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Chapter 38: Abdication

Munduk marched his army back to Euxis for re-embarkation to Maeotis; while Saheris, and the Bithynian army returned by way of Amysos, there to disperse their numbers to the towns where the men were recruited. Many were easterners, and some were local to Amysos. The army would diminish in size along its march as its troops returned home until needed in the spring. Within two days, Saheris, Atthis, and the bulk of the officers from Maduc returned along the seacoast march to their home.

Little more was said between Saheris and Atthis; and he deliberately distanced himself from her. For her part, Atthis had withdrawn into silence, and busied herself with the transport of those who had difficulty sitting horses, and she tended those who needed transport by litter to their homes, where they could recover. There was plenty of tending to do, and helping the injured who could not walk. Thus they arrived in victory at Amysos.

There was enough room at the harbormaster's to accommodate Saheris, two of his officers, and Atthis, who would now be able to assist with Saher's recovery. His arm was badly injured, and while the wound was beginning to heal, the bone was badly damaged, and the field splints Heklitis had prepared had not completely set the compound fracture. He was still in considerable pain, though moving about the house more freely. He was in defiance of Heklitis's direct instruction when he burst from the house to greet Saheris as he marched into the center of the town.

Amysos was in a festive mood: the sudden and victorious return of its men, drafted rapidly into a standing army and drilled for a mere month to meet the sudden Alan threat, had placed the town into a gloom of dread; for it had been many years since its people had been called upon to defend themselves. It was a contented and sleepy port, well away from the traffic of empire and the more serious activity of Bithynia, and Saher had not been here for some years. Suddenly, it was the focal point of an advancing threat, and the success of Saher's campaign, despite his injuries, was cause for celebration.

A feast was planned to congratulate the young Khan on his battle in Cormorin, set to take place the night after his arrival, and Bellona the harbormaster's wife, was busily cooking to prepare for it. Saheris went upstairs to greet Saher and his brother once again, who embraced him long and hard.

"I had no worries for you, Saheris," he said loudly, checking surreptitiously for evidence of wounds or change on his brother. "You look like you have grown a half a cubit!" he remarked, satisfied. "Now I will let our father have at you." Sahelis made himself sit, all nerves and excitement after seeing his brother returned a military hero. Saher laughed. "You would think he had won the battle himself. It is good to see a brother proud. Now, Saheris. We have much to discuss. First - moving the battle out into the fields there, How in Hera's name did you remember about the open fields to the east?"

"How could I forget, Father?" Saheris narrowed his eyes. "My memory of Cormorin is the clearest of any in my childhood. I will never forget any moment of what occurred there, or what it was like. And now, I have the greatest reason for clarity. And good thing. What I do not understand is why you did not think to position the troops this way."

"I don't know. It had not occurred to me. That is the best sign I am getting old."

"And how is the wound? Heklitis has not spoken to me as yet."

"Oh, I think the arm is nearly useless now, at least for swordplay. I might get my ability to lift a cup back, and that may be all I can hope for."

"Then --"

"Then I am out of the battle for good, Saheris. And you are in it none to soon."

A deep frown settled on the boy's face. "So, what are you saying, Father?"

"I'm saying, that until Sahelis is blooded and joins you on the front, you are now the Khan." Saheris turned and stared at his brother. "You know all this?"

"I suggested it. I do not want our father taking the foolish step of trying to lead another troop into battle. And you have quite well proven yourself. You knew months ago in those easy training exercises that Munduk put us through you were well beyond them. And look how you fared!"

Saheris grinned widely. "So, now I am the Khan. I didn't expect this. I thought we were coming back to see you so that I could be disinherited, to be honest."

"Disinherited? For what? Risking your life by sleeping with diseased whores? Stealing your officer's wives? Getting poisoned by a raving madman? Which of these?" Saher spoke roughly but with some amusement in his voice."

"Any. All. Sahelis almost killed me for sleeping with his."

"Sahelis…. You too? Did Maeotis ruin you both?"

"Hardly, Father. Sahelis is a model youth. He was only helping the girl. It wasn't like he was corrupting his morals."

"And you? Heklitis tells me you are a father three times."

"What!" Saheris sat, stunned. Saher nodded. Once again, a look of knowing silence settled on his brother.

"Yes, and the mothers will all be coming to Maduc, because they will all be acknowledged , with the one who is there now. I am not entirely unhappy that you have spread your seed so widely, Saheris. For at least there will be children for me to enjoy, and perhaps, an increase for the first time in the house of Saher."

"What do you mean, the one who is there now."

"You do remember Kara, the woman Arrus had in Maduc?"

"Oh. Her too?"

"You are a fertile species, Saheris. Not all of these women may be bearing your children, but it may be easy to tell when they come out."

"Are you angry with me?"

"No, I suppose not. I did not expect you to behave so outrageously, but in time perhaps it will be to the good. But it brings me to the subject most important after your taking over leading my army."

"More important?"

Saher nodded, wincing slightly from pain as his arm settled. He repositioned himself with some discomfort. "Yes. Munduk would like to offer you his daughter Ildico in marriage."

"Marriage?"

"Sex usually comes after marriage, Saheris. So in your case marriage is slightly tardy."

"But - I haven't met her!"

"She has seen you, however, and is quite keen on the idea. She finds you quite handsome."

"Does she know about --"

"That you have already become a father? Yes. Though there will be a considerable expectation that you will provide her with the same privilege, and father legitimate heirs on her."

"Do I get to meet her and decide first?"

Saher made a small shrug with his free shoulder. "If you like. Munduk will be returning with her when he settles the army, and winter with us in Maduc. Now that the urgent campaign has been successfully concluded he will leave his officers in charge of the final training. Consolidating his alliance with me and you is his foremost concern now. This is what we discussed when he came to me during your - er, confinement. You are completely cured then?"

"I think I am. That is why they let me free."

"Good," he nodded.

And in that brief conversation, Saheris's immediate future was suddenly planned; the return to Maduc, and a marriage in the spring. After his audience with the Khan, Sahelis drew him aside. "I have something I must discuss with you. You must make things right with Heklitis. He is very, very angry with you."

"He spoke with you about this?"

"No. That is how I know he is angry. He has not mentioned your name at all, and did not attend us upstairs. These are very bad signs. You have offended him terribly, from what you did on the boat."

Saheris turned on his brother, his expression suddenly fierce. "Then I will offend him even further with what has happened since."

Sahelis's face turned white. "You didn't - you didn't!"

He nodded. "I would have. But she would not let me."

"Now what will he do, I wonder."

"Maybe he can do what he should have done. Atthis loves him, not me. He should have had her since. I just wanted her for a night, or two. Just for pleasure. Just like all the rest of it. Sahelis, I didn't intend to have children! Now look! Why can't love just be for pleasure?"

"Heklitis gave you the cure for children, you just didn't use it. I used it!"

"Yes, with one little Armenian whore. So what makes me so different?"

"Maybe you are trying to prove you are the best at everything, and that all the women want you. You aren't content knowing it, you have to have someone else to see it."

"Well it would seem I am the best at making children…" his voice grew plaintive. "I am scared. Scared to marry. Scared to be a father, Sahelis."

"A little late for that, isn't it? You weren't scared to have all of those women. And look what you have been through? You survived Stiven, you won a battle, you have had dozens of women -- all the rest is easier than that."

"True," he shrugged. "Perhaps that is true. But battle is not hard. It is just applying what we learned over and over again. Keeping a gap closed, moving the men together, planning the battleground, choosing where to fight and the order of battle. How many times did we do that?"

"Dozens, hundreds!"

"Yes, so it wasn't hard. I think marrying a girl will be hard."

"You mean, having one woman will be hard."

Saheris shrugged again. "I know you think I'm a beast, for bedding all of those girls. But I wanted them. They were delicious. I would do it all again, twice. More. But I would take the cure and not make them pregnant, next time."

"Maybe you will, and maybe you won't."

"Let us go see what they are making us for my feast!" Saheris announced, and the boys raced to the kitchen of the harbormaster's wife.

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Saher looked up at the young physician tiredly, but his tone was hard. "You can't return to Eleusis. I need you, and there is one child due in the spring, and three more at the end of the summer."

"But, Khan, this is very difficult for me."

"What?" Saher blustered. "What is so blasted difficult for you, Heklitis? Do not be difficult or obtuse with me, we have been through too much together!"

Heklitis sighed, and worked his hands together hard. Then he forced himself to look Saher in the eye. The Khan stared back, unblinking.

"I'm waiting."

"Khan, this is about Saheris."

"I had no doubt it was about Saheris. He is a difficult boy to serve, and it is hard to approve of the way he lives, the risks he takes, and his offenses to common morality."

"Yes, there is that…"

"There is more? I don't wish to drag it from you, Heklitis. I am feeling rather weak of late."

"I am sorry, Khan, it is just that this is a delicate matter. There was an incident, on the ship."

"Yes, Sahelis told me about it. He sought to take your fellow therapeuta by force."

"Undoubtedly, though she has not told me, he was eventually successful. He came into her room when we were billeted here before Cormorin, and I interrupted them. He nearly took her by force!"

"And so what of this leads you to -- ah. This is someone you have had intentions toward but have not acted."

"Yes, Khan. And now Saheris…"

"Has spoiled your chance? Saheris is marrying Munduk's daughter. He is not marrying a therapeuta. So he may have succeeded, but he is not going to keep her, whether or not he wants to. He may taste of many fruits, but the ones that grows are going to be of use to Bithynia."

Heklitis hung his head. "That may be so, but does little to assuage my own feelings of offense, Khan."

"Oh, get over your petulances. Here was my son, called suddenly to lead, what was he to do? He is still only a boy and insecure of himself. His way of making himself secure is in the arms of a female, even if partly unwilling."

Heklitis's color rose. "You speak as though these things can just be set aside!"

"And why not! Look -- if you wish to marry the girl, then marry her, there will be plenty enough to do to look after however many children are going to be born soon, and I am fast approaching my dotage and will need you even more - another therapeuta in the household will be welcome. But I cannot spare you, and do not wish to have some inexperienced child to break in! I have spent the last 18 years getting comfortable with you, Heklitis, you are not going to abandon me now. Forgive her for her indiscretion, and I will do my part to make sure Saheris minds his own bed, or he will hear from me directly. A fling in the field is one thing, and if he intends otherwise, I will make it worthwhile for him to think differently. Is that satisfactory?"

"It will have to be, Khan. I must go to her and talk go her about this."

"Yes, and why don't you tell her you love her while you are at it!" he grumbled. "Three and thirty, and a boy for all that," he grumbled.

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Heklitis knocked on the chamber Atthis had taken upon her return. She had been exhausted, from her rough encounter with Saheris, from the medical duties, and from the march, and had retired early to sleep, so as to be awake for the feast that was to take place at sundown. A long minute passed, and he raised his hand to knock again, when the door opened. Her hair was in disarray, and her clothes hastily arranged - she had just dressed to answer it.

"You were expecting someone else?" he said, and the look of fear and anguish on her face in reply made him regret his words immediately. "I am sorry. May I speak with you?"

"Of course, come in."

Heklitis came into the room, and sank into a chair. Atthis took a place at the end of the bed. "At last, a real bed," she remarked. "Field conditions are not what I am used to."

"Atthis, I just came from the Khan. I asked him to release me so I could return to Eleusis."

"You did what? You can't be serious."

"I was serious. He refused. So I cannot go, even though I still want to. He told me to work out my problem in a different way, and I think perhaps he is right."

"What is this problem?"

"You do not need to feign ignorance, Atthis. What I saw that night is burned into my mind. And I am not so ignorant to think he did not gain his end with you."

She raised her chin. "So there is no need for me to say anything then, simply to listen."

"Perhaps so, yes. You do not deny anything."

"Must I deny it? I had to fend him off with my fists, Heklitis!"

"Then you did not accept him."

"No. He did try. And - I did refuse. And he tried again - but I refused. But there is something you should consider. Had it occurred to you that I have no reason to consider myself anything but free? And if I choose to accept a man in my bed - or boy, in this case, then it is my choice? I had no reason to refuse. I did so anyway."

"I see that. But - "he looked up and looked at her then, for a long moment. "I did not realize until I saw Saheris in your bed, what I myself felt. That - I had intentions."

"Oh?" she said, her voice betraying emotion. Heklitis stood.

"Was this, with Saheris, did you care for him?"

"Care for him? I was merely flattered by him! Had another man broken into my room and assaulted me, I might also have responded to him!"

"So what is your answer?"

"No, I would say not. Flattered, impressed, and that is all. Saheris pursues women for pleasure. And he wanted me mainly because of what happened in Maeotis, and he wanted to be the one in the position of power. But you do not want to talk of him. Why don't you say what you have come here to say, Heklitis?"

He paced, flustered. "I - I have been so angry about this…"

She rose, and went to him. "I realized something this week."

He looked down into her face, his expression pained and pleading. "What was it?"

"I learned that there was a man I wanted. If I asked Saher would he let me stay in Maduc so that I can be with you?" She put her arms around his. "You are so very reticent. Why don't you at last tell me?"

His eyes filled with tears. "After this long time…. I thought you knew that I loved you. And when Spidios sent you to Saheris… I was outraged. How could you let him…?"

She did not draw away. "I did not let him. Please believe that. I refused him, perhaps too slowly, but I did."

And he kissed her, his entire body shaking with the pent-up passion of years. During the long separation he had endured from her, the hundreds of letters they had exchanged, he had never once told her how he felt. He thought, mistakenly, that it had been obvious, but his naivete had remained fixed at the point he had been seduced by Sahera, and had not dared to venture beyond this, even when he had been reacquainted with Atthis in Maeotis. He had never thought to make a declaration of his feelings.

"Come to me, now," she drew him toward the bed. "It does not have to be now, just, be with me." She settled herself on the bed, and pulled his head onto her shoulder, caressing him gently, like a patient in great pain. "You must know - it is not Saheris I want. It is you."

He wept. And she caressed him in his weeping, wiping her own eyes from time to time. They lay in each other's arms for some time, in the quiet, until at length, Heklitis spoke again.

"Saher will take you, if you come to Maduc. If you do, will you be my wife?"

"Yes, I have waited for a long time to hear you ask me that." They were quiet with one another for some time. Gradually, their caresses grew more intent. It was nearly time for the beginning of the feast, when they emerged, dissheveled, but at peace, content with one another.

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