THE chamber in the caravanserai was small, little more than a low cave, but Gallienus didn’t feel too much discomfort. It reminded him of military barracks when he’d been on campaigns, or the tight quarters of the soldiers and the Varangian Guards in Constantinople. It was more than adequate for this time of year, the beginning of the year 1132 anno Domini. He ate the simple meal of dates, leavened bread, and roast goat with Misahuen in companionable silence, shifting a little as his hip twinged in protest at being in one position for too long.
“Are you in pain?” Misahuen’s face mirrored his concern.
“No, I’m all right.” Gallienus looked fondly at his lover.
“These are small lodgings,” Misahuen said carefully, “we could have—”
“No,” Gallienus cut him off. “No, we didn’t have enough money.”
“I have some money,” Misahuen said softly.
“And you should keep it.” Gallienus shook his head. “We’re still within the boundaries of the empire; there’s going to come a time when we won’t be and we’ll need every piece of gold, every scrap of currency that we have. We won’t always be part of a trader’s caravan as hired guards.”
Misahuen picked up a date and took a small bite. “I suppose,” he said finally. “However, I do not think the merchant would mind if we asked for more room.”
“No.” Gallienus looked seriously at him. “It’s fine. I’m fine. Everything is fine.”
Misahuen huffed quietly and Gallienus chuckled.
“You worry too much,” Gallienus added.
“One must, for you certainly will not.” Misahuen shook his head. “I am tense.”
Gallienus pushed the small table that held the remains of their meal to the side and stretched out both of his legs. Holding his arms out to his lover, he said, “Share the load, love. It gets lighter with two to carry it.”
Crawling into Gallienus’s arms, Misahuen sighed. “I fear I do not know what I am worried about the most. That we are leaving behind your home because of our relationship or that we are traveling to places unknown, or that we have little money or… are there caravanserais like this one everywhere? I arrived in Constantinople by a different route than the one we are on now.”
As he wrapped his arms around Misahuen, Gallienus hummed thoughtfully. “That is a lot of things to worry about to be sure. Along this part of the route there are caravanserais, but I think that as we keep heading east, towards the Holy Lands, we will find things… difficult.”
Misahuen shifted to look at Gallienus with a raised eyebrow. “Difficult?”
“War,” Gallienus said, shrugging one shoulder.
“Oh.” Misahuen sighed once more and relaxed into the embrace. “It is never-ending.”
“That’s God’s honest truth.” Gallienus kissed the top of Misahuen’s head. “Besides. We are together, we’re warm and safe, we have work and a little money. Everything is fine.”
“All right, jagi.”
“I love that you call me this.”
Misahuen slid his hand beneath Gallienus’s tunica. He ghosted his fingers over his stomach, and Gallienus couldn’t suppress the shiver at the fleeting touch, trying not to wriggle. “That… tickles a little,” he admitted.
“Apologies.” Misahuen’s touch became firmer. “Is that better?”
“I am glad.” Misahuen continued to move his hand over Gallienus’s stomach. “Jagi fits you,” he said. “You are my heart, you see.”
“You’re very romantic,” Gallienus said, his fingers touching Misahuen’s chin and gently tilting his face up so he could look into his lover’s eyes. “I love you.”
Misahuen’s smile was warm. “I love you.”
Gallienus kissed him, soft and slow, and purred low in his throat as Misahuen responded eagerly to him, reaching up to cup Gallienus’s cheek with one hand. Gallienus hummed into the kiss, warmth and contentment filling him as Misahuen pressed close.
He felt a sense of living in a bubble—their love hidden behind a veil of secrecy, behaving as if they were nothing more than good friends who had decided on the adventure of traveling with a merchant train to see the world. Gallienus knew this was the wisest course of action, for attitudes toward those who loved members of their own sex were harsh and sometimes violent. Gallienus was determined to keep their fiction that way. He worried, though, that he and Misahuen might be exposed, despite all their precautions. Gallienus wasn’t sure how he would react to that if it did occur—he decided the only thing to do was to cross that bridge if they should come to it. There was no point in borrowing trouble, after all, and their little ruse had been accepted by the merchant and his employees easily.
There were other concerns too. Gallienus had made the decision to leave Constantinople almost on impulse. He had written his family a note and paid a passing messenger to deliver it to them, but he felt guilty for not having visited with them to say his good-byes in person. Yet it was done, and Gallienus hoped there would be an opportunity to send a longer letter to his family as they traveled. He thought they would understand—he had, after all, been in the army and away from home before.
For now, everything was all right, everything was safe. The worries of today would, he knew, still be there tomorrow.
IT WAS late when Gallienus awoke. Carefully, he disentangled himself from Misahuen sleeping in his arms, and in the dim light of the lamp outside the cubicle they shared, tugged on his clothes and belted on his sword.
“Jagi? Is everything all right?” Misahuen’s voice was full of sleep.
“Yes, everything is fine.” Gallienus leaned down and brushed a chaste kiss over Misahuen’s forehead. “Go back to sleep.”
His lover hummed softly, and Gallienus straightened and quietly left the cubicle, making sure the thick drapes which served as a door were closed behind him.
He could not say what it was that had awoken him. The caravanserai was silent, save for the occasional grunt and snort of a camel coming from the stables. He stretched, pulling a face as his hip protested, and slowly made his way down the corridor between each cubicle with its sleeping occupants, toward the arched opening that led to the gentle incline that took him outside.
The caravanserai was one of the better places Gallienus had stayed, carved from rock that loomed in strange shapes everywhere in this part of the Byzantine Empire, and well tended by the owners, it functioned as more than just an inn. It was a place of safety, surrounded by thick walls with towers and patrolled by guards in full armor and for a price—a very steep price—merchants, their trains, and travelers along the Silk Road could stay and rest, refresh, and relax.
Gallienus quickly checked on the horses in the sandy-floored stable, picketed near the water trough with the mules that accompanied the camels in the merchant’s train. Satisfied that they were all right, he made his way toward the wide, arched doorway and out of the caravanserai.
The moon was a sliver of silver in the sky, and the shadows of the strange outcroppings of rock that made up what was called Göreme loomed over the landscape like giants frozen forever in time. Gallienus made his way toward the wall, climbing the shallow stairs with little difficulty. He had to stop and rest his hip once he reached the parapet, pausing to get his breath as he rubbed his leg.
Gallienus turned, his hand automatically going to his sword hilt. When he saw the man who had spoken, he relaxed a little, although he kept his hand resting on the pommel of his weapon.
“And to you, friend.”
“What brings you up here at this time of night?” The man tilted his head to one side in curiosity. He was armored but wore no helmet, and a sword and dagger were sheathed at his hip, and in a sling over his shoulder, a long-handled axe. His belt pouch sat on the sword belt on the opposite hip to his weapons, and Gallienus made sure to keep his movements slow and obvious so as not to startle the man into violence. The reputation of his kind was formidable, after all: he was a Varangian Guard, one of those elite warriors hired by the Byzantine Emperor to be his personal bodyguard and special forces in warfare.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Gallienus admitted with a wry shrug. “Old habits die hard, I suppose. I’m still too accustomed to taking the last watch.”
The Varangian chuckled softly. “I know the feeling very well. You are a soldier then?”
“Retired.” Gallienus indicated his hip. “An injury prevented me from returning to duty, so I was assigned gate duty—much like this—in Constantinople.”
The man nodded in understanding. “It is difficult to go from the battlefield to the wall. Difficult and somehow insulting, as if all we are good for is war and when that occupation is taken from us, we are patted on the head and sent off to languish in occupations that are best left to the city’s militia.”
“It is, a little,” Gallienus admitted. “I take it you are in the same predicament?”
“In a sense,” the Varangian Guardsman said. “I am Sven of Kiev,” he introduced himself. “Varangian Guard.” He extended his hand.
“Gallienus,” he replied, taking Sven’s arm in a firm grip and feeling the grip returned on his own, the greeting of equals. He chuckled. “Not so grand as a Varangian, I fear. Merely a regular warrior of the emperor’s armies, injured on campaign and retired to work as a gate guard and inspect trade goods as they entered Constantinople.”
“An honor to meet you, Gallienus.” Sven released Gallienus’s arm and looked out over the dark landscape of Göreme. “I took my leave of Constantinople several months ago. I grew weary of the endless, almost overwhelming debauchery.” He shrugged. “I am a warrior, good Gallienus, not a drunkard and a layabout. There was no glory and no war to keep me in Constantinople, so I left.”
“Just like that?” Gallienus was astonished. “How were you able to do so?”
Sven looked amused. “Who, pray, is going to stop me? I am Varangian; no one interferes with us.”
Gallienus shook his head. “I didn’t think. But I confess, I don’t quite understand—aren’t you bound by your oath to the emperor not to leave the Guards until his death?”
“Yes,” Sven said, “but we also have the right to petition for release from that oath, and if the Emperor sees fit to grant it, he does. Most Varangians don’t do this—I did, the emperor agreed, and so here I am. In Göreme, guarding a wall of a caravanserai.”
“I hated guarding the wall,” Gallienus admitted. “I found it degrading.”
Sven’s lips curved in a smile. “Here is not Miklagard—what you Byzantines call Constantinople. Here is wild and dangerous and on the frontier. We are frequently attacked from all directions. It’s exciting, friend Gallienus. It’s what a Varangian was born to do: fight with his weapons, put terror into the hearts of his enemies, and, of course, make a lot of money.”
Gallienus laughed softly at that. “And I suppose the ale and wenches don’t hurt, either.”
“Not in the slightest, my friend. But in moderation.” Sven clapped Gallienus companionably on the shoulder.
“I wish you good fortune, then.” Gallienus looked up at the moon. “I should go and get more rest. The train moves out the day after tomorrow.”
“Would you take advice on the road east?” Sven asked.
“Definitely,” Gallienus said.
“There are parts of the route that fork,” Sven said seriously. “And they rejoin into one roadway several miles later. Do not take the more traveled fork at any time, Gallienus. That is where the unwary are lulled by the good conditions of the road and attacked by brigands, and they are vicious and give no quarter. Always take the fork that looks rough and less traveled and you will be safe.”
“Thank you.” Gallienus gripped Sven’s arm firmly. “I appreciate the information.”
“You’re most welcome.” Sven returned the grip. “We serve the same empire, in our own ways. Go with God, my friend.”
“And you, my friend.” Gallienus turned and slowly made his way down from the wall, then returning to the interior of the caravanserai and the chamber he shared with Misahuen.
Misahuen was curled in a ball, clutching the covers to him when Gallienus returned. “You are back.”
“I am.” Gallienus stripped off his clothes and got into the bed, letting out a long, contented sigh as Misahuen covered him with blankets and then pressed close, arms going around him.
“I am glad.” Misahuen kissed Gallienus’s shoulder. “Are you all right?”
“Yes.” Gallienus shifted a little to ease the ever-present ache in his hip. “I took a walk upon the wall and spoke with one of the guards. Now I require two things.”
“What are those?”
“Rest and you.”
Misahuen laughed softly. “Flatterer,” he teased. “And I feel the same way about you.”
“Do you indeed?” Gallienus ran his hands down Misahuen’s back, and he smirked as Misahuen let out a soft gasp and pressed closer.
“Yes,” Misahuen’s voice was slightly breathy. “I do.” He shifted in Gallienus’s arms and kissed him, Gallienus making a quiet noise of approval into his lover’s mouth as the kiss quickly grew passionate.
“We’ll have to be quiet,” Gallienus said as Misahuen slid a hand down to his groin.
“I know.” Misahuen kissed Gallienus again, wrapping his hand around Gallienus’s cock and stroking him slowly. “We can stop if you wish,” he added between kisses.
“No, I don’t wish.” Gallienus growled and rolled onto his back, pulling Misahuen on top of him. He moved his hands to Misahuen’s ass, kneading for a moment before he pulled him down hard and began rocking against him. Misahuen gave voice to a quiet, hungry moan as their cocks slid together, burying his face in the crook of Gallienus’s neck.
There was not enough room for anything more than rutting and rubbing against each other, but Gallienus didn’t mind. The soft noises of Misahuen panting against his neck and little whimpering moans as delicious friction brought his lover closer to orgasm were aphrodisiac themselves, and Gallienus had to bite the inside of his cheek hard in order to stay quiet. Misahuen’s hand was still on his cock, and Gallienus made a choking noise as his deft fingers wrapped around both their cocks and stroked, pulling them both toward completion.
“Jagi,” Misahuen whispered in Gallienus’s ear, a breath of ragged want and longing, “Gallienus.”
Gallienus’s embrace tightened as he neared orgasm, and when he came, it was only a few moments after Misahuen. “Misahuen,” Gallienus panted as he turned his head to kiss his lover’s cheek. Misahuen relaxed on top of him, humming quietly, and Gallienus stifled a laugh.
“There is water here.” Misahuen shifted, and Gallienus could see the outline of his body as Misahuen fumbled in the near-darkness for cloth and water. He almost let out a pained yelp as he felt a splash of cold liquid on him and glared as Misahuen grinned at him, his teeth white in the dimness.
“Warn me next time,” Gallienus muttered. “I could have woken the entire caravanserai!”
“That would have been most regrettable,” Misahuen agreed as he finished cleaning Gallienus up and then cleaned himself. He lay down beside Gallienus, and then as he pillowed his head on Gallienus’s shoulder, he added, “And no doubt would have led to some awkward questions.”
“No doubt.” Gallienus grunted as he tugged up the blankets. “Don’t let me forget to let Master Merchant Stephanos know of the information about the road that I received from Sven upon the wall.”
“I shall do my best.” Misahuen pressed a gentle kiss to Gallienus’s neck. “Sleep.”
“You too,” Gallienus admonished, but he was weary and it was only a matter of moments before he felt himself drifting into slumber.
“TAKE the less traveled forks, you say?” Stephanos regarded Gallienus with a skeptical expression. “Are you sure?”
“That’s the advice Sven gave me.” Gallienus shrugged. His chain mail felt heavy that morning, and shifting his shoulders to move the weight a little, he continued. “He is Varangian; he has no reason to lie.” Around them, the other ten guards were preparing their animals, readying them for the day ahead, and the cook and his three young helpers were loading a cart.
“Varangians.” Stephanos spat on the ground, drawing Gallienus’s attention back to him. Gallienus said nothing, well aware of the prejudice many Byzantines had against the elite forces hired from Kiev to serve the Emperor. “They are opportunistic barbarian pirates, Gallienus. Why should I follow the counsel of one? Their only allegiance is to coin.”
“Because we spoke soldier-to-soldier,” Gallienus said calmly. “And I feel it would be foolish if we did not take his advice.”
Stephanos shook his head. “I am not convinced. But you and I are Byzantine and you, I trust. If you think the Varangian’s word has value and his counsel is sound, then we shall follow it. However, if we end up being ambushed and goods are lost, the value comes from your pay. Understood?”
“Understood, Stephanos,” Gallienus said, fighting the instinctive urge to salute. He was not particularly fond of the merchant, but Stephanos had hired him and Misahuen as packtrain guards without asking questions, and he was headed toward the city of Chang’an in China, so Gallienus kept his opinions to himself and Misahuen. “Do you think we will find snow as we travel?”
Stephanos’s expression changed, going from wary and annoyed to worried. “I fear we will. We left the golden city in good time, but the seasons move at their own speed and our animals cannot always keep ahead of them. It will be difficult in some places, it always is—will you be able to cope with it?”
Gallienus shrugged again. “I have before, I will again. Fret not about me, good Stephanos. I will not delay your arrival in China by my own mortality.”
“That is not what I meant.” Stephanos’s eyes narrowed. “You have an injury and you are old. I do not wish harm to come to you on the journey, for despite these things, you excel at your task and your companion does too. I would hate to lose two excellent guards because of the weather.”
“I’m touched,” Gallienus said dryly. “But we’ll be all right.”
Stephanos shook his head. “Very well.” He turned to look at the other members of his train, his sons who worked with him, and his wife, and the dozen or so armored men who worked as his guards. “Mount up,” he ordered. “We leave in an hour.”
Gallienus bit his tongue as he walked toward his horse and Misahuen. He kept his expression neutral, but Misahuen quirked an eyebrow as he handed Gallienus the reins of his mount.
“Stephanos is a fool,” Gallienus muttered, taking the reins with a nod of thanks. Mounting his horse, he shook his head. “We are just armored meat to him.”
“I know.” Misahuen mounted his own horse and rode beside Gallienus as the train started out of the caravanserai and onto the road. “He thinks only of money.”
Gallienus snorted. “If he did not pay so well, I would suggest we strike out on our own. But we need the security of this train as we leave the boundaries of the empire. At least he does not intend to go deep into the Holy Lands, and we have the security of numbers and comrades in arms as we travel toward China.”
“That is true. However, we are not obligated to stay with this train forever.”
“Nor will we.” Gallienus shook his head. “He thinks the winter will catch up with us and I will be a risk.”
“How?” Misahuen’s expression mirrored his confusion.
“He thinks I will slow the train down. Because of my… condition.”
Misahuen looked even more confused. Gallienus watched as Misahuen’s expression grew outraged and he swore at length in Korean. Gallienus raised an eyebrow, amused at his lover’s outburst.
“Are you finished?”
“For the moment.” Misahuen was still frowning. “How can you be so calm about this?”
“We need him more than he needs us.” Gallienus shook his head. “Unfortunate, but true. Anyway, we will be making camp just outside of Antioch tonight, and you can continue to teach me the language of China.”
“It is not one language,” Misahuen replied. “I have told you, it is many.”
“I know. It is the same in Byzantium. Many languages, many cultures, one empire. Yet we can be understood one to the other when necessary, and you said there was a similar language in China, yes?”
Misahuen opened his mouth then closed it again. “In a way,” he said finally. “It will take too long to explain,” he added.
“We’ll be on the road for a long time,” Gallienus pointed out. “You can explain as we ride.”
“Very well, then.”
ALEXANDRETTA was a seaside city. The hustle and bustle that Gallienus was so used to was not prevalent here, which was not to say that Alexandretta was small and quiet. The city seemed to devote all trade to the docks. Large ships were moored at anchor just off the port, sailors shouting and swearing as they waited impatiently for those already docked to unload or reload and move so others could take their place.
Goods from the west were being unloaded with the shouts and cries of quartermasters. Woolens, weapons, glassware, silverware, and more were removed from the ships and loaded into packs of waiting mules and camels. The caravan rode down the wide boulevard between the city’s waterfront buildings and the docks, Gallienus looking around with interest.
“This seems to be quite a centralized port,” he mused to Misahuen. “I know that crest on that man over there; it’s a duchy in Frankia. And that ship, her flags are flying the colors of Genoa.”
“Many Westerners then,” Misahuen said. “And many Easterners too.” He nodded in the direction of another train coming toward them, the merchant and his people dressed in the fine, elegant silks of China.
Stephanos called a halt, and he and the Chinese merchant spoke for a while. Then they clasped each other’s hands, and each train started moving again, Stephanos leading them away. Gallienus looked over his shoulder at the back of the caravan from China, wondering again about the lands they were riding toward and the people who lived there. Whatever questions he had in mind were forgotten as they rode past the last ship and entered a huge commercial square with tents and stalls and all manner of wares and goods for sale.
“I will take you two,” Stephanos singled out two of the guards, “and this pack mule and go and do business. The rest of you, wait here.” He was gone without another word, and Gallienus chuckled to himself at Stephanos’s brusque attitude and dismounted.
Misahuen followed suit, raising his arms and stretching as Gallienus rested his own arms on his saddle. “This is a beautiful city,” Misahuen remarked. “Relaxed.”
“I was thinking it was not what I expected and you have put the finger on the why.” Gallienus looked around at the boulevard, the palm trees, some heavily laden with dates, rustling in the soft sea breeze. “It is relaxed. More than Constantinople ever was.”
“Perhaps because it is not the capital of an empire,” Misahuen said.
“Although it is named for an emperor,” Gallienus said. “Alexander the Great.”
“I have heard of him.” Misahuen tilted his head to the side. “He was a conqueror, was he not?”
“Aren’t all men who dream of empire conquerors?” Gallienus breathed deeply, and exhaled, letting out a soft sigh at the scent of warm sea air. He felt more relaxed here in Alexandretta than he had so far along the road. He had no illusions, however, that he would continue to feel relaxed, at least not until the dangers of the Holy Lands were behind them. Dangers such as brigands, mercenaries, and weather were one thing, but Gallienus remembered all too well the tales told of the Crusade.
“We will not stay the night,” Stephanos announced as he returned. He was smiling and Gallienus surmised his brief business had gone well. “We will press on now to Antioch.” He clucked at his mount, and Gallienus rolled his eyes as he mounted his own horse, Misahuen falling in beside him.
The ride to Antioch was uneventful. They passed other traders riding toward Constantinople, their animals heavily laden with packs and their guards hard-faced and wary. Each of these encounters was brief—Stephanos spoke with the lead merchant, exchanging information about the road conditions, the weather, and the trends of trade, and then each train moved on its separate way.
As they crested the low hills that bordered the outskirts of the city of Antioch, Stephanos called a halt. “All right,” he said as he looked at the men he had hired to guard his train, “we are entering Antioch. I do not want you to disappear into the taverns and brothels; that isn’t why I’m paying you. I have a little business to do here, and we will make camp just outside the city walls with the other traders. Keep your eyes open and do not allow anyone to steal from me. Am I understood?”
The men nodded, some saluting, and Gallienus looked around at the train, wondering what Stephanos was carrying in his packs. Brass and bronze plates and bowls to be sure, wood carvings, glassware, and the elaborate jewelry so valued in the East, made with the yellow gold that was highly prized by the noble elite. But there were other packs, and Gallienus could not help but wonder if Stephanos were carrying some kind of contraband as well. He had heard talk, when he served in the Empire’s army, that traders often supplemented their income with money made by trading the dried poppies of the lands around Kabul and the wilds of the Byzantine Empire with courtiers in the Abbasid Caliphate of Persia or Samarkand in the Seljuk Empire, and he had confiscated contraband while working on the city wall. He said nothing, however, simply followed orders and formed up around the packtrain with Misahuen at his side.
“I assume we will not be permitted to enter the city?” Misahuen spoke in an undertone as they rode.
“I think that would be a fair assessment.” Gallienus raised a hand to shield his eyes against the glare of the sun as they rode toward Antioch. “I am glad not to.”
“You do not wish to see Antioch? I have heard it is one of the wonders of the world.”
“Perhaps it is. I won’t feel comfortable exploring until we’re out of the Holy Lands completely.” Gallienus shrugged.
“I see.” Misahuen’s voice echoed his confusion, but he didn’t push and Gallienus was glad. He didn’t feel like explaining it right then, for the vista of Antioch, golden and lovely, shimmering in the light of the sun, captured his attention.
“I have never seen its like,” Gallienus breathed.
“Does it compare to Constantinople then?” Misahuen’s lips twitched with suppressed mirth and Gallienus chuckled, realizing that he was being teased.
“Nowhere compares with Constantinople.” He nodded in emphasis. “But Antioch is considered the city of higher learning, and poets and scholars like to describe it in what I often thought were exaggerated terms.”
“It is very beautiful,” Misahuen agreed, “although Constantinople has more color.”
Gallienus blinked in surprise at that and considered it. “I see what you mean,” he mused. “There are more buildings built to be decorative as well as functional in my city. Here, they do not seem to be overly concerned with decorations.”
“There are cities in China that will take your breath away.” Misahuen shifted in his saddle as his horse pawed the ground. “Chang’an, the capital, reminds me of my homeland.”
Gallienus turned to face him. “Are you truly sure you do not desire to return there, Misahuen? We could, if it is what you wish.” He was curious to see if Misahuen would tell him more about his family and the life he had fled, even as he wondered again if he would be able to write to his own family. A small part of him pondered his decisions, whether or not he had made the right one by leaving Constantinople behind him because of the love he had for Misahuen. His beloved broke through Gallienus’s reverie, and Gallienus pushed his thoughts aside and concentrated on Misahuen’s words.
Misahuen shook his head. “No, jagi, I do not wish to return. There is too much conflict, too much turmoil. And, too, you would be killed simply for your appearance. You are too pale,” he elaborated. “You are golden, jagi, like your city.”
Gallienus hummed. “I see. I confess, I did not think of that.”
“You come from a culture of conquerors,” Misahuen went on, “a culture that