Book Two The Descendants: Belihn Prologue

          The young woman could not have been more than eighteen years of age.  She was beautiful; stunning really, with a froth of black curls that fell down her narrow back.  Her heart-shaped face was delicate, as were her slightly slanted green eyes and full lips.  She turned her back to her servants, who unbuttoned her dress until it slid to her feet.  Stepping over the gold satin fabric, the girl turned again so that her servants could untie the fastenings on her corset.  When they removed the corset, the girl allowed them to pull down her slip until the girl stood naked and slender, her honey-dark skin reacting to the cold of her room.  She had smallish, pert breasts with small dark nipples.  Belihn glanced at the dark triangle between her legs for a second before she was stepping into the porcelain bathing tub and the servants were pouring warm water over her skin.
            Belihn looked away, feeling oddly cold and distant.  Beside him, his half-brothers whispered fervent and passionate imprecations as they continued to observe the girl being bathed on the other side of the wall, through holes cut into the wallpaper that covered the walls of her bathing chamber.  Belihn slid onto his butt and turned his back to the wall, resting his arms on his raised knees, hands dangling between his legs.  Thankfully, his half-brothers could not see him in the darkness.  Lius had extinguished the oil lamp once they had found the girl’s bathing chamber and the corresponding holes in the walls.
            “How did you discover this bounty?” his half-brother, Atin, asked.
            Lius huffed a laugh.  “I like exploring the hidden passageways.  When I discovered the holes, she was squatting over the waste bucket, urinating.”
            “She is stunning,” Vallaw murmured.
            Lius sighed.  “Yes.  She is one of mother’s ladies-in-waiting.  From South Torahn.”
            “She’s at least half-Tjish.unen,” Atin noted breathlessly.  “With those green eyes.”
            Belihn sat very quietly as his brothers discussed the young woman as if she was some animal at auction.  His face suffused with blood as he sat there, shaken and uncertain.  What was wrong with him that he didn’t find her arousing, fascinating, that he was only embarrassed for himself and for her?  That shame coursed through his body at every word Lius, Vallaw, Ean, and Atin uttered among themselves.  They seemed to have forgotten he was there.  That did not surprise him at all, as he was barely tolerated by his princely half-brothers.  He was a half-commoner, after all, wasn’t he?  Lius was the son of Ariahl Solastis, the daughter of the Oligarch of R’Nonay.  Ean was the son of a princess of South Torahn, and Vallaw was the son of Sjanita Thalmar, the youngest daughter of the Queen of Tjish.un.  Belihn’s mother had been an obscure nobody plucked out of the gutter by his father because of a dream he had had from Atana the Goddess. Because she was beautiful, she had caught the eye of the Warlord of North Torahn and was now one of his four queens.  But nobody ever forgot she had been a mere gutter rat once, wearing threadbare dresses and eating discarded food behind taverns and inns.  Her father had been a lamplighter and chimney sweep.  The lowest of the lowest.  Even Lius, who didn’t seem to care about caste, teased Belihn once in a while about his humble roots.
            “Ah, she is dressing again,” Vallaw murmured.  “We should head back before we are missed.”
            Belihn said nothing as his half-brothers made their way down the dark, hidden corridor.  He stayed on his butt on the dusty floor, his mind frozen with the realization that he was yet again set apart from his the rest of his family.  He was fifteen, Goddess!  When was he going to grow up?  When was he going to stop reacting when other boys brushed up against him by accident, when their warm scents filled his nose, when he was in the common bathing house, aware of the naked bodies of young men around him, afraid to look, afraid to become aroused by their chests and arms, by their flaccid cocks nestled between muscular thighs?  He groaned and covered his face with cold, shaking hands.
            Wasn’t it bad enough, Goddess, that he was half dirt?  His grandmother had tried to get him into a good marriage with a wealthy young woman but none of the clans would touch him with a ten foot pole because his mother’s common blood tainted his veins.  The best he could do was marry the bastard daughter of some wealthy clan head.  Bastards did not inherit anything from their fathers, did they?  Neither were they entitled to their fathers’ good names. He closed his eyes and released the breath he hadn’t known he was holding.  His head spun with shock and the beginning of the realization that he might never become interested in girls or young women, so perhaps it was a blessing none of the clan heads wanted him marrying their daughters.  His face burned with his shame.
            His father’s family was kind and warm to him, and his mother’s father and mother were the kindest, most generous people he had ever known, but it seemed he could not set aside his shame.  He hated that his grandfather had been a lamplighter and chimney sweep.  He hated that the entirety of court knew it; that all the courtiers knew his mother had eaten discarded, half-rotting food to stay alive.  He could read the cold laughter and acidic amusement in their eyes when they looked at him. Of course, they were always polite to his face; he was the King’s legitimate son after all.  But behind his back, they made sport of his past. And now this–this part of him that didn’t want to grow up.  This part of him that was deviant and tainted by feelings that were unnatural and unwanted.  He rubbed his hot face with his icy hands and sighed.  On most nights, he lay in bed and his mind would latch to visions of Lius, his half-brother.  Handsome, charming, suave Lius who left girls swooning in his wake; who at fourteen had bedded his first young woman.  Who was not unnatural and twisted, like Belihn was.  Who would probably marry a princess and rule one of the city-states one day, while all Belihn could ever hope for was to rise to the rank of Commander in the armed forces.
            His hands fisted until his fingernails were biting into the palms.  He wanted to break something, to shatter something.  He shook his head.  He should really accept his place in society; he should embrace his common roots, but he just…all he wanted, all he had ever wanted, was to fit into his family, to be a prince like his brothers.  His mother had arranged for his sister, Tifa, to marry the heir to a shipping forturne.  Tifa seemed happy enough; it had been a boy she met at university.  His youngest sister, Ilmi, wanted to join an abbey.  And then there was the youngest of his siblings, his brother T’arehn.  Nobody knew what T’arehn wanted, but he seemed content enough with his lot.  But Belihn could not be; never could be.  Could not seem able to accept his fate and his life without embarrassment, disappointment and a blind anger at his mother and grandparents.  As soon as he turned fifteen, he had joined the army.  He thought he would be relegated to the infantry, but his sire had gifted him a beautiful bahil.  So he was training in the cavalry now, much to the dismay of the clans.  The cavalry was for the aristocracy and even though Belihn was the legitimate son of the King of Draemin City, he was half a commoner.  
            It made for a lonely, difficult life.  He had no friends, no acquaintances.  No clan head’s son wanted to befriend him.  If it wasn’t for his half-brothers, he would have been unbearably lonely.  But now that he was in the army, he saw less and less of his brothers on a daily basis.  Even though Ean was in the cavalry, too, he was in another battalion.  By all accounts, he was fitting in well enough and was tremendously popular and sought after by his cohorts.  
            A long time later, exhausted and unsettled, he rose and felt his way blindly to the library, where he found the lever and pulled it until the wall swung inward and he stepped into the candlelit room.  There was no one in the library, but a cheerful fire crackled in the fireplace.  Behind him, the secret doorway swung shut with a soft click.  He ran his eyes wearily over the extensive shelves of books.  This room had been his solace when he had been younger.  He had spent a lot of time alone reading especially fairy tales and adventure stories.  The padded armchairs were comfortable and, on more than one occasion, his caretaker had found him curled up on an armchair, book open on his lap, fast asleep.
            He sighed and strode across the library to the door then stepped out into the hallway.  The library was one of the few rooms that was not guarded.  He breathed deeply and made his way down the wide hallway filled with paintings of his father’s ancestors. He had spent lots of time studying the cold, aloof faces painted in oil and strong colors and hung on the rough stone walls.  He felt no kinships to bygone kings and queens, princes and princesses.  He felt more kinship to the servants who tended to him, who held him in such high regard, who held him up as a shiny beacon of hope for their personal lives.  Some envied him but he was held dear by all the servants, as was his mother and her parents.  Of course, his mother had retreated from court years ago, to live at her parents’ villa south of the city.  She had not said why she had left court, but he fancied he could guess she had been belittled, teased, taunted and insulted on a daily basis by courtiers and the other of the king’s wives.  The only one of the wives to treat his mother kindly was Ariahl Solastis.  Kind and distant Ariahl Solastis, daughter of a despot.
            “Where did you go?” he heard from behind him.
            He turned to find his half-brothers striding down the hall to where he stood staring at the paintings on the wall.
            Lius smirked and threw his arm around Belihn’s shoulders.  “I bet he went to relieve the pressure from his kauon.”
            Ean and Vallaw chuckled.
            Belihn felt the hot blood rush to his head, leaving him lightheaded.
            “You don’t have to tell us,” Lius whispered in Belihn’s ears, bringing a rush of pleasure over his skin.  “I understand how it is.”
            Lius pulled him down the hallway,  “We need to find a girl for the four of us to share.”
            Ean whooped.  “Do you know someone?”
            Lius raised an eyebrow.  “Have I ever failed you, Ean?”
            Ean bowed.  “No, my prince.  You have not.  Who is the girl?”
            “Lania nei-Ys’teis,” Lius replied.
            “A bastard?” Vallaw asked.
            Lius rolled his eyes.  “A legitimate daughter would not service the four of us, you dolt!”
            Vallaw blushed.  “Uh–no, you’re right, of course.”
            Lius gave a huff of laughter.  “Besides, bastardy is not catching, Vallaw.  Are you afraid she’ll infect you?”
            Vallaw’s blush deepened.  “No.  I meant nothing by it.”
            Lius snorted and steered them towards the nearest tower.  
            “How old is Lania?” Ean asked.
            Lius gave a lazy shrug.  “She’s young:  sixteen, I think.  Does it matter?”
            Ean wrinkled his nose.  “I don’ want an old woman, that’s all.”
            Lius leered.  “I take sex as it comes, brother.  So should you.”
            Ean made a gagging sound, which sent Lius into peals of laughter.
            Belihn pulled from under Lius’ arm.  “I’m going to bow out of this one, Lius.  I had a summons from my mother and I’m supposed to head out to the vinyard today.”
            Lius shook his head.  “It won’t take long, Belihn.”
            “You go on without me,” Belihn said, turning away.  “It’s late enough in the day already.”
            “Suit yourself,” Lius said and turned away.
            He whispered something to Ean and Vallaw that made the other two burst out laughing.
            Belihn could just imagine what was said and his face flushed with blood again.  
His heart hurt when he thought of the distance between himself and his half-brothers. With a sigh, he made his way to the stairwell and headed up to the fifth floor to his suites, where he would pack and leave the city for the villa for a couple of days.

Chapter Fifty-Two: The Return Home

            Kah’len was kept busy during the day as he organized most of his army for the return to Draemin City. It seemed Lahn was avoiding him as he spent every waking hour with his family. Kah’len tried not to resent it, but he missed his husband with a bone-deep ache. He missed making love to him, tasting his kisses, and their late night conversations. He did his duty and bedded Ajla on a nightly basis, leaving her bed when his duty was performed. He no longer cared if he pleased her or not. She was demanding, haranguing, and unpleasant to be around. She accused him of preferring her brother to her, of being something less than a man, and threatened to have their marriage dissolved. Finally, after several days of her demands, he visited King Fael Obeli at his inn room.

            When he stepped into the tavern where the King was being housed, the Southern guards snapped to attention and allowed him to go up the stairs to the second floor. Once before the King’s room, one of the guards outside the door announced him, then allowed him entrance.

            He found King Obeli and Lahn in the room.

            Kah’len bowed to them. “Good morrow, your Majesty, your Holiness.”

            Lahn mumbled something and dropped into his armchair.

            King Obeli stepped forward and grasped Kah’len’s forearm. “How is my son-in-law this morning?”

            “I am well, your Majesty, but I need to speak to you about your daughter’s behavior.”

            Lahn snorted before he smoothed his features into a bland mask.

            The King gave his middle son a withering glare before turning back to Kah’len. “Have a seat, Warlord.”

            Kah’len sat down across from them.

            When the King sat down, he said, “Do you wish to speak in private?”

            “Lahn is my advisor, your Majesty, I do not mind if he remains.”

            The King gave a pleased nod and crossed his legs. “Then speak your mind, Warlord.”

            Kah’len cleared his throat. “I’ve done everything to please Ajla, your Majesty. I bed her each night, as is my duty and responsibility. I’ve tried to befriend her, but she does not want a friend in me. She simply wants a child from me and naught more. Then she turns around and accuses me of preferring Lahn to her and threatens to annul our marriage. I am a busy man, your Majesty. At the end of the day, I don’t want a daily argument with your daughter.”

            The King sighed. “This whole matter has gone to her head. Let me assure you, I will not allow your marriage to be dissolved. How you discipline your wife is your business, not mine. I give you full authority to discipline her, as she belongs to you now. Take a firm hand with her, Warlord. She was always a sweet girl, but I don’t know what has happened to her. She has become willful and proud. We certainly can’t control her.”

            “As long as I have your assurance that the marriage will remain intact,” Kah’len stated. “Then I will go ahead and take disciplinary action.”

            Lahn shifted. “Let me speak to her before you discipline her, my lord. Please.”

            Kah’len glanced at his husband. “If you think you can help, Lahn, I welcome it.”

            “We are heading to Draemin City tomorrow,” Lahn murmured. “Your other wives will be there. I would that Ajla not be a thorn at your side. You already have difficult women to contend with, specifically Sjanita. Let me try to reason with Ajla, to put the fear of the Goddess in her. She will need to befriend the other wives if she knows what is good for her. One can die of loneliness, you know.”

            The King made a sign to avert evil, which Lahn echoed.

            Kah’len smiled at Lahn. “I’ve missed your friendship and counsel, Lahn.”

            Lahn blushed. “I’m sorry, Warlord. I’ve wanted to see as much as my family as I could. Goddess only knows when I’ll be able to again.”

            “I know,” Kah’len assured him. “That is why I’ve not taken your absence personally.”

            The King cleared his throat. “Do you love my son, Warlord?”

            “Yes,” Kah’len answered without hesitation. “He is a friend to me. A valued friend, I assure you.”

            The King smiled. “That is good to hear.”

            Lahn rose. “I will go and talk to Ajla now. She is with mother in her room. Excuse me, Father, Husband.”

            Kah’len rose and watched as Lahn made his way out of the room and into the quiet hallway.

            “Sit, please, Warlord,” the King said.

            Kah’len sat down.

            The King signaled for a servant. “Serve some mi’disj, please.”

            Kah’len watched as the servants poured two glasses of the fiery, sweet liqueur. He took his glass and thanked the servant.

            The King took his glass and sipped from it, sitting back with a satisfied sigh. He gazed at Kah’len with a weighty glance. “I would that your family and mine vacation together every two or three years, my lord. The idea of not seeing Lahn, Bhar or Ajla for long years does not sit well with me.”

            “That can certainly be arranged, your Majesty. I certainly do not relish the idea of having a child and not giving you access to him or her.”

            The King’s face broke out into a pleased smile, making him seem years younger. “Thank you, my lord. That means a lot to my wife and myself. With Bhar and Ajla gone, our house is empty of children. I have grandchildren from my heir, Nhove, but our children mean the most to us. We see our grandchildren irregularly, since running the government keeps me so busy. My wife is busy as well, with her charity work and her art.”

            Kah’len returned his smile. “I had heard your wife is an accomplished artist.”

            “So is Ajla. Did you know?”

            Kah’len grimaced. “The girl does not share her accomplishments with me.”

            The King sighed. “That is a tragedy. I, too, will speak to her as soon as possible, my lord. It would behoove her to behave better.”

            Kah’len smiled again. “She seems to forget there are three other queens to share her role. I cannot hold one favored among the others, for the sake of peace.”

            The King nodded. “I know. How will you choose your heir?”

            “That is a good question. I have thought long and hard about this conundrum. I don’t think age should be a factor. I’d like my heir to share my perspective and mores. My heir will be a person of strong character, a military man, a person of compassion and faith. That I can assure you.”

            “And you won’t consider your daughters as heirs?” the King prompted.

            “No. For myself, I care naught the gender of the heir, for my mother is a strong woman, as is my sister. But North Torahn’s aristocracy is not friendly to women and not open to one ruling. It would mean a civil war and I will not plunge my nation into chaos.”

            “I see your point,” the King replied.  He shook his head. “Then I’ll pray Ajla gives you a son.”

            Kah’len chuckled. “She is strong enough that I do not worry on that account.”

            The King laughed, too. “Yes, I daresay.” He rose. “I bless you, Kah’len Tjashensi, in the name of my god. May you be blessed with many sons and daughters.”

            Kah’len rose and bowed. “Thank you, your Majesty.”

            The King surprised him by hugging him.

            “You are a delight, Warlord,” the King said in his ear. “A man of high principles and strong character. I could not have wanted more in a son-in-law.”

            They stepped apart.

            Kah’len took his leave and went out into the hall then down the stairs and out into the overcast late morning. The air tasted of rain and he welcomed the cool, moist breezes on his skin.

            That night, Kah’len did not visit his wife’s room at the inn. He went drinking with his two commanders and Lahn in a tavern in town. The tavern was less crowded than it had been previously, for many of the aristocratic visitors had departed that same day. Kah’len and most of the army would be headed back to Draemin City the following day. The rain had returned with a vengeance, falling in torrents, obscuring distances and soaking into cloaks. Kah’len entered the tavern ahead of his friends and his husband, removing his cloak and shaking it to release moisture. A serving lad led them to an open table, taking their damp cloaks to hang them near the fireplace to dry. Kah’len ordered a decanter of ekila and the tavern’s special for the evening. They took their seats as the serving lad went to place their order for food and drinks.

            Kah’len leaned forward and placed his forearms on the table. He looked pointedly at Lahn. “How did your conversation with your sister go?”

            “I put the fear of the Goddess in her,” Lahn replied smugly.

            Kah’len sighed. “I suppose that was necessary?”

            Lahn shrugged. “She wasn’t listening to reason. I threatened to curse her if she didn’t start to behave in a civilized manner. She absolutely loathes me right now.”

            Kah’len said nothing as their decanter of ekila and four glasses were set before them. He studied Lahn’s beautiful face as he poured drinks around the table, serving himself last. Kah’len felt his heart full to brimming when he beheld his husband. He swallowed a sigh and glanced away. There were plenty of obstacles in their way, he was sure. There were four queens, each proud and strong in their own way, each vying to take center stage in Kah’len’s life, vying for his attention, his love, his seed. Lahn would be his anchor in the storm, his confidant and advisor. Despite his youth, he was wise in his way, calm and centered beyond his tender years. Kah’len would lean on him, despite his frayed trust in the youth. He would have to trust him and the Goddess with his life and his children.

            He threw back his first drink and set his glass down with a thud, picking up the decanter to refill his glass. Goddess help him. The journey was merely commencing.

            Later, when they had dined and drank a goodly amount of alcohol, Kah’len took Lahn’s hand and ran with him under the rain to his tent. They giggled like children as they ducked under eaves and jumped over puddles until they were ducking into Kah’len’s empty pavilion. They looked at each other and laughed as they removed their wet cloaks and Kah’len spread them out each near a brazier. Kah’len’s tent was so large, it required at least two braziers to send warmth into its four corners.

            Kah’len yawned and stretched, kicking off his muddy boots.

            “You’ll be retiring now?” Lahn asked timidly.

            Kah’len turned. “Take those muddy boots off and remove your clothes. Yes, I am going to bed and you’re coming with me.”

            Lahn smiled with relief. “Right away.”

            Kah’len turned away and began removing his sword belt and knife belt, setting them near the bed. He doffed his tunic, his undertunic and thick trousers, dropping them on the floor for the servants to pick up. Lust made him desperate and messy. His kaoun was already engorged and damp from precum. He could smell his arousal and sighed. Unbraiding his hair, he parted the curtain in front of the bed and tied it back. He climbed under the bedclothes and turned to face Lahn.

            Lahn removed the last of his clothes and folded them, setting them on a chair, before picking up Kah’len’s discarded clothing and folded them as well.

            “Leave that,” Kah’len barked impatiently. “Come here.”

            The youth blushed and ducked his head, but did as Kah’len asked. He dropped the folded clothes on a chair and made his way to the bed.

            Kah’len watched him hungrily. The youth was not aroused, but his gorgeous kauon was a feast for Kah’len’s eyes. Lahn was slender and firm, with just enough musculature to please Kah’len.

            He slid under the bedclothes and turned to face Kah’len.

            Kah’len cupped his face. “Don’t look so frightened, lad. I’m not devouring you tonight.”

            Lahn blushed. “I’m sorry.”

            “Don’t be. Do you smell how much I want you?”

            Lahn ducked his head and gave a shy nod.

            “Good. My body cannot lie to you, Lahn. I may have four wives, but you are my home. And this is my return home.”

            He pulled Lahn to him and kissed him, nipping at his lower lip. Lahn opened his mouth and Kah’len delved in, tasting the smoky flavor of ekila on his tongue.

            Lahn kissed him back and Kah’len moaned, pressing his erection to the youth’s thigh.

            They parted and Lahn’s gorgeous eyes looked deep into Kah’len’s. “You are my home, too. I love you, Kah’len Tjashensi.”

            “And I love you, Lahn,” Kah’len said softly, caressing his face and soft dark hair. “Unbraid your hair.”

            Lahn did as he asked, releasing the dark strands of his hair. They gleamed blue-black in the light from the oil lamps.

            Kah’len stroked his hair. “I may be aroused, my love, but all I want is to hold you until morning. Let my heart heal and my desire for you strengthen.”

            Lahn cuddled near, resting the top of his head under Kah’len’s chin and wrapped his arms around him.

            Kah’len smiled as he closed his eyes. Let tomorrow wait. For now, he was home.

Chapter Fifty-One: A Night of Revelry

            When his family arrived from their journey from the coast, Lahn had gone to see them. They had commandeered an entire floor of the cleanest, most pleasing inn in the border town. Guards stood at the front and back of the inn, the eating hall, and the stairs leading to the top floors. The King and Queen and their family were located on the fourth floor of the spacious inn. Lahn gave his name to the guards on the stairs and then he was led up three floors.

            “Wait here,” one of his guards told Lahn and knocked on the door.

            The door was opened by a servant.

            “His Excellency Lahn Tjashensi-Obeli to see his and her majesties,” the guard told the servant.

            The servant opened the door wider and the guards stepped to one side to allow Lahn entrance.

            The room was modestly large, with tapestries crowding the walls and throw rugs covering the dark wooden floor. A canopy had been constructed over the double bed. Gilded plush furniture had been crowded into the space. His mother and father stood in the middle of the room. When he stepped into their line of sight, his mother cried out and fainted. Servants rushed to revive her as his father stepped over her prone form and placed his hands on Lahn’s shoulders.

            “Look at you, Lahn Obeli,” his father said in his low, smooth voice.

            To Lahn, the King looked older. Lines were carved to the outside of his eyes and his forehead. Gray tinged his temples and the long sideburns that he now sported. His chest-lengthed hair was held in two tight braids, as was the fashion in South Torahn. His father’s honey-tinted complexion bloomed with health, however, and his eyes were clear and discerning.

            “Hello, my boy,” the Red King murmured.

            “Hello, your Majesty,” Lahn replied and bowed. “Welcome to North Torahn.”

            The King smiled and embraced Lahn.

            The Queen had been revived and now the servants were helping her rise. She sat down in an armchair and gazed at Lahn with longing.

            “Lahn,” she said softly.

            “Hello, Mother,” he replied.

            Her gaze took in his vestments. “Come here, child.”

            He stepped back from his father and went to kneel before her.

            “You adore their Goddess now,” the Queen said accusingly, her nostrils flaring. “You are one of their priests!”

            “Much has happened, your Majesty,” he said neutrally. “A battle was fought for my soul and the Goddess prevailed. She chose me, and I worship her.”

            His mother had aged, too, although it was subtle. There were no lines on her face and no gray at her temples. But she seemed weighed down somehow.

            “Tell me everything,” she demanded.

            He rose and took a seat on the armchair nearest her. “And where shall I start, Mother?”

            “Bring ekila and wine!” the King ordered and took a seat across from Lahn.

            “Tell me of this battle the gods fought for your soul,” the Queen said.

            So Lahn told them of every vision he had had and how the Goddess won him to Her side. They listened without interruption, their eyes hungrily studying him. Often, the Queen would reach out and take Lahn’s hand, squeezing it, as if she could not believe it was him. By the time Lahn had finished his story, the sun had begun to set outside and cool breezes rifled the gauzy curtains. Servants had lit candles and oil lamps inside the room. The buttery light threw strong shadows against walls.

            Lahn sipped his dram of ekila.

            His mother brought his hand to her lips and kissed it. “And this Warlord–is he your friend?”

            “He is my husband and my friend,” Lahn reminded her, lifting his left hand to show the sol’eka bracelet and its accompanying gold ring.

            “We had no idea you were atoliy,” his father told him, sitting back to enjoy some mi’disj.

            “Neither did I,” Lahn replied. “I was prepared to give up sexual relations for the sake of my faith.”

            His mother leaned forward. “Are you happy, Lahn?”

            “As happy as I can be,” he told her.

            She made an unhappy sound.

            He shook his head. “I am the Oracle of a god, Mother, and the Prei-Serren of her warrior sect. She is not kind to me.”

            “You’re twenty,” his father said. “You are too young for these responsibilities!”

            “You were ten when you took the throne, Father,” Lahn reminded him gently.

            The King shifted in his armchair and looked away. “Yes, you are correct. You are a young man now, not a child.” His sharp gaze snarled Lahn’s. “Does the Warlord treat you well?”

            “He is kind and generous with me, Father. He takes care of me and I of him.”

            The King nodded after a moment and emptied his glass, handing it to a nearby servant. “Bring us our repast for the evening.”

            The servant bowed and hurried to the door and out into the dim hallway.

            “You’ll eat with us, Lahn?” the King said.

            “I’d be honored, Father.”

            “You look so much like me,” the Queen said softly, her eyes filling with tears. She kissed Lahn’s hand.

            Lahn smiled at her. “I do, Mother.”

            “And Ajla looks just like you,” his father said and shook his head. “Like twins. You haven’t seen her since when, child?”

            “She was seven,” Lahn reminded him gently.

            “Yes,” the King agreed. “You entered that infernal monastery at the tender age of 15. She cried when you left.”

            Lahn cocked his head. “She did? Well, I was kind to her, as I recall.”

            The Queen gave an inelegant snort. “Unlike Bhar, who is relentless in his chiding her.”

            “They are closer in age,” Lahn said and sipped his liqueur. “Two years apart, which would make him fourteen now.“

            The King crossed his legs and looked away. “He hero worships that Warlord of yours.”

            Lahn’s mouth grew dry. “Does he?”

            The King shook his head. “It’s all about the army for that boy. That’s all he ever wanted to be is a soldier.”

            There was a knock on the door and then Ajla swept in. Lahn rose slowly. She looked older than twelve. She looked at least seventeen and as gorgeous as their mother. Her hair was piled artlessly on her head, a fashion that came from Tjish.un and was making a dent in South Torahn’s aristocratic circles. The dark blue velvet dress she wore left her shoulders and arms bare. The bodice was tight, showcasing her slender figure and forcing her small breasts up.

             “Mother, come and help me dress! I have to see what I’ll look like,” she said breathlessly.

            The Queen rose. “Ajla, don’t you recall your older brother, Lahn?”

            Ajla stopped and looked at Lahn as he stood next to his chair. She cocked his head. “He looks like me.”

            “Greet your brother, Ajla,” the King said.

            She walked to where Lahn stood and pressed a kiss to his right cheek. She did not have to rise to her tiptoes, for she was as tall as he.

            “Well met, brother,” she said softly, her eyes studying his features.

            “Well met, Ajla.”

            They stared at one another. There was nothing warm about her, nothing recognizable to him. She was as distant as the horizon, as cold as frozen Yllysia near the top of the world.

            She cocked her head. “You are married to the Warlord.”

            He straightened his back. “Yes.”

            “But you cannot give him children,” she stated coolly.

            “Ajla!” the King barked.

            Lahn raised his chin. “He loves me and what I can give him only I can give him. I give him the Goddess and her blessing.”

            She crossed her arms over her small breasts. “Don’t you dare curse me!”

            The Queen was at Ajla’s side in two long strides. She slapped the girl hard.

            Ajla cried out. “Mother!”

            “There will be no talk of curses! Not on the eve of your wedding day!”

            The girl looked resentfully at Lahn. “He cannot love you like he would love a woman! You’re a man!”

            “He’s atoliy,” Lahn had the pleasure of stating.

            Her face crumbled and then she was running in tears from the room.

            The Queen looked exasperated. “Did you have to tell her that?”

            Lahn crossed his arms over his chest. “She isn’t very warm or approachable, but I don’t want to make her an enemy.”

            “Then don’t,” the King snapped.

            Lahn looked at his father. “I’m not going to court her friendship. When we get to Draemin City, she can lean on me or not. It’s up to her, but I’ll tell you: She will make no friends if she behaves this way all the time, petulant and spoiled.”

            The King sighed and scritched his growth of beard. “It is my great fear that she will be lonely so far north.”

            “Then talk to her, Father,” Lahn implored.

            “Don’t you think I have?” the King growled. “She is full of her own importance since we told her she will be Queen of North Torahn one day. I don’t even recognize her myself.”

            “Then I hope Kah’len can reach her,” Lahn murmured.

            After the wedding ceremony was done and the wedding dances were danced, Lahn remained near the raised stage, wondering what he was going to do with the rest of his night.

            “Dress a bit more comfortably, Excellency, and you may join Daven and myself,” Aud offered.

            Lahn looked down on his ostentatious outfit and snorted. “Yes. I’d best do that. Can I count on you to get me nice and drunk and then see me to my tent?”

            Aud brought his fist to this chest and bowed. “You are in our capable hands.”

            Lahn snorted again and shook his head. “Then come. I’ll go to my tent and change.”

            Lahn’s pavilion was not as large as Kah’len’s, but several people could reside in it comfortably. There was a double bed, a desk and chair, a table with a washbasin, folded towels and washcloths and cakes of soap. His clothes chest stood at the foot of the bed. The floor was strewn with throw rugs. A thick curtain allowing for privacy while he slept was placed as a wall between the bed and the rest of the tent. In his sleeping area, Lahn pulled out a warm tunic and pair of trousers from his clothes chest and dressed while his companions for the evening teased one another in the main part of the tent. Lahn folded his official vestments and set them in the clothes chest, the conical hat last. He slid his feet into his travel boots and came out into the tent proper.

            “How do I look?” he asked.

            “Unrecognizable,” Daven assured him. “Now we can find ourselves a nice tavern which isn’t brimming to the gills with guests and we can have ourselves a little party.”

            Grateful for their company and humbled by their kindness, Lahn followed them out into the night. The din of celebration was deafening. Guests continued to dance under the stars while guards patrolled the peripheries of the town. Tables had been set up near the dancing for partygoers to rest and converse. Daven and Aud led them past these occupied tables and into the town.

            The town of Safinis was nothing to brag about, but it boasted three taverns and two inns. The taverns and inns mostly catered to merchants, trappers and traders, as well as soldiers. The clapboard houses were treated to make them resistant to the sunlight and the weather, so all the buildings were a warm brown color. Only the windowsills were painted different colors, as were the doors. The roofs were shingled with clay and were bright red in color. The town was already growing into something not quite charming anymore. It had begun to sprawl in every direction with single- and two-story houses.

            Aud and Daven led him to a tavern at the edge of town, where it was quieter. Even so, it was mostly full except for two tables at the back of the room. Sawdust had been thrown on the floor to absorb spills and vomit from those who over-imbibed.

            They commandeered one of the empty tables, with Aud facing away from the room and Daven and Lahn facing him. It took a few minutes before the busty serving girl took their orders and squealed, sliding away from Aud’s groping hands.

            Daven knocked on the tabletop. “Behave yourself. We’re with his Excellency here.”

            Aud snorted but sobered. “Fine. Are you hungry, lad?”

            “No,” Lahn replied honestly. The thought of food made him sick.

            “We’ll eat later,” Daven offered.

            The serving girl brought them a decanter of ekila and three glasses. Aud handed her two coins for the drink and one coin for her.

            She smiled at him and walked away swinging her hips. Aud yipped appreciatively, which made others around them laugh.

            Daven poured them drinks and slid Lahn’s glass his way.

            Lahn emptied the glass in one swallow, coughing as the liqueur burned down his throat.

            “Slow down, Excellency,” Aud murmured and sipped his drink.

            “Call me Lahn,” Lahn groused.

            Aud nodded. “Fine. Lahn.”

            “How are you, Lahn,” Daven asked quietly.

            “I’m not sure,” Lahn replied. “I don’t know how I feel after every one of his marriages.”

            “Except your own, I’m sure,” Daven offered.

            Lahn chuckled. “You might suspect, but you’d be wrong.” He sighed and sipped his fresh drink. “No. I’ve always been conflicted when it comes to Kah’len Tjashensi.”

            “But you love him,” Aud prompted.

            “Yes. I love him.”

            “And now he married your sister,” Daven offered helpfully.

            Lahn frowned. “Yes. Now he married my sister. And what a little bitch she is, too.” He shook his head and sipped his drink. Already, he could feel the edges of his misery softening and numbing. “I went to see her, to see if we could be friends…”

            “And?” Aud said.

            “And she doesn’t want a friend or a brother.”

            “What is she?” Daven asked. “Twelve? It’s all gone to her head, I’m sure, Lahn. But she’ll come around when she finds she is lonely.”

            “She forgets she will rule alongside three other queens,” Lahn said, tasting satisfaction on his tongue. He grinned. “She’s in for quite the sousing.”

            Aud raised an eyebrow. “And you’ll be there to enjoy it.”

            “I will not lie,” Lahn said. “But I’ll be too busy to worry about when my sister gets hers.”

            “That you will be,” Daven agreed and poured him more liqueur.

            Aud leaned forward and rested his forearms on the table. “Tell us about the other wives. Are they beautiful?”

            Lahn’s mouth twisted into a grimace. “Nothing but the finest for the Warlord of North Torahn. They are all beautiful. Some are nice, like his North Torahni wife and his R’Nonayan wife. Some not so much, like the she-devil that comes from Tjish.un. And now my sister. He has his hands full.”

            Aud shook his head. “What I would give to be Kah’len! He doesn’t even appreciate what he has.”

            Lahn did not think that was an accurate statement, but his mind was resting on the placid waters of his inebriation. He was smiling and laughing with his two friends and feeling no pain. When he thought of Kah’len, he did so with a small sorrow that merely tinged the edges of his mind. He missed the Warlord and the lovemaking he would not be making this night, but he was stronger than his weaknesses. He would survive this night and do it in good company before the morrow rudely awakened him.

Chapter Fifty: The Marriage of North and South

            Kah’len lingered at the border waiting for his bride. While he waited for the girl, he organized the army that would remain behind when he left. His days were full of activity and, at night, he made love to Lahn and slept in his warm arms. They would talk for hours on end. Lahn was thirsty for information about Kah’len’s youth, his exploits, his friendships. Kah’len was amused and touched by the young priest. When Lahn was lost in what he was saying, he would move his hands expressively, his eyes large and lively. He looked young and carefree then. Kah’len’s love for the youth grew in leaps and bounds. They cemented their friendship during those dusty weeks at the border, and Kah’len would always remember that time as the happiest he had ever been.

            Princess Ajla Obeli arrived at the border exactly six weeks after the peace accord. With her came the King and Queen of South Torahn, their children, and an entourage of aristocrats who came to witness the wedding. The inns were at the border town of Safin were soon filled to capacity. A stage had been built in the middle of the town and decorated to resemble a gazebo. The gazebo structure had been festooned with flowers and colorful ribbons that snapped in the breeze. Flower petals and sweet rushes had been thrown over the ground. Tall lampposts had been raised around the stage and oil lamps hung from their hooks.

            Kah’len was not allowed to meet the princess until the wedding, but he did meet the King and Queen of South Torahn. Fael Dhin Obeli, the Red King, was still young, in his late thirties or early forties, as was his Queen, Elea Obeli-Savah. They made a handsome, if stuffy, couple. With them had come Nhove Obeli, their oldest son and heir, and his family: his wife Hana, and his children Quan, Atha, and Tarei, who was a newborn. Then there was Bhar Obeli, a fourteen year old eager to join the military. His eyes shone with admiration when he looked upon Kah’len. He was organized and highly intelligent, but he, thankfully, had a mischievous sense of humor. He was strapping and tall, looking older than his age, and by the end of the first day, Kah’len asked that Tarei be allowed to remain with him as his aide. He would be conscripted into the armed forces as soon as the lad turned fifteen. The boy trailed him wherever Kah’len went. Kah’len was amused and touched. He looked so much like Lahn, so eager and capable even at his young age.

            The night of the wedding celebration, the moon rose full and gold. The sky was full of stars. People arrived at the raised platform hours before the ceremony. It was an odd sight, common soldiers mingling with the aristocracy in their finest. Jewels winked on ladies’ throats and pinned to their hair. Gentlemen in satin and silk talked with soldiers in dress uniforms. Kah’len, gazing from his pavilion, was deeply moved and his mind filled with possibilities for the future. Behind him, Tarei Bhar talked about his sister to Commanders Aud and Daven. The youth was full of humorous stories about his little sister, whom he irreverently referred to as a stick in the mud like his mother.

            “You shouldn’t talk about your sister like that,” Kah’len said over his shoulder.

            Tarei snorted. “Wait until you meet her. She’s so proper, it’s like someone stuck a pole up her arse.”

            Commander Aud coughed into his hand and pursed his lips.

            Kah’len turned. “She is going to be a Queen soon, Bhar. I would like you to respect her.”

            Bhar rolled his eyes. “Begging your pardon, my lord, but she is already full of her own importance. She could use a douse of reality.”

            Kah’len sighed.

            Daven indicated Bhar with a hand. “I think the boy has a point. She won’t get along with the other Queens if she is uppity. You want peace in the harem, yes?”

            “Harem,” Kah’len mouthed with distaste and shook his head. “I suppose you are right, Daven.”

            Bhar whooped and clapped his hands. “You’ll thank me, my lord! I’ll keep her feet grounded on the earth. You should hear how poorly she treats the servants now that she is going to be a queen. I just don’t know where she learned her manners, that one.”

            There was a scratch at the pavilion flap.

            “Come!” Kah’len called.

            A guard ducked into the tent. “Begging your pardon, Warlord. The Oracle is ready for the ceremony to proceed.”

            Kah’len nodded. “Then we are, too. Daven, Aud, with me. Behave yourself, Bhar!”

            Bhar bowed. “I won’t embarrass you, Warlord.”

            Kah’len ducked under the tent flap and stepped out into the cool evening. The congregation was silent as he made his way with his two commanders at his back. He climbed up the five wooden steps to the platform, where Lahn waited, dressed in full priestly regalia. His long, gold outer robes glinted in the buttery light from the oil lamps. They fell to the ground. A gold rope belt cinched around his trim waist. His conical hat was adorned with jewels and pearls. He looked every bit the Prei-Serren of Draemin City-State. His eyes watched Kah’len coolly as Kah’len walked up to the stage and bowed to him.

            “Excellency,” he said softly.

            Lahn’s gaze roamed hungrily over Kah’len’s form. “Warlord.”

            A horn sounded from left of the congregation. The gathering parted like a sea and an escort of six guards carrying candles led the way for the little princess. Kah’len almost gaped. She looked older than her twelve years, tall and graceful and poised. She wore a light green satin dressed tight around her waist. The bodice of the dress was full of pearls and emeralds. The train of the dress was full and fell to the ground, the train trailing several feet behind her. The train, too, was studded with pearls. She wore a long silk veil dotted with emeralds and pearls. Her slender arms were bare and pale in the lamplight. Her neck was elegant and slender and a dark green satin choker enveloped it. She looked neither left nor right as she glided over flowers petals and rushes until she came to the platform, where a young guard took her arms and guided her up the five steps. Her eyes raised and she gazed at Kah’len with curiosity. She had large pale gray eyes surrounded by long sooty lashes. Her resemblance to Lahn constricted his heart. Her full lips were identical to his. It was almost as if they were twins.

            Kah’len turned to face her.

            Lahn took Kah’len’s left hand and her right hand and joined them.

            Ajla’s hand was cold and slender. Her eyes observed Kah’len fearlessly and boldly.

            “We are here to join North and South Torahn,” Lahn intoned, his voice carrying easily in the silence. “We are here among gods, blessed and conscripted into their holy plans. I bless this marriage to be long lived and full of joy, laughter, and friendship. May you be blessed with many, many children.” Lahn cleared his throat. “The Goddess of North Torahn blesses you, Ajla Obeli-Savah.” He placed his hand on her head and she bowed her head to accept his blessing. “The Goddess of North Torahn blesses you, Ajla Obeli-Savah.” He placed his hand on her groin and murmured a prayer.

            Lahn turned to Kah’len. His gorgeous eyes were faraway and cold. “I bless you, Kah’len Tjashensi, Warlord of North Torahn.” He touched Kah’len’s forehead then placed a hand on his groin. “I bless you, Kah’len Tjashensi, in the name of Holy Atana.”

            Lahn raised his arms over his head. “Marriage is entered humbly and with good intentions. This marriage is between two nations, two peoples, two cultures. I bless it in the name of Holy Atana. May whomever opposes this union speak now or forever refrain.”

            Silence reigned over the congregation.

            Lahn lowered his arms and reached behind him, picking up a sol’eka bracelet with its accompanying ring. He took Kah’len’s left arm, already holding four sol’ekas. He placed the final sol’eka near the elbow and closed the clasp. He then ran the thin gold chain along the Warlord’s forearm to his middle finger, where four thin bands already congregated. Lahn slipped the final band over Kah’len’s middle finger. The band came to the knuckle and would make bending the digit quite difficult for the Warlord.

            “I marry you Kah’len Tjashensi to Ajla Obeli-Savah,” Lahn intoned.

            Then Lahn turned around, picked up the second sol’eka bracelet and placed it on the princess’ slender right wrist, slipping the slender band over her middle finger. “I marry you, Ajla Obeli-Savah, to the Warlord of North Torahn, Kah’len Tjashensi.”

            Lahn turned to the congregation and lifted their hands into the air. “I declare this couple married in the name of Holy Atana, Maiden, Warrior and Mother!”

            Kah’len stepped to Ajla, lifted her diaphanous veil, and pressed a chaste kiss to her mouth.

            The congregation erupted into cheers and hoots. Soldiers stamped their feet.

            Kah’len led Ajla down to the ground, where musicians had begun to play traditional Northern Torahn songs. The congregation parted to allow the couple to lead the traditional wedding dance. Even though Ajla did not know the dance, she was light in Kah’len’s arms and was a quick study. Her face flushed and her eyes glittered and her smile made her quite beautiful. He spun her around, lifting her over his head, then setting her down once more. She laughed breathlessly and he joined her. They came into each other’s arms and spun as the music grew faster. Other couples were spinning around in a large circle near them.

            After several dances with his wife, the father of the bride took his turn with the young woman.

            Kah’len turned away, ready for a dram of wine or ekila.

            “My lord.”

            Kah’len turned.

            Elea Obeli-Savah, Queen of South Torahn, curtsied. “May I have this dance?”

            “Of course, your Majesty,” he dutifully replied and took her in his arms.

            They danced for a few minutes in silence.

            “Be kind and gentle with Ajla,” the Queen said. “She looks poised and serious, but she is still only a child.”

            “I would not bed her until she is of age,” he murmured.

            She stiffened. “She is of age for an aristocrat. You must bed her and cement our treaty with a child.”

            “It is dangerous for a girl of her age to carry a child to term,” he said gently.

            She chuckled. “I had my first at eleven, my lord. She comes from good breeding stock. She is sturdy and healthy.”

            “Yes, your Majesty,” he said, suddenly weary to his soul.

            “And are you and my son friends?” she prompted.

            “We are becoming so,” he replied. “He pleases me and I love him with all my heart.”

            She pulled back to gaze into his eyes. “You do love him. I can see it in you when you look at him. I don’t expect you to love Ajla in the same way, but I don expect you to respect her, to befriend her, and to treat her kindly.”

            “Upon my honor, it shall be so.”

            She gazed into his eyes for a long time before she nodded. “I believe you, Warlord of North Torahn.”

            “Thank you,” he murmured.

            Her gaze turned steely. “We will not leave the border until my child quickens with life, Warlord. You must know this.”

            “I had no idea,” he assured her. “But it seems prudent of you.”

            She smiled coldly. “So diplomatic for one so young.”

            She stepped out of the circle of his arms. “We have an understanding, you and I?”

            He bowed. “We do, your Majesty.”

            She gave a satisfied nod and glided away.

            That night, in Kah’len’s spacious pavilion, he stayed up late conversing with his new bride. He attempted to set her mind at ease, but she was adamant that he bed her and get her with child. She had no interest in courting his friendship, it seemed. He sighed and did his best to please her in bed. It helped that she seemed older than her years, that her body was fully developed, slender and beautiful. It was certainly no hardship to bed her, to enter her tight velvety heat. He did not kiss her, though, and she did not asked to be kissed. He took her thrice until she felt into a deep, exhausted sleep. Then he lay awake the remainder of the night, his skin perfumed by her scent, the smell of sex and sweat clinging to his flesh. He found himself disliking her and her quickly strangled those emotions. He would be friendly and respectful towards her, but they would not ever be friends.

Chapter Forty-Nine: The Peace Accord

            Weariness thickened his thoughts and made his joints slow. They had been holed up in Kah’len’s tent for all the night and most of the morning, stopping only to eat and relieve themselves. Lahn yawned behind his hand and watched as Oona Thalmar signed the peace accord between Tjish.un and North Torahn, followed by Kah’len’s own signature. As Lahn watched, a duplicate was also signed. Fine sand was poured over the documents to absorb the excess ink, then Kah’len was presented with one accord and Oona Thalmar with another. Oona and Kah’len rose and hugged.

            “You’ve made me proud, child,” Lady Thalmar murmured. “As soon as I deliver the accord to the Queen, I will bring your sister and her family back to Draemin City.”

            “Thank you, Mother. Also bring Lady Sjanita and her child,” Kah’len said.

            Oona nodded and pressed a kiss to his mouth. “It shall be done, child. Worry naught. Within six months, we shall be back home.”

            The others rose as the lady made her way from the tent.

            They sat down to write up the peace accord between the Isemi and North Torahn. The peace accord between R’Nonay and North Torahn had already been completed, with a promise that Lady Ariahl Solastis would be brought to Draemin City. According to General Soltas Eskar, the lady was with child, so it was best to undergo a sea voyage as soon as possible. He left Kah’len’s tent with the promise that he himself would escort the Oligarch’s daughter to North Torahn within six months. The General had departed the border a few hours before and made his way towards the city of Sena on the coast.

             Kah’len wrote down on the peace accord that the Isemi now owned the land west of the Khaine River from the tributaries in the south to the mouth of the Khaine in the north. The Isemi would share the bounty of the Khaine River with settlers just east of the river. Kah’len read the words as he wrote them, for he knew the Isemi could neither read nor write. As he said the words, the Pauk-an, or Isemi ambassador, sang the words to recall them. When they were done drawing up the treaty, Kah’len signed it and Tauk-na Oter Masivo, King of the Isemi, wrote an X in blood. He then used his dagger to slice a cut down Kah’len’s left palm. The Isemi cut the palm of his right hand and he joined their hands so their blood would mingle.

            “We are siblings,” Oter Masivo declared, his dark, handsome face splitting into a grin. “You attack us, you attack your family.”

            “I understand,” Kah’len assured him.

            Kah’len took his hand back and poured fine sand over both documents before pouring the sand back in its holder and rolling up the Isemi’s document and handing it to Oter Masivo.

            “If ever there is a disagreement,” Kah’len stated. “Show the leader of my people this paper.”

            Oter Masivo and his companion rose and bowed.

            “I understand,” the Tauk-na stated.

            The others rose as the Isemi stalked out of the tent into the warm afternoon.

            Kah’len turned back to the table.

            “That just leaves me,” Prince Nhove stated with a smirk.

            “I apologize, your Highness,” Kah’len stated. “I needed to leave yours last, for I will now make the greatest concessions.”

            Prince Nhove raised a speculative eyebrow. “How so?”

            “I will move the border between North and South Torahn 10 miles north. That means City Sena will come under the Red King’s jurisdiction.”

            Prince Nhove opened his lips and closed them with a click. “What must we do for you?”

            Kah’len smiled without humor. “I would appreciate if the Red King will help me secure North Torahn under my rule.”

            Prince Nhove sat back in his chair. “I have a sister. We will support your rule, if you marry my sister. The ten miles won’t be necessary.”

            Lahn scowled. “And my marriage to the Warlord?”

            Prince Nhove waved a dismissive hand. “You can’t have children, Lahn.”

            Lahn swallowed. “How old is Ajla now?”

            “Twelve,” his brother replied serenely.

            “You know I already have three wives,” Kah’len told the prince.

            Prince Nhove nodded. “I know, Warlord. How much is peace worth to you?”

            Kah’len glanced at Lahn, but Lahn’s kept his face a bland mask.

            “Do what you must, Warlord,” Lahn stated coldly.

            Kah’len sighed. “Very well. You forfeit the 10 miles and City Sena and I marry your sister.”

            “You come to the capital of South Torahn,” Prince Nhove said.

            Kah’len shook his head. “No. The wedding will take place here, at the border.”

            Prince Nhove cocked his head. “You don’t trust us, Warlord?”

            “No,” Kah’len replied. “I don’t. Is the border amenable to you and your family?”

            Prince Nhove chuckled. “Yes, Warlord. It is amenable.”

            They stood up and clasped forearms across the table before Kah’len sat down again to draw up the accord.

            Lahn, feeling betrayed, fumed in his seat. Ajla. He had not seen her since she was seven years old. He recalled she was a loving, gentle child with a strong sense of curiosity and very intelligent. She had been plump as a child, with a round face that favored their father.

            He took a deep breath and released it as Kah’len and Lahn’s older brother signed their treaty. The young men stood when the documents were signed.

            “Pleasure doing business with you, Warlord,” Prince Nhove drawled. He looked at Lahn. “Walk me out, brother?”

            Lahn rose and followed Prince Nhove outside. The afternoon was warm but pleasant. The skies were clear of clouds and a bright cerulean.

            Prince Nhove went to stand near his bahil and stroked the animal’s muscular neck. “You’re now a priest for that Goddess?”

            “Yes,” Lahn replied.

            Prince Nhove flicked him a glance. “You’re angry.”

            “Why must he marry Ajla?” Lahn demanded.

            Prince Nhove shook his head. “We must think of the future, Lahn.” He sighed as he stroke the bahil’s gleaming neck. “You love him? The Warlord?”

            Lahn swallowed. “Yes.”

            “He loves you as well,” his brother said. “I can tell by how he watches you. Do not worry about Ajla or any of the Warlord’s other wives. The man is atoliy, isn’t he?”

            Lahn pursed his lips. “I wonder if that is true.”

            Prince Nhove turned to face Lahn. “Then have faith in his love for you, Oracle. I have to get back to camp and then home.”

            The prince enveloped Lahn in a warm hug.

            Lahn closed his eyes and rested his cheek against his brother’s shoulder. “I do love you, Nhove.”

            “And I love you, Lahn. You have grown into a fine, strapping young man and the confidant of a Goddess and the Warlord of North Torahn.”

            They parted and Prince Nhove gifted Lahn with a warm smile. “I can’t wait until you meet father and mother again.”

            He swung onto the saddle of his mount and gazed down at Lahn. “Be good and excellent, brother. Until we meet again.”

            Lahn raised an arm as his brother swung his mount around and cantered away southeast toward the border, his military escort at his heels.

            “Let’s talk,” Lahn heard from behind him.

            He turned and Kah’len held open the pavilion flap to allow him to enter.

            Lahn ducked into the vast tent and they sat down at the table.

            “This wasn’t my idea,” Kah’len said, folding his hands on the table.

            Lahn snorted. “I know, Warlord. Your house will be united, just as the Goddess decreed. You will have so many children…” Lahn closed his eyes. “And I will have the one, which I shall bring up at the cathedral.”

            Kah’len laid his hand on top of Lahn’s. “I love you above all others, Lahn Tjashensi-Obeli. Know this.”

            Lahn smiled sadly at him. “I know, Kah’len. With my heart, I know this.”

            “Then forgive me,” Kah’len murmured.

            “There is nothing to forgive,” Lahn replied. He lifted Kah’len’s hand and pressed a kiss to his wrist. “I love you.”

            Kah’len grinned. “And I love you, Lahn, but my greed is what has brought us here.”

            “You are the best ruler for North Torahn,” Lahn replied. “The best hope for a unified Torahn one day.”

            Kah’len raised an eyebrow. “Still a unificationist?”

            “Always,” Lahn replied and laughed.

            They stared lovingly at one another for a few minutes of silence.

            “Now what?” Lahn whispered.

            “Now we wait for your sister and then we go home, my dear. We still need to bring order to North Torahn.”

            “Yes,” Lahn said.

            Without a word, they rose and made their way to the large bed, which had been dressed with fresh bedclothes and pillows. Kah’len stripped his uniform off and went to washup at the basin as Lahn doffed his own clothes and climbed under the bedclothes. He watched as Kah’len washed the blood and dust from his skin, rinsing his mouth and unbraiding his hair. Kah’len’s hair fell in a black curtain down his back to his buttocks. He turned and walked to the bed, his tumescent kaoun jutting proudly from the hair in his groin. Lahn swallowed thickly as Kah’len climbed under the bedclothes and turned to face him.

            Kah’len touched Lahn’s face. His fingers were cold and smelled of expensive soap.

            Lahn turned his head and kissed his fingers. “Will you make love to me now?”

            Kah’len swallowed. “Yes.”

            They met in the middle and kissed hungrily. Lahn’s groin tightened and his kauon thickened. They pressed their bodies together and held each other tightly. Kah’len’s hands roamed desperately over Lahn’s skin, caressing and kneading. His hands found Lahn’s arse and he pulled Lahn even closer until their kauons rubbed against each other. Lahn’s member was weeping precum as Kah’len reached down and wrapped his calloused hand around the thick pole of Lahn’s lust. Lahn’s head spun as Kah’len licked his way down his chest, pausing at the nipples to swirl them into tight peaks, before continuing down to swallow Lahn’s kauon in one go. Lahn cried out and fisted the bedclothes as Kah’len consumed him, his mouth a furnace. Lahn spurted precome against the back of Kah’len’s throat. He began to thrust shallowly into Kah’len’s mouth while Kah’len increased suction. The exquisite ache grew so strong, Lahn found it hard to breathe. It was as if he was being eaten alive. Kah’len feasted on him and Lahn reached out to burrow his fingers in Kah’len’s glossy mane.

            Kah’len hummed and suddenly Lahn lost it and tumbled into his completion, pouring down Kah’len’s throat. Kah’len drank every drop and sat up with a satisfied, smug grin.

            Lahn panted. “Now you.”

            Kah’len shook his head. “I want in you, Lahn.”

            Lahn swallowed. “Alright. I’ve never done that.”

            “I have,” Kah’len said. “I’ll take care of you.”

            Kah’len reached into the night table drawer and withdrew a vial of oil. He sat back on his heels between Lahn’s legs. Lahn took in the massive girth of Kah’len’s kaoun and felt the stirrings of fear. He watched with trepidation as Kah’len generously oiled his member before pouring more oil on his fingers. He brought his oily fingers to the crease of Lahn’s buttocks and rubbed the entrance to his body until it was slick before pushing a finger in. It felt strange but not unpleasant. Kah’len thrust his finger in and out through Lahn’s opening. Then he pushed another finger in, making Lahn feel fuller. A rush of desire scrabbled up Lahn’s body and he shivered as Kah’len inserted a third finger. He felt impossibly full. He gasped when Kah’len touched a place inside of his body that pinged with pleasure. He melted as Kah’len caressed the spot again.

            He watched, dazed, as Kah’len withdrew his fingers and pushed his kauon against Lahn’s opening.

            “Push out, as if you are going to expel me,” Kah’len directed.

            Lahn did as he asked, pushing out as if he had a bowel movement. Kah’len pushed in until he breached Lahn’s opening and slid in to the hilt. Lahn stopped breathing. He felt uncomfortably full and the edge of pain filled him. He bit his lip to keep from crying out. His eyes filled with tears. Kah’len began to thrust shallowly inside of him. The pain seemed to increase until Lahn’s hole throbbed with it. Kah’len lay between Lahn’s legs and began to thrust in earnestness. Lahn grasped Kah’len’s shoulders and almost pushed him away before Kah’len shifted and thrust, hitting that spot inside of Lahn that pinged with pleasure. Lahn gasped and closed his eyes as pleasure took over and the sharp pain began to fade. Suddenly, he could not breathe as intense pleasure threatened to overcome him.

            Kah’len hovered over him, watching him with dazed eyes. Kah’len’s eyes had darkened with pleasure, his pupils dilated.

            “Kiss me,” Lahn gasped.

            Kah’len kissed him and Lahn wrapped his legs around the Warlord’s trim waist. He thrust up to meet Kah’len. The bed shook under them as their movements became more and more frantic until they both came within seconds of the other. Lahn was unsure who came first, only that he was filled with liquid heat and then Kah’len collapsed on top of him and he wrapped his arms around the Warlord’s neck. Lahn gently stroked Kah’len’s sweaty back. Kah’len sighed and soon he was breathing rhythmically as he fell asleep.

            Lahn closed his eyes as exhaustion caught up with him. Soon he fell asleep, his husband and friend cradled between his legs.

Chapter Forty-eight: The Mad King

            Kah’len’s three battalions rode at an easy cantor until they came to about several sepeks from the King’s camp. It was late in the day, so Kah’len allowed his soldiers to make camp with no campfires. Taitah the moon was overhead, bloated and affording plenty of light to work by. Kah’len sat down crosslegged before the small tent he would sleep in. He ate his cold rations and drank water from a bladder; the water was tepid and tasted of leather. Around him, soldiers murmured softly in groups of twos and threes. Below the rise in the land, the vast camp belonging to King Roseir Ys’teis sprawled east.

            Kah’len set guards along their camp periphery and crawled in the tent for some sleep. Sleep was a long time in coming as the army settled around him. Kah’len lay on his back, in full leather armor, blinking at the darkness within the tent. He thought of Lahn and his groin tightened. With a sigh, he closed his eyes. The young man was like a drug to him. A drug he needed in order to breathe and exist. Eventually, he fell into a light doze in which bright images of Castle Draemin intertwined with dreams of Lahn and children he did not recognize. When he was aroused in the pre-dawn hours, he sighed wearily and crawled out of his tent. Two soldiers broke his tent down while he sipped water from a bladder.

            He took his report from the night watch.

            A young soldier saluted him and approached. “The King’s camp was quiet during the night, my lord. The King’s pavilion is at the fore of the camp, heavily guarded.”

            Kah’len nodded and clasped the young man’s shoulder. “Good job, Ylen. I think we will surprise them this morning by attacking the camp.”

            A sergeant strode up and saluted. “I think we should attack, sir, but surround the camp as well in case a trap has been set for us.”

            Kah’len nodded. “Good, Jered. That makes sense. You take most of the cavalry to surround the camp from the west, north and south. I will take most of the infantry to attack directly.”

            Kah’len mounted his bahil, Lish’tah, and waited until the cavalry mounted up. The infantry would jog the 1 1/2 miles to the King’s camp. The army split up in a fine, highly coordinated dance. Kah’len led the infantry to the King’s camp at a trot, the soldiers on foot jogging. As they approached from the west, the alert went out in the King’s camp and soldiers started scrambling for their armor and weapons. They had grown lax and complacent, Kah’len was happy to see.

            He yelled and spurred his army forth. The infantry brought up a yell that made the hair along Kah’len’s arms stand. He kept his eyes trained on the large pavilion in the distance. It stood surrounded by guards.

            As he watched, the King stepped from inside the pavilion in full gold armor and sword. Kah’len almost brought his mount to heel. His sire looked just this side of death, pale and gaunt and sickly. His eyes burned fiercely in his lean face. He watched as Kah’len rode up while around him armies clashed.

            Their eyes met and the King grinned fiercely.

            “You are here, Warlord!” the King taunted. “Come get me, boy!”

            There was little of sanity in the man’s blazing eyes. Kah’len dismounted and approached the King with his sword unsheathed.

            “Father,” he said, suddenly uncertain.

            The King narrowed his eyes. “How is your whore of a mother, boy?”

            Kah’len’s back stiffened. “You keep her out of this.”

            The King pointed east with his sword. “She’s there, leading the Tjish.unen contingency, ready to take my blood! And you defend her!”

            The King screamed and raised his sword, rushing Kah’len. Kah’len had just enough time to raise his sword to deflect his sire’s weapon as it swept down in an arc. They fought, their swords clanging in the din of battle. The King’s madness made him strong, despite his feeble appearance. The King lunged and Kah’len spun away. They came together again, their swords between them, fairly evenly matched. This close, Kah’len could see the dark circles under the king’s eyes and the broken vessels in the whites of his eyes. The King reeked of old sweat and unwashed body and disease. His breath was sour on Kah’len’s face.

            Kah’len threw him off and raised his sword to attack. The King deflected the downward sweep of Kah’len sword before stepping back.

            “Give up, Father!” Kah’len implored. “You’re sick, sir.”

            The King screeched in rage and attacked once more. The strength of his rage drove Kah’len back. Kah’len tripped on a fallen soldier and fell onto his back.

            The King stood over him, pointing the sword at his heart. “You can never best me, boy. Don’t you know by now?”

            With a laugh that froze Kah’len’s blood in his veins, the King raised his sword over his head. Kah’len saw the sword sweep down in slow motion. Then, before the sword connected with his head, the King stopped. His eyes were unfocused and his body was trembling. The King screamed and dropped his sword, holding on to his head with both hands, he fell onto his knees.

            Kah’len rose and picked up his sword.

            The King screamed again.

            Kah’len unsheathed his dagger.

            The King gazed up at him. “Make the pain stop, boy!” Blood seeped from his eyes and mouth. “Oh, the pain!”

            Kah’len swallowed thickly and came behind the King, neatly slicing his throat. The King fell forward and was still.

            Kah’len sighed and looked around. The battle raged on. He mounted Lish’tah and looked around the chaos.

            “The King is dead!” he yelled.

            The word spread slowly through the melee.  Kah’len’s troops took up the chant of  “the King is dead!  Long live the King!”  It spread like wildfire through the battle.

            “Lay down your arms!”

            Slowly, the King’s army began to drop their weapons on the ground.

            “Find me a horn,” Kah’len said to Sergeant Jered.

            The sergeant saluted and hurried away, returning within minutes with a battered copper horn. He handed the horn to Kah’len.

            Kah’len brought the horn to his lips and blew a long note into the early morning silence. Three other horns answered his own.

            Kah’len looked at the ragtag remainder of the King’s army. “You can join us or you can go free. We must secure the border and bring an end to this war. Will you join me?”

            Most of the soldiers raised their swords and hailed Kah’len, though some refrained and would be allowed to leave the battle.

            Kah’len nodded. “Then those who do not wish to join our army, you may leave the battlefield. If you fight against us, you will forfeit your life.”

            Kah’len looked at Sergeant Jered again. “Find me three messengers, Sergeant. I’ll be in the King’s tent.”

            Sergeant Jered saluted and hurried away, while Kah’len turned Lish’tah around and cantered to the King’s tent. Once there, he dismounted and handed the reins to a nearby guard. Inside the opulent tent, Kah’len could smell the king’s sickness and unwashed body. A young woman lay naked and asleep on the bed. Kah’len turned his eyes away from her supple youth. Servants entered the tent.

            “What about us, my lord,” the head servant asked.

            “You’ll remain with me until I am ready to leave. We still have a peace treaty to sign. Take my sire’s bedclothes and burn them. Burn his clothing. My father was afflicted by an insect that burrowed into his brain.”

            The servants paled and gasped.

            “It shall be done, my lord,” the head servant promised and began to direct the others.

            Kah’len walked to the table crammed with wine stained maps. One large map of the border between the Torahns stood unfurled. A decanter of wine stood at each corner. Kah’len looked down on the map and traced the border with a finger.

            The tent flap was pushed open and Sergeant Jered entered, followed by three soldiers.

            “I’ve brought the messengers, my lord,” the Sergeant said.

            Kah’len nodded. “Then here is my message: the King of North Torahn is dead. Warlord Kah’len Tjashensi is victorious. He calls for each nation to come to the old king’s camp at sundown for a truce. Until then, all fighting is to cease.”

            He made each messenger repeat his words. Once satisfied, he walked them outside, where they mounted their swift bahils and galloped in three directions.

            Kah’len turned to Sergeant Jered. “Have those who once served the King conscripted into our army. The border has to be fortified when we leave.”

            “I will do so, Warlord!” Sergeant Jered stated and saluted before striding away.

            Kah’len sent a fourth messenger to Aud’s camp to bring Commander Aud and the Oracle for the upcoming conference with the leaders of the other armies. He sat at his father’s conference table and watched as the servants stripped the king’s bed of its bedclothes and hauled them outside to be burned. He watched as they hauled the King’s clothes chests out into the bonfire. Incense was burned to cleanse the air of the smell of sickness and unwashed body. The tent flap was clipped open to allow for fresh air into the tent.

            Kah’len soon found himself pacing as he waited for responses. The first response to arrive came from the Tjish.unen army, led by Lady Oona, his mother. He read her missive with a smile.

            “Oh my child! Goddess bless you and keep you!

             I will come as the Queen’s representative to make a peace accord between us.

             I will come at sunset.

             Yours,

             Oona Thalmar.“

            Soon, the other responses came from the R’Nonayan army and the Red Army of South Torahn.

            Kah’len had the King’s tent rearranged, setting the large rectangular conference table in the middle of the pavilion, organizing several chairs around the table. He had the servants hang a curtain around the large bed in one corner and around the bathing area nearby. He ordered a feast to be cooked for the visiting dignitaries.

            At sunset, people began arriving. Oona Thalmar arrived with a contingency of Tjish.unen soldiers. Prince Nhove Obeli, heir of the Red Throne, arrived with his own escort. For R’Nonay, General Soltas Eskar rode up with a military escort. Kah’len had them led into his pavilion and then turned in time to see Commanders Aud and Daven and Lahn ride up. Finally, two burly Isemi warriors rode up on lirtah. The warriors dismounted and entered the pavilion with barely a flick of a glance at Kah’len.

            Lahn threw himself from his mount and hugged Kah’len. “Goddess preserve me! I was so scared!”

            Kah’len rubbed his back soothingly. “It was a short face off, Lahn. Come inside, all of you.”

            He led his two commanders and his Oracle into the tent.

            Oona Thalmar, Prince Nhove Obeli and General Soltas Eskar bowed when Kah’len entered, leading Lahn by the hand.

            “Lahn!” Nhove Obeli cried and ran to his brother, pulling him into a hug. “Oh, look at you, Lahn!”

            They pulled apart and grinned at each other.

            “You look well, brother,” Nhove murmured. He flicked a glance at Kah’len before looking at his brother. “Marriage agrees with you.”

            Nhove thrust his arm through Lahn’s and led him to the table.

            “These are my commanders, Aud and Daven,” Kah’len told the congregation. “And that is Lahn Tjashensi-Obeli, my spouse, the Oracle of the Goddess, and my personal adviser. Please sit.”

            When everyone sat down, Kah’len had the meal and wine served. He tasted the wine and food first. The telltale burning of poison was absent. The visitors tucked into their meal while Kah’len spoke to them.

            “My father was mad,” Kah’len stated. “He had an insect lodged in his brain, which drove him to madness. He asked me to kill him because the pain had reached a level that was intolerable. But I could not trust him anyway.” Kah’len swallowed thickly, grief seeping into his heart and mind. “Father and I were close once, before he got sick. Now, let us speak of a truce. I must secure my own land, so it is not advantageous for me to make war with my neighbors. I will leave three brigades of soldiers at the border for security purposes, just as it has always been. I believe I have treaties with R’Nonay and Tjish.un, as I wed princesses from both nations. I also married the Red King’s youngest son.”

            The burlier of the two Isemi warriors stood up. “I am Oler Masivo, Tauk-na of the Isemi tribes. This is Estir Sanor, Pauk-an of my people. What is there for us in this treaty?”

            “For the Isemi, I propose extending their territory until Azura.Dha, where the Khaine River empties into the sea,” Kah’len said.

            The Isemi seemed taken aback. They looked at each other then at Kah’len.

            “That is acceptable,” Oler Masivo declared and sat down, reaching for a decanter of wine. He held the decanter up. “I celebrate.”

            There were chuckles and nods as Oler drank his fill of wine.

            “Now, I propose were rework trade agreements and peace treaties,” Kah’len said.

            They settled in for a long, productive night.

Chapter Forty-Seven: The Border

            Lahn shuddered and moaned as he came awake from a dark dream. Before opening his eyes, he took a mental tally of his aches and pains. His entire body ached with a bone-deep ache. His muscles were sore and his joints hurt when he moved. Opening his eyes, he found himself on the pallet.  Beneath him the wagon he rode on lurched and shifted over stones on the ground. The army was on the move. How close were they to the border? How long had he been unconscious? With a groan, he sat up and brought a cold, shaking hand to his head. A headache throbbed behind his eyes. The cart had his clothes chest and he lay on a fairly thick pallet with blankets, even though the temperature was quite mild.  He heard a sharp whistle and the wagon came to a rolling stop. Outside the wagon covering, the din of the army filled the day.

            Lahn turned and crawled to the flap, pushing it open to see it was late in the day.  The sun clung to the western skies.  Around him, the army set up camp. He looked for Kah’len and his commanders, but it seemed Lahn was traveling behind with the camp followers and families. He dropped the flap and unbraided his hair, combing it with his fingers before rebraiding it. He wore a sleeping tunic and trousers and wondered who had disrobed him. He blushed at the thought. He went to his chest and withdrew appropriate day wear, dressing as befit the Prei-Serren of City Draemin, even if the outfits were uncomfortable and ostentatious. Once dressed, he pulled on his travel boots and left the wagon, climbing over the back.

            All around him, the camp bustled with activity. There was a small river nearby that meandered along the tall grass fields, a tributary of the majestic Khaine River in the west. People recognized him and bowed reverently. He acknowledged them all. No one disturbed him as he made his way through the organized chaos in search of Kah’len. The army caravan was easily several miles long, the camp a sprawling thing on this side of the tributary. It seemed to go all the way to the horizon, but Lahn knew that was not accurate. The very land seemed to groan under the weight of 20,000 troops, their camp followers, servants, and families. Lahn despaired he would find Kah’len in all this.

            He turned to the wagon driver and told him he wanted to set up his wagon near the Warlord’s tent.

            The wagon driver bowed. “I will find the Warlord’s tent, Excellency, and set up your tent there.”

            “Thank you,” Lahn replied, smiling at the young man.

            The young man blushed and ducked his head. “Let me make some inquiries, Excellency. Someone must know where the Warlord’s tent has been staked. I’ll return shortly.”

            Lahn went to the front of the wagon, where the wagon driver had set a bucket with feed and a bucket of water beneath each lirtah pulling the wagon. There were two animals. Lahn found a rag on the wagon seat and used it to wipe down the lathered bodies of the lirtah. The animals’ heads drooped from exhaustion, their long, elegant, muscular necks barely holding up their wide heads. Their smallish horns gleamed in the waning light of the sun and in the lights from nearby campfires.

            Nearly a quarter of an hour later, the young wagon driver returned. “The Warlord’s tent is located about two miles upstream, your Excellency. I will lead you.”

            The animals had eaten and drunk their fill, so amid complaints from the wagon driver, whose name was Pansen, Lahn helped him gather the buckets and set them behind the wagon seat. Then they led the wagon down the makeshift road towards the front of the camp. The air was thick with the competing smells of animal waste, boiling tea, unwashed bodies, and cooking food. A thick throng of bodies crossed the road just ahead of them as people made their way to and from the river. The going was slow and Lahn breathed deeply to remain patient.

            They finally made it to the fore of the vast camp. Kah’len’s pavilion was black and gold and huge with the flag of City Draemin snapping smartly in the wind. The pavilion was armed to the teeth with guards.

            Lahn walked up to the four guards at the tent door. “Is the Warlord in?”

            The guards brought their fists to their chests and bowed. “He is in conference with his commanders, Excellency.”

            One of the guards slipped into the tent to announce him. He returned briefly and pulled the tent flat open. “You may enter, Excellency.”

            “Thank you,” Lahn murmured and ducked in.

            The tent was quite spacious, with room for a bed, a folding table, four chairs, Kah’len’s trunks and a table with a washbasin and a stack of washcloths and towels, cakes of soap and tinted bottles of hair and body oils. There was a bathtub to one side and a brazier near it.

            Lahn paused at the entrance.

            Kah’len glanced up and rose, a grin on his face. “You live!”

            Lahn grimaced and rubbed his neck. “I’m sore all over.”

            The commanders rose.

            “I imagine being possessed by a Goddess would be hard,” Commander Daven said politely.

            “I don’t remember anything,” Lahn said mournfully.

            “Have a seat, Lahn,” Kah’len said. “Dinner will be served shortly.”

            Lahn sighed and took the last available seat across the table from Kah’len. “What are you doing?”

            Aud sat. “We are one day from the border. We are finalizing strategies and such.”

            “I’ve been asleep for four days?” Lahn asked, aghast.

            “You expended a lot of energy in the gubernatorial mansion when you destroyed it,” Kah’len stated blandly and sat down.

            Lahn blushed. “Don’t remind me.”

            “It was Atana’s doing,” Kah’len said gently and reached across the table to cover Lahn’s hand with his. “You averted a disaster.”

            Lahn sighed. “Why did the governor try to poison us?”

            Kah’len sat back, removing his hand from Lahn’s. Lahn immediately felt the loss.

            “He made a pact with my sire that he would poison me to keep the city safe and to remain autonomous when father conquered the south. The man was a fool.” Kah’len shook his head. “Father is mad. I’m sure of it. He is untrustworthy and volatile. What I hear from my spies in his household, he throws gigantic temper tantrums. He is getting more unhinged as the war drags on and he still not the victor. He underestimated the Isemi and the passion of the southern troops. Also, the Queen of Tjish.un has sided with the south against him.” He frowned. “I wonder what the Red King promised her for her support.”

            “What about R’Nonay?” Lahn asked.

            “They have thrown their backing with Father,” Kah’len replied with a grimace. “That is why the war drags on.”

            “Well, damn,” Lahn murmured and shook his head. “We should be able to tip the balance.”

            “I am hoping,” Kah’len replied.

            The tent flap opened and servants entered carrying platters of food that they set in the middle of the table. Roasted dosi glistened with a dark spicy sauce. Dark, bitter greens were dressed in a honey-citrus concoction. Fresh bread with freshly churned butter in a large wooden bowl. They were served and then they tucked into their meal. Lahn’s mouth burned from the spices in the sauce. But everything complemented everything else, the spicy meat and the creamy, soft bread with sweet butter, the bitter greens. He had two platefuls before he felt replete.

            When the remainder of the meal was hauled away, Kah’len served them glasses of ekila and mi’disj. Lahn sipped the sweet, fiery liqueurs, content and at peace while Kah’len unfurled a large map of the border between North and South Torahn.

            The Warlord placed weights on all four corners of the map to hold it in place.

            “Here is where the battle is being fought,” he said, pointing at a field between Sena and the Khaine River. “The battle ground encompasses several miles. Father’s camp is here, in the west. The R’Nonayans are camped east of the battlefield. The Southern forces, including Tjish.un, are here, in the south, near the small, nameless border town there. It is my goal to come in from the west with 10,000 soldiers and then 10,000 from the northeast, to envelop both my sire’s army and the R’Nonayans. I will lead the troops coming in from the west and Daven will lead the ones coming in from the northeast. Aud, you remain with the rest of the camp to ensure their safety. But also to cut off escape through the border itself.”

            “And what about me?” Lahn asked.

            “You stay with Aud, Lahn. You will offer a sacrifice to the Goddess on the day we split, but you will not fight,” Kah’len stated firmly.

            Lahn crossed his arms over his chest. “I am trained to fight.”

            Kah’len shook his head. “I cannot be distracted with worrying about you, Lahn. Please respect my wishes in this.”

            Lahn dropped his arms. “Very well, but I cannot predict what the Goddess will ask of me.”

            Kah’len swallowed a mouthful of liqueur and set the empty glass down on the tabletop with a thud. “I know.”

            Aud yawned and rose. “I’m going to bed. We rise before the sun tomorrow.”

            Daven rose as well. “I’m off, too. Goodnight both of you.”

            When the two commanders had left, Lahn and Kah’len stared at each other in silence.

            Lahn swallowed. He wanted to sleep in Kah’len’s arm this night. He opened his mouth to say so.

            “Sleep with me tonight, Lahn,” Kah’len murmured. “I won’t touch you. I never engage in sex the day before battle, but I want to hold you close.”

            Lahn rose. “I want that, too.”

            Without another word, they rose and discarded their clothes. Lahn folded his robes, inner tunic and trousers with shaking hands, setting the clothes on the table before lifting his eyes to Kah’len.

            Kah’len’s eyes roamed over Lahn’s naked form. He swallowed audibly.

            “I usually sleep naked,” Lahn said, embarrassed.

            “That’s fine,” Kah’len assured him and indicated the bed. “Lie down, Lahn. I will keep my trousers on.”

            Lahn lay on the large bed under the covers and turned to lie on his right side, facing Kah’len.

            Kah’len removed his coat and tunic and sword belt. Then he removed his boots and came to the bed, lying on the covers with his trousers still on.

            “Kah’len,” Lahn whispered.

            Kah’len started as if Lahn had yelled instead of whispered. He swallowed and turned onto his left side, facing Lahn.

            Lahn reached out and ran his fingers along Kah’len’s temple and down his sharp cheeks to his chin. The beginnings of a beard prickled Lahn’s fingertips. He looked into Kah’len’s bright green eyes.

            “You are so beautiful,” Kah’len murmured, swallowing thickly.

            “As are you,” Lahn assured him. “And I want you with a fervor I cannot contain.”

            Kah’len leaned forward and captured Lahn’s mouth in a scalding kiss. Lahn felt consumed as Kah’len deepened the kiss, thrusting his tongue into Lahn’s mouth. Lahn moaned and wrapped his arms around Kah’len’s neck, pulling his body close. The bedclothes were a barrier between them. Lahn wanted to feel Kah’len’s arousal and caressed down Kah’len’s chiseled chest to his trim waist. As his wayward hand got near its prize, Kah’len covered it with his own.

            “I can’t make love to you tonight. I go into battle tomorrow.”

            Lahn gazed deep into his eyes. “Hold me.”

            Kah’len gathered him close and Lahn closed his eyes, breathing deep of Kah’len’s musk, the clean smell of his skin, the warm smell emanating from his armpits, the scent of oils in his hair. Lahn reached up and undid Kah’len’s braid, running his fingers through the heavy fall of hair. The candlelight glinted blue in the impossibly dark hair. It was so soft, Lahn sighed. He brought a thick thread to his nose and breathed deeply of the oil musk.

            Kah’len watched him with hunger and something deep and abiding.

            Lahn pressed a gentle kiss to the Warlord’s full, soft lips. “I love you, Kah’len Tjashensi. I wanted to tell you on the eve of battle.”

            Kah’len swallowed, his eyes filling with tears. “I love you, too, Lahn Tjashensi-Obeli. I hope the Goddess will allow us a night of lovemaking when the war is over. I burn for you.”

            Lahn tucked his head under Kah’len’s chin. “I will hold you to that, Warlord.”

            Kah’len pulled him even closer and kissed the top of his head. “I promise to make love to you, Lahn, when we are safe.”

            Lahn closed his eyes against the wave of doubt that rose in him and mouthed a prayer to Atana.

            Have mercy, Oh Mother, Warrior and Maiden. Give me this one gift.

            For a long time, they lay in each others’ arms in a silent vigil. Kah’len succumbed to slumber before Lahn did. He lay tucked against Kah’len’s side, listening to the sounds emanating from the camp for a long time before he felt into a restless dreamless doze.

            He awoke to Kah’len dressing in the predawn hours. He yawned and sat up.

            Kah’len smiled at him. “Good morning, Lahn. The camp is breaking up. Ride with me ahead of the army.”

            “Of course.”

            They broke their fast with boiled grains, honey, tah’lir’s milk and tza nuts, eating standing up while the servants broke Kah’len’s tent down.

            Afterward they mounted their bahils and Kah’len signaled the start of the trek with a raised arm.

            They set out at a steady pace while, behind them, the vast army lurched into movement. It would take hours before the entire army was moving across the grass fields.

            “I will leave you at sunset,” Kah’len told Lahn. “I will take my warriors west then. We will camp a few miles west from my sire’s camp.”

            “I will sacrifice before you leave,” Lahn murmured.

            Kah’len nodded and glanced away.

            Lahn could tell how nervous the Warlord was.

            At late afternoon, Kah’len called a halt for a brief rest and the sacrificial ceremony.

            Word went out into the army that the young Oracle was going to sacrifice for victory. Slowly, soldiers, servants, camp followers, and family members made their way to the front of the procession and gathered around where Lahn stood with Kah’len as Daven led a dosi on a rope. The animal fought the entire way. When Lahn approached it, it nipped his hand and drew blood. People gasped and murmured nervously.

            Lahn straddled the fighting animal and placed his hands on its shoulders. At once, the animal stilled and bleated mournfully.

            “Be at ease,” Lahn murmured. “You are the Goddess’ gift from us.”

            He cut the animal’s neck swiftly and watched the blood speckle his trousers and boots. The animal fell down and a pool of black blood flowed from its neck. Lahn touched his finger to the hot blood and smudged Kah’len’s forehead, Daven’s forehead, and Aud’s forehead.

            “I bathe you in sacrificial blood,” he intoned and closed his eyes.

            At once, he was filled with a vision. He fell in slow motion as his mind filled with light.

           In a vast battlefield, a king stood, sword bathed in blood. The King, older and handsome, raked his ice-cold ice over the warriors who battled and fell. It was not enough for him. There was not enough blood for him. He thirsted, his mind twisted of all reason and compassion. A sickness nestled in his mind and ate more and more of his reason on a daily basis. Lahn could see a small animal nestled in the gray matter of his mind. It consumed the front part of the king’s mind, made him have seizures, made him have dreams of bright, fervent colors. The scientist in Lahn observed the animal feasting on the king’s brain with curiosity and interest. He knew the king would die eventually from this infection, but not before many, many others died in the process.

            Lahn coughed and blinked his eyes open.

            Kah’len bent over him. “Are you with me, Lahn?”

            Lahn coughed again. “Yes.”

            “What did you see?”

            “The King is dying,” Lahn murmured. “He has an animal in his brain consuming the cells. He is mad. Beyond reason and comprehension. You must kill him.”

            “I intend to,” Kah’len assured him and helped him to sit up.

            “Go then, Warlord,” Lahn said and rose. He looked at the crowd gathered there. “The King will die. Long live the Warlord of North Torahn!”

            The crowd lifted its arms as one. “Long live the Warlord!”

            Lahn turned to a serren who stood nearby. “Burn the dosi’s corpse as an offering to Atana.”

            The serren bowed and went to do as Lahn asked.

            Lahn turned and watched as Kah’len mounted. “The border is less than five miles away! Those in the first regiment, with me!”

            The soldiers shouted a cry and Kah’len galloped west, a surge of soldiers following behind him.

            When he could no longer see Kah’len, Lahn turned to Daven. “The R’Nonayans are good warriors, Commander. Have a care.”

            Daven saluted. “I’ll take your words with me, Excellency.” He raised his voice. “The second regiment with me!”

            Another shout went up and then Commander Daven Halso was galloping west, the rest of the army following close behind.