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He wasn’t one of those people who were interested in death. He didn’t care about what came after one’s path ended. He was simply too busy fighting for that very life, every day.
And so, he’d expected neither a harem of virgins, nor an eternal feast among soldiers, neither Seraphim nor the Golden Gate. Instead, there was only darkness.
It was warm and tender.
He was fine with it.
He didn’t want to leave it. For the first time in his life, he felt neither anxiety nor unease. That’s why he’d been so unhappy when the bright light appeared at the end of the narrowing tunnel.
He didn’t want to leave this intimate darkness. But it forced him out, pushing him closer to the scorching circle of the white flame.
Finally, the light flooded everything around him, and then pouring down inside him as well. He felt a burning sensation in his chest. He shouted. Not from the pain, he knew how to endure that. He’d done it just to make sure he was truly alive. But instead of screaming, all he heard was a nasty squeak.
“Dat har herieon.”
He heard an unfamiliar, gruff language. He opened his eyes with great difficulty and saw… An incomprehensible, blurry, clearly inverted, black-and-white spot. Out of habit, he reached out his hand toward the keyboard to type “What the hell”. But instead of the keyboard, he ended up squeezing something soft. At first, he thought it was someone’s hand, but, looking at it closer, he recognized… a finger.
How huge that finger must’ve been, if he’d held it with his whole palm!
Wait… Wait a minute…
[Reconfiguring the interface. Correcting the original error. The host’s age is 35 seconds.]
Suddenly, the black-and-white image was filled with color and returned to normal, changing the perspective back as well. Finally, he saw the face… of a woman. Or even a young girl. She was about twenty. Certainly not any older. Her lustrous, black hair, which was in a thick braid, lay on her narrow, elegant shoulder. Her clear, green eyes glowed with happiness.
Her round, tired, sweat-covered face was perhaps the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. He didn’t see the environment—not the huge stone chamber, decorated with velvet and gold; not the painted walls: nor the girls in light leather armor who were standing around them. He looked only into the depth of her shiny eyes.
She stroked his cheek gently and said, “Dlahi Hadjar. Dlahi Hadjar.”
“Look, Nanny,” Elizabeth smiled.
She stroked the crying baby’s cheek. She wasn’t alone on the damp sheets now, rocking her newborn son in her arms. The nanny bustled around her. She gave orders to the women and they immediately ran into the depths of the palace corridors.
“My dear Hadjar,” the queen lulled the little prince to sleep. “Dear Hadjar.”
A kind smile was on her tired face.
“My Queen,” the plump, kind Nanny came up to her. “Look how tightly he is holding onto you.”
Elizabeth only then noticed that Hadjar had been squeezing her finger tightly. In his clear, blue eyes, she suddenly saw the reflection of something that the baby should not have been able to feel.
It was confusion.
“A son?!” Suddenly, there was an almost bestial roar.
In the corridor, she heard the tramping of a dozen feet. The gigantic doors opened wide and a tall, broad-shouldered man flew into the hall. Wearing golden, comfortable clothes, with a sash at his belt, he was an impressive man, and he was also taller than his warriors by two heads.
He had light brown, shoulder-length hair and a leather strap with metal inserts covered his forehead.
“My King,” the nurse immediately bowed low.
The armored girls, who had returned to the chamber, did the same.
“Darling,” Elizabeth’s smile became even brighter than it had been before.
“I have a son, brother!” The King grabbed the man standing next to him by the shoulders.
He looked like the King, but was even taller and a little older. His black beard had some gray in it. A golden medallion was fastened to his heavy fur cloak.
“Congratulations, brother,” the man answered in a deep baritone voice.
The King shook him a little and almost jumped onto the bed. He embraced his wife and touched his firstborn gently, a little wary of harming him. The baby was warm.
“Why isn’t he crying?” The King asked worriedly. “Call the doctor! Quickly!”
“Calm down, Haver,” the Queen laughed, and her gaze stopped the knights. “He’s cried. He’s just… stopped now.”
“Stopped crying?” Haver was surprised. “Is that at all normal?”
This time, the question was addressed to the nurse that had straightened up.
“No, Your Majesty. You cried for almost four hours after your birth.”
Haver wanted to scold the grumpy old woman, but he remembered that his newborn son was next to him, just in time to stop himself. Could he hear him?
“Don’t worry, brother,” the tall man came closer. “Look at how tightly he’s holding Elizabeth’s finger and how hard his eyes are.”
The King turned back to his son, and for the first time, a feeling of pride flared up in his chest. He held out his own finger, and the baby grabbed it with his other hand. Tightly. Very tightly.
“The gods know,” the smiling King whispered, “He will be a great general and…”
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“A scholar, dear,” Elizabeth interrupted him. “We agreed that if a boy was born, he would become a scholar.”
“But, my love, look at him! He weighs as much as a young ScaryWolf!”
Elizabeth’s look hardened. The warriors tensed up.
The King frowned.
“What is going on here?!” The Nanny suddenly shouted. “You can argue later! The child needs a rest now.”
After saying that, she went to the Prince and wrapped him in a gold-covered veil, then carried him to a small comforter.
The Queen fell back onto the pillows with a sigh of relief. Breathing heavily, she stroked her husband’s arm. Despite their quarrels, which were legendary throughout the whole country, she loved Haver with all her heart. And he loved her in return.
“Congratulations, brother,” the man bowed. “But, my Queen, I beg that you forgive us, we need to attend the military council.”
“Just a couple of minutes, Primus,” the weakened Elizabeth whispered. “Let me spend a bit more time with my husband.”
The King’s brother bowed once more, and then went out into the corridor, donning his cloak. He was followed by all the soldiers. Both the knights and bodyguards of the queen. Finally, the new mother and father were left alone. The royal couple had precious few moments they could just spend with each other, basking in their love and devotion to each other.
The governing of the country demanded their full attention. It often happened that they couldn’t see each other for several weeks at a time. It was a great mystery how they’d managed to conceive a child in such conditions. But taking into account the timing, it had most likely happened during the feast in honor of the Harvest Festival.
Haver sat down next to his wife and she lowered her head to his mighty, scarred chest.
“Stay with me this time, darling,” she whispered
“The war’s starting, dear,” the King stroked his wife’s hair. Silky and thick, it smelled like jasmine. Untouched by any gray, the same as the day they’d met, almost 70 years ago.
”This one will end, another will begin, and so on, endlessly. Wars never stop.”
Elizabeth put her hand gently on the scars. There were more and more of them marring the body of her lover each time they met.
“I was born a King and warrior, this is my fate.”
“That is why I want our son to become a scholar,” the Queen’s voice trembled. “Let’s not allow the martial arts world to touch him.”
“Will he live a mortal life, then?” The King sighed. ” In forty years, his hair will turn gray, in sixty— his teeth will fall out, and in ninety years, if he lives, he won’t even be able to remember your name. And you’ll still be young and beautiful.”
The Queen had celebrated her 90th birthday last month, but she didn’t look a day over twenty. The King had ruled the country for almost three centuries. By the standards of the adepts, they were still young. And compared to those who’d reached the level of Heaven Soldier and had touched the edge of eternity and immortality, they weren’t that different from their newborn son.
“But it will be a full life,” Elizabeth whispered, falling asleep. ”He will have no hardships, no troubles. He will marry, have children, and live happily, like all the mortals. He won’t know the horrors of this world. About needing to fight for a place in the sun. About the enmity of the practitioners of the Art. He will never be drawn into the endless conflict of the strong sects. He won’t be taken away from us by the Academy of Martial Arts, where he will forget all about the joys of life. He won’t be, like many others are, obsessed with his cultivation. He will live a good, peaceful, happy life. You can make our next son a warrior.”
“We can’t hide him forever…”
“But we can do it until he’s old enough.”
Elizabeth ran a hand over his scarred, powerful chest once again and finally fell asleep.
Haver sat next to his beloved wife for a short time, and only after he was convinced that she’d fallen asleep did he get out of her embrace. He covered her with a blanket, closed the door and went out into the corridor. His elder brother, Primus, the First Warlord of the Kingdom, was already waiting for him.
“Does she still dream that he’ll be a scholar?”
They walked toward the small throne room, where the generals and senior officers had already gathered. A new war was coming, although, admittedly, Haver didn’t remember a time when one wasn’t being fought.
“I can understand her,” the King sighed and rubbed his numb neck. “Her whole family died when she was little.”
“Have you seen little Hadjar? He looks like a scholar about as much as a Heaven Tiger looks like a tame kitten.”
Haver smiled proudly and stopped near the window. He looked at his golden-domed capital, which stretched out for miles around. Almost thirty million people lived just in this city. Overall, more than two billion people lived in his kingdom, which occupied a large swathe of land.
The King shook his head—his kingdom, Lidus, was very small, almost imperceptible on a country map. Maybe that’s why they had to fight so often.
Maybe Elizabeth was right, and Hadjar’s fate was to be a scholar.
At that exact moment, he didn’t know how wrong his wife was or how right his brother was.