Belihn rolled onto his back in the wide bed and gazed at the rafters on the ceiling. The dreams had been jumbles of colorful images, some soaked in blood. Faces he did not know, strange outfits he had never seen, and languages of which he had no knowledge. He rose from the bed and padded barefoot to the wash table, where he washed his face and rinsed his mouth, spitting into the waste bucket before emptying his bladder there as well. He dressed in a woolen uniform, for the season of anasj was always cold early on. He glanced out the porthole and saw flakes of snow falling serenely onto water that was so dark, it was almost black. A thin, fragile sheet of ice covered the water.
Turning back to the room, he took up his comb and raked it through his hair, plaiting it into a single braid before pulling on his knee-high boots and tucking in the ends of his trousers.
The servants had cleared the remnants of their dinner from the modest table in the center of the cabin. He opened the cabin door and ordered his breakfast from the waiting servant then returned to the table to write in his journal. He opened the book to the next blank page. He stared at the page for several long minutes, unsure as to how to begin. If his dreams had had a beginning, he could not recall it. So, he bent to the task, writing his impressions, describing the faces he had seen, the outfits, even the oddity of languages he had never heard. Had he seen the future, he wondered with a shiver of excitement. The faces were almost familiar. Were they relatives? Unborn children? Himself reborn? He sighed and rubbed his forehead peevishly. These questions would never have answers, so they were useless.
Frustrated with the words he was writing, he began to sketch the faces and outfits. He had never sketched anything before, but it was as if he was being guided. The pictures took form, detailed and exquisite. When he was done, he saw a tray covered by a cloth sitting on the table. He hadn’t even heard the servant return with his meal. Sitting back in his chair, he ran his eyes over the sketches.
“I didn’t know you could draw.”
Belihn started violently, jumping to his feet and swinging around.
Commander-General Kurk Deshon raised a contemplative eyebrow. “I did say good morning, your Majesty, but you did not hear me.”
Belihn placed a hand over his heart and huffed a laugh. “I didn’t hear you. And I didn’t know I could draw, either. I’ve never done so before.”
Kurk glanced at the drawings again and shook his head. “These are odd times.”
“Do you recognize any of these people?” Belihn asked him.
The Commander-General took a seat at the table and pulled the journal toward him. He raked his gaze over the people, the outfits.
He shook his head and glanced up at Belihn. “They don’t seem quite hu’an, your Majesty. Their faces…their eyes. The slenderness of their limbs. Could you have seen a new race of people?”
Belihn gazed at the drawings then took a seat next to Kurk. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
Kurk frowned and turned his eyes back to the drawings. “Perhaps it is a warning or the Goddess is telling you we will encounter a new race at some point.” He shrugged. “Hells, maybe you’re seeing something from another planet.”
“That could be,” Belihn replied. “But I don’t think the Goddess would allow me to see anything that won’t affect us.”
Kurk nodded and looked at the drawings again. “Are these their ships? They are odd, like seeds rather than ships.”
Belihn ran his eyes over the drawings and a strong sense of dread at Kurk’s words began to slither along his limbs. “Ships. I remember what I dreamed now. They are ships and they sail through the sky, not the ocean.”
“Like our ancestors did?” Kurk asked.
Kurk shifted. “Maybe these are our ancestors or perhaps they are our relatives who will return here.”
Belihn took in a breath and released it. “All speculation, damn it!”
Kurk placed a hand on Belihn’s shoulder. “Be patient, your Majesty. You may have other visions that help you put together the pieces of this puzzle.”
“I suppose,” Belihn replied. “But what I am gathering is that the Goddess rarely does things in a straightforward way. Everything is a damned mystery.”
Kurk chuckled. “You will need to develop patience, my liege. You’ll have your entire life to decipher your dreams.”
“If we win, Kurk.”
“Don’t falter,” Kurk warned him. “If you falter, all is lost. You are the lynchpin upon which all of it turns.”
Belihn nodded, feeling anxiety taint his thoughts.
Kurk pulled over the tray and uncovered it. Salted meat, dried fruit, day old bread, and butter. “Eat.”
Belihn closed his journal and tucked into his meal.
Kurk watched him silently for a few minutes before he sighed. “Perhaps we shouldn’t have left so many guards back in Draemin city-state.”
“I don’t trust the opposition,” Belihn replied around a mouthful of bread. “What if we head to Le.ath Plain and the clans attack our city?”
Kurk nodded. “I know. It’s just…” He sighed. “We are so much fewer than they are.”
“They will be overconfident,” Belihn said. He swallowed. “Our strategies are sound. I spent a long time reading historical texts for strategies. I think I chose the correct ones.”
Kurk gnawed on his lower lip. “I’m worried the opposition knows those strategies.”
“They can’t possibly guess which ones I chose,” Belihn retorted mildly.
“No, I suppose no,” Kurk owned and sighed. “Goddess protect and keep us. I’m worried about my family.”
Belihn nodded. “Yes. I know.”
There was a knock on the cabin door.
“Come!” Belihn bellowed.
The two Yllysian advisers shuffled in. They greeted Belihn and Kurk and took seats around the table.
Commander Olivaro Tione flicked his glance between Kurk and Belihn. “We interrupted something?”
Belihn shifted. “No, Commander. We were discussing if it was prudent to leave so many of our forces behind.”
Captain Gulehn Askar shook his head. “That was very prudent, your Majesty. As was leaving half the Torahni navy behind. The opposition can decide to attack the city or do a two pronged attack. We just don’t know. Intel has been sketchy at best.”
Olivaro Tione leaned forward and rested his forearms on the table. “Trust in your Goddess, just as we trust in our Gods. It’s in their hands, as all things are. We are but figures on a board, your Majesty.”
Belihn swallowed thickly and nodded.
There was a diffident knock on the cabin door then Tesjun Othar hurried in. “Sorry I’m late, my liege. I overslept.”
Belihn smiled at the young man. “It’s fine. We haven’t begun the meeting as yet.”
Tesjun blushed and took a seat next to Belihn.
Their daily meetings took up most of their days as they discussed, dissected and perfected strategy, discussed logistics and planned for the future, taking into consideration all possibilities. Sometimes their meetings devolved into social occasions, where they enjoyed each others’ companies and talked about more private matters and laughed a lot. Belihn took the opportunity to tease Tesjun just to see the young man blush. Their meetings were dissolved at sunset and each man went about his own business. It was during the off times that Belihn met with his three interests.
He supped with Tesjun, Kahl and Erille that very night to talk to each young man.
Tonight, Erille complained right away about being kept out of military discussions.
Belihn sighed. “I’m sorry, Erille, but you were never vetted. There was no time to do a background check on you or to check your story. By the time we had to leave Draemin City-State, our inquiries had had no responses.”
“I’m no spy!” Erille spat.
“And I don’t believe you are, either,” Belihn assured him. “But I have to abide by my advisers’ recommendations. You are my secretary, Erille. You have a salary and a place in my household. Please be patient.”
Erille crossed his arms over his chest and said nothing.
Belihn looked at the other two. “Are you interested in my courting you?”
Kahl sat straighter. “Yes, my liege.”
Tesjun’s gaze would not alight on anything. It kept flicking from object to object.
“You’re unsure, Tesjun?” Belihn gently prodded. “Or you don’t want to? Be honest with me, Tesjun. It won’t affect your employment.”
Tesjun sighed. He wrung his hands. “I’m not sure where my proclivities lie, your Majesty. I’m not sure I am atoliy.”
Belihn swallowed his disappointment and nodded, giving the young man a weak smile. “That’s fine, Tesjun. I won’t press the matter. You’re dismissed.”
Tesjun looked startled for a moment before he gathered his belongings and nodded. “Good night, your Majesty.”
“Good night, Tesjun,” the other replied softly.
Belihn waited until the cabin door closed behind Tesjun before turning his gaze on the remaining two young men.
“And you?” he asked them.
“I want to see where our friendship goes, your Majesty,” Kahl replied. “I think you are a fine specimen and becoming your lover would be no hardship.”
Belihn’s face suffused with heat. He turned his eyes to Erille.
Erille sighed. “I’m already in love, your Majesty. I am not ready to pursue anyone else. I need time. I’m not saying I can’t be ready in time, but not right now. Is that alright, sir?”
Belihn smiled at him. “Of course, Erille. You’re dismissed as well.”
Erille nodded and left the cabin, closing the door behind him.
Belihn placed his forearms on the table and leaned forward. “So…”
Kahl grinned. “Lucky me!”
Belihn chuckled and nodded. “Yes.” He stood and went to his clothes chest, rummaging through its contents and pulling out a book. “This is your book, Kahl. Anasj and other Observations. A lovely title.”
Kahl blushed. “Thank you, your Majesty.”
Belihn shook his head. “In my private quarters, I am Belihn to you.”
Kahl ducked his head. “Belihn then.”
The King sat beside him and placed the book on the table. “Read me something, Kahl.”
Kahl swallowed audibly and pulled the book closer, opening to a random page.
He huffed a laugh. “How apropos.” Clearing his throat, he began to read:
“Oh, beloved. Tender hearted boy-man,
Your coltish limbs fly through the air as we pursue each other
Through the empty predawn streets. In the utter
silence of morning, your laugh is like a breeze
that through me slices until I cease following
to watch you disappear into the past
like a spell is cast by a god.
Your memory is faint now.
But once you were all the hours of a day
All the days of a week, all the clear spray
of an icy ocean wave upon my naked limbs
Your kisses limning my days with a clarity
I shall never encounter again. The parity of your love
will remain unmatched by any other.
You are the altar of incense, the sprig of scent
of love unspent.
Oh beloved, tender hearted boy-man
That was the span of a season,
That in your arms I am unspent,
Belihn watched the young man’s face as the words died on his lips. “Who was he?”
Kahl sighed. “My first lover. We were but fourteen. I didn’t write this poet until two years after he and his family left Draemin City-State to relocate. Even though we promised to write one another, our love affair always embarrassed him and interfered with his plans of marrying a young woman and having a large family.”
“I see,” Belihn said. “Do you love him still?”
Kahl chuckled self-consciously. “No. He is enshrined in my past and now in my poetry, but my feelings are old and stuck in the past, if that makes sense. I don’t pine for him anymore.”
Belihn nodded and smiled. “That makes sense.” He reached out and touched Kahl’s cold cheek with a trembling hand. “I’m…” He swallowed. “I don’t want to scare you, Kahl, but you are my lifeline. I am so lonely…” He shook his head. “Inside. Outside, my life is busy, but I am lonely just the same.”
“I know,” Kahl said softly. “I’ve always known.”
Belihn nodded mutely, his words drying up.
“It is stupid to start a love affair in the middle of all of this,” he said after a few minutes.
“The time for a king is never just right, I’ve an inkling,” Kahl offered. He cleared his throat and blushed. “May I kiss you, your Majesty?”
Belihn frowned. “Belihn. Please Kahl.”
“Sorry,” Kahl murmured and laughed. “It’s all confusing and exhilarating.”
Belihn smiled faintly. “You may kiss me, Kahl.”
Kahl shifted and nodded. Then he leaned forward, his gaze locked to Belihn’s.
Their lips, chapped and cool, met. They did nothing for a moment. Then Belihn closed his eyes and parted his lips and Kahl dipped his tongue inside Belihn’s mouth. Their tongues stroke one another, danced around each other. Belihn tasted the young man’s warmth and musk. For long moments, they tasted one another before Belihn reluctantly pulled back from Kahl.
He opened his eyes and gazed into Kahl’s dazed eyes.
“You kiss well, Belihn,” Kahl whispered.
“I’m glad,” Belihn told him.
They stared at one another then laughed, glances breaking.
Belihn indicated the book. “You write beautiful poetry.”
Kahl grinned. “Thank you. I’m sure I will write many about you, Belihn.”
Belihn smiled at him. “Goddess help me!”
They kissed again.
“Will you stay with me tonight?” Belihn asked. “Just hold me?”
Kahl studied his face for a few minutes before he nodded. “Of course. You’re scared, Belihn?”
“Terrified,” the other replied. “But I can’t show it. Not to my generals, not to my troops. Not to the servants.”
“The Goddess knows,” Kahl gently reminded him. “Just be brave, Belihn. Show Her your strength and courage.”
Belihn swallowed thickly. “I will.”
Kahl rose and held his hand. “Then come. I’ll hold you until your fall asleep.”