After a few hours of restless sleep, Belihn dragged himself away from the warm bed and quickly washed up, donning a pair of thick trousers, an inner tunic with sleeves and a thick woolen outer tunic. He pulled on knee high boots over his trouser legs and strapped on his battle sword. After combing and braiding his hair, he pulled his thick wool cloak from the armoire and fastened it at the collarbone. He strode into the hallway. The two bulky Yllysian guards saluted him and fell in step behind him.
The sitting room area was quiet and empty, save for two servants. The servants bowed as he strode in.
“Would his Majesty like some tea to break his fast?” the older of the two servants inquired.
“Perhaps later,” he told them. “We have to feast the Isemi before they go, so I think I shall eat with them.”
The servant bowed again. “Very good, your Majesty.”
The hallways of Castle Draemin were quiet and mostly empty, save for patrolling guards and servants carrying wash baskets or trays ladened with tea pots and mugs. He hurried down to the northeastern tower and took the stairs down to the main floor, heading south towards the entrance. Court was closed until the Isemi departed, so at least he didn’t have to sit in that black chair all day until he was bored to distraction. He had never studied law, so he had barristers to assist him with the more complex aspects of running the city-state. Most of the time, he settled disagreements and arguments between citizens. Many of the disagreements were petty, although it was obvious not so petty to those involved. What Belihn enjoyed was crafting and arguing laws, and he got to do just that two times a week.
He led the way out of Castle Draemin, picking up two other guards, these Torahni, as he made his way through the knee-high piles of snow that servants were busily clearing from the walkways. Belihn could hear the thuds of wooden swords in the still, icy air. He hurried, desperate for a bout or two to clear the kinks from his muscles. When he stepped into the crowded practice yard, the soldiers stopped sparring and fell onto one knee before him. Belihn was always touched at how much the common soldier adored and respected him.
“Rise!” he commanded and walked to the wide sword barrel, intent on picking up a practice sword.
He hefted one that was thick and nicked along the blade. The handle was worn smooth from years of use, its usually white wood now deep brown.
Turning to the crowd of soldiers, he ran his eyes over their awed expressions. His eyes fell on one soldier who was regarding him with cool hauteur. His cold gray eyes designated him as a son of the clans.
Belihn raised his sword and pointed at the young man. “You, let’s spar.”
The young man bowed. “Your Majesty.”
Belihn removed his cloak and draped it on the nearby fence and strode to where a natural space had developed in the crowd and turned to face his opponent.
“What is your name?” Belihn asked.
The young aristocrat sketched a bow. “Erille Asjur, your Majesty.”
Belihn raised an eyebrow. “Any relation to Lord Irai’h Asjur?”
The young aristocrat nodded. “We are cousins.”
“I see,” Belihn murmured and took up a defensive pose.
Erille at once went on the offensive, attacking with such brutality that Belihn had to react quickly or lose his footing. He spent a long time just deflecting Erille’s savage arcs. He seemed to be everywhere at once, twice successfully stabbing Belihn, once against his right side and once against the ribs of his left side. The swords could not break skin but Belihn found out it hurt quite a bit nonetheless when the dull wooden tip poked into skin and against bone. They came together in their graceful dance, the swords clashing and holding as Belihn attempted to throw Erille off, but the young man, despite being slender, was quite strong. Belihn was impressed despite the young man’s insolent smirk. He finally managed to throw Erille off and they circled each other. Belihn could feel the rivulets of sweat meandering down his waist and back. He felt exhilarated, loose and calm. Belihn took the time during the respite to find Erille’s weakness, but the young aristocrat attacked him again before he could find a chink in Erille’s armor.
Belihn fell into his groove while around him the soldiers went back to their sparring, a few remaining to witness Belihn’s bout. Erille attacked once more, and Belihn matched arc for arc. At one point, Erille sliced his sword through the air, and Belihn had to crouch as the sword swooshed just a few inches over his head. Belihn then took advantage to stab Erille in the waist as the young man swung his sword, leaving his side unprotected. The young aristocrat grunted and turned to face Belihn.
“Nice one, your Majesty,” Erille murmured and wiped the sweat from his forehead and eyes. “It’s been a long time since someone has managed to keep up with me.”
“I had no idea Manaji City-State bred such amazing warriors, Lord Asjur,” Belihn told him, wiping his forearm over his stinging eyes.
“Not lord, your Majesty,” the young man pronounced with a touch of bitterness. “My father has disowned me.”
Belihn lowered his weapon and took a few steps closer to Erille. “May I ask why?”
Erille’s lips twisted. “For having a love affair with my own brother.”
Belihn smoothed his features, although he was shocked to his core. “I see.”
Erille shook his head. “You cannot possibly see, your Majesty, with all due respect.”
“Come,” Belihn told him . “Let’s have a cup of tea at the commissary, shall we?”
They put away the practice swords and Belihn picked up his cloak. He signalled for his guards to follow.
The commissary was busy when they stepped into the rectangular room. A hush fell over the crowd before someone called out, “The King!”
Soldiers scrambled to their feet and bowed, fists to chest.
“As you were,” Belihn told them and led Erille to the serving window. “Two mugs of tea.”
The server bowed. “Yes, your Majesty.”
They found a half-empty table and sat across from each other.
Belihn blew over the tea and sipped. It was black, sour and bitter. He grimaced. “Not my favorite, without doctoring. Please, Erille, tell me what happened to you.”
Erille placed his forearms on the table, leaving his tea untouched. “There is naught you can do, your Majesty. My father is stubborn, and he has Manaji City-State’s Prei-Serren backing him.”
Belihn waved away his word. “I can find a place in my government for you, Erille, and you can go a long way towards recouping your inheritance.”
“I came here to see if Irai’h could help me settle in,” Erille said. “I know no other person, outside of Manaji City-State. Irai’h was the first of the family to leave the city to make his way here.”
“You can of course ask your cousin for help,” Belihn told him. “I can as well.”
Erille dropped his gaze to his mug of black tea. “Why would you help a sinner like me, your Majesty?”
Belihn leaned forward. “I am a sinner, too, for I am atoliy.”
Erille nodded. “I had heard that, but then you married two women.”
“I must found a new clan and I can only do that through children,” Belihn said. “It is not unpleasant, to lie with my wives, but the act does not fill my heart or nourish my soul. It is like lying with friends where no true attraction lies.”
Erille frowned. “How do you do it?”
Belihn opened his hands. “How indeed? Nothing that thousands before me haven’t done.”
Erille sipped his tea and sighed. “My father found out about my brother and I and told me I could marry a girl and keep my inheritance.” He sighed again. “I was a fool, I suppose, but the idea of marrying a girl to hide who I am…” His eyes, when they glanced up, were bright. “I couldn’t do that. My brother married her instead. He denounced me, declared that I had seduced him and turned his back to me.”
Belihn placed his hand on Erille’s on the table. “I’m sorry, Erille. Betrayal wounds deepest.”
“He was only taking care of himself,” Erille pronounced dully.
“In a cowardly way,” Belihn agreed.
Erille gave a laugh that was half a sob. “Goddess, you are not the monster the clans make you out to be, are you?”
Belihn removed his hand from Erille’s and sat back. “In what way do they say I am a monster?”
“An abomination,” Erille clarified. “Using the Goddess to sweep away laws that hold the land stable and safe. The clans believe if the common folk rise up, they will wipe the clans from the land.”
“The common folk are not so oppressed as yet,” Belihn said. “They are angry, of course, but not unjust. I am here to make sure change takes place in an orderly way. Caste laws will be struck down but that does not mean I will strip the clans of their wealth or belongings. Unless they actively oppose me. It is not my intent to wipe away the clans.”
Erille frowned. “But what will it mean, eradicating the Caste Laws?”
Belihn sighed and smiled. “It means the Houses have equal say in rule. It means commoners can build stone and brick houses, that they can intermarry with aristocrats, that their children can inherit land, that they can purchase the land on which they live, instead of always renting to the clans. It means universal education for ALL children. It means that the poorest of the poor can rise through hard work and perseverance to become a lord.”
“I see,” Erille murmured. “And we would descend into chaos?”
“No,” Belihn assured him. “The rule of law will prevail. All the changes will happen gradually, not all at once.”
Erille sighed. “That is good. Your Majesty, if I take you up on your offer, what will I be doing for you?”
“I have enough work for two secretaries, but I haven’t had the time to search for a new one,” Belihn replied. “Would you be interested? Tesjun, my other secretary, can show you the job duties.”
“And the pay?” Erille prompted.
Belihn chuckled and rose. “You will get equal pay to Tesjun. He can tell you what he makes. Shall we?”
They strode out of the commissary and into the bailey, where the temperature seemed to have plummeted. The skies were clear of clouds, a bright cerulean made sharper by the bright sunlight. Belihn led Erille into the Great Hall, where Belihn hailed a passing servant.
“Please have Lord Irai’h Asjur summoned from the city,” he told the servant.
“Right away, your Majesty,” the servant murmured and strode away.
They walked up the northeastern tower stairs to the fifth floor.
“I need to bathe, but Tesjun should be arriving any minute now,” Belihn told Erille as he led him into the sitting room. “You needn’t start today, Erille, but I would like you to discuss your duties and pay with Tesjun. I need another secretary as soon as possible.”
Erille bowed. “Yes, your Majesty.”
“Excuse me,” Belihn told him and hurried into the hallway leading to his bedchamber.
Once before his bedroom door, he told one of the guards, “Please inform Commander-General Kurk Deshon that I need to see him in private as soon as possible.”
The Yllysian bowed. “Right away, your Majesty.”
Belihn took a bracing cold shower and dressed in black velvet and satin, placing on his head a thin gold circlet embedded with small emeralds.
There was a knock on the door of the bedroom sitting area and his personal servant opened the door.
“Kurk, good morrow,” Belihn hailed. “Please have a seat.” He turned to his personal servant. “Tea please.”
The servant bowed. “Right away, your Majesty.”
He sat across from Kurk. “How are you, Kurk.”
“I’m well, your Majesty.”
“I need you to investigate one Erille Asjur,” he told his commander and head of security. “Find out as much as you can about the young man and get back to me once you have gathered your intel.”
Kurk rose. “Right away, your Majesty.”
Belihn rose. “Kurk, he may have been sent to cause trouble. I need you to delve beneath the surface of rumors and pry the truth out.”
Kurk nodded. “You have my word, Belihn.”
They clasped forearms.