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.
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?"
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
"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
"Waiting for this
shitty beastís answer!" Saheris cried.
"She wonít answer
you," Arrus replied.
"Oh yes. Yes she
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.
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
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.
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
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
"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."
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
"It is more than
a fashion," Suwetus added, his voice acid and disapproving. "Itís now
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!"
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."
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."
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?"
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
"Does it say as
yet how the empire will be divided?" Suwetus asked him, peering over Saherís
"No, it just says
ĎEastí and ĎWest.í But all in all it may be good news for us."
"How is that?"
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."
registered unmitigated shock. "Theodosius sent you letters from Eutropius?"
"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
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."
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!"
rather decide who knows that, instead of demonstrating it with your flesh
each time you raise your cup to drink?"
"Why should I
"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
"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."
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."
"You are disrespectful."
"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
"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.
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,
"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."
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