QSFer A.J. Demas has a new M-NB alt-historical fantasy out, Sword Dance book 3: Strong Wine.
Retired soldier Damiskos and his lover Varazda have been living together in Boukos for a month, and their future is beginning to look bright. Then Damiskos receives a letter summoning him home to Pheme—where his parents are deeply in debt, his brother is being hunted by loan sharks, and an unwanted arranged marriage looms.
And that’s before Damiskos is charged with murder.
Fortunately, he’s not alone. Old friends are back in Pheme. And Varazda—eunuch, sword-dancer, and spy—has solved mysteries before. But saving his lover from execution and from marriage will take time, and with only days until Dami’s trial, time is running out.
Strong Wine is the third book in the Sword Dance trilogy, the conclusion of Dami and Varazda’s story from Sword Dance and Saffron Alley. This time with fake fortunetellers, real courtroom drama, and … fertilizer?
It started to rain when Damiskos was halfway home, just a light mist beading in his hair, which was still damp from the baths. He quickened his pace, swinging his cane, and arrived at the pink door in Saffron Alley only a little wetter than he had been when he set out.
The house was quiet, and he paused a moment in the hall as usual, wanting to call out but not sure what to say. “I’m home”?
It had been a month since he first walked through the door of Varazda’s house. Every so often in moments like these when he was alone, he had the odd idea that the house was cradling him like a pair of cupped hands, an extension of its master’s love. Maybe it was because it was so obviously Varazda’s house, the comfortable, eccentric elegance of it so precisely adapted to him.
Varazda had never said, “I love you,” but he had said Damiskos was loved. He felt loved all the time, out in the city by himself or working in the garden or lying in bed next to Varazda.
Or—as last night—underneath Varazda. Damiskos grinned in the dim hallway at the memory.
“Damiskos?” Yazata’s voice was hushed as he looked out from the kitchen. “Oh, it is you. You’ve got wet! Let me fetch you a towel. Remi is asleep in the sitting room.”
Damiskos came through into the kitchen, and Yazata brought a towel and made him sit on a bench while he dried his hair for him as if Damiskos were a little boy.
“There, that’s better.” Yazata ran his fingers through Damiskos’s hair, then abruptly snatched his hand away. “Are you cold? I’ll make you some tea.”
“I’m fine—I was swimming. It warms you up.”
Yazata gave him a disapproving, grandmotherly look until Damiskos said, “Tea, yes. Absolutely.”
Damiskos rested his cheek on his hand as he watched Yazata bustle to the workbench and scoop tea leaves. Yazata was very physically affectionate; so was Varazda, for that matter. The whole family hugged and kissed and snuggled with each other. Lately Damiskos had noticed Yazata starting to treat him the same way, then catching himself and stopping, still wary around Damiskos. But they were making progress.
“Varazda’s not back from his thing?” He couldn’t remember what it was called: a celebration in honour of the birth of a friend’s child.
“Not yet. Ariston went out, too. To the fishmonger’s.”
“You’re letting him buy fish now?”
“Goodness, no. He needs to sketch some for his new piece.”
Yazata finished making the tea and checked on the rain, then, finding it had not increased to a downpour yet, went out to visit Maia across the street. Damiskos took his cup into the sitting room, where Remi was curled up on the cushions of one of the divans, sleeping with her bottom in the air. He settled into his usual seat in the corner and looked out the half-open door at the light rain sparkling with unexpected sunlight in the garden.
He had planted a couple of shrubs in pots against the far wall and built a trellis to train vines on in the spring. He and Ariston had dug a hole for a fountain and lined it with bricks as a substrate for the veneer of marble chips that Ariston had planned. Ariston’s workbench in the corner had expanded and become much more cluttered since he had left Themistokles’s studio and begun building a clientele of his own. Pieces of his first commission, a series of aquatic-themed reliefs to decorate a new public toilet, were propped against the wall in various stages of completion.
Damiskos himself had been officially jobless for two weeks now. He had managed to leave his post at the Quartermaster’s Office without returning to Pheme, because his deputy had done well enough in his absence to warrant a promotion. It had all been accomplished by letter, a strange way for his military career finally to end, but in a way it also seemed fitting. Every so often in the past two weeks he had thought about it, and a kind of unmoored feeling would come over him, as if part of his identity had been cut loose, and he wasn’t yet sure how he felt about it.
Then the other day Varazda had introduced him to someone, quite naturally, as a retired soldier. And Damiskos had thought, with a sense of shock, That’s what I am. Finally, after five years of pretending that he hadn’t left the legions, he really had.
He would have to return to Pheme at some point to see about his pension.
He would have to return to Pheme at some point because he was still paying to rent an apartment on the Vallina Hill, and to board Xanthe at a stable nearby, because he had come to Boukos a month ago with only a small bag, thinking he was staying a week, and because he hadn’t seen his parents in a month or adequately explained to them what he was doing in Boukos.
But if he were to go back to Pheme, that would, surely, be the moment when he’d have to ask Varazda what came next. He had no idea how he was going to do that.
What was the question, even? Were they still at the stage where it would be appropriate to ask, “Can I stay a while longer?” Or was it time to say, “Can I stay forever?” But there was always the risk, with the latter question, that Varazda might say—well, not “No,” but at least “Maybe.” And then what? “Can I stay for the time being, at least?”
A.J. Demas is an ex-academic who formerly studied and taught medieval literature, and now writes romance set in a fictional world based on an entirely different era. She lives in Ontario, Canada, with her husband and cute daughter.