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On the Initial Conditions of a Partnership

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The boy was shivering, though the day was very warm. This was the first thing Amram noticed about the child; the second was that he was pale, the kind of pallor that surely would have been baked out of him in his first Byzantium summer. And indeed there were places where he was a color other than leprous pale, places where his skin had instead flaked and peeled red against the sun. Amram had visited Francia when he was in the army -- he spat to prevent that memory -- and knew what climate produced such a specimen. He crouched by the boy. "Are you a Frank?" he asked, in what he remembered of that tongue.

"Fuck your mother on a spit," the boy said, without moving. "I'm a Jew."

He was not such a boy. His voice was reedy, but it was that of a man. But he sat like a boy, curled in on himself, so there was some uncertainty. And, too, only a child or a fool would tell a stranger so freely. "That's very lucky," Amram said, consigning himself to the second category. "I'm a Jew as well."

At this the boy raised his head for the first time. "I see," he said. He drawled the words, each in Hebrew, "ani mevin."

"Yes, you understand very well," Amram responded in that tongue, amused. He sank down next to the boy. "You're insolent for one so small."

The boy's eyes were very wide. "You are a Jew!"

"Yes," Amram said, returning to Greek, "and I apologize most firmly for throwing that axe at you earlier. I would not have done so if I'd known you were one of the tribe."

"Like fuck you wouldn't have." The boy sighed and shook his hair out, then stuck out a hand. It was on the end of a surprisingly long limb. Amram ceased thinking of him as a child and began to think of him as a stork. "I am Zelikman. I am a physician, thoroughly trained and, I assure you, very well armed."

"I'm sure that's the case," Amram agreed, "but you will notice that I am four or five times your breadth, if not," he was forced to add as Zelikman stood and revealed the aptness of the avian comparison, "your length. Were you stretched on the rack as a child?"

Zelikman did not appear to have any particular sense of humor. He regarded Amram for a long and silent moment, then said, "You have a very good throwing arm."

"Thank you. You are very good at dodging. Why did you come here?"

"To Greece?"

"To these stables, after you fled."

"To see a horse," Zelikman said. He gestured towards the direction of the appropriate stall. There was, indeed, a horse in there somewhere, in the shadows, though the horse was a colt like Zelikman, and twice as reedy. "I also earn my pay in the stables. But that is by the by."

"That's all very well," Amram said, "because you are shortly going to need a horse."

Zelikman narrowed his eyes. "And why would that be?"

"Because you are being charged with assault on a king's soldier." Amram glanced at the adjacent stall, where a stallion looked down at him with fine, imperial disdain. "And accessory to horse theft."

"If I had assaulted a king's soldier," Zelikman said, thoughtfully, his Greek even more classical than before, "I should have remembered it."

"No, I assaulted the king's soldier," Amram said, cheerfully. "You are being tried for it. You really shouldn't have stolen my purse, you know. I am riding to Safed."

"Are you?" Zelikman said. His voice was raw and uncertain, and his face was very beautiful and very maudlin. "I am riding to perdition."

"If you saddle your horse better than you turn a phrase," Amram said, "I'll take you as far as Ancyra. A fine city, Ancyra. Full of the wonders of the world and the armies of three countries. They'll need a physician."

Zelikman examined the ceiling for some time, then appeared to make a decision and vaulted the stall door, disappearing on the other side. He began to speak in soft, passionate Hebrew to the bag of bones masquerading as a horse. Amram wondered idly, as he saddled his charger, if the horse had been kept so long out of hope or pity. He could probably ask the same question about the stableboy.

"You should know," Zelikman said, from within the stall. "I am somewhat melancholy and difficult."

"I'm sure the horse knows by now," Amram said. "At any rate, I am entirely difficult, untrustworthy, and I derail expeditions for fine whorehouses, so we are of a pair."

Zelikman nodded. He appeared again on top of the horse, walking it out of the stall. "This is Hillel," he said.

"A fine name." Amram squinted down at his charger, which was already attempting to convince him that it was not meant to be ridden by a stranger. "Then this one will be Shammai."

"A fine name," Zelikman concurred, "if you are given to wordplay."

"I am," Amram said. "Did I not mention it on my list of faults?"

"You neglected it." Zelikman reached back impossibly far for the hat hooked on the stall door, adjusted it on his forehead with easy grace, and looked back at Amram. "Well? Are you coming?"

"You've got some fucking nerve," said Amram, admiringly, and spurred the horse out of the stable doors. The soldier searching the neighborhood was not so drunk as to miss the cacophony of two sets of galloping hooves. He was soon in front of them, raising a sword in what was probably meant to be a threat, and Amram felt a certain distaste for cutting him down when he put forth so little of a fight. He looked back at Zelikman, whose horse had not shied.

The boy hadn't learned to hide his face with any competence yet, and it was blank with surprise, his hand slack where it had been reaching for the stubby little joke of a sword he carried. In the second before Amram turned his attention back to the ride, he saw the surprise give way to something that was very nearly a smile.

He'd do well on the road, Amram thought. He'd kill himself before he was twenty, of course, but he'd do well on the road until then. And then there was nothing but the road itself, and the dust of their horses' hooves covering up all thought.