Chapter One

 

 

THE jig romped to a conclusion as Ander’s fingers danced over guitar strings in intricate patterns. As soon as he finished, his friend Leif leaned close and whispered in his ear. “This is somebody’s lucky night. Look what just walked in.”

Ander lifted his head and looked toward the front door. Despite the sizable crowd filling the room, he had no trouble telling who Leif was talking about. Two young men standing in the elaborately carved entry hall drew the eye like beacons. It wasn’t unusual to see beguiling women and men in Lady Tayanita’s House of Companionship, known throughout Pella for its comely staff, but these new arrivals stood apart.

They wore soft brown traveling leathers, well-molded to their bodies by long use, and long gray cloaks that still glistened with melting snow. Ander guessed they were only a season or two older than his own twenty years. They were lean and stood lightly, like dancers. Both had the broad shoulders and slender hips of athletes.

But it was the visitors’ faces that captured his attention. The taller of the two sported thick blond hair cut collar-length, and clear blue eyes spoke of the far north. Unlike most northerners who found themselves in a brothel, he was smiling and at ease. His handsome features showed appreciation of the establishment’s offerings and anticipation of enjoying them.

The other complemented the northerner by his contrast. Russet hair fell in loose curls, and deep brown eyes seemed to smolder. His sloe-eyed features were almost fey in their sensuality. Ander’s stomach fluttered as he sensed the erotic appraisal in the young man’s scrutiny of the room. 

“Don’t stare,” he murmured to Leif, despite his own inability to take his eyes off these apparitions. Then the curly-haired one met his gaze. Ander’s cheeks flushed hot, and he averted his eyes, but the stirring in his body told him he wouldn’t be able to look away for long. His teeth worried his lower lip for a moment. “Can you tell what they’re saying?”

Though Leif had to wear lenses to read, his ability to see at a distance and understand what people were saying by watching them talk terrorized the house’s gossips. It also made him the best archer in town. “Already at it,” Leif whispered, pretending to inspect an apple while peering over it at the new guests. “You think I wouldn’t keep my eye on this pair?”

The one with curls nudged his friend in the ribs and nodded toward the fireplace where Ander and Leif were sitting, saying something that drew the northerner’s attention their way. 

Leif sighed and turned back to Ander. “You have another admirer. He told his friend to look at the black-haired beauty with the guitar. And said you blushed like a virgin when he saw you watching. One of them must like innocent-looking companions. Maybe both of them. Would you make an exception for them?”

Ander had grown up in the brothel where his mother worked for many years as one of its most renowned companions. Lady Tayanita started looking after him when his mother died of the sleeping sickness. When he was old enough, he started making music for the house, and some customers paid just to look at him and dream as they took refreshment. But he rarely agreed to be a companion to visitors. He was painfully shy.

Despite being taut with embarrassment, he stole another glance at the new guests. The northerner had a hand on his comrade’s shoulder and was nodding in apparent agreement. He grinned when he saw Ander watching and spoke to his mate before taking off his cloak and examining the room.

Leif took Ander by the hand and tugged. “We have to get over there. If you don’t want to bed them, then at least make sure they notice me. The northman just said a little modesty would be a welcome change of pace. I can pretend to be modest.”

Ander fought down the butterflies in his stomach and followed, taking his guitar with him. They reached the foyer, just close enough to overhear the greeting when the guests were received, and waited beside a pillar decorated with carvings of couples sharing pleasure in every conceivable position. Lady Tayanita arrived to greet the customers moments later wearing a green velvet gown and smiling with genuine warmth.

“Gentlemen, I’m Lady Tayanita. Welcome to my house of companionship. Permit me to take your cloaks. And let me say it’s a pleasure to greet such noble guests. You grace our humble house.” She accepted their cloaks and handed them to a boy who appeared at her side. Though her age was impossible to guess, her high cheekbones, deep red hair, and cheerful eyes held great appeal. “Perhaps you would like some refreshment? Our companions will be glad to see to your needs.”

The northerner inclined his head in a small bow. “A kind invitation, ma’am. My name is Nicolai; my friend is Sorel. We’ve been riding all day, and a few hours in your house would suit us well.”

“Excellent, gentlemen.” She gestured toward two young women hovering nearby, their diaphanous gowns revealing glimpses of smooth flesh. “Mina and Tannis seem to have time and willingness to make your acquaintance. Or is there someone else you had in mind to meet?”

Sorel nodded toward Ander and Leif. “We couldn’t help noticing your fine musician. His playing is a thing of beauty. Do you know if he’s currently occupied?”

Lady Tayanita glanced over her shoulder to where Leif and Ander were striving to look like casual bystanders. She turned back to Sorel and shook her head with regret. “His name is Ander. I’m afraid he’s too shy to entertain guests personally. I’d be a wealthy woman if he were more outgoing. But the friend he’s with, Leif, is one of our most accomplished companions.”

Nicolai looked past her. “Perhaps he’d be willing to just talk with us about music. I think he might have noticed my friend’s admiration for his playing.” Gesturing toward the pillar, he urged Lady Tayanita to take another look.

Ander was transfixed by the northerner’s attention. He clutched his guitar like a shield and watched them with a diffident expression, loose strands of hair partially concealing his eyes. He was keenly aware that his loose gray shirt and soft cotton pants did little to conceal his body’s tense admission of his interest. His attraction to this pair had grown with proximity. They seemed to draw him as a lodestone draws iron.

Sorel gave him a friendly appraisal, and Nicolai appeared to be charmed by his seeming lack of sophistication.

Lady Tayanita made an imperceptible sign. Leif provided an encouraging prod, and, heart racing, Ander nodded. Lady Tayanita turned back to her visitors and bowed, smiling widely. She was obviously pleased by this turn of events. “Ander also has an appreciation for beauty. If you’ll come with me, gentlemen, I’ll introduce you.”

Ander took a deep breath to calm his nerves, and then it was too late for second thoughts. Lady Tayanita brought the guests over and made introductions, Leif went to fetch wine, and Ander was left by himself to entertain the customers. He felt faint and at a loss for words.

Nicolai came to his rescue. “This house reminds me of home,” he said. “Up in the mountains we need stout logs to hold back the snow. But this house is much better for entertaining.” A balcony ran along three walls, providing access to private rooms on the building’s second level. Tables and chairs were scattered around the floor, and lighting came from lamps and a huge fieldstone fireplace at the far end of the room. Curtained alcoves on opposite sides of the main room offered nooks for more private socializing. Customers and their companions talked and laughed in hushed voices while unattached companions circulated around the room serving food and drink. 

Ander gestured toward an unoccupied alcove. “Would you like to sit over there? The cushions are more comfortable than these chairs.” He knew that his blush was apparent even in the muted light. At least nobody could doubt his shyness was genuine.

Nicolai responded gallantly, displaying his northern sense of propriety in the face of modesty. “That looks fine,” he said. “And don’t worry about us, Ander. We’ll be happy just to hear about Pella. Or talk about music. Sorel is a bit of a musician himself. You two might have a lot to talk about.”

Ander gave him a grateful look, though he feared his eyes would also reveal the desire filling him.

They were soon settled among thick cushions decorated with embroidered forest scenes. Leif brought a flagon of chilled wine and three goblets, then withdrew.

It was darker in the alcove than beside the hearth, and Ander’s discomfort eased a bit once they were out of view. He calmed his breathing as he poured the wine. After handing goblets to Nicolai and Sorel, he poured a small portion for himself before sitting cross-legged in front of them. He raised his goblet. “May your visit bring good fortune and fond memories.” Sorel and Nicolai raised their glasses, and they all tasted the wine. It was cool and tart, reminiscent of autumn leaves blowing in a crisp wind.

“We’re honored you’ve chosen to welcome us,” Nicolai said. “We’ve been on a cold road the whole day, and this seems an excellent place to refresh ourselves.”

“We heard you playing when we came in,” Sorel added. “You’re very good. One of the finest I’ve heard, and I’ve heard many. Perhaps you’d play something for us later?”

Ander met Sorel’s eyes and shivered again. He was sure it was a sincere compliment, but the look in Sorel’s eyes penetrated straight to his heart. And his groin. He felt lost in the depths of Sorel’s dark eyes. “I… I’d be pleased to play for you,” he stammered. “But I’m a bit cold so far from the fire. Could, uh… may I join you on the cushion? It would be warmer there. I play much better when I’m warm.” His face reddened at his artless reaction to the visitors, but his heart pounded with anticipation.

Nicolai moved sideways on the cushion, creating a space between himself and Sorel. “A fine suggestion. Sit here, and we’ll get warm together.”

Ander uncurled from the floor and stood before them, knowing his trim body was backlit by light from the main room. Then he steeled his resolve and drew a silk curtain across the alcove’s entrance before sinking gracefully into the space Nicolai had made. The alcove took on a murky intimacy as light filtered through the peach-colored curtain. Hesitantly, he put a hand on Nicolai’s thigh. He found himself shivering despite the warm bodies flanking him.

“You really are chilled.” Nicolai’s voice held honest concern. “Lean against me, I’ll warm you.” He put an arm around Ander’s shoulders and gave him a reassuring squeeze. “No need to be nervous. Why don’t you tell us about Pella?”

Ander relaxed into the embrace and waited for the visitors to make an overture, but to his surprise, they seemed in no hurry. He realized with growing astonishment that they were going to wait for his invitation before taking any action on their desires. He stayed nestled against Nicolai’s side, content as a cat, as his anxiety slowly evaporated in the warmth of their company.

At first Sorel and Nicolai had to draw him out with tales of their travels and their commerce in linens and perfumes. Ander was coaxed into describing how he had learned to play the guitar with such skill, and Sorel told stories of training with a music master in Shuya, where he had acquired a guitar thought to be three hundred years old. They had stuffed peppers and fresh bread brought to their alcove and insisted on sharing the food with Ander as he recounted adventures with Leif in the nearby forests and mountains. Trading stories led to trading jokes and learning how to make each other laugh. Sound from the other side of the curtain faded away as they grew easy in each other’s company.

As much as Ander was enjoying himself, his attraction to the visitors had sharpened into a need that ached. It was growing late, and he wanted to be sure of claiming a room on the second floor. When his guests paused to refill their goblets, he reached over and put a hand on Nicolai’s thigh.

“I’m glad you sought me out tonight,” he said softly. “I heard Lady Tayanita tell you I’m not much of a companion. She’s right. But Leif has taught me skills I can share. I liked talking with you, but now I’m wanting more than words.”

Nicolai met his gaze. “You’re not alone in that. Your touch is enough to prove it.” He spread his legs wider apart. Despite his leather clothing, it was obvious he was powerfully aroused.

Ander’s cock swelled to full length, equal to the span of a man’s fully spread hand. It made a long, thick mound beneath his soft pants. He took a deep breath and slid his hand further up Nicolai’s leg. He turned his head to Sorel. “Would you join us? Is there a problem with the three of us together?”

Sorel laughed softly. “Far from it. Nicolai and I have shared a bed for years. But are you sure you’re ready for this?” 

Ander nodded. He had never felt more ready.

“Lean against me,” Nicolai said. “We’ll give you a sample of our own skills before going upstairs.”

Ander moved around and insinuated himself between Nicolai’s legs, his back pressed against the northerner’s strong torso. Nicolai pulled them together snugly and then, moving slowly, slid a hand beneath Ander’s shirt.

Ander moaned, arching his back and pushing against Nicolai as the warm hand slid over his tight muscles and came to rest over his heart. He beckoned with a small toss of his head. Sorel came to his side and crouched beside him, chestnut curls shimmering in the dim light, and bent down to kiss him. 

The kiss was gentle, not what Ander had expected after Sorel’s smoldering gaze. He felt another hand touch his side. Then Sorel broke the kiss and pulled back. He slid his hand to Ander’s hip and let it rest there, his eyebrows arched in an unspoken question.

Heart pounding, Ander took Sorel’s hand and moved it to the mound of his erection. Sorel smiled radiantly and stroked the cloth-covered shaft as he renewed their kiss. Their tongues were beginning a tentative exploration when Ander felt Nicolai’s other hand join in the intimate massage. He gasped and broke the kiss.

“Let’s go upstairs!” 

Nicolai chuckled, lightly cupping Ander’s crotch while the fingers of his other hand grazed a nipple. “I think it’s time,” he agreed, his voice a low purr. “You’re as fair as Sorel, and that’s saying a lot. I’m eager to see all of you.”

The bang of a door crashing open made Ander jump. The murmur of conversation in the dining room died.

“Where’s that little bastard?” a deep voice roared. It was belligerent and slurred by drink. “I won’t be denied again! It’s time the whore learned his place!”

Ander sprang to his feet and stepped to the curtain. He pulled it aside just enough to peek out.

Sorel moved up behind him. “Do you know who that is?”

“Yes! This is the third time he’s come in this week. Drinking and asking to meet me. Lady Tay tells him no, but he won’t listen!”

Nicolai joined them and looked out the other side of the curtain. 

The drunk was a burly middle-aged man in black military leathers. A full beard failed to conceal the scars of his battles. He was followed by a ruthless-looking aide, stone sober and dangerous as a viper, the kind of soldier who probably wouldn’t part with his sword when he went to bed. 

“Why doesn’t Lady Tayanita throw him out?” Nicolai asked.

“He’s a seraskier, Oskar Reincken. They say he’s a personal friend of the zamindar. He’s dangerous, above the law.”

“Where is he?” Reincken bellowed as he staggered further into the room. “A good beating is what he needs. That’ll teach him to do as he’s told!”

Lady Tayanita came out of the kitchen and marched over to the drunken officer. Her face was tight with anger, but she approached Reincken with careful respect.

“I’m sorry, Seraskier, Ander is unavailable. You should consider another of our companions. There are several who are especially fond of great soldiers such as yourself.”

“Shut up, slut!” Reincken straightened to his full height, towering over Lady Tayanita, then lashed out with a slap that snapped her head backward. “I’ve had enough excuses. Now where is he?” He raised his hand to deliver another blow to the dazed woman.

Ander tore open the curtain and ran to Lady Tayanita’s side. Supporting her by the arm, he turned to Seraskier Reincken. “Don’t touch her! Get out, or I’m calling the guard!” 

Nicolai and Sorel left the alcove and joined Ander; it seemed nobody else in the room had the stomach for a confrontation. Several drifted toward the kitchen door and other exits, not wanting to be in the vicinity of a high official’s displeasure.

Reincken’s laughter brayed. “The guard might be useful. I’d have them teach you how a whore should behave.”

Ander shook with anger. He let go of Lady Tayanita and stood defiantly in front of the seraskier. “If you want a companion, go out to the barn. Try the pigsty.”

Reincken roared and charged. Ander nimbly stepped aside and extended a foot as the man lurched past.

Reincken crashed to the floor and landed heavily on an outstretched arm. A loud crack was followed by a howl of pain. The seraskier rolled onto his back, his right arm bent at an unnatural angle. He started to sit, then groaned and fell back.

Reincken’s aide went rigid. “You attacked the seraskier! You’ll hang for this!” He started to reach for Ander, but Nicolai stepped between them.

“It was an accident, that’s all. The seraskier is drunk, and he stumbled. We all saw it.”

The aide’s face hardened, the show of outrage at Nicolai’s intervention more intense than his surprise at Ander’s action. “What I see is a peasant interfering with an arrest!”

Stepping back, he drew a short sword from its scabbard. Nicolai was unarmed. The aide lifted his weapon to administer a summary execution.

Nicolai dropped to the floor at the same moment Sorel reached for a sheath in his boot and pulled a throwing knife. Ander caught a blur of metal in the air before the blade sank to its hilt in the aide’s neck. The man gurgled, eyes bulging as he collapsed.

A woman’s hysterical scream started a stampede for the door. Seraskier Reincken looked up enough to see the aide’s body in an expanding pool of blood. Swaying slightly, he used his left hand to grab a glass amulet hanging from a thin chain around his neck. He yanked it free and smashed it to the floor by his side.

The amulet shattered. An oily black cloud spiraled upward, and a stench like burned meat filled the air. Reincken mumbled a few words, and the cloud swirled into frenzied motion. A shriek cut Ander’s mind like a razor. Everyone’s face but Reincken’s showed the same painful shock.

“He’s summoning the guard!” Nicolai shouted, though the alarm was in their minds rather than their ears. “We’ve got to leave!”

Lady Tayanita cowered on the floor with her hands pressed against the sides of her head. Ander crouched beside her. “You’ve got to come with us,” he urged. “They’ll arrest us all!”

Lady Tayanita shook her head. “It’s you and your guests they’ll want. Not the rest of us. You have to get away. Take any horse you can find and get out of town.”

“I’m not leaving you,” Ander insisted. The shrill alarm clamoring in his mind made it hard to think.

“This house is my life,” Lady Tayanita said. “I’ll manage somehow. Now go before it’s too late.”

Sorel put a hand on Ander’s shoulder. “There’s no time to argue. If she doesn’t want to go, we can’t make her.”

It was agonizing, but Ander saw he was right. He glanced at Seraskier Reincken. The man watched him with undisguised hatred. If he allowed the town guard to catch him, Lady Tay would only be forced to watch while the seraskier ripped him apart.

Nicolai had already retrieved their cloaks from a side room and grabbed a customer’s wool poncho. He tossed the black garment to Ander. “Let’s go! Now!” He started for the door, Sorel at his heels.

“Wait,” Ander called. “The guard will be coming that way. I’ll show you the back way out.” He gave Lady Tayanita a quick embrace, then led Nicolai and Sorel into the kitchen.

The two cooks stood aside while they rushed past the hearth filled with pots and the brick oven where odors of baking bread always lingered. The soundless clamor of the seraskier’s alarm was nearly as painful in the kitchen as in the main hall. Ander led them through a storage room at the back of the kitchen filled with baskets of vegetables and sacks of wheat, and they exited to a narrow alley. Its cobblestones were slick with snow and frozen garbage. Ander’s oiled leather moccasins stayed dry, but the cold penetrated quickly.

“This way,” Ander said. He slipped the poncho over his head, grateful for Nicolai’s foresight, as they ran the short distance to the stable.

The stable was a rugged timber structure like the establishment it served and had doors in both front and back. The stableboy had run off, but the seraskier’s alarm appeared to have had no effect on the animals. Nicolai and Sorel started to saddle their horses.

Ander hesitated, intensely uncomfortable at the prospect of stealing a horse, then bit his lip and selected tack from a hook on the back wall. Lady Tay would make it right with the customer, if she kept herself out of the dungeons.

He saddled a roan mare while Nicolai and Sorel grabbed candles, sulfur matches, and extra saddle blankets from a storage chest. It wasn’t much, but there was no time to search for more supplies. Ander opened the stable door while they stuffed the provisions in their saddlebags.

Clatter of horseshoes on cobblestones echoed along the nearly deserted street as they left the stable. It almost seemed to drown out the urgent clamor that still assaulted their minds. A few bystanders looked at them nervously, frightened by the alarm and not knowing its cause.

“Where are we heading?” Sorel asked. “This doesn’t look like the fastest way out of the city.”

“There’s a sentry post not far to the east,” Ander answered. “That’s where guards spend most of their time on cold nights like this. We’re less likely to meet a patrol on the northern road.”

“It’d better not be far,” Sorel said. “That shrieker is going to have every soldier in the city looking for trouble.”

“What is that thing?” Ander picked up the pace. “I’ve seen sorcery in the public tortures they make us watch, but I’ve never felt something in my head like this.”

Disgust filled Nicolai’s face. “The zamindar has many secrets. Things you don’t want to know, not if you want to sleep at night. Let’s just say shriekers are made from men. Those who weren’t lucky enough to be condemned to public tortures.”

Ander shivered. The tortures were horrible, intentionally so, and it was hard to imagine another fate could be worse. “We’re not far from the northern road. Once we’re outside the city, we can take a trail into the mountains. Let’s make a run for it!”

“Not yet,” Sorel advised. “Better to be inconspicuous, if we can.” But as soon as the words were spoken, a six-man patrol stepped from a side street not thirty paces ahead.

Black-helmeted heads swiveled toward them. Four soldiers drew their swords, and the other two lifted crossbows to their shoulders. Ander’s heart pounded as he looked for an escape route. There were no side streets close by and little chance of escaping the crossbows if they tried to turn. Without warning Nicolai and Sorel moved ahead of him, one on either side. 

“Stay behind us,” Sorel said as he passed. “And hang on to your horse no matter what.”

The instructions seemed bizarre, but there was no chance to question them. Ander clutched his saddle’s pommel with his left hand and watched in bewilderment as Nicolai and Sorel closed ranks ahead of him. Once they were within reach, they leaned toward each other and clasped hands.

The soldiers realized something was amiss and bellowed orders to halt. A blinding white flash cut them short. 

Ander shouted in surprise, his cry joined by the blinded soldiers. There was a clatter of weapons falling to the street, and then Ander felt someone grab the reins from his hand.

“Hang on,” Nicolai yelled. “Now we run for it!”

Falling forward and blindly grabbing his horse, Ander held on as they broke into a gallop. Screams and curses quickly faded behind them.

His mind clamored with questions. Why didn’t the horses bolt at the light? How could Sorel and Nicolai see where they were going? But it was a bone-jarring ride, made far worse by his blindness, and there was no time to worry about anything except staying in the saddle.