Chapter Twelve: The Lesson

Lahn prayed. As he prayed, he swung the heavy rope and struck his back again and again. Rivulets of sweat slid down his cheeks and neck and burned his eyes. His body shook with the ecstasy of feeling the God so near. From the open windows, breezes swirled and rifled the curtains. Distant, incomprehensible sounds echoed in the silent room. Finally, when he felt the God’s presence depart, Lahn dropped the stained rope on the floor. He was exhausted, his mind a curious blank as he opened his eyes and looked out the window at the clear blue skies. Dark, looming clouds clung to the east over the ocean. The wind was cool and smelled wet.
With some difficulty, Lahn rose on shaky legs and picked up the rope. He dropped the rope in his travel bag and rifled through it to find clean clothes. Clothes in hand, he went to the hallway and glanced around, but saw no one, servant or guest. Padding barefoot to the shared bathing chamber, he went inside and locked the door. This bathing chamber was whitewashed wooden walls and floor. A blue rectangular table stood against a wall. Stacks of towels and washcloths, cakes of soap and dark brown vials of what he assumed were aromatic oils were set neatly upon the table. A freestanding, clawfoot tub stood near the opposite wall. Potted plants lined the opposite wall. There were no showers. Filmy, blue curtains covered the glasspaned window.
After setting his clean clothes on a stool, Lahn doffed his sleeping pants and took a washcloth, a cake of soap and a towel from the rectangular blue table. He set his bounty on a second stool next to the bathtub and stepped into the tub, kneeling and turning the water on. It rushed out, icy and clear. As he watched, his mind made sense of the sounds from outside the window. He could hear voices, coughs, and laughter. The villa buzzed with life. Carefully, he soaped his back, grimacing at the burn of soap against wound. Afterward, he washed his body, soaping under his arms and along his groin, washing his feet and face. Using the deep blue ladle hanging from a long, thin chain, he rinsed off, leaving his hair for last. Once he was rinsed, he ducked under the spigot and rinsed his hair off before washing it.
Turning off the water, he rose from the tub and reached for the towel, rubbing himself dry. He then stepped out of the tub and donned his clothes: a thick pair of brown trousers and a light green muslin shirt with long sleeves and a dark green high collar. The shirt had gold stitchings making swirls along the chest and sleeves. He hung up his towel and washcloth on hooks on the wall and padded back to his bedroom, where he brushed and plaited his hair into two tight braids. Afterward he pulled on soft leather ankle boots. Leaving his bedroom behind, he went out into the wide hallway, making his way to the informal dining rooms being used by the Warlord.
Lady Kahla was there with her husband and children. There was no sign of Lady Oona, Domio or the Warlord.
Lady Kahla looked at him and beamed. “Prince Lahn! Good morrow to you.”
Lahn bowed. “Lady Kahla.”
Lady Kahla rose. “May I introduce my husband, Lord Umar Sti’et?”
Lord Umar rose and bowed. He was tall and handsome and older, with dark gray, kind eyes. “An honor, your Highness.”
“The honor is mine, Lord Umar,” Lahn rejoined and bowed. He looked at the three children and beamed. “And who are these young lady and gentlemen?”
Lady Kahla smiled softly at the children. “My oldest, Kasi. She is four. These two are twins, Obhe and Tjishon. They are two.”
Lahn knelt beside the little girl and gazed earnestly into her bright, large, light gray eyes. And how are you, little lady?“
She stared back at him seriously. “Are you a prince?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Can I be a princess?” she asked.
“Of course.”
“Then I want to marry you when I grow up,” she said.
He chuckled. “I’ll be too old for you, Princess Kasi.”
She crossed her arms over her narrow chest. “I don’t care.”
“Well then I don’t either.”
She broke into a grin.
He rose and glanced at the two serious twins. They, like Kasi, were beautiful children with dark hair and light gray eyes and round cherub faces. The one seated nearest Lahn gave a little wave and the other hid behind his brother’s shoulder and gave a shy smile.
Lahn looked at Lady Kahla. “They are quite beautiful, my lady. You are lucky.”
She blushed becomingly and curtsied. “You are too kind, your Highness. Please sit and join us for breakfast. These scamps slept in late.”
Lahn sat next to her, across from the children. There were platters of fried strips of meat, fried cheese, fresh baked bread, jams, butter, and fresh fruit cut into cubes. He served himself as the family ate.
The food was quite good, if a bit rich for his taste. He nibbled on the meat and cheese and ate mostly fruit and bread. He found he quite liked the bala berry jam, which was sweet and sour and paired well with the creamy butter.
“We are going to pick berries for wine,” Kasi announced. “I’m going to eat some. Would you like to come wif us?”
Lahn looked at Lord Umar, who gave a shrug. “If Kasi is asking you, I have no objections.” He looked at his daughter. “We have lessons this morning, young lady.”
She crossed her arms over her chest and pouted. “We are on holiday, Eda!”
The adults glanced at each other and smiled.
Lord Umar cleared his throat. “We are, indeed, young lady, but as I recall, you promised your tutor you would finish the lesson you still have pending.”
Kasi looked imploringly at Lahn. “Will you teach me the lesson, Prince Lahn?”
Lahn wiped his mouth with his napkin. “You may call me Lahn, Kasi. I’d love to help you with your lesson.”
Lord Umar shook his head. “I don’t want you to spoil your holiday with Kasi’s lesson, your Highness.”
“It’s no matter, Lord Umar. She is charming. I wouldn’t mind spending time with the children.” He sipped his mjish tea. “I like children very much.”
Lady Kahla smiled. “My children are stubborn, but mostly well behaved.”
“They appear so,” Lahn agreed.
Lord Umar wiped his mouth with his napkin. “It’s a religious lesson, your Highness. I wouldn’t want to discomfit you.”
“It is no matter,” Lahn said. “I am curious anyway.”
Lord Umar smiled. “Then, if you are finished with your breakfast, I would like to teach her the lesson before she rebels.”
Lahn chuckled and rose. “Lead the way.”
The villa library was a large room with ceiling to floor windows and walls made of shelves. Hundreds of books lined the shelves. Some tomes were so old, they were kept in glass cases. Two seating areas were arranged in the center of the room. Each seating area had a loveseat, two armchairs and a low table in the center. Round area rugs covered the floor. Against the opposite wall was a mid-sized fireplace. The fire crackled on the other side of a grating. A potted plant stood on either side of the firebox on the hearth. The room, although large, was comfortable. The ceiling-to-floor dark green brocade curtains were parted and tied with dark green silk rope. Outside of the window, tall decorative flowering bushes in the distance demarcated the Warlord’s property from his neighbor’s. Armed guards patrolled the grounds.
Lady Kahla walked to the window and watched the guards, a worried look on his face.
Lahn joined her at the window. “Were you very frightened yesterday?”
She wrung her hands. “It was disconcerting. Wealthy denizens sometimes get kidnapped for ransom.”
“I see,” he said. “But I think they were after me this time, my lady.”
She sighed. “Perhaps, but bandits are an unknown quantity. They may have kidnapped the king’s grandchildren for ransom.” She looked at him. “We can’t be sure what they would’ve done, had they won.”
He placed a hand on her shoulder. “But they lost.”
She swallowed and gave a nod. “Yes. You are right, but I can’t help worrying.”
He removed his hand. “Of course. It is only natural to worry.”
“Aya!” the little girl cried out and stamped her foot. “Prince Lahn is my friend!”
Lady Kahla sighed and turned. “You are being selfish, Kasi. I’ve taught you better than that, I hope!”
Lord Umar picked up the little girl and set her on his lap. “Behave, young lady, or you’ll get time out. Are we clear?”
Kasi crossed her arms over her chest. “But he’s my friend, Eda!”
Lahn walked to the sitting area and sat down on the loveseat across from where Lord Umar and Kasi sat on an armchair. “I can be friends with all of you, Kasi.”
Obhe, the more gregarious of the twins, made kissing noises at his sister and giggled.
“Obhe!” Lady Kahla chastised, but her eyes were sparkling with mirth.
The little boy sat next to Lahn and took his hand. “Prince Lahn is my friend, too.”
“No, he’s not,” Kasi shot back.
“That’s enough!” Lord Umar stated firmly and looked at his daughter. “Atana punishes selfishness, young lady. Do you want the Goddess angry at you?”
“No,” Kasi replied softly.
Lord Umar nodded and pressed a kiss to the girl’s forehead. “Then you have to behave and you have to learn to be generous. Share, Kasi.”
“Yes, Eda.”
Lord Umar opened a book and placed it on Kasi’s lap. “This is the story of Atana, Goddess of North Torahn. That is her picture, Kasi.”
“She’s pretty, Eda.”
Lord Umar smiled. “Yes, she is. In the beginning, Kasi, there was no world, no sun, no moon. The universe was dark, a void where nothing existed. There was no time and nothing lived. Then suddenly there was an explosion so vast, every corner of the universe felt the reverberations. The waves of sound touched every corner of infinity. That was the creation of all things in this universe.”
The girl’s eyes were wide. “Who created the universe, Eda?”
Lord Umar considered the question. “We believe there are many, many universes in reality, Kasi. Not everybody believes this. But we believe a force from another universe, a being more powerful even than Atana, and something that cannot be qualified or quantified, something we can’t imagine or conceive of, broke through into this emptiness that existed. The tear in the fabric of reality created the universe and everything in it: suns, galaxies, worlds. The force, before leaving, created a deity to rule over all worlds where life took root. We believe not all worlds contain life, Kasi. Some worlds are barren, with no atmosphere, so nothing lives there. Those worlds don’t need deities to care for them. Atana was created to rule over this world.” He shot Lahn an apologetic glance. “Prince Lahn has other beliefs.”
The girl looked at Lahn. “You don’t believe what Eda and Aya believe, Prince Lahn?”
Lahn cleared his throat. “I believe in God Poa, who is the God of the Isemi, too. God Poa is so powerful, he created himself spontaneously at the beginning of time.” He blushed. “I’m sorry, Lord Umar. I didn’t mean to preach.”
Lord Umar smiled. “We teach our children tolerance, your Highness. That means they can choose what they will believe.”
Lahn was surprised. “Please continue your lesson.”
Lord Umar turned back to the book. “In the beginning, Atana roamed the world alone and content. But, in time, She grew lonely. The world was beautiful, but empty of animals and people. An eerie silence clung to everything. So, Atana looked within herself and placed her hand upon the world and animals appeared. She created the vinah, bahil, lirtah, tash-tash. She created sjil, tah’lir, maltika, and every animal in the world. All the animals were dual-sexed, each able to procreate but needing the seed from another to form life. In this way, Atana emulated the force that had created her in the beginning. The force that created Atana was all things, you see. Male and female, good and evil, creative and destructive. Atana breathed these aspects into all animals of the world.”
The little girl looked at her father. “Then why is Atana female, Eda?”
“She is a creative force, my love. Creative forces are all female, for they have wombs. All destructive forces are masculine. Men and women have both aspects.”
“Why aren’t we dual-sexed like the isili and Isemi?” Kasi asked.
“We came to this world from another world a long time ago,” Lady Kahla said. “In an ark, a ship that traveled the stars. The ark was called The Odyssey. That is why the world is called Audesei. The isili changed the spelling and pronunciation to align with their language. We learned how to live in this world with the isili’s help, my child.”
Kasi cocked her head. “Why aren’t there isili here, Eda?”
“The isili live in other nations, my dear. They never had a colony here in Torahn.”
The girl considered and, after a moment, nodded. “When did Atana create people?”
“Atana created the dual-sexed people of this world a long time after animals,” Lord Umar took up his story again. “She was pleased with the animals she created, but the animals could not worship her. So, one day she created the isili and all the other people of the world. The world is so large, that we have yet to meet all the races who live upon her. We only know of isili, the Isemi and the Farrukians at the bottom of the world.”
Kasi turned her curious stare on Lahn. “You don’t believe in Atana?”
“I believe Atana exists, Kasi,” Lahn replied neutrally. “But I am a Poaist. I believe in Poa the Harvester.”
“Do you believe he created the world,” the girl asked.
“We believe the world was created by the unknown force, just like you do,” Lahn said. “But we believe this force created animals and people. Deities self-created to watch over the people who live in the world.”
The girl shifted in her seat. “Then why don’t we believe in this unknown force?”
Lahn sighed. “We do believe in it, Kasi, but we don’t worship it. We cannot worship the incomprehensible. The unknown force is worshipped by the Gods. Only they are great enough to understand it. Do you see?”
She scrunched up her little face. “I think so, Prince Lahn. We don’t understand it like we understand Atana, so we worship Atana.”
“Yes, that’s it,” Lahn replied, impressed by her intelligence. “There are levels upon levels of reality. We exist in one level, the Gods live in the another level of reality, and the unknown force exists in its own level. We don’t even know what level it exists in. We can’t even imagine that level.”
“When we die, do we go to Atana’s level, Eda?” the girl asked.
“When we die we go live somewhere else,” Lord Umar pronounced. “Atana cares for us there, my love. But we don’t become like Her. We don’t become gods like Her, so we don’t go to her level ever.”
She looked at Lahn. “Do you believe that, Prince Lahn?”
“Yes,” he replied. “We go to another level, where our God protects us and cares for us.”
She considered his words then looked at her father. “Does that mean we won’t be with Prince Lahn when we die?”
Lord Umar looked helplessly at Lahn. He gave a self deprecating chuckle. “How do I answer that, your Highness?”
Lahn smiled at him. “We don’t know what will happen when we die, Kasi. Know that you will be cared for by a deity. We believe what we believe, but the Gods will do what they will and we can’t presume to know their ways.”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “I don’t like that.”
Lady Kahla stifled a chuckle and smiled at her daughter. “It’s alright not to like how things are, Kasi, but we can’t change something that is the purview of the Goddess. We can’t tell the Goddess what to do and we really can’t judge such a being. She is greater than we are, young lady, and has rights we do not. She created us, after all, and is our Mother.”
Kasi looked at Lahn. “The Mother is who Aya adores in church.”
“And you, young lady?” Lahn asked.
“The Mother protects children,” the girl dutifully recited.
“Then you adore her as well,” he rejoined.
“It’s all confusing,” the girl pronounced and looked at her father. “Can I go play now?”
Lord Umar gave a long-suffering sigh. “Yes, young lady. Go play with your brothers.”
“I don’t want to play with a girl!” Obhe announced.
“You do as you are told, young man,” Lady Kahla stated. “Now shoo. Stay near the guards, if you go outside. Where is your nanny, I wonder?”
Just then the young woman in question hurried into the library. “I overslept, my lady. Why didn’t you wake me?”
Lady Kahla chuckled. “You must have needed your sleep. Did you eat?”
“Yes, my lady. Have the children had their lesson?”
“Yes,” Lord Umar said and rose to put the book away. “Please take the children outside for a romp, but keep a close eye on them, Tisa.”
Tisa curtsied. “Yes, my lord.”
“Excuse me, your Highness,” Lord Umar murmured. “We’ll have a game of s’krieh later perhaps?”
Lahn rose. “Of course. At your disposal, my lord.”
Kahla thrust her arm through Lahn’s. “Shall I give you a tour of the villa, your Highness?”
Lahn smiled at her. “Lead the way.”

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