Chapter XIV: The Confrontation

            Belihn rose early the following day and went to the practice yards with Lieutenant Kurk Deshon for a few bouts of sparring.  They did not say much to each other as they plodded west through the expansive bailey. Rime made the cobblestones slick.  Their breaths clung to the air and the gentle breezes sweeping down from the north caressed their exposed faces and necks with icy fingers.  They reached the mostly empty southern practice yard a few minutes later.  They entered the capacious yard and Belihn removed his thick kamarani cloak and draped it over the low wooden fence demarcating this yard from the others.  Kurk followed suit and soon they were sitting across from each other on the rime-hard ground, stretching and twisting to warm up their muscles before they took up the wooden swords.  

            Once they were sufficiently warm, they rose and pulled out wooden swords from the barrel near the entrance.  Belihn hefted his sword, which was lighter than his iron sword, but still had enough heft on it to allow him to exercise his arm.  He went to stand across from his friend.  Deshon attacked without preamble.  He always managed to startle Belihn and Belihn had a thought that Kurk enjoyed discombobulating him when they sparred.  Belihn recovered quickly and soon the still air was filled with the thuds of their swords as they clashed again and again.   A surge of pleasure filled Belihn as he lost himself in the exercise.  He pushed all worries and concerns to the back of his mind and concentrated on besting his more than capable friend.

            Kurk grinned at him, his dark brown eyes lively and gently mocking.  He spun and brought his sword down in an arc.  Belihn halted the downward swipe of the sword and grunted as the swords clashed and the muscles along his back, arm and sides absorbed the stress.  He could feel his skin release sweat as Kurk continued to challenge him.  Kurk had learned all about self-defence in the army.  He was a commoner and they both had served under the arrogant and bigoted Commander Nyal Kia’guh.  They had met and liked one another right away, united by their shared discontent over the caste laws.  At first, Kurk had been suspicious of Belihn, as he was of all aristocrats, but Belihn had eventually worn down his self-protective facade and uncovered the man’s kind heart and disposition.  Kurk was Belihn’s only friend from the military and he was protective of their relationship.

            “Where’s your mind at, Tjashensi?” Kurk chided as his sword tip scraped along Belihn’s waist.

            Belihn grunted at the pain that momentarily flared along Belihn’s skin where the dull sword tip graced.

            Belihn pulled his thoughts back to the sparring.

            They continued their good-natured fighting until Belihn found himself stumbling from exhaustion.  Light touched the sky in the east, where Malthos, the sun, rose.  

            Sweat covered Belihn’s skin and he shivered in the northern breezes as he wiped sweat from his eyes and stepped back from Kurk.

            “Let’s stop there, shall we?”

            Kurk bowed.  “Done.”

            Belihn noted with some consternation that, even though Kurk was sweaty, his breathing was still even.    

            “What say you we go for a jog tomorrow morning?” Belihn asked innocently.

            Kurk groaned.  “I know all about your jogs, Tjashensi.  You’re a masochist.”

            Belihn took his friend’s sword and laughed as he turned and strode to the barrel to drop the swords inside.  He then picked up his cloak and turned back to his friend.

            “You have good stamina, Deshon,” Belihn told him.  “You can keep up just fine.”

            They began to walk back to the Officer’s House.  

            “It’s not keeping up that’s the problem, Tjashensi,” Kurk replied and used a meaty hand to wipe the sweat from his forehead.  “It’s the soreness the following day.”

            “You just aren’t stretching enough,” Belihn chastised him.

            “Well, your runs are so long, we don’t have time afterward,” Kurk complained.

            Belihn snorted.  “Never mind.  We’ll start half an hour early and take the adequate time to stretch.  Will that suit you?”

            Kurk sketched a bow.  “Yes.  Tomorrow then, Belihn.”

            “Tomorrow, Kurk.”

            They parted as Kurk headed for the second floor and Belihn went up to the third floor.  Once there, he scooped cold water from his fresh water barrel and filled the basin. He dropped a few drops of fragrant oil into the basin.   Discarding his sweaty clothes on the floor, he dropped a washcloth into the basin.  Wringing the cloth out, he scrubbed the sweat and salt from his body.  Afterward, he used the washcloth to scrub his face and under his arms and along his groin.  He walked over to the full lengthed mirror hanging from the door.  Running a hand along his cheek, he decided to shave.  He didn’t grow a beard very fast, so he ended up shaving every other day or every third day.  Striding back to the basin, he picked up his shaving cup filled with shaving soap and a brush and lathered the soap along his damp face.  Setting down the cup, he picked up the single blade next to the basin and scraped the soap and hair from his face.  Once done, he smiled at his reflection.  Not a single nick or cut.  He dressed in a fresh uniform and hung up the sweaty one to dry on the hooks on the wall next to the door.  After pulling on his knee high boots, he brushed and braided his hair in a single plait that fell to midback.  

            There came a knock on the door and, curious, he pulled the door open.  

            The private on the other side bowed and handed him a folded missive.  “This came for you, your Highness.”

            “Thank you,” Belihn murmured and took the letter.

            He did not recognize the seal, which looked to be from a business in town.  Breaking the seal, he unfolded the letter.

            “You are invited to an informal dinner at the residence of Ryeo’h Thalnel tomorrow evening.  Dinner will commence at sundown.”

            The missive had directions to the row house apartment.

            He strode to his dresser and dropped the missive next to his hairbrush.  He would craft a reply as soon as he got to Commander Ethael’s office.  

            Belihn headed to the dining room, where he picked up a tray and went to stand in line.  Lieutenant Deshon walked in a few minutes later and picked up a tray, coming to stand behind Belihn.

            “Fancy meeting you here,” Kurk murmured with a smirk.

            “Imagine that,” Belihn replied with a grin.  “Wonder what’s for breakfast?”

            “Something with some meat, I hope,” Kurk replied.

            Belihn set his tray down at the serving window.  The server set a bowl of boiled grains, tza nuts and dried berries, honey and cream on his tray.  He also set a mug of black mjish next to the bowl.

            Kurk grimaced at the fare but dutifully took his bowl and they carried their food to two empty seats.

            They sat next to each other and began to eat in silence.

            “What’s your week like?” Kurk asked between mouthfuls of the sweet, nutty cereal.

            “I have a dinner date at a friend’s house tomorrow,” Belihn answered, wiping his mouth with his napkin.  He sipped the bitter, sour tea.  “Then I have a dinner with my fiancee’s family at my mother’s suites the following day.  Why?”

            Kurk groaned.  “I forget you are betrothed.  I just met two twins, two sisters.  Beautiful and vivacious.  I wouldn’t mind going on a double date.”

            Belihn snorted.  “Why don’t you date them at the same time?  It is every domeinsji male’s fantasy, isn’t it?”

            Kurk smirked.  “I had not thought of that. When do I get to meet this fiancee of yours?”

            “Any time you like, Kurk.  We can go out with your twins in a couple of days.”

            Kurk sipped his tea.  “I don’t want a relationship with these twins, my friend.  What I want are simple, uncomplicated good times.”

            “Aren’t you going on twenty-two dibasjis?” Belihn pointed out.  “You should think of settling down.”

            Kurk rolled his eyes.  “Just because you’ve so placatingly placed the noose around your neck doesn’t mean I want one around mine.  There are many women in this world, my friend, and I don’t want to limit myself to just one.”

            Belihn picked up his tea mug.  “One day a woman will snare your heart, Kurk Deshon.  You mark my words.”

            Kurk shrugged.  “Independence and freedom will always mean more to me than love.”

            Belihn watched as his friend scraped the last of his cereal from his bowl and said nothing.  He didn’t disapprove of Kurk’s attitude; he wished he thought the same way.  But he liked the idea of being with a man the rest of his life.  He looked forward to the friendship and intimacy.  And with Alona, he would have children.  The idea of having children filled him with warmth.  He wanted a large, affectionate family to fill his days with joy.  But Kurk, as he had said, valued freedom more than anything, which made his military career so odd.

            “Why’d you join the military, if you value independence and freedom so well?”

            Kurk pushed his empty bowl away and shrugged.  “I have to survive somehow.  Once I learn my skills well enough, I will join a mercenary band that will provide companionship and travel and adventure.  There is plenty of time to settle down.  I want to travel the world first and see how much plunder there is.”

            Belihn sat back.  “I had no idea you wanted to become a mercenary.”

            Kurk sipped his tea.  When he replied, his voice was lower than before, not carrying beyond their small bubble of privacy.  “I have no loyalty to your father, Belihn.  I’m sorry to be so blunt.  But when he came to power, he said he would change things and that he has not done.  I’m tired of waiting.  Perhaps I’ll settle down somewhere else, where there are no caste laws and I can be free to succeed.”  He sighed and rose, setting his mug on the tray.  “Have a nice rest of your day, my friend.”

            Picking up his tray, Kurk strode away.

            Belihn swallowed thickly.  His conversation with Irai’h came to mind.  He had been correct about the fact that many young men became mercenaries because of the pay, but also because his father was losing the loyalty of the army.  It was not happening fast enough to prove concerning, but it was progressing at a steady rate nonetheless.  Soon most of the army of North Torahn would be made up of mercenaries, and they could be bribed to side with any of the King’s detractors.  His father was a fool.

            He rose and carried his tray to the serving window.

***

            Belihn went to his father’s suites after Court closed for the day.  Kurk’s words from earlier in the day clung to his thoughts.  The idea that soon the entire army would be made up of mercenaries whose loyalty was open to bribery filled him with a suffocating anxiety that had robbed his concentration all day.  Even his commander, Thul Ethael, had noticed and let him off work early.  Immediately upon leaving work, he made his way to the castle, using a little used servant’s entrance in order to avoid the Great Hall and the courtiers and aristocrats that took such pleasure in humiliating him.  Besides, he didn’t want to be too obvious about contacting his sire directly and openly.    

            He made his way to the fifth story of the castle and then down the wide, opulent hallway to the King’s suites.  He was gratified to find two North Torahni natives guarding the archway leading into King Kah’len’s suites.  The guards came to attention and saluted him.

            “Is the King in residence?” he asked.

            The guards bowed.  

            “Yes, Highness,” said the one on the right.  “Let me announce you.”

            Belihn waited as the guard knocked on the door and stepped into the sitting room.  

            A few minutes later, the guard returned.  “He will see you now.”

            Belihn nodded and entered his sire’s apartments.

            Kah’len was standing next to the large fireplace.  The King was not alone, which did not surprise Belihn.  Both Warlord Bhar Obeli and Commander-General  Rakah Ys’teis were present.

            “Belihn,” Bhar greeted.  “Is anything the matter?”    

            “No, but I need to speak to my Eda about something of great concern to me,” Belihn replied.  “I’m glad both you and Uncle Rakah are here.  You should hear what I have to say as well.”

            Kah’len took two steps forward.  “This couldn’t be related in a missive, son?  By coming here, you compromise everything we’ve worked so hard to establish.”

            “It can easily be explained, I think,” Belihn replied.  “And twisted to our purpose, I daresay.”

            Kah’len frowned but nodded.  “Go on then.  What has you so concerned?”

            Belihn took a deep breath and released it.  “Father, when are you going to address caste discrepancies?  When are you going to allow commoners to rise within the ranks of the army?  When are you going to do away with stupid laws that only hurt the most vulnerable?”

            “Where is this coming from?” Rakah asked.

            Belihn turned to him.  “You know what a close friend told me?  He is going to join a mercenary band because he has no loyalty for a King who made promises he has no intention of fulfilling.”

            Bhar took a step forward.  “Who is this?”

            “I will not betray a friend,” Belihn snapped.  “And when it is against the law to have an opinion?”

            Rakah frowned.  “When that opinion is seditious.”            

            “He said nothing of opposing the king,” Belihn pointed out.  He turned to his father.  “Eda. Please.  Fully 55 percent of your forces are mercenary.  That means they can be bribed to turn against you.  Every year more and more young men leave North Torahn because they find no justice at home.  Father, you made a promise when you took the oath of office:  You said you would change the caste laws.  You promised.”

            “That is enough,” Bhar growled.

            King Kah’len sighed.  “No, Bhar.  Let the boy speak.  Is there aught more you need to say to me?”

            “I am tired of seeing friends leave, Sire.  You are a good man and a good king, but you forget that most of your citizens are commoners, not the clans.”

            King Kah’len shook his head.  “I forget nothing.  I have to proceed very carefully, son.”

            “Civil War would not be a bad thing,” Belihn told him.  “It could cleanse and we could start again, just as we did when the Poaist were exiled.”

            “I would not have people’s blood on my hands!” the King spat.

            “But you’d have their discontent, their humiliation, their injustice instead?” Belihn challenged.

            Rakah stepped forward.  “Think carefully of what you are saying, Belihn.”

            “Are you going to arrest me, Uncle Rakah?  For what?  For advising the King?  Go ahead.  Arrest me.  I’m not so far from the bottom now.  Once I am free, I will become a mercenary, too.  I can’t support a king who lied to his people because he is afraid of something that will only inconvenience the clans.”

            “That is enough,” Bhar said coldly.  

            “Yes.  You are right,” Belihn stated.  “That is enough.  When, not too long from now, some discontented clan head bribes the mercenaries in your employ, father, and they oust your clan from power, perhaps killing your children and wives and yourself, you can think on my words before the hangman–“

            Rakah took three steps and backhanded Belihn.  Belihn’s head snapped back and his teeth cut into the soft inside of his cheek.  He smiled mirthlessly at his uncle and wiped the blood from his mouth.

            “I’m done here,” Belihn stated coldly.  “With this King and this family.  I will give my loyalty to whatever king pays me the most.”

            “Belihn–” the King said.

            Belihn shook his head.  He strode from the room and out into the hallway.  He had a resignation to write.

Chapter XIII: Considerations

            Ryeo’h stared at Irai’h for long enough that Irai’h found himself shifting uncomfortably under his friend’s cool regard. After long minutes, Ryeo’h sighed and looked away.

            “I don’t know why you couldn’t have seduced him right then and there,” Ryeo’h stated.  “Accepted his request and seduce him.”

            Irai’h cleared his throat.  “I didn’t want him to get suspicious of me, Ryeo’h.”

            “But you say he had mild physical symptoms and he did not guess you had drugged him,” his friend said.

            “That’s right,” Irai’h replied.  “But he was still cognizant and aware.  He was more vocal in his disaffections for his father, but he still retained most of his control.”

            Ryeo’h hummed and stood up.  He began to pace slowly around the library as Irai’h watched him carefully.

            “You say you poured two drops into the tea?”

            Irai’h nodded.  “I didn’t want him to be able to taste it.”

            “But it is evident it was not enough,” Ryeo’h murmured and ran a finger along his chin as he thought.  “If we ply him with alcohol, we can use more and he will probably think it is intoxication.”

            “How much do I use of the drug then?” Irai’h asked.

            Ryeo’h pursed his lips.  “We begin with two drops then add one drop per glass of alcohol he consumes after that.  We monitor the situation carefully.  If he vocalizes a doubt, we stop and reconnoiter.  But I have an idea he won’t think it’s anything other than intoxication.”  He stopped pacing and turned to face Irai’h.  “What were his symptoms?”

            “He became flushed and overly warm and began to perspire almost right away.”        

            Ryeo’h considered that and nodded.  “We will do this at my home, after we have dinner tomorrow.  I want to interrogate him and then he must wake next to you in the guestroom.”

            Irai’h nodded, flushing.  “Do you still require me to seduce him?”

            Ryeo’h shook his head.  “By the end of the evening, he won’t be in any shape to be seduced.  In order to make him pliable for interrogation, he will be mostly useless to you.  My chemist friend told me the side effects of the drugs mimic intoxication, but someone can figure it out, so we have to proceed carefully.  I was told that there are some disorientation and mental lapses the following day.  That’s when he can put two and two together, which is why we also have to be careful.  If he is at my residence, we can break our fast with him and redirect his doubts.”

            “I understand,” Irai’h assured his friend.

            Ryeo’h nodded and commenced his slow pacing once more.  

            “I have another job lined up for us,” Ryeo’h said quietly.

            Irai’h’s heart lurched.  “Here, in Draemin City-State?”    

            “Too soon for a job here,” Ryeo’h replied.  “No.  Princess Alida Obeli has reached her majority and is being married to a Tjish.unen prince.  I am working on identification papers to get us into the palace of the South Torahni King.  Once there, we can clean up.  There will be a Deyiansh ship in port that will buy the cache from us and take it far from the shores of South Torahn.  This will be our last job, if it all goes well.  We’ll have enough to bribe local soldiers and to sew the seeds of discontent.  If we are successful, the authorities will never find us.”  

            “How much of a cache are we looking at?”

            Ryeo’h smiled.  “At least 10,000 tin’hets. We’ll be able to bribe every city guard and proceed with revolution.”

            Irai’h shivered.  “How soon will the time be ripe for a revolution?”

            Ryeo’h shrugged.  “We’ll be ready in two years.  Between now and then, we keep a low profile.”

            “What if we are recognized at the wedding?” Irai’h voiced.

            Ryeo’h shook his head.  “It’s a masked ball that follows the wedding.  They are expecting a vast crowd.  We aren’t going to be found out.  Besides, I’ve already got ten servants in my pocket.”

            Irai’h knew better than to think Ryeo’h arrogant.  He knew Ryeo’h was meticulous and careful beyond measure.  But every time they did a job, he worried.

            “When is this wedding?” he asked.

            “Next dibasj,” Ryeo’h replied.  “We have six months to get ready.”

            Irai’h swallowed thickly and nodded.  “Understood.  It will take a month to sail there, so four months.”

            Ryeo’h smiled.  “The wedding is late in dibasj.  I want you and the others to purchase a nice set of clothes.  We are going to be in City Lae for at least one month, so you’ll need a whole new wardrobe.”

            “Yes,” Irai’h agreed.  “I’ll have it ordered at once.”

            “Go to the southern tailor in town,” Ryeo’h suggested smoothly.  “It won’t do to stand out by wearing clothes that are not in fashion in South Torahn.”

            Irai’h bowed.  “Of course.”

            Ryeo’h clasped his hands behind his back and continued to pace.  “Do you know if Captain Tjashensi will attend the wedding?  Princess Alida is his relative, after all.”

            “I’ll ask him of course.”

            Ryeo’h smiled.  “Of course.  I’ll put you in charge of ordering our wardrobes and finding us a ship to travel on.  Do you have any questions?”

            Irai’h shook his head no.  “I’ll begin right away, Ryeo’h.”

            Ryeo’h nodded distractedly and continued to pace as Irai’h left the library.

            As he walked out of Ryeo’h’s row house apartment, Irai’h thought he would have to bribe the tailor to keep his mouth quiet regarding coming up with four wardrobes.  The Reformist Lord had never struck outside the boundaries of North Torahn, so Irai’h did not think they would be trailed to South Torahn when the time came.  He was overjoyed this would be their last job.  Every job they did meant the authorities got a bit closer to their trail.  Irai’h had convinced himself of this a long time ago.  He hated the stress of interrogations and suspicious gazes.   He always worried he would give them away somehow.

            He sighed and turned left and down the boulevard, heading towards the cloth district.  

***

            Belihn ate quietly while his mother held court during the dinner with the Oh’nahrys.  Divita was vivacious and beautiful and Belihn could tell Mister Oh’nahry was taken by her as he hung on every word she uttered.  Missus Oh’nahry watched him with indulgence, which surprised Belihn no end.  Alona sat next to him and Kahl and Otar across the table.  They were dining in the Oh’nahrys’ spacious home in the nouveau riche neighborhoods east of Castle Draemin.  Like all nouveau riche homes, the three-story house was made of whitewashed ei’shano wood.  The windowsills and doors and doorjambs were painted a mustard yellow.  The roof was covered by mustard-colored tiles and the gardens were full of decorative bushes and flowering plants, as well exquisite aelon trees.  Belihn loved the trees with their ash brown twisted trunks and thick canopies.  This time of year, the aelon, being a deciduous tree, changed colors, its wide waxy leaves blushing red and yellow and orange.  The effect was a garden filled with bright colors that charmed both Belihn and his mother.

            The inside of the Oh’nahry residence was another matter, however.  The Oh’nahry, being nouveau riche, went overboard with the decoration.  The wooden walls were covered by gaudy silk tapestries and the gleaming floors were full of bright colorful rugs that clashed painfully with the tapestries.  The rooms were crowded with expensive furniture.  The Oh’nahrys employed an army of servants to keep their house gleaming.  The servants wore uniforms, which almost made Belihn roll his eyes.  

            The diningroom’s centerpiece was a long, gleaming wooden table large enough to sit twenty guests.  Alona had confided in Belihn that her parents liked to entertain in order to show off their wealth.  Every fifth and sixth day of the week, there was a house party and guests would remain overnight.  

            “My father does most of his business dealings during these house parties,” Alona had told him.  “You should come to one of them.  Just to see my father in his element.”

            Belihn had smiled politely, thinking nothing would be further of interest to him than to watch stuffy Mister Oh’nahry in his element.

            He had had no chance to talk to Kahl about pursuing a courtship.  Belihn got very nervous when he thought of approaching the young student, despite the doe eyes Kahl was directing his way.

            When they were done with dinner, Mister Oh’nahry invited the men to the den for libations and further conversation, while the women retired to the sitting room.  Belihn dutifully followed Mister Oh’nahry and his sons into the study.  

            “How are the plans going for the wedding?” Mister Oh’nahry asked Belihn as he handed him a glass half-filled with ekila.

            “I don’t know,” Belihn answered promptly.  “It’s with mother now, and your wife, of course.”    

            Mister Oh’nahry snorted.  “Of course.”

            Mister Oh’nahry then shifted the conversation and began to wax poetic about his shipping business.  He puffed up before Belihn’s eyes.  Belihn settled into his seat, taking a large mouthful of liqueur to soften the boredom that was threatening to undo him.  

            He glanced at Kahl, who blushed and looked away.

            The evening went on like that until Mister Oh’nahry announced the conclusion.

            Belihn rose quickly, setting his empty glass on the low table.  “Thank you for an enjoyable evening, Sir.”

            Mister Oh’nahry waved away his words.  “Always a pleasure, your Highness.”

            Belihn almost rolled his eyes.  How many times had he told the older man to call him by name?  Mister Oh’nahry insisted on the honorific.

            Belihn clasped the other’s hand.  “Next time you must come to Castle Draemin.”

            “It will be a pleasure,” Mister Oh’nahry assured him.

            Mister Oh’nahry led Otar out of the study and Belihn turned to Kahl.  “Can I talk to you for a moment?”

            Kahl seemed surprised, but he smoothed his features fairly quickly and nodded.  “Talk then, your Highness.”

            Belihn sighed.  “It’s Belihn, Kahl.”

            Kahl bowed.  “Belihn, I’m sorry.  I keep forgetting not to use the honorific.”

            “It’s fine,” Belihn assured him.  “I…I am interested in courting you, Kahl, but there is also another young man whom I am interested in.”

            Kahl looked startled for a moment.  “You’re interested in courting me?”    

            “Yes.”

            “Even though you are marrying my sister?”

            “Does it matter?  She sees no issue with the arrangement we have.”

            Kahl cleared his throat.  “And this other person you are interested in?”

            “He’s a new friend.  Would you like to meet him?”

            “That seems prudent,” Kahl replied.  “You were brought up with different mores.  I don’t mind if you court me and another, as long as I can meet him and see what he’s like.  Do you think he’ll want to meet me?”

            “I don’t see why not,” Belihn murmured.  “So…you are amenable to this arrangement?”

            Kahl thought for a moment before he nodded.  “Yes.  I would let my sister in on it, though.  I don’t want her hurt by my actions.”

            “I have talked to her about it,” Belihn said.  “She did not think you’d have a problem with the arrangement.”

            Kahl smiled.  “She knows me well, that one.”  He swallowed.  “What is this man’s name?”

            “Irai’h Asjur.”

            Kahl raised an eyebrow.  “A member of the clans?  And he has agreed?”

            “He’s thinking on it.  He’ll tell me tomorrow if he agrees to the arrangement.”

            “I see,” Kahl replied.  “If I recall, he’s a minor lord who inherited nothing from his sire.”

            “That is correct,” Belihn told him.

            “Huh.  What is he like?”

            “I don’t know him very well as yet,” Belihn answered honestly.  “But he seems sympathetic to the plight of the commoner.  At least he tolerates my rants.”

            “That is something,” Kahl agreed and smiled.  “You best be careful when airing those rants, your Highness.  Your bloodline will not save you if you are accused of sedition or treason.”

            Belihn nodded.  “I know.  I am learning to keep my mouth shut, but I am frustrated no end.”

            “It is frustrating, I’ll grant you,” Kahl replied.  “Many in university hate and vilify the caste mores and laws.  Your father is tolerant of those who oppose caste laws, but I wonder once he steps down from the throne if his successor will be the same.”

            Belihn sobered.  “I doubt it.  My half-siblings have been educated by their mothers, after all.”

            “And the Queens are all of royal blood,” Kahl said.  “Except your mother.”

            “Except my mother,” Belihn agreed.

            Kahl drew in a breath and released it.  He looked into Belihn’s eyes.  “And your father has not announced his heir?”

            “It’s a closely guarded secret,” Belihn said.  “But I know it isn’t me or any of my full siblings.”

            Kahl thrust his arm through Belihn’s.  “More’s the pity; you would make a good king.”

            Belihn smiled at him.  “This is your educated guess?”

            “You are the favorite among the university set, although we all know if you were proclaimed heir, it would mean civil war.”

            Belihn sighed.  “It would not be a bad thing, I think, for another civil war to sweep everything clean once more.”

            Kahl led him to the study door.  “I wonder what it would be like, true equality between the castes?”

            Belihn had no answer for him. l

Chapter XII: The Request

            Irai’h felt around the pocket in the lining of his thick kamarani cloak.  The small corked bottle of a mixture of ishae and ithol shifted around as he walked.   He recalled Ryeo’h’s instructions to him.  Two to four drops in mi’disj or ekila should be sufficient to induce relaxation and lower inhibitions.  He quickened his steps until he reached the small tea house where he agreed to meet Belihn Tjashensi.  He could see Belihn through the wide window.  The captain was sipping a cup of tea and perusing a printed news rag.  

            Irai’h entered the tea house and strode to Belihn’s table.

            Belihn rose and they smiled shyly at one another.

            “I hope I didn’t keep you waiting long,” Irai’h murmured as he removed his cloak and set it carefully on the chair next to his.

            Belihn shook his head.  “I was just reading the news publication.  It’s amazing how much the journalists get wrong.”

            Irai’h chuckled.  “They do tend to nose out rumors more than anything else.  Sit, please.”

            Belihn smiled.  “Let me get you a cup of tea.  Do you prefer mjish or southern tea?”

            “Southern,” Irai’h replied.  “Thank you.”

            The tea house was busy and nobody was paying attention to him, so he ferreted the small bottle from his cloak and, glancing over his shoulder, saw that Belihn was standing at the counter, back to the room.  Irai’h stood and stretched, turning in such a way to block what he was doing.  He uncorked the bottle and poured two drops of the dark brown drug into Belihn’s mostly full cup.  He then stretched again and pocketed the bottle into the inner pocket of his tunic.

            “Are you leaving?” Belihn asked from behind him.

            Irai’h started and turned.  “No.  I’m stiff this morning.  I must have slept wrong somehow.  I was just stretching my back.”

            Belihn frowned.  “Walking didn’t release it?”

            “I didn’t walk very far, I’m afraid.  I live just four blocks from here, which is why I suggested this tea house.”

            “I see.  Do you prefer to walk around first?”

            Irai’h’s heart gave a sickening lurch.  “No, no.  I need my cup of tea first.”

            Belihn chuckled.  “Have a seat then. I brought you a strong cup with plenty of southern spices, cream and honey.”

            “Mm, perfect.”

            They sat across from one another.

            Irai’h watched avidly as Belihn sipped his tea.  His heart was clamoring in his chest.  He didn’t know what ishae or ithol tasted like, so he waited to see if Belihn noticed, but the captain took a couple of sips and sat back in his chair.  Irai’h sipped his own tea and sighed with pleasure.  The heat of the southern spices gave his mouth a pleasant burn.

            “This is wonderful,” he pronounced and Belihn smiled.

            “Good.  Did you bring the book with my ancestor’s story?”

            “Yes,” Irai’h said and reached into his cloak’s larger pocket, removing the book, setting it on the table and sliding it across to Belihn.  “I’ve dog-eared the page for you, but I think you should read the entire book.  It’s fascinating.”

            Belihn nodded and opened the book to the marked page.  His eyes ran quickly over the words, scanning the information as Irai’h watched him with interest.  Belihn Tjashensi was really a handsome young man, Irai’h realized yet again.  He had fine, even features more prevalent in females, beautiful hazel eyes, and an expressive, luscious mouth.  He was slender, yet broad of shoulders.  Irai’h wondered if his arms were knotted with muscles or sleekly strong.  He swallowed past the sudden dryness in his mouth.  It had been a while since he had lain in sexual communion with anyone.  No one had captured his attention in so long and he wondered why Belihn did.  Beauty aside, many men were beautiful, yet none had snarled his attention like Belihn Tjashensi had done.  His strength, his capacity for suffering, his mores, all those aligned with things that Irai’h respected and admired.  And, for Irai’h, respect and admiration were aphrodisiacs, much more so than mere looks.

            “The writing is very good,” Belihn murmured, startling Irai’h from his musings.  “I have never heard of the author, though.”

            “He was not greatly respected,” Irai’h explained.  “Mostly because he dealt with scandal, holding the aristocracy up to criticism.  He was a journalist, and you know how much respect they garner.”

            Belihn nodded distractedly and sipped more of his tea.

            Irai’h gave him his space and watched his slender hand caress the pages of the book. He felt himself blush when he thought of those expressive hands caressing his skin.  After a few minutes, Belihn sat back in his seat.  He looked flushed and a light sheen of perspiration shone on his skin.

            “Are you alright?” Irai’h asked.

            Belihn wiped his forehead.  “It’s a little warm in here, is all.”  He emptied his cup.  “Have you finished?  I’d like to walk to the market and look around, if you have time.”

            “My day is yours, Captain.”

            They rose and donned their cloaks and stepped into the cold morning.  The sun was bright but the breezes sweeping down from the north were icy.  

            Irai’h shivered.  “The early signs promise a harsh kamaran.”

            “Seems so,” Belihn murmured.  “Shall we?”

            “Lead the way.”

            They strode side by side down the cobblestone sidewalks towards the east, where the open-air market was located.  Draemin City-State had the largest open-air market in North Torahn.  It encompassed five sepeks by five sepeks of space filled with expansive pavilions owned by merchants selling every possible ware.  The pavilions filled the space with a riot of colors and the flags of different countries snapped smartly in the wind.  Draemin City-State had relaxed trade laws, so most countries sent their merchants and traders to the rented pavilions.  Irai’h came to the market infrequently, unless he wanted to purchase some gift for one or another of his friends.  Since he mostly ate out, he didn’t come to market for staples.  

            The market was visible a long time before they reached it’s patrolled gates.  Guards made up a strong presence among those prowling the aisles between the rows of tents.  They kept an eye on the peripheries of the market as well as the space within its boundaries.

            “I am thinking of resigning from the Castle guards and joining the city guards,” Belihn murmured as he tucked the book into the inner pocket of his cloak.

            Irai’h looked at him.  “It’s that bad at court?”

            Belihn frowned.  “There is almost no advancement for me there.  I can become a Commander in the city guards, even though the prestige of being a commanding officer for the city guards does not reach to the heights of the regular army.”

            Irai’h chewed his lower lip.  “It’s unconscionable!  You should be able to advance, regardless of your bloodline.”

            Belihn sighed.  “I agree, Irai’h.  But my father–”  He looked around and lowered his voice.  “I think my father is a coward.”

            Irai’h gaped.  “You’re serious?”

            “Yes. It isn’t prudence any longer; it’s mere cowardice.  The army should be the great equalizer, but the common soldier still gets wages that are a laughingstock among other nations.  We have the greatest army in North Torahn; I daresay, in this hemisphere, yet we pay the common soldier a mere pittance to what they could make in other nations, which is why our retention rates are so low.  Most of our soldiers are lost to other nations, where they can make two or three times the salary of their homeland.”

            Irai’h shook his head.  “It is shameful.”

            Belihn glanced at him.  “More than shameful; it’s dangerous.  Our army is the smallest it has been in the history of our nation. That should worry my father greatly.  But this peace has lulled him into a false sense of security.  I hope we are invaded; I hope some other nation occupies us and changes the caste laws for good.”

            “You speak treason.”

            Belihn scowled.  “I speak truth.”

            Irai’h sighed.  “I agree with you, for whatever it’s worth.”

            “It’s worth much,” Belihn assured him.

            The captain led him into the market.  The crowd was thick, it being the sixth day of the week, a day most citizens used the market to purchase goods for the home.  

            “What are you looking for?” Irai’h asked him.

            “My sister’s begetting day is tomorrow,” Belihn replied.  “I would like to purchase her a gift. Something rare.”

            They walked further into the market, heading for the section that sold goods from Tjish.un and further south.  They passed the food pavilions and Irai’h realized he was famished, having risen late and not having had time to break his fast.

            “May we come back and eat?” he asked Belihn.

            “Of course.  This won’t take long.”

            When they reached the emerald green pavilions of Tjish.un, Belihn asked a guard for directions to the glassware vendors.

            The guard, a tall, broad dark skinned southerner with a full beard and glittering ebony eyes pointed south.  “That way, Captain.”

            Belihn bowed. “Much obliged.”

            As they walked further south, Irai’h looked at Belihn.  “I see lots of mercenaries around.  How are their wages?”        

            Belihn snorted.  “They pay mercenaries well because that is the only way to keep our army and city guards at acceptable numbers.  It’s all ridiculous. They can pay our own soldiers just as well and they wouldn’t have to recruit mercenaries.”

            Belihn’s anger had become a palpable thing.  He stopped, took a few breaths and shook his head.  “I don’t know why my anger is boiling over like this.”

            Irai’h knew it was the drugs, so he placed a soothing hand on Belihn’s shoulder.  “You’ve reached a crisis point, is all.  You’ve carried this anger a long time, I daresay.”

            Belihn sighed.  “You’re right, of course.”

            They continued walking until they came to the pavilions that sold glasswares.  Belihn headed straight to a smaller pavilion with figurines on display.  The vendor behind the tables was an isili.  That brought Irai’h up short.  Isili were slaves in Tjish.un, so he wondered how this one had ended up a merchant.

            The isili was on the small side, with a froth of loose copper-colored hair and large, bright green eyes.  His honey-tinted complexion held the bloom of health.  He looked to be no more than a youth, but Irai’h knew that their dual-sexed nature rendered them young-looking most of their lives.  An old saying went, “When an isili shows his age, he is close to death.”  It was a horrible saying but accurate.  

            The isili smiled at them as they stepped up to the table.  “How may I be of help, gentlemen?”

            Belihn bowed.  “An honor. I am looking for a figurine for a young woman’s begetting day.  She is also to be married soon.”

            The isili indicated the figurines before him.  They were made of glazed ceramic rather than clear glass.  The paint was exquisite, as were the figures themselves.  

            Irai’h picked up a figurine of what looked like an isili family, complete with a dam, a damai and two little children.  They were sitting around a picnic.  

            He glanced at Belihn.  “This is really exquisite work.”

            Belihn took the figurine, which was the size of two hands.  “Yes.”  He looked at the isili.  “Did you make this?”

            The isili blushed becomingly.  “No.  My spouse did.”

            Belihn nodded.  “Well, it is a work of art.  How much?”

            “Five tin’seps, my lord.”

            Belihn turned the figurine around, studying it closely.  “You are selling your spouse’s effort cheaply.”  He looked at the isili.  “This type of work will sell for at least one kah’tet, which is what I’ll give you.”

            The isili gasped.  “Really?”

            “If you sell too cheaply, the aristocracy won’t buy it,” Irai’h remarked.  “It makes no sense, but it’s true.”

            “We didn’t want to sell too steeply, for fear of turning away the commoners,” the isili explained.

            “Then tailor the prices to the buyer,” Belihn advised.  He reached into his coin purse and withdrew the gold coin, handing it to the isili.

            The isili bowed.  “Thank you, my lord!  Let me wrap the figurine for you.”

            The isili wrapped the figurine in cheap cloth then set it carefully in a cloth bag, handing it to Belihn when he was done.

            They bowed to one another, then Belihn took Irai’h’s hand and led him north through the thick crowds, towards the food vendors.

            Irai’h let Belihn hold his hand.  The gesture touched him; it meant Belihn meant to court him.  It surprised him, until he recalled he had drugged Belihn.  Shame threatened to overwhelm him, but he quickly reminded himself that he had a job to do.  He squared his shoulders and pushed the shame away.

            “Would you like to come back to my row house apartment when we are done here?” he asked Belihn.

            Belihn looked at him and blushed.  “Yes, I need to talk to you about something anyway.”

            Irai’h wondered what the captain wanted to talk to him about, but he didn’t ask.  They found a pavilion that sold enashas covered with fried dosi strips cooked with aromatics and southern spices.  It was a cheap, toothsome meal.  They ate side by side, while around them market goers went to and fro.  When they were done, they purchased chilled fruit juice and drank it before handing the empty wooden mugs back to the vendor.  

            Belihn indicated the street.  “Lead the way to your home.”

            Irai’h took his hand and led him to the boulevard.

            He lived five blocks from the marketplace, so they reached his row house apartment quite soon.  His apartment was expansive, with three bedrooms, a kitchen, a diningroom, and a library.  He shared the large apartment with I’a’sji, who was also single.  He told Belihn this as he unlocked the front door.

            “I’a’sji won’t be in,” he assured Belihn as he stepped back to allow the Captain entrance.  “He has a mistress that he spends his sixth and seventh days with.”

            Belihn entered the modest foyer and looked around.  Irai’h had designed and arranged the furniture in the apartment, so he took a measure of pride in showing it off.  The walls were filled with silk tapestries and the floors were crowded with modest, but tasteful, throw rugs.  The many windows were covered with thick curtains that kept the space warm during kamaran and cool during dibasj.  Right now, the curtains had been pulled back to allow light into the apartment.  The furniture in the sitting room, though modest, was well made.  It consisted of two loveseats facing one another and two armchairs on either side, with gleaming ei’shano wood low tables in the center.  Directly ahead was a large fireplace that, when lit with a fire, warmed most of the downstairs.  The sitting room was to the left of the foyer, the library to the right.  There was no fireplace in the library.  A brazier stood in a corner, for when needed, which was rarely.  The kitchen was through the library, and to the back of the apartment.  It was large and largely unused.  The narrow stairwell led to a modest, three bedroom arrangement upstairs.  

            “This is a nice place,” Belihn commented.  “It is well appointed.”

            Irai’h blushed.  “I decorated it.  We don’t get a huge salary as clerks, so the furniture is rather modest.”

            “It’s beautiful nonetheless,” Belihn assured him.

            “Come to the sitting room,” Irai’h urged.  “And tell me what you wish to talk about.”

            They sat down in a settee and Belihn set his bag on the low table nearby.

            He looked nervously at Irai’h.  “I don’t know how to begin.”

            Irai’h smiled reassuringly at him.  “Just begin.”

            Belihn nodded and looked away.  “I am interested in pursuing a courtship with you, but there is also another young man I am interested in.”  He sighed.  “I am asking for permission to court both of you at once.”

            Irai’h smoothed his features to hide his disappointment.  “I see.  And what does this young man say about your request?”    

            “I haven’t spoken to him yet,” Belihn murmured.

            Irai’h thought for a moment.  “Can I think on it for a couple of days?”

            “Of course,” Belihn assured him.

            Irai’h sighed, wondering if he drugged Belihn again to seduce him, would he notice?  He hadn’t noticed this time, so perhaps next time they would have drinks, so that Belihn could blame the alcohol.  Of course, drugging him would entail more than seduction.  It would entail interrogating him with care.

            “Then can we meet on the second day of next week?  Ryeo’h is hosting a dinner at his home and he wanted me to extend an invitation to you.”

            Belihn looked surprised for a moment before he schooled his face.  “That would be wonderful.  I will clear my calendar.”

            Irai’h rose.  “Good then.  Come here and I’ll escort you to Ryeo’h’s home.”

            Belihn rose.  “I’ll be here at sunset.  Will that do?”

            “Yes,” Irai’h replied and took his hand, leading him to the foyer once more.

            They looked at one another for a few seconds, before Belihn bent and pressed a kiss to Irai’h’s mouth.        

            “Thank you for a lovely morning,” he murmured against Irai’h’s mouth.

            Irai’h swallowed thickly and nodded, stepping back.  “Do you have your bag?”

            Belihn held it up.

            “Good,” Irai’h said.  “Then I’ll see you in three days.  I’ll have your answer then.”

            He watched as Belihn descended the five steps to the boulevard.  They waved at one another before Irai’h closed the door.

Chapter XI: Reporting to the Warlord

            The following evening, Belihn retired early, retreating to his room in the Officers’ House at sundown.  He had much to think about and he needed solitude to do that.  He stood at the only window in his room, which looked out onto the kitchen gardens.  Leaning on the windowsill, he let his mind wander.  He thought about Alona Oh’nahry, about her fetching brother Kahl, who had taken such an apparent interest in him.  He thought of Irai’h Asjur and then he thought of Aosji Brenth’on’h and his face flushed.  Part of him was gratified that Lord Asjur had approached him with an offer of friendship, although the young lord seemed to have an interest in Belihn that extended beyond friendship.  Belihn always second guessed himself in these matters, though.  He was going on twenty kamarans old and had yet to take a lover.  He simply did not trust courtiers and none of the clans’ sons wanted anything to do with him, except Irai’h.  If Irai’h was involved with the Reformist Lord, then perhaps Belihn should allow himself to be seduced.  At that same time, he thought of Kahl Oh’nahry, his intelligence and humor, his unwavering support of his sister, and he felt torn.

            Of course, there was nothing stopping him from becoming involved with two young men at once, although he did not want to turn into some sort of cad.  But if he was honest with both of them and allowed them to court him, then he could not be faulted for his behavior.  His blush deepened.  Really, he was acting like some virginal girl.  Wasn’t it high time he got himself a lover or two?  He wouldn’t be the first young man to do that, even among his half-siblings.  He had often heard how Queen Ajla’s sons left a string of broken hearts behind them as they sampled everyone that remotely showed an interest in them.  His half-brother Ean had been a friend once to him, but he had developed an interest in girls early on and had broken off his friendship with Belihn to pursue skirts like they were going out of fashion.  The only one among them who was not a wastrel and cad was Vallaw, who was training to succeed as Prei-Serren of Draemin City-State.  Belihn admired and respected Vallaw, but they had precious little in common to form any sort of lasting friendship.

            None of the King’s other children were close to Belihn or his full siblings.  Their tainted commoner’s blood made friendships among the King’s aristocratic children unattainable.  King Kah’len did not go out of his way to correct his children and the Queens had had total control and influence over the royal nursery and its inhabitants, imparting their caste prejudices to their progeny with impunity.  The only Queen who had ever been an ally to his mother was Queen Ariahl, but that friendship was not extended to him or his siblings by Ariahl’s children.

            He sighed and turned from the window, intent on undressing and washing up before heading to bed, when there came a knock on the door.

            Curious, he strode to the door and swung it open.

            “Uncle Bhar!” he said, surprised to see the Warlord of North Torahn returned from the Southern Front.  “When did you arrive?”

            Bhar Obeli grinned at him.  “Are you going to let me in, Belihn?”

            “Sorry,” Belihn muttered and stepped back to allow his uncle entrance.          

            He closed the door once his uncle was inside.  “What can I do for you?”

            Bhar glanced around the room.  “You refused a room in the castle for these spartan surroundings?”

            Belihn straightened his back. “I’m half dirt anyway, aren’t I?”        

            Warlord Obeli frowned.  “You know I don’t hold your common blood against you.”

            Belihn sighed. “I know.  I’m sorry, Uncle.”

            “May I sit?”

            “Yes.  Please.”

            Bhar pulled out the desk chair and dropped into it with a groan.  “We hot footed it back from the front in a handful of weeks then I was locked away with your father for long hours for my report.  I haven’t had a moment to sit quietly since before sunrise.”

            Belihn walked to the dresser and uncapped the decanter of mi’disj he kept on hand, pouring the liqueur into two short, squat glasses.  He handed his uncle one of the glasses.

            “Thank you, Lad,” Bhar murmured and sipped the sweet, fiery drink with a sigh of satisfaction.  “Sit, please.”

            Belihn sat on the bed, for there was no other chair in the room.  He took a sip of the mi’disj and gazed expectantly at the Warlord.

            Bhar Obeli sighed again and sat back in his seat.  “The King has asked me to come here for your report.  For appearances sake and for the sake of your investigation, you should not be seen with King Kah’len until the Reformist Lord has been apprehended.”

            “Agreed,” Belihn murmured.  “I don’t have too much to report, Sir.  I was approached by Irai’h Asjur for friendship.  He told me he had heard I had fallen from grace and, since he had gone through much the same thing, he and his friends…I was touched, if I am being honest.  Those couple of weeks between when the rumors were dispersed through court and when I met Lord Asjur were miserable, Uncle.  I despaired.”

           Warlord Obeli gave him a sympathetic glance.  “I heard, child, that the courtiers were real bastards to you.  That you were openly disrespected, mocked and spat at.  I’m surprised you didn’t duel anyone.”

            Belihn grimaced. “I came close a time or two, if I am being honest.”        

            Bhar nodded and sipped his drink in silence for a few minutes.  Finally, he sat forward, his gaze snaring Belihn’s.  “Do you think this Lord Irai’h Asjur and his friends are worthy of trust or do you suspect they could be involved with the Reformist Lord?”

            “They hold extremist views, Uncle, but no more than I.  I cannot blame them for their views and I don’t know them well enough yet to have an inkling if they are involved with the Reformist Lord or not.”

            Bhar nodded.  “My suggestion is that you continue to court their acquaintances and see where this leads.  Now is the optimum time for the Reformist Lord to approach you, while rumors of your falling out with the King are fresh.”  He emptied his glass and rose, handing the empty glass to Belihn.  “Well, I am off to meet my family.”

            Belihn rose.  “I’ll bid you goodnight, Sir, then.”

            Bhar smiled at him and cupped his cheek.  “Stay strong, Belihn. What you sacrifice you do for the good of your city-state.”

            “Yes, sir,” Belihn murmured, although he was not sure if he quite believed in that statement any longer.

            When the Warlord slipped out of Belihn’s room and into the empty hall, Belihn closed the door quietly and returned the glasses to the dresser, where he left them next to the half empty decanter.  Frowning, he began to doff his clothes, folding the coat, inner tunic, and trousers and setting them on the clothes chest.  He unbraided his hair and brushed it out before blowing out the single candle and sliding under the cool bedclothes.  For a long time he lay on his back, hands under his head, gazing at the dark rafters.  Meager light was still spilling through the window from the setting sun.  The house’s ambient sounds began to lull him to sleep and at some point he drifted off, his mind crowded with thoughts and plans.

***

            Ryeo’h called a meeting the following evening and they all met at his row house apartment.  Ryeo’h Thalnel could have easily afforded a mansion in a nouveau riche neighborhood, but he preferred the bustle of the city center and he was close enough to his father’s business that he could walk to work.   Ryeo’h’s row house apartment encompassed three stories, although the apartment itself was narrow, each story containing one or two large rooms.  The main floor contained the sitting room and library; the second story housed the expansive kitchen and a large dining room; and the top floor housed three bedrooms:  the master bedroom, a large nursery, and a small bedroom for the children’s nanny.  Ryeo’h also rented the apartment next door, where his servants lived.  

            Ryeo’h lived in his row house apartment with his wife, Banela, and his three children:  Oron, Alis, and Kher.  Irai’h also knew that Ryeo’h’s children’s nanny, Sjaji, was Ryeo’h’s mistress and the mother to two more children:  Sofi and Dahni.  The entire arrangement made Irai’h’s head spin, but he never said a word.  The customs of the common caste were beyond him, although in a way it all seemed wonderfully civilized to him.  Both Banela and Sjaji were beautiful women.  Ryeo’h’s marriage to Banela had been arranged by his father, but the two, although not a love match, became good friends.  Banela was full figured, with generous breasts and copper hair always piled artlessly on top of her head, and honey-colored eyes.  She was Tjish.unen and their marriage had purchased property for Ryeo’h in Tjish.un, where he owned another business, this one in export/import of goods such as woven rugs, cloth, baskets, and furniture.  Sjaji was one year older than Banela, who was twenty.  Sjaji was from Draemin City-State, with blue-black hair and clear hazel eyes.  She was tiny and slender and looked much younger than her years.  As Irai’h understood it, Ryeo’h and she had been paramours since she turned 15 and he 19.  He had refused to marry Banela until she agreed that Sjaji would live with them and continue to be his lover.  Knowing how persuasive Ryeo’h could be, Irai’h had no difficulty believing Banela gave in and now shared her husband with his mistress.

            Irai’h liked visiting Ryeo’h at his home, for his children were curious, intelligent and quite lovely.  They called Irai’h “uncle” and showered him with affection and attention.  Irai’h’s favorite child was Alis, a three year old little girl who was Ryeo’h’s spitting image.  She was too smart for her own good, but also kind and generous and talkative as the day was long.  When Irai’h knocked on the door, he could already hear Alis squealing with anticipation to see him again.    

            Irai’h heard, “Alis!  Behave or Lord Asjur won’t stay long.”

            Banela opened the door and rolled her eyes.  “You have made my daughter fall in love with you, Irai’h.  I insist you take her with you when you leave.”

            He chuckled then peered around her to where the chubby little girl was excitedly clapping her hands.  “Hello, Alis.”

            Alis squealed again and barreled into him, wrapping her tiny arms around his legs.  “Eera!”

            He picked her up and threw her up in the air, catching her as she came down with a ear splintering squeal.  He carried her into the house while Banela shut the door behind him.  

            Ryeo’h was waiting with the others in the sitting room.  

            The entire family was in the sitting room, including a servant and the butler.  

            Sjaji greeted Irai’h shyly and took Alis from him.  “I suppose you are all going to lock yourselves away in the sitting room?”

            “I’m afraid so, Sjaji,” Irai’h replied with practiced regret.

            She rolled her eyes and took Banela’s oldest’s hand.  “Come, Oron, let’s leave the men to their business talk.”

            Oron went willingly up the stairs with Sjaji.  

            Sofi and Dahni put up a fuss until Banela bent and picked up the girl and the servant picked up the boy and they proceeded up the stairs with the two squalling children in hand.  

            The butler bowed to Ryeo’h.  “Just ring if you need anything, Sir.”

            “Thank you, Shen,” Ryeo’h murmured and said nothing until the double doors leading to the foyer were shut by the butler.  

            Ryeo’h rose and strode to the sideboard, where he uncapped a decanter and poured libations into four glasses, handing them around the room.  No one said anything as Ryeo’h retook his seat and sighed.

            Ryeo’h glanced at each of them in turn.  “My contact at court said Warlord Bhar Obeli returned from the Southern Front and went to meet with Belihn Tjashensi.  He could not be sure of what they spoke of, for they locked themselves in Tjashensi’s room with the door closed.  My contact stated Belihn seemed surprised to see him home from the Front.”

            Irai’h shifted in his seat.  “And your other contacts?  What do they say?”

            Ryeo’h sipped his liqueur.  “It seems Divita Stait, Belihn’s mother, has arranged for him to marry the wealthy daughter of a commoner shipping mogul.  The marriage will bring with it a handsome bride price, which will remain in escrow until that time as Belihn turns thirty.  My contact says that Belihn has refused the bride price and has set it aside for his children.”

            “Commendable,” Aosji murmured and sighed.  “So, he isn’t bribable.”

            Ryeo’h snorted.  “No, he isn’t.  He doesn’t gamble and he keeps his head.  I’m surprised he never dueled, considering how much he has been disrespected these past few weeks.”

            “So, he is not atoliy?” Irai’h asked, disappointment limning his words.

            Ryeo’h shrugged.  “He has never pursued any young woman or young man.  His orientation is your guess as good as mine.  SImply because he has arranged a marriage with a woman does not make him domeinsji, though, as well you know.  Many atoliy marry for the sake of children or to avoid social stigma.”

            Irai’h nodded.  “Yes, that’s true.  So, is my proposal to seduce him still the best chance of ferreting information from him?”

            Ryeo’h shrugged.  “I want to invite him for dinner here and ply him with enough alcohol to lower his inhibitions.”

            I’a’sji pursed his lips.  “How about using small doses of ishae or ithol in his alcohol?”

            Irai’h frowned.  Ishae was an illegal drug that induced a sense of relaxation and lust, while ithol was a truth serum.  “That could backfire.”

            I’a’sji shrugged.  “Not in small enough doses.  Tjashensi could confuse it with the effects of the alcohol.”

            Ryeo’h grinned.  “You’ve just earned your keep, I’a’sji!  That’s a great idea.  I know a chemist in town; I’ll ask him about doses.  I’m sure he’ll sell me a couple of bottles of each.  He is always in need of funds.”

            Aosji snorted.  “Is there anyone who you don’t know?”

            Ryeo’h shrugged again and rose.  “Stay for dinner, all of you.  I’ll be right back.  I need to get hold of this chemist before he closes shop for the day.”

            He strode to the double doors and threw them open.  

            The butler bowed.  “Anything I can do for you, Sir?”

            “I’ll be right back, Shen.  Make sure my friends are comfortable and don’t need anything.  I shall be back within the hour.”

            The butler bowed.  “Of course, Sir.  Shall I fetch you a conveyance?”

            Ryeo’h donned his thick kamaran cloak and affixed it at the collarbone.  “I’m only going two blocks away.  I’ll walk.”

            “Very good, Sir.”

            They watched as Ryeo’h strode through the foyer and out the front door.  They settled in to wait for his return.

Chapter X: Making Acquaintances

            Belihn arrived at The Bleating Tah’lir with time to spare, so he walked a block to the public mews and paid to have his bahil housed for few hours, then he headed north to the tavern to meet with Lord Irai’h and the others.  When he got there, he commandeered a large table near the crackling fireplace.  The evenings were starting to grow cold this close to the end of the season.  When the serving lass came to the table, he ordered a decanter of mi’disj and five glasses, as well as roasted, salted tza nuts and some cheese and crusty bread.  When the girl hurried away to fill his order, he sat back in his chair and nervously took in the room.  

            The room was expansive and comfortable, despite the chill outside.  The fireplace was large, taking up half a wall, with a brick mantle and a grate across the firebox.  The tavern had some patrons, although more of its tables were empty than were full.  The quiet murmur of conversations was soothing to Belihn, who was so nervous about meeting potential friends that he could not stop his left foot from tapping on the wooden floor.  No one paid him any heed, although he did see one or two soldiers in the crowd.  They were probably city guards, for they were not familiar to him.  

            The serving girl brought the decanter of mi’disj and five glasses, setting them on the table and stepping back to reveal a serving lad with a tray with bread, a bowl of tza nuts, and a block of yellow cheese.  The boy set the tray down and scampered away.

            The girl accepted Belihn’s coins and bowed.  “Please let me know if I can get you anything else, my lord.”

            He smiled at her.  “I will, thank you.”

            Belihn uncorked the decanter and poured liqueur into each glass.  He threw back his and refilled his glass.  Really, that was no way to enjoy mi’disj, but he could not account for this level of nervousness and uncertainty.

            Lord Irai’h entered the tavern dining room and glanced around before he saw Belihn and smiled and made his way to their table.  

            “Well met, Captain Tjashensi,” the young lord murmured.

            Belihn rose.  “Call me Belihn, please.”

            Lord Irai’h bowed.  “Then you must call me Irai’h.  Let me hang up my cloak.  I’ll be right back.”

            When Irai’h returned, he came with four young men in tow.  He introduced them to Belihn.

            Lord Aosji Brenth’on’h was on the small side, with exotic slanted green eyes and a golden skin tone that was rather beautiful.

            He clasped Belihn’s hand and smiled.  “Well met, your Highness.”

            Belihn returned his smile.  “Just Belihn, please.  May I call you Aosji?”

            Aosji squeezed his hand and released it.  “Since it is my hope we become friends, then I think that is appropriate.”

            Next, Belihn met Lord I’a’sji A’kir’h.  He was tall and broad and handsome, with the pale features, gray eyes and black hair of the aristocratic caste.  They clasped forearms.

            “Well met,” Belihn murmured.

            “Call me I’a’sji, please.”

            Belihn bowed.  “I’a’sji it is.”

            Mister Ryeo’h Thalnel was the odd one out.  Belihn wondered how a commoner fit so well with three young aristocrats.  Mister Thalnel was handsome but reserved and aloof.  His hazel eyes were sharp and took in everything around him.  It became apparent to Belihn that this man was the glue in this cadre, the most intelligent and perhaps dangerous of them.  He was lean, of middle height, but completely memorable due to his clear light eyes and honey complexion.  

            Belihn put his hand out and Mister Ryeo’h clasped it with both of his, giving Belihn a disarming smile that had Belihn blushing despite himself.

            “Well met, your Highness.”

            Belihn swallowed and bowed.  “Well met, Mister Thalnel.  Please call me Belihn.”

            “That is a misdemeanor,” Mister Thalnel murmured.

            “Not with me,” Belihn replied smoothly as Mister Thalnel released his hands.  “I won’t file a complaint, so there is no reason for your incarceration if you call me by my name.”

            Mister Thalnel smiled.  “True.  Belihn, then.  I am Ryeo’h.”

            Belihn indicated the chairs.  “Please sit, all of you.  I’ve taken the liberty of ordering mi’disj and something to tie us over until dinner.”

            Irai’h sat to the left of Belihn and Aosji sat on his other side, while I’a’sji and Ryeo’h took up the seats across from of Belihn.  

            Ryeo’h produced a deck of cards and placed them on the table.  “This establishment is used to us playing s’krieh.  We’ll have to order more libations and dinner to justify taking up the table for a few hours.”

            Belihn grinned.  “It’s on me tonight.”

            His new acquaintances bowed and thanked him while Ryeo’h took the cards up and shuffled them.

            “Irai’h said you were having difficulties at Court,” Ryeo’h commented as he dealt the cards.  

            Belihn grimaced.  “My father and I had a falling out over caste rules and mores.”

            Ryeo’h nodded.  “So the rumors go, but you are still at Caste Draemin and the city-state, so my guess is that your falling out was not irreparable.”

            “The King and I aren’t speaking,” Belihn explained.  “But it would take a great effort from me to get me exiled.”

            Ryeo’h grunted.  “If you don’t mind my asking, what was the argument about?”

            “I don’t think father is moving fast enough with innovations and reform,” Belihn answered honestly.

            Ryeo’h gave a mirthless bark of laughter.  “There we agree, I’m afraid.”

            Aosji shifted and leaned forward.  “Why is the King so hesitant, I wonder?”        

            Belihn sipped his mi’disj then picked up his cards.  The hand was promising.  “He doesn’t want civil war again.  He is so blinded by his fear of civil war that he can’t see that many of the aristocrats are not as inflexible as he fears.”

            I’a’sji picked up his hand.  “You think they are amenable to change?”

            Belihn shrugged and reorganized his cards.  “To some changes.  Really, it’s ridiculous that commoners can’t build homes with brick or stone or that nouveau riche families can’t live in certain neighborhoods.  Or that marriage between commoners and aristocrats is taboo.  I would think, with the King’s own marriage to my mother, this taboo would have faded into the background.  I mean, you would think if this taboo is still unquestioned, my father would have triggered civil war when he married my mother.”

            “Your father’s marriage to your mother was a directive from the Goddess,” Irai’h murmured as he studied his cards.  “That may have done something to make it more palatable to the clans.”

            Belihn grunted and laid down a card.

            Ryeo’h smiled and laid down another card, this one slightly more powerful.  He scooped up both cards and laid them in a pile.  “Just how progressive are you, Belihn Tjashensi?”

            Belihn flicked him a glance.  “I am half-commoner.”

            Ryeo’h shrugged.  “And many such grow more hidebound than the aristocracy, adopting the clans’ mores with fervency, turning their backs on their common ancestry.”

            Belihn watched as both Aosji and Irai’h laid down cards, Irai’h winning the bout.

            “I couldn’t do that, not with my mother being whom she is,” Belihn told Ryeo’h.  “My mother is proud of her history.  Her family were servants to the clans and came to this continent with the clans many hundreds of years ago.”

            Ryeo’h seemed genuinely surprised.  “Few commoners know their histories.”

            “My mother’s family may have been dirt poor, but they were self-educated and proactive.  They have always kept an oral history of the family.”

            “That is most surprising and admirable,” Ryeo’h stated with some emotion.

            Belihn smiled at him.  “My mother’s family were respected servants to the Crown until one of their numbers stole from my great grandfather, the King.  The entire family fell from grace and could do nothing but chimneysweep and lamplight from then on.  They used to have a two story house in the middle income neighborhood before they fell on hard times.  My ancestor who stole was hung and the family shamed and expelled from court as an example.”

            Irai’h gasped.  “Was your ancestor Nelo Stait?”

            Belihn sighed.  “Yes.”

            Irai’h arranged his cards and laid one down.  “If I recall my history, there was a rumor he had been setup by the real thief, but his testimony did not satisfy the clans and he was hung an innocent man.”

            Belihn set another card down and took the hand.  “My mother never told me that.”

            Irai’h nodded.  “History was one of my favorite subjects at school, particularly royal scandals.”

            Aosji snorted.  “You would be interested in scandals.”

            Irai’h rolled his eyes so dolefully, that Belihn chuckled and watched as another hand was played.

            Irai’h picked up his glass of liqueur and sipped from it before setting it down again. “There is a painting of him in a book I own.  Would you like to see it?  It’s a bit more information about your past.  The entire affair took up a chapter of this book.”

            Belihn nodded.  “I would like that very much.”

            “I’ll bring you the book this week and you can show your mother,” Irai’h suggested.

            “She may not know he was innocent,” Ryeo’h told Belihn.  “Supposedly, anyway.”

            “She may not,” Belihn agreed.  “It will give her great consolation to learn this piece of history.”

            They played several more hands, ordering another decanter, this one of ekila, before they ordered a proper meal.  They finished their last hand and Ryeo’h picked up the cards and placed them in their box just as the serving lad brought their meal on a tray.  

            The meal was plain but hearty:  strips of fried dosi; enasha made from asua grain, fried turies, aromatics and southern spices; more fresh crusty bread; bala berry preserve; and fresh berries.  They all tucked into their meal with much enthusiasm.

            “I’m curious, Belihn,” Ryeo’h said, swallowing a mouthful.  “Just how progressive are you?”

            “I’m fairly progressive, if you must know,” Belihn replied.  “I don’t believe there should be any stigma connected to one’s caste.  Birth is not something anyone can control; it’s chance, where and to what family we are born.  I believe once a servant becomes part of a clan, the clan’s name and protection should be extended, especially if the servant has been with that clan for at least two generations.”

            “Chaos,” Ryeo’h murmured around a smile.  “Total chaos.”

            “He’s being facetious,” Irai’h told Belihn as he cut into a strip of dosi.  “We believe as you do.  I also think commoners should be able to purchase land instead of always renting from the clans.”

            Belihn nodded.  “Yes.  Agreed.  All these things should have been implemented before now.  I don’t think my father will do any of it before he dies.”

            Silence fell upon the table.  Belihn looked at the nearby tables, but the din in the dining room was so loud, he more than likely had not been heard.  No one was minding them.

            “I should watch my mouth,” he said around a sigh.

            “You are frustrated,” Ryeo’h commented with some sympathy.  “So are we.”  He sipped his liqueur.  “It is a shame that you can’t be King because you are half-commoner.  You would make a good king.”

            Belihn snorted.  “I would probably cause a rift between the castes and civil war would ensure.”        

            The friends shared a glance before Aosji lowered his voice.  “Sometimes violence wipes the slate clean.  Look what the last civil war did; it removed Poa from our land.”

            Belihn nodded.  The last civil war had been a battle between the fanatics that adored the war god Poa and those who followed Atana.  Poaists had been exiled and founded South Torahn as a consequence.  Thousands had died, though, and Belihn understood his father’s hesitancy at being the cause of so many possible deaths.

            “This war would be more encompassing,” Belihn stated softly.

            “But nonetheless needed,” Ryeo’h stated firmly.

            “Just so,” Belihn agreed.  “I would die to ensure a future that is just.”

            Ryeo’h emptied his glass and rose.  “On that note, I must bid you all goodnight, for I work in the morning.”

            Belihn rose.  His legs felt rubbery.  “I do, too.”

            After paying for their meal, they shuffled out into the crisp evening.  This close to the open air market, the streets still bustled despite the late hour. Taitah the moon was a scythe overhead and the velvety night skies were peppered with stars.

            “When do you all get together again?” Belihn asked.

            “Day after next,” Ryeo’h replied, pinning his cloak in place.

            “I have a late meeting that day,” Belihn announced with true regret.

            Irai’h stepped closer.  “We meet on the sixth day at a commoner’s gambling hall.  It’s called Berrigo’s Hand.”

            Belihn frowned.  “That’s a brothel, too, isn’t it?”

            “Finest rooms and food in the city,” Ryeo’h stated.  “If you don’t mind that it is a high end brothel catering to the nouveau riche.”

            Belihn shook his head. “No.  It’s fine.”

            “We meet at sundown,” Irai’h told him.  “I’ll bring you the book I promised.”

            Belihn smiled at him.  “Thank you.”

            They all clasped forearms before Belihn turned and strode down the street to the public stables to get his bahil.

***

            They watched as Belihn made his less than steady way down the block.

            Ryeo’h turned to Irai’h.  “He might be ripe for the plucking, but we need to proceed with care.”

            “Agreed,” Irai’h murmured.  “I will make plans to meet with him and see if I can’t get a feel.  His frustrations with caste laws seem genuine.”

            “Yes,” Ryeo’h said.  “I am going to look into his past using my connections at Court.  I also would like to meet with him to see if I can’t get him drunk and get him to talk more freely.”

            They clasped hands.

            “See you tomorrow,” Ryeo’h said and hurried off.

            Irai’h stood gazing towards the public mews, where Belihn had disappeared to.  He then looked at Aosji.  “He looked at you with a lot of interest.”

            Aosji smirked.  “It’s the Tjish.unen in me.  It’s considered exotic and alluring.”  He rolled his eyes.

            “I meant you might be able to seduce him better than I,” Irai’h said with some regret.

            Aosji shook his head. “I won’t cuckold my spouse.”

            Irai’h sighed.  “What if Ryeo’h demands it of you?”

            Aosji paused.  “He won’t, not if you don’t point out Belihn’s interest.”

            I’a’sji snorted.  “Ryeo’h is no fool, Aosji.”

            Aosji began to get upset.  “I’m not going to seduce Belihn and destroy my marriage!  I won’t do it.”

            “Calm down,” Irai’h murmured and looked around, but no one was paying them any mind.  He sighed.  “We’ll see if I can seduce him then.”

            They parted ways, Irai’h with his mind full of plans.

Chapter IX: Ideas

            Belihn stood back and watched Alona Oh’nahry in the Royal Library.  The girl was like a child in a sweet shop, all agog and curious, climbing ladders to see what books were located on the higher shelves, squatting to read the spines of books on the lower shelves.  Otar and Kahl chuckled indulgently at their little sister’s enthusiasm and passion for the books.  

            “She’s quite bright, isn’t she?” Belihn asked them.

            Otar stood straighter.  “All I can say is she should have been born a man.  She would be a famous artist right now, had she been.”

            “She’s that good?” Belihn asked.

            Kahl nodded.  “She is marvelous.  I don’t know where she gets it from.  I mean, I dabble at poetry, but…”

            Otar snorted.  “Don’t be modest, Kahl.”  He looked at Belihn.  “Kahl’s first book of poetry was published two weeks ago.”

            Belihn turned to Kahl.  “Nicely done!  May I read it?”

            Kahl blushed and ducked his head.  “Of course.  I’ll get you a copy.”

            “Nonsense!” Belihn chastised.  “I’ll buy it.  Are they being sold at a particular store in the city?”

            Otar grinned.  “Three main bookstores, Captain.  I would recommend Bahlor’s Books.”    

            Belihn was genuinely impressed.  “That is a store for the richest denizens.”

            Otar chortled.  “You should see what they charge per book!  Kahl might be rich by his own hand if he continues to publish.”

            Kahl looked uncomfortable.

            Belihn clapped him on the shoulder.  “Good for you, Kahl!  What is the name of the book?”

            Otar laughed at his brother’s discomfiture.  “I don’t understand this modesty you and Alona have about your work.”  He turned to Belihn.  “Anasj and Other Observations.  That is the title of the book.  It has poetry and prose in the form of essays.  Some are quite controversial, but the aristocracy smell a fad, so many of them have been purchasing the book despite its decidedly progressive leanings.”

            Belihn turned to Kahl.  “You have a solicitor and an agent, I presume?”

            Kahl nodded.  “Yes.  Father hired both for me.”

            “Good,” Belihn replied.  “Now we must do the same for your sister.”

            Otar frowned.  “Nobody will purchase from a girl.”

            Belihn smiled.  “Then a bit of subterfuge is required.”

            Kahl stepped forward, intrigued.  “What do you mean, subterfuge?”

            Belihn smiled.  “I mean, it’s time the girl donned some masculine clothes and passed herself off as a young man.”

            Otar gasped and Kahl gaped, but Belihn laughed.  

            “She wouldn’t be the first in history to do so,” he said.  “Besides, my father would not put her to death for it, not like it was done in the past.”

            Otar frowned and looked at his sister.  “Father would be positively furious.”

            “Your father cannot tell my wife what she can and cannot do,” Belihn replied.  “Once the sol’eka bracelet and ring are attached to her right wrist and middle finger of her right hand, she becomes my concern, not his.”

            Kahl was growing excited.  “Do you think it will work?”

            Otar’s frown turned into a scowl.  “Kahl–“

            Kahl turned to his older brother.  “It’s not fair, Otar, that she is quite possibly the most able artist of a generation and she can go nowhere because of her sex.”

            Otar sighed.  “I know that, you dolt.”

            “Your Highness,” Alona murmured excitedly.  “I found the portrait in a book!”

            She brought the heavy tome and set it on a table near where Belihn stood.  She looked at him.  “Dolia Ys’teis was the sister of the King of Draemin City and she never married because she was atoliy!  The only thing that saved her life, when it was discovered, was that she was the king’s sister.  The king had her exiled to an abbey, where she contracted Leptka’s Disease and died a year and a half later.”

            “Really?” Belihn asked and bent over the text, reading the gold lettering with interest.  “I always was taught she died at Draemin Castle.”

            The excited girl shook her head.  “She was exiled to Devhold in Yllysia.”

            The portrait in the book was softer and captured Dolia Ys’teis’ beauty more easily than the oil painting hanging in the hallway near the Great Hall.

            “I knew she was beautiful,” Alona whispered.  “The Ys’teis are a handsome clan.”

            “Please sit, all of you,” Belihn said.

            The three siblings took seats at the table and Belihn gently closed the oversized book.  He looked at each young person, finally allowing his eyes to fall on Alona.

            “I have an idea as to how you can become the artist you have always wanted to be,” he told the girl.

            Her eyebrows arched.  “Oh?”

            “If you can don masculine clothes and change your name to Alon, then I will find you a solicitor and an agent.”

            She laughed and shook her head.  “Father would never abide that!”

            “You and I will be married soon,” Belihn told her patiently.  “We will move to a row house in the city.  One of the rooms will be for your studio.  You can come and go in men’s clothes.”

            She frowned and rose.  “Are you mad?  I would be put to death if discovered!”

            Belihn shook his head.  “Those laws were stricken from the books two decades ago.”

            “Then I would be incarcerated!” she insisted, looking more and more panicked.

            “Calm yourself,” he chastised.  “The wife of a prince will be protected, girl.  I would protect you.  Do you want to sell your artwork?  Do you want credit for you abilities?  You can’t do it as a woman, so you may as well do it as a pretty lad.  No one need ever know the truth.  You can be Alon Oh’nahry, artist.”

            She looked around the table, her pretty features set in disbelieving lines.  “Otar?”

            Her older brother grimaced and tapped the tabletop with a finger.  “As much as I am discomfited by the idea of you parading about the city in men’s clothes, girl…your art will mean nothing, even once you die.  Do you want to be forgotten to history, or a mere footnote as the commoner who married Belihn Tjashensi?”  He rose.  “Girl, your paintings are the most beautiful things I have ever seen.  If his Highness thinks he can protect you, then do as he says.”

            Her eyes filled with tears.  “Do you actually believe what you said about my paintings?”

            He smiled softly at her and gathered her hands in his.  “Yes.  Your paintings are exquisite and full of life and vigor, Alona.  You deserve to be acknowledged.”

            She turned to Kahl.

            He rose and bowed.  “I agree, Alona.  It isn’t fair, girl, that you have to disappear, your art always unknown because of something you can’t control, like your sex.”

            She gasped and tears leaked from her expressive hazel eyes.  

            Belihn touched her arm.  “Do not fear, Alona.  The only thing that will be hard to navigate is the courtiers who will try to seduce the young man whose paintings they crave.  Once you become Alon, you will look years younger and people will fight to get to know this young man whose art is the finest in ages.”

            She pulled back from her brother’s arms to gaze up at Belihn.  “I won’t decide until you see my work, your Highness.  I trust Otar and Kahl, but they may be blinded by their love for me.  Father does not think much of my art.”

            Otar scowled.  “Father is art-blind.”

            She gave a watery laugh.  “Yes.  He doesn’t even enjoy music.  Who doesn’t enjoy music?”

            Belihn smiled at her and kissed her wrist.  “I have to come into the city two days hence for a meeting at sundown, why don’t I come to your studio two hours prior to my appointment and look at your paintings?”

            She swallowed thickly and nodded.  

            He stepped closer and soberly gazed into her eyes.  “Will you trust me, Alona?  If I concur with your brothers, will you trust me enough to do as I say?”

            “I will,” she said.  “But first we must marry and move to the row house.  I can’t be sneaking in and out of my studio without being seen by Eda or Aya.”

            Belihn wiped at a tear meandering down her cheek.  “Alright.  But I want you back in university under an art program.  If I were you, I would enroll as Alon Oh’nahry, the Oh’nahrys’ nephew from Kuin-on-the-H’aj.”

            She laughed and her laugh became a sob.

            He gathered her into a gentle hug.  

            When she was able to control her emotions, she gently pulled back from his arms.

            “I am so happy to have met you, Prince Tjashensi,” she said with earnestness.

            He smiled at her.  “Call me Belihn, and I am very happy to have met you, Alona.”

***

            Whatever arrangements were made between Queen Divita and the Oh’nahrys were not discussed with either Belihn or Alona.  The wedding arrangements were completed and the bride price set, to be paid to Divita at the time of the marriage ceremony, which was set for the season of dibasj, six months hence.

            Two days after the arrangements were made, Queen Divita called her oldest son for a discussion of what his responsibilities and roles were in his upcoming marriage.  

            Belihn, who had to meet with Alona and then Irai’h Asjur, asked to be excused from work earlier than usual.  Thankfully, Commander Ethael was flexible and generous and granted Belihn’s request.  Belihn offered to come earlier the next day, but the Commander waved away his suggestion.

            “I’m happy to see you cultivating friendships and a marriage,” the Commander said.  “You have been suffering these long weeks alone, so go.”

            Belihn saluted the man.  “Thank you, Sir.”

            Divita was in her sitting room with Tifa and Ilmi and they were crocheting.  

            Belihn had never seen Ilmi sit long enough to do any type of needlework, so that surprised him more than anything.

            He bowed to his mother and sisters.  “Good afternoon to you all.”

            Divita smiled at him.  “Sit across from us, son.  We must discuss what your responsibilities and roles are in your upcoming marriage.”

            Tifa smirked.  “Do you want privacy, Aya?”            

            “You will be responsible for arranging your children’s marriages, so no.  You may remain.”  Divita looked at Belihn again.  “Sit, Belihn. Please.”

            He sat and waited expectantly while his mother gathered her thoughts.  She knitted for a few minutes in silence before she looked at him again.    

            “The dowry that comes with Alona Oh’nahry will be set in a trust fund for you and your children.  All you need to know is that it is a handsome price, substantial and fair.  You do not have access to that bride price until you turn thirty.  It comes with restrictions, of course.  Alona must conceive and bare children by the time you are thirty.”

            He frowned.  “What if she is infertile?”

            His mother pursed her lips.  “An empathic healer will examine her prior to the wedding.  If she is infertile, you need not marry her.”

            “What if I want to?” he demanded softly.

            His mother seemed surprised.  “You would opt to marry the girl, even if she can’t conceive?”

            “She and I are becoming friends.  We are both atoliy, Aya.  We like and respect one another.  I can always hire a surrogate to bare my children.”

            “Yes,” his mother agreed.  “You can.  We will wait to see what the empathic healer concludes, but then, if she is sterile, I will demand the bride price anyway.  No man will marry a sterile woman.”

            He frowned.  He didn’t like Alona being discussed like a tah’lir to be bred.  He opened his mouth to say something but his mother forestalled him with a raised hand.

            “Say nothing.  These arrangements are a matter of respect owed to you, as a prince, and to me, as a queen.  We will not cheapen ourselves by waving away the bride price.  The Oh’nahrys are richer than your father, Belihn, so they can afford to pay the bride price.  If the girl is sterile, I will place the bride price in escrow for you at a bank.  Since no one inherits a bride price before the age of thirty, I cannot change that stipulation.  But you can borrow against the bride price at any time you so wish.”

            He shook his head.  “I earn my own salary, Aya.  I don’t need the bride price.  I would it went to the children as an inheritance.”

            She made a satisfied sound and gave a nod.  “Very well then.  But you never know if you will need the money, so it is under your name.”

            “Thank you.”

            She nodded and smiled at him.  “You liked Alona?”

            He returned her smile.  “And her brothers.  Today I am going to her studio to see her paintings and then I am meeting Kahl and Otar for dinner tomorrow night.”

            “Good,” she said.  “Make lots of friends, Belihn.  You’ve been too isolated and alone for your whole life.”

            He sighed.  “Yes, Aya.”

            His mother cleared her throat.  “I need not inform you that, if the girl is fertile, you must beget an heir upon her, for reputation as well as yours.  You also have the responsibility to please her between the sheets.  She may be atoliy, but if you are to lie with her, you must see to her needs.”

            His sisters snorted when he blushed to the tips of his ears and ducked his head.

            “I know nothing of pleasing anyone,” he told them.  “I’ve never had sex with anyone.”

            Divita frowned.  “Alona will let you know what pleases her.  That is her right and her responsibility.”

            He sketched a bow, mortified.  He wanted this line of conversation over and done with.  His mother took pity on him and waved him away.

            He left his mother and sisters and went down into the bailey.  He opted for a little used servants’ stairwell to access the yard.  Today had been so wonderful, he didn’t want to mar it with aristocratic abuse flung his way by petty courtiers and hangers on.  Some courtiers had had the temerity to approach him with an offer of friendship and support, if he could pay their gambling debts.  Like he would be so foolish!  Once the debts were paid, the courtiers and hangers on would turn on him just as easily as they approached him now.  He was heartily sick of Court and was leaning towards asking for reassignment to the city guards.

            The stables were relatively quiet, for it was late in the day.  

            The stableboy ran out to meet him by the front door.  “Your bahil, sir?”

            Belihn smiled at the lad.  “Yes.  You know which one it is?  Eiwor.”

            “Yes, your Highness,” the lad replied.  “Eiwor is the pretty black one with lavender dapples and tail.”

            “Yes, that’s the one.  Good job, lad.”

            The boy preened and rushed off to saddle the animal.

            Belihn stepped into the vast stables.  The building was warm with the smells of hay, manure and the musk of lirtah and bahil.  As he watched, the boy brought Eiwor out.  Eiwor saw Belihn and snuffled.  Belihn went to pet the animal’s velvety snout while the boy stepped up on a stool to place the saddle on the bahil. The bahil swiped a great black tongue at Belihn’s face and he laughed and stepped back, reaching into his pocket for a bit of dried fruit.  He fed it to the bahil.  Eiwor moaned with pleasure and both Belihn and the stableboy chuckled.

            When the animal was saddled and bridled, Belihn handed the boy a few coins and mounted.  

            Once outside, Belihn allowed Eiwor to canter.  The animal had probably not been exercised in a couple of days, so once they were over the drawbridge and onto the mostly empty boulevard, Belihn allowed Eiwor its head and the animal galloped over the cobblestone street and towards the city.  Belihn rode low in the saddle, the wind in his face.  Eiwor felt powerful between his thighs.  The bahil snorted with joy and galloped even faster.  Bahil were fast but not as sturdy and indefatigable as lirtah.  The initial spurt of energy would expend itself readily and quickly.  Within five sepeks, Belihn pulled back on the reins and Eiwor, snorting, slowed to a canter once more.  It’s long neck was lathered and its musk was strong.  

            They reached the Oh’narhys’ residence in a wealthier neighborhood mostly inhabited by the nouveau riche.  The mansions here were less grand than those of the aristocracy, being built of wood instead of brick and stone, but were just as tall, with gaudier gardens filled with flowering bushes and plants.  The Oh’nahry residence was no different.  They had an expansive half-moon cobblestone driveway that was lined with isalti bushes and flowering plants that had been pruned back after haltath and in preparation for kamaran.  There was a great black iron gate and fence around the property and thick bushes demarcating the Oh’nahry’s property from their neighbors’.

            A servant opened the front door when Belihn dismounted.

            “My name is Captain Belihn Tjashensi,” Belihn told the servant.  “I am here to see Miss Alona.”

            The man bowed.  “Yes, sir.  She is waiting for you in her studio.  There is a maid with her as her chaperone.  If you would allow me, I will lead your bahil to the stables to give it water and I will point out the studio for you.”

            Belihn thanked the man and handed the reins over.

            The vast wooden mansion had five stories and bright red windowpanes, doors, and shingles.  The house itself was whitewashed.  The gardens were well cared for and beautifully landscaped.  The cobblestone walkway leading around the house to the back had been swept of dust and stones.  When they reached the back of the property, Belihn saw right away the studio.  It was a one story cottage with a thatched roof, like the cottages belonging to the poorer denizens.  It was a whitewashed limestone house.  Limestone was the only stone allowed for building homes for the middle and lower classes.  

            “I see the studio,” Belihn told the servant.  “Thank you.”

            The man bowed.  “Pleasure, sir.”

            Belihn strode to the front of the cottage and used the black iron knocker to make his presence known.

            The maid opened the door and curtsied.  “Captain Tjashensi?”            

            “Yes.”

            “My mistress is working, but she said you are to disturb her once you arrive.  She is through that door there.”

            “Thank you, miss.”

            The foyer was small and led to an open sitting room to the left of the door, with a small dining room further east.  He strode to the right and through the arched doorway.  The smell of oils and turpentine hit his nose right away.  He paused just inside the door and gaped.  The whitewashed walls were filled with exquisite paintings of the Oh’nahry’s home, gardens, portraits, and paintings of the city wharves and open air market.  The most common medium seemed to be oil on canvas, but there were charcoal and pencil studies hung up as well.  

            Alona stood in a simple black dress that came to her ankles, and her small, narrow feet were bare.  Her arms were covered by three quarter sleeves.  She seemed to sense his presence and turned, revealing that the front of the dress was covered in paint stains.  Her pretty face brightened.

            “You made it!” she said.

            He smiled at her.  “I am here.  Are all these yours?”

            He indicated the paintings hanging on the walls.

            She blushed and nodded, biting her lower lip.    

            He stepped further into the room, the maid at his heels.

            He walked around the room, studying all the paintings.  He most loved the landscapes, although her portraits were stunning as well.  It became obvious to him she spent a lot of time on landscapes, for her portraits were a bit wooden and lacked emotion.  Practice would take care of that, he decided.  He became aware of the thick silence in the room and turned to her.

            “Your brothers are right, Alona,” he told her.  “These paintings have the touch of greatness.  With some guidance from a private tutor or mentor, you will attain greatness.”

            He approached her and lowered his voice.  “Will you consider what I suggested you do?”

            She studied his gaze for a few moments. “Do you believe it will open doors for me?”

            “Absolutely,” he promised her.

            She gnawed her lower lip for a few minutes before squaring her shoulders.  She turned to the maid.  “Will you leave us for a few minutes, please?”

            The maid frowned. “I really shouldn’t, miss.”

            “Please?” Alona said.  “Just outside the door.”

            The maid melted.  “Alright.  I’ll be just outside the door.”

            When she was gone, Alona turned back to Belihn.  “I think we should elope, your Highness, and move into the row house as soon as possible.  I’ve missed too much school already.”

            He took her paint spattered hands in both of his.  “I’ll ask for the time off from my commanding officer.  When do you want to do this?”

            “Within the week, if you can.”

            He nodded.  “I’m sure once I explain to Commander Ethael, he’ll allow me the time.”

            She dimpled.  “Good.  Then please arrange everything and inform me as soon as everything has been arranged.”

            He pressed a kiss to her wrist.  “No one will marry us until you are examined by an empathic healer.”

            She rolled her eyes and pulled her hand from his.  She walked to a scuffed desk that stood near the window and opened a drawer.  She pulled out a piece of paper and brought it to him, handing it over.

            He unfolded the paper and read it.

            “My father had me examined yesterday.  I’m fertile.”

            “Good,” he said.

            She smiled.  “I can conceive right away, if you like, as long as you hire a nanny and caregiver for the child and it won’t interfere with my studies.”

            He bowed.  “That would be best, to satisfy the conditions of the bride price and to set my mother’s mind to rest, as well as your parents’.”

            “Then I will wait for word from you, my lord.”

            “Call me Belihn, Alona, please.”

            She squared her shoulders.  “Belihn, then.”

            “I’ll contact you as soon as all is prepared.”

Chapter VIII: Meetings

            Lord Irai’h Asjur did not usually come to Court to mingle with those who had greater privilege and those who were scrabbling for more.  If it was known he was a mere clerk in a shipping company, he would be taunted and teased to no end.  But nobody knew.  He was scrupulously careful about what he revealed even to acquaintances.  His only friends were Lauti Us’ri’h, Aosji, I’a’sji and Ryeo’h.  Irai’h was still respected by courtiers, for he was the youngest son of the Asjur clan, rulers of Manaji City-State, but it was a distant respect, for, as the youngest son, he had very little standing in Court.  Still, it would not do for courtiers to insult him to his face, not for something like his order of birth.  If they knew, however, just how far he had fallen and what he was now, they would gleefully tear him apart, and his family be damned.
            He moved through the throng, hoping to find an opportunity to introduce himself to Belihn Tjashensi.  The young scion of the Tjashensi clan had fallen spectacularly from grace; rumors were he and the King had had a falling out, an argument over the caste system.  Irai’h had given Belihn Tjashensi a few days to grow bitter and angry enough to perhaps throw his lot in with the Reformist Lord.  As the secretary to Commander Thul Ethael, Captain Tjashensi was privy to a lot of important information.  Irai’h also had an idea that, since the King had not exiled his son from Court, the rift was not irreparable.  Once Belihn Tjashensi reconciled with the King, Irai’h and his friends would be in an auspicious position if Belihn became one of them.  But he knew he had to proceed carefully with Belihn.  If this was a trap, something would give Tjashensi away, but he had to proceed with care.  Seduction was the easiest, most thorough way to get to the bottom of all of it, and Irai’h was going to find out if Belihn was susceptible to being seduced.
            “Irai’h!”
            Irai’h turned and smiled widely.  “Lauti Us’ri’h!  What in all hells are you doing in Court?”
            His friend laughed.  “I could ask the same of you, my lord.”
            He shrugged.  “I have to make an appearance once in a while, just to make sure nobody forgets me.”
            She laughed again and shook her head.  Stepping close to him, she lowered her voice.  “Why are you here, really?”
            “I wanted to make sure you didn’t get in trouble for your tryst,” he smoothly lied.
            She shook her head.  “Your alibis helped me with father.  He gave me a lecture about my reputation and forcefully reminded me there is no future between myself and a minor lord.”            
            Irai’h snorted.  “Ah, it’s nice to know some people never change.  Your father being one of those.”
            She thrust her arm through his.  “He is hidebound, that one.  Do you have time to have lunch with me, Irai’h?  I don’t see you often enough, my friend.”
            “Yes, my dear.  If you do me a favor.”
            She looked up and cocked her head.  “Oh?”
            “Introduce me to Belihn Tjashensi, will you?”
            She gasped.  “Why?”
            “I don’t like the idea of someone suffering through the meanness of courtiers like I did when everyone found out I would not inherit one whit from my father.  That’s why.”
            She seemed taken aback.  “They were really awful to you, weren’t they?”
            “Spiteful, my dear.  Only your friendship saved me from despair.  I would like to extend my hand in friendship to someone in a similar predicament.”
            She pulled him into a stroll and lowered her voice.  “Everyone thinks he is atoliy, you know.”  She gazed up at him.  “They don’t tease about that, though, thank Goddess.”  She shook her head.  “You should see the poor lad.  He’s leaner and looks wrecked.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he took his life.”
            He stopped in his tracks.  “That won’t do.  Not while I have breath in my lungs.”
            Her eyes widened.  “Oh dear.  You’re serious.”  She nodded.  “You are a good soul, Irai’h.  Yes.  I will introduce you at once.  Come with me.”
            She led him out into the bailey and around the parked carriages and wagons, the bleating lirtah, the guards and servants.  They headed north along the cobblestone floor.  Directly ahead, to the left, were the training yards.  He would’ve liked to stand at the fence to watch the sweating young soldiers, but her words about Belihn Tjashensi’s condition truly concerned him.  If the young man was suicidal, the Irai’h wanted to help him, seduction be damned.
            They went to the Officers’ House, a large wooden structure near the barracks, and entered.  There was a foyer filled with scuffed eishano wood furniture and faded throw rugs.  The walls were filled with portraits of long dead commanders and commander-generals.  A portrait of the King hung from a place of honor over the fireplace of the waiting room.  Lauti led him down a long, narrow hallway filled with closed doorways until they came near the end of the hall.  She let go of his arm and opened the door, stepping inside.  He followed her into a modest waiting room with five wooded chairs, colorful rugs in good condition, and historical tapestries filling the walls with color.  
            The young man behind the desk glanced up and Irai’h’s mind went blank.  Irai’h considered the King a handsome man, but Belihn Tjashensi took after his mother, a stunning woman of common birth.  He was gorgeous, with thick black hair braided down his back, and beautiful green eyes speckled with grays and surrounded by thick, sooty lashes.  His lips were full and soft-looking.  But he was too thin, his eyes looking overly large in his lean face.  Dark circles clung to the skin under his eyes.  
            He rose and bowed.  “I was not aware Commander Ethael had an appointment this morning.”    
            Lauti smiled and curtsied.  “I am Lady Lauti Us’ri’h.  This is my close friend Irai’h Asjur, Captain.  He wanted to make your acquaintance.”  She turned to Irai’h and smiled.  “Come to my suites afterward and we’ll have a meal together, yes?”
            He bowed over her hand and pressed a kiss to her wrist.  “My pleasure, my lady.”
            He waited until she had gone, closing the door behind her, before he turned back to the Captain.  His mind was quite at a loss as to how to proceed.
            Captain Tjashensi looked at him steadily with curious, wary eyes.
            Irai’h cleared his throat.  “Captain Tjashensi, I don’t know quite how to begin.”
            Tjashensi drew himself to his full height.  “Begin at the beginning, I would say.”
            “Very well.  I am Lord Irai’h Asjur, although that is just a title with no force behind it.  I was a courtier at Court once, being the youngest child of Clan Asjur.  When my father announced that I would inherit nothing from him, I fell from grace.  I was picked apart, teased, mocked and spat at.  My father did nothing, so I removed myself from Court, found friends worthy of my time, and found employment in town.”  He took a breath.  “I heard of your difficulties and wanted to extend my hand out to you.  It will do nothing to save you from your detractors as, as I’ve said, my title means nothing to anyone.  But I am sincere, Captain Tjashensi.  I extend my hand out to you.”
            He extended his hand and held his breath.
            Belihn stared at his hand for a few minutes before he reached out and clasped it.
            When he looked into Irai’h’s eyes, Irai’h saw the sheen of tears in their beautiful depths.  “Thank you, Lord Asjur.  I appreciate it.”
            They unclasped hands.  
            Irai’h smiled at him.  “I have two other friends who were forced out of court, Lord Aosji Brenth’on’h and Lord I’a’sji A’kir’h.  Our quartet is rounded off by Mister Ryeo’h Thalnel.  Our friendship is strong, Captain, and we defend one another.”
            Belihn gave a watery laugh.  “Where have you been all my life?”  He shook his head.  “I have no friends, save my siblings.  Even my half-brothers and half-sisters merely tolerate me.”
            Irai’h tsked.  “That won’t do, will it?  We get together twice a week and have dinner and play a few hands of s’krieh.  Would you like to join us the day after tomorrow?  Except for Ryeo’h, who is the heir to a shipping mogul, we three ex-lords are mere clerks now, so we live humble lives.  We do go to plays in modest theaters, though.  Our lives may be humble, but they are full.”
            Belihn gave him a disarming smile.  “That sounds wonderful, Lord Asjur.”
            “Irai’h, please.”
            “Belihn then, Irai’h.”
            Irai’h nodded.  “Belihn.  Meet us at sundown at The Bleating Tah’lir the day after next.  You’ll meet your new friends then.”
            Belihn bowed.  “Thank you.  I’ll be there.”


            Belihn watched Irai’h Asjur walk out, closing the door softly behind him.  He swallowed convulsively for a few minutes before he could control himself.  He was touched beyond all sense by this show of friendship.  Life at Court had been unbearable and Belihn had felt unbearably alone and so lonely he could not eat or sleep well.  The nights and days blended into one another.  People actively avoided him as if he was infected with the plague.  Even other soldiers treated with cold hauteur.  Commander Ethael had had to counsel him on several occasions when despair threatened to overwhelm him.
            “Do not forget your role in all this,” the Commander had told him just yesterday.  “You did this to find the thieves, so don’t lose track of your assignment.”
            Belihn had swallowed thickly and nodded.  “Yes, Sir.  I won’t.”
            He sighed and sat down once more.  Lord Irai’h Asjur was a person of interest and he would proceed cautiously with the lordling.  This could be the break Belihn had been seeking.  The Reformist Lord might be reaching out to him.  He frowned.  He certainly hoped not.  Lord Irai’h had seemed sincere and, Goddess, was he handsome!  Beautiful, really, with porcelain skin and thick black hair, the gray eyes of the aristocracy, and a trim figure.  Slender and graceful, with beautiful hands.  He decided he was going to find out everything he could about Lord Irai’h Asjur.  He wrote some notes in his journal:  questions to ask, whom to ask, when to ask.  He would keep a journal about Lord Irai’h and his friends.  He wrote the others’ names down as well.  He had his work cut out for him.  In the back of his head and in his heart he hoped Irai’h was not the Reformist Lord.  For everyone’s sake.
            Today was the third day of the week, so he had to meet the Oh’nahrys and his mother for dinner.  He asked to leave his post a few minutes early, to go home and bathe and dress accordingly.  He would dress in his best duds.  If everyone came to an agreement and he became betrothed, it might ease things at court for him.  He hoped it would, for he did not know how long he could take the abuse.  He was beginning not to care about this Reformist Lord.  As his Uncle Domio had warned, the price might have been too steep and he was not sure he could continue to pay it.
            In his room, he washed with scented water and washed his hair.  He shaved and brushed his hair until it dried, then he braided it.  He chose civilian clothes, dressing in his finest light green silk under tunic and dark green over tunic.  His dun trousers were warm, for the nights were growing increasingly colder as kamaran approached.  He wore soft leather ankle boots and a thick leather belt outside of his over tunic in the military style.  When he was ready, he picked up his dark brown haltathi cloak from its hook on the wall, donned it, clasping the silver broach at the collar bone, then swept from the room.
            He chose to walk around the castle, along the training yards and gardens to a little used servants’ entrance and then up a set of dusty, cobwebby stairs to the top floor where his mother’s apartments were located.  His nerves jangled as he strode down the long hallway to Divita’s suites.  Two guards stood posted at the door and they saluted him as he walked up.  He brought his fist to his chest and bowed.
            “The Queen is expecting you, Captain,” the guard on the left murmured and opened the door to allow him entrance.
            “Thank you, soldier.”
            He entered the sitting room and found it full and noisy with conversation.  He paused at the door, awaiting his mother to recognize him before fully entering.
            “Belihn!” Tifa called out and ran to him.
            He smiled and gathered her into a hug.  
            She pulled back and gazed up at him.  “Hello, my dear.  How are you?”
            He grimaced.  “I am doing as well as can be expected.”
            She took his hand and led him into the now silent room while one of the guards closed the door behind them.
            “Let me introduce you to the Oh’narys, dear brother,” Tifa said.  
            She led him to a handsome older man with black hair and dark eyes.  The man was tall and broad enough to be a soldier.  His face was carefully schooled and he sported a mild scowl.
            “Mister Neud Oh’nahry. My brother, Captain Belihn Tjashensi,” Tifa murmured.
            Mister Oh’nahry’s eyes brightened with interest.  “Ah, Captain Tjashensi.  A pleasure.”
            They clasped forearms.
            “The pleasure is mine, sir,” Belihn assured him.
            Mister Oh’nahry nodded and turned to the handsome, heavyset woman next to him. Unlike him, she had silver threaded through her thick black locks and eyes so dark, they were black, a rare color in their country.
            “This is my wife, Igina,” Mister Oh’nahry said and took her hand.
            Belihn bowed.  “My lady, an honor and pleasure.”
            She smiled warmly at him.  “Captain Tjashensi, the honor and pleasure are mine.  May I introduce you to my children?”        
            “Of course,” he assured her.
            She indicated the two strapping young men, one of whom was dressed in a uniform.  “These are my sons, Otar, the oldest and heir, and Kahl, my youngest who is at university.”
            Belihn clasped their hands.  He noted that Kahl, the youngest, gave his hand a squeeze and held it longer than was strictly proper, his black eyes studying him hungrily.  Belihn filed that reaction away for later study.
            “And this is my daughter,” Missus Oh’nahry stated proudly.  “Alona.”
            Belihn took the girl’s hand and pressed a chaste kiss to her wrist.  She blushed becomingly and curtsied.
            “An honor, my lord,” she murmured.
            She was quite pretty, he decided, although not quite beautiful, like her brothers were. She was small and slender and graceful.  She seemed open and honest and genuinely glad to meet him, which made him like her right away.
            “The honor is mine,” he assured her and kissed her wrist again.
            This seemed to please her parents, he noted as he stepped back from the girl.
            She blushed and pulled her hand from him, seeming unsure of where to land her gaze.
            “Please, let us sit,” Divita murmured.  
            The Queen sat on a divan while the older Oh’nahrys took a loveseat.  The Oh’nahry sons each took an armchair and Belihn sat next to Tifa on a second loveseat.
            Divita sighed and shook her head.  “I have two other children, Ilmi and T’arehn, but they are currently at university studying for a major exam that takes place tomorrow.”
            Kahl Oh’nahry took his eyes off Belihn long enough to inquire what his siblings were studying.
            Divita smoothed her skirts.  “Ilmi is taking general classes, but T’arehn is in pre-law.  His passion has always been to be a barrister.”
            Mister Oh’nahry brightened considerably.  “That is most impressive.  It never hurts to know solicitors and barristers, I think.”
            Otar smiled.  “It’s a career that requires a long time to complete the studies, Da.”
            Mister Oh’nahry snorted.  “And being a soldier is quick, son?”
            Otar rolled his eyes and looked at Divita.  “This is an old argument between us, your Majesty.  I am hopeful by the time I am thirty that restrictions within the army will have loosened enough that I can become a Commander.”
            Mister Oh’nahry frowned.  “You are my heir, Otar.  You will succeed me.”
            “Kahl can succeed you, Da.  I want the army to be my career.  None of this information is new to you, sir.”
            Mister Oh’nahry flushed.  
            Missus Oh’nahry looked upset.
            Divita shifted and cleared her throat.  “Our children come with their own passions and ideas, Mister Oh’nahry.  I didn’t want my oldest in the army, either, but such is life.”  She looked at Kahl.  “Do you wish to succeed your father, young Kahl?”
            Kahl smiled at her.  “I help him already.  At university, I am learning the basics of business, but it is all old news to me.  I’ve been helping Da since I was five.  He taught me my numbers and letters and I would help in the office on the sixth and seventh days of the week, when school was out.  It’s quite interesting.”
            Mister Oh’nahry smiled at his youngest son.  “Somehow he has convinced his friends to join him, those friends who are studying business like he is, your Majesty.  The front office is filled with his friends, who work as clerks or in the warehouse.”
            Divita smiled.  “That is wonderful, Kahl.”
            He blushed and bowed.  “Thank you, your Majesty.  It’s much more fun to work with friends.”
            “I’m sure,” she agreed.  She turned to Alona.  “Are you in university, my dear?”
            The girl blushed and ducked her head.
            “She was involved with another girl there,” Missus Oh’nahry murmured.  “Romantically, I mean.  The girl was the daughter of a clan lord.  When the girl’s father found out, he had Alona expelled.”
            Divita frowned.  “Why, that is abhorrent!  What of the other girl?”
            Alona shifted.  “I don’t want to cause her trouble.”
            Mister Oh’nahry harrumphed.  “She abandoned you quickly enough, didn’t she?  Got herself engaged and married in the blink of an eye!”        
            “Da,” the girl moaned and shook her head.  “It’s ancient news, your Majesty.”
            “What were you studying?” Belihn asked the girl.
            She glanced at him.  “How to keep financial books and run a household, my lord.  But Ma taught me all that already. It’s just…well…it was nice taking art classes.”
            “Alona is a marvelous artist, Captain,” Kahl piped up.
            The girl blushed and looked away from Belihn.
            The father scowled at Kahl.  “A woman has no business being an artist!  She must run her household and bear children for her husband!”
            Belihn cleared his throat and leaned back in his seat. “Sir, I don’t mind if Alona wants to be an artist.  I can hire nannies and childcare workers, along with servants to upkeep the house.  As the wife of a prince, she is not expected to do any of that work.  What medium do you work in, Alona?”    
            The girl started and glanced at him.  “I work in ink, charcoal and oils, my lord.”
            “Call me Belihn, Alona.  I’d like to see your work sometime, if you don’t mind.”
            She seemed genuinely surprised.  “Really?”
            “Yes.”
            She gave him a tentative smile.  “I have a small studio behind the house, my lord.”
            “Do you have an agent?” Belihn asked.
            Mister Oh’nahry harrumphed again.
            Belihn looked at him.  “If my future wife wants to be an artist, it is between us.  Meaning no disrespect, sir.  I don’t have a creative bone in my body, so it would be good for our children to learn creativity from one of the parents, I daresay.”
            Otar accepted a snifter of mi’disj from one of the servants.  “I hear you are good at strategy, Captain.  That takes intelligence and creativity, don’t you think?”
            Belihn picked up a glass of ekila from the tray and thanked the servant.  “I had not thought of it in that way, Sergeant.  By the way, under whom do you serve?”
            Otar sipped his liqueur.  “Commander Maer Kia’guh.”
            Belihn sat straighter.  “Commander Kia’guh is quite modern and equitable, I hear.”
            Otar smiled.  “He does not see caste differences as indicative of whom should be promoted or not.”
            Mister Oh’nahry coughed.  “There will be no political discussion with women present!”
            Otar rolled his eyes and Belihn pursed his lips to keep from smirking.  
            The butler bowed to Divita. “The dinner is ready, your Majesty.”
            Divita rose.  “Very good.  Thank you, Sjelo.  Please serve.”  She looked around the room.  “You don’t mind eating in the sitting room, do you, Mister Oh’nahry?  We never use the dining room.”
            Mister Oh’nahry rose and bowed.  “Not at all, your Majesty.  This is most pleasant.”
            Divita smiled at him.  “Good.”  She looked at the butler.  “Please serve our guests first, Sjelo.”
            He bowed.  “Very good, your Majesty.”
            When they were all served, they tucked silently into their meal.  The meal consisted of strips of fried dosi fragrant with aromatics, a bitter green herb salad with honey dressing, enashas made from turies and other root vegetables and full of spices, fried to a golden turn, and soft fresh baked crusty bread with sweet butter and bala berry compote.  The Oh’nahry parents seemed especially pleased.  It was a meal fit for a king.  The greens especially were grown on the grounds and were too expensive and rare for commoners to obtain.  The enashas were a South Torahni recipe.  
            “This is simply divine!” Missus Oh’nahry gushed and sipped the light red wine she had been served.
            “It’s really good,” Kahl agreed and winked at Belihn.
            “I’m so happy you are pleased,” Divita said and set her empty place on the low table before her.
            They finished their meal and were served a fruit tart filled with lambden fruit and tisja berries.  The tart was baked in honey and citrus rind then served with sweet cream drizzled on top.
            Missus Oh’nahry liked the tart most especially, having two servings while the others chatted about Mister Oh’nahrys’ shipping business.
            Belihn set his half-eaten piece of tart to one side and picked up his glass of mi’disj.  He listened politely to Mister Oh’nahry blatantly bragging about his shipping empire.  His sons watched their father with indulgence and patience, at times offering observations.  The older man droned on about the business for a good three quarters of an hour before falling silent once more.
            “My apologies,” he told the room.  “I did not mean to bore the ladies.”
            “Not at all, sir,” Divita murmured.  “But now that we have come to the end of our meal, perhaps it would be beneficial to discuss the betrothal and inevitable marriage?”
            Mister Oh’nahry sat straighter.  “Of course, your Majesty.  Perhaps the young ones can excuse us?”
            Belihn rose.  “I wouldn’t mind showing our guests the Royal Library.”
            All three Oh’nahry children rose with smiles.
            “Lead the way,” Kahl told him.
            “I wouldn’t mind a tour of the castle,” Alona enthused.  “It’s simply a marvelous structure!”
            Belihn gave her his arm and led them into the hall.  This late in the day, Court was adjourned and visitors were gone, so chances were slim he would be accosted by a courtier.   He prayed to Atana he would not be embarrassed in front of these potential friends.
            In the hallway, Belihn walked towards the northeast tower stairs.  “The Castle has four main towers, among the turrets and parapets.  The towers were built as lookouts for guards during our turbulent history.  There were many wars, as you probably know, between the city-states before Torahn became one nation.  The Castle has five stories.  The King’s family, including the royal nurseries, take up the top floor.  Dignitaries and clan families occupy the fourth and third floor.  The second floor is filled with offices for diplomats and barristers.  The Throne Room, the War Room, the Royal Library, the kitchens and dining halls are all located on the first floor, as is the castle chapel.”
            He led them down the curving stairwell to the main floor and down the expansive hallway filled with oil paintings of Ys’teis clan ancestors.
            Alona stopped at a painting of a woman long dead.  “Such a stuffy style of art.”
            Belihn went to stand next to her.  “Nobody looks handsome in these paintings.  They are at least 500 years old; this one is, anyway.”
            Alona looked at him.  “Who is this woman?”
            “Lady Dolia Ys’teis.  She was the King’s sister.”
            Alona considered the painting again.  “The artist captured her intelligence, if not her comeliness.  Who is the artist?”
            “That I don’t know,” he replied.  “But there is an art section in the Royal Library.  I believe most of the artists employed by the kings were only known for the royal portraits.  This one might be different, but I don’t know.”
            She nodded and glanced at the painting again.  “It is always shocking and curious to realize this time piece displays a woman who has been dead almost 500 years.  Do you know what she died of?”
            He nodded.  “Plague.”
            She made the sign to avert evil and once more glanced at the portrait.  “Did she die much after this painting?”
            “Not long,” he told her.  “The plague hit the castle in haltath a year later.”
            “I see,” she murmured.
            He offered his arm and she placed her hand on his forearm.  
            Belihn led them towards the Great Hall.  There were few stragglers from court about.  No one paid them any heed, as the stragglers seemed to be in a hurry to be somewhere.  Belihn was not surprised.  It was not terribly exciting to remain in the Castle once Court adjourned.  There were gambling houses and theaters and drinking houses in the city proper to haunt during the evening hours.
            “It positively echoes in here when it is empty,” Otar commented.
            Belihn smiled at him.  “Yes.  You wouldn’t believe the din when the Great Hall is filled with petitioners and barristers, courtiers and solicitors.”
            “I’ve been here,” Otar told him.  “As a guard.”
            “Oh, I see.  Have you seen the Royal Library?”
            Otar shook his head.  “Never.”        
            “How about the Throne Room?” Belihn asked.
            Kahl gasped.  “Can we see the famous salta wood throne?”    
            Belihn looked around but there was nobody about.  “Let’s see if it is unlocked.”
            He strode to the great arching double doors and found them unlocked.  He pulled one door open and stepped back to allow his guests to enter.
            Inside, the Great Hall was dim, most of the torches and candles having been long extinguished.  Their footfalls echoed eerily in the vast room.  The floor was black marble with gold veins running through it.  The walls, cloaked in darkness, would be covered by expensive silk tapestries displaying the history of Castle Draemin.  He led them to the pews where the House of Commons and the House of Lords sat, the latter on the left and the other on the right of the hall.  Overhead, a huge chandelier hung from the rafters.  Directly ahead, the black wood throne–more of a bench with a back–stood.  Five marble steps led from the hall floor to the throne.  A gold curtain hung from the back of the throne, concealing the doorway that led to the War Room.
            “Have you ever sat on the throne?” Kahl asked Belihn.
            “No.  I would not disrespect my sire and king in such a manner.”
            Kahl chewed his lower lip and nodded.  “I see your point.”
            Alona rubbed her arms.  “The silence is rather daunting, isn’t it?”
            Belihn took her hand.  “Let’s head to the Royal Library, shall we?”
            He led them from the room.