Kah’len dressed with care. Ithul’to had purchased for him a light green silk tunic with gold etchings, sturdy dun trousers, tall boots, and a dark green cloak. Kah’len wore this outfit this morning, for he was to meet Queen Masjita in two hours’ time. He sat down on his desk chair and Aud brushed and re-braided his hair in a tight single plait. When the isili was done, Kah’len rose and went to the body-lengthed mirror hanging from the wall and gave himself a once-over. He grimaced. He liked to wear uniforms best. He felt himself lacking wearing these civilian threads. With a sigh, he turned from his reflection and reached for the hooded cloak.
“My lord looks very fetching,” Aud pronounced softly.
“Do I?” Kah’len asked and grinned. The isili blushed and looked away.
Kah’len sighed and pulled the cloak over his shoulders. Cius clipped the plain silver brooch Ithul’to had gifted Kah’len at the collarbone and stepped back.
“Well,” Kah’len said. “I think I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”
“Good luck, my lord,” the isili chorused.
“Thank you,” Kah’len said. “I’ll hopefully be back not too late.”
“We’ll be here, my lord,” Aud assured him.
With one last look at his bedroom, Kah’len strode out into the hallway. Ithul’to’s household was already up in preparation for customers. The tavern opened early in the morning and closed during the hottest part of the day, only to reopen in late afternoon. The hallway outside his bedroom was dim, but Kah’len managed to find his way to the stairwell and, from there, to the main floor.
Ithul’to was already up and in the kitchen.
He grinned when he saw Kah’len. “You clean up nicely, Warlord. Some breakfast?”
“A cup of tah’lir’s milk with honey,” Kah’len replied. “I can’t eat anything. My stomach is a mass of nerves.”
Ithul’to bowed. “Right away. Have a seat in the dining room. I’ll come join you shortly.”
Kah’len went into the dining room, but he found himself pacing, unable to sit still. He went to the bank of windows against one wall and gazed out into the darkness, seeing more than one denizen making their way along the boulevard holding an oil lamp for light. The street was busy this morning, as it was every morning before it got too hot. He sighed and turned back to the room as one of Ithul’to’s wives opened the front door and their first customers entered the tavern.
Ithul’to strode through the kitchen door and handed Kah’len a mug of warm milk with honey and spices. Kah’len sipped it gratefully. The milk slaked his thirst and settled his stomach.
He handed Ithul’to the empty mug. “I’m ready, Ithul’to.”
The merchant nodded and handed his wife the mug. “Let’s go then.”
Ithul’to kissed his wife.
“Good luck, Warlord,” the young woman murmured.
Kah’len bowed. “My thanks, m’lady. Have a good day.”
Ithul’to led him out into the cold early morning. Kah’len pulled his thick cloak tighter about his body as he lengthened his strides to match Ithul’to’s. They walked side by side down the long avenue crowded with pedestrians and wagons as people made their way to the open-air market to the south. Kah’len and Ithul’to were heading west to the royal palace.
Kah’len gazed up at the velvet skies filled with its pinpoints of lights. Taitah was in her bloated phase and her bright, cool light bathed the street and lit the way.
“I’ll vouch for you with the guards,” Ithul’to told Kah’len. “Since you don’t have papers, someone will have to vouch for you.”
“I’m in your debt for life, Ithul’to,” Kah’len replied.
“Never mind,” the merchant said. “Just let me do the talking, unless the guards ask you a direct question.”
The avenue curved north then began to rise as they neared the religious complex. The ziggurat, an imposing tower, rose several stories in height to dominate the surrounding area. The royal palace was to the east of the ziggurat, a domed building hidden behind thick gardens and white brick walls that shone even in Taitah’s light. The flora surrounding the palace looked black in the moonlight. Kah’len could see the silhouette of guards walking the ramparts. As they approached the palace grounds, the brick avenue gave way to black marble. The gates of the white walls were arched and iron, two massive heavy black doors. The gates were closed. Four guards stood at the gates, two before each door. They walked out to meet Kah’len and Ithul’to.
“Halt! Who goes there?” one of the guards called out.
“Master Ithul’to Saphen, Captain of the Masjita.”
The guards stopped mid stride. “Who is with you, Captain Saphen?”
“His lordship, Kah’len Ys’teis-Thalmar, nephew of Queen Masjita and Warlord of North Torahn,” Ithul’to replied.
One of the guards stepped forward. “Papers?”
Ithul’to reached into his tunic and retrieved his papers, handing them over to the guard. The guard ran his eyes over the inscriptions. He nodded and handed the papers back.
“Very good,” he said and turned to Kah’len. “Your papers, sir?”
Ithul’to shook his head. “The Warlord left North Torahn during a civil war and empty-handed. You have my word for his identity and the veracity of his situation.”
The guard nodded. He reached into the inner lining of his tunic and removed a folded missive. “Show this, if asked. It is a permission for the day.”
He handed Kah’len the missive.
“Thank you,” Kah’len said.
The guards led them to the gates and took hold of the thick round door handles and pulled. The doors swung outward soundlessly. Before allowing them entrance, the guards frisked them for weapons. Finding none, they stepped back.
“You may enter,” the head guard told them. “Good luck.”
Kah’len and Ithul’to bowed and hurried within the palace grounds. The floor here was marble, too, a straight walkway through the gardens. To either side of the walkway, the palace gardens filled the spaces. Flowering bushes filled the area with a sweet, musky scent that was quite soothing. Tall trees created a canopy through which guards patrolled. Marble benches were placed strategically along the walkway. As they neared the palace, Kah’len saw a massive fountain with a statue of the god Da’hrisjah, god of the city, god of creation. His arms were held open at his sides, palms up, and water poured from the palms of his hands. His stern visage looked past the gardens towards the city. The base of the fountain went several feet in all directions and deep enough to provide a home for countless colorful fishes and intriguing water plants.
The domed palace rose three stories from the ground, a building built of white stone that seemed to glow in the moonlight. Two pair of guards stood outside the arched entrance to the dome. The doors stood open. Kah’len and Ithul’to climbed the ten white marble stairs to the entrance and, from there, into the palace proper. White marble columns held up the domed roof, which had a glass ceiling. The floor was made of white marble with gold etchings of flowers and leaves. The expansive space echoed with voices and footfalls. Courtiers and petitioners filled the spaces between the towering columns in groups of two or more. Directly ahead, an archway led into the throne room. A long line of petitioners stood before the court clerk behind her lectern.
Kah’len looked at the line with something like despair. “I’ll never get in today.”
Ithul’to clapped him on the shoulder. “We have an appointment, my friend. Trust me. Come.”
They made their way to the front of the line, where Ithul’to presented his papers to the court clerk.
The clerk looked up their names and nodded. “Your appointment is in one hour’s time. Please go stand by the wall there. You will be called when your time comes.”
Ithul’to and Kah’len went to stand by the wall.
“You don’t have to remain with me,” Kah’len told the captain. “I know how busy you are.”
Ithul’to shook his head. “The Queen knows me. I have to vouch for you.”
Kah’len sighed. “You have done so much for me, my friend.”
“It is an honor.”
Kah’len leaned against the wall and gazed up at the glass ceiling, where the first light of morning had turned the skies a dark blue. The walls of the great hall were covered with silk and satin tapestries depicting the story of how Da’hrisjah had created the universe and the world. Along the top of the walls, little windows allowed for the flow of air. As the great hall filled with more and more courtiers, barristers and petitioners, nuns and priests, the din grew to deafening proportions. By the time Kah’len was called to go before the Queen, the space was clogged with visitors.
“Your name has been called,” Ithul’to shouted at him.
Kah’len followed him into the throne room, wondering how the captain had heard anything over the roar of the great hall. Inside the throne room, a deep silence prevailed. The room was rectangular, with a wide, long walkway that ended at the raised dais where the throne squatted. The Queen sat among countless pillows that spilled to the floor. The room was full of priests, nuns, courtiers and guards. No one spoke as Kah’len and Ithul’to made their way to the front. Countless eyes watched then with curiosity. This room, too, had a glass ceiling. It would be quite gorgeous at night, Kah’len thought faintly, with the stars and the moon lending gentle light. Baskets filled with flowers and plants hung from hooks on the walls and the ceiling. Large oil lamps hung along the walls. The floor here was white marble with gold. Kah’len and Ithul’to’s footsteps clipped as they hurriedly made their way to the front of the room.
Ithul’to went down onto a knee and Kah’len followed suit. He bent his head, fastening his gaze on a blue velvet pillow that had fallen onto the bottom step of the dais.
“Rise, Captain Ithul’to,” a strong feminine voice said, cutting through the silence.
Ithul’to rose, but Kah’len remained on his knee.
“Who do you bring before us?” the Queen asked.
“Your Peerless Majesty, this is your nephew, Kah’len Ys’teis-Thalmar, son of your sister, Oona Thalmar.”
Silence met his pronouncement, quickly followed by sibilant whispers from the congregation.
Silence fell upon the gathering and Kah’len heard the Queen shift.
“Rise, Warlord of White Torahn.”
Kah’len rose but kept his eyes trained on the blue pillow.
“You may behold us.”
Kah’len looked up at his aunt and nearly gasped. She was the splitting image of his mother, although a few years older. She was beautiful and impossibly regal in a deep green satin dress that matched her curious eyes. The bodice of her dress dipped to show soft generous breasts. Her waist tapered to wide gleaming skirts that were so voluminous, they covered the throne. The scepter in her left hand was of solid gold with a large emerald at the top and the orb in her right hand was gold as well, covered with precious jewels. Her copper-colored hair was piled artlessly on top of her head and fell in ringlets on either side of her face. On her graceful neck was a green velvet choker with emerald studs. Her skin was dusky and set off her curious green eyes. Her graceful shoulders were bare. Her full mouth pursed.
“You look just like our dear, departed brother,” she said softly. “Oh, God of Creation! How we miss him. How old are you, Kah’len?”
“I am turning twenty-two this coming Anasj, your exalted Majesty.”
She sighed. “So young and beautiful and accomplished.” She ran her eyes over the congregation. “Kah’len is a true scion of House Thalmar, becoming Warlord of North Torahn when he was a tender fifteen-year-old.” She looked at Kah’len again. “Your mother, our dear sister, told us of your fall from power, nephew. Of the civil war and the madness of the White King. Why do you come before us now?”
He bowed. “Your Majesty, I ask for mercenaries, for it is my intention to fight for the throne. I am better qualified to lead my nation than my xenophobic older brother or my mad father.”
She cocked her head. “We have a treaty with the White Nation. Do you mean for us to break that treaty?”
“If I become King, your exalted Majesty, the treaties will be strengthened. Tariffs will be reduced on your imports. Your people would be free to settle in North Torahn, if that is their wish. We would be true sister nations.”
She smiled. “Very generous. The tariffs on our imports are exorbitant and penalize us.”
“I agree, your Majesty,” he rejoined.
“And if you lose?” she challenged.
“I won’t lose, your Majesty. I never have.”
She threw her head back and laughed, a lilting sound full of joy.
When she was done laughing, she looked at him once more. “How like your mother you are. How like us. We thought you would ask for a residence and an occupation, but you want your own throne. We will think on this, Nephew, and give you our answer in three days’ time. Until then, you will reside here, with your mother and with us.”
He bowed deeply. “Thank you, your Majesty.”
She bowed her head. “Until we meet again, White Warlord.”
He spun on his heels and followed Ithul’to from the throne room.