PART I Chapter 3

Rhea Penthekrassi was frowning as she watched Feranescus Rakoczy Sanctu-Germainios remove an elaborate wooden box from his iron-banded chest; she tugged at the ornamented and pleated sleeve of her palla of gauzy, violet silk; over this she had draped a trabea of gold-shot linen, both of which complemented her olive skin and russet-colored hair. "What is that?" she asked uneasily. Now that her time with him was coming to an end, she felt more and more separated from him; she glanced toward the glass-covered window, and beyond, the harvesters in the fields teased by a faineant wind.

"It is for you, so that you can fend for yourself if it comes to that," he said as he gave it to her. "Look inside, if you like." In his black pallium with the collar of silver links, he was unusually imposing, and that made her uncertain about the box, since it appeared to be part of his farewell to her.

She took hold of it, surprised at how heavy it was. Reluctantly she slid back the lid, and very nearly dropped it as she caught sight of the large variety of jewels it contained; her hold tightened and she stared at him in astonishment. "This is all for me?"


"How many are there?" She wanted to count them herself, but knew it would be unacceptably rude to do so where he could see.

"Thirty-six; that should be enough to take care of you for many years, and they may provide you a dowry if you decide to marry. If you would prefer not to marry, you will not be reduced to beggary, but will be able to keep yourself in good comfort, unless the Emperor will not permit you to secure property." His voice was even and reassuring; for the first time that afternoon she felt safe in his company.

"I believe you're right; it will keep me a long time," she said, thinking she could purchase a husband for half of what the box contained. "Unless I am reckless."

"But you will not be," he said with a kind of warning that left her determined to be worthy of his trust in her.

"No, I will not," she confirmed. "You are incredibly generous."

"You will find a deed of gift on folded parchment in the lid. Keep it in case you have to prove your right to the jewels." It had not been so long ago - less than three centuries - that such a precaution would not have been necessary, but as matters currently stood in the Byzantine half of the Roman Empire, without such a deed, Rhea was not entitled to control the jewels, nor benefit from their value.

She went a bit pale. "I will. I will keep them concealed and protected. No one will know that I have them, or who gave them to me."

"An excellent plan," he approved. "I know from my trading company that Constantinople is a costly place, with high standards for those who live there. Unless you want a life of hardship, you will need some things from me beyond these jewels to make your situation tolerable. Your clothes and household goods will go with you. You may keep the horses I will provide for your journey, and the wagons they will draw, all of them. Your escort will take only those animals they need to ride back here. But the horses you will keep need food and shelter; with these stones you can secure a house and stable so that you may live satisfactorily for some time to come." She closed the box carefully. "Why such wonderful gems?"

"They are easily concealed and their value should remain constant no matter who is Emperor, or what the Patriarch declares. Any sea captain will accept them for passage, if your life there goes awry." He had taken the last ten days to make the jewels in his athanor, along with fifty-eight more. "You deserve to live well, wherever you live."

"I will thank you every day," she said, remembering how she had left Constantinople. In a distant tone, she spoke her thoughts aloud. "We lived well until my father had fallen from favor with the Imperial Censor. Then, when he was dead, my uncle removed me from the hovel that had become our home. I never thought I could return to the city of my birth, except as a concubine, or a lesser wife of some barbarian or other. Now - " Now she would be able to live as well as she had for all but the last year of her father's life. To her surprise, she felt tears on her face.

Sanctu-Germainios went to her side. "You have no cause to weep," he said as he put his arm around her shoulder, more consolingly than seductive.

"Except that I will miss you, no, I don't; for me that is reason enough," she agreed, wiping her eyes with her free hand; she made herself disengage from him, afraid that she would behave in an unseemly fashion if she remained with him any longer. "I had best go secure these in my traveling chest. I should do it myself, so they will be completely concealed." She slipped out of his arm and went to the door. "Perhaps you will join me later?"

"Perhaps I will," he said with a smile that lit his dark eyes with promise.

"I'll look forward to it," she almost purred.

As he watched her pull the door closed behind her, he found himself thinking of Melidulci, who also enjoyed him as a lover but wanted no part of his life after death. "By all the forgotten gods," he murmured, trying to keep from despondency. He paced the length of the room, distracting himself with reading the titles over the vast array of pigeon-holes, aware that the book-room of his villa felt too quiet with Rhea gone, as he knew the whole villa would seem after the coming morning; for a short time, Sanctu-Germainios stared at the shelves and pigeon-holes with extreme blankness of expression, then he selected the ancient papyrus he had been given when he was High Priest of Imhotep, laid it out on the table, and unfolded it. He read over the recommended treatment for sprained ankles, and the course of herbs and infusions for inflamed intestines, and was about to review the formula for relieving hives when he heard a soft tap on the door. "Who is it?"

"Rugierus," said his manservant.

"Come," said Sanctu-Germainios in Alexandrian Latin.

Rugierus stepped into the room and closed the door behind him. In his cotton pallium of dusky gold, he seemed to be made up in shades of tan and beige, except for his faded-blue eyes; he, too, spoke Latin in the Alexandrian idiom. "I have chosen a closed wagon and two carts for our travel, horses for the wagon, mules for the carts," he said in the same dialect. "I'll ride and take a remount, and an extra mule in case there is any trouble. One of the serving-women will attend Dama Rhea, and four drivers - three to drive and one extra as a precaution. We'll carry four additional wheels for each vehicle, and a complete harness, with two extra sets of reins for the wagon and carts, and one for the horses, along with three replacement bits."

"Very prudent. Let us hope that you will need none of them." Sanctu-Germainios folded the papyrus closed and returned it to its pigeon-hole. "Be sure to carry food and water, and grain for the animals."

"Certainly, and gold coins hidden, in case we must pay high passage fees," said Rugierus. "Too many of the towns and regions ally themselves to whomever provides the most: loyalties change from barbarians to Greeks to Romans on little more than a whim, and are abandoned in abrupt pretermission."

"Have we received any news of shifted alliance or territorial changes in fealty, or alignments? Has any region become the land of newcomers?" He waved his hand. "Not to pelt you with questions: as the regional guardian, such information is essential to this task." He relied on Rugierus and his two couriers to sort out rumors from truth through his communications with various clerks and messengers. "Nothing that can be confirmed," said Rugierus.

"And that is unlikely to change soon," said Sanctu-Germainios. "Not with these regions in such disarray."

"If the Huns keep on the attack, the loyalties and private agreements may not matter much."

"Truly, old friend," said Sanctu-Germainios, then abandoned the fruitless speculation. "Have you worked out the length of your journey yet?"

"All things being equal, we will strive to travel at least four leagues in a day, five if the weather is good and we have no misfortune. We will rest our horses and mules every five days, and purchase food at every town boasting a market. Assuming we leave tomorrow, we should have good weather most of the way. Once the rain and snow come, then we will not travel as quickly."

Sanctu-Germainios considered this. "That is not unreasonable; you are not on a military campaign," he said. "I can hope that the roads you will use are not in complete disrepair."

Rugierus' austere features were touched with amusement. "They were not in good condition when you left Salonae for Apulum Inferior twelve years ago; no report since then has said much about improvement. And you informed me that the road to Porolissum was in poor condition when you returned from your visit to Bondama Olivia."

"Because no one is willing to provide the men or the supplies to repair them." Sanctu-Germainios shook his head once.

"You could pay to restore the roads," Rugierus said.

"I could, but at present, I am providing builders and lumber to strengthen the walls of this town, and for other towns in the region, as I am duty-bound to do. If I paid for anything more, the Emperor Theodosios in Constantinople would order me to leave the region, and no one in Roma would dispute his order, neither Roman nor Ostrogoth. Doubtless my departure taxes would be very high and the mercenaries at the garrison might seize my holdings and demand money for their return before I was out of the territory; they might resort to torture to get what they want. Remember what happened to Kyros Esaias? And after all they did to him, they never found his fortune - if he actually had one."

Rugierus pressed his thin lips tightly. "Is he still alive?"

"He is, but his mind is gone; the monks care for him," said Sanctu-Germainios; he was silent for a long moment. When he spoke again, it was in a steady tone. "Take money enough to pay for a courier in case you should have to send me word of any significant development. Keep it in the hidden pocket under your saddle, so that no one will know you have it."

"Are you expecting trouble for us along the way?" Rugierus inquired with no indication of worry.

"It is possible. Raiders of all descriptions are everywhere, and many people are seeking a haven from the raids. Either way, you might find yourself having to defend Rhea and all you carry." He folded his hands. "If you run into conflict, search out a monastery or a church. Rhea is likelier to be safe there than in a fortress, soldiers -  especially mercenary soldiers - being what they are."

"Not that monks are much better," Rugierus said.

"They are more easily stopped, and more readily shamed," Sanctu-Germainios remarked.

"And less likely to be armed. Most monks have only farm-tools for weapons." Rugierus nodded, continuing in a matter-of-fact manner, "If we encounter no delays, we should be in Constantinople in twenty-five days or so. I and the drivers will leave the horses with Dama Rhea and ride back on the mules. The serving-woman is to remain with her, as well."

"Send me word when you cross the Danuvius, and when you have covered half the distance from here to Constantinople; if there is any news you believe I can find advantageous, spend the money and send it along to me, as well," Sanctu-Germainios said. "Use hired couriers, not merchants or travelers bound this way, for they may not act promptly in delivering your message. If anything has gone wrong here, I will send a courier to the place where you crossed the Danuvius with information where I am going."

"Drobetae or Oescus, one or the other is where we'll cross," Rugierus said.

"Very good. They have ferries as well as bridges," Sanctu-Germainios said in agreement.

"Then over the mountain to Philippopolis, and from there to Constantinople," Rugierus recited.

"A fine choice of route," said Sanctu-Germainios. "Be careful in the mountains."

"Robbers and landslides: yes, I've thought about both of them. I'll provide the drivers and guards with spears and Hunnic bows, and some shovels," said Rugierus. "I think one of the drivers should be Rouaric's assistant Bainiu; we may need a smith and a farrier on the road."

"Bainiu is a good choice. Take an anvil with you as well, and hammers. I only wish you could include a forge."

At this Rugierus actually smiled. "We will find forges at estates and towns and garrisons as we go. No doubt we will be able to pay for the use of a forge, in coin or in labor. You and I have done such in the past, my master."

"You're thinking of our journey beyond the Stone Tower, fifty years ago, or perhaps our leaving Shiraz, after Srau - "

Rugierus held up his hands. "It came to mind."

"A trek neither of us likes to remember," said Sanctu-Germainios .

"It has its useful lessons," said Rugierus. "I will bear them in mind." He ducked his head. "Shall I order the bath warmed for you?"

"If you would," said Sanctu-Germainios. "An hour or so after sundown."

"As you wish," said Rugierus.

"I am going now to spend some time with Rhea."

"I'll tell the staff not to disturb you." Rugierus took a step toward the door. "When would you like to have her cases loaded?"

"Later tonight. Keep the wagon and carts locked in the stable."

"Shall we load them while you're bathing, perhaps?"

Sanctu-Germainios considered this. "If Rhea agrees."

Rugierus held the door open for Sanctu-Germainios. "Is there anything more you would like me to attend to?"

"Whatever you think needs your attention; I have implicit trust in you," said Sanctu-Germainios, nodding once before striding across the atrium toward the stairs that led to the private quarters of the villa. He passed the door to his own rooms and continued on to Rhea's, stepping inside her small withdrawing room, where he found two housemaids working to pack Rhea's garments in one of three large chests; both women stopped and ducked their heads to their employer. "Will you tell me where Dama Rhea is?"

"The inner room," said the older of the two.

"Thank you," said Sanctu-Germainios, and passed on into the inner room where Rhea slept and tended to her appearance; she was sitting on the end of her bed, braiding a trio of ribbons into a circlet for her hair. "Rhea, are you willing to - "

Before he could finish, she hurried up to him and put her fingers against his lips. "Don't say anything. I've just stopped crying," she whispered; her eyes were reddened and swollen.

"Is anything wrong?" he asked as he gently wiped away her tears.

"I'm ... I'm sorry to be going," she said plaintively. "I know I must, and I understand that it must be now. I realize that you have been very kind to me, so I feel at odds with myself, for I can't help but wonder if what lies ahead is as pleasant as this has been."

"This may not be pleasant much longer," he said with kindness.

"You will not want to be here if there is fighting. Your uncle would agree."

She stamped her foot. "If I hadn't committed myself to a brief stay, I might have been able to remain through the winter, but the Praetor Custodis requires that I leave, or permit my uncle to disown me."

"Then the situation is out of your hands, and mine," said Sanctu-Germainios, leading her toward the narrow couch near the window rather than toward her wide bed. "Here. I don't want you to feel you are being pressed."

"I didn't understand about you." She stared into his eyes, weighing her doubts against his steady acceptance. "I still don't."

"I am a foreigner; that is what I ask you to recollect when you are conjectural," he said, offering his arm for her support as she sat down.

"More foreign, it turns out, than I was told," she said, trying to keep from giving way again.

"All the more reason for you to leave," he said with an element of regret. "If you stay here, things will change between us; you and I will no longer be able to lie together safely."

"But it's only been four times," she wailed quietly.

"Six times and you will risk transforming to one of my blood when you die, and you have said you have no wish to do that. You recall what that would mean for you, do you not?" He spoke much more calmly than he would have done five centuries ago, and made no attempt to dissuade her.

"No. If what you told me is true, I wouldn't want to become like you." She touched the small, golden fish hanging from a hook on the wall. "The Bishop would condemn me if I should rise after death: it would be blasphemous."

"And burning brings the True Death," he said sympathetically.

"So you explained to me," she responded, reaching from the fish to his hand. "But we have this one last chance, don't we?"

"If it is what you want." His nearly black eyes glowed blue in their depths. "You have only to tell me."

"Oh, yes, it is what I want. We can say good-bye in the morning, but now, I want a farewell that will last for years to come." She eased her hand into his and tugged to pull him down beside her, taking advantage of the confined space to embrace him. "Let this be something I will remember for all my life."

"I will do all I can of what I can," he pledged, and drew her close to him, kissing her lightly but persuasively, letting her warm to him, sensing passion rising in her.

She moved away from him as the kiss ended. "Wait. Wait while I send my serving-women away; I don't want to be interrupted," she said, breathing somewhat more quickly than she had before the kiss; she got to her feet and went to the door, half-opened it, and ordered the two women to tend to choosing the bedding for the wagon. "Make sure it is soft," she said, and watched them depart before closing the door and coming back toward Sanctu-Germainios, untying her trabea and letting it fall to the floor as she approached her bed. "This will be more comfortable, Feranescus. There is more room and the mattress is softer."

"As you like," he said, rising from the couch and going to the bed, standing to face her at its foot.

She stretched up her arms. "Remove my palla, if you would." The challenge in her mien was a mixture of desire and sadness.

Sanctu-Germainios unfastened the elaborately braided belt under her breasts, slipped his fingers under the pleated shoulders of the palla, and whisked it upward, swinging it to let it fall on the couch behind him. "What about your mani and fascae? Shall I - " She was already loosening her underclothes. "I'll tend to them," she said, and stepped out of her mani, leaving the fascae for last. "You can help me with this, if you want to."

He stepped behind her and untied the flat knot between her shoulder-blades, sliding the Egyptian linen slowly free of her breasts. He felt a faint quiver go through her, and he put one knee on the bed. "Would you like to recline?"

"No. I'd like to make love," she said, turned a little, and fell back, landing with arms spread on the lower half of the bed. She wriggled up to the array of pillows at the head, holding out her arms to him as she settled among them. "Work your way up from where you are. Begin with the soles of my feet."

"The soles of your feet? Very well." He sat down on the side of the bed, leaning as if reclining for a feast; taking her left foot in his hand, he bent and playfully kissed the sole, then lightly ran his tongue along her toes.

She gave a sharp laugh; she was ticklish. "That's ... fine."

He rolled a little nearer to her and repeated his ministrations to her right foot; this time her toes curled in pleasure, and she gave a long, luxurious sigh. With a feather-light touch, he slowly moved his fingers up to her knee, shifting himself so that he could glide between her legs.

The disparate urgency that had been taut within her began to give way to an exhilarated repose. Her flesh seemed bathed in a warm tide of increasing passion, her skin growing more and more sensitive to his most minuscule attention. Because Sanctu-Germainios did not demand an intense reception from her, she began to feel one build within her; his gently coaxing kisses summoned an ardor from her that was greater than her sorrow at their parting. Her senses heightened, she all but held her breath as he continued up her body, finding centers of pleasure as he went, lingering where she responded most, anticipating his caresses to the soft folds at the joining of her thighs. She shivered as his fingers awakened the nub of pleasure between her legs, and as his fingers probed more deeply, she shuddered in anticipatory rapture while his tongue took the place of his fingers.

Continuing to arouse her with his hand, Sanctu-Germainios moved up her body, meeting her lips with his own, touching her breasts as she hovered on the edge of release. Answering her ecstasy with his own, Sanctu-Germainios nuzzled her throat as her first cries of fulfillment, hushed with awe, and her glorious spasms enveloped him in the gratification that exceeded all she had longed for.

"God and the Archangels," she whispered as she came back to herself. She felt him slip off her, lying close beside her while her heartbeat and breathing slowed, and she succumbed to sweet languor, drifting at the edge of sleep. "Stay with me a while?"

"Yes; a while," he told her, leaning to kiss her forehead. "Lie quietly."

She pulled his arm across her body, smiling muzzily. "And you didn't take off your clothes," she said. "You never do," she breathed, letting her attention float with her into delicious sleep.

By the time Sanctu-Germainios left Rhea's bed, the room was deep in shadow and the air was cool. As he rose, he wrapped her blanket over her, then went and lit the single oil-l amp at the door before he left to bathe - his mind still full of her - and then to make the last arrangements for her departure.

Text of a letter from Priam Corydon of Sanctu-Eustachios the Hermit monastery between Ulpia Traiana and Apulum Inferior to Gnaccus Tortulla, Praetor Custodis of Viminacium, Moesia, written on vellum, carried by a Roma-bound band of pilgrims and delivered sixteen days after being dispatched.

To the most esteemed Praetor Custodis, Gnaccus Tortulla, the respectful greetings and faithful prayers of the Priam Corydon of the Sanctu-Eustachios the Hermit monastery in former Dacian territory, Ave, on this, the Autumnal Equinox.

I am grateful to you for your offer of a company of slaves to assist us in fortifying our walls, but I fear what is needed here are soldiers, not slaves. We have more than enough monks to attend to the necessary labor, but most of our Brothers are not trained in fighting, and if we must feed and house fifty men, we must require that they be capable of mounting a true defense of the monastery. We have good reason to think that we may have to sustain against an attack before long.

You, of course, must face similar problems, and I sympathize with your predicament, since if you are to supply us with soldiers, it means that you must reduce your garrison, and that cannot be a welcome notion. But without some kind of reinforcement from trained fighters with weapons of their own, we may face complete destruction.

I have asked my brother, who commands a fort in Novae, if he is in a position to dispatch soldiers to us, but I have yet to receive an answer from him. I doubt that he will be able to aid us, which leaves me to cast about for help from good Christians to come to the aid of their fellows and to uphold the Church. If you refuse, then I will have to look farther afield for soldiers, all of which means more delay during which time we will be wholly vulnerable to attack.

There are those within the monastery who claim that if God does not provide the fighting men we need, then it is His Will that we be destroyed, and that if we mount any defense, we defy him at the peril of our souls. They may be right, and if they are, I will answer for it on the Day of Judgment. But to my mind, since I have the guardianship of the monks, it is fitting that I do all that I can in this world to preserve the Brothers and this monastery for Our Lord, for Whom I hold it in trust.

I adjure you to consider our plight and to offer as much help as you deem fitting, and to that end I and my Brothers will offer up prayers.

Priam Corydon

Sanctu-Eustachios the Hermit monastery

Gepidae territory, formerly Dacia Superior

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