Chapter IX: Erille's Story

            After a few hours of restless sleep, Belihn dragged himself away from the warm bed and quickly washed up, donning a pair of thick trousers, an inner tunic with sleeves and a thick woolen outer tunic.  He pulled on knee high boots over his trouser legs and strapped on his battle sword.  After combing and braiding his hair, he pulled his thick wool cloak from the armoire and fastened it at the collarbone.  He strode into the hallway.  The two bulky Yllysian guards saluted him and fell in step behind him.  

            The sitting room area was quiet and empty, save for two servants.  The servants bowed as he strode in.

            “Would his Majesty like some tea to break his fast?” the older of the two servants inquired.

            “Perhaps later,” he told them.  “We have to feast the Isemi before they go, so I think I shall eat with them.”

            The servant bowed again.  “Very good, your Majesty.”

            The hallways of Castle Draemin were quiet and mostly empty, save for patrolling guards and servants carrying wash baskets or trays ladened with tea pots and mugs.  He hurried down to the northeastern tower and took the stairs down to the main floor, heading south towards the entrance.  Court was closed until the Isemi departed, so at least he didn’t have to sit in that black chair all day until he was bored to distraction.  He had never studied law, so he had barristers to assist him with the more complex aspects of running the city-state.  Most of the time, he settled disagreements and arguments between citizens.  Many of the disagreements were petty, although it was obvious not so petty to those involved.  What Belihn enjoyed was crafting and arguing laws, and he got to do just that two times a week.

            He led the way out of Castle Draemin, picking up two other guards, these Torahni, as he made his way through the knee-high piles of snow that servants were busily clearing from the walkways.  Belihn could hear the thuds of wooden swords in the still, icy air.  He hurried, desperate for a bout or two to clear the kinks from his muscles.  When he stepped into the crowded practice yard, the soldiers stopped sparring and fell onto one knee before him.  Belihn was always touched at how much the common soldier adored and respected him.

            “Rise!” he commanded and walked to the wide sword barrel, intent on picking up a practice sword.

            He hefted one that was thick and nicked along the blade.  The handle was worn smooth from years of use, its usually white wood now deep brown.

            Turning to the crowd of soldiers, he ran his eyes over their awed expressions.  His eyes fell on one soldier who was regarding him with cool hauteur.  His cold gray eyes designated him as a son of the clans.  

            Belihn raised his sword and pointed at the young man.  “You, let’s spar.”

            The young man bowed.  “Your Majesty.”

            Belihn removed his cloak and draped it on the nearby fence and strode to where a natural space had developed in the crowd and turned to face his opponent.

            “What is your name?” Belihn asked.

            The young aristocrat sketched a bow.  “Erille Asjur, your Majesty.”

            Belihn raised an eyebrow.  “Any relation to Lord Irai’h Asjur?”

            The young aristocrat nodded.  “We are cousins.”

            “I see,” Belihn murmured and took up a defensive pose.

            Erille at once went on the offensive, attacking with such brutality that Belihn had to react quickly or lose his footing.  He spent a long time just deflecting Erille’s savage arcs.  He seemed to be everywhere at once, twice successfully stabbing Belihn, once against his right side and once against the ribs of his left side.  The swords could not break skin but Belihn found out it hurt quite a bit nonetheless when the dull wooden tip poked into skin and against bone.  They came together in their graceful dance, the swords clashing and holding as Belihn attempted to throw Erille off, but the young man, despite being slender, was quite strong.  Belihn was impressed despite the young man’s insolent smirk.  He finally managed to throw Erille off and they circled each other.  Belihn could feel the rivulets of sweat meandering down his waist and back.  He felt exhilarated, loose and calm.  Belihn took the time during the respite to find Erille’s weakness, but the young aristocrat attacked him again before he could find a chink in Erille’s armor.

            Belihn fell into his groove while around him the soldiers went back to their sparring, a few remaining to witness Belihn’s bout.  Erille attacked once more, and Belihn matched arc for arc.  At one point, Erille sliced his sword through the air, and Belihn had to crouch as the sword swooshed just a few inches over his head.  Belihn then took advantage to stab Erille in the waist as the young man swung his sword, leaving his side unprotected.  The young aristocrat grunted and turned to face Belihn.

            “Nice one, your Majesty,” Erille murmured and wiped the sweat from his forehead and eyes.  “It’s been a long time since someone has managed to keep up with me.”

            “I had no idea Manaji City-State bred such amazing warriors, Lord Asjur,” Belihn told him, wiping his forearm over his stinging eyes.

            “Not lord, your Majesty,” the young man pronounced with a touch of bitterness.  “My father has disowned me.”

            Belihn lowered his weapon and took a few steps closer to Erille.  “May I ask why?”

            Erille’s lips twisted.  “For having a love affair with my own brother.”

            Belihn smoothed his features, although he was shocked to his core.  “I see.”

            Erille shook his head.  “You cannot possibly see, your Majesty, with all due respect.”

            “Come,” Belihn told him .  “Let’s have a cup of tea at the commissary, shall we?”

            They put away the practice swords and Belihn picked up his cloak.  He signalled for his guards to follow.

            The commissary was busy when they stepped into the rectangular room.  A hush fell over the crowd before someone called out, “The King!”

            Soldiers scrambled to their feet and bowed, fists to chest.

            “As you were,” Belihn told them and led Erille to the serving window.  “Two mugs of tea.”

            The server bowed.  “Yes, your Majesty.”

            They found a half-empty table and sat across from each other.  

            Belihn blew over the tea and sipped.  It was black, sour and bitter.  He grimaced.  “Not my favorite, without doctoring.  Please, Erille, tell me what happened to you.”

            Erille placed his forearms on the table, leaving his tea untouched.  “There is naught you can do, your Majesty.  My father is stubborn, and he has Manaji City-State’s Prei-Serren backing him.”

            Belihn waved away his word.  “I can find a place in my government for you, Erille, and you can go a long way towards recouping your inheritance.”

            “I came here to see if Irai’h could help me settle in,” Erille said.  “I know no other person, outside of Manaji City-State.  Irai’h was the first of the family to leave the city to make his way here.”

            “You can of course ask your cousin for help,” Belihn told him.  “I can as well.”

            Erille dropped his gaze to his mug of black tea.  “Why would you help a sinner like me, your Majesty?”

            Belihn leaned forward.  “I am a sinner, too, for I am atoliy.”

            Erille nodded.  “I had heard that, but then you married two women.”

            “I must found a new clan and I can only do that through children,” Belihn said.  “It is not unpleasant, to lie with my wives, but the act does not fill my heart or nourish my soul. It is like lying with friends where no true attraction lies.”

            Erille frowned.  “How do you do it?”

            Belihn opened his hands.  “How indeed?  Nothing that thousands before me haven’t done.”

            Erille sipped his tea and sighed.  “My father found out about my brother and I and told me I could marry a girl and keep my inheritance.”  He sighed again.  “I was a fool, I suppose, but the idea of marrying a girl to hide who I am…”  His eyes, when they glanced up, were bright.  “I couldn’t do that.  My brother married her instead.  He denounced me, declared that I had seduced him and turned his back to me.”

            Belihn placed his hand on Erille’s on the table.  “I’m sorry, Erille.  Betrayal wounds deepest.”

            “He was only taking care of himself,” Erille pronounced dully.

            “In a cowardly way,” Belihn agreed.

            Erille gave a laugh that was half a sob.  “Goddess, you are not the monster the clans make you out to be, are you?”

            Belihn removed his hand from Erille’s and sat back.  “In what way do they say I am a monster?”

            “An abomination,” Erille clarified.  “Using the Goddess to sweep away laws that hold the land stable and safe.  The clans believe if the common folk rise up, they will wipe the clans from the land.”

            “The common folk are not so oppressed as yet,” Belihn said.  “They are angry, of course, but not unjust.  I am here to make sure change takes place in an orderly way.  Caste laws will be struck down but that does not mean I will strip the clans of their wealth or belongings.  Unless they actively oppose me.  It is not my intent to wipe away the clans.”

            Erille frowned.  “But what will it mean, eradicating the Caste Laws?”

            Belihn sighed and smiled.  “It means the Houses have equal say in rule.  It means commoners can build stone and brick houses, that they can intermarry with aristocrats, that their children can inherit land, that they can purchase the land on which they live, instead of always renting to the clans.  It means universal education for ALL children.  It means that the poorest of the poor can rise through hard work and perseverance to become a lord.”

            “I see,” Erille murmured.  “And we would descend into chaos?”

            “No,” Belihn assured him.  “The rule of law will prevail.  All the changes will happen gradually, not all at once.”

            Erille sighed.  “That is good.  Your Majesty, if I take you up on your offer, what will I be doing for you?”

            “I have enough work for two secretaries, but I haven’t had the time to search for a new one,” Belihn replied.  “Would you be interested?  Tesjun, my other secretary, can show you the job duties.”

            “And the pay?” Erille prompted.

            Belihn chuckled and rose.  “You will get equal pay to Tesjun.  He can tell you what he makes. Shall we?”

            They strode out of the commissary and into the bailey, where the temperature seemed to have plummeted.  The skies were clear of clouds, a bright cerulean made sharper by the bright sunlight.  Belihn led Erille into the Great Hall, where Belihn hailed a passing servant.

            “Please have Lord Irai’h Asjur summoned from the city,” he told the servant.

            “Right away, your Majesty,” the servant murmured and strode away.

            They walked up the northeastern tower stairs to the fifth floor.

            “I need to bathe, but Tesjun should be arriving any minute now,” Belihn told Erille as he led him into the sitting room.  “You needn’t start today, Erille, but I would like you to discuss your duties and pay with Tesjun.  I need another secretary as soon as possible.”

            Erille bowed.  “Yes, your Majesty.”

            “Excuse me,” Belihn told him and hurried into the hallway leading to his bedchamber.

            Once before his bedroom door, he told one of the guards, “Please inform Commander-General Kurk Deshon that I need to see him in private as soon as possible.”

            The Yllysian bowed.  “Right away, your Majesty.”

            Belihn took a bracing cold shower and dressed in black velvet and satin, placing on his head a thin gold circlet embedded with small emeralds.

            There was a knock on the door of the bedroom sitting area and his personal servant opened the door.

            “Kurk, good morrow,” Belihn hailed.  “Please have a seat.”  He turned to his personal servant.  “Tea please.”

            The servant bowed.  “Right away, your Majesty.”

            He sat across from Kurk.  “How are you, Kurk.”

            “I’m well, your Majesty.”

            “I need you to investigate one Erille Asjur,” he told his commander and head of security.  “Find out as much as you can about the young man and get back to me once you have gathered your intel.”

            Kurk rose.  “Right away, your Majesty.”

            Belihn rose.  “Kurk, he may have been sent to cause trouble.  I need you to delve beneath the surface of rumors and pry the truth out.”

            Kurk nodded.  “You have my word, Belihn.”

            They clasped forearms.

Chapter VIII: Feasting the Isemi

Weeks prior, Belihn summoned the Pauk-an of the Northern Isemi to a feast.  Draemin City-State had a treaty with the Isemi, but the treaty had been forged by Belihn’s father in the name of the Tjashensi clan.  Belihn wanted to have an agreement with the Isemi that extended to his immediate family and for the sake of his unborn heir.  

            “Pauk-an” was a title which meant something between a holy man and an ambassador.  The Isemi arrived in Draemin City-State a week after the assassination attempt on Belihn’s life.  The Pauk-an came escorted by thirty fierce-looking warriors wearing broadswords strapped to their backs and carrying thick iron pikes in their left hands.  Their mounts were adorned with colorful ribbons, tassels and beads, their manes and thick tails braided with beads and cloth.  The Isemi themselves were impressive:  tall, broad beings that looked like men but were hermaphrodites.  Their dusky chests were bare to the icy winds of kamaran. They wore thick fur skins over their left shoulders and fur pants that ended at the knee.  Their broad feet were encased in fur lined boots that came up to midcalf.  They were escorted by a contingency of Yllysians that rode at a steady clip down the wide boulevard that led from the wharves to Castle Draemin.

            The citizenry lined along the boulevard, intrigued and curious about the wild people who occupied the lands along the Khaine River in eastern Torahn.  The Isemi were legendary fighters, fierce and fearless, brutal and bloodthirsty.  They rode their sedate mounts and looked neither left nor right at the curious crowds.  They kept their fierce, dark gazes locked ahead.  Their dark skin gleamed in the bright afternoon light, the muscles emphasized by the oil applied to the skin.  

            As the procession passed under the canopy of Queen’s Park, Belihn climbed down from the castle walls where he had stood watch for nigh three hours since sunrise.   He had dressed carefully, opting for a light blue satin under tunic with a high collar and a thick velvet coat over it with a broad belt around his trim waist.  His dark blue long trousers were velvet as well, the ends tucked into knee-high leather boots.  He braided his hair and wore the diadem of office, a thick circlet with an emerald embedded on the front. Small pearls adorned the circlet to either side of the emerald.  He wore his broadsword strapped to his back, the black leather belt draping over his left shoulder and fastened at his waist.  At his waist he also wore his fighting sword in its black sheath.

            He stood in the bailey as the Isemi cantered through the castle gates.  Kurk stood on one side of Belihn and the Yllysian Ambassador on the other.

            The Yllysian guard dismounted and, as their mounts were led away by servants, stood at strategic positions near the King and his advisers.

            Belihn watched, fascinated, as the Isemi dismounted.  The ground was thick with recently fallen snow, but the wild people of the Khaine River Basin seemed inured to the icy temperatures.  The young person–it was hard not to think of him as a “he”–at the fore of the group stepped forward.  He was dressed much the same as his contingency, but something of the way he carried himself made Belihn realize this could be the holy man.

            Belihn took a step forward and bowed.  “Welcome, Pauk-an of the Northern Isemi!”

            The young man’s fierce gaze raked over Belihn, finally pausing at the diadem before meeting his gaze.  He, too, bowed.  “King of Draemin City-State.  I am Neron Sanor, Pauk-an of the Isemi of the Northern Khaine.  I come at your behest and on behalf of my Tauk-na, Penoi Masino.”

            Belihn held his hand out and the holy man clasped his forearm.  “Well met, your holiness.”

            The young man’s lips quirked.  “Please accept the regrets of our Tauk-na, whose sire passed away two days before we left our home.  He is now a King and must establish dominance over the tribes.”

            Belihn let go the Pauk-an’s forearm and bowed.  “I understand.  Please come, for a feast awaits us, where we may speak.”

            He led the Isemi into the castle, heading into the great dining room, where wide, thick pillows had been set on the marble floor around low tables.  

            The Isemi paused under the large arched doorway and gazed around the wide room.

            The Pauk-an made a noise in his throat.  “You honor us, King of Draemin City-State.”  He looked with surprise at Belihn.  “How do you know we feast on the ground?”

            Belihn smiled, careful not to show his teeth.  “I have read every account of every missionary who visited the Isemi.”

            The Pauk-an nodded.  “They were visitors of the People and spoke truth to you.”

            “Yes,” Belihn agreed and motioned for the holy man to proceed him into the room.

            There was a table at the head of the room, and he led the holy man to that table, indicating the thick colorful pillow on the ground.

            “Sit, please, your holiness,” Belihn murmured.

            The Pauk-an turned to his people and indicated they should sit.  Once all the other Isemi were sitting, the Pauk-an took his seat.

            Belihn sat next to him.  “We will feast you with plenty of meat and turies.”

            He signaled to the head servant and soon servants hurried in carrying platters of meat and vegetables, fresh bread and butter and jams.  Other servants bore decanters of mi’disj and ekila, wine and ales.      

            The Pauk-an rose.  “I will say a blessing over the feast.”  He spoke in his language while around him, the warriors bent their heads and prayed softly.

            Belihn closed his eyes and murmured a prayer to Atana.

            When the holy man was finished, he took his seat next to Belihn.  His bright, dark eyes took in the roasted meats in their juices, aromatics and spices and clapped his hands, rubbing them briskly.  

            “You honor us!” he pronounced.

            Belihn reached towards the table and picked up a decanter, pouring mi’disj into the holy man’s goblet.

            “This is mi’disj, your holiness.”

            The priest cocked his head.  He picked up the goblet, sniffed it and drank.  “Sarka!” he pronounced and smacked his lips. “Truly, this is Poa’s very fire!”

            Around them, the other Isemi drank from their goblets and nodded, pleased.  

            “Tell me why you have summoned the Isemi of the Northern Khaine,” the Pauk-an said.

            Belihn sobered.  “Your Tauk-na’s sire made a compact with my sire that there would be peace.  I must secure my kingdom and unite Torahn.  To this end, I need the Isemi’s help.”

            Neron Sanor sopped up some meat juices with a hank of bread.  He nodded.  “I dreamed of a great war.  If you have learned of my people, you must have learned we like fighting, but our treaty was with your sire.  Not you.  Is your sire dead?”

            “He is exiled across the sea,” Belihn replied.

            Neron frowned.  “You fought your sire for power?  You bested the Great Kah’len?”

            “Yes.”

            Neron’s eyebrows shot up.  “And now you wish our assistance?”

            “Yes.”

            “And, if we were to acquiesce, what is required of us?”

            “I am at war with the clans, the wealthiest of the Torahni, who do not want change.”

            The Pauk-an grunted.  “Change is inevitable.  To oppose it is foolish.”  He looked at Belihn.  “So, you require our warriors.”

            “Yes.”

            “And what will you give us in return for our assistance against these clans?” Neron asked.

            “We are prepared to give you the land from the Khaine River basin to the forests of the west.”

            He reached into the inner pocket of his coat and pulled out a folded map.  Pushing the plates to one side, he unfolded the map and set it on the table.  

            “Your people live here,” Belihn told the holy man and demarcated the Isemi’s homeland with a finger.  “I propose that you extend to here.  That is fifty sepeks in any direction.  Your people could hunt in the forests in the west.”

            The Pauk-an’s eyes widened.  “Two hundred sepeks.  We could found several new tribes.”  He looked at Belihn.  “We hunt the flat lands, but there are different animals in the forests.”

            “Yes,” Belihn agreed.

            Neron nodded.  “That is most generous.”

            “You will also be entitled to all the weapons you find on the battlefield,” Belihn told him.

            “And the lirtah?” Neron asked.

            “And the lirtah,” Belihn agreed.

            “I will speak to my people,” the Pauk-an said.  “I will give you an answer on the morrow.  Will that be sufficient?”

            “Yes, holy man.”

            Belihn signalled to the musicians gathered near the tables to begin playing.  

            The Isemi gasped and nodded to the music.

            “You are a civilized people,” the Pauk-an pronounced and swallowed a mouthful of mi’disj.  “Very civilized.”

            As the feast progressed, several of the warriors rose to dance.  They were quite graceful, despite their bulky frames.  

            The Pauk-an looked at Belihn.  “You are married, King of Draemin City-State?”

            “I have two wives,” Belihn replied.

            “Children?”

            “I am newly married.”

            “Ah,” the Pauk-an said and wiped his face.  “This drink is potent.”

            Belihn smiled and nodded.

            “I cannot marry, being holy to Poa,” Neron declared.  “When I realized my proclivities lie with the warriors, I decided it best if I served the God.”

            Belihn frowned.  “You are attracted to the warriors?”

            “Yes.”  The Pauk-an lowered his voice.  “I don’t know how much you know of the Isemi, but there are two genders of two genders.  The Ouna-nae have the ouna and kauon, but they cannot impregnate another; while the kauon-nei have the ouna and the kaoun, but they cannot carry life, only impregnate.  The ouna-nae and kauon-nei come together and breed new Isemi.  But I have always been drawn to the kauon-nei, to their masculinity and power.  The ouna-nae are too slender and delicate, you understand?”

            Belihn swallowed thickly.  “Yes.  I am the same way.”

            The Pauk-an reared back.  “How can this be?  You are married.”

            “It doesn’t change my proclivities.  But I must have heirs, as the founder of a new clan.”

            The holy man thought for a moment and shook his head.  “You have much strength, as well as beauty.  Your eyes are like the grass in summer.  I have never seen eyes like yours; the only Torahni I have seen have the color of the ground or of ice.”

            “My sire’s mother was from Tjish.un across the sea,” Belihn told him.

            The Pauk-an nodded.  “Yes. I heard that from my sire.”

            The holy man looked away, his eyes pensive, his dark features solemn.  He swallowed and looked at Belihn.

            “It is no shame, to be like us for the Isemi, but we must serve the God.  To lie with another kauon-ne would mean death by fire.”  He swallowed.  “It is because we must be Poa’s lover foremost.  If we despoil our bodies with passion, we cuckold the God.”

            “I see,” Belihn told him.  He felt sorrow for the handsome priest, who sometimes looked at the warriors with such hunger and loneliness embedded in his eyes.  “I’m sorry.”

            Neron gasped and looked at Belihn.  “You pity me?  I am honored among my people.”

            “Honor does not fill the heart,” Belihn told him.

            The Pauk-an grunted.  “Wise, too.”

            Belihn swallowed.  “If you come to my suites, we may speak plainly about you.”

            Neron shook his head.  “Temptation is always my enemy and my friend. If I came with you…I would shame myself.  Your beauty and strength are like flames to my darkness.  It warms me and it might burn me.”

            The holy man rose.

            Belihn signalled for the musicians to cease playing.

            “We rest,” the Pauk-an announced.  “There is much to think on.”

            Belihn rose.  “I have rooms for you all.”

            “It will be strange sleeping under hard roofs that are not the curved domes of our yo’uites,” Neron told him.  “But we have traveled far and hard.  Rest will be welcome.”

            Belihn signalled to four Yllysian guards.  “The guards will lead you to the suites.”

            The Pauk-an bowed.  “Thank you, King of Draemin City-State.  ‘Til morning, then.”

            Belihn watched as the Isemi left the dining room.  He turned to Kurk.

            “What do you think?” he asked.

            Kurk gnawed on his lower lip.  “The holy man seemed impressed with your offering.  I guess we’ll have to wait until the morning to see what comes of the feast.”

            Belihn sighed, his heart heavy with Neron’s predicament.  He did not know what he would do if he could never lie with another man.  He shook his head and bid his advisers good night.

***

            Sleep did not come easily to Belihn that night.  He visited neither Alona nor Emira’h.  He had been diligent with both his wives, lying with them more often than not, but tonight Neron’s story had touched his heart and his soul and he did not want to lie with anyone.  He sat in his sitting room on the loveseat facing the balcony doors, watching the swirl of snow just beyond the thick glass panes.  The howls of the wind could be heard beyond the rattling doors.  The large fireplace crackled cheerfully, but Belihn’s heart was full of sorrow and loneliness.  How could it be, with friends and wives, that he felt so isolated and alone?  

            He thought of Tesjun Othar and felt his face subsume with blood.  On the heels of that thought came thoughts of Kahl Oh’nahry and Irai’h Asjur.  He felt such confusion:  whom did he like best?  Tesjun was beautiful and intelligent, but Kahl was creative and kind, and Irai’h was worldly and savvy and a good friend to boot.  All three men were handsome, both Kahl and Irai’h swiftly becoming confidants.  Tejsun, as his secretary, was not a friend yet, but the young man was proving irreplaceable to Belihn.  And the lad’s sister was now his wife’s first lady-in-waiting and constant companion.

            He sighed and sipped his ekila, closing his weary eyes as the heat of the liqueur burned down his throat and esophagus to his stomach.  

            Thoughts of Tejsun returned.  Divita had approached the young man on Belihn’s behalf and without Belihn’s consent. He groaned his eyes against embarrassment and shook his head. Really, his mother and her meddling!   A second later, Belihn felt shame.  Would he have approached Tejsun on his own?  No.  He would not, so his mother’s assistance had been necessary, although he did not know quite what to do with Tesjun now.  The young man had acquiesced to be wooed, but just how did one go about wooing another, he wondered?

            He had learned from Tifa that his mother had commenced a relationship with the Yllysian Ambassador.  The Ambassador took her to dinner and to plays in town.  But, being a King limited how much solitude Belihn was granted, how free he was to leave the castle walls and mingle among his people.  Wouldn’t a relationship with an average young man suit Tejsun best?  And then there was the issue of Emira’h and her condemnation of atoliye.  What would the girl do if she found out he was carrying on an affair with a young man?

            With a sigh, he set his empty glass on the low table and rose.  Outside, the wind moaned.  The snow danced on the wind.  He leaned against the doors and fogged the glass panes with his breath.  On the morrow, he would know if the Isemi would treat with him.  If they did, it would go a long way to easing his mind about the upcoming war.  The rest of it…he wasn’t sure.  It seemed his life was filled with uncertainty.   After a few seconds, he turned from the door and made his way into the hallway.  It was high time he was abed.

Chapter VII: Doubts

            Commander-General Kurk Deshon attended the coronation.  The Commander-General had been among the throng with his wife and children and had had a heck of a time extracting his family from the panicked crowd.  He had urged them against the walls as panic took over the crowd.  He watched in fascination and horror as people were trampled underfoot.  His daughter broke out into sobs and he picked her up and held her as she wrapped her thin arms around his neck and buried her face against his left shoulder.  He rubbed her back.

            “It’s alright, child,” he said against her braided hair.  

            His wife wrung her hands.  She pressed against him.

            “Be calm,” he told her.  She was big with child, having reached her seventh month of pregnancy.  He did not want her going into labor.

            She looked up at him with her large hazel eyes and swallowed.  

            Their son was pressed against her side.  She had an arm protectively around his narrow shoulders.  

            Kurk watched as Yllysian soldiers apprehended the disruptors, manhandling them out of the Throne Room and into the hallway.  Soon there were only the injured writhing on the marble floor, the more levelheaded of the attendees tending to wounds and hurts until healers could arrive.  He quickly ushered his little family to the Great Hall.

            He set his daughter on the floor and looked at his wife.  “Take the children to our suites and wait for me.  I have to see if his Majesty is well.”

            She put her hand on his arm.  “Be careful.”

            He nodded and watched as she took each child by the hand and hurried them down the long hallway.

            Kurk strode through the edges of the agitated crowd until he attained the War Room.  The guards at the arched door saluted him and let him through.  Inside the War Room, he found Belihn pacing impatiently.

            When Kurk entered, Belihn stopped.  “Kurk!  Thank Goddess you are well!”

            Kurk bowed to Belihn.  “I am well, as is my family, your Majesty.  How are you?”

            Belihn frowned.  “As well as can be expected.  Are the injured being cared for?”

            “Yes, your Majesty.”

            “Good,” Belihn murmured.  “There were five culprits, but one took his life.  The other four have been detained in the donjon.  I want them interrogated, tortured if need be.”

            Kurk bowed.  “I’ll see to it right away.”

            “I want to be there,” Belihn said.

            “Of course, your Majesty.  Let me arrange for the interrogations.  I’ll send for you when we are ready.”

            Belihn blew out a breath. “Thank you, Kurk.”

            Kurk bowed and spun on his heels, striding into the hallway and then to the donjon door, where two fierce looking Yllysians stood guard.  He swept past them and down the donjon stairs.  He asked where the agitators were being held and was directed accordingly.  When he arrived at the first of the cells, he found Ambassador Torim was already there.

            They bowed to one another.

            “The King wants the agitators interrogated and he wants to be present during the interrogation,” Kurk told the Ambassador.

            “I’ve sent for truth serum,” the Ambassador told him.  “It’s more benign and efficacious than torture, we find.”

            Kurk raised an eyebrow.  “Truth serum?”

            The Ambassador gave him a mirthless grin.  “Yes.”  He indicated an open cell door.  “We’ll administer the injections and await the effects of the serum.”

            Kurk entered the cell door and found a faded wooden table with restraints for the hands and feet.  The cell smelled of earth and dust, mold and dampness.  Two torches in wall niches filled the room with a sickly yellow light.  

            The Ambassador looked at Kurk.  “The serum is administered and the effects begin around a half an hour after the serum is introduced into the body.”

            An Yllysian healer arrived with a leather bag.  He set the bag on the table and removed a syringe and vial from the bag.

            “I’m ready for the first prisoner, your Eminence,” the healer said.

            The Ambassador motioned for a guard.  “Please bring one of the prisoners.”

            The guard brought his fist to his chest and bowed. “Right away, your Eminence.”

            Kurk stepped further into the room and watched as two guards forcibly hauled one of the prisoners into the room.  They forced him onto the table and restrained him.  The young man fought like a tash-tash, screaming obscenities the entire time.  Kurk stepped forward, studying the young man.  He was a clan son, with the black hair and gray eyes of the aristocracy, but Kurk did not recognized him.  As he watched, the doctor approached the prisoner, the syringe in his right hand.

            The young man noticed the needle and paled.  “Wh-what is that?”

            The doctor did not reply as he pushed the young man’s head to one side and plunged the needle into the side of his neck. The young man screamed.  

            The Ambassador watched impassively before signalling to Kurk.  “Bring his Majesty, Commander-General.  This should go rather quickly.”

            Kurk had Belihn fetched by two Yllysian guards.  He refused to leave the prisoner, wanting to learn as much about the truth serum as he was able. He watched the young prisoner’s reactions closely.  At first nothing happened.  The prisoner moaned and rolled his head left and right.  Kurk walked to the head of the table and stood over the prisoner.  Soon, the prisoner’s skin grew pale and a fine sheen of sweat coated his skin. By the time Belihn arrived, the young man was shivering and sweating profusely.

            The Ambassador explained to Belihn that a truth serum had been administered.  

            Belihn glanced at Kurk then at the Ambassador.  “Truth serum?  Does it work?”

            The Ambassador bowed.  “It works differently on different bodies.  The serum’s efficacy is estimated around 93 percent.”

            Belihn’s eyebrows shot up.  “That’s impressive.”

            The Ambassador bowed again.  “Yes, your Majesty.  Shall we begin?”

            He glanced at the healer, who bent over the prisoner and pulled up an eyelid.  “His eyes are dilated.  You may proceed with the investigation.”

            Belihn approached the table.  “Begin then.”

            The Ambassador bent over the prisoner.  “What is your name?”

            The prisoner frowned.  “Sjul.”

            “What is your clan, Sjul?”        

            “Kia’guh.”

            The Ambassador began to slowly pace.  “What was the purpose of disrupting the coronation?”

            “We were too far,” Sjul muttered.  “Kill Belihn.”

            “You came to kill the king?” Kurk demanded.

            The prisoner spit to one side.  “Not my king.  Filthy commoner.”

            “Who sent you?” the Ambassador asked.

            The young man’s frown turned into a scowl.  “Father said if the commoner was killed, then there wouldn’t need to be war.  We could overcome Draemin City–”  He swallowed.  

            “But what of Yllysia?” the Ambassador prodded.

            The young man shook his head and barked a laugh.  “Easy to overcome the blue-skins.  Cowards can’t compare to Torahni.”

            The Ambassador shared a look with the doctor.  He sighed.  “This feeling of superiority will soon be wiped from your land.  We are evenly matched, militarily speaking.”

            “I have no doubt of that, Ambassador,” Belihn said.  “But the clans think themselves superior to all other cultures and people.”

            “We are aware of that,” the Yllysian stated.  He frowned.  “Let’s see if we can glean from the prisoners numbers of soldiers and strategies, shall we?”

            Kurk clasped his hands behind his back and settled in for a long interrogation.

***

            Belihn’s disappointment was palpable as he began to pace.  They had learned nothing about the opposition’s forces and strategies from the prisoners.  He had not thought it would have been easy, but still he was disappointed.  

            Kurk and Ambassador Torim watched him pace in silence.

            “We will win, your Majesty,” the Ambassador assured him.

            Belihn frowned.  “I wish I could be as certain as you, your Eminence.”

            “You are not old enough to have ever seen Yllysians in battle,” the Ambassador said.  “So you do not realize how fierce and nigh unbeatable we are.”

            “I’ve read historical accounts,” Belihn told him.  “Yllysia is truly fearsome, but I wonder if the opposition has gotten assistance from Tjish.un or South Torahn.”

            Kurk shifted.  “My spies have sent me accounts that lead me to suspect the clans are fighting on their own.”

            Belihn shook his head.  “I wish I could be sure, Kurk. They are arrogant and cocksure, to have sent the protestors and allowed them to fall into our hands.”

            The Ambassador shook his head. “They know nothing of our forces, nothing of importance.  They wanted to discredit your coronation and they wanted to rattle us. They did not succeed in either endeavor.”

            “I agree,” Belihn said.  “If anything, they’ve angered the citizens of Draemin City-State.”

            The Ambassador smiled and nodded. “They have, your Majesty.”

            Kurk rose from his chair.  “You should not allow your doubts to take hold of you, your Majesty.  If you second guess yourself, we are lost.”

            Belihn nodded.  “I know, Kurk.  I am trying to stay positive and to have faith in Yllysia, but my life and my family’s wellbeing rests with our success.”

            Kurk bowed.  “And we will succeed, your Majesty.  What do we do with the prisoners?”

            “We can’t allow them to live,” the Ambassador piped up.  “As long as they live, they pose a security risk.  Besides, they are traitors to the new clan and the new regime.”

            Belihn and Kurk shared a glance before Belihn sighed.

            “You may take ownership of the prisoners, Ambassador,” Belihn said.

            The Ambassador rose from his chair and bowed.  “Excuse me then.”

            Once the Yllysian strode out of the room, Kurk turned to Belihn.

            “We can’t kill them, your Majesty,” the Commander-General said.  “That will only add credence to the opposition.”

            “I disagree,” Belihn replied.  “The Ambassador is correct.  Besides, I think Yllysia doesn’t want it generally known that they have a truth serum.”

            Kurk shook his head.  “These prisoners are young men, your Majesty.”

            Belihn raised a hand to stall any further words.  “I see your point, Kurk.  I share your distaste for ending four lives, but these men made a choice and now will pay with their lives.  My trust is limited and I am not sure we do not have traitors within our ranks.  As long as those four prisoners are alive, they are a symbol.  We can’t afford that, Kurk.  Can you see?”

            Kurk grimaced and rubbed a hand along his chin.  “Yes, your Majesty.  I see your point.  It just doesn’t sit well with me, murdering Torahni.”

            “It doesn’t sit well with me either,” Belihn told him.  “But our hands are tied.  An example must be set that we will not tolerate treason.  Our duty is to the greater good; that means we have to change the culture and the laws, no matter what.  Our purpose is greater than the lives of four men who fully knew what they were getting into.”

            Kurk bowed and said nothing more.

***

            The four prisoners were forced to kneel before King Belihn.  The King looked them over, noting the stubborn set of their jaws and icy stares.

            “Are you willing to die, rather than swear fealty to me?” he asked them.

            The young man at the end spat on the earthen floor.  “A pox on you.  You are a usurper and you shall fall to our sword.”

            Belihn raised his gaze and locked it with Ambassador Torim’s.  “You may proceed, your Eminence.”

            The Ambassador bowed.

            An Yllysian guard stepped forward.  He unsheathed his broadsword.

            The young man who had spat looked over his shoulder.  He paled but squared his shoulders.  “For the glory of the Clans!”

            The other three echoed his words.

            The Yllysian guard raised his sword and swung it, cleanly decapitating the first prisoner.  His head rolled and came to a stop at Belihn’s feet.  The body gracefully fell forward, gushing blood onto the earthen floor.  A metallic, sweet tang filled the dank donjon air.  

            “I ask you again,” Belihn told the other three.  “Join us and your lives will be spared.”

            “Goddess damn you!” the second prisoner from the left spat.

            Belihn motioned for the guard to behead the second prisoner.  And so it went, until all the prisoners lay dead on the floor.

            Belihn spun on his heel and strode from the cell.

Chapter VI: The Goddess’ Touch

            On the day of Belihn’s coronation a blizzard swept through Draemin City, blanketing the city in white.  Outside the castle walls, the wind howled and moaned.  The wind could be heard even though the thick brick walls and glass paned windows and doors.  Windows and porch doors rattled. The grounds quickly became buried in snowdrifts.  The skies and the sun were hidden behind thick clouds and the day had a twilight quality.  Servants hurried to light fires in fireplaces, lighting torches along hallways.  The more superstitious wondered at the storm’s timing and whispered among themselves.  Was the Goddess making a statement?  Was She displeased?

            Belihn wondered about that, too, as he dressed in black velvet and silk for his coronation and marriage.  

            Prei-Serren Lahn Tjashensi-Obeli, being in residence, came to Belihn’s suites to assure him.

            “Pay the storm no heed,” he told the young king.  “Sometimes the Goddess leaves nature alone.  I’ve received no dire warning or displeasure in my dreams.”

            Belihn sighed.  “It’s hard to know if I am doing the right thing, Uncle.”

            The High Priest waved a hand.  “You have me to guide you, son.  She is pleased, as long as you keep your promises.”

            “I will, Sir.”

            The Prei-Serren patted his arm.  “Good then.  Your coronation will be modestly attended, I daresay.  No one will be able to travel here through that blizzard.”

            “That’s fine, Sir.”

            “Then we’ll head down to the Throne Room.  Come, child.”

            Four guards led the way down the hallway to the northeast tower and down the tower stairs to the ground floor, six guards bringing up the rear.  As they neared the Throne Room, Belihn heard the din of many voices in excited conversation.  The Great Hall doors leading to the bailey had been closed against the storm.  The hall was icy but well lit with torches.  

            As the procession neared the Throne Room doors, Belihn noticed that the gathering had spilled out into the hallway.  A hush fell over the congregation in the hall and spread into the room as the attendees noticed the High Priest and the procession of guards.  The gathering parted to allow them entrance into the crowded Throne Room.  The silence was deafening as they proceeded through the throng of lords and commoners, their footfalls echoing as their heels clipped along the marble floor.  A long table had been set up at the front of the room, near the base of the throne steps.  The table was covered in white satin that gleamed in the light from the many torches and the candle chandelier.  On the table were two tall, thick white candles in gold holders, a gold goblet studded with precious jewels, a gold wine decanter, a silver knife with a gem encrusted handle, and a closed jewelry case.  Despite the stillness of the air, the candles on the table hissed, their flames swaying.  

            The High Priest went to stand on the other side of the table, Belihn at his left, and faced the congregation.

            “We are here for Her pleasure and will,” Lahn stated without preamble, his voice carrying easily in the stillness.  “To found a new clan and dynasty, the Stait-Ekesj clan.  To marry Draemin City-State to her sister, Yllysia.  To correct errors and keep promises.  Those who oppose Her will do so at their peril.”  He turned to Belihn.  “Belihn Stait-Ekesj, do you vow to do Her bidding and obey Her in all things?”

            Belihn went down on one knee before the High Priest.  “I do, your Holiness.”

            Lahn placed his hand on Belihn’s head.  He closed his eyes and began to pray in a language Belihn did not recognize.  As Belihn watched, the High Priest’s body began to glow.  People gasped and began to whisper, their voices tinged with fear and awe.  A warmth filled Belihn, tingling along his nerve endings.  His eyes slid closed.  

            There were gasps and faint screams, but Belihn’s eyes remained closed as a lethargy filled him.  Then a burning sensation began in his groin.  He squirmed as the heat grew until he felt he was on fire.  Behind his eyelids, he saw the fierce visage of an impossibly beautiful woman.  She was dressed in gold armor and held a jewel encrusted shield and a gold lance.  She pointed the lance at his groin and speared him.  Distantly, he heard screams.  The fire seemed to be eating him from the inside out.   His nose smelled blood and burnt flesh.  

            A long time later, his eyes blinked open and he found himself on his back on the marble floor.  His body ached and thrummed as the burning sensation slowly faded.  Lahn knelt beside him and helped him to rise.

            “Your loins have been blessed,” the High Priest announced to the room.  “Your seed is the future and the grace of Her will. The past has been cleansed.”

            The Prei-Serren raised the silver knife.  “Bring forth the brides.”

            Emira’h and Alona were led forward by Yllysian guards.  They were dressed in white satins and silk, their hair piled upon their heads and held in place by jeweled pins.  Emira’h’s blue skin tone seemed darker against the pale dress, her slender arms bare, her generous breasts pressed up by her tight bodice.  She wore wristlets of sapphire, topaz and blue opals to signify Yllysia.  Every one of her slender fingers had a sapphire embedded gold or silver ring.  She wore a gold circlet with a large sapphire on her head.  

            Alona was dressed more simply, her dress hugging her slender body in marked contrast to Emira’h’s wide skirts and long train.  Alona’s dress had long sleeves that hugged her slim arms and glittered off-white with pearls.  The neck of her dress rode high along her neck, brushing her earlobes.  Her black hair was pinned in place by pins studded with pearls.  

            They looked beautiful, if awestruck and slightly fearful.  

            The holy man stepped up to Emira’h first.  He placed a hand on her belly and closed his eyes.  He began to pray over her womb.  As Belihn watched, slightly dazed still by his ordeal, the High Priest began to glow and then Emira’h as well. The High Priest took the girl’s right hand and cut with the knife along the palm of her hand.  She gasped but stood still as Lahn turned to set the knife down and pick up the golden goblet.  He turned her hand around and allowed a few drops of her blood to fall into the goblet.  He then performed the same rite with Alona.  Finally, he turned to Belihn, cutting into the flesh of his left hand and allowing the blood to mingle with the women’s blood in the goblet.  Lahn then set the goblet on the table, uncorked the decanter and poured red wine into the goblet.  He raised the cup over his head and prayed.  He began to glow.  When he opened his eyes, the gray of his pupils were bright gold.

            “Behold the future!” he cried.

            He turned to Belihn.  “Drink of your blood, which has been consecrated.”

            Belihn took the cup and took a mouthful.

            Then the High Priest turned to Emira’h so she could drink.  Finally, Alona was given the cup.

            Lahn then opened the jewelry case and removed a gold sol’eka bracelet and ring, turning to Belihn to fasten it at his left wrist, fitting the ring onto his middle finger.  Belihn looked down at the bracelet and ring, a thin gold chain connecting connecting them.  The bracelet was studded with small sapphires and emeralds, the sapphires signifying Yllysia and the emerald the jewel of Draemin City-State.  He watched as his wives were bound to him through the bracelets.

            When the High Priest finished binding the final sol’eka, he turned to the congregation.  “Behold, the marriage of nations, the birth of a new clan, the promise of the future!  I pronounce this marriage bound in the name of Holy Atana.”

            A commotion at the back of the room drew Belihn’s eyes.  He saw a man raise and incendiary device–it looked like a bottle stuffed with a cloth afire–and throw it at the middle of the congregation.  Screams erupted as the device flew towards the front of the room and exploded, releasing burning oil.  Clothing caught fire.  People screamed, pushing to get away.  The more levelheaded removed tunics and attempted to douse the flames.  Yllysian guards surrounded Belihn, his wives and the High Priest.  

            Belihn kept his eyes on the man who had thrown the device as he was about to throw another one, when a guard tackled him to the ground, then Belihn lost sight of them.  People trampled over each other in a panic, spilling out into the Great Hall.  Another device was thrown.  It exploded in midair and spilled burning oil everywhere.  A rage filled Belihn.  As he was herded towards the gold curtain leading to the War Room, he looked over his shoulder and saw two more men tackled to the ground by Yllysian guards.  

            Once in the War Room, the soldier in Belihn took over.

            “Detain every criminal,” he told the nearest guard.  “I will have them interrogated.”

            The guard brought his fist to his chest and bowed.  “Right away, your Majesty.”

            Alona was sobbing.  

            Belihn went to her and gathered her gently into his arms.  “I’m sorry you had to see that, picu.”

            She shook her head and pulled back.  “Why, Belihn?  Why do they oppose you so?”

            He caressed her pale cheek.  “Take you pick, Alona.  I wish to do away with caste laws, and I have just united Draemin City-State to our ancient enemy, Yllysia.”

            She kept shaking her head.  “I just don’t understand this level of hate!”

            The Prei-Serren took a shaky breath and released it.  “She is most displeased.”

            Belihn turned to the older man.  “What does that mean, Holy One?”

            “She will punish the clans, your Majesty,” the other replied.  “Although the culmination of the upcoming battle is unknown, She will punish the clans.”

            Belihn took a step towards him.  “How?”

            The Prei-Serren gave a mirthless smile.  “It won’t touch your clan or any that support you.  More I cannot say.”

            Belihn sighed.  “I see.”  He turned to Emira’h.  The girl was pale, but she straightened her back when she felt his gaze upon her.  She gazed back steadily at him.

            “Are you well?” he asked her.

            She jutted her chin out stubbornly.  “Yes.”

            He will filled with admiration for her.  “Good.”

            A guard ran into the room.  He came to attention and saluted Belihn.

            “There are several injured, your Majesty, and one dead,” the guard announced.

            Belihn frowned.  “And the culprits?”

            “The one who died was one of them.  He took his life before he was apprehended.  The four others are in custody in the donjons.”

            “Very good,” Belihn replied.  “I’ll go see to their interrogation.”  He turned to his wives.  “I’ll visit you both this night.  I give you my word.”  He motioned to one of the guards standing by the Throne Room door.  “Please arrange for an escort for my wives and the High Priest.”

            The guard saluted.  “Right away, your Majesty.”

Chapter V: Decision

Divita made her way down the hallway to Emira’h’s suites.  Once before the guards, she gave them a fierce stare that had them nearly squirming.

            “I would like to see her Highness, Princess Emira’h,” she announced as imperiously as she could.  

            The guard on the left bowed to her and turned to knock on the door.  

            One of the ladies-in-waiting opened the door and gasped when she saw Divita, curtsying and stepping back to allow her entrance.

            The ladies-in-waiting were standing in a semicircle behind the loveseat on which Emira’h sat with the Ambassador Torim.  They had all turned to see who had come calling.

            The Ambassador rose and bowed.  “Your Majesty.  To what do we owe this visit?”

            Divita stopped and clasped her hands before her.  “I wish to speak to Princess Emira’h for a few minutes.”

            “Then you and I are of a purpose,” Torim stated softly.  “Perhaps you can bring reason to this closed mind.”  He glanced at Emira’h.  “I shall return–“

            “Stay please, your Eminence,” Divita murmured.  “What I need to say will be said before Yllysia itself.”

            He bowed and watched as she sat down in an armchair facing the loveseat.  He then sat down.

            Divita arranged her skirts around her as she gathered her thoughts.  After a few seconds, she squared her shoulders and raised her gaze to meet Emira’h’s.

            “You won’t change my mind,” the girl stated firmly.

            “I’m not here to change anyone’s mind,” Divita assured her.

            The girl’s eyebrows shot up.  “Then why come at all?”

            “I would understand why you would choose to return to anonymity, when it is clear your Goddess wishes you to shine.”

            Emira’h lifted her chin.  “What do you know of Chaitah?”

            Divita smiled.  “I know She is the Goddess of high dibasj; She is the Goddess of birth and love and sex.”

            Emira’h waved a hand.  “Anyone can learn that.”

            “True,” Divita countered.  “I also know that it is against Her edicts for a woman not to have a child.”

            Emira’h looked at her with a measure of suspicion.  “This is true.”

            “What of those women who can’t have children,” Divita posed.

            Emira’h shook her head.  “They are not to be blamed.  The Goddess has other roles for them.”

            “What of those who refuse to bare children?” Divita asked.

            Emira’h squared her shoulders.  “They break the Goddess’ commandment.  They sin against Her.”

            “Yet, you were going to live your life in a nunnery, your womb empty of seed and child,” Divita stated.

            Emira’h flushed and rose.  “How dare you–“

            Divita rose as well.  “I merely wish to understand.”

            The girl narrowed her eyes.  “You are trying to make a fool of me, your Majesty!”

            “And how does a question do that?” Divita shot back mildly.

            Emira’h’s face flushed until her skin looked mottled.  She took a deep breath and released it.  

            “To be a nun in the service of the Queen of Dibasj is the greatest honor,” she said quietly.

            “Yet you condemn another for wishing to have three children and–“

            Emira’h sucked in a breath.  “She wishes to lie with a woman in sexual communion!  What is the purpose of such a union, other than to sin?”

            “Please sit, your Highness,” Divita murmured.

            Emira’h sighed and took a seat.

            “Do you believe the gods make mistakes?” Divita asked the girl.

            Emira’h vehemently shook her head.  “The gods are pure and perfect; they do not err.”

            “Then why would a girl–a virgin–like Alona be born with feelings for women, rather than men?”

            Emira’h crossed her arms over her bosom.  “She sins.”

            “Does she sin, by being born different?”

            “Yes,” Emira’h hissed.

            “Then the gods do make mistakes, for nothing in this world is beyond their power to effect.  Yes, Alona desires women rather than men.  That is how she was born, after all, and the gods control life and death; so, by your estimation, the gods make mistakes and are imperfect.”

            Emira’h rubbed her forehead.  “It is not a sin to want to lie with another woman; merely to act upon that desire.”

            “I see,” Divita replied.  “Then she must live a twilight life, devoid of pleasure.”

            “Yes,” the princess pronounced haughtily.

            “I see.  Then the gods are cruel.”

            Emira’h slammed her hand on the low table before her.  “Don’t confound my words!”

            “What else could a god that condemns such a young woman to a pleasureless life be, other than cruel?”

            “They are just!”

            “Tell me, Emira’h.  Why would atoliy feelings exist, if not by decree of the very gods themselves?” Divita challenged.  “Everything on this world and in this universe exists as a direct celestial act, is that not so?”

            “Yes.”

            “Then we are born perfect, with perfect feelings,” Divita concluded.  “The only limited thing in this world is the mind.  You do not understand being atoliy, so you condemn it.  But it is not the Goddess who condemns it; it is you.”            

            Emira’h barked a laugh.  “In the Holy Book it says:  The purpose of a woman is to bear the next generation.  She cannot divert from that purpose, or she be condemned.”

            “That’s fine,” Divita told her.  “Alona is going to have three children for Belihn.  The rest is between her and her deity.  Don’t you agree?  Only the gods may pass judgment?”

            Emira’h glanced at the Ambassador then back at Divita.  “What do you want from me?”

            “You were chosen, Emira’h, for my son,” Divita said.  “You are strong-willed and stubborn, which are qualities my son shares.  My grandchildren will need these qualities.  I don’t want some milksop Daughter of the Ten; I want you for my son.”

            “What of Alona Oh’nahry?” Emira’h asked quietly.

            “You needn’t worry about her.”  Divita sighed.  “I wanted you to be friends, but I can’t force you, can I?  As long as you do not actively do her injury, then I’ll be content with coexistence.”

            “I would not hurt anyone,” Emira’h pronounced.  “That, too, is a sin.”

            “Then will you deign to remain and marry his Grace?” Divita asked.

            The girl looked at her friends then at the Ambassador before she locked gazes with Divita.

            “Yes,” she said.

            Divita smiled and nodded.  She rose.  “Thank you, Emira’h.  You have done me a great favor this day.  I shan’t forget it.”

            The girl rose.  “No.  I see now that I was rash, although I have not changed my mind about Alona Oh’nahry.”  She flicked the nearest girl a look.  “Perhaps I will take time to speak to her.”

            Divita’s smile widened.  “That would be lovely.  Thank you,  Emira’h.”

            “Let me walk you out, your Majesty,” Ambassador Torim murmured and took her arm.

            Outside in the hallway, they waited until the door to Emira’h’s suites were closed before they began walking towards the northeast tower.

            “You are quite the remarkable woman,” the Ambassador murmured.  “I had not foreseen Emira’h having a change of heart so soon.  Of course, I had softened her up by the time you showed up, but she was not willing to relent as yet.  I foresaw a few days ahead of me of cajoling and questioning.”

            Divita laughed and patted his hand.  “She is a smart girl, that one.  Just appeal to her intelligence and sense of justice.”

            The Ambassador smiled and looked away.  “What do you say to dinner with me later tonight, your Majesty?”

            “Are you asking to woo me, your Eminence?”

            He shrugged.  “Far be it from me to ignore capable and beautiful women.  I am a weak man for a woman of strength and intelligence.”

            She gazed up into violet eyes speckled with gray and black.  “I suspect there is nothing weak about you, Ambassador.  But I am older than you, I think.”

            “By what?” he asked.  “Five years?”

            “I am thirty-seven haltaths old,” she told him.

            “And I am thirty-two,” he shot back.  “You are still a young woman and I a young man.  I have never met a woman like you, your Majesty.  I have never wished to woo a woman beyond bedding her for an evening.  I find that my thoughts return to you over and over again during my waking hours.  For the first time in my life, I think of things like relationships and marriage.”

            “Oh dear,” she said with gentle mocking.  “Goddess forbids!”  She gazed up at him with twinkling eyes.  “I am honored, your Eminence.  Yes, I will have dinner with you.”

            “Then you must call me Tah’duk’h,” he said.

            “I am Divita, Tah’duk’h.”

            He stopped, turned to her and bowed deeply.  “Then I will come to fetch you at sundown, Divita.  There is a confection of a play I wish to share with you, followed by dinner and drinks?”

            “Sounds lovely,” she murmured.

***

            When Divita returned to her suites, she found Mister Othar pacing outside the hallway door.

            “Mister Othar,” she greeted him.  “What brings you?”

            “I need to speak with you, your Majesty.”

            She studied his flushed cheeks and bright eyes and nodded.  “Come in.”

            She led him past the guards and into the cozy sitting room.  None of her children were about, but she knew for a fact Tifa was home.  

            She turned to the head servant.  “I won’t be in for dinner tonight. But make sure the children eat something.”

            The servant bowed.  “Of course, your Majesty.”

            Turning back to Tasjun, she motioned to an armchair.  “Have a sit, please, Mister Othar.”

            “Thank you, your Majesty.”

            She turned and sat down on a loveseat facing the armchair.  “Now, how may I help you?”

            He clasped his hands on his lap and sighed.  “I’ve come to a decision, your Majesty.”

            “Oh?” she said.  “About my son?”

            He cleared his throat, blushing lightly, and nodded.  “Yes, ma’am.”

            She nodded.  “Proceed then.”

            He ran a finger along his collar and cleared his throat again.  “I…uh…um…I’ve decided that it won’t be terrible to become his Grace’s lover.”

            She pursed her lips.  “That well thought of, is it?”

            “What?  No!  I mean–it’s just…I’m…I never…uh…I’ve never had a lover, your Majesty.  I don’t know how to go about this.”

            “You’re doing fine,” she assured him.  “I will talk to Belihn and he will approach you at his own pace.  I don’t suspect he will approach you aggressively or any time soon, seeing he must secure his reign by begetting heirs on his wives, but I don’t doubt he will pursue you.”

            “Uh–” the young man said and looked faintly disappointed.  “Yes, your Majesty.”

            She smiled at him.  “How go your studies, Mister Othar?”

            “Call me Tasjun, your Majesty.  Mister Othar was my father.”

            She grinned.  “Indeed, Tasjun.”  She rose.  “Then please continue to do your good work and await my son’s pleasure.”

            He bowed.  “Yes, your Majesty.  Thank you.”

            She thrust her arm through his.  “Never forget my son is naive and needs friends more than anything.  If your…liaison…does not work or comes to naught, you must be a friend to my son.”

            “I promise, your Majesty.”

            She patted his forearm.  “Thank you, Tesjun.  Good evening to you.”

            She watched him close the door behind him then turned and hurried into the suites, intending to bathe and prepare for her evening out with the handsome Ambassador Torim.  

            Tifa was coming down the hallway.  “Mother!  I thought I heard you.  Sjelo told me you are not dining here tonight.  Are you dining with Belihn?”

            “No.  I, my dear, have an assignation.”

            Tifa stopped and gaped.  “An assig–Mother!”  She wrinkled her nose.  “But that’s just–“

            Divita held up a hand.  “I am a young woman, Tifa.  I won’t be put out to pasture just yet.”

            She swept past her shocked daughter.

            Tifa followed her into her private suite.   “Of course you are not old, Mother.  I didn’t mean that!  Well, who is it?”

            Divita sighed and proceeded to her bedroom and the wardrobe.  She gazed at her dresses, her tunics and skirts with a jaundiced eye.  What to wear? she wondered.  Everything was hopelessly out of date!

            “Mother, I’m talking to you!” Tifa yelled, stamping her foot.

            “Tifa, I’ve no time for this.  Help me choose something appropriate for the theater and dinner.”

            The young woman sighed and gently pushed her to one side.  She looked through the wardrobe and eventually brought out a light green dress with long sleeves.  The dress was silk and dotted with sparkling stones like diamonds.  Divita knew some of the stones were diamonds, but not all.  The dress had a high collar with an emerald embedded at the throat.  The train fell to the ground but did not trail behind.  The skirt fell straight down.  The shoulders were bare, and the dress fit snugly, showing off her slim figure to its best light.  She had not worn this dress in many long years, but she knew even Kah’len had looked at her admiringly when she last wore it.    

            “This dress is wonderful on your skin tone, Aya,” Tifa murmured.  “It also brings out your hazel eyes.”  She held it against Divita and nodded.  “Yes, this will do just fine.  You can wear your fur lined white cloak.”

            “And for shoes?”        

            “You’ll wear the heeled dark green satin shoes with embedded emeralds, that’s what,” Tifa told her.

            Divita wrinkled her nose.  “A pair of ankle boots?”

            “It’s snowing outside, Aya!  You can’t wear sandals or slippers!”

            Divita sighed.  “I suppose so.  And my hair.”

            “Bathe!  I’ll dress your hair.”

            Divita did a hand washing at the basin, sprinkling aromatic oils into the water.  She scrubbed under her arms, along her neck and washed her sex.  Afterward, she poured the water over her and gasped at the icy temperature.  She then allowed her personal servant to dry her and dress her.  Once dressed, she sat before the fireplace in the suite sitting area while Tifa brushed her hair and began to braid it.  She made ten braids and piled them on Divita’s head, using pins with emeralds and pearls to hold her bun in place.  She then wrapped a dark green satin ribbon around the bun, allowing the ends of the ribbon to fall to her mother’s nape.

            Tifa stood back and gasped.  “Aya! You look positively beautiful!”

            Divita turned to her personal servant.  

            The woman curtsied.  “You look beautiful, your Majesty.”

            Divita swept into her bedroom and back to the wardrobe.  She opened the left-hand door and revealed the full lengthed mirror.  She gazed at her reflection.  After a few minutes, she smiled, and her eyes glittered.

            “This will do nicely,” she pronounced and huffed a laugh when Tifa rolled her eyes.

Chapter IV: Guidance

            Tesjun sighed and rose from his desk.  Sleep had been precious these last few days.  Whenever he lay down to rest, his mind was filled with doubts and questions.  The result was that he worked in a fog throughout the day.  He was slower at his duties than was his wont; he also forgot to do things.  If he were honest with himself, he was preoccupied during the day as well, not just at night.  He often caught himself staring  into mirrors, wondering what the King found so fascinating about him.  He had never had sex with anyone, as he had told the Queen Mother.  His life from a very early age had involved working for his family and learning to read and write and numbers. He had always been driven; his eye had ever been on raising his family above their station.  And now his small family lived in Draemin Castle; at least, for the time being.  He turned and walked to the window, where he pulled the curtains apart and gazed at the snowstorm beyond the glass panes.  

            He sighed.  Would it be so terrible, he thought to himself, to become the King’s lover?

            His Grace, after all, was beautiful to behold, wasn’t he?  He was kind, as Tesjun had told the Queen Mother.  And intelligent and fair minded. He sighed.  Then what was so difficult about this decision?

            But…what if he wasn’t atoliy?  What if…what if he saw beauty in all people, but it was purely esthetics and not attraction?

            He took in a deep breath and released it in an explosive huff.  He rubbed his forehead with a shaking hand.

            “I need guidance,” he murmured to himself.  “I cannot make this decision blind.  But…whom do I seek the guidance from?”

            He was a commoner with a commoner’s faith, so the person who came to mind was the Prei-Serren himself.  He squared his shoulders and strode into the hallway and then to the left, towards the unscathed northeastern tower.  As he strode, he thought of how he would broach the subject with the holy man.  The Prei-Serren had been the first atoliy in history to become the High Priest.  Well, at least as far as anyone knew.  

            He took the tower steps two at a time to the fourth floor.  The Prei-Serren was in residence because his Grace’s marriage and coronation were just a few days away and the weather had been unpredictable of late.  

            Walking up to the guards, he bowed.  “I would like to see his Holiness.  On behalf of his Grace, Belihn Stait-Ekesj.”

            The guard on the left gave him a once over before turning to knock on the door.

            A few seconds later, the door was opened by an acolyte.  He gave Tesjun a curious glance.

            “I am here to see his Holiness on the behest of his Grace,” Tesjun murmured, the lie coming more easily each time he told it.

            “One moment please,” the acolyte said and closed the door.

            Tesjun fidgeted under the guards’ cold perusal.  His skin was damp with perspiration and his heart was clamoring in his chest.  Releasing a breath, he squared his shoulders and straightened his back.  He fisted his hands at his sides.

            The door opened again and the acolyte bowed.  “Please enter.”

            His Holiness was standing at the balcony doors, peering at the thick snowflakes swirling in the strong winds.

            “It will be a bitter winter, this one,” he said to the room before turning around to face Tesjun.  “Have a seat, Mister Othar.”

            Tesjun sat down in an armchair and clasped his hands on his lap.

            The High Priest walked around the sofa and sat down facing his visitor.  His gray eyes glittered in his handsome, unlined face.  The Prei-Serren didn’t seem to age, except for the silver threading his black hair.  His face looked as a young man’s.

            “I’ve been expecting you, Tesjun Othar.”

            Tesjun gaped.  “W-what?”

            Lahn smiled faintly and shook his head.  “You have little faith, for a commoner.”

            Tesjun frowned, his ire rising.  “I’ve been busy surviving, your Eminence!”

            Lahn Obeli gave a nod and smoothed his hands over his robes.  “I know, child.  But I’ve been dreaming of you, off and on, since your conception.  The Goddess imbued you with an indomitable will and a keen intelligence.  It was She who drove that man to rape your mother so that you could be conceived.”

            Tesjun gasped.  “What?”

            “Your mother was a virgin, child.  She intended to enter a nunnery, so strong was her faith, but the Goddess had another purpose for her.  Your mother was born to conceive you.  The Goddess sent her messages in the form of dreams, but all she wanted was to leave her house.  Your grandfather beat her, you see.  He was cruel and abusive.”  

            The Prei-Serren motioned to the acolyte.

            Soon, a glass of liqueur was being forced into Tesjun’s hand.  He swallowed the drink without tasting it.

            He looked at the Holy Man.  “Do  you mean to tell me my father was not my father?”

            “He was.  He married her, you see,” Lahn Obeli replied.  “From his loins came your siblings.  But you…You, Tesjun, will begin to change the very laws of North Torahn, through your influence on the King.  Your will become a barrister, the greatest in the history of our nation.  Nothing else matters.”

            Tesjun swallowed, his head swirling with emotions.  He glanced at the older man.  “But…”

            Lahn Obeli raised an eyebrow.  “But?”

            “The Queen Mother approached me about his Grace.  Am I to be his lover, your Holiness?”

            “Are you?” the other asked with deceptive mildness.  “That is up to you, boy.”

            “I need guidance!”

            “I see.”  The older man sighed and sipped his liqueur.  “Well, sex clouds everything and involves the heart at some point.  Do you find his Grace attractive?”

            “Yes.”

            “Then why the confusion?”

            “I’ve never had a lover, your Holiness.  I’m not even sure I am atoliy or atol-domeinsji!”

            “Then might I make a suggestion?”

            “Of course!”

            “Masturbate and think of his Grace as you are doing so,” the Prei-Serren stated bluntly.  “If you achieve completion, then becoming his lover should pose no problem.  What you must realize is that this is a little thing in the context of the greater picture, son. You will be of great importance to Belihn, but being his lover is of little importance.  For the ages, you will be his primary advisor and you will guide him to change the laws that condemn so many to abject poverty and suffering.  That is all She cares about.  In the meantime, find your pleasure where you will.”

            Tesjun swallowed and leaned forward.  “Have you seen, in your visions, that I am his lover?”

            Lahn Obeli chuckled.  “That is of little concern to me or to Her, boy.  I have seen you as both, Tesjun Othar.  The choice is yours.  Belihn will not turn from your guidance, no matter your choice.  Your role in history is to prevail and change caste law; the rest is of little consequence.”

            Tesjun rose and bowed.  “Thank you, your Holiness.”

            The Prei-Serren waived a lazy hand.  “I’ve done nothing, child.  Do not speak of your mother’s rape to her; this I will counsel you.  She forgave your father and even came to love him, in her way.  She sacrificed much, child, always remember that.”

***

            Kurk Deshon set a glass of ekila in front of Tesjun and took a seat across from him.  

            “Now,” he said, lifting his glass.  “To King Belihn!”

            Tesjun raised his glass and clicked it to Kurk’s.  “To his Grace.”

            They drank the ekila and Tesjun closed his eyes as the heat of the liqueur burned down his throat, spreading across his chest, and filling his belly balefully.

            Kurk leaned forward to place his forearms on the table.  “You wanted to talk to me?”

            “I need guidance, Kurk.”

            Kurk raised an eyebrow but nodded.  “Go on then.”

            “The Queen Mother approached me a few days ago to tell me his Grace is attracted to me.  I don’t think his Grace knows she approached me.”

            Kurk sat back in his seat.  “I see.  And?”

            Tesjun shrugged.  “I don’t know how to make this decision!”

            Kurk snorted.  “Are you atoliy or not?  That is the only consideration.  Belihn is a handsome lad, so if you are confused then maybe you are not atoliy.”

            Tesjun gnawed at his lower lip and sighed.  “I wouldn’t know.  I’ve never lain with anyone.”

            Kurk poured more liqueur from the carafe.  “Then we must remedy that.”

            Tesjun frowned.  “How?”

            Kurk snorted again and shook his head.  “We find you a whore of either sex.  I’ll pay for it.”

            He rose and Tesjun gaped at him.  “What?  No!”

            “Drink your drink and come with me,” the other demanded, picking up the carafe.

            Tesjun swallowed his drink and rose on unsteady feet.  “But, Kurk–“

            “Shut up, son.  Listen to me, we will find out the truth tonight or my name isn’t Kurk Deshon!”

            The next few minutes were a blur to Tesjun.

            Kurk negotiated with the tavern keeper, paying him extra coins for the use of two servers.  Since the tavern was not busy, the tavern keeper agreed.

            The man was tall and whip thin, with cold hazel eyes and a beaked nose.

            He took Kurk’s coins and gave Tesjun the once over.  “These coins pay for one hour.  I want my servers down here again in one hour exactly.”

            “Y-yes, sir,” Tesjun replied through numb lips.

            The man’s icy glare flicked over Tesjun’s pale features and snorted.  “I’ll pick young and gentle ones for you, my lord.”  He handed Kurk a key.  “Room four on the second floor.”

            Kurk led the way up the narrow, creaking stairs to the second floor.  Candles in sconces on the unpainted wooden walls threw a buttery light against the dusty floor and low ceiling.  They found room four and Kurk applied the key, turning the lock and pushing the door open.  The room was in absolute darkness, but Kurk took up one of the candles from its sconce on the wall and walked in, placing the candle in a holder on the bedside table.  

            Tesjun entered the room slowly, scrunching his nose at the smell of stale sweat, liquor, and sex.  There was a modest bed with a dark blue cover. There was a table with a washbasin, and a bar of soap, washcloth and a towel hanging from a hook on the wall.  A waist-high barrel with a dipper stood next to the table.  The dusty wooden floor had no throw rugs.  There were no tapestries on the wall.  The single window was shuttered against the cold, the dark blue curtains opened to show the storm outside.  

            “I’ll be downstairs,” Kurk told him, pressing the key to the palm of Tesjun’s hand.  “Come find me in an hour.”

            Tesjun watched him leave then dropped onto the mattress with a drawn out groan.  His heart was racing so hard, he felt dizzy and lightheaded.  He took several deep breaths in an attempt to becalm his heart.  There was a knock at the doorjamb and he started and looked up.

            Two young people stood side by side just inside the door.

            The young man strode in and motioned for the girl to shut the door.  “You paid for our services, my lord?”

            Tesjun opened numbed lips and licked them before nodding.  “I’m…yes.  I’ve never done this.”

            He blushed when he realized what he had said.

            The young man and the young woman exchanged a look before she came to kneel at Tesjun’s feet.

            She placed a hand on his knee and he jumped as if she had stabbed him.

            “Becalm yourself, my lord,” she said in a soothing, soft voice.  “We will teach you.”

            “I just want to know if I am atoliy or domeinsji or both!” Tesjun stated with marked impatience.

            “Let’s find out, shall we?” the young man asked and removed his shirt.

            Tesjun gulped.

***

            Kurk yawned.  Outside the wall of windows, the snow had ceased falling and now glittered like jewels under the cold moonlight.  Few people were out and about, for the temperatures had dipped once the storm had passed.  Taitah the moon shone full beyond the ragged clouds.  He rubbed his face and pushed the last of the liqueur away.  He needed to go home and to bed, but he promised Tesjun he would wait for him, so he waited.  A brief commotion on the stairwell had him glancing that way.  Both young people ran down the stairs and back into the kitchen.  There was no sign of Tesjun.

            With a sigh, Kurk rose and made his way to the second floor.  He came to room number four and knocked.

            After a couple of minutes, Tesjun threw the door open.  “I’m just cleaning up.”

            He turned and strode into the room, Kurk at his heels.

            The room was redolent with the smells of sex and wax.

            Tesjun pulled on his tunic then his thick cloak, fastening it at the collar bone.  He turned to face Kurk, his dusky features suffused with blood.

            “How was it?” Kurk demanded.

            Tesjun blushed deeper.  “It was…”  He sighed and swallowed.  “I’m…it was good, Kurk.  Equally good.  I couldn’t choose one over the other.”

            “Then you are atol-domeinsji.”

            Tesjun swallowed.  “It appears so.”

            “Then what confuses you still?”

            “I would like to marry and have children.”

            Kurk shrugged.  “Then tell Belihn you want a wife and children.  He won’t deny you.”

            “What of my wife?  What of her feelings?”

            Kurk closed the door and took a seat at the edge of the mattress.  “Sit, Tesjun.”

            Tesjun sat.

            “You’re putting the cart before the horse,” Kurk told him.  “Do you wish to marry now?”

            “No.”

            “Then don’t worry about it as yet!  Have a love affair with Belihn.  You may not even like one another; you don’t know and you are borrowing problems where there are none.  You may fall in love with Belihn–“

            “But that’s just it!” Tesjun spat and rose.  “What if I fall in love with him?”

            “So what?” Kurk asked.  “You can choose a wife and have children when you are older.  You can learn to love her in your own way.”  He rose and placed a hand on Tesjun’s shoulder.  “Don’t worry so much, Tesjun.”

            “But I can’t!’

            “You can’t?  You can’t what?”

            “I can’t fall in love with anyone!  I’ve much to do!”

            “Becalm yourself, son,” Kurk murmured.  “Will you really go through life isolated because you are afraid of falling in love?”

            Tesjun dropped his gaze and swallowed.  “I just don’t want anything to take precedence over my duty.”

            “And it won’t,” Kurk assured him.  “You can and will fall in love and it will take you by surprise, but it won’t divert your from your purpose.  Have faith, Tesjun.”

            Tesjun sighed.  “I should really give Belihn my answer.”

            “He didn’t ask directly.  It’s the Queen Mother you should be concerned about,” Kurk retorted mildly, his lips quirking.  “Come.  Let’s go home.”

Chapter III: The Dinner

            Belihn arranged for Alona Oh’nahry and Morisjen Simaji’h Emira’h to meet prior to the marriage and coronation.  Both young women were of an age, so Belihn hoped they would be fast friends.  With Emira’h’s friendship, Alona might also inherit the friendships of Emira’h’s ladies-in-waiting.  To that end, he arranged an informal dinner at Queen Divita’s large suites.  His mother was delighted to be included in the event, promising to include some Yllysian dishes along with some rarified dishes from North Torahn.  Belihn left the particulars of the dinner in his mother’s capable hands and returned to his work.  His mother sent him a note two days later that the dinner would occur the following day and that his presence had been requested by both young women. The idea of spending an evening in the company of young women made him acutely uncomfortable, but as his mother gave him no option to decline, he sent her his acquiescence in a reply note.

            When the evening came, he dressed soberly, choosing darker silks and linens.  He wore a silken inner shirt of gray with a black linen outer tunic and black trousers.  He clasped a thick belt over the outer tunic and attached his sword sheath to the belt.  He wore hard leather boots with the trouser legs tucked inside like a uniform.  Over this ensemble, he pulled on a thick maroon woolen cloak, fastening the gold brooch at the collarbone.  With his personal guards in tow, he made his way down the hall to his mother’s suites.  He waited patiently as his personal guards swept into the sitting room and checked for weapons and the like.  When his guards positioned themselves unobtrusively against different walls, he entered the room and hugged his mother, pressing a kiss to her temple.

            “Thank you for hosting this meeting, Aya,” he murmured against her hair.

            She patted his hand.  “It’s a pleasure, my son.”

            They parted then she pulled him further into the room.  It was then that he noticed there were two more Yllysian guards posted on either side of the hallway door.  

            The room was crowded with young women.  Alona and Emira’h were both there already, as were Emira’h’s ladies-in-waiting.  There was also a young woman who looked very familiar standing next to his sisters.

            He bowed to Alona and Emira’h.  “I greet you both.”  He then bowed to the ladies-in-waiting.  “I greet you, my ladies.”

            The young women curtsied with many giggles and flushed faces.  

            He resisted rolling his eyes then turned his gaze to his sisters.  “Tifa; Ilmi.  Who is the young woman with you?”

            The young woman brazenly took a step forward and curtsied.  “I am Ethis Othar, your Grace.  I am Tesjun’s oldest sister.”

            Divita thrust her arm through his.  “Ethis will become the first of Alona’s ladies-in-waiting.”

            “I see,” he said, gazing with curiosity at Alona, who rolled her eyes rather expressively.  He pursed his lips to refrain from laughing.  Alona was an accomplished and busy young woman.  He could just imagine how she took to the idea of forced companionship.

            “How are you, Alona?” he asked.

            She rolled her eyes again.  “I’m fine, Belihn.  And you?”

            “I’m mostly recovered, thank you.”  He turned to Emira’h.  “And you, Daughter of the Ten.  How fare you?”

            She dimpled.  “I am well, your Grace.”

            “You may call me Belihn, Emira’h.”

            She curtsied.  “Very good, Belihn.”

            Divita let go Belihn’s arm.  “Please sit, all of you.”

            Everyone took a seat.  

            Belihn sat down in an armchair, his sisters perched one on each of the arms.  Tifa rested her arm on the headrest.  He noted that Ilmi still wore boy’s clothes and he refrained from gritting his teeth.  The girl did not want to finish school, did not want a career, did not want to marry. What did she want?  She wanted to waste time with her equally moorless friends.  Ilmi’s only saving grace was her tender years, but she was swiftly coming up on her fifteenth year of life.  Old enough to marry, he noted.  

            “My son wanted us to come together to create alliances and friendships,” Divita murmured.  “As queens, you can choose to be allies or enemies.  I will tell you, I lived in a harem filled with four queens constantly fighting for ascendency.  The King did nothing to ease our lives.  There were fights and poisonings.  There were arguments and spitefulness.  I don’t wish that kind of life on anyone.”

            Emira’h shifted, arranging her full skirts around her.  “I wish to incur no one’s enmity.  I want a large family and the friendship of any who will deign to give me that.”  Her clear blue eyes took in Belihn.  “If His Grace promises to come to my bed twice a week, I want nothing else.”

            Alona blushed and ducked her head.

            Belihn looked into Emira’h’s eyes.  “I will come to you twice a week, Emira’h.  You have my promise.”

            Emira’h bowed her head.  “Then we have an agreement.  Alona, you may state your wishes now and I will abide by them.”

            Alona’s face flushed beet red.  “I…uh…all I want is to be able to finish my university degree and continue with my painting.”

            Emira’h’s eyes widened and her ladies-in-waiting gasped.

            The Yllysian princess turned to Alona.  “You mean…you are allowed to study?  You know how to read and write?”

            Alona frowned.  “You do not?”

            Emira’h blushed and shook her head.  “No woman may read and write in Yllysia.”   She turned to Belihn.  “Yet, your nation has not fallen into chaos.”

            Belihn smiled at her.  “It has not, your Highness.”

            “Emira’h,” she said absently and turned back to Alona.  “What do you mean you wish to continue your painting?”

            “I am a painter,” Alona told her.  “I paint portraits mostly, but I also paint landscapes.”

            “She is quite accomplished,” Belihn piped up.

            Emira’h’s eyes widened again, but she said nothing as the servants entered bearing trays with libations and finger foods.  They set trays on every low table and proceeded to serve the young women fruit juices.  Belihn got a glass of mi’disj and his mother and Tifa each got a glass of wine.  The servants stood back unobtrusively to await orders.  

            Divita smiled at them.  “We’ll serve ourselves.  Just come back to pick up later.”

            “As you wish, your Majesty,” the head servant said and shooed the others out through the servant’s hallway door.

            Emira’h gazed at the food.  “What are these called?”

            “These are savory and sweet pastries, Emira’h,” Divita replied.  “These here are made from mashed turies and minced meat.  These are seafood.  These look to be the sweet ones, made with minced nuts and honey and southern spices.”

            Emira’h took up a pastry and bit into it, her eyes widening at the taste.  “Why, these are marvelous!  Taste them,” she urged her ladies-in-waiting.

            They ate in silence for a few minutes then Emira’h turned back to Alona.  “I have never heard of a woman painter.  It is most fascinating.”

            “In Torahn’s history there have been a few women accomplished in painting and poetry,” Divita told the girl.  “Our lot as women has improved greatly in the last two hundred years.”

            Emira’h sighed.   “Our lot apparently has not.”  She looked at Belihn.  “I might want to learn to read and write, Belihn–“

            “But, Emira’h–” one of the ladies-in-waiting said with a gasp.

            “You will learn as well, Kilsi,” Emira’h snapped.  “You needn’t inform me of my duty.  I will have children for the Crown and the glory of Yllysia.  To which I must ask you, Belihn…”  She cleared her throat.  “I intend to take ilishna when I am with child.  The result will be a child with my people’s skin color.  Will that be permissible?  Because if it is not, then I’ll return to Yllysia forthwith.”

            “My children from you will be Yllysian and Torahni,” Belihn told her.  “Your color means nothing to me, but it means everything to you.  Therefore, your children will be racially Yllysian.”

            Emira’h smiled.  “Thank you.”

            He bowed.  “But of course.”

            Ethis shifted.  “I can teach your Highness to read and write.  Or you can hire a tutor.”

            Emira’h looked at her.  “Thank you.  That must mean you know how to write and read also.”  She glanced at Divita.  “Do all women in North Torahn read and write?”        

            “Many do,” Divita replied.  “Some do not, but that is due to their economic caste rather than their abilities or beliefs.”

            “I see,” Emira’h murmured.  She turned to Alona.  “May I see your paintings some time?”

            Alona blushed and nodded.  “Yes, of course.”

            Emira’h cocked her head.  “You said nothing of children.  Do you not wish to have them?”

            “I will give Belihn children,” Alona assured her.  “I wish only three children, however.  Three and no more.”

            “And intimacy with his Grace?” Emira’h pushed.

            Alona straightened her back.  A belligerent gleam sparked in her eyes.  “I want Belihn’s friendship foremost.  I am atoliy, Emira’h.  I want a woman for a lover, not a man.”

            Emira’h gasped and rose, dropping her plate of pastries to the floor.  “This is an obscenity!  This is anathema!  An abomination!  How dare you speak of taboo things in my presence!”

            Belihn set his plate to one side and rose.  “That’s enough, Emira’h.”

            She turned on him, her eyes flashing with rage.  “But…but–“

            “Our ways are not your ways, Emira’h,” Divita stated soothingly as she rose from her chair.  “You must learn that we speak of these things in mixed company all the time.”

            Emira’h opened her mouth and closed it with a click of teeth.  Her light blue skin flushed deeply.

            “You must understand, these things are not the reality in Yllysia,” she stated, sounding confused and unsettled.

            Alona rose.  “There are atoliy of either sex everywhere, Emira’h.  Just because you do not speak of it in Yllysia doesn’t mean people like that don’t exist.”

            Emira’h took a deep breath and released it.  She had regained her normal color.

            “I beg forgiveness,” she stated.  “But I can’t be friends with an abomination.  I won’t be be in a marriage alliance to one, either.  Excuse me.”

            She swept from the room, followed closely by her ladies-in-waiting and their two guards.

            Alona looked stricken.  She sat abruptly, her eyes glassy with unshed tears.

            “I’m so sorry!” she muttered and swallowed thickly.

            Belihn knelt by her chair.  “Don’t give it another thought, Alona.  I won’t marry a bigot, either.  If she won’t do, then another Yllysian maid will.”

            “But…everything rests on this alliance!” Alona said.

            He took her hand in both of his and patted it.  “Worry naught.  I’ll fix this. I promise.”

            He rose and looked at his mother.  “I’d best speak to the Yllysian Ambassador posthaste.”

            She sighed and nodded.  “Please go then, son.”

            He hurried out into the hallway and made his way to his suites.  He asked a servant to fetch the Yllysian Ambassador as soon as possible.  As he waited, he paced, hands clasped at his lower back.  The Ambassador was now housed on the third floor of the castle to be near Emira’h and her ladies-in-waiting, and because he was now an advisor to Belihn.  Nearly twenty minutes later, the Ambassador hurried into Belihn’s sitting room.    

            “What has happened?” he demanded without preamble.

             Belihn sighed.  “Have a seat, Ambassador.  Please.”

             Belihn sat across from the Ambassador and told him everything that had happened.  To his credit, the Ambassador listened without interrupting.  At the end of Belihn’s tale, he sighed and sat back in his chair.

            “She was a nun,” the Ambassador said.  “She’s led a sheltered life.  Not all Yllysians share her extreme views.”        

            “But some do,” Belihn said.

            The Ambassador grimaced.  “That is correct, your Grace.  We are an isolated nation and have led an insular history.  This will change, given time.”

            “Perhaps another princess would work better,” Belihn suggested.

            The Ambassador flicked him a glance.  “That may be.  Let me consult with my staff then send the Ten a missive via carrier vinah.  It will take several days before we receive word.  I shall speak to the princess tonight as well.”  He rose.  “My apologies if she inadvertently insulted you or Lady Alona.  I warned the Ten that a strictly religious girl was not a good idea, but they have their own reasons, I suppose.  This won’t affect our relations or our agreements, let me assure you of that, your Grace.  I don’t think this should affect your marriage or your coronation either.  You can marry an Yllysian girl when she arrives.”

            Belihn rose.  They clasped forearms.  “Thank you.”

            The Ambassador bowed.  “Of course, your Grace.”