Demon Child Ch. 18


"Yes, my Khan, you slept through the morning." Aylanna held a cup of water to his lips, "Drink, your body cries out for water."

He emptied the glass and sighed with satisfaction. "You are truly a gift from the goddess. I have not felt so rested since the rains came." He moved to the edge of the bed and gestured to her, "Help me to rise."

Aylanna reached to support him and sensing his need, spoke gently, "It is a good sign that you need to relieve yourself. It shows your body still asserts itself, still battles to wash the poisons from your body. Let me support you."

He ignored her offer of help, choosing only to put a hand on her shoulder to pull himself up to stand. She could tell it took a great deal of determination to lift himself to his feet but to his credit he did not make a sound as a fresh rush of pain shot through his limbs. The flesh tightened around his eyes and she could audibly hear him grit his teeth. His fingers dug into her shoulder as he steadied himself and then he turned and strode off, his gait showing none of his weakness. Aylanna followed at his heels, watching in awe and apprehension. She knew how close to failure he was and how he was not going to show his infirmity before anyone.

He made it through the door to the latrine before he stopped and grabbed her shoulder again, pausing and balancing himself for a moment before moving toward the opening. Gently Aylanna moved to take his arm and when she sensed his resistance she spoke softly, "My Khan, no one is here to see your weakness. It is only me and I can feel each ache, I share your struggle. You need hide nothing from me."

His voice was harsh with effort, "I hide nothing. I refuse to be defeated." But he let her take his arm and leaned against her. He sighed as he released his body's water. Aylanna took note of the dark color of his urine and resolved to urge more water between his lips. His eyes looked out the barred window opening and he sighed again. "I dreamt of riding this morning. I can't remember when I last sat on the back of a stallion. I long for the freedom of horseback." He rubbed at his face with a shaky hand, "I tire of this deathbed. Tell me demon, you speak of your magic; tell me, does your magic tell what lies beyond? Will I ride again once I have joined Jha'Mak'Tah?"

Aylanna looked about nervously, "My Khan, is it safe to speak here?"

He blinked and shook his head. "Nowhere is safe. But the private latrine of the Aga Khan is as close to safe as you will find here at court. His expression twitched sardonically, nodding toward the continual stream of water bubbling down into the basin, "If we speak softly, the sound of the falling water will disguise our words."

"Then I will answer you. My magic tells me nothing of the path of a warrior as he goes to join Jha'Mak'Tah. I hear the warriors speak of joining him in battle and a Bak warrior never walks when he could ride. I am confident that a magnificent stallion awaits your arrival."

He looked at her curiously, "Tell me of your magic. What kinds of things can you do? If I am to use you for my own ends, I must know what weapons I have to wield against my enemies."

Aylanna frowned, "It is a strange thing. In many ways I am still learning what I can and cannot do. I was raised by an old witch doctor, but he refused to teach me any of his arts. He always said that I was a demon and I had to find my own demon's magic. At first I had no idea what he meant, or if it was true that I had any magic at all."

Her words lurched to a stop as he swayed and fought off a wave of dizziness. Gently she urged him to sit and pulled his tunic from his ravaged body. Forcing herself to ignore the wasted muscles, she began to gently wash him, sponging him with a clean cloth she found next to the basin. She sensed how the cool water soothed the heat and burning that plagued is skin. His voice was curious, even demanding, "But you did find your magic. Tell me of that."

"The first thing I learned that I could do was to speak with the horses. I would just touch them and I could hear their thoughts. A horse does not think with words. For them, it is all emotion; hunger, fear, joy. I touched the wild red horse and he stopped his struggle to escape his rider. I remember Jhardron asking me what I had done and me thinking that it had felt so easy, so natural that I thought anyone could do the same. It came as a surprise to me that they would even call it magic. When I sit upon a horse, it is like there is no boundary between me and the animal between my legs. Jhardron traded for a mare for me to ride. I named her Xin'sha. She is colored red like my hair. Jhardron said he had never seen such a bond between a horse and its rider. I loved her and I could tell she loved me. She will not be parted from me and she followed me clear to Bak Pan Amara." Her voice turned thoughtful, "I wonder where she is now."

He stirred restlessly and pushed her hands away. "If we tarry too long, the guards will become concerned at my absence. It is only a matter of time until they come and check to see if I still live." Aylanna pulled a clean tunic over his head and slipped an arm under his helping him to stand.

Once again when they entered his sleeping chamber, he shrugged off her helping hands, and moved stiffly to sit in a chair by the window, resuming his gaze out into the falling rain. Aylanna quickly changed the bedding on his sleeping platform and then moved to stand behind him, gently placing her hand upon his shoulder. She looked out and asked, "Does it never stop?"

His voice was musing, "It can but it is rare. It is considered an omen of great portent for the clouds to part during the rainy season. It is said Panshasham thinks of her children and for the moment forgets her sadness." He reached up and touched her hand, his voice low, "Tell me more stories, stories of magic."

Aylanna had a sense that more than just the guards were listening to their conversation and answered evasively, "Magic, my Khan? Let me think upon that. Perhaps I heard a story once, about a beautiful girl held captive in a magic castle, a castle where the very stones of the walls could listen and speak. Come, recline upon your bed, eat, drink and I will tell you this story."

The Khan allowed her to help him to his bed. After he had consumed some sustenance, he smiled conspiratorially, "Yes, tell me your stories. Come lie, beside me, rest your head upon my pillow so that you can pour your words into my ear."

Aylanna spoke loudly enough for her words to carry to any that may be listening, "I cannot remember when I first heard this story, my Khan. It is a simple village tale, a myth filled with wild imaginings."

She lay down beside him, his arm encircling her shoulders, pulling her to lie upon his chest. Now that he had her close, he spoke in a voice for her ears only, "I care not for myths and simple tales. I wish to learn more about you and your powers. You said that Rhasht spoke lies. Does your magic tell you this?"

Her tone matched his, "It is truth, my Khan, that the walls have ears. I can feel them listening. When we speak like this, too low for them to hear, I can feel their frustration. It is an itch on my skin, a whining in my ears. Just like I can sense the workings of the body beneath my hand and share the sensations that my patients feel, I can sense the emotions of those who are close by. Not their thoughts but emotions like fear, joy, anger and the lust in their hearts. I can clearly sense a lie as it leaves the lips, it has a... a..." Aylanna hesitated, "My Khan, there are not words to describe it, it is not a foul taste in the mouth or a stench rising up to my nostrils but it is very like that. The very words of some, some like that thing you call Rhasht, make my stomach sicken, make me want to clear my throat and spit out the evil."

The Khan had turned so that his face was barely a hand's breadth away, his dark eyes boring into hers. He breathed the words, "I can see why Jhardron counseled you to keep this hidden. Such a skill, in the court of the Khan, in the court of any leader would mean the doom of his enemies. Yet, such a power alone would put its wielder in grave peril. Now we need to devise a strategy where I can wield this weapon without the awareness of others."

"But my Khan, everyone lies. I find this place a quicksand of deception. No one truly speaks their mind. Even the lady Mallinika counsels me to hide my thoughts, my loyalties, to think about my words, to become like the others. It is against my nature to act like that. To pretend to be something I am not. Even your words, your devising of a strategy, that already leaves the tang of lies in my mouth."

As the Khan reached to touch her face Aylanna fought to resist the urge to shy away. She could feel his anger, hidden under a thin veil of condescension and derision. His words only echoed what she could feel, "Your naivety is quite charming, pretty demon. Perhaps, someday, there will be a place in this world for honesty." His spirit hardened, turning implacable, "Someday, once we have rooted out the deception at its heart. And until then, I will hold you to your promise."

Swallowing down her abhorrence, she did not speak the words that rose up, words that he was at the heart of this world. He was the Aga Khan and if he could not free himself from the web of lies that was the court of the Khan, that there was little hope for any of them.

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Aylanna squirmed in the stiff new dress as the gold threads scraped and poked at her skin. Once the Aga Khan had made his decision, he had moved forward quickly, drawing from reserves of strength that seemed fed on pure rage. "I will convene court. It has been many weeks since there has been a gathering. Everyone will come, all the factions, those loyal and those who only mouth the words." He had smiled mirthlessly, "I must offer special recognition to the Twisted Dagger for their successful campaign. They brought me many valuable treasures. I will have them displayed for all to see. Once they are there, each will be required to renew their pledges of allegiance. I have a reputation for paranoia; they will see it as a manifestation of my madness."

They were in the huge dining hall, the only room large enough to hold all the members of court and the various house representatives that could be summoned on such short notice. Already Aylanna could sense the growing mass of people waiting just outside the doors, waiting for the final summons into the presence of the Aga Khan.

He had ordered her dressed in the finest of robes. "You will stay close, but you will not speak. Sit curled at my feet like a spoiled kitten, do not look as if you even listen or care, but if you sense falsehood in their words, then you will touch me thus." His hand gripped one of her arms suddenly, squeezing cruelly, making her wince.

Rubbing at the bruise slowly growing beneath her skin, Aylanna spoke carefully, "My Khan, someone can have reservations in their allegiance and not be your enemy. Even I voiced my devotion to the Twisted Dagger when my loyalty to the Broken Spear was demanded. Other's may hold such loyalties and yet not voice them, fearing retribution. It is not fair to expect anyone to not have mixed feelings especially in such a place as the court of the Aga Khan."

This time his anger was clearer and his voice sharp, "I do not have time to debate the finer points of fairness or justice. I am Aga Khan and my judgment is the law. I will question all and you will do as I say and reveal to me who lies." His grip on her arm was cruel and his eyes alight with feverish determination. His voice was tinged with tones of madness, "I have it in my grasp to bring down the winds of vengeance upon my murderers. You will not stand in my way." His gaze softened and his voice turned wheedling, almost begging, "You promised once that if you learned of a plot against me that you would tell me, now I will hold you to that promise."

Gently Aylanna freed her arm again from his grasp, "And I will keep my promise, but do not use me blindly. Once a very wise man told me that a Bak warrior is trained to be in control of his body, heart and mind, and only when a warrior has learned those lessons is he trusted to hold a man's weapon in his hands. Please, my khan, do not forget that, for my powers are a weapon of great power, a sword with two edges. If it is not wielded carefully it can come back to harm the very one that tries to hold it in their hand."

But the khan was already turning away from her, his mind clouding with plots and thoughts of revenge. Aylanna wondered if he heard her words at all. She sighed and lowered herself to sit at his feet. Arranging her skirts and leaning languorously against his leg, she assumed the apparently mindless sensual posture of a trained courtesan.

The Aga Khan spoke rapidly to an attendant, an older man that he had been conferring with ever since he had concocted this plan, "Are they all here?"

"My Khan, the apartments of the wizard Rhasht are empty and no one seems to know his whereabouts. The guards are seeking him out as I speak. I am sure he will be here soon." The man's words were quick and filled with deceit. "And one of your wives states she is still in mourning for the loss of your son and refuses to leave her apartments."

As Aylanna sensed the falsehood in this man's words and she tensed and then squeezed the Khan's ankle sharply. He grunted and reflexively kicked out. He looked down at her with consternation. It was clear that he had not expected this; that this was one person he had trusted. Aylanna blinked sleepily and curled up even more sinuously, deliberately yawning with apparent boredom. For a few moments she could tell the Khan was struggling with what to do next. The very ones that he was depending upon to enforce his commands were lying to him. If he could not depend upon them, who could he trust? He stared at the man for a moment and then waved his hand impatiently, "Well, we will have to start without them. But once the wizard has been found, have him brought before me. I have some questions for him, questions for him and many others. As for my wife, I will deal with that at another time."

The attendant clapped his hands and the doors of the hall were thrown open. A throng of people filed in, rapidly filling the room.

Aylanna stared at the mass of people, forgetting his words to appear thoughtless, a forgotten plaything at his feet. She could see many curious eyes meeting hers. The crowd was strangely silent. She could tell many were frightened; others were unnaturally alert and watchful. It was clear that rumor of more than a reward to the Twisted Dagger was in the offering. Again Aylanna felt the weight of too many minds, too many hearts. The room may have been silent but it was a swirling chaos of carefully masked emotions. She closed her eyes and forced herself to breath, to rise up above the surging tide that threatened to pull her under. Again she visualized floating on the surface of the water, letting go of her fears.

The Khan pulled himself to his feet, gazing out across the massed throng, "Let the Bak Tai Twisted Dagger stand forth before me."

There was a general shifting and Aylanna's heart lurched as she caught sight of Jhardron moving up from the back of the room. He was flanked by his father to the left and Jhu'kresh on the right. Behind him was a group of warriors from the regiment. Aylanna fought the urge to smile with delight at the sight of Tim'kah and Kwal'kek standing stiffly at attention close behind. Somehow the sight of their familiar and beloved faces helped to calm her nerves more than anything else.

The Khan remained standing, his posture stiff and straight, hiding his weakness. His voice was hoarse but loud, "I regret that my illness has delayed the just acknowledgement of the loyalty and bravery of the Bak Tai Twisted Dagger. They fulfilled all their duties and brought back great treasures to their Aga Khan. They fought well in the campaign against the Ramaldi betrayers. They discovered great mysteries in the demon cities to the north and they brought back the stolen Ramaldi gold. They brought great honor to their house. They bring great honor to their people. It is fitting that I hereby award dominion over all the northern plains and the northern coasts and the people that dwell there to the house of Twisted Dagger." With those words the Khan seemed to waver, hesitate and finally sat down and waving at the assembled warriors impatiently.

Jhar'drakon stood forth, his words loud enough to fill the room, "To entrust the House Twisted Dagger with the governance of the great grasslands to the north is a true honor and a tribute to the achievements of our regiment and their leader Jhardron Bak Tai Twisted Dagger. Our older brothers, the marmak were born there and it is my thought that they should return..."

Aylanna could tell he was just beginning, his voice warming to a long speech. But then he faltered. There was a stir in the room, a swirl of shifting bodies. A wave of fear seemed to spread through the room and yet, mysteriously, not a single person moved to stop the ominous black clad figure as he approached. In fact, the press of bodies shrank back, making way, literally pushing and shoving at one another to avoid contact with even the hem of his garment.

The slurring syllables of Rhasht's words were not loud and yet they pervaded the room like a dark and menacing fog. "A fine reward indeed, the endless, empty and distant expanses of the northern lands. Perhaps too distant, it is a land beyond your grasp."

The Aga Khan lurched back to his feet and ignoring the words of the wizard, pointed a trembling finger, "Wizard, your arrival is ill timed."

"Ill timed, my lord? You summoned me to this gathering. Am I too early or too late? My lord, your choice of this day, this time, this place is ill timed. The portents all bode doom. Someone is going to die today. I have seen it."

The wizards was slowly inching closer and closer, his voice dropping and his tones turning persuasive, hypnotic. "My lord, danger is all around us. Assassins are in this very room. Send them away. Send them all away before it is your death I foretell."

The Aga Khan blinked and swayed, looking around the room uncertainly, fear and suspicion rising up in his mind, "Assassins?"

Aylanna could not stop the word that leapt from her lips, "No!" She clutched frantically at the Aga Khan's leg, literally sinking her nails into his flesh as she pushed back at the magic that clouded his thinking.

The Khan shook his head drunkenly and stared down at her, then turned back to the wizard, now only an arm's length away. His voice clearer and stronger than ever, "What fear does a dead man have of assassins?"

Again there was a rush of rage and frustration from the wizard as his victim eluded him once again, but this time it was mixed with sudden insight. For the first time Aylanna felt the full weight of the wizards awareness. It was as if he was seeing her for the first time. His voice was a murderous hiss, "You! It is you that does this. You have bewitched him with your demon sorcery!"

At that same instant Aylanna felt a wave of unreasoning fear, a crushing sensation of absolute panic and horror. It was like a physical blow, literally knocking the air from her lungs as she fell back with a choking cry. Darkness swirled at the edges of her vision as she fought to breathe. Everything seemed to be moving slowly. Yet there was a part of her that stood apart, that did not fear. A spark of anger flared as she realized this was not real, this was an illusion, yet she could not regain control of her muscles.

Something flashed in the wizard's hand, a blade emerging from the depths of his cloak. Aylanna could not move or even cry out as she watched the blade move toward her. Then the hand of the Aga Khan was there, catching the blade, a red fount of blood bursting from severed veins and splattering across her face.

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