Regent Divita stood at the southeastern tower and gazed towards the Draemin Bay as if she could see the battle taking place. In the distance, she saw tendrils of smoke dissipating into the air.
“As soon as Belihn’s ships were lost to the horizon, they attacked.”
She turned to Ambassador Torim. “Send the vinahs west. Make sure my son knows that Tjish.un is attacking our city-state.”
The Ambassador bowed. “Done, my lady.” He turned on his heels and hurried away.
“All will be well, your Majesty,” Prei-Serren Lahn murmured.
Divita bowed her head and sighed. “I wish I had your faith, Prei-Serren.”
“I have visions,” he told her. “She is always in my thoughts.”
She began to pace. “I wish I knew if this was a two-pronged attack or if they are going to throw their entire forces at the city.”
“There will be a battle in Le.ath Plain,” Lahn said to her. “What is good for our forces is that now the enemy is split.” He studied her features for a few minutes before he placed a hand on her slender shoulder. “Be brave and strong for your people. There will be much suffering before the day is done.”
She swallowed the lump in her throat. “Please, Prei-Serren. I wish to pray.”
They knelt facing each other and held hands.
Divita wanted to weep. She was not made for this! She was a mother, not a regent!
“Calm your doubts,” Lahn said softly. “Pray and give your doubts over to Her.”
He began to pray and she echoed his words:
“O Lady of Seasons! Bringer of joy, peace and death!
Queen of Heaven,
Sovereign of Torahn.
Give us strength! Wipe away our sorrows and doubts
That we may love you with a pure heart.
Show us the way, O most perfect Mother!
Make our arm strong, that we may conquer our enemies
Make our hearts sing, that we may adore you in song
Make our minds clear, that we may hear you,
O most perfect Sovereign!”
By the time they were done praying, Divita was trembling and her cheeks were wet with tears.
Lahn wiped them away and helped her rise. “I will be here, your Majesty. I’ve moved into my old suites to be close to you.”
Divita rubbed a cheek with a cold, shaking hand. “Thank you, your Holiness! I need all my allies near me.”
He bowed to her.
When he was gone, she looked towards the east once more, her eyes taking in the thin tendrils of smoke in the horizon. She swallowed thickly and turned away, hurrying to her suites.
T’arehn, Ilmi, Tifa and Kilen were in the sitting room. They were conversing in restrained tones, although the lines of their bodies bespoke of stress and uncertainty. When she swept into the sitting room, they stood as one, talking to her as one.
She held both hands up. “Peace! One at a time.”
Tifa took two steps forward. “Mother! What are we going to do?”
Divita sighed. “Please sit.”
The young people sat down and she sat last in an armchair facing them. She took in each beautiful young face and her heart broke.
She rubbed peevishly at her forehead. “The enemy has cut off our lines of supplies and has destroyed the navy that was in the harbor. We are under siege. I have been told that it will take a long time before we are free, for the Battle of Le.ath Plain will take place also. I will do my utmost to keep the city-state out of our enemies’ hands.” She studied each face again. “I have been told we will survive, but we will suffer greatly before all this is done. Have faith, children, and remain strong.”
Tifa’s husband, Kilen, leaned forward. “Our troops won’t be able to return for at least four months if not more. Have we food to last that long?”
“We have some food stored, enough to get us mostly there,” she replied honestly. “But I’ll be honest with you, Mister Sobres. We will face starvation and perhaps death before the end is done. I am terrified that the plague will break out in the interim.”
Tifa shuddered and wrapped her arms around her swollen belly. “Mother! What of my child?”
Divita clasped her hands on her lap. “It is with the Goddess, child. But I will give you my food before I allow you to starve!”
Kilen rose. “Let’s not focus on that. Not until we have to. I am worried about the Queens and the early stages of their pregnancy.”
Divita feared neither child would survive, but she said nothing as she watched Kilen pace.
“Would surrendering be so bad?” Ilmi asked.
Divita gave her youngest daughter a withering glare. “I won’t betray Belihn!’
Ilmi dropped her gaze. “It was just a thought.”
Divita sighed. “Have you even an inkling of what will happen to Belihn’s family if we fall into the enemies’ hands?”
Ilmi jutted her jaw out. “Our father and grandmother are with the enemy, Mother. Nothing will happen to us!”
Tifa gasped. “We have to support Belihn, Ilmi. He’s our brother and our king!”
Ilmi’s face crumpled. “We were fine until he got greedy! I miss father! I want to see him again.”
She rose and ran from the room, her sobs echoing behind her.
Divita signed and stood. “I’ll speak with her. I’ll be back.”
Ilmi’s suites door was ajar. Divita heard the girl’s sobs and entered the room. She walked through the sitting room into the bedroom, where the girl lay on her stomach, face pressed to her folded arms.
Divita sat down at the edge of the mattress and put her hand on Ilmi’s back.
Ilmi stiffened then relaxed. She turned onto her back. Her face was pale and wet from tears.
“I miss Father, Aya. Don’t you?”
Divita took the girl’s hand in both of hers. “He never paid much attention to me, girl. He left me long ago.”
Ilmi tried to pull her hand back, her face suffusing with anger. “You don’t love him!”
“I didn’t say that,” Divita said. She sighed and let go her of daughter’s hand. “Our marriage was one of convenience. Kah’len was always kind and polite to me, Ilmi. But he was not a husband. He slept with every courtier he could, disrespecting the Prei-Serren and his Queens. He was not even covert about his love trysts! He slept with young men, showering them with gifts and praises, then utterly forgetting them. By the time he was exiled, Lahn had stopped talking to him.”
Ilmi frowned. “He was so much more attentive to the boys. I always wished I was a boy so Father could pay attention to me. But he ignored the girls, barely acknowledging us.”
Divita pressed a kiss to her daughter’s hand. “He was uncomfortable around women and girls, child. His world revolved around men.”
Ilmi sat up. “But Belihn is not like that.”
Divita let go her daughter’s hand and rose. “Your brother did not want to be like your father, child. He knew early on that your father had no time for any of us. Kah’len wasn’t that attentive to the male children, Ilmi. Only to his heirs. Since Belihn and T’arehn could not inherit the crown, your father ignored them. Since Vallaw is Lahn’s child, he ignored him, too. It was always Ean and Lius who commanded his attention because he was grooming them to take over. For no other reason than that.”
Ilmi rose as well and hugged her mother. “I’m sorry, Mother. I do miss Eda, but he was never close to me. It’s just…I owe him my life.”
“You owe the Goddess your life, girl. You can be grateful your father supplied the seed to make you, but the Goddess directed him and, in the beginning, he listened to Her.”
Ilmi took her mother’s hand. “I love you, Aya.”
Divita smiled at the girl and pulled her into a hug. “And I you, girl.”
Ilmi looked into her mother’s clear hazel eyes. “What’s going to happen to us now?”
Divita pressed a kiss to the girl’s right temple. “It is with the Goddess, child. But I will do everything in my power to help you survive.”
Divita swirled the wine in her goblet and watched her lover pace the floor beside the bed. “You are going to wear the floor into grooves.”
Tah’duk’h glanced at her and smiled. His teeth were white against the blue of his skin. She thought him so handsome and kind and tender. Now she knew what she should have felt all along and how she should have been treated and loved. He treated her like a jewel and, when he touched her, she felt a deep, unending desire. She thanked the Goddess for this second chance.
He took a seat at the edge of the mattress. His kaoun was such a lovely color, like plum, as it nestled against the pale hair of his groin. She reached out and traced its outline, making him jump and laugh.
“You are the best lover a woman can want,” she told him as his kauon stirred under her fingers. “I have never felt wanted or desired, not until now.”
He frowned. “Your husband is a fool.”
She gave him a patient smile. “He is atoliy. He can’t help being what he is.”
“You are forgiving and kind, exquisite and precious.”
He took her hand and licked a line along the palm. He then pressed a kiss there.
“I will be honest,” he told her. “I never thought I’d fall in love. I am forty years old, my girl, and no one ever turned my head until I met you.”
She blushed. “You love me?”
“I can’t help it, Divita.”
She laughed. “You have made me so happy, Tah’duk’h! For I love you as well.”
They kissed and he took her in his arms, setting her goblet of wine on the night table.
She laughed merrily as he scrambled under the bedclothes. She followed him and lay between his parted thighs. She could smell the warm musk of her arousal and wrapped her legs around his waist. When he entered her, she gasped with pleasure. The headrest banged against the wall as he was overcome with passion. She raked her nails along his wide back and kissed him fervently. He thrust into her, peppering her face with kisses and whispering endearments in his native tongue. She ran her hands through his soft, pale hair.
When she gasped her completion, he followed her, then lay on her, his weight warm and giving her a sense of safety, an anchor and home.
When she finally came down off her heights, she watched as he rolled onto his back. She took his hand.
“We have to survive this dangerous time, girl,” he said softly.
She turned on her side and kissed his fleshy hand. There were fine pale hairs along the back of the hand and down his arm. She caressed them with the tip of a finger.
“We will,” she assured him, for at this moment she believed it.
He looked at her, his pale eyes filled with emotion. “I want to marry you, Divita.”
She smiled at him. “We shall. I’ll have the Prei-Serren remove my sol’eka bracelet and ring. I want to marry you, too.”
“And children?” he pressed.
She laughed softly. “Yes, and children. Thankfully, I still bleed every month.”
He turned onto his side to face her. “Whatever comes, Divita…I will be your rock and your tower, girl, if you need me to be.”
She hugged him as a sliver of cold filled her heart. “You be my rock, my tower, my world, Tah. I need you.”
“I’m here, Divita.”
He held her close, her head on his shoulder. “I know, Tah. You make me so happy. When this is over, I would like to go to Yllysia and see where you were born.”
He pressed a kiss to the top of her head. “We will.”
They said nothing for a few minutes.
She began to drift off before his voice roused her again.
“We should parcel our food accordingly,” he said. “That way we can make it last longer.”
She nodded. “We will. Let me sleep a few hours and we will do as you say.”
As she closed her eyes, she focused on the strong beat of his heart. She felt sated and happy for once in her life, safe and cared for. She would do her utmost to keep Tah’duk’h and her family safe. As she slipped into slumber, she whispered a prayer of thanks to the Goddess.