.  Do as I have asked you to do and watch.  Keep your kits safe and teach them the Way. When they are old enough, I will guide them.

            oun D’jir suddenly saw the years stretched ahead of him indefinitely, wearily and full of peril for his family.  Suddenly, contrition filled him with a bittersweet humiliation and he bent his head to the ground.  

            “Oh Blessed Deity!” he murmured.  “Forgive me!  I will do as you say.”

            He blinked awake and turned his head to where aun Sjir’phal and the kits lay quiescent, the kits sometimes sighing and gently mewling in their slumber.  Without waking the little one, oun D’jir reached out and touched the nearest hand.  The kit’s hand wrapped around his finger.  He hissed softly, pleasure coursing through him.

            He disengaged his finger from the kit’s hand and rose.  

            oun Kilze and oun Satishe sat at the firepit.

            “Good morning, High Priest,” they murmured in unison.

            Did oun D’jir detect a mocking undertone?

            He squared his shoulders.

            “Have two ieh boueili bring my chest of belongings,” he ordered.

            The priests shared a look of disbelief before turning to him once more.

            “Here, High Priest?” oun Kelzi asked.

            oun D’jir nodded once.  “Please.  Do as I say.”

            He waited until the priests had dispersed before turning back to the firepit.  His sack of antidotes lay under his pallet, but the water in the wooden bucket?  Was it safe?

            When the priests returned with two ieh boueli in tow, a chest between them, oun D’jir asked the priests to gather the people together.  After a shared look, they hurried to do his bidding.

            The ieh boueli bowed before him.  

            “Do you require ought more, High Priest?” the one on the left asked.

            “Yes. I ask that you serve me now, so bring your pallets and return those pallets to the Prayer House,” he said, indicating oun Satishe and oun Kelzi’s pallets.

            The ieh boueili bowed and did as he asked.

            “What are you up to, I wonder?” aun Sjir’phal murmured from his pallet.

            oun D’jir clasped his hands before him and turned.  “I am ensuring my kits’ survival, as well as your own.”

            aun Sjir’phal’s eyes widened.  “Will you tell me?”

            “As soon as it is safe to do so.  Be patient.”

            “I can be patient.”

            The two priests returned in time to watch the ieh boueili roll up the pallets and carry them away.

            “What’s this?” oun Kelzi demanded.

            “You will be informed shortly.  Are the people gathered?”

            oun Kelzi’s eyes flashed resentment.  “Ye.”

            “Good.  I’ll be right out.”

            The priests scowled but did as he asked.

            When the ieh boueili returned with their own pallets and rolled them out on the other side of the hut, oun D’jir told one to fetch clean water and another to remain to watch his family.

            Then oun D’jir changed his robes for fresh ones, leaving the used one to be cleaned, and made his way into the early morning.  

            The people were gathered to the west of the village, clumped in groups and chatting excitedly about what the High Priest was going to annouced.  

            As oun D’jir strode up, bright eyes turned to him.  The conversations died until there was absolutely silence, save for the sounds emanating from the jungle, and the occassional call of a bird.

            A guard stepped forward.  “We have come, just as you asked, High Priest.”

            “Thank you,” he replied.  “I appreciate that you are so quick to do as I ask.”  He sighed, running his eyes over the gathering, noting that the ieh boueili had been pushed to the back and the sides.   He frowned.

            “The Goddess has demanded that I step down as your High Priest–“

            Mewls of distress filled the quiet.  Already the priests’ eyes filled with stories they told themselves.  So many were avaricious.  He should have stripped them of their priesthood when he had the chance.

            “Why is this, High Priest?” the same guard shouted.

            “I do not demand answers from the Deity!” he lied, swallowing his shame.  “I do as She says.  Am I to disobey Her?”

            Silence fell once more upon the congregation.

            “Then what are we to do?” the guard asked.

            “Here is what I recommend:  have a competition between your priests and choose one that is worthy.  Have the Council guide you in this.”

            They threw out questions at him: what kind of competition?  How do we choose?

            “Have the Council decide this,” he told them a tad impatiently.  “And here is my recommendation:  Have the Council rule, not the High Priest.  Never one person.”

            He gathered his robes around him while before him, the morning erupted into a cacophy of conversations.

            He returned to the hut and at once glanced towards aun Sjir’phal.  The kits were awaking slowly, their mouths showing pink around yawns.  oun D’jir was gratified to see ieh Desja sitting up, aun Sjir’phal’s large hand holding both of its tiny ones.

            oun D’jir went to the firepit, where the ieh boueil had set a fresh pale of water.   He boiled the water with herbs and filled the small space with the green smell of medicinals.  When the medicinals had steeped enough, he fished the leaves out and poured a bit of fresh water into the mug to cool the tea.  He then took the tea to aun Sjir’phal, who was sitting up, the kits playing sleepily on his lap.  He handed the mug to his mate.

            “Give ieh Desja a mouthful or two, won’t you?” he asked.        

            “Of course,” aun Sjir’phal murmured around a sip of the tea.

            While his mate sipped his concoction, oun D’jir fed the kits.  Each kit clamped onto the nipple with his sharp little teeth and fisted the robe in his tiny hand.  It was always both a painful and pleasurable event to feed the kits.  But it wouldn’t last long.  Already they neared the time when they would consume their first bit of fresh meat.

           aun Sjir’phal watched with awe as he fed the kits at his chest.  He paid the aun Deuil no mind, but kept his eyes trained on each kit as it nursed.  As soon as he released a kit, it would begin to crawl away.  The ieh boueli would have their hands full.  

            As was its wont, little ieh Desja kept close to aun Sjir’phal.

            oun D’jir finished with the last kit and arranged his robes.  He then took up the nearly empty mug and sat ieh Desja on his lap, feeding him the antidote.  The kit minded well and swallowed each mouthful without fuss.  

            “Tell me what has occurred,” aun Sjir’phal demanded softly when oun D’jir handed him the ieh boueili kit.

            oun D’jir sighed.  “The Goddess demanded that I step down from the role of High Priest.  Someone will poisoning my brood.  They must survive above all else.”

            aun Sjir’phal made a sign to avert evil.  “He is here again.”

            oun D’jir frowned.  “She called him the Dark One.”

            “He was the darkest,” aun Sjir’phal replied.

            All of oun D’jir’s down stood at attention, a strange prickly feeling along his skin.  He shuddered and reached for aun Sjir’phal’s hand.

            “We will lie low, aun D’jir,” aun Sjir’phal murmured.  “We will not make scenes or challenge anyone.  We will lead quiet lives and wait for more guidance.”

            oun D’jir bent his head.  He shuddered.

            “oun D’jir?”

            He glanced up once more.  “They poisoned a kit!”

            “I know,” aun Sjir’phal soothed.  “But we must keep your kits’ wellbeing at the fore of our minds.”

            oun D’jir looked into aun Sjir’phal’s eyes.  “Our kits.”

            aun Sjir’phal brought oun D’jir’s hand to his mouth and pressed a kiss to it.  “Our kits.  Now we will plan, oun D’jir.  We will survive this.”

            oun D’jir said nothing.  He lay his head on aun Sjir’phal’s shoulder and watched quietly as the ieh boueili played with the kits.  The future stretched ahead of them, fraught with danger.  He would resign from the Council, even if the Goddess did not ask that of him.  The less politics he involved himself in, the safer his family would be.

            He shifted against aun Sjir’phal.  “Will you remain a priest?”

            aun Sjir’phal sighed.  “I will see how it goes.  But my family takes priority over my duties.”

            “Ye,” oun D’jir agreed.

            He draped his arm over aun Sjir’phal’s waist and snugged against him.

            aun Sjir’phal pressed a kiss to oun D’jir’s head.

            “Have you stopped bleeding?” he asked.

            aun Sjir’phal nodded.  “Ye.  I feel stronger, too.  I am cautiously optimistic that I will  survive this.”

            “I shall see to it!” oun D’jir promised sharply.

            aun Sjir’phal hissed with laughter.

            ieh Dasja crawled between oun D’jir and aun Sjir’phal and settled there. The kits’ bright eyes studied them solemnly.

            oun D’jir reached up and caressed the kit’s soft cheek.

            His heart filled with love for the tiny ieh boueili and he was not even surprised by that.

FIN

Epilogue: Part Two

            Toyus watched oun Nilja carefully.  The oun Shi’ehl stood before him nervously, his ears flat to the sides of his head.  

            “Why don’t you like him?” Toyus demanded once more.

            To Toyus’ right, Ereali shifted and sighed.

            The Sha’jeen did not reply.

            Toyus cleared his throat.  “We know you can’t abide oun Ei’dhar.  I want to know why, for security sake, if nothing else.  Do you suspect something?”

            “He does not like me because he has adopted all of you as his pets,” oun Ei’dhar stated from behind them.

            Toyus whipped around.  “Is that your opinion?”

            oun Ei’dhar showed his teeth.  “It is the truth.”

            oun Nilja showed his teeth.

            oun Ei’dhar huffed in amusement.  “You frighten no one, pukra!”

            Before oun Ei’dhar could turn away, oun Nilja was upon him and they fell hard to the ground, where they hiss and spit and rolled about the dirt.

            Toyus rubbed his face with his hands and sighed.  “Stop!  Ereali, help me.”

            They managed to separate the two Sha’jeen.  Toyus held onto oun Ei’dhar while Ereali held onto oun Nilja.

            oun Ei’dhar broke free of Toyus’ hold.  There was a cut along oun Ei’dhar’s cheek.  It bled thinly into the soft down.  Blood gleamed on his lower lip.

            “It matters not,” oun Ei’dhar said, as if continuing a discussion.  “I am leaving tomorrow morning, so you can have the entire village, pukra.”

            oun Nilja yowled.  “Do not call me that!”

            “Then behave as a Sha’jeen!” oun Ei’dhar shot back.  “Your behavior is embarrassing.  Pray to the Goddess for your own kits and stop rolling around the ground like some pathetic–”  He rolled his eyes.  “You have no shame!  But it isn’t my business any longer.”

            He turned south and began to make his way to the gate.  The area was crawling with workmen rebuilding the gate and parts of the walls.  

            Toyus watched him as oun Ei’dhar made his way along the edges of the crowd, under the gate  and out into the surrounding land.

            oun Nilja had turned to watch him walk away.  “He is leaving?”

            Toyus sighed.  “Apparently.”

            “He’s headed towards the shuttle,” Ereali noted with interest.  “Should we speak to the Sentinels?”

            Toyus stared in the direction of the shuttle for a few seconds before coming to a decision.  He nodded.

            oun Nilja made to turn in the opposite direction, but Toyus put his hand out.  “You come, too.”

            oun Nilja looked startled before nodding once.  “I will come.”

            They walked in side-by-side, Toyus in the middle.  They did not speak.  Navigating the area of construction proved a little tricky, but they were able to slip through in a line, hugging the broken wall.  Toyus was hailed by the workman lead, who stopped him to ask when the Council would hold another town hall. Toyus assured him it would be soon.  The middle-aged man nodded with a grin and pounded Toyus on the back before turning back to his work.  

            They continued under the gate arch and out into the treeless land beyond.  The shuttle stood to the southeast.  The river was just down a rise in the land, to the east.  There were families at the river’s shore, gathering water into buckets.  The river rushed north, cold and clear.  Children ran, screaming and playing.  oun Nilja looked towards them longingly.

            They headed towards the shuttle.  The bay door stood open.  Sol and Ishel sat at the top of the ramp, talking softly.  There was no sign of oun Ei’dhar.

            Sol glanced up and raised a hand in greeting.  “Welcome, Toyus!”

            Toyus felt his heart speed up.  He swallowed.  “Hello, Sol!”

            The Sentinels rose and pounded down the metal ramp, Ishel following more sedately.   

            “What brings you here?” Sol asked.  He glanced curiously at Ereali but did not say anything.    

            “I just want to ask if oun Ei’dhar is leaving with you?” Toyus asked.

            Sol and Ishel shared a look before Sol turned to Toyus and nodded.  “He is going to assist other Amalgamese  from North Torahn in a new settlement in South Yllysia.”

            oun Nilja hissed.  “He is a murderer!”

            Sol nodded.  “And what do you recommend we do with him – murder him in turn?”

            oun Nilja”s ears flattened.  “No!  But…”

            Sol and Ishel stared at the Sha’jeen expectantly.  

            oun Nilja sighed and dropped his gaze.

            “We just want to make sure everyone is safe,” Toyus murmured.

            Sol nodded.  “As do we.  These Amalagamese will know oun Ei’dhar killed someone.  They will decide if they want oun Ei’dhar among them.”

            “Forgive us,” Toyus said.  “We are concerned.”        

            “Of course,” Ishel piped up.  “We are, too, but he isn’t happy here.”  He flicked a glance at oun Nilja.  “We want to prevent future problems.”

            oun Nilja mewled softly and ducked his head.

            “When are you leaving?” Toyus asked.

            “Tomorrow morning,” Sol replied.

            Toyus nodded.  “Will you return here?”            

            “No,” the Sentinel said.  “We’ll head back to the moon for cryosleep.  We’ll be back in 1,000 years to see how things are progressing.”

            “I see,” Toyus said in a small voice.  

            Sol was smiling at him with empathetic eyes.  

            “Well, we’d best return then to the city.  Good luck to you, Sentinel Sol and Sentinel Ishel.  And thank you for everything.”

            He turned and strode back the way they had come, Ereali and oun Nilja scrambling to keep up.

            For a few minutes, Toyus saw nothing in front of him.  He was unaware of what he was doing and where he was going.  When he finally was able to see again, he found himself at the shores of the river.  He squatted, resting his forearms on his thighs and dangling his hands between his knees.  His face and ears were burning. He could not seem to catch his breath.  He looked straight ahead towards the other shore.  He thought he was past this affection for Sentinel Sol, this attraction.  He wiped his face with his cold hand and sighed.  

            “Are you alright?” Ereali asked.

            Toyus looked at his friend.  Ereali was squatting, too, mirroring him.  oun Nilja was a few feet away, speaking to an Amalgamese woman and her two children.

            “I’ll be fine,” he replied stiffly.

            Ereali nodded and gazed across the rushing river.  They had to pitch their voices just so to hear each other over the voice of the river.

            “I’m sorry,” Ereali said.

            Surprised, Toyus glanced at him.  “What for?”

            Ereali pointed to the shuttle.  “You love him.”

            Toyus shook his head.  “That’s too strong a term.  I am attracted to him.  I am wondering what would have been if he could stay.”  He gave a bitter bark of laughter.  “It’s a moot point, though.  He can’t stay and I can’t go.”

            Ereali nodded and looked away.

            After a while, Toyus began to feel the heat of the sun’s glare on his head and he rose.  “Let’s go back.”

            Ereali rose and followed him without a word.

            This time no one bothered them as they wove their way through the construction site and into the city.  They went to straight to their dwelling and entered.

            They had done a lot of work on the house.  They had whitewashed the outside and Toyus had purchased a woven cover for the front door.  

            Ereali had focused on making bright patterns of paint along the inner walls of the dwelling.  The paintings seemed chaotic at first but then patterns began to emerge if one stared at the figures long enough.  It was especially interesting at night, when shadows from the firepit danced along the walls.  

            Toyus felt ashamed suddenly.

            “I’m sorry,” he told Ereali.

            Ereali started and looked at him.  “Why?”

            “Here I am pining for something that I already have.”

            Ereali smiled and shrugged.  “I am no blond Sentinel.”

            Toyus sobered.  “You are also not a half-man whose body is full of metallics and plastics, whatever those are.  You cannot lie down in a chamber and sleep for 1,000 years.”

            Ereali lowered his gaze.  “I’m not exactly human any longer.”

            “Neither am I, friend.  Neither am I.”

            Ereali kept his gaze on the floor.  “Does that mean you would try a relationship with me?”

            “We are already in a relationship.  We are friends.  But, yes.  Let’s see if we commit to this where it will lead us.”

            Ereali gave a hesitant nod. “I would like that.”

            Toyus smiled at the younger man.  “I am going to scrounge us a meal.  Throw some wood in the fire.  I’ll be back.”

            He pushed the door flap to one side and stepped out into the bright, muggy afternoon.  He turned to face south, but he could not see the shuttle because of the southern wall.  He squared his shoulder and turned north, quickly striding away from the dwelling he shared with Ereali.

***

            oun D’jir sat against the wall of the Prayer Hall.  Before him, five of his six kits rolled around on the floor, hissing and spitting and mewling.  They seemed to have an inordinate amount of energy.  It took the five of them — himself and his remaining four priests — most of the time to look after the little beasts.  One sat on his lap, ieh Desja, the only one of his kits to have been born ieh boueli.  The little kit was quiet and gentle with large eyes that gazed at everything limpidly.  Part of  oun D’jir had wanted to kill it when it was born–there were so many ieh boueli already–but aun Sjir’phal had convinced him otherwise.  He looked down at the little kit who watched its siblings playing so seriously.  oun D’jir caressed the kit’s soft back.  The kit turned its limpid eyes up to its parent then leaned heavily against oun D’jir without so much as a mewl.  oun D’jir smiled fondly at it, running the back of his hand along the little one’s cheek.

            It was almost time to feed aun Sjir’phal. He had taken up the task himself to keep the aun Deuil safe.  With a sigh, he tucked the kit close to him and smoothly rose to his feet.  He padded quickly to where oun Belihe sat against the wall on the other side of the room.  He handed the kit to his friend.

            oun Belihe smiled and tucked the kit against his chest.  “Are you feeding aun Sjir’phal now?”

            “Ye,” he replied and stepped out into the bright, hot afternoon.  He glanced around, noting construction of the village continued unhampered by rain.  The hot afternoon was filled with the voices of workers in conversation or calling to one another. 

            He made his way to the central dwelling of the village: a long rectangular single-story building.  This was the second such building, the first being the dwelling of the ieh boueli.  This building housed the kitchens and two large eating areas.  The cooking area was set off to one side.  He walked into the kitchen and asked for some meat and water.  An ieh boueli bowed and went to fetch these things.  

            While he waited, oun D’jir paced.  He would have to give aun Sjir’phal his answer about mating with him.  He did not want to have another clowder of kits so soon.  But he was sure aun Sjir’phal would understand.  It had taken aun Sjir’phal’s poisoning and near death to make oun D’jir realize the value of the aun Deuil.  It had taken that to make oun D’jir own his attraction to him.  He had not been ready to accept these things until something nearly catastrophic occurred.

            The ieh boueil returned with a bowl of cut meat and a mug of water.

            oun D’jir took the items and thanked the ieh boueil, startling it.

            oun D’jir surprised himself as well.   That was the first time he had ever thanked an ieh boueil.  He said nothing more incriminating and strode out of the building.  

            The bowl he carried was covered with a towel.  He could smell the meat.  He could detect most of the Sha’jeen poisons, although if the poison were local, he was not sure he could detect it. He wondered why someone had targeted aun Sjir’phal.  His investigation had not uncovered much, although aun P’ata’lyh continued to ask questions.

            Oun D’jir came to the aun Sjir’phal’s hut and paused at the door flap.  He took a few cleansing breaths and pushed the woven flap to one side, entering into the smallish interior.  It took him but a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dimmer interior.  There was a fire in the pit, although it seemed to be going out.  The windows were covered.  He signed and wrinkled his nose at the smell of urine and waste.  He would have to send an ieh boueil to take the waste buckets away for the contents to be disposed of.  He went to the pallet, set the bowl and mug down on the floor and rose, striding to the windows to pull the covers back and allow sunlight into the dimness.

            He turned and started. 

            aun Sjir’phal was lying awake, watching him.  His fever-bright eyes looked sunken in his lean face. 

            oun D’jir’s heart gave a painful lurch.

            “How do you feel?” he asked.

            aun Sjir’phal said nothing.

            oun D’jir went to the pallet and sat down at the edge.  He took aun Sjir’phal’s right hand in both of his.

            “How are you?” he asked again.

            “I am dying, oun D’jir,” he answered softly, his voice sounding papery.

            oun D’jir touched his neck and detected the thready hearbeat.

            He frowned.

            “I’m going to heal you with the Goddess’ grace, aun Sjir’phal.  It will only be you and I.”

            aun Sjir’phal closed his eyes.  “So tired.  Maybe just let me go.”

            “How are we to mate then?” oun D’jir demanded tightly.

            aun Sjir’phal opened his eyes and turned his head.  “You want to mate with me?”

            “Ye.”  oun D’jir felt shy for the first time since he was a tumbling kit.  “Ye.  I would we mated.”

            aun Sjir’phal’s eyes were bright.  “For that I’d live.”

            oun D’jir nodded.  “Then close your eyes and I will pray.”

            aun Sjir’phal closed his eyes.

            oun D’jir rose and knelt at the head of the pallet.  He put his hand on either side of aun Sjir’phal’s head and closed his eyes.  In the ancient language, a language that came from before their dark days on their arks before they encountered the dual-face God that almost destroyed them.  Only High Priests learned the language from predecessors.  He began to pray.  As he prayed, he allowed his emotions to bleed into the prayer.  He was upset at how close his mate was to death.  He had not asked anything of the Goddess until now.

            “Goddess Ie’teihna, merciful One, kind One.  I ask a boon–“

             The presence of the Goddess was announced by the sweet scent of flowers.  In the next second, her entire presence filled his mind and body.

            He dies because he does not believe in me.

            He can pray and save himself, but he has given up.

            “If you save him; perhaps he will believe.”

            He was traumatized by your previous god.  He must learn to trust me.

            “Please heal me and I will teach him about you.”

            I have told you what must be done.

           oun D’jir felt bereft when She was gone.  It took him a few seconds to calm himself.  She came to him, albeit infrequently.  It was to test him, he knew.

            oun D’jir opened his eyes. He glanced down and found aun Sjir’phal studying him.

            “It didn’t work,” he told oun D’jir.

            oun D’jir snarled.  “Because you do not believe!  You are throwing us away because you won’t believe!”

            He rose and made to leave.

            “Wait,” aun Sjir’phal said.  “What must I do?”

            oun D’jir covered his face with his hands and, with a sigh, dropped his hands. 

            He looked at the aun Deuil.  “You must pray like you mean it, aun Sjir’phal.  If you want to mate with me and build a life together, then you must do this thing.”

            aun Sjir’phal struggled up onto an elbow.  “Show me how to pray properly.  Help me.”

            oun D’jir assisted aun Sjir’phal to sit with his back to the wall.  He sat beside him and took his left hand in both of  his.

            “Allow yourself to be open to the Goddess,” oun D’jir told him.  “Say the words with emotion and passion.   You must save your own life, so say the words like you mean them.  Keep your heart open to Her.  Listen and she will speak to you.”

            aun Sjir’phal nodded and closed his eyes.

            oun D’jir fed him the words, holding his hand all the while.  While he prayed with aun Sjir’phal, he sent his own prayer into the ether.  He prayed aun Sjir’phal believed and saved himself.

            Time began to blur for oun D’jir.  He thought distantly that aun Sjir’phal needed his rest, too.  That healing was two-pronged.

            Finally, oun D’jir opened his eyes.  He looked at aun Sjir’phal.

            The aun Deuil was panting.

            “Lie down once more,” oun D’jir said and helped aun Sjir’phal to lie down, covering him with the bedclothes. 

            aun Sjir’phal was trembling and his teeth were chattering.

            oun D’jir took his closest hand and rubbed it.  It felt icy.

            “I have more curatives to try,” he told his mate.  “Let me fetch them.”

            “No!” aun Sjir’phal said.  His eyes rolled to the back of his head.  “Something is happening.  Do not leave me alone!”

            oun D’jir was taken aback.  He had never seen an aun Deuil express fear.  Not of death.  Not of anything.

            “Let me go to the door and fetch an ieh boueil to remove the waste buckets,” he said.  “I’m still here.”

            He hurried to the door flap and stepped outside.  He managed to flag down two ieh boueili.

            They returned to the hut. 

            “You take the waste buckets, empty them and wash them,” he told the first ieh boueil.  “And you, send the priest called oun Belihe to me.”

            The ieh boueili bowed.  One hurried outside, while the other one gathered the buckets and hurried away.

            oun D’jir returned to the pallet and sat at the edge.

            aun Sjir’phal continued to pray, his eyes closed. 

            oun D’jir could not hear the words. They were whispered so softly.

            The minutes ticked by.  The first ieh boueil returned with fresh buckets, and oun D’jir had him carry the meat back to the kitchens. 

            Soon, oun Belihe arrived, ducking past the door flap and entering.

            “You called me, High Priest?”

            oun D’jir rose and met him at the door. 

            “I trust you, oun Belihe, to keep my mate safe,” oun D’jir said.  “Please stay with him while I gather antidotes.”

            “Do you need help?” oun Belihe asked.

            “Stay here, with aun Sjir’phal.”  oun D’jir put his hands on oun Belihe’s shoulders.  “I trust you.”

            “Ye, High Priest.  I will care for him.”

            oun D’jir gazed into his eyes, but oun Belihe did not flinch.

            “I’ll be back shortly.  Send for an ieh boueil to build the fire and find clean bedclothes.”

            “Ye, High Priest.”

            oun D’jir hurried out into the busy late afternoon.

Epilogue: Part One

           oun Ei’dhar looked on as oun Nilja rolled around the dirt with kits.  He bared his teeth and looked away.  

            He gave up the Sha’jeen People willingly for this. Why?  He huffed and pulled his robes more closely around him.  Why?  He was a member of the ruling Council.  A priest!

            He leaned against the outer wall of the abandoned city, which the sk’oit-tu named Amal City, and snuck glimpses at oun Nilja.  The oun Shi’ehl was rolling aroung the shores of the river, other adults close by, watching.

            Really! He was behaving no better than a kit himself!  The adults watching were laughing at the kits’ antics.  At oun Nilja’s antics.

            oun Ei’dhar huffed. He has made a home here, even if he behaves as a buffoon.

            He turned away from oun Nilja and strode through the gates of the city. The sk’oit-tu were fixing the gate, pulling the old gate down.  He made his way along the wall, keeping out of the way of others.  Their bright chatter was distracting, confusing.  Especially the expelling of air which meant they were laughing, showing their teeth and gums without meaning threat or insult.  oun Ei’dhar shivered.  So confusing and disconcerting.

            He and oun Nilja had been given a small stone dwelling near the center of the city.  It was made of black, gleaming stone.  Even the roof.  There were many windows to cool the house down.  At the highpoint of the day, the house was uninhabitable from the heat.  The inside of the dwellings had two or three rooms:  a central living space with a cooking pit carved into the floor and one or two other rooms for sleeping, oun Ei’dhar supposed.  He and oun Nilja had each been given a pallet with sheets upon which to sleep.  oun Ei’dhar would have to learn to carve wooden bowls and mugs and chests for food storage.  He sighed.  There was much to do.  He wanted to whitewash the dwelling, like others were doing.  He had tried to discuss this with oun Nilja more than once, but the oun Shi’ehl hardly tolerated his presence in the dwelling.

            The city had two main roads:  to the west and to the east of the great pyramid.  The roads were constructed of the same stone as the dwellings and connected the gate to the north with the southern wall, where a second gate stood.  The dwellings had been built north to south in long, even rows.  Perhaps it had been to maximize the space, for there was little creativity in the result.  But the result was neat and tidy.  Already the sk’oi-tu were planting gardens and hanging colorful sheets over the windows and doors. Others chose to hang stiff door covers made from woven grasses.  There was no question that the sk’oit-tu would run out of space within one or two generations.  Perhaps they would knock down the northern wall of the city and continue to build into the jungle.

            Hunger made oun Ei’dhar lightheaded.  No one had offered him food.  He would have to go into the jungle and hunt for himself.  He shook his head, vexed.  Why did I kill oun Tamos? What purpose did it serve, other than to please me but for a fleeting moment?

            He reached the dwelling he shared with oun Nilja.  The fire he had built a few hours prior still crackled cheerfully.  The dwelling smelled of smoke and the recent rain.  He stopped to drop more wood onto the fire before heading to his room.  The black walls were oppressive.  He would have to beg for paint from aun Toyus.

            The candles oun Nilja had lit still flickered in each room.  

            He sat down with his back to the wall and crossed his legs.  It was quiet in this room, despite the small open window high up along the wall.  Sunlight filtered through the window and fell onto the stone floor in a long golden rectangle.

            He closed his eyes.

            “Hello?”

            oun Ei’dhar stiffened and rose.  He made his way to the main room of the dwelling and found the sk’oit-tu known as Ariahl standing just inside the door.

            “Ah.  oun Ei’dhar,” oun Ariahl said.  “I would like to speak with you.”  She made a gesture lost to him.  “Come, walk with me.”

            He wanted to refuse her, but he had no meat or paint or anything to live here. She could facilitate these things for him.  So he bowed and went to join her.

            oun Ariahl wrapped her arm around his and led him outside as if he were blind.  It was an insult, but he took a breath and told himself it was ignorance on the sko’it-tu’s part.  

            The sun glared overhead in an unblemished sky.  Even though it was still early morning, the temperatures were already soaring, the humidity making it difficult to breathe.  He hated this continent.

            “I have a favor to ask you, oun Ei’dhar,” oun Ariahl murmured.

            He looked at her.  Her cues confused him, as did the cues of all the sk’oit-tu.  Perhaps he would get used to them in time.

            “You need only ask,” he replied evenly.

            “There are more Amalgamese stranded in North Torahn,” oun Ariahl told him.  “The infection keeps producing more and more.  We Sentinels are leaving here and returning to North Torahn to gather them and take them up north to the continent of Yllysia to live next to the Jilahn River.”    

            He listened impatiently.  What was the purpose of telling him all this?

            “What has this to do with me?” he growled.

            She made the peculiar sound in her throat that meant she was laughing softly.  

            His tail puffed at the insult.

            “We would like you to come with us,” she continued smoothly.  “To help them acclimate to being part Sha’jeen.  oun Nilja is committed to living here.  Will you come?  You can be a guide to them or part of the ruling Council or an advisor.”

            He pulled his arm free and turned to face her.  

            “I murdered someone,” he huffed, sure she was mocking him.  He wondered what her purpose was for mocking him so cruelly.        

            She bobbed her head up and down in agreement.  “Yes.  The leaders of this colony will know you are a murderer.  They may accept you; they may not.  Do you not want a second chance?  Do you not want to start anew?  If you are accepted there, you will remain with the people there.  If not, we will bring you back here.”

            He studied her features carefully.  It was hard to decipher the complex emotions in her eyes and the curving of her mouth.

            After a few minutes, he convinced himself that he did not perceive any deception in her demeanor.  

            His heart began to clamor in his chest.  He struggled to catch his breath.  This is a gift.  This is a gift.

            “I will do this,” he told her.

            She showed him her teeth, which was intimidating until he recalled it was not meant as a threat.

            “Good, good,” she said.  “We leave tomorrow morning, at sunrise.  Come to the shuttle then.”

            He bowed.  “Ye.  I thank you.”

***

            aun Sjir’phal rose from his pallet and made his way to the door.  He pushed aside the flap and leaned against the doorjamb.  Rain fell beyond the door in gray sheets.  The People were all inside.  No work would be done this day.  It had been days since he had seen oun D’jir or his friends.  He did not recognize the emotion that wove through his thoughts.  He leaned his right temple against the doorjamb and sighed.  He understood that aun P’ata’lyh and aun Pasia’h were now mated and had lives of thier own, but it wounded him that they had not come in a few days to see how he recovered.  oun D’jir was angry with him still and sent one of his priests with food and water.

            He was still weak from his wound.  He reached up his right hand to cup his left shoulder.  There was pain still, but the wound smelled clean.

            Then he recalled oun Ei’dhar and wondered if he had perished in the jungle.

            He shuddered.  It had been the first task at which he had failed. He swallowed and closed his eyes against the wave of shame.  One little oun Shi’ehl and he had melted like a ghost into the jungle.   Even with three sturdy and capable aun Deuili chasing him.

            “It’s the will of the Goddess,” he murmured and let go the shame.            

            He opened his eyes again and continued to watch the rain.  Would he have a home with oun D’jir or would the High Priest always remain at arm’s length? He imagined himself as a sire to the current kits, advising and guiding them, balancing out oun D’jir’s more stringent teachings.  He and oun D’jir fit well, he thought, they balanced each other.  He huffed a mirthless laugh.  But it wasn’t up to him, was it?

            Turning and dropping the door flap, he walked slowly back to his pallet and lay down.  He really should be getting better.  Unease prickled over him.  

            Throwing his arm over his eyes, he allowed his body and mind to relax.  If I get any weaker, I will take my own life.  Instantly, he felt the unease dissipate.

            He fell into a dreamless sleep and awoke an indefinite time later.  

            “Ah, you wake.”

            aun Sjir’phal turned his head.  oun E’freit, oun D’jir’s personal assistant, sat cross legged near his pallet.  Before him was a covered bowl.  aun Sjir’phal could smell the sweet fresh meat.

            “Sit up and drink and eat.”

            aun Sjir’phal did as he was asked. 

            The meat had a strange flavor and odor underneath the smell of blood.  He chalked it up to the fact that they were eating food grown on another planet.   

            The priest’s sharp eyes watched him as he forced himself to eat.

            “Here is water,” the priest said and handed aun Sjir’phal a mug.

            He drank the water.

            oun E’freit bowed.  “The High Priest will come to visit you today.”

            He rose smoothly, gathering the bowl and mug and left without another word.

            A few minutes later, aun Sjir’phal experienced a strange surge of anxiety he could not explain.  He rose and his legs gave out under him.  He cried out as he fell.  His legs refused to work. His entire body shook.  He felt as weak as a newborn.

            This was all terribly familiar.

            “Poison,” he whispered. “It has to be.  Why?”

            He crawled towards the door but was only able to make it halfway there.  His eyesight was dimming.  Now he wished to make it back to the pallet.  He huffed at the irony.  

            He heard a rustle and then a cry.  “aun Sjir’phal!”

            oun D’jir knelt next to him.  “What has happened?”

            “Poison,” aun Sjir’phal replied, tasting blood and something bitter.

            “Help me carry him to his pallet,” oun D’jir commanded.

            aun Sjir’phal did not even feel when they moved him.

            oun D’jir sat at the pallet’s edge and held one of aun Sjir’phal’s hands.  He turned to his priests and commanded something too quick for aun Sjir’phal to understand.

            aun Sjir’phal drifted in and out of consciousness.  They made him drink something salty followed by a cup of plain water.

            Then came a long darkness that embraced him.  Within it he hung suspended, feeling nothing.  It felt to him as if millennia passed.  He had a dream that he was on a ship traveling the cosmos.  He stood by a window that curved outward and he watched the absolute darkness hurl past.  He wore a strange uniform with many metals.  He found a mirror and looked at himself, taken aback by the strange appearance of his face.  He touched the smooth, pale features.  He studied the round pupils.  The body had wide shoulders and strong arms.  He was a warrior, as he always was.  But what was he?

            A sharp pain in his stomach made him cry out and lean against the curved wall of the ship.  He looked down upon himself.  He touched his stomach, and his hand came away wet with blood.

            He woke moaning.

            “Drink this,” oun D’jir told him, lifting his head.

            Again, the salty drink followed by plain water.

            oun D’jir leaned closer.  “How do you feel?”

            aun Sjir’phal reached out and grabbed the High Priest’s hand.  “Listen to me.”

            He looked around the hut, but there was no one else there.

            “What is it?” oun D’jir demanded.

            “One of you priests has poisoned me,” he told the priest.

            oun D’jir gasped. “You lie!”

            “Why would I?”  aun Sjir’phal challenged.  “Listen to me.  One priest always brings the food and water, always makes sure I eat it…no other priest comes to me.”            

            oun D’jir rose quickly.  “You lie!”

            “Then kill me,” aun Sjir’phal hissed.  “Think, oun D’jir!  Only your priests have access to your medicines and poisons.  Only the five priests!  For your kits’ sake!  Think!”

            oun D’jir whirled and ran out of the hut.  

            aun Sjir’phal reached under his pallet and found the dagger he had hidden there.  He brought it out and hid it under the bedclothes.

            An hour or so later, oun E’freit returned with food and water.  He made himself appear pleasant.  

            aun Sjir’phal watched him carefully.

            “You must eat and drink,” the priest said.  “I will feed you.”

            Under the bedclothes, aun Sjir’phal’s hand curled around the handle of the dagger.  He waited until oun E’freit bent close and lifted his head his head to feed him before he plunged the dagger into the priest’s neck and pulled it out.  The act of pulling out pushed the priest onto his back on the floor. The bowl of meat clattered to the floor and the meat spilled everywhere. oun E’freit gasped, bringing both hands to his throat.  

            There was a commotion outside the hut and then several Sha’jeen hurried inside, gasping in disbelief.

            oun D’jir knelt beside oun E’freit.

            oun E’freit held his hand out nad oun D’jir took it.

            “How?” oun E’freit gasped.  “How…did…he…know?”

            oun E’friet moaned, his eyes wide.  He gasped for air.   He bled out in minutes.

             oun D’jir held him tenderly, petting him and murmuring endearments.  When he breathed his last, oun D’jir lifted him to his chest.

            “Murderer!” one of the priests cried.

            “Shut. Up,” oun D’jir snarled.

            He lay oun E’freit down and turned to the meat scattered near aun Sjir’phal’s pallet.  He picked up a piece of the meat and sniffed it delicately.  

            “This meat is poisoned,” he announced tonelessly.

            The priests started talking as one.

            oun D’jir rose.  The hem of his robes was soaked in blood.  He turned to the priests.

            “I will speak to each of you individually.  Send ieh boueli to clean this mess and bury the body.  At once.”

            The priests scrambled to obey.

            oun D’jir turned to aun Sjir’phal.  “Do you suspect another?”

            “I did not even suspect the one, until I got worse.”  He swallowed past the soreness in his throat.  “I just seemed to be getting worse each time I fed.”

            oun D’jir clasped his hands before him.  “I’m sorry, aun Sjir’phal.”

            “It isn’t your fault.”

            “Yes, it is,” he said.  “I always complained about you.  I think he thought he was doing me a favor.”

            “Maybe he was.”

            oun D’jir shook his head. “I will put a guard at your door until I conclude my investigation.”

            “Ask aun P’ata’lyh for help,” aun Sjir’phal suggested.

            oun D’jir bowed.  “I will.  Thank you.”

            Two guards stood posted just inside the door of aun Sjir’phal’s hut.  aun Sjir’phal did not recognize them, but they had been chosen by aun P’ata’lyh.  aun Sjir’phal trusted his friend.  

            aun P’ata’lyh was busy with the investigation, but aun Pasia’h came to visit him the day after aun Sjir’phal killed oun E’freit.

            aun Sjir’phal was too weak to sit up, so he watched as his friend took a seat at the edge of the pallet.

            “I’m sorry, my friend,” aun Pasia’h murmured.  “Things have not been easy for you.”

            aun Sjir’phal waved away the apology.  “It is how things are amongst the People.”

            “Ye.  You speak truth.”  He shook his head.  “My kits will be born soon. I fear for them.”

            “There must be much anxiety among the Sha’jeen.”    

            “There is.  The High Priest is turning every stone and uprooting every tree to get to the bottom of this.  It is impressive.”

            aun Sjir’phal hissed with amusement.  “I have always admired him.”

            “Is that what you are calling it?” aun Pasia’h stated dryly.

            aun Sjir’phal hissed again.  

            The friends shared an amused glance.

            “How is your mate?” aun Sjir’phal asked.

            “He is strong.”  aun Pasia’h puffed up.  “I have no complaints.”

            “That is good, my friend.”  He rubbed his chest, feeling a tightness there.  “How many kits are you expecting?”

            “Five!” aun Pasia’h pronounced, preening.

            aun Sjir’phal nodded.  Weariness threaded through his limbs and muscles.  He yawned.

            “Forgive me, my friend,” he heard himself say.  “I must rest.”

            “Of course!” aun Pasia’h assured him.  “I will come back tomorrow.”

            aun Sjir’phal had already slipped into sleep.

Chapter XV: Vision

            The day of aun Sjir’phal’s vision came quickly.  He felt sick with anticipation but also strangely calm.  He had not eaten for two days and would not eat for a third.  There would be bitter emetics and laxatives and, of course, lectures from the High Priest.

            “You must come before the God pure and empty,” oun D’jir had explained.

            aun Sjir’phal looked around his empty hut.  It was a round, single-room home, thatched with dried grasses and wide palm fronds, the dried grasses woven to anchor the palm leaves in place. The walls were mud and sand.  The skeleton of the hut was made form pliable young wood. The single door had a thick, stiff curtain woven from the long, strong vines that grew in the jungle.  There were no windows, but aun Sjir’phal was used to that.  The ark in which he had been born and raised had had no windows in the sleeping quarters.  Only the High Priest had had that luxury.  At least the rain and wind were kept out. 

            The center of the hut had a firepit cut into the earthen floor, an airing hole gaped from the apex of the roof.  Someone had built a fire in the pit and it offered a baleful orange glow as it crackled cheerfully.

            He owned nothing, save a pallet and sheets to cover himself.  He would have to barter for clothing.  The leather uniform which he had worn ever since leaving the ark was now torn at the shoulder and permanently stained with blood.  

            He wore one of oun D’jir’s discarded robes. He looked down at himself and shook his head, grunting his disgust.  The robes barely fit but still hid his physique.  He was a soldier, judged by his physical presence as well as his prowess.  Besides, what business had a soldier to wear a priest’s robes?

            There was a scratch at the door.

            “Enter!” he called.

            The door was pushed to one side and aun P’ata’lyh and aun Pasia’h ducked inside.

            aun Sjir’phal made to stand.

            “Ne!” aun P’ata’lyh cried.  “Stay seated.”

            They sat crosslegged on the earthen floor before his pallet.

            aun Sjir’phal squirmed under their thoughtful scrutiny.

            “Do not fidget,” aun Pasia’h said with a hint of humor.  “It is only that you represent great change for the people, ean sk’oi.”

            aun Sjir’phal hissed, his tail whipping around and slapping the wall at his back.

            “Don’t call me that!”

            Neither aun Deuili seemed startled nor intimidated by his outburst.

            aun Pasia’h had an amused gleam in his eyes.  “You are going to undergo a vision, something no aun Deuili has ever done.  You were visited by the God in the form of an ancestor. Your plans for a rebellion released us from the shackles of the old ways.  How are we to address you?”

            “It has ever been as if we were born to the same litter,” aun Sjir’phal stated firmly.  “Why are you changing now?  I view you no differently.”

            “And that, my friend, is why you are worthy of the title ean sk’oi,” aun P’ata’lyh murmured with reverence.

            aun Sjir’phal clasped his shaking hands on his lap.  His rough palms were cold.  

            “aun Sjir’phal,” aun Pasia’h said.  “We will drop the reverence but know we hold you in high regard.”

            aun Sjir’phal inclined his head.  “I am grateful for your honesty.  Now speak of more mundane subjects.”

            “Very well.  When are you marrying the High Priest?” aun P’ata’lyh asked.

            “If I survive this vision,” aun Sjir’phal replied.  “Then I will ask him once more.”  He glanced at his friends.  “And how are you marriages going?”

            aun Pasia’h huffed and made himself big. “oun Enobia carries my kits!”

            aun Sjir’phal held his hand out and his friend clasped his forearm.  “That is wonderful news.  Blessed God Ie’teina.”

            “Blessed God,” the other two murmured.

            “And you, aun P’ata’lyh?” aun Sjir’phal asked.

            “No kits yet,” he replied, his tail tightly around his waist.  “But my marriage is most satisfying.  oun Zerta is beautiful and had a litter on the ark.”

            “I will pray for you,” aun Sjir’phal promised him.

            His friend bent at the waist and his tail unwound.  “Thank you.”

            When his friend straightened, aun Sjir’phal huffed a laugh.  “I would not want a young oun Shi’ehli for spouse.  I don’t know how you both marry them and keep them satisfied.”

            His friends hissed their laughter and nodded, preening.

            There was a scratch at the door.

            “Enter!”

            The door cover was pushed to one side and oun D’jir ducked inside.  Behind him came two young priests and six voluble kits in arms.  

            This was the first time aun Sjir’phal had seen the kits.  His friends rose and helped him to stand.  Then they bowed to aun D’jir, who waved them to sit.

            “Sit, both of you,” he ordered his priests.

            The two priests sat on the floor, the kits on their laps.

            “We were just leaving, High Priest,” aun P’ata’lyh murmured with reverence and bowed to him.

            They bid farewell to aun Sjir’phal and hurried out.

            “Your friends are unstable,” oun D’jir told him.

            aun Sjir’phal huffed a laugh.  “They are nervous around you, High Priest.”

            “A High Priest should be accessible to the people,” oun D’jir replied, his tail was erratically waving behing him.

            He picked up one of his kits and set him on aun Sjir’phal’s lap.  The small one glanced up at the aun Deuil with wide green eyes.

            “What is your name?” aun Sjir’phal cooed awkwardly.

            “That is why I am here,” oun D’jir told him.  “They all need names.”

            aun Sjir’phal picked up the wee one.  It’s small body was already covered with a fine downy fur.  His tiny ears were flat.  He was a fat little thing, he thought.  Too early to tell if he would be an oun Shi’ehl or an aun Deuil. Perhaps — although he did not say this out loud — an ieh bouel.  He set the kit down on the pallet and it resolutely crawled back onto his lap. When he looked up, he was being watched by three pairs of bright, curious eyes.

            oun D’jir grunted.   “You don’t seem to have the usual extreme awkwardness around kits that your gender seems to have.”

            “Kits are people, oun D’jir.”

            The priests hissed with amusement.

            oun D’jir kept his cool gaze on him and said nothing, merely released the second kit.  This one was more rambunctious.   It crawled to aun Sjir’phal’s arm and attempted to crawl up his arm to access his mane.  aun Sjir’phal was proud of his mane, and he didn’t want to lose a handful to a grabby kit.  So, he took the little one and set him on his lap.

            oun D’jir was studying him closely, which made his tail puff out.  Thankfully, his tail was hidden under the bedcothes.

            “Will you help me name him?” the High Priest asked.

            “Ye,” aun Sjir’phal replied.  As if I have a choice.

            oun D’jir arranged the folds of his robes.  “I know it is breaking tradition, to give them names before their gender is determined, but…”  His tail wrapped tightly around his waist.  “New world; new traditions.”

            The stillness thickened in the hut and the three pair of adult eyes would not look away from aun Sjir’phal.  On the earthen floor, the kits scrabbled, small balls of fur with amusing hisses, their tails puffed with their emotions.  Two chased each other, their chubby little legs awkward, stuttering.  Most of the time they fell unto their hands and feet and continued the chase at a crawl.  One had fallen asleep in his lap.  He picked up the kit’s right hand and examined the sharp, black claws.  It was a perfect duplicate of an adult’s hand.  The same could be said of the tiny feet.  The palms and soles of their hands and feet had not gotten a chance to thicken as yet.

            “Well?” oun D’jir demanded.  “Will you help me name them?”

            “It is not an aun Deuil’s place to do this,” he told the High Priest.

            “And yet the God visited you,” oun D’jir spat.  “And I will not gainsay the God!  Name the blasted kits!”

            One of the little ones startled and began to mewl in distress.  aun Sjir’phal picked him up and bounced him gently to calm him.

            He glanced at oun D’jir, who seemed angry still.

            “I don’t see why you are angry,” he stated rather plaintively.  “It’s not like I asked for this.”

            “And that is why I am angry!” the High Priest retorted.

            The other two priests shifted where they sat and dropped their gazes.

            “Forgive me, oun D’jir,” aun Sjir’phal said.

            oun D’jir sighed and shook his head.  “Just name the kits.”

            He looked at the kits around him and he thought of names and their meanings.

            The little one asleep on his lap was quite docile, he thought.   He caressed a sturdy little arm.  The kit did not even stir.

            “This one is Osoh’l.”

            The one that was hissing and posturing to the other already was clearly a warrior, regardless of gender.

            “That one is Perisan.”

            “And this one?” one of the priests asked.

            “That one startles easily.  He is called Lis’lahn.”

            “That one there, he is always chased and never turns to fight.  He is Banem.”

            oun D’jir watched him.

            “This one keeps himself apart from the others, although he is part of them.  He is Karu’em.”

            “And the last one?” the other priest asked.

            “This one is Tholes, because he observes everything with great attention.”

            The three priests repeated the kits’ names over and over until they had memorized the names.  They rose as one.

            “Now I must record their names in our Holy Book.  They were the first kits born to us and were a direct miracle from our God.”

            They  gathered the kits once more and headed towards the door.

            At the door, oun D’jir turned to face aun Sjir’phal.  “Thank you, aun Deuil.  I will come at sunset to give you the appropriate herbs to induce a vision. I hope you survive.”

***

            The hours crawled.  Most of the time, aun Sjir’phal paced.  He still felt weak, exhausted.  His shoulder wound throbbed and smelled off somehow.  Knowing the High Priest, the wound would be reopened, drained and cauterized.  He did not look forward to that. But first things first.  If he died during the vision, then the wound would not matter.  

            As the sun set in the west and long fingers of sharp colors filled the sky, oun D’jir and his assistant, oun Shamisj, entered the hut without asking permission.  They had a busy air about them as they hurried inside with two trays and two buckets made of wood.  They set the trays down against one curving wall of the hut near aun Sjir’phal’s pallet and the buckets against the opposite wall.

            oun D’jir turned to him.  “We have an emetic tea and a tea to clean your intestines.  You are to drink plenty of water.  Drink one cup of tea from this tray and one from the other tray.  You will continue to drink the tea until nothing remains inside of you.  Clear?”

            aun Sjir’phal bowed.

            oun D’jir inclined his head.  “When I return, I will bring the tea that induces visions.  Do you have questions?”

            “Ne,” aun Sjir’phal repied and watched them leave as hurriedly as they had arrived.

            He drank the emetic tea without tasting it, but when he set the cut down with a thud, he almost threw up the tea.  The need to vomit passed as the tea’s horrible taste faded from his tongue.  Then he drank the tea to empty the intestines.  That one was not unpleasant but was extremely salty.  He reached for the decanter of water and drank two cups.  Then he went to sit on his pallet.  He sat cross legged with his back to the curved wall and closed his eyes.  

            For the first time that he could remember, he uttered a sincere prayer to Ie’teina.  For bringing them to this planet, which they had christened “Ahn’desu”; for encountering aliens with compassion; for losing the bloodthirsty God they had worshipped for eons; for finding a firm, yet compassionate God.  He gave thanks that his many of his people had survived.  The Sha’jeen had been given a second chance.  He was grateful for that.

            Then the teas began to work so he could not pray any longer.  

            The hours that followed would make him wish he never saw the God again, even if it was blasphemy.   Hurrying to kneel before one of the buckets, he grasped the lip of the bucket and opened his mouth to release the meager contents of his stomach.  The vomit came in a strong, fetid stream and hit the inside of the bucket with a loud thud.  A bitter taste remained  Then the intestines wished to be emptied.  At the end of that, the small hut reeked, despite the airing hole in the ceiling and the smoke from the firepit.  He stumbled to the door and pushed it open to allow fresh air into the hut. He was trembling and his eyesight was darkening.  After a few minutes, he stumbled to his pallet and lay down.  But minutes later, he was purging once more.  By the time oun D’jir returned, aun Sjir’phal lay on his pallet, dozing.    

            “Wake!” the damned High Priest demanded.  “Your vision will start at midnight. Come. Sit up.”

            aun Sjir’phal obeyed before he was even aware.  

            oun D’jir handed him a cup of water and watched him drink it.

            The  High Priest sat cross legged before him.  “I will hand you three leaves of the Xes’xen.  You will take one at a time and chew it until it is a paste in your mouth.  Afterward, you will swallow it.  If a vision does not result within the hour, you must take the second leaf and chew it in the same manner.  And so on.  You must never take more than three at a time.  Here.”

            The leaf was thick, waxy and a deep green.  He put the leaf in his mouth and began to chew it.  The taste was oily and slightly rotten.  It took all his will to keep from gagging.

            oun D’jir steadily watched him.

            He made himself chew the foul leaf until it was a slimy paste in his mouth.  Afterward, he closed his eyes and used his all his effort to swallow it.  It went down like meat that had gone bad.  He was not sure afterward how he managed not to throw up.

            “Lie down now,” oun D’jir murmured.

            aun Sjir’phaj lay down, hands crossed over chest and closed his eyes.

            “Listen to me,” oun D’jir said with some kindness.  “I will guide you.”

            aun Sjir’phal struggled to remain awake, but his eyes would not open.  A most unpleasant cramp gripped his groin and he struggled to rise, for he thought he would empty his intestines again.  But the feeling passed as swiftly as it had come on.

            “You will allow the Xes’xen leaf to transport you,” oun D’jir said softly.  “You will lie there and take in the visions the God sends you.  You are honored, aun Sjir’phal, for the God has chosen you.  Watch the darkness behind your eyes and see what can be seen.  I will remain with you tonight.”

            aun Sjir’phal said nothing.  The unpleasant taste in his mouth was a constant reminder of why the priest was here and what could happen.  Could he lie about a vision, in order to not eat another leaf of the pukra plant?  He was not sure he could swallow another leaf and not throw up.  

            Time passed.  He could hear oun D’jir shifting and standing, walking around the hut and then sitting down again.

            As he lay there, aun Sjir’phal no longer felt the pallet beneath him.  His body felt like a boulder.  His lungs were reluctant to fill with air and he gasped.  Soon after this, he realized it was not the pallet he could not feel.  He could not feel his body.  Despite weighing a ton, his body felt like it was beginning to dissolve.  aun Sjir’phal fought to awaken, to move before his body liquefied, but his efforts came to naught.  He fell through the pallet and he opened his eyes.  His naked limbs flayed as he fell through space that was numbingly cold.  Hoarfrost clung to the tip of his fur.  Each breath was a frozen knife through his lungs.  He coughed and blood drops spilled from his mouth and clung to the sluggish air.

            He looked around him but the air, the space, beyond an arm’s length was pitch black.   He opened his mouth to scream for it seemed that he could feel the ground rising up below him.  His breath and voice froze in his throat.  He could feel a scream building in his lungs.  It shoved its way up his chest to his windpipe.  It came up his throat like a ball of fire.  It was out of his mouth, burning his tongue as it went, and spilled out into the inky darkness.  And, suddenly, aun Sjir’phal was kneeling on a grassy knoll.  Around him, a strange world.   Trees with straight limbs and dropping leaves.  The grass was a color he could not name.  In the distance, a river meandered through an empty plain.  Overhead, most of the sky was swallowed by a giant planet.  It had glittering rings around it.

            “Do you not have a collective memory of your planet of origin?”

            aun Sjir’phal whipped around.

            A being stood there.  It was like Ariahl and Mariel of the Sentinels in appearance.  There were two bumps on its chest and it was slender and smallish.  Its mane was long to its lower back.  Its face was cocked and watched him not unkindly.  On one hand it held a bright golden pike.  On the other, it held a shield.

            He bent his head.  “God.  I praise you.”

            When he looked up again, it had cocked its handsome head to the other side.

            “I am Atana,” it said.  “I will be referred to as Atana.  I am a Goddess.  Refer to me as such, for I represent creativity. The world you came to do mischief in is mine. That is the god of your ancient world.”

            The God pointed with the pike and an animal like the one who had attacked aun Sjir’phal in the jungle padded up the rise of land.  It was catlike, like the ancestors of the Sha’jeen, and black and there was a wound on its neck and steadily seeped ichor.

            “I wounded the God!” aun Sjir’phal gasped.

            “He is well,” Atana murmured.  “That is Thul’ta’h’duk.  The God you left a long time ago.  He has followed you here.”

            Thul’ta’h’duk padded to where aun Sjir’phal stood and sniffled his mane and throat, rumbling deep in his throat.

            aun Sjir’phal reached up and grasped the God’s mane.

            “I am sorry, God. I am sorry we left you behind!”

            Thul’ta’h’duk rumbled and pulled away, padding to where Atana stood.

            “You will worship both of us, aun Sjir’phal.  Those of your people who give birth will worship me.  Those who give their sperm to make a kit will worship Thul’ta’h’duk.  I am a merciful Goddess.  I could not turn away the God that has followed you through millenia.  And the other God- the dual-faced one – has come into my space as well. He is weak now, but a time will come when here will be a great battle.  Darkness knows deception.  I fear the ones he will take to his bosom on this world.  Now, aun Sjir’phal.  Listen well and take these words to your people:

            “There will be a priest for the oun Shi’ehl and one for the aun Deuil.

             Each God has a holy day.

             You must pray twice a day:  when you rise and just before you lay down to sleep.

             In your homes, you will build an altar to your God.          

             On the altar put things that will please your God.

             Remember what I have told you.”

             aun Sjir’phal bowed.  “Ye, God.”

             The God thumped the pike on the ground.  “You will return now.”

             aun Sjir’phal’s eyes rolled towards the back of his head.  

***

             oun D’jir hissed with distress.  “Hold him!”

             oun Shamisj and oun Belihe held aun Sjir’phal down as he thrashed about violently, foamy spittle spilling from his mouth.

             “What is this?” oun Belihe gasped.

             “A fit,” oun D’jir said.  “It sometimes happens when we consume that Xes’xen leaf.”

             There was now a tinge of blood to the spittle on aun Sjir’phal’s mouth.

             oun D’jir released an explosive sigh.

             Outside, it had begun to rain.  The noises of their village quieted as the rain gained strength.

             “Let him go,” oun D’jir told his priests.  “Turn him on his side.”

             His priests did as he asked then oun D’jir sat at aun Sjir’phal’s back and placed his hand on the aun Deuil’s head.  He closed his eyes and prayed.  He heard the other priests praying as well.

             “Ie’teina,” oun D’jir murmured.  “Great God of this world…please do not take him from me.  There are moments when I wish to kill him, yes, but don’t take him from me.  I feel he has a great lesson to teach us, from your mouth to our ears.  He is God-touched and holy, no matter how much he fights it.  Please forgive him, Ie’teina, and let him live.”

             When he opened his eyes, aun Sjir’phal lay on his side, watching the wall with vacant eyes.  oun D’jir’s heart gave a painful lurch.  

             He rose and picked up the the bedclothes he had gifted aun Sjir’phal and draped them over him.  The large aun Deuil was trembling, although the night was barely cool.  The smell of wet earth flooded the hut as oun Shamisj pulled the door cover to one side.  The young priests stood gazing out at the early morning.

             oun Belihe sat close, eyes closed, mouth moving soundlessly.

             “I have chosen well,” oun D’jir murmured and turned back to aun Sjir’phal.

             The aun Deuil had closed his eyes and now slept peacefully.

             oun D’jir would remain here while the aun Deuil recouperated.  He himself needed to eat and drink.

             He rose and knelt before oun Belihe.  He touched the priest’s shoulder.

             The young priest opened his eyes.

             “Bring me food, oun Belihe.  And fresh water.”

             The priest rose and bowed.  “At once, High Priest.”

             Both priests rushed out into the rainy day.

             “I have to impart words from the Goddess,” aun Sjir’phal murmured, eyes still closed.

             oun D’jir started.  He rose and knelt by the pallet.  “Please – tell me.”

             “Firstly, Ie’teina is called Atana.  Atana is a Goddess, not a God.  Whatever that means.  We should address Atana as such.”

             oun D’jir clasped his hands before him.  “The Sentinel Ariahl explained that to me.  It is the female form.  It means Atana can bear young as well.”

             aun Sjir’phal frowned, his eyes closed.  “What sense does that make?  Why should a God give birth?”

             “The Goddess gave birth to this world,” oun D’jir stated with wonder.  “oun Atana gave birth to this world.”

             “Help me up.”

             oun D’jir assisted aun Sjir’phal to sit.

             aun Sjir’phal leaned against the wall.  His body was trembling still.  He gazed at oun D’jir with large, luminous eyes and repeated everything that was told to him by the Goddess.

             oun D’jir nodded, hands clasped on his lap.  “We will build altars in every home.  We will pray twice a day before those altars.  We will placed objects upon each altar to please the Goddess and God.  We will come up with holy days several times a year to pray in unison.”  He cocked his head and looked at aun Sjir’phal.  “Tell  me about Thul’ta’h’duk.”

             “He is as an ancestor, a catlike being.”  He lowered his voice.  “I do not think He is as powerful as Atana, but this is not His world.”

             “We will revere him nonetheless.  And the other thing she told you,” oun D’jir said.  “The thing about the Dual-Faced god?”

             “There will be a great battle in the future where things will be decided.”  aun Sjir’phal reached for the cup of water and drained it.  “Let us hope things are decided on the side of good.”

             oun D’jir bristled.  “I have no doubt the Dual-Faced god will die!”

             “I don’t think gods can die, oun D’jir.  They are driven away or dissipate into the greater universe.”

             “Oh and you are an expert now,” oun D’jir sneered.

             “No,” aun Sjir’phal replied.  “But if I am going to be Thul’ta’h’duk’s priest, then I must keep an open mind.”

             oun D’jir made himself larger.  “Will we be at odds?”

             “We can learn from each other,” aun Sjir’phal replied.  “We can lean on each other.  After all, we will be mated.  I know nothing about being a priest, but I have striven to keep an open mind always, oun D’jir.”

             oun D’jir’s tail puffed up.

             “Stop,” aun Sjir’phal said then.  “I want us to be allies not enemies.  If you can’t learn new things, what business have you being a priest?”

             oun D’jir rose up smoothly.  “Excuse me.”

             He walked blindly into the morning and walked to his hut by instinct.  Once there, he leaned against the outside wall just right of the door.  From here, he could hear the mewls and hisses of his kits.  Slowly, his eyesight returned.  

             “High Priest!” oun Shamisj said.  “I was just about to bring your food.”

             “Take it to the aun Sjir’phal,” he replied wearily and stepped into the hut.

             There was so much to do, he thought as his gaze took in the tumbling kits and the four other priests sitting in a circle around them.

             There was salted, smoked meat hanging from the rafters by thick cords.  He went and cut a piece down and began to eat it.  The flavor was of this jungle, this continent, this world.  The very air.  He looked down at his hand where the thick slice of meat lay.  He brought it to his mouth and continued to eat.

             “Are you well, High Priest?” oun Satishe asked.  

             oun D’jir looked at him.  oun Satishe was a beautiful oun Shi’ehl.  His bright amber eyes held every emotion he felt and were filled with compassion and wonder.

             oun D’jir felt humbled.  He had forgotten how to be a kit, to have those qualities that made a good priest.

             “Wonder and compassion, oun Satishe,” he murmured, cupping the other’s cheek.  “We must not forget wonder and compassion.”

             He wrapped his arm around oun Satishe’s arm.  “Come with me, oun Satishe.  Let us speak to oun Sjir’phal together. Don’t allow me to get defense, please.  I have a terrible temper.”

             oun Satishe hissed his laughter.  “Only when it comes to aun Sjir’phal, High Priest.”

Chapter XIV: Viper

            Ariahl led the exploratory team back to home base the next day.  

            As they walked single file up the incline from the river to the jungle, Toyus brought up the rear.  He kept looking over his shoulder.  It was like a frigid wind rifled his fur and made it stand on end.  The sensation of being watched had intensified during the night.  Sometimes, he listened so intensely, he thought he heard footfalls behind him, but when he looked, he saw nothing and no one.  By the time they made it to the beach where the rest of their people were congregated, he felt like he was jumping out of his skin.  

            Some of their people ran to them when they cleared the jungle, peppering them with questions. The children ran in circles around them, shouting and laughing.  Toyus picked up more than one child and threw him or her into the air.  The act always seemed to surprise and elate the children. As he played with the children, Ariahl spoke to the adults.  

            The rest of the exploratory team stood at Toyus’ back.

            Ariahl finished talking with the adults and made her way to the team once more.  “You can all go and see your families now.  Toyus and I will speak to the Council.”

            Toyus set a child down and rifled his hair.  The cherub took off after his friends.

            “You still feel like you are being stalked?” Ariahl asked softly.

            “Good word–stalked.  And yes.  But I think it’s us.  We were being stalked, not just me.”

            “Of course.”

            The other Sentinels were gathered at the shuttle.

            Ariahl turned to Toyus.  “Let me speak with them a moment.  I’ll meet you at the Council fire.”

            As he made his way to the Council fire, Toyus gazed at the pounding surf.  The skies over the horizon were dark with the promise of a storm.  The air was cool and tangy with the scent of the sea.  The Council was waiting for him.

            Missus Setina took a step forward and clasped her hands before her.  “You are back, Toyus.  What did you see?”

            Toyus stopped before them.  “Please sit.”

            They sat down and he knelt before them.  “We found an abandoned city near a river.  At the back of the city there are overgrown orchards.  The orchard has to be cleared off, the wooden walls should be rebuilt, but otherwise I think it would suit us.  The homes are stone.  All we have to do is clean them out.  The most important thing is the river.  From here, the river is several hours away.  From there, it is mere feet.  The City is on a rise of land, if you are wondering what would happen if the river overflowed.”

            Mister Yusten shifted.  “But why was the city abandoned?”

            “We might be able to find out once there.”

            Missus Alita sighed.  “What are you asking us, Toyus?”

            “I think we should move our people to the abandoned city, Missus.  It would take a long time to build a village here and fresh water would always be a challenge.  We have a ready-made village in the interior.”

            “But the jungle might be dangerous,” Mister Somar protested.

            Toyus inclined his head.  “Yes.  It might be, but whatever can get us there, can get us here.  The beach is no protection.”

            Mister Omir shifted.  “What do the Sentinels say?”

            “You should head inland,” Sentinel Mariel replied as she walked up.  The rest of the Sentinels were at her back.

            The Council arose as one.

            Mariel smiled at them.  “Toyus is correct.  You can’t hide here.  Anything dangerous will find you here.  At least in the abandoned city, you have a wall to protect you.”

            Missus Setina indicated the fire.  “Please, all of you, sit.”

            The Sentinels sat and then the Council sat.  Toyus knelt on the soft white sand next to Sentinel Sol.

            Sentinel Derik leaned forward and rested his forearms on his knees.  “Look.  What are the positive things about moving inland?”

            “Access to fresh water,” Toyus said.  “Better protection.  Ready-made homes. An orchard.”

            Derik nodded.  “And the negative things?”        

            Mister Omir punctured the air with a finger.  “What if it is not abandoned?”

            Sentinel Ariahl shook her head.  “It’s abandoned.  Believe me.  It had the look of being abandoned.”

            Missus Alita arranged her skirts around her.  “But why was it abandoned?”

            Sentinel Ariahl frowned.  “We can’t know that.  All we can know is that it is a sturdy city in need of inhabitants.”

            “We should speak to the people,” Mister Somar offered.

            Mariel shook her head.  “They voted you in because they trusted you to make good choices.  You are bound to make mistakes, but you can’t be intimidated by the thought of making a mistake.”

            Mister Somar stiffened and dropped his gaze.

            Missus Setina sighed.  “We will vote.  There are thirteen, counting the Sentinels.  That means there will be a tie breaker.  Shall me?  Mister Yusten.”

            “I say no.”

            “Missus Alita.”

            “Yes.”

            “Mister Somar.”

            “No.”

            “Mister Omir.”

            “No.”

            “Toyus?”

            “Yes.”

            “I vote yes.  Now, that’s a tie.  What do the Sentinels collectively vote?”    

            Derik shook his head.  “We vote yes.”

            Missus Setina sat up straighter.  “Then we’ll transport our people into the City tomorrow, and we will clean up the site for our use.”

            “I would like to go on record as a protester,” Mister Yusten growled.

            “So noted,” Missus Setina replied.  She rose.  “I will speak to the people.  Toyus?  Accompany me, please.”

            They walked a few feet and she asked, quietly.  “This is a good idea?  Please tell me this is a good idea.”

            He nodded.  “It will work well, Missus.  You’ll see.”

            She sighed.  “I hope so.”

***

            That night, Toyus lay on his pallet under the large fronds of two trees  while the sky disgorged rain upon the beach.  He could see the smoke rising up from the pits were the people’s fires were doused by the rain.  The smell of smoke threaded through the fresh scent of rain and the briny sea. The ocean was a vast churning darkness, but he could hear its ire as it pounded the beach.  Only when lightning crackled across the skies could he see.  Even his superior vision meant nothing in this absolute inkiness.

            “Toyus!”

            Toyus sat up.  “Here, Ereali!”

            The young man ran towards Toyus’ voice, nearly colliding with him.

            “Lost track of time,” he told Toyus.

            “Sit, Ereali.  You’re soaking wet!”

            “I’m taking off this tunic!”

            Toyus heard the rustle of clothes behind removed and then Ereali was sitting down next to Toyus.

            “Where’d you go?”  Toyus asked him.

            “I don’t always want to be underfoot around you, Toyus.”

            Toyus slid his arm around Ereali’s shoulders.  His fur was damp and smelled musky.  “You are not.  We agreed we were going to be friends.  Was I wrong?”

            Ereali shifted.  “I’ve never had a friend.  I don’t know how to behave.”

            “You’re doing fine.”

            They sat in silence and watched the light show across, under and over the clouds.  Sometimes Toyus could feel Ereali gazing his way.  They could hardly hold a conversation in the roar of thunder and crackle of lightning, so Toyus left him alone.  

            The storm passed after several hours.  It left behind fronds and leaves and small tree limbs littering the beach.  The moon came out afterward.  Her light made the inky sea look oily and sluggish.  

            The waves still rushed the shore but not as ferociously as it had before.  Some ragged clouds sailed past and the dark sky was peppered with stars.

            “I have something to tell you, Toyus.”

            Toyus turned to his friend.  His silver and blue down looked bright under the moon’s cold light.   His eyes looked silver.

            “Go on then, Ereali.”

            The young man swallowed audibly.  “I….I–uh…”

            Toyus cocked his head.  “You can tell me anything, Ereali.  I won’t judge you.”

            Ereali looked at him then ducked his head.  “Never mind.”

            “No!  None of this never mind.”  He put his hand on Ereali’s shoulder.  “Tell me.  I’m intrigued.”

            “Do you know why I ended up in the underground city?” Ereali asked.

            “I don’t.”

            “I told my parents when I was twelve that I am atoliy,” he said quiety.  “My father threw me out of the house and told me to fend for myself.”

            Toyus swallowed.  He tried to imagine what it would be like to be a twelve-year-old surviving among criminals and other unsavory types.

            “I’m sorry that happened to you,” Toyus told him.

            Ereali shrugged and dropped his gaze.  “I never told another soul, save you.”

            “I am honored, Ereali.  Honored that you confided in me.  It makes no difference to me that you are atoliy.”

            “But you’re not.”

            Toyus dropped his hand.  He cocked his head.  “I’ve never thought of it.  I’ve never been drawn to relationships or love.  I suppose, had none of this happened, I would have married a girl mother picked out for me.”

            Ereali considered him closely.  “That is remarkable.  And you’ve never wondered?”

            “I just assumed I was domeinsji.”  He shrugged.  “But I really don’t think about sex.  I suppose I love people, but it never goes past that.”

            Ereali sighed.  “Shame.”

            Toyus chuckled.  “There was one of the Sentinels I became overly attached to. I suppose you can say I developed an infatuation, but that is long gone.”

            Ereali turned to face him.  “Which Sentinel?”

            “Don’t repeat this.”

            “You wound me!”

            “Alright.  It was Sol.”

            Ereali considered this.  “He looks like a R’Nonayan.  He’s beautiful.  You have excellent taste.”

            Ereali seemed to deflate.

            “Ereali,” Toyus murmured.  “He’s an acquaintance.  You’re my friend.  See the difference?

            “Yes,” in a small voice.

            “Look.  Most people you come across won’t be atoliy.  You have to get used to disappointment, my friend.”

            “But you’ll choose a wife, eventually?”

            “Probably not.  You’ll live in my household and we will go from there.”

            Ereali nodded.  “I would like that.”

            Ereali rolled out his pallet and accompanying sheets and they lay down side by side.  Toyus lay with his hands beneath his head, studying the moon and the stars.  Beside him, Erealil’s breathing evened out and slowed.  He turned his head to watch the other sleep.  He had long lashes and a beatiful downy fur of blue and silver.  His mane was blue, and his features were attractive:  He had high cheekbones and full lips.  It would be a lie not to find Ereali attractive.  Yet why did I lie? He shook his head at his own stupidity.  

            He heard a footfall close to them just then and he smoothly came up on a knee, reaching for his dagger.

            “I wouldn’t if I were you,” cautioned a sibilant voice.

            A shadow detached itself from behind the trunk of a tree and walked onto the sand.  In his hand was a weapon of some sort.  It was triangular in shape, smooth and black, with blinking lights.  The Sha’jeen’s hand was inside the back of it.  The creature’s fur and mane seemed silver in the moon’s light.  His eyes flashed every time he looked around.  His mane was matted and limp with oil.  The robes he wore were worn and torn and smelled strongly of the creature’s musk.

            “Like it?” the Sha’jeen asked, holding the weapon in the air.  “I stole it from their shuttle.  Took me a while to figure it out.  Stand.  Up.”

            Toyus stood up slowly.

            The Sha’jeen made a motion that Toyus should precede him into the jungle.  Toyus did as he asked.  He tried not to walk to fast or too slow.

            “Stop here.  Turn around.”

            Toyus complied.  

            “What do you call yourselves?” the Sha’jeen asked.

            “Amalgamese.”

            The Sha’jeen cocked his head.  “Really? Clever.”

            “What do you want?”    

            “I want a new people, a new home,” the other replied.  “Sha’jeen do not do well alone.  I already feel the fraying of my sanity.”

            “This is how you want to join our village?  With a weapon?”

            The Sha’jeen waved his weapon around.  “You will listen.  I will harm no one, but I must be sure.”

            “Why are you not in the Sha’jeen village?  Wait.  That’s millions of miles away!”

            “I came down river for months.”

            “That doesn’t answer my question.”

            The Sha’jeen lowered his gun.  “I murdered someone.”

            Toyus’ hairs stood on end.  “But–“

            “I won’t murder anyone here.  I no longer believe in that god.  I believe in Ietenna!”

            “Her name is Atana.”

            The Sha’jeen cocked his head.  “A-ta-na?”

            “That is correct.  There is a Sha’jeen already here.  oun Nilja.”

            The Sha’jeen hissed.  “The little pukra.”

            “I don’t know what that means, but he is a part of this community.”

            “I am oun Ei’dhar.  I was a member of the Council of Sha’j before my unbelievably stupid mistake.”

            Toyus rubbed his face with both hands.  “oun Ei’dhar.  We will go to the Council and I will plead for you.  But if you kill anyone here, I will kill you myself.”

            oun Ei’dhar slid the weapon into the folds of his robes.

            “I give you my word, I will kill no one,” he said somberly.

            “Then return that weapon to the Sentinels,” Toyus challenged.

            “Not until I am accepted into this colony.”  He indicated behind him.  “Let’s return now and you will speak to your leaders.”

             The night was old but still far from over.  Toyus balked at waking everyone.

            “They will know something is wrong if I wake them this early,” he told the Sha’jeen.

            oun Ei’dhar considered this, ears flicking at every sound, eyes sharp.  “Very well.  We shall wait until it is morning.”

            “Thank you,” Toyus murmured.

            oun Ei’dhar bowed.  “No, thank you–what is your name?”

            “Toyus.”

            “No appellation?  How strange. Can you give birth?”

            “No.”

            “Pity.  You are interesting-looking.  I will call you aun Toyus.”

            They walked in silence, Toyus in front, oun Ei’dhar behind him holding the weapon in the open once more.  They made it as far as Toyus’ pallet and managed not to alert the periphery guards. oun Ei’dhar melted back into the jungle, but Toyus could feel him watching.  There was a cold intelligence behind oun Ei’dhar’s polite mien.  There was calculation in his eyes.  Toyus sat down on his pallet and looked over at Ereali.  The youth was deeply asleep.  Toyus kept vigil over him.

            When morning came, it was cool and fresh after the previous night’s storm.  Soft light touched the horizon and people began to stir.  A child cried and was quickly hushed.  Today they would be heading inland in groups, so people were gathering their belongings and making a queue near the shuttle.  People walked in groups or singly.  They spoke in quiet voices.

            Toyus saw that the Council firepit was crackling with a new fire. He rose and made his way there.  As he walked, he considered which of the Councilors he could trust with this.  His mind went directly to Missus Setina, the most levelheaded of them all.

            “Ah! Toyus!”  Mister Somar hailed.  “Welcome!  Join us for some breakfast.”

            “Thank you,” he said.  “Missus Setina.  May I speak with you about a personal matter.”

            Her eyebrows arched but she nodded and followed him away from the firepit.

            “Last night,” he told her without preamble.  “A Sha’jeen pulled a weapon he stole from the shuttle and took me into the jungle.  He wants to be part of our village.”

            “What are you not telling me?”

            Toyus sighed.  “He committed murder, which I think is why he has been exiled from the Sha’jeen village.”

            She sucked a breath and released it.  “Oh dear.  Well, we can hear what he has to say on the matter, and we can decide as a Council whether he can remain.  There is already another Sha’jeen here. Perhaps we can ask his opinion.”

            “I will fetch oun Nilja,” Toyus told her.

            He ran towards the shuttle.  He found oun Nilja playing with some children.  One of the tikes was straddling oun Nilja’s back and oun Nilja was acting like beast of burden.  The child clung to the Sha’jeen’s robes and shrieked with glee.

            “oun Nilja,” Toyus greeted him.

            oun Nilja rose carefully so the child could dismount.  “Ye, aun Toyus?”

            “I need to speak to you over at the Council fire.”

            He bowed, eyes bright with curiosity.

            The Councilors had been apprised of the situation if one were to go by their varying expressions.  Mister Yusten’s scowl was offputting.  It clung to his grim face, aging the 30-something man at least a decade.

            “Thank you for fetching oun Nilja, Toyus,” Missus Setina murmured.  The morning light gave her black fur a silver sheen.

            “No problem, ma’am,” he replied and took a step back.

            Missus Setina turned to oun Nilja.   “You are a godsend, oun Nilja.  You are always polite and pleasant and joyous.  The children love you and the people trust you.  I  would have your opinion on a certain matter.”

            oun Nilja bowed.  

            Missus Setina turned to Toyus.  “Tell him.”

            Toyus told oun Nilja everything that had happened involving oun Ei’dhar.  He told the Sha’jeen oun Ei’dhar was armed and possibly dangerous and had killed already once already. 

            oun Nilja’s tail puffed.

            “I don’t know oun Ei’dhar very well,” oun Nilja replied.  “He came from another ark.  He is very conservative, unlike me.  But that is all I know about him.  I know he was part of the ruling council on this planet.  I don’t know why he would murder anyone.”

            “It was in self-defense.”

            They stiffened and turned.  oun Ei’dhar stood there, the weapon nowhere to be seen.  He made himself appear small, his ears swiveling at every sound.  He did not stare anyone in the eye.

            “Please tell us what happened,” Missus Setina urged.  “Please come to our firepit.”

            oun Nilja shared a look with Toyus.  Toyus could not read it, but he paid particularly close attention to oun Ei’dhar as he told his story.

            oun Ei’dhar wrung his hands as he talked.  “He attacked me – oun Tamos attacked me in the jungle. Followed me and attacked me with a knife.  I cut my hand when I took his knife from him.  See?”

            He held his hand, palm out, up.  Indeed, a long, jagged cut sliced diagonally across the palm.

            oun Nilja stepped forward.  “Why did he attack you?”

            Some emotion flickered in oun Ei’dhar’s eyes, too swift to decipher.  “Because the High Priest asked me – me – to care for the kits; to teach them.  oun Tamos wanted that role.  The kits are the future.”

            oun Nilja frowned.  “oun Tamos is a braggart, but -“

            “You dare question me, pukra!” oun Ei’dhar screeched.

            Missus Setina stepped forward.  “Enough!  If you cannot contain your emotions while we question you, how are we to arrive at the truth?”

            oun Ei’dhar bowed.  “Ye.  You are correct. Apologies, oun Nilja.”

            oun Nilja, ears flat and back, looked away.

            Missus Setina turned to oun Nilja.  “Is jealousy enough in your species to end in murder?”

            “Ye, I suppose,” oun NIlja replied quietly.  

            “Well,” she said.  “What are your thoughts?”

            “I don’t believe him,” oun Nilja stated flatly.  “oun Tamos was not that clever, to come up with a murder plan.  Truly, he didn’t have much initiative.”

            “But you can’t know for sure the story is true or false?” Missus Setina asked.

            oun Nilja inclined his head.

            Toyus looked at Missus Setina.  “Better to keep him here, where we can see him than leave him out there where he can create mischief against us.”

            Missus Setina straightened to her full height.  “Then I will vote for welcoming him.”

            It was no surprise that Mister Yusten was the most resistant to the idea of welcoming oun Ei’dhar.

            “I oppose this!” he stated.

            “It’s better to keep him within reach,” Missus Setina murmured.  “That way we can keep tabs on him.”

            “A viper is no less dangerous if we keep it in sight.”

            Mister Somar shook his head.  “But you can tell when it is about to strike. I vote yes.”

            The rest of the Council voted to welcome oun Ei’dhar.

            Once the vote had been tallied over Mister Yusten’s vehement protests, Missus Setina motioned for oun Ei’dhar to approach.

            “oun Ei’dhar,” she said with a smile.  “Welcome to City Amala.”