Mister Oh’nahry owned a series of inns and taverns across North Torahn. Even though his main residence was in Kuin-on-the-H’aj, during most of the year Mister Oh’nahry oversaw his empire from a three-story brick building in the heart of the Business District near the wharves of Draemin City-State. Belihn knew the building well, for it was one of the more prominent structures, taking up near half a block and employing more than two hundred people. A large sign with red blocky letters pronounced the building “Oh’nahry’s.” Outside the building, Belihn took a deep, steadying breath before entering the expansive, gleaming foyer.
His heels clipped crisply as he walked over the dark gold and beige marble floor. Most of the foyer was empty, except for a line of padded chairs along a wall facing the bank of windows. A large eishano wood desk stood directly across the front door and, beside the greeter, two burly men with swords and dressed all in black stood behind the desk.
The greeter behind the desk rose and bowed. “May I assist you, sir?”
“Please let Mister Oh’nahry his daughter’s fiancee wishes to see him.”
The young man bowed again. “Of course, Sir. Right away.”
The two armed men watched him with bored expressions as Belihn paced before the desk.
Fairly soon, the young man returned. “Please follow me, sir. Mister Oh’nahry will see you in his private office.”
Belihn followed the secretary down a long hallway filled with polished wooden walls and the paintings of stern visaged commoners. A long red and green rug covered the narrow hallway floor.
Mister Oh’nahry’s office was at the end of the long hallway behind a wide square door with a gold plaque bearing his name and title.
The secretary bowed. “Please go in, sir.”
Inside there was an outer office with another secretary who stood primly behind his desk. The outer office gleamed with polished wooden walls and floors. Padded chairs lined walls filled with exquisite paintings of the city. The main source of light in the room was a window of modest size against the right-hand wall. It looked out into a busy side street. The other source of light, an oil lamp, sat on the secretary’s desk giving off a soft, buttery light.
“Mister Oh’nahry will see you, sir,” the secretary said and opened the door, stepping to one side to allow Belihn to enter the inner sanctum.
The inner office was plush with throw rugs and padded chairs. Nothing adorned the gleaming walls. Two large bookshelves lined the walls with tomes about business and law. Mister Oh’nahry’s large desk took up most of the office. A large window gazing out into an empty alleyway stood at his back.
Mister Oh’nahry stood behind his desk, hands clasped behind his back.
Belihn bowed. “Mister Oh’nahry. Thank you for seeing me.”
The older man nodded and indicated one of the padded chairs facing the desk. “Have a seat, please.”
Once Belihn was seated, Mister Oh’nahry followed suit, clasping his hands on the desktop and looking expectantly at Belihn.
“Much has happened to you since last we saw each other,” Mister Oh’nahry stated woodenly. “I strive to understand your intentions, sir, but I fear I cannot. Please explain to me why you would quit the army so precipitously. Why would you argue with the King to the point of being ousted from your clan?”
Belihn sighed. “I quit the army in protest over the salary paid to commoners. My father exiled me from Clan Tjashensi because I went to Yllysia to join as a mercenary.”
Mister Oh’nahry reeled back as if struck. “Yllysia, you say? But why? Why our ancient enemy?”
“Because the Warlord had gone to every embassy and demanded that I not be allowed into the ranks of their forces!”
Mister Oh’nahry released a breath and sat back. “I see. Well, I think I see.” He tapped the desktop with a nervous finger. “I went to see your mother. She assures me your inheritance is intact until you turn thirty. The King did not deny you that. Besides, your Mother says, most of the funds come from her father’s business, not your sire.”
“My sire has fifteen children, sir.”
Mister Oh’nahry waived a hand. “Yes, I know. But the King would be within his rights to confiscate your inheritance and he may anyway, given time and bitterness.”
“My father has a strong sense of honor, sir,” Belihn said.
The older man shook his head. “Yet you defy him. Why?”
“He made a promise to the common man when he took office. I’ll remind you, Mister Oh’nahry, that it was the common man’s backing that won my father his throne. Most of the army is made up of commoners.”
“Yes, yes. I am aware.”
Belihn sat back. “My father fears civil war with the clans. Civil war will come, whether he instigates it or not. People are tired of the caste laws, of the injustice of it all, sir. By my calculations, within ten years most of the forces in Draemin City-State will be made up of mercenaries, open to bribes and loyal only to themselves. These men weren’t born in North Torahn. To them, this is just a job. Most of our young men become conscripted to other armies because they can rise through the ranks and earn three or four times as much as they would here, at home. It’s shameful.”
Mister Oh’nahry sat back in his chair and swallowed. “I see you’ve given this much thought.”
“And what of Alona?” the older man prompted.
“I wish to marry her still, sir.”
“You can’t keep her in the manner I brought her up on a secretary’s salary! You wouldn’t be able to afford servants or the paints for her art.” Mister Oh’nahry rose and walked to the window. “She would resent you in the end, son.”
“We suit each other, sir,” Belihn said carefully. “I would take a second job somewhere, hire a woman to come into the apartment to clean once every other week.”
“Do you love my daughter, Belihn?”
Belihn rose and swallowed. “I am very fond of her, sir, and feel responsible for her.”
Mister Oh’nahry turned around. “Why?”
“I don’t know. I just do.”
Mister Oh’nahry clasped his hands behind his back. “I see.” He sighed. “I don’t want to let this betrothal go by the wayside, son. I would see my daughter happy and she has told me being married to you would make her happy. But she is young and naive. She has no concept of how hard life can be. So, I have a proposal for you.”
“I am listening, sir.”
“Come work for me, son. I would give you your own tavern or inn. You’d only have to run it.”
Belihn frowned. “I don’t know the first thing about running a business, Mister Oh’nahry.”
“That can be taught,” Mister Oh’nahry assured him.
Belihn rubbed a cold hand over his forehead. “Thank you, Sir. But no. I will get a second job somewhere. I assure you, I will take care of Alona.”
Mister Oh’nahry drew himself to his full height. “Then I cannot allow you to marry Alona. Now, you may leave. I wish to discuss this no further with you.”
“Either you leave now or I will have you escorted out, sir.”
Belihn sighed and turned on his heels, striding out the office blindly. Somehow he made it out to the street, although he was not sure how. He needed to contact his mother, but he would do so via missive, as he would not be allowed to approach her in person. He went to the post office, wrote a brief note and paid two kah’sol’hs to have a messenger run it to Castle Draemin. He told the messenger he would be across the street at the teashop for supper, awaiting the response. The messenger bowed and ran off to the public mews for a lirtah.
Belihn entered the teashop, ordered a teapot of mjish and a plate of cold meats, cheese, and bread. He settled in to wait for the return of the messenger.
King Kah’len sat quietly at his desk, reading a report from the Southern Front. It seemed the Isemi were acting up again, restless and gnawing at the bit for battle. Kah’len was required to send troops to fight the Isemi, just as all the city-states were. It would mean either leaving Draemin City dangerously undermanned, or increasing taxes to hire new troops. He sighed and set the report to one side. Warlord Bhar Obeli and Commander-General Rakah Ys’teis sat across from the desk, awaiting Kah’len’s pleasure.
“A new tax is not going to go over well,” Kah’len stated.
Warlord Bhar cocked his head. “It’s better to hire more troops than to leave the city-state with minimal protection.”
Kah’len sighed. “I can’t afford to put the burden of this tax solely on the commoner’s back.”
“Agreed,” Rakah murmured. “The clans have to pay their fair share.”
Kah’len looked away from his half-brother. There were rumblings of unrest over the entirety of the city. Warlord Bhar had confiscated thousands of pamphlets denouncing the king as a liar. The pamphlets had also called for an uprising.
“Our rule is precarious at best,” Kah’len told his friends. “If I send troops to the Front, my opponents might take the chance to attack.”
Rakah shifted in his seat. “You have an obligation to help out at the Front.”
Kah’len slapped the palm of his hand on the desk. “I know what my obligations are!” He looked at Bhar. “How is the investigation going to ferret my opposition?”
Bhar sighed. “We have arrested upward of twenty men, interrogated and tortured them. They do not know who the Reformist Lord is, my King. He keeps himself hidden in a thick web we cannot slice through. The only men we’ve been able to apprehend are low level men, responsible for distributing the reading material. My spies have uncovered nothing. Just when I get a tidbit of information, the Reformist Lord vanishes into his spider’s web.”
“Kah’len,” Rakah murmured. “It isn’t only the Reformist Lord you have to worry about. Disaffection is high in the army and navy.”
Kah’len glanced at his brother. “You tell me nothing new, Rakah. I make sure our mercenaries are paid well, but the sheer number of troops has come close to bankrupting my rule. And now the Isemi…” He rubbed his forehead. “Find Belihn, Bhar. I feel he knows more than he lets on. I want him interrogated and tortured, if need be.”
Bhar and Rakah shared a glance.
“Well?” Kah’len barked. “Am I mute?”
Bhar rose and bowed. “No, your Majesty. I will do as you ask.”
When the Warlord had left, Rakah turned to Kah’len. “This doesn’t sit well with me, my King. To torture your own kin–“
“He’s no kin to me!” the King roared. “He is a traitor. I will extract all there is in him. If he breaks, all the better. I need to secure my rule, no matter the consequences. I need you to obey me and back me up.”
Rakah rose and saluted. “I am with you, my King.”
King Kah’len stared balefully at his younger brother. “Then you will not question me again, understood?”
Rakah saluted. “Yes, my King.”
A man in drab colors hurried into Ryeo’h’s office.
Ryeo’h started. “What is it?”
The man removed his hat and wrung it. “Belihn Ekesj has been arrested.”
Ryeo’h stood. “What?”
“The word is the King means to torture and interrogate him.”
Ryeo’h paled. “Merciful Goddess! I need you to take a missive to the Yllysian Embassy posthaste.”
“Right away, Sir.”
Ambassador Torim Tah’duk’h read the note with a grim expression. When he was finished, he looked at his aide.
“It begins. The King is turning into a despot before our very eyes. He is going to interrogate and torture Belihn.”
Aide Neth Oronom took a step forward. “What do we need to do?”
Ambassador Torim sighed. “Nothing. If young Belihn dies, he will be a martyr to our cause.”
“But he was going to rule–“
The Ambassador waived a lazy hand. “There is still the commoner Queen and three siblings. No. We do nothing. We’ll wait and see where the chips fall.”
Aide Neth Oronom swallowed audibly. “Yes, sir.”