When his family arrived from their journey from the coast, Lahn had gone to see them. They had commandeered an entire floor of the cleanest, most pleasing inn in the border town. Guards stood at the front and back of the inn, the eating hall, and the stairs leading to the top floors. The King and Queen and their family were located on the fourth floor of the spacious inn. Lahn gave his name to the guards on the stairs and then he was led up three floors.
“Wait here,” one of his guards told Lahn and knocked on the door.
The door was opened by a servant.
“His Excellency Lahn Tjashensi-Obeli to see his and her majesties,” the guard told the servant.
The servant opened the door wider and the guards stepped to one side to allow Lahn entrance.
The room was modestly large, with tapestries crowding the walls and throw rugs covering the dark wooden floor. A canopy had been constructed over the double bed. Gilded plush furniture had been crowded into the space. His mother and father stood in the middle of the room. When he stepped into their line of sight, his mother cried out and fainted. Servants rushed to revive her as his father stepped over her prone form and placed his hands on Lahn’s shoulders.
“Look at you, Lahn Obeli,” his father said in his low, smooth voice.
To Lahn, the King looked older. Lines were carved to the outside of his eyes and his forehead. Gray tinged his temples and the long sideburns that he now sported. His chest-lengthed hair was held in two tight braids, as was the fashion in South Torahn. His father’s honey-tinted complexion bloomed with health, however, and his eyes were clear and discerning.
“Hello, my boy,” the Red King murmured.
“Hello, your Majesty,” Lahn replied and bowed. “Welcome to North Torahn.”
The King smiled and embraced Lahn.
The Queen had been revived and now the servants were helping her rise. She sat down in an armchair and gazed at Lahn with longing.
“Lahn,” she said softly.
“Hello, Mother,” he replied.
Her gaze took in his vestments. “Come here, child.”
He stepped back from his father and went to kneel before her.
“You adore their Goddess now,” the Queen said accusingly, her nostrils flaring. “You are one of their priests!”
“Much has happened, your Majesty,” he said neutrally. “A battle was fought for my soul and the Goddess prevailed. She chose me, and I worship her.”
His mother had aged, too, although it was subtle. There were no lines on her face and no gray at her temples. But she seemed weighed down somehow.
“Tell me everything,” she demanded.
He rose and took a seat on the armchair nearest her. “And where shall I start, Mother?”
“Bring ekila and wine!” the King ordered and took a seat across from Lahn.
“Tell me of this battle the gods fought for your soul,” the Queen said.
So Lahn told them of every vision he had had and how the Goddess won him to Her side. They listened without interruption, their eyes hungrily studying him. Often, the Queen would reach out and take Lahn’s hand, squeezing it, as if she could not believe it was him. By the time Lahn had finished his story, the sun had begun to set outside and cool breezes rifled the gauzy curtains. Servants had lit candles and oil lamps inside the room. The buttery light threw strong shadows against walls.
Lahn sipped his dram of ekila.
His mother brought his hand to her lips and kissed it. “And this Warlord–is he your friend?”
“He is my husband and my friend,” Lahn reminded her, lifting his left hand to show the sol’eka bracelet and its accompanying gold ring.
“We had no idea you were atoliy,” his father told him, sitting back to enjoy some mi’disj.
“Neither did I,” Lahn replied. “I was prepared to give up sexual relations for the sake of my faith.”
His mother leaned forward. “Are you happy, Lahn?”
“As happy as I can be,” he told her.
She made an unhappy sound.
He shook his head. “I am the Oracle of a god, Mother, and the Prei-Serren of her warrior sect. She is not kind to me.”
“You’re twenty,” his father said. “You are too young for these responsibilities!”
“You were ten when you took the throne, Father,” Lahn reminded him gently.
The King shifted in his armchair and looked away. “Yes, you are correct. You are a young man now, not a child.” His sharp gaze snarled Lahn’s. “Does the Warlord treat you well?”
“He is kind and generous with me, Father. He takes care of me and I of him.”
The King nodded after a moment and emptied his glass, handing it to a nearby servant. “Bring us our repast for the evening.”
The servant bowed and hurried to the door and out into the dim hallway.
“You’ll eat with us, Lahn?” the King said.
“I’d be honored, Father.”
“You look so much like me,” the Queen said softly, her eyes filling with tears. She kissed Lahn’s hand.
Lahn smiled at her. “I do, Mother.”
“And Ajla looks just like you,” his father said and shook his head. “Like twins. You haven’t seen her since when, child?”
“She was seven,” Lahn reminded him gently.
“Yes,” the King agreed. “You entered that infernal monastery at the tender age of 15. She cried when you left.”
Lahn cocked his head. “She did? Well, I was kind to her, as I recall.”
The Queen gave an inelegant snort. “Unlike Bhar, who is relentless in his chiding her.”
“They are closer in age,” Lahn said and sipped his liqueur. “Two years apart, which would make him fourteen now.“
The King crossed his legs and looked away. “He hero worships that Warlord of yours.”
Lahn’s mouth grew dry. “Does he?”
The King shook his head. “It’s all about the army for that boy. That’s all he ever wanted to be is a soldier.”
There was a knock on the door and then Ajla swept in. Lahn rose slowly. She looked older than twelve. She looked at least seventeen and as gorgeous as their mother. Her hair was piled artlessly on her head, a fashion that came from Tjish.un and was making a dent in South Torahn’s aristocratic circles. The dark blue velvet dress she wore left her shoulders and arms bare. The bodice was tight, showcasing her slender figure and forcing her small breasts up.
“Mother, come and help me dress! I have to see what I’ll look like,” she said breathlessly.
The Queen rose. “Ajla, don’t you recall your older brother, Lahn?”
Ajla stopped and looked at Lahn as he stood next to his chair. She cocked his head. “He looks like me.”
“Greet your brother, Ajla,” the King said.
She walked to where Lahn stood and pressed a kiss to his right cheek. She did not have to rise to her tiptoes, for she was as tall as he.
“Well met, brother,” she said softly, her eyes studying his features.
“Well met, Ajla.”
They stared at one another. There was nothing warm about her, nothing recognizable to him. She was as distant as the horizon, as cold as frozen Yllysia near the top of the world.
She cocked her head. “You are married to the Warlord.”
He straightened his back. “Yes.”
“But you cannot give him children,” she stated coolly.
“Ajla!” the King barked.
Lahn raised his chin. “He loves me and what I can give him only I can give him. I give him the Goddess and her blessing.”
She crossed her arms over her small breasts. “Don’t you dare curse me!”
The Queen was at Ajla’s side in two long strides. She slapped the girl hard.
Ajla cried out. “Mother!”
“There will be no talk of curses! Not on the eve of your wedding day!”
The girl looked resentfully at Lahn. “He cannot love you like he would love a woman! You’re a man!”
“He’s atoliy,” Lahn had the pleasure of stating.
Her face crumbled and then she was running in tears from the room.
The Queen looked exasperated. “Did you have to tell her that?”
Lahn crossed his arms over his chest. “She isn’t very warm or approachable, but I don’t want to make her an enemy.”
“Then don’t,” the King snapped.
Lahn looked at his father. “I’m not going to court her friendship. When we get to Draemin City, she can lean on me or not. It’s up to her, but I’ll tell you: She will make no friends if she behaves this way all the time, petulant and spoiled.”
The King sighed and scritched his growth of beard. “It is my great fear that she will be lonely so far north.”
“Then talk to her, Father,” Lahn implored.
“Don’t you think I have?” the King growled. “She is full of her own importance since we told her she will be Queen of North Torahn one day. I don’t even recognize her myself.”
“Then I hope Kah’len can reach her,” Lahn murmured.
After the wedding ceremony was done and the wedding dances were danced, Lahn remained near the raised stage, wondering what he was going to do with the rest of his night.
“Dress a bit more comfortably, Excellency, and you may join Daven and myself,” Aud offered.
Lahn looked down on his ostentatious outfit and snorted. “Yes. I’d best do that. Can I count on you to get me nice and drunk and then see me to my tent?”
Aud brought his fist to this chest and bowed. “You are in our capable hands.”
Lahn snorted again and shook his head. “Then come. I’ll go to my tent and change.”
Lahn’s pavilion was not as large as Kah’len’s, but several people could reside in it comfortably. There was a double bed, a desk and chair, a table with a washbasin, folded towels and washcloths and cakes of soap. His clothes chest stood at the foot of the bed. The floor was strewn with throw rugs. A thick curtain allowing for privacy while he slept was placed as a wall between the bed and the rest of the tent. In his sleeping area, Lahn pulled out a warm tunic and pair of trousers from his clothes chest and dressed while his companions for the evening teased one another in the main part of the tent. Lahn folded his official vestments and set them in the clothes chest, the conical hat last. He slid his feet into his travel boots and came out into the tent proper.
“How do I look?” he asked.
“Unrecognizable,” Daven assured him. “Now we can find ourselves a nice tavern which isn’t brimming to the gills with guests and we can have ourselves a little party.”
Grateful for their company and humbled by their kindness, Lahn followed them out into the night. The din of celebration was deafening. Guests continued to dance under the stars while guards patrolled the peripheries of the town. Tables had been set up near the dancing for partygoers to rest and converse. Daven and Aud led them past these occupied tables and into the town.
The town of Safinis was nothing to brag about, but it boasted three taverns and two inns. The taverns and inns mostly catered to merchants, trappers and traders, as well as soldiers. The clapboard houses were treated to make them resistant to the sunlight and the weather, so all the buildings were a warm brown color. Only the windowsills were painted different colors, as were the doors. The roofs were shingled with clay and were bright red in color. The town was already growing into something not quite charming anymore. It had begun to sprawl in every direction with single- and two-story houses.
Aud and Daven led him to a tavern at the edge of town, where it was quieter. Even so, it was mostly full except for two tables at the back of the room. Sawdust had been thrown on the floor to absorb spills and vomit from those who over-imbibed.
They commandeered one of the empty tables, with Aud facing away from the room and Daven and Lahn facing him. It took a few minutes before the busty serving girl took their orders and squealed, sliding away from Aud’s groping hands.
Daven knocked on the tabletop. “Behave yourself. We’re with his Excellency here.”
Aud snorted but sobered. “Fine. Are you hungry, lad?”
“No,” Lahn replied honestly. The thought of food made him sick.
“We’ll eat later,” Daven offered.
The serving girl brought them a decanter of ekila and three glasses. Aud handed her two coins for the drink and one coin for her.
She smiled at him and walked away swinging her hips. Aud yipped appreciatively, which made others around them laugh.
Daven poured them drinks and slid Lahn’s glass his way.
Lahn emptied the glass in one swallow, coughing as the liqueur burned down his throat.
“Slow down, Excellency,” Aud murmured and sipped his drink.
“Call me Lahn,” Lahn groused.
Aud nodded. “Fine. Lahn.”
“How are you, Lahn,” Daven asked quietly.
“I’m not sure,” Lahn replied. “I don’t know how I feel after every one of his marriages.”
“Except your own, I’m sure,” Daven offered.
Lahn chuckled. “You might suspect, but you’d be wrong.” He sighed and sipped his fresh drink. “No. I’ve always been conflicted when it comes to Kah’len Tjashensi.”
“But you love him,” Aud prompted.
“Yes. I love him.”
“And now he married your sister,” Daven offered helpfully.
Lahn frowned. “Yes. Now he married my sister. And what a little bitch she is, too.” He shook his head and sipped his drink. Already, he could feel the edges of his misery softening and numbing. “I went to see her, to see if we could be friends…”
“And?” Aud said.
“And she doesn’t want a friend or a brother.”
“What is she?” Daven asked. “Twelve? It’s all gone to her head, I’m sure, Lahn. But she’ll come around when she finds she is lonely.”
“She forgets she will rule alongside three other queens,” Lahn said, tasting satisfaction on his tongue. He grinned. “She’s in for quite the sousing.”
Aud raised an eyebrow. “And you’ll be there to enjoy it.”
“I will not lie,” Lahn said. “But I’ll be too busy to worry about when my sister gets hers.”
“That you will be,” Daven agreed and poured him more liqueur.
Aud leaned forward and rested his forearms on the table. “Tell us about the other wives. Are they beautiful?”
Lahn’s mouth twisted into a grimace. “Nothing but the finest for the Warlord of North Torahn. They are all beautiful. Some are nice, like his North Torahni wife and his R’Nonayan wife. Some not so much, like the she-devil that comes from Tjish.un. And now my sister. He has his hands full.”
Aud shook his head. “What I would give to be Kah’len! He doesn’t even appreciate what he has.”
Lahn did not think that was an accurate statement, but his mind was resting on the placid waters of his inebriation. He was smiling and laughing with his two friends and feeling no pain. When he thought of Kah’len, he did so with a small sorrow that merely tinged the edges of his mind. He missed the Warlord and the lovemaking he would not be making this night, but he was stronger than his weaknesses. He would survive this night and do it in good company before the morrow rudely awakened him.