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.”
            

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