Chapter III: Slow Unraveling

            Irai’h Asjur watched as Ryeo’h paced.  He knew better than to show impatience; Ryeo’h did everything in his own time.

            “So, he’s no longer in the armed forces?” Aosji blurted out.

            Ryeo’h threw him a glare and said nothing as he continued to pace.

            Aosji looked helplessly at I’a’sji then at Irai’h.  Irai’h smirked, but remained close mouthed.

            “Our prince has been exiled from his clan,” Ryeo’h murmured at length.  “And now he is a secretary for the honorable Ambassador Kalthos Torim Tah’duk’h.  Belihn has even taken an Yllysian surname, Ekesj.  The Ambassador has sent a missive to the head of the Ekesj clan to get their approval.”

            “But why did he resign the army?” I’a’sji prompted.

            Ryeo’h shook his head.  “He would have been shipped out of Draemin City.  I need him here and he knows it.”

            Aosji shifted in his chair and leaned forward.  “Will he be welcomed in South Torahn for his cousin’s marriage?”

            Ryeo’h shrugged.  “I have not had the chance to talk with Belihn.  He is coming here around midday.  I’ll ask him then.”

            Irai’h sighed and sat back in his chair.  He could not shake the joy that thrummed through his body at the thought of Belihn here, in Draemin City-State.  Perhaps they would end up lovers anyway.

            He watched as Ryeo’h continued to pace.  

            “We are ready,” Ryeo’h said.  “I have purchased cabins on a ship and have wrangled an invitation for Irai’h to attend the wedding in South Torahn.  Belihn will join him and myself, of course.”

            “And what are I’a’sji and I supposed to do while you are gone?” Aosji demanded.

            Ryeo’h sighed.  “Keep working on subverting the King’s authority by spreading rumors and discontent among soldiers and citizens.  Keep printing the paper and dispersing it among the citizenry.  Just keep a low profile; we don’t want Warlord Bhar Obeli to sniff you out.  I will contact our operatives in the other city-states and apprise them of our situation.  Until I return from City Lae, I will be incommunicado.”  Ryeo’h looked at I’a’sji.  “I am placing you in authority until I return, I’a’sji.  Don’t let me down.”

            I’a’sji wiped his hand over his mouth.  “Ryeo’h–“

            “I need you both to step up!” Ryeo’h snapped.  “If I could leave Irai’h here in charge, I would, but he is our safe cracker, for the love of the Goddess!”

            I’a’sji squared his shoulders.  “I won’t let you down.”

            “See that you don’t,” Ryeo’h spat and shook his head.  “Go on; get out of here.  Not you, Irai’h.”

            Irai’h watched as his friends shuffled out of Ryeo’h’s office and back to work.

            Ryeo’h sighed and shook his head.  “I am terrified that if I leave these two here, everything will come tumbling down over our heads!”

            Irai’h rose.  “They won’t let you down, Ryeo’h.  They idolize you.”

            “They aren’t very prudent or reasonable,” Ryeo’h murmured and rubbed his forehead.  “Goddess! I should have chosen more wisely!”

            Irai’h took a step forward.  “All will be well; you’ll see.  Besides, you might want to bring an operative here to take over while we are gone.  There is still time for a journey before our departure.”

            Ryeo’h started.  “You’re right, of course!  Why didn’t I think of that!”

            Irai’h smiled and shrugged.  “Your mind is embroiled on ten thousand things, Ryeo’h.”

            “Whom would you suggest?” Ryeo’h asked.

            Irai’h thought for a moment.  “How about Rien Ethael?”

            “Commander Ethael’s nephew?”

            “Yes,” Irai’h said.  “He is intelligent, if young.  And he keeps his head under pressure.”

            “He’s all of twenty-one,” Ryeo’h said with a measure of uncertainty.

            Irai’h rolled his eyes.  “And I’m twenty-three and you twenty-five!”

            Ryeo’h huffed a laugh.  “You are correct, of course.  Besides, he can hide the reason for his true visit by stating he wants to see his uncle.”

            “Precisely,” Irai’h agreed.

            Ryeo’h clapped him on the shoulder.  “Brilliant!  I’ll send a missive to him at once via carrier vinah.”

            Irai’h returned to his desk and sat down.  He looked towards Aosji and I’a’sji’s desks, but his friends were immersed in their work, their faces smoothed by concentration.  He turned his eyes to his own work, although it was boring work at that.  Perhaps he would enroll in university.  The chances of coming across Belihn at campus would be greater.  But what to study?  He shrugged and rifled through the messy piles of papers on his desk.  He decided to tackle the manifests from the many merchant ships that belonged to Ryeo’h’s firm.  Comparing what he had ordered to what actually had arrived would take him most of the day. With a sigh, he focused on the work on hand and pushed all thoughts of Belihn from his mind.  

            At midday or soon thereafter, the front door of the firm opened, the bell attached to the door tinkling merrily.

            Irai’h glanced up and paused.  It was strange to see Belihn in civilian clothes but that did not deter from his beauty in the least.  Today he wore a dark blue tunic with silver thread over black trousers.  Belihn wore a high necked inner tunic of light blue and a thick dark blue cloak that was almost black.  The cloak was fastened at the collarbone with a silver brooch.  Belihn wore his trouser legs tucked into glossy knee-high boots like the soldier he would aways be inside.

            Irai’h rose.  “Belihn!  Welcome.”

            Belihn grinned and strode to Irai’h’s desk.  “Hallo, Irai’h.”

            They gripped forearms.

            “Have you come to see Ryeo’h?” Irai’h asked.

            Belihn nodded.  “He asked me to come here to see him.”

            “Come with me then,” Irai’h replied.  “He is expecting you.”

            Irai’h led Belihn to Ryeo’h’s office door and knocked.  

            “Come!” Ryeo’h called from inside.

            Irai’h opened the door and led Belihn inside.

            Ryeo’h grinned.  “Belihn! Welcome.  Have a seat; you, too, Irai’h.  Close the door, will you?”

            Irai’h did as he was bid and took a seat in the chair next to Belihn’s.

            Ryeo’h ran his gaze over Belihn.  “You look good in civilian clothes.  How are you adapting to civilian life?”

            “It is definitely hard for me,” Belihn replied.  “I feel rudderless.  The army is all I’ve ever known, since I was a young lad.”

            Ryeo’h nodded.  “You have my sympathies, but you will adapt.”  Ryeo’h rose and strode to the sideboard, where he poured mi’disj into three glasses.  He turned and returned to the desk, handing first Belihn then Irai’h a glass of the liqueur.  “Tell us, Belihn.  Are you still welcome in South Torahn?”

            Belihn sighed.  “I don’t know.  I did receive an invitation, but word of my fall has not reached that far south as yet, I don’t think.”

            “We are going to proceed as if it does not matter to your paternal grandfather that you have been exiled from the Tjashensi clan.  I’ve secured Irai’h here an invite as well.”

            Belihn nodded.  “And you, Ryeo’h?”

            “Irai’h is an aristocrat, and you are, too, for all intended purposes. I am not.  My role will be different.”

            “I see.  And why are we going to South Torahn to attend a wedding?” Belihn asked.

            Ryeo’h and Irai’h exchanged a brief glance.

            Ryeo’h sighed.  “We are on a mission from the Reformist Lord.  That is all you need to know.”

            “So, you mean to steal from my grandfather?” Belihn asked.

            “A civil war has to be funded,” Ryeo’h replied smoothly.  “It does not happen in a vacuum.”

            “No, I suppose not,” Belihn stated quietly.  “Am I ever to meet the Reformist Lord?”

            “On the eve of the Civil War,” Ryeo’h replied.  “I promise I will introduce you.”

            “And the Reformist Lord, will he be at the wedding?”

            “That I do not know, Belihn,” Ryeo’h smoothly lied.  

            Irai’h was disconcerted and amazed at how good Ryeo’h was at lying.

            Belihn sighed.  “You know, the Yllysian Ambassador has promised to intervene during the civil war on our behalf.”

            Ryeo’h smiled.  “I know.  Worry naught, Belihn.  All is in good hands.”

            “I am getting to know this,” Belihn assured him and grinned.  He stood.  “In a way, I am glad the wedding ball will be masked.  I don’t think I will be welcomed by my grandfather.”

            Ryeo’h cocked his head.  “I suppose not, for the sake of the treaty between north and south.”

            “It matters not,” Belihn pronounced.  “I have an invite. That’s all that matters.”

            Ryeo’h clasped his hand.  “You are correct.  I’ll spring for your outfit, Belihn.  I know you can’t afford opulence at a secretary’s wages.”

            Belihn blushed.  “Thank you, Ryeo’h.”

            “Of course.  Think nothing of it.”

            They escorted Belihn to the front office.

            “Would you like to have lunch with me?” Ryeo’h asked.

            Belihn smiled.  “That would be good.  I’m positively famished!”

            Ryeo’h returned his grin.  “Then come.  You, too, Irai’h.”

***

            Belihn’s row house apartment was located three blocks from Ryeo’h’s house.  It was a space made up of four rooms:  a kitchen, a sitting room, a bedroom, and a bathing chamber.  The apartment was located on the bottom floor of the row house and had access to a small plot of land out back with a whitewashed wooden fence demarcating it from his neighbors.  There was a water pump outside next to the kitchen door and a small area where the previous renter had grown turies and other root vegetables.  There was even a bala berry bush full of fat ripe berries that he picked on his first day in the apartment.  The apartment came with scuffed furniture, including a wide bed with worn bedclothes, and the kitchen was full of plates, utensils, glasses, and pots and pans.  The wood stove had an old basket half-filled with pieces of wood and a smaller basket full of ca’ahl stones.  

            His first day in his apartment, Belihn walked the five blocks to the open air market and purchased two loaves of fresh bread, a pot of freshly churned butter, fruit preserves, some salted, spicy dosi meat, and a bag full of turies.  He also purchased spices, honey and salt, and tea.  He hauled his goods back home and then sat around in the sitting room listening to the deep silence with a growing sense of distress.  He wouldn’t start at university until the following week, and he would not start at the embassy until then as well.  The rest of his week stretched out before him like a maw waiting to swallow him whole.

            He stood up and began pacing.  The sitting room was fairly large and would double as Alona’s painting studio.  He had looked into renting larger spaces, but he could not afford it.  His inheritance was locked up until he turned thirty years of age and he would be earning a modest salary that would be just enough to pay the rent and provide food for himself and his wife.  They wouldn’t be able to pay for servants.  Would that be a tiebreaker for Alona?  He wondered if Mister Oh’nahry would end their betrothal now that Belihn had been exiled from his clan.

            With a sigh, he pulled on his cloak and left his apartment, locking the front door behind him.  He walked down the street to where the public conveyance stopped on the hour.  Belihn could not afford a bahil, so he had left Eiwor at the stables at Castle Draemin.  He could afford the three tin’sol’hs it cost to ride a public carriage to visit his fiancee.  The Oh’nahrys lived several miles west.  Belihn did not have the patience to walk there; he needed to know, and soon, whether he could marry Alona.  He felt a responsibility towards her; she was atoliy, like him, and a talented artist in her own right.  If she married another man, what would become of her?

            The public carriage rolled up almost an hour later and Belihn had to share the conveyance with an older matron and two young girls who kept looking at him from behind their fingers and giggling.  He smiled at their antics.  The matron gazed steadily out of the window and ignored the girls and Belihn.  Soon thereafter, the matron pulled the string, thus signalling that she wanted the conveyance to stop.  The public carriage came to a rolling stop and the older woman and two girls stepped down, closing the door and enclosing Belihn in the silence that had been haunting him all day.  

            Belihn had to put up with the silence only for a brief time, however.  Soon the conveyance was rolling into the nouveau riche neighborhoods and he pulled on the string and got off two blocks later to walk up the hill to the Oh’nahry residence.  The gate of the Oh’nahry residence was unlocked, so he opened the gate door and stepped onto the half moon cobblestone drive, closing the gate behind him.  By the time he reached the three cobblestone steps leading up to the front door, the butler was standing under the doorjamb, awaiting him.

            “May I be of service, Sir?” the butler asked.

            “I am here to see Miss Alona,” Belihn said.

            The butler started.  “Oh, I’m sorry, Captain.  I didn’t recognize you without your uniform.”

            “That’s alright.  Is Miss Alona in?”

            The butler bowed.  “She is, Sir. Come into the foyer and I will fetch her for you.”

            “Thank you,” Belihn murmured and stepped inside.

            The butler closed the front door and hurried away while Belihn commenced pacing.

            “Belihn!”

            He turned and smiled.  “Hallo, Alona.”

            She took his arm right away and led him into the sitting room.  

            “Father came home yesterday upset and said you have been exiled from your clan,” she said without preamble.  “Is that true?”

            He sighed.  “Yes.  I argued with my sire again and had to resign from the army.  But your father needn’t concern himself, I have employment and a place for us to live.”

            She urged him to sit and took his cloak, draping it over the back of the nearest armchair.

            She sat next to him.  “He was angry, father was.  He was counting on a direct connection to the King; for business purposes, he said.”

            He felt his heart give a sickening lurch.  “I see.”

            “He went to see your mother yesterday,” Alona continued and wrung her hands.  “When he returned, he was subdued and went up to his study without speaking a word to anyone.  I’ve never seen him quite like that, Belihn.  He wouldn’t even talk to mother or to my brothers.  That’s not like him at all.”

            “Has he said ought else?” Belihn asked.  “Is the betrothal done?”

            She shook her head.  “None of us know.”

            “Is he here?”

            She shook her head again.  “He’s in town, at the business.”

            He rose and picked up the cloak.  “Then I’d best go and speak with him posthaste.”

            “What will you say to him?” she asked, rising from her seat.

            “I’m not sure, to be honest,” he replied and walked with her to the front door.

            She sighed.  “Please talk sense into him, Belihn.  Surely, an alliance between our families would still be beneficial.”

            He grimaced.  “Of that I am not sure, Alona.  I am nothing but a lowly secretary at the Yllysian Embassy.  I have enrolled at university to take diplomatic courses.  I won’t be much more than a secretary for at least two years.”

            She took his hands in hers.  “I don’t care about any of that, Belihn!  Our marriage is convenient to you and me.  That’s all that should matter!”

            “But if your Eda decides to betroth you to someone else?”

            She swallowed. “I don’t know what I’ll do.”

            He leaned towards her and lowered his voice.  “There is always elopement, Alona.”

            She gasped.  “He’ll disown me!”

            He patted her hand.  “I would be open to elopement, Alona, but if you would rather have your inheritance, I understand.  I’ll let you think on it.  Excuse me.”

            He turned and strode through the open front door and out into the cool midafternoon, feeling as lonesome as he had ever felt in his life.

Chapter II: The Storm

            A day later, Belihn was woken by a pounding on his room door.  The pounding was so fierce, Belihn feared for the door’s integrity.  He rose quickly from bed and stumbled to the door, throwing it open.  Four guards stood on the other side of the threshold.

            “Please dress, Captain.  The King is demanding to see you right away.”

            “Give me a moment, please,” Belihn murmured and closed the door.

            He dressed quickly, taking but a moment to splash cold water on his face, then to brush and braid his hair.  

            He was escorted to Castle Draemin, two guards leading the way, and two guards bringing up the rear.  They marched him through the crowded Great Hall and down to the War Room behind the Throne Room.  One of the guards opened the door, announced him and stepped back to allow him entrance.

            Warlord Bhar Obeli, Commander-General Rakah Ys’teis, Lady Oona Obeli-Thalmar, Lord Domio Obeli,and Commanders Aud Salit’, Maedoc Kalish, and Deven Halso were in the room alongside King Kah’len. They sat at the half moon table facing the door through which Belihn had entered.  There was a single highbacked chair facing the table.

            The King was pale, his green eyes cold.

            Warlord Bhar Obeli rose.  “Have a seat in the chair, Belihn.”

            Belihn walked around the chair and took a seat.  His heart was clamoring in his chest.  He gripped the arms of the chair and took a deep, bracing breath.

            Warlord Bhar Obeli tapped the tabletop with a finger and sighed.  He walked away from the table and began to slowly pace before Belihn’s chair.

            “You have conscripted yourself to the Yllysian army, Captain?  Is this the case?” the Warlord asked.

            “Yes.”

            The Warlord nodded.  “I see.  Is there a reason you went to Yllysia?”    

            “You went to the other embassies and told the ambassadors not to accept my conscription,” Belihn retorted bitterly.  “I had no choice.”

            The king slammed his hand on the tabletop and rose so quickly, the chair toppled behind him.

            “There is always a choice!” he roared.  He took a deep breath.  “I haven’t decided if this is treason or not, Belihn Tjashensi.  We have no formal agreement, no formal treaty, with Yllysia.  But not more than 10 years ago, we were at war.  They spat on Bhar’s warning.  You bring us to the brink of war!”

            Belihn watched as his father rubbed a hand over his forehead and sighed.  “I am trying to understand you, son.”

            “You won’t be able to,” Belihn replied.  “You aren’t half-commoner.  You don’t have to put up with snide remarks, insolence and ridicule.  You don’t have to put up with a measly salary and the inability to rise the ranks of the military–“

            “Enough!” the King spat.  “I don’t need any more of your complaints.  You are a prince of the blood.”

            Belihn rose.  “I am a commoner!  Your own family does not see me as a prince, why should anyone?”

            The King took a deep breath.  “Sit. Down.”

            Belihn dropped into the chair once more.

            The King shook his head.  “If you go into the Yllysian army, you are no longer part of this clan, Belihn.  You will be prohibited from contacting your family, your mother, your sisters or your brother.  Do I make myself clear?”

            “You’re a tyrant!” Belihn hissed.

            The King straightened to his full height.  “Do I make myself clear?”

            Belihn rose.  “Abundantly.”  He spat on the floor.  “Goodbye, King Kah’len.  I curse your rule, your family, your pride.  May you fall.”

            “You stay right there,” Warlord Bhar Obeli snarled.  “No one’s dismissed you!”

            “I am Yllysian from now on,” Belihn stated coldly.  “If you have a problem with my comportment, you can contact the Ambassador.”

            “Belihn!” the King roared.

            Belihn strode from the room.  He hurried down the Great Hall to the stairs, taking them two at a time to the fifth floor and to his mother’s suites.  He burst into the sitting room.

            The Queen gasped and dropped her knitting.  “Belihn!  What is it?”

            He strode to where she stood and put his hands on her slender shoulders.  “I have been banned from the clan, Aya. I won’t be able to contact you after today.”

            The Queen paled and swayed.  “What?”

            “I just wanted to let you know I’ll be fine and I will marry Alona.”  He pressed a kiss to her cheek.  “I love you, Mother.  When I advise you to leave Draemin City-State, will you do as I ask?”

            She swallowed and nodded.

            “Civil war is less than ten years away,” he continued quickly.  “I don’t want you here when the trouble starts.  I’ll send you a missive.”        

            “I will wait for it, child,” she said and hugged him.   “I don’t understand any of this, Belihn.  I hope you are doing what is correct.”

            “Trust me,” he said into her fragrant hair.  “I can do nothing else, Mother.”

            Her hazel eyes glittered with unshed tears.  “Please be careful.”

            He nodded and pressed a kiss to her forehead.  “Tell my siblings goodbye for me.”

            When the pounding came on the hallway door, Belihn snuck out through the servants’ hallway.  He took little used passageways until he was outside in the bailey.  Returning to his room, he packed his belongings into his chest and dressed in civilian clothes, leaving his uniforms folded on the bed.  He managed to find a carriage that agreed to take him to the Yllysian Embassy.  He clamored into the conveyance, his trunk on the floor at his feet.  Once the carriage was clattering over the moat bridge and down the wide boulevard, Belihn released his breath.  The entire journey to the Diplomatic District, he kept sneaking glances out of the back window, but there was no pursuit.  He closed his eyes and allowed the idea of never seeing his mother again seep properly into his mind.  He prayed to Atana that Civil War came swiftly and swept the old guard away, leaving the throne clean and new.

            By the time the carriage rolled to a stop before the Yllysian Embassy, Belihn had gotten control of himself.  He stepped down and carried his chest with him into the large building

            The guards in the foyer asked his business.

            “I need to see Neth Oronom Shejl,” Belihn replied.

            One of the guard raked a mistrustful glance over Belihn.  “Wait here then.”

            It took long minutes during which Belihn’s knees gave out from under him and he sat down on the chest and tried to gather his wits about him.

            “Your highness,” Neth Oronom Shejl murmured and approached Belihn.

            Belihn shakily stood up.  “Sir.”

            “You have come to join us then?”

            “Yes, sir.”

            The ambassadorial aide ran his gaze over Belihn.  “You are no longer wearing a uniform.”

            “That is done,” Belihn replied.  “I’ve been exiled from my clan.”

            The aide cocked his head.  “Then come, the Ambassador will see you.”  He turned to one of the guards.  “Please set the Prince’s chest in the green guest room.”

            The guard bowed.  “Right away, sir.”

            “Come with me, Prince Tjashensi.”

            As they walked down the hallways, Belihn said, “I am no longer a prince.  Please call me Belihn.”

            Shejl looked at him.  “You are taking all this rather well, aren’t you?”

            Belihn shrugged.  “There is nothing to be done.  I have to be able to live with myself.”

            “Indeed,” the aide murmured.

            Ambassador Tah’duk’h was standing with his back to the door, his hands clasped behind him, gazing out of the only window in the room.  

            He said, without turning around, “My spies are buzzing with surprising news about you and the king of Draemin City-State.”    

            “I’m sure,” Belihn replied dryly and went to stand before the desk.

            The Ambassador turned around.  “Have a seat, Prince Belihn.”

            “I am no longer a prince,” Belihn informed him and took a seat.

            The Ambassador sat down behind his desk.  “This is all most curious.  The King must love you dearly, to lose his famous equanimity so thoroughly.”

            “His pride has been pricked, is all,” Belihn said.

            “Surely, your father loves you,” the Ambassador said.

            “My father has fifteen children, Excellency,” he replied hollowly.  “I broke my spirit while still a youngster trying to win his affection and a smidgen of his attention.  Father never had time for any of us.  He thinks we owe him blind loyalty because he is our father and the King.  I don’t owe him anything.”

            The Ambassador sighed and sat back, steepling his fingers before him.  “I see.  We owe fealty to our sires, if only because we owe them our lives.”

            “I owe my father my life, yes,” Belihn agreed.   “I have paid him over and over, by doing what he wanted me to do.  He wanted me to join the army, which I did.  But I won’t stand by idly while he destroys this city with his cowardice.”

            “Strong words,” the Ambassador murmured silkily.  His pale eyes studied Belihn.  “I won’t balk at letting you know we don’t trust any of this.  You’ll have to prove yourself to us.”    

            “I knew that would be,” Belihn replied dully  “We are ancient enemies, after all.”

            The Ambassador smiled coldly.  “That we are.”

            He rose and walked to the outer office and murmured a few words to his aide before returning to the inner office and sitting down once more.

            “I’ve sent for the Commander of our forces in Draemin City,” the Ambassador said.  “It will be up to him where you’ll be stationed and what rank you’ll hold.”

            “I thought I would remain here, in Draemin City-State,” Belihn murmured.

            The Ambassador tapped a finger on the desktop.  “That isn’t up to me.  We have a small force here and it’s mostly for the protection of our embassy staff.”

            Belihn shifted.  “Sir, I need to be able to assist the reformist forces.”

            The Ambassador sighed.  “Then perhaps it would be best if you leave the armed forces, Belihn.  Be a free agent, do what you will, but if you join the Yllysian forces, you will be sent where you are most needed.”  He sighed.  “You are our only hope for the throne once your sire is deposed.  I suggest you learn a new trade and wait until we need you to ascend the salta wood throne.”

            Belihn rose.  “You are dismissing me?”

            The Ambassador leaned against the desk.  “Listen, Belihn.  You know the life of a soldier; if you wish to remain here, in Draemin City, you will do so as a civilian.”  He raised a hand against Belihn’s rising protests.  “I will remain in touch with you.  Go and help the reformist forces, Belihn.  We will assist you when the time is ripe.”  He sighed.  “Do you have a place to stay?”

            Belihn swallowed thickly. “No, but I have acquaintances in town.  I’ll get myself an apartment.  May I return later for my belongings?”    

            “You may,” Ambassador Tah’duk’h replied.  “You know, if you take a few diplomatic courses at university, we can find a place for you here, at the embassy.  Had you not been such a hothead, I would’ve offered you to remain in the army of Draemin City-State as my spy.”

            Belihn sat down slowly.  “I’ve lost everything for naught.”

            The Ambassador shook his head.  “Not for naught, boy.  Your pride is assuaged, after all.  Take the courses and join my embassy as a liaison.  The course takes two years; have you anything else to be doing?”

            “No,” Belihn replied hollowly.

            “Then sign up at the university.  You can work as a secretary for the embassy.”

            Belihn squared his shoulders.  “I shall.”

            The Ambassador nodded.  “Good.  You can return for your belongings.  Good day, Belihn.”  The Ambassador turned.  “Oh, have you decided on a surname, now that your clan has disowned you?”

            “No, sir.”

            “Then I suggest, for irony’s sake, you choose an Yllysian surname.  You belong to us now.”

            Belihn cocked his head.  “You have a name in mind?”

            “Ekesj,” the Ambassador replied.  “You can found your own clan when you are King and give the clan an Yllysian name.”

            “Belihn Ekesj,” Belihn tried out.  He rather liked it.  He nodded.  “It sounds good.”

            The Ambassador smiled.  “Good.  Let me know where you will be residing, in case I need to get in touch with you.”

            “Yes, sir.”

Part Two: The Civilian Chapter I: Rejection and Redemption

            Belihn groaned and turned onto his back.  His head was pounding and his throat felt raw and his joints ached.  Looking around the room, he frowned.  Where was he?  The room was handsome but unknown to him.  Thick dark blue curtains covered the windows and the canopied bed.  Everything in the room was a shade of blue.  A single candle in its holder on the bedside table nearest Belihn gave a weak, buttery light.  With another groan, Belihn rolled to a sitting pose and swung his legs over the side of the bed.  His head spun and his stomach gave a lurch of complaint.  He closed his eyes and forced the sickness down.  Rising, he went to the window and pulled the curtains back.  Rain spattered the thick panes.  The window gazed down onto a manicured lawn with decorative bushes and flower gardens.  After a few minutes, he turned back to the room.  

            He went to the first door he saw and found a washroom.  Going to the waste bucket, he emptied his aching bladder with a sigh.  The strong, pungent stream of urine hit the side of the large bucket and slid down.  Afterward, he went to the washbasin, which was full of fresh, cold water, and he splashed his face and rinsed his mouth.  Making his way back to the bedroom, he dressed in his uniform, pulling his gleaming knee-high boots on last.  Returning to the bathing chamber, he found a brush and combed and braided his hair before abandoning the bathing chamber and making his way to the hallway.

            The butler stood just outside the bathing room door.

            He bowed to Belihn.  “Good morning, Captain Tjashensi.  Mister Ryeo’h was wanting me to let you know he is in the dining room breaking his fast.”

            “Thank you, Shen,” Belihn murmured and followed the tall butler down the hall and to the stairwell.

            The dining room was beyond the sitting room, through a modest archway.

            Belihn paused under the archway.  Ryeo’h’s entire family was there.  It was a noisy affair, with children talking loudly over each other.  Belihn closed his eyes against the pounding in his head.

            “Are you alright?” Ryeo’h asked.

            Belihn swallowed thickly and opened his eyes.

            Ryeo’h had left his chair and was now standing next to Belihn.  He was gazing at Belihn with a worried frown.

            Belihn nodded.  “Have a headache, is all.”

            “Come and sit and break your fast,” Ryeo’h recommended and took Belihn’s arm.  “I have a great remedy for a hangover.”

            “How much did I drink last night?” Belihn asked.  “I don’t recall much.”

            “Let’s say you did yourself proud,” Ryeo’h replied with a huff of laughter.  “Sit.”

            Belihn sat down amidst the sudden hush that had fallen over the gathering.

            The children watched him with wide eyed curiosity.

            “You look pale, Captain,” Banela Thalnel commented dryly while a servant poured tea into a cup for Belihn.

            Belihn thanked the servant.  “Yes.  Most unfortunate for me, my insides feel just as bad as my outsides look.”

            Ryeo’h set a tall glass in front of Belihn.  The thick liquid in the glass was rose colored and dotted with spices.

            “Drink it slowly,” Ryeo’h recommended.  “It’s made of spices and herbs to relieve your discomfort.”

            Belihn picked up the glass and sniffed it then brought it to his lips and tasted it.  It was oily and sweet and burning with spices.  He choked but managed to swallow it.  He almost gagged.  He took another swallow and set the glass to one side before picking up the cup of black mjish tea.  Around him, the family began to converse again while he miserably concentrated on drinking both the tea and the remedy.  When he was done, Ryeo’h placed a tall glass of water before him and he dutifully emptied that, too.

            Sjaji smiled at Belihn.  “Ryeo’h was telling us that you have resigned from the army, Captain?”    

            Belihn sat back into the hard backed chair.  “Yes, ma’am.  I am going this morning to sign up with the Tjish.unen army as a mercenary.”

            The young woman frowned.  “Why?”

            Belihn shrugged.  “I’m making a point to the King.  I can’t rise much higher in our army, but there is nothing stopping me from climbing the ranks of the Tjish.unen army.”

            She cocked her head.  “I have heard that commoners can’t rise the ranks of the armed forces past the rank of lieutenant.  It seems horribly unfair to me.  But you’re a prince.”

            “A half-blood,” Belihn told her.  “Half-commoner.  It taints my blood, in the point of view of many aristocrats.”

            She shifted.  “How sad and unfair.”

            He shrugged.  “It is what it is, but I think we can change things.”

            Ryeo’h rose.  “That’s enough talk of politics with women.  Are you done with your breakfasts?”

            Banela and Sjaji dutifully rose from their chairs.  Bidding good day to Belihn, they led the children from the dining room.

            Ryeo’h looked at Belihn.  “Do you want something to eat?”        

            Belihn grimaced.  “I couldn’t keep it down.”

            “Then come to my office,” Ryeo’h said and rose.  “It is just across the hall.”

            Once ensconced in the office with the door securely closed, Ryeo’h walked around his desk and sat behind it while Belihn sat down in an armchair facing the large, neatly appointed desk.

            Ryeo’h set his forearms on the glossy desktop.  “Do you recall any of our conversation from last night?  

            Belihn frowned.  “Just pieces of it.”

            “You spoke of the Reformist Lord and joining his ranks,” Ryeo’h stated without preamble.

            Belihn flushed hotly.  “Ah…speaking treason again.”

            “I told you I run in the same circles as the Reformist Lord.  I offered to train you to join his ranks as a spy.”  Ryeo’h sat back.  “Were you toying with me when you said you would like to join him?”

            Belihn sighed.  “No.  I wasn’t toying with you.  What would I be required to do, as a spy?”        

            “Anything you are bid do,” Ryeo’h replied.  “But you must live here, in Draemin City-State.  You expressed worry for your family, for their safety.  You can’t spy against the government in some other city or nation.  As I said to you last night, civil war is maybe ten years away, maybe sooner.  You can move your family to another nation, but you must remain here.”    

            “I no longer have the ear of the King,” Belihn murmured.  “What good can I do?”

            “Plenty,” Ryeo’h assured him.  “If you accept.”

            Belihn rubbed his forehead with a cool hand.  “What is your role in all of this?  Do you just train spies?”

            Ryeo’h’s smile did not reach his eyes.  “That’s between me and the Reformist Lord.  The less you know, the safer all of us will be.  All you need know is that I am not involved in the actual thefts.  Now, do you accept?”

            “I accept.  I have little choice, if I want to be on the right side of history,” Belihn replied and rose from him seat.  “I will go and sign up with the Tjish.unen army now.”

            Ryeo’h rose as well.  “Then you must come here again in two days’ time.  We’ve much to discuss.”

            They clasped hands over the desk and Belihn took his leave.

            Outside, the rain had stopped, but everything was slick with moisture. Belihn went to the city mews to get his bahil.  After paying the stable boy the required coins, he led his mount into the slick street.  The Diplomatic District was three sepeks from where Ryeo’h lived.  He mounted Eower, his bahil, and directed the animal north along the side street.

            The Tjish.unen Embassy was located in the Diplomatic District near the docks.  The buildings here were all three and four story brick houses with decorative gardens and black iron gates.  There were embassies from all nations that had an alliance with Draemin City-State, but there were also embassies from nations that did not have formal alliances with the city.  Yllysia had an embassy here and her relationship with North Torahni city-states had always been strained.  One could tell by the number of guards monitoring the premises of the Yllysian Embassy just how strained the two nations’ relationship was.  

            The Tjish.unen Embassy, several yards north from the Yllysian, was made of blond bricks.  Its relaxed grounds was testament to the fact that Tjish.un was the strongest ally to all the North Torahni city-states.

            Belihn walked up the three brick steps to the front door and then into the marbled foyer.  

            A guard in the green Tjish.unen uniform bowed to Belihn.  “How may I be of assistance, Captain?”

            “I’d like to speak to the Ambassador,” Belihn replied.  “I am Captain Belihn Tjashensi.”

            The guard bowed.  “I will inform the Ambassador that you are here. Please have a seat, Captain.”

            While the guard went to announce him, Belihn looked around the foyer.  The walls were painted a light yellow and mustard throw rugs decorated the floors.  The armchairs lining the walls of the foyer were of a light color and Belihn wondered what type of wood they were made from.  The cushioned seats of the chairs were cream with flowers etched from gold thread.

            “Captain Tjashensi?”    

            Belihn turned.

            The man before Belihn bowed.  “I am the Tjish.unen Ambassador to Draemin City-State, Aldhor Thalmar.”

            The Ambassador was a true scion of the House of Thalmar.  He was tall and slender, with copper colored hair and bright yellow-green eyes.  He was handsome, with even features and a generous mouth.

            Belihn saluted.  “A pleasure to meet you, Ambassador.”

            They clasped forearms.

            “The pleasure is mine,” the Ambassador murmured.  “Please come into my office.”

            The Ambassador’s office was expansive, with a desk made of light wood, like the chairs in the foyer.  The wood had prominent markings in whorls and circles.  It had a gleaming finish.  The desktop was neat, with stacks of papers and scrolls, two large inkwells and a series of pens lined in a row.  There were bookshelves carved into the wooden walls. The bookshelves were filled with thick tomes and scrolls behind glass.  The lettering on the tomes were in the Common Tongue, and Belihn read titles having to do with diplomacy, history, and politics.  

            “Have a seat, Captain,” the Ambassador said.

            Belihn sat down.

            “What can I do for you, Captain?”

            Belihn cleared his throat.  “I have come to join your army as a mercenary.”

            The Ambassador cocked his head.  “Really?  Why?”

            “I disagree with how the King pays the common soldier and how the common soldier is prohibited from rising above the rank of lieutenant.”

            The Ambassador sat down.  “I see.  I’ll be frank with you, Captain.  Warlord Bhar Obeli came to me yesterday and told me you might be sniffing around for a post.  I was given the directive that you are not to be allowed to join our troops.  I’m sorry but I can’t insult the King by accepting you into the ranks of our soldiers.”

            Belihn swallowed down the anger that swiftly rose in him.  He stood up so fast, the feet of the chair scraped the floor.  “I see.  I should have known.”

            The Ambassador rose.  “I’m sorry.  I’m sure the Warlord has had a word with all the Embassies in the Diplomatic District.”

            Belihn pushed down the resentment that threatened to blind him.  Without further preamble, he turned on his heels and strode from the room.  He made it outside without realizing he had done so.  Once in the front yard of the embassy, he stopped and took a deep, bracing breath.  The depth of the disappointment and rage that filled him left him breathless.  Before realizing what he was doing, he stalked down the sidewalk until he came to the Yllysian Embassy.  Getting into this embassy proved a bit harder.  He had to show his papers and was made to wait in the somber, subdued foyer for several minutes, a guard keeping watch over him.  While the second guard went to see if the Ambassador was free to see him, Belihn paced, impatient and angry.

            The second guard returned and bowed to Belihn.  “His Excellency will see you now, Captain.  Please follow me.”

            Belihn followed the guard down a long hallway built from dark brown ei’shano wood.  Paintings of what Belihn could only assume were landscapes from Yllysia filled the walls with icy and snow swept vistas.

            The guard led him to an open door.  He bowed.  “Please enter, sir.”

            Belihn entered the outer office and paused when he saw the young diplomat.

            “I am Neth Oronom Shejl, the Ambassador’s assistant.  The Ambassador is expecting you.  Please follow me.”

            Belihn entered the inner office and bowed to the ambassador on the other side of the modest desk.

            Like all Yllysians, the Ambassador had blue-tinged skin.  Yllysian women, when pregnant, imbibed ilishna, an herb that turned the skin blue and bleached the hair a pale eggshell color.  The Ambassador’s skin was pale blue with hair that was just touched with gold.  His eyes were light blue.  His even features and full lips were handsome.  He wore his hair in two thick braids down his back.

            “I am Ambassador Kalthos Torim Tah’duk’h,” the diplomat stated without preamble.  “To what do I owe your visit, Captain?”    

            Belihn recalled that Yllysian names were comprised of the city they were born in, their clan affiliation and, finally, their proper name.  So, upon hearing the Ambassador’s name, Belihn knew the man had been born in Kalthos City, came from a clan with the name of Torim, and his given name was Tah’duk’h.

            “May I sit, Ambassador Torim?” Belihn asked.

            The man blinked and indicated the armchair.  “Yes.  Please sit.”

            Belihn waited until the Ambassador took his seat before stating his business.

            “I am seeking to join a mercenary army,” he said.

            The Ambassador sat back in his chair.  “Yes, the Warlord came by, threatening me if I accepted your application.”  The man snorted.  “As if war with North Torahn would be so easily caused.”  He raked his gaze over Belihn’s face.  “You are the King’s son, are you not?  One of his heirs?”        

            “I am the King’s son,” Belihn agreed.  “Not his heir, for I am half-commoner.”

            The Ambassador curled his upper lip.  “Ah yes, the tiresome caste laws of this backward nation.”

            Belihn stiffened but gave a short nod.  “Just so.”

            “And you want to join the Yllysian forces why?”

            “I had a fight with my father, the King, over the caste laws,” he said.  “I think he should abolish them and he wants to avoid civil war at all cost.   I resigned from Draemin City-State’s army, but being a soldier is all I’ve ever done.”

            “I see,” Ambassador Torim stated.  “Draemin City-State is a powder keg, as are all the cities of North Torahn.  All due to these outmoded caste laws.  Your aristocracy taxes the commoners ruthlessly and without sense.”  He gave Belihn a toothy smile that held no mirth or gentleness.  “The entire nation will implode and we will bide our time.  I will approach whomever rises from the ashes of your civil war as King and offer a lasting peace settlement and agreement.  Tell me, Captain Tjashensi, why does North Torahn insist on keeping the Neutral Territory, when it so righteously belongs to Yllysia?”

            “It is a matter of pride for North Torahn, your Excellency.  We won it during one of the many Yllysian-Torahni wars that have marred our history.  I, for one, think Isajhi should be returned to Yllysia as a gift.”

            The Ambassador snorted, eyes flashing ire.  “You would gift us what is ours by right?”    

            “As a measure of good feeling between us, for the hope of future peace.  Yes, I would.”    

            The Ambassador held Belihn’s gaze for a few minutes before nodded.  

            “Am I wasting my time here, Ambassador?” Belihn asked.  “Will you deny me becoming a mercenary for your nation?”

            The Ambassador sat forward and placed his forearms on the desktop.  “We have no formal treaty with Draemin City-State.  I, for one, don’t believe the King would proclaim war on Yllysia if we take you on as a mercenary.  When civil war comes, Yllysia will join the commoners with the might of our armies.  If you promise to consider being made King, and you promise to return Isajhi to us, then I will accept your application as mercenary.  Once you take the oath, your loyalties lie with my nation, not Draemin City-State or North Torahn.”

            “I don’t want to be king.”

            The Ambassador flashed his mirthless grin.  “We all must do what we do not want at times.  You can become a mercenary in the Yllysian army, if you agree to take up the scepter and orb of Draemin City-State when the time is ripe.  You agree to this or you can leave my office right now.”

            Belihn swallowed.  “You promise to lend your forces to the common cause, for the rights of the common man?”

            “You have my word,” the Ambassador stated.

            Belihn rose.  “Then I promise to rule Draemin City and return Isajhi to Yllysia, if we win the civil war.”

            The Ambassador rose.  “We’ll win.”

            They clasped forearms.

Chapter XVI: The Dinner Party

The day of the dinner party arrived gray, wet and cold.  Strong winds blew across nearly deserted streets slick from rainfall.  The wind howled down semi deserted alleyways and side streets.  Irai’h put up the hood of his rain cloak and hurried down the sidewalk towards Ryeo’h’s row house apartment.  By the time he made it to his friend’s home, the hems of his trousers were soggy.  Thankfully, the cloak he wore was long to mid-calf, so most of his attire was dry.  Hurrying up the five steps from the sidewalk to the front door of Ryeo’h’s apartments, he used the heavy iron knocker to make his presence known.  

            Almost right away, the butler opened the door and bowed.  “Good evening, my lord.  Please come in.”

            Irai’h stepped inside the apartment and unfastened his cloak, handing it to the butler, who shook it outside and then hung it from a hook on the wall next to the front door.

            “The guests are all in the sitting room,” the butler informed him.

            Irai’h bowed.  “My thanks, Shen.”

            He followed the raised voices and occasional laughter to the arched doorway to the left of the foyer.  He paused under the archway to take in the scene. The entire household was there:  Ryeo’h, Ryeo’h’s wife and nanny and their passel of children.  Belihn had not yet arrived, it seemed.  Irai’h thought of the handsome young officer and sighed.  Really, it would have been lovely and certainly no hardship to start a love affair with the Captain.  He pushed his disappointment to one side and pasted on a smile as he stepped down into the expansive sitting room.

            “Uncle Irai’h!” announced Oron, Ryeo’h’s oldest boy, who was five years old.

            The boy barrelled into Irai’h, wrapping his arms around his legs.  

            Irai’h oofed.  “When did you become so big?”

            Oron gazed up at him and grinned, showing a missing tooth in the front of his mouth.

            Irai’h bent to pick the boy up and turned to greet the adults.  “Good evening to you all.”

            Ryeo’h smiled at him and rose, making his way to the sideboard.  “I’ll get you something to warm your blood.”

            Irai’h set a squirming Oron back on the floor and strode to where Ryeo’h stood.  “I must speak with you.”

            Ryeo’h frowned and glanced at his family. “Let’s go to the library then.”

            Irai’h took the glass of mi’disj from his friend and followed him out of the sitting room to the library on the other side of the foyer.  

            Ryeo’h closed the sliding doors and turned to face him.  “What is it?”

            Irai’h took a sip of the fiery, spicy liqueur.  “Belihn came to tell me he resigned from the army and will be signing up with the Tjish.unen army as a mercenary.”

            Ryeo’h reeled back.  “This is a surprise.  Did he say why?”

            “He said he got into another argument with the King over the caste laws and paying commoner soldiers less than is paid the mercenaries.”

            Ryeo’h considered the words and began to slowly pace.  “I plan to drug him, if only to corroborate that his story is true.  This might all be a complex ruse aimed at ferreting us out.”

            Irai’h frowned.  “Do you think so?”

            Ryeo’h sighed.  “I don’t know, to be honest.  If he is being sincere, then I say we extend a hand to him and see if he’ll join us.  He needn’t know that we plan to hit his grandfather’s party and relieve the King of South Torahn of some of his wealth.  I’m sure no one will notice things missing from the royal safe.  Word is the South Torahni coffers are filled with precious jewels, gold and silver.”

            Irai’h swallowed past the dryness in his throat.  “I can’t imagine.”

            Ryeo’h shook his head.  “Keep your head, Irai’h.  Everything is set up and ready.  The ship that will transport the jewels away and the ship’s captain that will pay us for them.”

            Irai’h studied his friend’s calm face.  “How do you do it, Ryeo’h?  You are so organized and you know so many people.  I just don’t have the faintest idea of how to go about all you do.”

            Ryeo’h grinned and placed a hand on Irai’h’s shoulder.  “And I couldn’t begin to fathom moving through the crowds at court or unlocking locked safes.  You do the hard part, my friend.”

            There was a knock on the library door.

            Ryeo’h turned and opened the sliding doors.

            The butler bowed.  “Forgive me for disturbing you, sir.  Captain Tjashensi is here.”

            “Thank you, Shen,” Ryeo’h murmured. He turned back to Irai’h.  “Come.  Let’s not keep the guest of honor waiting.”

            They found Belihn kneeling on the floor surrounded by children.  The adults were watching indulgently as Belihn explained to the children that, yes, he was a prince.

            “I want to be a princess!” Alis announced.

            “You can be,” Belihn told her.  “My mother is a queen.”

            Alis’ eyes widened.  “Your aya is a queen?  Is she beautiful?”

            “Yes,” Belihn replied and smiled at the little girl.

            Oron crossed his arms over his chest.  “Alis can’t be a princess; she isn’t part of the clans.”

            Alis flushed and turned to her brother.  “Can too!”

            Oron snorted.  “Can’t.  He’s just being nice, but he’s lying to you.”

            Alis’ flushed deeper and her face scrunched up.  She opened her mouth and let out a wail that filled the sitting room.

            “That’s enough!” Banela hissed.  “You’ll wake your brother!”

            “But aya!” Alis said with heartbreaking sincerity.  “I want to be a princess!”

            “Your brother is right,” Banela stated and looked apologetically at Belihn.  “I don’t want her mind filled with nonsense, your Highness.  I’m sorry.”

            He bowed his head. “It’s alright, Missus.  I understand.”

            Banela and Sjaji rose, took the older children by the hands and led the brood from the sitting room and up the stairwell.

            Belihn rose and turned to Ryeo’h.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to upset the child.”

            Ryeo’h stepped down into the sitting room.  “Banela and I try to be honest with the children.  We try to educate them in the way things are so that they are hardened to the prejudices that they will encounter when they are older.”

            “I understand,” Belihn said and swallowed.  “It is just shameful that children can’t have fantasies because reality is so much more bitter.”

            “It has always been so for us commoners,” Ryeo’h stated and indicated the sitting area.  “Have a seat, Belihn, please.”

            They all sat down, with the exception of Ryeo’h.  He went to the sideboard and poured libations into glasses.

            “Irai’h told me you resigned from the army,” Ryeo’h said over his shoulder.

            Belihn shifted.  “Yes.  Father and I got into an argument and I resigned.”

            Ryeo’h turned around hand handed glasses around.  He gave Belihn his last.

            “Thank you,” Belihn murmured and sipped his liqueur.  

            Ryeo’h took a seat across from Belihn.  “What was the argument about?”

            “My father has changed the face of the Draemin’s armed forces.  The armed forces are now around 49 percent mercenary. I predict that, within a handful of years, mercenaries will make up the majority of his troops.  There is no loyalty to a mercenary, other than his pocket.  My father’s position grows more and more precarious as the years pass.  Discontent among soldiers is at an all-time high.  The common people have been lied to and they do not feel as loyal to father as when he became king and promised to reform the caste system.  He does nothing, all because he fears civil war.  Civil war is inevitable.  It comes, whether he wants it to or not.”

            Ryeo’h crossed his legs and sat back.  “In that we are in accord, I’m afraid.  I don’t think civil war will hit us yet, because the nouveau riche and business owners have done well under your father, but the common soldier actually fares worse now than he did under the old king.  When your father became king, all the insecurities of the clans came to the fore.  The tightening of caste laws comes as a direct result that the king is only half-Torahni, an atoliy, and a liberal.”

            Irai’h watched as Belihn sipped his drink and wondered when the drugs would take effect.

            Belihn sighed. “Perhaps father should never have become king.”

            “He was the natural choice,” Ryeo’h told him.  “He was Warlord and the most powerful man after the king.”

            “If grandfather had not gone mad,” Belihn murmured.  “How would things be today?”

            “That is of no consequence,” Ryeo’h replied.  “We should concentrate on how things are right now and how we may make things better.”

            They talked of other things for a time then Irai’h noticed Belihn had grown flushed and was perspiring.  The young Captain pulled on the stiff collar of his uniform coat.  

            “It’s warm in here,” Belihn announced.

            Irai’h and Ryeo’h gazed at one another.

            “Why don’t you remove your over coat?” Ryeo’h asked him.  “No need to be formal around us.”

            Belihn rose and grinned.  “You are right of course.  This coat is warm, too.”

            Belihn removed his coat and draped it along the back of his armchair and sat down again.  “I wouldn’t mind another drink, Ryeo’h.”

            As Ryeo’h rose, the butler stepped into the sitting room and bowed.  “Dinner is ready, sir.”

            Ryeo’h nodded.  “You may serve, Shen.”

            “Very good, sir.  Right away.”

            Ryeo’h poured Belihn another measure of liqueur then they convened in the diningroom.

            They were served platters of roasted dosi with thick cuts of turies in aromatic spices.  There was a salad of bitter greens with a sweet citrus dressing, fresh bread with freshly churned butter and lounma fruit preserve. They were served and they sat around laughing and conversing.  Irai’h kept an eye on Belihn for his reactions to the drugs.

            By the time the had finished their meal, Belihn’s pupils were blown and he was speaking rather loudly, like he was drunk.  Perhaps that was due to mixing alcohol with the ishae and ithol.  

            Ryeo’h waited until the servants had taken away the platters, then rose and dismissed the servants for the evening. 

            They returned to the sitting room, and Ryeo’h closed the sliding doors for more privacy.

            “Have you heard of the Reformist Lord, Belihn?” Ryeo’h asked suddenly.

            Belihn chuckled.  “I was supposed to ferret him out, but now I want to meet him.  He and I have the same goal, after all.”

            “You were supposed to ferret the Reformist Lord out?” Irai’h asked.  “What do you mean?”

            “The argument I had with my father–the first argument–was a lie meant to lure the Reformist Lord to me, but that didn’t work,” Belihn said, wiping his forehead with a shaking hand.  “I drank too much, I think.”

            “The Reformist Lord never contacted you?” Ryeo’h asked.

            Belihn shook his head.  “No.  And now I’ve actually argued with my father and I want to meet the Reformist Lord.  Not to trap him, but to join him.”

            “You speak treason,” Ryeo’h silkily stated into the sudden hush.

            “I know,” Belihn said and shrugged.  “I expect to be arrested any day, actually.  I love my father, but I don’t admire him any longer.  I feel no loyalty to a government that treats its defenders so abysmally.  And I won’t stay quiet about it.”

            “What if I tell you that you could be an asset to the Reformist Lord?” Ryeo’h asked.

            Belihn started.  “You know him?”        

            “Let’s just say we run in similar circles,” Ryeo’h said.  “He has spoken to me about you, actually.  You could be an asset to him as a mercenary, especially if you remain here, in Draemin City-State.  As a mercenary.”

            Belihn leaned forward.  “I can’t stay here.  I have to move my family overseas.  When civil war comes, I don’t want my family caught up in its throes.  The clans would love nothing more than to murder my mother and her progeny because of our common blood.”

            Ryeo’h nodded.  “You can send your family away, your Highness.  But you must remain.  Change will come within the decade.  Of that I am sure.”

            “How do you know?” Belihn challenged.

            “How indeed?  I hear things, your Highness.  The discontented murmurs of the business community who get unequally taxed to pay for your father’s foreign troops.  The wealthy commoners bear most of the burden, by way of higher taxes.  Yes, the nouveau riche has done well under your father, but that is quickly changing.  Your father employs one of the most expensive armies in the world, certainly the most expensive in North Torahn.  And most of those soldiers will soon be mercenaries.  The window of revolution is within ten years, mark my words.”

            Belihn swallowed thickly.  “Ten years.”  He gazed pleadingly at Ryeo’h.  “I want to be on the right side of history, Ryeo’h.  I want to be an agent of change for the better, for the people.”

            Ryeo’h nodded.  “Then you must remain here.  You must help disperse discontent and you must learn how to harness the loyalty of the remaining North Torahni troops.  If you swear loyalty to the Reformist Lord, then I myself will teach you what you need to know.  Think of it, Belihn Tjashensi.  Within ten years, Draemin City-State will lead the way to reform North Torahn.”

            Belihn stood and lurched.  

            Ryeo’h steadied him.  “Careful.”

            “I drank too much,” Belihn stated uselessly.  “I want to join the cause of the Reformist Lord.”

            “Then you shall,” Ryeo’h told him.  “I will teach you.  Once you are a mercenary, you must come to me once a week for your lesson.”

            “Will I ever meet the Reformist Lord?” Belihn asked.

            Ryeo’h assisted him to sit once more.  “Perhaps, in the future.”

            Belihn gazed up at Ryeo’h.  “Do you think we can win?”

            “There is a good chance,” Ryeo’h replied honestly.  “It is with the Goddess, of course, but she is a Goddess of Justice after all.”

            “Yes,” Belihn agreed.

            Ryeo’h strode to the sideboard and poured a glass of cool water, handing it to Belihn afterward.

            Belihn drained the glass without preamble.  “Thank you.”

            Ryeo’h nodded.  “I know you still have loyalty to your clan, Belihn, but the future is open.  We must make Draemin City-State and North Torahn a place where all men are equal.”

            Belihn nodded.  “I agree.  I am loyal to the Tjashensi Clan, to a point.  Know that they are not necessarily loyal to me.  My half-brothers and half-sisters are of royal blood and they deem themselves better than I.  We have always had a strained relationship with them.  I certainly am not accepted by any Queen, save my mother.  So my loyalty is tempered by the reality of how things are.”

            Ryeo’h started pacing slowly.  “Once civil war paves the way, you may well be King or your mother Queen.  Sole Queen.  Wouldn’t that be something, the first commoner Queen?”

            Belihn opened his mouth then closed it with a click.  “I had not thought of that.  I don’t want to be king and I am sure neither does my mother wish to rule.”

            “You might have to, regardless of you desires,” Ryeo’h rejoined.  “None of your royal siblings would bring us cleansing changes.  Only you, your siblings or your mother.”

            Belihn grew very still.  “What if commoners win?  What will happen to my father’s other wives and children?”

            Ryeo’h shrugged.  “I will do my utmost to protect them, of course.  But they would have to be exiled from North Torahn.”

            Belihn sighed.  “Yes, of course.  I expected exile would be necessary.”

            Ryeo’h met Irai’h’s gaze and lifted an eyebrow.

            Irai’h swallowed thickly.  They had spoken of this before.  It would be impractical to allow any of the Tjashensis to live once the civil war deposed the king.  The Tjashensis had too many connections to foreign governments, too much wealth and too much greed.  The king’s children had always battled at court for ascendency, each grappling to become his or her father’s heir.  All of them, except Queen Divita and her children.  In Irai’h’s mind, the idea of killing an entire clan made him sick, but he was a practical man, too.  For the sake of the commoner, the clans should be wiped from the world.

            Belihn groaned and closed his eyes.  “I can’t go back to the castle like this.”

            “I have a guest room ready for you, your Highness,” Ryeo’h murmured.  “I shall wake you early.”

            “Thank you,” Belihn said.

            He rose onto shaky legs and Irai’h rose with him.

            “Which bedroom?” Irai’h asked Ryeo’h.

            “The blue one,” Ryeo’h replied and watched as his colleague assisted the prince out of the sitting room and up the stairs.  

            When Irai’h had settled Belihn in bed, having removed his boots and watched until the prince’s breathing became eve, he returned to the sitting room.

            “He’s asleep?” Ryeo’h asked.

            “Yes.”

            Ryeo’h nodded and began to pace once more.  “We have our figure heads.  We can rally the troops to protect and back Queen Divita and Belihn.  We can stir loyalty and devotion into their breasts, making Queen Divita and Prince Belihn the torch flames leading them into the darkness of the future.  Once the rest of the Tjashensi Clan, including the King, are wiped from the earth, then we shall have our commoner queen.”

            “I wish we didn’t have to stain our hands with the blood of an entire clan,” Irai’h whispered.

            Ryeo’h cocked his head.  “Perhaps we’ll spare the youngest of them.  But the Queens can’t be spared and neither can the king or his dog, the Prei-Serren.  We will clean house.”

            Irai’h shivered as if he were in the grip of a fever.  He watched as his friend squared his shoulders and strode towards his den, mind always planning for foreseen and unforeseen events.

Chapter XV: Changes

            After tendering his resignation to a confused and protesting Commander Ethael, Belihn hurried to his mother’s suites to tell her what he had done. The news would soon make the rounds at Court, so he did not want her surprised or disconcerted in any way. Belihn slunk along little used passageways and stairwells, avoiding courtiers and hangers on and clan members. As he made his way up to the fifth floor of the castle, he thought of the different countries and where he wanted to apply as a mercenary. Tjish.un paid well and were beautiful, brave people. He was related to the King of South Torahn through his father’s line, so that was a possibility also. Caste laws in South Torahn were relaxed and had fallen out of favor. Ynha also had a powerful army, as did Yllysia. He smiled without mirth. Becoming an Yllysian mercenary would be especially ironic, considering the strained history between Yllysia and North Torahn. He thought of Deyiansh, Mekh and even R’Nonay, although he balked at the idea of serving a despot. Still, R’Nonay paid their soldiers more than any other nation in the known world.

            He made it to his mother’s suites and the guards outside her door allowed him entrance without announcing him.

            His mother and sisters were in the sitting room, knitting.

            Queen Divita glanced up when he stepped into the room. “Belihn! What brings you?”

            Belihn bowed. “My beautiful mother. Can’t I visit you just to behold your beauteous countenance?”

            Divita blushed and smiled softly at him.

            Tifa snorted. “He wants something, Aya.”

            Ilmi giggled at her older sister’s words.

            Belihn frowned at his saucy younger sisters and shook his head. “O ye of little faith!”

            “Have a seat, son,” Divita murmured. “Tell me why you are here.”

            Belihn sobered and took a seat in an armchair across from their couch.

            Divita motioned for the nearest servant. The servant poured a measure of mi’disj into a glass and served it to Belihn.

            He thanked the servant and glanced at his mother. “I resigned from the army.”

            Divita gasped. “And what are you going to do now?”

            “I’m going to join a mercenary band,” he told her.

            Tifa started. “But that means you’ll leave!”

            Divita frowned. “What about your betrothed, child? You mean to leave her behind?”

            “I’ll talk to her,” he told his mother and sipped the liqueur. “I had no choice in resigning. The King won’t do anything to change caste laws and he keeps filling the ranks of his army with mercenaries that have no loyalty but to their pockets. When war comes, I want to be on the right side of history. You mark my words, Aya, there will be war. Father has too many detractors.”

            Divita took a deep breath and released it. “We are in danger, aren’t we?”

            “It might be prudent to move the family under Grandfather’s care in South Torahn,” he told her.  “You could petition him.  The danger to Father and our family is not immediate, I don’t think.”

            “The King of South Torahn is no kin to me,” Divita replied.  “It does not sit well with me to beg for protection and then live under his benevolence.  These royals, they don’t do anything out of the kindness of their hearts.”

            “But he is our grandfather, Aya,” Belihn said. “He will extend you his protection.  Besides, he is not an unkind man, nor a bigoted one.”

            Divita frowned. “He is the father of Queen Ajla, and she is my enemy at Court.”

            Belihn had forgotten that part.  He sighed and sat back in his chair.  “There is also the Queen of Tjish.un. She is my grandmother through Father’s line.  You and Tifa and Ilmi might do well in Tjish.un, considering it is a matriarchy.”

            “I can’t leave,” Tifa protested. “My betrothed lives here!”

            “Your betrothed has a business in Tjish.un, as I recall,” Belihn told his sister. “He will do what is necessary to protect you, which means he will come with us.”

            Divita set her knitting aside and rose. “You have given me much to think about. I was aware your father has his detractors, but not that his rule was in danger.”

            “A king’s rule is always in danger,” Belihn told her. “The clans don’t like that a half-Torahni became king. Many of the clans believe Rakah Ys’teis is the true king.”

            Divita frowned. “Rakah would never countenance opposing his half-brother.”

            “Perhaps not,” Belihn said. “But if the king is killed and his family wiped away…”

            Divita shuddered.

            He rose and stepped close to her, taking her slender hands in his. “Mother, we can move our entire family to Tjish.un. You can live well there, as can my sisters.”

            She shook her head. “The idea of leaving your father…” She sighed. “He is a good friend to me and he elevated me from poverty to queenhood. Leaving smacks of ingratitude.”

            “I know this,” he told her patiently. “But you must protect yourself and your children.”

            Tifa rose. “As much as I hate the idea of leaving, Mother, Belihn has a point. Father has been poisoned several times. No one has threatened us, but if the king is ousted, they will want to wipe the Tjashensi clan from existence.”

            Divita looked helplessly at her oldest son.

            He signed. “Mother, your heart is vast. I know you feel grateful to father, but your brood must come first.”

            Ilmi sighed. “Grandfather and grandmother, too. And uncle and auntie and their spouses and children. We can purchase a mansion in the capital of Tjish.un or some smaller city and all live together.”

            Divita put her hands out, palms out. “I’ll think on it.” She gazed into Belihn’s eyes. “I promise.”

            Tifa stood from her seat. “When are you signing up with a mercenary band?”

            “Tomorrow,” he told her. “My resignation gave my commanding officer a month to find a replacement for me. I will let the Tjish.unen ambassador know that I will be getting married before being conscripted.”

            “You should speak to Alona, son,” his mother said. “She should decide if she wants to be married to you, if it means living abroad.”

            “Yes,” he replied and pressed a kiss to her forehead. “I’ll see you later, Aya.”

            He made his way through the castle to the bailey.  In his haste to get to the stables, he went through the Great Hall.  He was almost at the great double doors leading into the bailey, when he heard his name called.  He stopped, sighing under his breath, and turned.

            A handsome fop of a fellow separated from a group of young men and made his way to where Belihn stood.  He held a pale silk handkerchief in his hand as a sort of affectation.  Belihn refrained from rolling his eyes.  The man was dressed in gaudy clashing colors of violet and yellow velvet and satin.  He was slender and graceful, with the black hair and gray eyes of the clans. 

            “Ah, if it isn’t the fallen prince,” the man drawled, pressing the handkerchief to his nose as if he smelled something spoiled.

            “How may I be of service?” Belihn replied blandly.

            The man’s eyes smoldered.  “I’m seeking a new servant.”

            The group of his friends tittered a few feet away.

            Belihn raised a brow. “Are you now?”

            The man nodded, his eyes raking hungrily over Belihn’s body.  “Yes.  And this servant would be placed in my bedchamber, as my personal servant.”

            “And you are talking to me for some reason?”

            The man flushed darkly, his pale features becoming mottled.  “Are you stupid as well as dirty, Belihn Tjashensi?”

            One man from the group laughed outright.

            “I bathed this morning,” Belihn told him.   “And I am not stupid, although you appear to be.  My guess is you are some bastard-born child of the clans who has nothing better to do with his time than waste it gossiping and being mean.  You are a waste of space, as are the rest of your cronies. You don’t scare me and you don’t insult me, because your opinion matters naught to me.  Now, if you are done here–“

            Belihn spun on his heels and stalked away.

            “You’ll be put in your place soon enough, Tjashensi!” the other spat malevolently.

 Hurrying to the stables, he had his bahil saddled and soon was cantering over the castle’s moat bridge and unto the boulevard that would take him to the nouveau riche neighborhoods. From there, it was simple to find the Oh’nahry residence. At the mansion’s entrance, a servant told him the patriarch of the house was in town on business. Belihn asked to speak to Alona and the servant bid him enter the foyer and closed the heavy door behind him.

            “I shall find my mistress,” the servant murmured and hurried away.

            Belihn paced as he waited for Alona, but it was not Alona who came down to meet him. It was Missus Oh’nahry.

            Igina Oh’nahry hurried to where he stood in the foyer. “To what do we owe this visit, Captain?”

            Belihn bowed to her. “I wanted to inform you and your husband that I have resigned from the army and will be joining a Tjish.unen mercenary band. I am having my family moved to Tjish.un for their protection; I would like Alona to go with them.”

            Igina Oh’nahry gasped. “Has ought happened?”

            “No, ma’am. I did not mean to frighten you. My father has his detractors, ma’am, and he could lose his throne to one of the other clans. I just want to make sure my family is safe.”

            She released a breath. “Your father is a strong king, child. I wouldn’t worry.”

            “That may be, ma’am. But I will be living in Tjish.un and I would like my wife to be with me. I would need your husband’s and your permission to take her with me.”

            Igina Oh’nahry’s expression softened. “I’m sure my husband will say that is your right, once you are married. A wife follows her husband.”

            “Would Alona be amenable to moving?”

            Igina Oh’nahry dimpled. “She has no say in the manner, your Highness.”

            He bit back an impatient retort and bowed. “May I speak with her?”

            Igina frowned but nodded. “I’ll fetch her myself.”

            When she was gone, he began pacing once more. Tjish.un. A mostly arid land filled with golden and red sands. Cities dotted along the banks of the great Kahi River. He wondered if he would miss the seasons, the snow, the changing colors on deciduous trees. He wondered if he would miss North Torahn.

            “Your highness?”

            Belihn turned and bowed. “Miss Alona. I must speak to you.”

            “Of course,” she replied smoothly and presented her arm. “A turn around the gardens?”

            “Lead the way.”

            They made their way outside, where the afternoon was cold but bright with sunshine. She wore a woolen tunic and long skirt and went barefoot but showed no discomfort of the cold.

            “I am leaving the North Torahni army and joining in Tjish.un,” he told her without preamble.

            She gaped at him. “When did you decide this?”

            “Today, Alona. My father will do nothing about the caste laws for fear of igniting civil war. I have very little loyalty left for him.”

            “I see,” she said. She gazed into his eyes. “And you wish me to come with you or are you breaking our engagement?”

            “That is up to you, girl,” he told her. “I would like you to come with me, but I don’t have a right to expect you to uproot your life to follow me to a distant land where you know no one.”

            She took his hand in both of hers. “I wouldn’t have to dress as a boy in Tjish.un, though, would I? Tjish.un is a matriarchy. Women have more rights there; I could be an artist in my own right there.”

            “Pity,” he said. “I was looking forward to seeing you dressed like a boy.”

            She blushed and laughed, eliciting a smile from him in return.

            “You’re silly!” she proclaimed. “I will go with you.”

            “Good,” he said. “We will leave within the half year. I would like to be married first by a priest of the Goddess.”

            She nodded. “Kahl might come with us.”

            He cocked his head. “Kahl?”

            “He told me of your proposal,” she explained. “I don’t mind if you want him as your lover, your Highness. We are both atoliy after all.”

            “What about you?” he asked.

            “I’m sure I can find a companion in Tjish.un. I’m not overly worried about that.”

            She walked him to his bahil and watched as he mounted. “I will tell my father.”

            He nodded. “You can talk to Kahl as well. By the way, you must address me by name. We are to be wed soon.”

            She blushed but curtsied. “As you wish.”

            Belihn made his way to the center of town and to Ryeo’h Thalnel’s offices.  Once he had stabled his bahil, he made his way to the business and, at the front desk, asked to speak to Irai’h Asjur.  He had been waiting a few minutes only before Irai’h strode out of the back of the building  through a wide doorway.

            “Belihn?  Is anything the matter?”

            Belihn shook his head.  “Can you take a break?  I must speak with you.”

            Irai’h indicated the front door.  “There is a tea house close to this building.  I could use a break.  Come.”

            When they reached the tea house, they ordered two southern teas and sat down near the bank of windows.

            As they waited for their teas, Irai’h placed his forearms on the table and leaned forward.  “What is it?”

            “I’m leaving North Torahn,” Belihn told him.  

            Irai’h frowned.  “What happened?”        

            “I got into another argument with the king.  I demanded changes and he refused.”  Belihn sighed and rubbed his forehead with a cold hand.  “I can’t blindly follow him anymore, Irai’h.  He made promises that he has reneged on.  It’s embarrassing and dishonorable.  He treats his common soldiers like they have no value, paying far below the salaries of mercenaries, refusing to allow them to rise above the rank of lieutenant.  It’s unfair, unjust, and cowardly.”

            Irai’h looked around, but there were few patrons there and no one was paying them any heed.

            “Lower your voice, your Highness,” he said.  “I understand your frustration, but couldn’t you work on him on the behalf of commoners?”    

            “I’ve been ‘working’ on him for five years, Irai’h!”

            Irai’h sat back as the serving boy set the tray with two mugs on the table.  

            When the boy had departed, Irai’h picked up his mug.  “I see your point.  The king is not a coward, but he is misguided.  He is surrounded by aristocrats who advise him poorly.”

            Belihn said nothing as he sipped his sweet, milky, spicy tea.  Until very recently, he had been one of the King’s advisor, albeit an unofficial one.

            Irai’h sighed.  “When are you leaving?”

            “Within the half year.  I have to attend my cousin’s wedding in South Torahn.  I will leave from there.”

            Irai’h smiled sadly at him.  “I was looking forward to bedding you.”

            Belihn blushed.  “I did, too.”

            “I like a man of principles,” Irai’h rejoined.  “You are both comely and courageous.  You are willing to uproot your life for your beliefs.  I admire that.”

            Belihn leaned forward and lowered his voice.  “You think I am wrong about father being ousted?”

            Irai’h shook his head. “There is a lot of discontent in the army and among civilians. I don’t think you are far off.”

            Belihn nodded firmly and sat back.  “I thought so.  I tried to tell the king that civil war would cleanse the city-state and allow for needed change, but he is hung up on the deaths of many being on his head.”

            “Sometimes decisions have to be made that require violence.”

            Belihn nodded and sipped his tea.

            Irai’h sighed.  He set aside his empty mug and rose.  “I must get back to work.  I look forward to dinner at Ryeo’h’s home tomorrow.  You’re coming, I hope?”

            Belihn rose.  “I wouldn’t miss it.”

            As they made their way out of the teahouse, Irai’h looked at Belihn.  “You must keep in touch, Belihn.  I think things are going to change for the better; patience is needed most of all.”

            “That I have precious little of, I’m afraid.”

            Irai’h grinned.  “I am learning that about you.”

Chapter XIV: The Confrontation

            Belihn rose early the following day and went to the practice yards with Lieutenant Kurk Deshon for a few bouts of sparring.  They did not say much to each other as they plodded west through the expansive bailey. Rime made the cobblestones slick.  Their breaths clung to the air and the gentle breezes sweeping down from the north caressed their exposed faces and necks with icy fingers.  They reached the mostly empty southern practice yard a few minutes later.  They entered the capacious yard and Belihn removed his thick kamarani cloak and draped it over the low wooden fence demarcating this yard from the others.  Kurk followed suit and soon they were sitting across from each other on the rime-hard ground, stretching and twisting to warm up their muscles before they took up the wooden swords.  

            Once they were sufficiently warm, they rose and pulled out wooden swords from the barrel near the entrance.  Belihn hefted his sword, which was lighter than his iron sword, but still had enough heft on it to allow him to exercise his arm.  He went to stand across from his friend.  Deshon attacked without preamble.  He always managed to startle Belihn and Belihn had a thought that Kurk enjoyed discombobulating him when they sparred.  Belihn recovered quickly and soon the still air was filled with the thuds of their swords as they clashed again and again.   A surge of pleasure filled Belihn as he lost himself in the exercise.  He pushed all worries and concerns to the back of his mind and concentrated on besting his more than capable friend.

            Kurk grinned at him, his dark brown eyes lively and gently mocking.  He spun and brought his sword down in an arc.  Belihn halted the downward swipe of the sword and grunted as the swords clashed and the muscles along his back, arm and sides absorbed the stress.  He could feel his skin release sweat as Kurk continued to challenge him.  Kurk had learned all about self-defence in the army.  He was a commoner and they both had served under the arrogant and bigoted Commander Nyal Kia’guh.  They had met and liked one another right away, united by their shared discontent over the caste laws.  At first, Kurk had been suspicious of Belihn, as he was of all aristocrats, but Belihn had eventually worn down his self-protective facade and uncovered the man’s kind heart and disposition.  Kurk was Belihn’s only friend from the military and he was protective of their relationship.

            “Where’s your mind at, Tjashensi?” Kurk chided as his sword tip scraped along Belihn’s waist.

            Belihn grunted at the pain that momentarily flared along Belihn’s skin where the dull sword tip graced.

            Belihn pulled his thoughts back to the sparring.

            They continued their good-natured fighting until Belihn found himself stumbling from exhaustion.  Light touched the sky in the east, where Malthos, the sun, rose.  

            Sweat covered Belihn’s skin and he shivered in the northern breezes as he wiped sweat from his eyes and stepped back from Kurk.

            “Let’s stop there, shall we?”

            Kurk bowed.  “Done.”

            Belihn noted with some consternation that, even though Kurk was sweaty, his breathing was still even.    

            “What say you we go for a jog tomorrow morning?” Belihn asked innocently.

            Kurk groaned.  “I know all about your jogs, Tjashensi.  You’re a masochist.”

            Belihn took his friend’s sword and laughed as he turned and strode to the barrel to drop the swords inside.  He then picked up his cloak and turned back to his friend.

            “You have good stamina, Deshon,” Belihn told him.  “You can keep up just fine.”

            They began to walk back to the Officer’s House.  

            “It’s not keeping up that’s the problem, Tjashensi,” Kurk replied and used a meaty hand to wipe the sweat from his forehead.  “It’s the soreness the following day.”

            “You just aren’t stretching enough,” Belihn chastised him.

            “Well, your runs are so long, we don’t have time afterward,” Kurk complained.

            Belihn snorted.  “Never mind.  We’ll start half an hour early and take the adequate time to stretch.  Will that suit you?”

            Kurk sketched a bow.  “Yes.  Tomorrow then, Belihn.”

            “Tomorrow, Kurk.”

            They parted as Kurk headed for the second floor and Belihn went up to the third floor.  Once there, he scooped cold water from his fresh water barrel and filled the basin. He dropped a few drops of fragrant oil into the basin.   Discarding his sweaty clothes on the floor, he dropped a washcloth into the basin.  Wringing the cloth out, he scrubbed the sweat and salt from his body.  Afterward, he used the washcloth to scrub his face and under his arms and along his groin.  He walked over to the full lengthed mirror hanging from the door.  Running a hand along his cheek, he decided to shave.  He didn’t grow a beard very fast, so he ended up shaving every other day or every third day.  Striding back to the basin, he picked up his shaving cup filled with shaving soap and a brush and lathered the soap along his damp face.  Setting down the cup, he picked up the single blade next to the basin and scraped the soap and hair from his face.  Once done, he smiled at his reflection.  Not a single nick or cut.  He dressed in a fresh uniform and hung up the sweaty one to dry on the hooks on the wall next to the door.  After pulling on his knee high boots, he brushed and braided his hair in a single plait that fell to midback.  

            There came a knock on the door and, curious, he pulled the door open.  

            The private on the other side bowed and handed him a folded missive.  “This came for you, your Highness.”

            “Thank you,” Belihn murmured and took the letter.

            He did not recognize the seal, which looked to be from a business in town.  Breaking the seal, he unfolded the letter.

            “You are invited to an informal dinner at the residence of Ryeo’h Thalnel tomorrow evening.  Dinner will commence at sundown.”

            The missive had directions to the row house apartment.

            He strode to his dresser and dropped the missive next to his hairbrush.  He would craft a reply as soon as he got to Commander Ethael’s office.  

            Belihn headed to the dining room, where he picked up a tray and went to stand in line.  Lieutenant Deshon walked in a few minutes later and picked up a tray, coming to stand behind Belihn.

            “Fancy meeting you here,” Kurk murmured with a smirk.

            “Imagine that,” Belihn replied with a grin.  “Wonder what’s for breakfast?”

            “Something with some meat, I hope,” Kurk replied.

            Belihn set his tray down at the serving window.  The server set a bowl of boiled grains, tza nuts and dried berries, honey and cream on his tray.  He also set a mug of black mjish next to the bowl.

            Kurk grimaced at the fare but dutifully took his bowl and they carried their food to two empty seats.

            They sat next to each other and began to eat in silence.

            “What’s your week like?” Kurk asked between mouthfuls of the sweet, nutty cereal.

            “I have a dinner date at a friend’s house tomorrow,” Belihn answered, wiping his mouth with his napkin.  He sipped the bitter, sour tea.  “Then I have a dinner with my fiancee’s family at my mother’s suites the following day.  Why?”

            Kurk groaned.  “I forget you are betrothed.  I just met two twins, two sisters.  Beautiful and vivacious.  I wouldn’t mind going on a double date.”

            Belihn snorted.  “Why don’t you date them at the same time?  It is every domeinsji male’s fantasy, isn’t it?”

            Kurk smirked.  “I had not thought of that. When do I get to meet this fiancee of yours?”

            “Any time you like, Kurk.  We can go out with your twins in a couple of days.”

            Kurk sipped his tea.  “I don’t want a relationship with these twins, my friend.  What I want are simple, uncomplicated good times.”

            “Aren’t you going on twenty-two dibasjis?” Belihn pointed out.  “You should think of settling down.”

            Kurk rolled his eyes.  “Just because you’ve so placatingly placed the noose around your neck doesn’t mean I want one around mine.  There are many women in this world, my friend, and I don’t want to limit myself to just one.”

            Belihn picked up his tea mug.  “One day a woman will snare your heart, Kurk Deshon.  You mark my words.”

            Kurk shrugged.  “Independence and freedom will always mean more to me than love.”

            Belihn watched as his friend scraped the last of his cereal from his bowl and said nothing.  He didn’t disapprove of Kurk’s attitude; he wished he thought the same way.  But he liked the idea of being with a man the rest of his life.  He looked forward to the friendship and intimacy.  And with Alona, he would have children.  The idea of having children filled him with warmth.  He wanted a large, affectionate family to fill his days with joy.  But Kurk, as he had said, valued freedom more than anything, which made his military career so odd.

            “Why’d you join the military, if you value independence and freedom so well?”

            Kurk pushed his empty bowl away and shrugged.  “I have to survive somehow.  Once I learn my skills well enough, I will join a mercenary band that will provide companionship and travel and adventure.  There is plenty of time to settle down.  I want to travel the world first and see how much plunder there is.”

            Belihn sat back.  “I had no idea you wanted to become a mercenary.”

            Kurk sipped his tea.  When he replied, his voice was lower than before, not carrying beyond their small bubble of privacy.  “I have no loyalty to your father, Belihn.  I’m sorry to be so blunt.  But when he came to power, he said he would change things and that he has not done.  I’m tired of waiting.  Perhaps I’ll settle down somewhere else, where there are no caste laws and I can be free to succeed.”  He sighed and rose, setting his mug on the tray.  “Have a nice rest of your day, my friend.”

            Picking up his tray, Kurk strode away.

            Belihn swallowed thickly.  His conversation with Irai’h came to mind.  He had been correct about the fact that many young men became mercenaries because of the pay, but also because his father was losing the loyalty of the army.  It was not happening fast enough to prove concerning, but it was progressing at a steady rate nonetheless.  Soon most of the army of North Torahn would be made up of mercenaries, and they could be bribed to side with any of the King’s detractors.  His father was a fool.

            He rose and carried his tray to the serving window.

***

            Belihn went to his father’s suites after Court closed for the day.  Kurk’s words from earlier in the day clung to his thoughts.  The idea that soon the entire army would be made up of mercenaries whose loyalty was open to bribery filled him with a suffocating anxiety that had robbed his concentration all day.  Even his commander, Thul Ethael, had noticed and let him off work early.  Immediately upon leaving work, he made his way to the castle, using a little used servant’s entrance in order to avoid the Great Hall and the courtiers and aristocrats that took such pleasure in humiliating him.  Besides, he didn’t want to be too obvious about contacting his sire directly and openly.    

            He made his way to the fifth story of the castle and then down the wide, opulent hallway to the King’s suites.  He was gratified to find two North Torahni natives guarding the archway leading into King Kah’len’s suites.  The guards came to attention and saluted him.

            “Is the King in residence?” he asked.

            The guards bowed.  

            “Yes, Highness,” said the one on the right.  “Let me announce you.”

            Belihn waited as the guard knocked on the door and stepped into the sitting room.  

            A few minutes later, the guard returned.  “He will see you now.”

            Belihn nodded and entered his sire’s apartments.

            Kah’len was standing next to the large fireplace.  The King was not alone, which did not surprise Belihn.  Both Warlord Bhar Obeli and Commander-General  Rakah Ys’teis were present.

            “Belihn,” Bhar greeted.  “Is anything the matter?”    

            “No, but I need to speak to my Eda about something of great concern to me,” Belihn replied.  “I’m glad both you and Uncle Rakah are here.  You should hear what I have to say as well.”

            Kah’len took two steps forward.  “This couldn’t be related in a missive, son?  By coming here, you compromise everything we’ve worked so hard to establish.”

            “It can easily be explained, I think,” Belihn replied.  “And twisted to our purpose, I daresay.”

            Kah’len frowned but nodded.  “Go on then.  What has you so concerned?”

            Belihn took a deep breath and released it.  “Father, when are you going to address caste discrepancies?  When are you going to allow commoners to rise within the ranks of the army?  When are you going to do away with stupid laws that only hurt the most vulnerable?”

            “Where is this coming from?” Rakah asked.

            Belihn turned to him.  “You know what a close friend told me?  He is going to join a mercenary band because he has no loyalty for a King who made promises he has no intention of fulfilling.”

            Bhar took a step forward.  “Who is this?”

            “I will not betray a friend,” Belihn snapped.  “And when it is against the law to have an opinion?”

            Rakah frowned.  “When that opinion is seditious.”            

            “He said nothing of opposing the king,” Belihn pointed out.  He turned to his father.  “Eda. Please.  Fully 55 percent of your forces are mercenary.  That means they can be bribed to turn against you.  Every year more and more young men leave North Torahn because they find no justice at home.  Father, you made a promise when you took the oath of office:  You said you would change the caste laws.  You promised.”

            “That is enough,” Bhar growled.

            King Kah’len sighed.  “No, Bhar.  Let the boy speak.  Is there aught more you need to say to me?”

            “I am tired of seeing friends leave, Sire.  You are a good man and a good king, but you forget that most of your citizens are commoners, not the clans.”

            King Kah’len shook his head.  “I forget nothing.  I have to proceed very carefully, son.”

            “Civil War would not be a bad thing,” Belihn told him.  “It could cleanse and we could start again, just as we did when the Poaist were exiled.”

            “I would not have people’s blood on my hands!” the King spat.

            “But you’d have their discontent, their humiliation, their injustice instead?” Belihn challenged.

            Rakah stepped forward.  “Think carefully of what you are saying, Belihn.”

            “Are you going to arrest me, Uncle Rakah?  For what?  For advising the King?  Go ahead.  Arrest me.  I’m not so far from the bottom now.  Once I am free, I will become a mercenary, too.  I can’t support a king who lied to his people because he is afraid of something that will only inconvenience the clans.”

            “That is enough,” Bhar said coldly.  

            “Yes.  You are right,” Belihn stated.  “That is enough.  When, not too long from now, some discontented clan head bribes the mercenaries in your employ, father, and they oust your clan from power, perhaps killing your children and wives and yourself, you can think on my words before the hangman–“

            Rakah took three steps and backhanded Belihn.  Belihn’s head snapped back and his teeth cut into the soft inside of his cheek.  He smiled mirthlessly at his uncle and wiped the blood from his mouth.

            “I’m done here,” Belihn stated coldly.  “With this King and this family.  I will give my loyalty to whatever king pays me the most.”

            “Belihn–” the King said.

            Belihn shook his head.  He strode from the room and out into the hallway.  He had a resignation to write.

Chapter XIII: Considerations

            Ryeo’h stared at Irai’h for long enough that Irai’h found himself shifting uncomfortably under his friend’s cool regard. After long minutes, Ryeo’h sighed and looked away.

            “I don’t know why you couldn’t have seduced him right then and there,” Ryeo’h stated.  “Accepted his request and seduce him.”

            Irai’h cleared his throat.  “I didn’t want him to get suspicious of me, Ryeo’h.”

            “But you say he had mild physical symptoms and he did not guess you had drugged him,” his friend said.

            “That’s right,” Irai’h replied.  “But he was still cognizant and aware.  He was more vocal in his disaffections for his father, but he still retained most of his control.”

            Ryeo’h hummed and stood up.  He began to pace slowly around the library as Irai’h watched him carefully.

            “You say you poured two drops into the tea?”

            Irai’h nodded.  “I didn’t want him to be able to taste it.”

            “But it is evident it was not enough,” Ryeo’h murmured and ran a finger along his chin as he thought.  “If we ply him with alcohol, we can use more and he will probably think it is intoxication.”

            “How much do I use of the drug then?” Irai’h asked.

            Ryeo’h pursed his lips.  “We begin with two drops then add one drop per glass of alcohol he consumes after that.  We monitor the situation carefully.  If he vocalizes a doubt, we stop and reconnoiter.  But I have an idea he won’t think it’s anything other than intoxication.”  He stopped pacing and turned to face Irai’h.  “What were his symptoms?”

            “He became flushed and overly warm and began to perspire almost right away.”        

            Ryeo’h considered that and nodded.  “We will do this at my home, after we have dinner tomorrow.  I want to interrogate him and then he must wake next to you in the guestroom.”

            Irai’h nodded, flushing.  “Do you still require me to seduce him?”

            Ryeo’h shook his head.  “By the end of the evening, he won’t be in any shape to be seduced.  In order to make him pliable for interrogation, he will be mostly useless to you.  My chemist friend told me the side effects of the drugs mimic intoxication, but someone can figure it out, so we have to proceed carefully.  I was told that there are some disorientation and mental lapses the following day.  That’s when he can put two and two together, which is why we also have to be careful.  If he is at my residence, we can break our fast with him and redirect his doubts.”

            “I understand,” Irai’h assured his friend.

            Ryeo’h nodded and commenced his slow pacing once more.  

            “I have another job lined up for us,” Ryeo’h said quietly.

            Irai’h’s heart lurched.  “Here, in Draemin City-State?”    

            “Too soon for a job here,” Ryeo’h replied.  “No.  Princess Alida Obeli has reached her majority and is being married to a Tjish.unen prince.  I am working on identification papers to get us into the palace of the South Torahni King.  Once there, we can clean up.  There will be a Deyiansh ship in port that will buy the cache from us and take it far from the shores of South Torahn.  This will be our last job, if it all goes well.  We’ll have enough to bribe local soldiers and to sew the seeds of discontent.  If we are successful, the authorities will never find us.”  

            “How much of a cache are we looking at?”

            Ryeo’h smiled.  “At least 10,000 tin’hets. We’ll be able to bribe every city guard and proceed with revolution.”

            Irai’h shivered.  “How soon will the time be ripe for a revolution?”

            Ryeo’h shrugged.  “We’ll be ready in two years.  Between now and then, we keep a low profile.”

            “What if we are recognized at the wedding?” Irai’h voiced.

            Ryeo’h shook his head.  “It’s a masked ball that follows the wedding.  They are expecting a vast crowd.  We aren’t going to be found out.  Besides, I’ve already got ten servants in my pocket.”

            Irai’h knew better than to think Ryeo’h arrogant.  He knew Ryeo’h was meticulous and careful beyond measure.  But every time they did a job, he worried.

            “When is this wedding?” he asked.

            “Next dibasj,” Ryeo’h replied.  “We have six months to get ready.”

            Irai’h swallowed thickly and nodded.  “Understood.  It will take a month to sail there, so four months.”

            Ryeo’h smiled.  “The wedding is late in dibasj.  I want you and the others to purchase a nice set of clothes.  We are going to be in City Lae for at least one month, so you’ll need a whole new wardrobe.”

            “Yes,” Irai’h agreed.  “I’ll have it ordered at once.”

            “Go to the southern tailor in town,” Ryeo’h suggested smoothly.  “It won’t do to stand out by wearing clothes that are not in fashion in South Torahn.”

            Irai’h bowed.  “Of course.”

            Ryeo’h clasped his hands behind his back and continued to pace.  “Do you know if Captain Tjashensi will attend the wedding?  Princess Alida is his relative, after all.”

            “I’ll ask him of course.”

            Ryeo’h smiled.  “Of course.  I’ll put you in charge of ordering our wardrobes and finding us a ship to travel on.  Do you have any questions?”

            Irai’h shook his head no.  “I’ll begin right away, Ryeo’h.”

            Ryeo’h nodded distractedly and continued to pace as Irai’h left the library.

            As he walked out of Ryeo’h’s row house apartment, Irai’h thought he would have to bribe the tailor to keep his mouth quiet regarding coming up with four wardrobes.  The Reformist Lord had never struck outside the boundaries of North Torahn, so Irai’h did not think they would be trailed to South Torahn when the time came.  He was overjoyed this would be their last job.  Every job they did meant the authorities got a bit closer to their trail.  Irai’h had convinced himself of this a long time ago.  He hated the stress of interrogations and suspicious gazes.   He always worried he would give them away somehow.

            He sighed and turned left and down the boulevard, heading towards the cloth district.  

***

            Belihn ate quietly while his mother held court during the dinner with the Oh’nahrys.  Divita was vivacious and beautiful and Belihn could tell Mister Oh’nahry was taken by her as he hung on every word she uttered.  Missus Oh’nahry watched him with indulgence, which surprised Belihn no end.  Alona sat next to him and Kahl and Otar across the table.  They were dining in the Oh’nahrys’ spacious home in the nouveau riche neighborhoods east of Castle Draemin.  Like all nouveau riche homes, the three-story house was made of whitewashed ei’shano wood.  The windowsills and doors and doorjambs were painted a mustard yellow.  The roof was covered by mustard-colored tiles and the gardens were full of decorative bushes and flowering plants, as well exquisite aelon trees.  Belihn loved the trees with their ash brown twisted trunks and thick canopies.  This time of year, the aelon, being a deciduous tree, changed colors, its wide waxy leaves blushing red and yellow and orange.  The effect was a garden filled with bright colors that charmed both Belihn and his mother.

            The inside of the Oh’nahry residence was another matter, however.  The Oh’nahry, being nouveau riche, went overboard with the decoration.  The wooden walls were covered by gaudy silk tapestries and the gleaming floors were full of bright colorful rugs that clashed painfully with the tapestries.  The rooms were crowded with expensive furniture.  The Oh’nahrys employed an army of servants to keep their house gleaming.  The servants wore uniforms, which almost made Belihn roll his eyes.  

            The diningroom’s centerpiece was a long, gleaming wooden table large enough to sit twenty guests.  Alona had confided in Belihn that her parents liked to entertain in order to show off their wealth.  Every fifth and sixth day of the week, there was a house party and guests would remain overnight.  

            “My father does most of his business dealings during these house parties,” Alona had told him.  “You should come to one of them.  Just to see my father in his element.”

            Belihn had smiled politely, thinking nothing would be further of interest to him than to watch stuffy Mister Oh’nahry in his element.

            He had had no chance to talk to Kahl about pursuing a courtship.  Belihn got very nervous when he thought of approaching the young student, despite the doe eyes Kahl was directing his way.

            When they were done with dinner, Mister Oh’nahry invited the men to the den for libations and further conversation, while the women retired to the sitting room.  Belihn dutifully followed Mister Oh’nahry and his sons into the study.  

            “How are the plans going for the wedding?” Mister Oh’nahry asked Belihn as he handed him a glass half-filled with ekila.

            “I don’t know,” Belihn answered promptly.  “It’s with mother now, and your wife, of course.”    

            Mister Oh’nahry snorted.  “Of course.”

            Mister Oh’nahry then shifted the conversation and began to wax poetic about his shipping business.  He puffed up before Belihn’s eyes.  Belihn settled into his seat, taking a large mouthful of liqueur to soften the boredom that was threatening to undo him.  

            He glanced at Kahl, who blushed and looked away.

            The evening went on like that until Mister Oh’nahry announced the conclusion.

            Belihn rose quickly, setting his empty glass on the low table.  “Thank you for an enjoyable evening, Sir.”

            Mister Oh’nahry waved away his words.  “Always a pleasure, your Highness.”

            Belihn almost rolled his eyes.  How many times had he told the older man to call him by name?  Mister Oh’nahry insisted on the honorific.

            Belihn clasped the other’s hand.  “Next time you must come to Castle Draemin.”

            “It will be a pleasure,” Mister Oh’nahry assured him.

            Mister Oh’nahry led Otar out of the study and Belihn turned to Kahl.  “Can I talk to you for a moment?”

            Kahl seemed surprised, but he smoothed his features fairly quickly and nodded.  “Talk then, your Highness.”

            Belihn sighed.  “It’s Belihn, Kahl.”

            Kahl bowed.  “Belihn, I’m sorry.  I keep forgetting not to use the honorific.”

            “It’s fine,” Belihn assured him.  “I…I am interested in courting you, Kahl, but there is also another young man whom I am interested in.”

            Kahl looked startled for a moment.  “You’re interested in courting me?”    

            “Yes.”

            “Even though you are marrying my sister?”

            “Does it matter?  She sees no issue with the arrangement we have.”

            Kahl cleared his throat.  “And this other person you are interested in?”

            “He’s a new friend.  Would you like to meet him?”

            “That seems prudent,” Kahl replied.  “You were brought up with different mores.  I don’t mind if you court me and another, as long as I can meet him and see what he’s like.  Do you think he’ll want to meet me?”

            “I don’t see why not,” Belihn murmured.  “So…you are amenable to this arrangement?”

            Kahl thought for a moment before he nodded.  “Yes.  I would let my sister in on it, though.  I don’t want her hurt by my actions.”

            “I have talked to her about it,” Belihn said.  “She did not think you’d have a problem with the arrangement.”

            Kahl smiled.  “She knows me well, that one.”  He swallowed.  “What is this man’s name?”

            “Irai’h Asjur.”

            Kahl raised an eyebrow.  “A member of the clans?  And he has agreed?”

            “He’s thinking on it.  He’ll tell me tomorrow if he agrees to the arrangement.”

            “I see,” Kahl replied.  “If I recall, he’s a minor lord who inherited nothing from his sire.”

            “That is correct,” Belihn told him.

            “Huh.  What is he like?”

            “I don’t know him very well as yet,” Belihn answered honestly.  “But he seems sympathetic to the plight of the commoner.  At least he tolerates my rants.”

            “That is something,” Kahl agreed and smiled.  “You best be careful when airing those rants, your Highness.  Your bloodline will not save you if you are accused of sedition or treason.”

            Belihn nodded.  “I know.  I am learning to keep my mouth shut, but I am frustrated no end.”

            “It is frustrating, I’ll grant you,” Kahl replied.  “Many in university hate and vilify the caste mores and laws.  Your father is tolerant of those who oppose caste laws, but I wonder once he steps down from the throne if his successor will be the same.”

            Belihn sobered.  “I doubt it.  My half-siblings have been educated by their mothers, after all.”

            “And the Queens are all of royal blood,” Kahl said.  “Except your mother.”

            “Except my mother,” Belihn agreed.

            Kahl drew in a breath and released it.  He looked into Belihn’s eyes.  “And your father has not announced his heir?”

            “It’s a closely guarded secret,” Belihn said.  “But I know it isn’t me or any of my full siblings.”

            Kahl thrust his arm through Belihn’s.  “More’s the pity; you would make a good king.”

            Belihn smiled at him.  “This is your educated guess?”

            “You are the favorite among the university set, although we all know if you were proclaimed heir, it would mean civil war.”

            Belihn sighed.  “It would not be a bad thing, I think, for another civil war to sweep everything clean once more.”

            Kahl led him to the study door.  “I wonder what it would be like, true equality between the castes?”

            Belihn had no answer for him. l