Authors: E. E. Ottoman
Tags: #Fantasy, #Gay, #Suspense, #Adventure, #Romance
5032 Capital Circle SW
Ste 2, PMB# 279
Tallahassee, FL 32305-7886
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Like Fire Through Bone
Copyright © 2013 by E.E. Ottoman
Cover Art by Brooke Albrecht
Cover content is being used for illustrative purposes only
and any person depicted on the cover is a model.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without the written permission of the Publisher, except where permitted by law. To request permission and all other inquiries, contact Dreamspinner Press, 5032 Capital Circle SW, Ste 2, PMB# 279, Tallahassee, FL 32305-7886, USA.
Digital ISBN: 978-1-62798-025-8
Printed in the United States of America
“Within me there is something like a burning fire
shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot”
For those who have gone into the desert
and those who have come out of it.
A huge thank you and warm hugs to L.J. LaBarthe for sharing her vast amount of historical knowledge with me, reading over several drafts of this book, and for being a friend. Thanks also to my brother, Gabe, for going on walks and listening to me rant about the process of writing this book. Thank you to my editors for their hard work and undying support. Thank you also to all the lovely people who were brave enough to tell a total stranger online about their experience with castration and its aftereffects. Finally thank you to my mother for fostering in me a love of mythology, history, and biblical studies. You all are my strength, and without you this book would not have happened.
that night from the most vivid dream he’d ever had, sweating and shaking, tears on his face. The dream had been of a figure made of shadows and darkness, the skin on its long bony hands gray and stretched taut like that of a corpse. Its eyes were bottomless darkness, and its mouth was a gaping hole with lips so decayed they no longer covered pointed yellowed teeth. The thing, whatever it was, held a baby no older than a year in its arms. Overcome by a wave of terror and revulsion, Vasilios curled up in a ball and pressed his shaking fists against his eyes until the terror subsided.
Finally he got up, bathed, and dressed in an ankle-length lamb’s-wool tunic, embroidered slippers, and a linen scarf to go about his shoulders. He pulled open the highly ornamental wrought-iron doors and then the carved wooden ones behind them, and stepped out onto the balcony. Below him, the city was beautiful in the early morning fog. The balcony on which Vasilios stood was high enough that he could see the city stretching out all the way to the harbor, with the water of the great river Lethe sparkling blue in the sun.
For a moment, Vasilios imagined the ships now docked there making the journey down the wide river to the sea. It had been nearly a lifetime since he’d seen the sea—bright blue green on a good day, steel gray during a storm. It would be much warmer in the coastal areas—all high green-topped cliffs, groves of olive trees, wild goats, and people who lived mostly by fishing. He pictured it, letting go of the last lingering bit of unease from the dream.
The city below him, though, was different—all whitewashed buildings. The more expensive houses and villas had red clay-tiled roofs, with the gold domes of the churches sprinkled among them. Of course, if he leaned farther over the balcony and squinted up the Imperial Hill, he’d be able to see the tall, pointed towers of the Emperor’s palace, but Vasilios didn’t bother.
As he turned away, a sharp breeze caught his long tunic. He shivered and pulled his scarf more tightly around his shoulders. With one more look at the city below, Vasilios pushed open the doors and went back inside.
His spacious room was modestly decorated, and two doors led out from his room—one into the hall and the rest of the huge villa complex, and the other straight down a staircase to Vasilios’s private bath and toilet.
Vasilios sat at the writing desk and leafed through the pages there. There were some contracts he had to go over. A large shipment of silk was due to come in soon, and he’d need a buyer and distributor for it. He needed to work out the last bit of paperwork for the iron they would be shipping west. There were yet more silk shipments whose buyers had fallen through. Those bolts sat in one of their warehouses, and Vasilios had to come up with another buyer soon. There was also several tea shipments, but they were going to buyers they’d traded with many times before and who held standard contracts. Vasilios wasn’t worried about those.
The silk shipments, on the other hand, were more problematic. He would have to go back through the lists of their past clients to see if he could track down some reliable buyers and then run the whole thing past Damianos before contacting them with the offers. He picked up his pen and made a note to double security at the warehouse where the silk was being stored until they’d secured a buyer for it. He wasn’t sure why merchants who sold here in the capital were less willing to buy silk these days; as far as he knew, demand hadn’t gone down in the last year or so. Vasilios frowned at his notes and jotted down another to remind him to ask around and see if something was going on with the local silk trade.
A knock came at the door that led into the hall, and Vasilios turned toward it. “Yes?”
The door opened to reveal one of the house servants. “My Lord Panagiotis wishes to speak with you,” the serving man said, and Vasilios nodded and stood quickly, then followed the servant out into the hall and down the stairs.
They crossed one of the many courtyards inside the villa complex, the small open-air space filled with the sound of falling water from the huge fountain in the center. The servant pulled open the wrought-iron gate at the other side and headed back into the house down another hall.
There was a large guardsman standing next to a metalwork gate, behind which was a closed wooden door. Ignoring the guard, the serving man pulled open first the gate and then the door before standing aside politely.
The room Vasilios entered was small, with large windows covered by ornate grills, although they only looked out onto more courtyards. Brightly colored rugs covered the floors, and low couches held large silk pillows that spilled onto the floor where they had been carelessly knocked aside.
Lord Panagiotis, son of Xarchakos, reclined on one of the couches. Vasilios bowed and then picked up the discarded pillows and placed them on the couch before sinking to his knees on the lush rug. He let his hands rest on his knees, bent his neck ever so slightly, and kept his eyes on the floor.
“Ah, Vasilios,” Panagiotis greeted him cheerfully. Vasilios could hear the slight wheeze that tinted each word. Age and a decadent lifestyle had caused Panagiotis to put on quite a lot of weight. His skin was tinged with the pallor of sickness and beginning to sag. It worried Vasilios.
“Master.” Vasilios kept his eyes lowered, but when Panagiotis beckoned with one ringed hand for him to rise, Vasilios stood and moved closer.
“What have you been working on today?” Panagiotis asked, leaning back against the couch as if the act of sitting up and speaking with Vasilios had tired him.
“Going over the notes I took regarding the shipment of silk we have in storage and the shipments of iron, silk, and tea we are expecting to arrive,” Vasilios said, sinking once more to his knees, this time beside the couch, and lowering his eyes again. “I am going to station more guards at the warehouse where the silk is being stored, and try to secure a buyer for it as soon as possible. With your and Lord Damianos’s permission and guidance, of course.”
Panagiotis laughed at that, a thin sound that turned into a hacking cough. He fumbled with a small bag at his waist, but couldn’t seem to get it open, so Vasilios stood and opened the bag. He pulled the cloth from it and held it over Panagiotis’s mouth until he got the coughing under control.
“Oh, Vasilios.” Panagiotis patted his cheeks fondly. Vasilios didn’t like how clammy Panagiotis’s hand felt, and he made a mental note to contact Panagiotis’s physician that afternoon. “Always with the right thing to say at the right moment.” He sighed, his eyes falling shut, and then he opened them and smiled up at Vasilios.
Vasilios didn’t say anything to that, only refolded the cloth and tucked it back into the pouch at Panagiotis’s waist, then sank to his knees on the floor again.
Panagiotis waved his hand in Vasilios’s general direction. “By all means, find us a buyer for that silk, and tell Damianos once you do, not that I don’t trust your opinion regarding such matters, but if the boy is to own this business one day, he must learn to do such things. Oh, and don’t put too many guards at that warehouse. We don’t want to attract trouble.”
Vasilios nodded, although he’d already thought of that, and Panagiotis took several, long, painful-sounding breaths.
“But that’s not really what I called you down here to talk about,” Panagiotis said, when his voice sounded a little better. “Markos Özdemir is back in the capital after being on one of his campaigns, and he’ll be paying us a visit the day after next to talk with me.”
Vasilios kept his gaze on the floor and his face schooled to show only calm attentiveness and none of the emotions that ran through him at the mention of Markos Özdemir.
“I need you there,” Panagiotis continued, seemingly oblivious to the effect Markos’s name had on Vasilios. “Take notes, and keep track of everything that’s said.” He smiled down at Vasilios. “I’m going to need you to do most of the actual work on this deal, I’m afraid.”
“Of course.” Vasilios kept his voice soft and level. “My duty is to your needs.”
“Yes,” Panagiotis said with evident fondness and then waved his hand again. “That is all. You may leave. Tell the young man guarding the door that I would like some sweets, maybe sweet wine cakes, and some wine brought up here.”
Vasilios nodded, although he couldn’t help the way his lips pressed into a thin line at the idea, and Panagiotis “tsked” at him. “I know you don’t like it. You’re as bad as Eudoxia sometimes.”
Vasilios bowed his head and hesitated. “Your wife and I are only worried for your health, my lord.”