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Chapter 45: The Deception

Severus stood 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 and Greek."

"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?"

"Yes, Bellianus is his family name. It was his son they send to Scythia this next month, now that you have settled in here."

"Bellianus…" 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.

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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 own right."

Bellianus checked 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 to Maduc?"

Bellianus nodded. "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 Khan Saher?"

Sahelis nodded, helplessly.

"You are - his grandson then?"

Sahelis nodded again.

"And your mother - the princess Sahera?"

"Yes, sir."

Bellianus released 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 streets.

Dearest father and brother,

I have 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.'

Bellianus 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.

I am 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 here.

Your faithful son,

Sahelis

 

"I am surprised, I thought you would have green eyes," Bellianus remarked without preamble.

"Why?" Sahelis asked, his heart pounding.

"I knew your mother. She had two sons, correct?"

"Yes."

"And you are - fifteen winters and somewhat, yes?"

Sahelis did not hesitate. "Yes."

Bellianus nodded. "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?"

Bellianus turned, startled. "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 my eyes?"

"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."

Sahelis tried 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 effect. "But…"

"Sahera tried 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."

"This explains 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?"

Sahelis nodded, 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.

 

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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.

"Saheris, that 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.

"Saheris, sit 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 hour."

"News, from Ravenna, and the urgent need for explanation."

"News, from Sahelis?"

"Not 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 or retracted?"

"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?"

Saheris paled 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.

Bellianus explained 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?"

Saher stopped 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!"

"Yes, Father. 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.

And so 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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