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Chapter XII

None but kings and queens understand just how truly heavy a crown is, how truly uncomfortable a throne can be. The late Queen Aaliyah of Arx, who wrote poetry in her spare time, once compared entering the throne room to walking into a den full of poisonous asps. Every time she put on her crown she felt like her head was in a vice. The throne itself felt like it was covered in thorns. And yet, there was something so thrilling about it all. The exhilaration of constant danger, the mystery of court intrigue, and the intoxication of power.

Mahla had no idea what it would be like when she first sought to take the throne of Arx. Really, all she understood was that it was hers by right, and she wanted it. Furthermore, she knew that Arx had many enemies, and that in order for the kingdom to survive it would need a warrior queen. Arx needed someone who understood morally gray decisions, knew that in war you could not possibly be a “good person” and win. Someone who would do anything she needed to in order to succeed. Yes, as far as Mahla was concerned she was the perfect woman for the job. Barbarians from the northern lands of Shadia, and the growing Digan Empire in the West were already closing in on Arx. Arx needed her.

That justified everything, didn’t it? All the people who’d died for this? That justified destroying the Agalmite Church and letting the Inquisition have free reign in the capital, surely. Mahla kept telling herself that it did. Every time she saw or heard of another execution of a rebel or heretic she told herself that it was all for the good of Arx.

In time, with such harsh discipline, the Kingdom of Arx would be a land full of warriors, the entire population would be her army. They would beat back invaders, slaughter Arx’s enemies, and the people would never again have to suffer such an invasion as they did under King Hadar.

King Hadar was slow to anger, quick to mercy, and weak. He was so blinded by his desire for peace that he’d allowed the Nihilite armies to march through half of Arx and right up to the capital by the time he finally managed to stop them. Mahla would not be so weak. She saw the suffering the war caused first-hand when she was a girl, and the man who raised her, Tyson, had told her the stories of the cruelty the Nihilites visited upon Arx.

Never again. That was the creed Mahla lived and ruled by, and she cared not what army, Church, or God would help her achieve that goal.

“Will it be a religious ceremony?”

“Pardon?” Mahla snapped out of her daze when her attendant spoke.

“Your wedding, when you marry the Grand Duke, will the ceremony be a religious one?”

“Oh. Yes, of course. Only the Western heathens have purely legal weddings.”

“The Shadians have no real weddings at all, just a bedding.”

Mahla was certainly familiar with Shadian customs. “Yes, I know. The Grand Inquisitor, Father Lamech, will perform the ceremony.”

Mahla’s attendant chuckled. “So the first ‘True Way’ wedding in the capital city will be a royal one. They must be proud.”

“They are, but they’ll never admit it, pride being sinful and all.”

“Does this mean you can’t have a lavish wedding?” the attendant asked.

“I don’t want one,” Mahla said. “True Way weddings are simple, humble. Not a lot of exorbitant expense. Honestly, that’s how a royal wedding should be. Queens and Kings do not marry for love, they marry for advantage. This wedding should be no more joyous and lavish than the announcement of an alliance.”

Mahla felt drained as she said it. Yet another way that the responsibility of her crown was weighing down on her. She was never much of a romantic. When she was a little girl she never spent time planning out her wedding or fantasizing about being married, but those few times she did imagine herself as a husband she imagined a handsome man who was a close comrade at arms. Sahar was handsome enough, but she barely knew anything about him, aside from the fact that he was rich and powerful.

A knock on the door drew Mahla out of her second day dream in the same hour. “Who is it?” she asked.

“Don, your majesty,” said the voice on the other side of the door. “An urgent message has just arrived for you.”

Mahla’s attendant stood to get the door, but Mahla beat her to it. She opened the door, took the rolled parchment from her messenger, and then closed the door again in the messenger’s face. “Let’s see what we have here.” Mahla unrolled the parchment.

“Your Majesty,

“As you know, the city of Diga in the West has been rapidly expanding its territory. Its king has now declared the territory they’ve taken ‘The Digan Empire,’ and declared himself emperor.

“The last independent city in the West, the city of Irae has just fallen, but now the Digan soldiers appear to have a new target. They were called back home to Diga, and then sent east further, towards our border.

“As of now, the Digan Empire stands poised to invade Arx, but they will need to pass through the region of Kolob in order to do it. I ask that you send aid immediately so that we can hold off this invasion. I have already sent word to my Witch-Hunters in the capital, recalling them back home. If Kolob falls it will only be a matter of time before they invade the rest of Arx.

“I do hope you will be as prudent a military commander now as you have always proven yourself to be.

“-Grand Inquisitor Lamech”

Mahla rolled up the parchment again and put it away. It seemed the Grand Inquisitor wouldn't be handling her wedding after all. She knew that Lamech was right, she needed to send forces to help hold the line at Kolob as soon as possible, but that would mean moving soldiers out of the capital. The Paladin Academy of Caelum was not far from the capital, and had maintained its independence during Mahla’s reign, so far. The academy had become a safe haven for Agalmite clerics, and spies even said it had become a training ground for religious zealots just waiting to get their revenge. Would sending soldiers off to fight the Digan Legion make her vulnerable to the paladins of Caelum?

After much deliberation, Mahla finally wrote a message and had it delivered to one of her lieutenants.

“Inga,

“Wait until well after nightfall, when all the city is asleep, and take 500 soldiers with you. Move as quietly as you can. Take the southwestern road and keep your distance from Caelum Academy. Once you are out of sight of both the capital and Caelum take the quickest route to Kolob. There you will help the Inquisition hold the line against the approaching Digan Empire.

“-Queen Mahla”

500 soldiers wouldn’t seem like much to Lamech at first, but Arxian soldiers were used to holding mountain passes against invading armies. Besides, it was as much as Mahla felt she could send and still keep quiet the fact that so many soldiers were leaving the capital. With any luck, the Digan legions would not only fail to get through the mountain pass into the region of Kolob, but would suffer such great casualties in the process that the Digan Emperor would decide that all-out war against the Arxians was doomed to failure.

. . .

“Here we are at Awful Joke Hour! Remember, dumbest jokes you can think of. If eyes aren’t rolling, you’re not doing it right!” Tamas plucked at his lyre, playing a silly tune to set the mood. The soldiers sitting with him around the campfire smiled at the idea of a little silly humor to take their mind off of their aching muscles. They’d been marching through difficult terrain all day, traversing down the mountains.

One soldier took his flask away from his mouth and began the first of several terrible jokes that night. “A brave knight fell in battle. When his comrades went to bury him they discovered that they could not remove his armor from him, it had been so bent and dented that it was stuck. So, they buried him in his armor and wrote on his headstone ‘Rust in Peace.’”

The hesitant laughter and chuckles drew Aryn closer to the circle. Tamas strummed his lyre, accentuating each terrible joke with his silly tune. With lifted spirits, Aryn took a seat on one of the stumps around the campfire.

She listened to a few more terrible jokes and giggled at the silliness of them. After about four or five she chimed in with, “Why is a queen’s wand called a scepter?” When everyone went quiet for a moment she followed it up with, “Because everyone in the kingdom works, ‘cept her.”

An uncomfortable moment of silence. They clearly were not sure if they should laugh at a joke that made fun of queens in front of their queen. When she snickered, though, they all laughed along, and Tamas followed it up with that silly tune.

Tamas raised his hand to quiet the crowd and began playing a simple song on his lyre. “Listen up, I want to tell you kids a story. It’s about three little pickles.” He bobbed his head back and forth to the tune for a few moments. “Three little pickles were sitting in the barrel. One said to the others, ‘Oy, you think we’ll ever be just cucumbers again?’” He strummed the lyre and bobbed his head again as a few soldiers chuckled, and then continued, “The other two said, ‘No, you stupid ass! You can’t un-pickle a pickle!’” And with that Tamas gave his lyre one last pluck to let them all know the story was done, and the soldiers roared with laughter.

As the hour went on, the jokes first turned bawdy and crass, and then became simple, amusing anecdotes from the soldiers’ lives.

Tamas sat down and plucked aimlessly at his lyre through many of the stories, simply listening. Aryn was enjoying the chance to get to know some of the soldiers fighting for her. Made her feel just a bit closer to them. She was sad, though, that she didn’t have any amusing anecdotes of her own that she could think of.

“Back when I was…oh, eight, I think, my brother and I received our first sling-shots. We were told ‘never shoot animals or people,’ but you know how kids are. So, one day, we’re out in the gardens surrounding our house, and we see these squirrels eating our guardian’s vegetables. Slingshots in hand, we fired three warning shots each and scared off the squirrels. We had a good laugh about it, brave warriors that we were, and then took to target practice. My brother bet me he could shoot a blossom out of the nearest tree, then I bet him I could knock a nut out of the same tree. It became quite a competition.

“Then, after a while, we noticed the squirrels coming back. My brother said to me ‘Bet you can’t hit a moving target.’ I didn’t say a word. I aimed my slingshot and shot the squirrel square in the chest. The squirrel fell out of the tree and then scampered away. We laughed as we watched it run, finding terrifying small creatures to be the most amusing thing we’d ever done. More squirrels came around, and we kept shooting them out of the trees, laughing as they hit the grass down below and scurried away. Then I fired my slingshot one more time and caught a squirrel in the head. That one didn’t scamper away. We just heard a ‘thump’ as it hit the ground, but didn’t see it run.

“We weren’t laughing anymore. We hurried over to see what had happened. The squirrel was lying on its back, in shock, part of its skull crushed in, but it was still breathing. ‘Schyte! What have we done?’ I shouted.”

“’You mean what have YOU done!’ said my brother, ‘I’m not to blame for this!’”

“’We gotta put it out of its misery! Shoot it again!’”

“’What you mean ‘again?’ I didn’t shoot it the first time!’”

“’Shoot it!’ I shouted. Looking back on it, I’m not sure why I didn’t shoot it myself. Guilt, maybe? My brother loaded his slingshot and fired a shot into its chest. We heard something crack, but the squirrel was still breathing, and twitching.” Tamas shivered at the memory. “We were crying, screaming, and carrying on.

“Our guardian must have heard us crying, because he came out and said, ‘What’s going on, boys?’

“’Cai! We hurt that squirrel!’ I confessed, while my brother gave me the dirtiest look. Not sure if he was mad that I confessed so quickly or that I’d assigned some of the blame to him.

“Our guardian shook his head. ‘Put it out of its misery!’ he told us.

“’We tried!’ I said, with a nose dripping with snot and eyes full of tears.

“’Oh, by the Void!’ our guardian shouted. And he picked up a large rock and dropped it on the squirrel. My brother and I stared in silence for a few moments, sniffing snot back into our nostrils and wiping our eyes. Once we were done crying, our guardian gave us both a good spanking. First time we’d been spanked and not cried about it. I never shot at an animal again. To this day I won’t even hunt.” Tamas wished he could say the same about his brother, who had actually developed a fascination with the suffering of animals after that, but he could already see that the soldiers around the campfire were stunned enough by the story. They weren’t sure whether the story was funny in retrospect or just disturbing.

After a long pause, where the only sounds were the crackling of the fire and the chirping of crickets, one of the soldiers said, “On that note, I’m off to bed. Sweet dreams, everyone.” Some of the soldiers laughed, and most of them began to follow suit. Soon Tamas and Aryn were left alone by the fire.

“Was that story true?” Aryn asked.

Tamas plucked a few strings on his lyre. “Yes,” he said with shame in his eyes.

“Nothing to be ashamed of. We were all young once.”

“I shouldn’t have told that story,” Tamas said. “Everyone got uncomfortable. I really ruined Awful Joke Hour.”

“You told an honest story, Tamas. You let yourself shine through, your real self.” Aryn found, even as she said it, that she admired him for it. He’d been so secretive about so many things that she wondered if she knew anything true about him. Now she knew a story from his childhood, one he would have had no reason to make up. One that showed that while he may have the soul of a demon, in the end he was still human in so many other ways. “How long have you been playing the lyre?”

“Since I was eight,” Tamas said. “It wasn’t long after the whole squirrel incident that our guardian decided we needed less destructive hobbies. He got me a lyre and my brother an ocarina.”

“And you both learned how to play?”

“No,” Tamas said. “Sahar had little interest in playing music. I was fascinated by it. The very idea that just by plucking strings you could create sounds, and with the right sounds you could, in turn, create emotions.” Tamas played a melancholy tune on the lyre. “With a few taps and plucks I can make your heart sink.” The tune then picked up and turned into a far more triumphant one. “Or I can raise your spirits.” He changed the tune again to a series of low, vibrating notes as he leaned over the fire so that the flames cast dark shadows across his face. “Or give you a sense of dread and foreboding.”

Aryn laughed. “True, true. Have you written any songs?”

“Well…a few, but they’re not that great.”

“So modest. Play one.”

Tamas smiled at her. “As you command, your Majesty.” He picked at the lyre a bit and then began a slow and sad tune. As he sang, his dialect changed to a much older version of the Nihilite accent.

“Night falls,

the clouds roll away.

I hear birds call,

but not for my name.

Can it be heard on the wind?

Will I ever be called on again?

Trees tremble,

Heat leaves the sand.

The rivers babble,

but I can't understand.

The night cries out in symphony.

If only it were calling for me,

If only it were calling for me.”

Aryn felt light as the song came to a close. It wasn’t a romantic song, and certainly not a song about her, but Tamas showed such passion, such raw emotion as he sang it. Again, his true inner self was shining through, and it was beautiful. Tamas proudly set aside the lyre when he was done, that smug half-smile on his face. For a moment, it didn’t matter that he was a Nihilite, or even that he was an Aeon. All that mattered was that he was a man and she was a woman.

To Tamas’ surprise, no sooner had he put away his lyre than Aryn ambushed him with a fierce kiss. At first their teeth struck each other painfully, but as the kiss softened Tamas closed his eyes and surrendered to the ecstasy of her lips. He placed a hand on her cheek, his fingers curling around the back of her head, and returned the kiss. Their tongues darted in and out of each other’s mouths, and she let out a soft moan.

Aryn cut the kiss short, however, as she realized that while no one appeared to be watching them they were, nonetheless, kissing in front of the camp fire. Anyone who peeked out of the tents in their direction would see them, illuminated in the darkness.

With a face as red as sunset and a sly smile that she could not hide, Aryn said to Tamas, “Good night. Get some rest, we have more marching to do in the morning.”

Both Aryn and Tamas returned to their individual tents. Tamas lied down on his bedroll, but he knew that this night he would get no sleep. Thoughts of that tender kiss from the beautiful queen would keep his heart thumping and his eyes wide open.

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About the author

Nicholas S. Casale

Bio: Nicholas S. Casale, or "Nico" as his friends call him, was born on Vandenberg Airforce Base in California. When he was eleven years old, he moved to Colorado with his family for his father's new job.

He went to Lewis-Palmer Middle School, where teacher Mrs. Susan Doyle got him interested in history by expressing to him that it was not about facts to memorize, but about stories to be told. During this time, English teacher Mr. Todd Mucci also taught him how to write, and he began work on his first piece of historical fiction.

Though his family was fairly secular, he attended a youth group at the Little Log Church in Palmer Lake, Colorado.

In college, he majored in history, and studied various mythologies and religions throughout the world. After college, he became certified as a paralegal and worked at Wal-Mart for the next three years while he tried to find a job with a law firm.

After landing his first paralegal job, he still felt something was missing in his life, and struggled with bouts of depression and loneliness. That was, until he started attending a Messianic Jewish Synagogue in Colorado Springs, where he met the Hebrew class teacher who would one day become his wife.

He is now happily married to Jenifer E. Casale, who wrote "The Whispered War" with him and is currently working on a feminine counterpart to the famous "Hero's Journey" theory devised by Joseph Campbell.

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