Chapter 2: Rose Paved Road

Chapter 2: Rose Paved Road

The air was thick with a rainbow of soft pastels. Blue, pink and yellow danced together as petals fluttered lazily on the wind, marking the joyous occasion with their sorrow at being torn from their flower beds. The road was so saturated in flower petals, it felt springy beneath his boots. Sad to think of the sheer number of flowers that gave their lives for the celebration of my homecoming. Better to see them in the gardens than beneath my boots. But it wasn't his place to begrudge the Caltaran people their joys. They have few enough reasons to rejoice these days.

Smiling citizens lined the streets, marking their path from the city's main gate all the way to the High Road which led to the central district and home, his final destination. They had not chosen the shortest path through the city and the journey to its center took far longer than usual. Again I can’t fault them; so many people want to see me. I’ll never understand why my name and face are so uplifting, but if it gives them hope, it’s an easy gift to grant.

People kept darting forward to offer him flower arrangements. He would pause to offer thanks as he accepted each one, then pass it down the ranks of his men. By the time we reach the central district, they’ll each have one. They may as well take them home to their wives. What could I possibly do with so many?

Through a newly-thrown wave of petals, he turned the final corner and caught sight of a familiar platform in the central concourse. There stood the man he most longed to see. His husband’s smile was more radiant than any in the crowd, his brown eyes shining. His long, intricately-styled raven hair was bound with red ribbon, which complimented the bright red, orange and gold ornamented robes he wore.

It took every ounce of willpower Kantis possessed to keep from sprinting across the short distance and sweeping Salis into his embrace. Soldiers weren’t supposed to act in such an undignified manner while on duty, nor were commanders supposed to show such emotion in front of their men. Still, the light in Kantis’s eyes when they fell on his husband belied his tranquil exterior. Salis must have caught it because he bowed his head, though he looked just as ready to leap off the platform.

Kantis didn’t pay attention to the rest of the group, though he noted Salis’s sister standing beside him, resplendent in a pale blue and green dress, silver curls cascading over her shoulders. Her stoic husband waited beside her. He saw Lord High General Damik move forward and tap the loudspeaker microphone to silence the throng.

"Welcome him home everyone!" Damik gestured in Kantis’s direction. "Kantis and the triumphant men of Kantis’s Legion!"

The crowd roared and fresh petals rained from the sky.

I suppose I’m going to have to make this look as formal as possible. Kantis stopped in the center of the High Road, half-way to the platform, and raised a hand to wave at the crowd. It was a spectacle, a fairly pointless one, but the cheers echoing across the concourse demonstrated the delight of the masses.

He lingered until the bellows began to fade before he swept forward. When he reached the base of the stairs, Kantis dispensed with formality, leapt onto the platform and scooped Salis into his arms before anyone had a chance to protest. He caught Anten frown and Alrayia grin, but he didn’t care what anyone thought of his actions. I haven’t seen my husband in six months. Everyone else has had their joy this morning; I deserve a taste of mine. With the subtle help of Alrayia, who shifted to conceal them for a moment, Kantis managed to steal a quick kiss before he had to turn back to the crowd.

An unfortunate side effect of his rank involved often finding himself the focus of the public eye. Every time he returned from the battlefield, he was expected to give a speech. He never knew what to say. I’m sure my men get endless hours of amusement watching me struggle over what to say.

This time he flashed the throng a genuine grin. To solve the problem, he’d decided not to speak.

He cleared his throat to hush the crowd. They leaned forward in anticipation of his words.

"Thank you," he said, half tempted to leave it at that. Damik will have my head if I don’t give them something. "Everyone, thank you for the warm welcome. As I’m sure you’re all aware by now, I’m a man of few words. As such, I’ve asked my good friend Litoral to speak on my behalf."

He fell back from the podium, giving way to his chosen speaker. There were a few looks of disappointment among those gathered, but most seemed pleased to accept his chosen messenger.

Litoral appeared deceptively lanky. He had a short crop of ruddy brown hair and intelligent green eyes. Among the legion, he was well known for being long-winded.

"Very few words!" Kantis interrupted just as the man opened his mouth to speak, producing a ripple of laughter from both the audience and the soldiers waiting at the base of the platform. "The men haven’t seen their wives in a long time!"

Litoral chuckled before leaning back toward the microphone. "Ladies and Gentlemen," he began and the crowd quieted again. "Seeing the city lit by your smiling faces reminds us why we march to war and why we’re always grateful to march home. We mourn the sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers who no longer accompany us, but hearing your joyful voices reminds us why we are proud to fight. On behalf of Kantis, and all the men of his legion, I’d like to conclude by saying; it’s great to be home!"

He turned from the loudspeaker and clasped hands with Kantis before descending the stairs to take his place among the legion soldiers.

The formal meeting fell apart. Men and women emerged from the crowd, unable to wait any longer to greet their loved ones. Mothers and fathers tearfully embraced children, husbands and wives flung themselves into each other’s arms. Dispensing with decorum altogether, many soldiers repeated Kantis’s earlier display of affection.

Litoral, an intractable bachelor, bounded back up the stairs with a bundle of flower bouquets and presented them to Salis.

"Kantis could have filled a wagon and given them all to you," he announced with a roguish grin. "But I suspect he thought you’d be satisfied with these."

"I didn’t want you drowning in them," Kantis teased.

Salis chuckled. "I adore them, thank you." He lifted himself to lay a kiss on Kantis’s cheek.

Kantis grinned; letting his men take so many of the flowers likely impressed Salis more than receiving a cart full. Gestures generally meant more to Salis than gifts. In fact, he separated one of the flower bundles from the group and offered it to his sister. Alrayia smiled and embraced him which evoked a frown from her stoic husband. The two of them are still competing for her affections, I see. Kantis bit the inside of his lip to keep from laughing. Salis’s momentary victory probably pleases him more than the flowers!

Though Kantis was eager to slip away, the gathering didn’t disband. Chairs were brought for Kantis and the other men of the legion. A parade followed.

All the attention made Kantis uncomfortable. He would rather hand the glory to his men. Without the rest of my unit, I’m nothing. This is for the benefit of the crowd, he reminded himself, mostly to contain his impatience. I just have to smile until they forget about me.

When the marching bands and dancers departed, Damik gave a lengthy speech which amounted to thanking Kantis for his faithful service. Kantis wished he could melt into his chair. He was further embarrassed when Nytandra, the empire’s most famed songstress, appeared to sing The Ballad of Kantis. Though it was an old song, written long before his time, he was keenly aware everyone considered it to be about him.

He was relieved when Nytandra announced she would give a full performance later that afternoon and the crowd began to disperse. Eager for privacy, Kantis gently seized his husband’s wrist and disappeared into the crowd. Alrayia barely had time to warn him they’d been invited to a party in his honor later that evening and it was a few hours before he realized what she’d said.

~ ~ ~ ~

The Singing Crystal Grand Ballroom contained a thousand points of light. Music echoed in the open space and the walls were lined by tables laden with food, all illuminated by crystal lights in the chandeliers and wall sconces. Servers navigated the crowd dispensing drinks. Couples twirled about the dance floor while noblemen gathered in clusters around the rest of the room talking in low voices. Noblewomen glittered in lustrous gowns, bold constellations moving among lesser stars.

None shone brighter than Salis in brilliant red and gold robes accented by a golden headdress, half his hair gathered into a knot on top his head, the rest left to flow over his back. He is the sun in a sea of stars. Others may try to match his magnificence, but they pale in comparison. At least as far as Kantis was concerned.

He hated formal parties. They're hard to avoid when I'm the guest of honor. The idle chatter annoyed him. Who cares what colors the noble ladies chose to paint their living rooms? We're in the middle of a war. Come to think of it, there's been a dramatic increase in festivities in my honor of late, none of them warranted.

Salis, on the other hand, adored these events. Never having faced Alrayia's hardship gaining acceptance, soldiers often married commoners, Salis was a social butterfly. It's never bothered him that people only want to be around him because he's married to me. I guess it bothers me enough for both of us.

The only thing Salis enjoyed more than dragging his husband across the room to chat with everyone, was dancing. We've been across this dance floor so many times tonight, I'm starting to get dizzy. Salis could be possessive when he first returned from the field. But we're going to end up in an undignified position if I don't stop spinning in circles for a few minutes.

"Let’s get something to drink," Kantis suggested when the music faded, drawing his partner toward the edge of the dance floor. Salis seemed loath to leave, but Kantis grabbed two glasses of wine from a passing server and handed one to his husband.

"Everyone else is drinking to me tonight, so let's toast something else, shall we?" He held up his glass. "To the end of the war."

"To a blissful retirement," Salis added with a grin and lifted his glass. They drank together. Kantis sipped deeply of the crimson liquid, feeling warmth infuse him as the wine slid down his throat. It tasted as bittersweet as his homecoming. This party is premature. There's nothing to celebrate; this leave won't last long. If we grow careless now, we'll lose our tenuous advantage. The war is far from over.

He emptied the entire glass before he dispelled his dark thoughts. He regretted it when Salis elbowed him in the stomach a moment later.

"Look there!" Salis demanded, jabbing a finger at the dancers.

Kantis followed his husband's gaze. Salis's sister swirled around the edges of the dance floor with her stoic husband. Alrayia looked dazzling in a blue and silver dress, hair piled atop her head with only a few curls free to bounce about her shoulders. Instead of jewels, she wore flowers. Anten wore his midnight hair shoulder-length and unbound, a popular style for merchants and the high born. His clothing was black, elegantly trimmed and cut. His emerald eyes were tiny splashes of color, easily overlooked.  He's like a shadow dancing with a pale faerie, Kantis grinned to himself. If Salis is the sun, burning at the center of the party, Alrayia is surely the moon, subtle but alluring, hovering at the party's edge, moving in her own circles.

"Now there's something you don't often see," Kantis mused aloud. "Anten Larath dancing."

Salis snorted. "If you can call it that."

"There's no need to be jealous," Kantis said, grinning when he saw a blush creep into his husband's cheeks.

"I'm not!" he insisted. "He's holding her back! Just look at him!"

Kantis did. Anten's movements seemed deliberate, almost stiff, while Alrayia flowed across the dance floor.

"She's much better when she has a proper partner," Salis grumbled.

"You mean when she's dancing with you?" Kantis teased.

"Maybe," Salis admitted, his cheeks turning a darker shade of red.

Kantis chuckled, reaching up to caress his husband's cheek. Salis and his sister were close; their parents had died while Salis was still young. Alrayia had been as much his caregiver as his confidante. He'd admitted to being jealous of Anten when he tried to woo her, and Kantis noticed the two men sometimes slipped back into competing for her attention. Kantis thought it was cute. He'd always respected the special bond between the siblings and he suspected Anten did too.

Salis relented at his lover's touch. Once that jealousy cooled, it didn't return. Anten and Alrayia spun to a stop as another song ended. Alrayia had sharp eyes; when the pair left the dance floor, she guided Anten to the corner Kantis had chosen as a refuge. She detached herself from her husband's arm long enough to embrace her brother.

"You're radiant, Salis," she said with a smile.

"Only half as gorgeous as you," Salis replied. "Tired of dancing so soon?" he added, clearly hoping that wasn't the case.

Alrayia glanced hesitantly in her husband's direction before shrugging. "I didn't want to get dizzy."

Kantis caught himself before he laughed out loud. She must not want to press her husband for more. I wonder how she got him to agree to the first one.

Without a word, Salis seized her wrist and pulled her back onto the dance floor. Anten cast a dark look in their direction. He'd willingly hand her to anyone else. The noble ladies might hate her, but the other councilors adore her. Salis is the only one who rouses his jealousy.

Kantis caught the attention of another passing server and exchanged the empty glasses he held for two that were full. This time he offered one to Anten.

"I wanted to thank you," Kantis said, raising his glass. "For taking care of Salis in my absence. It's difficult for him while I'm away."

"You shouldn't thank me," Anten replied dismissively, sipping his wine. "It's Alrayia who looks after him."

"I thank you anyway," Kantis insisted. "I know how demanding my husband can be."

Anten shrugged. "Less so than in his youth."

Knowing his brother-in-law conversed little outside the Council chamber, Kantis said nothing else. Instead he let his eyes follow Salis and Alrayia as they moved across the dance floor. When the first song ended, they kept dancing. Salis spun his sister playfully a few times, then they stopped and switched roles. Alrayia led her brother for awhile, their antics growing ever more ridiculous until both laughed with glee. They received several scowls from the other party-goers who considered this a dignified gathering.

Kantis chuckled. "They are like Milara and Litaio."

Anten made a soft sound. It took Kantis a moment to realize the man had laughed.

"An interesting comparison, considering the fire god and the sea goddess were forbidden lovers rather than siblings. But apt, I think. Alrayia calm and quiet like the moon. Salis boisterous and spontaneous as the sun. Sometimes it's hard to believe they are siblings."

Kantis had never spoken with his brother-in-law like this. He was surprised to hear his thoughts echoed by a man he considered his opposite. Before he could answer, Alrayia and Salis stumbled breathlessly off the dance floor and rejoined their spouses.

"I suppose that concludes my dancing this evening," Alrayia said.

"Not at all, my lady," Kantis said, setting aside his empty wine glass and offering her his arm. "You have not yet danced with me. I insist you grant me the honor."

Alrayia looked surprised, but smiled as she slipped her arm into his. "How could I refuse such a charming offer?"

Kantis smiled and drew her onto the dance floor. He took a formal dance position, leaving a respectful amount of space between them as he led her in time to the music.

"You look lovely tonight, Alrayia," he said. "More lovely than any other woman here."

Alrayia grinned. "Why Kantis, you flatter me! You're not so charming to any of the other ladies."

"I don't like the other ladies," Kantis declared. "You're the only one I like."

She laughed. "I forgot how much I missed you. You really are a joy, Kantis. I'm glad to be able to say I know the greatest warrior who ever lived."

"Don't say that," Kantis grew somber. "It isn't-"

"But it is true," Alrayia said with the kind of smile Kantis always considered mysterious. "Why is it you allow others joy in your presence, but take none for yourself?" Alrayia took a step closer and lowered her voice. "Take that joy while it's in your grasp, Kantis. In the morning, the roses will be swept from the walkways and life will continue its march. The war may not be over, but you need not bring it home."

Kantis stared down at her, amazed to hear his thoughts echoed back to him again. Am I so transparent? It was a blessing to be home. But as long as the war lasts, I'll never truly rest.

Alrayia laughed, laying her hand alongside his cheek for a moment. "There's too much warrior in you, Kantis. If Salis can dismiss his fears for the duration of your leave, I'm certain someone with more courage can manage the same. Let the war go on without you awhile."

Lifting herself onto her toes, she laid a light kiss on his cheek. Then she turned and disappeared into the crowd before he could react. Stunned, he lifted a hand to the warm spot her lips left on his cheek.

I am an idiot, aren't I?

Numbly he turned to search his husband out of the crowd, ready at last to rejoice in his homecoming.

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