Chapter VIII: The Wrath of Atana

               Belihn sat atop his bahil, Eiwor, and overlooked the devastation that was the battlefield. Eiwor shifted beneath him as Belihn ran his eyes over the horizon.  The battle always ended at sunset and the medics went out to retrieve the wounded and dying before the dead bodies were collected and carted off the field in wagons.  The stalemate had gone on for weeks.  He wondered when it would end, if it would end when the last soldier fell.  The news from Draemin City-State was dire, as food dwindled, and the plague took hold.  He was angry at his aunt, the Queen of Tjish.un, for catapulting plague-infected bodies over the walls of his city-state.  He had raged when he got the missive from his mother.  His voice had risen in anguish over the silent night.  in the morning, he had told his troops what the Tjish.unen had done.  Anger had fueled the troops and they had almost won the day.  

            He dismounted and handed the reins of his mount to a nearby soldier and strode to his tent, pushing the flap aside and striding within.  

            As he paced, he prayed.  “Atana, Mother of Justice, kill them all.”

            At once, he felt a change.  The previous cold breeze began to increase in strength until the tent shook. Minutes later, the darkened skies opened up and icy rain began to fall in torrents.  He poked his head out and watched as soldiers ran for cover.  

           It begins.  The voice was in his head.  

            Belihn ducked back into his tent and looked around, spooked.

            All that was needed was the ask.

            “Mother?” he asked aloud.

            Change comes, son of the tash-tash.  A promise was given; a promise shall be granted.

            “What does that mean, O Mother?” he asked aloud.  

            Was it so easy?  Could he have ended the endless fighting with a prayer?  All those men dead…He swallowed thickly, diverting his rage to himself.

           All change has a cost.  Your people pay for you, Belihn Ekes’j.  You are christened in blood and sorrow, in pain and loss.

            He turned in a circle, his gaze locked on the underside of the tent roof.  “My family?  My children?”

            You are christened in blood and sorrow, in pain and loss.  There is a purpose for all things.  Never forget.  I give life and I take life, for my purpose.  Do you question me?

            He fell upon his knees and bent his gaze to the ground.  “Mother of Souls, Mother of Justice!  I question nothing.  I bow before you, before your will.  End this.”

            The wind outside howled, it strength threatening to uproot the pegs anchoring the tent to the soddened ground.  Thunder boomed and lightning turned the night into day.  Belihn could smell ozone as the fine hairs along his forearms rose.  

            You will lose more before the end.  Give me your all, give me everything.

            Belihn closed his eyes and prayed, opening his mind and his heart.

            A fire began in his core, the invisible flames licking along his organs and boiling his blood.  He gasped, wondering if he would die and prepared to do so, if it would mean Draemin City-State would survive.  He fell forward as he smelled burning flesh.  He heard blood curdling screams.

            I bathe you in fire, son of deceit.  I bathe you in righteousness.  I bathe you in the end and the beginning.  I cleanse the lie and birth the truth.  Holy of holies, your seed will face the greatest challenge of this world.  I give you the future, son of the tash-tash!  

            Behind his eyelids, Belihn saw gigantic seeds flying through the air, their rounded, sleek, metallic surface slicing through clouds.  When they landed, the people of Audesei fell upon their knees and worshipped the tall, lean, elegant race of beings who were impossibly beautiful, with impossibly cold and cruel eyes.  What Belihn saw next, he would recall only in fragments, for his mind could not conceive of what it was seeing.  

           People will think you mad.  But you must write your dreams into a book. Ishones Thul you must call it.  The Book of Dreams.  Future people will see its truth but those who live now will mock and question you.  Your writings will fall into obscurity, to be discovered in the future when the time is ripe for knowledge and truth.  

            He tasted blood.  Behind his eyelids, other battles raged.  Blood soaked the ground.  Fear clung to the air.

            Visions littered his mind with splashes of color, strange faces, violence and death.

            His groin boiled until he could hear screams in the distance and muffled voices.  

            You are cleansed.  You are burned clean.  Your sins are boiled away.  The beginning and the end; the lie and the truth; the shadow and the light.

            Wake.

            Belihn blinked his eyes open.  The lids were crusted with salt from tears.  It took a moment before the lids parted and he could see.  Silence beneath the spatter of rain on puddles outside.  The air smelled fresh and clean, of damp earth and northern breezes.  He was cold, even though he lay beneath a blanket.  His skin reeked of sweat and he could taste blood in his mouth.

            “Ah, you wake.”

            He turned his head.  Kurk Deshon sat on a chair next to Belihn’s cot.  He looked wan and tired.  Dark smudges stained beneath his eyes and a heavy shadow littered his cheeks.  

            “K-Kurk…”  Belihn swallowed thickly.  His mouth felt parched and his throat hurt.

            Kurk shifted forward, lifted Belihn’s head and held a cup to his mouth.  Belihn swallowed the sweet, cool water greedily, sighing as his thirst was slaked.  

            “What happened?”

            “You scared me half to death,” Kurk said.  “I heard your screams and ran in here, thinking you were being attacked.  But you were writhing on the ground, having a fit.  It took four soldiers to hold you.  I had to change you uniform, as you urinated and defecated on yourself.”

            Heat filled Belihn’s cheeks.  “I’m sorry.”

            “Never mind,” Kurk growled.  “Plague stole into the enemy’s camp last night, for this morning they have raised the black flag over their tents.  People are weakening within hours of being infected.  They die within hours, not days.  It’s uncanny and frightening.”

            Belihn made to sit up.

            “Relax,” Kurk growled.

            “Help me up; I’m fine,” Belihn groused.

            Kurk rose and helped him sit up.  

            They locked gazes before Kurk looked away.

            Belihn rose and strode naked to his washbasin.  He rinsed his mouth and washed quickly before dressing in a fresh uniform and pulling on his boots last.  He sat on a stool and brushed his hair with shaking hands, but Kurk had to braid his hair, his hands shook so hard.  

            “None of our men have gotten sick,” Kurk began conversationally.

            “We will be spared Her wrath,” Belihn replied and rose with shaky legs.  “Please fetch me some breakfast, Kurk.”

            “Right away, my king.”

            Belihn walked to the table that was the centerpiece of his tent and gazed down on the map before him.  He felt thin as a thread, hollowed out and empty.  He could recall the images he had seen and shuddered.  The future was soaked in blood, but they must first survive the present.  The future was for his descendants.  All he could do was prepare his children for what came.

            Kurk returned shortly, carrying a covered tray and set the tray on top of the map.

            Belihn pulled a chair close and straddled it, uncovering a porridge filled with dried fruit and nuts, milk and honey and spices.  He ate while Kurk pulled a chair close and straddled it as well.

            “The battle will end soon,” Belihn told his friend.  “Their casualties will be high due to disease.  Their Gods have no power in Atana’s land.  It is as it was decreed in the beginning.”

            “You sound like a High Priest,” Kurk murmured, his eyes sharp with uncertainty and the shadow of fear.

            “Don’t be afraid, Kurk,” Belihn assured him.  “You are safe, as will be your family once you are married.”

            Kurk rolled his eyes.  “What is it with you trying to get me married?”

            Belihn huffed a chuckle.  “Your descendants and mine have their own battle to fight.  They must do so together.  This is all bigger than your selfishness, Kurk.”

            Kurk grunted and watched him finish his meal.

            Belihn picked up the mug of tea and sipped it.  “The scepter was not married to the altar.  I must take the vow of a high priest.  Atana wants a theocracy.  Atana will get a theocracy.”

            “And Lahn Tjashensi-Obeli?” Kurk asked.

            “I will speak with him.  He misunderstood what the Goddess required.  He thought if he married my father, then the scepter would marry the altar.  But that was his desire interpreting Her decree.  Both the High Priest and my father betrayed Her by letting their selfish wants warp their visions.”

            “And you believe your interpretation to be correct?” Kurk asked.

            “Yes.”

            “Then so be it.  I support you.”

            They clasped forearms and Kurk gave him a disarming smile.  “We live in interesting times, but we also live in great times.”

            “A mixed blessing,” Belihn agreed and rose.  

            Donning their wax treated cloaks, they stepped out into the icy morning.  The rain had tapered down to a drizzle.  The camp was filled with an eerie silence that was like a pall over everything.  The smell of cooking fires clung to the air.  As he and Kurk strode over puddles, soldiers saluted and bowed.  They watched Belihn with awe and some disconcertion.  

            “Great King of the Torahni!”

            Belihn stopped and turned.

            “Tauk-na of the Isemi of the North,” Belihn greeted the other formally.

            They grasped forearms.

            Penoi Masino was broad and handsome, wearing a fur lined cloak and nothing else on his upper torso.  He wore a colorful wrap that was the Isemi traditional costume around his midriff.  The wrap fell down to his knees and his strong, broad feet were bare.  He wore bands of gold in his upper arms and beaded bracelets on both wrists.  His thick hair fell unbraided down his broad back.

            “Your Goddess has smote the enemy with the swift bleeding death,” the Isemi leader murmured.  “We have lost many warriors for your cause, but we have gained much.  It has been a glorious battle, but I think it is done or will soon be.”

            “I think so, too,” Belihn agreed.  “Walk with us.”

            The three headed down between the rows of tents towards the battlefield.  Behind them, Isemi warriors followed their king.

            At the edge of the battlefield, Belihn stopped and gazed across the vast expanse towards the enemy camp.  He could see the black plague flags limp in the bland late morning light.

            “Send a vinah with a note,” Belihn told Kurk.  “Let them know we would hear terms now or wait until what remains of their armies succumb.”

            Kurk saluted and strode away, back the way he had come and to his tent.

            “And now, Great King?” Penoi Masino wanted to know.

            Belihn smiled at the Isemi.  “Now we wait, Tauk-na.  We’ve bled and died enough.  This ends now.”

            The kings stood side by side while Kurk brought out a carrier vinah with the note strapped to one of its legs.   With a nod from Belihn, Kurk released the winged reptile.  It took off towards the enemy camp with a flap of leathery wings.

            Commander Nosjka’h Olivaro Tione and Captain Kalthos Gulehn Askar joined Belihn, Kurk and Penoi Masino at the edge of the battlefield.  The leaders discussed the possibility that the enemy would not surrender.  The battle would continue until one side or the other prevailed.  Even the Isemi were tired of fighting.  

            No answer came that day, but neither did the enemy rush to take up arms against them.  The battlefield remained deserted.  Days passed.  

            Belihn grew restless and uncertain as the days piled behind him.  He prayed hard.  The more insecure he grew, the harder he prayed, refusing to allow doubt to assail him.

            Finally, a note came via carrier vinah.

            Kurk brought it to Belihn’s tent.    

            The commander entered Belihn’s tent without announcing himself.  “They’ve sent a response!”

            Belihn thanked his friend and took the tiny capsule, shaking out the small note within.

            He unfurled the tiny scroll and held it to the light of the sole candle in the tent.  

            “The Queen of Tjish.un is dead,” Belihn read.  “Will you treat with her daughter?”

            “Is it a trick?” Kurk wondered out loud.

            “I don’t know,” Belihn replied with a frown.  “But answer them.  Tell them we will treat with whatever representative they deign to send.”

            Kurk hurried to do his bidding.

            In the meantime, Belihn went to the tent flap and stepped outside.  He ordered three guards to fetch Penoi Masino and the two Yllysian commanders.  Then he returned to his tent to don his dress uniform.

Chapter VII: Austerity

            Irai’h strode along the boulevard towards Ryeo’h’s townhouse.  New austerity measures implemented by the Regent limited the days the open air market could sell staples and cooked food.  The siege promised to go on for months, until their forces could return to assist the city-state.  Already, the price of staples like grain and raw vegetables and fruit had skyrocketed.  The Regent had given an order to the villas to grow vegetables and fruit for the city-state in order to stave off the starvation that resulted from long sieges.  Tjish.un had destroyed the Torahni navy that had been at port seven weeks prior.  The ships had burned for days and the air still reeked of acrid smoke.  The sailors manning the Torahni navy had either been killed outright or taken as prisoners back to Tjish.un.  

            Irai’h grimaced as he turned down a smaller street, away from the empty marketplace.  When he reached Ryeo’h’s home, he took the front steps two at a time and used the knocker to announce his presence.  

            The butler opened the door and bowed.  “Lord Asjur.  Welcome.  Everyone is in the main sitting room.”

            “Thank you, Shen.”

            “Of course, my lord.”

            Irai’h entered the sitting room to a hushed atmosphere.  The children were playing quietly in a corner and did not even notice him when he entered.  The smallest, Kher, now six months old, looked up from his blanket on the floor between the settee and the armchairs and gave Irai’h a toothless grin, his chin shiny from spittle.  

            “Good afternoon,” Irai’h murmured into the silence.

            The adults rose and turned to him, Ryeo’h nodding his head at Irai’h.

            “Welcome, Irai’h,” Ryeo’h said softly.

            Banela and Sjaji curtsied.

            Aosji and I’a’sji both bowed.

            Ryeo’h turned to his wives.  “Please take the children upstairs.”

            The women did as he asked, Sofi and Alis whimpering their discontent before dissolving into sobbing.

            When the women and children had gone upstairs, Ryeo’h closed the sitting room doors.  “Have a seat, my friends.”            

            The men sat down and watched silently as Ryeo’h began to pace.

            “Our plans have obviously changed,” Ryeo’h said.  “The siege can go on for months, if not years.  It all depends on the battle at Le.ath Plain.  I had hoped we could go to South Torahn to attend Princess Alida’s wedding, but now everything is up in the air.  Although, the services of the Reformist Lord may not be necessary now that King Belihn is on the throne.”

            Irai’h shifted.  “We should wait before we decide our services are no longer needed.  Belihn seems sincere, but, as you say, everything is up in the air.”

            Ryeo’h nodded distractedly as he continued to pace.  “Things are going to get difficult for a while.  Once starvation sets in, disease follows.  I don’t know how much food is stored at Draemin Castle, but the denizens of the castle and its protective forces will always eat first before the rest of the population.  I’ve begun to grow food in our villa.  I will make sure your families get some of that food.”

            Irai’h waived a hand.  “It’s just me, Ryeo’h.  I’ve already begun to ration my food.”

            Ryeo’h sighed.  “All staples rot after a while.  Grain lasts a bit longer than other types of food, especially if we use simi stones to prolonge freshness.  But we’ve been cut off from the rest of the world.  SImi stones can preserve food only for so long. Eventually, starvation will set in and we will have the plague on our shores.”            

            The friends glance at one another and then drop their gazes.  

            Irai’h pushed down his terror and swallowed thickly.  “We knew it would be hard to change our city-state.  Goddess help us!”

            They hunkered down around Ryeo’h’s card table and began to take inventory of food stores, including grain supplies, dried meat and nuts.  They made a vow to share all supplies amongst their families.  Then they made plans for when the food ran out.  

            Irai’h glanced at Ryeo’h.  He wasn’t sure what he’d do if he had children and spouses to worry about.  Ryeo’h was ruthlessly efficient and capable, but he was just a man after all.  He couldn’t defeat the Tjish.unen armed forces and he couldn’t produce food from thin air.  

            “We have to be brave,” Irai’h told the sombre silence.  “This will probably be the hardest times we face in our lives.”

            Ryeo’h rubbed his eyes.  He looked worn down.  “You are correct, Irai’h.  This will be hard enough that some of us might not survive.  People will die. Children and women will die.”  His voice dropped to a whisper.  “My own children and women may die.”  He shook his head.  “Goddess help me!  We must not lose our faith or our persistence.”

            Then the days turned into weeks and further austerity measures took effect.  Beggars began to line the streets, asking for food.  The open air market closed indefinitely.  Throngs of people made their way to Draemin Cathedral as the High Priest set a podium on the grounds and held mass on a daily basis.

            As the weeks gave way to months, the Regent imposed curfews, limiting only from sunrise to midafternoon when people could roam the streets.  Lean, haggard soldiers brutally enforced the curfews.  Irai’h had seen more than one curfew breaker beaten to within an inch or his life then carted away to the hospital.

            Warm anasj gave way to a sweltering dibasj.  No one could recall the last time dibasji temperatures soared so high, resulting in long rainless days.  The days piled one upon the other until drought threatened the last of the food supply.  The city was out of seeds, so if the food on the vine was destroyed, they would have nothing else.  Dry dibasj gave way to a rainy, cold haltath.  It rained so much, the remaining crops rotted on the vine.  

            The Tjish.unen began to catapult the bodies of plague victims over the walls of the city-state.  The bodies were filled with festering pustules and reeked of disease.  Soldiers and citizens were conscripted to cart the bodies into the countryside and collect them in vast trenches carved out by the citizenry.  But the damp conditions did nothing to deter the spread of the disease.  By the end of the season and the beginning of kamaran, the black flag was raised into the sky over the ramparts of the city walls.  Quarantine was imposed and brutally maintained by groups of lean, haggard-looking soldiers.  Bodies were carted by wagons into the countryside in the morning and evening.

            Irai’h, watching from the window of his apartment, wondered how many bodies have already been carted out into the countryside.  Hundreds of plague-ridden bodies had been catapulted over the walls by the Tjish.unen forces.  So many, the bodies could not be disposed of quickly enough to prevent the disease from taking hold.  It had been days since Irai’h had left his apartment.  Hunger and its accompanying symptoms were his constant companions.  His days passed in a fog of lightheadedness and aimless thoughts.  He thought of attempting to leave his home to try to reach Ryeo’h’s home, but he had seen too many quarantine breakers beaten to death in the street.  The brutality of the soldiers seemed to know no bounds.  

            Whispers of cannibalism began to circulate throughout the city-state.  Whenever Irai’h left his apartment to talk to his neighbors, the topic would inevitably arise.  That soldiers were killing citizens and consuming them.  That they could not leave their homes for fear of death.

            As Athal’Atana approached, the beginning of a new year, Irai’h wondered what had become of the city forces at Le.ath Plain.  It had been over eight months now. Irai’h was beginning to lose hope and thought he would die of starvation before the city-state was rescued.  No news came out of Draemin Castle.  Silence blanketed the city-state like the snow blanketed her streets and the roofs of her structures.

            Hunger riots broke out occasionally and were brutally put down by soldiers wielding clubs.  Irai’h, watching from his window, saw more than one person trampled under the hoofs of bahil or lirtah.  Blood stained the snow in a glaring display until more snow fell.      

            There were times when Irai’h dreamed.  The dreams were of food.  Of eating and eating and never feeling full.  He dreamed of Belihn on a throne made of bones.  He dreamed of Ryeo’h pacing and talking, although his words sounded distant and muffled.  Soon, he didn’t go out of his apartment even to talk to his neighbors, for he had heard the coughing and retching coming from neighboring apartments.  One evening, he stole into the hallways and saw the black swath of cloth nailed to doors.  Plague had stolen into the building.  Horrified, he hurried back to his apartment and locked his door.

            But as the days piled one upon the other and Athal’Atana came and went, Irai’h came to the realization that he could conceivably die alone and he didn’t want to.  So, that evening, he waited until long past midnight and snuck out of his apartment with a bag filled with clothes.  He bundled himself under his kamarani cloak and hurried into the back alley.  From there, he made his slow and careful way to Ryeo’h’s row house.  The journey, which should have taken twenty minutes at the most, stretched to several hours as he waited in the shadows for roaming groups of soldiers to pass his hiding spots.  By the time he made it to Ryeo’h’s front door, he was shaking from exhaustion and weakness.  Ryeo’h’s front door was unmarked, so he made his slow way up the steps and knocked on the door.

            Ryeo’h himself opened the door.  “Goddess, Irai’h! Come in.”

            It was early morning by then and Irai’h wondered what Ryeo’h was doing up so early, but he said nothing as he followed his friend to the sitting room.

            Ryeo’h looked whip thin, his face gaunt and pale.  He said nothing as he sat down in an armchair and watched as Irai’h set his bag down and took a seat across from him.

            “I won’t eat your food, Ryeo’h,” Irai’h said softly.  “I just…I don’t want to die alone.”

            Ryeo’h smiled wanly.  “I will spare you some food, my friend.  We killed our two carriage lirtah and smoked the meat.”

            “I can’t eat your food, Ryeo’h–“

            “This isn’t up for discussion, Irai’h,” Ryeo’h snapped.  “No one dies under my watch.”

            Irai’h swallowed with some difficulty and nodded.  “Thank you. How is your family?”    

            “We lost Kher,” Ryeo’h said, his voice breaking.  “Banela stopped producing milk and the child died of starvation.  He wouldn’t eat anything else, no matter how we tried.”

            “I’m sorry,” Irai’h murmured, recalling the young child and his guileless smiles.

            Ryeo’h nodded.  “Thank you.  Dahni is listless and mostly sleeps.  He won’t make it, either.  Sjaji is unconsolable.  Dahni is our youngest child, after Kher.  Her youngest child.”        

            “Yes,” Irai’h murmured.  “And the servants?”

            “I let the servants go; I could not feed them any longer.”  He rubbed a hand over his mouth and shook his head. “I’a’sji and his mistress both died of the plague.  His servant sent us a message.”

            Irai’h gasped.  He thought of the tall, broad, handsome I’a’sji A’kir’h and could not conceive of him gone.  He had been a part of their group since the beginning.

            “And Aosji?” he asked.

            Ryeo’h shook his head.  “I haven’t heard hide nor hair from him.  I hope his family is well, but chances are he might not survive.  My sources tell me the plague is killing at a rate of 80 percent of the infected.”

            “So, it is particularly virulent this time around,” Irai’h murmured.  He sighed and leaned his head against the backrest.  He was shaking.

            Ryeo’h stood up.  “Give me a minute.”

            Irai’h heard his friend’s footsteps receding into the row house.  He must have fallen asleep, because then he was being shaken awake and a strip of meat was being pushed into his hand.  He looked at the woody looking meat and brought it to his mouth. It was tough but salty-sweet.  He chewed mechanically, his stomach giving a lurch of protest before it settled down.

            “Look in my bag,” he told Ryeo’h.  “I brought a bag of grain that I’ll share with your family.”

            Ryeo’h did as he was told, lifting the container of grain from the bag.

            He glanced at Irai’h and nodded, swallowing thickly.  “Thank you, Irai’h.  We’ll stretch it out into gruel.”

            Irai’h smiled wanly and finished his meat while Ryeo’h took the container to the kitchen.

            When Ryeo’h returned, they sat across from each other.

            “This is worse than I suspected it would be,” Ryeo’h said into the silence.  “I have no hope of surviving this.”

            “I can’t say I have much hope, either,” Irai’h told his friend.  “During my most treacherous and blackest moments, I wonder if our hopes for equality were of any value.  Was it worth dying for, doing away with the caste laws?”

            Ryeo’h nodded.  “It is worth dying for a cause if the cause is just.  Our cause is just.”

            “Yes, I know that during times when I am not mired by depression.  I have these lucid moments when everything makes sense.”  He chuckled mirthlessly.  “But those are few and far between.  I mostly sleep my days away, hoping one of these days I won’t wake.”

            “Hush,” Ryeo’h chastised and made the sign to avert evil.  “We’ll make it, Irai’h.  Goddess help us, it can’t be much more that our troops return!”

            “It is hope,” Irai’h assured his friend.  He said nothing that his hope was dying a piece at a time with each passing day.

            Ryeo’h led him upstairs to an empty bedroom, where Irai’h set his bag on the floor, removed his thick cloak and shoes and climbed under the bedclothes and closed his tired eyes.  He felt hollowed out, a sliver of the man he used to be.  He said a prayer to the Goddess, assuring Her of his devotion and asking Her for swift passage into the next life.  He did not have Ryeo’h’s hope anymore.  He wasn’t even sure he wanted to survive anyway.   It would be a long time before Draemin City-State returned to her previous glory.  He wasn’t sure he would see if, and he found he didn’t care in the least.  He allowed sleep to take him.

Chapter VI: News Arrives

            Belihn leaned into the ship’s railing, closing his eyes against the soft, warm, briny breeze.  He had spent most of his spare time with Kahl here, on deck, watching the land as the ships sailed east.  Azura.Dha, the Bay of Silence, with its jeweled waters, allowed for long, placid days.  This early in the season of anasj there were few ocean storms, most of them taking place in that tumultuous body of water, the Raiye’Itah.  The weather warmed more and more the farther the days slid from kamaran.  The days grew longer and there were few days filled with rain showers.  Belihn turned his gaze to the south.   The vacant land was a riot of colors from wild grasses and flowering plants.  

            Their plans had changed.  Belihn wanted to cut time off their journey by sailing into the H’aj, which ended in Le.ath Plain, where the battle would take place.  That choice would strip weeks off their journey, although they did not know if they would arrive before or after the enemy forces.  Le.ath Plain was a vast flat land filled with wild grasses.  The land was a great equalizer and it wouldn’t matter if they reached it before or after the enemy.  There was no rise in land to give an army an advantage.

            “Your Majesty.”

            Belihn turned, a smile ready on his lips for Commander-General Deshon.  At the look on Kurk’s face, Belihn sobered.

            “What is it?” he asked, tamping down the surge of anxiety that rushed through him.

            “Draemin City-State is under siege,” Kurk replied without preamble.  He handed Belihn a small piece of cloth.  “This arrived via carrier vinah.”

            Belihn read the tiny script in his mother’s hand.  He cursed.

            “This may be good, your Majesty,” Kurk said.

            Belihn frowned.  “How?”

            Kurk leaned against the railing.  “Tjish.un is throwing her might at the city-state.  She won’t be supplying our enemies with much.”

            Belihn rubbed his forehead.  “Goddess!  They will starve them out then they will use them for ransom–“

            “Don’t,” Kurk warned.  “We will do what we came to do, King Belihn.  The Regent and Ambassador Tah’duk’h will take care of Draemin.  If we turn back, we concede the battle.  We will lose the alliance of the Isemi if they even suspect our actions are due to cowardice.”    

            Belihn fisted the piece of cloth.  “You are correct, of course.”

            “The High Priest will keep the people in check,” Kurk told him.  He placed a hand on Belihn’s shoulder.  “Have courage and faith, my king.”

            Belihn sucked in a lungful of air then released it.   His hands were shaking.

            “I was right,” he told Kurk.  “They were just waiting for us to reach the horizon before attacking our precious city.”        

            Kurk studied his face for a few seconds.  “Your father wants his throne back.  He’s probably there.”

            “Thank Goddess he himself reinforced the walls of the city-state,” Belihn told his friend.  

            Kurk grimaced.  “He knows how much food we have stored.  He knows when the citizens will begin to starve.”

            Belihn shuddered.  He thought of his Queens and his unborn children.

            “It is with the Goddess,” Kurk said, reading his face.  “You must stay focused and strong, Belihn.  Your unborn children may not survive.  If that is the case, then it was never meant to be.”

            Belihn scowled.  “Easy for you to say!  They are not your future!”

            Kurk flinched.    

            Belihn sighed and shook his head.  “Forgive me, my friend.  That was unconscionable.”

            Kurk gave him a weak smile.  “No.  You are correct.  I’m sorry if I sounded callous.”

            They turned as one to the railing and gazed ahead, towards the east.

            Belihn said, “I have been thinking, Commander-General.  How would you like to be made Warlord of North Torahn?”

            Kurk whipped his head to the side to look at him.  “What?  The Warlord has never been a commoner, my king.”

            “And the King of Draemin City-State has never been a half-commoner,” Belihn shot back.

            Kurk blew out a breath and scritched the shadow of beard on his cheek.  “Belihn, my salary is excellent.  You are very generous–“

            “I need you to stay here, in North Torahn,” Belihn told him bluntly.  “I need your expertise to reorganize once we are victorious.  Once the clans are crushed, I intend on conquering the city-states one by one.  I need a Warlord to be able to do that.”        

            Kurk cocked his head.  “I had no idea you had such plans.”

            Belihn shook his head. “What good is changing the laws of Draemin City-State and leaving the caste system in place in the rest of North Torahn?  I don’t intend to rule all of it, my friend.  I will leave governors in place, providing them with new constitutions with which to run their city-states.”  He looked at Kurk.  “These governors will be commoners from nouveau rich families.”

            “To limit corruption?” Kurk asked.

            “Yes.  I don’t know if these positions will be hereditary or democratic,” Belihn told him.  “I tend to the democratic, if you must know.  That way, a family can’t breed a despot.”

            “Greed is part of hu’an nature,” Kurk told him.  “You can’t control the future, you can try to influence it.  It is like throwing seeds onto the ground.  Some will take and grow and some will rot and die.”

            “Nice analogy,” Belihn said and laughed.  “You are a poet, my friend.”            

            Kurk blushed but sketched a jaunty bow.  “I aim to please.”

            Belihn sobered.  “I know you want to travel, Kurk.  You want to explore the world.  As Warlord, you would travel throughout North Torahn and formalize treaties with Tjish.un, South Torahn, Ynha, Yllysia, and other nations.  But we must stabilize North Torahn first.”

            Kurk sighed.  “You really think I’m so capable, my King?  The Warlord is the third highest rank, below the kIng himself and the High Priest.”

            “You have never betrayed me, Kurk,” Belihn replied.  “You are honorable, a fierce and capable fighter and strategist, and a loyal friend.  Yes, I think you would do nicely in the role of Warlord.”

            “Then I will take it, my friend, if I survive the Battle for Draemin City-State.”

            Belihn smiled at him.  “You’ve been talking to Kahl.”

            Kurk shrugged.  “He is very thorough in his research.”  

            Belihn warmed inside.  “He is good at his job.”

            Kurk gave him a knowing gaze.  “You like young Mister Oh’nahry, don’t you, my kIng?”

            Belihn ducked his head, feeling his cheeks burning.  “He is…I am courting him.”

            Kurk smiled approvingly.  “You have good tastes, my king, and a knack for drawing to you men of integrity.”

            “The Goddess gave me good sense,” Belihn agreed.

            Kurk sobered.  “What of your dreams, Belihn?”

            “I have not had one in a few days,” the other said.  “But I’ve been writing them down and Kahl is helping me interpret them.  He thinks I am dreaming of the distant future and a threat that comes from beyond the Sahi’Rhath.”

            “No one’s been far on that ocean,” Kurk mused.  “If the world is as large I suspect it is, there may be many lands between there and here, many places for different kinds of races.  But since their ships travel through the air, as you foresaw, they may be from another planet altogether.  That is how our ancestors got here, isn’t it?”

            Belihn turned to face his friend.  “That is the legend.  I’m not sure I believe it, but that is what is generally accepted.”

            “If the legends are true, then the arrival of another race will awaken the Sentinels,” Kurk reminded Belihn.  “That is what the Holy Soulkah states.  The Sentinels will protect us.”

            “What can five persons do against a race of people so advanced, they can travel through the air?” Belihn asked.

            Kurk shrugged.  “The Sentinels are immortal, like the Goddess.  They may have knowledge to impart to us.”

            Belihn waved a hand.  “All of this is conjecture.  We don’t know if my visions are true for our world, our dimension.  Doesn’t the Holy Soulkah speak of dimensions?”

            “I don’t think the Goddess would give you visions that don’t impact us,” Kurk said and smiled.  “Nice try, my King.  I think this race will encounter ours and it will be our children’s bane.”

            Belihn swallowed.  “I just see their arrival.  I don’t see after that, but there are battles and blood, disease and death.”

            “Such is the lot of mortals,” Kurk murmured.  He sighed.  “I’d better inform the other commanders of the news from home.  Excuse me, my king.”    

            Belihn watched his friend stride away then turned back to the fore of the ship.

***

            Belihn and Kahl lay facing each other on Belihn’s wide bed.  The cabin was quiet, the only sound coming from the open porthole that of the slap of water against the side of the ship.  Belihn traced the side of Kahl’s face with the back of his hand.  Kahl closed his eyes and sighed.  Belihn took the opportunity to study the young man’s even, handsome features.  Kahl had long, sooty eyelashes and the honey-dark complexion of the common folk of North Torahn.  When he opened his eyes, Belihn studied their hazel depths stained with blues and greens and browns. He cupped the young man’s cheek and leaned forward.

            They kissed.

            Kahl’s mouth was slightly chapped.  Belihn deepened the kiss until Kahl parted his lips and Belihn could dip his tongue and taste the young man’s essence.  Kahl scooted closer until they were connected tightly, their chest heaving against each other, their groins grinding together.  Belihn’s kauon filled with blood and lengthened.  He could feel Kahl’s eager response.

            Belihn pulled back and gazed into Kahl’s soft, aroused eyes.  He swallowed.

            “I don’t believe in sex before marriage, Kahl,” he told the youth.  

            “We are only kissing,” Kahl responded blearily.  

            Belihn chuckled.  “I know.  What I’m trying to say is, if we like each other well enough…”  He sighed in frustration, not wanting to scare Kahl.

            “We can wait and see what happens, Belihn,” Kahl replied gently.  “We don’t have to concoct a plan for everything.  I want to see where this goes first before I contemplate marriage.  Can we go slow and learn each other before we make plans?”

            Belihn swallowed.  “Yes, of course.  It’s just…everything is so uncertain for me, you know?  I feel like I am thrashing in a deep ocean with no land nearby, no footfall beneath me.  I thrash and thrash and get nowhere.”

            Kahl pecked his lips again.  “That is your perception, my dear.  We are sailing towards a battle you planned for.  We are courting after you approached me.  Each time you fall into the water, you find a small island to rest upon.  It just seems uncertain because the battle yawns before you with an uncertain outcome.”  He smiled at Belihn.  “You have a Goddess on your side and She has given you Her support and assurance.  I like you very much and want to be courted by you.  You just have to gaze past your uncertainty to see things are aligning for you, my king.”

            Belihn sighed.  “I forget sometimes, o wise one.  That is why I have advisers.”  He rolled onto his back.  “How is your book going?”

            “You are angry,” Kahl stated.

            “Not at you,” Belihn assured him.  “Tell me.”

            Kahl shifted closer but did not touch him.  “It goes well.  I’ve interviewed some thirty soldiers.  I will pick out the most compelling narratives to compile the book.”

            “There is still the battle ahead and life during that turmoil.” Belihn looked at the young man.  “We have news from home.  Draemin is under siege from Tjish.un.”

            Kahl gasped.  He sat up.  “What?”

            Belihn looked at the rafters.  “Calm down.  My mother and Ambassador Tah’duk’h will take care of everything.  The Ambassador was a commander in the Yllysian forces before he became a diplomat.”

            Kahl stood up.  “But…what does this mean for Alona?”        

            Belihn swallowed, his throat clicking.  “I don’t know.”

            “I must go back,” Kahl stated.

            “No.  You must not.”

            “But, my King–“

            “That is an order,” Belihn told him coldly.  “If you go back, you won’t be able to enter the city-state.  You would be arrested and possibly killed.  What good would you be to your sister then?”

            Kahl knelt on the bed. “You aren’t going back?”

            “I have a battle to fight,” Belihn told him.  “Once the battle is fought, we will return.  I can’t go against the Goddess.”

            Kahl frowned.  “You’ll leave the city-state alone during this time?”    

            Belihn stood up.  “You seem to forget I have a family there, too.  I must do what is best for everyone.  If I turn back now, I lose the alliance of the Isemi and Draemin will face future sieges.  The enemy must be broken on Le.ath Plain.  That is our only recourse.”

            Kahl scowled.  “You are being shortsighted–“

            “Watch your tone, Mister Oh’nahry,” Belihn said carefully.  “You are speaking to your King.”

            Kahl shifted off the bed and straightened his back.  “Yes, I am.  Apologies, my liege. I won’t forget again.”

            He whirled about and stalked from the cabin, slamming the cabin door behind him.

            Belihn sighed and shook his head.  So much for romance, he thought bleakly and went to the porthole to gulp cool air and calm down.

Chapter V: At Home

            Regent Divita stood at the southeastern tower and gazed towards the Draemin Bay as if she could see the battle taking place.  In the distance, she saw tendrils of smoke dissipating into the air.

            “As soon as Belihn’s ships were lost to the horizon, they attacked.”

            She turned to Ambassador Torim.  “Send the vinahs west.  Make sure my son knows that Tjish.un is attacking our city-state.”

            The Ambassador bowed.  “Done, my lady.”  He turned on his heels and hurried away.

            “All will be well, your Majesty,” Prei-Serren Lahn murmured.

            Divita bowed her head and sighed.  “I wish I had your faith, Prei-Serren.”

            “I have visions,” he told her.  “She is always in my thoughts.”

            She began to pace.  “I wish I knew if this was a two-pronged attack or if they are going to throw their entire forces at the city.”

            “There will be a battle in Le.ath Plain,” Lahn said to her.  “What is good for our forces is that now the enemy is split.”  He studied her features for a few minutes before he placed a hand on her slender shoulder.  “Be brave and strong for your people.  There will be much suffering before the day is done.”

            She swallowed the lump in her throat.  “Please, Prei-Serren.  I wish to pray.”

            They knelt facing each other and held hands.  

            Divita wanted to weep.  She was not made for this!  She was a mother, not a regent!

            “Calm your doubts,” Lahn said softly.  “Pray and give your doubts over to Her.”

            He began to pray and she echoed his words:

            “O Lady of Seasons!  Bringer of joy, peace and death!

             Queen of Heaven,

             Sovereign of Torahn.

             Give us strength!  Wipe away our sorrows and doubts

             That we may love you with a pure heart.

             Show us the way, O most perfect Mother!

             Make our arm strong, that we may conquer our enemies

             Make our hearts sing, that we may adore you in song

             Make our minds clear, that we may hear you,

             O most perfect Sovereign!”

            By the time they were done praying, Divita was trembling and her cheeks were wet with tears.  

            Lahn wiped them away and helped her rise.  “I will be here, your Majesty.  I’ve moved into my old suites to be close to you.”

            Divita rubbed a cheek with a cold, shaking hand.  “Thank you, your Holiness!  I need all my allies near me.”

            He bowed to her.

            When he was gone, she looked towards the east once more, her eyes taking in the thin tendrils of smoke in the horizon.  She swallowed thickly and turned away, hurrying to her suites.

            T’arehn, Ilmi, Tifa and Kilen were in the sitting room.  They were conversing in restrained tones, although the lines of their bodies bespoke of stress and uncertainty.  When she swept into the sitting room, they stood as one, talking to her as one.  

            She held both hands up.  “Peace!  One at a time.”

            Tifa took two steps forward.  “Mother!  What are we going to do?”

            Divita sighed.  “Please sit.”

            The young people sat down and she sat last in an armchair facing them.  She took in each beautiful young face and her heart broke.

            She rubbed peevishly at her forehead.  “The enemy has cut off our lines of supplies and has destroyed the navy that was in the harbor.  We are under siege.  I have been told that it will take a long time before we are free, for the Battle of Le.ath Plain will take place also. I will do my utmost to keep the city-state out of our enemies’ hands.”  She studied each face again.  “I have been told we will survive, but we will suffer greatly before all this is done.  Have faith, children, and remain strong.”

            Tifa’s husband, Kilen, leaned forward.  “Our troops won’t be able to return for at least four months if not more.  Have we food to last that long?”

            “We have some food stored, enough to get us mostly there,” she replied honestly.  “But I’ll be honest with you, Mister Sobres.  We will face starvation and perhaps death before the end is done.  I am terrified that the plague will break out in the interim.”

            Tifa shuddered and wrapped her arms around her swollen belly.  “Mother! What of my child?”

            Divita clasped her hands on her lap.  “It is with the Goddess, child.  But I will give you my food before I allow you to starve!”

            Kilen rose.  “Let’s not focus on that.  Not until we have to.  I am worried about the Queens and the early stages of their pregnancy.”

            Divita feared neither child would survive, but she said nothing as she watched Kilen pace.

            “Would surrendering be so bad?” Ilmi asked.

            Divita gave her youngest daughter a withering glare.  “I won’t betray Belihn!’

            Ilmi dropped her gaze.  “It was just a thought.”

            Divita sighed.  “Have you even an inkling of what will happen to Belihn’s family if we fall into the enemies’ hands?”

            Ilmi jutted her jaw out.  “Our father and grandmother are with the enemy, Mother.  Nothing will happen to us!”

            Tifa gasped.  “We have to support Belihn, Ilmi.  He’s our brother and our king!”

            Ilmi’s face crumpled.  “We were fine until he got greedy!  I miss father!  I want to see him again.”

            She rose and ran from the room, her sobs echoing behind her.

            Divita signed and stood.  “I’ll speak with her.  I’ll be back.”

            Ilmi’s suites door was ajar.  Divita heard the girl’s sobs and entered the room.  She walked through the sitting room into the bedroom, where the girl lay on her stomach, face pressed to her folded arms.

            Divita sat down at the edge of the mattress and put her hand on Ilmi’s back.

            Ilmi stiffened then relaxed.  She turned onto her back.  Her face was pale and wet from tears.

            “I miss Father, Aya.  Don’t you?”

            Divita took the girl’s hand in both of hers.  “He never paid much attention to me, girl.  He left me long ago.”

            Ilmi tried to pull her hand back, her face suffusing with anger.  “You don’t love him!”

            “I didn’t say that,” Divita said.  She sighed and let go her of daughter’s hand.  “Our marriage was one of convenience.  Kah’len was always kind and polite to me, Ilmi.  But he was not a husband.  He slept with every courtier he could, disrespecting the Prei-Serren and his Queens.  He was not even covert about his love trysts!  He slept with young men, showering them with gifts and praises, then utterly forgetting them.  By the time he was exiled, Lahn had stopped talking to him.”

            Ilmi frowned.  “He was so much more attentive to the boys.  I always wished I was a boy so Father could pay attention to me.  But he ignored the girls, barely acknowledging us.”

            Divita pressed a kiss to her daughter’s hand.  “He was uncomfortable around women and girls, child.  His world revolved around men.”

            Ilmi sat up.  “But Belihn is not like that.”

            Divita let go her daughter’s hand and rose.  “Your brother did not want to be like your father, child.  He knew early on that your father had no time for any of us.  Kah’len wasn’t that attentive to the male children, Ilmi.  Only to his heirs.  Since Belihn and T’arehn could not inherit the crown, your father ignored them.  Since Vallaw is Lahn’s child, he ignored him, too. It was always Ean and Lius who commanded his attention because he was grooming them to take over.  For no other reason than that.”

            Ilmi rose as well and hugged her mother.  “I’m sorry, Mother.  I do miss Eda, but he was never close to me.  It’s just…I owe him my life.”

            “You owe the Goddess your life, girl.  You can be grateful your father supplied the seed to make you, but the Goddess directed him and, in the beginning, he listened to Her.”

            Ilmi took her mother’s hand.  “I love you, Aya.”

            Divita smiled at the girl and pulled her into a hug.  “And I you, girl.”

            Ilmi looked into her mother’s clear hazel eyes.  “What’s going to happen to us now?”

            Divita pressed a kiss to the girl’s right temple.  “It is with the Goddess, child.  But I will do everything in my power to help you survive.”

***

            Divita swirled the wine in her goblet and watched her lover pace the floor beside the bed.  “You are going to wear the floor into grooves.”

            Tah’duk’h glanced at her and smiled.  His teeth were white against the blue of his skin.  She thought him so handsome and kind and tender.  Now she knew what she should have felt all along and how she should have been treated and loved.  He treated her like a jewel and, when he touched her, she felt a deep, unending desire.  She thanked the Goddess for this second chance.

            He took a seat at the edge of the mattress.  His kaoun was such a lovely color, like plum, as it nestled against the pale hair of his groin.  She reached out and traced its outline, making him jump and laugh.

            “You are the best lover a woman can want,” she told him as his kauon stirred under her fingers.  “I have never felt wanted or desired, not until now.”

            He frowned.  “Your husband is a fool.”

            She gave him a patient smile.  “He is atoliy.  He can’t help being what he is.”

            “You are forgiving and kind, exquisite and precious.”

            He took her hand and licked a line along the palm.  He then pressed a kiss there.

            “I will be honest,” he told her.  “I never thought I’d fall in love.  I am forty years old, my girl, and no one ever turned my head until I met you.”

            She blushed.  “You love me?”

            “I can’t help it, Divita.”

            She laughed.  “You have made me so happy, Tah’duk’h!  For I love you as well.”

            They kissed and he took her in his arms, setting her goblet of wine on the night table.  

            She laughed merrily as he scrambled under the bedclothes.  She followed him and lay between his parted thighs.  She could smell the warm musk of her arousal and wrapped her legs around his waist.  When he entered her, she gasped with pleasure.  The headrest banged against the wall as he was overcome with passion.  She raked her nails along his wide back and kissed him fervently.  He thrust into her, peppering her face with kisses and whispering endearments in his native tongue.  She ran her hands through his soft, pale hair.

            When she gasped her completion, he followed her, then lay on her, his weight warm and giving her a sense of safety, an anchor and home.

            When she finally came down off her heights, she watched as he rolled onto his back.  She took his hand.

            “We have to survive this dangerous time, girl,” he said softly.

            She turned on her side and kissed his fleshy hand.  There were fine pale hairs along the back of the hand and down his arm.  She caressed them with the tip of a finger.

            “We will,” she assured him, for at this moment she believed it.

            He looked at her, his pale eyes filled with emotion.  “I want to marry you, Divita.”

            She smiled at him.  “We shall.  I’ll have the Prei-Serren remove my sol’eka bracelet and ring.  I want to marry you, too.”

            “And children?” he pressed.

            She laughed softly.  “Yes, and children.  Thankfully, I still bleed every month.”

            He turned onto his side to face her.  “Whatever comes, Divita…I will be your rock and your tower, girl, if you need me to be.”

            She hugged him as a sliver of cold filled her heart.  “You be my rock, my tower, my world, Tah.  I need you.”

            “I’m here, Divita.”

            He held her close, her head on his shoulder.  “I know, Tah.  You make me so happy.  When this is over, I would like to go to Yllysia and see where you were born.”

            He pressed a kiss to the top of her head.  “We will.”

            They said nothing for a few minutes.

            She began to drift off before his voice roused her again.

            “We should parcel our food accordingly,” he said.  “That way we can make it last longer.”

            She nodded.  “We will.  Let me sleep a few hours and we will do as you say.”

            As she closed her eyes, she focused on the strong beat of his heart.  She felt sated and happy for once in her life, safe and cared for.  She would do her utmost to keep Tah’duk’h and her family safe.  As she slipped into slumber, she whispered a prayer of thanks to the Goddess.

Chapter IV: A Kiss and a Poem

            Belihn rolled onto his back in the wide bed and gazed at the rafters on the ceiling.  The dreams had been jumbles of colorful images, some soaked in blood.  Faces he did not know, strange outfits he had never seen, and languages of which he had no knowledge.  He rose from the bed and padded barefoot to the wash table, where he washed his face and rinsed his mouth, spitting into the waste bucket before emptying his bladder there as well.  He dressed in a woolen uniform, for the season of anasj was always cold early on.  He glanced out the porthole and saw flakes of snow falling serenely onto water that was so dark, it was almost black.  A thin, fragile sheet of ice covered the water.  

            Turning back to the room, he took up his comb and raked it through his hair, plaiting it into a single braid before pulling on his knee-high boots and tucking in the ends of his trousers.  

            The servants had cleared the remnants of their dinner from the modest table in the center of the cabin.  He opened the cabin door and ordered his breakfast from the waiting servant then returned to the table to write in his journal.  He opened the book to the next blank page.  He stared at the page for several long minutes, unsure as to how to begin.  If his dreams had had a beginning, he could not recall it.  So, he bent to the task, writing his impressions, describing the faces he had seen, the outfits, even the oddity of languages he had never heard.  Had he seen the future, he wondered with a shiver of excitement.  The faces were almost familiar.  Were they relatives?  Unborn children?  Himself reborn?  He sighed and rubbed his forehead peevishly.  These questions would never have answers, so they were useless.  

            Frustrated with the words he was writing, he began to sketch the faces and outfits.  He had never sketched anything before, but it was as if he was being guided.  The pictures took form, detailed and exquisite.  When he was done, he saw a tray covered by a cloth sitting on the table. He hadn’t even heard the servant return with his meal.  Sitting back in his chair, he ran his eyes over the sketches.

            “I didn’t know you could draw.”

            Belihn started violently, jumping to his feet and swinging around.

            Commander-General Kurk Deshon raised a contemplative eyebrow.  “I did say good morning, your Majesty, but you did not hear me.”

            Belihn placed a hand over his heart and huffed a laugh.  “I didn’t hear you.  And I didn’t know I could draw, either. I’ve never done so before.”

            Kurk glanced at the drawings again and shook his head.  “These are odd times.”

            “Do you recognize any of these people?” Belihn asked him.

            The Commander-General took a seat at the table and pulled the journal toward him.  He raked his gaze over the people, the outfits.  

            He shook his head and glanced up at Belihn.  “They don’t seem quite hu’an, your Majesty.  Their faces…their eyes.  The slenderness of their limbs.  Could you have seen a new race of people?”

            Belihn gazed at the drawings then took a seat next to Kurk.  “I hadn’t thought of that.”

            Kurk frowned and turned his eyes back to the drawings.  “Perhaps it is a warning or the Goddess is telling you we will encounter a new race at some point.”  He shrugged.  “Hells, maybe you’re seeing something from another planet.”

            “That could be,” Belihn replied.  “But I don’t think the Goddess would allow me to see anything that won’t affect us.”

            Kurk nodded and looked at the drawings again.  “Are these their ships?  They are odd, like seeds rather than ships.”

            Belihn ran his eyes over the drawings and a strong sense of dread at Kurk’s words began to slither along his limbs.  “Ships.  I remember what I dreamed now.  They are ships and they sail through the sky, not the ocean.”

            “Like our ancestors did?” Kurk asked.

            “Yes.”

            Kurk shifted.  “Maybe these are our ancestors or perhaps they are our relatives who will return here.”

            Belihn took in a breath and released it.  “All speculation, damn it!”

            Kurk placed a hand on Belihn’s shoulder.  “Be patient, your Majesty.  You may have other visions that help you put together the pieces of this puzzle.”

            “I suppose,” Belihn replied.  “But what I am gathering is that the Goddess rarely does things in a straightforward way.  Everything is a damned mystery.”

            Kurk chuckled.  “You will need to develop patience, my liege.  You’ll have your entire life to decipher your dreams.”

            “If we win, Kurk.”

            “Don’t falter,” Kurk warned him.  “If you falter, all is lost.  You are the lynchpin upon which all of it turns.”

            Belihn nodded, feeling anxiety taint his thoughts.

            Kurk pulled over the tray and uncovered it.  Salted meat, dried fruit, day old bread, and butter.  “Eat.”

            Belihn closed his journal and tucked into his meal.  

            Kurk watched him silently for a few minutes before he sighed.  “Perhaps we shouldn’t have left so many guards back in Draemin city-state.”

            “I don’t trust the opposition,” Belihn replied around a mouthful of bread.  “What if we head to Le.ath Plain and the clans attack our city?”

            Kurk nodded.  “I know.  It’s just…”  He sighed.  “We are so much fewer than they are.”            

            “They will be overconfident,” Belihn said.  He swallowed.  “Our strategies are sound.  I spent a long time reading historical texts for strategies.  I think I chose the correct ones.”

            Kurk gnawed on his lower lip.  “I’m worried the opposition knows those strategies.”

            “They can’t possibly guess which ones I chose,” Belihn retorted mildly.

            “No, I suppose no,” Kurk owned and sighed.  “Goddess protect and keep us.  I’m worried about my family.”        

            Belihn nodded.  “Yes.  I know.”

            There was a knock on the cabin door.

            “Come!” Belihn bellowed.

            The two Yllysian advisers shuffled in.  They greeted Belihn and Kurk and took seats around the table.

            Commander Olivaro Tione flicked his glance between Kurk and Belihn.  “We interrupted something?”

            Belihn shifted.  “No, Commander.  We were discussing if it was prudent to leave so many of our forces behind.”

            Captain Gulehn Askar shook his head.  “That was very prudent, your Majesty.  As was leaving half the Torahni navy behind.  The opposition can decide to attack the city or do a two pronged attack.  We just don’t know.  Intel has been sketchy at best.”

            Olivaro Tione leaned forward and rested his forearms on the table.  “Trust in your Goddess, just as we trust in our Gods. It’s in their hands, as all things are.  We are but figures on a board, your Majesty.”

            Belihn swallowed thickly and nodded.

            There was a diffident knock on the cabin door then Tesjun Othar hurried in.  “Sorry I’m late, my liege.  I overslept.”

            Belihn smiled at the young man.  “It’s fine.  We haven’t begun the meeting as yet.”

            Tesjun blushed and took a seat next to Belihn.  

            Their daily meetings took up most of their days as they discussed, dissected and perfected strategy, discussed logistics and planned for the future, taking into consideration all possibilities. Sometimes their meetings devolved into social occasions, where they enjoyed each others’ companies and talked about more private matters and laughed a lot.  Belihn took the opportunity to tease Tesjun just to see the young man blush.  Their meetings were dissolved at sunset and each man went about his own business.  It was during the off times that Belihn met with his three interests.  

            He supped with Tesjun, Kahl and Erille that very night to talk to each young man.

            Tonight, Erille complained right away about being kept out of military discussions.

            Belihn sighed.  “I’m sorry, Erille, but you were never vetted.  There was no time to do a background check on you or to check your story.  By the time we had to leave Draemin City-State, our inquiries had had no responses.”

            “I’m no spy!” Erille spat.

            “And I don’t believe you are, either,” Belihn assured him.  “But I have to abide by my advisers’ recommendations.  You are my secretary, Erille.  You have a salary and a place in my household.  Please be patient.”

            Erille crossed his arms over his chest and said nothing.

            Belihn looked at the other two.  “Are you interested in my courting you?”

            Kahl sat straighter.  “Yes, my liege.”

            Tesjun’s gaze would not alight on anything.  It kept flicking from object to object.    

            “You’re unsure, Tesjun?” Belihn gently prodded.  “Or you don’t want to?  Be honest with me, Tesjun.  It won’t affect your employment.”

            Tesjun sighed.  He wrung his hands.  “I’m not sure where my proclivities lie, your Majesty.  I’m not sure I am atoliy.”

            Belihn swallowed his disappointment and nodded, giving the young man a weak smile. “That’s fine, Tesjun.  I won’t press the matter.   You’re dismissed.”

            Tesjun looked startled for a moment before he gathered his belongings and nodded.  “Good night, your Majesty.”

            “Good night, Tesjun,” the other replied softly.

            Belihn waited until the cabin door closed behind Tesjun before turning his gaze on the remaining two young men.

            “And you?” he asked them.

            “I want to see where our friendship goes, your Majesty,” Kahl replied.  “I think you are a fine specimen and becoming your lover would be no hardship.”

            Belihn’s face suffused with heat.  He turned his eyes to Erille.

            Erille sighed.  “I’m already in love, your Majesty.  I am not ready to pursue anyone else. I need time. I’m not saying I can’t be ready in time, but not right now.  Is that alright, sir?”

            Belihn smiled at him.  “Of course, Erille.  You’re dismissed as well.”

            Erille nodded and left the cabin, closing the door behind him.

            Belihn placed his forearms on the table and leaned forward.  “So…”

            Kahl grinned.  “Lucky me!”

            Belihn chuckled and nodded.  “Yes.”  He stood and went to his clothes chest, rummaging through its contents and pulling out a book.  “This is your book, Kahl. Anasj and other Observations.  A lovely title.”

            Kahl blushed.  “Thank you, your Majesty.”

            Belihn shook his head.  “In my private quarters, I am Belihn to you.”

            Kahl ducked his head.  “Belihn then.”

            The King sat beside him and placed the book on the table.  “Read me something, Kahl.”

            Kahl swallowed audibly and pulled the book closer, opening to a random page.

            He huffed a laugh.  “How apropos.”  Clearing his throat, he began to read:

            “Oh, beloved.  Tender hearted boy-man,

             Your coltish limbs fly through the air as we pursue each other

             Through the empty predawn streets.  In the utter

             silence of morning, your laugh is like a breeze

             that through me slices until I cease following

             to watch you disappear into the past

             like a spell is cast by a god.

             Your memory is faint now.

            But once you were all the hours of a day

            All the days of a week, all the clear spray

            of an icy ocean wave upon my naked limbs

            Your kisses limning my days with a clarity

            I shall never encounter again.  The parity of your love

           will remain unmatched by any other.

           You are the altar of incense, the sprig of scent

           of love unspent.

           Oh beloved, tender hearted boy-man

           That was the span of a season,    

           That in your arms I am unspent,

           unraveled, unfound.”

            Belihn watched the young man’s face as the words died on his lips.  “Who was he?”

            Kahl sighed.  “My first lover.  We were but fourteen.  I didn’t write this poet until two years after he and his family left Draemin City-State to relocate.  Even though we promised to write one another, our love affair always embarrassed him and interfered with his plans of marrying a young woman and having a large family.”

            “I see,” Belihn said.  “Do you love him still?”    

            Kahl chuckled self-consciously.  “No.  He is enshrined in my past and now in my poetry, but my feelings are old and stuck in the past, if that makes sense.  I don’t pine for him anymore.”

            Belihn nodded and smiled.  “That makes sense.”  He reached out and touched Kahl’s cold cheek with a trembling hand.  “I’m…”  He swallowed.  “I don’t want to scare you, Kahl, but you are my lifeline.  I am so lonely…”  He shook his head.  “Inside.  Outside, my life is busy, but I am lonely just the same.”

            “I know,” Kahl said softly.  “I’ve always known.”

            Belihn nodded mutely, his words drying up.

            “It is stupid to start a love affair in the middle of all of this,” he said after a few minutes.  

            “The time for a king is never just right, I’ve an inkling,” Kahl offered.  He cleared his throat and blushed.  “May I kiss you, your Majesty?”    

            Belihn frowned. “Belihn.  Please Kahl.”        

            “Sorry,” Kahl murmured and laughed.  “It’s all confusing and exhilarating.”

            Belihn smiled faintly.  “You may kiss me, Kahl.”

            Kahl shifted and nodded. Then he leaned forward, his gaze locked to Belihn’s.

            Their lips, chapped and cool, met.  They did nothing for a moment.  Then Belihn closed his eyes and parted his lips and Kahl dipped his tongue inside Belihn’s mouth.  Their tongues stroke one another, danced around each other.  Belihn tasted the young man’s warmth and musk.  For long moments, they tasted one another before Belihn reluctantly pulled back from Kahl.

            He opened his eyes and gazed into Kahl’s dazed eyes.

            “You kiss well, Belihn,” Kahl whispered.

            “I’m glad,” Belihn told him.

            They stared at one another then laughed, glances breaking.

            Belihn indicated the book.  “You write beautiful poetry.”

            Kahl grinned.  “Thank you.  I’m sure I will write many about you, Belihn.”

            Belihn smiled at him.  “Goddess help me!”

            They kissed again.

            “Will you stay with me tonight?” Belihn asked.  “Just hold me?”

            Kahl studied his face for a few minutes before he nodded.  “Of course.  You’re scared, Belihn?”

            “Terrified,” the other replied.  “But I can’t show it.  Not to my generals, not to my troops.  Not to the servants.”

            “The Goddess knows,” Kahl gently reminded him.  “Just be brave, Belihn.  Show Her your strength and courage.”

            Belihn swallowed thickly.  “I will.”

            Kahl rose and held his hand.  “Then come.  I’ll hold you until your fall asleep.”

Chapter III: The Journey Begins

            Kahl watched from the prow of the royal ship as the soldiers marched to the wharfs and stood at attention, preparing to board the Yllysian and Torahni naval ships.  There were so many men, the entire land seemed seething with them.  Yet, he knew the opposition forces had even more.  He tried to envision the battlefield swarming with men and could not.  He had never seen a battle, had only read about them.  But words were woefully inadequate to fully invoke the imagination.  He would have to do better than his predecessors when describing the journey there and the battle itself.  Of course, he had his doubts he was up to the task, but impulsiveness had gotten him here and stubbornness would see him through.  He ran his eyes over the wharves which were covered by a fine dusting of snow.  His eyes came to alight on King Belihn as he sat atop his fine bahil.  Kahl swallowed thickly.  Goddess, but he was handsome!  His features fine and exquisite, like his mother’s, but whereas she was beautiful, he was distantly handsome.  His reserved nature and his shyness did not allow his handsome features to quite reach beauty, although one could see beauty when the king laughed or smiled.  The king was well knit, despite the month of isolation and fasting, with wide shoulders and slender waist and hips.  He wore a Torahni uniform today and a slender silver circlet on his head.  His purple kamarani cloak was fastened at the collarbone by a silver brooch.  His hazel eyes ran over the troops as they boarded the ships.  Kahl noted that every single soldier saluted his king.  Many gazed upon the king with adoration or worship.  So many were young and poor, Kahl knew, and they adored the King who would pull them out of their dire straits and offered a greater future.  Kahl could not blame them.

            He leaned against the ship’s railing and committed all he saw to memory.  He looked toward the King again, and noted Commander-General Kurk Deshon, his broad features set in determination, his wide shoulders barely contained within the seams of his wool kamarani uniform.  His cloak was forest green.  On the other side of the King sat Commander Nosjka’h Olivaro Tione of the Yllysian navy and slightly behind him and to the left was Captain Kalthos Gulehn Askar of the Yllysian army.

            Denizens of the city-state had come to watch and had lined the boulevard leading from Castle Draemin to the wharves all night.  The silent procession of endless soldiers to the wharves had taken most of the night, but most of the citizens had stayed to watch.  They had cheered themselves hoarse and Kahl had never thought he’d ever see a Torahni cheering an Yllysian, but they had.  Wildly.  They had thrown confetti at the soldiers and colorful ribbons.  The Yllysians had seemed stunned by their reception and some had wept.  Kahl had followed the procession all night, intent on setting it down on paper as soon as he was able.  Neither Tesjun or Erille had come with him, opting to arrive later with the King’s belongings and the rest of his household staff.  Kahl had offered both young men friendship.  Tesjun was warmer and friendlier towards him than was Erille, but Kahl had no doubts he would win both young men over in no time.  He really wanted friends during this endeavor, as the King would be available infrequently.  

            It took until the sun had passed the halfway point in the sky before all the troops were housed in the ships and the gangplanks were pulled up.  There was a good wind, so when the ships unfurled their many sails, they moved at a steady clip into Draemin Bay and then west along Azura.Dha, the Bay of Silence.  This, too, took hours, as there were hundreds of ships.  By the time the last ship had sailed, it was night once more.

            It depended on the whims of the winds, Kahl knew, but it roughly took around four weeks to reach the mouth of the Khaine River and then another few weeks to reach Le.ath Plain, where the battle would take place.  It would be at Le.ath Plain that the Isemi warriors would meet them.  This excited Kahl, who had never talked to an Isemi warrior.  The Isemi were a dual-sexed people, but were wider and taller than the average hu’an male.  Their warriors were anyway, the sex they called kauon.nei.  Their mates, the slender and delicate ouna.nae, were a different matter.  Kahl knew he would see none of the ouna.nae, who were not allowed on the battlefield.  They kept hearth and home and bore the children of the people.  The Isemi, despite being possessed of two sexual organs, were quite rigid in their gender roles and sexual mores.  In that respect, they were the opposite of the isili, who did not even choose a gender until the time came to bare a child.  If an isili opted to bare a child, then the isili’s gender was fixed as that of a dam.  His mate was the damai, or seed provider.  Many isili never bore a child or provided the seed to make one, so they never had a gender assigned to them.  It was the hu’an predilection of assigning gender that had rendered all isili and Isemi as “he,” regardless of the fact that both people could and did have children.  In time, both the Isemi and the isili adopted the pronoun “he” to refer to themselves.  Their previous referential pronouns were lost to time.

            Kahl sighed and left the deck, making his way to the large cabin he shared with Erille and Tesjun.  He knew both secretaries were locked away with the king and his military advisers in the King’s expansive cabin, so he would have time to set down his thoughts and observations before he lay down on his cot for some much needed sleep.  When he got there, he was surprised to find Erille standing at the porthole.  The young aristocrat turned when Kahl entered the cabin.

            “What are you doing here?” Kahl asked, removing his cloak and hanging it on a hook by the cabin door.

            Erille grunted.  “It seems the King’s advisers do not trust me.”

            “Huh,” Kahl murmured and went to his clothes chest, unlocking it and pushing open the lid to get to his notebooks, inkwell and pens.  

            He went to the lone desk and sat down, lighting the candle with a couple of ca’ahl stones.

            “What are you doing?” Erille asked.

            “I’m going to write down my impression of the day so far,” Kahl told him.

            “For your book?” the young secretary asked.

            Kahl nodded.  He looked up into the pretty aristocrat’s eyes.  “Would you like to give me your impressions?”

            Erille hesitated but a moment before pulling over the other chair and straddling it.  “Which of my impressions would you like to hear?”

            “Just your opinion about how the Yllysians were greeted, how you think we will do at the battle, how the King is perceived,” Kahl offered.

            Erille frowned.  “You’re trying to trap me.”

            Kahl sighed.  “No, I’m not.  It would be nice to have an aristocrat’s perceptions of all of this, since I am mostly going to be interviewing commoners.”

            Erille shrugged.  “What does it matter what I have to say?  No one trusts me anyway.  I doubt that I’ll be allowed to remain the king’s secretary, if his advisers have any say in the matter.”

            “Then you can help me write my book,” Kahl told him.  “I’ll give you credit and put your name on the book, if you like.”

            Erille scowled.  “Why are you being so nice to me?”

            “Why not?” Kahl shot back.  “You’ve done nothing to me.”

            Erille threw his hands up.  “I’ve done nothing to anyone!”

            “Yes, I know,” Kahl soothed.  “Would you like to tell me what you thought of the procession?”

            Erille sucked in a breath and released it.  “Fine.  But this doesn’t make us friends.”

            “Goddess forbid,” Kahl muttered and shook his head.  “So, what did you think of the procession?”        

            Erille’s face emptied of stress as he began to speak.  “It is strange, seeing all the blue faces among our troops.  I still don’t trust the Yllysians, you know, but the common folk are more fickle, I guess.  I don’t like that the king has three Yllysian advisers.  I think the Yllysians mean to invade and take North Torahn.”

            Kahl stopped writing.  “They could have invaded any time and haven’t.”

            “I bet you they are waiting for the battle to decimate our forces,” the other replied.

            Kahl’s impression of the Yllysians were that the blue people were quite civilized and trustworthy.  He told Erille this.

            “They’re good actors,” Erille growled.  “You mark my words, Kahl Oh’nahry.  They will invade us as soon as the battle leaves the city-states weakened.”

            Kahl said nothing as he wrote Erille’s thoughts onto the pages of his notebook.  It wasn’t his place to judge a point of view, but simply to record it.

            He looked at Erille.  “What is your impression of the King?”

            Erille blushed darkly.  “Um…he is very handsome and kind, for a half-commoner.  You have to understand, I grew up being force fed that commoners are weak and lazy, stupid and ugly.  But those opinions are not panning out.  The Queen Mother is an exquisite woman, so beautiful it’s almost uncanny.  And I was there, with Tesjun, when she and the King were talking about a book someone had lent the King.  The book was about royal scandals.  It had a chapter dedicated to their ancestor, a man who was put to death for stealing from the King.  It was never proven that he stole, but he was made an example of.  From that point on, his family could not rise above the occupations of lamplighters and chimneysweeps.”  Erille shook his head.  “The book was written by an aristocrat…”

            “So you didn’t question it,” Kahl finished his thought.  “If a commoner had written it, you wouldn’t have believed it.”

            Erille gave a weak shrug and looked uncomfortable.  “I’m trying to change my point of view, Kahl.  But it’s hard to change these perceptions when I’ve been spoon fed them since before I could speak.”

            Kahl sighed.  “I know.  I don’t blame you, at least not when you are trying to change how you view things.”

            Erille nodded.  “Thank you.”

            Kahl finished writing and looked at his companion again.  “You think Belihn is a good king?”

            “That remains to be seen,” Erille replied.  “If we are not invaded by Yllysia and if…if he keeps his promises, then yes.  I think that would make him a good king.  I’ll be honest, I don’t care if the caste laws are done away with. For your sake, I hope they are–“

            “That’s good to know,” Kahl said sarcastically.

            Erille blushed but plowed on.  “But they don’t affect me in the least.  I’m trying to be honest here.  Well…I guess I’m practically a commoner now that my father has disowned me.”

            “It doesn’t work that way,” Kahl told him.  “You are and will always be a clan’s son.”

            “You don’t know what I did.”

            “It doesn’t matter.  The law recognizes you as a son of your clan.  Doors will open for you, even if your father refuses to acknowledge that you are his son.”  Kahl shook his cramped hand.  “I have to prove myself, even though my family has more money than yours, but I am a commoner, so I have to prove myself.  While you…you can apply for a position with any firm or company, and you would be chosen.”

            Erille had the grace to look sheepish.  He ducked his head.  “I know.  I guess the laws are unjust.  So, I hope the King changes things.”

            Kahl looked at him for a few minutes before reaching a conclusion and nodding.  “I believe you are being honest with me, Erille.  Thank you for that.”

            Erille sighed.  “I miss my family, my brothers, my sisters.  It’s hard for me now, Kahl.”

            “Emotionally yes, I can see that,” Kahl said evenly.  “But look how quickly you got a job.”

            Erille scowled.  “Damn it!  I’ve half a job here, Kahl.  No one trusts me!”

            Kahl took pity on him and placed his hand on Erille’s.  “Calm down.  Trust will come in time, I promise.”

            Erille pulled his hand free.  “When?”            

            Kahl sighed.  “I don’t know that.  When all this is over, things will settle down.”

            Erille swallowed thickly.  “I’m going to lie down.  I didn’t sleep last night at all.  I’m worried that if we lose, I’ll be put to death.  Nothing will make my father happier than if I were wiped from the world.”

            “I’m sure you exaggerate,” Kahl said, shocked.

            Erille snorted.  “Yeah, you keep believing that.”

            Erille stood and walked to his cot, where he threw himself down and covered his face with his blanket.  In a few minutes, he was snoring softly.

            Kahl turned back to his book.  He sighed. He had a lot to do before he could rest himself.

Chapter II: Conference

            The vision changed everything for Belihn.  He began to have what he felt were prophetic dreams, although when he dreamed them, they were jumbled and confusing.  He took up a notebook and wrote down what he could remember.  There were times when he would fall into a dreamless state after a vision and he would forget whole segments of the vision, but he always faithfully recorded what he could recall.  It was rare night indeed when he managed to sleep peacefully.  He quickly filled notebooks with the accounts of his dreams.  Lahn read the accounts and interpreted what he could, but he always prefaced his interpretations with the warning that he could be wrong, that the only person who could truly interpret his dreams was Belihn himself.   Belihn always prayed for guidance from the Goddess as he wrote down his accounting of a dream.  But he knew such was the way of Gods, their wisdom so far above a mortal’s that understanding would probably never come, except in hindsight.  

            He began to recover from his long fast by slowly imbibing broths and eating boiled grains with salt and honey.  It took another fortnight to build his strength to the point where he could leave the Cathedral to return to Draemin Castle to begin preparations for the long journey to the Khaine River Valley.

            His mother gasped when she saw him after his month’s absence.  

            She took him into her arms.  “You’re so thin!”

            “I’m fine, Aya,” he murmured into her hair as they hugged.  She smelled of soap and delicate aromatic oils.

            She pulled back and gazed deeply into his eyes.  “Did the Goddess reveal your victory?”

            He barked a laugh.  “The Gods do not work in straightforward ways, Aya.  But my faith has strengthened and I will do as She asks and demands.”

            She placed a warm, slender hand on his cheek.  “Goddess be praised!  It is all you can do.”

            She took his arm and walked with him down the long hallway towards the northeastern tower.  “Both your Queens are with child.  How will you choose an heir?”

            He smiled at her.  “The child will choose.  Whomever is born first will be the heir.”

            She said nothing as she looked away.

            They slowly climbed the five stories to the top of the castle and from there headed east towards his suites.  

            “Mother, you must rule in my absence,” he told her.  “You will oversee to my wive’s needs and you will rule with Ambassador Torim’s assistance.”

            She nodded distractedly.  

            He patted her hand.  “Listen, Aya.  If I have not returned before the first child is born, you must name the heir to prevent trouble.  There must be peace here at home while I am away.”

            Her forehead creased into a frown.  “I don’t know the first thing about ruling, Belihn.  Can you not leave Kurk Deshon as regent?”

            “I can’t afford to leave him behind, Mother,” he told her.  “You must be strong.  And you must not let yourself be manipulated.  Toward that end, Torim should be your guide and advisor.  Also, listen to Lahn Obeli.”

            She took a deep breath and released it.  “I will do my utmost.”

            He brought her hand to his lips and kissed it.  “I would leave T’arehn in charge, if he weren’t fifteen years old!”

            “I know,” she assured him.  “I know I am the logical person to leave in charge.”

            “Yes.”

            They entered his suites and he let go her arm and sat down on the nearest loveseat, exhausted by their jaunt through the great hall to the stairs and then here.

            She sent a servant for food and sat next to him.  “I’ve sent for your advisers, son.  Commander-General Deshon has arranged for the troops to be made ready to depart within a week’s time.”

            “Good,” he told her and rested his head against the back of the loveseat and closed his eyes.  “As for Court, the Houses will meet three times a week.  You will lead the discussions and hear petitions.  You’ve sat in on Court proceedings enough times to know how it all goes, Aya.  If they disrespect you, you have my permission to dismiss Court until I return.  Do not let them cow you into signing new laws.”

            She licked her lips and nodded.  “I won’t.”

            There was a knock on the hallway door, then Belihn’s advisers shuffled in, murmuring greetings. They took seats near Belihn.

            Kurk Deshon ran his eyes over the King.  “You look like you’ve lost a ton of weight, which you didn’t have to lose.  Was the purification and purging worth it?”

            “I was given a Vision,” Belihn replied neutrally.  “I can’t interpret it, but the Goddess touched me and spoke to me.”

            His advisers glanced at one another.

            Ambassador Torim Tah’duk’h leaned forward.  “Will we win?  Did your Goddess tell you that?”

            “She said to have faith,” Belihn replied with a sigh.

            The Ambassador sat back.  “We have no choice, I suppose.”

            Belihn straightened his back and sat up.  “Something terrible will happen on the battlefield.  I saw a great beast with a fanged maw striding past the battling armies and leaving all dead in its wake.”

            Commander Olivaro Tione, commander of the Yllysian fleet, which would sail the Bay of Silence to the mouth of the Khaine River then south, shifted.  “Could be disease, your Majesty.  All kinds of diseases break out during battles.”

            Belihn swallowed.  “I thought of that, yes.”

            Captain Gulehn Askar, Commander of the Yllysian army, leaned forward.  “Could it be plague, your Majesty?”

            “Could be,” Belihn conceded.  “The Goddess assured me my warriors would not be touched.”

            Ambassador Torim Tah’duk’h frowned.  “But how can that be?  How can a pestilence bypass a whole portion of a battlefield?”

            Belihn scrubbed his face with his hand.  “I don’t know.  Perhaps she meant our forces would get sick but would not die.  Listen, all of you.  I was given a directive.  I was told to have faith, to believe.  I will do this, despite the doubt that always hovers in my thoughts, despite the fear I have for my forces, my allies.  I have to believe we will succeed.  I was told that if I veered from Her word, my children and my children’s children and unto the future would bear the burden of my faithlessness, even into the afterlife.  I cannot defy Her will, not when so much is at stake.”

            The Yllysian Ambassador sighed.  “I am sorry, your Majesty.  We are here for you, of course.  These uncertain times try all men.”

            “Yes,” Belihn agreed.  He looked at Kurk.  “Are we ready to depart?”

            Kurk nodded.  “Aye, your Majesty.  We have supplies for several months.  Half the supplies will head west with the Yllysian navy, the rest come with our forces.  We will travel to the mouth of the Khaine River with the Torahni navy.  Once at the mouth of the river, we will disembark and head inland towards Le.ath Plain.  The entire journey will take a couple of months or more.”  He snorted.  “Then the journey back will take another two months. All for a battle that may be decided in a day.”

            “It will be more than a day,” Belihn assured him.  “It will be a close battle.”  He raked his eyes over the men who would accompany him.  “We must be strong and push our forces to perform.  We must never show insecurity or doubt.”

            “Yes, your Majesty,” they murmured.

            “Ambassador Torim,” Belihn said.  “You will assist my mother, who remains as Regent in my stead.  Please care for my wives and make sure the firstborn child is named heir, if I have not returned by then.”

            “Even if Queen Morisjen births first?” the ambassador challenged, eyes sharp.

            Belihn met his gaze.  “Yes.  Even so.”

            Silence fell over the room.

            Kurk cleared his throat.  “Your Majesty, that act may trigger a Civil War.”

            “We are at Civil War,” Belihn snapped and sighed.  “I will not succumb to prejudice.  If Queen Morisjen births first, her child will be heir.  Regardless of gender or race.”

            He glared at each adviser until they acquiesced and gave their nod of assent, however reluctant.

            “Yllysia is our sister-nation now,” Belihn told them patiently.  “Tjish.un has sided with my sire.  We will repair our treaty with her after our victory.  Yllysia is our closest ally now and will remain so.”

            “Yes, your Majesty,” they murmured.

            Belihn sat forward and placed his forearms on his thighs.  Weariness stole into his limbs.  

            “Thank you all for your loyalty,” he told them.  “I will never forget it.  These coming months will be difficult at best.  What my vision revealed was horrific but battle always is.  Kurk, you will command our mercenary forces.  I will command our Torahni forces.  Captain Gulehn Askar will command the Yllysian forces, and Commander Olivaro Tione will command the reserves.”

            “Yes, your Majesty,” they murmured.        

            Belihn nodded.  “Dismissed, gentlemen.  We will meet again in the morning.”

            When the advisers had gone, Belihn turned to his mother.  “Please have Kahl Oh’nahry fetched, Aya.  And see where my dinner is.”

            She rose and curtsied.  “Right away, your Majesty.”

            The meal Belihn was served was a stew thick with root vegetables, tah’lir meat, aromatics and spices.  An atholos leaf was dropped into the stew to detect any poison, but the leaf did not change colors, so Belihn tucked into his meal.  

            Kahl showed up before Belihn was done eating.  The King waved for the young man to sit down.

            “Kahl, I wanted to tell you about my purification and purging rituals and the vision the Goddess sent me so that you can write an account of these things for your book,” Belihn told him.

            “I can take dictation, your Majesty,” Kahl told him.

            Belihn nodded.  He told Kahl about the long days of hunger and cold, the purging and purification rituals, the long hours of prayer, and, finally, his vision of the battle.  

            “Reveal nothing to anyone until this is all done,” Belihn directed him.

            Kahl bowed.  “Of course, your Majesty.”  He fidgeted in silence as he watched Belihn eat.  “Do you believe we will win, your Majesty?”

            Belihn wiped up a piece of bread along the bottom of the bowl.  “I have to believe that, Kahl, no matter what.  I won’t ignore her warning.”

            Kahl gnawed on his lower lip.

            “Come,” Belihn told him.  “Out with it.  What has you so worried?”    

            “The odds.”

            “We have a Goddess on our side,” Belihn reminded the young man.

            Kahl nodded.  “Yes, I know.  But you were touched by Her. Your troops were not.”

            “I won’t waver,” Belihn said.  “They will believe.  I will make sure of it.”

            Kahl studied Belihn’s face for a few minutes in silence before making up his mind and nodding.  “I believe you, your Majesty.”

            Belihn smiled. ” That is good.”

            Kahl blushed.  “What does all of this mean for you and me, your Majesty?”

            “We will become friends during our journey there and back,” Belihn told him.  “If it aligns with Her will, we will become more than that.  I don’t know you, Kahl, but I like you well enough to wish to be friends.  You are strong and creative, intelligent and supportive.  I like your looks well enough, but it is your heart and your mind which make me want you.”

            Kahl’s blush deepened.  He ducked his head.  “You want me, your Majesty?”

            “Yes,” Belihn murmured, widening his smile.  “I’ve seemed to have lost my shame.”

            Kahl chuckled.  “Well, we are negotiating.  There is no room for shame in negotiations.”

            Belihn laughed and nodded.  “True.”  He sighed.  “You will ride with my household, which will include my two secretaries.  Make friends with them, although Erille Asjur is a bit competitive.”

            Kahl snorted. “I’m not afraid of competition, your Majesty, but I will see if he and I can make a friendship.”

            “Good,” Belihn replied and stifled a yawn.  “I will bid you good day, Kahl.  I would like to go over some of my other dreams with you, but that will have to wait.  Let us meet again in two days’ time.  Check in with Tesjun or Erille tomorrow.”

            Kahl scrambled to his feet as Belihn rose and bowed.  “Yes, your Majesty.  Good day to you.”

            Belihn watched the young man hurry into the hallway before turning and heading towards his bedchamber.