Kahl watched from the prow of the royal ship as the soldiers marched to the wharfs and stood at attention, preparing to board the Yllysian and Torahni naval ships. There were so many men, the entire land seemed seething with them. Yet, he knew the opposition forces had even more. He tried to envision the battlefield swarming with men and could not. He had never seen a battle, had only read about them. But words were woefully inadequate to fully invoke the imagination. He would have to do better than his predecessors when describing the journey there and the battle itself. Of course, he had his doubts he was up to the task, but impulsiveness had gotten him here and stubbornness would see him through. He ran his eyes over the wharves which were covered by a fine dusting of snow. His eyes came to alight on King Belihn as he sat atop his fine bahil. Kahl swallowed thickly. Goddess, but he was handsome! His features fine and exquisite, like his mother’s, but whereas she was beautiful, he was distantly handsome. His reserved nature and his shyness did not allow his handsome features to quite reach beauty, although one could see beauty when the king laughed or smiled. The king was well knit, despite the month of isolation and fasting, with wide shoulders and slender waist and hips. He wore a Torahni uniform today and a slender silver circlet on his head. His purple kamarani cloak was fastened at the collarbone by a silver brooch. His hazel eyes ran over the troops as they boarded the ships. Kahl noted that every single soldier saluted his king. Many gazed upon the king with adoration or worship. So many were young and poor, Kahl knew, and they adored the King who would pull them out of their dire straits and offered a greater future. Kahl could not blame them.
He leaned against the ship’s railing and committed all he saw to memory. He looked toward the King again, and noted Commander-General Kurk Deshon, his broad features set in determination, his wide shoulders barely contained within the seams of his wool kamarani uniform. His cloak was forest green. On the other side of the King sat Commander Nosjka’h Olivaro Tione of the Yllysian navy and slightly behind him and to the left was Captain Kalthos Gulehn Askar of the Yllysian army.
Denizens of the city-state had come to watch and had lined the boulevard leading from Castle Draemin to the wharves all night. The silent procession of endless soldiers to the wharves had taken most of the night, but most of the citizens had stayed to watch. They had cheered themselves hoarse and Kahl had never thought he’d ever see a Torahni cheering an Yllysian, but they had. Wildly. They had thrown confetti at the soldiers and colorful ribbons. The Yllysians had seemed stunned by their reception and some had wept. Kahl had followed the procession all night, intent on setting it down on paper as soon as he was able. Neither Tesjun or Erille had come with him, opting to arrive later with the King’s belongings and the rest of his household staff. Kahl had offered both young men friendship. Tesjun was warmer and friendlier towards him than was Erille, but Kahl had no doubts he would win both young men over in no time. He really wanted friends during this endeavor, as the King would be available infrequently.
It took until the sun had passed the halfway point in the sky before all the troops were housed in the ships and the gangplanks were pulled up. There was a good wind, so when the ships unfurled their many sails, they moved at a steady clip into Draemin Bay and then west along Azura.Dha, the Bay of Silence. This, too, took hours, as there were hundreds of ships. By the time the last ship had sailed, it was night once more.
It depended on the whims of the winds, Kahl knew, but it roughly took around four weeks to reach the mouth of the Khaine River and then another few weeks to reach Le.ath Plain, where the battle would take place. It would be at Le.ath Plain that the Isemi warriors would meet them. This excited Kahl, who had never talked to an Isemi warrior. The Isemi were a dual-sexed people, but were wider and taller than the average hu’an male. Their warriors were anyway, the sex they called kauon.nei. Their mates, the slender and delicate ouna.nae, were a different matter. Kahl knew he would see none of the ouna.nae, who were not allowed on the battlefield. They kept hearth and home and bore the children of the people. The Isemi, despite being possessed of two sexual organs, were quite rigid in their gender roles and sexual mores. In that respect, they were the opposite of the isili, who did not even choose a gender until the time came to bare a child. If an isili opted to bare a child, then the isili’s gender was fixed as that of a dam. His mate was the damai, or seed provider. Many isili never bore a child or provided the seed to make one, so they never had a gender assigned to them. It was the hu’an predilection of assigning gender that had rendered all isili and Isemi as “he,” regardless of the fact that both people could and did have children. In time, both the Isemi and the isili adopted the pronoun “he” to refer to themselves. Their previous referential pronouns were lost to time.
Kahl sighed and left the deck, making his way to the large cabin he shared with Erille and Tesjun. He knew both secretaries were locked away with the king and his military advisers in the King’s expansive cabin, so he would have time to set down his thoughts and observations before he lay down on his cot for some much needed sleep. When he got there, he was surprised to find Erille standing at the porthole. The young aristocrat turned when Kahl entered the cabin.
“What are you doing here?” Kahl asked, removing his cloak and hanging it on a hook by the cabin door.
Erille grunted. “It seems the King’s advisers do not trust me.”
“Huh,” Kahl murmured and went to his clothes chest, unlocking it and pushing open the lid to get to his notebooks, inkwell and pens.
He went to the lone desk and sat down, lighting the candle with a couple of ca’ahl stones.
“What are you doing?” Erille asked.
“I’m going to write down my impression of the day so far,” Kahl told him.
“For your book?” the young secretary asked.
Kahl nodded. He looked up into the pretty aristocrat’s eyes. “Would you like to give me your impressions?”
Erille hesitated but a moment before pulling over the other chair and straddling it. “Which of my impressions would you like to hear?”
“Just your opinion about how the Yllysians were greeted, how you think we will do at the battle, how the King is perceived,” Kahl offered.
Erille frowned. “You’re trying to trap me.”
Kahl sighed. “No, I’m not. It would be nice to have an aristocrat’s perceptions of all of this, since I am mostly going to be interviewing commoners.”
Erille shrugged. “What does it matter what I have to say? No one trusts me anyway. I doubt that I’ll be allowed to remain the king’s secretary, if his advisers have any say in the matter.”
“Then you can help me write my book,” Kahl told him. “I’ll give you credit and put your name on the book, if you like.”
Erille scowled. “Why are you being so nice to me?”
“Why not?” Kahl shot back. “You’ve done nothing to me.”
Erille threw his hands up. “I’ve done nothing to anyone!”
“Yes, I know,” Kahl soothed. “Would you like to tell me what you thought of the procession?”
Erille sucked in a breath and released it. “Fine. But this doesn’t make us friends.”
“Goddess forbid,” Kahl muttered and shook his head. “So, what did you think of the procession?”
Erille’s face emptied of stress as he began to speak. “It is strange, seeing all the blue faces among our troops. I still don’t trust the Yllysians, you know, but the common folk are more fickle, I guess. I don’t like that the king has three Yllysian advisers. I think the Yllysians mean to invade and take North Torahn.”
Kahl stopped writing. “They could have invaded any time and haven’t.”
“I bet you they are waiting for the battle to decimate our forces,” the other replied.
Kahl’s impression of the Yllysians were that the blue people were quite civilized and trustworthy. He told Erille this.
“They’re good actors,” Erille growled. “You mark my words, Kahl Oh’nahry. They will invade us as soon as the battle leaves the city-states weakened.”
Kahl said nothing as he wrote Erille’s thoughts onto the pages of his notebook. It wasn’t his place to judge a point of view, but simply to record it.
He looked at Erille. “What is your impression of the King?”
Erille blushed darkly. “Um…he is very handsome and kind, for a half-commoner. You have to understand, I grew up being force fed that commoners are weak and lazy, stupid and ugly. But those opinions are not panning out. The Queen Mother is an exquisite woman, so beautiful it’s almost uncanny. And I was there, with Tesjun, when she and the King were talking about a book someone had lent the King. The book was about royal scandals. It had a chapter dedicated to their ancestor, a man who was put to death for stealing from the King. It was never proven that he stole, but he was made an example of. From that point on, his family could not rise above the occupations of lamplighters and chimneysweeps.” Erille shook his head. “The book was written by an aristocrat…”
“So you didn’t question it,” Kahl finished his thought. “If a commoner had written it, you wouldn’t have believed it.”
Erille gave a weak shrug and looked uncomfortable. “I’m trying to change my point of view, Kahl. But it’s hard to change these perceptions when I’ve been spoon fed them since before I could speak.”
Kahl sighed. “I know. I don’t blame you, at least not when you are trying to change how you view things.”
Erille nodded. “Thank you.”
Kahl finished writing and looked at his companion again. “You think Belihn is a good king?”
“That remains to be seen,” Erille replied. “If we are not invaded by Yllysia and if…if he keeps his promises, then yes. I think that would make him a good king. I’ll be honest, I don’t care if the caste laws are done away with. For your sake, I hope they are–“
“That’s good to know,” Kahl said sarcastically.
Erille blushed but plowed on. “But they don’t affect me in the least. I’m trying to be honest here. Well…I guess I’m practically a commoner now that my father has disowned me.”
“It doesn’t work that way,” Kahl told him. “You are and will always be a clan’s son.”
“You don’t know what I did.”
“It doesn’t matter. The law recognizes you as a son of your clan. Doors will open for you, even if your father refuses to acknowledge that you are his son.” Kahl shook his cramped hand. “I have to prove myself, even though my family has more money than yours, but I am a commoner, so I have to prove myself. While you…you can apply for a position with any firm or company, and you would be chosen.”
Erille had the grace to look sheepish. He ducked his head. “I know. I guess the laws are unjust. So, I hope the King changes things.”
Kahl looked at him for a few minutes before reaching a conclusion and nodding. “I believe you are being honest with me, Erille. Thank you for that.”
Erille sighed. “I miss my family, my brothers, my sisters. It’s hard for me now, Kahl.”
“Emotionally yes, I can see that,” Kahl said evenly. “But look how quickly you got a job.”
Erille scowled. “Damn it! I’ve half a job here, Kahl. No one trusts me!”
Kahl took pity on him and placed his hand on Erille’s. “Calm down. Trust will come in time, I promise.”
Erille pulled his hand free. “When?”
Kahl sighed. “I don’t know that. When all this is over, things will settle down.”
Erille swallowed thickly. “I’m going to lie down. I didn’t sleep last night at all. I’m worried that if we lose, I’ll be put to death. Nothing will make my father happier than if I were wiped from the world.”
“I’m sure you exaggerate,” Kahl said, shocked.
Erille snorted. “Yeah, you keep believing that.”
Erille stood and walked to his cot, where he threw himself down and covered his face with his blanket. In a few minutes, he was snoring softly.
Kahl turned back to his book. He sighed. He had a lot to do before he could rest himself.