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Chapter 12: The Coin

From the private papers of the Khan:

You must understand, Andronicus, I never saw my mother before that day; and even then, I did not truly see her so as to recognize her. I was yet a child. I had never before seen Maduc, my capital, named for my grandfather the Khan, I had never yet set foot inside the door of my own house, and I had no idea what to expect. All my concern was for my brother, though he was only slightly younger, seemed like a baby to me, and I needed to protect him. He wept when the Khan took him from Isolt, whom he clung to like a nurse. The journey, and its sudden disruption, alarmed him, and even I could not console him. I would often sing to him to settle him when he wept, but even singing did not soothe him in Maduc. He had a poppit, that is a sort of a doll, though it had no discernible head or arms, it was a shapeless thing with a mop of hair sewn onto the top, and dressed in a covering of blue brocade, that he kept gripped in his hand, and in moments of anxiety he would bring it to his face and press it against his eyes as though to hide behind it. This was the troubled state of mind of my brother when we were brought to the house of the Khan at Maduc.

And yet, I thought it the greatest adventure of our lives. The house was magnificent. An enclosure outside the walls opened onto a vista overlooking the Euxine sea, and even though we had crossed the narrow defile of the Hellespont earlier in the week, I never saw the open water as I did that first day. The smell of fish and salt, stronger, more pungent than the river of my childhood, delighted me. Everything delighted me, and I believed I could see the forms ships moving against the hazy horizon to the north and west. The building was made with both stone and aromatic wood, and lined with wood within. The smell of the cedar that filled the air inside the house was a pleasure I had never known. And the more joyful I became at these new sensations, the more frightened my brother seemed. He stood in the hall, and as I called to him to come in to the marvelous house of the Khan he drew back, raised his doll to his eyes, and refused to look. Instead he turned from me, and burst into fresh weeping. The Khan put his hands on his shoulders and tried to console him, but Heli pulled away from him, and went on sobbing. I could not tell what had disturbed him so, but he stayed that way through the day until he exhausted himself with weeping. At length, he slept.

We waited until Heli was better from his fit, before we went for an audience with our mother, the princess Sahera, that evening.

Even though lamps had been lighted in both ends of the room, the dark panels on the walls seemed to absorb all of the light, as evening poured darkness into the corners of the strange, quiet house. it to Saheris seemed the place had been stricken with silence, and until his eyes grew accustomed to the shadows of the interior of his mother’s sitting room, he did not see anyone there; just the indistiguishable patterns of Scythian brocade over a couch that stood tidily empty, a low chair, likewise empty, and a lampstand, which held an old lamp whose wick guttered from time to time from the impurities of the tallow. A long, dark tapestry hung from the far end of the room, and to Saheris, it seemed to move and shimmer as though disturbed by a breeze. He felt profoundly uncomfortable, and felt the urge to call out. Saher saved him the trouble.

"Herrada," Saher said in a low tone, directed to the interior of the room. "I have come with the children. Please come out to greet them."

A voice spoke from somewhere within the room, perhaps behind the tapestry. "I see them. Bring them closer."

"Heri, sit down there," Saher pointed to the low chair. "Heli, sit next to your brother, that’s the boy. They are seated out here in the sitting room. Be polite to your children and show yourself."

Once again the voice spoke, and Saheris detected that it was indeed coming from behind the drape. "I cannot show myself to these children, it is not right."

Saher sighed audibly. "Saheris, would you like to see your mother?"

"Yes, I would, Khan," Saheris replied politely.

"And Sahelis, would you like to see your mother?"

"I - I don’t know."

"Say yes, you ass," Saheris said, squeezing his brother’s arm.

"Yes, I would like to see my mother, Khan," Sahelis said, pulling his arm violently from his brother’s grip.

"Your sons would like to see you and to greet you. They have brought gifts for you, my daughter."

The dark tapestry moved. From behind it, a slight figure, draped in heavy black clothing from head to toe, emerged. The boys’ eyes fixed upon it as it approached. Her face was entirely obscured by a veil that extended almost to her chin, so they could not see her features. She advanced into the room slowly, hesitantly, and stopped several yards from the now seated children. Saheris yearned to leap up and run to her, to push aside the black damask and reveal the mysterious mother beneath.

"And what is this?" said the Khan angrily.

The voice, still speaking in a slow and measured way, replied, "Since these children may not know me as their mother, it is wrong to show my face to them. If they do not see my face, they will not learn to love me or to miss me when you take them from me again. It is painful enough that I may look on them this once, knowing I will not see them again. But to inflict that same misfortune on such small children is cruel."

"This is nonsense!" the Khan retorted, and advanced upon the draped figure, which shrunk back before him.

"Please!" she said. "I have endured much at your hands, and I am sure you don’t wish them to know the pain you have put me to..." Saher hesitated. The boys watched in fascination at the tableau between the Khan and their mother, who, though she stood before them, was a mere figure and a voice. Suddenly, Saheris had an idea, and whispered, unnoticed, in his brother’s ear.

A loud wailing then filled the tense room as, on request, Sahelis produced an instant storm of tears. He brought his doll up to his eyes and twisted his face into a mask of exquisite anguish. Saheris looked coolly toward the black figure. "He is crying because we have come all the way from Illyricum to see our mother for the first time, and she will not allow us to see her face."

"I cannot do that," she replied evenly, strain growing evident in her voice, yet barely heard over the screams of the now nearly-apoplectic Sahelis, who had by this time slipped to the floor and was banging his fists miserably against the stones.

"I cannot stay, this is not right." The voice suddenly broke off. Then, as rapidly as a cat, the woman in black advanced toward the older child, leaned down, and brushed her cheek against his cheek, in the Bithynian mode of embrace. Her hand squeezed his shoulder. He caught from her person the faint odor of candles, perhaps of incense, but nothing he could define, nothing he could grasp and hold. She was a stranger. The draped figure then bent over the screaming child on the floor and placed a hand on the back of his head. The sobs ceased for a brief moment, and she leaned down and brushed her face against the side of Sahelis’ face, then straightened up and withdrew, faster than Saheris’ eyes could follow, behind the curtain that must have led to her room.

Saheris was stunned. "But - what about our gifts?" he stammered. "I made an amulet for her!"

"We will leave them for her. Perhaps she will change her mind later. I will speak with her," Saher was just as astonished, and did not hide it from the children. "Come, pick up your brother, it is time to go and have our meal."

"She will not even dine with us?" Saheris demanded, his voice grew loud and angry. He became aware that she must be listening from beyond.

"No, I don’t think she will," Saher replied.

"Then I wish we had not come at all!" Saheris pronounced, very nearly shouting, and, pulling Sahelis sniffling, by the hand, he stalked out of the room without a backward glance.

"You lie, Primus Bellianus," said the voice, now unheard in the empty room, as Sahera drew the veil back from her face, addressing her now-absent son by his Roman name. "And I will see you and my son Eosa again before dawn breaks."

 

Instantly awake, Saheris sat up, grew still, and watched the shadows for signs of movement. Someone was in the room. He drew from beneath his pack his hunting knife, and held it at the ready, as he moved slowly toward his brother, whose sleeping breaths remained regular. Sahelis had not awakened. Holding the knife before him, he slid from the bed to stand, and moved his head gradually, watching and listening for a repetition of the sound that had awakened him.

"Shhh..." came a slight sound from the far corner of the room. He turned toward the sound, but saw and heard nothing more.

"Shhh... do not disturb the guard," said a whispered voice. Still, no movement, and still, Saheris could see nothing.

"Who is it? What are you doing in our room?" Saheris demanded, speaking aloud but in a low voice.

A shadow moved against the deeper darkness of the room - the light of the waning moon outside was too faint to show him anything. A hand brushed against his neck, and he started, gripping the knife and moving away from the touch on his shoulder. Hands gripped him with a sudden strength and violence, and knocked the knife clattering onto the floor. "Stupid child," the voice hissed in his ear. "Do not raise a weapon to me."

"Who are you?" Saheris demanded, the anger in his voice wavering with fear. The unseen figure did not loosen its grip upon his shoulder and hand.

"You should not be afraid of your own mother," came the whispered reply. "I wished to thank you for your gifts, and have brought you and your brother a gift in return." She released his hand, and he felt a small, odd-shaped object pressed into his hand; then another.

"This is your inheritance," she said, in a more normal tone of voice. "I had this coin severed by a jeweler, into two equal parts. Don’t ever lose them. Give the one piece to your brother, and keep the other for yourself. And tell no one about this. Particularly not Saher.’’

"Why do you give us these coins?"

"It is only one coin. It identifies you."

"How?"

"You will find out in time. That is the only gift I can give you. You will in time find out what it means." Sahera then withdrew her grip from Saheris’ shoulder.

"Mother –" Saheris began. "I wish to know something."

"What?" the woman’s voice grew impatient then - it was clear she was in fear of being discovered.

"Who is my father?" Saheris asked.

To his surprise, she laughed. "Saher did not tell you?"

"I did not ask him."

"Your father was Byriac, the son of Arianus, chief of the Unari, who died in Armenia."

"And Sahelis, is he also the son of Byriac?"

"His name is not Sahelis, his name is Eosa, which means ‘bear.’ Saher re-named him as your twin brother, so that the two of you would appear to be twins when you were older. That is part of his deception."

"Then he is also the son of Byriac?"

The woman in the shadows laughed again, an unpleasant sound. "No, he is the son of a great warrior, and when his father comes for him, the only thing that will protect you from his sword will be this coin."

"Who is Eosa’s father then?" Saheris persisted.

"His father is Ares, the god of war." Her voice, though still low, carried the thrill of violence and triumph. "Now, I must go. Protect your brother, if only for your own sake."

"Mother –" Saheris said, but the figure had gone, soundlessly.

 Saheris sat up the remainder of that night thinking, and as dawn softened the shadows, he began to examine the pieces of coin his mother had pressed into his hand. Questions crowded each other in his mind - was it possible that a god could father a child? He didn’t know this, and it didn’t seem possible to him. And if this were true, and Sahelis was really the son of Ares, the formidable god of war, why was it he, Saheris, who was always the one who found himself in trouble? Perhaps his mother was confused, and got the two of them mixed up in her mind, and it was really he who was the son of Ares. Sahelis was the fearful, mild-mannered, one, cried easily, and was always running to his brother. And why did Saher give Sahelis a different name than the one given to him at birth? Eosa was a fine name - it wasn’t a Bithynian name, it was more like a southern name as the Avars or the Alans have, or even a Greek. Usually names ending with ‘a’ were for females - that could have been Saher’s objection to it.

The coin was gold covering iron and brass, it seemed to him, as the cut through the metal revealed the alloy beneath the surface. The imprint on the coin showed it was a coin of the realm, with a faded likeness of the Khan Saher. He had several such coins in his pocket, each worth about 10 Roman denarii, and the preferred currency of Asia, though he also had Roman coins, bearing the likeness of Theodosius, provided for their trip to Thrace. At length, he placed the two halves of the coin in his shirt and went in search of his father.

Despite the early hour, the Khan was awake, and it was clear from his haggard appearance that he had been up for some time, if he had retired at all. Saheris doubted whether Saher had slept yet, for sleepless work was a common habit with the Khan. Suwetus sat, exhausted, by his side, neither reading nor writing, when Saheris came into the room.

"What are you doing up? The cock has not yet crowed."

"Father, I must talk to you. Alone." Suwetus rose to his feet.

"No. There are no secrets from my secretary. Not even for you, Saheris." Saheris shrugged, drew the coins from his inside his shirt, and placed them on the table before the Khan. Suwetus sat down once again.

"What is this? A coin, severed in two pieces?"

"Yes."

"Where did you get this?"

"From my mother."

"What?"

"Khan, no more than an hour or two past, she was in our room. Please do not tell her that I told you. She told me not to tell you."

"I will do as I please. What did she say? Tell me everything she said."

"I was the only one awake, Heli heard nothing. She told me that Heli is the son of Ares, the god of war, and that I am the son of Byriac the son of the ulu chief, and that only holding these coins will protect me from death when Ares comes. She told me that Heli’s name is really Eosa and that it means ‘bear.’ Is this true?"

"Is what true?"

"Is his name really Eosa?"

"That is a name she called him when he was born. But that is not the name we call him - we call him by a Bithynian name which is like yours, because you are brothers."

"Is he really the son of Ares?"

"Do you want to know the truth, Saheris, or do you want to believe the fantastic ravings of that woman?"

Saheris gave the Khan an unreadable look and answered immediately. "I want to know the truth."

"Then I will tell you the truth. And when Sahelis is your age I will tell him exactly the same, because it is the truth. I will keep none of this from you. Your brother is the son of Byriac, who married Sahera at my request before he fell in battle. He was born in a place called Berayn, on the Moesian frontier, where you all lived until I brought you to Illyricum."

"And what of my father?"

"If I tell you, you must tell no one, not even your brother, until he is older, for to tell others would be dangerous to you. Do you promise to keep this to yourself? Are you mature enough to use discretion?"

"Yes. If it is important to you."

"It is extremely important to me. You are the son of Priscus Septimus Bellianus, a Roman senator, and youngest grandson of the former Regent of Ravenna. I wish no one to know this."

Saheris looked at Suwetus. The Khan had known his father all along and not told him. Maybe everyone had known, and had not told him. He grew furious at that thought, and at his gullibility to his mother’s lies. "Why is it a secret?"

Saher sighed, gestured for the child to come to him, and took him up on his knee. "I am very sorry, Saheris, but I did not know that Sahera was going to come to you to try to deceive you. I should have known, but I was not prepared." He patted the boy’s rigid shoulders ineffectually.

"Don’t you think a boy should know who his father is?" Saheris said forlornly.

"I am your father, Saheris. Bellianus came to Berayn as a traitor, broke his father’s treaty with me, and dishonored my daughter, keeping her and you in hiding without my knowledge. In time I will tell you the entire story, but you are very young still to know these things. The fact is that it doesn’t matter to me who fathered you, or even who bore you, it matters that you are in my house and my care, and that you are my child. Don’t you want me to be your father?" Saher’s voice then grew plaintive.

Saheris threw his arms around his grandfather’s shoulders. "Yes, I do. I just – I am afraid of Sahera. I don’t know what she will do - she is strange!" To his embarrassment, Saheris burst into tears, and wept helplessly against the Khan’s shoulder. He was overwhelmed by the revelations of the night, and it seemed like all at once, the world was falling down around him. The son of a Roman traitor, an enemy of the Khan? It was all too much for him. After several minutes, he drew his sleeve across his face, and straightened up, climbed out of the Saher’s lap, and stood before him at attention.

"I wish to know the story now, please. Will you tell me about how I was born, and about my parents, and what happened that you took us away?"

From the private papers of the Khan:

The Khan often kept vigils, much as I do – I must have learned the habit from him while still a child. He had already sat up a day and a night, working only on the business of Maduc. I learned later that he had not been to that city since before the death of Theodosius, and his consul there, Unghenis, had been overwhelmed by requests for military assistance from the eastern frontiers and from Cappadocia. The Avars were moving west, pressed by Persia. It was fortunate that Saher decided to travel to Maduc at that time, for with the news of Eutropius' death, the eastern hordes had grown more bold and restless. War appeared inevitable.

Yet, despite the crushing preoccupation with Bithynia and the Asian nations, the Khan waited up with me, and told me the story of my discovery in Moesia, and a plot to conceal me and my brother for an obscure purpose. Bellianus, I learned, was a close relative of the Theodosius and Constantine, and Sahera could not have been ignorant of this fact in choosing Bellianus as her lover. What remained a mystery far longer, however, was why she attempted to convince me that I was the son of Byriac when she knew full well I was not; and why she persisted in proclaiming that Sahelis was the son of Ares. It was Saher’s opinion that in her deepening madness, Sahera devised a plan to gain revenge against Saher, by bearing a son to Saher’s historic enemy. It was many years before I discovered, through Sahelis, the true nature of his relation to Sahera - by then, my brother had been adopted by Bellianus in Italy, and we had effectively switched places, which is what Sahera had originally planned. What she had not planned for was the completeness of our education, and the revelation of our true parentage. With that, we proceeded as though still ignorant of the truth (as the Romans were) and decided to pursue her plan for our own purposes.

Saher was standing uneasily beside his desk as Heklitis entered the room. His posture betrayed an acute agitation. The doctor was not truly surprised; the Khan had been tense upon his visits to Maduc ever since the attack upon him in Moesia. The ensuing years had not lessened his anger at his daughter significantly. A year had passed since he had last seen her; and Heklitis knew this was not accidental.

"What do you make of this?" Saher asked without preamble, pointing out the severed pieces of coin that lay where Saheris had left them.

Heklitis bent slightly to examine them more closely. "It is a Bithynian coin," he observed quietly. "Cut with an excellent tool – the edge is carefully heated to smoothness. Sahera took some trouble. Whatever it means, it must be very important to her."

"That is obvious," Saher replied with some impatience. "But what?"

Heklitis did not reply, but with some deliberateness stepped to the side of the Khan’s desk and took his customary seat, at Saher’s left hand.

The left was the place reserved for those less favored, and for those of lower rank and position in the Khan’s service. Heklitis, who was neither a native of Bithynia nor a citizen of the Empire, was among the youngest of Saher’s attendants, though possibly the most highly educated. His taking the left hand place was a simple gesture of respect for his older and more noble colleagues in the Khan’s service. And this was where he felt comfortable.

"You have spoken to her of this?" Heklitis asked then, after a brief silence.

"No. I have not seen her. I sent news of this to you immediately, as soon as Saheris left me. It has been no more than two hours."

Heklitis nodded, musing. "Good. It is good. I do not believe you should discuss it at all."

"What? Why do you say this?" Saher, obviously distraught, began to pace. It had been a night of obsessive preoccupation – evidence of his frantic mental activity lay strewn across his desk and scattered on the floor. Small rolls of letters and scraps of notes in Saher’s hand had tumbled from the desk, all but forgotten. Heklitis took it all in with a single glance, realizing that only the coin occupied Saher’s mind at this moment. The coin, and the woman who had cut it in two. Some obscure trial, seemingly in abeyance, had resumed, and the evidence was written in lines of pain across Saher’s face.

"You say that the princess appeared in the children’s room without beings seen, though Isolt and Issarcha stood watch in the hall, and two others were posted at Sahera’s rooms?"

"Yes," Saher said. "Saheris is not fabricating this tale. He was abashed, as though struck some blow. And the way he described the woman, it could only have been my daughter."

"Yes, of course. I am not questioning him. He has your skill in observation, and your directness. That is well. I am simply considering." Once again, the doctor fell to musing.

Saher paced the length of the room, returned, paused by the cluttered desk, strode back again to the window, and then returned. He struck his hand against the back of his unoccupied chair. "Curse you philosophical Greeks - what are you considering? Consider more loudly so I can hear you!"

The doctor looked up at the anxious man standing before him. "It is best," he began reluctantly, "to ignore any unusual actions Sahera makes. She designs them as dramas, to gain sympathy and interest from others, most particularly yourself. She has attempted the same with her sons, now that she has seen them and spoken with them."

"That was a blasted mistake, it was wrong for you to advise it."

"No. No, I don’t think so. Not for the children, at the least. You could not keep them from her once they advanced in childhood. Otherwise, they would always question your reasons for keeping them from her when you have no wife to mother them in her absence."

"There is my sister Cariana," Saher objected. "She doesn’t treat them as her own sons, true, but she is affectionate enough. And there are my brothers’ sons, and their wives, who see them each week. And my cousin Thedora who teaches them singing and woodcarving. There are women in plenty to mother them in Illyricum. That was my greatest reason for retiring there to raise them."

But Heklitis was shaking his head. "It is not the same as the filial bond, Khan. Among your people, just as among the Greeks, the role of the mother is very highly esteemed. Among Asians, it is seen as a grave error for you to adopt children and not take a wife to mother them. You cannot be their mother. This they learn each day as they play among their Illyrian servants and cousins. They are motherless."

"Surely you exaggerate."

Heklitis shook his head. "Having the Khan as their father does not replace that lack. That is why they must know, or at least meet, their mother, and familiarize themselves with her, if only slightly."

Saher raised his hand. "Let’s get back to this problem. You say to ignore this act of stealth, this assault upon my heir. She could have attacked him - she could have killed him!"

Heklitis nodded. "Yes, possibly. But not likely. She is distraught, irrational, but she is not just arbitrarily violent. If she were, I would not have advised you to bring the children here at all. Mothers with a particular sort of madness often slay their children in vengeance against their lovers or families, and must be confined to restrain them from murder. But I am fairly sure she only poses the risk of murder to you, Khan." Heklitis stopped, and waited.

"How nice for me," Saher said bitterly, and wearily resumed his seat. Belatedly, he realized that he had called Heklitis to advise him, and it was time to listen to his counsel, even if he didn’t like it. "Go on... Sahera’s obsessions..."

"She has spoken very little to me of the children, and has spent more time trying to convince me that she will fall ill if forced to live from day to day without a lover." Heklitis glanced uneasily at the Khan. "She proposed that I could counsel her best in her bed."

Saher smiled without humor. "And did you?"

"No, Khan. Our profession receives little enough respect without our bringing dishonor to it that way. Besides, it is considered poor medicine to give in to a patient’s fantasy, regardless of how pleasant or harmless it might appear. In Sahera’s case, it could not be harmless. And it was easy for me to refuse. Ferocity does not endear me to a woman."

Saher laughed in spite of himself. "She frightens you!"

Heklitis shook his head decisively. "Not at all, as long as I have guard at the door and a garrison outside the gate. But in her bed – it would be another story. I’m not sure I would find myself capable in the bed of such a violent warrior. There are some pleasures not worth the risk."

"And how did she receive your refusal?"

"She was angry. She accused me of being a catamite. I have had her restrained several times for assaulting me to attempt to prove her point."

"Are you?"

"Am I what?" Heklitis blinked without comprehension.

"A catamite. I never thought to ask."

"No, Khan. But I would prefer not to be asked to prove it."

"Why is that?"

Heklitis paused once again, and Saher began to wonder if he had resumed his considering posture. Then he spoke. "I was born a Jew. That fact, as you know, is difficult to hide when unclothed. But since I am not a Jew by religion or culture, I would prefer that this not be known."

"I see. I have no reason to tell anyone. I will make sure you have your privacy."

"Thank you, Khan. Heklitis smiled briefly. "As to Sahera, her obsession is peculiar but not especially unusual, among Asians. And considering her experience, it is predictable. She has many ideas that must have been important to her mother. The first of these ideas is that a god has placed a curse on her soul to be born female, as a punishment from a former life. Therefore, she can only redeem herself by bearing a great hero. And this great hero is her younger son, whom she calls ‘Eosa.’

"Is that an Alan name?"

"Roman, I think. Or perhaps Macedonian. I am not a linguist, Khan. The Roman meaning is "bear" as in the Bear constellation in Ptolemy’s book of the heavens. The Bear is sacred to Ares in the old Greek religion, and she says that Eosa was fathered by Ares. She has told this to Saheris as well, no doubt?"

"Sahelis – Eosa – whatever – was fathered by the most peculiar rape never punished in Bithynia," Saher exclaimed.

Heklitis stared at him. "Rape?"

"Do you believe a woman capable of raping a man?" Saher asked him.

"Not generally... but if it is Sahera, yes. I can believe it."

Saher spoke quickly. "Sahelis’ father was seduced, bound, tortured, and milked of his seed in a most degrading manner by my daughter in a cave along the southwest coast. I have the tale from Byriac himself who swore me to secrecy for his life. The boy was completely unmanned. And it is no wonder he died by an Avar sword in his first battle. What man could take up arms after being raped by the daughter of his Khan and then forced to marry her?"

"I see your point. This explains much."

"That she will not acknowledge Sahelis had a true father, you mean."

"Yes, her fantasy of being impregnated by the gods. Perhaps taking a human victim by force, as in the myth of Zeus and Europa, was a part of her fantasy. The continent is named for Europa, the mother of nations, who was raped by Zeus, you may know."

"Yes, yes," Saher said, newly impatient with the doctor’s pedantry. "What I wish to learn is what to do about this!" He pointed at the coin.

"Ignore it," Heklitis replied. "Ignore the entire incident. Make no mention of it to Saheris, and do not allude to it before her or the children again. If they ask you about it, treat it as unimportant."

"Should I throw these coins away then?"

"No, I don’t think you should. That would make them appear important enough to throw away. And doubtless, she or Saheris would attempt to recover them. Best to put them where they belong – in the jar you keep all the rest of your unspent coins that grow too heavy in your purse when travelling. Forgotten among its fellows."

Saher smiled. "You are ingenious, Heklitis! ‘Ignore it!’ How simple! How sensible!"

"However, you should not keep the children at Maduc with her here. She cannot be trusted with them any further; she is predictable, but certainly not sane."

Saher sighed. "I am thinking the same thing."

"I am relieved."

"Any other problems with Sahera?"

"Only that I am certain she is in contact with Rome or with other persons abroad. I found letters in Latin in her room an dread them. She has arranged an assignation for August outside of Maduc, and has since requested to be allowed to go to the seaside at Euxis during this time.

"Euxis, where she has her secret chamber in the sea caves. I want that place found. But not disturbed in any way. I will send the boys with Isolt and Arrus to Ilitrahant. We will stay in the area until August and see who comes to meet her. But by the end of summer, I will need five thousand men to move into Galatia. The Persians are coming, and my retirement is over."

Saheris slept poorly that night. The day was frustratingly anticlimactic. After the breathless adventure of his mother’s mysterious visit in the hour before dawn, and his decision to reveal her secret, he expected a confrontation, a summons, a sudden flash of a cold knife reaching out from behind a restless tapestry, to seek his life for violating her covenant. Saher would not see him; he spent all morning meeting with the ulu chiefs. Each ulu, a sort of family-based clan, had a chief, sometimes referred to as a commander (in the Roman system) or khan, in the Ugar system. The northern chiefs were often called Tesar by their men, the eastern pronunciation of "Caesar" or high chief. Their king was Great Khan or BelzheTesar. Saher, in assuming military command and taking leadership of Bithynia and the Asian client states, was always addressed as Great Khan by his Asian army, BelzheTezar by the Ugar mercenaries from Armenia, and as "Shah" or "Shah-han" by his Mesopotamian enemies. To the Roman imperials, he was an indigenous regional sovereign, a prince, who served them also as procurator or governor of their semi-autonomous borderlands. Beyond the Carpathian basin and the rich sea routes of Thrace, the sparse lands of Galatia, Syria and Cappadocia concerned Rome only as buffer zones against eastern hostiles, who posed a far greater risk to Asia’s peoples than they did to Thrace, Macedon, or Illyricum.

Saher spent the day with his ulu chiefs, and this could only mean war. Saheris’ thoughts drifted back and forth between three things - Sahera, war, and Maduc. If war were coming, then they would stay in Maduc, rather than return to Illyricum. That idea seemed like an undreamt fantasy to Saheris. It was so strange that only two weeks before, he knew nothing of Bithynia or Maduc, and now he could not close his eyes with the excitement as he pondered the possibility that they might remain.

And what of his mother? Did Saher go to her with the coin and accuse her? Would she reappear tonight again, a dark wraith in a black cloak, and seize him once again as a robber seizes a traveler on the Via? As he mused, he felt his heart pound uncontrollably in his chest and throat. What would he say to her then, as her blade lay poised against his neck – "I am sorry, Mother, but I serve only the Khan of Asia," - then would she laugh and pierce him with a mortal wound? She must have been armed last night – perhaps she had a sword at her side.

The shadows grew menacing along the fragrant cedar shakes that lined the walls of the boys’ room. Sahelis slept on, as ever, blissfully lost to his dreams. Saheris watched the play of weak moonlight against the wall...

"Answer me," said the voice, more insistent now.

"Who is here, what do you want?" Saheris called out into the dark. "I can’t see you!"

"I said who do you serve? Answer me now!"

"Who do I serve? Serve how?"

"Who is your master?" The voice grew loud, close, and impatient. Saheris thought wildly, who is this speaking? but did not ask again.

He cleared his throat and spoke, his shout barely heard among the loudly ringing echoes around him. "I serve Saheris El Maduc, the Khan of All Asia. I am his regent!"

"You serve whom?" The voice was incredulous. "Who is Saheris El Maduc?"

"He is the Khan of the Unari and of the Sabiri, the son of the Khan Munduk El Beshan, and governs the territories of Scythia, Thrakcia, Illyria, Syria, Dacia and Moldova. Who asks now whom I serve?"

The voice did not answer.

"Who speaks to me in the dark and has no courage to show himself?" Saheris ventured, standing fast, a part of him marveling at his unhesitating recital of nations, some of whose names he did not know.

Again, silence. Saheris waited, and noticed that he had begun to shiver.

"Who do you serve?" the voice asked again.

The shadow against the wall made a slight swaying motion as Saheris came to himself once again in his bed. He gradually became aware of his surroundings. Beside him, Sahelis made a slight movement with his hand and sighed. The voice that thundered out of the darkness echoed back into the silence of his mind. There was no sound but that of his own blood in his ears, the rush of his breath in his throat. He was soaked with sweat, and his arm ached as though he had fallen asleep upon it.

"I serve Saheris El Maduc," he had said. He had not said "Saher." Was that an error? Did he make a mistake in answering the voice? Yet he was sure that was the right answer! And who was Munduk El Beshan?

His eyes probed the shadows, but nothing emerged to seize him, no voice spoke, not even a whisper upon the wind. After an interminable watch, it seemed, he finally slept.

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