Part One: An Old Deal Chapter One: The Monk

Ai’Ser Tobal Zersen stood at the window in his office, gazing calmly down at the courtyard. The strangers had arrived half an hour ago and had been vetted by the guards. They looked none too pleased about the questioning, but there was nothing to be done about it. The denizens of Ai’Ser Zersen’s monastery had been the target of persecution in the past, which was part of the reason the monastery was located so far from the capital of South Torahn, in the Thol Mountains. But now the guards seemed convinced that the thirty or so soldiers and the two men at their fore posed no threat. The two leaders of the troop were being ushered into the monastery proper, and, most likely, to Zersen’s office on the second floor.
Zersen ran his gaze over the distant mountains. He had been aware of the company for hours now, since sunrise. In the clear morning light, the dust from their passage through the one and only road this far up had been a clarion for all to see. It had not rained in days, and dust clung to everything, especially the unpaved road which cut through the mountains from the southeast. The road continued past the monastery towards the west and ended, rather abruptly, at the grass fields that covered most of northern South Torahn. Usually, supply wagons came from the west, from Isem.ta and the cities and towns along the border of North and South Torahn. It was unusual that anyone came here from the east.
Zersen studied the two men as they were led through the courtyard. One was a highly decorated soldier, although from this height Zersen could not discern his rank. The other was the Serren of another sect of Poaism, their religion. Zersen grimaced. The Serren looked young, so perhaps he would give no offense while he was here. Zersen did not relish getting into religious arguments. He knew he was set in his ways and closed to reason, but such were the demands of the incarnation of the God to which he had devoted his life. Poa the Harvester was a grim, unforgiving, jealous, and demanding God. Zersen himself emulated the God and had grown inflexible as a result.
He turned from the window and went to stand by his large, cluttered desk. He waited patiently until there came a knock on the office door.
“Come!” he called.
Brother Solmos opened the door and bowed. “Begging your pardon, Ai’Ser. Visitors.”
“Very well. Let them in.”
Solmos bowed again and backed out.
The soldier entered first. Zersen recognized him right away. Grand-Commander Keron Obeli, the King’s younger brother. His cold, gray eyes raked Zersen from head to foot. Zersen stiffened, refusing to be intimidated in his own house.
He bowed. “Grand-Commander, welcome to the monastery of Poa the Harvester.”
The Grand-Commander gave a nod and stepped up to the desk, where he sprawled onto a chair with not so much as a ‘by your leave.’
He indicated the Serren. “My brother, Domio Obeli.”
Zersen took his eyes from the soldier to gaze at the priest who stood at the door. He wore the black cassock and bright blue collar of Poa the Father, the gentlest incarnation of the war God.
“Please, come in, Serren,” Zersen murmured.
Domio Obeli bowed and walked to the other chair, where he sat down, hands clasped on his lap.
They were a handsome family, the Obelis. These two were truly scions of their house, tall and muscular, although the priest slightly less so than his brother. They had the deep black hair and gray eyes of the aristocracy and the honey complexion of the south.
Zersen took his seat behind the desk. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”
The Grand-Commander shifted, eyes flashing with impatience. The man vibrated impatience. “We’re here to collect our nephew, Lahn.”
“Brother Lahn has been consecrated into the sect and has given up his earthly life,” Zersen murmured.
The Grand-Commander waved his words away as if he was waving away a bothersome insect. “Never mind the platitudes. Get him ready, for we leave within the hour.”
Zersen stiffened. He took a deep breath to calm his ire. It was pointless to anger the Grand-Commander.
He tried again. “Brother Lahn is happy here, why would you remove him from his chosen life?”
Grand-Commander Keron leaned forward and the chair creaked in protest. “That is none of your concern–”
Domio Obeli sighed. “Keron. Really. Must you always push your weight around?” He gave Zersen a sympathetic glance. “The White King has invoked Tover’s Stipulation as part of our new peace treaty.”
Zersen placed both his hands on the desk. “And what has this to do with young Lahn?”
“Do you know what the Stipulation states, Ai’Ser?” Domio asked.
“That is a matter of the world,” Zersen replied. “I don’t make it a habit of learning worldly things.”
Grand-Commander Keron snorted and looked away in disgust.
Domio cocked his head. “Tover’s Stipulation states that the second born scion of the House of Obeli shall marry the second born scion of the House of Ys’teis. The union sanctifies and cements our peace treaty.”
Zersen sat back in his chair, beginning to see. “And Lahn is second born?”
“Just so,” Domio agreed. “The plague has left us weak, Ai’Ser. We cannot afford to go to war now. We must honor the Stipulation.”
Zersen shifted. “There is no other child?”
“None of age,” Grand-Commander Keron growled and stood. “I’ve had enough of questions. It’s about time Lahn did his duty by his nation and his King. Get the boy ready or, by the Hand of the Lord, I will cut down every last monk in this monastery and no one will blame me.” He glared into Zersen’s eyes. “You have an hour.”
He swept from the room, pushing the chair with such force, it toppled and slid across the wooden floor.
Zersen stood, as did Domio Obeli. The Serren looked embarrassed.
“I apologize for my brother, Ai’Ser,” he said. “He lost his youngest child to the plague and has not been himself of late.”
“Understandable,” Zersen murmured, although he doubted Grand-Commander Keron Obeli was usually a pleasant man to deal with. He sighed. “I will fetch Brother Lahn myself, Father.”
“Thank you, Ai’Ser. Much appreciated.”
“Brother Solmos,” Zersen said to the waiting monk. “Be so kind as to escort the Serren downstairs to the foyer.”
Solmos bowed. “Yes, Ai’Ser.”
Zersen sighed again and straightened his back. Lahn would be in the hothouse with his plants. The boy loved green things and the quiet hothouse was a perfect place for his experiments. Although only nineteen, Lahn had hybridized several medicinal plants, creating stronger strains of curatives. He had yet to discover a cure for the plague, but, given time…Zersen shook his head. There was no more time. Once the boy married, he would have other duties. No one would expect or tolerate an aristocrat working with plants, no matter how crucial the work that he did. And the boy’s genius eventually would have thrust the sect of Poa the Harvester into fad again. Once their sect had been popular, right after the Civil War that tore Torahn into two nations. The monastery had housed four hundred brothers back then. It housed a measly 150 now. Each year saw their numbers dwindle, as older monks died off and fewer and fewer youngsters made their way here to take their place. The last young man who had faced the journey through the Thol Mountains to the monastery had been the very one who was being taken away today.
The hothouse was in the garden out back, so Zersen made his way through the central hallway to the kitchens. The brothers doing kitchen duty gave him curious stares and murmured greetings, but no one attempted to stop him or engage him in conversation. He stepped outside into the garden and paused, closing his eyes and enjoying the feel of the cool breezes from the north caressing the light sheen of sweat on his brow. He looked northeast and saw the large hothouse just beyond the plot where they grew turies and other root vegetables. The cobblestone path led from the kitchen door past the plots and, finally, to the hothouse.
As he approached the hothouse he saw that Lahn was alone, as was his wont. The boy was a loner and, as far as Zersen could discern, had never made a friend in the four years he had lived at the monastery. Of course, the other monks were a lot older than the boy, but still…the monks were given to few pleasures, but the pleasure of friendship was one of those the God allowed. It was almost a sin, how the boy clung to his own company, saying few words, even though he had not taken the vow of silence like some had.
The hothouse door was slightly ajar, and it squealed as Zersen opened it further and stepped inside.
Lahn looked up and cocked his head. “Ai’Ser?”
Zersen approached the boy. “What are you working on today, Brother Lahn?”
The boy flushed and ducked his head. “I am working on a curative for the plague, Ai’Ser.”
“Admirable,” Zersen murmured. He swallowed and shook his head. “I need to speak with you Brother Lahn. Give me a few minutes.”
The boy wiped his hands with a cloth and stepped away from the potted plants. “Of course. Shall we sit in the garden?”
“That would be fine,” Zersen agreed and led him away from the hothouse to a stone bench near the orchard. “Have a seat, Lahn.”
The boy sat and looked up expectantly.
Zersen began to pace, hands clasped at his lower back. “Lahn, this is difficult for me to say. Know this is against my will, but my hands are tied.”
“What do you mean?”
“Grand-Commander Keron Obeli is here to collect you.”
The boy shifted. “Collect me? Why ever for? I’m not allowed to leave the monastery for ten years!”
“Calm down, Brother Lahn.”
Zersen looked at the boy, noting his high color and agitated gaze. “Do you know about Tover’s Stipulation.”
“What?” He looked away. “Yes. But that has not been invoked in 500 years!”
“Nevertheless, it has been invoked. You are the second born of the House of Obeli, are you not?”
The boy wrung his dirt stained hands. “As far as I know. My younger brother is around 10 now.”
“Then you must satisfy this Stipulation, son,” Zersen murmured. “If I don’t let you go, the Grand-Commander will slaughter every monk in this monastery. I don’t want to test the veracity of his words, Lahn.”
The boy stood up in a rush. “But I’ve taken a vow of celibacy!”
“I release you.”
“No! Only God can release me!”
Zersen frowned. “I am the God’s servant and the head of this monastery. You forget yourself, Brother Lahn.”
Lahn sobbed and fell on his knees, grasping the hem of the brown cassock Zersen wore. “Please, Ai’Ser! Please don’t send me away.”
Tears filled the boy’s beautiful gray eyes which had impossible flecks of green and hazel. His beautiful features were comely even in the throes of strong emotion. Zersen’s heart broke in his chest. He raised a hand to rub at his chest, hoping to dispel this terrible emotion that threatened to undo him.
“Brother Lahn,” he said quietly as the boy sobbed.
Lahn bent his head and Zersen placed his hand on the soft black hair. “Brother Lahn. God Poa has chosen for you another path.”
“But I don’t want another path!”
“Don’t blaspheme,” Zersen stated sternly, placing both hands on the boy’s head. “The Harvester has another journey for you, Lahn. Are you going to turn away from the God in this most difficult test he has set for you?”
The boy swallowed thickly and wiped a trembling hand across his cheek, smudging the skin with dirt. “No.”
“That’s a good lad,” Zersen said. “You came here to accept the God and now you must go forth and spread his words among the heathen northerners. Perhaps one day you may return, when you are old and ready for the world to let you go.”
“I don’t want to leave, Ai’Ser,” he moaned and swayed.
“I know, son. I know. But no one can know the mysterious ways of the God. And, I assure you, the will of the God is behind all things, all journeys, all sacrifice.”
Zersen helped the boy rise.
“What about my work?” the boy asked.
Zersen placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “If it is meant to be continued, the God will find a way for you.”
Lahn hung his head and gave a shaky nod.
“Now, child,” Zersen said. “Go and pack your belongings. Take nothing that belongs to the Order. Take only what you came with four years ago.”
“Yes, Ai’Ser.”
Zersen watched him enter the monastery through the kitchen door.

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