Chapter 1

Jul. 6th, 2009 04:48 pm
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Loukas caught his breath, willing his racing heart to slow. It was too late to back out without dishonor and -- far worse -- a considerable amount of ridicule. He put one bare foot in front of the other, his steps carrying him to glory or doom or both. Kardax hadn't seen him yet, too busy stuffing his ugly face to take notice of anything else. Loukas still had the bruises from their last encounter. His adversary seemed even bigger now, broad through the chest and well-muscled. But Loukas was quicker, he reminded himself, and smarter, too. And a bet was a bet.


Clearing his throat, Loukas called out, “Hey! You great stupid horse!”

Kardax's head swung around and he lay his ears back in irritation. The stallion had been a gift on Eleutherios's fifteenth birthday, and he was the only one who could ride the hulking beast. Loukas speculated this was due to a similarity in temperament.

The horse tossed his head, fixing an eye on Loukas as he approached the stall. The grooms drew lots to decide which of their unlucky number would be responsible for grooming and tacking Kardax; it hadn't been difficult to convince the loser of today's lottery to allow Loukas to tend the stallion instead.

He held the halter behind his back with one hand and brandished an apple before him with the other. Kardax snorted, but whether he smelled the apple or a rat, Loukas didn't know. Loukas slipped the latch on the stall and eased the door open. Inching his way inside, he kept his gaze on the stallion's yellow teeth. Kardax laid his ears back against his neck in a warning, and Loukas froze, but the horse finally relaxed, nostrils twitching as he reached for the apple.

“That's right, you underbred nag,” Loukas murmured, keeping his voice low and soothing. “You want the apple. Not my fingers. The apple.”

Loukas's toes dug into the fine sand lining Kardax's stall, and he kept them well away from the plate-sized hooves. Kardax's nimble lips closed on the fruit as Loukas slid the halter over his head. He fastened the buckle before the horse had finished crunching, juice dripping from its whiskered chin.
Kardax allowed himself to be led out to the tacking post, stamping his feet impatiently and flicking his tail so the coarse hair stung the backs of Loukas's legs. Loukas paused as he settled the blanket onto Kardax's withers. No one was watching save for Rayna, his own little mare, but she would keep his secret. He reached into the neck of his tunic and pulled out a folded cloth. Pulling back the corner revealed a nasty bit of bramble he'd collected from the garden that morning. Its spines caught at his fingers as he slipped it under the blanket. Kardax twitched and got in a good thwack with his tail, but didn't protest further. Loukas finished tacking up quickly, his fingers sweat-slicked. The bells of the Church of the Great Mother rang out in the still of the afternoon, and Loukas jumped guiltily. A groom came to collect Kardax jut as Loukas was easing the girth tighter.

“Here,” Loukas said, handing over the reins.

“My thanks, Arist.” The boy was young and sincere; he'd been the one left holding the short straw. “Your brother is eager to be off.”

“Can't wait to show off his ill-tempered horse to his ill-tempered friends, I suppose.”

The groom nodded and clucked to Kardax, leading the great stallion out into the courtyard. As soon as the groom was out of sight, Loukas turned and sprinted out the back, startling the horses. Picking up speed, he skirted the back of the villa, heading for the old feed barn. He dodged inside and climbed the ladder, taking care not to upset it. Scrambling over the mountains of hay, Loukas started a small avalanche, the sweet scent of it tickling his nose.

Alexia already waited at the narrow window, observing the courtyard below. She'd made the same climb, but no hay clung to her hair, and her tunic was as neat as ever. Loukas, however, would be pulling hay from unexpected places for the rest of the day.

“Success?” she asked as Loukas sank breathlessly beside her. He nodded. “Oh, excellent. The cast of players has already assembled.” She waved a hand to indicate the scene below.

Eleutherios stood out, a cardinal among wrens in Kommene scarlet. His long hair hung past his shoulders, one of his many concessions to vanity. Cronies flocked around him; Eleutherios said something and they burst into laughter. Loukas rolled his eyes.

Eugenia Kommene, Archon of House Kommene, had carried both of them and afterward declared herself done with childbirth. Eleutherios was Loukas's younger brother and only full sibling; their pure Kommene blood apparent in their grey eyes and overly prominent noses. Loukas's half-siblings had all been carried by Eugenia's wives, sired by her favorite brother so they could claim true blood when it came time to marry them off.

Alexia handed him an apple -- one that had been picked to appease Kardax -- and took a bite of another. “I do hope this works. After all the anticipation, I'd hate to be disappointed.”

“It'll work. The only thing more predictable than that horse is my brother.” Below them Eleutherios gestured to make a point. He was out of earshot, but judging from the bored expression of his friends, he was recounting Kardax's bloodlines. Loukas had heard the speech a few times himself.

Kardax came into view, leading more than being led by the groom. Both Alexia and Loukas sat a little straighter as the main player crossed the packed earth of the courtyard. Out of range of teeth and hooves, Loukas could admit that he was a beautiful animal. The sun caught in his glossy coat, the same dark amber of alfalfa honey. He arched his neck, preening before his audience. Eleutherios patted his neck, but didn't mount, instead pointing out the horse's well-shaped head, his perfect conformation and musculature.

“For the Mother's sake, get on with it,” Alexia urged under her breath. For once the goddess listened, and Eleutherios took the reins in one hand and swung up, coming down into the saddle hard.

Kardax erupted.

Eleutherios was a skilled horseman, but he was caught by surprise as the big horse bucked beneath him, dumping him off the back. With his rider dislodged and still furious, Kardax took off, scattering Eleutherios's friends before him. He hurtled through the gates and disappeared onto the cobblestone street. Eleutherios pushed himself to his feet, the dust on the seat of his tunic indicating where he'd landed. He took two woozy steps and sat back down, his friends too stunned to offer aid.

Loukas worked to stifle his laughter, but Alexia showed no such restraint, laughing so hard that tears leaked from the corners of her eyes.

“Hush!” Loukas said, struggle to compose himself. “Even the dead can hear you.”

“Perfect! It was absolutely perfect,” Alexia said when she could spare the breath. “Did you see his face? Did you see how far up in the air he flew?” They took turns trying to replicate Eleutherios's expression of surprise and dismay, but it started them laughing again.

Finally they settled, Loukas slumping back into the hay, his ribs aching and feeling well-pleased with himself.

“You do know that he's going to discover the author of his misfortune,” Alexia observed, propping herself up on an elbow and idly chewing on a piece of hay.

“That's rather the point though, isn't it? It's not revenge if the victim doesn't know from whence it comes.”

Alexia grunted noncommittally. “I just wonder where it will end.”

Loukas shrugged. “So he'll slip a snake in my bed or chili pepper in my drink.”

Alexia looked as though she might pursue the topic, but then said instead, “Are you ready for your lesson?”

Loukas groaned; he would have rather kept speculating about the form of Eleutherios's retribution -- anything to spare him from lessons.

“Yes, of course I'm prepared. When have I ever not been prepared?” He smiled hopefully, but Alexia didn't look impressed.

Instead, she withdrew a small leather-bound book from her tunic. “Your enthusiasm borders on divine inspiration, but perhaps you'll review just once more for my sake.” She held the book out, and Loukas took it gingerly.

He flipped to the marked page, trying not to focus on the letters which seemed to wander across it. From the time he first learned the alphabet, letters had been the enemy. While his siblings quickly learned to decipher the strings of symbols, they remained alien and strange to him. He'd tried to explain, but his tutor had called him lazy and beaten him with a reed switch. When pain failed to correct his difficulties, they'd told his mother that he was mentally defective.

“And don't forget to turn the pages this time,” Alexia reminded him. “And don't just fix your eyes on one spot, let them work down the page.”

He'd been ten when Alexia had saved him from being relegated to a slave in his own House. She'd coached him, helping him to memorize the dreaded passages his tutor favored, taking dictation when writing was required. He insisted the words be his own, though she was still prone to 'improving' whether he liked it or not.

“No one is paying attention to where my eyes are on the page,” Loukas complained. “Medicus is half-blind anyway. I could recite The Dirty Maid of Amanthade and he wouldn't notice as long as I sounded sufficiently bored.”

“Loukas,” Alexia said chidingly; she always took his lessons more seriously than he did.

“Yes, yes, all right. 'Back before humans had come into ascendancy, the gods and goddesses lived upon the earth, cultivating its fertile valleys and creating all the animals upon its surface.'” The story came easily to him, the familiar tale of how the Mother had left the city of Edessa in the care of her favorite children, selecting a few women and men to be archons and husbands, heading each House. Only the strongest and smartest child in a House could inherit. Those not fit to head a House were married out into other Houses.

“'And so it continues to this day,'” he finished, looking to Alexia, who nodded approvingly.

“Not bad. But you were a little cross-eyed there at the end.” Loukas opened his mouth to protest that anyone would go cross-eyed if the words kept wandering across the page like ants on an anthill, but Alexia didn't give him a chance. “Now you should probably get to your actual lesson, wouldn't want to keep your tutor waiting.”

“I don't really think it matters, Medicus is always late waking from his afternoon nap.”

But Alexia was already headed back over the hay, navigating the uncertain footing more grace than Loukas could ever hope to manage.

---

Loukas was right about not needing to hurry; Medicus arrived even later than usual, smelling strongly of garlic and sweet brandy. He eased himself on to the couch, folding his hands over his protruding stomach. Loukas took his customary place on a large pillow near Medicus's feet, arranging himself so he had a clear view of the door onto the balcony. As soon as Medicus drifted off, he would be free to stare out at the blue sky over the tile and stucco of Edessa. Beyond the thin demarcation of the city walls lay the sea to the south and the hills to the west. Either looked especially good now.

“Have you studied your lessons?” Medicus asked, his voice as creaky as his joints.

“Yes, Arist.” A great-uncle who'd never been married, Medicus was still afforded the honor of being called an arist. He'd taught three generations of Kommene children and Loukas wouldn't wonder if he taught three more.

“Excellent, excellent.” He clapped his meaty hands. “Begin.”

Loukas opened his book, making a show of finding his place, his finger running down the page. Medicus nodded along as Loukas began to recite, his eyes drifting closed and his breathing becoming heavier. The memorized words came easily enough and Loukas let them carry him. He continued to speak, keeping his voice soft, lulling Medicus deeper into sleep. Setting the book down, he gaze out the door and wished he could be outside instead.

Someone cleared their throat and Loukas jumped. Medicus, too, started, sputtering awake and nearly rolling off the couch. Loukas scrambled to get a proper hold on his book.

Eleutherios stood in the doorway. “I hate to disturb you, but my plans for the afternoon have been postponed. There was a small ... accident.” He looked steadily at Loukas as he said this, and Loukas had to force himself not to look away. “The archon felt that my afternoon should not be entirely wasted.” He waved in a gesture that encompassed the room, Medicus, and Loukas. “So here I am.”

“Accident?” Medicus repeated. “What accident?”

Eleutherios grimaced. “A small riding mishap.” He walked stiffly, not with anger but pain, Loukas realized as Eleutherios lowered himself down carefully.

“Ah,” Medicus said, levering himself up with the back of the couch. “Well, then. Perhaps you should begin where Loukas left off.”

Loukas handed the book over with relief. His throat had begun to dry anyway.

“Where were you?” Eleutherios asked. At Loukas blank look, he elaborated, “In the book.”

“'The goddess gave superiority to the most worthy....'” Loukas quoted.

Eleutherios's eyes ran down the page; Alexia had been right about it being obvious. “I don't see it.”

“Um, maybe I lost the page when you interrupted.” He swallowed; his throat was definitely too dry.

Eleutherios shaved the book at him. “Show me, will you?”

Loukas held up a hand to ward him off. “Just find it yourself.”

Eleutherios gave him a strange look and thumbed over to the next page, and then the next, finally finding the sentence in question.

Loukas settle back on the pillow as his little brother began to read, his pulse slowly settling, resolving to be more careful next time.

Loukas didn't see Eleutherios again until dinner. Eugenia sat at the table's head, her wives seated in order of precedence on either side with their veils carefully arranged -- the sheer silks more artful than concealing. Loukas took his place as the first among her children, though most of his siblings were still too young to sit with the adults. One of the younger wives gave a tight smile, his lips just barely quirking upward as he saw Loukas. The entire House must have heard of Eleutherios's mishap.

Eleutherios slipped into his place quietly, wearing a long tunic to cover the bruises and undignified scrapes.

“What's the matter with you?” Eugenia asked, her voice carrying through the hall.

“I fear I'm still feeling this afternoon's adventure.”

“Really, Eleutherios, you're the only one who can ride that damn beast and if you can't, well have to sell him. I won't have a useless animal, especially not one so ghastly expensive to keep.” She underlined her point by stabbing a roast dormouse off a serving platter.

“That won't be necessary, Mother. It was a small accident only. One of the stable boys was careless. I've had him beaten, and I'm sure it won't happen again.” Eleutherios's jaw tightened as he ground his teeth. Loukas tried to focus on his jellied lamb. “It's so hard to find responsible slaves. Lazy, I'm afraid. You can threaten them, but threats are only effective if you make good on them. Isn't that right, Loukas?”

Loukas looked up, meeting Eleutherios's cold gaze. Eleutherios raised his wine goblet in a mocking salute. Loukas returned it with a sneer.

“Of course, Little Brother. Therefore, it's vital to only make threats that one is capable of carrying out. Otherwise one would look pathetic.”

“Oh, Loukas.” Eugenia set her dormouse aside. “Princeps Procopia Amira intends to hunt tomorrow. Luckily for us, one of her companions broke an ankle and won't be able to accompany her. I've gotten you a place in the hunting party. It's an excellent opportunity for you to ingratiate yourself with out future empress. Please do make good use of it.”

“Tomorrow?” Loukas choked on his lamb.

She nodded. “You could take Kardax if you like, it would be about time we got some use out of that fool animal.”

“I'd prefer Rayna. She is accustomed to hunting.” And would be less like to try and kill him.

“As you wish. Be ready to leave before dawn.” A slave poured water over her fingers as she held them above a silver basin. She dried her hands and said, “And Loukas, see if you can learn anything about that grain tax the emperor might have planned -- rumors have been going around. Some of the Council have been pressuring him again.”

“A grain tax?” Loukas repeated, washing his own hands as his plate was cleared.

“I've got three-hundred cubits of Redini grain in store,” Eugenia said; Loukas vaguely remembered the grain being moved in a few weeks ago.

“It'll be worth four times as much come winter, but not if it goes to the Royal Treasury,” Eleutherios explained, sounding smug. “You see, the emperor may require--“

“I understand. Thank you, Brother.” To Eugenia Loukas said, “I will do my best to learn what I can.”

Eugenia rose from the table, patting him on the shoulder as she passed. “I know you will.”

Continue to Chapter 2
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Date: 2009-10-20 12:15 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Eugenia sat at the table's head, her wives seated ...?

no husband is it?.

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