Kah’len awoke, as was his wont, before the sun rose the following day. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat up, rubbing his face with his hands. He gazed at his wife over his right shoulder. She slept on, her comely face peaceful, her golden hair loose. He knew from having touched it, that it was soft and heavy, like finely spun gold. The night had been pleasant enough: she had been shy but willing. She was on the small side, with small breasts and slender hips. He had taken care not to harm her, although the deflowering had caused her momentary pain, it had soon been replaced by pleasure. They had coupled several times as he fervently prayed his seed would take root within her. Now, as he watched her sleep, he felt cold inside. He wanted to make her his friend and he would do just that, but when he lay with her, he had only thoughts of Lahn. It had taken all his wits not to cry Lahn’s name out when he came inside of her.
With a sigh, he rose and padded naked down the hall to the bathing chamber, where he filled a basin with cold water and, taking up a cake of soap and a washcloth, scrubbed the night from his skin. The girl’s musk clung to him. He scrubbed as best he could before rinsing the soap from his skin and picking up the basin and pouring the water over his head. Afterward he dried with a towel and returned to the bedroom to dress. He chose a field uniform and boots. There would be a temple ceremony to gauge the auspices of leaving for North Torahn today. Everything was in order, but the High Priest had to have his say in the matter. If Kemh-Arioch spoke negatively, then they would remain in R’Nonay until the god deemed a departure appropriate. Kah’len gritted his teeth at the obstinate superstitions of these backwater people. He was impatient to leave, to face his father and the Queen of Tjish.un, and to best them.
Once dressed, he left the bedroom and made his way to the sitting room. He found Lahn in the sitting room, standing by the balcony doors and staring out as the first fingers of dawn touched the dark sky.
“Your heir has been conceived,” the prince murmured without looking at Kah’len.
As usual, the boy disconcerted Kah’len.
He frowned and strode to where Lahn stood. “How do you know these things?”
Lahn was gazing blindly at the dawn. “You don’t believe. You insult Her still.”
Kah’len swallowed. The boy looked so beautiful. He stood in a loose tunic and trousers, barefoot and tousled as if he just rose from bed.
Kah’len reached a hand and caressed Lahn’s messy braid. “Your hair needs brushing.”
Lahn shuddered and sighed. He turned to smile at Kah’len. “Would you brush my hair and braid it?”
Kah’len was taken aback. Such intimate acts were restricted to a marriage or between intimate friends. He had yet to give Lahn the honor of his friendship.
Lahn’s eyes watched him steadily. “Forgive me. I had no right to ask–”
“No,” Kah’len said. “Come. Sit in the armchair. I will brush and braid your hair.”
Kah’len strode back to the bathing chamber and retrieved a brush. Back at the sitting room, he unbraided Lahn’s messy braid and gently brushed his thick black hair. Lahn sighed and closed his eyes. Kah’len blushed at the intimacy of the moment, but his hands loved touching the prince’s soft hair. It gleamed like a night sky full of stars. Kah’len set aside the brush and braided the hair tightly, finally tying the ends with the leather thong.
“There,” he murmured.
On impulse, he bent over Lahn and pressed a kiss to the top of his head. Lahn smelled warm and musky, and Kah’len placed his hands on the young man’s shoulders.
“I did not sleep,” Lahn said softly. “Whenever I closed my eyes, I saw you bedding her. I have paid for my betrayal to you now. Can you forgive me, please?”
Kah’len started. He took his hands from Lahn.
“I forgive you,” Kah’len said. “I had forgiven you. But trust is something that is more fragile and difficult. I have been upfront with you about my actions, but you always come to me after the fact. Do you see where your betrayal would cut me to the quick?”
Lahn covered his face with his hands. “I’m sorry!”
Kah’len sighed and walked around the armchair to kneel before the youth. “Please give me some time, Lahn.”
Lahn removed his hands and his cheeks were streaked with tears. His large gray eyes swam with tears. “I can’t forgive myself!”
Kah’len took Lahn’s hands in his. “She played you. She is a manipulator and a savvy person. Don’t be too hard on yourself, Lahn Obeli.”
“I should have come to you!”
Kah’len nodded. “Yes. You should have, but what is done is done. I forgive you; now you must forgive yourself. Give me time to trust you again, but I promise you we will be friends. I trust you as my Oracle, in time I will trust you as my friend. Can you give me time?”
Kah’len smiled up at him. “Good. Now, I must go. Be ready to depart. If the High Priest deems it auspicious to leave today, we leave within the hour.”
Kah’len left the apartment and made his way down the hallway to the stairs. The entrance hall of the castle was astir with courtiers and petitioners. All men, of course. He made his way out into the bailey and, from there, to the temple. The temple was full of soldiers. Kah’len made his way through the throng to the fore of the temple. The High Priest and the Oligarch were already there. Someone had led in a docile dosi by a rope. The animal bleated into the quiet.
The Oligarch turned and raked Kah’len with his flinty glare. “You have come at last.”
“My apologies, Sir.”
The Oligarch waved a dismissive hand. “A night of pleasure. It’s understandable.”
They turned as one to the altar, where a burly acolyte picked up the dosi and set it on the table.
When the acolyte stepped back, the High Priest lifted his arms. In his right hand he held a curved blade encrusted with precious jewels.
“Oh Lord, accept this sacrifice! Let me read the signs with clear eyes.”
The acolyte lit incense and a sweet musky scent filled the still air.
The High Priest brought the knife to the dosi’s neck and slit it quickly and expertly. Blood splashed onto the altar and the animal crumpled to the table. The High Priest plunged his knife into the animal’s stomach and reached his left hand inside the cavity. He pulled out the entrails and set them on the table. The smell of offal and blood filled the space around the altar. The Priest bent over the entrails, cutting into them and reading them with sharp eyes.
Kah’len waited impatiently, clamping down on his need to pace. He took a deep, bracing breath. The small space was ripe with the smell of waste, blood and incense.
The High Priest grunted and gazed up. “The Lord has spoken to me.”
Kah’len almost rolled his eyes.
The High Priest looked at the Oligarch. “The God deems it auspicious to travel this day.”
A cheer rose from the congregation and, at once, men were making their way out of the temple to prepare to depart.
The Oligarch placed a hand on Kah’len shoulder. “I am sending a priest with you to read the signs and will of the God. You must heed him at all cost, else our agreement is forfeit.”
Kah’len calmed himself, although all he wanted was the snarl a curse at the man. He kept his face smooth.
“As you order, Sir.”
The Oligarch nodded. “Good. Then prepare to depart.”
Kah’len strode from the temple and made his way to the castle and then up to his apartments.
When he entered the apartment, he found Lahn and Domio and their belongings all packed. Kah’len’s travel bag sat on the floor next to Lahn’s.
“We packed,” Lahn murmured.
“Good,” Kah’len said. He shook his head and grimaced. “The Oligarch is sending a priest with us.”
Domio scowled. “Why ever for?”
“I imagine to keep an eye on us, but outwardly to read the God’s will.”
Lahn rose. “We can leave now?”
Kah’len smiled at him. “Anxious, are you?”
“I don’t like this land,” Lahn replied.
Kah’len sobered. “Neither do I. Yes, we can leave now. Please take my belongings with you.”
The turned as one to the dulcet voice. The young woman stood at the door leading to the hallway. She wore a green, brocade dress, despite the heat, with a high collar and long sleeves. Her hair was braided.
Kah’len went to her and took her hand in his. “How are you, Ariahl?”
She smiled up at him. “I am well enough.”
“You will be sent for once the war is won,” he said to her. “Do you wish to bring a companion with you, a younger sister or a friend perhaps?”
“I will speak to my mother, Husband.”
“Please call me Kah’len.”
Her eyes widened. “That is not permitted!”
“You are my wife now, Ariahl. You will be living in North Torahn. Call me, Kah’len.”
She looked at the servants and blushed. “I will think on it,” she whispered. Her eyes slid to Lahn and Domio. “Who are they, Husband?”
“Lahn Obeli is my betrothed from South Torahn. There is an old agreement between North and South Torahn that the third born of each kingdom will marry each other. I am third born, as is Lahn.”
She frowned. “You can’t marry a man.”
“I will do what I want. My land’s ways are not the ways of your people.”
She pulled her hands from his. “I’ll be a laughingstock!”
“Not in Torahn, where you will live.”
She trained resentful eyes on Lahn. “He’s prettier than I am!”
Kah’len sighed. “Ariahl, you can befriend Lahn or make him your enemy. He will be High Priest of my people. He will be a powerful ally or an equally powerful adversary. You are going to live in a strange, faraway land where you know no one. Think carefully on what you will do, but know this: it pleases me that you befriend him. My word is law in my house.”
She frowned. “As you will, Husband.”
He cocked his head. “I would that you do this willingly, girl. It is not an order.”
“I can’t willingly befriend someone who takes you from my bed!”
“I am atoliy, girl. A man would have taken me from your bed regardless.” Kah’len’s patience was frayed. “Now, I will bed you to beget children, and bedding you is a pleasant act, but the only thing you can hope from me is friendship.”
Her frowned deepened and she flushed. “Abomination!”
“Fine, Ariahl. Perhaps I will set you aside for another wife.”
She stomped her foot, whirled around and ran from the room.
Kah’len shook his head. “Nicely done, Kah’len Ys’teis.”
“She’ll come around,” Domio murmured, amusement limning his words.
“I don’t give a good damn,” Kah’len growled and turned to the other two. “We need to get going.”
As servants gathered their belongings, they hurried from the apartment into the hallway.
A carriage awaited them, but Kah’len wanted to ride to the docks for some exercise. He saw Lahn and Domio off and went to the stables for his bahil. Once there, he saddled and bridled the animal and was about to mount when the Oligarch entered the building.
“You lied to me!” the man said. He was pale with umbrage.
“How have I lied to you?” Kah’len asked.
“You are a filthy atoliy!”
“I never said I was not and you never asked me.”
“How would I have guessed this of you?” the man demanded.
“My being atoliy does not change the fact that I am the best warrior to lead your troops. It does not change the fact that I pleased your daughter in our marriage bed or that I can and will beget heirs upon her. Her pride is pricked, because I will marry a man to fulfill a pact between North and South Torahn. If you wish our agreement to become null and void, then so bet it. I cannot change what I am. I offered Ariahl friendship and children. I won’t back out of that offer, but I can’t change my nature and you can’t bloody well ask me to!”
The Oligarch straightened. “You’ve shown more backbone now than you have ever before. My daughter is worried she will be a laughingstock.”
“She will be Queen of North Torahn. She will be revered, honored and respected. Here, she would be one of many girls. There she will be the greatest woman in my nation. Do you wish to keep her here and null our marriage?”
The Oligarch chewed his lower lip and looked away. After a few seconds, he seemed to come to a conclusion and squared his shoulders.
He looked at Kah’len. “Very well, Kah’len Ys’teis, I will entrust my daughter’s wellbeing and future to you. But if I ever hear you disrespect her in any way or disregard your marriage bed, you will have me to contend with.”
“I know this,” Kah’len said a little impatiently. “I am no fool, whatever else I may be.”
The Oligarch nodded. “Good journey to you then, Tash-tash of North Torahn.” )||(a=