CHAPTER 1: War!
War came to Bhuttani.
The city, which had wreaked brutal destruction upon Kaseri, was now facing its own ruin.
The great warrior Maura de Magela was coming to claim the throne of the aga with a coalition of battle-hardened Bhuttanians, Hasan Daegians, Anqarians, Camaroons, and mercenaries from within the Empire.
At first, Bhuttanians refused to believe their kinsmen would take up arms against them, but as terrified refugees fled the countryside and flooded the great city with stories of mighty machines which caused the earth to tremble, soldiers as numerous as the stars in the heavens, and a queen with blue skin and unforgiving eyes who pressed relentlessly toward the capital of Bhutan, citizens began to wonder.
“The Blue Queen wants revenge for the death of her parents,” they lamented.
Others speculated that she wanted to place her daughter by Dorak in the Bhuttanian Royal Palace.
Still, many carried on as though nothing would interfere their comfortable lives, believing a Bhuttanian soldier would never fight against his own people. “How can a mere girl harden the hearts of Zoar’s men against their kinsmen?”
The refugees babbled, “That she-devil sits upon Zoar’s throne of bones atop a great platform dragged across the plains by many beasts. Sitting with her are two great felines which act as bodyguards. She is stronger than any giant and swifter than any bird.”
“Nonsense,” laughed people in the marketplace as they listened to the wild tales of the frightened newcomers.
“You’ll see. You’ll see,” warned the refugees as they begged for food. “The Hasan Daegian women are tall like our men and as strong too. They have no mercy, obeying their queen without question. Even the noble General Alexanee is at her beck and call. The White Queen is no match for the Blue Queen. We’ll all be dead before the seasons change.”
Many threw coins at the refugees, shaking their heads in disbelief, but as more exiles flooded the city with similar tales, the people became restless and took to the ramparts to study the horizon.
Could it be true? Could a vast army be coming to exact vengeance? Could the Blue Queen raze Bhuttani as they had leveled Anqara?
They didn’t have long to ponder.
One night the lookouts spied pinpoints of distant light. Many said it was the fires of the Blue Queen’s camp getting closer and closer. Others remarked it was merely the reflection of a moon upon rocks, but all Bhuttanians went to bed troubled and restless.
The next morning their worries intensified when a cloud of dust and smoke spanning many miles arose along the searing horizon across the plain.
A Sivan caravan entered the city with alarmed traders claiming a vast army was burning every house, every barn, every village across a ten-mile swath, while commandeering everything of value and killing anyone who resisted. “The Great Mother is determined to bring Bhuttan to its knees and the capital Bhuttani along with it. Get out while you can,” the Sivans advised the terrified citizens.
While many gathered around for news, no one noticed two “Sivans” leaving the caravan and throwing off their desert robes in an alley.
Now dressed as Bhuttanians in ballooning pants and dark tunics, Pearl and Akela raced toward the temple.
Bedlam had descended into the heart of the city, with merchants closing shops, soldiers marching toward the western gate, and people hoisting children and possessions on their backs, hurrying to escape.
Pearl wrestled through the crowd, holding Akela’s hand. The escaping throng of citizens grew so unruly, she finally had to pick up the small boy and run with him in her arms. Reaching the portico of an abandoned house, Pearl stopped to rest. She heard looters already at work inside. Putting Akela down, she looked carefully behind her. The last thing she
needed was a thug hitting her on the back of the head and stealing Akela for the slave trade.
Pearl squatted down to Akela’s level. “Akela, we are only two streets from the temple. You must go and give Empress Maura’s message to KiKu. Do you think you can sneak back in?”
Akela glanced at the multitude of people scurrying along the street. He nodded at Pearl with resolve. “I can, Mistress. I know I can.”
“Good boy. Repeat the message.”
Akela parroted the message that had been drummed into him during the journey back to Bhuttani.
Pearl nodded with relief. “Yes. That’s it. Now you must give the message to KiKu and then make your way to the east gate, where the Sivan caravan will be waiting. Can you do that for me?”
Akela nodded, his eyes wide.
“I must go to the inn and collect Madric and Tippu. We will meet at the Sivan caravan. You must be there before the sun vanishes tomorrow or the caravan will leave without you. Do you understand, Akela?”
“I will give the message to KiKu and meet you at the east gate before the sun sets.”
“Yes, tomorrow. Do you understand what will happen if you fail to meet us?”
Akela remained silent, thinking of the possibilities.
Pearl grabbed his shoulders. “You will be stuck in this city during the attack. Many people will die if they don’t get out.
You must be by the east gate by dark tomorrow. Promise me you will be there.”
Akela looked into Pearl’s worried face and saw the mother he never had, but desired. “I will be there, Mistress. I promise.”
Pearl gave a wisp of a smile and kissed the top of Akela’s head. “Blessings upon you, child. Be off with you now, and be safe.”
Akela judged a space in the crowds where he could push his way through. Within seconds, he was swallowed up by the sea of people scrambling for their lives.
Pearl hoped she would live to see Akela again. Taking a deep breath, she pressed her way into the mob, hoping to find Madric and Tippu safe at the inn. She had to get them out of this city.
Hopefully, KiKu and Timon would be successful in their endeavor. If not, she wondered if the Great Mother would be merciful to KiKu’s wives.
One could always wish.
Akela pressed through.
He made his way through the city, ducking between legs and squeezing through the crowds until he came to the temple. Hiding behind a refuse bin, he waited until dark. By this time soldiers had established order, and the streets were mostly deserted. Akela stole out from the shadows and scampered into the temple using the route he had taken to escape. Pausing only long enough to allow his eyes adjust to the dim light, he crept along the dark and moldy walls, desperate to make his way to KiKu and deliver the message.
Finding the small oil lamp he had stashed on his way out, Akela fished for the flint he had hidden behind some loose bricks. It took him several minutes to get the damp wick to ignite from striking the flint, but he finally managed. Though the flame from the oil lamp was dim, it illuminated enough to allow Akela to hurry along the damp passageways to KiKu’s sleeping room near the wine cellar. KiKu had convinced the priests he could kill more rats if he slept where they kept their nests. They agreed and allowed KiKu to move his pallet into the cellar.
Akela found KiKu resting on his mat near the wine vats. “Master! Wake up!” Akela said while pulling back the ragged blanket, only to find rushes bundled together to resemble a sleeping person.
A hand reached out of the shadows and covered Akela’s mouth. “Hush! Do you want to wake the entire complex?”
Akela pulled away from the hand. “Everyone is asleep,” he protested, turning to look at KiKu.
“You can never tell who might be listening.” KiKu shoved the boy onto his pallet and bit his lip in exasperation. “Akela, tell me the news before I rip out your liver.”
Akela gulped. “We met the blue lady with the fancy title. Pearl was afraid of her, I could tell. That made me afraid as well. I didn’t like her. Not Pearl, I mean. The blue lady. She didn’t have kind eyes.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” KiKu sighed impatiently. “What did the blue lady say?”
“She kept Tippa, and that made Pearl sad.”
“Just tell me what the blue lady said, you damned impertinent child!”
Akela sucked in his breath. “Pearl says the empress will strike at the first quarter of the second moon, and you are to get the birds out at all costs. Destroy the temple if you have to, but get them out.”
KiKu paced back and forth in his cramped chamber. Stopping suddenly, KiKu grabbed the little boy. “What took you and Pearl so long to get back? Don’t you realize our time has all but run out?”
Akela tried to turn his head to escape KiKu’s fierce gaze, but KiKu held him so tightly he couldn’t. “The caravan had a hard time getting through because of all the people on the roads. There was much thievery and mayhem. With my own eyes, I saw bandits kill an old woman over a bowl of soup. We had to take the long route around.”
KiKu exhaled deeply, nodded, and loosened his hold on the boy. “I understand, Akela. I didn’t mean to criticize. It’s that time is of the essence, but you wouldn’t understand, would you? How can a mere boy realize what is at stake?”
“I understand I might get killed.”
KiKu chose to ignore Akela’s last statement. “Did the blue lady say how we are to use the amulet?”
Akela recited Pearl’s message. “As I am blue, press the stone of the same hue and ‘will it.’”
Akela’s eyes grew large at KiKu’s menacing expression. “Honest. That’s all Mistress Pearl told me to say.”
KiKu didn’t like the way the boy’s eyes darted away from him. “You wouldn’t be holding back information for some gold coins?”
“I swear on my mother’s grave, that is the message.” Akela turned away, but KiKu gripped his arm.
“You little liar. Your mother is probably not dead, and Bhuttanians don’t have graves.”
“Well, if Bhuttanians don’t have graves, what is General Prosperot guarding, then?” asked Akela, drawing himself up.
“Shrines, you fool. Don’t you know the difference between a grave and a shrine?”
The boy shook his head. He did not understand why KiKu should be so mean to him when he had risked his life to help. Akela believed he had been very brave, so why was KiKu treating him harshly?
This was the way of the Hittals. They were opportunists with little innate sense of loyalty. Yes, Akela recognized who was standing before him. A man so important that the White Queen would pay handsomely to find him. He could turn KiKu in for a neat profit and buy food for many months.
KiKu’s grabbed Akela’s throat. “Don’t even think it, boy.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Akela wheezed, grasping at KiKu’s iron fingers.
“If I go down, so do the women.”
Akela pulled away, rubbing his throat. “I still don’t know what you’re talking about.” Akela was astonished that he could have such a thought. He had come to give the message and then escape with KiKu’s wives, who were waiting for him even now. KiKu was right. To betray KiKu was to betray the women, and this Akela would never do. He wanted nothing more than to leave this horrid city before it was overrun with grief and bloodshed. “I would never betray you!”
KiKu grimaced. “One rat recognizes another.” He released his grip and tousled the boy’s hair. “Stay out of trouble, my young friend. We might make something out of you yet.”
Gulping, Akela wondered how long it would be before he could sneak out of the temple and rejoin Pearl.
It couldn’t be soon enough for him.