The day of the dinner party arrived gray, wet and cold. Strong winds blew across nearly deserted streets slick from rainfall. The wind howled down semi deserted alleyways and side streets. Irai’h put up the hood of his rain cloak and hurried down the sidewalk towards Ryeo’h’s row house apartment. By the time he made it to his friend’s home, the hems of his trousers were soggy. Thankfully, the cloak he wore was long to mid-calf, so most of his attire was dry. Hurrying up the five steps from the sidewalk to the front door of Ryeo’h’s apartments, he used the heavy iron knocker to make his presence known.
Almost right away, the butler opened the door and bowed. “Good evening, my lord. Please come in.”
Irai’h stepped inside the apartment and unfastened his cloak, handing it to the butler, who shook it outside and then hung it from a hook on the wall next to the front door.
“The guests are all in the sitting room,” the butler informed him.
Irai’h bowed. “My thanks, Shen.”
He followed the raised voices and occasional laughter to the arched doorway to the left of the foyer. He paused under the archway to take in the scene. The entire household was there: Ryeo’h, Ryeo’h’s wife and nanny and their passel of children. Belihn had not yet arrived, it seemed. Irai’h thought of the handsome young officer and sighed. Really, it would have been lovely and certainly no hardship to start a love affair with the Captain. He pushed his disappointment to one side and pasted on a smile as he stepped down into the expansive sitting room.
“Uncle Irai’h!” announced Oron, Ryeo’h’s oldest boy, who was five years old.
The boy barrelled into Irai’h, wrapping his arms around his legs.
Irai’h oofed. “When did you become so big?”
Oron gazed up at him and grinned, showing a missing tooth in the front of his mouth.
Irai’h bent to pick the boy up and turned to greet the adults. “Good evening to you all.”
Ryeo’h smiled at him and rose, making his way to the sideboard. “I’ll get you something to warm your blood.”
Irai’h set a squirming Oron back on the floor and strode to where Ryeo’h stood. “I must speak with you.”
Ryeo’h frowned and glanced at his family. “Let’s go to the library then.”
Irai’h took the glass of mi’disj from his friend and followed him out of the sitting room to the library on the other side of the foyer.
Ryeo’h closed the sliding doors and turned to face him. “What is it?”
Irai’h took a sip of the fiery, spicy liqueur. “Belihn came to tell me he resigned from the army and will be signing up with the Tjish.unen army as a mercenary.”
Ryeo’h reeled back. “This is a surprise. Did he say why?”
“He said he got into another argument with the King over the caste laws and paying commoner soldiers less than is paid the mercenaries.”
Ryeo’h considered the words and began to slowly pace. “I plan to drug him, if only to corroborate that his story is true. This might all be a complex ruse aimed at ferreting us out.”
Irai’h frowned. “Do you think so?”
Ryeo’h sighed. “I don’t know, to be honest. If he is being sincere, then I say we extend a hand to him and see if he’ll join us. He needn’t know that we plan to hit his grandfather’s party and relieve the King of South Torahn of some of his wealth. I’m sure no one will notice things missing from the royal safe. Word is the South Torahni coffers are filled with precious jewels, gold and silver.”
Irai’h swallowed past the dryness in his throat. “I can’t imagine.”
Ryeo’h shook his head. “Keep your head, Irai’h. Everything is set up and ready. The ship that will transport the jewels away and the ship’s captain that will pay us for them.”
Irai’h studied his friend’s calm face. “How do you do it, Ryeo’h? You are so organized and you know so many people. I just don’t have the faintest idea of how to go about all you do.”
Ryeo’h grinned and placed a hand on Irai’h’s shoulder. “And I couldn’t begin to fathom moving through the crowds at court or unlocking locked safes. You do the hard part, my friend.”
There was a knock on the library door.
Ryeo’h turned and opened the sliding doors.
The butler bowed. “Forgive me for disturbing you, sir. Captain Tjashensi is here.”
“Thank you, Shen,” Ryeo’h murmured. He turned back to Irai’h. “Come. Let’s not keep the guest of honor waiting.”
They found Belihn kneeling on the floor surrounded by children. The adults were watching indulgently as Belihn explained to the children that, yes, he was a prince.
“I want to be a princess!” Alis announced.
“You can be,” Belihn told her. “My mother is a queen.”
Alis’ eyes widened. “Your aya is a queen? Is she beautiful?”
“Yes,” Belihn replied and smiled at the little girl.
Oron crossed his arms over his chest. “Alis can’t be a princess; she isn’t part of the clans.”
Alis flushed and turned to her brother. “Can too!”
Oron snorted. “Can’t. He’s just being nice, but he’s lying to you.”
Alis’ flushed deeper and her face scrunched up. She opened her mouth and let out a wail that filled the sitting room.
“That’s enough!” Banela hissed. “You’ll wake your brother!”
“But aya!” Alis said with heartbreaking sincerity. “I want to be a princess!”
“Your brother is right,” Banela stated and looked apologetically at Belihn. “I don’t want her mind filled with nonsense, your Highness. I’m sorry.”
He bowed his head. “It’s alright, Missus. I understand.”
Banela and Sjaji rose, took the older children by the hands and led the brood from the sitting room and up the stairwell.
Belihn rose and turned to Ryeo’h. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset the child.”
Ryeo’h stepped down into the sitting room. “Banela and I try to be honest with the children. We try to educate them in the way things are so that they are hardened to the prejudices that they will encounter when they are older.”
“I understand,” Belihn said and swallowed. “It is just shameful that children can’t have fantasies because reality is so much more bitter.”
“It has always been so for us commoners,” Ryeo’h stated and indicated the sitting area. “Have a seat, Belihn, please.”
They all sat down, with the exception of Ryeo’h. He went to the sideboard and poured libations into glasses.
“Irai’h told me you resigned from the army,” Ryeo’h said over his shoulder.
Belihn shifted. “Yes. Father and I got into an argument and I resigned.”
Ryeo’h turned around hand handed glasses around. He gave Belihn his last.
“Thank you,” Belihn murmured and sipped his liqueur.
Ryeo’h took a seat across from Belihn. “What was the argument about?”
“My father has changed the face of the Draemin’s armed forces. The armed forces are now around 49 percent mercenary. I predict that, within a handful of years, mercenaries will make up the majority of his troops. There is no loyalty to a mercenary, other than his pocket. My father’s position grows more and more precarious as the years pass. Discontent among soldiers is at an all-time high. The common people have been lied to and they do not feel as loyal to father as when he became king and promised to reform the caste system. He does nothing, all because he fears civil war. Civil war is inevitable. It comes, whether he wants it to or not.”
Ryeo’h crossed his legs and sat back. “In that we are in accord, I’m afraid. I don’t think civil war will hit us yet, because the nouveau riche and business owners have done well under your father, but the common soldier actually fares worse now than he did under the old king. When your father became king, all the insecurities of the clans came to the fore. The tightening of caste laws comes as a direct result that the king is only half-Torahni, an atoliy, and a liberal.”
Irai’h watched as Belihn sipped his drink and wondered when the drugs would take effect.
Belihn sighed. “Perhaps father should never have become king.”
“He was the natural choice,” Ryeo’h told him. “He was Warlord and the most powerful man after the king.”
“If grandfather had not gone mad,” Belihn murmured. “How would things be today?”
“That is of no consequence,” Ryeo’h replied. “We should concentrate on how things are right now and how we may make things better.”
They talked of other things for a time then Irai’h noticed Belihn had grown flushed and was perspiring. The young Captain pulled on the stiff collar of his uniform coat.
“It’s warm in here,” Belihn announced.
Irai’h and Ryeo’h gazed at one another.
“Why don’t you remove your over coat?” Ryeo’h asked him. “No need to be formal around us.”
Belihn rose and grinned. “You are right of course. This coat is warm, too.”
Belihn removed his coat and draped it along the back of his armchair and sat down again. “I wouldn’t mind another drink, Ryeo’h.”
As Ryeo’h rose, the butler stepped into the sitting room and bowed. “Dinner is ready, sir.”
Ryeo’h nodded. “You may serve, Shen.”
“Very good, sir. Right away.”
Ryeo’h poured Belihn another measure of liqueur then they convened in the diningroom.
They were served platters of roasted dosi with thick cuts of turies in aromatic spices. There was a salad of bitter greens with a sweet citrus dressing, fresh bread with freshly churned butter and lounma fruit preserve. They were served and they sat around laughing and conversing. Irai’h kept an eye on Belihn for his reactions to the drugs.
By the time the had finished their meal, Belihn’s pupils were blown and he was speaking rather loudly, like he was drunk. Perhaps that was due to mixing alcohol with the ishae and ithol.
Ryeo’h waited until the servants had taken away the platters, then rose and dismissed the servants for the evening.
They returned to the sitting room, and Ryeo’h closed the sliding doors for more privacy.
“Have you heard of the Reformist Lord, Belihn?” Ryeo’h asked suddenly.
Belihn chuckled. “I was supposed to ferret him out, but now I want to meet him. He and I have the same goal, after all.”
“You were supposed to ferret the Reformist Lord out?” Irai’h asked. “What do you mean?”
“The argument I had with my father–the first argument–was a lie meant to lure the Reformist Lord to me, but that didn’t work,” Belihn said, wiping his forehead with a shaking hand. “I drank too much, I think.”
“The Reformist Lord never contacted you?” Ryeo’h asked.
Belihn shook his head. “No. And now I’ve actually argued with my father and I want to meet the Reformist Lord. Not to trap him, but to join him.”
“You speak treason,” Ryeo’h silkily stated into the sudden hush.
“I know,” Belihn said and shrugged. “I expect to be arrested any day, actually. I love my father, but I don’t admire him any longer. I feel no loyalty to a government that treats its defenders so abysmally. And I won’t stay quiet about it.”
“What if I tell you that you could be an asset to the Reformist Lord?” Ryeo’h asked.
Belihn started. “You know him?”
“Let’s just say we run in similar circles,” Ryeo’h said. “He has spoken to me about you, actually. You could be an asset to him as a mercenary, especially if you remain here, in Draemin City-State. As a mercenary.”
Belihn leaned forward. “I can’t stay here. I have to move my family overseas. When civil war comes, I don’t want my family caught up in its throes. The clans would love nothing more than to murder my mother and her progeny because of our common blood.”
Ryeo’h nodded. “You can send your family away, your Highness. But you must remain. Change will come within the decade. Of that I am sure.”
“How do you know?” Belihn challenged.
“How indeed? I hear things, your Highness. The discontented murmurs of the business community who get unequally taxed to pay for your father’s foreign troops. The wealthy commoners bear most of the burden, by way of higher taxes. Yes, the nouveau riche has done well under your father, but that is quickly changing. Your father employs one of the most expensive armies in the world, certainly the most expensive in North Torahn. And most of those soldiers will soon be mercenaries. The window of revolution is within ten years, mark my words.”
Belihn swallowed thickly. “Ten years.” He gazed pleadingly at Ryeo’h. “I want to be on the right side of history, Ryeo’h. I want to be an agent of change for the better, for the people.”
Ryeo’h nodded. “Then you must remain here. You must help disperse discontent and you must learn how to harness the loyalty of the remaining North Torahni troops. If you swear loyalty to the Reformist Lord, then I myself will teach you what you need to know. Think of it, Belihn Tjashensi. Within ten years, Draemin City-State will lead the way to reform North Torahn.”
Belihn stood and lurched.
Ryeo’h steadied him. “Careful.”
“I drank too much,” Belihn stated uselessly. “I want to join the cause of the Reformist Lord.”
“Then you shall,” Ryeo’h told him. “I will teach you. Once you are a mercenary, you must come to me once a week for your lesson.”
“Will I ever meet the Reformist Lord?” Belihn asked.
Ryeo’h assisted him to sit once more. “Perhaps, in the future.”
Belihn gazed up at Ryeo’h. “Do you think we can win?”
“There is a good chance,” Ryeo’h replied honestly. “It is with the Goddess, of course, but she is a Goddess of Justice after all.”
“Yes,” Belihn agreed.
Ryeo’h strode to the sideboard and poured a glass of cool water, handing it to Belihn afterward.
Belihn drained the glass without preamble. “Thank you.”
Ryeo’h nodded. “I know you still have loyalty to your clan, Belihn, but the future is open. We must make Draemin City-State and North Torahn a place where all men are equal.”
Belihn nodded. “I agree. I am loyal to the Tjashensi Clan, to a point. Know that they are not necessarily loyal to me. My half-brothers and half-sisters are of royal blood and they deem themselves better than I. We have always had a strained relationship with them. I certainly am not accepted by any Queen, save my mother. So my loyalty is tempered by the reality of how things are.”
Ryeo’h started pacing slowly. “Once civil war paves the way, you may well be King or your mother Queen. Sole Queen. Wouldn’t that be something, the first commoner Queen?”
Belihn opened his mouth then closed it with a click. “I had not thought of that. I don’t want to be king and I am sure neither does my mother wish to rule.”
“You might have to, regardless of you desires,” Ryeo’h rejoined. “None of your royal siblings would bring us cleansing changes. Only you, your siblings or your mother.”
Belihn grew very still. “What if commoners win? What will happen to my father’s other wives and children?”
Ryeo’h shrugged. “I will do my utmost to protect them, of course. But they would have to be exiled from North Torahn.”
Belihn sighed. “Yes, of course. I expected exile would be necessary.”
Ryeo’h met Irai’h’s gaze and lifted an eyebrow.
Irai’h swallowed thickly. They had spoken of this before. It would be impractical to allow any of the Tjashensis to live once the civil war deposed the king. The Tjashensis had too many connections to foreign governments, too much wealth and too much greed. The king’s children had always battled at court for ascendency, each grappling to become his or her father’s heir. All of them, except Queen Divita and her children. In Irai’h’s mind, the idea of killing an entire clan made him sick, but he was a practical man, too. For the sake of the commoner, the clans should be wiped from the world.
Belihn groaned and closed his eyes. “I can’t go back to the castle like this.”
“I have a guest room ready for you, your Highness,” Ryeo’h murmured. “I shall wake you early.”
“Thank you,” Belihn said.
He rose onto shaky legs and Irai’h rose with him.
“Which bedroom?” Irai’h asked Ryeo’h.
“The blue one,” Ryeo’h replied and watched as his colleague assisted the prince out of the sitting room and up the stairs.
When Irai’h had settled Belihn in bed, having removed his boots and watched until the prince’s breathing became eve, he returned to the sitting room.
“He’s asleep?” Ryeo’h asked.
Ryeo’h nodded and began to pace once more. “We have our figure heads. We can rally the troops to protect and back Queen Divita and Belihn. We can stir loyalty and devotion into their breasts, making Queen Divita and Prince Belihn the torch flames leading them into the darkness of the future. Once the rest of the Tjashensi Clan, including the King, are wiped from the earth, then we shall have our commoner queen.”
“I wish we didn’t have to stain our hands with the blood of an entire clan,” Irai’h whispered.
Ryeo’h cocked his head. “Perhaps we’ll spare the youngest of them. But the Queens can’t be spared and neither can the king or his dog, the Prei-Serren. We will clean house.”
Irai’h shivered as if he were in the grip of a fever. He watched as his friend squared his shoulders and strode towards his den, mind always planning for foreseen and unforeseen events.