Chapter 9

Aug. 31st, 2009 08:20 am
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Loukas watched Nika from the corner of his eye as he seated at the table. She didn't so much as look his direction.

“How's construction on that contraption?” Metrodora asked, neatly slicing a tidbit off her roasted song bird. “It seems to occupy all your time.”

“It should be running tomorrow,” Nika replied. “I would have had it ready today, but there was a setback and I had to stop for repa irs.”

“A shame,” Metrodora said absently, reaching for a melon slice.

Loukas feared Metrodora would pres Nika for the circumstances of the setback, but she seemed more interested in cutting the rind off her melon. Myrrine gave him a curious look across the table. Loukas shook his head once asking her not to pursue it. Her expression turned sympathetic.

Loukas jumped a little as he realized Iereus had been watching him curiously.

“I'll be interested to see what difference it makes,” Iereus said, his attention turning to Nika. “We've been lucky we haven't had to water the past few season, but this spring has been so dry, we'll have to.”

“Do you lose many to drought?” Loukas asked and the entire table turned toward him in surprise.

“Not lose, no. Olive trees are hardy, but without enough water they won't produce fruit,” Iereus explained.

“I see.” Loukas nodded intently.

Metrodora took up her wine glass. “Have you taken an interest in arboriculture, Loukas?”

“Well.” Loukas pushed scraps around his plate. “It seems like it would be worth knowing and interest often follows knowledge. People often find a subject dull until they learn enough to appreciate it. Like, oh say ... philosophy.” Nika stiffened a little in her seat and Loukas continued, picking up steam. “Many people find it dull, but I think they'd find it's because they've never studied it.”

Iereus nodded wryly. “I fear you will have to count me among the ignorant. I hope you do not judge me too harshly for it.”

“Of course not, Husband. You've merely lacked a good teacher.” Loukas dipped a bit of bread in olive oil, chewing it thoughtfully. He swallowed and said, “If you wanted a lesson or two, I would humbly offer myself as a tutor -- perhaps after dinner, if you've the time?”

Iereus raised his glass in a small salute. “How could I refuse such a gracious offer?”

---

They retreated to Iereus's room after dinner. Myrrine caught his eye on the way out and gave him a small smile and a wink that heartened him and made his stride bold. Iereus's room hardly befit an archon of his station; they were spartan in their appointment, the furniture adequate but hardly comfortable -- nothing like Eugenia's silks and brocades.

“Would you care for something to drink?” Iereus asked, moving to the sideboard.

“I've already had my limit,” Loukas said absently, studying the room's only decoration: a large map hanging on the wall.

“I didn't realize we were rationing,” Iereus replied, pewter stopper in hand.

“Oh,” Loukas said, flushing. “I just meant ... I've had enough, thank you.”

Iereus poured himself a glass of sweet brandy -- Loukas could smell it from across the room -- and moved to stand behind Loukas.

“Do you know as much about geography as you do philosophy?”

Loukas couldn't read the neat labels on the map, but he could pick out the jutting peninsula of Edessa and the curving Potomia River. “My knowledge of geography is purely theoretical. Save for my family's summer estate, I haven't been outside the city. Have you traveled much, Husband?”

“Some,” Iereus allowed. “I was in the navy for a short time in my youth.”

“Really? I didn't know,” Loukas said in surprise.

The corners of Iereus's mouth turned upwards. “Oh yes, spent a two years chasing pirates aboard Ardalia's Pride. It seems exciting now, but at the time it was mostly uncomfortable. We caught up to Tiktos and her crew here,” he pointed to a spot off one of the Kleistan islands, “and that was a battle I won't ever forget.” He stared past the map, his gaze unfocused, recalling events long past. “I was called home when my sister, the elarchon, died. Long time ago now.”

Loukas reached up to trace the coastline, imaging the two ships battling on the high seas. Houses only committed unnecessary children to the navy; the casualties were so high. Another year or two and Iereus probably wouldn't have returned.

Loukas's sleeve slipped back, revealing his scrapped elbow. Iereus caught his wrist, pulling it to him for inspection.

“Here, what happened to you?”

“Remember Nika explaining there had been a setback with the water-screw? I was the setback.” Iereus probed a long scratch, his fingers gentle. “It's not bad. You should see my knees.”

Iereus looked up from his inspection. “Is that an invitation?”

“Oh uh, I,” Loukas stammered, caught off-guard. “Husband, you don't need one.”

“But I like getting them all the same.” Iereus's dark eyes glimmered with mirth. “What really happened?”

Loukas had to mentally backtrack before he realized Iereus meant the cuts. “I slipped when we were setting the water-screw up and fell down the embankment. She was,” he paused to select a word, “displeased with me. Although that may be a chronic condition. She thinks marrying me was a mistake.”

Iereus took a seat in one of the chairs by the hearth. “Was it?”

Loukas stood motionless, twisting one bracelet around his wrist. “I don't know.”

Iereus drained his glass and set it aside. “Your honesty, if not exactly refreshing, is certainly a change from what I usually hear from my wives.”

“I'm sorry.”

“Why should you be?” Iereus held out his glass, and Loukas refilled it. Loukas took a sip of the brandy; it burned on the way down. He brought the glass back to Iereus and knelt, grasping the arm of the chair.

“If you would have the truth, hear it now. I am a child of true blood and my mother's eldest. I hoped to be archon, despite my deficiency,” Loukas's mouth twisted around the bitter word. “I had kept it secret even from my own House, until the night I met you.”

Loukas took a deep breath, waiting for Iereus to speak, but when he said nothing, Loukas struggled to find words to continue. “Instead, I found myself relegated -- not just a wife, but a worthless one. Sold on the cheap like damaged goods.” Loukas licked his lips. “I know I should be grateful for the marriage, instead of being committed to the navy or some stuffy church.”

Iereus laid a hand over Loukas's where it gripped the chair, calluses rough. He opened his mouth to speak, but closed it again having said nothing. His hand moved to cup the side of Loukas's face, his thumb ghosting along Loukas's cheekbone.

Loukas held still as Iereus leaned forward and kissed him. Loukas closed his eyes and followed Iereus's lead.

“Do you think the philosophy can wait until another night?” he said, breaking the kiss.

Loukas smiled. “I think it'd better.”

---

Loukas woke late the next morning and had to orientate himself before he remembered he slept in Iereus's bed. Coffee and spread of almond pastries, yogurt and fruit were laid out and waiting for him. He poured himself a cup and palmed a handful of grapes. Iereus was absent, doubtlessly risen and gone by dawn. A fresh tunic waited as well, and Loukas pulled it on.

He passed several slaves as he returned to his room, the weight of their curious gazes making his shoulder blades itch. Both embarrassed and gratified, he gave Nika's eunuch a smug smile.

---

Loukas was out in the courtyard, idly throwing crusts of bread to the fish, when Iereus came out of the stables leading Lethos, his stallion.

“Loukas, if today's appointments allow,” Iereus said with a wry glance at the fish, “perhaps you'd like to accompany me up to the pastures today. The mares have all foaled, and I'd to inspect this year's new additions.”

Loukas happily agreed, tossing the rest of the bread in at once. Poppy didn't like horses and would only consent to ride an old mule, so Loukas's expeditions had been rather limited. Rayna was happy to get out of the exercise paddocks. She whickered a greeting as he saddled her and led her out. He had to rein her in as she pulled at the bit, eager to run.

“She's a fine animal,” Iereus said.

“I broke her myself.” He patted her neck affectionately. “She's fast, too.”

They rode up through the olive grove; the trees were old and their trunks thick and twisted. They had endured a hundred years and would likely see a hundred more. Summer had brought heat even high in the mountains, and Rayna's coat turned dark with sweat.

The groves opened up onto a wide plateau where the horses grazed on thin grass in the summer months; hay was put down for them in winter. The best of the yearlings were rounded up and brought down to the main house to be broken, but the rest of the herd ran free. A few equine heads rose as Rayna whinnied to them; Loukas could tell the breed would do well in the chariot races at the Festival of Ardalia.

Smoke rose from the chimney of a small shack; a few slaves stayed durning the foaling season and the harsh winter months.

Loukas ignored the impulse to make straight for the herd, dutifully following Iereus as he made for the shack. Two slaves came out to hold Rayna's head while Loukas dismounted.

“Greetings, Betus,” Iereus said, clapping the slave on the shoulder as though he were a friend.

“And to you, master. There's some fine little foals this year. Would you have coffee first, or see them immediately?”

“I'll go ahead and see them now,” Iereus said. “I'm glad to hear about the foals. Did we lose any?”

Betus grimaced. “Aye, a lion got two this winter. But we got her in the end.” He led them over to a make shift corral with the foals and their dams.

Loukas couldn't keep from smiling at the foals' antics. They were old enough to venture from their dams to play. Amid the chestnuts and bays, Loukas caught sight of a little gray filly hiding behind her mother. The slaves separated each pair from the herd, the foals still wild and unused to handling.

“What do you think of the stock, Loukas?” Iereus asked. “Any promising prospects?”

“I like the gray filly. And that roan.” He pointed to a coal reaching out its long neck to nip the hindquarters of its playmate. “The black with a white blaze is a little short-necked. And that sorrel is knock-kneed.”

“Still a little young to tell for sure.” Iereus crossed his arms, head cocked to the side as he considered the prospects. “You have a good eye.”

“My father taught me to ride before I could walk.” The foals gamboled and ran into each other, as the last was released from inspection. “He was from Thelassoi.”

“Ah,” Iereus said. House Thelassoi was known for its skill with horses. “Maybe he could visit, give us his opinion.”

“I think it unlikely. He died six years ago.” A horse had stepped on his his toe, breaking it. A minor injury, but one that had refused to heal all winter and that summer he'd grown sicker and died.

“I'm sorry.”

Loukas shrugged. “I think he'd be impressed with these though.”

They were quiet for a few moments and then Iereus made note which of the yearlings he wanted to sell and the few that were good enough to keep for his own stables.

After a lunch of olives, flatbread and goat cheese, they rode down. The valley swept out below in a wave of green, washing into browns and the lighter greens of farmland. On the horizon, Loukas could just make out the silver smudge of Edessa.

“Loukas,” Iereus said, “I am pleased. I think the yearlings will fetch good prices at the Djaan horse fairs in eight days.”

“They should indeed.”

“The Djaan people are excellent judges of horseflesh. I will be gone at least a fortnight.”

Loukas nodded again, though he was a little surprised that Iereus intended to go to the fair himself instead of sending a representative. Most Edessan arists hated dealing with the Djaani people.

“I'll be taking Nika. She drives a harder bargain than anyone I know.” He paused. “But I thought I might take you along as well. I can use another set of hands dealing, and you're good with the animals.”

Loukas's mouth dropped open as he tried to formulate a reply.

“It's a hard journey, and I won't require it of you.” He glanced over. “You'd be able to practice your geography.”

Loukas grinned. “And you might start your philosophical studies on the road.”

---

The young horses looked good, if a bit on the skinny side, even with hay supplementing their forage. The spring rains hadn't come, and now the pasture was brown and dry as tinder.

Though Loukas rode well, he'd never been on a drive before and he stayed out of the way as the slaves separated the horses marked for sale. Iereus watched from the saddle beside him.

“How far do you hope to make before sunset, Husband?” Nika asked, neatly guiding her temperamental gelding between Lethos and Rayna.

“To Ridoun tonight, and the dunes of the Erammos in sight the day after,” Iereus replied.

The party made their way down through the foothills; the dust they kicked up coating Loukas's skin and clothes. Nika's horse nipped Rayna's shoulder; the mare shied away. Loukas pulled her in, falling into line further back. About fifty horses rode in the party, including the mounts of the slaves and the pack mules who carried the tents and supplies -- and Poppy, who refused any mount more challenging.

Riding north, they left the Skandarans by midday riding into the short grass prairies, which seemed hopelessly flat and dull to Loukas. He'd grown up in the confines of the city or in the Kommene summer villa in the mountains; all the open space left him feeling exposed and uneasy. With the exception of long-eared jackrabbits, a few grouse and the occasional snake, nothing interrupted the monotonous landscape.

The caught sight of Ridoun an hora before they reached it: an unpromising outline on the horizon. Ridoun didn't have enough tourists to merit an inn, so the party pitched their tents right along the main street, doubling the number of buildings.

“I'd hoped for something a little more exciting,” Loukas said, easing down on weary legs to unlace his sandals.

“I'd hoped for something with a bath,” Poppy sighed and left to go haul water so they could wash off the worst of the dirt.

Despite his exhaustion, Loukas didn't fall asleep; the heat made breathing difficult in the stuffy tent. An uneven spot beneath his bedroll dug into the small of his back.

He rose and pushed the tent flap open. The slaves played cards, laughing and slapping and jostling each other. They fell silent as he approached, there faces sobering in the flickering light of the fire.

“Can we help you, Master?” the foreman asked, making to rise, but Loukas held out a hand to stop him.

“No. I, uh, just wanted some fresh air.” He retreated back into the darkness. A full moon hung overhead and Loukas wished he'd paid more attention to astronomy. He could only find the familiar point of Lereious's Bow and the Hound, doomed to wander the heavens looking for its master. Within Iereus's tent, a lamp burned, throwing shadows against the walls. He reached for the knot holding the flap closed, but hesitated. Nika's laughter came, sharp in the night air.

Loukas snatched his hand back and hurried to his own tent. Poppy snored lightly, as Loukas settled down.

“Hm?” Poppy murmured sleepily. “Where were you?”

“Call of nature. Go back to sleep.”

Poppy rolled over, immediately asleep again.

---

The dawn come earlier out on the prairie than it did in the mountains. Loukas was too tired to even grumble about it as Poppy shook him awake. It required the whole of his attention to get his aching muscles to cooperate. He'd never spent so long a period of time in the saddle, and the prospect of spending another day the same way had all the appeal of chewing rocks.

Which, coincidentally, was what breakfast tasted like. The slaves were already striking the tents as Loukas drank coffee that tasted strongly of the tin pot it had been brewed in. Still, he felt marginally better after finishing it and, ignoring the sand in his joints, he swung astride Rayna.

Nika looked far better than he felt, her hair plaited down her back and her tunic a dark umber that suited her admirably. She waved cheerfully to him from the other side of the herd; he nodded shortly and gripped the reins a little tighter.

They made good time, reaching the southern most edge of the Erammos Desert before dusk. The prairie's scrub grass grew sparser and then yielded entirely to the copper sand. Without a water source until they came to the fair's oasis, they rationed and Loukas barely had enough to wash his hands and face. The sand worked its way into everything, between his toes, his hair was gritty with it.

He finished the last of his meal, too hungry to refuse it. Iereus sat across the fire and Nika lounged close to him, the light catching the facets of her earrings. She grinned when she caught Loukas's eye.

“You find the journey wearying, little brother?”

“Perfectly refreshing.” He smiled ruefully as she raised an eyebrow. “Except that I think my legs may fall off. I've never ridden so far or so long.”

“Then you've never seen the Djaani people before?” He shook his head no. “They're an interesting lot, spending their days on horseback and their nights in tents out on the desert. They don't have any cities -- nothing permanent.”

Iereus prodded the fire, sending up a flare of sparks. “They rode across the sands before the founders built the first walls of Edessa.”

“Strange to think of them out there, always on the move.” Loukas looked out toward the northern horizon, but there was nothing but blackness to see.

“They're strict monogamists, you know,” Nika said, delivering the news with such satisfaction that Loukas had to wonder if she wasn't making it up to tease him. Iereus, however, said nothing to correct her.

“Then no wonder they're so poor,” Loukas said. A family's entire fortune would be scattered and lost in three generations.

Nika leaned back on her elbows, staring up into the sky. “They care little for material goods. Coin would only weigh them down.”

“I suppose,” Loukas said, thinking he'd take his chances with the coin.

He lingered over his allotment of wine, unwilling to go back to his tent. But when Iereus stood, he merely wished them both a good night and departed with no further invitation. Nika retired shortly thereafter, but Loukas stayed out until the fire died, and he grew chilled.


On to chapter 10
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Date: 2009-10-26 03:03 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
i think Loukas is feeling lonely.*_*

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