Spring, Mean Boaldyn, 905 DR
Alcazaba, Province of Vandalusia, Panisha
As the first rays of the sun touched the walls of the citadel, Kelahnus dropped from a window into a corridor leading to the quarters given to the Aristok and his retinue. Instead of the castle guards, the Knights of the Shield patrolled here. Kelahnus removed his hood and untied his blond hair. He didn't bother hiding his presence anymore and just nodded at the Knights on duty he met.
Nine days had passed since their arrival in Alcazaba, a relatively important city of Vandalusia, the north western province of Panisha, and everyone still jumped at the slightest breeze. The Knights of the Shield were unused to guarding the Aristok in foreign, but not enemy lands. Meanwhile, the Panishans were uneasy at the presence of such a large fighting force in their own territory.
When Kelahnus entered Demnor's bedroom, the Aristok had already woken and had begun to dress with the help of his squire, Joanne DeSharon. Without a word, she left, taking Kelahnus coat with her; she'd learnt fast when to stay and when to leave.
A tray of food lay untouched near the window. Kelahnus grabbed a fig, a delicacy rarely seen in Branion, before approaching Demnor.
"You've barely eaten," Kelahnus said. He took Demnor’s belt from the chair, but instead of giving it to him, he stood close behind Demnor and fastened it himself.
"They'll just serve more food at the meetings." However, he accepted the cup of hot and bitter beverage that Kelahnus had poured for him.
Kelahnus decided to push his luck and nagged a little further. "That you won't eat."
"Meetings curb my appetite." Demnor gave ground slightly by eating a piece of bread dipped in honey. As Kelahnus knew, Demnor was more at ease on a horse, preferably on a battlefield. For negotiations such a these, he tended to lean on select people, like Kelahnus.
"A fact which they try to ignore, but still offends them." While Kelahnus’s words chided, his hands teased, travelling possessively over the familiar territory that were Demnor's neck and torso. Maybe Demnor could be persuaded to go back to bed for short while.
Demnor stopped Kelahnus's hands with his own. "Where were you?" Obviously, Demnor's patience had run out. Kelahnus stilled a sigh and shot quick longing look towards the bed. He ran his hand over Demnor's brow, to smooth the frown and the jealousy.
"Just gathering information." Among other things. He didn't elaborate; he thought it best to hide the danger he had risked.
He made to move back to the tray, but Demnor held him near. "Be careful." He’d been distant until then, but now his voice and face showed some of the worry that he must have kept inside. It was not jealousy that had tensed Demnor’s body, Kelahnus saw now. He kissed Demnor for the closeness, despite knowing it would not ease Demnor’s fear. They both had to live with it, such as when Demnor went into battle, or when Kelahnus disappeared for hours in strange lands.
"Let's see what's been planned for us," Kelahnus said to shift their focus and concerns. He found Terrence, his assistant, and the squire in the outer room. While she helped Demnor, Terrence gave them a brief overview of the meetings and activities planned for the day. He would give more details on the people attending those meeting to Kelahnus later on, but he focused now on whatever would help the Aristok navigate the Panishan court and work out an alliance against Gallia.
That morning, while Demnor met with Lord Malikah, Heir of King Yusuf, members of the Panishan court and of the Aristok's, Kelahnus sat outside the meeting room with Yaminah, the Heir's physician and official poet. Through the open windows, they could hear the discussions, led mainly by Lord Alerion DeKathrine and his Panishan counterpart, in both languages. It had taken months of meetings between these two before negotiations progressed far enough to get the Aristok and the Heir to meet in person.
Kelahnus wished Lord Isolde DeKathrine, Duke of Aquilliard and Consort of the Aristok, had been able to come. She could have attended the meetings – unlike Kelahnus, whose status as Royal Companion wasn't officially recognized by the Panishan – and balanced Demnor's more direct and impatient approach. Her condition, however, prevented her from undertaking the week long sea travel to Alcazaba. The Archpriest had also been worried at the idea of one of the Aristok's children being born in foreign lands.
So Kelahnus had to sit outside and watch Castle guards and Knights of the Shield patrol around the pavilion. The two groups had been wary of each other, but a few (or many) cups of wine and games of dice in the evenings had loosened the tension enough.
Yaminah had had a low table, a scroll, a quill and ink well brought to her. She sat on the ceramic floor, intent on what she was writing. Kelahnus could speak, but not read, the Panishan language. He couldn't tell if she was writing a medical treatise or an epic poem.
On each wrist, she wore a bracelet, from which a pendant dangled. The one on the right read The Giver of Life; the one on the left The Truth. On another such morning as they'd sat in the same spot, she'd translated them for him. They each represented a facet of their One True Deity. The first was given to her when she'd joined the medical profession; the second had been a gift from Lord Malikah herself, when Yaminah had been appointed official poet.
Kelahnus had noted that the Heir herself wore also a bracelet, but without a pendant. When the King Yusuf died, Kelahnus had learnt, she would inherit his pendant: Al-Malik. The King.
He delicately hid a yawn. "Are you writing about surgery again?" He hoped she wasn't. He couldn't bear to listen to her discourse about the latest practices again.
"The Aristok told Prince Malikah a tale of battle last night. She wishes to present the Aristok with the tale her own exploits in battle. Once I have composed it in our language, I will translate it into yours, and she will give the scroll to him."
He raised his eyebrows at this. A tall order for Demnor and his retinue were bound to depart in six days, but Yaminah seemed unfazed by the request. When she didn't continue, but bent over her work once more, Kelahnus picked another subject of conversation.
"Alcazaba is a beautiful city." He picked off a blade of grass from his trouser's leg. "An interesting choice for these meetings." He left a note of mild disinterest in his tone.
"It's a major trading hub and a citadel," she answered matter of factly, without raising her head. From where he sat, Kelahnus could see a smudge of ink on the back of the outer shell of the poet's ear. If it had been anyone else, he'd have moved closer and pointed this out. A mildly aroused person usually lowered their defences enough for Kelahnus to risk an advance, as he'd observed and tested on Demnor time and again. However, this was Panisha, where such behaviour was confined to married people, and anything outside of marriage was fodder for scandal. Kelahnus knew his relationship with Demnor fuelled the gossip among Panishan court members. In turn, it baffled the people from Branion that you could marry whomever you wished in Panisha, but you couldn't sleep with him or her before marriage.
Kelahnus didn't point out that Kardusa, another city further away from the Gallian border, was as secure and a much more important city for the spice and silk trade. Or that by reports of the Aristok's spies, Lord Abdala ibn Tashfin, their host, was against war between Panisha and Gallia as it would affect the trade in his city. "Lord Alerion seemed surprised by the choice," he said instead. "Should the Aristok focus his trading agreements here in the future?"
Yaminah paused and pondered his question. "Lord Abdala has risen in favour in court. Some say he might become a member of the council of Thirteen. I would never claim to know what my Prince thinks, but perhaps she favours his ambitions?"
The bells rang nearby, drowning out any possible further conversation. As if summoned by Yaminah, a servant appeared to take away the table, writing instruments and scroll.
As the voices in the meeting room fell, Yaminah and Kelahnus rose and followed the path around the building to the main entrance.
In the afternoon, Lord Abdala had planned a tour of his private gardens.
It must be said that their guide to the gardens spoke perfect English and obviously had mastered the subject.
However, no amount of botanical mastery was a match to the Aristok's lack of interest. As Kelahnus knew, Demnor preferred the outdoors to the real and metaphorical walls and twisted passageways of court, but knowing the difference between flowers or shrubs did not win battles, nor did it make for more pleasant horse riding.
For his part, Kelahnus could see the potential in the shade of the green walls, in the perfume of the heavy blooming roses, the songs of the hidden birds and in the paths that turned and twisted around enough that you became dizzy from it.
As their party reached a small pond surrounded by a curved wall of green shrubbery, and the guide's speech and Lord Abdala's political manoeuvring both had reached the limits of the Aristok's patience, Kelahnus decided it was time to act.
A discreet gesture and Terrence led the guide further along the path with some of the Knights of the Shield. Alerion sized up the situation accurately and verbally manoeuvred Lord Abdala after the guide and away from the Aristok. This left Demnor, his squire, Kelahnus and many Knights of the Shield around the pond.
Kelahnus looked around and decided he'd chosen his spot well. The Knights could easily stand guard, while giving them some illusion privacy.
"I must say, that was very efficient of you." There was good humour in Demnor's face, even though his shoulders were still tense.
It had been efficient and probably not as subtle as it could have been. Alerion could soothe any ruffled feathers, and if Kelahnus was right, they could afford to ruffle Lord Abdala's feathers.
"I was tired and bored of all that talking." He pouted and played fully the part of the spoiled Companion because he couldn't actually say in such a place what he really thought. I love you. I want to take care of you. I miss you. Even in his private chambers, Demnor was tense after days of political meetings and meals. As the days wore on, Kelahnus had a harder and harder time coaxing out Demnor's softer, but guarded, vulnerability.
Demnor's small smile grew infinitesimally bigger as Kelahnus pulled him towards a patch of grass. Demnor sat and Kelahnus lay on the ground, his head pillowed on Demnor's leg.
The day was warm, warmer than Branbridge ever was in the spring, but they were in the shade and for the moment at least, they would be left in peace. Kelahnus cast about for a subject fitting the mood. "Which battle did you recount to Prince Malikah?"
And Demnor, knowing Kelahnus enough not to even ask how he knew about that, told him about a battle in Gallia. Kelahnus closed his hand over Demnor's and shut his eyes.
This garden was very different and far away from the old tower, where Kelahnus and Demnor used to secretly meet. Still, Kelahnus felt as he did then, love and protection for a man with responsibilities and past history weighing on his shoulder.
The evening meal was given in honour of King Yusuf, whose health hadn't allowed him to be present at the negotiations himself.
As was traditional in the Panishan court, the food was placed on high, round tables. The members of the party put food on their plates and then went and ate on long narrow seats that could accommodate four or five people. Hierarchy was properly observed; where Prince Malikah sat, no one but the Aristok could sit. Anyone else who wished to be near had to make do with the rug-covered floor.
Kelahnus left Demnor and Yaminah to their discussion of battle wounds. They seemed to have found common ground in this, going so far as engaging in a little competition for the most gruesome wound they'd ever seen.
Kelahnus found a relatively secluded spot where he could enjoy his cup of wine and the political manoeuvrings in the room.
As he observed, he fingered the heavy golden chain around his neck. Underneath the silk tunic he wore, hung a pendant, like the ones worn on bracelets here. "The Loving" was engraved on this one.
Demnor had given it to him earlier this evening with his usual mix of brusqueness in his movements and hesitancy in his eyes. Kelahnus gladly wore it tonight, for he wouldn't always be able to; it would interfere with some of his tasks. In Branbridge, he sometimes flaunted Demnor’s gifts; he found pride in the tokens of Demnor’s love. At other times, Kelahnus preferred to keep them to himself, like the depth of his own love for the Aristok.
He didn't have to wait long. Movement to his left and the rustle of clothing alerted him to Prince Malikah's presence. Where she stood, no one in the room could see her.
"Do you have it?" Her eyes, lined with kohl, stared into his and with a strength that expected no failure.
"As requested by Your Majesty." He didn't bow, so as not to attract attention. He presented her with the bracelet he'd found in one of Lord Abadala's locked and guarded chests. Kelahnus had recognized it from the detailed and accurate description the Prince had given him. The flawless emeralds were set all around the golden band. In Panisha, green was the colour of the King and all emeralds were by law to be sold to the King alone. The jewelry was old and obviously belonged to the ruling family.
She gazed at it a moment, then hid it in one of the many folds of her dress. "This service you have rendered will not go unrewarded. Panisha will support Branion," she said, and then disappeared down the same passage she'd come.
During the only other conversation they'd had, the Prince had not explained how the bracelet had ended up in Lord Abdala's possession. She'd simply made her request and promised it would be advantageous to the Aristok's plans if Kelahnus retrieved the bracelet.
Kelahnus didn't have Yaminah's gift for storytelling, but he could come up with his own explanation. Lord Abdala was handsome after all, and Prince Melikah's strength might have been tested by gentler sentiments, political manipulations and betrayal.
Kelahnus could be wrong, of course, but he also knew that battles had been fought for honour and love. He pressed his hand to the place where the pendant hung.
He returned to the main part of the room as Prince Melikah made her entrance through the main door and he bowed along with everyone else.