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The Hinge Upon Which Perfect Happiness Turns

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Michael looked up as Grandfather came into the study. A young man - a very young man, younger than Michael himself, trailed him. They stood there silently watching as Michael politely got up from his chair. The young man - no, the boy, Michael thought, stared down at the floor shyly. Michael waited for Grandfather to speak, feeling his gaze as a solid weight. The dust motes spun in the late afternoon sunlight that warmed the room. Grandfather made no concessions to his age, standing as straight as a youth and dressed in the bright colours befitting a gentleman at an age when other men might think of retiring to sombre attire. Michael risked a quick glance down at his hands, hoping there was no ink on his sleeve. Gentlemen did not splatter ink around like clumsy schoolboys, Grandfather had said. Along with, Are you grown so used to silk that you wipe your pens on it? Michael concentrated on standing straight and looking polite as Grandfather examined him, clearly searching for flaws. He'd long since learned that questions were met with frowns and comments on his disgraceful lack of manners. The boy looked up, meeting his eyes, and Michael blinked at the sight of his foreign face. A Turk? he thought.

"Michael," Grandfather said. "The situation in the city is worsening by all accounts. You need a personal guard. Don't smile at me as if I'm a dotard, young man. Treat him well, he's expensive." Without another word he turned and left.

Michael sighed and stole a look at his book. He'd get no more consolation from philosophy that day, he thought, and reluctantly closed it. He had so much to learn, so much lost time to catch up on, and now he had to divert some of it to this boy.

"Can you do anything useful?" he asked, making sure he didn't sound like he came from the streets. His speech had been all but barbarous at first, Grandfather had sniffed.

"Besides keeping you safe? I can read and write," the boy said, his Greek clear and accentless. "I know how to help rich men dress themselves."

Michael pursed his lips. "So are you supposed to be my bodyguard or my body servant?" He wanted neither. Grandfather had already loaded him down with things and people he was not quite sure how to use. The boy was dressed in a good linen tunic, dyed a clear blue. It was not something Michael would have expected such a person to wear.

"I'm at your disposal," the boy said, and fell silent, looking about the room as if he thought Michael needed help in keeping things in order. He was not shy at all, it seemed, merely silent by nature.

"Are you a Turk?" Michael asked curiously. "A Mongol?"

The boy's face betrayed nothing. "No. I'm from further east than that. Eastwards of Cathay."

Michael tried to mirror the boy's blank expression. That would be expensive. "Very well," he said. "My bedchamber is down the corridor and up the small staircase. Go through my clothes and see if any need to be sent for repair." None would be. All his clothes were new. But it gave this new gift something to do. As the boy put a hand on the door, Michael signalled for him to wait. "What's your name?"

"Nagi."

Michael snorted a breathy laugh at the silly pagan sound. "We'll have to have you baptised, of course, and find you a decent Christian name."

Nagi's face stayed calm. "I'm already a Christian," he said. He went out, leaving Michael alone.


* * *


It was not easy, being Grandfather's newfound heir. Michael had laboured for most of his short life in happy obscurity, a motherless and fatherless boy. He had, at differing times, been a seller of flowers, a thief and - when needs must - a killer. He still remembered the fury he'd felt at the finely dressed young man who had thought he could rape the sister of one of Michael's friends. When the rage had cleared he'd found himself standing over the man's body, a stone smeared with blood and hair in his hand. But all that was before Grandfather had come into his life and told him he was the bastard of one of the old man's sons, that he had a better name than the one the monks had given him. Onesimus, Grandfather had said with grim humour. Yes, you can be useful now. Forget that name, boy, and come with me.

Michael found himself learning to speak like a gentleman and finally eating enough at every meal. The man who'd put him in the care of the monks as a baby, that man who'd visited him now and then when he had been a small boy to praise his steps in education and tell him to be good, that kind and encouraging man whom he'd dreamed might have been his father who would one day - if he were only good enough and clever enough - take him home, had been family, though no one in the house would say if he'd been father or uncle. It didn't matter anyway, as Grandfather had said. Michael had never been taken home, had gone from the monks at the age of twelve with a small gift of money from his dreamt-of father, and had made his own way for a while.

And now the men of the family were all dead but for Grandfather and him, and even a bastard had a chance at wealth and a name. All he had to do was be worthy of it.


* * *


"Nagi," Michael said, watching Nagi shake out his cloak so that it would drape smoothly about him, "If you can read, I'd like you to read the next passage of my book to me some morning after I return from church."

"Very well," Nagi said and fell silent again.

Michael sighed. Anyone would think he wasn't offering the boy a better place. He climbed out of bed and submitted to Nagi sponging him down. It was important to let servants do such tasks now that he was a gentleman. He looked over Nagi's shoulder and through his window at the distant sparkling blue of the sea. He could see a ship on the horizon, a rare merchant from the west braving the Turks. A swim would be a lot more fun than being bathed, he thought.

"Can you swim?"

"Badly," Nagi said. "If I need to, I'll learn."

"It's all right," Michael said wistfully. "I used to swim in the sea with my friends. I wonder how they are." He stepped away from Nagi's ministrations, tiring of the sure, impersonal touch when what he wanted was a friend's hand upon his shoulder. "We sold flowers in the market. I wish I knew they were all right." His eyes met Nagi's and he frowned. Servants shouldn't pity their masters.

He said nothing more as Nagi helped him into his leggings and soft silk tunica. He stood quietly as Nagi pulled the stiffly embroidered yellow overtunic over his shoulders, and fastened the bright red cloak neatly about him, so the decorative tablion at its edges hung straight. Nagi opened the little ivory box meant for treasures and handed him the ring Grandfather had given him. Michael turned it over and over, still in awe of the weight of the gold. It had belonged to the elder of Grandfather's sons, and by passing it on he was telling the world whose son it was to consider Michael. It was a sign of the honours in which its previous owner had been held, Grandfather had said. In better times Michael could have hoped - Grandfather could have hoped, Michael thought - to take up his father's position at court. As things stood, he had too much to learn to even think of such a thing. He slipped the ring on the middle finger of his right hand, feeling weighed down with the responsibility of being Grandfather's heir.

He looked into the little glass Nagi held up, and smoothed his hair down with his hands. He was richly dressed, and only looked a little lost, like a boy playing at being a man. He looked like a gentleman. He just had to remember to act like one, and everything would be fine.


* * *


Two days later, Nagi came to him very early with a double handful of fresh violets.

"From your friends," he said. "The redhead says his sister is to marry a man who will provide well for her. The others say they prosper well enough as flower sellers."

Michael looked at the flowers, damp and fragrant in Nagi's hands, and threw back the blankets on his bed, black fury within him. The floor was still cool with night air beneath his feet. "Why did you look for them?" he said, his voice harsher than he intended.

"Because I'm meant to look after you," Nagi said. He looked small and young, standing in the middle of the chamber with his hands full of flowers. "You'll do better now you know you don't need to worry about your friends."

"What business is that of yours?" Michael said in angry misery. It wasn't Nagi's place to feel pity, he thought. The violets stood out against the boy's pale hands. "Leave the flowers on the table," he said, his voice betraying him though he had wanted to sound cold and distant. He glared out the window as the city came to life with the morning, then heard Nagi sigh; an instant later the door closed. Michael's irritation died at once, leaving a flutter of shame in its place.

He touched the petals with one gentle finger, admiring how they looked against the soft dark wood of his table. He wished he'd been left in the market place, or that he had been kinder with Nagi. The violets were beautiful, as was the news that his friends were well. He'd have to reward the boy later.


* * *


"Grandfather," Michael said later that day, as they broke their fast after the Eucharist, "You are too generous. I don't know that I deserve such gifts." He did not really want to tell the truth, that the huge grey horse Grandfather had had brought to the house after Mass frightened him. He had not had to ride in his previous life, and had only the most basic skills now, even though the stable master made him practice almost every day.

"You need a mount fit for a gentleman," Grandfather said implacably. "You will follow every instruction Stephanos gives until you can manage the animal properly. The Turks have almost completed building their fortress, the cursed Laimokopia; you will have to ride the animal in defence of the city one day soon."

"Yes, Grandfather," Michael said miserably. He made a last ditch effort. "Such a creature must have been costly - wasn't the servant an expensive enough gift?"

"Nagi is an ongoing expense that you need not concern yourself with," Grandfather said. "The horse is paid for in full. He is yours, Michael. Learn to ride him."

Michael dipped his bread silently in the oil and ate one mouthful. Two. He sipped wine from the gold-chased glass goblet he had been afraid to touch with his common, workman's hands when he was first brought to the house. He frowned. "How expensive was Nagi, if you have not yet paid his price off?" Stupid, he berated himself. How could he be so insolent and foolish?

Grandfather looked at him quietly, then smiled, coolly amused. "He's not a slave, Michael. I pay him money, like all the other skilled servants." He dipped his bread neatly in the oil. He never got oil on his sleeve, Michael thought, as if a lifetime of wearing silk and the most finely woven linens terrified dirt away from his clothes. "He's very highly paid. I do hope you haven't been embarrassing him by asking what it is like to be sold like a horse."

Michael kept quiet all the rest of the way through breakfast. When he went to the study, Nagi was there, waiting.

"Do you want me to read to you now? You were here at this passage, weren't you? Why, then, O mortal men, do you seek that happiness outside, which lies within yourselves?" he asked, and without waiting for a response, read the passage Michael had been stumbling over for the last several mornings, easily and fluently. "I can explain some of the terms too," Nagi said, his eyes glinting with amusement. "If you want me to be your secretary as well as your body servant and bodyguard I'm sure I can manage. But your horse will have to carry out its own duties."

Michael flushed. "Someone told you," he said.

Nagi's smile was fleeting. "I'm not insulted," he said. "Servants talk, Michael - no doubt someone was hoping I would be insulted and would go, leaving you to the mercy of people of your grandfather's generation. Cheer up. At least now you can stop worrying how a new-minted gentleman should treat a slave."

"That's more than you've ever said to me at one time," Michael said.

Nagi shrugged. "You've never spoken to me past giving orders before. That's all right. I'm still a servant, after all." He paused, looking intently at Michael. "If I give you an order it's for your own good, understand? You're to obey me then."

Michael looked at him, wanting to say, You find my embarrassment amusing. I could have you dismissed. He looked down at his hands, wondering if that was true. Nagi was his grandfather's servant, it seemed, not his. "All right," he said. "I'll do as I'm told." He shouldn't seem like he was ungrateful, he thought bitterly. He needed to make his grandfather content. "I'll do what I'm told," he said again, his voice calmer.

Nagi was looking at him, no humour left in his gaze.


* * *


I am a Roman nobleman, Michael told himself, looking at his reflection in the mirror Nagi held up. I am not a disgrace to my family. He glared in hatred at his fair hair and blue eyes. His grandfather's steward had told him his older brothers - or his cousins, he thought - had had dark hair and brown eyes. I am not some Frankish whore's bastard, he thought, imagining a tragic love affair, his mother a gentle lady overwhelmed by fate. Yes. That was more likely, he thought grimly. No one would have paid for even a rudimentary education for him if his mother hadn't been of a decent family. "It still doesn't look neat," he said peevishly. Nagi silently put down the mirror and took up the comb again, working carefully at Michael's hair till it lay as neat as it ever would. His fingers were gentle as he combed water through the wavy hair in a vain attempt to straighten it. "It'll have to do," Michael said. "I'll only be out for my riding lesson." He waved away Nagi's silent offer of the cloak. It was warm enough. He looked down at himself. The old clothes he wore for his riding lessons were better quality than many merchants would don for attending church. They'd been his brothers', he'd been told. "Take the rest of the morning off," Michael said. "Do whatever it is you do."

He ran down the stairs, along the dark back corridor and into the stable yard. The huge horse was saddled and waiting. Stephanos bowed politely and cupped his hands together so that Michael could mount more easily.

"I shouldn't need such help, should I?" Michael said, as lightly as he could, trying not to cling to the horse's neck in fear.

"It just takes time, sir," Stephanos said. "And if you were in armour, you might be glad of the help."

Michael smiled, pretending his blood didn't run cold. When he could reliably keep himself in the saddle, Grandfather would want him to learn to fight better, to fight like a gentleman. He thought of how it felt to hold a sword, how awkward it was in the hand. He had to be capable of running it through a Turk in defence of the city. All he could imagine was standing over the rapist, the bloody stone in his hand. He looked quizzically at Stephanos. "What was that?"

"Are you ready, sir?" Stephanos said again.

Michael nodded curtly. The horse under him felt terrifying and powerful, totally unlike the placid ponies Stephanos had chivvied him onto when he first came to the house. It was well trained, though, and moved obediently into a trot when he touched his heels to its side, just as he'd been taught, its hooves loud on the stones of the stable yard. I'm being well trained too, he thought, and laughed. They moved at a walking pace for most of the way through the crowded streets, workmen getting out of the way, beggars calling up hopefully, women with their skirts hiked up too high calling out too. Michael looked away, his cheeks reddening. My mother, he reminded himself, was a lady. A lady overcome by love.

Stephanos skirted the edge of one of the markets, leading him away into less crowded areas. Michael looked over the square, hoping to see someone he knew amidst the bright awnings and people carrying their wares. A feeling of shame washed over him - what could he say to his friends if they met? He could buy their whole day's stock of flowers, and watch them despise him for his charity. Their worlds were different now, and they might think he wished only to mock their lower status. Grandfather would also wonder what he was doing. It was kinder to his friends, Michael thought, and more respectful to Grandfather, if he simply left and did not look back. With upwelling relief he turned his horse after Stephanos and did not look down at the face of any man till they were far from the market.

It was better when they got out to the deserted areas between the walls, huge green fields where old areas of the city clung on as small isolated villages. Grandfather said it was a disgrace that the city should have shrunk so, but Michael loved the feeling of openness. He took a deep breath of the air, feeling his heart lift. He'd been here often, collecting flowers. He and his friends had dug their own garden - he looked around. No, they were nowhere near it. He hoped it was doing well, that it was still providing his friends with a living. He found himself smiling at the memory of the violets Nagi had brought him. Things seemed simpler all of a sudden. He'd send Nagi to his friends, he thought. Even if he couldn't see them himself, he could let them know he still loved them.

"Put him in a canter, sir," Stephanos said.

Michael obeyed, the horse moving smoothly beneath him. He still felt he should tell the servants they didn't have to call him "sir." But they did, of course. Grandfather wouldn't like it if he were too familiar with them. And he'd punish them more than he would Michael. All he'd receive by way of punishment was a lecture on responsibility, on family - and the knowledge that once again he was a disappointment. He kicked the horse hard in the side and it sprang forward.

For a moment it was perfect, the wind in his face and the horse stretching out its legs to eat up the field beneath it, flowers and grass flashing past. Then the fact of its speed hit him, as did how unsteady he felt in the saddle. He clutched awkwardly at the reins, feeling all control leave him. Stephanos was galloping beside him, a grim expression upon his face.

"Slow down! Pull him up!" Stephanos yelled. "Pull him up, damn it!"

Michael hauled back hard on the reins, and the horse did what he was telling it to, sliding to a halt and rearing up, pawing at the air as if to crush an enemy's skull with its massive hooves. Michael felt himself going over backwards, and knew the horse would fall too and crush him. He'd killed himself and he'd killed Grandfather's expensive gift. He was so stupid.

The wind came up and snatched him from the saddle.

He found himself lying on the ground, the horse thumping down on all four hooves beside him, before rolling its eyes in fright and dashing away.

"I have him! He's not hurt!" a voice shouted. "Get that damn horse back!"

Stephanos' mouth was set in a thin line as he wheeled his horse after Michael's. Michael looked up unsteadily into Nagi's face.

"What --" he started.

"You said I should do whatever it is I do," Nagi said calmly. "I keep you safe." His hands moved carefully over Michael's limbs. "See? Nothing broken. You're all right."

"The wind," Michael said, feeling more stupid than ever, lying there in the grass with barely a breeze stirring the wild flowers.

"Come on, sit up. You're all right."

He could hardly dispute that, so he sat up. He felt light headed; it was a relief to feel Nagi's hands gripping his shoulders and pulling him back to rest against Nagi's thin chest. "Shhh," Nagi said quietly, patting his hand. "It's all right." Michael tried to still his panicked breath, clinging on to Nagi's fingers. Stephanos was coming back, the grey horse's reins in one hand. It was limping, its head hanging down in misery. Stephanos came up, looking at Michael with contempt, and Michael dropped his head in shame, as miserable as the horse.

"What the hell did you think you were doing? Did I tell you to put him to the gallop, you little fool? Look what you've done to him! Saint Michael and all the angels, the master should never have fished you out of the gutter --"

"Stop."

Michael raised his eyes. Nagi jumped up and strode forward to stand between him and Stephanos, like he still needed protection. It was ridiculous. He was Grandfather's heir. He was a gentleman, no matter what he or anyone else might think. He didn't need protection from the stable master. Yet it was a comfort to see Nagi's slender body between them, like a wall.

"Master Michael will take your horse," Nagi said implacably.

After the briefest of moments, Stephanos dismounted. Nagi cupped his hands together and all but flung Michael up. He put a hand comfortingly on Michael's ankle. "Can you manage?" he asked quietly. Michael gave a quick nod.

"Is he badly hurt?" he asked, looking at the grey horse. "Do you need anything brought here before you can take him home?"

Stephanos looked at him like he maybe wasn't such a piece of filth as he'd thought. "No, sir," he said. "I'll walk him home, take it easy. He just got a fright, you coming off like that, so sudden." He glared at Nagi. "Nagi'll see you home, safe enough." He stroked the grey horse's neck. "He didn't mean it. He's a good beast. We'll have you up on him when he's better. You go home, sir. And try not to break your neck on the way."

Michael touched his heels very gently to his borrowed horse, and it walked for him, quiet and calm. Nagi walked beside him, equally quiet. Michael looked down apologetically. "You haven't made any friends there," he said.

Nagi looked up, the touch of humour back in his eyes.

"No?" he said.


* * *


The talk with Grandfather was as bad as Michael had expected. He was left in no doubt that he'd been a fool, and that Stephanos' anger had been justified. Then Grandfather called for their dinner to be brought in, and spent the meal talking about other noble families. Michael picked at his food uneasily until he realised that no more would be said about his mistake. He was simply expected never to repeat it. He had no appetite, and in the end sat there in silence, staring at the dishes of food upon the heavy table as his grandfather ate, and drank, and told him things he thought Michael needed to know. As soon as he could, he begged leave to go and practice his reading. In the study he sat staring blankly at the books Grandfather said he should read, wishing he were far from the house and everyone in it.

"Do you want me to read for you?" Nagi said.

Michael started. "I didn't hear you come in," he said.

"No," Nagi agreed. Then, "You don't have to run from me. Or if you must, wipe your eyes before you go."

Michael stood still, finding he had half crossed the room without thinking. I'm not crying, he thought. It was nothing he could say to a servant. I'm not running. He sat down again. "You caught me, earlier," he said, remembering the sudden feel of wiry, strong arms about him laying him down on the ground, and the relief it had been to lean back against Nagi. "Thank you."

"You needed me to," Nagi said. "It's what I'm for."

"Thank you anyway." Michael looked at him cautiously. "Have you made Stephanos hate you?"

"Oh, him," Nagi said. "No. He just needed to remember not to shout at you too much in front of witnesses and not to go too far. A bit of shouting is all right, don't you think? But not the insolence."

"Nagi," Michael said. "He knows I'm a fraud. Maybe I'm not even Grandfather's grandson, maybe I'm just a foundling his family showed some charity to as a child --"

"No, that's me," Nagi said.

" . . . what?"

Nagi blew a breath out. "I'm a foreigner, you can see that. But I only really remember the city. I was in a monastery as a child, an orphan, I suppose. Your family put money into good works, and I was one of the orphans dependent on their charity. All of us boys were fed, clothed and educated with your family's money. We were all supposed to enter holy orders, but -- They weren't too sure what to do with me when it came to that point, and when I left, this family found work for me. I kept your father - if that's who he was - safe too, Michael. For a time."

Michael just looked at him. It was stupid, to think of a child as a bodyguard, but Nagi looked like he expected to be believed. "That's nonsense," he said.

"If you say so," Nagi said. A sly look came over him. "Do you want me to find out if he was your father?"

"Grandfather doesn't know," Michael said. "How could you?"

"Oh, as to that," Nagi said, "Servants talk, Michael. Do you really think the servants haven't considered it? They'd be able to piece the evidence together, they talk about you enough as it is."

Michael felt a dull blush heat his face. He could imagine the sort of thing they said. How they would laugh about his mother and whisper that she and he were filth from the gutter, like Stephanos had said. "No," he said stiffly. "It doesn't matter, that's what Grandfather says. As long as I'm his grandson, that's all that matters. I don't want the servants laughing at me more than they already do." He peered cautiously at Nagi, wondering if Nagi would laugh at him even more now.

"They don't laugh," Nagi said. "Why would they laugh? They like you."

"They think I'm a disgrace," Michael said. "You heard Stephanos."

"He was angry and worried. You're not a disgrace, why would you say that?"

Let Nagi laugh, Michael thought. "Just by being born. The family shouldn't need me."

"Well, it does," Nagi said crisply. "What you do about that is up to you. There are a lot of people depending on you to head this family. That doesn't seem too disgraceful to me. Whatever your past was, your future is something quite different." He moved quietly about the study, tidying pens, putting Grandfather's books neatly upon the stands. His movements were silent and economical. After some minutes he went out, still silent, leaving Michael to think about the future.


* * *

"Michael," Grandfather said a week later. "I'm thinking of sending you to Italy."

"Italy?" Michael said. He'd seen a map; Grandfather had a beautiful one that he had shown Michael only once, pointing out the city, and Jerusalem at the centre of the world. Italy had been to the west, but that was all he knew of it. "I don't know anything about Italy."

"That is no matter. You can learn. You can meet some old friends of mine, and see how you might increase the family's fortunes." Grandfather seemed unconcerned that his new grandson was agitated, Michael thought. No doubt it was because gentlemen didn't become agitated in front of their grandfathers. He could expect a lecture on propriety soon.

"I don't speak Italian! Will they speak Greek? I don't know anything except the city, Grandfather!"

Grandfather frowned and closed the account book he had been examining. His hands on the table were those of an old man, something that always surprised Michael. "Don't act like a child. You'll have interpreters. You are a Roman nobleman, Michael, act like one."

"What if I meet an Italian Roman who wants to speak Latin?" Michael said. "Send someone else, Grandfather."

"Real Romans speak Greek," Grandfather said firmly. "Their Latin is degenerate and not as that of the ancients. Our Greek is pure, and the Great Constantine would not be ashamed to speak it, as his royal namesake is not. Don't question me any more, my mind is made up." He stood, gesturing to Michael not to get up. "You'll go to Italy," he said, walking to the window and staring out over the city. "You will do well there," he said softly. "You're my grandson, you will do well."

"Grandfather --" Michael started.

"Go now, boy," Grandfather said, sounding old and tired. "Go and practice your riding, or your reading. Go and learn to be what you are."


* * *


Michael avoided the stables and his study, and climbed instead onto the one flat part of the kitchen roof, where he was sure no one could find him. He did not know how he could manage with all that Grandfather put upon him. Economics were not in any way his strong point, though Grandfather and his factor had both shown him neat rows of numbers and explained the business of making enough money to live like rich men. It was even more difficult when the business interests in Italy were brought into things. Selling flowers was easier. It would be nice, he thought, to be back in the markets. No one expected a common flower-seller to learn to be more than he really was. A rattle of tiles caught his attention and he looked to his side to see Nagi lifting himself onto the roof. He scowled, not wanting the company. "I don't want you," he said. "Do you think I'm going to fall and need you to catch me?"

"Maybe," Nagi said. "Are you going to throw yourself off in grief at being sent to Italy?" Michael stood and strode to the edge of the roof, deciding he would not stay with a servant who'd been told of his miseries. He would jump, he thought. He'd land in the cook's onion patch, but what did that matter? He was the master, or would be some day, and could do what he wanted with his own damn property. He probably wouldn't do much more than sprain something, and at least he wouldn't have to ride until he was better. "Wait," Nagi said. "Michael, I'll be going too."

"Of course," Michael muttered. "I couldn't go anywhere without a child bodyguard."

"I'm seventeen," Nagi said, and didn't smile at Michael's face. "I know I look younger. You're so incurious, Michael. You don't want to ask questions about the men who might have fathered you, you don't want to hear anything about your brothers more than will let you think they were better than you, you don't want to know what I've done for your family in the past. What awful thing do you think you might discover?"

My mother was a lady, Michael reminded himself. He would not think of other possibilities. A lady overcome by love. "Very well, I'll be curious," he said to distract Nagi. "Tell me what you did for this family."

"When I left the care of the monks," Nagi said, "I worked for your - well, let's assume he was your father. He had a position at court. His other guards - my friends - and I kept him safe as he fought his way up to a higher position. Then he felt secure and unassailable. He said he didn't want us any more, and dismissed us. He was dead within a week."

"So you weren't a very good bodyguard," Michael said meanly.

Nagi shrugged. "I'd have stayed. Your grandfather ordered otherwise, and I felt under obligation to him. He maintained orphans at his own expense. I'd been one of them and even when I'd left the monastery he maintained me still." He quirked a little smile now. "You look shocked. Your father was not a good man. He was corrupt and damaged both innocent persons' lives and your family's name. He killed his own brother and at least one of his sons."

Michael shivered, remembering the kind man who had praised him as a child. Grandfather spoke about family honour and duty, never about how his sons and grandsons had died. "What happened to the other son?" he asked.

Nagi shrugged. "Perhaps his father had him killed too. He was found last year over by one of the small market squares, with his head smashed in by a stone." He sat up straighter. "Michael? What is it - don't faint up here on the roof. It's a bad story, that of your father," he said with feeling. "Don't feel sorry, it was like destroying a dangerous dog."

Michael tried not to breathe too deeply, tried not to throw up. He remembered his fury, how it had felt to hit the man on the head and drag him off his victim, how he had thought of nothing more than smashing the stone down again and again. Another man, he thought. It was another man. I'm not a fratricide. He had to make Nagi talk about something else, anything else. "How?" Michael said after a moment more, his tongue feeling heavy and thick in his mouth. "How can you expect me to believe that you were a bodyguard as a child?"

"Ah," Nagi said, still watching him like he was afraid Michael would faint. "It's because of why I left the monks. I was to take vows, but they didn't want me in the end. They told me to stop using the name they gave me and go back to the name I'd originally borne. I was possessed."

Michael felt his eyes widen. He made the sign of the cross. "What? Are you serious? Did they drive the demon out?"

"They couldn't, but I learnt to control it," Nagi said casually. "Don't you remember when you fell from the horse?" He raised one hand and the wind started up, swirling round Michael's legs like an affectionate cat.

"Mother of God," Michael gasped, jumping back. The wind died at once.

"It's all right," Nagi said quickly. "It's all right. I'm not going to hurt you. I swear, Michael." He looked down at his hands, his face angry and ashamed. "I shouldn't have said anything or shown you that. I wasn't supposed to tell you. Your grandfather thinks I'm useful to you. He wants to protect you."

"He wants to send me to another country with a demon," Michael said unsteadily, finding he could hold himself physically calm and still when Grandfather was invoked. "How is that protecting me?"

"The city is going to fall," Nagi said intently. "Perhaps not this year, but next. The Turks increase their strength day by day, they have their foothold in the city's territory with Laimokopia, and your grandfather has heard they will begin to totally blockade ships from the west. The end is coming and it is coming quickly. He wants you out of here, and he wants you safe. You're his only hope for another generation." He looked away, pointing out at the roofs of the city. "It's all I've ever known," he said. "I don't remember my own country at all, and I don't want to leave. But I'll go to Italy with you, and you'll be safe."

"Because you always do what Grandfather says," Michael said. "Like me." It was terrifying to think of sitting again, beside a possessed boy. Roman gentlemen, Grandfather said, thought fear beneath them. He sat.

"I'm not a demon," Nagi said quietly. "I'll never let what I can do hurt you, I promise. I just thought - I thought, if we're to be sent away and be strangers in a new place, I wanted you to know what I really am. I don't know what happened to my friends and I wanted someone to know me." He stood and straightened his tunic down neatly. "It's all right. I'll go now."

Michael clenched his fists, feeling manicured nails digging into palms that were softer than they had been. The ring on his finger that had belonged to the man people thought was his father still looked odd to him, heavy gold on a hand that had been more used to digging in the earth. He wasn't the only outsider, he thought. Nagi might in some ways know the family better than him, but he could never be a normal man. He was brave to say what he really was.

"Nagi," he said before he could change his mind. "I'm nothing but a whore's son."

Nagi looked over his shoulder, silent. He turned to face Michael, his face surprised and filled with dawning pity. "Is that why you hate yourself?" he asked. "Michael, weren't whores and outcasts good enough that our Lord chose their company? And isn't it enough that for love of her your father - no matter which of the brothers he was - had you supported while she lived?"

Michael felt his eyes widen again, the second shock as keen as the first. "What? When the monks said I had to leave, that was when she died? I thought she had died when I was born." He was angry suddenly, at his father, his uncle, his brothers or cousins and most of all at Grandfather. "Such charity!" he said. "To have me thrown on the street as a child!"

"Like me," Nagi said. "And found work, like me. And your circumstances watched, like me. Michael, your Grandfather was keeping you out of the family eye, keeping you as a surprise to spring upon the world. And now he'll keep you safe from what is coming to our city, and you'll repay him by living."

"That old bastard!" Michael yelled. "Nagi, you don't hold anything else back from me, you'll tell me everything you know."

"Yes," Nagi said. "Though some of it should perhaps be said when we've left the house and the city. You won't object to me going to Italy with you?" He smiled suddenly and slyly at Michael's curt nod. "At least your anger means you've forgotten to be afraid of me. Be sure of yourself. You are a member of this family. You are your grandfather's true heir. Take from your family what you need, and I will help you be what you wish to be." He bowed slightly, like one man to another, rather than a servant to their master. "I'll see what you may need for the journey." At the edge of the roof he looked back, smiling more widely. "Michael," he said. "Your mother was a lady of a good family." Then he had climbed onto the ladder and was gone.

Michael let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding, and lay back, pillowing his head on his hands as he looked up at the cloudless sky. Grandfather should have been more honest with him. The family should have taken better care of him. They should have taken care of his mother. It was little consolation to be cherished by the family now, when it meant losing his own friends, his own life and being made take up a life others thought appropriate. He closed his eyes.

He had something, he thought suddenly. Nagi's loyalty it seemed was to him, not to Grandfather; Nagi was a powerful asset, one that wanted to be cherished as a person, as Michael also wanted. They had both lost friends and their old lives, they had both been thrust into the other's keeping. They could manage a way to live in Italy, no matter what happened here in the city. They might even find a way to be each other's friends, to make up for what they had lost. The thought of a new life, not his old one nor the one Grandfather insisted on, but his to make of what he willed, opened up. His heart lighter, Michael fell asleep, the sunlight warm on the tiles and on his face.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Author's notes: The title and the quote Nagi reads out are taken from Boethius' work De Consolatione Philosophia, a work written while the author was in prison awaiting trial and eventual execution. It was translated into Greek by Maximus Planudes (c. 1260-1330), along with other works of Latin literature. In it, Lady Philosophy labours to prove to the despairing author that perfect happiness can be found even after his happy previous life has been ruined, through self-control, self-knowledge, a desire for the Good and through love.
Mamoru's AU name here, Michael, was a common name throughout the Byzantine era. Onesimus (meaning Useful) is a Biblical name, that of the slave who appears to have run away and ended up with the apostle Paul, who writes to his owner to plead for Onesimus' freedom in the Letter to Philemon.

The Turkish fortress of Laimokopia (Rumeli Hisar) was built from scratch during April-August 1452, as part of the Ottoman offensive against the remnant of the Byzantine empire. Constantinople fell to the armies of Mehmet the Conqueror on the 29th May, 1453.