Chapter XI: Attack

            Six weeks later, and two weeks prior to his coronation, Belihn found himself once more at the docks, sitting astride Eiwor and watching an Yllysian ship being tugged to its pier.  The ship carried his future wife, Morisjen Simaji’h Emira’h, her possessions and her entourage of young ladies-in-waiting.  Emira’h was 16 years of age and had lived in a convent until six weeks prior, when she had been chosen as his mate.  Emira’h was the only daughter of the governor of Morisjen City.  Lord Simaji’h had five sons and one daughter.  Emira’h was a devotee of the goddess Chaitah, goddess of high dibasj, birth, love and sex.  Why a goddess of love and sex should have a convent of virgin nuns, Belihn would never understand.  Thoughts like these occupied his nervous mind as he waited for the ship to be tied to the dock and its gangplank to be lowered.  

            Once the gangplank was lowered, a line of Yllysian warriors descended, followed by six young women.  The young women wore brown wimples and dresses with high collars and long sleeves.  The girl at the front of the line wore a brown and gold dress with a long skirt that fell to her ankles, a brown jacket with long sleeves, and a butter-colored silk shirt with a high collar underneath her jacket.

            Belihn looked closely at her.  She had a comely oval face, light blue eyes and a generous mouth.  The blue of her skin was of medium tone and she was slight and small.  The other girls were taller, though slender and still on the small side.

            He dismounted and handed his reins to one of the soldiers who had escorted him to the docks. Both Commander-General Rakah Ys’teis and Commander Kurk Deshon were present and stepped behind him as he strode to the pier to meet the young woman.  

            She stopped at the end of the pier and looked around expectantly.

            He strode up to her and bowed.  “Welcome to Draemin City to the Daughters of the Ten.  I am Belihn Stait-Ekesj, ruler.”

            The young girl at the front curtsied.  “Blessings of the Goddess Chaitah upon you, Son of Torahn.  I am Morisjen Simaji’h Emira’h, but you may call me Emira’h.  My friends call me Emi.”

            He bowed to her.  “And you may call me Belihn, my lady.”  He indicated her entourage.  “These are your ladies-in-waiting?”            

            Emira’h curtsied once more.  “Yes, your Grace.  This is Rue’Kure Uhay-K’heb Nilki, Nosjka’h Ira’h’ma Salika, Hjana Quintok Kilsi, Stathos Uth’ai’rhen Asjana, and E’jnasj Nes’san Mari’h.”

            Belihn bowed to them.  “Ladies, an honor.”

            The girls giggled, some watching him boldly while the others dropped their gazes.

            Belihn offered Emira’h his arm.  “Come, I will escort you to the waiting carriages.”

            She placed her slender hand on his forearm.

            Within the next second, Belihn heard a high pitched whine and then he felt an impact to his chest and fell unto his back.  Around him, chaos exploded.  Someone was throwing incendiary devices around him.  One fell nearby and exploded.  The girls were screaming with terror.  He watched distantly as he was surrounded by Yllysian soldiers, while the girls were bundled into the waiting carriages and hurried away.

            One of his guard knelt next to him.

            “Your Grace!”

            Belihn forced his eyes open.  His chest hurt and he had begun to shake.  “What happened?”

            “You were pierced by an arrow,” his guard replied.  “We have to get you back to the castle as soon as possible.”

            There was a telltale burning under the pain and Belihn shook his head. “Pull the arrow out.”

            The young Yllysian paled.  “Your Grace?”

            “Poisoned,” Belihn muttered, fighting to keep from losing consciousness.  “Pull it out.”

            Commander Kurk Deshon knelt next to Belihn.  “He’s right.  If it’s poisoned, we have to pull it out and see if he can bleed the poison out.  Here, stand back.”

            Kurk got hold of the arrow and pulled.  

            The flash of pain as the arrowhead tore through tissue had Belihn screaming.  Everything faded to black.

            Belihn faded in and out of consciousness.  At one point, he was aware that he was in a carriage as it raced to its destination.  When he awoke again, he was being carried then laid on a bed.  Strangers bent over him, their dark eyes glowing faintly.  He heard someone groan.  Then a young woman was pressing a wet cloth to his forehead and along his cheeks.  She looked away and said something in a strange language just before Belihn blacked out again.  When he became aware once more, he saw Alona sitting in an armchair next to the bed, his mother beside her, talking in soft voices.  He heard a moan.

            His mother gasped and bent over him.  “Belihn!  Run and get the healer, Alona.”

            “Aya–” he said, his voice breathy.

            “Hush, child.  Conserve your energy.  The healer is coming.”

            She picked up a cloth and dabbed at his forehead and cheeks.  

            The room smelled of medicine and sweat, urine and blood.  He turned his head.  His chest hurt, as did his throat and head.

            “He’s awake?” someone said.

            His mother moved away.  

            A young healer sat at the edge of the bed.  “How do you feel, your Grace?”

            “Chest hurts, throat and head, too,” Belihn replied and panted as a wave of nausea washed over him.

            The healer lifted Belihn’s head and fed him from a mug.  The liquid was cool but bitter.  He grimaced and forced himself to swallow.

            “You are slowly expelling the poison,” the healer told him.  “I am giving you an herb that forces the body to sweat and produce urine.  You are lucky you recognized the poison quickly.”

            “What kind of poison was it?” Belihn asked.

            The healer grimaced.  “Alait rose.”

            Belihn coughed a laugh.  “They wanted to kill me, didn’t they?”

            “I daresay,” the healer replied.  “But alait rose poisoning is unpredictable, though often deadly.”

            Belihn closed his eyes.  “Yes.  That may have saved me.”

            “I daresay it did,” the healer agreed.

            When he woke again, the pain had lessened considerably, especially in his throat.  His head still thumped from a headache and his chest felt raw and tight.  He looked around the room.  Ta’rehn was sprawled on a chair next to the bed and was snoring softly.  Belihn pushed himself to a half-sitting position and groaned at the pain.

            Ta’rehn started awake.  He turned his head and gasped.  “Belihn!”

            “Help me sit up, Ta’rehn.”

            His brother assisted him, stacking pillows at his back to help prop him up.  

            “Do you need anything?” Ta’rehn asked.

            “Some water,” Belihn muttered.  “Thirsty.”

            Ta’rehn stood and stepped up to the bedside table, where he poured water from a pitcher into a mug.  

            Belihn held his hand out and took the mug in his shaking hand.  It took him three tries before he was able to drink sufficiently to relieve his thirst.  He handed Ta’rehn the empty mug.

            “How do you feel?” his brother asked him.

            “Nauseous,” Belihn muttered.  “And worn down.  Did Kurk find out who attacked me?”

            Ta’rehn retook his seat.  “Yes.  Some clan operative who was tortured.  He revealed quite a bit and then the Yllysians flushed out several other operatives and traitors.”

            “How long have I been out off it?”

            Ta’rehn considered.  “Ten days.”

            Belihn gasped.  “Ten days!”  He made to stand before the flesh under his bandages pulled and fell back with a groan.

            “Stop it, brother!” Ta’rehn growled.  “You’ve probably undone the stitches!”  He rose.  “I’ll get the healer and Commander Deshon.”

            He ran from the room.

            It turned out Belihn had undone some of the stitches, so he had to put up with his wound being re-stitched.  Alait rose poisoning hindered healing, so the wound was still not fully healed.  By the time the healer was done sewing the wound, Belihn was freely sweating.  His mother bathed him and then his clothes and the bedclothes were changed before he was allowed to lie down once more.  He lay on the pile of pillows and waited for the nausea to pass before opened his eyes and turned to gaze at Kurk.

            “Give me your report.”

            Kurk shared a glance with Ryeo’h before turning back to Belihn.  “Rakah betrayed you.”

            Belihn sighed.  “He orchestrated the attack?”

            Kurk leaned forward and rested his forearms on his thighs. “He was aware of it.  He knew the operatives and allowed them to do what they came to do.”

            “Where is Rakah?” he asked.

            “He took his life,” Ryeo’h replied.  “Someone alerted him that we were coming for him.  He hung himself in his house.  We’ve confiscated his properties and exiled his wife and children to Tjish.un.”

            Belihn waved a hand.  “His properties are yours, Kurk.  You are now Commander-General Kurk Deshon.”

            “Belihn–” Kurk protested.

            “No,” Belihn interrupted him.  “You are now in charge of the forces of Draemin City-State and of security.  Partner with the Yllysians to secure my reign.”

            Kurk blew out a breath. “Right away, your Grace.  We have to crown you and perform your marriages.  I’ve already conferred with the High Priest.”

            Belihn closed his eyes as a wave of exhaustion washed over him.  “Is Uncle Lahn loyal to me?”

            Kurk shifted.  “He has not done anything to belie that statement, your Grace.  For all we know, he is loyal.  The man has always tottered on the brink of madness, so I don’t know how much his loyalty is worth.”

            Belihn huffed a laugh.  “He is touched by the Goddess, but he is not insane, Kurk.”

            Kurk looked unconvinced, which elicited another laugh from Belihn.  

            “We need the High Priest,” Ryeo’h muttered and leaned against the nearest bedpost.  “The common folk love and fear the high priest, so we’d best learn to interact with him.”

            Belihn nodded.  “Agreed.  I would like to see him right away, Commander-General.”

            Kurk saluted.  “I’ll send a soldier to fetch him right away, your Grace.”

            Belihn watched Kurk stride away then turned to Ryeo’h.  “Now what, Mister Thalnel?”

            Ryeo’h took a seat in the armchair vacated by Kurk.  “Now we get you crowned and married, your Grace.  Then we meet the clan forces at Le.ath Plain.”

            “Do you think we can win?” Belihn asked.

            Ryeo’h pursed his lips.  “You would know better than I, your Grace.  I know nothing of our armed forces, but I should hope, with Yllysian help, we can carry the day.”

            “I think so, too,” Belihn offered and closed his eyes.  “Please wake me when the High Priest arrives.”

            “Of course, your Grace,” Ryeo’h replied and sat back in his chair.

            It felt like a second later, Belihn was being shaken awake.  He blinked owlishly and turned his head.

            Ryeo’h, Lord Irai’h and Commander-General Deshon stood next to Prei-Serren Lahn Tjashensi-Obeli.  The High Priest looked worn and older than his years, his thick hair threaded with gray, the delicate skin under his clear, gray eyes looking bruised.

            “Uncle,” Belihn murmured.

            “Your Grace,” the High Priest replied and sat down.  “It is good you recovered the attempt on your life.”

            “Is it?” Belihn asked.

            The Prei-Serren folded his hands on his lap.  “The Goddess is appeased.  Blood has spilled with the death of Rakah Ys’teis.  Although the Goddess demanded that Kah’len’s blood spill, the blood of his brother satisfied Her needs.  Kah’len has ultimately paid for his deceit.

            Belihn sighed.  “My sire was not deceitful, High Priest.  Say rather he was loath to spill blood.”

            The High Priest scowled.  “He acted like a coward, and for what?  To keep the common man enchained to poverty while the clans got richer?  The Goddess chose Kah’len to change this nation and he failed spectacularly.  You must not fail, your Grace.”

            “I will try my utmost not to, your Eminence.”

            The High Priest nodded.  “I will crown you King of Draemin City-State and at the same time I will perform your marriage ceremony.  That should bring some stability to the city.”  The High Priest looked behind him at the others.  “The words I must now speak I must speak to the King alone.”

            Ryeo’h, Lord Irai’h and Commander-General Deshon bowed and left, closing the bedroom door behind them.

            Belihn turned to the High Priest.  “What have you to say to me, your Eminence?”

            The High Priest leaned forward and took Belihn’s hand in both of his.  “I bless you in the name of the Goddess Atana.  I have seen glimpses of the future, your Grace. The future is in flux.  Your actions will determine which vision will come to pass.  In some visions, you are victorious; in others, you fail.  Keep your faith strong and always call on Her for guidance and strength.”

            “To be honest, Uncle, I’m not very religious.”

            The Prei-Serren waved a hand.  “Religion and religious practices are there to offer peace to the faithful.  Faith is apart from those trappings.  Faith is what matters.  Do you believe in Atana?”

            “Yes,” Belihn answered honestly.  “I believe the Goddess is a actual entity.”

            “Good,” Lahn stated and sat back, letting go of Belihn’s hand.  “You and I will pray now for guidance and you must confess yourself to me once a week.  I will be your guiding light and your main advisor.  That is a prerequisite to your success.”

            “Yes, your Eminence.”

            The High Priest rose.  “One of your children will be given to Her Church.  Do you agree to this?”

            “Yes.”

            “I will choose the child, as She will guide me.”  He place his hand on Belihn’s forehead.  “Unburden yourself to me so that we may pray.”

            Belihn confessed his sins and asked for forgiveness.  

            The High Priest listened without comment and then placed his hand on Belihn’s head.  “The sin of hubris must never touch your heart, Belihn.  You are not above the Goddess and Her demands.  Do accept and agree to this?”

            “Yes, your Eminence.”

            “Then we pray for guidance.”

            Belihn closed his eyes and prayed.

Chapter X: Aya’s Ire

            Runners took the news to all corners of Draemin City-State that the coronation would take place in two months’ time while the new government was created and stabilized.  Several incidents of unrest were quelled by the Yllysians.  It became apparent that the clans were trying to mount a resistance to the new regime.  Many of the aristocracy had fled the city-state at the first appearance of the Yllysian armada, leaving behind their belongings, their properties and their bewildered staff.  Belihn ordered the clan properties confiscated, to be used by the new government as gifts to those loyal to its rule.  News arrived via carrier vinah that the clans were amassing a force against Draemin City-State.  The clans had thrown down the gauntlet:  in three months’ time the clans’ armies would confront Belihn’s forces at Le.ath Plain west of the Khaine River.  The place of battle had historical symbolism.  It had been at Le.ath Plain that Atanaist forces had met Poaists centuries before, bringing about the end of the deadly religious Civil War that broke Torahn into north and south, establishing the Kingdom of South Torahn under Poaist rule, and leaving Atanaist North Torahn a loose confederacy of city-states.  

            The weeks following the negotiations with the Yllysians were a blur of activities for Belihn and his friends.  Belihn tired quickly but was always given sufficient time to rest.  He mended slowly, his face losing its swollen, mottled appearance.  His hands also healed, albeit more slowly, but the healers had told him he would be fit for battle by the allotted date of confrontation between the pro-Yllysian forces of Draemin City-State and the rest of the cities of North Torahn.  

             Belihn was there when his father and his government were expelled from the city.  He sat on his bahil, Eiwor, and watched silently and with much suppressed emotion as his father and his closest advisors, save for Commander-General Rakah Ys’teis, were escorted by the Yllysians down the wide boulevard to the wharves, where the King and his companions boarded an Yllysian ship.  That same day, Belihn’s half-siblings were escorted onto their respective ships, the males to an Yllysian ship fated for Tu’an City in the middle of Yllysia, and the females to a South Torahni ship headed for City Lae, the capital of South Torahn.  Neither his siblings nor his father had deigned to even spare him a glance.  His half-sisters were reduced to tears as they were forced to leave their home behind.  His half-brothers were more stoic, although many looked pale from shock or suppressed rage.  Belihn could not tell.  His half-brother, Ean, had looked at him, spat on the ground, and looked away once more.  Belihn wondered if his half-siblings were aware that the alternative to exile had been beheading.  He was sure they had been told.  He did not blame his siblings for thinking he had betrayed his sire and his family and brought the about the end of the Tjashensi clan in North Torahn.  On the surface, that is exactly what he had done.

            He sat on his bahil until the ships were towed into the bay, where their sails were unfurled.  The wind filled the different colored sails and soon the ships were sailing into the distance.  Still, Belihn was loath to leave the wharves.  The thought that he was hated by his siblings, his father, his aunts and uncles did not sit well with him; it was a heavy burden to carry.  All he had ever done was to strive to make his sire proud, to make his siblings accept him.  He could not rid himself of his common blood, but he could excel in all he did.  And he had done many things that were good and admirable, but still his father’s attention had ever been elsewhere and his siblings had pointedly avoided him, save for Ean.  His sire had ever been distracted by his lovers and his crown, and his siblings had believed themselves above him.  He thought of Ean with a pang.  Of them all, Ean had been to most accepting and kind, extending his hand in friendship.  Belihn closed his eyes against the wave of shame and guilt that washed over him.

            “Belihn.”

            He opened his eyes and blinked away the imminent tears.  He looked at Kurk.

            “Yes, Commander Deshon?”

            Kurk raised an eyebrow.  “Commander?”

            “You can’t be head of security as a mere lieutenant, Kurk.  Consider yourself promoted.”

            Kurk bowed in the saddle.  “Thank you, your Grace.  Are you alright?”            

            Belihn took up the reins and urged Eiwor west.  “Ride with me, Commander.”

            “Of course, your Grace.”

            They walked their mounts down the center of the boulevard.  The crowds were thick, most of the citizenry turning out to see the banishment of their old king and his entire family.  Around Belihn and Kurk rode Yllysian guards armed to the teeth.  They were grim, watchful men with wary eyes that constantly scanned the crowds.

            They rode in silence for a bit as, around them, people pushed through the crowds to get a better view of their new young ruler, although Belihn had yet to be crowned by the Prei-Serren.  The common folk had accepted him readily enough.  The nouveau riche had accepted him with less enthusiasm, their mores more in line with the aristocracy’s.  But they were slowly warming up to him, once they realized he was not going to interfere with their class.  At least not yet. But higher taxes were coming to the middle classes and the nouveau riche.  For one, he had to fund his war against the aristocracy.  Secondly, he was going to make education universal.  Taxes would pay for free education for all children under eighteen years of age.  Once eighteen, commoners could readily enter university and would be charged according to their family’s income.  Belihn would pass a law that demanded at least 60 percent of enrollment in the school system to be from the poorer classes.  He sighed.  His goals would not be easy to implement but implement them he would.

            Kurk turned to glance at him.  “What’s got you so closemouthed, your Grace?”

            Belihn flicked him a glare.  “I’m not king yet, Kurk.”  He sighed.  “There is much work to be done.  It will not be easy.”

            “No, I daresay,” Kurk agreed.  “But first we must secure your rule.  Once you are entrenched, then you can bring about change.  Let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet, shall we?”

            Belihn swallowed.  “I would like to see my mother.  Is she in Draemin Castle?”

            Kurk accepted the change of topic smoothly.  “She is, as are all your siblings.  Repairs have begun on the one tower that fell, but since most of the castle was spared, save for cosmetic damage, no one was forced to abandon the structure.  It is high time you moved to Draemin Castle, where we can keep you better protected.”

            “I agree,” Belihn replied.  “Have my things brought back there.  I’ll move into my sire’s suites.”

            Kurk bowed in the saddle.  “As you command, your Grace.”

            Kurk rode off and Belihn informed the captain of their escort that he intended to head to Castle Draemin.

            The Yllysian bowed.  “Very good, your Grace.”

            It was disconcerting how empty the bailey of Castle Draemin was, save for repair crews.  The Great Hall echoed with silence as he was escorted inside.  Instead of going to the Throne Room, Belihn headed to the southern tower and up the tower steps to the fourth floor, where his mother resided.  He strode to her door, where two castle guards stood.  They bowed to him and opened the double doors to allow him entrance.

            His mother’s butler bowed.  “I’ll get her Majesty at once, your Grace.”

            Belihn thanked him and strode to the balcony doors, throwing them open and stepping onto the balcony. He gazed at the cloudy sky.  The air smelled of ozone and felt damp against his skin.  There would be cleansing rain soon enough to bathe away the dust of the past days.

            “Belihn.”

            He turned and strode back into the sitting room, pulling his mother into a hug.  

            She stiffened and pulled back.  Her eyes were frosty.

            He sighed.  “You are angry.”

            “You exiled your entire family!” she hissed.

            “Not my entire family.  My true family is still here.”

            She threw her hands in the air.  “To what end, I wonder?  Ta’rehn is beside himself since Aila’h was not allowed to remain here, with him.  He won’t eat; he won’t sleep.  You will speak to him.  I won’t lose him to grief!”

            “Where is he?”

            She sighed.  “In his rooms.”  Her eyes turned imploring.  “Please talk to him, Belihn.”

            “Is he in love with her?” he asked.

            She shook her head.  “They are the closest of friends.  That’s all.”  She wrung her hands.  “Why, Belihn?  Why did you do all this?”

            He placed his hands on her narrow shoulders.  “This is bigger than father or father’s pride, Aya.  This has to do with justice for the people. For the common man.”

            She cocked her head.  “But at what cost?”

            “Father will live in comfort for the rest of his life, Aya. In Tjish.un, with the Thalmar Queen.”  He let her go and swallowed.  “It is my siblings that I feel most sorrow about.”  He looked at her.  “But the Yllysians gave me an ultimatum.  Either the Tjashensis were exiled or beheaded.  Would the alternative be more to your liking, Aya?”

            She gasped.  “Truly?”

            “Had the Tjashensi clan been allowed to remain, my rule could never be secured and my goals would never be attained.  This is bigger even than any of us, Mother.”

            She frowned.  “I see.”  She looked at him.  “Is it true you are going to marry a second wife, an Yllysian?”

            “Yes.  I have to, for alliances sake.”

            “I don’t understand, son.  I don’t understand the presence of all these Yllysians.”  She sighed.  “But I never have understood anything having to do with government, I’m afraid.  Will you see Ta’rehn now?”

            He nodded.  “Excuse me.”

            He strode through the hallway door to Ta’rehn’s suite.  He knocked on the door and received no answer.  After two more knocks, he turned the knob and walked into a dim room.  There was a dying fire in the fireplace and that was the only light in the room.  He strode through the bedroom door.  The room smelled of sweat and was dark and cold.

            “Ta’rehn.”

            “Go away,” his brother growled from the bed.

            “Rise and come to the sitting room.  Now.”

            He turned and returned to the sitting room.  Through the bedroom door, he heard his brother stirring.  In a couple of minutes, his brother entered the sitting room, looking tousled and disheveled.  He glared at Belihn and dropped into an armchair.

            “What do you want?” Ta’rehn demanded.

            “I’m sorry they sent Aila’h away, but the alternative would have been worse,” he said without preamble.

            Still glowering at him, Ta’rehn raised an eyebrow.  “And what was the alternative?”

            “Death by beheading,” Belihn snapped.  “Do you think this is a game, Ta’rehn?  Any of this?”

            He brother wavered.  “What?”

            “Answer my damned questions, you!  Do you think I did anything I did just to spite you and Aila’h?”

            Ta’rehn swallowed.  “I don’t know.”

            “Well, I didn’t.  The decision to exile Aila’h rested solely with the Yllysians.  I asked them to allow her to remain, but the presence of even one Tjashensi would ensure there would always be a symbol of clan rebellion in our midst.”

            “Even a woman?” Ta’rehn demanded.

            Belihn nodded.  “Even so.  Would you rather she had been beheaded?”

            Ta’rehn flushed.  “Of course not!”

            Belihn sighed.  “Did you want to marry her?”

            Ta’rehn looked away.  “No. She’s my best friend, Belihn.  That’s all.  I love her.”

            Belihn knelt before his brother and looked earnestly at him.  “I’m sorry.  We’ve all had to sacrifice something. I’m sorry you had to endure your best friend’s exile, brother.  But, as I told Aya, this is bigger than any one of us.  I mean to change caste laws, and I mean to change North Torahn.  That will take a huge sacrifice on all our parts.”

            “Aya is livid with you,” Ta’rehn stated gently.

            “I saw,” Belihn replied dryly.  

            Ta’rehn sighed.  “She has always been in love with Eda, even though he is atoliy.  It was enough that she could be with him in the same city. Now he is gone.  She doesn’t quite know how to deal with it.”

            “We’ll have to help her.”

            Ta’rehn nodded. “Yes.”

            “Keep in touch with Aila’h, brother.  Once my rule is secure, then maybe she can return.”

            Ta’rehn grimaced.  “She may not want to.  Her mother wants her married and soonest.  She never did approve of our friendship.  Queen Ariahl always wanted Aila’h to marry a R’Nonayan.”

            “That is between them,” Belihn said.  “Now.  Are you going to be okay?”

            “Yes,” Ta’rehn replied at length.  “It’s going to take me a long time.”

            “Take all the time you need,” Belihn told him.  “But you’ll return to school and soonest.  I want you and Ilmi to finish your education.”

            Ta’rehn snorted.  “Mother has arranged for Ilmi to marry.”

            “Ilmi will finish her education first,” Belihn stated firmly.  “She’s fifteen.  She can marry when she finishes.”

            “I don’t envy that talk with Mother,” Ta’rehn said and yawned.  “I’d best wash up.  Excuse me, brother.”

            Belihn stood and allowed Ta’rehn to leave the room.  Squaring his shoulders, he went in search of his mother.

Chapter IX: Negotiations

            Three days later saw Belihn more rested, although his face still held the remnants of his beatings in Castle Draemin’s donjon.  He had spent most of the three days abed and drugged on the tea the healer had given Ryeo’h to administer to him.  Now he stood at the window gazing down upon the near full boulevard.  It seemed most people still clung to the streets.  He wondered if the populace was excited at the recent events that would go down as a significant historical moment.  Yllysia had never come down this far south before.  Now their armada clogged Draemin Bay.  Even Ryeo’h did not know what the Yllysian’s intent was – whether subjugation or protection.  Today they would find out.

            Belihn completed his morning ablutions, having bathed and dressed in his finest clothes and plaited his hair.  As he pulled on the knee-high boots over his trouser legs, there was a knock on the bedroom door.

            “Come!” he said and straightened.

            Kurk entered.  “Ah, you’ve cleaned up.  You look better, although anyone with eyes can see what the King did to his own son.”

            Belihn sighed.  “I still get dizzy if I stand too long and I still don’t have full use of my hands.  But I can function, for the most part.”

            “Good,” Kurk said.  “Come.  We are meeting with the Yllysian Ambassador at the embassy.”

            Ryeo’h and Irai’h were waiting in the sitting room.  They stopped conversing when Belihn and Kurk entered and rose from their seats.

            “How are you feeling, Belihn?” Ryeo’h asked.

            Belihn nodded.  “Better, for the most part.”  He held up his swollen, mottled hands.  “Still can’t use these well.”

            “That will come back with time,” Ryeo’h assured him.  “Did you break your fast?”

            “I ate as much as I could stomach of the boiled grains,” Belihn replied.  “Don’t have much appetite, thanks to that tea you keep making me drink.”

            Ryeo’h spread his hands.  “Rest was more important than food, but that will be reversed now.  You’ll need to eat more as the days ahead promise to be nothing short of a marathon.  I’ve hired a coach to take us to the Yllysian Embassy.  It promises to be a long, drawn out meeting, so we’ll return here afterward so you can rest.”

            Belihn took a deep, bracing breath and nodded.  “Lead the way then.”

            Outside Ryeo’h’s front door were six Yllysian warriors arraigned up and down the five steps leading up from the sidewalk.  Ryeo’h led Belihn and the others down to the street level and into the carriage.  The Yllysians mounted their beasts and surrounded the carriage as it rolled down the boulevard toward the Diplomatic District.  

            “Why all the guards?” Belihn asked.

            Ryeo’h turned to look at him.  “Your life is from now to be protected at all costs.  We’ve sent out information among the populace that you are the Goddess’ own Chosen and you will be crowned King.  After the information was dispersed, I got information from my operatives that there are at least two contracts out on your life.”

            “It’s the clan that want me dead, I suppose,” Belihn stated blandly.

            Kurk nodded.  “You are correct.  I’ve already started to organize your personal guard.  Your personal guard will be made of 50 young commoners and the position will be hereditary.  These young men were recruited from the most disaffected but whom are young enough to be molded into a well oiled and highly effective unit.”  He flicked a glance towards Ryeo’h then back to Belihn.  “I’m also recruiting for a network of spies to keep you protected and in power.”

            “Have you talked to Rakah Ys’teis?” Belihn asked.

            Kurk dipped his head.  “I asked him what I have to do, as Head of Security.  He suggested the spy network and he had suggestions as to how and whom to recruit.”

            Ryeo’h shifted.  “But the idea of the King’s Guards was all Kurk.”

            Kurk blushed and ducked his head.  “I am a connoisseur of history.  Ryeo’h here wants to make you a legend, Belihn.  The King’s Guard will create an image of glamor while at the same time preserving your life.”

            “I see,” Belihn said.  “But we still don’t know what the Yllysians want.  I might just be a figurehead to them.”

            “Let’s not reach conclusions as yet,” Ryeo’h warned.  He took a breath and released it.  “By the way, as soon as you are well, I would like to introduce you to your new secretary, Tesjun Othar.”

            Belihn sighed.  “A secretary; a guard corps.  What else can I expect?”

            Kurk snorted.  “You can expect to be king, Belihn.  So, you’ll need a wife and heirs.”

            “I already have an intended,” Belihn murmured.  “Alona Oh’nahry.”

            “A commoner?” Ryeo’h asked.

            Belihn nodded.  “Yes.  Is that a problem?”

            “No,” his friend replied.  “But in order to stabilize your reign, it might be good to marry an Yllysian.”

            “You think?” Belihn asked, not sure how he felt about having two wives.

            “Yes,” Ryeo’h told him.  “That is what we are going to propose to the Yllysians.”

            Kurk had been watching Belihn silently.  “We know where your proclivities lie, Belihn.  Having two wives does not mean you can’t have a male lover.”

            Ryeo’h frowned.  “He will have to be vetted, of course.  We can’t just let anyone into your inner circle.”

            Belihn rolled his eyes.  “This is both embarrassing and frustrating.”

            Kurk smirked.  “Such will be your life from now on, my friend.”

            The carriage turned a corner and rolled up a gentle incline to the Diplomatic District, coming to a stop in front of Yllysia’s modest embassy.  The building was surrounded by guards in leather armor and embassy colors.  Belihn’s armed escort formed a line between himself and the street as he made his way behind Ryeo’h and Irai’h and in front of Kurk.  He was led up the three marble steps into the beautifully appointed but simple foyer.  

            Neth Oronom Shejl, the Ambassorial Assistant waited at the foot of the stairs and bowed.  “The Ambassador will see you upstairs.  Please follow me.”

            They went upstairs, Belihn struggling with his weak and shaking legs.  He held on to the balustrade and measured his steps.  

            Mister Oronom led them to a door near the middle of the hallway.  Inside there was a plush outer office with gleaming eishano wood furniture, rich silk tapestries on the walls and thick throw rugs over the gleaming wooden floors.  They were led to the inner office and through the door to an expansive office with a large desk and five chairs facing it.  Ambassador Torim stood behind the desk.

            “Welcome,” Ambassador Torim murmured and indicated the chairs.  “Please sit.  Bring us tea, Shejl please.”

            The assistant bowed.  “Right away, Excellency.”

            When the assistant closed the door, the Ambassador took his seat.

            “Thank you for your joining me today,” he said, looking Belihn over.  “You look better than I expected, but it’s been nearly three weeks since you were tortured.  They must have been very thorough.”

            Belihn grimaced.  “They were, sir.”

            The Ambassador shook his head.  “Well, you are stronger for it, I imagine.”  He sighed and sat back.  “Now, we have a few things to discuss that are crucial.  Ah, Shejl.  Good, good.”

            Mister Oronom entered carrying a tray with a large teapot and five mugs.  He set the mugs on the desk and poured the tea, dropping a pale leaf into each cup.

            Belihn frowned.  “What is the leaf for?”

            Mister Oronom smiled. “The atholos leaf changes color in the presence of most poisons.  Heat activates the reaction within the leaf.”

            He handed the mugs around.

            Belihn took his mug.  “What about a cold drink?”

            The Ambassador accepted his mug from his assistant.  “Then we have tasters for that, your Grace.”

            Belihn swallowed thickly.  “I am no King yet.”

            The Ambassador waved a dismissive hand.  “A mere technicality.  I am sure our demands will not overly tax the new government.”

            Belihn sipped his tea, which was sweet and spicy, with the lance of alcohol.  It was quite good.  “Name your demands then, your Excellency.”

            Ambassador Torim sat back in his chair.  “Please take notes, Shejl.”

            The assistant sat down and picked up his pen and a bound notebook and set them at the edge of the desk.  “I’m ready, your Excellency.”

            The Ambassador nodded and looked at Belihn.  “As we have spoken of before, Isajhi will be returned to Yllysia.”

            “Agreed,” Belihn replied.  “We will repatriate our citizens somewhere else.”

            “That won’t be necessary,” the Ambassador replied.  “As long as they pay taxes and rent on their properties, they may remain.”

            “That’s very generous of Yllysia,” Kurk said.

            The Ambassador smiled.  “All we want is ownership of what was ours always.”  He looked at Belihn.  “We want the ability to trade with North Torahn and other nations.  Our merchant ships should be able to travel the Raiye’itah and Sani’Rhath Oceans without a threat of reprisal from the Torahnis.  We have just as much right to have trade agreements with nations like Tjish.un and South Torahn without war being declared on us.”

            Belihn sipped his tea.  “I am not sure I can speak for the other city-states, your Excellency.”

            “The other city-states will have to draw up new agreements with Draemin City now that it has a new regime,” the Ambassador said.  “All we ask is that you make the ability of Yllysia to have trade agreements with other nations a stipulation of your own agreements.”

            “Done,” Belihn stated.  

            Ryeo’h shifted.  “Besides, Draemin City-State has been the main force patrolling the eastern oceans.  If we allow Yllysian ships passage, no one will challenge you.”

            The Ambassador smiled.   “Precisely.”

            Ryeo’h nodded.  “Ambassador, may I suggest a gesture of good will between our nations?”

            The Ambassador frowned.  “Our assistance in stabilizing the city was not enough of a good will gesture?”

            “On your behalf, yes,” Ryeo’h assured him.  “I speak on our behalf.”

            The Ambassador’s right eyebrow shot up.  “Go on.”

            “I propose that Belihn marry an Yllysian girl.  A daughter of the Council of Ten.”

            The Ambassador started.  “You would put an Yllysian on the throne of Draemin City-State?”

            “We would be tied by blood and marriage,” Ryeo’h stated.  “And thus Yllysia would become Draemin City-State’s closest ally, in the same way Tjish.un has been by way of the Ys’teis clan and the Tjashensi clan.”

            The Ambassador rose and walked to the window, pulling the curtains apart and staring onto the gardens below.

            “That is most generous of you,” he said at length.  He turned to face them.  “I will put it to the Council of Ten and, if they agree, they will choose a young woman.  Will the King have another wife?”

            Belihn rose.  “I have a betrothed, your Excellency.  A friend.”

            “I see.  You would hold your wives in equal status?” the Ambassador asked.  “We will countenance no snubbing of our girl.”

            “I’ll treat them both as friends, sir.  You have my word.”

            “We have on more stipulation,” the Yllysian said.

            Belihn sat down.  “Name it.”

            “We heard you are to have a Royal Guard.”

            Kurk huffed a laugh.  “But how can you possibly know this so soon?”

            The Ambassador smiled faintly.  “I have my ways.” He looked at Belihn.  “Half of your Royal Guard must be of the Yllysian Elite.  We would protect what benefits Yllysia with Yllysian force.  Also, we will leave a force of 1,000 men to protect Draemin City-State from civil war and invasion.  We ask if you seek mercenaries, that you get them from Yllysia first.  We are a poor nation, sir.  Our isolation, forced by North Torahni practices, have impoverished us further.  For nigh on 1,000 years we have been forced to live in isolation while the rest of the world grew wealthier.  That stops now.”

            Belihn rose and put his hand out.  “Agreed.”

            The Ambassador clasped his hand.  “Then we have an agreement.  I will write the Council of Ten about your Yllysian wife.”

            Mister Oronom rose.  “I have those agreements drawn up, your Excellency. I will bring them in.”

            “Very good, Shejl.  Please put in the stipulation about the Yllysian wife.”

            Ryeo’h, Irai’h and Kurk rose.

            “Did you know Belihn would agree to your terms?” Kurk asked.

            “I had hoped,” the Ambassador said.

            “They are not unreasonable terms,” Belihn murmured.

            “Anti-Yllysian prejudice is strong in North Torahn,” the Ambassador stated.  “Perhaps not in Draemin City-State, for it is more cosmopolitan here.  But we don’t even have embassies in the other city-states.  That must change.  We want to trade with North Torahn as a whole, not just Draemin City.”

            “You will,” Belihn assured him.  “I will make it a priority for my government.”

            “Toward that end,” the Ambassador said.  “May I suggest you employ an advisor of Yllysian descent?  To ensure our interests are protected?”

            “Do you have an advisor in mind?” Ryeo’h asked.

            “We have two men:  A commoner and a child of the Council of Ten.”

            Ryeo’h sighed.  “All this change might work against stabilizing Belihn’s rule.”

            “Our troops will ensure protection for the new King,” the Ambassador replied.  “These terms are nonnegotiable.  You accept or we take over the rule of Draemin City-State.”

            Ryeo’h looked at Belihn.  “It’s your decision, Belihn.”

            Belihn turned to the Ambassador.  He clasped his hands once more.  “I owe Yllysia everything.  I agree to your terms and will affix my signature on your agreements.”

            Kurk turned to Belihn.  “Shouldn’t we discuss this, Belihn?”

            “You wanted me as your King,” Belihn told him.  “I was forced to be your King. Now I ask that you abide by my choices.”

            Kurk bowed.  “Of course, your Grace.”

            Mister Oronom returned with a stack of papers.  He set them on the desktop.  

            “There are several contracts here,” he said to Belihn.  “I will order some food for us.  This will take hours, your Grace.”

            “I have no experience with contracts,” Belihn said.

            “But I do, your Grace,” Ryeo’h murmured.  “I have been drawing contracts for my father’s firm for nearly ten years.  Have a seat, Belihn.  You needn’t overtax yourself.”

            Belihn sighed and took a seat, bracing himself for a long day.

Chapter VIII: Reactions

            It seemed every citizen had come out into the boulevard to witness the Yllysians’ arrival.  Yllysians rode into the city on sturdy, shaggy mounts called bae’hli.  The beasts had wicked-looking horn on each side of their wide foreheads and sharp cloven hooves.  Their shaggy manes were snowy white.  Some of the beasts had blue and gray dapples on their powerful haunches and some were without dappling.  Although cousin of the bahil and the lirtah, the bae’hli were more aggressive than their more common cousins.  The Yllysians rode tall in their saddles, in full silver armor with exquisite, exotically decorated shields and sharp curved swords and pikes.  The Yllysians wore their eggshell pale hair loose about their shoulders and down their backs.  The people were mute as the armed invaders rode past the crowds lining the boulevard.  In stark contrast to their pale hair, the Yllysians had blue-tinted skin of varying shades.  Their eyes were of different shades, from black to pale gray or pale blue.  They rode grimly past and the crowd watched, uneasy and restless.

            Irai’h stood with Aosji and I’a’sji at the edge of the crowd.  He was in awe at the beauty of the Yllysians in their gleaming armor and tall shields.  Part of him was deeply shocked that freemen would ride in public with their hair loose and unbraided.  But he knew other nations did not share Torahni mores.  He had come with his friends to gauge how the denizens felt about the Yllysians occupying the city.  They had come to spy for Ryeo’h.  They had been within the crowd since late the previous evening and exhaustion seeped into Irai’h’s very core.  But still he knew he would not be able to sleep, not for some days at least, as they secured the city-state for their new king.

            Once the army had ridden past, on their way east towards Castle Draemin, Irai’h turned to his friends.

            “Let’s see if we can find a tavern and listen to some gossip, shall we?” he asked.

            He led them down the boulevard to a well-known tavern.  The tavern had a few patrons, but there were still tables open, so they took one in the middle of the room and ordered a carafe of ekila and three glasses.  They glanced at one another as others followed them inside.  

            “They won’t say much at first,” Irai’h told his friends in a quiet voice.  “But once the alcohol gets in them, their tongues will loosen.”

            Three burly wharf workers sat down at the next table over.  

            Irai’h bought the table a round of ale.

            When the young serving wench placed the tankards before the three workers, the one on the left looked at her.

            “We didn’t order yet,” he told her.

            “The gentleman there bought you a round,” the girl replied and sashayed away.

            The three turned to look at Irai’h.

            Irai’h lifted his glass of liqueur.          

            The three workers lifted their ales.

            “Thank you,” the one on the left said.

            “Uncertain times call for liquid courage,” Irai’h replied.

            The three wharf workers looked at one another and nodded with nervous chuckles.

            “What do you make of all this?” the wharf worker on the right side of the table asked Irai’h.

            “Your guess is as good as mine,” Irai’h told him and sipped his drink.  “Rumors abound, though.”

            “Rumors always abound,” the wharf worker on the middle stated and spat.  “Someone opened the gates and let the Yllysians in.”  He looked at Irai’h and his friends.  “Whomever opened the gates slaughtered the gate guards.  The Yllysians never once bloodied their swords.  They are curiously restrained, aren’t they?”

            “They bloodied their swords at the Castle,” the one on the right said.  “I heard they launched fire projectiles into the bailey and battered the towers until two crumbled.”

            Irai’h swallowed.

            The worker on the right continued, unaware of Irai’h’s growing concern.  “Once they broke through the gates, they killed everything in sight, including servants.”

            The worker on the left grunted.  “It’s because our archers took out a number of the Yllysians.  The Yllysians were angry.”

            The one in the middle spat again.  “Who asked them to come?”

            The worker on the right shook his head.  “I don’t mind them so much.  It’s the King:  he said he represented the common man, but he did nothing for us.”

            “It ain’t been so bad,” the one in the middle reasoned.  “We get our wages–“

            “We can’t ever rise above our station!” the one in the left growled and took a swallow of his ale.  “And, if you’re honest, you’d own to the fact that even though the nouveau riche have gotten richer, everyone else hasn’t.”

            The worker on the right huffed a laugh.  “Nothing’s going to change for our class, friend.  Ever.  I don’t care who comes into power.”

            The other two grunted and fell silent as they nursed their ales.

            “Do you think the other city-states will come to Draemin’s aid?” Aosji asked the wharf workers.

            The one in the middle barked a laugh.  “Even if they do, as my friend here said, nothing’s going to change for us, lad.  The rich get richer and the poor struggle on.  It’s the way of the world.”

            The other two silently nodded.

            I’a’sji lowered his voice and leaned forward.  “They have a point, Irai’h.  Our new king can’t make everyone rich.”

            Irai’h frowned.  “If a man works for twenty years and comes to work every day, he should expect to be promoted and his wages increased.  I don’t expect the new king to make everyone rich; but I do expect him to equalize employment.”

            The other two glanced at one another and away again.  They hunched their shoulders.

            Aosji sighed.  “At the very least, the new king has to win the people over.  There is a lot of bitterness and disillusionment.”

            “I don’t disagree with you,” Irai’h told him.  “The new king has his work cut out for him.”

            Slowly, the din from conversations in the tavern grew so loud, Irai’h and his friends could no longer eavesdrop on nearby tables, so they moved to a far table against a wall and decided to bribe one of the serving lads to eavesdrop for them.  At the end of the lad’s shift, they invited him to sit, poured him a measure of ekila, and peppered him with questions.

            The young man leaned forward.  “Everyone is afraid of what it’s going to be like under Yllysian rule.  Some are afraid and some are hopeful.  Most poor folks loved their king but were disappointed that he did nothing he said he would.  Some people think we didn’t give him enough time.”

            “Twenty years was not enough?” Irai’h demanded.

            The young server shrugged.  “I only repeat what I’ve heard.”

            Irai’h leaned forward and rested his forearms on the table.  “And you, what do you think?”

            The young man smiled.  “I was born under King Kah’len’s rule, so I’ve known nothing else.  I want to go to school, but I can’t afford to.  He said he would make education universal, but the damned clans have opposed him at every turn.  He said he would facilitate loans for poorer folk so they could start their own businesses or go to school.  He has done nothing.  I’ve heard he’s a coward that fears war with the clans.”

            Irai’h sighed.  “He’s no coward.  He didn’t want his hands stained with blood.”

            “Change requires sacrifice,” the young man said and rose.  “I think most people are waiting to see if their circumstances change, so whoever rules us should make his word good.”

            Irai’h handed the server two coins.  “For your trouble.  You sound like you’ve received your share of education.”

            The young man ducked his head.  “I taught myself to read and write.  I want to be a barrister.”

            Irai’h rose.  “What’s your name?”

            “Tesjun Othar, sir.”

            “I might have other work for you in an office setting, if you don’t mind clerical work,” Irai’h told him.   “My employer is always looking for bright young people.  He would pay for your education as well.”

            Tesjun gaped.  “You jest.”

            Irai’h chuckled.  “Not at all.  How old are you?”

            “Eighteen halthas, sir.”

            They clasped hands.  

            Irai’h smiled.  “Then come to Thalnel and Sons in two days’ time. That will give me time to speak to my employer.”

            “Thank you, sir!”

            The young man walked away, weaving carefully between tables.

            Irai’h looked at his friends.  “Shall we head out?”

            “I never met anyone who taught themselves to read and write,” Aosji commented once they were outside the tavern.

            “Precisely,” Irai’h replied.  “He would be an asset to Thalnel and Sons, don’t you think?”        

            For the next few hours, they wove in and out of the crowds that still lingered on the boulevard and side streets.  They learned nothing new.  Some people supported King Kah’len; others did not.  But most people were disillusioned and disenchanted and did not think the Yllysians would change things for the better, either.  But the people were restless, uncertain and afraid.  Yllysian soldiers roamed the streets on their strange beasts, but they did not interfere with the crowds.  They were alert and wary as they rode up and down the boulevard or the side streets and alleyways.  

            Finally, hours later, as a new sunrise approached, Irai’h told his friends to go home and get some sleep.

            “What about you?” Aosji wanted to know.

            “I’m going to find Ryeo’h.  Go on, Aosji.  I’m sure your wife won’t mind if you went home.”

            They clasped forearms and then, when his friends dispersed into the crowd, Irai’h turned south and headed towards Ryeo’h’s apartment.

***

            “What he needs is a few days of rest,” the healer told Ryeo’h.  “He can’t push himself or he’ll undo what good has been done.”

            Ryeo’h nodded.  “How many days are we talking about?”        

            The healer considered.  “Well, a week would be optimum, but at least three days.”

            “I’ll discuss it with him and my other associates,” Ryeo’h told her.  “I can guarantee three days of rest, but more I cannot.”

            The healer sighed.  “If that is all you can give him, then so be it.”  She reached into her satchel and removed a cloth bag.  She handed it to Ryeo’h.  “These are the leaves of the morsjen plan.  The tea is soporific in nature.  Give him a cup of the tea in the morning and in the evening.  Steep a handful of leaves in water for two hours, letting it steep for strength.  He can drink it hot or cold.”

            Ryeo’h glanced at the small bag with the strong odor.  “I’ll do that.  Thank you.”

            He walked her out the front door.

            At that moment, Irai’h was coming up the five steps from the sidewalk.

            He smiled at his friend.  “Good morrow to you, Irai’h.”

            Irai’h bowed to the healer then looked at Ryeo’h.  “Good morrow to you, Ryeo’h.”

            They both entered the foyer and Ryeo’h closed the front door.

            “What brings you here?” Ryeo’h asked.

            “To report on my findings,” Irai’h replied.  “Did you find Belihn?”        

            “Yes.”  

            Ryeo’h turned and pulled a rope near the front door.  A few minutes later, Shen, his butler, hurried to the foyer.

            “You rang, sir?”

            “Boil a handful of these leaves in water and let steep for two hours,” Ryeo’h told the butler.  “Then bring Belihn a cup.”

            The butler took the small bag and bowed.  “Right away, sir.”

            Ryeo’h glanced at Irai’h.  “Come with me.”

            They headed upstairs together and to the bedroom to the left of the master suite.  The room was small with a full sized bed.  Belihn lay on the bed and a young man in soldierly garb sat in a chair next to the bed.  He rose when Irai’h and Ryeo’h entered the room.

            “Irai’h Asjur,” Ryeo’h said.  “This is Kurk Deshon, a friend of Belihn.”

            Deshon looked at Irai’h and raised an eyebrow.  “An aristocrat?”            

            Ryeo’h spread his hands.  “Irai’h has fallen from favor with his clan.  He is a clerk in my father’s business.”

            “I see,” Deshon said and accepted Irai’h’s handshake.  “I’m sorry to be skeptical, m’lord–“

            “Think nothing of it,” Irai’h replied and released his hand.  He glanced to the bed.  “How are you Belihn?”

            Belihn nodded.  “I’m mending, Irai’h.”

            Irai’h walked further into the room until he stood by the footrest.  Belihn’s face was covered with mottled bruises that were yellowing with age.  His right eye was red, although at some point it must have looked worse.  His lower lip was swollen and had deep cut along its center.  The young prince looked wan and thin.

            “You look like shit.  No insult intended.”

            Belihn smiled faintly.  “None taken.  Sit, please, Irai’h.”

            Irai’h took a seat in the chair next to the bed.  He watched as the other two sat down, Deshon at the edge of the mattress and Ryeo’h in another armchair that he pulled over.

            “What have you learned?” Ryeo’h asked without preamble.

            Irai’h looked at his friend.  “The people are wary but are waiting to see whether their circumstances change or not.  There is more ambivalence to the idea of the Yllysians occupying the city-state than resentment.  At least from the common folk.  With the clans, it may be the opposite.  It is relatively calm right now, though, even if the streets are crawling with Yllysians.”

            Ryeo’h rubbed a finger along his lower lip with a thoughtful expression.  “The clans haven’t had a chance to organize. They will, though.  Especially once Kah’len is removed physically and leaves the city.  Once the Tjashensi clan is gone, others will attempt to fill that void.  Which is why we must crown Belihn king soonest.”

            “Agreed,” Irai’h said.  He looked at Belihn.  “Are you used to the idea as yet?”

            Belihn grimaced.  “I only just heard of it.”

            “Then get used to it and soon,” Irai’h told him with a smirk.  

            “What I want doesn’t matter, does it?” Belihn asked rhetorically.

            The other three looked at one another and chuckled.

            “Oh, by the way,” Irai’h said to Ryeo’h.  “I’ve recruited a new clerk for you:  Tesjun Othar.  The young man is eighteen and has taught himself to read and write.  He wants to be a barrister.”

            Ryeo’h nodded.  “Have him come by the office tomorrow then.”

            “I thought you might say that,” Irai’h said.  “I told him to come to the office tomorrow.”

            Ryeo’h looked at Belihn.  “You’ll be needing a secretary, I suppose.  Perhaps this Tesjun Othar would be a good one to assist you.  Best you surround yourself with commoners right from the outset.”

            Belihn nodded and looked at Kurk.  “Kurk, I’ll need a Head of Security.”

            Deshon started.  “What?  You can’t mean me.”

            Belihn cocked his head.  “And why not?  You can learn from Commander-General Rakah Ys’teis all you’ll need to know.  I need people I can trust around me, Kurk.  That’s a more elusive qualification than experience.”

            Kurk opened and closed his mouth a couple of times before he blushed to the tips of his ears.  “If you pay me enough for me to marry my girl, I’m in.”

            “You name your price, Kurk,” Belihn told him.

            Kurk’s blush deepened but he swallowed and nodded.  “I’ll let you know.  When would I need to start?”

            “Once the circlet is on Belihn’s head,” Ryeo’h answered.  

            “And when will that be?” Kurk asked.

            “In three days,” Ryeo’h replied and frowned at Belihn’s expression.

“Best get used to things moving quickly from now on,” Ryeo’h told his friend. He shook his head and rose. There were things that needed doing.

Chapter VII: Revelations

            News reached the villa that an Yllysian armada was approaching the city from the northeast.  The messenger told both Belihn and Divita that there were so many ships, they seem to spill to the very horizon.  North Torahni ships made to intercept them, but they were hopelessly outnumbered.  

            Belihn cursed, worried about the resulting loss of life.  It was a hopeless gesture, 53 ships against an armada.  North Torahn had not engaged the Yllysians at sea in near 150 years.  Their most recent battles had been fought on land, in Isajhi, ironically also known as the Neutral Territory.  While his mother gave the messenger a few coins and told him to go to the kitchen for some refreshment, Belihn turned on his heels and strode down the hall towards his bedroom.  He heard Divita follow him there.  

            “What are you going to do?” she demanded.

            “I need to do something, Mother, before the Yllysians slaughter every soldier they encounter,” he replied absently as he took his travel bag from the wardrobe and began to stuff his clothes into it.

            She put a hand on his arm.  “The quarantine has not been lifted and you are still not fully recovered.”

            He bent to pick up a fallen tunic and groaned at the pull of the scarred skin over his stomach.  He continued to pack as she watched him worriedly.

            “Belihn!  I am speaking to you!”

            He stopped with a sigh and turned to look at her.  “I’m sorry, Aya.  I know you are worried; so am I.  I need to do this!”

            She wrung her hands.  “You can’t go alone into a battle!”

            He shook his head.  “I am not a soldier any longer.  I probably won’t fight.  I just have to go into the city to meet up with friends; that’s all, Aya.  I promise.”

            “But look at you,” she entreated.  “You are pale, thin and haggard.  You were tortured for days and it hasn’t been a fortnight!”

            He placed his hands on her shoulders and gave her a gentle shake.  “Please, Mother.  If you love me, don’t get in my way.”

            She took a step back, her face stoically smooth as she watched him finish packing then she followed him out into the front yard.  He handed her the travel bag and went around the house to the stables in the backyard and saddled and bridled a lirtah.  He walked the restive animal to the front yard.  Handing her the reins, he took the travel bag, tied it securely to the saddle and put his foot in the stirrup, grimacing as he hauled himself onto the saddle.  

            She stepped closer to the mount and handed him the reins.  She gave him an earnest, pleading look.  

            “Promise you’ll take care, Belihn, by all that is holy!” she entreated.

            He reached down and cupped her face.  “Take care of the siblings and Alona.  Please.”

            She nodded, eyes brimming with tears.

            He sat back in the saddle and kicked his mount into a canter.  Lirtah were more sturdy and tired less than bahil, so he gave his mount its head and it took off at a gallop down the paved road towards the city in the north.  He rode low over the animal’s long, muscular neck, grunting as pain lanced over his chest.  The empathic healers had healed most of the damage done to his hands, but the pain was still very real.  Making a fist proved impossible, so he held the reins loosely as he focused on not toppling from his perch.  Each time the animal’s hoofs pounded the paved road, he felt a sickening jar.  By the time he approached the southern gate of the city over two hours later, he was pale and shaking from his exertions.  

            With the last dregs of his energy, he pulled the lirtah to a stop near the gates and allowed the animal to walk to where the guards stood waiting.

            “Name your business,” one of the guards growled.  “You’re violating the quarantine, which has not been lifted as yet.”

            “I am not sick, nor was I,” Belihn muttered, sick to his stomach as the pain threatened to overwhelm him.  “I come because the Yllysian armada approaches our shores.”

            The guard gave him a skeptical once over.  “And what is it you mean to do?”

            “Anything that is needed,” he replied.

            The guard studied him for a long silent moment before he nodded and stood to one side.

            Belihn thanked him and urged the lirtah into a canter towards the business district.  He had to find Ryeo’h and soon.

            By the time he reached the business district, he came upon the beginnings of chaos.  Soldiers roamed the streets, headed east towards the castle.  The very city seemed to move as one towards Draemin Castle.

            “Belihn!”

            Belihn pulled the lirtah to a stop and groaned at the pain in his back and hands.  He turned in the saddle and almost fainted.  He closed his eyes and swallowed convulsively before opening his eyes once more.

            “Kurk,” Belihn said faintly.

            “Here, come down,” Kurk Deshon demanded and aided Belihn in dismounting.

            Kurk frowned at him.  “You look like warmed over death, friend.  What are you doing here?”

            “I have to do something, Kurk!” Belihn wiped his face with a cold, shaking hand.  “I can’t sit idly by.”

            Kurk took the reins.  “I heard you were tortured, Belihn.  Are you mad?  You can’t do anything like you are.”

            “What’s happening?” Belihn asked as Kurk led Belihn east.  

            “Rebellion, that’s what,” Kurk replied quietly.  “Come to my row house apartment and lie down.”

            “I have to contact some friends, Kurk–“

            “Let me find them for you,” his friend said and they turned down a quiet alley.  “I need for you to lie down.”

            Belihn looked at him.  “Are you rebelling?”

            Kurk shrugged.  “What is there for me to do, friend?  I barely eke out a living and I have risen to the highest rank I will be able to attain in this city-state.  You bet I’m rebelling.”

            Belihn sighed.  “I wish I was stronger.”

            “Never mind.  Wait here.”

            They had come to a public mews and Kurk went in to stable the lirtah.  

            Belihn leaned against the outer wall of the mews and fought to remain standing.  His legs shook badly and sweat was pouring from his skin, rivulets meandering down his back. His throat felt parched.

            Kurk returned carrying Belihn’s travel bag and took his arm.  “Come on.  I live two blocks away.”

            “I thought you lived in the barracks,” Belihn stated distantly.  His eyesight had begun to narrow and the pain was overwhelming.  He wondered if he had done some serious damage to himself.

            “I moved away three weeks ago,” Kurk replied.  “Belihn!”

            Belihn stumbled and fell.  

            He was only distantly aware of being turned onto his back before he was being lifted.  He closed his eyes and passed out.

***

            Someone moaned.

            Belihn came to slowly, becoming aware of ambient noises first and then minor discomforts and major aches.  He tried to move and found he could not.  He turned his head and opened his eyes.  He lay in a semi dark room of modest size.  The bed he lay on was a double, with clean, if worn sheets, and thick pillows beneath his head.  The room had a wood stove on one side with a sink and a scuffed table with pots and pans and plates and cups and utensils.  On the other side of the room was another table with a washbasin and a small stack of folded towels and washcloths, two cakes of soap and an ewer.  A spigot sprung from the wall directly over the washbasin.  A third table was located in the center of the room.  This one was about the size of a card table and had three chairs around it. To the left of the bed was a fair sized chest.  The only light in the room came from a window against the far corner, over the table with the pots and pans.  A white sheet covered it, but it was thin enough to let in a modicum of light.

            As Belihn lay there, wondering where in all hells he was, a door on the left hand side of the room opened and two shadowy figures walked in.

            Belihn stiffened and watched wide-eyed as they approached the bed.

            “Ah, you’re awake,” Kurk stated quietly.

            Belihn relaxed.  “Kurk.  Where am I?”

            “My apartment,” Kurk replied.  “Such as it is.  Give me a moment.”

            The lieutenant strode to the window and pulled the sheet to one side, allowing light into the room.

            “Belihn.”

            Belihn turned his head and gasped.  “Ryeo’h!”  He made to sit up.

            Ryeo’h tsked and gently pushed him back onto the pillows.  “No, my lord.  You are not to move until we are ready for you.”

            Belihn frowned.  “What do you mean?”

            Kurk walked to the foot of the bed and leaned against the iron footrest.  “You, Belihn, are the chosen.”

            “Chosen?” he echoed.  “What do you mean?”

            Ryeo’h sat at the edge of the mattress and patted Belihn’s forearm. “You are the son of the King by his commoner Queen.  In you the castes have joined into one.  You will lead us into the future.”

            Belihn’s mouth dried.  

            Ryeo’h watched him steadily, seriously.  His eyes were wary.

            “Surely you jest, Mister Thalnel.”

            Ryeo’h sighed.  He glanced knowingly at Kurk.  “I told you this would be harder than taking Castle Draemin.”

            Kurk chuckled and dragged a chair near the bed.  “He’s humble, Ryeo’h.  He’s perfect.”

            “Yes,” Ryeo’h replied and turned back to Belihn.  “The Yllysians have occupied the city-state and now batter Draemin Castle.  We need a strong leader, Belihn.  One who has been purged by suffering.  One who is humble and modest enough to represent the people before his own interests.  Do you really think any of your half-siblings can fulfill that role?  Besides, the Prei-Serren himself has stated you are chosen by the Goddess.”

            Belihn sighed.  “Why not my mother?”

            “The Yllysians don’t countenance women ruling, Belihn.  They are our masters.”

            Belihn shifted.  “Am I to be a mere puppet to them?”

            “You are to represent the common man and Yllysian interests in North Torahn,” Ryeo’h murmured.  “They will leave advisors here for you.  And troops to maintain the peace while you found a new government.”

            “I see,” Belihn said.

            “Do you, Belihn?” Kurk prompted.

            Belihn looked at his friend.  “How many died?”

            “Thirteen ships were destroyed before the king recalled the fleet.  King Kah’len has abdicated and will be escorted to Tjish.un, where he will reside for the remainder of his life.”  Kurk shook his head.  “The Tjashensi family will be scattered to the four winds.  The older male children will be removed to Yllysia, where they will live out their lives in comfort–“

            “As prisoners,” Belihn spat.

            Ryeo’h spread his hands.  “Would you prefer the alternative?”

            Belihn looked at him.  “Alternative?”

            “Beheading?”  His friend gave him a chilly stare.  “The Yllysians made it very clear, Belihn.  The young males can either go to Yllysia to live out the remainder of their lives or they can die here.”

            “And the females?” Belihn asked.

            “They will be shipped to South Torahn, to live under the King there,” Ryeo’h replied.  “All your half-siblings will be deported, save the Prei-Serren’s heir.”

            “Vallaw?” Belihn asked.

            Ryeo’h nodded.  “Vallaw.”

            “And my full siblings?” Belihn prompted.

            Ryeo’h shrugged.  “They will remain here.”

            “They are sending Aila’h away, too?” Belihn asked.

            Kurk shifted.  “Your brother has asked for her hand in marriage.  The Yllysians are considering it.”

            Belihn sighed.  “I see.  And the other Queens?”

            Kurk lifted his chin.  “They will be returned to their respective nations.  Your aunt Kahla and her family and your grandmother, Oona Obeli-Thalmar, will live in Tjish.un as well.  Only Commander-General Rakah Ys’teis will remain as an advisor until your reign is secure.  Then he will follow his brother, your father, to Tjish.un.”

            “I see,” Belihn stated hollowly.  He had never been close to his half-siblings, but the idea of his family being spread throughout the world didn’t sit well with him.

            Ryeo’h placed his hand on Belihn’s.  “Belihn.  I realize this may be hard for you, but this is your path, chosen by the Goddess herself.”

            “You should be king, Ryeo’h.”

            Ryeo’h reeled back as if struck.  “If anything, Belihn, I am a king-maker.  Not a king.  There is a difference.”  He smiled without mirth.  “Besides, the world is not ready for the first Commoner King.  In your blood flows the blood of kings, Belihn.  Of the Ys’teis clan and the Tjashensi clan, of the Thalmars and the Obelis.  History flows in your very veins.  I will concoct a myth for you, King Belihn.  I will make you a hero and a myth.”

            Belihn shuddered.  “I am not worthy.”

            Kurk stiffened.  “You are the most worthy of all of them, Belihn.  Of all the spoiled princes and princesses who live in utter luxury, blind and deaf to the pleas of the commoner. Uncaring if a child starves to death. Unmoved by a soldier’s plight.  Not you, Belihn.  Never you.  As long as I have known you, you have worried about the wellbeing of the people, of the common soldier.  You almost paid for your belief with your life.”

            Belihn shook his head.  “This is too much.”

            Ryeo’h rose.  “Best get used to it soonest.  Castle Draemin has opened her gates to Yllysia.  Now, if you are rested enough, come with me to my home.  I will hire a healer to look you over.”

            They assisted Belihn in sitting up and watched patiently as Belihn pulled on his boots and rose onto shaky legs.  

            “Come,” Ryeo’h murmured.  “There is much work to be done.”

Chapter VI: It Begins

Irai’h stood by the office window and stared out at the nearly deserted boulevard.  The quarantine had been in place now for just over two months.  He closed his eyes and rested his temple against the interior casing of the window.  He wondered how Ryeo’h fared and Aosji and I’a’sji.  And Belihn.  Eventually, Leptka’s Disease would burn itself out and he could go out once more.  He needed to find his friends and see if they had survived.  Of course, the disease itself would roam the nation for up years.  The longest the plague had lasted had been five years, appearing in different city-states and killing a great number of citizens before disappearing and reappearing somewhere else.  That had been 140 years prior.

            A modicum of business would commence once Draemin City-State was free of the plague.  Her city gates would be thrown open once more until the next bout of disease reared its ugly head.  

            Irai’h rubbed his face.  Religious fervor burned through the populace, as it always did in times like these.  But that could be used to their benefit.

            There was a knock on the front door and he roused himself and went to open it.

            Ryeo’h stood on the other side of the threshold.

            “Ryeo’h!”

            They embraced and Irai’h stood to one side to allow his friend to enter.

            “How is your family?” Irai’h asked.

            “We have been spared so far,” Ryeo’h murmured and made a sign to avert evil.  He removed his cloak and draped it over the back of an armchair.  “Sit, Irai’h.  I’ve news.”

            Irai’h sat on the settee across from the armchair his friend chose.  “Tell me.”

            Ryeo’h leaned forward and rested his forearms on his thighs.  “Belihn almost died.  It took two empathic healers to pull him from the brink of death. The arrival of the plague after the King and the Prei-Serren argued over him was a masterful stroke.  People are angry and afraid.  Everything stands ready.”

            “But what about the funds we need?” Irai’h asked.

            Ryeo’h shook his head.  “I’ll fund the uprising.  I’ll recoup my funds somehow.  We can’t let this opportunity pass us by.”

            He reached into the inner pocket of his coat and removed a thick missive.  He handed it over to Irai’h.

            “What’s this?” Irai’h asked and opened the missive.  The writing was in code.  He glanced at Ryeo’h.  “I can’t read it.”

            Ryeo’h smiled.  “It’s from Yllysia.  Their armada is scheduled to arrive within the week.  All we must do is open the gates.”

            Irai’h gaped.  “They must have left Yllysia back when the plague first took hold.”

            Ryeo’h shook his head.  “They left Yllysia when Prince Belihn was first taken, at the Ambassador’s word.”

            “How will we be able to get the gates open?”

            “You leave that to me,” Ryeo’h said.  He rose and took the missive from Irai’h’s hands.  He walked to the fireplace and threw the missive into the flames.  “The army is ready to turn on the king.  The King knows, of course.  He is surrounded by mercenaries.  What he does not know is that the Yllysians come.  Castle Draemin is in lockdown.”

            “How will we break through their defenses?” Irai’h asked.

            “What the King does not know is that I have operatives in Castle Draemin,” Ryeo’h replied.  “Once I give the order, we will get inside.  Worry naught.”

            “I can’t help but worry, Ryeo’h,” Irai’h stated and rose.  “Any number of things can go wrong.”

            “If my operatives fail me,” Ryeo’h told him.  “Then we starve the castle until its denizens surrender.”

            “And what of Belihn?” Irai’h asked.

            “He is our symbol,” Ryeo’h said.  “He is our future King.”

            “The other city-states will come to King Kah’len’s assistance.”

            Ryeo’h sighed.  “They might, although I hear the plague has burned through a great percentage of the population of North Torahn.  We will need Yllysia’s help to get through this.”

            Irai’h wrung his hands.  “You trust the Yllysians?”

            “I’ve no choice,” his friend replied.  “They have been, and continue to be, the unknown quantity.  For all I know, we are being invaded.”

            “Goddess help us,” Irai’h murmured.

            “Indeed.”

   ***

            The King’s hands shook so badly, he had to set the half full glass of wine back on the table.  He wrung his hands.    

            “Why don’t they attack already?” Kah’len demanded.

            Warlord Obeli shrugged.  “Perhaps they are waiting for something.”

            Kah’len narrowed his eyes.  “What could they possibly be waiting for?”

            “That I don’t know, your Grace.”

            The King rose from the table and began to pace.  Weeks of worry and sleeplessness had robbed his cheeks of the bloom of health.  He looked gaunt and exhausted, his features sharp and pale, the delicate skin under the eyes bruised.  

            Rakah watched his half-brother in silence.  His intelligence networks had dried up as soon as plague hit the shores of Draemin City-State.  The silence of their enemies echoed through the city and even through the Underground City.

            The door to the War Room was thrown open and Prei-Serren Lahn Tjashensi-Obeli strode through in full priestly regalia.  He wore the gold conical hat and golden robe of the season.  A thick gold chain with Atana’s gem hung from his neck.  He stopped just under the doorjamb and raked his eyes over the King and his counselors.

            “Why have I been summoned?” he demanded.

            “Come in, Lahn,” the King murmured wearily.  “Close the door and have a seat.”

            The High Priest closed the door and took a seat next to Lady Oona Obeli-Thalmar at the table.  “Well?”

            “What will it take to avert the Goddess’ wrath, Lahn?” the King asked.  

            The Prei-Serren barked a laugh.  “A bit late, aren’t you?”

            The King slammed the palms of his hands on the table.  “You will respect me, Lahn.”

            “When you respect me, your Majesty,” the High Priest retorted hotly.

            The King sighed.  “I don’t want to fight, Lahn.  I need your help.”        

            The High Priest sat back in his chair.  “The Goddess takes her sacrifice every day.  No amount of burnt animal flesh or crops will appease her.  She takes souls this time.”

            Silence met his words.

            He looked around the congregation.  “I have had visions.  Lots of visions that have wrung my peace of mind from me.  Things I am not allowed to interpret, convoluted visions that portend sorrow and an end, but of what I don’t know.  The Goddess is being illusive, your Grace.  You had her favor, but she has withdrawn it.  Of all your Queens, she favors Divita first.  Divita was the Goddess’ choice for you.  You took the child of her loins and tortured him almost unto death because the boy pricked your pride.  You acted with hubris, your Grace.”

            The King finally managed to pick up his glass of wine and emptied it in two swallows.  “So, I am without recourse.”

            The High Priest looked at him.  “Not without recourse, beloved.  You have worldly recourse, but not heavenly aid.  I do not think you will survive these times, Kah’len Tjashensi.”

            “What can I do to ensure my survival, High Priest?”

            “Do what you promised,” the Prei-Serren replied.  “You promised change and an end to the caste laws. That is all Belihn wants, too.”  Lahn Tjashensi-Obeli sighed.  “Your time is almost done, Kah’len.  You will be allowed to become reborn so that you can make amends to the Goddess.  I will keep an eye out for your rebirth.”

            “Are you asking Kah’len just to give up?” Lady Oona demanded.

            “I am the messenger and I have delivered my message,” Lahn told her.  “What you do from now on, you do on your own.  Fight or don’t fight.  The Goddess has chosen her side.”

            “And what if I end the caste laws,” the King asked.  “What if I do what I told her I would do.”

            The High Priest shook his head.  “You nearly killed your scion.  The best and most holy of your children.  The Goddess’ own chosen.  The only thing that will appease the Goddess is your blood, Kah’len Tjashensi.”

            “You are the King’s aide!” Lady Oona hissed and rose.

            “Mother–“

            “No,” she snapped.  “The High Priest is your representative.  Your connection to the Goddess–“

            “The Goddess’ connection to the King,” Lahn murmured.  “You forget who is in charge, Lady Oona.  You can torture me and kill me, but it won’t change the fact that the Goddess demands the King’s blood.  Just as Belihn’s blood seeped into the hard donjon floor, so must the King’s.  The entire world shook and cried out  when that boy’s hands were broken, when his shoulders were dislocated, when he was burned and beaten within an inch of life.  The Goddess’ grace kept him alive.  He will rule and you will step down.”

            “Treason!” Warlord Obeli cried and rose.

            The Prei-Serren looked at his brother.  “I serve the heavenly Queen, Warlord, and no other.  I am her charge.  I relay her word.”

            The King sighed.  “Sit, Warlord.”

            “But, your Grace–“

            “Sit.”  The King looked at the High Priest. “So.  What if I abdicate?”        

            The High Priest rose.  “It matters not, your Grace.”    

            The King looked at him.  “You loved me once, Lahn.”

            “That has not changed,” the High Priest assured him softly.

            “Then I ask that you beg the Goddess for another vision.  Let Her know I will abdicate and put my son on the throne.  Ask Her if that will appease her.”

            The High Priest gazed into the King’s eyes for a long time before he nodded.  “Very well, King Kah’len.  I will ask this of the Goddess, but I can’t promise She will answer my prayer.  She is fickle, especially when she is angry.”

            “Thank you,” the King murmured.

            The High Priest rose and bowed then strode from the room.

            “Now what?” Domio Obeli, another of the King’s advisors, asked.

            The King shook his head.  “I don’t know.”

            His mother walked around the table and took the King’s hands in hers.  “You can’t mean to give up, Kah’len.  You can’t.”

            “Mother,” he said, his words thick with weariness.  “I’m done if the Goddess decries it to be so.”

            “You’ll need to remain, to ensure Belihn’s rule goes smoothly,” she told him.

            “Lahn can guide him,” the King said.  “I will retire to Tjish.un.”

            “What about us?” General Aud Salit’ demanded.

            “Retire,” the King growled.  “Or come with me.  Leave me, all of you.”

            “Kah’len–” General Maedoc Kalish began.

            “Leave.  Me,” the King spat.  “You stay, Rakah.”

            The advisors shuffled out, closing the hallway door behind them.

            The King looked at his brother.  “You must stay and ensure Belihn’s rule is smooth.”

            “But Kah’len, I would come with you.”

            “I would you remain, brother,” Kah’len said quietly.  “You are wise and temperate.  You have never steered me wrong.”

            Rakah Ys’teis sighed and placed his hand on Kah’len’s shoulder.  “I will do as you ask, your Grace.  But once Belihn’s rule is secure, I will follow you.”

            The King smiled at him and placed his hand over his brother’s.  “I look forward to it.”

***

            Captain Kalthos Gulehn Asjah’r gazed at the dark land mass to the east.   The journey had been long, through angry waters.  They had lost one or two ships along the way, for the Raiye’Itah was mean and bloodthirsty ocean. But it could have been worse.  The Goddess of the Waters had spared most of the flotilla.  They were still 141 ships strong.  They were so many, the ocean was filled with ships to the horizon.  

            Word had come from Draemin City-State that the plague had trickled down to almost nothing.  No new cases in half a week.  The numbers were still being tallied, but the Yllysian Ambassador had guessed nearly 1/4 of the population of the city had been exterminated and had been hauled east of the city, where giant trenches were dug up to deposit the dead, burn them, then cover them with earth.  The Ambassador of Draemin City-State had been told him in a missive that every single day wagons carted the dead through the streets to the southern gate of the city and then out into the countryside.  Even this far from land, the Captain could see the fingers of smoke from pyres.  The air was tinged with the acrid smell of it.

            “Captain Asjah’r!”

            The Captain put down his spyglass and turned.

            The sailor bowed.  “A missive from the Ambassador has arrived via carrier vinah, sir!”

            The Captain put his hand out and was handed the note still encased in its glass vial.  He uncorked the vial and pulled out the paper.  He narrowed his eyes to better see the tiny writing.

            “Greetings from Draemin City-State, Captain Gulehn Asjah’r.  I hope this missive finds you well.  Word is the King will abdicate in favor of placing his half-commoner son on the throne.  This is all hearsay.  The plague has left our shores.  For now.  You are free to do as you will, but it is my sincere hope that the city will be taken with minimal bloodshed.  The gates will be opened when you arrive.  God’s speed to you.”

            Captain Asjah’r tucked the missive into the inner pocket of his coat.  He lifted his spyglass and once more gazed at the dark landmass to the east.

Chapter V: The Nightmare

            Water dripped somewhere.  The air was cold and rank with the smell of mold and waste.  He lay on hard-packed, cold earth, his body shaking from the cold and the pain in his joints that refused to dull.  A torch stood in its niche and the oily flame flickered, sending thick shadows along the slimy walls.  What day was it?  What month?  What season?  The donjon had no windows, so there was no sense of time passing.  He drifted in and out of a restless slumber, cradling his hands against his chest.

            They had broken the bones in his hands.  His Uncle Bhar Obeli had used pliers to break the bones. He had screamed until he had passed out, only to be roused by icy water being dumped on his head and shoulders.  All through the interrogation and torture, he had prayed out loud to Atana.  Every question directed at him had been answered by a prayer.  They had strapped him to the walls, pulling his arms so tight, he stood on tiptoes.  Then they had used the rack until his screams seemed to seep into the very walls.  In other rooms of the donjon, others were being tortured as well, for when he screamed, it was answered by another.  The sense of solidarity and brotherhood that filled Belihn for those others being tortured had given him a strength he had not known he possessed.

            Bhar had grasped Belihn’s hair and pulled his head back so they could meet gazes.

            “Do you want to die, Belihn?  Is that it?” his Uncle demanded.

            Belihn had smiled with a bravura he had not felt.  “Then I’ll become a martyr for the cause, won’t I, Uncle?”

            Bhar had gritted his teeth and stalked from the cell.

            He had been tortured six times:  they had broken his hands, they had dislocated his shoulders, they had burned his stomach and thighs, they had stuck pins under his toenails, they had taunted and teased him, beaten him until he lost all sense. They had left him on the cell floor, naked and bleeding, concussed and dazed.   Then he had drifted in and out of consciousness, always the sound of water dripping somewhere, always the agonized screaming of political prisoners.  It was as if he were locked in a nightmare.  He wondered if he would ever rouse and return to his life.

            He lost time.  They came and set a bowl of gruel next to him, but he was unable to lift the spoon with his useless fingers.  The thought of food made his stomach roil anyway.  They gave him water in a mug and he lapped at it like an animal, on his knees, his throat raw from thirst.  As he lay there in the oily light from the torch, he prayed to Atana to take him, to lift him beyond this world and set him free.  But he remained, counting time by the removal of the expired torch and its replacement with another.  He lay on the hard ground and watched the flickering flame as it spit and flared at every drift of a cold breeze.

            He wondered if he was going to die down here and never see his mother or siblings again.  

            He dreamed and woke with a scream lodged in his throat.  The torch was low, so he guessed it was late in the day.  As he had dreamed, they had brought him more food and water.  He rose slowly and went to the mug of water.  He lapped at the water until he felt he could swallow without pain.  At one point, he had screamed so long that he had tasted blood at the back of his throat.

            There was the clatter of keys at the keyhole.  The iron door creaked open.  There was a gasp and a muttered imprecation.

            The world tilted. He was lifted and the pain flared so hot, he gasped and passed out.

            He woke to a world moving under him.  He could hear creaking, but he was warm and lying on something softer than packed earth.  He fell into a troubled sleep once more.

            Weeping woke him.

            He was warm and on something soft, but the pain still gnawed with jagged teeth at his body.  He moaned and strove to open his eyes.

            “Be at rest, Belihn.  Don’t wake.”

            A mug was brought to his parched lips and he drank something bitter and thick.  He lay still and listened to the sibilance of whispers.  He could tell someone was praying.  He wanted to laugh.  The Goddess was deaf. Prayers flew into the air and dispersed like so many breezes.  Something cool rested against his forehead and he almost sighed, it felt good against his fevered skin.  He slept again.

            When he woke a second time, someone was wiping his body with a damp cloth.  He had no strength to even open his eyes.  

            “Be at peace, brother,” a soft voice murmured.

            Once again, his head was lifted and the thick, bitter drink was forced down his throat.  He coughed and made himself swallow.  Afterward, he lay in the darkness behind his eyes as the person finished bathing his body.  The coolness against his skin felt good.  He drifted away again.

            When he opened his eyes, he saw he lay on a canopied bed, the curtains drawn back to reveal a dim room.  Against the far wall, a fire crackled, adding warmth and a bit of light to the room.  It took Belihn a few minutes to realize he lay in his own bed in his mother’s villa.  He lifted a hand and found it wrapped tightly in bandages.  He tried to make a fist and gasped at the pain.  He lowered his hand.  The pain in his shoulders had eased and he wondered if the bones had been forced back into alignment.  He could not recall.

            A door opened and someone carried a tray to the bedside table.

            “You’re awake, my son.”

            He looked up.

            His mother set the tray down and took a seat at the edge of the mattress.  She caressed his cheek.  “How are you, son?”

            He cleared his throat and frowned.  She looked pale and thin, her beautiful eyes bruised.  “Aya.”

            She placed a hand on his forearm.  “I am here, my darling boy.  Do you still hurt?”

            “My hands.”

            She grimaced.  “Once the bones knit, you’ll be able to exercise them, Belihn.”  She sighed and blinked her eyes.  “However, you will always have a modicum of pain and you may never regain normal strength.  So says the healer.  I brought empathic healers, child.  You screamed as they knit the worst of the damage.”

            “I don’t remember that, Aya.”

            She smiled at him.  “No.  We drugged you and the drug made you forget.”  She swallowed.  “They reset your shoulders and cut away the infection in your stomach and thighs from the burns.  You will remain scarred for life.”

            “War wounds,” he muttered and swallowed.  “Thirsty.”

            She reached for a mug of water and lifted his head.  He slurped the cool, fresh water.

            When she set his head back down on the pile of pillows, he sighed.

            “Atana has brought down her judgement on the city-state,” Divita stated hollowly.    

            He frowned and pushed away the lingering weariness.  “What do you mean?”

            “Plague,” she hissed.  “Plague is ravaging through North Torahn.  The city walls are locked.  The black flag flies from the ramparts.  Word has spread throughout the denizens that you were captured and tortured and that you never stopped praying.  The Prei-Serren told the King that if he didn’t release you, the Goddess would bring retribution and sorrow to his clan.  The King and the High Priest argued when the King refused to release you.  The next day, the plague arrived.  The first few sick were all aristocrats.  Some of your siblings have come down with the sickness.  The King’s advisors demanded your release and I was allowed to bring you here, to the villa.  Rage burns through the ranks of the commoners, child.  People believe the King committed a sin when he tortured you, his child.  There have been protests and calls for change.”

            Belihn frowned.  “It is too soon.”

            She dipped a cloth into the basin of scented water she had brought.  Gently, she dabbed the sweat from his forehead, cheeks and neck.

            “It is with the Goddess,” she replied.  “Already, there are serrens who would like to canonize as a you a saint.”

            He barked a laugh and groaned at the pain.  “Me?  A Saint?”

            “You are a symbol now, Belihn,” she said quietly.  “A symbol of the King’s fear, the will of the Goddess, and the need for change.  Change comes even as plague burns through the city.”

            “Aya, what of my sisters and T’arehn?”

            “They are here, child.  Don’t worry about them.  Kilen Sobres is here, too.”  She sighed.  “T’arehn wanted his friend Aila’h to come, too, but her mother refused to allow her to leave the castle.”

            He closed his eyes.  “So tired, Mother.”

            “Then rest, child.  When you wake again, we shall take a walk to strengthen your limbs.”

            Two days later, Belihn rose by himself, using his belly muscles to pull himself up to a sitting position.  Once in the bathing chamber, he unwrapped his hands and stepped under the bathing room spout, allowing the icy water to tumble down his back and chest.  The healer had removed the bandages from around his stomach and thighs and now thick, raised pink scars filled his torso and legs. He touched the raised scars and felt nothing where his finger lingered.  He grimaced and reached for the soap.  The healers had mended enough of his bones to allow him to grip the soap, even if it brought pain.  He washed his body and then lathered his oily, dirty hair.  Afterward, he stood under the cold water and allowed the soap to be rinsed away.

            Pain made him slow.  It took him close to an hour to dress himself and then brush his hair.  He used a leather thong to tie it back from his face, for his hands would not allow him to braid his hair.  He had not looked in the mirror.  For some reason, the idea of looking into a mirror terrified him.  He huffed a bitter laugh and shuffled back into the bedroom.

            The door to his bedroom opened and Tifa stepped into the room.

            “You’re up!” she said.

            He bowed.  “I couldn’t stand my odor anymore.  I bathed.  Can you braid my hair, sister-mine?”

            “Sit here,” she replied and he took a seat in an armchair facing the crackling fire.

            Gently, she brushed and braided his hair, pulling it tight from his face.

            “They beat you so hard,” she stated, subdued.  “Your eyes were swollen shut.”  She trembled.  “I never thought I could hate Father, but I do now.”

            “I hate him, too,” he said.  “Goddess forgive me, if it is a sin!”

            “Father committed the sin, not you.”

            She leaned over him and pressed a kiss to the top of his head.

            She walked around his chair and knelt before him.  Her eyes glittered with unshed tears.  “The healer said you were almost dead.  Your internal organs were bruised and bleeding. It took two empathic healers to bring you from the brink of death!”  She reached up and caressed his cheek.  “My beloved Belihn!  The people are angry at the King and believe the Goddess punishes him for hubris.”

            He chuckled.  “It begins then.  It begins.  It begins.  It begins.”

            He closed his eyes and sobbed.  “I felt so alone, Tifa!  Every time they broke something in me, I screamed a prayer.  It was Uncle Bhar.”

            She shivered and her eyes flashed her rage.  “He is no uncle to you or me, Belihn.”

            “No,” he agreed.  “I suppose not.”

            She cocked her head.  “Now what, Belihn?”

            “I will wait.  Then I will go where I am needed.”

            “And myself and Ilmi and T’arehn and Mother?”

            “This is not your war, Tifa.  I want you to marry Kilen Sobres and live in peace.”

            “There is no peace!” she spat.  “If we survive the disease eating through the city-state, then we will have to choose a side, Belihn.”

            “I need all of you to leave, to go to Tjish.un or Ynha,” he said.  “Once the wall gates are thrown open once more, you will go and reside with Grandmother Oona’s family.”

            She shook her head and wiped angrily at a tear.  “We will not leave you!”

            He took her shoulders and grimaced at the pain in his hands.  He shook her gently.  

            “Listen to me, Tifa.  All that matters to me is your safety.  Promise me.”

            She stubbornly squared her shoulders.  “Belihn–“

            “Promise me, Tifa!  None of this will be worth it, if you are killed.”

            She sighed.  “Very well.  But I think I’ll go to Ynha, where Kilen owns a farm of lirtah.”

            He smiled at her and tucked a wayward thread of hair behind her ear.  “That’s good, girl.  Now, help me walk.  I need to speak to Kilen.”

            He rose on shaky legs and she wrapped her arm around his waist and slowly walked him out into the wide hallway.  A single story home, the villa was a sprawling U shaped house with three wings.  The bedrooms and bathing chambers were located in the north wing, while the kitchen and dining rooms were located in the east wing.  The south wing contained libraries and sitting rooms.  It is here that Tifa led him.

            A long time before they made it to the archway that led from the foyer to the west sitting room, Belihn could hear his family in conversation.  Their voices were subdued and little laughter was heard.  

            They paused under the archway.

            Divita sat on a loveseat next to Ilmi.  They were knitting.

            Kilen and his family took up most of the rest of the furniture.  He had three brothers, who were all married, and his folks were still alive.  Seeing the Sobres family there gave Belihn a measure of joy.  They were probably fleeing the plague.  

            Tifa and Ilmi’s caretakers, Missus Karlen and Oson were there as well, as was Rechel Setin, his mother’s lady-in-waiting.  His uncle Tono and his aunt Salita were there, with their respective spouses and their passel of children.

            “Belihn!”

            Belihn started and turned his head to where his mother stood.

            “Good morning, Aya,” he murmured.  “Tifa.  I need to sit down.”

            The congregation watched in utter silence as he was assisted to an available loveseat.  He sat down slowly and closed his eyes against the wave of nausea that washed over him, leaving him weak and damp with sweat.  When he opened his eyes, the entire company was staring at him with a mixture of emotions ranging from admiration to concern to horror.  He lifted a hand and touched his face.

            “You almost died,” Kilen stated blandly.  “You look it.”

            Belihn huffed a laugh.  “I can’t bring myself to look in a mirror.”

            “Give it a few days,” his sister’s fiancee advised.  

            “Yes,” Belihn agreed.

            He sighed and ran his gaze over everyone present.  “I have a request to make of all of you.”

            Divita placed her hands on his shoulders.  “Anything, son.”

            “Once the gates of the city are open once more, you all need to leave.  Go to Ynha.  The events will move quickly now and I don’t trust any of you is safe here in Draemin.”

            T’arehn frowned and rose.  “I’m not going to leave you, Belihn!”

            “I am safe as long as you are safe,” Belihn told his brother.  “Once you are captured, then my life is precarious indeed.”

            “You all can come to my ranch,” Kilen said.  “It’s a large house with enough room.”        

            “Thank you,” Belihn murmured and sat back in the chair.

            “Your mother opened her home to us,” Mister Sobres said.  “For that we must thank you.  We will go where you need us to go, Belihn.”

            “Doesn’t my opinion count?” T’arehn asked the room.

            “No,” Belihn growled.  “You’re fourteen, T’arehn.”  

            He swallowed against another wave of nausea. Then someone was pressing the lip of a mug to his mouth.  He swallowed the water and sighed.

            When the nausea passed, he opened his eyes.  “I am going to take my mother’s maiden name as my own.  The Yllysians wanted me to take an Yllysian surname, but they abandoned me readily enough.”

            T’arehn pounded his chest with a fist.  “Then I am a Stait as well.”

            “As am I,” Ilmi stated and rose.

            Belihn smiled at his siblings.  “You don’t have to.”

            T’arehn shook his head.  “If you are exiled, then so am I.  So is Ilmi.”

            “Yes,” Ilmi agreed.

            “I see,” Belihn murmured and smiled at his younger siblings.  “Sit everyone, please.  Just let me sit here for a few minutes until I feel better.”

            Slowly, the conversations began again.  Belihn rested his head back against the headrest and closed his eyes.

            He felt someone settle next to him on the settee.  

            “Tifa said you wanted to speak with me, Belihn.”

            Belihn nodded and opened his eyes.  He gazed into Kilen’s hazel eyes.  “You must take care of my family in Ynha, Kilen.”

            “Surely, you can’t mean to remain behind!” his soon to be law brother gasped.

            Belihn shook his head.  “I’m in too deep, Kilen.  Please.  Promise me you’ll take care of the Staits.”

            Kilen reached out and placed his hand gently on Belihn’s own.  “You have my word, Belihn.  Be at ease.”