Pain dogged me. Dogged my dreams. Every moment I was aware, it coursed through my body. It was not a sharp pain, but one which was bone-deep and throbbing.
I opened my eyes. It took me a moment to awaken fully. I looked around and frowned. These were not my quarters. I sat up slowly, swallowing a moan and bringing my right hand to my chest. I felt bandages through the thin material of the tunic. Bah’nah…I’d traveled to Bah’nah to seek the Oracle. But this was not the inn room I had slept in. This was the cabin of a ship. I stood up so fast, I almost passed out. Leaning against the cot as cold sweat broke out over my body, I sat down slowly once more.
The cabin was dim, the only light coming from a flickeing candle in its sconce on the bulkhead near the door. There was a table with what looked like folded towels and a basin. There were three wooded buckets on the floor – two below the table and one next to it. The porthole was open, allowing the sharp tangy scent of the sea to waft inside. Beneath it, I could smell urine, waste, and stale sweat.
There was a cot parallel to mine, against the far bulkhead. Someone lay asleep under blankets.
I rose more slowly this time and made my way to the porthole. Nothing to see for miles, just inky water, and a clear, star-filled sky. Taitah, the moon, was nowhere to be seen.
What day was it?
I heard a sigh and rustling from behind me. I turned around.
Yhera…she sat up on the cot and looked at my bed. Then her gaze found me at the porthole.
“You’re awake,” she murmured around a yawn, rubbing her right eye.
“We’re on a ship, Yhera. I assume we’re headed back to the capital.”
She grimaced. “We couldn’t linger in Bah’nah, Karane. It had become too dangerous for both of us. So, yes, we are headed to the capital.”
I nodded and turned from her.
“What day is it?” I asked.
I heard her rise and pad to where I stood. She placed her hand tentively on my lower back.
“It is six days since we left Bah’nah–“
“You had a stubborn fever. You hung on the brink of death.”
I put my hand on my chest and rubbed where the ache throbbed.
“It still hurts?” she asked.
“Yes.” I sighed.
Her head cocked to one side. “I apologize for not taking you to the Oracle.”
“Not meant to be,” I said and moved away from her.
I returned to my cot and took a seat, leaning forward to rest my forearms on my thighs. Just the simple act of standing and walking about had drained me.
She hurried to my side and squatted before me. “I’ll get you something to eat and some tea, if I can find some. You’ve not eaten for over a week, Karane.”
I looked at her and nodded.
She gave me a shy smile and rose, hurrying to the door and out into the passageway. She closed the cabin door with a soft click.
I had not been this sick since childhood, when I had contracted a lingering fever that kept me bedbound for close to a month. There were scars along my back and inner thighs still from where pustules had grown and ruptured, damaging the skin. I remember my mother washing the ruptured pustules herself, allowing no servant near me. It had been a scandal at the time, my mother being the Empress’ younger sister. My throat grew tight at the memory of my mother’s kindness and love.
I closed my eyes against a wave of nostalgia. It washed over me, filled my mind with images of happier, more innocent times. All those times involved Enj’teru Atresju’h, the Empress’ oldest son and my closest friend. How was I supposed to betray him? Surely, if there was a coup d’etat, the royal familly would be swept away in its wake. More than likely murdered for the sake of the cause. What the hell was I supposed to do now?
I rose slowly and began to pace. After a time, I grew lightheaded and shaky.
I muttered an expletive and returned to my cot to sit down.
Yhera returned shortly with a bundle wrapped in cloth and a full bladder.
“I’ve got food and water, Karane.”
She sat next to me on the cot and handed me the bladder. “Drink some water, please.”
I uncorked the bladder and held it with both hands overhead, releasing a stream of tepid water into my mouth. When I had had enough, I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and gave the bladder to Yhera.
I watched her drink deeply before she took the cork from me.
She rose, handing me the wrapped food. “Here. Eat now. I have to go see Ohna and Llara’h.”
“So, they came, too?”
She sighed. “Yes. After you were kidnapped, I wouldn’t have been able to refuse their assistance. They’ll probably want to see you for themselves.”
I watched her hurry from the cabin, the door clicking shut behind her.
With Yhera gone, I decided to wash up quickly and take off these clothes reeking of sweat and illness.
I found my knapsack next to Yhera’s travel bag and looked inside. My clothes were freshly laundered and folded neatly. My bag of coins was still intact, if a tad leaner. I made my way to the washbasin and discovered that the two buckets under the table were for waste and urine and the one next to the washbasin held fresh water.
After emptying my bladder, I removed my clothes and filled the washbasin with some water, took up a washcloth and a half-used cake of soap and washed as best as I was able. Once done, I was shaking from exhaustion and feeling sick to my stomach.
I dressed slowly and returned to my cot, where the food packet lay. I unwrapped the cloth and looked inside: hard cheese made from tah’lir’s milk, roasted and salted tza nuts, and slices of dried and honey-sweetened dasja fruit. I ate slowly, my stomach gurgling and threatening to upend its contents. I clenched my jaws together and breathed deeply until the nausea passed. I finished chewing the salty cheese and nuts. I took two slices of dasja and ate that as well. There was enough food for another meal. I rewrapped the food and drank more water. Then I rose and took the food and water to Yhera’s cot, setting them down there for her.
I lay down on my cot and closed my eyes.
When I woke again, it was early morning, and the cabin was cold. I could hear rain falling through the porthole. I turned my head and looked towards Yhera’s bed. She was a mound under the bedclothes.
I turned onto my back. A shadow moved near the bed and blurred towards me. I made to shout when a hand clamped over my mouth.
I flicked my glance up.
A young man leaned over me and shook his head, bringing a finger to his lips.
He straightened, removing his hand from my mouth, and stepping back.
He motioned for me to follow him.
I rose and followed him to the passageway through the open door. On the floor, Llara’h lay along the bulkhead, breaths even.
I closed the door behind me with a soft snick.
“Come,” the young man said quietly. “She’ll sleep for a time still.”
He was vaguely familiar to me, so I reached out and tapped his shoulder as he turned around.
“I am Estenosj, from the Shadows,” he whispered, his gaze flickering to Llera’h and then back. “Come.”
He took me to the end of the passageway and to the cabin door on the left.
I followed him inside.
There were four other men in the cabin. These had the look of mercenaries or guards. They all wore dark clothes and bland expressions.
Estenosj sat on the other cot and patted the seat beside him. “Sit, Karane, please.”
I sat down and one of the other men handed me a bladder.
“It’s wine,” Estenosj explained. “You’re pale.”
“It was touch and go,” I growled and uncorked the bladder, pouring a stream of dark wine into my mouth. It was a heavier, sweeter wine, like those used for ceremonies and such. I swallowed and handed the bladder back to the man standing over me. “Your priest almost killed me.”
“Most unfortunate,” Estenosj replied. “That was not his or our intention, Karane. Please believe me.”
“Nevertheless,” I said, my anger surprising me and him as well.
He nodded. “I’m sorry. Our Holy Man regrets what resulted. I believe the God tested you and you persevered. Praise Khahn!”
“Praise Khahn,” the other four muttered.
Estenosj motioned to two of them. “Stand outside the door, brothers. Make sure no one can overhear us.”
The men bowed and strode out, shutting the door behind them.
“I am here to teach you of our God and bring you into the fold,” Estenosj intoned and reached under the cot.
He drew out a dark red travel bag. Rummaging within, he withdrew a thick scroll.
“All our teachings have been copied onto this scroll from the holy books,” he told me. “The teachings are in code. You will learn the code in time.”
He reached out and took hold of my hand, turning it over and dropping a hefty ring on a chain onto it. The ring was made of iron. He touched the underside of the ring and there was a soft snick. The face of the ring opened, revealing small lettering.
“This ring is a decoder,” he told me. “You will use it to decode the words on this scroll. I will help you if you can’t decipher a word or words.”
I swallowed. “When am I supposed to read this scroll? There are two nuns keeping watch over me, and there is my travel companion as well.”
“You will do so when you are with us,” Estenosj replied. “Never mind the nuns or your travel companion. Leave them to us.”
“You will not harm the girl,” I stated firmly.
“We are not harming anyone,” he replied evenly. “But they will also not stand in the way of your teachings.”
“Fine,” I bit out. “When will you teach me the words on this scroll?”
“Don’t worry about that. Leave that up to us. For now, today, right now, you will learn the basic tenets of our faith.”
I drew the chain with the ring over my head. “Go on. I’m listening.”
“Our holy book has ten chapters,” he said, unrolling the scroll and placing it on the cot between us.
The code was in hieroglyphs. There were lines and circles, symbols, and numbers.
“First, I will show you how to open the ring,” he said, reaching out and taking the ring in his hand. “Feel under the face of it.”
I felt under the face of the ring and felt a small bump.
I looked at him. “There is a bump.”
He smiled. “Now, turn rub the pad of your finger twice clockwise over the key. Then thrice counterclockwise.”
I did as he said, and the face of the ring clicked open.
His smile widened at my expression. “If you do it wrong, just once, it will shut itself forever and become merely a ring.”
I closed the face of the ring. “Twice clockwise and thrice counterclockwise.”
I did it again and, again, the ring’s face opened to reveal the decoder.
“Good,” he said. “Let no one see the ring and never wear it on your hand unless your life is in peril.”
He took up the ring and turned it, showing me the base of the shank. I looked more closely and sat a sharp protrusion.
“Don’t touch it!” he warned. “It is poisoned. If you find your life is in danger, use it.”
“Kill myself?” I asked.
He nodded once. “Better dead by your hand than by another’s.”
He let the ring drop between my pectoral muscles once more.
“Now, as I said, our holy book consists of ten chapters.” He pointed to the symbols at the top of the page. “The names of the chapters are as follow: The beginning; Khahn and His place in the Pantheon; the fall from grace; the destruction of balance; in darkness grows faith; the laws of God and man; the place of man in nature; the afterlife of the believer; the songs of Khahn; from here on…”
I took that in, wondering if I was meant to memorize it.
“Who wrote the chapters down?” I asked, curious.
“Holy men throughout the centuries. Men touched by God. Some of their names have been lost to time. We have been relegated to the shadows where we learned the ways of assassins. We have been working carefully, patiently, culling and recruiting public figures to our cause. We have brothers high in government, here and in other nations. You know some of our brothers in Da’hrisjah and they know you. They told us you were bound for Bah’nah and we made to prepare to welcome you into the fold. The time is nigh. Once we have control of the government, you will be given the antidote that will save your life.”
“You are working with the Resistance and the Maidens?”
“We have operatives who have contacted them, yes. They know us only as a third party, not as followers of Khahn.”
His eyes gleamed. “Do you, Karane? You cannot possibly.”
“I understand that you cannot reveal you follow the God of Death–“
“And rebirth,” he ground out.
“And rebirth. Forgive me.”
He sighed. “You have your prejudices against us and our God and we must cleanse you of these. It will take time, I know. I am not the most patient of men, but the priest who will take over your teaching is reknown for his patience and holiness. You will see the light, once you have met him and are vetted.”
“I thought I was already vetted.”
He snorted and the other two men laughed outright.
“You are not a Shadow,” Estenosj told me. “Not yet. Not until you learn our faith and join it willingly.”
“Here’s your first lesson,” he said and rose. He began to pace before me. “Tell me how the universe was formed.”
““Before the Gods existed, there was the Nothing. An interminable darkness and cold that enveloped everything. It had always been and perhaps believed it would always be. But from this freezing emptiness a great fire ignited. The fire was holy, so that its light reached across the vast darkness. Being holy, it self-ignited from nothing.
“The Nothing fought it, but it was no match for Holy Fire. The fire pushed it to the edges of that great space, where it cowered. The fire convulsed and the first God, Da’hrisjah, was created. Da’hrisjah’s holy purpose was to fill the great space with life. When Da’hrisjah made each planet, he filled it with His Holy Breath. Before moving on, he set two seed pods upon the barren world. From these seed pods were born the God and Goddess of each world.”
He took up the scripture. “On our world, the pods hovered in the barren planet which had no land or ocean, no river or tree. There was only Holy Breath and nothing else. One pod broke and a seed fell out. The seed put out shoots, seeking land and water and nourishment. Finding none of these, the shoots then turned upward and fed on the Holy Breath of the God of Creation. The shoots became arms and legs and a head. The Holy Breath filled the being that did not live with life. When the holy fire caught in the being’s core, Leh was born. Leh, Father of the Gods.”
I made a noise at the back of my throat that made him pause..
“Leh was born at the same time as Cera,” I told him. “That is what I was taught.”
“It is a wrong teaching,” he assured me. “Leh found the second pod. The pod in His hand lay unmoving, devoid of life. With his other hand, Leh covered the pod and breathed upon it through an opening between his fingers. He shook the pod and threw it into the air. The pod turned and turned in the air and broke in two, releasing shoots. But instead of seeking nourishment, the shoots wrapped themselves around Leh. He spun and spun until the shoots released him and formed the Goddess Cera, Mother of the Gods.
“The God beheld the Goddess in all Her glory. She was beautiful, of perfect proportions. He beheld her and felt lust. They mated for ten days and ten nights. Each time they mated, something new was created: first came the land and the sea; then came the animals and the trees; when they finished rutting, the world was whole and perfect.
“The God and Goddess looked around and beheld what they had created. For a while, they were content.”
He stopped there.
I am not a religious man by any stretch of the imagination, but his words shocked me to the core. Tjish.un is a matrilineal and matrilocal culture. The feminine is holy and held up as perfect. This teaching was different from what I had learned in very subtle ways. But it firmly placed the feminine as subservient.
“You are shocked,” he stated dryly. “Why am I not surprised?”
I rose to face him. “What you are teaching, it changes everything about our culture, not only our faith. It touches upon the mores and beliefs and values we hold dear.”
“You hold dear,” he said.
“You make it sound as if the masculine is a creative force, when it is the feminine that–“
He backhanded me.
I lost my balance and fell to the floor, my jaw and left cheek throbbing. I reached up to touch the corner of my mouth and found it wet with blood.
He squatted next to me. “Ah, Karane. You have a lot to learn. That will be all for today. Return to your cabin but take this morsel with you: the creative force is holy, neither masculine nor feminine. But a being filled with the creative force, such is a god, can create, be it he or she. Now, leave.”
I rose slowly, tucking the decoder ring under the collar of my shirt.
As I walked out into the passageway, turning left, I wiped the blood from my mouth with the back of my hand.
Llara’h was gone when I returned to the cabin I shared with Yhera. I paused at the door, pressing my ear to the door and listening. It was quiet within. I turned the knob and pushed the door open. The room was as I had left it. Yhera was not in her bed. I walked to my cot and sat down heavily. I touched my lip again. I could feel a bruise forming along the jaw. My ear throbbed.
What else would I have to learn and unlearn?
I thought about Estenosj had said: the creative force was holy, neither masculine nor feminine. A being filled with the creative force can create life, be it he or she.
The thought filled me with a cold fear. It was blasphemy, plain and simple. But I would have to be able to speak it aloud if I were to survive.