The first day of Ryou's stay in Sura was rather boring, which was not entirely unwelcome. After his talk with Leyam in the library, he went back to Darius's room and rested until the sun stood poised overhead and the gardens outside vibrated in the heat and insect chirps. At that time Jexen appeared out of nowhere to serve Ryou a tray of lunch. It was a light meal of bread, fruit and cheese as was the custom in these hot countries, the evening meal being the important one.
Ryou spent some of the afternoon inspecting the room the master of the Noble Quarters had prepared for him, one door down from Darius's, then he rested some more while browsing through a bunch of maps he'd found in his lover's room. Halfway through the afternoon, Peistrasos, one of Darius's palace attendants, invited Ryou to visit the balneum again. As the sun touched the top of the wall around the palace, the servant lead the well-washed and relaxed 'noble guest' to a round room with painted walls at ground level where a meal of melons, steamed barley and lamb with a nut and date sauce was already set out on the sideboard.
"You look settled down," said Darius behind him, just as Ryou was wondering how he was going to enjoy dinner in this large, empty room with two hovering servants for only company.
"And you looked satisfied with yourself," Ryou concluded with a glance at his lover.
"Furies, I sure am." Darius untied his sword from his belt and tossed it carelessly at Peistrasos. "These lazy divisions stationed around here got a reminder of why they call me the Beast, or considerably worse when they think I'm out of earshot. If you listen closely, you can hear the groaning from here. Ahh, that's better," he added, letting himself fall onto the couch next to Ryou's. He was dressed in a thigh-length skirt, leg greaves, the bracer on his left arm and nothing else. His skin showed evidence of trickles of water. Ryou didn't have to push his imagination very hard to visualize his lover, covered in sweat and dirt, rinsing off in a horse's trough somewhere. Whatever hell the garrison had been through, they would not dare complain about it when their commander, the king's half-brother, shared it with them, and probably left them straggling in his dust.
"Beer, Peistrasos," Darius said over his shoulder. "I'm too thirsty for wine tonight. Has my skin gone soft, or is it even hotter than it was last year before the floods?"
"I know two things, Lord Ghan," Peistrasos answered ponderously as he brought over the jug of beer and a small silver sieve to filter it into a cup. "One, is that it is hot, and the other is that if your skin is soft, then I'm the Queen of Kush." Peistrasos was a servant, not a slave, a burly old ex-soldier with a limp, terrible scars down one arm, three missing fingers, and a certain lack of servility in his manner.
Darius drank down a whole cup of beer, bit into a melon and mumbled, "I have more to do with the troops tomorrow. We are going to be doing footraces to the Ox Gate. In the late afternoon once the heat dies down a little, though, I don't want to kill the little ladies. They need to be able to shore up defenses against attack in less than two hours, or I'll have them do the same the day after, this time barefoot and with bags of arrows on their backs. But if you're free in the morning, I'm taking you to see Sura."
"Thank you," said Ryou, a little relieved. One day of doing nothing was just about as much as he could stand. It wasn't just the workaholic in him, either; in Assyria, when there was nothing to do, there really was nothing. No internet, no TV, no radio and of course no books unless Ryou wanted to find someone to read to him out loud.
"What are you doing this evening?" he asked on the heels of that thought. During their travels, the time between dinner and sleep had been spent talking and sharing tales. Ryou didn't particularly fancy staying alone now, and not only because of boredom. For a man who'd been solitary most of his life, it was rather alarming how much he missed Darius after not seeing him for just one day.
"This evening? I've got a few orders to give and a letter to write. But I can do that later. I was planning to go see this room the servants gave you after the meal. I need to make sure those lazy bastards set you up right."
"Oh they did, it's actually very-" Ryou caught the look Darius was giving him as the latter took another slow bite of the melon. It was not the look of a man who was curious to see furniture arrangements. If Ryou had to label that look, the word predatory would come in handy.
Ryou wiped some of the lamb sauce as well as a wry smile away from his mouth with a slice of bread, and spoke gravely. "It's a great room, more than sufficient for my needs, and you're quite welcome to come see it. I was just concerned you might be a little tired after today."
Darius nearly choked on his mouthful (near the sideboard, Peistrasos coughed suddenly in a way that sounded suspiciously like a muffled snigger).
The orders were given eventually but the letter did not get written that day...
Early morning on his second day in Sura, Ryou finally set foot outside the palace. He gently insisted that they start their tour at the bottom of the city and work their way to the top. Darius was puzzled, since there was 'nothing to see down there', but he conceded with the good-natured shrug of one who did not mind a walk. They rode down early in the morning with a group of Hounds who were going to practice mounted archery in the fields beyond. The Hounds took the extra horses with them while Ryou, Darius and a small escort started the trek back up. Ryou wanted to see the beauties of Sura by all means, but the bottom of the hill was just as important as the top to a new arrival like himself. The crowded houses and narrow streets were the source of the cheap labor used further up the slope, as well as the endless supply of flies that rose all the way up to the palace to be swatted by specially designated slaves.
The low rent neighborhoods of Sura weren't as bad as Ryou had half pictured them. The poverty here was striking after the palace, but these weren't garbage-ridden slums as found Inlands. For starters, there wasn't going to be that much garbage around when people reused everything to near-extinction and then sold the remains to the ragmen in exchange for a quarter of a copper bit. The scraps of perishable wastes that weren't turned into soup or goat-feed, as well as the night-soil, were dumped in the crude sewer washed out by the aqueduct waters and regularly cleaned by slaves.
The sewer trench was a miasma that the water and breeze could not quite clear, and it was joined by the rich, bustling smell of too many people living in close quarters without refrigeration for food, clothes that were changed less than once a week, soap and deodorant and who knew what else. There was nowhere near Tokyo's number of people per square meter, but the houses of Sura never rose above two or three stories and as a result, the streets, houses and yards were packed. Space was at a premium. Kids, naked in the rising heat, were everywhere, playing rough games unsupervised, drawing pails of water from the aqueduct fountains, carrying items or leading goats and the odd donkey down the hill to the pasture areas. Skinny dogs and cats, sometimes mangled by past fights amongst themselves, weaved around their legs or hid in the garbage. Ryou could only imagine what the rodent population was like, but according to Darius, the only time you saw rats in daylight was if their burrows were flooded or else if Namtar was walking through the town, in which case it was time to go sacrifice at the temple of Hygeia. Namtar was the god of disease, and His mark was in every street they visited; people scarred and blinded by plagues, the weakened matchstick limbs of the beggars, the crooked spine of the skinnier children and a good number of missing digits and limbs that the Priests of Hygeia amputated if the sufferer did not have the money needed to offer up sacrifice for a more wholesome recovery. Ryou supposed it was better than dying of gangrene, though for someone who'd grown up with a fairly egalitarian health system, it was nonetheless somewhat repugnant.
The lower quarters were the domain of women at this time of day; the men were working on the docks or in the workshops higher up. The women worked as hard as or even harder, cleaning clothes, chopping wood, pounding grain, cooking and sewing and kneading and cutting and tending tiny vegetable patches. The children were either glued to their hips or were left to their siblings' supervision and their own devices. None of them were in school. The only way of getting an education in Sura was in the Temples, and sponsoring and donations were necessary. The mass of the population was totally uneducated, beyond learning the trade of their fathers. Which, from what Ryou saw a little higher up in the shops, workyards and docks, was an education that started very young indeed. Ten year olds were working jobs that would probably kill Ryou in a day.
Their condition could only be described as arduous and primitive, but the lower classes of Sura seemed not to realize it. Their faces were worn to old age by the time they were thirty, yet those roughened features broke into smiles and cheers when they saw 'Lord Ghan' strolling down their alleys. Kids congregated around them, pestering Jexen, Hamado and the two other Hounds with questions about the campaigns, while some women came up to Darius and bowed low, half-kneeling with their hands lifted before them, thanking him for leading the armies of their sons to victory.
Their small group of six climbed the streets of Sura. It was already hot, but not yet baking. The street crowded with houses cut sharply upwards in hairpin bends, balconies and gardens perched out on the side of hill beyond it. Leaves of fruit trees buzzed with insects and birds while women shook colored carpets out the window and clapped their red-dyed palms once to chase away bad spirits along with the dust...Sura was very much lived in, a busy hive of people, but it certainly had a solid charm of its own.
The houses improved in size and elegance as they marched up the hill. Darius led Ryou through one of his favorite areas, the market, with what seemed to be as many people as Ryou had yet seen in the Outlands crowded into a series of large open spaces full of produce and so much noise it could bowl one over. Even Darius and his small group went pretty much unnoticed.
This was the commercial sector of the city. Businesses congregated together in designated sectors. The streets of clothmakers was full of the busy clack of looms, Iron Row echoed with the sound of hammers, shops of glassware smelled like charred sand...Their group avoided Butcher's row and Tanner's Yard, but Ryou caught a whiff of them in the distance. At Darius's suggestion, Ryou paid particular attention to where all these shops were; the steep streets full of houses did not have names or numbers, people directed themselves by known landmarks such as these.
It was nearly noon when they reached the palace once more. Ryou had gotten used to Darius being hailed, cheered, occasionally accosted and blessed, but he was glad when their guards went back to the barracks and he and Darius were finally left alone, wonderfully alone, to walk through the palace grounds. The gardens, wide open spaces and elegant buildings around them looked unattainably beautiful right now, like a dream the inhabitants of the city could look up at every day yet never set foot in except in imagination.
Darius took him up to the highest point, a wall of dizzying height around a corner of the gardens. That was where the aqueduct poured its waters, siphoning some off to the palace while the rest flowed downhill. The wet air was delectable in the heat which was really gearing up. Ryou leaned against the wall, ignoring the way his glasses were getting speckled with tiny drops, and looked out over the city.
...It was...like a tight weave. The disparity between the bottom of Sura and the top - considerably more stretched than in Ryou's country - felt wrong, yet it was part of a whole. There was cohesion here, a single focus to this simplified society, which, even if it was due to lack of education of the masses, was still remarkable. Ryou knew that hearkening back to 'older, simpler days' was nostalgic bullshit, it was obvious it was better to live at the top of the hill than the bottom, and so much better to live in modern day Japan...Still, there was a certain grace in the way all the inhabitants of Sura seemed to accept their place and fulfill their life's work with cheer and without resentment. On the surface of it, a Confucian dream come true, Ryou thought dryly. Except Ryou knew the reason why there was a solid garrison in Sura, despite good defenses and no enemy armies nearby. It was a no-brainer that the ruling class had to always keep slave revolts and law and order in the back of their minds...
"Come on," said Darius, tapping Ryou on the shoulder. "Garalgexes, a friend of mine, has invited us to lunch with him. His house is a few paces away from the Women's Gate. You'll like him, he's an old commander of-...tch, now there's someone I did not want to meet."
Ryou looked around. A party had come up the covered stairway that led to the wall, four guards and three attendants, all for the woman walking ahead of them.
She was dressed in a white tunic whose hem swept the tips of her sandals. White veils embroidered in black and silver made a complicated series of loops and pleats around her, billowing out in the hot breeze like wings. Her complexion was so strikingly pale compared to Assyrians that, if Ryou had had an ounce of poetry in his soul, he would have been tempted to mistake her for an apparition, a creature of cool mist, moonlight and shadow in this sunshine country. Her eyes were ringed in kohl, but she wore no other colors, not on her face, nor her hands which Assyrian women traditionally decorated with hennaed designs or red stain on the palms. Her black hair was a complex coif of loops and knots to match the dress; it appeared and disappeared as the veil she held above her head to protect her from the sun waved back and forth. Silver earrings swung from her ears and more of the metal glittered in her hair, the only jewelry she wore. When she looked their way, Ryou felt a touch of coldness that was quite at odds with the noontime heat wave. Then she was once more looking at the gardens, studying the trees and the fountain with hungry eyes as if she could not get enough of the sight.
"Bow," Darius told Ryou as she made her way towards them along the walkway. Ryou quickly imitated his lover, who'd bowed sharply. This was unusual; Darius tended to treat court formalities as entirely optional for dogs and people raised in kennels. Ryou kept his head down, but he turned it a little so that, at this angle, he could get another look at her discreetly. Her face was thin and angular, but she was handsome in a sharp, unsmiling way. She only looked at them when she was nearly abreast. Darius stayed bowed, so Ryou did the same.
"Ghan," said the woman, a vinegary greeting that stressed the absence of 'Lord'.
"Sister," replied Darius just as deliberately.
A bug would have gotten a better look than he did. Then the woman walked on slowly, her hungry eyes back on the gardens.
Darius stayed bowed until she was past them. His eyes were narrowed and fixed on her back when he straightened. "I need to have a word with the guard. She shouldn't be wandering around out here."
"Who is that?" Ryou whispered, eyes flickering from the woman and her entourage to Darius's expression.
"Leyam's wife. Her name is Vibiana."
"His wife?" Ryou stared wide-eyed after her. He'd noted how the four soldiers, who'd appeared to be an honor guard when he'd first seen them, had become a prisoner's escort the minute they'd recognized Darius. They were now watching the woman in white as if she might try to escape at any moment. She ignored them and their aboutface with a disdain as raw and painful as the sun beating down overhead. "But..."
"Yeah, you can see how it is. She's my brother's wife and queen, but she's also Cassius Leius's daughter, which should make things clearer for you."
"No," said Ryou after a momentary gape of amazement, "no, that really doesn't. He married his uncle's daughter? After-...everything?"
"Cassius arranged the match back when Leyam was fifteen and she was ten. She was the only surviving child of the leader of Hellias, it was hardly a bad match. Leyam went through with it because it gave us another few months of respite from Cassius's plan to send him to Rome. He kept her after Cassius's death because it lulled the suspicions of the Roman-loving camp, and gave us an entire extra half-year in which to gear for war. Why he kept her since then is anybody's guess. I suppose Hellias and the other Free Cities not in the Alliance would make it a rallying cause for war if he discarded her or shoved her off a cliff."
"Darius..." Ryou leaned briefly against the stonework. He had to remind himself that barely three hundred years ago, his own country's feudal lords got up to similar things. But that was...well, that was history. The woman with the hungry eyes was someone he'd just met.
"Don't feel pity for her, she's alive and well treated."
"Your brother murdered her father and the entire country knows it," Ryou said more sharply than he'd intended to. "And she's kept a prisoner here if I'm not mistaken."
"My grandfather would have lapidated her," Darius said bluntly. "If she put her hand beneath my brother's foot, Leyam might attempt to forget who fathered her, but no, she's proven several times that she's Cassius's get through and through. She poisoned one of Leyam's concubines and nearly killed another before we realized what she was up to. Ashur's hand be over Rand forever, he's the one who caught her at it. She didn't aim for Leyam himself, mind you. It'd have been harder, but that spawn of Hecate didn't even try. Her fire burns for power, not for revenge. She was hoping to isolate him and become his queen in more than name. I told my brother time and again to either get rid of her or ship her back to Hellias, but I don't know, maybe he wants to keep an eye on her. He sits and talks with her on occasion, but he swears to me that he doesn't bed her. Enlil only knows what viper would come out of that belly."
Ryou was trying to find something to say about all this - an almost impossible task across such a wide gap of cultures - when he was sidetracked by a thought. "Wait, if Leyam stays married to her but doesn't want her to have any children, what will he do for heirs?"
Darius gave him an odd look. "What a question. He's got another wife, and he'll probably have more once this war settles."
Of course. A great number of Assyrian free men - the laborers, unskilled helpers of tradesmen, servants - struggled to have enough to maintain even one wife. Some would never marry at all, spending whatever income they could save on a cheap mistress or on cheaper whores. But the more one rose in society, more one was expected to have a proper household: one wife, but also a concubine, or more than one if it could be afforded. Polygamy proper was reserved for the great families, though. It insured a certain redundancy of heirs that could carry name and fortune.
"Heni'ata is healthy and has given the king three live children, two of which are boys. She's a nice woman, not very smart but nice. Pretty voice and friendly manner. Her youngest son is four and of sickly disposition, her middle child is a girl, but Nirar, her oldest, is eight years of age and Leyam's son through and through. "
Ryou tried to wrap his head around an eight-year-old Leyam lookalike, and then he tried to imagine Leyam as a father. Once he'd failed on both counts, he asked, "Which part of the palace do they live in?"
"They don't. They're in Allap-Etur province, the satrapy of Heni'ata's father. They're well protected there, and out of the way of all the plots and poisons." He glanced to the left at where the Queen of Assyria had crossed to another wall, still looking about. "My brother is weird, I don't mind saying it, and there's times I know exactly what he's doing and there's times I have no clue. Why keep that one here and not the other?"
Why put out to pasture the well-meaning but not overly bright one, and keep the one with a mind and will as sharp as a dagger who could eventually give in to temptation and try to kill him? Good question, and in Ryou's estimate, the answer was 'Leyam'.
Darius shook his head. "Well, it is unseemly to meddle in the matters of a man and his wife, as long as he does not let her interfere in another man's affairs."
"Very wise," said Ryou, tearing his mind away from trying to imagine the King of Assyria sleeping with either of his wives, even the nice one. What did they talk about, dresses...? No, better not go there.
The garrison did okay in their footrace in the afternoon. This meant that the following morning was reserved for the troops manning the Ox Gate and the Ram Gate, who had so far been safe behind their ramparts from where they'd laughed at their city-based colleagues going through their paces. This left Ryou with not much to do, so he decided to explore the inner palace grounds and gardens that morning, and then maybe find Jexen in the afternoon to go walk around town.
Ryou admired a magnificent spray of branches and flowers tumbling down from a small tree planted, for reasons known presumably to the gardener, in a large ceramic planter attached to a point halfway up a wall of the palace. He turned when he heard the sound of conversation and footsteps on the sandy path that ran parallel to the building. Two people were coming his way, and the tallest was instantly recognizable.
"Ryou," said Rand with a polite nod as their eyes met.
"You're back," said Ryou awkwardly, instead of, "What are you doing here? I thought you'd be gone for weeks hunting down the magians who attacked Darius?" Though on second thought, discretion might not have been necessary since the young man walking at Rand's side was Nicodeme.
A brief impression of the tone of the conversation the two had been sharing rapped at the door of Ryou's memory. Nicodeme had been doing the talking, his young voice a tone lower than usual as if he'd been trying to sound older and more mature than he already was while telling Rand about some detail of his duty to their king...Ryou suddenly had the distinct impression that he'd interrupted some family time.
"It was a very short trip to Kaides," said Rand, guessing what Ryou's remark had been about. "The thread through the maze had been cut."
Rand gave the otherwise empty gardens a quick look through his bangs. "I'd done some investigation through agents before even setting foot there, so I knew the meeting between Yrmah and Ghan had been arranged by a chain of intermediates, only a couple of whom knew who exactly had been behind the whole thing. By the time I got to Kaides, one of these men had disappeared while the other had inconsiderately committed suicide. Not entirely of his own will," he added dryly.
"If only you'd been allowed to go directly as soon as you'd heard the news," Nicodeme muttered in a way that suggested he'd said this before. "Then you'd have been able-"
"Our master put the siege of Essin as a higher priority," Rand reminded him calmly. Nicodeme's young features tried to conceal it, but he obviously thought the whole affair could be seen as a slight of Rand's ability, and resented the Essin siege forces for having needed their hand held right after Darius's disappearance. Since the boy was still giving the sandy path at his feet a moody look, he did not see the small smile on Rand's features as the older man looked down at him.
"You have an errand to run now, don't you?" Rand prompted.
Nicodeme turned like a soldier on parade. Ryou almost expected him to salute. "Yes, I need to go. The king will need me soon."
"Go then. We will talk later tonight," said Rand, giving the young man's shoulder a nudge. Nicodeme nodded seriously, gave Ryou a short bow and then left before Ryou could formulate a polite phrase to the essence that, if this was just an excuse, then he, Ryou, was the one intruding here and he could go on his way and leave them together.
Ryou looked at the departing boy and then up at Rand. Rand still confused Ryou, who could not conciliate the grave, thoughtful man he'd met at Essin with his former profession. Ujiie Ryou of Ujiie Standards and Trade would not want to pursue such an acquaintance, but Ujiie Ryou the newcomer to Assyria could use all the friends he could get, and he really did want to think of Rand as a friend and learn more about him. "Excuse me, Rand, I was meaning to ask you- I apologize if this is a subject I should not ask about, feel free to not answer, but something Darius said led me to believe that you and Nicodeme are related...?"
Rand looked amused at the detour in the question. "That is correct, Nicodeme is my son. This is fairly widely known now."
"I thought so," said Ryou, relieved (getting acquainted was hard when one was outside of one's normal cultural scope and guidelines). "I could see the family resemblance."
"As to that, only the Gods can know," said Rand with a half shrug. "He is my adopted son."
Ryou's polite "I see," was carefully groomed to cover the shock at both the news and the casual way Rand had admitted it. That sort of information was normally kept within the direct family-...No, no, that was the world Ryou knew. Culture gap. It was equally valid for Ryou as it was for Darius...
Rand had not caught onto Ryou's confusion, he'd been following Nicodeme's departure with his eyes as if judging the march of a soldier (despite Nico wearing a short skirt and enough jewels, makeup and body paint on his copper skin to insure him a following of Ganguro addicts back in Tokyo). "It is of course possible that he carries my blood as well, but this I cannot know. His mother was a woman for several men."
Wow, that would give Ryou's mother and her exacting ability to precisely determine one's social status, quite a conundrum: for which reason should Nicodeme be most pitied and avoided, for being an orphan and adopted, or for being the son of-...of what, exactly? If Rand had meant a prostitute, he'd have said so. Though this was not what Assyrian families aspired their daughters to grow up to be, prostitution was seen as a somewhat acceptable career for a woman in Assyria, and outside of the priesthood, one of the only paths to independence from father or husband. In that context, Ryou was not sure where to fit Rand's description into his budding knowledge of Assyrian societal structure where women always seemed to exclusively belong to some man or profession alone.
"I gave Nicodeme and his younger brother an education. The other men their mother knew were not reliable, or were soldiers who died." He and Ryou had automatically continued to walk towards the garden's exit, following Nicodeme at a slower pace. "When Ydine - his mother - passed on, it made sense for him to take on my name . Unfortunately his brother, who also showed promise, was taken by a coughing sickness, but Nicodeme is healthy and adept. I am fortunate," he concluded with a simplicity that hit Ryou in one of his rare sensitive spots.
Ryou wondered if he should drop the subject, but Rand didn't seem to mind discussing it, and Ryou really did need to get a handle on Assyrian society. "If I may ask, when did you adopt him?"
"A few years ago, when he was ten."
Rand glanced at Ryou in surprise. "That young, you mean."
"What? Isn't ten quite old for adoption? I thought boys are considered men by the time they're fourteen."
"That is so, but though a man may raise a boy as a son for many reasons, he will not typically adopt him until the child is near grown, or unless the patriarch is at death's door. Like that he knows the young man has the strength and health to carry the name. But I had no doubts as to Nicodeme even back then."
"What age do people traditionally adopt at then?"
"Eighteen or so."
"That old? But...we're talking about cases like yours, right? Or where there's some other family tie?"
"Family tie? Shared blood, you mean? People don't bother to adopt in that case. A bastard fathered on a concubine just needs to be recognized, and a man would let a nephew inherit his estate through his brother's bloodline. Men who adopt sons - and sometimes daughters - often do so because they knew the children's parents, but they are not related in any way. Don't your people do that?" Rand seemed to have finally come to the realization that what he was describing was alien to Ryou.
"Uh...well, in my culture grandparents might adopt a grandchild or a grandnephew to solidify his claim and bypass inheritance laws and taxes, but to pick a total stranger- sorry, uh, no, it's not done. Not very often."
"What happens when you don't have any children, then?"
Ryou shrugged. "That doesn't happen very often either, and then there's always distant family somewhere. It's true we don't have the infant mortality rate you have in these regions of the Outlands."
"Our children almost always survive to adulthood, bar accidents."
Rand chewed that over like some alien dish very foreign to his palate. "Almost all...? Ei, we are not the barbarian tribes...I always thought of our children as fortunate..."
Ryou winced. "I did not mean that as a disparagement, I-" but Rand interrupted him with a casual gesture, still deep in a train of thought he was not familiar with.
"With the Grace of Hygeia and outside of bad flood years, I should say...I don't know if I've ever thought about it, but basing myself on the families I know, one child out of two grows to marriageable age."
"That's pretty good," said Ryou quickly, and it truly was when compared to feudal era Japan. What was it back then, one in three? One in four? And there were worse epochs than that in the Inland's checkered history. Assyria might be primitive, but that partly protected it; they did not have the crushing population densities that allowed rapid propagation of disease over the entire country, or that led to famine during times of war or agitation. And though the abilities of the Hygeians didn't measure up to a paediatric hospital unit, they still had a strong effect on survival rates, and kept the population healthier than it would otherwise be. Still, to know going into any marriage that you would likely bury half your children...it was not something Ryou could begin to imagine.
"If a man only has daughters, he can make one of their husbands his heir," Rand continued. "But the Fates do what they will. A man may marry late, or not be able to marry at all. His wife is perhaps barren and he will not put her aside. He can see his entire family taken by plague, or his sons fall in war before they have sons of their own. In those cases, to take a new son into his family is done far and wide in our countries, from lowest man to the highest. A craftsman can adopt his apprentice to take over his shop if there's no daughter available to seal the bond. Asor Par Leodides, a friend of mine who commands a unit of our regular army, adopted the young soldier who saved his life during an ambush by the Hellians. He'd lost both his sons in the war, and his daughter died of some long malady."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
Rand gave him an odd look and then made the gesture with his fingers that tossed an invisible piece of sectioned thread to the wind; an Assyrian way of saying, it was decreed.
"The nobility don't need that sort of fallback though," said Ryou in an effort to get the conversation going down less grim avenues. "Since they tend to have quite a lot of children."
Rand snorted in amusement. "Yes, but what are they worth? Why go with the inbred puppies when you can adopt the wolf? I was thinking of the Galeos," he added, realizing Ryou would not get his reference.
"The Galeos? Oh, the Roman emperors?"
"That's right. Galeo the Older had two sons by his mistress and one by his wife. Not one of them was worth a bronze bit, so Appius Nautius Galeo adopted the son of his chief supporter in the senate, a close friend of his who'd been poisoned the year before, probably by Galeo's wife. She employs one of the best assassins in the business," Rand added with professional admiration. "The boy was sixteen. He chose the name Vibius Galeo Cassianus. Three years later he took the Eagle Throne, and the previous Galeo's sons didn't dare peep."
"He picked some unrelated man to be his son and heir at the expense of his own children?" Ryou asked, wrapping his head around that concept.
"If Appius Galeo had had a daughter, Vibius Galeo would have married her, but that did not happen. It left him free to marry the daughter of the Suffete of Karnago, an advantageous alliance that serves him to this day. It was immediately obvious that Galeo the Older had chosen his heir very well. Very well indeed. But not even Galeo the Younger can hold back the tide." Rand was looking far out across the gardens now at something Ryou could not see. "It swept out from Roma Praetorium these past twenty years, now it will sweep back in again. With luck, we can assist it into sweeping out of our lands entirely, which means that next time, when Nicodeme is a father himself, or possibly a grandfather, the Romans will have to march all the way back to conquer the Pariya and Doric lands afresh, and this time we will be ready for them. I teach him the lessons we learned during our darkest days. I just hope by then we'll still have a strong king on the throne, Ashur hear me."
The silence that followed that invocation was interrupted by a peacock venting its irritation at something. Rand looked around at Ryou. "I'm sorry, I meant to ask you how you were settling in Sura."
"Oh, very well, thank you."
"I need to go run an errand myself, so we will talk some more later about how you're doing here," said Rand with the air of one who already knew Ryou would not voice a complaint even if he had a couple of knives sticking out of his back. "I understand you're in the Noble Quarters. I live in a small room off of the barracks, ask the quartermaster if you have need of me, or send one of the slaves."
Thanks, polite bows and such followed, and then Rand walked on briskly past the bristling peacock and towards the fountain and Ashur's Hall.
Ryou looked at the gardens with something like a new eye. Nicodeme's grandchildren...Ryou, a guest and transient here, would not be around to see them fight the new surge from the Roman Empire that was so likely to come, but he found himself thinking of Sura and Assyria as an entity now, a person he was beginning to know. It surprised him, but he found out he really did care what would happen to this country in fifty years, and he echoed Rand's hopes that there would be a strong King on the throne.