The feast for the Isemi was set out at noon. The heavy drinking of the previous evening had not affected the wild folk of the Khaine River basin, for they were as boisterous and ravenous as they had been the previous night. Belihn sat next to Neron Sanor and sparingly ate as he ran his eyes over the feasting warriors. The Isemi seemed to be specially fascinated with egg dishes, as eggs were not a staple of theirs. Their Pauk-an raised an eyebrow as a servant set a dish before him piled with fluffy eggs fried with aromatics and spices. Aside from the eggs, the cooks had prepared enasha pancakes fried to a golden turn, fresh bread and a compote of mixed fruit. Belihn had ordered the cooks to concoct a tea with spices, tah’lir’s milk, honey and ekila.
When Neron tasted the tea, his eyebrows shot up. “Sarka!” He smacked his lips. “You know of our culture, King of Draemin City-State, for this how we drink our tea!”
Belihn smiled at the young Pauk-an’s enthusiasm. “I told you I read up on everything having to do with the Isemi.”
Neron nodded and sipped more of the tea.
When the feast was concluded, Belihn turned to Neron. “I would have your response now, holy one.”
The warrior on Belihn’s right, a tall, wide person bulky with muscles, rose and gestured to the warriors. “Ishaltu! Ke!”
The warriors rose and bowed, filing out of the dining hall and into the hallway, closing the double doors behind them.
The young warrior turned to Belihn. “I am Penoi Masino, King of Draemin City-State. I am Tauk-na of my people.”
Belihn gaped and rose. “You are the Isemi king?”
Penoi Masino smirked. “We took care, your Majesty, of my safety. But also I wanted to observe you unhampered by your awareness.” He extended his muscular arm to Belihn. “Well met.”
Belihn hesitated but a second before grasping the young man’s forearm. “Well met, King of the Isemi of Khaine Valley.”
Penoi and Neron both sat, Belihn following suit.
The Tauk-na sipped his tea. “I approve of your terms, your Majesty. We will assist you against your enemies, for the parcel of land and the spoils of battle.”
Belihn broke out into a grin. “I am pleased, Tauk-na! I was unsure you would treat with me, as your sire treated with mine.”
Penoi Masino waived a dismissive hand. “That is neither here nor there. You are king of the city-state now, so we treat with you, even if my sire disapproves.” He motioned to Neron Sanor.
The Pauk-an withdrew a scroll from his satchel and unrolled it on the table. “We would have your mark in blood, King. If you betray us, we will be enemies for all time.”
The scroll was filled with symbols strange to Belihn. The holy man explained the Isemi had written in their language the terms Belihn had laid down. First turning to his king, the Pauk-an withdrew a dagger from his satchel and cut along the palm of Penoi’s right hand. Penoi then allowed several drops of his blood to fall onto the scroll. The Pauk-an then turned to Belihn and cut the palm of his right hand.
“Let the drops of your life spatter on the agreement, your Majesty,” Neron murmured.
Belihn allowed for several drops of his blood to mingle with Penoi’s.
Penoi held his injured hand out. “We now become siblings in blood.”
Belihn grasped his hand to mingle their blood.
“Ke!” Penoi announced. “It is done!”
They rose and Penoi embraced Belihn. “We are siblings now. Therefore, you shall send your middle child to my clan on his thirteenth year and I shall send my middle child to you on his thirteenth year.”
Belihn was taken aback. “Is this your demand?”
Penoi grunted. “It is the Isemi way. He will return to you upon his twenty-first year.”
“For good measure and trust between our people, your Majesty,” Neron put in smoothly.
“Your son will be a companion to my other children,” Penoi explained. “And mine will be your children’s companion as well, so that we can foster trust and friendship between our peoples.”
Belihn bowed. “I will do as you ask.”
Penoi broke out into a wide grin. “Good. Then we have an understanding, King of the greatest of Torahni city-states. We will provide you with 1,500 warriors for your battle.”
Belihn bit the inside of his cheek. So few?
Penoi shook his head. “You underestimate our numbers, your Majesty. We cannot leave our lands unprotected against the Southern Isemi. We are at war with the Southern Isemi and have always been so.”
Belihn sighed. “I understand. I appreciate your 1,500 warriors, Tauk-na.”
They filed out of the feasting hall and into the Great Hall. Belihn guided his two guests out into the bailey, where the rest of the Isemi were gathered around their lirtah. Two of the warriors broke away from the others and led two gaudy animals to the holy man and the king. Belihn watched as first Penoi Masino and then Neron Sanor mounted their lirtah, followed by the rest of the Isemi.
Penoi raised a hand. “Farewell the king!”
Belihn raised a hand, wondering which of his Queens’ children he would send west to the Khaine River Valley in thirteen years’ time.
Once the Isemi cantered out of the bailey and onto the boulevard, followed by a contingency of Yllysian soldiers, Belihn reentered the castle, striding to the War Room. He barked orders for his advisers to be brought to the room. He rubbed his forehead peevishly. Could he trust the Isemi? Was the blood ceremony holy to the wild people of the west? Did he have enough troops to best the clans? If his intel was correct, it would be a face off between Draemin City-State, Yllysia and the Isemi against the might of the rest of the city-states and Tjish.un. Quite possibly South Torahn, too. He wished he had more faith in those who backed him, but his intel had still to produce the opposition’s numbers. The Isemi were fierce but not as numerous as, say, overcrowded Tjish.un. Seven city-states opposed Belihn’s forces. Even though there were ten Yllysian cities, the Yllysian forces were less numerous than Tjish.un’s. Belihn had read about prior encounters between Torahn and Yllysia over the neutral territory of Isajhi. Historically, Yllysian forces had been brutal, efficient and thorough, leaving no prisoners. If Belihn were honest with himself, the idea of being the reason for the death of thousands did not sit well with him. He certainly now understood his father’s hesitation tp gp tp war with the clans better.
With a sigh, he threw himself onto a chair and waited the arrival of his advisers. He wiped his cut hand impatiently with a handkerchief. The cut throbbed.
After about a quarter of an hour, his advisers began to arrive. Commander-General Kurk Deshon arrived first, followed quickly by Ambassador Tah’duk’h, Nosjka’h Olivaro Tione, Commander of the Yllysian navy, Captain Kalthos Gulehn Askar, Captain of the Yllysian land forces, Mister Ryeo’h Thalnel, Irai’h Asjur, Aosji Brenth’on’h, and I’a’sji A’kir’h. The last one to arrive was Tesjun Othar with his satchel filled with paper, pens and inkwell so he could take meeting notes.
Belihn ran his eyes wearily over his friends. “Please sit, gentlemen.”
Once they were all seated, Belihn leaned forward and placed his forearms on the table. “The Isemi have agreed to join our forces. They will give us 1,500 warriors.”
His advisers gaped.
“So few?” Ambassador Tah’duk’h demanded. “The Isemi of Northern Torahn number in the 50,000.”
Belihn nodded. “You are correct, but they are at war with their southern neighbors. They cannot leave their lands unprotected.”
The Ambassador sat back in his chair with a sigh. “I see. We are providing you with 25,000 troops and the Isemi will provide 1,500. That totals 26,500. How many troops does Draemin City-State have?”
“We have been getting daily recruits from the opposition, commoners who do not want to fight for the clans,” Kurk murmured. “So far we have 11,000 troops in total.”
Tione shifted. “37,500 against the might of Tjish.un and South Torahn and the majority of North Torahn.”
Belihn swallowed thickly. “We are woefully undermanned.”
Kurk leaned forward. “We don’t know that, your Majesty. We haven’t gotten a report yet of the opposition’s numbers.”
“When my father was king,” Belihn told him. “He could call on 100,000 Tjish.unen troops. The clans can raise, I would imagine, some 40,000. I expect their numbers to be 140,000 against our 37,500.”
Mister Thalnel shook his head. “They outnumber us more than three to one then. I don’t like those odds.”
Irai’h Asjur crossed his legs. “Draemin has prevailed in the past against worse odds. I studied the history of Torahn’s conflicts with her neighbors. I think we can prevail if we are smart about our battle strategy.”
Belihn looked around the table, tamping down his fear and uncertainty and presenting a brave face. “I agree.”
Ambassador Tah’duk’h placed his hands on the table. “We will prevail, your Majesty. We have no choice. If we withdraw now…”
Belihn frowned. “We won’t withdraw. This is my life’s work, I am convinced. I will consult the Prei-Serren about this, but he has told me more than once that the Goddess blesses us.”
“With Her holy might, we shall prevail,” Ryeo’h pronounced fervently.
Belihn wished he could be as sure.
Later that evening, Belihn met with his wives in the sitting room of his suites. For safety reasons, each Queen had her own suites and Belihn had his.
Emira’h looked resplendent in a satin dress with a low bodice. The hem of her dress reached her ankles. The light violet color of the dress brought out the blue of her skin. She had piled her pale hair on her head and held it there with pins dotted with pearls. Her slender neck and arms were bare, despite the time of year. She wore pale violet slippers.
Alona wore a dark green woolen dress with a high collar and long sleeves, although she went barefoot, her slender feet pale and unadorned.
“Thank you both for coming to see me,” Belihn told them. “Please sit. I’ve to discuss a matter with you.”
Both young women sat side by side on a loveseat and he took an armchair across from them. He motioned for the servants and guards to leave the room.
Once it was only the three of them, Belihn sat back in his seat and crossed his legs. “Firstly, how are you?”
Emira’h smiled. “I may be with child.”
Belihn started. “Really?”
She nodded. “My blood will not come.”
He cleared his throat, embarrassed by her frankness. “I see. Well, we will wait before we announce it, shall we? In case.”
She smoothed her skirts. “Of course, your Majesty.”
He turned to Alona. “And you?”
“I am well, your Majesty,” she replied. “Alon is enrolled in University and has an art show coming up this dibasj.”
Emira’h frowned. “Who is Alon?”
Alona pursed her lips. “He is a friend of ours.” She turned her attention back to Belihn. “Will you come to the show?”
He smiled at her. “Of course, my girl. I love Alon’s art.”
She blushed and giggled. “Thank you. I will tell him so.”
He sobered. “This anasj I will leave Draemin City-State to fight the forces that oppose me. This happens in less than eight weeks. I will leave my mother in charge of the city-state. I won’t lie to you; it will be dangerous, as we are outnumbered three to one, but I have faith that we shall prevail.”
“Three to one!” Alona gasped.
Emira’h straightened her back. “You have the Yllysian forces to assist you. We will not fail.”
“I have the Isemi also,” Belihn pointed out. “They are fierce warriors.”
“As are we,” Emira’h stated firmly.
Belihn nodded. “Yllysian forces are my backbone and my hammer, your Majesty.”
She lifted her chin. “Yes.”
Alona rolled her eyes. “I will pray for you, your Majesty. But if the Prei-Serren is true to his word, Atana is your shield and your sword.”
“Yes,” Belihn told her. “Yes, I am aware. I am meeting with the Prei-Serren tomorrow. I have been ordered to undergo a fast and purification, so I won’t be able to visit your beds until after the battle is fought.”
Emira’h frowned. “For two months?”
Belihn dipped his head. “Just so, girl. Would you have me disrespect the Goddess?”
She blushed. “No! It’s just…”
“You two can become friends during that time,” Belihn told her.
“We won’t see you for two months?” Alona demanded.
“More than that. I will be fasting and praying in the cathedral. Once the purification ritual is done, I will lead our forces to the battle site. It takes nearly a month to reach the Khaine River. Besides, I am unsure how long the battle will take. You must both help my mother rule, advise her as well as you can.”
The young women shared a look filled with disappointment.
“Yes, your Majesty,” they chorused.
He rose. “Ambassador Tah’duk’h will see to your daily needs.”
Once they rose as well, he pressed a kiss to each of their foreheads. “Behave and help my mother, please. Be good, both of you.”
They curtsied and he turned on his heels and went in search of the Queen Mother.