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Chapter 48: Ravenna

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 and letters… 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 not want.

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."

Sahelis chuckled. "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 her."

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."

Sahelis shook 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 now, Master?"

"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 Claudia Fausta.

"Handsome foreigner," 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."

Sahelis found 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 excitement.

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… and 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.

"Lady…" he 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 face.

"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…"

"Everyone has 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.

"What's wrong? 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 you again…" 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 Severus."

"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 it would…" 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…"

"Innocent." She 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."

Despite himself, 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… it 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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