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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 his lesson.

"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 meal.

"Our discussion 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?"

Saheris caught 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 he know…? 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."

"Certainly, Sahelis."

"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 an hour."

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 tutor.

Saheris suddenly 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 quickly.

"Inconvenienced your wife."

"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."

"Bellianus," Saheris breathed.

"Yes, Bellianus. 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."

Ilitrahant: the 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."

Munduk's voice 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, and waited.

"He instructed us to take all we wished."

"He did…" Munduk trailed off.

"Of wives, or of concubines?"

"Of wives. And of whores."

"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?"

Saheris returned 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."

"Hetaera? What 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."

"Training?" Saheris 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.

"Yes, training. 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, Saheris?"

"And what of Sahelis and his adventures?" Saheris challenged, with a jealous glance at his brother.

"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."

"What kindness 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 wandered off.

"Khan, may I go and speak to her then of these things?" Sahelis stood.

"Yes, go. But be back before midnight."

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Saheris accosted his brother outside the house. "You had one whore in the town? One, all this time?"

Sahelis said nothing.

"Speak, you dog, you have had ONE whore?"

"Yes."

"Which one?"

Sahelis shook his head.

"I will follow you to your whore, your precious Armenian, then."

"You won't."

"I shall, and I will."

"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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