Chapter Fifty: The Marriage of North and South

            Kah’len lingered at the border waiting for his bride. While he waited for the girl, he organized the army that would remain behind when he left. His days were full of activity and, at night, he made love to Lahn and slept in his warm arms. They would talk for hours on end. Lahn was thirsty for information about Kah’len’s youth, his exploits, his friendships. Kah’len was amused and touched by the young priest. When Lahn was lost in what he was saying, he would move his hands expressively, his eyes large and lively. He looked young and carefree then. Kah’len’s love for the youth grew in leaps and bounds. They cemented their friendship during those dusty weeks at the border, and Kah’len would always remember that time as the happiest he had ever been.

            Princess Ajla Obeli arrived at the border exactly six weeks after the peace accord. With her came the King and Queen of South Torahn, their children, and an entourage of aristocrats who came to witness the wedding. The inns were at the border town of Safin were soon filled to capacity. A stage had been built in the middle of the town and decorated to resemble a gazebo. The gazebo structure had been festooned with flowers and colorful ribbons that snapped in the breeze. Flower petals and sweet rushes had been thrown over the ground. Tall lampposts had been raised around the stage and oil lamps hung from their hooks.

            Kah’len was not allowed to meet the princess until the wedding, but he did meet the King and Queen of South Torahn. Fael Dhin Obeli, the Red King, was still young, in his late thirties or early forties, as was his Queen, Elea Obeli-Savah. They made a handsome, if stuffy, couple. With them had come Nhove Obeli, their oldest son and heir, and his family: his wife Hana, and his children Quan, Atha, and Tarei, who was a newborn. Then there was Bhar Obeli, a fourteen year old eager to join the military. His eyes shone with admiration when he looked upon Kah’len. He was organized and highly intelligent, but he, thankfully, had a mischievous sense of humor. He was strapping and tall, looking older than his age, and by the end of the first day, Kah’len asked that Tarei be allowed to remain with him as his aide. He would be conscripted into the armed forces as soon as the lad turned fifteen. The boy trailed him wherever Kah’len went. Kah’len was amused and touched. He looked so much like Lahn, so eager and capable even at his young age.

            The night of the wedding celebration, the moon rose full and gold. The sky was full of stars. People arrived at the raised platform hours before the ceremony. It was an odd sight, common soldiers mingling with the aristocracy in their finest. Jewels winked on ladies’ throats and pinned to their hair. Gentlemen in satin and silk talked with soldiers in dress uniforms. Kah’len, gazing from his pavilion, was deeply moved and his mind filled with possibilities for the future. Behind him, Tarei Bhar talked about his sister to Commanders Aud and Daven. The youth was full of humorous stories about his little sister, whom he irreverently referred to as a stick in the mud like his mother.

            “You shouldn’t talk about your sister like that,” Kah’len said over his shoulder.

            Tarei snorted. “Wait until you meet her. She’s so proper, it’s like someone stuck a pole up her arse.”

            Commander Aud coughed into his hand and pursed his lips.

            Kah’len turned. “She is going to be a Queen soon, Bhar. I would like you to respect her.”

            Bhar rolled his eyes. “Begging your pardon, my lord, but she is already full of her own importance. She could use a douse of reality.”

            Kah’len sighed.

            Daven indicated Bhar with a hand. “I think the boy has a point. She won’t get along with the other Queens if she is uppity. You want peace in the harem, yes?”

            “Harem,” Kah’len mouthed with distaste and shook his head. “I suppose you are right, Daven.”

            Bhar whooped and clapped his hands. “You’ll thank me, my lord! I’ll keep her feet grounded on the earth. You should hear how poorly she treats the servants now that she is going to be a queen. I just don’t know where she learned her manners, that one.”

            There was a scratch at the pavilion flap.

            “Come!” Kah’len called.

            A guard ducked into the tent. “Begging your pardon, Warlord. The Oracle is ready for the ceremony to proceed.”

            Kah’len nodded. “Then we are, too. Daven, Aud, with me. Behave yourself, Bhar!”

            Bhar bowed. “I won’t embarrass you, Warlord.”

            Kah’len ducked under the tent flap and stepped out into the cool evening. The congregation was silent as he made his way with his two commanders at his back. He climbed up the five wooden steps to the platform, where Lahn waited, dressed in full priestly regalia. His long, gold outer robes glinted in the buttery light from the oil lamps. They fell to the ground. A gold rope belt cinched around his trim waist. His conical hat was adorned with jewels and pearls. He looked every bit the Prei-Serren of Draemin City-State. His eyes watched Kah’len coolly as Kah’len walked up to the stage and bowed to him.

            “Excellency,” he said softly.

            Lahn’s gaze roamed hungrily over Kah’len’s form. “Warlord.”

            A horn sounded from left of the congregation. The gathering parted like a sea and an escort of six guards carrying candles led the way for the little princess. Kah’len almost gaped. She looked older than her twelve years, tall and graceful and poised. She wore a light green satin dressed tight around her waist. The bodice of the dress was full of pearls and emeralds. The train of the dress was full and fell to the ground, the train trailing several feet behind her. The train, too, was studded with pearls. She wore a long silk veil dotted with emeralds and pearls. Her slender arms were bare and pale in the lamplight. Her neck was elegant and slender and a dark green satin choker enveloped it. She looked neither left nor right as she glided over flowers petals and rushes until she came to the platform, where a young guard took her arms and guided her up the five steps. Her eyes raised and she gazed at Kah’len with curiosity. She had large pale gray eyes surrounded by long sooty lashes. Her resemblance to Lahn constricted his heart. Her full lips were identical to his. It was almost as if they were twins.

            Kah’len turned to face her.

            Lahn took Kah’len’s left hand and her right hand and joined them.

            Ajla’s hand was cold and slender. Her eyes observed Kah’len fearlessly and boldly.

            “We are here to join North and South Torahn,” Lahn intoned, his voice carrying easily in the silence. “We are here among gods, blessed and conscripted into their holy plans. I bless this marriage to be long lived and full of joy, laughter, and friendship. May you be blessed with many, many children.” Lahn cleared his throat. “The Goddess of North Torahn blesses you, Ajla Obeli-Savah.” He placed his hand on her head and she bowed her head to accept his blessing. “The Goddess of North Torahn blesses you, Ajla Obeli-Savah.” He placed his hand on her groin and murmured a prayer.

            Lahn turned to Kah’len. His gorgeous eyes were faraway and cold. “I bless you, Kah’len Tjashensi, Warlord of North Torahn.” He touched Kah’len’s forehead then placed a hand on his groin. “I bless you, Kah’len Tjashensi, in the name of Holy Atana.”

            Lahn raised his arms over his head. “Marriage is entered humbly and with good intentions. This marriage is between two nations, two peoples, two cultures. I bless it in the name of Holy Atana. May whomever opposes this union speak now or forever refrain.”

            Silence reigned over the congregation.

            Lahn lowered his arms and reached behind him, picking up a sol’eka bracelet with its accompanying ring. He took Kah’len’s left arm, already holding four sol’ekas. He placed the final sol’eka near the elbow and closed the clasp. He then ran the thin gold chain along the Warlord’s forearm to his middle finger, where four thin bands already congregated. Lahn slipped the final band over Kah’len’s middle finger. The band came to the knuckle and would make bending the digit quite difficult for the Warlord.

            “I marry you Kah’len Tjashensi to Ajla Obeli-Savah,” Lahn intoned.

            Then Lahn turned around, picked up the second sol’eka bracelet and placed it on the princess’ slender right wrist, slipping the slender band over her middle finger. “I marry you, Ajla Obeli-Savah, to the Warlord of North Torahn, Kah’len Tjashensi.”

            Lahn turned to the congregation and lifted their hands into the air. “I declare this couple married in the name of Holy Atana, Maiden, Warrior and Mother!”

            Kah’len stepped to Ajla, lifted her diaphanous veil, and pressed a chaste kiss to her mouth.

            The congregation erupted into cheers and hoots. Soldiers stamped their feet.

            Kah’len led Ajla down to the ground, where musicians had begun to play traditional Northern Torahn songs. The congregation parted to allow the couple to lead the traditional wedding dance. Even though Ajla did not know the dance, she was light in Kah’len’s arms and was a quick study. Her face flushed and her eyes glittered and her smile made her quite beautiful. He spun her around, lifting her over his head, then setting her down once more. She laughed breathlessly and he joined her. They came into each other’s arms and spun as the music grew faster. Other couples were spinning around in a large circle near them.

            After several dances with his wife, the father of the bride took his turn with the young woman.

            Kah’len turned away, ready for a dram of wine or ekila.

            “My lord.”

            Kah’len turned.

            Elea Obeli-Savah, Queen of South Torahn, curtsied. “May I have this dance?”

            “Of course, your Majesty,” he dutifully replied and took her in his arms.

            They danced for a few minutes in silence.

            “Be kind and gentle with Ajla,” the Queen said. “She looks poised and serious, but she is still only a child.”

            “I would not bed her until she is of age,” he murmured.

            She stiffened. “She is of age for an aristocrat. You must bed her and cement our treaty with a child.”

            “It is dangerous for a girl of her age to carry a child to term,” he said gently.

            She chuckled. “I had my first at eleven, my lord. She comes from good breeding stock. She is sturdy and healthy.”

            “Yes, your Majesty,” he said, suddenly weary to his soul.

            “And are you and my son friends?” she prompted.

            “We are becoming so,” he replied. “He pleases me and I love him with all my heart.”

            She pulled back to gaze into his eyes. “You do love him. I can see it in you when you look at him. I don’t expect you to love Ajla in the same way, but I don expect you to respect her, to befriend her, and to treat her kindly.”

            “Upon my honor, it shall be so.”

            She gazed into his eyes for a long time before she nodded. “I believe you, Warlord of North Torahn.”

            “Thank you,” he murmured.

            Her gaze turned steely. “We will not leave the border until my child quickens with life, Warlord. You must know this.”

            “I had no idea,” he assured her. “But it seems prudent of you.”

            She smiled coldly. “So diplomatic for one so young.”

            She stepped out of the circle of his arms. “We have an understanding, you and I?”

            He bowed. “We do, your Majesty.”

            She gave a satisfied nod and glided away.

            That night, in Kah’len’s spacious pavilion, he stayed up late conversing with his new bride. He attempted to set her mind at ease, but she was adamant that he bed her and get her with child. She had no interest in courting his friendship, it seemed. He sighed and did his best to please her in bed. It helped that she seemed older than her years, that her body was fully developed, slender and beautiful. It was certainly no hardship to bed her, to enter her tight velvety heat. He did not kiss her, though, and she did not asked to be kissed. He took her thrice until she felt into a deep, exhausted sleep. Then he lay awake the remainder of the night, his skin perfumed by her scent, the smell of sex and sweat clinging to his flesh. He found himself disliking her and her quickly strangled those emotions. He would be friendly and respectful towards her, but they would not ever be friends.

Chapter Forty-Nine: The Peace Accord

            Weariness thickened his thoughts and made his joints slow. They had been holed up in Kah’len’s tent for all the night and most of the morning, stopping only to eat and relieve themselves. Lahn yawned behind his hand and watched as Oona Thalmar signed the peace accord between Tjish.un and North Torahn, followed by Kah’len’s own signature. As Lahn watched, a duplicate was also signed. Fine sand was poured over the documents to absorb the excess ink, then Kah’len was presented with one accord and Oona Thalmar with another. Oona and Kah’len rose and hugged.

            “You’ve made me proud, child,” Lady Thalmar murmured. “As soon as I deliver the accord to the Queen, I will bring your sister and her family back to Draemin City.”

            “Thank you, Mother. Also bring Lady Sjanita and her child,” Kah’len said.

            Oona nodded and pressed a kiss to his mouth. “It shall be done, child. Worry naught. Within six months, we shall be back home.”

            The others rose as the lady made her way from the tent.

            They sat down to write up the peace accord between the Isemi and North Torahn. The peace accord between R’Nonay and North Torahn had already been completed, with a promise that Lady Ariahl Solastis would be brought to Draemin City. According to General Soltas Eskar, the lady was with child, so it was best to undergo a sea voyage as soon as possible. He left Kah’len’s tent with the promise that he himself would escort the Oligarch’s daughter to North Torahn within six months. The General had departed the border a few hours before and made his way towards the city of Sena on the coast.

             Kah’len wrote down on the peace accord that the Isemi now owned the land west of the Khaine River from the tributaries in the south to the mouth of the Khaine in the north. The Isemi would share the bounty of the Khaine River with settlers just east of the river. Kah’len read the words as he wrote them, for he knew the Isemi could neither read nor write. As he said the words, the Pauk-an, or Isemi ambassador, sang the words to recall them. When they were done drawing up the treaty, Kah’len signed it and Tauk-na Oter Masivo, King of the Isemi, wrote an X in blood. He then used his dagger to slice a cut down Kah’len’s left palm. The Isemi cut the palm of his right hand and he joined their hands so their blood would mingle.

            “We are siblings,” Oter Masivo declared, his dark, handsome face splitting into a grin. “You attack us, you attack your family.”

            “I understand,” Kah’len assured him.

            Kah’len took his hand back and poured fine sand over both documents before pouring the sand back in its holder and rolling up the Isemi’s document and handing it to Oter Masivo.

            “If ever there is a disagreement,” Kah’len stated. “Show the leader of my people this paper.”

            Oter Masivo and his companion rose and bowed.

            “I understand,” the Tauk-na stated.

            The others rose as the Isemi stalked out of the tent into the warm afternoon.

            Kah’len turned back to the table.

            “That just leaves me,” Prince Nhove stated with a smirk.

            “I apologize, your Highness,” Kah’len stated. “I needed to leave yours last, for I will now make the greatest concessions.”

            Prince Nhove raised a speculative eyebrow. “How so?”

            “I will move the border between North and South Torahn 10 miles north. That means City Sena will come under the Red King’s jurisdiction.”

            Prince Nhove opened his lips and closed them with a click. “What must we do for you?”

            Kah’len smiled without humor. “I would appreciate if the Red King will help me secure North Torahn under my rule.”

            Prince Nhove sat back in his chair. “I have a sister. We will support your rule, if you marry my sister. The ten miles won’t be necessary.”

            Lahn scowled. “And my marriage to the Warlord?”

            Prince Nhove waved a dismissive hand. “You can’t have children, Lahn.”

            Lahn swallowed. “How old is Ajla now?”

            “Twelve,” his brother replied serenely.

            “You know I already have three wives,” Kah’len told the prince.

            Prince Nhove nodded. “I know, Warlord. How much is peace worth to you?”

            Kah’len glanced at Lahn, but Lahn’s kept his face a bland mask.

            “Do what you must, Warlord,” Lahn stated coldly.

            Kah’len sighed. “Very well. You forfeit the 10 miles and City Sena and I marry your sister.”

            “You come to the capital of South Torahn,” Prince Nhove said.

            Kah’len shook his head. “No. The wedding will take place here, at the border.”

            Prince Nhove cocked his head. “You don’t trust us, Warlord?”

            “No,” Kah’len replied. “I don’t. Is the border amenable to you and your family?”

            Prince Nhove chuckled. “Yes, Warlord. It is amenable.”

            They stood up and clasped forearms across the table before Kah’len sat down again to draw up the accord.

            Lahn, feeling betrayed, fumed in his seat. Ajla. He had not seen her since she was seven years old. He recalled she was a loving, gentle child with a strong sense of curiosity and very intelligent. She had been plump as a child, with a round face that favored their father.

            He took a deep breath and released it as Kah’len and Lahn’s older brother signed their treaty. The young men stood when the documents were signed.

            “Pleasure doing business with you, Warlord,” Prince Nhove drawled. He looked at Lahn. “Walk me out, brother?”

            Lahn rose and followed Prince Nhove outside. The afternoon was warm but pleasant. The skies were clear of clouds and a bright cerulean.

            Prince Nhove went to stand near his bahil and stroked the animal’s muscular neck. “You’re now a priest for that Goddess?”

            “Yes,” Lahn replied.

            Prince Nhove flicked him a glance. “You’re angry.”

            “Why must he marry Ajla?” Lahn demanded.

            Prince Nhove shook his head. “We must think of the future, Lahn.” He sighed as he stroke the bahil’s gleaming neck. “You love him? The Warlord?”

            Lahn swallowed. “Yes.”

            “He loves you as well,” his brother said. “I can tell by how he watches you. Do not worry about Ajla or any of the Warlord’s other wives. The man is atoliy, isn’t he?”

            Lahn pursed his lips. “I wonder if that is true.”

            Prince Nhove turned to face Lahn. “Then have faith in his love for you, Oracle. I have to get back to camp and then home.”

            The prince enveloped Lahn in a warm hug.

            Lahn closed his eyes and rested his cheek against his brother’s shoulder. “I do love you, Nhove.”

            “And I love you, Lahn. You have grown into a fine, strapping young man and the confidant of a Goddess and the Warlord of North Torahn.”

            They parted and Prince Nhove gifted Lahn with a warm smile. “I can’t wait until you meet father and mother again.”

            He swung onto the saddle of his mount and gazed down at Lahn. “Be good and excellent, brother. Until we meet again.”

            Lahn raised an arm as his brother swung his mount around and cantered away southeast toward the border, his military escort at his heels.

            “Let’s talk,” Lahn heard from behind him.

            He turned and Kah’len held open the pavilion flap to allow him to enter.

            Lahn ducked into the vast tent and they sat down at the table.

            “This wasn’t my idea,” Kah’len said, folding his hands on the table.

            Lahn snorted. “I know, Warlord. Your house will be united, just as the Goddess decreed. You will have so many children…” Lahn closed his eyes. “And I will have the one, which I shall bring up at the cathedral.”

            Kah’len laid his hand on top of Lahn’s. “I love you above all others, Lahn Tjashensi-Obeli. Know this.”

            Lahn smiled sadly at him. “I know, Kah’len. With my heart, I know this.”

            “Then forgive me,” Kah’len murmured.

            “There is nothing to forgive,” Lahn replied. He lifted Kah’len’s hand and pressed a kiss to his wrist. “I love you.”

            Kah’len grinned. “And I love you, Lahn, but my greed is what has brought us here.”

            “You are the best ruler for North Torahn,” Lahn replied. “The best hope for a unified Torahn one day.”

            Kah’len raised an eyebrow. “Still a unificationist?”

            “Always,” Lahn replied and laughed.

            They stared lovingly at one another for a few minutes of silence.

            “Now what?” Lahn whispered.

            “Now we wait for your sister and then we go home, my dear. We still need to bring order to North Torahn.”

            “Yes,” Lahn said.

            Without a word, they rose and made their way to the large bed, which had been dressed with fresh bedclothes and pillows. Kah’len stripped his uniform off and went to washup at the basin as Lahn doffed his own clothes and climbed under the bedclothes. He watched as Kah’len washed the blood and dust from his skin, rinsing his mouth and unbraiding his hair. Kah’len’s hair fell in a black curtain down his back to his buttocks. He turned and walked to the bed, his tumescent kaoun jutting proudly from the hair in his groin. Lahn swallowed thickly as Kah’len climbed under the bedclothes and turned to face him.

            Kah’len touched Lahn’s face. His fingers were cold and smelled of expensive soap.

            Lahn turned his head and kissed his fingers. “Will you make love to me now?”

            Kah’len swallowed. “Yes.”

            They met in the middle and kissed hungrily. Lahn’s groin tightened and his kauon thickened. They pressed their bodies together and held each other tightly. Kah’len’s hands roamed desperately over Lahn’s skin, caressing and kneading. His hands found Lahn’s arse and he pulled Lahn even closer until their kauons rubbed against each other. Lahn’s member was weeping precum as Kah’len reached down and wrapped his calloused hand around the thick pole of Lahn’s lust. Lahn’s head spun as Kah’len licked his way down his chest, pausing at the nipples to swirl them into tight peaks, before continuing down to swallow Lahn’s kauon in one go. Lahn cried out and fisted the bedclothes as Kah’len consumed him, his mouth a furnace. Lahn spurted precome against the back of Kah’len’s throat. He began to thrust shallowly into Kah’len’s mouth while Kah’len increased suction. The exquisite ache grew so strong, Lahn found it hard to breathe. It was as if he was being eaten alive. Kah’len feasted on him and Lahn reached out to burrow his fingers in Kah’len’s glossy mane.

            Kah’len hummed and suddenly Lahn lost it and tumbled into his completion, pouring down Kah’len’s throat. Kah’len drank every drop and sat up with a satisfied, smug grin.

            Lahn panted. “Now you.”

            Kah’len shook his head. “I want in you, Lahn.”

            Lahn swallowed. “Alright. I’ve never done that.”

            “I have,” Kah’len said. “I’ll take care of you.”

            Kah’len reached into the night table drawer and withdrew a vial of oil. He sat back on his heels between Lahn’s legs. Lahn took in the massive girth of Kah’len’s kaoun and felt the stirrings of fear. He watched with trepidation as Kah’len generously oiled his member before pouring more oil on his fingers. He brought his oily fingers to the crease of Lahn’s buttocks and rubbed the entrance to his body until it was slick before pushing a finger in. It felt strange but not unpleasant. Kah’len thrust his finger in and out through Lahn’s opening. Then he pushed another finger in, making Lahn feel fuller. A rush of desire scrabbled up Lahn’s body and he shivered as Kah’len inserted a third finger. He felt impossibly full. He gasped when Kah’len touched a place inside of his body that pinged with pleasure. He melted as Kah’len caressed the spot again.

            He watched, dazed, as Kah’len withdrew his fingers and pushed his kauon against Lahn’s opening.

            “Push out, as if you are going to expel me,” Kah’len directed.

            Lahn did as he asked, pushing out as if he had a bowel movement. Kah’len pushed in until he breached Lahn’s opening and slid in to the hilt. Lahn stopped breathing. He felt uncomfortably full and the edge of pain filled him. He bit his lip to keep from crying out. His eyes filled with tears. Kah’len began to thrust shallowly inside of him. The pain seemed to increase until Lahn’s hole throbbed with it. Kah’len lay between Lahn’s legs and began to thrust in earnestness. Lahn grasped Kah’len’s shoulders and almost pushed him away before Kah’len shifted and thrust, hitting that spot inside of Lahn that pinged with pleasure. Lahn gasped and closed his eyes as pleasure took over and the sharp pain began to fade. Suddenly, he could not breathe as intense pleasure threatened to overcome him.

            Kah’len hovered over him, watching him with dazed eyes. Kah’len’s eyes had darkened with pleasure, his pupils dilated.

            “Kiss me,” Lahn gasped.

            Kah’len kissed him and Lahn wrapped his legs around the Warlord’s trim waist. He thrust up to meet Kah’len. The bed shook under them as their movements became more and more frantic until they both came within seconds of the other. Lahn was unsure who came first, only that he was filled with liquid heat and then Kah’len collapsed on top of him and he wrapped his arms around the Warlord’s neck. Lahn gently stroked Kah’len’s sweaty back. Kah’len sighed and soon he was breathing rhythmically as he fell asleep.

            Lahn closed his eyes as exhaustion caught up with him. Soon he fell asleep, his husband and friend cradled between his legs.

Chapter Forty-eight: The Mad King

            Kah’len’s three battalions rode at an easy cantor until they came to about several sepeks from the King’s camp. It was late in the day, so Kah’len allowed his soldiers to make camp with no campfires. Taitah the moon was overhead, bloated and affording plenty of light to work by. Kah’len sat down crosslegged before the small tent he would sleep in. He ate his cold rations and drank water from a bladder; the water was tepid and tasted of leather. Around him, soldiers murmured softly in groups of twos and threes. Below the rise in the land, the vast camp belonging to King Roseir Ys’teis sprawled east.

            Kah’len set guards along their camp periphery and crawled in the tent for some sleep. Sleep was a long time in coming as the army settled around him. Kah’len lay on his back, in full leather armor, blinking at the darkness within the tent. He thought of Lahn and his groin tightened. With a sigh, he closed his eyes. The young man was like a drug to him. A drug he needed in order to breathe and exist. Eventually, he fell into a light doze in which bright images of Castle Draemin intertwined with dreams of Lahn and children he did not recognize. When he was aroused in the pre-dawn hours, he sighed wearily and crawled out of his tent. Two soldiers broke his tent down while he sipped water from a bladder.

            He took his report from the night watch.

            A young soldier saluted him and approached. “The King’s camp was quiet during the night, my lord. The King’s pavilion is at the fore of the camp, heavily guarded.”

            Kah’len nodded and clasped the young man’s shoulder. “Good job, Ylen. I think we will surprise them this morning by attacking the camp.”

            A sergeant strode up and saluted. “I think we should attack, sir, but surround the camp as well in case a trap has been set for us.”

            Kah’len nodded. “Good, Jered. That makes sense. You take most of the cavalry to surround the camp from the west, north and south. I will take most of the infantry to attack directly.”

            Kah’len mounted his bahil, Lish’tah, and waited until the cavalry mounted up. The infantry would jog the 1 1/2 miles to the King’s camp. The army split up in a fine, highly coordinated dance. Kah’len led the infantry to the King’s camp at a trot, the soldiers on foot jogging. As they approached from the west, the alert went out in the King’s camp and soldiers started scrambling for their armor and weapons. They had grown lax and complacent, Kah’len was happy to see.

            He yelled and spurred his army forth. The infantry brought up a yell that made the hair along Kah’len’s arms stand. He kept his eyes trained on the large pavilion in the distance. It stood surrounded by guards.

            As he watched, the King stepped from inside the pavilion in full gold armor and sword. Kah’len almost brought his mount to heel. His sire looked just this side of death, pale and gaunt and sickly. His eyes burned fiercely in his lean face. He watched as Kah’len rode up while around him armies clashed.

            Their eyes met and the King grinned fiercely.

            “You are here, Warlord!” the King taunted. “Come get me, boy!”

            There was little of sanity in the man’s blazing eyes. Kah’len dismounted and approached the King with his sword unsheathed.

            “Father,” he said, suddenly uncertain.

            The King narrowed his eyes. “How is your whore of a mother, boy?”

            Kah’len’s back stiffened. “You keep her out of this.”

            The King pointed east with his sword. “She’s there, leading the Tjish.unen contingency, ready to take my blood! And you defend her!”

            The King screamed and raised his sword, rushing Kah’len. Kah’len had just enough time to raise his sword to deflect his sire’s weapon as it swept down in an arc. They fought, their swords clanging in the din of battle. The King’s madness made him strong, despite his feeble appearance. The King lunged and Kah’len spun away. They came together again, their swords between them, fairly evenly matched. This close, Kah’len could see the dark circles under the king’s eyes and the broken vessels in the whites of his eyes. The King reeked of old sweat and unwashed body and disease. His breath was sour on Kah’len’s face.

            Kah’len threw him off and raised his sword to attack. The King deflected the downward sweep of Kah’len sword before stepping back.

            “Give up, Father!” Kah’len implored. “You’re sick, sir.”

            The King screeched in rage and attacked once more. The strength of his rage drove Kah’len back. Kah’len tripped on a fallen soldier and fell onto his back.

            The King stood over him, pointing the sword at his heart. “You can never best me, boy. Don’t you know by now?”

            With a laugh that froze Kah’len’s blood in his veins, the King raised his sword over his head. Kah’len saw the sword sweep down in slow motion. Then, before the sword connected with his head, the King stopped. His eyes were unfocused and his body was trembling. The King screamed and dropped his sword, holding on to his head with both hands, he fell onto his knees.

            Kah’len rose and picked up his sword.

            The King screamed again.

            Kah’len unsheathed his dagger.

            The King gazed up at him. “Make the pain stop, boy!” Blood seeped from his eyes and mouth. “Oh, the pain!”

            Kah’len swallowed thickly and came behind the King, neatly slicing his throat. The King fell forward and was still.

            Kah’len sighed and looked around. The battle raged on. He mounted Lish’tah and looked around the chaos.

            “The King is dead!” he yelled.

            The word spread slowly through the melee.  Kah’len’s troops took up the chant of  “the King is dead!  Long live the King!”  It spread like wildfire through the battle.

            “Lay down your arms!”

            Slowly, the King’s army began to drop their weapons on the ground.

            “Find me a horn,” Kah’len said to Sergeant Jered.

            The sergeant saluted and hurried away, returning within minutes with a battered copper horn. He handed the horn to Kah’len.

            Kah’len brought the horn to his lips and blew a long note into the early morning silence. Three other horns answered his own.

            Kah’len looked at the ragtag remainder of the King’s army. “You can join us or you can go free. We must secure the border and bring an end to this war. Will you join me?”

            Most of the soldiers raised their swords and hailed Kah’len, though some refrained and would be allowed to leave the battle.

            Kah’len nodded. “Then those who do not wish to join our army, you may leave the battlefield. If you fight against us, you will forfeit your life.”

            Kah’len looked at Sergeant Jered again. “Find me three messengers, Sergeant. I’ll be in the King’s tent.”

            Sergeant Jered saluted and hurried away, while Kah’len turned Lish’tah around and cantered to the King’s tent. Once there, he dismounted and handed the reins to a nearby guard. Inside the opulent tent, Kah’len could smell the king’s sickness and unwashed body. A young woman lay naked and asleep on the bed. Kah’len turned his eyes away from her supple youth. Servants entered the tent.

            “What about us, my lord,” the head servant asked.

            “You’ll remain with me until I am ready to leave. We still have a peace treaty to sign. Take my sire’s bedclothes and burn them. Burn his clothing. My father was afflicted by an insect that burrowed into his brain.”

            The servants paled and gasped.

            “It shall be done, my lord,” the head servant promised and began to direct the others.

            Kah’len walked to the table crammed with wine stained maps. One large map of the border between the Torahns stood unfurled. A decanter of wine stood at each corner. Kah’len looked down on the map and traced the border with a finger.

            The tent flap was pushed open and Sergeant Jered entered, followed by three soldiers.

            “I’ve brought the messengers, my lord,” the Sergeant said.

            Kah’len nodded. “Then here is my message: the King of North Torahn is dead. Warlord Kah’len Tjashensi is victorious. He calls for each nation to come to the old king’s camp at sundown for a truce. Until then, all fighting is to cease.”

            He made each messenger repeat his words. Once satisfied, he walked them outside, where they mounted their swift bahils and galloped in three directions.

            Kah’len turned to Sergeant Jered. “Have those who once served the King conscripted into our army. The border has to be fortified when we leave.”

            “I will do so, Warlord!” Sergeant Jered stated and saluted before striding away.

            Kah’len sent a fourth messenger to Aud’s camp to bring Commander Aud and the Oracle for the upcoming conference with the leaders of the other armies. He sat at his father’s conference table and watched as the servants stripped the king’s bed of its bedclothes and hauled them outside to be burned. He watched as they hauled the King’s clothes chests out into the bonfire. Incense was burned to cleanse the air of the smell of sickness and unwashed body. The tent flap was clipped open to allow for fresh air into the tent.

            Kah’len soon found himself pacing as he waited for responses. The first response to arrive came from the Tjish.unen army, led by Lady Oona, his mother. He read her missive with a smile.

            “Oh my child! Goddess bless you and keep you!

             I will come as the Queen’s representative to make a peace accord between us.

             I will come at sunset.

             Yours,

             Oona Thalmar.“

            Soon, the other responses came from the R’Nonayan army and the Red Army of South Torahn.

            Kah’len had the King’s tent rearranged, setting the large rectangular conference table in the middle of the pavilion, organizing several chairs around the table. He had the servants hang a curtain around the large bed in one corner and around the bathing area nearby. He ordered a feast to be cooked for the visiting dignitaries.

            At sunset, people began arriving. Oona Thalmar arrived with a contingency of Tjish.unen soldiers. Prince Nhove Obeli, heir of the Red Throne, arrived with his own escort. For R’Nonay, General Soltas Eskar rode up with a military escort. Kah’len had them led into his pavilion and then turned in time to see Commanders Aud and Daven and Lahn ride up. Finally, two burly Isemi warriors rode up on lirtah. The warriors dismounted and entered the pavilion with barely a flick of a glance at Kah’len.

            Lahn threw himself from his mount and hugged Kah’len. “Goddess preserve me! I was so scared!”

            Kah’len rubbed his back soothingly. “It was a short face off, Lahn. Come inside, all of you.”

            He led his two commanders and his Oracle into the tent.

            Oona Thalmar, Prince Nhove Obeli and General Soltas Eskar bowed when Kah’len entered, leading Lahn by the hand.

            “Lahn!” Nhove Obeli cried and ran to his brother, pulling him into a hug. “Oh, look at you, Lahn!”

            They pulled apart and grinned at each other.

            “You look well, brother,” Nhove murmured. He flicked a glance at Kah’len before looking at his brother. “Marriage agrees with you.”

            Nhove thrust his arm through Lahn’s and led him to the table.

            “These are my commanders, Aud and Daven,” Kah’len told the congregation. “And that is Lahn Tjashensi-Obeli, my spouse, the Oracle of the Goddess, and my personal adviser. Please sit.”

            When everyone sat down, Kah’len had the meal and wine served. He tasted the wine and food first. The telltale burning of poison was absent. The visitors tucked into their meal while Kah’len spoke to them.

            “My father was mad,” Kah’len stated. “He had an insect lodged in his brain, which drove him to madness. He asked me to kill him because the pain had reached a level that was intolerable. But I could not trust him anyway.” Kah’len swallowed thickly, grief seeping into his heart and mind. “Father and I were close once, before he got sick. Now, let us speak of a truce. I must secure my own land, so it is not advantageous for me to make war with my neighbors. I will leave three brigades of soldiers at the border for security purposes, just as it has always been. I believe I have treaties with R’Nonay and Tjish.un, as I wed princesses from both nations. I also married the Red King’s youngest son.”

            The burlier of the two Isemi warriors stood up. “I am Oler Masivo, Tauk-na of the Isemi tribes. This is Estir Sanor, Pauk-an of my people. What is there for us in this treaty?”

            “For the Isemi, I propose extending their territory until Azura.Dha, where the Khaine River empties into the sea,” Kah’len said.

            The Isemi seemed taken aback. They looked at each other then at Kah’len.

            “That is acceptable,” Oler Masivo declared and sat down, reaching for a decanter of wine. He held the decanter up. “I celebrate.”

            There were chuckles and nods as Oler drank his fill of wine.

            “Now, I propose were rework trade agreements and peace treaties,” Kah’len said.

            They settled in for a long, productive night.

Chapter Forty-Seven: The Border

            Lahn shuddered and moaned as he came awake from a dark dream. Before opening his eyes, he took a mental tally of his aches and pains. His entire body ached with a bone-deep ache. His muscles were sore and his joints hurt when he moved. Opening his eyes, he found himself on the pallet.  Beneath him the wagon he rode on lurched and shifted over stones on the ground. The army was on the move. How close were they to the border? How long had he been unconscious? With a groan, he sat up and brought a cold, shaking hand to his head. A headache throbbed behind his eyes. The cart had his clothes chest and he lay on a fairly thick pallet with blankets, even though the temperature was quite mild.  He heard a sharp whistle and the wagon came to a rolling stop. Outside the wagon covering, the din of the army filled the day.

            Lahn turned and crawled to the flap, pushing it open to see it was late in the day.  The sun clung to the western skies.  Around him, the army set up camp. He looked for Kah’len and his commanders, but it seemed Lahn was traveling behind with the camp followers and families. He dropped the flap and unbraided his hair, combing it with his fingers before rebraiding it. He wore a sleeping tunic and trousers and wondered who had disrobed him. He blushed at the thought. He went to his chest and withdrew appropriate day wear, dressing as befit the Prei-Serren of City Draemin, even if the outfits were uncomfortable and ostentatious. Once dressed, he pulled on his travel boots and left the wagon, climbing over the back.

            All around him, the camp bustled with activity. There was a small river nearby that meandered along the tall grass fields, a tributary of the majestic Khaine River in the west. People recognized him and bowed reverently. He acknowledged them all. No one disturbed him as he made his way through the organized chaos in search of Kah’len. The army caravan was easily several miles long, the camp a sprawling thing on this side of the tributary. It seemed to go all the way to the horizon, but Lahn knew that was not accurate. The very land seemed to groan under the weight of 20,000 troops, their camp followers, servants, and families. Lahn despaired he would find Kah’len in all this.

            He turned to the wagon driver and told him he wanted to set up his wagon near the Warlord’s tent.

            The wagon driver bowed. “I will find the Warlord’s tent, Excellency, and set up your tent there.”

            “Thank you,” Lahn replied, smiling at the young man.

            The young man blushed and ducked his head. “Let me make some inquiries, Excellency. Someone must know where the Warlord’s tent has been staked. I’ll return shortly.”

            Lahn went to the front of the wagon, where the wagon driver had set a bucket with feed and a bucket of water beneath each lirtah pulling the wagon. There were two animals. Lahn found a rag on the wagon seat and used it to wipe down the lathered bodies of the lirtah. The animals’ heads drooped from exhaustion, their long, elegant, muscular necks barely holding up their wide heads. Their smallish horns gleamed in the waning light of the sun and in the lights from nearby campfires.

            Nearly a quarter of an hour later, the young wagon driver returned. “The Warlord’s tent is located about two miles upstream, your Excellency. I will lead you.”

            The animals had eaten and drunk their fill, so amid complaints from the wagon driver, whose name was Pansen, Lahn helped him gather the buckets and set them behind the wagon seat. Then they led the wagon down the makeshift road towards the front of the camp. The air was thick with the competing smells of animal waste, boiling tea, unwashed bodies, and cooking food. A thick throng of bodies crossed the road just ahead of them as people made their way to and from the river. The going was slow and Lahn breathed deeply to remain patient.

            They finally made it to the fore of the vast camp. Kah’len’s pavilion was black and gold and huge with the flag of City Draemin snapping smartly in the wind. The pavilion was armed to the teeth with guards.

            Lahn walked up to the four guards at the tent door. “Is the Warlord in?”

            The guards brought their fists to their chests and bowed. “He is in conference with his commanders, Excellency.”

            One of the guards slipped into the tent to announce him. He returned briefly and pulled the tent flat open. “You may enter, Excellency.”

            “Thank you,” Lahn murmured and ducked in.

            The tent was quite spacious, with room for a bed, a folding table, four chairs, Kah’len’s trunks and a table with a washbasin and a stack of washcloths and towels, cakes of soap and tinted bottles of hair and body oils. There was a bathtub to one side and a brazier near it.

            Lahn paused at the entrance.

            Kah’len glanced up and rose, a grin on his face. “You live!”

            Lahn grimaced and rubbed his neck. “I’m sore all over.”

            The commanders rose.

            “I imagine being possessed by a Goddess would be hard,” Commander Daven said politely.

            “I don’t remember anything,” Lahn said mournfully.

            “Have a seat, Lahn,” Kah’len said. “Dinner will be served shortly.”

            Lahn sighed and took the last available seat across the table from Kah’len. “What are you doing?”

            Aud sat. “We are one day from the border. We are finalizing strategies and such.”

            “I’ve been asleep for four days?” Lahn asked, aghast.

            “You expended a lot of energy in the gubernatorial mansion when you destroyed it,” Kah’len stated blandly and sat down.

            Lahn blushed. “Don’t remind me.”

            “It was Atana’s doing,” Kah’len said gently and reached across the table to cover Lahn’s hand with his. “You averted a disaster.”

            Lahn sighed. “Why did the governor try to poison us?”

            Kah’len sat back, removing his hand from Lahn’s. Lahn immediately felt the loss.

            “He made a pact with my sire that he would poison me to keep the city safe and to remain autonomous when father conquered the south. The man was a fool.” Kah’len shook his head. “Father is mad. I’m sure of it. He is untrustworthy and volatile. What I hear from my spies in his household, he throws gigantic temper tantrums. He is getting more unhinged as the war drags on and he still not the victor. He underestimated the Isemi and the passion of the southern troops. Also, the Queen of Tjish.un has sided with the south against him.” He frowned. “I wonder what the Red King promised her for her support.”

            “What about R’Nonay?” Lahn asked.

            “They have thrown their backing with Father,” Kah’len replied with a grimace. “That is why the war drags on.”

            “Well, damn,” Lahn murmured and shook his head. “We should be able to tip the balance.”

            “I am hoping,” Kah’len replied.

            The tent flap opened and servants entered carrying platters of food that they set in the middle of the table. Roasted dosi glistened with a dark spicy sauce. Dark, bitter greens were dressed in a honey-citrus concoction. Fresh bread with freshly churned butter in a large wooden bowl. They were served and then they tucked into their meal. Lahn’s mouth burned from the spices in the sauce. But everything complemented everything else, the spicy meat and the creamy, soft bread with sweet butter, the bitter greens. He had two platefuls before he felt replete.

            When the remainder of the meal was hauled away, Kah’len served them glasses of ekila and mi’disj. Lahn sipped the sweet, fiery liqueurs, content and at peace while Kah’len unfurled a large map of the border between North and South Torahn.

            The Warlord placed weights on all four corners of the map to hold it in place.

            “Here is where the battle is being fought,” he said, pointing at a field between Sena and the Khaine River. “The battle ground encompasses several miles. Father’s camp is here, in the west. The R’Nonayans are camped east of the battlefield. The Southern forces, including Tjish.un, are here, in the south, near the small, nameless border town there. It is my goal to come in from the west with 10,000 soldiers and then 10,000 from the northeast, to envelop both my sire’s army and the R’Nonayans. I will lead the troops coming in from the west and Daven will lead the ones coming in from the northeast. Aud, you remain with the rest of the camp to ensure their safety. But also to cut off escape through the border itself.”

            “And what about me?” Lahn asked.

            “You stay with Aud, Lahn. You will offer a sacrifice to the Goddess on the day we split, but you will not fight,” Kah’len stated firmly.

            Lahn crossed his arms over his chest. “I am trained to fight.”

            Kah’len shook his head. “I cannot be distracted with worrying about you, Lahn. Please respect my wishes in this.”

            Lahn dropped his arms. “Very well, but I cannot predict what the Goddess will ask of me.”

            Kah’len swallowed a mouthful of liqueur and set the empty glass down on the tabletop with a thud. “I know.”

            Aud yawned and rose. “I’m going to bed. We rise before the sun tomorrow.”

            Daven rose as well. “I’m off, too. Goodnight both of you.”

            When the two commanders had left, Lahn and Kah’len stared at each other in silence.

            Lahn swallowed. He wanted to sleep in Kah’len’s arm this night. He opened his mouth to say so.

            “Sleep with me tonight, Lahn,” Kah’len murmured. “I won’t touch you. I never engage in sex the day before battle, but I want to hold you close.”

            Lahn rose. “I want that, too.”

            Without another word, they rose and discarded their clothes. Lahn folded his robes, inner tunic and trousers with shaking hands, setting the clothes on the table before lifting his eyes to Kah’len.

            Kah’len’s eyes roamed over Lahn’s naked form. He swallowed audibly.

            “I usually sleep naked,” Lahn said, embarrassed.

            “That’s fine,” Kah’len assured him and indicated the bed. “Lie down, Lahn. I will keep my trousers on.”

            Lahn lay on the large bed under the covers and turned to lie on his right side, facing Kah’len.

            Kah’len removed his coat and tunic and sword belt. Then he removed his boots and came to the bed, lying on the covers with his trousers still on.

            “Kah’len,” Lahn whispered.

            Kah’len started as if Lahn had yelled instead of whispered. He swallowed and turned onto his left side, facing Lahn.

            Lahn reached out and ran his fingers along Kah’len’s temple and down his sharp cheeks to his chin. The beginnings of a beard prickled Lahn’s fingertips. He looked into Kah’len’s bright green eyes.

            “You are so beautiful,” Kah’len murmured, swallowing thickly.

            “As are you,” Lahn assured him. “And I want you with a fervor I cannot contain.”

            Kah’len leaned forward and captured Lahn’s mouth in a scalding kiss. Lahn felt consumed as Kah’len deepened the kiss, thrusting his tongue into Lahn’s mouth. Lahn moaned and wrapped his arms around Kah’len’s neck, pulling his body close. The bedclothes were a barrier between them. Lahn wanted to feel Kah’len’s arousal and caressed down Kah’len’s chiseled chest to his trim waist. As his wayward hand got near its prize, Kah’len covered it with his own.

            “I can’t make love to you tonight. I go into battle tomorrow.”

            Lahn gazed deep into his eyes. “Hold me.”

            Kah’len gathered him close and Lahn closed his eyes, breathing deep of Kah’len’s musk, the clean smell of his skin, the warm smell emanating from his armpits, the scent of oils in his hair. Lahn reached up and undid Kah’len’s braid, running his fingers through the heavy fall of hair. The candlelight glinted blue in the impossibly dark hair. It was so soft, Lahn sighed. He brought a thick thread to his nose and breathed deeply of the oil musk.

            Kah’len watched him with hunger and something deep and abiding.

            Lahn pressed a gentle kiss to the Warlord’s full, soft lips. “I love you, Kah’len Tjashensi. I wanted to tell you on the eve of battle.”

            Kah’len swallowed, his eyes filling with tears. “I love you, too, Lahn Tjashensi-Obeli. I hope the Goddess will allow us a night of lovemaking when the war is over. I burn for you.”

            Lahn tucked his head under Kah’len’s chin. “I will hold you to that, Warlord.”

            Kah’len pulled him even closer and kissed the top of his head. “I promise to make love to you, Lahn, when we are safe.”

            Lahn closed his eyes against the wave of doubt that rose in him and mouthed a prayer to Atana.

            Have mercy, Oh Mother, Warrior and Maiden. Give me this one gift.

            For a long time, they lay in each others’ arms in a silent vigil. Kah’len succumbed to slumber before Lahn did. He lay tucked against Kah’len’s side, listening to the sounds emanating from the camp for a long time before he felt into a restless dreamless doze.

            He awoke to Kah’len dressing in the predawn hours. He yawned and sat up.

            Kah’len smiled at him. “Good morning, Lahn. The camp is breaking up. Ride with me ahead of the army.”

            “Of course.”

            They broke their fast with boiled grains, honey, tah’lir’s milk and tza nuts, eating standing up while the servants broke Kah’len’s tent down.

            Afterward they mounted their bahils and Kah’len signaled the start of the trek with a raised arm.

            They set out at a steady pace while, behind them, the vast army lurched into movement. It would take hours before the entire army was moving across the grass fields.

            “I will leave you at sunset,” Kah’len told Lahn. “I will take my warriors west then. We will camp a few miles west from my sire’s camp.”

            “I will sacrifice before you leave,” Lahn murmured.

            Kah’len nodded and glanced away.

            Lahn could tell how nervous the Warlord was.

            At late afternoon, Kah’len called a halt for a brief rest and the sacrificial ceremony.

            Word went out into the army that the young Oracle was going to sacrifice for victory. Slowly, soldiers, servants, camp followers, and family members made their way to the front of the procession and gathered around where Lahn stood with Kah’len as Daven led a dosi on a rope. The animal fought the entire way. When Lahn approached it, it nipped his hand and drew blood. People gasped and murmured nervously.

            Lahn straddled the fighting animal and placed his hands on its shoulders. At once, the animal stilled and bleated mournfully.

            “Be at ease,” Lahn murmured. “You are the Goddess’ gift from us.”

            He cut the animal’s neck swiftly and watched the blood speckle his trousers and boots. The animal fell down and a pool of black blood flowed from its neck. Lahn touched his finger to the hot blood and smudged Kah’len’s forehead, Daven’s forehead, and Aud’s forehead.

            “I bathe you in sacrificial blood,” he intoned and closed his eyes.

            At once, he was filled with a vision. He fell in slow motion as his mind filled with light.

           In a vast battlefield, a king stood, sword bathed in blood. The King, older and handsome, raked his ice-cold ice over the warriors who battled and fell. It was not enough for him. There was not enough blood for him. He thirsted, his mind twisted of all reason and compassion. A sickness nestled in his mind and ate more and more of his reason on a daily basis. Lahn could see a small animal nestled in the gray matter of his mind. It consumed the front part of the king’s mind, made him have seizures, made him have dreams of bright, fervent colors. The scientist in Lahn observed the animal feasting on the king’s brain with curiosity and interest. He knew the king would die eventually from this infection, but not before many, many others died in the process.

            Lahn coughed and blinked his eyes open.

            Kah’len bent over him. “Are you with me, Lahn?”

            Lahn coughed again. “Yes.”

            “What did you see?”

            “The King is dying,” Lahn murmured. “He has an animal in his brain consuming the cells. He is mad. Beyond reason and comprehension. You must kill him.”

            “I intend to,” Kah’len assured him and helped him to sit up.

            “Go then, Warlord,” Lahn said and rose. He looked at the crowd gathered there. “The King will die. Long live the Warlord of North Torahn!”

            The crowd lifted its arms as one. “Long live the Warlord!”

            Lahn turned to a serren who stood nearby. “Burn the dosi’s corpse as an offering to Atana.”

            The serren bowed and went to do as Lahn asked.

            Lahn turned and watched as Kah’len mounted. “The border is less than five miles away! Those in the first regiment, with me!”

            The soldiers shouted a cry and Kah’len galloped west, a surge of soldiers following behind him.

            When he could no longer see Kah’len, Lahn turned to Daven. “The R’Nonayans are good warriors, Commander. Have a care.”

            Daven saluted. “I’ll take your words with me, Excellency.” He raised his voice. “The second regiment with me!”

            Another shout went up and then Commander Daven Halso was galloping west, the rest of the army following close behind.

Chapter Forty-Six: City Dors

            The journey from Draemin bay to the Southern Border took several weeks by sea. The fleet sailed close to land, because the Raiye’Tah was a stubborn, violent ocean during these months of Haltath and Kamaran. Kah’len was busy during those weeks, holed up in his large cabin with two of his three commanders. He left Commander Maedoc Kalish in command of the two battalions stationed at Draemin City, while he traveled with Commanders Aud Salit’ and Daven Halso. There were lots of plans to make before reaching the border. Even though his days were filled with plans, strategy and company, Kah’len’s nights were long, lonely and mostly sleepless. He would lay on his cot and stare at the ceiling, his mind filled with Lahn, his betrayals and his beauty. Kah’len still wanted him more than he wanted anything, including the rule of Torahn. His hunger for the young Oracle compared to nothing in Kah’len’s life. When he did sleep, Kah’len’s sleep was disturbed by nightmares of Lahn disappearing or dying or leaving him. He was terrified of losing the young man while, at the same time, unsure if he should trust him, should allow him into his heart.

            There were times when he was up on deck, talking to the captain, when he could feel Lahn’s eyes on him. He could feel the young man’s gaze as if it were a gentle breeze on his skin. Lahn would stand for hours at the prow, gazing at the dark shape of land in the west or ahead, at the endless expanse of ocean. Sometimes Kah’len caught Lahn gazing at the bright stars overhead. He seemed lonely, sad and isolated, but Kah’len, even if he was moved by the sight of the youth, could not bring himself to approach him. So much crowded into Kah’len’s heart: a strong sense of betrayal, rage that Lahn had gone over him to have his family members murdered, his lust for Lahn which had no equal, and his pity of the young man’s isolated position. There were times Kah’len could not find breathing room within the nest of vipers that were his thoughts. In frustration, he finally turned to Aud and Daven for advice.

            He sat at the desk in his cabin, writing a missive for his spies at the front, when Aud and Daven knocked on the cabin door. He finished his missive and poured fine sand to absorb the excess ink and stood to answer the knock.

            He grinned at his Commanders. “Come in. I was just writing a letter.”

            “How did you sleep, Warlord?” Aud asked as he commandeered Kah’len’s cot to sit on.

            “Off and on,” Kah’len answered honestly. “And you?”

            “I always sleep like the dead,” Aud growled and laughed when Daven made a sign to avert evil.

            “He is irreverent,” Daven said needlessly and shook his head. “I slept well as well. What troubles you, Warlord?”

            Kah’len straddled the desk chair and sat down, indicating Daven should sit next to Aud on the large bed.

            “I am conflicted,” Kah’len stated.

            Aud snorted. “What else is new? All you leaders and such, you are always conflicted. What conflicts you this week?”

            Kah’len grimaced. “Not this week only.”

            Daven, who was a study of human behaviors, glared at Aud. “Why are you so stupid. Can’t you see the Oracle is what conflicts Kah’len?”

            Aud’s eyebrows shot up. He looked at Kah’len. “Is this true? Am I so oblivious?”

            Daven snorted and shook his head.

            Kah’len chuckled. “You are, Aud.”

            Aud crossed his thick arms over his massive chest. “Well, he is a comely youth, if one is so inclined.”

            Kah’len sighed. “Unfortunately, I am so inclined.”

            “Why are you conflicted? You two are married. Do you not share feelings?” Daven asked.

            “No, I believe we do share feelings,” Kah’len said, wondering how much to reveal. “What I am going to say must stay in this room.”

            His commanders brought their fists to their chests and bowed.

            “Lahn went behind my back and had the old Prei-Serren and the King’s heir put to death. What’s more, he had my half-brother’s wife and older son put to death as well. Then he conscripted the younger children into the Church.”

            By the stunned expressions on his Commanders’ faces, Kah’len gauged his reaction to this atrocity had been justified.

            “He’s dangerous,” Aud growled.

            “He said he was directed by the Goddess,” Kah’len said.

            The burly commander shook his head. “What if the Goddess turns on you, Kah’len? Will he quietly do away with you?”

            Kah’len imagined such a thing and a cold wave washed over him. He could not reply.

            “Why did he go over your head?” Daven, ever judicious, asked.

            “He said he did not think I would obey the Goddess,” Kah’len replied.

            Daven cocked his head. “And would you have? Obeyed the Goddess, I mean.”

            Kah’len swallowed and shook his head. “To be honest, I don’t think I would have.”

            Daven nodded seriously. “Then I think he acted well.”

            Aud scowled at his friend. “Are you mad?”

            Daven gazed calmly at his friend. “Would you want a deity angry with you? Besides, the old Prei-Serren and the heir to the throne would have always been a threat to Kah’len’s rule.”

            “What about the woman and the child?” Aud demanded.

            Daven shook his head. “Kah’len must learn to make sacrifices and to make difficult decisions. What are two lives to secure a nation? Torahn would have been plunged into another civil war and how many would have perished?”

            Aud looked away, gnawing on his lower lip. He looked at Kah’len helplessly. “He might have a point, Warlord.  He is a deeper thinker than I. I would make a lousy advisor, but Daven here, he is wise for his age.”

            Daven snorted again. Once he sobered, he gazed at Kah’len. “I think the Oracle acted wisely, Warlord. You are hurt right now because he went over your head, but the youth’s actions are sound. Forgive him and bed him. You’ll be less conflicted and happier overall.”

            Kah’len took a deep breath and released it. “I forget how young he is. How much responsibility has been placed on his shoulders.”

            “He is the Oracle of a living god,” Daven murmured. “That, too, is a great burden and a dual-edged sword. He will have more blood on his hands in the future, as will you. Learn to trust him and lean on him. He did what he did because he is loyal to you.”

            Aud nodded and glanced at Kah’len. “I see Daven’s point, Kah’len.”

            “Yes, so do I,” Kah’len said and scritched his growing beard with his fingers. “This has greatly eased my mind. I chose you both well.”

            Aud blushed. “Well, Daven more so than I, Warlord.”

            Kah’len smiled. “You, too, you big lug.”

            They laughed.

            Kah’len did not get a chance to speak to Lahn that day or the next, as the war plans proceeded in a timely manner and Kah’len rarely left his cabin during his conferences with his commanders.

            Near the end of the week, they approached South Torahn, sailing near the coastal city of Dors. They dropped anchor on the small bay near the docks. The southern border was several miles to the north, near City Sena. Kah’len sent a missive to the city governor and to the king of South Torahn. He and the Red King were now related through Kah’len’s marriage to Lahn. He came as an ally.

            As he waited for a response from the governor to dock at Dors City, Kah’len went in search of Lahn. He found the young man at the ship’s prow, gazing hungrily at South Torahn.

            “You miss your family, Lahn?” Kah’len asked.

            Lahn started and turned, face flushed. He swallowed. “Yes. I have not seen them in a very long time.”

            Kah’len came to stand beside him, leaning on the railing and gazing at the city behind its towering sprawling walls. He then shifted his gaze north as if he could see the border and the war.

            “I have decided to forgive you, Lahn,” he said quietly. “Trusting you will come later. Please give me time to learn to trust you again, but, in the meantime, I would like us to be friends.”

            “We are married,” Lahn replied softly. “I would like more than friendship from you, Kah’len Tjashensi.”

            Kah’len swallowed thickly. His groin tightened. Goddess above! He wanted that, too. “I want that as well, Lahn. You must know I do.”

            Lahn took a step forward. “When?”

            Kah’len blushed at the eager hunger in the youth’s eyes. “Soon. I want to include you in my preparations from now on. You are my advisor, just as my commanders are.”

            Lahn sighed. “Thank you, Kah’len. I…I’ve been so lonely.”

            Kah’len frowned at the mournful tone of the youth’s reply. He put his hands on Lahn’s shoulders and pulled him into a warm hug. Lahn’s arms went around Kah’len’s waist and he took a shuddering breath. Kah’len sighed and pressed a kiss the youth’s temple.

            “I’m sorry I’ve been so hard on you, Lahn,” Kah’len stated quietly.

            Lahn shook his head. “It’s alright, Warlord. I understand.”

            There was a clearing of a throat and Kah’len gently pulled back from the hug, releasing Lahn.

            Aud brought his fist to his chest and bowed. “A response has arrive, Warlord.”

            Kah’len took the small missive and brought it to the light. The governor welcomed Kah’len and his fleet on behalf of the King. He urged Kah’len to disembark his troops. The governor would be hosting a party for them that evening.

            “A party,” Kah’len stated blandly.

            Aud snorted. “You are the Warlord come to South Torahn. These events have procedures and regulations and such.”

            Kah’len frowned. “We are needed at the border as soon as feasible. We have a journey of some one hundred miles. We are leaving right away.”

            “So, we leave tomorrow morning, Warlord,” Aud murmured and walked away, laughing.

            Kah’len glared after his friend before turning to Lahn. “What do you think, Oracle?”

            “Let me pray on it, Warlord. These diplomatic overtures are things that must be respected. You are now ruler of Draemin City. In your administrative capacity, you must attend events such as this to promote amity between cities.” He grimaced. “But I know you are anxious to confront your sire.”

            Kah’len sighed. “I suppose we can leave on the morrow.”

            “I will ask Atana’s guidance, but she is fickle, Kah’len.”

            Kah’len smiled at the youth. “Do pray on it. We have until tonight to disembark the troops. We’ll camp north of the city.”

            That evening, Kah’len washed up as best he could, scraped his beard off, and dressed in his ceremonial uniform, then he and Lahn and his two commanders rode their bahils to the city gates, which had been thrown open to the army of North Torahn. The city guards, dressed in the green and blue of South Torahn, brought fist to his chest and bowed.

            “Welcome to Dors City, Warlord of North Torahn!” said the one in charge.

            Kah’len refrain from grimacing and saluted back, fist to chest. “Thank you.”

            “The governor’s mansion is near the center of town. We’ll send five guards to escort you.”

            The city was strangely quiet and dark.

            A warning flashed in Kah’len’s mind. “Where are the denizens?”

            One of the guards looked back. “We have curfews, Warlord. Until the North King is expelled from the border, we keep the city dark to present less of a target.”

            The dark streets twisted away from the boulevard into darker, smaller alleyways. All houses were dark and the eerie silence hung over the city. The clop of their mounts’ hoofs sounded like clarions in the silence. Kah’len felt the back of his neck prickle. This felt wrong somehow. The warning got stronger the further away from the docks they went. He opened his mouth to say something when they turned a corner and came to a house adorned with lights. Hundreds of carriages lined the semi-circular driveway. Laughter and music emanated from the mansion. Kah’len swallowed his relief.

            The guards led them to the front door and dismounted their lirtah, creating a semicircle around the front door.

            The leader of the guards bowed to Kah’len when he dismounted. “I will care for your bahil, my lord.”

            Kah’len handed his reins over and watched the others do the same. He then took Lahn’s hand, and led the young man up the five marble steps to the front door. The large arching doorway stood open. The foyer beyond it was crowded with party goers in their lush fineries. A young servant cleared his throat and announced them over the din.

            The foyer fell silent as a tall, older gentleman strode through the throng.

            He grinned at Kah’len and bowed. “Welcome to Dors City, Warlord of North Torahn.”

            Kah’len let go of Lahn’s hand and clasped the man’s forearm. “You are Governor Soel Gair?”

            The man bowed again. “At your command, my lord.”

            The man unclasped Kah’len’s forearm and turned to a much younger woman just behind him. “This is Melidi, my second wife.”

            The woman blushed and curtsied before Kah’len. “It is an honor and a pleasure, my lord.”

            Kah’len took her offered hand and pressed a kiss to her wrist. “The honor is mine, my lady.”

            Governor Gair ran his bright gray eyes over Kah’len’s entourage. “And these gentlemen, my lord?”

            “Forgive me,” Kah’len murmured. “This is my Prei-Serren and husband, Lahn Obeli, and my commanders, Aud Salit’ and Daven Halso.”

            The governor bowed to Lahn. “It is an honor to host a prince of the blood, Excellency. We did not know you had married the Warlord.”

            Lahn bowed as well. “I did, my lord. How is father?”

            The governor bowed to the commanders before thrusting his arm through Lahn’s. “Come inside. I’ll get you refreshments.”

            Governor Gair led Lahn to a sitting room filled with revelers. “Forgive the boisterous nature of our gathering, your Excellency. It has been a long time since we have had a chance to enjoy ourselves. We have lived in dire fear of being invaded for so long.”

            “It must be harrowing for you,” Lahn said sympathetically.

            “It is hard,” the governor agreed and handed him a glass with an apertif.

            Something in Lahn’s body pinged and a sense of danger rose within him. He brought the drink to his lips and he allowed the liquid to touch his lips, where it touched the delicate skin of his lips and throbbed. Inside Lahn, the touch of the Goddess burned with rage. Lahn turned and ran to where Kah’len stood talking to a gentleman. Lahn knocked the drink from Kah’len’s hand as the Warlord brought the glass to his lips.

             Kah’len frowned. “Lahn?”

            “It’s poisoned,” Lahn stated flatly and threw his glass to the floor.

            Nearby, both commanders dropped their glasses.

            Kah’len drew himself to his full height. “I demand an explanation.”

            The governor sighed. “Oh dear, how tiresome. Arrest them.”

            Guards at once surrounded them, spears pointed at them.

            Lahn began to shake, his eyes rolling into his head and foam speckling his lips. Kah’len wrapped his arms around the youth.

            The governor frowned. “Damn it, arrest them!”

            The guards glanced at one another and stepped forward.

            “Enough!” Lahn yelled and pulled free. His eyes glowed golden and a fine sheen of light encompassed his slender body.

             People gasped and stepped back.

            “You dare defy Atana!” Lahn growled and lifted his arms. “Betrayers! Petty little thieves!”

            At once the mansion shook as if the Goddess was tearing through the ground itself. People fell over, dropping their drinks and platters of food clattered to the floor. People panicked and started running every which way attempting to escape. Doors closed and bolted.

            “You will pay!” Lahn screamed as the foundations of the mansion crumbled and the floor cracked and pushed outward. People fell through cracks in the floor. The chandelier overhead rattled and fell on top of two partygoers.

            “Kill him!” the Governor yelled.

            Spears were thrown but deflected from the band of light surrounding Lahn. Lahn plucked a spear from the air and hurled it, impaling the governor through his stomach. The man groaned and fainted.

            Kah’len knew he had to get to Lahn before he killed any more people.

            Around him people panicked and chaos ensued, but no one attempted to stop him as he made his way to Lahn.

            “Lahn!” he gasped and stepped through the light that enveloped the Oracle with a pop. At once his ears seemed muffled and a prickly heat surrounded him. The light fizzled along his skin.

            He approached the Oracle. “Lahn.”

            “He is here, Warlord,” the imperious voice of the Goddess replied.

            “Please, Goddess, Mother and Warrior, have mercy!”

            “On this crowd that came to witness your poisoning and death?” She demanded.

            Kah’len swallowed as he gently put his hands on Lahn’s shoulders and turned him over.

            The young man’s eyes were molted gold with no pupils. Gold tears meandered down his cheeks. He was shaking and blood speckled his lips.

            “You are killing Lahn,” Kah’len said. “Please, Mother of us all. Have mercy.”

           At once,  Lahn’s eyes cleared, becoming his beautiful gray color once more. He looked confused and exhausted. “Kah’len?”

            He fainted into Kah’len’s arms.

            At once the mansion stopped shaking and the doors clicked open. People trampled over each other to escape and poured out into the yard.

            Kah’len heard sobbing and saw Lady Gair kneeling beside her husband and stroking the hair from his forehead.

            Aud and Daven hurried to his side.

            “How is the Oracle?” Aud demanded.

            Kah’len tore his eyes from the young woman’s grief. He glanced down at Lahn and saw the rise and fall of his chest. “He seems fine. Let’s leave. Now.”

            No one tried to stop them as they made their way outside. Kah’len carried Lahn. He would get answers at some point, but right now he had to get his people to safety.

Chapter Forty-Five: The Departure

            Lahn stood at the prow of the ship when Kah’len arrived with his entourage of servants and guards. Lahn watched dully as Kah’len swung from the saddle and turned to speak a few words to Rakah, who had accompanied Lahn to the port. Rakah and Kah’len clasped forearms then Kah’len was striding up the plank to the ship. His gaze locked with Lahn’s for a few seconds, before the Warlord looked away and proceeded to the aft of the ship, where the captain stood bellowing orders to the crew. As Lahn watched, four sailors pulled the plank away from the dock and began the process of securing the ship for sail.

            Lahn closed his eyes, pushing tears down, as behind him the ship was tied to a tugboat to be pulled out into Draemin Bay before she was to set sail. The tears spilled down Lahn’s cheeks and he reached up with a shaking hand to wipe them away. He felt so lonely, so alone, so isolated now that Domio had another duty other than to guide and protect him. He realized he had made no friends, had continued to lead a solitary life just as he had at the monastery. Regret sat heavy as a stone in his chest.

            He glanced over his shoulder to where Kah’len stood deep in conversation with the captain. Kah’len always looked strapping and handsome in his uniform, so fit and beautiful it hurt Lahn’s eyes. Their fragile and new friendship was now drying up and dying before Lahn’s eyes. Turning back to the cityscape, he ran blurry eyes along the defensive walls, his mind a long way away in the mountain monastery where he had been so helpful, respected and happy. He had wanted for nothing, had desired nothing. Now he fervently wished he had lain with the Warlord on their wedding night. He had disobeyed Atana and now he was paying for it. Closing his eyes, he fervently prayed, asking for forgiveness, for direction, for anything She may give him. After several minutes, he opened his aching eyes and shook his head. She was a whimsical Goddess, coming and going whenever it suited her. He was a fool.

            Once the ship was towed out into the bay, the sailors unfurled the sails and the wind filled them. The ship gave a lurch and they were sailing.

            The fleet of some 100 ships each contained 200 mercenaries. Another fleet would follow within days.

            “Excellency.”

            Lahn rubbed his face with his hands and turned. A young sailor stood with a rope, at the end which stood a dosi bleating placidly.

            “I have brought the dosi for the sacrifice, Excellency,” the young sailor stated, his eyes shining with awe.

            “Thank you,” Lahn replied, smiling at the nervous young man.

            The captain and Kah’len strode over and a crowd gathered around them, Lahn and the young sailor and the dosi standing within a circle.

            Lahn reached to his dagger sheath and removed the ceremonial dagger. Its sharp edge glinted in the watery sunlight. Lahn took in a bracing breath before stepping to the animal, that watched him with trusting eyes. Lahn felt suddenly sick inside. Sick of death and blood. He walked to the dosi and straddled the animal. The animal startled, but Lahn ran his hands over its head and sides, calming it. The animal gave an uncertain bleat, shifting from foot to foot.

            “Be at peace,” Lahn whispered, continued to pet the stocky animal. He prayed under his breath as he quickly brought the dagger to the animal’s neck and swiftly sliced its throat. It gave a surprised cry before crumpling to the deck floor. The blood pooled and then spread like a river breaking past its shores. Lahn’s eyes fixed on the dark crimson. He began to shake and dropped the dagger. It clattered on the wooden floor. Lahn gasped as his very breath stilled in his throat. It was like some giant hand took him by the scruff and shook him like a leaf in a breeze. He began to convulse and darkness swallowed him.

            He stood in a field. The stench of spoiled blood filled the air. Sickness rose in his throat and he swallowed down with effort. The sky was cerulean, clear of clouds. Even though it seemed to be afternoon, Malthos the sun was nowhere in the sky. Thick clouds of insects buzzed as he walked through a field littered by fallen warriors. Contorted faces stared blindly at the flawless sky. There were moans, but he could not find where they came from. Everyone he beheld was dead. In the distance, the sounds of battle raged. When he turned south, he saw the fray. Dust covered the battle as two vast armies met. To the west, he saw a King on a battle chariot. His robes were free of blood or sweat or dust. His eyes were chips of gray ice. His aged but handsome face took in the battle with avarice and hunger.

            In the distance and moving closer was the giant image of the Goddess in full shining armor. She strode past fighting and the dead littering the battlefield. Her eyes swept past the battle, the King in his chariot, and came to rest on Lahn where he stood to one side.

            “Oracle,” she said, her voice a clarion in the din of battle. “Bless this event.”

            Lahn closed his eyes, the stench of death clogging his throat. Inside him, he saw an endless field. Pale pink flowers bobbed in the cool breeze, releasing their delicate scent into the air.

            “Open you eyes and see,” She demanded.

            Lahn opened his eyes and saw two small boys running down a long hallway, hand in hand. One had dark hair and one had copper colored hair. One was slightly older than the other. From the corner of his eye, Lahn saw another child, this one with black hair and green eyes. Soon many young children ran down the hallway, following the other two slightly older boys. All the hair along Lahn’s body rose and her felt as if he saw the very future. The children ran to three young women who stood at the end of the hallway. Lahn recognized Sjanita Thalmar, Divita Stait, and Ariahl Solastis, Kah’len’s three wives.

            “You must unite the family of Kah’len Tjashensi,” the voice directed him. “All the children must be within your teaching and influence.”

            “I understand,” he said.

            “The future must be in your hands. All things are in flux that once were at rest. All things that once were at rest are now in flux. Do not mourn for your small emotions. Your role is greater than just your small life. Have faith in Me, Oracle. All things will be. I have a gift for you. Keep your heart open so you may receive it.”

            “Yes, My Lady.”

            “The altar is wedded to the scepter. All things in flux. Have hope, Oracle. In your hands I place the future.”

            He blinked his eyes open. He looked around at the curious, awe stricken faces of the crew.

            “Are you well?” Kah’len asked.

            Lahn turned his head to see that his head was on Kah’len’s lap. The Warlord was stroking the hair from his face.

            Lahn’s throat felt parched.

            Kah’len said something then he was holding the mouth of a bladder to Lahn’s lips. Lahn drank tepid water that tasted like leather.

            He looked into Kah’len’s concerned gaze. “You must unite your family, Warlord. Bring your wives to Draemin City, your mother and sister and your entire family.”

            Kah’len rubbed Lahn’s forehead with a thumb. “Is that what the Goddess decrees?”

            “Yes.”

            Kah’len helped him to sit up then to rise to his unsteady legs. Kah’len’s arm went around his waist.

            “Let me help you to your cabin, Oracle,” the Warlord murmured.

            They walked slowly past the dosi carcass with its congealing blood.

            “Give the carcass to the sea,” Lahn directed.

            Two sailors hurried to comply.

            Down five steps to the walkway under the deck. The narrow walkway smelled of bilgewater and wood. Kah’len led him to a door and pushed the door open, leading Lahn into the large cabin with Lahn’s travel trunk at rest at the foot of the cot against the far wall. Kah’len led him to that cot, helping him to sit down.

            Lahn closed his eyes against the wave of nausea that threatened to overtake him.

            “Are you well?” Kah’len asked.

            “Feel sick,” Lahn murmured. He heard when Kah’len picked up the waste bucket and set it close to Lahn’s feet.

            Lahn opened his eyes when the sickness passed. He looked up at Kah’len. “Sit, please, Warlord.”

            Kah’len sat on the opposite cot, rested his forearms on his thighs and stared at Lahn expectantly.

            Lahn gave a strangled chuckle. “I’m sorry, Kah’len. For not trusting in you, for killing your family members without your consent.”

            Kah’len stared at him for a long time before speaking. Lahn squirmed under his steady, cool gaze.

            “I’ll be honest, Lahn,” the Warlord said. “I’m not sure I can forgive or forget your actions. I did not want to start my reign with a bloodbath.” He rubbed his cheek with a hand and sighed. “I also know you are privy to the Goddess’ wishes and thoughts.”

            Lahn snorted. “Hardly. She tells me what and when she deems appropriate and advantageous.”

            Kah’len gave him a wan smile. “Yes. I suppose that is true. I don’t pretend to understand the whims of a God. But I know my heart and I can’t promise that I can forgive you. When this comes out, Goddess only knows what will happen.” He sighed. “But what is done is done. What did you see just now, in your vision?”

            “I saw the battle in the south. Many, many lives have perished. The King still lives. You must bring your children under one roof, Warlord. Your heirs must be under one roof.”

            “I will do so, Oracle,” Kah’len assured him. “I will send carrier vinah to R’Nonay and Tjish.un. You also must have a child from when you lay with Sjanita.”

            Lahn blushed and ducked his head. “That was a capricious and foolish act.”

            “Even so, it is done,” Kah’len stated coolly. “If the Goddess had not wanted it to be so, it would not have happened.”

            Lahn ached to be close to the Warlord, but he did not see a way to overcome Kah’len’s coldness and distance.

            “I miss your friendship,” Lahn blurted out then blushed.

            Kah’len stared at him for a long time before he roused himself and stood up. “I am thinking on it, Oracle. We are married now and it would be best if we were friends, but I cannot trust you. You have betrayed me thrice now and I cannot find it in me to trust you ever again. If I can’t trust you, I cannot be your friend. Do you understand?”

            Lahn closed his eyes and felt tears prick his eyelids. His throat hurt. “Yes.”

            “That is good then. That is something,” Kah’len said. “I will leave you now.”

            Lahn rushed to sit up. “Please. Can you find it in your heart to at least forgive me? I was acting under the Goddess’ directive.”

            Kah’len’s eyes cooled. “I understand that, Oracle. But I am who rules, not you. You are an advisor to me, my holy guide in all things, but yours is not the final say. You overstepped your bounds, Oracle. You are a liability I am not sure I can live with. Give me time. I need time to think and decide. You’ve wounded me deeply, Lahn Obeli. Not once but three times. My heart and soul are mortal and finite, as are my sense of trust, my sense of love, my desire for your friendship. I will try to find it within me to forgive you, but I cannot forget your capricious nature. It has cost me much already. Perhaps more than I can give. Now, please excuse me. I’ve work to do.”

            Lahn watched helplessly as the Warlord strode out into the walkway, closing the cabin door behind him.

Chapter Forty-Four: The Confession

            Kah’len awoke later than usual. Light seeped through the closed curtains. The air was cool, despite the roaring fire in the fireplace. The bedroom reeked of sex and sweat as Kah’len swung his legs over the side of the bed and rose, reaching for his dressing robe. Once he had donned his robe, he turned to look at his wife as she slumbered. Sex had been pleasant and tender. He had showed her great affection and much of the night had been spent in conversation as he strove to set her mind at ease. After hours of talking, though, he had insisted they consummate their marriage. She had felt fragile and small in his arms and he automatically felt protective towards her, but his tastes in bed ran to the energetic and aggressive. She would be a good change of pace for him, something to keep him interested and attentive, but he knew already that his heart lay with Lahn and no other. It seemed even the Goddess could not change his heart.

            He went through the connecting door to the bathing chamber, where he washed with bracing cold water before dressing in his uniform. Once he was dressed and groomed, he strolled into the sitting room, where he found Lahn and his half-brother, Rakah. Rakah was dressed in uniform, and Lahn wore a gold satin tunic and dark trousers.

            Kah’len watched, surprised, as his brother brought fist to chest and bowed. “Good morning, Brother.”

            Kah’len saluted. “Good morning, Commander. Where do you reside now?”

            “In the cathedral until my house is built,” Rakah replied with a jaunty grin. “How was your wedding night?”

            Kah’len yawned and shook his head. “It was good. We talked a lot and are on our way to becoming friends. She was shy at first, but I persisted until she told me her story and I told her mine.”

            Rakah gave him a leer. “And the sex?”

            Kah’len huffed. “That’s my wife, Rakah! Would you have me tattle?”

            Rakah snorted. “You’re a soldier, Kah’len! Dish!”

            Lahn took a step forward. “You can dish in private. I came to tell you that the troops are heading to the docks to board the warships. All is near ready for departure.”

            Kah’len nodded. “That is good. I’m going to break my fast–”

            There was a knock on the hallway door and Lahn went to open it.

            The entire Stait family stood at the doorstep. Kah’len waved them in.

            “Divita is still abed,” he told them. “You may go see her.”

            The family hurried into the apartment. They were dressed in fine clothing and were indistinguishable from aristocrats now, although the older two still looked worn and older than their years.

            “Like I was saying,” Kah’len said. “I’m going to break my fast then I will say goodbye to my wife before I head to the docks.”

            Rakah bowed. “I wanted to talk to you about Deirohn and Uncle Kaelo.”

            Kah’len sat down as a servant handed him a plate piled with his breakfast. “They will exiled, Rakah. I will give them sufficient funds for them to live comfortably, but I cannot have them in Torahn. I don’t trust them or their supporters.”

            “I figured,” Rakah said. “But thank you for sparing their lives.”

            Kah’len chewed and swallowed a mouthful. “I won’t have their blood on my hands.”

            Lahn took a step forward. “I have to confer with the Warlord, Commander. Will you excuse us?”

            Rakah bowed. “Of course, Excellency. I will ride with you when you head to the docks. I’ll be down in the bailey until then.”

            Lahn smiled at him. “Thank you, Rakah.”

            Kah’len watched their interaction with a flare of jealousy. He didn’t know where Rakah’s proclivities lay. He and Kah’len had never been close and Kah’len had never heard of Rakah courting young women, but neither had he heard of Rakah courting young men, either. His half-brother was very private and had always been so, even as a child. He was not close to any of his siblings or parents.

            Kah’len swallowed his mouthful. “What do you want to talk about, Lahn?”

            Lahn said nothing and when Kah’len looked up, he noted that the Prei-Serren looked nervous.

            Kah’len frowned. “What is it?”

            “I did something without your permission,” Lahn said. “I did it because I knew you would oppose me, but it was a directive from the Goddess.”

            Kah’len’s frown deepened to a scowl and he set his half-empty plate on the low table. “What did you do?”

            “I had your half-brother Deirohn and your uncle poisoned and their bodies disposed of.”

            Kah’len rose. “What?”

            “What’s more, I had Deirohn’s wife and older children poisoned as well, and their bodies disposed of. The younger ones have been conscripted into the Church.”

            Kah’len’s stomach gave a sickening lurch and, for a second, he thought he would be sick on the sitting room floor. He swallowed convulsively for a few minutes until the sickness passed. He found he was drenched in sweat and his hands were fisted.

            “What have you done?” he demanded.

            Lahn drew himself to his full height and his face became a cold mask. “I did what the Goddess demanded. I can’t afford to be squeamish and neither can you. Your reign would never be safe from opponents as long as Deirohn lived.”

            Kah’len took a deep breath and released it. He covered his face with his icy hands and turned away from the young man who was becoming a monster before his very eyes. He walked to the balcony and leaned against the railing, gulping lungfuls of cold, bracing air. His mind was a nest of spiraling thoughts. He thought of Deirohn, of Uncle Kaelo, of Deirohn’s two older children, of Deirohn’s wife. While he, Kah’len, lay abed with Divita, having pleasant conversations, his reign was being marred by blood.

            “The altar will be bathed in blood,” Lahn intoned from behind him.

            Kah’len frowned. “Leave my sight, Prei-Serren.”

            “Warlord–”

            “Leave.”

            “Fine.”

            Kah’len heard the door to the hallway open and close. Kah’len turned back to the empty room. His eyes filled with tears at the thought of the two princes being murdered in cold blood by assassins. He felt sick inside. Sick in his heart and soul. Was this Atana? He took a deep breath. Yes, Atana the Destroyer, the Warrior, the Avenger. Yes. That was the Goddess most horrible aspect. And she seemed to be ruling right now.

            Kah’len closed his eyes. He shivered. “Holy, gentle Mother. Where are you?”

            He received no response, but then he had not expected one. The question now was could he forgive Lahn Obeli his crimes? For the sake of the throne and his future? Kah’len did not think he could forgive or forget this atrocity. His greed, his avarice, his ambitions had cost five people their lives. He covered his face with his hands and dropped into an armchair.

            “Oh, Mother, forgive me!”

            He sat back and gazed at the ceiling.

            The hallway door opened and Domio Obeli walked in. “Warlord.”

            “Domio,” Kah’len said. “Do you know what he’s done?”

            The priest sat down on the couch opposite Kah’len’s chair. “I did it, Warlord, at his command. The blood is on my hands. I protested strongly, told him it was a sin, but he was adamant the Goddess had directed him. I cannot gainsay the deity, for our own family would suffer. We have a curse hanging over our heads, Warlord. The Goddess holds Lahn hostage. If we don’t do Her bidding, our family will be cursed. These are difficult times, with difficult decisions that must be made. Are you willing to give up your ambitions to do what is just? Because justice is a dual-edged sword. What is just and good for this nation is not good and just for everyone inside her borders. Killing your half-brother and your uncle is good for the future of all, because it has averted a Civil War in the future.”

            “And the children and the wife?” Kah’len demanded, angry.

            Domio closed his eyes and sighed. “I disagreed with that act, Kah’len, but the children were old enough to hate you and so was the wife. They would always be a symbol of the past. The wife called you a usurper. The children looked to her for direction. The oldest was fifteen and full of himself and his importance. I’m not justifying their murders, Kah’len. Please know that. But they would always be a thorn at your side, a constant threat, an axe over your neck.”

            Kah’len wiped the sweat from his brow with an icy, shaking hand. “I don’t know if I can forgive Lahn, Domio.”

            “He’s a pawn in this, the same as you or I. The Goddess chose him, just like she chose you and me.”

            “You’re asking me to hate the Goddess?”

            “Do you hate Lahn?”

            “I don’t know,” Kah’len answered honestly.

            “Just don’t forget he has a role that is holy. The Goddess had a purpose for those who are now disappeared.”

            Kah’len shuddered. “What about my own children? Will She have them murdered one day? Will Lahn commit such an atrocity with a cold heart?”

            Domio opened his mouth and shut it with a click. He stared at Kah’len helplessly.

            Kah’len gave a mirthless laugh. “I see. She is unpredictable. I suppose I’d better stay on Her good side, if I am to protect my wife and children, my remaining brother and my mother and sister.”

            “That is all you can do. She has a purpose for you. We are all here by Her grace. Don’t forget She gave everyone their lives and our lives are Her possession, to do with as She will.”

            “Yes,” Kah’len spat, angry at the injustice of it all. He took a deep breath and released it. “Yes. We are pieces on a board game, aren’t we? Life is a board and we are pieces for the Gods’ pleasure.”

            Domio clasped his hands. “I don’t pretend to understand any of it, Warlord. I feel small now. Too small to matter in the scheme of things.”

            Kah’len nodded and sighed. He rose. “I’d best say goodbye to Divita. See that my things are taken to the ship, Domio.”

            When the priest rose, Kah’len gazed into his eyes. “Please take care of Divita and her family. Don’t allow them to be abused by the more outspoken aristocrats.”

            Domio straightened. “I won’t, Kah’len. I’ll let you know when she quickens and, hopefully, you can return by the birth of your firstborn.”

            They clasped forearms.

            “Thank you, Domio.”

            The priest bowed over their clasped hands. “An honor and privilege, my lord.”

            Kah’len went to his bedroom, where he found his wife bathed and dressed, her family sitting in the small sitting area across from the modest fireplace.

            The girl saw him and rose, curtsying. “My lord.”

            He went to her and gathered her into his arms. He felt the surge of protectiveness for her rise in him once more.

            “Divita, I must leave now. The border is in chaos and I must secure the kingdom. Please write to me. Let me know once you are with child.”

            She blushed. “Yes, my lord.”

            He kissed her tenderly then let her go, turning to her family. “I am leaving Serren Domio Obeli as your advisor and protector. You have any problems with aristocrats, you led him know. Understood?”

            Othalos Stait, the father, bowed. “Thank you, my lord.” The older man smiled. “I contacted your solicitor. We are going to see him in town this morning.”

            Kah’len returned his smile. “That is good, Mister Stait.”

            “Call me Othalos, young lord. Or father, if you like.”

            Kah’len found himself blushing. “I’ve never called anyone father before. The King always insisted on being called majesty.”

            Othalos waved a dismissive hand. “Such is the purview of kings. I am no king.”

            “But you demand respect,” Kah’len advised him. He looked at Enana Stait. “And how are your new accommodations, my lady?”

            Divita’s mother blushed. “They are so luxurious, my lord! But I would like to move to the villa until your return.”

            Kah’len considered her request. “That may be a good idea, actually. I’ll have Father Domio arrange it.”

            Enana stepped forward and pressed a kiss to Kah’len’s cheek. “Thank you for taking such good care of Divita, my lord.”

            “Call me Kah’len, please, my lady. Why don’t you all go into the sitting room and break your fast? I have to get going.”

            He turned and hugged his wife one last time. “I will return as soon as the border is secured and the King is taken care of.”

            She gazed up at him with adoration. “Yes, Husband. I will await your return.” h){this.ex