Kahl Oh’nahry showed his papers to one of the guards at the gates of Castle Draemin.
The guard ran his eyes over Kahl with mild interest. He handed the document back. “Go on in, Mister Oh’nahry.”
Kahl bowed. “Good day to you, sir.”
He led his lirtah into the bailey, around the carriages and wagons parked there and then north to the stables. As he approached the large building, a boy around twelve summers old ran out of the main building.
“I’ll take your mount, sir!” he pronounced and pulled the reins from Kahl’s hand.
Kahl reached into his coin purse and removed three tin’sol’hs and handed them to the child. “These are for you.”
The boy beamed. “Thank you, Sir! I’ll take care of your animal.”
Kahl ruffled the boy’s hair. “I know you will. I’ll be back for the beastie before noon.”
“Yes, sir!” the boy replied and hurriedly led the lirtah into the main stables.
Kahl turned and headed back through the snowy grounds to the castle proper. The Great Hall was filled with visitors with business at Court. There were barristers, petitioners, courtiers, and guards milling around or standing in line waiting for an audience with his Majesty. Servants stood unobtrusively along the stone walls in case they were needed. Couriers stood in clumps, ready to take messages into the city.
Kahl left the throng behind and headed towards the northeastern tower. He had come to see his sister, although he had an appointment with the King for later in the afternoon. Belihn had set the appointment and Kahl was curious as to what it was about. When he reached the tower, he took the stairs two at a time to reach the top floor, where his sister was housed, her only companion Ethis Othar. Kahl grimaced, recalling last time he had met with his sister, how Ethis had practically thrown herself at Otar. Alona had told him in a letter that Otar was now actively courting Ethis. Kahl did not blame his brother. The girl was forward, but she was comely and intelligent.
When he reached his sister’s suites, he showed his papers again to the Yllysian guards on duty. The guard on the left read his papers and bowed, handing them over once he was done with them.
Kahl knocked on the arched door and had to wait but a few seconds before a servant opened the door and bowed, allowing him entrance.
Alona and Ethis were sitting side by side on a loveseat, Alona sketching and Ethis knitting.
Alona gasped when she saw him. “Kahl!”
He grinned at his youngest sibling as she ran to his side and gathered her in a warm embrace. “How are you, picu?”
She pulled back and made a face. “I’m no child!”
“Indeed not,” he told her.
It was then that Kahl noticed two more young women, who rose from another loveseat and bowed.
Kahl recognized Tifa Sobres and Ilmi Stait, the King’s sisters.
Kahl bowed. “My ladies, I am honored.”
Tifa, who was the eldest, dimpled and curtsied. “It is an honor to finally meet Alona’s brother. Kahl, am I correct?”
He bowed again. “Yes, my lady. Otar is the oldest, but duty keeps him away.”
Ethis hurried to Kahl’s side. “He’s on the city walls on duty?”
He nodded. “He is on duty until evening, but he will join us then, a bit after sundown.”
The girl brightened, her splash of freckles standing out against her hazel eyes. “Oh, that is good!”
Kahl took his sister’s hand. “Excuse us, ladies. I need to talk to her Majesty for a few minutes.”
He pulled her away from the others and looked deeply into her eyes, dropping his voice. “How are you, Alona?”
She bit her lip. “I might be pregnant.”
His eyebrows shot up. “Truly? But that is wonderful news!”
She sighed. “I’m terrified.”
“Of a baby?” he teased.
She frowned. “Birthing a child is no joke, Kahl! All manner of things can go wrong.”
He placed his hands on her hips. “Not with these hips, young lady!”
She blushed but gamely chuckled. “You’re incorrigible!”
“The royal healer is empathic,” he told her, all jests aside. “Nothing will go wrong. Mother will be with you.”
She nibbled on her lower lip some more. “I…I’m just not ready to be a mother!”
“I don’t think anyone is ever ready, picu. Besides, you will have a wet nurse, so the child won’t take time from your art.”
“Two wet nurses,” she told him absently. “One for the day and one to take care of the child at night. When I told mama, she was upset. She thinks I should care for the child, but Kahl… what about my art?”
“I don’t think they are mutually exclusive,” he told her gently. “You can take four hours during your day for your art and the rest for your child. I don’t think it should be all or nothing, Alona.”
Ethis, who had been standing nearby, walked to Alona and placed her arm around Alona’s waist. “You might fall in love with the baby, your Majesty.”
Kahl frowned at the girl’s intrusive nature, but he said nothing as Alona gave a distracted nod.
“It’s best to wait until the baby arrives before you make plans or jump to conclusions,” Kahl told his sister, taking her pale hand in his and pressing a kiss to her wrist. “Have faith, little sister.”
She sighed. “You’re right, of course, Kahl. As are you, Ethis.”
Smiling at the Othar girl, Alona grasped Kahl’s hand. “Come sit with me, brother. How are our parents?”
They sat down side by side, while the other young women settled in armchairs or loveseats around them.
“Aya and Eda are well,” he told her. “Father is full of himself these days. Your marriage to the King has increased business and, of course, he takes all the credit for himself.” He sighed. “It’s really difficult living under his roof. I’ve asked him to purchase me a room in the city, in some rooming house. But he says that’s a waste of money, so I’m supposed to live under his roof until I have my own job!”
Alona rolled her eyes. “He’s so tight with his money, isn’t he?”
Kahl snorted. “That’s a mild way of putting it.”
Tifa shifted. “Were you terribly poor as you were growing up?”
Alona and Kahl shared a look.
“We grew up wealthy,” Alona told her. “As did father. We’ve spent a good part of our youth trying to figure out why the old man is as stingy as he is. He has a lot of assets. It would not be a hardship to purchase Kahl a room in a boarding house in the city.”
“I see,” Tifa replied and crossed her legs. “Well, is it so terrible to live with your parents, Kahl?”
He shrugged. “I want more independence. I’ve been thinking of getting job in the city.”
Alona gasped. “You will not let your studies fall by the wayside, Kahl!”
He smiled at her. “I won’t, sister. An instructor at university offered me a teaching position there. It pays well enough that I would live comfortably. I could purchase a room in a house and have enough for food and the occasional outing.”
Alona shook her head. “Come and live with me here. I’ve six rooms. Ethis has a room and I have a room. There are four others.”
“You will need to house the two wetnurses and a nursery,” he reminded her gently.
“That leaves one room, Kahl,” Ethis put in.
“I want to be independent,” he told both young women. “I want to make my own way. My book brings in a small stipend that I put away in savings. The job would pay for my living expenses. I already have a room in mind.”
Alona looked disappointed. “I understand. We are so alike!”
Ilmi leaned forward. “Aya told me you worked for your father’s firm, with friends.”
Kahl grimaced. “My father’s firm pays a pittance. My friends have moved on to other jobs, and I left after an argument with father.”
Alona frowned. “What did you argue about?”
“I don’t want to learn the business anymore,” he told her. “I want to write and teach.”
Alona crossed her arms. “He won’t teach me the business, because I’m a girl, although I told him I am interested in learning how to run it.”
He pursed his lips. “You can’t do it anyway, being a queen.”
He sat back and crossed his legs. “Otar has told me he will take over the business, when he retires from the army.”
“Then what is Eda’s problem?” Alona asked.
Kahl shook his head. “He wants to apprentice Otar, to take a few years to teach him. Otar wants to be a soldier until he is older.”
“Father will be fine,” Alona told him. “Otar will take over when the time comes.” She leaned forward and placed her hand on his. “I was sure you would succeed Eda, Kahl.”
He frowned. “That was always his dream and I wanted to please him. Running the business is interesting, but it isn’t where my heart lives.”
There was a knock on the hallway door and a servant hurried to open it.
The Queen Mother swept in.
Everyone stood. The young women curtsied to the floor and Kahl bowed deeply.
“Ah, Kahl. I must speak with you,” Divita announced. “Rise, all of you.”
She walked up to Kahl and thrust her arm through his. “Come with me, young man. We’ll talk in private.”
She led him into the hallway and away from Alona’s suites.
He said nothing as she led him to the tower stairs and had him sit in the bench carved into the wall. A long red pillow was set on the bench for comfort.
He watched her pace for a few minutes.
“You’ve written a book, haven’t you?” she asked.
“Yes, your Majesty. A book of poetry.”
She nodded. “Very good. I would like to hire you to write an account of the upcoming battle. My son does not want this, but I think it’s of import for his reign and for history.”
He gaped at her. “But, your Majesty…I’ve a job lined up with university. My professor and mentor went through a lot of trouble–“
Her hazel eyes slid to his face. Something about her demeanor made him pause.
“I’m not asking, Mister Oh’nahry.”
He swallowed thickly. “Yes, your Majesty.”
She broke into a grin. “Very good then! If you want, I’ll speak with your professor.”
“That isn’t necessary, your Majesty.”
She shook her head. “I am unsure of why he wants to see you, Kahl.”
He rose. “I have a meeting with your son in a few minutes.”
She patted his hand. “Fine. Then I will take you to Belihn. Come.”
She led him down to the main floor and through a heavily guarded door into a circular room with a round table and maps on the walls.
“Court should be adjourning soon,” Divita told him.
He bowed to her. “Thank you, your Majesty.”
As they waited for the king and his advisors, Kahl walked along the walls, studying the exquisite maps with gold lettering. There was a map of Yllysia, a map of Tjish.un, and a map of Torahn, North and South.
The ink-stained table in the center of the room was cluttered with scrolls, tomes, inkwells, and pens. Wooden armchairs circled the table. Divita pulled out one chair and sat down.
A few minutes later, the King swept in, his advisors at his heels.
Divita rose and curtsied.
Kahl bowed to King Belihn.
Belihn smiled. “Hallo, Kahl. Give me a few minutes. Please wait outside. I’ll send for you shortly.”
Kahl bowed again. “Of course, your Majesty.”
Kahl paced outside in the hallway, absently watching the visitors to Court make their way through the Great Hall and into the bailey, where snow had begun to gently fall once more. The air seeping through the castle entrance was icy and the rough stone floor of the Great Hall was filling with puddles formed by snowflakes that swept into the vast entrance, carried by the wind, and melted in the warmer temperature inside the castle. The din was deafening as people bustled to catch conveyances back into the city.
Nearly three quarters of an hour later, the door to the War Room opened, and the King’s advisors hurried out, deep in conversation, paying Kahl no heed.
Finally, Divita stepped out into the hall. “Belihn will see you now, Kahl.”
Kahl bowed to her. “Thank you, Majesty.”
He stepped into the room and closed the door behind him.
Belihn stood on the other side of the table, legs apart, hands clasped behind his back.
“Sit, Kahl, please,” Belihn said and took his seat.
Kahl sat across the table from the King.
“Knowing my mother,” the King said and sighed. “What did she want with you?”
Kahl cocked his head. “She wants to hire me to write an account of the battle, your Majesty. I am going with you to battle, if seems, if only as a correspondent.”
The King scowled. “Whyever…I told her—” He ran his hand over his face and sighed. He gazed earnestly at Kahl. “It will be dangerous, Kahl. You can always interview participants when we return.”
“I will ride with the army, your Majesty, and write a daily journal about the life of soldiers,” Kahl said. “That will be a truer account than just interviewing people weeks or months after the fact.”
Belihn sighed. “I hope you are right about this, Kahl.”
“You can order me to remain, your Majesty, but that would probably cause a rift between the Queen Mother and yourself.”
Belihn shook his head. “No. I won’t. Just promise that if things don’t go as they should, you’ll flee the scene.”
Kahl frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“And you won’t!” Belihn snapped. He sighed. “I’m sorry. That was uncalled for. I’m not at liberty to reveal anything about the upcoming battle, Kahl. Suffice it to say, things hang in the balance and nothing is certain.”
Kahl said nothing as the King rose.
“I will pay your way to the Khaine River Valley,” the King murmured, looking weary and disheartened. “Promise you’ll give a fair account of events. I don’t want you embellishing the battle for my benefit. Be honest, brutally so.”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
Belihn walked around the table to where Kahl stood. “I would like to have a copy of your poetry book to read while we travel to the battle site.”
“I’ll get one for you, your Majesty.”
Belihn gave a faint smile. “Thank you, Kahl.”
“Of course, your Majesty,” Kahl replied, wondering what he was not being told.