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Chapter 43: The Secret

"Ho, Saheris, what brings you to my door? It's been months now!" Arrus greeted Saheris outside his dwelling, where he was chopping firewood.

"That arm looks normal. What are you still retired for?" Saheris sat on an unused sawhorse and regarded his old friend and teacher.

"Because I earned it - and because it's time to stay home for a while. And… somewhat more."

"I take it you have spoken with Heklitis today."

"Yes, about Sahera's sister. That is the somewhat more. Did you know that the Khan had agreed for me to marry her?"

"When!" Saheris jumped to his feet.

"This past fall. When he took her in. I had felt badly that I could not care for her, and the only way I could was for Saher to settle a retirement on me so that I could be a proper husband. To this he agreed. After the birth. Which is why I did not ride with you in Amysos. I would have liked to have seen you in your first battle, Saheris, and I'm pleased you did so well."

"Why does no one tell me these things?" he cried.

"What's wrong? I would have thought you would be happy, particularly since I would have looked after the child as well, and relieved you of too early a fatherhood. And that is a misfortune, I'm sorry. Quite a day for you."

"You don't understand!" Saheris grew furious then, his face purpling with agitation.

"What? What is wrong?" Arrus put down his axe and came over to the enraged boy standing in his yard. "For Hera's sake calm yourself, come inside and I'll get you some wine." At first, Saheris pulled away from the arm grasping his, then relented.

Arrus refused to let him continue until a large glass of wine was placed before him. "Now, Khan, tell me what has got you so red in the face about my domestic life."

"Let me ask you, Arrus. Did you ever, in the years you served Saher, desire my mother?"

"Sahera? Hmmm. Truth to tell, she was always a pleasure to look at, and many was the night she stuck in my mind. But -- not truly, no. I can't abide a woman of that kind of temperament. What is this about?"

"But Kara, she and my mother are quite like."

"Well, they are like in pure appearance, but… I knew Kara when she was younger, when I first went to Ankra. Had I been free, and a citizen here, I would have offered to marry her then. Sweet, quiet, and of course, excellent in the kitchen. I never thought of her as so like to Sahera - they are opposites in many ways. I suppose you had to know them both as well as I did to appreciate how different they were. So I don't think it is strange that I did not note their resemblance. And Sahera - well, she was very thin, and quick, and -- well, mannish is what I would call it. So why is that all so important to you on today of all days?"

Arrus's comments had made doubts rise in Saheris's mind, and he hesitated to continue. "I found them very like. When I first - when I laid eyes on Kara, I thought she was Sahera. Or -- some part of me did."

"So - why did you have her then - if she reminded you of….oh. This is about Cormorin."

Saheris nodded, not trusting himself to speech.

"You were very young then."

"Does that matter?"

"In your case, maybe not. So you never knew that she was your mother when she…"

"Abducted me. No."

"So -- what is it that you are telling me?" Arrus stared at Saheris then, searching his face.

"I - I don't know."

"Well Kara is to be my wife, and you will have to get over what ever it is you have to get over. Because, the one night - that is to be forgiven, but if you try to take her again, Khan or no Khan, I will put my sword through you." Arrus spoke quietly, but there was threat in his voice. Saheris wondered then how many men he may have said this to - and how many more he would in future.

"Arrus - I wouldn't… that is not what I am saying. I don't know what it is I am saying." Saheris stood, confusion and misery competing within him. "If I had known that you loved her, I would not --"

"Don't lie to me, Saheris. I know you too well. What's done is done. I will defend what is mine, however, and you will have to answer to the Khan if you darken this door again without my leave. I think enough has been said. Finish your wine."

Saheris stood, drained the glass, and turned in the doorway. "I hope you are still my friend, Arrus."

The older man laughed, a friendly sound. "Of course, of course. If I thought my affections were usurped by you, it would be different. But there is no harm. Now run off, I'm sure you have Khan things to do."

Saheris left the door of his friend's house, and walked slowly back to his own, if anything, more forlorn and confused than before. It was time for dinner, and yet, his appetite had fled him.

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Saheris found Heklitis in his room, taking a late nap to catch up on lost sleep from the morning. "All right, it's after dinner. Where is Atthis?"

"She is tending to - her patients."

"To Kara you mean."

"And the others. Eldana is most likely the next to give birth, and she needs some special attention right now, for she is confined to bed."

"Confined to bed? Why?"

"It sometimes happens. In some cases, the child is delicate and if the mother were to rise and move about, the child would be precipitated out. That is not what you came here to talk about, however."

"No - no - wait, is that likely to happen to Ildico?"

"Not likely, but possible. It happens in some cases with the first birth. We don't expect it though."

Saheris sighed. "I was worried. I would hate for her to be confined to bed just because of - me."

"Women come to expect all sorts of inconveniences attendant upon having children, Saheris. They don't think of it as the father's fault."

Saheris laughed briefly. "No, I hadn't thought of that. Anyway, to what we were discussing."

"Yes. Now I want to know why I should tell you about something so personal and so long ago."

Saheris sighed. "I thought you might. I know that we have not got on well in the past few months, and that you have had less reason to trust or confide in me than you have in the past… but still, you may serve me yet for many years, and each week I take on more of my father's responsibility. Too much intrigue has passed through this family as a result of my mother's machinations, and we may never know all that she did while she was alive, or what her mother did, to poison our lives and those around us." He took a breath. This was a long speech for him, but he continued doggedly on. "There is that which has haunted me for most of my life, and which I have to be unburdened of. I am sure when you have been closeted with your master you have spoken of me, and of my adventures in Maeotis, and the women I have taken. I would have hidden this all if I could, but it seems day by day more obvious that a Khan is not a private person, and his life cannot be a private one. I learned something when I led in battle, that I didn't know in Maeotis, and I hope it is this that makes you understand me better, and know why I have done as I have, why I am as I am. Because I cannot carry it around inside me any longer without speaking of it.

"I learned in battle that I am responsible for a great many people, people who have placed their lives in my care, they depend upon my sureness, my confidence, and my judgement. It is my judgement that may prove the hardest to develop, and the most at risk, considering how all has happened in the past year or two with me. But I was born to lead, I was trained to lead, and I am good at leading. I want to be able to lead more than an army, though. I want to be able to lead intelligent and reasoned people, in the nations I am pledged to, and to have their respect. I want to have your respect. To do this, I have to understand Sahera, what she was, and what she did. To look at your face, at the face of Spidios when he scolded me about Atthis, at the face of my father when he is ashamed of me, I know what you all have thought. That I am her son, and that I am the same kind of person that she was, with the same habits, and the same appetites. And when I consider all that I have done, and thought, and felt - I have to agree. That means that something must change, and I must understand it in order to change it."

He paused. Heklitis opened his mouth, gazed at Saheris for a long moment, then closed it. Saheris raised a hand to continue.

"That is why I want to know what happened between you and Sahera. I want to understand what I did not myself see. I want to know what made her be as she was. And I want to know why I still have dreams about her that haunt me almost every night. Do you understand now?"

Heklitis dropped his eyes briefly, and then looked up again across the table at his Khan. He was no longer a boy, when he spoke with such maturity and reason - he had shed this illusion of youthful arrogance and boisterousness, and became, for a short hour, at least, the king that he would one day be.

"Yes, I think I do. And I think it is probably fitting for you to come to me for information about Sahera, as I spent nearly eight years with her as my patient. What is it you feel you need to learn -- to unburden yourself?"

"Tell me what she did - to you. How it was you came to lay with her."

Heklitis visibly bridled, and then calmed himself. "This is clearly important to you, so I will tell you. And then, I expect you will explain why this was all necessary."

"Of course."

"Well then. I was just sixteen years of age, and had come to Maduc in service to Saher. I was not two nights under this roof, in this room in fact. I was having some trouble with sleep, and was in considerable anxiety. I was lonely for my home - the only home I had known, and Maduc was a very different place from Eleusis. It was during the night while I lay sleepless that she came unannounced into the room, and told me that she wished to come to see me because it pleased her, and I pleased her. I tried to explain that it was wrong for her to come to my bed, but she was unconcerned. She was -- aggressive."

"What did she do, exactly?" Saheris pressed.

"She - she pulled back my bedclothes, and climbed atop me. I was already unclothed. I did not push her away. I would have had to dash her to the floor to repel her by then."

"Did you want her?"

"Want? I didn't get a chance to think about that. It happened too quickly to determine whether I wanted anything."

"I understand. So the - the act was completed?"

"So to speak. Almost as soon as she felt my climax, she departed. It felt unreal, as though it was some unwelcome dream."

"And what happened afterward?"

"What do you mean - afterward?"

"After that night."

"She tried again, many times. However, that was when I took to locking my doors, and when she could not get in, she tried wheedling and coaxing. Shortly after that she departed and went to Moesia, where she stayed for most of the next two years. It was during this time that she gave birth to you, and later, to Sahelis."

"No - I mean to you. What happened to you, afterward? In your mind, in your dreams. Did you dream of her?"

"Yes, probably. I am sure I did. I thought about this incident a great deal, because it was proscribed by my order, and I might have been dismissed by Saher had he found out. I was more gravely concerned later, when I discovered that a child of the appropriate age had been borne by her. By that time, I had resolved to stay with Saher and to do my best to help in the raising of his children, since I felt most particularly responsible for you."

Saheris shook his head. "This is actually not all that helpful. Did you - have you, carried within you a desire for her, born of that one night you spent with her?"

A look of distaste passed over Heklitis's face. "Desire? No. I quickly learned of her disposition and appetites, and was repulsed by the thought that I could have been weak enough to be seduced by her upon first acquaintance. I was ashamed of my own weakness."

"Well, that at least is something. Now, I should explain what this is all about. For you should know, first, that I did not first meet Sahera in Cormorin when she took me. It was somewhat earlier than that… in Euxis."

"Euxis! When did you see her in Euxis?"

"That is the beginning of the tale I have not told, not even to my brother. And which I would prefer you not tell the Khan. I don't want to make him any more doubtful of my fitness as Khan; but I cannot live with such a burden of secrets and dreams, and as one who has been touched by her, and my own doctor, you are the most suitable person in whom to confide. Not even Sahelis knows of these things. Do I have your confidence -- uncle?"

Heklitis smiled wryly. "Yes. And unless it affects him today, I don't see any reason to trouble Saher with a story of Sahera, since she is part of the painful past."

I had hoped, after that fateful morning, when my firstborn died, that relating to Heklitis the story of the cave, and of the abduction, and Sahera's torments of me in Cormorin, that I would have exorcised her spirit from my flesh, and I would grow calm and whole from the release of the secret from me. But in very fact, the retelling of the story to Heklitis made it all seem far more real and present to my mind, as though I had put into more substantial fabric the tenuous images of my fantasy. And his questions to me, and his comparison of her behavior toward me with the other things he knew of Sahera, did not elucidate my situation for me. He had few insights as to how I could overcome the obsession with her, only that it was necessary and desirable to do so, and that it was his belief that my sexual predilections did seem to arise from this selfsame, repetitive dream which had haunted me for so many years. I was discouraged, and frustrated; but now, more determined than ever to be the master of myself and not a slave to the inward fear that twisted inside me like a coiling serpent. All I lacked was a means.

Heklitis was quiet for a long time after Saheris finished his tale. "Reflecting upon my own secret, I do not find it remarkable that you would keep such events to yourself, Saheris. But it is interesting that you choose this time to confide them to me. I must ask why it comes to you now to confess yourself to me."

"I thought I explained that. Because I believe it affects my leadership; my accession. And my role as a husband and father. How can I truly love a woman if I am tormented internally? How can I responsibly care for children, make decisions in battle, if there is this dream haunting me?"

"Misfortunes occur to all of us, Saheris. It is best not to make too much of them. You were intrigued too early in life by witnessing a horrible scene involving sex and murder, and your own abduction and torture. The fact that it was your own mother who instigated all of these events is wounding, terribly wounding. But you are a strong person - strong enough to have thrived despite them. Strong enough to help Saher and to succeed him. I have faith in you, and more faith as a result of seeing how sincerely you are striving to overcome these wounds. There will be many misfortunes in the future - the death of loved ones, perhaps the death of children, wives, certainly the death of Saher and others whom you count on and love. I have overcome some of them, and perhaps it was easier for me since I have no memory of Vira, but I did survive, and good can come of these things."

"But what of this unnatural passion, Heklitis? That is what troubles me so much now. That is what caused me to run wild in Maeotis, and to try to rape Atthis. I regret these things - I am not often remorseful, but today, I am remorseful. What of this?"

Heklitis waved a hand. "What is unnatural passion, Saheris? When Sahera came to me in the night, I did not know that she was my sister. Had I known, it would have been an easy thing for me to cast her out of my bed. How much differently would you have regarded Sahera in that cave, or on that night she took you, had you known she was the mother who bore you?"

"I - I don't know. It would have been different."

"You said yourself that when the Khan told you who the woman was that it caused you to faint. I remember your swoon that day. It did make a difference. But you could not have known. And not knowing, your experience was utterly different. Just as your experience with Kara was different, not knowing. It may cause a lingering tendency to be more attentive to the regard of women older than you…. But what is that? You don't need to worry about the propriety of age differences, not really. As long as you can observe the strictures against taking a woman who is already given in marriage, and those against incest…"

"These are mere practical things, Heklitis," Saheris replied quickly, dissatisfied. "You are saying practical things."

"It is at base, a practical issue, Saheris. Don't make it mysterious. It may feel large and ponderous, but after all, it is only how you behave that truly matters."

"I somehow did not expect all practical advisement. I thought perhaps you would be shocked and bewildered. Aren't you shocked and bewildered?"

Heklitis smiled wearily. "Saheris, I know you think I am a weak and emotional person, and perhaps in my personal life, it would seem I am, but I endured your mother day after day for many a long year. There is very little about Sahera that would surprise me, and at the time of your abduction, I had examined you and found that there had been a sexual act upon you of some kind. It reassures me that it was as you say and not far more egregious, as I had long thought. So - with the exception of the events in the cave, and the comments you told me about what she revealed to you, there is little new for me to be shocked and bewildered by. Many times she had kept me from sleep with her long tales of her heritage as a prince of Byblos, and the fantastic imaginings of her fictional destiny. The result of an overactive romantic imagination, and too many wild Alan folk tales told by her mother, and her own isolation from those around her. It was not easy to be such an intelligent and misguided girl, and the military training Saher provided her, out of all good intention, fed her own illusions of herself as a warrior. Yes - she was strong, but there was nothing of a warrior in her. And I can tell you from the long nights I had to ponder what had caused me to lapse with her - it was her mere boldness, and no great mystique or magic. She was, though exceedingly handsome, not exceptional except in aggressiveness and drive, and perhaps imagination. There is little merit to considering her a larger than life seductress or evil force. It was only because her mother had trained her to be this way, and that her mother had married Saher as a political and military act, that caused subsequent actions to take on far more weight, certainly in your life, than they would have seemed to otherwise."

"Oh, Heklitis, to hear you talk of her, I can squint and almost see what you see. But not quite. Not quite."

"If there is anything more you think I can tell you of Sahera to disabuse you of her mystery, I would be glad to do so. For - trust me, I was, myself, thoroughly disabused long before her death."

Saheris rose, greatly weary from the shocks of the day. "I have taken enough of your day, Heklitis. I think this has done me some good - though not as much as I had hoped. I will talk to you again when I think it is necessary."

"Thank you, Saheris, for your confidence."

Heklitis watched as Saheris left him, and fired the lamp in the dim room. When he was sure that Saheris was away from his door, he left, and went in search of Saher.

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"Khan, I have just had a remarkable conversation with Saheris."

"Indeed - since when does he confide in you? Has he recovered from his designs on your betrothed then? Have you forgiven him?" Saher was sitting late in his study, propped up with a pillow under his weak arm.

"Yes, I think that problem has passed. I am sure it has, after today. There is something which, though he asked for confidence, may prove of importance in understanding why Bellianus persists in remaining in Pontus. And why Sahera sought Saheris and took him."

"Oh? This may indeed interest me."

"He told me of an incident that had long puzzled us - you remember the cave in Euxis that was discovered when Bellianus was abroad there, and before Sahera took the boy?"

"Yes yes, I'm old but I have not lost my wits. Go on."

"Sahera indeed was using that cave, and in fact, Saheris had discovered it as well, and was hidden in it when she had an assignation with Bellianus at the time we were billeted there."

Saher sat up, his interest now fully arrested. "Saheris in the cave! Curse the child! We could have caught them both had he told us!"

"Yes, I know, Khan. But the important thing is what occurred there. Sahera had lured Bellianus to the cave in Euxis, and Saheris witnessed the purpose of her assignation. It was to murder him."

"What? What did the boy see?"

"He saw the two engaged in passion, and while Bellianus was distracted, she drew her sword on him and threatened him. Saheris intervened, and saved the Roman, who then drove Sahera off. Bellianus then saw Saheris back safely to our billet and was off."

"Then this explains why she later came at speed to abscond with Saheris - to revenge herself upon him for thwarting her."

"Yes, Khan."

"So she did intend to kill him, perhaps not immediately - at least, not until she had lured me and killed me first."

"Probably, yes."

"And what possesses him to reveal all of this to you now?" Saher asked, rubbing his eyebrows to dispel his drowsiness.

"The sudden revelation of a living sister of Sahera. He tells me he was drawn to the one due to the similarity to the other."

"Oh. Then this wasn't entirely accidental with Kara."

"No, Khan."

"Well - what shall we do with this old intelligence of Bellianus?"

"I suggest, Khan, that you seek him out and rescind the death order against him. Let it be known that facts have come to light that change his status with Bithynia, and try to arrange for some direct contact with him. I doubt any of his actions were belligerent or intentioned harm against you or Saheris; or if they were, it was through misinformation."

"That may be an intelligent approach. Particularly since I cannot see Saheris letting the fact of his paternity go without acting upon it at some time. And since Bellianus may never be very far away."

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