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Chapter 25: The Choice

The brothers, met by three of their training companions of the Ugar, had a hard but enjoyable morning, and upon returning for their meal, were laden with dark pelts from the unfortunate denizens of Red Hill. The foxes, having overgrown their territory, had begun to prey on the fowl of the garrison. Each morning told the tale in blood and feathers as the flocks of Munduk were thinned. The hunting parties were not truly for fur but for population control – they stood to lose half of their fowl to foxes if the winter proved cold; they had to be thinned.

At the door, they were met with sheer surprise: "I trust you remember me," Heklitis greeted them quietly. They ran up to him as he stood talking with Munduk.

"Heklitis, where is Arrus? Did you bring Tethys too?" Heli asked one question after another, not pausing for an answer.

Munduk seized the shoulder of each in a powerful hand. "Not so much talk, come in and eat. No – wash the gore off you first, then come in and eat."

Then men went inside and left them at the pump. "I wonder why he has come. Has Saher fallen ill?" Heri wondered aloud.

"What?" Heli replied. "Why do you say that? If Saher was ill he would be with him!"

"Yes, but…" a brief gloom settled over the boys. The arrival of Heklitis generally meant unpleasantness. The physician must have sensed it, or their faces gave away their anxiety, for he rose and drew them aside. "Saher is well. I left him yesterday and he sends letters for each of you."

Saheris sighed audibly with relief. "Then why…"

"Nothing grave. Saher just wishes for me to be with you for a time. Let’s eat. I cannot take food on ships and I am weak."

"Ha ha!" Heli laughed loudly. "Heri too! He puked the whole first day!" Saheris smiled grimly.

 

Munduk had a broth made for Heklitis, and he sipped at it delicately while the boys told of their morning in the woods to Munduk, who listened raptly. After Saheris’ third refusal to sing his song of the old black fox, Munduk raised his hand for silence.

"Now, Heklitis, we are fed, and the children rested from their hunt. You have come on some errand. I am concerned about this errand, and there are those who are more concerned than myself."

Heklitis looked up from his bowl. "If you do not mind, it would be far better for me to see the boys privately, and I will answer your questions afterward."

The expression that passed across Munduk’s face was unreadable. "I do mind," he replied tightly. "You are in my house."

"Khan, I apologize if this is an offense to you, he said patiently, almost cordially. The work I do for the Khan must be discreet, and the health of his children are his greatest concern at all times. He has not asked you to safeguard their health; that is my duty. I assure you that once I have done this duty, nothing of importance will be kept from you. I carry Saher’s letter which should be sufficient to explain my presence."

He held out the letter to Munduk, who put it next to his plate, unopened.

Heklitis raised his spoon once again, and took a final sip. He was waiting for Munduk’s permission.

"There is no offense," Munduk said at length. "They are well, I have treated them well these last weeks, as soldiers, but as elite soldiers. Have I not?"

Saheris rose to his feet. "We are in perfect health, and brown as nuts. Saher should not worry." Heklitis waited, silent.

"Go then," Munduk said loudly, waving his hands at the children. "I have things to do. Come to me before dinner, Heklitis, and tell me what it is you have to tell me."

They were dismissed.

 

Heklitis was given the last free room in Munduk’s house, a room most often used by his wives when they visited him here, which was infrequent. Though the children had not seen any of Munduk’s wives, the slight evidence of women was noticeable here and there in this room: woolen tapestries, several of which were unfinished on their looms, a large table with boxes for combs, rings, and earrings. The boxes stood empty. The long, tapered needles, some of quill and others of iron, lay untouched where unknown hands had ceased their work. The room smelled slightly of perfume. Saheris was reminded for a moment of his mother’s room in Maduc – but this room held only the distant memory of women, as though the passage of months had obscured their presence.

Heklitis made no preamble. "It is important for you both to be extremely discreet here, and to say nothing of our discussion to anyone in this house, or in this country. Do you understand?"

"Yes," Heli replied.

"No," Heri said, annoyed. "What is –"

"Hold your tongue, Saheris," Heklitis said firmly. "It is because of you that I endure that ship."

"Me?"

"Before leaving Maduc you had a whore on the waterfront."

Saheris put a hand over his eyes. Heli grinned widely.

"You don’t deny this?"

"No," he said quietly.

"And did you succeed with her?"

"Succeed?" Saheris gaped at him.

Heklitis nodded briefly. "Succeed."

"Well – yes."

"Twice," Heli said.

"Shut up."

"Twice," Heli repeated loudly.

"And from the look on your face, Sahelis, you were not with this woman yourself."

"No."

"He would have been if we had not left the next day. But I don’t know if he would have succeeded," Saheris said bitterly.

"I would have."

"Maybe."

"Stop now. I am not here to embarrass you. The Khan did not send me from himself to chide you on morality or women."

Saheris looked up. "He didn’t?" The color that had suffused his face began to fade. "What, then?"

"If you succeed in satisfying yourself with a woman, or even more, if you bring her to satisfaction, you will soon have a family of angry whores and bastard children. Because as soon as you can do this, you will father children. I have taught you this since."

"But –" Saheris was abashed. "I thought that whores were –"

"Sterile? No. They may be clever, and know much about when not to take a man in their bed, but they too will carry a child if they are able, and if you choose the wrong day to lie with her."

"It’s a matter of choosing days?" Heli asked.

"Yes, and those days they are most ripe are the days they are most desirable. There is an essence that comes from the woman that a man cannot smell with his nose, but the rest of him knows it, and responds."

"Like stallions know," Saheris intoned darkly.

"Much like that. When a woman seeks your bed it is often at this time. This is when you must make a choice."

"Choice? What choice is there?" Saheris said, the small agony of embarrassment giving way to a greater alarm.

"This choice Saher has made, and the physicians of Eleusis have perfected. He always wishes for you to use good judgement, and to give respect to all of the women you meet and may love or marry. But he does not expect abstinence. Nor does he ask this of you now."

"Then what does he ask?"

"For you to choose wisely. We have two remedies. One is temporary, and the other permanent. If you choose the permanent remedy, then you will never father a child in your life. But that is a choice you can make at any time. The temporary remedy requires me to train you to a simple preparation, but will ensure you will not impregnate the woman you lie with, almost always. Even when she is fertile."

"Why don’t we just wait until we have our wives and then we don’t need to bother?" Heli asked.

"That is not realistic. Saheris did not wait to take a wife. Do you?"

"No. And I don’t want to take a wife. Not this winter anyway."

"Are you ready to choose a wife now, Heli, to satisfy a curiosity for sex?"

"No," Heli admitted.

"Then you will attend me tomorrow to learn to make the preparation. For Munduk’s information, I will tell him that I have discovered a kind of tree In Scythia that does not exist in Bithynia which has caused a rash that could harm you if its thorn were to prick you, and that it sickened Arrus on his last trip north. You will not say otherwise."

"Do we have to eat some foul thing, this preparation?"

"No, it is somewhat worse than that. You have to place a small quantity of a very sour fruit into the womb. If you are unskillful, it will sting badly." Heklitis’ eyes lighted with a youthful mischief.

"Have you done this yourself?" Saheris accused.

"Only when requested."

"Requested?" By your woman?" he laughed.

"No. By the Khan," he said.

"To whom?"

"I suggest you ask the Khan," Heklitis replied.

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