Irai’h stood by the office window and stared out at the nearly deserted boulevard. The quarantine had been in place now for just over two months. He closed his eyes and rested his temple against the interior casing of the window. He wondered how Ryeo’h fared and Aosji and I’a’sji. And Belihn. Eventually, Leptka’s Disease would burn itself out and he could go out once more. He needed to find his friends and see if they had survived. Of course, the disease itself would roam the nation for up years. The longest the plague had lasted had been five years, appearing in different city-states and killing a great number of citizens before disappearing and reappearing somewhere else. That had been 140 years prior.
A modicum of business would commence once Draemin City-State was free of the plague. Her city gates would be thrown open once more until the next bout of disease reared its ugly head.
Irai’h rubbed his face. Religious fervor burned through the populace, as it always did in times like these. But that could be used to their benefit.
There was a knock on the front door and he roused himself and went to open it.
Ryeo’h stood on the other side of the threshold.
They embraced and Irai’h stood to one side to allow his friend to enter.
“How is your family?” Irai’h asked.
“We have been spared so far,” Ryeo’h murmured and made a sign to avert evil. He removed his cloak and draped it over the back of an armchair. “Sit, Irai’h. I’ve news.”
Irai’h sat on the settee across from the armchair his friend chose. “Tell me.”
Ryeo’h leaned forward and rested his forearms on his thighs. “Belihn almost died. It took two empathic healers to pull him from the brink of death. The arrival of the plague after the King and the Prei-Serren argued over him was a masterful stroke. People are angry and afraid. Everything stands ready.”
“But what about the funds we need?” Irai’h asked.
Ryeo’h shook his head. “I’ll fund the uprising. I’ll recoup my funds somehow. We can’t let this opportunity pass us by.”
He reached into the inner pocket of his coat and removed a thick missive. He handed it over to Irai’h.
“What’s this?” Irai’h asked and opened the missive. The writing was in code. He glanced at Ryeo’h. “I can’t read it.”
Ryeo’h smiled. “It’s from Yllysia. Their armada is scheduled to arrive within the week. All we must do is open the gates.”
Irai’h gaped. “They must have left Yllysia back when the plague first took hold.”
Ryeo’h shook his head. “They left Yllysia when Prince Belihn was first taken, at the Ambassador’s word.”
“How will we be able to get the gates open?”
“You leave that to me,” Ryeo’h said. He rose and took the missive from Irai’h’s hands. He walked to the fireplace and threw the missive into the flames. “The army is ready to turn on the king. The King knows, of course. He is surrounded by mercenaries. What he does not know is that the Yllysians come. Castle Draemin is in lockdown.”
“How will we break through their defenses?” Irai’h asked.
“What the King does not know is that I have operatives in Castle Draemin,” Ryeo’h replied. “Once I give the order, we will get inside. Worry naught.”
“I can’t help but worry, Ryeo’h,” Irai’h stated and rose. “Any number of things can go wrong.”
“If my operatives fail me,” Ryeo’h told him. “Then we starve the castle until its denizens surrender.”
“And what of Belihn?” Irai’h asked.
“He is our symbol,” Ryeo’h said. “He is our future King.”
“The other city-states will come to King Kah’len’s assistance.”
Ryeo’h sighed. “They might, although I hear the plague has burned through a great percentage of the population of North Torahn. We will need Yllysia’s help to get through this.”
Irai’h wrung his hands. “You trust the Yllysians?”
“I’ve no choice,” his friend replied. “They have been, and continue to be, the unknown quantity. For all I know, we are being invaded.”
“Goddess help us,” Irai’h murmured.
The King’s hands shook so badly, he had to set the half full glass of wine back on the table. He wrung his hands.
“Why don’t they attack already?” Kah’len demanded.
Warlord Obeli shrugged. “Perhaps they are waiting for something.”
Kah’len narrowed his eyes. “What could they possibly be waiting for?”
“That I don’t know, your Grace.”
The King rose from the table and began to pace. Weeks of worry and sleeplessness had robbed his cheeks of the bloom of health. He looked gaunt and exhausted, his features sharp and pale, the delicate skin under the eyes bruised.
Rakah watched his half-brother in silence. His intelligence networks had dried up as soon as plague hit the shores of Draemin City-State. The silence of their enemies echoed through the city and even through the Underground City.
The door to the War Room was thrown open and Prei-Serren Lahn Tjashensi-Obeli strode through in full priestly regalia. He wore the gold conical hat and golden robe of the season. A thick gold chain with Atana’s gem hung from his neck. He stopped just under the doorjamb and raked his eyes over the King and his counselors.
“Why have I been summoned?” he demanded.
“Come in, Lahn,” the King murmured wearily. “Close the door and have a seat.”
The High Priest closed the door and took a seat next to Lady Oona Obeli-Thalmar at the table. “Well?”
“What will it take to avert the Goddess’ wrath, Lahn?” the King asked.
The Prei-Serren barked a laugh. “A bit late, aren’t you?”
The King slammed the palms of his hands on the table. “You will respect me, Lahn.”
“When you respect me, your Majesty,” the High Priest retorted hotly.
The King sighed. “I don’t want to fight, Lahn. I need your help.”
The High Priest sat back in his chair. “The Goddess takes her sacrifice every day. No amount of burnt animal flesh or crops will appease her. She takes souls this time.”
Silence met his words.
He looked around the congregation. “I have had visions. Lots of visions that have wrung my peace of mind from me. Things I am not allowed to interpret, convoluted visions that portend sorrow and an end, but of what I don’t know. The Goddess is being illusive, your Grace. You had her favor, but she has withdrawn it. Of all your Queens, she favors Divita first. Divita was the Goddess’ choice for you. You took the child of her loins and tortured him almost unto death because the boy pricked your pride. You acted with hubris, your Grace.”
The King finally managed to pick up his glass of wine and emptied it in two swallows. “So, I am without recourse.”
The High Priest looked at him. “Not without recourse, beloved. You have worldly recourse, but not heavenly aid. I do not think you will survive these times, Kah’len Tjashensi.”
“What can I do to ensure my survival, High Priest?”
“Do what you promised,” the Prei-Serren replied. “You promised change and an end to the caste laws. That is all Belihn wants, too.” Lahn Tjashensi-Obeli sighed. “Your time is almost done, Kah’len. You will be allowed to become reborn so that you can make amends to the Goddess. I will keep an eye out for your rebirth.”
“Are you asking Kah’len just to give up?” Lady Oona demanded.
“I am the messenger and I have delivered my message,” Lahn told her. “What you do from now on, you do on your own. Fight or don’t fight. The Goddess has chosen her side.”
“And what if I end the caste laws,” the King asked. “What if I do what I told her I would do.”
The High Priest shook his head. “You nearly killed your scion. The best and most holy of your children. The Goddess’ own chosen. The only thing that will appease the Goddess is your blood, Kah’len Tjashensi.”
“You are the King’s aide!” Lady Oona hissed and rose.
“No,” she snapped. “The High Priest is your representative. Your connection to the Goddess–“
“The Goddess’ connection to the King,” Lahn murmured. “You forget who is in charge, Lady Oona. You can torture me and kill me, but it won’t change the fact that the Goddess demands the King’s blood. Just as Belihn’s blood seeped into the hard donjon floor, so must the King’s. The entire world shook and cried out when that boy’s hands were broken, when his shoulders were dislocated, when he was burned and beaten within an inch of life. The Goddess’ grace kept him alive. He will rule and you will step down.”
“Treason!” Warlord Obeli cried and rose.
The Prei-Serren looked at his brother. “I serve the heavenly Queen, Warlord, and no other. I am her charge. I relay her word.”
The King sighed. “Sit, Warlord.”
“But, your Grace–“
“Sit.” The King looked at the High Priest. “So. What if I abdicate?”
The High Priest rose. “It matters not, your Grace.”
The King looked at him. “You loved me once, Lahn.”
“That has not changed,” the High Priest assured him softly.
“Then I ask that you beg the Goddess for another vision. Let Her know I will abdicate and put my son on the throne. Ask Her if that will appease her.”
The High Priest gazed into the King’s eyes for a long time before he nodded. “Very well, King Kah’len. I will ask this of the Goddess, but I can’t promise She will answer my prayer. She is fickle, especially when she is angry.”
“Thank you,” the King murmured.
The High Priest rose and bowed then strode from the room.
“Now what?” Domio Obeli, another of the King’s advisors, asked.
The King shook his head. “I don’t know.”
His mother walked around the table and took the King’s hands in hers. “You can’t mean to give up, Kah’len. You can’t.”
“Mother,” he said, his words thick with weariness. “I’m done if the Goddess decries it to be so.”
“You’ll need to remain, to ensure Belihn’s rule goes smoothly,” she told him.
“Lahn can guide him,” the King said. “I will retire to Tjish.un.”
“What about us?” General Aud Salit’ demanded.
“Retire,” the King growled. “Or come with me. Leave me, all of you.”
“Kah’len–” General Maedoc Kalish began.
“Leave. Me,” the King spat. “You stay, Rakah.”
The advisors shuffled out, closing the hallway door behind them.
The King looked at his brother. “You must stay and ensure Belihn’s rule is smooth.”
“But Kah’len, I would come with you.”
“I would you remain, brother,” Kah’len said quietly. “You are wise and temperate. You have never steered me wrong.”
Rakah Ys’teis sighed and placed his hand on Kah’len’s shoulder. “I will do as you ask, your Grace. But once Belihn’s rule is secure, I will follow you.”
The King smiled at him and placed his hand over his brother’s. “I look forward to it.”
Captain Kalthos Gulehn Asjah’r gazed at the dark land mass to the east. The journey had been long, through angry waters. They had lost one or two ships along the way, for the Raiye’Itah was mean and bloodthirsty ocean. But it could have been worse. The Goddess of the Waters had spared most of the flotilla. They were still 141 ships strong. They were so many, the ocean was filled with ships to the horizon.
Word had come from Draemin City-State that the plague had trickled down to almost nothing. No new cases in half a week. The numbers were still being tallied, but the Yllysian Ambassador had guessed nearly 1/4 of the population of the city had been exterminated and had been hauled east of the city, where giant trenches were dug up to deposit the dead, burn them, then cover them with earth. The Ambassador of Draemin City-State had been told him in a missive that every single day wagons carted the dead through the streets to the southern gate of the city and then out into the countryside. Even this far from land, the Captain could see the fingers of smoke from pyres. The air was tinged with the acrid smell of it.
The Captain put down his spyglass and turned.
The sailor bowed. “A missive from the Ambassador has arrived via carrier vinah, sir!”
The Captain put his hand out and was handed the note still encased in its glass vial. He uncorked the vial and pulled out the paper. He narrowed his eyes to better see the tiny writing.
“Greetings from Draemin City-State, Captain Gulehn Asjah’r. I hope this missive finds you well. Word is the King will abdicate in favor of placing his half-commoner son on the throne. This is all hearsay. The plague has left our shores. For now. You are free to do as you will, but it is my sincere hope that the city will be taken with minimal bloodshed. The gates will be opened when you arrive. God’s speed to you.”
Captain Asjah’r tucked the missive into the inner pocket of his coat. He lifted his spyglass and once more gazed at the dark landmass to the east.