Chapter 15

Oct. 12th, 2009 10:17 am
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“Loukas, I need you to accompany me to the dock today. The grain ships came in last night. I've been charged with the unloading personally, lest there be undue....”

“Graft, theft and bribery?” Loukas suggested.

“Just so. Dress warmly, we will be out much of the day.”

Loukas took that advice to heart, yet still felt in need of another layer as the breeze swept in from the docks, the salt tang so strong he could taste it. Nika and Metrodora came as well, but Myrrine stayed behind, too pregnant to stay on her feet for long.

The water roiled up along the wharves, washing foam and spray across the graying planks. Out in the deeper water, the ships heaved and dipped with each roll of the waves. The Civic Guard were conspicuous spots of purple among the blue and gray, keeping back the growing crowd with spears in hand.

“Arists! Kind arists, please help us,” a woman begged, as they rode in. Her bony fingers clasped at his knee as he urged Rayna on. She held a child, it eyes dull and sunken, its head resting listlessly on her shoulder.

“Everyone will get their share,” he promised, spurring Rayna on. He pulled his veil tighter, the fine blue wool hiding his face from the crowd.

They tied the horses and Iereus had them wait while he spoke with the forewoman. Seagulls rode the breeze, their tails working like rudders. Several wagons stood waiting for the cargo, the Civics near by leaning on their spears and looking bored.

Loukas saw the woman with the child again, two other children following her closely.

“The grain will be distributed from the royal granaries. There is nothing for you here. Go home and wait for your allotment,” Loukas said brusquely, his fingers gripping the folds of his cloak tightly. He'd fallen behind, Nika and Metrodora out of earshot.

“That's what I did the last time, and the grain we got was half the measure due and rotten. The honorable arists giving up the worst of their stores, the mealy, the molded.” She bounced the child from one hip to the other. “Makes the children sick, so they bring up whatever little they ate.”

Loukas glanced to Poppy, but he paid no attention, instead watching the rowboat make its way from the ship, flimsy as a toy boat in a child's bath.

“I'm sorry. There is nothing I can do. Archon Iereus is an honest man and he will see that the grain gets where it's headed.”

“Is he going to deliver it personally? There're a lot of greedy hands between this dock and my children's mouths -- can he watch all of them?” the woman demanded. “Tell me, boy, have you been going hungry?”

“That's enough,” Poppy interrupted, stepping between them. “You speak to an arist of Edessa and you will keep a civil tongue in your head or I will keep it for you.” He raised a hand threateningly, but she'd already backed away. “Now be off and let your betters mind their work.”

She collected her children and escaped.

“If she comes back, I'll get the Guard,” Poppy said in disgust.

Loukas swallowed. “Her children are hungry.”

“Everybody's children are hungry.”

Iereus returned, flanked by an unhappy looking Nika. “The captain is unwilling to bring the ships all the way into the dock; the sea is too rough. They'll send the grain in by rowboat. Nika, I need your eyes and accounting as its unloaded on the docks. Metrodora, with me. Loukas -- you can you keep tally of the loaded sacks.”

Loukas nodded that he could and stationed himself near the wagons. Poppy kept the tally on a wax tablet as the grain was loaded in: equal portions for each quarter of the city and a larger share for the royal storehouse.

“How long will it take for this to make it to the plebs?” Loukas asked Poppy.

Poppy shrugged. “Who knows?” He glanced at Loukas. “It's not your concern.”

“Just a little to tide her over wouldn't hurt anything.”

“It wouldn't help anything, either.”

“It would keep her children from dying.”

“Master, you should reconsider,” Poppy said. “Help her and there will be a thousand more in her place, just as desperate.” Loukas looked back; the Civics passed a wine skin between them. Iereus and Metrodora were below decks, and Nika was upbraiding a dockhand who'd displeased her.

“Help me with this,” Loukas ordered, hauling at one of the bags already loaded it. It was heavier than he'd anticipated; the easy way the dockhands handled made them seem lighter.

Poppy hesitated and then grabbed the bag and shifted it to get a grip. Loukas fumbled with his knife, his fingers trembling. He slit open the corner and filled one of the extra sacks hanging over the edge of the wagon. The sack filled quickly, and Loukas was careful not to spill any of the precious grain as he cut off the flow. “Take this to that woman and go quickly before the next load comes,” he told Poppy.

The bag was still over three-quarters full as Loukas shoved it back into the wagon. Poppy returned before the next load, his mouth a thin and disapproving line, but he said 'd hauled in the next load when a figure approached. A teenage boy, Loukas saw.

“Please, is there grain?”

Poppy shot Loukas a sharp look. He didn't have to say I told you so.

Loukas hesitated. “Do you swear not to tell a soul?” The boy nodded. “Then come on. Quickly now.”

He filled the sack and handed it back to the boy, who took it and hurried off, muttering his thanks.

“Best to stop while we can,” Poppy said and Loukas nodded. They made to get the bag back into the wagon, but they didn't make it.

“So your distributing, are you?”

Loukas started and turned to find a man watching him. A tattoo marked the man's cheek, signaling his allegiance to Theros and, Loukas guessed, his gang. He wasn't alone: four others stood behind him, all wearing matching expressions of ugly speculation.

“Move on,” Poppy told them. “There's nothing for you here.”

“But, sweetheart, I think it is. Why don't you extend that charity to those of us in need? And now before we get ugly.”

“You already are,” Loukas retorted.

They started for him and he backed away. Poppy moved to block their way, but they shoved past him easily. Loukas yielded and turned to flee, but found his path blocked by more of the thugs.

“Let me pass,” he ordered, mustering all the authority he could, but his voice quavered. “By the authority of the empress and the deities she serves.”

They ignored him; two had already hopped up into the wagon and begun unloading it.

“Guards! Guards -- the grain!” Loukas got out before a sharp blow to the stomach doubled him over, nearly sending him to the street. He struggled to keep his feet, jostled back and forth as more thugs climbed into the wagon. Others had joined the skirmish, men and women all shoving and scrambling for a share of grain.

The wagon shuddered as the horses reared, driven wild by the shouting of the crowd and the press of people. Their hooves tore into those unlucky enough to be in their way, opening skulls and crushing limbs.

The Guard started into the fray, trying to force people away from the wagons, but the crowd was too many and the Guard too few. A young guardsman skewered one of the men in the wagon and the body fell into the press of people, taking the spear with it. Unarmed, the guardsman disappeared under the blows of the crowd.

A row boat bringing in another load approached the pier. People jumped from the dock; some missed and floundered in the freezing water, grasping at the boat's sides. The uneven weight capsized the little boat, dumping both people and grain into the dark waves.

Loukas was knocked aside, shoved into the iron-enforced wheel. He cracked his head on its axel as he fell and landed dazed on the cobble stones. Booted feet stepped on him, a heel grinding into his fingers. He struggled to rise but the mob wouldn't let him. Someone used him as leverage to climb up into the cart, and his veil was pinned under the shuffle of feet. He caught another blow to the ribs; he would be trampled if he didn't get away. Grabbing the wheel he half pulled, half crawled under the low wagon; his veil was ripped away. He curled up as tightly as he could, praying that the brakes would hold and that no one would think to drive the cart off. He couldn't tell what was happening and couldn't see anything but the shuffle of feet and other people unlucky enough to fall. One was a child; reaching out as far as he dared he dragged the girl underneath the cart. A woman fell, her tunic bloodied, but she was too far to reach. He called to her, but she didn't hear him or couldn't make it if she did. She struggled to lift herself, but eventually went limp, her face turned away from him, blood soaking the stones under her.

Horns broke through the shouts of the crowd -- reinforcements. The Guard was gaining the upper hand, Loukas realized as the feet retreated and more blood-soaked bodies hit the cobblestones. The crowd thinned and then emptied completely. Quiet descended save for the voice of the Civics call to each other and the gulls screeching.

He heard his name -- Iereus and Poppy both calling for him and he scuttled from under the wagon.

“I'm here!” He turned to help the child, but it had already dashed for the nearest alley and disappeared. Poppy reached him first. Loukas's hand ached, already purpling, and he'd gotten a cut on his cheek from the cart wheel. Poppy seized Loukas, inspecting him for injuries, but Iereus elbowed him aside, his face white and drawn.

“Are you hurt?”

“I'm fine,” Loukas said. He repeated it again, when his voice shook. Iereus probed the cut and Loukas winced. “I hid under the wagon.”

“Clever.” Iereus looked at first one eye and the other, waving a finger before them. Loukas blinked and after a moment Iereus seemed satisfied. He turned back to the few dockhands and Civic Guards.

The forewoman approached, her tunic was soaked with blood, but she seemed uninjured. “Archon, do you wish to retire?”

“No, the longer we wait, the more we risk losing. Start collecting what you can and we'll finish unloading. We won't need all the wagons now, so pile the bodies in one.”

The rest of the shipment made it to shore safely, though it was a small consolation. Loukas kept as close an accounting of the bodies as he did the grain. Guilt settled in his stomach as the corpses accumulated. In the end, the count was twenty-three.

The grain that finally rolled out into the city was half the measure hoped for, but it could have been a princeps's ransom from their armed escort. Iereus sent him home with Poppy and another two guards while he went to settle with the treasury and give an explanation -- and personal apology -- to the empress.

Loukas tried to empty his mind, but he couldn't turn his thoughts anything that didn't circle around to blood in the street and the bodies in the wagon.

---

“Iereus has called for you,” Poppy reported after Loukas finished breakfast; his dark tone made Loukas's stomach tighten.

Loukas stood, toying with the loose end of the bandaged on his hand. “Should I change first?”

“I'd go directly,” Poppy replied. “I do not like his temper.

Loukas swallowed, but failed to loosen the knot in his throat. “Does he know?”

Poppy shrugged.

Iereus was waiting for Loukas, staring out the window, his hands clasped behind his back. His rigid spine and shoulders gave him a vaguely martial air.

“Archon?” Loukas said tentatively, steeping into the room.

Iereus was silent for a moment, and Loukas waited, surreptitiously wiping his sweaty palms on his tunic.

“Do you know how many cubits of grain were lost yesterday?” Iereus asked, though he still didn't turn.

“No, Archon.”

“Do you know how many people died or will die for the lack?”

“No,” Loukas said again and licked his lips.

Iereus sighed and braced his hands against the window sill, his head hanging. “I had thought myself prepared. The empress entrusted the task to me, and my failure was total and complete. And what's more, I endangered my wives.”

“It wasn't your fault,” Loukas whispered hoarsely. “The Guard....”

“Followed my orders.” Iereus turned finally. “The rioting started near you.” He crossed his arms, his expression inscrutable.

“Are you looking for a confession?” Loukas asked faintly.

“Should I be?”

For a long moment, Loukas returned Iereus's gaze, but then he broke. “I didn't mean for it to happen,” Loukas said. “A woman with children -- she was desperate. They might never get the grain. I just thought what a few handfuls? Then the gangs showed up and I couldn't stop them ...” Loukas trailed off and Iereus nodded grimly. “I didn't mean for it to happen,” Loukas repeated.

Iereus moved to stand before Loukas. Loukas flinched as he raised his hand, but he only laid it against Loukas's cheek. “I didn't think you had meant for it to happen. But you disobeyed and in doing so nearly brought me to ruin -- I cannot let that go unpunished.” He dropped his hand as he considered his next words. “Do I mete that punishment out according to the intention or to the effects?”

Loukas said nothing -- there was nothing to say.

“No one suspects your part in this, and I would keep it that way, which limits my options.” Iereus steeped back and said coldly, “Strip.” Loukas hesitated, and Iereus said it again, louder.

Loukas tugged his tunic over his head with clumsy fingers. He folded it carefully, smoothing the wrinkles from the tightly-woven wool and placing it on a chair. Iereus went to his desk and unlocked the bottom drawer with a silver key. Loukas's blood ran cold as Iereus pulled out a strap, the leather a brown so dark it looked black.

Iereus waited as Loukas undid the ties of his loincloth and folded it as well. He stood naked, the skin of his arms and legs pimpling in the cool draft, but his face flushed.

He'd gotten more than his share of beatings as a child, but they'd stopped when he'd reached his teens and it seemed likely he would inherit. Now the embarrassment was sharper than the fear. Iereus gestured to the foot of the bed and Loukas gripped the board at its foot, drawing a deep breath and bracing himself.

The first blow landed solidly across the back of his thighs with a sharp crack. The pain followed an instant later. Loukas grunted, the sound driven out of him involuntarily. He gritted his teeth, refusing to give further voice to his pain.

Iereus worked the strap up across Loukas's thighs and buttocks, neither hurrying nor slowing the fall of the lash. Tears leaked from Loukas's eyes but he held his silence, his knuckles whitening from their grip on the bed. His injured knuckles pulsed in time with the pain in his legs. Sweat beaded on his brow and down his spine and prickled his scalp, but he didn't dare loosed his grip to wipe it away; his legs would give out.

He could hear Iereus breathing heavily, though he was otherwise silent. Finally, he stopped, and Loukas looked over his shoulder, watching as Iereus wiped the strap down with a soft cloth and stowed I away.

Iereus asked, “How do you feel?”

Loukas struggled to straighten, still keeping a hand on the poster of the bed, the muscles in his thighs shaking. “I think you must know well enough.”

Iereus snorted at that. “Lie down, until you feel stronger.”

Loukas obeyed, moving stiffly and collapsing face-down onto the down-filled coverlet. Iereus had raised welts but not broken the skin. Loukas's abused flesh ached, but the cool bedclothes under him was a welcome contrast.

The mattress dipped as Iereus settled next to him. Loukas kept his face buried. He yelped in surprise as cold touched the back of his thigh. He twisted, wincing as he jarred his new stripes. Iereus held a terracotta jar of thick paste. Scooping out three-fingers' worth, Iereus applied it to the abraded skin, making it sting anew.

“Ah,” Loukas complained, the scent of mint tickled his nose.

“Hush,” Iereus said. “This will soothe it soon enough.”

“Doesn't that defeat the purpose?”

“I didn't do this to see you suffer,” Iereus said. “But very little seems to make it through that skull of yours. I will not tolerate disobedience in my House, however well it is meant. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Husband.”

“Good.”

---

Loukas looked out over the city, fires orange against the evening sky. The riots at the docks were only the first. Violence had erupted in every quarter of the city. Demands for the granaries to be opened had quickly turned to looting, and the fires had started soon after. The fires were in hand now, though more blocks had been lost, but the violence continued.

“Do you thank they'll breach the gates?” Myrrine asked, her face line with worry.

“Come away from the window,” Loukas said, taking her by the shoulders. “This villa has stood far worse than a few disgruntled plebs. Besides, the Civics have kept them from the garden district.”

“Nika says we should have fled while we had the chance.”

He helped her into a chair, her hand pressed to her expansive belly as she lowered herself down. “Nika should keep her mouth shut. Iereus is a cautious man; he would not stay if he didn't have every confidence his House would be safe. Don't fret.” He stroked her hair and she took his hand in her own.

“Don't patronize me, Loukas,” she warned. “If he was cautious he wouldn't have gone to the Council. Now he's stuck there and who knows when he'll be able to return. I know you’re just as frightened as I am. You really are a terrible liar. Ah!” She clutched her side, her face contorting in pain.

“What is it?” he asked.

Her expression cleared and she relaxed. “Nothing. I'm fine.”

“I'm going to get Metrodora.”

He found Metrodora checking the slaves' work where they'd boarded up the windows.

“I think Myrrine's baby is coming,” he said.

Metrodora spun, her mouth open in surprise. She closed it and sighed, “Of course she is. The Mother has a perverse sense of humor. Do you know much about childbirth, Loukas?”

“I know ... the gist.” As a prospective heir, he'd been taught the basics, but it had been a long time since his lessons -- lessons he hadn't paid much mind in the first place. “Should I go get Iereus?”

“No. The streets are too dangerous, and he'd be little use anyway.” Metrodora patted his arm reassuringly. “Myrrine will be fine. It's not the first child she's seen into the world.”

---

They made Myrrine as comfortable as they could. The windows of her room were shuttered and draped to keep light from escaping. Loukas was barred from the birth room, Metrodora saying he would only be in the way. He went to his own room and lay down, but couldn't sleep. He set about fetching hot water, tea, clean cloths -- whatever was asked of him and quite a bit that wasn't. When Myrrine was restless, he walked the halls with her, a hand on her elbow. The night crept on, and the baby did not come.

Nor did it come the next day. As the sun set, Myrrine lay exhausted, and had to be cajoled into drinking a little water.

Nika and Metrodora conferred outside the door as Loukas returned from the kitchen, a fresh pot of tea in hand. They quit talking as Loukas approached, exchanging a significant look with each other.

“Do you need anything else?” Loukas asked.

“No,” Metrodora said. “You've kept us well provisioned. Thank you, Loukas.” Even in the uncertain light, he could make out the dark circles under Metrodora's eyes and the deep lines around Nika's mouth.

He hesitated. “Is she going to be all right?”

“Of course she is,” Metrodora said, too cheerfully to be reassuring. “I've seen women take to childbed for days and live to complain about it.” Again she exchanged a look with Nika, and it made Loukas nervous; they were keeping something from him. “You listen to see if she calls for anything; I've got business to attend.” Metrodora turned on her heel and left.

“What is it?” he asked Nika shortly, too exhausted and too worried to mind his tongue. “You don't have to protect me.”

“I'm less worried about your state of mind than Myrrine's,” Nika replied.

“I won't tell her.”

“Dissembling is not one of your gifts, and I don't want you getting her worked up.”

“Nika, I won't, I swear,” he said, feeling more anxious by the moment.

Nika pursed her lips unhappily and then sighed and said, “Metrodora sent a slave for the midwife, but he hasn't returned.”

“When?”

“Just before dusk.”

“He should've been back two horai ago.”

Nika shrugged and let her head fall back against the wall. They sat in silence awhile, and Loukas drifted off, jerking awake when anyone entered or left. Dawn was breaking when he rose again. Nika had fallen asleep, her knees drawn up and her head pillowed on her arms.

He left her and pushed the door open slowly, the hinges creaking. Metrodora sat by the bed, a basin of water in her hands, wiping Myrrine's brow. Myrrine was far too pale, her hair sticking to her neck and forehead. She lay still, breathing shallowly, and her eyes were closed, but her lips were moving silently in prayer. Loukas added his own.

He gave Metrodora a questioning look. She shrugged slightly, face grim. He stood by her shoulder and reached for the basin. She gave it to him and got up, so he could take her place. She squeezed his shoulder; her eyes were heavily lidded, and he wondered if she'd been crying.

Loukas rinsed the cloth and wrung it out before replacing it.

“Loukas?” Myrrine said faintly.

“Hush,” he murmured and took her hand as it groped for his. “Just rest now.”

“Easy for you to say,” she said, her voice no less irritated for its quietness; he laughed.

“Do you want anything? Is there anything I can do?” He felt foolish or asking, knowing that he was more or less useless.

She squeezed his hand. “No, thank you.” Her eyes closed and she drifted off again. He set the basin aside and left, closing the door behind him.

Metrodora was in the kitchen, her hands busy with a tea tray. A cup rattled in its saucer as her hands trembled.

“I'm going for the midwife.”

Metrodora didn't glance up from the tea. “I appreciate the thought, Loukas, but no.”

“Myrrine may be --” Metrodora shushed him violently and made a sign to ward off evil. “--in real need of help,” he amended, lest he draw the attention of the death-god, Theros. “Help that none of us can give her.”

“I realize that,” Metrodora said coldly, “but it is far too dangerous. I've already sent a slave to fetch the midwife.”

“If he hasn't returned by now, he won't.”

“If he doesn't return, what makes you think you will?” Metrodora set her hands on her hips and sighed. “There's nothing to do but pray.”

“I'm not asking permission,” Loukas said. “Merely telling you my intention out of respect.” The words were bold enough, but she could still order him locked up and judging from her frown, she was considering it.

He reached out to grasp her wrist and pressed the back of her hand to his forehead in supplication. “Please. It's sunrise, surely the worst of the violence is over. For Myrrine's sake.”

She hesitated too long and Loukas knew he'd won.
“Iereus will not be pleased if anything happens to you,” she said. “And neither will I.”

---

Loukas saddled Rayna; Poppy met him in the courtyard, Loukas's cloak in hand.

“It would be good if you carried this as well,” Poppy said handing over Loukas's knife. He pulled up the fur-trimmed hood of his own cloak to protect his bald head from the chill.

“Thanks.” Loukas girded it on. It was scant protection, but he felt better wearing it. As Loukas sung up into the saddle, Poppy led out the mule he favored. “You're not coming with me. I can't risk your life as well as my own.”

“Very noble,” Poppy said, still fitting the saddle onto the mule's withers. “But I don't care to go back to the slave block when you die. Eunuch who leave their masters to the angry mob are not very popular.”

The porter opened the gates just far enough to let them out, before slamming it shut and setting the crossbar back into place.

The sun was not yet visible over the eastern rooftops, leaving the street in cold gray shadow. Their breath hung in the air and froze on their mounts' whiskers. The scurrying of a rat startled Loukas, but nothing else moved in the street. A man lay face-down in the gutter; Loukas tried to keep from looking at him or the red-tinted ice.

The midwife, a priestess of Kykos, lived in a convent in the holy district, so called for its high concentration of churches. He knew it well enough; unfortunately, it was over a horai's ride, longer if they wanted to avoid the major thoroughfares.

They kept to alleys when possible, though their animals couldn't always negotiate the narrow spaces and steep stairs. The people they passed kept their gazes down and hurried on, some clutching ill-gotten wealth. Loukas felt sick, and then felt sicker as they passed more bodies -- these obviously form good family -- stripped naked and mutilated.

Loukas urged Rayna past one corpse and her nostrils flared at the scent of blood, his own anxiety making her skittish. The mule kept its steady pace, unbothered by the carnage. Twice Loukas heard shouting and had them double back to hide, waiting as gangs passed, screaming with delight at their own mayhem. He drew his knife, his knuckles white, but both times the gangs ran on.

They reached the church without further trouble. Loukas dismounted and knocked on the tall arched doors.

“Please, we need help,” he called. He knocked again, growing desperate. His fist hurt from the cold and rapping on the door. “In the name of Kykos and his Mother, please answer.”

Another long silence was finally broken by, “Who's there?” Loukas nearly wept with relief.

“I am Arist Loukas Kommenon Iereus; I am alone save for my eunuch. I come as a supplicant.”

There was a lengthy pause and then the sound of the bolt being thrown, and the door opened. Loukas and Poppy led their animals into the narrow courtyard, and Loukas helped an old priest shut the door again.

“What are you doing out in the streets at a time like this, son?” the priest said, sounding more irritated than concerned, as though Loukas had been out taking the air.

“Please, Arist Myrrine Koiloion Iereus is struggling in childbed and requires the midwife.”

“The midwife, eh?” the priest repeated, his snowy brows knitting.

“Yes, the midwife,” Loukas said slowly and loudly. “For Arist Iereus.”

“She picked a damned poor time to take to the childbed, I'd say,” the priest sniffed.

“Yes, yes, I'll be sure to relay that to her. The midwife?” Loukas gritted his teeth.

“Away with you, Stephanos, you old fool.” A woman appeared, wearing the dark blue tunic of Kykos's devotees; she gave Loukas an assessing look. “You want the midwife?”

Loukas nodded.

“Well, you've found her. I am Iullia,” she said, folding her hands over her stomach. Loukas kissed her on both cheeks, startling her.

“What supplies to you need? Are they close at hand? We must make haste. Arist Myrrine has been much fatigued by her long labor, and she desperately need your help.”

“Wait,” Stephanos said, “We understand your sister's trouble, but there's no going back out in those streets until the trouble dies down.”

“No, you don't understand,” Loukas countered, growing angry.

Stephanos patted Loukas's arm kindly. “You just hold up with us here. I'm sure it'll clear in a day or so.”

“In a day it will be too late!” Loukas turned to the midwife. “Please, I swear by the Great Mother and all her children that you will reach House Iereus safely.”

Infuriatingly, Stephanos chuckled. “A vow more easily promised than kept, I should think.”

“Leave the boy be,” Iullia said, and the old priest fell silent. “I vowed to serve those in need -- and not just when it was convenient. Wait here,” she told Loukas, “it won't take me long to gather my things.”

“It's your funeral,” Stephanos muttered as she departed, eyeing Loukas darkly.

She returned, a basket over her arm. Loukas helped her into her cloak and then mounted, struggling to pull her sizeable girth up behind him. Stephanos was still predicting their death and destruction as he shut the door behind them.

“Let's be quick, boys,” Iullia said. “The gods help the brave but not the foolish.”

Loukas put his heels to Rayna, but the cobblestone paving was slick and he darned not force her to greater speeds. If she slipped, she could break a leg and he might break a good deal more.

The man sidled from shadows of an alcove, and Loukas didn't see him until he'd grabbed Rayna's bridle. She reared, but the combined weight of Loukas and the midwife made her awkward, and the man held on. He took Loukas by the belt, hauling him easily from the saddle. Loukas registered first the gray stone of the street and the sky at his back his the stone, taking a sharp knock to the head, the breath knocked from his lungs. Loukas gasped and tried to reach for his knife, but the man knocked his hand away easily.

In the corner of his eye, he could see other men closing in. The trap had been sprung. Iullia screamed, as she too was pulled from Rayna's back.”

“You're a pretty little thing,” the thug said, drawing Loukas's own knife and pressing it to his throat. “Does your husband know you're about town?”

Loukas drew great rasping breaths as he tried to get air into his body.

“What's your House, boy? Must be a fine one, a horse like this.”

Loukas tried to answer but fear had robbed him of his ability to speak.

The thug cleared his throat and spat in Loukas's face, the spittle hot on Loukas's cheek. “D'you hear me, pretty boy? Are you deficient?”

“Slit his throat,” advised another thug, out of Loukas's immediate view. “It's not worth going after ransom when there are easier riches closer to hand.”

A scuffling noise came, another thug joining the first two, but suddenly the pressure of the knife left his throat, his assailant flying backwards. Loukas pushed himself to his elbows, scuttling out of range. Poppy stood over the man, another lay behind him, his brains dashed out into the street.

“Looks like the half-man's got himself riled,” said the other remaining thug, who had a hold on Iullia.

“Looks like,” Loukas's thug agreed, eyeing Poppy warily. He brought the knife around, Poppy wore a dark and ugly expression Loukas had never seen before.

“Come now, my honey, you don't want to trouble yourself over this,” he indicated Loukas with a jerk of his chin. “Just you walk away now, and you'll be a free man. No spoiled little arists to watch after.”

Poppy launched himself at the thug, who brought Loukas's knife up towards Poppy's stomach. Poppy grabbed the blade, blood quickly pointing its edge. He had the advantage of weight and bore the other man to the ground, wrenching the knife away. They landed hard, Poppy's knee in the thug's gut. He transferred the knife to his uninjured hand, reversed it and plunged it toward the thug's neck. He missed his mark by a fingers breadth, hitting windpipe. The thug gurgled and blood poured forth bright and frothy. Poppy worked the knife loose and struck again, this time below the hinge of the jaw.

The scream ended abruptly. Poppy pushed himself up and turned to face the last man, who still held Iullia. For a moment he stood frozen, eyeing the dripping blade in Poppy's hand; he turned and ran.

Loukas got up, his limbs still shaky. “Your hand....” he said, going to Poppy, who still stared after the fleeing thug. He took the injured hand in his own; the wound was ugly, running along the seam of his palm, leaving pone and tendon bare. Iullia already had a cloth out and was wrapping Poppy's hand tightly.

“This'll do for now,” she said, “but it'll want a better job once we're back to safety.”

Poppy held the knife out to Loukas; Loukas didn't want to take it, but he wiped it clean on the hem of the dead man's tunic and sheathed it. He struggled not to look at the open and ragged throat.

Loukas helped Poppy back onto his mule, tying its lead to the pommel of his own saddle.

“Are you all right?” he asked, as Poppy settled in the saddle.

Poppy nodded, his face lined in pain.

---

Iullia was swept away into the birthing room as soon as they returned. Poppy stumbled on the stairs up to Loukas's room, and Loukas steadied him. Loukas took pillows from his own bed to make Poppy's narrow bed more comfortable and set about heating some wine.

Even through the stone and mortar of the walls, they could hear Myrrine scream. Loukas fumbled with the cup, trying to steady his hands. Maybe all their efforts had been in vain and there was nothing Iullia could do to help Myrrine, that even as Loukas pressed the cup into Poppy's goo hand, Myrrine and her babe were dying.

Loukas poured himself a glass of wine, the heat of it doing little to chase the cold from his bones.

He didn't realize he'd fallen asleep until Metrodora woke him.

“Great Mother,” she swore. “What happened?”

Loukas looked down at his blood-spattered tunic. “Poppy's hand ... he needs help.” Loukas shook himself. “How is Myrrine?”

“The baby's finally made her appearance.”

“It's a girl, then?”

“It is, and a healthy one.”

Loukas rose, his foot all pins and needles, still he ran to Myrrine's room. He pushed open the door breathlessly. Myrrine lay, a bright red thing cradled to her chest.

Iullia stood aside, washing the muck from her hands and arms. “Hand me that cloth, boy.”

Loukas hurried to do so, and she dried her hands off.

“Is it ... supposed to look like that?” he asked quietly and she burst into laughter.

“Aye, and that one looks better than most. Don't worry, she'll get cuter.” She sobered a bit. “The babe was turned the wrong way; I doubt they would have made it on their own.”

Loukas nearly asked how'd she'd turned the baby the right way around, but decided he'd rather not know. Myrrine stared adoringly as the squirming lump. Loukas hoped that the midwife was right about it getting cuter; right then it resembled a shriveled grape.

“Loukas,” Myrrine said, spotting him. “Come look, isn't she beautiful?”

“Yes,” Loukas hastened to agree. “Iereus will be proud to have such a fine daughter.”

“Come now, dearest,” Iullia said. “Let the slave take the child; you need to rest.” Myrrine yielded the baby, looking chastened at Iullia's stern tone.

Loukas retreated back to his rooms. Metrodora had stitched Poppy's wound closed and redressed it. Poppy lay unconscious, sedated with wine and opium. Loukas stripped out of his dirty tunic and had a sketchy sort of wash before he fell into bed.
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Aemilia

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