Ah, when I
think back to my fifteenth year
it was the year that did not end.
The rest of the empire remembers it as the year Alaric sacked Rome, and
later died, before winter began. Had he not, then perhaps Sahelis, and
my father, would not have seen the following spring. For Priscus Attalus,
old retainer of Theodosius, and my paternal grandfather, had not in fact
died two years before but had betrayed the Western empire to the Visigoth
Alaric, who later enthroned him as Caesar in defiance of Honorius.
This was only the beginning, however, of the changes that would transform
my life, and take me from Maduc to my newly-built capital in the heart
of Munduk's empire, from where I began my accession as Khan of the Unari,
known to the Romans as the Huns.
Sahelis had not
yet received a reply from Bithynia to his letter. This worried him. Neither
had he seen Bellianus since they had met at the Lyceum, though he had
been promised an introduction to his family. He remained in the tutelage
of Severus, who was still applying for him the groundwork in Roman history
the Romans were in no hurry, it would seem, to welcome
Sahelis into their larger society, and the company of Severus and his
family were the extent of his connections outside of the Lyceum. Though
Severus had a charming wife, who made the garlic-laden dishes of the north
more palatable to Sahelis's tastes, and two irrepressible and innocent
sons several years younger than himself, Sahelis missed his brother, the
soldiers, and the presence of other adults. And - truth to tell, he missed
the presence of his one-time love, Numis. Though he had not sought her
bed on her return to Maduc, it was her presence, her quick, inquisitive
mind and ready conversation that had satisfied him
and had led him
inevitably to make a choice similar to hers - to seek the unenvied position
as a Roman hostage, for the sake of knowledge. This he had not told Saheris
that his true motive was not as selfless as he would like to think, but
rather the craving for new knowledge, and libraries beyond those lent
by the Eleusinians via Spidios. It seemed Spidios had little more to teach
him, unless he wanted to become a physician. And that - he knew he did
And so he labored
at the elbow of Severus, who helped him as he stumbled through Strabo,
Quintus Curtius, and Cicero, as well as Severus's own writings on the
succession of the emperors of Rome. Though he felt it inappropriate to
say so, he found Severus the most difficult of all, syntactically, as
though the more modern idiom of the Latin tongue had grown thick with
new words for treachery, in which Severus indulged himself to the maximum.
If Sahelis had the time to step back from the texts that were pressed
to his elbow, he would have thrown it all into a pile and dismissed it
as court gossip. For there was a lot of it. It was more than a little
outrageous to read about Constantine steaming his second wife Fausta alive
in her bath for deceiving him into murdering his son
did it really
happen this way? Was this history, or mere speculation? Surely she had
died in the bath
but how do they know it was murder? Out of pure
respect for the elderly man, and the fact that his society was forcibly
limited, Sahelis persevered, but found himself more and more drawn to
the ancient history written by Quintus Curtius, which was far easier to
read, and more engaging, as well as more believable. But Curtius did not
help him understand Rome better, since his writings were limited to the
campaigns of Alexander and Xenophon Cyrus of a previous age. They were
lessons in the larger sweep of history, and of warfare. But the Romans
revered the Greeks, even now, a fashion started by Augustus several centuries
before, and such study was not considered fruitless or wasted. Severus
forebore to criticize Sahelis when he found his preference for Curtius,
though he could not resist a few barbs at his research.
"You read far
enough in the Anabasis, you will find that even Curtius claims that Alexander
lay with the mythical queen of the Amazons for a dozen nights, which is
purely a fabrication. Any good historian of the last century would never
make such a horrible lapse. Arrianus is better."
"Yes, but Severus, in the case of your own history - how do we know for
a fact that Fausta had been boiled in the bath by Constantine, except
by the gossip of slaves who suspected him? Yes it is true that she had
intrigued with the Magister Militum on behalf of her son, but we have
no evidence that Constantine had uncovered a plot or sought revenge on
The old man peered
at him, then put a crooked finger alongside his nose. "Just so, my boy.
However, the good historian has a nose for the truth, and for the times.
Other factors weigh heavily in such a case, and in this instance, I am
sure I am right."
his head, knowing that he should not have risked provoking the old scholar,
certain that it would lead to an hour-long lecture on the issue of corruption
within hereditary monarchies, and the primary exemplars, the Roman emperors.
But Severus checked himself, and said "But enough of scholarship. You
have been too much in study, my young pupil, it is time for you to spend
some time at recreation. It is time to go to the baths!"
"Baths? I bathe
quite well right here," he replied, a look of consternation crossing his
face. But Severus was shaking his head.
"This is more
of a social event
and perhaps one of pleasure as well." So Sahelis
steeled himself for another Roman experience, which was not quite as bad
as he had thought, though it took most of the day. When they had finished
with the games, the dice, the steam, and the massages, it was late afternoon,
and rather than making their way back to Severus's home, the old man led
him without a word along a different route to an impressive house in another
part of the city, near the eastern walls.
"Where do we go
"To dinner, my
boy. You have borne up well at the baths, now it is time to meet some
new faces." And Sahelis found himself at the home of one Verginius Cestis,
a relative of the wife of Severus, and a member of the Lyceum, as a guest
for dinner. He was affably greeted, though formally compared to the informality
of the little household of the old scholar, and was introduced to the
sons and daughters of Verginius, whose names were recited so rapidly he
could remember only the name of the shyly smiling girl, little older than
himself, Claudia Fausta, because the name was the same as that of the
murdered queen he had been studying earlier that day. As with most Roman
social events, however, the females were then dismissed to another part
of the house, where they dined apart. Sahelis was disappointed to be left
with a host of young and not-so-young males who comprised Verginius's
household, but was less vexed when he realized that the sons were referred
to not by their born names but with their birth order, Primus, Secundus,
and so on, and by their apparent age differences he could easily tell
once referred to which one fell after the other, but not whether he should
use these same designations, and so kept as quiet as the conversation
allowed. The evening, then, was one not so much of new discovery but of
observation, until, upon readying for a departure late in the evening,
he found a note pressed into his hand by a fast-moving servant in the
hallway, who was adjusting his cloak for him. He pocketed the note and
nodded briefly to the servant-girl, and they made their goodbyes.
On their way back
through the twisted streets, Sahelis pressed Severus for Verginius' address,
so that he could come to know the city better, and make his way back alone
if called for. Severus readily provided it, and Sahelis committed it to
memory. And when he was once again alone in his rooms adjoining the Lyceum
library, he opened the note that had been pressed upon him. It was from
the note began in flowery Latin, "perhaps if your eye was for a moment
beguiled, you would meet me at the East Gate, by my fathers house, when
the evening hour has struck again. And the sun has fled behind the mountains."
it a peculiar note, almost as though the girl went to some pains to describe
a meeting for someone who could not read a sundial. How ignorant does
she think I am, that I cannot discern the hour by either dial or clock?
He thought, piqued, and for that reason, he determined at first not to
meet her. But later, after he had retired, lying carefully on his side
to avoid the incidental burns he received in the calidarium at the baths
early in the day, he reconsidered. Wasn't his greatest discomfort here,
boredom and lack of society? Refraining from a clumsy invitation with
a young but pretty girl because of social clumsiness would not increase
his exposure to Roman society, but lessen it. And would he not, in his
own turn, demonstrate some serious clumsiness himself? This is a foreign
land, and its customs, still beyond his comprehension, despite observation
and supervision. It was time for some exploration - perhaps even some
During the day,
Severus had appeared briefly to tell him that lessons would be suspended
for some days, due to other duties he had to attend on behalf of the emperor
Honorius. "Keep yourself occupied, there will soon come an invitation
from some other members of the Lyceum I have arranged for you
you may familiarize yourself with the city, though do not wander beyond
the gates." This did not leave Sahelis entirely alone - he was given a
curfew and a guard who must determine his whereabouts at least once a
day, as a term of his residence in Ravenna as hostage. But since the initial
agreement had been signed, the period of watchfulness on the boy had passed,
and he had proven both tractable and predictable, and so therefore, his
curfew had been relaxed. Thus he had, in effect, freedom of the city.
And as he wandered
through it, just as the sun was setting, toward the Eastern gate, he noted
it was louder, busier than usual, and a loud clatter of horses would depart
from one direction or the other, just as they had done in Maduc during
the gathering of the army. Was the army gathering? Was this the reason
for the suspending of lessons? Was Severus called to advise now at the
court, and had no time for him?
The eastern gate
was in sight now, and to his south, he could see a familiar cobbled lane
which led to the impressive house of Verginius Cestis, decorated with
blooming spring flowers. Ravenna, unlike Maduc, was a flowering city,
whose frequent rains had made greenery flourish as far as the eye could
see. No wonder Honorius had taken it for his royal capital of the West.
He wondered how it compared with Rome. Thus was Sahelis distracted with
the sight and sound of this new place when a hand slipped around his arm
and tugged him forward. He drew back, startled, to find himself half-embraced
by a slight form in a hooded cloak, tugging insistently at him.
"Quickly, we should
not be seen," came the muffled voice. As he realized that this was his
assignation, he stopped resisting and allowed himself to be pulled toward
a shadowy street, first a trot, then at a full run. Then the girl halted,
dragging once again on his arm, and threw off her hood. Beneath it he
saw a tousled head of bright coppery hair, and a pale complexion, and
the same shy smile, contradicted by wild, adventurous eyes. He knew this
look - he had seen it too often in the eyes of his brother - and he took
an involuntary breath. She was a very pretty girl. Before he could exhale,
she had reached up with both hands and grasped him around the neck, and
placed a hot kiss on his mouth. He pulled back.
gasped. "Don't you think
"No time," she
said. "We have to hurry." She tugged once again on his arm to hasten him
to follow, and he found he had lost his will to resist. His mouth was
seared from the taste of her kiss, and he was dizzy with arousal. There
was no will in him to refuse. They ran down a succession of narrow alleyways
and over the brickworks of a hypocaust, which he was sure must feed the
calidarium of yet another bathhouse, and then came to a small house. Claudia
squeezed through a garden gate then to the rear of this small place, and
unwound the leather thong that held a small, hard-to-see door along the
side. "This way," she prompted, and they plunged into a dark gloom. "Let
me get a lamp..." she hurried forward, leaving him briefly alone, long
enough to wonder what he was doing, when a warm yellow glow returned,
and in its glow, the impish, adventurish expression once again upon her
"Now, there is
no hurry," she announced, and let the cloak slip from her shoulders with
a wicked smile. Beneath the cloak, she was completely naked. She stepped
forward and put her hands on his chest, tilting her face up once again
to offer him her wet mouth. Sahelis did not refuse this, either.
It was his first
experience since taking Spidios's cure, and was surprised to find he had
no pain, either in arousal or in intercourse. The girl, he thought, was
mad to make such an assignation with a barbarian stranger, to bring him
to a secret place, and seduce him wordlessly
but there was something
compellingly familiar about her manner and her seductiveness. He felt
little will to resist this, because he held his own secret, unknown to
her.. that he could not put her at risk of pregnancy. In this, he had
relied utterly upon Spidios, who had assured him that he had never known
his surgical cure to fail, in many generations it had been practiced since
it was invented. Yet, Sahelis refrained from enlightening the copper-haired
Claudia, because there was something about her meeting and seduction of
him that was decidedly suspicious. When at last she seemed satisfied and
grew quiet, he sat up, and began to speak.
"I don't believe
that was your first time doing that," he said. "Or your second or third
She smiled lazily.
"Of course not. I have four brothers
"What? What has
that to do with
their first experiences with their brothers
do you not have a sister?"
Sahelis shivered suddenly, though not with the cold. He found himself
suddenly, completely horrified by this beautiful, foreign, girl, who appeared
to him all at once horrible.
"N- no,' he replied.
"I just have a brother."
"Did you not ever
with your brother even?" Sahelis stared, unblinking, at the guileless
face of the girl as she peered up at him from the pallet in the genteel
Roman cottage, which she told him was a guest house of her father's. "No
we believe that is unclean."
"And you believe
that sisters and brothers bedding one another is unclean too, I see
she noted sharply. Her tone conveyed pique. He nodded in the darkness.
"But not barbarian
princes bedding the unclean daughters of Roman nobles
" She sat up
in her turn and reached for her cloak.
"We don't think
of ourselves as barbarians, however," he replied, his voice weak. "Do
not be angry with me. Do not go." She settled back against him, apparently
satisfied for the moment.
"Well you don't
seem any more barbarian than the boys I have met here in the empire, perhaps
a little less flabby
" she pinched his stomach. "Much more muscular
I like that."
"Ha, you should
see my brother then
he makes me look flabby
" his speech halted
when her hands began to seek once more, and she slid atop him.
"When I finish
with you, then I can start with him," she murmured, and for the moment,
they were both lost again in the sensations of arousal. But Sahelis was
distracted, and as he moved once again against the sensual body of the
Roman girl, his imagination was flooded with the unwelcome image of her
in bed with the brothers he had dined with. And when the image came to
him, he lost his arousal immediately and pulled away from her.
Are you all used up?" Her voice was thick with lust and disappointment.
"That must be
it," he mumbled, and sat up to pull his clothes on again. She placed her
hands against his still bare, warm back.
"I want to see
" she said. "I like you."
"I have to go
back to my studies. There won't be time."
"You can make
time, they have released you from your curfew, have they not?" He turned
and peered around at her.
"How do you know
that?" He felt her smile in the darkness.
"Because I asked
"You've done this
before," he whispered, shocked. "With hostages."
A laugh shook
the air around him. "Well, of course. Don't be hurt you're not the first!"
"Or the tenth
or the twentieth, apparently," Sahelis replied, not holding back the bitterness
in his voice.
"And you haven't
had ten or twenty?" Her voice was hot with sudden anger, and he expected
the hands that had so recently caressed him to strike, and yearned away
from the source of the voice.
"No, I have not."
Real anger had risen in him, and he realized that despite his cure, he
had truly made a mistake.
"Perhaps you should,
then!" she snapped. "It might help your stamina."
"No, I don't think
" he said, as he stood and tightened his belt around his
waist. Dressed, he felt more at ease, but felt a desperate need to get
away from this strange girl. But what would happen if she truly had grown
angry with him? Would she claim he raped her? Would this bring risk to
him or to Severus as his host? He thought rapidly, and decided diplomacy
was the best course of action. "Lady Claudia, I am very sorry I offended
you. I come from a far away country, and we are somewhat different."
"It appears it
is much the other way," she answered, the voice still snappish. "It seems
I have offended you by my very being."
"No - no
I just, fail to understand. I assumed that you were
put a hand on his face then, and he felt the sinuous arms go about him
once again. "I suppose that is touching in its own way. But here, only
infants are innocent. I would not have come here and bedded you had I
been innocent. I was deflowered by the age of 8, my naïve stranger,
and have had far more than twenty."
Sahelis gasped. Again, he was reminded with astonishment of her similarity
to Saheris, and his mysterious assignation in the woods when they were
small boys. "Was this - intended? Was it - a man?"
She laughed again,
lightly, her breath warm against his neck in the now impenetrable darkness.
"Intended enough, I do not regret it. Do you regret meeting me now?"
He wanted to say
yes, but refrained - he could not afford to risk piquing her sudden anger
yet again, for he had yet to understand his risk with her. "No
was, very pleasurable. I am glad we met." He made himself embrace her
once again, the thin form, her flagrant nakedness now cloaked and protected
once again. "But I do have my studies."
"But you will
meet me again, will you not - Sahelis?"
"I will try. But
I can't promise."
"You must promise,"
she said urgently, and taking his hand, slipped it again under her cloak
and squeezing against a breast. "You must promise."
He withdrew his
hand gently. "I must go now." Reluctantly, she led him in darkness out
the side door of the guest house, and back to the East Gate. Then she
vanished into the night, leaving him to pick his way back to the Lyceum
in the uncertain moonlight. As he walked in a descending spring fog, he
found himself oppressed by glimpses of memory concerning Saheris. For
did he not see in the glittering eyes of Claudia Fausta, that self-same
insecure, passionate seeking he had so often seen in Saheris? A pang of
longing overcame him, the longing to see Saheris and be certain that his
hapless brother had not found his way into some new intrigue with yet
another woman. What would have happened had it been Saheris who had been
met by the wild, irrepressible Claudia? The thought made him shudder.
Sahelis slept uneasily; his body had been slaked, but his mind had been
provoked by a myriad of old worries, and a few new ones. If he did not
agree to see her again - what might ensue?
Dull worry blossomed
into immediate fear when he awoke to a knocking at his door, and a familiar,
slim servant once again fervently handed him a note, and tied to it, a
sprig of new-blooming thistle. A gift from his new lover, and a new, fresh
invitation to meet at the East Gate. This one, he must refuse.
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