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.”

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