Chapter III: Karane

               After Yhera and I parted ways and went to our respective rooms, I did some stretches and strength exercises before doffing my shirt and using it to wipe the sweat from my skin.  I then dropped the shirt into the laundry bag and lay down on my back on the narrow bed.  The wind was cool and fragrant, and the street below was quiet.  I began to drift, my ears alert for suspicious sounds.  Despite the company and the drinks I’d had, I still had not forgotten that we were being followed by a person or persons unknown. 

          The inn creaked and popped around me.

          I turned onto my side and opened my eyes to gaze at the swaying curtains.  It was then that a shadow moved.

          I sat up quickly, reaching for my dagger under the pillow, when I felt the sharp point of steel under my chin.

          “Pull it out and it will be the last thing you do,” a male voice murmured close to my face.

          I slowly retrieved my hand from under the pillow.

          “Good boy,” he said and pulled me to my feet.

          He threw me hard against the wall.  “Sit and be good.”

          I dropped to the floor with my back to the wall and rubbed the soreness from where the wall had connected with my right cheek and shoulder.  I watched as he lit the candle.  The hiss preceded a measly glow and the smell of tallow rose into the air.

          He was covered head-to-toe in dark colors.  His head was hidden under a black hood, only the eyes and nose showing.  He wore tight shirt and pants and went barefoot.  Like Yhera, he had a broadsword strapped to his back and several daggers strapped to legs and arms.

          At the moment, he was rifling through my knapsack.  When he found the permission signed by the Empress, he read it quickly and pushed it back into the bag.  With a sigh, he dropped onto the bed and turned to look at me.

          “Why are you in Bah’nah, soldier?”

          “The permission says,” I replied.

          He chuckled and shook his head.  “And I don’t believe what the Empress writes or says or does.  Why. Are. You. Here?”

          I rubbed my face with both hands.  “Apparently to go to the Temple to ask the Oracle my fate.  But I keep getting accosted and followed and threatened.”

          “You rich ones don’t have a faithful bone in your bodies,” he spat.

          “Nevertheless, I am here because I have disturbing dreams and I want the Oracle’s help.  Ask my friend across the hall.”

          He looked towards the door and looked back.

          I shrugged.  “You can torture or kill me or continue to follow me.  Nevertheless, I am here to speak to the Oracle.”

          “Huh,” he grunted and scratched the right side of his neck.  “Interesting.  The Resistance has approached you?”

          “Yes.”

          “And you’ve joined?”

          “Not yet. It depends on the morrow and what I learn from the Oracle.”

          He laughed quietly.  “What you learn from a young, naked girl who is insane or drugged up?  Good luck there, soldier.”

          “My name is Karane.”

          “I know who you are.”

          “You’re not from the Resistance.”

          “No,” he replied.  “I belong to a third organization that is not the Maidens or the Resistance.  We all have the same goal but expect different outcomes.  Some of those outcomes sought by the other organizations do not benefitt us.”

          “Oh?”  I licked my lips. My mouth and throat felt parched.  “What is the name of your organization?”

          “We are the Shadows of Khahn.”

          I went cold inside.

          “I see you’ve heard of us.”

          “Yes.  Lawlessness and chaos are what you espouse; destruction and death.”

          The man snorted.  “Hardly.  You speak like you suckle at Cera’s tit, soldier.  There is necessity for my god in the Pantheon, else no one would die, and it would be chaos indeed.”

          “Is there a place for Khahn in the pantheon?”  It was hard to believe the black god of death was a necessity in any Pantheon.

          “Yes,” he replied.  “You don’t know my god, only what that bitch of a High Priestess tells you.  Khahn has two facets, just as Sene has two faces.  Sene is the god of war and peace.  Khahn is the god of death and rebirth.  It is not always a literal death that the God causes, you know. Sometimes it is a figurative one.”

          Philosophy from an assassin.

          “I’ve never heard spoken Khahn as being a god of rebirth,” I said.

          “That is because he has been oppressed by the Pantheon to the point of obliteration.  We live in shadow because, if it became known we followed the God, we would be struck down in the streets.  Worship of Khahn was supposedly annihilated years ago.”

          He rose.  “Dress and come with me.  I’ve been sent to bring you to my master.”

          I rose and walked to the bed, where the knapsack rested.  I turned from him and dug into the bag for a fresh shirt.

          There was movement in the corner of my eye.  I made to turn when I felt the bright sting of a needle in my neck.  I made to move away but the drug quickly coursed through my body.  I fell face first onto the mattress.

          “Relax,” I heard someone say from far away.  “Don’t fight it.  We don’t have much time.”

          I was turned onto my back.  My eyesight dimmed as the edges of the room began to darken.  The last thing I saw was the assassin bending over me.

***

          Whispers woke me from a dead sleep.  Movement followed by someone’s curse.

          I heard someone moan.

          “He wakes.  Quickly — get Phenosj.”

          I heard footsteps receding into the distance.

          “Give him water.”

          Someone lifted my head and fed me cool, sweet water.  I drank thirstily.

          “Easy,” a man said.  “Don’t choke.”

          Memory came then, a piece at a time.  I could taste the drug on my tongue.  I pushed the glass away and forced my eyes to open.

          My eyesight was blurry.

          “Your sight will return momentarily,” the man said.  “Come. Sit up.”

          He helped me to sit up, and then he pulled my legs over the side of the bed.  Beneath my feet, icy stone.  The air smelled dank and damp.  I shivered in the unfamiliar cold.

          I blinked several times.

          “Here.  Drink some more.”        

          He handed me the glass, and I finished it in one swallow.

          I could hear the echo of approaching footsteps.

          Slowly, my eyesight returned.  I looked up and saw five tall, sturdy, muscular men staring at me blandly.

          “Who are you?” I asked.

          “In good time,” said the one in the middle. His voice was unknown to me.

          “Are you hungry?” another asked.  It was the voice of the man who had given me water.

          “Yes.”

          He nodded, walked to a table that held a tray covered with a white napkin.  He removed the napkin and handed me the tray.

          The man in the middle broke away from the others and began to pace. He seemed to be in his late thirties or early forties, with brushes of gray along his temples.  Yet neither his face nor the corners of his eyes were lined.  He looked as strong and fit as any military commander.

          “I am Phenosj.  I lead the Shadows in this city.”

          I swallowed.  “The Shadows of Khahn?”

          “Is there another?”

          “No.”

          “So.  Yes.  The Shadows of Khahn.”

          I finished the cheese and bread and set the tray to one side.

          “Why am I here?”

          He turned and raised an imperious eyebrow at me.  Beneath his heavy brows was a pair of warm hazel eyes.  A commoner then.

          “We’ll ask the questions for now,” he told me.  “And then there will be time for your questions.”

          I said nothing, just watched him steadily.

          “Why have you come to Bah’nah?” he asked.  “Why has the nephew of Maraia Ma’ta’mahr come all this way alone?”

          “I told your lackey – I am here for the Oracle of Bah’nah.  Nothing more and nothing less.”

          “Yet you met with two Maidens of Sene, did you not?”

          “Yes.  They came to me to try to recruit me for the Resistance.”

          The men glanced at one another and some unspoken understanding passed among them.

          Phenosj turned to me. “You expect me to believe that the Maidens are working with the Resistance?  Is that the case?”

          Something told me to hold my tongue.

          I nodded.

          “Speak!”

          I started.  “Yes, sir.  As far as I can tell.”

          “Why are you telling me this?”

          “I have no loyalty to either of those parties,” I replied honestly.  “Nor to you.  Only my unit and my superior officer.”

          He took three steps to where I sat and clamped his left paw around my jaw, squeezing and pushing my head back until I looked into his eyes.  The warmth had seeped out of them.

          I heard myself swallow.

          “I would like you to know that we interrogated you while you were under the effects of the drug, and you told us the same thing. You are lucky you did not lie.”

          My jaw ached.  “What reason have I to lie?  I don’t know anything!”

          He pulled his hand away, leaving my face throbbing.

          “We will tell you our side and see if you would like to join us.”

          “I have a feeling there is no choice.”

          He chuckled and patted my head.  “There is always a choice, Karane.  In this instance, the choice is life or death.  Your choice.”

          He clapped his hands and smiled cheerily at his companions.

          “Make sure he dresses and bathes before you bring him to holy ground,” he told them.

          They bowed.

          “I’ll see you shortly, Karane,” he told me and strode off.

          Two men stepped forward, and I started, having momentarily forgotten they were there.  I rose.

          “Come with us, soldier,” one said.

          I was taken to a large room with several old wooden tubs.  There was a table against a wall stacked with folded towels and washcloths and cakes of soap.  The room was over-warm.  A large brazier stood against another wall.  I began to sweat.  I suddenly felt sick.  Saliva flooded my mouth and I turned. Someone placed a bucket under my face. I vomited all I had consumed.

          The man I’d followed sighed.  “The unfortunate side effects of the drug, I’m afraid.  We’ll get more food.”        

          “I’m alright,” I told him, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand.  “I don’t need to eat right now.”

          He gave a nod.

          “Bathe, Karane.  We’ll keep you company.”

          I turned and approached a tub that had been filled with steaming water.  The surface glistened with aromatic oils.  The strong musk of the oils made my stomach lurch, but I managed to swallow down whatever wanted to come up.

           I doffed my shirt and trousers, stepping into the too-hot water.  I hissed and slowly lowered myself down.  Someone handed me a washcloth and soap and I bathed under the watchful eyes of four guards.

          Afterwards, I dressed in fresh dark shirt and trousers.  We went into the hallway, two guards in front, two behind.  They led me down the left-hand hallway.  Perhaps it was the remnants of the drug in my body, but the hallway was a maze of twists and turns. The walls were faded brick and the doors were identical to one another – tall, wooden and painted dark brown.  I would not have been able to return to where I had awakened if my life depended on it.

           The floor began a gentle incline as we turned yet again.  Torches lit the way.  The hallway was thick with the smell of the oil used to light them.  Sweat broke out along my forehead and neck, and I almost threw up again.  I leaned upon the wall as we made our way up the incline to a pair of brass doors.

            Two heavily armed men stood outside the doors. As we approached, they reached for the door handles. We walked through undeterred.

            Beyond the door was a large space unlike the rooms I had been in.  Rich, blood red curtains covered one area of the wall.  Religious tapestries covered most of the rest of the walls.  There were thick, beautiful Lethyan rugs over the stone floor.  A large, high backed chair stood directly before the curtains.  A man in black monk’s robes sat there.  On either side of him were two small tables filled with vials and bottles and a mug.  The room smelled closed-in, of chemicals and tallow and dust.  The ceiling was high, all exposed brick and beams.  There were tall, high backed chairs along the walls.  

            As we stepped within, the doors snicked shut. The monk lifted his head to reveal a pair of milk white eyes and a handsome visage.  He was about a decade older than myself.

            “Ah, the prisoner,” he said in a silky voice.

            “Yes, Father,” the man to my right replied.

            The monk – no, priest – nodded and indicated that we should approach.

            Someone gently pushed me from behind.

            I was allowed to take five steps closer before I was forced to my knees before him.

            The priest cocked his head and rose.  Someone hurried to place a cane in his left hand.

            “Thank you, brother,” he murmured.

            The man bowed and backed away.

            The doors behind me opened once more and Phenosj hurried in.

            “Apologies, Father,” he murmured and bowed.

            The priest waved his words away.  “No matter.  Come here.”

            Phenosj strode to where the priest stood and turned to face me.

            “Describe him to me,” the priest murmured.

            “He has her looks and eyes,” Phenosj said at once.  “Her complexion and hair, but not her hauteur or disdain.  His eyes are clear of malice or sadism, Father.”

            The priest nodded and smiled.  “Good, good.  Uncorrupted.”

            “Very much so, Father.”

            The priest walked away from Phenosj and, using the cane, touched my left knee.  He paused and reached out, placing his hand on my hair.

            “You must be beautiful then,” he said to me conversationally.  “Even if such things hold no meaning for me.  I’ve been blind since birth, you see.  I am Heh’lohsj, Karane.  This city is under my auspices.  Your coming is not entirely a surprise to us, my son.  Neither is your purpose.”

            He ran his fingers gently through my hair.  “You are a godsend to us, you know?  A member of the royal household.”  He smiled absently, his pale eyes gazing into the distance.  “What a wonderful event this is!”

            He let go of my hair and began pacing, his cane tapping gently before him.

            “Ask what you wish to ask,” he said after a time.

            I licked my dry lips.  “Why am I here?”

            “You know why,” he replied quietly.  “For the same reason others pursue you.  You are a feather in our cap or will be.  I would answer your questions now, within reason, of course. Ask away.”

            “Why are you not part of the other groups – the Maidens or the Resistance?”

            He smiled and nodded.  “Fair question.  The Resistance seeks to remove your aunt’s family from power, while retaining the status quo.  Another woman would be chosen from an aristocratic family and she would rule as head of a new dynasty.  The Maidens wish to increase the power of women and diminish our own.  To follow I’A or Lethya in their cultural ways.”

            “And the Shadows?” I asked when he fell silent.

            He smiled again.  “Ah, the Shadows!  What do the Shadows want?  Their time in the sun, of course.  A return for Khahn to the Pantheon.  To build monasteries and churches in His name.”

            He turned.  The tap-tap of his cane’s tip soothed me.

            “And no more?” I dared, for I did not think he was being honest with me.

            He laughed a delighted laugh.  “How polite he is, Phenosj!”

            “Polite and clever,” Phenosj agreed.

            “Yes,” Heh’lohsj said and chuckled again.  “We want other things, too.  But not to be discussed right now.  Any other question?”

            “What is it you expect of me?”

            He nodded.  “Your cooperation, of course!  Your word not to betray us and your loyalty.”

            I licked my lips again.  “You have those, I suppose, if I wish to live.”

            He grinned.  “Yes, if you so wish.”

            “I so wish.”

            “Then welcome to the Brotherhood of the Shadow of Khahn.”  He moved away from me and retook his seat in the chair that was more throne than chair.  “We will take your oath and you will forfeit your loyalty to the Maidens or the Resistance while working with them.  You will report to us periodically, Karane. You will be watched at all times, for your protection as well as ours.   The Maidens are fierce but too public.  The Resistance not fierce enough.  We shall tip the odds in favor of change.  Rejoince, Karane!  You are on the right side of history!”

            He handed his cane to Phenosj.  “Now, you will be sworn in and prepared for service today.   A monk will approach you in Da’rhisjah to teach you of the God.   Your inculcation will take many, many months, but it will be done.  He will come as a friend and you will accept him and let others know he is your friend, which will explain why he shares your rooms.”

            “My–”  Blood rushed to my face.  “I live alone!”

            Heh’lohsj chuckled.  “Not anymore you don’t.  The monk will live with you and teach you our beliefs.”

            I sighed, resigned.  “I understand.”

            He laughed outright.  “No, you don’t. But you will.”

***

            The swearing in and preparation took about an hour.  I was stripped naked and rubbed with aromatic oils.  My hair was unbraided and oiled.  Then I was taken to Heh’lohsj where he stood before an altar made of precious metals and gems.  The god stood nine feet tall on his black marble pedestal, draped in a red sheet.  One hand held a scepter, another a sword.  The sword was held tip down, the tip painted bright red.  This god could not be called handsome:  his brow was too heavy, his lips thin, his entire visage severe.  His hair was plaited, and the braid was draped lovingly over his right shoulder.  Behind him hung a large silk tapestry that portrayed his fall from the Pantheon.  

            The priest stood behind a black marble table which held a gold decanter and chalice, two fat white candles in copper holders, and a curved dagger.  When I saw the dagger, the hair along my arms stood on end.

            “Approach,” Heh’lohsj intoned.

            As I approached, I saw Phenosj climb up to the altar just ahead of me to stand just behind the priest and to the left.

            Someone pushed me from behind none too gently.  I almost fell but recovered and walked up five narrow steps to the altar.  When I looked behind me, I saw that the entire room had filled with men dressed in dark colors.  There were no women amongst them.

            “Lie on the altar,” the priest demanded.

            I swallowed thickly.  “But–“

            “Silence!” Phenosj cut through my protest.  “Do as you are told.”

            I gazed at the altar.  It frightened me no end. I felt the tip of a sword at my lower back.  It pricked me and a drop of blood meandered down to the swell of my buttocks.

            I did as I was told.  The marble was ice cold against my skin. I clamped my teeth against a yelp.  I felt feverish.  

            The priest began to chant in the Old Tongue that only clerics and other holy people seem to know.  I heard the rustle of cloth and, when I looked to my right, all the men gathered within the room had fallen upon one knee, save for guards at the doors.  I looked back at the ceiling.  The room seemed to be from another time.  The exposed, worn brick walls and ceiling had an ancient look about them.  Cobwebs clung to the beams.

            I felt something cold slide against my chest.  I started and glanced down.  

            The priest was pressing the side of the dagger blade against my skin.  The blade winked in the buttery light from the torches along the walls and on either side of the god.   I looked at the god.  His fierce visage seemed to watch hungrily.  I shuddered.

            “Fear not,” Heh’lohsj intoned.  “Close your eyes and pray.”

            Before I could do as he said, he used the dagger to cut a deep line into my skin from clavicle to sternum.  The sharp pain left me voiceless.  At once, I smelled blood in the air and something pungent and astringent.  A fire coursed through my skin as if something were burning its way out of me or into me.  I began to thrash violently.  It took four of them to hold me down while the priest poured something into the wound. The liquid boiled in my wound.  I screamed.  Around me, men chanted and sang.  I felt as if my entire soul poured out from my mouth.

            You, too, will learn, said a voice in my head.  The voice cut through the madness.  As quickly as the fire had begun, it died down to a glower.  I stopped struggling and the four men let me go, stepping back from the altar.

            Heh’lohsj dabbed at the blood on my skin.  

            Someone helped me sit up.  I slowly swung my legs over the side of the altar.  I was helped to my feet and forcibly held up.

            “Drink,” Heh’lohsj told me and pressed the chalice to my mouth.  

            I swallowed a mouthful of a sickly-sweet concoction and then I was half-carried from the altar, down the steps and out of the room through a throng of watchful, eerily silent men.  Outside the double doors, someone threw a robe over my shoulders.  The rest was a blur until a while later, when I awoke in the same room as I had awakened when I first arrived there.  

            My chest throbbed and I reached up and touched bandages.

            “It’s already healing,” someone said.

            I dropped my hand and turned my head to the right.  A young man sat next to the cot on a short stool.   He gazed steadily at me with curiosity and something I could not define.  He was a whelp from the lower Southern Continent, with dark hair and skin and hazel eyes, fine of features, if a tad thin.  His thick hair was plaited in a single braid down to his mid-back.  He, too, wore dark clothes:  a black, high-collared shirt with long sleeves, black pants and a dark rust-colored heavy coat over those.  A black sword belt was wrapped twice around his narrow waist.  The sword had a round, copper handle.

            He shifted.  “Are you hungry?  Thirsty?”

            I groaned, touching my bandaged chest once more before attempting to sit up.

            The young man rose at once and helped me.

            I closed my eyes against the wave of nausea and dizziness that swept over me.  Sweat broke out on my forehead and back.

            “I’ll get you some fruit juice,” he told me and hurried off.

            I stiffened so I would not drop over onto the cot again.   I started to shiver and shake as acid rushed to my throat.  I swallowed with effort.

            “Here,” I heard from a great distance.

            A cold ceramic mug was pressed to my lips, and I sipped the tart fruit juice.  He fed me the drink slowly until my stomach settled and the sweat on my skin began to dry.  

            I opened my eyes as he began to dab my forehead, cheeks, and neck with a warm, damp cloth.

            I watched him as he sat down on the stool once more.  I gazed into his eyes. They were warm, concerned.      

            Suddenly, I felt rage rush through me, and he leaned back as if I had reached out to strike him.

            “What did you do to me?” I demanded.

            “I gave you juice,” he replied evenly.

            “The priest – your people – what did you do to me?”

            “He knows nothing,” Phenosj stated, stepping out of the shadows along the wall.

            What day was it?  What hour?

            I gazed up at him as he made his way to the cot.  “Then you tell me what was done to me!”

            He pursed his lips and considered my question.

            “You are in no position to demand answers,” he replied after a time.  “But the Holy One has instructed me to inform you nonetheless.”  He put his hand on the young man’s right shoulder.  “This is Estenosj.  He will be your handler, your teacher, your companion, and friend.  When you reach Da’hrisjah a monk will take over your teachings.”

            I sighed and wiped the dampness from my face with cold, shaking hands.  

            “You cannot betray us now,” Phenosj continued quietly, conversationally.  “The Holy One has placed a slow-acting poison into the wound of your chest.  Fear not.  We have the antiodote.  We will supply Estenosj with some of it.  You must be on your way now, Karane.  Things are about to change and quickly.  We need you back in the capital.  You are under our protection; we have eyes and ears everywhere.  You are quite safe.”

            I closed my eyes and began to laugh.  The laugh started in my belly and took over my body.  I laughed so hard; I could not breathe.  

            Phenosj slapped me hard across the cheek and mouth.

            The hysteria passed just as quickly as it had begun.  I tasted blood in my mouth.

            I looked up into Phenosj’s cold eyes.  

            “You won’t die,” he told me.  “The poison takes years to destroy the body.”

            “So, there will be damage,” I heard myself state.

            He shrugged.  “It is inevitable.  But, as I said, you’ve nothing to fear.  You are young and strong.  You’ll outlive the damage.”

            I snorted.

            His eyes went flat.

            “You are to get on a ship and go home today,” he told me coldly.  “Estenosj and other Shadows will keep an eye on you.  Now, dress and go.”

            Estenosj rose and made to assist me.  I pushed him away.

            “Keep your filthy hands off me!” I growled.  

            I rose slowly. My body, my legs felt weak, shaky.

            I reached for my clothes and dressed slowly under their gazes.

            Estenosj produced a blindfold.  “I need to put this on you before I escort you out.”

            He walked around me until he was at my back before placing the blindfold over my eyes and tying it securely at the back of my head.  I felt his arm around my waist as he began to lead me out of the room.

            Sorrow and despair threatened to overwhelm me as I followed him meekly.  The way out of the Shadows’ lair took what seemed like an eternity, although, in all fairness, it was probably a quarter to half an hour’s time.  I realized at once when we stepped out of the buillding.   I was assailed by the fresh scent of the sea and the musk of flowers.  The air on my skin was damp and cool.    

            “Come,” I heard Estenosj murmur.

            We kept walking for some time before he stopped and removed the blindfold.

            “We are around the corner from your inn,” he told me.

            We stood in some alleyway filled with the chittering of dasja.  I shuddered.

            “Don’t mind the vermin,” he told me.  “Go to the end of the alley, turn left then right.  The green door is close by.”

            He turned to go.

            “Wait!” I said, plucking at his right sleeve.  “What am I to do now?”

            “Leave,” he said without turning around. “You will be contacted by an operative within the month with your first assignment.  I will be on your ship.”

            I watched him hurry away.

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