up from his seat and put a hand to his spine as he straightened up. He
had been seated for some hours with the Bithynian youth, and had not intended
to take such a long time. "You are a curious and avid scholar, young Sahelis.
You make me revise all I know of the intellectual attainments of the nobles
of our provinces. I did not think they were fully versed in both Latin
"I may be unusual
in that respect, master," Sahelis replied cautiously.
"You should meet
Priscus Septimus, he lives not far. He takes an avid interest in the countries
to the east, and also in history. His is also a keen intellect, and you
may have some interest in common."
"Who did you say,
master?" Sahelis asked. "Priscus Septimus?"
is his family name. It was his son they send to Scythia this next month,
now that you have settled in here."
Sahelis repeated. "Yes, I do know the name. I would very much like to
meet him, if you will send me to him."
"Then it will
be done," the old man said. "Oh I need another draught for my back. The
springtime cannot come too soon for me." Sahelis helped him down the stairs,
and out of the house, then returned to the library to finish reading the
Strabo's history of Pontus.
It was at a meal
with Severus and several other scholars that Sahelis first encountered
Priscus Septimus, who had sat across him from dinner, before they were
introduced. He had been pointed out by Severus, and had the luxury of
observing him before they spoke, and when the wine was served and they
rose from the meal, Bellianus approached him. "The young Scythian!" he
greeted him. "What is your name, then?"
"Sahelis. I am
Bithynian actually, heir to Scythia by alliance."
"Of course. So
many countries, all woven together."
"Unusual - most
of the Romans refer to them as provinces, rather than as nations in their
then peered more closely at Sahelis. "Don't let that distress you. We
are far from the - provinces here, and Romans must feel as though they
had not already lost half their empire in the east, therefore they put
on many airs. But it would take all our armies and half of the Visigoths
to march in to actually assert sovereign control over your nation. And
I don't think we shall see that happen in the foreseeable future. Just
don't let anyone hear you say that - they are sensitive enough about it
as it is. That is why any of these grey-bearded men will hold forth on
the great empire and their 'provinces' - they will never set foot in them."
"Have you set
foot in them, then?" Sahelis pressed.
"Indeed. Not as
far north as Scythia, but certainly through the nations of Pontus. It
is beautiful there."
"Have you been
"Indeed." His face had grown wistful, briefly. He then clapped Sahelis
on the shoulder. "We should have some tales to share about Bithynia, hey?
Wait." Bellianus straightened up and grasped the boy by the arms, peering
closely into his eyes. "Sahelis you say? Are you related then - to the
"You are - his
"And your mother
- the princess Sahera?"
him suddenly. "Oh - Sahera. I knew your mother, Sahelis. Come let us out
of this crush. We have somewhat to discuss." Before Sahelis could think
the next thought, Bellianus had taken him by the arm and rushed him away
from the wine and conversation, out into the open air and the empty cobblestone
father and brother,
met a member of the emperor's family, the scholar Priscus Septimus Bellianus,
the same you condemned. He is a charming and learned man, greatly handsome.
This week I am to be brought to meet his wife and children, one of them
who, will be travelling soon to Maeotis in exchange as hostage. Bellianus
makes his home nearby to Attalus, who is my host here, they are relatives
in some obscure way I cannot determine. Bellianus came to a dinner that
was given by the scholars in the Lyceum here - they have scholarly societies
similar to the ones that the Greeks had in their schools, and they call
it the Lyceum. I am studying the Latin texts I have not seen before, including
the histories of Strabo and the poets we do not know of in the East. The
greatest of these is Ovidius, and he writes of love and passions I had
not known existed in the Roman world. There is much we never learn in
our nation, that is withheld from us so far away in the 'provinces.'
spoke to me of his travels in the east, from which he returned two years
past, and is very familiar with our country. He tells me that a missive
will come directly to you, father, of explanation that is long delayed
until his father's death occurred; the same event which prompted his return.
Of the details I am sure he will tell you in his own letter which will
reach you soon.. I believe you will find it of surpassing interest.
well and spending my days in reading and discussions with the scholars
here. I miss you terribly and hope all is well! Father, I wish all the
powers to speed your recovery and that the weather improves as it is doing
"I am surprised,
I thought you would have green eyes," Bellianus remarked without preamble.
asked, his heart pounding.
"I knew your mother.
She had two sons, correct?"
"And you are -
fifteen winters and somewhat, yes?"
Sahelis did not
"Surely you know my name, growing up in the Khan's house - that I was
under sentence by the Khan for my involvement with your mother. That can
be no secret."
"Yes, I know about
that. But did you know the sentence was lifted?"
"The Khan has
written this to me lately," Sahelis said.
"Did he say why?"
"Perhaps it is
because of our new treaty, sir. But please tell me, why did you ask about
"Sahelis, I should
not speak openly about this. It is possible that what I am to say to you
could at some time, with some in Rome, endanger your life. But it is very
likely that you are my son."
to look shocked. It was not difficult, since he did not expect that Bellianus
would admit it so readily to him, so the words, when they came, had their
to pass off the younger child as mine, but I am not such a fool as to
not be able to count months. I never lay with her at a time when she could
have conceived the younger. When her time was due she sent for me, but
I would have none of it. The elder, though, I had seen, and when born
he had my eyes. Strange though that they darkened. You do not resemble
me in the least, and that I would not have expected."
"But if you knew
she had your son
" Sahelis sputtered
"Then why did
I not claim you? That is for my dead father to explain, curse him. He
would not have her, or let me bring her here, and he also prevented me
from making any explanation to the Khan about it after the sentence was
made. And that is all there is to it. And I hope - for your sake, and
for mine, that the intelligence of your existence died with him, for now
with Honorius in place, I am somewhat nearer to the throne than I have
been, and he has a nasty dislike of outsiders."
much," Sahelis mumbled.
The older man
put his hands once again on Sahelis' shoulders. "Severus tells me you
are a keen-minded youth, and a scholar. This is very pleasing to me. Despite
all of your misfortunes as an orphan, I hope that chance can help me make
it up to you, being deprived of a Roman life. So - do you suppose you
can keep all of this between us, and rejoin our friends of the Lyceum?"
reassured by the big man's confidence. Deceiving him took less effort
than he could have imagined, though he regretted the necessary lie. He
might actually come to like - Saheris's father.
It had been a
long time since Saheris was rousted from his bed - this time it was Suwetus
who summoned him. It was still dark, which meant that it was either still
night, or very early morning. His body told him it was still night, for
he was still weary and unrested.
"Why is this that
you summon me, Suwetus?"
"It is not I but
the Khan, and please do not delay." The aging Roman had clearly not yet
been to bed; the Khan must have kept him up.
"And why?" he
demanded, still not moving toward his clothes.
is for the Khan to discuss with you. Now hurry if you please."
His anger dulled
by weariness, Saheris pulled on his trousers and the tunic he had dropped
by the bed a few hours before. The room was cold, and so was the hallway.
He followed the lamp of his secretary downstairs to the Khan's study,
where Suwetus left them.
down. Here is some tea to wake you."
"I don't want
any tea, Father, I want to know what makes you rouse me from bed at this
"News, from Ravenna,
and the urgent need for explanation."
"News, from Sahelis?"
From Bellianus." Saheris came instantly wide awake.
"Yes, it appears
that Sahelis told him, or convinced him somehow, that he is the older
of the two of you and the son of Bellianus. Now - why would he do that?"
Saher glared at Saheris through the dim lamplight, and under this scrutiny,
Saheris dropped his eyes. It was a long moment before he raised them again.
"It was his idea,
Father. Since I could not set foot in the empire, he thought it would
be safer for me if he encountered my father, to pose as the older, just
as he is posing as Munduk's heir. He is taller and larger, and it would
be an easy deception. It would also enable him to find out more about
Bellianus, if he thought he was his son."
"And neither of
you thought to include me, or Munduk, in this plot, which cannot be amended
"We had no idea
whether he would meet him."
"Answer my question,
Saheris. If I were not so weak, and so tired right now, I would thrash
you so that you would not forget it. Don't you understand that in this
letter to me Bellianus tells me what great risk Sahelis now faces - in
Ravenna? He has no way to assure the safety of the boy, because he does
not know who knows he has a living son from Bithynia! If you think the
politics of our little nations are complex, they are nothing compared
to the murderous machinations of the Romans! Did you ever stop to think
about the risk to your brother?"
at the harsh words that poured over him. "Risk? What risk?"
"Answer me! Why
did you keep this great plot from me, and execute it on your own?"
Saheris once again
dropped his eyes and spoke quietly, now abashed. "Sahelis believed you
would not approve, and I concurred."
"Of course I would
not approve! And for the correct reason!" Saher rose to his feet, and
began to pace. "Here! Read it for yourself!" he tossed the letter, in
close Latin script, to the floor at Saheris's feet. He reached down, trembling,
to retrieve it and read the letter from his father.
Saher had not
exaggerated. Delivered by means of messengers to associates of Bellianus
in Constantinople, the letter had passed secretly to the Khan in less
than ten days, and contained the details of his discussion with Sahelis,
and a summary of his relationship with Sahera. He had been hoping, he
wrote, to be able to return to Bithynia himself or to send someone to
speak to the Khan on his behalf, but the accession of his distant cousin
Honorius made any such movement suspect, and he had spent most of the
last two years following his father's death attempting to discover who
else was privy to the knowledge of his child. Such intelligence would
be seen by Honorius as very unwelcome, and a male child of mixed parentage
and strong connections to his brother's realm would be politically dangerous,
both to the child, and to Bellianus, for he could be seen as a legitimate
heir to both empires in the event of any future attempt to consolidate
the two. That child, and Bellianus himself, might be subject to exile
or assassination, should the empire's line of succession be seen as a
threat to Honorius.
that despite his designation as Septimus (seventh), he was his mother's
firstborn, and she was the eldest cousin of Honorius. So until, and unless,
Honorius fathered a son, Bellianus was first in the line of succession
in the Western empire. And were he acknowledged, Saheris would be second,
and most likely, assassinated as unsuitable by the nobles or by Honorius
or his family.
The letter made
Saheris tremble. He watched Saher pace the room for several more minutes
in silence. "Has there been word from Sahelis?"
and replied. "No. Using the regular means of carriage, if Sahelis had
written it will be days behind this, perhaps a week. But unless he is
far more foolish than I think he is, he would have been prudent in his
letter, or Bellianus would have warned him to be so." Then his voice cracked.
"Don't you see what this means? If this one falsehood is put about, then
Munduk could face war, and you may never see your brother again!"
But it could be me." Their eyes met for a long moment. "So there really
was no choice. He may be at risk of his life now at being known as the
son of Bellianus - but he has spared me, and Bithynia. And that is why
we did it."
"It was not your
choice to make!" Saher bellowed. "Leave me now. I have to think." Saheris
rose, replacing the letter of Bellianus on the table.
Sahelis had cast the die, and placed himself in the center of power in
Ravenna. When first conceived, our plot seemed a natural outgrowth of
Saher's and Munduk's plot to exchange Sahelis for me as hostage - as a
means of protecting both realms and myself as the Khan. For years I held
to this belief. But what was Sahelis's true motive? It seemed to me at
the time selfless in the extreme, but also sensible. We did not know of
the succession then. Would it have changed our strategy? We had both been
fascinated from early youth with my mother's lover, and the mystery of
his relationship to her and disappearance. I also had harbored within
me the hope born of my contact with him in Euxis, that my father was,
though a Roman, a man of honor and valor, and who would one day acknowledge
me - not as a Roman or as an heir, but simply as son. There was some subtle
pact between us, from my saving his life that night in the cave, a pact
I felt that he would honor at some imagined future moment when we would
meet one another again. But I was not destined to meet him -- that fell
to Sahelis. And as our plot developed, the opportunity to admit the falsehood
to Bellianus was lost. I was to meet Aetius instead, in Maeotis. So while
I never did meet my father, I became very close friends in Maeotis with
a man who became as closer to me as my brother had been: Aetius.
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