The constant snoring of the man she'd taken to bed with her was keeping Farrah up all night. Much to her disappointment, this sturdy, handsome young man had mounted her, given her twenty seconds of pleasure, and then fallen into a satisfied sleep. It was true what they said, even when simply choosing a companion for the night looks weren't everything.
To make matters worse, the young man had been slowly moving across the bed over the course of the past few hours. Every now and then he moved just a little closer to her, then a little closer. He'd pushed her further and further until finally her left arm was hanging off the edge of the bed.
“Can you scoot over?” she whispered.
And he did. In the wrong direction. He rolled over and his sinewy arm flopped onto her face. She'd had enough. Farrah slipped out of the bed and donned her robe. Perhaps a walk would help her to relax, and perhaps then she'd find a different bed to sleep in.
She'd returned to her hometown, Ormondsburgh. It had long been her base of operations, given that it was the seat of her claims to power. The town that had been graced by Cory's presence, just before he revealed to King Therion that Malkira had chosen him to destroy Arx. Of course, that was all a lie. Cory came into the town, sure, but he abused the citizens there and murdered their sheriff. Farrah's mother always told the story the way most people knew it, but some of the elders of the town had told Farrah the real truth.
Out in front of the town hall, where Farrah lived, she met Mave in the streets. “Lady Farrah,” Mave said, “Are you having trouble sleeping?”
“It is difficult to sleep when you're this frustrated,” said Farrah.
“He didn't measure up?”
Farrah smirked. “Nothing was wrong with his 'measurements,' believe me. Obviously, contrary to what men think, it's not the only thing that matters.”
“How is our guest doing?” Farrah asked. She was referring to Galia, the woman they'd found in Grand Duke Sahar's castle.
“She doesn't speak much, barely eats. Whatever she suffered at Sahar's hands...Farrah, I'm concerned. What if Sahar doesn't really intend to grant us peace and independence once we've defeated Quillan and the 'Unchained'. The few things Galia has talked about lead me to believe he's truly sadistic.”
“Men that mad rarely rise to such lofty heights of power,” Farrah said.
“There have been plenty of tyrannical, sadistic leaders in the world, even kings!”
“Yes, but usually they are born into it,” said Farrah. “Sahar was chosen for his position. I can't imagine he's as bad as all that.”
“Then how else would you explain how traumatized Galia is?”
“Frankly I'm not entirely sure she's really traumatized,” said Farrah. “I suspect she's a spy for someone, and that she's lying.”
“Too often victims are disbelieved about what's happened to them.”
“And too often charlatans use sympathy and pity to manipulate people,” Farrah said. “I, of all people, should know, yes?”
It was a fair point. Farrah had certainly used her tears to manipulate enough men to do what she wanted. She had every right to be suspicious that someone else might be doing the same. Mave tried to think of another counter-argument. She truly believed Galia was as much the victim as she seemed, but she couldn't see how she could make Farrah believe her.
“I want someone to keep an eye on her, but our priority is the Unchained. Band of lunatics, the lot of them! I guess that's what swearing off sex will do to you, turn you rabid.”
“Do you have a plan for dealing with them?” Mave asked.
“I always have a plan,” Farrah said, proudly. “They've been attacking bars, taverns, and whore-houses and converting them into little temples. It seems that an easy way to get people to convert is to simply tell them, 'You can convert, or we can kill you,' so they've been gaining followers rapidly. You see the flaw in this plan, yes?”
“I'm not sure I do,” said Mave.
“A fair number of their 'converts' are licentious drunks who only joined their cause because they were afraid they'd be murdered otherwise. Offer them a few sexy young ladies and some strong drink and they'll mutiny. Easy peezy! For all that you can say about the power of faith, it's nothing compared to the power of a good pair of-”
“I get the picture,” said Mave. “You really think their worldliness will be their downfall?”
“Think about it, if your current leader forbids you from doing anything fun, but someone else comes along saying 'join me and you'll have all the fun in the world' who are you going to follow?”
. . .
Farrah may have been disappointed that night, but Mahla certainly was not. Mahla had expected that consummating her marriage to Grand Duke Sahar would be a simple matter of duty, something she just had to bear until it was over. To her surprise, the experience was enjoyable. It was as if every step of the way he knew exactly what she wanted, and he knew exactly how long to tease before giving her that.
Yet, once the euphoria of the consummation wore off, Mahla's mind went back to the sound of the horn-blast from earlier that day. The city guard and several inquisitors had reported that they first heard a softer horn-blast in the distance, followed by the loud one within the city. For that matter, some of them said that the one heard within the city walls was actually the sound of many horns simultaneously. Mahla had sent her people to investigate, but they found nothing. They'd searched countless homes, but failed to find the source of the blasts.
Surely this was some sort of secret signal, but whose? And what did it mean?
“What is keeping you awake, my dear wife?” asked Sahar.
Mahla was startled. She thought he was asleep. “Nothing important.”
“If it wasn't important you wouldn't be losing sleep over it.”
Mahla chuckled. “You got me there.”
“Was it that sound you heard during our wedding?” Sahar asked.
“Yes. How did you guess?”
“I found it disconcerting as well,” Sahar said. “I had some of my own men look into it. They didn't figure out who blew the horns, but they discovered what those horns meant.”
“Oh? Do tell.”
“In the days of the prophets, thousands of years ago, the Agalmite priests used to blow those horns as a signal that war was beginning.”
Mahla sat up suddenly. “If that's the case how can you be so calm?”
“Because of course war is beginning!” Sahar said. “I'm sure you've already heard the reports of the legion from the western city of Diga preparing to invade us? As far as I can tell, the Agalmite priests in hiding are signaling to each other that they need to flee Arx. Or, perhaps it's a call to arms, and they plan to fight the Digan legion.”
“What if it's a call to arms against me?” Mahla asked.
“If it was don't you think we'd have had a riot in the city square? No, we had a peaceful, calm wedding ceremony. You think it makes sense for people planning an ambush to shout, 'NOW!' and then not do anything?” Sahar laughed.
“I suppose not...”
“You think it makes sense for them to wait until the largest army in Arx is stationed in the capital to attack it?”
This time it was Mahla who laughed. “No, I suppose that doesn't make any sense. Strike while your enemy is weakest.”
“Indeed. That's just common sense. Speaking of the call to war, though, there's something I must tell you, my queen,” Sahar sat up. “I've decided that I'm going to take most of my army and ride for Kolob. I think it's only a matter of time until the Digan legion breaks through the mountain pass and invades. Tomorrow, as the new King of Arx, I will announce that I am going to fight for our kingdom's sovereignty. I'll leave a fair part of my army here to protect you, though, just to make sure no one takes advantage of my absence.”
“A sound plan.”
Sahar reached out and placed a hand on Mahla's cheek. Her face flushed. Her whole life she'd felt tough as leather, but whenever Sahar touched her she suddenly felt as if she was delicate as silk. Normally she would have resented anyone making her feel vulnerable, but with him she couldn't help but love the feeling. She'd never thought herself beautiful. In fact, she'd always tried to look more intimidating than anything else, but whenever Sahar looked at her she felt beautiful.
“You're my beloved wife now,” Sahar said. “But because you are the Queen of Arx you are also a target for evil men. I will do whatever it takes to keep you and this kingdom safe.” Sahar gave Mahla a strong kiss as he rolled over onto her. The two of them made love again, and once more it was everything Mahla wanted. The way he pinned her down by her hands on the bed, the way he bit her lip and her neck, and even the words he spoke were exactly what she felt she needed.
And then, in the morning, she watched as he rode off with the better part of his army. She'd learned long ago not to fear that friends would die when she saw them ride off to battle. Tyson had taught her enough ways to detach herself from others, and yet she felt her eyes filling with tears as she saw her husband leave the city to fight the Digan invaders.