After the wedding and coronation ceremonies there was a sort of joint reception, a feast celebrating both, for both were political events when all was said and done. At the feast all manner of vegetables and meats were served, and citizens from all over Arx attended the feast, just as they'd attended the wedding and coronation ceremonies. Hunters and farmers alike had prepared for this day, bringing in fresh game from the wild, or freshly harvested beets, kale, carrots, and sweet potatoes. The best chefs in Arx were called in for the preparations, and some of the most aged wine in the castle's cellars had been brought up.
At the head of the longest table, situated in the middle of the banquet hall, sat King Hadar and Queen Sarahi, their joined hands resting on top of the table. Sarahi's eyes wandered all over the crowd, her face expressionless, but her eyes searching for something.
"I've noticed that he's missing too," Hadar whispered to her.
"You're looking for Milo," Hadar whispered again, "If I had to venture a guess he's in the wine cellar."
"What's he doing there?" Sarahi whispered back, her brow furrowed with concern.
"Probably drinking more than he should," Hadar sighed, "If you want to go and find him, get him to stop his...self-destructive actions for a while I'll entertain the guests in the mean time."
"Won't they wonder where I went?"
"I could always say the lavatory," Hadar chuckled. Sarahi glared at him, but she dared not make the glare too strong in front of the guests. "If they ask I'll tell them you were feeling light-headed and went to lay down."
"Alright. I'll meet you in your room later?"
"Our room, Sarahi," Hadar reminded her that they needed to start speaking of all the two of them owned in that way, "And yes, I'll see you there. Please bring Milo with you, he is our bodyguard now, after all."
Sarahi quietly excused herself from the table, and headed down the hallway, leaving the dining hall and all it's loud chatter behind her. Patrolling the halls were guards, many of whom were disappointed that they had been given the duties of guarding the halls rather than being able to attend the banquets. As Sarahi passed they bowed their heads in respect, some even saying, "Your highness," as she walked by.
In the wine cellar she found Milo, sitting on the floor with a mostly empty bottle of wine in his hands, his diamond sword on the floor beside him, and his head hanging down as he sang a somber tune;
"October winds lament around the castle of Dromore,
yet peace is in her lofty halls, My loving treasure store.
Though autumn leaves may droop and die, a bud of spring are you.
Sing hushabye loo, low loo, low lan, Hushabye loo, low loo..."
"Milo, what are you doing?" Sarahi asked, taking the bottle out of his hands.
"Cel'bratin'!" Milo responded, not even looking up, "A toast to you and Hadar...blessed be your macaroni!"
"...Do you mean matrimony?"
"I do, sure as the Void!"
The phrase "Sure as the Void," was a very old figure of speech that actually meant that someone was quite sure indeed, but Sarahi remembered that years ago she'd told Milo she thought the phrase was odd because of how unsure and chaotic the Void was said to be. She knew Milo was likely making a reference to that conversation.
"Milo, what's wrong?"
"Nuffin's wrong, S'rahi! One of ma best friendsh ish the king, and the other the queen! That's aweshome!"
"Ok, no more alcohol for you," Sarahi said, pulling Milo up to his feet. Milo grabbed his sword on the way up with his free hand, "You'll need to rest a bit, but not on the stone floor or in a room with more wine."
"If you shay so," Milo walked with Sarahi, letting her support him a bit and guide him from the wine cellar to Hadar and Sarahi's room in the castle, his sword dragging on the ground and cutting the rugs they walked over. As they passed down the halls they got many stares from the guards, but Sarahi just gave them a look that let them know not to question what was happening there.
When they reached the room Sarahi helped Milo to lie down, positioning him on his side, facing off the edge of the bed in the off-chance that he needed to vomit because of how much he'd had to drink. She took the sword from his hand and propped it up against the far wall, "How many bottles did you have?" She asked, afraid of the answer.
"I almos' finished one."
"One? And not even whole one?"
"Whattaya want? I don't drink often!"
Sarahi gave a light laugh, shaking her head and smiling a little. For a moment she was worried that her friend, whom she'd known for years, was secretly an alcoholic and had been hiding it well all this time, or that he'd developed alcoholism very recently and managed to keep it from them, but quite the opposite, he was a light-weight, really. The bottle he was holding was a sweet wine, like a desert wine, that was relatively light in alcohol, and the bottle was even smaller than most wine bottles. Now that she thought about it he probably picked that wine because he was unaccustomed to the flavor of alcohol and as such could stand the flavor of that particular wine. "Well, then, you'll survive, but you're not going to be happy in the morning."
Milo soon passed out on Hadar and Sarahi's bed, a deep sleep that would be hard to wake him from. After a few hours Hadar entered the room, looking over at Sarahi, "How's he doing?"
"He's sleeping it off."
"How much did he have to drink?"
Sarahi shook her head, "A lot, but not enough to be truly dangerous."
"Did he say anything about why he drank so much?"
"All he said was that he was celebrating."
"No one celebrates by drinking alone in the wine cellar."
"Yes, I figured he was lying, Hadar," Sarahi said, then changed the subject, "So there's something I want to ask you, it's been bothering me for a while."
"At our wedding the kiss you gave me...well...let me just ask, am I truly so disgusting to you? I know we're not really in love, but you cringed."
"It's not that at all, Sarahi!" Hadar said, "In the morning, when Milo is awake, no doubt with a horrible headache, I have something important to tell both of you."
"Why can't you tell me now? Why must Milo be awake for this? I'm your wife!"
"Because it involves him, and he has a right to know. I'm sorry, Sarahi, but you'll have to wait just until the morning to find out."
Sarahi sighed, "Alright, I'll wait...but what are we going to do about the sleeping arrangements for tonight? This bed is not big enough for three."
"You may share the bed with Milo if you don't mind that. I shall set up my place upon the floor, the rug there should provide enough cushioning for me."
"A king sleeping on the floor?"
"You'll soon find that in many ways I'm very different from the typical king. I admit, I sometimes question if anything other than blood qualifies me to wear the crown, but then I remember some of my cousins, and the alternative candidates." Hadar walked over to the nearby closet and pulled out some extra blankets and a pillow, setting them up on the floor.
"Shouldn't I be the one taking the floor? And before you say 'No, you're a lady,' I'll have you know I may be as atypical a lady as you are a king."
"Fair enough, but I think Milo would be more comfortable waking with you nearby than waking with me nearby." Hadar laughed. "He'll consider you more...snuggleable?"
"That's not a word."
"Oh, come on! Lighten up!"
"Yeah yeah..." Sarahi laid down on the bed beside Milo, pulling the covers up over both of them. This was truly nothing like what she'd imagined her wedding night to be like. To be fair this probably wasn't what Hadar had in mind, thinking about it in his childhood days, either.
In spite of being in a new bed, and all the stress of the day, and all the things on Sarahi's mind, she found herself falling asleep rather quickly. Next thing she knew she was awakened by a combination of the sun's light coming through the curtains, the sounds of birds chirping, movement from the other side of the bed, and the sounds of Milo moaning in pain.
"Oh...too much...close the curtains..." he groaned.
"The curtains are closed," Sarahi whispered.
"Not so loud...ugh..."
"Well, that ought to be a lesson to you," Sarahi said, giving him a gentle pat on the back.
"You gonna rub it in?"
"No, I think you're suffering enough without me having to tell you that you shouldn't drink so much."
Hadar mumbled, "I wanna sleep more..." and turned over in his blankets.
"We have responsibilities now," Sarahi said, "I suggest you wake up. Besides, you had something of great importance to tell us."
"Right right..." Hadar slowly sat up, rubbing his eyes and yawning loudly, his mouth open so wide his jaw muscles ached. "Just give me a moment."
"You slept on the floor?" Milo asked, rising to his feet, "I could have slept there instead! You're the king, you shouldn't..."
"I'm the king because my ancestors subjugated yours, Milo. There's nothing special about my blood, it's as red as yours."
"Still...a king makes huge sacrifices for his people, as such he deserves any luxuries we can afford him."
"I suppose," Hadar slinked over and sat on the edge of the bed, rubbing the top of his head. "Milo, you may want to sit down again for this."
"I've important news for you and Sarahi, please, sit."
"Alright," Milo took his seat on the edge of the bed.
"Now...which part to begin with..." Hadar hesitated, "I've put a lot of thought into the words I'd use to explain something like this, and I eventually came up with something that I think works well enough. The truth is...there's something about myself I've not even told you, my closest friends, something I've kept a secret since I was only eleven years old. Sarahi, you asked me about the way I kissed you, about why I seemed to cringe when we touched."
"Yes, that's been bothering me."
"Well, you see, it's not that I find you disgusting, certainly, but...well, imagine what it would be like for YOU to kiss a woman, especially in front of so many people."
"I'm not sure I follow you," Sarahi said.
Milo's eyes widened, "I think I do."
"The truth is...for many years now I've known that I'm...well, not attracted to women. I can recognize that a woman is beautiful, as you certainly are, Sarahi, but it doesn't...do anything for me. My desire is...for other men."
"For other men to what?" Sarahi asked.
"He's attracted to other men," Milo said.
"Oh..." Sarahi felt as if she'd been suddenly jerked awake from a long and deep sleep. For a moment she recalled countless interactions with Hadar that suddenly made much more sense. She had noticed him staring at other male students at the academy for no particular reason. He seemed totally comfortable with her being in close physical proximity to him, such a proximity that would have made most men quite nervous. And it certainly explained why when he kissed her he was so hesitant, it was as strange to him as kissing a woman would be to her, like he said.
"I'm sorry, my friends, that I didn't tell you sooner," Hadar said, "And Sarahi, I'm especially sorry I didn't tell you. I can't be the husband you deserve in some ways."
As that realization hit Sarahi, knowing that she'd never know her husband's intimate touch, that there was no hope of the two of them ever falling in love, tears began to well up in her eyes and her breaths became short, "How could you do this? Why?"
"I'm so sorry," Hadar repeated, "I can't help the way I feel, but I needed you as my queen, ruling this kingdom is going to be the hardest thing I've ever done, and I wanted my two closest friends with me."
"I...understand..." Sarahi sobbed. Milo hesitated a moment, and then reached out and wrapped an arm around her shoulder, comforting her. Sarahi turned to Milo and hugged him tightly. Truly, anything she'd ever hoped for in a married life was gone now. The only thing that mattered, that could possibly matter at this point, was duty, her duty to the kingdom of Arx, and she'd do her duty, it was just horrible to think that she'd never find her personal happiness, and neither would Hadar.
Milo couldn't bear to see Sarahi cry like this, but even so he didn't blame Hadar, just as much as Sarahi was torn up by this sudden discovery, so Hadar had likely been tormented by the realization that when he assumed the throne, as he only just realized recently he was going to do, he'd never get the chance to be with someone he loved. Fate had dealt them all a truly cruel hand, like it was openly mocking them, and for a moment Milo silently questioned and even cursed God for their situation. A man raised as a paladin, a holy knight, meant to uphold the principles and truths of the Agalmite Church, now found himself angry at its God and practically demanding answers from him in his heart.
"And there's something else," Hadar continued.
"You have a lover?" Milo asked.
"Sadly and fortunately, no," Hadar said, smirking, "No, it's about the way you two feel about each other."
Sarahi opened her eyes again, still gleaming with tears, and jerked her head over to Hadar, "What?"
"Don't think I haven't noticed. Sarahi, you chastise Milo for his silly jokes and his apparent inability to be serious, and yet every time you chastise him I see that hint of a smile at the corner of your lips, giving away that you enjoy everything this man says and does, though you'd never admit it. Milo, I've noticed how you're so much more of a jester, an outright clown, when Sarahi is around, how you say things specifically to GET her to chastise you because you love the attention, good or bad. You were drinking in the wine cellar while the reception was going on, wasn't that because the woman you loved had just married another man? And Sarahi, you were so quick to go and find him, could that be because you were concerned for him as more than just a friend?"
Milo and Sarahi stared at Hadar in silence for a few moments, their mouths hanging open and their eyes wide. For years they'd tried their best to keep the way they felt about each other a secret, both from one another and from observers. In spite of the fact that they were both paladins Milo was of common birth and Sarahi was nobility, meaning that because of their stations they could never be together, and such a union was forbidden. It was shocking to both of them to hear that the whole time Hadar knew how they felt, especially when he had managed to keep such a huge secret from them all those years. Furthermore it was surprising to both of them that the other felt the same way.
Hadar gave them a moment to think about what they'd just heard before continuing, "You two have been in love with each other for years now, to me that's obvious, but I doubt anyone else has noticed, and it would be best to keep it that way. However, I would like to propose something to both of you." Hadar leaned in, "You see, many years ago my brother, Amasi, confided in me that he was in love with a common woman, a servant who worked here in this castle, and that he was carrying on a secret relationship with her. He furthermore explained that such a thing was not terribly uncommon, that countless kings had...mistresses, as it were, and often their queens would have lovers as well. Nobility and royalty marry for politics, so they have to find love and happiness somewhere else. What I'm proposing is that, if the two of you are feeling brave enough, you two have your relationship together, here, in secret, and I'll help you conceal it."
"That's...incredibly risky," Sarahi said, "If such a thing were discovered..."
"No one would dare invade the king and queen's privacy, for fear of the punishment the king may visit upon their heads on a whim," Hadar said. He spoke these words, but admittedly even he couldn't believe them. He didn't know if he could really bring himself to execute someone merely for finding out too much. "And slander against the royal family is treason, so they'd have to prove it, which would be impossible, because your word and mine are worth many times what any other's word is worth."
"What you are suggesting..." Milo said, "I mean...we'll need time to decide...can such a thing be good for the kingdom?"
"I can't think of anything that would be better for the kingdom," Hadar said.
"What do you mean?" Sarahi asked.
"Think about it, this marriage was in part because the Council wanted to make sure I had an heir. As I said before, my blood is as red as Milo's, so whether or not such an heir is actually of 'royal blood' is a moot point. If you two..."
"That's a LOT to ask," Milo said, "I mean...we JUST found out all this and..."
"I'm not saying you two should get right to it!" Hadar said, raising his hands to hush Milo, "What I'm saying is...if you two have your relationship in secret...maybe even being somewhat like a secret marriage, and you one day get to that point..."
"You'll claim the child as your own and make him or her your heir?" Sarahi asked.
"Yes. Much better than you and I trying to conceive a child." Hadar chuckled.
"Umm..." Milo scratched his head, "I'm afraid I have to point out something rather obvious here...We're paladins, sworn to uphold the Law, and isn't adultery against the Law?"
"It is," Hadar nodded, "The Law is very clear that violating the sacred bonds of a marriage is out of the question, and paladins who violate the Law have been known to lose their powers at the very least, and often their health deteriorates too, but the scriptures define marriage in great detail. Marriage exists between two people who have sworn their LOVE before a crowd of believers and a sanctified priest, paladin, or other member of the clergy, and who have CONSUMMATED said marriage. If you were paying attention to the words of our vows at the wedding, what it was that the Arch-Bishop asked of us, you'll notice that never once did we swear our love for each other. Furthermore I have no intention of consummating the marriage. In the eyes of the people, Sarahi, you and I are married, but not in the eyes of God."
"Seems like a flimsy loophole," Sarahi said, raising an eyebrow.
"I've given it a lot of thought, I assure you it's not. Remember the prophet Jerome? He asked for Cari's hand in marriage, but another woman, who was secretly in love with him and very envious of Cari, tied her up and left her in a cellar, and took her place at the wedding, wearing a veil. Jerome suspected something was wrong, so, just to be safe, when he made his vows he swore he would always love Cari, mentioning her by name, and as such he was never married to the imposter, and when he found and rescued Cari he was still free to marry her. A situation similar to our own appears in one of the stories of the Scriptures. What's more, since you and I are not married, and since paladins can perform wedding ceremonies, if you two ever decide you want to be wed you are free to do so, and I can perform the ceremony for you both."
"What about deceiving the people?" Sarahi asked, "Isn't that against the Law?"
"Do you remember the tale of King Alpi, the king blessed by God who was also a prophet? When dealing with a king from a foreign land, one that King Alpi did not trust, he was asked how many soldiers he had. Naturally, he told the other king that he had three times as many as he truly had in order to scare the foreign king away from attacking Arx. When it benefited the people and would save lives he lied. The Scriptures indicate that protecting lives is more important than telling the truth, and given that our secret could potentially tear the kingdom apart if it got out..."
"...This is all...weird..." Milo said. Certainly it was hard to wrap his head around when it felt like his head was already wrapped around the head of a mace, a mace that was on fire, and his mouth and throat felt like an arid desert.
"I'll leave the two of you to think about it, discuss it if you wish, no doubt I have matters of state I need to attend to."
Sarahi grabbed his sleeve, "So you're just going to drop news of this magnitude on us and then walk away?"
"Yes," Hadar said, laughing, "Seriously, I'm the king now, I have responsibilities I have to attend to, as you were so fond of reminding me when you woke me a few minutes ago."
"Alright, yes, duty first." Sarahi sighed.
"Indeed," Hadar opened his wardrobe and grabbed a few items of clothing from it before heading down the hall to his personal washroom. The servants in the washroom immediately filled the tub with water and lit the fire underneath it that would make his bath hot for him. Once everything was set the servants left the washroom, leaving the key in the room with him. Hadar locked the door from the inside and placed the sword that Eyal, the Grand Duke had given him next to the tub, in arm's reach in case he were to be attacked while in there. It was hardly typical for a king to be so paranoid, but Amasi had been assassinated, so Hadar feared that other assassins might not be so far away. If enemies had infiltrated the castle before they were likely to again. Of course, he made the mistake of thinking that they would only be targeting him, or that mere assassination would be their plot at this point.
Back in the bedroom Milo and Sarahi talked about what they had just found out, "So all this time you felt the same way?" Milo asked.
"Is that really so hard to believe?"
"I suppose not," Milo said, "Though with how fortunate I was to even GET into Caelum...to hope for something like that almost seemed like it would be asking God for too much, getting greedy."
"And that sort of humility is part of why I...I feel the way I do," Sarahi struggled with the exact wording.
"Yes, Milo. You act proud and sometimes even defiant, but I know that deep down you're grateful for everything you have. To you, everything is a blessing, and you cherish all of it. Too often nobles take what they have for granted. I can't even remember the last time my mother remembered to thank God before a meal, and yet every time we've ever eaten together you reminded us to do so if we forgot. You may not have meant to, but you taught me to be thankful for everything I had, because you were thankful for everything you had."
And in that moment all of Milo's questions about God and the situation they'd been placed in went away. He wondered how he, someone who had so long been so thankful to God for everything he had, could have suddenly been so angry with Him, if even just for a short while. Bad as their situation seemed it had turned out that, in fact, the woman he loved was NOT married to another man, but rather it merely appeared so to the people of Arx, a political move to keep peace and stability in the land. What seemed like God was cursing them was actually a blessing for all of Arx. It was a way to save the kingdom from itself, to keep it stable during the imminent conflict with Nihilus, and at the same time their happiness wasn't totally sacrificed, though they'd have to keep it a secret. The situation wasn't perfect, but it seemed to be one that could benefit the most people, given what Nihilus' assassins had already done to the kingdom.
"You know I love the way you always correct me, right?" Milo said, smiling.
"Apparently," Sarahi replied.
"In large part it's because you show more and more just how smart you really are. Yes, I think you're beautiful, more beautiful than any other woman I've ever known, but after this many years of knowing you...you keep impressing me."
"Flatterer. Are you really using the 'I like your for your brain' line on me?"
"It's true!" Milo insisted, "It's why I keep causing trouble and getting things wrong, so I can see you shine when you correct me."
"I knew you weren't really as dense as you were pretending."
Milo chuckled, "Now you're the flatterer."
Suddenly, there was the sound of crashing from a room down the hall, and the screams of servants and shouting of guards. Sarahi leapt from the bed and ran towards the door, but Milo caught her arm, "If it's an attack you may be the target!" he said, "Let me handle this!" Milo picked up his sword and stood in front of her, cautiously opening the door.
"Don't be ridiculous! We fought side by side in the training exercises for years!"
"You have a spear with you?" Milo asked.
"I have a sword, let me handle this." Milo stepped out into the hall, his large, diamond sword held tightly in both of his hands. He looked down the hall to see some of the castle guards rushing into one of the castle's guest rooms, only to see them then thrown out again seconds later, hitting the hard ground with a violent crack, some of them obviously with broken arms and legs, a few with broken necks. "Damn it!" Milo ran down the hall towards the room where the disturbance was coming from, feeling a sense of dread creeping up his spine, like a large, cold spider was crawling his back.
He slowed down as he neared the doorway and stood against the wall beside it, slowly peering in to get a peek at what was causing the disturbance. Inside he saw the demon, a creature with a body shaped like a ball, with eyes all over it, one eye far larger than the others, and twenty limbs, with three-fingered hands on the end, that it was walking on. Milo had seen golems made to look like this particular type of demon before, and had fought them on a number of occasions, but the real thing was still far more terrifying than the golems could ever be. He had learned long ago that such a demon, if it touched you, could turn you into its thrall, making you part demon yourself, and forcing you to do its bidding, and sure enough some of its hands were holding down castle servants, who were flailing about and screaming as eyes began to appear in unnatural places on their bodies; on their necks, on their cheeks, on their hands, on their arms, on their legs, any place where skin was exposed.
Those whom the demon had turned into its thralls would become human again once the demon was dead, so Milo knew he had to focus on killing the demon. He stepped into the doorway, lifting his sword above his head. When he heard and felt the tip of his sword touch the ceiling he realized the disadvantage of such a weapon in a confined place such as the castle. In an open field having a weapon with as much reach as a great-sword had was a major advantage, but castle quarters were far more confined, in part to nullify the numbers of an invading army. It was why the castle's guards were so often armed with short swords, though their swords were not made of diamond, and as such could do nothing against a demon. Rather than holding his sword above his head, ready to strike, Milo instead held it directly in front of him, between him and the demon to keep it at a distance, knowing that he'd have to rely on holy spells rather than the strength of his arms to kill this unholy beast.
"Oh God who dwells in the earth," Milo began. The demon turned its eyes to him, releasing the servants who had now become its thralls. The demon lashed out at Milo with its long limbs, but Milo swung his sword from side to side, giving its hands deep cuts, forcing it to retract its many arms. "Bring this enemy of all that is holy under your just power," The thralls of the demon stood from the ground and began running towards Milo, hands outstretched. The demon likely knew that Milo would hesitate to kill them far more than he'd hesitate to kill the demon, and Milo anticipated this action. He turned his sword sideways and struck the thralls with the flat of the blade, knocking them down onto the ground again, all the while keeping his blade between him and the demon, "And make it a part of your creation!"
In a last, desperate attempt to protect its own life and kill Milo the demon lunged forward, but while it was in the air its whole body turned to stone, and it fell to the ground. Milo thrust his sword forward into the demon's stone body with all his might, and when his blade pierced the demon it split it in two, its limbs cracking and breaking. The demon's thralls writhed in anguish on the ground, now cut off from the influence of their master. After a few moments the eyes that had appeared all over their bodies were now gone, and they were no longer writhing on the ground. "It's alright, the demon's gone."
"Thank you! It was horrible!" One of the servants said, pushing himself up to his feet.
"I'm so glad you were here!" Another said, rising to her feet and hugging Milo.
Milo gently patted her on the back, slightly uncomfortable that a stranger was hugging him. "It's okay...look, it's over now, you're fine."
It wasn't long before the guards came running into the room, followed by Sarahi, and Hadar, whose hair was still wet from his bath. Milo turned to face his friends as the guards passed him, "It's alright, it's over."
"You're safe! Thank God!" Sarahi said.
"It's not alright, though," Hadar said, "Think about it, the presence of this demon means that there's a warlock somewhere in the castle." Milo and Sarahi turned white. The guards escorted the servants away for questioning and searched the room. One found a Blackstar Talisman lying on the floor, made of wood with an iron core. Hadar sighed when he saw it, "And since the warlock didn't have to be anywhere near that room when the demon was summoned who knows who it could be? Everyone in this castle is suspect, except the three of us."
"With all due respect, your Majesty," said one of the guards, "I do not understand how Milo is above suspicion."
"Because he is a paladin, like Sarahi and I," Hadar said, "And if he were a warlock he would not be able to use holy spells. It's impossible for paladins, priests, or even geomancers to be warlocks."
"My apologies, sire," the guard said.
"Don't apologize to me, apologize to Milo."
"Yes, sire. I'm terribly sorry, Milo."
"What's important," Hadar said, "Is to root out the warlock...or warlocks responsible."
"You want us to question the servants?" One of the guards asked.
"No. As I said, EVERYONE in this castle is suspect, even the guards. I'm going to have to call in specialists for this sort of thing. I'll send word to Caelum to send paladins to the castle immediately, and I'll have to write to Father Gonen."
"The Grand Inquisitor?"
"Yes. Much as it pains me to admit it, we're in need of the Inquisition's help once again."