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.
            

Chapter VII: Divita’s Return

            Lady Divita left the family villa and traveled to the city proper when she heard of her oldest son’s troubles with courtiers and dignitaries at court.  It was her goal also to have Belihn betrothed and wedded by the middle of the upcoming year.  With that goal in mind, she set a meeting between her family and the Oh’nahrys.   Belihn would marry the Oh’nahrys’ daughter.  
            She arrived at Castle Draemin while it was still dark and the night was old.  Few carriages filled the bailey and she and her servants made it to the Great Hall before being accosted.
            Courtiers bowed in her presence for, despite their disapproval of her background, she was a Queen.  She found commoners much more solicitous and respectful, but these hardly ever approached her.
            The courtier who now approached her looked all of seventeen, younger still than her oldest child.  Even though the courtier had donned a respectful mien, his eyes were cold, hard and calculating.  The look he gave her chilled her to the bone.  She drew her courage around her and drew herself to her full height and waited.
            He bowed to her.  “My Queen.  How advantageous that you are here.  I wanted to offer my condolences that your oldest son has quarrelled with the King and has fallen so spectacularly from grace.”
            She stiffened, unaware of any argument between Kah’len and Belihn.  “Thank you. Has Belihn been exiled from court?”
            He paused and straightened.  “Not that I’m aware, your Majesty.”
            “Then your condolences are not necessary,” she retorted mildly.  “There is still a chance for mending fences, wouldn’t you say?”
            His eyes were shards of ice in his narrow, spiteful face.  “That would seem.”
            She took a deep breath.  “May I ask what your hatred of my son is, or is it merely because of his unfortunate bloodline?”
            The courtier barked a laugh and dabbed at his mouth with a silk handkerchief.  “Isn’t that enough, your Majesty?”
            His affectations were annoying, but she could overlook them.  The reptile’s gaze she could not.  This man’s soul was putrid, despite his youth.
            “And is your bloodline pure?” she challenged, gathering her skirts to walk around him.
            He gave her a taunting smile.  “My father is a Clan Head.”
            She returned his smile.  “Yes.  He is.  And what of your mother, Tok’ta’h?  A scullery maid, perhaps?”
            He flushed a violent red.
            She bowed.  “Excuse me, please.”
            She sighed as she hurried down the hallway, her servants at her heels.  People forgot her famous memory.  She never forgot anyone’s name or anything she learned about them.  She had made an enemy today, but one that had little influence.  The son of the head of the Tok’ta’h clan the young man may be, but his father barely tolerated him.  She wondered how he came to be a courtier, when he was a mere bastard.  Making a mental note to investigate this further, she took the northwest tower stairs up to the top floor, where her apartments were located.  
            The apartments were in order, even though three teenagers lived there.  She had left enough servants behind to fulfill the upkeep of the suites.  
            She turned to her servants.  “Please place my travel trunk in my room.”
            The servants bowed and carried her trunk into the inner apartment using the servants’ hallway.
            With a sigh, she removed her cloak and handed it to her lady-in-waiting, Rechel Setin.  Rechel was the daughter of a minor clan lord.
            “Shall I order tea, your Majesty?” Rechel asked.
            Divita smiled at the young woman.  “Please, Rechel.  That would be lovely.”
            Rechel curtsied.  “Right away, your Majesty.”
            Divita watched as the young woman entered the servants’ hallway.  She had tried to marry Rechel off, but the young woman was insistent upon staying her lady-in-waiting.  They had become great friends in the five years since Rechel had become her companion.  Divita’s previous companion, Malie, had married and left her service six years prior.  For a long year, Divita had had no confidant, until Rechel had come.  If she were honest with herself, she was glad Rechel did not want to marry.  She got lonely and the idea of coaxing friendship from yet another young woman that might marry and leave her was daunting.  Rechel was kind, intelligent, and a reformist at heart, hating the caste system with a passion that she only voiced to Divita.  Divita wondered if Rechel had fallen in love with a poor lad and lost him to the mores of her family.
            Divita sat down facing the balcony doors.  She wondered what had happened between King Kah’len and Belihn.  Belihn had been so closed mouthed about it.  She had written to him and asked him pointblank, but he had not responded.
            “Aya!”
            Divita rose and turned.  “Tifa, my dear.”
            They embraced, Tifa clinging to her desperately.    
            “What is it, darling?” Divita asked, growing concerned.
            Tifa shook her head and took a step back. Her eyes were glassy with unshed tears.   “It’s Belihn, Aya!  He’s…the courtiers are being absolutely horrible to him.  He’s lost weight and he looks like he’ll fall sick at any given moment.”
            “That is why I’m here,” Divita told her oldest daughter.  “I shall get to the bottom of this, if it’s the last thing I do.”
            They sat side by side on the couch.
            Divita turned to her daughter.  “How are your siblings?”
            Tifa rolled her eyes.  “Oblivious.  Ilmi and T’arehn have their friends and, for what it’s worth, they are loyal friends.  They are being shielded from Belihn’s shame.”
            “And you, daughter?”
            Tifa fidgeted.  “Some trouble has been coming my way, but, really, Aya, it’s not so terrible.  I have Kilen.  When we marry, I will retire from Court and live in the city with his family, I think.”
            “It’s good you feel that way,” Divita murmured.  She smoothed her skirts.  “But your brother is stubborn.  And he is ambitious, isn’t he?”
            Tifa nodded and wiped at her eyes.  “He is so thin, Mother!  And father does nothing.”
            Divita frowned.  “He has left his progeny’s upbringing entirely to his wives.  Well, at least he married smart women, didn’t he?  Send for you brother, girl.  I would speak with him.”
            Tifa rose and curtsied.  “Right away, Aya.”
            Rechel returned with a servant in tow carrying a tray with a teapot and cups, honey and milk.  The servant set the tray on the low table before the couch and Rechel dismissed her.
            “I’ll serve us, my lady,” Rechel murmured and sat next to Divita.
            Divita watched as the young woman doctored the tea to her taste and handed her the cup of fragrant southern tea.  Divita had never liked mjish.  It was too sour.  She liked her teas bitter and strong.  She sipped her tea, finding the bitterness tempered by the milk and honey.  She sighed with pleasure.
            “The servants are talking of Captain Belihn,” Rechel murmured.  “They are worried.”
            Divita sighed.  “And well they should be.  Tifa is as well.”
            “Your daughter does not easily worry,” Rechel stated.  “And that worries me.”
            “Why don’t you send a dinner invitation to the Oh’nahry family, Rechel?  I won’t leave until my son is betrothed.”
            Rechel set her cup of tea on the low table and rose.  “Shall I take dictation?  I can have the invitation sent as soon as we are done.”
            “Yes, thank you, darling.  I hope the Oh’nahrys haven’t been scared away by the falling out.”
            “I hope not,” Rechel agreed and hurried to find some paper and pen and an inkwell.
            When she returned, Divita dictated an invitation to dinner later in the week.

                        “My dear Mister Oh’nahry:
                          It would be a pleasure to host your family for a dinner on the third day of this week.  The purpose of our meal is to finalize the betrothal of my oldest son
                          to your only daughter.  We will, at that time, discuss the marriage price and future residence of your offspring.  It is my sincerest hope that recent events
                          at court have not dissuaded your desire to join our families in matrimony.  Let me assure you that recent events have not made the King turn from my son.
                          The King has not dissolved his inheritance nor has he exiled Belihn from court, which leads me to think that events are not as dire as gossip makes them
                          out to be.  I have high hopes my son and my husband will reconcile and soon.

                          Please respond to this missive at your convenience.  We shall dine in my apartments.

                          I look forward to our get together.

                         Yours,
                         Divita Tjashensi-Stait,
                         Queen of Draemin City-State”

            Rechel poured fine sand over the ink and set the missive to one side.  She withdrew Divita’s seal and a cube of red wax from the seal satchel.  When the sand had absorbed the excess ink, Rechel poured the excess sand back into its crystal holder.  She folded the missive and slid it into its envelop then affixed Divita’s seal in wax.  
            She rose from her seat.  “I shall have it delivered, my lady.”
            “Thank you, Rechel.”
            Divita rose and walked to the balcony doors, throwing them open.  The air was heavy with the smell of smoke from countless fireplaces.  The skies were clear and the sun’s light was warm on her skin as she stepped up to the balcony railing and leaned there to gaze at the bailey below.  Kah’len had been kind enough to gift Divita this apartment with its views of the castle gardens.  During anasj and dibasj, the scent from flowers filled the air with a sweet musk.  This late in haltath, the garden had been pruned back.  Most of the brilliant colors of the season had given way to dead leaves and bare limbs.  Soon the gardens would be covered under blankets of snow as haltath gave way to kamaran.
            “Mother.”
            Divita turned.  “Belihn, my son.”
            She hurried to his side and they embraced.  Her heart lurched when she felt how much weight he had lost.  She pulled back and gazed up at him.  His eyes looked bruised and he was pale, his features sharp from his weight loss.  She reached a hand and cupped his cheek.  
            “Oh, my dear child, what has gone on?” she asked.
            He pulled her to the couch and they sat down side by side.
            “Tell me,” she insisted.
            “Father and I had an argument over the caste system,” he said. “I said terrible things and he banished me from his inner circle.”
            “That doesn’t sound like your father,” she noted.
            “He’s afraid of the clans and doesn’t want Civil war.  He has abandoned all his principles.”
            She frowned.  “Not abandoned them.  Perhaps shelved them for the time being.”
            She took his graceful hands in both of hers.  “Have courage, Belihn.  This will pass, too.”
            He frowned and looked away from her.  “They are eating me alive at court, with their jibes and taunts.  They’re like a pack of wild tash-tashes tearing at a carcass.”
            His hands were cold, so she rubbed them with both of hers.  “Listen to me, Belihn.  Their opinions don’t matter one whit.  You are the son of the King.  They are envious and spiteful and vicious, but, ultimately, if you don’t allow their opinions to touch you, you will prevail.”
            He pulled his hands free.  “The problem is that I share their points of view.”  He rose and began to pace.  “I believe I am less than for something as innocuous as my bloodline!  I can’t seem to stop thinking along these lines!”
            “Embrace your bloodline as I have,” she told him and rose.  “Be proud of your past, child.  Do you know, my family came with the clans from across the sea and helped found this nation.  The only thing that made them less than was that they did not have the wealth to purchase a title.  You know as well as I, Belihn, that circumstances are up to chance.  Where one succeeds and the other fails is up to the whims of chance.  And simply because one was lucky in the past and made his wealth, where the other failed, cannot dictate pride.  It is ridiculous.”
            “Intellectually I know this,” he told her.  “But emotionally…”
            “Emotions are harder to control,” she agreed.  “Where is your father’s protection?”
            He gave a mirthless laugh.  “He does nothing, but that is fine by me.  I have your love and my siblings’ love.”
            “Kah’len loves you, Belihn–“
            “He has a funny way of showing it,” he retorted and wiped his mouth.  His eyes looked haunted.  “Some of what they are saying to my face cannot be repeated, but as the Goddess is my witness, I won’t forget any of it.”
            “Don’t allow yourself to grow bitter and hard, Belihn,” she advised him.  “Know your enemies and your friends, but don’t let meanness and spitefulness change you.”
            Rechel stepped into the room and paused, looking uncertain.
            Belihn motioned to her.  “You can come in, Rechel.  I was just leaving anyway.”
            “Belihn,” Divita said.  “On the third day this week, I am having the Oh’nahrys for dinner.  Please come and meet their daughter.”
            He cocked his head.  “I would be curious to know why they would saddle their daughter to one who has fallen from favor.”
            Divita lifted her chin.  “You are the King’s son.  You may not inherit the Crown, but you will inherit part of his dynasty.”
            He gazed intently at her for a few minutes before coming to some sort of conclusion and nodding.  “I’ll be here, Aya.”
            “Thank you, son,” she murmured and watched as he strode out into the hallway, closing the door firmly behind him.
            

Chapter VI: The Assignment

Two days later, the King called another emergency meeting with his civilian and military advisers.  
            In the predawn hours, a banging on his bedroom door violently startled Belihn awake.  He stumbled to the door and pulled it open.
            “Begging your pardon, Captain,” the soldier in the hallway said.  “The King has called an emergency pre-Court meeting and you have been summoned.”        
            Belihn rubbed his face with a shaking hand.  “Thank you, Private.  I’ll leave as soon as I’m dressed.”
            The soldier saluted and hurried off.
            Belihn closed the door and strode to his washbasin, where he filled the basin with fresh water from the bucket on the floor.  He washed his face and neck and rinsed his mouth out, reaching for the towel and rubbing the water from his skin.  He dressed quickly, pulling his boots on last before he brushed and braided his hair.  Pulling on his light cloak, he fastened the pin at the shoulder.  He placed paper and two pens as well as a sealed inkwell into his shoulder bag, then picked up the bag and left his room, closing the door behind him.  Making his way to the main floor, he hurried to the front door and then out into the garden.  Haltath was old, so the mornings were brisk and white with hoarfrost.  He was grateful for the cloak as he hurried down the bailey towards the castle proper.  This early in the morning, most visitors to Castle Draemin had not arrived as yet.  The bailey was mostly empty, except for troops of soldiers jogging towards the drawbridge.  Belihn looked at them with longing; he would not be able to exercise today at all.
            He gazed up and spotted Taitah the moon in her sickle phase.  Her entourage of stars shone bright.  Wisps of ragged clouds did little to deflect from the stunning sight.  
            Once in the Great Hall, Belihn hurried to the King’s War Room.  The door stood ajar and he stepped inside.  The King’s civilian advisers were already there:  Lady Oona Obeli-Thalmar, Lord Domio Obeli, Lady Kahla Sti’et-Ys’teis, Lord Umar Sti’et, and Prei-Serren Lahn Tjashensi-Obeli.  
            Belihn greeted the advisors and was warmly greeted back.
            “Where’s Father?” Belihn asked his Grand-Aya.
            His grandmother reached up to caress his cheek.  “The King will be here shortly, Belihn.  As will Commander-General Rakah.”
            His grandmother’s husband, Domio, grinned at Belihn.  “Have a seat, child.”
            They took their seats until the inner door swung open and the King strode through. Then they rose to their feet and genuflected.  
            The King took his seat and indicated they should do the same.
            “Rakah should be here shortly,” King Kah’len murmured.  “Thank you all for attending at such short notice.”
            Lady Kahla shifted.  “Has anything happened?”
            “I’ll let Rakah explain the purpose of the meeting,” the King replied.
            They waited near a quarter of an hour before Commander-General Rakah Ys’teis hurried through the hallway door and closed it behind him.
            “Apologies for my tardiness,” he said.  “I have had precious little rest in the last two days.”
            “Please sit, Rakah,” the King said.  “And tell us why you’ve called us here.”
            Rakah took his seat.  “The investigation has taken a curious turn.”  He reached into the inner pocket of his tunic and retrieved a folded paper.  He opened the paper and turned it to face the King.
            “What’s this?” the King demanded.
            “Read it, Sire,” Rakah murmured.
            Belihn craned his neck and read the advertisement:

                            “The future demands change!
                              When will this caste system fall, that keeps you in chains?
                             You get your wages, which keep you just this side of poverty,
                              Even though you fight for King and City.
                              What is your life worth?
                              King Kah’len promised reform!  Where is reform?
                              Where is hope and where is the shiny future he promised
                              For your children?  Join us!
                                                    -The Reformist Lord”

            “Treason,” Lahn spat.
            “Yes,” the King agreed.  “But it is also truth.  I promised to reform our caste system and have been forestalled every step of the way by the clans.  It would be natural that people become disaffected and blame their King.”
            Lord Umar shook his head.  “We must fight back.  Disperse our own information and place the blame where it should rest, with the clans.”
            The King sat back in his chair.  “I don’t want to provoke the clans into Civil War.”
            Belihn shifted.  “Father, with all due respect, the army adores you, Sir.  And the common soldier does not blame you.”
            The King nodded.  “I know.  That is why this sort of propaganda does not concern me overly much.”
            Domio Obeli leaned forward.  “You can’t let the clans dictate your course of action, Sire.  If we push them to Civil War, they will lose.  That is why I don’t think they’ll opt for that course of action.”
            The King grimaced.  “I wish I could be as sure as you seem to be, Domio.”
            Lady Oona reached over and covered the King’s hand with her own.  “Trust Domio.  As the head of your cadre of spies, he has the pulse on what is happening in this city.”
            Belihn shifted.  “This Reformist Lord has the same goal as you, Father.  We should try to win him over to our side.  We all want reform, after all.”
            “Don’t forget he’s a thief,” Commander-General Rakah stated coldly.
            Belihn shrugged.  “He isn’t stealing from the destitute or disfranchised, Uncle.  Lord Us’ri’h has never supported the King.”
            “Even stealing from our opponents is reprehensible,” Rakah insisted.
            The King shifted and looked at Belihn.  “What are you getting at, son?”
            “Let me try to infiltrate this Reformist Lord’s inner circle,” he replied.  “People know I am already disenchanted with my lot and caste.  With your blessing, I will drop a few hints here and there and see if I am noticed by these reformists.”
            Commander-General Rakah turned to Belihn.  “This could be dangerous, Captain.  We don’t know anything about these reformists.  Besides, your actions can tarnish your reputation.”
            Belihn snorted.  “What reputation, Uncle?  I am the grandson of a lamplighter and chimneysweep.”
            Commander-General Rakah cleared his throat.  “I see your point, son.  But it can still be dangerous.  Have a care.”
            “I will, sir,” Belihn promised.
            Domio sat back in his chair.  “I will assist you, Belihn.”
            The King nodded.  “As an infiltrator, you come under Domio’s purview.  You go to him for funds, for reports, and for guidance.”
            Belihn brought his fist to his chest and bowed.  “Of course, my King.”
            King Kah’len frowned and tapped the tabletop with a restless finger.  “While you are at it, Belihn, try to get an idea of how much disaffection there is in the army and from what quarters.  I expect a weekly report.”
            “Yes, Majesty.”
            The King rose and his advisers followed suit.
            “We will meet again in one week’s time,” Kah’len murmured.  “Belihn, get word to Domio as soon as you uncover anything.  Do I make myself clear?”
            Belihn bowed.  “Abundantly, Majesty.”
            The King nodded and swept from the room.
            Domio walked around the table.  He threw his arm around Belihn’s shoulders and lowered his voice.
            “We don’t know what lords are in the Reformist’s inner circle, so have a care what you say and where,” he told Belihn.
            “Yes, sir.”
            Domio patted Belihn’s shoulder and moved away.  “Contact me every sixth day, sooner if a meeting is warranted.”
            “Yes, sir.”
            Domio nodded.  “Now, come with me and I will give you some pointers on the fine art of spying.”
            Belihn followed him from the room and into the Great Hall.  Domio led him several doors down the hall to his office.  
            Domio’s office was furnished in dark woods and somber colors.  The decor had a soothing effect on Belihn and he found himself relaxing as he followed Domio into his inner office.  
            Domio closed the inner office door.  “Have a seat, Belihn.”
            Belihn dropped into the nearest armchair while Domio walked around his desk and took a seat.  
            “I’ll be honest with you, Belihn,” Domio stated.  “It takes years to make a spy.  I will have a couple of my people keep an eye on you, just to make sure you are safe.”  He sat back in his chair and studied Belihn’s face.  “You have the open face of an innocent.  You appear quite young-looking, which will be to your advantage.  So is your past.  Even so, it may be months before you reach the Reformist Lord’s inner circle, if you ever do.  This person has not gotten away with the thefts due to stupidity.  He’s clever and suspicious, I warrant.   For that reason, you are barred from our weekly meetings with the King.  It will seem too suspicious that you are in the King’s inner circle while you are a disaffected lord.”
            “I understand,” Belihn said.  “It might be auspicious if I am publicly removed from the King’s inner circle, sort of a fall from grace and public shaming.  That will add to my credibility, don’t you think, Sir?”
            Domio considered then nodded.  “You might have something there, son.  However, you must know that if you are publicly shamed, you will become an even larger target to your opponents.  You’ll make your life harder than it already is.”
            “I know this, Sir.  But it might be worth the difficulties to gain access to our quarry.”
            “It might not work,” Domio said.
            “It’s a chance I’m willing to take, sir.”
            Domio sighed and dropped his head back onto the headrest.  His gaze roamed the rafters for a few minutes.
            “I would hate to cause you greater pain, Belihn,” he said after a few minutes of thoughtful silence.  “But if you are willing to sacrifice, then I won’t stand in your way.”
            “Thank you, sir.”
            “This will impact your siblings and your mother as well, Belihn.  Have you thought of this?”
            Belihn swallowed.  “No, I had not.”
            “Your mother already leads an isolated life in the family villa, but your siblings attend university,” Domio said.  “If they are embroiled in your shame, you cannot reveal to them anything.  Do I make myself clear?”
            “Yes, Sir.”
            Domio stared into his eyes for a few minutes before he nodded.  “Well then.  I will speak to your father about publicly removing you from his inner circle.”
            Belihn rose.  “Thank you, Sir.”
            Domio glanced up at him.  “Don’t thank me yet, Belihn.  Things are about to get quite ugly for you.”


            Irai’h set the sheaf of papers on the desk of Ryeoh’s study and stepped back.  
            “How’s the recruiting going?” Ryeo’h asked.
            Irai’h shrugged.  “There are a few prospects.  I would caution approaching them quite yet.”
            Ryeo’h perused the list and hummed.  “Interesting.  There are quite a few well off candidates.  Why are they disaffected?”
            “That is what my concern is,” Irai’h replied.  “Some on this list seem to have legitimate reasons for disaffection.  I don’t trust the others.”
            “Some of these have been vocal about their disaffection,” Aosji murmured.  “Commander Ethael is one of those who has always supported reform.”
            Ryeo’h tapped his finger on his chin.  “He has been vocal, yes, but I would caution against revealing ourselves to him, though.  He may be a Crown plant.”
            I’a’sji nodded.  “I agree.”  He pointed at the middle of the list.  “What about the King’s own son, Belihn Tjashensi?  He was recently promoted to captain.  Why would he be disaffected?”
            Irai’h took a seat in the only available chair.  “He was publicly removed from the King’s inner circle because of his vociferous reformist leanings.”
            “How convenient,” Ryeo’h drawled.  “Does the Crown think we are fools?”
            Irai’h leaned his forearms on the tabletop.  “Still, what if he is genuine?  At some point, we take a chance on all of these men.”
            “Too early to reveal our hand,” Ryeo’h disagreed.  “We should keep an eye on Captain Tjashensi.”
            “I have,” Aosji piped up.  “I have been watching his fall from grace.  The courtiers are being brutal, verbally attacking him and mocking him openly.”
            “And what of the King in all of this?” Ryeo’h asked.
            “He is not chastising anyone for insulting his son,” Aosji replied.  “Which leads me to believe they had some sort of falling out.”
            “Or Captain Tjashensi might be a plant,” Ryeo’h said.
            Irai’h sighed.  “But if he is a plant, he’s gone to great lengths.”
            “All the more reason to doubt his validity,” Ryeo’h rejoined.  “But I think we should keep an eye on him in the meantime.  I will consider when we can approach him.”
            Irai’h rose, an idea niggling at the edge of his mind.  “What if…what if I seduce him?”
            Ryeo’h frowned.  “Is he atoliy?”        
            Irai’h shrugged.  “He has never actively pursued young women at court.”
            “But that could be because he is half-Commoner,” I’a’sji supplied.  “No one wants to touch him with a ten foot pole.”
            “Still,” Irai’h said.  “Some trysting would have been revealed.  No one is that careful about their trysting, which leads me to suspect he doesn’t pursue young women.”
            “Neither is he known for trysting with young men,” Aosji countermanded.  
            “Let me try,” Irai’h asked.  “I’ll approach him and see what side of the toast he butters.  If he is atoliy, I will seduce him.  He must be lonely and ripe for the picking, don’t you think?”    
            Ryeo’h gnawed on his lower lip.  “You might be right, Irai’h.  Approach him and make your interest clear.  Let’s see if our young prince bites.”
            

Chapter V: The Interrogation

            Irai’h Asjur looked up from his desk as two guards entered Thalnel and Sons.  He frowned and glanced at Aosji, who had paled considerably.  He gave a minute shake of his head and rose.   He walked around the desk and strode to meet the guards.
            “How may I be of service, gentlemen?” he asked.
            The tallest guard turned to him.  “We have a summons for Lords Irai’h Asjur, Aosji Brenth’on’h and I’a’sji A’kir’h.”
            Irai’h almost sighed with relief as Ryeo’h strode through the side door into the reception room.  “What is the purpose of the summons?”
            “We are not at liberty to say,” the guard replied blandly.
            Ryeo’h nodded.  “Wait outside, please.  They will be right out.”
            When the guards stepped outside, closing the door behind them, Ryeo’h turned to his friends.  
            “They know nothing,” he told them.  “They are merely sniffing around.  I will contact my solicitor right away.  Say nothing, but what we practiced.  Do I make myself clear?”
            Irai’h nodded.
            Aosji fidgeted, looking pale.
            Ryeo’h gave him a withering glare.  “Aosji!  Be calm.  You know what to say.”
            Aosji ducked his head and nodded.  “I’m sorry, Ryeo’h.  I will be calm.”
            Ryeo’h nodded and strode to open the door.  He looked at the guards.  “I’a’sji A’kir’h is at the wharves this morning.  I’ll fetch him and take him to the Castle.  Will that suffice?”            
            The guards bowed.  “Yes, sir.  Thank you.”
            Irai’h and Aosji followed the guards out into the street.  There was a carriage waiting for them and they clamored inside.  Once the carriage was moving, Irai’h looked at his friend.
            “Aosji, please,” he begged.  “Calm yourself.  Here.”
            He reached into the pocket of his coat and retrieved a pill case.  He opened the case and dropped a tiny white pill onto Aosji’s hand.  
            “What is this?” Aosji asked.
            “It will calm your nerves, you fool,” Irai’h said.  “Now, swallow it.”
            Aosji did as he asked and sat back with a grimace.
            Irai’h sighed and pushed back the curtain from the carriage window.  “They don’t know anything.  Else, we would have been arrested.  They are doing an investigation, that’s all.”
            “Why us?” Aosji demanded.
            “Because we were there last night.  They are probably interrogating everyone.”  He looked at his friend.  “We’ve always hightailed it back here when we’ve done jobs in other city-states.  But we live here, don’t we?  Be calm, Aosji, or you will give us away.”
            Aosji closed his eyes and drew a deep breath.
            Irai’h bit back a curse.  He had warned Ryeo’h about Aosji’s lack of nerve, but Ryeo’h did as Ryeo’h saw fit, didn’t he?  If anyone gave them away, it would be Aosji.  Now they were in too deep.  
            They did not talk until the carriage was rattling over Castle Draemin’s drawbridge.  By then, the pill Irai’h had given Aosji had taken effect and the young man was calm and collected, if a bit dreamy around the eyes.
            “How are you?” Irai’h asked.
            Aosji smiled.  “Fine. Thank you, Irai’h.”
            Irai’h nodded.  “Our story is airtight.  You’ll see.”
            The carriage rolled to a stop and they stepped down into the bailey crowded with carriages, lirtah, and visitors.  Wordlessly, they followed the two guards into the Great Hall and, from there, to a nondescript doorway into a room with a scuffed table and four chairs.  They were instructed to sit on one side of the table and then they were left alone.
            Irai’h looked at Aosji and gave a minute shake of his head when Aosji made to say something.  He then turned forward and adopted a bored expression.  From the corner of his eye, he saw Aosji follow suit.  
            They were made to wait a long time, but Aosji, under the influence of the drug, remained calm and collected.
            By the time the door to the hallway opened and a handsome officer entered the room, Irai’h was near to fuming.
            He rose.  “What is the meaning of making us wait here like this?”
            “Sit down, Lord Asjur,” the officer said.
            He was tall and older, somewhere in his mid-forties, with thick black hair threaded with silver, and the silver eyes of the Ys’teis clan.  He glared at Irai’h until Irai’h took his seat.
            “We are investigating the theft that occurred last night,” the officer said.
            “Who are you?” Irai’h demanded.
            The man’s mouth quirked.  “I am Commander-General Rakah Ys’teis.”    
            Irai’h rose and bowed.  “Begging pardon, your Highness.  It’s just that our morning has been frightfully disrupted, you understand?”
            “Sit, my lord.  I understand and I will release you as soon as you answer my questions.”
            He strode to the door and opened it, motioning to one of the guards at the door.  “Kindly escort Lord Brenth’on’h to the adjoining room.”
            The guard stepped into the room.  “Lord Brenth’on’h.”
            Aosji rose and followed him from the room, flicking a glance at Irai’h over his shoulder before the closing door severed the glance.
            Irai’h swallowed thickly and took his seat.  He watched as Lord Ys’teis paced, becoming more and more unnerved when the soldier continued to say nothing.  He forced himself to remain calm and not to reach any conclusions.  He was not under arrest or even suspicion, he thought.  They didn’t have anything because Ryeo’h was meticulous and took nothing for granted.  He almost sighed when a great sense of calm overtook him.  He sat straighter and watched impassively as Lord Commander-General Rakah Ys’teis hauled a chair nearer to him and sat down.
            “Let’s have a chat, shall we?” Lord Ys’teis murmured.  “Please tell me what you did from the moment you entered Lord Us’ri’h’s residence last night until you left.”
            Irai’h verbally traced his movements from the time he entered the Us’ri’h mansion, sprinkling his story with the half-truths and outright lies he had been fed by Ryeo’h and made to repeat until they became as familiar as his own given name.  He told Lord Ys’teis that he had pursued a tryst with Lady Lauti Us’ri’h, which had come to naught.  Lauti was an old friend of his and they had flirted outrageously, but they had never had such feelings towards one another.  Lauti did not know he was atoliy, although if she had known, she would not have cared one whit.  It was just something they had never discussed.  He then told Lord Ys’teis he had played a couple hands of s’krieh before he had proceeded to get blind drunk.  What he left out was that he had gone to an alcove with Lauti and she had left him there to meet her lover.  Leaving the curtain concealing the alcove, he had gone to the third floor and Lord Us’ri’h’s den through a secret passage Lauti had shown him years ago.  The den had been empty.  The safe code had not been hard to crack; not for someone with his skill.  He had emptied the jewels into his satchel and had used the same secret passageway to find his way to the gardens, from where he had made his way to the street.  The lord of the manor had erroneously placed his guards within the house and not in the garden.  It was a common mistake.  Keeping to the shadows, Irai’h had found his way to the street and then had met Ryeo’h in their meeting place, transferring the satchel to him before hot footing it back to the mansion.  His alcove had been undisturbed and he had emerged with great show, making a fool of himself and acting drunk and disruptive until he was asked to leave.
            Commander-General Rakah listened intently and nodded.  “Was there anyone there you didn’t know?”
            “There were many people I didn’t know,” Irai’h replied.  “Us’ri’h does business with foreign dignitaries.”  He shrugged.  “I was only there at Lauti’s behest.  Lord Us’ri’h barely tolerates me.”
            “I see,” Commander-General Ys’teis said and rose.  “Very good.  You’re free to go.”
            “And Lord Brenth’on’h?” Irai’h asked.
            “His interrogation is next.  You can wait for him, if you like.  Excuse me.”
            When Lord Ys’teis had gone, Irai’h almost fainted from relief.  Once he becalmed himself, he strode to the Great Hall and paced until they were done with Aosji.  He looked up and saw two guards escorting I’a’sji and Ryeo’h into the Great Hall.  He strode to meet Ryeo’h.
            “Is your father angry that we aren’t at work?” he asked his friend.
            Ryeo’h grimaced.  “Eda is at a business meeting, thankfully.  Are you done here?”
            “I am.  Aosji is not.”
            Ryeo’h nodded.  “We’d best wait for him then.  It’s late enough we should probably have some supper.”
            The guards escorted I’a’sji away and then they walked to the nearest wall and leaned against it, talking in soft voices.
            “How did it go?” Ryeo’h asked.
            “Well enough, I think,” Irai’h murmured, flicking his gaze around the crowded room.
            Ryeo’h sighed.  “Aosji is a worry.”
            “He’ll be fine,” Irai’h assured him.  “He did nothing.  All he has to do is cover for me.”
            Ryeo’h nodded.
            They waited close to three hours.  During that time, they had to carefully monitor their behavior.  That was the hardest part of it for Irai’h.  Not that he was under the pretense that once released, they would no longer be suspect.  Everyone was suspect until someone was found.  They would have to lie low for a while.  He thought of his yield, which he kept under floorboards in his row house apartment.
            Eventually, his friends were released and the four of them strode from Castle Draemin to the bailey and hired a carriage to take them back to Thalnel and Sons.  They rode in silence, Ryeo’h sitting next to Irai’h and I’a’sji sitting across from them next to Aosji.
            “How did it go?” Ryeo’h asked.
            Aosji gave him a dreamy smile.  “I think it went well.  They wanted to know my whereabouts.  I told him I was at the tables playing s’krieh for most of the night.  Made a tidy sum, too.”  He chuckled.
            Ryeo’h turned to the other.  “And you?”
            I’a’sji shrugged.  “Fine.  I was there to flirt and dance, which is what I did.  He did ask if I knew what Irai’h had been up to and I told him he went into an alcove with Lady Lauti Us’ri’h.  I told him Irai’h remained in the alcove for a long time then emerged drunk and belligerent.  I told him I believed you had been wounded by Lady Us’ri’h’s rejection of your advances.”
            Ryeo’h nodded.  “Very good.”
            I’a’sji shifted.  “He asked where Aosji was all night.  I told him at the gambling tables, of course.  But everyone saw that, so that didn’t seem to concern our Commander-General as much as Irai’h’s whereabouts.”
            Ryeo’h looked at Irai’h.  “Will Lady Us’ri’h protect you?”
            Irai’h nodded.  “She has forgotten she ever told me about the secret passage.  And she is protective of me.  Besides, I am her cover.  She had a tryst with her lover, a commoner.  It won’t do at all to have her father learn of this, if you ken me.  She will cover for me and I for her.”
            Ryeo’h studied him for long minutes before coming to a conclusion and nodded.  “I hope you’re right.”
            “I trust her with my life,” Irai’h said.
            Ryeo’h waved a dismissive hand.  “I believe you.”  He frowned.  “We will not have another job for a few months, I think.  That should throw them off our trail.”  He pursed his lips.  “There is a grand ball in South Torahn in seven months, Lord A’kir’h, is there not?”
            I’a’sji sat straighter.  “Yes.  If we can break into the King’s safe we can retire permanently.  You would need something larger than a satchel, Irai’h.”
            Ryeo’h nodded.  “We need floor plans for the palace.”
            Aosji leaned forward.  “How will you get those?”
            “Never mind,” Ryeo’h said.  “The less you know, the better.  I will begin work on this.  I will take Irai’h with me and both of you will remain here, to further deflect notice.”
            Aosji pouted.  “But a Grand Ball, Ryeo’h…”
            “You’ll have other chances,” Ryeo’h told him.  “One of King Kah’len’s children is bound to marry soon.”
            Irai’h sat back.  “In the meantime, we should approach some disaffected soldiers.”
            Ryeo’h nodded.  “Yes.  Our work is just beginning.”  He looked at Aosji and I’a’sji.  “You’ll have plenty of work to do here while we are gone.”

Chapter IV: The Reformist Lord

 Lord Irai’h Asjur shifted and sprawled on the tavern chair, affecting a careless, bored attitude.  In truth, he was wound tighter than a wire as he waited for his friends to arrive.  Last night’s take had yielded thousands of tin’kahls for each of them; now they would pool their resources to continue their work.  It gave Irai’h a means to survive.  Since he was his sire’s youngest and would stand to inherit nothing from the old man, who had had the temerity to sire fourteen children, most of them girls, he had to survive by his wits.  Right now he worked for his friend Ryeo’h for a measly pittance as a clerk.  He needed the money from their heists. Even though a part went to fund their political project, there was always some portion that was their personal yield.  He would use some of the earnings from the heist last night and put it into the bank at some future time, when the attention of the Crown was diverted somewhere else.  King Kah’len did not like thieves or outlaws in general.  Lord Asjur’s gang of thieves had been stealing from the wealthiest denizens of North Torahn for nigh on five years and had never been caught.  Irai’h did not think himself invincible; he was no fool.  He knew each heist might result in capture and the noose of the hangman.
            He shuddered and drained his glass of mi’disj.  Rivulets of sweat trickled down his back and he wondered, for the umpteenth time, where in all the bloody hells his friends were.  Throwing the napkin on the tabletop, he made to stand when his friends wandered in the door.  They paused at the entrance of the tavern, and he rose and lifted his hand to signal them.
            They hurried over.
            “Sorry we’re late,” Aosji Brenth’on’h said and took his seat.  He looked around dramatically and lowered his voice.  “My father was in a tizzy this morning.”
            Irai’h rolled his eyes.  “When is your father not in a tizzy, I wonder?”
            The other two chuckled and took their seats.
            Brenth’on’h was the youngest son of the King of Kuin-on-the-H’aj and, like Irai’h, stood to inherit next to nothing from his father.  The same could be said of his other friend, Lord I’a’sji A’kir’h, the youngest son of the Governor of City Dors in South Torahn.  Their last friend, Mister Ryeo’h Thalnel, was a commoner, and the brains behind their gang.  Even though his sire was wealthy–thus his entrance into university, where they had all met–he was a radical and wanted to reform North Torahn while his sire, a shipping mogul, had seamlessly adopted the aristocracy’s tiresome mores.
            “What was your father in a tizzy about?” Irai’h asked and poured liqueur for his friends.
            Aosji grimaced.  “The job last night, what else?  He doesn’t understand how a heist could happen during a ball.  The man is an idiot.”
            I’a’sji snorted and sipped his drink.  “He was too busy lusting after young girls, the old dosi.”
            Aosji blushed and looked away.
            Irai’h placed his hand on his friend’s on the table.  “You aren’t responsible for your father’s perversions, Aosji.  Don’t take it on.”
            Aosji pulled his hand free.  “He is the most disgusting sort of fellow, really.  I don’t see how the maids in our household are safe.  He leers at the youngest, who is all of eleven!”
            “Lower your voice,” Ryeo’h stated coldly.  “We aren’t here to discuss you sire.”
            “Sorry,” Aosji muttered.
            They all leaned in, forearms on the table.  
            Irai’h kept his eyes pealed on their neighbors, but no one was sitting at the nearest tables, which is why he had chosen this one on which to wait for his friends.  
            Ryeo’h looked at each of them in turn.  “Last night’s jewels were sold to a R’Nonayan merchant who is now on a ship sailing back home.  I have your yields at home and I will give you each your purse this afternoon.  Do not go to your respective banks until I give you the word.  Do I make myself clear?”
            The other three wordlessly nodded.
            Ryeo’h sat back in his chair.  “It was a good job.  We each yielded $8,000 pe’t’kahl.”
            Aosji whistled and beamed at his friends.  “”That will pay for my university degree.”
            Ryeo’h nodded.  “Continue to pay in installments, won’t you?  It would do no good to garner the Crown’s attention right now.”
            “Of course,” Aosji agreed and sipped his liqueur.
            Ryeo’h’s eyes slid to Irai’h.  “What will you do with your earnings?”
            “Invest them,” Irai’h replied.  “At least the ones we don’t funnel into bribes.”
            Ryeo’h looked around cautiously, but the tavern was noisy and no one seemed to be paying attention to them.  Irai’h had kept his voice low, pitched only to carry across the table.
            “We change nothing about our lives,” he reminded the others.  “You are still clerks in my sire’s business. Understood?”            
            I’as’ji nodded.  “Understood.”
            Ryeo’h smiled.  “You all did well last night.  I’m proud of you all.”
            Irai’h leaned forward.  “We did well because of you, Ryeo’h.  Your meticulous and cautious nature ensured our success and safety.”
            Aosji lifted his glass.  “Hear, hear!”
            Ryeo’h sobered.  “Let’s go to my apartments, shall we?  We need to begin picking out the members of the military who are disaffected.  We need the military in order to force the King to abdicate.”  He rose.  “Meet me at my apartments in a half an hour.”
            He strode away.
            The others remained and met glances.
            “This is getting scary,” I’a’sji commented blandly as he emptied his glass of liqueur.
            Irai’h rose.  “It’s always been scary.  Let’s go.”
            ***
            When Belihn rose the next morning, he dressed in his threadbare trousers and tunic and pulled on his battle boots and went for a jog around Queen’s Park.  He kept a steady rhythm as he ran, breathing evenly and deeply and keeping his arms loose at his sides.  He had noticed an inordinate number of carriages in the bailey before the sun even rose in the east.  He wondered at that as he ran.  Soon, however, his thoughts grew clear and sharp and free.  He focused on his stride, his breathing, and the distance.  He allowed nothing else to snag his attention.  As the sun rose in the east, the first of its fingers blushing in the sky, he headed west towards the King’s Reserve.  He knew where the line of demarcation was and, when he reached the strangely twisted tree, he turned around.  He had been running for about an hour and now would run another before he reached the castle once more.  He had to be at his post by early morning, before Commander Ethael reported for duty.
            He lengthened his stride, his breathing still even and easy.  He was drenched in sweat and his leg muscles burned as he pushed himself to his limit.  He jumped over a stone bench and hit the ground and continued at close to his top speed.  When he could see the drawbridge, he pushed himself harder still until his lungs burned.  He made it to the bailey and kept to the castle wall, away from the throng that was filing into the castle proper.  He wondered again what had happened to merit such a number of barristers and solicitors.  
            He slowed down as he came to one of the fighting yards.  He stopped and paced to cool off.  He could hear the thud of wooden swords clashing from the practice yards.  He made his way there, where he found a small area to stretch.  His muscles were tight and already getting sore.  He rose.  There was no time for a lengthy soak in a tub of hot water.  
            “I say, Belihn!”
            He turned.  “Ean.”
            His half-brother, Ean, stopped before him.  “Have you heard?”
            Belihn cocked his head.  “Heard what?”
            Ean indicated the great number of carriages in the bailey.  “There was another theft at a ball last night.  This time Lord Us’ri’h was hit.”
            Belihn frowned.  “Another theft?  I thought Lord Us’ri’h would have the halls crawling with guards.”
            Ean nodded.  “He did.  The lock box was left open and a calling card was left behind.”
            “Same as the others?” Belihn asked.
            “Yes,” Ean replied.  “It read, ‘Much obliged, the Reformist Lord.'”
            Belihn glanced at the carriages as if they could tell him something.  “Curious.”
            “Yes,” Ean agreed.  “I will be helping Uncle Rakah with the investigation.  So will Commander Ethael.  So, I shall see you later today.”  He clapped Belihn on the shoulder.  “Congratulations on your promotion, by the way.”
            Belihn smiled faintly.  “Thank you.”
            Ean nodded and strode away.
            Belihn hurried to the Officers’ House and up to the third floor and to his room.  He poured cold water from the water jar into the basin then poured a few drops of scented oil into the water before dipping his washcloth into the water and scrubbing the sweat from his skin.  He scrubbed his face then unbraided his hair and bent over the basin to wring the washcloth over his head.  When he was done, he dried off and dressed in his uniform, pulling his boots on last and tucking the trouser legs into the boots.  Afterward, he brushed and braided his hair.  Studying himself in the full lengthed mirror attached to the back of the door, he nodded with satisfaction and left his room, heading for the commissary for some breakfast.
            The commissary was full of soldiers and the din was deafening, but he managed to get some breakfast and find a seat at the end of one of the long tables.  He tucked into the boiled grains with tza nuts and dried berries, honey and cream.  Around him, the soldiers were excitedly discussing last night’s theft.  Everyone was curious as to who this Reformist Lord was and how he could get away with everything.  This was the third city-state the thief had targeted.  All city-states were on high alert, but that seemed to do little to deter the thief.
            Belihn drained his tea and rose, carrying the tray to the serving window and leaving it there before striding away, towards the Ethael’s office.  
            Commander Ethael was already in his office.  His door stood ajar and Commander-General Rakah Ys’teis was with him.  They both turned when Belihn entered the outer office.
            Rakah grinned at Belihn.  “Belihn.  I hear congratulations are in order.”
            Belihn bowed.  “Thank you, Uncle.”
            Rakah pounded his shoulder.  “Well done, son, and well earned.  Please close the outer door and come inside.  We’ve business to discuss.”
            Belihn did as he was told, leaving the inner office door open.        
            “I need you to take notes,” Commander Ethael told him.
            Belihn bowed and went to his desk to gather paper and pen and inkwell.  He brought the items to the inner office and took a seat beside Commander-General Ys’teis.
            Rakah shifted.  “Last night the thief that calls himself the Reformist Lord struck again.  This time it was at a ball held in the honor of Lord Osvaldo Us’ri’h’s oldest daughter’s betrothal.”
            “How much did he get away with?” Commander Ethael asked.
            “Over 40,000 Pe’t’kahls worth of jewels.  He left the lock box empty.”
            Commander Ethael whistled.
            “Yes.  Quite,” Rakah murmured.  “Of course, this does not leave Lord Us’ri’h destitute, mind you. Just livid.”
            Ethael rested his forearms on the desktop.  “Now what?”
            “We have a meeting with the King this morning.  Needless to say, this has become a priority for the Crown,” Rakah replied.  “We have no leads.  Nothing.  We need ideas and we need them immediately.”  Rakah rose.  “So, think hard and bring your ideas to the War Room in two hours.”
            Commander Ethael rose and they clasped forearms.  “I’ll see you then, Rakah.”
            Belihn rose and smiled at his uncle.  “I’ll see you then, Uncle.”
            Rakah returned his smile, spun on his heels and strode away.
            “Get me some tea from the commissary, will you, Captain?” Commander Ethael said.  “I can’t think before tea.”
            Belihn grinned.  “Right away, sir.”
            Two hours later, they were striding across the bailey towards the castle.  Belihn wondered who else had been invited to this meeting.  He did not ask as they entered the Great Hall and proceeded through the throng of people milling about until they reached a nondescript door attached to the Throne Room. The two guards bowed and opened the door to allow them entrance.  They stepped into the War Room.  Belihn had never been inside this room.  Inside, he found the King’s cadre of advisors, Commander-General Rakah Ys’teis, two commanders he did not recognize, and Captain Ean Tjashensi.  Commander Ethael greeted everyone while Belihn remained quietly behind him.
            A few minutes later, the King entered and everyone bowed and saluted while he made his way around the table to his armchair.  He looked around the room.
            “Please sit, everyone,” he murmured.
            Belihn sat down next to Commander Ethael and looked expectantly at his king and father.
            King Kah’len grimaced and tapped a finger on the glossy tabletop.  “I don’t quite know how to approach this,” he said.  “We are at a loss for words.  There are no clues, no indications of whom the guilty persons are.  Nothing.”  He looked helplessly around the table.  “I called you all here to gather ideas as to how we can capture this Reformist Lord and stop the thefts.”
            “What do you know, Majesty?” Commander Ethael asked.
            King Kah’len flicked a glance at Commander-General Ys’teis.
            Rakah Ys’teis cleared his throat.  “He is like a ghost.  He knows where the lock boxes are and how to open them and quickly. Last night, no one saw anything.  We’ve narrowed the theft to the period of time during which the betrothal was being announced and the ball began.  Nothing else in the vicinity was disturbed.  The lock box was opened without breaking into it.”
            “May I?” Belihn asked.
            Rakah nodded.  
            “My King,” Belihn said.  “The mansion must have been cased beforehand, else how could the thief know where it was?  So the person who is the thief must be known to Lord Us’ri’h.  Must have been in the house long enough to discover the whereabouts of the lock box.”
            The King nodded.  “Good, son. That makes sense.  So, Rakah.  Let’s interview Lord Us’ri’h and any guests who stayed with him prior to the ball.”
            Rakah bowed.  “I’ll commence right after this meeting.”
            “Good,” Kah’len murmured.   “What else?”
            “I would interview recently released thiefs, your Majesty,” Commander Ethael murmured.
            “Begging your pardon, Sir,” Belihn said.  “I don’t think this is the work of a common thief, although I could be wrong, of course.  I think this is someone who is too clever by far and that may be to our advantage.”
            Commander Ethael frowned.  “How so, Captain?”
            “Someone too clever will, sooner or later, make a mistake.”
            Lady Oona shifted.  “That may be, child, but it might not be a mistake he makes in a timely manner.  We must try to find him before he strikes again.”
            The other advisors nodded.
            The King looked at Belihn.  “What else do you think, son?”
            Belihn blushed as all eyes turned to him.  “I think this might not be the work of just one person, Father.”
            The King nodded.  “You think it’s more than one thief?”
            “I think these men are known to the aristocracy, Sire.  They are invited to the ball and then strike, using their high births as a disguise.”
            “Interesting theory,” Commander Ethael murmured.  
            Commander-General Rakah Ys’teis rose.  “I’d best begin my interrogation of Lord Us’ri’h’s guests, Sire. I think it’s a good place to start.”
            The King nodded.  “Go on then.”  
            Once his half-brother had departed, the King turned to the others present.  “Lets adjourned and see if Rakah finds anything.  We’ll meet again two days’ hence, after we break our fasts.”
            The King rose and the others rose after him.
            Belihn gathered his notes.
            “Belihn,” his sire said. “Stay a moment.”
            Commander Ethael saluted the King and winked at Belihn.  “I’ll see you in a bit, Captain.”
            When the others had departed, Belihn turned to his father.
            The King threw his arm around Belihn’s shoulders.  “Nice thinking today, son.”
            “Thank you, Eda.”
            “I wanted to congratulate you on your promotion.”
            “That was your doing, Sire.  So, I should be thanking you.”
            The King shook his head.  “No, your work at the border was impeccable.  You deserved a promotion. Have you gotten any flack for it?”
            Belihn shook his head. “Not so far, Sir.”
            The King grimaced.  “It will come, child.  Stay strong.  The aristocracy has no choice but to accept you.”
            “Yes, Sire.”
            “Go on then, boy.  Continue to do me proud.”
            Belihn bowed, fist to chest.  “Thank you, my King.”