Chapter Two: The Warlord

Wolf whistles pierced the sound of music emanating from the quartet at the northeast corner of the tavern near the fireplace. People had figured out when Kah’len came to Waron’s Tavern, even though he came on an irregular basis, since his duties took his time from sunrise to sunset. The quartet was always here when he came and now the serving girl was dancing on the floor for Kah’len’s pleasure, her fluid moves promising pleasure to him later. For a price. Waron’s was a high-end tavern, so it catered to the aristocracy and the nouveau riche. The patrons wore expensive silk, satin, chenille, and velvet, but they behaved as men everywhere did as the young girl swayed her hips to the sounds from the hand drums and the iliastra.
Kah’len shifted in his seat, irritated and a little nervous. She had made it perfectly clear she had designs on him and he had a reputation to uphold. The idea of bedding the girl left him cold, but he had carefully cultivated the reputation for himself of a womanizer. He would never have been able to reach the pinnacle of his career if people knew he was atoliy. It didn’t matter to the aristocracy that he was arguably the finest general to ever serve North Torahn. People admired that he bedded women indiscriminately and often. He had known when he was thirteen that he preferred the company of other boys and had no desire to pursue girls, but he had seen the fall from grace of several young men who had embraced their orientation. They had been packed up and removed from court, their reputations in tatters, never to be heard from again. Kah’len had then proceeded to fabricate his reputation, never telling a soul, even his closest friends, that he wanted more than anything to find love in the arms of another man.
He picked up his glass of ekila and downed the fiery liqueur without tasting it. Goddess, he hated this. Even though he had a strong family and strong friendships, still he drowned in loneliness. There were days when he felt he could not rise from bed, the weight of his lies was so heavy on his shoulders. But rise he did, pushing his desolation down until it was a mere whisper in his mind. Every morning, he exercised as if he were a man possessed, pushing himself to the point of exhaustion, until he dripped with sweat and his muscles quivered. Then he would bathe and begin his day, centered and calm. But the truth of his life was a shadow that nipped at his heels. He was admired, envied, and sought-after, but it was all a lie and only he knew. Sometimes he just wanted to leave North Torahn altogether and go to Tjish.un, where his mother was born. He had family there and the culture embraced all sexualities. He could make a life for himself there. But still he lingered here, proud to be Warlord, the second most powerful man in North Torahn.
The girl swayed her ample hips, her generous breasts almost spilling from her low bodice, as she bent to give him a view. The catcalls began and Kah’len sank deeper in his chair, plastering on his face a smirk and a leer. She smiled and slid onto his lap, pressing her soft breasts to his chest as her arm circled his neck and she brought her mouth close. She smelled of sweat and food. She felt wrong in his arms and although he wanted to stand so she could fall to the floor, he patted her plump thigh instead.
“Does the Warlord require company for the evening?” she purred.
What was she, all of sixteen? His stomach turned over.
“My dear–” he began when the door of the tavern burst open and two guards from the castle rushed in, making their way around the crowded tables to where Kah’len sat.
The guards bowed. “Warlord, the King has summoned you.”
Kah’len sighed, relieved, and pushed the girl from his lap. She pouted at him, but then turned her attention to another patron, seeking her fee for the evening.
“What is this about?” Kah’len asked as he rose and dropped three coins on the table for his bill.
The lead guard shook his head. “I don’t know, Warlord.”
“How does everyone know where I go at all times, ey?” Kah’len asked rhetorically and followed the guards out into the wet afternoon.
The lead guard looked at him over his shoulder and smirked. “We always know where you are, Warlord. You are our leader, after all.”
The rain was still steadily falling, and the air had a hint of smoke. Kah’len drew his cloak more tightly around his shoulders. It was a cold Anasj this year.
A third guard led Kah’len’s bahil, Lish’tah, out of the public stables to the road. Kah’len shook his head. He had trained the soldiers well, hadn’t he? He strode to Lish’tah and the animal whickered softly, mouthing Kah’len’s hand for a treat. Kah’len chuckled fondly and reached into the inner pocket of his cloak, withdrawing a bit of honeyed dried fruit and feeding it to his bahil. He slid his foot into the stirrup and pulled himself into the saddle, waiting for the guards to follow suit before allowing them to escort him down the wide boulevard towards Castle Draemin in the west. The streets were busy, for it was just sunset and Draemin City had a healthy nightlife.
People watched as they cantered past, pointing at him and calling out greetings. He raised his hand to acknowledge the commoners. Commoners acted like Kah’len belonged to them. He found it endearing. They would not care if he was atoliy, for their sexual mores were more relaxed than those of the aristocracy.
The journey from Waron’s Tavern to Castle Draemin took about three hours, so it was full night by the time their little troop reached the canopy of Queen’s Park. Then they were clattering over the wooden drawbridge and into the castle bailey. This late in the day most court petitioners, barristers and courtiers had made their way home, so the bailey was deserted. Kah’len dismounted and handed the reins to one of the guards, who led Lish’tah away towards the stables. Kah’len followed the other two guards into the Great Hall, a vast foyer with sweeping ceilings and the portraits of scions of the House of Ys’teis, the ruling clan of North Torahn, to which Kah’len belonged.
Even though it was three hours past sunset, the King would still be in the Throne Room taking care of the dregs of business for the day. Kah’len followed his escorts into the circular, cavernous Throne Room with its massive chandelier and black marble floor. This was the only room in the castle that had marble floors, for Castle Draemin had been built before the Civil War over a thousand years before and was part of a tumultuous and simpler past. Kah’len looked around as he followed the two guards to the head of the room. The House of Commons sat on pews on the left-hand side of the room, while the House of Lords sat on pews on the right-hand side of the room. The empty pews glimmered in the candlelight and the light from oil lamps hanging from hooks along the curving walls. Silk and satin tapestries covered the stone walls with color and stories of Torahn’s past. Kah’len looked away and ahead, to where his father sat on the throne. Next to his father stood Kah’len’s nemesis, his older half-brother, Deirohn.
Deirohn watched him with a triumphant smirk on his thin, bloodless lips and Kah’len’s heart did a jolt in his chest. Kah’len had done nothing to evoke Deirohn’s hatred. Deirohn, it seems, had been born hating Kah’len. Kah’len’s meteoric rise through military rank had been the final straw for Deirohn, it seemed, and cold disdain had morphed into hotheaded hatred seemingly overnight. Kah’len had come to understand that he could do nothing to mitigate that active hatred. There were too many factors contributing: Kah’len had inherited his mother’s beauty, while Deirohn had inherited the Queen’s gaunt, bloodless features and thinning hair; Kah’len was strapping and strong and had shown early on a talent for military matters, while Deirohn was frail and sickly and would never make a soldier; Kah’len was the most sought-after bachelor in North Torahn, while Deirohn was locked into a loveless, arranged marriage. None of these things were within Kah’len’s control, but Deirohn did not seem to care. Adding to the rancor was Deirohn’s conservative politics, which did not abide Kah’len’s bastard status or the fact that he was only half-Torahni. Kah’len’s mother was the Royal Concubine, Oona Thalmar, a Tjish.unen princess. It mattered little to Deirohn that Oona was the youngest sister of the Queen of Tjish.un. To Deirohn, she was a foreigner and a whore.
Kah’len strode to the steps leading up the to the throne and went down on one knee. “My King, you summoned me?”
“Rise, Warlord,” the King murmured.
Kah’len rose and investigated his father’s handsome face. While the Queen had icy, colorless eyes, King Roseir Ys’teis’ gray eyes were warm and kind. He looked on his favorite child with affection and respect, which warmed Kah’len to his core.
“My child,” the King began. “I have received a response from King Fael of South Torahn. He has accepted Tover’s Stipulation. The second born of the House of Obeli is on his way here, to marry you.”
Kah’len licked his lips. “I figured their king would accept the terms, Father. The South has suffered from the plague, just as we have.”
Deirohn shifted and cleared his throat. “You didn’t listen to the statement father made, Warlord.”
The King threw his firstborn a glare. “Deirohn–”
Deirohn shrugged. “He isn’t listening, as usual. Father said your betrothed is on his way here.”
Kah’len stilled and looked at his father. “Clan Obeli’s second born is a man?”
The King sighed. “Yes, child. I wanted to talk to you in private, but Deirohn, as usual, takes matters into his own hands. Lahn Obeli is the Clan Obeli’s second born. He is a monk who has been living in a monastery in the Thol Mountains.”
Kah’len frowned. “The Thol Mountains? Would that be the monastery belonging to the Order of Poa the Harvester?”
The King nodded. “The very one.”
Deirohn’s triumphant smirk was back. “How does this fit into the life of Kah’len the womanizer, I wonder?”
The King scowled. “You may leave our presence, Prince Deirohn.”
Deirohn gaped. “But, Sire–”
“Guards, please escort Prince Deirohn to his quarters.”
Two guards stepped forward and marched Deirohn away. Deirohn shot Kah’len a glare dripping with loathing.
Kah’len sighed. He looked at his father. “Why does he hate me so, Father?”
The King pursed his lips. “He is just like his mother, Kah’len. Petty and mean with a little heart that loves nothing and no one. I should have said no to my father and not married the woman, but what is done is done.”
King Roseir rose and walked down the five marble steps to the floor. He put a hand on Kah’len’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, child. We need Tover’s Stipulation now more than ever. We lost so many soldiers to the plague. We can’t face the Isemi in a full-on war.”
Kah’len nodded. “I know, Father. I understand more than anyone that we are not ready to renew war with the South. Can you tell me ought of this Prince Lahn Obeli?”
The King thrust his arm through Kah’len’s and steered his son towards the large double doors leading to the Great Hall. “He joined the Order of Poa the Harvester when he was fifteen and he is nineteen now. He is a scientist and has been working on trying to find a cure for the plague. He has not found it, but he has refined medicine and curatives to the extent that he has become renown in his country, despite his youth and isolation in the Thol Mountains. I am hopeful you will allow him the opportunity to keep trying to find a cure for the plague. If anyone can, I think this young man will.”
“Won’t that be a scandal? The husband of the Warlord doing work?”
The King shrugged. “It is for the good of us all, Kah’len.”
“Then he can continue to do so, Sire, if you command it.”
The King patted Kah’len’s hand and looked straight ahead. “Now, the matter of your marriage. I don’t know if this young man is atoliy, son. If he is not, then you won’t have to worry about consummating the marriage. Your mother has already sent to Tjish.un for a concubine for you.” He chuckled fondly and shook his head. “She wants grandchildren.”
Kah’len’s lips quirked. “And my sister Kahla’s brood is not enough for her?”
“Three is hardly a brood, boy. But your mother would see you happy, child. You think you have people fooled, Kah’len, but not those of us who love you most. You are unhappy and have been since you came of age at thirteen. I have stood by and watched you bed a bevy of beauties, making a reputation for yourself as a callous and unattainable man. You have left broken hearts littering your wake, child. And for what?”
“Father–”
“I have ended your betrothal to Lady Chali Kh’tar,” the King continued as if Kah’len had not spoken. “Her father is a good friend and understood, as did the young woman. She loves you, Kah’len, but you have done nothing to respect her. In fact, you have made her the fodder of spiteful gossip for years. Every time you bedded a girl, you broke her heart. She has asked me to tell you that you and she can be friends, once enough time has passed. She asks that you leave her alone for now.” The King patted his hand again. “She has accepted the hand of Commander Bhne Tehna. They are to be wed in Kamaran.”
“But…Father, Bhne is my closest friend. I won’t be able to avoid Chali–”
“And here I thought you would be brokenhearted. You never loved Chali, did you?”
Kah’len swallowed. “No, Sire.”
The King sighed. “And why betroth to her?”
“It is expected.”
The King shook his head. His disappointed look cut through Kah’len’s heart. “People’s hearts are precious, boy. You cannot trample upon them willy-nilly.”
“I never meant to hurt her.”
“You never gave a damn about her. Only your precious reputation. Your miserable and precious reputation which has isolated you. You are lonely and don’t think I don’t know it.”
Kah’len swallowed and allowed the King to lead him down the long hallway towards one of the stairwells. He wondered where the King was leading him, but he didn’t ask. He allowed himself to be led up the curving stairs to the fifth floor, where the royal family resided. When the King led him past his own apartments, Kah’len relaxed. He wouldn’t have to face the Queen today. He hated Queen Namia. She disrespected his mother at every turn and had made his childhood a miserable experience. When the old Warlord had died, she had been loudest in detracting his nomination. Thankfully, the Queen was not allowed to vote, although her son Deirohn had nominated against him, opting for a cousin instead. It had done no good. Kah’len had been nominated with an overwhelming majority.
The King let go of Kah’len’s arm and knocked on Oona Thalmar’s apartment door.
Oona’s head servant, Tomio, opened the door and gave a deep bow. “Your Majesty, Warlord, please enter. I will fetch my lady.”
“Thank you, Tomio,” King Roseir murmured and headed directly to the sideboard, where he poured himself a dram of mi’disj. He poured a second glass and turned, handing the glass to Kah’len.
“Thank you, Father.”
“Sit, my boy,” the King said, picking up his glass.
They sat side by side on a sofa and waited for Lady Oona to join them.
“Kah’len,” the King began. “You will have to consummate this marriage one way or another. If Prince Lahn is atoliy, that consummation must be physical. If he is not, then you must build a friendship with the lad. I hear he is not easy to befriend. He is a loner, keeping to himself and making few friends. For the sake of peace, you must make him your friend.”
“I understand, Father.”
“Do you, Kah’len?” The King looked away and sipped his liqueur. “He is a follower of Poa the Harvester, the grim representation of a god of war. He leads a restrictive, narrow existence. For all you know, he hates the North and Atana herself.”
“I will befriend him, Father.”
The King nodded. “You have a year to do so, son. At the end of the year, Prince Lahn can opt out of the marriage. I am hopeful by then we can build our forces once more.”
Kah’len sipped the mi’disj, taking pleasure in the heat and intense sweetness of the liqueur. “I will succeed father.”
“Your marriage is buying us time. That’s all we need.”
“Yes, sire.”

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