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.”
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.
Domio patted Belihn’s shoulder and moved away. “Contact me every sixth day, sooner if a meeting is warranted.”
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?”
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.”