The Feast (2)
10/05/2015 § Leave a comment
So began the feast, uneasily at first, and then with a growing sense of relief. For many in the household, especially for the servants and slaves, the Doux’s presence had rendered the occasion surreal. They served the food and poured wine as in a trance, mute, hardly breathing, reduced to their most alert selves. Serving a member of the royal family! In muddy Caedis! It would be a tale to tell their children, and their children’s children.
The townsfolk, many of whom had witnessed the debacle outside the Post, trickled in well after the Doux’s arrival, and in small numbers. They occupied the tents in the courtyard, straining their eyes and ears for going-ons inside the house.
In the main dining room, the honoured guests and the magistrate occupied the main table, though the Doux had turned down the seat of honour for Markos, who in turn had offered it to his father. Others in attendance, occupying lesser tables, were several clerks from the magistracy, the town’s clerics, and some of the wealthier wool-makers and traders. All of them appeared to be overawed by the Doux’s presence and hardly spoke a word. The musicians—three local shepherds with lyre and pipes and drum—were especially terrified, and after a truly woeful rendition of “She Who Cometh from the Lake,” they gratefully accepted the magistrate’s invitation to entertain the townsfolk in the courtyard.
As for Damaion, he played the part of a gracious host expertly, in spite of his great apprehension. When all were seated and served, he stood up to honour God, the Emperor, and his royal guest, and then poured a libation for the soldiers of the Ninth who fell in service of the Empire during their latest campaign. Then, confessing a lamentable lack of insight on the matter, he asked his guests to educate him about the campaign. This prompted the scribe, with the Doux’s permission, to relate a general account of the Ninth Legion’s efforts in the Sassoin lands, where they had fought in a civil war to establish a pro-Ilmaren ruler, in order to secure the empire’s northwestern border and to create a reliable trade partner.
The scribe’s accounting was both aided and hampered by frequent interjections and corrections and counter-corrections from the Doux’s officers. The Doux himself mostly listened, nodding here and there, sipping his wine and dining on a platter of assorted cheeses and dried fruit, smiling now and then as at a private thought. Perhaps encouraged by the Doux’s relaxed demeanour, some of Damaion’s clerks began to pose questions to the royal party, at first cautiously but then more boldly, their boldness no doubt the gift of wine, ushering in a lively conversation about the Empire’s policies toward the various barbarian kingdoms along its borders.
His guests thus engaged, Damaion leaned over and whispered to his son, “I must say, son, this is not how I imagined your return at all.”
“It was a surprise to me as well, father,” was Markos’s reply. “I meant to ask sooner, but where is mother?”
“With your grandfather. He has been ill for some time now.”
Damaion nodded solemnly. “I’m afraid so.”
“A pity,” Markos said, shaking his head.
“Indeed, and more than you can know. Her visit was meant to be a short one, but now she finds herself keeping peace for a dying man while his sons squabble over the estate.”
“What? They are—while he still lives? That is… just shameful!”
“Your mother writes they’ve become strangers to her, such is your uncles’ disregard for their father’s last days. But I’ve always thought they lacked a… sense of propriety. Anyway, she will be furious to have missed your return.”
“And about Zoe, too, surely.”
Damaion grimaced. “Yes, although most of that blame will fall upon me, I think. And rightfully so. I have been far too lenient with her.”
“She will be all right, father. The Doux is a just man.”
Damaion glanced over at the Doux, who was leaning slightly to his side and speaking to Patros. Watching them, he felt again the swell of apprehension, an icy fist clutching at his heart. He did not tell Markos that that was they very thing he feared. For what was a just response to a girl stealing a horse belonging to a Doux of the Imperial Legion? A slave assaulting his general? By the code of law, which Damaion himself had sworn to uphold and administer without prejudice and discrimination, there would be two public executions in the very near future. One by hanging, and the other, dismemberment.
When the Doux’s conversation with Patros seemed to have concluded, Damaion stood up from his seat. “My lord,” he said, raising his cup to the Doux. He waited for the rest of the room to grow quiet before continuing. “Would it be possible to hear how my son came to count himself among such noble company? I am afraid he has never written me an account of it, whether out of humility or forgetfulness.”
There were chuckles in the room. “Father—” Markos began to protest, but the Doux nodded to Damaion, smiling broadly.
“Ah, that is rather a long story, and somewhat embarrassing one for me personally,” he said. “But yes, magistrate, you of all people deserve to hear the tale of your son’s valour. I would be happy to tell it, provided our excellent company this evening does not object putting their discussions on hold.”
He then looked around the room. No one, of course, had any objections, or felt brave enough to voice them if they had. Damaion bowed his head to the Doux and sat back down.