Lions of Parnatha Ch. 01byMedievna©
It was a moment I had hoped would never come, one I had dreaded for years. In my mind there was no greater threat, not pain of death or facing the wrath of the gods themselves, nothing at all that could bear such fear within my soul. In that moment, all dreams became delusions and all hope was lost. In that moment, my fate, a life of servitude to the will of another, was sealed. I remember well the feeling of despair that welled within my stomach as the eunuch handed me my declaration, gilt in gold filigree and sealed in wax. I was chosen, the newest bride of the rich and powerful who ruled Parnatha.
I am the youngest child of a minor nobleman, and the only daughter of my family. My father was once an officer in Parnatha's legion, long before age had taken from him the vigor of life. I never knew my mother; she died when I was but three years old. My brothers and I were doted upon by my father, who, for all his best intentions, knew little about rearing children. We were often left to our own devices, and our imaginations ran wild with stories and play. I made a wonderful son, following my brothers on their adventures around my family's little pavilion compound, and I was rarely seen without dirt or scraped skin somewhere on my body. Anyone else would have been scandalized at the sight of me. Girls in Parnatha are to be seen and never heard, soft and delicate and skilled in the art of pleasing their husbands and raising their families. And while other girls my age were learning to dance or sing or sew fine veils, I learned to fight and wield a sword and scrub the dirt and rust from armor.
My education was not entirely barbaric, however. My father was fond of the written word, and I would spend endless hours entrenched in his vast library, surrounded by works on philosophy and history and warfare, all subjects considered too exciting and complicated for a girl. I valued those hours, those years, left to nothing but my own devices and the limits of my mind. I never realized just how valuable my freedom was until just before my thirteenth birthday, however.
My father grew ill, and his younger sister, Terlitha, came to live with us. My brothers were already gone, enrolled in the war academies and making their own fortunes as the gods saw fit. In desperate need of assistance as his health failed him, my father enlisted his sister's aide on a temporary basis. I recall well the day she arrived, prim and disapproving, swathed in deep gold and ebony robes. She looked down her nose at the unkempt, skinny girl that I was and sniffed.
Days passed into weeks, which turned into a year, and then, on a dreary winter morning, Terlitha would never leave. My father's lungs finally failed him, and our family home passed into her care. I was almost immediately ejected from the premises, told that I was "of age" and needed proper schooling before I was ready to be "selected". My meager belongings were packed into a few trunks and I was loaded into a carriage and driven away from my home and my family. I thought it likely I would never see Terlitha, or our estate, again.
I didn't understand what was meant by "of age" and "selected" until a week later, when I arrived at Parnatha's capital city, the grand seat of the empire: Arthos. It was early morning when we rolled through the heavily fortified gates and down the narrow dirt streets of the city's outskirts. I had never been anywhere like Arthos. Even at dawn the streets were already bustling with activity, servants and merchants hurrying about their business, weaving between the tall whitewashed stone buildings. It was a kaleidoscope of sound and color and smell, and the sight reminded me of a brightly colored beehive. I was simultaneously enthralled and petrified.
My journey ended at the gates of an expansive compound, over which hung a wooden sign painted with the words "Clotha's Home for Maidens". I could have screamed in agony as the carriage passed through the gates and into the smartly manicured lawn. When I refused to exit the carriage, I was forcibly removed and then taken to my assigned quarters, where I spent two days in isolation as I rejected all attempts at contact. Instead I remained on my bed, huddled beneath my coverlets, my only consolation the few belongings I had brought with me from my father's house.
The Empire of Parlathan has a long and proud tradition of matchmaking. No one that I know of, or was ever told about, married another for something like love, or even mutual attraction. Instead, parents sought help to make a suitable match for their children, both in temperament and social standing, often hoping to elevate their own statuses. Nobility, or anyone who could afford it, preferred to send their children, more specifically their daughters, to a schooling home to be selected for marriage by a powerful, and often rich, man. There, girls were taught everything they would need to know to be the wife of a politician or nobleman or high-ranking legionaire, if they didn't know it already. Needless to say, my arrival at this particular establishment was a shock, both to my system and those who would tend to and teach me.
I resisted at first, doing everything I could to disrupt my lessons and make the lives of those around me a general living hell. I succeeded quite well, and was severely disliked by nearly everyone around me. I was content to live this way for almost a year, until, after the Home's headmistress, a particularly unpleasant woman named Germeta, tried to expel me and return me home, I was told that I was going to stay where I was and that I had better cease dishonoring my father's memory or I would be very sorry. My rebellion was quickly quenched, and I resigned myself to waging small infractions against my tutors.
I did manage to make a few friends, mostly in the eunuchs and servants that tended to us. They would sneak things for me from the kitchens or the markets, for our movements were strictly monitored and we were never allowed outside the compound's gates. I in turn would regale them with stories I had memorized from my father's books, often acting out the scenes in whatever dramatic flair I could manage. The few other friends I had in my fellow captives, as I called us, became extremely close and dear, and after time my little world that I staunchly defended from outside invaders became my refuge. Like all things, however, it was not meant to last.
I remember clearly my first encounter with the fate to which I would eventually succumb. A dear friend of mine, a quiet, elegant woman named Ionisa, was called to a viewing one morning. A viewing is exactly what it sounds like, a gathering of eligible women of the maiden's home for the express purpose of being selected. They are instructed to perform talents or serve wine and fruit to one another, all the while being examined by visiting men looking for a wife of good breeding and standing. Their profiles, detailing their heritage, their education, their personalities, and, most importantly, their dowries, are provided to each man who calls on the home for assistance in a match, and that combined with the viewing and assistance with a priest of Helanos, is what helps a man select his bride. Ionisa was strangely at peace with her selection when she was given her declaration, and she quietly prepared herself for her wedding ceremony. I, on the other hand, was outright terrified, and I vowed to myself that I would never allow myself to be selected, as if I were nothing more than a horse or a piece of furniture. From that day forward, I did everything I could to make myself as unappealing as possible to any potential callers.
I succeeded for a few years after I was deemed of an eligible age, and I enjoyed a precious, if tenuous, freedom within the home. And so it was of no consequence to me when I was informed one morning, a month after my nineteenth birthday, that I was to attend yet another viewing that afternoon. The caller, however, would prove to be my greatest adversary, and the instrument of my life's destruction.
Gaius Remulus Artigro was an extremely successful man. Blessed enough to be the nephew of the reigning emporer of Parlathan, he was also a lieutenant general in the Parlathan legion and what many considered to be one of the most influential political minds of his generation. He was born the only child to his family in a royal household, given the best of every luxury his parents could afford, and treated to some of the most ingenious schooling the scholars of Parlathan could offer. He proved to be gifted in matters of philosophy, science, and history, and his sharp eye and quick wit won him the favor of politicians and nobility alike. Seemingly following in his father's footsteps, he enrolled in the Arthos University to study law and history, and many thought he would someday lead the Grand Forum as its majority speaker.
Fate, however, has a fickle hand, and Gaius found his career derailed by a sudden and devastating war with the neighboring Ka'almir tribesmen. Withdrawing from the University, a young Gaius found himself thrust to the forefront of the business of war, where he was commissioned as a lieutenant. His eye for strategy and energetic charisma won him the favor of his superiors, and he quickly rose through the ranks to command the legion as a brigadier general. His decisive victories, several of which helped secure ultimate victory for the Empire, earned him a hero's welcome upon his return to Arthos, and he was granted the rank of lieutenant general as a reward. He was twenty-nine years old.
This golden child of the Emporer's bloodline arrived at Clotha's Home for Maidens on a bright and cheery spring morning. The servants and eunuchs had been up well before dawn, preparing the grounds and dressing the women participating in the viewing. Fanfare had never been Gaius Remulus Artigro's delight, and Mistress Germeta was somewhat crestfallen when only five men rode through her font gates.
Bowing from where she stood, flanked by her eunuchs and administrators and decked in stately blue robes, Germeta spread her arms in a warm welcome. "My dear lord, welcome to my humble establishment. I have taken all appropriate actions to prepare for your visit." She watched with some surprise and distaste as she watched the young war hero dismount his horse.
Gaius Remulus Artigro was dressed in simple attire, a linen kilt and shirt, a deep blue linen toga the only hint at his high social status. A simple iron short sword hung at his side. He eyed the stately grounds as his fellows dismounted, a few trusted friends and advisers in this delicate matter, and nodded at the headmistress. "I appreciate it."
"Ah, yes. Of course. If you will please follow me, my lord, we have prepared a meal for you before the proceedings...proceed..." Mistress Germeta found herself at a loss for words by this most unorthodox calling party, something I would have given an entire bag of imperial heads to see. "If you will follow me, then."
The entire home was abuzz with activity by this time, of course. News traveled particularly fast in this cloistered world, and word of a nobleman, one of royal blood at that, having arrived traveled like wildfire. The girls who were selected for the viewing were practically panicking with excitement when Romus, the head eunuch, announced that there would be a change in plan.
"There will be no formal performances this afternoon," he informed us, his thin face somewhat flustered. Waving his hands to calm the chorus of voices that had risen in confusion, he added, "His Lordship has requested that the viewing be...informal."
I could not help but snort a laugh as a servant did her best to curl and pin my untidy hair. I was considered largely unattractive by Parlathan standards. Women were expected to be fair, flawless, well built, with dark hair and soulful eyes. I, on the other hand, was thin, tanned and freckled from too much sun, an often unruly mess of pale blond hair hanging limply about my shoulders.
Romus shot me a warning glance as he continued. "You will all be fetched at the appropriate times, and you are to stay in your designated areas." As the din of gossip rose in the air again, I heard him add under his breath, "Don't know what the man could possibly be thinking... Completely out of the ordinary."
"Romus--" I began, but I was silenced by a stern look.
"And YOU will remember your manners this time. If I hear of so much as one lewd joke or inappropriate sound coming from that mouth of yours, I swear I will tan your hide from here to eternity."
I laughed at this; Romus had been threatening to tan my hide for over five years. "I still don't understand why the last one didn't appreciate that joke, it was rather funny. Even YOU laughed, when you heard it." Smirking, the eunuch shook his head. "My personal tastes aside, I expect you to operate with some sense of decorum this afternoon. I honestly cannot even imagine where you heard such a joke as that..."
I rolled my eyes. "You and I both know how this is going to end for me, so we may as well save ourselves the trouble of pretending like I'm going to cooperate." Romus began to argue, but I held up my hand and continued. "Put me in the rear courtyard. I'll play nice there and no one will even notice me. I doubt that painted peacock will even get that far, what with all these other curvy young women to leer at."
Romus rubbed his eyes, groaning. "Fine, I'll arrange it. But you will promise me you will stay there and not wander."
"You have my solemn oath, oh dearest keeper," I said sagely, performing a sweeping bow.
Shaking his head, the eunuch left the maiden's quarters, throwing over his shoulder, "May the gods find favor in you. You're going to need it."
"You have no idea," I muttered in return as a servant began rouging my cheeks.
Gaius Remulus Artigro found the proceedings leading to the viewing mostly distasteful. He managed to nod and smile his way through the meal with the headmistress as she regaled him with details of the accomplishments of the young women in her care. "They are quite skilled in every kind of pleasant task imaginable: singing, sewing, entertaining guests, calligraphy..." The list had droned on, until the nobleman had finally excused himself from the meal and gone in search of solitude.
He was standing on a balcony overlooking the street outside the maiden's home, mulling over the wisdom of his decision to book this particular appointment when he was joined by a man I hated almost immediately. Aurus Calpernon was a boisterous, rude, scandalous man who had stood by Gaius's side through most of his many battles in the Ka'almir, and one of his best friends. I honestly should have liked him; Aurus was the type of human being I gravitated towards.
"Why the long face?" Aurus asked as he took a swig of wine from a decanter he had pilfered. "You're about to go pick you a wife. And there are so many little beauties to choose from..." he added with a leering glance back toward the inner courtyards.
Gaius smirked, then shrugged. "It wasn't exactly my idea, Aurus, and you know it."
"What, old Emporer Crustypants made you?"
Aurus quirked an eyebrow. "Last I checked, you made your reputation from doing the unexpected, Gaius. Surely your uncle's little speech about "tradition" and "culture" and "duty" didn't lodge up your ass." Taking another swig of wine, Aurus wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "Besides, what's so bad about being married anyhow? You pick the prettiest one with the nicest tits and ass, and you fuck her brains out." This was punctuated by a loud belch.
"And if I choose incorrectly, and we end up hating each other?"
"Put her in a nice house somewhere and get yourself a mistress. No one gets married because they like each other, Gaius. Hell, my mother hated my old man." Leaning in conspiratorily, Aurus added, "She tried to kill him in bed more than once, you know."
"Thank you, Aurus. That was incredibly reassuring."
"Look, Gaius, all I'm saying is you're reading too much into this. What does it matter what goes on between her ears if it's not sucking your cock? All these girls are the same anyway! They're all trained to say and do exactly what they are supposed to at the right time."
Gaius opened his mouth to argue, but was interrupted when an eunuch came out onto the balcony. "Master Artigro, the viewing is ready to begin at your pleasure, sir." He waited patiently for the lieutenant general to respond.
"Time for the show, my brother," Aurus said with a lascivious grin.
Gaius nodded and moved to follow the eunuch. As an afterthought, he turned and added to his companion, pointing a finger at him for emphasis, "Do NOT fuck any of these girls. I will not have your appetites ruin the traditions of this establishment."
Aurus looked hurt and sullen, but nodded slowly. "What about the servants?" he asked hopefully.
Gaius rolled his eyes and sighed resignedly. "Just don't get caught."
The women selected for the viewing were already in place when the caller and his companions were shown into the courtyards. Some danced, some sat and made pleasant conversation amongst themselves, and a few played instruments. The men wandered among them, commenting on them and occasionally engaging in conversation with them. It quickly became apparent that it was difficult to tell which was the caller, as they were all dressed similarly and did not offer their names.
Gaius wandered quietly, observing the women being offered to him. They were all very pleasant, both in character and in form, and each seemed eager to catch his eye. They were like butterflies dancing around a garden, ornamented and bejeweled to enhance all of their best attributes. As he made his way from courtyard to courtyard, a feeling of dejection grew within him. Even in this finely manicured world of perfection, he felt little attraction to anyone. Despondent, he made his way down an open corridor lined with stone columns. There was a smaller courtyard beyond, one that appeared to be empty, and a respite from the formalities appealed to Gaius. He needed time to think and consider. As the courtyard unfolded before him, he realized it was indeed occupied, and the sight within transfixed him.
I never heard him approach, the sneaky bastard. If I had I would have been certain to roll in the grass and dirty myself or do something equally unappealing. Instead, I was busy cavorting around the yard. My brothers had taught me the moves they learned from the gladiators they watched when they went to the arenas, and I often amused myself by practicing the martial arts I could remember. I was ill-dressed for such antics, but I was concentrating so intently on my form and movements that I had little care if my robes became rumpled or my carefully curled and upswept hair came undone.
A thin sheen of sweat coated my face and chest, which was heaving from exertion. I rammed my palms into the air at the throats of invisible opponents, grunting with the force of my blows and making little threatening noises, when I was brought to a terrified standstill when the sound of clapping filled the courtyard. All color drained from my flushed face and I turned quickly to see who had invaded my privacy, awkwardly running my hands over my hair and robes.
The man who leaned against a column smirked at my distress, which immediately angered me. "You are quite spirited in your practice. Is it entirely proper for a young lady to know such things, I wonder?"
Huffing, I threw my shoulders back and lifted my chin imperiously. "Likely as proper as it is for someone to be invading her privacy," I shot back hotly.
This elicited a laugh from the man, who shoved himself from the column. He was simply dressed, his leather sandals worn and his kilt and shirt unadorned. He didn't look anything like the noblemen I had seen before, but as his face was new to me, I surmised he was a companion of the caller, likely a guard.