Chapter 5

Aug. 3rd, 2009 07:41 am
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The jasmine had begun to bloom in the palace gardens, the white blossoms scenting the evening air. Lamps hung from the ridgepole of the great pavilion, casting a warm glow over the milling arists. Slaves made the rounds with silver platters and glasses of wine. Loukas was careful to stay close to his mother as she exchanged pleasantries with archons and their wives. She'd foregone her customary scarlet in favor of a more spring-like peach, her hair pinned up with mother-of-pearl combs. She'd chosen a dark blue-green tunic for Loukas, assuring him it brought out his gray eyes and darker skin, but he wondered if it wasn't just so his ensemble would complement hers.

He tried not to fuss with the heavy disk necklace as she whispered the juiciest bits of gossip about courtiers they passed.

“The man in the lurid maroon over there.” Her gaze flickered to the man and back. “Archon Hythmistos. And that's his young wife next to him. Diraton, his name is. Completely common, there are mules with better breeding. Apparently it's a great love match, and Archon Hythmistos is completely besotted with him. Spurning all his other wives -- men and women of excellent blood, mind you -- in favor of that up-start whore.” Eugenia shook her head in disgust. Archon Hythmistos and his wife stood off by themselves; the rest of the court seemed to share Eugenia's contempt.

“I heard he made a small fortune in trade,” Eleutherios said haughtily -- the humbleness the beating had bestowed hadn't lasted. Loukas had hoped that his mother would decide against taking Eleutherios along to the party, but she'd brought him anyway and the privileged had gone to his head.

“Trade. Of course.” Eugenia snorted. “And there's Archon Daedalis; she just made her eldest daughter elarchon. The women of Daedalis have always been remarkable, but the sons are usually married out.” She smiled and nodded as the archon passed, her wife in tow.

“And who is that?” Eleutherios asked waving with his goblet.

The man he indicate stood alone, though from his grave expression it was more disinclination to talk than unpopularity. Loukas couldn't place him from among the aristocracy of Edessa; the cut of his high-necked tunic was too severe to be fashionable, but the cloth of the very finest.

“Ah, that would be Archon Iereus,” Eugenia answered, her voice taking on a speculative tone. “An old bloodline, though a more obscure one. He's the ablest archon his House has seen in four generations. Ambitious, too. I wouldn't be surprised if House Iereus came into prominence under him.”

“Really?” Eleutherios's forehead wrinkled. “Doesn't he deal in horseflesh?”

“And become even wealthier. Don't be such a snob, El,” Eugenia chided. “Your blood's a little too good for him, but I'm hoping to marry one of your siblings to him. Kadia or Tomas, maybe.”

“They're both under twelve, Mother,” Loukas protested, balking at the thought of his siblings being married to some up-start horse-trader.

“It's never too early for a betrothal.” Eugenia looked at him pityingly. “You really must start thinking long-term, Loukas. Why don't we give our regards him? And, Eleutherios do put a sweet fact on -- just because you're too good for him doesn't mean I wouldn't like to get an offer.”

Loukas grinned and pinched Eleutherios's cheek. “Here, this'll put some color in your cheeks.” Eleutherios slapped Loukas's hand away, scowling. Eugenia crossed the room, her silk gown fluttering around her ankles, and held out her hands to Archon Iereus, who took them stiffly as they exchanged a kiss.

“Archon Kommene.” Iereus's voice was deeper than Loukas had expected.

“Archon Iereus, what a pleasure to see you at court, and what a rare pleasure it is.”

“My duties at my country estate keep me away too often, I'm afraid.” He didn't sound regretful.

Eugenia laughed lightly. “I should be more attentive to my own lands, but I hate to leave the city. The country tries my nerves. May I present two of my sons -- both of my own blood. Loukas and Eleutherios.”

“Two fine sons of Edessa. You must be very proud.”

Loukas met Iereus's gaze, pasting on a suitably pleasant expression. There was nothing in the man's expression to suggest it, but Loukas was sure that Iereus mocked him. He dropped his gaze to the floor, hair on the back of his neck standing up.

“You are too kind, Falkon -- may I call you that?”

“Of course,” Iereus said.

“Excellent, it's such a pity our Houses have not been closer. It's something we should remedy.”

“Indeed.” Iereus nodded a bland agreement.

“But if you'll excuse us, we need to go pay our respects to the emperor.”

Iereus waved them on with an ironic little wave.

“What a strange man,” Eugenia muttered as soon as they were out of earshot. “You can tell he's not used to the city, such provincial manners.”

Loukas's heart quickened as they approached the low dais where the emperor reclined. Loukas strove to look the part of a young arist, running a hand quickly over his hair, but even the weight of the rose oil wasn't enough to keep his curls in place. His mother sank gracefully to one knee, Loukas and Eleutherios following suit.

“Archon Kommene,” Emperor Stavros said, waving Eugenia to her feet with a hand twisted by arthritis.

“Emperor, I present my sons.”

Stavros beckoned them a step closer, setting aside a sugar-dusted pastry. One of his attendants -- a very pretty one, Loukas noted with interest -- handed him a damp cloth to wipe his fingers on.

“Emperor,” Eleutherios said. If Loukas hadn't been looking right at his mother he would have missed the tightening of her mouth. Neither of them were to speak, merely look appropriately attentive.

“Yes, yes, what is it?” he asked, studying Eleutherios with rheumy eyes.

“You are well-known for your patronage of the arts, and I have heard that you are also a poet. I know it presumptive, but I hoped that you might delight us with a few lines of your divine verse.”

Stavros blinked slowly. “Well, I suppose.” He paused, licking his lips. “It is, after all a special occasion.” He clapped twice, and a slave brought forth several leather bound volumes. Arists gathered around the dais, each murmuring in feigned delight; the emperor hadn't had one of his notorious poetry readings in seasons, but those who attended never forgot the marathons of elegy and epic.

Eugenia moved aside, pulling Loukas along with her. Eleutherios had already stationed himself close to the emperor's elbow, his expression rapturous; Loukas rolled his eyes. Eugenia's mouth was set in a severe line and Loukas knew that if this did not go well, there would be all manner of suffering in the halls of Kommene.

With a creak like old rigging, the emperor began to read. He favored epic and he kept using imperfect rhymes and flubbed meter that set Loukas's teeth on edge. Loukas did his best to look attentive, but his attention wandered back to the pretty attendant, whose silk gown was nearly transparent in the right light.

Loukas caught Cyrian' eye from across the room. The princeps nodded at his father and winced. Loukas smiled and gave a little shrug. At least it sounded as though Stavros's already creaky voice would soon give out. Somewhere along the third or forth page he stopped for a drink.

“Emperor,” Eleutherios again spoke up. “I long to hear more, but couldn't bear it if you made yourself hoarse to indulge me. If it pleases you, my brother is skilled at recitation.” The sound of his name tore Loukas's attention from the attendant's flimsy dress, and it took him a moment to catch up. “He could read for you.”Loukas felt his face go bloodless as he met Eleutherios's gaze over the emperor's head. Eleutherios smiled and nodded.

“I suppose, but only if you think he can do it justice,” Stavros agreed.

“I can promise that he will.”

Loukas found his voice, “Actually, I'm afraid that I can't.”

“Well, do try,” Stavros said, his brow creased. “Unless you don't care for my verse?”

“No that's not it at all, it's just--” He jumped and started forward as Eugenia pinched him sharply. Perspiration rose on his brow and palms.

“Do go on, Loukas, don't be shy,” Eugenia said and her tinny tone promised evil if he continued balking.

A slave pressed the book into his hands, ushering him up on to the dais.

The emperor and the whole of the Edessan court watched him expectantly. Even with the weight of the book his hands were shaking and he felt lightheaded. He stared without focusing into the audience, their faces and finery blending together. It had been years since he'd made a serious attempt to read, but he remembered the symbols and their sounds.

Taking a breath, he looked down at the page.

The letters wove and spun. He blinked and they rearranged themselves. The court held its breath. The silence stretched out, rapidly becoming uncomfortable. Someone coughed.

“In the ...” he started, his voice catching. “The. The ...” He wiped sweat from his brow, his fingers were leaving little damp marks on the page, smearing the ink.

“Go on, boy, read.” Stavros sounded irritated.

Loukas looked up from the hopelessly tangled letters. “I can't.”

A rustle went through the crowd as the emperor asked, “Hm? What's this? What do you mean?”

“I can't read,” Loukas explained, his voice quiet but the room quieter. He shut the book, handed it back to the slave and walked out. The arists parting before him, careful to pull their robes away lest he besmirch them. A peacock called somewhere out in the gardens. His footsteps remained even as he exited, until he left the palace steps.

Then he ran.

---

It was close to dawn when he returned home. He'd holed up in a dead-end alley and cried, adding to his shame. He considered throwing himself from the city's walls, even knowing the thought was more dramatic than suicidal.

His wasn't the life he really wanted to end.

He chose to slip in the back rather than risk risk meeting his mother or brother. Reaching his room without meeting anyone, he flung himself on his bed in a truly satisfying manner and let exhaustion overcome him.

Eugenia didn't call for him the next day, though he waited with a growing sense of dread. The longer she kept him waiting, the angrier she was. Loukas stayed in his room like an invalid, slaves bringing his meals.

After a first few days, the anxiety had worn fear down and he merely wished for it to be over, ready to welcome whatever came. The confinement drove him to distraction. He pressed the slaves into playing cards with him, but they made poor companions. They'd let him win a few hands and then beg to return to their duties.

Finally a break in the tedium came with Alexia slinking into his room.

“I had to bribe three slaves to get in here. There are traitors in the palace dungeons easier to get to than you.”

“What are they saying?” Loukas asked, after embracing her tightly.

She sighed and shrugged. “Well, the popular opinion is that you're a defective and that you mother has let affection blind her to your tragic condition.”

Loukas snorted derisively. “My mother doesn't feel affection; it's too much like weakness.”

“Personally, though,” she continued, “I prefer the rumor that you couldn't stand the emperor's wretched verse anymore, so you walked out.” Alexia thew herself into the chair at his desk, pulling the old reader over, a scrap of ribbon marking the place they'd stopped.

“I'm completely sunk, aren't I?” Loukas asked and bit his lip.

“I've seen people come back from worse.”

“Example?”

She looked up from a the page. “Well, no. But I'm sure they have. You've just got to keep your chin up; we'll all be laughing about this in a season's time.”

“I hope so,” Loukas said, feeling anything but hopeful.

---

Two days later the summon finally came. He kept Eugenia waiting only long enough to change into a clean tunic and pull a comb through his hair. Entering his mother's study, his fear returned full force.

She sat at her writing desk, scrolls and wax, quills and inkwell all arranged neatly. A dark blue sash belted the cream silk of her dress just under her breasts. She watched him enter, twirling a finger, she indicated he should turn so she could complete her inspection.

“Handsome enough, I suppose,” she said at last, toying with the strands of beads around her neck. “The hair is hopeless, but the face is sweet when you're not wearing such a sullen expression.” She didn't seem to expect an answer to this assessment, so he said nothing. “Too much nose, though.” she picked up a sheaf of paper from her desk and held it out to him. “Here.”

The Kommene seal headed the page, but the writing was extremely fine -- a scribe's efficient hand. It made him dizzy to look at it.

“Read it,” she ordered, and he looked helplessly from the paper to her. She caught his expression and grimaced. “You can't, can you?”

He didn't reply to that either, handing back the page. She looked over it as she said, “Medicus told me you'd been consistent in your studies. No scholar maybe, but acceptable. Why would he lie to me?”

“He didn't know either.” Gray threaded through the marble under his feet. “I memorized the readings before hand and feigned reading. It was enough to fool Medicus.”

“A clever enough scheme, but who helped you?” He gritted his teeth, unwilling to betray Alexia, but Eugenia flicked a hand dismissively. “No, never mind, I know perfectly well it was that ill-bred Damatrys girl. I do have to give you credit. It's not a charade many could carry for long.”

He risked glancing directly at her; she didn't look angry, but pitying. She held up the page.

“This is your marriage contract.” She said it with the gravitas of a judge announcing a death sentence. To Loukas, it was.

He got as far as “But I--“ before she cut him off.

“I've made my decision. I can't have an illiterate heir. It's a shame, really, you seem competent for the most part and you're my own blood. But I will not introduce weakness into House Kommene.”

He could barely hear her over his own thudding heart as he asked, “And who will my husband be?”

“Archon Falkon Iereus.” Loukas remembered the grim-faced archon from the party and his heart fell even further as Eugenia continued. “Really it works out rather neatly -- I'd already hoped to make an alliance, and he's thankfully seen your deficiency and asked for you anyway. Men don't expect much from their male wives, you know.”

“Archon Iereus,” Loukas repeated. “He's forty.”

“It's not as old as it sounds,” she replied wryly. “Don't fret, by all accounts he's still quite virile. And he does raise excellent horses, so that should make you happy. All things considered, things have worked out rather well.”

Loukas said nothing; if he opened his mouth now he feared he'd throw up.

“Run along now, I've your dowry to put together.”

---

“Married?!” Alexia burst out later when Loukas told her. “She's marrying you off?”

Loukas nodded, pinching the bridge of his nose. “To Archon Iereus.”

Alexia paused, her mouth still open as she considered. “Rich enough family. You could do worse.”

“Alexia.”

“Yes, right, I'm sorry.” She placed her hands on his shoulders. “But if you're going to be married off, better rich than poor, eh?”

“I can't believe you're taking this so lightly,” Loukas complained. “I don't care if he's the richest archon in Edessa.”

“Calm down, Loukas. It'll be all right,” Alexia said.

He was tempted to grab her by her scrawny neck and throttle her. “All right? I should be running this House, not living in another as a wife. Easy enough for you to tell me it will be all right -- you're elarchon of your House. You will never have to answer to another, be subject to their whims, their appetites.”

Alexia stepped back, crossing her arms. “Fine, Loukas. I'm sorry. Clearly no one has ever known suffering such as yours. I'll leave you to your misery.”

She left before he could get out another word, the door shutting loudly behind her.

---

Time seemed suddenly to fly as the day of his nuptials approached. The wedding preparations didn't require him, except for the fitting of the bridal costume -- an elaborate affair that involved standing on a wobbly stool for long horai while getting stung by the seamstresses pins.

Dressing for the wedding took nearly as long as the ceremony itself. He was stripped and bathed in rosewater with a thoroughness he would have objected to if he hadn't been so distracted. Slaves brushed his hair, clipped his nails, shaved the sparse hair from his chin. They anointed him with oil until he felt saturated.

Then came the clothes: fine linen loincloth, a long under-tunic of white silk. He shivered as the material whispered across his skin, catching on the rough calluses on his hands. The heavier over-tunic was a scarlet brocade, the Kommene bear stitched in gold thread and seed pearls sewn in on the cuff and neck. A wide belt studded with gold clasp held it closed. And then finally the great over robe, so embellished in gems and embroidery it could stand by itself. This was left ungirded for which Loukas was thankful -- he felt entombed as it was. His stomach tightened anew as the slaves applied the final touch, lining his eyes with kohl.

If he threw himself in the river, he would sink like a stone.

---

The procession to the church included his mother and all her wives, children and a few attendant slaves. He rode in a litter at the end of the party. The side-to-side shifting of the slaves' gait left him nauseated, a condition exacerbated by the heat. Still, he was glad to draw the curtains despite the stuffiness, shielding himself from the view of those who'd come to watch. He tried to ignore the whistles and loud speculation about his charms and Archon Iereus's prowess. The noise was suppose to frighten off evil spirits who might plague the union, but Loukas did not find himself reassured.

The Church of the Great Mother was the oldest building in the city, though rebuilt twice, and its edifice imposing. He was escorted up the marble steps by his four eldest unmarried siblings. Eleutherios gave Loukas a tight-lipped smile as he took his place in front. Loukas's hands curled to fists, but he kept one foot in front of the other, the weight of his robes reducing him to an awkward shuffle.

His eyes struggled to adjust to the dim interior of the church, the incense-choked air blessedly cool. His foot falls echoed against the vaulted ceilings three stories above. In the alcoves on either wall, statues of saints stood, their hands raised in blessing or clutching the instruments of their martyrdom.

It seemed the whole of the Edessan court had turned out for his nuptials, the satin and silks a deafening rustle as they turned in unison to view the bride. Loukas lifted his chin and squared his shoulders, determined not to let his fear show. He kept his pace slow and unfaltering to join Archon Iereus before the priestess.

All he had to do during the actual ceremony was stand until his feet hurt, kneel until his knees did the same, and reply in the affirmative whenever asked a direct question. He studied his husband out of the corner of his eye, looking for anything that might reveal the personality of the man he's just sworn to obey.

Iereus wore his hair unfashionably short, and Loukas guessed the kohl and jewelry were for the occasion and not his usual habit. His face was ordinary enough, strong jaw, high forehead and a rather sober expression, but maybe his knees were paining him as well. He caught Loukas studying him, and Loukas started guiltily, reading neither kindness nor cruelty in Iereus's gaze. Unsettled, Loukas turned his attention back to the priestess and kept it there for rest of the service.

With one final blessing, the priestess's bony hands resting on their foreheads, the ceremony ended. Archon Iereus exited first and Loukas followed a few steps behind, his family and the rest of the congregation fell in behind. Outside the church, his family split off, returning to House Kommene while Loukas followed his husband to his new home. When he didn't look back, it wasn't because of tradition.

---

It took longer to reach Iereus's villa; he lived in a less fashionable district. Stepping past the heavy oak and iron gate, Loukas got his first glimpse of his new home. Artfully pruned trees shaded the walk to the marble portico which ran around the villa.

A slave led him through the winding halls to his room. It was elegant enough, he supposed, shedding the stiff over coat. He stepped out onto the small balcony. Nothing broke the stillness out in the yard; the entire House napped in the afternoon heat.

The slave offered to help him undress, but he declined, preferring to be alone. He stripped to loincloth, thankful to be free of his wedding attire, and collapsed onto the bed. A soft knock came as he hovered on the edge of sleep and he ignored it, assuming it to be yet another slave sent to bother him

“So you're the young arist from Kommene.” He rolled over so fast he nearly fell out of bed, scrambling to his feet. A woman stood, hands on her wide hips, obviously one of Iereus's wives from her fine veil. She cocked her head to the side, studying him with an amused expression, and he realized he was next to naked.

He grabbed his tunic and pulled it on, nearly getting it backward.

“I hope you haven't forgotten all your manners in this heat,” she prompted.

“No, Arist,” he managed, blushing brightly.

“Metrodora Bruson Iereus. You may call me Metrodora,” she sighed.

“Uh. Loukas Kommenon Iereus,” he said stumbling over the suffix that marked the House he'd been married out of; he wondered if he would ever be comfortable answering to the name Iereus.

“So I gathered,” she said dryly.

He gathered the rest of his wits and remembered to kiss her twice. She smiled pityingly as he withdrew.

“How old are you, lamb?”

“I'll be seventeen this season,” he replied, keeping his tone formal. Lamb, indeed.

“Hm, not nearly so young as I had supposed, then. And two years older than I when I married.” She sighed wistfully. “I think the world is getting younger, when it is just I who is getting older. I came to inquire if there's anything you need. Most of your things have arrived, but there's no point in unpacking them now -- we'll leave for the country in a couple of days.”

“So soon?” Everyone who could left the city during the hot, plague-ridden summer season, but Loukas hadn't expected it to be quite so early.

She nodded and her expression softened. “Don't worry, my honey. The journey isn't bad and you'll settle in quickly.” He half thought she would offer him a sweet like a nurse might to keep a child from crying. “I can send a slave to collect anything you need before then.”

“I'm fine, thank you for your pains.”

“The other wives have already departed, so you'll meet them when we arrive. You finish your nap now and I'll send up a slave in a bit to help you dress for the feast.”

Loukas gritted his teeth. “Thank you.”

And after the feast, his wedding night. If Metrodora had any opinion about their husband taking him to bed, it didn't sow on her face. She left with one last reassuring smile, closing the door behind her. Loukas returned to bed, but this time sleep didn't come and he studied the ceiling until the slave came to wake him.

On to chapter 6
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Date: 2009-10-26 05:08 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
*cries*
*sobs*
it was so pityfulllllll for Loukas.
how can it be like this?.

Ayune01

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