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.
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.
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.
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.