Lahn thought long and hard during those three days. He was angry, yes, and jealous. He felt manipulated and a fool, but even as the hours passed and he roamed the cathedral gardens alone, he could not shake the feeling that this is where he was meant to be. This is what he had been born to do.
The rain had stopped last night and now the morning was fresh and clean. The grass underfoot was damp still and trees and bushes dripped water even as the sun rose in the east across a clear sky.
The serrens of this cathedral did not know what to make of him. He had come here seeking refuge, a place to call home, but he had learned that home was where Kah’len was and nowhere else. They watched him, some with consternation, others with curiosity. Some treated him kindly, if a bit standoffishly. The cathedral itself was a sprawling, beautiful building, but it did not speak to piety or sacrifice. The priests in this cathedral were all well-fed and sleek with excess. Soon, he would change much and it would take a sword to cut away the fat and leave the lean meat behind.
He rose from the damp stone bench and made his way through the lush gardens to the street. From there, he walked barefoot the several long miles to Castle Draemin. He purposely stepped in puddles and felt the cold water on the soles of his feet. It made him shiver.
Around him, pedestrians hurried to and from the open air market. Rumors spoke of the R’Nonayans leaving in a huff, leaving behind several hundred men who were lost to the underground city. The R’Nonayans had gone when several hundred ships arrived from Ynha and surrounded them. Not a single battle had taken place. The people were overjoyed to open the city gates to traders and merchants and the Ynhans, who were the heroes of the day. The redheaded mercenaries now camped in Queen’s Park itself, no doubt destroying the lush gardens there. Oh well, it was none of Lahn’s concern. His concern was the Warlord’s spiritual wellbeing and that of his wife and his children. He swallowed the dizzying jealousy that rushed through his body and clouded his mind. With great effort, he pushed the emotion away. He had to wait to fall out of love with Kah’len. That’s the hope he clung to until it came true. Then he could search for his own lover. Someone that belonged only to him.
Foolish monk! He closed his eyes as the sibilant voice echoed in his mind. Your purpose is greater than your petty emotions and limitations! Wake up!
He opened his eyes. The world looked strange to his eyes and he shivered. She was with him, the Goddess. Always. His thoughts were an open book to Her. He was quickly losing his sense of shame.
It took a couple of hours, but he finally made it to Queen’s Park. From the boulevard, the thousands of tents were starkly evident despite the dense treeline. The boulevard had been left clear for vehicles entering and leaving the caste proper. He walked on. Soldiers loitered near the road.
One wolf whistled. “Ey! Little man, where do you go?”
“Leave him be, Esthos!” growled another.
Esthos shook the other soldier’s hand off his shoulder and stepped onto the boulevard. “What is your name, pretty one?”
Lahn stopped when the soldier blocked his way. “Are you bored, soldier?”
Esthos looked at his companion and laughed. “Yes, beautiful. I am truly and thoroughly bored.”
“Surely there are whores at camp to keep you entertained until the time to move out,” Lahn continued reasonably.
Esthos shook his head. “None as beautiful as you.”
Lahn looked up.
Commander Aud Salit’, astride a bahil, cantered over. “The Warlord sent me to find you. Where is your escort?”
Lahn shook his head. “I am in need of no escort, Commander.”
Aud glared at Esthos. He reached his hand down. “Grab on, Oracle.”
Lahn took his hand and was pulled up onto the bahil.
Commander Salit’ turned the bahil around and cantered away.
Lahn looked back over his shoulder and Esthos blew him a kiss.
“You shouldn’t be conversing with the likes of him, Emissary,” Commander Salit’ said. “These men are rough trade.”
“I know,” Lahn murmured. “He was not doing any harm.”
“So you say,” Salit’ growled.
Lahn looked again over his shoulder. Despite his rough manners, Esthos was young and handsome. Lahn thought of the army he had to create for the Church and thought that men like Esthos, who could potentially become devoted to him, were what he needed.
Soon their mount was clopping over the drawbridge and into the bailey. The bailey was crowded with petitioners and soldiers. There were tents in neat rows to the south of the main castle entrance. The expansive bailey was full of them.
Aud dismounted and assisted Lahn down. “I apologize for the chaos, Oracle, but we are preparing to head south to confront the King’s forces.”
“Please, Commander Salit’, call me Lahn.”
Aud dropped his gaze shyly. “I don’t feel comfortable calling you by your name, Holy One.”
Lahn snorted. “I am far from Holy, Commander. It would please me if you call me Lahn while we are in private.”
Aud gazed up again and nodded. “Very well, Lahn.”
Lahn smiled at him. “Good. What does Kah’len want, do you suppose?”
Aud turned and led him into the castle proper. “He did not say, Lahn. He is still weak from the alait poison, but he grows stronger every day.”
“Good,” Lahn said, meaning it.
Aud led him down the crowded Great Hall to the wide hallway leading to a curving stairwell in the northeastern tower of the castle. They took the rough stone stairs two at a time up to the top floor of the castle. Once there, they walked down another hall, this one more narrow and filled with paintings of Kah’len’s predecessors. These were members of the powerful Ys’teis clan. They were a handsome lot, even if their faces looked on from their perches on the wall with severe expressions and cold stares. Lahn looked away.
Aud led him to a wide arching door with four guards posted outside. The guards saluted them and one of them opened the door and stepped back to allow them entrance. Lahn followed Aud into Kah’len’s apartments. The ample sitting room was crowded with Commanders Maedoc and Daven, his uncle Domio, five strangers, and Kah’len. Lahn paused at the door, suddenly feeling shy. The five strangers were commoners, wearing worn, if clean, clothes. The older man and woman, who were probably the parents of the others, looked worn themselves, with haggard faces. Those faces were now filled with awe and disbelief. The other three included a young woman around Lahn’s age, another girl around twelve, and a young boy around six years of age. The older girl’s eyes were filled with tears. She was quite beautiful, although the tunic and skirt she wore were roughly darned and faded. Her face was clean and her hair was worn in a tight braid down her back. She had large hazel eyes, a lush mouth, and pale complexion. The younger girl and the boy looked with interest at Lahn, the boy sketching a brief wave and a grin. Lahn smiled back at him.
Kah’len looked at Lahn. “Ah, Oracle. I would present you to my future Queen and her family. This is Davita Stait, her parents, Othalos and Enana, and her siblings, Salita and Tono. This is Prei-Serren Lahn Obeli, my Oracle.”
At once, the older girl and her parents fell to their knees and bent their heads.
The father glanced up at Lahn. “We are unworthy to meet you, Oracle. We are at your service.”
The mother’s eyes filled with tears. “Oh, Holy One! Bless us!”
Lahn walked to the older man and placed his hands on his shoulders. “I bless you, Othalos Stait. May your life be light and filled with joy.”
He did the same for Enana Stait.
Then he went to stand before the girl. She gazed up at him imploringly, her beautiful eyes filled with awe and fear.
He placed his hands on her head. “Davita Stait, may you be a worthy vessel of our Holy Goddess Atana, and may you bear the future.”
He closed his eyes as fire rushed down his arms and entered the girl. She gasped and cried out. She made to move away, but he held firmly onto her.
When he spoke, his voice sounded different to his ears. “I bathe the womb with holy fire. I heal the scars that riddle it. I strengthen its weak walls. You are the mother of the future. From your loins shall emerge kings and oracles, holy men and greatness. Behold, the Queen of North Torahn!”
His eyes rolled back into his head. He began to fall, but Kah’len was right there to catch him. He lifted him up and carried him to a couch, where he gently set him down. Kah’len wiped the sweat from his brow with a steady hand.
“Are you alright?” Kah’len asked softly.
Lahn nodded. “I’m well, Warlord. I just need to rest.”
Kah’len smiled at him and pressed a kiss to his brow. He rose and turned to face the family. “Rise, please. I rule because of this young man and only because of this young man. That is why I will marry Davita and him as well. Do you accept this, Davita?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“You are both important to me and I need you to be friends,” Kah’len continued. “Now, please return to the castle by tonight. I have set aside a roomy apartment for your family. You shall live here from now on. Your family shall receive a yearly salary and a villa outside of the city. You can make the villa a working villa, growing fruit for wine and liqueurs, or keeping a herd of animals, or you can make it a vacation home. Your salary will be enough to pay the taxes on the property and to live a comfortable life. I promise you, if you make the villa a working villa, you can potentially become quite wealthy. The salary I give you rises you from the status of commoners, but you won’t be aristocrats unless you invest in some business. I have a villa that is a working villa and I own ships and employ merchants and traders. That is how I, as the son of a concubine and the second born son became an aristocrat.”
Mister Stait bowed. “Thank you, my lord. I’d like to make it a working villa, but I don’t know how.”
“I will give you the name of my solicitor. He can advise and guide you, Mister Stait.”
The man grinned widely. “Thank you, sir.”
Kah’len went to his desk and wrote a name and an address down. “Lised Sotal is a barrister, but he is also a solicitor. He owns a tavern and inn in the city. He will guide you in how to invest your salary to increment your wealth.”
Enana Stait was sobbing and her husband wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “Now, now, missus! Calm yourself.”
Lahn sat up slowly.
“How can we ever thank you, my lord?” the older Stait woman asked, her voice thick with tears.
Kah’len walked up to her and took her hands in his. “This is a gift from the Goddess Herself. You devout yourself to Her, give a yearly gift to the Church, and go to mass. That is how you can repay me.”
She curtsied. “Yes, my lord.”
Kah’len stepped away from her. “Now, the wedding will take place in a fortnight. So, please order yourselves a new wardrobe for the occasion. I must leave the city in three weeks’ time. I will leave Serren Domio Obeli here as your guide and confessor. He will make sure you are taken care of.”
Domio bowed. “An honor and privilege.”
Lahn rose. He felt lightheaded and fey. Davita only had eyes for Kah’len. And why wouldn’t she? He was gorgeous and strapping, the very pinnacle of manhood. He was authoritative and filled with self-confidence. He swallowed thickly. The girl was already in love with Kah’len. He sighed and shook his head. Kah’len was polite and friendly to the girl, but there was no overwhelming lust or love in his eyes. Lahn wondered at that. As he watched, the little family was ushered out into the hallway by Domio.
Kah’len turned to Lahn. “What do you think of her?”
“She is beautiful, kind and respectful. She had some damage in her womb, which I healed.”
Kah’len grimaced. “She had a childhood illness, or so her parents told me. A virus attacked her organs and she nearly died.”
“She wouldn’t have been able to bear young without my healing,” Lahn said, recalling the amount of scarring.
“Thank you, Lahn.”
Lahn shook his head. “It was Atana.”
“Do you think you could be friends with her, Lahn? Like a brother, perhaps?”
Lahn smoothed his face. “Like a brother.”
“Yes. She must lie only with me. She is the foundation of a dynasty.”
Lahn crossed his arms over his chest. “You think I have designs on her?”
“I just want to be clear.”
Lahn drew himself up. “I won’t poach your property, Warlord. And even though I will marry you to fulfill the Goddess’ prophecy, I will not lie with you in a marriage bed.”
Kah’len frowned. “You can’t turn me away from what will be my right as your husband!”
“You are selfish and self-centered,” Lahn proclaimed coldly. “You can found your dynasty and you can marry the scepter to the altar, but you won’t get your way with me!”
Kah’len sighed and shook his head. “Why must this be so difficult? Why are you so stubborn?”
Lahn narrowed his eyes. “I hate you right now, Kah’len Ys’teis. I can’t abide the thought of you touching me. Perhaps that will change in future, but I make no promises.”
Kah’len rubbed his forehead with a hand. “Goddess preserve me! Fine. I’ll take your measly offering. You are selfish, too, and miserly.”
Lahn gave him a cold smile. “I have my dignity and my pride, Warlord, which you conveniently forgetin order to have your way.”
Kah’len turned away and walked to his desk, where he dropped heavily onto the chair. He looked pale and tired.
Lahn softened when he saw Kah’len was still weak from his poisoning. He hurried to Kah’len’s side.
“Are you well?”
Kah’len closed his eyes. “Well enough, Oracle.”
“You still fell weak?”
Lahn placed a hand on the Warlord’s head and closed his eyes. His senses roamed over Kah’len’s body, seeing where some of the poison still lingered, creating havoc in cells.
He opened his eyes. “Lay on the couch for a moment, please.”
Kah’len did as he asked.
Lahn knelt beside the couch and placed his hands on Kah’len’s stomach and chest. He closed his eyes. At once, a fire rushed from his core, down his arms and through his hands. He heard Kah’len grunt. Lahn shook as he burned. He tasted blood at the back of his throat and smelled the cloying scent of flowers. Lahn murmured prayers as his senses swept through Kah’len’s body, burning out the poison and forcing it through Kah’len’s pores. He could smell sweat and blood. Beneath his burning hands, Kah’len shook. Lahn healed the damage done by the poison. Part of the liver was close to dying. He focused his attention on the organ, gently burning away the poison, picking out and removing dead cells. The heart had some damage as well, as did the intestines. The blood was filled with poison that the body was trying hard to excrete through overtaxed kidneys. Lahn worked hard to move the poison to the surface of the body, where it was flushed with liquid and excreted as sweat. He heard Kah’len cry out but Lahn persisted.
By the time, he opened his eyes, the room was filled with soldiers, servants and healers. Domio hovered nearby, concerned and uncertain.
Lahn took in a shaky breath and released it. “He is healed. I’ve removed all the poison which still lingered.”
The crowd cheered.
Lahn looked at Kah’len, who slept deeply.
“He has to rest,” Lahn told his uncle. “Please wash his body and change his clothes. They are contaminated with poison.”
Lahn rose onto shaky legs. “Everyone must leave at once and allow my uncle to clean the Warlord.”
Maedoc stepped forward. “I’ll help the serren, Oracle.”
Lahn nodded. “That’s fine, Commander.”
Domio talked to servants, who scurried away to do his bidding.
Lahn sat down on a nearby armchair and looked at his hands. They were filled with blisters and the skin was bright red, as if burned. He closed his eyes and let his head drop back onto the headrest. He fell asleep sitting up. 2 A