Delving Deep & Setting Up Plot Twists in Chapter 9 of Domna

We’ve got a long chapter coming up this week, so just a quick intro and then I’ll set you loose on this bit of the story in which Sofia slowly learns to not despise (not completely, anyway) her future husband and we delve into some of the politics that are going to heavily influence the twists and turns in Part Two & Three of this serialized novel. And, I’ve even managed to lighten things up with a little humor at the end.

For those of you who are new to this game, each week I’m sharing a chapter from the first part my upcoming historical fantasy novel, Domna, Part One: The Sun God’s Daughter. With a few random weeks off here and there for updates, we’ll actually be past the official release date (9 January) before we get through this first installment of the six-part series, so if you’re impatient, you might want to pre-order your own copy (details below).

Now, kick back, put your feet up, and enjoy a bit of reading. Oh, and if you need to, you can catch up with Chapters ONE, TWO THREEFOUR, FIVESIXSEVEN, and EIGHT.

Chapter Nine – The News

After toiling together for four months, Alerio and I had managed to arrange his pile of papers according to symptoms, ailments, and body parts. There was still work to do in compiling the small scraps of notes he endlessly produced from his bottomless satchels, in copying and coloring his anatomical drawings, and in classifying the herbal recipes (which I had been surprised to see often matched the potions the sorceress had taught me). Even though he worried about my being lonely, I knew this roaming medic was itching to get back on the road to gather more for his tome. As soon as the spring Festival of Demeter was over, Alerio took up his travels once more, trusting me with the tedious work that still needed to be done.

One of the few distractions I had from my work and my misery were letters from Sirius. Although I admit to crumpling up and burning several of these long messages at first, curiosity eventually got the better of me. As odd as it sounds, once I started reading them I ended up looking forward to their arrival. Not because they were from Sirius, but because they contained news of Portaceae which was where, after his brief stint in Seattica (I must have burned the letter that explained when and why he left), he had been called to. I could never determine what Sirius’s exact position was now, but for all his supposed need of a scribe, none of these letters ever bore Papinias’s handwriting.

Most of the news revolved around our ineffectual Solon, Candus, son of the great Antonius. Although the realm of Osteria was strong, the politics in Portaceae were a mess – if Papinias and I had escaped to there, we might have regretted not going to the Califf Lands.

Solon Antonius had been well loved and respected and his natural ability to lead had brought a unity to Osteria never seen before. Early in his rule, he had expanded Osteria using a policy not of aggression or bribery or underhanded dealings, but one of treaties, compromise, and logical debates. Other solons had begun the work of gathering the poli under one realm ruled from Portaceae City, but it was Antonius who made people, even the fiercely independent Tillaceans in the west and the Areans in the east, proud to be Osterian – although the Areans still raided their Osterian neighbors on a regular basis. 

Since his father’s death a few years ago, Candus wasn’t even remotely living up to Antonius’s precedence. Osteria’s past few solons had been wise men who ruled through fairness and wise thinking, consulting with Athena when justice was needed, with Hera when family matters were at issue, with Demeter when grain merchants needed advice, and with Dionysus when there were Osteria-wide festivities to plan. But Candus consulted only with Candus and, after the honeymoon period of his solonship ended, the people had begun to grumble. 

Candus’s love of taking part in gladiatorial bouts and holding extravagant games in the Portacean Arena made him immensely popular with some Portaceans. He was a showman, a braggart, and this appealed to certain personalities who saw only the bravado and not where his irresponsibility might take Osteria. But there were far more Osterians who wanted Candus out of the purple, and some didn’t hide their hope that an assassin’s blade might find him. 

At this time, Candus’s lover, a man of the servine class named Terus, took a more active role in running Portaceae than our Solon did. Candus, in my opinion, was a mad fool. Not that any medic would dare to diagnose lunacy, but how could any sane person who had, by right of birth alone, been awarded the highest power of a stable and wealthy realm disregard his duties and leave it in the hands of others? It was like giving a puppy to an irresponsible child who left the feeding, training, and cleaning up to anyone who might happen by. 

Portacean politics were a mess. All solons in the past had been of high patrine status. Now, low patrine governors, middle equine consuls, and even vigile commanders of lower equine status had their sights set on the solonship and no one was questioning the possibility of them taking the purple. The fact that a servine like Terus was allowed to make decisions and rulings that affected the realm banded the equines and patrines together in their hostility toward Candus. Unfortunately, they took it out not on Candus, but on his servant, and Terus was found one morning on the banks of the Col River with his throat slit open. 

According to Sirius, Candus went wild with grief over the loss. Despite advisors goading him to act, to be a leader, he did nothing but mope about the Solonian Palace and refused to have anything to do with any aspect of leadership. He wouldn’t even sign documents put before him. Despite this, he wasn’t entirely blind to the mood in Portaceae and grew fearful to the point of paranoia about plots being raised against him.  

This fear, wrote Sirius, opened wide the door for someone to step in and take advantage of it. An advisor, an equine named Ennis, saw the opportunity. After much cajoling and telling Candus he was doing the right thing by grieving for his friend, our easily-influenced solon grew to trust Ennis who used his newfound proximity to Candus to block out any other news from the Solon’s ears. Instead, Ennis brought his own reports that exaggerated even the tiniest rumor of rebellion. From the Solonian Guard rising up to the servines planning a revolt, from the centaurs staging a coup to the Middish invading, Ennis’s tales built within Candus a mountain of fear out of the smallest motes of dust. 

By now, Candus had taken a new lover, a cunning servant woman named Darra. Under Ennis’s advice, the Solon took off with her to the safety of the private Solonian estate in Illamos Valley, the polis that bordered Portaceae to the south. Sirius, showing a rare bit of cynicism, noted his suspicion that Darra might be using Candus’s grief to her own advantage. 

Sirius’s suspicions weren’t misplaced. In his next letter, he wrote that Darra had bragged to his face about sneaking her way into Candus’s trust from between the Solon’s bedsheets. If Sirius had gone to Candus then, what might have happened? Would Candus have promoted him? Would he have honored him, maybe even made him heir for saving him from danger? But Sirius kept quiet, saying it wasn’t his place to get involved in the Solon’s love life, and so remained in the audience of people watching this play for power.

With Candus tucked away from the world, Ennis was Solon in all but name as the true Solon took his pleasure with Darra, raced chariots, consumed gallons of wine, and held his own private gladiator shows in which he battled drugged beasts and hunger-weakened criminals in his estate’s private arena. “Everyone can appreciate a sturdy young man who enjoys his entertainments,” Sirius wrote, “and it is encouraging to know we have such a strong solon full of vitality, but I do hope he grows up soon and learns to rule. It’s as if he can’t think and rather than have advisors – or a wife – to guide him, he simply allows the advisors take over, which with Ennis’s skill, might be for the best.”

Indeed, with Candus at his retreat and no longer draining the budgets, it was a prosperous time for Portaceae. Ennis proved an able and fair ruler who took no liberties for himself and actually reunited Osteria’s legions who had been on the verge revolt. But it was the words “or a wife” that drew my attention and made me see a different possibility with Sirius. 

All along I’d assumed my marriage to him would be a life of obscurity, of being put aside except when required to greet people or to pleasure him in bed. But what if his Seeing and star charts were correct? What if Sirius was destined for greatness if he married me? Could the solonship be in his future? If he was a solon who took the advice of a clever wife or who let his wife rule alongside him, I would be the most powerful woman in Osteria. And if Sirius proved too lazy to rule, I could step into his place to lead and keep Osteria stable. 

It wasn’t unheard of. After all, Osteria’s first Solon let his wife, Cahlia, a wise woman ten years his senior, make most of the decisions for Portaceae, so why shouldn’t I? Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hold much hope that Sirius would truly be Solon; he’d be lucky to be made a governor. As far as I knew, he wasn’t amongst that group struggling to gain control over Candus, nor was he in Ennis’s inner circle. I would also discover that Sirius was a man naturally loyal to his leaders and rarely took action without being pushed into it.

Whenever I had these thoughts of a fulfilled life with Sirius, I flicked them away as if flinging mud from my fingertips. It betrayed Papinias to imagine being happy or making a life with Sirius. But as the months dragged on and my work on Alerio’s project came to an end and still I had no hint of a message from Papi, I began to accept that Papinias wasn’t coming to rescue me, that I would be marrying Sirius, and that I would need to find some way to be happy or go as mad as Candus.

Ennis’s timing in getting the various legions to return their loyalty to Osteria could not have been better. Not long after Sirius informed me of their return to service, war broke out against the Middish, a large tribe of mutated bandits who clustered in the foothills at Osteria’s eastern border. The Middish often raided and skirmishes weren’t uncommon, but every few years an all out war would erupt with these uncivilized beasts. Had the legions still been refusing to defend Osteria, how far might the Middish have spread?

Although Osteria’s vigiles could never tame the Middish or eradicate them, they were able to push the tribes further east with each of these battles. This time they were driven deeper into the Great Mountain Range than ever before. The names of two vigile commanders featured prominently in Sirius’s news of this success: Albinus and Rigen. From his descriptions of their tactics and strategies, I could tell Sirius idolized the two fighters. Both were capable leaders who won every attack they mounted and their men loved them. Even in Bendria, talk could be heard of one of them replacing Candus.

*  *  * 

In between all these letters, I took it upon myself to find a new oracle for Bendria. I didn’t rush at this task since the new oracle would take up residence in my grandfather’s house and I would have to return to living under Bassio’s roof. But the people needed an oracle especially as they were reluctant to go to the temple any longer for advice. I recalled my grandfather often speaking of a man he’d trained a few years ago. 

I remembered Quintus as being kind, intelligent, and with hair the brightest flame of red I’d ever seen. His hair was made to look even more intense against his pale skin and brought out the vivid warmth of his dark blue eyes. I wrote to him and offered him the position of oracle if he was ready for it. He was and within a month he had tidied up his affairs in one of the western districts of Bendria and I was forced to return to the cold confines of my father’s house.

By this time it had been ten months since Sirius left and I dared to hope that he’d been wrong in his diagnosis, that his wife might not be ready to take Hermes’s hand and enter Hades’s Chasm. 

I told myself that if the woman, Marcia was her name, survived twelve months from the day Sirius left, she would surely live another twelve years. With what I saw as his advanced age, I figured by that time Sirius would be long dead and I would be free from my obligation. 

But like cats with mice, the gods do enjoy toying with us. Two days shy of the twelfth month of my waiting came the news I expected and dreaded: Marcia had died. 

While it was a letter I hadn’t wanted to receive or accept, I owed Sirius a multitude of thanks that he sent me word of the news before a messenger delivered the official notice to my father. Rather than grant Bassio the dismayed expression I’m sure he hoped to see, with Sirius’s forewarning I could be calm and composed.

“I know I’ve caused a rift between you and your father,” Sirius wrote, “and that he takes an odd pleasure in your discomfiture at marrying me. (See, I am not so old that I am blind to the obvious.) This is why I’m telling you now of Marcia’s death, so you can prepare yourself before your father brings you the news. I must organize Marcia’s affairs and see to it that all is settled with her family. Then I am to transfer to one of the islands off the northern coast as the Solon’s aide to the governor. I will have to establish myself before bringing you into my home there. I will try to hurry and do look forward to your arrival. Plan to leave in two months’ time. I hope you can grow used to me as a husband. I promise to be good to you and, even if I can’t make you love me, perhaps I can earn you a bit of that status you crave.”

I set the letter down and stared at the soapstone figurine which had found a home in the center of my dressing table. I can’t say why I never did smash it with a rock. Certainly I was tempted to destroy it when I sunk into a morose state after my grandfather’s death and again when I was in low spirits after Alerio left, but the figurine seemed an object of the gods, a reminder I might have a role to play for them, and it was up to me to play their game as best I could. Still, to show them my disapproval, I placed the little token on top of a scrap of parchment on which Papinias had sketched an olive tree (quite badly, he was no artist) on the day we’d promised ourselves to one another.

“What does Sirius have to say today?” Saltia asked as she turned my mattress. Sirius’s letters and their news of the complicated world beyond Dekos had been a great curiosity and source of fascination to her.

“Marcia has died.”

She halted her fluffing and stared at me. I’m sure she expected to see me collapse into a fit of tears, but this was news I’d been expecting for twelve months. It was news I’d already moped over long before the woman took her last breath. It was news I could devote no further energy toward. It was bound to happen and now it had. Didn’t I seem quite the stoic compared to the girl who had toppled into the dust as her lover was pulled out of her life only a year ago?

“Oh, did she?” Saltia resumed her work on the bed that suddenly required more vigorous attention.

“Don’t worry, Saltia, I’ve grown accustomed to the idea of marrying a man old enough to be my grandfather.”

“He’s not that old. An elder uncle maybe. And even if you are accustomed to it, you can’t be happy about it.”

“No, how could I be?”

“Oh, I don’t know, because you’ll be escaping this mausoleum of a house and getting away from your cold father. You’ll get to see the world and perhaps even see a certain boy.”

I laughed. Papinias was three years older than me and a year older than when he left. Twenty. If Sirius had allowed him to complete his final year of apprenticeship, Papinias would be a medic now. Although still young, Papi was no longer a boy. 

What might he look like? Had he gotten taller? I had grown a bit, but was still a head shorter than the long-limbed Saltia. Was Papi still rail thin or had he put on muscle? I halted my questioning before thoughts of his body crept too far into my conscious. 

Despite my love for him, I was angry with Papinias. Why had he not written? Surely in twelve months he could have bribed someone to carry a letter for him. And, despite being one of the party who stole Papi from me, I was certain that Sirius was not so heartless as to hide from me the news if Papinias had died.

“I don’t know who you mean,” I teased.

Saltia stopped her work and sat across from me. Her face matronly serious.

“I know you are to marry Sirius, but you love Papinias. Just remember that your husband is a soldier and servant to the Solon. He will not always be home. You will not always have him in your bedchamber.” I stared at her, disbelieving this awkward turn in conversation. “Don’t look at me that way. I hear of many women who find themselves happily married only because they keep a lover.”

She was serious. When did my chaste friend become the plotter of adultery?

“That,” I said slowly, “is a very odd form of marital advice.” I pinched my lips, trying to hold back a smile. Saltia met my eye and that’s all it took for us to burst into a fit of laughter.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading!!! If you enjoyed it, please feel free to share and I’d love to hear your thoughts (oh, and if you caught any typos, do let me know).

Chapter 10 will be hitting the blogosphere next Wednesday and Finn McSpool will be making another appearance later this week to share some great news for book junkies. See you then!

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Domna is Now Available for Pre-order!!!!

That’s right. You can now snag your copy of Domna for the special pre-order price of 99c (US$, UK£, EU€) from most major retailers.

And not just Part One, but all six parts of this highly-anticipated serialized historical fantasy novel. That 99c price will go up soon after each part’s release, so you might want to get your copy today!

Simply follow these Universal Book Links to treat yourself to a little something special at a fabulous bargain.

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