Note: I'm posting the first several chapters of The Time Seller before its official release. To start at the beginning, read Chapter 1.
The Time Seller
Business in the market was brisk. Simeon’s reputation for growing grapes, combined with the fact that few people from surrounding villages had dared to bring goods into town, meant he was able to sell his crop quickly and at a premium. By midday, his purse was full, and most of his grapes had been sold. Under normal circumstances, he would have been thrilled with the money and the prospect of an early trip home, but today, his mind kept drifting back to the dejected look on Kamen’s face. Simeon had let his friend down, and it didn’t sit well with his sense of honor.
As he weighed some grapes for a woman, he noticed three soldiers enter the far side of the market. They looked around, spotted Simeon, and headed straight for him. Their hurried walk told Simeon they weren’t there to buy what he was selling. As they drew closer, Simeon realized that the lead soldier was Boril. His stomach turned sour at the sight of the man’s narrow face and pointed nose. The only thing different about Boril from the last time Simeon had seen him was that Boril’s black hair was shoulder-length. His face was still bare, having never been able to grow a beard. Simeon completed his transaction with the customer, grabbed the hilt of his sword, and turned and faced the approaching soldiers.
“Word reached me that you were in the city today,” Boril said, offering his hand.
Simeon didn’t take Boril’s hand or even look down at it. Instead, he glanced at the other two soldiers, realizing for the first time that Kamen was one of them. The second soldier he recognized as an archer named Rade. Simeon gave Kamen an inquisitive look. Kamen shook his head, telling Simeon that he hadn’t spoken to Boril about the earlier visit.
“If you came to buy some grapes, you’re just in time,” Simeon said. “They’re just about gone.”
“I have more important matters to discuss,” Boril said. “Military matters.”
“I’m just a poor farmer. What would I know about such things?”
“Don’t play stupid, Simeon. I know you talked to the two blind fools at the gate and paid a visit to the tarkan’s house. You know what I’m here to discuss.”
Simeon said nothing. He was impressed that Boril’s spy network was up and running so quickly, considering that he’d been stationed in Sredets for less than a month. He made a mental note to be more careful about where he went and whom he talked to in the future.
“I need—the empire needs—your skills to take care of a threat to the city,” Boril said.
“I’m not a soldier anymore. Tsar Samuil stripped that title from me, and I don’t think the current emperor plans on changing that.”
“I’m not here to make you a soldier. I want to buy your services. I need you to lead a group of men to dispose of a rogue Byzantine soldier.”
Simeon laughed loudly. “Oh, you think you can just buy my services?”
“I’m willing to pay you handsomely for your time and the inconvenience,” Boril said, pulling a bag from his purse.
Simeon noted the size of the purse. It was bigger and fuller than his. Still, no amount of money was a temptation when coming from Boril. “My services aren’t for sale,” Simeon said.
“This is more than most mercenaries make in an entire year defending our empire, and I know you don’t have much,” Boril said. He cast his eyes at the donkey. “This could go a long way toward improving your circumstances.” He shook the bag, letting the jangle of coins fill the air.
Simeon didn’t give the bag a second look, just faced Boril more squarely. “After all I’ve lost, you think that money can buy it all back?”
“Think of it as a first step toward restoring your name,” Boril said. “Once I send word that you helped take care of this menace, it could help reclaim what you’ve lost—you could gain your family, your livelihood, your honor, and the empire’s respect again.”
Simeon spat on the ground. “I don’t want a coward vouching for me.”
Boril lowered the purse, and his free hand went to the hilt of his sword. “You dare insult me?” he snarled.
Simeon tightened his grip on his own sword, but even as he grasped the weapon, he regretted his rash words. He wasn’t worried about fighting Boril— he could best the man with any weapon, or with his bare hands if necessary. However, getting on Boril’s bad side could cause other problems. As a tarkan, Boril had the legal authority to throw Simeon in prison, banish him from the city, or do almost anything short of killing him. Simeon had sold most of his grapes and made good money. His best option at this point was to take it and go home to his family.
“I apologize for my words,” Simeon said. “You defended Sredets from the Byzantines, and we are all grateful.”
Boril’s grip on his sword loosened. “Thank you, but despite my great victory, I still need your help.”
Simeon wanted to laugh at Boril thinking of his defense of the city as a great victory. But he kept his feelings to himself. “My services are not for sale, to you or anyone else.”
“If you refuse to obey, I’ll have you arrested. I’ll seize your purse, your crops, and the sad little ass that pulls your cart.”
“I won’t stop you. Do what you want. But that won’t convince a single soldier to venture outside these walls to fight a rogue Byzantine soldier.” Part of Simeon couldn’t believe he was saying these words. But Boril was a coward, and Simeon was nearly sure he would try to find a way to save face once his bullying tactics didn’t work.
Boril turned to Kamen and Rade. “There have been reports of thieves in the market. Walk around and look for suspicious activity while I finish up here.”
Kamen and Rade gave each other a knowing look, then started toward the far side of the market. When they were out of earshot, Boril turned and faced Simeon.
“I know we haven’t always seen eye to eye on things, but the empire needs you. I’ll pay you the full purse now and the same amount again if you eliminate the threat.”
Simeon chuckled. “The empire. The way the war is going, the Bulgarian empire will cease to exist in a year or two.”
“I promise to put in a good word with the emperor when I send him a report of the success.”
“That won’t help restore my good name,” Simeon said.
“How can you possibly think that?”
“Don’t act so naive. You served in the emperor’s house.”
Kamen opened his mouth to speak but Simeon continued, the words rushing out of him all at once. “You of all people should know the emperor is happy to blame me for his uncle’s death. I could slay a thousand Byzantine soldiers with my bare hands, and it would do nothing to move him. My actions gave him the throne. Easier for him to justify his reign if I remain the villain. Besides, I’ve already proven my bravery many times over. I don’t need to do it again.”
“Simeon,” Boril said, “the men in this city look up to you. The stories about your heroic efforts at Kleidion are legendary. If you get on a horse and go out the gates, you’ll have the whole legion behind you.”
“Why don’t you get on a horse and let them follow you out the gates?”
Boril stared at Simeon incredulously. “I need to supervise things here. There are walls that need repair and supplies that need to be restocked.”
Simeon stifled a laugh at Boril’s weak excuses. “Men will not follow someone who won’t obey his own commands. Instead of acting like one of the nobility, volunteer to lead them out the gate. Show them your courage and your bravery.””
Boril’s face turned red. Simeon tightened his grip on his sword in case Boril pulled his. They stared at each other for what seemed like a long minute before a normal color returned to Boril’s face.
“You may have most of the soldiers in Sredets on your side, Simeon, but you have no support among the nobility. If you refuse to help me, I swear that one day you will regret your inaction.”
Simeon just smiled bitterly. “You and the nobility are welcome to everything I no longer have.”
Boril turned and left the market. He called out to Kamen and Rade to follow him. Rade immediately turned and fell into line behind Boril. Kamen cast a long, pleading gaze at Simeon.
Simeon shook his head. If Kamen had come alone to the market and entreated Simeon a second time, he might have been persuaded to take him up on the offer. But he couldn’t bring himself to help Boril. Not after Kleidion.
Kamen turned and followed Boril and Rade out of the market.
It wasn’t until someone came to purchase the last of his grapes that Simeon realized he was still clutching the hilt of his sword tightly in his hands.