Chapter Ten: The Departure

Rumors of war abounded at court. Lahn had always hated court, so he did not spend any time there now, but Domio went every day. The priest had already made several friends and spent his days away from the apartment he shared with Lahn. He would come home late in the day and they would have supper together. It was during those times that Domio told his nephew that war was looking more and more a surety.
“What does this mean for me?” Lahn wondered out loud.
His uncle dabbed his mouth with his napkin. “You will marry the Warlord to assure that our nation remains neutral. We cannot afford to go to war now.”
“But surely the Isemi will demand that we join the fray. We are their allies, after all.”
Domio picked up his glass of wine and took a sip. “The Isemi are a proud people, Lahn. They believe themselves unbeatable and in need of no assistance.”
Lahn crossed his legs and pushed his empty plate away. “They worship Poa the Harvester after all, don’t they? The God requires sacrifice, boldness and bravery.”
“Indeed,” Domio agreed. “How was your interview at the university?”
Lahn picked up his glass of wine. “It was strange, Uncle. They were dour, unsmiling, and cold. If they meant to intimidate me, they failed.”
Domio chuckled. “Yes, I am sure they meant to intimidate you. These academic types, they think so highly of themselves. Until you are one of them, you are less than.”
“Rensen doesn’t seem that way,” Lahn pointed out.
“No, I daresay. He does not, but you had already impressed him with your successes. How would he have reacted to you if you hadn’t, I wonder?”
Lahn pushed his chair back and rose. “You’ve not told me who your new friends are, Uncle.”
Domio rose as well. “I have made several acquaintances, Lahn. I wouldn’t call them friends just yet.”
“Your new acquaintances then, uncle. Who are they?”
“I have had conversations with several people who are curious about the south, but they are also curious about Poa.”
They sat near each other on the sofa facing the balcony doors and the fireplace. The fire crackled cheerfully.
“They want to know about our God?” Lahn asked.
Domio crossed his legs. “Indeed they do. They are curious about this religion that tore apart our nation. Many of them are unificationists. I was shocked to hear how many people want to unite our nations once more.”
“Why is it so hard to comprehend?”
Domio shrugged. “We’ve been two nations for over a thousand years, child.”
“We were the greatest nation in the known hemisphere,” Lahn said.
“Arguably,” his uncle reminded him gently. “Other nations have their own opinions.”
“No one would’ve faced Torahn in battle when we were unified.”
“Except Yllysia,” Domio said. “And we never beat them in battle.”
Lahn crossed his arms over his chest and looked away. “Yllysia is the only nation we could not best.”
“Which makes them the best, doesn’t it?”
Lahn scowled. “You are taunting me!”
The priest finished his wine and handed his glass to the waiting servant. “Not at all. Such chauvinistic viewpoints are easy to debunk. There is no nation greater than any other. War is won or lost based on the talents of individual men, Lahn. No matter how talented a soldier is, there will always be one greater somewhere else. Luck also plays a great part in war. Torahn was a great nation. I agree with you. The greatest? We shall never know.”
Lahn looked away from his uncle. He had no retort to offer.
His uncle sighed. “I’ve made you angry.”
Lahn shrugged. “You have made me think, uncle. Should we not be unified?”
“I don’t know,” Domio replied. “Such matters do not rest in my hands. One day we may be one nation once more.”
“What do you tell these men who ask you about Poa?”
Domio’s lips quirked. “Quite a few young ladies also ask me about Poa. I have to be careful there, for their chaperones are always nearby.”
“But you’re a priest!” Lahn said, shocked.
“I’m a man first, child, and a priest second.”
Lahn gaped. “But…”
Domio chuckled. “I am not going to compromise any young woman, lad. Don’t worry.”
Lahn shifted. “Do you…do you get tempted, Uncle?”
The older man crossed his legs. “Yes, my lad. Beauty tempts me every day. I am still a young man. I am only twenty-eight, and I often wonder what it would be like to have a family and children.”
Lahn looked into Domio’s clear gray eyes. “You can give to the Lord your seed, uncle, and give him new believers when you have children. That is one way to serve Him.”
Domio smiled and patted Lahn’s hand. “I’ll keep that in mine, child.”
“So tell me of these friends of yours.”
“Rakah Ys’teis is one,” Domio murmured. “He is your betrothed’s younger brother. The young man is sharp as a knife, a unificationist, and curious about Poa. He is your age, child. Perhaps you should meet.”
Lahn leaned forward. “I am so lonely, Uncle. I wouldn’t mind making new friends.”
“But you hate court.”
Lahn scraped his lower lip with his teeth. “Yes. But perhaps I can go with you sometime?”
Domio patted his hand. “Consider it done! When we return from this holiday we can go to Court together. Of course, you may be working at the university by then.”
“I haven’t been hired yet, Uncle.”
Domio snorted. “They’d be fools not to hire you.” He rose. “Now, I’m off to bed. We leave for the Warlord’s villa at sunrise.”
“Goodnight, Uncle.”
“Goodnight, Lahn.”
Lahn was roused the following morning by his head servant. The skies outside the windows were black still. Lahn shivered as he pushed the warm bedclothes off and swung his legs over the side of the bed. The room was cold, but there was no time to start a fire. He padded barefoot to the bathing chamber through the connecting door. The bathing chamber’s tiled floor was icy against his bare feet. He quickly doffed his sleeping tunic and hurried to the spigots spouting from the far wall. The freezing water hit his sleep warm skin and he gasped, allowing the water to bathe his face and chest. He washed quickly then shut the water off and dried his skin with a towel. His day clothes were folded on a stool near the door to his bedroom. He dressed quickly in the thick black trousers and light blue muslin tunic. Silver thread made patterns of flowers along the fabric. It was one of Lahn’s favorite shirts. After donning his shirt and trousers, he pulled on his hard leather travel boots and tucked the ends of the trousers into the knee-high boots.
He sat on the stool and allowed his head servant, Thedo, to brush and braid his hair into two equal braids.
When the servant was done with his hair, he stepped back. “Your uncle is breaking his fast in the sitting room, your Highness. Will you join him?”
“Yes. My travel bags are in the bedroom next to my clothes chest.”
Thedo bowed. “Very good, your Highness. I will make sure your bags are carried downstairs.”
“Thank you, Thedo. You have a good week.”
“You as well, your Highness.”
Lahn strode into the hallway and from there to the sitting room. His uncle was sitting at a small folding table near the fireplace.
“Good morning, Lahn,” he said and sipped his tea.
“Good morning, Uncle. How did you sleep?”
“Very well. You?”
Lahn sat across from him. “Well enough.” He unfolded the napkin and placed it on his lap. “Do I have time to eat?”
“Just barely,” his uncle replied. “The Warlord has already departed. We are going to travel with his entourage.”
“Does that man sleep?” Lahn wondered out loud.
Domio chuckled. “He is a soldier. Now, eat quickly.”
The servants had made a porridge with asua grain. The grain was boiled in milk and butter then sweetened with honey and fruit. It was a highly nutritious, hardy dish simple enough to please a former monk. He ate an entire bowl of it before he was satisfied. By then his uncle was pulling on his cloak and Lahn followed suit and followed him down the long hallway to the tower stairs, three guards trailing behind them. The Great Hall was already buzzing with courtiers and petitioners. Being the first day of the week, Court would adjourn early. The first two days of Court were busy for the King and the Houses. Near the end of the week, Court was less busy. Lahn had learned this from his uncle.
Outside, there were three carriages and two wagons that made up the Warlord’s entourage. At least ten guards would accompany them. Even though the city walls encompassed nearly one hundred sepeks of land within which the villas nestled, thieves had access to the land around the villas by way of the city itself. The walls had been built to keep the Isemi out, but thieves always found a way in. The Isemi had yet to venture this far north.
Lady Oona was sitting astride her bahil. “Good morrow, Prince Lahn, Father Domio.”
“Good morning, my lady,” Lahn replied.
A guard handed him his bahil Isja’s reins. He took the reins and hauled himself onto the saddle.
His uncle followed suit.
A beautiful young woman stepped down from one of the carriages. Lahn recognized Kah’len’s twin sister, Kahla.
He bowed. “Good morning, Lady Kahla.”
She smiled up at him. “Good morning, your Highness. Father Domio. I just wanted to tell you how happy I am that you can join us.”
Lahn bowed again. “Our pleasure, my lady.”
A child’s thin cry piped from the carriage. Lady Kahla sighed. “Excuse me, your Highness, Father.”
“Of course,” Domio murmured.
Lady Kahla climbed into the carriage once more and a guard secured the door behind her.
By the time their belongings were all secured onto the wagons, it was past sunrise. They made their way in a long line out of the bailey and over the moat bridge to the boulevard beyond. The guards would lead them to the city’s south gate and, from there, they would travel through open land for a few hours before they reached the Warlord’s villa. The paved road they traveled on was well made and in good condition. Around them, the land was made up of grass fields with the occasional copse of trees. To the south, they could see the spine of the TamLaie Mountains. To the east, the sea glittered black in the distance. The wind whistled through the empty land, a hollow, sorrowful sound.
Lady Oona rode between Domio and Lahn at the head of the line of carriages and wagons.
“Did you know my son is a vintner?” she broached.
“I recall him mentioning that to me,” Domio replied.
“His wine is sought-after,” she continued. “I have tasted it. It is a complex wine. Good taste. But I do not know if his wine is sought-after because of its complexity or because he is the Warlord.”
“If you are a wine connoisseur, my lady,” Domio said. “And you like the wine, then the wine is probably popular on its own merits.”
“I like to think so,” she murmured.
“Does it matter?” Lahn asked. “If people try it because the Warlord made it, but return to it because it is good wine, does it matter why they originally tried it?”
She smiled at him. “You have a point, your Highness.” She looked away. “He is attempting to synthesize a liqueur from lounma fruit.” She grimaced. “His first attempts were colossal failures.”
“He’ll succeed, I’m sure,” Domio said. “He doesn’t strike me as a man who gives up easily.”
She threw her head back and laughed. “No, he isn’t. Stubborn as the day is long. Both his parents are stubborn, though. I have had to be, being a woman, and the King has had to be for obvious reasons.”
“It seems to me, my lady,” Domio began. “That you are more a charmer than a stubborn woman.”
She smiled at him. “You are a charmer yourself, Father Domio. It takes finesse to get your way in a man’s world: I’ve had to balance my stubborn streak with intelligence.”
“Admirable qualities in a woman,” he rejoined.
She blushed and chuckled.
Lahn found his own cheeks were hot. Were they flirting with each other? The idea shocked and discomfited him. It was one of the reasons he had run from court. He had never understood the subtle behavior, the light hand, required in Court relationships. His uncle, despite being a priest, swam through those strange waters like a fish.
Lahn dropped back and allowed his uncle and Lady Oona their privacy. They barely noticed as they continued to spar words.
The first of the villas came into view within the hour. A young guard who rode close to Lahn explained to him that these first villas belonged to the nouveau riche and were owned by animal husbandmen. The villas belonging to vintners were located further south and west. Those were owned by aristocratic families. Some villas were not working villas at all, but were kept as vacation homes for the wealthiest families.
“What about the Warlord’s villa?” Lahn asked the guard.
The guard cleared his throat and spat. “Pardon. This dust is drying my throat. The Warlord’s villa belongs to the King. The second born son of Clan Ys’teis always takes over the running of the villa and maintains it for the King. Some at court think the King should have handed the running of the villa to Rakah, his third born, legitimate son. No one will say that to the Warlord’s face, of course, but that is what they think.”
Lahn grimaced. “The Warlord cannot help that he is a bastard.”
“Just so,” the guard agreed. “But the circumstances of his birth are blamed on him nonetheless. Anyway, the villa used to be purely a holiday home for Clan Ys’teis. The Warlord made it a working villa. He hired a family of commoners, taught them about making wine and growing crops. The Warlord’s wine is quite popular and he has recouped the funds he put into the endeavor.”
“I’m glad,” Lahn said, realizing he meant it.
The guard grinned. “We’ll be at the villa soon, your Highness. Within the hour. Excuse me.”
Lahn watched as the guard kicked his lirtah into a gallop. He rode ahead of the entourage and caught up with the guards at the fore.

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