tagSci-Fi & FantasyDemon Child Ch. 21

Demon Child Ch. 21


Chapter 21: In the Shadow of the Aga Khan

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It was early morning, the light of first day barely turning the eastern sky lavender when Aylanna slipped from the rooms of the Aga Khan and made her way to the women's quarters. She knew all the courtesans were still asleep and would be until midday. There was little chance that she would be interrupted in her bath. Bathing was the one thing she had come to value about staying here in the vast court of the Aga Khan, beyond being close to Jhardron.

She stripped and washed quickly intending to be gone from him for only minutes. In the days and weeks that had followed the council's naming Jhardron Aga Khan, he had been working himself to exhaustion. The state of the court and the empire was in shambles, the old Aga Khan had not attended to a single issue, no matter how trivial or pressing for months if not years. Jhardron may have been reluctant to assume the mantle of power but as soon as he had taken the seat of the Aga Khan he had thrown himself headlong into the role. He had insisted she be there always, never more than an arm's length away. He never openly consulted her, rarely even spoke with her in the presence of others but she knew he took strength from her presence. And he would listen when she would finally intervene, pulling him away from the business of government back to his rooms, insisting he eat or sleep.

Aylanna was so lost in thought that she did not sense the presence of another watching her.

"You are an elusive creature." The high priestess stood in the doorway of the bathing rooms.

Aylanna continued to wash herself, rinsing her hair. "I know not what you speak of. I have been here in the court."

The old woman chuckled, "Oh, there has been little question of your whereabouts. Even the lowliest lann'akh in the furthest corner of the land would know where to seek you out. All one must do is look into the shadow of our new Aga Khan to find the demon witch. It is that very fact, the fact that you never seem more than a step behind the boy, never alone that has presented a challenge to me."

"A challenge, Mother?" Aylanna wondered what the old woman's name had once been, if she had ever had a name. It seemed that once someone had assumed a rank, the rank became the identity. Jhardron's name had seemed to evaporate as soon as the council had named him Aga Khan. It was slightly amusing that the people tended to name him the 'new' Aga Khan to somehow separate him from his recently deceased father. The High Priestess of the Temple of Pan'Shash'Sha'Am was known only as 'The High Priestess' and affectionately called 'Mother' or 'Grandmother' to her face.

And then there was the mystery of herself. Who was strange looking girl with white skin, hair like fire and eyes like smoke? Her name had never been widely known. And her rank was an enigma. She was female, yet the few times she left the side of Jhardron, she walked independently through the old fortress. She did not dress or behave like a courtesan and she was rarely in the women's quarters. Rumors that she had used magical powers to somehow reanimate the corpse of the old Aga Khan had spread quickly. Without name or rank, the label of 'the demon witch' had become her name. Aylanna had felt no particular motivation to rectify this misconception, if it was an error. The title tended to make people fear her, and that fear meant few approached or spoke to her. Aylanna appreciated that fact.

And in truth she was a witch. She did have magic. While the old Aga Khan had not been truly dead and she had not in fact revived the dead even briefly, she did have powers, powers not even she knew the limit of. Aylanna had sensed a seething interest directed toward her from this powerful woman ever since she had become embroiled in the events surrounding the death of the former Aga Khan, ever since she had revealed too many hints of those powers. She knew that the priestess was curious to learn exactly the measure of this strange girl that was the perpetual companion of the new Aga Khan.

The priestess made an exasperated sound. "Do not play with me child. You know as well as I that you have avoided me like a mouse hides from the hunting fox."

Aylanna could not help but smile, "Are you a hunting fox, mother? Are you going to snap me up, toss me into the air and swallow me like a morsel?"

The old woman chuckled, "Perhaps my words were ill chosen. Come, child, all I wish to do is to become your friend, to get to know you. Few people seem to know you and when they do the stories they tell are strange and contradict one another. Anyway, I would prefer to learn from you who you are." The priestess paused and then added firmly, "...what you are."

A cool breeze from an open window sent a chill over Aylanna's damp body. She could feel the prickle of goose flesh spread across her skin. She looked around the large bathing room toward the large pool with the noisy fountain in the center. She pointed toward the water. "Mother, do you swim? It was my Khan that taught me to swim. Come, come out to the water and I will tell you that story and perhaps others if the mood strikes me."

The old woman frowned and looked at Aylanna like she had lost her mind. "Swim?"

Aylanna could not help but laugh, "Yes, swim. It is lovely." She turned, stepped into the water and beckoned. The water was not deep, barely coming up to her breasts, "Do not be afraid. It is neither deep nor cold." She gestured toward the fountain where the falling water made a continual music, "And it is a good place to talk."

Finally the old priestess smiled and nodded her understanding. She pulled the perfectly white shift off over and gingerly lowered herself into the water. Her body was a withered bundle of sticks, her breasts only wrinkled empty sacks of skin that hung low over a soft sagging belly. She walked carefully through the water until she stood close to Aylanna and the masking sound of falling water. She frowned thoughtfully and swept her hands through the water experimentally, "I cannot remember the last time I swam; it was many lifetimes ago, in a childhood almost forgotten, long before I was sent to the temple as a novice. Service to the goddess leaves little time for frivolity."

"Does the goddess frown upon frivolity?"

"You ask a thought provoking question. My first impulse would be to say no, that our mother gave us gifts uncountable, among them pleasure, laughter and joy. I cannot believe that she would give us the capacity and then deny us the opportunity. Yet, she also instilled within us a strong sense of service and duty. Perhaps we have lost our sense of balance."

The old woman lifted her hands and let the cascade of falling water trickle through her fingers. Her eyes met Aylanna's. "Perhaps that is why we sometimes have such difficulty hearing her voice in our hearts." The old priestess shrugged and shook her head. "But I came here to see you, to learn about you. You play a role and yet you are a cipher, a mystery to me. Your very presence changes the course of events. When I am close to you, I feel closer to the goddess. It is my hope that we can become friends, that we will find that we have common goals and values."

Aylanna frowned and held up her arm, pointing to the twin brands of House Twisted Dagger and House Broken Spear. "Like my Khan, I carry the marks of two houses. I hold no loyalty but to him. You speak of my role. My role is clear; I exist to serve him in every way that is within my abilities. You mentioned that those who know me tell conflicting stories. Who have you spoken to and what do you think you know?"

The high priestess paused, debating what to reveal about her sources. It was common practice to spy and collect information, yet to openly admit such practices seemed somehow demeaning. "I must confess that when I could not find a time when you were alone that I tried to learn as much as I could from other sources. Not many would tell me much. Various warriors of the Twisted Dagger told me that you were taken as a prize in the Ramaldi Highlands, but then another said you were a member of the northern herding tribes and yet another said you came from the demon cities of the north. To a man they spoke only of your fulfilling your role as ha'akh in an exemplary manner, how you were quick to learn and from the very beginning demonstrated unquestioning loyalty to the regiment. Not a single one spoke of your being a witch, though one did state 'that the demon brought luck to the regiment'."

"The information I gathered from some of your sister courtesans..."

Aylanna shook her head violently and interrupted. "You are in error. I was never a courtesan. They may have sent here. They even tried to teach me in their arts." Aylanna cleared her throat and spat into the water. "Tried and failed."

The older woman laughed and held up her hand, "And that is very much what I learned. Miss Mallinika was closed mouth about your stay here in the courtesan's quarters beyond a wry comment inferring that perhaps you lacked the guile to make a successful courtesan."

Aylanna's face twisted with such an expression of disdain and loathing that the priestess paused and tipped her head in thought. If the girl had made such little effort to hide her disgust in the presence of her sisters, the priestess could well understand the source of much of the enmity she had found among the courtesans.

"While it was clear that you made many friends among the warriors of the Twisted Dagger, not a single courtesan showed any friendliness toward you save perhaps that empty headed chatterbox. What was her name? Balla? They said you sang like a crow cawing and danced to music no one else seemed to hear. But then again they also made uncharitable comments about your appearance and that was clearly self serving drivel. I did take some interest in the strange fact that several of the courtesans made reference to the odd fact that you were often seen reading, a strange skill for a courtesan."

"Like I said, I was never a courtesan."

"So it is the truth, you can read?"

"Yes and write for that matter."

The priestess tipped her head and pondered that fact. "And what was the truth of your origins? Which tale is true, Ramaldi Highlands, Northern Plains or Demon City?"

Aylanna laughed, "Perhaps all three, but that is a question to be answered on another day. I tarry too long. I am sure my Khan will have need of my services. Now that you know my secret habit of coming here to bathe in the mornings, perhaps you would like to join me. Each morning we can swim and share stories. Perhaps we will become friends."

The high priestess stood and watched as the demon witch withdrew without a single word of parting. She shook her head. The girl remained a mystery, few of her questions had been answered and in fact, the high priestess realized she had revealed far more about herself than the girl had. But she did have the girl's invitation to return, to swim again. There was little question that she would be there again in the morning.

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Aylanna walked slowly, reviewing the conversation she had had with the high priestess. There was little to distract her. The corridors of the court were still mostly empty. Jhardron had quickly rejected the idea that he needed more than a handful of personal guards. And he had little patience for anyone that did not have work to do. It took only a few fat courtiers being dispatched on long and arduous assignments to send a clear message to the rest. The kitchens no longer produced elaborate banquets, Jhardron decreeing that until the work of the nation was well in hand that all at the court would be served the daily rations of a warrior on campaign. Without indolence or luxury, it was not long before most of the former members of the old Aga Khan's court found pressing matters that took them far from the city.

Aylanna did not know how she felt about having her bath interrupted. She knew it was inevitable that the priestess would eventually corner her. She had little fear of the old woman; she did not sense any malevolence in the priestess's heart, only curiosity and something else, a speculative, even hopeful interest. It went without question that the old woman wanted something, but exactly what that something was would have to wait. She had surprised herself when she had invited the priestess to return, to come to the bathing rooms again tomorrow. Aylanna wondered if she would regret the loss of the one place of solitude she had managed to find for herself. She shrugged as she walked through the maze of halls; she wondered which of them was the hunting fox and which would end up the mouse.

The abrupt appearance of a young man, a youth from the Broken Spear dashing down the hallway toward her, pulled her from her reverie. He seemed agitated but his face lit up when he spied her. He skidded to a halt and stood with his mouth half open. Aylanna stared back, wondering what this boy was doing. She recognized him; he was one of the young men that had been sent to assist and learn from the new Aga Khan, boys that ran errands and carried messages. He was gangly, too thin for his height, though his frame promised great strength in his future. His torso was decorated with only the first two rows of scars that accompanied the ritual of receiving his first scimitars. Aylanna noted he had chosen to be branded with the mark of House Twisted Dagger in addition to his own house's mark. It had become a fad among the younger warriors, an act of loyalty to the popular new Aga Khan. She stared at him as he stood, suddenly struck dumb in her presence. She could tell he had been looking for her; his relief to find her was palpable, but once he had found her he seemed at a loss for words.

Finally she spoke first, "Why do you seek me?"

Her words seemed to wake him and he stammered, "The... the Aga Kan, he... he requests your presence."

"Then your gawping serves only to delay me." She swept past him wondering if there had been some new news, some unexpected calamity had necessitated her attendance.

Aylanna slipped through a back door into the small room that Jhardron had converted to an office. A wide table sat empty in the center of the room. Jhardron refused to allow any report or petition to sit on its surface for long. If there was some document that needed consultation, one of the young aides would be sent to retrieve it from the archives. There were no chairs, he refused to sit, preferring to pace as he talked or thought and it was unheard of for anyone else to sit if the Aga Khan stood. Aylanna knew that by now nearly a dozen petitioners already waited in a nearby room, biding their time until they were summoned. A tiny smile made her lips twitch, Jhardron had made sure that there were no chairs to loll about on in there as well.

Jhardron was alone in the room and his face was stormy and he spoke sharply, "Where have you been?"

Aylanna took a deep breath. He had been short tempered of late. "My Khan, I am sorry. As you know, it is my habit to bathe in the women's quarters and the high priestess came to me there. She wished to speak. Our conversation delayed my return to you. Was there some event that required my attendance?"

She could sense some easing in his mood, "Event? No, but I find your absence disturbing. You have become my touchstone, my talisman. This task is endless and often distasteful. When I start to lose hope of success I find some solace in just the sight of you." He shook his head, "So it was our mother from the temple that kept you from my side. What did she want?"

Aylanna looked at him. He had lost weight and his eyes seemed haggard. "She has questions. She knows that I am different, that I can do things and she wished to learn exactly what I am. She seems to want something from me. She said she wants to be my friend."

Jhardron barked a short harsh burst of laughter, "Friend? An interesting word, I wonder what she really wants."

"I sensed no deception from her. While she did not reveal all that she felt or knew, she did not seem to wish me or you ill. Mostly she is curious and I am a curiosity. I told her that I would talk with her some more when I bathe again tomorrow."

"Why do you go there to bathe? There is a perfectly adequate bathing room attached to my rooms."

Aylanna smiled, "But, my Khan, you do not have a pool for swimming. I find swimming soothing to my spirit. Do you remember the time you took me to swim, teaching me to let go of fear and let the water lift me up? I wish we could swim together once again."

"I have more pressing matters to attend to."

Jhardron's reaction to her words was so like the high priestess's that Aylanna blinked and flushed with temper. "My Khan, the high priestess herself stated that the goddess gave us the capacity for happiness and that she would not have given us the gift if she did not wish for us to make use of it. You let duty and these pressing matters blind you to joy and pleasure. When is the last time you held your son in your arms, felt the rapture of the goddess or even felt the flanks of a stallion between your legs, the rush of wind in your face?" She waved her hands, her gesture taking in the whole of the vast complex that made up the court. "This place conspires to stifle the spirit, to weaken the heart. If you do not take the time to feel happiness, you cannot succeed in bringing happiness to your people."

Jhardron found himself smiling as he watched her. Her face was strangely flushed, her hands moving quickly to emphasize her words. She rarely showed such spirit in his presence, choosing to speak softly and move quietly in the background. She stopped suddenly, staring up at him, panting slightly as if she had been running. She tried to glare at him but her lips quivered as she fought the urge to return his smile. His voice was soft, "Pretty demon, once again I remember why I keep you by my side. There is little question that I lose perspective, that the very stones about us lead us to forget that the real world that exists beyond these walls. It is hard to remember what is important when I am besieged with minutiae."

"My Khan, you try to do too much yourself. On campaign you are well aware that a Khan Bak Tai must depend upon his officers and his warriors to perform their assigned duties. One man cannot stand sentry for an entire camp. The Bak Tai cannot train the boys and at the same time tend the herd and cook the meals. You have to let others assume responsibility. And I cannot help but believe if left to itself, much of the minutiae will find its own solution."

There was a furtive movement at a side door and Jhardron's attention was distracted from her words. He nodded absentmindedly at her advice. It wasn't much different than what she and others had told him many times before. Both his uncle and the Kah'matlah had urged him to delegate more, but Jhardron had stubbornly argued that at least in the beginning the people of the nation needed to sense his hand in all things, needed to trust that he was in charge. He waved the boy in, eying the armload of scrolls that had arrived in the night and sighed, pointing to the empty table. "Let's get through these before we talk to any of those that have come to put their requests before me in person." Aylanna moved to her habitual place, standing motionless against one wall.

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Mallinika was standing in the hall, obviously waiting for Aylanna to pass by as she left the bathing room in route back to the Aga Khan's side. Aylanna tried to keep the frown of frustration from her face. Too many people were learning of her morning bathing and swimming habits. On more than one occasion she had seen curious faces peering out from the windows of the wives quarters as she stood and talked with the High Priestess next to the fountain. Aylanna stopped and nodded impatiently, "Yes?"

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