I hope your Saturday isn’t a busy one because it’s time for your weekly chapter from Domna, Part One: The Sun God’s Daughter.
After the terrible news Sofia Domna received last week, she’s had to resign herself yet again to her arranged marriage to Sirius Verus. Each day brings her closer to the inevitable, but that doesn’t mean she hates every moment of her journey. In this week’s chapter we watch her getting a glimpse into Osterian culture and bonding with her friends. But towards the end, she’s forced to make a difficult sacrifice.
But before I set you free into the world of Osteria, let me take a quick moment to yammer on yet again about a little thing that happened a few days ago: Domna, Part One was finally published!!
And of course, that 99c Release Day Special is still going on. Just click on the image below to discover all the places where you can pick up your bargain today!
Shopping all done? Good. Now, kick back, put your feet up, and enjoy a bit of reading. If you haven’t met Domna yet, you can read the book’s description here or catch up with Chapters…
Chapter 14 – Slow Burn
We switched ships in Portaceae. I couldn’t believe I’d reached the center of Osteria’s government, the very heart of the realm itself. I longed to explore the city, but the Demosian grain ship we were transferring to was leaving only an hour after our arrival and I would barely have time to eat a hot meal before heading out again. Macrinus teased me that they had planned it this way so I couldn’t load my boxes down with any more books.
As with the transport boats between Dallos and Portaceae, this bulky grain ship was a popular means of transportation to get from Portaceae to Astoria and onto Seattica. Although slow, it was far cheaper than a swifter vessel and the deck swarmed with bargain-seeking passengers. Staking my claim before I was forced into a less desirable spot, I positioned myself near the bow and one of the shipmen advised me where best to settle to be out of the way of the rigging and the crew.
Compared to the sprightly ship from Dallos whose sails caught the wind and whipped us up the Col River, the grain ship was like crawling onto a tortoise. Built to be sturdy in even the harshest weather, the craft would be ideal for Macrinus’s poor sense of the sea, but it would chug a slow pace from Portaceae to Seattica. There, we would transfer to a ferry that would whisk us through a gauntlet of smaller islands in the Sea of Fucas, then continue north to the small island of Orkos on which Sirius was currently stationed.
The grain ship would never be one of those gauntlet runners; it couldn’t even get itself out of harbor and had to be pulled by smaller barges that moved aside once the grain ship’s sails were up. On the Dallos boat, when the wind was up we moved with thrilling speed, but even with a steady east wind, the grain ship plodded westward along the Col like an old crone up a steep hill.
Not only was the pace frustrating, but I also hated journeying past so many lands and being unable to explore or enjoy any of them. We did pass the mysterious Doliones Island whose inhabitants are said to worship the moon and can shift their shape when angered or threatened, but I saw only its thickly forested shoreline. Despite drifting past places I’d read so much about, I saw little but small docks, empty beaches, and other passengers enduring the slow journey.
Our arrival to the coastal polis of Astoria was greeted by a warm sun glinting off Poseidon’s hilltop temple. Even though some Astorians worshipped other gods, Astoria was truly Poseidon’s realm. His claim on this polis wasn’t a grab for power, but had come about because the people here recognized he was the only god who could make passing through the Graveyard remotely safe.
With its unpredictable currents and undertow, its sand bars and rocky headlands, this passage from river to sea was dangerous in its own right. But the Graveyard’s natural dangers were nothing compared to what lurked under the water: the sea monster, Cetus, who might wake with only the slightest urging from a disgruntled god. And when Cetus woke, he destroyed any ship within his reach.
Because of these dangers and because sailors are superstitious by nature, any ship’s captain who wanted his craft to survive the crossing, took the time to pull into the Astorian harbor and pay honor to Poseidon and to plead with the sea god to let Cetus remain sleeping as their ships passed over his lair.
Curious about this ritual, I asked permission to accompany the captain and his mate to observe it, explaining my previous temple training. The captain, a man of about Sirius’s age with cheeks red from windburn, agreed. With Macrinus escorting me, we climbed the hill on which Poseidon’s temple perched. The location was outstanding and gave a full view the whole of the Graveyard. That day, with calm winds and the sun shining, the water between the headlands looked no more dangerous than a lake, but I shuddered when I thought of how many ships were strewn at the bottom of this passage to the Western Sea.
A priest said prayers over the captain and over the small model of the ship he’d carried up. I suppose I should have prayed to Apollo to keep me safe, but I didn’t want to risk praying to another god when we needed Poseidon’s full attention.
The priest then took the captain’s arm and pushed up the sleeve. I cringed at the sight of all the scars on the old seaman’s forearm and wondered if he’d been fighting mountain cats on his days off. Macrinus, knowing what was coming, took my arm and pulled me back a step. The priest, in a move so fast I barely caught it, whipped out a dagger and drew it across the captain’s exposed flesh.
Without a flinch or even a grimace of pain, the captain allowed the blood to spill onto the altar in front of the temple, then the priest applied to the cut a clump of moss that I recognized from Alerio’s writings. It would not only staunch the blood, but would also make the wound clot quickly.
The captain then urged his first mate to step up. The boy’s sleeve was pushed up to reveal a muscular, trembling arm that was free of scars. Just as deftly as before, the priest drew blood from the boy who was at least three years younger than me. He winced then smiled proudly as he watched his blood drip over the stone altar. Macrinus later explained this was a rite of passage and no sailor could call himself a true shipman unless he had dribbled his blood over the altar to Poseidon and crossed the Graveyard safely at least once in his life.
With the sacrifice made, some cargo and passengers were offloaded, and replacements were put in their stead. The ship then crawled toward the Graveyard. Even before the barge’s guide ropes were off our vessel, Macrinus had gone pale.
“Only if it comes with a jug of Osteria’s strongest wine to knock me out.”
The sacrifices and prayers did nothing to calm the Graveyard. What looked so tranquil from up on that hill, was a churning mess when you were on it. Even the wide, sturdy grain ship bucked and tilted with the strange current. I didn’t know much about ships, but I knew this craft was too large, too clunky to maneuver swiftly if we neared a hidden outcrop of rocks. The thought made my own strong stomach lurch.
Just as I thought we were over the worst of it, the ship crested a sneaker wave and slammed down. Macrinus could take no more and heaved so hard it hurt just to hear it.
I will swear until the end of my days that I saw a reptilian claw reach up toward our sails. I shut my eyes and begged Poseidon to see us through. The ship rose and slammed down three more times. Sea water sprayed my face and Macrinus groaned.
A moment after the third disorienting crash, the captain and crew cheered. I wondered if they’d gone mad, but then the roar of the crashing waves quieted and the ship rolled with a calmer rhythm.
“I think we cleared the Graveyard,” I said to Macrinus who had slumped down onto the deck. I fetched some water to clean him and then wrapped him in a blanket.
“I never want to do that again,” he said once he’d mostly recovered. “Actually, if I never see Astoria again, it will be too soon. I hate water travel. Really really hate it.”
“You do remember we have to board another boat after this,” I teased. I’d played nursemaid to his vile spewing, now I deserved some fun at his expense. He’d have done the same for me. “A small, fast one on which you’ll notice every wave, every swell.”
Macrinus grimaced. “The gods have truly cursed me by giving me you as a traveling companion.”
We never strayed far from the coastline. Pirates weren’t as large a problem as they had been a decade ago, but no one wanted to tempt the gods by losing sight of land. As we chugged along, I read Papinias’s words over and over, tracing my fingers along his message of love and longing at the end. I knew I would eventually have to discard the letter, but I wanted to enjoy my first and only contact with Papinias in over a year for as long as I could even if the message’s contents pained me.
As the ship lumbered over swells, Saltia tumbled into love with her guard, Cassius. He had her same fair coloring and blue eyes. Saltia couldn’t remember the name of the village she’d been captured from, but he was certain they must come from the same region far north of Osteria’s borders called Entioc. He tested his theory with a few words of greeting in the Entiocan language.
Saltia, although she’d been speaking the Bendrian dialect for as long as she could remember, recognized the words. As a distraction during the journey, and probably as an excuse to spend time with her, Cassius helped Saltia learn some of the language she hadn’t spoken since a child. Both delighted in the instruction and in their secret conversations.
So, on the third night aboard the grain ship, it didn’t surprise me when Saltia wasn’t in her usual spot by my side. Nor did it surprise me when I looked over to where Cassius kept his bedroll, to see them huddled under his cloak and moving together in a way that reminded me of the motion of the sea.
By choosing her own lover Saltia was behaving as if already free and this would have been grounds for punishment by any other owner, but I could never scold anyone for deciding who they would love. Watching their rhythmic movements left my body yearning for Papinias. Although I worked at suppressing the idea of us together, with bedsport taking place so nearby, the effort was an absolute failure that night.
* * *
Even though Macrinus’s stomach had calmed, his sea legs hadn’t improved much, but I was certain that on more than one occasion he stumbled just to let me steady him. With his easy manner and quick humor, my guard was a welcome companion who was happy to satisfy my curiosity about what Papi had been up to this past year.
Macrinus told me Papinias had indeed completed his apprenticeship and had done so with one of the best medics in Portaceae. Sirius had arranged for it, but not without expectation. During Papinias’s training, Sirius took advantage of Papi’s orderly mind and tidy hand by employing him at keeping records and organizing paperwork. Although he was now the official medic of Sirius’s household (Sirius apparently having frequent stomach ailments), Papinias still spent most of his time serving as secretary. It was through this work that Macrinus had come to meet my former lover.
“I can’t see why Sirius would keep a lawyer on his staff,” I whispered one night after most everyone else had gone to sleep. It had become a habit of ours to stay up talking long into the night.
“Are you trying to put me out of a job?” he teased.
“It just strikes me as odd that Sirius has need of someone who knows the law so near at hand rather than just going to a lawyer as needed.”
“It’s because Osterian politics are such a mess. You’ll find that out the minute you enter Sirius’s world. There are so many relatives promising favors and positions to one another and such a network of inheritance clauses like the one between Plautinius and Sirius that a good lawyer to advise you the instant you need him is vital.”
His legal abilities, not to mention his obvious strength and loyalty, was why Macrinus had been chosen to head up my guard.
“Sirius worried your father might cause trouble when the time came for you to be collected. After all, it isn’t often that fathers marry off their daughters to strangers without expecting anything in return.”
“Sirius clearly didn’t learn much about my father in the time he was in Dekos.”
* * *
In my boredom, I lost track of how many days we were at sea, but I was never more desirous for a change of pace from the routine of the ship. When news finally came that we would dock in Seattica the next afternoon, an excited impatience at the prospect of getting off the ship took over my usually calm mind. My reprieve from the dull life as a ship’s passenger might be short-lived since we’d only have a day or two before getting on board the ferry that sailed to Orkos, but that didn’t stop me from being among the passengers who cheered, hooted, and waved like fools at the little barges coming to catch our ropes and begin the work of guiding the grain ship into harbor.
These smaller boats also brought messages. One was for Macrinus. He opened it with haste.
“Oh, thank the gods on Olympus,” he said and for a moment I dared to hope that Sirius had changed his mind about marrying me. Macrinus thrust the letter into my hand, but its contents spilled from his lips in an excited rush. “Sirius got sent to Vancuse. We’re not getting on another ship! We’re to hire horses and ride north instead. He’s also sent a message to one of the magistrates in Seattica and we can stay the night in his home. No tavern. No third boat. Even if you don’t want to smother Sirius Verus with kisses, I think I might if he was here.”
The moment a plank was laid from ship to dock, Macrinus was the first in line to dash across it. With Saltia, Cassius, and me close behind, he promptly dropped to his knees and kissed the wooden dock, an act which earned him curses from the dozens of other people who were just as eager to get off the lumbering vessel.
Once we settled into the magistrate’s house, Macrinus left to organize our travel arrangements while I spent the rest of the day enjoying the feel of walking. Ignoring the two guards who accompanied me, I walked down streets, I walked through parks, I walked up and over the many hills of Portaceae’s rival city. It felt amazing to be able to stride more than fifty paces without stopping and to stroll without the constant need to balance my weight with every roll of the ship.
That night, although the feel of a real bed under me was luxurious and I delighted in being away from all the snoring passengers, my body refused to leave the ship and still seemed to be bobbing up and down. The strange sensation, the thoughts of what the next stage of my life might bring, and the desire to talk them over with Macrinus (who was in another wing of the vast house) kept me from fully enjoying my first night of true comfort since leaving home.
In the morning, Macrinus knocked on my door. Saltia answered and showed him in, announcing his presence out of habit even though the room was undivided and I could see him from where I stood packing my clothes.
“Cassius is waiting for you, Saltia. Just down the stairs. I need to speak with your mistress.”
Saltia cast me a winking glance and I rolled my eyes before nodding her goodbye. She skipped out the door like a girl.
“More promises?” I jested as I folded yesterday’s tunic into my travel bag.
“Are you packed and ready? It’ll be a long journey.”
“I can’t say I’m ready for what waits at the end of this journey, but I’m packed for travel.”
He scanned the room almost as if checking to see that I hadn’t forgotten anything. “There’s no brazier in here,” he said abruptly. “We’ll need to go to the kitchens.”
“For what?” I was taken aback by his serious tone. Although I was certain I hadn’t, I felt I’d done something to offend him.
“I was with you nearly every moment on that vessel of torture. I know you still have Papinias’s letter. And you know you have to be rid of it. We’ll be traveling with new men. Only Cassius – who begged to come along – and I will be familiar to you. I can’t say if the others are Plautinius’s spies or not, but I won’t have you risking your neck by reading that letter or dropping it or having it found. I know it’s hard, but you have to burn it.” He held out his hand and I took it. Like a father with a child, he guided me down the stairs to the line of braziers the kitchen slaves had lit to cook the morning meals.
My fingers grazed over the figurine – still wrapped in Papi’s sketch – as I teased out the much-read piece of parchment from the pouch on my belt where I kept my other trinkets and valuables. I fingered the tattered edges of the letter once more as if I could absorb the words inside. Then, as if it meant nothing to me, I flung the message into the red coals of the brazier.
Seeing it resting there and starting to smolder, I yearned to yank it out. Before my hand could reach for it, a lick of flame devoured the precious yet horrible message. I ached like a part of myself was caught in the flames as it turned to ash in a heartbeat. Macrinus put his arm around me and steered me away.
“Don’t worry, you’ll see him soon.”
“But what will it matter?”
“Sometimes it helps just being near the ones you love.”
“I’m afraid I’ll want to be too near and risk both our lives.” My throat tightened and I swallowed hard to force the emotions down.
“Well, it’s good I’ve snared you into your promises of fidelity then, isn’t it?”
As ever, thanks for reading. The final chapter of Domna, Part One will be posted next week. But, if you order your copy today, you can read the dramatic conclusion of this installment of the serialized novel without having to wait!!
See you next Wednesday when I’ll be sharing something for the book lovers out there. Gee, I wonder if Finn will be willing to help with that post?
* * *
And Don’t Forget the Other Parts of Domna
Part One is only the beginning of this epic serialized novel. You can now pre-order Domna, Parts 2 through 6 for only 99c. That price will go up soon after each part’s release, so you might want to get your copy ASAP!
Simply follow the links below to treat yourself to a little something special at a fabulous bargain.
*These titles are not yet available for pre-order on Amazon