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Chapter 49: News from Rome

Sahelis hesitated this time when a knock came at the door of the Lyceum library, and very nearly asked for his servant to go - fearing now that Claudia Fausta herself would make an appearance. It had been two days, and two notes later, and he had not replied to her. He had gone out once again to the baths, not for a repeat of the steaming and massaging, but simply to pass the time away from the Lyceum during the absence of Severus, and returned back to inquire of his servant whether there had been anyone call at the door. There had not. But now, in the middle of the afternoon, while Sahelis was toying once again with the notes of Quintus Curtius on the battles of Alexander in India - his favorite sections, in fact -- a heavy knock came upon the door, and set his heart to racing once again, with a painful anticipation. He walked slowly to the door, and opened it with utter surprise.

"Let me in quickly, Sahelis, it may be imprudent for me to be here…" said Priscus Bellanius, and opened the door wide to admit himself.

Avoiding the endearment "father" once again, Sahelis replied, "There is no one about, Severus has been absent three days now."

"I know. He is closeted with the imperial court. He is one of their advisors, though retired, and Honorius wishes to have the eldest of his father's intimates with him now as counsel, even if they are enfeebled or retired."

"Why?" said Sahelis, his former fears dismissed in a wave of fresh, fierce anxiety.

Bellianus caught the look on his face. "Well it is for you to be concerned, for I too am at my wit's end, and hoped that Severus might have returned to provide some counsel, but he has not. I cannot go to the court. I have somewhat to explain to you, which I hope will not set you uneasy. And it makes it all that much more important that our relation not be revealed."

Sahelis nodded, now mute, abashed by the look of incipient panic on Bellianus's face. "You are familiar with the role of Magister Militum in our government system, Severus has taught you as much of this?"

"Yes, Lord."

"Just call me Priscus, no need for the honorific. And please - do not ever be caught even in private addressing me more -- personally."

"I understand - Priscus."

"You know who is the Magister Militum for Honorius?"

"It is - Flavius… Flavius St --"

Bellianus shook his head decisively. "No - it WAS Flavius Stilicho. He was killed right here in the city square by the German commander with the approval of Honorius - his greatest stupid deed to date, because Stilicho was a Vandal by birth. Honorius has no love of foreigners, and each of the factions of his army have played his prejudices to a nicety. No, he was not replaced, though Honorius places much hope in the general Constantius, and will name him if he can drive back the pretender from Britain threatening Gaul, who also has been proclaimed Emperor. But the choice may come too late. This is where my father becomes involved."

"Your father - I thought that he was, you said --"

"I find out only this week that he lives, still, in Rome. I was told, at the time the news broke, that my father, Priscus Attalus, who had been the Prefect and Treasurer in Rome at the time Stilicho was put to the sword, had been killed in the Visigoth siege led by Alaric. But that did not happen. Honorius has received word from Rome three days since that the siege of Rome was lifted, and that Alaric has made peace with the new Emperor."

"New emperor? Who?"

"Attalus." Sahelis fixed his eyes upon the hands of Bellianus, who, while he had been speaking, had ceaselessly kneaded one another. Now they ceased utterly with the final mention of his father's name, and the hands grasped one another, trembling. He looked briefly at Sahelis, as though seeking comprehension. "My father has betrayed the emperor and made peace with the Visigoths, and they have put him on the throne."

"But - why would he do this?"

"Because after twenty months of siege, Honorius had done nothing to relieve Rome, and the people must have been starving by the end of this winter. The timing is right for it. That is what I believe. Ravenna, and the Emperor, I am sure have a different tale to tell. What I don't understand is why all this time Honorius wished us all to believe Attalus dead at the hands of Alaric, when he was all this time leading the defense of Rome without assistance?" A hard edge came to his voice, and Sahelis was reminded of his own concern for Saher while he lay only a half day away from his battlefield. What must it have been like for Bellianus, separated from his father, not knowing his true fate all this time - worse, thinking him dead at the hands of western enemies?

"That would make sense - surely Honorius would understand that." Bellianus shook his head.

"That is not how things are done in Rome. Severus is a powerful friend of my father, and the other senators here will work on his behalf, but much depends on what happens next. In any case, my entire family is under the pall of suspicion, and with Attalus now in power in Rome, if he seeks to bring us to him or in any way contact us, it could draw Honorius's wrath at any time."

"What will you do?" Sahelis asked, helplessly.

"Now that this news is out, all I can do is to work as openly as I can for a resolution to the crisis, which means diplomacy with Attalus, and a surrender, and to be as visible as I can as a supporter of Honorius. If I value my head, and the heads of my children. But there is no doubt now - it will not be my son going as your counterpart to the Unari - but the son of one of the former allies of Alaric who now swears his allegiance loudly to Honorius and must prove it, Flavius Aetius. He has spent much time with the Visigoths, and now they plan to send him as hostage to Munduk against the good behavior of the loyal Visigoths here in Ravenna. I know this is not much of a plan, but there it is."

"Am I in any danger, do you think?"

"You? No… Severus himself is aware that I may have sired a bastard or two, but has not made any connection to you, for obvious reasons. Everyone has assumed that if a child of mine were ever to surface he would look just like me…" he laughed, a rough, abrupt sound. "Your good fortune," he reached out a hand and tousled Sahelis's hair. Bellianus, even borne down with worry, was a friendly and open character, and Sahelis could not help but warm to him even further. Despite his deception, there was no doubt that they shared a sense of unease and danger. "Just the same, I wish I could keep a closer eye upon you to be more certain…"

"Perhaps you could. Could you not, as a member of the Lyceum, without risk take me in to your home for a time, since I am here unsupervised and untaught during Severus's absence?" Bellianus nodded thoughtfully.

"True…I could."

"If there were no real suspicion, then there is no real risk, isn't that so?"

"Also true. And if there were suspicion, I would look terribly stupid inviting you to my home." Sahelis smiled innocently. "Lonely here, hey?" Bellianus looked around the dreary room. "All books, no entertainments. Well there is the baths at my home… no need to go tracking out to the public ones, and get all chilled on the way home."

Sahelis held up a hand. "Perhaps no more baths for the time being…"

"Well, pack your things, I'll take you straight away, and leave a note for Severus to gather you on his return."

Sahelis jumped up then, and dashed to his room to gather his few books, papers, and clothes for his remove to Bellianus. Though triggered by a new, more troubling crisis, he felt buoyed by his growing friendship with the Roman, and with the prospect of escaping from the Lyceum and from the inevitable confrontation with Claudia Fausta, which he was sure would happen sooner or later. Before leaving, he left instructions with the servant to deliver any messages or mail directly to him at Bellianus's home, and without further delay, followed the big man out the door.

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After the gloominess of the Lyceum, and the everpresent anxiety, the house of Bellianus was in a quiet uproar, now attendant upon the news of the siege in Rome and the arrival of recent messengers, both personal and military, to Ravenna. Food had been laid out on sideboards for an ongoing stream of visitors from the Senate, and Sahelis, encouraged by the cooks and Bellianus's slight but busy wife, was urged to take a share of the foods. But as he had found at other tables, the Romans of this city favored garlic to an extreme degree, which bothered his stomach, and he had to search before he found anything not contaminated with it. How could Saheris have endured cloves of garlic morning and night for a month? he thought, as he spat another mouthful of the horrible stuff surreptitiously into his napkin. As he finally settled himself on a stool, Bellianus came into the room, trailed by two boys and a girl almost in adulthood.

"Sahelis El Maduc, these are my children… the younger, Flavius Secundus, the elder, Priscus Primus, and our own princess, the one and only Placidia Gratiana."

Sahelis regarded the girl with curiosity. She returned his gaze coolly, but without flirtatiousness. To her discredit, she was undoubtedly the daughter of Bellianus, and sported his prominent nose and chin, as did the boys. Sahelis could readily see in the children's faces the remarkable resemblance, though the younger were of a distinct coloring, and he could as well see a similarity between these boys and Saheris, though it was not marked. Saheris had a short, eastern nose, like their mother – and like himself. Sahelis wondered idly if the elder girl was not yet married due to her ungainly height or looks. She was not exactly ugly, but certainly not pretty. In turn, each of the children bowed briefly and Placidia extended her hand, to which he bowed, then straightened up and saluted in the traditional Ugar fashion.

"My father says you are from Bithynia," Placidia remarked, her voice devoid of expression.

"Yes, Lady Placidia. From Maduc."

"Did my father tell you that I had been with him to the provinces, when I was a small girl?" Sahelis looked up at Bellianus, whose face was turned from him - he appeared distracted.

"No - he didn't." Sahelis grew still then, and to his surprise, Placidia approached him and put a hand to her mouth, whispering in his ear.

"Well there are a few things he wishes no one to know about his wife from Bithynia, and my brothers there. But I know." Sahelis drew back as though bitten. Just then, Bellianus caught the movement of his daughter and seized her arm.

"Time to clean up from the visitors, Placidia. Do not go making secrets with our guest." The boys had already lost interest in their guest and had wandered toward the remains of the food on the board. Bellianus smiled indulgently, and the girl turned, haughtily, and stalked off.

Sahelis stared at Bellianus. "Do you know what she said to me?"

"I imagine I do. She has long since told me if she met anyone from Bithynia she would inquire after her brothers who are being held captive there."

"Brothers?"

Bellianus smiled. "She wouldn't say anything aloud to anyone but a Bithynian, I am sure. She is simply keeping her promise to me. Try not to act surprised."

Sahelis spluttered. "But - she knows?"

"Of course. She was there. She was taken hostage by Saher and ransomed to Attalus. Stupid of me to bring her, but at the time, I thought Sahera was to be my bride, and I made the mistake of telling Placidia. She forgets nothing, not even the sum she was ransomed for. She has the ears of a hound, and the mind of a philosopher, that girl. No wonder no one will have her…" he smiled once again, the look indulgent.

"But…" Sahelis remained profoundly confused.

"She would rather die than to reveal any of her father's indiscretions to anyone. Only to her brothers' countrymen in Bithynia, I am sure."

Sahelis remained staring, stunned by the sudden revelation by the Roman girl. "Then - she must have known me - us, then."

"Names? No… she was never able to tell me 'who' the children were, but she did remember before the Khan sent her to Dyrrachium - it was an exhausting journey, and an unpleasant one. And as for my 'Bithynian bride' she could only remember she was 'that wicked woman,' and was very happy to adapt to my new Gaulish wife when I returned. Since then she has only hinted darkly that one day she intended to find and reunite with her missing brothers whom I would not bring with me back to Ravenna at the end of the plagues. I had not the heart to tell her that her mother had not died of plague but had left her - left me, some time before that, but I kept making excuses of one kind and another. Placidia and I are very close. If I knew where her mother was, I would certainly try to reunite the girl with her, but after a long time I gave up hope. That is why I got so entangled with - your mother, when I went East on my long errand for my father." He sighed. "Simple grief." He laid a large hand on Sahelis's shoulder. "Too much for one day, hey? What say we to the hypocaust for a steaming and oiling? Before Illiana calls us for dinner."

Sahelis let his patron tug him along to the dreaded calidarium for yet another torpid steam treatment. On the way, he considered the fact that he now had the confidence of Bellianus, and may be able to safely use that to help him in his personal difficulties. While they sat in the torrid blast from the hypocaust, Sahelis somewhat more modest with a linen folded in his lap, he ventured to inquire of the family of Verginius Cestis.

"Yes, I know him well, old family, the brother is in the Senate, and he himself is a patron of the Lyceum and often is responsible for royal hostages himself. It is not unusual Severus would have introduced you there first. Particularly because he has sons nearly grown himself - you might hunt or exercise with them."

"Now - what of the daughters?"

Bellianus smiled a knowing smile. "Did one catch your eye already? They are of adequate station for a match of Honorius approved it, but Verginius might be put out. He has only the three daughters, and it would be a loss for him to lose one to the - to Munduk. Yet, it might be approved."

"I speak of less formal matters."

"Ha ha!" the big man's laughter echoed off the near ceiling of the calidarium. "You mean, an assignation?"

"Yes…" Sahelis lowered his eyes. "I am concerned about the consequences."

"Which one of them… oh, I will wager it is the little vixen, now what is her name?"

"Claudia Fausta," Sahelis said, his private misery coming back to him.

"That's the one. She has already been caught playing with some of the Magister's sons in her father's guest house, by the caretaker there. Don't try that, they have her under watch now. If she is caught again abed with another of Honorius's court, she will be married off in Constantinople before summer."

"I've already tried that." He hung his head, but felt an almost palpable relief at the admission.

"Ho! Well rest assured you could not be blamed if she ripens. Too many have already been identified as her paramours."

"Well, that is another thing… that is not my worry…"

"Oh, I see. You were not quite a success then."

Sahelis reddened with the implication, began to correct the misconception, and then stopped himself. He could not trust Bellianus with this much of the truth. He allowed his expression to confirm his patron's guess.

"Then don't try it again. You do not want Verginius to have a reason to refuse you at his home - his sons are good allies to have, and they would be bound to seek some redress for dishonor, though there is little dishonor to be acknowledged in her case."

"I understand. Since that first - assignation, I have ignored her messages. I grow concerned about what she might do if refused."

"Well, my boy," he grinned. "Fortunately for you, she is not in a position to point a finger at one, when so many could point back at her. For every one who has consented, many more have gone to her father with her notes, fearing his wrath, and she has had more than one stripe on her bottom to attest to where the blame would lie."

While this was good news for Sahelis, the characterization of Claudia Fausta in such an abrupt and degrading manner, appalled him. And the fact that she had been beaten for her promiscuity previously. He could not leave things this way.

Sahelis nodded and thanked Bellianus. "I appreciate your advice, and I am glad you were so kind to me about this."

"Well, why not? You are new to our ways, and I daresay that you are not the first royal hostage to bed the daughter of one of our own, though you may possibly be the first to admit it! That bodes well for you… you are a good hearted boy, and that is clear to all."

"Thank you, Lor - Priscus."

"I dare say you could not hope to have such an easy time of it with my daughter. She has frightened away the most amorous of suitors with nothing more than her history lessons."

"She has already frightened me away…" Sahelis murmured.

"Do not let her intimidate you, Sahelis, you're made of stronger stuff than those others!" Bellianus chided him. "But try to observe the strictures against brothers and sisters…"

Sahelis caught his breath. "There should be no danger there," he replied quickly. But that is another thing I wanted to ask. Strictures against brothers and sisters, as you say…"

"Forbidden… except amongst certain emperors, that is…" he chuckled. "Gaius, for example…"

Sahelis nodded. "Yes, I studied that. But - he was mad, was he not?"

"Some say… who is to tell, so long ago? What exactly is your question, though?"

"Claudia Fausta… she told me it is common for sisters and brothers to bed one another, in youth… is this true?"

In the steam-laden room, it was difficult to read the expression on Bellianus' mobile features… but Sahelis thought he saw a fleeting look of shock. "If it is, it is no commonness I know -- there are always perversions, and the ignorance of youth as they discover their urges and try to act them out… but never encouraged, or accepted. If I were to hear of such in this household there would be a striping."

Sahelis sighed. "Then there may be something you should know of Claudia Fausta then… for she told me she had been deflowered as a young girl - from her other comments, it would seem it was one or more of her brothers. Does it not seem more the blame of the older in that case?"

"Certes," Bellianus responded. "But hard to say if the girl was telling the truth. And if the boys had done ill by her, who of them would admit it? They would earn a far harsher punishment than a mere striping, I would think. Though I don't know Verginius well enough to tell how he might act… the oldest is twenty now, and has already been wed. Were it he, he might be disowned. These are dark matters to stumble upon in your first days in our empire, young Sahelis."

"But I believe she was telling me truth - she hid nothing of her disgraces from me, Lo - Priscus."

At that, the big man became pensive. "If so, then the girl's situation is unfortunate, and she should have someone to guide her. I shall have to think on this."

"Thank you…" Sahelis said. Once again, he felt the strange relief of unburdening himself to Bellianus, and felt his trust in him grow. Perhaps the time in the Empire would not be such an exile after all… if Bellianus -- and he - remained safe from the wrath of the Emperor Honorius.

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