The Demons of Khemas, free sample, 3. chapter

6 May

Here we go then, third chapter.

The novel has 25 chapters, plus the prologue and the epilogue.

Chapter Three

A week went by with no sign of Grath. Ever since he had first visited the tavern he had come there at least two or three times every month when he was staying in the city, and the couple of times he had left the city for a longer time, both times as a caravan guard, he had visited her and told her about it beforehand. Now it had been nearly two weeks since his last visit and an absence as long as this was something that hadn’t happened before.

Tikka was really beginning to worry about him.

Para had been absent the whole week too. That was, in its way, even more worrisome. Hadn’t the ghost just told her that it had to come back to the tavern every few days? So when she finally heard the familiar voice next to her head during her break in the hayloft Tikka’s first feeling was that of intense relief. And the next one of anger.

“Where the hell have you been?” she yelled in answer to the ghost’s greeting, then shut her mouth with an audible snap. No need to scare the customers, or her coworkers, members of both groups being somewhere nearby.

“Now what kind of welcome is that?”

Tikka gnashed her teeth and breathed in and out a couple of times, trying to calm down. When she next spoke her voice was still very tight, but at least she managed to keep it down. “Where have you been? And, if as you told me you have to come back here at regular intervals, and you have been here, why haven’t you spoken to me?”

When the voice answered it lacked its customary flippant tone. “I have been here. But I didn’t speak to you because I couldn’t. I’m sorry.”

“Couldn’t?”

“This whole situation is worse than I thought. And I’m afraid your friend is headed for real trouble.”

Tikka’s heart missed a beat. “Grath?”

“Yes. Grath.”

“What kind of trouble?” Tikka asked. The voice sighed loudly, and Tikka felt the fine hairs next to her left temple stir. Para had always been fond of theatrics. It didn’t breathe, so it had probably caused that air to move the same way it moved things, and the sigh and the moving air meant it had needed to concentrate well enough to do two separate things at the same time, which, as far as she knew, was somewhat difficult for it. She felt like strangling it. Except that of course was something impossible. You can’t strangle something that has no material throat. “Para…”

“The place Grath is interested in is the Monkey God’s temple, one of them. He started by skulking around all of them, but then he concentrated on the small one in the Southern quarter. I don’t know if he has already been inside, or done anything, because he is very hard to see when he doesn’t want to be seen. He seems to have the talent for, and at least some training in, some sort of magic. It looks like it has something to do with those tattoos of his, sometimes they make the whole man fade from my vision.” Para spoke very fast, as if in a hurry to get its story told before something interrupted.

“Go on.”

“The Monkey God’s temples are all bad places, and that particular one is the worst. I think it’s the oldest, and I know it’s the focus. They all draw from that point.”

“Do you know why? I have always been scared of them. I have never been able to figure out why.”

“You probably sense what we, the spirits, can see. There is something there. Something bad. I know there is something connected to that I should remember, from the time I was alive here, but I don’t.” The voice paused for a moment, and Tikka was almost ready to start asking questions again when it spoke again. “You have to understand, this state I’m in… it’s sometimes a lot like being asleep and dreaming. When I concentrate on something I’m lucid, but whenever I let go of that focus, even for a moment, things can become very confusing. The memories of what I have of my life are fragmented. I know I knew of something, probably not something I had personally experienced but more like a story, or a history, connected to the Monkey God, but that is all I can remember. And as for now… I can sense that bad thing in them, and besides that there is something about those temples that affects me. I can’t remember of knowing of that part before, maybe I just haven’t gone near enough to them, or maybe I have and have forgotten, but last week when I tried to follow Grath to one, it happened to me, even if I was very focused at that moment. But I fell asleep anyway the moment I got to the temple. I have been here, in the tavern, most of the time since then, and I have wandered around the city a couple of times, but I just couldn’t remember what I was supposed to be doing, or where I was, or anything. Until I just woke up just outside of the city walls. And came here.”

Tikka’s fingers found a straw from the pile she was sitting on, and she twisted and worried it while she tried to make some sense out of what Para had said.

There really was something wrong with the Monkey God. Or at least with the Monkey God’s temples. Grath had been hired to spy on them, or steal something from them. The ghost didn’t know where he was now, or what had happened to him. Or if anything had. And it couldn’t help her to find out more about the temples, because something about the temples affected it. It could not go near one.

“So… what next?” Para asked. “What do you want me to do?”

Tikka’s fingers stopped twirling the straw and she became very still. “You… would you try to go near the temples again if I asked you?”

“Sure,” the voice answered without hesitation. “I don’t know what good that would do. But if you want me to try, I will.”

Tikka thought for a moment. “No. I won’t ask you to do that, after all,” she then said, her voice very quiet. “I think we’ll have to figure out something else.”

“Like what?” the voice said.

“How about you see if you can find Grath anywhere in the city. Except the Monkey God’s temples.”

“I can do that.”

“Then please do it. How long do you think that will take you?”

“Oh, a day or two, maybe. It’s harder to find something when I’m off my own ground, but it’s still a lot easier than it is for you incarnated ones.”

Tikka smiled. Para’s voice was back to its normal smug tone. “All right. Call back when you have either found him, or are sure you won’t.”

She was answered with a receding whistling. She laughed, if perhaps a little hysterically, then settled back on the pile of hay and thought.

She wasn’t quite sure why she was doing this. She had no idea how far she would be willing to go for Grath. She knew she liked him, but how much?

She didn’t have to answer those questions now. So far what she had been doing hadn’t really required all that much from her. She’d wait and see what the situation looked like before she’d try to decide anything.

Para was doing most of the work right now. But one thing she could do, and wanted to do, was to find out more about the Monkey God. There had to be stories about that god, and its temples, around. Especially if there truly was something bad connected to them.

***

Tikka spent the next couple of days asking everybody of the tavern staff whether they knew of any stories connected to the city temples, and especially if they knew any scary stories. She was told a few typical ghost stories, like the one of the princess who was supposed to haunt one of the Fertility Goddesses temples because she had killed herself there when her father had taken her there by force to be wed to a rich prince she despised, as she was actually in love with a lowly common soldier (Para told her there was a ghost in there, but as far as the ghost knew she had been a servant girl who had poisoned herself by accident when she had taken rat poison from a priestess’ cabinet and drank it, thinking it was wine).

Entertaining, but not what she was after.

Para had found no trace of Grath.

It was beginning to look like she’d have to visit the city herself. So a few days later when they were once again running low on supplies she went to Jick and said she’d go.

“Tikka, are you sure you aren’t sick?” Jick rolled his eyes and tried to look scandalized. “Usually I have to use bribery to get you to go to the markets. Now you volunteer. And right after you had that encounter with that man there, too.”

Tikka shrugged. “Think what you will. I’d like to spend a little time there this time too. I have never done much sightseeing. So what I would like to do is maybe go there the previous evening, spend the night in one of the temple guesthouses and do the shopping the next morning. Would that suit you? I can pay for the guesthouse myself if you don’t want to.”

They were both in the kitchen and not alone. There was an audience, all the girls and Jish.

“She’s after that man of hers,” Anya said and was greeted with the sounds of general agreement. “He hasn’t been around lately. She’s scared he has finally given up on her and gone and found some city slut.”

Tikka groaned. “He is not my man. But I have to admit I am a bit worried about him. Those priests he was with the last time he was here… it’s never good to mix in the temple businesses. I just want to make sure he’s alright.”

The girls answered with a chorus of “Righttt…”.

Tikka turned and pretended to slump against the big cabinet next to her and, gently, banged her forehead on the wood. “Please, will you give up on that ‘your man’ stuff?”

“Well, if it’s like that, why didn’t you say so?” Jick said. “Of course you can go. And I can pay for the guesthouse. If you stay in the Star Goddess’ one.” That was the cheapest of the temple guesthouses, most of which were hell of a lot cheaper than any of the taverns or inns of the city to start with. They were also far more spartan than the taverns and inns.

“That’s fine. I’ll be happy enough with the Star Goddess’ house,” Tikka said and turned back to Jick, trying rather unsuccessfully to ignore the others.
“But I won’t let you go alone. You might run into that mercenary. So,” Jick turned to face the girls, “Who else wants to spend the night in Khemas?”
Both Anya’s and Mambi’s hands shot up.

“All right. But you still need a bodyguard. Mukasji!” Jick’s bellow made Tikka jump.

Mukasji? And both Anya and Mambi? Tikka rolled her eyes for the invisible participant of the gathering she was fairly sure was listening. This was getting out of hand.

She was answered with a gentle stirring of air next to the fine hairs above her temple.

“Now where the hell is that good for nothing…” Jick muttered and walked to the back door of the kitchen, then yelled again, loud enough to spook the chickens and ducks scavenging for food in the back yard.

“Mukasji!”

“Get him drunk,” Para’s voice whispered next to Tikka’s ear. “Or something. We’ll figure it out.”

Tikka nodded.

The main thing was to get into the city. They’d make the rest of it up as they went.

***

Mukasji was unhappy with the whole thing, and he had let them all know it on the way to the city. Especially since his father had made it very clear to him that he was to obey Tikka and Mambi. At least he had given up grumbling after a while, and right now just followed them with a sour face and his pike. But while he was being his normal pain in the ass self, in some obscure way Tikka was almost comforted by the young man’s presence. Mukasji was stupid, but while he was noticeably fat he was also very strong, pretty agile and  surprisingly good with his pike, a fact which the girls had witnessed in more than one occasion when there had been trouble with drunken or otherwise unreasonable swordsmen in the tavern. Mukasji had never learned how to use a sword well, but a good pikeman could be more than a match for most swordsmen.

Mukasji might not be good for much, but he was a good bodyguard. Especially since he was also big enough to be able to intimidate most people simply by his looks. The only problem for the girls was to make sure he would stick to defending them and not go and pick quarrels himself because he thought somebody was looking badly at him or his charges.

“You know, I think that maybe the biggest problem with him is that he tends to take himself and his duties too seriously,” Mambi was saying in a quiet voice to the other two girls as they were walking through the crowded streets towards one of the Fertility Goddesses temples, Mukasji a few steps behind them. “And he can’t admit even to himself, much less to anyone else, that he really doesn’t have the brains to handle most things by himself. He’d make a great underling, but he keeps on trying to be the boss.”

“Well, the poor boy is the boss’ only son,” Tikka said.

“I know we all have just loved to tease him all these years, but lately I have began to feel more and more sorry for the poor sod. He can’t help what he is.”

“Mambi, don’t say you are actually beginning to like him,” Anya said, her voice a bit too loud.

“Why not?” Mambi’s voice was defensive. Then she grinned. “Besides, have any of you ever taken a really good look at him? He would not be a bad looking guy, at all, if he could get rid of some of that excess fat.”

“And the sour expression…” Anya muttered.

Tikka stopped to take a good look of her friend’s face, then continued walking. “He is the boss’ son,” she said slowly. “It might not be a bad idea for somebody to make friends with him. Someday he will inherit that tavern.”

“And if he has a wife who he will listen to, maybe he can even keep the tavern,” Mambi said and grinned. “Besides, I think I really actually do sort of like him.”

“You and Mukasji?” Anya’s voice was almost scandalized.

“Why not? Especially since I don’t think the way I have been earning money these years would matter to him all that much, at least not if I’d quit that for him. Of course,” Mambi voice lost it’s light tone, “that is one thing I have to make sure of before I do anything else. I don’t want a husband who’d keep using my present occupation against me for the rest of my life.”

Anya sighed. “Yes. Well, I won’t have that problem. The odds I’d find a husband who’d be willing to marry a woman who is both a whore, even a former whore, and not able to have children are probably next to non-existent.”

“Are you really sure you can’t have kids,” Tikka asked. She knew Anya thought so, but she had never before tried to find out why.

“Remember the Blue Fever? I had that when I was in my early teens. Killed the rest of my family, but I lived.”

“And most people who lived can’t have kids… I remember,” Tikka said. “I didn’t catch it, but it killed two of my sisters.”

“I have never bought any of the spells for not getting pregnant from any of the Fertility Goddesses’ temples, and I have been very active when it comes to sex for years. If I haven’t gotten pregnant by now, I suppose I can’t.” Anya’s voice was bitter. She loved kids. She was always willing to look after Aster’s and Estas’ two boys, and she was the one who’d volunteer to help any of their guest who arrived with their children in tow, a rare enough occurrence but one that did happen sometimes during the religious festivals when all the more reputable places were already full.

Tikka nodded.

The street was getting even more crowded as they got closer to the Fertility Goddess’ temple. One of the Fertility Goddesses. There were altogether three rival sects for three different Fertility Goddesses in the city, and that was not the only godly occupation for which there were more than one contender here. There were also two War Gods and both a God and a Goddess of Merchants. This particular Goddess whose temple they were headed for was supposed to be one who concentrated more on human affairs, so if you either wanted to buy a spell to have kids, or having a kid of one or the other sex, or not to have kids, you visited her temple. If you wanted fertile fields you’d be better off, according to common wisdom, with one of the other Goddesses. And the third Goddess was the one for getting your chickens or cows or horses to breed well.

This trip was mostly for Mambi’s sake, she thought it was time for her to renew her spells for not getting pregnant. Besides, you could also buy spells here for preventing most of the diseases which were known to go with sex, and even Anya needed those.

Tikka suspected Anya might also use some of her money for buying a spell for getting pregnant. She felt sorry for the girl, for probably not even the Goddesses could help someone who had survived the Blue Fever.

“Tikka, you never speak of your family,” Mambi suddenly said. “Why did you leave them in the first place? I left because mine were poor and I was not bringing in as much as I was eating. Anya’s family died. But you have never said much, except that you had several sisters.”

Tikka wasn’t sure this was something she wanted to get into. But then, why not… it was no big secret as far as she was concerned. Well, a few details were perhaps better not to become common knowledge, but she trusted the girls. “Mine are all dead too.”

“The fever? You said it killed your sisters…”

“That, and… I’m originally from the east, the edge of the hill country. Have you ever heard of the Duchy of Askar?” Tikka gave a sidewise glance to the girls and saw them both nod. “And the invasion? By the kingdom of Drisna?”

Two nods again.

“All right. My grandmother was of the hill people. When she was in her early twenties she met the Duke of Askar in the hills and fell in love with him. Badly enough to forsake her own people in order to follow him to his country. Even knowing he’d never marry her.” Tikka again glanced at her friends and grinned when she saw the eager looks on their faces. Those two were such suckers for love stories. Sort of funny considering their occupations. Or the fact that at least Mambi had just proven she was quite capable to plan a marriage from an almost wholly mercenary viewpoint.

“Well, she spent a big part of her life being his mistress. From what I know they did love each other for most of their lives, even after he had married. Fortunately his wife didn’t really care all that much. Granny made sure she represented no threat to the duchess at any point. Like, she knew enough magic to make sure she didn’t have more than one child, and that that one child was a girl, so there could be no chance whatsoever somebody might try to use that child as an excuse to plan overthrowing the legitimate heir. Well, they grew old, the duke died, my mother grew up and fell in love with a farmer and married him, and granny lived with them. And then my mother went and spent the rest of her life being pregnant. Father wanted a son and all the children they had were girls. Granny said she was always afraid that may have had something to do with that spell she made to make sure she didn’t carry any boys to the duke. Pregnancy was what killed my mother in the end. She died when delivering my youngest sister. The baby died right after.”

“Well I’ll be…” Mambi said. “I think I’m getting an inkling here for why you don’t seem to value love all that highly.”

Tikka snorted. “Well, look what it got my grandmother and mother. Although I have to admit either one of them might have claimed it had all been worth it. Maybe.

“Anyway. Then there was the fewer. Two of my sisters died. There had been six of us girls to start with, now there were four, and father and grandmother. And some relatives from father’s side, but no close ones there. Then there was the invasion. Two more of my sisters and my father died then. They were at the house when a bunch of soldiers came looking for loot. I, my oldest sister and granny were milking cows. We managed to escape into the woods. Not for long though. We were rounded up and herded to one of the camps of the Drisna soldiers and spent some fun weeks there doing their laundry and cooking for them and providing evening, and night, and morning, and whenever the fancy struck them, entertainment for the men. Mostly my sister and me. But they did use granny sometimes too.”

Neither Anya nor Mambi had any comments to that.

“Well, I thought that was bad. But it became worse when the prince of Drisna was told that some descendants of the former duke’s bastard daughter were among the prisoners. I never found out who had provided him that information, not that it matters. Well, turned out he had been sort of disappointed that all the ducal family had managed to get themselves killed during the fighting. I think he had something personal against that duke, even if I never found out what exactly. So, he brought us to him. By then he had settled himself into the former ducal castle. You see, he was the younger prince of Drisna. No place for him to rule except by taking one by force, and Askar was it. So, we were taken to him and it amused him to make us his personal servants. Granny got the honor of cleaning his floors, and my sister and I, well not that much different from the camp. We did his laundry and cleaned his personal rooms and he took us into his bed during most of the nights. Or whenever the fancy struck him.”

For a while after that Tikka stayed silent. It had been years since she had last thought about that time.

“What happened,” Mambi asked in a quiet voice.

“Nothing much. That went on for a long time. My sister couldn’t take it. She killed herself after a few months. But I did take it. From the time I was thirteen until I turned fifteen and for several months after that. Grandmother did all she could to help. And she kept on teaching me those fighting skills of her people, every time we could find a moment together and out of other people’s eyes. Like, we’d be sweeping the floors and saw there was nobody in sight, and she’d teach me some of the moves you use in staff fighting with the broom handles. And in the end the people who now inhabited the castle got more careless when it came to keeping an eye on us, until one night we could sneak out of the castle and escaped. We did run into two guards on the way, but even when that old granny was still very good. I could help, a little, too. Not that much though.’

“We lived for over a year in the woods near the hills. Granny kept on teaching me all she could, about fighting, and how to survive in the wilds on your own. But she was old, and then she got sick. Very sick. And she wanted to go back to her hills to die. She didn’t want me to follow her there. She was an outcast among her own people, and I would have been even more so, as I had only one fourth of the hill blood to start with and, besides, was the granddaughter of somebody who was no longer considered of the hills. So, in the end, she left for the hills, and I left to come here. And that’s all there is to my story.”

“Sorry I asked,” Mambi said.

“No matter,” Tikka said and sighed. “I don’t really like to think about all that, but I suppose I should try to remember them at least once in a while. We… I fought with my sisters and father a lot, and I think I have always… hate is too strong a word, but I have been angry at Lila for killing herself, after we were taken to the castle. I would have needed her then, and she… well, she had always thought about herself first, I think, she was the pretty one, and the one most popular with the boys, and father’s favorite, and…” she paused for a moment, then continued, “When it all was gone, in the end she did not have that much concern for her kid sister or her grandmother, just that she was suffering.” Tikka shrugged. She was a bit surprised how much anger that memory still brought. She hadn’t thought about Lila for a long time.

They had all suffered then. Lila had not even been the one the prince had taken most often, that had been her, Tikka, with her undeveloped body and hair the same color as the deceased duke had once had. And Lila had abandoned her.

Tikka pushed the memory away, like she had always done. There were times and places when people lived in peace, and then there were the other times, and other places. And sometimes other people. And when you had to deal with those you had to learn to live with the pain. That was just the way it was.

At least for her the ones who had hurt her had been enemies, not her own people.

Except for Lila.

“We weren’t a perfect family, but I do think they do deserve to be remembered, and I’m the only one left to do that.”

“Uh,” Anya said, “you really are a duke’s granddaughter then?”

Trust Anya to notice that. “Yes. In a way. Legally I’m not. By the laws of all the people around here, since I am only the child of an illegitimate daughter, especially since the mother of that daughter was only a servant, I can’t really claim to be the duke’s descendant. I’m just the granddaughter of a female personal servant of the duke’s. That’s all.”

“Even so,” Anya said, her eyes round. “Wow.” The girl had always been a sucker for a title.

“Just keep quiet about that, will you, both of you? I don’t know how badly pissed the prince was about our escape, but it’s not wholly impossible that if he were to find out I’m still alive, and living not all that far from him, he just might do something like send someone here to kill me.” Tikka was beginning to regret telling her story. She trusted them, but at least Anya was somebody who might blab when she got a bit drunk and stopped thinking.

“Of course. Don’t worry,” Mambi said and glared at Anya, “I’ll make sure featherbrain here will forget the whole thing. At least as something that concerns somebody she knows.” Anya looked a bit concerned at that and Tikka grinned at her. That spell should be an easy one. Besides, Anya usually sounded so scatterbrained that most people, especially her customers, did seem to have the habit of simply not listening to her when she wasn’t talking about something actually relevant at the moment, like how much money they’d have to dig up for her. In one ear, out of the other, occasionally answer with something like ‘Uh huh’ or ‘Mmm’.

Besides, Tikka didn’t really worry all that much about the current ruler of Askar. She didn’t think she had never been anybody important to him, just something slightly amusing to have around. He had probably forgotten she had even existed years ago.

Once she had dreamed of revenge. Sometimes she still did. But not very often. Bad things did happen. In spite of everything she had loved her family, and if she could have changed the past and gotten them back she might have been willing to make more than small sacrifices for that. But she had no wish to throw away her own life for something as empty as a revenge. To her the invasion, and the prince, were forces that were in most ways as impersonal as a flood, or a storm would have been. Or the Blue Fever. They just happened, and sometimes it was your life which got trampled in the process. Tough. And then, if you survived, you went on with your life. What else could you do? And it was not as she was the only one whose life had been shattered by that invasion. Or by something similar. The Empire forced peace on its territory, but they were living on the outskirts. Lots of bad shit happened here, and way too often.

“Alright, here were are,” Mambi said.

Tikka raised her eyes and saw the gate to the temple courtyard in front of them. Two big statues in the shape of winged, and overly voluptuous, naked women stood on both sides of the gate. Their hands were upraised and supporting the lintel of the gateway. That lintel had been carved into the likeness of the sun and its rays, and above the sun was a third statue, a dove with raised wings. Tikka had always thought that the whole thing might actually have looked rather grand, except for the fact that there was no telling what stone had originally been used for the statues, for they were all painted. Mostly their color was a rather bright golden hue, but the winged women’s lips and nipples were red, their hair and brows and pubic areas black and their wings silver. To her the end result had always looked more like an advertisement for a brothel than something that would make one think of anything more spiritual. True, sex was considered spiritual by lots of folks – definitely including the ones who worshipped this particular Fertility Goddess – but that had not been the way she had been raised. To her people it had not been something shameful, but neither had it been something which should be glorified in worship. It was of this world, and spiritual, and worship, should be about one’s connection with the next one.

The sole reason she was here was that this temple should be a good place for picking up information about the Monkey God. Especially anything bad connected to the Monkey God. The two sects were among the worst rivals among the countless religions of the city. Especially since those two actually did share a common worldview. For the Fertility Goddess’ worshipers the Monkey God was the bad guy, the one who brought misery into the world. For the Monkey God’s congregation the Fertility Goddess was a wanton hussy and would bring the world to a miserable end if she wasn’t brought down. Outside of the city the two sects were often in open war with each other. Inside the city they had to tolerate each other.

Yes. If there was one place in the city where Tikka might find rumors about something bad connected to the Monkey God, this had to be it. How true those rumors would be was another thing.

And then there was the problem that no matter what she found out she had no idea whatsoever as how to proceed after this.

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