Kah’len was not given an audience with the Queen until the following morning. She requested he attend her at her apartments rather than at court. Since it was the first day of Safrain, it would be a day of fasting and prayer. As High Priestess, the Queen would lead her people in prayers and would sacrifice to keep the god Kahi appeased during the rainy season. Outside the palace, the rain fell incessantly in a torrent. Kah’len had heard it fall all night. Sergeant Sechen had told him the rain would fall for days on end then stop suddenly before recommencing at the whims of the gods. He had been warned there would be very hot days between the rains. The air was cool and the breeze briny, so Kah’len was thankful for the rain.
On his morning audience with Queen Masjita, Kah’len rose early and dressed in his uniform. He had purchased an umbrella and used it now to walk under the downpour of rain. Puddles had collected unevenly along the marble square that led from the military and religious complex to the palace grounds. Kah’len was grateful for his knee-high boots. The rain pattered on the umbrella cover. It was a clumsy, heavy instrument, but Kah’len did not want to come before Queen Masjita like some drowned tah’lir.
The gates of the palace were opened and he was saluted from the gatehouse by the two guards on duty. The palace grounds were being patrolled by soldiers wearing waterproofed cloaks with hoods. Kah’len made a mental note to purchase such a cloak for the future. The wind made to pull the umbrella from his hand. He clung on and hurried up the marble palace steps and into the grand building. Once just inside the roof, he shook the umbrella free of rain and leaned it against the wall. Little puddles of rain littered the entranceway to the palace. He stamped the drops from his boots before proceeding up the sweeping stairwell to the third floor. The Queen’s apartments and her harem and nursery filled the third floor. The floor was guarded to the teeth by the Queen’s elite troops. He presented his papers to the guards at the top of the stairs and he was made to wait while one of the guards ran to inform the Queen of her visitor. The Queen’s elite band of warriors was not commanded by any general, but by the Queen herself, so they answered to no one but her. The three guards keeping an eye on Kah’len were beautiful, tall men with cold, suspicious eyes. Kah’len had heard rumored that from these men came the seed used to create the kingdom’s heirs. The Queen’s elite band were her lovers as well as her protectors.
The guard returned and handed Kah’len’s papers back to him and gave him a deep vow. “You may attend her Majesty, Lord High Commander. I will escort you.”
Kah’len followed the guard and three others fell in behind him.
The Queen’s apartments were not encumbered by walls. The entire third floor was one vast room, where the Queen lived within eyesight of her youngest children and her harem. There were all manner of young males lounging about the harem and Kah’len’s cheeks heated at their near nudity. Some of the young men followed him with curious, hungry eyes. Two small boys screeched with laughter and chased each other around the lounging young men. There were a few chairs positioned here or there, but mostly the young men lounged on large pillows on the ground or on divans against the walls. Braziers lent warmth to the area while the balconies stood without doors. Their gauzy curtains danced in the cool breezes from outside. All manner of potted plants filled the space with color and an alluring, sweet musk. Incense burned in holders on the walls.
The Queen sat on a white divan next to a white desk. She wore the black robes and the high conical hat of the High Priestess. The emblem on the hat was that of the House of Thalmar, the crouching maltika, reminding everyone that the church was firmly married to the Thalmars in this nation.
He went on one knee before her and bowed his head. “Your Majesty.”
“I am the High Priestess on this day, High Commander, and your aunt. Rise and give me a kiss.”
Kah’len rose and helped her to her feet. He hugged her, pressing a kiss to her left temple. “I am happy to see you, Aunt Masjita.”
“And I you, child. I asked to see you here, where we can speak frankly and without scrutiny.”
“I thank you, Aunt Masjita.”
“Sit next to me, please,” she said and took her seat.
He perched on the divan and turned to her.
“Have you eaten?”
“Not yet,” he replied. “I will honor your gods and fast this day.”
She inclined her head. “I thank you, child. Now, what do you wish to speak to me about?”
He crossed his legs. “My betrothed, Prince Lahn Obeli, has followed me here. I must marry him, Aunt Masjita, to maintain peace with South Torahn. He has also had a vision from our Goddess Atana that I must marry the crown to the altar. When North Torahn is in my hands, I will make him the High Priest and perhaps Sjanita can become High Priestess.”
She took a deep breath and released it. “I would meet this young prince of yours.”
“Of course. At your convenience, High Priestess.”
She rose and began to pace. He noticed that she went barefoot, her toes adorned by rings studded with precious jewels. “This will be advantageous for us. I have endeavored to form a trade treaty with South Torahn and, through them, the Isemi. Perhaps your prince can facilitate a treaty between his home nation and Tjish.un? What do you think are the changes his father will acquiesce to this?”
“I believe he will listen to his middle son, High Priestess.”
She nodded, her eyes narrowing as she calculated. “Yes, this is very good indeed.” She took a seat next to him again. “As for Sjanita becoming High Priestess, she is a clever, ambitious girl.”
“In North Torahn, the Prei-Serren and Prei-Sarran are only less powerful than the King and Queen. If she is Queen and High Priestess, she will be very powerful indeed.”
She sighed. “It will mean her abandoning the Gods of Tjish.un.”
“Our children will know both religions, High Priestess. I promise you.”
She smiled. “You do know what to say, don’t you, nephew?”
“I mean it, Aunt Masjita.”
She patted his cheek with a cool, slender hand. “I know you do, picu. I meant no disrespect.” She walked to the sideboard, where she poured some water into a mug and drained it. “Let me meet him, Kah’len, but do not tell him I have agreed with your marriage. I want to see what I can get from him in concessions.”
He rose and bowed. “As you wish, High Priestess.”
She turned to face him. “Is your salary sufficient, High Commander?”
He was taken aback for a second. “Yes, High Priestess. It is very generous.”
“Then I have your loyalty, nephew?”
“Yes, High Priestess. The blood of Thalmar flows in my veins. Your clan is my clan.”
She smiled. “Yes, it does. I place in your hands my jewel, my youngest daughter. After her birth, I had only sons. She was destined for the altar, as a priestess of her people, but I gave her to you instead. Treat her with respect and kindness and show her the pleasures of womankind. If I ever hear you ignore your duty as her husband, I will come against you with all the fury of Lord Sene himself.”
He gave her a heartfelt bow. “I won’t neglect her, your Majesty. I have bedded women before, you know.”
Her smile turned calculating. “Yes, I’ve made it a point of following your career and your exploits. You have treated women abysmally, hiding behind their skirts your true nature. It was cowardly and unbecoming of you, Kah’len Ys’teis-Thalmar.”
He went down on one knee before her. “I know, your Majesty.”
She nodded and wiped the smile from her face. “I will be watching you, High Commander. I am the most powerful woman in the world. Don’t forget that I will be watching you.”
Kah’len left her presence shaken to his core. The idea of having sex with another woman left him cold. If he were honest with himself, the rutting had been pleasurable, but not the softness of the encounter. He was partial to hard, linear bodies, not rounded softness. He sighed and wiped a hand over his forehead. It came away damp with sweat. What made him think he could do this, mettle in things like politics? He had been part of court life all his life, since he was a callow boy, but he was a soldier first and foremost, a courtier last. He believed he would be a good king, providing safety to his nation and opening her borders to make her the best nation in the world. But the intrigue, the meddling, the secrecy. He was good at none of that, was he?
He paused under the overhang at the entrance of the palace. The rain continued to fall, although with less severity than it had the previous day. He took up his umbrella and proceeded down the marble steps filled with puddles. When he had left the palace grounds behind him, he continued onto the boulevard in search of the inn he knew Prince Lahn and Serren Domio were staying at. He would warn them of the Queen’s intent to use Lahn as a means to acquire a trade agreement with South Torahn.
The wind was cool as it rifled through his damp hair and skin. He sighed and lengthened his strides until he found the inn he was looking for and entered the establishment. The inn had a dining room in the front and it was moderately busy despite the rain. Kah’len glanced around the room, noting that wealthier denizens were the main patrons, and then hurried to the counter.
The innkeeper bowed. “Welcome, High Commander. Would you be needing a room?”
Kah’len shook his head. “I am looking for two South Torahni: a young man and a priest.”
The innkeeper nodded. “Yes. Second floor, room 3, High Commander.”
Kah’len reached into the inner lining of his tunic and retrieved two kesen. He slapped them onto the countertop. “Thank you.”
The innkeeper picked up the coins. “Thank you, sir.”
Kah’len went to the left and up the narrow gleaming stairwell to the second floor. He found room three in the middle of the hall on the left. He knocked.
The door opened and Lahn cocked his head. “Hello.”
Kah’len gently pushed past his betrothed and entered a large, airy room with two wide beds and a large window between them. Under the window was a low table with an oil lamp. There was a bathing tub against one wall and a long table with a washbasin and towels and washcloths and cakes of soap. The whitewashed floor gleamed in the weak morning light.
The serren rose from his bed. “To what do we owe the pleasure of this visit, High Commander?”
“I’ve just seen the Queen. She wants to meet with Lahn and will summon him either today or tomorrow. I come to warn you she seeks a trade agreement with your father, Lahn.”
Lahn closed the door behind him. “I can speak to my sire, High Commander. That will be no hardship.”
Kah’len nodded. “Good. You are open to the idea at least.”
“I am open to a more open Torahn,” Lahn stated. “I have met good people in Tjish.un. I don’t fear this nation now.”
Kah’len smiled at him. “Let’s see how your sire reacts when he sees that Tjish.unen troops come to his aid.”
Lahn returned his smile. “It might soften him to a trade agreement.”
“Indeed,” Kah’len agreed.
Lahn stepped closer to Kah’len, his beautiful gray eyes roaming along Kah’len’s features. Kah’len found the intensity of his gaze arousing. He swallowed thickly.
“I bought new outfits to meet the Queen,” Lahn said softly, his breath coasting along Kah’len’s lips and chin.
Kah’len licked his lips. “You did?”
Lahn nodded and stepped even closer.
Domio cleared his throat. “Lahn. Act decorously please. You aren’t married yet.”
Lahn rolled his eyes but kept them fastened on Kah’len’s own. “Can you forgive me for how I behaved in Torahn?”
Kah’len cocked his head. “When?”
“All of it. I was rude to you. I have learned humility in the last weeks. The Goddess has wrung me thoroughly more than once and (I have an inkling) will continue to do so. Can you forgive me? My behavior was appalling.”
Kah’len reached out and caressed Lahn’s cheek with the back of a hand. “No more than mine, your Highness. No more than mine. I forgive you.”
“Then may I request something of you?”
Kah’len licked his lips again and nodded.
Lahn’s eyes followed Kah’len’s tongue. “Will you kiss me again, please?”
“Lahn–” Domio warned.
Kah’len raised a hand. “He has a right to ask this, Serren.” He bent his head and pressed a chaste kiss to Lahn’s mouth.
Lahn’s arms went around Kah’len’s neck and he pressed his body against Kah’len’s. Kah’len gasped and Lahn’s tongue darted in. They tasted each other’s warmth, their flavors mingling. Kah’len grew hard in his trousers. He felt Lahn’s responding arousal. Kah’len wrapped his arms around Lahn and held him tight against him. They moaned in unison. Their combined moans was like cold water over Kah’len and he cleared his throat and stepped back from the prince. Lahn looked impossibly delectable with lips dark and swollen and damp from the kiss. His cheeks were flushed and his eyes were glazed over.
Kah’len took the prince’s hand in both of his and pressed a kiss to the inside of his wrist.
He gazed into Lahn’s eyes. “I promise to be a good husband to you, Lahn Obeli, even if I can’t sleep with you every night. Do you believe this?”
Kah’len nodded and caressed the skin of Lahn’s right temple and cheek. He pressed another kiss to Lahn’s wrist. “Then I leave you.” He let go of Lahn’s hand and turned to Domio. “Be ready for the Queen’s summons. Don’t stray from the inn too far today or tomorrow.”
The serren bowed. “Of course, High Commander.”
With one last lingering glance at Lahn, Kah’len strode from the room, closing the door behind him. 0p