The following evening, Belihn retired early, retreating to his room in the Officers’ House at sundown. He had much to think about and he needed solitude to do that. He stood at the only window in his room, which looked out onto the kitchen gardens. Leaning on the windowsill, he let his mind wander. He thought about Alona Oh’nahry, about her fetching brother Kahl, who had taken such an apparent interest in him. He thought of Irai’h Asjur and then he thought of Aosji Brenth’on’h and his face flushed. Part of him was gratified that Lord Asjur had approached him with an offer of friendship, although the young lord seemed to have an interest in Belihn that extended beyond friendship. Belihn always second guessed himself in these matters, though. He was going on twenty kamarans old and had yet to take a lover. He simply did not trust courtiers and none of the clans’ sons wanted anything to do with him, except Irai’h. If Irai’h was involved with the Reformist Lord, then perhaps Belihn should allow himself to be seduced. At that same time, he thought of Kahl Oh’nahry, his intelligence and humor, his unwavering support of his sister, and he felt torn.
Of course, there was nothing stopping him from becoming involved with two young men at once, although he did not want to turn into some sort of cad. But if he was honest with both of them and allowed them to court him, then he could not be faulted for his behavior. His blush deepened. Really, he was acting like some virginal girl. Wasn’t it high time he got himself a lover or two? He wouldn’t be the first young man to do that, even among his half-siblings. He had often heard how Queen Ajla’s sons left a string of broken hearts behind them as they sampled everyone that remotely showed an interest in them. His half-brother Ean had been a friend once to him, but he had developed an interest in girls early on and had broken off his friendship with Belihn to pursue skirts like they were going out of fashion. The only one among them who was not a wastrel and cad was Vallaw, who was training to succeed as Prei-Serren of Draemin City-State. Belihn admired and respected Vallaw, but they had precious little in common to form any sort of lasting friendship.
None of the King’s other children were close to Belihn or his full siblings. Their tainted commoner’s blood made friendships among the King’s aristocratic children unattainable. King Kah’len did not go out of his way to correct his children and the Queens had had total control and influence over the royal nursery and its inhabitants, imparting their caste prejudices to their progeny with impunity. The only Queen who had ever been an ally to his mother was Queen Ariahl, but that friendship was not extended to him or his siblings by Ariahl’s children.
He sighed and turned from the window, intent on undressing and washing up before heading to bed, when there came a knock on the door.
Curious, he strode to the door and swung it open.
“Uncle Bhar!” he said, surprised to see the Warlord of North Torahn returned from the Southern Front. “When did you arrive?”
Bhar Obeli grinned at him. “Are you going to let me in, Belihn?”
“Sorry,” Belihn muttered and stepped back to allow his uncle entrance.
He closed the door once his uncle was inside. “What can I do for you?”
Bhar glanced around the room. “You refused a room in the castle for these spartan surroundings?”
Belihn straightened his back. “I’m half dirt anyway, aren’t I?”
Warlord Obeli frowned. “You know I don’t hold your common blood against you.”
Belihn sighed. “I know. I’m sorry, Uncle.”
“May I sit?”
Bhar pulled out the desk chair and dropped into it with a groan. “We hot footed it back from the front in a handful of weeks then I was locked away with your father for long hours for my report. I haven’t had a moment to sit quietly since before sunrise.”
Belihn walked to the dresser and uncapped the decanter of mi’disj he kept on hand, pouring the liqueur into two short, squat glasses. He handed his uncle one of the glasses.
“Thank you, Lad,” Bhar murmured and sipped the sweet, fiery drink with a sigh of satisfaction. “Sit, please.”
Belihn sat on the bed, for there was no other chair in the room. He took a sip of the mi’disj and gazed expectantly at the Warlord.
Bhar Obeli sighed again and sat back in his seat. “The King has asked me to come here for your report. For appearances sake and for the sake of your investigation, you should not be seen with King Kah’len until the Reformist Lord has been apprehended.”
“Agreed,” Belihn murmured. “I don’t have too much to report, Sir. I was approached by Irai’h Asjur for friendship. He told me he had heard I had fallen from grace and, since he had gone through much the same thing, he and his friends…I was touched, if I am being honest. Those couple of weeks between when the rumors were dispersed through court and when I met Lord Asjur were miserable, Uncle. I despaired.”
Warlord Obeli gave him a sympathetic glance. “I heard, child, that the courtiers were real bastards to you. That you were openly disrespected, mocked and spat at. I’m surprised you didn’t duel anyone.”
Belihn grimaced. “I came close a time or two, if I am being honest.”
Bhar nodded and sipped his drink in silence for a few minutes. Finally, he sat forward, his gaze snaring Belihn’s. “Do you think this Lord Irai’h Asjur and his friends are worthy of trust or do you suspect they could be involved with the Reformist Lord?”
“They hold extremist views, Uncle, but no more than I. I cannot blame them for their views and I don’t know them well enough yet to have an inkling if they are involved with the Reformist Lord or not.”
Bhar nodded. “My suggestion is that you continue to court their acquaintances and see where this leads. Now is the optimum time for the Reformist Lord to approach you, while rumors of your falling out with the King are fresh.” He emptied his glass and rose, handing the empty glass to Belihn. “Well, I am off to meet my family.”
Belihn rose. “I’ll bid you goodnight, Sir, then.”
Bhar smiled at him and cupped his cheek. “Stay strong, Belihn. What you sacrifice you do for the good of your city-state.”
“Yes, sir,” Belihn murmured, although he was not sure if he quite believed in that statement any longer.
When the Warlord slipped out of Belihn’s room and into the empty hall, Belihn closed the door quietly and returned the glasses to the dresser, where he left them next to the half empty decanter. Frowning, he began to doff his clothes, folding the coat, inner tunic, and trousers and setting them on the clothes chest. He unbraided his hair and brushed it out before blowing out the single candle and sliding under the cool bedclothes. For a long time he lay on his back, hands under his head, gazing at the dark rafters. Meager light was still spilling through the window from the setting sun. The house’s ambient sounds began to lull him to sleep and at some point he drifted off, his mind crowded with thoughts and plans.
Ryeo’h called a meeting the following evening and they all met at his row house apartment. Ryeo’h Thalnel could have easily afforded a mansion in a nouveau riche neighborhood, but he preferred the bustle of the city center and he was close enough to his father’s business that he could walk to work. Ryeo’h’s row house apartment encompassed three stories, although the apartment itself was narrow, each story containing one or two large rooms. The main floor contained the sitting room and library; the second story housed the expansive kitchen and a large dining room; and the top floor housed three bedrooms: the master bedroom, a large nursery, and a small bedroom for the children’s nanny. Ryeo’h also rented the apartment next door, where his servants lived.
Ryeo’h lived in his row house apartment with his wife, Banela, and his three children: Oron, Alis, and Kher. Irai’h also knew that Ryeo’h’s children’s nanny, Sjaji, was Ryeo’h’s mistress and the mother to two more children: Sofi and Dahni. The entire arrangement made Irai’h’s head spin, but he never said a word. The customs of the common caste were beyond him, although in a way it all seemed wonderfully civilized to him. Both Banela and Sjaji were beautiful women. Ryeo’h’s marriage to Banela had been arranged by his father, but the two, although not a love match, became good friends. Banela was full figured, with generous breasts and copper hair always piled artlessly on top of her head, and honey-colored eyes. She was Tjish.unen and their marriage had purchased property for Ryeo’h in Tjish.un, where he owned another business, this one in export/import of goods such as woven rugs, cloth, baskets, and furniture. Sjaji was one year older than Banela, who was twenty. Sjaji was from Draemin City-State, with blue-black hair and clear hazel eyes. She was tiny and slender and looked much younger than her years. As Irai’h understood it, Ryeo’h and she had been paramours since she turned 15 and he 19. He had refused to marry Banela until she agreed that Sjaji would live with them and continue to be his lover. Knowing how persuasive Ryeo’h could be, Irai’h had no difficulty believing Banela gave in and now shared her husband with his mistress.
Irai’h liked visiting Ryeo’h at his home, for his children were curious, intelligent and quite lovely. They called Irai’h “uncle” and showered him with affection and attention. Irai’h’s favorite child was Alis, a three year old little girl who was Ryeo’h’s spitting image. She was too smart for her own good, but also kind and generous and talkative as the day was long. When Irai’h knocked on the door, he could already hear Alis squealing with anticipation to see him again.
Irai’h heard, “Alis! Behave or Lord Asjur won’t stay long.”
Banela opened the door and rolled her eyes. “You have made my daughter fall in love with you, Irai’h. I insist you take her with you when you leave.”
He chuckled then peered around her to where the chubby little girl was excitedly clapping her hands. “Hello, Alis.”
Alis squealed again and barreled into him, wrapping her tiny arms around his legs. “Eera!”
He picked her up and threw her up in the air, catching her as she came down with a ear splintering squeal. He carried her into the house while Banela shut the door behind him.
Ryeo’h was waiting with the others in the sitting room.
The entire family was in the sitting room, including a servant and the butler.
Sjaji greeted Irai’h shyly and took Alis from him. “I suppose you are all going to lock yourselves away in the sitting room?”
“I’m afraid so, Sjaji,” Irai’h replied with practiced regret.
She rolled her eyes and took Banela’s oldest’s hand. “Come, Oron, let’s leave the men to their business talk.”
Oron went willingly up the stairs with Sjaji.
Sofi and Dahni put up a fuss until Banela bent and picked up the girl and the servant picked up the boy and they proceeded up the stairs with the two squalling children in hand.
The butler bowed to Ryeo’h. “Just ring if you need anything, Sir.”
“Thank you, Shen,” Ryeo’h murmured and said nothing until the double doors leading to the foyer were shut by the butler.
Ryeo’h rose and strode to the sideboard, where he uncapped a decanter and poured libations into four glasses, handing them around the room. No one said anything as Ryeo’h retook his seat and sighed.
Ryeo’h glanced at each of them in turn. “My contact at court said Warlord Bhar Obeli returned from the Southern Front and went to meet with Belihn Tjashensi. He could not be sure of what they spoke of, for they locked themselves in Tjashensi’s room with the door closed. My contact stated Belihn seemed surprised to see him home from the Front.”
Irai’h shifted in his seat. “And your other contacts? What do they say?”
Ryeo’h sipped his liqueur. “It seems Divita Stait, Belihn’s mother, has arranged for him to marry the wealthy daughter of a commoner shipping mogul. The marriage will bring with it a handsome bride price, which will remain in escrow until that time as Belihn turns thirty. My contact says that Belihn has refused the bride price and has set it aside for his children.”
“Commendable,” Aosji murmured and sighed. “So, he isn’t bribable.”
Ryeo’h snorted. “No, he isn’t. He doesn’t gamble and he keeps his head. I’m surprised he never dueled, considering how much he has been disrespected these past few weeks.”
“So, he is not atoliy?” Irai’h asked, disappointment limning his words.
Ryeo’h shrugged. “He has never pursued any young woman or young man. His orientation is your guess as good as mine. SImply because he has arranged a marriage with a woman does not make him domeinsji, though, as well you know. Many atoliy marry for the sake of children or to avoid social stigma.”
Irai’h nodded. “Yes, that’s true. So, is my proposal to seduce him still the best chance of ferreting information from him?”
Ryeo’h shrugged. “I want to invite him for dinner here and ply him with enough alcohol to lower his inhibitions.”
I’a’sji pursed his lips. “How about using small doses of ishae or ithol in his alcohol?”
Irai’h frowned. Ishae was an illegal drug that induced a sense of relaxation and lust, while ithol was a truth serum. “That could backfire.”
I’a’sji shrugged. “Not in small enough doses. Tjashensi could confuse it with the effects of the alcohol.”
Ryeo’h grinned. “You’ve just earned your keep, I’a’sji! That’s a great idea. I know a chemist in town; I’ll ask him about doses. I’m sure he’ll sell me a couple of bottles of each. He is always in need of funds.”
Aosji snorted. “Is there anyone who you don’t know?”
Ryeo’h shrugged again and rose. “Stay for dinner, all of you. I’ll be right back. I need to get hold of this chemist before he closes shop for the day.”
He strode to the double doors and threw them open.
The butler bowed. “Anything I can do for you, Sir?”
“I’ll be right back, Shen. Make sure my friends are comfortable and don’t need anything. I shall be back within the hour.”
The butler bowed. “Of course, Sir. Shall I fetch you a conveyance?”
Ryeo’h donned his thick kamaran cloak and affixed it at the collarbone. “I’m only going two blocks away. I’ll walk.”
“Very good, Sir.”
They watched as Ryeo’h strode through the foyer and out the front door. They settled in to wait for his return.