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.”

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