Chapter 23: Cuckoos

The sound of breaking glass greeted Munduk as he entered the dark porch of Stiven’s home. Pausing at the door, he sniffed at a lingering, subtle odor which intensified as he approached the darkened, oak door. A feeling of unreasoning apprehension gripped him as his eyes fell upon the wreath twined about the doorway, causing him to hesitate before pulling the latch.

He counseled himself fiercely: "you have no reason to fear this priest," he chided himself. "When he decides to take your life, you will know it, and he will be betrayed." Despite his own machinations and deceptions, Munduk despised politics, and said as much openly to his chiefs. He doubted, however, that he was ever believed. He tugged at the greasy talon of leather hanging on the door, and pulled it to.

"The curse of Hera upon you, Zanthras!" the priest’s shriek rose and assaulted Munduk’s ears from a smoky cloud at the far end of the house. Before him cowered a thin apprentice, amid a splash of foul liquid and broken glass. Breaking off, he turned. "Munduk!" he greeted the king sunnily. "What brings you to my den?"

"News, Stiven. Time for a prognostication. A Greek physician from Bithynia is arriving to attend the sons of Saher."

"You lie, Ugar…" the old man sputtered, his grizzled face growing dark with new rage. "You mistrust me and you send for your ally to counter me!" he shrieked belligerently.

Munduk drew his sword, stepped quickly through the broken glass, and laid the edge of his blade lightly against the grease-spotted collar of the soothsayer. "Say that twice, Stiven. I long to slay you for defying me." He let a slow, nasty smile spread across his face as he stared steadily into his enemy’s eyes. Stiven, still now as a captured rabbit in a wolf’s jaws, blinked once, then twice.

"Hold," he said. Munduk did not move. Zanthras gasped, possibly relieved that his master had been temporarily diverted from beating him. He may have been praying for Munduk to strike the blow that would free him from the magician’s service and a life of slavery. Munduk’s gaze shifted momentarily to the boy huddled below him on the floor.

"Shall I hold, Zanthras?" he queried him. "Have you suffered enough in the hands of this master?"

"I plead for his life," the boy whispered, mouthing the formula of his oath of apprenticeship.

"Then your plea is heard," Munduk’s grip shifted, and he withdrew the blade. "I advise you in future, Stiven, to reward your servants for defending your life and not otherwise. They may not remain so generous with your life in future. I may have to avenge them."

"What is this game?" the priest blustered, insolent once again now that Munduk’s sword was once again quiescent.

"This? This game? Saher writes to say he sends his Therapeutus to instruct his sons further while they prepare for war. They are of age, why respond as you do?"

"No Therapeuti will taste my boy’s food!" Stiven roared. He knelt then, gathering thick shards of red glass in his spindly fingers, picking pieces from the soup of dark liquid.

"Your boy? Your boys?" Munduk asked, his voice an echo. "What boys are these?

"My… you know they are… or he is…" he began to mutter.

"You speak rather possessively about my ally’s heirs. Perhaps you could explain that."

Stiven rounded on Munduk with a cold glare, and spoke deliberately, unlike his previous muttering and stammering. "You know they are not Saher’s sons. They are both bastard children, fathered upon his mad daughter by some unknown king and held in ignorance of their own inheritance. This much is known!"

"No, this much is not known, Stiven. We have never asked the children their parentage." He hesitated for a moment. "Nor shall we. Shall we?" He placed his hand deliberately upon the hilt of his recently-drawn weapon. "Shall we?" he repeated in the same tone.

"You are a stupid fool –" the priest blustered

"Shall we?" he repeated once again, insistent. "It is not too late for death to pay a visit to your home today, Stiven. I tire of you mightily." He turned his back on the priest and stalked away then, leaving him muttering in the shadows.

At length he cried "And you will die by your stupidity!" but Munduk had slammed the door, dislodging the magical wreath and casting it onto the ground.

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