Belihn groaned and turned onto his back. His head was pounding and his throat felt raw and his joints ached. Looking around the room, he frowned. Where was he? The room was handsome but unknown to him. Thick dark blue curtains covered the windows and the canopied bed. Everything in the room was a shade of blue. A single candle in its holder on the bedside table nearest Belihn gave a weak, buttery light. With another groan, Belihn rolled to a sitting pose and swung his legs over the side of the bed. His head spun and his stomach gave a lurch of complaint. He closed his eyes and forced the sickness down. Rising, he went to the window and pulled the curtains back. Rain spattered the thick panes. The window gazed down onto a manicured lawn with decorative bushes and flower gardens. After a few minutes, he turned back to the room.
He went to the first door he saw and found a washroom. Going to the waste bucket, he emptied his aching bladder with a sigh. The strong, pungent stream of urine hit the side of the large bucket and slid down. Afterward, he went to the washbasin, which was full of fresh, cold water, and he splashed his face and rinsed his mouth. Making his way back to the bedroom, he dressed in his uniform, pulling his gleaming knee-high boots on last. Returning to the bathing chamber, he found a brush and combed and braided his hair before abandoning the bathing chamber and making his way to the hallway.
The butler stood just outside the bathing room door.
He bowed to Belihn. “Good morning, Captain Tjashensi. Mister Ryeo’h was wanting me to let you know he is in the dining room breaking his fast.”
“Thank you, Shen,” Belihn murmured and followed the tall butler down the hall and to the stairwell.
The dining room was beyond the sitting room, through a modest archway.
Belihn paused under the archway. Ryeo’h’s entire family was there. It was a noisy affair, with children talking loudly over each other. Belihn closed his eyes against the pounding in his head.
“Are you alright?” Ryeo’h asked.
Belihn swallowed thickly and opened his eyes.
Ryeo’h had left his chair and was now standing next to Belihn. He was gazing at Belihn with a worried frown.
Belihn nodded. “Have a headache, is all.”
“Come and sit and break your fast,” Ryeo’h recommended and took Belihn’s arm. “I have a great remedy for a hangover.”
“How much did I drink last night?” Belihn asked. “I don’t recall much.”
“Let’s say you did yourself proud,” Ryeo’h replied with a huff of laughter. “Sit.”
Belihn sat down amidst the sudden hush that had fallen over the gathering.
The children watched him with wide eyed curiosity.
“You look pale, Captain,” Banela Thalnel commented dryly while a servant poured tea into a cup for Belihn.
Belihn thanked the servant. “Yes. Most unfortunate for me, my insides feel just as bad as my outsides look.”
Ryeo’h set a tall glass in front of Belihn. The thick liquid in the glass was rose colored and dotted with spices.
“Drink it slowly,” Ryeo’h recommended. “It’s made of spices and herbs to relieve your discomfort.”
Belihn picked up the glass and sniffed it then brought it to his lips and tasted it. It was oily and sweet and burning with spices. He choked but managed to swallow it. He almost gagged. He took another swallow and set the glass to one side before picking up the cup of black mjish tea. Around him, the family began to converse again while he miserably concentrated on drinking both the tea and the remedy. When he was done, Ryeo’h placed a tall glass of water before him and he dutifully emptied that, too.
Sjaji smiled at Belihn. “Ryeo’h was telling us that you have resigned from the army, Captain?”
Belihn sat back into the hard backed chair. “Yes, ma’am. I am going this morning to sign up with the Tjish.unen army as a mercenary.”
The young woman frowned. “Why?”
Belihn shrugged. “I’m making a point to the King. I can’t rise much higher in our army, but there is nothing stopping me from climbing the ranks of the Tjish.unen army.”
She cocked her head. “I have heard that commoners can’t rise the ranks of the armed forces past the rank of lieutenant. It seems horribly unfair to me. But you’re a prince.”
“A half-blood,” Belihn told her. “Half-commoner. It taints my blood, in the point of view of many aristocrats.”
She shifted. “How sad and unfair.”
He shrugged. “It is what it is, but I think we can change things.”
Ryeo’h rose. “That’s enough talk of politics with women. Are you done with your breakfasts?”
Banela and Sjaji dutifully rose from their chairs. Bidding good day to Belihn, they led the children from the dining room.
Ryeo’h looked at Belihn. “Do you want something to eat?”
Belihn grimaced. “I couldn’t keep it down.”
“Then come to my office,” Ryeo’h said and rose. “It is just across the hall.”
Once ensconced in the office with the door securely closed, Ryeo’h walked around his desk and sat behind it while Belihn sat down in an armchair facing the large, neatly appointed desk.
Ryeo’h set his forearms on the glossy desktop. “Do you recall any of our conversation from last night?
Belihn frowned. “Just pieces of it.”
“You spoke of the Reformist Lord and joining his ranks,” Ryeo’h stated without preamble.
Belihn flushed hotly. “Ah…speaking treason again.”
“I told you I run in the same circles as the Reformist Lord. I offered to train you to join his ranks as a spy.” Ryeo’h sat back. “Were you toying with me when you said you would like to join him?”
Belihn sighed. “No. I wasn’t toying with you. What would I be required to do, as a spy?”
“Anything you are bid do,” Ryeo’h replied. “But you must live here, in Draemin City-State. You expressed worry for your family, for their safety. You can’t spy against the government in some other city or nation. As I said to you last night, civil war is maybe ten years away, maybe sooner. You can move your family to another nation, but you must remain here.”
“I no longer have the ear of the King,” Belihn murmured. “What good can I do?”
“Plenty,” Ryeo’h assured him. “If you accept.”
Belihn rubbed his forehead with a cool hand. “What is your role in all of this? Do you just train spies?”
Ryeo’h’s smile did not reach his eyes. “That’s between me and the Reformist Lord. The less you know, the safer all of us will be. All you need know is that I am not involved in the actual thefts. Now, do you accept?”
“I accept. I have little choice, if I want to be on the right side of history,” Belihn replied and rose from him seat. “I will go and sign up with the Tjish.unen army now.”
Ryeo’h rose as well. “Then you must come here again in two days’ time. We’ve much to discuss.”
They clasped hands over the desk and Belihn took his leave.
Outside, the rain had stopped, but everything was slick with moisture. Belihn went to the city mews to get his bahil. After paying the stable boy the required coins, he led his mount into the slick street. The Diplomatic District was three sepeks from where Ryeo’h lived. He mounted Eower, his bahil, and directed the animal north along the side street.
The Tjish.unen Embassy was located in the Diplomatic District near the docks. The buildings here were all three and four story brick houses with decorative gardens and black iron gates. There were embassies from all nations that had an alliance with Draemin City-State, but there were also embassies from nations that did not have formal alliances with the city. Yllysia had an embassy here and her relationship with North Torahni city-states had always been strained. One could tell by the number of guards monitoring the premises of the Yllysian Embassy just how strained the two nations’ relationship was.
The Tjish.unen Embassy, several yards north from the Yllysian, was made of blond bricks. Its relaxed grounds was testament to the fact that Tjish.un was the strongest ally to all the North Torahni city-states.
Belihn walked up the three brick steps to the front door and then into the marbled foyer.
A guard in the green Tjish.unen uniform bowed to Belihn. “How may I be of assistance, Captain?”
“I’d like to speak to the Ambassador,” Belihn replied. “I am Captain Belihn Tjashensi.”
The guard bowed. “I will inform the Ambassador that you are here. Please have a seat, Captain.”
While the guard went to announce him, Belihn looked around the foyer. The walls were painted a light yellow and mustard throw rugs decorated the floors. The armchairs lining the walls of the foyer were of a light color and Belihn wondered what type of wood they were made from. The cushioned seats of the chairs were cream with flowers etched from gold thread.
The man before Belihn bowed. “I am the Tjish.unen Ambassador to Draemin City-State, Aldhor Thalmar.”
The Ambassador was a true scion of the House of Thalmar. He was tall and slender, with copper colored hair and bright yellow-green eyes. He was handsome, with even features and a generous mouth.
Belihn saluted. “A pleasure to meet you, Ambassador.”
They clasped forearms.
“The pleasure is mine,” the Ambassador murmured. “Please come into my office.”
The Ambassador’s office was expansive, with a desk made of light wood, like the chairs in the foyer. The wood had prominent markings in whorls and circles. It had a gleaming finish. The desktop was neat, with stacks of papers and scrolls, two large inkwells and a series of pens lined in a row. There were bookshelves carved into the wooden walls. The bookshelves were filled with thick tomes and scrolls behind glass. The lettering on the tomes were in the Common Tongue, and Belihn read titles having to do with diplomacy, history, and politics.
“Have a seat, Captain,” the Ambassador said.
Belihn sat down.
“What can I do for you, Captain?”
Belihn cleared his throat. “I have come to join your army as a mercenary.”
The Ambassador cocked his head. “Really? Why?”
“I disagree with how the King pays the common soldier and how the common soldier is prohibited from rising above the rank of lieutenant.”
The Ambassador sat down. “I see. I’ll be frank with you, Captain. Warlord Bhar Obeli came to me yesterday and told me you might be sniffing around for a post. I was given the directive that you are not to be allowed to join our troops. I’m sorry but I can’t insult the King by accepting you into the ranks of our soldiers.”
Belihn swallowed down the anger that swiftly rose in him. He stood up so fast, the feet of the chair scraped the floor. “I see. I should have known.”
The Ambassador rose. “I’m sorry. I’m sure the Warlord has had a word with all the Embassies in the Diplomatic District.”
Belihn pushed down the resentment that threatened to blind him. Without further preamble, he turned on his heels and strode from the room. He made it outside without realizing he had done so. Once in the front yard of the embassy, he stopped and took a deep, bracing breath. The depth of the disappointment and rage that filled him left him breathless. Before realizing what he was doing, he stalked down the sidewalk until he came to the Yllysian Embassy. Getting into this embassy proved a bit harder. He had to show his papers and was made to wait in the somber, subdued foyer for several minutes, a guard keeping watch over him. While the second guard went to see if the Ambassador was free to see him, Belihn paced, impatient and angry.
The second guard returned and bowed to Belihn. “His Excellency will see you now, Captain. Please follow me.”
Belihn followed the guard down a long hallway built from dark brown ei’shano wood. Paintings of what Belihn could only assume were landscapes from Yllysia filled the walls with icy and snow swept vistas.
The guard led him to an open door. He bowed. “Please enter, sir.”
Belihn entered the outer office and paused when he saw the young diplomat.
“I am Neth Oronom Shejl, the Ambassador’s assistant. The Ambassador is expecting you. Please follow me.”
Belihn entered the inner office and bowed to the ambassador on the other side of the modest desk.
Like all Yllysians, the Ambassador had blue-tinged skin. Yllysian women, when pregnant, imbibed ilishna, an herb that turned the skin blue and bleached the hair a pale eggshell color. The Ambassador’s skin was pale blue with hair that was just touched with gold. His eyes were light blue. His even features and full lips were handsome. He wore his hair in two thick braids down his back.
“I am Ambassador Kalthos Torim Tah’duk’h,” the diplomat stated without preamble. “To what do I owe your visit, Captain?”
Belihn recalled that Yllysian names were comprised of the city they were born in, their clan affiliation and, finally, their proper name. So, upon hearing the Ambassador’s name, Belihn knew the man had been born in Kalthos City, came from a clan with the name of Torim, and his given name was Tah’duk’h.
“May I sit, Ambassador Torim?” Belihn asked.
The man blinked and indicated the armchair. “Yes. Please sit.”
Belihn waited until the Ambassador took his seat before stating his business.
“I am seeking to join a mercenary army,” he said.
The Ambassador sat back in his chair. “Yes, the Warlord came by, threatening me if I accepted your application.” The man snorted. “As if war with North Torahn would be so easily caused.” He raked his gaze over Belihn’s face. “You are the King’s son, are you not? One of his heirs?”
“I am the King’s son,” Belihn agreed. “Not his heir, for I am half-commoner.”
The Ambassador curled his upper lip. “Ah yes, the tiresome caste laws of this backward nation.”
Belihn stiffened but gave a short nod. “Just so.”
“And you want to join the Yllysian forces why?”
“I had a fight with my father, the King, over the caste laws,” he said. “I think he should abolish them and he wants to avoid civil war at all cost. I resigned from Draemin City-State’s army, but being a soldier is all I’ve ever done.”
“I see,” Ambassador Torim stated. “Draemin City-State is a powder keg, as are all the cities of North Torahn. All due to these outmoded caste laws. Your aristocracy taxes the commoners ruthlessly and without sense.” He gave Belihn a toothy smile that held no mirth or gentleness. “The entire nation will implode and we will bide our time. I will approach whomever rises from the ashes of your civil war as King and offer a lasting peace settlement and agreement. Tell me, Captain Tjashensi, why does North Torahn insist on keeping the Neutral Territory, when it so righteously belongs to Yllysia?”
“It is a matter of pride for North Torahn, your Excellency. We won it during one of the many Yllysian-Torahni wars that have marred our history. I, for one, think Isajhi should be returned to Yllysia as a gift.”
The Ambassador snorted, eyes flashing ire. “You would gift us what is ours by right?”
“As a measure of good feeling between us, for the hope of future peace. Yes, I would.”
The Ambassador held Belihn’s gaze for a few minutes before nodded.
“Am I wasting my time here, Ambassador?” Belihn asked. “Will you deny me becoming a mercenary for your nation?”
The Ambassador sat forward and placed his forearms on the desktop. “We have no formal treaty with Draemin City-State. I, for one, don’t believe the King would proclaim war on Yllysia if we take you on as a mercenary. When civil war comes, Yllysia will join the commoners with the might of our armies. If you promise to consider being made King, and you promise to return Isajhi to us, then I will accept your application as mercenary. Once you take the oath, your loyalties lie with my nation, not Draemin City-State or North Torahn.”
“I don’t want to be king.”
The Ambassador flashed his mirthless grin. “We all must do what we do not want at times. You can become a mercenary in the Yllysian army, if you agree to take up the scepter and orb of Draemin City-State when the time is ripe. You agree to this or you can leave my office right now.”
Belihn swallowed. “You promise to lend your forces to the common cause, for the rights of the common man?”
“You have my word,” the Ambassador stated.
Belihn rose. “Then I promise to rule Draemin City and return Isajhi to Yllysia, if we win the civil war.”
The Ambassador rose. “We’ll win.”
They clasped forearms.