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.
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.
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.
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.
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
"It is a proposal
for a treaty, yes."
"No. From Dacia."
Saheris held his breath, as his own voice returned to him from a henbane-induced
serve whom?" The voice queried him. "Who is Saheris El Maduc?"
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."
"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
"And - the terms?"
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
"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."
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
"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."
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
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."
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 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."
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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."
his head from the pillow. "This is Saher's plan?"
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.
Saheris shouted. He threw the scroll across the room and turned his back
on the Khan. "I won't let him."
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?"
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.
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
"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
"Yes, yet another
wife, before the first has had a child. I'm not sure how I feel about
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."
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
"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?"
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."
"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."
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.
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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