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A Perfect Circle

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"Stephanos!"

Steve -- he had never, would never, think of himself by that Greek corruption of his name -- looked up from the diagram before him. "Master?"

Antonios Kyriotes was a good man: a good master, if you had to have a master. He had promised Steve his freedom after seven years: those seven years were very nearly up. Seven years since that terrible dawn when Steve's home had been burnt by raiders from the sea. Seven years since he'd lost everything: since he'd lost Bucky. ... Seven years, Steve reminded himself firmly, in which he'd gone from wretched, iron-collared slave to something like a free man, working with his hands and his mind on the designs and machinery that sprang, fully-formed like Athena, from the mind of Antonios Kyriotes.

Designs that often needed Steve's common sense and practical skill to be made real. His skills with pen and paper -- the accuracy of his drawings, and the deftness of his hands -- were valuable, too. Antonios had promised to help him find employment as a draughtsman when his servitude was over.

"How comes the mechanism?" asked Antonios.

"Almost finished," said Steve. "See, you need another wheel here --" He gestured at the paper before him. "-- to offset the weight here."

"You have a fine hand," said Antonios absently, squinting at the drawing. "That circle is almost perfect."

It is perfect, thought Steve: but Antonios did not mean to offend. "Thank you," he said instead.

"I have an errand for you," said Antonios. "One of my devices has begun to malfunction, and it needs a careful hand to correct it. You will stay at the Palace until the work is complete." Looking Steve up and down, he sighed and added, "You'd better wash. And change your tunic."

"The Palace?" said Steve, nonplussed. "The Imperial Palace at Blachernae?"

"Are there so many palaces in Byzantium?" said Antonios wryly. "Yes, Blachernae. You know the way?"

"You're not coming with me?" said Steve. This was ... extraordinary. Never before had he been allowed to perform more than the most cursory maintenance upon one of Antonios' devices -- and even those few visits had been to merchants and officials, not to the Palace.

"You're competent enough, for a barbarian," said Antonios. "And if you wash your face no one will take you for a street urchin." Steve flushed. He did not care to be reminded of his boyish build.

"Besides," and now Antonios was smirking, "from what I hear, you're well-suited to this particular task." From the folds of his tunic he produced a sealed letter. "Take this to the Captain of the Varangian Guard. He'll tell you where to go."

*

Steve couldn't stop wondering about the Varangian Guard and their malfunctioning device, even while he washed (Anna in the kitchen gave him some hot water) and struggled into his cleanest tunic. The Varangians -- their name meant 'barbarian', in the Greek of the City -- were legendarily fearsome: warriors from Thule, like the raiders who -- (No, don't think about home). They had come to Byzantium -- which they called Miklagard -- to fight: had stayed, and sworn service to the Emperor. They fought fiercely and celebrated their victories in every wineshop, brothel and gambling den of the city. Steve had learnt to stay out of their way.

What sort of device would such warriors possess? Some wicked war machine, perhaps; or there were stories of a man who flew with mechanical wings, like Daedalus. Steve had never seen such a thing, though: doubtless it was another tall tale meant to fool the listener.

"I'm here to see the Captain of the Varangian Guard," he told the guard at the gate of the Palace.

"A shrimp like you?" laughed the guard. "I don't think they're recruiting, boy."

Steve set his teeth. "I'm apprentice to Antonios Kyriotes. Apparently there's a device that needs mending. He sent me to ... to look at it," he finished lamely.

"What's this?" said another voice. Steve looked up. The man approaching them wore breeches and sark, like a raider from Thule, but his skin was dark and he had but one eye. "What d'you want, lad?"

"He's here to fix up the Soldier, Captain," said the guard.

The Captain fixed Steve with a glare that was no less penetrating for its Cyclopean origin. "Very well. Come with me."

The Soldier? thought Steve, trailing after the Captain through a bewildering maze of courtyards and passageways. Was this another of the Palace's fabled automata? A machine that moved, thought, fought like a man?

"Our Soldier," said the Captain over his shoulder, "has been complaining that his arm is stiff."

"Complaining? You mean he's a living man?" exclaimed Steve, oddly disappointed. "I thought -- but I am no healer, sir!"

"He's a living man," said the Captain grimly. "A man, at least, and he moves and breathes as we do. But not all of him is mortal."

"I don't understand."

"He came to us wounded in body and soul," said the Captain. "Your master has performed wonders upon the injuries of his body: but his mind is frozen in some hell, and none can heal him."

He drew back a blue curtain and gestured for Steve to precede him.

A man stood with his back to the archway. He was tall and broad-shouldered, and his dark brown hair hung to his shoulderblades. He did not stand straight like the guard at the gateway, but rather half-slumped, as though his left arm pained him. As well it might, because Steve saw -- with an involuntary gasp -- that it was made all of silvery metal, from the shoulder to the fingertips.

"Soldier," said the Captain, "here is someone who will mend you."

As if he's all machine, thought Steve angrily.

"I will help with your arm, if I can," he said.

The man turned his head, peering at Steve out of one blue eye. And Steve's breath caught in his throat, because for a moment he'd thought --

No. It wasn't possible. He'd seen Bucky fall, the village burning behind him, blood spurting from his shoulder where a raider's axe had sheared his arm clean from his body.

...His left arm.

"How long has he been here?" Steve asked the Captain softly. "How long has he served on the Varangian Guard?"

"Near seven years now," said the Captain. "I'm to attend the Emperor: do you have what you need? Ring that bell," he pointed, "if you need assistance or refreshment. I will return at the ninth hour."

It was just past noon: three hours before anyone would come. "Thank you, sir," said Steve. "I'll do my best."

First he must lay his fears -- his hopes? -- aside. Making sure that his footsteps were audible on the tiled floor (he did not want to surprise this man, whoever he might be) he went over to stand in front of the Soldier, gazing up into the man's eyes.

And perhaps this was some trick: perhaps he had, after all, gone mad, as some beasts in captivity did, or men who worked too long in the heat of the sun. For it was surely Bucky's face he saw before him: the full lips, the wide mouth, the cleft chin, the blue-grey eyes.

"Bucky?" he said.

"Who the hell is Bucky?"

The Soldier's voice was rough, and layered with the guttural accent of the Varangians, but his frown was the same frown that Bucky had levelled at Steve when they were boys.

"You are," said Steve, hoping against hope that he spoke the truth. "Show me your arm. No, come, sit down here." There was a bench under the window, with a small table next to it, just the right height for Bu -- for the Soldier to stretch out his arm for Steve's inspection. The effort must have caused him some discomfort, for he bit his lip until the blood welled red.

"Your name," said Steve, peering at the elbow joint, "is Bucky. For Buchanan: some chieftain of your mother's people. Can you flex the fingers? Good." There was a plate loose: Steve took up a thin bronze awl, prying gently at the exposed edge, and the Soldier hissed.

"Seven years ago the raiders came," Steve went on, as much to distract his patient as to remind him. This was delicate work: in other circumstances, Steve would have marvelled at the lacework of parts within the metal arm. Truly Antonios was gifted by the gods, if he had made this thing.

This thing that was attached to -- Steve was sure, now, of the Soldier's identity -- his oldest, dearest friend.

"What happened?" said the Soldier. It was the first thing he'd said that was more than reflex or rebuttal.

"They burnt the village. Killed a lot of us. I thought you were dead." Steve clenched his jaw, willing himself not to cry, and concentrated on realigning the gears that had slipped out of true. He did not know if Bucky could feel pain from his artificial arm, but he would not hurt him for the world. "They sold me as a slave."

The Soldier -- Bucky -- mumbled something. It might have been 'slave': it might not.

"What did you say?" Steve rummaged in his bag until he found the narrow glass vial that held oil. Whoever'd been tasked with maintaining Bucky's arm had neglected their work for some time: the fine interior parts were crusted with dirt.

"Steve," said Bucky clearly. "You're Steve."

Steve discovered that, though he had felt certain before, he had been deluding himself: true certainty felt like dizziness, breathlessness, joy.

"I'm Steve," he said. "And you're Bucky."

"This is --" Bucky stared down at the workings of his arm. "I don't remember this."

"My ma-- Antonios Kyriotes made it," said Steve. "The man I work for. He's very clever." Now that he looked more closely at the mechanism, he was sure that he'd seen drawings like this in Antonios' library.

Steve could draw better than Antonios. Steve could draw a perfect circle without using compasses.

"Remember what you used to say, Bucky?"

"I …" said Bucky slowly. "I don't remember much. I remember you."

"You used to say you'd be with me til –"

"Til the end of the line," said Bucky, and he was starting to smile.

"Til the end of the line," echoed Steve: and he thought of a circle, which has no end.