INTO THE FIRE
Bane awoke to birdsongs and the golden fall of morning sunlight splayed across the marble floor of his spacious, glittering room. From the large bed where he lay sprawled like some lion after a sating kill, he blinked at the light, amazed that he had slept beyond sunrise; he could not recall the last time he had done so. The doors to his private veranda stood open, just as he had left them last night after arriving here. The mild temperatures made it difficult to believe that it was late December. Even more challenging to comprehend was the reality that just a few days ago he had been nearly waist-deep in the snows of the Himalayas.
Memories caused him to frown and his heart to ache when he thought of those whom he had been forced to abandon at his mountain home mere days ago. No, not his home…no longer that. He was unwelcome at the monastery that the League of Shadows used as their base. The pain of excommunication had grown more and more unbearable the farther he had traveled in his exodus. There had been moments, usually when alone at night, when he had contemplated taking his pistol in hand and ending his life, for the unknown future that lay before him was too overwhelming. But the same stubborn spirit that had carried him through twenty-five years in a hellish subterranean prison would not allow him to meekly give in to despair now.
He lay with only a satin sheet covering his half naked form, but he was not chilled. Bane much preferred cooler temperatures; prison had adapted him to such. There warmth had been achieved only by lighting charcoal braziers. Fire had been the primitive source of the monastery's warmth as well. He was accustomed to such simplicity, such hardships. That was why he lingered in bed now, simply staring around the room in disbelief at the opulent décor. He had been too exhausted last night to admire his surroundings; he had cared only to collapse amidst the pillows and sweet-smelling sheets of the broad, beckoning bed. Now, with the streaming natural light growing stronger by the minute, the room's beauty took on a new glory.
Like the breathtaking reception hall downstairs that he had passed through last night, his room was painted with colorful frescos and murals. Rich red and gold rugs matched the patterned ceiling from which hung a crystal chandelier, a smaller version of the one that sparkled in the hall last night. Even with the light fixture turned off, the chandelier seemed to produce light, catching the reflective sunlight pouring in through the outer doors and dancing it about the room. Highly carved furniture boasted comfortable cushions—also of red and gold—tempting guests to recline.
The guesthouse—more of a small palace actually, with a multitude of rooms on two levels—lay quiet, and he wondered if he was the only visitor. He had seen no one else upon his arrival except two male servants—the first had met him at the door last night and delivered him to his room where the second met him to attend to anything Bane might need. Considering the opulence of just this lesser building, he could only imagine what the main palace looked like.
It was altogether fitting that Melisande had once lived amidst such beauty, for to Bane she herself had epitomized beauty. Even now, some eleven years after her death in prison, Bane could still picture her dusky, graceful form, a young woman who gave birth to an equally beautiful girl named Talia not long after coming to the pit prison. Bane smiled beneath his grotesque mask, a breathing apparatus that covered his mouth and what remained of his nose, its function to deliver a constant medicinal vapor to alleviate the lingering pain of old injuries suffered in prison. Bane's smile was a private one when he considered Melisande's daughter, nearly seventeen years old now; no longer a girl but a young woman. A young woman whom he loved dearly, one who had physically offered herself to him as a precious farewell gift on his last night at the monastery. Closing his eyes, he relived that experience, his first lovemaking, as he had relived it many times since his exile. Such thoughts had sustained him on his long journey from Bhutan to India and the western state of Rajasthan. Had Talia known beforehand how her kindness would have such lasting effects? He wondered if she, too, thought fondly of that night, and if such memories eased the pain of separation.
Then his thoughts returned to his room, to this place, a sprawling, palatial compound near the Thar Desert, the home of Talia's grandparents. Beautiful in appearance, yes, but Bane knew the ugliness that lived here, the evil; an evil that taunted Bane, for though he wished with every fiber of his being to seek out that darkness and destroy it for what had been done to Melisande, he knew, for Talia's sake, he could not. His vengeance, at least for now, must be denied.
Bane left his bed and donned a plush white bathrobe that lay neatly folded on a low chest near the footboard. Tying the belt loosely, he padded across the cool floor and stepped out onto the veranda. The jumbled conversation of birds roosting on the rooftop railings went on unabated. The palace compound spread out in all directions. The guesthouse, a two-story stone structure of pale tan, yellow, and ivory, was situated in the center of a large courtyard, the first of several connected courtyards. Dominating everything, the main palace arose to the south, some six stories high, glimmering pale and resplendent in the sunlight spilling over the surrounding barren, rocky hills. Like the guesthouse, it was ringed with screened verandas. The architecture was an interesting blend of Islamic and Rajput with a touch of European flare.
Briefly Bane went back inside, long enough to replenish the two small canisters at the rear of his mask. As the fresh supply of opiate writhed through the small tubes connecting the canisters to the front of the mask, Bane breathed deeply then returned to the veranda, taking with him a large cushion. There in the mild warmth he made himself comfortable and closed his eyes to meditate, to carry forward the energy renewed from such a welcomed night of rest and to prepare himself emotionally for the audience that lay ahead.
"Sir?" a soft but persistent voice worked its way through Bane's mental barrier some twenty minutes later. "Excuse me for disturbing you, sir."
Bane took in one final deep, cleansing breath, then exhaled, the mask amplifying the sound. Opening his eyes, he turned only his head to see a male servant hovering near the veranda doors, a young Arab with nervous hands and a distinct inability to know where to look while in Bane's presence. The mask, of course, as well as Bane's formidable size produced similar reactions from others. When he was younger, such behavior agitated Bane, but now he almost reveled in it, knowing he was instantly at an advantage without even saying a word or making a single gesture.
"Your breakfast is ready, sir," the servant said in halting English. His gaze darted at the mask then downward, and he seemed about to inquire as to how Bane managed to eat, but discretion stayed his tongue.
"She is expecting you at ten. I will return for you in half an hour's time."
The servant hurried from the room.
Bane returned inside where a tray of food awaited him on a small table just off the veranda. His mouth twitched in a pleased smile when he found cooked oats, soft fruits and breads, along with yogurt, accompanied by juice and tea. No doubt Maysam's thoughtfulness was behind the easily-ingested selection. She knew much about him, thanks to Talia's regular letters and other forms of communication.
Before removing the mask to eat, he injected himself with morphine, a small dose to sustain him through the quick meal as well as a hasty bath. Then, dressed in clean clothes and wearing the mask once again, he was ready when the attendant returned to escort him to Maysam.
He was led across the courtyard, the sun bouncing off the pavement, causing him to squint. The courtyard boasted only a few trees, and those were small and mainly ornamental, offering little shade. The cloudless sky promised a pleasant day, and though Bane usually preferred cloud cover, today he welcomed the brightness, for it lifted his spirits and gave him an unexpected surge of hope. Such thoughts put him in mind of Daniel Goleman's study of emotional intelligence: "Having hope means that one will not give in to overwhelming anxiety, a defeatist attitude, or depression in the face of difficult challenges or setbacks." Ah, yes, but Goleman had never been in the pit prison nor had he ever been banished from all that he loved.
To reach the adjoining courtyard, they passed through an ornate gate whose archway was painted riotous colors and boasted motifs of stucco peacocks, resplendent with their fanned tail feathers painted behind them on the curved arch. This second courtyard lay broad and empty of structures or vegetation. The attendant led the way to the south gate, this one a heavy golden door whose archway was decorated with waves of vibrant green, reminding Bane of a field of unripe winter wheat. Once through, a much larger, landscaped courtyard spread out before him. Here there were gardeners and others moving about, enjoying the fresh, breezeless air. Family members perhaps? All of them turned curious eyes in his direction, but he paid them no heed, staring instead ahead at the palace rising before him at the opposite end of the courtyard. The village that lay beyond the compound walls could not be heard, as if this place were the entire universe and nothing else existed.
Bane guessed this main building to be centuries old, and he wondered how Talia's family had acquired it. Had past generations lived here or had her grandfather ripped it from the grasp of another family? Bane imagined Melisande growing up here, thought of how she had been forced from such wealth and comfort to the horrific world of the pit prison when her secret marriage to the infidel Henri Ducard had been discovered by her father. What if she had been allowed to stay here and later gave birth to Talia? How different Talia's life would be now. Bane frowned; they never would have met.
"Sometimes the memory of your loved one is just poison in your veins," Ducard—or Rā's al Ghūl, as he was known in the League—had once said to Bane in a rare moment of candor. "And one day you catch yourself wishing the person you loved had never existed, so you would be spared your pain."
Though Bane understood Rā's' point, for he knew that agony all too well, he could not imagine ever wishing that he had not met Melisande. Her kindness and beauty had stolen his heart almost immediately. And if she had not been sent to the pit, if she had not lived in the cell next to his, he would have become something else entirely, a true criminal with no humanity, and he would have never been rescued by Rā's al Ghūl following Talia's escape. Without Talia's testimony of Bane's protection, he would have been killed by Rā's and his men, as all the other prisoners save the doctor had been killed once Rā's learned of the prisoners' rape and murder of his wife.
The marble arches of the palace gate soared above Bane now, the passage guarded by two armed men. Their eyes raked him from top to bottom. Soldiers, not mere guards. Mercenaries perhaps. No doubt Melisande's father had only the best men to protect his family and his assets. Rā's al Ghūl had once been counted among such men, favored by Melisande's father until the Westerner's carnal betrayal.
Entering the gate, Bane stepped into a large, columned audience hall. Pale reds and golds patterned the ceiling here as they did in Bane's room. Illumination from sunlight through the opened sides, which led to other courtyards, made the hall's crystal chandeliers superfluous during the day, though their beauty caught Bane's admiring eye. His boots echoed on the white marble floors as he passed ivory-colored pillars, his gaze touching upon paintings that depicted ancient conquests. They passed through this cavernous hall and back out into the sun. A few steps more and they were at the door of the palace proper. More armed guards, impassive.
Once inside, the servant led Bane to a broad, sweeping staircase with rich red carpet. He noted other servants, all moving with purpose, dressed immaculately, their eyes widening when they saw the strange-looking guest. Up the winding stairs to an elevator, barely large enough for the two of them. Though an obvious modern addition, the elevator was not overly efficient, ascending far too slowly for Bane who felt claustrophobic in its confines.
Three floors upward, and they debarked, turning right and coming at last to the open doors of a long veranda that overlooked the last courtyard through which they had traveled. There the servant suddenly turned to Bane, a hand raised to halt him just inside the doors, a stern look on his dark face.
"One moment, sir," the servant said then stepped onto the veranda and moved beyond sight. Bane could hear the servant speaking to someone in Arabic, answered by a male voice. Stiffening, Bane wondered if Melisande's father was with Maysam. An immediate wave of hatred caused Bane's fingers to twitch, and he thought of his pistol, which had been confiscated upon his arrival on the grounds last night.
The servant returned. "Right this way, sir."