Chapter 3

Jul. 20th, 2009 07:27 am
aemilia: (Default)
[personal profile] aemilia
Eugenia stood at the window as Loukas entered her study, but she didn't turn. Her hair was carefully piled atop her head, several locks left to hang artfully over her shoulders.

“Mother?” He waited until she gestured for him to kiss her, he did so and asked, “What do you require?”

She smiled warmly and reached out to wrap a strand of his hair around her finger. “Such curls. It takes me a hairdresser, a heated iron and at least an hora and a half to achieve the same effect.” He held still, but she let her fingers drop, picking up a folded parchment resting on the window sill. “Here.”

She handed it to him; he immediately recognized the purple wax and broken seal. The Royal House Amira. He took it uncertainly.

“Well, go on,” she prompted. “Read it.”

He cleared his throat. “What is it?”

She turned back to the window, leaning against the sill. “See for yourself.”

He was glad her back was turned. He wiped his palms on his tunic and unfolded the paper; it rattled a little under his fingers. He tried to focus on the tight script, the dark ink blurring as he stared at it, his eyes prickling.

“I don't know how you fooled them.”

“What?” Loukas's voice caught.

“You've somehow tricked the princeps into thinking you're charming.” Eugenia softened the words with a smile. “Why else would she call for you again?”

“Oh. I don't know.”

“It's obviously not the clever conversation,” Eugenia said wryly. “Still, you can be entertaining when the mood suits you, I suppose. All right, then, run along -- you don't want to be late.”

Still holding the invitation tightly, Loukas made for the quickly as he could with out running.

---

He sent a slave for Alexia and paced the length of his room until she arrived, breathing heavily.

“What is it?” she demanded, her eyes wide.

He didn't reply, handing her the invitation instead. She read over it quickly, and her expression changed from anxious to annoyed.

“Well? What does it say?” he asked.

She read aloud, “'Princeps Procopia Amira requests the company of Arist Loukas Kommene on this, the fourth day before the Trian of Hylous, within the fifth hora. She seeks his aid in the selection of a chariot team. May the Mother guard and keep his House.'”

“Is that it?” he asked, getting his first full breath since Eugenia had called him.

“Yes, that's it -- it's only an invitation to the palace. I understand how they might be growing commonplace and pedestrian to you.”

“You're not jealous, are you?” he asked with a sweet smile.

“Of course I'm jealous.” She stuck out her tongue. “It's so unfair -- I'm far more entertaining, more attractive ... more everything, really.”

“But can you pick a winning chariot team?”

She pursed her lips and shook her head. “I concede your point.”

“Very gracious of you. Maybe you'd like to accompany me?”

Alexia bit her lower lip. “Really?'

“I do owe you a favor. Though I'm afraid that you will in every way outshine me, I would like to repay the debt.”

“I don't know.” She turned a bracelet around her wrist. “Do you think that it would be all right? I haven't got an invitation.”

“She's buying horses, not hosting a dinner party,” Loukas said reasonably. “I'm sure she won't mind. She'll love you.”

Alexia smiled. “It's very likely. And besides, there might be more reading involved and you'd need me.”

Alexia waited impatiently for him to change. Loukas allowed a slave to pick a saffron under-tunic and a dark blue over-tunic with embroidery at the hems.

“Do you think I should change as well?” Alexia asked, casting a critical eye over his ensemble.

“There's no time, you'll have to go as you are ...” Her forehead furrowed, and she frowned. “... Which is absolutely lovely, of course.”

“That means so much, Loukas, my thanks.” She tugged at the drape of her neckline, pulling it lower to afford a better view.

---

The palace stood high on the north-western cliffs of the peninsula, the neighborhoods growing poorer as the city sloped into the southern harbors. The old saying went that a House's physical elevation reflected its social one.

The sun heated the crown of Loukas's head, but the breeze was still sharp, and it pulled at the bright veils of the wives out shopping, threatening to drive them off course like ships in a storm.

A fine sheen of sweat rose on Loukas's brow as they made the uphill climb, and hair stuck to the back of his neck. Alexia's cheeks had pinked, as much from excitement as exertion -- very few of her House ever visited the palace.

They skirted the fountains in the fountains in the Rhodos Imperatos, tradespeople and slaves giving way before them. The thoroughfare led straight to the domed-spires of the palace, ending at the hundred stairs up to its mighty gates.

An imperial eunuch hurried forward -- the same one who'd shown Loukas in to tea -- his shaved head glinting with oil.

“Arist Kommene.” He hesitated, looking to Alexia.

“Elarchon Damatrys is here at my request,” Loukas said, the title indicting Alexia's status as her House's heir still strange; her father had only declared her his heir three months before, and Loukas was not yet accustomed to her new title. He hoped that it was only a matter of time before Eugenia formally declared him elarchon of Kommene and made his position official. Alexia drew herself up under the eunuch's scrutiny, looking down her nose at him though he was half a head taller.

“Of course,” the eunuch smiled thinly. “Welcome, Elarchon. If you will be so kind as to follow me...?” He turned and set a brisk pace, expecting to be obeyed.

“Can you believe him?” Alexia muttered. “Eunuchs. They puff themselves up with their own exaggerated importance. They should be reminded they're still slaves, for all their privilege.” She spoke softly, but not softly enough that the eunuch couldn't overhear. “Wretched little half-man. Ugh.”

The eunuch gave no indication he'd heard, leading them through the gardens as gravel crunched underfoot. The Kommene stables were impressive, but the royal stables put them to shame, housing at least a hundred horses under its red tile roof.

Procopia was out in the exercise paddock, her retinue leaning against the railings and sipping from fluted glasses, trying to keep the sun from their eyes.

Horse traders had each brought their best teams, young slaves doggedly hanging onto the leads of their fractious charges. Loukas spotted Procopia immediately, though she was simply dressed, her hair bound back. She looked over a team of buckskins, their coats so light they were almost cream, darkening to brown along their spines and legs.

She shouted Loukas's name when she saw him and climbed over the fence, her tunic riding up her thighs. She grasped his hands and presented a cheek for kissing.

“Loukas! These swindlers have been showing me all manner of nags. I'm so glad you came; I'm in desperate need of your counsel.”

“I am at your beck and call,” Loukas replied. Alexia still stood behind him, her head bowed as she waited for an introduction. He put a hand to her elbow. “My I present the Elarchon Damatrys?”

Procopia's expression tightened, her smile fading. “Damatrys?”

“Ah, yes, Princeps.” Alexia shifted, probably wondering whether to genuflect.

“I wasn't speaking to you,” Procopia said. “Do not address my royal person unless I speak to you first. Especially since you come from House Damatrys. Really, Loukas, do all your friends have such dreadful manners?”

Despite the heat, Loukas went cold, his throat suddenly as dry and scratchy as wool. “I didn't -- she....”

“Oh Loukas.” Procopia patted his cheek sadly. “So easily taken in by social climbers. You're far too sweet for your own good.”

“She's an old friend....“ he protested weakly, acutely aware of the merchants and grooms, all gathering to watch.

Procopia tsked. “Never mind. Come and look at the horses with me.”

They left Alexia behind, her face blank, the eunuch showing her out with a polite and brittle smile.

Beautifully matched teams with long legs and delicate feet were led around the paddock -- all fine animals despite Procopia's estimation. A team of black horses particularly caught Loukas's attention.

“Not a white hair on any of them,” he said. “If you didn't see them together, you'd think they were the same horse. I wonder how well their paces match.”

“Let's see.” Procopia ordered for the team to be hitched up to the light racing chariot. Camp chairs and a small pavilion were set up outside the paddock, and slaves waited with refreshments. Procopia collapsed into a chair, gesturing for Loukas to take the seat next to her, though it meant a woman with too many rings and a sullen expression had to move.

“Do you have a charioteer already?” Loukas asked, taking a frosted glass, lemon rind curling over the rim.

“Oh yes. I found a beautiful Djaan girl, brought in straight from the desert; hardly speaks a word of Edessan. The Djanni are practically born in the saddle. I believe it to watch her ride, though she's quite temperamental; she keeps trying to run away. It's such a bother -- three times in the past season alone.”

Loukas nodded sympathetically, but his attention was on the team. Each horse was carefully backed into the harness by its handler, who coaxed the nervous animals. Loukas had worked with Eugenia's team and knew the skill it took to keep the high-strung beasts in line.

With the horses hitched, the merchant stepped into the chariot and took the reins, clucking to the team. The horses pulled the chariot easily, the pace easy and smooth as the merchant moved them into a trot and then a canter, circling the paddock.

“They move well,” Loukas said.

“They do, indeed.” Procopia stood and ran to the fence, and the merchant brought the team to a halt. The horses pawed and tossed their heads, resenting being brought in so soon. Procopia took the merchant's place in the narrow chariot, setting the horses to an immediate run. Loukas stood on the first slat of the fence to watch. The horses moved together, and it was impossible to tell which legs belonged to which horse. The team rounded the far corner, and Loukas saw two wheels clear the ground by a hand's breadth.

“Here, try them, Loukas!” Procopia shouted as she brought them round again. Lather had begun to form on the horses' flanks. “They don't run -- they fly!”

The invitation was too tempting to refuse. He scrambled up onto the chariot, testing the balance. The horses responded immediately to the lightest pressure on the reins, obeying his commands almost before he'd given them. He admired the flex of muscle under glossy coats. He clucked to them, and they started into a trot. He bought them up to a canter for half a field, but took them back down quickly after, unwilling to tire them. He handed the reins to one of the grooms and stepped down with regret. They were better than Eugenia's team, and he knew no matter how he trained House Kommene would be hard pressed to win in the Ardalia races that autumn.

“So what say you?” Procopia asked, though his thoughts must have been written on his face.

“They're rather good,” he allowed, and he couldn't keep from grinning.

“Mmm, yes.” To the merchant, a lean pox-scarred man, she said, “'Ill have them and the saddle horse, too.”

“Excellent, princeps.” He pressed his palm to his heart.

She left him to haggle with an attendant, so as not to sully herself with commerce.

---

He did not see Alexia as he departed, but that didn't surprise him. She'd probably run off to sulk, he thought guiltily. He considered going to see her but quickly dismissed the idea. She'd hear nothing he might say; better to wait her out.

---

Eleutherios was lurking about the atrium as Loukas returned, and his expression turned scornful as he caught sight of Loukas. He had a book in hand and a finger pressed to the page, but Loukas would have bet gold and silver that Eleutherios had been waiting for his return rather than studying.

“Good afternoon, brother,” Loukas said cheerfully. “Edifying yourself?”

“Some people do,” Eleutherios replied. He toyed with the a strand of his unbound hair, looking bored.

“That's an excellent quality in a wife. You should always be working to improve yourself, and, in your case, I'm afraid theres a great deal of room for it. Still, with that face and figure, I'm sure you won't have too much difficulty attracting a husband.”

Eleutherios flinched and Loukas knew the jibe had struck home. At fifteen, Eleutherios was quickly approaching marriageable age, and they both knew Eugenia kept a list of suitable archons -- most of whom were three times Eleutherios's age.

Eleutherios stood slowly, the book tucked under his arm. “Going to regale me with tales of you exploits with the princeps?”

“Wouldn't dream of it -- you've clearly no interest.” Loukas moved to pass Eleutherios, but Eleutherios blocked his way.

“There's a particularly interesting passage,” Eleutherios said, patting the book's leather cover. “A general in the last war with Redini. She had the favorable ground, but her forces were inexperienced. Still, she was confident in an easy victory.” Eleutherios gave a little shrug. “Too confident, of course. She wagered everything in the battle and lost. Her forces decimated, soldiers running from the field in a complete rout, dropping their weapons as they fled. It's one of the greatest embarrassments in Edessa's history.” Eleutherios paused, still refusing to move. “She killed herself, unable to bear the shame.”

“Yes, cheery little story, brother. Sounds like just your thing,” Loukas said in irritation. “Must you always be so macabre?”

“Actually, I was thinking that it reminded me more of you, for some reason -- isn't that funny?” Eleutherios raised an eyebrow and pushed the book into Loukas's hands. “You should read it.”

“I don't think I will.”

Eleutherios smiled slightly. “Of course not.”

---

Loukas would have preferred to give Alexia longer to cool down, but he needed her for his next lesson. He braced himself and went to see her; actually arriving through the front gate rather than slipping in through their back way. The porter showed him in to the formal drawing room. The gilding was wearing off the furniture, and the cheap dye of the drapes, once a vivid green, had faded to almost yellow.

He waited, studying a tapestry of the Damatrys family line until Alexia finally made an entrance, her back straight. “Arist Kommene.”

“You're angry with me, I take it,” he said wryly, and sat before she could invite him to do so.

She brushed her hair back from her face; it fell back into place immediately. “Of course not. I've no reason to be displeased with you. I'm merely showing appropriate manners for people of our two disparate stations. I wouldn't want you to think me over-familiar.” She kept her gaze on the floor, the muscle of her jaw tightening as she gritted her teeth.

“Oh come off it, Alexia.” He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. “I had no idea that Procopia would react like that -- I never would have put you in that situation if I had. You can't really think so ill of me.”

“I believe you,” she said, but there was still a coldness in her voice, and Loukas wondered if she still suspected he'd set her up.

“I would never do anything to betray your friendship, Alexia. You're my oldest and dearest friend. More a sibling to me than any of my own blood.” He repressed irritation that she might doubt him, a friendship over a decade in length might inspire a little faith.

Her posture relaxed. “And really the fault is my own. You are horrible at judging such matters, but I should have known better.” She smiled a little. “I suppose I got carried away.”

“You're making more of it that it really is. Such slights happen and are forgotten the next day.”

“She crossed the room and bent over to kiss him lightly. “Of course they are. I'm sure in time, the princeps will reassess her prejudices.”

He returned her smile, relieved her mood was passing. “Of course.”

“It may be forgotten. But not by me.”

---

But he returned to find Alexia's misfortune had proven rich gossip, and Eugenia had already heard the story. She'd left word he was to see her as soon as he returned.

She sat completely still as he entered her study, and that sent a thrill of fear through him -- his mother did not like idleness and part of her was in constant motion; her fingers fidgeting with her hair or her foot shaking.

He stopped just inside the door, hearing it click as a slave closed it behind him. “Archon.”

“Is it true that you brought that ill-bred girl from Damatrys to the palace to meet the daughter of the empress and the presumed heir to the throne?” Eugenia asked, her voice so low he had to lean forward to hear her.

Denial was useless and excuses were worse than useless. “Yes, Archon.”

“And after the princeps had dismissed her -- as well she should -- you went to visit her? That you were just now furthering your association?”

“Yes, Archon,” Loukas said miserably.

She stood, pushing herself back from her desk and circling him slowly as though looking for physical sign of his stupidity. She stopped in front of him. A small woman, she had to tilt back to stare him in the face. He looked past her at the wall, but even so, he saw the blow coming. She struck him across the face, hard enough to make him rock back on his heels, his eyes watering. Rubbing her palm, she studied him for a moment and then struck him again -- back handed this time. Her rings left welts on his cheek.

“I do not suffer fools, Loukas. And that is all you've proven yourself to be. Weak and foolish.” She touched his scratched cheek and her fingers came away bloody. “You must give up those friends which are a pernicious influence and seek only the company of those worthy.”

“Yes, Mother.”

“You've done so well with the princeps these past weeks. I'd hate to see you risk it all on that Damatrys bitch.”

“No, Mother.”

“Good,” she said satisfied. “Now, kiss me.”


On to Chapter 4
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(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-26 12:25 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
such blantant hatred toward the Damatrys. A little bit sad i think in order for Loukas to stay in his mother favourite, he must be very careful in his relationship to Alexia.

Ayune01
being anonymous irked me, but being lazy to register under dreamwidth)

(no subject)

Date: 2010-02-11 06:40 pm (UTC)
tmelange: (Default)
From: [personal profile] tmelange
Yeesh! Such a miserable class hag! LOL Excellent continuation. I'm on pins and needles wondering which show is going to drop. It's all so subtly tense...

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