Chapter IV: Guidance

            Tesjun sighed and rose from his desk.  Sleep had been precious these last few days.  Whenever he lay down to rest, his mind was filled with doubts and questions.  The result was that he worked in a fog throughout the day.  He was slower at his duties than was his wont; he also forgot to do things.  If he were honest with himself, he was preoccupied during the day as well, not just at night.  He often caught himself staring  into mirrors, wondering what the King found so fascinating about him.  He had never had sex with anyone, as he had told the Queen Mother.  His life from a very early age had involved working for his family and learning to read and write and numbers. He had always been driven; his eye had ever been on raising his family above their station.  And now his small family lived in Draemin Castle; at least, for the time being.  He turned and walked to the window, where he pulled the curtains apart and gazed at the snowstorm beyond the glass panes.  

            He sighed.  Would it be so terrible, he thought to himself, to become the King’s lover?

            His Grace, after all, was beautiful to behold, wasn’t he?  He was kind, as Tesjun had told the Queen Mother.  And intelligent and fair minded. He sighed.  Then what was so difficult about this decision?

            But…what if he wasn’t atoliy?  What if…what if he saw beauty in all people, but it was purely esthetics and not attraction?

            He took in a deep breath and released it in an explosive huff.  He rubbed his forehead with a shaking hand.

            “I need guidance,” he murmured to himself.  “I cannot make this decision blind.  But…whom do I seek the guidance from?”

            He was a commoner with a commoner’s faith, so the person who came to mind was the Prei-Serren himself.  He squared his shoulders and strode into the hallway and then to the left, towards the unscathed northeastern tower.  As he strode, he thought of how he would broach the subject with the holy man.  The Prei-Serren had been the first atoliy in history to become the High Priest.  Well, at least as far as anyone knew.  

            He took the tower steps two at a time to the fourth floor.  The Prei-Serren was in residence because his Grace’s marriage and coronation were just a few days away and the weather had been unpredictable of late.  

            Walking up to the guards, he bowed.  “I would like to see his Holiness.  On behalf of his Grace, Belihn Stait-Ekesj.”

            The guard on the left gave him a once over before turning to knock on the door.

            A few seconds later, the door was opened by an acolyte.  He gave Tesjun a curious glance.

            “I am here to see his Holiness on the behest of his Grace,” Tesjun murmured, the lie coming more easily each time he told it.

            “One moment please,” the acolyte said and closed the door.

            Tesjun fidgeted under the guards’ cold perusal.  His skin was damp with perspiration and his heart was clamoring in his chest.  Releasing a breath, he squared his shoulders and straightened his back.  He fisted his hands at his sides.

            The door opened again and the acolyte bowed.  “Please enter.”

            His Holiness was standing at the balcony doors, peering at the thick snowflakes swirling in the strong winds.

            “It will be a bitter winter, this one,” he said to the room before turning around to face Tesjun.  “Have a seat, Mister Othar.”

            Tesjun sat down in an armchair and clasped his hands on his lap.

            The High Priest walked around the sofa and sat down facing his visitor.  His gray eyes glittered in his handsome, unlined face.  The Prei-Serren didn’t seem to age, except for the silver threading his black hair.  His face looked as a young man’s.

            “I’ve been expecting you, Tesjun Othar.”

            Tesjun gaped.  “W-what?”

            Lahn smiled faintly and shook his head.  “You have little faith, for a commoner.”

            Tesjun frowned, his ire rising.  “I’ve been busy surviving, your Eminence!”

            Lahn Obeli gave a nod and smoothed his hands over his robes.  “I know, child.  But I’ve been dreaming of you, off and on, since your conception.  The Goddess imbued you with an indomitable will and a keen intelligence.  It was She who drove that man to rape your mother so that you could be conceived.”

            Tesjun gasped.  “What?”

            “Your mother was a virgin, child.  She intended to enter a nunnery, so strong was her faith, but the Goddess had another purpose for her.  Your mother was born to conceive you.  The Goddess sent her messages in the form of dreams, but all she wanted was to leave her house.  Your grandfather beat her, you see.  He was cruel and abusive.”  

            The Prei-Serren motioned to the acolyte.

            Soon, a glass of liqueur was being forced into Tesjun’s hand.  He swallowed the drink without tasting it.

            He looked at the Holy Man.  “Do  you mean to tell me my father was not my father?”

            “He was.  He married her, you see,” Lahn Obeli replied.  “From his loins came your siblings.  But you…You, Tesjun, will begin to change the very laws of North Torahn, through your influence on the King.  Your will become a barrister, the greatest in the history of our nation.  Nothing else matters.”

            Tesjun swallowed, his head swirling with emotions.  He glanced at the older man.  “But…”

            Lahn Obeli raised an eyebrow.  “But?”

            “The Queen Mother approached me about his Grace.  Am I to be his lover, your Holiness?”

            “Are you?” the other asked with deceptive mildness.  “That is up to you, boy.”

            “I need guidance!”

            “I see.”  The older man sighed and sipped his liqueur.  “Well, sex clouds everything and involves the heart at some point.  Do you find his Grace attractive?”

            “Yes.”

            “Then why the confusion?”

            “I’ve never had a lover, your Holiness.  I’m not even sure I am atoliy or atol-domeinsji!”

            “Then might I make a suggestion?”

            “Of course!”

            “Masturbate and think of his Grace as you are doing so,” the Prei-Serren stated bluntly.  “If you achieve completion, then becoming his lover should pose no problem.  What you must realize is that this is a little thing in the context of the greater picture, son. You will be of great importance to Belihn, but being his lover is of little importance.  For the ages, you will be his primary advisor and you will guide him to change the laws that condemn so many to abject poverty and suffering.  That is all She cares about.  In the meantime, find your pleasure where you will.”

            Tesjun swallowed and leaned forward.  “Have you seen, in your visions, that I am his lover?”

            Lahn Obeli chuckled.  “That is of little concern to me or to Her, boy.  I have seen you as both, Tesjun Othar.  The choice is yours.  Belihn will not turn from your guidance, no matter your choice.  Your role in history is to prevail and change caste law; the rest is of little consequence.”

            Tesjun rose and bowed.  “Thank you, your Holiness.”

            The Prei-Serren waived a lazy hand.  “I’ve done nothing, child.  Do not speak of your mother’s rape to her; this I will counsel you.  She forgave your father and even came to love him, in her way.  She sacrificed much, child, always remember that.”

***

            Kurk Deshon set a glass of ekila in front of Tesjun and took a seat across from him.  

            “Now,” he said, lifting his glass.  “To King Belihn!”

            Tesjun raised his glass and clicked it to Kurk’s.  “To his Grace.”

            They drank the ekila and Tesjun closed his eyes as the heat of the liqueur burned down his throat, spreading across his chest, and filling his belly balefully.

            Kurk leaned forward to place his forearms on the table.  “You wanted to talk to me?”

            “I need guidance, Kurk.”

            Kurk raised an eyebrow but nodded.  “Go on then.”

            “The Queen Mother approached me a few days ago to tell me his Grace is attracted to me.  I don’t think his Grace knows she approached me.”

            Kurk sat back in his seat.  “I see.  And?”

            Tesjun shrugged.  “I don’t know how to make this decision!”

            Kurk snorted.  “Are you atoliy or not?  That is the only consideration.  Belihn is a handsome lad, so if you are confused then maybe you are not atoliy.”

            Tesjun gnawed at his lower lip and sighed.  “I wouldn’t know.  I’ve never lain with anyone.”

            Kurk poured more liqueur from the carafe.  “Then we must remedy that.”

            Tesjun frowned.  “How?”

            Kurk snorted again and shook his head.  “We find you a whore of either sex.  I’ll pay for it.”

            He rose and Tesjun gaped at him.  “What?  No!”

            “Drink your drink and come with me,” the other demanded, picking up the carafe.

            Tesjun swallowed his drink and rose on unsteady feet.  “But, Kurk–“

            “Shut up, son.  Listen to me, we will find out the truth tonight or my name isn’t Kurk Deshon!”

            The next few minutes were a blur to Tesjun.

            Kurk negotiated with the tavern keeper, paying him extra coins for the use of two servers.  Since the tavern was not busy, the tavern keeper agreed.

            The man was tall and whip thin, with cold hazel eyes and a beaked nose.

            He took Kurk’s coins and gave Tesjun the once over.  “These coins pay for one hour.  I want my servers down here again in one hour exactly.”

            “Y-yes, sir,” Tesjun replied through numb lips.

            The man’s icy glare flicked over Tesjun’s pale features and snorted.  “I’ll pick young and gentle ones for you, my lord.”  He handed Kurk a key.  “Room four on the second floor.”

            Kurk led the way up the narrow, creaking stairs to the second floor.  Candles in sconces on the unpainted wooden walls threw a buttery light against the dusty floor and low ceiling.  They found room four and Kurk applied the key, turning the lock and pushing the door open.  The room was in absolute darkness, but Kurk took up one of the candles from its sconce on the wall and walked in, placing the candle in a holder on the bedside table.  

            Tesjun entered the room slowly, scrunching his nose at the smell of stale sweat, liquor, and sex.  There was a modest bed with a dark blue cover. There was a table with a washbasin, and a bar of soap, washcloth and a towel hanging from a hook on the wall.  A waist-high barrel with a dipper stood next to the table.  The dusty wooden floor had no throw rugs.  There were no tapestries on the wall.  The single window was shuttered against the cold, the dark blue curtains opened to show the storm outside.  

            “I’ll be downstairs,” Kurk told him, pressing the key to the palm of Tesjun’s hand.  “Come find me in an hour.”

            Tesjun watched him leave then dropped onto the mattress with a drawn out groan.  His heart was racing so hard, he felt dizzy and lightheaded.  He took several deep breaths in an attempt to becalm his heart.  There was a knock at the doorjamb and he started and looked up.

            Two young people stood side by side just inside the door.

            The young man strode in and motioned for the girl to shut the door.  “You paid for our services, my lord?”

            Tesjun opened numbed lips and licked them before nodding.  “I’m…yes.  I’ve never done this.”

            He blushed when he realized what he had said.

            The young man and the young woman exchanged a look before she came to kneel at Tesjun’s feet.

            She placed a hand on his knee and he jumped as if she had stabbed him.

            “Becalm yourself, my lord,” she said in a soothing, soft voice.  “We will teach you.”

            “I just want to know if I am atoliy or domeinsji or both!” Tesjun stated with marked impatience.

            “Let’s find out, shall we?” the young man asked and removed his shirt.

            Tesjun gulped.

***

            Kurk yawned.  Outside the wall of windows, the snow had ceased falling and now glittered like jewels under the cold moonlight.  Few people were out and about, for the temperatures had dipped once the storm had passed.  Taitah the moon shone full beyond the ragged clouds.  He rubbed his face and pushed the last of the liqueur away.  He needed to go home and to bed, but he promised Tesjun he would wait for him, so he waited.  A brief commotion on the stairwell had him glancing that way.  Both young people ran down the stairs and back into the kitchen.  There was no sign of Tesjun.

            With a sigh, Kurk rose and made his way to the second floor.  He came to room number four and knocked.

            After a couple of minutes, Tesjun threw the door open.  “I’m just cleaning up.”

            He turned and strode into the room, Kurk at his heels.

            The room was redolent with the smells of sex and wax.

            Tesjun pulled on his tunic then his thick cloak, fastening it at the collar bone.  He turned to face Kurk, his dusky features suffused with blood.

            “How was it?” Kurk demanded.

            Tesjun blushed deeper.  “It was…”  He sighed and swallowed.  “I’m…it was good, Kurk.  Equally good.  I couldn’t choose one over the other.”

            “Then you are atol-domeinsji.”

            Tesjun swallowed.  “It appears so.”

            “Then what confuses you still?”

            “I would like to marry and have children.”

            Kurk shrugged.  “Then tell Belihn you want a wife and children.  He won’t deny you.”

            “What of my wife?  What of her feelings?”

            Kurk closed the door and took a seat at the edge of the mattress.  “Sit, Tesjun.”

            Tesjun sat.

            “You’re putting the cart before the horse,” Kurk told him.  “Do you wish to marry now?”

            “No.”

            “Then don’t worry about it as yet!  Have a love affair with Belihn.  You may not even like one another; you don’t know and you are borrowing problems where there are none.  You may fall in love with Belihn–“

            “But that’s just it!” Tesjun spat and rose.  “What if I fall in love with him?”

            “So what?” Kurk asked.  “You can choose a wife and have children when you are older.  You can learn to love her in your own way.”  He rose and placed a hand on Tesjun’s shoulder.  “Don’t worry so much, Tesjun.”

            “But I can’t!’

            “You can’t?  You can’t what?”

            “I can’t fall in love with anyone!  I’ve much to do!”

            “Becalm yourself, son,” Kurk murmured.  “Will you really go through life isolated because you are afraid of falling in love?”

            Tesjun dropped his gaze and swallowed.  “I just don’t want anything to take precedence over my duty.”

            “And it won’t,” Kurk assured him.  “You can and will fall in love and it will take you by surprise, but it won’t divert your from your purpose.  Have faith, Tesjun.”

            Tesjun sighed.  “I should really give Belihn my answer.”

            “He didn’t ask directly.  It’s the Queen Mother you should be concerned about,” Kurk retorted mildly, his lips quirking.  “Come.  Let’s go home.”

Chapter III: The Dinner

            Belihn arranged for Alona Oh’nahry and Morisjen Simaji’h Emira’h to meet prior to the marriage and coronation.  Both young women were of an age, so Belihn hoped they would be fast friends.  With Emira’h’s friendship, Alona might also inherit the friendships of Emira’h’s ladies-in-waiting.  To that end, he arranged an informal dinner at Queen Divita’s large suites.  His mother was delighted to be included in the event, promising to include some Yllysian dishes along with some rarified dishes from North Torahn.  Belihn left the particulars of the dinner in his mother’s capable hands and returned to his work.  His mother sent him a note two days later that the dinner would occur the following day and that his presence had been requested by both young women. The idea of spending an evening in the company of young women made him acutely uncomfortable, but as his mother gave him no option to decline, he sent her his acquiescence in a reply note.

            When the evening came, he dressed soberly, choosing darker silks and linens.  He wore a silken inner shirt of gray with a black linen outer tunic and black trousers.  He clasped a thick belt over the outer tunic and attached his sword sheath to the belt.  He wore hard leather boots with the trouser legs tucked inside like a uniform.  Over this ensemble, he pulled on a thick maroon woolen cloak, fastening the gold brooch at the collarbone.  With his personal guards in tow, he made his way down the hall to his mother’s suites.  He waited patiently as his personal guards swept into the sitting room and checked for weapons and the like.  When his guards positioned themselves unobtrusively against different walls, he entered the room and hugged his mother, pressing a kiss to her temple.

            “Thank you for hosting this meeting, Aya,” he murmured against her hair.

            She patted his hand.  “It’s a pleasure, my son.”

            They parted then she pulled him further into the room.  It was then that he noticed there were two more Yllysian guards posted on either side of the hallway door.  

            The room was crowded with young women.  Alona and Emira’h were both there already, as were Emira’h’s ladies-in-waiting.  There was also a young woman who looked very familiar standing next to his sisters.

            He bowed to Alona and Emira’h.  “I greet you both.”  He then bowed to the ladies-in-waiting.  “I greet you, my ladies.”

            The young women curtsied with many giggles and flushed faces.  

            He resisted rolling his eyes then turned his gaze to his sisters.  “Tifa; Ilmi.  Who is the young woman with you?”

            The young woman brazenly took a step forward and curtsied.  “I am Ethis Othar, your Grace.  I am Tesjun’s oldest sister.”

            Divita thrust her arm through his.  “Ethis will become the first of Alona’s ladies-in-waiting.”

            “I see,” he said, gazing with curiosity at Alona, who rolled her eyes rather expressively.  He pursed his lips to refrain from laughing.  Alona was an accomplished and busy young woman.  He could just imagine how she took to the idea of forced companionship.

            “How are you, Alona?” he asked.

            She rolled her eyes again.  “I’m fine, Belihn.  And you?”

            “I’m mostly recovered, thank you.”  He turned to Emira’h.  “And you, Daughter of the Ten.  How fare you?”

            She dimpled.  “I am well, your Grace.”

            “You may call me Belihn, Emira’h.”

            She curtsied.  “Very good, Belihn.”

            Divita let go Belihn’s arm.  “Please sit, all of you.”

            Everyone took a seat.  

            Belihn sat down in an armchair, his sisters perched one on each of the arms.  Tifa rested her arm on the headrest.  He noted that Ilmi still wore boy’s clothes and he refrained from gritting his teeth.  The girl did not want to finish school, did not want a career, did not want to marry. What did she want?  She wanted to waste time with her equally moorless friends.  Ilmi’s only saving grace was her tender years, but she was swiftly coming up on her fifteenth year of life.  Old enough to marry, he noted.  

            “My son wanted us to come together to create alliances and friendships,” Divita murmured.  “As queens, you can choose to be allies or enemies.  I will tell you, I lived in a harem filled with four queens constantly fighting for ascendency.  The King did nothing to ease our lives.  There were fights and poisonings.  There were arguments and spitefulness.  I don’t wish that kind of life on anyone.”

            Emira’h shifted, arranging her full skirts around her.  “I wish to incur no one’s enmity.  I want a large family and the friendship of any who will deign to give me that.”  Her clear blue eyes took in Belihn.  “If His Grace promises to come to my bed twice a week, I want nothing else.”

            Alona blushed and ducked her head.

            Belihn looked into Emira’h’s eyes.  “I will come to you twice a week, Emira’h.  You have my promise.”

            Emira’h bowed her head.  “Then we have an agreement.  Alona, you may state your wishes now and I will abide by them.”

            Alona’s face flushed beet red.  “I…uh…all I want is to be able to finish my university degree and continue with my painting.”

            Emira’h’s eyes widened and her ladies-in-waiting gasped.

            The Yllysian princess turned to Alona.  “You mean…you are allowed to study?  You know how to read and write?”

            Alona frowned.  “You do not?”

            Emira’h blushed and shook her head.  “No woman may read and write in Yllysia.”   She turned to Belihn.  “Yet, your nation has not fallen into chaos.”

            Belihn smiled at her.  “It has not, your Highness.”

            “Emira’h,” she said absently and turned back to Alona.  “What do you mean you wish to continue your painting?”

            “I am a painter,” Alona told her.  “I paint portraits mostly, but I also paint landscapes.”

            “She is quite accomplished,” Belihn piped up.

            Emira’h’s eyes widened again, but she said nothing as the servants entered bearing trays with libations and finger foods.  They set trays on every low table and proceeded to serve the young women fruit juices.  Belihn got a glass of mi’disj and his mother and Tifa each got a glass of wine.  The servants stood back unobtrusively to await orders.  

            Divita smiled at them.  “We’ll serve ourselves.  Just come back to pick up later.”

            “As you wish, your Majesty,” the head servant said and shooed the others out through the servant’s hallway door.

            Emira’h gazed at the food.  “What are these called?”

            “These are savory and sweet pastries, Emira’h,” Divita replied.  “These here are made from mashed turies and minced meat.  These are seafood.  These look to be the sweet ones, made with minced nuts and honey and southern spices.”

            Emira’h took up a pastry and bit into it, her eyes widening at the taste.  “Why, these are marvelous!  Taste them,” she urged her ladies-in-waiting.

            They ate in silence for a few minutes then Emira’h turned back to Alona.  “I have never heard of a woman painter.  It is most fascinating.”

            “In Torahn’s history there have been a few women accomplished in painting and poetry,” Divita told the girl.  “Our lot as women has improved greatly in the last two hundred years.”

            Emira’h sighed.   “Our lot apparently has not.”  She looked at Belihn.  “I might want to learn to read and write, Belihn–“

            “But, Emira’h–” one of the ladies-in-waiting said with a gasp.

            “You will learn as well, Kilsi,” Emira’h snapped.  “You needn’t inform me of my duty.  I will have children for the Crown and the glory of Yllysia.  To which I must ask you, Belihn…”  She cleared her throat.  “I intend to take ilishna when I am with child.  The result will be a child with my people’s skin color.  Will that be permissible?  Because if it is not, then I’ll return to Yllysia forthwith.”

            “My children from you will be Yllysian and Torahni,” Belihn told her.  “Your color means nothing to me, but it means everything to you.  Therefore, your children will be racially Yllysian.”

            Emira’h smiled.  “Thank you.”

            He bowed.  “But of course.”

            Ethis shifted.  “I can teach your Highness to read and write.  Or you can hire a tutor.”

            Emira’h looked at her.  “Thank you.  That must mean you know how to write and read also.”  She glanced at Divita.  “Do all women in North Torahn read and write?”        

            “Many do,” Divita replied.  “Some do not, but that is due to their economic caste rather than their abilities or beliefs.”

            “I see,” Emira’h murmured.  She turned to Alona.  “May I see your paintings some time?”

            Alona blushed and nodded.  “Yes, of course.”

            Emira’h cocked her head.  “You said nothing of children.  Do you not wish to have them?”

            “I will give Belihn children,” Alona assured her.  “I wish only three children, however.  Three and no more.”

            “And intimacy with his Grace?” Emira’h pushed.

            Alona straightened her back.  A belligerent gleam sparked in her eyes.  “I want Belihn’s friendship foremost.  I am atoliy, Emira’h.  I want a woman for a lover, not a man.”

            Emira’h gasped and rose, dropping her plate of pastries to the floor.  “This is an obscenity!  This is anathema!  An abomination!  How dare you speak of taboo things in my presence!”

            Belihn set his plate to one side and rose.  “That’s enough, Emira’h.”

            She turned on him, her eyes flashing with rage.  “But…but–“

            “Our ways are not your ways, Emira’h,” Divita stated soothingly as she rose from her chair.  “You must learn that we speak of these things in mixed company all the time.”

            Emira’h opened her mouth and closed it with a click of teeth.  Her light blue skin flushed deeply.

            “You must understand, these things are not the reality in Yllysia,” she stated, sounding confused and unsettled.

            Alona rose.  “There are atoliy of either sex everywhere, Emira’h.  Just because you do not speak of it in Yllysia doesn’t mean people like that don’t exist.”

            Emira’h took a deep breath and released it.  She had regained her normal color.

            “I beg forgiveness,” she stated.  “But I can’t be friends with an abomination.  I won’t be be in a marriage alliance to one, either.  Excuse me.”

            She swept from the room, followed closely by her ladies-in-waiting and their two guards.

            Alona looked stricken.  She sat abruptly, her eyes glassy with unshed tears.

            “I’m so sorry!” she muttered and swallowed thickly.

            Belihn knelt by her chair.  “Don’t give it another thought, Alona.  I won’t marry a bigot, either.  If she won’t do, then another Yllysian maid will.”

            “But…everything rests on this alliance!” Alona said.

            He took her hand in both of his and patted it.  “Worry naught.  I’ll fix this. I promise.”

            He rose and looked at his mother.  “I’d best speak to the Yllysian Ambassador posthaste.”

            She sighed and nodded.  “Please go then, son.”

            He hurried out into the hallway and made his way to his suites.  He asked a servant to fetch the Yllysian Ambassador as soon as possible.  As he waited, he paced, hands clasped at his lower back.  The Ambassador was now housed on the third floor of the castle to be near Emira’h and her ladies-in-waiting, and because he was now an advisor to Belihn.  Nearly twenty minutes later, the Ambassador hurried into Belihn’s sitting room.    

            “What has happened?” he demanded without preamble.

             Belihn sighed.  “Have a seat, Ambassador.  Please.”

             Belihn sat across from the Ambassador and told him everything that had happened.  To his credit, the Ambassador listened without interrupting.  At the end of Belihn’s tale, he sighed and sat back in his chair.

            “She was a nun,” the Ambassador said.  “She’s led a sheltered life.  Not all Yllysians share her extreme views.”        

            “But some do,” Belihn said.

            The Ambassador grimaced.  “That is correct, your Grace.  We are an isolated nation and have led an insular history.  This will change, given time.”

            “Perhaps another princess would work better,” Belihn suggested.

            The Ambassador flicked him a glance.  “That may be.  Let me consult with my staff then send the Ten a missive via carrier vinah.  It will take several days before we receive word.  I shall speak to the princess tonight as well.”  He rose.  “My apologies if she inadvertently insulted you or Lady Alona.  I warned the Ten that a strictly religious girl was not a good idea, but they have their own reasons, I suppose.  This won’t affect our relations or our agreements, let me assure you of that, your Grace.  I don’t think this should affect your marriage or your coronation either.  You can marry an Yllysian girl when she arrives.”

            Belihn rose.  They clasped forearms.  “Thank you.”

            The Ambassador bowed.  “Of course, your Grace.”

Chapter II: The Request

            Divita swept down the hallway and then down the curving tower stairs to the second floor.  She ignored the two guards at her heels and hurried to Tesjun Othar’s rooms.  A small apartment had been given to the young secretary for the housing of his small family.  She walked up to the unguarded door and knocked.  A few seconds later, a comely young woman opened the door.  She took in Divita’s presence, her eyes fixing on the coronet the Queen wore.  

            She gasped and fell to her knees.  “You Majesty!”

            Divita looked away from the girl to the room behind her, where the small family was gathered around a older woman who reclined on a sofa.

            “Rise, child,” she told the girl then addressed the rest to the older woman.  “May I come in?”

            “Of course, your Majesty,” the older woman replied in a soft, breathy voice.

            Divita frowned and hurried into the room.

            As the guards turned to stand guard on the threshold, the young woman rose and turned expectantly to Divita.

            “It is an honor to meet you,” the young woman murmured.  “How may we assist you?”

            Divita took in the children.  There were two gangly prepubescent males and a little girl around five years of age.

            “I am Queen Divita,” she told them.  “What are your names?”

            The young woman addressed her first.

            “I am Ethis, your Majesty,” she said.   “The two boys are Tion and Sjon.  They are twins.  An that is Epi, the youngest.  Our mother is called Sora.”

            Divita looked at each young person in the eye and smiled. “I am happy to meet all of you.”

            “The honor is ours, your Majesty,” Sora murmured and coughed.

            Ethis hurried to her mother’s side and sat on the low table next to the couch.  She took her mother’s hand.

            “Has a healer been to see you, Missus Othar?” Divita asked.

            Sora sighed and shook her head.  “We can’t afford a healer on Tesjun’s salary, your Majesty.”

            Divita drew herself up to her full height.  “That won’t do.  I’ll pay for it.”

            She turned on her heels and hurried into the hallway, where she flagged down a passing servant and asked him to fetch the King’s empathic healer.  That done, she returned to the sitting room.

            Ethis was feeding Sora from a mug.  Once the older woman was done drinking, her daughter assisted her to lie down once more.

            “I’ve sent for the Royal Healer,” Divita told them.  “I’ll remain until she examines you.”

            “We can’t have you pay for the treatment, your Majesty,” Sora protested weakly.

            “Your son Tesjun is important to my son, Missus Othar,” Divita told her.  “So, with all due respect, you have no say in this matter.”

            Sora swallowed thickly and nodded.  “Thank you.  You have not told us–”  

            She convulsed with coughing until her oldest daughter helped her to sit up.  When the coughing fit was done, Ethis helped her mother to lie down once more.  She lay with closed eyes for a few minutes then opened her eyes.  She looked at Divita.

            “You haven’t told us why you are here, your Majesty.”

            Divita sat on the nearest unoccupied armchair and arranged her skirts around her.  “I wish to speak of a sensitive matter.”

            Sora looked at her oldest.  “Take the children and go into the next room, Ethis.”

            The young woman flushed.  “But mama–“

            “Now, child.”

            Ethis looked like she would protest again.  She sighed and nodded, ushering the younger children through a door on the right hand side of the room.

            There was a knock on the hallway door and then the healer hurried in.

            She bowed to Divita.  “You called me, your Majesty?”

            Divita rose.  “Yes.  Please examine Missus Othar here.  I’ll pay for any treatment you administer.”

            The healer bowed once more.  “Of course, your Majesty.  Please excuse me.”

            Divita walked away from the couch to give the healer privacy.  She came to a window next to the small fireplace and pulled the curtains back to gaze down at the bailey.  The snow that had been so pristine on the ground the previous day was now trampled and dirtied.  Dozens of carriages crowded the bailey.  Belihn had recovered enough to meet with petitioners and courtiers.  He met with them in the Throne Room, where he had set up a semicircle of chairs for himself and his advisers to sit.  Belihn refused to sit upon the throne until he was crowned king.  She sighed and shook her head.  He was such a stubborn young man.  The coronation was a mere formality; Belihn ruled already.

            She dropped the curtain and turned, studying the room.  The sitting room was of modest size, with the small fireplace and two couches, back to back, two armchairs facing the couch upon which Missus Othar lay.  There were three low tables of gleaming eishano wood and thick throw rugs over the rough stone floor.  A long table stood against the right-hand wall.  A large empty vase stood between two long white candles in their holders.  Against the opposite wall was a low table with two armchairs on either side.  There were no tapestries on the walls. Instead, large oil paintings of common folk toiling filled several key spots.

            “Your Majesty.”

            Divita blinked and turned.

            The healer bowed.  “May I speak with you in private?”

            Divita led her to the hallway outside and away from the guards.

            “What ails her?” she demanded at once.

            The healer grimaced.  “She has lung rot, your Majesty.  Advanced.  She must have worked in some occupation where it was always damp.  I can treat her, but there is no guarantee she will survive.”

            “We’ve no choice,” Divita told her.  “Be aggressive in your treatment.”

            “Of course, your Majesty.  I will administer the teas right away.  Also, I’ve gone in with my empathic abilities and healed what I was able to heal, but I’ve never encountered such an advanced stage of the disease.  I will clear away the rotten tissue and then give her teas to strengthen her and speed recovery.”

            “Thank you,” Divita murmured.

            The healer bowed.  “Of course.  Excuse me.”

            They returned to the sitting room and Divita sat down in an armchair and watched as the healer sent a servant to boil teas before settling next to the patient and beginning the act of healing what she could.  The  healer faintly glowed as she began the process of healing Missus Othar.  The treatment took a quarter of an hour.  When she was done, the healer sat back, looking pale and exhausted.  

            Divita smiled.  Missus Othar had more color and seemed to be breathing with more ease.

            When the teas arrived, the healer made the patient drink one entire cup.

            Divita scrunched her nose at the strong astringent smell of the herbs.

            “Bitter,” Sora muttered and grimaced, handing the empty cup to the healer.

            “Now you must rest,” the healer told her.  She rose from her perch and turned to Divita.  “She must drink the tea three times a day:  upon waking, at midday and before retiring.”

            Divita nodded.  “I’ll make sure she does.”

            The healer reached into her cloth bag and retrieved a thick bag of herbs.  She handed the bag to Divita.

            “Here are the herbs, your Majesty.”

            “Thank you,” Divita said, glancing at the bag.

            “A large tablespoon of the herbs per cup.  Steep the herbs for at least ten minutes for potency.”

            “Understood,” Divita told the healer.

            The healer bowed.  “I will return in two days to make sure she is recovering.”

            “Thank you,” Sora said softly.

            “Of course,” the healer assured her and hurried off.

            Ethis ran into the sitting room.  “I’ll make sure to steep the herbs, your Majesty.”

            Divita smiled and handed the bag to the young woman.  “Were you eavesdropping?”

            Ethis blushed.  “I wanted to know what the healer said.”

            “Don’t concern yourself,” Divita told her.  “Be sure you give your mother the treatment three times a day.”

            “Yes, your Majesty.”

            Divita walked to where Sora lay and perched on the edge of the low table.  “I must speak with you, Missus Othar.”

            “Please call me Sora, your Majesty.”

            Divita took the woman’s lean, cold hand in both of hers. “Then I insist you call me Divita.”

            Sora looked horrified and made to pull her hand from Divita’s.  “I cannot–“

            “I insist.  Please.”

            Sora gazed into Divita’s eyes for a few seconds before she sighed and nodded.  “Very well.”

            “I have two favors to ask of you,” Divita told her.

            “Name them.”

            “The first is I would like your daughter, Ethis, to become a lady-in-waiting for Alona, who will be Queen.  Alona is young and impressionable and innocent and needs allies in court.”

            Ethis gasped and squealed.  “I can be a lady-in-waiting?”

            Sora rolled her eyes.  “Go and see what your siblings are up to, Ethis.”

            “But, Aya!”

            “Ethis.”

            The young girl sighed and angrily strode from the room.

            Sora looked apologetically at Divita.  “I’m sorry, your– I mean, Divita.  She is impulsive and proud.  And nosy.”

            Divita chuckled. “That’s fine.  I have two strong-willed daughters myself.  One of them insists on wearing men’s clothes.”

            “As much as I would like Ethis to be a lady-in-waiting, who will help me with her siblings?”

            Divita patted the older woman’s hand.  “Leave that to me.  I’ll hire you two servants for your use:  one will be a caretaker for your children and the other will run  you household.”

            “No!” Sora protested.  “I can’t allow you to do that, your Majesty!”

            “Divita, please,” Divita reminded her.  “And you have no say.  Being a lady-in-waiting will increase Ethis’ prospects of landing a good marriage.  Now.  My second request.”  She sighed, wondering how to broach this.  “Is your son, Tesjun, atoliy?”    

            Sora started.  “Tesjun has never spoken to me of his preferences, your– Divita.  I’m sorry.  It will take me some time to come to terms with being on first name basis with the Queen Mother.”  She took in a breath and released it.  “Tesjun is very private, your Majesty.  In his nineteen tender years on this world, he has taught himself to read and write and went out to work when he was fifteen.  You can imagine the few prospects he had, but he managed to land a job in a tavern as a server.  He is resilient and enterprising, but he is private and solitary.  I know he loves his family and has always worked hard to help me support us.  When I fell ill last year, he gave up his dreams for an education and took double shifts at the tavern.  Now, he is secretary to the young King!”  She gazed into Divita’s eyes.  “You ask me if he is atoliy.  Why?”

            “My son has an interest in him,” Divita replied.

            Sora’s eyes widened.  “The King?”

            “Even so, although he has not been crowned yet.”

            Sora gasped.  “Goddess preserve us!  I only wish I knew if the boy is atoliy.”

            “I suppose I should speak to Tesjun myself,” Divita mused and released Sora’s hand.  She patted the older woman’s hand.  “I will approach your son myself, Sora.  Worry naught.”

            Sora frowned.  “But what if Tesjun is not atoliy?”

            Divita rose.  “My son won’t take back his gifts.  Tesjun will remain in university and will receive his degree.  They do not have an agreement; Belihn does this because he sees that your son will be of use to him as a future barrister and adviser.  If they become lovers, it will not change what Belihn considers his duty to help Tesjun succeed.”

            “We are so honored and grateful,” Sora whispered, her eyes glistening with unshed tears.

            Divita smiled at her.  “Now rest, Sora.”

            Sora closed her eyes and nodded.

            Divita left the Othars’ apartment and returned to hers.  She sent a servant to fetch Tesjun while she paced in her expansive sitting room.  There was a fire in the wide fireplace and the sitting room was cozy and warm.  The servants had drawn the curtains open and she saw that snow had begun to fall once more.  She wondered where Tifa, Ilmi or Ta’rehn were.  Her children had their own lives and what full lives they were.  She hardly ever saw her them, save at their dinners twice a week.  If she hadn’t insisted on their weekly dinners, she would never see her willful progeny.

            There was a knock on the hallway door and she nodded at the servant, who went to open the door.

            Tesjun Othar stepped into the sitting room and bowed.  “Your Majesty sent for me?”

            “Sit down, Mister Othar.  I do have something I wish to discuss with you.”

            They sat down across a low table, Divita on the couch, Tejsun in an armchair.

            The young man looked expectantly at her.

            “How are your classes going, Mister Othar?” she asked.

            “They go well, your Majesty,” he replied with some surprise.  “They are challenging, for I have not had a formal education.  But I am keeping up.”

            She arranged her skirts around her.  “That is good.  I want you to know I had the Royal Healer examine your mother.  She has advanced lung rot, but the healer thinks an aggressive regimen might help her recover.”

            Tesjun gasped.  “Thank you, your Majesty!”

            Divita held up a hand.  “I also asked your mother if your oldest sister can take on the duties as lady-in-waiting for the new Queen.  To that end, I will hire two servants for your family:  one to care for the children and one to run the household until your mother is fit enough to resume her duties.”

            His features registered upset.  “I can’t–we can’t have you do that, your Majesty!  His Grace already pays for my education–“

            “Cease,” Divita snapped.  “I won’t be gainsaid.  I need a lady-in-waiting for Alona Oh’nahry.  Your sister is of age. Besides, this placement will surely guarantee a marriage proposal from a courtier.”

            He expelled a rush of breath.  “I don’t know what to say, your Majesty.”

            “Nothing.  Say nothing.  I do have a favor to ask you, Mister Othar.”

            He bowed.  “Anything.”

            “Anything?” she asked with deceptive mildness.  “Then answer me this:  are you atoliy, domeinsji or atol-domeinsji?”

            He reared back as if she had struck him.  “What…why do you ask this?”

            “Answer me, Mister Othar.”

            He sat back in his chair and his gaze slid away.  “I…I’ve never had a lover.”  He swallowed a mouthful of air and released it with a hiss.  “I find men and women equally entrancing, but I’ve been so busy with working.  I’ve never developed an interest in any one person, your Majesty.  Begging your pardon, my lady, but why do you ask me this?”

            She cocked her head.  “My son is infatuated with you, Mister Othar.”

            Blood infused his face.  “The K-King?”

            She nodded.

            He gasped and shook his head. “He’s said nothing to me.”

            “And he won’t, but I need him to be happy.  Is there a possibility of you developing feelings for him?”

            “That I don’t know,” he replied honestly.  “I’d have to think about this.  I mean, he is beautiful to behold and a kind person to boot.  I just….I just don’t know if I am truly atoliy.”

            She rose. “Think about it, Mister Othar.”

            He rose and bowed.  “Of course, your Majesty.”

            “I will have your answer in three days, Mister Othar.”

            He swallowed and nodded.  “I will have an answer three days hence, your Majesty.”

Part III: The King Chapter I: Recovery

           Belihn’s recovery took over a fortnight.  During his recovery, the area outside of the castle walls between the moat and Queen’s Park was crowded with citizens who lingered, waiting to see if he could overcome the effects of the poison.  Commander-General Kurk Deshon walked over the moat bridge once a day to inform the vigil keepers about Belihn’s progress.  Each time he told the crowd that Belihn got stronger, the crowd would raise their arms and cheer.  It did not escape Kurk that more than half the crowd was made up of common soldiers.  Although the citizens of Draemin City-State did not fully understand why King Kah’len had been deposed, they were nevertheless enamored of Belihn and Belihn’s goals to raise the commoner from his lowly station and to do away with the caste laws.  Their hopes and expectations had not been quashed by Kah’len’s failure to act.

            As far as Draemin City-State’s relations with Yllysia, Belihn appointed Ambassador Kalthos Torim Tah’duk’h as liaison, since he was already a plenipotentiary.  Belihn promised the ambassador–and by extension Yllysia–that he would sign over the territory of Isahji back to Yllysia’s keeping.  That would be Belihn’s first act as King.  Even though he was not supported in this by any other city-state, Draemin City had historically shouldered the burden of protecting Isahji from Yllysian incursion.  Now, the city-state would protect Yllysian interests in the region by providing a segment of her army to the territory.  

            Belihn devoted a part of his day to negotiations with their northern neighbor.  All negotiations included Ambassador Torim, Commander-General Kurk Deshon, Ryeo’h Thalnel, Lord Irai’h Asjur, and Prei-Serren Lahn Tjashensi-Obeli.  The negotiations were held in Belihn’s expansive bedroom, with Belihn propped up on a pile of pillows while Tesjun Othar, Belihn’s personal secretary, took dictation from the side of the bed.  

            “It was your sire’s wish to unite North Torahn and his sire’s wish, before him,” Lahn murmured.

            “I have been told,” Belihn replied.  “I don’t know how I feel about this.”

            Lahn straightened his back.  “This is the only way to guarantee that the common man will protected.  Besides, it is the Goddess’ own wish.”

            Belihn shifted and sighed.  “Then I must accustom myself to Her desire, I suppose.”

            “It is for the best,” Lahn agreed and gave him a thin smile.  “Her desires are beyond our ken.”

            Ambassador Torim stepped forward and bowed.  “Yllysia is at your beck and call, your Grace, for the unification of North Torahn.”

            Before Belihn could say anything, Kurk shifted.  “And what is in it for Yllysia?  You assist us now because you are getting Isahji as a result, but what else do you want?”

            The ambassador raised an eyebrow.  “If Belihn is king of a unified North Torahn, then all ports of trade are open to Yllysia.  We would negotiate only with Draemin City.”  He looked at Belihn.  “All the Council of Ten asks is that the trade fees and tariffs be advantageous to us and that we sign a ten year trade treaty with fixed tariffs.  We can revisit the matter of the tariffs after ten years of trade.”

            Kurk nodded.  “And what is advantageous to Yllysia, as far as tariffs?”    

            The ambassador grinned.  “What do you charge Tjish.un?”

            Kurk frowned.  “Tjish.un is our sister nation.  They have been our staunchest and most steadfast supporter and ally.”

            “Because of the Ys’teis, Thalmar and Tjashensi clans,” the ambassador put in.  “But now that you have deposed and exiled those clans, how close an ally will she be, I wonder?  We are more than able and willing to step up as your closest ally and supporter.  Tjish.un is the gateway to the southern continent, but we are the gateway to Kajiah and all the wealth trapped in her vast and frozen landscape.”

            Belihn coughed sposmadically and reached for the mug of water on the bedside table.  No one spoke as he sipped from the mug and set it back on the table.

            He leaned back onto the pillows.  “We will renegotiate trade deals with Tjish.un and the south, Kurk, worry naught.  But Yllysia is now our sister nation.  If trade is what they want and reasonable tariffs, then so be it.  This is good for Torahn and Yllysia both.”

            Kurk stepped forward.  “I am only concerned that we give away too much.  Already you are going to marry a daughter of the Ten, so that a half-Yllysian will one day rule Torahn.”

            Belihn frowned.  “And a half-Tjish.unen ruled Torahn, to no one’s detriment.  Does it matter, Kurk? Or is this some deep seated bigotry on your part?”

            Kurk flushed and belligerently worked his jaw.

            “I need you to be objective, Commander-General,” Belihn urged.  “Set aside any prejudices you have against Yllysia.  This is my directive to you.”

            Kurk took in a breath and released it.  He ran a hand over his head.  “Yes, your Grace.  I only want to make sure no one takes advantage of you and, by extension, North Torahn.”

            “And none shall,” Belihn assured him.  “Which is why you are here and part of the negotiations.  I need you clearheaded and open minded.”

            Kurk bowed.  “Yes, your Grace.”

            Belihn turned to the ambassador.  “Let us speak of tariffs and what would be fair for Yllysia, shall we?”

            By the time everything was mostly hashed out, hours had passed and Belihn was gray from exhaustion.  Divita swept into his bedroom and shooed everyone out while she fussed over her firstborn, bathing his face and neck with cool water and sending a servant to bring his supper.

            She sat on the edge of the mattress as she dabbed the sweat from his brow and cheeks.  “Really, child.  You push yourself too hard.”

            He sighed and closed his eyes.  “There is too much to do, Aya.”

            “I know, child, but nothing will be done if you falter and fall ill.”  She dipped the cloth into the basin, wrung it out and wiped his forehead.

            He caught her hand in both of his and brought it to his mouth, pressing a fervent kiss to the palm.  “Thank you, Aya, for remaining with me.”

            “Where else would I go, Belihn?  I may be married to Kah’len, but he was ever a stranger, even when we coupled.”

            He opened his eyes and gazed into hers.  “Did he ever hurt you?”

            “No,” she assured him.  “He was always a gentleman.  He made sure I felt pleasure when he lay with me; he was ever kind and respectful to me. But his heart has never been mine.  It always belonged to Lahn, even when they became estranged.”

            “You deserve a man who loves you,” he told her.

            She smiled.  “So do you, Belihn.  Instead you will sacrifice your own happiness to marry two young girls and the throne of Draemin City-State.”  She tucked a stray strand of hair behind his right left ear.  “Don’t think I don’t know what you have given up for your principles.  Is there a young man you like enough to make your lover, son?”

            Belihn thought of Tesjun Othar, his secretary, and blushed.  The young man was comely beyond compare, with a slender body and lush mouth.  He was intelligent and able, respectful and thoughtful.  Even though he had been but a serving lad at a tavern, he had taught himself to read and write and now attended university two days a week.  Belihn paid his tuition as the young man studied law.  Eventually, he would become a barrister and one of Belihn’s advisers.  That is what they had agreed upon in return for Belihn’s patronage.  Tesjun had siblings and an ailing mother to care for.  Belihn had moved the family to the second floor of the castle.  As his secretary, Tesjun had to be nearby most of the time.

            “You do have someone,” she realized with awe.

            “It is no sure thing he shares my predilections, Mother.”

            She snorted.  “You haven’t asked him?  How like your father you are!”  She leaned forward with twinkling eyes.  “Who is it?”

            “Aya–“

            She frowned.  “Belihn.  Who. Is. it?”

            “Tesjun Othar.”

            She sat back with surprise.  “Your secretary?  Well, he is a confection, isn’t he?  Slight and lovely to behold.  And so kind and polite.”  She rose.

            “Aya–“

            She gave him a withering glare.  “You won’t interfere, if you know what’s good for you.  Now…”

            Turning, she urged the servant bearing a tray with his food forward.

            “You will eat your meal and then rest,” Divita said.  “Have we a deal?”

            He sighed and gave her a lopsided grin.  “Yes, Mother.”

            She took the tray from the servant and placed it on his lap.  She spread the napkin over his chest and tucked its end into the collar of his nightshirt.  

            He glanced with slight nausea at the food.  He hardly had an appetite these days, but he would force himself to eat.  He was already underweight and had trouble fending off infections and colds.  

            With a sigh, he lifted the spoon and tucked into the thick, spicy turies and dosi meat stew.  As he ate, his mother told him Tifa had postponed her wedding day until he could attend.  That surprised and disconcerted him.

            “She shouldn’t have done that,” he told his mother.

            “Tifa adores you,” Divita replied.  “She won’t countenance marrying without you being there.  So, finish your food and get stronger.”

            He broke a piece of crusty bread and slathered it with soft honey butter.  He said nothing more as he finished his meal, listening idly to her commentary on how the villa was faring and that his Uncle Tono’s young wife had given birth to their third child.  The child was a boy who had been christened Odal and was strong.

            “He looks a lot like Eda,” Divita noted with a wistful smile.  “Papa doesn’t think he does, but Tono and I agree the child looks just like Papa.”

            “Grandpa is a handsome man,” Belihn commented, swallowing the last mouthful and emptying his mug of water.  Exhaustion slithered over his joints and muscles and he yawned so wide, his jaw cracked.

            “Enough of visitors for now,” she said.  She took up the tray and handed it to the waiting servant.

            She tucked the bedclothes around him and bent to press a kiss to his brow.  “You be good, Belihn, and rest without worries.  Promise me.”

            He nodded and closed his eyes.  “I promise, Aya.”

            He heard her exit the bedroom just as darkness swallowed him.

            When next he woke, he opened his eyes and looked around blearily.  His back and limbs were sore from being abed too long, so he rose slowly, leaning heavily on the bed and making his way to the nearest window.  He pulled the brocade curtains back and gazed at the first fingers of light as they lit the clear blue sky.  Below, the bailey was covered in a thick blanket of snow.  The glass pane fogged from his breath and he wiped the condensation with an unsteady hand.  A troop of soldiers jogged into the nearest practice yard.  Inside Belihn, a longing for strength and health rose.  He liked exercising and being outside in the elements.  He cursed under his breath and dropped the curtain, turning back to the overly warm room.  With a sigh, he made his way to the bathing chamber through the connecting door.  Once in the green tiled bathing room, he doffed his nightshirt and stepped under the wall spigot.  He opened the faucet then gasped as icy water rushed out and washed over his warm skin.  Reaching for a bar of soap and a fresh washcloth, he bathed, taking extra time to wash under his arms, his groin and hair.  When he was done, he turned off the faucet and took up a towel, briskly drying his skin before padding naked to his bedroom and donning on small clothes before he pulled on a pair of khaki trousers and a light green silk tunic.  Lastly, he donned a pair of soft leather boots.  After resting a few minutes, he combed and braided his hair.  Afterward, he made his way to the hallway.

            The two guards outside of his bedroom were Yllysian.  They saluted smartly and followed him down the hallway to the sitting room.

            He found Tesjun Othar in the sitting room, writing in his notebook and drinking milk tea.  The young man looked up as Belihn entered the sitting room.

            He jumped from his seat and bowed.  “Your Grace!  Should you be up?”

            Belihn blushed and gave his secretary a tentative smile.  “I can’t lie about anymore, Tesjun.  I won’t get any stronger that way.  Can you send for my advisers, please?”

            Tesjun bowed again.  “Right away, your Grace.”

            Belihn looked after the young man with longing as Tesjun strode out into the hallway to do as he was bid.  

            With a sigh, Belihn took a seat on the nearest loveseat and had a servant fetch him his morning meal.  It was after sunrise, so Belihn knew Kurk would be up and probably Uncle Lahn.  He settled in to wait for his advisers and his breakfast.

            He was eating his breakfast by the time his advisers shuffled in, followed by a flushed Tesjun.  The young man picked up his notebook and pen and inkwell and settled next to Belihn on the loveseat, ready to take dictation of the proceedings.

            “Should you be out of bed?” Kurk demanded with a fierce glower.

            Belihn snorted.  “Is that look supposed to scare me, Kurk?  You should take lessons from my mother.”

            The others laughed as they settled into seats around him.

            Kurk shook his head ruefully.  “Your mother is quite the fearsome woman.  I couldn’t match her in any way.”

            “Glad you own that,” Belihn told him and sopped up the juices from the bottom of his plate a piece of crusty break.  He sighed.   “Have you drawn up the treaties, Tesjun?”

            Tesjun bowed.  “Yes, your Grace.  All that is needed are signatures.  Your signature, to be precise, and the Ambassador’s.”

            Belihn gazed up at Ambassador Torim and grinned.  “Then let’s get to it, shall we?  We’ve a long day ahead of us.”

Chapter XI: Attack

            Six weeks later, and two weeks prior to his coronation, Belihn found himself once more at the docks, sitting astride Eiwor and watching an Yllysian ship being tugged to its pier.  The ship carried his future wife, Morisjen Simaji’h Emira’h, her possessions and her entourage of young ladies-in-waiting.  Emira’h was 16 years of age and had lived in a convent until six weeks prior, when she had been chosen as his mate.  Emira’h was the only daughter of the governor of Morisjen City.  Lord Simaji’h had five sons and one daughter.  Emira’h was a devotee of the goddess Chaitah, goddess of high dibasj, birth, love and sex.  Why a goddess of love and sex should have a convent of virgin nuns, Belihn would never understand.  Thoughts like these occupied his nervous mind as he waited for the ship to be tied to the dock and its gangplank to be lowered.  

            Once the gangplank was lowered, a line of Yllysian warriors descended, followed by six young women.  The young women wore brown wimples and dresses with high collars and long sleeves.  The girl at the front of the line wore a brown and gold dress with a long skirt that fell to her ankles, a brown jacket with long sleeves, and a butter-colored silk shirt with a high collar underneath her jacket.

            Belihn looked closely at her.  She had a comely oval face, light blue eyes and a generous mouth.  The blue of her skin was of medium tone and she was slight and small.  The other girls were taller, though slender and still on the small side.

            He dismounted and handed his reins to one of the soldiers who had escorted him to the docks. Both Commander-General Rakah Ys’teis and Commander Kurk Deshon were present and stepped behind him as he strode to the pier to meet the young woman.  

            She stopped at the end of the pier and looked around expectantly.

            He strode up to her and bowed.  “Welcome to Draemin City to the Daughters of the Ten.  I am Belihn Stait-Ekesj, ruler.”

            The young girl at the front curtsied.  “Blessings of the Goddess Chaitah upon you, Son of Torahn.  I am Morisjen Simaji’h Emira’h, but you may call me Emira’h.  My friends call me Emi.”

            He bowed to her.  “And you may call me Belihn, my lady.”  He indicated her entourage.  “These are your ladies-in-waiting?”            

            Emira’h curtsied once more.  “Yes, your Grace.  This is Rue’Kure Uhay-K’heb Nilki, Nosjka’h Ira’h’ma Salika, Hjana Quintok Kilsi, Stathos Uth’ai’rhen Asjana, and E’jnasj Nes’san Mari’h.”

            Belihn bowed to them.  “Ladies, an honor.”

            The girls giggled, some watching him boldly while the others dropped their gazes.

            Belihn offered Emira’h his arm.  “Come, I will escort you to the waiting carriages.”

            She placed her slender hand on his forearm.

            Within the next second, Belihn heard a high pitched whine and then he felt an impact to his chest and fell unto his back.  Around him, chaos exploded.  Someone was throwing incendiary devices around him.  One fell nearby and exploded.  The girls were screaming with terror.  He watched distantly as he was surrounded by Yllysian soldiers, while the girls were bundled into the waiting carriages and hurried away.

            One of his guard knelt next to him.

            “Your Grace!”

            Belihn forced his eyes open.  His chest hurt and he had begun to shake.  “What happened?”

            “You were pierced by an arrow,” his guard replied.  “We have to get you back to the castle as soon as possible.”

            There was a telltale burning under the pain and Belihn shook his head. “Pull the arrow out.”

            The young Yllysian paled.  “Your Grace?”

            “Poisoned,” Belihn muttered, fighting to keep from losing consciousness.  “Pull it out.”

            Commander Kurk Deshon knelt next to Belihn.  “He’s right.  If it’s poisoned, we have to pull it out and see if he can bleed the poison out.  Here, stand back.”

            Kurk got hold of the arrow and pulled.  

            The flash of pain as the arrowhead tore through tissue had Belihn screaming.  Everything faded to black.

            Belihn faded in and out of consciousness.  At one point, he was aware that he was in a carriage as it raced to its destination.  When he awoke again, he was being carried then laid on a bed.  Strangers bent over him, their dark eyes glowing faintly.  He heard someone groan.  Then a young woman was pressing a wet cloth to his forehead and along his cheeks.  She looked away and said something in a strange language just before Belihn blacked out again.  When he became aware once more, he saw Alona sitting in an armchair next to the bed, his mother beside her, talking in soft voices.  He heard a moan.

            His mother gasped and bent over him.  “Belihn!  Run and get the healer, Alona.”

            “Aya–” he said, his voice breathy.

            “Hush, child.  Conserve your energy.  The healer is coming.”

            She picked up a cloth and dabbed at his forehead and cheeks.  

            The room smelled of medicine and sweat, urine and blood.  He turned his head.  His chest hurt, as did his throat and head.

            “He’s awake?” someone said.

            His mother moved away.  

            A young healer sat at the edge of the bed.  “How do you feel, your Grace?”

            “Chest hurts, throat and head, too,” Belihn replied and panted as a wave of nausea washed over him.

            The healer lifted Belihn’s head and fed him from a mug.  The liquid was cool but bitter.  He grimaced and forced himself to swallow.

            “You are slowly expelling the poison,” the healer told him.  “I am giving you an herb that forces the body to sweat and produce urine.  You are lucky you recognized the poison quickly.”

            “What kind of poison was it?” Belihn asked.

            The healer grimaced.  “Alait rose.”

            Belihn coughed a laugh.  “They wanted to kill me, didn’t they?”

            “I daresay,” the healer replied.  “But alait rose poisoning is unpredictable, though often deadly.”

            Belihn closed his eyes.  “Yes.  That may have saved me.”

            “I daresay it did,” the healer agreed.

            When he woke again, the pain had lessened considerably, especially in his throat.  His head still thumped from a headache and his chest felt raw and tight.  He looked around the room.  Ta’rehn was sprawled on a chair next to the bed and was snoring softly.  Belihn pushed himself to a half-sitting position and groaned at the pain.

            Ta’rehn started awake.  He turned his head and gasped.  “Belihn!”

            “Help me sit up, Ta’rehn.”

            His brother assisted him, stacking pillows at his back to help prop him up.  

            “Do you need anything?” Ta’rehn asked.

            “Some water,” Belihn muttered.  “Thirsty.”

            Ta’rehn stood and stepped up to the bedside table, where he poured water from a pitcher into a mug.  

            Belihn held his hand out and took the mug in his shaking hand.  It took him three tries before he was able to drink sufficiently to relieve his thirst.  He handed Ta’rehn the empty mug.

            “How do you feel?” his brother asked him.

            “Nauseous,” Belihn muttered.  “And worn down.  Did Kurk find out who attacked me?”

            Ta’rehn retook his seat.  “Yes.  Some clan operative who was tortured.  He revealed quite a bit and then the Yllysians flushed out several other operatives and traitors.”

            “How long have I been out off it?”

            Ta’rehn considered.  “Ten days.”

            Belihn gasped.  “Ten days!”  He made to stand before the flesh under his bandages pulled and fell back with a groan.

            “Stop it, brother!” Ta’rehn growled.  “You’ve probably undone the stitches!”  He rose.  “I’ll get the healer and Commander Deshon.”

            He ran from the room.

            It turned out Belihn had undone some of the stitches, so he had to put up with his wound being re-stitched.  Alait rose poisoning hindered healing, so the wound was still not fully healed.  By the time the healer was done sewing the wound, Belihn was freely sweating.  His mother bathed him and then his clothes and the bedclothes were changed before he was allowed to lie down once more.  He lay on the pile of pillows and waited for the nausea to pass before opened his eyes and turned to gaze at Kurk.

            “Give me your report.”

            Kurk shared a glance with Ryeo’h before turning back to Belihn.  “Rakah betrayed you.”

            Belihn sighed.  “He orchestrated the attack?”

            Kurk leaned forward and rested his forearms on his thighs. “He was aware of it.  He knew the operatives and allowed them to do what they came to do.”

            “Where is Rakah?” he asked.

            “He took his life,” Ryeo’h replied.  “Someone alerted him that we were coming for him.  He hung himself in his house.  We’ve confiscated his properties and exiled his wife and children to Tjish.un.”

            Belihn waved a hand.  “His properties are yours, Kurk.  You are now Commander-General Kurk Deshon.”

            “Belihn–” Kurk protested.

            “No,” Belihn interrupted him.  “You are now in charge of the forces of Draemin City-State and of security.  Partner with the Yllysians to secure my reign.”

            Kurk blew out a breath. “Right away, your Grace.  We have to crown you and perform your marriages.  I’ve already conferred with the High Priest.”

            Belihn closed his eyes as a wave of exhaustion washed over him.  “Is Uncle Lahn loyal to me?”

            Kurk shifted.  “He has not done anything to belie that statement, your Grace.  For all we know, he is loyal.  The man has always tottered on the brink of madness, so I don’t know how much his loyalty is worth.”

            Belihn huffed a laugh.  “He is touched by the Goddess, but he is not insane, Kurk.”

            Kurk looked unconvinced, which elicited another laugh from Belihn.  

            “We need the High Priest,” Ryeo’h muttered and leaned against the nearest bedpost.  “The common folk love and fear the high priest, so we’d best learn to interact with him.”

            Belihn nodded.  “Agreed.  I would like to see him right away, Commander-General.”

            Kurk saluted.  “I’ll send a soldier to fetch him right away, your Grace.”

            Belihn watched Kurk stride away then turned to Ryeo’h.  “Now what, Mister Thalnel?”

            Ryeo’h took a seat in the armchair vacated by Kurk.  “Now we get you crowned and married, your Grace.  Then we meet the clan forces at Le.ath Plain.”

            “Do you think we can win?” Belihn asked.

            Ryeo’h pursed his lips.  “You would know better than I, your Grace.  I know nothing of our armed forces, but I should hope, with Yllysian help, we can carry the day.”

            “I think so, too,” Belihn offered and closed his eyes.  “Please wake me when the High Priest arrives.”

            “Of course, your Grace,” Ryeo’h replied and sat back in his chair.

            It felt like a second later, Belihn was being shaken awake.  He blinked owlishly and turned his head.

            Ryeo’h, Lord Irai’h and Commander-General Deshon stood next to Prei-Serren Lahn Tjashensi-Obeli.  The High Priest looked worn and older than his years, his thick hair threaded with gray, the delicate skin under his clear, gray eyes looking bruised.

            “Uncle,” Belihn murmured.

            “Your Grace,” the High Priest replied and sat down.  “It is good you recovered the attempt on your life.”

            “Is it?” Belihn asked.

            The Prei-Serren folded his hands on his lap.  “The Goddess is appeased.  Blood has spilled with the death of Rakah Ys’teis.  Although the Goddess demanded that Kah’len’s blood spill, the blood of his brother satisfied Her needs.  Kah’len has ultimately paid for his deceit.

            Belihn sighed.  “My sire was not deceitful, High Priest.  Say rather he was loath to spill blood.”

            The High Priest scowled.  “He acted like a coward, and for what?  To keep the common man enchained to poverty while the clans got richer?  The Goddess chose Kah’len to change this nation and he failed spectacularly.  You must not fail, your Grace.”

            “I will try my utmost not to, your Eminence.”

            The High Priest nodded.  “I will crown you King of Draemin City-State and at the same time I will perform your marriage ceremony.  That should bring some stability to the city.”  The High Priest looked behind him at the others.  “The words I must now speak I must speak to the King alone.”

            Ryeo’h, Lord Irai’h and Commander-General Deshon bowed and left, closing the bedroom door behind them.

            Belihn turned to the High Priest.  “What have you to say to me, your Eminence?”

            The High Priest leaned forward and took Belihn’s hand in both of his.  “I bless you in the name of the Goddess Atana.  I have seen glimpses of the future, your Grace. The future is in flux.  Your actions will determine which vision will come to pass.  In some visions, you are victorious; in others, you fail.  Keep your faith strong and always call on Her for guidance and strength.”

            “To be honest, Uncle, I’m not very religious.”

            The Prei-Serren waved a hand.  “Religion and religious practices are there to offer peace to the faithful.  Faith is apart from those trappings.  Faith is what matters.  Do you believe in Atana?”

            “Yes,” Belihn answered honestly.  “I believe the Goddess is a actual entity.”

            “Good,” Lahn stated and sat back, letting go of Belihn’s hand.  “You and I will pray now for guidance and you must confess yourself to me once a week.  I will be your guiding light and your main advisor.  That is a prerequisite to your success.”

            “Yes, your Eminence.”

            The High Priest rose.  “One of your children will be given to Her Church.  Do you agree to this?”

            “Yes.”

            “I will choose the child, as She will guide me.”  He place his hand on Belihn’s forehead.  “Unburden yourself to me so that we may pray.”

            Belihn confessed his sins and asked for forgiveness.  

            The High Priest listened without comment and then placed his hand on Belihn’s head.  “The sin of hubris must never touch your heart, Belihn.  You are not above the Goddess and Her demands.  Do accept and agree to this?”

            “Yes, your Eminence.”

            “Then we pray for guidance.”

            Belihn closed his eyes and prayed.

Chapter X: Aya’s Ire

            Runners took the news to all corners of Draemin City-State that the coronation would take place in two months’ time while the new government was created and stabilized.  Several incidents of unrest were quelled by the Yllysians.  It became apparent that the clans were trying to mount a resistance to the new regime.  Many of the aristocracy had fled the city-state at the first appearance of the Yllysian armada, leaving behind their belongings, their properties and their bewildered staff.  Belihn ordered the clan properties confiscated, to be used by the new government as gifts to those loyal to its rule.  News arrived via carrier vinah that the clans were amassing a force against Draemin City-State.  The clans had thrown down the gauntlet:  in three months’ time the clans’ armies would confront Belihn’s forces at Le.ath Plain west of the Khaine River.  The place of battle had historical symbolism.  It had been at Le.ath Plain that Atanaist forces had met Poaists centuries before, bringing about the end of the deadly religious Civil War that broke Torahn into north and south, establishing the Kingdom of South Torahn under Poaist rule, and leaving Atanaist North Torahn a loose confederacy of city-states.  

            The weeks following the negotiations with the Yllysians were a blur of activities for Belihn and his friends.  Belihn tired quickly but was always given sufficient time to rest.  He mended slowly, his face losing its swollen, mottled appearance.  His hands also healed, albeit more slowly, but the healers had told him he would be fit for battle by the allotted date of confrontation between the pro-Yllysian forces of Draemin City-State and the rest of the cities of North Torahn.  

             Belihn was there when his father and his government were expelled from the city.  He sat on his bahil, Eiwor, and watched silently and with much suppressed emotion as his father and his closest advisors, save for Commander-General Rakah Ys’teis, were escorted by the Yllysians down the wide boulevard to the wharves, where the King and his companions boarded an Yllysian ship.  That same day, Belihn’s half-siblings were escorted onto their respective ships, the males to an Yllysian ship fated for Tu’an City in the middle of Yllysia, and the females to a South Torahni ship headed for City Lae, the capital of South Torahn.  Neither his siblings nor his father had deigned to even spare him a glance.  His half-sisters were reduced to tears as they were forced to leave their home behind.  His half-brothers were more stoic, although many looked pale from shock or suppressed rage.  Belihn could not tell.  His half-brother, Ean, had looked at him, spat on the ground, and looked away once more.  Belihn wondered if his half-siblings were aware that the alternative to exile had been beheading.  He was sure they had been told.  He did not blame his siblings for thinking he had betrayed his sire and his family and brought the about the end of the Tjashensi clan in North Torahn.  On the surface, that is exactly what he had done.

            He sat on his bahil until the ships were towed into the bay, where their sails were unfurled.  The wind filled the different colored sails and soon the ships were sailing into the distance.  Still, Belihn was loath to leave the wharves.  The thought that he was hated by his siblings, his father, his aunts and uncles did not sit well with him; it was a heavy burden to carry.  All he had ever done was to strive to make his sire proud, to make his siblings accept him.  He could not rid himself of his common blood, but he could excel in all he did.  And he had done many things that were good and admirable, but still his father’s attention had ever been elsewhere and his siblings had pointedly avoided him, save for Ean.  His sire had ever been distracted by his lovers and his crown, and his siblings had believed themselves above him.  He thought of Ean with a pang.  Of them all, Ean had been to most accepting and kind, extending his hand in friendship.  Belihn closed his eyes against the wave of shame and guilt that washed over him.

            “Belihn.”

            He opened his eyes and blinked away the imminent tears.  He looked at Kurk.

            “Yes, Commander Deshon?”

            Kurk raised an eyebrow.  “Commander?”

            “You can’t be head of security as a mere lieutenant, Kurk.  Consider yourself promoted.”

            Kurk bowed in the saddle.  “Thank you, your Grace.  Are you alright?”            

            Belihn took up the reins and urged Eiwor west.  “Ride with me, Commander.”

            “Of course, your Grace.”

            They walked their mounts down the center of the boulevard.  The crowds were thick, most of the citizenry turning out to see the banishment of their old king and his entire family.  Around Belihn and Kurk rode Yllysian guards armed to the teeth.  They were grim, watchful men with wary eyes that constantly scanned the crowds.

            They rode in silence for a bit as, around them, people pushed through the crowds to get a better view of their new young ruler, although Belihn had yet to be crowned by the Prei-Serren.  The common folk had accepted him readily enough.  The nouveau riche had accepted him with less enthusiasm, their mores more in line with the aristocracy’s.  But they were slowly warming up to him, once they realized he was not going to interfere with their class.  At least not yet. But higher taxes were coming to the middle classes and the nouveau riche.  For one, he had to fund his war against the aristocracy.  Secondly, he was going to make education universal.  Taxes would pay for free education for all children under eighteen years of age.  Once eighteen, commoners could readily enter university and would be charged according to their family’s income.  Belihn would pass a law that demanded at least 60 percent of enrollment in the school system to be from the poorer classes.  He sighed.  His goals would not be easy to implement but implement them he would.

            Kurk turned to glance at him.  “What’s got you so closemouthed, your Grace?”

            Belihn flicked him a glare.  “I’m not king yet, Kurk.”  He sighed.  “There is much work to be done.  It will not be easy.”

            “No, I daresay,” Kurk agreed.  “But first we must secure your rule.  Once you are entrenched, then you can bring about change.  Let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet, shall we?”

            Belihn swallowed.  “I would like to see my mother.  Is she in Draemin Castle?”

            Kurk accepted the change of topic smoothly.  “She is, as are all your siblings.  Repairs have begun on the one tower that fell, but since most of the castle was spared, save for cosmetic damage, no one was forced to abandon the structure.  It is high time you moved to Draemin Castle, where we can keep you better protected.”

            “I agree,” Belihn replied.  “Have my things brought back there.  I’ll move into my sire’s suites.”

            Kurk bowed in the saddle.  “As you command, your Grace.”

            Kurk rode off and Belihn informed the captain of their escort that he intended to head to Castle Draemin.

            The Yllysian bowed.  “Very good, your Grace.”

            It was disconcerting how empty the bailey of Castle Draemin was, save for repair crews.  The Great Hall echoed with silence as he was escorted inside.  Instead of going to the Throne Room, Belihn headed to the southern tower and up the tower steps to the fourth floor, where his mother resided.  He strode to her door, where two castle guards stood.  They bowed to him and opened the double doors to allow him entrance.

            His mother’s butler bowed.  “I’ll get her Majesty at once, your Grace.”

            Belihn thanked him and strode to the balcony doors, throwing them open and stepping onto the balcony. He gazed at the cloudy sky.  The air smelled of ozone and felt damp against his skin.  There would be cleansing rain soon enough to bathe away the dust of the past days.

            “Belihn.”

            He turned and strode back into the sitting room, pulling his mother into a hug.  

            She stiffened and pulled back.  Her eyes were frosty.

            He sighed.  “You are angry.”

            “You exiled your entire family!” she hissed.

            “Not my entire family.  My true family is still here.”

            She threw her hands in the air.  “To what end, I wonder?  Ta’rehn is beside himself since Aila’h was not allowed to remain here, with him.  He won’t eat; he won’t sleep.  You will speak to him.  I won’t lose him to grief!”

            “Where is he?”

            She sighed.  “In his rooms.”  Her eyes turned imploring.  “Please talk to him, Belihn.”

            “Is he in love with her?” he asked.

            She shook her head.  “They are the closest of friends.  That’s all.”  She wrung her hands.  “Why, Belihn?  Why did you do all this?”

            He placed his hands on her narrow shoulders.  “This is bigger than father or father’s pride, Aya.  This has to do with justice for the people. For the common man.”

            She cocked her head.  “But at what cost?”

            “Father will live in comfort for the rest of his life, Aya. In Tjish.un, with the Thalmar Queen.”  He let her go and swallowed.  “It is my siblings that I feel most sorrow about.”  He looked at her.  “But the Yllysians gave me an ultimatum.  Either the Tjashensis were exiled or beheaded.  Would the alternative be more to your liking, Aya?”

            She gasped.  “Truly?”

            “Had the Tjashensi clan been allowed to remain, my rule could never be secured and my goals would never be attained.  This is bigger even than any of us, Mother.”

            She frowned.  “I see.”  She looked at him.  “Is it true you are going to marry a second wife, an Yllysian?”

            “Yes.  I have to, for alliances sake.”

            “I don’t understand, son.  I don’t understand the presence of all these Yllysians.”  She sighed.  “But I never have understood anything having to do with government, I’m afraid.  Will you see Ta’rehn now?”

            He nodded.  “Excuse me.”

            He strode through the hallway door to Ta’rehn’s suite.  He knocked on the door and received no answer.  After two more knocks, he turned the knob and walked into a dim room.  There was a dying fire in the fireplace and that was the only light in the room.  He strode through the bedroom door.  The room smelled of sweat and was dark and cold.

            “Ta’rehn.”

            “Go away,” his brother growled from the bed.

            “Rise and come to the sitting room.  Now.”

            He turned and returned to the sitting room.  Through the bedroom door, he heard his brother stirring.  In a couple of minutes, his brother entered the sitting room, looking tousled and disheveled.  He glared at Belihn and dropped into an armchair.

            “What do you want?” Ta’rehn demanded.

            “I’m sorry they sent Aila’h away, but the alternative would have been worse,” he said without preamble.

            Still glowering at him, Ta’rehn raised an eyebrow.  “And what was the alternative?”

            “Death by beheading,” Belihn snapped.  “Do you think this is a game, Ta’rehn?  Any of this?”

            He brother wavered.  “What?”

            “Answer my damned questions, you!  Do you think I did anything I did just to spite you and Aila’h?”

            Ta’rehn swallowed.  “I don’t know.”

            “Well, I didn’t.  The decision to exile Aila’h rested solely with the Yllysians.  I asked them to allow her to remain, but the presence of even one Tjashensi would ensure there would always be a symbol of clan rebellion in our midst.”

            “Even a woman?” Ta’rehn demanded.

            Belihn nodded.  “Even so.  Would you rather she had been beheaded?”

            Ta’rehn flushed.  “Of course not!”

            Belihn sighed.  “Did you want to marry her?”

            Ta’rehn looked away.  “No. She’s my best friend, Belihn.  That’s all.  I love her.”

            Belihn knelt before his brother and looked earnestly at him.  “I’m sorry.  We’ve all had to sacrifice something. I’m sorry you had to endure your best friend’s exile, brother.  But, as I told Aya, this is bigger than any one of us.  I mean to change caste laws, and I mean to change North Torahn.  That will take a huge sacrifice on all our parts.”

            “Aya is livid with you,” Ta’rehn stated gently.

            “I saw,” Belihn replied dryly.  

            Ta’rehn sighed.  “She has always been in love with Eda, even though he is atoliy.  It was enough that she could be with him in the same city. Now he is gone.  She doesn’t quite know how to deal with it.”

            “We’ll have to help her.”

            Ta’rehn nodded. “Yes.”

            “Keep in touch with Aila’h, brother.  Once my rule is secure, then maybe she can return.”

            Ta’rehn grimaced.  “She may not want to.  Her mother wants her married and soonest.  She never did approve of our friendship.  Queen Ariahl always wanted Aila’h to marry a R’Nonayan.”

            “That is between them,” Belihn said.  “Now.  Are you going to be okay?”

            “Yes,” Ta’rehn replied at length.  “It’s going to take me a long time.”

            “Take all the time you need,” Belihn told him.  “But you’ll return to school and soonest.  I want you and Ilmi to finish your education.”

            Ta’rehn snorted.  “Mother has arranged for Ilmi to marry.”

            “Ilmi will finish her education first,” Belihn stated firmly.  “She’s fifteen.  She can marry when she finishes.”

            “I don’t envy that talk with Mother,” Ta’rehn said and yawned.  “I’d best wash up.  Excuse me, brother.”

            Belihn stood and allowed Ta’rehn to leave the room.  Squaring his shoulders, he went in search of his mother.

Chapter IX: Negotiations

            Three days later saw Belihn more rested, although his face still held the remnants of his beatings in Castle Draemin’s donjon.  He had spent most of the three days abed and drugged on the tea the healer had given Ryeo’h to administer to him.  Now he stood at the window gazing down upon the near full boulevard.  It seemed most people still clung to the streets.  He wondered if the populace was excited at the recent events that would go down as a significant historical moment.  Yllysia had never come down this far south before.  Now their armada clogged Draemin Bay.  Even Ryeo’h did not know what the Yllysian’s intent was – whether subjugation or protection.  Today they would find out.

            Belihn completed his morning ablutions, having bathed and dressed in his finest clothes and plaited his hair.  As he pulled on the knee-high boots over his trouser legs, there was a knock on the bedroom door.

            “Come!” he said and straightened.

            Kurk entered.  “Ah, you’ve cleaned up.  You look better, although anyone with eyes can see what the King did to his own son.”

            Belihn sighed.  “I still get dizzy if I stand too long and I still don’t have full use of my hands.  But I can function, for the most part.”

            “Good,” Kurk said.  “Come.  We are meeting with the Yllysian Ambassador at the embassy.”

            Ryeo’h and Irai’h were waiting in the sitting room.  They stopped conversing when Belihn and Kurk entered and rose from their seats.

            “How are you feeling, Belihn?” Ryeo’h asked.

            Belihn nodded.  “Better, for the most part.”  He held up his swollen, mottled hands.  “Still can’t use these well.”

            “That will come back with time,” Ryeo’h assured him.  “Did you break your fast?”

            “I ate as much as I could stomach of the boiled grains,” Belihn replied.  “Don’t have much appetite, thanks to that tea you keep making me drink.”

            Ryeo’h spread his hands.  “Rest was more important than food, but that will be reversed now.  You’ll need to eat more as the days ahead promise to be nothing short of a marathon.  I’ve hired a coach to take us to the Yllysian Embassy.  It promises to be a long, drawn out meeting, so we’ll return here afterward so you can rest.”

            Belihn took a deep, bracing breath and nodded.  “Lead the way then.”

            Outside Ryeo’h’s front door were six Yllysian warriors arraigned up and down the five steps leading up from the sidewalk.  Ryeo’h led Belihn and the others down to the street level and into the carriage.  The Yllysians mounted their beasts and surrounded the carriage as it rolled down the boulevard toward the Diplomatic District.  

            “Why all the guards?” Belihn asked.

            Ryeo’h turned to look at him.  “Your life is from now to be protected at all costs.  We’ve sent out information among the populace that you are the Goddess’ own Chosen and you will be crowned King.  After the information was dispersed, I got information from my operatives that there are at least two contracts out on your life.”

            “It’s the clan that want me dead, I suppose,” Belihn stated blandly.

            Kurk nodded.  “You are correct.  I’ve already started to organize your personal guard.  Your personal guard will be made of 50 young commoners and the position will be hereditary.  These young men were recruited from the most disaffected but whom are young enough to be molded into a well oiled and highly effective unit.”  He flicked a glance towards Ryeo’h then back to Belihn.  “I’m also recruiting for a network of spies to keep you protected and in power.”

            “Have you talked to Rakah Ys’teis?” Belihn asked.

            Kurk dipped his head.  “I asked him what I have to do, as Head of Security.  He suggested the spy network and he had suggestions as to how and whom to recruit.”

            Ryeo’h shifted.  “But the idea of the King’s Guards was all Kurk.”

            Kurk blushed and ducked his head.  “I am a connoisseur of history.  Ryeo’h here wants to make you a legend, Belihn.  The King’s Guard will create an image of glamor while at the same time preserving your life.”

            “I see,” Belihn said.  “But we still don’t know what the Yllysians want.  I might just be a figurehead to them.”

            “Let’s not reach conclusions as yet,” Ryeo’h warned.  He took a breath and released it.  “By the way, as soon as you are well, I would like to introduce you to your new secretary, Tesjun Othar.”

            Belihn sighed.  “A secretary; a guard corps.  What else can I expect?”

            Kurk snorted.  “You can expect to be king, Belihn.  So, you’ll need a wife and heirs.”

            “I already have an intended,” Belihn murmured.  “Alona Oh’nahry.”

            “A commoner?” Ryeo’h asked.

            Belihn nodded.  “Yes.  Is that a problem?”

            “No,” his friend replied.  “But in order to stabilize your reign, it might be good to marry an Yllysian.”

            “You think?” Belihn asked, not sure how he felt about having two wives.

            “Yes,” Ryeo’h told him.  “That is what we are going to propose to the Yllysians.”

            Kurk had been watching Belihn silently.  “We know where your proclivities lie, Belihn.  Having two wives does not mean you can’t have a male lover.”

            Ryeo’h frowned.  “He will have to be vetted, of course.  We can’t just let anyone into your inner circle.”

            Belihn rolled his eyes.  “This is both embarrassing and frustrating.”

            Kurk smirked.  “Such will be your life from now on, my friend.”

            The carriage turned a corner and rolled up a gentle incline to the Diplomatic District, coming to a stop in front of Yllysia’s modest embassy.  The building was surrounded by guards in leather armor and embassy colors.  Belihn’s armed escort formed a line between himself and the street as he made his way behind Ryeo’h and Irai’h and in front of Kurk.  He was led up the three marble steps into the beautifully appointed but simple foyer.  

            Neth Oronom Shejl, the Ambassorial Assistant waited at the foot of the stairs and bowed.  “The Ambassador will see you upstairs.  Please follow me.”

            They went upstairs, Belihn struggling with his weak and shaking legs.  He held on to the balustrade and measured his steps.  

            Mister Oronom led them to a door near the middle of the hallway.  Inside there was a plush outer office with gleaming eishano wood furniture, rich silk tapestries on the walls and thick throw rugs over the gleaming wooden floors.  They were led to the inner office and through the door to an expansive office with a large desk and five chairs facing it.  Ambassador Torim stood behind the desk.

            “Welcome,” Ambassador Torim murmured and indicated the chairs.  “Please sit.  Bring us tea, Shejl please.”

            The assistant bowed.  “Right away, Excellency.”

            When the assistant closed the door, the Ambassador took his seat.

            “Thank you for your joining me today,” he said, looking Belihn over.  “You look better than I expected, but it’s been nearly three weeks since you were tortured.  They must have been very thorough.”

            Belihn grimaced.  “They were, sir.”

            The Ambassador shook his head.  “Well, you are stronger for it, I imagine.”  He sighed and sat back.  “Now, we have a few things to discuss that are crucial.  Ah, Shejl.  Good, good.”

            Mister Oronom entered carrying a tray with a large teapot and five mugs.  He set the mugs on the desk and poured the tea, dropping a pale leaf into each cup.

            Belihn frowned.  “What is the leaf for?”

            Mister Oronom smiled. “The atholos leaf changes color in the presence of most poisons.  Heat activates the reaction within the leaf.”

            He handed the mugs around.

            Belihn took his mug.  “What about a cold drink?”

            The Ambassador accepted his mug from his assistant.  “Then we have tasters for that, your Grace.”

            Belihn swallowed thickly.  “I am no King yet.”

            The Ambassador waved a dismissive hand.  “A mere technicality.  I am sure our demands will not overly tax the new government.”

            Belihn sipped his tea, which was sweet and spicy, with the lance of alcohol.  It was quite good.  “Name your demands then, your Excellency.”

            Ambassador Torim sat back in his chair.  “Please take notes, Shejl.”

            The assistant sat down and picked up his pen and a bound notebook and set them at the edge of the desk.  “I’m ready, your Excellency.”

            The Ambassador nodded and looked at Belihn.  “As we have spoken of before, Isajhi will be returned to Yllysia.”

            “Agreed,” Belihn replied.  “We will repatriate our citizens somewhere else.”

            “That won’t be necessary,” the Ambassador replied.  “As long as they pay taxes and rent on their properties, they may remain.”

            “That’s very generous of Yllysia,” Kurk said.

            The Ambassador smiled.  “All we want is ownership of what was ours always.”  He looked at Belihn.  “We want the ability to trade with North Torahn and other nations.  Our merchant ships should be able to travel the Raiye’itah and Sani’Rhath Oceans without a threat of reprisal from the Torahnis.  We have just as much right to have trade agreements with nations like Tjish.un and South Torahn without war being declared on us.”

            Belihn sipped his tea.  “I am not sure I can speak for the other city-states, your Excellency.”

            “The other city-states will have to draw up new agreements with Draemin City now that it has a new regime,” the Ambassador said.  “All we ask is that you make the ability of Yllysia to have trade agreements with other nations a stipulation of your own agreements.”

            “Done,” Belihn stated.  

            Ryeo’h shifted.  “Besides, Draemin City-State has been the main force patrolling the eastern oceans.  If we allow Yllysian ships passage, no one will challenge you.”

            The Ambassador smiled.   “Precisely.”

            Ryeo’h nodded.  “Ambassador, may I suggest a gesture of good will between our nations?”

            The Ambassador frowned.  “Our assistance in stabilizing the city was not enough of a good will gesture?”

            “On your behalf, yes,” Ryeo’h assured him.  “I speak on our behalf.”

            The Ambassador’s right eyebrow shot up.  “Go on.”

            “I propose that Belihn marry an Yllysian girl.  A daughter of the Council of Ten.”

            The Ambassador started.  “You would put an Yllysian on the throne of Draemin City-State?”

            “We would be tied by blood and marriage,” Ryeo’h stated.  “And thus Yllysia would become Draemin City-State’s closest ally, in the same way Tjish.un has been by way of the Ys’teis clan and the Tjashensi clan.”

            The Ambassador rose and walked to the window, pulling the curtains apart and staring onto the gardens below.

            “That is most generous of you,” he said at length.  He turned to face them.  “I will put it to the Council of Ten and, if they agree, they will choose a young woman.  Will the King have another wife?”

            Belihn rose.  “I have a betrothed, your Excellency.  A friend.”

            “I see.  You would hold your wives in equal status?” the Ambassador asked.  “We will countenance no snubbing of our girl.”

            “I’ll treat them both as friends, sir.  You have my word.”

            “We have on more stipulation,” the Yllysian said.

            Belihn sat down.  “Name it.”

            “We heard you are to have a Royal Guard.”

            Kurk huffed a laugh.  “But how can you possibly know this so soon?”

            The Ambassador smiled faintly.  “I have my ways.” He looked at Belihn.  “Half of your Royal Guard must be of the Yllysian Elite.  We would protect what benefits Yllysia with Yllysian force.  Also, we will leave a force of 1,000 men to protect Draemin City-State from civil war and invasion.  We ask if you seek mercenaries, that you get them from Yllysia first.  We are a poor nation, sir.  Our isolation, forced by North Torahni practices, have impoverished us further.  For nigh on 1,000 years we have been forced to live in isolation while the rest of the world grew wealthier.  That stops now.”

            Belihn rose and put his hand out.  “Agreed.”

            The Ambassador clasped his hand.  “Then we have an agreement.  I will write the Council of Ten about your Yllysian wife.”

            Mister Oronom rose.  “I have those agreements drawn up, your Excellency. I will bring them in.”

            “Very good, Shejl.  Please put in the stipulation about the Yllysian wife.”

            Ryeo’h, Irai’h and Kurk rose.

            “Did you know Belihn would agree to your terms?” Kurk asked.

            “I had hoped,” the Ambassador said.

            “They are not unreasonable terms,” Belihn murmured.

            “Anti-Yllysian prejudice is strong in North Torahn,” the Ambassador stated.  “Perhaps not in Draemin City-State, for it is more cosmopolitan here.  But we don’t even have embassies in the other city-states.  That must change.  We want to trade with North Torahn as a whole, not just Draemin City.”

            “You will,” Belihn assured him.  “I will make it a priority for my government.”

            “Toward that end,” the Ambassador said.  “May I suggest you employ an advisor of Yllysian descent?  To ensure our interests are protected?”

            “Do you have an advisor in mind?” Ryeo’h asked.

            “We have two men:  A commoner and a child of the Council of Ten.”

            Ryeo’h sighed.  “All this change might work against stabilizing Belihn’s rule.”

            “Our troops will ensure protection for the new King,” the Ambassador replied.  “These terms are nonnegotiable.  You accept or we take over the rule of Draemin City-State.”

            Ryeo’h looked at Belihn.  “It’s your decision, Belihn.”

            Belihn turned to the Ambassador.  He clasped his hands once more.  “I owe Yllysia everything.  I agree to your terms and will affix my signature on your agreements.”

            Kurk turned to Belihn.  “Shouldn’t we discuss this, Belihn?”

            “You wanted me as your King,” Belihn told him.  “I was forced to be your King. Now I ask that you abide by my choices.”

            Kurk bowed.  “Of course, your Grace.”

            Mister Oronom returned with a stack of papers.  He set them on the desktop.  

            “There are several contracts here,” he said to Belihn.  “I will order some food for us.  This will take hours, your Grace.”

            “I have no experience with contracts,” Belihn said.

            “But I do, your Grace,” Ryeo’h murmured.  “I have been drawing contracts for my father’s firm for nearly ten years.  Have a seat, Belihn.  You needn’t overtax yourself.”

            Belihn sighed and took a seat, bracing himself for a long day.