Chapter XI: L’hevent

            I was born into darkness and pain.  I screamed until my voice was destroyed.  I endured until my very identity was washed away like suds in a pounding surf.  

           I lay in a warm place filled with moving shadows.  Some shadows would touch me; others would hover nearby.  Through it all, slipping in and out of consciousness, I felt a Presence crowding my mind.  It was bright and sharp as the edge of a knife, cutting from me what It did not need, leaving me clean and empty, like a newborn.  Beneath it all, I clung to rage.  Some of who I used to be survived within the unchecked umbrage. I saw faces as I existed in that interminable darkness – a young woman with vulpine features, bright red hair and hazel eyes; a young man with dusky skin, green eyes and dark hair.  I saw an older man, distinguished, set apart.  His eyes, too, were green, lined by age, although is hair was not gray.  Other faces streamed into my dreams in flashes and were gone before I could even be sure of what I had seen.

            How many days, weeks, months, years did I lay in that womb of agony?  One moment I existed at the very tip of a sword; then next there was nothing.

            I opened my eyes.  A voice droned at the edge of my awareness.  It took a few minutes for my eyesight to clear.

            I made a sound at the back of my throat.  

            The droning ended abruptly.  A gasp and then someone tore across the room to a door, pulling it open and disappearing through it.

            My mouth and throat were parched and aching.

            It took a great effort on my part to sit up on an elbow, to look around the dim room.  There was only the yellow light from a candle on the bedside table to my left.  Shadows danced against walls and across the floor.  A draft kept the candlelight flickering.

            I reeked of old blood, old sweat and bitter curatives.  

            The left side of my chest ached.  I glanced down.  A puckered scar bisected the nipple, its pink skin healed.  I touched it tentatively.  The ache came from within.

            Voices beyond the door rose steadily then stopped before three men in dark robes hurried through it and into the room.  They stopped at the foot of the bed.

            “Prophet,” said the one to the left.  His voice was deep and soothing.  “Welcome back.”

            I frowned.

            “Who are you people?” The sound of my voice startled me.  It was ugly–rough, torn, ragged.

            They shared a glance before the same monk answered me.  “We are clerics for the Shadows of Khahn, Prophet.  We are here to answer your questions and make sure you are well.”

            “Water, please,” I croaked.

            The one in the middle hurried to the bedside table and poured water from a crystal decanter into a glass.  He handed me the glass.

            It took me a moment to steady the trembling in my hands enough to drink without spilling the contents on the bedclothes.

            The cool water soothed my throat.  I sighed and asked for another glass.  I emptied that one, too.

            “What are your names?” I asked.

            “I am Thye’vehn,” said the one who had first spoken.  “This is Luserehn and that is Anoltho.”

            Thye’vehn seemed to be the youngest of them.  He was perhaps in his mid-twenties with handsome but severe features.  

            Luserehn was heavy-set with a pleasant, forgettable face.

            Anoltho was dark and watchful.

            “Where am I?”

            Luserehn took a step forward.  “You are at a safehouse 12 sepeks from the city walls.”

            I sighed.  “What nation?”

            Thye’vehn frowned.  “Why, Tjish.un, Prophet.”

            Tjish.un. A nation in the Southern Continent.  It has treaties with Torahn, I’A, Set’kai, and Lethya.  Matrilineal and matrilocal society.

            The knowledge was in my head, but it seemed disconnected from any experience.  It was like reading a description in a book.

            I swallowed, ruthlessly pushing down the hysteria that had begun to bubble up.

            “Prophet?” Thye’vehn asked.

            I started.  I had forgotten the monks.

            “Who am I?” I asked him.

            He took a tentative step forward.  “You don’t know?”

            “No.  I know nothing.”  I swung my legs over the side of the bed and stood up.  The room listed to one side and, crying out, I fell to my hands and knees.

            Luserehn hurried to my side and assisted me to my feet.

            “I need a bath,” I told them.  “Please.”

            “Of course, Prophet,” Thye’vehn replied.  “Right away.”

            Luserehn hurried to the door and through it.

            “Please.  Who am I?” I asked again.

            “You will recall when the God allows it,” Anoltho replied quietly.  He helped me to a settee in the middle of the room.  I dropped down onto it.  

            “You must eat something,” Thye’vehn was saying.

            I looked up at Anoltho.  He watched me, patient and still.

            “What is my name?  Can you tell me that, at least?” I asked.

            The monks shared a look.

            Thye’vehn knelt next to me.  “We name our Prophets. We give them ancient names.  We have chosen the name L’hevent for you, Prophet.”

            “L’hevent,” I pronounced.

            “Yes,” Thye’vehn said.

            “I am a Prophet, you say?”

            The monk nodded.  “Yes.”

            “What does that mean?”

            “The God has sent you to be our general, Prophet.   We are on the brink of a rebellion to remove the current ruler and replace her with our own.”

            I swallowed.  Rebellion?

            “Prophet, we must change how things are done in this nation.  Our sect have suffered greatly, and our God is all but forgotten.  We will join the rebellion but then we must take control.  We have been armed by R’Nonay.  They have provided 26,000 troops for our cause.  The Shadows number 17,000.   We will have more troops than any other faction fighting alongside us.  More than the Resistance and more than the Maidens of Sene.  Once the Empress is removed from power, it will mean a civil war.  But we will succeed, Prophet. You will lead the 17,000.”

            R’Nonay. Military dictatorship.  Patrilineal and Patrilocal.  It has treaties with Ynha, Aelbihn, and Yllysia.

            My heart leapt in my chest.  “R’Nonay?”

            “Aye, Prophet,” Thye’vehn replied.          

            “But…you trust them?”

            The monks shared a look.  I huffed with impatience.

            “We do,” Thye’vehn answered.  “We’ve signed a treaty with them that they will not attempt to invade us or have any say in how we govern ourselves.”

            How naive.  I knew something about the military.  Perhaps I was a soldier.  I also knew that R’Nonay could not be trusted, but I said nothing.  I did not trust these monks, either, and I would have to proceed carefully if I were to remember who I was and escape.

            A commotion outside the door resolved itself into two men carrying a wooden bathtub between them.  Others came behind, carrying buckets of cold and hot water.  They poured the water into the bathtub then hurried out, closing the door quietly behind them.

            “Will you need assistance bathing, Prophet?” Luserehn asked.

            “No.  I don’t need an audience either.  Give me half an hour.”

            They bowed as one and hurried out, closing the door behind them.

            I rose slowly, pulling down my trousers and stepping to the tub.  I sat down.  The water came up to my waist.  The tub had a niche carved on the inside.   A washcloth and a bar of soap were crammed inside.  I took these out.  As quickly as I was able, I soaped my body then rinsed.  I bathed twice.  I reached up and touched my hair.  It had been cropped close to the skull.  I recalled that man’s worth was in the length of his hair.  Why would they unman me in such a way?  I took a deep breath and released it in a rush.  I washed my head and then rose.  They had left a drying cloth on the arm of the settee.  I took it up and dried the water from my skin then wrapped the drying cloth around my waist.

            The monks returned within the half an hour, carrying a stack of dark clothing.

            “These are for you, Prophet,” Luserehn told me.

            I dressed quickly.  There was a black silk tunic, rough spun trousers, and a coat.  After I dressed, they produced a pair of familiar-looking boots.  

            “Why did you shave my hair?”

            Anoltho straightened his back.  “A Prophet does not need, nor should he concern himself, with conceits.”

            “Conceits?”  I echoed.

            Anoltho inclined his head.  “Even so.”

            I gazed into his dark eyes.  There was something there beyond caution and bland respect.  I continued to gaze into his eyes until he began to fidget

            “You don’t believe I am a prophet?” I asked him.

            He swallowed, his gaze slithering away, towards the other monks.

            “No.  Answer me,” I growled.

            Anoltho clasped his hands before him.  “You are her nephew.  You blood is polluted by the blood of the Mat’a’mahr clan.”

            I strode to where he stood and glared into his eyes.  “You don’t believe the God cleansed me?”

            “Of course he does, Prophet!” Thye’vehn answered.

            “Let him answer!” I spat.

            Anoltho parted his lips.  His face suffused with blood.  “Uh…”

            The rage that simmered inside me rose, sharp and bright, a sword with which to excise.  I wrapped my hand around his throat and squeezed.

            He gasped.  His hands came up and attempted to dislodge my grip.  

            I squeezed more tightly.

            His eyes bulged.  

            I felt the rush of power.  It lent me almost inhuman strength.  I twisted my hand and snapped his head to one side, breaking his neck.  He crumbled to the floor; his neck set in an angle.

            The other two monks knelt on the floor, cowering behind their hands.

            “Forgive us, Prophet,” Thye’vehn whispered.  “I thought if he saw you, he’d see you are touched by God.”

            “There are other unbelievers,” I said.

            “Yes, Prophet,” they murmured.

            “We cannot be victorious if we are divided among ourselves.”

            “Yes, Prophet.”

            I took a deep breath.  The Presence was aciculate at the edges of my thoughts.  

            L’hevent.

            I closed my eyes.  I could see a darkness deeper than the darkness behind my eyes.  The Presence moved sinuously like a viper in its inky waters.

            “We must excise those who are not with us,” I said.  I opened my eyes.  “Stand up.”

            They stood, hands before their faces.

            “I will create a troop of holy warriors,” I said.  “They will number 1,000.  I will choose five commanders to lead them.  It is they who will go to the faithful and excise those who are not true believers.”

            “But, Prophet,” Thye’vehn said.  “Is there time?”

            “There will have to be,” I said.  “Gather the faithful here by this time two weeks from now.  I will know who will fit into my plans.”

            They bowed.

            “And remove Anoltho’s body, please.”    

            “Right away, Prophet.”

            When awake, I spent my time in solitude, praying and thinking.  The Presence pushed against my consciousness, its thoughts tentacles reaching into the heart of my being.  I learned that if I wanted to communicate with this Being, I needed to be quiet, to sit in stillness and allow Its thoughts to bubble to the top.  I learned to be still even when I walked the perimeter of the safe house and then to the untamed beaches beyond.  There were times when I meditated for hours and the Presence would not reappear and, at other times, I would sit for a few minutes, and it was there, just beyond conscious thought.

            One morning, I jogged to the city wall and then back along the white sandy beach.  I jogged until I grew exhausted and then pushed past the discomfort.  I had the feeling running was something I had enjoyed when I had a name and an identity.  It was another clue stored away until another time.  It was then, when I sat cross legged on the soft sand, gazing north that the Presence spoke to me.

            L’hevent, It said.

            I closed my eyes and blocked out sights and sounds.  I am here.

            Things will happen quickly now, It continued.  You mustn’t lose track of your purpose.

            What is my purpose?

            To lead the Shadows to victory.  To change Tjish.un forever.

            Are you Khahn?  I asked.

            I am.  You and I are.  We are conjoined until your purpose has been exhausted.  You are the vehicle through which I live again.  Soon you will understand.  Fear not your role and my presence.  Through me you will be a great warlock and so continue to serve me.

            Why do you linger at the edges of my thoughts?

            The Gods will know I have awakened, that I have found a vehicle on this world to enact change.  If they realize I am here before change is made, it will jeopardize everything.  I grow stronger every day.  Soon, the Gods themselves will not be able to stop me.  But we must proceed with caution until that time.

           It withdrew into the edges of my thoughts once more.

            As the days and weeks passed, the faithful began arriving in carriages, wagons and on lir’tah-back.  I learned the Shadows owned several properties in the area and the faithful would be housed there or in the city.  I began to search for the 1,000 Spears of Khahn from those who came to the property where I was living.  It was a simple task:  choose from among the faithful those who were young and beautiful and train them to be perfect warriors.  I visited the other properties and spoke to young men there.  

            Thye’vehn and Luserehn were my guides.  I chose those that the Presence wanted, although I did have to turn away some five who had physical weaknesses that would not survive the training.  When the 1,000 Spears had been chosen, I sought five commanders from the faithful to help me train them.  The Spears would be under my protection and command.  

             I trained the five commanders.  These men came from the military.  They were also unquestioningly loyal to the God and, by default, to me.  The Five were:  Nefi’hr, who was forty-nine years old; Kaloth, who was thirty-two; Temorin, fifty; Edvar, twenty-seven; and Samohl, forty-three.  They did not have wives or children to dilute their attention or dedication.  Each commander would take over the training of 200 Spears.  

            The Spears would be trained to serve the King of Tjish.un when he was chosen.  But they would also fight near me during the rebellion and the civil war that would result.

            As I toured the properties in search of the Spears, I also met and talked to the faithful.  There was not a woman among them.  Only men of all ages.  They were in awe of me, seeing something in my eyes perhaps or in my manner.  Word of Anoltho’s death had burned through their ranks and there had been some defections.  I sent spies to find the defectors and kill them.  They brought me gory proof for every death.

            The Shadows were a finely tuned machine.  Their reach was long across Tjish.un and into R’Nonay in the east of the continent.  

            I had no solitude from the moment I rose from bed until I lay down at the end of the day.  I was precious to the bulk of the Shadows therefore guarded at all cost and at all times.

            I was lonely nonetheless.  These men were not friends.  They were not family.  They served me just as I served them, but they did not seem to think a prophet needed friends or companions.

            I was not afraid of death, which was a good thing considering how many attempts were made on my life.  Almost daily, some attempt was thwarted.  I wondered how I was supposed to accomplish anything when I was so hated.  Most of the time I thwarted the attempt myself, for they would come in the middle of the night, and I would always know.  Or, rather, the Presence would know and warn me.

            One early morning the house was still.  I awoke and knew there was someone in the room.  I pretended to sleep, and the intruder came closer to the wide bed on which I lay. I felt rather than heard when he picked up a pillow.  I turned over and he was on me with savage strength.  I could not breathe, but I did not fight.  

            The Presence shown behind my closed eyelids like a star.  I turned my hands palms up and thought the words of power. My hands began to burn.  I reached up and clasped his forearms.  I heard a scream and then the pillow fell away from my face.  I gasped and sat up.  I held on to him while the Presence’s power rushed through my body to my hands.  The young man lay on his side to my left, screaming.  Guards rushed into the room.

            I did not turn from my purpose.  I held on to his forearms as the power began to boil him from the inside out.  His eyeballs popped and matter ran down his temples.  When his screaming ended abruptly, I let go his forearms and sat back.

            The guards were watching, fascination and horror crowding their faces.

            “He came to kill you, Prophet?” asked one of them.

            “Yes.”

            They removed the body without being asked to.

            I rose and washed at the basin across the room.  Afterward I dressed.  There was no returning to sleep.  There was only the need to move.

            I opened the door to hall.

            “Please fetch the Five for me.”

            “Right away, Prophet.”  The guard jogged down the hallway to the stairs.

            I was pacing when the five Athe-Uteth–Commander-Generals–arrived.

            Edvar, the youngest and the one with the most tender heart, went onto one knee before me.

            “The guard told us someone made an attempt on your life.”

            I nodded. “Rise.  Do not kneel to me; I am not your God.”

            He rose and bowed.  “Pardon, Prophet.”

            “How is the training of the Spears progressing?”

            Temorin took a step forward.  “Well enough, Prophet.  They have heart.”

            “That is good,” I said.  “Train them as I have trained you.”

            They bowed.  “Yes, Prophet.”

            “Fancy a jog, Prophet?” Kaloth asked.

            “Yes.  I was hoping to burn some of this energy before I break my fast.”

            Today I did not run with them towards the city.  We headed west along the beach.  We jogged for 21 sepeks west and returned east.  When we finished, we were drenched in sweat.  I felt light as a feather, unburdened by dark thoughts or loneliness.  We bathed in the communal bathing chamber then dressed for the day.  

            The mess hall was full and raucous with voices.  When we walked in the voices died down and everyone stood up and bowed.

            “As you were,” I told them and headed for the serving window.

            The men bowed again, a murmur of voices rising into the stillness.  They took their seats.

            Once we were served, we headed over to the table reserved for the higher echelons of rank.

            The breakfast was plain but nutritious:  grains boiled in water and milk; a bowl of cut fruit; tza nuts; and a glass of water.  The Shadows did not consume meat, I had learned. 

            We did not speak as we ate.  My thoughts were a thousand miles away.  I dreamed again of the young woman with red hair.  I wondered who she was.  In my dream she spoke to me, but her voice was silent.  I struggled to hear her words, but it was like they were smoke swept away by a gust of wind.  I frowned.  I had no time to seek her, even if she held the key to my identity.  The group known as the Resistance had sent notice that in three days’ time we would join them in the streets of Da’hrisjah to remove the Empress from power.  Once the Empress was dead, then the Shadows would wrench control.  The resulting civil war would create enough chaos to solidify our place.  We would have to kill every single leader of the Resistance.  It was necessary.  

            I emptied my glass of water and set it back on the tray,

            “How are we meeting with the Resistance?” I asked Nefi’hr.

            “They will send their leaders here.  We will travel back to the city with them, and they will apprise us of what they need.”

            “It will be easy,” I told them.  “If we are each assigned a leader.  Once the Empress is dead, we can dispatch them easily enough.”

            They bowed their heads.

            “Where are the R’Nonayans coming from?”

            Samohl shifted.  “They are in the bay, Prophet.  We will send up a flare and then they will come to shore.  They arrived just two days ago.”

            I sighed.  “I wonder if we can wrench control of the Resistance without the aid of R’Nonay.”

            They cocked their heads.  “What is the purpose of that?”

            I tapped the tabletop with my finger.  “I don’t trust R’Nonay.”

            “We have a treaty,” Samohl reminded me.

            “I know.”

            “Prophet,” Edvar said.  “They don’t have enough troops to invade us.”

            I sighed.  “God forgive me, but it still doesn’t sit well with me.”

            “We’ll pay attention,” Temorin said.  “If it looks like they are going to betray us, we can fight back.”

            “Fight on two fronts – against the Resistance and against R’Nonay?  We’ll be pulverized.”

            Temorin opened his mouth and then closed it without a word.

            “This is our time, Prophet,” Edvar murmured.  “The God won’t let us down.”

            “The God has His own purpose that He does not reveal to me.”  I took a breath and released it in a rush.  “Alright.  Let’s hope our trust is not misplaced.”

Chapter X: Yhera

            Our journey from Tilsjen to Da’hrisjah took seven weeks. The barge stopped at different villages along the way, to allow for the embarkation and disembarkation of travelers and goods.  During those seven weeks, I dreamed of Karane almost constantly.  Every night I was shown something strange and startling.  I would awaken, heart to mouth, the memories of those dreams swept away by panic.  I kept a diary of the rare images I could recall upon waking.  In one terrible flash, Karane looked dead.  When the nightmares would not let me go, Maejo would shake me awake and then hold me while I bawled like a newborn.  Goddess abide!  I came to fear sleeping.

            I tried not to take out my frustration on Maejo.  He was patient with me and did much to cheer me up, including telling me off-color jokes and puns until I cheered up.  We spent our days in our wagon, talking, or just sitting in silence with one another.  He would ask me about my dreams, and I would tell him what I could recall.  

            “We went to a clairvoyant once,” he told me one afternoon when the rain drove everyone into their wagons or tents. “My mother and I.”

            I swallowed.  “Did you?”

            He nodded.  “Yes.  The witch was an older woman.  Ordinary-looking, really.  She told my mother that my sister would die of a wasting disease.  She could not name when.  As the days, weeks and months passed, we grew complacent, believing the witch had been mistaken.  Then three weeks later, my sister came down with the wasting disease.  She was dead within the month.”

            I reached out and placed my hand on his.  He turned his hand over and grasped mine.

            “I’m telling you this because I believe some people are prescient.”

            I pulled my hand free.  “Don’t say that!”

            He cocked his head, frowning.  “Why ever not?”

            I shivered and rubbed my arms.  “You don’t understand.”

            “Explain it to me, then.”

            “I dreamed of my parents’ death.  Not how they died; only that they did.”

            “How long before it happened?”

            “Two weeks.  I was hysterical after I woke up and my grandmother, with whom I lived while my parents were stationed away, convinced me that the dream was just a dream, that I was only missing them.  Two weeks later, their commanding officer came in secret and told me I should hide.  He told me my parents had been hung for treason.  A day later, members of the Resistance took me away from grandmother.  I hope she’s still alive, but nobody will tell me if she is or not.”

            He put his hand on my head.  Its weight was soothing.

            “We’ll go and see if she is alright,” he told me quietly.  

            I nodded mutely, my throat too constricted for speech.

            “I don’t understand why the idea of visiting a clairvoyant frightens you so.”

            I sighed, rubbing my face with icy hands.  “Because of the dreams of Karane.”

            “Ah,” he said.  “The dream that he was dead?”

            “Yes.”

            He patted my back.  “You know what that witch told me?”

            I could not look at him, so I stared at the wagon bed.  “What?”

            “She told me some dreams are just dreams; other dreams rely on vagaries, such as our behavior or chance itself.  She had to examine each vision she had to make sure it was prescience.  But I don’t think they ever truly know if a dream is a vision or just a dream.”

            “Then what’s the point of prescience then!”

           “What if others know?  What if she hadn’t been powerful enough?  What if there are clairvoyants who know when they dream what is to be?  I don’t know anything, Yhera.  I’m not clairvoyant, but maybe you are.”

            I took a breath and released it.  Perhaps he was correct, and I should consult a clairvoyant or an oracle.  I remembered that Karane never got to visit the Oracle of Bah’nah.  I rubbed at the faint ache in my chest.

            “You know,” he said quietly.  “If you bury your head in the sand and think no one can see you, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.”

            I frowned.  “What does that even mean?”

            “If you run away from your dreams, they will only catch up to you in the end.  Be proactive, Yhera.  Try to figure them out before it’s too late.”

            The fine hairs along the nape of my neck rose.  I shuddered and rubbed my arms.

            “I only mean to help you, Yhera.  If you are prescient, you can’t hide from the future.”

            I swallowed the lump in my throat and nodded.  “I see your point.”

            “There are clairvoyants in the capital.  They work out of the open market and travel with caravans.”

            “How do you know this?”

            “That witch my mother and I went to see – I was fascinated by her.  I spent a lot of time with her before she pulled up roots and left.  She told me many helpful things.”

            “I have to contact the Resistance once I arrive back at Da’hrisjah.”

            He nodded.  “I gathered.  But you will have time to go the market with me and talk to one of the clairvoyants.  Won’t you?”

            I sighed.  “Yes.  I will go.”

           When we were four days from the capital, our barge stopped at a large village.  Most of the passengers, including Althin and her caravan, disembarked there.  Maejo spent the morning with his mother.  I did not see her off.  I had had a particularly awful night filled with blood-soaked dreams.  I was shaken and exhausted, so I wrapped myself in my blankets and sat on my pallet in the wagon, awaiting his return.

            The barge’s layover was several hours long.  After the caravans set off, Maejo went down into the village to get more supplies for us.  Just enough to last until we reached Da’hrisjah.

            I dozed while I waited for him to return. 

            Something woke me.

            I opened my eyes and looked up.  I startled, releasing a scream.

            Ohna sat cross legged across from me, pale as a ghost, looking older than I had ever seen her look.  Her eyes looked spooked, and she failed to say anything tart about my reaction when I woke.    

            I looked around the wagon.  “Where’s Lhara’h?”

            She swallowed convulsively and shook her head.  “Get me some wine.”

            I threw off my blankets and left my pallet to rummage through the dead thieves’ saddlebags until I found a bottle of something.  I uncorked it and sniffed, gasping.  It smelled like someone’s alcoholic home brew.

            “This is all we have,” I said.

            She nodded and held her hand out.

            I gave her the bottle, which was three quarters full.  As I watched, she uncorked it and drained half the contents in one go, grimacing and shuddering afterward.  She took another drink.    

            She held the bottle out to me.  “Here, drink please.”

            I took the bottle.  “I don’t think–“

            “Yhera!  Do as I say!”

            I drank.  Oh Goddess, it was like eating fire.  It burned and scored its way down my throat to my stomach.  I thought it would burn away a layer of my gut.

            I gasped and shuddered.

            She took the bottle back and emptied it.

            “Listen to me and don’t interrupt,” she said.  “I have seen things you won’t believe.  I have seen warlocks and magic.”

            I had to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from asking questions.  Warlocks and magic?

            “I saw them – the men who took Karane.  One of them ensorcelled Lhara’h.  They are holding her hostage.”  She swallowed thickly, her eyes glassy.  “I don’t know what they mean to do with her.”

            “How do you know she was ensorcelled?”

            She gave a laugh that turned into a sob.  She looked away from me.

            “She was fighting them with knives.  One of them produced a ball of light with his hands.  He threw it.  She managed to duck it, and it went through the wall and came back.  Lhara’h didn’t see it had returned.”  She closed her eyes.  Tears spilled down her pale cheeks.  “The light entered her, swallowed her.  She became docile.”

            I was shocked to hear the words “Lhara’h” and “docile” in the same sentence.

            “I escaped but just barely,” she continued.  She set the bottle down with a loud thud.  “We have to find her, Yhera.”

            “Of course.”

            Doubts crowded my thoughts.  Warlocks and magic?  Tales to frighten children!

            “They took a barge from one of the larger villages,” she told me.  “They are almost two days ahead of us.”

            “They were headed to the capital?” I asked.

            “Yes.”

            There was a noise from outside.  Maejo climbed onto the wagon bed, setting down a cloth bag full of goods.  His eyes widened when he saw Ohna.

            “Hello.”

            Ohna grimaced.  “You tell him what I told you.  I must lay down and rest.  I haven’t slept for three days.”

            She pulled Maejo’s pallet to the corner, away from us, and lay down.  In seconds, her breathing evened out.

            Maejo sat down next to me.  “What does she want me to know?”

            I told him verbatim what she had told me.  When I finished, he looked intrigued.

           “Do you believe her?” he asked

            “I don’t know,” I muttered, feeling numb.  “Her demeanor makes me take her at her word.”  I shook my head.  “But warlocks?  Magic?”

            “Don’t dismiss anything,” he advised and rose, picking up the cloth bag filled with goods.  He went to one of the crates and began to put his purchases away.

            Afterward, we sat quietly side by side.  The barge blew its horn and set out.  

            I looked over at Ohna.  She was awake, lying on her back, her gaze fastened to the underside of the bonnet.

            “Are you hungry, Ohna?” I asked quietly.

            She blinked thrice and turned her head to face me.  “I am not hungry, thank you.”  She sat up and crawled to where we sat.  “How can we rescue Lhara’h?  They will just do to us what they did to her.”  She rubbed her face with both hands.  “I am such a fool.  I should have found a way to kill her before they took her.”

            “Kill her?” I asked.

            She glared at me.  “Lhara’h knows our secrets, girl.  Now the whole of the Maidens are in peril.”

            I had not thought of that.  I lowered my gaze, feeling my face flush.

            She sighed.  “Don’t chastise yourself again, Yhera.  You are young and fairly naive, despite what you have gone through.”

            My flush deepened.  I stiffened and rose.  “I am not naive!  Excuse me.”

            I made my way to the edge of the wagon bed and hopped outside.  The day was drizzly and cool.  The sky looked bruised.  Making my way stem-ward, I leaned against the railing and gazed out into the distant north.

            Who was I kidding?  Ohna was right.  I was so out of my element.   How were we supposed to fight warlocks and rescue both Lhara’h and Karane?  I turned my right palm face-up and closed my eyes, willing magic to appear.  Minutes later, I opened my eyes.  The only thing I had gathered were raindrops.  I sighed and grasped the railing with both hands.

            “You’ll catch cold,” Maejo said from behind me.

            I felt when he draped one of the treated cloaks around my shoulders.

            “Thank you,” I murmured.

            He bowed.  “Any time, lady.”   He moved to stand next to me.  “Were you thinking up a plan?”

            “To rescue our friends?” I gave a mirthless chuckle.  “I don’t know how to fight warlocks.”  I looked at him.  “Do you?”

            “Distract them, hit them from two sides.”  He shrugged.  “A warlock is still just a man after all.”

            I pulled the cloak hood over my head.  “Ohna told me there are four of them.  She didn’t say they were all warlocks.”

            “Those are not bad odds, three against four.”

            I smiled.  “Now you sound like Karane.”

            In the distance, thunder rumbled.  I could see the dance of lightning across the heavy clouds.

            The embankments built on either side of the river rose high into the air, blocking our view of the fields of grain beyond.  The water came halfway up the dikes.  

            The wind kicked up and the rainfall strengthened.

            “We should return to the wagon,” he said.

            I nodded and followed him.

            Ohna was sitting cross legged near the supplies.  She looked up when we climbed onto the wagon bed.

            She said nothing as Maejo and I sat side by side on my pallet.  I removed the cloak, shook it out carefully and draped it over one of the supply crates.

            “We should go to the convent first thing,” is what she finally said.  “Maejo cannot come.”

            “Then I won’t come either,” I said.  

            She leaned forward, her face a mask of cold anger.  “I cannot vouch for him like I can for you, Yhera.”

            “No. It’s because he’s a man.  I sicken of these rules.  Maejo helped me immensely the entire time you were gone.  I won’t desert him because his gender is an inconvenience.”

            “Yhera–” Maejo began.

            I looked at him.  “No.  I rent a room in the city. We can go there and wait until Ohna finds us again.”

            He nodded and dropped his gaze.

            She scoffed and looked away from me.  “You do not have the makings of a good nun.”

            “I think you are correct about that,” I retorted.  “Knowing this doesn’t shame me, whatever you may think.”

            Ohna bent her legs and wrapped her arms around them.  “What is to become of you, girl?  You have no one, including the Maidens.”

            Maejo stiffened next to me.  “She has me.”

            Ohna snorted.  “You?  You?  You don’t even have a skill, like you mother sought to teach you.  You are just a fool, same as Yhera here.  I expect such foolishness from a man, but not a woman who has been training to become a Maiden of Sene.”

            “Yes, I suppose I’m a fool,” I blurted.  “Then you are better off without me.”

            She snorted again and turned away, crawling across the wagon bed to the edge and disappearing into the late afternoon.

            “Don’t make her an enemy,” Maejo warned in a whisper.

            I shook my head.  “She has always been condescending towards me.  And Lhara’h has always been full of taunts and cruelty.  I had already made up my mind to leave the Maidens.  They know me in the Resistance as Aether Aemathi’s daughter.  His reputation is enough to assure me a place with the Resistance.”

            He gasped.  “Your sire was a great man!”

            I smiled sadly.  “He was a great father as well.  I miss him so much!”

            He reached out and took my left hand, giving it a squeeze.  “He lives on within you, Yhera.”

            I nodded mutely.

            We sat side by side for a long time, listening to the patter of rain.

            He shifted. “Do you know how to contact the Resistance when we get to the capital?”

            “Yes.  Don’t worry.”

            “I can’t help but worry.  How are we going to rescue Karane?”

            “That I don’t know, but I will ask the Resistance for help.  They wanted him recruited.  They will have to help me get him back.”

            He looked unconvinced but kept his thoughts to himself.

            We would be in Da’hrisjah by next morning.  I began to gather Karane’s and my belongings.  I was sure Ohna would take the wagon to the convent.  

            I could not take even one of the lir’tah, for I had no place to stable the animal.

            “We’ll have to walk to my rooms,” I told Maejo.  “I can’t afford stabling a lir’tah in the city.”

            He smiled.  “That’s fine, Yhera.  No worries.”

            We lay down side by side.  He turned to face me and drew the bedclothes over me, tucking the edges under my chin.

            “I can vouch for you with the Resistance,” I told him.

            “Thank you.”

            I chuckled.  “Is this adventurous enough for you?”

            He laughed.  “Yes.  Quite.  I have a feeling I will see plenty more action before we are said and done.  And plenty of wonders.”

            The next morning dawned with heavy rainfall.  Maejo and I gathered our belongings and rolled one of the pallets to take with us.  Ohna had not returned to the wagon the previous night.

            “Do you think she left us the wagon?” Maejo asked.

            I gnawed my lower lip.  After a moment, I shrugged.  “Not our business.  We go with just what we can carry.  I wouldn’t know what to do with a wagon in the city.”

            We climbed down from the wagon bed.  Ohna was a few feet away, hunched over under a treated cloak.

            “This is your last chance,” she told me.

            “I don’t need any more chances,” I replied.  “I’ve made up my mind.  Goodbye, Ohna.”

            I turned my back to her.

            “The Maidens cannot protect you any further,” she hissed.  “Are you mad?”

            “Yes.  Quite loopy.  Let’s go, Maejo.”

            There was a long line of passengers waiting to disembark while the barge was pulled to the dock.  Maejo and I stood at the end of the line.

            The rain fell in fat drops.  I thanked the Goddess for the treated cloaks.  The wind was cool and smelled of smoke from cooking fires on the other side of the city walls.

            It took us a few minutes to step down from the barge onto the dock.  Long lines of passengers from other barges created a bottleneck near the city walls.

            I sighed.

            We waited for close to an hour without moving much.  The rain dissipated.

            “You know,” Maejo murmured.  “My mother’s sister Sih’ine has an orchard outside the city walls.  Perhaps we can stay there until morning.  It should be easier to enter the city tomorrow first thing.”

            I looked at the long line ahead of us.  The guards had to check everyone’s identification papers.  It could take hours for us to reach the gates.

            “If your aunt doesn’t mind, Maejo,” I said.  “I would appreciate landing somewhere where I can bathe and rest.”

            “The orchard is a few sepeks from here, if you don’t mind walking.”

            “Lead the way.”

            It was now well past noon.  To the south, darker clouds gathered.  The wind was blowing our way.  I hoped we made it to the orchard before we got soaked.

            The walk was pleasant enough:  there were lovely orchards along the paved road.  The front lawns were filled with flowering shrubs and plants.  The air was redolent with the musk of flowers and overripe fruit.  In some of the yards, workers bent, pulling weeds, while others pruned plants and shrubs.  No one paid us any mind.  Underneath the stronger scents of flowers and fruit clung the scent of the sea.

            I stopped to shift my travel bag on my back and we continued on.

            Maejo seemed lost to his thoughts, so I did not disturb him.  But I did not want to be alone with my thoughts.  Karane was always front and center and now Lhara’h, too.  How were we supposed to help Karane if I did not know where to start?  

            I gazed east at a particularly handsome property.  I knew some of the orchards were owned by the Empress’ family, but I did not know which.  I knew families were paid to run these orchards and produce wines and liqueurs for the Empress.  They were paid well to do so.  These families came from the wealthier classes.  It was a wasted opportunity on the Empress’ part not to employ poorer denizens to run her orchards.  I never understood the logic behind her actions.

            Cool breezes swept from the south.  Already I could feel the moisture in the air.

            “How much further, Maejo?”

            He started.  “What?”        

            “How much further to your aunt’s orchard?”

            “Maybe half a sepek, no more.”  He glanced at the skies.  “We just might make it.”

            We increased our pace.

            Within a quarter of an hour, we came to a lovely U-shaped home.  The wings of the house were built forward and the middle was built back from the road.  As with all the orchards that I had seen so far, a whitewashed wooden fence demarcated this property from the others nearby.  Lovely trees adorned the front lawn.  Each tree was filled with white flowers.  Flowering shrubs grew along the south and north fences.  For privacy, I surmised.  A sign hung over the gate.  Mourh’in Orchards.

            Maejo opened the white wooden gate and stepped back to allow me to precede him.  When I was on the other side of the fence, he stepped through and the gate clicked shut behind him.

            The front door was in the middle wing.  A little paved path from the road led to it.

            We stopped before the door and Maejo picked up the heavy iron knocker in the shape of a sphere.  He knocked thrice then stepped back to stand beside me.

            An older woman, her dark hair threaded with bright silver, opened the door.  She saw me first and smiled.  She had kind eyes.

            “Eiva’h,” Maelo murmured.

            The woman startled.  “Oh!  Master Maejo!  I’m so sorry.  I didn’t see you there.  Come in!”

            She stepped back.

            We entered a foyer painted a light yellow.  The wooden floor was whitewashed.  There was a dark yellow rectangular throw rug in the middle of the space.  A wooden coat tree stood on one side of the door and hooks along the narrow wall on the other.

            “Is my aunt home?” Maejo asked.

            “Yes, sir.  Please, take your cloaks off and hang them on the hooks there.  I’ll cleaned them later.”

            We set down our bags and did as she asked.

            “I’m sorry for our appearance,” I told her.  “We’ve been traveling and haven’t had a wash in a few weeks.”

            She waved my words away.  “We have plenty of bathing rooms.  Maejo, your room is still your room. There is a second room adjacent to that, for the miss here.”  She cocked her head.  “Unless you are married.”

            “He wishes!” I quipped and slapped his arm with the back of my hand.

            Maejo blushed.

            Eiva’h chuckled and shook her head fondly.  She asked, “Would you like some hot water?”

            “Don’t trouble yourself, Eiva’h,” he replied, bending to pick up his bag and Karane’s.  “I’ll show Yhera here her room.  Please tell my aunt that I will see her as soon as she is able to meet with me.”

            Eiva’h bowed.  “Right away, young sir.”

            I followed Maejo down the long hallway to an arched entryway that led to an adjacent hall in the north wing of the house.

            “This is the family’s wing,” he explained.  “There are ten modest bedrooms which share five bathing rooms.  Your room shares one with my room.  Here.  This is your room.”

            He opened the glossy white door and stepped back.

            “Do you wish to bathe first or should I?” he asked.

            “You go, Maejo.  Thank you.”

            He bowed and strode to the next door over, entering the room without looking back.    

            My room was decorated in shades of coral and deep yellows.  There was a full bed with a mustard-yellow canopy and curtains against the right-hand wall.  Spindly-legged dark wood tables stood on either side of the bed.  There was a vase filled with white flowers on both tables.  They released a sweet musk into the closed air of the room.  The floor here too was whitewashed.  Dark apricot throw rugs were positioned around the room.  Opposite the bed were two stuffed arm chairs with a low table between them.  A wide window stood next to a wardrobe directly opposite the hallway door.  Another door stood just to my right.

            I entered the room.

            Closing the hallway door, I set my bag on the floor.  I could hear the rumble of thunder not too far away.

            I made my way to the window and pushed the glass paned shutters out.  Cool, damp-scented breezes rushed in, drying the sweat on my brow.  As I leaned on the windowsill and gazed at the overcast sky, I began to feel the aches and pains in my body.  My feet were sore, as was my lower back.  I sat on the floor next to the window and began to stretch the kinks from my legs and back.

            When I was done stretching, I lay back on the floor and closed my eyes.  Outside, rain began to ping against the side of the house and open shutters.

            Slowly, I began to relax.  The wakeful moment gave way to sleep seamlessly.  

            I dreamed of Karane.  He wore black trousers and a black coat over a black tunic.  The dark clothes made him seem pale.  The skin under his green eyes was smudged dark.  He wore his hair in a tight braid behind him.  He went barefoot.

            “You didn’t look for me, Yhera,” he accused.

            I rubbed my chest.  “I didn’t know where to start!”

            He shook his head.  “Not an excuse.  Look what they’ve done to me.  This isn’t supposed to be my life!”

            I gasped and sat up.  Outside, rain was falling in earnest.  

            With a sigh, I rose and leaned on the windowsill.  The rain fell in a gray curtain, obscuring distances and sound.  I closed the shutters.

            “Karane,” I whispered as I turned back to the room.  “I will find you.  I promise.”

Chapter IX: Karane

            Lohrehn backhanded me again.

            I could taste blood in my mouth and turned my head to spit.

            “Have you not heard the old saying:  you get more bees with honey than with vinegar?” I asked him.  “Whatever bees and vinegar are.”

            He gave me a smile that did not reach his eyes.  “You’re making this very pleasurable for me, Karane.  I would like to thank you.”

            “Enough,” Estenosj muttered.

            Lohrehn sobered and bowed to the monk.  “Yes, brother.”

            Estenosj waved him away and turned to me.  “We have ways to change you, Karane.  We’ve opted thus far to have you join us willingly.   I grow tired of your stubbornness.”

            “Why do you need me to be a Shadow, anyway,” I asked, curious.  “I can assist you without converting.”

            Estenosj took three steps towards me and clamped his hand around my jaw, squeezing until I gasped.    

            “Everyone will convert to the true faith,” he said with deceptive mildness.  “Whether now or after the rebellion.  You’ll join us before if it’s the last thing I do.”

             He let go my jaw and turned away.  “We have to keep moving.  Those bitches are probably on our heels.”

            Lohrehn pushed me towards my lir’tah.  I grabbed hold of the pommel and hauled myself onto the saddle.

            “Lead the way, Lohr,” Estenosj said.

            Lohrehn bowed from the saddle and turned his lir’tah north.  He gave the animal a vicious kick.

            My lir’tah followed willingly.  

            We had reached the grain fields days ago and were keeping near the river and away from the patrolled fields.

            “There’s a large village further north,” Lohrehn called over his shoulder.  “We should be able to get a barge there.  Our tracks are easy to spot, and it doesn’t look like rain for a bit.”

            “That’s a worthy plan,” Estenosj told him.  “Lead the way.”

            I had long ago grown numb to the pain in my low back and inner thighs from long hours on the saddle.  We only stopped about an hour twice a day for the awful religious instructions and to rest the animals.  I tottered at the edge of exhaustion.

            I peered right, towards the west.  The grain fields this far south had been left fallow for a season.  The rich black earth extended all the way to the horizon.  Further north, the harvesting had begun, and dozens of harvesters moved among the tall, golden grain.  Some paused in their work as we galloped past. They wore loose tunics and trousers and wide-brimmed hats.  They went barefoot along the grain, swinging scythes or machetes.  I could see the glint of steel as guards walked the periphery.  They were too far for me to distinguish if I knew them.  And, of course, they would not recognize me from this distance.

            Near midday we came upon a large village with an expansive dock for the barges.  Here, the huts and cottages were built on stilts several feet into the air.  Small boats were set next to each hut or cottage.  It was a strange sensation, walking down the main road with the houses hulking overhead.  

            “Go purchase us a space on the next barge, Lorh,” Estenosj said as we walked our mounts along the dusty main road through the village.  “We’ll find a tavern for a hot meal.”

            We were garnering quite a bit of attention.

            “Right away, brother,” Lohrehn replied, mounting once more and cantering towards the docks.

            Estenosj led us to a tavern near the docks.  Long wooden stairs led from the ground to the front door.

            Estenosj handed the reins of his lir’tah to Kritos.  “Find the stables.  We need to keep the lir’tah out of sight until it is time to embark.”

            The guard bowed and took the three mounts further north.

            We walked up the stairs, which were solid and sturdy, if worn by the elements.  The front door stood open.  A portico wrapped around the building, allowing for outside tables, though few customers seemed to prefer eating out of doors.

            The tavern inside was half-empty.  Estenosj chose a table away from the windows and near the back wall.  He sat with his back to the wall.  

            “Sit there,” he said, meaning that my back would be to the windows.

            I sat.

            The tavern keeper came to our table and bowed.  “Welcome.  Our special is a spicy river fish stew with turies on two enashas.”

            Estenosj smiled at him.  “That’ll be fine.  We have two more coming.  The same for all.  And bring us some cider, please.”

            The tavern keeper bowed and hurried away.

            Lohrehn and the other guard returned shortly, talking softly.

            They slid into their chairs and Lohrehn bent close to Estenosj and whispered something in his ear.

            The monk sighed and nodded.  His hazel eyes snarled my gaze.  “Your friends are here.  At least two of them.”

            “Which two?” I asked, hoping that Yhera was not with them.

            “The two nuns,” he replied.

            My heart gave a sickening lurch that left me lightheaded.  I had no hope that I wouldn’t be gutted by them for my disappearance.  They would be sick of my disappearances by now and probably figured I would serve them better dead.

            The tavern keeper brought four specials.  Estenosj thanked him.

            “Eat and quickly,” he murmured when the tavern keeper had walked away.

            The stew was good, but I could barely swallow past the lump in my throat. It was the same for me before every battle.  I could not eat anything until the battle was done.  

            I picked up my glass of cider and swallowed my mouthful of fish stew.

            Estenosj pointed his chin at Lohrehn.  “Do you think the nuns saw us?”

            Lohrehn shifted.  “They came from the east, brother.  I just spied them cantering into the village.”

            “But they’ll recognize our guest, of course,” Estenosj muttered and sighed.  “I’m suppose we’ll have to take care of this now.  Finish up.”

            I pushed my plate away.

            “Eat,” Lohrehn growled.

            “I can’t eat right now,” I hissed.  “I can’t get the lump of food down my throat.”

            “Leave him be,” Estenosj said firmly.  “The rest of you – finish eating.”

            They were done quickly, sopping up the remains of the stew with some bread.  

            Estenosj rose and reached into the inner pocket of his coat.  He hailed the tavern keeper.

            The man hurried over and accepted the coins.

            “When does the next barge leave?” the monk asked him.

            “Within two hours, sir.”

            “Thank you.”

            We left the tavern and stood at the door, glancing left and right.  The main road was busier now than when we arrived.  Most foot traffic seemed to be headed to the docks.

            “I don’t see them, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t there,” Estenosj declared.  “Let’s head to the stables and see what we can see.”

            We walked sedately down the dusty road. I kept my head down and followed between Estenosj and Lohrehn and the other two guards.

            The stables, being built on the ground, were located almost a sepek east of the main road.  We entered a warmer, dimmer space.  The smell of feed and sour animal waste clung to the still air.

            It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dimness.

            “You led us a merry chase,” said a silky female voice.

            Lhara’h!

            She stood just inside, arms and legs akimbo.  

            Where was Ohna?

            “I don’t like your odds,” Estenosj declared lazily.  “Why don’t you be a good girl and step aside?”

            Her face became stony, her eyes glittering.

            Without taking his eyes off the nun, Estenosj said:  “Dohron, Kritos, go outside and around.  Find that other nun.”

            The two guards jogged away.

            Estenosj and Lohrehn stepped apart.  Estenosj took hold of my elbow and propelled me closer to the right-hand wall.

            Lohrehn smiled grimly at Lhara’h.  He lifted his hand and said a few words so softly I could not catch them.

            The palm of his hand glowed.

            Lhara’h’s eyes bulged.

            Lohrehn repeated the words and hurled a ball of light towards her.  

            She threw herself on the ground.  The ball of light sailed past her and out the back wall.

            She rose, her hands a blur as she unsheathed a dagger and threw it with deadly precision at Lohrehn.  He shouted a word and the dagger stopped in midair and fell with a plunk to the ground.    

            The ball of light by then had returned and was headed towards Lhara’h.  

            I opened my mouth to warn her when a hand clamped over my mouth.

            “Shut. Up,” Estenosj hissed.

            As I watched helplessly, Lhara’h threw three daggers in a row, so quickly one could barely see the action, but Lohrehn stopped them with a mere word.

            “What witchery is this?” Lhara’h demanded.

            Lohrehn laughed.   He murmured three words and the ball of light expanded.

            She finally must have seen the light at the edge of her vision, for she whirled around just in time to be engulfed.

            The light shrunk until it pressed against her body and she was gasping for air.

            Lohrehn strode to where she stood and murmured more words.  The light seemed to flicker and then it sank into Lhara’h’s skin and disappeared.

            “Nicely done,” Estenosj said.  “Let’s get our mounts and leave, shall we?  Bring the nun.”

            The monk put his hand on my back and pushed me savagely forward.  

            I lost my footing and fell with an oomph.  

            He squatted eyelevel to me.  “You’re proving quite the pain in my ass, aren’t you, Karane?  Even if you had warned her, she wouldn’t have been able to stop it.  Get up.  If you want to live to see your next natal day, I propose you get onboard with us.”

            I swallowed, looking away from his glittering glare.  I stood up and followed him to where Lohrehn was saddling our mounts.

            Dohron and Kritos returned.

            “Well?” Estenosj demanded.

            “We couldn’t locate her, brother.”

            Estenosj chewed on his lower lip.  “Keep aware.  Let’s head to the docks.”

            I kept my eyes out for Ohna.  

            Lohrehn rode with Lhara’h before him on his mount.  

            I looked at the nun.  Her eyes were glazed and her mouth slack.  I began to like this less and less.

            I had heard stories of warlocks and witches, but those stories were meant to frighten children.  I did not think I was dealing with warlocks.  But if Lohrehn was not a warlock, then what was he?

            We made it to the docks without event and dismounted.  Dohron led the mounts onto the barge, towards the stern.

            Lohrehn slid from his saddle and pulled Lhara’h gently down.  He put his arm around her and chuckled.

            “Let’s go, missus,” he murmured.

            Kritos laughed uproariously as if it was the best joke he had ever heard.

            I looked away, feeling sick.  I hoped they would not hurt her any more than she was already.

            Estenosj clamped his hand around my left elbow and kept it there.

            Would they do to me what they had done to Lhara’h in order to keep me docile and agreeable?  The thought choked me with fear.  I looked around, hoping there was something I could do to escape.  I no longer cared if I died of poison.  I just wanted to put space between myself and the Shadows.

            Lohrehn reached into his coat and retrieved five tickets.  “Here you go, brother.”

            Estenosj sighed.  “That’s good.”  He frowned.  “Why do I get the feeling that other nun saw us in the stables?  Lohrehn, you and Kritos go and have a look around, but be back within the hour and a half.”

            Lohrehn bowed.  “Yes, brother.”

            Dohron had returned and now took Lhara’h from Lohrehn and led her onto the barge.

            Goods were being loaded and unloaded from the barge now.  We headed towards the stem.  A few passengers were milling about.  Some had set up tents on the deck.  The stern of the long barge was reserved for goods, wagons and animals.  I could see the tall stacks of sturdy crates.  There was a small pilot house at the front of the barge. There were long poles secured on either side of the barge.  How I understood barges to function, there would be up to 20 men using the poles to propel the barge forward.  The men worked in shifts of five hours with two hours off.  

            I walked to the railing and leaned against it, looking ahead towards the north.  The Kahi River was a source of awe to most Tjish.unen.  Its length numbered in the thousands of sepeks.  There were areas of the river where the width could be longer than 10 sepeks.  The further north one went, one could see where the natural banks of the river had been added to in order to keep the grain fields from flooding during the height of the monsoon season.  Right now, the river was moderately swollen, as the rainy season had been less than generous.  As the monsoon season grew old, more rain would come, and the river would outgrow its banks and flood the southern lands.  The river was forever changing its course depending on the season.  

            Estenosj joined me at the railing.  I stiffened and forced myself to relax.

            “What are you going to do with the nun?” I demanded softly.

            He flicked me a disinterested glance.  “We need to extract information from her.”

            “Please don’t hurt her.”

            He snorted.  “She was ready to kill Lohrehn back there.  She would have probably killed you, too, given half the chance.  Yet you plead for her life.”

            I swallowed and looked away from his hazel eyes.

            “She won’t recall what she’s seen,” he told me after a time.  “I can’t promise she will be the same girl as she was before, but she’ll be alive.”

            I looked at him.  “What do you mean – she won’t be the same girl as she was before?”

            He shrugged.  “The magic is hard to predict.  Sometimes it does what it wants.  It could well be she’ll remain a simpleton the rest of her life.”

            “Then perhaps death is better.”

            “That is not for you to decide.”  He spat into the water.  “Now, we’re going to continue your education.”

            I refrained from rolling my eyes.

            “What is the role of God Khahn in the pantheon?”

            I took a breath.  “He is the lord of death and rebirth.  The lord of change and beginnings.”

            He inclined his head.  “Very good.  Who was his mate?”

            “The God Kahi,” I replied.  “But how is that so?”

            He pursed his lips.  “Don’t tell me you’ve learned nothing about God Kahi!”

            I looked away from him again.

            He sighed.  “Kahi is a dual-sexed God.  He is both male and female and appears as both all the time.  He is availed of a womb and testicles.  The perfect being, poised at the very pinnacle of perfection.  Capable of self-reproduction.  But the God Kahi fell in love with Khahn.  

            “When the Gods and Goddesses created life, they did not imbue their creations with desire or lust.  So, their creations fought each other instead of seeking to mate.  The Gods and Goddesses needed to create a being who could generate desire and lust in others.  Thus, they came together and Leh pricked each God’s or Goddess’ finger and took one drop of blood from each deity.  This blood was mixed with earth.  Then Leh blew holy breath into the being’s lungs and Kahi was born.  Kahi has a bit of ability from each of his parents:  beauty from Bah’nah, the ability to love from Ike’rheu, the ability to destroy from Sene, and the ability to regenerate from Khahn.

            “When he came alive, Kahi fascinated the Gods and Goddesses. He was beautiful, exotic, capable of charming.  But he also has a darker side – he is the God of excess and madness.  He is the God, too, of atoliye.”

            I frowned.  “I have never understood that.”

            He shrugged again.  “He fell in love with a male.”

            “But he is both genders, so why is he the God of atoliye?”

            “We’ll discuss that another time, shall we?  Let’s finish today’s lesson.  When Kahi awoke into life, he gazed first upon Khahn first and fell in love.  When Khahn was expelled from the Pantheon by the High Priestess Sefara’h, she made the worship of Khahn a matter of death.  She also relegated Kahi to the edges of faith.”

            “That’s unfortunate,” I murmured.  “We don’t have the right to exile Gods.”

            He smiled.  “Exactly!  Hundreds of monks and priests who worshipped Khahn were murdered by Sefara’h and her daughters and descendants, unto this Empress.  The total of our brothers killed for their beliefs now number in the thousands.  It has been a genocide.”

            I shuddered.  

            “They were killed in the most exquisitely painful manner, too,” he continued in a conversational tone.  “They were tortured, beaten to death or their flesh was peeled away.  Drawn and quartered.  You name it, it was done.  We are done hiding in the shadows, Karane Truvesto.  No more of us will die.”

            He spun on his heel and strode away, his shoulders stiff.

            I reached up and touched the decoder through my tunic.  

            Lohrehn and Kritos returned a few minutes before the barge was untied from the dock.

            I went to see what they had to say about Ohna.

            “Did you find the other nun?” Estenosj demanded.

            “No, sir,” Lohrehn replied.  “If she saw, she must have fled with that knowledge.”

            “We’ll have to catch her another way,” the monk murmured.  “Now, set up our tents.”

            The guards got busy setting up three large tents.

            I knelt next to Estenosj.  “How will you catch her?”

            He smiled humorlessly.  “That is none of your business.  Here.”

            He reached into his saddlebag and removed a tome.  He slapped it against my chest, knocking me over.  

            The tome smelled old and had fragile, yellowed pages.

            “Read the Book,” he told me.  “Before the light is gone from the sky.”

***

            I sat cross legged at the stem, the Book on my lap.  Reading it was slow going, as I had to use the decoder to do so.  I asked for paper and a pen and was resoundly denied.  I guess I understood the Shadows had to take care of how much of their knowledge got out, which would include the contents of their holy book.

           I was worried about Lhara’h and Ohna and found my mind wandering again and again towards Yhera. Where was she now?  Was she safe?

           With a sigh, I closed my eyes and concentrated.   Already most of the sunlight had been leached from the sky.  The sun clung to the west, draped in dark reds and purples.  The edges of the light was golden.  

           “Come here, Karane,” Estenosj called softly from the double tent I would be sharing with him.

           I closed the book carefully and rose, striding to the tent and kneeling before him.

           “What did you learn?” he asked, taking the tome from my hands.

           “When the creatures the Gods created began to multiply, the entire world filled with them.  Then the Gods grew jealous of one another as the creatures began to choose which of the Gods they would worship.  Every God and Goddess wanted to have more worshippers than the others.  A great battle ensued, during which all the creatures were destroyed. The world came to brink of its undoing.  Da’hrisjah saw this and became angry.  He banished the gods to another dimension, where they could influence their creations only through persuasion and promises, manifesting only through dreams.  Da’hrisjah then created the beings on this world, the isili, the Isemi and others.  He created all manner of beasts and flying animals.  The progenitors of human beings came to this world on an ark, guided by Da’hrisjah.”

            Estenosj smiled.  “Very good, novice.  What else did you learn?”

            “Not much else, given I have no pen and no paper with which to write down the words I am decoding.”

            “Soon we will be in the capital and there you shall learn what you need to know,” he promised.

            I did not care, but I did not tell him that.  I bowed my head like a good servant and promised myself I would escape at the soonest opportunity.

            Where was Lhara’h, I wondered.  

            “Get in the tent and get some rest,” the monk urged, pulling the tent flap back.  “Go on.”

            I crawled into the tent and found the pallet that had been given to me.  I pulled the rough blankets up to my chin and kept my eyes on the tent flap.  It swayed in the soft breezes.  I had to save Lhara’h, but how?  

            I soon fell into a restless slumber.  My dream was fractured and disturbing.  Images of blood and death, destruction, and great suffering.  In the dream, I knew I dreamed, and I also knew the dream was not just a dream.  Pay attention, a voice said in my mind.  Wake up or all is lost!

            I gasped and came up on an elbow.  I was soaked in sweat and trembling in the cool breezes rifling my hair.  I lay on a world on the brink of death.  The ground upon which I lay was charred.  The skeleton of burnt trees filled the horizon like jagged fangs.  The world had the odor of char.  The sky was blood red, the sun a small black pearl on the other side of the thick smoke and fumes.  I rose, naked and pale as a ghost.  As I walked, I saw the burned remains of beings and animals.  I walked around them, careful to touch nothing.

           “Wake up and pay attention.”

            I turned.  A God stood there, golden, and beautiful as starlight.  His hair was long down his back, and he wore a warrior’s garb – golden armor studded with exquisite precious jewels.  The cuirass was solid with jewels.  He wore a short skirt of gold and greaves to protect his lower legs.  He went barefoot.  In his right hand he held a golden javelin and on his left hand a shield.  Where his eyes should have been there was light.  His golden hair moved lazily in the breezes.

            I went down on one knee.  “Lord.”    

            “Rise, Karane.”

            I rose.

            “I have brought you here to tell you that my teachings have been perverted.  Find the actual meaning in the Book of Death and you shall set my worshippers free.”

            I opened my mouth to speak his name.

            “Desist!  Lest you die.”

            His name died on my tongue.

            “You must become a worshipper to change the Way.  The Shadows are wrong, and you must set them aright.”

            “How do I do this, Lord?”

            “You learn from them and become one of them.  Not all the Shadows believe the perversions; they only seek to change the world.  One by one, convert them, but first you must learn the teachings of the Book.”

            “I will, Lord.”

            “I will ask much of you, Karane.  But this is what I will give you.”  

            He stepped forward and placed his hand on my chest.

            I began to heave.  Pain lanced through my abdomen, my veins, my chest.  I opened my mouth and vomited a vile black substance that stank to the heavens.  I vomited until my stomach hurt.  

            The God placed his hand on my head.  “Now, awake!!!”

            I gasped.  My heart clamored in my chest.  My chest felt tight and hurt.  I could not catch my breath.  I was drenched in sweat.

            I looked to the left.  Estenosj slept on undisturbed.

            I crawled to the tent flaps and poked my head out.  I could see the outline of Kritos near the railing.  Rain pattered gently.  The deck was wet.  The sky was still dark, and I wondered what time it was.

            I crawled out of the tent and stood.  

            Kritos turned around.  “What are you doing up?  Return to your bed.”

            I swallowed the bitterness at the back of my throat.  I turned my face up to the sky.  The coolness of the rain soothed me.

            “I had a dream–” I began.

            He shook his head.  “That matters not.  Return to your bed before I make you.”

            I sighed and crawled back inside.  Removing my tunic, I dried the sweat from my skin and underarms, rubbing my face until it burned.  I smelled of something strange – bitter and medicinal.  Could it be true?  Had the God healed me?

            I closed my eyes and said a short prayer of thanks.

            “What are you doing awake?” Estenosj demanded.

            I started and turned to him.   “I had a dream.”

            He came up on an elbow.  “What kind of dream?”

            “Khahn healed me of the poison.”

            He sat up promptly.  “What jest is this?”

            “No jest.  He bid me join the Shadows–”  I felt a heaviness on my tongue and knew Estenosj was not to be trusted.  “In exchange for a cure.”

            He frowned. “Why do I think you just lied to me?”

            He turned to his left and picked up two ca’ahl stones, striking them and lighting an oil lamp.  The smell of oil filled the tent.

            Turning back to me, he held the lamp aloft.

            “Now – what you told me, is it true?”

            My heart gave a sickening jolt.  Then a deep serenity filled me.  

            “Yes.”

            He watched my eyes.  I did not flinch from his sharp perusal.

            “Tell me the dream.”

            I told him everything but the God’s assertion that His teachings had been perverted.

            He cocked his head.  “God preserves!  You tell the truth.  Are you a prophet?”

            “It is His wish that I be, but first I must learn the Book of Death.”

            He gaped.  “But none of us…our Leader has the only copy, Karane.”

            “Then I must see him.”

            He sighed.  “I will attempt to get you an audience.  He is a prophet also.”

           A false prophet, something whispered through my mind and I shivered.  Kill him and set what is perverted to rights.

            “Yes, Lord,” I whispered.

            Estenosj’s eyes widened.  “He speaks to you?”

            “Yes. I know his True Name.”

            Estenosj set the lamp down.  His hands shook badly.  

            “Tell it me.”

            “I cannot speak it, for it would mean our deaths.”

            Estenosj rubbed his face with his hands.  “Alright.  I had read that, but you had not.  You must be speaking the truth.”

            I said nothing.

            He sighed.  “Very well, Karane.  We must find you a name – a prophet’s name.”

            “The God will name me,” I retorted.  

            “Of course,” he said and bowed.  “Forgive me, Prophet.”

            I held my left hand out.  Pain lanced along the joints and connective tissues.  As we looked on, a light crackled across my fingertips and palm.  It looked like lightning.  I curved my fingers and the light bent to become a small ball.

            Estenosj gasped and fell upon his face.  “Forgive me!  I doubted you, but I can see you speak truth!”            

            “Brother?” Lohrehn called from outside.  “Are you alright?”

            “Yes,” Estenosj called in return.  “Give me a moment.”

            He put his hands together and bowed his head.  “I honor you, Prophet.”

            I nodded.  “Teach me and lead me to the Book of Death.”

            “At once, Prophet!”

            He rummaged through his knapsack and retrieved a shirt.  He handed it to me.

            I pulled it on.  I undid my braid and combed my hair with my fingers. He stepped behind me and re-braided my hair.

            “Let’s tell the others, shall we?” he asked.

            We crawled out.  Lohrehn, Kritos and Dorohn stood in a line, daggers drawn.

            “Put your weapons away,” Estenosj hissed.  “Are you mad?”

            “You were yelling, brother,” Lohrehn said.

            Estenosj indicated the three guards. “Tell them.”

            “The God visited me in a dream.  He has named me a prophet.”

            Lohrehn snorted then laughed.  The other two looked enraged.

            “I don’t believe you,” Lohrehn stated.  “And if you take the God’s name in vain again, I will cut your tongue out.”

            “Show him,” Estenosj urged.  His eyes glittered.

            Lohrehn turned to Estenosj.  “He has enthralled you.”

            I lifted my hand.  Light crackled over the skin.  It hurt but I was not afraid.  I placed my other hand over it and squeezed.  When I removed my top hand, a small ball of light remained.

            “How–?” Lohrehn gaped.  “How do you do this?”

            “One cannot teach magic,” Estenosj stated with quiet triumph.  “It is innate or given by the God.”

            “Other false Gods can give magic, too!” Kritos hissed.

            I turned my face to the sky, allowing the rain to wash the sweat from my skin.

            “When we are away from this barge,” I said without looking at them.  “I will give you proof.”

            “I will know now,” Lohrehn hissed and in a blur and threw his dagger at me.

            Before I could say a word, the blade sliced through my tunic and flesh, cutting through my heart.  I fell onto my back.”

            I gazed up at the cloudy sky.  The rain continued to fall.  I heard Estenosj yell in anger.

            Rise, Karane.  Take the blade with your hand and pull it free.

            I sat up, reaching for the blade, and pulling it free.  At once, a deep warmth filled me.  My heart hurt and spurted blood, soaking the front of my tunic.  I placed my hand over my heart.  The God whispered words of healing that I recited under my breath. Slowly, the pain increased until I wanted to scream. It was like being on fire from the inside out.  The drops of rain fell on my skin, hissed and evaporated.  My eyes felt as if they were being cooked in their sockets, but I could clearly see the fear in Lohrehn’s eyes.  Kritos and Dohron fell upon their knees; Estenosj followed suit.

            I spoke Lohrehn’s name.  Wisps of smoke rose from my lips.  I fell upon my hands and swallowed my screams.  I began to thrash in a fit.  I struggled to hold myself up. I was drenched in blood but still I did not die.  The pain brought me to a sharp edge inside myself.  Fear and hope warred and began to tear me apart.  I fell face first to the ground and darkness swallowed me.

Chapter VIII: Yhera

            Maejo took a step closer.  I pressed my back against the side of the wagon.

            He smiled.  “Can’t go anywhere, my lady.”

            I wondered where Karane went off to and why he thought it was a good idea to leave me behind with this starry-eyed stranger.

            Maejo leaned against the wagon side.  

            “You and that soldier–he’s your lover?” he asked.

            I stiffened.  “Karane is my friend.  Neither he nor you have the right equipment for me.”

            He frowned and straightened.  “What do you – oh.  Oh.”  He took a step back.  “Apologies, my lady.  I did not know.”

            “How could you know?”

            He rubbed the back of his neck with a clumsy hand.  “I have the worst luck with women, I swear.”

            I patted him on the arm and chuckled.  “It doesn’t hurt to try, Maejo.”

            “Says someone who never gets turned down, I bet.”

            I snorted.  “I get shot down plenty.  Plenty of women prefer men, you know.  Most of them do.”

            He sighed.  “I guess so.”

            In the distance, I heard hooves galloping north and frowned.  Someone was leaving in a hurry.  

            Something terrible was about to happen or had happened.  I felt it to my bones.

            “I should find my friend,” I told the mercenary.

            “I’ll come with you, if you don’t mind.”

            “Sure,” I told him.

            I hurried towards our wagon, my heart in my mouth.  

            “Karane!” I called and pushed the flaps at the back of the wagon apart.  “Are you sleeping?”

            I got no response.  

            I climbed onto the wagon bed and lit the oil lamp we had taken from the dead thieves.  The flame flared brightly then settled into a more sedate glow.  I held the lamp aloft by the handle.  The light swung wildly against the underside of the bonnet.  I looked around.  There was no one there.

            “Maybe he’s off exploring,” Maejo suggested as he looked around the wagon bed.

            “Maybe,” I murmured doubtfully.  “I should find the nuns.”

            “They’re with Althin,” Maejo said.

            “Althin?”

            “The caravanner.”

            “Ah.  And where would she be?”

            “Come with me.  Bring the lamp please.”

            I crawled to the end of the wagon bed and handed him the lamp.  I jumped down from the wagon bed and followed him towards the bonfire.

            The bonfire was crowded.  I could smell roasting meat.  My stomach gurgled.  

            “Althin’s wagon is over there,” Maejo said and pointed directly ahead.

            We moved along the edges of the crowd.  He handed me the lamp.

            Althin’s wagon was large and colorful.  She had painted the bonnet with splashes of bright red and blue and green.  The wagon itself was painted a bright orange.

            Maejo went to the back of the wagon and knocked on the wagon bed.

            “Who is it?” I heard a woman’s voice call.

            “Maejo, ma’am.”

            The flaps at the back were pulled apart and the caravanner poked her head out.  “Well?”

            “This young lady needs to speak to the nuns, ma’am.”

            Ohna poked her head out.  “Yhera?  What is it?”

            “I can’t find Karane, Ohna.”

            Ohna cursed and jumped down from the wagon bed, followed closely by Lhara’h.  Lhara’h unsheathed a dagger.

            Althin stepped down more slowly.  “Put your weapon away, fool.  I don’t want to frighten my customers.”

            Lhara’h scowled but shoved the dagger back into its sheath on her left hip.

            Ohna stepped closer to me. “You think he’s gone?”

            “I don’t know.  I have a terrible feeling, that’s all.  I heard hooves galloping north a while ago.”

            She frowned.  “You think the kidnappers are back?”

            “How could they be?” Lhara’h hissed.  “How would they know where we are?”

            “I don’t know!” I hissed back.  “Maybe I’m being foolish, but I have a terrible feeling that I am not going to ignore.”

            “Maejo,” Althin said.  “If you know what the young man looks like, then go quietly and see if you can find him.”

            Maejo saluted her and whirled about, stalking off into the dark.

            “You looked in our wagon?” Ohna asked.

            “Yes,” I replied.  “He isn’t there.”

            “Hm,” Ohna said.  “Let’s split up and see if we can find him, shall we, before we panic?”            

            I found myself flushing with shame.  Ohna always made me feel like a child.

            Althin thrust her arm through mine.  “Come with me, girl.  We’ll look around to the west.”

            We did not speak as we strode between two wagons and headed west along the tall grass.

            “He could have found a willing body for the night,” Althin said.

            I swallowed thickly.  “Maybe. I hope so.”

            “But you think it unlikely?”

            “Yes.”

            She nodded. “Let’s keep looking then.”

            We walked into the grass calling his name.  Each minute that passed increased my sense of panic.  Finally, we had wandered about a sepek west before Althin drew me back and we returned the way we had come.  She led me back to her wagon.  Ohna, Lhara’h and Maejo were there, milling about.

            “He’s gone,” Lhara’h stated coldly and turned her head to spit.

            Ohna took a step towards me.  “You said you heard hooves headed north?”

            “Yes,” Maejo answered for me.

            “Towards the capital,” Ohna said and nodded.

            “We’ll never catch them with the wagon,” Lhara’h pointed out.

            Ohna nodded and sighed.  She scratched along her neck.  

            “You can leave your wagon with us,” Althin suggested.  “See if you can catch up to them.  We’re taking a barge from a small village by the name of Tilsjen.”

            Thunder in the distance startled me.  The air was thick with the promise of rain.

            “We should leave soon,” Ohna said.  “The rain will wash away their tracks.”  She turned to me.  “You stay with the wagon and drive it to Tilsjen.  We’ll meet you there.”

            “But–“

            Lhara’h took hold of the back of my neck and squeezed hard enough to hurt.  “Shut. Up.  Do as you are told.”

            She let me go and I gasped, my eyes filling with tears.

            They turned as one and disappeared into the crowd.

            Maejo took a step toward me.  “Are you alright?”

            I swallowed my rage.  “Yes.  Thank you.”

            Althin sighed.  “Get some rest, girl.  Maejo will keep an eye on you and your possessions.”

            “Thank you,” I said and turned, making my way back to the crowd and along its perimeter.  I found our wagon again just as Ohna and Lhara’h mounted up and galloped north.

            I climbed onto the wagon bed.  “You might as well climb up, too, Maejo.  It will soon be raining.”

            He came up without a word and settled at the edge of the wagon bed.  He tied the flaps back from the opening and sat crosslegged facing out.

            “I hope your friend is around somewhere,” he murmured.

            I lay down on my pallet and closed my eyes.  For a long time, I just lay there, listening to the sound of voices coming from the direction of the bonfire.  The air grew cooler, and a fresh breeze blew through the wagon bed, rifling my hair, drying the sweat along my brow.  I swallowed thickly the need to weep.  

            When had Karane become an anchor for me?  I felt as if his absence would pull me apart.  I pulled my blanket up to my chin.  

            “Eda,” I whispered, calling my father.  “Please…what do I do?  I am miserable with the nuns.  They treat me so poorly…”

            Maejo shifted.  

            I turned my head.  He was staring out into the night.  

            Thunder boomed.  In the next few seconds, the first of the raindrops pinged against the side of the wagon.  Soon, rain began to fall in earnest.  After that, the night grew quiet as the crowd dispersed.  

            I closed my eyes.  I prayed to my father and my mother and the God Kahi.  

            I fell asleep while praying.  I dreamed.

           In my dream, I was a child again.  I was living with my grandmother since both my parents were in the military.  My grandmother looked so young in my dream!  I ran into the cottage from outside, my arms full of wildflowers.

            “Oh Yhera!  They’re beautiful,” my grandmother gushed and bent to take the flowers.  “Where do you want me to put them?”

            “On the table, Aya-sa!  On the fireplace mantle, too!”

            “How about in your room, on the bedside table?” she suggested.

            “Yes!”

            “Well, come and help me put them in vases,” she said and walked into the kitchen.

            It was then that I saw the shadow near the fireplace.  When I turned my head and looked at it directly, it seemed to coalesce and become more solid.  I took a few steps towards it.  As I approached, the shadow became my father’s body and face.

            “Eda!” I gasped.

            He smiled tenderly at me.  “How’s my Yhera-girl?”

            “Is it you?”

            “Of course, Yhera.  It’s your Eda.”  He squatted until he was eyelevel with me.  “You asked a question, girl.  What will you do about the nuns?”

            I cocked my head.  “Nuns, Eda?”

            He reached out and pushed the hair from my face.  “Look at you, all dirty.”  He smiled.  “I gave you all the tools you need to succeed, Yhera.  You don’t need those nuns.  You have yourself to rely on.”

            He pulled me to him and hugged me warmly.  I could smell clean sweat on him and the musk of the oils he used on his hair.

            “When are you coming home, Eda?” I asked.

            “I’ll always be here, my Yhera.  All you need to do is seek me out.”

            I woke up slowly.  Tears meandered from my eyes down my temple to my hair.  I wiped them away with cold hands.

            I turned my head.  Maejo was still there, cross legged like some statue.  Outside, the sky had begun to lighten.  I could hear people moving about.  Rain fell in a steady patter.

            “We’ll be leaving after breakfast,” Maejo told me without turning around.

            I sat up and unplaited my hair, combing my fingers through it before I re-braided it.

            “Did the nuns return?” I asked.

            “Haven’t seen them.”

            I crawled to where he sat.  “I think I’m going to continue on by myself.”

            He looked at me.  The skin under his eyes was bruised.  He looked pale.  “Alone?”

            “Yes.”

            He turned towards me.  “Let me come with you, Yhera.  I’ve been trying to find an adventure since I left home.”

            I grimaced.  “Adventures fall short of expectations.”

            “Even so,” he said.

            “Didn’t you sell your sword to Althin?”

            He snorted.  “She’s my mother, and I wouldn’t mind leaving her for a bit.”

            “I thought you were a mercenary.”

            “I dress like one and I act like one while we travel.  But I’m only the caravanner’s son.”

            I crossed my legs and smiled at him.  “I wouldn’t mind your company, Maejo.  But I feel I have to warn you, things are going to get dicey once we get to the capital.”

            He nodded.  “One can only hope. We should get some breakfast.”

            I nodded and crawled back to the crates, removing two cloaks from the top crate.

            “These cloaks are treated for rain,” I said and handed him one.

            “Thank you.”

            I fastened the cloak at the collar bone.  He followed suit.

            Pulling the hoods over our heads, we jumped down into the early morning.  Rain pattered against my hood as we hurried to the bonfire.  People were standing and eating around the hissing, smoking bonfire.  I waited at the periphery while Maejo went to get us some breakfast.  He returned shortly with two bowls of boiled grains with dried bala berries and roasted tza nuts.  It was bland but hot and filling.

            We ate as we walked back to the wagon.

            “I’ll stay with the wagons until we come to the village,” I told him.  “Then I’ll take off.”  I smiled at him.  “You are welcome to join me.”

            He whooped and hugged me with one arm.  “You won’t regret it, Yhera.”

            “I should hope not,” I told him as he dropped his arm.

            We finished our meal as the first of the wagons set out in a line.

            We went back to the wagon.  

            I fed and watered the lir’tah.

            Maejo hopped up onto the wagon seat and I climbed onto the other side.  The lir’tah were restless.  Maejo drew back on the reins.

            “Steady,” he murmured to the beasts.

            It took the better part of a quarter of an hour before we were moving, bringing up the caravan rear.

            “Can you tell me what is going on?” Maejo asked me.

            “In respects to what?”

            He gave me a look.  “Don’t play dumb with me, Yhera.”

            I sighed.  “We are part of the Resistance.”

            He leaned towards me to hear better.  “No kidding?”

            “If you speak a word of this, Lhara’h will gut you.”

            He blanched.  “I won’t!”

            “Karane is the Empress’ nephew–“

            “Your friend is Karane Truvesto?”  He gaped at me.  “Goddess preserves!”

            “Exactly.”

            “Why didn’t he fight them?” he demanded quietly.  “He’s a trained soldier. There was no sign of a struggle anywhere I saw.”

            “He’s been poisoned.  It’s slow-moving, thankfully, but he needs those men who kidnapped him.  They have the antidote.”

            He pressed his lips together and looked away.

            “What?” I asked.

            He shrugged.  “It’s just — what if those men are lying to him?  What if they don’t have an antidote?  What if it’s a way to control him while they need him?”

            I went cold inside.  “We hadn’t thought of that.  At least, I hadn’t.”

            “I’m not saying that is what is happening, but if it occurred to me, it surely occurred to them.”

            “Yes.”

            I looked away.  As the day grew older, the sky cleared and became a bright cerulean.  The sun rose in the east, its fingers reaching out across the land.  Already, it was almost too warm.  No breeze blew.

            The land was filled with tall grasses and copse of deciduous trees.  We rode through an area trampled by hooves, the grass long dead.  Caravans had been coming this way for hundreds of years.  If we headed north, we would come soon upon the grain fields.  Before we came near the grain fields, though, the caravan headed west towards the river.  We were too far still to see its wide muddy waters.  A bit further south, and the Kahi emptied into Lake Cera before it meandered south and west.  It forked into two near the Dhya, heading west to empty into Sene Lakes.  Its main branch traveled through two nations and changed names twice before it emptied into the sea far to the southeast.

            When I was a little girl, my father taught me about the great Kahi River, the longest river in the known world.  He promised me that one day we would travel its length and see wonders I could not imagine.

            I swallowed thickly.  

            I pushed away thoughts of my Eda and wondered if it had occurred to Karane that the kidnappers had lied to him.  It had not occurred to the nuns, or they had chosen not to share that idea with me.

            “What can he do, I wonder?” I asked Maejo.

            “You mean for Karane?”

            I nodded.

            “We can go to an empathic healer – the Royal family employs one.”

            I thought of the poison wreaking havoc in Karane’s body.  

            “We should find him,” Maejo told me.  “We should get him a healer and soon.  We don’t know how much damage has been caused already or will be caused until the poison is flushed from his body.”

            I had never even met an empathic healer.  They were employed by only the wealthiest of denizens.

            “And a regular doctor can’t help him?”

            He looked at me.  “Not unless the doctor knows what type of poison was given, and I venture to say Karane doesn’t know.”

            “No.  He doesn’t.”

            “Then our best bet is an empathic healer.”

            I took a deep breath.  “He’ll have to go to the palace and reveal that he’s been poisoned.  Questions will be asked.”

            “I don’t doubt it,” he retorted.  “But what else can we do?”

            I looked away from his sharp gaze.  

            We drove until the sun was high overhead, it’s fierce light glaring down upon the land.  

            Althin called a break after midday.  

            I hopped down from the wagon seat and groaned.  I was stiff and tight from sitting for so long.  I stretched my lower back.

            “They’ll be lunch,” Maejo told me.  “Stay with the wagon.  I’ll go get us our meal.”

            I went to the back of the wagon and climbed onboard.  The thieves Lhara’h and Ohna killed had owned leather hats to keep the sun at bay.  I found one of these and plunked it down on my head.  It stank of sweat, but I didn’t care.  I had begun to burn along my cheeks and the bridge of my nose.

            I found a currycomb and hopped down from the wagon bed, walking around to the front.  Pushing all thoughts of Karane from my mind, I began to brush the lir’tah down.  The animals groaned with pleasure.  The dust fell off their scruffy hides.  Lir’tah had thick, coarse hair.  It was hard to brush them, but it gave me something to do.

            Maejo returned soon with two bowls of stew and some hunks of caravan bread.

            “Thank you,” I murmured and took a bowl from him.

            Caravan bread was unleavened and mostly tasteless, made with some salt and water and nothing else.  It was easy and cheap to make and convenient.  

            Maejo and I stood and ate in silence.  

            The stew was flavorful and spicy.  There were thick chunks of turies as well as pieces of tah’lir meat and aromatics.  

            “Who cooks?” I asked.  “It’s a good stew.”

            He smiled.  “My mother.  It’s part of the caravan fee to pay for two meals a day.”

            “I didn’t pay.”

            He nodded.  “The nuns did.”

            I handed him my empty bowl.  “How long before head out?”

            “Soon,” he said.  “I’ll be back.”

            I felt full and sleepy, but I knew thoughts of Karane would keep me awake.  Had the nuns reached him?

            I took the curry comb and climbed onto the wagon bed.  I found a second hat for Maejo and met him at the wagon seat.

            “Thank you,” he murmured and dropped the hat onto his head.  

            By the end of that day, we were halfway to the river.  According to Maejo, it would take the better part of a week before we reached Tilsjen.  

            The caravan traveled only about 25 sepeks in a day.  As the days piled one upon another with no word from the nuns or Karane, I grew morose and sullen.  I venture to say Maejo probably would not stay with me after we got to Tilsjen.

            We rode in silence most of the days.  Maejo would start to make conversation but would give up after a few grunts or monosyllabic responses from me.

            He was always patient and kind with me.

            By the fourth day, we reached the first of the villages along the Kahi River.  The first village was too small; the barges did not stop there.  The villagers poured out of their huts to see the caravan drive through.  Althin called a halt.  The wagons set up in a long line.  Goods were sold and traded for several hours before we set off north once more.  

            I took the opportunity to walk up and down the long line of wagons to see what was in the offing.  Maejo stayed behind to look after our supplies.

            All manner of goods were sold by the merchants: cloth, pottery, dried herbs and spices, weapons, instruments.  One merchant sold blank notebooks and pens and inkwells.  I purchased three booklets from him, two pens, and an inkwell with some cakes of dried ink.  I had a vague idea that I wanted to write down what was happening in my life at the time.  Not that I would say anything to the nuns if they ever returned.  I fully meant to go on ahead alone or (if he was still game) with Maejo.  I was sick of Lhara’h’s abuse and Ohna’s mistrust.

            The notebooks were covered in dyed leather and bound with thread. Each had about fifty pages.  

            Maejo was yawning and leaning to the back of the wagon.

            “Why don’t you nap?” I asked.

            “If you don’t mind.”

            I shrugged. “Go ahead. I’m going to keep an eye on the wagon.”

            He thanked me and crawled onto the wagon bed and found the first of the pallets.  He was softly snoring within seconds.

            I hopped onto the wagon bed and set my purchases on the floor.  I chose the bright blue notebook.  

            I wrote:

            Karane is missing.  Again.  This time Lhara’h and Ohna have gone after him.  I stayed behind with the wagon and made a new acquaintance.  Maejo.  He’s a good companion, even though I am not.  I am so worried about Karane, I’ve become a pill.  A real tash-tash.  Maejo is very patient with me and kind.

            I heard Lhara’h’s voice and abruptly closed the notebook, grimacing with I thought of the ink smudging.  I pushed the three notebooks, the pens and the stoppered inkwell into my travel bag.

            I hurried and jumped off the wagon bed.  

            The nuns were talking with Althin.  Their lir’tah were lathered and struggling to breathe.

            Ohna looked my way.  She beckoned.

            I made my way over.

            “Did you find him?”

            She grimaced. “No.  We’re going to sell the wagon to Althin here.  Gather your belongings.”

            “No.”

            Lhara’h took a step towards me.

            I squared my shoulders and faced her.  “What?  You mean to murder me now?”    

            She narrowed her eyes.  “Get. Your. Belongings.”

            “No. I’m not going with you.  I’ll continue on my own.”

            “Yhera–” Ohna began.

            “No.  I am heading to the capital, where I will meet my connections and continue to assist in any way I can. I came and delivered the message to you, as I was tasked to do.  You can go on ahead without me.”

            Ohna locked gazes with me.  

            I lifted my chin.

            Ohna sighed.  “Fine.  Then stay with the wagon and return it to the nunnery when you get to Da’hrisjah.”

            I relaxed.  “I will.”

            Ohna nodded.  “We’ll trade these lir’tah for rested ones.”

            All three strode away from me, towards the wagon.

            I followed more slowly.

            I watched as Ohna and Lhara’h filled their saddlebags with dried meat, tza nuts and dried fruit from our supplies.

            “You should have enough left,” Ohna told me.

            “Thank you.”

            Maejo stood off to the side, speaking quietly to Althin.

            The nuns saddled and bridled two fresh lir’tah and I tied their mounts to the back of the wagon.  I turned my back to them and began to rub the animals with the rag before I used the currycomb.

            “Yhera.”

            I turned.

            “Are you sure about this?” Ohna asked.

            “Yes.  Thank you for all you’ve done for me.”

            She looked unconvinced but nodded.  “Take care.  We’ll see you in Da’hrisjah.”

            “Maybe,” Lhara’h added with a mean smile.

            I rolled my eyes and turned away.  I continued brushing the lir’tah until the hoofbeats dissolved into the distance.

            Maejo came to stand beside me.  “Are you alright?”

            I shook my head.  “Goddess.  I wish I knew what I was doing!”

            He put his hand on my lower back.  “I’ll be with you and you’ll be with the caravan.  Nothing will befall you.”

            “I was on my way to becoming a nun,” I told him.  “Now…I’m not sure what is to become of me.”

            He patted my back.  “We’ll figure it out, Yhera.  You’ll see.”

Chapter VII: Karane

            Our luck did not hold.  On our third day out from A’leumih, I caught sight of four columns of dust in the distance to the northeast.  Yhera was asleep, so I crawled past her to the front of the wagon bed and poked my head through the opening in the bonnet.

            “Look lively,” I said.  “Someone might be following us.”

            Ohna and Lhara’h shared a look then Llara’h twisted to look behind her, over the side of the bonnet.  

            “Karane is correct,” she muttered.  “At least four riders.”

            Ohna gave a grim chuckle.  “And if we see them, you can bet they see us.”

            “Four against four ain’t bad odds,” I told them.

            “None of your masculine foolishness,” Ohna snapped.  “This isn’t a game.  We don’t know their fighting skills.  Yhera is a fair fighter, but only fair.  We don’t even know how well you fight.”

            I stiffened.  “I am a commander in the armed forces!”

            Ohna took a deep breath and released it.  “There is a trap door under the crates.  You and Yhera will hide in the space below.  We’ll give these people the slip.”

            I made to argue, but one frigid glare from Lhara’h and I swallowed my words.

            I crawled quickly to where Yhera slept, mouth slack, a small trail of saliva gleaming along her chin.

            I shook her.

            She started and half sat up.  “What is it?”

            “We’re being followed.  Ohna says there is a trap door under the wagon bed.  We are to hide below.”

            She frowned.  “But–“

            “Don’t argue,” I murmured.  “Help me move the crates.”

            We moved the four heavy crates to one side.  I saw the trap door right away.

            Lhara’h crawled through the opening at the front.  “I’ll set the crates back in place.  Hide your belongings, too.”

            I opened the trap door and frowned.  It was a narrow space.

            “Go on,” Lhara’h urged impatiently.

            “I’ll go first,” Yhera offered, picking up her travel bag and stuffing it into the space.  She then slid in, lying face-up, and scooting over.  

            I pushed my knapsack towards the other side and slid in next to her.  We pressed tight against one another.

            Lhara’h closed the trap door with a thud . At once, the space went dark.  I felt a creeping sense of unease.  The space was hot and had little ventilation. I began to feel entombed.

            I felt when Yhera took my hand.  She squeezed it.

            “Breathe evenly, Karane,” she whispered.  “The unease will pass.”

            I closed my eyes and tried to do as she suggested.

            “There are some holes,” she said.  “I think to ventilate.”

            “Not enough,” I retorted, swallowing the rising hysteria.

            My eyes flew open.  “Not enough!”

            “Breathe,” she urged softly.

            Sweat broke out on my face and neck and back.  Soon rivulets of sweat meandered along my body, adding to my discomfort.

            I wondered how Yhera could remain so calm and poised.  

            Shame warred with fear inside me.  

            Yhera tightened her hand around mine.

            I had just enough space to turn my head carefully to look towards her.  I could not see her in the gritty dark.

            “I know it’s terrible to be shut in like this,” she murmured.  “Try to go someplace else in your mind.”

            I felt her shift closer.  I felt the heat of her body as she pressed against my side.

            “It’s alright, Karane,” she whispered in my ear.  “You’ll see.”

            The wagon kept its ungainly gait through the red lands.  I could distinguish Ohna and Lhara’h’s voices in the distance.  Bah’nah only knew how long we lay in that closed in space.  It could have been an hour or a day, for all I could tell.  Some light filtered in through the airing holes but not enough to penetrate the dark much.

            I thought of home, of my mother, my father, my closest friends.  Sweat continued to pour out of my body, saturating the shirt I wore.  Being bigger than Yhera, I could barely move.  I was having a hard time breathing deeply.  I could not lift my hand to wipe the salty sweat from my eyes.  They burned unmercifully.  My mouth felt parched.

            I was hardly aware of when the wagon rolled to a stop, but then I heard the pounding of hooves.  I licked my lips and took a deep breath to calm my nerves.

            I heard masculine voices.  I felt when Ohna and Lhara’h stepped down from their seat.

            I distinguished feminine and masculine voices but nothing that was being said.

            Soon the voices rose in argument.  Suddenly, there were shouts and the clang of swords.

            I cursed under my breath.

            Yhera stiffened beside me.

            I heard a bloodcurdling scream tear the afternoon, then silence descended over us.

            After a long time, someone climbed onto the wagon bed and then the crates shifted away.

            The trap door was pulled open.

            Ohna gazed down at us.  “Get out.”

            With some effort, I pulled myself through the opening.  I put my hand out to Yhera.

            She took it and I helped her out.

            She then pulled out our bags.

            “What happened?” she asked Ohna.

            “Thieves,” she stated coldly.  “Dead thieves now.”  She turned her head and spat.  

            She looked at me.  “Help Lhara’h hide the bodies.  We now own four more lir’tah complete with saddles.”

            She turned away and climbed out of the wagon.

            We followed her.

            The sun beat unmercifully upon us.  I gazed northeast, where the sky was dark with clouds.  Hopefully, it would rain and soon.  The rain would wash away all traces of the fight and our wagon’s path.

            Yhera followed me down.  We turned the corner and stopped.

            Four lanky men and one woman lay dead on the ground.  Blood mingled with the red dust.  Two of the men had blood spreading along their chests and bellies.  The woman’s throat was cut.  The last man, he lay on his front over a wide patch of blood.

            The animals stood placidly nearby, saddled, and burdened with bulging saddlebags.

            “Help me, Karane,” Lhara’h called impatiently.

            I hurried to comply.  

            I took the shoulders of one man while she took the shoulders of another.  I dragged my man in the same direction she went.

            “Help me with the beasts,” I heard Ohna tell Yhera.

            Lhara’h and I dragged the bodies to an area crowded with prickly shrubs.  Hiding the bodies was slow going.  When we were done, one could see where the bodies had been dragged.  Long bloody grooves marked the way. 

            In the northeast, thunder rumbled.

            Lhara’h looked that way and wiped the sweat from her brow with a forearm.  “The rain will wash away everything but the stink of death.”

            She gave me a mirthless grin and strode towards the wagon.

            I followed more slowly.

            We tied the thieves’ mounts to the back of the wagon, removing the saddlebags and hauling them to the wagon bed.  

            “You go through the saddlebags, Lhara’h,” Ohna said.  She turned to me.  “You, boy.  Come ride up front with me.”

            I followed her to the front of the wagon and stepped up to the seat.  I watched her scramble up like a youth.

            She took up the reins, snapped them and gave a low whistle.  The lir’tah lurched forward.  The wagon rolled.

            I relaxed in my seat and looked ahead.  

            “You reckon it will rain?” she asked.

            “I hope so,” I replied.  “It isn’t always the case, this far inland.  Sometimes there are dry storms, just lightning and thunder and the smell of ozone.”

            She grunted and spit to the side.

            “You’ve been out here before?” she asked.

            “I trained in the red lands.  When I was 13.  Long hours of mock fights under the glaring sun.  Lots of forced marches carrying rocks in our knapsacks.  Made a lot of friends, I guess.  Only, I have never determined if they are my friends because of myself or because I am the Empress’ nephew.”

            She flicked me a glance.  “Poor you.”

            I had not expected her to understand, but I had not expected the heavy sarcasm. I looked away from her to the north.

            We rode in silence until sunset.   She pulled up hard on the reins.  The draft animals slowed and stopped, stomping their hooves.  It felt strange, the sudden cessation of movement.  My body hummed.  I hopped down and my knees buckled.  I steadied myself against the side of the wagon and walked stiffly towards the back.

            Yhera was already outside and gathering wood for a fire.  I went to help her.

            “Watch out for thorns,” I told her as I walked up.

            She smiled at me.  “Too late.”  She held up her bloody hand.

            She made to turn away and I grasped her elbow.  “Listen.  Thank you.”

            She turned, frowning.  “For what?”

            “For how you calmed me down in the hidey hole.  I’ve never had to fit in so small a space before.”

            I dropped my hand.

            She smiled again.  “I hope we are becoming friends, Karane.  Friends help each other.”

            I ducked my head.  “Thank you anyway.”

            I helped her gather wood then I helped her start a fire.

            We squatted around the fire and Ohna passed around slices of fresh lounma fruit.  The pulpy fruit was sweet as honey and juicy.  I wiped my chin with the back of my hand.

            After the fruit, we chewed on dried meat and drank our share of water.

            “What did you find in the saddlebags?” Ohna said into the silence.

            “Maps,” Lhara’h replied around a mouthful of meat.  “Coin and supplies.  I suppose the coin can go to funding the Resistance.”

            “There’s no point in our keeping it,” Ohna agreed.  She sighed.   “I would like to travel in the dark, but I’m afraid of laming one of the draft beasts.”

            Lhara’h swallowed.  “You need to sleep.  I’ll take the first watch with Karane.  You and Yhera rest.  We’ll head out first thing.”

            Ohna rose and stretched.  “Sounds like a plan.”

            She turned and ambled towards the back of the wagon.

            We heard her climb onto the wagon bed.

            Yhera rose as well and patted my back.  “I’ll see you in the morning.”

            I nodded.  “Sleep well.”

            Lhara’h rose.  “I found some treated cloaks in the saddlebags.  Go get you one.  It will more than likely rain while we are on watch.”

            I rose and hurried to the back of the wagon. I saw two cloaks folded just at edge of the bed.  I took one, unfolded it and shaking it out before I donned it, buttoning it at the clavicle.  It had a hood, of which I was glad.  Storms inland during the rainy season could be soakers.  There was the potential for hard rain that could last for hours.

            The cloak smelled of a stranger’s body odor.  I wondered which of the dead people it had belonged to.

            I watched as Lhara’h pulled on the other cloak.

            “You watch the northeast,” she told me.  “I’ll take the southwest.”

            “Got it.”

            Yhera ducked her head out and handed me a belt complete with sheath and sword.  I took it and thanked her. It must have belonged to one of the thieves. I walked a few feet to the east and strapped the belt low on my hips.  The weight felt familiar and comforting.  I turned my gaze back the way we had traveled.    

            In the distance, lightning danced across and below the clouds.  Long streaks of light disappearing into the land.  Thunder rumbled a few seconds later.  The heat from the day had yet to dissipate and it was no fun wearing a heavy, treated cloak.  Soon I was sweating freely.  I began to walk back and forth, back and forth, my eyes trained on my surroundings. This exercise was familiar.  I had done a lot of guard duty when I first joined the army.  Long sleepless hours in drafty halls or along the parapets of Da’hrisja’s city walls.  I was tired, but I knew how to keep weariness at bay.  I knew the feeling would soon pass, and I would get my second wind.

            The clouds rolled closer, eating the stars and even the moon, it grew pitch dark when Lhara’h put out our fire.

            The wind kicked up as the storm got closer.  I could hear rain falling like a distant sea.  Each time lightning crackled, it lit the night like the sun.  The red lands seemed to be holding its breath.  The air grew more oppressive, heavier, until it was hard to breathe.  Then there was a shift.  The temperature plummeted as the rain reached us.  I made my way closer to the wagon.  

             The first drops soon gave way to a deluge.

             I heard someone running.

             “Get inside!” Llara’h yelled.  “No use watching in this!”

             I hurried to the back of the wagon and clambered inside.  She followed.  We removed our cloaks and shook them out, laying them along the back of the wagon.

            “Keep an eye on our back,” she told me.  “I doubt anyone will find us in this, but it pays to be careful.”

             I nodded and sat at the edge of the wagon bed.  

            Every slash of lightning illuminated the four lir’tah tied to the back of the wagon, hunched against the rain, and the surrounding land.  To keep awake, I counted the seconds between lightning and its corresponding boom of thunder.  During the next flash of light, I looked behind me and saw the gleam of Lhara’h’s eyes.  I turned back to the storm.

            The night passed with me tottering on the edge of exhaustion.  In the morning, the rain had reduced to a gentle patter.  The land around the wagon was the color of old blood.  I shuddered.

            Ohna awoke first.  She sat up slowly.

            Lhara’h woke second.

            Yhera kept sleeping.

            “So, you didn’t run off,” Ohna commented.

            “To where?” I asked.

            She huffed a laugh.  “Good point.  Let’s see how bad it is outside.”

            She crawled to the flaps and pushed them to one side, glaring out at the saturated earth.  

            “If we are lucky,” she said to herself.  “We’ve managed not to get stuck in the muck.   Lhara’h!”

            “Here,” the younger nun said.  “How bad is it?”

            “I won’t know until I see the wheels,” Ohna replied and climbed down from the wagon.

            Lhara’h followed suit.

            With a glance at Yhera’s sleeping form, I stepped down as well, right into a puddle.

            I stepped away from the water and shook my booted feet.  Walking around the wagon, I saw Ohna squatting next to the front wheel.  Mud came up over the bottom of the wheel.  As I walked, I could feel the mud sucking on my heels.

            Ohna sighed and rose.  “Wake Yhera, Karane.  You three will have to push the wagon.”

            I returned the way I had come and climbed onto the wagon bed once more, crawling over to Yhera and shaking her awake.

            She sighed and came up on an elbow.

            “We have to push the wagon,” I told her.  “It might be stuck in the muck.”

            She nodded and sat up.  

            We made our way back outside, where Ohna and Lhara’h were standing close together, speaking in soft tones.  When we walked up, they separated.

            “I will drive the wagon,” the older nun said.  “You three will ride lir’tah-back.  Let’s see if we can get the wagon free.”

            Lhara’h and I pushed while Yhera urged the draft animals forward.  The wagon made to roll forward but rolled back instead.  We tried several times but all we were doing was exhausting ourselves.

            “Can we use a couple of crate lids to bolster the back wheels?”  I suggested.

            Ohna frowned.  “A good idea, lad.  Let’s do that.”

            Even with my idea in play, freeing the wagon from the mud was not easy.  We pushed while the wooden crate lids gave the wheels traction and we managed to get the wagon moving forward after several tries.  From there, I took the reins of my mount from Lhara’h and swung onto the saddle.  I rode behind the wagon, to the right and Lhara’h took a position front to the left.

            I was happy to be on a lir’tah once more.  I leaned forward and patted the animal’s sinuous, muscular neck and it huffed.   It was early in the day and the temperatures were still relatively cool. The cerulean sky was clear.  Soon it would grow hot and humid once more as the water saturating the land began to evaporate.  

            It did not rain again for several days, for which we were grateful. The land began to change, the red dust giving way to darker, richer earth.  We were getting close to the breadbasket of the nation.  Deciduous trees began to appear as random copse.  Scrubland gave way to grassland.  Grass grew knee-high and covered most of the land.  

            When the rain returned, we were quite near the Kahi River.  We began to spot caravans of traders.  Most travelers did not choose to travel alone, due to the criminal element that tended to live in the wasteland to the east and south. The northeast and northwest were dominated by heavily patrolled cropland.  

            We lost ourselves amidst the caravans. The Kahi River was still a handful of days to the west but mingling with guarded caravans would be our best bet.  The caravans usually hired ex-military or mercenaries to keep the contents of their wagons safe.  It was hard work for fair wages.

            We latched onto the back of a caravan of fifteen wagons guarded by ten mercenaries.

            The caravanner was more than happy to allow us to tag along.

            “We encountered bandits in the red lands,” Ohna told the caravanner as we shared sweet milk tea around a bonfire.  

            It was near sunset and the wagons had been maneuvered into concentric circles.  Our wagon was on the edge of the widest circle.

            The mercenaries patrolled along the outside circle.

            The caravanner, a woman perhaps a bit older than Ohna, grimaced.  “There has been an exponential increase in banditry the last few years.”  She lowered her voice.  “Things are getting harder and harder these days.”

            Lhara’h, Ohna and the caravanner wandered off, speaking in soft tones.

            Yhera and I shared a glance.

            Yhera shrugged. “It’s not our business, I guess.”

            One of the mercenaries, a relatively young man, was making moon eyes at Yhera.

            “Look lively,” I told her softly.  “You have an admirer.”

            She glanced casually where I indicated with my chin.

            “Hm,” she said.  “He’s handsome enough for you.”

            “He isn’t looking at me, Yhera,” I said and laughed.

            The man made his way to where we stood.  His gaze flicked coolly over me before alighting on Yhera with considerably more warmth.

            “What’s your name?” he asked.

            “Yhera,” she replied evenly.

            I cleared my throat.  “Excuse me.”

            I made my way away from the bonfire and towards our wagon.  The sun was close to setting and it was growing cooler.  The skies to the west were overcast.  It rained more frequently here than in the red lands.  The monsoon season was young.  It would mean a lot more rain before the season passed.

            I found our wagon and leaned against the back right wheel to finish my sweet tea.  I could see the shadows of the mercenaries patrolling the periphery of the circles.  They were good soldiers and made little sound as they walked.  I found myself thinking of my cousin, En’jteru.  I had had the maddest crush on him since as far as I could recall.  He was the most excellent soldier I had ever encountered, graceful and strong even when we were children.  My mother called him an old soul.  Nothing ever went to his head.  He had been my protector when I first entered the army and my closest ally and friend from then on.  

            It had been a big disappointment to me that he did not share my proclivities towards other young men.  He was inordinately fond of women.  It had caused me heartache for the longest time before I outgrew the intense first blush of love.  Eventually, I was able to be as good a friend to him as he had been to me.  He had been a vocal opponent of my going to the Isle of Bah’nah alone to consult the Oracle.  It had been our most devastating argument, and I wondered if we were still friends.

            I felt someone coming up my back and made to turn when a meaty hand clamped over my mouth and pulled me into the inky shadows between two wagons.  I started fighting right away.

            “Stop resisting,” a man said into my right ear and pressed the tip of dagger into the tender flesh over the jugular.  “Or I swear I will gut you.”

            I stilled at once.

            “Move,” he hissed and pushed me.  “Make a sound and I will end you before the guards can even react.”

            I walked to the edge of the widest circle and paused, looking in each direction.  The guards had their backs to us.

            “Act casual,” he warned.

            We strode away from the wagons and towards a copse of trees several feet away to the north.   When we reached the trees, the man spun me around and slammed me against the nearest truck, holding me in place with his forearm on my throat.

            “I got him,” he called out softly.

            Movement at the edge of my right eye coalesced into three men.  The Shadows from the ship.

            “Hello again, Karane,” Estenosj murmured.

            The man holding me pushed his forearm against my throat until I could not swallow or even breathe.  I began to fight as the edges of my eyesight grew dark.

            “Leave him,” I heard someone say.

            The pressure released and I crumpled to the ground, gasping for breath.

            Estenosj squatted before me and placed two fingers under my chin, raising my head until I met his gaze.

            “Do you think you can give us the slip so easily?” he asked casually.

            I shook my head.  “It wasn’t my idea to leave the ship.”

            “No,” he agreed.  “I’m sure it wasn’t, because you need us, don’t you?”

            “Yes.”

            “Where are you headed?” he asked.

            “To purchase a space on a barge heading to the capital.”

            “Hm,” he said and rose.  “We aren’t going to take you with us this time.  We need you where you are, with the Resistance.”

            I watched him pace.

            “I need to inculcate you with our teachings, Karane.  You must become a Shadow before we reach Da’hrisjah. How am I supposed to do that with those whores guarding you?”

            I flinched at the vulgar epithet.

            “Have you studied the holy scroll I gave you?” he demanded quietly.

            “When?” I demanded.  “I am always with one of them.”

            “So.  Perhaps it’s best you come with us now, Karane.”

            I looked up at him helplessly.

            “Don’t look so down, my friend,” he said with a quiet laugh.  “It’s for the best.”

            One of the others bent and took hold of my right arm, hauling me to my feet.

            “Come,” Estenosj said.  “You will ride with me.”

            On the other side of the copse of trees were three lir’tah saddled and waiting.  Estenosj strode to the one of the far left and caught hold of the pommel of the saddle, hauling himself onto the beast.  He beckoned with his chin.

            “Look lively, Karane,” he said and someone behind me gave me a shove.

            I steadied myself and hurried to Estenosj’s animal.  

            He leaned down and held out a hand.  I grasped his forearm, and he pulled me up behind him.

            “What about the scroll?” one of the other two asked.

            Estenosj shrugged.  “It is in code.  They won’t be able to decipher it.  Let’s go.”

            I turned my head towards the caravan.  I thought of Yhera and my heart constricted in my chest.

            “We should reach the river in two days of hard riding,” Estenosj told me.  “I will teach you our faith any time we stop to rest the mounts.  Now – hold on!”

            He flicked the reins hard and whistled.  The lir’tah huffed and then we were galloping past the caravans to the north.

Chapter VI: Yhera

            Lhara’h pressed me hard against the bulkhead, the point of her dagger digging into my throat.  I struggled to breathe.  

            “You think this is a game, Yhera?” she asked with deceptive mildness.

            “I don’t know who drugged you!” I hissed, trying to control my rising hysteria.

            “Let her be,” Ohna said.

            Lhara’h snarled and violently pushed away from me.  

            The back of my head struck the bulkhead with force.  A myriad of stars burst before my eyes.

            When my eyesight cleared, I found my body trembling.  I clasped my hands together to keep them from shaking.

            “They drugged me, too!” I told Ohna.  

            Ohna sighed and shook her head.  “This is most confounding.”  She began to pace.

            “It could be any group,” Lhara’h stated into the ensuing silence.  

            “Yes,” Ohna agreed.  “Maybe even one of our partners.”

            I bit my lip to keep from asking one of the many questions cluttering my mind.

            “We are working with other groups,” Ohna told me.  “We don’t know much about them, you see.  Right now, everyone’s goal is to do away with the Empress.  The Maidens are working to save the women of the royal family, but that is not every group’s goal. Some groups have said they want all the members of the royal family dead.  Neither the Resistance nor the Maidens think this is a good idea.  It might turn the populace against the entire endeavor.”

            Lhara’h shifted and leaned her right shoulder against the bulkhead, crossing her arms and ankles.  “We could banish them, but the royal family has ties to at least two other nations – South Torahn and I’A.  It could mean a war.”

            “Don’t I know it,” Ohna murmured.  She sighed.  “Whomever drugged you both, they may be a fringe group.  Why would an ally drug the both of you and take Karane?”

            “Karane may not be taken,” I said.  “Where would he go?  We’re on a ship.”

            Ohna nodded.  “But why drug you then?”  She met my gaze with her steely one.  “Perhaps we need to interrogate Karane.  Give him a truth serum, see what he says.”

            I did not flinch from the challenge in her eyes.

            “To what end?” I asked.  “I believe him when he says he knows nothing.”

            “Men lie,” she replied.  “It is in their nature, for they are weak.”

            I did not reply to the platitude.

            She continued to pace; her face thoughtful.

            “I don’t like that they got to us like that,” Lhara’h growled.

            “It must be another group of women,” Ohna said.  “The question is, why.  Why drug you?”

            “To get Karane away,” I suggested.

            “Obviously,” Ohna retorted.  “But why?”

            “They don’t want to be seen by us,” I said.  “They want to remain hidden.  Maybe it’s not a group affiliated with the Resistance at all.  Perhaps it is a new group.”

            They shared a glance.

            “Could be,” Ohna agreed after an uncomfortable silence.

            “I’ll go have a look around,” Lhara’h announced.  

            She flicked me an icy glare. She whirled about and stalked to the door, opening it, and leaving the cabin without a backward glance.

            The door clicked shut behind her.

            Ohna sighed.  “Yhera.”

            I started and turned to her.  

            “Your throat is bleeding,” she said and handed me a handkerchief.

            I thanked her and used it to dab at the cut on my throat.

            She shook her head and sighed.  “It is good we are heading to the capital.  I feel things getting out of control.  Very few people can get to the Maidens, but somebody did just that today.”

            “The drug must have been in the water I gave Karane.  I drank from it, too.”

            “Yes.  We are due in A’leumih in two days’ time.  Perhaps it is best we leave the ship and take a barge up the River Kahi.”

            “It will slow us down.”

            She shrugged.  “We need to give this fringe group the slip.  So we reach Da’hrisjah a week or two later than the ship.  We can’t stay on the ship where anyone can get to anyone of us or Karane.”

            “Yes, I see your point.”

            She gave a distracted nod.  “Go back to your cabin and see if Karane is there.  Say nothing to him about our plans to disembark in A’leumih.  The less he knows, the better.”

            I bowed to her and made my way to the door, slipping through into the passageway.  There was no one about.  I hurried to the cabin I shared with Karane.

            He looked up when I entered.

            “Where have you been?” I hissed.

            He grimaced.  “They are here, the men who poisoned me.”

            I closed the door with a snick.  “What did they want?”

            “They want to make sure I am well, I suppose. I don’t know. They didn’t say.”

            He was lying to me.  The question was why?

            I sat on my cot facing him.  “Why don’t you trust me?”

            He flicked me a glance.  “I do, Yhera.  It’s Ohna and Lhara’h that I don’t trust.”

            “You think I would tell them whatever you tell me?”

            “Your throat is bleeding.”

            I reached up with the handkerchief and pressed it to the wound.  “Answer me.”

            “I’m not sure what you will do.  I don’t know you well enough, although my gut is telling me to trust you.”

            I pressed my lips together hard then released a breath.

            “No.  I think you shouldn’t trust me.”

            “How did you wound yourself?”

            “Lhara’h held a dagger to my throat.  She’s getting more erratic the further from Bah’nah we get.”

            He leaned forward and rested his forearms on his thighs.

            It was then I saw the bloom of a bruise along his right cheek to his jaw.  “What happened to your face?”

            “I said the wrong thing to those men,” I replied.  “They aren’t very patient, either.”

            “Goddess preserve,” I muttered.  “I think we are both out of our element.”

            He gave a mirthless chuckle and nodded.  “I think so, too.”

            “How is your wound?”

            “Well enough.  I hardly feel it.”

            “Do you want me to take a look at it?”

            He reached up and placed a hand on his chest.  “No.  It’s fine.  Thank you, though, for all the care you gave me.”

            “Of course!”  I rose and made my way to the porthole.  I leaned against the bulkhead and breathed in the fresh, briny scent.  “The ship has a short layover in A’leumih in two days’ time.  I want to go into the city and explore.  You’ll come with me, won’t you?”

            He rose.  “I wouldn’t mind stretching my legs and seeing the sights.”

            I snorted.  “From what I hear, A’leumih is not much to look at.  It is mostly a trade town.  But they do have nice taverns and such.  Wouldn’t mind a hot meal.”

            “Count me in then.”

            I smiled at him and returned to my cot to lay down.  “I’m still groggy from the drug.  I’m going to nap.  Please don’t leave the cabin without me.”

            “I won’t,” he said.

            I nodded and lay on my back, hands on my abdomen.  I listened idly to the sounds of Karane pacing until I drifted off.

***

            The ship docked at A’leumih Harbor two days later.  Many of the passengers chose to disembark there.  I did not see the attraction.  A’leumih was flat and covered with the fine red dust that dominates south Tjish.un.  The clouds were low over the city the afternoon we arrived, obscuring distances.  Rain fell in a steady patter.

            Karane and I walked down the plank to the dock.  There was no sign of Ohna or Lhara’h, but I know they would follow shortly with our belongings.

            The dock was slick with algae.  I slipped.

            Karane reached over and steadied me.

            “Be careful,” he said.

            I thanked him.

            We came to the city gates, where we showed our travel permits and were allowed to enter the city.  

            A’leumih is not among the biggest cities in Tjish.un.  That distinction belongs to the capital and the cities along the west coast.  The city is filled with lime mortar one- or two-story buildings.  The streets are paved but are narrow, so that the denizens must share the space with wagons and carriages.  It gives the city a perpetually crowded feel. That day the rain mixed with the ubiquitous red dust, until the streets ran with red water.  It looked as if the God of the World had opened his veins and died there.  I shuddered as we made our way through the throngs in search of a place to eat.

            We finally spotted a tavern that looked to have several available tables and entered the establishment.  Inside, it was dim.  It smelled of alcohol and cooking food.  There was a serving lad just inside and he led us to our table next to a shuttered window.  I could hear raindrops hitting the shutters on the other side.  

            A single candle sat on its holder on our table. The flame danced with every draft.

            “What’ll you have?” the server asked.

            “I’ll take the special,” Karane answered.  “And a cider please.”

            I sat back in my chair.  “Same here.”

            The server bowed and hurried away.

            Karane sat forward and rested his forearms on the table.  “It’s not a good day for sightseeing.”

            I copied his stance.  “We aren’t going to sightsee. We’re meeting Lhara’h and Ohna at the western gate.  They will have our belongings and a means for us to travel.  It’s a fortnight’s hard ride to the River Kahi.  There, we will purchase space on a barge to take us to Da’hrisjah.”

            He blinked at me.  “What?”

            I shook my head.  “We can’t stay on the ship, with those men.  It isn’t safe.”

            “You tell me this now?”

            “We couldn’t risk you being drugged and revealing our plans.”

            He sat back.  “I see.”

            “No. You don’t.”  I sat back as well.  “This isn’t a game, Karane.  It’s become too dangerous for us to remain complacent.”

            He looked away from me, his mouth taut with anger.  I could not blame him.  At this rate, I would whittle away whatever trust he had in me in no time.

            The server returned with two bowls of meat and turies stew and two tankards of cider.  He set them down with a thud and hurried off to greet the next customer.

            We tucked into our food, gazes averted, both angry.  Well, I was angry.  Karane was seething.

            By the time we finished our meals and sat back to enjoy the cider, he had calmed down.

            “I suppose I can’t blame you,” he said into the silence.

            “I am a puppet in this, Karane,” I replied.  “Just as you are.  Even if I disagree with an order, I must follow it.  You should know this, being military.”

            He nodded.  “Yes.”

            We sipped our cider.

            By the time the server returned for payment, I was desperate to leave.  The silence between us was thick and uncomfortable.  I could see Karane was still angry.

            We rose from our seats and Karane paid for our meal.

            I followed him out.

            The rain had stopped momentarily, but the heavy rainclouds lingered.  It was hot and humid now.

            “We should find your friends,” he said to the sky.  “Before it rains again.”

            “Follow me,” I told him and headed west along an offshoot of the avenue.  This street was less crowded.  It ran along storefronts.  There were large pots of potted flowers and plants ornamenting the way.  It did little to increase the city’s charm.  Bah’nah had spoiled me.

            In the distance, thunder rumbled.  I sighed. Rain would slow us down further.

            The western gate was situated sepeks from its eastern counterpart.  After two hours of walking, we begged a ride from a passing farmer.  He smiled at us and told us to hop onto the wagon bed.  Luckily, he too was headed to the western gate.

            We clamored onboard, our legs dangling over the edge of the bed.

            Thunder rumbled again.

            We reached the gate about an hour later.  We jumped from the wagon bed and thanked the farmer.

           We had been waiting at the western gate for some time when we spotted Ohna and Lhara’h driving a covered wagon towards us.  Ohna pulled back on the reins and the lir’tah fought her for a moment before the beasts settled down.

          “They’re restive,” Ohna commented dryly and beckoned with her chin.  “Get in back.  Now.”

          I followed Karane to the back of the wagon and we scrambled onto its bed.  A moment later, I heard Ohna slap the reins and whistle.  The wagon lurched forward and settled into an uneven gait. The ride would be worse once we left the paved roads behind.

          I could see my travel bag and Karane’s knapsack in the corner.  There were crates of Gods knew what.  I wondered briefly if the Maidens had stolen the wagon.  Not that it mattered at this point.

          Lhara’h ducked her head through the opening just behind the wagon seat and grinned.

          “The crates have supplies and water.  It’s going to take us about two weeks to reach the Kahi River.  We’ll rest the lir’tah at midday and stop to camp at sunset.  Got it?”

          “Got it,” I echoed.

          She gave a nod and turned back to the front.

          “You should rest,” I told him.  “We did a lot of walking today and you are just out of your sickbed.”

          He nodded and pulled the knapsack over to him.  He set it near him and laid down, the knapsack acting as his pillow.   “What about you?”

          “There are thieves and marauders in the no-man’s land between A’leumih and the Kahi.  I’ll keep an eye out the back.  I should be able to see the dust from hooves a sepek away.  I’ll wake you to help me in a couple of hours.”

          The paved road ended on the other side of the western gate.  After a time, riding on that wagon was like riding a boat on an uneasy sea.  I felt faintly nauseous.  I wondered what would happen once the men back at the ship realized KaraneI was missing.  Would they withhold the remedy to the poison coursing through his body?

          I closed my eyes, pushing all conscious thoughts from my mind.  I was hyperaware of Lhara’h and Ohna conversing in soft tones.  Of Karane’s deep, easy breaths.

          Gods, what had I gotten myself into?  I felt like one hundred years had passed since I got on the ship in Da’hrisjah and sailed south to Bah’nah, trailing Karane Truvesto, nephew to the Empress of Tjish.un.  How naïve I had been!  All I had wanted was to avenge my parents, my dear Eda and Aya.  What had driven me to leave the safety of my home to go to the Isle of Bah’nah?  I had not written to anyone since leaving.  What must my sisters and brothers be thinking?  That I was killed, too?  That I vanished into the sea?

         What was to become of me after this?  Die at the hands of the Resistance?  Of the Maidens?  If revolution was going to sweep across Tjish.un, I was probably going to be swept away.  Innocent people always perished during revolutions. What if the revolution failed, Goddess preserve?  What then? What would become of Karane?  Yes, he was naive, too, but that was not a crime.  He was a pawn in all this, just as I was.  And what if the Resistance won?  Would Karane be killed with the rest of the royal family?  I swallowed thickly.  Such thoughts did not sit well with me.

          But so much suffering had been done in the name of the Ma’ta’mahr rulers.  Once the first woman from my that family had ascended to the throne, she had gripped power like a python grips its prey.  She set a precedent for those who followed, and we had suffered and bled under their rule for close to 200 years.  Let it end here and now, I prayed.  With the death of the Empress.  I sighed.  Even if it means my own death.

          I fell into an uneasy slumber.  I awoke hours later, sweaty, and parched.  The wagon was still, and I could hear my companions talking just outside.  I heard Lhara’h’s throaty chuckle.

          I sat up slowly, my back sore from sitting up to sleep.  I climbed down slowly from the wagon bed, making my way towards the voices.

          They sat around a crackling, popping fire.

          Karane saw me first.  “There you are sleepy head.  Come and join us. We’ve dried meat and fruit and water.”

          I strode to the fire and squatted down next to him.

          He handed me a hunk of dried meat and a bladder of water.  I drank first then chewed on the tough meat.

          “How was your rest?” Lhara’h asked.

          I grunted.  “Restless.  I can’t help but wonder what’s to become of me.”

          Ohna nodded.  “Yes.  I bet.  Be at ease.  If you cooperate, you’ll skate through unharmed.”

          It was no salve for my worries, but I inclined my head to her.

          Lhara’h rose and stretched.  “Come, Yhera.  You and I have the first watch.  Finish your meal.”

          I finished the meat and drank more water.  When I stood, she tossed my broadsword to me.  I caught it easily without losing a finger.            

          She snorted and turned her back to me, striding into the dark.  Sheathing my sword, I headed in the opposite direction, hoping to walk a large circle around the wagon.  Behind me, Ohna and Karane put the fire out and crawled into the back of the wagon to sleep.

          Taitah the moon was a perfect blue pearl overhead.  The velvety sky was peppered with stars.  I fell back on the training the Maidens had given me in Da’hrisjah.  I grew alert and the need to sleep fell away.

          Once Ohna and Karane had settled in for the night, the silence grew thick.  I stood perfectly still, my eyes sharp on my surroundings.  Eventually, I began to hear nocturnal animals.  I knew that large predators did not inhabit this part of Tjish.un.  The largest predator in Tjish.un was the maltika, a close cousin of the northern tash-tash common in Torahn and Yllysia.  Maltika lived in the Nthus Mountains, further south and west.  Their prey were herbivores little bigger than they.  Maltika grew to about three feet in height at the shoulder. They were beautiful animals, but I had only ever seen paintings.  They were reclusive and solitary.

          I tucked my pants into my high boots.  I knew that the real danger in these parts were vipers, but even such animals did not willingly seek out people.  I was more wary of the two-legged variety of viper.

          Soon the temperature dropped, and I had to pull up the collar of my shirt.  This land skirted the Dhya Desert, which took up a large portion of the continent.  The further south one went, the drier the land and sparser the plants, until the scrub grass disappeared, as did the prickly bushes and shrubs.  Strange plants called cacti grew near the border between Tjish.un and the Dhya.  Nothing grew in the Dhya, save isolated pockets of green called oases.   The Dhya consisted mostly of sand dunes.  Yet people lived there, around its edges. I had never been but always wanted to go.  I had a hard time imagining it.  It was like an ocean, a trader once told me, except its drops were sand, not saltwater.

          I took a deep breath and exhaled.

          The moon was bright enough for me to see by.  I kept my eyes on the east, from where we had come, and the south.  I hoped Lhara’h was watching the west and the north.  This land was deceptive.  It hid sound and distance.  The soft red dirt swallowed footfalls well.  

          The night passed without incident.  I opted to remain on watch duty with Ohna, allowing Lhara’h and Karane to rest.  I liked the cold and the night, the silence of it, the fragrant northern breezes dousing the quiet with the rich, musky fragrance of the night flowers on the prickly bushes.

          As dawn rose, we made ready to leave.

Chapter V: Karane

            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–“

            “Six days!”

            “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.

            I nodded.

            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.”

            “I see.”

            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.”

            “Alright.”

            “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.

Chapter IV: Yhera

            “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.”

            “Two days?”

            “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’m sorry.”

            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!”

            He nodded.

            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.

            “Yes, sir.”

            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.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            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.

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.

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.”