There was once a young man, son of a wealthy family, whose life was filled with ease and comfort, whose friends were worthy and respectable, and whose future was set fair.
Although born to privilege, Lance was neither proud or selfish. All who knew him praised the sweetness of his nature, and his friends were many, and his many acquaintances hoped to be his friends. But his dearest and most cherished friend was not one of his peers. His most precious friend was the slave who had served him since he was four years old.
Lance loved Christopher for his wits, for Christopher was quick and clever, and Lance loved to laugh. Lance loved him for his loyalty and strength of purpose, for Christopher had never failed him, had always protected and cared for him, ever since that first day. Lance loved the bright intelligence in Christopher's dark eyes, the sharp lines of his slender face, the incessant movement of his limbs.
And Christopher loved Lance, too, and they spent many hours together, and separated only when Lance left the house to socialise with his many friends. But he would return, weary and pliant with wine, and tell Christopher of the follies of his friends and acquaintances, and they would laugh together, and Christopher would bring Lance cool water to drink before he slept.
Lance was not yet fully of age when he realised that he wanted more from Christopher than the smiles and speech of shared friendship. He was ashamed at first, and did not speak of his desire, for how was Christopher to refuse, if Lance told him what he wished for? In spite of the love they had for one another, Lance was the young master of the house and Christopher one of its chattels, who went every night to the upmost level to sleep in a bare room under the roof, while Lance's bed was lavish and comfortable in the main part of the house. If Lance spoke of what he desired, was not Christopher obliged to grant it?
And Lance did not want what could not be refused, he wanted only what was given freely from the heart of his dearest friend. So for many months he said nothing, and was miserable, until one day Christopher begged him to unburden himself of this strange sadness, and Lance sighed, and Christopher cajoled, and Lance took Christopher's hand and brought it to his lips and kissed it.
When Lance dared to look, he saw on Christopher's face all the delight he had hoped to see, and a little fear, too, and Christopher explained that he had never dared to speak because he was a slave, and his master was still young and inexperienced and was talked of as a fit partner for the fashionable young ladies of the city.
From that day, matters were changed between them. Even more than before, they spoke to one another as equals, and mocked one another and the world around them, and shared their dreams. Lance wished to become a trader, to travel to far-off lands and discover their exotic promises for himself. Christopher's dream was simple, for he wished only to be free. He was saving what monies he could gather in order to buy himself out of his servitude, and Lance would help in whatever ways he could, by offering Christopher's services as messenger or horse-keeper or musician to his friends, and reminding them to be generous with vails. This was noble of Lance, for he understood that the freedom Christopher sought would take him far away, for no free man would stay in the house where he had been a slave. But that day was far off, for the price set on a slave was high, and Christopher's savings were small.
And there was such love between them, expressed not only in words of affection and amusement, but in the touch of their hands and the whisper of their lips against one another, and the tender caresses of skin against skin in the darkness of the night.
Until one day, Lance came of age, and his parents, wishing to bestow upon him a gift that would please him, gave into his hands the ownership of Christopher his faithful slave. Lance thanked them with the politeness due to their good intent and his good manners, but he could not rejoice, for how could he own his beloved? Throughout his celebration day he smiled, and gave out thanks to his family and friends for the gifts they brought him, and he drank perhaps too much wine at the evening feast, but the guests were indulgent, for it was not every day that a young man came of age, and it was a time to enjoy life.
On the morrow, Lance awoke with a leaden head and a leaden heart, for he was Christopher's owner.
So he summoned Christopher to him, to help him dress and to bring him water and a small breakfast fit for a delicate stomach. And afterwards he kissed Christopher, and told him that he loved him, and gave into his hands the papers of ownership, and told Christopher that he was free.
And Christopher smiled with such brilliance that it brightened Lance's life, and kissed him, and departed.
And from then on, Lance was lonely amongst his many friends and acquaintances, for his love was gone.
* * *
Christopher was not born a slave, but his mother Beverly was young and poor and burdened with children and abandoned by heartless men, and when he was but a child, she and her offspring were sold into slavery so that their debt-holders might be satisfied.
Christopher's mother called them fortunate, for they were purchased by a wealthy family whose ways were kindly. His baby sister was sent to the nursery while his mother worked in kitchen and garden, and Christopher learned to fetch and carry small household things that were not fragile, and to tell weeds from herbs, and to bow his head. And as he grew he learned more tasks, and carried them out conscientiously and with diligence, until when he was eleven years old, or thereabouts, he was assigned to the young master of the house for care and companionship.
Lance was an endearingly ugly child, earnest, loving and polite. Christopher was grateful not to have charge of a brat who would smash his toys and stamp his feet and laugh as his slave was whipped for it. When Christopher was once whipped for some misdemeanour of Lance's, the child's green eyes filled with tears and he vowed never to repeat his fault, and never did.
As Lance grew, Christopher grew fonder and fonder of him, and Lance's generosity was such that in his company alone, Christopher could sometimes forget that he was a slave. Christopher loved him for that, and for his sweetness of spirit, his open heart, and his ability to say outrageous things with no change of countenance.
The years passed, and Lance's funny little face became less funny and more dear, and unexpectedly handsome as he grew towards manhood. And Christopher found that more and more he dreamed of that face, of that sweet, shy smile, but he ruled himself with an iron hand and never spoke of his secret desires, for he was a slave and it was not possible for him to ask.
Yet by some miracle it transpired that Lance shared the very thoughts Christopher worked so hard to conceal, and they became lovers, closer than ever, equals in the nights they shared, though in the eyes of others they were still master and slave.
And although Christopher was happy, yet he could not be content, for he was not free to love Lance without restraint. Always, he felt the invisible chains of his lowly position, and they chafed, for his spirit yearned to be free. Painfully and with diligence he saved every groat and farthing let fall to him, determined that one day he would walk as a free man again.
When Lance summoned Christopher to his room and put into his hands the ownership papers that made him a slave, Christopher was filled with such joy that he could not speak.
He took his meagre savings and departed the house of his owners at once to make his way in the world. Free. And although his heart was filled with joy, he did not dare look back, for fear he would be unable to leave.
He took great risks to begin with, gambling his scant coin on his own wits and the slender chances he could perceive, and many nights he slept with an empty belly and no shelter but the boughs of a tree or the shade of a city wall. But in time his fortune grew, and Christopher became a name to be reckoned with.
Emily was the first of his sisters to be bought into freedom. She had been given as a gift to a rich family with holdings to the south, but he discovered her there and paid what was asked, and took her into his own house and hired a servant to accompany her when she went out into the city.
Fearing that the owners would not agree to deal with one who had once been their slave, he sent an agent secretly to negotiate the purchase of his mother and his other sisters, but the agent returned with the news that the women were no longer in the house of Lance's parents. They were with Lance, who had made his own fortune and built his own house, and he refused to sell. Christopher was greatly angered by this news, for how could Lance be so cruel as to keep Christopher's family as his slaves?
So Christopher went himself to offer Lance whatever price he chose, for he was now very wealthy, perhaps wealthier than the family whose slave he once had been. And when he was shown into Lance's presence, his breath caught in his throat, for Lance was beautiful now, far more beautiful than he had been even on that last morning when he had set Christopher free. And when Lance spoke, something inside Christopher yearned towards that deep, gentle sound, but he steeled himself, for he had come for his family, and he demanded to know the price that was set on them.
Lance told him he might set his own price, and Christopher's hands shook with anger as he counted out coins, and received the papers in return, and collected his mother and his little sisters, and took them home. They were bewildered and confused to be told that they were free, for the little ones had been slaves all their lives, and Molly could not remember the time when she had not. But Beverly clung to Christopher and praised him, and walked through her new home with tears on her cheeks.
For a time Christopher was content to provide for his mother and sisters, and to teach them the ways of freedom. But in his heart there was an emptiness, and at last he admitted to himself that he was lonely.
So Christopher returned to Lance's house, with his heart pounding and his head in turmoil, and asked admittance, and yet when he was shown into Lance's presence his eloquence deserted him and he could not find the words he needed. He stood, dumb and helpless, and the eager look on Lance's face faded to a hopeless sadness. Until Christopher managed a few words, just three, but they were enough.
A short time later, Lance and Christopher amalgamated their business holdings and built a splendid house together, where they lived in happiness for the rest of their days, and never, ever, owned any slaves.