Belihn rose early the following day and went to the practice yards with Lieutenant Kurk Deshon for a few bouts of sparring. They did not say much to each other as they plodded west through the expansive bailey. Rime made the cobblestones slick. Their breaths clung to the air and the gentle breezes sweeping down from the north caressed their exposed faces and necks with icy fingers. They reached the mostly empty southern practice yard a few minutes later. They entered the capacious yard and Belihn removed his thick kamarani cloak and draped it over the low wooden fence demarcating this yard from the others. Kurk followed suit and soon they were sitting across from each other on the rime-hard ground, stretching and twisting to warm up their muscles before they took up the wooden swords.
Once they were sufficiently warm, they rose and pulled out wooden swords from the barrel near the entrance. Belihn hefted his sword, which was lighter than his iron sword, but still had enough heft on it to allow him to exercise his arm. He went to stand across from his friend. Deshon attacked without preamble. He always managed to startle Belihn and Belihn had a thought that Kurk enjoyed discombobulating him when they sparred. Belihn recovered quickly and soon the still air was filled with the thuds of their swords as they clashed again and again. A surge of pleasure filled Belihn as he lost himself in the exercise. He pushed all worries and concerns to the back of his mind and concentrated on besting his more than capable friend.
Kurk grinned at him, his dark brown eyes lively and gently mocking. He spun and brought his sword down in an arc. Belihn halted the downward swipe of the sword and grunted as the swords clashed and the muscles along his back, arm and sides absorbed the stress. He could feel his skin release sweat as Kurk continued to challenge him. Kurk had learned all about self-defence in the army. He was a commoner and they both had served under the arrogant and bigoted Commander Nyal Kia’guh. They had met and liked one another right away, united by their shared discontent over the caste laws. At first, Kurk had been suspicious of Belihn, as he was of all aristocrats, but Belihn had eventually worn down his self-protective facade and uncovered the man’s kind heart and disposition. Kurk was Belihn’s only friend from the military and he was protective of their relationship.
“Where’s your mind at, Tjashensi?” Kurk chided as his sword tip scraped along Belihn’s waist.
Belihn grunted at the pain that momentarily flared along Belihn’s skin where the dull sword tip graced.
Belihn pulled his thoughts back to the sparring.
They continued their good-natured fighting until Belihn found himself stumbling from exhaustion. Light touched the sky in the east, where Malthos, the sun, rose.
Sweat covered Belihn’s skin and he shivered in the northern breezes as he wiped sweat from his eyes and stepped back from Kurk.
“Let’s stop there, shall we?”
Kurk bowed. “Done.”
Belihn noted with some consternation that, even though Kurk was sweaty, his breathing was still even.
“What say you we go for a jog tomorrow morning?” Belihn asked innocently.
Kurk groaned. “I know all about your jogs, Tjashensi. You’re a masochist.”
Belihn took his friend’s sword and laughed as he turned and strode to the barrel to drop the swords inside. He then picked up his cloak and turned back to his friend.
“You have good stamina, Deshon,” Belihn told him. “You can keep up just fine.”
They began to walk back to the Officer’s House.
“It’s not keeping up that’s the problem, Tjashensi,” Kurk replied and used a meaty hand to wipe the sweat from his forehead. “It’s the soreness the following day.”
“You just aren’t stretching enough,” Belihn chastised him.
“Well, your runs are so long, we don’t have time afterward,” Kurk complained.
Belihn snorted. “Never mind. We’ll start half an hour early and take the adequate time to stretch. Will that suit you?”
Kurk sketched a bow. “Yes. Tomorrow then, Belihn.”
They parted as Kurk headed for the second floor and Belihn went up to the third floor. Once there, he scooped cold water from his fresh water barrel and filled the basin. He dropped a few drops of fragrant oil into the basin. Discarding his sweaty clothes on the floor, he dropped a washcloth into the basin. Wringing the cloth out, he scrubbed the sweat and salt from his body. Afterward, he used the washcloth to scrub his face and under his arms and along his groin. He walked over to the full lengthed mirror hanging from the door. Running a hand along his cheek, he decided to shave. He didn’t grow a beard very fast, so he ended up shaving every other day or every third day. Striding back to the basin, he picked up his shaving cup filled with shaving soap and a brush and lathered the soap along his damp face. Setting down the cup, he picked up the single blade next to the basin and scraped the soap and hair from his face. Once done, he smiled at his reflection. Not a single nick or cut. He dressed in a fresh uniform and hung up the sweaty one to dry on the hooks on the wall next to the door. After pulling on his knee high boots, he brushed and braided his hair in a single plait that fell to midback.
There came a knock on the door and, curious, he pulled the door open.
The private on the other side bowed and handed him a folded missive. “This came for you, your Highness.”
“Thank you,” Belihn murmured and took the letter.
He did not recognize the seal, which looked to be from a business in town. Breaking the seal, he unfolded the letter.
“You are invited to an informal dinner at the residence of Ryeo’h Thalnel tomorrow evening. Dinner will commence at sundown.”
The missive had directions to the row house apartment.
He strode to his dresser and dropped the missive next to his hairbrush. He would craft a reply as soon as he got to Commander Ethael’s office.
Belihn headed to the dining room, where he picked up a tray and went to stand in line. Lieutenant Deshon walked in a few minutes later and picked up a tray, coming to stand behind Belihn.
“Fancy meeting you here,” Kurk murmured with a smirk.
“Imagine that,” Belihn replied with a grin. “Wonder what’s for breakfast?”
“Something with some meat, I hope,” Kurk replied.
Belihn set his tray down at the serving window. The server set a bowl of boiled grains, tza nuts and dried berries, honey and cream on his tray. He also set a mug of black mjish next to the bowl.
Kurk grimaced at the fare but dutifully took his bowl and they carried their food to two empty seats.
They sat next to each other and began to eat in silence.
“What’s your week like?” Kurk asked between mouthfuls of the sweet, nutty cereal.
“I have a dinner date at a friend’s house tomorrow,” Belihn answered, wiping his mouth with his napkin. He sipped the bitter, sour tea. “Then I have a dinner with my fiancee’s family at my mother’s suites the following day. Why?”
Kurk groaned. “I forget you are betrothed. I just met two twins, two sisters. Beautiful and vivacious. I wouldn’t mind going on a double date.”
Belihn snorted. “Why don’t you date them at the same time? It is every domeinsji male’s fantasy, isn’t it?”
Kurk smirked. “I had not thought of that. When do I get to meet this fiancee of yours?”
“Any time you like, Kurk. We can go out with your twins in a couple of days.”
Kurk sipped his tea. “I don’t want a relationship with these twins, my friend. What I want are simple, uncomplicated good times.”
“Aren’t you going on twenty-two dibasjis?” Belihn pointed out. “You should think of settling down.”
Kurk rolled his eyes. “Just because you’ve so placatingly placed the noose around your neck doesn’t mean I want one around mine. There are many women in this world, my friend, and I don’t want to limit myself to just one.”
Belihn picked up his tea mug. “One day a woman will snare your heart, Kurk Deshon. You mark my words.”
Kurk shrugged. “Independence and freedom will always mean more to me than love.”
Belihn watched as his friend scraped the last of his cereal from his bowl and said nothing. He didn’t disapprove of Kurk’s attitude; he wished he thought the same way. But he liked the idea of being with a man the rest of his life. He looked forward to the friendship and intimacy. And with Alona, he would have children. The idea of having children filled him with warmth. He wanted a large, affectionate family to fill his days with joy. But Kurk, as he had said, valued freedom more than anything, which made his military career so odd.
“Why’d you join the military, if you value independence and freedom so well?”
Kurk pushed his empty bowl away and shrugged. “I have to survive somehow. Once I learn my skills well enough, I will join a mercenary band that will provide companionship and travel and adventure. There is plenty of time to settle down. I want to travel the world first and see how much plunder there is.”
Belihn sat back. “I had no idea you wanted to become a mercenary.”
Kurk sipped his tea. When he replied, his voice was lower than before, not carrying beyond their small bubble of privacy. “I have no loyalty to your father, Belihn. I’m sorry to be so blunt. But when he came to power, he said he would change things and that he has not done. I’m tired of waiting. Perhaps I’ll settle down somewhere else, where there are no caste laws and I can be free to succeed.” He sighed and rose, setting his mug on the tray. “Have a nice rest of your day, my friend.”
Picking up his tray, Kurk strode away.
Belihn swallowed thickly. His conversation with Irai’h came to mind. He had been correct about the fact that many young men became mercenaries because of the pay, but also because his father was losing the loyalty of the army. It was not happening fast enough to prove concerning, but it was progressing at a steady rate nonetheless. Soon most of the army of North Torahn would be made up of mercenaries, and they could be bribed to side with any of the King’s detractors. His father was a fool.
He rose and carried his tray to the serving window.
Belihn went to his father’s suites after Court closed for the day. Kurk’s words from earlier in the day clung to his thoughts. The idea that soon the entire army would be made up of mercenaries whose loyalty was open to bribery filled him with a suffocating anxiety that had robbed his concentration all day. Even his commander, Thul Ethael, had noticed and let him off work early. Immediately upon leaving work, he made his way to the castle, using a little used servant’s entrance in order to avoid the Great Hall and the courtiers and aristocrats that took such pleasure in humiliating him. Besides, he didn’t want to be too obvious about contacting his sire directly and openly.
He made his way to the fifth story of the castle and then down the wide, opulent hallway to the King’s suites. He was gratified to find two North Torahni natives guarding the archway leading into King Kah’len’s suites. The guards came to attention and saluted him.
“Is the King in residence?” he asked.
The guards bowed.
“Yes, Highness,” said the one on the right. “Let me announce you.”
Belihn waited as the guard knocked on the door and stepped into the sitting room.
A few minutes later, the guard returned. “He will see you now.”
Belihn nodded and entered his sire’s apartments.
Kah’len was standing next to the large fireplace. The King was not alone, which did not surprise Belihn. Both Warlord Bhar Obeli and Commander-General Rakah Ys’teis were present.
“Belihn,” Bhar greeted. “Is anything the matter?”
“No, but I need to speak to my Eda about something of great concern to me,” Belihn replied. “I’m glad both you and Uncle Rakah are here. You should hear what I have to say as well.”
Kah’len took two steps forward. “This couldn’t be related in a missive, son? By coming here, you compromise everything we’ve worked so hard to establish.”
“It can easily be explained, I think,” Belihn replied. “And twisted to our purpose, I daresay.”
Kah’len frowned but nodded. “Go on then. What has you so concerned?”
Belihn took a deep breath and released it. “Father, when are you going to address caste discrepancies? When are you going to allow commoners to rise within the ranks of the army? When are you going to do away with stupid laws that only hurt the most vulnerable?”
“Where is this coming from?” Rakah asked.
Belihn turned to him. “You know what a close friend told me? He is going to join a mercenary band because he has no loyalty for a King who made promises he has no intention of fulfilling.”
Bhar took a step forward. “Who is this?”
“I will not betray a friend,” Belihn snapped. “And when it is against the law to have an opinion?”
Rakah frowned. “When that opinion is seditious.”
“He said nothing of opposing the king,” Belihn pointed out. He turned to his father. “Eda. Please. Fully 55 percent of your forces are mercenary. That means they can be bribed to turn against you. Every year more and more young men leave North Torahn because they find no justice at home. Father, you made a promise when you took the oath of office: You said you would change the caste laws. You promised.”
“That is enough,” Bhar growled.
King Kah’len sighed. “No, Bhar. Let the boy speak. Is there aught more you need to say to me?”
“I am tired of seeing friends leave, Sire. You are a good man and a good king, but you forget that most of your citizens are commoners, not the clans.”
King Kah’len shook his head. “I forget nothing. I have to proceed very carefully, son.”
“Civil War would not be a bad thing,” Belihn told him. “It could cleanse and we could start again, just as we did when the Poaist were exiled.”
“I would not have people’s blood on my hands!” the King spat.
“But you’d have their discontent, their humiliation, their injustice instead?” Belihn challenged.
Rakah stepped forward. “Think carefully of what you are saying, Belihn.”
“Are you going to arrest me, Uncle Rakah? For what? For advising the King? Go ahead. Arrest me. I’m not so far from the bottom now. Once I am free, I will become a mercenary, too. I can’t support a king who lied to his people because he is afraid of something that will only inconvenience the clans.”
“That is enough,” Bhar said coldly.
“Yes. You are right,” Belihn stated. “That is enough. When, not too long from now, some discontented clan head bribes the mercenaries in your employ, father, and they oust your clan from power, perhaps killing your children and wives and yourself, you can think on my words before the hangman–“
Rakah took three steps and backhanded Belihn. Belihn’s head snapped back and his teeth cut into the soft inside of his cheek. He smiled mirthlessly at his uncle and wiped the blood from his mouth.
“I’m done here,” Belihn stated coldly. “With this King and this family. I will give my loyalty to whatever king pays me the most.”
“Belihn–” the King said.
Belihn shook his head. He strode from the room and out into the hallway. He had a resignation to write.