The whole of the palace had gone tense as the servants scrambled to ready every spare room they had. Many hadn’t been used in years. However Haskar made good on his word as the ten men who had been in the wagons came out with fine jewelry of white-gold, laden with precious gems.
Haskar stood before the throne, the King settled with his sons at his side. The Warlord took one of the pieces from his men, a fine circlet with three rubies at the front, and approached King Ronald, offering out the piece, “For the King of this land, your crown from us. The simple design shows your authority as a leader, but keeps you humble. The rubies represent the blood of your enemies that you carry with you always.”
King Ronald stood slowly and reached out to accept the gift, taking it and resting atop his balding head. “It is an honor,” he said flatly, though the Warlord’s mirth did not waver.
Haskar returned for another piece, this one a scepter as long as a man’s arm with topaz settled along the bulbous head. The gold was patterned with intricate carvings, though Shane couldn’t see what they were exactly. “For the eldest son…a scepter. You took command and thought logically. This item is reserved for the War Leaders who show intelligence and thoughtfulness.”
Prince Ronald took the item and dipped his head in a bow, “Thank you. It is an honor,” he was at least more respectful than his father, and Haskar seemed to take note of this. His eyes were sharp and perceptive, always moving to catch the world around him.
Haskar then turned and glanced at Shane before stepping past him to Eric, “Tell me, young Prince… How many of my men are carrying weapons.”
“All of them,” Eric said simply, his eyes flickering to the men behind the Warlord before going back to him, “All warriors of the south are equipped with weapons strapped to their inner thighs, to be carried at all times even in sleep.” He paused a moment to consider, “Not to mention all warriors are as well-trained in hand-to-hand combat as they are with their weapons.”
This made the behemoth of a man take on a look of pride at the youngest Prince, “Excellent. I see your eyes, little one. You were silent, but took us in the moment you saw us. You analyze, you search, you think,” Haskar turned and walked back to his men, to the only one carrying something wrapped in loose cloth. This was unfolded to reveal a very old and worn looking book that was picked up with care and taken back to Eric, “This book, the Anc’rin, is sacred to our people. Written by the first Warlord, it contains our values and beliefs. I would only give it to one who will respect this knowledge.”
Eric’s eyes went wide with shock and awe as he held his hands out, taking the book as if it would crumble to dust if he so much as breathed on it.
“Your silence shows me your joy,” Haskar mused with a wide grin.
Eric looked up, shocked, before he regathered his wits and closed his hanging jaw, “This gift will be cherished, thank you!”
“I believe it, little one,” the Warlord nodded and finally turned back to his men, walking to one in particular and taking the final piece.
Haskar took up a short necklace, the polished silver set in heavy oblong plates. Each plate donned a symbol like the one painted on the caravan they had approached in, and had a different gem set at the top and bottom. As the Warlord approached with the necklace, Shane took in what details he could before turning his eyes up to the man. When gestured to do so, Shane lifted his chin and hesitantly bared his throat.
“This necklace is a personal gift. It dons the symbol of every War Tribe under my command, and the color of their banner. Mine is in the center,” he reached out and the cool metal pressed against the Prince’s throat, making him shiver lightly while the Warlord hooked the clasp and ran his fingers over the various symbols, “Wear this with pride for having shown me your fire, even in the face of possible violence. I see something in your eyes…”
“You seem exceptionally pleased with my threatening you,” Shane said after a moment, lowering his chin. He noticed how the eyes of the other warriors were solely on him.
Haskar laughed, a jovial sound that filled the room, “Indeed I am… Now,” he turned to look at the King and stepped away from Shane, “The rest of the gifts can be divided as you see fit.”
“You have been quite generous, Warlord,” the King said after a moment of thought, “I’m sure your men are hungry after your journey. Come, I invite you all to eat. I hope you won’t be offended, we’ve not had time to prepare any of your traditional dishes.”
“Hah, if we wanted food from the South, we would have stayed in the South! Show us what you call food here,” Haskar boomed and looked to his men, “Relinquish your gifts and come feast!”
The remaining items were handed over to the servants and the warriors fell in step behind their Warlord. King Ronald led the procession into the banquet hall where servants were scrambling to set out dishes for everyone.
“I apologize if we seem disorganized,” The King spoke as the men all moved to the table, “We weren’t expecting so much company so suddenly…”
The Princes went to settle around the table, and Shane grew tense when Haskar sat beside him, “You can tell a man’s hospitality by how well he handles those he is not expecting,” he looked around the table, “Your staff is eager to please, though. They respect you and your family.”
“Or they’re scared,” Shane offered plainly.
“They have nothing to fear of us,” Haskar returned, watching his men gather food onto their plates in heaping amounts, “We did not come here with the intention of war or bloodshed. Dalfon sits at the border of the Northern and Southern regions. Opening up a peaceful alliance will allow for trade on both sides.”
Shane’s elder brother looked up from opposite them, Tiana missing from his side, “You want to bring back a Golden Age…”
Haskar smirked, “There would not be much to lose. Everyone would have something to benefit.”
“Still, a little warning would have been nice,” Shane huffed again.
Another loud laugh, “And where would be the fun in that? Life is full of surprises! Let this be a lesson to you – Shane, was it?”
He cinched his jaw, “And what is it you want in exchange for peace, exactly? I have a hard time believing the Warlord himself would come all the way here-“
“Shane,” The King spoke up, “There can be talk of all this later.”
“Your father’s right,” The Warlord added, “Your wariness is not unwarranted, but as I said we have no want of violence,” Shane took note that Haskar did not start serving himself until his men had taken their fill.
The Prince bit his tongue from his remarks and stood slowly, “Father, I have something urgent I need to take care of,” he turned to the Warlord and gave a polite dip of his head, “Enjoy your meal.”
He could feel the King’s glare on his back as Shane fled the dining hall, but he ignored it. Once he was out of sight he ran for the guest wing, taking the stairs two at a time in his rush to get to Dhani’s chamber. He knocked on the door until it opened suddenly.
She looked surprised as she saw Shane looking frantic, “Are you alright? What’s going on?”
“Dhani, the guard was telling the truth. The caravan that arrived was of the Southern War Tribes. But it’s not just that. It’s the Warlord himself.” The woman’s eyes went wide with surprise, “He claims to be here for peace, but I don’t want to see you put in danger.”
“I’m not leaving,” the woman stated firmly, reaching out to pull Shane into her room before closing the door behind them. The woman was dressed far more informally than Shane had seen her before, and he quite preferred to see her in a simple blouse and her dark curls pulled back in a tie.
“It’s the Warlord, Dhani. You need to return to your home!”
She turned on the man and folded her arms, locking him with a stern gaze, “You will give me no such command!” Her displeasure faded and she relaxed into a gentle smile, “Should something happen, then it is my own fault.”
“If something happens, it’ll be on me and all of this Kingdom!” Shane returned swiftly, scrubbing his hands over his face, “I sound like my father! But Dhani…”
She closed the space between them and pressed a hand to Shane’s breast, shushing him lightly, “I think you’re going to need someone here to keep you sane. I can see the concern written on your face,” she took a breath, “Should I feel endangered then I will take my leave. However should something happen while I am here, you will have the full force of my father’s Royal Guard to help drive this southern trash out of your lands.”
Shane swallowed, “I don’t want something to happen to you.”
She smiled again and leaned up, pressing a gentle kiss to Shane’s lips. He recognized the act, but felt nothing pleasing. It made his heart hurt as the woman before him was everything he should have wanted, everything he logically wanted.
“It’s ok,” she murmured gently, “We’ll figure it out.”
The words felt strange, but Shane ignored the turmoil in his heart as he reached out to hug her, “Just promise me that the second there’s trouble, you will leave. Beyond this Kingdom, I would never forgive myself if something happened to you.”
She laughed, lightening the mood, “Such chivalry, dear Prince,” she teased, “But yes, I promise. Now will you stop fussing?”
“I like fussing, it’s a specialty of mine,” he sighed, relaxing.
“I can tell,” she chuckled, “Now wait here,” she turned and walked over to the large closet opposite from the ornately draped bed, stepping inside.
Shane furrowed his brow, “What are you doing?”
“Getting dressed! If I’m going to meet this Warlord then I cannot be so drab,” she huffed.
“You’re what? You’ll do no such thing!”
She stepped out of the closet her expression nonplussed, “What have I said about commands, Prince?” she asked, then held up two gowns, “The red one, or the black one?”
“I don’t think we should taunt a bull with a red flag,” Shane griped, “I also don’t think you should go introduce yourself.”
“It’s only polite,” she said simply, returning to the safety of her wardrobe, “Besides, I would meet this man and ‘know my enemy’s face,’ as my father would say,” she walked out a moment later donning the red dress, pulling her hair from its tie to fix it around her shoulders, “How’s my makeup?”
“Women are infuriating!”
“Yes we are. Now answer the question,” Dhani put her hands on her hips and lifted her chin.
Shane groaned and reached up to wipe off a small smudge of lipstick from the corner of her mouth, “Perfect as you,” He sighed in defeat.
The return to the banquet hall was far less harried than before, though Shane felt tense with the woman beside him. He opened the double doors and allowed Dhani to pass, his eyes falling to the table where everyone was settled. The meal had ended, and it seemed that there was nothing more than idle conversation before every set of eyes was on them.
The doors fell closed and he stepped beside Dhani as they approached, his back stiff, but the woman seemed at ease standing at the head of the table and looking over the newcomers, “Greetings. It seems there was quite a stir this morning.”
Haskar stood and King Ronald followed, “Sorry about that my dear, didn’t mean to make such a scare,” he laughed softly.
Dhani’s glower was icy and terrifying, “You didn’t scare me. I’ve handled warriors of the south before, and at least they showed enough respect as to address me properly.” Her back was rigid and her voice like iron, so powerful that Shane felt genuinely impressed at how this small woman handled the Warlord.
Haskar wasn’t immune to the effects of her tongue, and he straightened up in an instant, the laughter quieting, replaced with something akin to respect, “Apologies, My Lady. I am Warlord Haskar. You must be King Ronald’s daughter.”
“Don’t let assumptions make an ass out of you, Warlord Haskar,” she said sternly, a small smile curled at the corner of her lips, “I am Dhani from the Kingdom of Ghennis. I am here as an emissary for my father, and Prince Shane’s bride-to-be.” Both of Shane’s brows shot up at that statement, and his father’s matched his own though neither of them spoke up. “I have been informed that your purpose here is peaceful – I hope this is true.”
Haskar was studying the woman the same way he had studied Shane himself, but there was something else in his eyes that the Prince couldn’t quite recognize. He took a moment to compose his words properly, “It is a pleasure, Lady Dhani. You have the heart of a strong Queen, which is more than admirable.”
She relented some of her steel and gave the man a deep, respectful bow. Shane cleared his throat, his hand coming to rest on the small of the woman’s back, “She was very insistent on meeting you,” he said.
“He can be such a worrier,” Dhani chuckled and drew a laugh from Haskar in turn.
“Of this I can believe,” the Warlord said, folding his arms. He looked to his men and his gaze turned sharp, “You are in the presence of a Princess!” he snapped and all of the warriors jumped to their feet to bow, “Should you need anything, Lady Ghennis, my men are yours to command.”
Dhani dipped her head again, “You honor me,” she said, “Sadly, I have nothing to offer you in return.”
“Think nothing of it. You share the same fire as your groom-to-be,” Haskar appraised with a nod of his head, “I invite you to join us for our next meal.”
She smiled, “That sounds wonderful. Just make sure to request something more filling than Dalfon’s special dish,” she glanced to the King and flashed a wink at the man’s flustered face.
This made Haskar laugh long and hard, filling the space with jovial sound, “I will be sure to make that request!” he announced.
Dhani returned a bright smile, “Come, if you’re not overly tired then Shane will take us around the gardens.” She looped an arm around the Prince’s elbow and tugged him gently.
“I will?” he asked, blinking down at his new fiancé.
“You will!” Haskar boomed confidently, “Have your servants show my men to their quarters,” he turned to look at the King, “Well fed and with appropriate accommodations, I assure you that they will behave themselves,” he nodded to the warriors with a stern look, and they all stood to salute their Warlord respectfully, fists thumping against their chests. “Good.”
Haskar turned and walked away from the table, approaching Shane and Dhani, “Come then, Shane. Show me around this beautiful palace.” He reached out, a firm hand resting on Shane’s shoulder to tug him with surprising gentleness. With the Princess on one side and the Warlord on the other, the confused Prince resigned himself to his new duty, pulling them both from the banquet hall and out towards the gardens.