News reached the villa that an Yllysian armada was approaching the city from the northeast. The messenger told both Belihn and Divita that there were so many ships, they seem to spill to the very horizon. North Torahni ships made to intercept them, but they were hopelessly outnumbered.
Belihn cursed, worried about the resulting loss of life. It was a hopeless gesture, 53 ships against an armada. North Torahn had not engaged the Yllysians at sea in near 150 years. Their most recent battles had been fought on land, in Isajhi, ironically also known as the Neutral Territory. While his mother gave the messenger a few coins and told him to go to the kitchen for some refreshment, Belihn turned on his heels and strode down the hall towards his bedroom. He heard Divita follow him there.
“What are you going to do?” she demanded.
“I need to do something, Mother, before the Yllysians slaughter every soldier they encounter,” he replied absently as he took his travel bag from the wardrobe and began to stuff his clothes into it.
She put a hand on his arm. “The quarantine has not been lifted and you are still not fully recovered.”
He bent to pick up a fallen tunic and groaned at the pull of the scarred skin over his stomach. He continued to pack as she watched him worriedly.
“Belihn! I am speaking to you!”
He stopped with a sigh and turned to look at her. “I’m sorry, Aya. I know you are worried; so am I. I need to do this!”
She wrung her hands. “You can’t go alone into a battle!”
He shook his head. “I am not a soldier any longer. I probably won’t fight. I just have to go into the city to meet up with friends; that’s all, Aya. I promise.”
“But look at you,” she entreated. “You are pale, thin and haggard. You were tortured for days and it hasn’t been a fortnight!”
He placed his hands on her shoulders and gave her a gentle shake. “Please, Mother. If you love me, don’t get in my way.”
She took a step back, her face stoically smooth as she watched him finish packing then she followed him out into the front yard. He handed her the travel bag and went around the house to the stables in the backyard and saddled and bridled a lirtah. He walked the restive animal to the front yard. Handing her the reins, he took the travel bag, tied it securely to the saddle and put his foot in the stirrup, grimacing as he hauled himself onto the saddle.
She stepped closer to the mount and handed him the reins. She gave him an earnest, pleading look.
“Promise you’ll take care, Belihn, by all that is holy!” she entreated.
He reached down and cupped her face. “Take care of the siblings and Alona. Please.”
She nodded, eyes brimming with tears.
He sat back in the saddle and kicked his mount into a canter. Lirtah were more sturdy and tired less than bahil, so he gave his mount its head and it took off at a gallop down the paved road towards the city in the north. He rode low over the animal’s long, muscular neck, grunting as pain lanced over his chest. The empathic healers had healed most of the damage done to his hands, but the pain was still very real. Making a fist proved impossible, so he held the reins loosely as he focused on not toppling from his perch. Each time the animal’s hoofs pounded the paved road, he felt a sickening jar. By the time he approached the southern gate of the city over two hours later, he was pale and shaking from his exertions.
With the last dregs of his energy, he pulled the lirtah to a stop near the gates and allowed the animal to walk to where the guards stood waiting.
“Name your business,” one of the guards growled. “You’re violating the quarantine, which has not been lifted as yet.”
“I am not sick, nor was I,” Belihn muttered, sick to his stomach as the pain threatened to overwhelm him. “I come because the Yllysian armada approaches our shores.”
The guard gave him a skeptical once over. “And what is it you mean to do?”
“Anything that is needed,” he replied.
The guard studied him for a long silent moment before he nodded and stood to one side.
Belihn thanked him and urged the lirtah into a canter towards the business district. He had to find Ryeo’h and soon.
By the time he reached the business district, he came upon the beginnings of chaos. Soldiers roamed the streets, headed east towards the castle. The very city seemed to move as one towards Draemin Castle.
Belihn pulled the lirtah to a stop and groaned at the pain in his back and hands. He turned in the saddle and almost fainted. He closed his eyes and swallowed convulsively before opening his eyes once more.
“Kurk,” Belihn said faintly.
“Here, come down,” Kurk Deshon demanded and aided Belihn in dismounting.
Kurk frowned at him. “You look like warmed over death, friend. What are you doing here?”
“I have to do something, Kurk!” Belihn wiped his face with a cold, shaking hand. “I can’t sit idly by.”
Kurk took the reins. “I heard you were tortured, Belihn. Are you mad? You can’t do anything like you are.”
“What’s happening?” Belihn asked as Kurk led Belihn east.
“Rebellion, that’s what,” Kurk replied quietly. “Come to my row house apartment and lie down.”
“I have to contact some friends, Kurk–“
“Let me find them for you,” his friend said and they turned down a quiet alley. “I need for you to lie down.”
Belihn looked at him. “Are you rebelling?”
Kurk shrugged. “What is there for me to do, friend? I barely eke out a living and I have risen to the highest rank I will be able to attain in this city-state. You bet I’m rebelling.”
Belihn sighed. “I wish I was stronger.”
“Never mind. Wait here.”
They had come to a public mews and Kurk went in to stable the lirtah.
Belihn leaned against the outer wall of the mews and fought to remain standing. His legs shook badly and sweat was pouring from his skin, rivulets meandering down his back. His throat felt parched.
Kurk returned carrying Belihn’s travel bag and took his arm. “Come on. I live two blocks away.”
“I thought you lived in the barracks,” Belihn stated distantly. His eyesight had begun to narrow and the pain was overwhelming. He wondered if he had done some serious damage to himself.
“I moved away three weeks ago,” Kurk replied. “Belihn!”
Belihn stumbled and fell.
He was only distantly aware of being turned onto his back before he was being lifted. He closed his eyes and passed out.
Belihn came to slowly, becoming aware of ambient noises first and then minor discomforts and major aches. He tried to move and found he could not. He turned his head and opened his eyes. He lay in a semi dark room of modest size. The bed he lay on was a double, with clean, if worn sheets, and thick pillows beneath his head. The room had a wood stove on one side with a sink and a scuffed table with pots and pans and plates and cups and utensils. On the other side of the room was another table with a washbasin and a small stack of folded towels and washcloths, two cakes of soap and an ewer. A spigot sprung from the wall directly over the washbasin. A third table was located in the center of the room. This one was about the size of a card table and had three chairs around it. To the left of the bed was a fair sized chest. The only light in the room came from a window against the far corner, over the table with the pots and pans. A white sheet covered it, but it was thin enough to let in a modicum of light.
As Belihn lay there, wondering where in all hells he was, a door on the left hand side of the room opened and two shadowy figures walked in.
Belihn stiffened and watched wide-eyed as they approached the bed.
“Ah, you’re awake,” Kurk stated quietly.
Belihn relaxed. “Kurk. Where am I?”
“My apartment,” Kurk replied. “Such as it is. Give me a moment.”
The lieutenant strode to the window and pulled the sheet to one side, allowing light into the room.
Belihn turned his head and gasped. “Ryeo’h!” He made to sit up.
Ryeo’h tsked and gently pushed him back onto the pillows. “No, my lord. You are not to move until we are ready for you.”
Belihn frowned. “What do you mean?”
Kurk walked to the foot of the bed and leaned against the iron footrest. “You, Belihn, are the chosen.”
“Chosen?” he echoed. “What do you mean?”
Ryeo’h sat at the edge of the mattress and patted Belihn’s forearm. “You are the son of the King by his commoner Queen. In you the castes have joined into one. You will lead us into the future.”
Belihn’s mouth dried.
Ryeo’h watched him steadily, seriously. His eyes were wary.
“Surely you jest, Mister Thalnel.”
Ryeo’h sighed. He glanced knowingly at Kurk. “I told you this would be harder than taking Castle Draemin.”
Kurk chuckled and dragged a chair near the bed. “He’s humble, Ryeo’h. He’s perfect.”
“Yes,” Ryeo’h replied and turned back to Belihn. “The Yllysians have occupied the city-state and now batter Draemin Castle. We need a strong leader, Belihn. One who has been purged by suffering. One who is humble and modest enough to represent the people before his own interests. Do you really think any of your half-siblings can fulfill that role? Besides, the Prei-Serren himself has stated you are chosen by the Goddess.”
Belihn sighed. “Why not my mother?”
“The Yllysians don’t countenance women ruling, Belihn. They are our masters.”
Belihn shifted. “Am I to be a mere puppet to them?”
“You are to represent the common man and Yllysian interests in North Torahn,” Ryeo’h murmured. “They will leave advisors here for you. And troops to maintain the peace while you found a new government.”
“I see,” Belihn said.
“Do you, Belihn?” Kurk prompted.
Belihn looked at his friend. “How many died?”
“Thirteen ships were destroyed before the king recalled the fleet. King Kah’len has abdicated and will be escorted to Tjish.un, where he will reside for the remainder of his life.” Kurk shook his head. “The Tjashensi family will be scattered to the four winds. The older male children will be removed to Yllysia, where they will live out their lives in comfort–“
“As prisoners,” Belihn spat.
Ryeo’h spread his hands. “Would you prefer the alternative?”
Belihn looked at him. “Alternative?”
“Beheading?” His friend gave him a chilly stare. “The Yllysians made it very clear, Belihn. The young males can either go to Yllysia to live out the remainder of their lives or they can die here.”
“And the females?” Belihn asked.
“They will be shipped to South Torahn, to live under the King there,” Ryeo’h replied. “All your half-siblings will be deported, save the Prei-Serren’s heir.”
“Vallaw?” Belihn asked.
Ryeo’h nodded. “Vallaw.”
“And my full siblings?” Belihn prompted.
Ryeo’h shrugged. “They will remain here.”
“They are sending Aila’h away, too?” Belihn asked.
Kurk shifted. “Your brother has asked for her hand in marriage. The Yllysians are considering it.”
Belihn sighed. “I see. And the other Queens?”
Kurk lifted his chin. “They will be returned to their respective nations. Your aunt Kahla and her family and your grandmother, Oona Obeli-Thalmar, will live in Tjish.un as well. Only Commander-General Rakah Ys’teis will remain as an advisor until your reign is secure. Then he will follow his brother, your father, to Tjish.un.”
“I see,” Belihn stated hollowly. He had never been close to his half-siblings, but the idea of his family being spread throughout the world didn’t sit well with him.
Ryeo’h placed his hand on Belihn’s. “Belihn. I realize this may be hard for you, but this is your path, chosen by the Goddess herself.”
“You should be king, Ryeo’h.”
Ryeo’h reeled back as if struck. “If anything, Belihn, I am a king-maker. Not a king. There is a difference.” He smiled without mirth. “Besides, the world is not ready for the first Commoner King. In your blood flows the blood of kings, Belihn. Of the Ys’teis clan and the Tjashensi clan, of the Thalmars and the Obelis. History flows in your very veins. I will concoct a myth for you, King Belihn. I will make you a hero and a myth.”
Belihn shuddered. “I am not worthy.”
Kurk stiffened. “You are the most worthy of all of them, Belihn. Of all the spoiled princes and princesses who live in utter luxury, blind and deaf to the pleas of the commoner. Uncaring if a child starves to death. Unmoved by a soldier’s plight. Not you, Belihn. Never you. As long as I have known you, you have worried about the wellbeing of the people, of the common soldier. You almost paid for your belief with your life.”
Belihn shook his head. “This is too much.”
Ryeo’h rose. “Best get used to it soonest. Castle Draemin has opened her gates to Yllysia. Now, if you are rested enough, come with me to my home. I will hire a healer to look you over.”
They assisted Belihn in sitting up and watched patiently as Belihn pulled on his boots and rose onto shaky legs.
“Come,” Ryeo’h murmured. “There is much work to be done.”