Chapter III: Slow Unraveling

            Irai’h Asjur watched as Ryeo’h paced.  He knew better than to show impatience; Ryeo’h did everything in his own time.

            “So, he’s no longer in the armed forces?” Aosji blurted out.

            Ryeo’h threw him a glare and said nothing as he continued to pace.

            Aosji looked helplessly at I’a’sji then at Irai’h.  Irai’h smirked, but remained close mouthed.

            “Our prince has been exiled from his clan,” Ryeo’h murmured at length.  “And now he is a secretary for the honorable Ambassador Kalthos Torim Tah’duk’h.  Belihn has even taken an Yllysian surname, Ekesj.  The Ambassador has sent a missive to the head of the Ekesj clan to get their approval.”

            “But why did he resign the army?” I’a’sji prompted.

            Ryeo’h shook his head.  “He would have been shipped out of Draemin City.  I need him here and he knows it.”

            Aosji shifted in his chair and leaned forward.  “Will he be welcomed in South Torahn for his cousin’s marriage?”

            Ryeo’h shrugged.  “I have not had the chance to talk with Belihn.  He is coming here around midday.  I’ll ask him then.”

            Irai’h sighed and sat back in his chair.  He could not shake the joy that thrummed through his body at the thought of Belihn here, in Draemin City-State.  Perhaps they would end up lovers anyway.

            He watched as Ryeo’h continued to pace.  

            “We are ready,” Ryeo’h said.  “I have purchased cabins on a ship and have wrangled an invitation for Irai’h to attend the wedding in South Torahn.  Belihn will join him and myself, of course.”

            “And what are I’a’sji and I supposed to do while you are gone?” Aosji demanded.

            Ryeo’h sighed.  “Keep working on subverting the King’s authority by spreading rumors and discontent among soldiers and citizens.  Keep printing the paper and dispersing it among the citizenry.  Just keep a low profile; we don’t want Warlord Bhar Obeli to sniff you out.  I will contact our operatives in the other city-states and apprise them of our situation.  Until I return from City Lae, I will be incommunicado.”  Ryeo’h looked at I’a’sji.  “I am placing you in authority until I return, I’a’sji.  Don’t let me down.”

            I’a’sji wiped his hand over his mouth.  “Ryeo’h–“

            “I need you both to step up!” Ryeo’h snapped.  “If I could leave Irai’h here in charge, I would, but he is our safe cracker, for the love of the Goddess!”

            I’a’sji squared his shoulders.  “I won’t let you down.”

            “See that you don’t,” Ryeo’h spat and shook his head.  “Go on; get out of here.  Not you, Irai’h.”

            Irai’h watched as his friends shuffled out of Ryeo’h’s office and back to work.

            Ryeo’h sighed and shook his head.  “I am terrified that if I leave these two here, everything will come tumbling down over our heads!”

            Irai’h rose.  “They won’t let you down, Ryeo’h.  They idolize you.”

            “They aren’t very prudent or reasonable,” Ryeo’h murmured and rubbed his forehead.  “Goddess! I should have chosen more wisely!”

            Irai’h took a step forward.  “All will be well; you’ll see.  Besides, you might want to bring an operative here to take over while we are gone.  There is still time for a journey before our departure.”

            Ryeo’h started.  “You’re right, of course!  Why didn’t I think of that!”

            Irai’h smiled and shrugged.  “Your mind is embroiled on ten thousand things, Ryeo’h.”

            “Whom would you suggest?” Ryeo’h asked.

            Irai’h thought for a moment.  “How about Rien Ethael?”

            “Commander Ethael’s nephew?”

            “Yes,” Irai’h said.  “He is intelligent, if young.  And he keeps his head under pressure.”

            “He’s all of twenty-one,” Ryeo’h said with a measure of uncertainty.

            Irai’h rolled his eyes.  “And I’m twenty-three and you twenty-five!”

            Ryeo’h huffed a laugh.  “You are correct, of course.  Besides, he can hide the reason for his true visit by stating he wants to see his uncle.”

            “Precisely,” Irai’h agreed.

            Ryeo’h clapped him on the shoulder.  “Brilliant!  I’ll send a missive to him at once via carrier vinah.”

            Irai’h returned to his desk and sat down.  He looked towards Aosji and I’a’sji’s desks, but his friends were immersed in their work, their faces smoothed by concentration.  He turned his eyes to his own work, although it was boring work at that.  Perhaps he would enroll in university.  The chances of coming across Belihn at campus would be greater.  But what to study?  He shrugged and rifled through the messy piles of papers on his desk.  He decided to tackle the manifests from the many merchant ships that belonged to Ryeo’h’s firm.  Comparing what he had ordered to what actually had arrived would take him most of the day. With a sigh, he focused on the work on hand and pushed all thoughts of Belihn from his mind.  

            At midday or soon thereafter, the front door of the firm opened, the bell attached to the door tinkling merrily.

            Irai’h glanced up and paused.  It was strange to see Belihn in civilian clothes but that did not deter from his beauty in the least.  Today he wore a dark blue tunic with silver thread over black trousers.  Belihn wore a high necked inner tunic of light blue and a thick dark blue cloak that was almost black.  The cloak was fastened at the collarbone with a silver brooch.  Belihn wore his trouser legs tucked into glossy knee-high boots like the soldier he would aways be inside.

            Irai’h rose.  “Belihn!  Welcome.”

            Belihn grinned and strode to Irai’h’s desk.  “Hallo, Irai’h.”

            They gripped forearms.

            “Have you come to see Ryeo’h?” Irai’h asked.

            Belihn nodded.  “He asked me to come here to see him.”

            “Come with me then,” Irai’h replied.  “He is expecting you.”

            Irai’h led Belihn to Ryeo’h’s office door and knocked.  

            “Come!” Ryeo’h called from inside.

            Irai’h opened the door and led Belihn inside.

            Ryeo’h grinned.  “Belihn! Welcome.  Have a seat; you, too, Irai’h.  Close the door, will you?”

            Irai’h did as he was bid and took a seat in the chair next to Belihn’s.

            Ryeo’h ran his gaze over Belihn.  “You look good in civilian clothes.  How are you adapting to civilian life?”

            “It is definitely hard for me,” Belihn replied.  “I feel rudderless.  The army is all I’ve ever known, since I was a young lad.”

            Ryeo’h nodded.  “You have my sympathies, but you will adapt.”  Ryeo’h rose and strode to the sideboard, where he poured mi’disj into three glasses.  He turned and returned to the desk, handing first Belihn then Irai’h a glass of the liqueur.  “Tell us, Belihn.  Are you still welcome in South Torahn?”

            Belihn sighed.  “I don’t know.  I did receive an invitation, but word of my fall has not reached that far south as yet, I don’t think.”

            “We are going to proceed as if it does not matter to your paternal grandfather that you have been exiled from the Tjashensi clan.  I’ve secured Irai’h here an invite as well.”

            Belihn nodded.  “And you, Ryeo’h?”

            “Irai’h is an aristocrat, and you are, too, for all intended purposes. I am not.  My role will be different.”

            “I see.  And why are we going to South Torahn to attend a wedding?” Belihn asked.

            Ryeo’h and Irai’h exchanged a brief glance.

            Ryeo’h sighed.  “We are on a mission from the Reformist Lord.  That is all you need to know.”

            “So, you mean to steal from my grandfather?” Belihn asked.

            “A civil war has to be funded,” Ryeo’h replied smoothly.  “It does not happen in a vacuum.”

            “No, I suppose not,” Belihn stated quietly.  “Am I ever to meet the Reformist Lord?”

            “On the eve of the Civil War,” Ryeo’h replied.  “I promise I will introduce you.”

            “And the Reformist Lord, will he be at the wedding?”

            “That I do not know, Belihn,” Ryeo’h smoothly lied.  

            Irai’h was disconcerted and amazed at how good Ryeo’h was at lying.

            Belihn sighed.  “You know, the Yllysian Ambassador has promised to intervene during the civil war on our behalf.”

            Ryeo’h smiled.  “I know.  Worry naught, Belihn.  All is in good hands.”

            “I am getting to know this,” Belihn assured him and grinned.  He stood.  “In a way, I am glad the wedding ball will be masked.  I don’t think I will be welcomed by my grandfather.”

            Ryeo’h cocked his head.  “I suppose not, for the sake of the treaty between north and south.”

            “It matters not,” Belihn pronounced.  “I have an invite. That’s all that matters.”

            Ryeo’h clasped his hand.  “You are correct.  I’ll spring for your outfit, Belihn.  I know you can’t afford opulence at a secretary’s wages.”

            Belihn blushed.  “Thank you, Ryeo’h.”

            “Of course.  Think nothing of it.”

            They escorted Belihn to the front office.

            “Would you like to have lunch with me?” Ryeo’h asked.

            Belihn smiled.  “That would be good.  I’m positively famished!”

            Ryeo’h returned his grin.  “Then come.  You, too, Irai’h.”

***

            Belihn’s row house apartment was located three blocks from Ryeo’h’s house.  It was a space made up of four rooms:  a kitchen, a sitting room, a bedroom, and a bathing chamber.  The apartment was located on the bottom floor of the row house and had access to a small plot of land out back with a whitewashed wooden fence demarcating it from his neighbors.  There was a water pump outside next to the kitchen door and a small area where the previous renter had grown turies and other root vegetables.  There was even a bala berry bush full of fat ripe berries that he picked on his first day in the apartment.  The apartment came with scuffed furniture, including a wide bed with worn bedclothes, and the kitchen was full of plates, utensils, glasses, and pots and pans.  The wood stove had an old basket half-filled with pieces of wood and a smaller basket full of ca’ahl stones.  

            His first day in his apartment, Belihn walked the five blocks to the open air market and purchased two loaves of fresh bread, a pot of freshly churned butter, fruit preserves, some salted, spicy dosi meat, and a bag full of turies.  He also purchased spices, honey and salt, and tea.  He hauled his goods back home and then sat around in the sitting room listening to the deep silence with a growing sense of distress.  He wouldn’t start at university until the following week, and he would not start at the embassy until then as well.  The rest of his week stretched out before him like a maw waiting to swallow him whole.

            He stood up and began pacing.  The sitting room was fairly large and would double as Alona’s painting studio.  He had looked into renting larger spaces, but he could not afford it.  His inheritance was locked up until he turned thirty years of age and he would be earning a modest salary that would be just enough to pay the rent and provide food for himself and his wife.  They wouldn’t be able to pay for servants.  Would that be a tiebreaker for Alona?  He wondered if Mister Oh’nahry would end their betrothal now that Belihn had been exiled from his clan.

            With a sigh, he pulled on his cloak and left his apartment, locking the front door behind him.  He walked down the street to where the public conveyance stopped on the hour.  Belihn could not afford a bahil, so he had left Eiwor at the stables at Castle Draemin.  He could afford the three tin’sol’hs it cost to ride a public carriage to visit his fiancee.  The Oh’nahrys lived several miles west.  Belihn did not have the patience to walk there; he needed to know, and soon, whether he could marry Alona.  He felt a responsibility towards her; she was atoliy, like him, and a talented artist in her own right.  If she married another man, what would become of her?

            The public carriage rolled up almost an hour later and Belihn had to share the conveyance with an older matron and two young girls who kept looking at him from behind their fingers and giggling.  He smiled at their antics.  The matron gazed steadily out of the window and ignored the girls and Belihn.  Soon thereafter, the matron pulled the string, thus signalling that she wanted the conveyance to stop.  The public carriage came to a rolling stop and the older woman and two girls stepped down, closing the door and enclosing Belihn in the silence that had been haunting him all day.  

            Belihn had to put up with the silence only for a brief time, however.  Soon the conveyance was rolling into the nouveau riche neighborhoods and he pulled on the string and got off two blocks later to walk up the hill to the Oh’nahry residence.  The gate of the Oh’nahry residence was unlocked, so he opened the gate door and stepped onto the half moon cobblestone drive, closing the gate behind him.  By the time he reached the three cobblestone steps leading up to the front door, the butler was standing under the doorjamb, awaiting him.

            “May I be of service, Sir?” the butler asked.

            “I am here to see Miss Alona,” Belihn said.

            The butler started.  “Oh, I’m sorry, Captain.  I didn’t recognize you without your uniform.”

            “That’s alright.  Is Miss Alona in?”

            The butler bowed.  “She is, Sir. Come into the foyer and I will fetch her for you.”

            “Thank you,” Belihn murmured and stepped inside.

            The butler closed the front door and hurried away while Belihn commenced pacing.

            “Belihn!”

            He turned and smiled.  “Hallo, Alona.”

            She took his arm right away and led him into the sitting room.  

            “Father came home yesterday upset and said you have been exiled from your clan,” she said without preamble.  “Is that true?”

            He sighed.  “Yes.  I argued with my sire again and had to resign from the army.  But your father needn’t concern himself, I have employment and a place for us to live.”

            She urged him to sit and took his cloak, draping it over the back of the nearest armchair.

            She sat next to him.  “He was angry, father was.  He was counting on a direct connection to the King; for business purposes, he said.”

            He felt his heart give a sickening lurch.  “I see.”

            “He went to see your mother yesterday,” Alona continued and wrung her hands.  “When he returned, he was subdued and went up to his study without speaking a word to anyone.  I’ve never seen him quite like that, Belihn.  He wouldn’t even talk to mother or to my brothers.  That’s not like him at all.”

            “Has he said ought else?” Belihn asked.  “Is the betrothal done?”

            She shook her head.  “None of us know.”

            “Is he here?”

            She shook her head again.  “He’s in town, at the business.”

            He rose and picked up the cloak.  “Then I’d best go and speak with him posthaste.”

            “What will you say to him?” she asked, rising from her seat.

            “I’m not sure, to be honest,” he replied and walked with her to the front door.

            She sighed.  “Please talk sense into him, Belihn.  Surely, an alliance between our families would still be beneficial.”

            He grimaced.  “Of that I am not sure, Alona.  I am nothing but a lowly secretary at the Yllysian Embassy.  I have enrolled at university to take diplomatic courses.  I won’t be much more than a secretary for at least two years.”

            She took his hands in hers.  “I don’t care about any of that, Belihn!  Our marriage is convenient to you and me.  That’s all that should matter!”

            “But if your Eda decides to betroth you to someone else?”

            She swallowed. “I don’t know what I’ll do.”

            He leaned towards her and lowered his voice.  “There is always elopement, Alona.”

            She gasped.  “He’ll disown me!”

            He patted her hand.  “I would be open to elopement, Alona, but if you would rather have your inheritance, I understand.  I’ll let you think on it.  Excuse me.”

            He turned and strode through the open front door and out into the cool midafternoon, feeling as lonesome as he had ever felt in his life.

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