Lord Irai’h Asjur did not usually come to Court to mingle with those who had greater privilege and those who were scrabbling for more. If it was known he was a mere clerk in a shipping company, he would be taunted and teased to no end. But nobody knew. He was scrupulously careful about what he revealed even to acquaintances. His only friends were Lauti Us’ri’h, Aosji, I’a’sji and Ryeo’h. Irai’h was still respected by courtiers, for he was the youngest son of the Asjur clan, rulers of Manaji City-State, but it was a distant respect, for, as the youngest son, he had very little standing in Court. Still, it would not do for courtiers to insult him to his face, not for something like his order of birth. If they knew, however, just how far he had fallen and what he was now, they would gleefully tear him apart, and his family be damned.
He moved through the throng, hoping to find an opportunity to introduce himself to Belihn Tjashensi. The young scion of the Tjashensi clan had fallen spectacularly from grace; rumors were he and the King had had a falling out, an argument over the caste system. Irai’h had given Belihn Tjashensi a few days to grow bitter and angry enough to perhaps throw his lot in with the Reformist Lord. As the secretary to Commander Thul Ethael, Captain Tjashensi was privy to a lot of important information. Irai’h also had an idea that, since the King had not exiled his son from Court, the rift was not irreparable. Once Belihn Tjashensi reconciled with the King, Irai’h and his friends would be in an auspicious position if Belihn became one of them. But he knew he had to proceed carefully with Belihn. If this was a trap, something would give Tjashensi away, but he had to proceed with care. Seduction was the easiest, most thorough way to get to the bottom of all of it, and Irai’h was going to find out if Belihn was susceptible to being seduced.
Irai’h turned and smiled widely. “Lauti Us’ri’h! What in all hells are you doing in Court?”
His friend laughed. “I could ask the same of you, my lord.”
He shrugged. “I have to make an appearance once in a while, just to make sure nobody forgets me.”
She laughed again and shook her head. Stepping close to him, she lowered her voice. “Why are you here, really?”
“I wanted to make sure you didn’t get in trouble for your tryst,” he smoothly lied.
She shook her head. “Your alibis helped me with father. He gave me a lecture about my reputation and forcefully reminded me there is no future between myself and a minor lord.”
Irai’h snorted. “Ah, it’s nice to know some people never change. Your father being one of those.”
She thrust her arm through his. “He is hidebound, that one. Do you have time to have lunch with me, Irai’h? I don’t see you often enough, my friend.”
“Yes, my dear. If you do me a favor.”
She looked up and cocked her head. “Oh?”
“Introduce me to Belihn Tjashensi, will you?”
She gasped. “Why?”
“I don’t like the idea of someone suffering through the meanness of courtiers like I did when everyone found out I would not inherit one whit from my father. That’s why.”
She seemed taken aback. “They were really awful to you, weren’t they?”
“Spiteful, my dear. Only your friendship saved me from despair. I would like to extend my hand in friendship to someone in a similar predicament.”
She pulled him into a stroll and lowered her voice. “Everyone thinks he is atoliy, you know.” She gazed up at him. “They don’t tease about that, though, thank Goddess.” She shook her head. “You should see the poor lad. He’s leaner and looks wrecked. I wouldn’t be surprised if he took his life.”
He stopped in his tracks. “That won’t do. Not while I have breath in my lungs.”
Her eyes widened. “Oh dear. You’re serious.” She nodded. “You are a good soul, Irai’h. Yes. I will introduce you at once. Come with me.”
She led him out into the bailey and around the parked carriages and wagons, the bleating lirtah, the guards and servants. They headed north along the cobblestone floor. Directly ahead, to the left, were the training yards. He would’ve liked to stand at the fence to watch the sweating young soldiers, but her words about Belihn Tjashensi’s condition truly concerned him. If the young man was suicidal, the Irai’h wanted to help him, seduction be damned.
They went to the Officers’ House, a large wooden structure near the barracks, and entered. There was a foyer filled with scuffed eishano wood furniture and faded throw rugs. The walls were filled with portraits of long dead commanders and commander-generals. A portrait of the King hung from a place of honor over the fireplace of the waiting room. Lauti led him down a long, narrow hallway filled with closed doorways until they came near the end of the hall. She let go of his arm and opened the door, stepping inside. He followed her into a modest waiting room with five wooded chairs, colorful rugs in good condition, and historical tapestries filling the walls with color.
The young man behind the desk glanced up and Irai’h’s mind went blank. Irai’h considered the King a handsome man, but Belihn Tjashensi took after his mother, a stunning woman of common birth. He was gorgeous, with thick black hair braided down his back, and beautiful green eyes speckled with grays and surrounded by thick, sooty lashes. His lips were full and soft-looking. But he was too thin, his eyes looking overly large in his lean face. Dark circles clung to the skin under his eyes.
He rose and bowed. “I was not aware Commander Ethael had an appointment this morning.”
Lauti smiled and curtsied. “I am Lady Lauti Us’ri’h. This is my close friend Irai’h Asjur, Captain. He wanted to make your acquaintance.” She turned to Irai’h and smiled. “Come to my suites afterward and we’ll have a meal together, yes?”
He bowed over her hand and pressed a kiss to her wrist. “My pleasure, my lady.”
He waited until she had gone, closing the door behind her, before he turned back to the Captain. His mind was quite at a loss as to how to proceed.
Captain Tjashensi looked at him steadily with curious, wary eyes.
Irai’h cleared his throat. “Captain Tjashensi, I don’t know quite how to begin.”
Tjashensi drew himself to his full height. “Begin at the beginning, I would say.”
“Very well. I am Lord Irai’h Asjur, although that is just a title with no force behind it. I was a courtier at Court once, being the youngest child of Clan Asjur. When my father announced that I would inherit nothing from him, I fell from grace. I was picked apart, teased, mocked and spat at. My father did nothing, so I removed myself from Court, found friends worthy of my time, and found employment in town.” He took a breath. “I heard of your difficulties and wanted to extend my hand out to you. It will do nothing to save you from your detractors as, as I’ve said, my title means nothing to anyone. But I am sincere, Captain Tjashensi. I extend my hand out to you.”
He extended his hand and held his breath.
Belihn stared at his hand for a few minutes before he reached out and clasped it.
When he looked into Irai’h’s eyes, Irai’h saw the sheen of tears in their beautiful depths. “Thank you, Lord Asjur. I appreciate it.”
They unclasped hands.
Irai’h smiled at him. “I have two other friends who were forced out of court, Lord Aosji Brenth’on’h and Lord I’a’sji A’kir’h. Our quartet is rounded off by Mister Ryeo’h Thalnel. Our friendship is strong, Captain, and we defend one another.”
Belihn gave a watery laugh. “Where have you been all my life?” He shook his head. “I have no friends, save my siblings. Even my half-brothers and half-sisters merely tolerate me.”
Irai’h tsked. “That won’t do, will it? We get together twice a week and have dinner and play a few hands of s’krieh. Would you like to join us the day after tomorrow? Except for Ryeo’h, who is the heir to a shipping mogul, we three ex-lords are mere clerks now, so we live humble lives. We do go to plays in modest theaters, though. Our lives may be humble, but they are full.”
Belihn gave him a disarming smile. “That sounds wonderful, Lord Asjur.”
“Belihn then, Irai’h.”
Irai’h nodded. “Belihn. Meet us at sundown at The Bleating Tah’lir the day after next. You’ll meet your new friends then.”
Belihn bowed. “Thank you. I’ll be there.”
Belihn watched Irai’h Asjur walk out, closing the door softly behind him. He swallowed convulsively for a few minutes before he could control himself. He was touched beyond all sense by this show of friendship. Life at Court had been unbearable and Belihn had felt unbearably alone and so lonely he could not eat or sleep well. The nights and days blended into one another. People actively avoided him as if he was infected with the plague. Even other soldiers treated with cold hauteur. Commander Ethael had had to counsel him on several occasions when despair threatened to overwhelm him.
“Do not forget your role in all this,” the Commander had told him just yesterday. “You did this to find the thieves, so don’t lose track of your assignment.”
Belihn had swallowed thickly and nodded. “Yes, Sir. I won’t.”
He sighed and sat down once more. Lord Irai’h Asjur was a person of interest and he would proceed cautiously with the lordling. This could be the break Belihn had been seeking. The Reformist Lord might be reaching out to him. He frowned. He certainly hoped not. Lord Irai’h had seemed sincere and, Goddess, was he handsome! Beautiful, really, with porcelain skin and thick black hair, the gray eyes of the aristocracy, and a trim figure. Slender and graceful, with beautiful hands. He decided he was going to find out everything he could about Lord Irai’h Asjur. He wrote some notes in his journal: questions to ask, whom to ask, when to ask. He would keep a journal about Lord Irai’h and his friends. He wrote the others’ names down as well. He had his work cut out for him. In the back of his head and in his heart he hoped Irai’h was not the Reformist Lord. For everyone’s sake.
Today was the third day of the week, so he had to meet the Oh’nahrys and his mother for dinner. He asked to leave his post a few minutes early, to go home and bathe and dress accordingly. He would dress in his best duds. If everyone came to an agreement and he became betrothed, it might ease things at court for him. He hoped it would, for he did not know how long he could take the abuse. He was beginning not to care about this Reformist Lord. As his Uncle Domio had warned, the price might have been too steep and he was not sure he could continue to pay it.
In his room, he washed with scented water and washed his hair. He shaved and brushed his hair until it dried, then he braided it. He chose civilian clothes, dressing in his finest light green silk under tunic and dark green over tunic. His dun trousers were warm, for the nights were growing increasingly colder as kamaran approached. He wore soft leather ankle boots and a thick leather belt outside of his over tunic in the military style. When he was ready, he picked up his dark brown haltathi cloak from its hook on the wall, donned it, clasping the silver broach at the collar bone, then swept from the room.
He chose to walk around the castle, along the training yards and gardens to a little used servants’ entrance and then up a set of dusty, cobwebby stairs to the top floor where his mother’s apartments were located. His nerves jangled as he strode down the long hallway to Divita’s suites. Two guards stood posted at the door and they saluted him as he walked up. He brought his fist to his chest and bowed.
“The Queen is expecting you, Captain,” the guard on the left murmured and opened the door to allow him entrance.
“Thank you, soldier.”
He entered the sitting room and found it full and noisy with conversation. He paused at the door, awaiting his mother to recognize him before fully entering.
“Belihn!” Tifa called out and ran to him.
He smiled and gathered her into a hug.
She pulled back and gazed up at him. “Hello, my dear. How are you?”
He grimaced. “I am doing as well as can be expected.”
She took his hand and led him into the now silent room while one of the guards closed the door behind them.
“Let me introduce you to the Oh’narys, dear brother,” Tifa said.
She led him to a handsome older man with black hair and dark eyes. The man was tall and broad enough to be a soldier. His face was carefully schooled and he sported a mild scowl.
“Mister Neud Oh’nahry. My brother, Captain Belihn Tjashensi,” Tifa murmured.
Mister Oh’nahry’s eyes brightened with interest. “Ah, Captain Tjashensi. A pleasure.”
They clasped forearms.
“The pleasure is mine, sir,” Belihn assured him.
Mister Oh’nahry nodded and turned to the handsome, heavyset woman next to him. Unlike him, she had silver threaded through her thick black locks and eyes so dark, they were black, a rare color in their country.
“This is my wife, Igina,” Mister Oh’nahry said and took her hand.
Belihn bowed. “My lady, an honor and pleasure.”
She smiled warmly at him. “Captain Tjashensi, the honor and pleasure are mine. May I introduce you to my children?”
“Of course,” he assured her.
She indicated the two strapping young men, one of whom was dressed in a uniform. “These are my sons, Otar, the oldest and heir, and Kahl, my youngest who is at university.”
Belihn clasped their hands. He noted that Kahl, the youngest, gave his hand a squeeze and held it longer than was strictly proper, his black eyes studying him hungrily. Belihn filed that reaction away for later study.
“And this is my daughter,” Missus Oh’nahry stated proudly. “Alona.”
Belihn took the girl’s hand and pressed a chaste kiss to her wrist. She blushed becomingly and curtsied.
“An honor, my lord,” she murmured.
She was quite pretty, he decided, although not quite beautiful, like her brothers were. She was small and slender and graceful. She seemed open and honest and genuinely glad to meet him, which made him like her right away.
“The honor is mine,” he assured her and kissed her wrist again.
This seemed to please her parents, he noted as he stepped back from the girl.
She blushed and pulled her hand from him, seeming unsure of where to land her gaze.
“Please, let us sit,” Divita murmured.
The Queen sat on a divan while the older Oh’nahrys took a loveseat. The Oh’nahry sons each took an armchair and Belihn sat next to Tifa on a second loveseat.
Divita sighed and shook her head. “I have two other children, Ilmi and T’arehn, but they are currently at university studying for a major exam that takes place tomorrow.”
Kahl Oh’nahry took his eyes off Belihn long enough to inquire what his siblings were studying.
Divita smoothed her skirts. “Ilmi is taking general classes, but T’arehn is in pre-law. His passion has always been to be a barrister.”
Mister Oh’nahry brightened considerably. “That is most impressive. It never hurts to know solicitors and barristers, I think.”
Otar smiled. “It’s a career that requires a long time to complete the studies, Da.”
Mister Oh’nahry snorted. “And being a soldier is quick, son?”
Otar rolled his eyes and looked at Divita. “This is an old argument between us, your Majesty. I am hopeful by the time I am thirty that restrictions within the army will have loosened enough that I can become a Commander.”
Mister Oh’nahry frowned. “You are my heir, Otar. You will succeed me.”
“Kahl can succeed you, Da. I want the army to be my career. None of this information is new to you, sir.”
Mister Oh’nahry flushed.
Missus Oh’nahry looked upset.
Divita shifted and cleared her throat. “Our children come with their own passions and ideas, Mister Oh’nahry. I didn’t want my oldest in the army, either, but such is life.” She looked at Kahl. “Do you wish to succeed your father, young Kahl?”
Kahl smiled at her. “I help him already. At university, I am learning the basics of business, but it is all old news to me. I’ve been helping Da since I was five. He taught me my numbers and letters and I would help in the office on the sixth and seventh days of the week, when school was out. It’s quite interesting.”
Mister Oh’nahry smiled at his youngest son. “Somehow he has convinced his friends to join him, those friends who are studying business like he is, your Majesty. The front office is filled with his friends, who work as clerks or in the warehouse.”
Divita smiled. “That is wonderful, Kahl.”
He blushed and bowed. “Thank you, your Majesty. It’s much more fun to work with friends.”
“I’m sure,” she agreed. She turned to Alona. “Are you in university, my dear?”
The girl blushed and ducked her head.
“She was involved with another girl there,” Missus Oh’nahry murmured. “Romantically, I mean. The girl was the daughter of a clan lord. When the girl’s father found out, he had Alona expelled.”
Divita frowned. “Why, that is abhorrent! What of the other girl?”
Alona shifted. “I don’t want to cause her trouble.”
Mister Oh’nahry harrumphed. “She abandoned you quickly enough, didn’t she? Got herself engaged and married in the blink of an eye!”
“Da,” the girl moaned and shook her head. “It’s ancient news, your Majesty.”
“What were you studying?” Belihn asked the girl.
She glanced at him. “How to keep financial books and run a household, my lord. But Ma taught me all that already. It’s just…well…it was nice taking art classes.”
“Alona is a marvelous artist, Captain,” Kahl piped up.
The girl blushed and looked away from Belihn.
The father scowled at Kahl. “A woman has no business being an artist! She must run her household and bear children for her husband!”
Belihn cleared his throat and leaned back in his seat. “Sir, I don’t mind if Alona wants to be an artist. I can hire nannies and childcare workers, along with servants to upkeep the house. As the wife of a prince, she is not expected to do any of that work. What medium do you work in, Alona?”
The girl started and glanced at him. “I work in ink, charcoal and oils, my lord.”
“Call me Belihn, Alona. I’d like to see your work sometime, if you don’t mind.”
She seemed genuinely surprised. “Really?”
She gave him a tentative smile. “I have a small studio behind the house, my lord.”
“Do you have an agent?” Belihn asked.
Mister Oh’nahry harrumphed again.
Belihn looked at him. “If my future wife wants to be an artist, it is between us. Meaning no disrespect, sir. I don’t have a creative bone in my body, so it would be good for our children to learn creativity from one of the parents, I daresay.”
Otar accepted a snifter of mi’disj from one of the servants. “I hear you are good at strategy, Captain. That takes intelligence and creativity, don’t you think?”
Belihn picked up a glass of ekila from the tray and thanked the servant. “I had not thought of it in that way, Sergeant. By the way, under whom do you serve?”
Otar sipped his liqueur. “Commander Maer Kia’guh.”
Belihn sat straighter. “Commander Kia’guh is quite modern and equitable, I hear.”
Otar smiled. “He does not see caste differences as indicative of whom should be promoted or not.”
Mister Oh’nahry coughed. “There will be no political discussion with women present!”
Otar rolled his eyes and Belihn pursed his lips to keep from smirking.
The butler bowed to Divita. “The dinner is ready, your Majesty.”
Divita rose. “Very good. Thank you, Sjelo. Please serve.” She looked around the room. “You don’t mind eating in the sitting room, do you, Mister Oh’nahry? We never use the dining room.”
Mister Oh’nahry rose and bowed. “Not at all, your Majesty. This is most pleasant.”
Divita smiled at him. “Good.” She looked at the butler. “Please serve our guests first, Sjelo.”
He bowed. “Very good, your Majesty.”
When they were all served, they tucked silently into their meal. The meal consisted of strips of fried dosi fragrant with aromatics, a bitter green herb salad with honey dressing, enashas made from turies and other root vegetables and full of spices, fried to a golden turn, and soft fresh baked crusty bread with sweet butter and bala berry compote. The Oh’nahry parents seemed especially pleased. It was a meal fit for a king. The greens especially were grown on the grounds and were too expensive and rare for commoners to obtain. The enashas were a South Torahni recipe.
“This is simply divine!” Missus Oh’nahry gushed and sipped the light red wine she had been served.
“It’s really good,” Kahl agreed and winked at Belihn.
“I’m so happy you are pleased,” Divita said and set her empty place on the low table before her.
They finished their meal and were served a fruit tart filled with lambden fruit and tisja berries. The tart was baked in honey and citrus rind then served with sweet cream drizzled on top.
Missus Oh’nahry liked the tart most especially, having two servings while the others chatted about Mister Oh’nahrys’ shipping business.
Belihn set his half-eaten piece of tart to one side and picked up his glass of mi’disj. He listened politely to Mister Oh’nahry blatantly bragging about his shipping empire. His sons watched their father with indulgence and patience, at times offering observations. The older man droned on about the business for a good three quarters of an hour before falling silent once more.
“My apologies,” he told the room. “I did not mean to bore the ladies.”
“Not at all, sir,” Divita murmured. “But now that we have come to the end of our meal, perhaps it would be beneficial to discuss the betrothal and inevitable marriage?”
Mister Oh’nahry sat straighter. “Of course, your Majesty. Perhaps the young ones can excuse us?”
Belihn rose. “I wouldn’t mind showing our guests the Royal Library.”
All three Oh’nahry children rose with smiles.
“Lead the way,” Kahl told him.
“I wouldn’t mind a tour of the castle,” Alona enthused. “It’s simply a marvelous structure!”
Belihn gave her his arm and led them into the hall. This late in the day, Court was adjourned and visitors were gone, so chances were slim he would be accosted by a courtier. He prayed to Atana he would not be embarrassed in front of these potential friends.
In the hallway, Belihn walked towards the northeast tower stairs. “The Castle has four main towers, among the turrets and parapets. The towers were built as lookouts for guards during our turbulent history. There were many wars, as you probably know, between the city-states before Torahn became one nation. The Castle has five stories. The King’s family, including the royal nurseries, take up the top floor. Dignitaries and clan families occupy the fourth and third floor. The second floor is filled with offices for diplomats and barristers. The Throne Room, the War Room, the Royal Library, the kitchens and dining halls are all located on the first floor, as is the castle chapel.”
He led them down the curving stairwell to the main floor and down the expansive hallway filled with oil paintings of Ys’teis clan ancestors.
Alona stopped at a painting of a woman long dead. “Such a stuffy style of art.”
Belihn went to stand next to her. “Nobody looks handsome in these paintings. They are at least 500 years old; this one is, anyway.”
Alona looked at him. “Who is this woman?”
“Lady Dolia Ys’teis. She was the King’s sister.”
Alona considered the painting again. “The artist captured her intelligence, if not her comeliness. Who is the artist?”
“That I don’t know,” he replied. “But there is an art section in the Royal Library. I believe most of the artists employed by the kings were only known for the royal portraits. This one might be different, but I don’t know.”
She nodded and glanced at the painting again. “It is always shocking and curious to realize this time piece displays a woman who has been dead almost 500 years. Do you know what she died of?”
He nodded. “Plague.”
She made the sign to avert evil and once more glanced at the portrait. “Did she die much after this painting?”
“Not long,” he told her. “The plague hit the castle in haltath a year later.”
“I see,” she murmured.
He offered his arm and she placed her hand on his forearm.
Belihn led them towards the Great Hall. There were few stragglers from court about. No one paid them any heed, as the stragglers seemed to be in a hurry to be somewhere. Belihn was not surprised. It was not terribly exciting to remain in the Castle once Court adjourned. There were gambling houses and theaters and drinking houses in the city proper to haunt during the evening hours.
“It positively echoes in here when it is empty,” Otar commented.
Belihn smiled at him. “Yes. You wouldn’t believe the din when the Great Hall is filled with petitioners and barristers, courtiers and solicitors.”
“I’ve been here,” Otar told him. “As a guard.”
“Oh, I see. Have you seen the Royal Library?”
Otar shook his head. “Never.”
“How about the Throne Room?” Belihn asked.
Kahl gasped. “Can we see the famous salta wood throne?”
Belihn looked around but there was nobody about. “Let’s see if it is unlocked.”
He strode to the great arching double doors and found them unlocked. He pulled one door open and stepped back to allow his guests to enter.
Inside, the Great Hall was dim, most of the torches and candles having been long extinguished. Their footfalls echoed eerily in the vast room. The floor was black marble with gold veins running through it. The walls, cloaked in darkness, would be covered by expensive silk tapestries displaying the history of Castle Draemin. He led them to the pews where the House of Commons and the House of Lords sat, the latter on the left and the other on the right of the hall. Overhead, a huge chandelier hung from the rafters. Directly ahead, the black wood throne–more of a bench with a back–stood. Five marble steps led from the hall floor to the throne. A gold curtain hung from the back of the throne, concealing the doorway that led to the War Room.
“Have you ever sat on the throne?” Kahl asked Belihn.
“No. I would not disrespect my sire and king in such a manner.”
Kahl chewed his lower lip and nodded. “I see your point.”
Alona rubbed her arms. “The silence is rather daunting, isn’t it?”
Belihn took her hand. “Let’s head to the Royal Library, shall we?”
He led them from the room.