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 He was quiet and withdrawn, often miles away in his thoughts.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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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!”
“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.