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Chapter 39: The Ultimatum

Atthis returned with the family of Saher, and her now betrothed husband, Heklitis, to Maduc. The winter had well advanced, and snows impeded them on the passes. It was a slow, cold journey, and the army that accompanied them gratefully disbanded as they neared their homes in the seacoast towns. The largest divisions, however, were bound for Maduc and the surrounding area, and it was a large force that moved south along the round bounding the Via Egnatia back to Saher's capital. They waited their return until Saher could sit a horse, and as the days passed, he grew stronger, almost as though the presence of his grandsons had physically strengthened him.

They greeted Spidios in Maduc, who, accompanied by Heklitis and Atthis, closeted himself with the Khan for a serious discussion. Though Saher knew that once again, the topic was Saheris, he could not have been prepared for what Spidios told him that night.

"First I should say, Khan, that upon our last examination, there is every sign that Saheris responded to the treatments we gave him in his confinement, and that he has recovered completely. I am sure that is a reassurance to you. It has been now two months since he was interned, and we can only hope he took the lesson to heart concerning the frequenting of prostitutes."

Saher nodded, frowning. "I am not sure he has changed all that much, but he has had other occupation to concern him, and I have given him a great load of new responsibility. I have abdicated my leadership to him, at least in part."

"Abdicated?" Spidios was surprised, and his usually smooth, inscrutable face registered it. "This may be premature."

"It was necessary, I'm afraid. My health has been ruined by my latest injury, and I cannot take the field again. This marks a definite end to my military leadership, and I must surrender it to my heir. Saheris has proven himself ready in the field, and has driven the Alans back."

Spidios nodded, "Yes, I am aware of this, but not of a change of leadership. There is more you must learn of Saheris, and it would have been far better had you done so before you made this decision."

"What more has he done that would convince me of his unsuitability? It is not as though I have many choices. To supplant him with his younger, more reticent brother could not even be done for two years, since the younger has more to learn both of military strategy and ruthlessness, and is not of an age where he can lead. I could not put him on the field now. Besides, it would bode very ill for this nation if I were to pass Saheris over for leadership. He would never recover from that. I could not do that."

"Perhaps you should listen to what I have to say, first," Spidios put up a hand, to stay any further arguments by the Khan. "The three of us have examined Saheris in some great detail, prior to his treatment. In addition to the evidence of burns from the poison he was administered, and the early lesions of treponema, we discovered something far more unusual, which was to some extent corroborated additionally by Atthis, who had more intimate contact with him during his apprehension. You may have noted his very slight stature."

"Yes. His mother was not tall."

"He is noticeably shorter than his brother who is nearly two years his junior."

"Yes, and what about that is so unusual?"

"It is not only this, but the structure of his body, his ribs, and his femoral bones. The lack of facial and very little axillary hair. It is possible that Saheris may grow no taller than he is today, and he may never show a beard."

"Why?"

"I believe this boy is a hermaphrodite."

Saher took to his feet, wobbled, and then sat again. "What!"

"I know that this would not be welcome news to you, Khan. One of our concerns was that he would not be fertile or able to father children. Apparently, that is not an issue, for he is not only capable of the sex act but also fertile, as we found in Maeotis. A larger concern is whether he shows signs of the development of breasts, in which case he would be perceived by his subjects as a female, and unworthy to lead them. We may be able to perform a surgery to remove the milk glands if they develop, but only if we intervene at the appropriate time. Have you noticed any evidence of this?" During Spidios' speech, Saher's face grew darker, with something akin to embarrassment or rage.

At length, he replied to the question.

"No. And had you not brought this to my attention, I would not have noted any such thing or any unusualness in Saheris. He is in every respect a male, to my eyes."

"He may be spared this difficulty, then."

"Does he know, did you tell him any of this?" Spidios shook his head.

"No, that is something we have not yet determined to do. Unless there is a compelling reason to tell him, it is probably wiser not to. For example, if a surgery were to become a necessity."

"But - Heklitis, have you taken a good look at Saheris of late?" Saher asked.

Heklitis replied, "No, I have not."

"We should do so, but at gross external appearance, no breasts have yet appeared." Spidios was silent for a long moment. "It could be worse, he could be a flagrant mixture of male and female, and thus complicate your plans for his future immeasurably. Instead, you have a provably fertile male child who suffers only in lack of stature and beard. I believe too that his outsized sexual appetite may have something to do with an unusual arrangement of the sex organs, or the existence of female internal parts."

"I see," Saher said, now also quiet. "And his brother does not know any of this…"

They shook their heads.

Saher gathered himself together. "Heklitis, I think that you should try to keep as close an eye on him as you can. There is no telling what might occur if Saheris begins to - develop; he might react badly. If this is discovered and he is told it is some sort of tumors that can be removed, a reaction to the poisoning or the other illness -- perhaps the shock will be lessened. And let us hope it does not happen. What do you think the chance is, Spidios?"

"Our experience of hermaphrodites is not great, for most of those children who are born this way have such extreme deformation of the genitals that they are put to death at birth as offenses to various heathen gods. For Saheris to have gained the age of fifteen and not shown breast development goes in his favor. But to have gained the age of fifteen and only this height, it is likely he will not grow taller."

"All right then, then I think our immediate plan is sufficient. Is there anything else?"

"Yes. I think you would do well to marry him quickly, because it is unlikely his sexual appetite will lessen with age."

"That is already in hand. Even now Munduk prepares to come to Maduc with his eldest daughter, who will be betrothed to Saheris. If he accepts her, that is. I cannot see that he will not accept her. I am told she has the requisite beauty to intrigue him."

"Then that is all I wished to say to you, Khan, if I may see my two students in private now?"

They gained the outer chamber, away from Saher, whom they left in his dim study. "Now I do require explanation from you," Spidios said to Atthis as they closed the outer door. "I am told that there was some intrigue with the Khan's heir after his remove from Maeotis."

"Saheris assaulted me on the ship, and with more intent, upon our arrival in Amysos. Heklitis intervened in time."


"And that is all?" She lowered her head. "No, that is not all."

"No, he persisted further, when I accompanied the army to the field. "However, I managed to repulse him."

"Did you encourage him?"

She reddened. "I was not as forceful at refusing him as I might have. This may have encouraged him to try again. But he did not gain his end."

Spidios turned to Heklitis. "You have nothing to say about this?"

Heklitis opened his mouth. "I have told her my feelings. He was very determined. But I believe her if she says that she turned him down. Saheris is difficult to refuse."

"Atthis?"

"I believe the problem is at an end. He has not approached me since our departure from Amysos, nor do I think he will again. And we would like you to perform our marriage if you approve and when it is convenient."

"I for one, do not believe this matter is at an end. And I will have to deal with it in my own way. However, I would say you are adults, and have gotten through the difficulty. At least, I hope so. I do not like this ability this family has to seduce anyone it sets eyes upon, that is most unsettling. I thought you were more continent than this, Atthis."

She raised her eyes to meet his. "I thought so, too."

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It was agreed, now that Maeotis had received the proper care for its outbreak of treponema, and that six more physicians from Eleusis were recalled from other appointments to perform the treatments and isolate the infected, that Spidios was now at liberty to remain in Maduc to complete some of the higher education of the two heirs, and to keep a close eye on Saheris. He did not entirely trust the reassurances of his students that Saheris had desisted from his adventures, so he decided to make an additional examination of him, in his capacity as tutor.

They had been two weeks at Maduc, and the weather had become gloomy, rainy, and cold. The house of Saher was busy at all hours, for everyone stayed indoors; Sahelis content with his books and studies, Heklitis and Atthis in their new found intimacy, and their daily duties of tending to the Khan, and the pregnant mothers, who had been adopted into and housed by Arianus and his wife. Saheris had not visited the women since his return, at Saher's express instruction; as far as he was concerned, Saheris had plenty of work to do in learning the administration of the government in Maduc, the minutiae of supply and treasury, and many hours each day were consumed with teaching the impatient youth the duties that now fell to him. More and more, Saheris was compelled to do Saher's daily work, and to compose correspondence and orders with Suwetus. He was used, however, to doing his own writing, and so would draft his own letters in Syriac, and then turn them over to Saher and Suwetus for correctness and form, then to be translated into Greek or Latin. He had just concluded one set of correspondence, when Spidios requested his presence. Saher dismissed him. "You have done a soldier's duty for a day, boy, now there are other things of importance to mind."

Saheris, who had been looking forward to a refreshing gallop to stretch his limbs, was unhappy to see Spidios. "Now what, old man, more arcane lessons about the shape of things? How much tutoring do I truly need, after all? I am the Khan, I am a busy man now."

Spidios placed a restraining hand on the boy's arm. "You had best heed, Khan, as you had agreed to do in your dungeon in Maeotis. Such a detainment can easily be re-arranged, and at any moment, if I am displeased with you. Now I suggest we have a brief talk, and see whether there is anything with which I am displeased."

A brief moment of fear gripped Saheris, in which he recalled his interrogation, and the strange answers he gave. Would Spidios again drug him, and haul him away from Maduc, where he would be confined, at the mercy of the Eleusinians? What had he done that would cause such an event to recur? His mind raced then, as the small Greek accompanied him, his hard hand on his arm, to a private room on the second storey.

They were alone. Saheris took a comfortable seat, and faced his interlocutor. "Now, what is it you want to say to me?"

"I wish to ask you about your actions with respect to your teachers. One of the obligations you have as our student is to behave at all times with absolute respect toward those who are your seniors, and who are more knowledgeable than you are. Have you done this?"

"I -"

"Do not equivocate. I am not interested in your fabrications."

"I had an interest in one of my tutors, the physician Atthis, yes. She thought my attentions were disrespectful."

"You attempted rape. Mere days after your release." Saheris blushed hotly.

"She said this!"

"She was not alone when this event occurred, neither of the times she was assaulted. Therefore, it is not an allegation. It is a fact. I must tell you, for your own well being, what such an act will provoke if undertaken again."

"What - you will have me killed?" Saheris cried.

"No, but in its own way, possibly, something worse. Eleusis supplies the trained physicians to most of the nations outside the direct pale of the Empire, and to many within it. There are very few skilled teachers, healers, or midwives that are not from our doors. Any further incident of abuse to one of our healers by you will result in a complete recall of all of those who serve Bithynia, and its allies, and the recall will be a permanent one."

"Even - Heklitis? You would make Heklitis return to Eleusis?"

He nodded. "Yes. And all of those who are now in service to Munduk in Maeotis, settling the town you did so much to disturb with your sexual escapades. The lesson you must learn is self-restraint. The consequences of a lack of self-restraint can be far-reaching. I do not believe that either Atthis or Heklitis, or the young Tethys, or any of the therapeuti laboring in your garrisons or cities wish to be taken from their positions of service, but this will happen, and at a moment's notice, if any further inappropriateness is observed. This would mean that there would be no one to attend your father the Khan in his illness, and no one to midwive your women as they give birth to your children. The consequence is quite great. Now, what do you say to this?"

Saheris smiled, tightly. "There should be no reason to take that action, Spidios. And I would very much like to maintain my position with you."

Spidios smiled briefly. "Now we shall see how sincere you are in that. This week I am performing a ceremony of marriage for Heklitis and Atthis, and they will have my guarantee that she will be treated with nothing but complete respect by you as her employer. And that she can look forward to a long and fruitful service in Maduc with no fear of further molestation."

"Marriage…" Saheris said.

"Yes. Do you understand?"

Saheris nodded, but his hands in his lap had clenched. Spidios rose to leave. "Then I have little more to say. There is still some light if you intend to ride today. I will leave you to it."

Saheris waited until the sound of footsteps faded in the passage beyond, then returned to Saher's study, where he took a new sheet of paper and a fresh charcoal; and began to write a letter to Munduk, requesting his earliest possible arrival with Ildico. Suddenly, the notion of marriage had become decidedly attractive.

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Atthis and Heklitis made their way hurriedly home through the muddy lane from Arianus' house, which was several streets away from the great house of Saher. A biting, salty wind was blowing from the Euxine, and the sky was steely grey. "Tell me, Heklitis, what will become of these women, once they have given birth to Saheris's children? They were idle wives in Maeotis, and suddenly here, they are like widows, pregnant, guilty only of assenting for a night of pleasure with an impetuous child."

"He is not just any impetuous child, my dear," Heklitis replied, his tone sardonic. "They are members of Saher's family now, and adopted into the home of his leaders, his clan. They are part of the Unari now, and their children will be acknowledged as secondary heirs, if male, to the leadership of the nation. If Saheris has no children from a marriage, then the eldest of these will become his heir. But all would be recognized as his, and have the chance to serve as officers within the clan."

"Well, that is good, at any rate. Their husbands simply relinquished them?"

"Oh, there was no difficulty with that. All of them had their dowry paid, and of course, the husbands kept what children there were already born from the marriage. There were no hearts broken in this case. Being cuckolded by Saheris El Maduc was not something they wished to live with or be known for, and it was a fear neater way of disposing of their wife than the usual method after cuckold."

"The usual method?" she inquired.

"Execution."

"Oh…" she breathed. "Yes, I imagine they feel quite lucky." They had reached the door, and shook out their cloaks upon entering. To their surprise, Saheris waited for them, his hands on his hips. "May I have a word?"

"With whom?" Heklitis replied. He found himself still uncomfortable with Saheris, despite the reassurances given by both Spidios and Saher that he need not be concerned for his position in Maduc.

"Both, if you please. In my father's study."

They exchanged quizzical looks, and followed him to the dim, cluttered room. Saheris took his father's seat behind the desk, and put his hands, palm down, before him. The two seated themselves, wordlessly.

"I am told, that you two intend to marry."

"Yes, that is true, Khan," Heklitis said.

"I have something I wish to say." He stood, then, and took several paces behind the desk before sitting once again, this time with some deliberateness. They waited in silence. "I wish to say, first of all, that I am a king. Or, I should say, I am now a king. Responsibility after responsibility have been given to me over the course of the past few weeks, and it rests heavily. The responsibility of a king is to treat well all those who serve him. Both of you are very important members of this household, no less the one than the other, though my father relies upon my me very heavily, Heklitis, I myself rely heavily upon Atthis for the additional care of the children who will soon be born." He took a breath. "I have acted very badly toward both of you, after my release in Maeotis. I cannot explain, other than I was piqued by the trick played upon me, and had determined that you wished to have a liaison with me, Atthis. But that is not true. In this, I have caused you considerable pain - both of you, pain. But I do not want either of you to feel uncomfortable with me. I want you to be happy here, and I want your marriage to one another to be happy. I too have glad news; I have sent a letter to Maeotis, and have requested the earliest possible arrangement for my marriage to Ildico. This will ally myself with Munduk, and I trust will make both of you more comfortable with me." Saheris searched the eyes of his elders, then, and let his breath out slowly, then opened his mouth once again, as though unsure he should continue. "I want you to know, in the presence of your betrothed husband, Atthis… I never thought that you encouraged me, or made any promise or enticement to me. You are simply a very beautiful woman, and I could not stop myself from wanting you. I hope that clears up any doubts."

Heklitis spoke then. "And - now?"

"And now, I will have a wife, and a kingdom to occupy me." Saheris then grinned. "I do want us to be friends again Heklitis, as we once were. I know you once had an affection for me, and I hope it will return, at the very least for the sake of my father."

"Of course," he said, embarrassed. Heklitis was very moved at the unexpected speech by the young Khan. He had not thought him capable of that level of maturity or poise. He grasped the hand of his intended with some great emotion. "I am sure that we will be quite comfortable here, and that all is forgiven."

"Yes," Atthis said. "I do not think you are a bad man, Khan, and yes, all is forgiven." Saheris smiled widely then, and rose. "Then let us celebrate your marriage then, and my own. Perhaps we can raise Saher from his nap and get him to attend us at dinner."

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Reply to Saheris's letter came within the week. Munduk would be aboard ship within ten days with his daughter and his wife, Eldana, as well as two of his younger daughters, who he had promised to the sons of Linnaeus and Haner, the officers he fought with at Cormorin. Their sons had just come of age, and while the girls were still quite young (ten and twelve years) it was not too early for a betrothal and remove to Maduc, since they would be, at least temporarily, part of the household of their elder sister. For a period of months, then, Eldana would attend her daughters until their marriages. By then, it was hoped that Ildico would be confined and would give birth before Eldana returned to her home in the north. They also learned that Eldana herself was pregnant, and was planning to give birth while at Maduc.

All of this inflow of guests would require additional room, and so Saher opened the adjoining house, which had belonged to his brother Zoser before he acceded to the throne of Bithynia. It was not as spacious as the ancestral house, but it was just as sturdy and comfortable, and a troop of relatives descended upon it to make it a suitable guest house for Munduk and his family upon their arrival.

The season notwithstanding, an early date was set for Saheris's marriage, and he had since abandoned any pretense that he would make a decision on Ildico after her arrival. His mind was made up: as long as the girl had four good limbs and hair on her head, he would find her acceptable. Now that he was Khan, he could no longer entertain the childish notions that women could be plucked from crowds at will for his pleasure. Every action of his had some grave consequence, and he chafed against the threats Spidios had made to him. He thought of their conversation frequently, sometimes nightly, and he dwelt upon it once again the night before Munduk's ship was due to arrive from Scythia. However, shortly the image of the disapproving face of Spidios gave way to the flushed face and enticing form of Atthis as she knelt, poised above him, in his room in Munduk's house. The memory was embellished, each time he grasped this fantasy, and it aroused him as fully as once his forbidden fantasies of Sahera had done. He could feel her thick hair brush his chest as she straddled him, the feel of her hard nipples between his fingers, and within moments, he was once again aroused from the vision of the beautiful Greek. "Heklitis, I hope you never know how much I dream of your woman in my arms," he said aloud, and let the fantasy wake him completely. "Let my wife arrive quickly," he prayed, as he placed a shaking hand on his rigid flesh to relieve the tension of his lust.

The ship arrived at first light.

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