Kah’len swept past the consulate guards and down the dusty steps to the street. His personal guards waited at street level and smartly saluted him as he reached them. Lahn and Domio followed silently.
Kah’len turned to the guards. “These are my guests. I personally vouch for them. We will ride a carriage to the palace, to my suites there. Please take my bahil back to the royal stables.”
The guards brought their fists to their chests and bowed. “Yes, Commander!”
Kah’len hailed a passing coach. The conveyance rolled to a stop and Kah’len opened the door. “Inside, both of you.”
He followed suit into the dim interior of the coach. It was just as hot in the carriage as outside. The opened windows allowed for the overheated air to enter the carriage. He sighed and wiped at his forehead with a hand.
He ran his eyes over Lahn, finding his heart still missed a beat or two at the boy’s beauty, but Kah’len hardened his heart. Lahn had betrayed him twice. He had forgiven him for the first betrayal, but he did not think he could forgive the boy for sleeping with Princess Sjanita. He did not give a good damn about the girl losing her virginity, but his jealousy at her touching what was his, damn it! In his heart, Lahn was his and his alone. The idea of Lahn sleeping with anyone but him boiled his blood.
“What did you come to tell me?” he asked gruffly.
Lahn’s gaze slid listlessly to Kah’len. “The Goddess possessed me for three days and three nights. She told me you would come here and that you would change the trajectory of North Torahn forever. I am here to represent her, as her Oracle. North Torahn is her land, Kah’len Ys’teis-Thalmar.”
“Thalmar is no longer my surname,” Kah’len growled and frowned. “Kindly refrain from naming the Queen of Tjish.un in my presence.”
Lahn swallowed, his eyes becoming unfocused. He was flushed and sweaty. He brought a shaking hand to his forehead. “I am here to warn you that the Queen of Tjish.un means to invade Torahn.”
Kah’len waved a careless hand. “I know this already. I left spies behind.”
Lahn looked at him with glassy eyes. “I am here as the Goddess’ Oracle. She will not lead you astray, even if I have betrayed you. I won’t ask forgiveness for my actions, although I did what I did to protect my people, my family. I owe them my life.”
Kah’len glanced away from those strange eyes and out the carriage window to the passing scenery. Could he send Lahn away, if he was the Goddess’ Oracle? The Goddess may turn from him and curse him and his endeavors would fail. The Oligarch had not asked him to embrace Kemh-Arioch as his god, for which Kah’len was grateful.
He sighed and turned to Domio Obeli. “And your role, Father?”
“I am here purely for Lahn, to protect and look after him. When he is in the throes of his Sight, he cannot care for himself.”
“I see,” Kah’len said. “I wish I could believe you, Lahn Obeli.”
Lahn’s eyes slid to him again. “You turn me away at your peril, Kah’len Ys’teis. You came here impulsively, to punish your aunt, because the Oligarch is her bitter enemy. She hates him because of how he treats women and he hates her because she is a woman.”
A cold finger traced along Kah’len spine. “How do you know this?”
Lahn smiled mirthlessly. “You don’t or won’t believe, but you’ll have no choice, in time. You make dangerous treaties with vipers, Tash-tash. Even a fierce predator can be downed by a poisonous bite. You need me in your corner, just as you need the Goddess. The Oligarch of R’Nonay is a cruel, vicious, heartless man. He is possessed by his angry god. The male force without the female rules with an iron fist, without kindness or compassion. Is that how you hope to rule?”
Kah’len frowned. “That is none of your business.”
Lahn’s smile remained in place, although his eyes grew faraway. “Once your heart is hardened, it will take an act of the Goddess itself to soften it. Don’t forget you have a mother, a sister and a niece.”
“I forget nothing!” Kah’len spat.
Lahn took in a shaking breath. “Say nothing of my role here, other than I am your betrothed. Do not trust the Oligarch.”
Kah’len already knew this. The Oligarch was greedy and cruel, a man with hard eyes and an even harder heart.
“I will introduce you as my betrothed and a gifted healer,” Kah’len said.
Lahn smiled. “Thank you. When do we leave for Torahn?”
“Within the week.” Kah’len narrowed his eyes. “I did not say you could accompany me.”
“I am the Oracle of Atana. Do you wish to leave me behind?” the boy challenged.
Kah’len stiffened then relaxed. “No.”
“Good,” Lahn murmured and sighed. He brought a hand up to his head. “I am tired.”
The coach rolled past the palace walls into the bailey. Kah’len opened the door of the carriage and stepped down. He watched as Domio and Lahn followed suit. Lahn looked so pale, his skin was translucent in the harsh light of the sun.
“We have to meet the Oligarch before I am allowed to take you to my suites,” Kah’len explained as they walked up the palace steps to the great hall beyond the double arched doorway.
The great hall was built of dark wood and blond brick. It had an austere, masculine feel. The floor was bare rough stone and the walls were bare. Ktynk’te Palace was not built for luxury or comfort. The Oligarch was a man of few pleasures. He led a fairly simple life, eating simply and imbibing rarely in liquor or any kind. The only thing he had that spoke of excess was his harem of one hundred women. The man had at least two hundred children. Kah’len could not conceive. The entire two top floors of the palace were dedicated to the harem and the nurseries. The two next floors housed the oligarch’s closest family members and wealthy allies. Kah’len had been given a suite of honor on the third floor. His suites were larger even than his apartments in Draemin Castle, although not even close to the luxury he had enjoyed in Tjish.un. He had been given servants, both men and women, but he did not trust them. He missed his Torahni servants and soldiers.
Kah’len led his guests just left of the great hall to the throne room.
The clerk knew him and bowed. “The Oligarch will see you, Commander.”
Kah’len swept into the throne room, Domio and Lahn at his heels. The throne room was a large square room with a rough stone floor and dark wooden walls that made the room feel smaller than it actually was. Parallel to the throne chair and against the far wall, there was a large circular table where war preparations were made. Right now a large map of Torahn hung on the wall above the table. The Oligarch, dressed in military garb, paced before the table, hands clasped at his back. The man was tall and wide and muscular. He was not a handsome man, his features were too cold. His blond hair was cropped close to his skull and his blue eyes were icy. Silver touched his temples and lines had been carved by time along the corners of his eyes, but, otherwise, he seemed ageless.
Kah’len waited until the Oligarch noticed him then bowed deeply. “My lord.”
The Oligarch’s cold gaze swept over Lahn and Domio, pausing briefly when he noted Domio’s serren robes.
There were other men in the room, religious men in long black robes and military men in uniforms. Kah’len had met them all and disliked a great number of them.
“Warlord,” the Oligarch stated cooly. “Who are your guests?”
“My betrothed, Prince Lahn Obeli, and his uncle, Serren Domio Obeli.”
The Oligarch frowned. “You are betrothed to a man?”
“Yes. That was what it took to prevent war with the South, my lord.”
There were murmurs from the others, but no one raised his voice.
“How odd,” the Oligarch said. “Why are they here?”
“They came to warn me that Tjish.un prepares for war against Torahn.” Kah’len indicated Lahn. “The Prince is a talented healer.”
The Oligarch raised an eyebrow in surprise. “How is this possible? I would hear from the boy himself.”
Lahn bowed. “My lord. I lived in a monastery for several years, where I was taught medicinal lore.”
“I see,” the Oligarch said. “And the priest? Why is he with you?”
“He came to keep an eye on me,” Lahn said.
The Oligarch barked a mirthless laugh and the others laughed as well.
“I see,” the general said and nodded. “Well, you are Kah’len’s concern. Not mine.” He turned his glacial eyes to Kah’len. “We’ve things to discuss. Send your guests to your suites so we can talk.”
Kah’len signalled a male servant. “Take them to my suites and make sure they are given food and water.”
The servant bowed.
Kah’len watched until Lahn and Domio were led away before turning once more to the Oligarch.
The Oligarch continued to pace. Kah’len had learned in the short time he had known the man that the Oligarch thought better when he moved.
“I’ve made a decision, Warlord,” the general said. “You will take to wife one of my favorite daughters. You wedding will be performed tomorrow, as we leave the following day. She will be shipped to Torahn once we win the war.”
“Yes, my lord,” Kah’len said. He didn’t bother to argue. There was no gainsaying the man once his mind was made up.
“You will bring my grandchildren up as Kemh-Ariochians. I don’t care what you believe in, but I care about my grandchildren. To that effect, I will send a young priest with her when she sails to meet you.”
“You may take a wife from your people, of course,” the Oligarch continued without acknowledging Kah’len’s assent. “But your children by my daughter will be the rulers when you are gone. Do we have an understanding?”
The man’s thin, bloodless lips curved into a smile that did not reach his eyes. “Good. If you supplant my grandson as your heir, there will be war between our nations.”
“I understand,” Kah’len replied smoothly.
The man’s icy gaze locked with Kah’len’s for a few minutes before he was satisfied with Kah’len’s veracity. “Good. Now, we must make plans. I have conscripted several thousand troops from Mekh. Our total armies combined will total 100,000. I hope that is enough for you to win, Warlord.”
Kah’len bowed. “Thank you, my lord.”
The Oligarch waved a dismissive hand. “We shall have a trade treaty with your nation, and I have your promise to assist me when I invade Tjish.un in ten years’ time. By then, you should be ready to assist me and your rule should be assured. I have taken the liberty of drawing up paperwork that you will sign with your blood. You betray me at your peril, Kah’len Ys’teis.”
“I won’t betray you.”
The Oligarch nodded and stepped to the round table. “Priest.”
The High Serren stepped up the table. He raised his hands in prayer and began to chant. As he chanted he picked up the knife that rested on the table next to the treaty the Oligarch’s secretaries had drawn up. The High Serren took Kah’len’s left hand in his and slashed the palm in one quick, sharp move. Kah’len kept his features bland. The priest watched him with sharp, blue eyes. He picked up the pen and dipped it into Kah’len’s blood.
“Sign, Warlord,” the man said.
Kah’len signed his name with his right hand.
The priest chanted again and turned to the Oligarch, taking his left hand and slashing the palm. The priest dipped the pen into the ruler’s blood and handed the pen over.
The Oligarch signed his name with a flourish.
“It is done,” he pronounced. He smiled at Kah’len with little warmth. “Now you come with me to the harem. I will allow you to pick a wife from my favorite daughters.”
Kah’len took the cloth the priest handed him and pressed it to the cut on the palm of his hand. “Lead the way, my lord.”
The Oligarch, four guards, and two priests led Kah’len into the great hall and past it to a sweeping stairway then up six stories to the top palace floor. The top floor of the palace had a semicircular sitting area with two large dark wood columns. There were walls and doors to the left and to the right and, directly ahead, there was a bank of windows with gauzy dark curtains that rifled in the oppressive heat. There were large pillows around the rough stone floor and settees positioned strategically around the room.
A middle aged woman rose from one such settee and approached the Oligarch. She wore a velvet dress with a high collar and long sleeves. It was a dark blue with pearls in two rows down her front and down the sleeves. A thick pale blue satchel was wrapped around her waist. Kah’len wondered how she could withstand the heat with that type of cloth against her skin.
“Husband,” she said in a soft, deferential voice.
The Oligarch swept her with his cold gaze. “Bring me the fifteen year old girls.”
She curtsied again and turned away, hurrying through one of the rooms to the left of the room. A few minutes later she returned, twenty girls behind her. They walked with eyes trained on the ground. They were all blond, like the Oligarch, with gleaming tresses pulled tightly into braids that fell down their backs. They wore velvet, too, although their dresses were much plainer than the older woman’s.
“Line up,” the Oligarch barked.
The girls smoothly lined up and never raised their eyes from the ground.
The Oligarch stepped back. “Your choice, Warlord.”
Kah’len walked in front of the girls as if he walked in front of a line of soldiers. The girls varied in shape and looks. Some had a fine sprinkling of freckles across their cheeks, while others had dusky, flawless skin. They were all quite beautiful. Kah’len knew little of women, but he knew that wide hips made for easier births, so he studied each girl with a critical eye. In the end, though, what made his mind up was one glance. The third girl from the end raised her curious gaze to look at him. That act of defiance made Kah’len’s mind up.
He walked to the girl and took her cool hand in his. “This one.”
The Oligarch gave a firm nod. “You like spirit. Good. So do I. She’s yours.”
“What is your name?” Kah’len asked the girl.
Surprised, she glanced up at him. “Ariahl, my lord. Ariahl Solastis.”
Kah’len liked her light, musical voice.
“Prepare the girl for her wedding tomorrow, woman. She will be joining the Warlord in Torahn when this war is over in a few months.”
The older woman curtsied. “Yes, my lord.”
“Very well, Warlord,” the Oligarch murmured. “There is much to plan still. Let’s return to the war room.” -r