It was the first time in as long as he could remember, perhaps the first time ever, that Hilarion felt bad about a caustic remark he had made. If his jokes were sometimes hurtful, the people it hit usually deserved it. And yet they generally reacted with indignant outrage as if they didn't, justifying it even more to ridicule them.
But when he spoke of the high honour that it was to have the dux's own nephew with them, what he had seen in their new commander's eyes had made the laughter die in him. Had it been panic, Hilarion would have laughed about the cub. Had it been haughty and self-righteous denial, he would have despised him all the more. But what had been in those eyes for a moment before the boy could put on a face of professional blankness with a jerk of his shoulders – what he had seen in his eyes had had the look of shame and remorse and utter desolation. No wounded pride, no readiness for unwarranted, dishonest self-defence. That in itself would have given him pause, but the fact that Alexios had swallowed it without a struggle and had then shown the courage to look him straight in the eye and answer him as if he did not feel the misery and humiliation that had been evident for a moment – that had genuinely impressed Hilarion. And it made his inappropriate sarcasm look even cruder in his own eyes.
In the pitch blackness of the small hours, when the last gamer had deserted him and everything was still and quiet in the fort, Hilarion – a little drunk on cheap wine and not knowing to what end – let himself into the praetorium's outer chambers, for which he carried a key. A forgotten candle was still burning in a lantern on a small table just inside the door, and in its gentle light he saw the young ducenarius lying among a number of wooden tablets and papyrus sheets on a makeshift bed in the western corner. He had probably been reading Gavros' accounts for hours to keep his mind blank until the fatigue from the long journey overcame him, and then he had dropped dead into an exhausted sleep.
Hilarion stepped carefully up to the sleeping boy to look at him more closely. Little Greekling, he looked so small and breakable. Delicate hands and forearms sticking out from under the cape with which he had covered himself; a straight nose and high cheek bones like something out of Polycleitus' workshop. But under the soft olive skin, a certain hardness was just discernible, expressing itself at present in a vague tenseness which hadn't left him even in his sleep. He had not undressed and he had not found a chance to properly wash the dirt of the road off his face, either. The pale trace of a single tear, which seemed to have accompanied the thought with which he fell asleep, was visible on one of his dusty cheeks. Hilarion wanted to reach out and brush it away, and it saddened him that neither was it advisable for him to do so, nor would it help anything; the tear had long since dried into the skin.
Hilarion felt his ears grew hot with self-reproach and he swore by Venus his patron deity that he would make amends. Tomorrow he would tell a better joke. He would make Alexios smile.