Prince Kemal looked out over the water and sighed. Then he turned to look at his family, his wife Feray and sons Asil and Orhan, and smiled.
“What is it, my Lord?” his wife asked, her voice gentle and musical.
Kemal did not need to glance around to see if anyone was listening. His people knew better than to disturb his privacy. They were alone on the high stern deck, looking out over the endless ocean that divided Kotterman from Gaelland.
“I wonder whether we will like it there,” he said. Many men, in fact most men, would not confide in their wives, let alone discuss matters of great import with them. But Feray was not an ordinary woman. He had married her because it solidified his father’s grip on a vital part of the Empire, but he had swiftly fallen in love with her anyway. Their sons were eight and six summers of age and another source of joy to him, although they were less interested in what he was saying and more curious about a pair of dolphins that were swimming alongside the ship.
“How can we not? We will be representing your father and the great Empire of Kotterman, bringing a new province into its boundaries for the first time in one hundred years,” she said.
He chuckled. “I know what we are supposed to do. I question why.”
She cocked her head on one side. “Tell me, my Lord.”
Kemal smiled and enfolded her in his arms. “Do you know why I have taken no other woman?” he asked. “Although my brothers believe an oath to Aroaril is no oath at all?”
“Because you know I would remove your manhood with a rusty knife?” she suggested with a grin.
“Well, that also. But the real reason is I could never find anyone with half as much sense as you. This business with Gaelland concerns me deeply. When my forefathers began to expand our Empire, they could not stop once they had started, because there were always enemies across the border who wanted our riches, as well as allies who wanted our trade. But we have no border with Gaelland and it is a huge distance from my father. And their King is a strange man. We talk to him because we must but he reminds me of a shark. It looks like he is smiling all the time, he even appears foolish on occasion, but then you catch sight of his eyes and you realize there is something evil there.”
Feray shuddered a little. “But surely we have nothing to fear from him? There are too few of them and they are too poor to cause us concern.”
“That is what my father thinks. But all he has done is read the reports on this King Aidan. He has never met the man. Although that is one thing about Gaelland coming under the Kotterman Empire. If we remove Aidan from the throne, it will actually help the people.”
“Do you believe that?”
He smiled. “More than that, I know it to be true. Our agents have been meeting with people from the King’s eldest son, Prince Cavan. Many of the nobles would like to see the end of Aidan’s rule and the Crown Prince assures our agents they would welcome Kottermani rule if their positions are preserved and the lives of their people improved. Obviously I will need to meet with this Cavan myself, as well as the nobles he claims support him. It will influence my talks with King Aidan, although it is up to me to make my father’s dream come true.”
“What are you going to do, my love?”
Kemal kissed her on the head. “What I must. I can never forget that I have three brothers, all of whom would love to sit on the Elephant Throne one day. As you say, Gaelland is the first new province to be brought into the Empire since my great-great-grandfather’s time. My father lusts more for it than he has for any woman. He feels the touch of Aroaril on his shoulder and wants to leave his mark on the history scrolls. If I do not do this, then he will find another who will.”
Her arms tightened around him. “I do not care if you are the Emperor or just a man. I would still be with you,” she said against his chest.
He chuckled. “Let us never put that to the test!”
He might have said more, but his sons came running over then, the dolphins forgotten, wanting to show him how they had been learning the sword, brandishing their wooden practice blades.
“Come then, let us see how good you are!” Kemal challenged them, winking at his wife’s indulgent smile as he defended himself against the children.
Asil, the older of the two, was slim and fast, while Orhan was younger but already stocky and solid through the chest and shoulders, and his blows had the same power as his older brother’s, albeit without the speed.
Kemal fended the two of them off easily, his footing sure and quick, making them bump into each other and occasionally using his wooden sword to tap one of them, all the while telling them what to do better.
“Enough!” he cried finally, as Orhan abandoned his sword and grabbed him around the leg. “I am defeated by you!”
“Really, Baba?” Orhan asked, looking up at his father in delight.
“No!” Kemal laughed, grabbing them both in his arms.
Their laughter echoed across the ship as Feray called down to servants for refreshments to be brought up.