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The year is 1017. A mysterious giant terrorizes small villages near the city of Sredets, the last remaining stronghold of the First Bulgarian Empire. Disgraced solider Simeon Exarch is reluctantly drawn into the fight and manages to slay the giant. But his victory comes at a price—the deaths of his wife, Irina, and son, Cyril.

A thousand years later, Simeon lives on, having harnessed the giant’s powers to prolong his life and those of his friends. Then one evening, he notices a woman who looks exactly like Irina. From the sun-shaped birthmark on her neck to the smell of her body and the fact that she and his late wife share the same name, Simeon becomes convinced that the woman is his late wife and holds the key to eternal life.

Kidnapped on her wedding night, Irina has no memories of the past. Her husband, Miles, will do anything to rescue her from her captor. Soon, they will both learn just how deep their love for each other goes, as well as what happens when one crosses the threshold from life to death.


The Time Seller

Part I: The Byzantine Devil

Sredets, First Bulgarian Empire
August 1017 A.D.

Chapter 1

The road to Sredets was muddy and quiet, black and empty.

Normally, the road bustled with the traffic of traders, soldiers, travelers, and peasants heading to or from Sredets and the fortress that protected it. But today, as far as Simeon could see, the road was barren. The hoofprints, wheel tracks, and footprints that normally scarred the road were also missing. It was as if no one had journeyed to or from the city since the morning rain. Even the forest on either side of the road was strangely silent. The normal cacophony of insects and birds was absent. The only sound was the trudge, trudge, trudge of the donkey pulling the cart through the muck.

The silence made Simeon wary. An empty road meant people were afraid to travel. The latest Byzantine siege of Sredets had ended unsuccessfully a few weeks earlier, and Simeon hadn’t heard of any other reason to avoid the area. Still, he found himself turning his head to his right more often than usual to check his blind spot. If a bandit or robber hiding in the forest noticed his missing eye, they would sneak up on that side. He touched the intricate crossguard of his sword, his fingers tracing the lion heads at each end, then flicked the reins, urging his donkey forward at a faster clip.

His nerves eased when Sredets came into view. Men were scattered atop a scaffolding, repairing and patching the walls that had been damaged in the siege. Others were dismantling the abandoned Byzantine catapults scattered nearby. Soldiers stood guard on the tops of walls, watching. The air smelled like charred wood.

The guards at the south gate recognized Simeon and waved him through. Just inside the entrance, two blind men sat cross-legged on the side of the road. Each man held a bowl in his lap. Their heads turned at the same time when they heard the soft clop of hooves.

“Can the brave traveler spare something extra for a soldier blinded by the Byzantine monsters?” one of them cried out, raising the bowl high above his head and waving it in the air.

Simeon brought his cart to a stop. “I always have something for a fellow soldier, Bozhidar.”

The blind man stopped waving his bowl and smiled. “Simeon, is that you?”

“It is, old friend.” Simeon got down from the cart and approached the two men. Their clothes and beards were caked with dust. In place of eyes, each had dark slits that sank deep into their skulls. “How are my two friends this morning?”

“Blind as ever, but alive,” Bozhidar said. “The priest says my lack of sight is a blessing, but I think if he was missing both eyes, he’d feel differently.”

“When I stop in the church to pray, I’ll be sure to ask God to send a more understanding servant to the city,” Simeon said.

Bozhidar elbowed the man sitting next to him. “Miroslav, it’s Simeon.”

“I may be blind, but I’m not deaf,” Miroslav barked. He held out a scarred hand in Simeon’s direction. “It’s good to hear your voice again. It’s been months since you’ve come to town.”

Simeon took the man’s hand in his. “I’ve been busy with the harvest. It’s been a good year for just about everything we’ve grown. Which reminds me—I have something for both of you.” He grabbed two large clusters of grapes from the wagon and gave one to each man.

Bozhidar took one of the clusters. He held the grapes to his nose and sniffed them, touching several with his fingers.

“Oh, grapes,” he said, his smile widening. He popped one in his mouth. “They’re delicious. I can’t believe you’re selling them, let alone sharing them.”

“It’s my best harvest yet. I have more grapes than I can turn into wine.”

“Delicious grapes make delicious wine, and one can never have too much wine,” Bozhidar said, spitting out a seed and putting another grape in his mouth.

“And I have plenty of both. Better to share and sell than to let the excess spoil. Maybe I can finally earn enough to buy a horse.”

“I thank you,” Miroslav said. “It’s not often that we’re given something so fresh. Most people think they can give us something half spoiled just because we can’t see.”

“I’ll stop on my way out with some coins for the two of you, but first I have to sell the grapes.” Simeon looked around, then squatted next to the two men and spoke quietly. “The road to the city is empty. Why are people afraid to travel outside these walls?”

“You haven’t heard?” Miroslav said.

“Quiet, you fool.” Bozhidar tried to cover Miroslav’s mouth with his hand. “Don’t listen to what he says, Simeon. He wants to share the stories passed down from soldiers who are too afraid to do their job.”

Miroslav brushed Bozhidar’s hand from his face. “Don’t hush me. Simeon’s home is far outside these walls. He needs to know.”

“Know what?” Simeon asked.

 “People have gone missing recently— soldiers, men, and women.” Miroslav spoke in a tone just above a whisper, and Simeon had to move closer to hear his words. “Peasants have run through these gates telling stories of a giant dressed as a Byzantine soldier who uses magic to appear and disappear out of thin air, snatching whomever he wants. They call him the Byzantine Devil.”

Simeon’s first inclination was to laugh out loud, but the earnestness in Miroslav’s voice stopped him. “I would think you’d be smarter than to listen to peasant gossip,” he said, stroking his beard.

“It’s not just the peasants telling these stories,” Miroslav said. “Soldiers have gone missing too. Most refuse to stray far from the walls unless they’re in large groups. Yesterday, it took Boril all day to round up a dozen soldiers to go find this creature.”

 Simeon felt the blood rise to his face and his heart pound at the mention of Boril. Even though he was standing in the shade of the walls, it felt like the summer sun was shining directly on him.

“Boril is in Sredets?”

“Yes, he’s the tarkan of the garrison. Didn’t you know?” Bozhidar asked.

Simeon shook his head, then remembered that his friends couldn’t see what he was doing. “The news hasn’t made it out to where I live.”

“He was recently sent with some troops from Tarnavo— just before the siege,” Bozhidar said.

“Then it’s a miracle we managed to hold off the enemy,” Simeon replied.

Both of the blind men laughed.

“He’s half the reason they haven’t caught whatever’s out there,” Miroslav said, his tone serious again. “The men don’t respect him.”

“He’s not the problem,” Bozhidar replied. “The men here are weak and scared. They’re poor excuses for soldiers.”

Simeon clicked his tongue. “Don’t speak of our soldiers in that way, Bozhidar. They’re the only thing keeping us from becoming Byzantine slaves.”

“You know I mean no disrespect,” Bozhidar said, “but you also know how easy it is for leaderless men to let fear get the best of them. When Boril sent them out to track the giant down yesterday, he had to threaten them with death before they would go.”

“Fear. That was something I never had to worry about from you, old friend,” Simeon said, putting his hand on top of Bozhidar’s head. “You were never one to cower, even when the odds were stacked against us.”

Bozhidar smiled. “Thank you. If I could only see, I’d be out there hunting whatever is responsible for these stories.”

“I know you would,” Simeon said. “Thank you both for the information. I will be cautious on the journey home.”

“Simeon,” Miroslav said, reaching out.

Simeon took the man’s hand and held it in his. “What is it?”

“We’ve been through a lot together, have we not?”

“We’ve been through hell and back, then back to hell,” Simeon replied.

“I owe you my life, as does Bozhidar, so please listen to me. This isn’t just some story the soldiers are telling to shirk their duty. I cannot see, but I hear a fear in their voices. You remember Kleidion, don’t you?”

Simeon instinctively touched the spot where his right eye should have been. “How can I forget it?”

“Even when the Byzantines were overrunning our positions, the men under your command stood their ground. They fought even though we were outnumbered and there was nothing left to fight for.”

Simeon nodded. “There was much bravery that day. Many good men died.”

“Even the bravest soldiers are terrified to go outside the walls. Traders and villagers have been hesitant to walk the road in broad daylight. Even if the stories are exaggerated, there is something out there taking people. Bring your family to Sredets for protection until it’s taken care of. They’re not safe.”

Before Simeon could answer, there was a commotion at the gate. He turned and saw four solders ride in on horses.

“Make way! Make way!” the lead soldier shouted, even though the street leading from the gate was practically empty.

They raced past, each horse glistening beneath a slick sheen of sweat. The second horse bore both a rider and a passenger, but all Simeon could see of the latter was a puff of white hair and the long beard of a man bent with age, his head resting on the neck of the horse.

The man on the last horse glanced in Simeon’s direction as he rode past, then pulled the reins up tightly. The horse neighed and reared up on its hind legs. The rider brought the horse to the ground and turned it around so its nose was pointing directly at Simeon.

“Simeon, is that you?” the man on horseback said.

Simeon cocked his head. The voice sounded familiar, but all he could see of the man’s face was a bushy brown beard. The rest was obscured by a helmet and nose guard.

“Surely you haven’t forgotten me,” the man said. He removed his helmet, revealing large brown eyes and a high forehead.

“Kamen!” Simeon said, breaking into a grin. He pressed the donkey’s reins into Bozhidar’s hands, then hurried to greet his friend.

Kamen dismounted from his horse. “It’s good to see you again.”

“It’s been years,” Simeon replied, putting both hands on Kamen’s shoulders. “I didn’t know you were stationed here.”

“I arrived just a few weeks ago. We were sent from Tarnovo to help reinforce the city.”

 “How goes the war?”

Kamen shook his head. “Not good. For every battle we win, we lose two. I received word yesterday that the enemy is moving toward Setina. If we fall there . . .”

“Then Sredets is the last stronghold left,” Simeon said, surprised by the sad tone of his voice.

“Tarkan, I was wondering—”

 “Do not call me by that title,” Simeon said. “I’m not a soldier anymore.”

“No matter what the nobles think, you’ll always be tarkan to me and to many of the men here,” Kamen said.

“Thank you for the kind words.” Then, lowing his voice, Simeon added, “But be careful how loudly you speak them. There are many who would consider what you said to be treasonous.”

“I’m not worried about Boril,” Kamen said. Then, looking from side to side, he lowered his voice as well. “Your presence in Sredets comes at an opportune time. I might have a way by which you can restore your honor— at least in the eyes of those who feel you have none.”

“I couldn’t care less what the tsar thinks of me,” Simeon said.

“I wasn’t talking about him. I was talking about your family and former clan.”

Simeon raised his eyebrows. “I’m listening.”

Kamen glanced around the courtyard. “I’d rather show you than try to explain. Do you have time to come to the tarkan’s home?”

Simeon felt his heart hammer at the mention of the house. It was given to the captain who commanded the soldiers in the city. It had been his for a time, until the tsar stripped his honor and title. “What about Boril?”

“I doubt he’ll be there,” Kamen said, disdain dripping from his voice. “If he’s not bedding a stable maid, he’s over at the governor’s house yapping about how his inspired leadership saved the city.”

“Still, if he’s there . . .” Simeon’s voice trailed off.

“If he is, I’ll post a guard outside the door. If you see one, head straight to the market.”

“Very well,” Simeon said. “I’ll meet you there.”

“Thank you. Gather your cart and come as quickly as your donkey will permit.”

Simeon watched Kamen get on his horse and ride off. He then returned to his cart and took the reins from Bozhidar.

“That sounded like Kamen,” Bozhidar said.

“It was,” Simeon said, realizing that Bozhidar and Miroslav had probably overheard the entire conversation.

“Kamen led the troops out to find the giant yesterday,” Bozhidar said. “He was the only one who didn’t have to be coerced to leave.”

“That doesn’t surprise me,” Simeon replied.

 “How many men did he just return with? I heard only a handful of horses return.”

“Three soldiers and an old man rode in with him. From the looks of their horses, they rode them hard over many miles.”

“Kamen led four times that many men on horseback yesterday,” Miroslav said. “What do you think happened to the rest of them?”

Simeon looked through the open gate down the black, muddy road, hoping to see more men riding toward the city. Though he wasn’t going to admit it, his gut told him anyone who hadn’t returned was probably dead. “Don’t assume the worst, my friends,” he said instead. “The others will return soon.”

“I hope you’re right,” Miroslav said.

Simeon climbed into his cart. “I’ll see you before the sun goes down.”

“Be careful, Simeon,” Bozhidar called out.

“Thank you, my friends. I’ll stay safe. In the meantime, keep your ears open.”

 Simeon took one last look down the empty road, then flicked the reins and guided the donkey down the city’s narrow streets.

Chapter 2

As the donkey approached the tarkan’s house, Simeon realized that something was amiss. The horses Kamen and his fellow soldiers had ridden were tied to posts in front, still sweating and pawing at the ground in thirst. No one had watered them or taken them to the stables. The cavalry was the backbone of the army, and not caring for military horses during a time of war was punishable by death. Aside from an imminent attack, Simeon could think of nothing that could excuse the soldiers’ neglecting their animals in such a manner.

Not seeing a guard in front of the house, Simeon tied the donkey to a post and approached the horses. They were breathing hard and biting at their bridles. Simeon looked up and down the road for soldiers who could care for the animals. Seeing none, he called for two boys who were sword fighting with sticks in front of a home nearby and took the last two coins from his purse. His wife would disapprove of giving away their money where they were just scraping by, but Simeon couldn’t stand seeing the horses suffer.

The older of the two boys looked about ten. Simeon held one of the coins between his thumb and forefinger. They boy’s eyes lit up at the sight of it.

“Grab a bucket from your home, go to the well, and water these horses. If you do a good job, this will be yours,” Simeon said.

As the first boy scampered off, the second boy looked at Simeon expectantly. He had large brown eyes and shoulder-length hair, and Simeon thought he looked to be about seven. Simeon squatted down so he could look the boy straight in the eyes.

“Do you know how to watch horses?”

“Yes,” the boy said, nodding his head.

“Good,” Simeon said, holding up the other coin for the boy to see. “While your brother fetches water, I need you to keep an eye on these animals and my grapes. Can you do that?”

The boy nodded and tried to grab the coin from Simeon’s fingers.

Simeon moved his hand out of reach. “Watch the animals and my crops, and if both are in good condition when I return, this is yours.”

The boy moved to the horses and started petting their noses, talking to them. Satisfied that things were under control, Simeon looked at the door of the tarkan’s house, which also served as an informal gathering place for soldiers. It had been just over three years since Simeon had last passed through these doors, and standing in front of them brought back memories of laughing and drinking with his soldiers, planning battle strategies, and catching his men trying to sneak girls to the upstairs rooms. It felt both comforting and odd to return.

He entered and heard the sound of men talking in the large room to the left— one that was used as a resting area for soldiers on break. The room was pretty much as Simeon remembered— a few scattered chairs and a large table in the middle. Nine soldiers crowded around the table. Kamen stood on the far side. It took him a moment to notice Simeon standing in the door.

“Come in, Simeon,” he said, motioning for Simeon to enter.

The soldiers turned and looked.

“Tarkan,” one of the soldiers said, his voice full of shock.

 Some of the soldiers’ eyes grew wide in surprise, but the other men said nothing. A few nodded in recognition.

“Make room for our guest,” Kamen commanded.

Two soldiers at the foot of the table moved aside, giving Simeon an unobstructed view. Simeon looked down and gasped. The old man he had seen on horseback earlier lay on his back, his arms at his sides. A blue-and-white striped blanket covered the man from his stomach to mid-thigh. What Simeon could see of the man’s body was skeletal, the skin wrapped so tightly around the bones that Simeon wondered if that was what held the man together. The man’s ribs and breastbone stuck out from his chest, which barely moved up and down with each shallow breath. His legs and arms looked like long, straight sticks, and his skin was splotched with dirt and sores. The old man’s eyes were sunk deep into his head; one was closed, the other half-open and listless. A pungent smell wafted up from the body, and Simeon had to pinch his nose and breathe through his mouth to avoid gaging.

The old man reminded Simeon of soldiers who had spent a good deal of time in a Byzantine prison being fed nothing but water and the occasional scrap of bread. Maybe he had been recently rescued. But even if that was true, Simeon didn’t understand why Kamen and his men were so interested in him. It was only then that he noticed that the soldiers around the table were standing at least three feet from the edge, as if they were afraid that getting too close to the old man might bring a similar fate upon them.

“Thank you for coming,” Kamen said.

“Is this why you’ve brought me here?” Simeon asked, motioning toward the table.

“It is.”

Confused, Simeon took another look at the body. “What for? The man needs a physician.”

“We’ve sent for one, but that’s not why you’re here. Tell me, do you recognize him?”

Simeon stared at the man’s gaunt face. There was something familiar about his features, but Simeon couldn’t remember seeing him before.

“No, I don’t believe so.”

“Are you sure?” Kamen said. “Look closer.”

Simeon took another long look. In his mind, he added some weight to the cheeks and life to the eyes. He trimmed up the beard and combed back the hair. He had the feeling he should know the man but still couldn’t match him up with anyone.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t believe I know him,” Simeon finally said.

“The man you’re looking at is Gavril. You served together at Kreta.”

Simeon looked at Kamen in disbelief, then back down to the white hair, long beard, and taut face. The old man did resemble Gavril, but this couldn’t be him. Gavril was a strong young man of about twenty years.

“You must mean this is Gavril’s grandfather,” Simeon said.

Kamen shook his head. “I wish it was so, Simeon, but this is Gavril.”

“Do you take me for a fool, Kamen? This man is at least three times Gavril’s age.”

“Believe me when I tell you this is Gavril,” Kamen said. “We’ve served side by side at Tarnovo for the last year.”

“This is some kind of trick,” Simeon said. “How can he be so old?”

“I’m hoping to get an answer to that and many other questions,” Kamen said, “but as you can tell, he’s not in any condition to talk.”

“What happened to him?”

“There’s a giant roaming around the forest. Gavril was captured by the giant about three weeks ago while on patrol.”

“I was told this morning that a Byzantine mercenary is causing problems.”

“It’s not some rogue soldier,” Kamen said. “This man, if you want to call him that, is something else. He’s faster and stronger than anyone I’ve fought against. I . . . I wouldn’t be here telling you this if it wasn’t for three of my men sacrificing themselves so we could rescue Gavril.”

Simeon thought back to what Bozhidar and Miroslav had told him. He had inwardly doubted their story, but with Kamen telling it . . .

“How many men went out with you?” Simeon asked.

“Twenty on horseback, with enough provisions to last us a week.”

Simeon raised his eyebrows. “What happened to the rest of your men?”

Kamen looked at the floor. “Dead or missing,” he said quietly.

There was silence in the room as the words sank in.

“One man stood against twenty?” Simeon tried to hide the skepticism in his voice, but it came out anyway.

“He appeared out of thin air a few minutes after we found Gavril. It was as if . . .”

“As if what?”

“As if he was waiting for us. Like the entire thing was a trap.”

Simeon thought, trying to figure out how a single man could successfully fight against twenty soldiers. He had never seen a soldier or anyone else— no matter how tall or strong— stand against that many men. “Where did you find him?”

“In the foothills of the Black Peak,” Kamen said.

Simeon felt his throat tighten. His home was in that area. His vineyard was secluded and far away from both the main road and the many hunting trails that crisscrossed the foot of the mountain, but there was always a chance that someone could stumble upon it by accident. His thoughts immediately went to his wife, Irina, and their infant son, Cyril. Simeon wished he was back there with them. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He wanted to believe his home was safe and secluded. During the recent siege of Sredets, the Byzantine army hadn’t come across it, but something in the back of his mind told him this giant was a greater threat. His gut told him to get back in the cart and drive his donkey back home as fast as he could, but he couldn’t come home empty-handed. He had promised the last of his money to the boys to watch the horses. His family needed the money that would come from selling the grapes. He couldn’t look his wife in the eye if he came home with nothing in his purse.

“Simeon, may we talk alone?” Kamen’s words brought him out of his thoughts.

Simeon nodded and followed Kamen out to the street, glad to be away from Gavril’s smell. He was pleased to see that the horses had been watered and that they were being tended to by the younger boy. A quick glance down the street showed the older boy hurrying toward them, water sloshing out the top of his bucket.

They stood by the donkey, and Kamen patted the beast’s nose. “You seem to have done well for yourself.”

“Farming is good for me. I’m finding it more enjoyable to create life than to take it.”

“We miss your leadership. We could use more of it.”

“You held Sredets.”

“That was luck. The Byzantines brought their catapults too close to the walls, and we destroyed them. They’ll be back next year, and when they come . . . I don’t know if we can withstand another siege.”

Simeon stood in quiet contemplation as he thought how fast the empire was crumbling. In the three years since Kleidion, most of the southern lands had fallen into enemy hands.

Kamen looked around, then said quietly, “I’d like you to lead a select group of men to go after whatever it is that’s out there.”

Simeon raised his eyebrows. “I didn’t realize you had the authority to organize such a mission.”

“I don’t, but it doesn’t have to be official. When word reaches Boril that this mission was a failure, he’ll berate the men, then try to round up more soldiers. I’ll volunteer to lead, and you can meet us just outside the city tonight. I’ll have a horse and supplies for you. You can keep your donkey in the stables.”

Simeon thought the offer over. The soldier in him was curious to see the giant, or whatever it was, that could defeat twenty soldiers. But another part of him still bristled at how the nobility had dismissed him after Kleidion. He was a hero to his solders, but not to the tsar. He was loath to give a hand to the power that had treated him so poorly.

Simeon shook his head. “I need to sell my grapes and get home before nightfall.”

“Simeon—”

“Now isn’t the right time, Kamen. I can’t afford to spend the day running around when I have crops to sell.”

“I’ll find a way to compensate you for the grapes.”

“It’s not about the money,” Simeon said. “I have a wife and child now. I can’t just be going off on missions whenever I feel like it.”

“You have a child?”

“Yes, a son. Eight months old. His name is Cyril.”

Kamen put a hand on Simeon’s shoulder. “Congratulations are in order, then. When things settle down here, I would like to meet him and see my cousin again.”

“After the harvest.”

“After we defeat the giant.”

Simeon sighed. “It’s not that I don’t want to help, but I have different priorities now. Besides, Tsar Ivan and the nobility made it very clear that they don’t want me anywhere near their soldiers. I posed a risk to you and all the men in that room just by crossing that door.”

“Did you not see the faces of the soldiers standing around that table, Simeon?” Kamen said. “They’re terrified. I doubt Boril could round up more than three soldiers to go find whatever’s out there. But if they knew you were ready to lead them, I could get fifty men.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.” Simeon called to the two boys and handed them the last of his coins. Then he untied his donkey and climbed into the cart. He flicked the reins, but Kamen grabbed the donkey by the bridle.

“I led twenty men out and came back with four. This monster poses danger to everyone within a two-day journey of the city— including your wife and son. If you won’t do it for the empire or the soldiers, do it for your family.”

“I am thinking of my family, Kamen. They need a husband and father, not a fighter. Now, I have crops to sell. Let me go on my way.”

Kamen gave Simeon a long look, then let go of the donkey.

Simeon flicked the reins again, and the donkey started down the street.

Chapter 3

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. “I’ve lost my livelihood along with the honor and respect of the empire’s leadership, and you think money can solve all that?”

“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. Show them that your gutless actions at Kleidion were a fluke.”

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 the other soldier 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.

***