Chapter 3: The Foreign Bride

The house grew empty as the remainder of Saherís guard (they preferred to think of themselves as Praetorians, in the Roman sense, the elite force of the king,) departed in haste to find his missing grandsons and question Saheraís household servants marching back across the Illyricum frontier through the mountains.

Tethys, now through with his immediate chores of cleaning up the princess Sahera, methodically built a fire in the cold room, while Heklitis attended the Khan, whose eyes now saw only the flickering of the flames catching on the damp kindling. Night in these mountains was always cold, even at the height of summer, and the chill had pervaded all with an undeniable gloom which deepened the Khanís depression. In this state, he knew, he had to talk, and from long practice, he knew he had to choose his listener carefully, lest he burden him with secrets too great for his office. Fortunately, Heklitis was an expatriate, diffident, politically disinterested character, which made him an excellent candidate for personal physician, and, Saher reasoned over the three years of their acquaintance so far, proven in his discretion. From all of his efforts to determine where his confidences lay, there was never any evidence that he spoke of them to anyone. He was a keeper of secrets. Perhaps this came from the training in the Eleusinian school at which he learned his medical art - there were secrets that must be kept from oneís patient, regardless of how serious, such as the knowledge of impending death, or a mortal wound which may or may not take a life.

"Boy," the Khan said, addressing Tethys as he dutifully fed the fire, "It is time for you to return to your bed, there is nothing you can do until they return with the child. Thank you for building my fire and attending to my daughter. It is a personal kindness to me."

"Yes Khan," the child squeaked, clearly pleased that he did not have to watch sleepily all night. He evaporated into the darkness, with a quick backward look at his master, who nodded to him.

"It comforts me to see a young, healthy child, obedient and careful. I would have sat here for another hour and watched him, for the sheer comfort of knowing there is order in the universe."

"He will be an excellent physician, if he chooses that route," Heklitis said by way of agreement.

"What is his name again?"

"Tethys," Heklitis replied. "It is a Thessalonian name, he is from the north of the peninsula."

"He should choose a Roman name, so that he can find his way through the empire more easily. The Romans and their allies find all of your Greek peoples easily exploited, and if he were seen as a citizen and countryman, even an Illyrian like my grandfather, it would go easier on him. A name like, oh, let me see, Thespis would be not such a great change. And a second name, a very common second name. Iíll think on that."

"Thank you, Khan, I will mention it to him when we once again must travel toward Rome."

"No, before! Romans, remember, travel to our country frequently - it is good practice for him to be a Roman amongst those who are no longer of Rome, that way he can fit the role when he must play it."

"Yes, Khan."

Silence accumulated for a space of time then, as first Saher considered the common names of Romans, those who had served him well as mercenaries, his cousins and the distant relatives of Diocles.

"Darius," he said finally. "Darius is a nice name, and common enough not to raise any suspicions. Everyone will assume he is related to someone on the other side of the empire he knows slightly, and will be too embarrassed about his lack of clear memory to press the matter in casual discussion."

"Yes, Khan, I will suggest it to him."

"No, I think I will do it. A naming by oneís mentor is important, but being named by your Khan is a great honor - it may convince him of the importance of names in his future profession, and help him to be successful. It may soften the blow of losing his own name, too," he added, his voice suddenly choked with emotion.

Heklitis waited. He knew this tone, and he knew he would not sleep again this night; the Khan needed to unburden a sorrow.

"The time has come for me to tell you what I have not before revealed about this girl," he gestured toward the deeply sleeping Sahera, her rest made untroubled by a drug fed to her by Heklitis.

Again Heklitis waited, unspeaking.

"As you know, I married only once, an Alan named Vira, Al Alcal, a member of the pale northern tribe she called Caucasus. No one knows, truly, where the Alans come from, and among their wandering tribes are people of every shape and color from all over Asia, Judea, Egypt and countries east of the Euxine Sea. They are a mottled group. Most prized among these are the pale women, who have been traded as concubines, bartered for dowries, and taken hostage in hostilities with the Alans for fifty years and more. Saheraís mother was of this type. Three generations or more ago, I marched against Thrace, which had been invaded from the west by an army of Hengistís father - what was his name? "Beehra, Bora, something like that, made up of Vandals and Goths... brutal people, but easy to defeat in battle of themselves. However, just as the emperor had retained me to march against them for Constantinople, so Bora retained an army of Alans from Pontus to add to the forces as mercenaries, to equalize the battle for Thrace. Had there been more Alans, we might have had a severe contest, but we did not - it was a rout. Alans are not used to dismounting for rough terrain, and their spears were practically useless in close quarters. If we were on a plain, I would have had an Alan spearhead right here," (he pointed to his right side) along with every man with me. We captured the Alans and a large cache of their excellent spears, some 200 horses, as well as some of these women who were fighting along with them. The Alans were training the women to fight along with them as archers and spearmen! What Roman or Bithynian commander could let fly a spear at the breast of a woman? I thought their maneuver was brilliant, and after much thought, decided to learn more of these Alans, their people, and these curious women who went into battle.

We took them prisoner, and held the commanders for ransom from the Vandals. But Vandals never pay ransom for mercenaries, and they were held for months at Annaganthas while we attempted to find out whether they were worth anything to their countrymen. Anyway, I always go on too long about battles - this is about Vira and Sahera.

"During the occupation of Thrace, we made a rather more permanent camp through that summer at Annaganthas, while awaiting word on the political situation with the west. We learned very little of the origin of these people during that time, although we took meals with them in a civilized manner under the terms of military occupation. During this time, I paid a visit to the prisoners, who were all housed together in a house owned by the former prince of Thrace. There were four women, and the eldest of these was Vira, It was she whom I interviewed first. She told me that her sisters and she had been captured by the Alans in a campaign into the Caucasus, their home, and pressed into military service, and who also served as whores for their army. We spoke in Greek, and her language was fluent and flawless. I did not know she knew my language, or I would have used that, since my Greek was not what it is now. She knew many languages, I learned later, and concealed that fact from me.

Her story moved me deeply, and I thought of these sisters, alone and far from their country, amongst dark barbarians who sent them to battle against their enemies and used them by night as well, and I said so to her. She told me that our conquest of Thrace was a great good fortune to all of them, since they were now free of the Alans, and would rather be the slaves of the Bithynians, and if they served us well, perhaps we would let them return to their own country to the east in time."

"Did you do anything to confirm her story?" Heklitis interrupted, a dark look spreading over his face.

"No - well, that is not true. I did, but having the same story from all of the other women is not necessarily a confirmation. This was my great mistake. Or rather, my first great mistake." Heklitis nodded, falling silent once again.

"The truth was, I wanted this woman for myself, regardless of how many Alans had defiled her, and even if she were married to the emperor of Rome and the father of my sworn enemy, I would still have wanted her. She was greater in intelligence than I, skillful with language, more beautiful than any woman I had ever seen, fierce and adept in the use of a spear, fearless in battle -- it was as though my deepest fantasies of youth had been put into flesh for me, and I could not resist her. She must have known this, for she had the terrible education of a whore at her command, and they can divine the hidden lusts of men in ways men do not even know themselves. In an hour, my mind was seduced, and it was mere weeks before the rest followed." The Khan sighed heavily, and once again, a period of silence followed.

"She ransomed herself to me in exchange for a treaty with an invisible country to the east, which I found later does not exist. She was of an isolated tribe of northern Alans, perhaps made pale by the lack of sun in that region, and in that country all of the people, men and women alike, are trained at arms, raise their children, go into battle, and hunt for food, unlike our people. She was the daughter of a skillful and wily commander who had been slain in the wars with Constantinople, and after his death, she had become a soldier, gathering to her the most beautiful and clever women she could find to join the mercenaries and serve as spies for her band, for she was their true leader. And she had seduced many a leader of an occupying army over the years prior to the campaign for Thrace where I captured her. All of her previous lovers had been taken and executed. Of this, she bragged to me later."

"So, you failed to see her as their chief when you took her prisoner, and you allowed her to defeat you off the battlefield."

"Well, yes. Put that way, it sounds harsh. But it cannot be argued with. I had gained the land and won the battle, but she had won me and my land, and routed me. It was an exchange of sorts.

And I felt at the time that I had done so well, to find a woman my equal or superior in every way, in rescuing her from the bonds of oppression and captivity!" he laughed a bitter laugh, which had the edge of agony to it.

"But that is not the sad part of the story, Heklitis. That comes later, much later. In accordance with my curious pact with this woman, I decided, lacking a ransom from either the Vandals or the Alans, to put their captains to death and march the mercenary army back over the Macedonian frontier or to hire them, as they willed. None of them would serve me except a small number who I found later were the families of the women we had taken, and they entered my service. She pled for the lives of the chiefs, and assured me that they would prove willing mercenaries against the Vandals in future battles on behalf of Constantinople, as the Vandals were much harder masters, and I could convey that intelligence to Constantinople. Julian did not object. And so I did, and I let them go. I should have killed them.

"I brought her and her so-called sisters and retainers with me to Bithynia, and upon my return, Julian ceded to me large areas of Galatia to the south, all the way to the border of Cappadocia, and I was granted the capital of Ankra. These are fertile and rich lands, unlike the rocky passes and untillable soils of Bithynia on the coast, the boon was tremendous. I had underestimated the importance of Thrace to the emperor, and he was in fact appointing me, a foreign king, to a position of provincial governor for provinces still generally considered part of Constantineís empire. He installed me on the thrones of both Galatia and Cappadocia. From this one small summer campaign, I had brought a mere 5,000 men across the Hellespont and marched across the breadth of southern Thrace, met and routed one inferior army of barbarians for Constantineís grandsons, and was rewarded outrageously with the payment of two lands larger and richer than Thrace could ever be. Richer in my opinion." Saher eyed Heklitis carefully. Do you see anything curious about that?"

"Yes, it seems disproportionate. Didnít Julian have an army of his own that he did not have to pay in political concessions?"

"Yes, he did, but it was engaged here in Moesia."

"Perhaps he had less confidence in them."

"I donít think that is so. And of course, there were the Romans." He shook his head. "Here I am talking about battles again. Now, about Vira..."

"Iím sorry, Khan. This has been a question that has occurred to me more than once, why Constantinople has treated you with such favor all of these years."

"Heklitis, there are secrets and there are secrets. Let us let that one rest for the moment." The Khan grew impatient then. "The thing I wanted to tell you! Now the image of those traitorous soldiers, those demonic women plague me. The palace at Ankra..." he closed his eyes and leaned back.

"Yes, Khan."

"So I installed her in the residence at Ankra, which had its own household there with Byzantine servants, and I stayed there with her through the winter. I took her as my bride at Ankra, and she was visibly pregnant with Sahera by the spring when I returned to my palace at Maduc. I was in a state of insane happiness, drunk with the good fortune of my new kingdom, yet incurious about traveling it and securing its borders. I did not go to Cappadocia that entire year, and there was no more correspondence from Julian about the transfer of power over those regions to me. For myself, I did not initiate any - I rarely left our rooms, or the side of my fascinating, beautiful Vira. I had fallen ill from lust, and it took all of my reason from me."

"This happens to many men, and kings are no exception."

"Please, let me get to the rest of the story," Saher waved his hand at the interruption, batting at it like a buzzing insect. "You can reassure me later."

"At her insistence, and against the judgement of my own master of soldiers, I put the girl-child to military training, and took on much of her instruction myself. She was strong and adept, intelligent and skillful like her mother, and as she grew, her resemblance to her mother became uncanny. There is nothing of me in that girl, although she would like to think so - she has none of my prowess, all of that is of her mother, who was formidable with a short sword." Saher moved his collar aside, still stained with the blood of his throat wound, and revealed a heavy, jagged scar along his clavicle. "This scar is from Viraís blade. I was close to death for days after that wound, and my lifeblood leaked from me like water. She was a dangerous enemy in battle. In every form of battle. She knew instinctively where the fountains of life flow in the body, and could always find one when she attacked. Of all her foes, perhaps only I still live." He laughed harshly. "If you can call this life."

"Perhaps you are a superior soldier to her..." Heklitis offered.

"No, no, oh no. I am a king because I am not a superior soldier. I must hire superior soldiers. The king is the man who does not have the courage to kill, but must order others to do it for him. I am a coward, Heklitis. That is my great shame. And it took me a generation to admit it. By the time I admitted it, I was no longer a commander in the field, and it became easy to hide, except from her."

Heklitis did not reply. Saher was in a mood to indict himself; and he would not attempt to defend him further.

"It was in the 18th year of Julianís reign, and my daughter, not yet of an age to marry - tall, beautiful, dark, and dangerous like her mother; the two of them were together at anytime Sahera was not with the swordmaster or her tutors. Sahera was all of Viraís life, it seemed, during those years, and though our lovemaking did not remain as empassioned as in that first winter in Galatia, it was consistent; yet, she did not bear another child in all this time. I wondered about it, yet I did not ask her. She must have known that among the Bithynians, and in the eyes of the Eastern empire, my daughter would not be considered a suitable heir, although her birth did confirm that my bride was fertile and an heir was possible. Otherwise, I would be forced by political pressure to take a second wife quickly. As common as polygamy is among our people, particularly in the Khanate, I had no such interests, and this fact itself had drawn some criticism, that I was catering to Roman tastes by remaining faithful to a single wife; or worse, that I was becoming a Christian.

"I did not convey this pressure to Vira; I suspected that childbirth had made her barren. I had four brothers, any of whose sons, if they proved able, I could adopt and name as an heir. It was their ability that was lacking - my brothers all eventually died in battle; if I was a poor soldier, they were poorer. We all lacked the blood lust that marks a truly successful soldier. Bithynia has long been a mild country, harsh in weather but meek in character. We have had to strengthen ourselves with foreign ruthlessness. And yes Ė" he eyed Heklitis sidelong "with political strategems and careful alliances with fiercer peoples just in order to survive. We were annexed by Rome for a hundred years during the reign of Diocletian, and Romeís gradual weakening has been our good fortune; Julianís concessions have rebuilt our confidence and more.

"And so, I waited out the uneasy years; and military campaigns became few and far between, though the Western empire began to have serious problems from Goths in Aquitaine and Gaul, and from Vandals from the south acquiring new territory. There were rumors that some kings of the White Ugar from the north would join us to offer in a military alliance to encroach upon the Euxine Sea, and I might have to choose between offering my armies to my own people or to our historic enemy to the west. Though quiet, these were uneasy times; and armies of all eastern nations became mercenaries."

"At long last, I was called to Constantinople, and left Vira with Sahera in Ankra, where she preferred to be during the harsh Bithynian winters. I was called along with other eastern allies to meet with the emperor on his idea of starting a campaign to the south, to push back the Vandals and their Alan mercenaries into the wilds south of Troya, forming a border there and claiming it for Julian. I was gone for weeks, while we assessed forces and waited for intelligence on the strength of the Alans. When I returned, I worked for two months in forced training for hot weather conditions. Before setting out, I sent for my family. It was then that I learned Vira had given birth to a son."

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