King Xau couldn't sleep,
couldn't feign sleep,
couldn't lie still.
He rose, dressed,
bowed to the two of his guards
on night duty,
told the others to rest,
but none would,
so that his wakefulness
led to all eight guards
following him into the corridors
of the mountain border fort.
He walked the circuit of corridors,
past rooms of sleeping soldiers,
round and round again,
his pace deliberate, measured,
but his pulse galloping.
Up the stairs,
out onto the observation platform.
Chill air,
no lanterns,
but the crescent moon low in the west,
the constellations strung like decorations,
the mountains falling away
beneath him.
Down to the wall walk,
where he spoke to each of the sentries,
walked round twice,
stopped, finally, at an arrow loop
with a view down the Shahness Pass,
down toward his enemy
who had retreated,
beyond expectation,
beyond his hope.
A gift,
if he could trust the envoy.
The war over,
over before it began,
but he couldn't set it aside,
his heart agallop,
braced for battle,
for death,
his death that walked away
down the pass, below the snow line.
He had not wanted any part of this.
A crown, war, duty,
that his death should mean more
than another man's.
Back to the observation platform,
the flamboyant beauty of the stars.
He looked down the other side of the pass
toward his kingdom,
toward Hana, his children,
whom he had not allowed himself
to think about.
Then down to the lanterned warmth of his room,
where he offered tea to his guards
and asked after their families.

(First published in Dreams & Nightmares)