Chapter 7

Aug. 17th, 2009 07:12 am
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[personal profile] aemilia
Note: I'm going out of town for the rest of the week and will be sans internet, so there won't be extras this Wednesday and Friday. Things will be back to normal next week.


Poppy woke Loukas before dawn, and already the wagons were packed, the House assembled. Loukas looked out into the courtyard; Iereus rode a black mare, overseeing the final packing. Loukas dressed quickly and forewent breakfast, rushing down to the courtyard. Rayna -- who'd been part of his dowry -- was saddled and waiting for him.

He rubbed her velvet nose, grateful he had at least one friend. He swung up into the saddle, Poppy clambering up next to one of the drivers. The party formed a rather ragtag procession as they headed down the wide streets, passing first though the shaded avenues of the garden district and then through the markets. He watched with interest as merchants hawked their wares -- metalworkers, fruit sellers, children with flowers, bakers with meat pies.

The stone lion and lioness of Edessa stared down from above the western gates as Loukas passed beneath them, their manes and claws leafed in gold. He held his breath on the other side of the walls; the bodies of thieves and traitors hung from the heights, a warning. A crow alighted on the protruding bone of one swaying body, picking at the desiccated flesh.

The great city grew small behind them, western winds carrying the stench of decay away as the jumble of buildings yielded to cultivated fields. Laborers coaxed oxen through the furrow, looking up as the wagons passed. The Skandaran Hills broke the horizon line, rising like blue smoke in the distance, and beyond them the mountains.

Loukas drew a deep breath, feeling as though it were his first since his engagement. His veil may have kept the wind from toying with his hair, but the breeze was still sweet against his face.

Metrodora guided her fine-boned mare next to Rayna, her riding tunic matching her horse's amber color. She nodded a greeting, and he tried to gage from her pleasant expression just how much she knew about his wedding night.

“We should make the estate just before dusk,” she said. “We've had problems with brigands in past years -- if there's any trouble, you let the slaves handle it and stay clear. I don't want to have to explain to your family how we lost you.”

“They were glad to be rid of me the first time, I doubt a second time would pain them,” Loukas said wryly.

Metrodora frowned. “I'd be careful what you say about your kin from now on, dear heart. Your ties to your House are what make you useful to Iereus.” He flinched; it was exactly what his mother would have said. The hard line of her mouth softened. “I think you'll find your new place in House Iereus very different from the one you held in Kommene. A wife must be carful to put his husband's interests before his own. You're used to thinking first of yourself and then of your House. You must put that aside and learn to think first of you husband and his House and then finally of yourself.”

“I will do my best to remember.” Rayna snorted a protest and Loukas loosened his grip on the reins.

“You could do well in Iereus, Loukas. If you learn to curb your resentment. And your tongue.”

“Yes, Metrodora.” His ears burned.

“There's a good boy,” she said and smiled at him, kicking her horse to the front of the line.

Loukas quickly tired of watching the countryside roll by, the landscape unchanging and dull. The caravan stopped in the forth horai, the sun high overhead, to rest and water the horses. They didn't tarry long; Metrodora hadn't exaggerated the dangers of the road. Loukas ate a lunch bread with cheese and olives. Neither Metrodora nor Iereus paid much attention to him, instead discussing matters of the estate, which meant very little to Loukas. He might have thought they were completely oblivious to his presence, but he caught Iereus regarding him thoughtfully.

The party made good time, despite the unseasonable head, reaching the estate as the sun began to sink. Loukas strained for the first glimpse of his new home.

“You're now on Iereus lands,” Metrodora said, riding companionably beside him. “You'll be able to see the villa in a bit.”

They'd begun a steep climb up into the foothills, olive groves dark green gilt with silver on either side of the road. He caught sight of the villa through the trees, dyed orange and red in the light of the setting sun. They crested the final hill and the colonnade rose before him, surrounded by terraced gardens and the stables.

Members of the House gathered outside to watch the procession wind up the last hill. Children waved and cried out greetings and news of teeth newly lost -- Iereus's sons and daughters. Two of the women he recognized as wives from the their fine veils, and Loukas felt strangely shy. He hoped that this introduction would go better than his last. Iereus dismounted, immediately mobbed by children, each demanding he examine their scab or bird's nest first. Iereus gamely ruffled each head as it came into reach and scooped up a small girl, who offered him a gummed piece of toast.

Loukas held back as the greetings were exchanged, twisting a corner of his veil through his fingers until Iereus beckoned him forward.

“This is Arist Loukas Kommenon Iereus,” Iereus announced and the family chorused a welcome. Loukas squared his shoulders, trying to look like a son of Kommene. The effect was undermined by the fine grime of road dust.

“Arist Nika Delphoron Iereus.” The woman introduced was as tall as Loukas and could have looked him straight in the eye, but instead she looked just past his shoulder. She allowed him to kiss her, but didn't so much as smile. Loukas seethed; he might be a forth wife, but Kommene was a much better family than Delphorus.

“And Myrrine Koiloion Iereus.” She was the youngest wife, save Loukas himself. She wore her hair long and loose and he would have thought its dark red color from henna, but her eyebrows matched. She accepted the double kiss, but then embraced him with enough force that his ribs cracked.

“Welcome, brother. Was the journey very hard? I do hate making it. It can be pleasant in parts -- very scenic, you know -- but there's just so much of it. After awhile, it's hard to enjoy, especially if you're keeping an eye out for bandits. I don't suppose you had any trouble with them, did you?”

“Myrrine,” Metrodora interrupted. “As Loukas has just made the journey you found so tiring, perhaps we should let him rest.”

“Oh, goodness,” Myrrine said, chastened. “I'm sorry.”

“Why don't we show Loukas to his room?”

---

Loukas feared the whole herd would accompany him, but the children were rounded up by slaves, and Iereus was now overseeing the unpacking. Only Metrodora, Myrrine and their respective eunuchs remained. Nika had disappeared.

The atrium opened up onto the enclosed garden, its roof stopping short over a shallow pool to collect rainwater. Metrodora promised to save the full tour for another time, but she did point out the way to the kitchen and the baths. Myrrine offered useful advice about the best times to visit them.

“You'll want to get to the kitchen just after the coffee's been made. I don't like mine too strong -- do you? -- and the cook will let it boil until it's practically porridge. In consistency, not taste, obviously. You'll want to wait for your bath, though, until the slaves have cleared the children though, if you want to soak. But then you'll have to wait for the water to heat again. Nika's rigged up the most wonderful device, she's very clever, but it still takes forever.”

She showed no signs of stopping, not even to wait for answers to her questions. He gave up trying to reply; his silence didn't seem to bother her.

“This is the wives' wing,” Metrodora interrupted, finally bringing Myrrine's monologue to a halt. My room is through there, Myrrine is across the hall and Nika is down one. You,“ they reached the end of the corridor, “are in here.”

She took a large key off the ring at her hip and handed it to him. “Our husband has the master, of course, but you'll have your privacy.”

They left him then, Myrrine still chattering as he shut the door behind him. His room was nicer than his old one in Kommene, larger windows, more space. He made a slow circuit, fingers running across each surface -- low couch, writing desk, chest and bed. A tapestry stretched along an entire wall, a hunt scene with deer running before a hunting party on one end and being brought down by hounds on the other. A smaller tapestry showed the Iereus line, each name stitched in on branches of a tree. He was just another branch on that tree, never to bear fruit. He turned away, pushing open the shudders on his window. The olive trees swept out below, illuminated by the rising moon, the road a white threat winding its way back to Edessa.

---

Loukas went back to bed after breakfast the following morning; the knock came as a surprise. Poppy rose to answer the door, Loukas gesturing for him to wait until Loukas had arranged himself at the table -- he didn't want Metrodora to think him lazy.

At his nod, Poppy opened the door and stood aside to admit not Metrodora but Myrrine, her long cream veil trailing after her as she bounced into the room.

“Good morning, Loukas!” she said, gratingly cheerful. “Do you have any plans for today?”

“Uh, no, not really,” Loukas said, wondering if maybe he should have asked why before volunteering his availability.

“I thought I might show you around, if you like?” She twisted a ring absently around her finger, biting her lip.

“I ... of course, it's very kind of you,” Loukas said, and she brightened.

“Oh, excellent! I really do know all the best places on the grounds.”

“I, er, look forward to it,” Loukas said, trying to muster enthusiasm. “So very kind.” He stifled a yawn and followed her out. Her walk reminded him of the little robins hopping across the courtyard below his window.

“Iereus's great-grandmother built the house and his father renovated it and expanded the stables. The stone was all brought in from the Tasso quarry -- it took them years.”

“Ah,” Loukas said when she paused for breath. “That must have been difficult.”

“Oh yes, I can't even imagine. Expensive, too.” Myrrine led him through the corridors, pointing out broom closets and spare bedrooms with the same enthusiasm as tapestries and sculptures. She knew Iereus's family history as well as Loukas knew his own, and her pride was obvious. Loukas pitied her.

“I have a question, and you are clearly the person to ask,” he interjected, hoping to steer the conversation from antique lamps and saltcellars. “What can you tell me about the current Iereus? I know about his lineage and property, but very little about the man himself.”

She stopped to think, and Loukas nearly ran into her. “Well, it's a difficult question. He's a complicated man.”

“Aren't we all.”

“He works hard,” she said slowly and resumed her brisk pace. “Iereus wasn't always a rich House, and he's had to work hard to make it prosper, you know. He's a good husband.” She lay a hand on Loukas's arm. “I'm sure you'll be happy here.”

Loukas inclined his head and she took it as agreement. “What of Metrodora?”

“She came from House Brusa when she was very young, and I honestly don't think Iereus could have done all that he has without her. She was youngest child of her generation; her eldest sister inherited long before she was of age. It might have gone differently if Metrodora had been the eldest.” She shrugged. “She can be quite stern, sometimes even than Iereus himself, I think. Hm, now that I think about it, I've never actually seen him correct her and can't quite imagine it, honestly.” She shrugged. “Anyway, it's best to stay in her favor.”

“And in Nika's as well, I'd wager,” Loukas said, remembering Nika's previous coldness.

“Ha. If you can.” Myrrine rubbed her arms with a shiver. “She think she could have married better than she did -- but she's only from House Delphorus.

“I don't think I've heard of that particular House.”

“See?” she addressed this to her eunuch who followed three paces behind with Poppy. “He's not even heard of Delphorus.”

“Should I have? I don't think I've seen them at court....”

“You haven't heard of it, because it's not worth hearing about, really. I know I can't talk -- Koiloi isn't anything to boast about, but at least I have the decency to know my place. I was honored to be engaged to Iereus. By Nika?” She sighed. “And this was before my time, mind you -- but she protested the marriage. Said she'd been called to the Church of Ardalia. Her mother had more sense, though. Their lands lie just to the south of Iereus's, and I think that's why Iereus agreed to it at all. A rather large price to keep th peace with the neighbors, if you ask me.”

“Perhaps he didn't quite realize what he was getting into at the time.”

Myrrine giggled. “Her family would have had to drug her to keep her sweet for the wedding.”

“That happened to a boy at court,” Loukas said knowingly.

“Really? His family drugged him?” Myrrine's eyes widened.

“Mmm, it was so sordid. They'd arranged a match for him, but the archon he was to marry was three times his age and hideous. He swore he'd never be married to her -- there was a rumor he had a lover -- and he even tried to run away. His family would have none of it, of course, and started slipping opium into his wine.”

“He went through with the marriage?”

Loukas nodded. “But he was so drugged at the wedding they had a slave at each elbow to steer him down the aisle. And the next morning they found him in the bridal bed, cold and dead. He'd had a weak heart, and the drugs had stopped it.”

Myrrine shuddered, a hand covering her mouth. “That's so horrible. I wouldn't with that on anyone, not even Nika.”

Loukas nodded is agreement. “And when his family's part was discovered, the marriage contract was rendered null, and the family got nothing for all their troubles.”

“Serves them right.”

They left the house and descended the short, wide steps into the sunken garden. Rose vines grew up the arbor into walls and a ceiling of leaves, dotted with small white blossoms. They stepped from the shade, blinking in the sudden brightness. He didn't see Nika until it was too late to avoid her.

“Myrrine, Loukas,” she said with a curt nod to each of them. She sat on a carved stone bench, book in her lap.

“Morning, Nika,” Myrrine said, wilting.

“We didn't mean to disturb you,” Loukas said, evenly. “I can't imagine how you concentrate out here.”

“I can't imagine you've ever had reason to try,” Nika said smoothly; the accompanying smile was all teeth.

“The weather's so lovely; it would be a shame not to enjoy it,” Myrrine said, stepping in.

“Perhaps the fresh air will help your complexion.” Nika smoothed her tunic over her knees delicately. “And are you settling in all right, Loukas?”

“Very well,” Loukas replied. “You've all extended such a warm welcome.”

She blinked, her eyes thickly lined with kohl. “It's so exciting when another wife joins the House. I've been begging Iereus for years to take another wife -- so much to do and not enough hands to do it. Poor Myrrine does her best, but her health isn't the best, is is, Myrrine?”

Myrrine nodded, her long eyelashes casting shadow across her cheeks.

“And now,” Nika continued, “he finally had -- and one finer I couldn't have imagined. From House Kommene.” She clucked admiringly, but her eyes were mocking.

“Your praise is excessive,” Loukas countered. “House Kommene is honored to form a connection with House Iereus. Just as I'm sure House ...” He trailed off, biting his lip in feigned consternation. “Oh I'm sorry, this is so embarrassing. What is your House, again?”

“Delphorus,” Nika bit the word out, her smile turning brittle.

“Ah, yes, of course. Delphorus.” Myrrine had gone very pale, her eyes wide and worried, but Loukas paid no heed. “Just as I'm sure Delphorus was pleased to make a match with Iereus.”

Nika stood. “Of course. I have matters that require my attention. Do finish the tour, Myrrine, but Aesus's cough hasn't abated -- make sure you see to it this morning.”

“Yes, Nika, I will,” Myrrine agreed.

Nika swept off, her eunuch trailing after.

“Great and Loving Mother, Loukas.”

Loukas grinned. “Serves her right.”

“But she'll never forgive you.” Myrrine frowned, her brow furrowed.

Loukas dismissed her concern with a shrug. “It was worth it. Anything to wipe that smug expression off her sour face.”

Myrrine giggled, covering her mouth with her hand. “It was rather plum. I've never speak to her like that.”

“Does she always treat you like that?”

Myrrine plucked a blossom from a rose bush, taking care with the thorns. “Like what?”

“As though she were so superior.”

She brought the flower to her face and inhaled. “Oh. Well, she is superior -- she's an elder wife and ought command my respect. But she's not usually so brusque.”

“That's a relief, if a small one.”

“Come along then, I've got the rest of the grounds to show you before I see to Aesus.”

---

A jay cried outside Loukas's window, its jeering waking him. He rolled over, pulling his pillow over his ear, but the down did little to muffle the noise.

“Poppy.” Loukas sat up, pillow clenched in his hands. “Kill that bird.”

“Yes, Master.” Poppy rose obediently and pushed open the shudders, leaning far out the window.

“Did you kill it?” Loukas asked as Poppy pulled himself back inside.

“I think it flew away.”

“Ugh -- it will return to vex me tomorrow.”

Poppy refastened the shudders. “I will arm myself in case it does.”

“You better.” Loukas suspected the eunuch wasn't being entirely serious. “I'll never be able to get back to sleep now. Drat that bird.”

He dressed and stepped from his room, nearly running into Iereus.

“Good morning, husband.”

“Ah, Loukas. You've risen early.” Iereus's hair stuck out from his head and he still had pillow creases on his stubbled cheek.

“I didn't sleep well,” Loukas said, realizing Iereus had come from Myrrine's room. The realization did funny things to his stomach.

“Sorry to hear it,” Iereus said. “I hope your room is comfortable?”

“The room is more than adequate.”

“Very good.”

They both hesitated.

“I'll see you at breakfast then,” Loukas said, wishing he were anywhere other than in this hall with Iereus.

“Indeed. Breakfast,” Iereus agreed and hastened away with a final nod.

---

Loukas wasn't the last one to the table for breakfast, breaking what had become his habit. He hastily downed his coffee. Myrrine's chair was conspicuously empty.

“Metrodora,” Nika said, drizzling honey over sliced pears. “I have a favor to ask.”

Loukas, only half-way through his coffee, was too asleep to notice her silky tone or the glance she gave him.

Metrodora looked him from her yogurt. “What is it?”

“Since Loukas has so little to occupy him, I thought he might help me today.” She smiled at Loukas, who still held his coffee poised before his lips. “I know it must be a bother for him to be at loose ends.”

“I'm sure it does,” Metrodora said dryly. “Do you have more pressing matters today, Loukas?”

He'd planned to ride Rayna out through the groves and nap in the afternoon, neither of which could be described as particularly pressing. “I, uh ...”

“You see?” Nika gestured with her knife before spearing a pear slice. “The boy's without a thing to do.”

“Very well.” Metrodora said, oblivious to Loukas's discomfort. “Loukas, you can spend the day with Nika.”

Loukas set his coffee down with a leaden hand. “Yes, Metrodora.”

“I intend to start on the records room today. It's such a disaster.” Nika's smile widened. “So glad to have your help.”

---

Nika led him to the tiny room, the sent of dust and aging vellum thick enough to choke him. Books and folios lined the walls, broken only by narrow windows that admitted light but provided neither view nor breeze.

Loukas had been in more cheerful mausoleums.

“Now,” Nika said, pushing her sleeves up past her bony elbows. “I've been meaning to organize this for ages. Some of these works date back centuries.”

The stacks of books were piled into precarious columns along the table running down the room's center.

The dust had set Loukas's eyes to watering, and he choked out, “Surely there is someone better suited to the task?”

“There are. But they can't be spared, so you'll have to do.” She eyed him speculatively. “Surely you're not as slow as they say? You don't seem entirely deficient.”

Loukas gritted his teeth. “Thank you.”

“Anyway,” Nika said, gathering up a few loose pages. “I need these pages arranged by year and season. The old housekeeper neglected the records, and there are at least thirty years that need accounting for.” She looked from the records to Loukas. “Do you know your numbers?”

“Yes.” Though he was apt to get them confused.

“Good. You can order them, go by season as well as year -- though I understand if that is beyond you.” She gestured to a chair. “No use dawdling.”

---

He tried his best the first hora or so, struggling to decipher the faded writing. Puzzling out the numbers was frustrating, but trying the seasons -- noting the priman, trian and exsen for each -- was excruciating. Squinting in the gloom led to a pain behind his eyes which grew into a steady, pounding headache. When he stopped to rub his temples, measuring how far he'd come and how far he had to go, his resolve faded.

Nika sat at the far end of the table, a finger running down the page of a thick book with silver-studded covers. Occasionally she took notes on a small scroll or retrieved another volume from a shelf. When she left on an unknown errand, another book under her elbow, Loukas dropped the papers and rose to stretch. His eyes were crossed, and he feared it would be permanent. He drifted over to Nika's work. She'd copied but mathematical equations, he saw, though they meant nothing to him. Strange, what wife would need such complicated formulae? Her footsteps sounded outside and he slid back into his seat as she entered.

“How are you doing?” she asked, leaning over his shoulder.

He shrugged a little, the hair on his neck standing up. “Well enough.”

“Here, let me see.” She snatched up the stack of sorted papers, flipping through them and pulling the misplaces ones.

“Honestly, Loukas.” She put the culled papers down on the to-be-sorted stack and even those few dozen pages made it seem a hand's breadth taller. “Well. Keep going. Practice is what's required. After these you get start on those,” she gestured to a fat folio Loukas hadn't noticed. His mouth fell open in horror.

---

“Are those cobwebs in your hair?” Iereus asked later, his brow furrowed.

Loukas ran a hand over his hair; it came away with wisps of clinging thread. He'd washed the dust and grim from face and hand, but overlooked his hair. “I helped Nika reorder the records today. Great Mother, it was tedious, but at least its done now.”

Iereus frowned. “Did you? I told her she needn't bother, most can be destroyed. I suppose she forgot.”

Loukas swallowed, his throat still scratchy with dust. “It seems like that would be something a person would remember.”

“You can remind her tomorrow; she's requested your help again.”

---

Loukas spent another day in the interminable day in the records room, taking the very pages he'd so carefully sorted the day before to be burned. The day after, Nika had him spinning wool, his fingers cramping and his wrist aching from the weight of the spindle. And even after a bath he smelled of the greasy wool.

The day after that, he volunteered to help Myrrine before Nika could draft him into another unpleasant task. A slave had twisted an ankle, and Myrrine was left on her own to tend the children. A tutor taught the older children -- those who could sit still and be trusted to take themselves to the privy. Loukas wondered if he hadn't made a mistake as Myrrine handed him a suspiciously damp toddler.

“This is Damien,” she introduced him, deftly reaching out to arbitrate a growing disagreement over a wooden horse. “If you both can't play nicely, neither of you can have it.”

“Mine,” argued a girl whose hair ribbons had come undone. She waved outstretched arms insistently. “Mine.”

Damien eyed Loukas, forehead wrinkling in a mixture of apprehension and curiosity.

“Um. Hello, Damien,” Loukas said, bouncing the child on his hip as he'd seen Myrrine do, but perhaps the jostling was too rough; Damien opened his mouth to bare toothless gums and wailed. “Oh no. No, no. Please stop.”

“You don't have much experience with children, do you?” Myrrine said, herding the children out into the courtyard.

Hands still full of screaming toddler, Loukas followed, attempting to protect the ear closest to Damien's mouth. “I've never been around them much.”

The courtyard distracted the unhappy Damien, his wail dying abruptly. He reached out for a bright red blossom, and Loukas steered them that direction.

“Pretty flower? But not for eating.” Loukas kept the petals from making it to Damien's mouth, but only just.

Damien retaliated by grabbing a fistful of Loukas's hair and yanking. Loukas yelped, trying to extricate himself from the toddler's gummy fingers. Damien held on stubbornly, but Myrrine finally rescued him.

“He's warming to you,” she laughed, setting Damien down on shaky legs.

“I'm not sure that's a good thing.” Loukas rubbed his sore scalp.

“He takes after his mother, Nika. He can be charming, but he's got quite a temper.”

“They both seem to want punish me.” Loukas watched as the children scattered trough the courtyard, chasing each other and a scrappy dog.

“Their grievance isn't personal,” Myrrine said, taking a seat on the edge of the fountain, dipping her fingers into the water. “And I did warn you. She'll grow bored of tormenting you, once you've suffered enough.”

“That's a great comfort to me, Myrrine. Thank you.” Loukas sank down beside her, elbows braced against his knees.

“Do try to avoid giving her further reason to hate you.”

“I don't think she requires one.”

“Oh, this is nothing.” Myrrine laughed. “She's not even exerting herself.” She patted his shoulder consolingly.

“Doesn't it bother Iereus to have such a malcontent under his roof?”

“Iereus doesn't meddle in the affairs of his wives if he can help it. And I don't think he's even aware of most of it.” She looked over at him and her mirth faded. “I wouldn't inform him either. Nika might give up more overt attacks, but she would only find another way to strike at you and three times as hard.”

Loukas straightened. “I wouldn't have run to him for protection.”

“Oh, I didn't mean to offend,” Myrrine said. “Only to explain.”

Loukas sighed, but didn't have opportunity to answer, intervening before Damien could eat a large black beetle.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-26 02:35 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
i think Loukas is really hopeless in everything.
is our hero will be good at somethingg?

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