Runners took the news to all corners of Draemin City-State that the coronation would take place in two months’ time while the new government was created and stabilized. Several incidents of unrest were quelled by the Yllysians. It became apparent that the clans were trying to mount a resistance to the new regime. Many of the aristocracy had fled the city-state at the first appearance of the Yllysian armada, leaving behind their belongings, their properties and their bewildered staff. Belihn ordered the clan properties confiscated, to be used by the new government as gifts to those loyal to its rule. News arrived via carrier vinah that the clans were amassing a force against Draemin City-State. The clans had thrown down the gauntlet: in three months’ time the clans’ armies would confront Belihn’s forces at Le.ath Plain west of the Khaine River. The place of battle had historical symbolism. It had been at Le.ath Plain that Atanaist forces had met Poaists centuries before, bringing about the end of the deadly religious Civil War that broke Torahn into north and south, establishing the Kingdom of South Torahn under Poaist rule, and leaving Atanaist North Torahn a loose confederacy of city-states.
The weeks following the negotiations with the Yllysians were a blur of activities for Belihn and his friends. Belihn tired quickly but was always given sufficient time to rest. He mended slowly, his face losing its swollen, mottled appearance. His hands also healed, albeit more slowly, but the healers had told him he would be fit for battle by the allotted date of confrontation between the pro-Yllysian forces of Draemin City-State and the rest of the cities of North Torahn.
Belihn was there when his father and his government were expelled from the city. He sat on his bahil, Eiwor, and watched silently and with much suppressed emotion as his father and his closest advisors, save for Commander-General Rakah Ys’teis, were escorted by the Yllysians down the wide boulevard to the wharves, where the King and his companions boarded an Yllysian ship. That same day, Belihn’s half-siblings were escorted onto their respective ships, the males to an Yllysian ship fated for Tu’an City in the middle of Yllysia, and the females to a South Torahni ship headed for City Lae, the capital of South Torahn. Neither his siblings nor his father had deigned to even spare him a glance. His half-sisters were reduced to tears as they were forced to leave their home behind. His half-brothers were more stoic, although many looked pale from shock or suppressed rage. Belihn could not tell. His half-brother, Ean, had looked at him, spat on the ground, and looked away once more. Belihn wondered if his half-siblings were aware that the alternative to exile had been beheading. He was sure they had been told. He did not blame his siblings for thinking he had betrayed his sire and his family and brought the about the end of the Tjashensi clan in North Torahn. On the surface, that is exactly what he had done.
He sat on his bahil until the ships were towed into the bay, where their sails were unfurled. The wind filled the different colored sails and soon the ships were sailing into the distance. Still, Belihn was loath to leave the wharves. The thought that he was hated by his siblings, his father, his aunts and uncles did not sit well with him; it was a heavy burden to carry. All he had ever done was to strive to make his sire proud, to make his siblings accept him. He could not rid himself of his common blood, but he could excel in all he did. And he had done many things that were good and admirable, but still his father’s attention had ever been elsewhere and his siblings had pointedly avoided him, save for Ean. His sire had ever been distracted by his lovers and his crown, and his siblings had believed themselves above him. He thought of Ean with a pang. Of them all, Ean had been to most accepting and kind, extending his hand in friendship. Belihn closed his eyes against the wave of shame and guilt that washed over him.
He opened his eyes and blinked away the imminent tears. He looked at Kurk.
“Yes, Commander Deshon?”
Kurk raised an eyebrow. “Commander?”
“You can’t be head of security as a mere lieutenant, Kurk. Consider yourself promoted.”
Kurk bowed in the saddle. “Thank you, your Grace. Are you alright?”
Belihn took up the reins and urged Eiwor west. “Ride with me, Commander.”
“Of course, your Grace.”
They walked their mounts down the center of the boulevard. The crowds were thick, most of the citizenry turning out to see the banishment of their old king and his entire family. Around Belihn and Kurk rode Yllysian guards armed to the teeth. They were grim, watchful men with wary eyes that constantly scanned the crowds.
They rode in silence for a bit as, around them, people pushed through the crowds to get a better view of their new young ruler, although Belihn had yet to be crowned by the Prei-Serren. The common folk had accepted him readily enough. The nouveau riche had accepted him with less enthusiasm, their mores more in line with the aristocracy’s. But they were slowly warming up to him, once they realized he was not going to interfere with their class. At least not yet. But higher taxes were coming to the middle classes and the nouveau riche. For one, he had to fund his war against the aristocracy. Secondly, he was going to make education universal. Taxes would pay for free education for all children under eighteen years of age. Once eighteen, commoners could readily enter university and would be charged according to their family’s income. Belihn would pass a law that demanded at least 60 percent of enrollment in the school system to be from the poorer classes. He sighed. His goals would not be easy to implement but implement them he would.
Kurk turned to glance at him. “What’s got you so closemouthed, your Grace?”
Belihn flicked him a glare. “I’m not king yet, Kurk.” He sighed. “There is much work to be done. It will not be easy.”
“No, I daresay,” Kurk agreed. “But first we must secure your rule. Once you are entrenched, then you can bring about change. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet, shall we?”
Belihn swallowed. “I would like to see my mother. Is she in Draemin Castle?”
Kurk accepted the change of topic smoothly. “She is, as are all your siblings. Repairs have begun on the one tower that fell, but since most of the castle was spared, save for cosmetic damage, no one was forced to abandon the structure. It is high time you moved to Draemin Castle, where we can keep you better protected.”
“I agree,” Belihn replied. “Have my things brought back there. I’ll move into my sire’s suites.”
Kurk bowed in the saddle. “As you command, your Grace.”
Kurk rode off and Belihn informed the captain of their escort that he intended to head to Castle Draemin.
The Yllysian bowed. “Very good, your Grace.”
It was disconcerting how empty the bailey of Castle Draemin was, save for repair crews. The Great Hall echoed with silence as he was escorted inside. Instead of going to the Throne Room, Belihn headed to the southern tower and up the tower steps to the fourth floor, where his mother resided. He strode to her door, where two castle guards stood. They bowed to him and opened the double doors to allow him entrance.
His mother’s butler bowed. “I’ll get her Majesty at once, your Grace.”
Belihn thanked him and strode to the balcony doors, throwing them open and stepping onto the balcony. He gazed at the cloudy sky. The air smelled of ozone and felt damp against his skin. There would be cleansing rain soon enough to bathe away the dust of the past days.
He turned and strode back into the sitting room, pulling his mother into a hug.
She stiffened and pulled back. Her eyes were frosty.
He sighed. “You are angry.”
“You exiled your entire family!” she hissed.
“Not my entire family. My true family is still here.”
She threw her hands in the air. “To what end, I wonder? Ta’rehn is beside himself since Aila’h was not allowed to remain here, with him. He won’t eat; he won’t sleep. You will speak to him. I won’t lose him to grief!”
“Where is he?”
She sighed. “In his rooms.” Her eyes turned imploring. “Please talk to him, Belihn.”
“Is he in love with her?” he asked.
She shook her head. “They are the closest of friends. That’s all.” She wrung her hands. “Why, Belihn? Why did you do all this?”
He placed his hands on her narrow shoulders. “This is bigger than father or father’s pride, Aya. This has to do with justice for the people. For the common man.”
She cocked her head. “But at what cost?”
“Father will live in comfort for the rest of his life, Aya. In Tjish.un, with the Thalmar Queen.” He let her go and swallowed. “It is my siblings that I feel most sorrow about.” He looked at her. “But the Yllysians gave me an ultimatum. Either the Tjashensis were exiled or beheaded. Would the alternative be more to your liking, Aya?”
She gasped. “Truly?”
“Had the Tjashensi clan been allowed to remain, my rule could never be secured and my goals would never be attained. This is bigger even than any of us, Mother.”
She frowned. “I see.” She looked at him. “Is it true you are going to marry a second wife, an Yllysian?”
“Yes. I have to, for alliances sake.”
“I don’t understand, son. I don’t understand the presence of all these Yllysians.” She sighed. “But I never have understood anything having to do with government, I’m afraid. Will you see Ta’rehn now?”
He nodded. “Excuse me.”
He strode through the hallway door to Ta’rehn’s suite. He knocked on the door and received no answer. After two more knocks, he turned the knob and walked into a dim room. There was a dying fire in the fireplace and that was the only light in the room. He strode through the bedroom door. The room smelled of sweat and was dark and cold.
“Go away,” his brother growled from the bed.
“Rise and come to the sitting room. Now.”
He turned and returned to the sitting room. Through the bedroom door, he heard his brother stirring. In a couple of minutes, his brother entered the sitting room, looking tousled and disheveled. He glared at Belihn and dropped into an armchair.
“What do you want?” Ta’rehn demanded.
“I’m sorry they sent Aila’h away, but the alternative would have been worse,” he said without preamble.
Still glowering at him, Ta’rehn raised an eyebrow. “And what was the alternative?”
“Death by beheading,” Belihn snapped. “Do you think this is a game, Ta’rehn? Any of this?”
He brother wavered. “What?”
“Answer my damned questions, you! Do you think I did anything I did just to spite you and Aila’h?”
Ta’rehn swallowed. “I don’t know.”
“Well, I didn’t. The decision to exile Aila’h rested solely with the Yllysians. I asked them to allow her to remain, but the presence of even one Tjashensi would ensure there would always be a symbol of clan rebellion in our midst.”
“Even a woman?” Ta’rehn demanded.
Belihn nodded. “Even so. Would you rather she had been beheaded?”
Ta’rehn flushed. “Of course not!”
Belihn sighed. “Did you want to marry her?”
Ta’rehn looked away. “No. She’s my best friend, Belihn. That’s all. I love her.”
Belihn knelt before his brother and looked earnestly at him. “I’m sorry. We’ve all had to sacrifice something. I’m sorry you had to endure your best friend’s exile, brother. But, as I told Aya, this is bigger than any one of us. I mean to change caste laws, and I mean to change North Torahn. That will take a huge sacrifice on all our parts.”
“Aya is livid with you,” Ta’rehn stated gently.
“I saw,” Belihn replied dryly.
Ta’rehn sighed. “She has always been in love with Eda, even though he is atoliy. It was enough that she could be with him in the same city. Now he is gone. She doesn’t quite know how to deal with it.”
“We’ll have to help her.”
Ta’rehn nodded. “Yes.”
“Keep in touch with Aila’h, brother. Once my rule is secure, then maybe she can return.”
Ta’rehn grimaced. “She may not want to. Her mother wants her married and soonest. She never did approve of our friendship. Queen Ariahl always wanted Aila’h to marry a R’Nonayan.”
“That is between them,” Belihn said. “Now. Are you going to be okay?”
“Yes,” Ta’rehn replied at length. “It’s going to take me a long time.”
“Take all the time you need,” Belihn told him. “But you’ll return to school and soonest. I want you and Ilmi to finish your education.”
Ta’rehn snorted. “Mother has arranged for Ilmi to marry.”
“Ilmi will finish her education first,” Belihn stated firmly. “She’s fifteen. She can marry when she finishes.”
“I don’t envy that talk with Mother,” Ta’rehn said and yawned. “I’d best wash up. Excuse me, brother.”
Belihn stood and allowed Ta’rehn to leave the room. Squaring his shoulders, he went in search of his mother.