Chapter Seventeen: The Betrayal

            Kah’len had Prince Lahn and the priest escorted to their apartment once their caravan reached Castle Draemin in the afternoon of the following day. The journey from the villa to the city had not been easy for Lahn. The steady lurching of the wagon in which he lay had prevented him from resting, and by the time they arrived at the city, hours later, he was shaking from exhaustion. Kah’len sent his most trusted men with the Prince and the Serren then went directly to Court to speak to his father. This late in the day, petitioners would be turned out, as the King and both Houses focused on legal matters. The great arching doorways to the Throne Room were shut to the public, but Kah’len was not a common petitioner. The Court clerk saw him as he approached and blanched, hurrying into the Throne Room to announce him. Kah’len did little to smooth his features. His business was grim and he would scowl at anyone, if it meant his business was attended to soonest.

            The clerk returned shortly and bowed. “The King will see you, Warlord.”

            Kah’len gave a nod and swept into the Throne Room in his suit of armor with his black and gray battle cloak. He gauged the King’s reaction. His father raised an eyebrow as Kah’len approached, although members of both Houses sitting in their pews began to murmur as to the meaning of the Warlord dressed as if he were going to war. The weight of the iron battle armor was soothing to Kah’len. His armor was plated in gold, as befit the Warlord of North Torahn.The armor caught the light from the massive chandelier overhead and refracted, glittering along the black marble floor. Kah’len held his black-plumed helmet under his left arm, his right hand on the pommel of his sword. He stopped just at the bottom step of the throne and bowed deeply.

            “Sire.”

            “We are overjoyed at your return, Lord Commander,” the King murmured. “What is the meaning of your war gear?”

            “PrinceLahn Obeli was attacked twice, once while he traveled to our villa, and once at the villa. I headed the armed escort back to the city.”

            The King frowned. “We see. And what news do you bring us then, Lord Commander?”

            “War is certain, my King,” he replied. “All along the border, the Isemi harass the border towns and my counterpart in the South cannot contain them.”

            The King nodded. “Yes. So, will you go to the South and make war against the Isemi?”

            “I will go south and see what can be done. As you know, we cannot incite war as yet.”

            TheKing shifted. “You will let things proceed as they are and do nothing. The events have been set in motion, Warlord.”

            Kah’len frowned. “But, Sire–”

            “You either heed our command or rot in the dungeon,” the King growled. “You forget yourself, Warlord. You are under our command and not the other way around.”

            Kah’len’s eyes went to the left of the throne, but Deirohn was not standing in his usual place.

            “Your brother sits in the dungeon, as does the High Priest,” the King stated. He narrowed his eyes. “Do you take me for a fool, boy? I, who have been alive since before you were born? I, who have had to fight to keep my crown and my scepter? Do you think you know my mind, Warlord?”

            Kah’len looked into the King’s eyes and saw a cold rage that licked at the edges of madness.

            The King rose. “I am the High Priest of North Torahn now, boy. There will be blood. There will be retribution. You either fall in line with me or fall as well.”

            Kah’len’s mouth went dry. He wet his lips. How to buy time?

            He bowed to the King. “As you command, My King.”

            The King’s eyes narrowed. He barked a laugh. “You do take me for a fool,don’t you? Guards!”

            Kah’lennran past the throne, jumping over the lower steps and bursting through the door behind the black curtain that led to the War Room. He heard footsteps behind  him. He did not look back, but ran for his life. Taking a little used hallway, he managed to make it to the fourth floor and to Prince Lahn’s apartments. Kah’len stopped in the hallway and looked around, but the dim hallway was notheavily patrolled and he was able to slip into the Prince’s apartment through the servants’ passageway. He pulled on his helmet and unsheathed his sword ashe hurried into the inner apartment.

            He found Lahn and Domio Obeli in the sitting room.

            When he entered through the servants’ passageway, both Lahn and Domio gasped and rose from their seats.

            “Kah’len!” Lahn said. His eyes roamed over his suited form. “What is it?”

            “We must leave, your Highness,” Kah’len replied. “The King is mad!”

            “Mad, am I?”

            Kah’len turned and saw the King standing under the hallway doorjamb, guards at his back. The guards rushed in and overcame Kah’len, removing his sword and broadsword.

            TheKing walked to where Kah’len stood. “There will be a unified Torahn once more, boy, and the Prince knows this.”

            Kah’len looked at Lahn. “You knew of this?”

            Lahn raised his chin stubbornly.

            Kah’len laughed. “Do you know the King considers himself the Prei-Serren of North Torahn?”

            Doubt seeped into Lahn’s gaze for the first time, and Kah’len laughed even harder as he was muscled by the guards out into the hallway. He was escorted down past the main floor to the door leading into the dungeon. Kah’len’s mind was seething with doubt and rage. He had been played a fool by his sire and the princeling. He did not fight as he was escorted down to the deepest level ofthe castle. Once there, the dungeon master opened a cell door and Kah’len was pushed into the interior. He looked around as the cell door was closed andlocked. The room itself smelled of dampness and mold, but there were tapestries along the walls and rugs on the earthen floor. There was a large cot against one wall and a desk with two chairs against another wall.

            He sighed and removed his helmet, setting it on the desk top. He wondered in Bhne knew anything about this, or if he had been in the King’s pocket, too. He wondered if his mother had been part of the plot. He rubbed his face with cold hands. It stung, to be played for a fool. The king was mad. He had to be.  No one would be able to stop him, if the army was behind him. Were the unificationists that strong? How had he missed their rise to power, if the answer was yes? He began to pace, hands opening and closing spasmodically.

            He heard the key being inserted into the lock and he stopped pacing and turned to face his visitor. It was Bhne, in full battle regalia and wearing a pin with the insignia of the Warlord on his collar.

            Kah’len frowned. “Traitor.”

            “Who is the traitor, Kah’len? I do as my king bids,” the other retorted.

            Kah’len spat on the floor and turned away.

            The door closed, but Kah’len knew Bhne was close by.

            He turned, ready to give his erstwhile friend a piece of his mind, but Bhne put his finger to his lips and took three steps closer to Kah’len. He handed Kah’len a folded piece of paper then turned on his heels and strode to the cell door, throwing it open and striding through it while one of the guards locked the cell door once more.

            Kah’len took the note to the cot and took a seat at the edge of the thin mattress. He opened the piece of paper.

            “The walls have ears. Speak nothing. I will get you out, Len. Trust me in this. Stay strong. Your family is safe for now.

            I must escort them out of the city before I can release you. I have contacted the Queen of Tjish.un and she expects you to go there once you are released. Trust no one, save me. Yours, Bhne.“

            He rose and walked to the oil lamp flickering on its stand on the desk and set fire to the missive. He watched it burn before he destroyed the ashes by grinding them into the earthen floor. The iron cell door had a small window,but it was now shut, so no one could smell or see the fire. He sighed and shook his head. Maybe Bhne was his friend still, but how can Kah’len be sure? Well, he had no choice. If Bhne got him out of here, he would go to Tjish.un and amass a force. He had to find out if South Torahn knew about his father’s plans or if his father sought to conquer the south. And what of the Isemi? Where were they in all of this?

            Hours later, exhausted from worrying and pacing, he lay down on the cot to rest. The cot groaned under the weight of his armor, but it did not collapse. He closed his eyes and cleared his mind. If Bhne was telling the truth, he needed to be strong for when the time came to flee. He closed his eyes and said a prayer to the Goddess, naming his mother and his sister and their family. As he prayed, he felt the Goddess quite close and kind, as if her hand caressed his face.Tears filled his eyes. Pain and sorrow warred one with the other in his heart.He had always been honest with his father and loyal. His honesty had cost him dearly. It had cost him everything.

***

            It was hard to tell time in the dungeon. The light of the oil lamp never varied.Kah’len was not sure if it was day or night when the guards brought him his one meal a day. The grimly countenanced dungeon master himself brought the tray down and set it on the desk while two guards kept a watchful eye on Kah’len.  Not that Kah’len would have fought anyone at this point. He needed help to escape, and he chose to trust that Bhne would help him when the time came. He made no attempt to fight his way out. He merely ate the meals, which were decent enough, and prayed no one would try to poison him down here.

            During his long hours of isolation, his mind would return, again and again to the kisshe had shared with Prince Lahn Obeli. He could not seem to shake that kiss, no matter what he did. The Prince had shown himself to be an ally of the White King, and Kah’len was decidedly not that. He felt unification was a bad idea atbest, something that would inexorably lead to another Civil War in which thousands would needlessly perish. He shuddered. His father meant to bring backthe theocracy North Torahn had once been, with ritual sacrificing and restrictive laws. Kah’len believed in the separation of church and state, each balancing and strengthening the other in equal measure.  

            He sighed as he paced.  Perhaps his sire was not mad but simply shrewd and shifty.  But if the King felt he could win against the Isemi, then he truly was mad.  The Isemi were nigh invinsible.  Kah’len huffed a laugh.  His sire would find out soon enough, but, unfortunately,it would cost the lives of many, many men.

            Kah’len sat on the cot, his back against the wall and waited.

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