Chapter X: The Return

            Regent Divita ran a cold, clammy hand over her face.  These days, every movement she made made her shaky.  Lightheadedness was a constant companion.  She had passed out several times, frightening her children and her guards.  Word from the battlefield had been absent for over a month, despite sending carrier vinah almost every day.  The animals inevitably returned, the tiny vials with the notes tucked inside untouched.  Fear clogged her days, but she pushed on, Ambassador Tah’duk’h her constant companion.  His unwavering optimism and positivity buoyed her on a daily basis.  Without him, she would have caved and given up a long time ago.

            The plague had begun to burn itself out.  No new cases reported in nearly two weeks.  

            She lived her life day-to-day, filling her days with prayer and reflection.  Court had been suspended weeks ago.  Martial law kept the streets mostly empty, with only the bravest and most desperate breaking the curfews imposed by her soldiers.  Anasj, dibasj, and most of haltath had passed and now kamaran with its icy temperatures and shorter days threatened more misery.

            She sighed and looked up from her journal.  Faithful Rechel Setin, her lady-in-waiting, sat on the other side of the desk, knitting a blanket.

            Divita’s eyes filled with tears.  Tifa, Emira’h, and Alona had all lost their babies to miscarriages.  Bleeding had almost killed the young women.  Tifa, in particular, bled so much, even the empathic healer had predicted the girl would die, but she had rallied, although she still was not back to full health and would not be, until the siege was done and supplies were brought inside the gates.  With each day that passed, Divita’s hope dimmed further.

            “Where is my son, Rechel?” she asked her friend.

            Rechel frowned and stopped knitting.  “Don’t lose faith now, your Majesty.”

            Divita gave a watery laugh.  “I’m almost empty of hope and faith, my girl.”  She closed the journal and pushed the book away, carefully rising and leaning on the sturdy arms of the desk chair.  “I need to look in on the girls.”

            Rechel followed her out of her office and down the hallway to the sitting room.  The room was filled with young women.  Emira’h and Alona had drawn a shaky truce between them and now spent much of their days together.  With them were Emira’h’s ladies-in-waiting, Tifa, and Ilmi.  Goddess only knew where T’arehn had gone off to.  Divita did not have the energy to look after her youngest son.  He had grown reticent and angry in the ensuing months.  He left for days on end, dragging himself back, looking wan and drawn, saying nothing of where he had been or what he had been up to.

            “Aya,” Tifa said, sounding breathless.  She looked too pale, too thin.

            “My dear,” Divita said and bent to press a kiss to the girl’s cool forehead.  “Where is your husband?”

            “He went to look for T’arehn.”

            “Ah,” Divita said and looked at the other girls.  

            Ilmi, dressed in boys clothes, sat crosslegged in an armchair.  She was reading a book and did not even look up from its pages.

            Emira’h rose and curtsied, her ladies-in-waiting following suit.  “Your Majesty.”

            The Yllysians hid their poor health better than the Torahni. But they had grown bony, their knuckles knobby.

            Divita swallowed thickly, her sense of guilt almost overwhelming her.

            Emira’h frowned and drew closer.  “Are you well, your Majesty?”

            Divita smiled at the young woman and took her hands in hers.  “I am humbled by your courage and persistence, my girl.  That is all.”

            Emira’h sighed and returned her grin.  “Thank you.  If there is anything Yllysians are known for, beside our blue skin and white hair, is our stubbornness.  Yllysia is a land of ice and rock.  We have to be creative and persistent to survive her merciless kamarans.”

            “I would like to see Yllysia one day,” she told the girl.  “Tah’duk’h has promised to take me there, once this business is done with.”

            Nilki, one of Emira’h’s ladies-in-waiting, took a step closer.  “Yllysia is very beautiful, your Majesty.  But austere and severe.  She has soaring peaks and thick evergreen forests.  There is Kajiah, Neverdawn.  The sun never sets in Kajiah.  Strange animals live there.  Most Yllysians live in her coastal areas, where it is warmer than in the interior.  There, we have access to the bounty of the sea.”

            “I’m looking forward to going next year,” Divita told them, not saying that she was going there to marry the ambassador.

            Emira’h indicated one of her young ladies-in-waiting.  “Asjana there is going back home to marry, your Majesty.  Perhaps she can travel with you and his Eminence?”

            Divita smiled at Asjana.  “Congratulations, girl.  Of course, you can come with Tah’duk’h and myself when we leave.”

            The girl curtsied.  “Thank you, your Majesty.”

            Divita leaned against the back of an armchair as she became drenched in sweat, suddenly weak.  She heard voices faraway and then someone was helping her to the couch.  Someone pressed a cup to her mouth and she swallowed the cool water.  She sat back and rested her head on the headrest, closing her eyes.  Someone took her left hand and rubbed it briskly.

            “Aya!”

            She opened her eyes.  “I’m alright, Tifa.  Calm down.”

            “You look so pale, Aya,” her oldest daughter told her and continued to rub her hand.  “You’re as cold as ice!”

            “Stop fussing, girl,” Divita groused and pulled her hand free.  

            She wiped the sweat from her brow with a shaking hand.

            Silence descended upon the room.  The entire city-state seemed to hold its breath in the limpid, cold afternoon with its watery light and cloudy skies.  The wind rattled windows and moaned.

            Suddenly, the door to the hallway burst open and a soldier ran inside.  “The King is back!  The navy has sailed into the bay!”

            Divita struggled to stand until Tifa helped her to her feet.  

            “Goddess preserve!”  She looked at Rechel.  “Helped me dress, girl.  I need to meet my son at the gates of the city!”

            She looked at the young soldier.  “Please inform the Yllysian Ambassador.”

            The soldier bowed.  “At once, Regent.”

            The process of doing a wash and changing her clothes, then dressing her hair took a long time.  Divita had to stop and rest again and again until she grew impatient.

            Rechel chastised her.  “It will take time for the King to disembark, your Majesty.  Now, let me do your hair.”

            When she felt she looked presentable, she made her way to the sitting room, where Tah’duk’h waited for her.  They embraced and he buried his face against her neck.

            “Gods in their dimensions!” the ambassador whispered.  “We survived, my girl.  And you were marvelous.”

            “Only because of you,” she whispered back.

            He pulled back and they kissed.

            When they parted, their gazes locked.  

            She cupped his cheek.  “Now, I will tell you, Tah’duk’h.  Now I can tell you that, yes, I’ll marry you.”

            The smile he gave her was luminescent.  “Thank you, my girl.  You have made me happier than I thought I could ever be.”

            They moved as one, walking out into the hallway, Rechel trailing behind them.  Two guards brought up the rear and two led the way.

            The Great Hall was empty and echoed their footsteps as they made their way to the huge double doors that led to the bailey.

            Outside, the wind was icy as it swept down from the north.  

            Tah’duk’h held the door to their carriage open and Rechel helped her to enter the interior, where they sat side by side.  The ambassador sat across from them.  

            Soon the carriage was clattering over the wooden moat bridge and unto the boulevard that led to the wharves.  By the time they reached the center of the city, the crowds had begun to spill out into the streets.  They walked, bedraggled and bony, silent as ghosts, towards the city gates.  The carriage slowed down as it encountered more crowds spilling into the boulevard.  

            A great hush clung to the air.  It spooked Divita to the core.

            They made it to the city gates, where soldiers made a space for her, for Tah’duk’h and for Rechel.  

            People watched her with eyes dimmed by hunger and suffering.  She saw hope in the depths of those eyes, too, and kindness and respect.  She burst out weeping and Tah’duk’h wrapped his arm around her waist and held her close.  

            “You must be strong, Divita,” Tah’duk’h murmured into her hair.

            She nodded but she could not control her sobs and she hid her face against his chest.

            By the time she had control over her frayed emotions, the crowd extended for miles behind her and to the west.  No one said anything as the time passed.  The sun rose overhead and, at its apex, the clouds dispersed, to reveal cerulean skies.  

            “Open the gates in the name of King Belihn Ekes’j!”

            Divita started and clasped her hands to her mouth to stifle the scream that clogged her throat.

            It took four guards to lift the iron bar from the gates.  Then the four guards pulled as one and the city gates swung silently open.  

            Divita gazed hungrily at the crowd of soldiers on the other side.  Her son stood at the fore.

            “We have won the battle of Le.ath Plain and Tjish.un has withdrawn,” Belihn yelled into the silence.  

            The cheering began near her and spread like wildfire beyond her and into the city until the very ground seemed to shake.  Then Divita realized people were stomping their feet.  How they had the energy, she would never know.

            Belihn strode under the great archway and to where she stood.  He gathered her in his arms.  She clung to him, her hands feeling along his back, trying to convince herself he was here.  It was over.

            “Belihn,” she said and pulled back to gaze into his hazel eyes.  “Thank the Goddess, child.  I had almost lost hope.”

            He took a stray strand of her hair and tucked it behind her left ear. “Thank you, Mother, for keeping our people safe while I fought.”

            Emotions clogged her throat, so she only nodded and gave him a quivering smile.

            He reached a hand and clasped Tah’duk’h’s hand in greeting.

            “You, too, Ambassador,” Belihn said.  “Thank you for keeping my people safe.”

            Tah’duk’h bowed.  “My pleasure, your Majesty.”

            Belihn turned.  “Kurk, as Warlord, it is your responsibility to get food to the people.  Distribute enough for everyone and then bring some to Castle Draemin.  Make sure the soldiers and their families get enough.”

            Warlord Deshon bowed.  “Right away, my King.”

            “I will help the Warlord, King Belihn,” Commander Tione murmured.

            Divita watched as both men disappeared through the crowd of soldiers and into the wharves.

            Belihn slid his arm around Divita’s waist.  “It will take hours before we get our food, Aya.  Let’s go back home.  We’ve lots to talk about.”

            “Lead the way, my son,” she said.

            They climbed into the waiting carriage.  Belihn sat next to Tah’duk’h.

            Divita studied her son’s features.  He seemed older, strong and healthy, but his eyes had changed.  Their innocence was gone, ruthlessly excised by war and killing, by blood and sacrifice.

            She swallowed.  “I sent you several missives that made it back untouched.  Both Alona and Emira’h miscarried, child.  I’m sorry.”

            He bent his head and sighed.  “I didn’t expect my children to survive.  But I am glad my wives did.”

            She nodded and said nothing.

            He rubbed his face with his hands.  “And Tifa?”

            Divita swallowed thickly.  “The child died in utero.  She almost died as well, Belihn.  She is still weak from lack of food and blood loss, even though it was weeks ago.”  She clasped her hands on her lap.  “T’arehn has changed, child.  He has grown morose and tightlipped.  I did not have the energy or the time to see to him.”

            “I’ll talk to him,” Belihn told her.  “The Queen of Tjish.un is having her younger sister sent here, to marry him.  Perhaps that will pull his head from his ass.”

            She gasped.  “Belihn!”

            He scowled.  “Everyone has suffered, mother.  No one has been spared.  There is no space for tantrums.  He is sixteen.  It’s high time he became a man.”

            She closed her mouth and looked closely at her son.  He sounded so stern and mature.  Yet he was only one and twenty years old.  

            “I defer to you, my King,” she told him.  

            “T’arehn will grow up, Mother,” he told her.  “I’ll make sure of it.”

            He turned to gaze at the passing scenery.

            She swallowed thickly.  His eyes were hers, hazel speckled with green, gold and brown, but the rest was all Kah’len.  Goddess help her, but it was like looking at Kah’len Ys’teis.  Now that she was in love with Tah’duk’h, it wasn’t so hard to look at Belihn and see Kah’len in his features.

            She slid her gaze to Tah’duk’h then back to Belihn.

            “The Ambassador has asked me to marry him, Belihn,” she said carefully.  “I have accepted.”

            Belihn shook himself and gazed at her.  “You have my blessing, Mother.  All I want is for you to be happy.”

            She released the breath she had been holding.  “Thank you, Son.”

            He nodded and turned away again.

            She frowned but said nothing.  He had come back with a distance like a chasm surrounding him.  He was unassailable and unreachable.  He was King of Draemin City-State and that was all.  It was time she moved on, got on with her life.  She glanced at Tah’duk’h.  He smiled at her and she smiled back.  He would take her home.

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