Marcus never thought he’d win, and Esca surely must have thought the same, which had to be the only reason he agreed to the wager. Esca always beats Marcus at checkers.
Except this time.
Which means Esca will wear a toga to the party.
As soon as they arrive, Marcus’ suspicions are confirmed. Uncle Aquila no more has a headache than Marcus is able to skip light as a nymph through a spring meadow. It’s going to be a stuffy and arduous affair. The women are over-powdered and perfumed, and the men are flabby and over-fed.
“I need a drink,” Esca grunts, staying close to Marcus’ side.
He isn’t able to stick with Marcus for long. Their hostess has a pre-arranged seating plan that has Esca on the opposite side of the dining table to Marcus. Esca is ushered to his seat between two young Roman women, while Marcus has the pleasure of a retired officer to his right, and whom he believes to be a wealthy widow to his left. She’s a willowy matron with her hair piled in an ebony knot on top of her head. Marcus might have met her before, but after a while those powdered, painted faces, ostentatious jewels and coiling braids all start to look the same. He spares a fleeting thought for his hostess’ motives, but as he doesn’t begin to understand the minds of women he then decides to pay it no more heed.
Esca lifts his cup towards Marcus, winks and manages a forced smile, or perhaps he’s gloating at his comparative good fortune in company. Marcus prefers to think the former, though after a few of cups of wine, gustatio and mind-numbing small-talk, he begins to think it may be more of the latter. After prima mensa, Marcus signals to Esca to leave the table, and excuses himself under the pretext of needing to stretch out his leg.
As Marcus guides Esca to a quiet corner of the walled garden, Esca smirks, “What’s the matter, my darling? Not having a nice time?”
Esca is obviously drunk already. His cheeks are rosy and his eyes are glinting in the lamplight; his toga has slipped off his shoulder and is languishing in an untidy mess of folds over his elbow. Marcus rearranges it back to something more orderly and says with a wry grin, “I’m having a marvellous time - watching you cavorting with those young kittens.”
Esca tips forward and up on his toes and plants a kiss to the corner of Marcus’ mouth. “I hope you’re not jealous. It’s all for show. I can’t wait to get out of here.”
Marcus glances around, nervous that they might be seen. There’s no one but them outside – it’s too chilly. Maybe later a few guests will break away to the cover of the colonnades for privacy, once they’ve had their fill of sweets and jugglers and the tour of the house. For now though, they’re blissfully alone. He clasps Esca’s upper arms and kisses him firmly on the mouth, clenching his stomach muscles against the tickle of butterflies that are rising up inside him. “Don’t drink too much. I won’t be able to carry you home.” Marcus also wants some of Esca’s attentions for himself later, though this isn’t the time or place to mention it.
“Me? I’ve barely had a sniff. Come on, we should get back before the Calleva society tongues start wagging.”
With a lingering kiss, they resolve to make a quiet and polite exit during the after-dinner entertainment, giving Marcus time to do the mandatory rounds with the attending officials - for Uncle Aquila’s sake, more than anything. Then Marcus has to reluctantly let Esca go and drag himself back to the couch in the triclinium.
From across the table, Marcus watches Esca fidget and fiddle with his toga, and it’s as much as Marcus can do not to go over to him and pull and tuck the fabric back into place when it slips down yet again. Aside from that, Esca seems altogether quite relaxed. He’s half reclined on the couch, nodding and smiling at the young women, who are even closer than they were before, if that’s possible. One of them feeds him a candied walnut. He eats it like he hasn’t seen food for days, despite the six courses he’s already tucked away.
When Marcus tries one he finds it bitter.
The two women fawning over Esca would both be beautiful, were it not for all their superfluous decoration. One is the young wife of some geriatric magistrate, according to Esca, and the other the daughter of their hosts. Marcus scoffs at their futile attempts at seduction and puts the flush of warmth that spreads across his chest down to his last cup of wine. If they think fluttering eyelashes and simpering looks will endear Esca they are sorely mistaken. Now if either one of them would only have the good sense to challenge him to an arm wrestle she might stand a chance.
Marcus is interrupted from his thoughts by the woman next to him. “He’s an intriguing one, your Briton.”
“He’s a freedman. He belongs to no one.”
“I beg to differ. But as you like it.” She runs her fingers up Marcus’ bare arm, lightly grazing the hairs but scarcely making contact with his skin. Marcus shivers. She continues, undeterred, “If you ever have a mind to share him, I’ll take good care, hand him back to you in one piece.”
She’s turned away and is back talking to the man on her left before Marcus can think of a reply, and Marcus is suddenly thirsty again, the prickle of her words skittering over his skin long after her fingers have left him. He didn’t realise the way he looked at Esca was that obvious. She’s right, though: Esca is his. It’s new and thrilling and they can hardly keep their hands off each other, but Marcus thought he was doing a good job of being discreet when they were out in public.
No sooner as Marcus dry swallows against his tongue, a slave is at his side refilling his cup. He can’t keep count how much he’s had, all he knows is that it’s more than he’s had in one evening for a long time, since before he injured his leg, more than a year ago.
The meal ends with too many toasts and it’s a long wait before the guests disperse around the villa.
Marcus thinks to retrieve Esca, who’s now sandwiched upright between the same two women, one of whom is touching the band of ink that circles his bicep. He looks happy enough, and try as he might, Marcus is unable to catch Esca’s glance before he’s intercepted by another dinner guest.
“Marcus!” Marcus groans inside. It’s yet another of Uncle Aquila’s politician friends. He can’t remember his name. The old man continues, “I’ve been meaning to talk to you all evening. You must recount to my dear friend, Aulus, who is here on official business from Rome, your adventures over the wall, in Caledonia.”
Marcus has a carefully rehearsed and highly edited account of the quest for the Eagle, which he begins to recite as he has done many times already. The words come out in dreary meter, like an epic recited by a recalcitrant child.
The men listen with patience, only interrupting here and there for more details. Marcus has quickly come to learn, as it always seems to go in this same direction, that these scavengers care not one iota for the restoration of the Aquila family’s honour, or indeed the return of the Eagle to Rome, but only to salivate like hungry hounds over every sordid detail they can possibly glean of the Seal People and of Esca, Marcus’ ‘tamed barbarian’.
Marcus empties his cup and excuses himself from his audience. They might not have had their fill, but he certainly has.
The room is gently swaying, or perhaps that’s Esca, meandering his way across the atrium. Marcus cheers at once, particularly when he sees his dishevelled state.
The toga has slipped off his shoulder for the last time – Marcus has no more plans to rearrange it - and has somehow managed to grow two full hands so that it’s long enough to skim his ankle on one side. His hair is like a cockerel’s comb and his grin –
“Why Esca, you’ve painted your lips!”
“I have not.” Esca’s hand flies to his mouth. He wipes over his lips and looks wide-eyed and wicked at the smear of paint that comes away on his fingertips.
Esca grabs Marcus’ elbow and pushes him towards the vestibule. It gives Marcus a feverish rush. Excited by their imminent escape and Esca’s wild appearance, Marcus leans close and says to Esca’s flaming ear, “They are as red as rose petals and look sweeter than berries. Can I have a taste?”
“No! Not here.” Esca is laughing as he says, “Do you have any idea how hard it was being watched by you all night? I was trying to look tempting in the hope you’d hurry along our departure – what the hell took you so long?”
Esca doesn’t have to try to look tempting. Marcus was half aroused just putting Esca in the toga. He’s been miserably fighting off an erection all night.
“You are what took me so long. Everyone wants to know all about you. They couldn’t give a fig about me or the Eagle. The woman next to me asked if I would loan you out to her.” Marcus isn’t jealous or annoyed - not really. It’s not Esca’s fault he’s a curiosity and an obscenely attractive one at that, especially compared to the flaccid half-wits that pass for men in Calleva.
Marcus heads out through the vestibule and into the damp chill of night. There’s a bright moon – they won’t need a torch for the walk back.
“I’m not interested in any of those artificial flowers.” Esca catches his arm and spins him around. “You know that, don’t you?”
It’s wine-talk - utterly ridiculous and completely heart-swelling. Marcus can’t help feeling besieged by how much it makes him want Esca. “Let’s hurry back.” He hopes Esca can see his pleading look in the moonlight. He surges ahead, spurred by the singular desire to have Esca lying in his arms.
They negotiate the dirt track without talking. It takes all of his focus for Marcus to avoid tripping over the bumps and holes in the dark, made all the more difficult with a limp and a skinful of alcohol. He can hear Esca stumbling and hiccupping behind him.
He’s about to look round and offer Esca some support, which makes him snigger to himself at the irony, when Esca pants out, “Marcus, slow down. I’m a bit tangled --”
There’s a whoosh and a bump and Marcus looks around to see Esca flat on his face, his toga flown up over his head.
Marcus laughs so hard he almost pisses himself. He manages between breaths to say, “Are you all right?”
“Yes, no thanks to you.”
Esca is rolling around on the floor, a tangle of toga and language that would make the roughest soldier blush. Marcus is trying to keep his composure long enough to avoid an embarrassing loss of bladder control.
“I need to take a leak. I’ll help you up when I’m done.”
It’s all Marcus can do to work his way through the folds of his toga before he feels like he’s going to burst and spray everywhere. There’s a tree just a few steps off the track. With a loud sigh of relief, he lets his piss go up the side of it.
“Oh, not so close! You’re going to splash me!” Esca is still on the ground slowly, slowly unwrapping himself from the toga.
Marcus is concentrating on pointing his flow away from his feet, but from the corner of his eye he sees Esca’s legs flailing in the air. When Marcus is almost done he glances over; Esca is scrambling to his feet. Tucking himself away without ceremony, Marcus watches Esca trying to rearrange himself, grumbling and muttering.
Blissfully relieved of his full bladder and more than a smidgen besotted, Marcus slings his arm around Esca’s shoulders. “Come, friend. Let me hold you up and we will march together the rest of the way.”
“Your marching days are long over. Get away from me or you’ll have us both in the ditch.”
“Oh, Esca, my heart. You wound me with your harsh words.”
“Better that, than wound you by falling on top of you. If it pleases you to march, then I’ll march alongside you.”
Fine and upright examples of military men, warriors, the pair of them, they start marching. They bump into each other’s sides every few steps, which is only to be expected given the unevenness of the terrain and the lack of light. Marcus is determined to keep going, however, now he has the idea in his head, and decides a marching song is in order to speed them on their way.
“When I was at Isca Dumnorium one of the centurions taught me a Pictish marching song. You might prefer it to something Roman.”
“A Pictish marching song?” Esca howls with laughter. “He was pulling your leg, Marcus. Only the Romans march.”
“You can scoff all you like, but it’s true. He learned it when he was serving as a sentry up at the Wall.”
“Then I’m eager to hear it.”
Esca doesn’t sound convinced but Marcus begins anyway, bellowing out at the top of his voice:
Senex Macdonaldus habebat fundum, E-I-E-I-O
Et in ille fundum habebat porces, E-I-E-I-O
Cum oink oink hic, oink oink hoc
Oink hic, oink hoc, ubique oink oink
Senex Macdonaldus habebat fundum, E-I-E-I-O
For some reason, Esca finds the song hilarious, and is unable to march in anything resembling an orderly fashion (not that he ever has before, but he might try and put in a bit of effort).
Marcus pauses mid-step, grinning. “The words are very easy. You’re not even trying to join in.”
“All right, let me hear one more verse and I’ll see if I can do the chorus. E-I-E-I-O? Right?”
After being admonished, Esca joins in tentatively with the next verse and by the third he’s in full swing, though he keeps singing Marcus Aquila instead of Senex Macdonaldus, which is mildly irritating, but only because Marcus hadn’t thought of it first. If he says it himself, Marcus is surprised at the quality of their voices, booming over the night sounds of crickets and frogs. He’d never considered himself musically inclined before, but Esca does have a way of drawing out all his previously undiscovered talents. Dear Esca.
They’re home before they finish their third rousing rendition of Senex Macdonaldus.
There’s a lamp on in the vestibule of Uncle Aquila’s. They creep in, as quiet as stealthy cats, at least until Marcus bumps into the bench. He tells the offending article to “Shush,” which comes out somewhat louder than he anticipated, as he was still using his marching voice.
“Shhh yourself,” Esca scolds.
“I was talking to the bench, not you.”
The toga is hanging onto Esca literally by a thread. Esca is sliding along the wall and looks like he’s heading towards his cell, but Marcus is having none of that playing hard to get when he’s given Esca moon eyes all night, making his intentions absolutely clear. He stamps his foot on the dragging fabric.
Esca, the devil, makes a disgruntled noise when he realises he’s caught. He spins, regards the trapped corner and gives it a tug, one that is much more vigorous than necessary.
Esca pulls the toga out from under Marcus’ foot. In turn, Marcus slips and falls back onto the bench, with only one arse cheek making contact. It’s inevitable, though he tries to right himself with flapping outstretched arms, that he should end up sprawled on the floor while the bench goes skidding out to the side. The sound echoes over the tiled floor and reverberates off the walls and Marcus concedes that was quite loud.
“Shhh,” Marcus says to the bench, too late.
Esca comes back to give him a hand up. “Shhh.” He’s frowning but it’s a fake one. Marcus can see his mirth (and his undergarments).
“Shhhh!” They look around and there is Stephanos, looking as terrifying as an apparition straight from the depths of Tartarus. He puts his hands on his hips and shakes his head before shuffling away again back to his bed.
Esca rips off the toga, right there in the vestibule and slings it over his arm. Then he slots his body against Marcus, urging him to lean on him as Marcus used to need to do many months ago. It feels quite different now, with Esca unsteady, and every curve of his body more familiar as it aligns next to Marcus.
The moment they are they safely ensconced in Marcus’ cell, Esca flops down flat on his back onto the bed and puts his forearm over his eyes. “Help me.”
Marcus looks down at him and considers that if the farming venture fails, Esca might have a career as an actor.
“What do you want me to do?”
“I meant to say kiss me, but I’m in danger of vomiting. I think it’s something I ate.”
“You ate everything. I expect that’s the problem – that and the gallon of wine you drank.”
“Well it’s coming back to haunt me now.” Esca moves his arm up around the top of his head. He does look pale.
Marcus clambers alongside him and places a hand his forehead, “Should I fetch a bucket?”
“No. I think my humours are out of balance. I might need to be purged.” Esca pushes at his groin and smirks. He doesn’t seem quite as drunk anymore.
Ah, so that’s his game. Marcus will admit Esca almost had him fooled for a moment, though he should know better. Esca has an iron-clad stomach: the raw rat he effortlessly put away while they were in the north is testament to that.
The walk back has also sobered Marcus somewhat and his cock is as lively as it was before they set out for the evening.
Esca remains unusually languid. He blinks slow and easy, and smiles up at Marcus. “You still haven’t kissed me.”
With him like this, Marcus has the feeling Esca would let him do anything. Everything. For not the first time over the course of the evening, impatiently watching and waiting, Marcus feels that new, and what’s becoming all-too-familiar, tightening across his chest. When, at last, he touches his lips to Esca’s and kisses him softly, again and again on his mouth and chin and neck, it feels like Esca has melted beneath him.
Marcus kneels and strips to his loins without preamble; he’s already waited too long to have Esca tonight as it is. Esca simply watches, his expression lustful and adoring, too. As each fold and layer comes away, Esca nods, smiles, brushes his fingertips over a newly exposed strip of Marcus’ skin.
When Marcus is covered only by the thin wrap of linen on his groin he kneels beside Esca, who’s looking as if he’s enjoying the show. Marcus is aware that up to now it has been Esca who has lead each touch. Marcus wanted that, after all the time Esca spent at the mercy of a master’s will, before Marcus as well as with him. He wanted Esca to have everything the way he wanted, and had been enjoying that without a hint of displeasure. With Esca lying pliant beside him, making it clear to Marcus he has the reins on this occasion, Marcus realises he actually preferred things as they were before. Esca is the only person he has ever truly trusted, implicitly – from since before they became lovers – and he believes it might be for this reason that Marcus wants to do his bidding – to be and do everything Esca wants.
On the other hand, Marcus doesn’t want to appear lazy.
“Take off your loins.” Esca’s voice is soft but there’s no mistaking it’s a command.
Marcus complies, aroused by the certainty of Esca’s voice and joyfully dismisses all further thoughts of having to play the lead in this. He can’t help but grin as he resumes his place at Esca’s side.
Esca touches his fingers over Marcus’ thigh, his calf and briefly, the tip of his cock, still mostly sheathed in skin. “Will you stroke yourself for me, while I undress?” Esca’s voice is hoarse and low.
Marcus licks his palm and takes himself in hand, his cock filling quickly in his grasp, while Esca slips easily from the remainder of his clothes and sandals.
“Come here.” Esca pulls Marcus down over him, spreads his thighs apart, wrapping them around Marcus’ waist, and rolls his hips up. His cock his hard and damp against Marcus’ belly. Esca’s not so languid after all. “Tell me what you saw tonight. Did you like me in your toga?”
Marcus feels the blush and heat of arousal pulsing and spreading over his skin. He pushes his hips forwards, his cock rubbing against Esca’s. He’s shy about saying the words, but deep down he’s turned on by just thinking them. With his lips close to Esca’s neck, Marcus says, “I’d never thought about you in a toga, until I thought about you in my toga. I watched you opposite me all evening, knowing what you looked like naked beneath it and I wondered if you were thinking about me, if you could smell me.”
Saying the words out loud, hearing them, is a thousand times more intense than thinking them, and Marcus groans with the ache and need to have more contact, to release the pressure in his balls.
“I could smell you. I had to keep pushing the wretched thing down before I humiliated myself. Even your smell on your clothes makes me hard.”
Esca runs his hands down Marcus’ back, until he reaches his buttocks, and spreads his palms over the clenching flesh. He pushes up, matching Marcus’ slow rhythm. “Tell me, tell me how it felt to see me with those women. Were you jealous?”
“Yes, a little. Not because I thought you wanted to fuck them, but because I wanted it to be me there with you. Only, I wouldn’t have been able to look at you as I did all night if I’d been at your side. As I drank more, I wondered what it would be like watching you fuck one of them.” Marcus can’t believe he’s told Esca. The woman at his side had planted the seed, and he’d at first been horrified at the thought. He’s a little ashamed and wonders if he’s gone too far.
“Look at me, Marcus.”
Marcus keeps grinding his hips, because even past his shame he’s so desperately aroused he knows that if he wrapped his fist around his cock he would come.
“Please, Marcus. I want you to look at me. I want you to see what you do to me, with the way you speak and the things you do.” Esca sounds wrecked and that’s enough to draw Marcus’ balls up. His sex feels full and heavy, and Esca’s cock feels the same underneath him. Esca is hot, heaving beneath Marcus like he can hardly breathe.
Marcus pushes up, caging Esca’s head between his elbows. When he sees him, Marcus can’t draw his eyes away but is overwhelmed by looking. “Esca. Esca.” Esca’s eyes are dark, his mouth open and his breaths gust sharp and fast, warming over Marcus’ face as he regards him.
“Don’t stop moving. I’m really close, so very close.” Esca grips Marcus’ arse cheeks hard and ruts faster, his legs slipping down around Marcus’ thighs.
Marcus can feel it, Esca losing his rhythm, lost in the feeling of climbing up to his climax. Marcus is tempted to close his eyes. He bends and bites under Esca’s jaw, rolling his hips quicker, in frantic time with Esca.
Esca sucks in a sharp breath and stills. Marcus jerks up to see his face. Esca’s mouth is open and his eyes are squeezed shut. He pants out as he shudders and Marcus feels the warmth of his spend spreading over his belly as Esca spills between them.
Marcus waits for Esca to ride out the last wave of his climax before reaching for his cock. With a few swift strokes he comes, his teeth buried in the muscle of Esca’s shoulder.
They clean up with Esca’s discarded loincloth and settle beneath the covers. Esca is grinning as he looks up the ceiling, while his fingers idly tangle through Marcus’ hair.
“What?” Marcus is a bit worried Esca is recalling the lewd words he’d said when he was too addled with lust to control himself.
“You know I let you win, the checkers game?”
“No. Did you?”
“And why would you do that?”
Esca still has a quiet loathing for most things Roman. Marcus isn’t sure whether to believe that he would deliberately put himself in a situation where he had to wear a toga in public.
“I can see you, Marcus. Last month, when I wore your tunic, you were practically salivating the whole time. You did it again when I wore the same tunic a few days later, our first time together. So I wanted to see what it would do to you, to have to watch me in your formal clothes all evening and not be able to touch me. It arouses me to think of you getting turned on, but not being able to do anything about it. There, is that explanation enough? I thought you’d work it out for yourself.”
“I didn’t.” Marcus is too slow sometimes; he wonders how Esca tolerates him. “Which means I didn’t beat you fairly. Which also means that I really lost the game of checkers and the wager.” He doesn’t mean to sound wounded but he can’t help his chagrin that he didn’t see through Esca’s ruse. Now that Esca’s told him, it of course makes perfect sense.
Esca chuckles and his whole upper body shudders. “We’ll play best of five tomorrow and I’ll prove it to you, if you like.”
“Checkers is a child’s game. I’ll teach you latrunculi, and then we will see about a wager.”
“Good. In that case, I will close my eyes now and think of some better forfeits for when I beat you at that, too.”
Esca nuzzles in with his head against Marcus’ shoulder, where he seems to fit like the place was made for him.
Marcus curls in around him and calms contentedly to the sound of Esca breathing deeply at his side.
Ordinarily, Marcus doesn’t like to lose a wager. But somehow, losing to Esca feels quite a lot like winning.