Mahimata – Rati Mehrotra

THE ORDER OF KALI The oldest Order of Peace in Asiana, its jurisdiction extends from the Pamir Mountains in the east to the Barrens in the west, and Tashkent in the north to the Tajik Plains in the south. The Order dwells in the caves of Kali, discovered by Lin Maya, the first Markswoman of Asiana, in the year 85 of the Kanun. Their symbol is an inverted katari encircled by a ring of fire. Fierce devotees of the Goddess Kali, they burn their dead on funeral pyres, consigning the ashes to sacred urns along with the katari of the deceased. THE ORDER OF VALAVAN The second-oldest Order of Peace, it is also the largest. It holds sway over the Deccan peninsula, the most densely populated part of Asiana. Valavian boundaries stretch from Peking in the north to the island of Cochy in the south. The Order dwells in an ancient temple: a step pyramid with nine platforms, each symbolizing a level of enlightenment. Their symbol is a striking cobra, signifying their lethal combat skills. The Valavians practice sky burial, leaving their dead on the roof of the temple for vultures to pick clean. THE ORDER OF ZORYA Northern Asiana, ruled by the Zoryans, is a land of taiga, permafrost, cold lakes, and fast rivers. Sparsely inhabited by humans, it is rumored to teem with wyr-wolves. The biggest town in the Zoryan jurisdiction is Irkutsk on Lake Baikal. The symbol of the Order is a soaring white falcon with a star on its breast. True to their symbol, the Zoryans do not stay in one place long, but move with the seasons, across the ice, through the forest, and along the windswept coast.

They drag their deceased on sleds to the North Sea, leaving them to float away on ice floes, their kataris tied to their hands. THE ORDER OF MAT-SU Rarely seen on the mainland apart from the annual clan assembly, the Order of Mat-su rules the islands of the Yellow Sea, of which the main ones are Komoli, Hiyoro, and Shikoko. They scorn the use of force, and their kataris are mostly for ceremonial purposes. The Mat-su symbol is the eightspoked wheel of life. They believe in reincarnation and do not mourn the passing of any of their number, choosing instead to hold festive gatherings to celebrate death, no matter how it comes. They speak in riddles, giving them a reputation for wisdom among the islanders and for affectation among the mainlanders. THE ORDER OF KHUR The only Order of Peace in Asiana composed of men, it was founded by Zibalik, the first Marksman of Asiana, in the year 240 of the Kanun. Zibalik trained with both the Order of Kali and the Order of Zorya before establishing the camp of Khur in the heart of the desolate Empty Place—protected by miles of cold desert in every direction. Unlike the other Orders, Marksmen stop using their clan names once they swear allegiance to Khur. The symbol of the Order is the winged horse, signifying strength, courage, and freedom.

Marksmen bury their dead with their kataris in a grove at the edge of their camp—a cluster of tents in the shelter of a massive dune. Part I From The Oral Traditions of the Order of Kali by Navroz Lan of the Order of Kali In the beginning there was darkness without thought or form. Then out of the supreme night came a dream of light and life that created ripples in the dark. Time came out of its trance and Kali took form, black-limbed and four-armed. She began to dance, faster and wilder, until the ripples became waves, and the waves became music that rose and crashed on the uttermost reaches of Kali’s thought. Like bubbles from a sea, the first gods—Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva—rose from the waves of Kali’s dance. Brahma, the god of creation, plucked a lotus from Vishnu’s navel and divided it into three parts. One part he flung below him, and that became the Earth. One part he flung above him, and that became Amaderan. The third part he flung into the outermost reaches of the universe, and this became the skies and the heavens full of stars.

But it is the Goddess Kali we worship—she who dances freely and from whose dance are woven all things of the beginning. Kali the dark one, who came before light itself, before time itself. From her womb we were all born, and to her we will return in the end. Chapter 1 The Only Worthwhile Penance The cold desert that festered in the heart of Asiana, hundreds of miles from any lake or river, had many names. It was called the Desert of No Return, the Sea of Death, or simply the Empty Place. Every year it crept forward, invading villages and killing life. Those who lived in the oasis towns of Kashgar, Yarkhand, and Yartan took care to travel in large, well-stocked caravans, skirting its borders. Even then, lives were lost, entire caravans vanishing into the maw of sudden, savage sandstorms. In the middle of the desert, twenty miles from Tezbasti, the nearest village, a vast dune curved to the north and east. On the lee side of this dune, against all expectation, was a cluster of tents: the home of the Order of Khur.

The sun sank to the horizon, casting a fiery glow on the little settlement. Somewhere, a camel coughed, a sound that was swallowed by the rising wind. In the lamp-lit interior of the Maji-khan’s tent argued two men: one young and lean, the other massive and gray-bearded. Both wore identical grim expressions. “You don’t know what you’re asking.” Barkav, the head of the Order of Khur, paced the carpeted length of his spacious tent. “If you wished for a penance, you should have come to me. This is just self-indulgence.” Rustan forced himself to stay calm. He had known this was not going to be easy.

No one, not even the Maji-khan of Khur, could understand why he needed to go away. “Father,” he began, his voice even but resolute, “being a Marksman means everything to me. Everything. This life is all I know, and giving it up is not just a penance. It is the only worthwhile penance. Not forever,” he hastened to add, seeing the stormy expression on the Maji-khan’s face, “but long enough for me to atone. I took the life of an innocent man.” “You’re still blaming yourself for that?” Barkav asked in disbelief. “You acted on my orders.” Barkav had sent Rustan to the village of Tezbasti to take down a mark, a man convicted by the elders of the Kushan clan council of murdering his own father.

Except that the poor man was innocent; he had been framed by the village’s corrupt council. “I know,” said Rustan. “But it was my blade. My katari.” They had been over this many times, and his anger and guilt over the fatal error had not lessened. If anything, the need to understand himself and come to terms with what he had done was sharper than ever. Rustan was a Marksman, one of the few men in Asiana bonded to a telepathic kalishium blade— kalishium, that could look into the heart of its keeper and know the truth. But his katari had not warned him. I am innocent, the man had cried. And Rustan had not believed him.

He could not stay with the Order any longer; to do so would be to put himself and others at risk. “I could command you not to go,” said Barkav. “I could put you under guard.” “You could also kill me, Father,” said Rustan quietly. “But you will not.” Barkav glared at him, and Rustan tried to meet his eyes without flinching. He knew the Maji-khan would not force him to stay against his will. “That’s not all, is it?” said Barkav in a rough voice. “There’s something else. What are you not telling me?” Rustan swallowed.

Now for the hardest part. He had inadvertently confessed his feelings for Kyra to Samant, the Master of Meditation, but he had told no one else. He tried his best not to think about her, the Markswoman who had tumbled out of the Akal-shin door one day and into his heart. It was against the law, the Kanun of Ture-asa, for a Marksman to give in to desire. He had fought against his attraction to Kyra with all he had before realizing how futile his efforts were. One day, in Kashgar, they had kissed. It had felt like a moment of rightness in a world gone wrong. Three days later, Kyra almost died during a duel with Tamsyn Turani, the Hand of Kali. No matter what the Maji-khan thought of him, Barkav was entitled to the truth. Rustan owed him this much.

“I made a vow,” said Rustan. “When Kyra lay dying on the floor of Sikandra Hall, Tamsyn’s blade buried in her flesh, I made a pact with . with whoever holds the strings we dance on.” “And what was your vow, Marksman?” Rustan closed his eyes. “Let her live, and I’ll not ask for more. I will leave Khur, empty-handed as a beggar.” It came back then, the wave of helpless terror that had washed over him when Tamsyn’s blade found its mark in Kyra. She had fallen to the floor, blood seeping from her wound, and he had fought against his fear and willed her to live—and she had opened her eyes. Tamsyn had vanished, as if her existence had been burned away. There was some greater power at work in all this; even if there was not, Rustan still had an oath to fulfill.

Barkav exhaled. For a time, there was silence between them. When the Maji-khan spoke again, he sounded tired. “I have long known how you felt about the Markswoman. But I did not expect you to behave like Shurik.” “I’m not like Shurik,” snapped Rustan, anger sharpening his tone. “Please, Father, don’t compare us.” Infatuated with Kyra, his friend Shurik had broken the law and used Compulsion to try to make her flee with him from Kashgar. Rustan had caught them just in time and helped Kyra free herself from Shurik’s bonds. Rustan had been sickened by Shurik’s abuse of the Mental Arts.

He had not acted out of love, but selfishness, and Kyra almost paid the price for it. He thought perhaps Shurik understood this now. The elders had made him give up his blade and meditate from sunup to sundown ever since. Rustan saw him sometimes, stumbling back to his tent after dark, an emaciated shadow of his former cheerful self. He had tried to talk to him once, against the elders’ orders, but Shurik shied away from him. Rustan had left him alone after that. The Majikhan would decide when his punishment was complete; Rustan hoped it would be while Shurik was still alive. “I know you are not like him,” said Barkav. “That is why I expected more. War is coming to Asiana.

Kai Tau is forging weapons and amassing an army. We’ll need every Marksman we have.” Rustan’s stomach twisted. Kai Tau, the leader of the outlaw Tau clan, possessed a dozen kalashiks that he had stolen from the Arikkens several years ago. The guns were a vile legacy of the Great War, and nothing could stand against them. Armed with the deadly weapons, Kai Tau had led the slaughter of the clan of Veer: Kyra’s clan. She was the only one who had survived the carnage, and she had sworn to avenge her family. If there was going to be a battle, she was sure to be at the forefront of it. “Have you heard from Elder Ishtul?” asked Rustan. Barkav had sent the blademaster of Khur to the Thar Desert to spy on the Taus.

“Not yet,” said Barkav. “But I’ve had reports from the Order of Valavan. I’ve heard rumors of the terror Kai Tau inspires in people. There are even stories that claim he is no longer quite human. Look at this.” He retrieved a rolled-up parchment from the top of the wooden trunk that doubled as his desk and tossed it to Rustan. Rustan caught and unfurled it, frowning. “It is testimony,” said Barkav, before Rustan could ask. “An account from someone who escaped the Taus.” Rustan scanned the bleak words with increasing horror: My name is Rajes Lubali.

I was born in the year 835 of the Kanun in the village of Dhakari, in the central Thar. I am nineteen years old. When the Taus invaded my village, we had some warning from one of our lookouts. We hid the children and the elderly, and the rest of us surrendered without a fight. The Taus made us kneel in the village square with our hands tied beind our backs. They picked some of the men and women—those who were young and strong—and took them away. I was not chosen, I think because I am small and weak from a childhood illness. We were all afraid of what would happen to those who had been taken away. But we were also relieved not to be chosen. We thought the Taus had got what they wanted and would leave our village.

But then a huge man with a monstrous face came forward. He did not walk like a man but was hunched like a beast. Seeing him struck fear in all of us, and some began to cry. “Look at me,” he commanded. “Behold your true king before you die.” His voice was like many voices speaking together, and we were forced to obey him. He raised his arms and I saw the barrels of two kalashiks. I realized we were going to be killed. I fell forward as the first shots rang out. Bodies dropped over and around me—among them my parents, sister, aunt, and cousin.

I lay beneath the bodies, not moving. One of the guards walked around us, shooting into the bodies. Every second I thought that I would die. But by a miracle, I survived. Late that night, long after the Taus had gone, I crept out. All around me were the dead. I checked for survivors, but no one else was left alive. Rustan knew from what Kyra had told him that this was chillingly similar to what had happened to her family. Barkav took the parchment back from him. “You see the evil we’re up against?” he said.

“We have very little time to prepare ourselves. Kai Tau aims to destroy the Orders and set himself up as undisputed king of Asiana. The Taus will bring chaos and darkness to our land. Will you leave now, in this critical hour, instead of standing with us?” Rustan bowed his head. How easy it would be to lie, to assure his Maji-khan that he would return in the blink of an eye, that he would not abandon his companions in the fight against the murderous outlaws. The truth was much harder. “Father, I—I cannot tell you that this isn’t difficult for me. It sickens me to think of leaving. Especially after reading that testimony. But I must go into exile.

I will return when my penance is complete. And I do not know how long that will take.” Barkav’s face hardened. “I see,” he said, his voice like flint. “In that case, you will relinquish your blade before you go.” Shock, ice-cold, flooded Rustan’s veins. For a moment, he forgot to breathe. He fought against the sensation of drowning and summoned his inner calm. The Maji-khan was asking him to give up his katari, the weapon he was bonded to, the weapon he’d been born to wield. And yet, wasn’t that the real punishment? To be divided from himself, to leave a part of his soul behind.

Silently, he withdrew the slim, double-edged katari from its plain leather sheath and touched the silvery blue blade. He ran his fingers along the smooth grip and stopped at the wooden cross guard, engraved with the symbol of the winged horse. The katari had been his constant companion since the bonding ceremony ten years ago. He could feel its presence like a soft thrum in a room at the back of his mind. What would it be like to have that room silenced? If he thought about it, he would not be able to do it. Rustan slid the blade back into its scabbard and held it out. Barkav grasped it and at once a gap opened up within Rustan, a chasm between two halves of himself. He tore his gaze away from the katari in Barkav’s hand, trembling with the effort to not reach out and snatch it back. “I can give you another penance,” said Barkav, watching him. He could not quite mask the concern in his eyes.

“If you wish, you will be switched day and night for a year. Only, don’t leave Khur. Don’t give up your blade. That way lies madness.” “I have my mother’s blade,” said Rustan, his throat dry. “The one that Kyra left in my safekeeping. It will keep me sane.” I hope. Barkav watched him awhile longer. “Go then,” he said finally, his voice resigned.

“May whatever you find be worth the price you pay.” Rustan bowed and slowly left the Maji-khan’s tent, one dragging step at a time. The farther he went from his blade, the sharper the agony of separation, until he could barely stay upright. His penance had begun. Chapter 2 Samsarandev Kyra woke cold and in pain. The candle had burned down, leaving her in the complete darkness of her cell. She sat up, wincing, and touched the bandage beneath her right breast. Damp again. She would have to ask Elena to change it. Why would the wound not heal? Kyra could feel every suture that Navroz Lan, the eldest of the elders of Kali, had stitched to close it.

Her chest hurt as if she carried live coals within; Tamsyn’s blade had missed her lungs and heart but torn open the muscles of her chest wall. “Rest,” Eldest had advised, “and all will be well.” Kyra was tired of resting. How long since her duel with Tamsyn in the Hall of Sikandra? A month? Two months? A year had ended, and another had begun. But time lost its meaning in the winter gloom of the caves of Kali. Outside, the Ferghana Valley lay buried in snow—a world of ghostly black and white that yielded nothing. Spring was a distant dream. She hauled herself up, suppressing a groan. No one rushed to her; Elena must have gone to her own cell to sleep. No matter, she would go out.

Perhaps the cold wind would drive away the remnants of the dreams she’d had. Dreams of doors, blood spilled, and lives brutally cut short. Dreams of a man whose face was hidden from her, but whom she knew with cold certainty was Kai Tau, the butcher of her clan. He waits for you, all these long years, to free him from the evil he has done. Not until you kill him will he know any rest. So Astinsai, the seer and katari mistress of Khur, had told her. The old woman was one of the few people alive who could forge kataris from the kalishium that the Ones had left behind when they went back to the stars. Perhaps that was where her power came from—the power to see truths veiled from others. Kyra pulled a cloak around her shoulders and stumbled out of the cell, guided by the light of a sconce in the corridor. She inched her way along the passage until she arrived at the vast, torch-lit cavern that formed the heart of the caves of Kali.

All the sacred rites were held in this immense, lightfilled space. On the walls danced Kali the demon-slayer, brandishing her elongated sword. In the middle was the raised central slab where pupils lay for the ceremony that marked their transition from apprentice to Markswoman. It seemed but a short while ago that Kyra herself had lain on it while the elders surrounded her, murmuring blessings. She had seen a vision of Tara then, the maternal aspect of the Goddess Kali: a blue-skinned four-armed woman with a garland of skulls around her neck, wearing a wolfskin skirt. The same vision had come to her when she lay bleeding in the Hall of Sikandra, Tamsyn’s blade draining her of life. Her throat tightened at the memory, and she reached for the katari that hung in a scabbard around her neck. Calm warmth emanated from it, and Kyra relaxed. She was going to be all right. She had to believe that.

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