Chapter Two: Telling Tifa

 Belihn headed to the castle through the crowded bailey.  He schooled his face to a bland mask as he neared the entrance to Draemin Castle.  It would not do to appear a fool.  His heart thundered in his chest and all he could do was imagine Tifa’s face when he told her about his promotion.  His younger sister was his closest friend and confidant, at least until she married.  He pushed that thought away and entered the Great Hall.  The din was deafening as he moved along the edges of the crowd of courtiers, barristers, petitioners, servants and soldiers.  The King and the Houses would be busy this morning, it being the first day of the week.  He did not envy his father the long hours listening to petitions and legal arguments.  King Kah’len was a man of action; Belihn wondered how he dealt with long hours of sprawling on the salta wood throne and listening and meting out legal decisions and decrees.
            “Ah, Belihn Tjashensi,” someone drawled and stepped to block his way.
            Belihn stopped short.
            Lord Elon Tok’ta’h’ smiled coldly, his pale gray eyes looking colorless and icy in his pale face.  
            Belihn swallowed a sigh.  “Lord Tok’ta’h.  What can I do for you?”
            Lord Tok’ta’h took a step forward and lowered his voice.  “You know what you can do for me–”  He raked his eyes over Belihn’s chest and his eyes widened.  “Ah, you’ve been promoted.  Well done.”
            “Thank you.”
            Elon Tok’ta’h smiled more widely.  “I daresay, it was not Kia’guh who promoted you, was it?”
            Belihn cleared his throat.  “No.  Commander Ethael.”
            Elon Tok’ta’h’s smile became a smirk.  “Of course.”  He stepped closer still and Belihn took a step back.  “I hope you know I don’t hold with Kia’guh’s views?”
            There was so  much hunger in Elon Tok’ta’h’s eyes that Belihn found himself flushing.  He did not reply.
            Elon Tok’ta’h chuckled and took a closer step.  “All I want is to get to know you better, Belihn Tjashensi.  I know you are interested, too.  I can see it.”
            Belihn frowned.  “Lord Tok’ta’h, it’s all well and good for you to act this way, propositioning another man, but I have no such luxury.  I already have an uphill battle in the armed forces because I am half-commoner; what do you think will happen to my chances if people found out I was in some sexual liaison with the King of Li’ahn City-State’s heir?”
            Elon Tok’ta’h reared back as if he had been slapped.  “But you’re not denying your…proclivities, are you?  I can do much to help you ascend through the ranks.  My father is a King.”
            Belihn drew himself to his full height.  “As is mine.  I heard you are engaged to a young woman.  I wish you felicitations on your betrothal and I ask that you cease and desist from pursuing me.”
            Elon Tok’ta’h opened his mouth, but Belihn turned on his heels and strode away, down the long hallway to the southeast tower.  He took the stairs two at a time and hurried down the hallway to his mother’s suites.  His mother was not in residence, preferring to live at the family villa in the south, but his siblings lived in the suites, overseen by a cadre of servants and two female caretakers for the girls.  
            He came to the door and knocked.  
            The door was answered by the butler, who bowed.  “My lord.  Come in.”
            “Is Lady Tifa in?” Belihn asked and stepped into the sitting room.
            The butler closed the door.  “She is, my lord. I will fetch her for you.”
            “Thank you.”
            He watched as the butler headed to the servants’ hallway door and within, to where the bedrooms were located.  A few minutes later, he heard a commotion, followed by Tifa running into the sitting room.  She held her full skirts in her hands.  She was barefoot under her clothes and he found himself filled with tender love for his irrepressible younger sister.  
            “Belihn!” she cried and ran into his open arms.
            He pulled her close, breathing in her soft scent, rubbing his cheek over the soft hair piled artlessly on the top of her head.  She pulled back and smiled at him.  He was taken aback once again at how much she looked like their stunning mother, whose looks alone had pulled her out of poverty.  Like him, Tifa had inherited their father’s green eyes, while Ilmi, their younger stister, and T’arehn, the youngest son, had been born with hazel eyes, like their aya.
            “What brings you to see me?” Tifa demanded and looked him over.  “Did Mother finally announce your betrothal?”
            “Look at my chest,” he prompted her.
            She took a step back and studied his chest for a few seconds before her eyes widened.  “Command Kia’guh promoted you?”
            “Commander Ethael.  I am now officially his secretary.”
            She squealed and hugged him again.  Pulling back, she beamed up at him.  “I simply must tell Kilen!”
            “Your betrothed is probably neck deep in paperwork, Tifa,” Belihn replied.
            “He is never too busy to see me,” she retorted with a snort.  “We simply must celebrate.  Ilmi!  T’arehn!”  She turned from him and hurried to the sideboard.  “Do you have the day off?  Can we ride to the villa and tell aya?”
            He frowned as she poured a dram of mi’disj into a glass.
            She turned and chuckled.  “It’s for you, you ninny!  I don’t drink.”
            She carried the glass and handed it to him.  
            He caressed her face with a hand.  “I love you, Tifa.”
            Her smile softened.  “And I you, you dolt!”
            “What’s all the noise?” T’arehn demanded as he strode into the sitting room.
            All of fourteen, T’arehn was leggy and lanky.  He looked most like their paternal grandmother, Lady Oona Obeli-Thalmar.  He was handsome and popular with the girls at court, despite his background.  He had inherited the full force of their grandmother’s charm and wiles, that one.  Right now, he leaned against the back of an armchair, disheveled with an unbuttoned shirt and unbraided hair.  Belihn was absolutely shocked at his appearance.  
            Tifa frowned.  “Why is your hair unbraided, you laze-about?”
            T’arehn reached up a hand to his hair.  “You’re family, Tifa.  Do I have to worry about some tiresome more with you, too?”
            Tifa huffed in frustration.
            Ilmi ran into the sitting room dressed like a boy again, her hair braided instead of piled onto her head.  She wore a tunic and trouser and went barefoot, like Tifa.
            Tifa tsked.  “Why can’t you dress appropriately, Ilmi?  For once!”
            Ilmi rolled her eyes.  “Really?  In tight corsets that limit breathing?  Or full skirts that keep me tripping?  No, thank you!  Now, why were you hollering?”
            Tifa stiffened.  “I don’t holler.”
            Ilmi snorted.  “Sure, sis.  As you say.”
            Tifa sighed and looked imploringly at Belihn.  
            Belihn smirked but said nothing.
            She rolled her eyes and turned to her younger siblings.  “Belihn has been promoted to captain!”
            Ilmi squealed and ran to embrace him.  She smelled faintly of hair oil and sweat.  In his arms, she was compact and sturdy.  He knew she danced for exercise and was quite active, like their father, whom she idolized.  He could feel sleek muscles under the soft outer skin.  
            He pulled back and pressed a kiss to her forehead.
            “Good for you, brother!” she enthused.  
            T’arehn walked to him and clasped his hand.  “Good for you, Belihn!  I didn’t think Kia’guh was going to unbend that thick stick he has thrust up his arse.”
            Tifa gasped.
            Belihn pursed his lips to keep from laughing.  “T’arehn.”
            “What?” T’arehn demanded.  “The man is as unbending as a log!”
            Belihn cleared his throat.  “He didn’t promote me.  Commander Ethael did.”
            T’arehn nodded and chuckled.  “Yes.  That’s more like it!”
            Ilmi turned to Tifa.  “Are we celebrating?”
            Tifa rolled her eyes.  “But of course.  We are going to fetch Kilen Sobres and we are going to the villa to tell mother.”
            Ilmi took off down the servants’ hallway.  “Let me get ready!  I’ll be right out!”
            T’arehn looked at Belihn.  “Can I tell Aila’h?  Can she come?”
            “Yes, of course,” Belihn replied.
            T’arehn grinned and hurried into the outer hallway to fetch their half-sister from her mother’s suites down the hall.
            Belihn looked at Tifa.  “Aila’h?”
            She shrugged.  “They’ve grown close these past few weeks.  You don’t see anything, because you’re never here.”
            She gathered her skirts with her hands.  “Let me get some shoes on.  We’ll head out in a few minutes.”
            “I wanted to tell Father,” he told her.
            “Send him a missive,” she replied as she headed for the servants’ hall.  “He won’t be able to see you while court is in session anyway.”
            He watched as she disappeared through the doorway.  He would tell his father tonight, when they returned from the villa.
            It took another hour before Tifa had chosen the proper shoes and had changed her outfit once again.  Afterward, they all headed down the hallway, Tifa and Ilmi’s caretakers bringing up the rear.  They took a little used doorway to access the bailey then hurried to the stables, where Ilmi threw a tantrum.
            “I want to ride to the villa!” she declared.
            Missus Karlen gave her a withering glare.  “Young lady, you will ride in the family carriage as is proper.”
            Ilmi looked imploringly at Belihn.  
            He sighed.  “Does it matter how we get there, girl?  The carriage is the best way we can all go together.”
            “But it’s hot,” she whined.  “And I haven’t ridden in a while.”
            “I’ll take you riding next week, I promise,” he told her soothingly and hugged her.  “Be good to Missus Karlen, Il.”
            She took a deep breath and released it.  “Fine.  I’ll ride in the bloody carriage!”
            “Language,” Missus Oson hissed.
            They stood about until the stable hands had hitched the carriage.  Then they all clamored into the soft velvet blue interior.  Belihn sat between Ilmi and Tifa and T’arehn sat next to Aila’h and Missus Karlen.
            Aila’h looked like their father, too, which on her was more handsome than beautiful.  She had her mothers clear blue eyes and honey gold hair.  She was a nice girl, though.  Belihn didn’t know her well, but he liked her forthcoming manner and honesty.      
            She smiled shyly at him.  “Congratulations, Captain, on your promotion.”
            He bowed.  “Thank you, my lady.”
            Tifa leaned forward.  “You told your mother you were coming with, Aila’h?”
            “Yes,” Aila’h murmured.  “Now that I am bleeding, she insists on knowing where I go all the time.”
            Missus Karlen started.  “That is not a mete subject in mixed company, young lady!”
            Aila’h blushed but a smile played around her full lips. “Sorry, Missus Karlen.”
            T’arehn swallowed a giggle and winked at her.
            The carriage clattered over the wooden moat bridge and unto the wide boulevard leading into the city. The roadway was filled with wagons bringing in goods to the castle and visitors riding lirtah or bahil.  Some came and went on foot.  Once on the other side of Queen’s Park, the city came into view.  The first neighborhoods were filled with mansions and black iron gates and ostentatious gardens and driveways.  This close to the castle, old money purchased homes.  No one newly rich was allowed in this neighborhoods. Only clan affiliations were allowed to buy and sell here.  The next neighborhood along the boulevard belonged to the nouveau riche.  The houses were more modest, as were the gardens and driveways and gates.  Belihn liked the large wooden houses much more than the showy brick monstrosities in the oldest of the neighborhoods.
            The neighborhood belonging to the middle classes was by far the most extensive.  The two and three-story homes were made of whitewashed wood and had tall, whitewashed, wooden fences or flowering bushes demarcating property lines.  The houses had colorful windowsills and doors.  The gardens were small but pretty, Belihn thought.  During his father’s nineteen year rule, the middle class had prospered and grown in leaps and bounds.  It made for a sturdy, stable government.  King Kah’len was very popular among the middle classes, even though he had failed to keep some of his promises.
            Poorer neighborhoods were still charming and clean, filled with single and two-story cottages and small plots of land filled with grain and fruits and root vegetables.  Belihn was not naive enough not to know that there was still poverty in Draemin City.  There were those who lived on the edges of society, who lived within the sooty, burnt remnants of the Underground City, who lived criminal lives.  But since his father had taken the reins of power, the streets were better patrolled and crime had been reduced to such levels that most citizens lived safe lives.  
            They came to the business district once the neighborhoods were left far behind.  The business district was filled with storefronts, offices and taverns and inns.  The streets were busy with people going to and from the open air market southeast of the business district, near the wharves with their factories and warehouses.  
            The carriage rolled to a stop before a two-story brick building with a name embossed into its facade, “Sobres and Sons.”
            Once the carriage stopped, Belihn stepped down and held his hand out for Tifa.  Her small hand was cool and light in his.
            He escorted her into the building.  The man behind the reception desk rose.
            “Lady Tjashensi,” he said and bowed.  “Should I fetch Mister Sobres?”
            She smiled at him.  “Yes, please, Koret. Thank you.”
            The man bowed and swept towards the stairwell, taking the steps two at a time.
            Belihn looked around the waiting room.  The brick walls were covered with oil paintings of the city and the shiny eishano wood floors were filled with tasteful, colorful throw rugs.  There were armchairs along one wall and a bank of windows that faced east, towards the wharves.  The ceiling was high with exposed wooden beams.   A glass chandelier hung just to the right of the reception desk.  The company’s logo was etched into the wooden floor and painted in mustard yellow.
            The receptionist returned, Mister Kilen Sobres at his heels.
            “Tifa!” Kilen murmured and hugged her.  “To what do I owe this honor?”
            Tifa pulled back and smiled up at him.  “We wanted to share our good news with you, Kilen.”  She turned to Belihn.  “My brother has just been promoted to Captain.”
            Kilen’s eyebrows arched.  He turned to Belihn.  “Truly, Belihn?  That is most wonderful news.”
            Tifa thrust her arm through his.  “We are going to the villa to tell mother.  Please say you can come with us?”
            The smile Kilen directed towards her shone with adoration.  “But of course, my dear.  Let me inform father.  Give me a moment.”
            He hurried away and Tifa turned to Belihn.
            “Isn’t he a proper beauty?” she gushed.
            He rolled his eyes.  Kilen was a handsome young man, trim with the dark brown hair and hazel eyes of the common folk.  He was engaging and funny, completely free of the stuffiness and self-importance of many of the nouveau riche.
            “He is handsome,” Belihn agreed.  “You two will make lovely babies.”
            She gasped and slapped his arm.  “Oh, you!  Get your mind out of the gutter!”
            “Like you don’t think of getting him between the sheets,” he murmured to her.
            Her face suffused with blood, but she chortled.  “You are deliciously filthy!”
            He straightened his back as Kilen Sobres returned, a light cloak about his shoulders.  “Shall we go?”
            The journey to the villa district took a good two hours.  The villas belonging to the nouveau riche were located the furthest from the city, near the edges of the tall brick walls.  The paved road leading from the city was in good condition, with few potholes, so their journey there was mostly comfortable.
            Belihn sat back and idly listened to Mister Sobres tease his siblings and Lady Aila’h.  He watched the countryside as it slid past his window.  Most of the villas were working villas, although some of the wealthier denizens kept villas for winter residences.  Their family villa grew fruit for liqueurs and wines and tah’lir for milk, cheese and meat.  Othalos Stait, Belihn’s maternal grandfather, was too old to run the villa now, so Belihn’s uncle Tono and his aunt, Salita, ran it jointly.  Both were married and had a passel of children between them, whom they home schooled.  The children were receiving a practical education with an eye towards inheriting the villa one day.  The villa was purchased when Belihn’s father had married his mother. The villa had been the bride price and a way to lift the Stait family out of poverty.  Belihn knew his grandfather had to learn to read and write in order to run it and he had always leaned upon Tono, who had been six at the time, and Salita, who had been twelve.  Enana, his maternal grandmother, was still alive and ran the house, refusing to hire servants.  Belihn wondered if she would soften the older she grew.
            Almost three hours later, they came to the Stait Family villa.  As befit a commoner’s residence, there was no plaque on the fence with the family crest.  The nouveau riche announced their residences with the color of the fence.  The Staits had agreed upon emerald for the color of their fence and windowsills and doors.  
            The carriage turned into the property driveway and past the emerald wooden fence.  The air was thick with the smell of tah’lir.  Belihn’s maternal grandfather owned 500 head of tah’lir and kept them in a large field directly behind the house.  Belihn could hear the plaintive bleats of the animals through the carriage’s glass windows.  When the carriage rolled to a stop, Belihn stepped down and assisted the ladies out of the carriage while the other men used the other carriage door to exit.  He turned and saw his mother standing under the awning of the front door.
            Divita Stait was as beautiful as she had always been.  There was barely gray in her dark brown hair and she was still as slender as a reed and tiny, the top fo her head coming only to Belihn’s shoulder.  Divita dressed in fine but sober clothes.  She wore a black skirt that fell to the ground and a silver jacket with a pale silk inner shirt.  Her hair was piled on top of her head in a bun.  Silver beads studded her earlobes.  She wore her sol’eka, her marriage bracelet and ring, on her right hand.  She, like her daughters, liked to go barefoot at home.
            Belihn hung back while his mother greeted her younger children with warm affection.
            “Ilmi, my darling,” she said to the youngest daughter.  “Why are you still dressing like a boy?”
            “Mama–” Ilmi began.
            Divita turned to MIssus Karlen and Missus Oson.  “I give you full authority to dress her as is proper.”
            The caretakers bowed.
            “She is a stubborn one, my lady,” Missus Karlen murmured.
            Divita turned to Ilmi.  “How am I supposed to get you married off, young lady?  You are going on seventeen, old enough to marry.”
            She shook her head and turned to Mister Sobres.  “Good to see you, Mister Sobres.  How are you?”
            Kilen bowed.  “I am well, my lady.”
            Divita turned her head and looked at Belihn.  “Aren’t you going to greet me, my eldest son?”
            He stepped forward and embraced her.  She felt frail in his arms.  Pressing a kiss to her temple, he stepped back.  “How are you, Mother?”
            Her clear hazel eyes studied him for a few seconds.  “I am well, Belihn.  And you?”
            “He’s a Captain now, Aya!” Ilmi blurted out.
            Divita’s eyes widened.  “A Captain?  How wonderful, Belihn!”
            Her eyes shone as she gazed up at him.  “How like your sire you look, child.”  She threaded her arm through his.  “Come inside, all of you.  We will celebrate.  I have lined up a young woman for Belihn.  I want to tell you all about her.”
            Belihn bit back a groan and allowed his mother to lead him inside.

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