Kah’len carefully swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat up. The room spun for a few seconds. The healers had bathed him and changed his sleeping tunic and the bedclothes. The room still reeked of alait rose poisoning.
He said, “Bhne.”
His voice was mournful. He missed Bhne. They had been friends from childhood. Brothers, really, since Kah’len was not close to any of his siblings, except Kahla.
He frowned as sorrow threatened to undo him. Pushing the emotion down, he stood and almost fell before he reached out to the armchair near the bed.
“Kah’len! What are you doing up?”
“Domio,” Kah’len said, grateful it was the priest and not one of his commanders. “I have work to do.”
“You need to recover,” the priest replied peevishly and gave him a fierce frown.
“I’ve been resting for one week, priest,” he growled. “And, before that, two weeks. I have work to do.”
“Lahn has paid your men from the royal coffers, so there is no fear of rebellion.”
“Where is Lahn?”
“At Draemin Cathedral.”
Kah’len sighed. “I shouldn’t have set him free.”
“He has his work to do as well, Warlord.”
“Yes, I know.” He took a seat on the armchair. “Have you found my Queen?”
“There are a hundred and twenty young women waiting to be looked over. More come every day. Some are dirt poor, Kah’len.”
Kah’len closed his eyes and sighed as he leaned back into the chair. “That is fine. I will know her when I see her.”
“I’ve turned away every aristocratic woman who has come calling. I believe I put out a call for commoners, but the aristocrats come anyway.”
Kah’len chuckled and nodded. “I’m sure they do.”
He felt Domio’s hand on his forehead. “You are free of fever.”
“It is a weakness I have now, from being abed for so long, I imagine. Let me rest a moment and then I will bathe again.”
“Let me help you.”
“I would appreciate that.”
By the time Kah’len was bathed and dressed in his uniform and boots, he was shaking from exhaustion. Domio led him back to the armchair, where Kah’len fell heavily and shook his head.
“I can’t abide this weakness.”
“Let’s get you fed. That might help you,” Domio suggested.
Kah’len fell asleep sitting up. The next thing he knew, he was being shaken awake.
“I have a stew here, Kah’len,” Domio murmured. “And some fresh bread.”
Kah’len sat up and opened his eyes.
Domio placed the tray on Kah’len’s lap.
Kah’len tucked into the meal with little hunger or enthusiasm. The serren watched him like a hawk until Kah’len ate most of the food in the bowl and part of the bread.
“Good,” Domio said. “How do you feel?”
“More like myself. Can you get me some sweet milky tea?”
The serren picked up the tray. “Go out into the sitting room. I’ll bring the tea to you there.”
While Domio was gone, Kah’len walked slowly out of the room and down the hall to the sitting room. Through the open balcony door, he saw it was raining outside. He sat down on the couch facing the balcony door. The alait rose tree beyond the balcony bobbed and swayed in the strong wind. He sighed as the cool wind caressed his face and neck.
When Domio returned with the mjish tea, the priest set the tray with a teapot and two mugs on the low table and sat down on the armchair facing Kah’len.
After Domio poured tea into the two mugs, Kah’len picked up his mug and sipped the sweet, smoky tea.
“It is my opinion that you should work from here for a couple of days,” the priest stated. “Once you are stronger, you can go to the Throne Room and hold an audience to find your Queen.”
Kah’len sighed and gazed out past the swaying curtains to the portico. Puddles of rain on the rough stone floor of the balcony caught the raindrops, the sound soothing to Kah’len’s ears. His back, where he had been stabbed, pulled and ached still. It had taken fifteen stitches, he had been told with some awe by one of the healers, to seal the stab wound. Now he would have a glaring jagged scar to call his own. He shook his head and finished the tea, setting the mug on the tray with a thud.
“Have my desk moved to there, before the balcony doors. I’ll have more natural light.”
Domio nodded and rose. “Right away, Warlord.”
Kah’len closed his eyes and dozed while around him servants scurried to do his bidding. He awoke a couple of hours later, feeling refreshed, although a lingering weakness in his limbs impeded his return to normalcy. He rose and went to his desk, sitting down and pulling out a piece of paper. He addressed a letter to the Commander of the troops from R’Nonay demanding that the man remove his troops at once or he would consider it an act of war. He gave the missive to a guard and had him carry it to a messenger. He then wrote a second letter addressed to the King of South Torahn, letting the monarch know that he would be joining the fray against his father. With his father surrounded, he could not hope to win. He ordered one of the guards in the hall to bring him a cage filled with carrier vinah from South Torahn. He would send three animals with the exact same missive. At least one should make it as far as South Torahn without incident.
Three guards manhandled a large cage filled with squawking animals into the sitting room, setting it near the roaring fireplace. He would have to send the missive when the rain cleared up. Vinah did not usually fly in the rain.
“Soldier, bring Commanders Maedoc Kalish, Aud Salit’, and Daven Halso to me here,” he ordered one of the guards.
The guard, a Mekhi mercenary, brought his fist to his chest. “Right away, Warlord!”
He did not have to wait long. Within a quarter of an hour, all three large, burly men crowded into the sitting room. They wore rainproof cloaks that dripped onto his throw rugs and clean floors. At least they were not dragging in mud, he thought and hid a smirk.
The three men brought their fists to their chests and bowed.
“Take your cloaks off and sit down,” Kah’len said and took a seat on a couch facing away from the balcony.
Servants took the men’s cloaks. Daven sat down next to Kah’len while the other two took up armchairs across from him.
“It was touch and go with you,” Maedoc murmured quietly. “How do you know you were poisoned?”
“I could smell the alait rose poison on the blade,” Kah’len replied grimly.
Maedoc nodded and shuddered slightly. “I see. Well, you saved your own life.”
“I was spared by the Goddess Herself,” Kah’len intoned and swallowed thickly. “She has a purpose for me.”
“What is that purpose?” Daven asked.
“I am going to the border to confront my father. I want him dead,” Kah’len stated. “He has destroyed everything. I will take Daven’s and Aud’s contingencies and leave you, Maedoc, in charge of my Queen and city.”
Maedoc raised an eyebrow. “You have a Queen?”
“I am searching for her even as we speak,” Kah’len replied.
“Your Oracle told you to look?” Aud asked with some awe.
“The Goddess came to me while I struggled to live and showed me what she looks like. Even in my dream, I loved her.”
“Rumor is that you are atoliy,” Maedoc said.
“I don’t claim to know the ways of the Gods, gentlemen. I have never wanted a woman, but I want this one.”
The three commanders looked at one another.
“She must be something,” Daven murmured, intrigued.
“These are strange days,” Maedoc proclaimed and shook his head.
“Atana wants me to found a dynasty,” Kah’len explained. “I cannot do that without a woman.”
“No, that is true,” the burly commander agreed and scratched his thick growth of beard. His swarthy complexion gleamed from dampness and his dark eyes gleamed with interest. “Wait until I tell my wives.”
Aud shifted in his armchair. “I am hiring a troubadour to make songs of these times we live in. For the first time in my life, I fee a part of something bigger than life. Like I am a part of history somehow.”
Kah’len grinned. “Shouldn’t I hire the troubadour?”
Aud snorted. “You’ll pay him, Warlord. Of that have no doubt, but I am an amateur musician myself. I have friends that are brilliant but under-employed, if you ken me.”
Daven clapped his hands. “That is a great idea, Aud! These times should be recorded in song and poems.”
Kah’len sighed. “Don’t get carried away.”
“When do you leave, Kah’len?” Maedoc asked. “And why must I remain behind while you have all the fun?”
“We must protect the city until I return,” Kah’len patiently explained. “I leave everything that I hold precious and dear.”
“And you leave them with me,” Maedoc murmured. He brought his fist to his chest and bent his head. “I am honored, Warlord.”
“If you remain loyal to me, I shall reward you with riches and fame,” Kah’len promised. “Gods walk the earth again, gentlemen, and we are here to witness it.”
The other three grew sober and glanced at one another with some unease.
“When do we leave?” Daven prodded.
Kah’len grinned. “Within the month. Once the R’Nonayans withdraw and I marry, then we can leave. I will send away for Ynhan mercenaries to boost our numbers. There are many things I want to accomplish, much work to be done.”
“Will you unite Northern Torahn once more?” Aud wanted to know.
Kah’len considered his words before answering. “There are many ways to unite the kingdom without war. I may not be able to unite the kingdom in my lifetime, but it will be done by my descendants.”
The other men looked at him with respect and awe. They brought their fists to their chests and bent their heads.
That evening, Kah’len sent a messenger to Lahn Obeli. He needed to perform the ceremony to make the monk into the High Priest, for only the High Priest could oversee his marriage. Lahn came to his apartment half an hour later, wearing a rainproof cloak and no shoes on his feet. Beneath the dark cloak he wore a simple tunic and trousers. His waist-lengthed hair was gathered into a thick, tight braid. His gray eyes were chips of ice in his face. He was so beautiful, just looking at him caused Kah’len hunger and sorrow at once.
“I need to speak to you, Lahn,” Kah’len said, tearing his eyes away from the youth’s beauty. “Please sit down.”
Lahn handed a servant his wet cloak and walked around the furniture and dropped onto the armchair Maedoc had occupied just a few hours prior.
“How may I be of assistance, Warlord?” he asked, the tone of his voice cool and distant.
Kah’len grimaced. “I thought we were becoming friends, Lahn.”
“Were we?” he asked archly.
“Yes, damn it! I need you, Lahn.”
“Because I am the Oracle.”
“Because I love you. I need your friendship and your love.”
“That is what your Queen will be for,” Lahn reminded him coldly.
“Stop. She will be the vessel for my children. She will be a friend, yes, but I loved you first.”
Lahn sighed and rubbed his forehead. “You are confusing me, Warlord. You told me the Goddess will fill you with lust and love for this girl.”
“That does not change how I feel for you. I burn for you!”
Lahn stiffened and looked away. “Why did you call for me?”
“I want you to move back to the castle. I want you here, in my vast apartments.”
“And Uncle Domio?”
“There is room for you and your uncle.”
Lahn looked unhappy. “Once you have children, they will take up all the space.”
“Lahn, why are you making this so difficult? There is a Royal Nursery, is there not? You are the Oracle and I will make you the Prei-Serren.”
“Because you need me,” Lahn sneered.
“Because I want you!” Kah’len roared.
Lahn startled. He looked away as Kah’len struggled to control his ire.
“Have you found her?” the Prince asked quietly.
Kah’len sighed. “Not yet, but I will. The Goddess told me I will found a new dynasty with her. She will remain here and I shall take you with me to the frontier. Does that please you?”
“Yes,” Lahn spat. “If I could only be sure that you truly love me!”
“I can’t prove it to you, monk. You’ll have to trust me and the Goddess. Domio will marry us, Lahn, and then you will marry me to the girl,” Kah’len said firmly.
“You ask much of me, Warlord,” Lahn said reproachfully.
“This is bigger than you or I, Lahn. You know this. I give you a choice now: remain with me as my husband, as the Prei-Serren, as the Oracle or leave. I won’t hold you back and I won’t force you. I can’t. It breaks my heart, but I can’t make you stay, Lahn.”
Lahn rose. “Let me think on it, please.”
After a moment, Kah’len nodded. “I’ll give you three days, monk. No more. If you can’t decide by then, then that is a choice as well. You can leave then, even if your mind is not made up. If you are going to be with me, be with me. The times are too treacherous to be vacillating like you do. You have been given a great role. You are the Goddess’ voice, her representative, her vessel. Would you turn your back on Her and return to anonymity? Would you never find a cure for Leptka’s Disease? For medicinals that will help the poorest?”
Lahn fisted his hands. “You are playing dirty, Warlord.”
Kah’len rose and shrugged. “I fight with every weapon at my disposal, for losing would cost me my very soul, Prince Obeli, even if you don’t realize it. If you leave, I would be half a man now and always.”
Lahn turned and hurried from the room. 5