The military barge ploughed through the muddy waters of the Kahi River as it approached the capital. They had long passed the point where the land consisted mostly of scrub plants, prickly succulents, and barren red dust. The barge now floated past the bread basket of the nation. To the west and east, the land was nourished by the river and the soil, black and rich, lay pregnant with grains, vegetables, and fruiting plants. Closer to the capital stood a vast expanse of land dedicated to vineyards and cereal plants used in making fermented drinks. These long fields of crops should have been enough to feed the masses. But even before the barge left the impoverished, tumultuous southlands, there had been rumors of unrest in the north.
Karane Truvesto leaned against the rail of the barge and ran his gaze over the endless fields of crops beyond the dikes. In the distance, the glint of metal winked in the bright sunlight. Guards patrolled the edges of the fields, protecting the plants from thieves. He frowned. There should have been enough, so why were there rumblings of sedition and rebellion?
The south was nothing to go by. It had been the hotbed of sedition since the nation was founded 2,000 years prior.
His journey to the south, though, had opened his eyes to a great many things. What he had seen he could never unsee. Such poverty and despair, such suffering. Thin and spindly-legged, potbellied children, dirty and neglected. Women fainting from hunger in public streets. Anger and rage in men’s eyes. He recalled that, on more than one occasion, as his company marched down the dusty main boulevard of Rah’slah city more than one man in the crowd spat as his men passed. The crowd had been unnervingly quiet. It had disturbed him deeply.
He frowned. Why had he not seen it before? What had blinded his eyes?
A deep belly laugh rumbled through the bright afternoon. He flicked a glance over his left shoulder. His friends, En’jteru Atresju’h, Rayosj Krenthos, and Trenos Ethsovu, gathered on the other side of the barge, telling stories, and laughing. His lips quirked. He could imagine who would be telling what stories and who would exaggerate his tales to come out on top. He turned away from the sight of his closest companions toward the land once more. He allowed his mind to wander until he came to the missive his mother had sent him via courier. A ridiculously expensive way to communicate, when there were carrier vinah that delivered a missive for much less cost. But then, Karane’s parents did not have to worry about food or expenses. They were members of the elite. Karane’s mother was the younger sister of the Empress.
He reached into the inner pocket of his shirt and retrieved the letter. He unfolded it and ran his eyes over the delicately curling handwriting.
I’ve set up an audience with Moh’rgret Ythelo’s family. When you return, your father and I will host a dinner for them. It is then they will present you with their eldest daughter, who is 15.
It is time you married and had children for your clan and your Empire.
She had not even included the chit’s name. Ythelos. Hm. He could smell the Empress all over this. Mother had never spoken of marrying him off, since he had not been firstborn. He was married to the military and gave to the nation and the Empire his personal sacrifice in defense of it. Had he been born third, he would now be a priest. So, Empress Maraia had her claws all over this one. The marriage of an Ythelos to a Truvesto would bring the Empress more wealth and prestige, especially if she were brokering the marriage. He spit over the side of the railing and scowled, folding the letter, and tucking it back into the inner pocket of his shirt.
He had no interest in marrying a woman. That was not where his proclivities lay. Besides, marrying would tie him down to the capital and limit his rise in military rank. He was ambitious to rise to the rank of Uthelosi. The only rank higher was that of military grand overseer, Athe-Uteth. But the only way to attain that position was to become the Empress’ lover. He shuddered at the thought. The current Athe-Uteth, Semeol Atresj’h, was En’jteru’s father and had been the Empress’ lover for at least 20 years. Thankfully for the sake of the nation, the current Athe-Uteth was a brilliant strategist and commander who had distinguished himself overseas during the Torahni Civil War on behalf of the north. Karane had been but a child of three during the time of the Torahni Civil war, but he had grown up with stories of Athe-Uteth Semeol Atresj’h’s courage and brilliant strategies.
He closed his eyes as a warm breeze caressed his bare face and neck and rifled his hair. Monsoon season was almost at hand, with its cooler temperatures and endless rainfall. He opened his eyes and gazed at the muddy water. The water line was lower than average, but the monsoon season would take care of that soon enough. The other worry – the issue of poverty and starvation, social unrest, and outright rebellion – that worry was at the forefront of his mind. As a member of the Empress’ armed forces, he knew where his loyalties lay. Or should lie. He grimaced. Even had he not seen what he had seen in the far southlands, his loyalty to the Empress would still be in question. He had seen many bad marriages forced to remain intact because it benefited her for them to remain so. In a nation where women were ascendant, he had witnessed many young girls married to men thrice their age simply because such marriages served her. No one ever challenged her in any way because she greased palms and gave titles away like they were sweets. Because the holy book said she was the incarnation of Cera, mother of the gods. Even the seditionists spoke of challenging the government, not the Empress.
He rubbed the sweat from his face with a hand. He could use a bath or at least a quick cold wash. The journey by barge from Ras’lah in the southeast to Da’hrisjah in the north had taken months and, before reaching the Kahi River, they had had to march through a vast desert in the heat and glaring sun for weeks. During that time, he had had little privacy to bathe. So, he had taken wet cloths and rubbed the red dust and sweat from his skin. Now, here on the barge, he could not even do that. The barge was wide and long, but the second half of the deck was taken up by the war machines. They set up their one-man tents at the front of the deck.
The days were long and uneventful, but he liked that he was able to study the land as it glided past.
The barge on which he traveled was one of a long line of thirty. Each expansive barge could hold 200 soldiers on its deck. His rank was that of Stathos, which meant 100 of these soldiers were his to command. Rayosj was his Eleisthois, his second-in-command. En’jteru commanded the other half the troops onboard and Trenos was his Eleisthois.
He turned to watch his friends. They had been close companions since the age of 12, when they had been conscripted into the army. Karane, of course, had known En’jteru all his life. They were cousins, after all. But Trenos and Rayosj were from poor families and as different as night was to day. Trenos was charming, quick-witted and flippant, while Rayosj was serious to the point of somberness, thoughtful and studious. They were both alike in their dedication to the army and neither of them ever spoke of politics.
En’jteru was vocal when it came to political commentary, but his beliefs were traditional, staid, and conservative. Such opinions raised no eyebrows and brought no change in the world.
He sighed. He would have to expand his circle of friends if he was to air his newly minted ideas and opinions. Even then, he would have to be very, very careful. Such thoughts and opinions as he had developed down south would get him booted out of the army and exiled from Tjish.un. If he was lucky. Many times, such opinions got one the chance to swing from the end of a rope. The Empress was divine. Going against her was going against the gods themselves. He ran his eyes over the bright blue skies with their ragged clouds. After what he’d seen…he wasn’t so sure about the gods anymore. He shivered, glancing at the sky, expecting a bolt of lightning to hit him. After a moment, he released a breath and chuckled quietly. And there was the proof of it all.
“What are you doing thinking so much?” En’tjeru asked quietly and came to stand beside him.
Karane flushed and ducked his head, looking away. “I’m not up to Trenos’ verbal acrobatics.”
His cousin’s proximity made him go hot and cold at once. He brought a shaking hand up and wiped the sweat from his eyes.
En’jteru chuckled. “He is determined to outdo everyone, isn’t he?”
Karane nodded and kept his eyes on the passing scenery.
En’tjeru bumped gently against him and pulled back. “I’m serious here, Karane. You’re different. Different from who you were before we reached the southlands.”
Karane, who had finally controled his physical reactions to his cousin’s proximity, turned. “Different how?”
En’tjeru considered the question for a few seconds. “More serious and thoughtful, for one. Less vocal and you laugh less. I want to know why.”
He scrambled for an excuse, knowing he could not tell his closest friend the reason for his change.
“Mother has brokered a marriage for me,” he lied.
En’tjeru frowned. “Is the girl ugly or rude?”
“I don’t know her at all!” Karane returned heatedly. “The issue is I don’t want to get married. I don’t want to be tied to the capital. I want to travel and rise in military rank.”
“Calm down,” En’tjeru said and shook his head. “I can see this upsets you. Do you really not want to get married and have children?”
Karane’s heart dropped into his stomach and he turned away. This is why he never spoke to En’tjeru and why his closest friend did not know about his interest in men.
“Leave me alone, En’jteru.”
“Listen, Karane,” his cousin continued. “You have to marry. Our wives can be friends and our families can be joined in a household–“
Karane sighed and shook his head. “That’s not going to happen. We may be friends, but I won’t marry, even for you.”
Karane started to walk away, to the fore of the barge.
“We are best friends!” En’tjeru yelled after him.
Karane turned and looked at his friend. To Karane, En’tjeru was not only a brilliant soldier. He was also physically beautiful. Karane had never hesitated to share his secrets with his friend, except for this secret. This secret he could not share with anyone.
“Are we best friends?” he shot back. “I wonder.”
He turned away as En’tjeru flinched.
He sought his small tent somewhere near the front of the deck.
There was a small mat before the tent flap, and he sat cross legged there. The barge horn blew once to announce that their destination was in sight. Soon they would have to take down and repack their tents and mats.
He let his head drop forward and stretched his neck. Afterward he rolled his head a few times to relieve the stiffness in his shoulders.
“Karane,” Rayosj said and knelt before him. “What is going on with you?”
Karane lifted his head. “What do you mean?”
“You just hurt En’tjeru, although he won’t say what you said to him.”
“He told me we are best friends, but none of you know me,” Karane spat. “I have no best friends!”
Rayosj cocked his head. “And whose fault is that, my friend?”
Karane took a deep breath and released it. His heart was running in his chest, making it hard for him to breathe.
“I can’t tell you or anyone my secret,” he replied as calmly as he could. “It would change everything.”
Rayosj sat down crosslegged on the mat and looked Karane in the eye.
“Let me see if I can decipher it,” Rayosj said. “En’jteru says you don’t want to marry. When we go to bars and some of our quartet behave like idiots around women, you remain unfazed. Yet, your eyes follow young men as they walk past. It isn’t hard to decipher, my friend. Oh, it may be for En’tjeru and Trenos but not for me. You are partial to men sexually. Many, many men are. Why is this such a problem for you?”
At his friend’s words, Karane went hot and cold. After a few seconds, when he realized Rayosj had not spoken in disgust and was staring at him with his usual calm demeanor, it was as if a weight lifted from his body, leaving him lightheaded and weak in the knees.
“You are a commoner, Rayosj,” he heard himself say from a distance. “You may choose to marry or not, as the whim takes you. You can choose a lover of any gender. I am not so lucky. If my mother demands that I marry and I refuse, I’ll be stripped of my properties and inheritance.”
Rayosj cocked his head. “I had no idea.”
“No,” Karane agreed, smiling sadly. “It isn’t widely known.”
“And what else is bothering you, my friend?”
“Why are you so perceptive?” Karane demanded playfully.
He looked around but the nearby tents were unoccupied. Nevertheless, he rose.
Rayosj followed him to the fore railing.
Karane turned his back to the tents, but Rayosj leaned sideways against the railing.
“What is it, my friend?” Rayosj urged quietly.
“Did you not see the poverty? The misery of Ras’lah city?”
Rayosj fronwed. “Yes. Is that what is bothering you?”
Karane turned to face him. “Didn’t it you? For the gods’ sake! Didn’t it bother you?”
Rayosj straightened. “Of course. But it is no more, no less, than we see every day in Da’hrisjah. Or had you not noticed the scrawny, dirty children, the beggars, the hunger in faces? You are seventeen, Karane. Had you never noticed these things before?”
Karane felt his face suffuse with blood and he ducked his head. Shame filled him, hot and dizzying.
“You hadn’t,” Rayosj murmured, surprised. “Well, you are young.”
“I’m two years younger than you!” Karane protested.
Rayosj chuckled. “Yes. You are, but you are also part of the coddled classes. Well, let me tell you something, my friend. Poverty and misery are on the increase in our great land. We have a greedy Empress that cares nothing for the poor classes. She gives large lavish parties, and the upper and middle classes follow suit. Meanwhile, the rest go hungry.”
“Why did you not speak to me of this before?” Karane demanded, angry.
Rayosj laughed outright. “And lose my head?”
“I would never!”
“And how was I to know that?” Rayosj asked. “You never spoke of politics before. Not one blessed word. And En’tjeru is a conservative. I could not discuss these things with him.”
Karane swallowed his ire. He clasped Rayosj’s shoulder.
“You were right to take care,” he murmured. “I wasn’t ready to hear until now.”
Rayosj acknowledged his words with a nod.
Karane sighed, dropping his hand. “How can I help the poor?”
“You can leave the insurrection to professionals and members of the poorer classes. You will not involve yourself in these matters.”
Karane straightened. “You cannot stop me!” He lowered his voice. “You did not see what I saw, did not experience what I experienced.”
He swallowed thickly as he recalled the event that had shaken him awake.
“What did you experience?” Rayosj asked.
As Karane told his friend the tale, he could see it clearly in his mind’s eye.
He was walking down Ras’lah city’s main avenue and had just passed an alleyway when he heard a girl’s weak cry. He went to investigate, stepping into the stinking alley, sword drawn.
He came upon her suddenly. She lay between two large bins overflowing with garbage. Dasja skittered around the garbage, better fed than the young girl on the ground. Her eyes were large and luminous in her narrow, thin face. She cried out again, and he noticed for the first time that she was heavy with child. Her legs were bent and parted.
“Help me!” she gasped.
He knelt beside her. “I cannot. Birth is the realm of women. I don’t know what to do.”
She reached out and grasped his left hand and squeezed. “Don’t leave me!”
He straightened his back. “I won’t.”
The girl sighed then pushed up and bore down, her face suffusing with blood. She gave a piercing cry and expelled a breath and fell back onto the dirty floor.
“What is going on here?” a city guard demanded from the mouth of the alley.
Karane turned around. “She is giving birth.”
The guard cursed and hurried off.
Karane took the girl’s icy hand in both of his and began to rub some warmth into it.
She turned her wide amber eyes to him. “You are very kind.”
He reached out and drew the hair from her face. He thought she was quite beautiful, despite her extreme thinness.
The guard returned shortly with an old woman. She came muttering all the way.
“This is unseemly!” she screeched when she saw Karane.
“I’m not leaving her,” Karane told her coldly.
She tsked and knelt between the girl’s parted legs.
The city guard retreated to the mouth of the alley to keep others at bay. He turned his back to the alley.
It took a long time for the girl to birth, for gods only knew when she had last eaten. She was dripping with sweat and she smelled of sweat, blood and urine.
“Push!” the old woman directed.
The girl had no more strength to sit up, so the midwife directed Karane to sit at her back and push her up at each baring down. Karane did as she demanded, helping the girl to rise as she pushed.
It took many hours, but the child finally came.
Karane eagerly turned his eyes to the babe and then gasped in surprise.
The midwife sniffed. “What do you expect? She hasn’t eaten properly since she conceived him.”
She set the listless, skeletal child on the girl’s stomach and began to clean the girl up.
The child looked up at the sky with impassive, too-large eyes.
The girl began to weep.
Karane helped her to sit up.
“I’ll help you find food,” Karane told the girl.
She shook her head. “It makes no difference. He will die. It is always the way.”
Karane picked up the babe, who was small even for a newborn. He touched the small hand. The hand wrapped around his finger but there was no strength in it.
The midwife took the child from him and wrapped him in a torn cloth and handed him to his mother.
She and Karane assisted the girl to rise and the midwife put her arm around the girl and led her from the alley.
Karane’s throat hurt. Tears pricked his eyes. He thought of the lavish parties he had been attending for two years. He thought of food he did not finish and had thrown out. He thought of spending money on trivial things. Shame filled him.
“What you experienced is unfortunately much too common,” Rayosj murmured, breaking his train of thought. “But the inequalities do not stop there. The poorer classes cannot afford education and cannot rise above the station of a servant and cannot own their own businesses. They may own mud huts but nothing better. These things you knew, yes?”
Karane swallowed thickly. “I knew it intellectually but not emotionally. It did not touch me until now.”
“Then now you know,” Rayosj replied.
“And so, I may do something,” Karane told him.
Rayosj sighed impatiently. “Karane–“
“I cannot live with myself, Rayosj. I will do something, although I do not know what it is I will do. But something will occur to me.”
“Promise me something.”
“Promise me you will tell me when you are involved. I will try to protect you to the best of my abilities.”
They clasped forearms.
The barge horn blew a second time, announcing they were within the hour of docking.
Karane and Rayosj made their way to their tents.