Chapter VII: Divita’s Return

            Lady Divita left the family villa and traveled to the city proper when she heard of her oldest son’s troubles with courtiers and dignitaries at court.  It was her goal also to have Belihn betrothed and wedded by the middle of the upcoming year.  With that goal in mind, she set a meeting between her family and the Oh’nahrys.   Belihn would marry the Oh’nahrys’ daughter.  
            She arrived at Castle Draemin while it was still dark and the night was old.  Few carriages filled the bailey and she and her servants made it to the Great Hall before being accosted.
            Courtiers bowed in her presence for, despite their disapproval of her background, she was a Queen.  She found commoners much more solicitous and respectful, but these hardly ever approached her.
            The courtier who now approached her looked all of seventeen, younger still than her oldest child.  Even though the courtier had donned a respectful mien, his eyes were cold, hard and calculating.  The look he gave her chilled her to the bone.  She drew her courage around her and drew herself to her full height and waited.
            He bowed to her.  “My Queen.  How advantageous that you are here.  I wanted to offer my condolences that your oldest son has quarrelled with the King and has fallen so spectacularly from grace.”
            She stiffened, unaware of any argument between Kah’len and Belihn.  “Thank you. Has Belihn been exiled from court?”
            He paused and straightened.  “Not that I’m aware, your Majesty.”
            “Then your condolences are not necessary,” she retorted mildly.  “There is still a chance for mending fences, wouldn’t you say?”
            His eyes were shards of ice in his narrow, spiteful face.  “That would seem.”
            She took a deep breath.  “May I ask what your hatred of my son is, or is it merely because of his unfortunate bloodline?”
            The courtier barked a laugh and dabbed at his mouth with a silk handkerchief.  “Isn’t that enough, your Majesty?”
            His affectations were annoying, but she could overlook them.  The reptile’s gaze she could not.  This man’s soul was putrid, despite his youth.
            “And is your bloodline pure?” she challenged, gathering her skirts to walk around him.
            He gave her a taunting smile.  “My father is a Clan Head.”
            She returned his smile.  “Yes.  He is.  And what of your mother, Tok’ta’h?  A scullery maid, perhaps?”
            He flushed a violent red.
            She bowed.  “Excuse me, please.”
            She sighed as she hurried down the hallway, her servants at her heels.  People forgot her famous memory.  She never forgot anyone’s name or anything she learned about them.  She had made an enemy today, but one that had little influence.  The son of the head of the Tok’ta’h clan the young man may be, but his father barely tolerated him.  She wondered how he came to be a courtier, when he was a mere bastard.  Making a mental note to investigate this further, she took the northwest tower stairs up to the top floor, where her apartments were located.  
            The apartments were in order, even though three teenagers lived there.  She had left enough servants behind to fulfill the upkeep of the suites.  
            She turned to her servants.  “Please place my travel trunk in my room.”
            The servants bowed and carried her trunk into the inner apartment using the servants’ hallway.
            With a sigh, she removed her cloak and handed it to her lady-in-waiting, Rechel Setin.  Rechel was the daughter of a minor clan lord.
            “Shall I order tea, your Majesty?” Rechel asked.
            Divita smiled at the young woman.  “Please, Rechel.  That would be lovely.”
            Rechel curtsied.  “Right away, your Majesty.”
            Divita watched as the young woman entered the servants’ hallway.  She had tried to marry Rechel off, but the young woman was insistent upon staying her lady-in-waiting.  They had become great friends in the five years since Rechel had become her companion.  Divita’s previous companion, Malie, had married and left her service six years prior.  For a long year, Divita had had no confidant, until Rechel had come.  If she were honest with herself, she was glad Rechel did not want to marry.  She got lonely and the idea of coaxing friendship from yet another young woman that might marry and leave her was daunting.  Rechel was kind, intelligent, and a reformist at heart, hating the caste system with a passion that she only voiced to Divita.  Divita wondered if Rechel had fallen in love with a poor lad and lost him to the mores of her family.
            Divita sat down facing the balcony doors.  She wondered what had happened between King Kah’len and Belihn.  Belihn had been so closed mouthed about it.  She had written to him and asked him pointblank, but he had not responded.
            “Aya!”
            Divita rose and turned.  “Tifa, my dear.”
            They embraced, Tifa clinging to her desperately.    
            “What is it, darling?” Divita asked, growing concerned.
            Tifa shook her head and took a step back. Her eyes were glassy with unshed tears.   “It’s Belihn, Aya!  He’s…the courtiers are being absolutely horrible to him.  He’s lost weight and he looks like he’ll fall sick at any given moment.”
            “That is why I’m here,” Divita told her oldest daughter.  “I shall get to the bottom of this, if it’s the last thing I do.”
            They sat side by side on the couch.
            Divita turned to her daughter.  “How are your siblings?”
            Tifa rolled her eyes.  “Oblivious.  Ilmi and T’arehn have their friends and, for what it’s worth, they are loyal friends.  They are being shielded from Belihn’s shame.”
            “And you, daughter?”
            Tifa fidgeted.  “Some trouble has been coming my way, but, really, Aya, it’s not so terrible.  I have Kilen.  When we marry, I will retire from Court and live in the city with his family, I think.”
            “It’s good you feel that way,” Divita murmured.  She smoothed her skirts.  “But your brother is stubborn.  And he is ambitious, isn’t he?”
            Tifa nodded and wiped at her eyes.  “He is so thin, Mother!  And father does nothing.”
            Divita frowned.  “He has left his progeny’s upbringing entirely to his wives.  Well, at least he married smart women, didn’t he?  Send for you brother, girl.  I would speak with him.”
            Tifa rose and curtsied.  “Right away, Aya.”
            Rechel returned with a servant in tow carrying a tray with a teapot and cups, honey and milk.  The servant set the tray on the low table before the couch and Rechel dismissed her.
            “I’ll serve us, my lady,” Rechel murmured and sat next to Divita.
            Divita watched as the young woman doctored the tea to her taste and handed her the cup of fragrant southern tea.  Divita had never liked mjish.  It was too sour.  She liked her teas bitter and strong.  She sipped her tea, finding the bitterness tempered by the milk and honey.  She sighed with pleasure.
            “The servants are talking of Captain Belihn,” Rechel murmured.  “They are worried.”
            Divita sighed.  “And well they should be.  Tifa is as well.”
            “Your daughter does not easily worry,” Rechel stated.  “And that worries me.”
            “Why don’t you send a dinner invitation to the Oh’nahry family, Rechel?  I won’t leave until my son is betrothed.”
            Rechel set her cup of tea on the low table and rose.  “Shall I take dictation?  I can have the invitation sent as soon as we are done.”
            “Yes, thank you, darling.  I hope the Oh’nahrys haven’t been scared away by the falling out.”
            “I hope not,” Rechel agreed and hurried to find some paper and pen and an inkwell.
            When she returned, Divita dictated an invitation to dinner later in the week.

                        “My dear Mister Oh’nahry:
                          It would be a pleasure to host your family for a dinner on the third day of this week.  The purpose of our meal is to finalize the betrothal of my oldest son
                          to your only daughter.  We will, at that time, discuss the marriage price and future residence of your offspring.  It is my sincerest hope that recent events
                          at court have not dissuaded your desire to join our families in matrimony.  Let me assure you that recent events have not made the King turn from my son.
                          The King has not dissolved his inheritance nor has he exiled Belihn from court, which leads me to think that events are not as dire as gossip makes them
                          out to be.  I have high hopes my son and my husband will reconcile and soon.

                          Please respond to this missive at your convenience.  We shall dine in my apartments.

                          I look forward to our get together.

                         Yours,
                         Divita Tjashensi-Stait,
                         Queen of Draemin City-State”

            Rechel poured fine sand over the ink and set the missive to one side.  She withdrew Divita’s seal and a cube of red wax from the seal satchel.  When the sand had absorbed the excess ink, Rechel poured the excess sand back into its crystal holder.  She folded the missive and slid it into its envelop then affixed Divita’s seal in wax.  
            She rose from her seat.  “I shall have it delivered, my lady.”
            “Thank you, Rechel.”
            Divita rose and walked to the balcony doors, throwing them open.  The air was heavy with the smell of smoke from countless fireplaces.  The skies were clear and the sun’s light was warm on her skin as she stepped up to the balcony railing and leaned there to gaze at the bailey below.  Kah’len had been kind enough to gift Divita this apartment with its views of the castle gardens.  During anasj and dibasj, the scent from flowers filled the air with a sweet musk.  This late in haltath, the garden had been pruned back.  Most of the brilliant colors of the season had given way to dead leaves and bare limbs.  Soon the gardens would be covered under blankets of snow as haltath gave way to kamaran.
            “Mother.”
            Divita turned.  “Belihn, my son.”
            She hurried to his side and they embraced.  Her heart lurched when she felt how much weight he had lost.  She pulled back and gazed up at him.  His eyes looked bruised and he was pale, his features sharp from his weight loss.  She reached a hand and cupped his cheek.  
            “Oh, my dear child, what has gone on?” she asked.
            He pulled her to the couch and they sat down side by side.
            “Tell me,” she insisted.
            “Father and I had an argument over the caste system,” he said. “I said terrible things and he banished me from his inner circle.”
            “That doesn’t sound like your father,” she noted.
            “He’s afraid of the clans and doesn’t want Civil war.  He has abandoned all his principles.”
            She frowned.  “Not abandoned them.  Perhaps shelved them for the time being.”
            She took his graceful hands in both of hers.  “Have courage, Belihn.  This will pass, too.”
            He frowned and looked away from her.  “They are eating me alive at court, with their jibes and taunts.  They’re like a pack of wild tash-tashes tearing at a carcass.”
            His hands were cold, so she rubbed them with both of hers.  “Listen to me, Belihn.  Their opinions don’t matter one whit.  You are the son of the King.  They are envious and spiteful and vicious, but, ultimately, if you don’t allow their opinions to touch you, you will prevail.”
            He pulled his hands free.  “The problem is that I share their points of view.”  He rose and began to pace.  “I believe I am less than for something as innocuous as my bloodline!  I can’t seem to stop thinking along these lines!”
            “Embrace your bloodline as I have,” she told him and rose.  “Be proud of your past, child.  Do you know, my family came with the clans from across the sea and helped found this nation.  The only thing that made them less than was that they did not have the wealth to purchase a title.  You know as well as I, Belihn, that circumstances are up to chance.  Where one succeeds and the other fails is up to the whims of chance.  And simply because one was lucky in the past and made his wealth, where the other failed, cannot dictate pride.  It is ridiculous.”
            “Intellectually I know this,” he told her.  “But emotionally…”
            “Emotions are harder to control,” she agreed.  “Where is your father’s protection?”
            He gave a mirthless laugh.  “He does nothing, but that is fine by me.  I have your love and my siblings’ love.”
            “Kah’len loves you, Belihn–“
            “He has a funny way of showing it,” he retorted and wiped his mouth.  His eyes looked haunted.  “Some of what they are saying to my face cannot be repeated, but as the Goddess is my witness, I won’t forget any of it.”
            “Don’t allow yourself to grow bitter and hard, Belihn,” she advised him.  “Know your enemies and your friends, but don’t let meanness and spitefulness change you.”
            Rechel stepped into the room and paused, looking uncertain.
            Belihn motioned to her.  “You can come in, Rechel.  I was just leaving anyway.”
            “Belihn,” Divita said.  “On the third day this week, I am having the Oh’nahrys for dinner.  Please come and meet their daughter.”
            He cocked his head.  “I would be curious to know why they would saddle their daughter to one who has fallen from favor.”
            Divita lifted her chin.  “You are the King’s son.  You may not inherit the Crown, but you will inherit part of his dynasty.”
            He gazed intently at her for a few minutes before coming to some sort of conclusion and nodding.  “I’ll be here, Aya.”
            “Thank you, son,” she murmured and watched as he strode out into the hallway, closing the door firmly behind him.
            

Chapter VI: The Assignment

Two days later, the King called another emergency meeting with his civilian and military advisers.  
            In the predawn hours, a banging on his bedroom door violently startled Belihn awake.  He stumbled to the door and pulled it open.
            “Begging your pardon, Captain,” the soldier in the hallway said.  “The King has called an emergency pre-Court meeting and you have been summoned.”        
            Belihn rubbed his face with a shaking hand.  “Thank you, Private.  I’ll leave as soon as I’m dressed.”
            The soldier saluted and hurried off.
            Belihn closed the door and strode to his washbasin, where he filled the basin with fresh water from the bucket on the floor.  He washed his face and neck and rinsed his mouth out, reaching for the towel and rubbing the water from his skin.  He dressed quickly, pulling his boots on last before he brushed and braided his hair.  Pulling on his light cloak, he fastened the pin at the shoulder.  He placed paper and two pens as well as a sealed inkwell into his shoulder bag, then picked up the bag and left his room, closing the door behind him.  Making his way to the main floor, he hurried to the front door and then out into the garden.  Haltath was old, so the mornings were brisk and white with hoarfrost.  He was grateful for the cloak as he hurried down the bailey towards the castle proper.  This early in the morning, most visitors to Castle Draemin had not arrived as yet.  The bailey was mostly empty, except for troops of soldiers jogging towards the drawbridge.  Belihn looked at them with longing; he would not be able to exercise today at all.
            He gazed up and spotted Taitah the moon in her sickle phase.  Her entourage of stars shone bright.  Wisps of ragged clouds did little to deflect from the stunning sight.  
            Once in the Great Hall, Belihn hurried to the King’s War Room.  The door stood ajar and he stepped inside.  The King’s civilian advisers were already there:  Lady Oona Obeli-Thalmar, Lord Domio Obeli, Lady Kahla Sti’et-Ys’teis, Lord Umar Sti’et, and Prei-Serren Lahn Tjashensi-Obeli.  
            Belihn greeted the advisors and was warmly greeted back.
            “Where’s Father?” Belihn asked his Grand-Aya.
            His grandmother reached up to caress his cheek.  “The King will be here shortly, Belihn.  As will Commander-General Rakah.”
            His grandmother’s husband, Domio, grinned at Belihn.  “Have a seat, child.”
            They took their seats until the inner door swung open and the King strode through. Then they rose to their feet and genuflected.  
            The King took his seat and indicated they should do the same.
            “Rakah should be here shortly,” King Kah’len murmured.  “Thank you all for attending at such short notice.”
            Lady Kahla shifted.  “Has anything happened?”
            “I’ll let Rakah explain the purpose of the meeting,” the King replied.
            They waited near a quarter of an hour before Commander-General Rakah Ys’teis hurried through the hallway door and closed it behind him.
            “Apologies for my tardiness,” he said.  “I have had precious little rest in the last two days.”
            “Please sit, Rakah,” the King said.  “And tell us why you’ve called us here.”
            Rakah took his seat.  “The investigation has taken a curious turn.”  He reached into the inner pocket of his tunic and retrieved a folded paper.  He opened the paper and turned it to face the King.
            “What’s this?” the King demanded.
            “Read it, Sire,” Rakah murmured.
            Belihn craned his neck and read the advertisement:

                            “The future demands change!
                              When will this caste system fall, that keeps you in chains?
                             You get your wages, which keep you just this side of poverty,
                              Even though you fight for King and City.
                              What is your life worth?
                              King Kah’len promised reform!  Where is reform?
                              Where is hope and where is the shiny future he promised
                              For your children?  Join us!
                                                    -The Reformist Lord”

            “Treason,” Lahn spat.
            “Yes,” the King agreed.  “But it is also truth.  I promised to reform our caste system and have been forestalled every step of the way by the clans.  It would be natural that people become disaffected and blame their King.”
            Lord Umar shook his head.  “We must fight back.  Disperse our own information and place the blame where it should rest, with the clans.”
            The King sat back in his chair.  “I don’t want to provoke the clans into Civil War.”
            Belihn shifted.  “Father, with all due respect, the army adores you, Sir.  And the common soldier does not blame you.”
            The King nodded.  “I know.  That is why this sort of propaganda does not concern me overly much.”
            Domio Obeli leaned forward.  “You can’t let the clans dictate your course of action, Sire.  If we push them to Civil War, they will lose.  That is why I don’t think they’ll opt for that course of action.”
            The King grimaced.  “I wish I could be as sure as you seem to be, Domio.”
            Lady Oona reached over and covered the King’s hand with her own.  “Trust Domio.  As the head of your cadre of spies, he has the pulse on what is happening in this city.”
            Belihn shifted.  “This Reformist Lord has the same goal as you, Father.  We should try to win him over to our side.  We all want reform, after all.”
            “Don’t forget he’s a thief,” Commander-General Rakah stated coldly.
            Belihn shrugged.  “He isn’t stealing from the destitute or disfranchised, Uncle.  Lord Us’ri’h has never supported the King.”
            “Even stealing from our opponents is reprehensible,” Rakah insisted.
            The King shifted and looked at Belihn.  “What are you getting at, son?”
            “Let me try to infiltrate this Reformist Lord’s inner circle,” he replied.  “People know I am already disenchanted with my lot and caste.  With your blessing, I will drop a few hints here and there and see if I am noticed by these reformists.”
            Commander-General Rakah turned to Belihn.  “This could be dangerous, Captain.  We don’t know anything about these reformists.  Besides, your actions can tarnish your reputation.”
            Belihn snorted.  “What reputation, Uncle?  I am the grandson of a lamplighter and chimneysweep.”
            Commander-General Rakah cleared his throat.  “I see your point, son.  But it can still be dangerous.  Have a care.”
            “I will, sir,” Belihn promised.
            Domio sat back in his chair.  “I will assist you, Belihn.”
            The King nodded.  “As an infiltrator, you come under Domio’s purview.  You go to him for funds, for reports, and for guidance.”
            Belihn brought his fist to his chest and bowed.  “Of course, my King.”
            King Kah’len frowned and tapped the tabletop with a restless finger.  “While you are at it, Belihn, try to get an idea of how much disaffection there is in the army and from what quarters.  I expect a weekly report.”
            “Yes, Majesty.”
            The King rose and his advisers followed suit.
            “We will meet again in one week’s time,” Kah’len murmured.  “Belihn, get word to Domio as soon as you uncover anything.  Do I make myself clear?”
            Belihn bowed.  “Abundantly, Majesty.”
            The King nodded and swept from the room.
            Domio walked around the table.  He threw his arm around Belihn’s shoulders and lowered his voice.
            “We don’t know what lords are in the Reformist’s inner circle, so have a care what you say and where,” he told Belihn.
            “Yes, sir.”
            Domio patted Belihn’s shoulder and moved away.  “Contact me every sixth day, sooner if a meeting is warranted.”
            “Yes, sir.”
            Domio nodded.  “Now, come with me and I will give you some pointers on the fine art of spying.”
            Belihn followed him from the room and into the Great Hall.  Domio led him several doors down the hall to his office.  
            Domio’s office was furnished in dark woods and somber colors.  The decor had a soothing effect on Belihn and he found himself relaxing as he followed Domio into his inner office.  
            Domio closed the inner office door.  “Have a seat, Belihn.”
            Belihn dropped into the nearest armchair while Domio walked around his desk and took a seat.  
            “I’ll be honest with you, Belihn,” Domio stated.  “It takes years to make a spy.  I will have a couple of my people keep an eye on you, just to make sure you are safe.”  He sat back in his chair and studied Belihn’s face.  “You have the open face of an innocent.  You appear quite young-looking, which will be to your advantage.  So is your past.  Even so, it may be months before you reach the Reformist Lord’s inner circle, if you ever do.  This person has not gotten away with the thefts due to stupidity.  He’s clever and suspicious, I warrant.   For that reason, you are barred from our weekly meetings with the King.  It will seem too suspicious that you are in the King’s inner circle while you are a disaffected lord.”
            “I understand,” Belihn said.  “It might be auspicious if I am publicly removed from the King’s inner circle, sort of a fall from grace and public shaming.  That will add to my credibility, don’t you think, Sir?”
            Domio considered then nodded.  “You might have something there, son.  However, you must know that if you are publicly shamed, you will become an even larger target to your opponents.  You’ll make your life harder than it already is.”
            “I know this, Sir.  But it might be worth the difficulties to gain access to our quarry.”
            “It might not work,” Domio said.
            “It’s a chance I’m willing to take, sir.”
            Domio sighed and dropped his head back onto the headrest.  His gaze roamed the rafters for a few minutes.
            “I would hate to cause you greater pain, Belihn,” he said after a few minutes of thoughtful silence.  “But if you are willing to sacrifice, then I won’t stand in your way.”
            “Thank you, sir.”
            “This will impact your siblings and your mother as well, Belihn.  Have you thought of this?”
            Belihn swallowed.  “No, I had not.”
            “Your mother already leads an isolated life in the family villa, but your siblings attend university,” Domio said.  “If they are embroiled in your shame, you cannot reveal to them anything.  Do I make myself clear?”
            “Yes, Sir.”
            Domio stared into his eyes for a few minutes before he nodded.  “Well then.  I will speak to your father about publicly removing you from his inner circle.”
            Belihn rose.  “Thank you, Sir.”
            Domio glanced up at him.  “Don’t thank me yet, Belihn.  Things are about to get quite ugly for you.”


            Irai’h set the sheaf of papers on the desk of Ryeoh’s study and stepped back.  
            “How’s the recruiting going?” Ryeo’h asked.
            Irai’h shrugged.  “There are a few prospects.  I would caution approaching them quite yet.”
            Ryeo’h perused the list and hummed.  “Interesting.  There are quite a few well off candidates.  Why are they disaffected?”
            “That is what my concern is,” Irai’h replied.  “Some on this list seem to have legitimate reasons for disaffection.  I don’t trust the others.”
            “Some of these have been vocal about their disaffection,” Aosji murmured.  “Commander Ethael is one of those who has always supported reform.”
            Ryeo’h tapped his finger on his chin.  “He has been vocal, yes, but I would caution against revealing ourselves to him, though.  He may be a Crown plant.”
            I’a’sji nodded.  “I agree.”  He pointed at the middle of the list.  “What about the King’s own son, Belihn Tjashensi?  He was recently promoted to captain.  Why would he be disaffected?”
            Irai’h took a seat in the only available chair.  “He was publicly removed from the King’s inner circle because of his vociferous reformist leanings.”
            “How convenient,” Ryeo’h drawled.  “Does the Crown think we are fools?”
            Irai’h leaned his forearms on the tabletop.  “Still, what if he is genuine?  At some point, we take a chance on all of these men.”
            “Too early to reveal our hand,” Ryeo’h disagreed.  “We should keep an eye on Captain Tjashensi.”
            “I have,” Aosji piped up.  “I have been watching his fall from grace.  The courtiers are being brutal, verbally attacking him and mocking him openly.”
            “And what of the King in all of this?” Ryeo’h asked.
            “He is not chastising anyone for insulting his son,” Aosji replied.  “Which leads me to believe they had some sort of falling out.”
            “Or Captain Tjashensi might be a plant,” Ryeo’h said.
            Irai’h sighed.  “But if he is a plant, he’s gone to great lengths.”
            “All the more reason to doubt his validity,” Ryeo’h rejoined.  “But I think we should keep an eye on him in the meantime.  I will consider when we can approach him.”
            Irai’h rose, an idea niggling at the edge of his mind.  “What if…what if I seduce him?”
            Ryeo’h frowned.  “Is he atoliy?”        
            Irai’h shrugged.  “He has never actively pursued young women at court.”
            “But that could be because he is half-Commoner,” I’a’sji supplied.  “No one wants to touch him with a ten foot pole.”
            “Still,” Irai’h said.  “Some trysting would have been revealed.  No one is that careful about their trysting, which leads me to suspect he doesn’t pursue young women.”
            “Neither is he known for trysting with young men,” Aosji countermanded.  
            “Let me try,” Irai’h asked.  “I’ll approach him and see what side of the toast he butters.  If he is atoliy, I will seduce him.  He must be lonely and ripe for the picking, don’t you think?”    
            Ryeo’h gnawed on his lower lip.  “You might be right, Irai’h.  Approach him and make your interest clear.  Let’s see if our young prince bites.”
            

Chapter V: The Interrogation

            Irai’h Asjur looked up from his desk as two guards entered Thalnel and Sons.  He frowned and glanced at Aosji, who had paled considerably.  He gave a minute shake of his head and rose.   He walked around the desk and strode to meet the guards.
            “How may I be of service, gentlemen?” he asked.
            The tallest guard turned to him.  “We have a summons for Lords Irai’h Asjur, Aosji Brenth’on’h and I’a’sji A’kir’h.”
            Irai’h almost sighed with relief as Ryeo’h strode through the side door into the reception room.  “What is the purpose of the summons?”
            “We are not at liberty to say,” the guard replied blandly.
            Ryeo’h nodded.  “Wait outside, please.  They will be right out.”
            When the guards stepped outside, closing the door behind them, Ryeo’h turned to his friends.  
            “They know nothing,” he told them.  “They are merely sniffing around.  I will contact my solicitor right away.  Say nothing, but what we practiced.  Do I make myself clear?”
            Irai’h nodded.
            Aosji fidgeted, looking pale.
            Ryeo’h gave him a withering glare.  “Aosji!  Be calm.  You know what to say.”
            Aosji ducked his head and nodded.  “I’m sorry, Ryeo’h.  I will be calm.”
            Ryeo’h nodded and strode to open the door.  He looked at the guards.  “I’a’sji A’kir’h is at the wharves this morning.  I’ll fetch him and take him to the Castle.  Will that suffice?”            
            The guards bowed.  “Yes, sir.  Thank you.”
            Irai’h and Aosji followed the guards out into the street.  There was a carriage waiting for them and they clamored inside.  Once the carriage was moving, Irai’h looked at his friend.
            “Aosji, please,” he begged.  “Calm yourself.  Here.”
            He reached into the pocket of his coat and retrieved a pill case.  He opened the case and dropped a tiny white pill onto Aosji’s hand.  
            “What is this?” Aosji asked.
            “It will calm your nerves, you fool,” Irai’h said.  “Now, swallow it.”
            Aosji did as he asked and sat back with a grimace.
            Irai’h sighed and pushed back the curtain from the carriage window.  “They don’t know anything.  Else, we would have been arrested.  They are doing an investigation, that’s all.”
            “Why us?” Aosji demanded.
            “Because we were there last night.  They are probably interrogating everyone.”  He looked at his friend.  “We’ve always hightailed it back here when we’ve done jobs in other city-states.  But we live here, don’t we?  Be calm, Aosji, or you will give us away.”
            Aosji closed his eyes and drew a deep breath.
            Irai’h bit back a curse.  He had warned Ryeo’h about Aosji’s lack of nerve, but Ryeo’h did as Ryeo’h saw fit, didn’t he?  If anyone gave them away, it would be Aosji.  Now they were in too deep.  
            They did not talk until the carriage was rattling over Castle Draemin’s drawbridge.  By then, the pill Irai’h had given Aosji had taken effect and the young man was calm and collected, if a bit dreamy around the eyes.
            “How are you?” Irai’h asked.
            Aosji smiled.  “Fine. Thank you, Irai’h.”
            Irai’h nodded.  “Our story is airtight.  You’ll see.”
            The carriage rolled to a stop and they stepped down into the bailey crowded with carriages, lirtah, and visitors.  Wordlessly, they followed the two guards into the Great Hall and, from there, to a nondescript doorway into a room with a scuffed table and four chairs.  They were instructed to sit on one side of the table and then they were left alone.
            Irai’h looked at Aosji and gave a minute shake of his head when Aosji made to say something.  He then turned forward and adopted a bored expression.  From the corner of his eye, he saw Aosji follow suit.  
            They were made to wait a long time, but Aosji, under the influence of the drug, remained calm and collected.
            By the time the door to the hallway opened and a handsome officer entered the room, Irai’h was near to fuming.
            He rose.  “What is the meaning of making us wait here like this?”
            “Sit down, Lord Asjur,” the officer said.
            He was tall and older, somewhere in his mid-forties, with thick black hair threaded with silver, and the silver eyes of the Ys’teis clan.  He glared at Irai’h until Irai’h took his seat.
            “We are investigating the theft that occurred last night,” the officer said.
            “Who are you?” Irai’h demanded.
            The man’s mouth quirked.  “I am Commander-General Rakah Ys’teis.”    
            Irai’h rose and bowed.  “Begging pardon, your Highness.  It’s just that our morning has been frightfully disrupted, you understand?”
            “Sit, my lord.  I understand and I will release you as soon as you answer my questions.”
            He strode to the door and opened it, motioning to one of the guards at the door.  “Kindly escort Lord Brenth’on’h to the adjoining room.”
            The guard stepped into the room.  “Lord Brenth’on’h.”
            Aosji rose and followed him from the room, flicking a glance at Irai’h over his shoulder before the closing door severed the glance.
            Irai’h swallowed thickly and took his seat.  He watched as Lord Ys’teis paced, becoming more and more unnerved when the soldier continued to say nothing.  He forced himself to remain calm and not to reach any conclusions.  He was not under arrest or even suspicion, he thought.  They didn’t have anything because Ryeo’h was meticulous and took nothing for granted.  He almost sighed when a great sense of calm overtook him.  He sat straighter and watched impassively as Lord Commander-General Rakah Ys’teis hauled a chair nearer to him and sat down.
            “Let’s have a chat, shall we?” Lord Ys’teis murmured.  “Please tell me what you did from the moment you entered Lord Us’ri’h’s residence last night until you left.”
            Irai’h verbally traced his movements from the time he entered the Us’ri’h mansion, sprinkling his story with the half-truths and outright lies he had been fed by Ryeo’h and made to repeat until they became as familiar as his own given name.  He told Lord Ys’teis that he had pursued a tryst with Lady Lauti Us’ri’h, which had come to naught.  Lauti was an old friend of his and they had flirted outrageously, but they had never had such feelings towards one another.  Lauti did not know he was atoliy, although if she had known, she would not have cared one whit.  It was just something they had never discussed.  He then told Lord Ys’teis he had played a couple hands of s’krieh before he had proceeded to get blind drunk.  What he left out was that he had gone to an alcove with Lauti and she had left him there to meet her lover.  Leaving the curtain concealing the alcove, he had gone to the third floor and Lord Us’ri’h’s den through a secret passage Lauti had shown him years ago.  The den had been empty.  The safe code had not been hard to crack; not for someone with his skill.  He had emptied the jewels into his satchel and had used the same secret passageway to find his way to the gardens, from where he had made his way to the street.  The lord of the manor had erroneously placed his guards within the house and not in the garden.  It was a common mistake.  Keeping to the shadows, Irai’h had found his way to the street and then had met Ryeo’h in their meeting place, transferring the satchel to him before hot footing it back to the mansion.  His alcove had been undisturbed and he had emerged with great show, making a fool of himself and acting drunk and disruptive until he was asked to leave.
            Commander-General Rakah listened intently and nodded.  “Was there anyone there you didn’t know?”
            “There were many people I didn’t know,” Irai’h replied.  “Us’ri’h does business with foreign dignitaries.”  He shrugged.  “I was only there at Lauti’s behest.  Lord Us’ri’h barely tolerates me.”
            “I see,” Commander-General Ys’teis said and rose.  “Very good.  You’re free to go.”
            “And Lord Brenth’on’h?” Irai’h asked.
            “His interrogation is next.  You can wait for him, if you like.  Excuse me.”
            When Lord Ys’teis had gone, Irai’h almost fainted from relief.  Once he becalmed himself, he strode to the Great Hall and paced until they were done with Aosji.  He looked up and saw two guards escorting I’a’sji and Ryeo’h into the Great Hall.  He strode to meet Ryeo’h.
            “Is your father angry that we aren’t at work?” he asked his friend.
            Ryeo’h grimaced.  “Eda is at a business meeting, thankfully.  Are you done here?”
            “I am.  Aosji is not.”
            Ryeo’h nodded.  “We’d best wait for him then.  It’s late enough we should probably have some supper.”
            The guards escorted I’a’sji away and then they walked to the nearest wall and leaned against it, talking in soft voices.
            “How did it go?” Ryeo’h asked.
            “Well enough, I think,” Irai’h murmured, flicking his gaze around the crowded room.
            Ryeo’h sighed.  “Aosji is a worry.”
            “He’ll be fine,” Irai’h assured him.  “He did nothing.  All he has to do is cover for me.”
            Ryeo’h nodded.
            They waited close to three hours.  During that time, they had to carefully monitor their behavior.  That was the hardest part of it for Irai’h.  Not that he was under the pretense that once released, they would no longer be suspect.  Everyone was suspect until someone was found.  They would have to lie low for a while.  He thought of his yield, which he kept under floorboards in his row house apartment.
            Eventually, his friends were released and the four of them strode from Castle Draemin to the bailey and hired a carriage to take them back to Thalnel and Sons.  They rode in silence, Ryeo’h sitting next to Irai’h and I’a’sji sitting across from them next to Aosji.
            “How did it go?” Ryeo’h asked.
            Aosji gave him a dreamy smile.  “I think it went well.  They wanted to know my whereabouts.  I told him I was at the tables playing s’krieh for most of the night.  Made a tidy sum, too.”  He chuckled.
            Ryeo’h turned to the other.  “And you?”
            I’a’sji shrugged.  “Fine.  I was there to flirt and dance, which is what I did.  He did ask if I knew what Irai’h had been up to and I told him he went into an alcove with Lady Lauti Us’ri’h.  I told him Irai’h remained in the alcove for a long time then emerged drunk and belligerent.  I told him I believed you had been wounded by Lady Us’ri’h’s rejection of your advances.”
            Ryeo’h nodded.  “Very good.”
            I’a’sji shifted.  “He asked where Aosji was all night.  I told him at the gambling tables, of course.  But everyone saw that, so that didn’t seem to concern our Commander-General as much as Irai’h’s whereabouts.”
            Ryeo’h looked at Irai’h.  “Will Lady Us’ri’h protect you?”
            Irai’h nodded.  “She has forgotten she ever told me about the secret passage.  And she is protective of me.  Besides, I am her cover.  She had a tryst with her lover, a commoner.  It won’t do at all to have her father learn of this, if you ken me.  She will cover for me and I for her.”
            Ryeo’h studied him for long minutes before coming to a conclusion and nodded.  “I hope you’re right.”
            “I trust her with my life,” Irai’h said.
            Ryeo’h waved a dismissive hand.  “I believe you.”  He frowned.  “We will not have another job for a few months, I think.  That should throw them off our trail.”  He pursed his lips.  “There is a grand ball in South Torahn in seven months, Lord A’kir’h, is there not?”
            I’a’sji sat straighter.  “Yes.  If we can break into the King’s safe we can retire permanently.  You would need something larger than a satchel, Irai’h.”
            Ryeo’h nodded.  “We need floor plans for the palace.”
            Aosji leaned forward.  “How will you get those?”
            “Never mind,” Ryeo’h said.  “The less you know, the better.  I will begin work on this.  I will take Irai’h with me and both of you will remain here, to further deflect notice.”
            Aosji pouted.  “But a Grand Ball, Ryeo’h…”
            “You’ll have other chances,” Ryeo’h told him.  “One of King Kah’len’s children is bound to marry soon.”
            Irai’h sat back.  “In the meantime, we should approach some disaffected soldiers.”
            Ryeo’h nodded.  “Yes.  Our work is just beginning.”  He looked at Aosji and I’a’sji.  “You’ll have plenty of work to do here while we are gone.”

Chapter IV: The Reformist Lord

 Lord Irai’h Asjur shifted and sprawled on the tavern chair, affecting a careless, bored attitude.  In truth, he was wound tighter than a wire as he waited for his friends to arrive.  Last night’s take had yielded thousands of tin’kahls for each of them; now they would pool their resources to continue their work.  It gave Irai’h a means to survive.  Since he was his sire’s youngest and would stand to inherit nothing from the old man, who had had the temerity to sire fourteen children, most of them girls, he had to survive by his wits.  Right now he worked for his friend Ryeo’h for a measly pittance as a clerk.  He needed the money from their heists. Even though a part went to fund their political project, there was always some portion that was their personal yield.  He would use some of the earnings from the heist last night and put it into the bank at some future time, when the attention of the Crown was diverted somewhere else.  King Kah’len did not like thieves or outlaws in general.  Lord Asjur’s gang of thieves had been stealing from the wealthiest denizens of North Torahn for nigh on five years and had never been caught.  Irai’h did not think himself invincible; he was no fool.  He knew each heist might result in capture and the noose of the hangman.
            He shuddered and drained his glass of mi’disj.  Rivulets of sweat trickled down his back and he wondered, for the umpteenth time, where in all the bloody hells his friends were.  Throwing the napkin on the tabletop, he made to stand when his friends wandered in the door.  They paused at the entrance of the tavern, and he rose and lifted his hand to signal them.
            They hurried over.
            “Sorry we’re late,” Aosji Brenth’on’h said and took his seat.  He looked around dramatically and lowered his voice.  “My father was in a tizzy this morning.”
            Irai’h rolled his eyes.  “When is your father not in a tizzy, I wonder?”
            The other two chuckled and took their seats.
            Brenth’on’h was the youngest son of the King of Kuin-on-the-H’aj and, like Irai’h, stood to inherit next to nothing from his father.  The same could be said of his other friend, Lord I’a’sji A’kir’h, the youngest son of the Governor of City Dors in South Torahn.  Their last friend, Mister Ryeo’h Thalnel, was a commoner, and the brains behind their gang.  Even though his sire was wealthy–thus his entrance into university, where they had all met–he was a radical and wanted to reform North Torahn while his sire, a shipping mogul, had seamlessly adopted the aristocracy’s tiresome mores.
            “What was your father in a tizzy about?” Irai’h asked and poured liqueur for his friends.
            Aosji grimaced.  “The job last night, what else?  He doesn’t understand how a heist could happen during a ball.  The man is an idiot.”
            I’a’sji snorted and sipped his drink.  “He was too busy lusting after young girls, the old dosi.”
            Aosji blushed and looked away.
            Irai’h placed his hand on his friend’s on the table.  “You aren’t responsible for your father’s perversions, Aosji.  Don’t take it on.”
            Aosji pulled his hand free.  “He is the most disgusting sort of fellow, really.  I don’t see how the maids in our household are safe.  He leers at the youngest, who is all of eleven!”
            “Lower your voice,” Ryeo’h stated coldly.  “We aren’t here to discuss you sire.”
            “Sorry,” Aosji muttered.
            They all leaned in, forearms on the table.  
            Irai’h kept his eyes pealed on their neighbors, but no one was sitting at the nearest tables, which is why he had chosen this one on which to wait for his friends.  
            Ryeo’h looked at each of them in turn.  “Last night’s jewels were sold to a R’Nonayan merchant who is now on a ship sailing back home.  I have your yields at home and I will give you each your purse this afternoon.  Do not go to your respective banks until I give you the word.  Do I make myself clear?”
            The other three wordlessly nodded.
            Ryeo’h sat back in his chair.  “It was a good job.  We each yielded $8,000 pe’t’kahl.”
            Aosji whistled and beamed at his friends.  “”That will pay for my university degree.”
            Ryeo’h nodded.  “Continue to pay in installments, won’t you?  It would do no good to garner the Crown’s attention right now.”
            “Of course,” Aosji agreed and sipped his liqueur.
            Ryeo’h’s eyes slid to Irai’h.  “What will you do with your earnings?”
            “Invest them,” Irai’h replied.  “At least the ones we don’t funnel into bribes.”
            Ryeo’h looked around cautiously, but the tavern was noisy and no one seemed to be paying attention to them.  Irai’h had kept his voice low, pitched only to carry across the table.
            “We change nothing about our lives,” he reminded the others.  “You are still clerks in my sire’s business. Understood?”            
            I’as’ji nodded.  “Understood.”
            Ryeo’h smiled.  “You all did well last night.  I’m proud of you all.”
            Irai’h leaned forward.  “We did well because of you, Ryeo’h.  Your meticulous and cautious nature ensured our success and safety.”
            Aosji lifted his glass.  “Hear, hear!”
            Ryeo’h sobered.  “Let’s go to my apartments, shall we?  We need to begin picking out the members of the military who are disaffected.  We need the military in order to force the King to abdicate.”  He rose.  “Meet me at my apartments in a half an hour.”
            He strode away.
            The others remained and met glances.
            “This is getting scary,” I’a’sji commented blandly as he emptied his glass of liqueur.
            Irai’h rose.  “It’s always been scary.  Let’s go.”
            ***
            When Belihn rose the next morning, he dressed in his threadbare trousers and tunic and pulled on his battle boots and went for a jog around Queen’s Park.  He kept a steady rhythm as he ran, breathing evenly and deeply and keeping his arms loose at his sides.  He had noticed an inordinate number of carriages in the bailey before the sun even rose in the east.  He wondered at that as he ran.  Soon, however, his thoughts grew clear and sharp and free.  He focused on his stride, his breathing, and the distance.  He allowed nothing else to snag his attention.  As the sun rose in the east, the first of its fingers blushing in the sky, he headed west towards the King’s Reserve.  He knew where the line of demarcation was and, when he reached the strangely twisted tree, he turned around.  He had been running for about an hour and now would run another before he reached the castle once more.  He had to be at his post by early morning, before Commander Ethael reported for duty.
            He lengthened his stride, his breathing still even and easy.  He was drenched in sweat and his leg muscles burned as he pushed himself to his limit.  He jumped over a stone bench and hit the ground and continued at close to his top speed.  When he could see the drawbridge, he pushed himself harder still until his lungs burned.  He made it to the bailey and kept to the castle wall, away from the throng that was filing into the castle proper.  He wondered again what had happened to merit such a number of barristers and solicitors.  
            He slowed down as he came to one of the fighting yards.  He stopped and paced to cool off.  He could hear the thud of wooden swords clashing from the practice yards.  He made his way there, where he found a small area to stretch.  His muscles were tight and already getting sore.  He rose.  There was no time for a lengthy soak in a tub of hot water.  
            “I say, Belihn!”
            He turned.  “Ean.”
            His half-brother, Ean, stopped before him.  “Have you heard?”
            Belihn cocked his head.  “Heard what?”
            Ean indicated the great number of carriages in the bailey.  “There was another theft at a ball last night.  This time Lord Us’ri’h was hit.”
            Belihn frowned.  “Another theft?  I thought Lord Us’ri’h would have the halls crawling with guards.”
            Ean nodded.  “He did.  The lock box was left open and a calling card was left behind.”
            “Same as the others?” Belihn asked.
            “Yes,” Ean replied.  “It read, ‘Much obliged, the Reformist Lord.'”
            Belihn glanced at the carriages as if they could tell him something.  “Curious.”
            “Yes,” Ean agreed.  “I will be helping Uncle Rakah with the investigation.  So will Commander Ethael.  So, I shall see you later today.”  He clapped Belihn on the shoulder.  “Congratulations on your promotion, by the way.”
            Belihn smiled faintly.  “Thank you.”
            Ean nodded and strode away.
            Belihn hurried to the Officers’ House and up to the third floor and to his room.  He poured cold water from the water jar into the basin then poured a few drops of scented oil into the water before dipping his washcloth into the water and scrubbing the sweat from his skin.  He scrubbed his face then unbraided his hair and bent over the basin to wring the washcloth over his head.  When he was done, he dried off and dressed in his uniform, pulling his boots on last and tucking the trouser legs into the boots.  Afterward, he brushed and braided his hair.  Studying himself in the full lengthed mirror attached to the back of the door, he nodded with satisfaction and left his room, heading for the commissary for some breakfast.
            The commissary was full of soldiers and the din was deafening, but he managed to get some breakfast and find a seat at the end of one of the long tables.  He tucked into the boiled grains with tza nuts and dried berries, honey and cream.  Around him, the soldiers were excitedly discussing last night’s theft.  Everyone was curious as to who this Reformist Lord was and how he could get away with everything.  This was the third city-state the thief had targeted.  All city-states were on high alert, but that seemed to do little to deter the thief.
            Belihn drained his tea and rose, carrying the tray to the serving window and leaving it there before striding away, towards the Ethael’s office.  
            Commander Ethael was already in his office.  His door stood ajar and Commander-General Rakah Ys’teis was with him.  They both turned when Belihn entered the outer office.
            Rakah grinned at Belihn.  “Belihn.  I hear congratulations are in order.”
            Belihn bowed.  “Thank you, Uncle.”
            Rakah pounded his shoulder.  “Well done, son, and well earned.  Please close the outer door and come inside.  We’ve business to discuss.”
            Belihn did as he was told, leaving the inner office door open.        
            “I need you to take notes,” Commander Ethael told him.
            Belihn bowed and went to his desk to gather paper and pen and inkwell.  He brought the items to the inner office and took a seat beside Commander-General Ys’teis.
            Rakah shifted.  “Last night the thief that calls himself the Reformist Lord struck again.  This time it was at a ball held in the honor of Lord Osvaldo Us’ri’h’s oldest daughter’s betrothal.”
            “How much did he get away with?” Commander Ethael asked.
            “Over 40,000 Pe’t’kahls worth of jewels.  He left the lock box empty.”
            Commander Ethael whistled.
            “Yes.  Quite,” Rakah murmured.  “Of course, this does not leave Lord Us’ri’h destitute, mind you. Just livid.”
            Ethael rested his forearms on the desktop.  “Now what?”
            “We have a meeting with the King this morning.  Needless to say, this has become a priority for the Crown,” Rakah replied.  “We have no leads.  Nothing.  We need ideas and we need them immediately.”  Rakah rose.  “So, think hard and bring your ideas to the War Room in two hours.”
            Commander Ethael rose and they clasped forearms.  “I’ll see you then, Rakah.”
            Belihn rose and smiled at his uncle.  “I’ll see you then, Uncle.”
            Rakah returned his smile, spun on his heels and strode away.
            “Get me some tea from the commissary, will you, Captain?” Commander Ethael said.  “I can’t think before tea.”
            Belihn grinned.  “Right away, sir.”
            Two hours later, they were striding across the bailey towards the castle.  Belihn wondered who else had been invited to this meeting.  He did not ask as they entered the Great Hall and proceeded through the throng of people milling about until they reached a nondescript door attached to the Throne Room. The two guards bowed and opened the door to allow them entrance.  They stepped into the War Room.  Belihn had never been inside this room.  Inside, he found the King’s cadre of advisors, Commander-General Rakah Ys’teis, two commanders he did not recognize, and Captain Ean Tjashensi.  Commander Ethael greeted everyone while Belihn remained quietly behind him.
            A few minutes later, the King entered and everyone bowed and saluted while he made his way around the table to his armchair.  He looked around the room.
            “Please sit, everyone,” he murmured.
            Belihn sat down next to Commander Ethael and looked expectantly at his king and father.
            King Kah’len grimaced and tapped a finger on the glossy tabletop.  “I don’t quite know how to approach this,” he said.  “We are at a loss for words.  There are no clues, no indications of whom the guilty persons are.  Nothing.”  He looked helplessly around the table.  “I called you all here to gather ideas as to how we can capture this Reformist Lord and stop the thefts.”
            “What do you know, Majesty?” Commander Ethael asked.
            King Kah’len flicked a glance at Commander-General Ys’teis.
            Rakah Ys’teis cleared his throat.  “He is like a ghost.  He knows where the lock boxes are and how to open them and quickly. Last night, no one saw anything.  We’ve narrowed the theft to the period of time during which the betrothal was being announced and the ball began.  Nothing else in the vicinity was disturbed.  The lock box was opened without breaking into it.”
            “May I?” Belihn asked.
            Rakah nodded.  
            “My King,” Belihn said.  “The mansion must have been cased beforehand, else how could the thief know where it was?  So the person who is the thief must be known to Lord Us’ri’h.  Must have been in the house long enough to discover the whereabouts of the lock box.”
            The King nodded.  “Good, son. That makes sense.  So, Rakah.  Let’s interview Lord Us’ri’h and any guests who stayed with him prior to the ball.”
            Rakah bowed.  “I’ll commence right after this meeting.”
            “Good,” Kah’len murmured.   “What else?”
            “I would interview recently released thiefs, your Majesty,” Commander Ethael murmured.
            “Begging your pardon, Sir,” Belihn said.  “I don’t think this is the work of a common thief, although I could be wrong, of course.  I think this is someone who is too clever by far and that may be to our advantage.”
            Commander Ethael frowned.  “How so, Captain?”
            “Someone too clever will, sooner or later, make a mistake.”
            Lady Oona shifted.  “That may be, child, but it might not be a mistake he makes in a timely manner.  We must try to find him before he strikes again.”
            The other advisors nodded.
            The King looked at Belihn.  “What else do you think, son?”
            Belihn blushed as all eyes turned to him.  “I think this might not be the work of just one person, Father.”
            The King nodded.  “You think it’s more than one thief?”
            “I think these men are known to the aristocracy, Sire.  They are invited to the ball and then strike, using their high births as a disguise.”
            “Interesting theory,” Commander Ethael murmured.  
            Commander-General Rakah Ys’teis rose.  “I’d best begin my interrogation of Lord Us’ri’h’s guests, Sire. I think it’s a good place to start.”
            The King nodded.  “Go on then.”  
            Once his half-brother had departed, the King turned to the others present.  “Lets adjourned and see if Rakah finds anything.  We’ll meet again two days’ hence, after we break our fasts.”
            The King rose and the others rose after him.
            Belihn gathered his notes.
            “Belihn,” his sire said. “Stay a moment.”
            Commander Ethael saluted the King and winked at Belihn.  “I’ll see you in a bit, Captain.”
            When the others had departed, Belihn turned to his father.
            The King threw his arm around Belihn’s shoulders.  “Nice thinking today, son.”
            “Thank you, Eda.”
            “I wanted to congratulate you on your promotion.”
            “That was your doing, Sire.  So, I should be thanking you.”
            The King shook his head.  “No, your work at the border was impeccable.  You deserved a promotion. Have you gotten any flack for it?”
            Belihn shook his head. “Not so far, Sir.”
            The King grimaced.  “It will come, child.  Stay strong.  The aristocracy has no choice but to accept you.”
            “Yes, Sire.”
            “Go on then, boy.  Continue to do me proud.”
            Belihn bowed, fist to chest.  “Thank you, my King.”
            

Chapter Three: Divita’s Proposal

            Their grandmother served them a simple lunch of cold meats, cheeses, and fruit drizzled with honey.  They sat around the common eating room with its scuffed eishano wood table and its ten uncomfortable chairs.  Belihn sat beside his mother and nibbled on his meal, listening idly to his siblings talking over one another to capture their mother’s attention.  His siblings adored her; it was plain to see.  None of them held his prejudices about commoners, did they?  Even T’arehn was proud of his background.  Was that why he was popular?  Because he was courageous?  Belihn picked up his glass of wine and took a large swallow.  It was a fine vintage, one created in this very villa.
            “Belihn!” his Uncle Tono said.
            Belihn started.  “Uncle?”
            “Tell us about this promotion of yours,” the older man prompted and smiled.  He looked a lot like their grandfather, a handsome but humble man.
            “My father pushed for it and Commander Ethael came through,” Belihn replied, blushing.
            “Don’t be so humble,” his Aunt Salita said.  “I heard how you distinguished yourself in the last border war against the Isemi.  You saved a soldier’s life!”
            Belihn swallowed.  The soldier had been an aristocrat and had spat in Belihn’s face afterward.
            Belihn shook his head.  “It was not appreciated.”
            Aunt Salita frowned.  “Just because he was a bigot does not mean he deserved to die.”
            “I took a wound to my thigh that festered,” Belihn retorted, flushing with an anger he thought had dispersed a long time ago.  He sighed.  “The weeks of pain and infections, of fevers and poultices and bitter teas.”  He shook his head.  “I wished I had let him die, if I am honest.”
            A silence fell upon the table.
            Kilen Sobres cleared his throat.  “Understandable, Belihn.  Even if that tash-tash whose life you saved does not consider you so, you are a hero in my book.”
            “I am no hero,” Belihn said with conviction.  “I try to be decent, to let these aristocratic opinions flow through me without touching me, but, damn it, how much influence do any of us–any of them–have on our births?  It’s all with the Goddess, but they act as if it is their accomplishment, to be born into a clan and wealthy.”
            His siblings looked at one another, at a loss.
            Divita put her hand on his where it rested on the table.
            Belihn threw down his napkin and rose.  “Excuse me.”
            He strode through the villa and to the front door.  He stepped outside, where the afternoon sweltered in Malthos’ light.  The skies were free of clouds, a deep cerulean that hazed in the distance.  The bleats of tah’lir filled the air, as did the musk of their waste.  He walked around the sprawling house towards the backyard.  There was a well and a cold house in one corner, with the tah’lir’s fenced paddock a couple of sepeks to the east.  He lengthened his stride and headed towards the paddock.  The air was warm on his damp face and neck.  When he glanced south, he saw the fruit grove filled with vines and trees.  His mouth filled with saliva at the thought of biting into fat, sweet berries.  
            As he neared the paddock, the tah’lir wandered close to the fence, curious and about as bright as a rock.  The closest tah’lir bleated at him and he put his hand out and caressed its soft long nose.  The animal closed its eyes in ecstasy as he scritched under its jaw and between its ears.  He ran his eyes over the calves romping and scampering a few feet from the adults.  The calves were born a deep brown and then changed colors as they matured, turning a light dun color with whimsical dapples along their haunches.  
            Another animal thrust its head into his hands, pushing the other one away.
            He chuckled and shook his head.  “Only Aunt Salita spoils you with affection.”
            “She has a soft heart,” he heard from behind him.
            He turned and nodded at his mother.  “Yes, she does.”
            His mother smiled and strode to where he stood, reaching out to pet the nearest tah’lir.  
            They stood side by side for a long time without speaking.  Before Belihn could open his mouth, his mother turned to him.
            “Walk with me back to the house,” she said.  “I would like to tell you about the young lady I have chosen for you.”
            She thrust her arm through his and led him away from the herd.  
            “I’m sorry, Mother,” he blurted.
            Her eyes widened and she turned to gaze up at him.  “For what, pray tell?”
            He bit his lip and looked away.  For what, indeed?
            When he said nothing, she sighed.  “You are ashamed of me and my background.”
            He gasped and turned to her.
            “No.  I know you are; I’m no fool, Belihn Tjashensi.  But did you listen to yourself?  We don’t have any control over our births and castes, do we?  I had no control and neither did you.  Your father demanded children of me, because he wants to do away with castes and classes.  From a young age, you wanted to be like your half-siblings, a prince of the blood, untarnished by my blood.”  She stopped and drew herself to her full height.  “Well, I am not ashamed of who and what I am.  I survived by any means necessary.  Would you have had me lay down and die to avoid embarrassing you?”
            He gaped at her.  She had never spoken to him like this.  Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes flashed with a passion he had never seen.
            “Mother–“
            “If you want me to banish you from this villa and my sight, I will.  Do you want that?”
            He looked into her bright hazel eyes and his throat dried.  “No.”
            “Then put away your shame.  It sickens me and does you shame.”
            He swallowed and bowed.  “I will try, my lady.”            
            She studied his eyes for a long moment as if she could peel his face away and see into his soul.  Eventually, she nodded and continued to walk.
            His heart was clamoring in his chest at the thought of never seeing her again.  He was lightheaded with the idea.
            She led him to a stone bench located in the front yard.
            “Sit,” she said.
            He took a seat and watched her pace.  She was still angry, he could tell.  She was slow to ire and slow to cool off, too.  He said nothing as she wrung her hands and took deep breaths.  She shook her head.
            “I have a girl for you and I want you to listen to me without interruption.  Do I make myself clear?” she said in an even voice.
            “Yes, Aya.”
            She looked at him at his use of the honorific for “mother,” then looked away.  
            “I have been holding negotiations with MIster Neud Oh’nahry and his wife, Igina Oh’nahry.  Mister Oh’nahry owns a series of taverns and inns across North Torahn.  They live in Kuin-on-the-Haj, where they have their main residence, but they have residences further south for the months of kamaran.  If you must know, he approached me and not the other way around.”  She sighed and sat down on the bench next to him.  “She is young, this girl.  About fifteen, so I don’t expect you to bed her until she is older.  I don’t hold with child brides and all that.”
            “Mother–“
            “I said let me do this without interruptions, child.”
            He clamped his mouth shut with a click of teeth and nodded.
            She looked away from him.  “She does not want to marry a man.  She told her father she is atoliy, which is no shame, but Mister Oh’nahry is a nouveau riche and has adopted the aristocracy’s more…shall we say tasteless mores?”
            He bit the inside of his cheek and sat still as she continued.
            “She is beautiful and petite, with pale hazel eyes and black hair and porcelain skin.  They are proud to claim some aristocracy in their past.  Some poor girl was raped by an aristocrat and that is their proud claim.”  She spat in disgust and shook her head.  “I don’t care about their past, but the bride price alone will assure you will never want for anything.  Beside the dowry, you will get their finest home in Draemin City-State.”  She arranged her skirts around her.  “You are nineteen.  Old enough to have a wife at least.”
            He looked away from her, his heart galloping in his chest.  He felt sick to his stomach.
            “Belihn,” she said softly.  “I know where your proclivities lie, child.  I know you don’t look at girls with interest or desire.  I thought you could make a friend of this girl and come to an agreement.  All I ask is that you lie with her and beget three children upon her.  It’s all I ask.  Now, I would have your thoughts.”
            “You’ve discussed this with Eda?” he asked.
            “Your father leaves all betrothals to his wives.  You know this.  He washes his hands of your future as far as marriages and children are concerned.”
            He closed his eyes.
            “Belihn,” she said softly.  “I tried getting an aristocrat’s daughter.  I’ve tried since you were born.  Even their bastards don’t want to taint their progeny’s blood with a lamplighter’s blood.”
            He opened his eyes and nodded.  “I don’t want to rush this, Mother.  I don’t want to feel my life is out of control.  I would like to meet her and see if we get along; but I don’t have time to make her like me.”
            “She may resent you, child,” she replied.  “At first.  Be honest with her about your desires; make her see that you are sacrificing something, too.”
            She reached out and grasped his hand in her small one.  He squeezed her hand.
            He looked at her.  “I know how much you tried and I can’t begin to fathom how you were treated at court–“
            “It is ancient history.”
            He looked at her.  “No, it’s not.  It’s reality.  I know you were spat at, insulted to your face and laughed at. So have I been.”  He sighed.  “I’ve been so wrong, Aya.  Taking my frustration and shame out on you, when they are the problem, not us.  Not you.”
            His eyes filled with tears and he closed his eyes as they leaked and slid down his cheeks.  He felt her warm, slender fingers wipe them away.
            “It’s fine, son.  No one touches me here,” she said.
            “Father did nothing.”
            She started and turned to him.  “He expressed his disapproval vocally and formally chastised the lords.  It did not make him popular with the House of Lords.”
            “A weak response,” he spat and shook his head.  “He could wrest the reins of power from the aristocracy and imposed his will.”        
            “It would mean civil war,” she retorted, paling. “He would be nothing but a despot then!”
            “I am not afraid of dying for a cause, Mother,” he told her with utter conviction.
            She shook her head.  “No.  We have to take the slower course.  Soon the nouveau riche will outnumber the aristocracy.  Things will change, you’ll see.”
            He gave a mirthless bark of laughter.  “It may mean civil war regardless, Aya.  These outdated mores…they hold on to them like their lives depend on them.  It will mean their blood if we are to change for the better.”
            She paled and brought her hand to her neck.  “Blessed Goddess, how I wish you are wrong.”
            “We’ll see,” he promised and looked away

Chapter Two: Telling Tifa

 Belihn headed to the castle through the crowded bailey.  He schooled his face to a bland mask as he neared the entrance to Draemin Castle.  It would not do to appear a fool.  His heart thundered in his chest and all he could do was imagine Tifa’s face when he told her about his promotion.  His younger sister was his closest friend and confidant, at least until she married.  He pushed that thought away and entered the Great Hall.  The din was deafening as he moved along the edges of the crowd of courtiers, barristers, petitioners, servants and soldiers.  The King and the Houses would be busy this morning, it being the first day of the week.  He did not envy his father the long hours listening to petitions and legal arguments.  King Kah’len was a man of action; Belihn wondered how he dealt with long hours of sprawling on the salta wood throne and listening and meting out legal decisions and decrees.
            “Ah, Belihn Tjashensi,” someone drawled and stepped to block his way.
            Belihn stopped short.
            Lord Elon Tok’ta’h’ smiled coldly, his pale gray eyes looking colorless and icy in his pale face.  
            Belihn swallowed a sigh.  “Lord Tok’ta’h.  What can I do for you?”
            Lord Tok’ta’h took a step forward and lowered his voice.  “You know what you can do for me–”  He raked his eyes over Belihn’s chest and his eyes widened.  “Ah, you’ve been promoted.  Well done.”
            “Thank you.”
            Elon Tok’ta’h smiled more widely.  “I daresay, it was not Kia’guh who promoted you, was it?”
            Belihn cleared his throat.  “No.  Commander Ethael.”
            Elon Tok’ta’h’s smile became a smirk.  “Of course.”  He stepped closer still and Belihn took a step back.  “I hope you know I don’t hold with Kia’guh’s views?”
            There was so  much hunger in Elon Tok’ta’h’s eyes that Belihn found himself flushing.  He did not reply.
            Elon Tok’ta’h chuckled and took a closer step.  “All I want is to get to know you better, Belihn Tjashensi.  I know you are interested, too.  I can see it.”
            Belihn frowned.  “Lord Tok’ta’h, it’s all well and good for you to act this way, propositioning another man, but I have no such luxury.  I already have an uphill battle in the armed forces because I am half-commoner; what do you think will happen to my chances if people found out I was in some sexual liaison with the King of Li’ahn City-State’s heir?”
            Elon Tok’ta’h reared back as if he had been slapped.  “But you’re not denying your…proclivities, are you?  I can do much to help you ascend through the ranks.  My father is a King.”
            Belihn drew himself to his full height.  “As is mine.  I heard you are engaged to a young woman.  I wish you felicitations on your betrothal and I ask that you cease and desist from pursuing me.”
            Elon Tok’ta’h opened his mouth, but Belihn turned on his heels and strode away, down the long hallway to the southeast tower.  He took the stairs two at a time and hurried down the hallway to his mother’s suites.  His mother was not in residence, preferring to live at the family villa in the south, but his siblings lived in the suites, overseen by a cadre of servants and two female caretakers for the girls.  
            He came to the door and knocked.  
            The door was answered by the butler, who bowed.  “My lord.  Come in.”
            “Is Lady Tifa in?” Belihn asked and stepped into the sitting room.
            The butler closed the door.  “She is, my lord. I will fetch her for you.”
            “Thank you.”
            He watched as the butler headed to the servants’ hallway door and within, to where the bedrooms were located.  A few minutes later, he heard a commotion, followed by Tifa running into the sitting room.  She held her full skirts in her hands.  She was barefoot under her clothes and he found himself filled with tender love for his irrepressible younger sister.  
            “Belihn!” she cried and ran into his open arms.
            He pulled her close, breathing in her soft scent, rubbing his cheek over the soft hair piled artlessly on the top of her head.  She pulled back and smiled at him.  He was taken aback once again at how much she looked like their stunning mother, whose looks alone had pulled her out of poverty.  Like him, Tifa had inherited their father’s green eyes, while Ilmi, their younger stister, and T’arehn, the youngest son, had been born with hazel eyes, like their aya.
            “What brings you to see me?” Tifa demanded and looked him over.  “Did Mother finally announce your betrothal?”
            “Look at my chest,” he prompted her.
            She took a step back and studied his chest for a few seconds before her eyes widened.  “Command Kia’guh promoted you?”
            “Commander Ethael.  I am now officially his secretary.”
            She squealed and hugged him again.  Pulling back, she beamed up at him.  “I simply must tell Kilen!”
            “Your betrothed is probably neck deep in paperwork, Tifa,” Belihn replied.
            “He is never too busy to see me,” she retorted with a snort.  “We simply must celebrate.  Ilmi!  T’arehn!”  She turned from him and hurried to the sideboard.  “Do you have the day off?  Can we ride to the villa and tell aya?”
            He frowned as she poured a dram of mi’disj into a glass.
            She turned and chuckled.  “It’s for you, you ninny!  I don’t drink.”
            She carried the glass and handed it to him.  
            He caressed her face with a hand.  “I love you, Tifa.”
            Her smile softened.  “And I you, you dolt!”
            “What’s all the noise?” T’arehn demanded as he strode into the sitting room.
            All of fourteen, T’arehn was leggy and lanky.  He looked most like their paternal grandmother, Lady Oona Obeli-Thalmar.  He was handsome and popular with the girls at court, despite his background.  He had inherited the full force of their grandmother’s charm and wiles, that one.  Right now, he leaned against the back of an armchair, disheveled with an unbuttoned shirt and unbraided hair.  Belihn was absolutely shocked at his appearance.  
            Tifa frowned.  “Why is your hair unbraided, you laze-about?”
            T’arehn reached up a hand to his hair.  “You’re family, Tifa.  Do I have to worry about some tiresome more with you, too?”
            Tifa huffed in frustration.
            Ilmi ran into the sitting room dressed like a boy again, her hair braided instead of piled onto her head.  She wore a tunic and trouser and went barefoot, like Tifa.
            Tifa tsked.  “Why can’t you dress appropriately, Ilmi?  For once!”
            Ilmi rolled her eyes.  “Really?  In tight corsets that limit breathing?  Or full skirts that keep me tripping?  No, thank you!  Now, why were you hollering?”
            Tifa stiffened.  “I don’t holler.”
            Ilmi snorted.  “Sure, sis.  As you say.”
            Tifa sighed and looked imploringly at Belihn.  
            Belihn smirked but said nothing.
            She rolled her eyes and turned to her younger siblings.  “Belihn has been promoted to captain!”
            Ilmi squealed and ran to embrace him.  She smelled faintly of hair oil and sweat.  In his arms, she was compact and sturdy.  He knew she danced for exercise and was quite active, like their father, whom she idolized.  He could feel sleek muscles under the soft outer skin.  
            He pulled back and pressed a kiss to her forehead.
            “Good for you, brother!” she enthused.  
            T’arehn walked to him and clasped his hand.  “Good for you, Belihn!  I didn’t think Kia’guh was going to unbend that thick stick he has thrust up his arse.”
            Tifa gasped.
            Belihn pursed his lips to keep from laughing.  “T’arehn.”
            “What?” T’arehn demanded.  “The man is as unbending as a log!”
            Belihn cleared his throat.  “He didn’t promote me.  Commander Ethael did.”
            T’arehn nodded and chuckled.  “Yes.  That’s more like it!”
            Ilmi turned to Tifa.  “Are we celebrating?”
            Tifa rolled her eyes.  “But of course.  We are going to fetch Kilen Sobres and we are going to the villa to tell mother.”
            Ilmi took off down the servants’ hallway.  “Let me get ready!  I’ll be right out!”
            T’arehn looked at Belihn.  “Can I tell Aila’h?  Can she come?”
            “Yes, of course,” Belihn replied.
            T’arehn grinned and hurried into the outer hallway to fetch their half-sister from her mother’s suites down the hall.
            Belihn looked at Tifa.  “Aila’h?”
            She shrugged.  “They’ve grown close these past few weeks.  You don’t see anything, because you’re never here.”
            She gathered her skirts with her hands.  “Let me get some shoes on.  We’ll head out in a few minutes.”
            “I wanted to tell Father,” he told her.
            “Send him a missive,” she replied as she headed for the servants’ hall.  “He won’t be able to see you while court is in session anyway.”
            He watched as she disappeared through the doorway.  He would tell his father tonight, when they returned from the villa.
            It took another hour before Tifa had chosen the proper shoes and had changed her outfit once again.  Afterward, they all headed down the hallway, Tifa and Ilmi’s caretakers bringing up the rear.  They took a little used doorway to access the bailey then hurried to the stables, where Ilmi threw a tantrum.
            “I want to ride to the villa!” she declared.
            Missus Karlen gave her a withering glare.  “Young lady, you will ride in the family carriage as is proper.”
            Ilmi looked imploringly at Belihn.  
            He sighed.  “Does it matter how we get there, girl?  The carriage is the best way we can all go together.”
            “But it’s hot,” she whined.  “And I haven’t ridden in a while.”
            “I’ll take you riding next week, I promise,” he told her soothingly and hugged her.  “Be good to Missus Karlen, Il.”
            She took a deep breath and released it.  “Fine.  I’ll ride in the bloody carriage!”
            “Language,” Missus Oson hissed.
            They stood about until the stable hands had hitched the carriage.  Then they all clamored into the soft velvet blue interior.  Belihn sat between Ilmi and Tifa and T’arehn sat next to Aila’h and Missus Karlen.
            Aila’h looked like their father, too, which on her was more handsome than beautiful.  She had her mothers clear blue eyes and honey gold hair.  She was a nice girl, though.  Belihn didn’t know her well, but he liked her forthcoming manner and honesty.      
            She smiled shyly at him.  “Congratulations, Captain, on your promotion.”
            He bowed.  “Thank you, my lady.”
            Tifa leaned forward.  “You told your mother you were coming with, Aila’h?”
            “Yes,” Aila’h murmured.  “Now that I am bleeding, she insists on knowing where I go all the time.”
            Missus Karlen started.  “That is not a mete subject in mixed company, young lady!”
            Aila’h blushed but a smile played around her full lips. “Sorry, Missus Karlen.”
            T’arehn swallowed a giggle and winked at her.
            The carriage clattered over the wooden moat bridge and unto the wide boulevard leading into the city. The roadway was filled with wagons bringing in goods to the castle and visitors riding lirtah or bahil.  Some came and went on foot.  Once on the other side of Queen’s Park, the city came into view.  The first neighborhoods were filled with mansions and black iron gates and ostentatious gardens and driveways.  This close to the castle, old money purchased homes.  No one newly rich was allowed in this neighborhoods. Only clan affiliations were allowed to buy and sell here.  The next neighborhood along the boulevard belonged to the nouveau riche.  The houses were more modest, as were the gardens and driveways and gates.  Belihn liked the large wooden houses much more than the showy brick monstrosities in the oldest of the neighborhoods.
            The neighborhood belonging to the middle classes was by far the most extensive.  The two and three-story homes were made of whitewashed wood and had tall, whitewashed, wooden fences or flowering bushes demarcating property lines.  The houses had colorful windowsills and doors.  The gardens were small but pretty, Belihn thought.  During his father’s nineteen year rule, the middle class had prospered and grown in leaps and bounds.  It made for a sturdy, stable government.  King Kah’len was very popular among the middle classes, even though he had failed to keep some of his promises.
            Poorer neighborhoods were still charming and clean, filled with single and two-story cottages and small plots of land filled with grain and fruits and root vegetables.  Belihn was not naive enough not to know that there was still poverty in Draemin City.  There were those who lived on the edges of society, who lived within the sooty, burnt remnants of the Underground City, who lived criminal lives.  But since his father had taken the reins of power, the streets were better patrolled and crime had been reduced to such levels that most citizens lived safe lives.  
            They came to the business district once the neighborhoods were left far behind.  The business district was filled with storefronts, offices and taverns and inns.  The streets were busy with people going to and from the open air market southeast of the business district, near the wharves with their factories and warehouses.  
            The carriage rolled to a stop before a two-story brick building with a name embossed into its facade, “Sobres and Sons.”
            Once the carriage stopped, Belihn stepped down and held his hand out for Tifa.  Her small hand was cool and light in his.
            He escorted her into the building.  The man behind the reception desk rose.
            “Lady Tjashensi,” he said and bowed.  “Should I fetch Mister Sobres?”
            She smiled at him.  “Yes, please, Koret. Thank you.”
            The man bowed and swept towards the stairwell, taking the steps two at a time.
            Belihn looked around the waiting room.  The brick walls were covered with oil paintings of the city and the shiny eishano wood floors were filled with tasteful, colorful throw rugs.  There were armchairs along one wall and a bank of windows that faced east, towards the wharves.  The ceiling was high with exposed wooden beams.   A glass chandelier hung just to the right of the reception desk.  The company’s logo was etched into the wooden floor and painted in mustard yellow.
            The receptionist returned, Mister Kilen Sobres at his heels.
            “Tifa!” Kilen murmured and hugged her.  “To what do I owe this honor?”
            Tifa pulled back and smiled up at him.  “We wanted to share our good news with you, Kilen.”  She turned to Belihn.  “My brother has just been promoted to Captain.”
            Kilen’s eyebrows arched.  He turned to Belihn.  “Truly, Belihn?  That is most wonderful news.”
            Tifa thrust her arm through his.  “We are going to the villa to tell mother.  Please say you can come with us?”
            The smile Kilen directed towards her shone with adoration.  “But of course, my dear.  Let me inform father.  Give me a moment.”
            He hurried away and Tifa turned to Belihn.
            “Isn’t he a proper beauty?” she gushed.
            He rolled his eyes.  Kilen was a handsome young man, trim with the dark brown hair and hazel eyes of the common folk.  He was engaging and funny, completely free of the stuffiness and self-importance of many of the nouveau riche.
            “He is handsome,” Belihn agreed.  “You two will make lovely babies.”
            She gasped and slapped his arm.  “Oh, you!  Get your mind out of the gutter!”
            “Like you don’t think of getting him between the sheets,” he murmured to her.
            Her face suffused with blood, but she chortled.  “You are deliciously filthy!”
            He straightened his back as Kilen Sobres returned, a light cloak about his shoulders.  “Shall we go?”
            The journey to the villa district took a good two hours.  The villas belonging to the nouveau riche were located the furthest from the city, near the edges of the tall brick walls.  The paved road leading from the city was in good condition, with few potholes, so their journey there was mostly comfortable.
            Belihn sat back and idly listened to Mister Sobres tease his siblings and Lady Aila’h.  He watched the countryside as it slid past his window.  Most of the villas were working villas, although some of the wealthier denizens kept villas for winter residences.  Their family villa grew fruit for liqueurs and wines and tah’lir for milk, cheese and meat.  Othalos Stait, Belihn’s maternal grandfather, was too old to run the villa now, so Belihn’s uncle Tono and his aunt, Salita, ran it jointly.  Both were married and had a passel of children between them, whom they home schooled.  The children were receiving a practical education with an eye towards inheriting the villa one day.  The villa was purchased when Belihn’s father had married his mother. The villa had been the bride price and a way to lift the Stait family out of poverty.  Belihn knew his grandfather had to learn to read and write in order to run it and he had always leaned upon Tono, who had been six at the time, and Salita, who had been twelve.  Enana, his maternal grandmother, was still alive and ran the house, refusing to hire servants.  Belihn wondered if she would soften the older she grew.
            Almost three hours later, they came to the Stait Family villa.  As befit a commoner’s residence, there was no plaque on the fence with the family crest.  The nouveau riche announced their residences with the color of the fence.  The Staits had agreed upon emerald for the color of their fence and windowsills and doors.  
            The carriage turned into the property driveway and past the emerald wooden fence.  The air was thick with the smell of tah’lir.  Belihn’s maternal grandfather owned 500 head of tah’lir and kept them in a large field directly behind the house.  Belihn could hear the plaintive bleats of the animals through the carriage’s glass windows.  When the carriage rolled to a stop, Belihn stepped down and assisted the ladies out of the carriage while the other men used the other carriage door to exit.  He turned and saw his mother standing under the awning of the front door.
            Divita Stait was as beautiful as she had always been.  There was barely gray in her dark brown hair and she was still as slender as a reed and tiny, the top fo her head coming only to Belihn’s shoulder.  Divita dressed in fine but sober clothes.  She wore a black skirt that fell to the ground and a silver jacket with a pale silk inner shirt.  Her hair was piled on top of her head in a bun.  Silver beads studded her earlobes.  She wore her sol’eka, her marriage bracelet and ring, on her right hand.  She, like her daughters, liked to go barefoot at home.
            Belihn hung back while his mother greeted her younger children with warm affection.
            “Ilmi, my darling,” she said to the youngest daughter.  “Why are you still dressing like a boy?”
            “Mama–” Ilmi began.
            Divita turned to MIssus Karlen and Missus Oson.  “I give you full authority to dress her as is proper.”
            The caretakers bowed.
            “She is a stubborn one, my lady,” Missus Karlen murmured.
            Divita turned to Ilmi.  “How am I supposed to get you married off, young lady?  You are going on seventeen, old enough to marry.”
            She shook her head and turned to Mister Sobres.  “Good to see you, Mister Sobres.  How are you?”
            Kilen bowed.  “I am well, my lady.”
            Divita turned her head and looked at Belihn.  “Aren’t you going to greet me, my eldest son?”
            He stepped forward and embraced her.  She felt frail in his arms.  Pressing a kiss to her temple, he stepped back.  “How are you, Mother?”
            Her clear hazel eyes studied him for a few seconds.  “I am well, Belihn.  And you?”
            “He’s a Captain now, Aya!” Ilmi blurted out.
            Divita’s eyes widened.  “A Captain?  How wonderful, Belihn!”
            Her eyes shone as she gazed up at him.  “How like your sire you look, child.”  She threaded her arm through his.  “Come inside, all of you.  We will celebrate.  I have lined up a young woman for Belihn.  I want to tell you all about her.”
            Belihn bit back a groan and allowed his mother to lead him inside.
            

Part One: The Loyalist, Chapter 1: Four Years Later

            Lieutenant Belihn Tjashensi ran his eyes critically over the company of new recruits.  They were baby faced and scruffy, mostly commoners with little prospects outside of the armed forces, but they stood at complete attention, their eyes focused directly ahead, their shoulders thrown back.  There was pride and desire in their stances.  Good, hardy food and clean water would do much to put weight on their frames and the bloom of health on their sallow cheeks.  Two or three had soot on their faces.  Belihn knew several had been arrested for theft and had been given the option of joining the military or rotting in some jail cell.  They had chosen wisely, but he worried those few lacked loyalty and might be full of resentment.  He shrugged his shoulders.  He knew all about resentment, didn’t he?  
            The clip of hooves on the cobblestone bailey floor drew Belihn’s attention to his Commander’s arrival.  Commander Nyal Kia’guh slid from the saddle of his stunning bahil and handed the reins to his other Lieutenant, Kurk Deshon.  Lieutenant Deshon saluted Commander Kia’guh then strode away, leading the Commander’s mount towards the castle stables.
            Commander Kia’guh raked his eyes dismissively over the troops.  His lips faintly curled as if he smelled something rank.  “Are these our new men?”
            Belihn stiffened and swallowed audibly.  “Yes, sir.”
            Commander Kia’guh nodded and sighed.  “Where did we scrape this lot from, do you suppose, Tjashensi?  The Underground City?”
            Belihn bit off the smart retort and bowed.  “More than likely, sir.”
            Commander Kia’guh gave a bark of mirthless laughter and turned to the company.
The Commander turned to face the troops.
            “I am Commander Nyal Kia’guh,” he stated loudly.  “I am your father, your mother and your god.  From now until the day you leave the army or you die, I am the hand that feeds you, disciplines you, advances you.  Look at my face and memorize it.  Now, call out your names and ages, starting in the far south corner.”
            Each young man called out his first and last name and age.
            When they were done, Commander Kia’guh nodded.  “Lieutenant Belihn Tjashensi here will be the liaison between you and myself.  You go to him first with your concerns and he will bring them to me.  He is in charge of your wellbeing and your placement.  You are infantry from now on.  He will get your uniforms doled out and show you to the barracks.  Questions?”
            One pale young man on the third row lifted his hand.
            Commander Kia’guh raised an astounded eyebrow.  “Yes?”
            The young man cleared his throat.  “No one has defined our wages, sir.  What are we going to be paid?”
            Commander Kia’guh snorted.  “Do I look like I give a good damn, sonny?”  He looked at Belihn.  “Come and see me when you are done here.”
            The young man gaped but said nothing as the Commander turned smartly on his heels and strode away.
            Belihn sighed and shook his head.  “You’ll be paid in tin’kahls and tin’solhs, soldier.  You’ll be given a salary of 100 tin’kahls a week.  That is the base pay.  Any questions?”
            Another young man raised his hand.  “That is most generous, sir.  Are we expected to pay for our uniforms?”
            “Yes,” Belihn replied.  “The cost will be deducted from your salary. I recommend you take advantage of the army’s free university courses and learn a trade.  You can serve your ten conscripted years and then found a business.”
            He had a captive audience now.  
            “We can study for free?” a sooty faced youngster prompted.
            “Yes.  There is a limit of three classes school quarter and you’ll have to study on your off time, but I can grant you time off to correspond with your class schedule.”
            They crowded around him, even though he had not dismissed them.            
            “Do we rent our cot in the barracks?” another boy asked.
            “No,” Belihn replied.  “You can expect to clear 90 tin’kahls a week.  Food is free, as is lodgings.”
            They murmured among themselves for a few minutes.  When they fell silent once more, Belihn continued.
            “I recommend you save half of your money and send your family the rest,” he told them.  “Open a bank account in town.  You’d be surprised how much you can save in 10 years.”
            Lieutenant Deshon returned and came to stand next to Belihn.
            “Listen to Belihn,” Lieutenant Deshon murmured.  “Being one of 15 siblings has made him a good investor, since he gets nothing from his family.”
            Belihn grimaced and rolled his eyes.  “That’s not true, but I have learned to save my money and I have investments in businesses that are doing quite well.  I can teach you all about investing, but I learned from a class at university when I first joined the army.”
            An eager youth pressed closer.  “Are you studying?  What are you studying?”
            Belihn cleared his throat.  “I always take business courses and investment courses.  But I also take courses to learn about history, art and music.  Things that are interesting.”
            “I want to be a university professor,” a youth said from the rear of the company.
            Belihn nodded.  “Then find what you want to teach and follow your passion.”
            “I just want to be a soldier,” another boy said.  “It’s all I’ve ever wanted to be.”
            “Then be the best soldier you can be,” Belihn told him.  “And save so you can marry and have a home in town.  And for bride prices for your daughters.”
            The boys shuffled and giggled.  
            Belihn smiled.  “Lieutenant Deshon here will take you to the commissary, where you’ll be provided three uniforms and two pairs of boots.  You are expected to wash your uniforms every week and to shine your boots.  Commander Kia’guh does not tolerate a slovenly appearance.  You will be awakened in the pre-dawn hours, and you will exercise and then you will wash up and dress in your pristine uniform and shiny boots and braided hair.  Do I make myself clear?”
            The boys shifted and nodded.
            “Good,” Belihn said.  “I expect nothing less than perfection from you.  Today you will receive your duties.  Tomorrow, go to university and sign up for classes.  Bring me your class schedules and I will arrange your time off.  Questions?”
            No one said anything.
            Belihn nodded again.  “Dismissed then.”
            He watched Lieutenant Deshon lead them to the commissary at the southern end of the bailey, then he headed for the Officers’ House, a three story brick house.  The first floor of the house was filled with offices, while the two other floors were sleeping quarters for single officers.  Belihn was a young lieutenant, so his room was on the third floor, next to Kurk’s.
            Once in the Officers’ House, he walked down the long corridor to Commander Kia’guh’s office.  Captain Oltan Asjur, Commander’s Kia’guh’s secretary, was behind his desk, going over paperwork, when Belihn stepped into the office.
            Captain Asjur glanced up and grinned.  “Belihn!  How are the new troops?”
            “A bit on the skinny side, sir,” Belihn answered honestly.  “But they seem eager and willing.”
            Captain Asjur rose from his chair.  “That is what matters then, isn’t it?  We’ll fatten them up.”
            Belihn bowed.  “Yes, sir.”
            “What can I do for you, Lieutenant?”
            “Commander Kia’guh wanted to see me once I dismissed the new troops, sir.”
            Captain Asjur nodded.  “Let me see if he’s free.  Give me a moment.”
            Asjur turned and knocked on the door leading to the inner office.  He opened the door after a few seconds and stepped inside, closing the door behind him.
            After a few minutes, the door opened and Asjur stepped outside once more.  “He’ll see you now, Lieutenant.”
            Belihn entered Commander Kia’guh’s office and paused, looking around the well lit, warm office.  It was a large office, as befit a member of the aristocracy, with a fireplace against the far wall, a large eishano wood desk, two armchairs facing the desk, and two walls filled with military and history books.  The floors were strewn with soft area rugs to add warmth to the large space.  Since it was high dibasj, the fireplace was cold and the glass paned windows were thrown open.  The breeze filtering in through the open windows smelled faintly of the musk of flowers from the house’s backyard, which was filled with crops and large flowering bushes.  
            Commander Kia’guh signed a paper with a flourish and glanced up.  “Sit, Lieutenant.”
            Belihn saluted and sat down.
            Commander Kia’guh shuffled some papers on his cluttered desk and sighed.  “Look, I’ll come to the point.  Your father wants you promoted because, even I have to admit, you distinguished yourself at the border during the last war with the Isemi.  The problem is that I don’t hold with promoting half-commoners in the armed forces.  So, I am having you transferred to Commander Thul Ethael’s company.  He’s of the mind that it doesn’t matter your family’s history, that you can rise to any goddess-damned rank you well please!”  He slammed his hand on the desktop, rattling the inkwell and pens in their holder.  Commander Kia’guh took a deep breath and released it.  “I won’t promote you above the rank of lieutenant, but I also won’t fight someone who will.  You may remain in the room you are now living in now or move, I don’t give a damn.  Report to Commander Ethael as soon as possible.  Dismissed.”
            Stunned, Belihn slowly rose and left the office without saluting.  Commander Kia’guh was not even looking at him; his eyes fixed on his desktop.
            Outside the office, Belihn closed the door.
            Captain Asjur rose and handed him a sealed envelope.  “Here are your orders and new post.”  He grinned.  “Congratulations, Captain Tjashensi.”
            Belihn took the envelope and grasped the hand Asjur held out to him.  “Thank you, sir.”
            “Don’t ‘sir’ me, Belihn.  We are of equal rank now.  Let’s have lunch some time?”
            Belihn swallowed. “Of course.  You name the time and place.”
            Asjur nodded and released Belihn’s hand.  “Consider it done.”
            Belihn left the office and hurried down the hall to Commander Ethael’s office.  Commander Ethael was short a secretary, Belihn knew, so he went to the door leading into the inner office and knocked.
            “Come!”
            Belihn opened the door and saluted.  “Lieutenant Tjashensi reporting for duty, sir!”
            Commander Ethael was a handsome man in his early thirties.  He was fit and tall and broad, with light gray eyes and black hair.  “Ah, Belihn!  Come in, come in.  Shut the door, will you?”
            Belihn shut the door and stepped up to the desk, handing Commander Ethael the envelope.  
            Ethael nodded and indicated the armchair near Belihn.  “Have a seat, son.”
            Belihn saluted and sat down.
            Ethael threaded his hands and leaned his forearms on the desktop.  “I will be blunt, Belihn.  I need a secretary and, with the rank of captain, you can act as such.  I have been watching your rise through the ranks and I like what I’ve seen.  I would like to groom you to succeed me one day, so I expect loyalty and hard work.  Is this amenable to you?”
            Belihn swallowed.  “Yes, sir.  Thank you, sir!”
            Ethael sat back in his chair.  “I realize you like to lead men, to groom them, but I need you here.  I have enough sergeants and lieutenants.  I travel extensively and I would require that you travel with me.  Once you marry, your wife will have to put up with your traveling about.  My wife complains a lot, but she has no say.  This is what she signed up for.  Do you have a girl you are thinking of marrying, son?”
            Belihn blushed.  “No, sir.”
            “No one your mother is culling for a wife for you?”
            Belihn’s blush deepened.  “She was thinking of an heiress to a shipping business, sir.  But there has been no formal negotiation.”
            Ethael tapped on the desktop with a finger.  “You can marry whenever you like, son, but the girl will have to be accepting. My recommendation is you get her with child as soon as you are able to.  Once she is occupied with children, she won’t nag you like my wife does me.  Our children are almost grown, you see.  Recently she has gotten involved in charity work, which I hope means she’ll leave me alone.”
            Belihn bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing.
            Ethael sighed and shook his head.  “I’m sorry you had to serve so long under Kia’guh, son.”
            “He’s a good commander, sir.”
            “He is,” Ethael agreed.  “But his prejudices keep him from greatness, I’m afraid.  He balked at the idea of promoting you, even after your fine showing at the border.  He got into a monumental argument with the King, but there was little King Kah’len can do.  He may be Warlord, but he can’t be seen punishing Kia’guh for his outdated belief system and for your benefit, you understand.  Nepotism and all that.”
            “Yes, sir.”
            “I don’t hold with Kia’guh’s beliefs, son,” Ethael murmured.  “But many others still cling to outdated mores.”  He sighed.  “So, you can choose a room on the second floor or remain with lesser ranked men on the third floor.  It’s up to you.”
            “I’ll remain where I am sir,” Belihn told him.
            “Good, good,” Ethael murmured.  “So, rise, Belihn.”
            Commander Ethael rose and walked around the desk.  He opened a glossy wooden box and pulled out a silver pin.  He turned once more to face Belihn and pinned the pin to Belihn’s chest.   That made four pins of different metals, designating Belihn as a Captain.
            Commander Ethael stepped back and saluted, fist to chest and bowed.  “Welcome to my company, Captain Tjashensi.”
            Belihn’s swallowed past the lump in his throat, saluted and bowed.  “Thank you, Commander.  I shall endeavor to make you proud.”
            “You’ve already done that,” Ethael assured him.  “Just do your best.  Now, I expect you in this office first thing in the morning.  Your schedule will be from sunrise to sunset, six days with the seventh day off.  Will that suffice?”
            Belihn saluted again.  “Yes, sir!”
            Ethael clapped him on the shoulder.  “Nicely done, Tjashensi.  Now, take the rest of the day off and inform your family of your promotion.”