Belihn stood back and watched Alona Oh’nahry in the Royal Library. The girl was like a child in a sweet shop, all agog and curious, climbing ladders to see what books were located on the higher shelves, squatting to read the spines of books on the lower shelves. Otar and Kahl chuckled indulgently at their little sister’s enthusiasm and passion for the books.
“She’s quite bright, isn’t she?” Belihn asked them.
Otar stood straighter. “All I can say is she should have been born a man. She would be a famous artist right now, had she been.”
“She’s that good?” Belihn asked.
Kahl nodded. “She is marvelous. I don’t know where she gets it from. I mean, I dabble at poetry, but…”
Otar snorted. “Don’t be modest, Kahl.” He looked at Belihn. “Kahl’s first book of poetry was published two weeks ago.”
Belihn turned to Kahl. “Nicely done! May I read it?”
Kahl blushed and ducked his head. “Of course. I’ll get you a copy.”
“Nonsense!” Belihn chastised. “I’ll buy it. Are they being sold at a particular store in the city?”
Otar grinned. “Three main bookstores, Captain. I would recommend Bahlor’s Books.”
Belihn was genuinely impressed. “That is a store for the richest denizens.”
Otar chortled. “You should see what they charge per book! Kahl might be rich by his own hand if he continues to publish.”
Kahl looked uncomfortable.
Belihn clapped him on the shoulder. “Good for you, Kahl! What is the name of the book?”
Otar laughed at his brother’s discomfiture. “I don’t understand this modesty you and Alona have about your work.” He turned to Belihn. “Anasj and Other Observations. That is the title of the book. It has poetry and prose in the form of essays. Some are quite controversial, but the aristocracy smell a fad, so many of them have been purchasing the book despite its decidedly progressive leanings.”
Belihn turned to Kahl. “You have a solicitor and an agent, I presume?”
Kahl nodded. “Yes. Father hired both for me.”
“Good,” Belihn replied. “Now we must do the same for your sister.”
Otar frowned. “Nobody will purchase from a girl.”
Belihn smiled. “Then a bit of subterfuge is required.”
Kahl stepped forward, intrigued. “What do you mean, subterfuge?”
Belihn smiled. “I mean, it’s time the girl donned some masculine clothes and passed herself off as a young man.”
Otar gasped and Kahl gaped, but Belihn laughed.
“She wouldn’t be the first in history to do so,” he said. “Besides, my father would not put her to death for it, not like it was done in the past.”
Otar frowned and looked at his sister. “Father would be positively furious.”
“Your father cannot tell my wife what she can and cannot do,” Belihn replied. “Once the sol’eka bracelet and ring are attached to her right wrist and middle finger of her right hand, she becomes my concern, not his.”
Kahl was growing excited. “Do you think it will work?”
Otar’s frown turned into a scowl. “Kahl–“
Kahl turned to his older brother. “It’s not fair, Otar, that she is quite possibly the most able artist of a generation and she can go nowhere because of her sex.”
Otar sighed. “I know that, you dolt.”
“Your Highness,” Alona murmured excitedly. “I found the portrait in a book!”
She brought the heavy tome and set it on a table near where Belihn stood. She looked at him. “Dolia Ys’teis was the sister of the King of Draemin City and she never married because she was atoliy! The only thing that saved her life, when it was discovered, was that she was the king’s sister. The king had her exiled to an abbey, where she contracted Leptka’s Disease and died a year and a half later.”
“Really?” Belihn asked and bent over the text, reading the gold lettering with interest. “I always was taught she died at Draemin Castle.”
The excited girl shook her head. “She was exiled to Devhold in Yllysia.”
The portrait in the book was softer and captured Dolia Ys’teis’ beauty more easily than the oil painting hanging in the hallway near the Great Hall.
“I knew she was beautiful,” Alona whispered. “The Ys’teis are a handsome clan.”
“Please sit, all of you,” Belihn said.
The three siblings took seats at the table and Belihn gently closed the oversized book. He looked at each young person, finally allowing his eyes to fall on Alona.
“I have an idea as to how you can become the artist you have always wanted to be,” he told the girl.
Her eyebrows arched. “Oh?”
“If you can don masculine clothes and change your name to Alon, then I will find you a solicitor and an agent.”
She laughed and shook her head. “Father would never abide that!”
“You and I will be married soon,” Belihn told her patiently. “We will move to a row house in the city. One of the rooms will be for your studio. You can come and go in men’s clothes.”
She frowned and rose. “Are you mad? I would be put to death if discovered!”
Belihn shook his head. “Those laws were stricken from the books two decades ago.”
“Then I would be incarcerated!” she insisted, looking more and more panicked.
“Calm yourself,” he chastised. “The wife of a prince will be protected, girl. I would protect you. Do you want to sell your artwork? Do you want credit for you abilities? You can’t do it as a woman, so you may as well do it as a pretty lad. No one need ever know the truth. You can be Alon Oh’nahry, artist.”
She looked around the table, her pretty features set in disbelieving lines. “Otar?”
Her older brother grimaced and tapped the tabletop with a finger. “As much as I am discomfited by the idea of you parading about the city in men’s clothes, girl…your art will mean nothing, even once you die. Do you want to be forgotten to history, or a mere footnote as the commoner who married Belihn Tjashensi?” He rose. “Girl, your paintings are the most beautiful things I have ever seen. If his Highness thinks he can protect you, then do as he says.”
Her eyes filled with tears. “Do you actually believe what you said about my paintings?”
He smiled softly at her and gathered her hands in his. “Yes. Your paintings are exquisite and full of life and vigor, Alona. You deserve to be acknowledged.”
She turned to Kahl.
He rose and bowed. “I agree, Alona. It isn’t fair, girl, that you have to disappear, your art always unknown because of something you can’t control, like your sex.”
She gasped and tears leaked from her expressive hazel eyes.
Belihn touched her arm. “Do not fear, Alona. The only thing that will be hard to navigate is the courtiers who will try to seduce the young man whose paintings they crave. Once you become Alon, you will look years younger and people will fight to get to know this young man whose art is the finest in ages.”
She pulled back from her brother’s arms to gaze up at Belihn. “I won’t decide until you see my work, your Highness. I trust Otar and Kahl, but they may be blinded by their love for me. Father does not think much of my art.”
Otar scowled. “Father is art-blind.”
She gave a watery laugh. “Yes. He doesn’t even enjoy music. Who doesn’t enjoy music?”
Belihn smiled at her and kissed her wrist. “I have to come into the city two days hence for a meeting at sundown, why don’t I come to your studio two hours prior to my appointment and look at your paintings?”
She swallowed thickly and nodded.
He stepped closer and soberly gazed into her eyes. “Will you trust me, Alona? If I concur with your brothers, will you trust me enough to do as I say?”
“I will,” she said. “But first we must marry and move to the row house. I can’t be sneaking in and out of my studio without being seen by Eda or Aya.”
Belihn wiped at a tear meandering down her cheek. “Alright. But I want you back in university under an art program. If I were you, I would enroll as Alon Oh’nahry, the Oh’nahrys’ nephew from Kuin-on-the-H’aj.”
She laughed and her laugh became a sob.
He gathered her into a gentle hug.
When she was able to control her emotions, she gently pulled back from his arms.
“I am so happy to have met you, Prince Tjashensi,” she said with earnestness.
He smiled at her. “Call me Belihn, and I am very happy to have met you, Alona.”
Whatever arrangements were made between Queen Divita and the Oh’nahrys were not discussed with either Belihn or Alona. The wedding arrangements were completed and the bride price set, to be paid to Divita at the time of the marriage ceremony, which was set for the season of dibasj, six months hence.
Two days after the arrangements were made, Queen Divita called her oldest son for a discussion of what his responsibilities and roles were in his upcoming marriage.
Belihn, who had to meet with Alona and then Irai’h Asjur, asked to be excused from work earlier than usual. Thankfully, Commander Ethael was flexible and generous and granted Belihn’s request. Belihn offered to come earlier the next day, but the Commander waved away his suggestion.
“I’m happy to see you cultivating friendships and a marriage,” the Commander said. “You have been suffering these long weeks alone, so go.”
Belihn saluted the man. “Thank you, Sir.”
Divita was in her sitting room with Tifa and Ilmi and they were crocheting.
Belihn had never seen Ilmi sit long enough to do any type of needlework, so that surprised him more than anything.
He bowed to his mother and sisters. “Good afternoon to you all.”
Divita smiled at him. “Sit across from us, son. We must discuss what your responsibilities and roles are in your upcoming marriage.”
Tifa smirked. “Do you want privacy, Aya?”
“You will be responsible for arranging your children’s marriages, so no. You may remain.” Divita looked at Belihn again. “Sit, Belihn. Please.”
He sat and waited expectantly while his mother gathered her thoughts. She knitted for a few minutes in silence before she looked at him again.
“The dowry that comes with Alona Oh’nahry will be set in a trust fund for you and your children. All you need to know is that it is a handsome price, substantial and fair. You do not have access to that bride price until you turn thirty. It comes with restrictions, of course. Alona must conceive and bare children by the time you are thirty.”
He frowned. “What if she is infertile?”
His mother pursed her lips. “An empathic healer will examine her prior to the wedding. If she is infertile, you need not marry her.”
“What if I want to?” he demanded softly.
His mother seemed surprised. “You would opt to marry the girl, even if she can’t conceive?”
“She and I are becoming friends. We are both atoliy, Aya. We like and respect one another. I can always hire a surrogate to bare my children.”
“Yes,” his mother agreed. “You can. We will wait to see what the empathic healer concludes, but then, if she is sterile, I will demand the bride price anyway. No man will marry a sterile woman.”
He frowned. He didn’t like Alona being discussed like a tah’lir to be bred. He opened his mouth to say something but his mother forestalled him with a raised hand.
“Say nothing. These arrangements are a matter of respect owed to you, as a prince, and to me, as a queen. We will not cheapen ourselves by waving away the bride price. The Oh’nahrys are richer than your father, Belihn, so they can afford to pay the bride price. If the girl is sterile, I will place the bride price in escrow for you at a bank. Since no one inherits a bride price before the age of thirty, I cannot change that stipulation. But you can borrow against the bride price at any time you so wish.”
He shook his head. “I earn my own salary, Aya. I don’t need the bride price. I would it went to the children as an inheritance.”
She made a satisfied sound and gave a nod. “Very well then. But you never know if you will need the money, so it is under your name.”
She nodded and smiled at him. “You liked Alona?”
He returned her smile. “And her brothers. Today I am going to her studio to see her paintings and then I am meeting Kahl and Otar for dinner tomorrow night.”
“Good,” she said. “Make lots of friends, Belihn. You’ve been too isolated and alone for your whole life.”
He sighed. “Yes, Aya.”
His mother cleared her throat. “I need not inform you that, if the girl is fertile, you must beget an heir upon her, for reputation as well as yours. You also have the responsibility to please her between the sheets. She may be atoliy, but if you are to lie with her, you must see to her needs.”
His sisters snorted when he blushed to the tips of his ears and ducked his head.
“I know nothing of pleasing anyone,” he told them. “I’ve never had sex with anyone.”
Divita frowned. “Alona will let you know what pleases her. That is her right and her responsibility.”
He sketched a bow, mortified. He wanted this line of conversation over and done with. His mother took pity on him and waved him away.
He left his mother and sisters and went down into the bailey. He opted for a little used servants’ stairwell to access the yard. Today had been so wonderful, he didn’t want to mar it with aristocratic abuse flung his way by petty courtiers and hangers on. Some courtiers had had the temerity to approach him with an offer of friendship and support, if he could pay their gambling debts. Like he would be so foolish! Once the debts were paid, the courtiers and hangers on would turn on him just as easily as they approached him now. He was heartily sick of Court and was leaning towards asking for reassignment to the city guards.
The stables were relatively quiet, for it was late in the day.
The stableboy ran out to meet him by the front door. “Your bahil, sir?”
Belihn smiled at the lad. “Yes. You know which one it is? Eiwor.”
“Yes, your Highness,” the lad replied. “Eiwor is the pretty black one with lavender dapples and tail.”
“Yes, that’s the one. Good job, lad.”
The boy preened and rushed off to saddle the animal.
Belihn stepped into the vast stables. The building was warm with the smells of hay, manure and the musk of lirtah and bahil. As he watched, the boy brought Eiwor out. Eiwor saw Belihn and snuffled. Belihn went to pet the animal’s velvety snout while the boy stepped up on a stool to place the saddle on the bahil. The bahil swiped a great black tongue at Belihn’s face and he laughed and stepped back, reaching into his pocket for a bit of dried fruit. He fed it to the bahil. Eiwor moaned with pleasure and both Belihn and the stableboy chuckled.
When the animal was saddled and bridled, Belihn handed the boy a few coins and mounted.
Once outside, Belihn allowed Eiwor to canter. The animal had probably not been exercised in a couple of days, so once they were over the drawbridge and onto the mostly empty boulevard, Belihn allowed Eiwor its head and the animal galloped over the cobblestone street and towards the city. Belihn rode low in the saddle, the wind in his face. Eiwor felt powerful between his thighs. The bahil snorted with joy and galloped even faster. Bahil were fast but not as sturdy and indefatigable as lirtah. The initial spurt of energy would expend itself readily and quickly. Within five sepeks, Belihn pulled back on the reins and Eiwor, snorting, slowed to a canter once more. It’s long neck was lathered and its musk was strong.
They reached the Oh’narhys’ residence in a wealthier neighborhood mostly inhabited by the nouveau riche. The mansions here were less grand than those of the aristocracy, being built of wood instead of brick and stone, but were just as tall, with gaudier gardens filled with flowering bushes and plants. The Oh’nahry residence was no different. They had an expansive half-moon cobblestone driveway that was lined with isalti bushes and flowering plants that had been pruned back after haltath and in preparation for kamaran. There was a great black iron gate and fence around the property and thick bushes demarcating the Oh’nahry’s property from their neighbors’.
A servant opened the front door when Belihn dismounted.
“My name is Captain Belihn Tjashensi,” Belihn told the servant. “I am here to see Miss Alona.”
The man bowed. “Yes, sir. She is waiting for you in her studio. There is a maid with her as her chaperone. If you would allow me, I will lead your bahil to the stables to give it water and I will point out the studio for you.”
Belihn thanked the man and handed the reins over.
The vast wooden mansion had five stories and bright red windowpanes, doors, and shingles. The house itself was whitewashed. The gardens were well cared for and beautifully landscaped. The cobblestone walkway leading around the house to the back had been swept of dust and stones. When they reached the back of the property, Belihn saw right away the studio. It was a one story cottage with a thatched roof, like the cottages belonging to the poorer denizens. It was a whitewashed limestone house. Limestone was the only stone allowed for building homes for the middle and lower classes.
“I see the studio,” Belihn told the servant. “Thank you.”
The man bowed. “Pleasure, sir.”
Belihn strode to the front of the cottage and used the black iron knocker to make his presence known.
The maid opened the door and curtsied. “Captain Tjashensi?”
“My mistress is working, but she said you are to disturb her once you arrive. She is through that door there.”
“Thank you, miss.”
The foyer was small and led to an open sitting room to the left of the door, with a small dining room further east. He strode to the right and through the arched doorway. The smell of oils and turpentine hit his nose right away. He paused just inside the door and gaped. The whitewashed walls were filled with exquisite paintings of the Oh’nahry’s home, gardens, portraits, and paintings of the city wharves and open air market. The most common medium seemed to be oil on canvas, but there were charcoal and pencil studies hung up as well.
Alona stood in a simple black dress that came to her ankles, and her small, narrow feet were bare. Her arms were covered by three quarter sleeves. She seemed to sense his presence and turned, revealing that the front of the dress was covered in paint stains. Her pretty face brightened.
“You made it!” she said.
He smiled at her. “I am here. Are all these yours?”
He indicated the paintings hanging on the walls.
She blushed and nodded, biting her lower lip.
He stepped further into the room, the maid at his heels.
He walked around the room, studying all the paintings. He most loved the landscapes, although her portraits were stunning as well. It became obvious to him she spent a lot of time on landscapes, for her portraits were a bit wooden and lacked emotion. Practice would take care of that, he decided. He became aware of the thick silence in the room and turned to her.
“Your brothers are right, Alona,” he told her. “These paintings have the touch of greatness. With some guidance from a private tutor or mentor, you will attain greatness.”
He approached her and lowered his voice. “Will you consider what I suggested you do?”
She studied his gaze for a few moments. “Do you believe it will open doors for me?”
“Absolutely,” he promised her.
She gnawed her lower lip for a few minutes before squaring her shoulders. She turned to the maid. “Will you leave us for a few minutes, please?”
The maid frowned. “I really shouldn’t, miss.”
“Please?” Alona said. “Just outside the door.”
The maid melted. “Alright. I’ll be just outside the door.”
When she was gone, Alona turned back to Belihn. “I think we should elope, your Highness, and move into the row house as soon as possible. I’ve missed too much school already.”
He took her paint spattered hands in both of his. “I’ll ask for the time off from my commanding officer. When do you want to do this?”
“Within the week, if you can.”
He nodded. “I’m sure once I explain to Commander Ethael, he’ll allow me the time.”
She dimpled. “Good. Then please arrange everything and inform me as soon as everything has been arranged.”
He pressed a kiss to her wrist. “No one will marry us until you are examined by an empathic healer.”
She rolled her eyes and pulled her hand from his. She walked to a scuffed desk that stood near the window and opened a drawer. She pulled out a piece of paper and brought it to him, handing it over.
He unfolded the paper and read it.
“My father had me examined yesterday. I’m fertile.”
“Good,” he said.
She smiled. “I can conceive right away, if you like, as long as you hire a nanny and caregiver for the child and it won’t interfere with my studies.”
He bowed. “That would be best, to satisfy the conditions of the bride price and to set my mother’s mind to rest, as well as your parents’.”
“Then I will wait for word from you, my lord.”
“Call me Belihn, Alona, please.”
She squared her shoulders. “Belihn, then.”
“I’ll contact you as soon as all is prepared.”