An excerpt from short story by Josh Lanyon
“I wish to buy a boy,” the stranger said.
His shadow separated from those of the flames. It loomed across the wall as he pushed back his hood. His hair was black as night, tied back in warrior fashion. He wore a patch over his left eye. His cloak carried the scent of night and autumn in this place that smelled perennially of sweat and boiled cabbage and hurried sex.
“Buy?” Across the table, Quix’s own eyes went round and dark as counting beads. “Buy? You mean take with you?”
Faro stole another look at the stranger as he filled his goblet. Despite the triangle of black that quartered his face, he was beautiful, and though his garb was simple, he had the manner of a lord. The clasp at his throat was finely wrought, the emblem of some old northern family. What could such a man need with a whoremaster?
Ignoring the wine, the stranger recited, “Tall and slim. Blue eyes. Chestnut hair.” His good eye, which was the fierce amber of a hawk’s, rose to meet Faro’s curious gaze. “This one will do,” he said.
Quix nearly choked on his wine. “Th-this one?”
Faro went very still as the stranger looked him over. That dispassionate gaze turned him cold, as though he stood naked, as though the winter wind licked his bare bones. Instinctively, he turned to Quix.
Reading his face, Quix made some stumbling objection.
“Faro is notthat isFaro iswell, he’s” he gestured vaguely at their filled goblets and then at the statue-still youth, indicating his exclusive status. Or perhaps his history; something the whoremaster took perverse pride in.
“Indeed. Thirty silver pieces?”
“Thirty!” Quix was insulted. “Why, the boy is worth triple that. Look at him. Look at that skin, that hair, those eyes. This one’s got all his teeth. He’s clean, he’s healthy. Healthy as a horse. And educated! He can read and write. Why I wouldn’t sell him forfor double that!”
Faro put the decanter down. His hand shook a little. The stranger noted it with his pale eye. A tiny sardonic smile touched his mouth.
“Seventy-five pieces of silver,” he said urbanely.
“I tell you he’s worth his weight in gold. One of my most requested boys.” Quix faltered under Faro’s searing gaze. “Well, I don’t much use him anymore”
“How old is he?” the stranger inquired. “Nineteen? Twenty? Surely growing long in the tooth for this game? Your customers favor them softer, pinker, still wet behind the ears, no?”
From behind the thin walls came shouts and laughter. Someone began to sing loudly and off-key. And from inside the walls, the sound of rats gnawing at the woodwork.
Quix chewed his lip. “He’s not…” he muttered. He reached for the wine cup once more.
“As for reading and writing,” the stranger’s voice grew mocking, “I don’t suppose most of your customers read and write. I don’t suppose you do yourself.”
Quix was red with angerand with shameas his eyes met Faro’s. The boy opened his mouth but the words would not come. It was not pride that stilled his tongue. As many times as Quix had promised to give him his freedom, he had never done it. Faro saw now that he never would, fond of him though Quix was in his way. There was no point in begging.
“Enough haggling,” the stranger said. “Fifty gold pieces.”
The stranger pulled a leather pouch out of his cloak and tossed it to the table where it landed with a plump and satisfying jingle.
“Sold,” whispered Quix.
* * * * *
They left Forestlan that very night, the twinkling lights of town falling in the distance as they rode toward the lavender mountains that separated the Five Counties from the Outlands. Faro took nothing with him but the clothes on his back and his memories; one as shoddy as the other.
His new owner’s name was Jaxom Re. Lord Jaxom of the House of Re. An old family indeed, and Jaxom the last of his line. With this much information, Lord Jaxom favored Faro. Nothing else.
It was years since Faro had sat a horse. Years since he’d been outside the township. He’d forgotten how quiet it was in the mountains; how vast and empty the stretches of star-glittered sky; how dark and ancient the forest. He would never have believed he could be homesick for Quix’s house, but now he longed for the safety of familiar squalor. For noise and heat and the demands of other bodies that kept one from thinking and remembering.
All night they rode and through the next day, stopping only for a noonday meal at a forester’s cottage. The forester’s wife served them thick barley soup and hot buttered bread. Homely fare, which they washed down with tankards of pale ale. It seemed to Faro the best meal he had ever eaten, though he finished it with his cheek propped on his hand, almost too weary to spoon the last drops.
“Are you traveling far, gentlemen?” the forester’s wife asked, her almond eyes curious on the wolf-head clasp at Jaxom’s throat.
“Some little distance,” he answered. Briefly his eye met Faro’s and Faro felt a jolt. He wondered when Jaxom would exert his right of ownership. The older man’s eye seemed as hard and bright as topaz. The youth knew what that gleam meant.
When they had finished their meal they set off again, Jaxom cantering a little ahead on the narrow trail. This gave Faro opportunity to study the straight set of his shoulders, the effortless way he sat his horse. In addition to his sword, he wore a dirk and a boot knifeas well as throwing stars and assorted other weapons, if Faro knew anything about it. His new master was a man who had seen military service, he decided. Well, that was not so unusual these days with the balance of power delicately poised between the noble houses. How old was Jaxom Re? As old as thirty perhaps? Old enough to have fought in the Rebellion.
Into Faro’s mind flashed the picture of flames and blood and marble halls echoing with screams and the clash of arms. He closed his eyes briefly, shutting out the vision. He did not ever allow himself to think of that timeor of the days before Quix’s house.
The thin fall air burned in his lungs. His muscles burned too. He wondered if they would ride through this night as well. He wondered if he could stay in the saddle if they did. And what Jaxom Re would have to say if he couldn’t.
They rode until sunset raced across the farthest mountain crest, brushing its torch against the sky, flaming into vermilion, saffron and bronze. Then, at last, Jaxom called a halt.
Faro dismounted stiffly. He was young and had not been living easy but he was unused to this kind of physical exertion. And this land, so wild and desolate, made him feel lost past the bearing of maps or compass. Shaking just a little with nerves and tiredness, he stared around the clearing. Lord Jaxom was watching him. Would this be the place? He hoped not. The mountain air was cold, pushing through the pine trees with an unrelenting sound like rushing water.
“I regret the need for haste,” Jaxom Re said, taking the reins from Faro. “We must make the Yellow River by midweek.”
“I’m at your command, my lord.” Faro said politely.
Jaxom started to turn, then glanced back. “You may as well call me Jaxom.”
“Jaxom?” Faro repeated doubtfully.
And as he stood there uncertainly, Jaxom added shortly, “Rest, boy, while I attend to camp.”
He led the horses away and thus missed Faro’s slack-jawed astonishment. Not that Faro would have had the faintest idea how to help. He was a city boy, born and bred. Huddled on a fallen log, he shivered in his thin woolen cloak, watching Jaxom build a fire.
“It will be a wizard’s moon tonight,” he commented, to fill the silence.
“What’s that?” Jaxom looked his way, frowning.
Faro gestured at the crescent moon glimmering palely above the treetops. “A wizard’s moon.” At the older man’s non-comprehension he explained, “That’s what they called it when I was a child. It’s a good night for spell-binding.”
Lord Jaxom did not snort, but he looked as though he wished to. He went back to his tinderbox and the damp wood.
“Come warm yourself,” he ordered when at last the wood caught flame. Orange embers drifted up in the spicy evening air.
Faro shifted himself to the fire while Jaxom went to unsaddle the horses, tethering them to graze. There was nothing to do but watch Jaxom; that was no great hardship. A couple of times Jaxom glanced at him and Faro looked hastily away.
From his pack Jaxom unwrapped pork pies and a flask of wine. Seating himself on the damp grass he divided the food and gave Faro half. His fingers brushed Faro’s in passing the greasy pastry. Faro realized that it was the first time Jaxom had touched him. He felt that casual contact in the marrow of his bones.
They ate in silence.
At last Jaxom asked, as though seeking some neutral topic, “What kind of name is Faro? Surely not your given name?” He handed the wine flask to Faro who took a hasty swig and returned it.
“Yes. My mother said I owed my existence to a losing hand of cards.” He viewed Jaxom Re from under his lashes. “If we had a deck of cards now I could tell your fortune, my lord.”
Jaxom raised his brows. In the failing light the patch across his eye wrinkled and Faro wondered where he had received what had nearly been his death blow.
“A man makes his own fortune,” he said.
“True, but it doesn’t hurt to know what lies ahead.”
“How is it you come to read and write?” Jaxom queried after another of those uncomfortable pauses.
Faro smiled, knowing this would surprise him. “I was a member of the High King’s household.”
“What? You aren’t old enough. Even Arios didn’t rape babies.”
“Not as a houseboy. I was training to be a scribe.”
Faro had the satisfaction of seeing him at a loss. “My mother was a captain in the 14th Guards. It was her choice.”
“What of your father?”
“How did you…?”
It was easy to follow his thoughts. “I was wounded when the palace was sacked and the High King murdered.”
“During the Liberation,” Jaxom corrected automatically.
“Yes. I was speared right through” Faro indicated his thigh, turning a shapely leg to best advantage. He spoke quickly so that there was no time for feeling. “I was a long time healing and a longer time lame, so when I came up for auction I didn’t look like much. But in the brothels there’s a constant need for young boys, lame and half-starved notwithstanding. So Quix bought me.” Faro added, “At nine silver pieces he’s made a profit on the deal.”
“And in time you became Quix’s best boy.” Lord Jaxom spoke without inflection.
Faro stared at the silent woodline. “I know a trick or two.”
“I don’t doubt it. He was loath to part with you.”
Faro changed the subject. “Now if I’d had my choice I’d have studied the Magickal Arts.”
Jaxom’s mouth quirked. “You don’t look much like a wizard.”
Faro grinned. The grin was young and cheeky, not in keeping with the elegant perfection of his face. He said, “All the same I’ve a certain aptitude. For example, I can read minds. I can read your thoughts now.”
He touched two fingers to his temple. “You think I’m making this up.”
“You don’t need to be a mind reader for that. Anyone can see you’re making this up.”
“You’re an odd boy,” Jaxom remarked.
That night Faro slept on the hard ground, cushioned only by the nest of dried grass and pine needles that Jaxom scraped together. Jaxom lay a foot away, wrapped snuggly in his fur-lined cloak. He seemed to fall asleep the moment he closed his eyes. Faro watched his profile, limned in moonlight. Though exhausted, he was too cold and too uneasy to sleep. His ears were alert to every rustle of grass, every shadow’s movement caught his eye.
Already Forestlan and Quix seemed a lifetime ago.
What will become of me? He asked the distant stars. But the stars had less to say than Jaxom Re.
Copyright 2000-18, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.