Chapter Three: Divita’s Proposal

            Their grandmother served them a simple lunch of cold meats, cheeses, and fruit drizzled with honey.  They sat around the common eating room with its scuffed eishano wood table and its ten uncomfortable chairs.  Belihn sat beside his mother and nibbled on his meal, listening idly to his siblings talking over one another to capture their mother’s attention.  His siblings adored her; it was plain to see.  None of them held his prejudices about commoners, did they?  Even T’arehn was proud of his background.  Was that why he was popular?  Because he was courageous?  Belihn picked up his glass of wine and took a large swallow.  It was a fine vintage, one created in this very villa.
            “Belihn!” his Uncle Tono said.
            Belihn started.  “Uncle?”
            “Tell us about this promotion of yours,” the older man prompted and smiled.  He looked a lot like their grandfather, a handsome but humble man.
            “My father pushed for it and Commander Ethael came through,” Belihn replied, blushing.
            “Don’t be so humble,” his Aunt Salita said.  “I heard how you distinguished yourself in the last border war against the Isemi.  You saved a soldier’s life!”
            Belihn swallowed.  The soldier had been an aristocrat and had spat in Belihn’s face afterward.
            Belihn shook his head.  “It was not appreciated.”
            Aunt Salita frowned.  “Just because he was a bigot does not mean he deserved to die.”
            “I took a wound to my thigh that festered,” Belihn retorted, flushing with an anger he thought had dispersed a long time ago.  He sighed.  “The weeks of pain and infections, of fevers and poultices and bitter teas.”  He shook his head.  “I wished I had let him die, if I am honest.”
            A silence fell upon the table.
            Kilen Sobres cleared his throat.  “Understandable, Belihn.  Even if that tash-tash whose life you saved does not consider you so, you are a hero in my book.”
            “I am no hero,” Belihn said with conviction.  “I try to be decent, to let these aristocratic opinions flow through me without touching me, but, damn it, how much influence do any of us–any of them–have on our births?  It’s all with the Goddess, but they act as if it is their accomplishment, to be born into a clan and wealthy.”
            His siblings looked at one another, at a loss.
            Divita put her hand on his where it rested on the table.
            Belihn threw down his napkin and rose.  “Excuse me.”
            He strode through the villa and to the front door.  He stepped outside, where the afternoon sweltered in Malthos’ light.  The skies were free of clouds, a deep cerulean that hazed in the distance.  The bleats of tah’lir filled the air, as did the musk of their waste.  He walked around the sprawling house towards the backyard.  There was a well and a cold house in one corner, with the tah’lir’s fenced paddock a couple of sepeks to the east.  He lengthened his stride and headed towards the paddock.  The air was warm on his damp face and neck.  When he glanced south, he saw the fruit grove filled with vines and trees.  His mouth filled with saliva at the thought of biting into fat, sweet berries.  
            As he neared the paddock, the tah’lir wandered close to the fence, curious and about as bright as a rock.  The closest tah’lir bleated at him and he put his hand out and caressed its soft long nose.  The animal closed its eyes in ecstasy as he scritched under its jaw and between its ears.  He ran his eyes over the calves romping and scampering a few feet from the adults.  The calves were born a deep brown and then changed colors as they matured, turning a light dun color with whimsical dapples along their haunches.  
            Another animal thrust its head into his hands, pushing the other one away.
            He chuckled and shook his head.  “Only Aunt Salita spoils you with affection.”
            “She has a soft heart,” he heard from behind him.
            He turned and nodded at his mother.  “Yes, she does.”
            His mother smiled and strode to where he stood, reaching out to pet the nearest tah’lir.  
            They stood side by side for a long time without speaking.  Before Belihn could open his mouth, his mother turned to him.
            “Walk with me back to the house,” she said.  “I would like to tell you about the young lady I have chosen for you.”
            She thrust her arm through his and led him away from the herd.  
            “I’m sorry, Mother,” he blurted.
            Her eyes widened and she turned to gaze up at him.  “For what, pray tell?”
            He bit his lip and looked away.  For what, indeed?
            When he said nothing, she sighed.  “You are ashamed of me and my background.”
            He gasped and turned to her.
            “No.  I know you are; I’m no fool, Belihn Tjashensi.  But did you listen to yourself?  We don’t have any control over our births and castes, do we?  I had no control and neither did you.  Your father demanded children of me, because he wants to do away with castes and classes.  From a young age, you wanted to be like your half-siblings, a prince of the blood, untarnished by my blood.”  She stopped and drew herself to her full height.  “Well, I am not ashamed of who and what I am.  I survived by any means necessary.  Would you have had me lay down and die to avoid embarrassing you?”
            He gaped at her.  She had never spoken to him like this.  Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes flashed with a passion he had never seen.
            “If you want me to banish you from this villa and my sight, I will.  Do you want that?”
            He looked into her bright hazel eyes and his throat dried.  “No.”
            “Then put away your shame.  It sickens me and does you shame.”
            He swallowed and bowed.  “I will try, my lady.”            
            She studied his eyes for a long moment as if she could peel his face away and see into his soul.  Eventually, she nodded and continued to walk.
            His heart was clamoring in his chest at the thought of never seeing her again.  He was lightheaded with the idea.
            She led him to a stone bench located in the front yard.
            “Sit,” she said.
            He took a seat and watched her pace.  She was still angry, he could tell.  She was slow to ire and slow to cool off, too.  He said nothing as she wrung her hands and took deep breaths.  She shook her head.
            “I have a girl for you and I want you to listen to me without interruption.  Do I make myself clear?” she said in an even voice.
            “Yes, Aya.”
            She looked at him at his use of the honorific for “mother,” then looked away.  
            “I have been holding negotiations with MIster Neud Oh’nahry and his wife, Igina Oh’nahry.  Mister Oh’nahry owns a series of taverns and inns across North Torahn.  They live in Kuin-on-the-Haj, where they have their main residence, but they have residences further south for the months of kamaran.  If you must know, he approached me and not the other way around.”  She sighed and sat down on the bench next to him.  “She is young, this girl.  About fifteen, so I don’t expect you to bed her until she is older.  I don’t hold with child brides and all that.”
            “I said let me do this without interruptions, child.”
            He clamped his mouth shut with a click of teeth and nodded.
            She looked away from him.  “She does not want to marry a man.  She told her father she is atoliy, which is no shame, but Mister Oh’nahry is a nouveau riche and has adopted the aristocracy’s more…shall we say tasteless mores?”
            He bit the inside of his cheek and sat still as she continued.
            “She is beautiful and petite, with pale hazel eyes and black hair and porcelain skin.  They are proud to claim some aristocracy in their past.  Some poor girl was raped by an aristocrat and that is their proud claim.”  She spat in disgust and shook her head.  “I don’t care about their past, but the bride price alone will assure you will never want for anything.  Beside the dowry, you will get their finest home in Draemin City-State.”  She arranged her skirts around her.  “You are nineteen.  Old enough to have a wife at least.”
            He looked away from her, his heart galloping in his chest.  He felt sick to his stomach.
            “Belihn,” she said softly.  “I know where your proclivities lie, child.  I know you don’t look at girls with interest or desire.  I thought you could make a friend of this girl and come to an agreement.  All I ask is that you lie with her and beget three children upon her.  It’s all I ask.  Now, I would have your thoughts.”
            “You’ve discussed this with Eda?” he asked.
            “Your father leaves all betrothals to his wives.  You know this.  He washes his hands of your future as far as marriages and children are concerned.”
            He closed his eyes.
            “Belihn,” she said softly.  “I tried getting an aristocrat’s daughter.  I’ve tried since you were born.  Even their bastards don’t want to taint their progeny’s blood with a lamplighter’s blood.”
            He opened his eyes and nodded.  “I don’t want to rush this, Mother.  I don’t want to feel my life is out of control.  I would like to meet her and see if we get along; but I don’t have time to make her like me.”
            “She may resent you, child,” she replied.  “At first.  Be honest with her about your desires; make her see that you are sacrificing something, too.”
            She reached out and grasped his hand in her small one.  He squeezed her hand.
            He looked at her.  “I know how much you tried and I can’t begin to fathom how you were treated at court–“
            “It is ancient history.”
            He looked at her.  “No, it’s not.  It’s reality.  I know you were spat at, insulted to your face and laughed at. So have I been.”  He sighed.  “I’ve been so wrong, Aya.  Taking my frustration and shame out on you, when they are the problem, not us.  Not you.”
            His eyes filled with tears and he closed his eyes as they leaked and slid down his cheeks.  He felt her warm, slender fingers wipe them away.
            “It’s fine, son.  No one touches me here,” she said.
            “Father did nothing.”
            She started and turned to him.  “He expressed his disapproval vocally and formally chastised the lords.  It did not make him popular with the House of Lords.”
            “A weak response,” he spat and shook his head.  “He could wrest the reins of power from the aristocracy and imposed his will.”        
            “It would mean civil war,” she retorted, paling. “He would be nothing but a despot then!”
            “I am not afraid of dying for a cause, Mother,” he told her with utter conviction.
            She shook her head.  “No.  We have to take the slower course.  Soon the nouveau riche will outnumber the aristocracy.  Things will change, you’ll see.”
            He gave a mirthless bark of laughter.  “It may mean civil war regardless, Aya.  These outdated mores…they hold on to them like their lives depend on them.  It will mean their blood if we are to change for the better.”
            She paled and brought her hand to her neck.  “Blessed Goddess, how I wish you are wrong.”
            “We’ll see,” he promised and looked away

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