Nineteen

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Princess Cariolta was far too deep into pain-induced delirium to really understand what was going on, but the time she spent conscious was always pleasant. Whenever she woke, she found her head in Kish's lap. As far as she could she could tell, the warrior princess never left her side.

She could hear singing every night. It seemed as though her kidnappers were a rather jovial lot. There were three voices that stood out from the others and filtered into her dreams. First, there was the full and flawless voice of a woman whom all of the other voices seemed to follow. It stood out even more as she had heard it singing passionately at the border crossing days before. The next was a resonating baritone which felt as though it was heard by the chest rather than the ear. Finally, there was one voice that stood apart from all the others in every way: it was louder and more exuberant than any she'd heard. However, it was tuneless and even though it seemed to know all of the words, it didn't know what they meant or where they started or finished. That voice gave her the most comfort, knowing that the strange young man was still safe and happy. These were her lullabies, and they gave her more peace than she had found since even before she had lost her family.

Tonight was different, though. Tonight she did not hear the rousing chorus that normally followed the sounds of dinner. Instead, the baritone was singing alone and everyone else was silent as he poured out a ballad. Unlike the rest of the songs, Cariolta knew this one and was surprised that anyone else would. It was old. Very old. It was a lengthy ballad about the beginning of civilization. What surprised her even more than the song was that she recognized the voice to be of a familiar mercenary, but it was somehow transformed by song into something pleasant and powerful.

The ballad started with the coming of the God Emperor. The people of the world were wild and barbaric and they hid in their huts and caves from the beasts and monsters which wandered the land freely. The Emperor was a god who had descended from the heavens to bring order to the land of men so that men could better serve him and his kin after they died.

The song went on for some time about his conquests and his glories in destroying the titans that roamed the land, and then it changed tone—it softened and the melody deepened. In the wild plains of the east, the God Emperor met a woman of such surpassing beauty that he made her his first bride. For a time, he stayed with her and she bore him a son; in doing so she gave her life, for no human can bear the son of a god and survive. That verse always brought tears to the eyes of the young princess and she hated it because she knew that theme would be repeated thrice more.

The Emperor raised his first son, Desidor, to be a great warrior, for he possessed all of the strength of the Emperor himself. Together they subdued the warring tribes of the east, and after a time, the Emperor left Desidor to be king of the eastern plains which he called Desidan after his son.

From there the Emperor went south, where he met his second wife. Again Cariolta's tears flowed as the second king was born and the mother died. Canifor the wise he would become. His mind was as vast and clever as the Emperor's. On the warm southern shores, he and his father brought the wild and reclusive people of the jungles out into the sun and taught them to fish and farm and trade. He brought education and scholarship to his people and they lived a life of ease under their new king in the southern kingdom of Caneria.

The ballad turned darker at this point, as the God Emperor went to the northern reaches. He fought long and hard to rid that land of the trolls and orks and goblins and monsters of all sorts which infested the land, but even his power could not keep them from returning, for the land was steeped in darkness and decrepit magic and it bred creatures of all manner of hideousness. There he found his third wife, and the verse that should have brought her tears now filled the Princess with anger and fear, for that woman bore the demon Lord Ashunar, the Sorcerer King who ruled the dark mountains as a tyrant.

Finally the Emperor came to the forests of the midlands and found his final wife. Unlike with the others, the Emperor did not fall for the woman's beauty, but for her heart. When she became pregnant, the Emperor brought his three sons together. He told them that he had decided to die with this wife, so that she would not be without him in the heavens. He told them that his fourth son was to be named Hael and that the brothers would have to raise him themselves. This was the best remembered part of the story for Cariolta as it was the story of her ancestors.

On the day of Hael's birth, and the day of the Emperor's death, he made two final decrees. He had decided that his sons should not have to lose their wives nor their sons their mothers. For this to happen, the sons of the God Emperor would become mortal as they conceived their first child. They would then grow old and die with their wives and their sons would succeed them as humans.

His final decree he made to all people: if ever his line should end, he would return and start anew. His perfect, undying body would serve as a vessel for his return and it was to be kept safe for all time. This verse brought uncomfortable uncertainty to Cariolta as she considered what could possibly have happened to the Emperor's stolen body.

The next part of the song was about the fights between the brothers as they raised the fourth King. Hael's adventures as a youth and how he kept the peace between the other three brothers was a raucous and joyful tale. It warmed the Princess's heart a little though she dreaded the conclusion of the song.

She was happy to find that the song did not end as it should, though. It ended with the scary story of Ashunar refusing to take a wife so that he could live forever in his dark palace. It described of how his lust for power had overtaken his lust for flesh and he lived eternally as the Demon Sorcerer of the North. That was a popular ending as it was exciting and frightening.

The true ending was sad and sobering. It was the tale of the maddening of King Desidor. How in his old age he had become a bloodthirsty monster and how his youngest brother stood alone against him in his maddened rage. It ended with the tears of Hael falling on the body of his eldest brother whom he had killed in mercy. Either Prag didn't know that part, or he did not want to dampen the spirits of all those listening, but the last unsung lines rang in Cariolta's ears as she wiped a tear from her eyes. 'My brother, my brother forgive me. I cannot go with you. I cannot follow where you go today.'

There was a murmur of appreciation for the singer. Cariolta wrestled for a time with the memories of her lost family. The guilt at neither saving them nor going with them tore at her. Eventually, she felt Kish's strong arms around her and she was able to fall back into a soft slumber wrapped in the warmth of Kish's body.

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