A Royal Dinner
Already a great crowd had gathered outside the dining hall, filling the courtyard and spilling down the wide staircases back towards the outer doors of the palace. Only last month, Arbace had been among their number, thronging eagerly for his share of ox or horse, quince pudding, sour date wine. Now he walked in stately procession along the colonnade that ran at three men's height around the courtyard, looking down on the young men and women, on the older courtiers with their servants and gilded chairs (how grand it had seemed, last month, to be one day important enough to bring an attendant and a seat! And yet these were officials who could never hope to progress inside, to the inner sanctum).
As one of the most junior to be permitted entrance, he was one of the first to go in, for strict precedence governed arrival, with the outside diners first, then the favoured guests, from most junior to most senior, then at last those who would dine at the king's own table, so that the more important were never kept waiting for the less. The dining hall itself was a grand structure, with a high roof and glazed walls in pleasant blues and greens, depicting the majesty of the king and the peace and prosperity of his realm. But the tables! They quite eclipsed the room itself, for they stretched out its entire length, laid out with silver plates and bowls, all gleaming as bright as the sun on water, and in a bewildering profusion of shapes: animals and flowers and stylised curves; some food, to be eaten cold, was already in place, laid out in shallow trays of polished stone, still hidden from view beneath tight-fitting silver lids; spoons had been laid out, too, by every place, silver again, and finely carved, some with handles curving up into griffins, some into tigers, some into swans. Most wonderful of all were the drinking bowls – not the intricately wrought silver rhytons he would have expected, of the sort they used for grand banquets at home, but elegant wide bowls, every one in clear rock crystal! He would not have thought so many large and flawless pieces of crystal could have been found in the entire world, and yet here they were, enough for every diner.
By the time he thought to look up from the tables, the hall was more than half full, and the final seats filling rapidly, so he could hardly see through the mass of people the curtain at the far end of the room which hid the table of the king himself. Nor did he strive to make it out, for in this setting the full majesty of the king weighed upon him, and he hardly dare lift his eyes to the heavy curtain figured with gold which shielded Serse from eyes not worthy to watch him eat. That he had met Serse many times before in his father's company, and often in the most informal settings, did not make him now less shy, or less aware of the gulf between king and subject.
At last, the very grandest and most important officials entered, walking down the entire length of the hall to take their places nearest to the curtained doorway. They came in as a group, all chatting quietly to each other, and he saw his own father, Artabano, amongst them, exchanging a few words with his close friend Megabise before they headed to their separate places. They sat at opposite ends of the room, father and son, the newest entrant to the select and the Commander of the Thousand himself, right hand of the king, with the entire profusion of the tables separating them.
Now at last it was time for those of the king's family who would be permitted into his private room to join him. Since they arrived all together, and after them the meal would start at once, they followed normal order of precedence, rather than most junior first. Therefore the queen walked at the front, flanked by two attendants carrying incense: they would not enter the private dining room, but would keep watch outside, flanking the doorway. Amestris was a stately woman, now well past her fiftieth year, but still with the firm stride and determination of youth. As she entered the room, Arbace saw Artaserse sit up that much straighter and adopt a most dignified expression – he had no desire to attract the unfavourable notice of his formidable mother.
Behind her came a small group of the king's sisters, a varied group in height and age, but all alike in conscious dignity. Parmys, short and plump, cast a practiced look of vague benevolence over the assembled diners. Sandace ignored everyone but her younger half sister Amytis, whom she was favouring with a lecture on proper deportment. Amytis paid as much attention to this as she had ever done, which was to say none at all, and let her gaze range indifferently around the room: beautiful even in middle age, the passing years had nonetheless refined away something of the inviting softness of youth, so that the sardonic tilt of her bewitching smile was more apparent now, and the hint of mockery in her dark eyes. A step behind came tall Artazostra, officiously shepherding the king's latest wife, who would have been more grateful for the guidance if Artazostra had ever deigned to speak to her other than in curt commands.
Behind these came Gobryas, who dined at times with the king, although he was not of his family, for in his youth he had been one of the few to help the noble Dario overcome the wicked imposter, who had pretended to everyone he was rightful king Bardiya, and take the throne, and had been showered with honours. For many years afterwards he had been satrap in Elam, which had been stable and prosperous under his guidance. Now he was a very old man indeed, approaching it was said his hundredth year (and surely he had been blessed for his loyalty to the true king): Serse honoured him still, for the sake of his father, and for the sake also of his half brother Ariamenes, whose mother had been Gobryas's daughter, and to whom he had always been close. (Ariamenes had ceded him the throne without a fight, for all that he was the eldest, accepting that the son born after Dario came to power, the grandson of Cambyses himself upon his mother's side, should take precedence, and Serse's grief had been deep and genuine when Ariamenes' body had been dragged from the sea at Salamis.)
Gobryas was permitted an attendant, in view of his age and achievements, and the practical consideration that he could no longer have walked such a distance unaided. Behind him … Arbace could not help but stare, unable even to put his thoughts into words. Certainly he had seen Mandane before, for she was Serse's favourite daughter, and often accompanied him, but she had always seemed distant, untouchable, one of the her parent's generation, not theirs. She was in fact only a few years older than Artaserse, but she was deeply involved in the running of her estates, and in politics, and as a favoured daughter of the king and his principal wife her position was much different from that of her brother: for women, power went by birth, and the king's ear, and force of personality, and support amongst other well placed women, all of which Mandane had; a younger son, even by Amestris, was little different from any of the sons of lesser wives and concubines: a very few of the most able or ambitious might look to one day rule a satrapy, or command the army or navy, but most would make do with lesser military positions, or minor court appointments. They had, then, very different futures before them, brother and sister, and were also still at an age where a few years can create a deep gulf of experience and maturity, so they saw little of each other, and Arbace's close friendship with Artaserse had not brought him much into her presence.
Now, though, as she walked past him, little more than an arm's length away … how impossibly lovely she looked! How calm and commanding, as though she were a statue come to life, a goddess walking amongst her people; how soft and human, her white robes stirring with every breath, the myriad gold droplets of her earrings quivering with every step. How could he have failed to see her properly before? Could such a creature walk among them, and he be blind? Her unbound hair fell down her back in dark waves that seemed to sway as she walked: truly, she was a the pearl that rose from the waters, the glory that shone from the skies, the dream and model of every poet! He watched her helplessly as she walked away from him down the hall, and disappeared at last behind the curtain, leaving him staring helplessly as it fell back into place behind her, hiding her from his desperate gaze.
Further along the table, Megabise had caught the direction of Arbace's eyes, and shook his head to himself at the folly of youth. He hoped for his old friend's sake the boy would lose interest quickly, and fix his desires on some more suitable target. Not that that was any guarantee of happiness either, not if he was going to be a love-struck young fool about it. Megabise still had too lively an empathy with the young to enjoy the rather smug satisfaction he might have felt at Arbace's future travails – for it is always a comfort to those who no longer possess it to conclude youth is not worth the having – but that same empathy warned him that there was nothing he could say that Arbace would head: what hot-blooded young man wanted to hear stories starting 'when I was your age...'?
'The camel is very good, isn't it?' murmured the man to his right. 'A new way to prepare it every time – I don't know how the cooks do it.' There was a decidedly contented air to this statement, as though he were in some way responsible for the inventiveness of the cuisine. But then he might well be pleased with himself, Megabise reflected, for not only had he succeeded in foisting one of his daughters off on the king himself, but she'd even managed to capture Serse's attention long enough to wring a promotion out of him for her father, and a grant of rather profitable land. The quality of the food might be nothing to do with Arsites, but the fact that he was able to appreciate it so often was very much down to his own manoeuvring. Oh, not just the girl—Serse was bound to lose interest sooner rather than later, and nothing Megabise had heard suggested that she'd have been able to hold her own for long against the other women whose enmity she would inevitably have earned had she seemed more than a passing fancy, but for a whole series of small successes, each building on the one before, of which this was just the latest. Arsites knew how to pace himself – never overreaching, or inspiring too much envy at once, but still a steady and implacable rise.
The neighbour to his left ate in silence, a slightly suspicious look on his face, as though he expected at any minute to discover the roast oxen was tainted, or not really ox at all. The thought struck Megabise that he himself was rather like a balance point, with the future to his right and the past to his left, and he neither the one nor the other, but the point at which they turned. Siromitras, to his left, sprang from a distinguished family, and his ancestors had found high favour with Cyrus and Cambyses, but they had become traditionalists, clinging to the way things were done in the days of their glory, refusing to accept the world had changed. Siromitras spoke always of gods, plural, and the constant turn of night and day. Well, any man of sense could see that was the way the world was, a constant passage from one state to the other and back again, but it was not tactful to tell such truths to your king. If it pleased the king to hear of one god preeminent above the rest, and unchanging, if it pleased him to hear all opposition sprang from degenerate evil while he himself embodied all that was good ... why, what man in his place would not find such a story palatable? And you fed your king on only the most palatable and tempting of foods. No doubt in time there would be another revolution, and the land would pass back into the hands of a clear sighted king, who had the will to see the world as it truly was, but until then, why array yourself upon the losing side?
Megabise glanced back up the table at Artabano, who had most definitely arrayed himself upon the winning side. As the years had passed, he had come to appreciate Artabano's controlled approach to the passions: pragmatically ambitious, but without the desperate edge of men who are pursued by their own desires as by a pack of snarling hounds; a good and reliable friend, but not one to demand constant love and admiration from his own friends; even his marriage had been a long and contented one, in which neither party expected more from the other than that they treat each other with kindness and do their duty (so very different, Megabise reflected, from his own disastrous approach). In many ways Artabano lived effortlessly by the rules to which Megabise aspired (and perhaps in part he aspired to them because he admired his friend). And things had worked out well for Artabano, showing that his way was indeed the best. He was the right hand of the king, Commander of the Thousand, respected by all, and not infrequently liked as well.
How very different he was from his impetuous, impractical son! But no, Megabise reflected, perhaps not so different as all that. They shared a stubborn determination, and also a certain … something, which Megabise couldn't quite name: in the son it seemed obvious and naked idealism, but the father too had a streak of it – hidden, mostly, but all the same, he was sure his friend must believe in something, that it wasn't pragmatism all the way through. What he believed in, though, who knew? He could hardly believe in the divine kingship of a man whose father … well, best not even to think about that. Perhaps he believed in doing his duty? That seemed more reasonable.
Unaware of the direction of his friend's thoughts, Artabano was covertly watching his son: how handsome he looked, and noble … how very young, too, with all the dangers and intrigues of court life still ahead of him, all the betrayals and compromises and secrets that must inevitably come with the years. Would he have the strength for them? Just then he looked very much the part, and it was easy to imagine his progress up the table, until he himself sat where Artabano was now, but Artabano could never be quite easy in his mind when he considered his son's future: he did not understand the way he thought, and he could never get him to see where his interests lay, or even to accept how the world really worked. Only that morning, they'd argued, about one of the servants this time – the man had been caught clipping the silverware (and a tidy amount he'd probably made from it in the past) – and Artabano was still disturbed, not so much by Arbace's surprise, or his defence of the man (for at that age why shouldn't the boy still be a little naïve, a little too forgiving), but by his own response. How had it degenerated into shouting, when he was famous for never losing his temper, for always being the calm voice of reason?
But perhaps it was a bad omen to worry about such things at this, Arbace's first meal with the king. He would think only of auspicious things, of the future the boy might have. He looked round the table: the rich and the influential, the great families and the talented new-comers, all gathered together, feasting on the plenty of a kingdom at peace. The servants passed to and fro in silence, pouring wine, bringing new dishes, and the table glinted with silver polished till it shone and glass so finely made and colourless it could pass almost for rock crystal. Surely everything was as it should be; surely the future was assured.
Behind the curtain, the meal was well in progress, untroubled by the absence of the king in whose company they were theoretically dining: a man of stern duty, Serse was not one to ignore even the most minor public rituals, but here, where his majesty could adequately be represented to all but his closest family by a decorated length of cloth, he allowed himself to follow his own preference, which was to eat only as fuel for work, and not waste time in idle enjoyment.
'We must hope for a bad winter,' Sandace said.
Mandane, who owned neighbouring properties towards the Zagros mountains, agreed. She would have agreed in any case, for Sandace was an imperious woman, who took dissent from those younger than her badly (and little better from those her own age), but in this instance Sandace spoke reasonably, as she often did when she confined her remarks to farming and did not venture into politics, where her brusque disregard for other people's feelings left her unable to untangle the complex currents of diplomacy and intrigue.
A small and puzzled frown had settled on the (rather pretty) brow of Andia, and she had already opened her mouth to ask why anyone would want such a thing when Mandane leant over and murmured to her that it was a matter of the fruit flies, which had flourished excessively over an unusually wet summer, and would blight the next summer too, unless there was an intervening period of harshness. She might have gone on to speak of the unrest in that region, with the failure of the fruit crop, and the destructive, though not devastating, flooding: a harsh winter held not only the promise of a better year to follow, but would quiet the people. Rumour and conspiracy would be at a stop when travel was difficult or impossible, nor would farmers entering a new spring after months with little food, and much repair work to be done at once, have the energy or will to turn upon their masters. A harsh winter would be good for everything, the land and the people both. But Mandane was learning already the value of keeping her own counsel, and sharing her thoughts only with those she trusted most. The first answer was sufficient to prevent Andia irritating Sandace with a question.
Amestris smiled quietly to herself, watching Mandane. Already she could be relied upon to subtly smooth the passage of conversation, keeping the peace unless it suited her to let an argument develop – a useful skill for when she would have to keep fractious and disagreeable supporters allied, while letting dissension breed amongst those who opposed her. And it had been very prettily judged, too: the girl would see Mandane as a kind and helpful friend, but the conversation had been brief enough, and Mandane's bearing reserved enough, to make it clear to everyone else she wasn't appointing herself the girl's protector. Really very nicely judged indeed: Andia would speak warmly of her to Serse, and be well disposed in the improbable circumstance her influence lasted, without Mandane wasting social or political capital in public support of a girl who would most likely spend the rest of her life ignored and forgotten, little better (if more luxuriously kept) that a servant.
Andia herself was still overawed by the grandeur which constantly surrounded her: the golden tableware; the coloured walls; the bedding, more soft and perfumed than she had dreamed possible; the rich and gold-encrusted garments ... the members of the royal family to whom she would not have dared raise her eyes before, and who were now all around her, talking as among friends; the frequent attention of the king himself. She had not, therefore, looked to the future. She certainly did not expect to enjoy the king's favour long, but what might come afterwards she couldn't, and had not yet tried to, imagine, which was perhaps a blessing, for the future the other diners saw for her was a dreary one, hedged about with rules to keep her from the grasp of other men long after the one man who had a right to her had forgotten even her name.
Indeed, even as Andia marvelled at the fortune in metalwork laid out so casually on the dining table, Amytis was suppressing an unwanted pang of sympathy for her: how terrible to be trapped in an unsatisfying marriage you could not, as she herself had done, leave; never to be free to amuse yourself as you saw fit, or to order your own life as you pleased. Still, that was the natural way of things: freedom and power for the women truly of the royal family, restrictions and constant risk for those who merely married into it. She put Andia's future firmly from her mind, and turned to Artazostra, who was lamenting to Gobryas the growing religious unrest among the lower ranks of the nobility, who resented the increased emphasis on Ahuramazda alone. Artazostra had no doubt they were merely aggrieved that all the most important ceremonial roles in service of Ahuramazda were taken by the royal family – and quite properly, she said shrilly, since they were under his especial protection – while those ceremonies in which the lesser nobles took a leading role were relegated to minor celebrations outside the palace. Why couldn't they be brought to accept their proper place, and not see themselves as equals to great Dario's lineage? Gobryas, who used the excuse of his deafness to avoid all unwanted discussions, made some noncommittal sound, which could possibly be taken as assent. Amytis thought privately her sister was a fool: even if there were no more to it than slighted importance, that was a dangerous thing in itself, and they had no grounds at all to think some other noble family couldn't follow in their own father's footsteps. And very probably there was more. She could see the appeal of Ahuramazda to her brother as to her late father, and understood with sisterly indulgence his need to constantly affirm that all truth and power lay on his side, but it seemed to her unwise to push that line too hard, or to trample too heedlessly on what was in at least some cases the genuine religious feelings of their supporters, and in the rest a settled respect for tradition and precedent. Surely, once you had managed to come to power and hold it for a while, you wanted above all things encourage a fondness for tradition, and a desire to continue doing things as they had always been done...
A Royal Hunt
The field had been carefully arranged: Serse stood in the centre, where the game would be driven, and to either side of him the most skilled among the higher nobles. For lesser game, the positions to either side of the king went by status, or to those he particularly wished to favour, but for anything dangerous it was held by unspoken but universal consent to be best to position those who were the most capable of rendering assistance in the nearest places. Not that the king, great hunter that he was, could be thought likely to need assistance – and in the case of Serse this was actually true. Nonetheless, safety prevailed, and as luck would have it several of the highest rank were genuinely skilful with bow and spear alike, Artabano and Megabise among them, so there was no difficulty in selecting thoroughly appropriate flankers for the king.
A little further from the king, a sort of checkerboard pattern prevailed, where those of high status but little skill were tactfully interposed between those of greater talent but lower status, who could be relied upon to credit some of their kills to their more august neighbours. Then, on the far wings, were those whose skill and status alike were lacking, or were still untried and unknown.
Arbace and Artaserse were well off to right – Artaserse might have been able to claim a somewhat better position on grounds of birth, but he had little interest in hunting, and preferred to be among friends. And any embarrassment Arbace might have felt at his own lack of skill, which with the self-consciousness of youth he might otherwise have felt keenly, was quite overwhelmed by the warmth of Artaserse's easy friendship: here there was no weight of kingship, or distance between the royal and the merely noble. Of course, a younger son was not so very important, but still, when Artaserse clasped his shoulder warmly, greeting him as an equal, even a royal princess seemed within his reach.
Semira was even farther to the right, almost at the very end of the field: although she had been hunting for years on her family's land, this was her first public hunt, and she had expected very little of it, knowing she must be placed far out to one wing, where there would be little game. Indeed, she would have preferred to stay home rather than spend her afternoon watching others fail to make the kills she herself would have taken with ease. But Arbace had urged her to come, mostly, she thought, because he had so enjoyed his first royal dinner and was keen to give her a like pleasure: having no interest in the sport himself, he did not realise how different being relegated to the wings was from sitting at the lowest table. It had, however, occurred to her that the sooner she started attending royal hunts, the sooner she might show her prowess well enough to gain a position beside some high ranking but incompetent noble, where the hunting would be much better, as good or even better than their own. (She was in fact mistaken as to her brother's motive: his main desire was that she might be introduced to Mandane, in the hope she would, as another woman, strike up a closer rapport with the princess than had the princess's own brother – Artaserse having proved to be no use at all in the matter of bringing Arbace favourably to his sister's attention. Arbace in turn was mistaken both as to his sister's character, which he persisted in seeing as sweet and yielding, and as to the likelihood of Mandane taking to her merely on the basis of shared gender. Luckily in his case the errors canceled each other out, and his sister's fierce ardor for the hunt caught several eyes, including Mandane's, who had as little interest in hunting as her brother, but preferred watching someone both passionate and skilled to the insipid conversation of those who had, like her, chosen only to watch. There was, Mandane thought, something pure about a hunter's single-minded concentration, quite unlike the complicated, murky world of political influence which was her own metier. She would invite the girl to visit her; surely there could be no objection to that – a daughter of Artabano was an entirely suitable acquaintance to cultivate.)
Artabano and Megabise had also been admiring Semira's elegant and deadly archery, in Artabano's case with an uncomfortable mixture of pride (for he had taught her himself), affection for a child who with whom he could share his own talent and love of hunting, and regret that if only one of his children should have inherited his skill, it could not have been Arbace.
For Megabise as well, Semira was not a wholly comfortable sight, for all her beauty: the strength and grace with which she handled her bow put him too much in mind of Amytis. Well, he had been as deluded and unwise in those days as poor Arbace (and the boy was still staring hopelessly at Mandane – he'd have little to show for the day if he didn't start looking at the field rather than the spectators). How desperately Megabise had admired Amytis, and how convinced he'd been that he could win her passion for himself. And now here he was, and here was Artabano, with children to fret over and a wife at home. It was clear which of them had pursued the wiser course. But if he couldn't quite control his own heart, even now in sober middle age, he had learnt at least to temper his expectations, and thus show the forbearance and moderation he was convinced came entirely naturally to his closest friend.