Weeks prior, Belihn summoned the Pauk-an of the Northern Isemi to a feast. Draemin City-State had a treaty with the Isemi, but the treaty had been forged by Belihn’s father in the name of the Tjashensi clan. Belihn wanted to have an agreement with the Isemi that extended to his immediate family and for the sake of his unborn heir.
“Pauk-an” was a title which meant something between a holy man and an ambassador. The Isemi arrived in Draemin City-State a week after the assassination attempt on Belihn’s life. The Pauk-an came escorted by thirty fierce-looking warriors wearing broadswords strapped to their backs and carrying thick iron pikes in their left hands. Their mounts were adorned with colorful ribbons, tassels and beads, their manes and thick tails braided with beads and cloth. The Isemi themselves were impressive: tall, broad beings that looked like men but were hermaphrodites. Their dusky chests were bare to the icy winds of kamaran. They wore thick fur skins over their left shoulders and fur pants that ended at the knee. Their broad feet were encased in fur lined boots that came up to midcalf. They were escorted by a contingency of Yllysians that rode at a steady clip down the wide boulevard that led from the wharves to Castle Draemin.
The citizenry lined along the boulevard, intrigued and curious about the wild people who occupied the lands along the Khaine River in eastern Torahn. The Isemi were legendary fighters, fierce and fearless, brutal and bloodthirsty. They rode their sedate mounts and looked neither left nor right at the curious crowds. They kept their fierce, dark gazes locked ahead. Their dark skin gleamed in the bright afternoon light, the muscles emphasized by the oil applied to the skin.
As the procession passed under the canopy of Queen’s Park, Belihn climbed down from the castle walls where he had stood watch for nigh three hours since sunrise. He had dressed carefully, opting for a light blue satin under tunic with a high collar and a thick velvet coat over it with a broad belt around his trim waist. His dark blue long trousers were velvet as well, the ends tucked into knee-high leather boots. He braided his hair and wore the diadem of office, a thick circlet with an emerald embedded on the front. Small pearls adorned the circlet to either side of the emerald. He wore his broadsword strapped to his back, the black leather belt draping over his left shoulder and fastened at his waist. At his waist he also wore his fighting sword in its black sheath.
He stood in the bailey as the Isemi cantered through the castle gates. Kurk stood on one side of Belihn and the Yllysian Ambassador on the other.
The Yllysian guard dismounted and, as their mounts were led away by servants, stood at strategic positions near the King and his advisers.
Belihn watched, fascinated, as the Isemi dismounted. The ground was thick with recently fallen snow, but the wild people of the Khaine River Basin seemed inured to the icy temperatures. The young person–it was hard not to think of him as a “he”–at the fore of the group stepped forward. He was dressed much the same as his contingency, but something of the way he carried himself made Belihn realize this could be the holy man.
Belihn took a step forward and bowed. “Welcome, Pauk-an of the Northern Isemi!”
The young man’s fierce gaze raked over Belihn, finally pausing at the diadem before meeting his gaze. He, too, bowed. “King of Draemin City-State. I am Neron Sanor, Pauk-an of the Isemi of the Northern Khaine. I come at your behest and on behalf of my Tauk-na, Penoi Masino.”
Belihn held his hand out and the holy man clasped his forearm. “Well met, your holiness.”
The young man’s lips quirked. “Please accept the regrets of our Tauk-na, whose sire passed away two days before we left our home. He is now a King and must establish dominance over the tribes.”
Belihn let go the Pauk-an’s forearm and bowed. “I understand. Please come, for a feast awaits us, where we may speak.”
He led the Isemi into the castle, heading into the great dining room, where wide, thick pillows had been set on the marble floor around low tables.
The Isemi paused under the large arched doorway and gazed around the wide room.
The Pauk-an made a noise in his throat. “You honor us, King of Draemin City-State.” He looked with surprise at Belihn. “How do you know we feast on the ground?”
Belihn smiled, careful not to show his teeth. “I have read every account of every missionary who visited the Isemi.”
The Pauk-an nodded. “They were visitors of the People and spoke truth to you.”
“Yes,” Belihn agreed and motioned for the holy man to proceed him into the room.
There was a table at the head of the room, and he led the holy man to that table, indicating the thick colorful pillow on the ground.
“Sit, please, your holiness,” Belihn murmured.
The Pauk-an turned to his people and indicated they should sit. Once all the other Isemi were sitting, the Pauk-an took his seat.
Belihn sat next to him. “We will feast you with plenty of meat and turies.”
He signaled to the head servant and soon servants hurried in carrying platters of meat and vegetables, fresh bread and butter and jams. Other servants bore decanters of mi’disj and ekila, wine and ales.
The Pauk-an rose. “I will say a blessing over the feast.” He spoke in his language while around him, the warriors bent their heads and prayed softly.
Belihn closed his eyes and murmured a prayer to Atana.
When the holy man was finished, he took his seat next to Belihn. His bright, dark eyes took in the roasted meats in their juices, aromatics and spices and clapped his hands, rubbing them briskly.
“You honor us!” he pronounced.
Belihn reached towards the table and picked up a decanter, pouring mi’disj into the holy man’s goblet.
“This is mi’disj, your holiness.”
The priest cocked his head. He picked up the goblet, sniffed it and drank. “Sarka!” he pronounced and smacked his lips. “Truly, this is Poa’s very fire!”
Around them, the other Isemi drank from their goblets and nodded, pleased.
“Tell me why you have summoned the Isemi of the Northern Khaine,” the Pauk-an said.
Belihn sobered. “Your Tauk-na’s sire made a compact with my sire that there would be peace. I must secure my kingdom and unite Torahn. To this end, I need the Isemi’s help.”
Neron Sanor sopped up some meat juices with a hank of bread. He nodded. “I dreamed of a great war. If you have learned of my people, you must have learned we like fighting, but our treaty was with your sire. Not you. Is your sire dead?”
“He is exiled across the sea,” Belihn replied.
Neron frowned. “You fought your sire for power? You bested the Great Kah’len?”
Neron’s eyebrows shot up. “And now you wish our assistance?”
“And, if we were to acquiesce, what is required of us?”
“I am at war with the clans, the wealthiest of the Torahni, who do not want change.”
The Pauk-an grunted. “Change is inevitable. To oppose it is foolish.” He looked at Belihn. “So, you require our warriors.”
“And what will you give us in return for our assistance against these clans?” Neron asked.
“We are prepared to give you the land from the Khaine River basin to the forests of the west.”
He reached into the inner pocket of his coat and pulled out a folded map. Pushing the plates to one side, he unfolded the map and set it on the table.
“Your people live here,” Belihn told the holy man and demarcated the Isemi’s homeland with a finger. “I propose that you extend to here. That is fifty sepeks in any direction. Your people could hunt in the forests in the west.”
The Pauk-an’s eyes widened. “Two hundred sepeks. We could found several new tribes.” He looked at Belihn. “We hunt the flat lands, but there are different animals in the forests.”
“Yes,” Belihn agreed.
Neron nodded. “That is most generous.”
“You will also be entitled to all the weapons you find on the battlefield,” Belihn told him.
“And the lirtah?” Neron asked.
“And the lirtah,” Belihn agreed.
“I will speak to my people,” the Pauk-an said. “I will give you an answer on the morrow. Will that be sufficient?”
“Yes, holy man.”
Belihn signalled to the musicians gathered near the tables to begin playing.
The Isemi gasped and nodded to the music.
“You are a civilized people,” the Pauk-an pronounced and swallowed a mouthful of mi’disj. “Very civilized.”
As the feast progressed, several of the warriors rose to dance. They were quite graceful, despite their bulky frames.
The Pauk-an looked at Belihn. “You are married, King of Draemin City-State?”
“I have two wives,” Belihn replied.
“I am newly married.”
“Ah,” the Pauk-an said and wiped his face. “This drink is potent.”
Belihn smiled and nodded.
“I cannot marry, being holy to Poa,” Neron declared. “When I realized my proclivities lie with the warriors, I decided it best if I served the God.”
Belihn frowned. “You are attracted to the warriors?”
“Yes.” The Pauk-an lowered his voice. “I don’t know how much you know of the Isemi, but there are two genders of two genders. The Ouna-nae have the ouna and kauon, but they cannot impregnate another; while the kauon-nei have the ouna and the kaoun, but they cannot carry life, only impregnate. The ouna-nae and kauon-nei come together and breed new Isemi. But I have always been drawn to the kauon-nei, to their masculinity and power. The ouna-nae are too slender and delicate, you understand?”
Belihn swallowed thickly. “Yes. I am the same way.”
The Pauk-an reared back. “How can this be? You are married.”
“It doesn’t change my proclivities. But I must have heirs, as the founder of a new clan.”
The holy man thought for a moment and shook his head. “You have much strength, as well as beauty. Your eyes are like the grass in summer. I have never seen eyes like yours; the only Torahni I have seen have the color of the ground or of ice.”
“My sire’s mother was from Tjish.un across the sea,” Belihn told him.
The Pauk-an nodded. “Yes. I heard that from my sire.”
The holy man looked away, his eyes pensive, his dark features solemn. He swallowed and looked at Belihn.
“It is no shame, to be like us for the Isemi, but we must serve the God. To lie with another kauon-ne would mean death by fire.” He swallowed. “It is because we must be Poa’s lover foremost. If we despoil our bodies with passion, we cuckold the God.”
“I see,” Belihn told him. He felt sorrow for the handsome priest, who sometimes looked at the warriors with such hunger and loneliness embedded in his eyes. “I’m sorry.”
Neron gasped and looked at Belihn. “You pity me? I am honored among my people.”
“Honor does not fill the heart,” Belihn told him.
The Pauk-an grunted. “Wise, too.”
Belihn swallowed. “If you come to my suites, we may speak plainly about you.”
Neron shook his head. “Temptation is always my enemy and my friend. If I came with you…I would shame myself. Your beauty and strength are like flames to my darkness. It warms me and it might burn me.”
The holy man rose.
Belihn signalled for the musicians to cease playing.
“We rest,” the Pauk-an announced. “There is much to think on.”
Belihn rose. “I have rooms for you all.”
“It will be strange sleeping under hard roofs that are not the curved domes of our yo’uites,” Neron told him. “But we have traveled far and hard. Rest will be welcome.”
Belihn signalled to four Yllysian guards. “The guards will lead you to the suites.”
The Pauk-an bowed. “Thank you, King of Draemin City-State. ‘Til morning, then.”
Belihn watched as the Isemi left the dining room. He turned to Kurk.
“What do you think?” he asked.
Kurk gnawed on his lower lip. “The holy man seemed impressed with your offering. I guess we’ll have to wait until the morning to see what comes of the feast.”
Belihn sighed, his heart heavy with Neron’s predicament. He did not know what he would do if he could never lie with another man. He shook his head and bid his advisers good night.
Sleep did not come easily to Belihn that night. He visited neither Alona nor Emira’h. He had been diligent with both his wives, lying with them more often than not, but tonight Neron’s story had touched his heart and his soul and he did not want to lie with anyone. He sat in his sitting room on the loveseat facing the balcony doors, watching the swirl of snow just beyond the thick glass panes. The howls of the wind could be heard beyond the rattling doors. The large fireplace crackled cheerfully, but Belihn’s heart was full of sorrow and loneliness. How could it be, with friends and wives, that he felt so isolated and alone?
He thought of Tesjun Othar and felt his face subsume with blood. On the heels of that thought came thoughts of Kahl Oh’nahry and Irai’h Asjur. He felt such confusion: whom did he like best? Tesjun was beautiful and intelligent, but Kahl was creative and kind, and Irai’h was worldly and savvy and a good friend to boot. All three men were handsome, both Kahl and Irai’h swiftly becoming confidants. Tejsun, as his secretary, was not a friend yet, but the young man was proving irreplaceable to Belihn. And the lad’s sister was now his wife’s first lady-in-waiting and constant companion.
He sighed and sipped his ekila, closing his weary eyes as the heat of the liqueur burned down his throat and esophagus to his stomach.
Thoughts of Tejsun returned. Divita had approached the young man on Belihn’s behalf and without Belihn’s consent. He groaned his eyes against embarrassment and shook his head. Really, his mother and her meddling! A second later, Belihn felt shame. Would he have approached Tejsun on his own? No. He would not, so his mother’s assistance had been necessary, although he did not know quite what to do with Tesjun now. The young man had acquiesced to be wooed, but just how did one go about wooing another, he wondered?
He had learned from Tifa that his mother had commenced a relationship with the Yllysian Ambassador. The Ambassador took her to dinner and to plays in town. But, being a King limited how much solitude Belihn was granted, how free he was to leave the castle walls and mingle among his people. Wouldn’t a relationship with an average young man suit Tejsun best? And then there was the issue of Emira’h and her condemnation of atoliye. What would the girl do if she found out he was carrying on an affair with a young man?
With a sigh, he set his empty glass on the low table and rose. Outside, the wind moaned. The snow danced on the wind. He leaned against the doors and fogged the glass panes with his breath. On the morrow, he would know if the Isemi would treat with him. If they did, it would go a long way to easing his mind about the upcoming war. The rest of it…he wasn’t sure. It seemed his life was filled with uncertainty. After a few seconds, he turned from the door and made his way into the hallway. It was high time he was abed.