Belihn leaned into the ship’s railing, closing his eyes against the soft, warm, briny breeze. He had spent most of his spare time with Kahl here, on deck, watching the land as the ships sailed east. Azura.Dha, the Bay of Silence, with its jeweled waters, allowed for long, placid days. This early in the season of anasj there were few ocean storms, most of them taking place in that tumultuous body of water, the Raiye’Itah. The weather warmed more and more the farther the days slid from kamaran. The days grew longer and there were few days filled with rain showers. Belihn turned his gaze to the south. The vacant land was a riot of colors from wild grasses and flowering plants.
Their plans had changed. Belihn wanted to cut time off their journey by sailing into the H’aj, which ended in Le.ath Plain, where the battle would take place. That choice would strip weeks off their journey, although they did not know if they would arrive before or after the enemy forces. Le.ath Plain was a vast flat land filled with wild grasses. The land was a great equalizer and it wouldn’t matter if they reached it before or after the enemy. There was no rise in land to give an army an advantage.
Belihn turned, a smile ready on his lips for Commander-General Deshon. At the look on Kurk’s face, Belihn sobered.
“What is it?” he asked, tamping down the surge of anxiety that rushed through him.
“Draemin City-State is under siege,” Kurk replied without preamble. He handed Belihn a small piece of cloth. “This arrived via carrier vinah.”
Belihn read the tiny script in his mother’s hand. He cursed.
“This may be good, your Majesty,” Kurk said.
Belihn frowned. “How?”
Kurk leaned against the railing. “Tjish.un is throwing her might at the city-state. She won’t be supplying our enemies with much.”
Belihn rubbed his forehead. “Goddess! They will starve them out then they will use them for ransom–“
“Don’t,” Kurk warned. “We will do what we came to do, King Belihn. The Regent and Ambassador Tah’duk’h will take care of Draemin. If we turn back, we concede the battle. We will lose the alliance of the Isemi if they even suspect our actions are due to cowardice.”
Belihn fisted the piece of cloth. “You are correct, of course.”
“The High Priest will keep the people in check,” Kurk told him. He placed a hand on Belihn’s shoulder. “Have courage and faith, my king.”
Belihn sucked in a lungful of air then released it. His hands were shaking.
“I was right,” he told Kurk. “They were just waiting for us to reach the horizon before attacking our precious city.”
Kurk studied his face for a few seconds. “Your father wants his throne back. He’s probably there.”
“Thank Goddess he himself reinforced the walls of the city-state,” Belihn told his friend.
Kurk grimaced. “He knows how much food we have stored. He knows when the citizens will begin to starve.”
Belihn shuddered. He thought of his Queens and his unborn children.
“It is with the Goddess,” Kurk said, reading his face. “You must stay focused and strong, Belihn. Your unborn children may not survive. If that is the case, then it was never meant to be.”
Belihn scowled. “Easy for you to say! They are not your future!”
Belihn sighed and shook his head. “Forgive me, my friend. That was unconscionable.”
Kurk gave him a weak smile. “No. You are correct. I’m sorry if I sounded callous.”
They turned as one to the railing and gazed ahead, towards the east.
Belihn said, “I have been thinking, Commander-General. How would you like to be made Warlord of North Torahn?”
Kurk whipped his head to the side to look at him. “What? The Warlord has never been a commoner, my king.”
“And the King of Draemin City-State has never been a half-commoner,” Belihn shot back.
Kurk blew out a breath and scritched the shadow of beard on his cheek. “Belihn, my salary is excellent. You are very generous–“
“I need you to stay here, in North Torahn,” Belihn told him bluntly. “I need your expertise to reorganize once we are victorious. Once the clans are crushed, I intend on conquering the city-states one by one. I need a Warlord to be able to do that.”
Kurk cocked his head. “I had no idea you had such plans.”
Belihn shook his head. “What good is changing the laws of Draemin City-State and leaving the caste system in place in the rest of North Torahn? I don’t intend to rule all of it, my friend. I will leave governors in place, providing them with new constitutions with which to run their city-states.” He looked at Kurk. “These governors will be commoners from nouveau rich families.”
“To limit corruption?” Kurk asked.
“Yes. I don’t know if these positions will be hereditary or democratic,” Belihn told him. “I tend to the democratic, if you must know. That way, a family can’t breed a despot.”
“Greed is part of hu’an nature,” Kurk told him. “You can’t control the future, you can try to influence it. It is like throwing seeds onto the ground. Some will take and grow and some will rot and die.”
“Nice analogy,” Belihn said and laughed. “You are a poet, my friend.”
Kurk blushed but sketched a jaunty bow. “I aim to please.”
Belihn sobered. “I know you want to travel, Kurk. You want to explore the world. As Warlord, you would travel throughout North Torahn and formalize treaties with Tjish.un, South Torahn, Ynha, Yllysia, and other nations. But we must stabilize North Torahn first.”
Kurk sighed. “You really think I’m so capable, my King? The Warlord is the third highest rank, below the kIng himself and the High Priest.”
“You have never betrayed me, Kurk,” Belihn replied. “You are honorable, a fierce and capable fighter and strategist, and a loyal friend. Yes, I think you would do nicely in the role of Warlord.”
“Then I will take it, my friend, if I survive the Battle for Draemin City-State.”
Belihn smiled at him. “You’ve been talking to Kahl.”
Kurk shrugged. “He is very thorough in his research.”
Belihn warmed inside. “He is good at his job.”
Kurk gave him a knowing gaze. “You like young Mister Oh’nahry, don’t you, my kIng?”
Belihn ducked his head, feeling his cheeks burning. “He is…I am courting him.”
Kurk smiled approvingly. “You have good tastes, my king, and a knack for drawing to you men of integrity.”
“The Goddess gave me good sense,” Belihn agreed.
Kurk sobered. “What of your dreams, Belihn?”
“I have not had one in a few days,” the other said. “But I’ve been writing them down and Kahl is helping me interpret them. He thinks I am dreaming of the distant future and a threat that comes from beyond the Sahi’Rhath.”
“No one’s been far on that ocean,” Kurk mused. “If the world is as large I suspect it is, there may be many lands between there and here, many places for different kinds of races. But since their ships travel through the air, as you foresaw, they may be from another planet altogether. That is how our ancestors got here, isn’t it?”
Belihn turned to face his friend. “That is the legend. I’m not sure I believe it, but that is what is generally accepted.”
“If the legends are true, then the arrival of another race will awaken the Sentinels,” Kurk reminded Belihn. “That is what the Holy Soulkah states. The Sentinels will protect us.”
“What can five persons do against a race of people so advanced, they can travel through the air?” Belihn asked.
Kurk shrugged. “The Sentinels are immortal, like the Goddess. They may have knowledge to impart to us.”
Belihn waved a hand. “All of this is conjecture. We don’t know if my visions are true for our world, our dimension. Doesn’t the Holy Soulkah speak of dimensions?”
“I don’t think the Goddess would give you visions that don’t impact us,” Kurk said and smiled. “Nice try, my King. I think this race will encounter ours and it will be our children’s bane.”
Belihn swallowed. “I just see their arrival. I don’t see after that, but there are battles and blood, disease and death.”
“Such is the lot of mortals,” Kurk murmured. He sighed. “I’d better inform the other commanders of the news from home. Excuse me, my king.”
Belihn watched his friend stride away then turned back to the fore of the ship.
Belihn and Kahl lay facing each other on Belihn’s wide bed. The cabin was quiet, the only sound coming from the open porthole that of the slap of water against the side of the ship. Belihn traced the side of Kahl’s face with the back of his hand. Kahl closed his eyes and sighed. Belihn took the opportunity to study the young man’s even, handsome features. Kahl had long, sooty eyelashes and the honey-dark complexion of the common folk of North Torahn. When he opened his eyes, Belihn studied their hazel depths stained with blues and greens and browns. He cupped the young man’s cheek and leaned forward.
Kahl’s mouth was slightly chapped. Belihn deepened the kiss until Kahl parted his lips and Belihn could dip his tongue and taste the young man’s essence. Kahl scooted closer until they were connected tightly, their chest heaving against each other, their groins grinding together. Belihn’s kauon filled with blood and lengthened. He could feel Kahl’s eager response.
Belihn pulled back and gazed into Kahl’s soft, aroused eyes. He swallowed.
“I don’t believe in sex before marriage, Kahl,” he told the youth.
“We are only kissing,” Kahl responded blearily.
Belihn chuckled. “I know. What I’m trying to say is, if we like each other well enough…” He sighed in frustration, not wanting to scare Kahl.
“We can wait and see what happens, Belihn,” Kahl replied gently. “We don’t have to concoct a plan for everything. I want to see where this goes first before I contemplate marriage. Can we go slow and learn each other before we make plans?”
Belihn swallowed. “Yes, of course. It’s just…everything is so uncertain for me, you know? I feel like I am thrashing in a deep ocean with no land nearby, no footfall beneath me. I thrash and thrash and get nowhere.”
Kahl pecked his lips again. “That is your perception, my dear. We are sailing towards a battle you planned for. We are courting after you approached me. Each time you fall into the water, you find a small island to rest upon. It just seems uncertain because the battle yawns before you with an uncertain outcome.” He smiled at Belihn. “You have a Goddess on your side and She has given you Her support and assurance. I like you very much and want to be courted by you. You just have to gaze past your uncertainty to see things are aligning for you, my king.”
Belihn sighed. “I forget sometimes, o wise one. That is why I have advisers.” He rolled onto his back. “How is your book going?”
“You are angry,” Kahl stated.
“Not at you,” Belihn assured him. “Tell me.”
Kahl shifted closer but did not touch him. “It goes well. I’ve interviewed some thirty soldiers. I will pick out the most compelling narratives to compile the book.”
“There is still the battle ahead and life during that turmoil.” Belihn looked at the young man. “We have news from home. Draemin is under siege from Tjish.un.”
Kahl gasped. He sat up. “What?”
Belihn looked at the rafters. “Calm down. My mother and Ambassador Tah’duk’h will take care of everything. The Ambassador was a commander in the Yllysian forces before he became a diplomat.”
Kahl stood up. “But…what does this mean for Alona?”
Belihn swallowed, his throat clicking. “I don’t know.”
“I must go back,” Kahl stated.
“No. You must not.”
“But, my King–“
“That is an order,” Belihn told him coldly. “If you go back, you won’t be able to enter the city-state. You would be arrested and possibly killed. What good would you be to your sister then?”
Kahl knelt on the bed. “You aren’t going back?”
“I have a battle to fight,” Belihn told him. “Once the battle is fought, we will return. I can’t go against the Goddess.”
Kahl frowned. “You’ll leave the city-state alone during this time?”
Belihn stood up. “You seem to forget I have a family there, too. I must do what is best for everyone. If I turn back now, I lose the alliance of the Isemi and Draemin will face future sieges. The enemy must be broken on Le.ath Plain. That is our only recourse.”
Kahl scowled. “You are being shortsighted–“
“Watch your tone, Mister Oh’nahry,” Belihn said carefully. “You are speaking to your King.”
Kahl shifted off the bed and straightened his back. “Yes, I am. Apologies, my liege. I won’t forget again.”
He whirled about and stalked from the cabin, slamming the cabin door behind him.
Belihn sighed and shook his head. So much for romance, he thought bleakly and went to the porthole to gulp cool air and calm down.