Just as Belihn had predicted, Alon was a hit with gallery goers. Belihn recognized more than one courtier in the crowd. Although he had deliberately kept back from Alon’s spotlight, he kept a sharp eye on the courtiers. These minor sons of the clans strove and fought for anything that would bring them more wealth and attention. He saw as they fixated on Alon, flirting openly with someone who looked all of thirteen. It disgusted Belihn and he made to step in when he saw Alon’s solicitor take him by the elbow and steer him towards potential patrons. Belihn released the breath he was holding. The solicitor was an old acquaintance of Belihn’s from his university days. Maorel U’sri’h had always been fair with Belihn, unperturbed by Belihn’s common blood, even though he was a son of the clans. Although they had never quite become friends, Belihn genuinely liked him.
Maorel brought his younger sister, Ilida, to the event with him. The girl seemed to hang on every word Alon uttered. Belihn grinned. Alon seemed flustered by the pretty young miss.
“My sister better watch out, or that girl will snag her heart,” Kahl murmured.
Belihn chuckled. “It might be too late already, I’m afraid.”
Kahl grimaced. “I think you’re right.”
“Alona deserves to have a lover,” Belihn told his date. “She deserves to be happy.”
“Agreed,” Kahl replied. “But the girl may think her a boy.”
“She is Maorel’s sister, so I think she is in on the ruse.”
Kahl’s eyebrows shot up and he turned to study the scene once more. “Then hurrah for my sister.”
Kurk strode up, an arm around each of his dates, Mari’h and Salika. The Yllysian girls seemed taken with the big soldier. The other ladies-in-waiting had opted to remain behind with their Queen.
Kurk seemed in his element, charming and flirty.
It fascinated Belihn no end.
“When are we going to get something to eat?” Kurk groused to Belihn the first opportunity he got.
Belihn rolled his eyes. “Why don’t you and Mari’h and Salika go and get us a large table at The Bleating Tah’lir?” Belihn asked his friend. “We’ll come along shortly.”
“Don’t make us wait too long,” Kurk growled and led his giggling dates out of the room.
“It’s near closing time,” Kahl murmured. “My feet are killing me! We’ve been standing around for hours.”
Belihn smiled at him. “Let’s get Alon and head out, shall we?”
They had to wait a few minutes while Alon answered some questions from a reporter for an art rag.
Once the reporter was done asking questions, Belihn stepped up to Alon. “Shall we head out and get some dinner?”
Alon nodded. “I’m famished.” He turned to Ilida and Maorel. “Care to join us?”
Maorel bowed. “Delighted, Alon. I haven’t had a meal at all today, preparing for this show.” He turned to Belihn. “We’ve sold twenty paintings!”
Belihn clapped. “Congratulations, but I’m not surprise. I have to talk to you about something private, Maorel.” He turned to Alon and Kahl. “Why don’t you two and Miss U’sri’h go on ahead. We’ll be just behind you.”
Ilida took Alon’s arm. “Let’s go. I’m hungry too.”
Alon swallowed audibly and nodded mutely.
When they had gone, Belihn turned to Maorel. “Alon has created a new type of art. I think we should coin the term ‘alonism’ in reference to it. It is exquisite, and I’m sure there will be copycats in no time.”
Maorel’s eyebrows shot up. “He’s amazing, isn’t he? I’d like to see this new art.”
Belihn took his arm. “He would welcome it.” He lowered his voice. “Don’t be put off by it. It has to be examined for a while before its beauty and true nature are revealed.”
Maorel opened the door leading to the street. “You should have been an art critic.”
Belihn shrugged. “I took enough art classes to make have an opinion, that’s all.”
“You’re too modest,” Maorel murmured. “You were correct that Alona is supremely talented.”
“It would take a blind man not to see it,” Belihn replied.
“Tell me of this new art form of hers.”
They walked through the crowded streets near the open-air market, their conversation often interrupted as they maneuvered through the crowds of shoppers, theater attendees and diners. Belihn’s guards often had to move people out of the way. The streets were quieter in the tavern and inn district.
At the front door of the tavern, Belihn turned to his Maorel. “Don’t tell her about the name I suggested. She is against it, but it is only meet.”
Maorel nodded. “I agree. She won’t have a say, once the term circulates around the city-state. Does she have enough for a show?”
Belihn frowned. “I’m not sure.”
After a moment Maorel nodded. “She’ll have to work hard to create more. I have to build on her popularity, although I balk at showing a new art form when she’s so newly come into the public eye.”
“You know about these things better than I, Maorel,” Belihn said and opened the door for his friend. “You advise her.”
Inside, they found their table near a bank of windows. The warmth of the tavern from a massive fireplace across the room had fogged the glass with moisture.
Belihn sat between Kahl and the windows and wiped the glass to gaze at the snowy landscape.
“I’ve ordered mi’disj and ekila,” Kurk announced to the table. “We can order when the server comes with our drinks. What do you recommend, Belihn?”
“They make an exquisite seafood stew, but their meat dishes are good, too.”
Two servers brought trays with decanters of liqueurs and glasses and loaves of freshly baked bread, butter, honey and two different types of jams.
They ordered their food, Belihn opting for the seafood stew.
Kurk held court, answering questions about the recent war. His two dates were completely enthralled by him and Belihn worried he would break their tender hearts.
Maoril and his sister asked questions of the war as well, and Belihn and Kahl answered sometimes. Kurk was nothing if not generous with sharing the spotlight.
The meal, when it came, was every bit as tasty as Belihn recalled. His seafood stew was filled with fish, shellfish, turies, aromatics and sharp southern spices that made his eyes water. The accompanying salad was made up of bitter greens, flower petals and dressed in a sweet honey dressing. The bread that came with the meal was warm and soft, sweet and tender, a perfect complement to the sweet butter and sour jams.
Belihn noticed that Alon and Ilida had their heads together and were whispering to one another, their hands touching under the table. He was happy for her. He only wondered if the girl was toying with the artist’s heart.
After their meal, they ordered more drinks and s’krieh cards for a game. The men showed the women how the game of strategy was played.
Once they had played several hands, Belihn rose.
“Before we end this night,” he told his friends. “I would like to toast to Alon and to wish him a successful career as an artist.”
The men rose. “To Alon!”
Alon ducked his head and blushed, but his smile was blinding.
Not long afterward, they headed out, gathering on the snowy sidewalk as they donned their kamarani cloaks and gloves.
Belihn bid goodnight to Maorel and Ilida and helped Alon into the waiting carriage. Mari’h, Salika and Kurk sat on one bench and Belihn, Alon and Kahl sat facing them.
Mari’h giggled, flushed with alcohol. “You look like such a handsome boy, Alona!”
Alon blushed but gamely smiled.
Salika leaned forward. “You are a wonderful artist. I want you to paint my portrait. How much do you charge?”
“You can speak to Maorel about the cost,” Alon told her. “I will of course paint you.”
“And me! Me, too,” Mari’h said.
Kurk slid an arm around each girl’s shoulders. “I’ll finance it, Alon. It’ll be my gift to these two stunning young women.”
The girls tittered drunkenly and fluttered their eyelashes at him.
He smiled smugly at Belihn, who refrained from rolling his eyes.
Snow had begun to fall in large, gorgeous flakes. Belihn was happy for the snowfall, as it kept the temperatures more moderate. Although neither Mari’h nor Salika seemed bothered by the cold. They wore thick, fur lined cloaks, but their pale blue arms were bare. They wore tight white gowns over their slender forms, the generous skirts reaching the floor. The gowns glittered with translucent glass beads, making them shine as if they were covered in snow. They were both stunning young women, their pale white hair piled on their head, their necks graceful and slender. They wore satin chokers, Mari’h’s pale violet, Salika’s black. Each choker was affixed with tiny jewels.
Kurk seemed equally taken by the girls, although Belihn was doubtful he was infatuated. Kurk liked his freedom, as he had expounded to Belihn on several occasions. He kept his heart carefully encased.
Close to two hours later, the carriage clattered over the slick wooden moat bridge and came to rest before Castle Draemin’s huge arched entryway. A guard scrambled to open the carriage door and bowed to Belihn as he stepped down and held his hand to the Yllysian girls. The rest of the riders piled out and Kurk paid the carriage driver.
“I’ll see you in the morning, my King,” Kurk murmured and bowed, then turned and escorted Mari’h and Salika into the castle.
Belihn sighed then walked with Alon and Kahl into the warmth of the Great Hall. They walked down the cavernous hallway to the northeastern tower and took the stairs up to the top floor of the castle.
“I’m very proud of you, Alona,” Belihn murmured as he walked between his wife and her brother.
She dimpled. “Thank you, Belihn. And thank you for calling me Alona. I was getting mighty sick of my alter ego.”
Kahl put his hand on her lower back. “You have to put aside that emotion, my girl. Alon is here until you become famous and can afford to discard the disguise.”
Belihn nodded. “I’m afraid your brother is correct, girl. But if you tour Tjish.un, you can do it as yourself.”
“That will be wonderful,” she sighed.
Belihn allowed her to precede him up the curving stairwell. “If you attain the patronage of the Queen of Tjish.un, then the people of North and South Torahn might overlook your gender. Sad but true.”
She glanced at him over her shoulder. “Do you think so, Belihn?”
“Yes,” he told her honestly. “The Queen of Tjish.un is the most powerful ruler in the known world. Under her patronage, you can do anything. Some will balk at your gender, so don’t think it will all be smooth sailing ahead. Some may burn your paintings and call you names, but most of the clans are more invested in what is new and popular. The Queen of Tjish.un may be a woman, but she inevitably sets trends in culture. Women now wear their hair piled on top of their heads and wear full skirts. Whom do you think set that standard and made it popular? Before Tjish.un became the most powerful nation in the known world, women in Torahn wore braids, like the men do now.”
They went to her suites and he pressed a kiss to her forehead. “I’m so proud of you. You will be among the luminaries of our culture. Just wait.”
She shook her head. “I just want to change things for girls and women.”
“And you will, at least when it comes to art,” he assured her.
Kahl put his hand on her lower back. “It will spill to other parts of our culture, picu. I’m sure of it.”
Belihn smiled at him. “Listen to your brother.”
She sighed and nodded, rising on her tiptoes to kiss Belihn’s mouth. “Goodnight then.”
Once she was in her suites and the door was closed, Belihn turned to Kahl. “Join me for a nightcap?”
“Lead the way.”
The servants had long ago retired, so Belihn poured Kahl some ekila himself, handing over the half-full glass.
“Thank you,” Kahl murmured.
They sat side by side on the couch facing the balcony glass doors. The servants had not drawn the curtains closed, so they could see the flurries of snow as they danced in the icy wind.
“I’m very glad to have gotten to know you, Belihn,” Kahl suddenly said.
Belihn looked at him. “Why do you say that?”
Kahl looked away. “You make me feel things I’ve never felt before.”
Belihn studied the young man’s even, handsome features and felt a lump in his throat. “I feel much the same way about you.” He chuckled self-consciously. “I’m rather glad that Tesjun and Erille turned me down, actually.”
Kahl turned to look at him and gave him a smile. “Are you now?”
Belihn reached a hand and ran his knuckles over Kahl’s soft cheek. “Yes, I am.”
Belihn leaned forward and kissed the young man. Kahl’s lips parted and their tongues dueled. After a bit, Belihn pulled back.
“What will it be like, I wonder, being your lover?” Kahl mused.
“Let’s find out, shall we?” Belihn asked and rose, setting his empty glass on the low table.
He held his hand out and Kahl took it, leaning forward to set his glass next to Belihn’s, before rising and following Belihn out of the sitting room and into the hallway where the bedrooms were located.