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Chapter 41: Hostages

Andronicus:

In the first weeks following my marriage to the daughter of Munduk I thought of little but her - the relief Saher felt at the retreat of the Alans from our eastern borders had caused the remainder of the winter and spring to be free of the fear of attack, and it was not expected that war would loom again soon. It was as though an extended holiday had been proclaimed, and even the routine of lessons with Spidios, on science and mathematics, on religion and history, had decreased its demand upon myself and my brother - for I was now the Khan, and a husband, and there were duties to be performed which I did not slight, and which did not weigh heavily. Saher recovered but slowly, and even at the best of times, his arm ailed him, and he would retire early. Age and injury had dealt a permanent blow to him, and while I feared for his growing older and more frail, I felt that at last I had come of age.

Eldana approached her confinement in the house of Zoser, and I spent many a long evening in the presence only of my new bride. While we had little enough to say to one another to begin with, our lovemaking was in time punctuated by some conversation, and she betrayed a lively interest in politics and affairs of state. I did not mind, and when passion was served, I would discourse with her much as Munduk had those many long months with me. Uppermost in our minds was what our response would be to the proposals of Honorius, to make a treaty and hostage exchange. As the heir of Munduk, I was directly involved in this problem, and hostility from Rome was expected if he did not reply favorably by spring.

Sahelis kept himself occupied in his studies, more and more, and was ever in the presence of either Heklitis or Spidios. And while the ice was still breaking on the Euxine, a rare ship arrived, which he had long awaited - the girl Numis he had helped back in Maeotis had traveled into Armenia and back, and in the company of some of Munduk's guards, had made her way once again to the side of her protector, Sahelis, and was brought to the attention of the Eleusinians, whom she petitioned for instruction as a healer. She had learned of the death of her parents in the east, and the devastation of the countryside had convinced her that a profession awaited in which she could assist her countrymen, since she no longer had a family to serve. Sahelis himself had received a good deal of instruction from Spidios in matters of healing, but that was not his only interest. He promised to be more of a scholar of history, and for him, knowing the history of the Greek methods of healing was just another study for him, to gain awareness of all the world held. To my discredit, I suppose, I had little enough interest in lofty things like history and medicine, and if it were not for my oath to Spidios to undertake the studies that I did, I would have spurned them completely. My education was in the arms of my woman, and the endless mystery that sex seemed to hold for me.

Yet, as the weeks of winter passed, I felt myself grow more restless. Now in early pregnancy, Ildico began to become petulant and difficult, and while perfectly compliant to lay with me whenever I came to her, she often wept and vomited in the mornings, and I grew impatient with her. She retreated to her mother, and was more and more often found across the courtyard, in the sitting room of Zoser's residence, where the women spun day after day their Scythian garments for the babes they expected: Munduk's child, and my own.

I was left with the problems of the approaching spring, the hostage proposal, and the choices facing our allied kingdoms; whether we were strong enough between us to withstand the allied empires to our west.

"Do you know what this is?" Saher dangled a lengthy letter from his good hand. Saheris and his grandfather had sat long into the evening in his study, reviewing the list of youth who would be sent north in the spring to Munduk to strengthen his frontier. Pressure was upon the Ugars now, as it had been relieved on Bithynia, and the Eastern Empire's intentions to him had been long made clear: provide a royal hostage, or prepare for war.

"It looks like a treaty."

"It is a proposal for a treaty, yes."

"From Honorius?"

 

"No. From Dacia." Saheris held his breath, as his own voice returned to him from a henbane-induced vision.

"You serve whom?" The voice queried him. "Who is Saheris El Maduc?"

"He is the Khan of the Unari and of the Sabiri, the son of the Khan Munduk El Beshan, and governs the territories of Scythia, Thrakcia, Illyria, Syria, Dacia and Moldova. Who asks now whom I serve?"

"What is wrong, Saheris? You look like you just bit down on an onion."

"Dacia?"

"Yes, the mountains west and north of Illyria, my old home - your old home. They are feeling the encroachment of Constantinople and its Goths on their heads, and seek alliance."

"And - the terms?"

"Marriage, Saheris."

"Marriage? You mean -- to my brother?"

"No, I do not believe that is what they mean. Now that you are of age and taken your wife in chief, they seek a secondary alliance to that of Munduk, with you."

"But --"

"That is the custom of these countries, Saheris. Your first wife is the chief wife, and any subsequent marriage is an alliance of nations. When you father an heir of that wife, then he becomes king of that nation in turn."

Saheris stared at his grandfather. "You - you would approve of such a thing?"

"You have already had many women, Saheris. Just think of it as state-approved wantonness!" The boy stared at the old man, who smiled back at him wearily. "What's wrong?"

"I don't - I did not think that I would have a second…"

"Perhaps a third, and a fourth, judging from the tone of Ellak's plea to me here. I am sure the other allies of Munduk would be anxious to rally behind him, and in time, you can show your strength to the Empire with an empire of equal weight and arms."

"Why couldn't alliance be struck with a marriage to Sahelis?"

"I think you know why." The eye of Saher was upon Saheris, and despite his recent accession, he felt under the gaze of Saher as he had always done, and in these moments, he was once again nine years in age, striving to recite the nations of the Roman empire before his custodian.

"No, curse it! What are you grinning about?"

"I find it interesting that you brother would keep such a thing from you - perhaps it is not for you to know, but then again, you are the Khan and you must know, because it affects this very treaty."

"What must I know? What of Sahelis?"

"That he has in these past two weeks taken the same cure I took after the death of your grandmother."

"Cure?"

"The permanent solution to unwanted children. Therefore, he could not forge any alliance by marriage, unless the other party to the treaty were duped into thinking that children would ensue. And that, I will not do."

Saheris thought little could surprise him, but with the coming of spring and the approaching birth of four, perhaps five children of his loins, the prospect of parenthood loomed large. And Sahelis had escaped this fate! He stood suddenly, a spasm of irritation overcoming him, and then sat again, heavily.

"You - approved of this?"

"Of course not, but it is his choice to make, as it was mine. I might have fathered another brood, had I the stomach for another wife, but I had not, and took a cowardly road away from a broken heart."

Saheris looked closely at Saher, as much as the dim lamplight could afford him. "You realize you have never explained to me what happened that caused you to put your wife to death, or to cause my mother to despise you and want you dead."

"No, that is true. There is time enough for iniquity so large to leak out. Do you wish to know my thoughts on these Dacians or do you wish to hear the story first?"

And of course, being Saheris, he would hear the story first.

____________________________________________________________________

Heklitis was alone. As spring approached, Atthis was spending most of her time attending to the pregnant mothers, and Kara's, the first of the pregnancies attributable to Saheris, was due at any time. Hers was an uneasy pregnancy - her first, and during the early weeks of it, she had not as yet given up whoredom - she had to be convinced by Arrus that the Khan would now look after and support her. Atthis was a thorough physician, and spent time not only in counseling the women but also in observing them for signs of stress or illness, how they moved about their daily chores, and how much rest they took. By contrast, his duties to Saher had become light, since Saher at all times despised Heklitis hanging over him and making him self-conscious about his infirmities.

The evening stretched into darkness, and she had not returned: most likely, taking dinner at Eldana's house - as he had come to think of the house of Zoser now occupied by Eldana and her daughters. Atthis and Eldana had become friends, not an outcome that he had foreseen in the days in Maeotis - but Atthis was a careful, sober, and likeable woman, and her marriage to Heklitis (rather than the intrigue with Saheris) had done much to redeem her in the Queen's eyes.

Heklitis shaded the lamp in their bedroom, and undressed for an early night; he woke at dawn, so that he could be available to assist the Khan, though rarely was he called; the habit of rising early stayed with him through the years. As he removed his tunic, his fingers found the scar that ran jaggedly from behind his ear to his collarbone, which he now knew was the mark left on him as an infant by his mother's sword moments before her death. Memories came unbidden to him then: the memories of his first meeting with Sahera in Maduc, and the night she stole into his room and he succumbed to her. Over the course of time, the memory provoked him with pain and shame far more than desire, and yet, with his recent marriage, he found himself thinking more and more about Sahera, and the dreadful moment when he yielded to her. He had always blamed himself ruthlessly for their tryst, but far moreso when he and Saher discovered her sons in Moesia. For too many years this false guilt had lain upon him, and it was difficult to relinquish. And yet, the woman he admired most - Atthis, and whom he loved more than he had ever loved anyone - except perhaps the Khan Saher - had suffered a much similar fate, as had the women she now cared for. Perhaps her own vulnerability led her to such meticulous care of the women who bore the children of Saheris, for they were his victims as much as Atthis had been, as much as Heklitis had been the victim of his mother. Had their interventions, had the intervention of Spidios and his ongoing presence in Maduc, been an adequate remedy for Saheris's promiscuous will? What revelations would the future hold? Would marriage, a young and beautiful wife, and the presence of legitimate children in the household check his wantonness?

As he doused the lamp, Heklitis brooded on the character of the young Khan. Would he mature? Would Heklitis ever close his eyes at night, secure in knowing that his wife was safe from the predatory Khan? Perhaps, perhaps not. Even as he agonized over the thought of Atthis in the arms of Saheris, he was again recalled to the fateful night where he had been captured and captivated by the beautiful and horrible Sahera… and again he relived the lowest point of his entire life, a brief yielding to flattery and desire, and an endless aftermath of pain and remorse. He wept, and the tears he shed still lay wet on his face when Atthis found him asleep upon her return. "Oh my love, what saddens you?" she whispered, and he stirred, slightly.

"Just - the past. I am glad you have come, is Kara still well?"

"Yes, she is well, she is strong as a horse. Tell me what is troubling you."

Heklitis put his arms tightly around the fragile form of his new wife. "I fear, I fear still. I wonder if I will always feel a certain fear, being in Maduc."

"You mean, being near Saheris."

"Yes, I suppose that is closer to the truth… though, before I learned of his existence, before - this, I feared Maduc. Because of his mother."

"Ah - Sahera."

"They are too like. It is difficult to explain - but I am sure the Khan sees it."

"You fear for me, or you mistrust me, husband?" Atthis spoke, an edge of hardness in her voice.

"I don't think it is a matter of mistrust. He is an indomitable person, and despite his recklessness and all his other faults, he seems to gain his will no matter what. That is what I fear. It is not you - it is him."

"How many wives do you think it would take to divert him, I wonder?" she said. "My patients tell me already there are plans for a second wedding for Saheris, with yet another princess."

Heklitis raised his head from the pillow. "This is Saher's plan?"

"Apparently. Though it may be henhouse gossip."

"I can find out. If it is Saher's plan, perhaps it is the best that could be hoped for. The Bithynians - before Saher - always took several wives, and Saheris would be a more acceptable king to them if he did. And a much busier one." He laughed, despite his somber mood. "I suppose that was what rankled the most in Sahera - that she could not, as a female, have a harem of husbands and be a queen."

"Don't think about Sahera, Heklitis, think about something more pleasant. I am here now, think about me. Women have to be flattered that their husbands think of little but them. So flatter me." She unwound her hair from its braid, and settled herself in the bed, and he embraced her.

"I am much too gloomy for you," he murmured, but she silenced him with a kiss.

____________________________________________________________________

"Unacceptable!" Saheris shouted. He threw the scroll across the room and turned his back on the Khan. "I won't let him."

"Saheris, calm down and think, if only for a moment," Saher said, leaning back into his chair, favoring his wounded arm.

"I will not let Sahelis go! They will kill him, they will turn him into a perverted Christian! They will ruin him for the field! Is this his idea - once again?"

"Actually yes it is," Sahelis spoke from the gloom behind the Khan's seat. They were in his now-crowded study, attended by Suwetus, Heklitis, and Munduk, who had recently returned in expectations of a new member of his family, and the finalization of negotiations on his behalf with Honorius.

"Brother, you are mad! How can you abandon me like this? You aren't thinking of what is best for me, what is best for our country!"

"What is best for your sense of security and control, is what you truly mean," Sahelis spoke calmly, but directly, as he advanced toward the diminuitive form of his brother on the other side of the Khan's desk.

"They will not accept the younger brother, they want Munduk's heir! It will be seen as a deception!"

"It is a deception, but not the one they think. How much do you think Honorius knows of the specifics of the alliances out here on the frontier? His dispatches do not specify a name, nor has Saher -- or Munduk for that matter, ever made any proclamation insofar as your claims in Scythia or elsewhere. All we shall do is simply portray you as the heir to one kingdom, and myself the heir to the other. Everyone here agrees, as well, that I am the most Scythian-looking, and it is doubtful that any Roman could tell the difference between a Bithynian and a Scythian or a Pannonian - but they would certainly recognize you as one of their own. Is that not true, brother?"

Saheris was quiet for a moment. "That is outrageous. I am not so visibly Roman."

"You think not, eh?" Munduk interjected. "From the height of the highest hill in Maeotis, through a field glass, to the pier on which you stood, my half-mad wizard spotted you as a Roman bastard. Do you think a court of Romans would not notice something Roman in you, and these, the intimates of Bellianus himself?"

"He is right, Saheris," Saher added. "You were never considered as a possible hostage, and not only because of your accession in Bithynia. There has always been the possibility of a demand like this, either from the eastern or the western thrones, and we would have had to send a more plausibly native decoy for Saheris, even if he were later found out and killed."

"But - Sahelis!"

"They treat hostages quite well, actually, and as a scholar, there could be no greater opportunity for me to learn about the 'civilized' half of the continent, brother. And you have other pursuits to keep you from missing me; this I am told even today."

"Yes, yet another wife, before the first has had a child. I'm not sure how I feel about that."

Munduk laughed aloud. "I'm sure you'll know exactly how you feel when you set eyes on the girl. She had been offered to Ruash at one time when she was two summers younger, before he was blooded, and had he actually met the girl I doubt I would have been able to turn his eyes toward a more suitable match in Moldova, which we needed far more. She is quite the beauty, and perhaps a bit more suitable in size than the one you have."

Saheris flushed angrily. "I am not all that small, Munduk."

"It is not your height that recommends you, Saheris, but your belligerence. Don't lose that!" he laughed again. "Now, I must hie to my woman, and see whether it is a son or daughter that will soon set its eyes on the world. A wonderful day to be a father again!" He winked at Saheris. "But you have all that ahead of you…"

"Don't remind me."

"But you don't have to do any of the work!" he slapped the Khan on the shoulder, and departed at a near-run.

Saheris sat, suddenly weary. "So - Munduk is in favor of this. And you - Suwetus? You are our resident expert on Roman law and politics. What say you?"

"Sahelis will be found acceptable. Even if by some uncanny chance it is found that Munduk had made alliance by marriage with you, that would appear to be a detail in the arcana of Roman inheritance law and their hostage contracts. They would assume that there would be multiple marriages, alliances, between several members of barbarian households, and so their discovery of your match with Ildico and the lines of succession and age, would be of minor interest. All that matters is that he is the male heir of a leader in alliance to Scythia or the heir of Scythia itself, which would prove sufficient to discourage hostilities if they were to develop, a person worth ransoming for a high enough sum that would lessen the risks of trade and reduce the demands of tribute."

"Yes - yes, you do go on!" he blustered. "So you say yes as well. And Sahelis is already packed and has perfected his Latin I am sure. All is done without my leave."

"You do not yet have sovereign control of this nation, Saheris. It is also contingent upon the will of your brother as your co-regent in Bithynia, and your Khan in Scythia, whose final decision this is."

"But it affects me! Does no one care for my feelings in the matter?" He glared from one impassive face to the other.

"I do," said Sahelis quietly. "That is why we have proposed that the term of the exchange be reduced from five to two years."

"Two!"

"It was originally five. But that is really only imposed for much younger children, and in families where there are a larger number of sons. Where there are only two sons, this is negotiated. Honorius did not know how many sons - or other heirs or allies - Munduk had. As it is, he has one son ruling in Moldova, and hence not eligible, and the son of his ally, who is not yet of age. So - it would be at most two years."

That was how, in the first months of my power in Bithynia, I lost the sight and presence of Sahelis. Our childhood had fled, and in the great changes that occurred in Maduc the winter and spring of my 15th year, this affected me the most, and with the greatest sadness. Though it was never mentioned, I am sure that the Khan became aware of the nights I stalked alone, ignoring my bride, sleepless in anxiety, while Sahelis was enroute to the precincts of the Western empire. My nightmares of his death returned in force then, and when I woke from them, I would weep uncontrollably. That had been my true reason for objecting so strongly to what was the only sensible political course of action: my old, old fear of my brother's death, and the conviction that I would be alone in the world without him.

Even when I held his first happy letter in my hands, I found myself imagining that he was struck down after penning it, and that its delivery was a ruse to convince me that he still lived in health. And I could not visit him, not even set foot in the precinct of that empire, lest it be discovered that I was an illegitimate son of the ruling house. All was well with him, the weather was fine, the accommodations luxurious, and the libraries astonished him with their magnificence and newness, but none of his bright news gladdened me. I wrote in reply, and forced cheerfulness into my news, but there was no cheer in me; not until I could see him again, and touch him, and be convinced that he was free from harm. Considering the unreasonableness of my emotions about Sahelis, I wondered how I would ever tolerate his going into battle - for this would be inevitable. Could I? Fortunately, and ironically, for the duration of his stay in Ravenna, Sahelis would be safe from the risks of a conflict with Rome; and so would I.

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