Excerpt: Silk Dreams
“Only the connoisseur, whose appetite for feminine delights is jaded by multitudinous diversity, can appreciate a truly unique woman.”
-from the secret journal of Damian Aristarchus, Chief Eunuch to the Imperial Household of Basil II, Holy Emperor by the Will of Christ
The Byzantine slave market buzzed like a swarm of drones in search of a new queen. The fresh shipment of women docked at the Imperial Shipyard in the sheltered recess of the Golden Horn. They were driven from the relative safety of the cai’que that had borne them to Constantinople, to be pinched and prodded up the winding alleys toward a pristine marble colonnade. Mindful that even drones have stingers, Valdis Ivorsdottir resisted the urge to scream when a bystander’s inquisitive fingers brushed her body as she walked the narrow way.
The Frankish girl in front of her wobbled a bit. Valdis reached out a hand to steady her. Last night the Frank’s twin sister had died, whether from sickness or merely from willing herself to leave their floating Hel, Valdis could not be certain. When their Moorish captors consigned the dead body to the deeps of Middle Earth’s great inland sea, the living twin had to be restrained from following her sister into the water. One of the traders seemed content to let her go, Valdis surmised from his animated speech, since her value as half of a matched set was severely diminished. But cooler heads prevailed, and the girl was kept from harming herself.
Now the Frankish maiden stumbled toward the auction block, the poor remainder of a pair of pretty playthings. Valdis pitied her, but though she shared the girl’s fate, she would not emulate her.
Valdis wanted her freedom, and to win that she had to live.
“Courage,” she whispered even though the girl couldn’t understand her. The Moorish traders had purchased Valdis on the wharf at Birka in the far North, and then wended their way along the continental coast, cherry-picking other pale blossoms as they traveled south. Her captors forcefully discouraged conversation among their prisoners. Still, a silent bond was forged. Tremulous smiles and small kindnesses knit the band of women together in their captivity.
After the first degrading intimate inspection to determine her purity, no one molested Valdis. Her captors provided opportunities for her to regularly wash herself and offered abundant food and drink. In fact, several women noticeably gained flesh during the long passage to Miklagard.
Valdis did not.
When she realized they were trying to round her sharp angles, she refused any more than was necessary to retain her health. If they compelled her to eat, she later slid a finger down her throat and emptied her stomach into the waves, letting her captors blame her illness on the pitching sea. As a daughter of the seafaring Norse race she suffered no such infirmity, but she would not allow herself the burden of excess.
The leanest runner travels swiftest.
But there was no place to run. All her life, she’d heard of the glories of Miklagard, the fabulously wealthy city in the sybaritic south. Now she saw only its squalor. Strange scents from the cramped streets of the Byzantine capital suffocated her, as the cloying sweetness of a decaying corpse mixed with the spicy pungency of Asiatic cooking. Bewildering sounds pierced her ear, the cacophony of endless tongues wagging in a babble of languages and the braying of Imperial horns.
Worst of all was the press of people.
She never imagined so many existed in all the nine worlds, let alone within the confines of this fortress city. Men of every imaginable color, black as jet, pale as moonstone, and every hue in between; turbaned, shaved bald as a brown egg, dark eyes overhung by brows that met in the middle, jaws fringed with curly beards dyed impossible shades of scarlet, or male faces as smooth and hairless as her own-there were too many variations to count. She confined her gaze to the slender back of the Frankish girl in front of her, but the bizarre images wormed their way into her mind through the corners of her eyes.
Valdis was hemmed in on all sides, kept wearily in line with the others.
There will come a time to run, she promised herself. Valdis closed her eyes and imagined she was back in the Northlands, a fresh breath of snow from the mountaintop washing over her and the blue fjord shimmering in the land’s deep green embrace. Perhaps Ragnvald’s dragonship would be sliding into the harbor…
Her toe caught on a paving stone and she stumbled. Valdis snapped her eyes open. No more dreaming. It might bring on another fit, another nightmarish interlude in which she knew not where or who she was. She dared not risk it. By the Thunderer, the last one up\0xADended her life.
Ragnvald would never come for her again.
She took the Frank’s icy hand and squeezed. The girl smiled thinly at her, gripping her as if Valdis were her only tenuous hold on this world. Valdis gained strength from bearing up her weaker companion and slid an arm around the girl’s shoulders as they neared their destination. The women were bundled into the colonnade, separated into groups and penned like beasts with females from other vessels. Fat, smooth-faced keepers with curved blades dangling from their hips stood silent watch over them.
The Frankish girl was forced to the block first. Valdis hoped she wouldn’t faint dead away. The trader rattled off a stream of words in praise of her charms, but he had to shout to be heard over the din. One after another, the women were sold like prize heifers at market.
Valdis couldn’t watch. She sank in a heap and let the cool marble seep into her bones. If she allowed herself, she would weep for days at the shame of it.
No, she told herself with sternness. When her captor motioned her to the dais, Valdis straightened her spine. Whatever happened, she must be strong. She must not let anyone see. Her strange weakness had expelled her from her home.
If it were discovered here … she didn’t think there was much farther a body could fall.
Damian Aristarchus flicked the lion-tail whisk across his broad shoulders. It was a good thing the market opened early. By midday, biting flies were vexing this close to the wharves.
He surveyed the other buyers, calculating the probable weight of their remaining coin. He’d made a few bids early on to drive up the prices without burden\0xADing himself with an actual acquisition. A signal from the emperor’s chief eunuch excited other buyers and made them image qualities in the merchandise that weren’t readily apparent. Damian merely wanted to lighten their purses so he’d have less competition by the time the auctioneer trotted out his most valuable specimens.
“See anything you like?” Publius asked, fingering the black pearl that bobbled from his left ear.
Publius kept watch over the harem of Habib Ibn Mahomet, a wealthy silk merchant from Cordoba who was visiting his wives and concubines at his sumptuous house in Constantinople at present. In the past few years, Mahomet had achieved a near monopoly on the lustrous fabric throughout the Empire and amassed the attendant prosperity such a coup brings. The silk mag\0xADnate bore close watching.
What other intrigues has the Cordoban spun for himself? Damian wondered.
As serpentine as Mahomet’s plans might be, Publius, by contrast, was easy to decipher. The fat eunuch sought to ingratiate himself with his employer by procuring a new diversion for him.
Damian edged away from Publius. Even though Damian was a eunuch too, he had little use for the unfortunates he dubbed “fat aunties.” So often, those who’d been stripped of their manhood let the satisfaction of their bellies substitute for the lost pleasures of the love-couch. Each time he saw Publius, it seemed the man had ballooned even further. Publius was so grotesquely fat, Damian suspected he wouldn’t be able to find his balls even if he still possessed them.
It had been ten years since Damian fell under the castrating knife, but he’d been a soldier before his unmanning. He prided himself on maintaining rock hard musculature and a flat belly. He knew it was a senseless conceit, especially as it took more effort with each pass\0xADing season, but it appeased his vanity. If Damian couldn’t act the man, at least he could still look it.
“The Nubian’s a pretty piece.” Publius worked his way close to Damian again. “I’m surprised you didn’t bid on her. You’ve been free enough with bidding the emperor’s coin today, though I notice you haven’t actually bought anything yet.”
“Don’t worry,” Damian said. “When the right one appears, I will.” The stock was thinning, so he was sure the best was soon to come.
When Damian looked toward the dais again, the dusky Nubian was being led away with a majestic roll of her monumental hips. It might have been a mistake to miss her. Women of that country were reputed to possess unusual amatory skills, sly tricks of tiny muscles that could drive a man to his knees.
A new girl took her place.
“Too tall,” Damian murmured. She’d easily be able to look him in the eye.
She towered above the Arab auctioneer, but despite her height, there was a fragile quality to her slender limbs. Her pale arms were already pinking in the hot sun.
“Too skinny. There’s not enough flesh on that one to tempt a half-starved stray,” Publius said with a snort.
“That’s easily remedied.” Damian shouldered past him to get a closer look. Straight as a horse’s tail, the girl’s hair fell to her waist, a cascade of ripened wheat. That alone accounted for her favored placement in the lot.
Experts could lighten a woman’s hair, of course, but the result was usually a brassy hue that fought with the woman’s skin tone and no matter how often she washed Damian always fancied he caught a whiff of sheep urine wafting about the coiffure.
But this woman’s hair was obviously natural, for it perfectly complemented her ivory skin and pale brows. Her face was far too angular to meet the standards of feminine beauty popular in Byzantium, but her features were at least harmonious and well-balanced. Her eyes were downcast, seemingly fascinated by her own long toes peeping from beneath the thin linen palla.
Then she suddenly raised her head and he was startled by her eyes. She looked out on the world through one eye as dark as the Nubian’s, while the other was a pale blue tinged with violet.
Two souls in one body? Damian wondered. He’d heard of such things, but this was the first woman he’d seen with this unusual feature. Light and dark, angel and demon, such a one might be just what he required. From the corner of his eye, he caught Publius making the sign against evil.
That settled the matter.
He would have this one, whatever the cost.
Erik Heimdalsson leaned against the marble column, bored with the market. Though it would be some time till the sun reached its zenith, he was already thirsty. It had taken him a while to develop a taste for the Christians’ strong red wine, but now it called to him with regularity. He frowned with impatience at his friend. Erik and Hauk had squired the emperor around his holdings near Thessalonica for the past month, always on the alert for a threat against the Divine Presence. Now that Erik was back in the city, he had some serious drinking to catch up on. He resented Hauk for dragging him to this interminable auction.
“Why do you want to spend your silver on a woman, Hauk?” Erik demanded. “A whore is much cheaper, and you’re not taxed with her keeping once she’s fulfilled her purpose.”
“I’m tired of whores.” Hauk signaled his willingness to part with more bezants for the girl than Erik would pay for one of those blooded Arabian stallions he’d been considering. “Besides,” Hauk said with a shrug, “that one has the look of the fjords about her.”
Erik cast a glance at the tall girl on the dais and then looked away. Against his will, his gaze was drawn back to her willowy form. The palla draped about her was thin as a butterfly’s wing and the morning sun rendered it all but transparent. She stood ramrod straight, her high breasts full, nipples showing taut through the linen. There was a pleasing contrast between the girth of her waist and hips, and the outline of her long legs was shapely. He could see why Hauk was willing to part with his hard-earned coin for her.
His lips drew together beneath his pale mustache. A bed-slave might be fine for Hauk, but Erik had learned the hard way that a permanent attachment to a woman was a weakness a man could rarely afford. It had certainly cost him dearly.
“Careful, friend,” Erik cautioned as Hauk’s bid soared higher. “Better a no-nonsense agreement with a willing woman of light virtue. No one gets hurt and everyone emerges from the tussle with exactly what they bargained for.”
Hauk shook his head. “There comes a time in a man’s life when he wants something more.”
Erik had once had more. Or thought he did. Whenever Erik was tempted to try for more again, he remembered who he was and why he was in Miklagard.
He was Erik Heimdalsson, convicted murderer and banished son of the North. In this southern city, through his own valor he’d risen from the status of lowly tagmata to the rank of centurion in the Varangian Guard, the Byzantine emperor’s elite force. Erik feared no man.
And trusted no woman.
Someone in the throng called out that the girl’s high price demanded proof that her hair color was genuine.
“Oh, no, girl,” Erik said under his breath as the young woman gripped the edges of her garment and struggled away from her captor. “Don’t fight them.”
The auctioneer reached again to remove the girl’s palla and met with strenuous resistance. She back\0xADhanded the little man and sent him staggering. Erik smiled despite himself. Whether in warhorses, fierce hunting dogs, or the beautiful and cruel kestrel he’d bound to his fist and bent to his will, he admired spirit wherever he found it.
But this girl’s spirit was going to earn her a beating. Erik’s jaw tightened as a pair of eunuchs grabbed her arms and bore her away for discipline.
“A thousand pardons,” the auctioneer stammered to the assembled buyers. “I beg your indulgence while this ungrateful odalisque is brought to a more biddable frame of mind.”
The crowd fell into light gossip, awaiting the first blow, the first delicious shiver from the first spine-tingling scream. The traders wouldn’t countenance their merchandise being spoiled by the lash, but cruel practice had presented them with a punishment designed to inflict maximum pain without damaging the appearance of the victim. Erik heard the stinging slaps of the bastinado and the grunts of the eunuchs who delivered the blows to the bottoms of the girl’s feet. From the girl herself, he heard not a peep.
Erik ground his teeth as the punishment wore on. He’d seen grown men reduced to incoherent sobs by this type of beating, but the girl still didn’t cry out. Erik fingered the handle of his battle-ax and imagined feeding the spineless worms who were abusing her to its sharp edges. The thought gave him pleasure, but the action would land him in prison. And a Miklagard gaol was far worse than banishment.
“Cry out, girl,” Erik muttered. “It’s what those cursed fuologi are waiting for.”
The sounds of leather on flesh ceased and Erik guessed she’d passed out. A gasp rose from the assembly when the girl reappeared, visibly shaking, but walking under her own power. She mounted the dais, leaving a trail of slim bloody footprints on the rose-veined marble. White-lipped, she resumed her position in the center of the dais.
The auctioneer moved toward her, but she stopped him with a glare, her dark eye spitting fire and the pale one cold venom. The man stutter-stepped back. Erik wondered if the girl was a practitioner of seid craft, the way she shoved the man away with just a look. Then she turned her gaze on the crowd. Her contempt rolled over them in palpable waves.
She drew open her palla and let it float to the ground, pooling on the dais by her tortured feet. Her pale arms raised in a gesture that didn’t have a smidge of submission in it. She dared them to look on her.
So Erik did. She was well worth seeing. From the crown of her head to the curve of her ankles, he found no blemish. Of course, the Byzantines liked their women rounder, but the triangle of pale curls on her mound would be novelty enough to pique their interest.
She certainly piqued his.
He forced himself to ignore the way his body quickened to her. No good could come of this, he told himself. Then she looked directly at him and held his gaze for the span of several heartbeats.
“Help me,” she mouthed in the tongue of his homeland.
The slave market faded around him and he felt himself pulled into those mismatched orbs of hers. He breathed in the green scent of the fjords in spring, heard jackdaws chattering in the forest, and felt the caress of a snow-tinged breeze-snippets of the home he’d never see again. Then she broke the spell and bent down, her breasts falling forward in a way that made his hands throb to hold them. She pulled the palla back up around her and stared straight ahead with studied indifference.
The Greek who’d been vying with Hauk for her raised his bid without prompting.
When the auctioneer recovered his power of speech, Erik’s hand flew up to best the Greek.
“What are you doing?” Hauk demanded.
“Probably doing you a favor.” Erik signaled again as the bid volleyed back and forth across the colonnade.
“She’s a witch, I’ll warrant. I’m saving you from her curses. Anyone with eyes can see this girl is trouble.”
“A man can always do with that kind of trouble.” Hauk crossed his beefy arms over his chest and raised a russet brow at his friend. “If you wanted her, all you had to do was say so.”
Erik barely heard him. He edged closer to the dais, one hand on his ax handle, the other hefting his money pouch, trying to calculate how much of last month’s pay still resided in the leather bag.
The Greek raised the bid again.
Erik narrowed his eyes at the man. He’d seen him before at the palace. A eunuch, he was sure. Nearly all the officials who kept the Byzantine Empire humming were members of the “third sex.” Even though the Greek’s frame had the wiry toughness of one who’d seen combat, Erik fancied he could smell the man’s perfume from across the colonnade. His lip curled in dislike.
Could the Greek be trying to acquire the girl for his employer? Not likely. The emperor was a follower of Kristr. His Imperial Greatness kept a discreet mistress or two, but no harem. That was the province of the followers of the Prophet who made Miklagard their home.
“Lend me the rest of your bezants,” Erik said to Hauk as he signaled once more to the auctioneer. Hauk pressed his purse into Erik’s hand.
The girl still stared straight ahead, as if unaware that she was the vortex of the market’s swirling excitement. Her eyes seemed to lose their focus and her lids fluttered rapidly for a few heartbeats. Then she gasped as if she’d been holding her breath, her gaze darting about like a starling in a net. She gave herself a brief shake and continued to stare into the distance.
Is she spelling me, even now? Erik wondered. It didn’t matter. For one brief moment, when she looked at him, he’d tasted home. He had to have it again. Erik nodded at the auctioneer and glared over at his competitor.
The Greek’s dark eyes met Erik’s, then slid over him in that damnably condescending way the Byzantines had. Something in their very stance shouted how superior they felt themselves to the barbaroi-the barbarian sobriquet with which they tarred the rest of the non-Byzantine world. Even this eunuch, this limp-sword, this half-man felt himself better than Erik.
The Greek flicked his fly-whisk again and, even counting Hauk’s coins, the girl’s price climbed beyond Erik’s reach.
Impotently, Erik watched as the eunuch paid the auctioneer and signaled for a sedan chair. The Greek bundled the girl into the enclosed seat and climbed in with her.
The knot of buyers dissolved around Erik, scurrying off to the next venue where the finest examples of human flesh might be offered for sale.
“What does a ball-less wonder want with a woman?” Erik asked. And why that one?
“Who knows? I’ve little luck when it comes to understanding the way these Greeks think. Guess you won’t be needing this,” Hauk said as he snatched his purse back from Erik. “You were probably right about her. A permanent woman is more trouble than she’s worth. Let’s go see if we can wake up those little dancers at the tavern by the Xenon.” Hauk strode from the colonnade.
Erik glared at the empty dais. She’d shown such courage, his chest ached. The outlines of the girl’s bare feet still showed, pink-tinged on the marble. He was nearly overcome with the urge to plant kisses on the slim imprints.
Bah! That cinched the matter. She was undoubtedly an adept at the dark arts of seid and he was well clear of her. The last thing he needed in his life was a woman. A witch would be even worse.
He needed a drink, that’s all. He followed his friend away from the market, congratulating himself on his narrow escape. After all, he’d nearly beggared himself for her and she didn’t even look back.