Three weeks later, Lahn and Domio were boarding a Tjish.unen ship headed to Tjish.un. City Dors was armed to the teeth, countless guards patrolling along the city walls, their spears glinting in the bright sunlight. Domio escorted Lahn to the ship then wandered off into the wharves to find some answers to questions. Lahn remained on the deck, gazing out into the city, wringing his hands as he worried about his uncle. Around him, sailors scrambled to prepare their ship for departure. Dock workers loaded goods into the ship’s hull. Lahn kept his eyes trained on the wharves, hoping his uncle would return quickly and safely.
A long time later, he caught sight of the priest’s black vestments and the bright blue collar. Domio made his way up the plank and hurried to where Lahn awaited.
“There is war along the border,” he breathlessly told Lahn. “Our brother Keron is attempting to maintain the war there while we wait for mercenaries from the Kelepen and Uedjnourahn. It will take a month before those troops reach us, if they come by sea, which I think they will. The Sahi’Rhath Ocean is much calmer than her tumultuous sisters.”
“I should fight for our country,” Lahn stated mournfully. “I was trained to fight, damn it. Perhaps I should remain behind while you head to Tjish.un.”
“The Queen of Tjish.un won’t listen to a priest from a rival religion, Lahn. Be reasonable. You are a Prince of the Blood.”
“As are you!”
“Not anymore. Not since taking my vows.” The priest placed his hands on Lahn’s shoulders. “Be strong, Lahn. Kah’len needs you.”
Lahn took a deep breath and released it in a rush. “You’re right. I can’t leave him lingering in the dungeon, subject to lung rot and God knows what else.”
Domio smiled at him. “Good then. Let me meet the captain and find out where our cabin is. Wait here.”
Lahn turned his eyes back to the city. It sprawled in all directions but was not so large that he couldn’t see the Thol Mountains in the distance. Torahn, even this far south, was a green nation. They were headed to an arid, parched country where multiple gods lived. Tjish.un was a distant land, a strange and exotic land. Her denizens were so different from Torahn’s own. They were darker of complexion, with hazel or green eyes, and copper-colored hair. Gracile people, beautiful and strange. Their lives were taken up by ritual and prayer, much more than even in South Torahn. Their gods lived in strange towering homes and priests ruled. The Queen herself was High Priestess, the most powerful woman in the world. Men and women were on equal footing as far as rights and responsibilities. In that way, Tjish.un was much like distant, matriarchal I’A, where women ruled and men were subservient. In Torahn, women had a few rights, although nothing like in Tjish.un, where they were equal under the law. Lahn believed women as able to rule as men, else how could Queen Masjita have ruled such a large country as Tjish.un successfully for twenty years now?
Lahn wondered if he would meet isili in Tjish.un. They were almost mythical in Torahn. The isili were the first dual-sexed race the hu’ans had encountered when their ships landed on this planet thousands of years prior. They were smaller than hu’ans, more slender and delicate. Most isili topped off at 5’5“ or 5’6” in height. They were beautiful, looking like youth all their lives, even unto maturity. Lahn found it most fascinating that the isili did not choose a gender for themselves until they were married and deciding who would bear the children. Then the isili would opt to be either a dam (he who bore the children) or a damai (he who donated the sperm to create young). Once the gender was chosen, it was fixed for life. Breaking this more led to loss of one’s family and one’s role in the community. Exile was seen as the worst possible punishment, tantamount to a living death. The isili lived separate from hu’ans in Tjish.un, in sections of the city called quarters. In Tjish.un, the area where isili lived was called the Encian Quarter, while in Farruk at the bottom of the world (the only other nation in the known hemisphere where isili lived), their home was called the Torkai Quarter. Lahn could understand why isili lived in Farruk. Farrukians were dual-sexed as well, although a different race from isili. But most Tjish.unen were hu’ans, so Lahn did not understand why isili chose to live there. Life in Tjish.un could be hard, depending on the season. Most denizens scraped by, unless they were employed by the bloated government and guaranteed a salary. Isili mostly worked as servants or laborers, existing within the parameters of a caste perpetually unable to rise above itself. The isili were not slaves but, to Lahn, they might as well had been. Considering Tjish.un had been their nation once, it seemed horribly unfair. The hu’ans had displaced them, taken their culture and their gods, their language and their art, and relegated them to second class citizenship status. Lahn could not understand such behavior and questioned whether a Queen who could conveniently forget the isili would be open to his own pleas.
Domio joined him at the bow of the ship and leaned against the railing. “I’ve found our cabin. Do you wish to retire?”
Lahn frowned. “Uncle, I don’t want to insult the Queen of Tjish.un, but…why do they treat isili so appallingly?”
Domio mirrored his frown. “You aren’t going to create an international incident over the rights of servants, are you?”
“I just want to understand how the Tjish.unen could be so cruel,” Lahn said. “And how conveniently they forget. Is she going to be receptive to my pleas, when she can’t hear the suffering of the least of her people?”
“We owe it to Kah’len to at least try, or have you changed your mind?”
Lahn sighed. “No. I just…I just wonder if we’ll be doing any good at all.”
Domio leaned both forearms against the railing. “We can only try. Then we must hurry back. I am going to head to the border when we return, to assist Keron there. Let me find out if we have time to send the King a missive.”
Lahn looked at his uncle. “I thought you sent him a missive before we left.”
“I did, but I never told him we were headed to Tjish.un. I should let him know. Excuse me.”
Lahn turned back to the city.
The journey to Tjish.un from City Dors took seven weeks, because ships usually headed south and then north, sailing close to the southern continent’s coast to avoid the worst of the storms during Kamaran. It was too dangerous to cut directly across the Raiye’Itah Sea, which was the shortest route, but storms were too unpredictable and theirs was not the best made ship. It was a cargo ship with a reinforced hull, but it was heavy and made heavier by her cargo, so she could easily sink if damaged. The ship would head towards Lthokel, skirt that nation, and then sail an arc towards Tjish.un, sailing within sight of the coast of Tjish.un all the way up the peninsula to her capital at the northern tip of the country. It would still be a dangerous journey, and Lahn had no fantasies that it would be a safe journey, but he clung to his dream of Atana as if it were an emblem of protection against all dangers. He knew, deep down, that the whims of gods were unpredictable. He prayed to Atana with as much passion as he had prayed to Poa, struggling with a sense of guilt at having abandoned the God so thoroughly. But the dream had been so real and something inside him told him it had been a augury. He felt ignoring it would imperil everything he held dear, including his father and his nation.
Two weeks after leaving City Dors behind, they approached Lthokel and the ship turned a hard arc towards the east. Lahn stood at the porthole of his cabin and gazed worriedly at the dark skies to the east. Even as he watched, lightning lit the sky, a long, bright crackle of it splitting the sky in two. Thunder rumbled and fresh, damp air tumbled through the open porthole and bathed his face. The air smelled of ozone and he shut the porthole and turned to his uncle.
“We are sailing into a storm,” he said.
His uncle nodded. “We were bound to. I will pray, as should you. We’ve been lucky so far.”
The storm hit them by late afternoon. The wind howled and the waves roiled, lifting and dropping the ship so violently, Lahn found himself clinging to his cot and finally understanding why the cot had been nailed to the floor, as had every piece of furniture in the cabin. He could hear Domio’s murmured prayers. He gazed wildly at the shut porthole and saw that the afternoon had turned into night. Closing his eyes, he prayed to Atana. Since he knew no traditional prayers, he made up his own, hoping the Goddess appreciated his creativity and the intent behind his fervent mutterings. As he prayed, the ship dipped precipitously and he cried out, surprised.
“It’ll be alright, Lahn,” his uncle said and made his careful way to the oil lamp that hung from a hook on the wall. He opened the lamp window and blew the light out. “Better safe than sorry. It feels like a bad one.”
Lahn could hear the sailors shouting at each other and the captain’s deeper voice above the others. Sheets of rain streaked the porthole as the wind moaned and thunder boomed. Every time lighting crackled, Lahn’s hair along his arms rose, as did the hair at the nape of his neck. He could smell the lightning even through the closed porthole. The ship’s bow rose precipitously and Domio fell to the ground with a grunt.
“Uncle!” Lahn cried.
“I’m alright, Lahn.” He rose in the gloom and made his way to his cot. “Pray, boy, pray!”
The ship listed and groaned before it righted itself once more. The temperatures plummeted until Lahn found himself crawling under the bedclothes, still muttering prayers. Every time the ship shook, Lahn’s heart plummeted in his chest. Every time the ship shook, it managed to remain intact. At some point, exhaustion overtook Lahn’s vigil and he fell into a troubled dream
In the dream, he rode a boat through a placid ocean. There was no land anywhere. He was cold to his core and he hugged his arms around himself, seeking warmth. With a sigh, he sat up and the boat rocked violently before it stilled. The sun’s watery light hazed the distance. When he looked up, he could see no sun, but he could see as if it were afternoon.
“Hello?” he called.
His voice died instantly, as if the silence weighed upon it, stifling it. He looked around, wondering where he was.
He looked around, seeking the voice, and saw nothing. The placid face of the ocean did not even ripple. The water looked thick, like oil. Its surface was dark glass.
Lahn, you came!
“Yes, I came,” he replied. “Did you call me?”
I was worried.
He frowned. “Why were you worried?”
But you came.
The water rippled and Lahn’s mouth grew dry from fear. The water rippled again. Something was coming from the ocean’s depths. Bubbles broke the surface and the oily water roiled. Lahn clung to the dinghy and watched, wide-eyed, as something crawled to the surface. Then the water’s surface grew still once more.
“Who are you?” Lahn asked.
I am unimportant, Prei-Serren.
“You must be mistaken,” Lahn murmured. “I am no High Priest.”
When the tash-tash rules, you will marry the scepter to the altar, and forever will I live. I have found you, Prei-Serren! You have come!
“Who are you?” Lahn asked again, confused.
Listen to my words, Prei-Serren and hear. You must marry the scepter to the altar. You must submit to the tash-tash; you must submit to the fierce predator, the King of my people. You must clean my altar of old, fetid blood, make it sacred with the words of my mouth. Do you hear me, Prei-Serren?
“I hear you: I must wed the scepter to the altar. I must submit to the King of your people.”
Listen well, Prei-Serren, and hear me: the words I speak are never clear, never straightforward, as the tash-tash told you. Seek counsel and find the meaning. This is as clear as I can be.
The waters churned until they seemed to boil. The dinghy Lahn sat upon lifted suddenly and Lahn tipped over with a scream. The oily waters rose and submerged him in their depths. Something caught his left ankle and dragged him deeper into the water that had no temperature. He held his breath until his lungs burned. He fought, trying to free his ankle, to no avail. He opened his mouth to scream and woke up, drenched in sweat.
He sat up and looked around him. He was in the cabin on the ship. The storm had abated and, outside the porthole, the skies were bright blue, with occasional fluffy clouds. Lahn turned his head, but the other cot was empty. Where was his uncle? With a sigh, he rose and padded barefoot to the waste bucket and emptied his bladder. Afterward, he brushed and braided his hair and changed into a fresh shirt, intending to wash the one he wore when he had a chance. Once his ablutions were complete, he made his way up to the deck. He spotted his uncle speaking to the ship’s captain. He made his way up to the helm, where the captain and his uncle were.
The Captain spotted him and bowed. “Your highness. You look no worse for wear.”
“It was quite frightening, I assure you,” Lahn replied
The captain gave a sympathetic grimace. “We took some damage last night, so we are limping our way to Rah’slah, the closest coastal city. From there, you can find another ship. We’ll be at port for weeks while we repair.”
Lahn looked at his uncle. “What will we do, uncle?”
His uncle thrust his arm through Lahn’s. “Let’s leave the captain to his duties, shall we? I’ve two ideas of how we may proceed. Listen and decide, Lahn. I need you to take equal responsibilities in our decisions. Can you do that?”
“If that is your wish.”
“Then so be it, uncle. What is your idea?”
Domio led him to the bow. They had to walk around a broken mast and a torn sail, spools of rope and sailors hard at work. Once they were in a relatively calm area of the ship, Domio turned to Lahn.
“We have two chances, Lahn: we board another ship at Rah’slah and continue our journey to the capital. That way, we will be at the capital within three weeks, but that journey will be hazardous and full of ocean storms.”
Lahn cocked his head. “What is the alternative?”
“We travel by lirtah to the Kahi River and, from there, we take a boat to the capital. The problem is that it will increase our journey by three weeks. We’ll get to the capital in six weeks, instead of three. That may not be what you want to do, Lahn. I would hear your thoughts before I tell you what I think.”
Lahn considered his choices. “I think we should head inland, even if it increases our journey by three weeks. The ocean storms will only get stronger the closer to Kamaran we get. That was a strong storm, but Goddess only knows how strong they will get in time. I pray Kah’len is alright, but we must make sure we make it to Queen Masjita.”
Domio nodded. “Your reasoning is sound and I agree with you. Let’s purchase two lirtah, some food and water, and head west through via the merchant road. We can join a caravan for safety. What do you think?”
“That is a good plan, uncle. I agree.”
“Then let’s pack up our things and get ready to disembark once we dock.” Domio smiled at him. “Come, we should get some food in our stomachs as well.”
Lahn grimaced. “Can’t we eat in the city, Uncle? I am mightily sick of dried fish and fruit.”
Domio chuckled and nodded. “We’ll find a tavern somewhere. Come. Let’s pack.” eCo