Mariana Tullia Hortensius had never bought a slave before, that duty having always fallen to her parents while they still lived. However, they had both been taken by plague the year before, and as the eldest child left at home, household duties such as this now fell to her.
Her younger brother had driven off yet another tutor, and both her married elder sisters had advised her to simply purchase one instead; that way, no matter what abuse or tricks Marcus Aegyptus attempted, the slave would have no choice but to endure, no recourse but to appeal to Mariana. And if he stormed off, as the last one had (an overly emotional Greek), then Mariana could simply have the head of the household guard drag him back, whip him, and send him once more into their brother's quarters to try and din some sort of education into the little heathen.
It wasn't Mariana's first choice; she'd always felt that ownership of another human being must somehow be wrong, no matter how many priests in how many temples attempted to reassure her that yes, the Gods truly did approve of such things. The slaves in the Hortensius household had always been treated more like family than possessions, with beatings rarely having been meted out. That, in fact, was what her sisters actually recommended for Marcus; a good beating, which neither of their parents had ever approved for their precious only son, might do a great deal of good in turning him from a spoiled brat into an upstanding Roman citizen.
Mariana couldn't disagree with Flavia and Juliana; Marcus Aegyptus really was quite horrid sometimes. But other times he was the sweetest, kindest child and her heart simply melted. She suspected he was simply bored; he was certainly intelligent enough, possibly the most intelligent one in the family. Definitely more intelligent than his peers and playmates.
As an added incentive – one which she wished to avoid at all costs – if Marcus wasn't brought to heel and quickly, her sisters both threatened to revoke her guardianship and ship him off to their cousins in Mantua. It wasn't the loss of status she feared, or the fact that her access to the family coffers would be limited; she had her own money, set aside for her by her parents and money she'd earned on her own as a midwife. Rather, it was her concerns for her brother that caused her anxiety to rise, knowing full well their cousins’ rather brutal ideas of the proper way to raise a child.
All of which had driven her to find the best possible tutor and scribe she could. She herself could read and write both Latin and Greek, of course, as well as speak and make herself understood in a smattering of barbaric languages such as Gallic and Germanic, among others. Her younger brother surpassed her in that as well as mathematics, although she was more accomplished in the other sciences that her father had allowed her study, even taking her on as an unofficial assistant in his medical practice when she'd shown an aptitude. Officially she was merely a midwife, having come into that trade when her eldest sister unexpectedly went into labor while on a family holiday in the countryside. Molly had successfully delivered her nephew and begged her father for formal training, and he and her mother had given their blessings.
After their passing, his actual partner, a former army doctor named Junius Hadrian Veturius, had allowed Mariana to continue her practice of assisting, at the counsel of his wife, who was also named Mariana, a fact which both women had always found amusing. Junius had taken the unusual step of shortening his wife's name to Mary when both women were in the room at the same time, in order to alleviate confusion, although Mariana had told him it was perfectly fine to refer to her by her (admittedly hated) middle name, as the older man had known her since she was Marcus' age!
Junius merely smiled and admitted that he enjoyed calling his wife “my Mary” and Mariana never mentioned it again.
He was going to accompany her today; Mariana Maxia was home, busily preparing for the arrival of her and Junius' first child, come late in life and, the Gods willing and with Mariana's assistance as midwife, due to greet the world within a month's time.
She mused on the odd – yet satisfying – life she'd led after her sisters had dutifully found themselves husbands and begun producing children. The eldest, Julia Justinia, had two girls and two boys, all of which had successfully survived infancy (the youngest, Lucius, thanks to Mariana's intervention in his birth, of course). Flavia Lucretia hadn't been so fortunate at first, having lost two infants before birth and one after only a month, but eventually the Gods had favored her with a healthy son, now nearly four, and a year later a sister who followed him everywhere and adored him.
With their own younger brother as an example, she knew neither of her sisters – nor their husbands, one a junior Senator and the other a successful merchant – would make the mistake their own parents had made. On the other hand, Mariana was worried that they bent too far in the other direction, being far stricter with their offspring than she thought necessary. Still, what did she know? Here she was, twenty-one and still unmarried, a midwife and occasional dissectionist when one of Junius' patients died in such as manner as to require additional inquiry, raising her younger brother and running her parents former household – and now, off to purchase a slave for the very first time.
Junius had kindly offered to take on the duty, but she had only accepted his assistance in the matter. If she was to continue to run what was officially her brother's household until he came of age and married, then she needed to learn all aspects, even those she found personally distasteful.
Junius found her attitude toward slavery odd, but her father had shaped her views and he was kind enough not to comment on them. And she was grateful for his assistance; she had no experience in such things and there were many who wouldn't hesitate to take advantage of her in such a situation. Just because she could tell when the butcher was trying to sell her an inferior cut of meat didn't mean she could do the same when it came to human flesh!
Ugh. She truly did wish there was some way a civilized society could function without slaves, but Rome had endured with such a system running smoothly for centuries and she supposed it always would. She sighed and made her way to the auctioneer's postings, in order to see what her options were before speaking with one of the slave masters. Junius was temporarily separated from her, speaking to a former army-mate he'd met. Mariana had assured him she would be fine, that she wouldn't even think of making a purchase without him, and even left her money in his care to further reassure him.
She'd left him happily exchanging remembrances with his comrade and boasting of his beautiful wife and their soon-to-be-born child, which had brought a warm, if somewhat envious, smile to Mariana's face. She hadn't entirely given up on finding someone to love, which was the only way she'd resolved to wed; her sisters had already gone the duty route and although they were happy enough, she knew that neither of them truly loved their husbands the way their own parents had loved one another.
An hour later Mariana was willing to admit to herself that she’d managed somehow to lose herself. None of the slaves being offered at the moment met her needs; there were no educated men young enough to keep up with her energetic younger brother, only men suitable for bodyguards or house servants. It was discouraging, to say the least, but as she dolefully looked over the day’s offerings, she overheard one of the employees mention to another that the ‘latest arrivals’ were being prepped, and her ears perked up. She’d then unobtrusively watched to see where the speaker went, and when no one was looking, followed after him.
Of course she’d promptly lost both him and her own way and was now in the areas where the general public wasn’t usually allowed. Especially not an unescorted unmarried woman! She’d heard tales whispered amongst her friends of young women going missing, sold into slavery for the perverted pleasures of dissipated members of the nobility, but had discounted them as nothing but salacious gossip. Now, however, as she glanced uneasily around her insalubrious surroundings, she couldn’t help but wonder if those tales might have had a grain of truth in them.
Only the knowledge that Junius would tear this place apart looking for her if she truly went missing kept her from falling prey to her own vivid imaginings. All she had to do was find her way back the way she’d come, then actually do the sensible thing and ask someone about the new arrivals. Which was exactly what she should have done in the first place.
Nodding firmly to herself, she drew her filmy white stole across her shoulders and headed back the way she’d just come.
Then she turned a corner, and saw him.
He was thin, underfed and filthy. His dark hair hung in tangled curls that were in desperate need of barbering, as was the scruffy beard on his face. However his eyes were the most unusual and arresting Mariana had ever seen, and she couldn't seem to bring her own gaze away from them. They were the blue-green of the ocean with flecks of amber, tilted in a cat-like manner and brimming with a fierce intelligence and an overabundance of fury and contempt. He spat out something in Brittonic that Mariana could only partially translate, none of which sounded particularly complimentary to the guard who was hauling him along by the chain attached to his manacles.
Without meaning to do any such thing, Mariana suddenly found herself in front of the guard, who stopped short with a bitten-off curse. “Forgive me, my lady,” he said in a reasonable attempt at courtesy. “I didn't see you there. Are you lost? Do you require assistance of some kind in finding your way to the public section of the market?”
That last was a thinly veiled grumble of discontent; those who ran the slave markets had no interest in potential customers taking a peek behind the scenes, as it were. Mariana knew this, and yet she'd allowed her curiosity to bring her here anyway. That, and something about the slave who was clearly on his way to be cleaned up and made presentable for potential buyers – or to be punished since it was obvious he was entirely uncooperative in spite of the fact that he could do nothing about his situation.
“How much?” She hadn't intended to ask the question, but it erupted from her mouth as if it had been waiting to be asked since the moment she laid eyes on the Briton. He and the guard both gaped at her as if she'd suddenly grown a second head, but before either could say another word, a fourth voice was heard.
“By the Gods, it can't be! Sherlock? Is that truly you?”
It was Mariana's turn to gape with the guard at Junius as he appeared by her side. He was staring at the unkempt slave with an expression of a man seeing a ghost...or a long-lost brother. The slave – Sherlock? What a barbaric name, indeed! – was staring back, but the sullenness had vanished and a tentative smile now graced his features, revealing a set of straight, white teeth which Mariana was frankly surprised to see.
The smile transformed the man's face; already intriguing it became nearly beautiful and Mariana could feel her heart increasing as her body responded on a primal, basic level. She'd rarely felt such an attraction to another man – only once, as it happened, which had turned out to be nothing but a disaster as the object of her affection had not returned her feelings in the slightest. Yes, he'd wanted to marry her, but only because of her family's money and relatively high status. As soon as Mariana overheard him telling one of his cronies that he'd force her to give up her work both as a midwife and assisting Junius, she'd given him the boot.
As soon as her scattered wits gathered themselves again, Mariana turned to Junius with a gasp. “Sherlock? This is Sherlock, the one you told me about?”
The young Briton who'd once saved Junius' life, in an ambush outside Londinium near the end of Junius' term of service in the Roman army. Junius had nearly been killed, but his life had been saved by a young scholar who had prevented Junius from being bashed over the head with a rock due entirely to the fact that he'd recognized the centurion as a physician and felt that such learning shouldn't go to waste. He'd lingered long enough to ensure Junius' continued safety, introduced himself by his odd name, made some stunning inferences about Junius and his fellow soldiers – all of them true – and then vanished as Roman reinforcements rapidly approached the small group.
Junius had seen him again after that from time to time; Mariana recalled him telling her about those encounters with a wry grin and an expression of bemused affection on his face. “He even took it upon himself to advise me as to the best way to manage gangrene in Londinium’s damp climate, can you believe it?” And then, of course (after she’d pointedly asked), he’d been forced to admit that the young man’s advice had been of value, much as it pained him to do so. After all, Junius had been trained and educated in Rome, center of the known world, and Sherlock was a mere barbarian. A well-read barbarian, but a barbarian nonetheless.
A barbarian who now stood before them in chains, chattel to be bought and sold.
And Mariana Tullia Hortensius was determined to be the one to buy him.
It was a shock, seeing a face he’d never thought to see again in his lifetime. Thanks to the young man standing before him, Junius had lived to return to Rome, injured, limping, but alive. And here he was again, that same young man, chained, filthy, half-starved…and, if the Gods were willing, exactly the answer to Mariana’s predicament.
“Junius Hadrian Veturius,” Sherlock said, showing that he, too, recognized the man standing before him – and speaking in flawless Latin. “Physician no longer for the Roman army but in private practice and safely returned to Rome, which is good to see considering how much trouble I went through to save your life.” Junius grimaced at the not-so-subtle reminder that he owed this man a debt…and was currently in a unique position to repay it. Or would be if he actually had money of his own with which to purchase the young man. If he could, he would buy Sherlock and free him, but with a new baby coming his finances were going to be stretched thin enough. Besides, he’d long ago recognized that his marriage was much more of an equal partnership than typical Roman marriages, and if he did something like this without speaking to his wife first – no matter how confident he was that she would agree with him – he would be letting his own Mariana down.
One look at Mariana’s enrapt face, however, told him that his dilemma could easily be solved. “He’s well educated,” Junius said, ignoring Sherlock’s shocked expression. He would explain things to the lad later, after this transaction had been finalized. Mariana would be an excellent mistress; he would want for nothing and be allowed to share his knowledge with a young man who would benefit from leaning from someone outside the Roman Empire. Someone who would be critical, yes, but Junius firmly believed that blindly loving your homeland was almost as damaging as carrying hatred for it in your heart. “You couldn’t find a better tutor for your brother if you scoured the known world.”
Sherlock was clearly biting back the desire to snap out an insult, to deduce something devastating, but Junius silenced him with a stern glance. The guard, sensing a buyer who would be anxious to conclude the transaction as rapidly as possible, turned and gave a shrill whistle as another man hurried by, with the hunched shoulders and harried expression of a civil servant. “Villius!” the guard shouted. “Fetch Aelius Augustus!” The other man nodded and scurried off, back the way he’d come, clutching the armful of scrolls he carried close to his chest.
The guard turned to Mariana with an oily smile pasted to his pock-marked face. “My lady, would you care to wait inside while preparations are made? Your man here,” he nodded respectfully to Junius, “can stay to make sure the merchandise isn’t mishandled in the interim. I’m sure you’ll want him to check him over as well, although I can assure you he is disease free and healthy as an ox. Well educated, too, as your man already noted…”
“No, I think I’ll wait here, thank you,” Mariana replied with a sweet smile that failed to disguise the glint of steel in her eyes. Junius recognized that expression, and bit back a small grin at the sight of it; Mariana Tullia might seem like a typical, soft-spoken young woman, but she had a spine of pure iron and the stomach to match. If the auctioneer thought he was going to cheat her by so much as a sestare, he was in for a rude awakening.
The deal was concluded in record time; as predicted, Mariana didn’t allow the sellers to run roughshod over her, just because they could see how much she wanted to buy their merchandise. The only time Sherlock was allowed out of her presence was when he was taken to the baths and barber, and even then she insisted that Junius accompany him.
The moment the two of them were away from her, Junius attempted to explain why he hadn’t paid the purchase price himself, but the younger man simply glared at him before ignoring his presence as if the doctor wasn’t even there. Junius sighed quietly, resigned to being on the receiving end of Sherlock’s venom when he was no longer able to hold it inside – most likely after the purchase had been concluded and the three of them were on their way to the Hortensius household. Technically, of course, he was under no obligation to listen to any such words…but Sherlock was correct. Junius owed him a debt, and his inability to properly discharge that debt was already weighing heavily on his conscience.
He set aside such heavy thoughts as soon as they returned to Mariana’s side, opting instead to focus on his amusement at the sight of his young friend’s expression at the sight of a clean, barbered and neatly-clad Sherlock. The transformation, he had to admit, was notable; standing before them now was the same young man he recalled from his time in Brittania, although still with the unwelcome addition of manacles on his wrists. At least the wrists themselves had been bandaged, at Junius’ insistence. All the other physical outrages – the bruises and small sores that were inevitable in Sherlock’s present unhappy circumstances – would undoubtedly be looked at and taken care of by Mariana once she had him under her family’s roof.
He felt a stirring of uneasiness at the rapt expression her face took whenever she allowed her gaze to fall on Sherlock, especially when she thought he wasn’t seeing it. Yes, Junius himself had undoubtedly primed her interest by telling her stories of the brilliant young man who’d saved his life in Brittania, but her interest in him smacked as much of physical attraction as anything else. As a medical man, of course, he understood the need for both men and women to enjoy regular sexual stimulation for their health, but as a Roman citizen he also understood the need for Mariana Tullia’s reputation to remain spotless. Eventually she would marry, and for there to be even a whisper of gossip about her and the handsome young slave could be a disaster.
Only time would tell if such a situation played out, of course. The Hortensius servants and slaves were already treated better than some people treated their own family, and at the very least, if Sherlock showed himself a faithful and loyal tutor – after he’d resigned himself to his fate, of course – then he would be given those same considerations. If anything developed beyond that…well, it wasn’t up to Junius to worry about it. And it certainly wasn’t his place to say anything to Mariana Tullia about it, even if he was an old friend of the family and a doctor.
The sale concluded, the keys to Sherlock’s manacles were ceremoniously handed over to Mariana. She eyed the heavy iron chains, took in Sherlock’s tight-lipped expression, and handed the keys in turn to Junius. “If you don’t mind,” she murmured, unembarrassed by her admission of feminine weakness.
“My pleasure,” he replied with utmost sincerity, then turned to Sherlock and released him from his bonds.
In doing so, he made certain to catch the younger man’s eyes, knowing his own expression was a clear warning: try to run, try to do anything at all except come along with the two of us, and you’ll regret it.
Annoyance flashed in the blue-green orbs that met his, but ultimately Sherlock lowered his head in a sullen gesture of defeat. For now, the set of his shoulders seemed to say, and Junius accepted that tacit admission of future defiance with a resigned sigh.
Mariana Tullia Hortensius was certainly going to have her hands full.