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.