The water in the basin, moments ago clear and smooth like the best Zulindreh mirror, wavered and twisted, distorting the image of the starry sky above it.
“Rain is coming,” Kameen said excitedly and clapped her hands to accentuate her words. The bangles on her forearms tingled with the movement, like water cascading down on a rocky surface. Kameen liked the effect.
Her Mother stood tall and firm like a cedar tree, gazing up at the stars.
“Something else is coming,” she said. “The stars speak of a great shift in fortunes.”
Kameen felt a little twinge of disappointment. She would never live up to Mother’s ability to read the future from the stars; all she had were reflections, glimpses Lady Zardeenah offered her of the great expanse and mystery of her realm.
“Do you think there will be another conquest?” she asked, masking her feelings of inadequacy with her excitement.
“You have far too much appreciation for heroic tales of noblemen and soldiers and far too little for matters closer at hand, Daughter Mine,” Veres Akrima said. “Remember, a butterfly can change the course of a wind with a stroke of its wings and send a storm to a far off coast. Important events do not always appear so at first.”
Somehow, she always managed to simultaneously admonish Kameen for not being practical enough and for not being celestial-minded enough. Being an Akrima’s apprentice was a difficult life consisting mostly of never living up to expectations.
Still, Kameen thought as they descended the spiral stairs of the observation tower, she would never want to go back to her life before Veres Akrima had chosen her to be her Daughter and apprentice eight years ago. She had known very little at eight; but even though she saw very little still, her eyes had been opened to so much more than she could have imagined as the youngest of a minor Tarkaan’s seven daughters. Did she truly want to be an Akrima, a Devoted of Zardeenah all her life like Mother? She was not sure, but she was certain that even with all the upbraidings, she was far more appreciated by Mother than she had ever been by her father, who had always wanted a son and had never had one.
“Should I make tea, O Mother Mine?” she asked.
“Only milk tonight, thank you,” Mother replied and smiled. “We need to save some water yet before the rain comes.”
* * *
“Dismissed,” Captain Arkeeth told the messenger. He put the moments between the man’s departure and his Sergeant’s entry to good use, wiping his forehead with a cool wet cloth and allowing himself a few stray thoughts of tiredness and memories of his family. The dry season had been longer than usual and it had drained him of much of his usual enthusiasm, leaving him nothing but determination to go on.
“It is high time it rained,” Farrad reported upon entry. “The wells are starting to run very low.”
“Indeed,” Arkeeth replied. “We are, however, still better off than people further north, I am told. It is not irrelevant,” he added quickly, seeing Farrad’s impatience to learn what the Captain’s conference with the Tisroc’s messenger had brought. “There is a group of escaped convicts from Tormunt at large and Corradin Tarkaan believes they are headed our way, to make use of our forests and fields.”
“So we are cleaning up Corradin’s mess?” Farrad asked. The Sergeant had some very definite ideas about Corradin, both as chief jailer at Castle Tormunt and in general; Captain Arkeeth permitted him those opinions, with the understanding that they would never be expressed in front of their men.
“Corradin is pursuing them himself,” Arkeeth said. “But they managed to steal some horses and lose Corradin and his men in the Stone Labyrinth of Saraband. He does not expect to catch up with them before they reach this province, because he is running low on water for his horses.”
“Corradin never could plan ahead,” Farrad opined.
“Then the Tisroc (may he live forever) has shown great wisdom in not giving him an assignment in the field,” Arkeeth retorted.
“I would not be so riled by it were he not so close to Prince Rabadash,” Farrad admitted. “He is a bad influence on the Prince; Rabadash is a great warrior but he was never a strategist to begin with, and Corradin’s presence in his circles does not help. Rabadash should listen to Ilgamuth more, not people like Corradin and Zadrab.”
Farrad had been at Teebeth with Arkeeth’s father. Many of the opinions he expressed now dated back to that campaign. Much of Arkeeth’s lenience for them stemmed from the same source.
“Be that as it may,” Arkeeth said, “it is our duty to stop the fugitives before they wreak havoc on the people of our province. Send out scouts to try and find them; at least fifteen men, I think. We have to be sure we did not miss anything. Twenty of us will go directly towards Saraband; either we will meet with Corradin, or find the convicts first. Choose ten men to leave behind in the fortress.”
“Aye, Captain,” Farrad said, and left the room to give out those orders. Arkeeth followed after him, determined to take a look at the wells for himself before departure.
“Are there wells or springs on this side of the Labyrinth?” he asked Farrad when they saddled their horses.
“There is Veres Akrima’s house and lands, Captain,” Farrad replied.
“So that cannot be simply claimed in the Tisroc’s name (may he live forever).”
“No, Captain,” Farrad said. “But Veres Akrima is known for her hospitality. If we ask her politely, she will assist us.”
“Then I shall ask politely,” Arkeeth replied.
* * *
Kameen was walking to the fields belonging to Veres Akrima’s house when she noticed a commotion, a group of their slaves running from the forest with a trio lagging behind. She gathered up her skirts and ran towards them, because she thought she saw two of the three figures carrying the third. That meant trouble, hopefully trouble she could help with.
“Kameen Tarkheena!” the first slave from the group greeted her, out of breath, “Kameen Tarkheena, you should go back to the house – there are bandits in the forest!”
“Bandits!” she gasped, momentarily panicked, and then she remembered the trio again. “Is that man hurt?”
“Yes, he was shot by an arrow while searching for wood - he’s from the village. But he managed to run back and warn us; only then did he collapse from loss of blood.”
“Did you bind the wound?”
“Yes, Tarkheena, just as Veres Akrima has taught us.”
“Good,” Kameen said. “Go to the house and tell my Mother; we will all come after you. I have to inspect the wound first and make sure no more assistance is needed.”
She spoke much more decisively than she felt. All she was armed with was a dagger. What if the bandits were waiting at the edge of the forest with their bows and arrows? But this, too, was what she was training for: to be a leader of her people. And this, too, was what she would never have been at her father’s house. She strode purposefully towards the wounded man, sending quiet prayers to Zardeenah, protector of maidens, to guard her in this duty this day.
Thankfully, the slaves had indeed managed to stop the bleeding, and since they had supported most of the wounded villager's weight in their retreat, his wound had not reopened. Kameen rushed them to the house after the others. Mother was already in the hall, tall and firm like a cedar tree, calming the slaves with her immovable presence.
“Do not worry,” she said. “Assistance is on its way.”
She was right. She was always right, in the mysterious ways of Akrimas. Kameen did not understand, but when a company of about twenty soldiers arrived that same afternoon, she knew what her Mother had been speaking of.
“I am Arkeeth Tarkaan, Captain of this company,” the tall handsome young man leading them said as he bowed low before Mother. He was dressed simply and practically, his clothes and armour only a little better than those of his men, but the golden band on his arm proclaimed the truth of his words. “We were dispatched to catch convicts who had escaped from Tormunt Castle earlier this week. They are hiding in the Labyrinth.”
“Welcome, Arkeeth Tarkaan,” Mother said. “You are twice welcome, because the bandits have already wounded one of my men.”
Arkeeth looked – well, not exactly surprised. More like he was immediately thinking of ways this piece of information affected his mission. He seemed like a smart, quick-thinking man.
“Veres Akrima, I have a favour to ask of you. If you have any water left, my men and our horses need to drink. We do not ask for anything else, but water is running low everywhere this time of the year, and in this part of the country, your house is the only place where I can get it.”
Kameen decided she liked him. He clearly knew what respect was due the Devoted of Zardeenah; not so many men did, Mother had told her.
“You were expected,” Mother said. “We have enough water for both you and Corradin Tarkaan. You are welcome to the hospitality of my house; you can await him here.”
Arkeeth Tarkaan bowed again, this time definitely looking surprised.
* * *
The conversation of the afternoon repeated itself in the evening when Corradin Tarkaan arrived, yet not quite in the same way. Corradin Tarkaan was a proud man of about thirty-five years of age – nearly fifteen years older than Captain Arkeeth, but hardly fifteen years wiser, Kameen decided.
Mother invited him into the house for dinner, just like she had invited Captain Arkeeth, but while his clothes showed considerably more luxury than the Captain’s, his manners showed considerably less courtesy. Corradin Tarkaan made a great show of impatience, proclaiming that he could not possibly waste time on food and company when the escaped convicts were still at large. Then, when Arkeeth Tarkaan mentioned that he had sent scouts to discover the convicts' location and that it would be wise to stay their hands until they could plan their actions according to the full truth of the situation, all Corradin Tarkaan's thoughts of his mission were immediately supplanted by the lure of the dinner Mother and Kameen offered.
Corradin Tarkaan came alone; Arkeeth Tarkaan came accompanied by his Sergeant, an aging soldier named Farrad. Corradin Tarkaan ate and drank much; Arkeeth Tarkaan ate in moderation and drank very little wine.
Before long, the conversation turned to Veres Akrima’s ability to read the future: both men were quite astonished that they had been expected. In their astonishment, too, their personalities showed marked differences. Corradin Tarkaan seemed surprised that a woman could have such an ability at all, as if he had never believed in Akrimas before. He was, of course, a devotee of Tash, Kameen thought. And yet that was not all there was to it, because Captain Arkeeth, too, was a soldier, but his manners were very different.
He was, Kameen thought and had to quickly suppress laughter with a swallow of grapewine, much more celestial-minded than Corradin Tarkaan. Corradin Tarkaan was a single-minded man; the hungry looks he was increasingly throwing in the way of one of their slaves serving him his food gave enough of an explanation of why he could not understand Akrimas and their power.
“If I were to ask about my future,” he pronounced, “I would always ask a priest of Zadar. That is the way it ought to be.”
“You, of course, are a man,” Mother smiled sweetly, playing the role of a woman all too well.
“I have never known a priest of Zadar to be wrong,” Corradin Tarkaan said. “Prince Rabadash asked one about Teebeth; he said Teebeth would fall, and indeed, the next day, it did.”
“My parents each invited a seer upon my naming day, to say what kind of heir I would be to my family,” Captain Arkeeth said slowly, with emphasis. “My father asked a travelling priest of Zadar, while my mother wished to hear from an old devotee of Zardeenah’s. The woman gazed into a chart of the stars upon the hour of my birth and said I would uphold the honour of my family; the priest’s brows were clouded as he looked at my face and he pronounced me a marring spot on my family’s name. Who can then tell which one was telling the truth?”
“The servant of Zardeenah clearly spoke rightly, Captain,” Kameen smiled, her words both a compliment to Arkeeth Tarkaan’s accomplishments and an expression of pride in her own order.
The Captain shrugged.
“Be it as the gods see fit; I do my duty,” he said, with admirable humility and piety. “I am told my father rewarded the one for telling my parents what they wanted to hear and the other for not softening his blow.”
“Your father is a wise man,” Sergeant Farrad said.
“And I do everything I can to abide by his wisdom,” Arkeeth Tarkaan replied.
Kameen thought that it had to be easier for him to live up to expectations than it was for her: when you are a soldier, your path is cut out for you. Bravery, honour and duty for a man like him are clear-cut. You do not have to think hard on what the better path is.
But she saw Corradin Tarkaan dragging the slave to sit down next to him, and remembered his impatience and wondered.
* * *
The Tarkaans spent the next day receiving scouts and discussing the mission. Corradin looked rather hung-over and Captain Arkeeth often had to press on him to bring the discussion to some sort of conclusion. Kameen did not listen to them too closely, because it would be unseemly; she attended to the wounded villager instead. But she walked around the open door to their chambers often enough to notice how their conversation proceeded. Then, when she delivered Mother's invitation to join the household for dinner once again, she did hear them decide that they would depart for the Labyrinth early next morning.
As she walked back to her Mother’s chambers, she heard fast, heavy footsteps behind her and turned quickly, afrighted, only to see Captain Arkeeth stop in his tracks and raise his hands in a reassuring, apologetic gesture.
“What do you want, Arkeeth Tarkaan?” she asked.
“Tell me something, Kameen Tarkheena,” he said and leaned against the wall of the corridor to put some distance between her slight figure and his impressive height. He seemed rather weary and she suddenly felt a little sorry for him. “I am told Akrimas know many herbs and secret plants that can do whatever you need them to do. Is it true?”
“What do you have in mind?” Kameen asked, her heart racing. What kind of potion could a man like him want? Was he asking her to make him a love potion? She was not sure she could. She was not sure she could bear it: could she bear him treating one of their slaves the way Corradin Tarkaan had? Should she bear it?
“Something, perhaps, that would ease a tired man into sleep,” the Captain said.
“Oh. Do you wish to sleep well before you head out to catch the bandits, then?” He did, rather, look like he might need it.
“I was thinking of someone else,” Arkeeth Tarkaan said. “Corradin Tarkaan has been travelling for days. In those circumstances, a man needs food, drink, and rest. It seems to me,” Arkeeth Tarkaan continued in a quiet, thoughtful voice, “that Corradin Tarkaan drank and ate a great deal last night, thanks to your Mother's hospitality. What he needs now is rest.”
Kameen thought her heart would pound its way out of her chest. Was he really asking her what she thought he was? Was he... was he assuming command?
“I think I could assist him,” she said carefully. “Potions of that kind are very potent when mixed with wine, though. One has to be careful and I am not very accomplished yet.”
“It is worth the risk,” Captain Arkeeth replied. “A tired man who drinks and eats too much and stays up late makes a poor commander to his soldiers.”
She liked Captain Arkeeth. She liked him very much indeed.
* * *
Kameen did not sleep much that night; perhaps she ought to have made a potion for herself as well. She alternated between worrying whether the mixture she had put into Corradin Tarkaan’s wine had been correctly calculated, and wondering about Arkeeth Tarkaan’s presence in the house, his confidence in her, and what it might mean for her future, even though she knew very well that those thoughts were not something she ought to dwell on.
She learned the answer to her first question in the morning, when she walked out into the courtyard, unwilling to toss and turn any longer and determined to see the soldiers depart. The men were lining up, saddling their horses and readying their arms: a glimpse of a world she was far removed from, yet knew well, or thought to know well, from stories and songs.
She drew nearer to Captain Arkeeth, but held her tongue, uncertain of what to say. Instead, she listened to his conversation with Corradin Tarkaan's Sergeant, Nazar.
“Corradin Tarkaan is still asleep,” the Sergeant said. “I cannot wake him; he only turns to the other side and continues sleeping.”
“We cannot afford to wait till he wakes,” Captain Arkeeth said. “We have planned our course of action. We can proceed without him.”
The Sergeants both nodded: Nazar reluctantly, Farrad with a satisfied smirk.
Kameen watched them ride out from the courtyard with a nearly identical smirk on her face. The potion she had added to Corradin Tarkaan’s wine last night had been enough to keep him asleep, then. Of course, she still had to worry whether it had not been too potent, but she could not find it in herself to be too worried on his behalf.
“Well played, Daughter Mine,” Veres Akrima suddenly said behind her, making Kameen nearly jump in surprise. “Well played indeed.”
Kameen blushed and ran back into the house. What did Mother mean exactly? Was that a reprimand or praise?
* * *
Corradin Tarkaan woke at noon and spent the rest of the day glaring at the world still half-asleep, like an owl woken prematurely. Clouds were gathering in the sky, mirroring the clouded look on the Tarkaan’s face. Kameen staisfied herself with the knowledge that her calculations for the potion had been correct and left Mother to deal with the Tarkaan’s displeasure. It was perhaps cowardly of her, but surely she could not be reprimanded for continuing to attend to the wounded villager, could she?
Captain Arkeeth and his men returned in the evening with all the bandits in irons; the captives trudged between the soldiers' horses, weighted down both by their chains and the knowledge of what awaited them upon their return to Castle Tormunt. Corradin Tarkaan stormed into the courtyard to meet the victorious soldiers with furious looks, barely acknowledging their success, and Kameen feared he would strike his Sergeant for not waking him. But Captain Arkeeth hailed his fellow Tarkaan and proclaimed his pleasure at seeing him awake and in good health, which (he said) was a great relief after the worrying way Nazar's desperate efforts to wake him in the morning had failed. Corradin sullenly let himself be diverted from his ire into a review of the mission, but when he turned his back on the men, Kameen saw that Nazar now watched his commander with a smirk nearly as broad as the one still on Farrad's face.
Kameen was no longer sure she had done the right thing. This was more than an ambitious and exciting young Tarkaan assuming command; this was bordering on rebellion among the soldiers. It was wise of Captain Arkeeth to keep on their good side, but surely it should not interfere with their respect for their commanders?
But Arkeeth Tarkaan did not let the moment turn to violence. Instead he returned the reins of Corradin’s company with no objections, officially submitted himself to the man’s command on the way back to Tormunt, and gave Nazar a warning look on the way out of the courtyard. As he passed through the gate, a raindrop landed on Kameen’s hand. Before half of the soldiers had followed the Tarkaans and Sergeants onto the northern road, it was raining steadily and they were all drawing their cloaks closer around themselves.
By the time Arkeeth Tarkaan’s company returned to their fortress, the rivers would be full and they would no longer need to stop at Veres Akrima’s house to water their horses on any future journeys.
Kameen tried to convince herself it was better that way.
* * *
“Fortunes have shifted,” Veres Akrima pronounced as she stood gazing at the stars, tall and firm like a cedar tree. Outside, clouds hung heavy in the skies, but here under the enchanted glassed dome of her observation tower, the stars shone as brightly as ever.
“It was an interesting experience,” Kameen said. “But I cannot help but wonder, could these have truly been such momentous events to merit the attention of the heavenly hosts? Surely not; surely the stars speak of some other events far away from us.”
“Do not underestimate the importance of what happens near you, Kameen. A devotee of Zardeenah plays an important role in the events gods place upon the world, for our Lady is powerful indeed. The fates of those who stayed under our roof in the past days lay far away from this house, and what they had done here will have a bearing on those fates.Not all important events seem so at first…”
“... a butterfly flapping its wings could start a tempest. I know, O Mother Mine, for you tell me so often.”
“But do you ever truly listen, Daughter Mine?”
“I do not know,” Kameen said, truthfully. “I do not think I could ever master your... your command of your knowledge.”
“I have shielded you from the world,” Veres Akrima said, suddenly speaking in a much softer, more personal tone. “But I can see now that that is not the path the gods have prepared for you. You thrive when you encounter it; my mistake was in assuming you could learn to appreciate the smaller world here. So as you can see, not even I am the master. Only Lady Zardeenah knows all.”
“I still have much to learn, O Mother Mine,” Kameen replied thoughtfully. “Perhaps I could learn to appreciate the small world yet.”
“Be it as the gods see fit,” Veres Akrima said, echoing Captain Arkeeth’s words.
Kameen walked down the stairs that evening thinking Mother still knew something she had not told her. Being an Akrima’s apprentice was a difficult life, consisting mainly of not knowing enough. Perhaps, though, it was not all that different from other people’s lives: you grasped what you knew and did your best. The rest would indeed come to pass, after all, as the gods saw fit.