POLITICS AND POWER GAMES
It took a conscious effort of will for Brak to take the final step across the threshold of Sanctuary. The gates stood wide open, tall and impossibly white in the thin, chill mountain air. Sanctuary's tall spires reached elegantly for the scudding clouds, shadowing the Gateway and offering him one last moment of anonymity.
He had turned his back on this place more than two decades ago and, despite the loneliness, the guilt, and the hunger for his own kind, he still found it harder than he thought possible to return.
He was not unexpected. That would have been too much to hope for. As he trekked through the mountains he had clung to the idle hope that the demons would not betray his approach. It was the reason he had come on footthis journey of months could have been accomplished in hours had he asked the demons for help.
As he contemplated that final, irrevocable step, a figure appeared on the other side of the Gateway. Tall, white-robed and smiling, Jerandenan had been the Gatekeeper for as long as Brak could rememberand that was almost a millennium. The Harshini's totally black eyes were moist, and his whole being radiated the warmth of his welcome.
The Gatekeeper opened his arms wide. "Welcome home, Brakandaran."
Still Brak hesitated. "You remember me then?"
Jerandenan laughed softly. "I remember every soul who has entered my Gate, as well you know. And you, more than most, I would not forget. Come, Brakandaran. Your family awaits you. The demons miss you, and ..." TheGatekeeper's voice trailed off with a shrug, and he smiled that infuriating, calm smile that was already beginning to annoy Brak. And he had not even crossed Sanctuary's threshold yet.
"And Korandellan wants to see me?" Brak guessed.
Jerandenan nodded. "Did you expect anything less from your King?"
Before Brak could answer, several gray missiles launched at him through the tingling barrier of the Gateway. The demons jumped on him gleefully, chattering to each other incomprehensibly, so delighted by his return that they almost knocked him off his feet. He recognized a few of the creatures as he tried to shake free of them, but there were youngsters in the group he did not know. They knew him, though. His blood called to them more clearly than any words were capable of.
Jerandenan smiled indulgently as the demons pushed and pulled Brak until he was through the Gateway, ignoring both his protests and his greetings, which he seemed to be handing out in equal measure.
"You can deny yourself, Brak, but you cannot deny the brethren. They are as glad to see you as we all are."
Brak frowned, and peeled a little demon from around his neck who was hugging him so tightly he could barely breathe. No sooner had he removed one, than another tried to take its place. He pushed it away sternly.
The demons fell back at his sharp tone, looking mightily offended. He immediately felt guilty for being so abrupt, a fact which the demons were probably counting on. At the first sign of his resolve wavering they were on him again, although this time they gave him room to breathe. Brak turned to Jerandenan helplessly.
"And you wonder why I haven't been back in more than twenty years."
"You are as hungry for the demons as they are for you, Brakandaran," the Gatekeeper said with an indulgent smile. "Don't deny them, or us, the joy of your return."
By the time Brak had disentangled himself from the demons a second time, other white robed figures had appeared, attracted to the Gateway by the unusual commotion. The Harshini rarely, if ever, left Sanctuary these daysnot since the Sisterhood had come to power two centuries agoand few had entered the magical Gateway in that time. The Keep was outside of normal time and space, in a dimension uniquely its own. No one but a Harshini, or those born within the walls of Sanctuary, could find it when it was warded.
The curious arrived first, to see what all the fuss was about, wandering toward the Gateway with a leisurely stride. Behind those came others, some at a run. These Harshini were té Cam, his family, alerted by the demons' joy at the return of their lost cousin.
He almost fled at that point. Seeing the faces of his family made him shrivel up a little inside. They had done nothing but try to make him feel as if he belonged here; and he had repaid their kindness with blood ... this shame, this unbearable remorse, was the reason he had never come home.
A fair-haired woman pushed through the crowd and ran to him, twisting the knife of his guilt even harder into his soul.
She stopped a few paces from him and examined him with a critical eye.
"You're too thin."
Brak was expecting almost anything but that. Trust Samaranan to say the one thing guaranteed to ease his tension. He smiled at her blunt criticism.
"I've been living on nothing but ..." he stopped himself before he could upset the Harshini with his carnivorous diet. "I've been living off the land. It's a long walk."
"It was also an unnecessary one," she scolded. "The demons would have brought you home. All you had to do was ask."
"I like walking."
"Actually, I think you like suffering. But you got here. Finally. Welcome home, brother." She hugged him tightly, pushing demons out of the way to reach him. He had almost forgotten how forgiving the Harshini werehow incapable of anger or resentment. His elder half-sister did not seem to care that he had not contacted her for two decades. Nor did she seem to hold against him the crime that had driven him from this place. "Come, you must pay your respects to Korandellan. He knew you would come."
Brak nodded, but did not bother to add that the King had left him little choice in the matter. Samaranan took his hand and led him forward, the demons skipping in his wake. The Harshini parted for them, some simply smiling their welcome, others nodding to him with genuine pleasure at his return. Some even reached out to touch his travel-stained clothes, to assure themselves that he was real. Brak tried to return the warmth of their welcome, but his guilt and his human blood, as always, made him feel like an outsider.
Sanctuary was like no other place on this world, and at first glance, seemed unchanged since Brak had last walked these halls. The Harshini settlement sat within a valley; the Keep tunnelled into the hills, its broad, open archways looking down to the valley floor. The air was sweet and moist from the constant mist created by the rainbow-tinted cascade that supplied the settlement with water and tumbled down toward the pool on the western edge of the valley. Although autumn was beginning to turn the mountains red, here in Sanctuary the temperature never varied a great deal. The God of Storms was solicitous of Harshini comfort.
The long, tiled walkways echoed his booted footsteps as Samaranan led Brak toward Korandellan's apartments. Everywhere they went people turned and waved to him, delighted to see him. It was as though he brought them hope rather than pain, and the reaction puzzled him a little. It was true that the Harshini were incapable of anger or violence, but even that could not explain their obvious joy. Many of them would have been glad to see the back of him, hethought. Then another thought occurred to him as he realized what else seemed strange.
"Where are the children?"
"There are none, Brak."
Samaranan slowed her pace and glanced at him. "It's the wards on Sanctuary. They remove us from the real world. We do not age, but neither do we conceive."
"But you don't stay out of time constantly. Korandellan used to bring Sanctuary back every spring to allow time to catch up." As far as Brak remembered, the settlement had reappeared every spring for the past two centuries. Such a return was vital for their survival.
"We've been warded now for nearly twenty years, brother," she told him. "After you left, after the demon child was born, Xaphista redoubled his efforts to find us. We could not risk exposing ourselves, and Sanctuary would flare like a beacon to a Karien priest. Every time we return to real time, Death is waiting to claim those who have cheated him. There are no children to replace those who are lost." She seemed to understand his confusion. "In case you're wondering, that's why everyone is so happy to see you. You will aid the demon child and she will remove the threat of Xaphista. Then we will be free once more."
"Remove the threat of Xaphista? You mean kill him."
Samaranan frowned. "Please don't say it like that, Brak."
"Why not? It's the truth."
"You know what I mean. You've been back for little more than a heartbeat. You could at least try to be sensitive."
"Forgive me," he snapped. "I'll try very hard not to mention the fact that Korandellan has brought me back to train Zegarnald's pet assassin."
She stopped and glared at him, her black eyes as close to anger as they were capable of getting. "Stop it! This is not easy for any of us. There is no need for you to make it even harder."
"You think this is easy for me?"
Samaranan's eyes softened and she reached out to touchhis face. "I'm sorry, little brother. I forget sometimes what it must be like for you."
"Don't apologize, Sam. I shouldn't be heaping all my anger on you. There's a god or two I'd like to throttle, but it's not your fault." Brak smiled wanly. "I promise I'll try to be as Harshini as I can while I'm here."
Her relief was evident. "Thank you."
They resumed their slow pace through the broad halls. Brak listened idly as Samaranan filled him in on the family happenings, which, considering how much time Sanctuary had spent removed from reality, was a fairly short list. There were no new nieces or nephews or cousins to celebrate. Only the demons, who could flit between dimensions at will, were able to reproducebut even their numbers were starting to dwindle in the face of the Harshini's prolonged withdrawal. The Harshini and the demons were interdependent, and the creatures could not sustain an increase in their numbers that the Harshini were unable to match. It occurred to Brak that if something were not done soon, the Harshini would no longer be simply hiding. Their current state of limbo would eventually prove fatal. The knowledge was an added burden he did not want or need.
They reached Korandellan's chambers eventually, and the tall, delicately carved doors swung open at their approach. The King was waiting for them, his smile benign, his arms outstretched in welcome. The resemblance between him and the demon child took Brak by surprise. Korandellan was tall and lean and impossibly beautiful, as all the Harshini were. With the demons clustered behind Samaranan's long skirts, Brak fell to his knees and lowered his head, surprised at his need for Korandellan's benediction.
"You have no need to kneel before me, Brakandaran. It is I who should bow to you. You have suffered much on our behalf."
"Don't be ridiculous," he retorted without thinking.
"Brak!" Samaranan gasped. Even the demons seemed appalled by his disrespect.
But the King laughed. "Oh, how I've missed you,Brakandaran! You are like a breath of fresh air. Come, get off your knees and let us talk as friends. Samaranan, tell your family to prepare a feast. Tonight we will welcome your lost brother home."
"There's really no need ..." Brak began as he climbed to his feet. The King ignored his objections.
"Leave us now. Your brother and I have much to discuss."
Samaranan bowed gracefully and backed out of the room. The demons followed her, subdued in the presence of the King. The doors swung shut silently as they departed. The King turned to Brak and his smile faded.
"What news have you of the outside world?"
"Nothing that is likely to bring you joy," Brak warned. "The Defenders were in Testra when I left. They were making plans to move north, to protect their border from the Kariens."
"Shananara tells me you went to Hythria."
"I indulged in a bit of theatrics, I'm afraid," he admitted. "The Defenders needed help and I had to stop them killing the demon child. I made a rather dramatic appearance in Krakandar and convinced Damin Wolfblade to form an alliance with them."
"The High Prince's heir?" Korandellan shook his head with a faint smile. "You never did listen to me when I told you about the dangers of interfering with mortal politics. But ... perhaps such an alliance might eventually bring peace between Medalon and Hythria, so in this case, I will forgive you."
"You always forgive me, your Majesty. It's your one fault."
"I have more than one, I fear. And what news of the Kariens?"
"As soon as word reaches them about the death of their Envoy, they'll have the excuse they've been looking for to invade Medalon."
"Then war is unavoidable?" The King looked pained even contemplating such an idea.
"I'm afraid so."
"And Fardohnya? What is Hablet doing? It is unlike him to let such momentous events take shape without him trying to turn it to his advantage."
"I wish I knew," Brak told him with a shrug. "A couple of years ago he was making overtures toward Hythria. He sent one of his daughters to meet with Lernen Wolfblade, but I don't know that anything came of it. It's hard to tell with Hablet. He makes and breaks treaties as if they were piecrusts. You should think about sending someone to his court, now that the word is out that the Harshini still live."
The King shook his head. "I risked much in letting Shananara aid you, and I cannot sleep for fear of the danger Glenanaran and the few others who have returned to the outside might be in. The High Arrion has promised me that the Sorcerer's Collective will protect our people in Greenharbour, but we are not revered in the manner we once were. Our seclusion appears to have left us unprepared for the human world. Her assistance will come with a price, I suspect. Besides, Fardohnya is too close to Karien. I would not put it past Hablet to see some advantage in dealing with the Kariens, and I would not willingly give him a hostage." Korandellan walked to the balcony that overlooked the broad, sun-kissed valley. He studied it for a long moment before he spoke again. "A part of me rejoices to see you again, Brakandaran. Another part of me fears what your appearance heralds."
"And just exactly what does my appearance herald?"
Korandellan did not answer immediately. When he did, he completely changed the subject. "The demon child lives."
"Cheltaran healed her, then?" It was a relief to learn that his journey had not been in vain.
"Yes ... and no."
The vague reply surprised Brak, and worried him. "What do you mean?"
"When the demons brought R'shiel here she was on the brink of death. No, even more than that, Death had her by the hand and was leading her away. Cheltaran healed her wounds, but Death does not like to be cheated, particularlyby the God of Healing. They are having something of a ... disagreement ... over the demon child's fate."
"That sounds ominous. Where does that leave R'shiel?"
"She lives, but only just. Death holds one hand, Cheltaran the other."
Brak sagged against the balcony. "But it's been months!"
"I know. But now that you are here, we should be able to resolve the conflict."
"You want me to step into an argument between Death and a god? Thanks for the vote of confidence, your Majesty, but I think you vastly overrate my powers of persuasion."
The King turned to him, his expression serious. "I overrate nothing, Brakandaran. A compromise of sorts has been worked out to solve the problem. Unfortunately, none of us is capable of carrying it out."
"Compromise? What compromise?"
"A life for a life," Korandellan told him heavily. "Death will relinquish his claim on R'shiel, if another life is given in her place."
Brak closed his eyes for a moment as the weight of the task Korandellan asked of him pressed on him like a falling building.
"You want me to choose?"
"I do not ask this of you lightly, Brakandaran, but I have no choice. I cannot take a life, even indirectly. You are the only one who can make the decision."
"And to think I used to imagine my human blood would never be an asset to the Harshini," Brak remarked sourly. "Fine. I'll go out and pick some helpless, worthless human. That should satisfy Death."
Korandellan's golden skin paled at his callousness. "It is not that simple. Death demands a soul of equal value."
"Then I'll make sure I pick an obnoxious brat. That should even things up."
"A soul of equal value, Brakandaran. Death drives a hard bargain. He wants a soul whose loss will mean as much to the demon child as her loss will mean to us."
"Is there a time limit on this absurd bargain, or will the poor sod drop dead the moment I name him?"
Korandellan shook his head in despair. "I cannot comprehend your ability to make light of this, Brakandaran."
"I'm not making light of anything. I might be capable of making such a decision, Korandellan, but I certainly don't find it easy. It's an eminently reasonable question."
"And one I cannot answer. You will have to ask Death yourself. I'm sure he will be reasonable."
"Oh! You think so?"
"Please, Brakandaran! Do not think to approach Death with such an attitude."
As a race, the Harshini were a bridge between the gods and mortal man, but it was Korandellan who carried the full weight of that bridge on his shoulders. Brak appreciated his predicament, but found it hard to sympathize, given the burden the King had just handed him.
"Don't worry. Even I am not that stupid. Can I see R'shiel?"
"Of course." The King smiled faintly and placed his hand on Brak's shoulder. "You did well to find her, Brak. I know the remorse that fills you seems hard to live with, but ultimately, if she succeeds, R'shiel will free the Harshini. Your actions will have saved your people."
"All but one," Brak reminded him grimly.
R'shiel té Ortyn, the demon child who had caused Brak so much anguisheven before she was bornlay not far from Korandellan's chambers. The room was large and airy, filled with flowers and scented candles, as if the cheery atmosphere could somehow compensate for the battle being waged over her life. Two Harshini sat with her, watching the faint rise and fall of her chest, as if waiting for something to happen. As Brak approached they bowed silently and withdrew, the expectant joy in their black eyes at his coming making him feel unworthy.
She lay on the crisp white sheets wearing a simple robe of pale blue. Her dark red hair had been braided with careand lay coiled on the pillow. She appeared whole and unmarked. As unnaturally perfect as any Harshini.
She was breathing, but barely. Brak watched her for a time then turned to Korandellan.
"You've not spoken to her yet?"
"She's been unconscious since she arrived. Once the ... decision is made, Death will release her."
Brak considered his next words carefully before he spoke. "Korandellan, have you considered the possibility that it might be better if you let Death have her?"
The King's head snapped up in shock. "Of course not! Why would I do that?"
"She may look Harshini, your Majesty, but this girl is not what she seems. She was raised by the Sisterhood. She is spoilt, manipulative and can be utterly ruthless when she's in the mood. And those are her good points."
"If Xaphista prevails, the Harshini will be destroyed."
"You've no guarantee that won't happen, even if she lives. You don't know her like I do. Believe me, she's not the stuff saviours are made of."
"You don't like her?"
"I don't trust her," he corrected.
The King studied R'shiel for a moment and then looked at Brak. His expression was troubled. "Be that as it may, I cannot let her die. We will not survive long enough for another demon child to reach maturity, even if such a child was born tomorrow. I have no choice."
"Then the gods help us all," Brak muttered to himself.
Copyright © 2001 by Jennifier Fallon