Belihn arranged for Alona Oh’nahry and Morisjen Simaji’h Emira’h to meet prior to the marriage and coronation. Both young women were of an age, so Belihn hoped they would be fast friends. With Emira’h’s friendship, Alona might also inherit the friendships of Emira’h’s ladies-in-waiting. To that end, he arranged an informal dinner at Queen Divita’s large suites. His mother was delighted to be included in the event, promising to include some Yllysian dishes along with some rarified dishes from North Torahn. Belihn left the particulars of the dinner in his mother’s capable hands and returned to his work. His mother sent him a note two days later that the dinner would occur the following day and that his presence had been requested by both young women. The idea of spending an evening in the company of young women made him acutely uncomfortable, but as his mother gave him no option to decline, he sent her his acquiescence in a reply note.
When the evening came, he dressed soberly, choosing darker silks and linens. He wore a silken inner shirt of gray with a black linen outer tunic and black trousers. He clasped a thick belt over the outer tunic and attached his sword sheath to the belt. He wore hard leather boots with the trouser legs tucked inside like a uniform. Over this ensemble, he pulled on a thick maroon woolen cloak, fastening the gold brooch at the collarbone. With his personal guards in tow, he made his way down the hall to his mother’s suites. He waited patiently as his personal guards swept into the sitting room and checked for weapons and the like. When his guards positioned themselves unobtrusively against different walls, he entered the room and hugged his mother, pressing a kiss to her temple.
“Thank you for hosting this meeting, Aya,” he murmured against her hair.
She patted his hand. “It’s a pleasure, my son.”
They parted then she pulled him further into the room. It was then that he noticed there were two more Yllysian guards posted on either side of the hallway door.
The room was crowded with young women. Alona and Emira’h were both there already, as were Emira’h’s ladies-in-waiting. There was also a young woman who looked very familiar standing next to his sisters.
He bowed to Alona and Emira’h. “I greet you both.” He then bowed to the ladies-in-waiting. “I greet you, my ladies.”
The young women curtsied with many giggles and flushed faces.
He resisted rolling his eyes then turned his gaze to his sisters. “Tifa; Ilmi. Who is the young woman with you?”
The young woman brazenly took a step forward and curtsied. “I am Ethis Othar, your Grace. I am Tesjun’s oldest sister.”
Divita thrust her arm through his. “Ethis will become the first of Alona’s ladies-in-waiting.”
“I see,” he said, gazing with curiosity at Alona, who rolled her eyes rather expressively. He pursed his lips to refrain from laughing. Alona was an accomplished and busy young woman. He could just imagine how she took to the idea of forced companionship.
“How are you, Alona?” he asked.
She rolled her eyes again. “I’m fine, Belihn. And you?”
“I’m mostly recovered, thank you.” He turned to Emira’h. “And you, Daughter of the Ten. How fare you?”
She dimpled. “I am well, your Grace.”
“You may call me Belihn, Emira’h.”
She curtsied. “Very good, Belihn.”
Divita let go Belihn’s arm. “Please sit, all of you.”
Everyone took a seat.
Belihn sat down in an armchair, his sisters perched one on each of the arms. Tifa rested her arm on the headrest. He noted that Ilmi still wore boy’s clothes and he refrained from gritting his teeth. The girl did not want to finish school, did not want a career, did not want to marry. What did she want? She wanted to waste time with her equally moorless friends. Ilmi’s only saving grace was her tender years, but she was swiftly coming up on her fifteenth year of life. Old enough to marry, he noted.
“My son wanted us to come together to create alliances and friendships,” Divita murmured. “As queens, you can choose to be allies or enemies. I will tell you, I lived in a harem filled with four queens constantly fighting for ascendency. The King did nothing to ease our lives. There were fights and poisonings. There were arguments and spitefulness. I don’t wish that kind of life on anyone.”
Emira’h shifted, arranging her full skirts around her. “I wish to incur no one’s enmity. I want a large family and the friendship of any who will deign to give me that.” Her clear blue eyes took in Belihn. “If His Grace promises to come to my bed twice a week, I want nothing else.”
Alona blushed and ducked her head.
Belihn looked into Emira’h’s eyes. “I will come to you twice a week, Emira’h. You have my promise.”
Emira’h bowed her head. “Then we have an agreement. Alona, you may state your wishes now and I will abide by them.”
Alona’s face flushed beet red. “I…uh…all I want is to be able to finish my university degree and continue with my painting.”
Emira’h’s eyes widened and her ladies-in-waiting gasped.
The Yllysian princess turned to Alona. “You mean…you are allowed to study? You know how to read and write?”
Alona frowned. “You do not?”
Emira’h blushed and shook her head. “No woman may read and write in Yllysia.” She turned to Belihn. “Yet, your nation has not fallen into chaos.”
Belihn smiled at her. “It has not, your Highness.”
“Emira’h,” she said absently and turned back to Alona. “What do you mean you wish to continue your painting?”
“I am a painter,” Alona told her. “I paint portraits mostly, but I also paint landscapes.”
“She is quite accomplished,” Belihn piped up.
Emira’h’s eyes widened again, but she said nothing as the servants entered bearing trays with libations and finger foods. They set trays on every low table and proceeded to serve the young women fruit juices. Belihn got a glass of mi’disj and his mother and Tifa each got a glass of wine. The servants stood back unobtrusively to await orders.
Divita smiled at them. “We’ll serve ourselves. Just come back to pick up later.”
“As you wish, your Majesty,” the head servant said and shooed the others out through the servant’s hallway door.
Emira’h gazed at the food. “What are these called?”
“These are savory and sweet pastries, Emira’h,” Divita replied. “These here are made from mashed turies and minced meat. These are seafood. These look to be the sweet ones, made with minced nuts and honey and southern spices.”
Emira’h took up a pastry and bit into it, her eyes widening at the taste. “Why, these are marvelous! Taste them,” she urged her ladies-in-waiting.
They ate in silence for a few minutes then Emira’h turned back to Alona. “I have never heard of a woman painter. It is most fascinating.”
“In Torahn’s history there have been a few women accomplished in painting and poetry,” Divita told the girl. “Our lot as women has improved greatly in the last two hundred years.”
Emira’h sighed. “Our lot apparently has not.” She looked at Belihn. “I might want to learn to read and write, Belihn–“
“But, Emira’h–” one of the ladies-in-waiting said with a gasp.
“You will learn as well, Kilsi,” Emira’h snapped. “You needn’t inform me of my duty. I will have children for the Crown and the glory of Yllysia. To which I must ask you, Belihn…” She cleared her throat. “I intend to take ilishna when I am with child. The result will be a child with my people’s skin color. Will that be permissible? Because if it is not, then I’ll return to Yllysia forthwith.”
“My children from you will be Yllysian and Torahni,” Belihn told her. “Your color means nothing to me, but it means everything to you. Therefore, your children will be racially Yllysian.”
Emira’h smiled. “Thank you.”
He bowed. “But of course.”
Ethis shifted. “I can teach your Highness to read and write. Or you can hire a tutor.”
Emira’h looked at her. “Thank you. That must mean you know how to write and read also.” She glanced at Divita. “Do all women in North Torahn read and write?”
“Many do,” Divita replied. “Some do not, but that is due to their economic caste rather than their abilities or beliefs.”
“I see,” Emira’h murmured. She turned to Alona. “May I see your paintings some time?”
Alona blushed and nodded. “Yes, of course.”
Emira’h cocked her head. “You said nothing of children. Do you not wish to have them?”
“I will give Belihn children,” Alona assured her. “I wish only three children, however. Three and no more.”
“And intimacy with his Grace?” Emira’h pushed.
Alona straightened her back. A belligerent gleam sparked in her eyes. “I want Belihn’s friendship foremost. I am atoliy, Emira’h. I want a woman for a lover, not a man.”
Emira’h gasped and rose, dropping her plate of pastries to the floor. “This is an obscenity! This is anathema! An abomination! How dare you speak of taboo things in my presence!”
Belihn set his plate to one side and rose. “That’s enough, Emira’h.”
She turned on him, her eyes flashing with rage. “But…but–“
“Our ways are not your ways, Emira’h,” Divita stated soothingly as she rose from her chair. “You must learn that we speak of these things in mixed company all the time.”
Emira’h opened her mouth and closed it with a click of teeth. Her light blue skin flushed deeply.
“You must understand, these things are not the reality in Yllysia,” she stated, sounding confused and unsettled.
Alona rose. “There are atoliy of either sex everywhere, Emira’h. Just because you do not speak of it in Yllysia doesn’t mean people like that don’t exist.”
Emira’h took a deep breath and released it. She had regained her normal color.
“I beg forgiveness,” she stated. “But I can’t be friends with an abomination. I won’t be be in a marriage alliance to one, either. Excuse me.”
She swept from the room, followed closely by her ladies-in-waiting and their two guards.
Alona looked stricken. She sat abruptly, her eyes glassy with unshed tears.
“I’m so sorry!” she muttered and swallowed thickly.
Belihn knelt by her chair. “Don’t give it another thought, Alona. I won’t marry a bigot, either. If she won’t do, then another Yllysian maid will.”
“But…everything rests on this alliance!” Alona said.
He took her hand in both of his and patted it. “Worry naught. I’ll fix this. I promise.”
He rose and looked at his mother. “I’d best speak to the Yllysian Ambassador posthaste.”
She sighed and nodded. “Please go then, son.”
He hurried out into the hallway and made his way to his suites. He asked a servant to fetch the Yllysian Ambassador as soon as possible. As he waited, he paced, hands clasped at his lower back. The Ambassador was now housed on the third floor of the castle to be near Emira’h and her ladies-in-waiting, and because he was now an advisor to Belihn. Nearly twenty minutes later, the Ambassador hurried into Belihn’s sitting room.
“What has happened?” he demanded without preamble.
Belihn sighed. “Have a seat, Ambassador. Please.”
Belihn sat across from the Ambassador and told him everything that had happened. To his credit, the Ambassador listened without interrupting. At the end of Belihn’s tale, he sighed and sat back in his chair.
“She was a nun,” the Ambassador said. “She’s led a sheltered life. Not all Yllysians share her extreme views.”
“But some do,” Belihn said.
The Ambassador grimaced. “That is correct, your Grace. We are an isolated nation and have led an insular history. This will change, given time.”
“Perhaps another princess would work better,” Belihn suggested.
The Ambassador flicked him a glance. “That may be. Let me consult with my staff then send the Ten a missive via carrier vinah. It will take several days before we receive word. I shall speak to the princess tonight as well.” He rose. “My apologies if she inadvertently insulted you or Lady Alona. I warned the Ten that a strictly religious girl was not a good idea, but they have their own reasons, I suppose. This won’t affect our relations or our agreements, let me assure you of that, your Grace. I don’t think this should affect your marriage or your coronation either. You can marry an Yllysian girl when she arrives.”
Belihn rose. They clasped forearms. “Thank you.”
The Ambassador bowed. “Of course, your Grace.”