Chapter XV: Yhera

            “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?”

            He stiffened.

            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.”

            I shuddered.

            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?”

            He stiffened.

            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.”  

            They rose.

            “I will bring you our holy book tomorrow,” Thye’vehn said.  “You shall hear the truth.”

            They left us alone.


Chapter XIV: L’hevent

            On the morning of the first day of the dry season, we traveled across the expansive grass fields west of city to its closest gate.  We met the R’Nonayans halfway there.  

            General Keress turned out to be a relatively young man with a winning smile and handsome features.  He was tanned from the sun, his hair the color of ripe grain, his eyes bright blue.  I liked him right away, even if his presence was worrisome to me.  He and I rode our lir’tahs side by side as we approached the western gate.  

               The R’Nonayans were not uniformed.  Keress told me most of them were mercenaries, and R’Nonay did not provide uniforms to any but those who enlisted with its army for a minimum of ten years.  So, we must have made an interesting sight cantering up to the Western Gate, thousands of fit men fully armed.

            As we approached the wall, we saw what appeared to be skirmishes along its battlements.  One city guard was pitched over the side of the wall and fell to his death feet below.

            I pulled my sword from its scabbard.  General Keress followed suit.

            I lifted my right arm.  “Hold!”  I called to the troops behind us. 

            Our animals were restive, pulling on the reins and pawing at the ground.

            We were still too far from the city wall to be convenient targets for archers.  I pulled my field glasses from my saddlebag and turned them towards the city. 

            I saw guard fighting guard and others that appeared to be civilians fighting guards.  I saw no archers at the ready, so I lifted my arm.


            In my head, the Presence slid along its black waters, anticipating the spill of blood.

            As we approached the city gates, they were opened for us.  Several men stood on the other side.

            A handsome I’An stepped forward.  He was slender as a blade of grass and held a gory sword in his hand.  He was dark as night, his thick hair held in several blades.  His warm brown eyes flicked along the line of soldiers behind Keress and me.

            “Which one of you is L’hevent?” the I’An called.

            “I am,” I replied, moving my mount out of line.

            The I’An bowed.  “I am I’lhien, sir.  The Resistance mounted its attack, focusing on the city gates and the guards along the battlements first.”

            I dismounted and led my lir’tah to where he stood.  “The Empress?”   

            “Today being the first day of the dry season, she is praying at the ziggurat.”

            “I’ll handle her and her advisors,” I told him.  I turned.  “General Keress!”

            The R’Nonayan dismounted and strode to where we stood.

            “Yes, Prophet.”

            “Your men are responsible for neutralizing those who oppose us,” I said.  “Do not harm any that surrenders.”

            He bowed.  “Yes, Prophet.”

            We mounted once more then entered the city, parting ways at the foot of Holy Hill.  Keress and his mercenaries continued east along the boulevard, led by I’lhien.  The Shadow troops and I headed up the steep hill.

            At the summit, we encountered a token resistance, but the guards surrendered willingly enough.

            Dismounting, I looked towards the ziggurat. Torches lit its apex.  There was no one overseeing the altar there.

            I turned to my generals.  “Nefir’h, you and Temorin Take one third of the men into the palace.  Secure the royal family.”

            They saluted and began shouting orders.

            I turned to Edvar.  “You’re with me.  Samohl, you, too.  We’ll take one-third of the men and surround the ziggurat.  Keep an eye on any who try to escape.  Kalot’h, you take the remaining one-third and secure the abbey.”

            I would allow Samohl and Edvar to take the lead.  If I was going to fight with magic, I was going to have to conserve energy and focus.

            I gave the reins of my mount to a soldier and strode around the orderly chaos to where six Shadow monks stood.  They had marched alongside the Shadow troops.

            “Thye’vehn,” I called out.

            The young monk jogged towards me.  He bowed.

            “We’re going to have to fight with magic,” I told him.  “The High Priestess will not surrender willingly.”

            He bowed again.  “This we know, Prophet.  We are ready.”

            I nodded.  “Then come with me.”

            We followed Samohl and Edvar along the east-facing wall of the pyramid to the south-facing wall, where iron double doors stood shut tight against intrusion.  The monks arrayed themselves behind me.  The soldiers began to spread out along the base of the ziggurat. 

            I stepped up to the doors and placed the palm of my hands on their hot surface.  I closed my eyes.

            I could “see” the lock in my mind’s eye.  I took several deep breaths.  The Presence spasmed in its waters.

            Imagine how a lock works, the Presence whispered in my mind.  Your will is the key.

            I did as it asked, focusing my attention on the lock.  The magic from my hands went in through the keyway.  It bathed the mechanism of the lock, and I could see in my mind how the lock worked.  I pushed more magic into the keyway until the lock gave way with a snick and the doors moved an inch or two inwards.  I pushed the doors open and stood back.  Dimness met our eyes.

            I turned to Edvar and Samohl.  “We have to proceed with care.  Select ten soldiers to accompany us inside.  The ziggurat is well defended.  I will light your way.”

            “But Prophet–” Edvar began.

            I shook my head.  “The God will protect me.  Come.”

            I raised my hands over my head and focused.  Soon there was enough light to walk by.

            The first thing that met us inside the ziggurat was an oily cold.  I heard Edvar curse under his breath.  The corridors went in three directions: west, east, and north.  We split into three groups.  Edvar led his men west along the outer corridor.  Thye’vehn would use magic to light their way.  Samohl led his troops north along the central corridor.  I led my men east.  Two of Thye’vehn’s monks left with Edvar and Samohl, which left me with four Shadow monks to help me in defeating the High Priestess and her advisors.  She had at least eight advisors.  I did not like those odds, especially when the High Priestess was rumored to be powerful.  I squared my shoulders and pushed past my uncertainty.

            Using magic to light the passageway, I led my company to the end of the corridor without encountering guards.  Something felt terribly wrong. 

            The corridor bent north.  Halfway down the north-facing corridor, I began to see cages filled with half-naked, grimy, starving men and women. The prisoners moaned and wept, calling out for mercy, their pitiful arms thrust through the bars.  The closed-in space reeked of human waste and urine and putrefaction.

            “We’ll come back for you,” I told a young woman. “Pass the word along.”

            The magic was growing heavy.  My body had begun to shake.  Rivulets of sweat meandered down my back and waist.  Salt burned my eyes.

            Suddenly there was movement up ahead.

            “Who are you?” a woman called from a distance.

            She was naked, streaks of blood along her upper arms, chest, and thighs.

            Without waiting for me to respond, she lifted her arms overhead.  A dark red sphere appeared and began to turn between her hands.   Yet, despite her nudity, she evoked awe and not a small amount of fear in me.  This had to be the High Priestess.

            Within me, the Presence moved restlessly in its inky waters.

            Behind her stood five men and three women.  Her advisors?  They, too, held their arms aloft.  Blue and yellow spheres of magic turned between their open hands.  Unlike her visage filled with determination, they watched me with curiosity and a certain amount of trepidation.

            Behind me the four Shadow monks took up their positions, arms held out.  There appeared no sphere between their hands, only light.  

            I was attempting to form my light into a sphere, but it resisted me.  I could feel the searing heat of the light licking the palms of my hands.  The light felt heavy, and I was trembling with the need to form it.

            Let go, L’hevent, the Presence murmured in my mind in order to hurl it towards her.  

           Do not ape her, the Presence advised.

            My eyes felt like they were boiling in their sockets.

            Do not see or hear or touch.  Simply be.  Feel the enemy with your mind.

            Even as I attempted to obey, there appeared another woman, this one enveloped in red light.  She had long, dark hair that writhed and slithered around her like vipers.  She was massive, as tall as the ziggurat itself. 

            Inside my mind, the Presence screeched.  My eyes rolled toward the back of my sockets.  The Presence rushed from me through my eyes, nose and mouth, a sooty mist.  Before us formed a man, easily as tall as the woman who towered over us.  They saw one another and screamed words I could not understand.  They raised their hands and magic flowed between them.  The God threw a bolt of magic at the Goddess, but she bent her hands and the magic swung past her and headed back the way it had come.  The Presence dodged and the magic flew past us to explode somewhere behind us.

            I came to myself with a shudder.  I could not afford to become distracted.

            I closed my eyes.  My tears felt like molten lava running own my cheeks.  I “saw” the High Priestess as she formed her magic.  In my mind’s eye, the light between my hands became pliable and flexible.  I could hear screams far away.  I pushed my anxiety and curiosity down deep inside me. 

           The High Priestess began her throwing her barrage of magic in the form of fiery arrows.  I scrambled to create a shield between her people and mine.  It was taking everything I had to maintain it.

          As I fought her, I extended the light between my hands towards her.  I could see it in my mind’s eye slithering along the dark floor towards her. 

          She saw, despite her attention being diverted by our battle.  She attempted to block my magic.  My magic froze.  It could not penetrate her shield.

          Help me, my God, I prayed.

          The God did not reply.

          Above us, the battle between the Goddess Cera, protector of the Empress and her family, and the God Khahn continued without abatement.  Around us, the ziggurat walls were darkened from magical explosions.

         “Leave here now!” the High Priestess demanded. 

          I could see that, like me, she was not unaffected by her use of magic.  Her arms were shaking, and her hair was plastered to her face and neck by sweat.

          “I leave here when my God demands it,” I yelled back.

          She screamed in rage and released another salvo of magic.

          This time she managed to hit my shield.  I could see the thin, glass-like shield buckle.  It would not last another hit.

          “We must hit her together as one,” I told the four monks behind me.  “We must or my shield will collapse.  Now, focus your magic on the area of the shield right in front of her.  On three.”

          I counted off.  When I got to three, we focused our energy on the shield around the High Priestess and released our magic.  Her shield became visible as it incurvated and began to collapse.

          The High Priestess held her hands up overhead as she attempted to repair the shield.

          I cursed and threw more magic at her.  I was becoming depleted.  I ached.  It hurt to hold my arms overhead. 

          The High Priestess glowered at me, releasing choice curses, but I saw when she slid to the floor unto her knees.

          Several of her advisors fled down the corridor away from us.

          She screamed obscenities and called on her remaining advisors to assist her.

         “Quickly!” I told the monks.  “Before they gather their strength – lets hit that area of the shield again!”

          We focused and zeroed the magic right where we had hit before.  I saw when she fainted.  One advisor her held while the rest fled.

          Overhead, the battle continued, but Cera was losing power.  Khahn had a millennium of rage off of which to feed.  The Goddess’s image was thinning, become two dimensional.

          Khahn attacked viciously.  He strode over us to the Goddess.  They began to tussle.  When they fell, the ensuing boom made us cover our ears with our hands.

          I fell to my knees, exhausted and lightheaded.  I had nothing left.  I fell forward.  I moaned when my face connected with the floor.  My skin felt tight and burnt.

            “Prophet!” someone said, gently turning me over.

            I felt hands on my skin, and I screamed.

            The hands moved away.  I turned my head towards the tussling gods.  Their fighting had slowed down.  I looked away and closed my eyes.


              I opened my eyes. 

             A young monk was bent over me.

             “Make sure the High Priestess does not abscond.  And make sure the prisoners are tended to by healers.”

              I felt myself being lifted.  Then I was being carried, held aloft as if I weighed nothing.  I heard only footsteps echoing through what must have been yet another long corridor.

            Suddenly, the echoes fell away, and I felt cool rain on my skin.

            For a long time, while my eyes refused to open, I could feel the rain on my skin.

            Then we must have entered another building.

            “See to him!  Only your finest healer!” someone demanded.

            I knew him, but I could not recall his name.

            I was set down on a soft surface.  

            I turned my head and attempted to open my eyes.  I began to panic when my eyelids would not part.

            I began to fight and scream.

            I felt a weight on me.  Someone tied down my arms and legs until I could no longer move.

            After a long time, I felt a cool wet cloth wiping my eyelids.

            I could hear the patter of rain and I could smell damp earth.

            I was cold and hot in equal measures.

            My skin was gently dabbed with a damp cloth.  It hurt.  God, it hurt!  But I could not move to fight.  I opened my mouth to scream but nothing came out.  My words fell away from me as they were being born.  My throat felt as if shards of glass were embedded there.

            I was terribly frightened.  Frightened that I had lost my sight.  Frightened that Khahn would lose.  Frightened that the Presence would return to nest in my mind.              

            I kept trying to open my eyes.

            “Stop that,” a woman’s voice chastised.  “You’ll tear the skin.  I’m trying to use water to part them.”

            I obeyed her.

            Eventually, I fell asleep.

            I dreamt of the Presence in its waters.  I dreamt of the young woman with red hair and a young man who travelled with her.

            It seemed I slept for years.  Around me, the echo of quiet conversations.  The slither of cloth against surfaces.


            I turned my head towards the voice.


            I struggled to open my eyes.


            I started, sitting up before I was even fully awake.  My body ached and my throat was parched and hurt as if I had swallowed glass.  I still could not open my eyes.  My body felt sunburned, the skin sensitive to the blanket on me.  Exhaustion made me feel heavy and lethargic.

            “I’m sorry to wake you up, Prophet, but the R’Nonayans have begun to loot and rape.”

            I sighed.  “Bring me General Keress.  At once.”

            “Yes, Prophet.”

            “Healer!” I called.

            “Here, Prophet.”

            “Why can’t I open my eyes?”

            “We’ve been applying warm wet cloths.  Please lie down.  We’ll apply the treatment again.”

            “May I have some water first, please?”

            “Of course.”

           She walked away then returned, pressing a cup to my lips.  I drank the cool, sweet water slowly.  It bathed my throat soothingly.

            When I finished that cup, she stepped away.  “Go easy on the water.  I’ll give you more in a bit.  Lay down so I can wash your eyes.”

            When I lay down, the healer placed a warm wet cloth over my eyes.  I could feel the water trickling into my eyes. I told her this.

            “Good,” she murmured.  “Your eyelids are parting.”

            There was a commotion somewhere in the room.

            “You called for me, Prophet?” General Keress asked.

            “Yes,” I growled.  “Put a stop to the looting and raping.  We don’t want the populace turning against us.”

            “Sir, you know how men are…I may not be able to stop it.”

             “Find a way.”

            “At once, Prophet.”

            I heard him leave.

            I needed to get back to duty.  If I fell, who would rise in my place?  I had a feeling the R’Nonayans would not mind taking over.

            I sat up, taking hold of the wet cloth, and rubbing it gently over my eyes.

            Slowly, I opened my eyes.  My eyesight was slightly blurry.  I told the healer this.

            “Give your eyesight time to recover, Prophet,” she said.  “It might take a few days.”

            I rose.  “I can see well enough.”

            I was in a large tent.  There were several occupied cots arrayed around my own.  To the right of the tent flap stood a rectangular table.  I could not make out what was on the table.  I could smell the bitter odor of medicants.

            “You leave against my advice,” the healer said.

            “So noted.  Where are my clothes?”

            She brought them to me and helped me to dress. The clothes smelled burnt. I could no longer hear rain outside.  

            I pulled my boots on, re-braided my hair, and strode through the tent and into a late afternoon.  The skies had a few ragged clouds.  The wind off the ocean was cool.  

           “Prophet!” General Edvar called as he strode towards me.  “You’re looking better.”

            He saluted.

            “What of the High Priestess and her advisors?” I asked.

            He blanched.

            “Tell me.”

            He swallowed.  “The High Priestess and one advisor remain.  The others are being pursued.”

             I nodded.  “Bring me Thye’vehn and Luserehn.”

            He saluted.  “Right away, Prophet!”

            General Nefih’r stood quietly off to the side.


            He saluted.  “We have found five young women with red hair, sir. They are being detained, just as you asked.”

            “They haven’t been hurt, have they?”

            “No, sir.  They’re being kept in the abbey until further notice.”

            I nodded.  “Thank you.  Will you accompany me to finish what I started?”

            “You mean, the Empress and her remaining advisor?”

            “None other than.”

            “Yes, sir.  I’ll come.”

            “Bring General Keress also.”

            He saluted.  “At once, sir.”

            I turned towards the palace.  From what I could see, all that remained was blackened and sooty marble.  The flames had eaten the diaphanous curtains that had hung around the main floor instead of walls.  Some of the upper floors remained intact, but the first three floors looked gutted.


            I turned and saluted General Keress.

            “You’ve taken care of your men?” I asked him.

            He saluted, fist to chest, and bowed.  “Yes, sir.  My apologies.”

            “It wasn’t your fault,” I assured him.  “Men get hot blooded during battles.”

            “That they do,” he replied, rising onto the balls of his feet.  “But they were warned prior to coming ashore.  I will have to make an example of some of them.”

            We began walking towards the ziggurat.

            I rubbed my eyes, but my eyesight remained blurry.

            “The healers told me your eyesight is not up to par,” he said.

            I did not look at him.  “I can’t see very well, I’m afraid.”

            “Then what are you doing out of bed?”

            “I fear who will rise in my absence; more than I fear harming my eyes.”

            He grunted.  “Are your generals trustworthy?”


            “Then it is me who must not be trustworthy.  Is that it?”

            I sighed and turned to him.  “You have behaved honorably.  But I don’t want to tempt the powers that be.  I must continue to appear hale and whole.”

            He nodded. “Point taken.”

            “I should like to meet with the members of the Resistance.  The Shadows must make their move soon before the new government is chosen.  Do I have your support?”

            He saluted me.  “The values of the Shadows are more aligned with ours than that of the Resistance.  We need an ally against I’A.”

            His words gave me pause.  The values of the Shadows are more aligned with the values of R’Nonay? I went hot and cold at once.  I said nothing in response.  Let R’Nonay think what it liked, but I would die before Tjish.un became a patriarchy.

            Nefih’r caught up with us and came alongside me.

            We entered the ziggurat at the south-facing wall, where the two iron double doors had been propped open.  Four R’Nonayan guards stood at attention.  They saluted us as we walked up.

            “General,” one of the guards said.  “There are lit oil lamps just in the doors.  It’s pitch black in there, sir.”

            “Thank you,” General Keress murmured.

            We entered.  

            The lit oil lamps hung from hooks along the wall.  Their buttery light did little to dispel the gloom.  We each took a lamp and held it aloft as we walked deeper into the pyramid.

            We came to the end of the hall and continued north.  The rank odor of unwashed bodies, disease and waste filled the hall.  We came upon the cages where the Empress’ opponents were imprisoned.  I could hear men crying out for mercy.

            I stopped at the first cage.  I knelt and held the oil lamp aloft.

            A young man cowered against the bars, hiding his face from the light of my lamp.  He was filthy, with overgrown hair and fingernails.  The dirt and soot on his skin could not hide the vicious bruises and cuts along his naked body.  He reeked of putrescence.

            “What’s your name?” I asked quietly.

            He gave a violent start and whimpered.

            “We are here to set you free, man,” General Keress stated.

            The young man shook his head and hid his face alongside his arm.

            I gazed up at Nefir’h.  “Get the healers here, Nefir’h.  These men need to be seen to.  Why hasn’t this been done already?”

            He saluted.  “The healers were helping the grievously wounded, Prophet.  I’ll bring what healers are available.”

            Keress and I continued to the next cage.  This one held three officers dressed in the Tjish.unen uniforms.   Like the first man, they were ragged with unwashed and uncombed hair.  Their beards reached their collar bones.  Their skin was sooty and puffy with bruises.  They reeked of human waste and urine.

            “Who are you men?”  I asked.

            They looked at one another then at me.

            “Do you not speak the Common Tongue?” I asked.

            One of them cleared his throat and sat up as high as the cage ceiling would allow him.

            “We do, sir,” he said.  “It’s just…no one has spoken to us in so long.  They merely dump the maggot-riddled meals on the ground, and we eat from the ground.”

            I rose.  “Where are the keys to this place?”

            “I suppose the Empress has them still,” General Keress replied.

            “No, sir,” one of the prisoners said.  “They hang on the wall opposite the cages. It’s to torture us, sir.”

            I turned and held the lamp aloft.  Sure enough, the keys hung from a hook on the wall opposite the cages.  

            I picked up the round key holder and turned back to the cage. Handing Keress my lamp, I knelt before the cage once more.  My hands shook from exhaustion.  It took five tries before the key fit in the keyway and I was able to open the cage. 

            “Don’t go any place, you understand?” I said to the prisoners.  “Healers are one their way to take care of you.”

            The one who had spoken crawled to the door and looked up at me.  

            “Don’t do this,” he urged.  “If she catches you, you’ll end up here, too.”

            “You needn’t worry,” General Keress replied.  “The High Priestess is soon to die.”

            The men looked at one another with wide gazes and shook their heads.

            We left them just as the healers were arriving.  We continued to the next cage.  There were so many of them! There must have been at least one hundred such cages.  For some, we had come too late.  They lay dead in their cages. The sickly-sweet odor of decomposition filled the close-in space.

            Other cages were filled to the brim with prisoners.  They could hardly move.  The sight of these poor men filled me with rage.

            “I’ll get some of my men to take the corpses out and burn them,” General Keress said.  “And I’ll send others to open the cages ahead of the healers.”

            “Thank you.”

            He hurried away.

            Healers swarmed the space.  I handed the head healer the keyholder.  I wondered how many men were still alive and how many had succumbed to disease or starvation and thirst.

            I squared my shoulders and continued down the passageway.

            I came to the place in the corridor where the monks and I had fought the High Priestess and her advisors. 

            “Prophet,” Nefir’h said as he ran to me.  “The healers are here, as are the R’Nonayan soldiers who are going to take the dead out into the square to burn.  One of their soldiers is opening all the cages.”

            “Thank you, Nefir’h.”

            The gods were gone. In their absence, the High Priestess lay on the floor, her head still on her remaining advisor’s lap.              

           We fell silent again and I closed my eyes.  Behind the darkness of my shut lids, I could not feel the Presence stirring.

            “Are you well, Prophet?” Nefir’h asked.

            “What I must do does not sit well with me,” I told him.  “I must witness her demise, the demise of her advisors.”

            “Yes, Prophet.”

            “I must hardened my heart,” I heard myself say.

            “And seeing the suffering these prisoners have suffered has not hardened your heart?”

            I sighed.  “It is because women will die, you understand.  It goes against everything I was taught by teachers, by my culture.”

            “I understand,” he said quietly.  “But they cannot be allowed to live.  Besides, women are no better, no worse than men.”

            I nodded, though his words shocked me.  It had grown unbearably hot in the corridor.

            There was a small sooty dust devil spinning quietly off to one side.

            I approached it.

            Nefir’h stayed put.

            I knelt before the dust devil.  

            “My Lord,” I whispered.  “I am here.”

            A piece of the inky dust devil reached out and wrapped around my left wrist.  It felt cold to the touch.

            I have been avenged today.  I am clean and whole.

            Yes, my God.

            The God moved against my skin.  I stiffened.

            Do not fear me.  This is my worst visage.  It is necessary for life to end in order for it to continue.  Do you understand?

            I do, my God.  I reached out with my other hand and ran a finger along the swirling dust.  It moved against my skin and then pulled away slowly.    

            You must sacrifice to me, L’hevent.  Once a week.  It need not be a human; an animal will do just as well.

            Yes, my God.

             I tire of this.

            At once, the God spun faster and faster until it resembled a mist.  

            As I watched, it shot towards me, and I felt it enter through my eyes, nose, and mouth.  It felt so cold, it burned.  I bit down on my lower lip and tasted blood.  I coughed, my eyes burning, my nose runny.  I covered my eyes with my hands and steadied myself as the God became part of me once more.

            I sighed and rose and fell forward. 

            Nefir’h cried out and ran to me, taking hold of my arm before I fell any further.

            “We must make an example of her,” I told him. 

            “Yes, Prophet.”

            “Take her out into the square and her advisor, too.”

            He helped me to stand against the wall and hurried to call four soldiers to take hold of the High Priestess and her advisor.

            I was lightheaded again.  I needed to replenish my energy.  All I wanted to do was lay down and sleep, but I forced myself to watch as the soldiers bore away the High Priestess and her hanger-on.  I walked slowly along the wall, taking deep breaths. 

           Nefir’h found me as I reached the entrance of the ziggurat.  He put his arm around my waist and helped to walk out into the square.

           As I watched, leaning against Nefir’h, soldiers poured out of the pyramid, carrying the infirm and dying and hauled them over to the abbey.  Towards the center of the square, the R’Nonayans had stacked the bodies of the dead prisoners. It is here that I sent the High Priestess and her advisor.

            I heard running and turned around to find Edvar hurrying towards me.

            He saluted.  “Prophet, the royal siblings have escaped.”    

            “Find me General Keress,” I told Nefir’h.

            Nefir’h saluted and hurried away.

            I struggled to maintain myself on my feet.  My legs were shaking.

            “Prophet, let me help you to the field hospital,” Edvar murmured.

            I shook my head.

            “Who escaped with the heir to the throne?” I asked.

            Edvar squared his shoulders.  “The younger sister, the oldest male…sir, your brother and mother and father.  Your mother is the Empress’s younger sister.”

            “Bring the rest of the family to the abbey.”

            Edvar saluted and jogged away.

            “You called me, Prophet?” General Keress asked.

            I turned to face him, clasping my shaking hands before me.  “The royal family has escaped.  Send troops south along Merchant’s Road – have them stop and examine every wagon and carriage they see.  And send troops out into the bay.  They might have absconded to a ship.”

            General Keress saluted.  “Right away, Prophet.”

            My vision had begun to clear.

            I sighed.

            “You look peaked, Prophet.  Perhaps it is better if you returned to bed.” Thye’vehn murmured as he approached me, Luserehn at his side.

            “No.  There is much to do before we can relax.”


            “I should try to eat something, Thye’vehn.”

            “I suggest we head to the abbey, Prophet.  That is where the mess hall has been set up.”

            “No time,” I replied.  

            “Begging your pardon, Prophet,” he said.  “I am going to have to demand that you eat.  The last time you ate was last night.  It is now well past noon.  The use of magic taxes anyone.”

            “You’re right, of course.  Luserehn, please alert my generals and General Keress that I am in the mess hall.”

            Luserehn bowed.  “At once, Prophet.”

            The abbey was a large building with two wings – the south wing and the north wing.  There were five stories, one story less than the old palace, and several stories shorter than the pyramid.  

            The sick and dying were housed on the ground floor.  The entire northern wing had been setup as a makeshift hospital.  The nuns and monks had fled when the palace was first set on fire.  Someone had had the forethought not to burn the abbey with the palace.

            We entered the foyer of the abbey and looked around.  All we had to do was follow the moans and cries of the infirm and the dying to find hospital.  There were twenty healers on hand.  The woman in charge grasped my forearm in greeting.

            “I am Savai, sir,” she said.

            “Thank you for coming and taking care of these people,” I told her.

            She brought her hand to her heart.  “It is my profession, sir.”

            “Have you been briefed about the severely tortured and starved men who are on their way from the ziggurat?”

            “Yes, sir,” she said.  “They are arriving every few minutes.”

            “Then take good care of them.  Please.”

            She bowed.  “Right away, sir.”

            “Where can we grab something to eat?” Thye’vehn asked her.

            “The mess is through that far door there.”

            I clasped her forearm and then Thye’vehn and I were heading to the mess hall.

            Servants from the burnt palace were cooking food and serving it.

            “How come they did not flee?” I asked Thye’vehn.

            He shrugged.  “Not sure, Prophet.”

            The servants fell upon their knees as we approached them.

            “Rise,” I told them.

            They rose slowly.

            “We need to eat something,” Thye’vehn told them.

            “Yes, sir,” one man answered.  “There is soup and bread.  Soup is all most of the infirm can eat.”

            “That’ll be fine,” I replied.  “Bread and soup.”

            The servants bowed and hurried away.

            We found seats at long tables in an adjacent room.  There were several soldiers at meal already.  They rose and bowed.  Roughly half were R’Nonayan.

            “As you were,” I told them, and the monk and I sat down facing each other.

            We did not speak until after the servants had brought our meal and left once more.

            We tucked into the soup.  It was hardy, filled with root vegetables and aromatics but no meat.  The bread was dense and dark with nuts and syrup.  

            As I ate, I began to feel the aches and pains of the past few days seep deeper into my muscles and joints.  My eyes felt gritty and wanted to close. I struggled to keep awake.

            “Prophet,” Thye’vehn ventured.

            I glanced up at him and pushed my empty bowl away.  “Yes.”

            “Prophet, sir.”  He leaned forward and lowered his voice.  “That battle in the ziggurat–“

            “Have a care,” I said.  “The God hears all.”

            He blanched and sat back.  “It’s only…”

            “That was the God’s darkest incarnation,” I told them.  “The one who comes to take the dying away.  Do not forget that He is also the God of regeneration and renewal.”

            “Yes, Prophet,” he murmured.

            I nodded.  “We need Him in this aspect until the war is won.”

            “Sir,” he said, glancing around us.   “Sir…is the Goddess dead?”

            “That I cannot say, Thye’vehn.  I did not see the outcome of their battle.  What I have been told is that gods cannot die.  Perhaps Khahn depleted her to the point where she vanished once more.”

            I rose.

            He scrambled to stand.

            “Sir,” he said.  “I am not like the other Shadow monks who would like to push the Holy Pantheon to one side and replace it with the God Khahn alone.  Death and regeneration are not the only aspect of faith that we need, sir.”

            It was like a cold finger slithered up my spine.  I shuddered.

            I leaned against the tabletop with my hands.  “Do not fall away from the faith.  The God is strong now and must become stronger if He is to return to the Heavenly Pantheon.  Listen – I only want to return Khahn to the Pantheon and nothing more.  Those extreme points of view will fall away.  Have faith.”

            “Yes, Prophet,” Thye’vehn murmured.

            “I have things to do,” I told him.  “Thank you for accompanying me and making sure I ate.  Please help with the sick and dying now.  Give succor and last rites.”

            “Yes, Prophet,” the monk replied.

            I turned from him and strode towards the exit.

Chapter XIII: Yhera

            Da’hrisjah was burning.  The air was thick with acrid smoke.  The populace was fleeing in droves.  Maejo and I took to the streets.  There was a frightening rumor that R’Nonay was invading.  I stood on the boulevard and looked west.  Holy Hill was engulfed in flames and smoke.  

            Maejo took my hand and pulled me from the avenue to an alley.

            “It’s started!” he said.  “The Resistance never came back.  Why?”

            I shrugged.  

            A soldier ran past, his curved sword gory.

            “People are dying,” he said.  “A lot more will die in this chaos.   Perhaps we can go to my aunt’s villa?”

            I pulled my hand free.  “I am not leaving!”

            “Think, Yhera! If R’Nonay is here, there would surely be rapine and looting and the rape of women.”

            I tamped down the fear that had gripped me since we had smelled smoke.

            “We have to find members of the Resistance!” I told him.  

            I coughed.  The smoke was getting thicker.

            “Where do you usually meet up with them?” he asked.

            “In my room or the university.”

            “Then let’s go to the university.”

            We headed opposite the fleeing crowds.  The screaming, panicking crowd was headed to the eastern gate.  The university was located halfway between the eastern gate and the western gate.  We walked along the edges of the boulevard while most of the denizens of the city were running along middle of the road.  People abandoned their wagons and carriages on the road and continued on foot towards the gates.  The closer we came to the university, the thinner the crowds got.  

            Finally, the university came into view.  Its grounds looked deserted.  I led Maejo down the paved path leading from the boulevard to the main building.  We hurried to the main entrance.  I tried the doors and found them locked.  

            I let out a frustrated huff and turned to Maejo.

            He was looking over his shoulder at a troop of mounted R’Nonayan soldiers cantering past.  They paid us no mind

            Maejo looked back at me.  “We should leave, too, Yhera.”

            “You can leave if you want to.”

            “What in hells do you think you can accomplish in this mess?”

            I straightened my back.  “I can help save people.”

            “Not without the Resistance, and we can’t determine where they are!”

            I pushed past him and strode down the paved walkway.  I heard him hurrying to catch up with me.    

            He tried to take my hand and I pulled it free, turning to him. “You can leave; I already told you that.”

            “We’re a team,” he said.  “Look, I’m sorry.  But I want to make sure we survive.”

            I allowed my shoulders to droop.  “You don’t need to apologize.  Everyone is afraid, including me.”

            He took my hand, and we began to walk back to the avenue.  The smoke was thick over the city.  Distances grew hazy.  The air was acrid and hard to breathe.  We stopped at the avenue, gazing at stragglers.

            He turned to me.  “What now?”

            I shook my head.  “I don’t known.”

            His lips quirked.  “I thought you were going to say we should head to Holy Hill.”

            I looked towards the west, but the haze obscured the hill.

            “We should go to your aunt’s orchards,” I told him.  “Help defend it, if it comes to that.”

            He nodded and we headed east.  I could hear screaming in the distance.  I went hot and cold.  The first abandoned wagon we came to, we hopped onto the wagon seat and Maejo picked up the reins and snapped.  The animals lurched forward.  Maejo turned the wagon around.

            “What are you doing?” I asked.

    `       “We’ll go via the southern gate.  It’s closer.”

             We passed the university again and I looked longingly at the buildings.  We came to an adjacent street and Maejo turned the wagon south along it.  We began to pass people walking in pairs or in groups, carrying their belongings.  My heart gave a sickening thump.  We had to stop when we came within half a sepek of the gate.  A throng of people stood in the middle of the road.  I stood up and gazed towards the gate.

            “It will do you no good,” a woman told us.  “The gate is locked.  And the guards are gone.”

            “How are the other gates?” I asked her.

            She shrugged. “Locked, too, I’ll bet.  The R’Nonayans came through the western gate.  I’d avoid that gate if I were you.”

            She turned away and went back to her group.

            I sat down abruptly.  “The only thing we can do is head back to my apartment,” I told Maejo.

            He gnawed his lower lip.  “I suppose.  I’m worried about my family.”

            “And well you should be,” I told him.  “We can try tomorrow again.”

            He nodded and turned the wagon around.  By the time we reached the area where I lived, the air was soupy with ash.  We were coughing almost constantly, and our eyes wept.  Abandoning the wagon on the boulevard, we headed down an alley to the house where I lived.  The front door was locked.  I pounded on the door.

            “Enah!” I yelled.

            I pounded again.  

            “Enah!  It’s Yhera!”

            I heard the bolt releasing.  Enah poked her head out.

            “Yhera-girl!  Why did you leave your rooms?”

            “Don’t know,” I murmured and entered, making sure she allowed Maejo to enter after me.

            “What is the news?” she asked.  “Is it true about R’Nonay?”

            I sighed.  “We saw a troop of R’Nonayan soldiers ride past the university.  It might be true, Enah.”

            She gasped and made a sign against evil.  “Goddess protect us!”

            “Holy Hill is on fire,” Maejo put in.

            Enah wrapped her arms around her torso.  “Oh, these are dark days.”

            I turned to Maejo.  “Come, let us head up.”

            We made it to my rooms without anyone asking for news.  Inside my rooms, the windows were open and letting in the acrid air.  I hurried to close the shutters.  Maejo helped me.

            We pulled the couch over to the window and gazed out through the glass, but it was hard to see.  More and more soldiers hurried by, most on foot.  The R’Nonayans seemed to be the only soldiers mounted.

            “We’ll starve here,” I said in a small voice.

            Maejo sighed.  “Things will normalize in time.  But the question is, how long before they do?”

            “I won’t live under a patriarchal dictatorship, Maejo. Women are seen as playthings and belongings in R’Nonay.  Our rights will be stripped away.”

            “We’ll leave.  My aunt will insist. We can go to Torahn.”

            I shuddered and he slipped his arm around my shoulders.

            “Don’t worry, Yhera.  Worrying helps nothing.”

            I felt my throat constrict with the need to weep.  He hugged me and I laid my cheek on his shoulder.

            “Have faith,” he murmured.

            I nodded mutely.

            That night we lay on my bed and held each other.  We could hear screams in the distance and the sound of skirmishes.  At one point, we heard glass shatter and I sat up with a gasp, hurrying to the window.  The streets outside were black.  No one had lit the street lamps.  I saw people carrying torches aloft.  I could not tell what they were doing.

            “Can you see?” Maejo asked from the bed.

            “No.  Some people carrying torches, but I can’t tell what they’re doing.”

            A woman screamed in the distance.

            I stiffened.  “Goddess!  Why are people still in the streets?”

            “Shut the drapes, Yhera,” he said.  “Don’t give them a reason to come up here.”   

            I did as he asked and then returned to the bed.

            “In the morning, we’ll try leaving the city once more,” Maejo murmured.  “Perhaps things will normalize by then.”

            I slept in fits and starts.  Eventually, near sun up, the city grew eerily quiet.  I did not know which was worse, the frenetic moving about of people or this tomblike silence. 

            We rose and dressed for the day. I really needed a bath, but I did not want to be away from Maejo for any period.  I did not know what I would do if he disappeared.

            “Let’s try to head to the southern gate once more,” he told me.

            I held my hand out and he took it.  Together we headed into the hallway and made out way to the main floor of the house.  It was there that we found Enah and most of her tenants breaking their fast.

            She came to me wordlessly and hugged me.  I stiffened, shoving down the overwhelming hysteria that wanted to take over.  I hugged her back.

            “I’ve made breakfast.  Eat, both of you, please.”

            Breakfast turned out to be boiled grains with tah’lir’s milk, tza nuts and bala berries.  I scooped the cereal into a bowl and handed it to Maejo before I served myself.

            He murmured a quiet thank you.

            We sat on two straight backed wooden chairs and the congregation continued its conversation.

            “I went out there last night after midnight,” one gangly tenant said.  “The soldiers were raping women and killing anything they could find.  I also saw looting.  They were feral, with torchers, like out of some nightmare.  The R’Nonayans seemed to be in control, but it was hard to tell. I got out of there and made it back here before I got noticed.”

            Enah shivered.  “There hasn’t been the rape of a woman on Tjish.unen soil in over 2,000 years.”

            I shuddered and lowered my bowl to my lap.

            “You should eat,” Maejo whispered to me.  “We must keep our energy up.”

            An old man who lived on the second floor looked towards us.    

            “Do as the lad says, lass,” he said.  “He’s right.  There will be a shortage of food now.  This is just the beginning.”

            I began to eat without tasting.  I felt numb.  

            Enah walked to where I sat and knelt.  “What are your plans, Yhera?”

            I looked to Maejo.

            “My aunt lives in an orchard in the south,” he answered for me.  “We were going to try to head there.”

            After a moment, Enah nodded.  “I’m leaving.  Heading south, too, away from here.”

            “But the gates were locked!” I told her.

            She shook her head.  “They opened the gates not more than two hours ago.  Lec’lo there saw it.”

            The gangly tenant nodded.  “I saw it, lass. People were leaving in droves.  No one is manning the walls.  It is complete chaos.  It will be a gauntlet for you, from here to the southern gate.  If you survive, you might just make it.”

            I shivered.

            “We’ll survive,” Maejo stated firmly.

            Enah stood up.  “If it doesn’t work for you here, Yhera, come find me in Rah’slah.  I own a house there.  Lec’lo here will take over running this house.  He wants to stay.”

            I looked at Lec’lo.  He inclined his head.

            The old man shifted.  “We’re all staying, lass.  I’m too old to travel.  I’ll see normalcy return.”

            I reached out and took Enah’s hand.  “Thank you, Enah.”

            She nodded.

            I released her hand and rose.  “We should go and pack, Maejo.  Then we should head south.”

            He rose and we handed Enah our empty bowls.

            “Thank you for everything,” Maejo told her.

            She nodded.

            I packed five outfits and two boots, and Maejo took up his bag.  We headed downstairs once more.

            The tenants had dispersed.  The air outside was still sour from yesterday’s fires.  We tied bandanas around our mouths and noses before heading southeast.  The streets remained quiet.  We hurried, hugging close to the edge of the street in case we needed to duck into an alley.  We passed several corpses – soldiers with gaping wounds and young women with bloodied skirts.  I paused at the piping cry of a child.  I headed to the alley, towards the cry.

            “Where are you going?” Maejo hissed.

            I did not look at him.  “I need to know if I can help.”

            He cursed under his breath but followed me.

            I entered the alley.  Dasja scurried before me, chittering as they ran.     

            I heard the thin cry again and followed it to the side of tall boxes filled with garbage.

            I handed Maejo my bag and squatted over the filthy alley floor.  The babe was a newborn, wrapped in a filthy blanket.  I parted the blanket and saw he was a male babe.  He had dasja bites all over his thin arms.

            “A male,” I told Maejo.

            I wrapped the child once more and rose.  “I won’t leave him here.”

            “No, I guessed already,” he told me, his lips quirking.  “Besides the dasja would probably eat him.”

            I shuddered. 

            The babe settled down, cheek against my chest.

            We continued our journey southeast. 

            We came to the southern gate.  R’Nonayan soldiers guarded the gates.

            “Where are you going to?” one of them demanded.

            “My aunt’s villa,” Maejo replied.

            I kept my eyes on the ground.

            “You, girl!  What’s your name?” another guard demanded.

            I started and gazed up at him.  “Yhera.”

            He nodded.  “One of our generals is looking for a red-headed girl.  Seems he knows her.  Come, you must come with me.”

            I looked at Maejo.

            Maejo stiffened.  “I will go with her.  I won’t part with her.”

            The guard showed his teeth.  “No, she’s quite comely.  I don’t fault you.  Well, this way then.”

            We followed him back towards the boulevard, two other guards at our back.

Chapter XII: Yhera

           Maejo and I stayed at Mourh’in Orchards for a week.  

            I was cognizant of the fact that I needed to contact the Resistance; that I needed to look for Karane.  But being in Sih’ine’s household made me feel like I had a home again.

            Sih’ine–Maejo’s aunt–and her partner, Kala’h, were in their mid-thirties, lean and nut brown from working in the orchard.  They had a grown daughter who was in the armed forces and a son who was the caravanner through which Sih’ine sold her liqueurs and wines.  Sih’ine was kind and garrulous, approachable, with a quicksilver temper.  Kala’h, her wife, was the opposite, quiet with a sweet smile and disposition.  She reminded me of my mother, and I shamelessly attached myself to her.  

            The rest of the household included the housekeeper, Eiva’h; her husband and groundskeeper, Tolus; Seran, their daughter and cook; and Seran’s husband, Jelon, who also helped with the groundskeeping.  Seran and Jelon had three young daughters who came to visit every seventh day.  They lived with an aunt in the city to attend school.

            Maejo acted like a different man around this family.  He was quiet and withdrawn, often miles away in his thoughts.  Many a time I found him gazing at me thoughtfully, his eyes sharp and questioning.  

            One night near the end of the week, he approached me in the garden just before I retired for the night.

            I stood under one of the fragrant flowering trees, gazing up at Taitah, the moon. Beyond the ragged clouds, stars spilled out from her like frost on black velvet.  

            I heard the front door of the house open and close, but I kept my eyes locked on the yellow moon. Her face peeked at me from behind the cloud cover.  Then she was gone.  The garden grew darker.

            He came to stand next to me.  He said nothing for a few minutes.

            “When are you contacting the Resistance?” he said.  “Or…have you already?”

            “I promised to show you how,” I replied.  “I did not lie.”  I sighed.  “Being here, in this house, has made me happy, Maejo.  It has felt to me like I was home.”

            He reached up to pluck a flower from a low-hanging branch.  The stem made a snapping sound as it broke.  Almost right away I could smell the heavy sweet musk.  He handed it to me.

            A pearl of sap clung to the stem where it had been severed from the limb of the tree.  The white petals were waxy and firm.  The core of the flower was a deep purple, almost black.  I know this because I had plucked one myself earlier in the week.  

            “Remember you have friends who are depending on you,” he said.  “If you tell me you are letting this go, that you won’t try to save them, then you needn’t give me an explanation.  I can live with that.  Can you?”

            He turned and strode back to the front door, disappearing into the house, and closing the door quietly behind him.

            I brought the flower to my nose, breathing in its sweetness.  

            No, I thought. I cannot live with that.

            I returned to the house and then into the sunken living room just left of the foyer.  Sih’ine, Kala’h and Maejo were sitting together, talking in soft voices. The rest of the household had retired to the servant’s wing after dinner.

            When I stepped down into the room, they stopped talking and turned to me as one.

            “I think we will leave here tomorrow,” I said.

            Sih’ine rose.  “Are you sure, Yhera?  It is no imposition to have you here, you know.”

            I smiled at her, feeling tears prick my eyes.  “I know.  But I have something to do that must be done, and Maejo is to help me.”

            Sih’ine shared a look with Kala’h then frowned at Maejo.  “My nephew has been very closed mouth about you and this thing you must do.”

            “He is honorable and is protecting me,” I said.

            Sih’ine’s eyes widened.  “If you are in any sort of trouble–“

            “I am not, but I have friends who are.”  I took two steps toward her.  “I wanted to thank you, Sih’ine, for your generosity and kindness to me in my time of need.”

            She shook her head.  “No thanks required, Yhera.  Please know you are welcome here whenever you need a place to settle.”

            My throat constricted and I gasped, rubbing my chest.  “Thank you.  I will bid you goodnight now.”

            “Goodnight,” they murmured, and I turned and headed towards the family’s wing and my room.

            Once in the safety of my room, I allowed myself to cry.  I was angry at myself, for failing to ask after my grandmother, for failing Karane and Lhara’h, and for being so foolish.  I slid down the wall next to the door until my bottom hit the floor and brought my knees up, wrapping my arms around my legs.  I leaned my forehead against my knees and closed my eyes.  I saw Karane’s face, pale and weary, as he stared accusingly at me.

            “I’m sorry,” I told the silent room.  “I’m sorry, Karane!  I will find you.  I made you a promise and I meant it.”

            He said nothing.

            After a while, the tears subsided and I rose stiffly, heading for the bathing chamber, where I washed up and pulled on my softest, most worn tunic and trousers and slid under the bedclothes.  I lay on my back, staring at the underbelly of the canopy.  Would Karane visit me in my dreams tonight?  He had not done so for an entire week while I had stayed here.  After a while, I turned onto my right side and closed my eyes.  Outside, rain began to fall, and the wind moaned.  At times, the closed shutters would rattle as the wind pushed against them.  After a few minutes, the soft rain turned into torrents.  It sounded like an ocean churning.

            I heard a knock on my door.

            I sat up.  “Come in.”

            Maejo poked his head in.  “You alright?”

            “Yes.  That’s some storm.”

            He entered and strode to the window, drawing the curtains closed.  “Hopefully, it will be short-lived.  I’d hate to go out in that tomorrow.”

            He came to the bedside and perched on the edge of the mattress.

            I put my hand out, palm up, and he laid his on top of mine.  “Thank you for talking to me outside, Maejo.  I forgot my responsibilities.”

            He shook his head.  “You didn’t forget.  You just had to be nudged a little.”  He smiled.  “We should see about your grandmother and soon.”

            “I have to contact the Resistance first.  I put up a sign and they come, but they are not always timely.”

            “How do you mean?” he asked.

            “We have a signal.  I put a small lamp in the window of my living room.  That tells them I need to contact them. Sometimes they come that same day; sometimes I have to wait a week or more.”

            “Ah.  Clever.  Well, hopefully they will come sooner rather than later.”

            I squeezed his hand and pulled mine free.  “As you say.”  I yawned until my jaw cracked.  “I have to get some sleep.”

            He rose and placed his hand on my head.  “Me, too.  Goodnight.”

            “Goodnight, Maejo.”


            By morning, the storm had exhausted itself.  Rain fell in a gentle drizzle.  

            I woke up drenched in sweat.  The room was uncomfortably warm.  I rose and went to the window, drawing the curtains open and pushing the shutters outward.  

            The breeze that caressed my sweaty brow was warm.  I grimaced.  I could see the sun behind the ragged clouds.  It was already close to noon.

            I washed up and dressed in my sturdiest tunic and trousers, pulling on my socks and boots last.  Unbraiding my hair, I gave it a cursory combing with my fingers and then re-braided it.  

            My travel bag was in the sitting area just past the bed.  My clothes were freshly laundered and nicely folded and stacked on an armchair.  I began to carefully pack when there came a knock on the door.

            “Come in!”

            Maejo smiled.  “You’re up.  You missed breakfast.”

            I frowned.  “Why didn’t you wake me?”

            “I tried.  Twice.  You needed the rest, Yhera.”

            I finished packing, standing up and sliding the strap over my shoulders so that the bag hung at my back.  

            “Ready?” I asked.

            “As I’ll ever be. My aunt must go to the market in the city.  She’ll give us a ride in her wagon.”

            “That is most kind of her.  Let’s go then.”

            “Are you hungry?” he asked when we reached the main hall between the wings.

            “I’ll get something at the market.”    

            He nodded.  “My aunt is waiting outside.”

            We put on the treated cloaks we had brought with us.  Eiva’h had honored her word and cleaned them for us.  They smelled of soap and wax.

            Outside, the wagon was on the paved road.  Kala’h and Sih’ine were talking quietly by the wagon seat as we strode up.

            Sih’ine smiled.  “There’s the sleeping girl!  Good afternoon.”

            I blushed.  “Sorry about sleeping so late.”

            “Don’t be silly,” she replied, jumping up to the seat and patting the place next to her.  “Ride up here with me.  Let Maejo ride with Kala’h in the back.”

            Once we were all onboard, she flicked the reins and whistled.  Her two handsome lir’tah cantered north.

            I set my bag on my lap.

            The road was busy with wagons heading north and south.  We were moving at a steady clip.  I could hear Kala’h and Maejo laughing in the back.

            “I want to thank you again,” I told her.  “For everything.”

            She smiled at me, making her look so much like her nephew, my heart skipped a beat.  

            “You needn’t keep thanking me, Yhera.  Perhaps one day you can come back and tell me what you can’t tell me now.”

            “I promise I’ll do that.”

            She nodded.  “Then that is all the thanks I need.”

            Turning back to the beasts, she snapped the reins again and whistled.  The beasts picked up speed.

            The rain had stopped but humidity clung to the day like a burr.  My tunic was plastered to my back and rivulets of sweat meandered down my temples and cheeks until I wiped them away impatiently.  The light was thin and watery, the sky being crowded with clouds.  There would be more rain, I hoped, and not this miserable heat and humidity.  Looking ahead, I saw the water evaporating from the paved road in a mist.

            “Days like this, I hate this country,” Sih’ine muttered cheerfully and shook her head.  “Can’t even take a full breath.  There is no breeze to ease the way, either.”

            We made it to the southern gate of the city within a couple of hours.  There was no long line of people trying to get into the city.  There were several docked barges looking empty and idle. There was a short line of wagons that had come the way we had, but the guards dealt with these quickly enough.  Before I knew it, we were rattling under the great arch and into the crowded capital of Tjish.un.  There were pedestrians everywhere.  The great market was close to this gate, as goods were brought in this way from the river.  Once we were through to the other side, Sih’ine dismounted and I with her.  We led the wagon west along a wide boulevard filled with small colorful flags hanging from lampposts announcing the celebration of the end of the monsoon season.  The little square flags hung limply in the windless afternoon.

            Every year the Empress held a masked ball for those who could pay the exorbitant price of admittance.  The common folk, not to be denied, poured into the streets to dance to the tunes of street musicians and to drink and be merry.  The Empress did not prevent this.  She kept to her marble palace and collected her fees.  Then, on the eve of the day that traditionally marked the end of the monsoon, the High Priestess would sacrifice a beast and pray.  If she had been a kind woman, she would have released the political prisoners who languished in the bowels of her ziggurat.  Instead, the rumor was she disemboweled them, making them suffer immeasurably until she was appeased.

            I shuddered and pushed those thoughts away.

            Sih’ine led us to the edge of the open-air market.  Usually, the market was vibrant with activity and colors.  Today it looked drab.  The colorful pavilions were soggy, their flags droopy.  

            “Well, this is where we must part,” Sih’ine told me.  “Please come and see us again, Yhera.”

            I turned to her, and she pulled me into a hug.

            “I will,” I murmured into the side of her neck.

            I turned again and into Kala’h’s arms.  She stroke my hair.

            “You’re a good girl, Yhera,” she said.  “Maejo could do much worse.”

            Behind her, he made a strangled sound.

            I smiled at him and shook my head.

            “I’ll see you soon, too,” I told her.

            We watched as they disappeared into the crowd of customers entering the market.

            “Where is your apartment?” Maejo asked.

            I jumped.  “Oh!  It’s a few blocks from here.  Let’s go.”

            The streets of Da’hrisjah are always crowded.  Pedestrians take to the streets when the sidewalks fill up.  We walked at the edge of the sidewalk behind a slow-moving carriage.  The smell of sweat and unwashed bodies, of beasts and the sour odor of their droppings, clung to the afternoon.  Finally, a small alley gave way to a quieter side street, and I led Maejo that way.  This street was lined with taverns and inns.  Every building had a basket of bright flowers hanging from its eave.  Doors had been propped open to relieve the heat inside the buildings, but I doubted much relief was to be found.

            I turned again north along a smaller street and came to the building in which I rented rooms.

            The building was whitewashed with a tile roof that sounded quite lovely when it rained.  

            “Here we are,” I said to Maejo.  “I need to speak to the landlady.  I’m afraid I was gone longer than I expected.”

            I opened the front door and stepped into a dim foyer.  The landlady kept the curtains drawn during warmer days to keep the internal temperature of the building comfortable.  It felt like living in a tomb.

            “Yhera!”  I heard her exclaim.  “By the Goddess!  Where have you been?”

            “Traveling took longer than I anticipated,” I told her.

            She tsked.  She was a tall, dark,  lanky woman, her copper-colored hair threaded with gray.  Her hazel eyes were warm and welcoming, although right now they were fastened on Maejo with less than welcome.

            “Who’s this then?” she demanded.

            I refrained from rolling my eyes.  “This is my cousin, Maejo.”

            She walked around the counter and looked down at me from her great height.  “Cousin, you say?  Well, he doesn’t look much like you.”

            “I didn’t say brother, did I, Enah?”

            She laughed. “No, you didn’t, Yhera.  Welcome, young Maejo.  Well, girl, why were you gone so long?”  She lowered her voice.  “Those nuns came by to see you again.”  She shuddered.  “Goddess abides!  They looked fit to be tied.”

            “When did they come?”

            “Day before yesterday.  I told them I was expecting you, but you hadn’t showed up yet.”

            “Thank you.  And thank you for taking care of my rooms while I was away.”

            She shrugged.  “You paid in advance!  No thanks needed.”

            “I thank you anyway,” I told her and turned to Maejo.  “Come, cousin.  My rooms are this way.”

            The stairs were to the right of the small counter where Ena’h spent her days gossiping with her tenants or neighbors.  There was a long rug that covered the hallway and led back to her rooms.  The rug was frayed along the edges and faded despite the lack of sunlight.  If there was one thing Ena’h hated more than hot days, it was spending money.  

            We trudged up the two flights to the third floor, lugging our bags.  My rooms were at the end of the hall.  The hall ended, unimaginatively, at a windowless wall.

            I set my bag down and unlocked my door, pushing the door in and stepping back to allow Maejo to precede me.

            Ena’h had kept my curtains closed, which I had asked her not to do.  I liked my rooms aired.  With a curse, I went to the sitting room curtains and pushed them open, allowing the pale light of late afternoon to filter in through the glass panes.  I hurried into the bedroom and did the same thing.  The small kitchen had no curtain, but I did open the shutters to allow air into the closed space.

            I stopped at the entryway to the sitting room and looked my fill.  I had forgotten how worn the furniture looked.  The settee and couch facing one another had once been royal blue.  Long before I came along.  They looked gray now.  I had removed all throw rugs from the whitewashed floor.  The low table between the couch and the settee was scuffed and scratched.  There was a bookshelf near the window filled with pamphlets and figurines.  Maejo stood there, rifling through a pamphlet.

            “Why do you have so many pamphlets?” he asked, gazing up from reading.

            I shrugged.  “I wanted to be a tourist guide at one point.  My father sent me pamphlets from every city he was stationed in.  Mother, too.  Now I can’t bear to part with them; they are the last things my parents gave me.”

            He nodded and set the pamphlet down.

            I went to the small desk on the opposite side of the window and picked up the small oil lamp that sat there.  I set it on the windowsill.  Returning to the desk, I picked up two ca’ahl stones from the top drawer.  I struck the two stones until they caught fire and then lit the lamp.  The stones burned for a bit longer then went out.  I dropped them back into the drawer and closed it.

            “Sit, Maejo,” I said.  

            I watched him take a seat on the couch, and I sat across from him on the settee.  The smell of age and dust clung to the furniture.

            “I don’t know when the representative from the Resistance will show up.  I don’t know if he or she will come before the nuns.”  I sighed and rubbed my arms with icy hands.  “You listen and don’t talk unless you are asked a question.  The nuns won’t question you; they have no patience for men.  But the Resistance will.  Answer honestly.”

            “I will,” he said.

            “I will have to tell the Resistance about the men who kidnapped Karane and their magic.  I don’t want to.  I don’t like feeling like a fool, but they have to know.”

            “Whose side are they on–do you suppose–the men with magic?”

            I snorted.  “Your guess is as good as mine.  I think they are against the Empress, but that doesn’t mean they are on the same side as the Resistance.”

            “But how can that be?”

            “I don’t know.  I tell you; this is more than I bargained for.  I don’t want to believe in magic, but Ohna was so spooked.  She isn’t afraid of anything!”

            He said nothing, just turned his head to look at the lamp.

            My thoughts wandered to Karane once more.  For Lhara’h, I spared no thought.  She had never been kind to me, but he had been decent and considerate.  


            I startled and glanced at Maejo.

            “What is it?” I asked.

            He indicated the front door with his chin.  

            I rose, the hair along my arms standing on end.  I paused at the door and opened it a fraction.

            “Let us in,” said Ohna.

            There were three of them, dressed in their dark habits and armed to the teeth.  I stepped back and they strode in like they were home.

            Maejo stood slowly.

            The nuns abruptly stopped, Ohna giving a mirthless laugh.

            “So, you are still with this boy?” she demanded.

            “I told you I don’t want to join the Maidens,” I said.

            The nuns shared a look.

            The one nearest the door was round with generous breasts and flint-like eyes.  “It is not so easy, to leave the Maidens.”

            “Never mind, Klera,” said the third.  She turned to me.  “I am Evara.  I was sent by the Abbess herself.”

            “Please,” I said.  “Sit down.  I have nothing to offer you, as I just returned this morning,” I said.

            They sat in a row on the settee.

            I sat next to Maejo on the couch.  “How may I be of service to the Maidens?”

            “Have you heard or seen ought of Lhara’h?” Ohna demanded softly.

            “I have not,” I said.  “I am waiting for a visit from a representative of the Resistance.”

            Evara sighed.  “You know, if we withdraw our protection of you, Yhera, it cannot be undone.”

            I swallowed.  “I know.”

            “Things are going to progress very quickly from here on in. Make sure you take care.”  She flicked a glance at Maejo. “Both of you.”  She stood and began to pace, much like Ohna was wont to do.  “The Resistance is poised to strike.  We can’t tell you when; they must inform you.  The city is swollen with strangers.  The masked ball is only a handful of days away.  The rebellion will happen very soon.”

            I said nothing as she paced.  

            She rubbed her hands together as if they hurt her or she was cold.

            “Promise us something,” she said.

            “Of course,” I replied.

            “If Lhara’h is alive,” she said.  “She cannot be left so.  She carries our secrets. She mustn’t be allowed to live.”  She turned to me.  “If you see her…if you come across her some way, somehow, kill her.”


            “See her stubbornness and willfulness?” Ohna hissed.  “Do as you are told, girl!”

            “Ohna,” Evara warned.  “Enough.”  She turned to me.  “What is your objection?”

            “I cannot fight Lhara’h in a battle and win!”

            “Of course not,” Evara owned.  “But if she is docile, as Ohna described her; if she isn’t herself, then you must do as we say.”

            “I will,” I lied.

            Evara nodded.  “We are looking for her, too.  If we find her first, then you are absolved of this favor.  If you do not come across her, then do nothing, of course.”  She turned and paced back the way she had come.  “This is all we ask of you.  Once you have done this, you will hear nothing more from the Maidens.”

            I nodded.

            She looked at the other two nuns.  “Let us go, sisters.”

            They rose and strode to the door.  

            At the door, Ohna turned around.  “If I find out you have lied to us and let Lhara’h live, I will gut you myself.”

            “I’ve no doubt of that,” I stated dryly.

            Her eyes were cold.  

            They left, closing the door behind them.    

            Maejo whistled.  “How did you get involved with them, Yhera?”

            “Foolishness on my part.  I was trying to find home, friends, family, a purpose.  They gave me some of that.”  I rubbed my arms.  “Goddess, I hope I don’t see Lhara’h.  I have never killed anyone in my life!”

            “But what will you do during the revolution?”

            I chuckled mirthlessly.  “I don’t know.  Do you?”        

            “I can fight,” he said.  “And I can kill for a purpose greater than myself.”

            I swallowed.  “I’m not sure I can.”

            He reached for my hand and held it in both of his.  “You are not alone, Yhera.  I am here.  If I must, I will kill her myself.”

            I pulled my hand free. “No!  You mustn’t!  If the nuns find out you killed her, they will put a bounty on your head!”

            “What matters who does the deed?”

            “It matters to them.”

            He let go an exasperated breath.  “Damn it all!  Who makes these rules anyway?”

            “Don’t ask me.”

            We sat down.  

            “I hope the Resistance is less complicated than those Maidens,” he muttered.

            My stomach gurgled and I stood.  “I have to eat something.  Let’s go to the market.”

            He rose.  “What about the Resistance?”    

            “They’ll wait.  Come on.”

            Outside, the humidity had increased.  The sun peeked through bruised clouds.  I led Maejo to the market using small side streets and alleyways.  It seemed to me there were more people in the streets than I had ever seen.  Lots of men in dark clothes.  Something niggled at my memory.  

            “Are the streets usually this busy?” Maejo asked.

            “Not to this extent,” I said.

            “Those men – wearing black,” he said.  He stopped and turned to look at one of the men in cleric garbs pushing through the crowds.

            “Yes,” I said.  “Something about them.”

            He turned to me.  “What do you mean?”        

            “I mean…I can’t recall but something tells me they look very familiar.”

            “They remind me of assassins, all grace and dark clothes to melt into shadows.”


            He nodded, gnawing at his lower lip.  “Yes, although assassins wouldn’t be so blatant during the daytime.”

            My stomach gurgled again, and I sighed.  “Let’s find me some food.  I want to get back to my rooms before our visitor arrives.”

            The market was packed.  The aisles were crowded and slow-moving.  The food vendors were at the end of the aisle, situated against the western wall of the city.

            Maejo took my hand.  “Don’t lose me, please.”

            We moved slowly down the aisle.  Soon, the scent of cooking meats and grains filled the air.  My mouth flooded with saliva, and I swallowed, coming to stand at the end of the line heading to the enasha vendor.

            It took the better part of a quarter of an hour to get up front.  

            The enasha vendor, distracted and in a foul mood, barked at me to order.  I ordered quickly and paid.

            He handed me a plate with the large pancakes wrapped around fried meat and turies.

            Maejo stepped to one side.

            “There is enough for two,” I told him.  “Please help yourself.”

            We watched the crowds as we ate.  The meat and turies were fragrant with aromatics and full of southern spices.  I wanted to order a drink but changed my mind.  

            When we were done, Maejo placed the plate at the vendor’s window, and we began to make our way along the wall towards the north.

            We were able to break from the market at its northernmost edge and made our way to the main avenue.  We had overshot my rooms by about 1/2 a sepek, so we headed back south.

            The sun was over the western wall on its way to setting.  By the time we made it to my rooms, the sky was awash with dark colors as the sun approached its nadir.

            Despite the awful humidity and the clouds, it did not rain again.  The end of the monsoon season was only a handful of days away.

            My rooms were undisturbed, but the oil lamp had been set upon the desk.

            “They were here,” I told Maejo.

            “Will they come back?”

            “I don’t know.  Usually they do, but if the rebellion is to happen near the end of the season, they may not be able to come.”

            “Then how in hell are we to help?”

            I shrugged and made my way to the window.  The crowds had begun to thin with the coming nightfall.

            Someone knocked thrice then once then thrice again.

            “They’re here,” I told Maejo quietly.

            I hurried to the door and opened it.  Two tall, burly men stood at the threshold.

            “Yhera,” said the one in the left.

            “Come in.”

            The men stepped inside, the one on the right closing the door with a snick.

            It was then they saw Maejo and stiffened.

            “Don’t be alarmed,” I said.  “He’s wanting to join the Resistance.”

            The one on the left–Boariq–narrowed his eyes.  “You should have sent a message.”

            “I’m sorry,” I said.  “There was no time.”

            The one on the right–Thalto–grunted.  “No. There isn’t.”

            I indicated the couch.  “Please sit.”

            The men sat down.

            Maejo took a seat next to me on the settee.

            “Where is Karane Truvesto?” Boeriq demanded.  His features were dark, as he was from Lethya just south of Dhya Desert.  His black hair was slicked back and woven into a single braid.

            Thalto shifted.  He was from my father’s homeland, Ynha, so his hair was a bright red and his eyes were a warm hazel.  

            “He’s been kidnapped,” I said.

            They shared a look.

            Boeriq looked at me.  “Expain.”

            “We were making our way here with two of the Maidens when we hooked up with a caravan heading towards Tilsjen.  He disappeared while we were stopped at the end of the day.”

            “Did you not try to have him followed?” Boeriq asked.

            “The Maidens went after him.” I swallowed.  “They caught up to the kidnappers in a large village in the north.  But…”

            Thalto frowned.  “What is it?”            

            “One of the nuns was ensorcelled and the other came back to tell me these men have magic.  I didn’t know what to think.  By then Karane’s tracks had grown cold.”

            “Magic?” Boeriq demanded.  “You think this is funny?”

            “Ask Ohna of the Maidens, if you don’t believe me!”

            They rose.  

            “We will,” Boeriq assured me.  “Stay here.  We’ll see about the nun and then return here.  We have orders for you, so don’t leave.”

            Maejo and I rose.  “What about Maejo here?”

            “He’ll have to be vetted,” Thalto reminded me.  “We’ll have a chat when we return.”

            We watched them stride through the door and close it behind them.

            “Do you think they’ll believe Ohna?” Maejo asked.

            “Who is to know?” I asked, miserable.  I had failed in my first mission.  

            I walked to the window and gazed out at the night sky.  The clouds were clearing slowly.  

            “What do you suppose your orders are?” Maejo asked.

            I shook my head.  Shame kept the words locked in my throat.

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.  


            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.


            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?”


            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.


            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.


            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.


            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.  


            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.


            “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?”


            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.”


            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.


            “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?”


            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!”


            “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.”


            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.”


            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.


            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?”


            “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.