Though soft, the hand on Arani’s shoulder set him trembling. His knees ached, but he didn’t dare stand. When the guards led him through the hall earlier, the prisoners he passed had remained silent and unmoving. No pleas for their life, no cries of pain. They were still. Their eyes were curious. The complex was silent besides his own uneasy breathing. His cell was pristine, furnished with basic adornments, comfortable even, if it weren’t for the interrogator.
The voice from behind punctured the silence. “Tell me what you saw. Exactly.”
“I have nothing to hide, my lord. I’ll tell you everything.” Arani took a deep breath. “At first it looked as if the Durani were hoping to sneak through the canyon, but they were headed off by the superior Gudanna forces. The Devil Djinn engulfed the canyon in flames and cut off their exit. A brave, uh, I mean, foolhardy Bramblehorn broke off from the Durani’s main force and dove through the flames, narrowly escaping.” He berated himself silently. Why had the Ancient Ones cursed him with a treacherous tongue?
“Where did it go?”
“I was trying to rescue my sheep. I didn’t see where it went. I swear to you. To the Khan. To all the Dominion,” Arani said.
The interrogator sighed. “Sultan Dutaka had been ordered to meet another operative in the canyon. A Durani spy had learned of the Black Widows and the Clan Sunu forces I had moved to their border. He may have even realized how dangerous that would be for their Colossus, though that’s been handled.”
“My lord, you must know the Khan? You see our paths crossed once when I was considerably younger and bolder. You know how he loved his rides of course? Well, he’d been out riding near my grazing fields.”
“I’ve certainly heard wilder claims.”
“It was a dark day, the clouds hung like buzzards overhead, but I’ll never forget how the heavens split as he approached as if the sun shone for him alone. I fetched my only wineskin to give to him. He ordered his riders away and spoke plainly with me. He said I was a fine subject, that the Dominion needed its shepherds as much as its soldiers. After we shared a drink, he said he owed me for the favor. It was not a promise he made lightly.”
The interrogator cleared his throat and gave Arani’s shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Think carefully. During the fighting did you see a ragged old woman, hobbling around the outskirts of the battlefield, clinging to her walking staff? She would have been hard to miss. Her hair was dark and wispy like the feathers of a raven.”
“No. There were no women. None at all. Tell the Khan Arani is here. I’m his man until the end. He will remember me.”
The hand tightened on Arani’s shoulder, no longer friendly. “I am the one who will be giving the commands here.”
Arani’s cheeks burned shamefully and he bowed his head respectfully. “A thousand apologies, my lord. I’m but a lowly subject of the Great Khan. Please, I beg you. He will back my claim.”
The hand lifted from Arani’s shoulder. The tips of the interrogator’s fingers danced against Arani’s neck and he fell silent as a shiver went down his spine.
“Please,” the interrogator said. “I require answers, not stories.” He circled Arani, his perfume wafting through the air. Trying to steady himself, the prisoner took a deep breath, but the scent filled his lungs and he shook in a coughing fit.
The shepherd’s eyes widened as the Spider Prince revealed himself. He was squat reflection of his father, as if the Khan had been squashed into a smaller, softer body. Arani threw himself at the his feet. “Prince Rudatha, I had no idea. Please, in all your wisdom and kindness, spare me and my too-free tongue.”
“There is no better way to dissuade doubt than through cooperation.”
“I swear I didn’t see an old woman, but I did see a boy. I remember thinking it was strange to see the boy among those fleeing, but even stranger how the knight charged his gravely wounded Sand Lion toward the boy. With the golem’s last bit of strength, he shielded the boy from a deadly blow.”
“So, the boy survived?”
The shepherd nodded his head vigorously.
“Where did the boy go?”
“I can’t say. For as the Lion died a Jeweled Harpy descended from the sky and almost crushed me with its huge talons.” Arani sat back up, straightening his back. “I fled for my life.”
“And you noticed this all when you were chasing after your flock?”
“The golems kicked up dirt and rock, fire and lightning lanced across the sky. They nearly brought the canyon down around my head. My lord you must believe me, I wanted to keep my flock safe more than anything.”
“Must I?” Rudatha stepped closer to Arani and reached for the shackles above. The stubby prince’s belly bounced above his belt as drew near, but there was no doubting his authority. His eyes gave Arani a cold shock as they looked down at him. At the Prince’s command, a guard marched down the hall and into the cell. He hoisted Arani to his feet.
Fear rose in Arani’s stomach, he could taste it like bile rising in the back of his throat. The herder tried to throw himself at Rudatha’s feet again, but the guard easily restrained him. “You have to understand the horizon was ablaze,” Arani said. “Flakes of ash fell from the sky like snow. I swear, Eretsu was coming undone below my very feet. I thought the world was ending.”
“My time is precious,” Rudatha said. “And yours is becoming exceedingly so.” Arani fought uselessly as the guard lifted him off the ground and Rudatha locked the shackles around the herdsman’s wrists.The shackles were tight and the more he resisted the more the metal bit into his wrists.
Arani’s mouth went dry and he stammered as he replied. “I was waiting for Bhagya.”
“My lover; she is Durani. I’m sorry, I know I have wronged you, wronged my family. Wronged all the Dominion, but I confess, I was supposed to meet her on the slopes, but she did not arrive. She had never been late before. So I stayed and watched the battle unfold.”
Rudatha arched a brow, but said nothing.
“If I am a traitor it is only my heart that has betrayed me,” Arani said. “I’ll do anything you ask. I promise I’ll never see Bhagya again.”
The prince shook his head in disappointment. “I’m not a cruel man, Arani. Nor I am poor host and you are my guest.” He swept an arm out toward the hall. From across the hall a blank face watched wordlessly. “As you see there is no reason to despair if you answer my questions honestly.”
“Yes, my lord. I’m your father’s loyal subject to the bone.”
“In which direction did the child escape?”
“North? East? Maybe West?” He looked for any sign of confirmation from Rudatha, but he received nothing but an indecipherable stare. “Northwest, yes that’s it.”
Rudatha paused, crossing his arms behind his back. He leaned over and peered deep into Arani’s eyes. “They say a little knowledge is dangerous, sadly you have proved it too true.”
“Please, I have a wife and children. Three sons and two daughters. Bhagya be damned they are all I care for besides the Dominion.” Arani jerked against his restraints, pleading. “The Khan said we were blessed.”
The Prince turned away from Arani and the guard pulled the cell door open for him. He stepped outside the cell and conferred with one the guard. “After you finish send word that Maha Zura’s family is to be provided for given his bravery in battle. We owe him a great debt. Before you dispose of the shepherd, inquire on the location of his family and make sure they receive what they need to survive until his sons come of age. There is no sense in making any more innocents suffer over this misfortune.” He pauses and then adds. “Oh, and replace any lost sheep as well if there is any merit to that story.”
Before he disappeared from Arani’s sight, he stopped and gave the shepherd one last look. “You see how important it is to stick with only the key details? Brevity is your only friend here. The more you say the less valuable your words become. The more you struggle against a web, the more you’re entangled.”
“I’ve told you all I know. Send word to the Khan, please my lord”
Rudatha considered the shepherds words and nodded his head in agreement. “I suppose one sliver of truth deserves another. That’s only fair.”
At the prince’s words Arani lifted his head, his shackles rattled.
“The Khan is dead.”
The shepherd opened his mouth, but for once he could not find any words. The Spider Prince disappeared down the hall. Only the echoing of his boots remained as the guard approached Arani with a hand on his sword hilt. Silence once again settled over the hall.
Artwork by Joel DuQue