Chapter Forty-Four: The Confession

            Kah’len awoke later than usual. Light seeped through the closed curtains. The air was cool, despite the roaring fire in the fireplace. The bedroom reeked of sex and sweat as Kah’len swung his legs over the side of the bed and rose, reaching for his dressing robe. Once he had donned his robe, he turned to look at his wife as she slumbered. Sex had been pleasant and tender. He had showed her great affection and much of the night had been spent in conversation as he strove to set her mind at ease. After hours of talking, though, he had insisted they consummate their marriage. She had felt fragile and small in his arms and he automatically felt protective towards her, but his tastes in bed ran to the energetic and aggressive. She would be a good change of pace for him, something to keep him interested and attentive, but he knew already that his heart lay with Lahn and no other. It seemed even the Goddess could not change his heart.

            He went through the connecting door to the bathing chamber, where he washed with bracing cold water before dressing in his uniform. Once he was dressed and groomed, he strolled into the sitting room, where he found Lahn and his half-brother, Rakah. Rakah was dressed in uniform, and Lahn wore a gold satin tunic and dark trousers.

            Kah’len watched, surprised, as his brother brought fist to chest and bowed. “Good morning, Brother.”

            Kah’len saluted. “Good morning, Commander. Where do you reside now?”

            “In the cathedral until my house is built,” Rakah replied with a jaunty grin. “How was your wedding night?”

            Kah’len yawned and shook his head. “It was good. We talked a lot and are on our way to becoming friends. She was shy at first, but I persisted until she told me her story and I told her mine.”

            Rakah gave him a leer. “And the sex?”

            Kah’len huffed. “That’s my wife, Rakah! Would you have me tattle?”

            Rakah snorted. “You’re a soldier, Kah’len! Dish!”

            Lahn took a step forward. “You can dish in private. I came to tell you that the troops are heading to the docks to board the warships. All is near ready for departure.”

            Kah’len nodded. “That is good. I’m going to break my fast–”

            There was a knock on the hallway door and Lahn went to open it.

            The entire Stait family stood at the doorstep. Kah’len waved them in.

            “Divita is still abed,” he told them. “You may go see her.”

            The family hurried into the apartment. They were dressed in fine clothing and were indistinguishable from aristocrats now, although the older two still looked worn and older than their years.

            “Like I was saying,” Kah’len said. “I’m going to break my fast then I will say goodbye to my wife before I head to the docks.”

            Rakah bowed. “I wanted to talk to you about Deirohn and Uncle Kaelo.”

            Kah’len sat down as a servant handed him a plate piled with his breakfast. “They will exiled, Rakah. I will give them sufficient funds for them to live comfortably, but I cannot have them in Torahn. I don’t trust them or their supporters.”

            “I figured,” Rakah said. “But thank you for sparing their lives.”

            Kah’len chewed and swallowed a mouthful. “I won’t have their blood on my hands.”

            Lahn took a step forward. “I have to confer with the Warlord, Commander. Will you excuse us?”

            Rakah bowed. “Of course, Excellency. I will ride with you when you head to the docks. I’ll be down in the bailey until then.”

            Lahn smiled at him. “Thank you, Rakah.”

            Kah’len watched their interaction with a flare of jealousy. He didn’t know where Rakah’s proclivities lay. He and Kah’len had never been close and Kah’len had never heard of Rakah courting young women, but neither had he heard of Rakah courting young men, either. His half-brother was very private and had always been so, even as a child. He was not close to any of his siblings or parents.

            Kah’len swallowed his mouthful. “What do you want to talk about, Lahn?”

            Lahn said nothing and when Kah’len looked up, he noted that the Prei-Serren looked nervous.

            Kah’len frowned. “What is it?”

            “I did something without your permission,” Lahn said. “I did it because I knew you would oppose me, but it was a directive from the Goddess.”

            Kah’len’s frown deepened to a scowl and he set his half-empty plate on the low table. “What did you do?”

            “I had your half-brother Deirohn and your uncle poisoned and their bodies disposed of.”

            Kah’len rose. “What?”

            “What’s more, I had Deirohn’s wife and older children poisoned as well, and their bodies disposed of. The younger ones have been conscripted into the Church.”

            Kah’len’s stomach gave a sickening lurch and, for a second, he thought he would be sick on the sitting room floor. He swallowed convulsively for a few minutes until the sickness passed. He found he was drenched in sweat and his hands were fisted.

            “What have you done?” he demanded.

            Lahn drew himself to his full height and his face became a cold mask. “I did what the Goddess demanded. I can’t afford to be squeamish and neither can you. Your reign would never be safe from opponents as long as Deirohn lived.”

            Kah’len took a deep breath and released it. He covered his face with his icy hands and turned away from the young man who was becoming a monster before his very eyes. He walked to the balcony and leaned against the railing, gulping lungfuls of cold, bracing air. His mind was a nest of spiraling thoughts. He thought of Deirohn, of Uncle Kaelo, of Deirohn’s two older children, of Deirohn’s wife. While he, Kah’len, lay abed with Divita, having pleasant conversations, his reign was being marred by blood.

            “The altar will be bathed in blood,” Lahn intoned from behind him.

            Kah’len frowned. “Leave my sight, Prei-Serren.”

            “Warlord–”

            “Leave.”

            “Fine.”

            Kah’len heard the door to the hallway open and close. Kah’len turned back to the empty room. His eyes filled with tears at the thought of the two princes being murdered in cold blood by assassins. He felt sick inside. Sick in his heart and soul. Was this Atana? He took a deep breath. Yes, Atana the Destroyer, the Warrior, the Avenger. Yes. That was the Goddess most horrible aspect. And she seemed to be ruling right now.

            Kah’len closed his eyes. He shivered. “Holy, gentle Mother. Where are you?”

            He received no response, but then he had not expected one. The question now was could he forgive Lahn Obeli his crimes? For the sake of the throne and his future? Kah’len did not think he could forgive or forget this atrocity. His greed, his avarice, his ambitions had cost five people their lives. He covered his face with his hands and dropped into an armchair.

            “Oh, Mother, forgive me!”

            He sat back and gazed at the ceiling.

            The hallway door opened and Domio Obeli walked in. “Warlord.”

            “Domio,” Kah’len said. “Do you know what he’s done?”

            The priest sat down on the couch opposite Kah’len’s chair. “I did it, Warlord, at his command. The blood is on my hands. I protested strongly, told him it was a sin, but he was adamant the Goddess had directed him. I cannot gainsay the deity, for our own family would suffer. We have a curse hanging over our heads, Warlord. The Goddess holds Lahn hostage. If we don’t do Her bidding, our family will be cursed. These are difficult times, with difficult decisions that must be made. Are you willing to give up your ambitions to do what is just? Because justice is a dual-edged sword. What is just and good for this nation is not good and just for everyone inside her borders. Killing your half-brother and your uncle is good for the future of all, because it has averted a Civil War in the future.”

            “And the children and the wife?” Kah’len demanded, angry.

            Domio closed his eyes and sighed. “I disagreed with that act, Kah’len, but the children were old enough to hate you and so was the wife. They would always be a symbol of the past. The wife called you a usurper. The children looked to her for direction. The oldest was fifteen and full of himself and his importance. I’m not justifying their murders, Kah’len. Please know that. But they would always be a thorn at your side, a constant threat, an axe over your neck.”

            Kah’len wiped the sweat from his brow with an icy, shaking hand. “I don’t know if I can forgive Lahn, Domio.”

            “He’s a pawn in this, the same as you or I. The Goddess chose him, just like she chose you and me.”

            “You’re asking me to hate the Goddess?”

            “Do you hate Lahn?”

            “I don’t know,” Kah’len answered honestly.

            “Just don’t forget he has a role that is holy. The Goddess had a purpose for those who are now disappeared.”

            Kah’len shuddered. “What about my own children? Will She have them murdered one day? Will Lahn commit such an atrocity with a cold heart?”

            Domio opened his mouth and shut it with a click. He stared at Kah’len helplessly.

            Kah’len gave a mirthless laugh. “I see. She is unpredictable. I suppose I’d better stay on Her good side, if I am to protect my wife and children, my remaining brother and my mother and sister.”

            “That is all you can do. She has a purpose for you. We are all here by Her grace. Don’t forget She gave everyone their lives and our lives are Her possession, to do with as She will.”

            “Yes,” Kah’len spat, angry at the injustice of it all. He took a deep breath and released it. “Yes. We are pieces on a board game, aren’t we? Life is a board and we are pieces for the Gods’ pleasure.”

            Domio clasped his hands. “I don’t pretend to understand any of it, Warlord. I feel small now. Too small to matter in the scheme of things.”

            Kah’len nodded and sighed. He rose. “I’d best say goodbye to Divita. See that my things are taken to the ship, Domio.”

            When the priest rose, Kah’len gazed into his eyes. “Please take care of Divita and her family. Don’t allow them to be abused by the more outspoken aristocrats.”

            Domio straightened. “I won’t, Kah’len. I’ll let you know when she quickens and, hopefully, you can return by the birth of your firstborn.”

            They clasped forearms.

            “Thank you, Domio.”

            The priest bowed over their clasped hands. “An honor and privilege, my lord.”

            Kah’len went to his bedroom, where he found his wife bathed and dressed, her family sitting in the small sitting area across from the modest fireplace.

            The girl saw him and rose, curtsying. “My lord.”

            He went to her and gathered her into his arms. He felt the surge of protectiveness for her rise in him once more.

            “Divita, I must leave now. The border is in chaos and I must secure the kingdom. Please write to me. Let me know once you are with child.”

            She blushed. “Yes, my lord.”

            He kissed her tenderly then let her go, turning to her family. “I am leaving Serren Domio Obeli as your advisor and protector. You have any problems with aristocrats, you led him know. Understood?”

            Othalos Stait, the father, bowed. “Thank you, my lord.” The older man smiled. “I contacted your solicitor. We are going to see him in town this morning.”

            Kah’len returned his smile. “That is good, Mister Stait.”

            “Call me Othalos, young lord. Or father, if you like.”

            Kah’len found himself blushing. “I’ve never called anyone father before. The King always insisted on being called majesty.”

            Othalos waved a dismissive hand. “Such is the purview of kings. I am no king.”

            “But you demand respect,” Kah’len advised him. He looked at Enana Stait. “And how are your new accommodations, my lady?”

            Divita’s mother blushed. “They are so luxurious, my lord! But I would like to move to the villa until your return.”

            Kah’len considered her request. “That may be a good idea, actually. I’ll have Father Domio arrange it.”

            Enana stepped forward and pressed a kiss to Kah’len’s cheek. “Thank you for taking such good care of Divita, my lord.”

            “Call me Kah’len, please, my lady. Why don’t you all go into the sitting room and break your fast? I have to get going.”

            He turned and hugged his wife one last time. “I will return as soon as the border is secured and the King is taken care of.”

            She gazed up at him with adoration. “Yes, Husband. I will await your return.” h){this.ex

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