tagSci-Fi & FantasyDemon Child Ch. 22

Demon Child Ch. 22


Chapter 22: It was a Time of Mystery and Magic

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The grounds that lay between the temple and the court of the Aga Khan were a wide smooth expanse of trimmed grass with a wide paved avenue that lead directly between the two massive buildings, a straight line that connected the seat of government and the spiritual heart of the land. There were no trees or even shrubberies. In the distance Aylanna could see a band of workers raking and tending the grass and a shepherd accompanied by a herd of fat white goats.

She walked fast, the two young men escorting her flanked her, strutting a little to be out of the court on what could be construed as a special duty. It took longer to span the distance than she anticipated. The sheer size of this place was deceptive. The temple was tall, she had remembered it looming like a mountain but as she marched closer, the height was staggering. It was many times larger than the court of the Aga Khan and as she looked back at disorganized jumble of squares and rectangles of the citadel, Aylanna could sense the very basic difference between the two buildings. One reaching to the sky, singular in shape and design, the other was low, confused, resembling a pile of rubble as much as a structure. The chaos of the world of men contrasted with the focus and peace of the goddess. Looking up as the blood red ziggurat Aylanna held no doubt that the hand of the goddess built this monument.

The high priestess waited for her at an open archway of equally monumental proportions. Aylanna could not help but stare open mouthed at the huge golden doors that opened into a vast entry and a golden statue that filled the far end of the cavern-like room from floor to ceiling. The gigantic nude figure of the goddess seemed illuminated with supernatural light, glowing in the darkness like a summoning beacon. She stood with outstretched, welcoming arms and the worshipers at her feet. Aylanna did not notice that her escorts did not enter into the temple, that they stopped at the doorway and peered in, respectfully touching their foreheads in reverence. The colossal chamber echoes with the voices and footsteps of the women that filed in to make offerings to the goddess.

The high priestess spoke in a soft voice, "It is customary to greet the goddess upon entering into her home." But Aylanna was already walking forward, drawn by the spectacle before her. She had a soft wide smile on her face, as if she had spied an old friend and was hurrying to be reunited. She stopped just short of the crush of women that milled about the feet of the goddess and stood staring up, and then looked around curiously. When the high priestess came to stand beside her, Aylanna was still smiling. She turned to her old friend, "Mother, I can sense her here, the goddess, she fills this place but she is not the statue, that is just a thing, a beautiful thing, but you cannot capture her with a sculpture or even a mountain of stone."

The high priestess bowed down before the sculpture and then nodded in understanding. "Of course, my daughter, this is just a thing, a thing for her worshipers to see, to bow down to and leave their gifts. Yet for the many who cannot perceive her as acutely as you, this is all we can offer, this and the blessing."

Aylanna frowned at the thought of others who could not sense the pervasive joy that filled the room and then bowed down, mimicking the priestess's obeisance. "Of course, mother." She looked about the room, noting that the glow that lit up the statue was sunlight reflecting off the golden doors, strategically angled to catch the afternoon sun. A mound of food and other items was at the feet of the statue and a steady stream of supplicants carried more to present to the goddess. A matching stream of priestesses hurried to and fro transporting the accumulating tribute back through a dozen doorways. Aylanna tipped her head, taking note of the absence of any males and observed, "Men do not come into the temple."

The high priestess nodded. "Only on specific holy days are men allowed into the temple. This is a woman's place. Men worship on the battle field and between the legs of a woman."

Aylanna smiled at those words, her mind filling with images of the last time she held a man between her legs. The sound of Jhardron's voice and the image of his face sent a pang of sweet memory through her belly. She shook her head as she remembered Jhardron's words to not be gone long. "Mother, you are right, I do need to find the time to tour this home of the goddess, but alas today is not the day. I thank you for taking the time to greet me but I must speak with your healer about the herbs and medicines I need. Time is of the essence, fever of the bladder is easily cured if caught in the first stages. And my khan gave me leave to be gone from his side for only a short time."

The high priestess frowned and Aylanna could tell she was puzzled by this last statement, but she did not question it. The old woman just shook her head in an open acknowledgement of her mystification. "Daughter, you always leave me with more questions than you answer. You will need a guide. I will have a priestess take you to the rooms of the healer." )===(>>>>>>>>>>>>>> <<<<<<<<<<<<<<)===(

The arms of her escorts were laden with packages as they made their way back to the court. The physician at the temple was a wise and helpful woman who seemed happy to find a kindred spirit in this strange looking girl and Aylanna felt certain she had found a new friend and ally. The store rooms of the temple were well stocked; filled with what seemed years worth of herbs, medicines and other implements of healing. Aylanna had found all she needed and more.

Aylanna went straight to the women's quarters, walking directly to Similandra's rooms. The girl was still in bed but her head was uncovered and she sat up at Aylanna's entrance, peering past her as if she was expecting someone else. Aylanna smiled in approval at the nearly empty pitcher. "You have been drinking the juice. Have you voided your bladder?"

Simi nodded, frowning painfully. "It burns."

"Yes, it will for a time. But the more you drink, the more you will wash away the poison in your body and the less it will hurt. If you do not wash the poison away, you will only get sicker. We do not want that."

Similandra bristled. "We? And who do you mean by that?"

Aylanna regretted her words almost as soon as she had said them. "I guess that is for us to figure out. I had assumed that you shared my wish for you to feel better. Perhaps I was mistaken." She busied herself with a brazier, heating water and dropping in a handful of powder and several sprigs of other dried plants.

Similandra's voice was suspicious. "What are you making?"

"Some tea, it will calm the cramps in your bladder and ease the burning as you release your water." Aylanna did not elaborate that the same pain reducing herb was also a soporific and that for the next few days, Similandra would not be doing much beyond drinking, peeing and sleeping. "Do not worry; I have added some sweet herbs to mask the bitterness." Aylanna stained the hot mixture through a grass filter and mixed some the strong tea mixture with some fruit juice to cool it and make it even more palatable.

Similandra wrinkled her nose but drank down the slightly warm mixture. She pulled a face, running her tongue around inside her mouth and complained. "It has a strange after taste."

Aylanna filled the cup with the last of the fruit juice. "Drink this to clear you palate. I will have someone bring you some more."

Simi grimaced. "As long as it is not that old harridan, Magdellyn, I hate her."

Aylanna did not confront the girl's words. As she exited, Magdellyn stood in the hall outside the curtained doorway. It was obvious she had heard the girl's words and her face a storm cloud of suppressed anger. Aylanna held a silent finger up to her lips and slipped an arm around the angry woman's waist urging her to walk with her. "Do not let her bait you into another confrontation. Without love, she seeks to feed upon conflict. She did drink nearly all the juice and willingly drank down a cup of the tea I brewed. I left a small pot with some more tea in her room. Have a servant bring her some more juice now and when they bring her supper have them measure out a half cup of the tea and mix it with some more fruit juice. If she refuses her medicine, do not confront her, just send word to me. I will be back before nightfall to check upon her condition."

Magdellyn's voice was tired. "She does try my patience. And I have much to do. Annalla will give birth any day and is a little frightened. The temple promises to send a midwife at the first signs of labor."

Aylanna gave the woman a small squeeze with her arm. "I too have some skill with midwifery. I want you to know that you can call upon me at any time. I regret I do not have time to visit her now, but I have been gone overlong from the offices of the Aga Khan."

Magdellyn looked puzzled, an expression that was so similar to the high priestess's mystification at the Aga Khan's demand that a mere woman be present at his side as he made all the decisions of government that Aylanna shrugged and laughed, giving her new ally another brief hug. "There are times I too wonder what use I can be. It is a duty neither he nor I relish. Perhaps that is it, maybe he just wishes for someone to share his misery."

Magdellyn nodded in tentative understanding. "I would never have guessed that my son would display the temperament suited to be a bureaucrat."

"He does not relish this duty. He was bred and born to ride at the head of a regiment, to look to the far horizons, not to be trapped by stone walls. His heart is heavy with the foreboding that this is going to be his lot for the rest of his life. Yet he is resolute. If he is to be Aga Khan, he is determined to fulfill this duty without reservation or limit. Privately, between the two of us, he needs to learn moderation, to learn balance, to take time to rest, to feel joy. The rider of even the finest stallion must tighten the reins and ease the pace or he runs the risk of killing his horse, especially if his mount is one with a dedicated heart, one that will give its life for its rider." Aylanna paused and looked into Magdellyn's listening face and smiled with a sudden thought. "My friend, perhaps that is why I need to be at his side, to pull back gently upon the reins, to remind him to slow and breathe so that he will have some strength left at the end of the campaign."

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Jhardron was still reviewing written reports when she returned. He stood, leaning over a wide table laden with scrolls, impatiently looking back and forth between three different scrolls. He glanced up and frowned. "Half the morning gone and I stare at these numbers with less understanding than when I started. There is either an error here or the writer has gone to great lengths to conceal some embezzlement and I swear I cannot determine which the answer is."

Aylanna moved to his side, looking down at the bewildering columns of numbers. She touched his back and began to work at a knot between his shoulder blades. "I regret my skills do not extend to the words and numbers upon the page. But do not become mired in this matter. Give them to another to read and have them report to you. An Aga Khan cannot read every tax log, every production report. These are tasks for others."

Jhardron sighed as she soothed the ache in his back. "You always know exactly where to rub. I had not even noticed the pain until you brought relief." Then he pushed the scrolls aside. "And you are right, I waste time with this. There is another matter I need your help with."

"Yes, my Khan?"

"My mother has sent word that Similandra is sick and cannot lie with me tonight. I want you to make sure that she is receiving the finest of treatments."

"I exist to serve."

Jhardron hesitated and Aylanna could tell he was searching for words, trying to find some way to express his guilt and doubts. His voice was neutral. "I wish to learn if her sickness is the result of something I may have done."

Aylanna was torn between keeping Magdellyn's secrets and the awareness of Jhardron's concern about this thorny problem that was his middle wife. She kept rubbing at his back, pursuing the lines of tension that stretched up his neck. There was no question in her mind where her loyalty lay. "My Khan, I have already spoken with your mother and at her request I have already visited Similandra. She suffers from a common complaint among young women, a fever of the bladder. That was the need behind my visit to the temple. I went there to consult with the temple healer and to get herbs to brew medicine. I am sure she will recover soon."

"Am I responsible?"

"My Khan, the cause of illness is rarely clear. This illness is most common among young women who are newly married and is sometimes even named Bride's Fever. Similandra is clearly unhappy and this weakens her spirit. A weak spirit is fertile ground for seeds of sickness."

"You will keep me informed."

"If that is your command."

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Similandra was deeply asleep when Aylanna came to check on her. She had spent the last three days in a sleepy daze, barely waking long enough to drink down the multiple glasses of fluids and soups and void her bladder. Aylanna was pleased to see Annalla sitting quietly by her bedside. The heavily pregnant girl looked at Aylanna with nervous suspicion and her whispered greeting was stiffly formal. Annalla looked desperately uncomfortable and Aylanna noted her ankles seemed swollen.

Aylanna spoke in an equally low voice, "Has she been drinking the tea?"

Annalla nodded wordlessly.

"And is she still drinking lots of juice and water?"

Annalla nodded again and then whispered, "Is she going to be okay?"

It was Aylanna's turn to nod and whisper. "The illness of her body is a simple thing, yet she is sad, very sad. She chooses to hide this sadness with a mask of anger and rebellion. I can tell you care for your sister wife a great deal."

Annalla's tone was defensive, "She is not bad. She is just stubborn and quick to anger. You cannot push her to do what you want. If you try, she will only fight with you. Magdellyn takes her role here as mother too much to heart and has little sympathy or understanding. The two are a poor match."

"It is good to know she has a friend and ally in this house. You speak of understanding, what things do you think we need to understand to help your sister wife find some sense of peace and happiness?"

Annalla shook her head in confusion, much of her initial shyness and nervous tension melting away in the face of obvious concern for her sister wife. "That is a tangled knot. Simi lives very much in her imagination. She expects too much. She dreams of love and adventure. She chafes at the thought of duty and decorum. But at the same time, I think she is afraid. She is like the child who climbs the tree to see over the courtyard wall and then begins to cry when she looks down and sees the ground so far from her feet." Annalla grimaced and shifted, absent mindedly rubbing her hands across her swollen belly. "It is that and many other things. I don't even know if I am making much sense. All I know is that I love her very much. Back, before we moved here, it was very crowded and we had to share a bed. She would lie beside me and tell me stories, stories where she was free as the goddess, traveling across the land, and finding one true love and how she stole his heart and he would pursue her across the land. Here we have too much room, everyone has their own rooms and I miss her, miss the tales she makes up, her wild imaginings and impulsive jokes."

Aylanna gently placed her hands over Annalla's, feeling the vigorous kick of the restless baby. "Your son is impatient to leave his refuge."

Annalla tipped her head to one side, questioning. "You say 'son' like you know this for fact."

"Trust me; you carry a warrior in your womb."

The baby kicked again and Annalla winced. "It kicks like a stallion."

"It will not be many more days and you will hold him at your breast."

Similandra sighed and shifted in her sleep and for a moment the two of them stared down at the girl.

Aylanna asked, "You say she is a dreamer, that she dreams of love. What feelings does she hold for her husband?"

Annalla tensed and her eyes shifted away. "Simi tries to be a good wife. She tries to respect and obey her husband."

"But she does not love him."

"I don't know that she does not love him. She has never said to me that she does not love him." Annalla's voice was once again defensive.

"What does she say to you?"

Annalla's voice was soft and stubborn, "I will not repeat the words of my friend, words given to me in confidence in the dark of the night, to a stranger. If you wish to know of her feelings, you should ask her yourself."

"Well said and I am heartened to learn that Simi inspires such loyalty."

An irritable, sleepy voice rose up from the bed. "Annalla?"

Annalla jumped and glanced at Simi. "Yes?"

Similandra's voice as foggy and there was little heat to her words. "I told you to go away."

Annalla made a rueful face and rolled her eyes but her words were patient. "I know, and I will. I just stopped by to see if you needed anything."

"I need you to go away. The sight of you makes me sick ...all fat and ugly." It seemed like Simi was just repeating the words, reenacting the old patterns, trying to feed the fading coals of her anger rather than acting out of any real frustration or dislike.

And Annalla did not react to the tired venom. She just laughed patiently. "Yes, you are right; I am the size of a house. I will take my big fat ugliness out of here and leave you here with the demon." She levered herself up to her feet and slowly waddled from the room in the characteristic gait of a woman about to give birth. She was rubbing at the small of her back. Aylanna watched her go thinking that the girl was showing all the signs of early labor.

Similandra turned over and pulled the covers firmly up over her head. "Tell that whore to go away too."

Aylanna spoke softly, "Your sister wife is already gone. You will have to tell me yourself."

Simi fell silent and Aylanna did not speak again, just busied herself with the brazier, heating some water and brewing some more tea. Aylanna could tell that Similandra was watching her but she kept her back turned. She kept her voice low and neutral. "Annalla loves you very much."

"She is stupid."

Aylanna carefully kept her eyes away from the girl on the bed, focusing on slowly stirring the herbs and powder into the simmering water. "I don't think you really believe that. I think perhaps she is very smart, that she sees past your hateful words and sees what you hide from all of us."

"Then you are stupid too." Similandra's voice quivered with effort to hold onto her anger and yet Aylanna could sense that the girl was vaguely frustrated with her lack of success, that guilt and sadness kept creeping in like a cooling mist, extinguishing the sparks of rage.

Aylanna was happy that she still had her back to the girl, hiding her smile as she added just a pinch less of the herb that eased pain and added a few more leaves of another that calmed the spirit. She added a little more powder of a root that was known to stimulate appetite and thirst. She carefully kept her expression neutral as she brought another cup of the medicine to the girl for her to drink. This time Similandra did not question the contents, she just made a disgusted face, drank it down and held out the cup expectantly waiting for it to be filled with the better tasting juice. Aylanna silently filled the cup and watched as Similandra sipped the sweeter fluid, noting that the girl had combed her hair and her clothing looked clean.

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