Chapter 11: The Two Empires

The pace of the journey was exhausting to the children. Saheris, usually filled with the seemingly inexhaustible nervous energy of childhood, soon grew restive and uncomfortable on his horse. Heli, reverting to the habits of babyhood, simply fell asleep propped in front of his servant, a cousin of Byriac named Isolt. The young soldier took child-nursing duty well, and it allowed him to ride just behind the Khan at the front of the formation. Isolt had always been numbered among the regulars, until his family position as a survivor and heir of Byriac the Regent placed his family in a position of honor. But honor in the eyes of the Khan had not cured Isolt of his shyness; when the eyes of Saher were upon his youngest, Isolt felt the weight upon himself as well, as though he were being measured, and every smallest action and word of his could count greatly toward his future advancement in the army. As a result, Isolt was extremely careful of Heli, and made sure the child had no reason to complain.

Saheris, already well past six years of age, rode a black mare, which likely would be changed for another, similar mount at the next garrison. They changed horses every two days on the average - just when Saheris had gotten used to controlling the difficulties of one mount they would change it! There seemed to be a million frustrations of the road, and many times he glanced back over at his brother, blissfully unconscious , his head bobbing dreamily on the shoulder of Isolt, and found himself wishing he were lying in the arms of his nurse. Had he ever, he wondered, been held by his mother? He strained to remember. But no face called itself to his mind, no voice beckoned him, only the fleeting memory of a fragrance and some presence, unseen. This is what he remembered of Sahera, and in the time since their rescue in Moesia, he had been in the continuous care of Saherís household, first with Byriac at the new household at Ilitrahant, until Byriac went to meet his fate in Pamphylia in his first and last battle with the Avars. Never, in his memory, had he seen or heard news of his mother, whom he knew resided at Maduc. As he mused darkly on this new, uncomfortable mount, who kept straying to the left to stretch her neck and grab at a stray piece of straw along the way, he suddenly jerked at the reins violently and made her head rear up sharply.

"Ho there!" Arrus said from behind him. "What are you trying to do, make her throw you?"

"Stupid shitting beast," he leaned forward and shouted right in her ear. The mare laid her ears back flat and stopped abruptly in the middle of the road. The horses behind began to slow as they crowded forward. He leaped down onto the ground and seized the long end of his rein, waving it before the now-hostile animal and raising it above her eyes. Unmounted, he was dwarfed by the huge animal.

"You!" he brandished the rein above her head and she stepped back, teeth bared. He yanked at the leather, which was firmly fastened about the horseís ears, and she leaned back, resisting. He let fly with the long end of the rein across the horseís nose, shouting at her "You DONíT GRAZE WHILE MARCHING!" She reared up then and pawed the air with heavy-shod hooves, whinnying loudly. Arrus dismounted and ran quickly to Saheris to reach for the halter, but he had stepped aside from the deadly hooves, his face bright with a sudden, furious anger. As she gained four feet again, Saheris stepped toward her once again and shouted a second time: "Do you understand?" I will have you flogged next time you do that! That was a warning!" He stood as though expecting a reply from the mare, in a listening pose. Arrus stood still.

"What are you doing?"

"Waiting for this shitty beastís answer!" Saheris cried.

"She wonít answer you," Arrus replied.

"Oh yes. Yes she will."

They waited, as the rest of the party, walking quickly ahead, turned the curve in the road. Saher had not heard the commotion behind him and did not halt.

"How long do we wait for her answer, Great Khan?" Arrus remarked.

"Iím glad you understand," Saheris said, ignoring Arrus and addressing the mare, whose head had now dropped sulkily under Saherisí grip upon the rein holding the halter. He then leaped back up into the saddle, as nimble as a ferret gaining a tree, and raised his arm in an imitation of Saherís "forward" command, and brought his hand up. "We may proceed." The mare moved ahead, and this time she did not waver.

Arrus exchanged rapid looks with Isolt, who had gently halted his mount so as not to wake the ever-sleeping Sahelis. Isolt shrugged.

By the time they trotted up to Saher and the main party, Saheris found himself once again musing on the subject of his mother. He would be far more interested in going to Maduc than spending the summer with the army - perhaps if Saher refused to grant him the first wish, he would grant him an audience with Sahera! After all, Maduc was only four days from Constantinople, and after fifteen days, what is four more? The more he thought of the idea, the more it lured him. How could Saher refuse? He had never actually refused to allow the children to see her before - it had just somehow never happened Ė it was never discussed. Was it purposeful? Saheris could fit the number of facts he knew about his mother into a single hand. Had he ever asked the Khan anything about her? He found himself wondering why it had never occurred to him.

He knew that she had married Byriac at Saherís insistence, he knew that Byriac had been the son of the Sabiri ulu chief but not a chief himself, and had only just joined the army before his death. He knew she lived at Maduc and did not go to Illyricum, and yet he was told he was born only a small distance from Illyricum, so she had to have lived on the frontier at one time, although he had never been back to his birthplace, if indeed that was his birthplace. For all he knew, he might have been born in Rome.

They finally stopped for the night in a Thracian city, though the day was still bright and the vegetation had thinned considerably, making their passage easier and more rapid on the narrow and poorly-packed Via Egnatia. His crudely-prepared map said "Annaganthas" - a Thracian name. It seemed odd to Saheris that they were stopping here and not in Antenion, which was some distance further. Perhaps there was some special reason for this early stop in Annaganthas - the Khan may have planned some business here. The stop, however, suited Saheris - his mare had learned, belatedly, to obey, but he was not happy with her, and was ready to change to almost any other mount by now. And the evening would provide greater opportunity to speak with Saher about his plans.

 Saheris wandered into the Khanís tent after the evening meal, wondering to himself why they had set up tents instead of billeting in the town as they had done at previously in Tangira and Drochia - was it because Saher suspected the Thracians and did not trust them? The question was on his lips as he approached the table where Saher sat slumped over a large scroll, half-unrolled in his hand. Suwetus was leaning close to him, reading along with him, and neither noticed his entrance.

"I donít dare go now," Saher muttered to his secretary.

"That is the wise course, Khan," Suwetus nodded, his back to Saheris.

"Thereís no telling whether it is a general rout, and if the empire is in disarray. This implies that the Empire will be split in two, one ruling in Ravenna and the other in Constantinople. Who will be the true emperor, I wonder?"

"With two sons of Theodosius now in power, it is hard to say - likely Arcadius, the older. Honorius is yet a child though. He was born Ė when was Honorius born?" Suwetus turned to reach for another document on the table behind him, and caught sight of Saheris standing quietly near the opening. "Young Khan," he greeted him respectfully with a slight nod of the head.

"Hello Suwetus. Is my father busy?"

"Yes, your father is very busy, Saheris," Saher replied, not looking up. "And Iím very sorry, but it seems likely you will not get to see the holy city. There has been some sort of violence and the succession is now in doubt. It would be foolish for me to go there while the new emperor is beheading his counselors."

"Who died?" Saheris asked, jumping up onto Saherís knee without asking permission, and reaching for the dispatch that was beginning to resume its former rolled shape under Saherís forgetful hand. He scrutinized the page as though he could read it easily. "Tell me what it says."

"You read it yourself, youíre so smart," Saher remarked, grateful for the interruption of his dark thoughts.

"Khan," Suwetus interjected, his voice impatient.

Saher raised his head to look at his secretary. "Yes?"

"I was about to find out the age of the young Honorius - shall I continue?" Suwetus gave a meaningful glance toward the boy, who was now straining to read the Greek words spread across the page before him.

"Of course, do so." Saher flashed Suwetus a harsh look. His voice was cold.

"That is a lambda, this is a theta, what is that big chi?"

"That is not a letter chi, Saheris. That is the sign of the latest religion of the Romans. They are putting that sign on everything, it is supposed to protect them from the curse of the pagans."

"What is a pagan?"

"You and I, we are pagans. We believe in the spirits of earth and sky, and sun and weather and stars."

"So - they exist, whatís so bad about that?"

"The Romans have a new faith that says a great man comes from the sky and we must worship him before the sun and earth and sky."

Saheris laughed loudly. "So they think a great man lives in the sky? The Romans are stupid!"

"Well, itís not quite so simple as that. Theodosiusí grandfather believed it, and because he was the emperor, he made everyone else say they did too. Now it has become the fashion, and one more reason why they become less and less our friends and more our enemies. We are simply pagans to them now, instead of their strong military allies. They have their God Christos on their side."

"It is more than a fashion," Suwetus added, his voice acid and disapproving. "Itís now the law."

"Ha!" Saheris jumped down from Saherís knee and struck a pose by his side, raising his right hand as though holding a sword and sweeping it downward. "Let their God Christos feel the might of the Khan of Asia if he crosses our lands on his way to his home in the sky!"

Suwetus commented dryly, "Donít let anyone in the court of Constantine ever hear you say something like that, Saheris, or they will send you into prison, even at the tender age of seven, and have you flogged and flayed like a cow for its leather."

Saheris rounded angrily on Suwetus, his arm still outstretched, and opened his mouth to speak, but Saher stopped him. "Donít say it, child. Suwetus is right. If youíre going to condemn the Christos God, you better do so safely in Illyricum and never let those things be said while in the Empire, or even in front of a Roman in your own service. That is why my secretary is a Roman. Do you understand? It helps you to guard your speech. You must learn the discipline of your words as well."

Suwetus returned to shuffling through his endless rolls of paper. "Ah, here it is. Flavius Honorius, he is the youngest. Born in 384. Not a child, but 18 years of age. Not so young as to be taught, but far too young to rule in the wake of two assassinations - if assassinations they were."

"Who is to say" Saher replied quickly, "that it wasnít Arcadius himself who killed Eutropius?"

"What does it say?" Saheris cried, impatient now at being suddenly ignored.

"All right, all right," Saher said, motioning for Saheris to come back to the table. "I will read it to you. It says - see this up here? It is from Justus Arcadius, heir to the Emperor Theodosius "Magnus" - that means Great in Latin Ė"

"Yes I know that part," Saheris interrupted. "What is this part in Greek down here?"

"Now Arcadius has been named the Emperor of the East, and his young brother Honorius has been named Emperor of the West, and for the sake of their personal safety, they have removed to Milan following the death of the patrician Eunuch Eutropius."

"Does it say as yet how the empire will be divided?" Suwetus asked him, peering over Saherís shoulder.

"No, it just says ĎEastí and ĎWest.í But all in all it may be good news for us."

"How is that?" Suwetus asked.

"The partitioning shows a weakness in the leadership, and the confusion of succession may be a clue that the once-powerful Empire is shaking. I may not have as much to fear from Constantinople as I had previously."

"Or it may be exactly the opposite," Suwetus replied quickly.

"Or, it may be exactly the opposite," he agreed. "I am not about to find out now. In any case, it is pointless to go to Constantinople. Do you have some reason to be less at ease with the sons of Theodosius than with Eutropius, my friend?" He looked closely at his secretary, whose face betrayed nothing.

"No, Khan, but change itself is not always good news. In fact, with the Roman empire it is generally not."

"But we are halfway there!" Saheris cried. His frustration with uncooperative mares, his exhaustion from the road, his homesickness for Illyricum vanished as his vision of the Holy City began to fade.

"I know, son," Saher said. "But we cannot go. There has been an assassination at the palace, and our only reason for appearing there was for the coronation of an emperor who is afraid to sit on his throne. Now all is changed, and those who were to arrive for it will be returning to their homes or riding directly to Milan, but only upon the invitation of Arcadius. And Arcadius makes no invitation to the Khan of Asia."

"And why not?"

"He has no reason to, except out of courtesy. We are not subjects of his empire, despite my control of some of his former provinces. Julian ceded them to me as unwanted lands, or as a gift, and that does not give me the rights in the emperorís government. I am a foreigner."

"He should! He doesnít know who heís dealing with!" Saheris said fiercely.

"There is much Arcadius has yet to learn. Donít worry about that. I have been through the succession of emperors before. His advisors will inform him in time of duty to his allies, my son. I am not worried about Arcadius. Now, Eutropius...." He turned to Suwetus then: "I have long letters sent to me from Theodosius from Eutropius over several yearsí time, that talk about the pagan threat in the east, and his plans to deal with us. He advised Theodosius to behead the vicious Illyrian cur Saher in the main square of the capital. Yes," he said contemplatively. I had much fear of Eutropius. His death can only be good news for me."

Suwetusí face registered unmitigated shock. "Theodosius sent you letters from Eutropius?"

Saher smiled. "Ours was a close friendship. I can only hope that he was as open with his sons as he was with me, and that they share his appreciation of my loyalty to him."

"Then what do you think really happened to Theodosius?"

"I think Eutropius had him assassinated. Or did it himself. Arcadius must have found out and did the same to him."

"What a barbaric people," Suwetus commented. Saher looked up at his secretary standing by his shoulder.

"They are your people," he said.

"No they arenít. Not anymore. I would rather be a barbarian."

"That you are now, Suwetus. We will make you bow down to our gods of sky and wind, and make sacrifices of your earrings to them," Saher joked. "Why do you wear those earrings?"

Suwetus put a hand over his right ear as though to conceal the gold rings piercing it. "They were gifts from the patrician Julian when I served the Empire. It is our fashion in Rome."

"You must know that it is a sign of servitude in Asia," Saher said. "More than one shows that you are indentured to me into the next life, as a sentence for a heinous crime. You should not wonder that my men fear you."

Suwetusí eyes narrowed and he did not reply. Saheris was grinning at him. The boy was always pleased when the Khanís criticism was directed at someone other than himself. But almost immediately, Saher then addressed Saheris:

"And you Ė did you know that those pictures you have had inked onto your arms give you away as a pagan to anyone in Rome? If you wish to pass as an Imperial in that realm you will have to wear sleeves now."

"I am proud of my tattoos!" Saheris said defensively. "Especially the stag!"

"You should have them taken off while they are fresh. In fact, I should bring you to Maduc, since we are nearly halfway there already, and have Heklitis burn them off your skin. You will never pass safely through the Empire decorated like a pagan."

"But I am a pagan!" Saheris objected.

"Wouldnít you rather decide who knows that, instead of demonstrating it with your flesh each time you raise your cup to drink?"

"Why should I hide it?"

"Saheris, it is easier sometimes just to kill a man than to ask him what he is. If they have to ask, they will not strike so quickly."

Saheris was adamant. "I can defend myself!" he bragged, raising his chin and staring at the Khan.

"Not while youíre sleeping. You will do as I say in this, and stop arguing. You are not too young as yet for me to thrash."

"You wouldnít!" Saheris challenged him.

Saher moved so rapidly seize Saheris that he hardly had time to shrink back before he was held by the collar of his tunic and lifted him from the floor, the Khanís eyes bearing down on his own. "I would do it just to prove it to you. Is that what you would like?" Saherís eyes burned into Saherisí as he glared at him. Saheris dropped his gaze.

"No, Khan. P-please put me down."

But Saher held him suspended, and the moment lengthened. His grip on the childís neck did not slacken. After another long moment, he spoke, and his voice was flat and cold, like a slap against Saherisí face.

"You are impertinent."

"Yes, Khan."

"You are disrespectful."

"Yes, Khan."

"Do not speak!" he shouted. Saheris fell silent, with the weight of the Khanís smoldering gaze upon him, and the oppression of the Khanís breath upon his face suffocating him.

"You will learn to show me respect. If you donít, you will leave my side, and I will not acknowledge you. Now go and think about this." Suddenly, Saher released his grip on Saheris and he tumbled backward, just barely gaining his feet before falling to the floor. He tripped, recovered, then ran quickly out of the tent without a word.

Suwetus stood silently, the trace of a smile playing across his mouth. "Donít smirk at me," Saher said. "I know I give him too much license. But he is aggressive, and aggression is what our poor land needs more anything. If I crush him, then I crush his courage as well."

"I have said nothing, Khan."

"You say too much with that look," Saher lashed back, annoyed at the manís smug reply, and waved his hand at him. "Now let us talk more about Eutropius. I have Theodosiusí letters from Eutropius in that pack over there. And we will make our way to Maduc first thing in the morning. And Heklitis will get rid of those horrible tattoos on Heriís arms."

The moment of fierceness passed, and Saherís face gradually broke into a benign smile as he sat back, relaxed, and reflected. "You donít know how happy I am that there will be a funeral pyre in Constantinople instead of a coronation. My greatest enemy is now dust. I can only hope his soul does not rise again too soon for my grandsons to meet again."

"I have no doubt that in time, Saheris will be able to best any Roman he sets eyes on, Eutropius or no."

Saher smiled again and nodded in agreement. "I am endlessly pleased with that child."

Back To Index

Copyright © 2004 Threshold Publishing Company • All Rights Reserved
Copyright © www.zebratta.com All Rights Reserved