Irai’h felt around the pocket in the lining of his thick kamarani cloak. The small corked bottle of a mixture of ishae and ithol shifted around as he walked. He recalled Ryeo’h’s instructions to him. Two to four drops in mi’disj or ekila should be sufficient to induce relaxation and lower inhibitions. He quickened his steps until he reached the small tea house where he agreed to meet Belihn Tjashensi. He could see Belihn through the wide window. The captain was sipping a cup of tea and perusing a printed news rag.
Irai’h entered the tea house and strode to Belihn’s table.
Belihn rose and they smiled shyly at one another.
“I hope I didn’t keep you waiting long,” Irai’h murmured as he removed his cloak and set it carefully on the chair next to his.
Belihn shook his head. “I was just reading the news publication. It’s amazing how much the journalists get wrong.”
Irai’h chuckled. “They do tend to nose out rumors more than anything else. Sit, please.”
Belihn smiled. “Let me get you a cup of tea. Do you prefer mjish or southern tea?”
“Southern,” Irai’h replied. “Thank you.”
The tea house was busy and nobody was paying attention to him, so he ferreted the small bottle from his cloak and, glancing over his shoulder, saw that Belihn was standing at the counter, back to the room. Irai’h stood and stretched, turning in such a way to block what he was doing. He uncorked the bottle and poured two drops of the dark brown drug into Belihn’s mostly full cup. He then stretched again and pocketed the bottle into the inner pocket of his tunic.
“Are you leaving?” Belihn asked from behind him.
Irai’h started and turned. “No. I’m stiff this morning. I must have slept wrong somehow. I was just stretching my back.”
Belihn frowned. “Walking didn’t release it?”
“I didn’t walk very far, I’m afraid. I live just four blocks from here, which is why I suggested this tea house.”
“I see. Do you prefer to walk around first?”
Irai’h’s heart gave a sickening lurch. “No, no. I need my cup of tea first.”
Belihn chuckled. “Have a seat then. I brought you a strong cup with plenty of southern spices, cream and honey.”
They sat across from one another.
Irai’h watched avidly as Belihn sipped his tea. His heart was clamoring in his chest. He didn’t know what ishae or ithol tasted like, so he waited to see if Belihn noticed, but the captain took a couple of sips and sat back in his chair. Irai’h sipped his own tea and sighed with pleasure. The heat of the southern spices gave his mouth a pleasant burn.
“This is wonderful,” he pronounced and Belihn smiled.
“Good. Did you bring the book with my ancestor’s story?”
“Yes,” Irai’h said and reached into his cloak’s larger pocket, removing the book, setting it on the table and sliding it across to Belihn. “I’ve dog-eared the page for you, but I think you should read the entire book. It’s fascinating.”
Belihn nodded and opened the book to the marked page. His eyes ran quickly over the words, scanning the information as Irai’h watched him with interest. Belihn Tjashensi was really a handsome young man, Irai’h realized yet again. He had fine, even features more prevalent in females, beautiful hazel eyes, and an expressive, luscious mouth. He was slender, yet broad of shoulders. Irai’h wondered if his arms were knotted with muscles or sleekly strong. He swallowed past the sudden dryness in his mouth. It had been a while since he had lain in sexual communion with anyone. No one had captured his attention in so long and he wondered why Belihn did. Beauty aside, many men were beautiful, yet none had snarled his attention like Belihn Tjashensi had done. His strength, his capacity for suffering, his mores, all those aligned with things that Irai’h respected and admired. And, for Irai’h, respect and admiration were aphrodisiacs, much more so than mere looks.
“The writing is very good,” Belihn murmured, startling Irai’h from his musings. “I have never heard of the author, though.”
“He was not greatly respected,” Irai’h explained. “Mostly because he dealt with scandal, holding the aristocracy up to criticism. He was a journalist, and you know how much respect they garner.”
Belihn nodded distractedly and sipped more of his tea.
Irai’h gave him his space and watched his slender hand caress the pages of the book. He felt himself blush when he thought of those expressive hands caressing his skin. After a few minutes, Belihn sat back in his seat. He looked flushed and a light sheen of perspiration shone on his skin.
“Are you alright?” Irai’h asked.
Belihn wiped his forehead. “It’s a little warm in here, is all.” He emptied his cup. “Have you finished? I’d like to walk to the market and look around, if you have time.”
“My day is yours, Captain.”
They rose and donned their cloaks and stepped into the cold morning. The sun was bright but the breezes sweeping down from the north were icy.
Irai’h shivered. “The early signs promise a harsh kamaran.”
“Seems so,” Belihn murmured. “Shall we?”
“Lead the way.”
They strode side by side down the cobblestone sidewalks towards the east, where the open-air market was located. Draemin City-State had the largest open-air market in North Torahn. It encompassed five sepeks by five sepeks of space filled with expansive pavilions owned by merchants selling every possible ware. The pavilions filled the space with a riot of colors and the flags of different countries snapped smartly in the wind. Draemin City-State had relaxed trade laws, so most countries sent their merchants and traders to the rented pavilions. Irai’h came to the market infrequently, unless he wanted to purchase some gift for one or another of his friends. Since he mostly ate out, he didn’t come to market for staples.
The market was visible a long time before they reached it’s patrolled gates. Guards made up a strong presence among those prowling the aisles between the rows of tents. They kept an eye on the peripheries of the market as well as the space within its boundaries.
“I am thinking of resigning from the Castle guards and joining the city guards,” Belihn murmured as he tucked the book into the inner pocket of his cloak.
Irai’h looked at him. “It’s that bad at court?”
Belihn frowned. “There is almost no advancement for me there. I can become a Commander in the city guards, even though the prestige of being a commanding officer for the city guards does not reach to the heights of the regular army.”
Irai’h chewed his lower lip. “It’s unconscionable! You should be able to advance, regardless of your bloodline.”
Belihn sighed. “I agree, Irai’h. But my father–” He looked around and lowered his voice. “I think my father is a coward.”
Irai’h gaped. “You’re serious?”
“Yes. It isn’t prudence any longer; it’s mere cowardice. The army should be the great equalizer, but the common soldier still gets wages that are a laughingstock among other nations. We have the greatest army in North Torahn; I daresay, in this hemisphere, yet we pay the common soldier a mere pittance to what they could make in other nations, which is why our retention rates are so low. Most of our soldiers are lost to other nations, where they can make two or three times the salary of their homeland.”
Irai’h shook his head. “It is shameful.”
Belihn glanced at him. “More than shameful; it’s dangerous. Our army is the smallest it has been in the history of our nation. That should worry my father greatly. But this peace has lulled him into a false sense of security. I hope we are invaded; I hope some other nation occupies us and changes the caste laws for good.”
“You speak treason.”
Belihn scowled. “I speak truth.”
Irai’h sighed. “I agree with you, for whatever it’s worth.”
“It’s worth much,” Belihn assured him.
The captain led him into the market. The crowd was thick, it being the sixth day of the week, a day most citizens used the market to purchase goods for the home.
“What are you looking for?” Irai’h asked him.
“My sister’s begetting day is tomorrow,” Belihn replied. “I would like to purchase her a gift. Something rare.”
They walked further into the market, heading for the section that sold goods from Tjish.un and further south. They passed the food pavilions and Irai’h realized he was famished, having risen late and not having had time to break his fast.
“May we come back and eat?” he asked Belihn.
“Of course. This won’t take long.”
When they reached the emerald green pavilions of Tjish.un, Belihn asked a guard for directions to the glassware vendors.
The guard, a tall, broad dark skinned southerner with a full beard and glittering ebony eyes pointed south. “That way, Captain.”
Belihn bowed. “Much obliged.”
As they walked further south, Irai’h looked at Belihn. “I see lots of mercenaries around. How are their wages?”
Belihn snorted. “They pay mercenaries well because that is the only way to keep our army and city guards at acceptable numbers. It’s all ridiculous. They can pay our own soldiers just as well and they wouldn’t have to recruit mercenaries.”
Belihn’s anger had become a palpable thing. He stopped, took a few breaths and shook his head. “I don’t know why my anger is boiling over like this.”
Irai’h knew it was the drugs, so he placed a soothing hand on Belihn’s shoulder. “You’ve reached a crisis point, is all. You’ve carried this anger a long time, I daresay.”
Belihn sighed. “You’re right, of course.”
They continued walking until they came to the pavilions that sold glasswares. Belihn headed straight to a smaller pavilion with figurines on display. The vendor behind the tables was an isili. That brought Irai’h up short. Isili were slaves in Tjish.un, so he wondered how this one had ended up a merchant.
The isili was on the small side, with a froth of loose copper-colored hair and large, bright green eyes. His honey-tinted complexion held the bloom of health. He looked to be no more than a youth, but Irai’h knew that their dual-sexed nature rendered them young-looking most of their lives. An old saying went, “When an isili shows his age, he is close to death.” It was a horrible saying but accurate.
The isili smiled at them as they stepped up to the table. “How may I be of help, gentlemen?”
Belihn bowed. “An honor. I am looking for a figurine for a young woman’s begetting day. She is also to be married soon.”
The isili indicated the figurines before him. They were made of glazed ceramic rather than clear glass. The paint was exquisite, as were the figures themselves.
Irai’h picked up a figurine of what looked like an isili family, complete with a dam, a damai and two little children. They were sitting around a picnic.
He glanced at Belihn. “This is really exquisite work.”
Belihn took the figurine, which was the size of two hands. “Yes.” He looked at the isili. “Did you make this?”
The isili blushed becomingly. “No. My spouse did.”
Belihn nodded. “Well, it is a work of art. How much?”
“Five tin’seps, my lord.”
Belihn turned the figurine around, studying it closely. “You are selling your spouse’s effort cheaply.” He looked at the isili. “This type of work will sell for at least one kah’tet, which is what I’ll give you.”
The isili gasped. “Really?”
“If you sell too cheaply, the aristocracy won’t buy it,” Irai’h remarked. “It makes no sense, but it’s true.”
“We didn’t want to sell too steeply, for fear of turning away the commoners,” the isili explained.
“Then tailor the prices to the buyer,” Belihn advised. He reached into his coin purse and withdrew the gold coin, handing it to the isili.
The isili bowed. “Thank you, my lord! Let me wrap the figurine for you.”
The isili wrapped the figurine in cheap cloth then set it carefully in a cloth bag, handing it to Belihn when he was done.
They bowed to one another, then Belihn took Irai’h’s hand and led him north through the thick crowds, towards the food vendors.
Irai’h let Belihn hold his hand. The gesture touched him; it meant Belihn meant to court him. It surprised him, until he recalled he had drugged Belihn. Shame threatened to overwhelm him, but he quickly reminded himself that he had a job to do. He squared his shoulders and pushed the shame away.
“Would you like to come back to my row house apartment when we are done here?” he asked Belihn.
Belihn looked at him and blushed. “Yes, I need to talk to you about something anyway.”
Irai’h wondered what the captain wanted to talk to him about, but he didn’t ask. They found a pavilion that sold enashas covered with fried dosi strips cooked with aromatics and southern spices. It was a cheap, toothsome meal. They ate side by side, while around them market goers went to and fro. When they were done, they purchased chilled fruit juice and drank it before handing the empty wooden mugs back to the vendor.
Belihn indicated the street. “Lead the way to your home.”
Irai’h took his hand and led him to the boulevard.
He lived five blocks from the marketplace, so they reached his row house apartment quite soon. His apartment was expansive, with three bedrooms, a kitchen, a diningroom, and a library. He shared the large apartment with I’a’sji, who was also single. He told Belihn this as he unlocked the front door.
“I’a’sji won’t be in,” he assured Belihn as he stepped back to allow the Captain entrance. “He has a mistress that he spends his sixth and seventh days with.”
Belihn entered the modest foyer and looked around. Irai’h had designed and arranged the furniture in the apartment, so he took a measure of pride in showing it off. The walls were filled with silk tapestries and the floors were crowded with modest, but tasteful, throw rugs. The many windows were covered with thick curtains that kept the space warm during kamaran and cool during dibasj. Right now, the curtains had been pulled back to allow light into the apartment. The furniture in the sitting room, though modest, was well made. It consisted of two loveseats facing one another and two armchairs on either side, with gleaming ei’shano wood low tables in the center. Directly ahead was a large fireplace that, when lit with a fire, warmed most of the downstairs. The sitting room was to the left of the foyer, the library to the right. There was no fireplace in the library. A brazier stood in a corner, for when needed, which was rarely. The kitchen was through the library, and to the back of the apartment. It was large and largely unused. The narrow stairwell led to a modest, three bedroom arrangement upstairs.
“This is a nice place,” Belihn commented. “It is well appointed.”
Irai’h blushed. “I decorated it. We don’t get a huge salary as clerks, so the furniture is rather modest.”
“It’s beautiful nonetheless,” Belihn assured him.
“Come to the sitting room,” Irai’h urged. “And tell me what you wish to talk about.”
They sat down in a settee and Belihn set his bag on the low table nearby.
He looked nervously at Irai’h. “I don’t know how to begin.”
Irai’h smiled reassuringly at him. “Just begin.”
Belihn nodded and looked away. “I am interested in pursuing a courtship with you, but there is also another young man I am interested in.” He sighed. “I am asking for permission to court both of you at once.”
Irai’h smoothed his features to hide his disappointment. “I see. And what does this young man say about your request?”
“I haven’t spoken to him yet,” Belihn murmured.
Irai’h thought for a moment. “Can I think on it for a couple of days?”
“Of course,” Belihn assured him.
Irai’h sighed, wondering if he drugged Belihn again to seduce him, would he notice? He hadn’t noticed this time, so perhaps next time they would have drinks, so that Belihn could blame the alcohol. Of course, drugging him would entail more than seduction. It would entail interrogating him with care.
“Then can we meet on the second day of next week? Ryeo’h is hosting a dinner at his home and he wanted me to extend an invitation to you.”
Belihn looked surprised for a moment before he schooled his face. “That would be wonderful. I will clear my calendar.”
Irai’h rose. “Good then. Come here and I’ll escort you to Ryeo’h’s home.”
Belihn rose. “I’ll be here at sunset. Will that do?”
“Yes,” Irai’h replied and took his hand, leading him to the foyer once more.
They looked at one another for a few seconds, before Belihn bent and pressed a kiss to Irai’h’s mouth.
“Thank you for a lovely morning,” he murmured against Irai’h’s mouth.
Irai’h swallowed thickly and nodded, stepping back. “Do you have your bag?”
Belihn held it up.
“Good,” Irai’h said. “Then I’ll see you in three days. I’ll have your answer then.”
He watched as Belihn descended the five steps to the boulevard. They waved at one another before Irai’h closed the door.