Chapter 8

Aug. 24th, 2009 03:02 pm
aemilia: (Default)
[personal profile] aemilia
Of all the things he'd lost when he'd married, Loukas missed privacy the most. Slaved had surrounded him in his mother's House, ready to fetch or carry or clean. And he knew his actions had been reported back to her -- even the childish pranks he'd thought at the time were undetected. Now he wondered just how much Eugenia had known of his rivalry with Eleutherios, and if she hadn't in her encouraged it.

But he had always found time alone when he needed it, riding with Rayna or hiding in the gardens to avoid his lessons. Now, though, he spent every waking hora under the supervision of Metrodora or Nika, and even Myrrine's cheerful company grew wearying. The few moments he escaped, his eunuch was always close on his heels. The man stuck as close as Loukas's own shadow and made about as much noise. Loukas would turn and start, surprised to find Poppy at his elbow.

“Don't do that!” Loukas snapped as his heart jumped into his throat.

“My apologies, Master,” Poppy murmured.

“How do you keep your sanity?” Loukas demanded, feeling profoundly irritated. “It tests mine to have you watching all the time. Tell me you find it as tiresome.”

The eunuch shrugged. “I've had more practice.”

“Perhaps you could take a small respite.” Poppy didn't answer. “Just half-an-hora in which the back of my neck doesn't crawl with your gaze upon it?” Still no reply. Loukas sighed. “You don't understand how hard this is for me.”

“I'm sure I don't,” Poppy answered blandly, the corner of his mouth twitching upwards ever so slightly.

“You're laughing at me.” Loukas frowned.

The half-smile faded. “No, Master, I'm not. Please forgive me.”

“You were. Remember your place, eunuch. I could have you beaten.”

“As my master sees fit.”

Loukas slumped over his desk, forehead pillowed on his hand. “I'm not going to beat you. Unless you really deserve it.”

“Thank you, Master.” Loukas suspected the eunuch was being ironic, though there was nothing in his tone to suggest it. “Perhaps it would ease your ming to talk in the fresh air and go for a walk?”

Loukas had no interest in walking, but sitting around his rooms for the rest of the afternoon appealed even less. Myrrine caught them as the strolled out to the terraced garden below the house.

“Walking?” she asked, “I love walking. I find it excellent exercise. Do you mind if I join you? It's so much more enjoyable to have someone with whom to walk, don't you agree?”

Loukas rolled his shoulder, trying to work out a sudden crick. “I would love your company.”

“Excellent!” She took the lead, setting a rather brisk pace. “I find walks quite restorative; I've been feeling a bit out of sorts lately. Just an upset stomach, nothing much, thankfully. Fresh air will put me to rights.”

“Yes, Poppy and I were just discussing the benefits of fresh air. We're great believers,” Loukas said, exchanging a look with Poppy, who ducked his head to hide a smirk.

“Oh, were you?” Myrrine said brightly. “I just wish there were an easy fix for my hair as well.”

“It is looking rather, erm, striking.” A few strands were a distinctive orange in her otherwise dark hair. She tugged the edge of her veil down over her forehead, trying to hide it.

“I tried to lighten it with lemon juice, and it got out of hand.”

Loukas shrugged. “Your veil covers most of it -- I'm sure it doesn't matter. There's no one to impress out here anyway.”

Suddenly Myrrine spun toward him, her brow creased with anger. “Is that so, Loukas Kommene? Just because you don't care about pleasing your husband, doesn't mean the rest of us think we're too good. My hair was my best feature and now it's ruined.” She burst into tears and stormed off, leaving a bewildered Loukas.

“What's gotten into her?” he wondered aloud.

“She's pregnant,” Poppy said.

“What?” Loukas turned, as surprised by the source as by the answer.

“If she carries it to birth, the babe will come after midwinter or close the the Exsen of Theros. She's miscarried many times before and fears that she will again.”

“How do you know this?”

“Hyacinth told me.” It took Loukas a moment to remember that Hyacinth was Myrrine's eunuch. “He doesn't think she should exhaust herself with the pregnancy, but she refuses to ask Iereus's permission to abort.”

Loukas considered this. “Who knows?”

“Metrodora. She misses nothing that happens under this roof. Most likely Nika does as well -- her eunuch isn't forthcoming, but for the way she looks at Myrrine, she must know. The archon doesn't know yet, and Myrrine won't tell him until she is less likely to miscarry.”

“Why didn't you tell me this before?” Loukas demanded, feeling wrong-footed.

“I'm sorry, Master.” Poppy bowed his shaven head. “I did not think it would interest you.”

Loukas turned back toward the house. Two children cleared the gate at the end of the garden, shrieking with laughter; the younger boy was naked. They sprinted down past the flower beds, ignoring Loukas. A moment later, a slave came running through the gate, breathless and red-face, a small tunic in her hand. Loukas pointed the way the children had disappeared. She nodded her thanks and ran after them, muttering darkly under her breath.

“Poppy?” Loukas said when she'd gone.

“Yes, Master?”

“Myrrine said ... she said I don't please Iereus.” Loukas let his fingers trail idly through the trimmed hedge. “Is he unhappy with me?”

“I do not think he is displeased.” Poppy hesitated. “But he does not attend you as a husband.”

Loukas bit his lip. “And the entire House has been talking about it.”

“Well. Yes.”

“Perfect. Don't they have anything better to gossip about?”

“The archon's new bride is a far more interesting topic than the weather,” Poppy said with a small shrug. “They will tire of it soon enough.”

“Really?”

“No, probably not.”

---

Loukas had been hoping to be included in the round up of yearlings, as he knew Nika was, but found himself rebuffed when he inquired.

“You'll just be in the way.” Iereus tightened the girth and swinging up into the saddle. “I'm sure Metrodora will need you for something.”

“Have I angered him?” Loukas asked Poppy later when they'd returned to his room. He was not going to inform Metrodora of his failure and request whatever menial assignment if he could help it.

“I cannot think how,” Poppy mused in the toneless way Loukas had come to realize meant that Poppy said the opposite of what he actually thought.

“What? What could I have possibly done?” Loukas kicked off his sandals and flung himself onto the bed, the down mattress enveloping him. “In every way I have been a model -- a paragon! -- of wifely virtue.”

“Truly, you are a saint.”

The anger drained out of Loukas, and he pushed himself up on his elbows to look at Poppy, who was putting his shoes away.

“Fine, go on then. Tell me.” Loukas collapsed face-down into the mattress again.

“My master has been exceedingly dutiful, of course, but I wonder if he has yet pressed his full advantage.”

“Explain yourself.”

Poppy said nothing but patiently waited for Loukas to work it out. When he did, Loukas said, voice muffled by the pillow, “He could call for me if he wished. I've never denied him.”

“Perhaps it injures his pride to take what he wishes to be freely given.”

“I'm showing restraint. Temperance is a virtue,” Loukas replied hotly, rolling onto his back, an arm draped over his face.

Poppy finished straightening the dresser and finally said, “A wife's position in his House is fluid and changing. A wife with his husband's favor is influential and unfettered.” He paused before continuing. “A wife without his husband's favor is little more than a slave.”

Loukas scowled. “Iereus wouldn't dare an insult to my family.”

Poppy shrugged. “Not this year. Or the year after, perhaps -- but in five, ten years? In a lifetime?”

Loukas considered, staring at the crack in the plaster above his bed. “I refuse to whore myself further. I won't deny him his rights, but neither will I debase myself by offering them to him.”

“As you wish,” Poppy said.

---

Loukas found Nika in the study off the library. She leaned over a table, a sheaf of paper spread before her and a quill in hand. He waited in the doorway for her to notice him; she took a few more notes, a look of deep concentration on her face. Craning his neck, he tried to look over her shoulder, curious what held her attention. An illustration -- a diagram, maybe, though he couldn't tell of what.

She finished and sat back, rubbing her neck. “Oh, Loukas, there you are. You mustn't lurk like that; it's unsettling.”

“Yes, Nika. I'm sorry,” he said quickly. “What do you need of me?”

“I don't suppose you're much of an engineer?” she asked instead of answering, looking him up and down.

“Engineering wasn't part of my education. My mother preferred other subjects.” He didn't mention that she thought engineering more appropriate for soldiers and common architects.

“Mmm, I'm sure she found philosophy and music more useful,” Nika said scornfully. “Can't dirty your hands with numbers but if it's sitting around discussing whether or not you really exist, it's an essential part of modern education.”

“Something like that,” Loukas agreed. “I'm also quite the dancer.”

Nika snorted, the corner of her mouth quirking upwards. “I'm sure.” She waved him over and pointed to the diagram. “This is a design for a water-screw.”

Loukas cleared his throat. “... I beg your pardon?”

“Water-screw.” She jabbed a finger at the page. “It's a method for hauling water up an incline, easily and efficiently. We'll need to irrigate this summer or the olive trees won't bear fruit. The old spring at the top of the mountain is deep, but it's always been a struggle to haul enough water up. A water screw would solve our problem.” She spoke quickly, her eyes bright.

“How does it work?” Loukas asked, and she actually smiled at him.

“A spiral inside an enclosed cylinder -- here's the cut-away,” she pointed and Loukas realized he was looking at a cross-section of a three-bladed spiral. “The cylinder itself forms the hypotenuse of a right triangle. When turned, the screw carries water up and out the top. It's uses are limited by size and incline, but it should be perfect for the irrigation system.”

“You designed all this yourself?” Loukas asked, blinking at the detailed calculations.

She laughed sharply. “Oh no, a received a copy of these plans from the royal library. I've never seen a water screw before, which makes adapting it for use in the spring a challenge. But I've worked out the calculations and my model works.” She set her hands on her hips, gazing at the diagram with a fond expression.

“You should have studied at the Academy,” Loukas said. “This is impressive, Nika.”

“I married before I ever had the chance -- even if they would admit a child of House Delphorus.” She shrugged, still looking at the plans, her eyes hooded. “I had to send Star to beg for a copy of these plans. I can only imagine what else they have in the halls of the Great Library. ”

Loukas swallowed. “Oh.”

“I'm lucky Iereus is willing to humor me.”

“Um, so what do you need me for?”

She shook herself a little. “He may be letting me build it, but he can't spare the slaves to help. You're better than nothing.” Though her expression suggest she wasn't sure that he was.

Through the doorway Loukas could still see stacks of book awaiting cataloging.

“When do we start?” he asked brightly.

She raised an eyebrow. “No time like the present.”

---

Nika's workshop, a little shed of rough pine planks, sat out behind the vegetable garden. Loukas must have seen it before, but he'd completely failed to notice it.

“Do you spend much time out here?” Loukas asked, brushing away a fat fly. His eyes slowly adjusted to the dim; the back of his neck started to prickly with sweat in the stuffy air. Boards on two saw-horses served as a table -- saws, awls, drills laid out neatly. Hinged shutters were propped open to let in light, but they couldn't be called proper windows. The rest of the space was empty, nothing but hard-pack earthen floor.

“I like to be out here when I can.” Nika spread the plans for the water-screw out on the table, looking over her tools. “My duties don't always allow me to pursue my projects, but when I get the chance....” she trailed off with a shrug. “Let's get started.”

Between the four of them -- Loukas, Poppy, Nika, and Star, her eunuch -- they managed to carry the pine log from where it had been hauled in and left in the yard. It had already been trimmed and stripped of bark, laying bare pale yellow skin. At Nika's direction, they carefully marked out line down its sides, so the spiraling blades would cross exact points.

“The slope of the blades can't be too steep or too gradual for it to work,” Nika explained. “The total width of the screw need to be an eighth of the total length of the cylinder.”

Loukas nodded as though that was obvious. “And how do we form the spirals themselves?”

“Pitch and wills withies,” Nika answered absently, checking the guideline Loukas had just marked.

“Won't that be ... difficult?” Loukas asked, thinking of the stick, strong-smelling pitch. “It'll have to be heated.”

“Obviously.” Nika didn't seem daunted by the thought of working with the viscous substance. “It's water-proof, and that's what we need. Unless you've a better suggestion.”

“Pitch it is,” Loukas said, tucking his thumbs into his belt.

They heated the pitch over a small fire, the brittle lumps melting to a thick black liquid. Thin strips of willow withies were wrapped along the lines they'd drawn. Nika nailed them into place and Loukas applied the pitch, managing to burning himself twice.

“Not too much,” Nika instructed, “I don't want to run out. Now you haven't got enough -- I don't want to blade to give either.”

Loukas struggled to correct his technique, and they soon had a system in place, with Poppy and Star at each end, turning the log on its saw-horses. They worked down the screw three times -- one for each blade -- before they stopped to let the pitch cool and set. Loukas's back and shoulders ached from leaning over his work and hauling the heavy pitch.

“All right.” Nika stretched slowly, rolling her head. Her hair had worked itself loose and stuck to her face and neck. They'd both shed their veils in deference to the work and heat. “That's enough for today.” The screw's blades were less than a finger's length tall, hardly anything to show for the afternoon's efforts. “We'll start again tomorrow.”

---

The work went faster the next day, and Nika relaxed as it progressed, finding less fault with Loukas's technique. Slowly the blades formed until their work came to resemble a screw.

“Where did you learn to do all this?” Loukas asked as they waited for the pitch to set on another layer. He wiped sweat from his upper lip on the sleeve of his tunic -- he's veil again abandoned, left hanging from a fence post, ends trailing in the dirt.

Nika drank from a gourd dipper and then dropped it back into the bucket. “We're not entirely without education in the country. Or did you think I spent my entire childhood chasing sheep?”

“I just meant--“

“I know.” She licked her lips. “Some of it I learned at home. My mother thought it would be helpful. When I married Iereus, it was his library that comforted me.”

“It is impressive,” Loukas agreed politely.

Nika handed him the water bucket. “Not much use to you, though, eh? The rest of the little that I know I learned here or begged from the Great Library. Of course, it's still just scraps from their table. But some of it's useful. Like this screw, if we could just get it working.” She sighed. “Come on then.”

They set about adding another layer of the willow withies.

“So this is the water-screw you spoke of, Nika?”

Loukas blinked, squinting into the sun. Iereus sat on his roan, on arm resting on the pommel of his saddle.

“Yes, Husband. Construction is going well.”

“What a strange contraption.” Iereus dismounted and inspected the half-finished screw.

“It will only require one person to operate -- and do more work in less time, I promise you.” Nika watched Iereus circle the screw, her brow furrowed. “So long as I build it correctly.”

“With such fine help, how could you not?” Iereus said with a smile for Loukas.

“Indeed,” Nika said drily.

Iereus leaned in here and there to study the screw more closely, though his gaze kept straying from the screw to Loukas.

“Such industry -- you've certainly spared no effort,” he said, stepping back.

“I do not much care to be idle,” Nika said, wiping her brow.

“And you, Loukas?” Iereus asked.

“I don't mind so much.”

Iereus smiled, and turned to Nika. “Perhaps you can spare him this afternoon?”

Nika hesitated. “Of course, Husband. Star and I can manage quite well. I'm sure we won't even notice the absence.”

“And what say you?” Iereus asked Loukas. “Do you think you might take the afternoon off?” Iereus took hold of the pitch brush, the thick liquid dripping from its end it ropy strings. Iereus wrinkled his nose in distaste.

“Oh, uh.” Loukas rubbed the back of his neck; beside him Nika crossed her arms. “If my husband requires me, I am at his disposal.”

“It's not an order,” Iereus said, dropping the brush back in the bucket. “Merely an inquiry. If your duties here are more pressing, I will not pry you away.”

“It's just. I should hate to leave Nika with all the work. I couldn't take my ease in good conscious while she labored here.” The day seemed to grow warmer as Loukas's cheeks flushed.

Iereus's smile faded. “Your devotion is refreshing.” He nodded to them both and mounted his horse. “I will see you at dinner then.” With a nod for Nika, he mounted and rode off, back very straight in the saddle.

“Well,” Nika said, selecting a new strip of willow. “That was very poorly done.”

Poppy snorted softly, adding his agreement. Loukas handed her a copper nail, waiting until after she'd pounded it home to say, “Do you think I've offended him?”

“That you would rather spend the afternoon laboring under the hot sun, than spend it with him? No, of course not. Who'd have a skin so thin as to find offense in that?”

“But you would have been angry if I'd gone,” Loukas said, at a loss in the face of her disapproval.

She paused, the hammer held in midair. “Probably.”

“I fear your displeasure more than his.”

Nika laughed abruptly and gave him a pitying look. “You're not married to me.”

---

With the blades of the screw completed, they enclosed them and sealed it with yet more pitch.

“If I never see this stuff again, it'll be too soon,” Loukas swore under his breath, so Nika couldn't hear him. When the last coat had set, the screw was finished. It took two horses to drag it up the path to the spring, Nika hovering over it like a hen over her nest.

“Not too quickly, now,” she said, though they were already at a crawl. “Mind the ruts.”

Loukas, leading one of the horses, did his best to follow her instruction, but the path had washed out in the spring rains an there were more ruts than road. Their feet kicked up dust so that Loukas's nose and throat were coated. Nika had the head of the other horse, Poppy and Star steadying the screw as it bounced along.

By the time they reached the summit Loukas had started to believe that the rows of olive trees were endless, that he'd died and lugging the screw for all eternity was his punishment. Finally though, the reached the spring, a small waterfall which ran from an outcropping of rock, trickling down into a dee cauldron below. Loukas slid down the bank, loosing a shower of shale and sand as he did so, to splash the cold water on his face and neck. The others followed, with more careful steps. Nika picked her way down without disturbing the rocks, keeping the hem of her tunic out of the water. Poppy removed his wide-brimmed hat and wrung a cloth out over his naked pate.

Water hauled by hand was carried down the mountain by a gray and weathered trough. It would be a matter of setting the screw to empty over it.

“How do you want it set up?” Loukas asked, eyeing the heavy screw and the steep bank with trepidation.

“I've already had the tools brought up,” Nika said, and pushed the hair from her eyes. “Each end will rest on a post which will allow it to turn. The hardest part will be setting the posts solidly in this ground. Getting the screw to fit on them should be comparatively easy.”

“Comparatively?” Loukas repeated.

“Well. Yes.” Nika made her way back up the bank. “Come along, the sooner we set about it, the sooner we will be done.”

Loukas was obliged to stand up to mid-thigh in the chilly water, holding the end of a string as Nika measured the distance and angle.

“Isn't this good enough?” he asked plaintively; he could no longer feel his feet.

“If I don't get this perfectly aligned it will be too far from the trench and then we'll just have to do it again,” she replied.

Loukas kept slipping on the uncertain footing, landing once on his backside. Nika paused to laugh at him as Poppy helped him up. The wet tunic clung like a clammy skin, and water dripped from the ends of his curls.

Their efforts muddied the water, making it impossible to see what he was doing, and Loukas worked by feel alone as they dug the post hole for the screw. He nearly took off his own toes with the shovel, and the rough handle rubbed his fingers raw. When he'd gotten it deep enough for Nika's satisfaction, Poppy helped him lower the post in, wedging it with rocks until it was secure.

“Excellent,” Nika said. “Now we just need to get the screw onto its fixture and test it.”

Loukas shivered, his teeth chattering, but at least his hair was drying in the sun. Loukas and Poppy took one end of the screw, and Nika and Star took the other. Loukas started down the embankment, the weight of the screw throwing his balance off.

“Careful,” Poppy warned.

“Yes, thank you.” Loukas gritted his teeth and sought a better grip with numb fingers. “Being careful. You be careful.”

“Perhaps you should slow down.”

“Easy for you to say, you're not the one going backwards.” Loukas held his tongue then, his attention on the aching muscles. Half-way down, Loukas foot caught, his ankle turning under him. He went down hard, sprawling in a shower of rock and dirt. The screw slid past, just missing his head, landing in the water with a splash and the crack of wood hitting rock. Loukas tried to rise, but fell again, the water closing over his head.

Poppy grabbed the front of his tunic and hauled him up, slinging one of Loukas's arms around his neck.

“Master, are you all right?”

Loukas coughed, getting water out of his nose and mouth. “I think so. Is that blood?” His knees and blows and scraped against the rock and diluted blood ran down his arms and legs. “I've changed my mind. I'm not all right at all.”

They reached the top of the embankment, Loukas leaning heavily on Poppy. Nika stood with her hands on her hips, frowning.

“I'm all right,” Loukas told her quickly. “Looks worse than it is.”

“What make you think I care about your miserable hide?” she snapped. “You incompetent fool -- can I trust you with no task, however small?”

“It was an accident, Arist,” Poppy murmured.

“Do no address me again, eunuch,” Nika said, without taking her eyes from Loukas. “Does no one in this House know their place?”

“I'm sorry, Nika. Really, it was an accident--“

“I didn't think you'd done it on purpose,” she said scornfully. “It's just further evidence of your incompetence. I knew tasks of skill or intelligence were beyond you, certainly, but even the simplest things prove too much for you. I don't know what Iereus was thinking when he married you; you're a burden on the House and precious little more. What good is a pretty face when there's nothing behind it?” She gestured to the fallen water-screw, now floating half-submerged. “And see what's become of it.

“Poppy, go on and take him back to the house and get him cleaned up. I can't stand the sight of him right now.”

Loukas walked back, stiffly refusing Poppy's help, though his cuts stung and his ankle wobbled. Poppy took a breath to speak, but then said nothing.

---

“It's not fair,” Loukas said, as Poppy poured him a bath. He stripped his tunic off and dropped it to the floor, a grimy sodden mess. “It wasn't my fault. She had no right to speak to me like that.”

He stepped into the tub, his cuts stinging anew in the hot water. He sank below the water's surface, wishing the world would remain muffled and distant.

When he surface he said, “Tell me what I should do.”

Poppy considered, setting out jars of oil. “There is only one person you can look to for protection.”

Loukas sighed. “He's none too happy with me.”

Poppy looked up from the oils. “Rose, juniper or sandalwood?'

“Sandalwood.” He gingerly toweled off as Poppy selected a fresh tunic. “Which do you think would be best?” He cleared his throat. “I mean, which ... puts me to best advantage? Does Iereus have a favorite color?”

Poppy cocked his head to the side, and Loukas feared he would press him about his sudden concern with Iereus's preferences. “The dark blue suits you admirably and would go well with the silver bracelets he gave you as a wedding gift.”

“I don't remember the bracelets.”

“Considering your reported condition at the time, I'm not surprised.”

“Oh.” Loukas wince. “Yes, well, hopefully he's forgotten that bit.”

“I'm sure he has,” Poppy agreed. “And cosmetics? I would suggest something subtle.”

“Whatever you think,” Loukas said, slipping into his under-tunic. “Your judgment is better than mine.”

“Of course,” Poppy said and lightly lined Loukas's eyes with kohl.

“It's a shame about the scrapes,” Loukas said, wincing as Poppy rubbed the sandalwood oil into his skin. “Are they too ugly, do you think?”

“Trust me, he won't mind,” Poppy said, wiping his hands off and helping Loukas into the indigo tunic. Loukas belted it and slipped the heavy bracelets on, the silver cool against his wrists. Poppy placed the veil over Loukas's head, fitting a circlet over it to keep the light material in place.

Loukas took a deep breath. “Well?”

Poppy considered, his chin in his hand. “Acceptable.” He tugged on the veil, trying to get it to lay flat over Loukas's hair. “And, master? May I suggest you limit yourself to two glasses of wine at dinner?”

Loukas sighed.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-26 01:43 am (UTC)
heinel: (Default)
From: [personal profile] heinel
I have a question about when Poppy said "There is only one person you can look to for protection."

Does that mean Loukas is okay with that now? Surprised me since just before that he was like "Oh I'm so not gonna whore myself out to him," etc. That was a very sudden change, just because of something Nika said. Loukas struck me as someone who is independent in thought and so is unlikely to be swayed by other people's opinions. I think he'd be more likely to change when he realized that his own attitude towards his husband was jarring. I can't seem to find that though.

Just a random thought.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-27 12:47 am (UTC)
heinel: (Default)
From: [personal profile] heinel
Oh, no. I think I understand it much better now. :)

(no subject)

Date: 2009-10-26 02:53 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Loukas just being hardheaded.*_*

(no subject)

Date: 2010-02-11 07:36 pm (UTC)
tmelange: (Default)
From: [personal profile] tmelange
Hmm, I'm almost sad that we're into wife politics here instead of the crackle of the goings on with the brother and the precepts. I haven't found the husband to be too interesting yet...

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