by Mark Andron and Time Lady
Two riders upon horses stop upon a ridge looking above the city of Mi-yar. Toran looks back at Keisai. “We’re finally here.”
“Accursed horses. I would like to give whoever thought that riding horses would be a good idea a taste of my arrows.” Tora smiles, and Keisai notices. “Pharangese preserve us, the Mother’s child does know what joy is.”
“I do, despite what passes as rumors among the acolytes of the temple.”
Keisai tries to feign ignorance. “What... what do you mean?”
“Oh, all the stories among the acolytes of the half-breed that was the special interest of the Mother. I believe it was you that started the story that I only came out at night to haunt the other acolytes in their sleep, was it not?” Keisai doesn’t say anything. “I thought as much.” Tora looks on to the city. “It is better that we laugh now while we can. The duty given to us by the elders will be a grim task indeed.”
“So why did they send us?” complains Keisai. “Is it not a holy day for us as well?”
“They sent us because they consider us expendable.”
“WHAT? How can you talk about the elders that way? It approaches blasphemy!”
Toran turns to Keisai. “Since the Mother passed on, my loyalties lie with the goddess Pharangese, not to some of the elders, who care more for themselves than the goddess.”
“You believe the elders to be corrupt?”
“If they valued the lives of those in the kingdom, do you not think that they would come as well? But they are not here, now are they? They did not want to be bothered on ‘their holy day’, and they sent the two most stinging thorns in their side: I, the half-breed who was directly tutored by the Mother herself, and you, the fiery neophyte, who’s continual questions unsettle _all_ of the elders.”
“So why did you agree to accept this mission?”
“For two reasons. First is based in Senryaku, yes, I believe that is what the mother called it - point at one to scold another. Should we succeed, we will be praised, while at the same time, others in the kingdom would look down upon the elders as they wonder why it was only us that answered their pleas for assistance.”
“And the other reason?” asks Keisai.
“You would not believe me if I told you.”
“Toran, if I am to trust you, you must tell me.”
Toran does not say anything for a moment, preferring instead to look at the city ahead of them. “Keisai... you will not mention this to any other...”
“What is it?”
“Last night, I... I had a visit.”
Keisai glares at him for a moment. “She is _dead_, Toran.”
“Hear me out, Keisai. I know she has passed on. Nevertheless, I ...” He pauses. “I had ... a vision. The Mother was there, acting as though she was still teaching me as a child. Our eyes met for a moment, and then she spoke in a most chilling voice. She told me that things were going to happen, things set in motion long ago by others, and my destiny lies in these events. She showed me Mi-Yar, and when I tried to ask what was going to happen here, she simply placed a finger upon my lips and then disappeared.”
Keisai shakes his head. “It is all too fantastic to believe.”
“I care not if you believe it or not, but I believe it. It is because of this, this and how I have seen the elders been transformed since the Mother’s death, that I so readily accepted this mission.” Toran pulls at the reins of his horse. “If you wish, you may return to the temple now.”
Keisai pulls his reins. “I think not. Perhaps you are right about the elders. And if your suspicions are correct, I would love to see the look on Janos’ face when I return.”
The two of them smile, and then urge their horses forward, leaving only dust clouds leading towards the city of Mi-Yar.
Taygana spends the remaining time before the arrival of the warriors with her siblings, particularly Kiyomi, Hikari, and Ikumi. She can’t shake the feeling that, once she leaves the kingdom, she will never see her family again. Pleas are useless. Her father’s mind is made up, the agreement signed months ago. Finally she is summoned by her father to the grand hall. Taygana’s stomach is in knots as she walks down the corridor. A herald waits outside the door. The herald bows, then opens the doors.
The herald announces her arrival. “Her highness, Princess Taygana.” Taygana enters the great hall and approaches her parents, who sit on elaborate cushions on a raised dais.
Adama smiles. “Ah, Taygana. A runner has informed me that the warriors have arrived. They are refreshing themselves and will meet with us in an hour. I would like you to wait here.”
“Yes Father,” she replies quietly. The king motions to a servant, who places a cushion next to the king.
“Her highness, Princess Kiyomi,” announces the herald.
King Adama repeats his news to Kiyomi. Another cushion is placed next to the queen. Taygana waits, the knots in her stomach tightening. The warriors have arrived... tomorrow she leaves... Taygana’s mind is a jumble of hazy thoughts. She barely hears as her parents listen to petitions from their subjects. Ayla joins the royal family.
One hour later, Toran and Keisai are led by a servant to the great hall. “Keisai and Toran, warriors of the temple of Pharangese,” announces the herald. Keisai and Toran enter the great hall and bow before the dais.
“You have requested the aid of the warriors of Pharangese, and we have answered. How may we serve?” asks Toran.
“I thank you warriors for your swift arrival,” says the king. Before continuing, King Adama sends away the servants, then glances at Ayla, who nods. “You will pardon my discretion, but I wish to avoid any prying ears.”
“I understand, your highness,” replies Toran.
“As to why your services have been requested...,” begins Adama. “I wish you to secretly escort my daughter, the Princess Taygana, to her betrothed, Prince Zaden of Fan-ro. We wish to avoid potential problems from outside parties who may oppose their union. Tomorrow morning, a caravan will leave with a servant disguised as the princess. You two will escort my daughter and the Lady Ayla along a secret route.”
Keisai’s eyes look up to look at Taygana. He whispers to Toran: “I was not aware that the lady was betrothed to Zaden.”
Toran whispers back, “Politics, like religion and war, makes strange bedfellows.” He says to Adama: “Forgive me if I should happen to sound rude, but I do not like to walk into a situation blind. If you would be so kind as to tell me who would dare attack the lovely lady?”
“If I may, your majesty?” interjects Ayla. King Adama nods. “There are various forces,” continues Ayla. “Kingdoms who are against the unification of the cat people for most part. Others who would like the chance to ransom the princess, charging both the king and the princess’ betrothed.” Taygana sits sullenly on her cushion, not bothering to glance at the two warriors. Yet something in the voice of one tugs at her.
“I see. Thank you.” Toran pauses. “I must apologize that only we were sent, but only we two could be made available to answer with your request.”
“Two of you will do,” says Ayla. “We do not wish to make ourselves conspicuous, as a large party will. To most we will appear as a simple party of travelers.”
“Indeed,” agrees Toran. “I assure you that the lovely lady is in good hands.” Taygana, at the warrior’s bold comment, irately whips her head around and freezes. Their eyes connect.
“Toran...,” warns Keisai.
“Ahem.” Toran clears his throat. His eyes break contact, but do not move themselves too far away. “I trust that the lady Ayla will guide us to Fan-Ro?”
Ayla lifts her chin haughtily. “Of course. I would not leave the princess alone, even if her escorts are sealed by vows.”
“You need not fear us anyway,” states Toran. “We know the consequences of the choices we have made.” He turns to Adama. “I presume all is settled then?”
“It is,” agrees King Adama. “When the grand procession leaves, most will be there to see it off. That will allow your party to leave unnoticed.”
“Very well. If we may be excused then?” asks Toran.
King Adama nods. “By all means. You must be weary after your journey. A servant will show you back to your rooms.”
“Thank you,” returns Toran. Adama waves for a servant to come, and the servant leads Toran and Keisai out. Taygana is still silent, her eyes following Toran intently. Ayla notices Taygana’s eyes.
“I would not worry about that half breed. I would not let him hurt you,” says Ayla. Taygana doesn’t respond. Something stirs within her heart, and in the back of her mind. Ayla continues. “My lady, come, we must prepare for your journey tomorrow.” Taygana sighs and bows her head.
“Yes. Please excuse us Father,” says Taygana.
“Of course,” says Adama. As Taygana and Ayla leave, Queen Girene observes her daughter, a troubled look in her eyes.
“Adama, are you sure that we are doing the right thing?” asks Girene.
“Our people are greatly reduced in numbers. At this point, the cat people are as few as they were when they first were led by the Lady Bastet from Egypt. We must unite the kingdoms.”
“But is the cost worth it?”
“What cost, my beloved?”
Queen Girene gets up from her throne and begins to walk away. “Perhaps that is something you should consider.” She leaves. Kiyomi silently watches and listens to her parents. A tear forms in the corner of her eye.
“Father, may I be excused?”
“Of course, my child.” Kiyomi leaves, to go to the shrine of Bastet within the palace.
“Women...” Adama mutters to himself.
Meanwhile, in Tora and Keisai’s quarters, the two warriors converse. “Something is amiss here...,” begins Keisai.
“There usually is. The betrothal is, admittedly, sudden and unexpected.”
“Right. And the princess did not seem all that interested in her impending marriage. In fact, I believe her eyes were fixated on you.”
“By birth,” states Toran, “she should not even do such a thing, not with a holy warrior, and definitely not with a half-breed.”
“By birth, she is also a very attractive young woman. Or had you not noticed that?”
Toran lies down on the floor. “I had. But I can not do anything. and neither can you. Now if you don’t mind, I am going to get as much rest as possible.”
“Very well.” Keisai tosses Toran a pillow. “At least use this.”
Elsewhere in the palace, Taygana goes into her chambers. Her own preparations were long done. Ayla was finalizing the last few plans. The princess throws herself onto her bed and cries. Kiyomi, returning from the shrine, walks in, and rushes to Taygana’s side. “Sister...”
“I can’t do this,” Taygana sobs. “I can’t go on with this wedding.”
“It’s not fair.... it’s not....” There is further sobbing.
“So this is the cost that mother was talking about,” Kiyomi says to herself. She says to Taygana. “Was it the half breed?”
“Wha... what do you mean?”
“The one from Pharangese. I saw how you looked at him. I think all but father did.”
“It’s... it’s so many things... I wouldn’t know where to start....”
Kiyomi sits down on the bed beside Taygana. “If you want, I can listen. And if you want, you can start with the half-breed.”
“I... I don’t know... something about him... I can’t explain it...”
“I... I don’t know... and I can’t shake this feeling... that when I leave the palace tomorrow, it will be for the last time...”
Kiyomi takes hold of Taygana’s hand. “It’s all right sister, it’s all right.”
Taygana shakes her head. “I don’t think it will be... please, Kiyomi... I think I would like to lie down for a little while.”
“All right. Please, ...” Kiyomi pauses, “just rest well. I’ll be praying for you.”
She gets up off from the bed and leaves Taygana’s chambers. Taygana nods and watches Kiyomi leave. She then rises from her bed and removes the heavy kimono and replaces it with a soft, comfortable robe. A glance in the mirror shows her tear streaked makeup. Sullenly she cleanses her face, then returns to her bed.
Outside, Ayla stops Kiyomi in the hallway. “And how is your sister?”
“She is resting. Ayla, is this truly necessary?”
“That is not my concern. Why do you even ask?”
“Taygana is so unhappy. She has ill feelings about this wedding.”
“Don’t most brides-to-be do before their weddings? Do not worry, I’m sure that she will eventually come along.”
Kiyomi thinks to herself, “I am not so sure.” “It is all we can hope for,” she says aloud.
“Indeed. Now you should go and get some rest. The procession is tomorrow, you know.”
“I will. First I must return to the shrine of Bastet.
“Pray well, child. Pray for all of us.” Kiyomi and Ayla go their separate ways
“I think my sister needs my prayers most of all,” Kiyomi says to herself.
The night passes uneventfully, but Taygana is restless, unable to shake her misgivings about her impending wedding. Her sobs can be barely heard throughout the halls of the palace, and all but one does not hear them. “How I wish I could help...” Toran says to himself.
Unable to sleep any further, Taygana puts on a simple kimono and slips out of the palace to the gardens. Normally the serenity of the gardens would ease her mind, but not this time. “It troubles you, doesn’t it?” says a voice behind her. Startled, Taygana whirls around. There stands Toran, without the tradition armor and sword that a warrior is expected to carry. “Your marriage. It troubles you.”
“I do not hide it. This marriage is purely political, arranged by my father and Ayla to help unite the kingdoms of cat-kind.”
“They do what they think is best.”
“That does not mean I have to agree with it. My father and Ayla are not the ones betrothed to a complete stranger.”
“If you do not believe this is right, then, may I ask, what do you believe?”
“I believe that Zaden and I both have the right to choose for ourselves. We have not even met face to face.” Taygana pauses. “I also believe I should be able to follow my heart.”
“Then why don’t you follow what you believe?”
“The law of the land. The king may arrange for his children to enter into wedlock with the sole purpose of political advantages.”
“Laws.” Toran moves to stand beside her. “I am only instructed to take you to Fan-ro for the wedding. I have no orders to deal with after that. Should you decide to go your own way once we arrive...”
Taygana laughs sardonically. “You think Ayla would leave me alone long enough to do that? She is the one who first said there was a need to unite the kingdoms.”
“I see. And what they decree must be done. Which leaves you trapped like a bird in a cage not of your own making.”
“Exactly.” She stares off into the stars. “And yet...”
“What is it?”
“I can not help but feel deep down in my soul that Bastet has another man in mind for me.”
“The goddess does work in mysterious ways. Perhaps you will meet him on the journey.”
“Even if I do meet him, Ayla would hardly allow me to act as my heart desires. The contracts are signed and the dowry has been paid.”
“Perhaps Bastet will show you a way out of your dilemma.”
“I have already prayed for her assistance... every day since my father told me of my betrothal. As has my sister, who is an acolyte in the temple of Bastet.”
“Then, my lady, I have no further idea what to do. My heart goes out to you, but I...”
Taygana finishes his statement. “You are helpless to do anything.”
“Were I not bound by agreement and vow, I would do all I could to assist you . The Mother taught me to do what is right. But the current Elders have forced me into doing what they deem necessary.” Toran pauses. “So in a sense, I am trapped, much like you.”
“I thank you for your concern. If you will pardon me, I must return to my chambers before I am missed.”
“If I may escort you, then?”
Toran extends his arms, which Taygana takes. She then guides the two of them through the hallways of the palace. Toran’s touch sends strange feelings shooting through Taygana’s body. The sensation is new and unusual, yet thrilling. Taygana guides the both of them to her chambers, where they reluctantly let go of each other.
“Is there anything else you require?” Toran asks politely.
“No, thank you. Good night.” Taygana slips into her room, closing the door behind her.
Toran quietly walks to his chambers. Keisai is still resting, and has not noticed his return. Toran returns to his pillow on the floor and closes his eyes. “The cost is always too high...” he mutters to himself.
Taygana changes back to her sleeping robe and climbs into her bed. The strange sensation doesn’t leave her, even after sleep overcomes her..
Early morning arrives sooner than expected, and without the usual sounds of nature that come with it. Keisai wakes up, yawns, and notices that Toran is still asleep. He walks over and gently shakes him. “Toran, it is time for us to do our duty,” says Keisai.
“Toran, do I have to shoot you to awaken you?” asks Keisai. Toran’s eyes slowly open. “It is morn, and we must go.”
“Give me time.. “
Elsewhere in the palace, Taygana awakens. There is a tap at her door. “Who is there?” asks Taygana.
“It is I, your highness,” replies Ayla.
Taygana sighs. “Enter.” Ayla enters the room.
“We must soon leave, princess, if we wish to go unnoticed.”
“I know. And I will wear the kimono that you have provided me.”
“Excellent. You will make a wonderful bride.”
Taygana bites back her true feelings. “We will see once we arrive. I assume the traveling kimono is so that we pass through unnoticed.”
“It is. If someone were to know that you were out in the open, well, I need not mention what would happen.”
“Very well. If you would please allow me to change my attire...”
“Of course. I will wait for you outside your chambers. And do please hurry.”
Taygana tries to hide the irritation in her voice. “Yes... yes. I will refrain from using cosmetics, as I wish to be unnoticed, as well as to save time.”
“Good. I will see you shortly.” Ayla leaves Taygana’s chambers. Sighing sadly, Taygana hurries to change. She hopes Ayla will allow her to break her fast before they leave... And she must say good-bye to her family....
Meanwhile, Keisai and Toran, fully equipped, are walking down the hallway towards Taygana’s chambers. “Politics, such a wonderful thing,” comments Keisai.
“Indeed. But we have other goals in mind that we must not forget.”
“To use the precepts of Senryaku in such a way.”
“You know why I do this.” Toran spots Ayla. “We will talk about this later.”
Ayla senses the presence of the warriors. She turns to them. “Are you ready to begin our journey?”
“It is what we were sent to do,” returns Toran.
“Good. We will break our fast with the royal family in their private chambers. The decoy for Princess Taygana will leave from the chambers with the ambassador. Shortly after, we will use a hidden passage, which will take us to the stables,” says Ayla.
“It must be hard for her to say good-bye to her family one last time...” muses Toran.
“It is. But the princess has been well trained in the ways of the court. She will adapt.”
“For her sake, I hope you are right,” interjects Keisai. Ayla shoots Keisai a withering glance.
“Believe it or not, he is as concerned about the princess’s well being as much as all of us,” states Toran.
“We shall see,” says Ayla, glaring at Keisai.
“Now, what is our planned route to Fan-ro?” asks Toran.
“There is a less well known route that takes us through several Amazon villages and across Jusenkyo,” Ayla tells them.
“Jusenkyo... I have heard of the horrors of that sacred place... to go there is very dangerous,” says Keisai.
“Safer than the main routes,” responds Ayla. “As a small party, we should encounter no difficulties.”
“May Pharangese protect us if we dare go through Jusenkyo....” mutters Toran.
Before Ayla can reply, the door to Princess Taygana’s room opens. Taygana emerges, dressed in a gray and black kimono, styled as one that a wealthy peasant might wear. Her face is free of all powder. Ayla nods approvingly. Ayla and Keisai begin to walk away, but Toran and Taygana stand still.
“It is hard, isn’t it?” Toran asks in a low voice.
“I just keep telling myself ‘for the sake of the cat people.’”
“It is a noble sentiment... but one that I find echoed too much at times.”
“That... and the thought of repercussions from Ayla... are the two things that have kept me from running away from the palace since I was told of my betrothal,” says Taygana.
Toran takes her arm in his. “Mayhap the chance will come. But right now, we must catch up to Keisai and Ayla, lest we risk not being able to leave this place in secrecy.”
“True. Lest Ayla lose her temper. Even my father will avoid Ayla when her temper is inflamed.”
“Is that so. I hope that she never becomes cross with me then.”
“Truly. We best not tarry longer.”
Toran nods, and the two of them quicken their pace, following the path that Ayla and Keisai had taken before them. They reach the private royal dining room. The royal family is already seated, with the ambassador and the woman to be disguised as the princess. Keisai glares at Adama, wondering how such a man can do this to his own flesh and blood. Toran notices that Taygana is trying to hide herself from her family, and places a hand on her shoulder for support.
Gathering her nerve, Taygana curtsies to her father, then joins her family at breakfast. There is much she wants to say, but can’t. Kiyomi’s eyes meet hers in understanding. “Mooottthhheeerrr....” complains Hikari, “Shuku pinched me!”
“Did not!” returns her younger brother. A look from the king instantly quiets the younger children.
Toran shakes his head. “If you need us, my lord and lady, we will be waiting outside.” He takes Keisai by his arm and walks off.
King Adama nods, then turns to the younger children. “Behave yourselves. Taygana is going away. We will not see her for several weeks.”
“You may never see me alive again,” echoes in Taygana’s mind.
“Why?” asks Tiana, the youngest child.
“Taygana is going to another kingdom, where she will marry a prince,” explains Girene.
“Then I’ll never see her again?” returns Tiana, about to cry.
“We can visit her later,” comforts Adama.
Outside, Toran and Keisai stand outside the entrance to the royal dining room. “Never have I seen a more depressed look on someone’s face.” Toran mutters. “Never have I seen a father so willing to do such a thing to their daughter.”
Keisai whispers. “Indeed.”
Inside, Taygana tries to put on a brave face, for the sake of her siblings, though she feels her little sister is right. “Yes. You will come as soon as things have settled down in both Mi-yar and Fan-ro.” Though she is without an appetite, Taygana forces herself to eat.
Outside, Toran and Keisai are now sitting on the floor. “We both know that this is a tragedy. So what do we do about it?”
“Keisai, for now, we do as we are told.”
“We bide our time. Right now, there is nothing we can do except for what we are told. The future, however, may yield another story.”
Unsatisfied, Keisai adjusts himself on the floor. “Fine.”
The family tries to make small talk while finishing breakfast, yet the atmosphere is tense, punctuated by the younger children’s teasing and complaints. Finally, Ayla rises, and goes to summon Keisai and Toran. Toran and Keisai quickly rise off the floor upon seeing Ayla. “I assume that we are about to leave?”
“We will leave shortly. Have you two broken your fast?”
“We... find it hard to eat right now. Mayhap after we have traveled somewhat.”
Ayla nods in understanding. “If you will come with me, there is one last thing to be done before we leave.”
“Very well.” Toran and Keisai look at each other before they walk off after Ayla.
They return to the dining room. “Princess, it is time,” says Ayla.
“Already?” asks Taygana. Ayla nods. Sighing, Taygana hugs each of her siblings.
“It won’t be too bad,” whispers Kiyomi. “Perhaps I will be able to convince the high priestess to allow me to come to Fan-ro... on temple business of course.” Taygana forces a teary smile, then embraces each of her parents.
Toran forces himself to look away as memories of the Mother Superior and the desire for a family of his own come back at the sight of Taygana with her family.
“Remember all we have taught you,” says Adama.
“We will miss you,” adds Girene. Pulling herself away, Taygana turns to Ayla. Ayla gestures to the young woman next to the ambassador. The woman stands. Tracing symbols in the air with her staff, Ayla raises it over her head. She mutters an incantation. The young woman takes on the appearance of Taygana. Repeating the process, Taygana takes on the appearance of the woman.
“Interesting...” Keisai mutters. Toran simply looks on at the transformation.
“The spells will last until I remove them,” explains Ayla. “As the royal family of Fan-ro is aware of our plans, there will be no misunderstanding.”
Final good-byes are said, and when Taygana manages to pull herself away from her family, Toran offers his arm. “I wish I knew what to say now,” he whispers.
“There is little that can be said,” she whispers sadly. Wordlessly, Ayla leads the party to a chamber, decorated as a parlor. She touches a panel, that opens.
“I assume that our transportation awaits at the end of this passage?” asks Keisai.
“The passage leads directly to an inn just outside the city walls,” returns Ayla. “This was designed to provide an escape lest the town be captured. Your steeds were moved to the inn early this morning. You two will retrieve your horses, plus two others left there, while the princess and I wait nearby.
“Then let us pray that nothing bad happens from here on out.” Keisai quickly enters the passage, but Toran lingers, looking into the sad eyes of Taygana before he follows Keisai into the passage. The trip through the passage is uneventful. Light from Ayla’s staff not only illuminates the passage, but chases off any vermin. They walk for about an hour, then come out where Ayla said they would. She leads Taygana off a little ways. Tired, the princess sits on a tree stump while the warriors retrieve the horses.
Toran gently pets the two horses, taking their reins in hand. He looks over at Keisai, who seems to keep getting knocked back by one of the horses he is to get. He tries to hide a smile. After a few minutes, Keisai finally has the reins of his two horses in hand. “Whoever thought that cat people were meant to ride horses should be dragged out to the street and hung,” Keisai mutters under his breath.
Outside, Taygana sits on the stump, waiting. “Ayla, will I have to travel the entire trip like this?”
“No child. When we are far enough from town, I will return you to your normal appearance. However, you will need to resume your disguise when we enter a town.”
Toran and eventually Keisai bring the horses up to the ladies, overhearing their conversation. “And just how many towns will we be traveling through?”
“I plan to keep stops in towns at a minimum. At night, I would prefer to be in a secure in rather than out in the wilds.” She takes the reins of her horse and mounts. “If we make good time, we should be at an Amazon village by evening. Tomorrow, we have been granted special permission to pass the night at the Great Temple of Bastet.”
Keisai’s eyes open in amazement. “The Great Temple....Toran, I’ve only heard...Toran?” He looks around, and see him standing by Taygana.
“Well, milady, we should be going now I suppose.” Toran extends his arm out, offering his hand to a still sitting Taygana.
“Thank you,” she replies, as she stands and Toran helps her mount her steed. Toran goes to his own horse and mounts it without difficulty. He looks over at Keisai, and sees that even he has managed to climb a horse again.
“Come,” says Ayla. “The day is passing, and I would prefer to make the village by sunset.”
Much to everyone’s surprise, Keisai is the first to run off towards their destination. Toran rides up next to Ayla. “Tell me, did he volunteer for this?” she asks him.
“I was afraid of that.”
She watches a moment as Keisai leads on. “He is not much of a rider, is he?”
He grins. “It will just take him a while to get used to it.”
“He had better,” replies the enchantress, her eyes narrowing. “Should he slow us down, the results will not be pleasant.”
“Mayhap you should spend less time being grim and more time riding then?”
“Mayhap you should mind your own business,” she returns, spurring her steed on faster. Taygana rides up next to Toran.
“Please, do not antagonize her,” she whispers to Toran. “Otherwise this trip will be more hellish than it already is... and I do not mean riding the horses.”
He looks at her, looking deep into her eyes. “As you wish, milady,” he whispers.
Shivering, Taygana bites her inner lip. She urges her horse to catch up with the others. Toran soon follows, bringing up the rear, and making sure that they are not being followed. They travel on until the sun is overhead. Taygana feels Toran’s eyes burning into her from behind. There is something more to his gaze.... more that she doesn’t understand. It sends a thrill through her body.
As the journey continues, Toran finds more and more that he has to force himself to check behind him. Pulling his eyes away from Taygana, even though she is disguised, is something that is becoming more and more difficult, and he does not know why.
It is just past noon when they arrive at a stream. Ayla calls for a stop. “This is a good place to rest the horses and take the midday meal.”
“Ayla,” asks Taygana, “could you please remove this disguise? I feel uncomfortable traveling like this.”
Nodding, Ayla says “We should encounter no one until the village.” Gesturing, Ayla ends the spell. Taygana’s appearance returns to normal.
Keisai notices that Toran looks noticeably relieved with the removal of the masking spell. He readily jumps off his horse. “Ah, solid ground. it’s good to feel you under my feet again.”
“Don’t enjoy it for too long, my friend. I suspect that Ayla will have us leave as soon as possible.” Toran dismounts his horse, and takes it to the stream for a drink. Taygana also dismounts. She leads her horse to the stream, then kneels down and splashes her face with some of the cool, clear water. She looks over too see Toran encouraging his horse to drink as much as possible. He looks in her direction for a moment, and smiles at the sight of her. He then returns to ensuring that his horse has enough to drink.
Feeling Toran’s eyes on her, she glances up. Her face reddens, despite the cool water. “Princess, come into the shade,” orders Ayla, who is removing some provisions from her saddlebags. “Your face is becoming flushed. Is the sun too much for you?”
“No. Perhaps I was bending over too much and the blood flowed to my face.”
Toran silently snickers for only a moment, and then pulls his horse away from the stream, tying it to a nearby tree. Keisai walks up behind him. “You seem unusually happy, you know.”
“Then obviously you don’t know me very well.”
Keisai quickly glances at Taygana. “No, no I guess I don’t...”
Unaware of Keisai and Toran’s conversation, Taygana helps Ayla set out their meal. “Come,” she calls to them. “I am sure you two must be famished.”
“Not thoroughly,” Toran replies, “But enough to make our stomachs growl.” Both he and Keisai go to join them, and Toran promptly sets himself down next to Taygana.
Taygana feels a strange chill at the nearness of this particular warrior. Trying to hide her feelings, she reaches for some of the dried fruit from the pack. “Tonight we will have a warm cooked meal,” comments Ayla, misinterpreting the princess’ actions, “provided we reach the village.”
Taygana blinks a moment in confusion, then stammers “This will suffice for now.”
Toran takes an orange out of the pack and begins peeling it. “We’ll make it. Don’t worry about that.” Taygana says nothing. She just stares off into the distance, absently eating some nuts.
Keisai simply sits there. “Its the trek after that that worries me the most. Mostly open terrain, Jusenkyo... Excellent places for ambushes.”
“Why do you think there has been all of this secrecy?” replies Ayla. “Four people traversing an open piece of land is less likely to attract attention than a caravan.”
“Its what happens when they do get someone’s attention that worries me most.”
“In our planned route, we will encounter few beings, other than the occasional cow, sheep, bird, or insect.”
Keisai pulls out an arrow and checks it thoroughly. “Good. I’d prefer it that way.”
“As do I,” returns Ayla. Taygana does not appear to be paying attention to the discussion. Her mind is elsewhere.
After looking at her for a moment, Toran taps her shoulder. “You really should eat more than that, milady”
Startled, Taygana looks up at Toran, locking gazes with him. “I... I...” she stammers, “I’m not... very hungry right now...”
“As you wish, milady,” is Toran’s only reply.
Taygana bites her inner lip, her heart racing. She seems unable to break the eye contact with Toran. Toran’s face seems to be coming closer to her for a moment, but then he breaks the gaze and looks away. He pulls out a pendant and feels it with the fingers of his left hand. Startled, Taygana blinks a few times, then picks up a glass of fruit juice.
She swears she hears a quiet whisper, saying “I am sorry, but...” Toran stands quickly stands up, unsheathes his sword to check it, and then replaces it. “We really should be going now, regardless of the risk that may be ahead.”
“Are the horses ready?” asks Ayla.
Keisai gets up and runs over, checking each horse one by one. “I believe that they are sufficiently rested,” he finally proclaims.
“Very well.” Ayla packs up the remainder of the food, then stands. “We should be off, if we wish to keep our schedule.”
“Indeed.” Toran goes to mount his horse, but looks back at Taygana for a second, his eyes a bit more sorrowful.
Lost in her own world, Taygana mounts her horse. Each mile of their journey brings her closer to a marriage she is dreading. She spares a glance at Toran and feels her heart flutter. “The Goddesses can be so cruel sometimes,” she thinks to herself.
Toran keeps altering his attention between Taygana, his pendant, and what is behind him. After catching her glance back at him, he thinks, “I wonder what is truly going through her mind right now, as well as mine. *sigh* The Goddesses can be so cruel at times.”
With Taygana gone, Kiyomi has had little interesting to do in the palace. She spends all her free time praying for Taygana’s safety in the shrine to Bastet, kneeling in front of the altar for hours at a time. During one prayer session, she feels something unusual, like something was probing the surface of her soul. She spins around, and there stands Elder Janos at the entrance of the shrine.
“Oh, it’s you, elder.”
“Yes, it is. Tell me, did the warriors from my temple arrive as expected?”
“Oh, yes, they did. I must admit, they were rather impressive examples of those in the service of Pharangese.”
“Indeed, they are.” Janos coughs, and then takes a few steps inside the temple. Kiyomi feels more uneasy. “Tell me, do you know the route they have decided to take in delivering the princess?”
“Wh...why do you ask that?”
“I have ... “ Janos clears his throat “... recently come across some things that place Toran’s loyalty to the church into question. Should he decide to abandon the church, not only would this mission serve that purpose, but he would have the perfect insurance that he could use to insure his escape in the form of Taygana.”
“Oh my...,” interjects the princess. “You truly believe that he would do such a thing.”
“If I did not, I would not have asked you about their route.”
Briefly, Kiyomi relates all she knows about the journey’s plans to Janos. As she does, she feels a strange chill go up her spine. Worried for her sister’s safety, she ignores the feeling and continues.
Janos smiles. “Thank you my child. You may have saved Taygana’s life. I will personally see that someone is sent to insure that Toran has done nothing to the princess.” He turns and walks out of the shrine, once again leaving Kiyomi alone.
“May Bastet protect Taygana....” Kiyomi turns to face the altar again, her prayers more intense than before.
“That was easier than I expected.” A smug grin forms from Janos’ lips as the sound of footsteps echoes throughout the hallways
Intent on reaching the Amazon village before sunset. Ayla sets the pace. She is concerned with her own thoughts and plans. Keisai, when he is able to relax his attention on his mount, looks around at the surroundings and at his companions, worried that something bad is going to happen and that he won’t be ready for it. By the time Ayla calls for a stop, all nerves are slightly frayed. They pause on a small hill overlooking the Amazon village. “Before we enter the village, I must replace the disguise spell,” says Ayla.
“Must you?” returns Taygana.
“I must, child. You know why,” says Ayla gently Taygana swallows hard and nods. A few passes of Ayla’s hands and a brief incantation resume the disguising illusion of the morning.
Keisai gazes over the entire village, having not seen human community before. “I trust that we have no previous problems before with the people of this village?”
“I have known all of the village elders since their births... and their parents before them... and many of their grandparents as well,” replies Ayla. “Avoid any conflicts, do not involve yourselves in any competitions, accept no challenges, and treat all with courtesy, and there will be no problems.”
Toran rides up beside Ayla. “Good. I believe that we can do that. Now let us go. We all would like to sleep in a comforting bed after that riding.”
“Most certainly,” returns Ayla. She leads them down to the village.
Without delay, and in prompt search of a bed, Keisai spurs his horse onward after Ayla. Toran, however, moves back to where Taygana is. “After you, milady.”
She blinks for a moment, then nods. “Thank you.” She snaps the reins of her horse, urging it onward following Keisai and Ayla, albeit slowly. Toran loops around, making sure that they are not being followed, and then rides beside Taygana, making sure that she is not alone. Biting the inside of her lip, Taygana follows Ayla’s steed. The enchantress leads them to a hut, larger than the rest. An old human woman steps out.
Keisai rides up beside Ayla. “I take it that this is the place then?”
Ayla holds up her hand for silence, then dismounts. The old woman bows to Ayla. “Welcome to our village, great enchantress,” says the old woman.
“Thank you,” returns Ayla, with a slight bow. “Everything is well?”
The old woman smiles. “As well as can be expected.” She looks at the others for a moment. “A long trip, I take it?”
“Rather,” returns Ayla.
“Then allow me to escort you to the guest hut. The boys will see that your horses are cared for.” On the old woman’s last statement, two boys run out of her hut. One takes Ayla’s horse while they wait for the others to dismount.
Keisai watches as Toran dismounts, who then helps Taygana of her horse. He then notices a tug on the reins of his horse, and then looks down to see one of the boys. He jumps off his horse, and then walks over to Toran and Taygana. “Let us not waste any time. I hear a bed calling my name, and no doubt Ayla will want us to leave early in the morning.”
The old woman leads them to the guest hut. Designed to accommodate several guests, screens divide the building into separate sleeping areas. Keisai immediate jumps into one sleeping area, rushing past the old woman in the process. Toran simply shakes his head. “I’m sorry about that. It has been a long day for all of us.”
“It seems as if that one is uninterested in a hot meal,” comments the old woman.
Toran smiles. “Truth be told, both he and I could do with a good night’s sleep more than a full belly at the moment.”
A glimmer appears in Ayla’s eyes, then disappears. “My... ward and I graciously accept your offer of a meal, kind elder. The warriors are used to combat on foot, not long hours on horseback.”
“Indeed. Now if my lady would permit me to leave?” Toran glances at Taygana, trying not to let Ayla see.
Ayla nods once, then takes Taygana’s arm. “Come child,” says the enchantress gently. “You have eaten little today. A hot meal will do you good.” Wordlessly, Taygana allows herself to be led away by Ayla.
Toran sighs, and then takes a sleeping area next to Keisai. “The witch won’t like it if you do anything with her,” Keisai quietly mentions, his eyes fixated on the ceiling as he lies on the bed.
“I don’t know what you are talking about.” Toran undoes the strap holding the sword to his hip.
“Lie to yourself, but do not lie to me.”
“Believe what you may, my friend. Now get some sleep. I have a feeling it will be a long day tomorrow as well.”
In the elder’s hut, Taygana and Ayla kneel at a table with all of the village elders gathered around. They chat with Ayla. Trying not to appear rude, Taygana forces herself to swallow several mouthfuls of the food. As seasoned and well-prepared as the meal is, she barely tastes it.
Again in the guest hut, Toran lies on his bed, bereft of his weapons and armor. He finds himself staring at the ceiling as he saw Keisai did. “Keisai, can I ask you something?” His only response is a quiet snore. “I guess not.”
Back at the meal, one of the elders notices Taygana’s silence. “Lady Ayla,” comments the elder, “I believe your ward is dozing over her food. Perhaps she should return to the guest hut.”
Ayla nods in agreement. “I will escort her to the hut, then return. There are still many things we need to discuss. Come child.” Numbly, Taygana follows Ayla back to the guest hut. “A good night sleep will be the best thing for you, your highness,” says Ayla.
She nods. “Perhaps so.” She looks at Toran and Keisai, and sees that they seem to be sound asleep. Sighing, she heads over to one of the remaining sleeping areas and simply collapses. Ayla waits for a moment. When she believes Taygana is asleep, Ayla slips out of the hut and returns to the elders. Yet sleep does not come to Taygana. She notices a small, open window in her sleeping area. Impulsively, Taygana shifts to cat form and slips outside.
Toran sits straight up after she leaves, his eyes not showing any signs of slumber. “I truly cannot blame her. I would have done the same thing myself, I suppose” he thinks, as reaches down for his sword. He hesitates to pick it up. He then stands up and exits the hut, without his sword.
Night falls on the temple of Pharangese. With the Days of Misra only two days away, Janos finds himself watching the temple’s courtyard, seeing the others setting up the decorations for the opening festivities from his office window high above it all. He feels a slight chill in the air around him.
“I thought that cat space was inaccessible to my kind, thanks to people like you.”
From the shadows, a man walks out, wearing a circlet on his forehead, three gems offsetting the color of his cats eyes. “You judge me too harshly, my friend. And I never had any use for cat space when more ... powerful things were available to me.”
Janos pulls himself away from the window to look at the figure. “I can guess what you’re here for, Verlayne.”
Verlayne steps out of the shadows and sits down in Janos’ chair. “Already down to business? I thought we could talk for a bit more. I did want to find out how my previous assistance worked out, you know.”
“The Mother is gone, and I am a ruling elder without any serious opposition. And now you want your payment.”
Verlayne’s chilling laugh echoes throughout the room. “You make it sound like a _bad_ thing.”
Janos walks over to some shelves and pulls out a scroll from them. He tosses the scroll onto Verlayne’s lap. “I believe that this should suffice.”
Verlayne opens the scroll and examines it. “Hmm, yes, this will. Are you certain this information is accurate?”
“It came from the mouth of the sister of the princess.”
“Interesting. Very interesting.”
“They left in a small party. My warriors, the princess, and the mage.”
“That does sound like a plan my sister would concoct.” Verlayne stands up from the chair. “It is no matter. Soon, Mi-yar will no longer be an obstacle in my plans.” He looks at Janos. “And I assume that you would like me to dispose of your warriors as well?”
Janos nods. “They are the only two that remain thorns in my side. But I will be happy if you dispose of that enigmatic half breed.”
“A half breed? Well, now. Normally I wouldn’t harm a kinsman, but if this information is correct ... “ Verlayne rolls up the scroll. “Very well. Consider it... a bonus.”
“Good.” Janos returns to looking out the window. “So, tell me, Verlayne, how do you celebrate the Days of Misra?”
Silently Taygana slips through some bushes. Instinctively she knows running away would be useless. Ayla’s magic would quickly find her. “No... I just need some time to myself,” thinks the princess. She reaches a small pond just beyond the huts. Her eyes light up. “Perhaps a quick dip,” she thinks to herself.
Toran wanders about the village for a few minutes, daring not to call Taygana by name, and hoping to find her on his own. But he becomes more frustrated as he is not able to find her. Upon returning to the guest hut, it hits him. He bends down to the ground for a moment, and sniffs the air. A faint scent still lingers, a scent that Toran’s instincts tell him is Taygana’s.
Taygana shifts back to humanoid form. She slips out of her traveling kimono, then dives into the water. Surfacing for air, the princess floats on her back, looking up at the stars. After marveling at how bright the stars are tonight, she closes her eyes, letting the sound of moving water overwhelm her ears at the same time. She smiles, enjoying a simple pleasure, if only for a few minutes. A voice is heard through the water. “I believe that is the first time I have seen a smile on your face milady.”
Startled, Taygana stifles a shriek and dives into the water. She sees Toran standing at the edge of the water and tries to hide her naked body. “How dare you! You... you....” At a loss for words, Taygana splashes Toran.
He tries to block the onslaught of water with his arms. “Would you rather it be Ayla that found you?”
“You could at least have the decency to look away you... hentai!”
“As you wish.” Toran turns his back to Taygana. “But I should tell you, if you try to run, I can and will find you again.”
Glaring at the warrior, her mood spoiled, Taygana swims to the far side of the pool. She climbs out, pulls a towel out of cat space, and begins to dry herself. Her anger quickly dissipates, to be replaced by a whirlwind of sensations and emotions... all new and strange. She glances at Toran, whose back is to her.
Toran forces himself to not look back at Taygana, fearing to upset her further. “You look better smiling than you do upset, you know.” Taygana blushes beet red, but does not respond. She picks up her kimono and shakes it out before putting it on. Waiting for her, he looks up at the stars, seeing how they twinkle in the clear night sky. He then sits down, back still turned to Taygana, to better enjoy the view.
The results of her rushed dressing are hardly up to her father’s standards, but in the moonlight with the enigmatic warrior nearby, it is the best she can do. “You may turn around now,” she says. Toran nods, and turns himself around, still remaining in the ground. He catches the moonlight in her eyes with his, opening wider at the same time. He wishes to say something, but finds that words do not come out. Alone with Toran, Taygana suddenly feels very lightheaded. Their eyes meet.
Toran stands up, his eyes not wavering from her eyes. “What would it take... to see you smile again,” he whispers as he moves closer to her. Taygana blinks in surprise. Her throat constricts, cutting off any words. Her lower lip trembles. “What would it take,” he whispers again, “for that ... lovely face of yours.. to smile once more?”
“I... I...” she stammers. Taygana feels as if her mind has spontaneously shut down. A tiny voice in her mind prevents her from begging Toran to kiss her. Her tongue snakes out to wet her burning lips.
Toran can see the swirling mass of emotions on her face, and then looks away. “I’m... I’m sorry milady. I merely wished.. to see you happy again, to maybe even hear your laughter.” He looks up at her again. “I never meant to cause any ... problems.”
The princes shakes her head to clear it. “I am sorry, Toran. Lately, little that I once enjoyed makes me smile. It is difficult to smile when you feel as if your life will be ending shortly.”
“Do you truly believe that?”
She sighs sadly, then sits on a boulder. “I have had this... feeling... that once I left the palace, I would never see my family again... that I am on my way to my death. The only other person I have shared this with is my sister Kiyomi. She is the only one who would not dismiss my feelings as fears of marriage.” She suppresses a shudder. “There is more to it, though.”
Toran sits down beside her on the boulder, taking her hand in his. “Go on, if you want.”
“There... is not much more to tell... I ... feel... that in being forced to marry Zaden, I am being forced away from my true mate and my destiny... and the Goddesses will exact their revenge, taking me with it.”
“I see. And who could dare defy the goddesses?” Toran stands up, not letting go of her hand. “Would you...walk with me for a while?”
Taygana stands. “They have already been defied,” she says simply and sadly.
“Your sadness is a dagger twisting in me, milady.” He hesitantly puts his arm around her as they walk away from the pool of water.
“I am sorry, my warrior,” she whispers. “There are only two solutions that I can think of to this situation. One is impossible, the other abhorrent.”
“Escape and ... death.” Taygana is slightly surprised by his response. “Believe it or not, I saw the exact same thing at one point.” Taygana simply nods, fighting back tears. Toran pulls her tighter to him. “Do not fight it, let it out.”
Tired of holding back and presenting a placid facade, Taygana lays her head on Toran’s chest and lets loose a torrent of tears, pent up from the whole day’s events. Her body shakes as she sobs. Toran begins stroking her hair. He closes his eyes to imagine the sight of Taygana’s true form. He simply says nothing, preferring to rather hold her close as the flood of tears continues.
Slowly the sobs subside. Taygana looks up at Toran. “We... should return... to the hut... before Ayla returns,” she says breathlessly. Her eyes are red and puffy.
“You know, you never really did answer my question.” Sighing, Taygana tries to smile for the patient warrior’s benefit. “Come now, milady, you can...do....” He finds his face moving closer to hers, and does not do anything to stop it. Taygana becomes very still, aware of only her and Toran. “...better...” His eyes close, his breathing becomes deeper. Taygana’s heart pounds, her lower lip again trembling. Every nerve of her body seems aware of only Toran. “..than...” In a flash, Toran’s eyes shoot open and he turns away from her. Taygana seems stunned by what just happened. “I....I....Pharangese forgive me, but I am sorry....I cannot....”
“I... I... think we should return... to the hut,” stammers Taygana, shaking her head to clear it.
Toran takes a hold of the pendant around his neck. “I.. believe you are right.” He lets go and turns to face Taygana. He tries to look her in the eye, but finds that he cannot. Quietly, delicately, Taygana holds her kimono so the ends do not trail in the dirt. In a numb daze, she follows Toran back to the guest hut.
Silence dominates the way back to the hut. But once outside the hut, Toran stops. He does not turn to face her. “Are you so afraid of the destination that you ignore the journey?” Taygana does not answer. Instead she enters the hut. Thankfully, Ayla had not yet returned. She goes to her own sleeping area, still dazed and confused.
Toran soon follows, and goes to his sleeping area by Keisai. “Maybe if you paid attention to the journey rather than worry of the destination, you may see the escape from the cage you seek.” There is no response. He shakes his head. “the Mother always said I waxed philosophical too much,” he mutters as he lies down and tries to fall asleep. The princess does not find sleep so easily, Toran’s words echoing in her mind. She dozes off, just as Ayla returns to the hut.
Toran does not find sleep either, but his mind is filled with what happened out by the pool. He tries to fathom why he was so willingly able to disregard all he has been taught, all the vows he has sworn. Soon noticing that Ayla has entered, he feigns sleep, not wanting her of all people to suspect that he tried to do something that she might kill him for.
Taygana’s sleep is none too restful. Her dreams are tormented by images of angry goddesses. Though it is her destiny concerned, it is not Taygana to whom their anger is directed. Yet she will be the one to suffer... she and another... Taygana awakes screaming. Despite Ayla’s nearness to Taygana, Toran is the first one to jump up and rush to her side. He gently shakes her. “Taygana! It’s only a nightmare, Taygana. Nightmares can’t hurt you. They can’t kill you.”
Taygana stares blankly at the wall, huddled into a corner. Ayla comes up to her and gathers the frightened princess into her arms. “Shh... child... it was just a nightmare... just a bad dream....,” whispers the enchantress. Taygana doesn’t respond, her body shaking visibly. Keisai is the last to arrive. Seeing Ayla there comforting Taygana sends shivers down his spine. He thought that she could care less about Taygana, being the one that arranged her marriage. He squats down next to Toran, and notices that he is visibly distraught. He places a hand on his shoulder. Taygana continues to tremble, burying her face on Ayla’s shoulder. “It’s all right, child,” she murmurs comfortingly.
“It... it was awful...,” whispers Taygana.
“It’s over now, Taygana.” Toran tries to reach out to comfort her, but Ayla’s presence makes him reconsider.
She looks up at him, the fear from her nightmare apparent in her face. “Is it?” she whispers.
“Think of the journey, not the destination,” he whispers back.