Part Four: The Battle for Draemin City – Chapter I: The Vision

            Nausea roiled through Belihn.  For days, cold had assailed him, but he was not allowed to have anything warmer than a thin blanket.  His cell–the room was too small to be anything but–had a balcony door that looked out onto Draemin Cathedral’s lush gardens, although this late in the year, the gardens were covered by a thick blanket of pristine snow.  

            How long had Belihn been sequestered in this tiny cell?  The days seemed to blend into each other until he lost count.  He was allowed to drink water but no food had touched his lips in a long time.  Prei-Serren Lahn Tjashensi-Obeli spent most of the day in prayer with him.  Then they would go to a steam room and Belihn would sit in the small room with the Prei-Serren and sweat the impurities from his system.  The steam room was often followed by terrible purges, during which Belihn had to drink horrible tasting teas, followed by bouts of vomiting or diarrhea.  The Prei-Serren assured him the Goddess would send him a vision before the end of the purification period, but as the days and hours passed, Belihn began to have his doubts.

            When he prayed, he was earnest.  He did as the Prei-Serren had instructed him and did not ask for anything, merely whispered the poetry of adoration from the Holy Book.  Belihn had always believed in the Goddess, although he had been lax about attending weekly services.  He had always paid his tithe to the Church.  He wondered now if his lax attitude towards his faith meant the Goddess had abandoned him.

            The cell held a cot with a thin pillow and blanket (which he now wore around his shoulders), a desk and chair and a waste bucket.  The smooth wooden floors were bare, as were the pale walls.  The only book he was allowed was the Holy Soulkah.  He had also been given a notebook and a pen and inkwell to record his visions.  The notebook remained stubbornly blank.

            He licked his chapped lips and stared at the notebook as if it would reveal secrets to him.  Despair threatened to overwhelm him.  How many days were left before he was allowed to lead the troops west to the Khaine River Valley?

            A knock at the cell door made him turn, expecting the High Priest. Two serrens entered instead and bowed to him.

            The older one on the right gave him an encouraging smile.  “We must induce a trance, your Majesty.  For that purpose, we have prepared a tea infused with special herbs.  You must drink the tea and nothing else.”

            Belihn nodded, disliking the smell wafting up from the teapot.  He watched silently as the serrens set the tray with the teapot and the mug on the desk.

            The younger serren turned to him.  “This has been steeping for the correct amount of time now, your Majesty.”  He took the full mug from the older priest and handed it to Belihn.  “Please drink the tea.”

            Belihn sipped the tea and his mouth suffused with saliva at the intensely bitter taste.  He swallowed with difficulty as his stomach threatened to upheave its contents.

            He sat down on the chair and took deep breaths of the cold air as sweat broke out on his skin.

            “It’s an unpleasant taste,” the older priest said, sympathy limning his words.  “But you must imbibe it to encourage visions.”

            Belihn bit back an angry retort.  He was getting tired of being told what to do, of being watched as if he was not trustworthy.  He glared at both priests as they hovered nearby and watched him sip the horrible tea until the mug was empty.  At least the tea was hot and warmed his insides nicely.  When he was done with that mug, the older priest at once refilled the mug and handed it back.  Belihn grimaced and meekly drank that, too.

            “We’ll be back, your Majesty,” the younger priest promised.  “The Prei-Serren is on his way to pray with you.”

            When they had gone, Belihn rose and returned to the balcony door where he spent most of his days gazing out of the glass pane and into the gardens.  His stomach gurgled and he swallowed convulsively as nausea filled him.  His desire for food had long ago fled, leaving behind a sense of freedom that was close to euphoria.  He now understood the looks of ecstasy on serrens’ faces when they fasted and prayed.  He knew the Prei-Serren fasted at least twice a month for a week at a time.  His fervor for fasting was something that Belihn now understood.  The sense of emptiness was freeing somehow.

            The door opened and Lahn walked in, dressed in a simple tunic and trouser ensemble.  His feet were encased in ankle boots.  His hair was plaited into one braid down his back.  He seemed much younger than his forty odd years, his hair untouched by gray, his skin untouched by lines. He was willowy and graceful with a serene look in his gray eyes.

             “Belihn,” he said and smiled.  “We will pray until the visions come.”

            Two new serrens walked in after him and set incense holders on the desk.  Soon, the sweet musk of the incense filled the small space.

            The priests unrolled a large, thick rug on the floor.

            “We will sit on the rug,” Lahn told Belihn.  “And we will pray.”

            They sat facing each other, knees touching as they sat crosslegged.  

            The Prei-Serren waited until the priests departed, closing the door behind them.  Then he looked intently at Belihn.  

            “You have been fasting for a fortnight now.  I don’t know why She has not touched you, but we will give Her a push now.”  He took Belihn’s hands in his warm ones.  “Your eyes are dilating nicely and soon you will be open to Her presence.”

            “What if She doesn’t come?” Belihn asked.

            Lahn frowned.  “She is always here. Her grace will touch you, Belihn.  Fear not.”

            Belihn closed his eyes as a wave of dizziness washed over him.  He struggled to remain sitting up when the overwhelming desire to lay down overcame him.  

            Lahn tightened his hold on Belihn’s hands.  “You have had the courage to face down Kah’len Tjashensi, which is not a feat to be scoffed at.  You have sent away most of your family and now are the King of North Torahn.  Already, things are in motion that you do not know about.  In the holy plane, all things are possible.  She guides actions in your favor, Belihn.  You must have faith.  If you question Her, She may turn from you.  Let us pray.”

            Belihn allowed the High Priest to buoy him as he began to echo his prayers.  

            “Oh, Divine One.  Great and Holy Mother and Warrior.  Your sword and shield keep us safe from our enemies.  Your holy strength wipes from the world those who question Your grace.  Hold me up, Atana, when I falter.

             “Sorrow for the doubters.  Joy in Your victory.  The dance of days and years that uphold Your holy might!  Oh, most beautiful Mistress.  Keeper of time, Mother of all things, Hand which grasps pretenders and shakes them senseless.

             “We praise You.  We avow You.  We love You, Mother of all things, without whose grace we would not exist.  Atana, most holy presence, most pure and good spirit!  Touch us and cleanse us!

            They repeated the prayer so many times, the words began to lose sense in Belihn’s mind.  He was aware of the soft rug beneath him, the cold air around him, and the warmth of the High Priest’s hands.  Soon, though, he got the sense of floating up from the floor and into the air.  He kept his eyes closed and had a moment of panic.

            “Be at peace, Belihn,” Lahn murmured. “It begins.”

            Within the darkness of Belihn’s closed eyes, gold flashes erupted.  A cold-hot sensation washed over him, left him feeling wrung out and weak.  He began to shiver and shake uncontrollably.  He was terrified of opening his eyes, even as tears leaked from their edges and down his numb cheeks.  

            “Do not be afraid,” the High-Priest intoned.  “Child of the Goddess, chosen one.”

            A warm hand caressed his face.  “Open your eyes.”

            Belihn opened his eyes.  Lahn knelt next to him and held him close as Belihn shook.

            “You will go into a trance,” Lahn warned him.  “You must not fight it, for it can get unpleasant if you do.  Allow the visions to come and do not block them, even if you don’t want to see what She gives you.  These are things She needs you to know, for whatever Her purpose may be.”

            Belihn was shaking so hard, he felt like a dosi calf in the maw of a tash-tash.  His teeth rattled and he bit his tongue.  Slowly, Lahn lowered him to the rug.

            “Do not fight it, Belihn,” Lahn said softly.  “Be calm.”

            Belihn’s eyes rolled to the back of his head and he was gripped in the fist of a fit.  He felt spittle leak from the corner of his mouth as his entire body shook like a leaf in a gale.  He heard Lahn speaking, but he could not make out the words as a roar of wind filled his mind and ears.  Points of light appeared within the darkness that filled his sight.  One such point began to grow.  As it grew, the light began to coalesce into a form.  From within the light, an exquisite woman stepped through.  She wore gold armor studded with jewels.  Her arms, legs and torso were bare.  Her small, pert breasts were that of a young girl’s.  Her graceful left arm held a gold shield and her right hand held a golden broadsword.  Her muscular legs strode across the space with purpose.  Her black hair fell loose to midback.  She wore a blood red cloak fastened at the collarbone.  Her fierce gray eyes were filled with a fire that blinded him.  

            “Belihn Stait.”

            I am here.

            Son of the Tash-tash.  Your sire forgot his purpose and his promise and has fallen from grace as a consequence. Do you understand?

            I do, Queen of Heaven.

            You must see what you must do.  If you forget your promise, I will visit pain upon your scions unto the future.  Do you hear me, Pup?

            I hear you, my Queen.

            If you forsake me, I will wipe your line from the face of the world, never to return.  In the afterlife, they will suffer for your wrongs.  Do you ken?

            Aye, Wise Mother.

            She swept her sword arm and he saw before him a great battle roiling with many different forces.  He saw his standard as it flapped in the wind.  The battlefield was vast and the cries of the dead and dying filled the air.  In his mind’s eye, he saw his father as he sat astride a bahil next to the Queen of Tjish.un.  Darkness roiled at their backs.  Strange creatures spilled from the darkness and created havoc among Belihn’s men.

            Do not falter.  Lead by example.  Fear cannot take hold of your men.  You must be brave, son of the Tash-tash.  Your sire has turned from the way, from me.  Watch.

            A great, strange, fearful beast rose from the north and strode over the bodies of the dead and dying.  Its strange skin was filled with weeping fistulae.  From its horrible fanged maw rose a vapor that felled the strongest of men.  As it swept past the forces, whole segments of the armies fell.

            Belihn gasped,  What is that?

            Fear not, son of the Tash-tash.  Nothing will touch you.  You are safe as long as you pray to me.  Look.

            As Belihn watched, his standard grew until it filled the sky.  As he watched, the beast strode past his father and his father screamed and fell to the ground, the Queen of Tjish.un following suit.  Screams of terror filled the battlefield.  In the next moment, a stillness had fallen upon the tents that filled the grassland.  No one moved about.  The stench of death filled the air.

            Is the battle over?

            The battle is over, son of the Tash-tash.  Keep your eyes on me.  Believe.

            Will I win?

            Believe.

            Belihn blinked his eyes and reached a shaking hand to his face.  He wiped at the tears and spittle on his chin.

            Lahn raised his head and fed him clear, cool water to wash away the taste of blood and bitterness from his mouth.

            He blinked up at Lahn.  “I don’t understand.”                

            “You will, in time,” the Prei-Serren told him.  “Listen to her.  If she gave you a directive, you must follow it at all costs.”

            “But will I win?”

            “Have faith, Belihn,” Lahn told him.  

            Belihn swallowed and looked away, afraid and frustrated and weak as a newborn.

            He was assisted to his feet by Lahn and another serren, who led him to his cot and allowed him to lie down.  

            Lahn covered him with the blanket and a large swath of fur.  “Sleep now, Belihn.  Trust in Atana and all will be well.”

            Belihn sighed, filled with a sorrow he could not understand.  He closed his eyes because he could not stare at the High Priest and his damned serenity any longer.

Chapter IX: The Directive

            Kahl Oh’nahry showed his papers to one of the guards at the gates of Castle Draemin.  

            The guard ran his eyes over Kahl with mild interest.  He handed the document back.  “Go on in, Mister Oh’nahry.”

            Kahl bowed.  “Good day to you, sir.”

            He led his lirtah into the bailey, around the carriages and wagons parked there and then north to the stables.  As he approached the large building, a boy around twelve summers old ran out of the main building.

            “I’ll take your mount, sir!” he pronounced and pulled the reins from Kahl’s hand.

            Kahl reached into his coin purse and removed three tin’sol’hs and handed them to the child.  “These are for you.”

            The boy beamed.  “Thank you, Sir!  I’ll take care of your animal.”

            Kahl ruffled the boy’s hair.  “I know you will.  I’ll be back for the beastie before noon.”

            “Yes, sir!” the boy replied and hurriedly led the lirtah into the main stables.

            Kahl turned and headed back through the snowy grounds to the castle proper.  The Great Hall was filled with visitors with business at Court.  There were barristers, petitioners, courtiers, and guards milling around or standing in line waiting for an audience with his Majesty.  Servants stood unobtrusively along the stone walls in case they were needed.  Couriers stood in clumps, ready to take messages into the city.

            Kahl left the throng behind and headed towards the northeastern tower.  He had come to see his sister, although he had an appointment with the King for later in the afternoon.  Belihn had set the appointment and Kahl was curious as to what it was about.  When he reached the tower, he took the stairs two at a time to reach the top floor, where his sister was housed, her only companion Ethis Othar.  Kahl grimaced, recalling last time he had met with his sister, how Ethis had practically thrown herself at Otar.  Alona had told him in a letter that Otar was now actively courting Ethis.  Kahl did not blame his brother.  The girl was forward, but she was comely and intelligent.

            When he reached his sister’s suites, he showed his papers again to the Yllysian guards on duty.  The guard on the left read his papers and bowed, handing them over once he was done with them.

            Kahl knocked on the arched door and had to wait but a few seconds before a servant opened the door and bowed, allowing him entrance.

            Alona and Ethis were sitting side by side on a loveseat, Alona sketching and Ethis knitting.

            Alona gasped when she saw him.  “Kahl!”

            He grinned at his youngest sibling as she ran to his side and gathered her in a warm embrace.  “How are you, picu?”

            She pulled back and made a face.  “I’m no child!”

            “Indeed not,” he told her.

            It was then that Kahl noticed two more young women, who rose from another loveseat and bowed.

            Kahl recognized Tifa Sobres and Ilmi Stait, the King’s sisters.

            Kahl bowed.  “My ladies, I am honored.”

            Tifa, who was the eldest, dimpled and curtsied.  “It is an honor to finally meet Alona’s brother.  Kahl, am I correct?”

            He bowed again.  “Yes, my lady.  Otar is the oldest, but duty keeps him away.”

            Ethis hurried to Kahl’s side.  “He’s on the city walls on duty?”

            He nodded.  “He is on duty until evening, but he will join us then, a bit after sundown.”

            The girl brightened, her splash of freckles standing out against her hazel eyes.  “Oh, that is good!”

            Kahl took his sister’s hand.  “Excuse us, ladies.  I need to talk to her Majesty for a few minutes.”

            He pulled her away from the others and looked deeply into her eyes, dropping his voice.  “How are you, Alona?”

            She bit her lip.  “I might be pregnant.”

            His eyebrows shot up.  “Truly?  But that is wonderful news!”

            She sighed.  “I’m terrified.”

            “Of a baby?” he teased.

            She frowned.  “Birthing a child is no joke, Kahl!  All manner of things can go wrong.”

            He placed his hands on her hips.  “Not with these hips, young lady!”

            She blushed but gamely chuckled.  “You’re incorrigible!”

            “The royal healer is empathic,” he told her, all jests aside.  “Nothing will go wrong.  Mother will be with you.”

            She nibbled on her lower lip some more.  “I…I’m just not ready to be a mother!”

            “I don’t think anyone is ever ready, picu.  Besides, you will have a wet nurse, so the child won’t take time from your art.”

            “Two wet nurses,” she told him absently.  “One for the day and one to take care of the child at night.  When I told mama, she was upset.  She thinks I should care for the child, but Kahl… what about my art?”

            “I don’t think they are mutually exclusive,” he told her gently.  “You can take four hours during your day for your art and the rest for your child.  I don’t think it should be all or nothing, Alona.”

            Ethis, who had been standing nearby, walked to Alona and placed her arm around Alona’s waist.  “You might fall in love with the baby, your Majesty.”

            Kahl frowned at the girl’s intrusive nature, but he said nothing as Alona gave a distracted nod.

            “It’s best to wait until the baby arrives before you make plans or jump to conclusions,” Kahl told his sister, taking her pale hand in his and pressing a kiss to her wrist.  “Have faith, little sister.”

            She sighed.  “You’re right, of course, Kahl.  As are you, Ethis.”

            Smiling at the Othar girl, Alona grasped Kahl’s hand.  “Come sit with me, brother.  How are our parents?”

            They sat down side by side, while the other young women settled in armchairs or loveseats around them.

            “Aya and Eda are well,” he told her.  “Father is full of himself these days.  Your marriage to the King has increased business and, of course, he takes all the credit for himself.”  He sighed.  “It’s really difficult living under his roof. I’ve asked him to purchase me a room in the city, in some rooming house.  But he says that’s a waste of money, so I’m supposed to live under his roof until I have my own job!”

            Alona rolled her eyes.  “He’s so tight with his money, isn’t he?”

            Kahl snorted.  “That’s a mild way of putting it.”

            Tifa shifted.  “Were you terribly poor as you were growing up?”

            Alona and Kahl shared a look.  

            “We grew up wealthy,” Alona told her.  “As did father.  We’ve spent a good part of our youth trying to figure out why the old man is as stingy as he is.  He has a lot of assets.  It would not be a hardship to purchase Kahl a room in a boarding house in the city.”

            “I see,” Tifa replied and crossed her legs.  “Well, is it so terrible to live with your parents, Kahl?”

            He shrugged.  “I want more independence. I’ve been thinking of getting job in the city.”

            Alona gasped.  “You will not let your studies fall by the wayside, Kahl!”

            He smiled at her.  “I won’t, sister.  An instructor at university offered me a teaching position there.  It pays well enough that I would live comfortably.  I could purchase a room in a house and have enough for food and the occasional outing.”

            Alona shook her head.  “Come and live with me here. I’ve six rooms.  Ethis has a room and I have a room.  There are four others.”

            “You will need to house the two wetnurses and a nursery,” he reminded her gently.

            “That leaves one room, Kahl,” Ethis put in.

            “I want to be independent,” he told both young women.  “I want to make my own way.  My book brings in a small stipend that I put away in savings.  The job would pay for my living expenses.  I already have a room in mind.”

            Alona looked disappointed.  “I understand.  We are so alike!”

            Ilmi leaned forward.  “Aya told me you worked for your father’s firm, with friends.”

            Kahl grimaced.  “My father’s firm pays a pittance.  My friends have moved on to other jobs, and I left after an argument with father.”

            Alona frowned.  “What did you argue about?”        

            “I don’t want to learn the business anymore,” he told her.  “I want to write and teach.”

            Alona crossed her arms.  “He won’t teach me the business, because I’m a girl, although I told him I am interested in learning how to run it.”

            He pursed his lips.  “You can’t do it anyway, being a queen.”

            He sat back and crossed his legs.  “Otar has told me he will take over the business, when he retires from the army.”        

            “Then what is Eda’s problem?” Alona asked.

            Kahl shook his head. “He wants to apprentice Otar, to take a few years to teach him.  Otar wants to be a soldier until he is older.”

            “Father will be fine,” Alona told him.  “Otar will take over when the time comes.”  She leaned forward and placed her hand on his.  “I was sure you would succeed Eda, Kahl.”

            He frowned.  “That was always his dream and I wanted to please him.  Running the business is interesting, but it isn’t where my heart lives.”

            There was a knock on the hallway door and a servant hurried to open it.

            The Queen Mother swept in.  

            Everyone stood.  The young women curtsied to the floor and Kahl bowed deeply.

            “Ah, Kahl.  I must speak with you,” Divita announced.  “Rise, all of you.”      

            She walked up to Kahl and thrust her arm through his.  “Come with me, young man.  We’ll talk in private.”

            She led him into the hallway and away from Alona’s suites.  

            He said nothing as she led him to the tower stairs and had him sit in the bench carved into the wall.  A long red pillow was set on the bench for comfort.

            He watched her pace for a few minutes.

            “You’ve written a book, haven’t you?” she asked.

            “Yes, your Majesty.  A book of poetry.”

            She nodded.  “Very good.  I would like to hire you to write an account of the upcoming battle.  My son does not want this, but I think it’s of import for his reign and for history.”

            He gaped at her.  “But, your Majesty…I’ve a job lined up with university.  My professor and mentor went through a lot of trouble–“

            Her hazel eyes slid to his face.  Something about her demeanor made him pause.

            “I’m not asking, Mister Oh’nahry.”

            He swallowed thickly.  “Yes, your Majesty.”

            She broke into a grin.  “Very good then!  If you want, I’ll speak with your professor.”

            “That isn’t necessary, your Majesty.”

            She shook her head.  “I am unsure of why he wants to see you, Kahl.”

            He rose.  “I have a meeting with your son in a few minutes.”

            She patted his hand.  “Fine.  Then I will take you to Belihn.  Come.”

            She led him down to the main floor and through a heavily guarded door into a circular room with a round table and maps on the walls.  

            “Court should be adjourning soon,” Divita told him.

            He bowed to her.  “Thank you, your Majesty.”

            As they waited for the king and his advisors, Kahl walked along the walls, studying the exquisite maps with gold lettering.  There was a map of Yllysia, a map of Tjish.un, and a map of Torahn, North and South.  

            The ink-stained table in the center of the room was cluttered with scrolls, tomes, inkwells, and pens.  Wooden armchairs circled the table.  Divita pulled out one chair and sat down.

            A few minutes later, the King swept in, his advisors at his heels.

            Divita rose and curtsied.

            Kahl bowed to King Belihn.

            Belihn smiled.  “Hallo, Kahl.  Give me a few minutes.  Please wait outside. I’ll send for you shortly.”

            Kahl bowed again.  “Of course, your Majesty.”

            Kahl paced outside in the hallway, absently watching the visitors to Court make their way through the Great Hall and into the bailey, where snow had begun to gently fall once more.  The air seeping through the castle entrance was icy and the rough stone floor of the Great Hall was filling with puddles formed by snowflakes that swept into the vast entrance, carried by the wind, and melted in the warmer temperature inside the castle.  The din was deafening as people bustled to catch conveyances back into the city.

            Nearly three quarters of an hour later, the door to the War Room opened, and the King’s advisors hurried out, deep in conversation, paying Kahl no heed.

            Finally, Divita stepped out into the hall.  “Belihn will see you now, Kahl.”

            Kahl bowed to her.  “Thank you, Majesty.”

            He stepped into the room and closed the door behind him.  

            Belihn stood on the other side of the table, legs apart, hands clasped behind his back.

            “Sit, Kahl, please,” Belihn said and took his seat.

            Kahl sat across the table from the King.

            “Knowing my mother,” the King said and sighed.  “What did she want with you?”

            Kahl cocked his head.  “She wants to hire me to write an account of the battle, your Majesty.  I am going with you to battle, if seems, if only as a correspondent.”

            The King scowled.  “Whyever…I told her—” He ran his hand over his face and sighed.  He gazed earnestly at Kahl.  “It will be dangerous, Kahl.  You can always interview participants when we return.”

            “I will ride with the army, your Majesty, and write a daily journal about the life of soldiers,” Kahl said.  “That will be a truer account than just interviewing people weeks or months after the fact.”

            Belihn sighed.  “I hope you are right about this, Kahl.”

            “You can order me to remain, your Majesty, but that would probably cause a rift between the Queen Mother and yourself.”

            Belihn shook his head.  “No.  I won’t. Just promise that if things don’t go as they should, you’ll flee the scene.”

            Kahl frowned.  “I don’t understand.”

            “And you won’t!” Belihn snapped.  He sighed. “I’m sorry.  That was uncalled for.  I’m not at liberty to reveal anything about the upcoming battle, Kahl.  Suffice it to say, things hang in the balance and nothing is certain.”

            Kahl said nothing as the King rose.          

            “I will pay your way to the Khaine River Valley,” the King murmured, looking weary and disheartened.  “Promise you’ll give a fair account of events.  I don’t want you embellishing the battle for my benefit.  Be honest, brutally so.”

            “Yes, your Majesty.”

            Belihn walked around the table to where Kahl stood.  “I would like to have a copy of your poetry book to read while we travel to the battle site.”

            “I’ll get one for you, your Majesty.”

            Belihn gave a faint smile.  “Thank you, Kahl.”

            “Of course, your Majesty,” Kahl replied, wondering what he was not being told.

Chapter X: The Isemi Response

            The feast for the Isemi was set out at noon.  The heavy drinking of the previous evening had not affected the wild folk of the Khaine River basin, for they were as boisterous and ravenous as they had been the previous night.  Belihn sat next to Neron Sanor and sparingly ate as he ran his eyes over the feasting warriors.  The Isemi seemed to be specially fascinated with egg dishes, as eggs were not a staple of theirs.  Their Pauk-an raised an eyebrow as a servant set a dish before him piled with fluffy eggs fried with aromatics and spices.  Aside from the eggs, the cooks had prepared enasha pancakes fried to a golden turn, fresh bread and a compote of mixed fruit.  Belihn had ordered the cooks to concoct a tea with spices, tah’lir’s milk, honey and ekila.

            When Neron tasted the tea, his eyebrows shot up.  “Sarka!”  He smacked his lips.  “You know of our culture, King of Draemin City-State, for this how we drink our tea!”

            Belihn smiled at the young Pauk-an’s enthusiasm.  “I told you I read up on everything having to do with the Isemi.”

            Neron nodded and sipped more of the tea.

            When the feast was concluded, Belihn turned to Neron.  “I would have your response now, holy one.”

            The warrior on Belihn’s right, a tall, wide person bulky with muscles, rose and gestured to the warriors.  “Ishaltu!  Ke!”

            The warriors rose and bowed, filing out of the dining hall and into the hallway, closing the double doors behind them.

            The young warrior turned to Belihn.  “I am Penoi Masino, King of Draemin City-State.  I am Tauk-na of my people.”

            Belihn gaped and rose.  “You are the Isemi king?”

            Penoi Masino smirked.  “We took care, your Majesty, of my safety.  But also I wanted to observe you unhampered by your awareness.”  He extended his muscular arm to Belihn.  “Well met.”

            Belihn hesitated but a second before grasping the young man’s forearm.  “Well met, King of the Isemi of Khaine Valley.”

            Penoi and Neron both sat, Belihn following suit.

            The Tauk-na sipped his tea.  “I approve of your terms, your Majesty.  We will assist you against your enemies, for the parcel of land and the spoils of battle.”

            Belihn broke out into a grin.  “I am pleased, Tauk-na!  I was unsure you would treat with me, as your sire treated with mine.”

            Penoi Masino waived a dismissive hand.  “That is neither here nor there.  You are king of the city-state now, so we treat with you, even if my sire disapproves.”  He motioned to Neron Sanor.

            The Pauk-an withdrew a scroll from his satchel and unrolled it on the table.  “We would have your mark in blood, King.  If you betray us, we will be enemies for all time.”

            The scroll was filled with symbols strange to Belihn.  The holy man explained the Isemi had written in their language the terms Belihn had laid down.  First turning to his king, the Pauk-an withdrew a dagger from his satchel and cut along the palm of Penoi’s right hand.  Penoi then allowed several drops of his blood to fall onto the scroll.  The Pauk-an then turned to Belihn and cut the palm of his right hand.

            “Let the drops of your life spatter on the agreement, your Majesty,” Neron murmured.

            Belihn allowed for several drops of his blood to mingle with Penoi’s.  

            Penoi held his injured hand out.  “We now become siblings in blood.”

            Belihn grasped his hand to mingle their blood.

            “Ke!” Penoi announced.  “It is done!”

            They rose and Penoi embraced Belihn.  “We are siblings now.  Therefore, you shall send your middle child to my clan on his thirteenth year and I shall send my middle child to you on his thirteenth year.”

            Belihn was taken aback.  “Is this your demand?”

            Penoi grunted.  “It is the Isemi way.  He will return to you upon his twenty-first year.”

            “For good measure and trust between our people, your Majesty,” Neron put in smoothly.

            “Your son will be a companion to my other children,” Penoi explained.  “And mine will be your children’s companion as well, so that we can foster trust and friendship between our peoples.”

            Belihn bowed.  “I will do as you ask.”

            Penoi broke out into a wide grin.  “Good.  Then we have an understanding, King of the greatest of Torahni city-states.  We will provide you with 1,500 warriors for your battle.”

            Belihn bit the inside of his cheek.  So few?

            Penoi shook his head.  “You underestimate our numbers, your Majesty.  We cannot leave our lands unprotected against the Southern Isemi.  We are at war with the Southern Isemi and have always been so.”

            Belihn sighed.  “I understand.  I appreciate your 1,500 warriors, Tauk-na.”

            They filed out of the feasting hall and into the Great Hall.  Belihn guided his two guests out into the bailey, where the rest of the Isemi were gathered around their lirtah.  Two of the warriors broke away from the others and led two gaudy animals to the holy man and the king.  Belihn watched as first Penoi Masino and then Neron Sanor mounted their lirtah, followed by the rest of the Isemi.

            Penoi raised a hand.  “Farewell the king!”

            Belihn raised a hand, wondering which of his Queens’ children he would send west to the Khaine River Valley in thirteen years’ time.

            Once the Isemi cantered out of the bailey and onto the boulevard, followed by a contingency of Yllysian soldiers, Belihn reentered the castle, striding to the War Room.  He barked orders for his advisers to be brought to the room.  He rubbed his forehead peevishly.  Could he trust the Isemi?  Was the blood ceremony holy to the wild people of the west?  Did he have enough troops to best the clans?  If his intel was correct, it would be a face off between Draemin City-State, Yllysia and the Isemi against the might of the rest of the city-states and Tjish.un.  Quite possibly South Torahn, too.  He wished he had more faith in those who backed him, but his intel had still to produce the opposition’s numbers.  The Isemi were fierce but not as numerous as, say, overcrowded Tjish.un.  Seven city-states opposed Belihn’s forces.  Even though there were ten Yllysian cities, the Yllysian forces were less numerous than Tjish.un’s.  Belihn had read about prior encounters between Torahn and Yllysia over the neutral territory of Isajhi.  Historically, Yllysian forces had been brutal, efficient and thorough, leaving no prisoners. If Belihn were honest with himself, the idea of being the reason for the death of thousands did not sit well with him.  He certainly now understood his father’s hesitation tp gp tp war with the clans better.

            With a sigh, he threw himself onto a chair and waited the arrival of his advisers.  He wiped his cut hand impatiently with a handkerchief.  The cut throbbed.

            After about a quarter of an hour, his advisers began to arrive.  Commander-General Kurk Deshon arrived first, followed quickly by Ambassador Tah’duk’h, Nosjka’h Olivaro Tione, Commander of the Yllysian navy, Captain Kalthos Gulehn Askar, Captain of the Yllysian land forces, Mister Ryeo’h Thalnel, Irai’h Asjur, Aosji Brenth’on’h, and I’a’sji A’kir’h.  The last one to arrive was Tesjun Othar with his satchel filled with paper, pens and inkwell so he could take meeting notes.  

            Belihn ran his eyes wearily over his friends.  “Please sit, gentlemen.”

            Once they were all seated, Belihn leaned forward and placed his forearms on the table.  “The Isemi have agreed to join our forces.  They will give us 1,500 warriors.”

            His advisers gaped.

            “So few?” Ambassador Tah’duk’h demanded.  “The Isemi of Northern Torahn number in the 50,000.”

            Belihn nodded.  “You are correct, but they are at war with their southern neighbors.  They cannot leave their lands unprotected.”

            The Ambassador sat back in his chair with a sigh.  “I see.  We are providing you with 25,000 troops and the Isemi will provide 1,500.  That totals 26,500.  How many troops does Draemin City-State have?”

            “We have been getting daily recruits from the opposition, commoners who do not want to fight for the clans,” Kurk murmured.  “So far we have 11,000 troops in total.”

            Tione shifted.  “37,500 against the might of Tjish.un and South Torahn and the majority of North Torahn.”

            Belihn swallowed thickly.  “We are woefully undermanned.”

            Kurk leaned forward.  “We don’t know that, your Majesty.  We haven’t gotten a report yet of the opposition’s numbers.”

            “When my father was king,” Belihn told him.  “He could call on 100,000 Tjish.unen troops.  The clans can raise, I would imagine, some 40,000.  I expect their numbers to be 140,000 against our 37,500.”

            Mister Thalnel shook his head.  “They outnumber us more than three to one then.  I don’t like those odds.”

            Irai’h Asjur crossed his legs.  “Draemin has prevailed in the past against worse odds.  I studied the history of Torahn’s conflicts with her neighbors.  I think we can prevail if we are smart about our battle strategy.”

            Belihn looked around the table, tamping down his fear and uncertainty and presenting a brave face. “I agree.”

            Ambassador Tah’duk’h placed his hands on the table.  “We will prevail, your Majesty.  We have no choice.  If we withdraw now…”

            Belihn frowned.  “We won’t withdraw.  This is my life’s work, I am convinced.  I will consult the Prei-Serren about this, but he has told me more than once that the Goddess blesses us.”

            “With Her holy might, we shall prevail,” Ryeo’h pronounced fervently.

            Belihn wished he could be as sure.

***

            Later that evening, Belihn met with his wives in the sitting room of his suites.  For safety reasons, each Queen had her own suites and Belihn had his.  

            Emira’h looked resplendent in a satin dress with a low bodice.  The hem of her dress reached her ankles.  The light violet color of the dress brought out the blue of her skin.  She had piled her pale hair on her head and held it there with pins dotted with pearls.  Her slender neck and arms were bare, despite the time of year.  She wore pale violet slippers.  

            Alona wore a dark green woolen dress with a high collar and long sleeves, although she went barefoot, her slender feet pale and unadorned.  

            “Thank you both for coming to see me,” Belihn told them.  “Please sit.  I’ve to discuss a matter with you.”

            Both young women sat side by side on a loveseat and he took an armchair across from them.  He motioned for the servants and guards to leave the room.

            Once it was only the three of them, Belihn sat back in his seat and crossed his legs.  “Firstly, how are you?”

            Emira’h smiled.  “I may be with child.”

            Belihn started.  “Really?”

            She nodded.  “My blood will not come.”

            He cleared his throat, embarrassed by her frankness.  “I see.  Well, we will wait before we announce it, shall we?  In case.”

            She smoothed her skirts.  “Of course, your Majesty.”

            He turned to Alona.  “And you?”

            “I am well, your Majesty,” she replied.  “Alon is enrolled in University and has an art show coming up this dibasj.”

            Emira’h frowned.  “Who is Alon?”        

            Alona pursed her lips.  “He is a friend of ours.”  She turned her attention back to Belihn.  “Will you come to the show?”

            He smiled at her. “Of course, my girl.  I love Alon’s art.”

            She blushed and giggled.  “Thank you.  I will tell him so.”

            He sobered.  “This anasj I will leave Draemin City-State to fight the forces that oppose me.  This happens in less than eight weeks. I will leave my mother in charge of the city-state.  I won’t lie to you; it will be dangerous, as we are outnumbered three to one, but I have faith that we shall prevail.”        

            “Three to one!” Alona gasped.  

            Emira’h straightened her back.  “You have the Yllysian forces to assist you.  We will not fail.”

            “I have the Isemi also,” Belihn pointed out.  “They are fierce warriors.”

            “As are we,” Emira’h stated firmly.

            Belihn nodded.  “Yllysian forces are my backbone and my hammer, your Majesty.”

            She lifted her chin.  “Yes.”

            Alona rolled her eyes.  “I will pray for you, your Majesty.  But if the Prei-Serren is true to his word, Atana is your shield and your sword.”

            “Yes,” Belihn told her.  “Yes, I am aware.  I am meeting with the Prei-Serren tomorrow.  I have been ordered to undergo a fast and purification, so I won’t be able to visit your beds until after the battle is fought.”

            Emira’h frowned. “For two months?”

            Belihn dipped his head.  “Just so, girl.  Would you have me disrespect the Goddess?”

            She blushed.  “No!  It’s just…”

            “You two can become friends during that time,” Belihn told her.

            “We won’t see you for two months?” Alona demanded.

            “More than that.  I will be fasting and praying in the cathedral.  Once the purification ritual is done, I will lead our forces to the battle site.  It takes nearly a month to reach the Khaine River.  Besides, I am unsure how long the battle will take.  You must both help my mother rule, advise her as well as you can.”

            The young women shared a look filled with disappointment.  

            “Yes, your Majesty,” they chorused.

            He rose.  “Ambassador Tah’duk’h will see to your daily needs.”

            Once they rose as well, he pressed a kiss to each of their foreheads.  “Behave and help my mother, please.  Be good, both of you.”

            They curtsied and he turned on his heels and went in search of the Queen Mother.

Chapter IX: Erille's Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            The young man bowed.  “Your Majesty.”

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

            “What is your name?” Belihn asked.

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

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

            The young aristocrat nodded.  “We are cousins.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            The server bowed.  “Yes, your Majesty.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Erille frowned.  “How do you do it?”

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

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

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

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

            “In a cowardly way,” Belihn agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “And the pay?” Erille prompted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Erille bowed.  “Yes, your Majesty.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “I’m well, your Majesty.”

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

            Kurk rose.  “Right away, your Majesty.”

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

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

            They clasped forearms.

Chapter VIII: Feasting the Isemi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Belihn closed his eyes and murmured a prayer to Atana.

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

            “You honor us!” he pronounced.

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

            “This is mi’disj, your holiness.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Yes.”

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

            “Yes.”

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

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

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

            “Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

            “Yes,” Belihn agreed.

            Neron nodded.  “That is most generous.”

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

            “And the lirtah?” Neron asked.

            “And the lirtah,” Belihn agreed.

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

            “Yes, holy man.”

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

            The Isemi gasped and nodded to the music.

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

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

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

            “I have two wives,” Belihn replied.

            “Children?”

            “I am newly married.”

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

            Belihn smiled and nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            The holy man rose.

            Belihn signalled for the musicians to cease playing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “What do you think?” he asked.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter VII: Doubts

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

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

            His wife wrung her hands.  She pressed against him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Yes, your Majesty.”

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

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

            “I want to be there,” Belihn said.

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

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

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

            They bowed to one another.

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

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

            Kurk raised an eyebrow.  “Truth serum?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Belihn approached the table.  “Begin then.”

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

            The prisoner frowned.  “Sjul.”

            “What is your clan, Sjul?”        

            “Kia’guh.”

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

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

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

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

            “Who sent you?” the Ambassador asked.

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

            “But what of Yllysia?” the Ambassador prodded.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

            Kurk and Ambassador Torim watched him pace in silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Belihn and Kurk shared a glance before Belihn sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Kurk bowed and said nothing more.

***

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

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

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

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

            The Ambassador bowed.

            An Yllysian guard stepped forward.  He unsheathed his broadsword.

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

            The other three echoed his words.

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

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

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

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

            Belihn spun on his heel and strode from the cell.

Chapter VI: The Goddess’ Touch

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “I will, Sir.”

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

            “That’s fine, Sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            They looked beautiful, if awestruck and slightly fearful.  

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

            “Behold the future!” he cried.

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

            Belihn took the cup and took a mouthful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Alona was sobbing.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Belihn took a step towards him.  “How?”

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

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

            “Are you well?” he asked her.

            She jutted her chin out stubbornly.  “Yes.”

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

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

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

            Belihn frowned.  “And the culprits?”

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

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

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