A Homecoming (5)

09/22/2015 § Leave a comment

At the time when the body slave of the magistrate of Caedis was visiting the town’s smithy about a sword that had been commissioned for an auspicious occasion, his son, whose long-awaited return was that occasion, was riding into town on a brown horse he’d named Kastano.

He was riding in company, and an illustrious one at that: Doux Solon, who was the commander of the Ninth Legion, and who also bore the great distinction of being the Emperor’s nephew, had chosen to accompany him.

They were riding in military formation: three in the front, three in the back, five in the middle. The men riding ahead and behind were the Doux’s personal guards. In the very middle of the formation the Doux himself rode on a magnificent black steed, with his companions riding in pairs on either side of him.

The guards were fully armoured from helmet to greaves; the men in the middle were not, however, though four of them, excluding the Doux’s scribe, were cloaked and hooded in the red and white of the Legion. Swords and throwing spears hung from their saddles.

“Tell me, Markos,” said the Doux, shortly after they had passed through the town’s northern gate. “Has it much changed?”

Having been pondering this very question, Markos of Adenapoils, son of Damaion, gave an honest answer.

“I can see that it has grown, my lord,” he said. “And yet… it also seems much smaller than I recall.”

The Doux nodded, smiling. “I experienced the same, when I first returned home after visiting the City.”

At this, the royal scribe, riding immediately to the Doux’s left, asserted himself: “My lord, are you comparing the Sassoin lands to glorious Szarium?”

The Doux gave a soft laughter. “Only in function, Genon, as it relates to Markos in this particular conversation.” Then, facing Markos again, he said, “Your eyes have seen more than this place can contain. I trust you will give my proposal due consideration, then?”

Markos bowed his head. “Yes, my lord.”

“Good. I am eager to hear your decision.”

Then, granting his attention to his royal scribe, the Doux began with him a debate on the topic of metaphor as a rhetorical device. The scribe was against it, the Doux for. Though much of what was said remained opaque to him, Markos found himself siding with Genon, who argued that metaphor, and other such linguistic devices, were by nature unreliable; and so limited was their chief function, at least in rhetoric, to obfuscation and befuddlement of the very point being debated.

When the debate ended in a stalemate, as was often the case between the two men, one of the Doux’s officers, riding on the far left of their rank, loudly gave thanks for it. “Dear God in Heaven!” Then, talking over the scribe’s usual sermon on the importance of learned debate in bettering one’s mind, the officer asked Markos: “Will this wretched rain ever stop?”

“Not till summer, I’m afraid,” Markos said, suppressing a laughter.

“I shall be miserable here then.”

“Dioclas, I have never known you to be miserable so long as there’s wine and women,” said the Doux.

“And pig’s feet,” the last rider chimed in from Markos’s right.

“Please,” the scribe protested. “Must we go through this again?”

“Oh yes,” the rider called Dioclas replied with old, practised sarcasm. “What better pastime is there, than making fun of the uncouth Cadmoran?”

“Ah, but you see, friend, it isn’t Cadmor I wish to make fun of. As you well know, I have had many a lover from that fine province—”

‘Lover,’ he says.”

“—who were better company then even the most reputable courtesans in the City. I simply find it objectionable that pig’s feet should be considered a delicacy anywhere, by anyone.”

“Get stuffed, Patros. You’re a pompous fool and a bastard. You won’t know good food if it grabbed you by the balls—if you had any, that is.”

At this, Patros, the officer riding on the far right, laughed with delight. “Ah, that was much better than your last attempt, Dioclas! I am almost tempted to applaud. Tell me, have you been practising? You must have been, you goat-faced, pig-maimer of a man!” With that, he flashed a brilliant smile.

“Say that again,” roared Dioclas. “And I’ll make you swallow your damn teeth.”

“Even that, my friend, would be preferable to sucking on pig’s feet.”

“Dioclas! Patros!” The Doux’s voice was soft but stern. “You know very well how much I cherish your company. But if the two of you cannot stop bickering, I swear upon God’s holy name, I shall have no choice but to ask my uncle the Emperor to bind you in marriage. Yes, to each other.”

The Doux’s threat had the desired effect. Still the two officers continued to stare daggers at one another, neither one willing to look away first.

“My lord, should such a thing come to pass—” ventured the scribe, breaking the silence with a curiosity that almost sounded genuine. “Who would assume the role of the husband?”

“I!” Both officers shouted in unison, then glared at one another, and in a moment began laughing uncontrollably.

Markos laughed as well. It was strange to think that these two officers had once been engaged in a ferocious, almost deadly rivalry under the former Doux. Their duels over the years, many of which were fights to the death that ended prematurely in mutual exhaustion, were stuff of legends among the soldiery of the Ninth. It was only after Solon of Anapolis’s controversial appointment as the new Doux of the Ninth—controversial, for he’d had no prior military experience—that these two officers had put aside their mutual hatred in a bid to undermine a commander they had both deemed unworthy.

Some of that old rivalry was still very much alive between the two of them—they had marked each other permanently, after all, with Dioclas’s thrice-broken nose, and Patros’s disfigured ear and scarred cheek—but for all their constant bickering and griping they had become brothers under Solon’s command, who would gladly die for their Doux and for one another. Indeed Markos had witnessed them standing together in battle: back to back, covering each other’s blind spots and striking down a foe after another, demonstrating an understanding that could only be described as uncanny.

“Now,” The Doux turned to Markos. “I understand there is an Imperial Post in town.”

“My lord?”

“You are eager to see your family, but I think it wise for us to inform the magistrate first. Give him time to prepare, and take time ourselves to rest and dry our cloths.” He paused, and gave a wry smile. “After all, it would hardly do for a Doux to present himself sodden as a rat.”

At this, the scribe groaned and shook his head.

“Of course, my lord.”

Markos spurred Kastano and moved ahead to lead the formation. He took them down the mainway toward the town square, past the chapel and the blacksmith’s. The town really had grown, he saw. The roads were wider and more polished, and there were entire lanes of houses not found in his memory of the place. However provincial it seemed to him now, this was the result of his father’s labour. Something a son could be proud of.

Not many were out and about in the rain—it was Fourthday, after all—but those who were stopped and stared. He knew word would spread; it would reach his father soon. Still he paid the first eager-looking boy he saw to run up to the magistrate’s manor and deliver the news of his, and more importantly the Doux’s, arrival. He had written his father a week ago, from barracks near Sarona, that he would be coming home today. Hadn’t known what company he would be bringing, then—or how temporary his return home would prove to be.

Riding at the head of the formation, away from the Doux’s immediate presence and company, Markos finally allowed himself to relax a little. Honoured as he was by his illustrious companions, riding with them had proved… demanding, in certain ways. Certainly he could not afford to divert his attention from the Doux while he rode next to him. Since the previous evening, when the Doux met his farewell with an unexpected proposal, he had sorely needed a moment away from the man to collect his thoughts.

A position in the Emperor’s court, in Szarium-by-the-sea, the Immortal City. That was the proposal. As a personal aide to Solon of Anapolis, the Emperor’s nephew. “I need men I can trust,” was what the Doux had said, as he laid his hand on Markos’s shoulder. “Men who have shown me the proof of their courage and loyalty. Mark my words, Markos. There is so much that needs to be done in Szarium.”

Markos hadn’t yet given his answer, though his mind was all but made up. It was an easy decision, in truth. The position promised much wealth and power, but more than that, more than any worldly thing, it promised him a chance at becoming someone who truly mattered in the grand scheme of things, in the city that lay at the heart of the known world. All in service, too, of a remarkable man he had come to respect deeply, and the great Empire whose borders he had fought and bled for in these last five years. He would be a fool not to accept.

What held him back from conveying as much to the Doux was his concern for his family. They had worried over him and missed him during his time at war. His father, who had always been a stern and difficult figure for him growing up, had softened considerably toward him in his letters. More than once he had suggested that Markos could work at the magistracy for a year or two after his return, before he began preparing for the civil examination. To leave his family almost immediately after his return, regardless of the cause, seemed to him a callous deed. He wanted to at least consult his father before giving his answer to the Doux. A courtesy, if nothing else.

He knew his parents would understand (one more than the other, perhaps), and even be proud of his position at the Emperor’s court; his elder sister, having been married to a wealthy scholar in faraway Luce, would have little opinion on the matter. But his little sister Zoe… His last memory of her was as a wailing, screaming child running after him as he rode off to join the Legion, who eventually fell and was left thrashing in the mud. His father had written to him that Zoe had become quite a beauty in recent years. Surely a father’s foolishness, he’d thought. It made him smile, now, though his heart sank at the thought of leaving her yet again, a child crying in the mud.

Riding into the Post’s courtyard, then dismounting and handing the reigns over to a stableboy, he was thus distracted by his own thoughts. And as he and his companions entered the warm interior of the Imperial Post, this, and only this, was the reason he failed to recognize the young woman sitting alone by the fireplace.

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