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Chapter 10: The Regency

Saher let the dispatch roll itself back up on the desk and sighed deeply.

"I have been called to the capitol."

Suwetus put down his pen. "But what of Ė"

"Those will have to wait." Saher swept away the days of work piling on his desk with a resigned gesture, and sat back, tiredly, rubbing his eyes. "Arcadiusís chamberlain Eutropius summons me without treaty or tribute, as though I am his procurator in Illyricum, instead of a strong and independent ally. Does he think he can simply ignore my own wishes?" Saherís face grew dark with anger and frustration.

"Do you think Arcadius is a usurper then?" Suwetus asked, as always, to the point.

"I donít know. Theodosius was not young, and Romans, even those of the east, live too well to enjoy our longevity." He laughed, a short, bitter sound. "Food and drink are the most powerful assassins in the Empire." He raised his cup at his secretary and took a long drink of water from it. "They do not have our taste for good rock wine."

A sound came from the door, and the Khan glanced across to see Saheris standing at the door, blinking, his hands rubbing his eyes in a gesture similar to that Saher had just used. "Kalimera," he said brightly, showing off his Greek.

Saher smiled, his frustration melted from him. "Come here, Saheris. It is no time to be speaking Greek, the Byzantines are too much on my mind right now," and took the boy onto his knee.

"What are all these papers?" Saheris said, pressing a hand on one of the rolled sheets.

"They are letters, my son. This letter is from the Khan of Constantinople."

"He is not called Khan, he is called Tesar," Saheris corrected him.

Suwetus chimed in, "Actually, he uses Constantineís title, ĎImperator.í

"Is an Imperator greater than a Khan?" Saheris asked then.

"What do you mean by greater?" Saher countered.

"I mean, do you tell him what to do or does he tell you what to do?"

Saher smiled. "It depends on whether or not he needs my army to defend himself. The Imperator is very strong but his army is not great enough to defend against all of his enemies. In this letter he wants my army to defend his lands to the north against one of my old allies, and I will now have to choose. If I choose badly, then you may have to fight the Imperator himself, or his allies. What should I do, Khan?" he threw his hands open, and presented the problem to Saheris, who took the challenge readily.

"You should tell him you cannot break your oath to your ally, and he will have to defend himself against both of you!" he cried.

"Excellent reasoning," Suwetus commented. "You should try that argument with him, Khan."

Saher shook his head. "That would probably not work. He knows that my treaty with him is worth more, and he would know it is a ploy to avoid going to war."

Saheris pondered the situation. "Send an assassin to kill the king of the northern army, and take their lands by stealth instead of force."

"You think too much like your mother. Assassination is an ignoble manner of gaining power. Remember that. By this means, fifty emperors have fallen in Rome, and fifty more may yet fall in that cursed land."

Saheris tried once more: "Tell him you are too old and will be defeated on the field, that he must wait for your son to lead the Bithynian legions to defend Thrace!" he cried, raising a small wooden sword he carried at his waist high into the air and banging it on the table.

"Stop that!" Saher said, whisking the toy away from the dispatches. "You spend too much time talking with Arrus."

"Arrus is a great soldier!" Saheris cried. "He will teach me how to kill ten men with one blow!"

"Was a great soldier. And he never killed ten men with one blow. He is filling you with stories."

"Theyíre good stories, though," Suwetus observed.

"What did you learn today?" Saher asked him, "Besides all of the lies about Arrusí days in Rome."

"I learned that all ships must pass the Pillars of Hercules to sail to the coasts of Aquitaine, Brittania and Gallia.

"And what is the northernmost of these provinces?"

"Brittania."

"And which one sits on an island?"

Saheris laughed. "Brittania again. And it is full of Saxon hordes of Horsa."

"Yes, the Saxon hordes."

"And what other island provinces are there in the Western Empire?"

Saherisí face darkened then. "I donít know."

"Sicilia..." Saher prompted him.

"Cypria..."

"Father, I said I donít know."

"That is not an answer. When you do not know you go and find out. Now go to bed, it is too late for you to be up." Saheris, furious at being rebuked after answering the Khan so well, stood his ground and folded his arms across his chest. Saher faced him seriously.

"Father," Saheris said angrily.

"What?" Saher replied.

"I did not learn those things so how can I answer?"

"You must always be ready to answer a question for which you do not know the answer, Saheris. If you are to gain the respect of men and lead them, there is no answer of ĎI donít know.í You must always be prepared with an answer. Even if you are not asked to study it. Study should be your life, and knowledge should be closer to you than your sword or knife. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Khan," he answered him formally.

"So what are the island provinces of the Western empire?" Saher asked again.

Saheris opened his mouth, then shut it, then smiled. "There are no island provinces belonging to the Western empire."

"And why is that?" Saher asked him.

"Because they were all captured by the Bithynian legions of Saheris El Maduc."

"You lie," Saher replied, a smile creeping onto his face.

"But it is a good lie," Saheris replied.

"Go to bed."

_____________________________________________

 

The trip from Illyricum to Constantinople was fifteen days on horseback; Saher brought twenty men, and after much thought, told Saheris that he could come if he wished.

"Can Heli come as well?" Saheris asked.

"He is younger than you. I donít think it would be a good idea."

"Why? He is not that much younger, and can sit a horse as well as I can!" Saheris pouted.

"You donít think youíll have anyone to play with if I do not bring your brother, is that it?" Saher asked, patiently waiting on the child. How well he remembered the pain of watching Zoser and Daoder gallop across the hillside at the head of a line of soldiers while he clung to his nurseís hand, a sad tear escaping from his eye. The first night was always the worst, although his anxiety for their safety and loss of their companionship abated only slightly as the days and weeks passed, receding to a slight ache in his chest that intensified whenever a messenger returned with news of the battle. Even though Heli was too young to feel such anxieties as yet, the emotion of separation would still be very keen, and they were extremely close. He would have to either take none or take both.

"That is not the reason," Saheris insisted.

"And what is the reason?"

"He will be miserable without me. Besides, then it will be proof that you favor me over him and do not love him; that it is only I who love him."

"Who gave him this idea?" Saher demanded, filled with a sudden anger. "Did Arrus tell him this?"

"No, father. It is obvious."

Saher resisted the temptation to argue with the child, to defend how he doted on Saheris and allowed him to come and go as he pleased at his work, spending long hours explaining the intricacies of the political situation in Thrace and the increasing threat of Persia to the east, as though Saheris were his secretary or his regent... yes, he was spending a great deal of time with his eldest grandson, while Sahelis walked with his nurse and learned to ride his pony. Saher said "So is this what you think, Saheris?"

The boyís chin rose and his face was slightly red. "Yes, Father."

"Do you believe that Heli and you are equal in mind and skill?"

"If we were treated the same, we would be the same."

"Do you think that is true of everyone?"

Saheris hesitated. "I donít know. No. I donít think it is."

"Why is it true in the case of you and Sahelis?"

"Because it is."

"And if I showed equal favor to both, then do you believe both should share equally in all things, and do all things the same?"

Saheris hesitated for a longer period of time, and fought his way past the response "I donít know." Saher waited for his reply. "There would be some differences. Just as Heli will not drink goat milk because he dislikes it, and I will drink his each time, and I do not like swimming in the river. No, we are not exactly the same, but we should be treated the same."

"I cannot treat you both the same, though," Saher concluded promptly, sitting down in preparation for the long argument that was sure to come.

"Why?" Saheris was shocked.

"Because Sahelis has an advantage you do not have, and I have to make accommodation for that."

"An advantage?"

"Yes, he has an older brother to teach him." Saheris smirked then. "Do you think I show you and tell you all that I do just for your own sake?" The look on the boyís face showed clearly that he did.

"Well..."

"No. I donít. Sahelis is not old enough to understand some of what you do; and you can tell that even better than I. So if I teach you, then you can gain practice in your study by teaching Sahelis."

"Oh."

"You do talk to him about what we discuss, do you not?"

"Sometimes. Mostly we play."

"Then you are the one not showing him favor, not I! Do you think that the Khan has the time to do everything in his realm? This is how it was with me and my brothers; I did not sit at my fatherís feet each day, but the Khan gave all he knew to his heir, Zoser. It was Zoserís duty to pass this on to his brothers as they grew, so that we could learn not only the wisdom of the Khan but also of his sons. Do you have any wisdom to give to your brother?"

"I know how to kill a fox, "Saheris replied proudly. "I trapped him with a net baited with a rabbit, and broke his head with a rock."

"Who did you learn this from?"

"The blacksmith Eben. He tells me that foxes eat his rabbits and hens and they should be killed. So I did."

Saher shook his head. "Just because someone tells you a fox should be killed that is reason enough to do it?"

"Why not?"

"Why not is not an answer!" Saher raised his voice, and Saheris dropped his eyes. "Answer me!"

"Yes, if a fox is killing the blacksmithís hens and rabbits he should be killed."

"And who should kill him?"

Saheris stopped. "Anyone should kill him."

"Are you anyone?"

"Iím someone."

Saher raised his hand and pointed directly into Saherisí face. "You are NOT someone! You are NOT anyone. Who are you?"

"I am Saheris El Maduc, son of the Khan Saher," he recited in a quiet, now tremulous voice.

"And is the Khan Saher someone?"

"Ye - no. No he is not."

"And should the Khan Saher kill a fox because Eben the blacksmith wants him killed?"

"No."

"Does the Khan Saher serve the blacksmith Eben?"

"No," Saherisí face betrayed exquisite frustration as he answers became more brief and angry.

"Then how is it that the Khanís son Saheris El Maduc serves the blacksmith Eben and does his bidding?"

"That was not the way it seemed!" Saheris blurted.

"That is EXACTLY the way it seemed, because that is exactly the way it is!"

Saheris glowered at his grandfather, his face red with fury. His pride was offended, yet he had no argument with Saherís logic.

Saher sat back quietly as he observed the emotions of anger and humiliation battle with one another on his grandsonís face, and then gradually hardened into a mask of defiance.

"So, I have angered the great Khan, have I?" Saher commented, keeping his voice quiet and neutral. Saheris did not reply. "The great Khan who is too busy working as a trapper for the blacksmith to finish his lessons on time and teach them to the young Khan his brother." At this, the boyís head came up in fury as he fixed an enraged stare on Saher.

"Father Ė" he choked out, barely able to keep the flood of anger checked within him.

"Yes?" Saher replied reasonably.

"Why is it that I canít just play as the other children do? Is that never to be permitted to me?"

"Is that what you would like? To go where you wish, to do as you wish?" Saher asked him.

"Yes!" Saherisí relief was palpable.

"And to ride ponies with Heli and hunt foxes and play whenever you like?"

"Yes."

"Go ahead."

"But, you said..."

"If you did those things, you will probably be very content. And you will be a boy among all the other boys of Illyricum, perfectly suited in time to serve as a regular in my army and undergo normal training as war permits. Then you can stand at attention when I call. Or if there is peace, you can become a trapper and learn to keep out the foxes from the farms. Or if you prefer, you can be a servant in the orphanage and help mind the nursery with Cariana, and fetch milk to feed the children of the regulars who serve in the ulu of the Khan. Would you like to grow up to be one of these?"

"I will not stand as a regular in your army!" the boy retorted furiously. "I will lead your army!"

"No, you wonít." Saher stood up, dismissing him, turned his back, and walked away.

"Father!" Saheris shouted, breaking into a run behind his grandfatherís long stride, catching up and grabbing the Khanís hand. Saher pulled away from his grasp, but stopped, gazing down thoughtfully at the now-pleading face of the only son he knew, the son he loved much too well.

"What is it now, donít you want to go off to do as you please?"

"No! I donít want to do that any longer!" Saheris cried. Saher appraised him for a moment.

"I donít believe you. I wanted to do all of those things when I was a child. And my mother let me do them, too, against the wishes of the Khan."

"You did?"

"Yes. She let me do as I liked, because I was the youngest of my brothers and did not have to lead an army. And I was glad; I was the most fortunate of all of them."

"So why must I choose?" Saheris pleaded. "Why canít I do both as you did in that case? To do as I wish, and at the same time also lead your army?"

"If you do as I did, then you will be as poor a soldier as I am. Even Zoser, who did do all of his lessons, and took all of his training as the Khan taught him, was not sufficiently prepared against the onslaught of all of our enemies, and he was not spared in battle on the bloody plains of Moesia. And he died. How much worse a soldier would you be for wasting time and effort, and how long do you expect to hold back all of our new enemies to the east, to the south, and to the west? I have told you these things already."

"I will be the greatest soldier of all!" Saheris pronounced fiercely.

"Saying so does not make it so. How will you do this? By doing all you please?"

"I will study all of my lessons, and do all you tell me to do," Saheris vowed.

"And what is it I tell you to do?"

"To do my lessons."

"What else?"

"Not to do the bidding of others."

"That is not strictly true. When someone instructs you, unless he is the master of soldiers, or my secretary, or my chief consul, or your nurse Ė these people serve me and so I instruct them to instruct you Ė what should you do?"

"I - I should not do as they say."

"That is not right. You should then come to me, and ask me. If there is any question in you, you should come to me."

"What if you are not here?"

"Then you should ask Suwetus."

"I must do all of this each time?" Saheris was amazed. Once again, his face grew hard with indignation.

"No, not at all," Saher replied. "You may do as you please. There is always the need for regulars in my army. They die so frequently."

"Father!" Saheris cried miserably.

"It is entirely up to you. You can decide your fate right now."

"Can I still go to the Holy City?"

"By yourself?"

"If you wish."

"No," Saher shook his head. "I will bring your brother as well."

Saherisí eyes grew bright with sudden joy as the moment of pain passed. He threw his arms around his grandfatherís middle, and squeezed him tightly. "Thank you, Father."

Saheris discovered later, at dinner, what the adventure of their trip to Constantinople would truly be like. Rather than his imagining of a leisurely ride into the north country on horseback at the side of the Khan, it would be a rapid trip with few stops, made frantic with provisioning and the changing of horses and the passing of messages. In addition, the Khan had work for the boys to do. There would be five cities in Illyria, Moesia, and Thrace that they would stop at, as well as seven Thracian imperial garrisons along the Via Egnatia, the royal road to Constantinople from the west. Their task would be to find out as much as possible about each of the cities, and to learn the names and the troop strength at each of the garrisons along the road, and to recite this information at breakfast after each stop for the Khan, before they set out again.

"What do you think is the most important thing to learn about a city when you enter it?" Saher asked the boys.

Sahelis spoke up. "If they have something for dinner!" Saheris shook his head in disgust.

"That would be important, Heri," his grandfather nodded. "But cities are large enough that they almost always have food."

"Not in Armenia," Sahelis retorted immediately.

"Weíre not going to Armenia," Saheris said darkly.

"Who told you this?" Saher asked the child.

"Cariana. She says the Avars have taken all the food for their armyís billets and the children are all hungry there."

"She does?"

Sahelis nodded sagely. "That is why I have to eat all of my meat, because the children in Armenia have none and are hungry. Are we going to Armenia?"

"Heli," Saheris cut in. "She only says that to make you eat. Donít be stupid."

Saher interrupted him. "That's enough of that. Heri, you donít know whether there are children starving in Armenia or not. Until you do, finishing your meat is an excellent idea. Tomorrow is going to be a long day."

"Father," Saheris said imperiously.

"What, Heri?"

"The most important thing to know about a city is whether it is loyal to you or not."

"That is certainly important," Saher agreed. "And surely we will find that out as we ride through Thrace to see the new Imperator."

Saher had political reasons for wanting to bring his heir with him to the crowning of the new Imperator at Constantinople. The tragic death of Byriac in battle, and the increasing threats to Saherís eastern frontier (and the Empireís, in time) had made his retirement from mercenary service untimely. Even though his proconsul ran affairs perfectly well in Maduc for him for the past year and a half in his absence, and he had appointed regional governors for Cappadocia, Galatia, and Pamphylia, they all had a common anxiety: a lack of strong military presence on the eastern frontier, and the increasingly bold raids from Persia as they pillaged the countryside for weapons, food, and provisions for their standoff against their eastern enemy, Arya, and the Alans south of and west of them in Mesopotamia. And there was no telling whether or not that Persia would maintain its borders, or develop a military objective to the west if their own situation became unstable. And though for Saher, the Alan threat had receded well south of Troya, new trouble seemed to be constantly brewing.

With a new emperor in the East, Saher could not delay his appearance at the court once he had been summoned; his rapid pace was timed to coincide with Arcadiusí formal accession. He had not wanted to bring Sahelis Ė the younger boy was not quite four years old, and far less mature than the hardy elder, who now betrayed the characteristic pallor of the northern European. Though unmistakably Asian in features, his skin was significantly lighter than that of Sahera, or his grandfather, or even of his younger brother. Not easy to mistake for an Italian on the Roman peninsula, Saher reasoned that Saheris would pass as one of the many mixed ethnic peoples of northern origin just about anywhere in Italy, and in the provinces, would be assumed to be a Roman, as long if he spoke passable Latin. And he did not have the Priscus nose, so it was possible that his heritage might remain discreetly hidden, as Saher wished it to be, in case rumors arose.

Their party set out in late spring, after the floods of the mountain snow melted, and after the city of Illyricum and the outlying districts had completed the spring festival of Vesta. Despite centuries of Hellenic preoccupation with the worship of Zeus and Apollo, followed by sixty years of persecution by "Saint" Constantine the Christian, the northern provinces now governed by Saher held fast to their modest but cheerful pagan seasonal rites, untouched by the missions of Paul and Luke, unconverted by the bishops and procurators of Antioch and Ephesus in Asia. So, in the wake of the sacrifices to Vesta, goddess of home, hearth, and dry firewood, the family of the Khan Saher set out to the Holy City of Constantine to see the raising of a new emperor of the East, who, Saher suspected, was the assassin who ended the life of his friend, the patrician Theodosius.

__________________________________

Arrus sat on a log, rubbing a block of brown potash soap into a dry lather against the surface of his boot, spitting on the leather occasionally to wet it. He looked up from his work to see Saheris studying him quietly, face set in a deep frown.

"You havenít been to talk to me since we set out. I was wondering if I had begun to smell too bad from the road for your noble nostrils," Arrus said cheerfully.

Saheris burst out laughing. "Do you smell bad?" he took several deep sniffs in Arrusí direction. "I think I smell so bad I canít tell!"

Arrus pointed a lye-whitened hand at Saherisí boots. "Have you oiled them since the rain wet them?"

"No. Should I?" The boy looked down at his boots, which had already dried to stiffness in the sun.

"Here," Arrus tossed the block of soap and Saheris caught it. "First, lather the tops and heels with that, and just a little water Ė just spit on them, that is enough. Then when theyíre supple, rub some sheep tallow into them. Iíve got plenty. Otherwise, they will grow hard and youíll get blisters - theyíll turn into rocks on your feet and torture you."

"I shouldnít take orders from you, you know, Arrus," Saheris said imperiously, weighing the soap in his hand as he eyed the old soldier.

"And why is this all of a sudden?" Arrus replied dryly.

"Because my father said so."

"Ho, thatís the reason, eh? So, when the Khan asks me why his sonís feet are bleeding and paining him from blisters, and we will have to send him back to Illyricum in a cart, and why I didnít instruct him to wash and cure his boots yesterday, I will say to him, ĎKhan, Saheris was told to cure his boots, but he didnít do it because he told me you ordered him not to listen to me.í"

"You would tell him that?"

"Iíll go tell him right now, in fact." Arrus pushed himself to his feet and wiped his hands on his trousers.

"Wait," Saheris said.

"Why delay?" Arrus said seriously.

"Did he tell you to tell me this?"

"Of course he did! But would it matter if he didnít? It only makes good sense! Donít you have any sense in you?"

"Yes, I do."

"You know," Arrus sat down again and took the soap from Saherisí hand when it was clear the boy was not going to take off his boots, "I had a little talk with your father about foxes."

Saheris put a hand over his eyes. "Oh no."

"Yes, he told me you would probably stop listening to everyone who tried to tell you what to do from now on, and that we should be ready for that. I guess he was right."

"I canít do anything!"

"You canít do anything without his knowing about it, you mean. But what do you expect?"

"I expect to have some fun when I want!"

"Fun!" Arrus snorted. "You mean mischief! Let me ask you a question. Has the Khan ever beaten you?"

"No!" Saheris was shocked.

"Has he ever slapped you or knocked you down to punish you?"

"No, the Khan would not strike me."

"Do you think that is the same for everyone?"

"What do you mean?" Saheris asked quietly.

Arrus did not speak, but raised his shirt up and twisted to bare his back to Saheris. It was dark with a cross-cross of thick lines, like scars made by ropes.

"What is this? Did the Khan flog you?"

"No, you idiot. My father. If I talked back to him the way you talk back to the Khan, he would lay me out on the ground. The discipline of the army was a mercy compared to him."

"Do all Roman fathers beat their sons this way?"

"Many do, they think it makes them strong and tough for war. They beat their daughters too, but I think thatís just because theyíre in the habit of delivering beatings. You donít know what a fortunate life you have, to know that you will never be struck in anger by your father. You cannot hope to be treated with such favor by others, and you should have the greatest respect for all he gives you. If he were my father, I would do anything for him; and as his guard, he gets no argument from me."

"I didnít know," Saheris said contemplatively, and sat down on the log next to Arrus, deep in thought. Things were not as they seemed, suddenly. He thought his father the most severe of masters, driving him harder and harder toward a premature adulthood and a military obsession which consumed his life; but in fact, his friend Arrus, and apparently all the boys in Rome, had a harder life than he. What irony that he thought of his life as hard, when, as compared with that of others, it was easy?

Arrus interrupted Saherisí deep study. "Are you ever going to take those boots off, or do I have to knock you down and pull them off your feet?" In reply, the boy began to tug at the boots, and after much struggle, freed himself from them.

"They should make boots that do not harden from rain," he commented.

"They do," Arrus replied, "but they are hard to get, and take a long time to make. They are cured over the course of a summer. To make a pair of boots of that kind, for a child like you, the cobbler would have to imagine how big your feet would be at the end of the summer, and build them for the new size. Or hadnít you thought of that?"

"No. I know my feet are larger, but I never see them grow," Saheris replied.

"You have no sense in you, child. That is your problem. You need someone to teach you sense."

"How did you get sense, Arrus?"

"I had it beaten into me by my father, I had it teased into me by my brothers, I had it shouted in my ear at dawn every day in the army. Spend a summer riding back and forth between garrisons, and living with the army, and youíll learn sense, or you will die from not learning it." He smiled smugly at Saheris.

"If that is what it takes, then that is what Iíll do," Saheris replied simply. "I will ask my father if I can do that this summer when we have returned from Thrace."

"Youíre mad," Arrus said, amazed. "Why would any little boy want to do that?"

"I am not any little boy, Arrus. I am not anyone, and I am not someone. I am Saheris El Maduc, and I will lead the army of the Khan of All Asia until I accept his throne."

"That sounds very pretty, child."

Saheris eyed him fiercely. "Saying it doesnít make it so, Arrus. But I am not just anyone. And I am not a regular in the army."

"No, that you arenít. But you donít know what it is like. Itís not like sipping hot milk by the river with your nurse in Illyricum."

"I know that."

"No you donít."

"Then I will find out!" Saheris shouted. "If my father can do it, and him a coward, then I can do it and not be a coward!"

Arrus raised his eyebrows. "A coward? Who says that the Khan is a coward?"

"He does. All the time."

"That is just his way of criticizing himself. He does too much of that. The Khan has never retreated from battle in fear, he has never stayed his hand when he should strike, and he has never held back. That would be cowardice, and he is not that. Donít ever call him a coward. Until you have seen him face an enemy, you cannot say it. That is the highest insult you can pay anyone." Arrus searched Saherisí face for a moment before continuing, this time in confidential tones. "Over the course of my service to him, the Khan has had to make terrible choices that required great courage. Courage you may not have. In time, you may find out what kind of man you serve Ė but it is not for me to tell you. If he wants you to know, he will tell you."

Saheris was quiet then. "Iím sorry, Arrus. Itís just that he - he has a lot of hope for me."

"We all do. And for Sahelis. There may yet be a chance for the Khan to secure all of his borders when the both of you come of age. But that wonít be for some time yet. In the meantime, you have to find out more about the city of Tangira, donít you? We will be there by dark. Here, donít do it that way, spit on the skin first, then rub the soap into it."

"I will join the army for the summer."

Arrus barked out a short laugh. "Then itís going to be a long summer for you, my boy. The longest summer of your life."

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