Belihn arrived at The Bleating Tah’lir with time to spare, so he walked a block to the public mews and paid to have his bahil housed for few hours, then he headed north to the tavern to meet with Lord Irai’h and the others. When he got there, he commandeered a large table near the crackling fireplace. The evenings were starting to grow cold this close to the end of the season. When the serving lass came to the table, he ordered a decanter of mi’disj and five glasses, as well as roasted, salted tza nuts and some cheese and crusty bread. When the girl hurried away to fill his order, he sat back in his chair and nervously took in the room.
The room was expansive and comfortable, despite the chill outside. The fireplace was large, taking up half a wall, with a brick mantle and a grate across the firebox. The tavern had some patrons, although more of its tables were empty than were full. The quiet murmur of conversations was soothing to Belihn, who was so nervous about meeting potential friends that he could not stop his left foot from tapping on the wooden floor. No one paid him any heed, although he did see one or two soldiers in the crowd. They were probably city guards, for they were not familiar to him.
The serving girl brought the decanter of mi’disj and five glasses, setting them on the table and stepping back to reveal a serving lad with a tray with bread, a bowl of tza nuts, and a block of yellow cheese. The boy set the tray down and scampered away.
The girl accepted Belihn’s coins and bowed. “Please let me know if I can get you anything else, my lord.”
He smiled at her. “I will, thank you.”
Belihn uncorked the decanter and poured liqueur into each glass. He threw back his and refilled his glass. Really, that was no way to enjoy mi’disj, but he could not account for this level of nervousness and uncertainty.
Lord Irai’h entered the tavern dining room and glanced around before he saw Belihn and smiled and made his way to their table.
“Well met, Captain Tjashensi,” the young lord murmured.
Belihn rose. “Call me Belihn, please.”
Lord Irai’h bowed. “Then you must call me Irai’h. Let me hang up my cloak. I’ll be right back.”
When Irai’h returned, he came with four young men in tow. He introduced them to Belihn.
Lord Aosji Brenth’on’h was on the small side, with exotic slanted green eyes and a golden skin tone that was rather beautiful.
He clasped Belihn’s hand and smiled. “Well met, your Highness.”
Belihn returned his smile. “Just Belihn, please. May I call you Aosji?”
Aosji squeezed his hand and released it. “Since it is my hope we become friends, then I think that is appropriate.”
Next, Belihn met Lord I’a’sji A’kir’h. He was tall and broad and handsome, with the pale features, gray eyes and black hair of the aristocratic caste. They clasped forearms.
“Well met,” Belihn murmured.
“Call me I’a’sji, please.”
Belihn bowed. “I’a’sji it is.”
Mister Ryeo’h Thalnel was the odd one out. Belihn wondered how a commoner fit so well with three young aristocrats. Mister Thalnel was handsome but reserved and aloof. His hazel eyes were sharp and took in everything around him. It became apparent to Belihn that this man was the glue in this cadre, the most intelligent and perhaps dangerous of them. He was lean, of middle height, but completely memorable due to his clear light eyes and honey complexion.
Belihn put his hand out and Mister Ryeo’h clasped it with both of his, giving Belihn a disarming smile that had Belihn blushing despite himself.
“Well met, your Highness.”
Belihn swallowed and bowed. “Well met, Mister Thalnel. Please call me Belihn.”
“That is a misdemeanor,” Mister Thalnel murmured.
“Not with me,” Belihn replied smoothly as Mister Thalnel released his hands. “I won’t file a complaint, so there is no reason for your incarceration if you call me by my name.”
Mister Thalnel smiled. “True. Belihn, then. I am Ryeo’h.”
Belihn indicated the chairs. “Please sit, all of you. I’ve taken the liberty of ordering mi’disj and something to tie us over until dinner.”
Irai’h sat to the left of Belihn and Aosji sat on his other side, while I’a’sji and Ryeo’h took up the seats across from of Belihn.
Ryeo’h produced a deck of cards and placed them on the table. “This establishment is used to us playing s’krieh. We’ll have to order more libations and dinner to justify taking up the table for a few hours.”
Belihn grinned. “It’s on me tonight.”
His new acquaintances bowed and thanked him while Ryeo’h took the cards up and shuffled them.
“Irai’h said you were having difficulties at Court,” Ryeo’h commented as he dealt the cards.
Belihn grimaced. “My father and I had a falling out over caste rules and mores.”
Ryeo’h nodded. “So the rumors go, but you are still at Caste Draemin and the city-state, so my guess is that your falling out was not irreparable.”
“The King and I aren’t speaking,” Belihn explained. “But it would take a great effort from me to get me exiled.”
Ryeo’h grunted. “If you don’t mind my asking, what was the argument about?”
“I don’t think father is moving fast enough with innovations and reform,” Belihn answered honestly.
Ryeo’h gave a mirthless bark of laughter. “There we agree, I’m afraid.”
Aosji shifted and leaned forward. “Why is the King so hesitant, I wonder?”
Belihn sipped his mi’disj then picked up his cards. The hand was promising. “He doesn’t want civil war again. He is so blinded by his fear of civil war that he can’t see that many of the aristocrats are not as inflexible as he fears.”
I’a’sji picked up his hand. “You think they are amenable to change?”
Belihn shrugged and reorganized his cards. “To some changes. Really, it’s ridiculous that commoners can’t build homes with brick or stone or that nouveau riche families can’t live in certain neighborhoods. Or that marriage between commoners and aristocrats is taboo. I would think, with the King’s own marriage to my mother, this taboo would have faded into the background. I mean, you would think if this taboo is still unquestioned, my father would have triggered civil war when he married my mother.”
“Your father’s marriage to your mother was a directive from the Goddess,” Irai’h murmured as he studied his cards. “That may have done something to make it more palatable to the clans.”
Belihn grunted and laid down a card.
Ryeo’h smiled and laid down another card, this one slightly more powerful. He scooped up both cards and laid them in a pile. “Just how progressive are you, Belihn Tjashensi?”
Belihn flicked him a glance. “I am half-commoner.”
Ryeo’h shrugged. “And many such grow more hidebound than the aristocracy, adopting the clans’ mores with fervency, turning their backs on their common ancestry.”
Belihn watched as both Aosji and Irai’h laid down cards, Irai’h winning the bout.
“I couldn’t do that, not with my mother being whom she is,” Belihn told Ryeo’h. “My mother is proud of her history. Her family were servants to the clans and came to this continent with the clans many hundreds of years ago.”
Ryeo’h seemed genuinely surprised. “Few commoners know their histories.”
“My mother’s family may have been dirt poor, but they were self-educated and proactive. They have always kept an oral history of the family.”
“That is most surprising and admirable,” Ryeo’h stated with some emotion.
Belihn smiled at him. “My mother’s family were respected servants to the Crown until one of their numbers stole from my great grandfather, the King. The entire family fell from grace and could do nothing but chimneysweep and lamplight from then on. They used to have a two story house in the middle income neighborhood before they fell on hard times. My ancestor who stole was hung and the family shamed and expelled from court as an example.”
Irai’h gasped. “Was your ancestor Nelo Stait?”
Belihn sighed. “Yes.”
Irai’h arranged his cards and laid one down. “If I recall my history, there was a rumor he had been setup by the real thief, but his testimony did not satisfy the clans and he was hung an innocent man.”
Belihn set another card down and took the hand. “My mother never told me that.”
Irai’h nodded. “History was one of my favorite subjects at school, particularly royal scandals.”
Aosji snorted. “You would be interested in scandals.”
Irai’h rolled his eyes so dolefully, that Belihn chuckled and watched as another hand was played.
Irai’h picked up his glass of liqueur and sipped from it before setting it down again. “There is a painting of him in a book I own. Would you like to see it? It’s a bit more information about your past. The entire affair took up a chapter of this book.”
Belihn nodded. “I would like that very much.”
“I’ll bring you the book this week and you can show your mother,” Irai’h suggested.
“She may not know he was innocent,” Ryeo’h told Belihn. “Supposedly, anyway.”
“She may not,” Belihn agreed. “It will give her great consolation to learn this piece of history.”
They played several more hands, ordering another decanter, this one of ekila, before they ordered a proper meal. They finished their last hand and Ryeo’h picked up the cards and placed them in their box just as the serving lad brought their meal on a tray.
The meal was plain but hearty: strips of fried dosi; enasha made from asua grain, fried turies, aromatics and southern spices; more fresh crusty bread; bala berry preserve; and fresh berries. They all tucked into their meal with much enthusiasm.
“I’m curious, Belihn,” Ryeo’h said, swallowing a mouthful. “Just how progressive are you?”
“I’m fairly progressive, if you must know,” Belihn replied. “I don’t believe there should be any stigma connected to one’s caste. Birth is not something anyone can control; it’s chance, where and to what family we are born. I believe once a servant becomes part of a clan, the clan’s name and protection should be extended, especially if the servant has been with that clan for at least two generations.”
“Chaos,” Ryeo’h murmured around a smile. “Total chaos.”
“He’s being facetious,” Irai’h told Belihn as he cut into a strip of dosi. “We believe as you do. I also think commoners should be able to purchase land instead of always renting from the clans.”
Belihn nodded. “Yes. Agreed. All these things should have been implemented before now. I don’t think my father will do any of it before he dies.”
Silence fell upon the table. Belihn looked at the nearby tables, but the din in the dining room was so loud, he more than likely had not been heard. No one was minding them.
“I should watch my mouth,” he said around a sigh.
“You are frustrated,” Ryeo’h commented with some sympathy. “So are we.” He sipped his liqueur. “It is a shame that you can’t be King because you are half-commoner. You would make a good king.”
Belihn snorted. “I would probably cause a rift between the castes and civil war would ensure.”
The friends shared a glance before Aosji lowered his voice. “Sometimes violence wipes the slate clean. Look what the last civil war did; it removed Poa from our land.”
Belihn nodded. The last civil war had been a battle between the fanatics that adored the war god Poa and those who followed Atana. Poaists had been exiled and founded South Torahn as a consequence. Thousands had died, though, and Belihn understood his father’s hesitancy at being the cause of so many possible deaths.
“This war would be more encompassing,” Belihn stated softly.
“But nonetheless needed,” Ryeo’h stated firmly.
“Just so,” Belihn agreed. “I would die to ensure a future that is just.”
Ryeo’h emptied his glass and rose. “On that note, I must bid you all goodnight, for I work in the morning.”
Belihn rose. His legs felt rubbery. “I do, too.”
After paying for their meal, they shuffled out into the crisp evening. This close to the open air market, the streets still bustled despite the late hour. Taitah the moon was a scythe overhead and the velvety night skies were peppered with stars.
“When do you all get together again?” Belihn asked.
“Day after next,” Ryeo’h replied, pinning his cloak in place.
“I have a late meeting that day,” Belihn announced with true regret.
Irai’h stepped closer. “We meet on the sixth day at a commoner’s gambling hall. It’s called Berrigo’s Hand.”
Belihn frowned. “That’s a brothel, too, isn’t it?”
“Finest rooms and food in the city,” Ryeo’h stated. “If you don’t mind that it is a high end brothel catering to the nouveau riche.”
Belihn shook his head. “No. It’s fine.”
“We meet at sundown,” Irai’h told him. “I’ll bring you the book I promised.”
Belihn smiled at him. “Thank you.”
They all clasped forearms before Belihn turned and strode down the street to the public stables to get his bahil.
They watched as Belihn made his less than steady way down the block.
Ryeo’h turned to Irai’h. “He might be ripe for the plucking, but we need to proceed with care.”
“Agreed,” Irai’h murmured. “I will make plans to meet with him and see if I can’t get a feel. His frustrations with caste laws seem genuine.”
“Yes,” Ryeo’h said. “I am going to look into his past using my connections at Court. I also would like to meet with him to see if I can’t get him drunk and get him to talk more freely.”
They clasped hands.
“See you tomorrow,” Ryeo’h said and hurried off.
Irai’h stood gazing towards the public mews, where Belihn had disappeared to. He then looked at Aosji. “He looked at you with a lot of interest.”
Aosji smirked. “It’s the Tjish.unen in me. It’s considered exotic and alluring.” He rolled his eyes.
“I meant you might be able to seduce him better than I,” Irai’h said with some regret.
Aosji shook his head. “I won’t cuckold my spouse.”
Irai’h sighed. “What if Ryeo’h demands it of you?”
Aosji paused. “He won’t, not if you don’t point out Belihn’s interest.”
I’a’sji snorted. “Ryeo’h is no fool, Aosji.”
Aosji began to get upset. “I’m not going to seduce Belihn and destroy my marriage! I won’t do it.”
“Calm down,” Irai’h murmured and looked around, but no one was paying them any mind. He sighed. “We’ll see if I can seduce him then.”
They parted ways, Irai’h with his mind full of plans.