Lady Oona caressed Kah’len’s face. “Don’t look so morose. You were bound to wed a concubine anyway, for the sake of heirs. If you are to rule Torahn, you’ll need heirs.”
Lady Kahla grinned at her brother. “It’s not as if you have never bedded a woman, brother. I hear Princess Sjanita is quite beautiful.”
Kah’len stepped away from his mother and sister and stood at the balcony door, gazing out into the palace grounds. “She is proud and spoiled.”
“Don’t let the Queen hear you,” Oona warned him impatiently.
“Besides,” Kahla piped up. “Rumors never do anyone any justice. I have not met her personally, but she is a cousin of yours, Kah’len.”
Kah’len sighed and shook his head. “I know she is. She won’t abide any other spouse, I am sure.”
“The Tjish.unen are polygamous, my son,” Lady Oona reminded him gently. “Assert your authority. You are the man in the marriage. What you say goes.”
Kah’len rubbed his face and nodded. “I will. I just can’t believe the Queen won’t wait until I return victorious before foisting her youngest on me.”
Lady Oona crossed her arms over her chest. “Masjita is no fool. She has been played before, but she learns quickly and thoroughly. Do you want to be king?”
“Yes, damn it,” he growled.
His mother shrugged. “Then get her with child quickly. You don’t have to sleep with her and you don’t have to bed her regularly. She doesn’t expect that, I daresay.”
He snorted and shook his head again. “And you are sure because…?”
Lady Oona sighed. “I spoke to her, you stupid boy. I explained just how things are with you. She could not believe such a virile man such as yourself is atoliy, but I assured her you are. She just said she would seek a lover to keep her satisfied.”
He frowned. “He’d best be a eunuch then, because I will not be saddled with bastards.”
His mother gave him a shrewd glance. “It’s a matter of strength and respect, my son. She deserves happiness, just like anyone else.”
Kahla swept to where Kah’len stood. “Mother is teasing you, you fool. Princess Sjanita is fifteen years old.”
Kah’len glared at his mother, who burst out laughing. “Are you going to instruct her in the ways of the marriage bed? I can’t.”
Lady Oona waved away his words. “Leave it to me, Warlord. But the Queen has issued a decree that you bed Sjanita before you leave. So, you will have to bed her on your wedding night.”
Kah’len frowned. “She is a mere child!”
“Bah!” Lady Oona rejoined. “She is a woman capable of quickening. They have different rules here in Tjish.un.”
“Don’t I know it,” he snapped and turned back to the bright sunlit day outside the balcony doors. After a moment, he sighed and nodded. “So be it then. I hope this girl deigns to be my friend, if nothing else.”
Kahla’s features softened. “You will have to court her friendship, brother. Be patient with her. In many ways, she is still a child.”
She hugged him and he hugged her back, comforted by her affection and support.
Kah’len left his mother’s apartment and headed to the barracks that were situated off the palace grounds on the other side of the palace walls, between the palace and the ziggurat. Guards saluted him as he passed, thanks to the uniforms the Queen had gifted him. The Tjish.unen uniform was a deep forest green with light green stripes down the outer sides of the trousers and along the coat sleeves. A leather sword belt worn outside of the coat and hung snugly on Kah’len’s hips. His knee-high black boots had been polished to a high sheen. The trouser legs had been tucked into the boots. Tjish.unen soldiers did not use broadswords, so Kah’len only had the one sword at his belt and two daggers tucked into his boots for added protection. He wore a dark green light cloak over one shoulder, his right shoulder was bare and showed the rank of High Commander.
He reached the palace walls and the guards there drew to attention, saluting him as he swept past the high archway and into the religious complex. He stopped and gazed at the towering ziggurat, impressed by the structure’s architecture and the amount of effort that must have gone into building it. The Queen herself would hold a ceremony on the morning of his departure. She would bless his endeavors and see if the gods decreed this an advantageous time to invade North Torahn. Great Goddess, he hoped the signs were just right, for he was anxious to embark on his journey. Anxious to confront his father and best him in the field.
He tore his eyes from the ziggurat and made his way west to the barracks, where his offices were located, along with all the offices for all the generals who resided in the city. As the Queen’s nephew, he merited an apartment in the palace, but he eschewed the luxurious suites for an apartment in the barracks. It was large enough to house himself and his two isili. As he approached the sprawling military complex, he made his way further west to where the offices were located. The sun beat relentlessly upon his head. It was close to midday and most people, if they had any sense, were away from Malthos’ toothy light. He entered the building where the offices were located. It took him a few seconds for his eyesight to accustom itself to the dimmer light inside.
Three generals strode down the long hallway towards where he stood. They were directly responsible for leading the invading force, so Kah’len had reached out his hand in friendship to the three and had found them receptive to his overtures. They were strapping, handsome men, the youngest a decade older than Kah’len. He found it endearing how they had taken him under their wing like he was a callow lad. He had divested them of their delusions about his abilities quickly enough in the practice yards.
He smiled at them. “Well met, gentlemen. Shouldn’t you be resting in the high hour?”
Otar Kathus grimaced. “There is no rest for us, High Commander. You well know this.”
Kah’len shook his head. “I know no such thing. Your sergeants are capable enough to lead in your absence.”
Reahn Gal’li snorted. “Those inveni? No. At least, not mine. He is lazy and shifty, that one.”
Nhove Viu laughed. “You and your sergeant! You don’t like him because he disagrees with every order you give him.”
Kah’len sobered. “Is this true?”
Reahn Gal’li put up a hand. “No! Damn you, Nhove!” He looked earnestly at Kah’len. “He is young and brash and full of ideas. He thinks he is incapable of making mistakes, so he argues passionately with me, but, in the end, I get my way.”
Kah’len frowned. “You’d best get your way, else it’s insubordination!”
Otar thrust his arm through Kah’len’s. “Speaking of sergeants, how is Gair Sech working for you?”
“He’s young and green but he minds well enough,” Kah’len replied.
“Good, good,” Otar replied and steered Kah’len towards the commissary. “Join us for a meal. Knowing you, you have not supped as yet.”
Kah’len gave a rueful chuckle. “How well you know me. I was visiting my family.”
“Oh, if I was of royal blood,” Reahn murmured. “I would court that mother of yours! She is delectable.”
Kah’len’s cheeks burned. He was shocked that anyone would speak of his mother like that, but soldiers had their ways. “I’m glad you think so.”
“You’ve embarrassed him,” Nhove chortled. “That’s something to see–an embarrassed soldier!”
The three laughed as they steered Kah’len to the commissary, where they sat at a long table near the door. Otar and Reahn went to fetch their meals while Kah’len and Nhove remained behind.
Nhove sighed. “Forgive Reahn’s words about your mother. He is just a filthy dosi, that one, thinking only with his kauon.”
Kah’len raised an eyebrow. “And you don’t? Think with your kauon, I mean.”
Nhove chuckled. “All men do, don’t we? I lean towards men myself, if you ken me.” He leaned both forearms on the table and gave Kah’len a sharp glance.
“You’ve heard of my predilections?”
Nhove smiled. “I’ve been tracking your exploits for years, Kah’len Ys’teis-Thalmar. You are a hero here in Tjish.un. The Queen’s own nephew makes Warlord of North Torahn at the tender age of 15?”
Kah’len leaned forward. “And how did you figure I am atoliy?”
Nhove shrugged and sat back. “No marriage, even though you were with one woman for a long time. You bedded women indiscriminately but never more than once. None ever captured your attention. It takes one to know one, High Commander.”
“Do Otar and Reahn know about you?”
Nhove nodded. “They don’t care. It’s different here, High Commander. In Tisj.un women are respected, as are atoliy of any gender. I told Reahn and Otar of my suspicions and was told it doesn’t matter who you bed, as long as you shine as a commander.” He sighed. “And now you have to marry the Princess Sjanita. She is beautiful and intelligent, but the fruit does not fall far from the tree.”
“She is as ambitious and shrewd as her mother, despite her tender age. I’d watch my back, High Commander. Women of clan Thalmar don’t like secondary roles.”
“I’ll remember that,” Kah’len said and sighed. “It never ends.”
Nhove grinned strong white teeth. “Not for the powerful, my friend. Not for the powerful.”
Later that evening, Kah’len was summoned by Princess Sjanita to her apartment. Kah’len, who had been expecting the summons, bathed and dressed with care and left his two isili with an order that they retire for the evening, for Kah’len had an inkling he would be gone for hours.
He made his way through the early evening gloom down the military complex to the religious complex, where he turned north, the ziggurat at his back. He could see the torchlights of priests making their way up the ramp to the temple at the apex of the structure. The palace walls were lit by guards carrying oil lamps along the ramparts. The gates were closed. Four guards stood on the outside of the gates and called halt as he approached.
The head guard held up his oil lamp. “High Commander. It’s late.”
“I’ve been summoned.”
“Yes, sir,” the guard said. “Use this door next to the gates.”
Kah’len had not seen the hidden door until it swung open and then he was stepping into a long narrow passageway that deposit him in the garden itself. The fragrances from the garden mingled with the dusty smell of the day past. Kah’len made his way down a walkway to the palace steps, where he was stopped again and questioned. By the time he made it into the palace proper, a good half hour had passed. He then had to ask directions to the princess’s apartments and was escorted by an isili up the sweeping marble stairwell to the second floor. Once on the second floor, the isili led Kah’len to the left down a butter yellow hallway with mustard tapestries on the walls. At the end of the hallway was a closed window. The doors were wide and tall and pale yellow with gold knockers and handles. The isili led him to a door on the left and used the gold knocker to announce their arrival. Another isili answered the door.
The isili bowed to one another and spoke rapidly in their ancient language. Then the isili who had escorted Kah’len turned to him and bowed.
“Her Highness is expecting you, High Commander. Good evening to you.”
The Princess’ isili bowed and stepped back to allow him entrance.
The room Kah’len entered into was opulent with gold tones. A white marble floor gleamed from the light from oil lamps positioned around the room. The furniture was white and the cushions on the sofas and armchairs were gold and silver. Incense burners hung from the ceiling and countless candles glittered around the room.
The Princess rose from the loveseat where she had been sitting.
Kah’len ran his eyes over her. She was indeed beautiful, with a high, clear forehead and oval features. Her copper colored hair was done in tight curls and piled high upon her head. Pearls adorned her hair and she wore a pale green dress that fell to the floor. Her slender shoulders were bare and her bodice dipped to show a small, pert bosom. Her large green eyes watched him with a frank, calculating gaze that threatened to unman him. She had the gaze of someone much older than her fifteen years.
Her full lips curved up in a smile and she curtsied. “Welcome, High Commander. I am Sjanita Thalmar, your cousin.”
He strode to where she stood and she gave him her hand. He pressed his lips to the inside of her wrist and bowed. “I am honored, Cousin Sjanita.”
She unhurriedly took her hand back and indicated an armchair. “Have a seat. We’ve much to discuss.”
He waited until she was seated before taking his seat. “What did you wish to discuss with me?”
She smoothed her skirts around her. “I wanted to meet you, High Commander.” She cocked her head. “Am I allowed to question you?”
“If we are to become friends, I would like that.”
She smiled. “Good. Once you are King, what is you plan for me?”
“You will rule beside me as Queen, your Highness.”
“Will you marry a Torahni princess?”
“There are no Torahni princesses, save my sister. It is not my intent to marry another woman, your Highness.”
She lifted her chin. “But it is your intent to marry a man?”
“I made a pact with South Torahn to marry Prince Lahn Obeli, your Highness. I don’t want war with South Torahn.”
She tapped her lips with a fingertip. “Gods, no. No more war after this one for you ascension. I simply must insist.” She sighed. “I don’t find your marriage to a man threatening in the least, let me assure you. A man cannot give you children, like I can. My mother has five daughters and four sons. We are a fertile lot, we Thalmars. I plan to give you many, many children. Do I have your word that one of my children will ascend the throne of North Torahn?”
Kah’len cleared his throat. “You are very confident that I will win.”
She waved away his words with a dismissive hand. “I have no doubts. I’ve followed your career, High Commander. I have always wished I had been born a man, so I could fight battles, too.”
“My mother will be leading one of the companies under my direct command.”
She perked up. “Truly? Oh, Aunt Oona is such a brave, fearless woman! I wish I had her courage.”
“Once we are married, you will become valuable to my regime. If I fall, you will rule.”
She sobered. “Such an event could lead to war. The Torahni of North Torahn are not fond of strangers, are they?”
“That will change under my rule, your Highness. I assure you.”
“Good,” she assured him and sighed. “The rumors have always been that you are atoliy. Are these rumors true?”
“Yes. But let me assure you, I will be a good husband to you, your Highness.”
She lifted her chin again. “Yes, you will be, High Commander. Luckily for you, I’m not overly fond of sex.”
He smoothed his features. “That may change, given time, your Highness. I was betrothed to a woman for a long time and I pleased her well enough.”
She frowned. “Then why are you atoliy?”
“I said I pleased her. I said nothing of my own pleasure.”
She laughed suddenly, a high, beautiful laugh. “You are refreshingly honest, High Commander.”
“I am not given to deceit.”
“Then I can trust you?”
“Implicitly, your Highness.”
She stood and ordered her servants out. Then she sat down once more.
She looked into his eyes. “I am friends with this girl, Bi’ah. She and I became quite close and we…well, it so happened that she is atoliy. She and I would sleep in the same bed. One thing led to another and…we became lovers. Am I allowed to take her with me to Torahn as my companion?”
“If I win my battles against my father, yes. Bi’ah may come with you.”
She raised her chin. “Then all I require of you is children. At least five children, cousin.”
He bowed. “As you wish, your Highness.”
She smiled. “Truly, I never thought I would be queen. I have four sisters ahead of me, so I would never rule Tjish.un. You have given me a great gift, cousin Kah’len.”
“I hope we can be friends, your Highness.”
She waved a hand. “I wouldn’t let you touch me if we aren’t friends. Consider it done.”
He bowed again. “Then you have given me a great gift as well.”