Chapter Six: The Secret

Kah’len kept his eyes on the new recruits. They were raw and young but clearly eager to please him. Most of them were commoners trying to escape poverty, and military service was a good way to rise into the middle class. Most of these youngsters would send most of their earnings back home, but their rank paid well enough to allow them to save a bit for themselves. He rode Lish’tah in a wide circle around the sparring youngsters. Goddess! Some of them looked like children, but they had been carefully vetted and he knew the youngest was fifteen, but lack of regular meals had rendered some of them on the small side. They were still growing, he knew, so perhaps regular meals would allow them to grow taller and fill out to acceptable weight. Some of the youngsters had chips on their shoulders. He could tell by the recalcitrant glares he was being thrown. With a sigh, he dismounted, handing his reins to his assistant.
Walking around the circle of fighters, he came to two lean recruits.
He put a hand out to stop the fighting.
“Step back,” he told one recruit.
The recruit complied.
Kah’len now faced the coldest, angriest glare he had faced since going to war with the Isemi. The young man was bordering on skinny. He was a good looking lad, with the brown eyes of his caste, and full lips that now were a thin, angry line slashed across his young face.
“Attack me,” Kah’len commanded.
The young man struck. Kah’len unsheathed his sword and halted the downward arc of the other’s weapon. He spun and struck, but the young soldier parried. Kah’len understood that this recruit had been in street brawls before and had perhaps led a life of crime in his home city, for he fought ruthlessly and well. He impressed Kah’len with his sheer brute strength and persistence. Sweat had broken out on the young man’s features. Kah’len of course was holding back, but he wanted to get an accurate feel for the young soldier’s capabilities. Around and around they went until Kah’len grew tired of the exercise and, in a sudden and blurry move disarmed his opponent. The young man gaped and looked with disbelief at his sword where it lay in a puddle on the ground. His eyes raised to Kah’len.
Kah’len smirked. “I am Warlord. Do you think you can best me?”
The young man frowned and bent to pick up his weapon.
“Sheathe your weapon,” Kah’len commanded and sheathed his own sword. “What is your name?”
“Ola’o Osen, my lord,” the boy said in a surprisingly deep voice.
Kah’len nodded. “Well, Private Osen, you are a good fighter.”
“Thank you. Sir.”
“Where did you learn to fight like that?”
The young man shrugged. “What does it matter? You bested me.”
The other youngsters had stopped fighting and stood around them, watching.
“Answer the question,” Kah’len growled.
“I was a thief. Sir. In Manaji City. The authorities didn’t know what to do with me, so they sent me here with the new recruits.”
“And your family?”
Osen’s glance slid away. “I don’t have a family, sir. I am an orphan. The plague.”
Kah’len shifted. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
Osen shrugged again. “I was a babe when my parents died. Sir.”
“Well, Private Osen. You’ve impressed me today. Few raw recruits can sustain hand-to-hand with me for as long as you did. I am hereby making you team leader of your platoon.”
Private Osen’s eyes widened. “Me?” He looked around at the other youngsters. “Why me?”
It was Kah’len’s turn to shrug. “I have my reasons.” He turned to his assistant. “Sergeant Ilisn, take command.”
Eseno saluted him and handed him the Lish’tah’s reins. “Yes, Sir.”
Kah’len led his bahil out of the practice yard.
Commander Bhne Tehna was waiting in the bailey for Kah’len.
“Is there a reason you made that boy platoon leader?” Bhne asked.
“Yes, Bhne,” Kah’len replied. “He’s smart, but he is also angry. Have to channel that anger into something productive and good. A bit of responsibility will help.”
Bhne shook his head. “If you say so. I was ready to ship him away.”
“I know, Bhne. But he’s a good fighter. Wouldn’t it be better to have him fighting Isemi instead of stealing from law abiding citizens?”
Bhne sighed. “I suppose. And damn if you don’t always know what to do.”
“Oh, I’ve made plenty of mistakes, I assure you. I just make sure to learn from them.”
They walked in silence for a few minutes until they arrived at the stables. Kah’len handed the stable boy Lish’tah’s reins and ruffled the youngster’s hair. The boy beamed at Kah’len, eyes shining with adoration, before he trotted off with Kah’len’s bahil.
Kah’len cleared his throat. “Shall we break our fast in the mess hall?”
“Lead the way,” Bhne said. “Although why you insist on eating in the mess hall is beyond me.”
“I am not too good for the mess hall, Commander. I am just a soldier, after all.”
“You are a prince of the blood.”
Kah’len shrugged. “Happenstance, my friend. You always forget I am a bastard, too, and not quite in the royal caste.”
“You know that doesn’t matter to me.”
“I know,” Kah’len assured him. “But I won’t–I can’t– forget my place.”
Bhne looked away.
They reached the mess hall and went to stand at the back of the line. Usually, Kah’len kept quiet and listened to the conversations around him, but today he had something on his mind.
He looked at Bhne. “How is Lady Chali?”
Bhne nodded. “She is well. We are getting to know one another more intimately.” He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, Kah’len. She was being openly mocked at court. I didn’t want to see her disrespected, so I asked her to marry me.”
“I’m glad, Bhne. I love her, but I was never in love with her.”
“See that? I just don’t understand how you can’t be in love with her, my friend. She is the ideal woman in my book.”
“We got involved too young,” Kah’len replied. He hated lying to his closest friend, but they were not in a place where he could disclose the truth of his situation to Bhne Tehna.
Bhne looked at him. “I suppose. I think you just never stopped chasing skirts to give her a chance, Kah’len.”
Kah’len frowned. “Yes, there was that, too.”
Bhne’s eyebrows raised. “You think? I don’t understand bedding women left and right without your heart being involved.”
“You wanted to be a Serren, my friend. Have you even bedded a woman in your life?”
Bhne flushed darkly. He cleared his throat and looked away. “Point made.”
Kah’len sighed and placed a hand on Bhne’s shoulder. “I am not passing judgment, Bhne. But we are very different men, you and I. I would that you not pass judgement on me, if you can.”
Bhne nodded. “I’ll try not to, but it’s been hard being your friend when my heart has belonged to Chali all these years. Every time you made her cry, I wanted to strangle you.”
“I tried to be discrete,” Kah’len pointed out.
Bhne snorted. “But the young women you bedded were not. For some you were a notch on their bedpost. But some actually thought you would marry them. They told everyone within hearing range about you fucking them the very next morning.”
Kah’len flushed, shocked that Bhne was using such crude language.
Bhne snorted again and looked away.
They moved up the line until they came to the servers. They were served porridge with tza nuts and bala berries, butter and tah’lir’s milk, a cup of fresh cubed fruit and a mug of black mjish tea. Kah’len thanked the server and they carried their trays to an open table. The youngsters at the table fell quiet as they took their seats.
“Carry one, gentlemen,” Bhne drawled and shook his head.
Kah’len tucked into his breakfast.
They ate in silence while around them, the young recruits started up their conversations again. Kah’len saw that Private Osen was at their table. They youngster fell upon his meal as he had not eaten in days. Perhaps he hadn’t.
“At least the rain stopped for now,” Bhne said out of the blue.
Kah’len grunted. He was mulling over their conversation in his head. He had to tell Bhne about himself. Better to be despised for the truth than for a lie.
He looked at his friend. “Do you have a few minutes this morning, Bhne? I have to talk to you in private.”
Bhne nodded. “I do.”
“Good. Come to my office. I am going to promote my assistant to lieutenant. You need a lieutenant, don’t you?”
Bhne blinked. “You’re giving up Eseno as your assistant?”
Kah’len smiled. “He is deserving of a promotion, my friend. And you are deserving of a good lieutenant.”
“Well, thank you,” Bhne murmured and laughed. “That is a load off my mind. Who are you promoting as your assistant?”
“Okhar Kh’tar.”
Bhne sobered. “Chali’s cousin?”
“I owe that family, Bhne.”
“That is not a good reason to promote Okhar.”
“Okhar is responsible, sober, and dependable. What he lacks in brilliance, he makes up in resilience. He is as deserving as others.”
Bhne looked around the table and lowered his voice. “There are others more deserving.”
“How so?”
“We need brilliance, Kah’len, in our leadership ranks.”
“I can guide and mentor him,” Kah’len said.
Bhne shook his head. “He lacks certain instincts.”
“Let me at least try, Bhne.”
Bhne gazed at Kah’len for a few seconds before giving a reluctant nod. “Very well, Kah’len. I’ll defer to you.”
“Thank you, my friend. Shall we head to my office?”
They rose as one and strode to the serving line once more, where they left their trays in the proper bins before turning on their heels and striding out into the bailey once more. It had begun to rain again, although the rain was falling softly, not in torrents as it had in previous days. They hurried to the Officers’ House, where Kah’len’s office was located. Sergeant Eseno Ilisn was seated at his desk in the outer office. He rose when they walked into the office.
“Good morning, Commander Tehna,” Eseno murmured.
Bhne grinned. “Good morning, Eseno. At ease.”
“We have a meeting, Eseno,” Kah’len told his secretary. “Please, do not disturb us unless it is an emergency.”
“Understood,” the sergeant said and took his seat once more.
Kah’len closed the door to his office and indicated a vacant chair. “Take a seat, my friend.”
Kah’len walked around his desk and sat behind it. His hands were shaking and his heart was racing. How was he going to tell Bhne about this matter? How did one broach the subject of sexual orientation?
“Kah’len,” Bhne said. “You look as pale as a sheet. Is it your health?”
Kah’len licked his lips. “No. There isn’t anything wrong with me physically.”
Bhne cocked his head. “Go on then.”
Kah’len took a deep, bracing breath. “I don’t quite know how to tell you this, Bhne.”
“Are you demoting me?”
“What? No! Why ever would you ask such a question?”
“You’re behaving oddly, my friend. Are you angry at me because I asked Chali to marry me?”
“No. I’ve made that clear.”
“Then out with it.”
Kah’len took a breath. “I’m atoliy.”
Bhne snorted. “Very funny. Try again.”
Kah’len sighed. “I am atoliy, Bhne.”
Bhne sobered. “Do you mean to tell me…are you telling me… Goddess! Do you mean to tell me you were bedding those young women to hide?”
Kah’len blushed but said nothing in his defense. What could he say?
“Talk to me, Kah’len!”
“Do you actually think I would have made the rank of Warlord if I’d been honest?”
Bhne opened and closed his mouth several times before he sighed and sat back in his chair. “You were always so ambitious and driven. You didn’t care whom you trampled in your race to be the best, but I guess I understand.”
“Do you? You, who are not a bastard? You, who never had to deal with mockery or disrespect because of the circumstances of your birth, something you could not have influenced or changed?”
Bhne frowned. “No, you are right, my friend. As much as I want to blame you for using Chali as a shield–as much as I want to think I would have been braver…” He shook his head. “I don’t think I could’ve been braver.” He gazed into Kah’len’s eyes. “You are angry.”
“You cannot understand my position, even if you think you can.”
Bhne held up his hands. “My apologies. You are correct, my friend. I cannot understand your position. But I can try to understand, can’t I?”
“Yes. Thank you for that.”
Bhne gazed at him for a few seconds of silence. “What do you need from me?”
“Your friendship.”
“Always, Warlord.”
Kah’len reached across the desk and they clasped forearms. “Thank you, Bhne.”
They unclasped forearms and sat back.
Bhne shook his head. “My youngest brother is atoliy, but he married a woman to avoid scandal. They are friends and I think she knows he tups young men on the sly. It is an arrangement between them.”
“Chali would never have agreed to such an agreement,” Kah’len pointed out.
Bhne chuckled. “No. She is proud.”
“I’m glad you are marrying her, Bhne. I’m glad you love her as she deserves.”
Bhne nodded. “And now you have a mate as well.”
Kah’len blew out a breath. “That little heathen? A monk, Bhne? He despises me.”
“Is he atoliy?”
“How should I know?”
“Ask him.”
“I suppose I should,” Kah’len reluctantly agreed.
“Do you find him comely?”
Kah’len blushed. “I’m not sure about this line of interrogation.”
Bhne snorted. “Just answer the question, Warlord.”
“Yes. I do. He is beautiful.”
“I agree,” Bhne replied. “I was worried you would insult him by continuing your randy ways, but you might make a marriage between you.”
“We’ll need a concubine, you know.”
Bhne sat back and considered. “You will, if you want children. I have a cousin, Kah’len. Thrudy Inmar.”
“Thrudy?”
“Yes. She confessed to me that she, too, is atoliy. Her mother keeps trying to marry her off and she keeps insulting her suitors and driving them off.”
Kah’len laughed. “She is a feisty one.”
“And highly intelligent,” Bhne agreed. “Let me talk to your mother about Thrudy and let me speak to Thrudy. I think she’ll agree to concubinage, if it means she gets to marry someone who understands her.”
Kah’len shifted. “My mother was hoping for a Tjish.unen concubine.”
“You are wealthy enough to own a harem, my friend. I am only thinking of Thrudy’s wellbeing.”
“Then talk to my mother,” Kah’len said and rose.
They clasped forearms once more.
“Thank you for being so compassionate, Bhne,” Kah’len said with feeling.
Bhne shook his head. “You cannot help being atoliy anymore than I could being domesji. I’ll see you for a game of cards tomorrow night?”
“Get the group together. We can head over to our favorite gaming hall.”
“Consider it done,” Bhne said and strode out.

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