Chapter VII: Revelations

            News reached the villa that an Yllysian armada was approaching the city from the northeast.  The messenger told both Belihn and Divita that there were so many ships, they seem to spill to the very horizon.  North Torahni ships made to intercept them, but they were hopelessly outnumbered.  

            Belihn cursed, worried about the resulting loss of life.  It was a hopeless gesture, 53 ships against an armada.  North Torahn had not engaged the Yllysians at sea in near 150 years.  Their most recent battles had been fought on land, in Isajhi, ironically also known as the Neutral Territory.  While his mother gave the messenger a few coins and told him to go to the kitchen for some refreshment, Belihn turned on his heels and strode down the hall towards his bedroom.  He heard Divita follow him there.  

            “What are you going to do?” she demanded.

            “I need to do something, Mother, before the Yllysians slaughter every soldier they encounter,” he replied absently as he took his travel bag from the wardrobe and began to stuff his clothes into it.

            She put a hand on his arm.  “The quarantine has not been lifted and you are still not fully recovered.”

            He bent to pick up a fallen tunic and groaned at the pull of the scarred skin over his stomach.  He continued to pack as she watched him worriedly.

            “Belihn!  I am speaking to you!”

            He stopped with a sigh and turned to look at her.  “I’m sorry, Aya.  I know you are worried; so am I.  I need to do this!”

            She wrung her hands.  “You can’t go alone into a battle!”

            He shook his head.  “I am not a soldier any longer.  I probably won’t fight.  I just have to go into the city to meet up with friends; that’s all, Aya.  I promise.”

            “But look at you,” she entreated.  “You are pale, thin and haggard.  You were tortured for days and it hasn’t been a fortnight!”

            He placed his hands on her shoulders and gave her a gentle shake.  “Please, Mother.  If you love me, don’t get in my way.”

            She took a step back, her face stoically smooth as she watched him finish packing then she followed him out into the front yard.  He handed her the travel bag and went around the house to the stables in the backyard and saddled and bridled a lirtah.  He walked the restive animal to the front yard.  Handing her the reins, he took the travel bag, tied it securely to the saddle and put his foot in the stirrup, grimacing as he hauled himself onto the saddle.  

            She stepped closer to the mount and handed him the reins.  She gave him an earnest, pleading look.  

            “Promise you’ll take care, Belihn, by all that is holy!” she entreated.

            He reached down and cupped her face.  “Take care of the siblings and Alona.  Please.”

            She nodded, eyes brimming with tears.

            He sat back in the saddle and kicked his mount into a canter.  Lirtah were more sturdy and tired less than bahil, so he gave his mount its head and it took off at a gallop down the paved road towards the city in the north.  He rode low over the animal’s long, muscular neck, grunting as pain lanced over his chest.  The empathic healers had healed most of the damage done to his hands, but the pain was still very real.  Making a fist proved impossible, so he held the reins loosely as he focused on not toppling from his perch.  Each time the animal’s hoofs pounded the paved road, he felt a sickening jar.  By the time he approached the southern gate of the city over two hours later, he was pale and shaking from his exertions.  

            With the last dregs of his energy, he pulled the lirtah to a stop near the gates and allowed the animal to walk to where the guards stood waiting.

            “Name your business,” one of the guards growled.  “You’re violating the quarantine, which has not been lifted as yet.”

            “I am not sick, nor was I,” Belihn muttered, sick to his stomach as the pain threatened to overwhelm him.  “I come because the Yllysian armada approaches our shores.”

            The guard gave him a skeptical once over.  “And what is it you mean to do?”

            “Anything that is needed,” he replied.

            The guard studied him for a long silent moment before he nodded and stood to one side.

            Belihn thanked him and urged the lirtah into a canter towards the business district.  He had to find Ryeo’h and soon.

            By the time he reached the business district, he came upon the beginnings of chaos.  Soldiers roamed the streets, headed east towards the castle.  The very city seemed to move as one towards Draemin Castle.

            “Belihn!”

            Belihn pulled the lirtah to a stop and groaned at the pain in his back and hands.  He turned in the saddle and almost fainted.  He closed his eyes and swallowed convulsively before opening his eyes once more.

            “Kurk,” Belihn said faintly.

            “Here, come down,” Kurk Deshon demanded and aided Belihn in dismounting.

            Kurk frowned at him.  “You look like warmed over death, friend.  What are you doing here?”

            “I have to do something, Kurk!” Belihn wiped his face with a cold, shaking hand.  “I can’t sit idly by.”

            Kurk took the reins.  “I heard you were tortured, Belihn.  Are you mad?  You can’t do anything like you are.”

            “What’s happening?” Belihn asked as Kurk led Belihn east.  

            “Rebellion, that’s what,” Kurk replied quietly.  “Come to my row house apartment and lie down.”

            “I have to contact some friends, Kurk–“

            “Let me find them for you,” his friend said and they turned down a quiet alley.  “I need for you to lie down.”

            Belihn looked at him.  “Are you rebelling?”

            Kurk shrugged.  “What is there for me to do, friend?  I barely eke out a living and I have risen to the highest rank I will be able to attain in this city-state.  You bet I’m rebelling.”

            Belihn sighed.  “I wish I was stronger.”

            “Never mind.  Wait here.”

            They had come to a public mews and Kurk went in to stable the lirtah.  

            Belihn leaned against the outer wall of the mews and fought to remain standing.  His legs shook badly and sweat was pouring from his skin, rivulets meandering down his back. His throat felt parched.

            Kurk returned carrying Belihn’s travel bag and took his arm.  “Come on.  I live two blocks away.”

            “I thought you lived in the barracks,” Belihn stated distantly.  His eyesight had begun to narrow and the pain was overwhelming.  He wondered if he had done some serious damage to himself.

            “I moved away three weeks ago,” Kurk replied.  “Belihn!”

            Belihn stumbled and fell.  

            He was only distantly aware of being turned onto his back before he was being lifted.  He closed his eyes and passed out.

***

            Someone moaned.

            Belihn came to slowly, becoming aware of ambient noises first and then minor discomforts and major aches.  He tried to move and found he could not.  He turned his head and opened his eyes.  He lay in a semi dark room of modest size.  The bed he lay on was a double, with clean, if worn sheets, and thick pillows beneath his head.  The room had a wood stove on one side with a sink and a scuffed table with pots and pans and plates and cups and utensils.  On the other side of the room was another table with a washbasin and a small stack of folded towels and washcloths, two cakes of soap and an ewer.  A spigot sprung from the wall directly over the washbasin.  A third table was located in the center of the room.  This one was about the size of a card table and had three chairs around it. To the left of the bed was a fair sized chest.  The only light in the room came from a window against the far corner, over the table with the pots and pans.  A white sheet covered it, but it was thin enough to let in a modicum of light.

            As Belihn lay there, wondering where in all hells he was, a door on the left hand side of the room opened and two shadowy figures walked in.

            Belihn stiffened and watched wide-eyed as they approached the bed.

            “Ah, you’re awake,” Kurk stated quietly.

            Belihn relaxed.  “Kurk.  Where am I?”

            “My apartment,” Kurk replied.  “Such as it is.  Give me a moment.”

            The lieutenant strode to the window and pulled the sheet to one side, allowing light into the room.

            “Belihn.”

            Belihn turned his head and gasped.  “Ryeo’h!”  He made to sit up.

            Ryeo’h tsked and gently pushed him back onto the pillows.  “No, my lord.  You are not to move until we are ready for you.”

            Belihn frowned.  “What do you mean?”

            Kurk walked to the foot of the bed and leaned against the iron footrest.  “You, Belihn, are the chosen.”

            “Chosen?” he echoed.  “What do you mean?”

            Ryeo’h sat at the edge of the mattress and patted Belihn’s forearm. “You are the son of the King by his commoner Queen.  In you the castes have joined into one.  You will lead us into the future.”

            Belihn’s mouth dried.  

            Ryeo’h watched him steadily, seriously.  His eyes were wary.

            “Surely you jest, Mister Thalnel.”

            Ryeo’h sighed.  He glanced knowingly at Kurk.  “I told you this would be harder than taking Castle Draemin.”

            Kurk chuckled and dragged a chair near the bed.  “He’s humble, Ryeo’h.  He’s perfect.”

            “Yes,” Ryeo’h replied and turned back to Belihn.  “The Yllysians have occupied the city-state and now batter Draemin Castle.  We need a strong leader, Belihn.  One who has been purged by suffering.  One who is humble and modest enough to represent the people before his own interests.  Do you really think any of your half-siblings can fulfill that role?  Besides, the Prei-Serren himself has stated you are chosen by the Goddess.”

            Belihn sighed.  “Why not my mother?”

            “The Yllysians don’t countenance women ruling, Belihn.  They are our masters.”

            Belihn shifted.  “Am I to be a mere puppet to them?”

            “You are to represent the common man and Yllysian interests in North Torahn,” Ryeo’h murmured.  “They will leave advisors here for you.  And troops to maintain the peace while you found a new government.”

            “I see,” Belihn said.

            “Do you, Belihn?” Kurk prompted.

            Belihn looked at his friend.  “How many died?”

            “Thirteen ships were destroyed before the king recalled the fleet.  King Kah’len has abdicated and will be escorted to Tjish.un, where he will reside for the remainder of his life.”  Kurk shook his head.  “The Tjashensi family will be scattered to the four winds.  The older male children will be removed to Yllysia, where they will live out their lives in comfort–“

            “As prisoners,” Belihn spat.

            Ryeo’h spread his hands.  “Would you prefer the alternative?”

            Belihn looked at him.  “Alternative?”

            “Beheading?”  His friend gave him a chilly stare.  “The Yllysians made it very clear, Belihn.  The young males can either go to Yllysia to live out the remainder of their lives or they can die here.”

            “And the females?” Belihn asked.

            “They will be shipped to South Torahn, to live under the King there,” Ryeo’h replied.  “All your half-siblings will be deported, save the Prei-Serren’s heir.”

            “Vallaw?” Belihn asked.

            Ryeo’h nodded.  “Vallaw.”

            “And my full siblings?” Belihn prompted.

            Ryeo’h shrugged.  “They will remain here.”

            “They are sending Aila’h away, too?” Belihn asked.

            Kurk shifted.  “Your brother has asked for her hand in marriage.  The Yllysians are considering it.”

            Belihn sighed.  “I see.  And the other Queens?”

            Kurk lifted his chin.  “They will be returned to their respective nations.  Your aunt Kahla and her family and your grandmother, Oona Obeli-Thalmar, will live in Tjish.un as well.  Only Commander-General Rakah Ys’teis will remain as an advisor until your reign is secure.  Then he will follow his brother, your father, to Tjish.un.”

            “I see,” Belihn stated hollowly.  He had never been close to his half-siblings, but the idea of his family being spread throughout the world didn’t sit well with him.

            Ryeo’h placed his hand on Belihn’s.  “Belihn.  I realize this may be hard for you, but this is your path, chosen by the Goddess herself.”

            “You should be king, Ryeo’h.”

            Ryeo’h reeled back as if struck.  “If anything, Belihn, I am a king-maker.  Not a king.  There is a difference.”  He smiled without mirth.  “Besides, the world is not ready for the first Commoner King.  In your blood flows the blood of kings, Belihn.  Of the Ys’teis clan and the Tjashensi clan, of the Thalmars and the Obelis.  History flows in your very veins.  I will concoct a myth for you, King Belihn.  I will make you a hero and a myth.”

            Belihn shuddered.  “I am not worthy.”

            Kurk stiffened.  “You are the most worthy of all of them, Belihn.  Of all the spoiled princes and princesses who live in utter luxury, blind and deaf to the pleas of the commoner. Uncaring if a child starves to death. Unmoved by a soldier’s plight.  Not you, Belihn.  Never you.  As long as I have known you, you have worried about the wellbeing of the people, of the common soldier.  You almost paid for your belief with your life.”

            Belihn shook his head.  “This is too much.”

            Ryeo’h rose.  “Best get used to it soonest.  Castle Draemin has opened her gates to Yllysia.  Now, if you are rested enough, come with me to my home.  I will hire a healer to look you over.”

            They assisted Belihn in sitting up and watched patiently as Belihn pulled on his boots and rose onto shaky legs.  

            “Come,” Ryeo’h murmured.  “There is much work to be done.”

Chapter VI: It Begins

Irai’h stood by the office window and stared out at the nearly deserted boulevard.  The quarantine had been in place now for just over two months.  He closed his eyes and rested his temple against the interior casing of the window.  He wondered how Ryeo’h fared and Aosji and I’a’sji.  And Belihn.  Eventually, Leptka’s Disease would burn itself out and he could go out once more.  He needed to find his friends and see if they had survived.  Of course, the disease itself would roam the nation for up years.  The longest the plague had lasted had been five years, appearing in different city-states and killing a great number of citizens before disappearing and reappearing somewhere else.  That had been 140 years prior.

            A modicum of business would commence once Draemin City-State was free of the plague.  Her city gates would be thrown open once more until the next bout of disease reared its ugly head.  

            Irai’h rubbed his face.  Religious fervor burned through the populace, as it always did in times like these.  But that could be used to their benefit.

            There was a knock on the front door and he roused himself and went to open it.

            Ryeo’h stood on the other side of the threshold.

            “Ryeo’h!”

            They embraced and Irai’h stood to one side to allow his friend to enter.

            “How is your family?” Irai’h asked.

            “We have been spared so far,” Ryeo’h murmured and made a sign to avert evil.  He removed his cloak and draped it over the back of an armchair.  “Sit, Irai’h.  I’ve news.”

            Irai’h sat on the settee across from the armchair his friend chose.  “Tell me.”

            Ryeo’h leaned forward and rested his forearms on his thighs.  “Belihn almost died.  It took two empathic healers to pull him from the brink of death. The arrival of the plague after the King and the Prei-Serren argued over him was a masterful stroke.  People are angry and afraid.  Everything stands ready.”

            “But what about the funds we need?” Irai’h asked.

            Ryeo’h shook his head.  “I’ll fund the uprising.  I’ll recoup my funds somehow.  We can’t let this opportunity pass us by.”

            He reached into the inner pocket of his coat and removed a thick missive.  He handed it over to Irai’h.

            “What’s this?” Irai’h asked and opened the missive.  The writing was in code.  He glanced at Ryeo’h.  “I can’t read it.”

            Ryeo’h smiled.  “It’s from Yllysia.  Their armada is scheduled to arrive within the week.  All we must do is open the gates.”

            Irai’h gaped.  “They must have left Yllysia back when the plague first took hold.”

            Ryeo’h shook his head.  “They left Yllysia when Prince Belihn was first taken, at the Ambassador’s word.”

            “How will we be able to get the gates open?”

            “You leave that to me,” Ryeo’h said.  He rose and took the missive from Irai’h’s hands.  He walked to the fireplace and threw the missive into the flames.  “The army is ready to turn on the king.  The King knows, of course.  He is surrounded by mercenaries.  What he does not know is that the Yllysians come.  Castle Draemin is in lockdown.”

            “How will we break through their defenses?” Irai’h asked.

            “What the King does not know is that I have operatives in Castle Draemin,” Ryeo’h replied.  “Once I give the order, we will get inside.  Worry naught.”

            “I can’t help but worry, Ryeo’h,” Irai’h stated and rose.  “Any number of things can go wrong.”

            “If my operatives fail me,” Ryeo’h told him.  “Then we starve the castle until its denizens surrender.”

            “And what of Belihn?” Irai’h asked.

            “He is our symbol,” Ryeo’h said.  “He is our future King.”

            “The other city-states will come to King Kah’len’s assistance.”

            Ryeo’h sighed.  “They might, although I hear the plague has burned through a great percentage of the population of North Torahn.  We will need Yllysia’s help to get through this.”

            Irai’h wrung his hands.  “You trust the Yllysians?”

            “I’ve no choice,” his friend replied.  “They have been, and continue to be, the unknown quantity.  For all I know, we are being invaded.”

            “Goddess help us,” Irai’h murmured.

            “Indeed.”

   ***

            The King’s hands shook so badly, he had to set the half full glass of wine back on the table.  He wrung his hands.    

            “Why don’t they attack already?” Kah’len demanded.

            Warlord Obeli shrugged.  “Perhaps they are waiting for something.”

            Kah’len narrowed his eyes.  “What could they possibly be waiting for?”

            “That I don’t know, your Grace.”

            The King rose from the table and began to pace.  Weeks of worry and sleeplessness had robbed his cheeks of the bloom of health.  He looked gaunt and exhausted, his features sharp and pale, the delicate skin under the eyes bruised.  

            Rakah watched his half-brother in silence.  His intelligence networks had dried up as soon as plague hit the shores of Draemin City-State.  The silence of their enemies echoed through the city and even through the Underground City.

            The door to the War Room was thrown open and Prei-Serren Lahn Tjashensi-Obeli strode through in full priestly regalia.  He wore the gold conical hat and golden robe of the season.  A thick gold chain with Atana’s gem hung from his neck.  He stopped just under the doorjamb and raked his eyes over the King and his counselors.

            “Why have I been summoned?” he demanded.

            “Come in, Lahn,” the King murmured wearily.  “Close the door and have a seat.”

            The High Priest closed the door and took a seat next to Lady Oona Obeli-Thalmar at the table.  “Well?”

            “What will it take to avert the Goddess’ wrath, Lahn?” the King asked.  

            The Prei-Serren barked a laugh.  “A bit late, aren’t you?”

            The King slammed the palms of his hands on the table.  “You will respect me, Lahn.”

            “When you respect me, your Majesty,” the High Priest retorted hotly.

            The King sighed.  “I don’t want to fight, Lahn.  I need your help.”        

            The High Priest sat back in his chair.  “The Goddess takes her sacrifice every day.  No amount of burnt animal flesh or crops will appease her.  She takes souls this time.”

            Silence met his words.

            He looked around the congregation.  “I have had visions.  Lots of visions that have wrung my peace of mind from me.  Things I am not allowed to interpret, convoluted visions that portend sorrow and an end, but of what I don’t know.  The Goddess is being illusive, your Grace.  You had her favor, but she has withdrawn it.  Of all your Queens, she favors Divita first.  Divita was the Goddess’ choice for you.  You took the child of her loins and tortured him almost unto death because the boy pricked your pride.  You acted with hubris, your Grace.”

            The King finally managed to pick up his glass of wine and emptied it in two swallows.  “So, I am without recourse.”

            The High Priest looked at him.  “Not without recourse, beloved.  You have worldly recourse, but not heavenly aid.  I do not think you will survive these times, Kah’len Tjashensi.”

            “What can I do to ensure my survival, High Priest?”

            “Do what you promised,” the Prei-Serren replied.  “You promised change and an end to the caste laws. That is all Belihn wants, too.”  Lahn Tjashensi-Obeli sighed.  “Your time is almost done, Kah’len.  You will be allowed to become reborn so that you can make amends to the Goddess.  I will keep an eye out for your rebirth.”

            “Are you asking Kah’len just to give up?” Lady Oona demanded.

            “I am the messenger and I have delivered my message,” Lahn told her.  “What you do from now on, you do on your own.  Fight or don’t fight.  The Goddess has chosen her side.”

            “And what if I end the caste laws,” the King asked.  “What if I do what I told her I would do.”

            The High Priest shook his head.  “You nearly killed your scion.  The best and most holy of your children.  The Goddess’ own chosen.  The only thing that will appease the Goddess is your blood, Kah’len Tjashensi.”

            “You are the King’s aide!” Lady Oona hissed and rose.

            “Mother–“

            “No,” she snapped.  “The High Priest is your representative.  Your connection to the Goddess–“

            “The Goddess’ connection to the King,” Lahn murmured.  “You forget who is in charge, Lady Oona.  You can torture me and kill me, but it won’t change the fact that the Goddess demands the King’s blood.  Just as Belihn’s blood seeped into the hard donjon floor, so must the King’s.  The entire world shook and cried out  when that boy’s hands were broken, when his shoulders were dislocated, when he was burned and beaten within an inch of life.  The Goddess’ grace kept him alive.  He will rule and you will step down.”

            “Treason!” Warlord Obeli cried and rose.

            The Prei-Serren looked at his brother.  “I serve the heavenly Queen, Warlord, and no other.  I am her charge.  I relay her word.”

            The King sighed.  “Sit, Warlord.”

            “But, your Grace–“

            “Sit.”  The King looked at the High Priest. “So.  What if I abdicate?”        

            The High Priest rose.  “It matters not, your Grace.”    

            The King looked at him.  “You loved me once, Lahn.”

            “That has not changed,” the High Priest assured him softly.

            “Then I ask that you beg the Goddess for another vision.  Let Her know I will abdicate and put my son on the throne.  Ask Her if that will appease her.”

            The High Priest gazed into the King’s eyes for a long time before he nodded.  “Very well, King Kah’len.  I will ask this of the Goddess, but I can’t promise She will answer my prayer.  She is fickle, especially when she is angry.”

            “Thank you,” the King murmured.

            The High Priest rose and bowed then strode from the room.

            “Now what?” Domio Obeli, another of the King’s advisors, asked.

            The King shook his head.  “I don’t know.”

            His mother walked around the table and took the King’s hands in hers.  “You can’t mean to give up, Kah’len.  You can’t.”

            “Mother,” he said, his words thick with weariness.  “I’m done if the Goddess decries it to be so.”

            “You’ll need to remain, to ensure Belihn’s rule goes smoothly,” she told him.

            “Lahn can guide him,” the King said.  “I will retire to Tjish.un.”

            “What about us?” General Aud Salit’ demanded.

            “Retire,” the King growled.  “Or come with me.  Leave me, all of you.”

            “Kah’len–” General Maedoc Kalish began.

            “Leave.  Me,” the King spat.  “You stay, Rakah.”

            The advisors shuffled out, closing the hallway door behind them.

            The King looked at his brother.  “You must stay and ensure Belihn’s rule is smooth.”

            “But Kah’len, I would come with you.”

            “I would you remain, brother,” Kah’len said quietly.  “You are wise and temperate.  You have never steered me wrong.”

            Rakah Ys’teis sighed and placed his hand on Kah’len’s shoulder.  “I will do as you ask, your Grace.  But once Belihn’s rule is secure, I will follow you.”

            The King smiled at him and placed his hand over his brother’s.  “I look forward to it.”

***

            Captain Kalthos Gulehn Asjah’r gazed at the dark land mass to the east.   The journey had been long, through angry waters.  They had lost one or two ships along the way, for the Raiye’Itah was mean and bloodthirsty ocean. But it could have been worse.  The Goddess of the Waters had spared most of the flotilla.  They were still 141 ships strong.  They were so many, the ocean was filled with ships to the horizon.  

            Word had come from Draemin City-State that the plague had trickled down to almost nothing.  No new cases in half a week.  The numbers were still being tallied, but the Yllysian Ambassador had guessed nearly 1/4 of the population of the city had been exterminated and had been hauled east of the city, where giant trenches were dug up to deposit the dead, burn them, then cover them with earth.  The Ambassador of Draemin City-State had been told him in a missive that every single day wagons carted the dead through the streets to the southern gate of the city and then out into the countryside.  Even this far from land, the Captain could see the fingers of smoke from pyres.  The air was tinged with the acrid smell of it.

            “Captain Asjah’r!”

            The Captain put down his spyglass and turned.

            The sailor bowed.  “A missive from the Ambassador has arrived via carrier vinah, sir!”

            The Captain put his hand out and was handed the note still encased in its glass vial.  He uncorked the vial and pulled out the paper.  He narrowed his eyes to better see the tiny writing.

            “Greetings from Draemin City-State, Captain Gulehn Asjah’r.  I hope this missive finds you well.  Word is the King will abdicate in favor of placing his half-commoner son on the throne.  This is all hearsay.  The plague has left our shores.  For now.  You are free to do as you will, but it is my sincere hope that the city will be taken with minimal bloodshed.  The gates will be opened when you arrive.  God’s speed to you.”

            Captain Asjah’r tucked the missive into the inner pocket of his coat.  He lifted his spyglass and once more gazed at the dark landmass to the east.

Chapter V: The Nightmare

            Water dripped somewhere.  The air was cold and rank with the smell of mold and waste.  He lay on hard-packed, cold earth, his body shaking from the cold and the pain in his joints that refused to dull.  A torch stood in its niche and the oily flame flickered, sending thick shadows along the slimy walls.  What day was it?  What month?  What season?  The donjon had no windows, so there was no sense of time passing.  He drifted in and out of a restless slumber, cradling his hands against his chest.

            They had broken the bones in his hands.  His Uncle Bhar Obeli had used pliers to break the bones. He had screamed until he had passed out, only to be roused by icy water being dumped on his head and shoulders.  All through the interrogation and torture, he had prayed out loud to Atana.  Every question directed at him had been answered by a prayer.  They had strapped him to the walls, pulling his arms so tight, he stood on tiptoes.  Then they had used the rack until his screams seemed to seep into the very walls.  In other rooms of the donjon, others were being tortured as well, for when he screamed, it was answered by another.  The sense of solidarity and brotherhood that filled Belihn for those others being tortured had given him a strength he had not known he possessed.

            Bhar had grasped Belihn’s hair and pulled his head back so they could meet gazes.

            “Do you want to die, Belihn?  Is that it?” his Uncle demanded.

            Belihn had smiled with a bravura he had not felt.  “Then I’ll become a martyr for the cause, won’t I, Uncle?”

            Bhar had gritted his teeth and stalked from the cell.

            He had been tortured six times:  they had broken his hands, they had dislocated his shoulders, they had burned his stomach and thighs, they had stuck pins under his toenails, they had taunted and teased him, beaten him until he lost all sense. They had left him on the cell floor, naked and bleeding, concussed and dazed.   Then he had drifted in and out of consciousness, always the sound of water dripping somewhere, always the agonized screaming of political prisoners.  It was as if he were locked in a nightmare.  He wondered if he would ever rouse and return to his life.

            He lost time.  They came and set a bowl of gruel next to him, but he was unable to lift the spoon with his useless fingers.  The thought of food made his stomach roil anyway.  They gave him water in a mug and he lapped at it like an animal, on his knees, his throat raw from thirst.  As he lay there in the oily light from the torch, he prayed to Atana to take him, to lift him beyond this world and set him free.  But he remained, counting time by the removal of the expired torch and its replacement with another.  He lay on the hard ground and watched the flickering flame as it spit and flared at every drift of a cold breeze.

            He wondered if he was going to die down here and never see his mother or siblings again.  

            He dreamed and woke with a scream lodged in his throat.  The torch was low, so he guessed it was late in the day.  As he had dreamed, they had brought him more food and water.  He rose slowly and went to the mug of water.  He lapped at the water until he felt he could swallow without pain.  At one point, he had screamed so long that he had tasted blood at the back of his throat.

            There was the clatter of keys at the keyhole.  The iron door creaked open.  There was a gasp and a muttered imprecation.

            The world tilted. He was lifted and the pain flared so hot, he gasped and passed out.

            He woke to a world moving under him.  He could hear creaking, but he was warm and lying on something softer than packed earth.  He fell into a troubled sleep once more.

            Weeping woke him.

            He was warm and on something soft, but the pain still gnawed with jagged teeth at his body.  He moaned and strove to open his eyes.

            “Be at rest, Belihn.  Don’t wake.”

            A mug was brought to his parched lips and he drank something bitter and thick.  He lay still and listened to the sibilance of whispers.  He could tell someone was praying.  He wanted to laugh.  The Goddess was deaf. Prayers flew into the air and dispersed like so many breezes.  Something cool rested against his forehead and he almost sighed, it felt good against his fevered skin.  He slept again.

            When he woke a second time, someone was wiping his body with a damp cloth.  He had no strength to even open his eyes.  

            “Be at peace, brother,” a soft voice murmured.

            Once again, his head was lifted and the thick, bitter drink was forced down his throat.  He coughed and made himself swallow.  Afterward, he lay in the darkness behind his eyes as the person finished bathing his body.  The coolness against his skin felt good.  He drifted away again.

            When he opened his eyes, he saw he lay on a canopied bed, the curtains drawn back to reveal a dim room.  Against the far wall, a fire crackled, adding warmth and a bit of light to the room.  It took Belihn a few minutes to realize he lay in his own bed in his mother’s villa.  He lifted a hand and found it wrapped tightly in bandages.  He tried to make a fist and gasped at the pain.  He lowered his hand.  The pain in his shoulders had eased and he wondered if the bones had been forced back into alignment.  He could not recall.

            A door opened and someone carried a tray to the bedside table.

            “You’re awake, my son.”

            He looked up.

            His mother set the tray down and took a seat at the edge of the mattress.  She caressed his cheek.  “How are you, son?”

            He cleared his throat and frowned.  She looked pale and thin, her beautiful eyes bruised.  “Aya.”

            She placed a hand on his forearm.  “I am here, my darling boy.  Do you still hurt?”

            “My hands.”

            She grimaced.  “Once the bones knit, you’ll be able to exercise them, Belihn.”  She sighed and blinked her eyes.  “However, you will always have a modicum of pain and you may never regain normal strength.  So says the healer.  I brought empathic healers, child.  You screamed as they knit the worst of the damage.”

            “I don’t remember that, Aya.”

            She smiled at him.  “No.  We drugged you and the drug made you forget.”  She swallowed.  “They reset your shoulders and cut away the infection in your stomach and thighs from the burns.  You will remain scarred for life.”

            “War wounds,” he muttered and swallowed.  “Thirsty.”

            She reached for a mug of water and lifted his head.  He slurped the cool, fresh water.

            When she set his head back down on the pile of pillows, he sighed.

            “Atana has brought down her judgement on the city-state,” Divita stated hollowly.    

            He frowned and pushed away the lingering weariness.  “What do you mean?”

            “Plague,” she hissed.  “Plague is ravaging through North Torahn.  The city walls are locked.  The black flag flies from the ramparts.  Word has spread throughout the denizens that you were captured and tortured and that you never stopped praying.  The Prei-Serren told the King that if he didn’t release you, the Goddess would bring retribution and sorrow to his clan.  The King and the High Priest argued when the King refused to release you.  The next day, the plague arrived.  The first few sick were all aristocrats.  Some of your siblings have come down with the sickness.  The King’s advisors demanded your release and I was allowed to bring you here, to the villa.  Rage burns through the ranks of the commoners, child.  People believe the King committed a sin when he tortured you, his child.  There have been protests and calls for change.”

            Belihn frowned.  “It is too soon.”

            She dipped a cloth into the basin of scented water she had brought.  Gently, she dabbed the sweat from his forehead, cheeks and neck.

            “It is with the Goddess,” she replied.  “Already, there are serrens who would like to canonize as a you a saint.”

            He barked a laugh and groaned at the pain.  “Me?  A Saint?”

            “You are a symbol now, Belihn,” she said quietly.  “A symbol of the King’s fear, the will of the Goddess, and the need for change.  Change comes even as plague burns through the city.”

            “Aya, what of my sisters and T’arehn?”

            “They are here, child.  Don’t worry about them.  Kilen Sobres is here, too.”  She sighed.  “T’arehn wanted his friend Aila’h to come, too, but her mother refused to allow her to leave the castle.”

            He closed his eyes.  “So tired, Mother.”

            “Then rest, child.  When you wake again, we shall take a walk to strengthen your limbs.”

            Two days later, Belihn rose by himself, using his belly muscles to pull himself up to a sitting position.  Once in the bathing chamber, he unwrapped his hands and stepped under the bathing room spout, allowing the icy water to tumble down his back and chest.  The healer had removed the bandages from around his stomach and thighs and now thick, raised pink scars filled his torso and legs. He touched the raised scars and felt nothing where his finger lingered.  He grimaced and reached for the soap.  The healers had mended enough of his bones to allow him to grip the soap, even if it brought pain.  He washed his body and then lathered his oily, dirty hair.  Afterward, he stood under the cold water and allowed the soap to be rinsed away.

            Pain made him slow.  It took him close to an hour to dress himself and then brush his hair.  He used a leather thong to tie it back from his face, for his hands would not allow him to braid his hair.  He had not looked in the mirror.  For some reason, the idea of looking into a mirror terrified him.  He huffed a bitter laugh and shuffled back into the bedroom.

            The door to his bedroom opened and Tifa stepped into the room.

            “You’re up!” she said.

            He bowed.  “I couldn’t stand my odor anymore.  I bathed.  Can you braid my hair, sister-mine?”

            “Sit here,” she replied and he took a seat in an armchair facing the crackling fire.

            Gently, she brushed and braided his hair, pulling it tight from his face.

            “They beat you so hard,” she stated, subdued.  “Your eyes were swollen shut.”  She trembled.  “I never thought I could hate Father, but I do now.”

            “I hate him, too,” he said.  “Goddess forgive me, if it is a sin!”

            “Father committed the sin, not you.”

            She leaned over him and pressed a kiss to the top of his head.

            She walked around his chair and knelt before him.  Her eyes glittered with unshed tears.  “The healer said you were almost dead.  Your internal organs were bruised and bleeding. It took two empathic healers to bring you from the brink of death!”  She reached up and caressed his cheek.  “My beloved Belihn!  The people are angry at the King and believe the Goddess punishes him for hubris.”

            He chuckled.  “It begins then.  It begins.  It begins.  It begins.”

            He closed his eyes and sobbed.  “I felt so alone, Tifa!  Every time they broke something in me, I screamed a prayer.  It was Uncle Bhar.”

            She shivered and her eyes flashed her rage.  “He is no uncle to you or me, Belihn.”

            “No,” he agreed.  “I suppose not.”

            She cocked her head.  “Now what, Belihn?”

            “I will wait.  Then I will go where I am needed.”

            “And myself and Ilmi and T’arehn and Mother?”

            “This is not your war, Tifa.  I want you to marry Kilen Sobres and live in peace.”

            “There is no peace!” she spat.  “If we survive the disease eating through the city-state, then we will have to choose a side, Belihn.”

            “I need all of you to leave, to go to Tjish.un or Ynha,” he said.  “Once the wall gates are thrown open once more, you will go and reside with Grandmother Oona’s family.”

            She shook her head and wiped angrily at a tear.  “We will not leave you!”

            He took her shoulders and grimaced at the pain in his hands.  He shook her gently.  

            “Listen to me, Tifa.  All that matters to me is your safety.  Promise me.”

            She stubbornly squared her shoulders.  “Belihn–“

            “Promise me, Tifa!  None of this will be worth it, if you are killed.”

            She sighed.  “Very well.  But I think I’ll go to Ynha, where Kilen owns a farm of lirtah.”

            He smiled at her and tucked a wayward thread of hair behind her ear.  “That’s good, girl.  Now, help me walk.  I need to speak to Kilen.”

            He rose on shaky legs and she wrapped her arm around his waist and slowly walked him out into the wide hallway.  A single story home, the villa was a sprawling U shaped house with three wings.  The bedrooms and bathing chambers were located in the north wing, while the kitchen and dining rooms were located in the east wing.  The south wing contained libraries and sitting rooms.  It is here that Tifa led him.

            A long time before they made it to the archway that led from the foyer to the west sitting room, Belihn could hear his family in conversation.  Their voices were subdued and little laughter was heard.  

            They paused under the archway.

            Divita sat on a loveseat next to Ilmi.  They were knitting.

            Kilen and his family took up most of the rest of the furniture.  He had three brothers, who were all married, and his folks were still alive.  Seeing the Sobres family there gave Belihn a measure of joy.  They were probably fleeing the plague.  

            Tifa and Ilmi’s caretakers, Missus Karlen and Oson were there as well, as was Rechel Setin, his mother’s lady-in-waiting.  His uncle Tono and his aunt Salita were there, with their respective spouses and their passel of children.

            “Belihn!”

            Belihn started and turned his head to where his mother stood.

            “Good morning, Aya,” he murmured.  “Tifa.  I need to sit down.”

            The congregation watched in utter silence as he was assisted to an available loveseat.  He sat down slowly and closed his eyes against the wave of nausea that washed over him, leaving him weak and damp with sweat.  When he opened his eyes, the entire company was staring at him with a mixture of emotions ranging from admiration to concern to horror.  He lifted a hand and touched his face.

            “You almost died,” Kilen stated blandly.  “You look it.”

            Belihn huffed a laugh.  “I can’t bring myself to look in a mirror.”

            “Give it a few days,” his sister’s fiancee advised.  

            “Yes,” Belihn agreed.

            He sighed and ran his gaze over everyone present.  “I have a request to make of all of you.”

            Divita placed her hands on his shoulders.  “Anything, son.”

            “Once the gates of the city are open once more, you all need to leave.  Go to Ynha.  The events will move quickly now and I don’t trust any of you is safe here in Draemin.”

            T’arehn frowned and rose.  “I’m not going to leave you, Belihn!”

            “I am safe as long as you are safe,” Belihn told his brother.  “Once you are captured, then my life is precarious indeed.”

            “You all can come to my ranch,” Kilen said.  “It’s a large house with enough room.”        

            “Thank you,” Belihn murmured and sat back in the chair.

            “Your mother opened her home to us,” Mister Sobres said.  “For that we must thank you.  We will go where you need us to go, Belihn.”

            “Doesn’t my opinion count?” T’arehn asked the room.

            “No,” Belihn growled.  “You’re fourteen, T’arehn.”  

            He swallowed against another wave of nausea. Then someone was pressing the lip of a mug to his mouth.  He swallowed the water and sighed.

            When the nausea passed, he opened his eyes.  “I am going to take my mother’s maiden name as my own.  The Yllysians wanted me to take an Yllysian surname, but they abandoned me readily enough.”

            T’arehn pounded his chest with a fist.  “Then I am a Stait as well.”

            “As am I,” Ilmi stated and rose.

            Belihn smiled at his siblings.  “You don’t have to.”

            T’arehn shook his head.  “If you are exiled, then so am I.  So is Ilmi.”

            “Yes,” Ilmi agreed.

            “I see,” Belihn murmured and smiled at his younger siblings.  “Sit everyone, please.  Just let me sit here for a few minutes until I feel better.”

            Slowly, the conversations began again.  Belihn rested his head back against the headrest and closed his eyes.

            He felt someone settle next to him on the settee.  

            “Tifa said you wanted to speak with me, Belihn.”

            Belihn nodded and opened his eyes.  He gazed into Kilen’s hazel eyes.  “You must take care of my family in Ynha, Kilen.”

            “Surely, you can’t mean to remain behind!” his soon to be law brother gasped.

            Belihn shook his head.  “I’m in too deep, Kilen.  Please.  Promise me you’ll take care of the Staits.”

            Kilen reached out and placed his hand gently on Belihn’s own.  “You have my word, Belihn.  Be at ease.”

Chapter IV: By the Wayside

            Mister Oh’nahry owned a series of inns and taverns across North Torahn.  Even though his main residence was in Kuin-on-the-H’aj, during most of the year Mister Oh’nahry oversaw his empire from a three-story brick building in the heart of the Business District near the wharves of Draemin City-State. Belihn knew the building well, for it was one of the more prominent structures, taking up near half a block and employing more than two hundred people.  A large sign with red blocky letters pronounced the building “Oh’nahry’s.”  Outside the building, Belihn took a deep, steadying breath before entering the expansive, gleaming foyer.  

            His heels clipped crisply as he walked over the dark gold and beige marble floor.  Most of the foyer was empty, except for a line of padded chairs along a wall facing the bank of windows.  A large eishano wood desk stood directly across the front door and, beside the greeter, two burly men with swords and dressed all in black stood behind the desk.  

            The greeter behind the desk rose and bowed.  “May I assist you, sir?”

            “Please let Mister Oh’nahry his daughter’s fiancee wishes to see him.”

            The young man bowed again.  “Of course, Sir.  Right away.”

            The two armed men watched him with bored expressions as Belihn paced before the desk.  

            Fairly soon, the young man returned.  “Please follow me, sir.  Mister Oh’nahry will see you in his private office.”

            Belihn followed the secretary down a long hallway filled with polished wooden walls and the paintings of stern visaged commoners.  A long red and green rug covered the narrow hallway floor.  

            Mister Oh’nahry’s office was at the end of the long hallway behind a wide square door with a gold plaque bearing his name and title.

            The secretary bowed.  “Please go in, sir.”

            “Thank you.”

            Inside there was an outer office with another secretary who stood primly behind his desk.  The outer office gleamed with polished wooden walls and floors.  Padded chairs lined walls filled with exquisite paintings of the city.  The main source of light in the room was a window of modest size against the right-hand wall.  It looked out into a busy side street.  The other source of light, an oil lamp, sat on the secretary’s desk giving off a soft, buttery light.

            “Mister Oh’nahry will see you, sir,” the secretary said and opened the door, stepping to one side to allow Belihn to enter the inner sanctum.

            The inner office was plush with throw rugs and padded chairs.  Nothing adorned the gleaming walls.  Two large bookshelves lined the walls with tomes about business and law.  Mister Oh’nahry’s large desk took up most of the office.  A large window gazing out into an empty alleyway stood at his back.

            Mister Oh’nahry stood behind his desk, hands clasped behind his back.

            Belihn bowed.  “Mister Oh’nahry.  Thank you for seeing me.”

            The older man nodded and indicated one of the padded chairs facing the desk.  “Have a seat, please.”

            Once Belihn was seated, Mister Oh’nahry followed suit, clasping his hands on the desktop and looking expectantly at Belihn.

            “Much has happened to you since last we saw each other,” Mister Oh’nahry stated woodenly.  “I strive to understand your intentions, sir, but I fear I cannot.  Please explain to me why you would quit the army so precipitously.  Why would you argue with the King to the point of being ousted from your clan?”

            Belihn sighed.  “I quit the army in protest over the salary paid to commoners.  My father exiled me from Clan Tjashensi because I went to Yllysia to join as a mercenary.”

            Mister Oh’nahry reeled back as if struck.  “Yllysia, you say?  But why?  Why our ancient enemy?”

            “Because the Warlord had gone to every embassy and demanded that I not be allowed into the ranks of their forces!”

            Mister Oh’nahry released a breath and sat back.  “I see.  Well, I think I see.”  He tapped the desktop with a nervous finger.  “I went to see your mother.  She assures me your inheritance is intact until you turn thirty.  The King did not deny you that.  Besides, your Mother says, most of the funds come from her father’s business, not your sire.”

            “My sire has fifteen children, sir.”

            Mister Oh’nahry waived a hand.  “Yes, I know.  But the King would be within his rights to confiscate your inheritance and he may anyway, given time and bitterness.”

            “My father has a strong sense of honor, sir,” Belihn said.

            The older man shook his head.  “Yet you defy him.  Why?”

            “He made a promise to the common man when he took office.  I’ll remind you, Mister Oh’nahry, that it was the common man’s backing that won my father his throne.  Most of the army is made up of commoners.”

            “Yes, yes.  I am aware.”

            Belihn sat back.  “My father fears civil war with the clans.  Civil war will come, whether he instigates it or not.  People are tired of the caste laws, of the injustice of it all, sir.  By my calculations, within ten years most of the forces in Draemin City-State will be made up of mercenaries, open to bribes and loyal only to themselves.  These men weren’t born in North Torahn.  To them, this is just a job.  Most of our young men become conscripted to other armies because they can rise through the ranks and earn three or four times as much as they would here, at home.  It’s shameful.”

            Mister Oh’nahry sat back in his chair and swallowed.  “I see you’ve given this much thought.”

            “I have.”

            “And what of Alona?” the older man prompted.

            “I wish to marry her still, sir.”

            “You can’t keep her in the manner I brought her up on a secretary’s salary!  You wouldn’t be able to afford servants or the paints for her art.” Mister Oh’nahry rose and walked to the window.  “She would resent you in the end, son.”

            “We suit each other, sir,” Belihn said carefully.  “I would take a second job somewhere, hire a woman to come into the apartment to clean once every other week.”

            “Do you love my daughter, Belihn?”

            Belihn rose and swallowed.  “I am very fond of her, sir, and feel responsible for her.”

            Mister Oh’nahry turned around.  “Why?”

            “I don’t know.  I just do.”

            Mister Oh’nahry clasped his hands behind his back.  “I see.”  He sighed.  “I don’t want to let this betrothal go by the wayside, son.  I would see my daughter happy and she has told me being married to you would make her happy.  But she is young and naive.  She has no concept of how hard life can be.  So, I have a proposal for you.”

            “I am listening, sir.”

            “Come work for me, son.  I would give you your own tavern or inn.  You’d only have to run it.”

            Belihn frowned.  “I don’t know the first thing about running a business, Mister Oh’nahry.”

            “That can be taught,” Mister Oh’nahry assured him.

            Belihn rubbed a cold hand over his forehead.  “Thank you, Sir.  But no.  I will get a second job somewhere.  I assure you, I will take care of Alona.”

            Mister Oh’nahry drew himself to his full height.  “Then I cannot allow you to marry Alona.  Now, you may leave.  I wish to discuss this no further with you.”

            “But–“

            “Either you leave now or I will have you escorted out, sir.”

            Belihn sighed and turned on his heels, striding out the office blindly.  Somehow he made it out to the street, although he was not sure how.  He needed to contact his mother, but he would do so via missive, as he would not be allowed to approach her in person.  He went to the post office, wrote a brief note and paid two kah’sol’hs to have a messenger run it to Castle Draemin.  He told the messenger he would be across the street at the teashop for supper, awaiting the response. The messenger bowed and ran off to the public mews for a lirtah.  

            Belihn entered the teashop, ordered a teapot of mjish and a plate of cold meats, cheese, and bread.  He settled in to wait for the return of the messenger.

***

            King Kah’len sat quietly at his desk, reading a report from the Southern Front.  It seemed the Isemi were acting up again, restless and gnawing at the bit for battle.  Kah’len was required to send troops to fight the Isemi, just as all the city-states were.  It would mean either leaving Draemin City dangerously undermanned, or increasing taxes to hire new troops.  He sighed and set the report to one side.  Warlord Bhar Obeli and Commander-General Rakah Ys’teis sat across from the desk, awaiting Kah’len’s pleasure.

            “A new tax is not going to go over well,” Kah’len stated.

            Warlord Bhar cocked his head.  “It’s better to hire more troops than to leave the city-state with minimal protection.”

            Kah’len sighed.  “I can’t afford to put the burden of this tax solely on the commoner’s back.”

            “Agreed,” Rakah murmured.  “The clans have to pay their fair share.”

            Kah’len looked away from his half-brother.  There were rumblings of unrest over the entirety of the city.  Warlord Bhar had confiscated thousands of pamphlets denouncing the king as a liar.  The pamphlets had also called for an uprising.

            “Our rule is precarious at best,” Kah’len told his friends.  “If I send troops to the Front, my opponents might take the chance to attack.”

            Rakah shifted in his seat.  “You have an obligation to help out at the Front.”

            Kah’len slapped the palm of his hand on the desk.  “I know what my obligations are!”  He looked at Bhar.  “How is the investigation going to ferret my opposition?”

            Bhar sighed.  “We have arrested upward of twenty men, interrogated and tortured them.  They do not know who the Reformist Lord is, my King.  He keeps himself hidden in a thick web we cannot slice through.  The only men we’ve been able to apprehend are low level men, responsible for distributing the reading material.  My spies have uncovered nothing.  Just when I get a tidbit of information, the Reformist Lord vanishes into his spider’s web.”

            “Kah’len,” Rakah murmured.  “It isn’t only the Reformist Lord you have to worry about.  Disaffection is high in the army and navy.”

            Kah’len glanced at his brother.  “You tell me nothing new, Rakah.  I make sure our mercenaries are paid well, but the sheer number of troops has come close to bankrupting my rule.  And now the Isemi…”  He rubbed his forehead.  “Find Belihn, Bhar.  I feel he knows more than he lets on.  I want him interrogated and tortured, if need be.”

            Bhar and Rakah shared a glance.

            “Well?” Kah’len barked.  “Am I mute?”

            Bhar rose and bowed.  “No, your Majesty. I will do as you ask.”

            When the Warlord had left, Rakah turned to Kah’len.  “This doesn’t sit well with me, my King.  To torture your own kin–“

            “He’s no kin to me!” the King roared.  “He is a traitor.  I will extract all there is in him.  If he breaks, all the better.  I need to secure my rule, no matter the consequences.  I need you to obey me and back me up.”

            Rakah rose and saluted.  “I am with you, my King.”

            King Kah’len stared balefully at his younger brother.  “Then you will not question me again, understood?”

            Rakah saluted.  “Yes, my King.”

***

            A man in drab colors hurried into Ryeo’h’s office.  

            Ryeo’h started.  “What is it?”

            The man removed his hat and wrung it.  “Belihn Ekesj has been arrested.”

            Ryeo’h stood.  “What?”

            “The word is the King means to torture and interrogate him.”

            Ryeo’h paled.  “Merciful Goddess!  I need you to take a missive to the Yllysian Embassy posthaste.”

            “Right away, Sir.”

***

            Ambassador Torim Tah’duk’h read the note with a grim expression.  When he was finished, he looked at his aide.

            “It begins.  The King is turning into a despot before our very eyes.  He is going to interrogate and torture Belihn.”

            Aide Neth Oronom took a step forward.  “What do we need to do?”

            Ambassador Torim sighed.  “Nothing.  If young Belihn dies, he will be a martyr to our cause.”

            “But he was going to rule–“

            The Ambassador waived a lazy hand.  “There is still the commoner Queen and three siblings.  No.  We do nothing.  We’ll wait and see where the chips fall.”

            Aide Neth Oronom swallowed audibly.  “Yes, sir.”

Chapter III: Slow Unraveling

            Irai’h Asjur watched as Ryeo’h paced.  He knew better than to show impatience; Ryeo’h did everything in his own time.

            “So, he’s no longer in the armed forces?” Aosji blurted out.

            Ryeo’h threw him a glare and said nothing as he continued to pace.

            Aosji looked helplessly at I’a’sji then at Irai’h.  Irai’h smirked, but remained close mouthed.

            “Our prince has been exiled from his clan,” Ryeo’h murmured at length.  “And now he is a secretary for the honorable Ambassador Kalthos Torim Tah’duk’h.  Belihn has even taken an Yllysian surname, Ekesj.  The Ambassador has sent a missive to the head of the Ekesj clan to get their approval.”

            “But why did he resign the army?” I’a’sji prompted.

            Ryeo’h shook his head.  “He would have been shipped out of Draemin City.  I need him here and he knows it.”

            Aosji shifted in his chair and leaned forward.  “Will he be welcomed in South Torahn for his cousin’s marriage?”

            Ryeo’h shrugged.  “I have not had the chance to talk with Belihn.  He is coming here around midday.  I’ll ask him then.”

            Irai’h sighed and sat back in his chair.  He could not shake the joy that thrummed through his body at the thought of Belihn here, in Draemin City-State.  Perhaps they would end up lovers anyway.

            He watched as Ryeo’h continued to pace.  

            “We are ready,” Ryeo’h said.  “I have purchased cabins on a ship and have wrangled an invitation for Irai’h to attend the wedding in South Torahn.  Belihn will join him and myself, of course.”

            “And what are I’a’sji and I supposed to do while you are gone?” Aosji demanded.

            Ryeo’h sighed.  “Keep working on subverting the King’s authority by spreading rumors and discontent among soldiers and citizens.  Keep printing the paper and dispersing it among the citizenry.  Just keep a low profile; we don’t want Warlord Bhar Obeli to sniff you out.  I will contact our operatives in the other city-states and apprise them of our situation.  Until I return from City Lae, I will be incommunicado.”  Ryeo’h looked at I’a’sji.  “I am placing you in authority until I return, I’a’sji.  Don’t let me down.”

            I’a’sji wiped his hand over his mouth.  “Ryeo’h–“

            “I need you both to step up!” Ryeo’h snapped.  “If I could leave Irai’h here in charge, I would, but he is our safe cracker, for the love of the Goddess!”

            I’a’sji squared his shoulders.  “I won’t let you down.”

            “See that you don’t,” Ryeo’h spat and shook his head.  “Go on; get out of here.  Not you, Irai’h.”

            Irai’h watched as his friends shuffled out of Ryeo’h’s office and back to work.

            Ryeo’h sighed and shook his head.  “I am terrified that if I leave these two here, everything will come tumbling down over our heads!”

            Irai’h rose.  “They won’t let you down, Ryeo’h.  They idolize you.”

            “They aren’t very prudent or reasonable,” Ryeo’h murmured and rubbed his forehead.  “Goddess! I should have chosen more wisely!”

            Irai’h took a step forward.  “All will be well; you’ll see.  Besides, you might want to bring an operative here to take over while we are gone.  There is still time for a journey before our departure.”

            Ryeo’h started.  “You’re right, of course!  Why didn’t I think of that!”

            Irai’h smiled and shrugged.  “Your mind is embroiled on ten thousand things, Ryeo’h.”

            “Whom would you suggest?” Ryeo’h asked.

            Irai’h thought for a moment.  “How about Rien Ethael?”

            “Commander Ethael’s nephew?”

            “Yes,” Irai’h said.  “He is intelligent, if young.  And he keeps his head under pressure.”

            “He’s all of twenty-one,” Ryeo’h said with a measure of uncertainty.

            Irai’h rolled his eyes.  “And I’m twenty-three and you twenty-five!”

            Ryeo’h huffed a laugh.  “You are correct, of course.  Besides, he can hide the reason for his true visit by stating he wants to see his uncle.”

            “Precisely,” Irai’h agreed.

            Ryeo’h clapped him on the shoulder.  “Brilliant!  I’ll send a missive to him at once via carrier vinah.”

            Irai’h returned to his desk and sat down.  He looked towards Aosji and I’a’sji’s desks, but his friends were immersed in their work, their faces smoothed by concentration.  He turned his eyes to his own work, although it was boring work at that.  Perhaps he would enroll in university.  The chances of coming across Belihn at campus would be greater.  But what to study?  He shrugged and rifled through the messy piles of papers on his desk.  He decided to tackle the manifests from the many merchant ships that belonged to Ryeo’h’s firm.  Comparing what he had ordered to what actually had arrived would take him most of the day. With a sigh, he focused on the work on hand and pushed all thoughts of Belihn from his mind.  

            At midday or soon thereafter, the front door of the firm opened, the bell attached to the door tinkling merrily.

            Irai’h glanced up and paused.  It was strange to see Belihn in civilian clothes but that did not deter from his beauty in the least.  Today he wore a dark blue tunic with silver thread over black trousers.  Belihn wore a high necked inner tunic of light blue and a thick dark blue cloak that was almost black.  The cloak was fastened at the collarbone with a silver brooch.  Belihn wore his trouser legs tucked into glossy knee-high boots like the soldier he would aways be inside.

            Irai’h rose.  “Belihn!  Welcome.”

            Belihn grinned and strode to Irai’h’s desk.  “Hallo, Irai’h.”

            They gripped forearms.

            “Have you come to see Ryeo’h?” Irai’h asked.

            Belihn nodded.  “He asked me to come here to see him.”

            “Come with me then,” Irai’h replied.  “He is expecting you.”

            Irai’h led Belihn to Ryeo’h’s office door and knocked.  

            “Come!” Ryeo’h called from inside.

            Irai’h opened the door and led Belihn inside.

            Ryeo’h grinned.  “Belihn! Welcome.  Have a seat; you, too, Irai’h.  Close the door, will you?”

            Irai’h did as he was bid and took a seat in the chair next to Belihn’s.

            Ryeo’h ran his gaze over Belihn.  “You look good in civilian clothes.  How are you adapting to civilian life?”

            “It is definitely hard for me,” Belihn replied.  “I feel rudderless.  The army is all I’ve ever known, since I was a young lad.”

            Ryeo’h nodded.  “You have my sympathies, but you will adapt.”  Ryeo’h rose and strode to the sideboard, where he poured mi’disj into three glasses.  He turned and returned to the desk, handing first Belihn then Irai’h a glass of the liqueur.  “Tell us, Belihn.  Are you still welcome in South Torahn?”

            Belihn sighed.  “I don’t know.  I did receive an invitation, but word of my fall has not reached that far south as yet, I don’t think.”

            “We are going to proceed as if it does not matter to your paternal grandfather that you have been exiled from the Tjashensi clan.  I’ve secured Irai’h here an invite as well.”

            Belihn nodded.  “And you, Ryeo’h?”

            “Irai’h is an aristocrat, and you are, too, for all intended purposes. I am not.  My role will be different.”

            “I see.  And why are we going to South Torahn to attend a wedding?” Belihn asked.

            Ryeo’h and Irai’h exchanged a brief glance.

            Ryeo’h sighed.  “We are on a mission from the Reformist Lord.  That is all you need to know.”

            “So, you mean to steal from my grandfather?” Belihn asked.

            “A civil war has to be funded,” Ryeo’h replied smoothly.  “It does not happen in a vacuum.”

            “No, I suppose not,” Belihn stated quietly.  “Am I ever to meet the Reformist Lord?”

            “On the eve of the Civil War,” Ryeo’h replied.  “I promise I will introduce you.”

            “And the Reformist Lord, will he be at the wedding?”

            “That I do not know, Belihn,” Ryeo’h smoothly lied.  

            Irai’h was disconcerted and amazed at how good Ryeo’h was at lying.

            Belihn sighed.  “You know, the Yllysian Ambassador has promised to intervene during the civil war on our behalf.”

            Ryeo’h smiled.  “I know.  Worry naught, Belihn.  All is in good hands.”

            “I am getting to know this,” Belihn assured him and grinned.  He stood.  “In a way, I am glad the wedding ball will be masked.  I don’t think I will be welcomed by my grandfather.”

            Ryeo’h cocked his head.  “I suppose not, for the sake of the treaty between north and south.”

            “It matters not,” Belihn pronounced.  “I have an invite. That’s all that matters.”

            Ryeo’h clasped his hand.  “You are correct.  I’ll spring for your outfit, Belihn.  I know you can’t afford opulence at a secretary’s wages.”

            Belihn blushed.  “Thank you, Ryeo’h.”

            “Of course.  Think nothing of it.”

            They escorted Belihn to the front office.

            “Would you like to have lunch with me?” Ryeo’h asked.

            Belihn smiled.  “That would be good.  I’m positively famished!”

            Ryeo’h returned his grin.  “Then come.  You, too, Irai’h.”

***

            Belihn’s row house apartment was located three blocks from Ryeo’h’s house.  It was a space made up of four rooms:  a kitchen, a sitting room, a bedroom, and a bathing chamber.  The apartment was located on the bottom floor of the row house and had access to a small plot of land out back with a whitewashed wooden fence demarcating it from his neighbors.  There was a water pump outside next to the kitchen door and a small area where the previous renter had grown turies and other root vegetables.  There was even a bala berry bush full of fat ripe berries that he picked on his first day in the apartment.  The apartment came with scuffed furniture, including a wide bed with worn bedclothes, and the kitchen was full of plates, utensils, glasses, and pots and pans.  The wood stove had an old basket half-filled with pieces of wood and a smaller basket full of ca’ahl stones.  

            His first day in his apartment, Belihn walked the five blocks to the open air market and purchased two loaves of fresh bread, a pot of freshly churned butter, fruit preserves, some salted, spicy dosi meat, and a bag full of turies.  He also purchased spices, honey and salt, and tea.  He hauled his goods back home and then sat around in the sitting room listening to the deep silence with a growing sense of distress.  He wouldn’t start at university until the following week, and he would not start at the embassy until then as well.  The rest of his week stretched out before him like a maw waiting to swallow him whole.

            He stood up and began pacing.  The sitting room was fairly large and would double as Alona’s painting studio.  He had looked into renting larger spaces, but he could not afford it.  His inheritance was locked up until he turned thirty years of age and he would be earning a modest salary that would be just enough to pay the rent and provide food for himself and his wife.  They wouldn’t be able to pay for servants.  Would that be a tiebreaker for Alona?  He wondered if Mister Oh’nahry would end their betrothal now that Belihn had been exiled from his clan.

            With a sigh, he pulled on his cloak and left his apartment, locking the front door behind him.  He walked down the street to where the public conveyance stopped on the hour.  Belihn could not afford a bahil, so he had left Eiwor at the stables at Castle Draemin.  He could afford the three tin’sol’hs it cost to ride a public carriage to visit his fiancee.  The Oh’nahrys lived several miles west.  Belihn did not have the patience to walk there; he needed to know, and soon, whether he could marry Alona.  He felt a responsibility towards her; she was atoliy, like him, and a talented artist in her own right.  If she married another man, what would become of her?

            The public carriage rolled up almost an hour later and Belihn had to share the conveyance with an older matron and two young girls who kept looking at him from behind their fingers and giggling.  He smiled at their antics.  The matron gazed steadily out of the window and ignored the girls and Belihn.  Soon thereafter, the matron pulled the string, thus signalling that she wanted the conveyance to stop.  The public carriage came to a rolling stop and the older woman and two girls stepped down, closing the door and enclosing Belihn in the silence that had been haunting him all day.  

            Belihn had to put up with the silence only for a brief time, however.  Soon the conveyance was rolling into the nouveau riche neighborhoods and he pulled on the string and got off two blocks later to walk up the hill to the Oh’nahry residence.  The gate of the Oh’nahry residence was unlocked, so he opened the gate door and stepped onto the half moon cobblestone drive, closing the gate behind him.  By the time he reached the three cobblestone steps leading up to the front door, the butler was standing under the doorjamb, awaiting him.

            “May I be of service, Sir?” the butler asked.

            “I am here to see Miss Alona,” Belihn said.

            The butler started.  “Oh, I’m sorry, Captain.  I didn’t recognize you without your uniform.”

            “That’s alright.  Is Miss Alona in?”

            The butler bowed.  “She is, Sir. Come into the foyer and I will fetch her for you.”

            “Thank you,” Belihn murmured and stepped inside.

            The butler closed the front door and hurried away while Belihn commenced pacing.

            “Belihn!”

            He turned and smiled.  “Hallo, Alona.”

            She took his arm right away and led him into the sitting room.  

            “Father came home yesterday upset and said you have been exiled from your clan,” she said without preamble.  “Is that true?”

            He sighed.  “Yes.  I argued with my sire again and had to resign from the army.  But your father needn’t concern himself, I have employment and a place for us to live.”

            She urged him to sit and took his cloak, draping it over the back of the nearest armchair.

            She sat next to him.  “He was angry, father was.  He was counting on a direct connection to the King; for business purposes, he said.”

            He felt his heart give a sickening lurch.  “I see.”

            “He went to see your mother yesterday,” Alona continued and wrung her hands.  “When he returned, he was subdued and went up to his study without speaking a word to anyone.  I’ve never seen him quite like that, Belihn.  He wouldn’t even talk to mother or to my brothers.  That’s not like him at all.”

            “Has he said ought else?” Belihn asked.  “Is the betrothal done?”

            She shook her head.  “None of us know.”

            “Is he here?”

            She shook her head again.  “He’s in town, at the business.”

            He rose and picked up the cloak.  “Then I’d best go and speak with him posthaste.”

            “What will you say to him?” she asked, rising from her seat.

            “I’m not sure, to be honest,” he replied and walked with her to the front door.

            She sighed.  “Please talk sense into him, Belihn.  Surely, an alliance between our families would still be beneficial.”

            He grimaced.  “Of that I am not sure, Alona.  I am nothing but a lowly secretary at the Yllysian Embassy.  I have enrolled at university to take diplomatic courses.  I won’t be much more than a secretary for at least two years.”

            She took his hands in hers.  “I don’t care about any of that, Belihn!  Our marriage is convenient to you and me.  That’s all that should matter!”

            “But if your Eda decides to betroth you to someone else?”

            She swallowed. “I don’t know what I’ll do.”

            He leaned towards her and lowered his voice.  “There is always elopement, Alona.”

            She gasped.  “He’ll disown me!”

            He patted her hand.  “I would be open to elopement, Alona, but if you would rather have your inheritance, I understand.  I’ll let you think on it.  Excuse me.”

            He turned and strode through the open front door and out into the cool midafternoon, feeling as lonesome as he had ever felt in his life.

Chapter II: The Storm

            A day later, Belihn was woken by a pounding on his room door.  The pounding was so fierce, Belihn feared for the door’s integrity.  He rose quickly from bed and stumbled to the door, throwing it open.  Four guards stood on the other side of the threshold.

            “Please dress, Captain.  The King is demanding to see you right away.”

            “Give me a moment, please,” Belihn murmured and closed the door.

            He dressed quickly, taking but a moment to splash cold water on his face, then to brush and braid his hair.  

            He was escorted to Castle Draemin, two guards leading the way, and two guards bringing up the rear.  They marched him through the crowded Great Hall and down to the War Room behind the Throne Room.  One of the guards opened the door, announced him and stepped back to allow him entrance.

            Warlord Bhar Obeli, Commander-General Rakah Ys’teis, Lady Oona Obeli-Thalmar, Lord Domio Obeli,and Commanders Aud Salit’, Maedoc Kalish, and Deven Halso were in the room alongside King Kah’len. They sat at the half moon table facing the door through which Belihn had entered.  There was a single highbacked chair facing the table.

            The King was pale, his green eyes cold.

            Warlord Bhar Obeli rose.  “Have a seat in the chair, Belihn.”

            Belihn walked around the chair and took a seat.  His heart was clamoring in his chest.  He gripped the arms of the chair and took a deep, bracing breath.

            Warlord Bhar Obeli tapped the tabletop with a finger and sighed.  He walked away from the table and began to slowly pace before Belihn’s chair.

            “You have conscripted yourself to the Yllysian army, Captain?  Is this the case?” the Warlord asked.

            “Yes.”

            The Warlord nodded.  “I see.  Is there a reason you went to Yllysia?”    

            “You went to the other embassies and told the ambassadors not to accept my conscription,” Belihn retorted bitterly.  “I had no choice.”

            The king slammed his hand on the tabletop and rose so quickly, the chair toppled behind him.

            “There is always a choice!” he roared.  He took a deep breath.  “I haven’t decided if this is treason or not, Belihn Tjashensi.  We have no formal agreement, no formal treaty, with Yllysia.  But not more than 10 years ago, we were at war.  They spat on Bhar’s warning.  You bring us to the brink of war!”

            Belihn watched as his father rubbed a hand over his forehead and sighed.  “I am trying to understand you, son.”

            “You won’t be able to,” Belihn replied.  “You aren’t half-commoner.  You don’t have to put up with snide remarks, insolence and ridicule.  You don’t have to put up with a measly salary and the inability to rise the ranks of the military–“

            “Enough!” the King spat.  “I don’t need any more of your complaints.  You are a prince of the blood.”

            Belihn rose.  “I am a commoner!  Your own family does not see me as a prince, why should anyone?”

            The King took a deep breath.  “Sit. Down.”

            Belihn dropped into the chair once more.

            The King shook his head.  “If you go into the Yllysian army, you are no longer part of this clan, Belihn.  You will be prohibited from contacting your family, your mother, your sisters or your brother.  Do I make myself clear?”

            “You’re a tyrant!” Belihn hissed.

            The King straightened to his full height.  “Do I make myself clear?”

            Belihn rose.  “Abundantly.”  He spat on the floor.  “Goodbye, King Kah’len.  I curse your rule, your family, your pride.  May you fall.”

            “You stay right there,” Warlord Bhar Obeli snarled.  “No one’s dismissed you!”

            “I am Yllysian from now on,” Belihn stated coldly.  “If you have a problem with my comportment, you can contact the Ambassador.”

            “Belihn!” the King roared.

            Belihn strode from the room.  He hurried down the Great Hall to the stairs, taking them two at a time to the fifth floor and to his mother’s suites.  He burst into the sitting room.

            The Queen gasped and dropped her knitting.  “Belihn!  What is it?”

            He strode to where she stood and put his hands on her slender shoulders.  “I have been banned from the clan, Aya. I won’t be able to contact you after today.”

            The Queen paled and swayed.  “What?”

            “I just wanted to let you know I’ll be fine and I will marry Alona.”  He pressed a kiss to her cheek.  “I love you, Mother.  When I advise you to leave Draemin City-State, will you do as I ask?”

            She swallowed and nodded.

            “Civil war is less than ten years away,” he continued quickly.  “I don’t want you here when the trouble starts.  I’ll send you a missive.”        

            “I will wait for it, child,” she said and hugged him.   “I don’t understand any of this, Belihn.  I hope you are doing what is correct.”

            “Trust me,” he said into her fragrant hair.  “I can do nothing else, Mother.”

            Her hazel eyes glittered with unshed tears.  “Please be careful.”

            He nodded and pressed a kiss to her forehead.  “Tell my siblings goodbye for me.”

            When the pounding came on the hallway door, Belihn snuck out through the servants’ hallway.  He took little used passageways until he was outside in the bailey.  Returning to his room, he packed his belongings into his chest and dressed in civilian clothes, leaving his uniforms folded on the bed.  He managed to find a carriage that agreed to take him to the Yllysian Embassy.  He clamored into the conveyance, his trunk on the floor at his feet.  Once the carriage was clattering over the moat bridge and down the wide boulevard, Belihn released his breath.  The entire journey to the Diplomatic District, he kept sneaking glances out of the back window, but there was no pursuit.  He closed his eyes and allowed the idea of never seeing his mother again seep properly into his mind.  He prayed to Atana that Civil War came swiftly and swept the old guard away, leaving the throne clean and new.

            By the time the carriage rolled to a stop before the Yllysian Embassy, Belihn had gotten control of himself.  He stepped down and carried his chest with him into the large building

            The guards in the foyer asked his business.

            “I need to see Neth Oronom Shejl,” Belihn replied.

            One of the guard raked a mistrustful glance over Belihn.  “Wait here then.”

            It took long minutes during which Belihn’s knees gave out from under him and he sat down on the chest and tried to gather his wits about him.

            “Your highness,” Neth Oronom Shejl murmured and approached Belihn.

            Belihn shakily stood up.  “Sir.”

            “You have come to join us then?”

            “Yes, sir.”

            The ambassadorial aide ran his gaze over Belihn.  “You are no longer wearing a uniform.”

            “That is done,” Belihn replied.  “I’ve been exiled from my clan.”

            The aide cocked his head.  “Then come, the Ambassador will see you.”  He turned to one of the guards.  “Please set the Prince’s chest in the green guest room.”

            The guard bowed.  “Right away, sir.”

            “Come with me, Prince Tjashensi.”

            As they walked down the hallways, Belihn said, “I am no longer a prince.  Please call me Belihn.”

            Shejl looked at him.  “You are taking all this rather well, aren’t you?”

            Belihn shrugged.  “There is nothing to be done.  I have to be able to live with myself.”

            “Indeed,” the aide murmured.

            Ambassador Tah’duk’h was standing with his back to the door, his hands clasped behind him, gazing out of the only window in the room.  

            He said, without turning around, “My spies are buzzing with surprising news about you and the king of Draemin City-State.”    

            “I’m sure,” Belihn replied dryly and went to stand before the desk.

            The Ambassador turned around.  “Have a seat, Prince Belihn.”

            “I am no longer a prince,” Belihn informed him and took a seat.

            The Ambassador sat down behind his desk.  “This is all most curious.  The King must love you dearly, to lose his famous equanimity so thoroughly.”

            “His pride has been pricked, is all,” Belihn said.

            “Surely, your father loves you,” the Ambassador said.

            “My father has fifteen children, Excellency,” he replied hollowly.  “I broke my spirit while still a youngster trying to win his affection and a smidgen of his attention.  Father never had time for any of us.  He thinks we owe him blind loyalty because he is our father and the King.  I don’t owe him anything.”

            The Ambassador sighed and sat back, steepling his fingers before him.  “I see.  We owe fealty to our sires, if only because we owe them our lives.”

            “I owe my father my life, yes,” Belihn agreed.   “I have paid him over and over, by doing what he wanted me to do.  He wanted me to join the army, which I did.  But I won’t stand by idly while he destroys this city with his cowardice.”

            “Strong words,” the Ambassador murmured silkily.  His pale eyes studied Belihn.  “I won’t balk at letting you know we don’t trust any of this.  You’ll have to prove yourself to us.”    

            “I knew that would be,” Belihn replied dully  “We are ancient enemies, after all.”

            The Ambassador smiled coldly.  “That we are.”

            He rose and walked to the outer office and murmured a few words to his aide before returning to the inner office and sitting down once more.

            “I’ve sent for the Commander of our forces in Draemin City,” the Ambassador said.  “It will be up to him where you’ll be stationed and what rank you’ll hold.”

            “I thought I would remain here, in Draemin City-State,” Belihn murmured.

            The Ambassador tapped a finger on the desktop.  “That isn’t up to me.  We have a small force here and it’s mostly for the protection of our embassy staff.”

            Belihn shifted.  “Sir, I need to be able to assist the reformist forces.”

            The Ambassador sighed.  “Then perhaps it would be best if you leave the armed forces, Belihn.  Be a free agent, do what you will, but if you join the Yllysian forces, you will be sent where you are most needed.”  He sighed.  “You are our only hope for the throne once your sire is deposed.  I suggest you learn a new trade and wait until we need you to ascend the salta wood throne.”

            Belihn rose.  “You are dismissing me?”

            The Ambassador leaned against the desk.  “Listen, Belihn.  You know the life of a soldier; if you wish to remain here, in Draemin City, you will do so as a civilian.”  He raised a hand against Belihn’s rising protests.  “I will remain in touch with you.  Go and help the reformist forces, Belihn.  We will assist you when the time is ripe.”  He sighed.  “Do you have a place to stay?”

            Belihn swallowed thickly. “No, but I have acquaintances in town.  I’ll get myself an apartment.  May I return later for my belongings?”    

            “You may,” Ambassador Tah’duk’h replied.  “You know, if you take a few diplomatic courses at university, we can find a place for you here, at the embassy.  Had you not been such a hothead, I would’ve offered you to remain in the army of Draemin City-State as my spy.”

            Belihn sat down slowly.  “I’ve lost everything for naught.”

            The Ambassador shook his head.  “Not for naught, boy.  Your pride is assuaged, after all.  Take the courses and join my embassy as a liaison.  The course takes two years; have you anything else to be doing?”

            “No,” Belihn replied hollowly.

            “Then sign up at the university.  You can work as a secretary for the embassy.”

            Belihn squared his shoulders.  “I shall.”

            The Ambassador nodded.  “Good.  You can return for your belongings.  Good day, Belihn.”  The Ambassador turned.  “Oh, have you decided on a surname, now that your clan has disowned you?”

            “No, sir.”

            “Then I suggest, for irony’s sake, you choose an Yllysian surname.  You belong to us now.”

            Belihn cocked his head.  “You have a name in mind?”

            “Ekesj,” the Ambassador replied.  “You can found your own clan when you are King and give the clan an Yllysian name.”

            “Belihn Ekesj,” Belihn tried out.  He rather liked it.  He nodded.  “It sounds good.”

            The Ambassador smiled.  “Good.  Let me know where you will be residing, in case I need to get in touch with you.”

            “Yes, sir.”

Part Two: The Civilian Chapter I: Rejection and Redemption

            Belihn groaned and turned onto his back.  His head was pounding and his throat felt raw and his joints ached.  Looking around the room, he frowned.  Where was he?  The room was handsome but unknown to him.  Thick dark blue curtains covered the windows and the canopied bed.  Everything in the room was a shade of blue.  A single candle in its holder on the bedside table nearest Belihn gave a weak, buttery light.  With another groan, Belihn rolled to a sitting pose and swung his legs over the side of the bed.  His head spun and his stomach gave a lurch of complaint.  He closed his eyes and forced the sickness down.  Rising, he went to the window and pulled the curtains back.  Rain spattered the thick panes.  The window gazed down onto a manicured lawn with decorative bushes and flower gardens.  After a few minutes, he turned back to the room.  

            He went to the first door he saw and found a washroom.  Going to the waste bucket, he emptied his aching bladder with a sigh.  The strong, pungent stream of urine hit the side of the large bucket and slid down.  Afterward, he went to the washbasin, which was full of fresh, cold water, and he splashed his face and rinsed his mouth.  Making his way back to the bedroom, he dressed in his uniform, pulling his gleaming knee-high boots on last.  Returning to the bathing chamber, he found a brush and combed and braided his hair before abandoning the bathing chamber and making his way to the hallway.

            The butler stood just outside the bathing room door.

            He bowed to Belihn.  “Good morning, Captain Tjashensi.  Mister Ryeo’h was wanting me to let you know he is in the dining room breaking his fast.”

            “Thank you, Shen,” Belihn murmured and followed the tall butler down the hall and to the stairwell.

            The dining room was beyond the sitting room, through a modest archway.

            Belihn paused under the archway.  Ryeo’h’s entire family was there.  It was a noisy affair, with children talking loudly over each other.  Belihn closed his eyes against the pounding in his head.

            “Are you alright?” Ryeo’h asked.

            Belihn swallowed thickly and opened his eyes.

            Ryeo’h had left his chair and was now standing next to Belihn.  He was gazing at Belihn with a worried frown.

            Belihn nodded.  “Have a headache, is all.”

            “Come and sit and break your fast,” Ryeo’h recommended and took Belihn’s arm.  “I have a great remedy for a hangover.”

            “How much did I drink last night?” Belihn asked.  “I don’t recall much.”

            “Let’s say you did yourself proud,” Ryeo’h replied with a huff of laughter.  “Sit.”

            Belihn sat down amidst the sudden hush that had fallen over the gathering.

            The children watched him with wide eyed curiosity.

            “You look pale, Captain,” Banela Thalnel commented dryly while a servant poured tea into a cup for Belihn.

            Belihn thanked the servant.  “Yes.  Most unfortunate for me, my insides feel just as bad as my outsides look.”

            Ryeo’h set a tall glass in front of Belihn.  The thick liquid in the glass was rose colored and dotted with spices.

            “Drink it slowly,” Ryeo’h recommended.  “It’s made of spices and herbs to relieve your discomfort.”

            Belihn picked up the glass and sniffed it then brought it to his lips and tasted it.  It was oily and sweet and burning with spices.  He choked but managed to swallow it.  He almost gagged.  He took another swallow and set the glass to one side before picking up the cup of black mjish tea.  Around him, the family began to converse again while he miserably concentrated on drinking both the tea and the remedy.  When he was done, Ryeo’h placed a tall glass of water before him and he dutifully emptied that, too.

            Sjaji smiled at Belihn.  “Ryeo’h was telling us that you have resigned from the army, Captain?”    

            Belihn sat back into the hard backed chair.  “Yes, ma’am.  I am going this morning to sign up with the Tjish.unen army as a mercenary.”

            The young woman frowned.  “Why?”

            Belihn shrugged.  “I’m making a point to the King.  I can’t rise much higher in our army, but there is nothing stopping me from climbing the ranks of the Tjish.unen army.”

            She cocked her head.  “I have heard that commoners can’t rise the ranks of the armed forces past the rank of lieutenant.  It seems horribly unfair to me.  But you’re a prince.”

            “A half-blood,” Belihn told her.  “Half-commoner.  It taints my blood, in the point of view of many aristocrats.”

            She shifted.  “How sad and unfair.”

            He shrugged.  “It is what it is, but I think we can change things.”

            Ryeo’h rose.  “That’s enough talk of politics with women.  Are you done with your breakfasts?”

            Banela and Sjaji dutifully rose from their chairs.  Bidding good day to Belihn, they led the children from the dining room.

            Ryeo’h looked at Belihn.  “Do you want something to eat?”        

            Belihn grimaced.  “I couldn’t keep it down.”

            “Then come to my office,” Ryeo’h said and rose.  “It is just across the hall.”

            Once ensconced in the office with the door securely closed, Ryeo’h walked around his desk and sat behind it while Belihn sat down in an armchair facing the large, neatly appointed desk.

            Ryeo’h set his forearms on the glossy desktop.  “Do you recall any of our conversation from last night?  

            Belihn frowned.  “Just pieces of it.”

            “You spoke of the Reformist Lord and joining his ranks,” Ryeo’h stated without preamble.

            Belihn flushed hotly.  “Ah…speaking treason again.”

            “I told you I run in the same circles as the Reformist Lord.  I offered to train you to join his ranks as a spy.”  Ryeo’h sat back.  “Were you toying with me when you said you would like to join him?”

            Belihn sighed.  “No.  I wasn’t toying with you.  What would I be required to do, as a spy?”        

            “Anything you are bid do,” Ryeo’h replied.  “But you must live here, in Draemin City-State.  You expressed worry for your family, for their safety.  You can’t spy against the government in some other city or nation.  As I said to you last night, civil war is maybe ten years away, maybe sooner.  You can move your family to another nation, but you must remain here.”    

            “I no longer have the ear of the King,” Belihn murmured.  “What good can I do?”

            “Plenty,” Ryeo’h assured him.  “If you accept.”

            Belihn rubbed his forehead with a cool hand.  “What is your role in all of this?  Do you just train spies?”

            Ryeo’h’s smile did not reach his eyes.  “That’s between me and the Reformist Lord.  The less you know, the safer all of us will be.  All you need know is that I am not involved in the actual thefts.  Now, do you accept?”

            “I accept.  I have little choice, if I want to be on the right side of history,” Belihn replied and rose from him seat.  “I will go and sign up with the Tjish.unen army now.”

            Ryeo’h rose as well.  “Then you must come here again in two days’ time.  We’ve much to discuss.”

            They clasped hands over the desk and Belihn took his leave.

            Outside, the rain had stopped, but everything was slick with moisture. Belihn went to the city mews to get his bahil.  After paying the stable boy the required coins, he led his mount into the slick street.  The Diplomatic District was three sepeks from where Ryeo’h lived.  He mounted Eower, his bahil, and directed the animal north along the side street.

            The Tjish.unen Embassy was located in the Diplomatic District near the docks.  The buildings here were all three and four story brick houses with decorative gardens and black iron gates.  There were embassies from all nations that had an alliance with Draemin City-State, but there were also embassies from nations that did not have formal alliances with the city.  Yllysia had an embassy here and her relationship with North Torahni city-states had always been strained.  One could tell by the number of guards monitoring the premises of the Yllysian Embassy just how strained the two nations’ relationship was.  

            The Tjish.unen Embassy, several yards north from the Yllysian, was made of blond bricks.  Its relaxed grounds was testament to the fact that Tjish.un was the strongest ally to all the North Torahni city-states.

            Belihn walked up the three brick steps to the front door and then into the marbled foyer.  

            A guard in the green Tjish.unen uniform bowed to Belihn.  “How may I be of assistance, Captain?”

            “I’d like to speak to the Ambassador,” Belihn replied.  “I am Captain Belihn Tjashensi.”

            The guard bowed.  “I will inform the Ambassador that you are here. Please have a seat, Captain.”

            While the guard went to announce him, Belihn looked around the foyer.  The walls were painted a light yellow and mustard throw rugs decorated the floors.  The armchairs lining the walls of the foyer were of a light color and Belihn wondered what type of wood they were made from.  The cushioned seats of the chairs were cream with flowers etched from gold thread.

            “Captain Tjashensi?”    

            Belihn turned.

            The man before Belihn bowed.  “I am the Tjish.unen Ambassador to Draemin City-State, Aldhor Thalmar.”

            The Ambassador was a true scion of the House of Thalmar.  He was tall and slender, with copper colored hair and bright yellow-green eyes.  He was handsome, with even features and a generous mouth.

            Belihn saluted.  “A pleasure to meet you, Ambassador.”

            They clasped forearms.

            “The pleasure is mine,” the Ambassador murmured.  “Please come into my office.”

            The Ambassador’s office was expansive, with a desk made of light wood, like the chairs in the foyer.  The wood had prominent markings in whorls and circles.  It had a gleaming finish.  The desktop was neat, with stacks of papers and scrolls, two large inkwells and a series of pens lined in a row.  There were bookshelves carved into the wooden walls. The bookshelves were filled with thick tomes and scrolls behind glass.  The lettering on the tomes were in the Common Tongue, and Belihn read titles having to do with diplomacy, history, and politics.  

            “Have a seat, Captain,” the Ambassador said.

            Belihn sat down.

            “What can I do for you, Captain?”

            Belihn cleared his throat.  “I have come to join your army as a mercenary.”

            The Ambassador cocked his head.  “Really?  Why?”

            “I disagree with how the King pays the common soldier and how the common soldier is prohibited from rising above the rank of lieutenant.”

            The Ambassador sat down.  “I see.  I’ll be frank with you, Captain.  Warlord Bhar Obeli came to me yesterday and told me you might be sniffing around for a post.  I was given the directive that you are not to be allowed to join our troops.  I’m sorry but I can’t insult the King by accepting you into the ranks of our soldiers.”

            Belihn swallowed down the anger that swiftly rose in him.  He stood up so fast, the feet of the chair scraped the floor.  “I see.  I should have known.”

            The Ambassador rose.  “I’m sorry.  I’m sure the Warlord has had a word with all the Embassies in the Diplomatic District.”

            Belihn pushed down the resentment that threatened to blind him.  Without further preamble, he turned on his heels and strode from the room.  He made it outside without realizing he had done so.  Once in the front yard of the embassy, he stopped and took a deep, bracing breath.  The depth of the disappointment and rage that filled him left him breathless.  Before realizing what he was doing, he stalked down the sidewalk until he came to the Yllysian Embassy.  Getting into this embassy proved a bit harder.  He had to show his papers and was made to wait in the somber, subdued foyer for several minutes, a guard keeping watch over him.  While the second guard went to see if the Ambassador was free to see him, Belihn paced, impatient and angry.

            The second guard returned and bowed to Belihn.  “His Excellency will see you now, Captain.  Please follow me.”

            Belihn followed the guard down a long hallway built from dark brown ei’shano wood.  Paintings of what Belihn could only assume were landscapes from Yllysia filled the walls with icy and snow swept vistas.

            The guard led him to an open door.  He bowed.  “Please enter, sir.”

            Belihn entered the outer office and paused when he saw the young diplomat.

            “I am Neth Oronom Shejl, the Ambassador’s assistant.  The Ambassador is expecting you.  Please follow me.”

            Belihn entered the inner office and bowed to the ambassador on the other side of the modest desk.

            Like all Yllysians, the Ambassador had blue-tinged skin.  Yllysian women, when pregnant, imbibed ilishna, an herb that turned the skin blue and bleached the hair a pale eggshell color.  The Ambassador’s skin was pale blue with hair that was just touched with gold.  His eyes were light blue.  His even features and full lips were handsome.  He wore his hair in two thick braids down his back.

            “I am Ambassador Kalthos Torim Tah’duk’h,” the diplomat stated without preamble.  “To what do I owe your visit, Captain?”    

            Belihn recalled that Yllysian names were comprised of the city they were born in, their clan affiliation and, finally, their proper name.  So, upon hearing the Ambassador’s name, Belihn knew the man had been born in Kalthos City, came from a clan with the name of Torim, and his given name was Tah’duk’h.

            “May I sit, Ambassador Torim?” Belihn asked.

            The man blinked and indicated the armchair.  “Yes.  Please sit.”

            Belihn waited until the Ambassador took his seat before stating his business.

            “I am seeking to join a mercenary army,” he said.

            The Ambassador sat back in his chair.  “Yes, the Warlord came by, threatening me if I accepted your application.”  The man snorted.  “As if war with North Torahn would be so easily caused.”  He raked his gaze over Belihn’s face.  “You are the King’s son, are you not?  One of his heirs?”        

            “I am the King’s son,” Belihn agreed.  “Not his heir, for I am half-commoner.”

            The Ambassador curled his upper lip.  “Ah yes, the tiresome caste laws of this backward nation.”

            Belihn stiffened but gave a short nod.  “Just so.”

            “And you want to join the Yllysian forces why?”

            “I had a fight with my father, the King, over the caste laws,” he said.  “I think he should abolish them and he wants to avoid civil war at all cost.   I resigned from Draemin City-State’s army, but being a soldier is all I’ve ever done.”

            “I see,” Ambassador Torim stated.  “Draemin City-State is a powder keg, as are all the cities of North Torahn.  All due to these outmoded caste laws.  Your aristocracy taxes the commoners ruthlessly and without sense.”  He gave Belihn a toothy smile that held no mirth or gentleness.  “The entire nation will implode and we will bide our time.  I will approach whomever rises from the ashes of your civil war as King and offer a lasting peace settlement and agreement.  Tell me, Captain Tjashensi, why does North Torahn insist on keeping the Neutral Territory, when it so righteously belongs to Yllysia?”

            “It is a matter of pride for North Torahn, your Excellency.  We won it during one of the many Yllysian-Torahni wars that have marred our history.  I, for one, think Isajhi should be returned to Yllysia as a gift.”

            The Ambassador snorted, eyes flashing ire.  “You would gift us what is ours by right?”    

            “As a measure of good feeling between us, for the hope of future peace.  Yes, I would.”    

            The Ambassador held Belihn’s gaze for a few minutes before nodded.  

            “Am I wasting my time here, Ambassador?” Belihn asked.  “Will you deny me becoming a mercenary for your nation?”

            The Ambassador sat forward and placed his forearms on the desktop.  “We have no formal treaty with Draemin City-State.  I, for one, don’t believe the King would proclaim war on Yllysia if we take you on as a mercenary.  When civil war comes, Yllysia will join the commoners with the might of our armies.  If you promise to consider being made King, and you promise to return Isajhi to us, then I will accept your application as mercenary.  Once you take the oath, your loyalties lie with my nation, not Draemin City-State or North Torahn.”

            “I don’t want to be king.”

            The Ambassador flashed his mirthless grin.  “We all must do what we do not want at times.  You can become a mercenary in the Yllysian army, if you agree to take up the scepter and orb of Draemin City-State when the time is ripe.  You agree to this or you can leave my office right now.”

            Belihn swallowed.  “You promise to lend your forces to the common cause, for the rights of the common man?”

            “You have my word,” the Ambassador stated.

            Belihn rose.  “Then I promise to rule Draemin City and return Isajhi to Yllysia, if we win the civil war.”

            The Ambassador rose.  “We’ll win.”

            They clasped forearms.