In the engine gondola, the bellows work, pumping hot air into the gasbag above--the helium has long since been depleted, and they're running on the exhalations from the engines. Behind them, Aufidius can make out the thick smoke trailing behind the Roman fleet's airships.
Pouring on fuel. Heading in for the kill.
"They're right on our arses," Aufidius mutters, but everyone else knows it, and no one looks up. The Volscians are close to the end of their coal, too, and soon there will be nothing for it but to coast until they find a field big enough to land in. He's done everything in his power to get them out of Roman airspace, steered them through storms and over fields smoking with summer wildfire--there's only so much a captain can do, with the helium tanks empty and the coal running low.
This is what he gets for resting his arm around Martius's shoulders companionably and asking ... he doesn't even remember what he asked. Some damn stupid thing, like Where are you headed, sailor? or Would you like a drink? or possibly even What's your name? And Martius had turned to him, all leather and linen and heavy-browed scowl, and he'd flexed his tattooed arms in a way that made Aufidius want to kill him or to jump his bones. Either one. Maybe both.
There will, he reminds himself, be no jumping of bones on this flight. Or if there is, it will be after he's given Martius and the whole goddamn Roman fleet the slip.
He could turn to fight them, he supposes. One against (he counts, again, as though the number might have changed) eight. This is not, on the whole, a heartening ratio.
All around him, the frame of the Volscia groans. She isn't used to running so long on hot air, and her armatures will be straining against the unaccustomed heat. Below, the forested terrain stubbornly refuses to break into fields. Behind, the Romans continue their dogged pursuit.
It was always coming to this, he supposes. From the very first moment in that drifters' bar, it was coming to this.
"Turn her head 'round, boys," he calls, voice echoing over the engine gondola. "And start loading the guns."
Aufidius knocked back the shot, slick and smooth as though it were water, then set the glass down on the counter with an audible clunk. He wasn't drinking to get drunk, precisely, but if drunkenness sidled up to him with an inviting look, he wouldn't turn it away. The soldiers of Old Itaglia had used to play games with their drinks, flipping coins to see who'd drink first--but that was before Rome's airships had darkened the skies and rained fire on Napoli and Palermo. The dog-end of Itaglia's forces now scraped a living at the edges of Roman society, fixing rivets to hulls in the shipyards and reclaiming Cyprus and Sardinia for a pittance.
Or drinking in Neapolitan drifters' bars, waiting for a black-market helium trader who still hadn't showed.
"It was easier, when we were soldiers," Aufidius said, to no one in particular, and no one in particular replied. A lukewarm reception, but better than a cold one; emboldened by their silence, he continued, "When we were soldiers, there was ... I'm going to call it honor, because otherwise none of you are ever going to understand what I mean, but honor is personal. A man can lose his honor, or be an honor to his regiment--and even the regiment can honor the country it serves, if you think of it as a single thing. A single body."
In the corner, a young man tuned a guitar, head bent over the strings and eyes downcast. But for that slow, tuneless music, the bar was silent. "But it's not a single body, is it? It's a few hundred men, each one his own creature, each one a little incandescent light--and what I'm calling honor is the determination to keep as many lights shining as you can, as long as you can keep them."
No one spoke, but Aufidius felt a familiar prickling at the back of his neck that made him wish he hadn't had that last shot.
Slowly, Aufidius turned about, and in so doing he became aware that he was being watched--the way a dog watches a steak dinner, he thought at first, but that wasn't the right metaphor any more than "honor" was the right word. The stranger had an intent, solemn look about him, as though he were the sort of man who saw the world in striations of black and white. He wore a leather vest, cut at the sides with linen to let him breathe, and his heavy arms were tattooed all over.
He might have been another pirate, maybe even another Old Itaglian soldier turned rogue after the fall of Napoli. Might have been--but the old blue tattoo over his neck marked him a Roman airman.
"Tullus Aufidius. Where do you hail from?" Aufidius asked, putting an arm about the stranger's shoulders. It looked correct, there, halfway between the pale shade of the shoulders and the darkness of the leather. He decided to let it stay. "I can see that you're a Roman, of course, but I thought your lot had shipped out to Sardinia by now."
The man's nostrils flared, but whether it was at the over-familiarity or at being stationed in Napoli, Aufidius couldn't make out. "From the City," he answered, teeth gritted. "Name's Caius Martius. They've stationed me here to chase rebels and pirates--as though there's any glory to be earned here. I fought against the Tarquins, I've practically handed them Genoa and Napoli--"
Me, Aufidius heard. Me, I, I. "A loose cannon?" he asked, brows raised, as he did some hasty mental arithmetic. If this man had fought against the Tarquins, then he'd have to have been ...
"Holy Virgin," he whispered. "You were just a little boy."
"And you? You're not that much my elder," said Martius, with a scowl that could have scorched a hole through a bolt of calico. "Where were you, when the Tarquins were raiding their own cities?"
"I was right here in Napoli," Aufidius answered, as though Martius were particularly slow or hard of hearing. He was courting disaster, he knew, but he was also courting the Roman, who was certainly pretty, whether or not he was thickheaded. "God's sake, do I look like a Roman?"
"You look like a pirate," said Martius.
It must have been the drinks. There was no other rational explanation for why Aufidius leaned in, feeling the heat radiating from Martius's body, and breathed against his ear, "Well. I am a pirate."
One other rational reason, thinks Aufidius, as his guns turn to face the Romans. One other reason why he told a Roman who he was and what he did.
He's tired of going to ground. Tired of turning tail and fleeing, of black-market helium canisters and nighttime raids. He's let himself grow dim for too long in the coal-dust of the engine room, and now he needs something to set him on fire.
(Not literally, he amends hastily. Of course not literally.)
What Aufidius needs is a nemesis.