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Chapter 51: Dacia

Saheris woke to find Simeta gone, and the amused, curious gaze of Krega the headman upon him as he stood over the bed. "So you did sleep at length," his voice boomed annoyingly as the wine of the previous night rattled his temples. "I take it you found my daughter acceptable to your taste, and acceptably pure?"

Saheris blushed at the overtness of Krega's comment, and nodded mutely.

"She did not return to me until quite late in the night, but there was no cause for dissatisfaction?"

"No…"

"You can call me headman, Khan. You have given us a great compliment by stopping with us. Will you stay another day? Your father seems weary, and we would be honored if you would take our food as tribute, and whatever other pleasures comfort you in our mean village."

Saheris was mystified that the headman was addressing him as though he rather than Saher was their leader. Why was this? It was flattering, but discomfiting… and he had felt this also with Simeta. No matter how many times he had proclaimed himself a Khan to those he sought to impress, he never felt the same sense of strangeness as when these foreigners bowed before him and called him 'king.' Why did they honor him this way, and why did it feel so unfamiliar?

"Of course, headman. I am sure Saher could use further rest." And barely restraining a moan of exhaustion, Saheris heaved himself from the ruined bed and reached for his clothes. The village was already busily afoot, and cooking smells were emerging from amongst the leather tents. He realized he was ravenously hungry.

The day was a series of minor embarrassments, starting with breakfast, where he was served at hand by Simeta, and who did not take food until he had drunk and eaten his fill, while she at all times knelt by his left hand in case his cup should become empty, leaping up nimbly to fill it when it did. Both Krega and Saher, who had clearly been through such rituals before and chose for whatever reason to keep them a mystery to Saheris, drew some secret amusement from his discomfiture which privately infuriated Saheris. What further added to his annoyance was the constant return of his thoughts to the intoxicating excess of the night before, and the fact that the headman seemed to know what had occurred in his bed. Was nothing private for these Ugars? Was this part of some elaborate ritual staged for an obscure aim he did not yet know? Oh, he would have some words for Saher when they had a moment to themselves.

But that moment did not seem to present itself. He wondered, as he gazed on the glossy hair of Simeta, now drawn back demurely beneath its white linen, whether she had related to her father all that they had done in the borrowed tent, their conversations, his whispered protestations of his adoration which came during the height of his intoxication… there had been no blissful forgetfulness from drink… Saheris's mind had been utterly clear, and he remembered the twin euphorias of drunkeness and lust that had conjuncted to produce a hastily composed declaration to Simeta of his love. What must she think of him, and what had she said to Krega? His face burned from the memory, and yet, externally, the hospitality of the headman and his family was impeccable, the girl - as ever, serene and confident under the eye of her father. And interspersed with his embarrassment and social discomfort, was the recurrent thought - would she be offered to him again? Would she come to him at his tent again tonight? And if not, could he seek her out without breaking some rule of the clan? He ached to ask these questions, but did not dare, if only to avoid the knowing smiles of those who, everywhere he looked, knew what he did not; and even more than this, he despised being discovered ignorant. And until his night with Simeta, he had not had the opportunity to learn anything of sex beyond his own urgings and blind desire… sex was much more than this to her, it was, so to speak, her profession, though amongst the Ugar she was not a whore - there were no whores in this apparently primitive, but well-ordered society… she held an honored place, above the other girls who had served the army escort, who themselves were treated, not as whores, but as villagers with a special role to provide a sexual hospitality as directed by their headman or his wife. In Simeta's bed he was a student of pleasure, and well beyond the hour when he thought he would be spent and exhausted, there was a new lesson to be learned, and a new pleasure to be found, until to his surprise, his final climax was dry… and he knew himself to be literally spent.

His head was bursting, his testicles ached with a deep throb that meant overexertion… but this did not blunt his avidness to touch Simeta again, and to be touched… but in the midst of his reverie he was called by Virgula to the camp where he was asked to review the equipment of the escort and to evaluate some of the horses for replacement. After this was attended to, a scout arrived from Bruda, their next destination on the banks of the minor river Tigas, a tributary of the great Danube, or Duna as the Ugars called it.

The river towns they now approached served as lookouts for enemy boats and troop movement on the south bank. On the far side, that area of Dacia recently claimed by Ellak, and their ultimate destination when they had moved as far west as possible on the north bank. The scout reported to Virgula, then dismounted to take a late meal and rest while his horse was put to pasture. Bruda remained peaceful, and was prepared for their arrival two days hence. Then there was some matter of maps, and the settling of provisions for when the escort would divide in two, the smaller but better-provisioned party to head north of west with Tethys for the long trip to Ravenna, the larger with cavalry reinforcements to bring them to the heavily-guarded crossing at Oscia, then to travel under Ellak's escort along the shores of the Danube to Tierna, on the rough border between Dacia Saldensii and Dacia Ripensis. All of this work, mysteriously, had been delegated to Saheris…. the sought-after form of Saher was not in evidence. As the sun was westering, Saheris at last lost patience and stalked back into the village where he summoned a familiar-looking servant and said,

"Where is my father the Khan, and Krega?"

The girl pointed to the headman's yurt, and Saheris walked in, having no means to knock.

"It is customary to call from without, young Khan," said the headman without turning, "but I will consider your loud demand for my whereabouts as much the same." Saher was seated on the far side of the low room, and oil lamps were burning in the darkened interior.

"Khan," said Saheris, his annoyance audibly cutting, "there is aught I must speak to you about," reverting to his own language.

"Go ahead, son…" said Saher pleasantly.

Saheris glanced meaningfully at the headman and back at Saher, and did not reply. "Oh - you mean privately! I hope you will forgive Saheris's poor manners. He is an impetuous youth." Saher rose somewhat stiffly and took Saheris's arm. "I hope this is a worthwhile interruption, child," he murmured. "You come in at a most unfortunate moment."

Saheris glared at his grandfather. "Well of course it is!" They were now outside of the yurt, and Saheris continued to walk.

"This is as far as I go. A night in a good bed has ruined me for getting on a horse, and I will be cursed if I'm going to go all the way to the creek-bed for you."

"Very well," Saheris said, exasperated. "Why could you not have told me what customs to expect when we came to this village?"

"Customs?" Saher repeated, appearing not to understand.

"The girls! The… bed servants, the meals… her father came to wake me in the morning to ask if the sex was satisfactory!"

Saher laughed. "I am sure he asked his daughter much the same question. These are simple people, Saheris. Consider it foreign state-approved wantonness."

"A few simple words would have relieved much embarrassment!" he burst out, not in the least mollified by Saher's indifference. "And you!"

"You think I lay with a girl of that age! Indeed not, child. But even so small and slight, they can be quite handy for relieving the spasms from an old man's back. I hope you don't think less of me for taking what pleasure I can from the pleasure girls of the Ugar." He grinned at Saheris. "Oh stop pouting. You are a king among villagers here. Enjoy your stature, you may have to get used to it. It will get worse in Ellak's lands. Besides, it would seem you are quite well liked, despite your moody disposition. They are not used to light skin and handsomeness, and you are deemed handsome to the young here. They are wagering amongst themselves as to who else may get to serve you."

"Who else? Why would I want someone else? Simeta said that she…"

"Well, that is just the official hospitality. Just don't exhaust yourself excessively before we ride again."

"Then she will - they will- let Simeta come to me again?"

"I'm not sure they could keep her from you."

"But what about… when we leave?"

"What - you want her too? How many wives do you think you can bed at a time, Saheris? Ellak might not be pleased."

"But could I not…"

"Could you not what? You can take her for a wife, surely… Krega would be beside himself with joy. But then you would become responsible for the village, since your status outranks them all, including his first through thirdborn sons. But there could be some misunderstanding if that were to happen before the wedding in Tierna. Ellak has proposed an alliance based upon your match with Gisel as second wife, so that his kingdom will be second in strength to Munduk as our allies. Though, as a concubine, I still think Krega would be pleased at your preference. After all, she is still pledged to you as a tribute, if only temporarily. Whenever she gives birth, if she does, the child will be pledged to you."

"Cannot I be told these things beforehand, father?" Saheris wailed.

"Listen!" Saher said, now indignant. "There are too many nations, too many customs, and too many variations to count, and the only way you can learn them is to experience them. I will not always be here to be a guiding hand to you, and it is fortunate enough I ride with you at all, as brittle as my bones become. I am not entirely certain that I will be able to go all the way to Zermizirga as Rugila expects, particularly if the Roman garrisons are being provisioned now. I am not young, Saheris, and there is too much for you to learn to get it all from my knee. Learn for yourself, and make your own mistake. You are Khan now, in very fact, and king's regent for Munduk with all of the peoples north of the river here. So act as one, and stop whining like a stripling at me. Isn't there work to do?"

"Is this true, you could turn back?" Saheris whispered, aghast.

"Or I could die of a chill. One day, Saheris, I will leave you. Isn't it better that I leave you while you still have time to glower and fret at breakfast, rather than in some less seemly way? I'm going back in, these heights are too chill in this evening air."

Saheris stared malevolently after the retreating back of his grandfather until he was lost to sight, and stomped back down to the creek to look once again at the lame horses. A dull fury burned in him.

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As had happened the night before at their arrival, the dinner was served to each of the party by their respective girls, Saher by the light-eyed niece of Krega whom he claimed he had only retained for therapeutic reasons, Virgula and eight of his picked men by the girls who had been granted them, and Saheris with the radiant Simeta once again kneeling at his side. In the gloom of the darkening sky, they cooked before an open fire and Saheris felt a certain privacy and intimacy with Simeta by him, as though if he were to squint, he could imagine himself an Ugar monarch, camping with his men and servants on this yawning plain, surrounded by the distant stamping of tethered horses. The sweetened wine once again had struck him a blow of clear-headed intoxication, and soon, the camp was clearing as the men retired. He rose with Krega and Saher, who said "on the morrow, we shall ride. I believe before then, Saheris has some request to make of you, Headman?"

"Indeed. Speak, Khan. There is some further gift I can offer you?"

Saheris hesitated, then spoke, remembering the rebuke of the Khan from earlier. "Yes, Headman. I wish to… I would like to take.. to marry, your daughter Simeta."

There was a brief gasp, which seemed to come from the slight form at his side. But the headman was grinning widely. "This is always to be hoped for, certainly… I am grateful she has pleased you so well. But let us talk of this when you have returned from Tierna. There are obligations there to be fulfilled."

Saheris spluttered. "But… I do not wish to leave without her."

Krega shook his head good-naturedly. "That cannot be helped. Ellak must not be seen to be offended in his proposal, by me or by you. Enjoy her company another night, and have something to look forward to upon your return. Or - if not, then we can send her to you." Krega thumped Saheris on the shoulder, and gave his youngest daughter a fond embrace. "Imagine the honor, the third wife of the Khan of Bithynia, heir of Munduk of Scythia!"

Simeta lowered her eyes demurely. "I am greatly honored," she murmured.

"Then run along!" Krega boomed, and put a heavy hand between Saheris's shoulders and pushed. "The night wastes."

When they were alone, Simeta once again began the ritualized gesture of disrobing, but Saheris caught her hands. "I did not think it would surprise you, after last night, what I said… I hope you approve…" he put his arms around her shoulders and drew her to him, suddenly fearful that he had misspoken, that she did not want him.

"Approve? What is there to approve?" she murmured. "You have honored me beyond all hope.." she raised her face, and he pressed his mouth on hers, in an urgent appetite for her taste once again.

"Then you agree?"

"Yes, of course I agree, Khan."

"Call me Saheris. Simeta, Simeta…" he repeated her name as though it were the name of a prayer.

"Saheris. Let me take your cloak, Saheris, and this tunic…" and then fell together into each other's arms.

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The day dawned far too early for Saheris, who once again ached with the languor produced by a night of excess in both wine and sex. He was at pains to explain to himself the intoxication he felt with Simeta: was it her tiny but muscular body, the glossy thick hair that fell about her like a garment, the quick, avid enthusiasm of her sexual appetite? By contrast, Ildico seemed faint and retiring, and the girls and women he knew in Maeotis seemed passive and unimaginative. But, as he muzzily pondered the mystery of his obsession, it was not purely an issue of beauty, for surely Ildico was as beautiful and sweet-tempered as Simeta. It just seemed that, at least in his arms, Simeta seemed far more alive, more vibrant, and more alluring. He hardly knew her, except for the hours he had spent exploring the pleasure he could gain from her body, the overwhelming desire he felt to touch her and feel himself inside of her vibrant loins again… his reverie drew him into a dream state that caused him to lose track of the time and place as they found the road west to their next billet; and for long hours, he said nothing.

At length, he found the familiar face of Tethys as he paced him on his own small mount. "Oh - hello Tethys."

"Greetings, Khan. Your father asked me to come up to examine you. Are you unwell?"

"Unwell? Not at all, Tethys. Why?"

"You appear quite pale, Khan. How is your sleep?"

Saheris laughed, the sound hollow in his ears. "Sleep, what a nice idea."

"You have not slept then," Tethys concluded.

"Not as much as an hour, Tethys. Too much 'hospitality.'

"Ah… then you are exhausted from lovemaking. I would recommend you take added water, and I could prepare a draught for you as well. Some extra meat at your meal would also help."

"Thank you, Tethys. I will take some more water… since you are here, let me ask you something."

"What is it, Khan?" Tethys replied helpfully.

"What do you think it is that makes a girl desirable?"

Tethys did not immediately reply, but a blush came over his features. "I think it is different for everyone, Khan…for some it is beauty, and others…their temperament…" he faltered.

"Ha, so you have felt it yourself? I can tell by the look on you. Who is it - that girl you are with? Numis?"

Tethys turned his eyes away briefly and then met the gaze of his Khan. "In fact it is, Khan. She is desirable to me. And I am to her."

Pressing his point, Saheris replied quickly, "and what is it that makes her - moreso, than other girls you have seen or met?"

"I think - that would be her temperament, Khan. Or some would call it, the soul."

"The soul," Saheris murmured. Temperament. He strongly doubted that it was something in the temperament or soul of Simeta that had drawn him in so utterly. Rather, it seemed as if it was something in her scent, her eyes, or the taste of her mouth… soon he became insensible once again to the movement of the horses around him, and the company of Tethys keeping pace with his mount. When he at last regained his senses, they had drawn rein to camp, and the sun had fled behind the mountains at their backs. Almost as soon as they had set up the tents and served a cold meal, Saheris retired and was fast asleep. The glossy-haired lover he had thought about all through the day remained, however, and pursued him into his dreams, where he once again slaked his lust to exhaustion in her arms

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