Chapter 27: The Lesson
Once the meal
was taken, and the brothers had drunk down their cold soup and ate their
meat as delicately as they could before the veiled eyes of the women,
Munduk once again raised a bird's leg in a posture of tutor, and began
"In the north,
unlike your country, marriages are considered great institutions of political
import," he began, gesturing with the bird leg as if leading a band. Sahelis
suppressed a laugh at the comical appearance, after such a grim and tension-filled
for this night, Saheris, will be on marriage, and the use of marriage
in political and military matters." He bit off another morsel from his
bird, frowned a moment, and then smiled brightly. "You don't object to
my family's participation, surely?"
his brother's eye then, and his warning look, before he glanced back at
the end of the table toward the damask-cloaked figures, now quiescent
before their now-empty plates. Could Sahelis not see what he saw? His
long-delayed meal now heavy in his gut, the room seemed to swim before
him, and the curtain covering the shadowy figures of the two women flickered
before him as though in uncertain candlelight. The meal laid out before
them, the obsequious servants hovering in the background, including two
tall Gepidae serving women, silently waiting for some unknown signal,
recalled to him his first night in Maduc, except that, on that night,
the veiled woman did not sit at the table - the mother he sought so vainly
to reach had eluded him then. Could it be --? He had seen her funeral
bier. Was one of these
how far did Munduk's deception extend? Could
? Saheris's suspicious mind was ignited with wild thoughts,
and he did not hear what transpired next.
"Khan," said Sahelis
politely. "If I may venture a question."
"We are not from
Scythia, and therefore, are quite mystified concerning the use of veils,
particularly at such an awkward moment as mealtimes. I myself am uncertain
about the meaning of it. Could you explain? My discomfort at failing to
see the face of your family is rather severe after sitting at dinner for
At this lengthy
speech, Sahelis felt silent, a red blush creeping up his neck. He should
not have spoken - he knew it, but his curiosity and confusion had bested
him, and he had to know. Hadn't Munduk told him to speak freely at any
time in his house? This was their school, after all, and Munduk their
came to himself as Munduk spoke. "I will not explain, Sahelis." The older
brother's head came up then.
"Now you've done
it," said Saheris.
"What I will do,
however, is excuse them." Munduk waved his napkin slightly toward the
end of the table, and both women rose immediately, fading into the shadows
wordlessly, with no more than a rustle of silk. Sahelis bowed his head
sadly, relieved, in spite of himself, that the vision of these enigmatic
persons had been removed. "And what has he done, Saheris?" Munduk asked
"There is no inconvenience
to my wife. She does as she sees fit, and she sees fit to please me."
"Oh. I see." He
did not see.
"Now, on to the
lesson, I have much to do tonight, and you have much to do on the morrow.
It may be a long night, for I have had word from Saher that he is leading
a party into the eastern borderlands to follow a band of highwaymen led
by an elusive Roman traitor."
You know of him then."
"Yes - he is
I heard of him when I was at Euxis - he had been exiled then by Attalus,
and was named an enemy of Bithynia." Saheris was pleased at how smoothly
he spoke of his mysterious, outlaw father. He is my father! What will
Saher do to him? Certainly not execute him, not his own father.
"Saher ought to
run him through when he finds him. Dishonoring his only daughter, and
kidnapping her. Don't you think so?"
Saheris bit back
his reply, and Sahelis's hand clenched his, holding him back further.
"So, on to the
lesson. And then, we will be riding to meet Saher, and so I will be changing
our schedule of exercise. If he meets armed and organized resistance,
we will have a winter battle near to Ilitrahant, and you will be blooded
fighting Roman highwaymen."
place of mystery, near to the garrison village where Sahera's sword still
slept at the billet next to the tavern. They would go! And he would take
possession of Sahera's sword once again.
"The first thing
you must learn about marriage is, you do not bed a man's wife. Neither
in the provinces, nor in Rome, nor in any other nation. Women are seen
as property in the worst lands, and in the best, they are seen as little
better than property. We who are educated, know the value of women. They
are not servants, and they are not mere vessels of our seed and mothers
to our children. In the spring of the year we make our greatest festival
to the Mother, who is the source of all, and every woman is a symbol of
that Great One, Vesta, the giver of life and warmth. Not even the harvest
god is as powerful as Vesta, for without her warmth in spring, there can
be no harvest, and no wine."
took on a reverent, bardlike quality, as though he were spinning a tale
rather than delivering a lesson. Often had Arrus spoken to them thus,
of battles and of life in Rome, and the boys listened, raptly.
"In the lands
of the east, women are worshipped as vessels of the Mother. We, truly,
are their servants, and we are sent to defend the borders of our lands,
our tents, our sheep, to preserve them and our children. We give them
our protection and care, and they in return give us our reason for living,
for dying, and for fighting. A man, in Scythia, is bound to take as wife
as many as he can afford, since there are many women and few men. For
each he provides a home, even if it be a modest tent, for a woman must
rule in her own home and not with another wife nearby. If he cannot provide
a home for each, he cannot have the other wife. For some, they take whores
and concubines, but outside of garrison towns, this is considered a detestable
practice. For a Khan, there is one chief wife, and she is the heiress
and mother to the heirs. Only if she is barren is there a change in this.
This is true in Bithynia as well I understand, although Bithynians generally
take less wives, and only among the ulu chiefs." He waited for acknowledgement.
"Yes, Khan," said
Sahelis. "Saher took a single wife, and no concubine that I know. But
that is because he was Illyrian."
"And how did he
instruct you on taking wives and concubines?" He looked pointedly at Saheris,
us to take all we wished."
Munduk trailed off.
"Of wives, or
"Of wives. And
"Whores? Do you
take whores, Saheris? You are young to be taking whores. Is that where
you go at night, when you should be studying your maps and sleeping?"
a smoldering look to Munduk, defiant. "Is this part of the lesson, Khan?"
"Yes, it is, Saheris,"
Munduk said mildly. "I myself was married at twelve, and had plenty of
the hetaera who trained me in matters of love before that. However, we
of Scythia start our education young. We are blooded at ten, and married
at twelve. And most, of course, are dead at twenty."
is a hetaera?"
"Ah, that is a
woman instructor for a Khan and his sons. She teaches you the ways of
sex and of diplomacy. You have had a hetaera, have you not? A hetaera
is the proper tutor for a Khan. Whores are for the entertainment of the
common soldier, those they will not or cannot marry."
"No, there are
no hetaeras in Bithynia. Are there Sahelis?"
"If there are,
I have not been told about them," Sahelis replied ambiguously.
"You have not
been trained in sex then? Oh my child. How can you join the army? How
can you lead men if you cannot lead your own desires? This is monstrous!"
Munduk placed a hand on his forehead, in a gesture of distress. "You are
not ready to marry or to take a concubine, until you have taken this training."
was mystified. A woman to train him in bed, and in diplomacy? It sounded
like some monumental joke. If the Khan had expected Saheris and his brother
to be trained by a hetaera, then why had he not said so? Sahelis said
nothing. Even with his brother's eyes boring into him, he did not look
up. He feigned a slight embarrassment, as though the entire topic were
beyond him, or too embarrassing to make note of.
On the morrow, I will arrange it, and there will be no more talk of whores,
and no more adventures in the byways of my garrison. Is that understood,
"And what of Sahelis
and his adventures?" Saheris challenged, with a jealous glance at his
"What of Sahelis's
adventures?" Munduk asked pointedly, turning his attention to Sahelis.
"Khan," said Sahelis,
meeting his gaze. "I did take a whore in the town, a refugee orphan from
Armenia. She sought me as an Alan mercenary, thinking that I would bring
her back to the lands of the Alans in the spring campaign. I bought her
first for myself, so that I could experience a woman. But there was another
goal: to free her from the beds of the soldiers who degraded her, and
in return she has told me frightening tales of the life of the whores
in Maeotis. Something should be done, about this girl, and about these
orphan children. I could not take another like this. I would be glad to
accept your offer, if you would grant me a kindness with the girl."
would this be, Sahelis?"
"To return her
to Armenia, or to where she can go and find protection from the enemies
of her people. She believes her parents still live, and she wishes to
find them, or at least, her village."
"Would she take
a husband, if this cannot be done? Is she in good health?"
"No, I don't believe
she would take a husband who is a mercenary in your army, although she
would have accepted me if I were an Alan prince. And her health is good.
She is knowledgeable of herbs and medicines."
"Are you not an
Alan prince, Sahelis?"
"No, not at all,
Khan. I am a Bithynian prince. My mother was an Alan, but only just. This
does not make me her countryman, nor a suitable husband for her, and my
father would not approve."
"Just so, Sahelis.
We will talk of it more tomorrow. Have her tell you, and you write down,
all she knows of the names and conditions of the whores of Maeotis, and
we shall deal with it all this week, before our departure. I dislike the
whoring in this town. I don't understand why soldiers can't just find
a girl in the usual way and marry her in the usual way. If she smells
badly he can wash her up or marry her to another
." Munduk's voice
"Khan, may I go
and speak to her then of these things?" Sahelis stood.
"Yes, go. But
be back before midnight."
his brother outside the house. "You had one whore in the town? One, all
Sahelis said nothing.
"Speak, you dog,
you have had ONE whore?"
"I will follow
you to your whore, your precious Armenian, then."
"I shall, and
"Saheris, I swear,
I will take you down with both fists if you do not get out of my way this
minute. I have never struck you in anger, but if there was a moment when
I would do it, this would be the moment." Sahelis now became painfully
aware that he stood a head taller than Saheris, and peered down at him
in the gloom. The older brother was not intimidated by the violent words,
and placed a hand on his belt as though to draw his sword.
"I will do as
I please," Saheris said, his voice a threatening growl.
"Then you shall
have to find me." Sahelis then leapt into the darkness, and headed toward
the waterfront at a dead run, heart pounding in his head. He knew it was
unlikely that he could continue to outrun his brother, but he was a superior
tracker to Saheris, and could successfully hide from him. At the very
least, it would distract him from thinking about Numis, and at some other
time, when Saheris was occupied, he could go to her. There was still a
week left before they had to leave. He returned at midnight, and went
directly to his room, and did not stop to say good night to Saheris or
to see whether he had returned. He had run off much of his anger, and
was bone-tired from the night of confrontation and hinted confrontation.
As a precaution against intrusions during the night, he latched his door.
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