Men often thought that because Hilarion smiled often and laughed more, and never spoke seriously when a joke would do, that he was a man who cared nothing for anything on earth.
Hilarion did little to disabuse them of this notion. And so, it was with a laugh and a sideways smile, as if it mattered not a sestertius, that he had from a trader the story of their new commander's past at Abusina before the pup even arrived. And pup he was, the dux's nephew, with a soft mouth and serious eyes that belied the arrogance of his bones under his olive skin, a pretty pup who had lost a fort and most of his men to a bad decision.
They were none of them the best of the Eagles, but it mattered why. It mattered even as Hilarion needled Alexios Flavius Aquila, not for cruelty as the other centenarius Lucius likely thought--although Hilarion did not care overmuch if he was cruel--but for that moment when he saw shame and sorrow flash over Alexios's dark features, gone as quickly as storm-clouds scudding across the moon.
No one spoke, but the air felt heavy and strange as the air before a storm; there was no one in the room but him and Alexios, looking at each other.
"We must hope that the Frontier Wolves prove themselves worthy of the honor done them," Alexios said coolly, and his voice did not shake at all.
So, it was not arrogance or disdain that had led to the pup's mistake at Abusina, but only that he was a pup, a pup thrown in with wolves before he was ready.
The next day, when Alexios inspected the men, he stood for the space of only a few breaths longer in front of Hilarion, meeting his eyes, with an air of challenge that only made Hilarion wish to laugh. He did not think Alexios much younger than him, not in years, but oh--he was so serious, about everything, and not only about the things that called for it.
So Hilarion widened his eyes and gazed back innocently, as if he had no idea why his new commander should look at him so. And then the emerald silk of the Ordo's dragon standard snapped in a shift of breeze above them, and Alexios looked away first.
There was nothing to be lost in telling Alexios what he knew of the Wolves, the parts anyone might learn, at any rate. And he would need to know, if he was ever to be any use to them. "We are the scum and scrapings of the Empire," he said, learning against the doorframe of the ducenarius's office. "They tipped out the garbage-bin of the Eagles to make us what we are," he said, and went on, watching Alexios's face. Oh, the pup clearly thought he gave nothing away, but it was all there--horror, fear, disheartenment. But Alexios said nothing.
There was again that queer tension between them, that Hilarion had thought the first night could as easily turn to love as hatred, the one as easy as the other; and he looked at Alexios's set face with his dark brows drawn together and the brand of Mithras above them, at the smooth curve of his clean-shaven jaw, the soft mouth not yet firmed into manhood. Hilarion remembered why he had been sent to the Wolves in the first place. He was not a hard case, nor a thief--he had simply never been good at holding his tongue when he ought to have done so.
"And now you have me. I regret that I am not half a company of mutinous Syrians," Alexios said drily, tilting his chin up and fixing his full attention on Hilarion. The pup's gray eyes were strangely penetrating, and for a moment Hilarion wondered who sized up whom here, minded of the way stray dogs circled each other warily. "It's hard to see what good can come out of evil in this case, isn't it."
No, he told himself; he would not make the same mistake twice, and he would not allow Alexios to do so, either. He was green, Ducenarius Alexios, green as fresh leaves; but the coppiced ash shoot would not grow tall and straight as a spear-haft without them.
"Hard, but not impossible," he said, and gave Alexios a smirk. "You may have hidden talents." The pup could grow to a Wolf, but he'd have a better chance of it with a Wolf to watch his back; and Hilarion found, although he did not wish to think too closely on why, that he did not much like the idea of any other taking that task.