It seemed every citizen had come out into the boulevard to witness the Yllysians’ arrival. Yllysians rode into the city on sturdy, shaggy mounts called bae’hli. The beasts had wicked-looking horn on each side of their wide foreheads and sharp cloven hooves. Their shaggy manes were snowy white. Some of the beasts had blue and gray dapples on their powerful haunches and some were without dappling. Although cousin of the bahil and the lirtah, the bae’hli were more aggressive than their more common cousins. The Yllysians rode tall in their saddles, in full silver armor with exquisite, exotically decorated shields and sharp curved swords and pikes. The Yllysians wore their eggshell pale hair loose about their shoulders and down their backs. The people were mute as the armed invaders rode past the crowds lining the boulevard. In stark contrast to their pale hair, the Yllysians had blue-tinted skin of varying shades. Their eyes were of different shades, from black to pale gray or pale blue. They rode grimly past and the crowd watched, uneasy and restless.
Irai’h stood with Aosji and I’a’sji at the edge of the crowd. He was in awe at the beauty of the Yllysians in their gleaming armor and tall shields. Part of him was deeply shocked that freemen would ride in public with their hair loose and unbraided. But he knew other nations did not share Torahni mores. He had come with his friends to gauge how the denizens felt about the Yllysians occupying the city. They had come to spy for Ryeo’h. They had been within the crowd since late the previous evening and exhaustion seeped into Irai’h’s very core. But still he knew he would not be able to sleep, not for some days at least, as they secured the city-state for their new king.
Once the army had ridden past, on their way east towards Castle Draemin, Irai’h turned to his friends.
“Let’s see if we can find a tavern and listen to some gossip, shall we?” he asked.
He led them down the boulevard to a well-known tavern. The tavern had a few patrons, but there were still tables open, so they took one in the middle of the room and ordered a carafe of ekila and three glasses. They glanced at one another as others followed them inside.
“They won’t say much at first,” Irai’h told his friends in a quiet voice. “But once the alcohol gets in them, their tongues will loosen.”
Three burly wharf workers sat down at the next table over.
Irai’h bought the table a round of ale.
When the young serving wench placed the tankards before the three workers, the one on the left looked at her.
“We didn’t order yet,” he told her.
“The gentleman there bought you a round,” the girl replied and sashayed away.
The three turned to look at Irai’h.
Irai’h lifted his glass of liqueur.
The three workers lifted their ales.
“Thank you,” the one on the left said.
“Uncertain times call for liquid courage,” Irai’h replied.
The three wharf workers looked at one another and nodded with nervous chuckles.
“What do you make of all this?” the wharf worker on the right side of the table asked Irai’h.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Irai’h told him and sipped his drink. “Rumors abound, though.”
“Rumors always abound,” the wharf worker on the middle stated and spat. “Someone opened the gates and let the Yllysians in.” He looked at Irai’h and his friends. “Whomever opened the gates slaughtered the gate guards. The Yllysians never once bloodied their swords. They are curiously restrained, aren’t they?”
“They bloodied their swords at the Castle,” the one on the right said. “I heard they launched fire projectiles into the bailey and battered the towers until two crumbled.”
The worker on the right continued, unaware of Irai’h’s growing concern. “Once they broke through the gates, they killed everything in sight, including servants.”
The worker on the left grunted. “It’s because our archers took out a number of the Yllysians. The Yllysians were angry.”
The one in the middle spat again. “Who asked them to come?”
The worker on the right shook his head. “I don’t mind them so much. It’s the King: he said he represented the common man, but he did nothing for us.”
“It ain’t been so bad,” the one in the middle reasoned. “We get our wages–“
“We can’t ever rise above our station!” the one in the left growled and took a swallow of his ale. “And, if you’re honest, you’d own to the fact that even though the nouveau riche have gotten richer, everyone else hasn’t.”
The worker on the right huffed a laugh. “Nothing’s going to change for our class, friend. Ever. I don’t care who comes into power.”
The other two grunted and fell silent as they nursed their ales.
“Do you think the other city-states will come to Draemin’s aid?” Aosji asked the wharf workers.
The one in the middle barked a laugh. “Even if they do, as my friend here said, nothing’s going to change for us, lad. The rich get richer and the poor struggle on. It’s the way of the world.”
The other two silently nodded.
I’a’sji lowered his voice and leaned forward. “They have a point, Irai’h. Our new king can’t make everyone rich.”
Irai’h frowned. “If a man works for twenty years and comes to work every day, he should expect to be promoted and his wages increased. I don’t expect the new king to make everyone rich; but I do expect him to equalize employment.”
The other two glanced at one another and away again. They hunched their shoulders.
Aosji sighed. “At the very least, the new king has to win the people over. There is a lot of bitterness and disillusionment.”
“I don’t disagree with you,” Irai’h told him. “The new king has his work cut out for him.”
Slowly, the din from conversations in the tavern grew so loud, Irai’h and his friends could no longer eavesdrop on nearby tables, so they moved to a far table against a wall and decided to bribe one of the serving lads to eavesdrop for them. At the end of the lad’s shift, they invited him to sit, poured him a measure of ekila, and peppered him with questions.
The young man leaned forward. “Everyone is afraid of what it’s going to be like under Yllysian rule. Some are afraid and some are hopeful. Most poor folks loved their king but were disappointed that he did nothing he said he would. Some people think we didn’t give him enough time.”
“Twenty years was not enough?” Irai’h demanded.
The young server shrugged. “I only repeat what I’ve heard.”
Irai’h leaned forward and rested his forearms on the table. “And you, what do you think?”
The young man smiled. “I was born under King Kah’len’s rule, so I’ve known nothing else. I want to go to school, but I can’t afford to. He said he would make education universal, but the damned clans have opposed him at every turn. He said he would facilitate loans for poorer folk so they could start their own businesses or go to school. He has done nothing. I’ve heard he’s a coward that fears war with the clans.”
Irai’h sighed. “He’s no coward. He didn’t want his hands stained with blood.”
“Change requires sacrifice,” the young man said and rose. “I think most people are waiting to see if their circumstances change, so whoever rules us should make his word good.”
Irai’h handed the server two coins. “For your trouble. You sound like you’ve received your share of education.”
The young man ducked his head. “I taught myself to read and write. I want to be a barrister.”
Irai’h rose. “What’s your name?”
“Tesjun Othar, sir.”
“I might have other work for you in an office setting, if you don’t mind clerical work,” Irai’h told him. “My employer is always looking for bright young people. He would pay for your education as well.”
Tesjun gaped. “You jest.”
Irai’h chuckled. “Not at all. How old are you?”
“Eighteen halthas, sir.”
They clasped hands.
Irai’h smiled. “Then come to Thalnel and Sons in two days’ time. That will give me time to speak to my employer.”
“Thank you, sir!”
The young man walked away, weaving carefully between tables.
Irai’h looked at his friends. “Shall we head out?”
“I never met anyone who taught themselves to read and write,” Aosji commented once they were outside the tavern.
“Precisely,” Irai’h replied. “He would be an asset to Thalnel and Sons, don’t you think?”
For the next few hours, they wove in and out of the crowds that still lingered on the boulevard and side streets. They learned nothing new. Some people supported King Kah’len; others did not. But most people were disillusioned and disenchanted and did not think the Yllysians would change things for the better, either. But the people were restless, uncertain and afraid. Yllysian soldiers roamed the streets on their strange beasts, but they did not interfere with the crowds. They were alert and wary as they rode up and down the boulevard or the side streets and alleyways.
Finally, hours later, as a new sunrise approached, Irai’h told his friends to go home and get some sleep.
“What about you?” Aosji wanted to know.
“I’m going to find Ryeo’h. Go on, Aosji. I’m sure your wife won’t mind if you went home.”
They clasped forearms and then, when his friends dispersed into the crowd, Irai’h turned south and headed towards Ryeo’h’s apartment.
“What he needs is a few days of rest,” the healer told Ryeo’h. “He can’t push himself or he’ll undo what good has been done.”
Ryeo’h nodded. “How many days are we talking about?”
The healer considered. “Well, a week would be optimum, but at least three days.”
“I’ll discuss it with him and my other associates,” Ryeo’h told her. “I can guarantee three days of rest, but more I cannot.”
The healer sighed. “If that is all you can give him, then so be it.” She reached into her satchel and removed a cloth bag. She handed it to Ryeo’h. “These are the leaves of the morsjen plan. The tea is soporific in nature. Give him a cup of the tea in the morning and in the evening. Steep a handful of leaves in water for two hours, letting it steep for strength. He can drink it hot or cold.”
Ryeo’h glanced at the small bag with the strong odor. “I’ll do that. Thank you.”
He walked her out the front door.
At that moment, Irai’h was coming up the five steps from the sidewalk.
He smiled at his friend. “Good morrow to you, Irai’h.”
Irai’h bowed to the healer then looked at Ryeo’h. “Good morrow to you, Ryeo’h.”
They both entered the foyer and Ryeo’h closed the front door.
“What brings you here?” Ryeo’h asked.
“To report on my findings,” Irai’h replied. “Did you find Belihn?”
Ryeo’h turned and pulled a rope near the front door. A few minutes later, Shen, his butler, hurried to the foyer.
“You rang, sir?”
“Boil a handful of these leaves in water and let steep for two hours,” Ryeo’h told the butler. “Then bring Belihn a cup.”
The butler took the small bag and bowed. “Right away, sir.”
Ryeo’h glanced at Irai’h. “Come with me.”
They headed upstairs together and to the bedroom to the left of the master suite. The room was small with a full sized bed. Belihn lay on the bed and a young man in soldierly garb sat in a chair next to the bed. He rose when Irai’h and Ryeo’h entered the room.
“Irai’h Asjur,” Ryeo’h said. “This is Kurk Deshon, a friend of Belihn.”
Deshon looked at Irai’h and raised an eyebrow. “An aristocrat?”
Ryeo’h spread his hands. “Irai’h has fallen from favor with his clan. He is a clerk in my father’s business.”
“I see,” Deshon said and accepted Irai’h’s handshake. “I’m sorry to be skeptical, m’lord–“
“Think nothing of it,” Irai’h replied and released his hand. He glanced to the bed. “How are you Belihn?”
Belihn nodded. “I’m mending, Irai’h.”
Irai’h walked further into the room until he stood by the footrest. Belihn’s face was covered with mottled bruises that were yellowing with age. His right eye was red, although at some point it must have looked worse. His lower lip was swollen and had deep cut along its center. The young prince looked wan and thin.
“You look like shit. No insult intended.”
Belihn smiled faintly. “None taken. Sit, please, Irai’h.”
Irai’h took a seat in the chair next to the bed. He watched as the other two sat down, Deshon at the edge of the mattress and Ryeo’h in another armchair that he pulled over.
“What have you learned?” Ryeo’h asked without preamble.
Irai’h looked at his friend. “The people are wary but are waiting to see whether their circumstances change or not. There is more ambivalence to the idea of the Yllysians occupying the city-state than resentment. At least from the common folk. With the clans, it may be the opposite. It is relatively calm right now, though, even if the streets are crawling with Yllysians.”
Ryeo’h rubbed a finger along his lower lip with a thoughtful expression. “The clans haven’t had a chance to organize. They will, though. Especially once Kah’len is removed physically and leaves the city. Once the Tjashensi clan is gone, others will attempt to fill that void. Which is why we must crown Belihn king soonest.”
“Agreed,” Irai’h said. He looked at Belihn. “Are you used to the idea as yet?”
Belihn grimaced. “I only just heard of it.”
“Then get used to it and soon,” Irai’h told him with a smirk.
“What I want doesn’t matter, does it?” Belihn asked rhetorically.
The other three looked at one another and chuckled.
“Oh, by the way,” Irai’h said to Ryeo’h. “I’ve recruited a new clerk for you: Tesjun Othar. The young man is eighteen and has taught himself to read and write. He wants to be a barrister.”
Ryeo’h nodded. “Have him come by the office tomorrow then.”
“I thought you might say that,” Irai’h said. “I told him to come to the office tomorrow.”
Ryeo’h looked at Belihn. “You’ll be needing a secretary, I suppose. Perhaps this Tesjun Othar would be a good one to assist you. Best you surround yourself with commoners right from the outset.”
Belihn nodded and looked at Kurk. “Kurk, I’ll need a Head of Security.”
Deshon started. “What? You can’t mean me.”
Belihn cocked his head. “And why not? You can learn from Commander-General Rakah Ys’teis all you’ll need to know. I need people I can trust around me, Kurk. That’s a more elusive qualification than experience.”
Kurk opened and closed his mouth a couple of times before he blushed to the tips of his ears. “If you pay me enough for me to marry my girl, I’m in.”
“You name your price, Kurk,” Belihn told him.
Kurk’s blush deepened but he swallowed and nodded. “I’ll let you know. When would I need to start?”
“Once the circlet is on Belihn’s head,” Ryeo’h answered.
“And when will that be?” Kurk asked.
“In three days,” Ryeo’h replied and frowned at Belihn’s expression.
“Best get used to things moving quickly from now on,” Ryeo’h told his friend. He shook his head and rose. There were things that needed doing.