“What will you name him?” Maejo asked.
We sat on the dusty floor of a large room in Holy Hill’s abbey, our backs against the wall. This had been a storage room at one point. It smelled of spices and aromatics. There were no windows, just two large oil lamps on the floor. Their light danced along the bare walls. There were four others with us, all young women with red hair, like me.
Maejo touched the babe cautiously.
I had not been allowed to bathe the child or feed him. He had cried piteously all night and now slept, exhausted.
“I haven’t given that any thought,” I replied.
Maejo snorted quietly. “Well, he needs a name, lass. Don’t you think?”
I felt my cheeks color. “Of course! It’s just…I’ve never had to name anyone before.”
He nodded. “Well, he was born in Da’hrjisha. Why don’t you call him Risj?”
“That’s a possibility. E’risj?”
Maejo grinned. “That’s the stuff right there. I like it!’
I found myself blushing again and squirming under his considerate gaze. What was going on with me? Why was I reacting to him in this way?
We had been in this room for a day and a night. None of us knew why we were here, save that all the young women had red hair. There was no other man there, aside from Maejo.
I sat back, the back of my head against the wall. I gazed down at the babe–at E’risj–where he lay on my outstretched legs. The umbilical cord was still attached at the umbilicus, the birthing fluids dry on his skin. He was a handsome lad, if a tad thin.
Maejo reached out and took one of the babe’s little hands. The child’s hand immediately wrapped around one of his fingers.
We heard the door being opened. Maejo rose. I took the babe up, cradling him against my chest and rose as well.
The child whimpered then fell back to sleep.
Two guards entered.
“You, girl!” one of them said gruffly. He pointed at one of the young women closer to the door. “Come with me!”
The girl shook her head and pushed herself against a wall.
The other guard sighed impatiently and went to her, taking hold of her right arm and propelling her from the room.
“Please, sir!” Maejo called.
The remaining guard turned to him and raised an imperious brow.
“Well?” he demanded.
“We need milk for the babe here,” Maejo replied.
The guard scowled. “The mother’s right there!”
“We found him,” Maejo told the guard. “She isn’t the mother. May we have some milk?”
“I’ll ask,” the guard growled and left, locking the door behind him.
We sat down once more, Maejo close to me. I laid my head on his shoulder and set the child on my lap once more.
I closed my eyes. Exhaustion licked along my joints and muscles. I felt lightheaded. I couldn’t recall the last time I had eaten. My stomach felt painfully empty.
The guards returned without the girl. The grumpy one’s gaze fell on me.
“You two,” he snapped. “Come with us. Now!”
We rose and followed as the second guard led yet another red-headed girl away.
We were led to a large, busy kitchen.
“Sit at the table there,” the guard said.
We sat down meekly.
I held the child against my chest, rubbing his little back in slow circles.
“You wanted some milk for the babe, dear?” one of the cooks asked.
I gazed up at the heavy-set woman with iron gray hair held in a tight braid. Her dark brown eyes were warm.
“Yes,” I replied, grateful. “Please. I don’t think he’s ever eaten.”
The woman nodded. “I’ll get you a wetnurse right away.”
The kitchen bustled with prep cooks and servants coming in and going out with empty trays or trays ladened with food. The aroma of the hearty stews being cooked made my mouth water. My stomach gurgled.
An older servant set bowls of stew and hanks of bread before Maejo and me.
He winked at us.
We began to eat. Oh, the stew was perfect — thick with chunks of meat and turies, aromatics and spices. The bread was hardy, full of dried fruit and nuts.
The heavy-set woman returned, a younger woman in tow.
“Meiri here had a child not too long ago,” the cook said. “She is a wetnurse. She can feed the babe.”
I gazed at Meiri. “Thank you!”
She smiled and held her arms out.
I handed E’risj to her.
She sat across from us at the table, undid her blouse and held the babe to her breast.
“Oh!” she said with a pained expression. “He’s very hungry!”
“We don’t know how long he was lying in that alley before we found him,” Maejo told her.
She scowled. “A pox on his parents!”
“Not everyone in Tjish.un wants a male child,” I said quietly in-between bites of the stew.
“Everyone has the right to life,” Meiri stated firmly.
I nodded and scooped up the last of my stew with a piece of bread.
E’risj fed for a few minutes more.
Meiri lifted him to her shoulder and patted his little back a few times.
The child belched.
Meiri rose and handed me the child. “We should bathe him and find him clean swaddling.”
“Thank you,” I told her.
She nodded. “Just stay here until the guards return. I’ll be back shortly.”
Meiri returned before the guards did. She carried a babe’s washtub and cloths.
She set the washtub on the table and handed Maejo the cloths. She held her arms out to me.
I handed her the babe.
The matronly servant, whose name was Iria’h, brought two large teapots. From the teapot in her right hand, she poured hot water into E’rijs’ tub. Then she poured the cold water. She hurried away and returned with a second teapot of cold water.
Meiri tested the water with her right elbow and nodded. “Thank you, Iria’h.”
She set E’rjis in the water, holding his little head above the surface with her hand.
Maejo and I watched her bathe the child with great care, leaving his head for last.
Once E’risj was clean, Meiri dried him and swaddled him, handing him over.
“Thank you,” I told her.
She nodded. “If you need me to feed him again, I work at the infirmary here at the abbey. You should come and find me close to sunset, for after that I return downhill to the city.”
“Thank you again. We’ll come find you.”
Maejo and I looked at one another, at a loss as to what to do now.
“We should return to the storage room,” I told him. “Our bags are there.”
“Your guard was adamant that you are to stay here,” I heard Iria’h say.
I looked at her. “We need our bags.”
She nodded. “I’ll bright them. Please. Sit.”
I sat while Maejo paced.
Crossing my legs, I lay the child’s head on the crook of my arm. He was awake, staring at me. He seemed so sad. I ran the back of my finger along his soft cheek. He turned towards my finger and latched on to the tip of it with his mouth.
I watched him, fascinated, until I heard our guard’s voice. I rose.
Iria’h preceded our guard into the kitchen, our bags in her arms.
Maejo took the bags from her.
“Well, come on,” the guard demanded impatiently.
We followed behind him and a second guard brought up the rear. We were led down a long hallway the opposite way we had been brought two days ago. We were led left at the first intersecting corridor. This corridor was not as long as the first. Our guard led us to a large arched doorway. The door stood wide open.
“Go on in,” he told us gruffly.
I entered and Maejo followed. We heard the door close behind us.
The room was expansive, with a set of tall, wide windows that looked upon the city’s eastern gate and the surrounding environs. There were two large bookcases framing the windows. Before the window sat the largest desk I had ever seen. It was made of eishano wood, dark brown, with a glossy surface. There were neat stacks of paper, ink wells and pens. A high-backed wooden chair sat behind the desk.
Rich, colorful throw rugs covered the wooden floor. Two padded armchairs faced the desk on this side. The room smelled of incense.
“We’d best sit,” Maejo proposed. “Who knows when they’ll recall that we are here.”
I took the armchair on the left, and he set our bags next to his chair and sat down with a sigh.
“This is all most peculiar,” he said. He looked at me. “Who do you think is looking for you?”
I shrugged. “I know as much as you do.”
He nodded. “Maybe it’s a friend of your father or mother.”
My heart leapt in my chest. “Do you suppose?”
He gnawed on his lower lip for a few seconds. “I’m just throwing out possibilities.”
“But I hadn’t thought–maybe so, Maejo. Perhaps it is a friend of Eda or Aya.”
The idea filled me with excitement.
I handed him the babe and walked over to the window.
The back of Holy Hill fell away into a poor neighborhood. Shanties leaned precariously against one another. Small plots of land were surrounded by pitiful, rickety fences. My grandmother had lived there once, before my mother became a soldier and married a soldier. With their combined salaries, they were able to purchase my grandmother a small cottage in a nicer neighborhood. The first thing grandmother had done was build a small fence around her small property. She grew beans and turies and bala berries in her backyard.
I closed my eyes against the wave of sorrow at the memory of my grandmother. I wondered if she lived still.
I heard voices in the hallway and hurried back to my chair. I gripped the back of the chair with my left hand.
I heard the voices again.
I looked at Maejo. “It can’t be!”
He frowned and rose. “What is it?”
I opened my mouth just as the door was flung open and a young man entered the room. I had forgotten how handsome Karane was.
I flew to him and jumped, wrapping my legs and arms around him.
“Karane!” I gasped, hugging him even more tightly. “Where have you been?”
I loosened my grip and climbed down.
He looked down at me in confused recognition.
“It’s Yhera!” I told him. “Surely you recall?”
He frowned and turned to the guards. “Close the door behind you.”
The guards and two monks who had accompanied him bowed and walked out, closing the door with a snick.
He turned back to me. “Please–” He noticed Maejo. “Please sit down, both of you.”
He walked around the desk to the chair and sat down.
I followed suit, Maejo sitting down after me.
Karane leaned forward and rested his forearms on the desktop. He clasped his hands.
“Your name is Yhera then,” he said to me.
I nodded. “Yes.”
His frown deepened. He sat back in his chair.
“I’m afraid I don’t recall very much of my past. I know my actual name is Karane and I was the Empress’s nephew.”
“Was?” Maejo asked.
Karane turned to him. “And you are?”
Karane nodded. “It’s good to meet you.” He turned back to me. “I dreamt of both of you almost nightly. I was hoping you could reveal to me why I can’t access the memories of my previous life.”
It was my turn to frown. I sat forward in my chair.
“There isn’t much to say,” I told him. “You were abducted. We were separated. I don’t know what befell you after that. Only that you had gone.”
He rose and walked around the desk to perch on its edge.
I sat back in my chair.
“Yhera and Maejo,” he murmured. “How do you fit in the God’s plan?”
“God?” I asked.
His frown deepened. “Khahn, God of death and renewal.”
I went cold inside. “The Fallen One?”
He scowled. “The Forsaken One!”
My stomach did a flip.
He rose with a sigh and walked to the window much the same as I had done before. He leaned against the windowsill.
“There is much to be done,” he said distractedly. “Right now, all is chaos. Order will be restored.”
I rose. “Karane–“
“My name is L’hevent.”
“L’hevent then. Pardon me for asking this, but what is R’Nonay doing here during a rebellion?”
He turned to me and clasped his hands behind his back.
“We will secure the city and they will help us.”
“But how can T’jish.un’s most ancient enemy benefit us?” Maejo piped up.
“They hate a nation more than they hate us,” he said.
I cocked my head. “I’A?”
He nodded. “Just so.”
It was madness. I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from asking questions that might upset him.
“Sit down,” he said.
Maejo and I sat.
L’hevent returned to the desk chair and rested his forearms on the headrest.
“I need all the allies I can get,” he said.
“What about the Resistance?” I asked. “They were going to put up your mother as Empress.”
He pursed his lips and shook his head.
“That is not what is going to happen,” he assured me. “That does not fall in line with the plan.”
Maejo scowled. “Whose plan?”
“The God’s plan,” L’hevent replied evenly. “There will be an emperor. I will bring the God back into the Holy Pantheon. Then I will have accomplished my side of the agreement between the God and myself.”
I rose. “An emperor? What is to become of women?”
He looked at me, his green eyes sincere. “Their role will not change. It is only that men will no longer be relegated to second class status. There will be no more prisoners taken to the ziggurat to be tortured and starved. People will be able to live with more freedom.”
Maejo rose and handed me E’risj. “Like they do in R’Noayan? Yhera didn’t mention you are a fool, Karane Truvesto.”
“My name is L’hevent!”
“That does not mean you aren’t Karane Truvesto, whatever it is you choose to call yourself!”
“Maejo–” I began.
He shook his head. “Begging your pardon, Yhera, but he is mad.”
L’hevent lifted his hands. Light began to emanate from the palms. The light crackled and flared.
“Karane Truvesto never could do this,” he told Maejo.
Maejo shook his head. “So, you are a warlock now. That doesn’t convince me that you are sane.”
The light burned brightly before it died away.
I opened my eyes.
“Sit down,” he said. “Please.”
He took his seat once we were seated as well.
“Look,” he said earnestly. “The God has sent me dreams of the both of you. You are meant to be here, at my side, helping me create a new government. I am asking you. I don’t want to make you prisoners. I need your memory, Yhera, of who I was before. Help advise me. Help me not lose focus.”
I swallowed. “I don’t know…I have to look for my grandmother. Maejo here has to check in with his aunt–“
“Please. I will release you with four guards. Do what you have to do but return here when you are done.”
“You’re sending us out with guards?”
“Yes. It is dangerous in the city right now,” he said. “Especially for women and young men.”
He leaned forward. “We can do this another way. I can send soldiers out into the city, to find your grandmother and your aunt. They will be brought here.”
Maejo and I looked at each other.
“I’m afraid if I send you out there, you or your babe will come to some harm.”
I looked at L’hevent. “That’s fine.”
L’hevent nodded and rose. “Thank you. Now, I will have the guards take you to a room where you may rest.”
Maejo and I rose. Maejo picked up our bags.
L’hevent led us into the hallway, where guards and the two monks waited.
He turned to us. “Thye’vehn and Luserehn here will teach you of our God. They will come with you and lead you to your room.”
I turned to L’heven and hugged him.
“I don’t know who you are anymore, but you look like my friend.” I swallowed past the lump in my throat. “Have you spoken to your mother or father?”
Letting him go, I stepped back.
He looked at the monks. “Take them to their room on the fourth floor, then return here.”
The monks bowed. “Right away, Prophet.”
We followed the monks down the hall to a stairwell. The stairs were wide enough that Maejo and I could climb them side by side. Behind us came four guards. L’hevent was taking no chances.
Our room ended up being ample and airy, full of windows with a view of the ocean. There was a huge bed against the far wall, a wardrobe, and a little sitting area with two armchairs with a small, spindly-legged table between them. Facing the armchairs was a blue couch. At the base of the bed stood a wooden cradle. Round area rugs covered the wooden floor and added a splash of color.
The monks entered the room after us.
I went to the bed and set E’risj in the center on his back. I set a thick pillow on either side of him then covered him with a blanket.
When I turned back to the room, I found Maejo and the two monks watching me.
I went to Maejo and stood beside him. He took my hand.
One of the monks indicated the couch. “Please, sit.”
Maejo led me to the couch, and we took our seats side by side.
Each monk took a seat in an armchair.
“I am Thye’vehn,” the monk who had asked us to sit said. “That is Luserehn.”
Thye’vehn was in his mid-twenties, lean and handsome. He was Ae’hlbyinese or R’Nonayan, for he had pale hair and sky-blue eyes.
Luserehn was dark. Perhaps he was Deyianeshi or L’hokeli. His thick black hair was held back in a queue, just like the other monk.
The blue-eyed monk cocked his head. “You know of Khahn as the Fallen God. What happened to cause his fall?”
Maejo and I looked at one another.
“He wanted to wrest power from Cera and Le’h, the mother and father of the gods,” Maejo said.
“The ancestor of Empress Maraia took Khahn from the Pantheon, labeled him a fallen god and proceeded to invent a reason for his fall,” the dark monk said. “She wanted to ensure that her dynasty survived her. You see, the Shadows –called the Followers of Khahn in those days –were growing powerful and they demanded of her that she choose her oldest son as heir, instead of her daughter. There were rumblings of an overthrow. The rumors intensified when the prince, her son, became a Follower of Khahn. She ruthlessly nosed us out, killed almost all of us, including her son, and wiped Khahn from the Pantheon. Some of us escaped and went into hiding, thus the name Shadows of Khahn. The royal family has attempted to nose us out since then, to no avail. Last night, the last empress burned with her advisors.”
My mouth had gone dry. I took a deep breath to calm my racing heart. Was this true or an attempt at a ruse?
I looked at Maejo. “Can this be true?”
He gnawed his upper lip. “It isn’t in the history books. It wasn’t what I was taught. But they’ve won the rebellion. What reason would they have to lie to us? They are in charge now.”
“We’ve no reason to lie, as your husband here says,” Thye’vehn stated firmly.
I sighed. “How did Karane become involved with you?”
He cocked his head. “He is in the hands of the God. The God made him a warlock and made an agreement with him. He will not recall his past until the God has no further use for him.”
“Why would your God wipe his memory away?” I demanded.
Thye’vehn pursed his lips. “That is between L’hevent and the God.”
“I will bring you our holy book tomorrow,” Thye’vehn said. “You shall hear the truth.”
They left us alone.