Chapter III: Unsure Future

            They lay side by side, facing each other.  They had made love for most of the night and now the watered-down light of an overcast dawn peaked around curtains.  

            Kahl looked pale, with dark smudges under his eyes, but his smile was lucent.

            “How is the book coming?” Belihn asked around a lump in his throat.  He kept thinking they would argue, or Kahl would decide he didn’t want him.

            “It is just a matter of organizing the interviews into a book,” Kahl told him.  “My publisher is helping me.”

            “That is good,” Belihn replied, wondering how to broach the topic of what he had to speak to Kahl about.  He sighed.  “I need you to organize my visions into a book.  It is to be called Ishones Thul.”

            Kahl frowned.  “Is that ancient Isili?  What does it mean?”

            “The Book of Dreams,” Belihn said and sighed.  “I want it bound in treated leather and locked.  It shall rest in the castle vault until that time when it is needed.  I shall wear the key and my descendants shall have access to it.”

            Kahl came up on an elbow.  “But what is the point of writing a book and then hiding it?”

            Belihn released a breath.  “I don’t want to jeopardize my rule by making people think I’m mad. The book is a blueprint to our descendants so they can survive a great threat that will change everything. I will draw pictures and you write the words.  Can you do that for me?”    

            Kahl sighed.  “Of course.”

            “Is your publisher trustworthy?”

            “Yes,” Kahl replied.      

            “He willl be paid extra to keep his mouth shut,” Belihn muttered and sat up against the pile of pillows at his back.  

            “Is that what the Goddess told you?”

            “Yes.  The book must fall into obscurity, to be found by my descendants when the time is ripe.”

            Kahl sat crosslegged, modestly placing a wide pillow over his groin.  “What is this threat?”

            Belihn bit his lower lip.  Every time he spoke of this, he got anxious.  

            “Belihn?  Do you not want to tell me?”

            Belihn put his hand on Kahl’s hand.  “Don’t be hurt.  I find it hard to talk about these things.  My visions are drenched in blood and pain, Kahl.  The Goddess has given me the directive to breed sons and daughters, but I’m reluctant to have a child who will suffer.”  He swallowed thickly.  “You can read my journals, my love.  They have spells–“

            Kahl frowned.  “Spells?”

            “She will allow magic into the world for a window of time,” Belihn said.  “This enemy cannot be killed by sword.”  He removed the chain he wore around his neck and handed it to Kahl.  “Go to my desk in the sitting room.  Top left drawer.  My journals are there.  Bring them.”

            He watched with appreciation as Kahl walked naked into the other room.  He heard when Kahl opened the drawer and pulled out the five journals.  

            Kahl carried the leather-bound journals into the room then clambered onto the bed.  

            “Which one is the oldest?” he asked Belihn.

            “The one covered in blue dye,” Belihn murmured around a yawn.

            Kahl opened the journal and began to read Belihn’s messy handwriting, pausing ever so often when he came across a sketch.

            He looked up from the journal.  “They are a beautiful people.”

            “But infinitely cruel and cold,” Belihn told him.  “Some hu’ans will align themselves with them because of their beauty and strength and numbers.  We are a weak species, after all.”

            Kahl bent his head to read more of the journal.  “Sha’jeen.  They are called the Sha’jeen?”

            “Yes,” Belihn replied, his mouth drying at the word.  “They have three types of people under that name, divided by roles and gender.  The rulers and priests are called Shi’ehl.  They are breeders.  The deuil are those who impregnate Shi’ehl.  They are soldiers and guardians.  The bouel are neuters.  They do not have sexual organs.  They are their servants.  When they come, they will not be interested in dialogue or coexistence.  They come for conquest.”  Belihn shivered, thinking of the rest of why the Sha’jeen were coming.  He could not speak that horror and Kahl did not need to know.

            Kahl became immersed in the journal and Belihn rose to bathe and dress for Court.  He felt infinitely old and weighed down just from thinking of the enemy that even now was making its way across the universe towards them.  The Goddess had not revealed when they would arrive, in 100 or 1000 years.  It didn’t matter.  The denizens of this world were in danger, their extinction a sure thing.  The Sha’jeen did not practice conservation.  They wanted nothing from the world other than cognizant beings.  They worshipped a god of death and destruction.

            “Ya’ih,” Belihn murmured and shuddered under the cold spray of water in the shower stall.  “Atana preserve us!”

            He stared blankly at the pale blue tiles as visions swam behind his eyes.  His children’s children would have to be strong and courageous, honorable and stubborn.  He would write down the spells that would help them, that would unlock the Goddess’ strengths and release Her into the world.  One day the Gods would return, and the battle would shake the very foundations of their planet.

            He placed the palm of his hand on the tiled wall of the shower and closed his eyes.  Behind his dark lids, the visions rushed across his mind.  How many Gods and people had the Sha’jeen and their bloodthirsty deity wiped from the universe?  Old Urth?  Their forefathers?          

            Belihn bit into his knuckles to stifle a sob.  

            Be brave, son of the tash-tash, a voice whispered in his mind.  All is set in motion and your seed will prevail.  

            “I don’t see how we can,” he whispered.

            A shiver of laughter whispered across his mind.

            Not your battle, not your time.  Be brave and write everything down, Oracle.  I have purified your seed in holy fire.  Write everything down and teach them about the Book and the Key.

            “I will,” he promised.

            Then your fear is superfluous.  Trust in me, son of the tash-tash.  Trust in me.

            He nodded into the silence and made ready to start his day.

End of Book One

Chapter II: Celebration

            Just as Belihn had predicted, Alon was a hit with gallery goers.  Belihn recognized more than one courtier in the crowd.  Although he had deliberately kept back from Alon’s spotlight, he kept a sharp eye on the courtiers.  These minor sons of the clans strove and fought for anything that would bring them more wealth and attention.  He saw as they fixated on Alon, flirting openly with someone who looked all of thirteen. It disgusted Belihn and he made to step in when he saw Alon’s solicitor take him by the elbow and steer him towards potential patrons.  Belihn released the breath he was holding.  The solicitor was an old acquaintance of Belihn’s from his university days.  Maorel U’sri’h had always been fair with Belihn, unperturbed by Belihn’s common blood, even though he was a son of the clans.  Although they had never quite become friends, Belihn genuinely liked him.  

             Maorel brought his younger sister, Ilida, to the event with him.  The girl seemed to hang on every word Alon uttered.  Belihn grinned.  Alon seemed flustered by the pretty young miss.

            “My sister better watch out, or that girl will snag her heart,” Kahl murmured.

            Belihn chuckled.  “It might be too late already, I’m afraid.”

            Kahl grimaced.  “I think you’re right.”

            “Alona deserves to have a lover,” Belihn told his date.  “She deserves to be happy.”

            “Agreed,” Kahl replied.  “But the girl may think her a boy.”

            “She is Maorel’s sister, so I think she is in on the ruse.”

            Kahl’s eyebrows shot up and he turned to study the scene once more.  “Then hurrah for my sister.”

            Kurk strode up, an arm around each of his dates, Mari’h and Salika.  The Yllysian girls seemed taken with the big soldier.  The other ladies-in-waiting had opted to remain behind with their Queen.

            Kurk seemed in his element, charming and flirty.  

            It fascinated Belihn no end.

            “When are we going to get something to eat?” Kurk groused to Belihn the first opportunity he got.

            Belihn rolled his eyes.  “Why don’t you and Mari’h and Salika go and get us a large table at The Bleating Tah’lir?” Belihn asked his friend.  “We’ll come along shortly.”

            “Don’t make us wait too long,” Kurk growled and led his giggling dates out of the room.

            “It’s near closing time,” Kahl murmured.  “My feet are killing me!  We’ve been standing around for hours.”

            Belihn smiled at him.  “Let’s get Alon and head out, shall we?”

            They had to wait a few minutes while Alon answered some questions from a reporter for an art rag.  

            Once the reporter was done asking questions, Belihn stepped up to Alon.  “Shall we head out and get some dinner?”

            Alon nodded.  “I’m famished.”  He turned to Ilida and Maorel.  “Care to join us?”

            Maorel bowed.  “Delighted, Alon.  I haven’t had a meal at all today, preparing for this show.”  He turned to Belihn.  “We’ve sold twenty paintings!”

            Belihn clapped.  “Congratulations, but I’m not surprise.  I have to talk to you about something private, Maorel.” He turned to Alon and Kahl.  “Why don’t you two and Miss U’sri’h go on ahead.  We’ll be just behind you.”        

            Ilida took Alon’s arm.  “Let’s go.  I’m hungry too.”

            Alon swallowed audibly and nodded mutely.

            When they had gone, Belihn turned to Maorel.  “Alon has created a new type of art.  I think we should coin the term ‘alonism’ in reference to it.  It is exquisite, and I’m sure there will be copycats in no time.”

            Maorel’s eyebrows shot up.  “He’s amazing, isn’t he?  I’d like to see this new art.”

            Belihn took his arm.  “He would welcome it.”  He lowered his voice.  “Don’t be put off by it.  It has to be examined for a while before its beauty and true nature are revealed.”

            Maorel opened the door leading to the street.  “You should have been an art critic.”

            Belihn shrugged.  “I took enough art classes to make have an opinion, that’s all.”

            “You’re too modest,” Maorel murmured.  “You were correct that Alona is supremely talented.”

            “It would take a blind man not to see it,” Belihn replied.

            “Tell me of this new art form of hers.”

            They walked through the crowded streets near the open-air market, their conversation often interrupted as they maneuvered through the crowds of shoppers, theater attendees and diners.  Belihn’s guards often had to move people out of the way.  The streets were quieter in the tavern and inn district.  

            At the front door of the tavern, Belihn turned to his Maorel. “Don’t tell her about the name I suggested.  She is against it, but it is only meet.”

            Maorel nodded.  “I agree.  She won’t have a say, once the term circulates around the city-state.  Does she have enough for a show?”

            Belihn frowned.  “I’m not sure.”

            After a moment Maorel nodded.  “She’ll have to work hard to create more.  I have to build on her popularity, although I balk at showing a new art form when she’s so newly come into the public eye.”

            “You know about these things better than I, Maorel,” Belihn said and opened the door for his friend.  “You advise her.”

            “I will.”

            Inside, they found their table near a bank of windows.  The warmth of the tavern from a massive fireplace across the room had fogged the glass with moisture.

            Belihn sat between Kahl and the windows and wiped the glass to gaze at the snowy landscape.  

            “I’ve ordered mi’disj and ekila,” Kurk announced to the table.  “We can order when the server comes with our drinks.  What do you recommend, Belihn?”

            “They make an exquisite seafood stew, but their meat dishes are good, too.”

            Two servers brought trays with decanters of liqueurs and glasses and loaves of freshly baked bread, butter, honey and two different types of jams.

            They ordered their food, Belihn opting for the seafood stew.

            Kurk held court, answering questions about the recent war.  His two dates were completely enthralled by him and Belihn worried he would break their tender hearts.  

            Maoril and his sister asked questions of the war as well, and Belihn and Kahl answered sometimes.  Kurk was nothing if not generous with sharing the spotlight.

            The meal, when it came, was every bit as tasty as Belihn recalled.  His seafood stew was filled with fish, shellfish, turies, aromatics and sharp southern spices that made his eyes water.  The accompanying salad was made up of bitter greens, flower petals and dressed in a sweet honey dressing. The bread that came with the meal was warm and soft, sweet and tender, a perfect complement to the sweet butter and sour jams.

            Belihn noticed that Alon and Ilida had their heads together and were whispering to one another, their hands touching under the table.  He was happy for her.  He only wondered if the girl was toying with the artist’s heart.

            After their meal, they ordered more drinks and s’krieh cards for a game.  The men showed the women how the game of strategy was played.

            Once they had played several hands, Belihn rose.

            “Before we end this night,” he told his friends.  “I would like to toast to Alon and to wish him a successful career as an artist.”

            The men rose.  “To Alon!”

            Alon ducked his head and blushed, but his smile was blinding.

            Not long afterward, they headed out, gathering on the snowy sidewalk as they donned their kamarani cloaks and gloves.

            Belihn bid goodnight to Maorel and Ilida and helped Alon into the waiting carriage.  Mari’h, Salika and Kurk sat on one bench and Belihn, Alon and Kahl sat facing them.

            Mari’h giggled, flushed with alcohol.  “You look like such a handsome boy, Alona!”

            Alon blushed but gamely smiled.

            Salika leaned forward.  “You are a wonderful artist.  I want you to paint my portrait.  How much do you charge?”

            “You can speak to Maorel about the cost,” Alon told her.  “I will of course paint you.”

            “And me!  Me, too,” Mari’h said.

            Kurk slid an arm around each girl’s shoulders.  “I’ll finance it, Alon.  It’ll be my gift to these two stunning young women.”

            The girls tittered drunkenly and fluttered their eyelashes at him.

            He smiled smugly at Belihn, who refrained from rolling his eyes.

            Snow had begun to fall in large, gorgeous flakes.  Belihn was happy for the snowfall, as it kept the temperatures more moderate.  Although neither Mari’h nor Salika seemed bothered by the cold.  They wore thick, fur lined cloaks, but their pale blue arms were bare.  They wore tight white gowns over their slender forms, the generous skirts reaching the floor.  The gowns glittered with translucent glass beads, making them shine as if they were covered in snow. They were both stunning young women, their pale white hair piled on their head, their necks graceful and slender.  They wore satin chokers, Mari’h’s pale violet, Salika’s black.  Each choker was affixed with tiny jewels.

            Kurk seemed equally taken by the girls, although Belihn was doubtful he was infatuated.  Kurk liked his freedom, as he had expounded to Belihn on several occasions.  He kept his heart carefully encased.

            Close to two hours later, the carriage clattered over the slick wooden moat bridge and came to rest before Castle Draemin’s huge arched entryway.  A guard scrambled to open the carriage door and bowed to Belihn as he stepped down and held his hand to the Yllysian girls.  The rest of the riders piled out and Kurk paid the carriage driver.

            “I’ll see you in the morning, my King,” Kurk murmured and bowed, then turned and escorted Mari’h and Salika into the castle.

            Belihn sighed then walked with Alon and Kahl into the warmth of the Great Hall.  They walked down the cavernous hallway to the northeastern tower and took the stairs up to the top floor of the castle.

            “I’m very proud of you, Alona,” Belihn murmured as he walked between his wife and her brother.

            She dimpled.  “Thank you, Belihn.  And thank you for calling me Alona.  I was getting mighty sick of my alter ego.”

            Kahl put his hand on her lower back.  “You have to put aside that emotion, my girl.  Alon is here until you become famous and can afford to discard the disguise.”

            Belihn nodded.  “I’m afraid your brother is correct, girl.  But if you tour Tjish.un, you can do it as yourself.”

            “That will be wonderful,” she sighed.

            Belihn allowed her to precede him up the curving stairwell.  “If you attain the patronage of the Queen of Tjish.un, then the people of North and South Torahn might overlook your gender.  Sad but true.”

            She glanced at him over her shoulder.  “Do you think so, Belihn?”

            “Yes,” he told her honestly.  “The Queen of Tjish.un is the most powerful ruler in the known world.  Under her patronage, you can do anything.  Some will balk at your gender, so don’t think it will all be smooth sailing ahead.  Some may burn your paintings and call you names, but most of the clans are more invested in what is new and popular.  The Queen of Tjish.un may be a woman, but she inevitably sets trends in culture.  Women now wear their hair piled on top of their heads and wear full skirts.  Whom do you think set that standard and made it popular?  Before Tjish.un became the most powerful nation in the known world, women in Torahn wore braids, like the men do now.”

            They went to her suites and he pressed a kiss to her forehead.  “I’m so proud of you.  You will be among the luminaries of our culture.  Just wait.”

            She shook her head.  “I just want to change things for girls and women.”

            “And you will, at least when it comes to art,” he assured her.

            Kahl put his hand on her lower back.  “It will spill to other parts of our culture, picu. I’m sure of it.”

            Belihn smiled at him. “Listen to your brother.”

            She sighed and nodded, rising on her tiptoes to kiss Belihn’s mouth.  “Goodnight then.”

            “Goodnight.”

            Once she was in her suites and the door was closed, Belihn turned to Kahl. “Join me for a nightcap?”

            “Lead the way.”

            The servants had long ago retired, so Belihn poured Kahl some ekila himself, handing over the half-full glass.

            “Thank you,” Kahl murmured.

            They sat side by side on the couch facing the balcony glass doors.  The servants had not drawn the curtains closed, so they could see the flurries of snow as they danced in the icy wind.

            “I’m very glad to have gotten to know you, Belihn,”  Kahl suddenly said.

            Belihn looked at him.  “Why do you say that?”

            Kahl looked away.  “You make me feel things I’ve never felt before.”

            Belihn studied the young man’s even, handsome features and felt a lump in his throat. “I feel much the same way about you.”  He chuckled self-consciously.  “I’m rather glad that Tesjun and Erille turned me down, actually.”

            Kahl turned to look at him and gave him a smile.  “Are you now?”

            Belihn reached a hand and ran his knuckles over Kahl’s soft cheek.  “Yes, I am.”

            Kahl swallowed.  

            Belihn leaned forward and kissed the young man. Kahl’s lips parted and their tongues dueled.  After a bit, Belihn pulled back.

            “What will it be like, I wonder, being your lover?” Kahl mused.    

            “Let’s find out, shall we?” Belihn asked and rose, setting his empty glass on the low table.

            He held his hand out and Kahl took it, leaning forward to set his glass next to Belihn’s, before rising and following Belihn out of the sitting room and into the hallway where the bedrooms were located.

Epilogue: The Stipulation Chapter I: Alon’s Art Show

            Belihn could not find a quiet moment during the following two weeks to meet with Kahl.  He rose early to exercise then attended Court from sunrise to sunset as a new constitution was slowly cobbled together from old laws that were just and new laws to supplant those that were not.  Following the example of South Torahn, key calendar dates would become holy holidays. The solstices would be dedicated to Atana with prayer and fasting, followed by a week of celebrations in Her honor.  Dibasj’s solstice would be called Ata-Dibasj and kamaran’s solstice would be called Ata-Kamaran.  The first day of anasj and haltath would also be marked by fasting and prayer.  

            Belihn’s nights were taken up with religious studies.  He had read the holy book, the Soulkah, in its entirety when he was a youngster, but there was so much he did not understand.  From sunset until he retired near midnight, he retired to his sitting room, surrounded by serrens and ai-sers.  The Church had not balked at the idea of his becoming High Priest.  They seemed quite amenable to a theocracy.  When his studies were done, in two months’ time, he would undergo a purification ritual that encompassed a week of prayer and fasting.  He would be cloistered in Draemin Cathedral for one week and, when he emerged, he would be Prei-Serren of Draemin City-State.  

            He wondered how he was able to retain any knowledge, when he was so sleep deprived all the time.  When his head hit the pillow at the end of a very long day, he would fall asleep almost right away.  Kahl haunted his dreams almost every night. Belihn would wake up in a poor mood and would rise from bed to don on his oldest clothes and then, a troop of soldiers behind him, he would jog out through the bailey, pver the castle drawbridge and into Queen’s Park.  Sometimes he would run south through the villas. He and his entourage would garner a lot of attention from field workers and villa owners.  He needed the centering the exercise gave him.  Now more than ever, he felt discombobulated, out of his depth, and completely lost.  Not when he sat on the throne, for he knew what was best for the common denizens of his city-state.  But when he thought of being a High Priest or of Kahl, he quite did not know what he thought.

            He missed Kahl at the oddest moments:  when he was distracted, when he meditated and prayed, when he was busy at Court.  Those times made him feel closer to Kahl and his heart ached with his absence.

            On the day of Alon’s art show, Belihn canceled his appointments and responsibilities, proclaiming Court closed until the following day.  He went to the practice yards and sparred with Kurk like they used to do.  As always, Kurk attacked without preambled, with brutal moves that more than once snapped their wooden practice swords in two.  Their swords thudded again and again in the icy early morning and sweat poured down Belihn’s back and face.  He felt truly happy for the first time in a long time.  Kurk laughed as Belihn pushed him off and attacked with all his might. Finally, after a couple of hours and two destroyed swords, they bowed to one another.

            “You fought well, my friend,” Kurk commented.

            They dropped their intact swords into the barrel with others and left the broken ones on the ground.

            “I’ve missed our jousting, Kurk.”  He clapped Kurk on the back.  “I’m going to an art show this evening.  Care to join me?”

            Kurk looked askance at him.  “An art show?”

            “Come on,” Belihn needled.  “You can impress women that way.  Don’t you think?”            

            They headed towards the Castle.  Kurk threw his head back and roared with laughter.

            “An atoliy giving me advise on how to woo women,” he said and shook his head.

            Belihn found himself blushing.  “We may not bed women, but we can charm them.”

            Kurk sobered.  “No, I’ve noticed that about you, my King.”  He sighed.  “If it means we go to a tavern afterward and drink, then I’ll accompany you.  I’ll even scare up a young lady to be my date.”

            Belihn snorted.  “You never have to scare anyone, Kurk.  They drop at your feet.”

            Kurk preened.  “That is too true, my King.  When is this art show?”        

            “Seventh hour after midday.”

            “Then my date and I will be at your suites two hours before.  That work?”

            Belihn clasped Kurk’s shoulder.  “That works, my friend.”

            Since Court was not in session, the Great Hall was mostly empty, except for servants and guards.  Belihn’s personal guards escorted him to his suites on the top floor of the Castle.  He bid good morning to Emira’h and her ladies-in-waiting who were breakfasting in the sitting room.  

            Emira’h rose and curtsied.  “What will you do with your day off, your Majesty?”

            “I will be attending an art show in town, your Majesty.”

            The girls squealed.

            “Oh, may we come, your Majesty?” Nilki asked.  She was the oldest of the young women but often behaved much younger.

            Emira’h frowned.  “An art show?”

            “Oh come, my Queen,” Salika piped up.  “Women in Draemin City-State attend art shows, do they not, your Majesty?”

            “They do indeed,” Belihn replied. “They simply cannot make art.  I hope to change that some day.”

            Emira’h looked scandalized.

            Belihn tapped a finger under her jaw and she closed her mouth with a click.

            “Who is the artist?” she asked with a certain degree of imperiousness.

            “Alona.”

            Mari’h and Asjana squealed in unison.

            Emira’h drew herself up to her full height.  “If women cannot make art, then how can she?”

            “Because she is going under a disguise. Alon Oh’nahry, a cousin of the Draemin Oh’nahrys.”

            The girls all started talking as one.

            He brought two fingers to his mouth and blew a shrill whistle.  The young women startled and fell silent at once.

            “I’m trusting you with a great secret,” he told them.  “I trust you will keep it close to your hearts.”

            Emira’h’s eyes flashed.  “Is there no end to that girl’s depravities?”

            Belihn took her by the shoulders and shook her.  “You behave yourself, your Majesty, or we shall leave you here.”

            Emira’h frowned.  “We?”

            “Your ladies-in-waiting are excited to go,” he told her.  “I expect them to go.”

            She looked unsure for a moment.  “And you would leave me behind?”

            “If you promise to behave you can come,” he said.

            She squared her shoulders.  “They are my ladies-in-waiting.”

            “And I am your king, Emira’h.”    

            Her gaze turned stubborn and recalcitrant.  She lifted her chin.  “That threat does not frighten me, your Majesty.”

            He crossed his arms over his chest.  “Then you can remain behind.”

            Her gaze turned icy.  “My ladies-in-waiting remain with me.  I demand it.”

            “And I order that they go,” he snapped.

            She narrowed her eyes and screamed, turning on her heels and running from the room into the hallway.

            Asjana sighed and shook her head.  “Forgive her, your Majesty.  All this is new to her.”

            He glanced at her.  “I know, but she is spoiled.  She needs to know she can be my friend, if she meets me halfway.”

            The girl curtsied.  “Excuse me, your Majesty.  I will attend to her.”

            He left the girls talking excitedly about the art show and went to his bedroom suite, where he had a bath drawn.  He soaked in the warm waters redolent with aromatic oils and soap.  For the first time in a long time, his day stretched out before him unencumbered by duties.  He washed his hair and shaved his face before rising from the sudsy water and stepping onto the tiled floor.  Two servants briskly dried him then assisted him to dress in black velvet trousers and a dark violet tunic with a long black velvet coat over it.  His hair was brushed and braided.  Lastly, he pulled on knee-high boots over the pants legs.  

            After he was done, he summoned Alona to break her fast with him.  She was dressed as Alon and his mouth grew dry.  He rose from the breakfast table to gape at her.  She looked just like Kahl, from her dark brown eyes to her black hair and honey complexion.  Except she looked all of thirteen years old and was small and scrawny.

            She had done a good job with the disguise.  She wore dark blue velvet trousers, a light satin overtunic and a dark blue silk undertunic with a high collar.  She, too, had a velvet coat.  Royal blue.  She wore the hems of her trousers tucked into her knee high boots.  She had somehow wrapped her small breasts so that her chest appeared completely flat.  The loose overtunic and coat hid her rounded hips well.

            She fidgeted nervously.  “What?  Don’t I look like Alon?”

            He swallowed audibly and came around the table to hug her.  “Forgive me.  You look just like Kahl.”

            They pulled back from their hug and gazed into each other’s eyes.

            “I’m sorry if looking at me causes you pain,” she murmured.

            “No,” he assured her.  “It makes me happy.”

            He raked her with his eyes, appreciating her trimness and her guileless beauty.

            She blushed and he pressed a kiss to her brow.  “You will become the talk of the town, my girl.”

            He stepped away from her and held a chair out for her.  “Sit.  Let’s break our fast and then help me figure out how to woo your brother.”

            She ate sparingly, nibbling on bread and sipping tea redolent with southern spices, tah’lir’s milk and honey.

            He was famished, so he polished off a plate of fried strips of dosi, enasha pancakes fried to a golden turn, and flaky buns filled with honeyed fruit.  When he was replete, he sat back and sipped his cup of black mjish tea.

            “Which of your paintings did you choose?” he asked her.

            She tucked a bit of hair behind her ear.  “My solicitor and I chose what is more popular among the wealthier patrons.  Portraits, mostly, and landscapes.  Really, I’m terribly bored of portraits and landscapes.  What I want to focus on is a new type of art that I am creating.”

            He leaned towards her.  “What is this art like?”

            She looked unsure for a moment before squaring her shoulders.  “It’s made up mostly of impressions of color and form.”  She huffed a breath.  “It’s hard to describe, really.  You’ll have to come to my studio and see.”

            He rose and pulled the chair out for her.  “Show me.”

            She led him into the hallway and then to the large, airy room which had been her bedroom suite sitting room at one point, but now was her studio.  Paintings hung on the walls or stood propped against walls.  There was a small card table with two chairs near the center of the room, a bare rough stone floor, and an easel with a table near the window.  The curtains had been drawn open, so light flooded the large room.  A canvas stood on the easel and he was immediately drawn there.

            The painting was a spatter of colors and forms that seemed chaotic, until one looked at it long enough to see that form rose from the chaos.  It intrigued him.  He took several steps back to look at it from a distance and then saw that the chaos coalesced into something nameless and exquisite.

            “Fascinating,” he murmured.

            She stood near the open door, her body tight with tension and uncertainty.  

            He looked at her and smiled.  “It’s incredible, girl.  Truly it is.  Form and sanity out of chaos.”

            She took two steps towards him.  “Exactly!  Oh, I knew you’d see it right away!”

            He slid his gaze to the painting once more.  “You have a good eye for color, miss.  They seem to clash on the canvas, but then you realize they flow into one another.”

            “Exactly!” she sounded breathless.

            He sobered.  “It may take longer for the art world to embrace this form of art.  Forever, it’s been about reality and realistic representations.  What do you call this new form?”

            “Call?”

            “You need to give it a name,” he told her.  “How about ‘Alonism’?”

            She blushed to the tips of her ears.  “Oh, I simply couldn’t!”  She began to pace.  “How about ‘chaotic form’?”

            He took a breath and released it.  “I’m not sure that name won’t bias some against it.  They may come to the gallery already prepared to hate it.”

            “Chaos in form,” she said with a nod of her head.  

            He considered, secretly knowing he would approach her solicitor with the term ‘Alonism.’  “That might work.”

            He went to gaze at her other works while she went to write in her journal the new term.

***

            Kahl hurried through the snowy streets to the gallery where Alon would be showing his work.  It was sunset already and he was terribly late, but he couldn’t have helped it.  He had had an all-day meeting with his publisher about his new book.  Since the book would be sold to universities as well as book stores, he had gotten a fat advance.  All he had to do was finish compiling the material into the book. Sometimes he felt lost and overwhelmed.  He had written 10 journals during the war.  He had interviewed common soldiers and members of the clans.  He had interviewed camp followers and legal spouses.  He had interviewed some of those who had lived through the siege and he knew there was a second book in there, too, about the privations that resulted from the nearly one year siege.

            When he reached the gallery, a two-story thatched roof cottage with whitewashed walls and bright purple sills and doors, he paused, catching a glimpse of himself in the glass windowpanes.  He looked windblown and disheveled.  He took a moment to smooth his hair and straighten his clothes before opening the garish door and stepping inside.  The smell of paints and sealed rooms assailed him.  He coughed and removed his kamarani cloak, hanging it on a free hook by the front door.  The dark floor was unpolished wood, faded in areas.  A stairwell directly ahead led to the second floor.  He could see more paintings up there as well.  The large cottage was full of the din of voices.  People crowded under archways leading to the left and the right.  Servants maneuvered around the clumps of guests, bearing trays of liqueurs and wines.

            He went to the left, looking over heads to see if he could spot Alona.  He shook his head.  No, Alon.  But he only saw strangers.

            He walked directly ahead and up the stairs to the second floor, where slightly less people crowded into rooms.  His sister had performed a coup, or at least her solicitor had.  Usually, art galleries showed more than one artist, but he saw on the walls his sister’s paintings and sketches.  He felt a thrill followed by pride.  He decided he’d see her soon enough and edged into a corner with a painting of Queen’s Park.  He recalled when she’d painted that.  She had been fourteen and he had been shocked to his core to see what the girl could do, having mainly taught herself.  He saw that the paintings were cruder than her recent ones, but still the balance of colors, the realism in each canvas made him breathless.

            “You should see what she is working on now,” said a smooth, deep voice just to the right and behind him.

            He stiffened and turned.  He bowed deeply.  “Your Majesty.”

            The bulky, muscular Warlord stood just behind Belihn, an Yllysian girl on each of his arms.  Guards stood discreetly nearby.

            “Call me Belihn, Kahl.”

            Belihn took his arm and led him further into the room.  They stopped before a picture of a young lad who looked a lot like Kahl.

            “Self-portrait of Alon,” Belihn murmured, huffing a soft laugh.  “She has balls, your sister.”

            Kahl looked at the painting more closely and saw his sister under the masculine clothes and arrogant gaze.  He saw uncertainty in the depths of the brown eyes.

            “She is magnificent,” Belihn said, his breath soft and warm against the side of Kahl’s neck.  “I adore her.”

            Kahl felt a flash of jealousy and ruthlessly tamped it down.  “She is fond of you as well, your Majesty.”

            Belihn sighed.  “I thought we were becoming friends, Kahl Oh’nahry.  Was I wrong?”        

            “You are doing everything you said you would,” Kahl replied quietly.  “You are changing the caste laws and levering the field between the classes.  You beat the Tjish.unen army.  It was like an insect beating a dosi.”

            “She did it, the Goddess.”

            “You held on until She followed through with Her promise,” he told the King.

            “I had help,” Belihn replied.  “And you didn’t answer my question.  Are we friends?”

            Kahl looked at him, swallowing thickly at Belihn’s beautiful features, so much like the handsome King Kah’len, but finer, more graceful.  

            “No,” he said honestly.  “We are not friends.”

            Belihn nodded and pulled his arm free.

            “I’d like to be, though, your Majesty,” Kahl hastened to say.  “More, if you want.”  He slid his gaze to the Warlord and his guest, but they were a few feet away, gazing at a family portrait of the Oh’nahrys.  He looked back at Belihn.  “I am sorry, your Majesty.  I didn’t understand when I fought with you.  I didn’t not understand your responsibilities or your duty.  You had to look out for the future, not just the present.  I have grown up a bit since our argument, I think.”

            Belihn smiled at him with genuine pleasure.  “I’m glad to hear that, Mister Oh’nahry.”

            Kahl frowned.  “That’s my father.”

            Belihn chuckled.  He took Kahl’s arm once more.  “Fine then, Kahl.  Call me Belihn.”

            Kahl mock scowled.  “Are you blackmailing me, your Majesty?”

            “Yes, Mister Oh’nahry.”

            They laughed.

            “We are going to a tavern for drinks and a meal after this,” Belihn mentioned as if he just thought of it.  “I would like you and your sister to accompany us.”

            “It would be an honor, Belihn.”

            Belihn smiled.  “Good.  Now let’s find that sister of yours.”

Chapter X: The Return

            Regent Divita ran a cold, clammy hand over her face.  These days, every movement she made made her shaky.  Lightheadedness was a constant companion.  She had passed out several times, frightening her children and her guards.  Word from the battlefield had been absent for over a month, despite sending carrier vinah almost every day.  The animals inevitably returned, the tiny vials with the notes tucked inside untouched.  Fear clogged her days, but she pushed on, Ambassador Tah’duk’h her constant companion.  His unwavering optimism and positivity buoyed her on a daily basis.  Without him, she would have caved and given up a long time ago.

            The plague had begun to burn itself out.  No new cases reported in nearly two weeks.  

            She lived her life day-to-day, filling her days with prayer and reflection.  Court had been suspended weeks ago.  Martial law kept the streets mostly empty, with only the bravest and most desperate breaking the curfews imposed by her soldiers.  Anasj, dibasj, and most of haltath had passed and now kamaran with its icy temperatures and shorter days threatened more misery.

            She sighed and looked up from her journal.  Faithful Rechel Setin, her lady-in-waiting, sat on the other side of the desk, knitting a blanket.

            Divita’s eyes filled with tears.  Tifa, Emira’h, and Alona had all lost their babies to miscarriages.  Bleeding had almost killed the young women.  Tifa, in particular, bled so much, even the empathic healer had predicted the girl would die, but she had rallied, although she still was not back to full health and would not be, until the siege was done and supplies were brought inside the gates.  With each day that passed, Divita’s hope dimmed further.

            “Where is my son, Rechel?” she asked her friend.

            Rechel frowned and stopped knitting.  “Don’t lose faith now, your Majesty.”

            Divita gave a watery laugh.  “I’m almost empty of hope and faith, my girl.”  She closed the journal and pushed the book away, carefully rising and leaning on the sturdy arms of the desk chair.  “I need to look in on the girls.”

            Rechel followed her out of her office and down the hallway to the sitting room.  The room was filled with young women.  Emira’h and Alona had drawn a shaky truce between them and now spent much of their days together.  With them were Emira’h’s ladies-in-waiting, Tifa, and Ilmi.  Goddess only knew where T’arehn had gone off to.  Divita did not have the energy to look after her youngest son.  He had grown reticent and angry in the ensuing months.  He left for days on end, dragging himself back, looking wan and drawn, saying nothing of where he had been or what he had been up to.

            “Aya,” Tifa said, sounding breathless.  She looked too pale, too thin.

            “My dear,” Divita said and bent to press a kiss to the girl’s cool forehead.  “Where is your husband?”

            “He went to look for T’arehn.”

            “Ah,” Divita said and looked at the other girls.  

            Ilmi, dressed in boys clothes, sat crosslegged in an armchair.  She was reading a book and did not even look up from its pages.

            Emira’h rose and curtsied, her ladies-in-waiting following suit.  “Your Majesty.”

            The Yllysians hid their poor health better than the Torahni. But they had grown bony, their knuckles knobby.

            Divita swallowed thickly, her sense of guilt almost overwhelming her.

            Emira’h frowned and drew closer.  “Are you well, your Majesty?”

            Divita smiled at the young woman and took her hands in hers.  “I am humbled by your courage and persistence, my girl.  That is all.”

            Emira’h sighed and returned her grin.  “Thank you.  If there is anything Yllysians are known for, beside our blue skin and white hair, is our stubbornness.  Yllysia is a land of ice and rock.  We have to be creative and persistent to survive her merciless kamarans.”

            “I would like to see Yllysia one day,” she told the girl.  “Tah’duk’h has promised to take me there, once this business is done with.”

            Nilki, one of Emira’h’s ladies-in-waiting, took a step closer.  “Yllysia is very beautiful, your Majesty.  But austere and severe.  She has soaring peaks and thick evergreen forests.  There is Kajiah, Neverdawn.  The sun never sets in Kajiah.  Strange animals live there.  Most Yllysians live in her coastal areas, where it is warmer than in the interior.  There, we have access to the bounty of the sea.”

            “I’m looking forward to going next year,” Divita told them, not saying that she was going there to marry the ambassador.

            Emira’h indicated one of her young ladies-in-waiting.  “Asjana there is going back home to marry, your Majesty.  Perhaps she can travel with you and his Eminence?”

            Divita smiled at Asjana.  “Congratulations, girl.  Of course, you can come with Tah’duk’h and myself when we leave.”

            The girl curtsied.  “Thank you, your Majesty.”

            Divita leaned against the back of an armchair as she became drenched in sweat, suddenly weak.  She heard voices faraway and then someone was helping her to the couch.  Someone pressed a cup to her mouth and she swallowed the cool water.  She sat back and rested her head on the headrest, closing her eyes.  Someone took her left hand and rubbed it briskly.

            “Aya!”

            She opened her eyes.  “I’m alright, Tifa.  Calm down.”

            “You look so pale, Aya,” her oldest daughter told her and continued to rub her hand.  “You’re as cold as ice!”

            “Stop fussing, girl,” Divita groused and pulled her hand free.  

            She wiped the sweat from her brow with a shaking hand.

            Silence descended upon the room.  The entire city-state seemed to hold its breath in the limpid, cold afternoon with its watery light and cloudy skies.  The wind rattled windows and moaned.

            Suddenly, the door to the hallway burst open and a soldier ran inside.  “The King is back!  The navy has sailed into the bay!”

            Divita struggled to stand until Tifa helped her to her feet.  

            “Goddess preserve!”  She looked at Rechel.  “Helped me dress, girl.  I need to meet my son at the gates of the city!”

            She looked at the young soldier.  “Please inform the Yllysian Ambassador.”

            The soldier bowed.  “At once, Regent.”

            The process of doing a wash and changing her clothes, then dressing her hair took a long time.  Divita had to stop and rest again and again until she grew impatient.

            Rechel chastised her.  “It will take time for the King to disembark, your Majesty.  Now, let me do your hair.”

            When she felt she looked presentable, she made her way to the sitting room, where Tah’duk’h waited for her.  They embraced and he buried his face against her neck.

            “Gods in their dimensions!” the ambassador whispered.  “We survived, my girl.  And you were marvelous.”

            “Only because of you,” she whispered back.

            He pulled back and they kissed.

            When they parted, their gazes locked.  

            She cupped his cheek.  “Now, I will tell you, Tah’duk’h.  Now I can tell you that, yes, I’ll marry you.”

            The smile he gave her was luminescent.  “Thank you, my girl.  You have made me happier than I thought I could ever be.”

            They moved as one, walking out into the hallway, Rechel trailing behind them.  Two guards brought up the rear and two led the way.

            The Great Hall was empty and echoed their footsteps as they made their way to the huge double doors that led to the bailey.

            Outside, the wind was icy as it swept down from the north.  

            Tah’duk’h held the door to their carriage open and Rechel helped her to enter the interior, where they sat side by side.  The ambassador sat across from them.  

            Soon the carriage was clattering over the wooden moat bridge and unto the boulevard that led to the wharves.  By the time they reached the center of the city, the crowds had begun to spill out into the streets.  They walked, bedraggled and bony, silent as ghosts, towards the city gates.  The carriage slowed down as it encountered more crowds spilling into the boulevard.  

            A great hush clung to the air.  It spooked Divita to the core.

            They made it to the city gates, where soldiers made a space for her, for Tah’duk’h and for Rechel.  

            People watched her with eyes dimmed by hunger and suffering.  She saw hope in the depths of those eyes, too, and kindness and respect.  She burst out weeping and Tah’duk’h wrapped his arm around her waist and held her close.  

            “You must be strong, Divita,” Tah’duk’h murmured into her hair.

            She nodded but she could not control her sobs and she hid her face against his chest.

            By the time she had control over her frayed emotions, the crowd extended for miles behind her and to the west.  No one said anything as the time passed.  The sun rose overhead and, at its apex, the clouds dispersed, to reveal cerulean skies.  

            “Open the gates in the name of King Belihn Ekes’j!”

            Divita started and clasped her hands to her mouth to stifle the scream that clogged her throat.

            It took four guards to lift the iron bar from the gates.  Then the four guards pulled as one and the city gates swung silently open.  

            Divita gazed hungrily at the crowd of soldiers on the other side.  Her son stood at the fore.

            “We have won the battle of Le.ath Plain and Tjish.un has withdrawn,” Belihn yelled into the silence.  

            The cheering began near her and spread like wildfire beyond her and into the city until the very ground seemed to shake.  Then Divita realized people were stomping their feet.  How they had the energy, she would never know.

            Belihn strode under the great archway and to where she stood.  He gathered her in his arms.  She clung to him, her hands feeling along his back, trying to convince herself he was here.  It was over.

            “Belihn,” she said and pulled back to gaze into his hazel eyes.  “Thank the Goddess, child.  I had almost lost hope.”

            He took a stray strand of her hair and tucked it behind her left ear. “Thank you, Mother, for keeping our people safe while I fought.”

            Emotions clogged her throat, so she only nodded and gave him a quivering smile.

            He reached a hand and clasped Tah’duk’h’s hand in greeting.

            “You, too, Ambassador,” Belihn said.  “Thank you for keeping my people safe.”

            Tah’duk’h bowed.  “My pleasure, your Majesty.”

            Belihn turned.  “Kurk, as Warlord, it is your responsibility to get food to the people.  Distribute enough for everyone and then bring some to Castle Draemin.  Make sure the soldiers and their families get enough.”

            Warlord Deshon bowed.  “Right away, my King.”

            “I will help the Warlord, King Belihn,” Commander Tione murmured.

            Divita watched as both men disappeared through the crowd of soldiers and into the wharves.

            Belihn slid his arm around Divita’s waist.  “It will take hours before we get our food, Aya.  Let’s go back home.  We’ve lots to talk about.”

            “Lead the way, my son,” she said.

            They climbed into the waiting carriage.  Belihn sat next to Tah’duk’h.

            Divita studied her son’s features.  He seemed older, strong and healthy, but his eyes had changed.  Their innocence was gone, ruthlessly excised by war and killing, by blood and sacrifice.

            She swallowed.  “I sent you several missives that made it back untouched.  Both Alona and Emira’h miscarried, child.  I’m sorry.”

            He bent his head and sighed.  “I didn’t expect my children to survive.  But I am glad my wives did.”

            She nodded and said nothing.

            He rubbed his face with his hands.  “And Tifa?”

            Divita swallowed thickly.  “The child died in utero.  She almost died as well, Belihn.  She is still weak from lack of food and blood loss, even though it was weeks ago.”  She clasped her hands on her lap.  “T’arehn has changed, child.  He has grown morose and tightlipped.  I did not have the energy or the time to see to him.”

            “I’ll talk to him,” Belihn told her.  “The Queen of Tjish.un is having her younger sister sent here, to marry him.  Perhaps that will pull his head from his ass.”

            She gasped.  “Belihn!”

            He scowled.  “Everyone has suffered, mother.  No one has been spared.  There is no space for tantrums.  He is sixteen.  It’s high time he became a man.”

            She closed her mouth and looked closely at her son.  He sounded so stern and mature.  Yet he was only one and twenty years old.  

            “I defer to you, my King,” she told him.  

            “T’arehn will grow up, Mother,” he told her.  “I’ll make sure of it.”

            He turned to gaze at the passing scenery.

            She swallowed thickly.  His eyes were hers, hazel speckled with green, gold and brown, but the rest was all Kah’len.  Goddess help her, but it was like looking at Kah’len Ys’teis.  Now that she was in love with Tah’duk’h, it wasn’t so hard to look at Belihn and see Kah’len in his features.

            She slid her gaze to Tah’duk’h then back to Belihn.

            “The Ambassador has asked me to marry him, Belihn,” she said carefully.  “I have accepted.”

            Belihn shook himself and gazed at her.  “You have my blessing, Mother.  All I want is for you to be happy.”

            She released the breath she had been holding.  “Thank you, Son.”

            He nodded and turned away again.

            She frowned but said nothing.  He had come back with a distance like a chasm surrounding him.  He was unassailable and unreachable.  He was King of Draemin City-State and that was all.  It was time she moved on, got on with her life.  She glanced at Tah’duk’h.  He smiled at her and she smiled back.  He would take her home.

Chapter IX: Terms

            It took several hours before the Tjish.unen were ready to bring their terms to the table.  By early evening, a great procession of Tjish.unen soldiers followed their new queen across the vastness of the battlefield towards Belihn’s camp.        

            Belihn stood with the two Yllysian commanders, Kurk Deshon and Penoi Masino and his holy man, Neron Sanor, and watched as the procession from Tjish.un made its way across the barren field.  Belihn ran his eyes over those who led the procession. He saw a young woman who looked to be around fifteen years of age, he saw his grandmother, Oona Thalmar, her leather armor hugging her slender form.  Her hair, in two tight braids, was salt and pepper, although her face remained unlined.  He saw an older man in full Tjish.unen uniform riding on the young woman’s left side.  

            The procession stopped a few feet away from where Belihn and his advisors stood.   A young soldier dismounted and hurried to the young queen’s bahil and assisted in her dismounting.  Oona Thalmar and the man on the young woman’s left dismounted as well and strode to within a couple of feet of where Belihn and the others stood.

            The young girl ran her eyes over the gathering and settled on Belihn.

            “I am Iliara Thalmar, Queen of Tjish.un,” she said in a reed-thin voice.  Her large green eyes were uncertain.  She was pretty, with a froth of freckles across the bridge of her nose and along both cheeks.

            Belihn took a step forward.  “Welcome, Queen of Tjish.un.  I am Belihn Ekes’j, King of Draemin City-State.”

            “You are no such thing!” Oona Thalmar spat, her scowl wiping away her beauty and leaving a mask behind.

            Iliara Thalmar sighed.  “You are to remain out here, Aunt.”

            Oona started.  “No, I come with you–“

            The girl turned and slapped the older woman hard across the face.  “You do not gainsay me again, are we clear?”

            Oona fought to control her emotions, a disarray of pain, surprise, and hurt.  She curtsied.  “Yes, my Queen.”

            Queen Iliara turned to Belihn once more.  “This is my father and closest advisor, Commander-General Omer Ah’sai’la’h.”

            Belihn inclined his head.  “Commander-General.”

            The man bowed.  “Your Majesty.”

            Belihn indicated his companions.  “Tauk-na Penoi Masino, his Pauk-an, Neron Sanor, Commander-General Kurk Deshon, Commander Nosjka’h Olivaro Tione, and Captain Kalthos Gulehn Askar.  My advisors.”

            The men bowed to the Queen of Tjish.un and she inclined her head in acknowledgement.  

            Belihn indicated his tent.  “Shall we?”

            She inclined her head again and they entered the tent, Belihn leading the way followed by the young queen.  Belihn held the flap open for her and she ducked inside, at once running her eyes uncertainly over the contents of the tent.

            Belihn indicated the small round table at the center of the pavilion.  He strode to the table and held out a chair for Queen Iliara.

            She sat down on the chair.  Her father and advisor remained standing at attention behind her.  Belihn sat across the table from her, his advisors behind him.

            Penoi Masino sat to Belihn’s left, halfway between the monarchs.

            Neron Sanor gave a blessing in Isemi to begin the proceedings.

            “What are your terms, King of Draemin City-State?” Queen Iliara asked.

            “No more enmity between our countries,” Belihn said.  “I ask for payment for what your mother, my aunt did.”

            The girl frowned.  “What did she do?”

            “She had plague-infested bodies catapulted over the walls of Draemin City-State.”

             Both the girl and her father blanched.

            She sat straighter.  “My mother would never do that, not if it would mean the death of women!”

            “And yet it was done,” Kurk replied smoothly.

            She struggled to control her emotions, finally succeeding after a few seconds.  “What payment would suffice for this atrocity?”

            “An open treaty between our nation states once more,” Belihn said.  “And your merchants pay a fee to trade in Draemin.  The fee will be paid to the government of Draemin City-State and will be used to help the families who have suffered from the plague.”

            She raised an eyebrow.  “And how will you be compensated?”

            “The taxes denizens pay are sufficient for my government,” Belihn told her.

            She seemed surprised.  “Commendable.”  She looked uncertainly at her father before reverting her gaze to Belihn.  “I will pay your expenses for the war, King Ekes’j.  I disagreed with this endeavor from the beginning, but my mother did anything her sister demanded of her.”

            Commander-General Ah’sai’la’h put a hand on her right shoulder and bent to whisper in her ear.

            She frowned and pulled away from his hand.  

            “No,” she said.  She looked at Belihn again.  “What are your other terms?”

            “We demand that Tjish.un not fight against us for 100 years, the treaty to be ratified accordingly and signed again at the end of the stipulated time.  Our nation-states were sisters by blood.  Your blood runs in my veins, Queen Iliara.”

            She swallowed; her eyes bright.  “Yes, and mine runs in yours.”

            They smiled at one another.

            She sobered.  “Any more terms?”

            “You make it sound like I won this war, your Majesty,” he told her.

            “Your Goddess won this war,” she said in a small voice.  “Every day, I saw soldiers sicken and die within hours.”  She shook her head and brought a hand to her eyes to wipe away a tear.  “So many died.”

            “I’m sorry, your Majesty,” he told her honestly.

            She gave him a watery smile.  “It is finished.  I will sign your treaty and we shall go back to being friends.”

            Kurk handed Belihn the scroll. Belihn unfurled it.  “These are the terms, your Majesty.  In a few weeks’ time, I shall send an ambassador to bring you the trade treaty.  She will be invested with full powers to draw up and sign on my behalf.”

            The girl brightened.  “A woman?  Truly?”

            He chuckled.  “Yes, your Majesty.  A woman ambassador.”

            He moved the pen and inkwell towards her.  She picked up the pen and scribed her name on the paper.

            “We demand blood,” Neron Saron murmured.

            She blanched and her father put his hand on his sword.

            Belihn looked at the Pauk-an.  “Explain yourself, your holiness.”

            The Isemi bowed.  “A prick to the young queen’s finger and her blood on the treaty will suffice for the Isemi.  The same is being asked of you, King of Draemin City-State.”

            Belihn looked at her.

            After a moment, she nodded.

            The Pauk-an unsheathed his dagger, held its sharp tip over the flame of the candle that sat on the table.  Then he took her hand and pricked her thumb.  To her credit, although she had paled, she hardly flinched when the cut was made.  The holy man brought her thumb to the paper and pressed next to her signature.  When he released her hand, he turned to Belihn.

            Belihn signed his name under hers and allowed the Pauk-an to prick his thumb.  He pressed his thumb to the parchment.

            “Sarka!” the holy man announced.  “It is done!”

            Belihn rose and she followed suit.  They walked around the table towards one another and hugged.  She felt frail and slight in his arms.

            When she pulled back, she gazed up into his eyes.  “I hear you have a younger brother?”

            He smiled at her.  “Yes, T’arehn.”

            “I have a younger sister.  Can we unite in blood once more?”

            He nodded.  “Yes, your Majesty.”

            “Then I shall host the wedding!” she announced and giggled.

            “Let’s make it for next dibasj,” he told her.  “The plague should be gone from our shores by then.”

            She sobered and nodded.  “It shall be done.”

            “I’ll bring my family to Tjish.un before then so the young people can meet each other.”

            She thrust her arm through his and lowered her voice.  “I want my sister away from your grandmother’s influence and bitterness.  I will send her to you when I return to Da’hrisjah.  Your grandmother is angry with you on behalf of Uncle Kah’len. She poisons everything.  She poisoned my mother.  She will push me too far one day.”

            They walked out into the dimming light.  

            She looked up at him and smiled.  “You are very handsome.  Too bad you are already married.”

            He laughed and pressed a kiss to her pouty lips.  “And you are beautiful, Queen Iliara, of body and heart.”

            She blushed and released his arm.  “Send us a copy of the treaty, King Belihn.  We will vacate the field in one week’s time and then sail on the Khaine River to Azura.Dha and, from there, home.  Goodbye to you.”

            He bowed.  “Goodbye to you, Queen Iliara.”

            Oona Thalmar stood next to her bahil, bristling.  She waited until Iliara was mounted before striding to where Belihn stood.  She backhanded him so hard, he felt his teeth cut the soft inner tissue of his cheek.

            “You are a monster!” she snarled.  “Using the Goddess for your nefarious ends!”

            He wiped the blood from his lips and looked at her coldly and calmly, although inside he was seething from shock and pain and sorrow.

            “Your son, my father, is a coward,” he told her evenly.  “If he had kept his promise, I would not have rebelled.”

            “For what, the common man?” She laughed.  “He was Warlord at fifteen!  He was a great king, controlling those who despised him for being half-Tjishu.nen.  You cut his greatness down, ended it too soon, by your schemes and greed!”

            “You believe what you must, Grandmother.  I will fulfill his promise to the common man.  The Goddess is angry because he did not fulfill his promise.  I will do her bidding, even if he didn’t have the courage to do so.”

            Her eyes flashed rage and she lifted her arm again, but Commander-General Ah’sai’la’h took hold of her arm and pulled her away.

            “That’s quite enough, your Grace,” he told her. He signaled for a soldier.  “Arrest the Duchess.”

            She rounded on him.  “You can’t have me arrested!  I’m royalty!”

            He laughed.  “You’ve committed enough damage, your Grace.  You’ll be exiled to the island of Bah’nah, where you’ll live in comfort and under house arrest for the rest of your life.”

            She opened her mouth, but he slapped her hard.  

            “That’s quite enough out of you,” he told her coldly.  “Mount up!”

            He turned to Belihn and bowed.  “Your Majesty.”

            “Commander-General,” Belihn replied numbly.

            He watched as two soldiers manacled his grandmother and forced her onto a bahil.  He watched as the Tjish.unen forces retreated from the battlefield and back to their camp.

            “What of the clans?” Kurk asked Belihn.

            “There will be no peace treaty,” he told his friend.  “Not until they do away with the caste laws.”  He lowered his voice.  “I shall unify North Torahn, by Her grace, and that shall be that.”

            They turned and ducked inside of Belihn’s tent.

            “When will you attempt your unification of North Torahn?” Kurk asked him.

            “Will you give me your answer, Kurk?  Will you be Warlord?”

            Kurk smiled at him.  “Yes, my King.  Now, answer my question.”

            Belihn laughed. “We have to recover from our battle with Tjish.un and from the plague.  Give me five years and I’ll be ready.”

            They clasped forearms.

            “Done,” Kurk said and they grinned at one another.

Chapter VIII: The Wrath of Atana

               Belihn sat atop his bahil, Eiwor, and overlooked the devastation that was the battlefield. Eiwor shifted beneath him as Belihn ran his eyes over the horizon.  The battle always ended at sunset and the medics went out to retrieve the wounded and dying before the dead bodies were collected and carted off the field in wagons.  The stalemate had gone on for weeks.  He wondered when it would end, if it would end when the last soldier fell.  The news from Draemin City-State was dire, as food dwindled, and the plague took hold.  He was angry at his aunt, the Queen of Tjish.un, for catapulting plague-infected bodies over the walls of his city-state.  He had raged when he got the missive from his mother.  His voice had risen in anguish over the silent night.  in the morning, he had told his troops what the Tjish.unen had done.  Anger had fueled the troops and they had almost won the day.  

            He dismounted and handed the reins of his mount to a nearby soldier and strode to his tent, pushing the flap aside and striding within.  

            As he paced, he prayed.  “Atana, Mother of Justice, kill them all.”

            At once, he felt a change.  The previous cold breeze began to increase in strength until the tent shook. Minutes later, the darkened skies opened up and icy rain began to fall in torrents.  He poked his head out and watched as soldiers ran for cover.  

           It begins.  The voice was in his head.  

            Belihn ducked back into his tent and looked around, spooked.

            All that was needed was the ask.

            “Mother?” he asked aloud.

            Change comes, son of the tash-tash.  A promise was given; a promise shall be granted.

            “What does that mean, O Mother?” he asked aloud.  

            Was it so easy?  Could he have ended the endless fighting with a prayer?  All those men dead…He swallowed thickly, diverting his rage to himself.

           All change has a cost.  Your people pay for you, Belihn Ekes’j.  You are christened in blood and sorrow, in pain and loss.

            He turned in a circle, his gaze locked on the underside of the tent roof.  “My family?  My children?”

            You are christened in blood and sorrow, in pain and loss.  There is a purpose for all things.  Never forget.  I give life and I take life, for my purpose.  Do you question me?

            He fell upon his knees and bent his gaze to the ground.  “Mother of Souls, Mother of Justice!  I question nothing.  I bow before you, before your will.  End this.”

            The wind outside howled, it strength threatening to uproot the pegs anchoring the tent to the soddened ground.  Thunder boomed and lightning turned the night into day.  Belihn could smell ozone as the fine hairs along his forearms rose.  

            You will lose more before the end.  Give me your all, give me everything.

            Belihn closed his eyes and prayed, opening his mind and his heart.

            A fire began in his core, the invisible flames licking along his organs and boiling his blood.  He gasped, wondering if he would die and prepared to do so, if it would mean Draemin City-State would survive.  He fell forward as he smelled burning flesh.  He heard blood curdling screams.

            I bathe you in fire, son of deceit.  I bathe you in righteousness.  I bathe you in the end and the beginning.  I cleanse the lie and birth the truth.  Holy of holies, your seed will face the greatest challenge of this world.  I give you the future, son of the tash-tash!  

            Behind his eyelids, Belihn saw gigantic seeds flying through the air, their rounded, sleek, metallic surface slicing through clouds.  When they landed, the people of Audesei fell upon their knees and worshipped the tall, lean, elegant race of beings who were impossibly beautiful, with impossibly cold and cruel eyes.  What Belihn saw next, he would recall only in fragments, for his mind could not conceive of what it was seeing.  

           People will think you mad.  But you must write your dreams into a book. Ishones Thul you must call it.  The Book of Dreams.  Future people will see its truth but those who live now will mock and question you.  Your writings will fall into obscurity, to be discovered in the future when the time is ripe for knowledge and truth.  

            He tasted blood.  Behind his eyelids, other battles raged.  Blood soaked the ground.  Fear clung to the air.

            Visions littered his mind with splashes of color, strange faces, violence and death.

            His groin boiled until he could hear screams in the distance and muffled voices.  

            You are cleansed.  You are burned clean.  Your sins are boiled away.  The beginning and the end; the lie and the truth; the shadow and the light.

            Wake.

            Belihn blinked his eyes open.  The lids were crusted with salt from tears.  It took a moment before the lids parted and he could see.  Silence beneath the spatter of rain on puddles outside.  The air smelled fresh and clean, of damp earth and northern breezes.  He was cold, even though he lay beneath a blanket.  His skin reeked of sweat and he could taste blood in his mouth.

            “Ah, you wake.”

            He turned his head.  Kurk Deshon sat on a chair next to Belihn’s cot.  He looked wan and tired.  Dark smudges stained beneath his eyes and a heavy shadow littered his cheeks.  

            “K-Kurk…”  Belihn swallowed thickly.  His mouth felt parched and his throat hurt.

            Kurk shifted forward, lifted Belihn’s head and held a cup to his mouth.  Belihn swallowed the sweet, cool water greedily, sighing as his thirst was slaked.  

            “What happened?”

            “You scared me half to death,” Kurk said.  “I heard your screams and ran in here, thinking you were being attacked.  But you were writhing on the ground, having a fit.  It took four soldiers to hold you.  I had to change you uniform, as you urinated and defecated on yourself.”

            Heat filled Belihn’s cheeks.  “I’m sorry.”

            “Never mind,” Kurk growled.  “Plague stole into the enemy’s camp last night, for this morning they have raised the black flag over their tents.  People are weakening within hours of being infected.  They die within hours, not days.  It’s uncanny and frightening.”

            Belihn made to sit up.

            “Relax,” Kurk growled.

            “Help me up; I’m fine,” Belihn groused.

            Kurk rose and helped him sit up.  

            They locked gazes before Kurk looked away.

            Belihn rose and strode naked to his washbasin.  He rinsed his mouth and washed quickly before dressing in a fresh uniform and pulling on his boots last.  He sat on a stool and brushed his hair with shaking hands, but Kurk had to braid his hair, his hands shook so hard.  

            “None of our men have gotten sick,” Kurk began conversationally.

            “We will be spared Her wrath,” Belihn replied and rose with shaky legs.  “Please fetch me some breakfast, Kurk.”

            “Right away, my king.”

            Belihn walked to the table that was the centerpiece of his tent and gazed down on the map before him.  He felt thin as a thread, hollowed out and empty.  He could recall the images he had seen and shuddered.  The future was soaked in blood, but they must first survive the present.  The future was for his descendants.  All he could do was prepare his children for what came.

            Kurk returned shortly, carrying a covered tray and set the tray on top of the map.

            Belihn pulled a chair close and straddled it, uncovering a porridge filled with dried fruit and nuts, milk and honey and spices.  He ate while Kurk pulled a chair close and straddled it as well.

            “The battle will end soon,” Belihn told his friend.  “Their casualties will be high due to disease.  Their Gods have no power in Atana’s land.  It is as it was decreed in the beginning.”

            “You sound like a High Priest,” Kurk murmured, his eyes sharp with uncertainty and the shadow of fear.

            “Don’t be afraid, Kurk,” Belihn assured him.  “You are safe, as will be your family once you are married.”

            Kurk rolled his eyes.  “What is it with you trying to get me married?”

            Belihn huffed a chuckle.  “Your descendants and mine have their own battle to fight.  They must do so together.  This is all bigger than your selfishness, Kurk.”

            Kurk grunted and watched him finish his meal.

            Belihn picked up the mug of tea and sipped it.  “The scepter was not married to the altar.  I must take the vow of a high priest.  Atana wants a theocracy.  Atana will get a theocracy.”

            “And Lahn Tjashensi-Obeli?” Kurk asked.

            “I will speak with him.  He misunderstood what the Goddess required.  He thought if he married my father, then the scepter would marry the altar.  But that was his desire interpreting Her decree.  Both the High Priest and my father betrayed Her by letting their selfish wants warp their visions.”

            “And you believe your interpretation to be correct?” Kurk asked.

            “Yes.”

            “Then so be it.  I support you.”

            They clasped forearms and Kurk gave him a disarming smile.  “We live in interesting times, but we also live in great times.”

            “A mixed blessing,” Belihn agreed and rose.  

            Donning their wax treated cloaks, they stepped out into the icy morning.  The rain had tapered down to a drizzle.  The camp was filled with an eerie silence that was like a pall over everything.  The smell of cooking fires clung to the air.  As he and Kurk strode over puddles, soldiers saluted and bowed.  They watched Belihn with awe and some disconcertion.  

            “Great King of the Torahni!”

            Belihn stopped and turned.

            “Tauk-na of the Isemi of the North,” Belihn greeted the other formally.

            They grasped forearms.

            Penoi Masino was broad and handsome, wearing a fur lined cloak and nothing else on his upper torso.  He wore a colorful wrap that was the Isemi traditional costume around his midriff.  The wrap fell down to his knees and his strong, broad feet were bare.  He wore bands of gold in his upper arms and beaded bracelets on both wrists.  His thick hair fell unbraided down his broad back.

            “Your Goddess has smote the enemy with the swift bleeding death,” the Isemi leader murmured.  “We have lost many warriors for your cause, but we have gained much.  It has been a glorious battle, but I think it is done or will soon be.”

            “I think so, too,” Belihn agreed.  “Walk with us.”

            The three headed down between the rows of tents towards the battlefield.  Behind them, Isemi warriors followed their king.

            At the edge of the battlefield, Belihn stopped and gazed across the vast expanse towards the enemy camp.  He could see the black plague flags limp in the bland late morning light.

            “Send a vinah with a note,” Belihn told Kurk.  “Let them know we would hear terms now or wait until what remains of their armies succumb.”

            Kurk saluted and strode away, back the way he had come and to his tent.

            “And now, Great King?” Penoi Masino wanted to know.

            Belihn smiled at the Isemi.  “Now we wait, Tauk-na.  We’ve bled and died enough.  This ends now.”

            The kings stood side by side while Kurk brought out a carrier vinah with the note strapped to one of its legs.   With a nod from Belihn, Kurk released the winged reptile.  It took off towards the enemy camp with a flap of leathery wings.

            Commander Nosjka’h Olivaro Tione and Captain Kalthos Gulehn Askar joined Belihn, Kurk and Penoi Masino at the edge of the battlefield.  The leaders discussed the possibility that the enemy would not surrender.  The battle would continue until one side or the other prevailed.  Even the Isemi were tired of fighting.  

            No answer came that day, but neither did the enemy rush to take up arms against them.  The battlefield remained deserted.  Days passed.  

            Belihn grew restless and uncertain as the days piled behind him.  He prayed hard.  The more insecure he grew, the harder he prayed, refusing to allow doubt to assail him.

            Finally, a note came via carrier vinah.

            Kurk brought it to Belihn’s tent.    

            The commander entered Belihn’s tent without announcing himself.  “They’ve sent a response!”

            Belihn thanked his friend and took the tiny capsule, shaking out the small note within.

            He unfurled the tiny scroll and held it to the light of the sole candle in the tent.  

            “The Queen of Tjish.un is dead,” Belihn read.  “Will you treat with her daughter?”

            “Is it a trick?” Kurk wondered out loud.

            “I don’t know,” Belihn replied with a frown.  “But answer them.  Tell them we will treat with whatever representative they deign to send.”

            Kurk hurried to do his bidding.

            In the meantime, Belihn went to the tent flap and stepped outside.  He ordered three guards to fetch Penoi Masino and the two Yllysian commanders.  Then he returned to his tent to don his dress uniform.

Chapter VII: Austerity

            Irai’h strode along the boulevard towards Ryeo’h’s townhouse.  New austerity measures implemented by the Regent limited the days the open air market could sell staples and cooked food.  The siege promised to go on for months, until their forces could return to assist the city-state.  Already, the price of staples like grain and raw vegetables and fruit had skyrocketed.  The Regent had given an order to the villas to grow vegetables and fruit for the city-state in order to stave off the starvation that resulted from long sieges.  Tjish.un had destroyed the Torahni navy that had been at port seven weeks prior.  The ships had burned for days and the air still reeked of acrid smoke.  The sailors manning the Torahni navy had either been killed outright or taken as prisoners back to Tjish.un.  

            Irai’h grimaced as he turned down a smaller street, away from the empty marketplace.  When he reached Ryeo’h’s home, he took the front steps two at a time and used the knocker to announce his presence.  

            The butler opened the door and bowed.  “Lord Asjur.  Welcome.  Everyone is in the main sitting room.”

            “Thank you, Shen.”

            “Of course, my lord.”

            Irai’h entered the sitting room to a hushed atmosphere.  The children were playing quietly in a corner and did not even notice him when he entered.  The smallest, Kher, now six months old, looked up from his blanket on the floor between the settee and the armchairs and gave Irai’h a toothless grin, his chin shiny from spittle.  

            “Good afternoon,” Irai’h murmured into the silence.

            The adults rose and turned to him, Ryeo’h nodding his head at Irai’h.

            “Welcome, Irai’h,” Ryeo’h said softly.

            Banela and Sjaji curtsied.

            Aosji and I’a’sji both bowed.

            Ryeo’h turned to his wives.  “Please take the children upstairs.”

            The women did as he asked, Sofi and Alis whimpering their discontent before dissolving into sobbing.

            When the women and children had gone upstairs, Ryeo’h closed the sitting room doors.  “Have a seat, my friends.”            

            The men sat down and watched silently as Ryeo’h began to pace.

            “Our plans have obviously changed,” Ryeo’h said.  “The siege can go on for months, if not years.  It all depends on the battle at Le.ath Plain.  I had hoped we could go to South Torahn to attend Princess Alida’s wedding, but now everything is up in the air.  Although, the services of the Reformist Lord may not be necessary now that King Belihn is on the throne.”

            Irai’h shifted.  “We should wait before we decide our services are no longer needed.  Belihn seems sincere, but, as you say, everything is up in the air.”

            Ryeo’h nodded distractedly as he continued to pace.  “Things are going to get difficult for a while.  Once starvation sets in, disease follows.  I don’t know how much food is stored at Draemin Castle, but the denizens of the castle and its protective forces will always eat first before the rest of the population.  I’ve begun to grow food in our villa.  I will make sure your families get some of that food.”

            Irai’h waived a hand.  “It’s just me, Ryeo’h.  I’ve already begun to ration my food.”

            Ryeo’h sighed.  “All staples rot after a while.  Grain lasts a bit longer than other types of food, especially if we use simi stones to prolonge freshness.  But we’ve been cut off from the rest of the world.  SImi stones can preserve food only for so long. Eventually, starvation will set in and we will have the plague on our shores.”            

            The friends glance at one another and then drop their gazes.  

            Irai’h pushed down his terror and swallowed thickly.  “We knew it would be hard to change our city-state.  Goddess help us!”

            They hunkered down around Ryeo’h’s card table and began to take inventory of food stores, including grain supplies, dried meat and nuts.  They made a vow to share all supplies amongst their families.  Then they made plans for when the food ran out.  

            Irai’h glanced at Ryeo’h.  He wasn’t sure what he’d do if he had children and spouses to worry about.  Ryeo’h was ruthlessly efficient and capable, but he was just a man after all.  He couldn’t defeat the Tjish.unen armed forces and he couldn’t produce food from thin air.  

            “We have to be brave,” Irai’h told the sombre silence.  “This will probably be the hardest times we face in our lives.”

            Ryeo’h rubbed his eyes.  He looked worn down.  “You are correct, Irai’h.  This will be hard enough that some of us might not survive.  People will die. Children and women will die.”  His voice dropped to a whisper.  “My own children and women may die.”  He shook his head.  “Goddess help me!  We must not lose our faith or our persistence.”

            Then the days turned into weeks and further austerity measures took effect.  Beggars began to line the streets, asking for food.  The open air market closed indefinitely.  Throngs of people made their way to Draemin Cathedral as the High Priest set a podium on the grounds and held mass on a daily basis.

            As the weeks gave way to months, the Regent imposed curfews, limiting only from sunrise to midafternoon when people could roam the streets.  Lean, haggard soldiers brutally enforced the curfews.  Irai’h had seen more than one curfew breaker beaten to within an inch or his life then carted away to the hospital.

            Warm anasj gave way to a sweltering dibasj.  No one could recall the last time dibasji temperatures soared so high, resulting in long rainless days.  The days piled one upon the other until drought threatened the last of the food supply.  The city was out of seeds, so if the food on the vine was destroyed, they would have nothing else.  Dry dibasj gave way to a rainy, cold haltath.  It rained so much, the remaining crops rotted on the vine.  

            The Tjish.unen began to catapult the bodies of plague victims over the walls of the city-state.  The bodies were filled with festering pustules and reeked of disease.  Soldiers and citizens were conscripted to cart the bodies into the countryside and collect them in vast trenches carved out by the citizenry.  But the damp conditions did nothing to deter the spread of the disease.  By the end of the season and the beginning of kamaran, the black flag was raised into the sky over the ramparts of the city walls.  Quarantine was imposed and brutally maintained by groups of lean, haggard-looking soldiers.  Bodies were carted by wagons into the countryside in the morning and evening.

            Irai’h, watching from the window of his apartment, wondered how many bodies have already been carted out into the countryside.  Hundreds of plague-ridden bodies had been catapulted over the walls by the Tjish.unen forces.  So many, the bodies could not be disposed of quickly enough to prevent the disease from taking hold.  It had been days since Irai’h had left his apartment.  Hunger and its accompanying symptoms were his constant companions.  His days passed in a fog of lightheadedness and aimless thoughts.  He thought of attempting to leave his home to try to reach Ryeo’h’s home, but he had seen too many quarantine breakers beaten to death in the street.  The brutality of the soldiers seemed to know no bounds.  

            Whispers of cannibalism began to circulate throughout the city-state.  Whenever Irai’h left his apartment to talk to his neighbors, the topic would inevitably arise.  That soldiers were killing citizens and consuming them.  That they could not leave their homes for fear of death.

            As Athal’Atana approached, the beginning of a new year, Irai’h wondered what had become of the city forces at Le.ath Plain.  It had been over eight months now. Irai’h was beginning to lose hope and thought he would die of starvation before the city-state was rescued.  No news came out of Draemin Castle.  Silence blanketed the city-state like the snow blanketed her streets and the roofs of her structures.

            Hunger riots broke out occasionally and were brutally put down by soldiers wielding clubs.  Irai’h, watching from his window, saw more than one person trampled under the hoofs of bahil or lirtah.  Blood stained the snow in a glaring display until more snow fell.      

            There were times when Irai’h dreamed.  The dreams were of food.  Of eating and eating and never feeling full.  He dreamed of Belihn on a throne made of bones.  He dreamed of Ryeo’h pacing and talking, although his words sounded distant and muffled.  Soon, he didn’t go out of his apartment even to talk to his neighbors, for he had heard the coughing and retching coming from neighboring apartments.  One evening, he stole into the hallways and saw the black swath of cloth nailed to doors.  Plague had stolen into the building.  Horrified, he hurried back to his apartment and locked his door.

            But as the days piled one upon the other and Athal’Atana came and went, Irai’h came to the realization that he could conceivably die alone and he didn’t want to.  So, that evening, he waited until long past midnight and snuck out of his apartment with a bag filled with clothes.  He bundled himself under his kamarani cloak and hurried into the back alley.  From there, he made his slow and careful way to Ryeo’h’s row house.  The journey, which should have taken twenty minutes at the most, stretched to several hours as he waited in the shadows for roaming groups of soldiers to pass his hiding spots.  By the time he made it to Ryeo’h’s front door, he was shaking from exhaustion and weakness.  Ryeo’h’s front door was unmarked, so he made his slow way up the steps and knocked on the door.

            Ryeo’h himself opened the door.  “Goddess, Irai’h! Come in.”

            It was early morning by then and Irai’h wondered what Ryeo’h was doing up so early, but he said nothing as he followed his friend to the sitting room.

            Ryeo’h looked whip thin, his face gaunt and pale.  He said nothing as he sat down in an armchair and watched as Irai’h set his bag down and took a seat across from him.

            “I won’t eat your food, Ryeo’h,” Irai’h said softly.  “I just…I don’t want to die alone.”

            Ryeo’h smiled wanly.  “I will spare you some food, my friend.  We killed our two carriage lirtah and smoked the meat.”

            “I can’t eat your food, Ryeo’h–“

            “This isn’t up for discussion, Irai’h,” Ryeo’h snapped.  “No one dies under my watch.”

            Irai’h swallowed with some difficulty and nodded.  “Thank you. How is your family?”    

            “We lost Kher,” Ryeo’h said, his voice breaking.  “Banela stopped producing milk and the child died of starvation.  He wouldn’t eat anything else, no matter how we tried.”

            “I’m sorry,” Irai’h murmured, recalling the young child and his guileless smiles.

            Ryeo’h nodded.  “Thank you.  Dahni is listless and mostly sleeps.  He won’t make it, either.  Sjaji is unconsolable.  Dahni is our youngest child, after Kher.  Her youngest child.”        

            “Yes,” Irai’h murmured.  “And the servants?”

            “I let the servants go; I could not feed them any longer.”  He rubbed a hand over his mouth and shook his head. “I’a’sji and his mistress both died of the plague.  His servant sent us a message.”

            Irai’h gasped.  He thought of the tall, broad, handsome I’a’sji A’kir’h and could not conceive of him gone.  He had been a part of their group since the beginning.

            “And Aosji?” he asked.

            Ryeo’h shook his head.  “I haven’t heard hide nor hair from him.  I hope his family is well, but chances are he might not survive.  My sources tell me the plague is killing at a rate of 80 percent of the infected.”

            “So, it is particularly virulent this time around,” Irai’h murmured.  He sighed and leaned his head against the backrest.  He was shaking.

            Ryeo’h stood up.  “Give me a minute.”

            Irai’h heard his friend’s footsteps receding into the row house.  He must have fallen asleep, because then he was being shaken awake and a strip of meat was being pushed into his hand.  He looked at the woody looking meat and brought it to his mouth. It was tough but salty-sweet.  He chewed mechanically, his stomach giving a lurch of protest before it settled down.

            “Look in my bag,” he told Ryeo’h.  “I brought a bag of grain that I’ll share with your family.”

            Ryeo’h did as he was told, lifting the container of grain from the bag.

            He glanced at Irai’h and nodded, swallowing thickly.  “Thank you, Irai’h.  We’ll stretch it out into gruel.”

            Irai’h smiled wanly and finished his meat while Ryeo’h took the container to the kitchen.

            When Ryeo’h returned, they sat across from each other.

            “This is worse than I suspected it would be,” Ryeo’h said into the silence.  “I have no hope of surviving this.”

            “I can’t say I have much hope, either,” Irai’h told his friend.  “During my most treacherous and blackest moments, I wonder if our hopes for equality were of any value.  Was it worth dying for, doing away with the caste laws?”

            Ryeo’h nodded.  “It is worth dying for a cause if the cause is just.  Our cause is just.”

            “Yes, I know that during times when I am not mired by depression.  I have these lucid moments when everything makes sense.”  He chuckled mirthlessly.  “But those are few and far between.  I mostly sleep my days away, hoping one of these days I won’t wake.”

            “Hush,” Ryeo’h chastised and made the sign to avert evil.  “We’ll make it, Irai’h.  Goddess help us, it can’t be much more that our troops return!”

            “It is hope,” Irai’h assured his friend.  He said nothing that his hope was dying a piece at a time with each passing day.

            Ryeo’h led him upstairs to an empty bedroom, where Irai’h set his bag on the floor, removed his thick cloak and shoes and climbed under the bedclothes and closed his tired eyes.  He felt hollowed out, a sliver of the man he used to be.  He said a prayer to the Goddess, assuring Her of his devotion and asking Her for swift passage into the next life.  He did not have Ryeo’h’s hope anymore.  He wasn’t even sure he wanted to survive anyway.   It would be a long time before Draemin City-State returned to her previous glory.  He wasn’t sure he would see if, and he found he didn’t care in the least.  He allowed sleep to take him.