“You told us he was trustworthy,” Lhara’h purred. “Now he’s gone and disappeared.”
I swallowed down my growing hysteria. “He’s around.”
She narrowed her eyes. “And what led you to that conclusion?”
“His clothes are all in his room, as is his knapsack,” I replied. “The innkeeper said so.”
Ohna had been pacing, as was her wont while she gathered her thoughts.
“Still, you let us down, Yhera,” she murmured.
My heart leapt to my throat. “I… I can’t watch him 24/7, Ohna!”
“Yet you were ready to dismiss our assistance,” she continued, unperturbed. Her movements were smooth and graceful, as was the angle of her head as she cocked it to the left. “We will come with you to the capital, with or without your consent. If he shows up alive.”
My throat felt tight. I struggled to swallow.
I was aware that Lhara’h was watching me, but I did not care at this point. If Karane was dead, how would I live with myself? He would have died on my watch.
“You think he’s dead?” I gasped.
Ohna shrugged. “Who knows? If, by the end of the week–“
A thump outside my door had me whirling into action. I pulled the door open and Karane fell to the floor with a thud and lay there, pale as a sheet of paper.
I knelt beside him, noting that he was wearing the same clothes he had worn before he disappeared. There was an astringent smell about him as well as the sweet coopery smell of blood. Beneath the collar of his shirt, I saw a bandage.
“He’s hurt and bandaged,” Lhara’h commented.
I looked up at her. “Help me get him to the bed.”
She shrugged and bent, picking up his shoulders while I struggled with his feet. We got him to the bed and laid him upon it. I sat at the edge of the mattress, taking his right hand in both of mine. It was icy. I began to rub it to bring warmth and blood to the surface. He moaned and began to roll his head left and right. He raised his other hand and touched his chest. When I looked at his face again, his eyes were open and focused.
I let out a whoosh of breath. “Karane! What happened to you?”
His eyes traveled past my right shoulder to where the nuns stood, silent as death. His gaze slid to me once more.
“I was kidnapped,” he croaked.
Ohna moved, striding to the bedside table, and pouring some water from the decanter into the mug. Wordlessly, she handed it to me.
I took the cup, lifted Karane’s head and fed him sips of water.
Lhara’h shifted restlessly.
Ohna took a step forward. “Who kidnapped you?”
He closed his eyes and frowned. “I don’t know. Men who wore black clothes. They asked me to join them and forced a ceremony on me. I now have a slow-acting poison coursing through my body. If I betray them, I will die.”
“What do they want from you, besides another body for their cause?” Ohna demanded.
“They want the Empress gone, but they wouldn’t tell me what their ultimate goal is.”
The older nun grunted.
“Who could they be?” Lhara’h asked her.
“Don’t know. Could be any group – new or old. We can’t worry about this. We need to go and soon. Things will move quickly from now on.”
They turned to go.
“Feed him,” Ohna told me over her shoulder. “Then make ready to depart within two days’ time. I’ll get us passage on a trade ship or a freight carrier. We’ll contact you soon.”
I turned to watch them go, turning back to Karane only when the door had clicked shut behind them.
I fed him the rest of the water and set the empty mug on the table.
Karane lay meekly on the thin pillow, his eyes studying me.
“Were you afraid for your life?” I asked him.
“No. But I was afraid of them. Of what they would do to me, but I never feared for my life.”
I rose with a sigh. “You are quite the commodity.” I walked to the window and gazed down at the busy boulevard. I was seeing shadows everywhere. A man’s gaze held a blade, a woman’s too pointed.
“I will bring your knapsack here,” I told him. “You will not leave my sight now until we are on a ship and headed north. Understood?”
“I still want to visit Bah’nah’s Oracle.”
I frowned. “No. I’ve been given my orders–“
“I didn’t ask,” he snarled. “I came to do something, and, damn it, I will do it!”
I turned from him, feeling helpless and angry. I was sick of people telling me what to do. I was sick of being dismissed and ignored.
“Fine,” I spat. “It’s your life!”
“I want you to come with me,” he stated quietly. “I’m too weak to travel alone. We have two days. Let me rest and we’ll go early tomorrow. I need you, Yhera.”
His words soothed my ruffled pride a bit.
I sighed. “Rest then. I haven’t slept in two days since you disappeared.”
“Yes. I thought for sure–oh, well, you’re relatively well, except for the poison. Are you sure they weren’t lying to you?”
He shrugged. “Could have been an elaborate ruse, I suppose, but I don’t know. I won’t take any chances.”
“No,” I agreed. “I’ll bring your knapsack here. Where is the key to your room?”
“I don’t know. In the room still, perhaps.”
I turned, opened the door and strode across the hall. Karane’s room door opened when I turned the knob, and I stepped inside, gathering the knapsack and laundry bag before picking up the key where it lay on the bedside table. I pocketed the key and returned to my room.
By the sound of Karane’s even breaths, he slept deeply. I envied him. Dropping the knapsack next to my travel bag, I placed our laundry in the same bag and carried it downstairs to the innkeeper.
“You would like me to wash the laundry for you?” she asked, giving me a pleasant smile.
“Yes, ma’am. We will be leaving the day after tomorrow.”
She nodded once. “Enough time to dry, I suppose. Give me those.”
I handed her the bag.
“I’ll bring the clean laundry to you the day after tomorrow near sunrise,” she told me.
I thanked her and made my way back up to the second floor.
In the room, Karane slept on his back undisturbed. I locked the door and went to stand at the window. I studied every mouth of every alley I could see. Nothing seemed amiss. Finally, I turned away and went to the bed, crawling across it to lie facing Karane. He was still pale and deep shadows bled along the soft tissue under his eyes. I swallowed.
I thought Karane knew who had kidnapped him but was not going to tell me or the sisters. Perhaps because he feared letting the secret out would result in his death. I did not blame him. I would try to charm the answer out of him, however, if only to assuage my own curiosity. I needed to know the players on the gameboard if I was going to get out of this alive.
Karane’s moans woke me. I came up on an elbow. He was sound asleep but rubbing his chest, his brow furrowed into a deep frown.
“Karane,” I said and shook him gently.
He did not wake.
The shadows outside the window were lengthening to evening. My stomach gurgled. When had I last eaten, I wondered?
“Karane,” I said with more force and shook him.
His eyes blinked open and he turned his face to me. “What?”
“Does your wound pain you?”
“It burns and aches,” he replied. “What is the hour?”
“Near sunset. Come, we need to get you fed, and I need to eat as well.”
I helped him sit up and then I fetched his military boots. I began to pace distractedly while he pulled on his socks and boots. Afterward, as if the simple act of putting on shoes exhausted him, he rested his forearms on his thighs and sighed. I strode to where he sat and began to unplait his braid. I combed his hair with my fingers, idly noting its heft and softness. Then I re-braided it, letting it fall to his upper back.
“Come,” I said more gently. “Food will help you recover.”
I put my arm around his waist and led him slowly down to the main floor and then out into the busy early evening. The air smelled sharp with the tang of the sea today. Overhead, clouds gathered. It was close to monsoon season. The air had a certain cool, damp feel.
“It’s going to rain,” he muttered, gazing at the sky.
“More than likely,” I agreed.
I chose the first cafe we came to. He was leaning on me heavily and losing strength rapidly. I led us to a table near the back, away from windows and prying eyes. He slid into the booth lengthwise, his back to the wall. I took the seat on the opposite bench and hailed the serving girl.
“What are your specials today?” I asked.
She gave Karane a concerned look before turning to me. “An’we with root vegetables and spicy side sauce. A side bitter salad with a citrus-honey dressing. Fresh bread. Is he alright?”
“Yes. Just a little under the weather. We’ll take two specials.”
The girl curtsied and, with one more glance at Karane, hurried away.
Karane sighed and sat up. His pallidity was beginning to concern me.
“Is your wound bleeding?” I asked him.
He pulled his shirt away from the bandage. “No. I just feel weak is all. Food will help me.”
I rested my forearms on the tacky tabletop and threaded my fingers. “How are we supposed to get to the Oracle, if you can’t walk?”
“We’ll hire a carriage, if we have to,” he replied, his voice thready.
I sighed and shook my head. “You are so stubborn!”
He gave me a wan smile. “I aim to please.”
A few minutes later, our sandwiches arrived. We tucked into our food after I ordered some cider.
We ate slowly. I savored every bite of the meal with relish.
Karane’s hands shook as he fed himself, but some color began to tinge his cheeks.
After we were done, we sat back in our seats and sipped the sweet-tart cider. The smidgen of alcohol in the libation brought more color to his cheeks. He finally sat back and grinned at me.
“That’s what I needed,” he told me. “Thank you.”
I nodded once. “You’re still going to return to bed once we get back. Won’t you?”
“I’ll lie down.”
“Good because I haven’t slept in two days, wondering what befell you.”
He started and gazed up at me. Anger had crept into my voice until I almost shouted the final three words.
I pressed my lips together tautly and nodded. “I know you are. It isn’t your fault. You scared me though.”
He paid for our meal and we made our way back into the early evening. Round, colorful paper lamps had been lit along the boulevard in celebration of the coming monsoon. The breeze was fresh as it scampered ahead of us, creating dust devils in its wake. By the time we made it to the inn some minutes later, I heard the boom of thunder then we were running for the inn door as the skies opened to disgorge the first rain in months. We stood leaning against one another under the inn awning as the torrent fell. Beyond our shelter, people hurried to find a place to wait out the worst of the storm. They laughed joyously as the rain soaked them. Some danced, arms outstretched, palms up, faces turned up to the dark sky. It was a holy moment. I felt my throat close.
After a few minutes, we headed to our room, closing the door quietly behind us.
Karane removed his boots and socks and doffed his shirt, folding it neatly and setting it on top of his knapsack.
I removed my ankle boots and set them next to my travel bag.
I heard as Karane lay down once more.
“I would like to take a look at your wound,” I told him. “I would like to smell to see if it is infected.”
“As you like,” he said quietly.
I knew there was an apothecary not far away. I would have to fetch fresh bandages and disinfectants.
“I’ll return shortly,” I told him. “Don’t fall asleep!”
The druggist sold me a small wooden bowl, cloths, a roll of bandages, and a vial of disinfectant for the wound.
“Wash the wound twice a day,” she advised as she placed the items in a cloth shoulder bag. “Let the wound dry in the air before applying the disinfectant and rebandaging. Clear?”
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you.”
I paid her from my funds and took the shoulder bag. I hurried through the rain, hugging walls, and standing under awnings until there was an ebb in the downpour. Nevertheless, I returned to our room soaked and cursing under my breath.
Karane was sound asleep. I cursed him, too, as I removed my wet clothes before donning dry trousers and shirt. I spread my wet clothes along the floor near the window to dry. Then I hurried downstairs to fetch some water before the inn closed for the night.
When I returned carrying a wooden bucket filled to the brim, I set it next to the bedside table.
I sat at the edge of the mattress, pouring water into the wooden bowl. I set the bowl on the bedside table. Untying the bandages, I woke Karane as I removed them.
I could smell the wound was off. As I bathed the wound and applied the antiseptic medicant, he began to thrash about wildly, speaking nonsensical words. I could not rebandage him while he kept moving. I decided he could remain unbandaged until morning then set about picking up the room. I chucked the dirty water out of the bedroom window and set the bowl to dry on the bedside table.
Finally, after locking the door, I lay down next to him and closed my eyes.
Outside the open window, rain pattered soothingly. The worst of the storm had passed; now it would be gentle rain for several days.
The breezes rifling the curtains were cool. I pulled up the bedclothes to cover Karane and myself.
Sleep came easily that night.
Karane’s moaning woke me early the next morning. I touched his forehead. Fever raged through his body, fighting the infection. I got up and took the bucket downstairs for fresh water.
“How is the young man?” the innkeeper asked.
I bit my lower lip. “He’s feverish this morning. Is there a healer nearby?”
She handed me the bucket filled with fresh water. “I will send for him, if you’d like.”
“Please. I am grateful to you. Tomorrow our ship leaves and I am unsure if he will be well enough to travel.”
“Hire a coach to carry him to the wharves,” she suggested. “If you cannot afford a coach, then we own a wagon and lir’tah and can transport him to the ship. My husband and son can carry him onboard.”
Relief washed over me, and my eyes filled with tears. “Thank you! Yes. If you don’t mind, we’ll take the wagon.”
“Very good. I’ll bring up the laundry tomorrow and my husband and son will be with me. The wagon will be parked out front.”
I thanked her again and hurried upstairs to wash the wound before healer arrived.
Karane did not wake while I applied some water with the disinfectant to the wound.
The healer arrived as I made to carry the bucket back downstairs. He was a foreigner – black hair and brown eyes, pale flesh, freckles across the bridge of his nose and splaying along his sharp cheekbones.
He bowed to me. “I am the local healer. Where is my patient?”
I stepped back and to the side, leaving him a clear path into the room. I followed him inside.
He gasped at the wound and shook his head. “Who would do such a thing?”
“I don’t know, sir,” I replied honestly.
“You’ve been cleaning it with this?” He held up the vial of disinfectant.
He nodded. “I’ve something stronger. It’s in an oil base so that it clings to the wound better. Hm.” He touched Karane’s brow. “I’ll leave you an antipyretic also. You give him a mug of tea with three drops and then apply this oil directly to the wound. The antipyretic must be given thrice a day, every eight hours or so. The oil can be applied twice a day after the wound is cleaned.”
He cleaned the wound again with the remaining fresh water and applied the oil to the wound.
Karane had been still all this time. Now he made to touch the wound and began to thrash about on the bed once more.
I hurried to assist the healer, holding Karane down until he settled into an uneasy sleep. The healer rose and pulled Karane into a sitting pose and held him there. He asked me to wrap new bandages around Karane’s chest.
I worked as quickly as I was able.
“I’m having you reapply the bandages because he absolutely must not touch the wound while it is healing,” the healer murmured. “If he is awake and aware, you may leave the wound uncovered so that it heals more quickly.”
When we were done, Karane lay there quietly, his breaths even and deep.
“This disinfecting oil eats at necrotic flesh,” he explained as he set a vial of the substance on the bedside table, followed by a vial of the antipyretic. “It hurts when it goes on, so you will need assistance when you apply it.”
I pushed some hair off my face and undid the braid impatiently, re-plaiting it tightly. I wrapped the braid on the top of my head and pinned it in place.
“You look tired,” the healer noted. He rose from the bed and gathered his shoulder bag. “I will come again tomorrow to assist you.”
“We’re leaving early in the morning,” I told him.
He nodded. “The innkeeper told me. I’ll be here to assist you.”
I studied him for a few seconds.
“You’re Uedjnouri?” I asked.
He bowed. “Guilty as charged. I’m not an empathic healer, I’m afraid. Just a plain doctor.”
“Uedjnourahn is very far away from Bah’nah.”
He chuckled. “Don’t I know it? My people, we breed talented healers, both empathic and non-empathic. Our mission in life is to travel and assist cities and towns where there are not enough doctors or healers.”
I closed the bedroom door and locked it. Then we walked side by side down the hallway.
“We devote 20 years to our respective missions,” he continued. “I’ve been in Bah’nah eleven.”
“And once your twenty-years are up?”
He shrugged. “Then I return home when my replacement arrives. I go home and marry and provide children for our nation.”
“Laudable,” I murmured although, honestly, it just sounded strange to me.
He bowed. “Thank you. I will see you tomorrow then. Don’t forget the antipyretic.”
He bounded down the remaining steps and hurried from the inn.
I found the innkeeper in the kitchen and I begged her for a cup of tea so I could feed Karane the medicine.
She took pity on me and boiled some mjish leaves in water.
“Any milk or honey?” she asked me over her shoulder as she poured the tea into a ceramic mug.
“No. I believe he drinks the tea straight.”
She wrinkled her nose. “There is no accounting for taste. Would you like a mug? No charge.”
“Thank you. Milk and honey for me.”
I carried the mugs back upstairs and set them down on the floor while I unlocked the door.
Karane still slept. It was almost criminal to force him to wake, but his fever still raged. Setting the mugs on the bedside table, I returned to the door and locked it.
I sat at the edge of the mattress and opened the antipyretic vial, counting three drops as they fell into the tea. I shook him.
He frowned but did not wake.
I shook him harder until he was blinking owlishly at the ceiling.
He looked at me and frowned. “Who are you?” He sighed and shook his head. “Yhera. I remember.”
“Sit up, Karane,” I told him. “Drink the tea. It has medicine for your fever.”
He needed help sitting up. Once again, I wondered how we were going to make it back to Da’hrisjah with Karane intact.
I fed him the tea, forcing him to drink when he just wanted to lay down and sleep.
“I’ll have to wake you again at midday and then at sunset so you can take the medicine.”
He blinked at me and forced himself to continue sipping until the tea was all gone.
I helped him lie down once more and covered him, even though a light sheen of sweat gleamed on his skin from the hot tea.
Outside the window, rain pattered against the outer wall and window pane. In the distance, a woman sang an exquisite song that nudged the edges of my memory. The hairs on my arms stood on end. I went to stand at the window to gaze out at the gray early morning. People hurried past the inn, bundled against the rain, or carrying umbrellas. The street glistened, clean and full of puddles. Tree limbs bobbed in the occasional breeze. The stillness of the day fell upon me. Suddenly, the world seemed too large, too still, too empty, mirroring the hollowness that lodged in my chest. My throat constricted.
I sighed and rubbed my eyes. I needed more sleep. That’s all.
Turning, I took up my mug of tea and sat at the foot of the bed, sipping and humming at the sweet, creamy taste. Once more, I wondered at my choices, where I had allowed my life to drift. Yes, I wanted to change things in my nation. Yes, I wanted the Empress gone. The royal family gone. But…I had had no inkling how dangerous the game would get. I had been so hellbent on revenge…I sipped the tea without tasting it.
Once the mug was empty, I set it on the bedside table and crawled under the covers to lie on my side to watch Karane sleep.
“Don’t die,” I told him. “Not while we might become friends.”
He slept on, unperturbed.
I snorted and shook my head. “Talking to sleeping people, are we, Yhera?”
I closed my eyes, listening idly to the noises drifting up from the street and Karane’s even breaths.