Kah’len moved into the palace, as the Queen had decreed, taking his isili with him and bidding goodbye to Ithul’to. On the eve of his move to the palace, he and Ithul’to sat at one of the tavern’s outside tables and shared a glass of light Tjish.unen wine.
“You put your worries away, my friend,” Ithul’to told him. “The Queen is a sharp woman. She’ll see the merit of backing you.”
Kah’len grimaced. “I hope so, my friend.” He rose. “I’d best head to the palace.”
Ithul’to rose as well and they hugged. “It has been an honor to be of assistance, Warlord.”
“If ever you need anything, Ithul’to, you can come to me.”
Kah’len hired a carriage to take him and his servants to the palace. The isili rode up front with the driver, while Kah’len rode inside. Their bags had been bundled into the back of the carriage. This had been Ithul’to’s idea. The Warlord and future king of North Torahn should not walk the streets like riffraff, he had pronounced dryly. Kah’len had rolled his eyes but had not disagreed. In Tjish.un, more than in Torahn, appearances meant everything. The journey from Ithul’to’s tavern to the palace took all of a quarter of an hour. The carriage rolled into the palace complex, as close to the palace gates as it was able, and then Kah’len waited until the driver opened the door before he stepped down. Aud and Cius took their belongings and followed two steps behind Kah’len, as was deemed appropriate.
Kah’len showed their papers at the gates and waited patiently while the gates were opened for them. Now it was a matter of finding his mother and sister in the labyrinthine palace. He asked directions from a harried servant, who vibrated with impatience. The servant pointed Kah’len in the right direction and hurried away, muttering under his breath. Kah’len shook his head and motioned for his isili to follow him as he took the hallway the servant had indicated. The hallway was long and bright, filled with oil lamps. Tapestries covered the marble walls. The tall ceilings were made of marble as well, and Kah’len wondered how the building had been built. There were no rafters, like at Castle Draemin.
The hallway was busy with servants and Kah’len had to ask twice more where to go. Finally, sometime later, he found himself before a large arched gleaming white door with a gold plate bearing the name of his mother in the Common Tongue. He used the gold knocker to make his presence known. An isili opened the door and gazed with beautiful hazel eyes at Kah’len.
The isili bowed. “My lord? May I be of assistance?”
“I am Kah’len Ys’teis-Thalmar, your lady’s son.”
The isili bowed, showing no surprise. “Of course, my lord. She mentioned you would be coming soon. Come in.”
He stepped back and allowed them entrance.
The room inside was airy and lovely, with a balcony gazing out at the palace gardens. Furniture of pale gold and white satin filled the space. Low tables made of glass squatted next to couches and armchairs. Gold and silver threaded butter-colored throw rugs covered the marble floors. Tapestries covered the walls. A white marble sideboard stood against the far wall. Braziers were tucked into corner to help dispel the coolness of evenings, but there was no fireplace. A filmy white curtain covered the balcony door. It danced in the cool evening breeze.
Kah’len turned to the right and oofed as his mother jumped into his arms, wrapping her arms around his neck and pressing kisses to his cheek, eyes and forehead.
“Hello, Mother,” he murmured, chuckling as he set her on her feet once more.
“Oh, Goddess preserve us! You are alive!”
“Very much so,” he assure her. He kissed her forehead. “How did you get out?”
“Bhne,” she murmured and thrust her arm through his. “Come sit, child. Tell me how you go out.”
As she led him to a couch, his two isili were escorted from the room with their belongings.
“Your apartment connects to mine,” she said and leaned her head against his shoulder. “Your servants will be escorted there. Oh, Kah’len. Tell me how you got out.”
He told her his story while she drank his visage with her beautiful, wide green eyes.
She wiped a tear from her eyes. “My sister told me of your request. She has not told me of her decision, but know I have an estate and I can back you up, if she does not.”
“I don’t want to leave you destitute,” he rejoined.
She laughed. “You truly don’t know how wealthy I am, do you?”
He cleared his throat. “No. I don’t suppose I do.”
She patted his cheek. “If Masjita does not back you up, I can finance you. Worry not.”
“How is Kahla?”
She grimaced. “She lost the babe in her belly. The stress was too much, but she is with child again and under an empathic healer’s care.”
He sighed. “Is she well?”
“She is well, yes. She was despondent when she lost the child, but she is a resilient girl, as you well know.”
“She is quite practical.”
His mother smiled. “Like me. Anyway, the Queen gifted her and her family an estate, as the King confiscated all Ys’teis land when he imprisoned the Prei-Serren and Deirohn. He confiscated all the lands of those who supported Deirohn, without trial. That is why the civil war broke out, not because of anything else. But now is the perfect time for you to confront him, as he has a war on two fronts: at home and at the border.”
Kah’len nodded. “Soonest is best.”
“I want to lead some of your troops into battle.”
He frowned. “Mother–”
“I have been trained to fight. In Tjish.un women lead armies,” she stated firmly. “I will confront your father and best him in the field. I will lead or you can forget any backup.”
“Are you blackmailing me, Mother?”
He shook his head and gave a bark of laughter. “You are a fierce maltika, woman.”
“And you already are known as the White Tash-Tash. Let me be known as the White Maltika.”
He patted her hand. “You will wear armor, won’t you?”
She giggled. “Silver armor, with the standard of the House of Thalmar.”
“Leather armor is better,” he said. “Lighter.”
“Leather it is then.”
He nodded. “I would like to see Kahla now.”
Oona led him down the hall to a nearby white door that bore Kahla’s name in gold. They were led into the sitting room of an apartment much the same as Oona’s, except that this sitting room was decorated in shades of light blue, instead of gold and silver. The filmy curtain covering the balcony door was light blue as well. The heady scent from the gardens reached here and filled the space. Oona went to stand at the balcony, while Kah’len waited impatiently for his sister.
She swept into the room a few minutes later, looking tired and pale but well enough. She hurried into his arms and he hugged her gently, running his hands up and down her back as she wept onto his shoulder. He hushed her, feeling his throat tighten with his own emotions. She felt so small and fragile in his arms.
Pulling back, she gazed into his eyes. “I have been so worried!”
“Hush now,” he murmured and kissed her lips. “I’m well, sister.”
“We had to leave you behind,” she said mournfully. “I didn’t want to, but I had the children.”
“I know,” he cooed and hugged her to him. “Don’t feel guilt, sister. I am well.”
It took her a few minutes to calm down. In that time, her husband, Lord Umar Tehna-Sti’et, entered the sitting room and hugged them both.
“Goddess, Kah’len!” Lord Umar said. “It’s good to see you.”
“Good to see you, too, Umar. How are the children?”
The lord stepped back. “They are adjusting as well as children usually do. They don’t like the heat and the fact that they have to nap during the hottest part of the day, but they’ll get used to it.”
“I daresay,” Kah’len agreed.
They sat down and Kahla clung to Kah’len.
She gazed up at him. “Did Mother tell you I lost the child?”
“Yes, picu. She also said you are pregnant again.”
She smiled. “I am.”
“Be calm,” he chastised her. “I don’t want you losing this one as well.”
She sighed and leaned her head against his shoulder.
“The Queen gifted us an estate near the Kahi River,” Lord Umar said. “Would you like to join us there?”
“I need to leave for Torahn as soon as possible,” Kah’len replied. “Now is the optimum time to confront father.”
“You’re leaving again?” Kahla demanded.
“I am opting for the crown of North Torahn, sister.”
She frowned. “You were always so ambitious, brother. But I think you will make a good king.”
He patted her hand. “I will do my utmost to be fair.” He looked at Umar. “I will return your estate to you once I am king.”
Umar bowed. “You have my support, Kah’len.”
Kah’len grinned at him. “I was never in doubt.”
Two days later, Kah’len was summoned to the throne room by the Queen. He strode down the hallway, his mother at his side. They entered the throne room side by side, his mother’s arm thrust through his. Once before the throne, they went onto their knees and bent their heads in respect. For long minutes, the Queen said nothing. Finally, she stirred.
“You may rise,” she said.
Kah’len rose and helped his mother up.
“We have your answer, Lord Ys’teis-Thalmar. Are you prepared to accept our terms?”
Kah’len bowed. “I am, your peerless Majesty.”
The Queen tapped the arm of the throne. “And you, Sister. Are you bent on fighting at your son’s side?”
“I am, your Majesty.”
The Queen gave a mirthless chuckle. “You should have been born a male, despite your beauty and grace. Do you know, Kah’len, that she dressed in boy’s clothes as a young girl, playing at war games with boys. She never asked for a doll or a dress. We had to force her into a dress to impress your father. Your mother cleans up nicely.”
Kah’len gazed down at his mother’s lovely eyes and smiled. “My mother is quite beautiful. She takes after you, your Majesty.”
The Queen smiled. “Charmer.” She sobered. “Here are our terms: open borders between our nations; no tariffs on Tjish.unen imports for ten years; we will remove our tariffs on Torahni imports for ten years as well. At the end of ten years’ time, we negotiate the tariffs that will be imposed, but the tariffs will never exceed 10 percent of profits. The tariffs then will be frozen for ten years’ time, to be renegotiated every ten years. Do you agree so far?”
Kah’len had stiffened, but his mother’s hand tightened around his arm in warning.
He gave a stiff bow. “I agree.”
The Queen’s smile did not reach her eyes. “Good. Here is my last term: You take my youngest daughter, Sjanita, to wife.”
Kah’len started. “Your Majesty, I am already betrothed to the Red Prince of South Torahn.”
The Queen waved a dismissive hand. “We know this. In Tjish.un, we are a matrilocal, matrilineal, and polygamous nation. You can marry the Red Prince of South Torahn, but you can’t have children with him. Our daughter will rule Torahn as your Queen. She will give you children and will bind our nations permanently. Do you agree?”
Kah’len looked helplessly at his mother. He knew he did not have to accept these terms, for she would back him up. But he didn’t lie to her when he told her he didn’t want to leave her destitute. He glanced away from her gaze to the Queen.
“I accept your terms,” he said.
For the first time, the Queen truly smiled. “Then you have at your disposal one quarter of Tjish.un’s army. Can you win yourself a crown with 120,000 troops, Warlord?”
He blinked, at a loss. The number of troops were more than he had expected.
He bowed. “You are very generous, your Highness.”
She shook her head. “We are also sending with you 50,000 sailors, so you will have a navy of 500 ships at your disposal. You can blockade City Draemin, if you must.”
He gave her a deep bow. “Thank you, my Queen.”
She waved a hand. “Let us sign our terms then, Warlord.” !this.re