Per Ardua Ad Astra
Marcus wondered at the tight expression on Renius's face as they traveled the road to the sea. From dawn until late in the afternoon, they had trotted and walked the stone surface without a word. He was hungry and desperately thirsty, but would not admit it. He had decided at noon that if Renius wanted to do the whole trip to the docks without stopping, then he would not give up first.
Finally, when the smell of dead fish and seaweed soured the clean country air, Renius pulled up and, to his surprise, Marcus noticed the man was pale.
"I want to break off here, to see a friend of mine. You can go on to the docks and get a room there. There's an inn...
"I'm coming with you," Marcus said curtly.
Renius's jaw tightened and he muttered "As you please," before turning off the main road onto a lesser track.
Mystified, Marcus followed him as the track wound through woods for miles. He didn't ask where they were going, just kept his sword loose in his scabbard in case there were bandits hidden in the foliage. Not that a sword would be much use against a bow, he noted.
The sun, where it could be seen at all through the canopy, had dropped down toward the horizon when they rode into a small village. There were no more than twenty small houses, but the place had a well-kept air to it. Chickens were penned and goats tethered outside most dwellings, and Marcus felt no sense of danger. Renius dismounted.
"Are you coming in?" he said as he walked to a door.
Marcus nodded, and tied the two horses to a post. Renius was inside by the time he was done, and he frowned, resting a hand on his dagger as he went in. It was a little dark inside, lit only by a candle and a small fire in the hearth, but Marcus could see Renius hugging an ancient old man with his one good arm.
"This is my brother, Primus. Primus, this is the lad I mentioned, traveling with me to Greece."
The man must have been eighty years old, but he had a firm grip.
"My brother has written about your progress and the other one, Gaius. He doesn't like anyone, but I think he dislikes you two less than most people."
"Take a seat, boy. We have a long night ahead of us." He went over to his small wood fire and placed a long metal poker in its fiery heart.
"What is happening?" Marcus asked.
Renius sighed. "My brother was a surgeon. He is going to take my arm off."
Marcus felt a sick horror come over him as he realized what he was going to see. Guilt too flushed his face. He hoped Renius wouldn't mention how he had been injured. To cover his embarrassment, he spoke quickly. "Lucius or Cabera could have done it, I'm sure."
Renius silenced him with a raised hand.
"Many people could do the job, but Primus was... is the best."
Primus cackled, revealing a mouth with very few teeth. "My little brother used to chop people up and I would stitch them back together," he said cheerfully. "Let us have a light for this." He turned to an oil lamp and lit it from a candle. When he turned back, he squinted at Renius.
"I know my eyes are not what they were, but did you dye your hair?"
Renius flushed. "I do not want to be told your eyes are failing before you start cutting me, Primus. I am aging well, that is all."
"Damned well," Primus agreed. He emptied a leather satchel of tools onto a table surface and gestured to his brother to sit down. Looking at the saws and needles, Marcus wished he had taken the advice and gone on to the docks, but it was too late. Renius sat and sweat dripped from his forehead. Primus gave him a bottle of brown liquid and he raised it, taking great swallows.
"You, boy, get that rope and tie him to the chair. I don't want him thrashing around and breaking my furniture."
Feeling sick, Marcus took the lengths of rope, noting with a quiet horror that they were all stained with ancient blood. He busied himself with the knots and tried not to think about it.
After a few minutes, Renius was immobile and Primus poured the last of the brown liquid into his throat.
"That's all I have, I'm afraid. It will take the edge off, but not much."
"Just get on with it," Renius growled through clenched teeth.
Primus raised a thick piece of leather to his mouth and told h
im to bite it. "It will save your teeth, at least."
He turned to Marcus. "You hold the arm still. It will make the sawing quicker." He placed Marcus's hands on the corded bicep and checked that the ropes held the wrist and elbow securely. He slid a vicious-looking blade from his pack and held it up to the light, squinting at the edge.
"I will cut a circle around the bone, then another below it to give the saw room. We will take out a ring of flesh, saw the bone, and cauterize the leaks. It must be fast, or he will bleed to death. I will leave enough skin to fold over the stump, then it must be bound securely. He must not touch it for the first week, then, each morning and night, he should rub in an ointment I will give you. I have no leather cup for the stump; you will have to make or buy one yourself."
Marcus swallowed nervously.
Primus plunged his fingers into the muscles and nerves of the useless arm, feeling around. After a minute, he tutted to himself, his face sad.
"It is as you said. There is no feeling at all. The muscles are cut and beginning to waste. Was it a fight?"
Involuntarily, Marcus glanced up at Renius. The eyes above the bared teeth were manic and he looked away. "A training accident," he said softly, his voice muffled by the leather piece.
Primus nodded and pressed the blade to the skin. Renius tensed and Marcus gripped the arm.
With deft, sure strokes, Primus cut deep, stopping only to dab at the wound with a piece of cloth to remove obscuring gouts of blood. Marcus felt his stomach heave, but Renius's brother seemed completely relaxed, blowing air between his teeth in something close to a little tune. White bone sheathed in a pink curtain appeared, and Primus grunted in satisfaction. After only a few seconds, he had reached the bone all the way around and begun the second cut.
Renius looked down at the gory hands of his brother, and his lip curled into a bitter grimace. After that, he stared at the wall, his jaw clenched. A slight tremble of his breathing was the only sign of his fear.
Blood spilled over Marcus's hands, the chair, the floor, everything. There were lakes of it inside Renius and it was all coming out, shining and wet. The second ring was gouged out, leaving great flaps of hanging skin. Primus notched and sliced, removing the dark lumps of meat and dropping them carelessly on the floor.
"Don't worry about the mess. I have two dogs that will love this when I let them in."
Marcus turned his head away and vomited helplessly. Primus tutted and rearranged the hands that held the arm. A white spike of bone was visible a hand's breadth up from the elbow.
Renius had begun to breathe in hard blasts from his nose, and Primus pressed a hand against his brother's neck, feeling for the pulse.
"I'll be as quick as I can," he muttered.
Renius nodded, unblinking.
Primus stood up and wiped his hands on a cloth. He looked his brother in the eyes and grimaced at what he found there.
"This is the hard part. You will feel the pain when I cut the bone, and the vibration is very unpleasant. I will be as fast as I can. Hold him very still. For two minutes, you must be like a rock. No more of this puking, understand?"
Marcus took deep breaths, miserably, and Primus brought out a thin-bladed saw, set in a wooden handle like a kitchen knife.
They both muttered assent and Primus set the blade and began to cut, his elbow moving back and forth almost in a blur.
Renius went rigid and his whole body rose against the ropes holding him. Marcus gripped as if his life depended on it, and winced whenever the blood made his fingers slip and the saw snagged.
Without warning, the arm came free, leaning sideways and away from Renius. Renius looked down at it and grunted in anger. Primus wiped his hands and pressed a wad of cloth into the wound. He gestured to Marcus to hold it in place and fetched the iron bar that had been heating in the fire. The tip glowed and Marcus winced in anticipation.
When the cloth was removed, Primus worked quickly, stabbing the tip into every spot of welling blood. Each contact sizzled and the stench was horrible. Marcus dry-heaved onto the floor, a line of sticky yellow bile connecting him with it.
"Put this back in the fire, quickly. I will hold the cloth while it heats again."
Marcus staggered upright and took the bar, jamming it back into the flames. Renius's head lolled on his shoulders and the leather strip fell from his slack mouth.
Primus kept holding the cloth, then removing it to watch the blood come. He swore viciously.
"I've missed half the pipes at least. Used to be, I could hit each one with one go, but I haven't done this in a few years. It has to be done right, or the wound will poison itself. Is the iron ready yet?"
Marcus withdrew it, but the point was still black. "No. Will he be all right?"
"Not if I can't seal the wound, no. Get outside and fetch some wood to build up the fire."
Marcus was thankful for the excuse and left quickly, taking great gulps of sweet air as he stood outside. It was almost dark—gods, how long had they been in there? He noticed a couple of large hounds tied to a wall around the side, asleep. He shuddered and gathered heavy chunks of wood from the pile near them. They woke at his approach and growled softly, but didn't get up. Without looking at them, he went back inside, dumping two billets onto the flames.
"Bring me the iron as soon as the tip is red," Primus muttered, pressing the wad of cloth hard against the stump.
Marcus avoided looking at the detached arm. It seemed wrong, away from a body, and his stomach heaved in a series of quick spasms before he had the sense to gaze back at the flames.
Once more the bar had to be reheated before Primus was finally satisfied. Marcus knew he would never be able to forget the fsss sound of the burning and repressed a shudder as he helped bind the stump in clean cloth bandages. Together, they lifted Renius onto a pallet bed in another room, and Marcus sat on the edge, wiping the sweat out of his eyes, thankful it was over.
"What happens to... that?" He gestured toward the arm that was still tied to the chair.
Primus shrugged. "Doesn't seem right to give the whole thing to my dogs. I'll probably bury it somewhere in the woods. It would only rot and smell if I didn't, but a lot of men ask for them. There are so many memories wrapped up in a hand. I mean, those fingers have held women and patted children. It is a lot to lose, but my brother is strong. I hope strong enough even for this."
"Our ship leaves in four days, on the best tide," Marcus said weakly.
Primus scratched his chin. "He can sit a horse. He will be weak for a few days, but he's as strong as a bull. The problems will be with balance. He will have to retrain, almost from scratch. How long is the sea trip?"
"A month, with good winds," Marcus replied.
"Use the time. Practice with him every day. Of all men, my brother will not enjoy being less than capable."
Marius paused at the inner doors of the Senate chamber.
"You are not allowed to enter until you are officially accepted as a citizen, and then only as my guest for the day. I will propose you and make a short speech on your behalf. It is a formality. Wait until I return and show you where you may sit."
Gaius nodded calmly and stood back as Marius rapped on the doors and walked through them as they opened. He was left alone in the outer chamber and paced up and down it for a while.
After twenty minutes, he began to fret at the delay and wandered over to the open outer doors, looking down onto the massed soldiers in the forum. They were an impressive sight, standing rigidly to attention despite the heat of the day. From the height of the Senate doors and with the open plaza ahead of him, Gaius had a good view of the bustling city beyond. He was lost in his inspection of this when he heard the creak of hinges from the inner doors and Marius stepped out.
"Welcome to the nobilitas, Gaius. You are a citizen of Rome and your father would be proud. Sit next to me and listen to the matters of the day. You will find them interesting, I suspect."
Gaius followed and met the eyes of the senators as they watched him enter. One or two nodded to him and he wondered if they had known his father, memorizing faces in case he had a chance to speak to them later on. He glanced around the hall, trying not to stare. The world listened to what these few had to say.
The arrangement was very like the circus in miniature, he thought as he took the seat Marius indicated. Five stepped tiers of seating curled around a central space where one speaker at a time could address the others. Gaius remembered from his tutors that the rostrum was made from the prow of a Carthaginian warship, and was fascinated to imagine its history.
The seats were built into the curving rows, with dark wooden arms protruding where they were not obscured by seated men. Everyone wore white togas and sandals and the effect was of a working room, a place that crackled with energy. Most of the men had white hair, but a few were young and physically commanding. Several of the senators were standing, and he guessed this was to show they wanted to raise a point or add to the debate at hand. Sulla himself stood at the center of it all, talking about taxation and corn. He smiled at Gaius when he saw the young man looking over at him, and Gaius felt the power of it. Here was another like Marius, he judged on the instant, but was there room in Rome for two of that kind? Sulla looked as he had when Gaius had seen him at the games. He was dressed in a simple white toga, belted with a band of red. His hair was oiled and gleamed in dark gold curls. He glowed with health and vitality and seemed completely relaxed. As Gaius took his seat next to his uncle, Sulla coughed into his hand delicately.
"I think, given the more serious business of the day, that this taxation debate can be postponed until next week. Are there any objections?" Those who were standing sat down, looking unperturbed. Sulla smiled again, revealing even, white teeth.
"I welcome the new citizen and offer the hope of the Senate that he will serve the city as well as his father did." There was a murmur of approval and Gaius dipped his head slightly in acknowledgment.
"However, our formal welcome must also be put aside for the moment. I have received grave news of a threat to the city this very morning." He paused and waited patiently for the senators to stop talking. "To the east, a Greek general, Mithridates, has overrun a garrison of ours in Asia Minor. He may have as many as eight thousand men in rebellion. They have apparently become aware of the overstretched state of our current fighting forces and are gambling on our being too weak to regain the territory. However, if we do not act to repel him, we risk his army growing in strength and threatening the security of our Greek possessions."
Several senators rose to their feet, and shouted arguments began on the benches. Sulla held his hands up for quiet.
"A decision must be made here. The legions already in Greece are committed to controlling the unstable borders. They do not have the men to break this new threat. We cannot leave the city defenseless, especially after the most recent riots, but it is of equal importance that we send a legion to meet the man in the field. Greece is watching to see how we will respond—it must be with speed and fury."
Heads nodded in violent agreement. Rome had not been built on caution and compromise. Gaius looked at Marius in sudden thought. The general sat with his hands clenched in front of him, and his face was tight and cold.
"Marius and I command a legion each. We are months closer than any other from the north. The decision I put to the vote is which of the two should take ship to meet the enemy army."
He flashed a look at Marius, and for the first time, Gaius could see the bright malice in his eyes. Marius rose to his feet and the chamber hushed. Those standing sat to allow the first response to the other consul. Marius put his hands behind his back and Gaius could see the whiteness of his knuckles.
"I find no fault with Sulla's proposed course of action. The situation is clear: Our forces must be split to defend Rome and our foreign dominions. I must ask him whether he will volunteer to be the one to banish the invader."
All eyes turned to Sulla.
"I will trust the judgment of the Senate on this. I am a servant of Rome. My personal wishes do not come into it."
Marius smiled tightly and the tension could be felt in the air between them.
"I concur," Marius said clearly, and took his seat.
Sulla looked relieved and cast his gaze around the vaulted room.
"Then it is a simple choice. I will say the name of each legion, and those who believe that is the one to fight Mithridates will stand up and be counted. The rest will stand when they hear the second name. No man may abstain in such a vote on the security of the city. Are we all agreed?"
The three hundred senators murmured their assent solemnly, and Sulla smiled. Gaius felt fear touch him. Sulla paused for a long moment, clearly enjoying the tension. At last he spoke one word into the silence.
Marius placed his hand on Gaius's shoulder. "You may not vote today, lad."
Gaius remained in his seat, craning around him to see how many would stand. Marius looked levelly at Sulla, as if the matter were of no importance to him. It seemed that all around them men were getting up, and Gaius knew his uncle had lost. Then the noises stopped and no more men stood. He looked down at the handsome consul standing at the center and could see Sulla's face change from relaxed pleasure to disbelief, then fury. He made the count and had it checked by two others until they agreed.
"One hundred and twenty-one in favor of the First-Born dealing with the invader."
He bit his lip, his expression brutal for a second. His gaze fastened on Marius, who shrugged and looked away. The standing men sat.
"Second Alaudae," Sulla whispered, his voice carrying on the well-crafted acoustics of the hall. Again, men stood, and Gaius could see it was a majority. Whatever plan Sulla had attempted had failed, and Gaius saw him wave the senators to their seats without allowing the count to be properly finished and recorded. Visibly, he gathered himself, and when he spoke he was again the charming young man Gaius had seen when he entered.
"The Senate has spoken and I am the servant of the Senate," he said formally. "I trust Marius will use the city barracks for his own men in my absence?"
"I will," said Marius, his face calm and still.
Sulla went on: "With the support of our forces in Asia Minor, I do not see this as a long campaign. I will return to Rome as soon as I have crushed Mithridates. Then we will decide the future of this city." He said the last looking straight at Marius, and the message was clear.
"I will have my men vacate the barracks this evening. If there is no further business? Good day to you all." Sulla left the chamber, with a group of his supporters falling in behind him. The pressure disappeared in the room and suddenly everyone was speaking, chuckling, or looking thoughtfully at each other.
Marius stood and immediately there was quiet.
"Thank you for your trust, gentlemen. I will guard this city well against all comers." Gaius noted that Sulla could well be one of those Marius would guard against, when he returned.
Senators crowded around his uncle, a few shaking his hand in open congratulation. Marius pulled Gaius to him with one hand and reached out with the other to take the shoulder of a scrawny man, who smiled at them both.
"Crassus, this is my nephew, Gaius. You would not believe it to look at him, but Crassus here is probably the richest man in Rome."
The man had a long, thin neck and his head bobbed at the end of it, with warm brown eyes twinkling in a mass of tiny wrinkles.
"I have been blessed by the gods, it is true. I also have two beautiful daughters."
Marius chuckled. "One is tolerably attractive, Crassus, but the other takes after her father."
Internally, Gaius winced at this, but Crassus didn't seem to mind at all. He laughed ruefully.
"That is true, she is a little bony. I will have to give her a large dowry to tempt the young men of Rome." He faced Gaius and put out his hand. "It is a pleasure to meet you, young man. Will you be a general like your uncle?"
"I will," Gaius said seriously.
Crassus smiled. "Then you will need money. Come to me when you need a backer?"
Gaius took the offered hand, gripping it briefly before Crassus moved away into the crowd.
Marius leaned over to him and muttered in his ear, "Well done. He has been a loyal friend to me and he has incredible wealth. I will arrange for you to visit his estate; it is astonishing in its opulence. Now, there is one other I want you to meet. Come with me."
Gaius followed him through the knots of senators as they talked over the events of the day and Sulla's humiliation. Gaius noted that Marius shook hands with every man who met his eye, saying a few words of congratulation, asking after families and absent friends. He left each group smiling.
Across the other side of the Senate hall, a group of three men were talking quietly, stopping as soon as Marius and Gaius approached.
"This is the man, Gaius," Marius said cheerfully. "Gnaeus Pompey, who is described by his supporters as the best field general Rome has at present—when I am ill or out of the country."
Pompey shook hands with them both, smiling affably. Unlike the spare Crassus, he was a little overweight, but he was as tall as Marius and carried it well, creating an impression of solid bulk. Gaius guessed him to be no more than thirty, which made his military status very impressive.
"There is no possibility about it, Marius," Pompey replied. "Truly I am wondrous in the field of battle. Strong men weep at the beauty of my maneuvers."
Marius laughed and clapped him on the shoulder.
Pompey looked Gaius up and down. "A younger version of you, old fox?" he said to Marius.
"What else could he be, with my blood in his veins?"
Pompey clasped his hands behind his back. "Your uncle has taken a terrible risk today, by pushing Sulla out of Rome. What did you think of it?"
Marius began to reply, but Pompey held up a hand.
"Let him speak, old fox. Let me see if he has anything to him."
Gaius answered without hesitation, the words coming surprisingly easily. "It is a dangerous move to offend Sulla, but my uncle enjoys gambles of this kind. Sulla is the servant of the city and will fight well against this foreign general. When he returns, he will have to make an accommodation with my uncle. Perhaps we can extend the barracks so that both legions can protect the city."
Pompey blinked and turned to Marius. "Is he a fool?"
Marius chuckled. "No. He just doesn't know if I trust you or not. I suspect he has already guessed my plans."
"What will your uncle do when Sulla returns?" Pompey whispered, close to Gaius's ear.
Gaius looked around, but there was no one close enough to overhear, except for the three Marius obviously trusted.
"He will close the gates. If Sulla tries to force an entry, the Senate will have to declare him an enemy of Rome. He will have to either begin a siege or retreat. I
suspect he will put himself at Marius's command, as any general in the field might do to the consul of Rome."
Pompey agreed, unblinking. "A dangerous path, Marius, as I said. I cannot support you openly, but I will do my best for you in private. Congratulations on your triumphal march. You looked splendid." He gestured to the two with him and they walked away.
Gaius began to speak again, but Marius shook his head.
"Let us go outside, the air is thick with intrigue in here." They moved toward the doors and, outside, Marius put a finger to his lips to stop Gaius's questions. "Not here. There are too many listeners."
Gaius glanced around and saw that some of Sulla's senators were close, staring over with undisguised hostility. He followed Marius out into the forum, taking a seat on the stone steps away from where they could be overheard. Nearby, the First-Born still stood to attention, looking invincible in their shining armor. It was a peculiar feeling to be in the presence of thousands and yet to sit relaxed with his uncle on the very steps of the Senate.
Gaius could not hold it in any longer.
"How did you swing the vote against Sulla?"
Marius began to laugh and wiped his forehead free of sudden perspiration. "Planning, my lad. I knew of the landing of Mithridates almost as soon as it happened, days before Sulla heard. I used the oldest lever in the world to persuade the waverers in the Senate to vote for me, and even then, it was closer than I would have liked. It cost me a fortune, but from tomorrow morning I have control of Rome."
"He will be back, though," Gaius warned.
Marius snorted. "In six months or longer, perhaps. He could be killed on the battlefield, he could even lose to Mithridates; I have heard he is a canny general. Even if Sulla beats him in double time and finds fair sea winds to Greece and back, I will have months to prepare. He will leave as easily as he likes, but I tell you now, he won't get back in without a fight."
Gaius shook his head in disbelief at this confirmation of his thoughts. "What happens now? Do we go back to your house?"
Marius smiled a little sadly in response. "No. I had to sell it for the bribes—Sulla was already bribing them, you see, and I had to double his offers in most cases. It took everything I own, except my horse, my sword, and my armor. I may be the first penniless general Rome has ever had." He laughed quietly.
"If you had lost the vote, you would have lost everything!" Gaius whispered, shocked by the stakes.
"But I did not lose! I have Rome and my legion stands in front of us."
"What would you have done if you had lost, though?"
Marius blew air through his lips in disdain. "I would have left to fight Mithridates, of course. Am I not a servant of the city? Mind you, it would have taken a brave man to accept my bribe and still vote against me with my legion waiting just outside, wouldn't it? We must be thankful that the Senate values gold as much as they do. They think of new horses and slaves, but they have never been poor as I was poor. I value gold only for what it brings me, and this is where it has put me down—on these steps, with the greatest city in the world at my back. Cheer up, lad, this is a day for celebration, not regrets."
"No, it's not that. I was just thinking that Marcus and Renius are heading east to join the Fourth Macedonia. There's a fair chance they will meet this Mithridates coming the other way."
"I hope not. Those two would have that Greek for breakfast, and I want Sulla to have something to do when he gets there."
Gaius laughed and they stood up together. Marius looked at his legion and Gaius could feel the joy and pride burning out of him.
"This has been a good day. You have met the men of power in the city, and I have been loved by the people and backed by the Senate. By the way, that slave girl of yours, the pretty one? I'd sell her if I were you. It's one thing to tumble a girl a few times, but you seem to be sweet on her and that will lead to trouble."
Gaius looked away, biting his lip. Were there no secrets?
Marius continued blithely, unaware of his companion's discomfort. "Have you even tried her yet? No? Maybe that will get her out of your system. I know a few good houses here if you want to get a little experience in first. Just ask when you're ready."
Gaius did not reply, his cheeks hot.
Marius stood and looked with obvious pride at the Primigenia legion ranked before them.
"Shall we march the men over to the city barracks, lad? I think they could do with a good meal and a decent night's sleep after all this marching and standing in the sun."
Marcus looked out onto the Mediterranean Sea and breathed in the warm air, heavy with salt. After a week at sea, boredom had set in. He knew every inch of the small trading vessel and had even helped in the hold, counting amphorae of thick oil and ebony planking transported from Africa. For a while, his interest had been kindled by the hundreds of rats below the decks, and he spent two days crawling to their nests in the darkness, armed with a dagger and a marble paperweight stolen from the captain's cabin. After he had thrown dozens of the little bodies overboard, the rats had learned to recognize his smell or his careful tread, retreating into crevices deep in the wood of the ship the moment he set foot on the ladder below.
He sighed and watched the sunset, still awed by the colors of the sinking sun out at sea. As a passenger, he could have stayed in his cabin for the whole journey, as Renius seemed determined to do, but the tiny, cramped space offered nothing in terms of amusement, and Marcus had quickly come to use it only to sleep.
The captain had allowed him to stand watch, and he had even tried his hand at controlling the two great steering oars at the back, or what he had learned to call the stern, but his interest soon paled.
"Another couple of weeks of this will kill me," he muttered to himself, using his knife to cut his initials into the wooden rail. A scuffling noise sounded behind him, but he didn't turn, just smiled and kept watching the sunset. There was silence and then another noise, the sort a small body might make if it was shifting for comfort.
Marcus spun and launched his knife underarm, as Renius had once taught him. It thudded into the mast and quivered. There was a squeak of terror and a flash of dirty white feet in the darkness as something scuttled deeper into shadow, trying too hard to be silent.
Marcus strolled over to the knife and freed it with a wrench. Sliding it back into the waist sheath, he squinted into the blackness.
"Come out, Peppis, I know you're in there," he called. He heard a sniff. "I wouldn't have hit you with the knife, it was just a joke. Honestly."
Slowly, a skeletal little boy emerged from behind some sacking. He was filthy almost beyond belief and his eyes were wide with fear.
"I was just watching you," Peppis said nervously.
Marcus looked more closely at him, noticing a small crust of dried blood under his nose and a purple bruise over one eye.
"Have the men been beating you again?" he said, trying to make his voice friendly.
"A little, but it was my fault. I tripped on a rope and pulled a knot undone. I didn't mean to but Firstmate said he would teach me to be clumsy. I'm already clumsy, though, so I said I didn't need no teaching and then he knocked me about." He sniffed again and wiped his nose with the back of his hand, leaving a silvery trail.
"Why don't you run away at a port?" Marcus asked.
Peppis puffed his chest out as far as it would go, revealing his ribs like white sticks under his skin. "Not me. I'm going to be a sailor when I'm older. I'm learning all the time, just by watching the men. I can tie ever so many knots now. I could have retied that rope today if Firstmate woulda let me, but he didn't know that."
"Do you want me to have a word with the... first mate? Tell him to stop the beatings?"
Peppis turned even paler and shook his head. "He'd kill me if you do, maybe this trip or maybe on the way back. He's always saying if I can't learn to be a sailor, he'll put me over the side some night when I'm sleeping. That's why I don't sleep in my bunk, but out here on the decks. I move around a lot so he won't know where to find me if he thinks it's time."
Marcus sighed. He felt sorry for the little boy, but there was no simple answer to his problems. Even if the first mate were quietly put over the side himself, Peppis would be tortured by the others. They all took part and the first time Marcus had mentioned it to Renius, the old gladiator had laughed and said there was one like him on every ship of the sea. Even so, it galled Marcus to have the boy hurt. He had never forgotten what it was like to be at the mercy of bullies like Suetonius, and he knew that if he had built the wolf trap, and not Gaius, he would have
dropped rocks in and crushed the older boy. He sighed again and stood up, stretching tired muscles.
Where would he have ended up if Gaius's parents hadn't looked after him and brought him up? He could very easily have stowed away on a trade ship and have been in just the sort of horrible position Peppis found himself. He would never have been trained to fight or defend himself, and lack of food would have made him weak and sickly.
"Look," he said, "if you won't let me help you with the sailors, at least let me share my food with you. I don't eat much anyway and I've been sending some of it back, especially in rough water. All right? You stay there and I'll bring you something."
Peppis nodded silently and, a little cheered, Marcus went belowdecks to his cramped cabin to fetch the cheese and bread left for him earlier. In truth, he was hungry, but he could go without and the little boy was practically starved to death.
Leaving Peppis to chew on the food, Marcus wandered back to the steering oars, knowing that the first mate took a turn about midnight. Like Peppis, he'd never heard the man's real name. Everyone called him by his station and he seemed to do his job well enough, keeping the crew in line with a hard hand. The little ship Lucidae had a reputation for honest dealing too, with very little of the cargo ever going missing on voyages. Other ships had to write off such small losses to keep their crews happy, but not the owners of the Lucidae.
Marcus brightened as he saw the man had already taken his place, holding one of the two great rudders steady against the currents and chatting in a low voice to his partner on the other.
"A fine evening," he said as he came close. Firstmate grunted and nodded. He had to be polite to paying passengers, but bare civility was all he would offer. He was a powerfully built man and held the rudder with only one arm, while his companion threw his weight and both shoulders into the task of holding his steady. The other man said nothing and Marcus recognized him as one of the crew, tall and long-armed with a shaven skull. He gazed steadfastly ahead, engrossed in his task and the feel of the wood in his hands.
"I'd like to buy one of the crew as a slave. Who should I talk to?" Marcus said, keeping his voice amiable.
Firstmate blinked in surprise, and two gazes rested on the young Roman.
"We're free men," the other said, his voice showing his distaste.
Marcus looked disconcerted. "Oh, I didn't mean one of you, of course. I meant the boy Peppis. He's not on the crew lists. I checked, so I thought he might be available for sale. I need a boy to carry my sword and—"
"I've seen you on the decks," the first mate rumbled from deep in his chest. "You were making angry faces when we were giving him his lessons. I reckon you're one of those soft city lads who thinks we're too hard on the ship boys. Either that or you want him in your bed. Which is it?"
Marcus smiled slowly, revealing his teeth. "Oh dear. That sounds like an insult, my friend. You'd better let that rudder go, so I can give you a lesson myself."
The first mate opened his mouth to retort and Marcus hit it. For a while, the Lucidae wandered off course over the dark sea.
Renius woke him by shaking him roughly.
"Wake up! The captain wants to see you."
Marcus groaned. His face and upper body were a mass of heavy bruises. Renius whistled softly as he stood up and, wincing, began to dress. Using his tongue, Marcus found a loose tooth and pulled out the water pot under his bed to spit bloody phlegm into it.
With the part of his mind that was active, he was pleased to notice that Renius was wearing his iron breastplate and had his sword strapped on. The stump of his arm was bound with clean bandages, and the depression that had kept him in his cabin for the first weeks seemed to have disappeared. When Marcus had pulled on his tunic and wrapped a cloak against the cold morning breeze, Renius held the door open.
"Someone beat the first mate into the ground last night, and another man with him," Renius said cheerfully.
Marcus put his hand up to his face and felt a ridge of split skin on his cheek. "Did he say who did it?" he muttered.
"He says he was jumped from behind, in the dark. He has a broken shoulder, you know." Renius had definitely lost his depression, but Marcus decided that the new, chuckling Renius was not really an improvement.
The captain was a Greek named Epides. He was a short, energetic man with a beard that looked as if it were pasted on, without a troublesome hair out of place on his face. He stood up as Marcus and Renius entered, and rested his hands on his desk, which was held to the floor against the rocking of the ship with heavy iron manacles. Each finger had a valuable stone set into gold on it, and they glittered with every movement. The rest of the room was simple, as befitted a working trader. There was no luxury and nowhere to look but at the man himself, who glared at both of them.
"Let's not try the protestations of innocence," he said. "My first mate has a broken shoulder and collarbone and you did it."
Marcus tried to speak, but the captain interrupted.
"He won't identify you, Zeus himself knows why. If he did, I'd have you flogged raw on the decks. As it is, you will take up his duties for the remainder of this trip, and I will be sending a letter to your legion commander about the sort of ill-disciplined lout he is taking on. You are hereby signed on as crew for this voyage, as is my right as captain of Lucidae. If I discover you are shirking your duties in any way, I will flog you. Do you understand?"
Marcus again began to answer, but this time Renius stopped him, speaking quietly and reasonably.
"Captain. When the lad accepted his position in the Fourth Macedonia, he became, from that moment, a member of that legion. As you are in a difficult position, he will volunteer to replace the first mate until we make land in Greece. However, it will be I who makes sure he does not shirk his duties. If he is flogged by your order, I will come up here and rip your heart out. Do we understand each other?" His voice remained calm, almost friendly, right to the end.
Epides paled slightly and raised a hand to smooth his beard in a nervous gesture. "Just make sure he does the job. Now get out and report to the second mate for work."
Renius looked at him for a long moment and then nodded slowly, turning to the door and allowing Marcus to walk through first before following.
Left alone, Epides sank into his chair and dipped a hand into a bowl of rosewater, dabbing it onto his neck. Then he composed himself and smiled grimly as he gathered his writing materials. For a while, he mused over the clever, sharp retorts he should have made. Threatened by Renius, by all the gods! When he returned home, the story he would tell would include the blistering ripostes, but at the actual moment, something naked and violent in the man's eyes had stopped his mouth.
The second mate was a dour man from northern Italy called Parus. He said very little as Marcus and Renius reported to him, just outlined the daily tasks for a first mate of a trader, ending with the stint on the rudder at around midnight.
"Won't seem right, calling you first mate, with him still belowdecks."
"I'll be doing his job for him. You'll call me by his name while I'm doing it," Marcus replied.
The man stiffened. "What are you, sixteen? The men won't like it either," he said.
"Seventeen," Marcus lied smoothly. "The men will get used to it. Maybe we'd better see them now."
"Have you sailed before?" Parus asked.
"First trip, but you tell me what needs doing and I'll get it done. All right?"
Puffing out his cheeks in obvious disgust, Parus nodded. "I'll get the men on deck."
"I'll get the men on deck, First Mate," Marcus said clearly through his swollen lips. His eyes glinted dangerously, and Parus wondered how he'd beaten Firstmate in a fight and why the man wouldn't identify him to the captain when any fool could see who it had been.
"First Mate," he agreed sullenly, and left them.
Marcus turned to Renius, who was looking askance at him.
"What are you thinking?" Marcus asked.
"I'm thinking you'd better watch your back, or you won't ever see Greece," Renius replied seriously.
All the crew who weren't actively working gathered on the small deck. Marcus counted fifteen sailors, with another five on the rudders and sail rigging around.
Parus cleared his throat for their attention.
"Since Firstmate's arm is broken, the captain says the job belongs to this one for the rest of the trip. Get back to work."
The men turned to go and Marcus took a step forward, furious.
"Stay where you are," he bellowed, surprising himself with the strength of his voice. He had their attention for a moment and he didn't intend to waste it.
"Now, you all know I broke Firstmate's arm, so I'm not going to deny it. We had a difference of opinion and we fought over it, that's the end of the story. I don't know why he hasn't told the captain who it was, but I respect him a bit more for it. I'll do his job as best I'm able, but I'm no sailor and you know that too. You work with me and I won't mind if you tell me when I'm wrong. But if you tell me I'm wrong, you'd better be right. Fair enough?"
There was a mutter from the assembled men.
"If you're no sailor, you ain't going to know what you're doing. What use is a farmer on a trade ship?" called a heavily tattooed sailor. He was sneering and Marcus responded quickly, coloring in anger.
"First thing is for me to walk the ship and speak to each one of you. You tell me exactly what your job is and I'll do it. If I can't do it, I'll go back to the captain and tell him I'm not up to the job. Anyone object?"
There was silence. A few of them looked interested at the challenge, but most faces were bluntly hostile. Marcus clenched his jaw and felt the loose tooth grate.
He pulled his dagger from his belt and held it up. It was a well-crafted weapon, given to him by Marius as a parting gift. Not lavishly decorated, it was nonetheless an expensive piece, with a bronze wire handle.
"If any man can do something I can't do, I will give him this, presented to me by General Marius of the Primigenia. Dismissed."
This time, there was much more interest in the faces, and a number of the sailors looked at the blade he still held as they went back to their tasks.
Marcus turned to Renius and the gladiator shook his head slowly in disbelief.
"Gods, you're green. That's too good a blade to throw away," he said.
"I won't lose it. If I have to prove myself to the crew, that's what I'll do. I'm fit enough. How hard can these jobs be?"
Marcus clung to the mast crosspiece with a knuckle-whitening grip. At this, the highest point of the Lucidae, it seemed as if he were swinging with the mast from one horizon to the other. The sea below was spattered gray with choppy white waves, no danger to the sturdy little vessel. His stomach heaved and every part of him responded with discomfort. All his bruises had stiffened by noon and now he found it hard to turn his head to the right without pain sending black and white spots into his vision.
Above him, barefoot and standing without support on the spar, was a sailor, the first to try to win the dagger. The man grinned without malice, but the challenge was clear—Marcus had to join him and risk falling into the sea or, worse, onto the deck far below.
"These masts didn't look so tall from below," Marcus grunted through clenched teeth.
The sailor walked over to him, perfectly balanced and adjusting his weight all the time to the roll and pitch of the ship.
"Tall enough to kill you. Firstmate could walk the spar, though, so I think you'll just have to make your choice."
He waited patiently, occasionally checking knots and ropes for tautness out of habit. Marcus gritted his teeth and heaved himself over the crosspiece, resting his unruly stomach on it. He could see the other men below and noted that a few of the faces were turned upward to see him succeed, or perhaps to be sure of getting out of the way if he fell—he didn't know.
The tip of the mast, festooned with ropes, lay within his reach, and he grabbed it and used it to pull himself up enough to get one foot on the cross-spar. The other leg hung below and for a few moments he used its swing to steady himself. Another grunt of effort against his tortured muscles and he was crouching on the spar, gripping the mast tip with both hands, his knees almost higher than his chin. He watched the horizon move and suddenly felt as if the ship were still and the world spun around him. He felt dizzy and closed his eyes, which helped only a little.
"Come on now," he muttered to himself. "Good balance you've got."
His hands shook as he released the mast, using the muscles in his legs to counteract the great swing. Then he uncrouched like an old man, ready to grab at the mast again as soon as he felt his balance fail. He brought himself up from a low bow to a round-shouldered standing position, his eyes fixed on the mast. He flexed his knees a little and began to adjust to the movement through the air.
"There isn't much wind, of course," the sailor said equably. "I've been up here in a storm trying to tie down a ripped sail. This is nothing."
Marcus suppressed a retort. He didn't want to anger a man who could stand so comfortably with his arms folded, sixty feet above the deck. He looked at him, his eyes leaving the mast for the first time since he reached that height.
The sailor nodded. "You have to walk the length. From your end to mine. Then you can go down. If your nerve goes, just hand me the dagger before you climb down. It won't be too easy to get if you hit the planks."
This was more like the sort of thing Marcus understood. The man was trying to make him nervous and achieved the opposite. He knew he could trust his reflexes. If he fell, there would be time to grab something. He would just ignore the height and the movement and take the risk. He stood up fully and shuffled back to the edge, leaning forward as the mast seemed determined to take him down as far as the sea for a moment before coming upright and over again. Then he found himself looking down a mountain slope, blocked only by the relaxed sailor.
"Right," he said, holding his arms out for balance. "Right."
He began to shuffle, never taking the soles of his bare feet from the wood. He knew the sailor could walk along it with careless ease, but he wasn't going to try to match years of experience in a few breathtaking steps. He inched along and his confidence grew mightily, until he was almost enjoying the swing, leaning into and away from it and chuckling at the movement.
The sailor looked unperturbed as Marcus reached him.
"Is that it?" Marcus asked.
The man shook his head. "To the end, I said. There's a good three feet to go yet."
Marcus looked at him in annoyance. "You're in my way, man!" Surely he wasn't expected to get round him on a piece of wood no wider than his thigh?
"I'll see you down there then," the man said, and stepped off the crosspiece.
Marcus gaped as the figure shot past him. In the same moment as he saw the hand gripping the spar and the face grinning up at him, he lost balance and swayed in panic, suddenly knowing he would be smashed onto the deck. More faces below swam into his vision. They all seemed to be looking up, pale blurs and pointing fingers. Marcus waved his arms frantically and arched back and forth in whiplike spasms as he fought to save himself. Then he steadied and concentrated on the spar, ignoring the drop below and trying to find the rhythm of muscle he had so enjoyed only moments before.
"You nearly went there," the sailor said, still casually hanging from the spar by one arm, seemingly oblivious to the drop. It had been a clever trick and had nearly worked. Chuckling and shaking his head, the man started to reach out to a rope when Marcus trod on the fingers that were wrapped around the crosspiece.
"Hey!" the man shouted, but Marcus ignored him, putting all his weight on his heel as he shifted with the movement of the Lucidae. Suddenly he was enjoying it again and took a deep, cleansing breath. The fingers squirmed beneath him and there was an edge of panic in the sailors voice as he found he couldn't quite reach the nearest rope, even bringing his legs up. With his hand free, he would have swung and released without any difficulty, but, held fast, he could only dangle and shout curses.
Without warning, Marcus moved his foot to take the last step to the end of the spar and was cheered by the scrambling sounds below him as the sailor, caught by surprise, slid and gripped furiously to save himself. Marcus looked down and saw the angry stare as the sailor began to climb back up to the crosspiece. There was murder in his expression and Marcus moved quickly to sit down in the center of the spar, gripping the mast top firmly between his thighs. Still feeling unsafe, he wrapped his left leg around the mast below to hold himself steady. He took out Marius's dagger and began to whittle his initials into the wood at the very top.
The sailor almost sprang onto the crosspiece and stood at the end, glaring. Marcus ignored him, but he could practically hear the train of thought as the man realized he had no weapons and that his superior balance was canceled by the firm grip Marcus had on the mast. To get close enough to shove Marcus off, he would have to risk getting the dagger in his throat. The seconds ticked by.
"All right, then. You keep the knife. Time to get down."
"You first," Marcus said, without looking up.
He listened to the dwindling sounds of the sailors descent and finished carving his initials into the hard wood. In all, he was disappointed. If he carried on making enemies at this rate, there really would be a knife in the dark one night.
Diplomacy was, he decided, a lot harder than it looked.
* * *
Renius was not around to congratulate him on his safe return from the high rigging, so Marcus continued his round of the ship on his own. After the initial excitement at the thought of winning the dagger, the stares he received were either uninterested or openly malevolent. Marcus clasped his hands behind his back to stop the involuntary shaking that had hit them as his feet touched the safe wood of the deck. He nodded to every glance as if it were a word of greeting, and to his surprise, one or two nodded back, perhaps only from habit, but it reassured him a little.
One sailor, his long hair tied back with a strip of blue cloth, was clearly trying to meet Marcus's eye. He seemed friendly enough, so Marcus stopped.
"What do you do here?" he asked, a little warily.
"Come to the stern... First Mate," said the man, and strode off, gesturing him to follow. Marcus walked with him to stand by the two steering oars.
"My name's Crixus. I do a lot of things when they needs doing, but my special job is to free the rudders when they get fouled. It could be weed, but it's usually fishing nets."
"How do you free them?"
Marcus could guess at the answer, but he asked anyway, trying to sound light and cheerfully interested. He had never been a strong swimmer, but this man's chest expanded to ridiculous proportions when he took a breath.
"You should find it easy after your little walk on the mast. I just dive off the side, swim down to the rudders, and use my knife to cut off whatever is fouling them."
"That sounds like a dangerous job," Marcus replied, pleased at the easy grin he received in return.
"It is, if there are sharks down there. They follow Lucidae, see, in case we throw any scraps off."
Marcus rubbed his chin, trying to remember what a shark was. "Big, are they, these sharks?"
Crixus nodded with energy. "Gods, yes. Some of them could swallow a man whole! One washed up near my village once and it had half a man inside. Bit him in two, it must have done."
Marcus looked at him and thought he had another one trying to scare him off. "What do you do when you meet these sharks down there, then?" he said.
Crixus laughed. "You punch them on the nose. It puts them off having you for a meal."
"Right," Marcus said dubiously, looking into the dark, cold waters. He wondered if he should put this one off until the following day. The climb down from the mast top had loosened most of his muscles, but every movement still made him wince and the weather wasn't warm enough to make swimming attractive.
He looked at Crixus and could see the man expected him to refuse. Inwardly, he sighed. Nothing was working out the way he'd intended.
"There isn't anything fouling the rudders today, is there?" he said, and Crixus's smile widened as he thought Marcus was trying to find excuses not to try it.
"Not in clear sea, no. Just scrape a barnacle off the bottom of one—it's a shell, a little animal that attaches to ships. Bring one back and I'll buy you a drink. Come back empty-handed and that pretty little blade belongs to me, all right?"
Marcus agreed reluctantly and began to remove his tunic and sandals, leaving him standing in just the undercloth that protected his modesty. Under Crixus's amused eye, he began to stretch his legs, using the wooden rail as a brace. He took his time, knowing from Crixus's enthusiasm that the man thought he'd never manage it.
Finally, he was loose and ready. Taking his knife, he stepped up onto the flat wooden section around the stern, readying himself for the dive. It was a good twenty feet, even in such a low-slung vessel as the Lucidae, which fairly wallowed in the water. He tensed, trying to remember the few dives he had managed on a trip to a lake with Gaius's parents when he was eight or nine. Hands together.
"You'd better put this on." Crixus interrupted his thoughts. The man was holding the tar-sealed end of a slim rope. "It goes around your waist to stop you being left behind by Lucidae. She doesn't look fast, but you couldn't catch her by swimming."
"Thanks," Marcus said suspiciously, wondering if Crixus had meant to let him dive without it, changing his mind at the last moment. He tied the rope securely and looked at the cold water below, scythed into plough lines by the rudders. A thought struck him.
"Where's the other end?"
Crixus had the grace to look embarrassed and confirmed Marcus's earlier suspicions. Mutely, he pointed to where the rope was made fast, and Marcus nodded, returning to his inspection of the waves.
Then he dived, turning slightly in the air to hit the gray water with a hard smacking sound.
Marcus held his breath as he plunged under the surface, jerking as the rope stopped his descent. He could still feel movement as the ship started to tow him. He fought to reach the surface and gasped in relief as he broke through the waves near the rudders.
He could see their dark flanks cutting the waves and tried to find a handhold on the slippery surface above the waterline. It was impossible and he found he had to swim strongly just to stay near them. As soon as he slowed his hands and legs, he drifted out until the rope was taut again.
The cold was cramping his muscles and Marcus realized he had only a short time before he was useless in the water. Gripping his dagger tightly in his right fist, he
gulped breath and dived below, using his hands to guide him down the slippery green underside of the nearest rudder.
At the base, his lungs were bursting. He was able to hold himself for a few seconds while his fingers scrabbled around in the slime, but he could feel nothing that felt like the sort of shell Crixus had told him to expect. Cursing, he kicked his legs back to the surface. As he couldn't hold the rudders to rest, he felt his strength slipping away.
He pulled in another breath and disappeared down into the darkness once more.
Crixus felt the presence of the old gladiator before he saw him reach his side and look down at the quivering rope in the water between the rudders. When he met the man's eyes, Crixus could see gray anger and took a step back in reaction.
"What are you doing?" Renius asked quietly.
"He's checking the rudders and cutting off barnacles," Crixus replied.
Renius's lip twisted with distaste. Even with one arm, he radiated violence, standing utterly still. Crixus noticed the gladius strapped to his belt and wiped his hands on his ragged cloth leggings. Together, they watched Marcus surface and go under three more times. His arms flapped aimlessly in the water below and both men could hear his exhausted coughing.
"Bring him up now. Before he drowns himself," Renius said.
Crixus nodded quickly and began to haul in the rope, hand over hand. Renius didn't offer to help him, but standing with his hand resting on the gladius hilt seemed enough encouragement.
Crixus was sweating heavily by the time Marcus reached the deck level. He hung almost limp in the rope, his limbs too tired to control.
As if he were loading a bale of cloth, Crixus pulled him over the edge and rolled him faceup on the deck, eyes closed and panting. Crixus smiled as he saw the dagger was still in one hand and reached for it. There was a quick sound behind him, and he froze as Renius brought his sword into the line of sight.
"What are you doing now?"
"Taking the dagger! He... he had to bring a shell back..." the man stammered.
"Check his other hand," Renius said.
Marcus could barely hear him through the water sounds in his ears and the pain in his chest and limbs, but he opened his left fist and in it, surrounded by scratches and cuts, was a round shell with its live occupant glistening wetly inside.
Crixus's jaw dropped and Renius waved him away with his sword.
"Get that second mate to gather the men... Parus, his name was. This has gone far enough."
Crixus looked at the sword and the man's expression and didn't argue.
Renius crouched at Marcus's side and sheathed his sword. Reaching over, he slapped Marcus's white face a few times, bringing a little color back. Marcus coughed wretchedly.
"I thought you'd stop when you nearly fell off the spar. What you think you are proving, I don't know. Stay here and rest while I deal with the men."
Marcus tried to say something, but Renius shook his head.
"Don't argue. I've been dealing with men like these all my life."
Without another word, he stood and walked to where the crew had gathered, taking a position where they could all see him. He spoke through teeth held tightly together, but his voice carried to all of them.
"His mistake was expecting to be treated with honor by scum like you. Now, I don't have the inclination to win your trust or your respect. I'll give you a simple choice from this moment. You do your jobs well. You work hard and stand your watches and keep everything tight until we make port. I have killed more men than I can count, and I will gut any man who does not obey me in this. Now be men! If anyone wants to make pretty words to argue with me, let him take up a sword and gather his friends and come against me all at once."
His voice rose to a bellow. "Don't walk away from me here and plot in corners like old ladies in the sun! Speak now, fight now, for if you don't and I find whispers later, I will crack your heads open for you, I swear it!"
He glared around at them and the men looked at their feet. No one spoke, but Renius said nothing. The silence went on and on, growing painful. No one moved; they stood like statues on the decks. At last, he took a breath and snarled at them.
"Not a single one of you with courage enough to take on an old man with one arm? Then get back to your work and work well, for I'll be watching each one of you and I won't give warnings."
He walked through them and they parted, standing mutely aside. Crixus looked at Parus and he shrugged slightly, stepping back with the rest. The Lucidae sailed on serenely through the cold sea.
Renius sagged against the cabin door as it closed behind him. He could feel his armpits were damp with sweat and cursed under his breath. He was not used to bluffing men into obedience, but his balance was terrible and he knew he was still weak. He wanted to sleep, but could not until he had finished his exercises. Sighing, he drew his gladius and went through the strokes he had been taught half a century before, faster and faster until the blade hit the roof of the small space and wedged. Renius swore in anger and the men near his door heard him and looked at each other with wide eyes.
That night, Marcus was standing at the prow on his own, looking out at the moonlit waves and feeling miserable. His efforts of the day had earned him nothing, and having to have Renius clear up his failure felt like a metal weight in his chest.
He heard low voices behind him and swung to see black figures coming around the raised cabins. He recognized Crixus and Parus, and the man from the high rigging, whose name he did not know. He steadied himself for the blows, knowing he couldn't take them all, but Crixus held out a leather cup of some dark liquid. He was smiling slightly, not sure Marcus wouldn't dash it out of his hand.
"Here. I promised you a drink if you picked up a shell, and I keep my promises."
Marcus took the cup and the three men relaxed visibly, coming over to lean against the side and look out over the black water as it passed below them. All three had similar cups, and Crixus filled them from a soft leather bag that gurgled when he shifted its weight under his arm.
Marcus could smell the bitter liquid as he raised it to his mouth. He had never tasted anything stronger than wine before and took a deep gulp before he realized that whatever it was stung the cuts on his lips and gums. In reflex, just to clear his mouth, he swallowed and immediately choked as fire burst in his stomach. He fought for breath and Parus reached out an arm and thumped his back, his face expressionless.
"Does you good, that stuff," Crixus said, chuckling.
"Does you good, First Mate," Marcus replied through his spluttering.
Crixus smiled. "I like you, lad. I really do," he said, refilling his own cup. "Mind you, that friend of yours, Renius, now he is a truly evil bastard."
They all nodded and peacefully went back to watching the sea and the sky.
Marcus viewed the busy port with mixed feelings as it grew before him. The Lucidae maneuvered nimbly through the ancient stones that marked the edge of the wild sea and the calm lake of the harbor itself. A host of ships accompanied them, and they had had to stand off from the harbor for most of the morning until a harassed pilot took a boat out to guide them in.
At first, Marcus had thought nothing of the month at sea, considering it with as much interest as he might consider a walk from one town to another. Only the destination had been important in his mind. Now, though, he knew the name of each one of the small crew and had felt their acceptance after that night spent drinking on the prow. Even the return of Firstmate to light duties hadn't spoiled things with the men. Firstmate, it seemed, bore no grudges and even seemed proud of him, as if his acceptance by the crew were in some way his doing.
Peppis had never stopped sleeping in corners on the decks at night, but he had filled out a little with the food Marcus saved for him, and the beatings had stopped by some unseen signal amongst the men. The little boy had become a much more cheerful character and might one day be a sailor, as he hoped.
To some extent, Marcus envied the boy; it was freedom of a kind. These men would see all the ports of the known world while he marched over foreign fields under the baking sun, carrying Rome always with him.
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, trying to sift apart all the strange scents on the sea breeze. Jasmine and olive oil were strong, but there was also the smell of a mass of people again—sweat and excrement. He sighed and jumped as a hand clapped onto his shoulder.
"It will feel good to get land under our heels again," Renius said, staring with him into the harbor town. "We'll hire horses to take us east to the legion and find your century to get you sworn in."
Marcus nodded in silence and Renius caught his mood. "Only memories stay the same, lad. Everything else changes. When you see Rome again, you'll hardly know it and all the people you loved will be different. There's no stopping it; it's the most natural thing in the world."
Seeing Marcus wasn't cheered, he went on.
"This civilization was ancient when Rome was young. It's an alien place to a Roman, and you'll have to watch their ideas of soft living don't spoil you. There are savage tribes that raid across the border in Illyria, though, so you'll see your share of action. That got your interest, did it?" He laughed, a short bark. "I suppose you thought it would be all drill and standing in the sun? Marius is a good judge, lad. He's sent you to one of the hardest posts in the empire. Even the Greeks don't bend the knee without a good deal of thought, and Macedonia is where Alexander was born. This is just the place to put a bit of strength into your steel."
Together they watched as the Lucidae eased against the dockside and ropes were thrown and tied down. In a short while, the little trader was tethered securely and Marcus almost felt sorry for her sudden loss of freedom. Epides came out on deck dressed in a chiton, a traditional Greek tunic worn at knee length. He glittered with jewelry and his hair shone with oil in the sun. He saw the two passengers standing at the side waiting to disembark and walked over to them.
"I have grave news, gentlemen. A Greek army has risen in the north, and we could not put in at Dyrrhachium as planned. This is Oricum, about a hundred miles to the south."
Renius tensed. "What? You were paid to put us down in the north, so that we could join the lad's legion. I—"
"It was not a possibility, as I said," the captain replied, smiling. "The flag codes were quite clear as we neared Dyrrhachium. That is why we have been following the coast south. I could not risk the Lucidae with a rebel army drunk on broken Roman garrisons. The safety of the ship was at stake."
Renius grabbed Epides by his chiton, lifting him up to his toes.
"Damn you, man. There's a bloody great mountain between here and Macedonia, as you are well aware. That is another month of hard travel for us and great expense, which is your responsibility!"
Epides struggled, his face purpling in rage.
"Take your hands off me! How dare you accost me on my own ship? I'll call the harbor guards and have you hanged, you arrogant—"
Renius shifted his grip to a ruby on a heavy gold chain around Epides's neck. With a savage jerk, he broke the links and tucked it away into his belt pouch. Epides began stuttering with incoherent anger and Renius shoved him away, turning to Marcus as the man fell sprawling onto the deck.
"Right. Let's get off. At least we can afford to buy supplies for the trip when I sell the chain."
When he saw Marcus's gaze flick behind him, Renius spun and drew his sword in one motion. Epides was lunging with a jeweled dagger, his face contorted.
Renius swayed inside the blow clumsily and ripped his gladius up into the man's smooth-shaven chest. He withdrew the blade and ran it over the chiton in quick wipes as Epides fell to the deck, writhing.
"Drunk on broken garrisons, was it?" he muttered, struggling to sheathe the sword. "Damn this scabbard—won't stay still..."
Marcus stood stunned at the quick death, and the nearby members of the crew gaped at the suddenly violent scene. Renius nodded to them as the gladius slid home.
"Get the ramps down. We have a long journey ahead of us."
A section in the side was opened and plank gangways were put down to allow the cargo to be unloaded. Marcus shook his head in silent disbelief. He checked his belongings for the last time and patted his sides, feeling again the loss of his dagger, which he'd given to Firstmate the previous evening. He had known it was the right thing to do somehow, and the smiles of the crew as the man had shown it around had told him he had made the right choice. There were no smiles now and he wished he'd kept it.
He pulled his pack onto his shoulders and helped Renius with his.
"Let's see what Greece has to offer," he said. Renius grinned at his sudden change in mood, walking past the twisted body of Epides without looking down. They left the Lucidae without a backward glance.
The ground moved alarmingly under his feet and Marcus swayed uncertainly for a few moments before the habit of years reestablished itself.
"Wait!" a voice called behind them. They turned to see Peppis coming down the ramp in a flurry of arms and legs. He pulled up breathlessly, and they waited for him to calm enough to speak.
"Take me with you, sir," he said, looking beseechingly at Marcus, who blinked in surprise.
"I thought you wanted to grow up to be a sailor," he said.
"Not anymore. I want to be a fighter, a legionary like you and Renius," Peppis said, the words rushing out of him. "I want to defend the empire from savage hordes."
Marcus looked at Renius. "Have you been talking to the boy?"
"I told him a few stories, yes. Many boys dream of being in the legions. It is a good life for a man," Renius replied without embarrassment.
Peppis saw Marcus waver and pressed on. "You'll need a servant, someone to carry your sword and look after your horse. Please don't send me back."
Marcus shrugged his pack from his shoulders and handed it to the boy, who beamed at him.
"Right. Carry this. Do you know how to look after a horse?"
Peppis shook his head, still beaming.
"Then you will learn."
"I will. I will be the best servant you ever had," the boy replied, his arms wrapped around the pack.
"At least the captain can't object," Marcus said.
"No. I didn't like the man," Renius replied gruffly. "Ask someone where the nearest stables are. We'll move on before dark."
The stables, the travelers' resting house, the people themselves, were a peculiar mixture to Marcus. He could see Rome in a thousand small touches, not least the serious-faced legionaries who marched the streets in pairs, looking out for trouble. Yet at every step he would see something new and alien. A pretty girl walking with
her guards would speak to them in a string of soft gibberish that they seemed to understand. A temple near the stables was built of pure white marble as at home, but the statues were odd, close to the ones he knew, but with different faces cut into the stone. Beards were much in evidence, perfumed with sweet oils and curled, but the strangest things he saw were on the walls of a temple devoted to healing the sick.
Half- and full-size limbs, perfectly formed in plaster or stone, hung on the outer walls from hooks. A child's leg, bent at the knee, shared the space with the model of a woman's hand, and nearby there was a miniature soldier made from reddish marble, beautiful in its detail.
"What are those?" Marcus had asked Renius as they passed.
"Just a custom," he said with a shrug. "If the goddess heals you, you have a cast of the limb made and presented to her. It helps to bring in more people for the temple, I should think. They don't heal anyone without a little gold first, so the models are like a sign for a shop. This isn't Rome, lad. They are not like us when you get down to it."
"You don't like them?"
"I respect what they achieved, but they live too much in the glories of the past. They are a proud people, Marcus, but not proud enough to take our foot off their necks. They like to think of us as barbarians, and the highbred ones will pretend you don't exist, but what good is thousands of years of art if you can't defend yourself? The first thing men must learn is to be strong. Without strength, anything else you have or make can be taken from you. Remember that, lad."
At least the stables were like stables anywhere. The smell brought a sudden pang of homesickness to Marcus, and he wondered how Tubruk fared on the estate and how Gaius was handling the dangers of the capital.
Renius patted the flank of a sturdy-looking stallion. He ran his hands down its legs and checked the mouth carefully. Peppis watched him and mimicked his action, patting legs and checking tendons with a serious frown on his face.
"How much for this one?" Renius asked the owner, who stood with two bodyguards. The man had none of the smell of horses about him. He looked clean and somehow polished, with hair and beard that shone darkly.
"He is strong, yes?" he replied, his Latin accented but clear. "His father won races in Pontus, but he is a little too heavy for speed, more suited for battle."
Renius shrugged. "I just want him to take me north, over the mountains. How much are you asking?"
"His name is Apollo. I bought him when a rich man lost his wealth and was forced to sell. I paid a small fortune, but I know horses, I know what he is worth."
"I like him," Peppis said.
Both men ignored the boy.
"I will pay five aurei for him and sell him after the journey is over," Renius said firmly.
"He is worth twenty and I have paid for his feed all winter," the trader replied.
"I can buy a small house for twenty!"
The trader shrugged and looked apologetic. "Not anymore. Prices have gone up. It is the war in the north. All the best ones are being taken for Mithridates, an upstart who calls himself a king. Apollo is one of the last of the good stock."
"Ten is my final offer. We are buying two of yours today, so I want a price for both."
"Let us not argue. Let me show you another of lesser worth that will carry you north. I have two others I could sell together; brothers they are, and fast enough."
The man walked on down the row of horses, and Marcus eyed Apollo, who watched him with interest as he chewed a mouthful of hay. He patted the soft nose as the continuing argument dwindled with distance. Apollo ignored him and reached back for another mouthful, pulled from a string sack nailed to the stable wall.
After a while, Renius returned, looking a little pale.
"We've got two, for tomorrow: Apollo and another one he called Lancer. I'm sure he makes the names up on the spot. Peppis will ride with you; his small weight won't be any trouble. Gods, the prices these people ask for! If your uncle hadn't provided so generously, we'd be walking tomorrow."
"He's not my uncle," Marcus reminded him. "How much did they cost us?"
"Don't ask and don't expect to eat much on the journey. Come on, we'll pick the horses up tomorrow at dawn. Let us hope that the prices for rooms haven't risen as high, or we'll be sneaking back in here when it gets dark."
Continuing to grumble, Renius strode out of the stables, with Marcus and Peppis following him, trying not to smile.