Loukas was awake when the slaves came to attend him, lying in the dark with his stomach in knots. They quickly dressed him in a riding tunic, slit to just above the knee. Boots would protect his calves from brambles and, hopefully, afford some protection from the hill lions themselves. He waved away breakfast, and shrugged into a vest embroidered with the Kommene bear, darker red on a crimson background.
Rayna was already waiting for him in the courtyard. He swung up one-handed into the saddle and accepted his spear from a groom. Rayna whickered her annoyance at the heavy saddle -- its high cantle and pommel would help him keep his seat on the rough hills outside Edessa -- but she didn't hesitate as he spurred her out into the street.
The hunting party gathered at the city's western gates, the portcullis already drawn for day. Heavily jowled mastiffs barked and jostled each other and their handlers, eager to be after their prey. Most of the party had already gathered, their spear tips glinting dully in the early morning light. In addition to the traditional spears, each courtier carried a long knife tucked into their belt, giving the scene a martial air.
The only hunts Loukas had participated in had been for the older members of the court, closer to picnics in pace and atmosphere. But the Princeps Procopia sought challenging game, and she only allowed the fittest of the court to ride with her. Her love of blood sports was legendary.
“Arist Kommene, greetings.” The young woman who hailed him rode a spirited gelding, its hooves skittering on the slick cobblestones as she pulled along side Loukas. The princeps herself, he realized. “So gracious of you to join us. I need the extra spear with the Arist Chysos gone. Is your mother in good health?”
Loukas bowed his head. “Yes, thank you. She sends her regards and wishes she could have attended.”
“Ha. I doubt that.” Procopia grinned. “Your mother is a fine archon, but I think she prefers her study to the hunt.”
Loukas dared to return her smile as another of the riders turned his mount to join them. He raised a hand in greeting. “Are we ready to be off, sister?” he asked, shaking his long hair from his eyes. Loukas nodded again in respect, struggling to remember which of the emperor's children this princeps was. “Or perhaps you would prefer to wait until we've gotten too old to ride?”
“You're the one who insisted on breakfast, Cyrian,” Procopia said, and Loukas started at the name. Though several years older than Procopia, Cyrian's mother came from a less prominent House, and the court favored Procopia to inherit the throne. “I was just taking a moment to greet the young Arist Kommene. Manners, Cyrian, you might want to get some.”
Cyrian turned to Loukas as if suddenly noticing him. “Loukas Kommene?”
“You must know my House well,” Loukas said, feeling disconcerted under the princeps's scrutiny.
“Well, enough -- but who doesn't know your excellent bloodlines as well as their own? A House as old as the city herself.”
“So my mother tells me.” Loukas shifted in his saddle.
Cyrian winked. “Well met, Loukas Kommene. Are you looking forward to this morning's expedition?”
“Yes, Princeps, a fine day for a hunt.”
“I should think so; the hard winter will be driving the animals down from their lairs.” He smiled grimly. “And it shall make them fierce. I hope you know how to use that spear.”
“There is none in my House who handles a spear with more skill.” Though he'd never used it on anything but practice targets.
Procopia laughed. “I guess we'll see about that.” She set a curved ram's horn to her lips, sounding a long note Loukas felt in his bones, and they rode out.
Scraggly scrub brush covered the sandy hills, the land too rocky to cultivate much of anything. The day started chilly, but promised to be hot by mid-afternoon. The party kept an easy trot until they ascended high enough that they'd left the path, there they slowed, letting the dogs spread out and look for the scent. The hill lions would be returning to their dens; they hunted at dawn and dusk. They usually contented themselves with small game, but during hard winters would take sheep and calves. They were shy animals but but fought viciously when cornered; their heavy claws and canines able to rend flesh from bone.
With a baying that echoed across the valley, the dogs caught the scent. Loukas fell in close on Procopia's heels as they put their horses to a run. The blue of Cyrian's tunic caught Loukas's eye; the princeps rode close behind, urging his horse on. Rayna darted easily through the brush, but the bigger horses struggled and fell behind until just the three of them rode, racing up the side of a ravine, sending loose stone cascading down. Rayna struggled up the steep incline and Loukas stood in the stirrups, leaning forward over her neck to help her keep her balance. The dogs moved through the underbrush, surfacing where it thinned, like dolphins in the surf.
Loukas reined Rayna in sharply as they burst into a clearing, catching up to the hissing animal; hill lions depended on stealth rather than speed to catch their prey. Procopia whooped and brought her horse around. The dogs encircled the lion, keeping the animal trapped; they were too well trained to set upon it themselves, snapping and baring as it darted first one way and then the other. Both male and female lions had the sable ruff running down their spines, but this one was a little larger than the dogs -- a male. It keened a warning, its lips peeled back to reveal jutting lower jaw and curved teeth. An over-excited dog dashed too far forward, and the lion swiped at it. The dog yelped and scrambled to regain its feet, the side of its face a mass of blood, an eye gone. The dogs barked louder in response to the blood spilled.
Procopia reached it first, her spear at the ready as she spurred her horse into the circle. The lion flattened itself to the ground, scuttling back as far as it dared with the dogs at its back. Loukas put his heels to Rayna, but she resisted, her nostrils flaring at the mixed scent of lion and blood. Loukas glanced back, the other riders were still urging their mounts up the ravine. Procopia and the lion danced their way around each other, each marking the other. Procopia made several strikes, but only one hit -- the blow glancing off the lion's hip. The lion screamed, its fur turning dark with blood.
Before she could move again, the lion retaliated, leaping at her horse. The gelding reared, the loose shale under its hooves shifting and the horse slipped, tittering for a breath before falling backwards. Loukas feared she would be crushed, but Procopia was thrown free; she hit the ground hard, her spear out of reach. The lion leapt onto the flailing horse, its jaws finding the juncture of spine and skull, snapping it easily. The horse went still, and the lion's attention turned to the prone Procopia.
Rayna shied and whinnied shrilly, foam smeared along her flanks; she refused Loukas's commands. Loukas slid from the saddle even as she sidestepped away; he landed heavily but on his feet, spear still in hand. The other riders were just cresting the ridge as he reached Procopia's side.
He found a good grip on the smooth shaft under his hand, his palm slick. The lion watched him, its rank musk strong enough to choke him. Loukas squinted against the sun, sweat in his eyes. The lion tensed and Loukas brace himself, but it feinted and shrank back, again driven forward by the dogs. Loukas didn't know the command to call off the dogs, and they wouldn't listen to him if he did. The lion tuned back to Loukas and Procopia; spittle streaked its jaws and sides.
Across the circle of the clearing, Princeps Cyrian stood, leaning on his spear as he watched. Loukas called to him, but Cyrian didn't seem to hear, his gaze fixed on the prone Procopia.
With a hiss its only warning, the lion charged them. Loukas aimed for the throat but missed, hitting the animal's shoulder instead. The impact jarred the spear from his hand. The lion twisted away, the spear dragging, embedded in its side. Finally the other hunters closed in, their own spears joining Loukas's -- piercing the lion's back, neck, stomach. It collapsed with a mewling whimper, and Loukas looked to Procopia. She'd gotten to her feet unharmed, her face pale and grim. Her long knife in hand, she passed Loukas without a glance. The lion lay, breathing shallowly, whining. Dirt that had churned to mud with gore stained its amber coat. Procopia knelt beside it, gripped it by the ruff and slit its throat.
The gathered hunting party burst into applause as she cleaned her knife on its coat and straightened. Loukas clapped as well, grateful to have something to do with his shaking hands. Only then did he remember Cyrian, but the princeps had moved to his sister, smiling and congratulating her on the kill.
Loukas retrieved Rayna as the lion was stripped of claws, teeth, and hide. Luckily she had not wandered far; he soothed her, rubbing her broad forehead.
“Arist Kommene,” Procopia said as he returned. “You spoke truly when you boasted of your aim.”
He pressed a hand to his heart. “All in your service, Princeps. It was a fine kill.”
She nodded once in acknowledgement. “It's a shame I lost my horse. I mislike turning back when there is such game to be had. Just one lion isn't worth the expedition, but I can hardly go on now.”
“Surely it is not the quantity, but the quality of the quarry. That was a fine, young male in his prime,” Cyrian said, rolling one of the extracted incisors between bloodied fingers.
Procopia sighed. “You make a point, brother. Still it seems a waste. Arist Kommene, could your horse carry two on the ride back?”
“Of course, it would be an honor, Princeps.”
Procopia needed no further invitation; she swung up onto the startled Rayna, leaving Loukas to scramble up after her. Rayna didn't like carrying two or Procopia's demanding hand on the rein, but she'd wearied enough on the ride out that she didn't protest. He wasn't much more comfortable than Rayna, riding behind the saddle stretched his legs, and the saddle blanket provided little padding. He worked to keep his balance, his backside bruised against Ray's bony hips, but he didn't want to take liberties by grabbing the princeps's waist.
Procopia solved his dilemma by taking his wrist and pulling his arm. He adjusted his grip, mindful where his hands ended up.
“Aren't you a clever thing,” Eugenia said when she'd called him to her chambers that evening, and he'd recited the day's events. “Saving Princeps Procopia's life? That's sure to make a lasting impression.”
Loukas toyed with an earring. “I don't know that I saved her life -- one of the other riders could have stepped in as easily.”
“Could have, maybe, but didn't.” Eugenia waved a hand to dismiss the other possibilities. “It was my own brave son. A very clever stratagem indeed.”
Loukas decided not to point out that he actually hadn't planned it.
“Don't fidget so.” Loukas dropped his hand to his side. “And she rode with you on the return?”
“Her own horse had been killed.”
“But she could have picked another member of the party. Princeps Cyrian was with you, was he not?” Loukas nodded. “Procopia might have ridden with her own brother, yet she chose you.” She arched a carefully plucked eyebrow. “That's telling.”
“I suppose.” The oil lamp on her desk sputtered as a breeze came in through the open window. The flame danced and nearly died before it steadied.
Eugenia gave him a deeply pitying look. “Really, Loukas, please try and look at the bigger picture. You must press this advantage; being a lover of the future empress can only help you.” Loukas jumped and his cheeks heated, but Eugenia continued, oblivious to his discomposure. “Besides, we haven't given a child of Kommene in marriage to the Royal House Amira in three generations. If you could help arrange a match for one of your younger brothers or sisters, it would be to the good.”
“Perhaps I should introduce Eleutherios to her sometime. She may take a liking to him.” Loukas held onto his wrist to keep from tugging on his jewelery.
Eugenia gave him a measuring look. “Indeed. Still, I'd rather not marry off the only other child of my blood just yet. Did you find an opportunity to speak of the grain tax?” Her fingers drummed against the dark mahogany of her desk.
Loukas had completely forgotten that had been his aim all along. “My apologies, Archon. In the excitement I'm afraid I may have....”
She sighed, cutting him off. “I can't particularly blame you, considering. I am well satisfied you established such a connection with the heir. Run along then.” She shooed him away. “And we'll see what good can come of this.”
Loukas slipped out of the house and crossed through the gardens to the wall that separated the Kommene estate from the Damatrys estate -- Alexia's House. It had been the proximity of their Houses, in location if not prominence, that had first brought them together as children. They no longer needed to use the old garden gate, half-hidden behind a cyprus tree, but they kept to it now out of habit. Normally, it suited them both for her to visit House Kommene, but he longed to escape his mother's reach, and Alexia would be desperate to hear about the hunt.
“Did you really kill a lion single-handedly?” she said, as he let himself into her study with a quick knock.
“Why do I bother coming over to tell you, if you already know?” He took a seat on a low divan, leaning back on an elbow. “I don't see that I should exert myself further -- I'm sure your sources give a better accounting of it that I do.”
Alexia rolled her eyes and set her hands on her hips, bangles jangling. “I'd almost believe that act if I didn't know you so well. You want to tell me as much as I want to hear.” She clapped her hands; slaves offered him silver cup and retreated.
“Everything you've heard is true. I did honor to House Kommene and showed bravery of the highest order, wrestling the dread beast to the ground and strangling it with my bare hands.” Loukas took a sip of the wine. “I'm a god among men.”
“Yes, that does sound like you,” Alexia agreed, swirling the wine in her own cup. “How was it really?”
“Procopia's horse fell, and I got in the way. I didn't even deal the killing blow -- she did.” He shrugged. “But if they want to call me a hero, who am I to argue?”
“Indeed,” Alexia said dryly. She sat next to him, setting her wine aside. “Loukas, tell me really, what is the princeps really like?” Her hair fell in her eyes, and she pushed it back impatiently; he caught the scent of attar of roses. He let his head loll as he considered her question.
“A good rider, though a reckless one.”
“Not what I meant.” Alexia poked him sharply between the ribs. “Quit being difficult.”
“Ow.” He rubbed the sore spot. “No need to resort to such tactics; I'm getting there. Procopia seemed ... all right.” He held up a hand to ward off further attack. “Really! I'm not being difficult. She was the very soul of courtesy. She's very....” he trailed off.
“Very? Very what?”
“But that's a good thing, isn't it?”
“The hills can be dangerous, but she showed no concern for life and limb in the pursuit of her prey. Where other would have turned back, she kept on, and it was all I could do to follow.”
“That's no bad thing in a future empress,” Alexia said. “I know the emperor had considered naming another of his children heir. Do you think Procopia is equal to the task of ruling?”
“A far as I am able to judge.” Loukas shrugged again.
Alexia retrieved her wine. “With Emperor Stavros's health failing, we may find out sooner rather than later.”
“Either way,” Loukas said, not particularly interested in speculation. People had been wagering on the old emperor's death for years, and who he'd name successor. Loukas half thought that Stavros would keep on living, just to spite them all.
“So what do you intend to do next?”
“I ... don't know?” Loukas considered. “Maybe practice more with the spear.”
“This is a great opportunity for you, Loukas,” Alexia said in exasperation. “Do you know what most of the court would do to have the future empress know their name?”
“You sound like my mother.” Loukas made a face. “I'm sure she'll forget my name soon enough.”
Alexia stood, making a quick circuit of the room while she gathered her thoughts. “Which is why you need to act. If you can establish favor now....”
“My mother is probably a half-dozen steps ahead of us both. She's sure to have some plot of other to advance the House. Better to leave the politics to her. House Kommene was powerful long before our generation -- I doubt I'll bring it down single-handedly.”
“Would that all of us could afford that attitude.” Alexia folded her arms.
“Don't be cross,” Loukas said. “I promise to strike upon some new intrigue, if it'll make you happy. And I promise to involve you.”
She pursed her lips. “You better mean it.”
Loukas was called to Eugenia's study a few days later and informed he was to call on Procopia.
“At the palace?” His stomach churned.
“Of course at the palace,” Eugenia replied. “Where else? Apparently she wants you to attend her at tea. Loukas, I don't need to remind you that this is the perfect opportunity.”
“You can press her about that damned grain tax.”
“Oh, yes. Right. I will.”
She pinched the bridge of her nose. “It's a matter of no small importance. I stand to lose a fortune, if the act passes.”
“I won't fail, Mother.” Loukas squared his shoulders. “I'm honored that you trust me with the matter. I won't disappoint.”
He returned to his room to change into a costume more fitting for a royal audience, dismissing the slaves even as they tried to apply perfume. He ran fingers through his hair; combs made the curls frizz so that he resembled nothing so much as a sheep in need of shearing.
“Don't you look lovely.”
Loukas turned from the polished bronze mirror; Eleutherios leaned against the doorframe, lip curled.
“My apologies, brother,” Loukas said. “But I don't have time for your petty jealousies.” He smoothed his hair one last time. “Some of us have more important things to attend to.”
“Ah, yes. You're the new favorite of the princeps.” Eleutherios sighed heavily. “Sad to say, though, how fickle she is. Favor won today is lost tomorrow.”
Loukas snorted dismissively. “Goodness, brother. So cynical. It's almost as if you've been to court, instead of just hearing about it second-hand.” His shoulder bumped Eleutherios's as he pushed past.
Eleutherios didn't follow him out into the courtyard, but Loukas could feel his gaze as he rode out the gates.
Loukas was led into the palace by an imperial eunuch, an officious little man who commented on the work he should be doing, as though Loukas imposed on him personally. Eunuchs could be so touchy. His mother's wives all had eunuch attendants, and Loukas had always found their silent presence unnerving.
The eunuch led him to a small room, holding the door open and waving Loukas in. A large hookah dominated the space, delicate tendrils of smoke winding through the air, heavy with the scent of tobacco and honey. Narrow mattresses bordered the low table on which it sat; over-sized pillows created inviting places on which to recline.
Procopia lay out stretched, one of the hookah's slender mouth pieces in hand. Her attendant lay out plates of sweets and large silver teapots. She didn't rise as Loukas entered, but held out her hands. Loukas went to one knee before her and took each hand in his own, kissing them.
“Princeps, may I say how delighted I was to receive your invitation?”
She smiled and brushed her fingertips along her collarbone; the neck of her silk tunic plunged precipitously, leaving the smooth skin between her breasts bare. “It's the least I could do for the man who saved my life.”
Loukas felt more self-conscious amongst the painted screens and tapestries of the palace than he had on the hunt.
“Sit,” she said, more order than invitation, and he settled gingerly on a pillow, his legs folded under him. Slaves proffered a basin and he washed quickly. He accepted the mouthpiece of carved rosewood. Bubbles shuddered through the water in the thick glass of the hookah's base as he drew a breath. The smoke burned his lungs, sweet and cloying. He held it a moment and released slowly. His head buzzed pleasantly, and he recognized opium's loosening effect. He resolved to limit his intake; he needed a clear head to get the information his mother sought. It occurred to him that the matter might be out of his hand -- the air was already thick with the drowsy smoke.
“Have you kept the lion's hide?” he asked.
Procopia blinked, the kohl made her eyes look huge. “I've kept the teeth, but the condition of the hide was too poor.”
“A pity.” Loukas remembered his spear skewering into the beast's shoulder. Hard to fix a hole like that.
“The coat color is too drab this time of year to be worth keeping anyhow.” She blew a smoke ring which hung in the air, drifting across the room before dissipating. Loukas watched it raptly.
Stiff curtains embroidered with waterlilies in blue and green kept the room dim and muffled. Loukas struggled to focus, his head resting heavily on his hand. The door opened, interrupting the quiet.
Procopia pressed a hand to her eyes. “Great Mother, Cyrian. Do shut the door.”
“Lazing about, I see. Typical.” He sat next to Loukas taking the pipe from him and clucking sadly. “And you've taken the liberty of raiding my finest stuff.” He took a long drag. “From the fields of Sydra, costs a fortune to import, but it's so much smoother than the stuff you find here. Something about Edessan soil grows a harsher plant.” This he said to Loukas, who nodded as though he had the faintest idea what made ideal tobacco-growing conditions. “You must take some with you.”
Loukas started to protest he couldn't possibly accept such a generous gift, but Cyrian shushed him, taking Loukas's hand in his own.
“Really, Loukas, you're a friend and that's what friends do.” Loukas acquiesced and Cyrian dropped his hand, to take another drag.
A slave brought a redwood box, two thick twists of the tobacco inside, the honey giving it a sticky appearance. Loukas appreciated its earthy scent for a moment and thanked Cyrian. This was no small gift and he wondered just what the princeps would expect in return.
“Is the poor soil why so much grain is imported from Redini?” Loukas asked, shutting the box carefully. This seemed as good an opening as he was likely to get.
Cyrian reclined back, shutting his eyes as the drug took effect.
“It's more a problem of quantity than quality,” Procopia said. “Who cares how the barley tastes, so long as there's enough of it. Of course there usually isn't -- enough, I mean; the tillable land before you hit the mountains or the desert doesn't produce enough to feed the entire city -- maybe fifty years ago, but not today.” She yawned hugely, hiding it behind a hand.
“Ah,” Loukas said. Cyrian handed him the pipe; Loukas breathed in only a little. “I wonder how the emperor will feed the people this winter, then.”
“The gods and goddesses of Edessa watch over their own,” Procopia replied, her pious tone vaguely mocking. Her eyes were closed as well, the pipe still in her fingers.
“Of course.” Loukas hesitated. “But perhaps some other measure might be necessary?”
Cyrian laughed, reaching for the pipe again. “Such civic-mindedness -- why the concern? Did you have something in mind, Loukas?”
“I don't know. Surely there will be some tax or other to provide for the people's supply?”
Cyrian opened his eyes and shifted to stare at Loukas, wearing a half-smile. “You don't have an investment you're looking to protect, by any chance?”
Loukas flushed brightly, realizing just how clumsy his maneuvering had been. He tried to answer, but stammered badly and Cyrian cut him off, laughing sharply.
“I can see that you have. What a little statesman you turn out to be.”
Loukas caught his breath. “My apologies, I did not mean to take advantage of your hospitality.”
“Take advantage?” Cyrian snorted. “Please do -- it makes me feel useful. I know if our positions were reversed, you'd do the same for me.”
“Yes, of course,” Loukas assured him, taking a quick gulp of tea. It had gone cold, but he drained the cup.
Cyrian smoothed a wrinkle in the pillow. “Unfortunately, I don't have any information with which to reassure you. But should I learn of anything....” He nodded graciously. “I'll be sure to pass it along.”
Procopia stirred. “For the Mother's sake, can't we speak of something more interesting? Or not speak at all -- all this talk of grain and taxes is giving me such a headache.”
Eugenia was in the gardens when he returned, two of her wives in attendance -- the younger girl, Khrista, was Loukas's age and just married the year before. The man, Ilias, had been one of her first wives and become her favorite after Loukas's father had died.
Loukas kissed his mother quickly in greeting.
“By the Mother, Loukas, you smell like an opium den,” she said, her nose wrinkling.
“I'm sorry, Mother,” he said and presented her with the box of tobacco. She opened it and inspected the contents. “What excellent quality.” She sniffed it delicately. “From Sydra?”
He nodded. “It was a gift from Princeps Cyrian. He imported it personally.”
She fit the lid on and set it aside, and he felt a flash of annoyance -- it had been intended for him, after all. “Well, I hope you didn't smoke too much of it. I don't mind you partaking occasionally, but temperance is a virtue and it doesn't do to have one's mind addled in front of royalty.”
“I kept a clear head,” he said, offended that she felt she had to remind him.
“As much as you are able, I'm sure. And how was the Princeps Procopia?”
“She and Cyrian were both well and in good humor. I asked after the tax, but Cyrian knew nothing of it.”
“I hope you didn't let him know your aim?” Procopia asked, her voice was measured and temperate but it made the hair on the back of Loukas's neck stand up.
“No, of course not.” That was true enough; he hadn't told Cyrian anything -- the princeps had merely guessed.
“Good,” Eugenia said. “Better that he remain oblivious. Princeps Cyrian has a long memory by all reports -- I'd hate to be in his debt.”
Loukas shifted his weight from foot to foot. Khrista looked at him from over her needle work. She jumped when she realized he'd noticed her regard and went back to her needle and thread.
“I didn't learn what you asked, Mother, and I apologize for my failure.” Better to stick with the known failing, than to draw her to failings yet undiscovered. He braced himself, but she seemed more amused than angered.
“I appreciate your confession and commend you honesty. Tell me, the princepses are still amiable towards you?”
“I believe so.”
“That is something at least.” Eugenia ran her fingers through Khrista's hair. “There is yet time for us to learn the emperor's intention. If you are invited again you must be careful. Subtlety is not your forte, I'm afraid.” She waved a hand to dismiss him and he left, relieved.
On to Chapter 3