09/26/2015 § 2 Comments
It was a wet spring in the district of Caedis, in the prefecture of Sirmion, in the western half of the glorious Empire of All Man under the august rule of Theodosius the second of his name, God’s chosen servant under Heaven, in the fourteenth year of his blessed reign.
For the people of Caedis, most of them farmers and herders in the gently-sloping lowlands near Lake Eris, the rain was simply a fact of life during this time of year. The sky opened with a downpour at each winter’s end, and remained so all through the spring until summer came hot on easterly winds. And along with the rain came the mist also, rising each morning in the pall before daybreak from the lake’s surface like a kind of exhalation, that would sidle up the slopes and swaddle the hamlets and villages by first light.
The resulting humidity could drown a person standing—or so it was said. Herodias the Younger, of Prabaltar, who had famously chronicled the early expansion of the Empire, had once written of Caedis in a letter to the senate: “The humidity of this place, wretched in spring, makes it unfit for a permanent colony; it would best be left to fish, toads, and such creatures as those that crawl in the mud.”
And so began the day in the house of Damaion of Adenapolis, the magistrate of Caedis, in mist and rain, and broken-down sunlight shining through in patches.
It was going to be a busy day. All the household slaves and servants had been up since dawn, called to rise by the steward’s bell. They all knew what day it was; they had been preparing for it for nearly a week now. A homecoming for the master’s only son, returning at last from a long campaign in barbarian lands.
The preparation was nearly complete: logs were split and stacked high, jugs of water and wine were cooling in the cellar, and canvas tents were set up in the courtyard, with tables and stools for commonfolk. Most of the work that needed doing today was going to be in and around the kitchen.
So the kitchen-fires were already burning in full, iron pots boiling over them with water and broth. The space was filled with the smell of fresh bread wafting from the stone oven in the back, mixing with the aromas of various herbs and spices. There were some fifteen men and women busy at work, peeling and chopping, mixing and stirring.
“He’s coming home!” cried the girl as she ran into the kitchen, in her nightdress, her hair bouncing in great tangled ringlets. She spun, almost knocking down a basket of eggs in the process, and cried again, to everyone and no one in particular. “He’s coming home!”
“We know, young mistress,” said old Ionava, who ruled over the kitchen with equal measures of fiery temper and common sense, who had been a slave—and now a freedwoman—to Damaion of Adenapolis since before he was named a magistrate. “Now be off with you, you’re bothering us.”
As always, Zoe, daughter of Damion, the youngest of his three children, completely ignored the old cook’s admonishment. She did make for the open door, however, but clearly of her own accord, pilfering an apple along the way. Then, stopping suddenly at the threshold, almost falling in the process, she spun toward the kitchen and cried once more. “He’s coming home!”
The slaves and servants in the kitchen chuckled as the young mistress ran off into the misty courtyard. Old Ionava clicked her tongue and shook her head, before ushering everyone back to work with a stern rap from her iron ladle.
They had a feast to prepare.
“When will he be home?”
Damaion of Adenapolis, or of Caedis, as people were beginning to call him these days, looked up from the letter he’d been writing to see his youngest daughter standing in the doorway of his study.
She was a sight to behold, a glorious mess. Her hair a veritable crow’s nest, her dress wet and clinging to a point of indecency, her cheeks red as sunset from running about the house in slippers… And all of it brought into sharp relief by the bright green of her eyes—her mother’s eyes—beaming as if with some huge, irrepressible joy…
He did not know whether to laugh or frown, looking at her. He knew he ought to scold the girl. She was the lady of the house, after all, during her mother’s absence. There were responsibilities that came with that, not least of which was to present yourself with dignity and authority, so as to instill the proper respect in those bound to your servitude. But no one in the whole household had ever expected Zoe to fulfil those responsibilities, and at any rate he was never any good at scolding the girl, so he let it pass. He knew full well he was being lenient with her, overly so. Not at all like he had been with Ianna and Markos, his older children. It had something to do with her being the youngest of the three by nearly a decade; something about the way her tiny hands had reached for his face when he first held her all those years ago, a sickly infant born before her time, but alive, blessedly alive, after two stillborn babes. He could never be hard with her, and Zoe knew it as well—too well, as a matter of fact, much to his wife’s chagrin.
Now she was nearly a woman grown, his Zoe, and a beautiful one at that, by some miracle of God. Once coltish and scrawny as a bog-child, she had come into possession of a rare kind of beauty in the few short years since her flowering, even as to lead many a young shepherd in the hills of Caedis to pine after the magistrate’s beautiful daughter. There were even songs about her now, praising her many virtues while likening her—favourably, of course—to the river and tree Zynyas from the Chalchidean myths, famed for their beauty but also known for their penchant for copulating with lesser mortals—who more often than not happened to be some hapless shepherd boy.
His wife had raged about the songs when they first began to make rounds in town and had asked him to find and punish those responsible, but he’d thought them woefully and amusingly misinformed, and had not minded too much. Yes, it was true that Zoe was the very picture of youth and beauty as such things were in women. And yet, as evidenced by her present state, there was no amount of grace in the girl to command what she had been given, which indeed was a gift from God, neither he nor his wife (insofar as he knew) having been the subject of any shepherds’ song in their youth. It was something a woman of noble birth ought to learn to use, to elevate her station and that of her family in the world. But Zoe remained, despite her mother’s best efforts, more or less oblivious to her own beauty—and in fact her obliviousness was the very thing that rarefied it all the more.
Like a wild horse, was his wife’s way of putting it, whenever they discussed Zoe’s future. They were doing much of that as of late; she was of age to be married, or near enough. He had in fact just been writing to a friend in the capital to enquire about a potential match, and the conventions for a formal portrait for ladies at the Emperor’s court.
“Good morrow, daughter.”
Zoe produced a half-hearted curtsy and strode forward and sat in a chair across from him. “When will he be home, papa?” she asked again.
Damaion shook his head and gestured to a woolen cloak hanging from the wall to his right. His body slave promptly took it and offered it to Zoe, who pouted a little, but did accept the cloak and wrapped it about her.
“Have you said your morning prayers?” he asked.
“Lying is a sin, daughter.”
Zoe sat up straight and made the holy symbol in what he knew to be mock seriousness. “I object to your implication, sir,” she said. “On my father’s good name, I swear I have said my prayers.”
“You have said your prayers this morning, when you awoke?”
The girl would not answer. Damaion smiled at that, in spite of himself. “Your brother will be here by midday, or thereabouts.”
“Will he come through the town?”
“I imagine he will, yes.”
“Papa, I’d like to greet him there. As a surprise.”
“And tell me, who among the household must I burden with the honour of your company?”
“There’s no need—”
“Oh, I rather think there is, daughter. I haven’t forgotten what happened the last time I let you roam free in town. Have you?”
Zoe flushed at that, deeply. “I am perfectly capable of handling myself!”
He laughed aloud this time. “I’ll have to tell that to your mother when she gets back. Besides, even were I inclined to allow you—which I am not—you know very well we haven’t anyone to spare today.”
“Papa, please, I do not need a—” she began to protest, but stopped herself short. A sweet little smile came to her lips. “What about him?” she asked, glancing at his body slave. “He’s served you for the morning, has he not? Surely you can spare him for a few hours, to watch over your own flesh and blood?”
Damaion turned his gaze to his body slave, who stood by the wall next to him with arms behind his back, impassive as a statue, eyes fixed straight ahead. He had been meaning to send the boy to town with the letters for the courier, and to settle a business with the town’s blacksmith.
As Zoe sat waiting for his answer with a knowing smile, he weighed his options. If denied and left at home, Zoe would surely find a way—no, ways—to be a hindrance to the servants and slaves, which would necessitate a real scolding, which he rather dreaded giving. The harm in letting her have her way, on the other hand, was probable but not certain in any way. And it would be a pleasant surprise to Markos, he thought, to be greeted by his sister before he reached home.
So, in the end, Damaion sighed his consent—but not altogether without a sense of misgiving.
“You are to stay with him at all times, and he will conduct my business first. I do not wish to hear of how the magistrate’s daughter started another tavern brawl. Am I understood?”
The girl clapped her hands in delight. “Yes, father.”
“Now go dress. Brush your hair. And say your morning prayers.”
Zoe got up, nodding mindlessly, and turned to go.
“Walk,” he said after her, going back to his letter.
She left the study in measured, soft steps, still wearing his cloak. Damaion began counting inwardly, and heard, scarcely as he reached three, the girl break into a run with a bright laughter.
“Loren,” he called his body slave.
“Never have a daughter. Not if you can help it.”
The drizzling rain turned into a shower soon after their departure. They were on foot, each wearing a hooded cloak, on a downward path toward the town of Caedis. The young mistress had refused to ride, though he had warned her the path would be muddy. “But I feel like walking,” was all she had said, as if there was no better explanation, which was typical of her.
They were treading on slippery mud, in rain and mist, and several times the young mistress nearly fell but for his arm to grab onto. If she regretted not taking a horse, she never showed it. Instead she barked a laughter after each slip and wobble—a triumphant Ha!—like someone who only narrowly avoided a good-humoured prank. Nothing seemed remotely able to dampen her mood today. Not the weather, not the mud, and certainly not, Loren thought, a less-than-talkative slave by her side.
Indeed she hadn’t stopped talking since leaving the house, but not so much to him as at him, which required mercifully little from him in way of replies. That too was typical of her. He half-listened as she fluttered from one topic to another with a hummingbird’s alacrity, and uttered at intervals “Yes, mistress,” or “No, mistress,” whenever there seemed to be a pause.
Somewhere along a very one-sided conversation about the merits of sheep’s milk compared to goat’s, his thoughts began to wander. They often did that on mornings like this, in spring, the air damp with mist and rain. He vaguely remembered being led up this very hill, in a kind of stupor, weak and feverish from the long winter voyage. Four years ago, it had been. Rain and mist then too, and the mud-slicked path. Spring in Caedis.
It was all a blur, that winter, that journey. A hundred days of despair and loathing lapsed into a single blind forever. There were roughly twenty slaves on the slavers’ boat, packed into a dank hull and let out only in pairs at a time for feeding and exercise. Men and women alike were raped and beaten regularly, but seldom to lasting harm; the slavers knew their work. They knew how to keep their merchandise in check.
There were nine of them. Savage, brutal men with long, braided beards. They were not Ilmaren, Loren learned later; they came from a place much further up the great river, and sailed it all year long trading slaves for Ilmaren coin.
At first Loren tried escaping. He tried fighting back. Then, when it became clear that he could do neither, he tried to take his own life. But even that, as it happened, was denied him. This latest act of rebellion, which came after so many instances of the usual punishment, brought forth a measure of inventiveness from the slave-merchants. They stripped him naked and tied him to the bowspirit. Behold our figurehead, they joked. The Spirit of Rebellion!
There, hanging above the dark-green waters of the Rhoin, he cursed the Lords. A god had come to him in the sacred grove, in the shape of a great boar, and had touched him on the cheek with its carved tusk. And an entire world had been taken away with that touch, everything he had ever known and loved and hated and hoped for—with nothing offered in return but a life in bondage, in a land that could never be home.
It was that bitter, black rage that kept him alive during the journey—alive, but not whole. By the time the slavers bartered him away as a makewight in a deal at a harbourside market in Sarona, he was not the same person he had been. Something in him had broken. It was as if a fire had gone out from his soul.
It all seemed so very long ago, now. Of course he hadn’t forgotten the Uldwood—he would remember that day in the grove as long as he drew breath. But the memory of that place was so far from where—and who—he was now. His world had changed. Immutably so. And it had changed him with it. He was living in another time, another place. Another life.
“You’re not listening to me at all, are you?” The young mistress’s voice came sharp, ringing, catching him by surprise. He turned to see her standing with her hands on her waist.
He bowed his head. It seemed he had been wrong about her mood after all. “Apologies, mistress.”
“Really. Sometimes I wonder why I even bother speaking at all. Since not even a slave will deign to listen!”
“You were speaking very quickly, mistress. It is hard for this one to… keep up, when you do.”
“Oh, have done! You have been with us long enough. Papa would never have picked you as a body slave if you were a dimwit. Tell me, are you a dimwit? Isn’t Sindaros teaching you the letters?”
“Well, which is it?”
“Are you admitting to being a dimwit? Or are you saying that you are learning letters?”
“The letters, mistress.”
“So you were simply not paying attention to our conversation, then, as you should have been.”
“This one begs your forgiveness, mistress.”
“Do you? Truly?”
He glanced up. Under the hood, he saw that she was smiling the same smile as she had earlier in her father’s study—sweet, with a hint of mischief about it. Something lurched in his stomach then. He closed his eyes, bowing deeper.
“You’ll have to earn it, then,” she said after a time.
“No, not with words. After all, true penitence is found only in deeds, as the clerics teach us.”
Before he could respond, the girl turned away from him and started downhill again. “Come,” she said over her shoulder. “Let us not dally. I’m getting soaked!”
The chapel bells were tolling midmorning as they arrived in town. Mist beginning to lift, but rain pouring on; sunlight seeping through cracks and seams in a sea of grey.
The way to the town square was largely deserted. For all its recent growth from increased trade in wool, Caedis was still very much a country town; a hub for smaller villages and hamlets, busy only on market days. They saw only a handful of people, cloaked against the rain, hurrying this way or that on cobbled streets. None paid any mind to the two of them.
There were more people at the square, most of them grocers setting up tents for their stalls. Here a few recognized Zoe and stopped to pay their respects. Many spoke of the feast, praising the magistrate’s generosity for inviting the townsfolk. The young mistress chatted with them amicably enough, even buying a small bag of sugared pears from an old woman. The last of the winter pears, the woman told them.
They walked across the square to the magistracy, which was one of the few buildings in town with outer walls. The guards at the gate bowed to Zoe, and let them through to the courtyard without a fuss. They crossed the courtyard to the vestibule, where they had to wait for someone to receive them. It was the head clerk who came out at last, his uniform in disarray, looking irritated as always. “What is it, boy?” he barked at the sight of Loren. “By God, will he not give us even a day’s rest? I swear, if you’ve brought us more work…”
The clerk’s tirade was cut short as his eyes fell on Zoe. Blood draining from his gaunt face, he stammered a greeting and bowed awkwardly. Zoe replied with a surprising graciousness, asking after the man’s health, and offering him a pear.
Loren uncapped his copper case and produced a roll of documents for the clerk.
“This one bears documents from my master, to be assigned to the clerks as you see fit.”
“Received,” the clerk mumbled.
The clerk bowed again as they left, stooping almost to the ground, not daring to straighten himself until they were gone.
As soon as they were out in the courtyard, Zoe stopped and burst out laughing. “Did you see his face? I—ugh—g-g-g-greetings, lady Zoe. A b-b-beautiful day.”
Loren might have laughed at that too, were he not certain that the head clerk would hold him responsible for whatever humiliation he might have felt before Zoe’s unexpected presence. The man, everyone knew, was deeply infatuated with her.
“What a mouse of a man! I don’t know why papa keeps him.”
Loren said, simply, “He is adept at his task, mistress.”
Their next stop was the Imperial Post, which was also the better and therefore more expensive of the town’s two taverns. Though the Imperial Posts were established to provide safe lodgings and fresh horses for imperial couriers and other government officials travelling on matters of importance, it was almost a universal custom for the owners of the properties to accommodate less-than-official guests at a steep premium.
The owner of Caedis’ Post was a retired legionary by the name of Zelalem, who stood out among town’s populace due to his massive girth and dark skin. It was widely gossipped that the man had been born in the Burning Coast, across the Bithryon sea, when the Empire still held territory in those sun-scorched lands.
“Welcome!” Zelalem stood up and greeted them with a clap, smiling broadly. But the smile diminished rather quickly when he recognized his guests as locals. He managed a formal bow toward Zoe before slumping back down on the stool next to the bar.
“No guests today,” said Loren, after a quick glance around the empty tavern.
“Bad luck.” Zelalem swatted the air with the back of his hand. “The lot from Sarona left yesterday, just before rain got pouring. Could have had them stay for a few more days, if not so. You here for the courier?”
Loren nodded, and produced three sealed letters from his case.
“Already two days late, this courier.” Zelalem took the letters and stashed them in a wooden box under the bar. “Probably busy whoring in Sarona. A pox upon his cock!” Then he added, belatedly: “Pardon my tongue, lady Zoe. It’s the Legion in me.”
Zoe nodded graciously. “I have heard that it never leaves a man.”
“It’s true. A mark upon one’s soul, as some say.”
“I wonder if that means my brother will be as foul-tonged as you are?”
The innkeep laughed at that. “Perhaps yes, perhaps no. It’s different for each man, what the experience does. Ah, he’s coming back soon, no? I hear the magistrate’s been preparing a feast.”
“Yes! This afternoon, as a matter of fact.”
“More bad news for me,” Zelalem said, feigning sullenness that made Zoe laugh. “Might as well close the place for the day.”
“Yes, you should do that. And come to the feast.”
The innkeep shook his head. “Ah, but I cannot. In case this bastard of a courier finally arrives.”
“Speaking of which, are the… whores in Sarona really that much better than the ones we have here? Enough to detain an imperial courier from his duty?”
Loren gave Zelalem a look, but the former legionary shrugged and answered Zoe anyway.
“My girls are cleaner. But in Sarona they wear perfume. Put paint on their faces, too. The expensive ones will sing and dance and speak poetry, before and after…”
“Hmm,” Zoe thought that over for a moment. Then, turning to Loren, she asked, “Is that what men like?” in a tone that was half-jesting, half-probing.
“This one wouldn’t know, mistress.”
“Oh? How not? Are you not a man?”
“Surely he isn’t!” Zelalem bellowed, with a deep chuckle that shook the flesh of his cheeks. “Some of my girls have been trying to get him upstairs for a very long time! Yet he is like stone, your man. Says “No,” every time. Now the girls think he is a…”
The innkeep clicked his tongue, searching for the right word. Then he tilted his head back and barked a summon upstairs, where a red-haired girl appeared by the railing momentarily.
“Agi, what is it you and others call our friend here?”
The girl grimaced at the sight of Loren, and then uttered with clear disdain a single word—“Eunuch,” before disappearing back into her room.
“Yes, they think he is that. Eunuch.”
Loren waited for the young mistress’s laughter to follow. It never came. Instead she moved away from the bar and seated herself at a table by the fireplace. “I would like a fire, Zelalem, if you would be so kind. And some wine.”
“Of course, my lady.” Zelalem barked an order upstairs and disappeared into the kitchen. Soon a girl came down—a different girl this time, with flaxen hair—and rushed to start a fire.
Loren followed Zoe to the table.
“Do you know he has never written to me?” she asked.
“My brother, of course. Not once during the whole time he’s been gone. Always only to papa, with just a single line asking after mother and I. I mean to punish him for it. Do you have any notion what it is like to have—”
Then she checked herself, as if struck by whatever thought her words had led her to. Zelalem returned with a platter, bearing a jug of wine and a pitcher of water to mix it with. There was only one cup. He bowed and withdrew, along with the girl, who smiled at Loren shyly and in passing.
“Pour,” Zoe commanded, peering into the flame.
Loren bit his lower lip. Said, reluctantly, “Mistress, this one still has more of master’s business to attend to.”
At his, Zoe glared at him. She opened her mouth as if to say something, but did not. A flicker of irritation crossed her eyes, and then they were suddenly tired, empty. She looked again into the flame. “Then go,” she said, her voice very low. “Leave me here to dry myself.”
“This one cannot, mistress. Master’s orders were clear.”
“Yes, yes. You are to conduct his business, and I am to stay with you. You will go and do as you were commanded, since you must. I, however, am soaked and weary, and will stay here and rest awhile.”
“Mistress, this one must insist—”
“Leave now, slave,” she said without looking at him. “Consider it your penance.”
That was that. There was no point refuting. Loren bowed and left her side, and heard, as he stepped past the Post’s doorway, Zelalem hurrying over to serve her wine.
Once outside, back again in the rain, he took a deep breath to calm himself. Anger and humiliation swirled within him, but only briefly, and ever so faintly. And in a breath or two they were gone, made flat and still like all else, swallowed up by the numbness inside him. He was a slave. He knew his place. He pulled up the hood of his cloak and stepped into the street.
As he made his way toward the smithy, he began to wonder, with detached curiosity, about the young mistress’s sudden change of mood in the tavern. Something had upset her—but what? She hadn’t minded Zelalem’s vulgar talk, had in fact participated in it brazenly. The mention of her brother’s lack of communication, too, seemed to him now more a result of the change in her mood than the cause of it, given how happy she had been about her brother’s imminent return all morning. And if it was his being called a eunuch that had offended her… but that, he knew, was beyond ludicrous. He was only a slave in her father’s household. A tool like any other, though cast in human shape. So he did not matter in her eyes—as she had just reminded him with the dismissal.
Unable to think of a reason, Loren put the issue out of his mind. The young mistress was what she was. Old Ionava said that of her often, and usually in a tone that fell somewhere between bemusement and resignation. Capricious, impetuous, heedless of any but the swift and sweeping motions of her own desires…
Not unlike, Loren thought, the thought racing to the fore of his mind before he could stop it, already loud in his head: not unlike a fool boy running into an ancient forest, knowing nothing, hearing nothing, driven only by the tumult in his soul.
And if that boy still lived today, the thought went on—if he could still feel, and so name the feeling, he might have called it hatred.
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.”
“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.
It was the blacksmith’s apprentice—his wall-eyed son—who received Loren when he knocked on the smithy’s door. The smith, he was told, was fast asleep from exhaustion, having done little else but work on the magistrate’s commission for the past few days.
Loren followed the apprentice through the living quarters to the forge, which was unlit. It was cold. The ash smell was still there, however, fire or no.
The sword was laid on canvas cloth atop a table, a dull bluish gleam in what little light that leaked in through the shuttered windows. Its scabbard was leaning against a leg of the table.
“It’s flawless,” said the apprentice. “Honestly. Just look at the blade. It was as if my father was possessed.”
Loren did take a step and examined the sword closely, though in truth he knew next to nothing about metalworking. It was in the traditional Ilmaren fashion, he knew that much: single-bladed, a slight curve in the upper half, with a handle long enough for two-handed grip. It looked very sharp. There were fine, almost imperceptible ripples along the length of the blade.
Nodding, he fished out a pouch from inside his cloak and held it out to the blacksmith’s son. “Your fee, as was agreed upon by my master and your father.”
“We had to close shop for three days, you know,” the smith’s son complained even as he snatched the pouch from Loren’s hand. “Four, counting today. It took up all of his time.”
“The fee was agreed upon,” Loren said flatly. He had instructions not to haggle; his master had provided both the metal and the design.
The apprentice rolled his eyes at that, which made them appear all the more stranger. “Well, then I suppose it is settled,” he said.
Loren picked up the sword and the scabbard. The sword was heavier than he had expected, and longer, too, in his grip. With the blade sheathed and secured after a couple of awkward attempts, he tucked it under his left arm.
“You should wear it proper,” the apprenticed pointed out. “The strap’s there for a reason.”
“That would not be proper for a slave,” said Loren.
Loren bade farewell and left the way he came. The apprentice did not see him out.
Outside, the rain was at last beginning to die down. Clouds parting, the sun seizing its moment to shine. Loren made his way back toward the Post in a misting of rain, the sword carefully hidden under his cloak. The streets were busier now. There was even a small crowd gathered at the square, outside the Post, which gave him a pause. He knew—everyone knew—what had happened the last time Zoe had visited a tavern: three drunk shepherds got into an argument over whose song better praised the magistrate’s daughter, and then decided to settle it with their fists, which of course turned into an all-out tavern brawl.
The Imperial Post was no ordinary tavern, however, and Zelalem knew how to keep order in his own establishment, so the crowd outside did not worry him particularly. Still, he hastened toward the crowd and grabbed the nearest person—a woman—and asked what was happening.
The woman turned with a start. “Some soldiers,” she said. “Rode in not too long ago.”
“It must be the magistrate’s son,” said a man standing next to the woman. “We’re waiting to get a look.”
Loren was relieved to hear that. It had to be Markos, he thought, the young master who had been away at war longer than he had been a slave. He hadn’t been told there would be others, however. But then again, his master simply might have neglected to tell him. And why shouldn’t he have? A slave needed not know everything. One needed only to do what one was told: no more, no less. It was said to be better that way.
“Hey,” said the woman. “Aren’t you the magistrate’s boy? There’s still going to be a feast, yeah?”
Ignoring the question, Loren thrust himself into the crowd and began making his way toward the Post. Many in his path lashed out with curses at being pushed aside; some even tried to shove him back. He was nearly halfway through when, suddenly, the whole crowd parted before him.
A large black horse burst through the stable door and galloped past the reeling crowd, a cloaked figure lashing it into speed.
“Horse thief!” The stableboy came running out shouting. “Horse thief!”
His cries were met by two men in legion’s cloak, who rushed out of the inn with short throwing spears in their hands. One pinned his spear in the dirt and ran to the stable, while the other readied and then hurled his with a loud grunt.
The crowd gasped, and gasped again as the spear narrowly missed its mark. The horse and its rider had moved just beyond the reach. The soldier—a large, barrel-chested man with an impressively bent nose—cursed fiercely at his miss.
It was then that Loren saw Zelalem appear in the doorway of the Post. The innkeep’s face had gone pale—Loren hadn’t known that was possible—in a sort of dull, gray black. Their eyes met, briefly. Loren spun and trained his eyes after the horse thief. It was too far for him to tell, truth be told. But he knew who it was. Of course, of course he knew.
The second soldier rode out of the stable on a horse of his own. As he rode by his companion, he leaned over expertly in the saddle and picked up the spear he had spiked into the ground just moments ago. He even flashed a smile toward the crowd as he kicked his horse into a gallop.
And Loren reacted, before he even knew what he was about to do.
He ran into the street.
Loren didn’t so much as flinch. He felt—there was no time for thought—the thing that had to be done. It was simple; it was clear. He surrendered himself to the certainty and immediacy of that deed, allowing them to dictate his muscles and limbs, indeed his entire being, even as a warhorse and its rider charged to crush him.
The soldier, of course, was not about to alter his course. It was already too late for that. The risk of injuring both himself and the horse was too great even to consider it.
Loren pulled open his cloak. Everything seemed distant and muted; time seemed to have slowed almost to a halt. Everything became clear, so painfully clear. The slanting light of the sun, the faces in the crowd, the roar of the blood coursing through his body. Taking a small step to his right, he felt the cold, numb lake inside him swell—a throb, a pulse, movement. And in that same moment, and in that same motion, he unsheathed and swung the sword as the horse passed him by. There was warm wind in his face, and the animal smell. Summoning forth a memory.
He was knocked flat on his back. For what seemed like a very long moment he lay there dazed. Then he thought of the sword, which was gone—likely torn from his hands by sheer force, and wondered briefly if anyone had been struck by it. Hoped not.
There was a loud crashing noise from behind him. He twisted his head to see the horse tumble and fall forward in the middle of the street, its left foreleg dangling where the sword had nearly severed it. The loud noise had come from the rider, it seemed, who had been thrown off—or threw himself off, rather—and crashed into a basket-weaver’s stall.
The horse began to scream. It was a terrible sound, full of fury and confusion—a keening. It tried to get onto its feet but kept falling, failing, spurting fresh blood from the wound with each effort. Loren clenched his teeth. Somehow it struck him, the sight of the animal and its miserable scream. The agony of it. There was a burning sensation in the back of his throat. He felt sick. He had been so certain of himself, so alive, just a moment ago. And yet…
Other soldiers—there were a few, now—were running toward him, swords drawn.
Loren struggled to his knees, and held up his hands in submission. His palms were bleeding, he saw. He couldn’t really feel them.
Two soldiers ran past him toward the rider who had crashed into the stall, who was now sitting up facing his screaming horse, dazed. The rider allowed one of the soldiers to pull him up to his feet, and then walked unsteadily over to the horse and knelt beside it.
The horse stopped screaming.
The rest of the soldiers formed a ring around Loren, their swords pointed at him. One of them, the man who had nearly skewered Zoe, approached him.
“This one is a slave to Damaion of Adenapolis,” said Loren, his voice faltering a little. “Who is the magistrate—”
The blow to the stomach snuffed out the words in his mouth. He lurched and fell to his knees, unable to breathe, bile drooling from his mouth.
“It matters nothing who you are,” the soldier said. “Poor fucking fool. It’s the Doux of the Ninth you and your friend stole from. Hear that? You’ll be hanging meat soon enough. Your friend too. Men!”
“Wait, Dioclas.” Another soldier stepped forward. “Say that again,” he commanded Loren. “The name of your master.”
Loren looked up, his sight bleary with tears. “Damaion… of Adena…polis,” he managed in gasps.
“What—Is that?” the burly soldier asked the other.
“Yes,” said the second soldier. Then, one hand brushing his jaw as if nursing a toothache, he made a sound that was both a groan and a sigh. “I think—I think I know where to find the Doux’s horse.”