The beginning of the Deluge.
April 3rd, 1380
Melitene province, Imperium Romaion
“Rome calls, and Kantara shall answer.” The hundred-or-so soldiers in the yard waited a few seconds, then – when it became clear that Basil’s speech had finally wound down – gave a short, barking cheer and made ready to march. That was Alexa’s cue; she stepped out of the portico where she had been waiting, and said her line in a good carrying voice: “With it, or on it, husband.” He took the shield from her with a grave nod, eyes blazing.
He had never looked at her like that before, not even on their wedding night – and why should he? He was a scion of the high Komnenoi; a lack of sex had never been among his concerns. Alexa had known that she was not beautiful as men measured beauty; her waist was not slim, her breasts not high. Komnenoi did not marry for such reasons. Her sons would bring yet another Phokas estate into their gens, and tie that anciently senatorial family still more tightly into subservience to the imperial dynasty. She had known; but it had still hurt, when her husband had looked her over and behaved with coached, courtly politeness and no passion whatever. It had been the same every day in the two years since; even the birth of their son had not roused him as had this call to war.
Now, at last, she had found a means of exciting his enthusiasm; she had only to play her part well, to support his leading role of Roman Patrician Going to the Wars. The war had enlivened him as nothing else in her experience; glory against the infidel, proving himself in battle – these had become his mistresses now. She supposed she should be grateful that he had not been so enthusiastic about the succession of lovely young servants who had graced his bedroom, more and more openly as her pregnancy progressed; at least he was unlikely to beget any bastards on his glory, to compete with her son for his estate.
Despite her cynical thoughts, the praise in his eyes for doing her job well warmed her. When had she become so starved for approval that even this tiny crumb made her smile? Basil met her gaze, and for a long moment he actually paid attention to her. “You…” he stopped, unsure what he wanted to say. She waited patiently; why not? No urgent task needed her presence. “If I come back on the shield,” he got out at last, “don’t let my greedy cousins scare you. Kantara is yours while I’m gone, and Mikael’s after you. Hold to that, if all else fails; and – I know you’ll do well.” Then he turned aside, shrugging his shield into the carrying position on his back, and took his place at the head of the column of troops. She blinked back surprised tears, not quite believing how moved she had been at those few words. Perhaps, after all, there was something to the ennoblement of war; this one seemed not only to have made her husband take her seriously as his wife, but even to have given him the ability to express confidence in her and make her believe it. She straightened her shoulders, and for the first time in two years – even knowing that it was ridiculous to have been so encouraged by three short sentences – she did not feel that the title Lady of Kantara was a silly girl’s game that someone would soon order her to stop playing.
She had thought she was play-acting, when she gave Basil his shield. But perhaps there was some truth to her role. Still standing in the shadowed portico, she nodded respect to her husband, and repeated the words softly, really meaning them this time. “With it, or on it, Basil. And thank you.” For if his speech and his playlet had been a little silly, the sort of thing a teenager with a head full of education would come up with, still he was marching off to a war in which quite real steel weapons would punch through genuinely bleeding flesh. And so his role was real; and if he was a true Roman patrician – why then she was a true nobleman’s wife; not a play-acting girl, not an unloved necessity going through the motions. “Kantara is mine,” she whispered experimentally, and the words did not sound silly at all.