Saher let the
dispatch roll itself back up on the desk and sighed deeply.
"I have been called
to the capitol."
Suwetus put down
his pen. "But what of Ė"
"Those will have
to wait." Saher swept away the days of work piling on his desk with a
resigned gesture, and sat back, tiredly, rubbing his eyes. "Arcadiusís
chamberlain Eutropius summons me without treaty or tribute, as though
I am his procurator in Illyricum, instead of a strong and independent
ally. Does he think he can simply ignore my own wishes?" Saherís face
grew dark with anger and frustration.
"Do you think
Arcadius is a usurper then?" Suwetus asked, as always, to the point.
"I donít know.
Theodosius was not young, and Romans, even those of the east, live too
well to enjoy our longevity." He laughed, a short, bitter sound. "Food
and drink are the most powerful assassins in the Empire." He raised his
cup at his secretary and took a long drink of water from it. "They do
not have our taste for good rock wine."
A sound came from
the door, and the Khan glanced across to see Saheris standing at the door,
blinking, his hands rubbing his eyes in a gesture similar to that Saher
had just used. "Kalimera," he said brightly, showing off his Greek.
his frustration melted from him. "Come here, Saheris. It is no time to
be speaking Greek, the Byzantines are too much on my mind right now,"
and took the boy onto his knee.
"What are all
these papers?" Saheris said, pressing a hand on one of the rolled sheets.
"They are letters,
my son. This letter is from the Khan of Constantinople."
"He is not called
Khan, he is called Tesar," Saheris corrected him.
in, "Actually, he uses Constantineís title, ĎImperator.í
"Is an Imperator
greater than a Khan?" Saheris asked then.
"What do you mean
by greater?" Saher countered.
"I mean, do you
tell him what to do or does he tell you what to do?"
"It depends on whether or not he needs my army to defend himself. The
Imperator is very strong but his army is not great enough to defend against
all of his enemies. In this letter he wants my army to defend his lands
to the north against one of my old allies, and I will now have to choose.
If I choose badly, then you may have to fight the Imperator himself, or
his allies. What should I do, Khan?" he threw his hands open, and presented
the problem to Saheris, who took the challenge readily.
"You should tell
him you cannot break your oath to your ally, and he will have to defend
himself against both of you!" he cried.
Suwetus commented. "You should try that argument with him, Khan."
Saher shook his
head. "That would probably not work. He knows that my treaty with him
is worth more, and he would know it is a ploy to avoid going to war."
the situation. "Send an assassin to kill the king of the northern army,
and take their lands by stealth instead of force."
"You think too
much like your mother. Assassination is an ignoble manner of gaining power.
Remember that. By this means, fifty emperors have fallen in Rome, and
fifty more may yet fall in that cursed land."
once more: "Tell him you are too old and will be defeated on the field,
that he must wait for your son to lead the Bithynian legions to defend
Thrace!" he cried, raising a small wooden sword he carried at his waist
high into the air and banging it on the table.
"Stop that!" Saher
said, whisking the toy away from the dispatches. "You spend too much time
talking with Arrus."
"Arrus is a great
soldier!" Saheris cried. "He will teach me how to kill ten men with one
"Was a great soldier.
And he never killed ten men with one blow. He is filling you with stories."
stories, though," Suwetus observed.
"What did you
learn today?" Saher asked him, "Besides all of the lies about Arrusí days
"I learned that
all ships must pass the Pillars of Hercules to sail to the coasts of Aquitaine,
Brittania and Gallia.
"And what is the
northernmost of these provinces?"
"And which one
sits on an island?"
"Brittania again. And it is full of Saxon hordes of Horsa."
"Yes, the Saxon
"And what other
island provinces are there in the Western Empire?"
darkened then. "I donít know."
"Father, I said
I donít know."
"That is not an
answer. When you do not know you go and find out. Now go to bed, it is
too late for you to be up." Saheris, furious at being rebuked after answering
the Khan so well, stood his ground and folded his arms across his chest.
Saher faced him seriously.
"I did not learn
those things so how can I answer?"
"You must always
be ready to answer a question for which you do not know the answer, Saheris.
If you are to gain the respect of men and lead them, there is no answer
of ĎI donít know.í You must always be prepared with an answer. Even if
you are not asked to study it. Study should be your life, and knowledge
should be closer to you than your sword or knife. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Khan," he
answered him formally.
"So what are the
island provinces of the Western empire?" Saher asked again.
his mouth, then shut it, then smiled. "There are no island provinces belonging
to the Western empire."
"And why is that?"
Saher asked him.
were all captured by the Bithynian legions of Saheris El Maduc."
"You lie," Saher
replied, a smile creeping onto his face.
"But it is a good
lie," Saheris replied.
"Go to bed."
The trip from
Illyricum to Constantinople was fifteen days on horseback; Saher brought
twenty men, and after much thought, told Saheris that he could come if
"Can Heli come
as well?" Saheris asked.
"He is younger
than you. I donít think it would be a good idea."
"Why? He is not
that much younger, and can sit a horse as well as I can!" Saheris pouted.
"You donít think
youíll have anyone to play with if I do not bring your brother, is that
it?" Saher asked, patiently waiting on the child. How well he remembered
the pain of watching Zoser and Daoder gallop across the hillside at the
head of a line of soldiers while he clung to his nurseís hand, a sad tear
escaping from his eye. The first night was always the worst, although
his anxiety for their safety and loss of their companionship abated only
slightly as the days and weeks passed, receding to a slight ache in his
chest that intensified whenever a messenger returned with news of the
battle. Even though Heli was too young to feel such anxieties as yet,
the emotion of separation would still be very keen, and they were extremely
close. He would have to either take none or take both.
"That is not the
reason," Saheris insisted.
"And what is the
"He will be miserable
without me. Besides, then it will be proof that you favor me over him
and do not love him; that it is only I who love him."
"Who gave him
this idea?" Saher demanded, filled with a sudden anger. "Did Arrus tell
"No, father. It
the temptation to argue with the child, to defend how he doted on Saheris
and allowed him to come and go as he pleased at his work, spending long
hours explaining the intricacies of the political situation in Thrace
and the increasing threat of Persia to the east, as though Saheris were
his secretary or his regent... yes, he was spending a great deal of time
with his eldest grandson, while Sahelis walked with his nurse and learned
to ride his pony. Saher said "So is this what you think, Saheris?"
The boyís chin
rose and his face was slightly red. "Yes, Father."
"Do you believe
that Heli and you are equal in mind and skill?"
"If we were treated
the same, we would be the same."
"Do you think
that is true of everyone?"
"I donít know. No. I donít think it is."
"Why is it true
in the case of you and Sahelis?"
"Because it is."
"And if I showed
equal favor to both, then do you believe both should share equally in
all things, and do all things the same?"
for a longer period of time, and fought his way past the response "I donít
know." Saher waited for his reply. "There would be some differences. Just
as Heli will not drink goat milk because he dislikes it, and I will drink
his each time, and I do not like swimming in the river. No, we are not
exactly the same, but we should be treated the same."
"I cannot treat
you both the same, though," Saher concluded promptly, sitting down in
preparation for the long argument that was sure to come.
has an advantage you do not have, and I have to make accommodation for
"Yes, he has an
older brother to teach him." Saheris smirked then. "Do you think I show
you and tell you all that I do just for your own sake?" The look on the
boyís face showed clearly that he did.
"No. I donít.
Sahelis is not old enough to understand some of what you do; and you can
tell that even better than I. So if I teach you, then you can gain practice
in your study by teaching Sahelis."
"You do talk to
him about what we discuss, do you not?"
"Then you are
the one not showing him favor, not I! Do you think that the Khan has the
time to do everything in his realm? This is how it was with me and my
brothers; I did not sit at my fatherís feet each day, but the Khan gave
all he knew to his heir, Zoser. It was Zoserís duty to pass this on to
his brothers as they grew, so that we could learn not only the wisdom
of the Khan but also of his sons. Do you have any wisdom to give to your
"I know how to
kill a fox, "Saheris replied proudly. "I trapped him with a net baited
with a rabbit, and broke his head with a rock."
"Who did you learn
Eben. He tells me that foxes eat his rabbits and hens and they should
be killed. So I did."
Saher shook his
head. "Just because someone tells you a fox should be killed that is reason
enough to do it?"
"Why not is not
an answer!" Saher raised his voice, and Saheris dropped his eyes. "Answer
"Yes, if a fox
is killing the blacksmithís hens and rabbits he should be killed."
"And who should
"Anyone should kill him."
"Are you anyone?"
Saher raised his
hand and pointed directly into Saherisí face. "You are NOT someone! You
are NOT anyone. Who are you?"
"I am Saheris
El Maduc, son of the Khan Saher," he recited in a quiet, now tremulous
"And is the Khan
"Ye - no. No he
"And should the
Khan Saher kill a fox because Eben the blacksmith wants him killed?"
"Does the Khan
Saher serve the blacksmith Eben?"
face betrayed exquisite frustration as he answers became more brief and
"Then how is it
that the Khanís son Saheris El Maduc serves the blacksmith Eben and does
"That was not
the way it seemed!" Saheris blurted.
"That is EXACTLY
the way it seemed, because that is exactly the way it is!"
at his grandfather, his face red with fury. His pride was offended, yet
he had no argument with Saherís logic.
Saher sat back
quietly as he observed the emotions of anger and humiliation battle with
one another on his grandsonís face, and then gradually hardened into a
mask of defiance.
"So, I have angered
the great Khan, have I?" Saher commented, keeping his voice quiet and
neutral. Saheris did not reply. "The great Khan who is too busy working
as a trapper for the blacksmith to finish his lessons on time and teach
them to the young Khan his brother." At this, the boyís head came up in
fury as he fixed an enraged stare on Saher.
"Father Ė" he
choked out, barely able to keep the flood of anger checked within him.
"Yes?" Saher replied
"Why is it that
I canít just play as the other children do? Is that never to be permitted
"Is that what
you would like? To go where you wish, to do as you wish?" Saher asked
relief was palpable.
"And to ride ponies
with Heli and hunt foxes and play whenever you like?"
"But, you said..."
"If you did those
things, you will probably be very content. And you will be a boy among
all the other boys of Illyricum, perfectly suited in time to serve as
a regular in my army and undergo normal training as war permits. Then
you can stand at attention when I call. Or if there is peace, you can
become a trapper and learn to keep out the foxes from the farms. Or if
you prefer, you can be a servant in the orphanage and help mind the nursery
with Cariana, and fetch milk to feed the children of the regulars who
serve in the ulu of the Khan. Would you like to grow up to be one of these?"
"I will not stand
as a regular in your army!" the boy retorted furiously. "I will lead your
"No, you wonít."
Saher stood up, dismissing him, turned his back, and walked away.
shouted, breaking into a run behind his grandfatherís long stride, catching
up and grabbing the Khanís hand. Saher pulled away from his grasp, but
stopped, gazing down thoughtfully at the now-pleading face of the only
son he knew, the son he loved much too well.
"What is it now,
donít you want to go off to do as you please?"
"No! I donít want
to do that any longer!" Saheris cried. Saher appraised him for a moment.
"I donít believe
you. I wanted to do all of those things when I was a child. And my mother
let me do them, too, against the wishes of the Khan."
"Yes. She let
me do as I liked, because I was the youngest of my brothers and did not
have to lead an army. And I was glad; I was the most fortunate of all
"So why must I
choose?" Saheris pleaded. "Why canít I do both as you did in that case?
To do as I wish, and at the same time also lead your army?"
"If you do as
I did, then you will be as poor a soldier as I am. Even Zoser, who did
do all of his lessons, and took all of his training as the Khan taught
him, was not sufficiently prepared against the onslaught of all of our
enemies, and he was not spared in battle on the bloody plains of Moesia.
And he died. How much worse a soldier would you be for wasting time and
effort, and how long do you expect to hold back all of our new enemies
to the east, to the south, and to the west? I have told you these things
"I will be the
greatest soldier of all!" Saheris pronounced fiercely.
"Saying so does
not make it so. How will you do this? By doing all you please?"
"I will study
all of my lessons, and do all you tell me to do," Saheris vowed.
"And what is it
I tell you to do?"
"To do my lessons."
"Not to do the
bidding of others."
"That is not strictly
true. When someone instructs you, unless he is the master of soldiers,
or my secretary, or my chief consul, or your nurse Ė these people serve
me and so I instruct them to instruct you Ė what should you do?"
"I - I should
not do as they say."
"That is not right.
You should then come to me, and ask me. If there is any question in you,
you should come to me."
"What if you are
"Then you should
"I must do all
of this each time?" Saheris was amazed. Once again, his face grew hard
"No, not at all,"
Saher replied. "You may do as you please. There is always the need for
regulars in my army. They die so frequently."
"It is entirely
up to you. You can decide your fate right now."
"Can I still go
to the Holy City?"
"If you wish."
"No," Saher shook
his head. "I will bring your brother as well."
grew bright with sudden joy as the moment of pain passed. He threw his
arms around his grandfatherís middle, and squeezed him tightly. "Thank
later, at dinner, what the adventure of their trip to Constantinople would
truly be like. Rather than his imagining of a leisurely ride into the
north country on horseback at the side of the Khan, it would be a rapid
trip with few stops, made frantic with provisioning and the changing of
horses and the passing of messages. In addition, the Khan had work for
the boys to do. There would be five cities in Illyria, Moesia, and Thrace
that they would stop at, as well as seven Thracian imperial garrisons
along the Via Egnatia, the royal road to Constantinople from the west.
Their task would be to find out as much as possible about each of the
cities, and to learn the names and the troop strength at each of the garrisons
along the road, and to recite this information at breakfast after each
stop for the Khan, before they set out again.
"What do you think
is the most important thing to learn about a city when you enter it?"
Saher asked the boys.
up. "If they have something for dinner!" Saheris shook his head in disgust.
"That would be
important, Heri," his grandfather nodded. "But cities are large enough
that they almost always have food."
"Not in Armenia,"
Sahelis retorted immediately.
"Weíre not going
to Armenia," Saheris said darkly.
"Who told you
this?" Saher asked the child.
says the Avars have taken all the food for their armyís billets and the
children are all hungry there."
sagely. "That is why I have to eat all of my meat, because the children
in Armenia have none and are hungry. Are we going to Armenia?"
cut in. "She only says that to make you eat. Donít be stupid."
him. "That's enough of that. Heri, you donít know whether there are children
starving in Armenia or not. Until you do, finishing your meat is an excellent
idea. Tomorrow is going to be a long day."
"The most important
thing to know about a city is whether it is loyal to you or not."
"That is certainly
important," Saher agreed. "And surely we will find that out as we ride
through Thrace to see the new Imperator."
Saher had political
reasons for wanting to bring his heir with him to the crowning of the
new Imperator at Constantinople. The tragic death of Byriac in battle,
and the increasing threats to Saherís eastern frontier (and the Empireís,
in time) had made his retirement from mercenary service untimely. Even
though his proconsul ran affairs perfectly well in Maduc for him for the
past year and a half in his absence, and he had appointed regional governors
for Cappadocia, Galatia, and Pamphylia, they all had a common anxiety:
a lack of strong military presence on the eastern frontier, and the increasingly
bold raids from Persia as they pillaged the countryside for weapons, food,
and provisions for their standoff against their eastern enemy, Arya, and
the Alans south of and west of them in Mesopotamia. And there was no telling
whether or not that Persia would maintain its borders, or develop a military
objective to the west if their own situation became unstable. And though
for Saher, the Alan threat had receded well south of Troya, new trouble
seemed to be constantly brewing.
With a new emperor
in the East, Saher could not delay his appearance at the court once he
had been summoned; his rapid pace was timed to coincide with Arcadiusí
formal accession. He had not wanted to bring Sahelis Ė the younger boy
was not quite four years old, and far less mature than the hardy elder,
who now betrayed the characteristic pallor of the northern European. Though
unmistakably Asian in features, his skin was significantly lighter than
that of Sahera, or his grandfather, or even of his younger brother. Not
easy to mistake for an Italian on the Roman peninsula, Saher reasoned
that Saheris would pass as one of the many mixed ethnic peoples of northern
origin just about anywhere in Italy, and in the provinces, would be assumed
to be a Roman, as long if he spoke passable Latin. And he did not have
the Priscus nose, so it was possible that his heritage might remain discreetly
hidden, as Saher wished it to be, in case rumors arose.
Their party set
out in late spring, after the floods of the mountain snow melted, and
after the city of Illyricum and the outlying districts had completed the
spring festival of Vesta. Despite centuries of Hellenic preoccupation
with the worship of Zeus and Apollo, followed by sixty years of persecution
by "Saint" Constantine the Christian, the northern provinces now governed
by Saher held fast to their modest but cheerful pagan seasonal rites,
untouched by the missions of Paul and Luke, unconverted by the bishops
and procurators of Antioch and Ephesus in Asia. So, in the wake of the
sacrifices to Vesta, goddess of home, hearth, and dry firewood, the family
of the Khan Saher set out to the Holy City of Constantine to see the raising
of a new emperor of the East, who, Saher suspected, was the assassin who
ended the life of his friend, the patrician Theodosius.
Arrus sat on a
log, rubbing a block of brown potash soap into a dry lather against the
surface of his boot, spitting on the leather occasionally to wet it. He
looked up from his work to see Saheris studying him quietly, face set
in a deep frown.
"You havenít been
to talk to me since we set out. I was wondering if I had begun to smell
too bad from the road for your noble nostrils," Arrus said cheerfully.
out laughing. "Do you smell bad?" he took several deep sniffs in Arrusí
direction. "I think I smell so bad I canít tell!"
a lye-whitened hand at Saherisí boots. "Have you oiled them since the
rain wet them?"
"No. Should I?"
The boy looked down at his boots, which had already dried to stiffness
in the sun.
tossed the block of soap and Saheris caught it. "First, lather the tops
and heels with that, and just a little water Ė just spit on them, that
is enough. Then when theyíre supple, rub some sheep tallow into them.
Iíve got plenty. Otherwise, they will grow hard and youíll get blisters
- theyíll turn into rocks on your feet and torture you."
"I shouldnít take
orders from you, you know, Arrus," Saheris said imperiously, weighing
the soap in his hand as he eyed the old soldier.
"And why is this
all of a sudden?" Arrus replied dryly.
"Because my father
"Ho, thatís the
reason, eh? So, when the Khan asks me why his sonís feet are bleeding
and paining him from blisters, and we will have to send him back to Illyricum
in a cart, and why I didnít instruct him to wash and cure his boots yesterday,
I will say to him, ĎKhan, Saheris was told to cure his boots, but he didnít
do it because he told me you ordered him not to listen to me.í"
"You would tell
"Iíll go tell
him right now, in fact." Arrus pushed himself to his feet and wiped his
hands on his trousers.
"Why delay?" Arrus
"Did he tell you
to tell me this?"
"Of course he
did! But would it matter if he didnít? It only makes good sense! Donít
you have any sense in you?"
"Yes, I do."
"You know," Arrus
sat down again and took the soap from Saherisí hand when it was clear
the boy was not going to take off his boots, "I had a little talk with
your father about foxes."
Saheris put a
hand over his eyes. "Oh no."
"Yes, he told
me you would probably stop listening to everyone who tried to tell you
what to do from now on, and that we should be ready for that. I guess
he was right."
"I canít do anything!"
"You canít do
anything without his knowing about it, you mean. But what do you expect?"
"I expect to have
some fun when I want!"
"Fun!" Arrus snorted.
"You mean mischief! Let me ask you a question. Has the Khan ever beaten
"Has he ever slapped
you or knocked you down to punish you?"
"No, the Khan
would not strike me."
"Do you think
that is the same for everyone?"
"What do you mean?"
Saheris asked quietly.
Arrus did not
speak, but raised his shirt up and twisted to bare his back to Saheris.
It was dark with a cross-cross of thick lines, like scars made by ropes.
"What is this?
Did the Khan flog you?"
"No, you idiot.
My father. If I talked back to him the way you talk back to the Khan,
he would lay me out on the ground. The discipline of the army was a mercy
compared to him."
"Do all Roman
fathers beat their sons this way?"
"Many do, they
think it makes them strong and tough for war. They beat their daughters
too, but I think thatís just because theyíre in the habit of delivering
beatings. You donít know what a fortunate life you have, to know that
you will never be struck in anger by your father. You cannot hope to be
treated with such favor by others, and you should have the greatest respect
for all he gives you. If he were my father, I would do anything for him;
and as his guard, he gets no argument from me."
"I didnít know,"
Saheris said contemplatively, and sat down on the log next to Arrus, deep
in thought. Things were not as they seemed, suddenly. He thought his father
the most severe of masters, driving him harder and harder toward a premature
adulthood and a military obsession which consumed his life; but in fact,
his friend Arrus, and apparently all the boys in Rome, had a harder life
than he. What irony that he thought of his life as hard, when, as compared
with that of others, it was easy?
Saherisí deep study. "Are you ever going to take those boots off, or do
I have to knock you down and pull them off your feet?" In reply, the boy
began to tug at the boots, and after much struggle, freed himself from
"They should make
boots that do not harden from rain," he commented.
"They do," Arrus
replied, "but they are hard to get, and take a long time to make. They
are cured over the course of a summer. To make a pair of boots of that
kind, for a child like you, the cobbler would have to imagine how big
your feet would be at the end of the summer, and build them for the new
size. Or hadnít you thought of that?"
"No. I know my
feet are larger, but I never see them grow," Saheris replied.
"You have no sense
in you, child. That is your problem. You need someone to teach you sense."
"How did you get
"I had it beaten
into me by my father, I had it teased into me by my brothers, I had it
shouted in my ear at dawn every day in the army. Spend a summer riding
back and forth between garrisons, and living with the army, and youíll
learn sense, or you will die from not learning it." He smiled smugly at
"If that is what
it takes, then that is what Iíll do," Saheris replied simply. "I will
ask my father if I can do that this summer when we have returned from
Arrus said, amazed. "Why would any little boy want to do that?"
"I am not any
little boy, Arrus. I am not anyone, and I am not someone. I am Saheris
El Maduc, and I will lead the army of the Khan of All Asia until I accept
"That sounds very
Saheris eyed him
fiercely. "Saying it doesnít make it so, Arrus. But I am not just anyone.
And I am not a regular in the army."
"No, that you
arenít. But you donít know what it is like. Itís not like sipping hot
milk by the river with your nurse in Illyricum."
"I know that."
"No you donít."
"Then I will find
out!" Saheris shouted. "If my father can do it, and him a coward, then
I can do it and not be a coward!"
Arrus raised his
eyebrows. "A coward? Who says that the Khan is a coward?"
"He does. All
"That is just
his way of criticizing himself. He does too much of that. The Khan has
never retreated from battle in fear, he has never stayed his hand when
he should strike, and he has never held back. That would be cowardice,
and he is not that. Donít ever call him a coward. Until you have seen
him face an enemy, you cannot say it. That is the highest insult you can
pay anyone." Arrus searched Saherisí face for a moment before continuing,
this time in confidential tones. "Over the course of my service to him,
the Khan has had to make terrible choices that required great courage.
Courage you may not have. In time, you may find out what kind of man you
serve Ė but it is not for me to tell you. If he wants you to know, he
will tell you."
Saheris was quiet
then. "Iím sorry, Arrus. Itís just that he - he has a lot of hope for
"We all do. And
for Sahelis. There may yet be a chance for the Khan to secure all of his
borders when the both of you come of age. But that wonít be for some time
yet. In the meantime, you have to find out more about the city of Tangira,
donít you? We will be there by dark. Here, donít do it that way, spit
on the skin first, then rub the soap into it."
"I will join the
army for the summer."
Arrus barked out
a short laugh. "Then itís going to be a long summer for you, my boy. The
longest summer of your life."
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