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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”