Demon Child Ch. 18

byXantu©

The rasping voice of the Khan came from the bed, "Do it."

The servant's eyes widened and he bowed low, "As my Khan commands," and quickly backed from the room.

The Khan stirred restlessly, "Did I sleep?"

Aylanna hurried to his side, gently touching his hand and face, peering into his eyes, "Yes, my Khan, you slept." Once again she arranged his bedding so he could recline in some amount of comfort. She did not have to ask him how he was feeling. Sensing a discomfort building in the base of his spine, she carefully lifted his knees and slipped some pillows beneath them. "There, that should be better."

His eyes looked surprised and nodded, "Yes, that does feel better." He voice was hoarse and musing, "You are a miracle worker. I cannot remember when I last slept."

A small delegation of black clad men, led by the lurching form of the frightening wizard, swept into the room and marched up to the bedside. Aylanna instinctively reached for the Khan's hand, scooting closer to him fearfully.

The repulsive wizard stared down at her and the Khan, "I am told you ask for water?" His voice slurred the words. "It is a good sign that your body asks for liquids but it would be unwise to dilute the humors of your body. Water will only weaken you further. Let us concoct a tonic to strengthen you."

Aylanna stiffened; every single word that oozed from his twisted lips reeked of falsehood. Gripping the Khan's hand, she glared at the monster and growled out the words, "Water is a warrior's drink. It does not weaken them."

The wizard waved his hand at her dismissively, "And my Khan, the presence of this strange savage from the northern lands is a dangerous distraction. We have spoken at length that you must not allow a female to drain your body of its vital fluids." He paused and his voice dropped turning hypnotic and persuasive, "Send her away. Send her back to the women's quarters."

Aylanna felt the Khan's mind cloud and weaken, sinking beneath the spell of the wizard's words. Alarmed and angry she pushed back, pushing at the confusion fogging the Khan's resolve, willing him to resist, to see the selfish motivation behind this advice. For many minutes she huddled at his side, glaring at the monster that was trying to somehow gain control of the Khan's thinking.

The Khan stirred restlessly, his voice sharp and peevish, "Rhasht, you speak of vital fluids, as if even this exotic creature would have the magic to awaken my jhambar. It has gone before me. It waits for the funeral pyre. Bring me water. Bring me water and the simple food of a warrior. I would taste the food of my youth once more before I die."

The deformed wizard stood frowning like he was puzzled that the Khan had done something beyond his comprehension. He glanced at Aylanna and spoke in an obsequious manner, "Of course my Khan, water and simple food. I cannot recommend it. It may cause violent purging and even hasten the inevitable. But if you insist, of course it will be brought to you." He made a quick gesture to the group of men who had followed him into the room. "You heard your Khan, fetch him what he desires. Oversee the preparations of the meal." Aylanna flinched at the malevolence that seethed just under his words.

Aylanna rolled his name around silently in her mouth, 'Rhasht'. A fitting name, sounding more like the sound a warrior made when he cleared his throat and spat in response to an evil thought or foreboding than a proper name. She stared at him with open revulsion. His spirit was as bent and tormented as his body. He was filled with carefully concealed hate, hate and an unholy enjoyment of the suffering before his eyes. He sensed the Khan's physical pain as clearly as she did and just as clearly reveled in it. Aylanna could tell he had some kind of magic. But she strongly suspected he did not sense this about her. The only emotion she could detect regarding her was the irritation one would feel for an intrusive insect.

He met her eyes and looked back at her with dismissive arrogance. Carefully modulating his voice to its persuasive tones, "But the demon, my Khan, she has no place here. She will only tire you. Send her away."

Again Aylanna found herself doing battle within the Khan's spirit, willing him not to fall under the spell of the wizard's words, to keep his wits about him. When the Khan frowned and shook his head, his voice clearer and stronger than it had been before; and Aylanna almost recoiled at the violent surge of anger within the frustrated wizard. She could hardly hear the words the Khan spoke, "No, she will stay here by my side. She will be a companion, a balm to ease my suffering, a guard against bleakness of my heart and, ultimately, a witness to my passing. Let no man presume to part her from me. Heed her words and her needs as if they are my own."

If Aylanna had sensed anger from the wizard before, it was nothing compared to the storm of rage that erupted at the Khan's words. He could no longer hide the venom in his voice, "This is madness. Your judgment is clearly impaired. My Khan, it is not fitting, how can you rule with a whore in your bed? The court will snigger and whisper of your depravity."

"I care not for the rumors of the court. And Rhasht, you tire me; your voice is like the cawing of the storm crows. Your very appearance sickens me. Go, go down to your lair in the dungeons. Work your magic, peer into the vacant eyes of your latest victim and tell me if you see a future for the likes of you in this court once I am dead." The Khan was sitting upright, his eyes blazing with temper and a vitality that Aylanna had not realized he was still capable of. His voice swelled and rang in the small room, "Go and do not darken my bedside."

Rhasht seemed to swell for a moment and then shrank down again, his head lowering, once more his tone turned obsequious, "Of course, my Khan, I will go." His one eye glared at Aylanna. "Do not be seduced by the charms of a mere woman. They are nothing more than a false promise. When you tire of this whimsy, you will return to your senses. I will await your summons."

But the Khan had sagged back down onto the pillows, closed his eyes against a new assault of pain and fatigue and did not respond.

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The servant sent Aylanna more than one resentful glance as he cleaned shattered dishes and spilled food. She sniffed critically at the water and food he had brought. It appeared nothing more than simple steamed grains and a joint of roasted flesh. Aylanna's voice was cool, penetrating, "Did you prepare these yourself?"

The servant cringed, glancing at the Khan as he lay for all appearances unconscious. But Aylanna could sense his spirit, still alert and listening to every word, "No, lady, I am not a cook. I am a simple servant, only suited for the bearing of dishes from one place to another."

"And the ones that cook the meal, do they partake from the same dishes they serve to the Khan. You whispered of poison. Are there none that share his meals?"

At her words the man shrank back, looking wildly about the room. He made a frightened gesture to ward off evil, whispering furiously, "Lady, you know not of what you speak. It is presumptuous to even taste the food of the Khan, to eat from the same dish, as if to think oneself an equal to the Aga Khan. The wizard has placed magical wards and incantations against poison in every corner of the palace. To even think the word or to speak it aloud is to risk the wrath of demons."

At his last word Aylanna laughed out loud, a wide pealing sound of derision that held no humor. "Do not speak to me of the wrath of demons. I am a demon and I fear not the incantations of wizards. They hold no power over me."

The servant's eyes bulged with terror and hastily picking up the tray, he fled the room.

She poured a generous portion of clear water into a golden cup and deliberately brought it to her lips. She took a large swallow and swirled the cool fluid around in her mouth. Speaking loudly to all in the room and any others who may be listening by other means, she proclaimed, "It is difficult, if not impossible, to conceal the flavor of poison in water."

Turning to Khan, she held the cup to his lips, "Water, my Khan, simple, pure water, a warriors drink."

He drank a small swallow and then fretfully pushed the cup away. "Is it water, truly just water? It tastes bad, everything tastes bad." Then his hand reached for her, seizing her arm and pulling her close, "Is it poison? Have I been poisoned?"

Aylanna did not resist his grip or the question, speaking softly for his ears alone, "My Khan, it is as I said, only water, simple, pure water. What you taste is the poison that already courses through your veins. It is too late. There is little I can do beyond to ease your passage."

She could tell she had told him nothing he did not already know for truth. "How long?"

Gently placing her palm on his chest, willing him to calm, Aylanna murmured, "My Khan, that is for the goddess to know. It could be only days or you may survive until the rains cease. I sense your strength. Your body still struggles. Your spirit is not vanquished. You have survived what would have slain a dozen common men. You have won battle after battle, but ultimately the blight will prevail. You must make your peace with this world and prepare to join Jha'Mak'Tah."

"How do you know this?"

Aylanna paused for a moment, debating revealing too much, and then threw caution to the winds. Keeping her voice nearly silent she breathed into his ear, "At my birth, the witchdoctor in attendance declared I had a destiny. I have been seeking that destiny all my life. Perhaps this is it, or at least part of it. I have some small amount of magic. When I touch you I can feel the poison just beneath the skin. When that..." Aylanna shuddered and cleared her throat, "...that, that, thing speaks to you, I can tell it harbors malice in its heart. My Khan, that thing you call Rhasht, it lies, it hates and it has an unholy enjoyment of the suffering of others."

"So now you know my secret. Jhardron Khan Bak Tai Twisted Dagger once counseled me to be very careful who I revealed my magic to. He said that many here would either fear me or want to use me for their own purposes. It is now for you to decide which you will do. Will you condemn me or wield me as a weapon against your enemies?"

The Aga Khan was staring up at her with a strange quizzical expression. "Jhardron told you to keep this secret from me?"

Aylanna could not sense any anger in his heart, only a strange mixture of pride, apprehension and suppressed hope. The tones and nuances of his emotions felt oddly familiar and she looked at him, her eyes narrowing as she tried to remember where she had felt this before. Her voice was distracted, "Tell me? No, my Khan, he did not mention you specifically. He just cautioned me to keep my secrets close to my heart. He said that court is a dangerous place, filled with wolves and the vultures that feed off their prey. I could tell he did not like it here."

A bitter smile creased the Khan's lips. "The boy learned his lessons well. He is a son any father would be proud of." For the briefest of instants his emotions stood out clear and unguarded and Aylanna stared at him in amazement. He stared back at her with the truth clear in his eyes, the truth and a very clear warning to not even speak this aloud. His voice was barely a whisper, "Now we each carry the secret of the other. And now it is my turn to ask, will you use this to destroy the last good thing that I have created or will you guard this most precious of things?"

Still in shock she breathed back at him, her words so soft that they were almost inaudible, "He does not know." It was a statement and the Khan nodded.

She could tell there was no more that could be spoken aloud. The Khan stirred restlessly, his face creasing in discomfort. Carefully she laid her hand on his chest and sensing a growing fatigue from sitting too long, adjusted the pillows, and easing him back into a slightly lower angle. She commented softly, "There, that is better."

"It is. You have a gift. You ease my torment. Even your words distract me from the inevitable. Tell me more of your story."

Reaching for the cup of water Aylanna took a swallow and then pressed the lip of the cup to his mouth, "My Khan, you should eat and drink a small amount first, just a swallow or two. It will strengthen you. Then I will weave a tale for you to carry with you into your dreams."

The Khan nodded, frowning as he chewed and swallowed the three small bites and half a cup of water she urged upon him. Then he smiled at her, his eyes dancing with a sardonic humor. "So, my pretty demon, I have paid the price for a story."

A ghost of the man he had once been, handsome and strong, shown briefly on his face. A soft pang shot through Aylanna's heart. Taking a deep breath she pushed down the sudden rush of sadness. Carefully using Jhardron's full formal title she demonstrated that his secret was hers as well, "My Khan, Jhardron Khan Bak Tai Twisted Dagger called me that sometimes too. When you say 'pretty demon,' it takes me back to the plains of the northern lands when I was first learning the language of the Bak and what it meant to be a ha'akh. There were many different regiments all camped together by the shores of a lake for a gathering. I rode on the back of horse for the first time and, with the help of another ha'akh that spoke the Ramaldi language, I told my story to my regiment khan. He said that I would bring luck to the Twisted Dagger and they were proud to have a demon for a servant. It was the first time in my life I felt like I belonged anywhere."

"I can still remember the sight of all the tents and warriors spread out by the shores of the lake as we crested the hill. I had never seen so many people in one place before. The chaos of the games was bewildering. The Khan Bak Tai Twisted Dagger wagered his finest mount that the Twisted Dagger archers would win the competition. For the last round, the archery master, Harnum, he told me to touch their arrows. I did not understand then but I know now that he had believed that I would bring them luck. Perhaps I did. Both he and Klektor defeated all the other archers. The Khan won a magnificent red stallion, full of wild spirits. Because there were two victors on the field that day, the Khan awarded both his mount and the new red stallion as prizes to the each of them."

"Klektor named the red stallion 'Demon'. Perhaps because it was fiery red like my hair, or because I touched the arrows, or maybe because..." Aylanna hesitated, her voice faltering as she struggled to turn her thoughts away from the memory of Klektor's death, "...or maybe because he was sorry he had yelled at me once."

Aylanna looked down at the sleeping face of the Aga Khan and pulled the coverlet up over him. She curled up on the wide bed by his side and murmured, "Sleep my Khan, sleep and travel away from this place. Visit once again the fields of your youth. I will keep guard over you and your secrets."

Once again he slept motionless, almost as one dead, but Aylanna could sense his spirit active and alive. She lay with him briefly but her hunger and bodily needs asserted themselves and she slipped away from his side. He stirred briefly, complaining softly in his sleep, but settled down again quickly. She ate standing by the food. The food was cold and bland but the flavors were familiar and welcome.

Restless she paced the confines of the room, ignoring the watchful eyes of the guards. Determined she marched up to the nearest, a giant of a Bak warrior, "Direct me to the latrine." He blinked and frowned. Clearly it was not customary to speak or to be spoken to while on guard duty. A devilish rush of humor made Aylanna smile and poke him firmly in the chest with a sharp finger, "There must be a place for someone to relieve themselves. Even a man as elevated as the Aga Khan is still a man and has needs the same as a common warrior. Direct me to the latrine or you will soon find yourself standing guard in a puddle."

For an instant she sensed a flash of anger but just as quickly she could tell this massive man was amused. His expression remained granite grim but he pointed toward the wall not far from where he stood and growled, "Behind the drape."

To Aylanna's relief the room was well ventilated. A barred window looked out over the roof tops and a fresh rain washed breeze stirred her hair as she leaned out looking at the perennial rainclouds. The facilities were similar to those of the courtesan's quarters, a carved stone bench with an opening over flowing water. In one corner a large cabinet held finely woven towels, smaller washing cloths and a pile of clean tunics. Next to the open window a shallow basin filled with a constant flow of water, with more towels stacked nearby. Grateful for the opportunity, she washed her face and arms.

Returning to the bedchamber of the Khan made her realize how oppressive the air of the room was. The smoke from the lamps and the stink of illness combined into a miasma that seemed to stick in the back of her throat. Turning once again to the same guard she had spoken to before she demanded, "The air of this room is foul. Are there no windows to open? The Khan would benefit from some fresh air."

The guard did not respond but a voice spoke from the darkness and the serving man materializing from the shadows, "The doctors have ordered the room should remain closed. The vapors of the rainy season carry pestilence."

Once again Aylanna's laughter was disdainful and humorless, "Must I remind you of my opinion of doctors? The Khan has decreed that all must heed my words as if they were his own. Open the windows. Let the cool breezes blow away this stagnant air." There was a rush of fear and resentment but the servant turned and pushed aside some heavy drapes and pulled back the shutters. Once again the windows were covered with ornate bars and looked out over the rooftops. Aylanna realized that the Khan's rooms must be among the highest in the sprawling maze of stone that made up the court. Turning around and looking at the freshly lit room she spoke with more determination, "And bring fresh bedding for the Khan and a basin of fresh water for bathing."

When the servant returned to refresh the bedding, he stared at her with such a mixture of fear and open resentment that Aylanna could not help but feel an intense dislike for him. She spoke to him abruptly. "How long have you served the Khan?"

He answered with an oily superiority, "I have served the court of the Khan my entire life, like my father before me and his father before him."

Aylanna sensed the deception in his words, "But you have not personally served the Khan."

The servant narrowed his eyes, clearly unnerved at having his falsehood caught out. His answer was unguarded and calculated to impress and frighten. "I recently had the honor of being promoted from serving in the kitchens of the wives of the Khan. My predecessor met with an unfortunate end. It seems to happen more and more commonly of late. The court of the Khan, and all who live here, is cursed. Beware, lady, you have already angered the wizard. No one who has done so has lived long."

The Khan muttered and moved restlessly in his sleep and the servant looked about a bit startled, as if he had forgotten exactly where he was. Realizing he was not alone with this woman of unknown status, that the Khan laid mere steps away sent a lightning bolt of pure panic through his being. He did not cry out as he turned and hurried out of the room, but Aylanna could hear the wail of terror resonating in his heart.

Chuckling mirthlessly she turned to the Khan's bed. When she touched his hand, he opened his eyes. He looked up at her, and spoke with a dry, rasping voice, "I slept again?"

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byXantu© 21 comments/ 16649 views/ 3 favorites

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