Maura rushed to meet KiKu.
As a child, she had covered every inch of the city with the Dinii, memorizing every sewer hole, forgotten gate, and musty stairway in the garden city.
They planned to leave the city through an old caravan gate originally built for the Sivans that had not been used for centuries.
KiKu winced when he saw her. “Great Mother, your face is falling to your feet,” he complained, watching her flesh drop to the ground.
“Just a piece here, a piece there,” Maura mocked.
The alarm on KiKu’s face did not vanish.
“It looks worse than it is,” she said, trying to comfort him.
“You are injured! We cannot travel with you like that,” KiKu insisted. He was not one to panic, but the empress’ injuries were most unfortunate and ill-timed. He looked about, searching for a place to hide.
The city was being torn apart in the hunt for her. At any moment, the Bhuttanians could stumble upon them.
Maura pushed the tall man aside and mounted a Bhuttanian warhorse. “Listen, KiKu,” she said. “Listen to the sound of a city being destroyed. It is all a ploy. I was meant to escape.”
She donned the helmet that was hanging on the saddle horn. “How many people are going to die tonight because Dorak wants the Mother Bogazkoy? Hundreds? Thousands?” She paused, looking at the city. “Do you know what I did, KiKu? I had my women cut off the manhood from Dorak’s men. I did some myself.”
She pointed to her face. “This is not my blood. My blood is blue, not red. This is the blood of Bhuttanian men who stood between freedom and me. I needed a disguise to escape the palace, and those faceless men provided me one. I now know the true meaning of ruling. It is rule or be ruled. Kill or be killed.”
Maura lowered the visor on her helmet and slapped the horse with the end of her reins.
The stallion whinnied and galloped off, aware that an unyielding hand controlled it.
KiKu jumped on his horse, wondering if the woman he followed had become worse than the aga he had betrayed.
They rode all night.
When chancing upon any Bhuttanian search parties, KiKu spoke for them, saying they had been on leave in O Konya and were now returning to their garrison in Qatou.
If any soldier questioned the blood on KiKu’s partner’s clothes, he would answer that O Konya was under martial law, and they had helped detain many citizens before leaving for their garrison.
Each time the bands of soldiers let them pass, not realizing that the tall Bhuttanians were the empress and Zoar’s former spylord.
Before dawn, KiKu led them to a small cave on a ridge just large enough to conceal them and their mounts. Two fresh mounts waited inside with needed provisions.
Maura jumped off her horse and collapsed on a bedroll that KiKu provided her. She was exhausted both physically and mentally.
KiKu handed Maura hardtack and a cup of water. “There will be no fire tonight,” KiKu apologized. “Sorry about the rations, but I had only a few hours to arrange for this little escape of yours.”
Maura grunted in agreement. “It is good that your cohorts can move so quickly and easily.” She pondered for a moment. “Getting these warhorses was no small task. How many Bhuttanians still work for you, KiKu?”
KiKu blinked while leaning against a rock munching on some hardtack. “The beauty of my system, Great Mother, is that if caught, you will never have any information to divulge to Dorak that could threaten my loyal followers.”
She chortled. “In other words the less I know, the better.”
“Correct, Great Mother.”
“What do you get out of this if I win?”
“Your mother promised me my kingdom. I wish to gather my people if there are any left.”
“My mother’s wish is now my command, KiKu. I swear to you that if we prevail, you will have your kingdom.”
“Upon your oath as Great Mother?”
“Upon my oath as Empress Maura de Magela.”
“Then indeed we shall prevail.” KiKu swallowed some water and rested his head on his chest.
Thinking KiKu had fallen asleep, Maura got up to care for the horses.
KiKu stuck his foot out and shook his head while still resting his closed eyes. “I will see to the horses in a moment, Great Mother. You must sleep.”
Maura gratefully returned to her bedroll and was dreaming before her head came to rest.
She found KiKu squatting before the entrance of the cave surveying the valley below. “Any sign of trouble?” she asked, rubbing her sore muscles.
KiKu shook his head slightly. “Search parties were down in the valley. They have left to go on to Qatou, I suppose.” He looked at Maura intently. “Your face doesn’t look any better,” he commented.
She felt her features with her hands, as there was no mirror. “Some of the cuts are starting to get infected,” she said. “I feel feverish.”
“Can you do anything about it?” KiKu asked.
Maura shrugged her shoulders. “I guess I could heal myself before we leave tonight.”
“Great Mother, may I suggest that if you can do so, you do it now. We may have to flee at any moment, and it would not do to have a sick woman on my hands.”
Maura rubbed her face and did not answer KiKu.
“Great Mother, I know you are feeling sad about the death of Lady Sari, but being a ruler sometimes involves knowing when not to put your servants in needless danger.”
Maura flinched at the mention of Sari and began to weep silently. “You know about Sari?”
“Before you came to the wall, one of my contacts made a brief visit. She told me that an imposter posing as you had committed suicide rather than be taken. I guessed it was Lady Sari.”
“And my guards?”
“It is correct that you cry for them. It shows you still have a heart, and you honor them with your tears.”
“If I had a heart, I would not have let them die.”
“What else was to be done? You had to flee the city, and they willingly gave their lives to ensure that you could. They knew what they were doing. It is our way.”
Maura gave KiKu a long, hard look. “Who?”
“Those who serve, Great Mother. We know our lives are expendable, and we accept our lot in life.” His expression was one of acceptance and regret.
Maura left KiKu with his memories and moved to the back of the cave where she relieved herself. When finished, she perched upon a rock in the cave and began healing her face.
KiKu did not watch but gazed upon the valley, watching a hawk soar in the sky. If he could have escaped being spotted, KiKu would have contacted the hawk to take a message to the Dinii, but it was too much of a risk to call out.
An hour later, Maura jumped down from the rock and washed her face from a small tin of water. “How do I look?” she asked KiKu.
He studied her face, looking for marks or cuts. “You look like a young woman again, but you have the blue face of a de Magela.”
KiKu walked to the opposite side of her, again studying her face. “I have heard of your regenerative powers, but this is the first time I have witnessed them for myself. It is amazing. Have you still the fever?”
“See for yourself.”
KiKu cautiously extended his hand and touched her brow. “Dry and cool. No fever,” he pronounced happily. “We will be able to travel tonight.”
Maura nodded in agreement. “Where do we go from here?”
“We will travel south to Siva. There we will pose as a merchant with his obedient and humble wife.”
“Are you going to pose as the wife?”
KiKu smiled a toothy grin.
For the first time, Maura noticed that KiKu was a good-looking man and not as old as she had believed. She wondered if he had a wife stashed somewhere. “Why don’t we head north to the City of the Peaks?”
KiKu’s smile vanished.
Alarmed, Maura grabbed his arm. “Why do you look like that? What has happened?”
KiKu bowed his head. He did not want to see her face as he told her. “The City of the Peaks is no more. Burned out.”
Maura cried, “How? The city is impregnable!”
“Magic,” was KiKu’s reply.
“The Black Cacodemon!” Maura spat on the ground. Her face contorted as though she were struggling to find the right words. “What of the royal family––Empress Gitar and her children?” she asked quietly.
“I don’t know. I suppose some got out.”
“Why?” Maura felt as though someone had gutted her with a knife.
KiKu rubbed his unshaven face. “Dorak did not want the Dinii to help you if you fled. He put them on the run. I think you are right in that this is a trick, too. Soldiers should have been swarming over that west wall. We did not see any until the road patrols. Easy enough to fool them. I think the hitch in their plans was that your disguise was too good. You threw them off, and now they’ve got to find you.”
“To follow us!”
“Correct,” KiKu said. His respect for the girl had increased. She was not stupid and, judging from her masquerade, was resourceful as well as ruthless. He had not recognized her at all when she first approached, and he was a master of disguises. “Dorak wants the Mother Bogazkoy.”
“She will not accept him. He is not suitable for her purposes.”
“Perhaps he doesn’t know that or he doesn’t believe it. Perhaps the Black Cacodemon has promised him the mating will work.”
“Perhaps, perhaps. I need facts. I need to know who remains of the Dinii. I need to know where my western army is. You are supposed to be my spylord. Tell me something of value,” she prodded in frustration.
“No one has seen the Dinii since the attack. We do not know where they have gone. They could have left the country.”
“No,” challenged Maura. “Chaun Maaun would never have left me. Never!”
“Chaun Maaun could be no longer, and you did marry someone else.”
Maura’s face drained of color. She looked almost pale. “I was forced into marriage!”
KiKu gave a look that challenged the veracity of this last statement.
Maura buried her face in her warhorse’s long mane, weeping. “That’s a lie. I wanted to marry Dorak.” Tears ran down her cheeks as shame illuminated her face.
The spy was moved to pity her. “We cannot help with whom we fall in love.”
“But I loved Chaun Maaun and hated Dorak, at least in the beginning.”
“Who knows the will of the heart? It can love many people in many ways. It can also hate and love at the same time. Zoar loved my sister, but he let her die in a hunting accident. Dorak both loved and hated his father, and yet he murdered him.”
Maura wiped her tears away. “Dorak killed Zoar?”
KiKu nodded solemnly.
The horse on which Maura leaned shifted and nuzzled her arm with his nose. “I don’t know why, but that news makes me feel better.”
“Misery abides company?”
“It explains Dorak’s suffering.” Maura scratched behind the ears of the contented horse. “I am content that he suffers as I do.”
“I think Dorak suffers a great deal. If he had been born with better parents, such as mine, he would have been a great man.”
KiKu ignored her sarcasm. “Dorak has the seeds of greatness within him, but with Zoar as his father, he didn’t stand a chance to grow without being twisted in some fashion. Dorak was right to kill him.”
“Who am I to judge Dorak when I allowed my beloved Sari to be killed?”
“You still do not realize.”
“Dorak is not the man to fear, nor the Black Cacodemon. It is Alexanee who must be watched.”
“Dorak will make a mistake that will cost him his life because he is impetuous.” KiKu picked up some pebbles and flipped them back and forth between his fingers. “Like Dorak, the Black Cacodemon must be dealt with, but he is not invincible. His fatal defect is his ambition. Sooner or later, a spell will backfire, or Dorak will tire of him and do the bastard in with one thrust of a sword. They are capable but flawed men who will perish from their own miscalculations.”
KiKu put a pebble in his mouth and began to suck on it. “Alexanee is different,” he continued after he spat out the small stone. “He has no weaknesses. He does not gamble. He stays away from women. He is not a religious fanatic. Alexanee is highly intelligent, a brilliant strategist, even better than Zoar in his heyday. He is a man of moderation, both spiritually and emotionally.”
Maura was intrigued by KiKu’s analysis of Alexanee. She had never given him much thought. “It does not matter what attributes Alexanee has. He can never be aga.”
“You are wrong, Great Mother. Only three people stand between Alexanee and his gaining control of the Bhuttanian Empire. Dorak, Jezra’s son, and you.”
KiKu lowered his voice. “Alexanee is Zoar’s first child, born on the wrong side of the blanket you might say. His mother was a Bhuttanian noblewoman who was much older than Zoar. The details of Alexanee’s birth remained quiet, but when his mother died, Zoar brought Alexanee to court to serve as an officer in his army. Since Alexanee’s parentage was not known, Zoar spared his life when killing the rest of his sons in favor of Dorak.”
“Does he know?”
“Neither Dorak nor Alexanee know. I became privy to this information when Zoar and I were watching Alexanee train once. Zoar said, ‘There goes the best one of the lot, and I can’t acknowledge him.'”
“And then you did some digging on your own?”
Maura remained silent while stroking the horse.
KiKu realized she did not wish to talk further. The hetmaan spent the remainder of the day resting near the mouth of the cave, though deep sleep eluded him. Noticing that he could no longer see the sun, KiKu looked outside. It was growing dark, and soon it would be safe for them to leave. He saddled the horses.
Maura, who had been resting quietly on her bedroll, fell into step with KiKu to help with the horses and gather their gear. When finished, KiKu told the young empress to wait outside with their new mounts.
The young queen was sad for she knew the fate of the two still-exhausted horses they had ridden from O Konya.
KiKu could not let them roam loose as their discovery would give away the direction of their escape.
Maura took the reins of the fresh mounts and walked a bit from the cave. She held her breath waiting for a panicked whinny or scream but heard nothing.
KiKu soon joined her, sheathing his knife. Taking his reins and a hank of mane, the lithe man pulled himself upon the warhorse.
“I have killed many a man, but I can’t abide hurting an animal.” He put on his helmet. “Don’t you think that strange?” Without waiting for an answer, he kicked his horse and started down the mountain.
Maura followed behind, ever alert for trouble.
They had traveled several miles when Maura heard a rustling in a nearby tree and looked up, her hand upon her sword.
Yeti sat upon a limb calmly eating a hedgepear. She looked happily at Maura and waved, “Greetings, Great Mother. I have been sent to fetch you!”