The city hadn’t changed much at first glance, but somehow it was different. The large open lake that the river they’d ridden down from the hills spilled out into was less pungent; the docks and piers and assemblages of boats as they approached weren’t nearly as clogged with garbage. The strongest smell in the air was still the packed fleeces they were hitching a ride with.
"The water’s clean," Bucky straightened up from where he’d been peering over the side, and settled back against Steve, who snorted.
"I wouldn’t drink it. They dump their shit in it."
"They should cart it out to us; we could use it in the fields."
"Full of sickness, the way they live here. There’s always some epidemic, and you never know when it will break out into plague." He leaned forward, almost dislodging Bucky, who grumbled. "There."
The main bulk of the city was walled, and here it was edged by a broad band of empty water; no boats were permitted to moor at the city walls. They were cleaner than he remembered, though it could be the sunset light, painting them pale gold. It looked calm and majestic, no sign of the frantic activity within; but the growl on the edge of hearing, of carts rolling and voices calling and horses whinnying, gave the lie to the apparent serenity. Bucky shook his head.
"It’s so big. Does the river go all the way round? How do they get in and out without boats?"
"No, only about half-way. The city spills out into the hinterland on the other side. There’s one bridge over the river; you walk to it or pay a ferryman." Steve found his fingers worrying at the hem of his tunic, and he forced himself to lay his hand flat. No one would recognise him.
"I’m melting away. It’s so hot down here." Bucky tugged at his collar, which lay open to catch any breeze. Their woollen tunics weren’t designed for this weather. Even in the cooling evening, Steve felt unpleasantly clammy. "How do they stand it?"
"They wear less. They drink a lot. They’re used to it." Steve shrugged. "A lot of them go out of the city in summer, they have villas on the roads or rivers. " They’d passed a few on the way, white buildings surrounded by lush gardens. Horribly vulnerable, all of them, but there had been peace in this part of the Empire for years; the borders were far away now. The elite of the city could lounge in their villas at ease.
The boatman tugged the ropes, and turned them towards a river-gate. The warden, marked by her broad blue sash, had her hand on the ropes ready to close the gate for sunset.
The boatman threw a loop of rope around a mooring, and turned to take the sails down.
"Trade," and a clerk leaped down into the boat and prodded through the load, then turned to the Steve and Bucky in the rear. Steve silently pointed to their packs, and he glanced in the top.
"Not much here to warrant a trade trip."
"We’re here to litigate," Steve said, and got a raised brow.
"You have a sponsor?" He was a small man, a sombre gray robe reaching to his ankles, damp to the knees.
"I’m a citizen," Steve said shortly, and the other brow went up.
"Welcome back to the city, then." He climbed back onto the jetty, and wrote something down on a wax slate. "Name?"
"Steve," and a look of surprise for the very provincial name. Still, it was his.
The boy leapt out, and unhitched the rope. He tugged hard on it, and the boat drifted obligingly as the pilot used a long pole to push them along. It was dank here, the high stone walls showing green stains.
"This is slow," Bucky turned to look at the gate winding down behind them. "How long will it be now?"
"We’ll need another boatman." Steve pointed. "It opens up here; there are quays where the trade boats dock."
"Inside the city?"
"They think it’s worth it, to keep their trade goods safe. The sea-port downriver has warships and catapults."
The quays were busy even at this late hour, calls and whistles as dockworkers scuttled back and forth, intent as ants.
Bucky seemed overwhelmed; Steve had to shake his shoulder to get his attention.
"If we help unload, he’ll get the boy to row us." Steve hitched a load up, and tossed it onto the quay, almost flattening the boy. "Brace up, son." Another, and another, and the waiting workers formed a chain and passed them up.
It didn’t take long to unload, and then they packed themselves into a tiny rowboat, almost sitting in each others’ laps. It was a temptation to take the oars away and row, but his memory of the back waterlanes was fuzzy. He forced himself to sit quiet, watching the shapes of the buildings, waiting for familiarity.
Out of the docks and into the canals that crisscrossed the cities; through the warehouses that held the goods the boats brought it, then through cramped and crumbling insulae, four and even five floors high, windows draped with drying laundry and children running in and out of the apartments.
They turned onto the wide canal that ran in a half-circle around the public areas of the city; a short distance and they passed a huge plaza, the main city square, with its broad white steps leading down into the water; people swam there, some days, if they dared the water. It didn’t smell too bad this night; perhaps his memory had filled in viler smells. Lights were burning now, people clustering around them, and he could smell food cooking.
"It’s so big," Bucky said, low. "I’ve never seen such large buildings. Are they palaces?"
"These are public buildings. You can’t see the palace from here." Steve pointed. "Those are the Senatorial courts, where they try cases."
"We’ll go there?" Bucky craned his neck for a better look. All the buildings here were very similar to Steve’s eye, pillars and porticos, painted in bright colours.
"That’s where we’ll take our petition. Our prefect is a patrician, but she doesn’t sit on the Senate, so we’ll probably be heard in the Senatorial courts; but if she has enough pull, she may be able to appeal to the Emperor’s court."
"The Emperor judges those?" Bucky looked lost, and Steve didn’t blame him. Steve had only been involved in one court case, seven years ago, and that had been a different kind of case.
"His hand-picked judges. He doesn’t sit in court himself. For the most important cases, he might send his consul."
"And what’s that?" Bucky pointed down a broad sidewater, leading to a dark gated archway. Statues of chained animals guarded it.
"That’s where they take cargos of wild animals and slaves into the amphitheatre." Steve looked away, over at the other side of the river. Smart neat buildings, painted white; they were likely the domus of prosperous citizens not of the patrician families, perhaps well-off freemen.
"Oh. That’s near?"
"A little way over – you’ll get a better view down the streets coming up. It has its own landing stage. There."
He couldn’t help but look; the amphitheatre hadn’t changed at all, stone darkened from years of the city’s smoke, the bright banners and torches at the landing stage incongruous. It was almost deserted. No nighttime entertainment today.
"It’s big," Bucky said finally.
"It’s dug into the ground a way, too. The slaves and animals live under the ground, so when you walk out onto the sand, it’s like being at the bottom of a giant pit..." Bucky must have detected a note of unease in his tone; he leaned against Steve’s shoulder, a comforting weight.
"We don’t have to go there."
"We should. You can’t come to the city and not go to the amphitheatre." Steve forced a smile. "They have races, and archery contests, and wild beast shows, and once I saw dancing horses."
"A dozen white horses, all stepping and bowing and swishing their tails in time." He laughed at Bucky’s incredulous face. "I promise you; the strangest things in the world come here to perform."
They passed through the gilded arch that marked the border of the inner city, where the wealthy had their domus; ahead he could see the lightman’s boat, lighting the torches. No, not torches; some kind of lamps or lanterns were hung at regular intervals along the walls.
That explained the lack of smoke-stains on the walls, and the clearer air. He scanned the walls, palms beginning to sweat as he searched for the right domus. It had been on the main waterway, he was certain, a small but well-positioned building. What if she’d gone to the country? What if she’d left the city for good?
What if she were dead? He wouldn’t have heard. She could have been dead for years.
"There," he almost gasped with relief. "Those steps, with the sign of the wasp."
The wasp had changed; once a painting on the wall, it was now an extravagant brass filigree, stripes in black enamel and wings of what looked like glass.
They drew in, and Steve leapt on to the slick stone of the steps and rapped on the door, tugged the bellrope, sweat gathering at his hairline.
The scrape of metal heralded the doorwarden, peering through a slit in the door. Her eyes narrowed at the sight of Steve.
"I’m here to see the lady Janet," Steve said, and was subjected to silent scrutiny. Then the doorwarden’s eyes turned to the boat, where Bucky sat with their bundles, as obviously a provincial peasant as Steve.
"I doubt she’ll want to see the likes of you."
"She’ll see me," Steve forced assurance into his voice. "Tell her Steve has come back from his village, and has come as she bade him."
The eyes retreated into the dim interior, and Steve turned and forced a smile.
"Not long now," he assured them. The boy leaned on his oars and sighed, pointedly.
The sound of footsteps returning, and the bolt was dragged back and the door opened.
"You’re to come in," the doorwarden said. She stepped back, and Steve took the packs and helped Bucky onto the steps. The boy nodded to them, and pushed off; Steve took a deep breath, and turned into the domus.
It was dim inside, the warm light of wax candles with no foul smell about them. Steve stopped to peel off his leather boots, gesturing for Bucky to do the same; he’d wrapped his feet in clean linens today, because he knew the fine mosaic floors were not suited to boots.
They followed to the atrium, as large and serene as he recalled, and standing by the reflecting pool in the centre, was Janet.
His first thought was that she hadn't changed at all, deep dark eyes and shining hair and a delicacy of build that left him always wary of hurting her.
"Steve!" she ran joyfully to him, and he caught her hands before she could throw herself at him for a hug, or something equally undignified. "It’s so good to see you. I thought you’d never come back." She looked at Bucky, and smiled. "Welcome to you too; any friend of Steve is a friend of mine, of course."
But she had changed, now he saw her closer; older, of course, but she wore her hair clipped now, in the patrician style, and her ankle-length tunic was of a flimsy silk, rather than the heavier linens she’d been wont to wear. Her slim arms had gold bracelets encircling them; she’d worn long sleeves back in the day.
She was still very beautiful, in that unfamiliar way that made his throat tighten.
"Thank you, ma’am," Bucky said. "We’re most grateful."
She turned and beckoned them on, keeping Steve’s hand caught in hers, and they ended in a cozy little sitting room, lit by one lamp on a bronze table, casting shadows up onto the walls. A woman in red was curled on a low sofa, a scroll unrolled over her lap; she looked at them, and then at Janet, large dark eyes bewildered.
"Wanda, love, this is Steve!" She spoke with the air of one presenting a treat, and indeed the dark woman, after initial shock, looked delighted. She came gracefully to her feet, tossing aside the scroll, and took two fast steps across the room, hands flung out towards him. Her dress was of a northern style, close-fitted around her body and skirt swirling out, but she looked too dark of skin and hair to be from Steve’s land.
"Jan has told me all about you, of course."
"Of course," Steve shot a glance at Janet as he enfolded one slim hand in his own. He bent his head politely over it, and managed not to flinch when she kissed him on the cheek. Some perfume wafted from her hair, musky and alluring.
"I owe you Thanks; without you, I might not be as happy as I am today." She dimpled beautifully, thick eyelashes sweeping down over her flushed cheeks.
"I’m glad to have helped," Steve said, at sea, and Jan let out a nervous little laugh, hand going to her hair; she’d been used to tug on it when she was nervous.
"Wanda is my wife."
"Oh," Steve struggled to keep his face from betraying his shock. "How – that’s wonderful, Janet, I’m so happy for you." The little part of his heart that had always said maybe curled up and died, quietly. He smiled at Wanda, who smiled back, all soft red lips and curls. Nothing like Steve, and nothing like Henry.
Maybe that was better.
"I was hoping," Steve swallowed, and forced himself on, staring past Janet’s shoulder at a brass wall sconce. "We’ve just arrived, you see, and we haven’t had a chance to get lodgings, and it’s so long since - "
"Lodgings, nonsense, I have plenty of room here."
"We couldn’t impose," Steve soldiered on, but she was shaking her head, jaw set.
"With all I owe you? No, and no. Lodgings in the city are so expensive, and I have all this space - "
"I don’t know how long we’ll be here for - "
"All the more reason for you to not waste your money."
"We do have space," Wanda interjected, and Steve glanced at her, uncertain. "We hardly use the stable block now; there’s an empty room where the stableboys used to sleep. Will you take that? There’s a well in the yard and it’s not too hot in there."
"I - " he wavered, and Bucky spoke quickly.
"That would be very generous of you, ma’am."
"Then that’s settled." Janet flapped her hands. "Sit, sit. It's just the two of you? You didn't bring your wife, Steve? What was her name, you used to talk about her - "
"No, I – Gail. She's – Bucky's wife."
There was a brief silence, in which everyone seemed to be struggling for something to say. Wanda broke it.
"Have you had your dinner yet?"
"No, ma'am," Bucky said, before Steve could assure her they didn't need food. This brought a flurry of activity from Janet, who insisted that they had to eat, she would rouse the kitchen and they would instantly produce a full meal. Wanda took her hand, and led her out.
Steve sat down on one of the couches, carefully; Bucky sat beside him and almost tipped over on the plush cushions, grabbing at the smooth curl of the arm to maintain his balance. Steve almost snapped at him to be careful, but he managed to keep it back. It wasn’t Bucky’s fault that Steve was – tense.
Wanda reappeared, and sat back down, skirts flowing out around her.
"She's a little nervous," she confided. "Just let her fuss." She stretch out a hand to touch Steve’s. "We're very glad to have you here, Steve - and you, Bucky - we're just not used to visitors. We live very quietly."
"We don't want to be a nuisance."
"Please, stop," her smile softened her words. "You and Janet will argue for hours, I can tell. Let her help you; it will make her happy." And of course, he couldn’t argue with that.
Food was bread and cold meat, some kind of bird, too spiced for him to be sure which kind. Bucky flushed red at the first taste, and gulped his watered wine; Steve's tongue complained at the burn at first, so different from the plainer flavours of village food, but it soon receded into familiarity, stinging and sweet and delicious. Wanda kept up a soft flow of chatter while Janet flitted about the room, lighting more candles. Eventually, she came back to stand behind Wanda.
"What are you here for?" she said bluntly.
"Justice." Steve had always liked her best so, when she spoke without artifice or equivocation. "The prefect’s claimed our land, and plans to throw us out and raze our cottages, and offer nothing for our trouble - it’s not to be born. She has the Governor's court all dancing to her tune, so I’ll claimed my rights as a citizen of the Empire to appeal my case here."
Janet pursed her lips in a whistle.
"You intend to fight in the courts?"
"If I must."
"Well. That will be interesting." She sat down next to Wanda, who shifted her weight to curl against Janet. They moved together with easy familiarity, Wanda’s head resting in the curve of Janet’s shoulder, curls spilling down over her canary-yellow tunic. "Who’s your lady?"
"Her name is Natasha."
"Oo," Wanda pursed her lips. "Yes, I know of her. She’s quite politically active; she’s aiming for a seat on the Senate, and seems to hold the Emperor’s favour."
"Will that make a difference?" Bucky gave her a worried look, and she held up her hand and wobbled it like a balance.
"Depends. She certainly has influence, but to use it on something so petty might be seen as undignified. You don’t invoke the Emperor to bully peasants off their land. It would make her look foolish. She does have many friends on the Senate, though - so it depends which judges are appointed to your cases."
"And who decides that?" Bucky asked.
"Luck," Janet said. "Unless she knows you’re coming, and has bribed the clerk, you’ll be assigned whichever court the clerk can find for you."
"She doesn’t know." Steve had never even met her; only seen her at a distance, walking in the herb gardens around the villa, black toga and copper hair. He hadn’t gone to the Governor's court because he’d not expected them to rule in Natasha’s favour.
"Then it’ll be luck, unless you want to bribe the clerk?" Steve scowled, and Wanda smiled. "I didn’t think so. Well, there are several hundred Senators, she can’t have all of them in her purse. Tell me about your case."
They talked until Bucky started to snore, and then Janet yawned, and declared it terribly late. That was probably only her politeness, as they kept late hours in the city, but Steve was quite ready to sleep.
The stable was, as promised, clean and cool. Steve strongly suspected that the beds had been made up by the servants in haste - he didn't think Janet's stableboys had slept on wool mattresses under linen sheets. A serving maid brought them a kettle of hot water to wash in, and it was a relief to get the day's sweat and dust off. Nothing made dirt like a city, somehow, for all the mud of the countryside.
"So how do you know her?" Bucky said into the dimness, and Steve grunted. He could still hear the calls of the city's night, watchmen and carousers and the late peddlers. How long would it take before he could sleep through them again? "She, er, you - "
He obviously thought Janet had been his mistress, which made Steve want to get up and shake him. He had been faithful.
But that would be a cruel thing to say, to a person who'd never wanted to hurt him.
"I helped her get a divorce," Steve muttered into his pillow.
"You don't approve of divorce." Bucky had once offered to divorce Gail, which was something she would never, ever know about. Steve had been very clear about his views on the topic; sometimes he wondered if he would have been as vehement if he hadn’t thought Gail would be horrified at the very idea. Such things just weren’t done at home, no matter how they lived in other parts of the Empire.
"I approved of her husband even less."
"Beat her." Steve glared into the darkness, even the memory infuriating, and Bucky made an understanding noise.
"Why couldn't she get a divorce on her own?"
"She didn't want to denounce him; and she couldn't afford a champion. He was known for his temper, he fought his own cases in the courts and won as often as not. The money was hers, but he had control over it and her." Henry had been a large, powerful man, with a berserker strength that made up for his amateurish skill. Usually. It wasn't enough against a professional gladiator; but Janet could never have afforded such a man, with Henry managing her finances.
"Far away; she came here to study at the school. Apparently it's famous. I don't know." He rolled over, and buried his face in the pillow, which smelled of feathers. "Natural philosophy," he said after a moment. "I don't know. Go to sleep; we’ll be busy tomorrow."
The plaza was packed, even early; stalls and singers and little girls trying to sell trinkets and women with baskets of bread and fruit; Steve's bulk let him elbow through the flood of humanity, Bucky in his wake, gripping his belt for fear of being lost.
The low steps to the courts were crowded with more pedlars, offering charms for luck, services of legal experts, sticks of licorice root to chew on, and they forged their way up and through the great stone arch into the vestibule. It was only slightly less crowded; Bucky loosed his death grip, and peered around.
"Where do we go?"
"There’s an office," Steve looked around, doubtfully.
The office was finally located in a cramped little room near the doorway, with wooden pigeonholes stuffed with scrolls lining the walls. The clerk of the court was slightly deaf, and seemed dubious of Steve’s bona fides.
"I’m a citizen," Steve repeated stubbornly. "I have the right to justice in the courts." He shoved his diploma forward. The clerk finally bent over it, and then gave Steve a sharp look. The diploma was unusually fine, with intricate patterning engraved around the edge and ornate lettering. And at the very bottom, the spread-eagle seal of the Emperor was carved in and picked out with poured silver. "I have a petition." Wanda had written it out for him in a cramped but neat hand on a sheet of papyrus Jan had provided; they'd said a written petition would look better. He'd carefully blocked in his name at the bottom.
"And is he a citizen too?" The clerk glanced at Bucky.
"No. Just me."
"Hm." He turned to the board on the wall, covered in tiny chalk notations. "We don't have many spaces on the docket this week."
Steve gritted his teeth. Too long, Natasha could have all their villas down.
"I would – greatly appreciate it if you could find a place for us," he said, in his most courteous voice and crisp accent, watching the clerk's eyes move over the board. He should have cut his hair, bought a toga, made himself look like a citizen of the Empire.
A young woman in the plain dark tunic and red sash of a page scurried up, eeling past them. She tugged on the clerk's sleeve, and he ducked his head to her.
"Really?" He glanced at Steve. "Another case has been defaulted. Could you present your case now?"
"One moment." He turned back to the girl, and gave her Steve's petition. "Tell them we have another case ready."
They waited, sitting on one of the uncomfortable benches set into the alcoves. The vestibule was cooler than the plaza, at least. It was all in shades of grey, the walls decorated with friezes of some unknown battle, stone figures rushing and tumbling.
Finally, they were ushered down a narrow hall, and into a room flooded with sunlight through unshuttered windows. Steve moved as directed to the plaintiff's bench, grabbing Bucky’s arm to pull him along.
All the courts of the Empire were more or less the same design. There was a wall that was adorned with an image of the Judge, a woman with sword and scales, either painted or sculpted or, as in this case, a tapestry. In front of that was the dais, with three couches for the judges to sit, and before that the wide square with the markings of the combat ring. And then, on the other side, the benches and tables for the litigants, with a clerk’s desk between them.
He’d heard that the Emperor’s court had space for an audience, and a gallery for the Emperor himself to observe the proceedings.
The judges were already in place; the chief judge, in the central position, was a woman with dark cropped hair in heavy slate-coloured tunic and toga. She had a faint resemblance to Jan in the sweeping curve of her eyelid over the dark irises.
Steve expected her to open the proceedings, but the first voice came from her right, from a pale man, hair as blond as Steve's, though in every other aspect he was the perfect urban gentleman, white toga falling into sculptural folds around him as he reclined on his couch, bearded chin resting on his fist as he studied Wanda's writing.
"And why are judging a village’s dispute with its prefect?" He had the light, crisp tones of an aristocrat; the voice that responded was so alike, Steve was momentarily convinced the man was arguing with himself.
"Privileges of citizenship, Greg." The third person on the dais was sprawled on his back, feet dangling from the end of his couch, toga spilling in a pile of the intense red that was the most expensive of colours. "You know that. Less grumbling, more dispensing of justice, and we can go home."
"Why would a citizen choose to live - "
Steve cleared his throat, and found himself the subject of two cool stares. Even after seven years away from the grounds of the arena, stares had no power to discomfit him.
"Stephanus, you petition us for redress against Natasha, prefect of your village," the woman began abruptly, and Steve scowled at her. Stephanus was, of course, the name on his diploma, but he’d signed Steve to the petition. "You say she has breached the conditions of your village’s tenancies?"
"Yes, ma'am. All the villagers have been in their tenancies for many years, and Natasha’s late husband confirmed them when he inherited the lands; she has no right to them! And the money she's offered to buy us off is a pittance. We would never be able to resettle, she’s offered us land that was forest two years ago, full of stumps." He paused for breath, looking from blank face to blank face. "She wants to take the good land we have rights to and make us live on poor land," he tried again. Didn’t city dwellers know anything? Didn’t they have farmlands?
"So you wish to lay a writ against her and have her account for herself."
"Yes, ma'am. I believe she's in the city now, at her domus."
"She is," the man in red sat up, revealing a face almost identical to the first judge who had spoke, but cast in gold and with unruly black hair. He opened his mouth to speak again, but his eyes caught on Steve and he stopped, mouth half open.
"Antonius?" the woman turned to look at him.
"She's..." He blinked, and then broke into a bright smile. "I saw her a few days ago, yes. She’s at her domus."
"Is it really necessary to drag a noble lady from her business to answer the complaints of a few disgruntled peasants?" The blond man sighed. "It seems to clog up the court unnecessarily. Surely we can judge the case now."
The sneer in the way he said peasants spoke clearly of a ruling against Steve's case, and he lowered his brows.
"I want a full hearing, as is my right," Steve said, loud and clear, and Antonius shrugged. He was still staring, as if he was searching for something in Steve.
"If you want."
"It’s wasting the court’s time." He - Greg? It had to be a nickname - dropped the petition. "We'll have to go through a full court - "
"Citizen, Greg," Antonius said, and got a shake of the head.
"Even citizens aren’t allowed to bring frivolous cases."
"We can’t decide it’s frivolous, though."
"At the request of a judge, a citizen must prove the case has merit to be heard." He turned to the woman. "Monica?"
"Well," the woman raised an eyebrow. "At your request, Gregorius. I assume your lady doesn’t join you in wanting this heard? No? Do you have three citizens to swear your case has merit?"
Janet, but she was only one and who knew who else he could find and how long it would take. He shook his head again.
"That leaves combat, then." Gregorius nodded to the clerk, who made a notation.
"Combat?" Antonius wrinkled his nose. "You expect a small village to be able to hire a champion?"
"Laws are laws, Tony. Our villagers may return when it has hired or otherwise acquired - "
"Now is fine," Steve interrupted. "I’ll do it."
The brothers turned identical expressions of surprise on him, and then shot glances at each other.
"You do understand the risks?" Monica said. "It’s not to the death, but you could be badly injured or killed by accident." Steve nodded sharply.
"Fine," Gregorius glared as if Steve were doing it to spite him. Well, Steve felt like spiting him. "Is the court champion present?"
"No," Antonius said. "Not due til after noon, he’s scheduled - "
"Not a problem; I can supply a champion." He gestured to one of the messenger standing silent against the walls. "Tell the Rhodian to attend me."
"Isn’t that overkill?" Antonius glanced at Steve. "Perhaps literally. Jimmy can be a little - "
"He’ll be a lot if he hears you calling him Jimmy. He’s here with me today, we can get this cleared up now."
"Monica?" Antonius scrunched round on his couch to look at her, and she shrugged.
"The judge may supply a champion if the court does not have one available."
"Hm," and Antonius leaned forward and beckoned to Steve. Steve ignored him, and after a moment Bucky darted forward to listen. Steve watched him nod, then nod, then shake his head, and Antonius sat back with an irritated expression as Bucky returned.
"The Rhodian is a professional gladiator," Bucky reported.
"Dancing attendance on a senator?" Steve glanced at the dais. Gregorius and Monica were still and patient as statues. Antonius had produced a jug and cup from somewhere about his person, and was pouring amber wine from one to the other.
"He owns a team of gladiators," Bucky said. "Are you sure - "
"I’m sure." It wasn’t as if their chances would improve with waiting; this was what they were here for, after all. If Steve couldn’t champion the village, they had no one.
"Will you give me odds?" Antonius said suddenly, settling back with his cup, and Gregorius cut a glance at him.
"You’re joking, of course."
"What, you want evens?"
"You want to bet on the villager? Are you drunk this early?"
"Citizen, Greg. Give me fifty to one, then." He raised his cup to his innocent smile, and Gregorius’ eyes narrowed.
"And you so sure?" Soft and taunting, a tone that made Gregorius’ eyes narrow. If they were brothers, it wasn’t an easy brotherhood.
"Twenty, then. A hundred?"
"Low for you."
"Not for you, at twenty to one." Antonius turned a cheerful grin on Steve, who looked away in time to see the Rhodian enter, bare feet slapping on the tiled floor.
He was big, dark, fierce looking. As tall as Steve, and almost as muscled. He wore plates of steel armour, and bands of metal around his fists.
"Armour?" said Antonius mildly, and Gregorius shrugged.
"The villager can wear armour if he has it. Thinking twice?"
Bucky retreated behind the table. It was bolted to the ground, which might help if two large men collided with it at speed. Steve unlaced his boots and kicked them off, dropped his pants, undid his belt, and stripped his loose tunic over his head before stepping into the square marked out in the tiles. He could feel eyes crawling over him, and he raised his chin and glared around impartially.
"I’ll raise to two hundred." Antonius was looking him up and down with blatant appreciation. After a second, Gregorius shook his head.
"The citizen Stephanus fights to prove the merit of his case against the patrician Natasha," Monica rattled off. "One fall. If you step outside the square, yield, or are pinned for a three-count." Or knocked out or killed, she didn't add. Steve nodded, and she took awhite bundle from a page, shook out a linen square and held it up. "May the Judge watch over this court; on my mark; fight." The square dropped, and they were both in motion before it landed.
The Rhodian was fast. Steve hadn't expected him to be so swift on his feet, but he was ready and spun neatly aside as the man charged him. He'd hoped overconfidence would lead to an over-extension, that he could help the man straight out of the square, but no. He turned on his heel and blocked Steve's kick before it could land.
Steve jumped backwards, deliberately a little clumsy, watching the Rhodian's feet. They betrayed his feint, and Steve dodged low and left, swung a punch that had no hope of connecting and turned it into a roll that brought him up far closer than the other man expected. He put a good, solid kick into the inner side of the Rhodian's knee, just as he was starting to turn, and he went down with a crunch. Steve didn't bother attempting a pin. He grabbed the ankle, braced his foot on the thigh, and pulled and twisted. The resultant crunch made him wince in sympathy, though only a muffled noise spilled out from the other's lips.
He stepped back, and waited out the three-count as the Rhodian curled silently around his knee. Two pages advanced to help him up, and he limped out without a glance at Steve.
Gregorius was as expressionless as a statue, Monica’s eyebrows were raised, but Antonius beamed at Steve.
"Magnificently done," he said. "Efficient."
"Efficient?" Gregorius snorted. "That was a maiming."
"Yes. An efficient maiming, though. I do hope Jimmy will be all right."
Steve turned his back to dress, ignoring the back and forth.
Monica cleared her throat as he was wrapping his feet, and he hopped round to look at her.
"You have proved your case has merit; your prefect will be summoned to answer the charges you have brought. Do you intend to act as your own champion?"
"Give your direction to the clerk; you'll need to come when summoned."
"Yes, ma'am." A warm flower of achievement blossomed in his chest; Bucky thumped him on the back, grinning.
Antonius beckoned to them again, but Steve made straight for the door.
They were late back for lunch, but the cook found them food, and they sat at the broad wooden kitchen table to eat it, huddled down at one end out of the way of the bustle. For all that the cook was a servant, Steve would not bet against a spoon across the knuckles if he somehow spoiled the dinner.
Steve left Bucky trying to charm sweetmeats out of the kitchen maid with tales of his adorable little girls, and wandered in search of Janet or Wanda. He heard Janet’s voice in the atrium, and turned towards it; too late, he identified the other voice, just barely familiar.
Steve halted in the doorway and two faces turned to him, Janet's bright smile and a lazy grin in a handsome face. Antonius. They were sitting on the rim of the reflecting pool, drinking wine.
"Steve, we were just talking about you." Janet beckoned him forward.
"I’m sure," Steve said sourly, and advanced slowly. Antonius was studying him with the same open interest he'd shown in the court, a slow sweep of his eyes from head to feet and back up.
"I’m here to invite you - and dear Jan and Wanda, of course, and your little friend - to a small party I’m having."
"How did you know I was here?"
"I have my ways," and that was no good. Had he had them followed? Spies at the gates? Who was he? An ally of Natasha’s, perhaps. He’d seemed to know her. "You’ll come, won’t you?" He got to his feet a little clumsily, stepping on the end of his toga and cursing softly, and then curled his hand familiarly round Steve’s upper arm. His breath was sweet with wine, and Steve wrinkled his nose.
"I don’t think I’ll have time for parties." He edged a little away, but Antonius tightened his grip. Steve’s skin was prickling with tension, at having someone so close, touching him as casually as if he were a lapdog.
"You must make time!" His smile was wide and infectious, as if Steve were his very favourite person in the world. It was odd; people were rarely so enthused about Steve’s existence. "You meet all the most... interesting people at parties, you know. Especially my parties."
"No," he said curtly, and Antonius’s smile dimmed a little, eyes widening with theatrical hurt. "I can’t. I’m busy. Excuse me." He turned aside, and took to the stairs, up through the few rooms of the second storey and then to the roof. It was an odd relief to be alone again, after so many days surrounded and busy.
He made himself comfortable on the cushions there and stared across the city. It hadn’t changed much, from here. There were more buildings built of brick and stone; the insulae were creeping right up to the walls of the inner city, crammed into every possible space. He could see right into the open side of a building, with workmen patiently building up the walls; it must be five floors high. It hardly seemed safe. It was almost high enough to overlook the palace, in that position. Another few years and surely six and seven floors would be peering down at the Emperor’s private gardens.
"Steve?" Janet mounted the steps, and put her hands on her hips. "There you are."
"Why did you let him in?" Steve growled, and slumped deeper into the cushions. Janet came over, and perched on the edge of a stool.
"Tony’s a friend of mine. He lectures on civil engineering at the school sometimes. Not my subject, but Wanda is interested in the mathematics."
"Oh." Well, there wasn’t anything bad he could say about a friendship built up over mathematics. Unlikely he was debauching Wanda over the abacus.
Janet tutted. "What now? Why don’t you like him?"
"He’s just another city-dwelling parasite, and - "
"I’m a city-dwelling parasite. And what else?"
Steve scuffed his foot across the roof, trying to find words for the disquiet Antonius sparked in him.
"I don’t like the way he looks at me." More honest than was wise, maybe, because Janet laughed at him.
"He does wear his heart on his sleeve, doesn’t he? Or not his heart, perhaps." Steve gave her a shocked look, and she patted his shoulder. "It’s all right, Steve, he’s not - you needn’t fret, he’s about as depraved as you’d imagine, but he only likes willing playmates, from what I hear. Just have a firm no ready and your virtue will remain untarnished."
Steve gave her his best outraged look; she wrinkled her nose at him, unabashed. She was used to that kind of behaviour, he supposed, for all she preferred a quieter life. It wouldn’t shock her.
"I don’t want to go to a party." He tried to suppress the whine, mostly successfully. The kind of party a drunken lecher had would not be the kind of party Steve would enjoy. In his fighting days, he’d heard rumours of the debauchery and destruction that went on at patrician parties.
"He’s trying to help, Steve," Janet leaned forward, clasping her hands together. "Didn’t you hear what he said? Interesting people. He may play the fool, but Tony knows everyone. You can’t punch your way through the whole court, you know. Natasha won't want to go to the ring if she realises who you are."
"I don’t want to - to make nice with - "
"I’m not suggesting you hop into bed with him," she said impatiently. "Just be polite, and let him flirt at you. He’ll like you enough unless you’re cruel to him; he’s a hard man to offend."
"I’m sure." Steve picked at the seam of a cushion. He wasn’t used to new people; the village was all familiarity, with only the occasional pedlar or wandering preacher. No one had looked at him like that in years. Janet glowered at him for a moment more, and then sighed.
"How did the hearing go, anyway? Tony said you fought?"
"Yes. One of Gregorius’s gladiators. Is he - "
"Twins? They’re not - "
"I think one of their grandmothers was a Northern woman," Janet said vaguely. "Gregorius takes after her, I suppose. But they do look alike; they just never have the same expression, and of course their colouring is so different. You had no trouble with the gladiator? Is that good?"
"I'd rather not have fought a professional first fight. The court has its own champions, who are hardly mighty warriors. It shows our hand, a little... but it could have been luck." And it was reassuring, to know that he still had the touch. For all his public confidence, there had been a lurking fear that he’d stumble, flinch, fall, that it would be quickly and ignominiously over and he would return home in defeat.
"Tony said you made it look easy; that it only took a few seconds."
"Not that quick… but it had to be quick. The longer I fought, the more obvious it would be that I knew what I was doing." And Gregorius kept a gladiator team, and would surely recognise that. "Perhaps Natasha won’t hear of it."
"Perhaps," Janet shrugged. "She’ll hear you fought, and won."
"Yes." She’d know that if she wanted to win the case, she’d need to spend good money on a champion. Perhaps she wouldn’t bother; perhaps she’d deem the expense not worth it, for a nice view from her villa.
"What will you do while you wait?"
"Bucky wants to see the city. We can take lodgings - "
"Don’t be like that, Steve. I like to have you here; I’ve missed you." A little ghost of a smile. "You were such a good friend to me, back then."
"It was nothing," he said hastily, but she shook her head.
"To me, it was everything." She reached out, took his hand, and squeezed it. "Let me do this little thing for you."
"If you want. I mean, I’m very grateful."
"You don’t have to be." She stood. "Please, let me know if there’s any more help I can give you."
Bucky woke him up early next morning, eager to tour the city. He was delighted by everything he saw. He touched everything, running his hands over the smooth lips of fountains, the water-bright surface of dark marble walls, even stooping to investigate the tightly-fitting bricks in different colours that paved the main streets.
They followed a little map Wanda had drawn for them to Natasha’s domus, which was sizeable and perfectly kept. There were urns on the portico full of flowering bushes, and there were windows with clear glass in them either side of the door.
"Well," Bucky said, shaking his head. "I don’t know why she cares about our village, when she has a place like this."
"Who knows?" Steve turned down the street. "Come on, there’s a square with sculptures of lions everywhere, you’ll like it."
They stopped in the plaza at lunchtime, eating unnamed and spicy meats threaded onto wooden skewers, interspersed with chunks of fruit. Bucky sat on the step that rose directly out of the river, and dangled his feet in the water, occasionally kicking up glittering sprays.
"Don’t blame me if you get some awful infection in your feet," Steve warned from two steps further up.
"People are swimming."
"They’re used to it. You’re not." Children in scant linen shifts were leaping into the water and scrambling out to leap again; boatmen swore at them and threatened them with oars. The water was cluttered with small boats all headed in different directions, and a few larger barges; they might look impressive, but they were limited to the main waterways, unable to access many of the smaller streets.
"How long do you think before we have to go back to the court?" Bucky
"We have to wait on her convenience." Steve ran his fingers through his hair, trying to get cool air on his neck. No wonder it was the fashion to wear hair short, here. "For all the talk about citizens being equal before the law, she’s a patrician, and she’s rich. So we kick our heels and wait."
"I want to get back to Gail," Bucky turned his head vaguely towards home, as if he could see through the walls. "You know what she’s like; she’ll be on her feet all day."
"She would be even if you were home, and snap at you for trying to wrap her in lambswool," Steve poked him gently in the ribs with his foot, and Bucky turned to grin up at him.
"Can we visit a temple for her? As we’re here. It can’t hurt."
"Yes, of course." Steve scrambled up, and Bucky rewrapped his wet feet, making a face. "I told you you’d regret it. Make sure you dry them out properly tonight, or your feet will rot."
The temple courts were their own district, though there were smaller shrines dotted through the city; they were as thronged as any other part of the city. The street peddlers sold candles and incense and little holy talismans. Steve towed Bucky firmly along before he could spend his small stash of coins on some piece of nonsense to guarantee a healthy birth.
"You know Gail doesn’t hold with that kind of nonsense," he said severely, and Bucky sighed. "Pay the singers to add her name to their songs. She’ll like that." Bucky’s brow puckered.
"I’m not sure - "
"Here - " Steve dug inside his tunic for his purse, and folded Bucky’s hand around one of his precious gold coins; his face lit up in a grin. Gail was not so young as she used to be, for all her glowing health. Better safe than sorry; gold would keep her name in their hymns for months.
"You go in - I have to go and - can you find your way back from here?"
"Of course I can."
"All right. Don’t buy anything! And make sure you give the money to one of the singers - they’ll all be pregnant women, don’t just hand it over to anyone who asks." Steve gave him a gentle push towards the pale marble pillars that marked the entrance to the Mother’s temple, and turned towards the temples of the Warrior.
Filled mostly with parents, praying for children; walking the lines of the floor-patterns, chanting the soft rhythm of supplication to the god. The occasional young man or woman walking with slow care, praying perhaps for a return to the field.
There were no choruses, as there were in many of the other temples; soldiers were rarely in the city, and many of the gladiators were slaves, unable to spend their time as they wished. Just the soft individual songs, overlapping and merging, each plaint to the God drowning in the others.
Steve skirted the outer orbit of the temple, his voice falling easily into a prayer learned by rote many years ago. He dipped his head to the closed door of the sanctuary as he passed, and paused to drop a coin in the offering bowl, under the watchful eyes of the temple guardians. The temple provided charity to the casualties of war; Steve could think of worse things to spend his money on.
He completed his circuit, and glanced around. Intent faces, carefully placed feet, voices sounding the rhythm precisely. Could they feel the God’s presence, here? There were paintings on the walls, battles, single combats, men and women armed and bare-handed, clad in elaborate armour or naked. The smell of incense assaulted his nose; he'd never come here, back then. After a silent while, he left, feeling as empty as he had when he came in.
He turned his steps towards the amphitheatre. Most afternoons, Janet had told him, Antonius and Gregorius could be found at the amphitheatre. It was a strange experience, to approach it from the outside, to be carried along in the swarm of humanity, through tall walls and up narrow stairs. Not at its busiest, today, sales were taking place; Steve could pass easily through the sections, heading towards the broader steps where awnings were pitched and guards were posted. Time to see if Antonius’ interest would last more than a day.
Gregorius’ blond head was easy to pick out, his eyes fixed on the arena; Antonius was beside him, apparently more interested in surveying the crowds. Steve climbed the steps, and waited until Antonius’ restless eyes turned in his direction. Then he waved. His height generally served to pick him out from the crowd, and so it was today; Antonius bounced upright in his seat and beckoned. Steve was permitted into the roped-off area, and after some shuffling about, he was seated between Antonius and Gregorius on their cushions, in the shade of a canvas awning that kept the glare off. Gregorius’ light skin had to be prone to burn this far south; Steve’s nose and cheeks already felt tight and scratchy.
"Where’s your little friend?" Antonius leaned up against him to speak directly into his ear, breath a warm buzz. He was wearing scent of some kind, a woody sort of smell, which was just the kind of ridiculous habit Steve might have expected him to have.
It smelled good, though. Wine on his breath again, honeyed today.
"At the temples; he’s going to be a father again."
"A devout man, how nice. And you?"
"Devout?" Steve cast a doubtful look at Antonius’s smirk. He didn’t look like a man who paid great adherence to holiness, but you could never really tell. He was shaking his head now.
"No, a father."
"No. I’m not married."
"Well, some people find it hard to give up the carefree bachelor life," Antonius said. Steve opened his mouth for a sharp rejoinder, and then realised he was being teased. Antonius chuckled, the tickle of breath sending a shiver down Steve’s spine, and tapped his fingers on Steve’s wrist. "Gregorius’s thinking of buying that one," and it took Steve a moment to turn his attention to the ring, where a towering man was fighting two smaller foes.
The two weren’t working in concert at all, each willing to let the other take the risks; easy enough for the tall man to split them off, take one down with a solid kick to the gut so that she fell down, vomiting. Then he turned to charge the other, who bolted across the sand.
"What do you think of him?" Gregorius turned his blue eyes on them, a shock of coolness in the smouldering heat.
"He’s strong and fast," Antonius turned his head to watch the chase, his fingertip drawing an idle circle on the inside of Steve’s wrist. Steve turned his hand over, but the pattern just expanded to take in the back of his hand, making the fine hairs there stand up. "Smooth moving, very easy, good form. What do you think, Steve?"
"No killer instinct," Steve said automatically, and squeezed his hands together, brushing off Antonius’s touch. Instinct, to look for a gladiator's weakness; that one was untrained, and too ready to be gentle, hesitating when his opponent fell to the floor and vomited. Steve would have taken the opportunity to kick her in the throat. Probably an officer, or even just a local brawler - not a line soldier, wherever he was from.
"Oh?" Antonius’s hand dropped to rest on Steve’s knee. The woollen pants he wore were damp with sweat, but Steve had to be glad for them; in a city-dweller’s linen tunic and sandals, Antonius’ hand would have been on bare skin.
"He should have finished off the fallen. Look, she’s up now." Vomiting over, there were two of them again, though the big man didn’t seem fazed. "The arena’s no place for mercy."
"Not at all?" Antonius squeezed his knee. "That’s why the Rhodian’s currently nursing a - what was it again?"
"Something’s torn in the knee," Gregorius said coolly. "The physicians predict a full recovery."
"Mercy is for when you’ve won. Not before." Everyone’s luck ran out in the end; Steve had no intention of playing into fortune’s hands. When his opponents went down, they stayed down.
"We do try to leave our gladiators alive at the end of the fight," Gregorius’ eyes were still fixed on the fight. "They're so expensive, you know."
"Didn’t used to be the case, of course," Antonius squeezed again.
"Wasteful," Gregorius shrugged, "But of course during wartime there are so many more slaves."
"Oh, oh look, it's Carolina," Antonius elbowed Steve. "Look, there. She's the tribunus celerum."
"The what?" A woman in severe black robes, with heavy blond hair pulled back from her face, was walking along the lower steps, a clerk in her wake. There was a certain lithe grace to her carriage that convinced Steve she was a fighter of some kind, or had been.
"The celeres - the Emperor’s personal legion. She commands it. Back soon," and Antonius plunged off downwards. The way she spun on light feet at the sound of his footsteps confirmed Steve’s belief she’d been a warrior. At the sight of Antonius she relaxed all through, though her face took on a stern look. She settled herself on a step, and Antonius crouched next to her, leaning forward to murmur to her. Her body inclined a little towards him, and she didn’t shake off the hand he put on her shoulder.
Gregorius turned his head towards Steve, and surveyed him slowly, from head to feet. Steve concentrated on breathing evenly, feeling the dust in the air drying his throat.
"An impressive performance in the court," he said finally, and Steve nodded.
"I was lucky, of course." Be nice, Jan had said. "My opponent was very skilled."
Not skilled enough, though; as out of practice as Steve had been, it should have been much more of a struggle. Farming, of course, kept the muscles in shape, and he had enough skill and money that even when the harvest was poor, he could hunt or buy enough food.
And whatever it was inside him that whispered this, this, this is how you kill him hadn't changed, the vicious instinct hadn't gone.
But still, he was out of practice and a professional gladiator should have been more of a challenge.
Laughter rose up, and Steve looked down to see that Tony had rolled several steps down, and was sprawled out looking plaintively up at Carolina, who had her hand over her mouth in horror or laughter. He stood, and bowed to her very politely, and then came trotting back up the stairs to settle in pressed up against Steve's side.
"Can you go nowhere without becoming a public exhibition?" Gregorius said tiredly.
"People expect it from me; you know that. I made an improper suggestion." Antonius grinned, and curled his hand around Steve’s wrist and tugged until Steve turned to look at him. "She used to belong to me, you know. I bought her for a dancing girl, but she can't dance. I didn’t mind - she’s so beautiful, she could just stand and be looked at - but she glared me into submission. She’s not as sweet and docile as she looks."
"I see." To Steve’s eye, Carolina looked about a docile as a wildcat; still, by the way Antonius was treating Steve, he took glares as open encouragement.
"So I ended up owning my own gladiator, and terrifying it was too. I don’t know how Greg does it; I had to let go of her in the end, my nerves couldn't take the strain."
"I would have bought her," Gregorius frowned. "It was a waste."
"You know I hate selling people."
"What did you do with her?" Steve asked.
"Oh, I freed her. She fought two seasons more, went to work for the Emperor, and then he made her tribune and she was far too high-class for my attentions."
"That’s because you’re a joke." Gregorius spared him a glare.
"Senator joke, thank you Greg." A muscle flicked in Gregorius’ jaw, as if Antonius’ Senatorship was a personal affront. It was a little unusual, for two brothers to sit; which was the older?
"The Emperor may find you useful, but he takes you as seriously as anyone else. Which is to say, not at all, and if Carolina took up with you she’d be a joke too." Steve was a little taken aback by such open rudeness; but Antonius just grinned, apparently unbothered.
"She might defend my reputation," Antonius offered, and Gregorius gave a derisive laugh. Antonius pouted, and then knocked his knuckles against Gregorius’ arm. "She's here on the Emperor’s behalf; for the blond archer."
"Oh?" Gregorius’s blond eyebrows rose.
"She doesn’t know why. Maybe the Emperor's bored of hand-to-hand and swordfights? Wants to shake it up a bit."
"Hard to keep it non-lethal with an archer." Gregorius frowned. "If we're going to shift back towards deaths..."
"We don't have the numbers. Now we're not campaigning, the flow of slaves is drying up." Antonius shrugged. "Unless our dear Emperor plans to invade somewhere?" Gregorius ignored the question, still lost in thought.
"There was no real skill in the old fights. They were just blood carnivals, no skill."
"They were on the gory side." Antonius wrinkled his nose. "I threw up at one once. But the crowds like blood, in general. Don't they, Steve?"
Steve shrugged. They didn't know he'd been a gladiator, after all, and to snap at Gregorius would be to give himself away. No skill, indeed.
"Is that your archer?" he said instead. The archer was blond, light on his feet in dark leathers which had to be roasting him. He carried a bow almost as long as he was tall, and had the broad powerful shoulders typical to his discipline. Steve watched him fire, again and again, at targets, at apples thrown in the air, at rabbits released into the arena. He never missed.
"Impressive," Antonius wrapped his hand round Steve’s wrist again. "Don’t you think?"
"If he can do it under pressure," Steve said.
Carolina won the bidding. For all his skill, there wasn't much competition.
"Who needs a trick archer?" Gregorius shrugged. "We'll wait and see what use the Emperor puts him to. Perhaps he'll just put on shows to amuse the crowds. What's next, Antonius?"
"Horses!" Antonius moved his hand back to Steve's knee. "Do you know anything about horses?"
"No," he tried to move Antonius' hand, but fingers tangled with his and squeezed.
"I have a chariot team. For the races." He didn't look particularly upset when Steve finally shook his hand off, just patted his arm.
"Do you need new horses?" Gregorius sounded exasperated.
"Well, no. But if I buy them, my competitors can't."
"That sounds like an expensive way to win," Steve failed to sound anything but disapproving. Antonius just grinned.
"Very. But I like horses."
"I don’t think I’ll stay," Gregorius said, and rose to his feet.
"I should be going too," Steve got up, and Antonius stood with him.
"Like Greg said, I don’t need any more horses." He trailed Steve along the step towards the exit.
Gregorius gave them a brusque nod before getting into a sedan chair that carried him away. His carriers were older men, heavily muscled; Steve would peg them as ex-gladiators.
"Let me take you back to Jan," Antonius said. "It’s on the way."
"No it isn’t."
"It is by boat!" Antonius put a hand in the small of his back and ushered him firmly towards the landing stage. Steve let himself be moved, trying not to twitch at the hand on his back. It wasn’t as if Antonius was going to stick a knife in him.
He was surprised to step into a small, neat boat with a low sail. There were cushions at the prow, and a low awning to provide shade. Antonius draped himself over the side and dabbled his fingers in the water as the boat slipped neatly out from between the larger vessels.
"I thought you’d have one of those fancy barges." Steve nodded at such a barge, which was so covered in intricately carved wood and gilding that it resembled a huge piece of jewellery.
"Well, I do have one," Antonius confided, casting a look back over his shoulder. "Nicer than that one, too. I could take you out on it, if you like; dancing girls, and a naked young man to wave a fan at you and another to feed you grapes. But it gets so crowded on the river; this one can nip through gaps and get along nice and quick."
"And yet we’re going very slowly," Steve said dryly.
"No wind." Antonius told the atrocious lie with a broad smile, which only widened when Steve looked pointedly at the flapping banner atop the mast. "The wrong kind of wind! Come look in the water, sometimes you can see fish."
"Fish? In this river?" Steve joined him, and stared down into the water; Antonius promptly shifted so his shoulder pressed against Steve's.
"It’s… quite clean," he said grudgingly, and Antonius’s head bobbed.
"Isn’t it? Sewers. And harsh punishments for tipping your rubbish in it. This is new, of course; when I was appointed to the sanitary commission - "
"The sanitary commission?"
"Yes, it was supposed to be a sort of internal exile! Gregory arranged it, when our father died. I suppose he thought it would be funny, sending me sifting through the city's shit. The sewers were half-clogged and falling down, what there were of them." He made a horrible face. "The hours I spent wading through lakes of piss, let me tell you. Suited my mood, at the time. But I fixed it. Now, no villa is more than fifty paces away from an outlet where they can dispose of their waste. I had half the city roads up in the end, but it’s worth it; the place smells so much better now."
"I'm surprised they let you."
"I did it in the poor quarter first, and after a year was deluged with complaints; why did all the fancy areas still smell like shit?" He grinned. "Best way to do anything. After the sewers, I went to work on the canals. We haven't had a major outbreak of disease in three years, and Emperor Nicolas appointed me to the Senate. I thought Gregorius was going to catch fire with rage; the last Emperor, of course, didn’t give a fig for the sewers."
"Hm." That was a relief; he’d started to think the cleanness of the city wasn’t new, and he’d been remembering it browner and dirtier. He trailed a hand cautiously in the cool water; the broken water was clear and sparkling in the sunlight.
Steve felt a touch on his cheek, and shook his head to brush it off. It persisted, and resolved into the feel of fingers, sliding carefully into his hair.
"Stop that." But Antonius just hummed under his breath.
"Your hair is a much finer yellow than Greg's," he tugged gently. "His is like straw. Yours is all soft and the colour of sunlight."
Steve turned his head to say something sharp, but the words died on his lips as he found himself nose to nose with Antonius. His eyes weren't brown, Steve realised. They were a very dark, intense blue, shadowed by thick black lashes.
"You smell good," he said, and Steve flushed and jerked away. Antonius’s hand came to rest on his throat, over the pulse. "Why don’t we carry right on to my domus? I’d like to see you naked again."
Steve’s throat closed, and he couldn't think of anything but the warmth of skin against his. Antonius took silence as encouragement, and lifted his hand to cup Steve’s cheek, ran a thumb over his lower lip. No one ever touched him so casually, so familiarly.
"You have a lovely mouth," he murmured. "Do you know, I don’t think I’ve seen you smile yet?"
"Stop it," Steve’s voice suddenly returned to him, and he slapped Antonius’s hand away. "Don’t touch me."
Antonius sat back, and Steve felt like he could breath again. He sat up, turning half-away from him, and shot a glance at the boatman, who was paying them no mind. Presumably, he knew better than to gawp as his master played his games.
"Gregorius has more influence than I do," Antonius remarked. Steve didn't answer; after a moment, Antonius' toes poked at his ankle. "Be nice to him; he might like you. Say nice things about his gladiators."
"It's all a game nowadays," Steve said shortly, and moved his feet away when Antonius’ foot hooked round his ankle. "His gladiators have never seen a real fight."
"Well, don't tell him that." Antonius sprawled out again, at a respectable distance. "Would you like to hear more about the sewers?"
"Do you know Natasha?" There was a pause, and Steve turned to look at him; he was frowning up at the sky.
"I don’t think she’s ever been in a sewer."
"You do know her, though," Steve pressed, and Antonius made a face.
"Yes. Very beautiful and charming and intelligent. Anything in particular you’d like to know?"
Antonius was silent for the rest of the journey, full lips pressed together in not quite a frown. They stopped at the water-door to Jan's domus, and Antonius grabbed his sleeve when he tried to get out.
"Are you coming to my party?"
"I suppose so," and when his face lit up in a smile, Steve added, "Jan says I have to."
"She's very clever. You should listen to her." Antonius grabbed his hand and pressed a kiss to his wrist; Steve jerked back and then turned to the door, feeling his face heat.
Bucky was quite ready to attend a party; Jan found them clothes, which Steve suspected must have been her ex-husband's. Bucky had to have the hem pinned up some way, but was entirely satisfied with himself in yellow and black velvet. Steve fitted very well into red silk, and let Janet arrange his blue toga around his shoulders.
"You know the way?" Janet said, and Steve nodded. "I can call a boat - "
"No need. Not leaving yet, anyway." Steve glanced up at the sky. "Not even sundown."
"By sundown everyone will be drunk," Wanda said sternly. "You need to talk to people while they’re still upright."
"Soon." Steve swallowed. An unaccustomed nervousness was creeping over him. Antonius would no doubt try touching him again, make invitations, and Steve didn’t quite feel prepared to deal with that.
"Don’t be a baby," Janet said. "Smile nicely at Tony, and don’t break his fingers, and he’ll introduce you to people. Be nice. Make friends."
"Right." Steve tugged at the tunic, and Janet slapped his hand away. "I can do that."
They arrived just before sundown. Antonius’s domus was small, but blazed with light and noise from every door and window. There was no doorwarden, and Steve and Bucky entered unopposed.
Steve shouldered through the throng, who all seemed to be talking and laughing far too loudly, faces dark with drink in the lamplight.
Antonius, unsurprisingly, was also drunk. He reeled up happily against Steve, and rubbed his cheek against Steve’s shoulder in greeting. Steve stepped pointedly back, and then had to catch him and set him on his feet as he almost fell over.
"Thank you, precious," he chirped. "You look delicious. Did Jan find that for you? I’ll have to thank her. She knows red is my favourite colour."
"Does she," Steve said flatly. Antonius’ hair was on end, and there were red marks on his throat. It might have been wiser to come to the party earlier; they could have made their escape by now.
"And it looks so good on you. Your mouth..." Antonius trailed off, cocking his head to one said, gaze fixed on Steve’s mouth. Steve could feel his cheeks starting to burn. "What was I doing?"
"Annoying me," Steve responded, and then winced. Antonius pouted at him.
"Oh, fine. Come and - I want you to meet some people..." he twined his arm around Steve’s and tried to take his hand. "Come and meet Samuel. You'll like Sam."
Steve looked round for Bucky, but he’d vanished into the crowd. He sighed, and let Antonius tug him forward to be presented to a dark-skinned man in a white tunic and bronze-coloured toga, his hair clipped close to his skull. He was impeccably neat, with gold at his wrists and neck. He swung his feet down from the couch, and tipped his head toward the space; Steve sat beside him, and Antonius patted him on the head before wandering off.
"Steve, is it? Antonius mentioned you to me. Some kind of legal case." Steve swallowed irritation. This was opportunity, exactly what he was here for; he should be grateful to Antonius.
"It's simple enough. We have agreements, and she's refusing to honour them; trying to evict us unjustly."
"Well, that sounds uncomplicated." Samuel gave him a small smile. "And your local court?"
"Corrupt," he felt his jaw flex. "They ruled we had no true right to the land, that the agreements her husband did not bind her."
"She’s the prefect?"
"Her husband was; she inherited the prefecture as his next of kin, for her husband had no children."
"She hasn’t had her appointment formally granted?" Steve shook his head, and Samuel’s eyes narrowed. "So, then, if she holds the position only by inheritance and not by Imperial grant, the old agreements continue."
"That’s the custom." Steve half-turned towards him; the room was noisy, and someone in the next room was singing. "The court agreed with her that it’s custom, not law, and the agreements don’t bind on her, any more than if she were a new appointment."
Samuel’s eyelids dropped a little, and his brows drew together. "That’s certainly an unusual decision." He tapped his fingers on his goblet. "I’m not sure I like the precedent it sets, either. Inheritance of administrative positions is - well, it makes for smoother transitions of power, often, saves a great deal of time, especially the Emperor’s time." He flashed a sudden grin at Steve. "The Emperor’s time, of course, being the most precious commodity of the Empire; which is why even Nicolas, who likes to hold the reins of every chariot, allows such positions to pass down unchecked. But they’ve always been treated, legislatively, as extensions of the old appointment, so no major changes in policy can be enacted without some form of Imperial notice. Yes, it would be best if this were heard in the Senatorial courts."
Steve gave Samuel a grin that must be foolish; it was a relief, to hear someone talk with authority of his case, to say he had a case. Samuel smiled back, a quirk of his mouth like he was sharing a private joke with Steve.
"But she'll try to get your case thrown out, if it's been tried in the provincial courts."
"Can she do that?" Surely he’d dealt with that? How many escape routes were there?
"If she gets all the judges to agree. Who will they be?"
"I don't know." Steve rubbed his hands together. Would they be the same three? Antonius would probably take his part, he had so far - if Steve didn’t antagonise him. Be nice, Janet had told him. Make friends. "Why are you here?"
"Why?" Sam’s eyebrows rose. Perhaps that had been too brusque. "Tony invited me. I like Tony."
"He makes me laugh. He’s very clever. And he always has the best wine." Samuel shrugged. "And everyone comes to Tony’s parties. It does you good to get out once in a while."
"Are you," Steve looked him up and down again. The gold jewellery he wore was heavy and ornate, his tunic fine white linen. "A Senator?"
"Consul," and a dimple appeared at the corner of his mouth; no doubt at Steve’s dropped jaw. "I told you, everyone comes to Tony’s parties."
"Well, I - " Steve looked away, and back, and felt a flush touch his cheeks, but ploughed on. "If you’re consul, and you want to see this case tried - "
"I couldn’t possibly interfere with the running of the courts," Samuel said smoothly. "However, I’m sure that whoever the judges are will see the necessity of this case being tried, if you point out the precedent it sets."
"Oh. Oh, Thank you. Yes."
Slim strong hands came down on Samuel’s shoulders, and Carolina bent to murmur in his ear. His face turned grave for a second, and then he nodded and rose. He raised a hand to Steve, and then vanished into the crowd. She gave Steve a perfunctory smile, and he swallowed, and reached out to touch her wrist before she could turn away.
"Can I - " he had to speak loud above the hubbub, and that was no good. He patted the couch, and she arched an eyebrow before hopping over the low back of the couch and settling where Samuel had sat. She wasn’t wearing a toga, just a tunic of fine golden silk that draped alluringly over her curves. Steve kept his eyes firmly on her face; back home, you’d never see quite so much of a woman. She was looking at him with wary scepticism.
"I want to get into the arena," he blurted.
"As a gladiator?" she ran her eyes over him, frowning. Her hair had come unpinned, a golden tumult. He could see why Antonius had wanted her for his own; she was almost unrealistically beautiful, like a sculpture of a goddess.
"No, not – into the amphitheatre, underground. The shrine there."
She looked at him sharply.
"I – dedicated there."
Her eyes were very blue; she studied him for a long, quiet minute before shrugging.
"Why not? I’ll be at the amphitheatre tomorrow morning, if you want to come." She rose, and vanished into the crowd, and Steve stared at her back view, her graceful spine exposed almost to the waist, until it was lost in the crowds. Then he shoved his way out into the garden, in the hope that the night air would cool his blush.
The garden was small, a neat flagstoned court surrounded by a colonnade. Steve found a low bench to sit on at the end furthest from the villa, surrounded by flowers. He could hear water lapping; the water door to the domus must be near.
He took a few breaths, and wondered, vaguely, where Bucky had gotten to. Hopefully not into trouble. Really, Steve should find him and leave. He’d talked to a consul. That would surely please Janet, and he couldn’t try and make friends with every person of importance in the city. If he left now, Antonius wouldn’t have a chance to proposition him again, and he could avoid all that awkwardness.
He didn’t move, though. The garden was pleasant, the smells reminding him of the village, walking along lanes by hedgerows filled with flowers. They were interspersed with statues here, though… he narrowed his eyes on a pale shape in the darkness.
"Who’s there?" he said curtly, and the shape drifted forward and resolved into Gregorius. "What - " he bit off the question, there was no reason the man shouldn’t be at his own brother’s party.
"Ah, Stephanus." Gregorius sat down beside him, and Steve eyed him, trying to make out his expression in the dim light. "I wanted to speak to you."
"Not here. Come and see me tomorrow," Gregorius said. "Around noon. You can join me for lunch. Alone, please."
Get lost trembled on Steve’s lips, but Gregorius was a judge and it was more than Steve’s fate at stake.
They sat, Gregorius apparently untroubled by the silence, until the sound of sandalled feet on the flagstones disturbed it. Steve felt oddly relieved to see Antonius. He was simple, at least.
"Oh, there you are," Antonius’ voice sounded as if he were smiling; it was hard to tell with the light behind him. He’d lost his toga somewhere along the way, standing in only his deep red tunic. Gregorius rose to his feet.
"I was just going to come looking for you; I have to be going."
"Of course you do." He clapped Gregorius on the shoulder as he passed, then turned to watch him leave. Only when he’d vanished into the villa did Antonius plop to the floor at Steve's feet.
"He always leaves when it starts to get exciting," he confided. "Your friend is learning how to play the tambourine from a woman with no clothes on, by the way. He’s not very good at it, but he is a bit distracted."
"You're drunk," Steve said in what were meant to be admonishing tones, but came out rather amused. Antonius looked endearingly silly with his elbows on his knees and his chin on his crossed wrists. He could also, apparently, sense tolerance for his foolishness, because he scuffled closer.
"Are you getting on with Gregorius?"
"Yes." Well, he was. He’d been very polite.
"Not too well, I hope. I saw you first."
"No you didn't." Steve bit his lip to suppress a grin. Antonius didn’t need any encouragement.
"Did. Gregorius wasn't even interested in gladiators then." Steve could just make out his wide eyes, light glinting off their liquid surface, wide and earnest.
"When?" Steve said slowly. Surely he couldn’t mean -
"When we were younger," Antonius said vaguely. "I made him come see you, but he didn't like it back then. Thought it was messy. And it was, of course. But you were very pretty even covered in blood." He dropped a hand to Steve's ankle, spreading his hand up along the calf muscle. "You have nice legs."
Steve leaned down to grab his wrist before the hand could wander further. Antonius promptly released Steve's ankle and took a firm hold of his hand. Of course Steve could break free; perhaps it would be rude. After all, he wasn’t supposed to antagonise anyone. He stayed where he was, not quite at eye-level with Antonius.
"I remember you all tiny and skinny," Antonius said surprisingly. "I won money on you, fighting the man with the green plumed helmet."
"That was my first fight." Antonius had recognised him? "You bet on me? Why would you do that?"
"I felt sorry for you. You were just my age, and you were going to get torn apart. But you didn't." He grinned, teeth gleaming white in the darkness.
"No, I didn't." His opponent had underestimated him, and Steve had taken full advantage of that. It hadn't been a clean death, because the dagger he'd been given wasn't long enough to reach any vital organs. His first kill in the arena; not by any means his last. It had been quite the upset, and Antonius must have gotten excellent odds. "You were a fool, to bet on me."
"I won, though." Antonius squeezed his hand. "I always bet on you after that, though the odds got shorter and shorter. And once you stamped on a man’s head and it split and I was sick. It was disgusting." He stuck his tongue out and crossed his eyes. Steve vaguely remembered that fight; his sandals had needed replacing.
"Did you know it was me in the court? When you bet on me?"
"Not until after the fight. I just..."
"Felt sorry for me?" he said dryly, and Antonius laughed.
"I won, though. I knew when I saw you move; I’ve never seen anyone else move quite like you." His thumb brushed over Steve’s pulse. "It’s beautiful. Do you like my domus?"
"It's not very big," and that showed how strange city standards were; it must be as big as two or three of Bucky and Gail's cosy farmhouse. Antonius grinned, surprisingly.
"It is, isn't it? Gregorius' the older, so he got the family domus along with almost everything else, and I couldn't live with him. I’d buy a bigger one, but they're hard to come by in the city. I even offered to buy Jan’s, but she likes being so close to the school. I'm building a villa out of town, instead." He rubbed his thumb gently over the pulse in Steve's wrist. "You should come out and see the site, sometime."
"You don't need two homes." Not that it was uncommon; still, no one needed two places to live. It was ridiculous and unnecessary.
"Do too." Antonius wrinkled his nose. "You said yourself it was small. And then I can get out of the city sometimes."
"You don't like the city?"
"I love it. It's the centre of the world. But I don't want to be here all the time." He pulled Steve’s hand up, and inspected it with great attention before planting a kiss on the patch of skin between thumb and forefinger. Steve pulled firmly away.
"Don’t do that."
"I like you, though. Why don’t you come see me tomorrow evening, when the party’s cleaned up and I’m over my hangover, and I’ll take you to bed?" He said it as simply as Gregorius had offered lunch; and for a moment Steve wondered if it would be better to say yes to this too, let Antonius have his way.
No, though. Antonius was a known libertine, from what Janet had said, and a figure of amusement, and going to his bed would only cause whispers and laughter. It would hardly help Steve be taken seriously.
Antonius leaned forward, very slowly, until his nose was brushing Steve’s. Then he grinned.
"Well, if you change your mind." He dabbed a kiss on the end of Steve’s nose and jumped to his feet before Steve could bat him away. "Come back inside. You can’t mope out here in the garden; listen to the music, if you refuse to play nicely."
There was indeed music, set aside from the raucous party, a professional looking band with pipes and lyres and tambourines. Antonius found Steve a quiet corner to settle in, and then wandered off. Music was a rare treat. A few people in the village played pipes, but no one had a lyre, and travelling musicians were rare, so Steve shut his eyes and soaked it up. It was well past midnight when wrong notes started to creep in, lured no doubt by the many cups of wine the musicians had downed.
"We're going," he told Bucky, who was slightly unsteady on his feet and sharing wine with Antonius. "Good-bye, Antonius."
"Bye Steve," and he bounced to his feet and threw his arms around Steve’s neck to plant a damp kiss on his cheek. "Unless you’d like to stay, I - "
"Goodbye," Steve said firmly, peeling Antonius off him and putting him back against the wall. He watched them leave with a dopey smile; when Steve looked back from the bottom of the steps, he could still see him watching.
"You’ve made a friend," Bucky tried to elbow him, and almost fell over. Steve grunted and tried not to look embarrassed, taking a firm hold on Bucky’s arm. If he rolled into a canal, Steve would have to go in after him, and the clothes Janet had lent them would be ruined. "He was asking me about you."
"He's nosy." They walked on a few more paces before Steve gave in. "What did he ask?"
"What you did. What you liked. If you had a lover."
"Typical," Steve shook his head, and thought about Carolina's hair, all loose and shining. Had Antonius taken her to bed? Did he like golden hair? Just a taste for the exotic, perhaps, northern skin and hair an oddity to him.
"Are you going to - "
"Of course not."
"Of course not." A few more steps. "Just, if you wanted to - "
"Not with him, maybe, but you know, it’s a big city." Bucky leaned heavily against him, and Steve wondered if it would be quicker to carry him.
"What are you saying?"
"Maybe it’s time? It’s been a long time since, you know." Bucky stopped dead in the street, and dug in his heels when Steve tried to pull him along. "Steve, don’t you get lonely?"
"No," Steve lied. "Come along."
"I worry, and Gail worries.
"Well, we do."
"All right," Steve said, and Bucky stared at him blankly. Steve gave his arm another tug, and Bucky shambled into motion again.
Bucky buried his head under his pillow and whimpered when the sun hit him next morning. Steve didn't have the heart to roust him out.
He got a boat to take him to the amphitheatre; creeping up the dark channel to the gladiator’s arch made his skin crawl, but he felt strangely calm. Not like coming home, but coming back to a long-familiar battleground.
"I’m here to meet Carolina," he told the clerk, and was passed through into the inner chambers, lit with torches.
Carolina was in the inner ring, the rooms directly under the ringside benches, where sunlight slanted in from narrow windows. She was with a vaguely familiar man; Steve didn’t place him until he saw the archer’s bandaging on wrist and fingers.
"Fuck you," the archer said, and Carolina rolled her eyes.
"You don’t like it in the arena, Hawkeye, there’s shit-shovelling, mining, dancing naked on bars."
"Sure," and his head dipped. "Fuck you anyway."
Steve scraped his sandal against the floor, and both blond heads snapped up.
"Good day, Steve," Caroline said after a moment, and he nodded. "I’ll just be a moment. Things have come up."
Hawkeye’s eyes narrowed on him, clearly puzzled. Steve was wearing the toga again today, an armour of rank, but his shaggy hair and his paleness marked him as different in this city. He spoke, in a soft unfamiliar tongue Steve didn’t recognise, and Steve shrugged. Carolina tapped him firmly on the knee.
"Not that language."
"Fuck you," he said for the third time, and Carolina sighed.
"Maybe we’ll teach you some new words."
The arena chapel was underground, hollowed out deep under the ring; the tunnel leading to it was lined with tight-fitting brick in honeycombed arches.
Caroline froze when they were almost there, throwing out a hand.
"They’re not done yet," she breathed. "They’re supposed to be gone - "
Steve lifted his head; he could hear murmuring ahead, see the flicker of a torch in the chapel proper. Then the sounds of rustling, and a deep laugh; and Carolina took his arm and tugged him forwards and sideways into a little anteroom, where candles were stacked, and plunged her torch into the sand to extinguish it.
The flickering light of another torch passed, and Carolina shrank back further. The fire lit up the dark curve of a cheekbone, a black-skinned man with his face turned away. The narrow band around his bare skull to secure the eyepatch sent realisation sparking through Steve even before he noted the Imperial purple of the toga, thick bands of gold embroidery glittering in under the flame.
Another figure in gold beyond him, four or five people shuffling after, but Steve shut his eyes. The last time he’d seen the Emperor had been seven years ago; he hadn’t been happy. Steve would rather not be caught by him spying on his devotions.
The light retreated down the passageway; Steve blinked into darkness, and felt Carolina shift against him, and then she stepped into the passage and he heard flint on steel.
"What was he doing here?" He felt unaccountably annoyed; of course, the shrine had never truly been his, but - "The palace has a chapel."
"This is the oldest altar to the Warrior in the city. He prefers it to the newer ones."
"I didn’t know he was so devout." The torch caught, and Carolina juggled it into her hand from its place clasped between her knees.
"He’s very, very devout." She turned down the passage. The chapel itself was domed and musty, and unguarded. The altar was roughly cut with a flat top. Carolina lit the candles, which were still smoking from the Emperor’s presence. The room smelled strongly of some kind of woody scent.
"Did you," Steve paused. "Were you - " he gestured to the altar.
"Dedicated? Yes. One of the last; the Emperor put a stop to it. It’s not how they do it in his homeland, so now it’s not how we do it here." She shrugged. "It makes no difference to me."
Steve had first been here over a dozen years ago, a skinny furious runt captured in war. He’d been dragged down here the night before his first fight and marked with oil and blood on his brow and wrists, a consecration to the God. An offering; a sacrifice, win or lose.
He’d looked at the crude carvings on the walls and believed in the God. And the next day he’d won his fight.
Before that, he’d been a water-carrier, a weapon-sharpener, a lookout. He’d tagged along with Bucky to the wars because he wouldn’t be left behind, and then he’d been captured, and sold, and resold, and finally sold to the city as disposable arena fodder. And then…
Was he different, after that consecration? Or was he just desperate and cornered?
"You’re not - " he shifted, restlessly, unable to find words. "It didn’t make a difference to you? In you?"
"These are not my gods," she said flatly. "The Gods of the Empire are empty vessels. They don’t even have names."
He stared at her milk pale skin, her ice-blue eyes.
"You’re from the north?"
"Far north. The snow lands." She added a word he didn’t understand, and laughed. "That’s what we call it. The Empire named it something different; it always does."
"They call me Stephanus," he offered, and she nodded.
"And they call me Carolina."
"What - "
"We don’t tell our true names lightly. The Empire finds us surprisingly docile to renaming; but they don’t know, of course." She arched her eyebrows. "Do you not have your own gods in your land?"
"Once," Steve said. "I suppose so. Local gods." Rites for the end of winter, and for the harvest; and there was a madman three towns away who was kept in a stable, hands bound with fleece and linen so he couldn’t scratch his skin off, who was said to speak true prophecy.
Steve had seen him; he’d crooned something about dogs and wolves, and trees hating him. It was hard to believe the gods spoke through him.
He looked around at the dome of the shrine, a golden hollow with dustmotes glowing in the light of the flames.
"Shall I leave you?" Carolina murmured.
"Please," he whispered, and she backed out.
Steve walked, walked a simple looped figure, humming the tune to a vaguely remembered song of praise.
Finally he stopped in front of the altar, and put out the candles by pinching them. The darkness smothered him, hot and stifling; he breathed dust and scent. It was very quiet; when he strained his ears, he could hear distant muffled sounds that could be anything.
There was nothing here. He turned, and walked blindly to the doorway, brushing his hand on the wall as he walked up the gentle slope towards the dim lights of the rooms under the arena.
Gregorius’s solarium was so white and bright it almost hurt the eyes; Steve felt like a stain, in his rough tunic and leggings, with his toga disarranged and dusty from the arena. He should’ve taken Jan up on her offer of fresh clothes.
No mosaics, no frescos, even the tables were hammered steel or silver in place of bronze. The legs were carved horn or bone; something pale. Steve sat rigidly upright on his couch, dusty boots planted firmly on the floor rather than risk the white brocaded fabric. Gregorius reclined at his ease, like an unpainted marble statue.
The servers were a matched set, a blond boy and a girl, wearing a loose white tunics and long braids; he offered Steve a clear cup with something pale and opaque in it, while she set down a tray on the table.
Sweet, sharp fruit juice. By the weight of it, the cup was rock crystal. The bleached paleness of everything was disconcerting, as if Steve were the only real thing present.
Then tray held cut fruit and what looked to be tiny crustaceans. He waited until Gregorius picked one up and ate the whole thing before risking his teeth on the shell. They were delicious. Steve ate, steadily, and waited. Waiting he had experience with; Gregorius watched him intently, but Steve was used to that, too.
"Have you considered a return to the arena?" Gregorius said eventually, and Steve shook his head. Return; he knew, then. "Plenty of free men take to the sands nowadays."
"I don't want to." The silence stretched, and after a moment, Steve added "I hear half the fights are staged nowadays."
"Not so many." Gregorius shrugged. "The number is rising, though. The Emperor does not take an expansionist stance, and so we have fewer slaves coming in. It’s simply not affordable to kill slaves by the dozen."
The thought made Steve’s skin crawl, for some reason; deaths faked, fights faked, that where he’d once shed buckets of blood, people were pretending to fight and die. Did they still whisper prayers to the Warrior, while waiting in the tunnels?
"Did Antonius tell you who I was?"
"No. Carolina recognised you; she was just starting out in the arena when you left. I was planning to observe your fights, but if you're the Captain, I'll ask you now, join my team. You've got several years left in you, you're strong and healthy. You can make a good deal of money, and I take excellent care of my fighters."
"I don't think that's a good idea. I was a soldier before I was a gladiator, and those were more violent times." An easy excuse; he’d never killed before the arena.
"I’m sure you’d adapt. You wouldn’t find me ungrateful; I’m sure there are ways I could be of help to you."
"Natasha has responded to the court’s summons," Gregorius set down his goblet. "There will be a hearing tomorrow; no doubt you’ll be sent a message. The same judges will be sitting; Antonius, of course, seems to be in your corner."
"Perhaps. We’ll have to see."
"Antonius isn't a reliable ally," Gregorius poured him more juice. "I understand plenty of people find him charming; but he's always got his own best interests at heart."
"Why is he helping me?" Steve asked bluntly, wondering whether Antonius' own brother would be so direct about his desires.
"Because your prefect Natasha broke his heart some ten years ago."
That was – unexpected. Entirely. He gulped at his goblet, trying to process that.
"Our father arranged their marriage, and Tony was besotted with her. When our father died, and his allowance vanished, she threw him over. Quite cruelly, according to him. He's eager for the chance to revenge himself on her, even if only in a small way." He gave a small smile. "She might have done him a favour, of course; she's had two husbands and one wife since then, and none lasted long."
Still, that was good news. If Antonius was helping him out of hate, rather than desire, Steve didn’t have to do a thing. It was good news. There was no need to give Antonius the slightest encouragement.
"It only takes the support of two judges to win your case." Gregorius gave him a small smile, and Steve nodded. Where would Monica’s vote go? Did he need Gregorius’ support?
He wouldn’t go back to the arena, though. The thought made his skin itch.
"I’m sorry." He got to his feet. "Thank you for your time."
"The pleasure was all mine." He didn’t get up, or look round when Steve left.
Natasha, however, did not appear at the court. She sent a clerk, which judging by Monica’s cold stare was not appreciated.
"Natasha begs the court’s indulgence; she has been summoned to the Imperial court, and did not wish to deny the Emperor for such a trivial matter," the clerk said.
"The Emperor’s justice is not a trivial matter," Monica tapped her fingers pointedly.
"Of course not; but this case is frivolous. It has already been ruled upon in the Governor's court."
"I have the right as a citizen to have my case heard in the city courts," Steve interrupted.
"And Natasha petitions the court to judge the case now, and reject it; there is no call for a full hearing, which will only waste the court’s time. Stephanus has no reason to appeal, and brings no new evidence."
"It’s a fair point," Gregorius said smoothly. "Unless Stephanus can offer some evidence the Governor's court was not just, I don’t see what use is to be had by revisiting the case."
"We went through this last time," Antonius said. "Steve fought to prove his case had merit, and should be heard."
"And yet Natasha has the right to petition for dismissal of the case," Gregorius said. "She has, after all, already defended this case once; unless there’s - "
"It’s a dangerous precedent," Steve said as confidently as he could, and Monica looked back at him. "Uh - Natasha inherited her position. She wasn’t granted it. Custom says that that contracts made should continue, and that she can’t break leases."
"Custom, not law," Natasha’s clerk said.
"But a long-standing custom that the Emperor has long approved of," Steve insisted. "A decision to overturn it shouldn’t be made by one provincial court; it could lead to, uh. Trouble."
"We wouldn’t want trouble, would we," said Antonius seriously. "Who knows what could happen."
"Quite," Monica said. "This case will be heard. Tomorrow."
"That’s not enough time - " Natasha’s clerk protested, but Monica waved a hand in dismissal.
"Time was given; the case will proceed."
Antonius chased them out into the vestibule afterwards; he was smiling.
"Nicely done," he touched Steve’s arm, and nodded to Bucky. "What did you say to annoy Greg?"
"Liar. Will you come and have lunch with me? Both of you, of course." The smile he turned on Bucky was as friendly, but it was subtly different from the warm intense look he gave Steve. There was no need; Antonius would take his side for revenge on Natasha. Steve didn’t have to do a thing.
"All right, then."
Natasha deigned to appear the next day; she was draped in deepest black, a clinging silken tunic with a loosely draped toga looped up to hood her flame-coloured hair. She’d ringed her eyes carefully in kohl to emphasis their intense green and the paleness of her skin; she looked almost fragile, supported by a maid and escorted by several attendants, who hovered solicitously as she settled herself in a chair.
"I must complain to the court of my accuser’s shocking conduct," she said in plaintive tones. "Not content with dragging the matter through our local courts, where he caused such a fuss I was barely able to assure my own rights, now he drags the matter out even further."
"He is a citizen and we’ve judged merit to his case," Monica said briskly, and Natasha gave her a melting look. "We’ll try not to keep you too long. I’m sure you’ve read Stephanus’ petition."
"Yes, and it’s nonsense. I am prefect, and when a prefect comes new to the position, all contracts and agreements must be remade."
"Not unless it’s granted by the Emperor," Steve cut in. "You just inherited; you have to keep the old contracts and agreements."
"The written law says when a prefect is new-come to the position - " No sign of fragility now, her green eyes were fierce and her voice rose; Steve yelled back.
"And you’re not new-come! Inheriting is not new-come. It never has been."
"It has been the custom that inheritors permit contracts to continue, but this is custom and courtesy, not law, and I deemed it necessary in this case. It’s my right." She folded her arms over her bosom, and looked at the judges.
"It’s not." Steve looked up at them. Would they decide now, or call for a fight?
"Then that is one thing we will have to decide," Monica said calmly. "Are there other aspects to this case?"
"There are," Natasha cast him a baleful look, and he suppressed the urge to growl back. "I also have evidence that the villagers’ contract were never intended to be long-term."
"What?" Steve was briefly staggered; he heard Bucky let out a derisive snort. "That’s nonsense."
"You didn’t bring this evidence up previously," Monica glanced at Gregorius, who shrugged, and then Antonius, who was studying his nails, frowning.
"There was no need," Natasha beckoned to one of her attendants. "But this ridiculous case has gone on long enough. I have the prefecture clerk to witness for me."
"Yes, ma’am. The prefect made the contracts on a year by year basis," the clerk said. "He always said, the tenancies would have to be reconsidered every year, because that was valuable land and he had - "
"That’s lies!" Steve jumped to his feet. "That’s - " he stuttered, unable to think of words strong enough, and the clerk edged away, eyes widening. "You can’t believe that," he appealed to Monica. "No village tenancy is arranged like that."
"It’s certainly unusual," Natasha said smoothly. "But it’s true. I have also acquired a letter, sent by my husband to his cousin, in which he describes the tenancies."
"Written in his own hand?" Monica said, and Natasha made a little face and shook her head.
"Written by his clerk, then?"
"Yes," she admitted. "But - "
"Then he just wrote it," Steve said. "It’s not true."
"All right." Monica shook her head. "Is there anything else?" Silence. "Very well. Stephanus; if the tenancies were never meant to be permanent, there is no case to answer. You have ten days to send for further witnesses. If you can offer no evidence but your word against the clerk’s evidence, there is not enough doubt to take it to the ring."
"I’ll get witnesses," he promised.
The plaza was too loud, too crowded; he shook his head when Bucky hopefully suggested they go and watch the juggling.
"You go. I need - I’m going to go for a walk."
A walk would clear his head. He wove his way through the busy streets, back towards the inner city, where it would be quieter.
Nowhere in the city was really quiet, of course; but at least there was less shouting. The air smelled better, too, and Steve remembered Antonius’ talk about the sewers. Clearly, he had his uses.
He wandered till he met a huge wall. He thought for a moment it was the city wall, but it was the wrong place. The palace wall, of course. He laid a hand on the warm, smooth stone and turned his steps to walk alongside it.
His mind kept returning to Natasha’s smug little smile; what possible good was it to her, to delay the trial further?
Stones scuffed underfoot, and he blinked back to full awareness; the smooth paved street was littered with crumbling bricks. When he looked up, there were workers crawling on the wall, chipping away at it.
"Go another way," one of them called down. "It isn’t safe."
"What are you doing?" he called up, and got a shrug.
"Wall needs fixing."
Did you fix walls by tearing them down and rebuilding? Steve wasn’t sure. He turned away, and looked vaguely about for a landmark. There, he could see the five-floored insulae with the open roof; that was near to Janet’s house.
When he turned into the street, Antonius was standing on the steps, chatting with Bucky. Steve slowed to a dawdle, watching him, the sun lighting his high cheekbones, turning his skin rich gold. Was his skin that colour all over? Steve felt his own skin start to flush at the thought, and shook it away. He didn’t care.
"Steve," Antonius gave him a wide smile, and bounced down the stairs to put a hand on his arm. "I was just dropping something off for you."
"You – what?"
"It’s nothing," a squeeze of his hand. "Don’t get into trouble!" And he hopped up into his waiting litter and was borne off down the street, leaving Steve feeling oddly disappointed.
"What is it?" He looked at Bucky, who shrugged.
"It's in a box. Come open it."
A wicker chest; Steve flipped back the lid, and pulled off a layer of coarsely woven fabric. Then he froze.
"What is it?" Bucky peered over his shoulder. "What's that?"
Steve picked up the helmet, the familiar heft of it bringing back memories. The enamel was perfect, flawless blue. "Where did he get this?" Steve muttered, turning it over to check the strap and buckle, leather oiled and brass polished.
"This your old armour?" Bucky held up the sleeve of scale mail he'd worn on his right arm.
"Yeah." Straps and more scale, to protect his groin. Red sandals and gauntlets. He eyed the size of the box, and then took a deep breath and dipped his hand in, not sure if he was hoping to find or not find -
He pulled on the strap, and the shield came up; a silver star on a field of blue, edged all round with crimson. Enamel polished to a high shine, leather cared for.
"Didn’t you have a weapon?" Bucky rummaged in the box again.
"I used the shield," he ran his fingers over the surface. "All these were... sold off, as souvenirs. How did he get them all?"
"I suppose he’s been collecting them a while," Bucky said. "He was telling me about how he used to see all your matches. Said he thought you might want this, for your fights."
"Yes. Yes, but - this must have cost him a lot." The thought of being able to fight in his own armour, with his own weapon ready if necessary - it was a comfort. He had planned to buy or borrow a sword, had been confident enough, but with the shield, he felt invincible.
"I don’t think he cares."
"I can’t accept this."
"I think it’s pretty clear how you can thank him," Bucky said dryly, and Steve’s eyes flicked up.
"What are you suggesting?"
"You know what he wants. There’s no harm in it; maybe people will talk, but this is the city. No one back home will know." Bucky shrugged. "You’re allowed to let down your hair a little, you know."
"Give in?" Steve felt his teeth grind. "To that -" He’d be one in a long string to Antonius, after all.
"Only if you want to," and Steve’s breath seized.
"I don’t want to," he said finally, and put the shield back in the box. "And I’m going to return all this."
"If it’s going to make a difference in the fight, we’d rather you kept it for now," Bucky said gently. "The odds are against us as it is."
"You don't think I can do it?"
"I don't know, Steve," Bucky gave him a lopsided grin. "Can you? I mean, it's been a while, right? And it seems like you're getting some attention."
"Yeah." Steve bit his lip, and laid his palm on the star. "I’ll return it to him after the case is settled."
"Is that your armour?" Janet came up behind him and peered into the box. "Where did you get that?"
"I, uh," Steve looked at Bucky for help.
"Antonius brought it," Bucky said, because Bucky was no help at all. Steve gave in to blushing.
"That’s right," Steve muttered. "Very kind of him." Janet squeezed his arm.
"Tony can be very kind. So you have a fight scheduled?
"No!" Bucky said indignantly. "She told a whole lot of lies, and now we have to get witnesses."
"Oh dear. Is that going to be difficult?"
"No, there are plenty of witnesses," Steve said impatiently. "The old prefect’s brother, perhaps - or he had a man who ran his errands to the city, I can find him too. It’s just a delaying tactic."
"It really is foolishness," Bucky said. "I mean - even if we have to send to the village, we can get more people. It’s a nuisance, that’s all."
"So why is she delaying?" Janet frowned. "She must have another card to play."
"I suppose so, but I don’t know what." Steve hesitated; but Janet had said she wanted to help. "Would you write some letters for us? If it’s trouble, I can - "
"Not at all. For your witnesses, I suppose? Yes, and I can get a servant to deliver them. We’ll soon get this taken care of."
The next morning, Steve feigned sleep until Bucky had left to find breakfast. He’d barely had a moment alone since they got to the city, and well. Sometimes, a man needed to be alone. He let his mind drift, remembered the way the sun had touched Antonius’ skin.
Perhaps Antonius would come by again, when Janet was out, and suggest Steve owed him for the shield, demand to be paid back, and Steve - it would be for the village, for the court case, he could let Antonius - just once, of course, he could be clear it would be the only time - Steve’s hand slid down to grab his cock, and he worked himself silently to blurred images of Antonius’s sultry eyes, his rich smooth skin, the memory of his lips against Steve’s cheek.
He hooked one knee up with his arm, slipped his fingers downwards, and breached himself with careless haste. It hurt, and he didn't care; and then he thought that if it hurt later, if he took awkward steps and limped – he gentled his fingers, rocking his hips, trying to find something there. Antonius, he was sure, would make this feel good, would turn this awkward ache into pleasure, would make him cry out and beg for it, like he did with the hot-eyed men and women Steve had seen at his party -
It felt good; usually he thought of nothing while doing this, it would be wrong to think of - but thinking of Antonius was good. He’d almost certainly be pleased if he knew. Would offer again to take Steve to bed, and -
He wiped his hands clean on the hem of his tunic, and set it aside to wash. Of course, no such thing would happen; he didn't think Antonius was so crude as to demand payment, and if he did, Steve would throw him into the street and hurl the shield at his head.
Still, he might offer again. Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a terrible thing, to say yes, just once.
But Antonius didn’t reappear, no message or visit or invitation or even a gift; it was as if he had entirely forgotten Steve’s existence. The city was too hot, and too dusty, and it all irritated him unduly.
Bucky dragged him out two nights in a row to watch fire-eaters and ‘magicians’ in the plaza, and on the third night Steve told him to go on his own. He took the armour up to the roof, and found Wanda and Jan curled together in the cushions, Wanda’s head cradled in Jan’s lap. She was emitting tiny, ladylike snores.
Steve took a step back towards the stairs, but Jan beckoned him forward.
"Keep me company," she said. "Wanda always says we’ll talk, and then falls asleep. She spends the day running from lecture to lecture, and then gives me only snores." She cast a fond little smile down at Wanda; it reminded Steve of the way Gail looked at Bucky sometimes. "Is something wrong with the armour?"
"Probably not. I just thought I’d check it over; it’s old, after all." Steve settled at a polite distance, on a rug that was worn enough he didn’t feel guilty about putting his armour on it, and draped the scale over his lap. Each scale had two links holding it to the weave of chain mail underneath; each needed to be checked, which was dull work. But it would pass the time.
Jan watched him work methodically along the rows, wiggling and tugging each scale. Her dark eyes were drowsy. Steve would have like to hear her talk, but his conversation, as always, dried up under her gaze. He could feel his cheeks start to heat, and cast about for something to say.
"Where’s - " he stopped, flushing deeper, and Janet quirked an eyebrow. "Nothing."
"What?" she uncurled a leg, and poked him gently with her bare foot. "Share. You’re blushing, it must be good."
"I expected - after he gave me the armour," Steve smoothed his hand down the slick enamelled surface. "I expected him to come by again."
"He’s gone out of town," Jan said, sounding a little surprised. "Didn’t he say?"
"What?" That was - unexpected. Steve bent over his work again, feeling unexpectedly cheated. Was that it, then?
Some days it seemed like all his love affairs ended up trailing off into disappointing anti-climax; as if Steve made no real mark on the hearts of those around him. Not that it had really been a love affair, and not that he’d expect a man like Antonius to be anything but fickle, but… he’d expected a little more effort. Perhaps he hadn’t been that interested after all.
It had been kind of him to give Steve the armour, then, just as a gift.
"He told you about his villa, didn’t he? He must’ve done." She smiled. "He never shuts up about it."
"Oh, yes. Yes, he told me he was building a place - told me I should go and see the site." Steve wrinkled his nose.
"Well, maybe you should. Get out of town for a day. You could get a ride on a boat, be there and back in a long day."
"What? No." He could, of course, he wouldn’t have any trouble finding the place, but… Antonius didn’t seriously expect him to go, did he? He hadn’t meant his invitation as anything more than a pleasantry.
"You're grouchy as a bear," Janet poked him with her foot again; she was wearing a bracelet on her ankle, Steve noted, a slender silver chain with bells. "A little air might do you good."
"We’ll see. How - how are things at - " he gestured vaguely. Janet laughed.
"Today I gave a short lecture on venom production in wasps."
"Oh. Was that… good?"
"Was very good," Wanda murmured drowsily. "Fascinating. I wished it had been twice as long."
"Oh, are you awake?" Janet tugged on the curl she had curled around her finger. "You should go to bed, because I’m not strong enough to carry you."
"Mm," She sat up, and pawed vaguely at her tumbled hair; then she and Janet stared wordlessly into each other’s eyes for a moment. "Yes, I should. Good night, love." Steve looked down at the armour as they kissed, and then Wanda patted his shoulder as she padded to the stairs.
"So do wasps - "
"Did you ever think about coming back?" Janet asked, and his hands stilled.
"I mean, you went home to marry Gail, but she was married to Bucky. You didn’t ever think about coming back?"
Yes, of course, trembled close to his lips, next to I couldn’t. After years in the city, thinking only of returning home, to the village, to Gail - there seemed no option other than to stay. The city had been a fading dream, and while he might think of it occasionally, he could no more go back than he could step into a dream.
He looked up at Janet’s dark, lovely eyes, the question in them, and as always, words failed him.
"I’d already disrupted your life - " he tried, and she shook her head.
"You saved my life, Steve. And I would have - I understood that you went home to the woman you loved, but - " She spread her palms. "But instead, you were alone all these years."
"I had nothing to offer you," Steve said finally. That was the truth, at least. Steve was an ex-gladiator with a little bit of money. He couldn’t even read; he certainly knew nothing about natural philosophy. If he’d married Janet, she’d no doubt be long since bored of him.
"Really?" Janet hugged her knees to her chest. "Perhaps you didn’t, then."
"But you’re happy, now?" he asked anxiously, and she smiled, the wistfulness leaving her face.
"Very. And you?"
"Enough," and she sighed again.
"I wish you were as happy as I am."
So do I he thought, and tugged determinedly at the armour.
The next morning, the serving maid woke Steve up at dawn to give him a packet of food to take on his journey. Janet had apparently decided to take over making his decisions for him.
It did feel good, to see the horizon again, feel the wind rushing unrestrained around him as the boat skimmed across the water. He'd been lucky enough to find a courier boat, with a pilot amenable to a bribe; only a few hours to the villa.
The boat slowed to negotiate the bend in the river, curving around a small hill, and Steve leapt off into the shallows and waded ashore. Several boats were tied up to a makeshift pier, and there was a worn track leading up the bank. He could hear voices, and he forced his legs into motion, advanced up the path against the conviction this was a terrible idea. Antonius would stare at him blankly, ask why are you here -
Antonius would probably have a troupe of dancing girls and boys with him, sweet and co-operative and willing.
It didn't look like the kind of site to house dancing anything right now; there was a broad flat place, with more hill rising behind it, and there was a great deal of dust, and timber, and piles of bricks, and piles of dirt, and people in sensible clothes doing practical things with shovels. Steve didn't have the least skill at building; he stared around, looking for some sign of Antonius, and was completely taken aback when he appeared out of the crowd.
"Steve!" he said in tones of astonished delight. "You came!"
"This is your villa?" Steve glanced doubtfully around, and Tony grinned. He was covered in dust, and muddied to his bare knees. Steve had never seen him like this; in the simple belted tunic, he looked almost boyish.
"It will be," he said confidently. "We’re laying down the hypocaust and water pipes and so on; that’s the most complicated part, and it has to be done first."
"Right." Steve looked around again, somehow even more unsure. He’d been expecting Antonius to be in residence, in rooms already built, living his usual life of decadence and debauchery. This was unexpected; although the absence of any nubile pleasure girls or boys was certainly a bonus. "You talked about showing me around..."
"Yes," he tucked his hand through Steve’s elbow. "I didn't think you'd actually come, though." He glanced at Steve's face, and squeezed. "But I'm glad you did. Come and see - we’ll start in the atrium, you’ll like that, it’s going to have a fish pond."
Steve followed in amused bewilderment as Antonius led him round the white cord that apparently represented the boundaries of the atrium. Antonius talked about it like it was there already, pointed to the centre and described the pool his would have, talked himself hoarse, describing a white-walled extravagance with water piped into bathrooms and heated in tanks, and heated through the floor in the winter, with an ice house burrowed into the rock to keep things cool in the summer. The little jetty would be expanded into a dock for barges, so Antonius could host parties, and there would be a marble pool for swimming. Orchards, and a vineyard, and Steve’s head swam with trying to picture it all.
"Come and have a drink," Antonius said finally, and pulled them towards the rear of the building site, right into the curve of the hill. There was a large pavilion there, square and solid like a general’s command tent, and the interior was luxuriously appointed, a rich rug laid on the canvas floor, brass and glass lamps, a few couches and a low table with a surface of bright mosaic. "All my servants are working on the foundations right now, so excuse my serving you."
He poured wine and found a sealed pottery jar of olives, and Steve drank too fast. He could see Antonius’ rumpled bed through the gap in the hangings, and he wanted very much to skip the preliminaries and be sprawled nude in the cool linens with clever hands moving over him. He shifted, awkwardly; lying down to eat or drink still seemed decadent to him. It surely couldn’t be good for the digestion.
"So what is it?" Antonius cocked his head, and Steve felt his cheeks start to heat. "I’m sure you didn’t come out here for the pleasure of my company."
"I did," he said brusquely, and the arch of Antonius’ eyebrow was eloquent in its disbelief. "Is that so strange?"
"You’ve been clear enough that I’m not your idea of a good time." He sat up, and put his goblet down with a click. "What do you want?"
"Never mind," Steve rose to his feet. He must be deep red by now, and this was a disaster; so much for that idea then. He turned towards the sunlight, and Antonius darted in his way and grabbed his wrist, and Steve twisted out of his grip too violently, throwing him back a step.
He let out a little sound of startlement and Steve flung out his hands.
"Sorry, I’m sorry. Did I hurt you?"
"No," Antonius flexed his wrists cautiously. "No, I’m all right. I should know better than to startle a gladiator. Steve, what is it you want?" He reached more slowly for Steve’s shoulder, and moved in closer to look into his eyes. "I’m quite willing to help with - "
Awkwardness made Steve mash their lips together too hard, and the noise Antonius made was more pained than surprised. Steve kept his eyes screwed shut and tried to gentle it, but Antonius turned his head away and Steve gave it up as a bad job and made another move towards the exit. Antonius caught his sleeve and dragged him back, and Steve shook his head.
"Sorry, I thought - I thought you wanted - "
"You don’t have to do that, Steve, I told you I was willing to help - "
"I’m not - I’m not trying to bribe you! What do you think I am, I’m not - "
Antonius furrowed his brow, looking completely confounded. "Why did you kiss me, then?"
"That’s what I’m here for," Steve said tightly. "I wanted that. I thought you were offering that."
"You came here to - " Antonius blinked, and tipped his head. "Are you telling me you came out here - to come to bed with me?"
"Yes," Steve said baldly, and waited. It was very nearly worth the humiliation to see the smile that spread over his face, delighted and greedy, and the tension in Steve’s belly didn’t disperse, but shifted to something deeper, something wanting.
Antonius trailed his fingers down Steve’s forearm, and took his hand. He stepped back, towards the bed, and Steve’s breath caught in his throat.
"Too quick?" His voice was soft, coaxing, and Steve wondered how long he’d sit and wait patiently if Steve agreed with him, how long he’d look at him with those hot, lustful eyes.
"No," and he let Antonius draw him into the rear section of the tent, and while he pulled the curtains into place, sealing them into the dim canvas space, Steve stripped off his tunic and sat down on the bed to unlace his sandals. Antonius moved over to stand beside him, but Steve didn’t look up, moved on to the laces on his pants and then kicked them off and rolled himself over onto the bed, face down in soft puffy pillows, the sheets cool and smooth against his overheated skin.
"Steve?" Gentle fingertips drifted down over his spine. "You do want this?"
"Yeah," he spread his legs, and arched his spine very slightly. Antonius’ breath caught, and his fingers strayed further downwards, stroking him carefully. Nerves entirely new in Steve’s experience quivered with it, and he could feel his cock twitch with interest. Steve swallowed the lump in his throat. "Go on. Do it."
"Either you’ve not done this before or you’ve had some very inconsiderate lovers," he remarked, and cool fluid poured over Steve’s rear, the cold slide of it between his buttocks making him squirm with discomfort. Antonius’ thumb stroked, circled, smeared him wet and messy, and then Steve grunted as the pressure mounted and his body tightened shut against it.
"Relax," Antonius’ other hand stroked his hip. "If you want this, you have to let me. If you want to be hurt, you’ll have to go elsewhere."
"I don’t want to be hurt," Steve snapped. "I just - ohhh," and he pressed his forehead to the pillow as Antonius’ thumb pushed into his body
Not comfortable, not at all, it felt like a vast intrusion for all Steve knew it was only his thumb. Steve gritted his teeth and tried to relax, to let it happen. The idea of Antonius on top of him, riding him open, leaving him slick and used, made his palms sweat; his cock was rigid against his belly.
Slow rocking movements into him, and Antonius seemed in no hurry at all, just adding more of the oil and slipping his thumb back in. Steve felt hot and tender inside, even those gentle insistent touches striking flashes of light in his vision.
He whined when Antonius pulled his thumb out again, and heard a soft breathless laugh, and then a hand curved around his balls and probed the base of his cock.
"You want this," and his voice had thickened. "You’re - " he cut himself off, and something bigger slid inside Steve. He clenched down, and Antonius groaned; it was only fingers, though, they curved and rubbed and stroked and Steve had to move, to push back against them, spine bowing as he presented himself like a slut.
Antonius pulled his fingers out and pressed Steve’s thighs wider, ignoring his moan of want. More oil splashed down over his ass, and he could hear the slide of flesh on flesh, Antonius was oiling himself up, there was bare skin pressing against Steve’s, and Steve clenched his fists in the sheets and breathed deeply, waiting.
The first breach was a pain like cramping, his muscles twitching and complaining, but Antonius pressed in slow and steady, giving Steve no time to catch his breath or become accustomed. Only the feeling of himself being filled up, possessed, and Steve’s pants took on a higher pitch. He tried not to listen to the soft murmur of reassurance Antonius kept up, it’s all right, it’s good, you feel so good, be still -
Antonius gripped his hips tight and tried to grind in even deeper, but there wasn’t any more. His lips came to rest on Steve’s shoulder, palms dragging slowly up his flanks.
"Does that feel good?" soft but raw, just the kind of vulnerable sound he’d wanted to draw from Antonius but somehow it just made Steve feel laid bare. "Steve," and careful bites along the ridge of his shoulder, little flashes of pain sending lightning along Steve’s nerves.
Steve rocked his hips, and heard the hiss of breath. The movement shifted Antonius inside him, ground him into a place that turned Steve’s bones to water, and his high desperate moan would have embarrassed him if he hadn’t been occupied trying to duplicate that movement, get that feeling again. Antonius moved with him this time, small movements that felt huge inside him, that made him rut himself against the sheets like an animal.
He could feel his skin bruising under the grip of hands on his shoulder, could feel sweat dripping onto his back and hear their breath rasping, not quite in time. Antonius was pressed against him from chest to hips to knees, all that hot sticky skin pinning him down, his full weight not so heavy against Steve’s strength.
Steve had a brief vision of his wrists bound above his head, holding him trapped in place while Antonius took him, and he let out a choked moan. He wanted, so much, the feelings spiralling through him not enough to fill him, and he worked his hips faster, squeezing down with his ass so that Antonius’ cock pressed harder into all his soft wanting places.
He rocked on the edge of release for too long, head swimming, and when he finally plummeted it was relief almost as much as pleasure that made him sob.
He rubbed sweat from his face on the pillow. Antonius was still inside him, a dizzying heat and hardness. I can’t he wanted to say, but Antonius was already moving in him, his cock sliding out a little, leaving Steve empty and grasping, before pushing back in and opening him all over again.
He could barely hear his own harsh breaths over the drumming of his heartbeat in his ears, and his world had narrowed to the rough slide of cock in his ass, hard and fast now and Steve wanted to scream with the sheer intensity of it but he couldn’t get enough air.
Heat and liquid inside him, but Antonius kept pounding at him, kept going until his softening cock slipped free and Steve’s body closed up behind it and Steve bit his lip to keep from whining at the loss. He was sore there and his shoulders were scraped with nail marks and he could feel the deep flush of shame over his shoulders and chest and face. He buried his face in the pillow and tried to blank his mind.
The world slowly settled into something like its normal shape, Steve’s body releasing its claim on his senses and letting him notice his surroundings again. Antonius had shifted off him, and Steve heard the clink of a goblet. Drinking, of course. What a surprise. He should get up and dress, go to the river and watch for a boat to get a ride home on, but he was quite sure he’d be unsteady on his feet if he tried now, and the thought of Antonius’ smirk was enough to keep him still.
Footsteps approached the bed, and Antonius nudged his shoulder.
"Wine?" He settled on the bed next to Steve. "You must be thirsty."
Steve turned his back, and opened bleary eyes to stare at the wall of the tent. It was dimmer now; he really should get up, it would be dusk soon and he’d be lucky to catch a boat. His body whimpered at the thought of a ten-mile walk.
"Steve?" Warm lips pressed to his temple. "If you’re going to sleep, get under the sheets. It gets cold here at night."
If he just went to sleep now, they wouldn’t have to have a conversation, and Steve could rise early and get a boat at dawn. Perhaps they could have sex again. Steve was dimly disgusted at the way his body shivered at the thought of rolling over and spreading for it.
Antonius tugged insistently at the sheets, and Steve shifted his weight so he could get them both covered. Antonius draped himself over Steve, and peered into his face. He was frowning.
"You didn’t like it," he said finally. "I’m sorry."
"What?" Steve’s glance skittered towards him then jerked away.
"I wanted to - " Antonius’ mouth quirked up. "I wanted to make it good for you, but I suppose I was too eager for it. Let me try again in the morning; I’ll do better."
Better. Steve wasn’t sure he’d survive better. It was pleasing to know that he hadn’t been as obvious in his pleasure as he’d thought.
"It was fine," he said finally. "I - liked it."
"Hm," and Antonius didn’t look convinced, but he didn’t pursue it.
The morning was better, Antonius had him on his back, swallowed his cock and put his fingers inside and made Steve come, then slowly teased him back to hardness while Steve writhed and bit his hand to keep the noise back. The fucking was painfully slow, Antonius poised over him, watching his face like a hawk, learning just where to touch him, how to rock into him, and Steve couldn’t keep it off his face, and every time he tried to turn his head into the pillows, cover his face with his hand, Antonius would whisper look at me Steve, that’s right -
It was so very, very good, and by the time they were done Steve felt as wrung out as an old washrag, like his thighs were soft and useless as rotten fruit, and he never wanted to get up and be the other Steve, the one who didn’t get fucked like a slut, again.
Antonius sat on the edge of the bed and watched him, face troubled.
"Can I - " Steve’s voice was weak. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Can I just sleep here, for a bit? I won’t disturb you; go on with your building."
"Of course," Antonius got to his feet, and dressed, and then leaned over the bed and pressed a kiss to his mouth, deep and passionate. Steve opened for it, arousal coiling again in his belly at the slide of Antonius’ tongue against his. "Whatever you want, Steve."
He dozed for several hours; when he woke up, the sun was high and he felt refreshed, lighter. He washed in cool water, splashed his tunic with water - it would soon dry out in this heat - and wandered out into the sunlight.
He could see Antonius, on his knees in the dirt half way up the slope of the hill, wax tablets on the ground around him as he pegged out a line of twine in the dirt. It would be simple enough to slip away to the river now, while he was busy. He lingered, though, until Antonius scrambled up and glanced around. Their eyes met, and Antonius grinned and waved him up.
"We're having an awful time," he said happily. "I thought there was a natural spring, here, flowing into the river, but it seems to be blocked up with a rock, so we're either going to have to set up some kind of pulley to wrench it out, or find another way to get to it. I want water as fresh as possible."
Steve peered into the gap he indicated; it was rockier inside than he’d expected. This hill must be mostly rock inside. There was some kind of seeping dampness, though, around a large loose boulder. He leaned in and tapped it, tried to rock it with his fingers. It gave a little, but there was a low outcropping of rock that prevented it coming forward.
"It needs to come up, then there should be enough room to get it out. We tried prying it up, but we can't get enough clearance for the levers to wedge it out," Antonius rambled on. "I'm thinking we can try hammering in some spikes – what are you doing?"
Idiotic, but it would please Antonius; Steve crouched down in the mud, and got his shoulder settled against a reasonably smooth patch of the rock.
"Steve, no, you'll hurt - " Steve grunted, and the rock shifted; up, back, exposing new surface, enough for Steve's outflung arm to find a hand hold on its face and wrench it back in the opposite direction, momentum rocking forward over the outcroppings that held it back, and then crushingly over Steve's shoulders and down into the mud. He rolled his shoulders, suppressing a wince, and then looked up to see Antonius gawking at him. He recovered quickly, shutting his mouth, and then grinning.
"You're going to be stuck in there for an hour now while we get that the rest of the way out," he said, and Steve nodded. He could probably wriggle through the narrow gap, but why bother? "Tell me there's a spring, at least."
Steve glanced back into the dint the rock had sat in.
He waited in the cool dimness, trailing his fingers through the deepening water, while they arranged ropes and then dragged the rock out, easy enough now they had the angle. Antonius crowded in beside him to gloat over the pool, already beginning to spill out around their feet, and then curled his hand around Steve's forearm and gave him an intimate little smile.
"I should thank you for this more thoroughly," he murmured. "You've saved us at least a day's work."
"I - " Steve swallowed, but Antonius didn't seem to expect an answer, cupped his head and urged him down into a kiss. "Not here," Steve managed when Antonius pulled back.
"Look at you," Antonius murmured. His hand skimmed down the line of Steve’s tunic, brushed over the hard arch of his cock. "You’re so ready for it…"
"Not here, Antonius," Steve said desperately, because if he insisted, Steve thought he’d bend over for it right here, and that was - he couldn’t do that -
"All right, all right." Another kiss, light as a butterfly this time, and Antonius tugged him towards the sunlight. "Food," he said cheerily. "It's too hot to work for the next couple of hours."
That meant sitting under a tree, eating heavy bread and sharp cheese, and then Antonius lay down on his side and put his head in Steve's lap. Steve tensed, and glanced about, but the workers were settling down to rest and barely paid him any attention; not a sneer or covered laugh to be seen.
Of course, Antonius having a – having someone out here, would hardly be surprising. If anything, it was a surprise Steve hadn't found him with someone already in residence, tending to his needs.
Perhaps he'd expected Steve to come?
He put his hand carefully into Antonius' hair, feeling the soft thick locks curl around his fingers. Friendly, he thought, and then felt like a fool. Antonius made a sleepy noise of pleasure at his touch, and rubbed his cheek on Steve's leg like an affectionate cat.
"You know," he murmured. "You can call me Tony. Most people do."
Antonius - Tony - slept peacefully for an hour. Steve stroked his hair and gazed unfocused into the leaves of the tree, watching the shifting greens. He almost thought, in the hazy stillness, he could hear the distant shouts of the city. It was - it was good, Steve felt good, felt happy. He let his head rest back against the tree trunk and dozed.
The afternoon he spent trailing Tony about, gathering up tablet and stylus and dropped yarn, and nodding whenever Tony asked him a question. Yes, a bathroom. Two bathrooms. Yes, you should have glassed windows, fine coloured glass imported from the eastern provinces. Yes, a terrace, and you should put in marble stairs down to the river so people can walk straight into the water. Tony's villa would outdo the Emperor's palace at this pace.
Steve told him that at dinner, while eating something roasted and spiced and unidentifiable, and Tony preened.
"Won't it? It'll be wonderful. I always wanted to build my own villa. Greg is older; he got our family domus… and we don’t exactly get on. Sadly, land is very hard to come by in that quarter of the city, everyone’s hanging on for dear life, so that little place is all I could manage to buy. I paid a foolish amount for it, but you have to have a domus near the palace, of course." He put his plate on the floor, and settled back comfortably with his goblet. Two of Tony’s men had served their dinner - Tony had apparently brought his cook along from the city - but they’d gone rather than wait on them. The occasional clatter and sound of slopping water from the curtained-off area with the bed suggested they were cleaning.
"Oh, of course," Steve murmured, and Tony’s teeth flashed in a grin.
"Don’t mock me. If you want to get on, you have to be easily accessible to the Emperor; we all jump when he speaks. Still, I’ve got this now, and it’s going to be beautiful."
"Are you going to have a shrine?" Steve asked, and Tony frowned a little.
"I want one, but I’m not sure which God to dedicate it to. I might make a new one."
"What?" Steve blinked. "What did you - "
"A new one. I mean, there’s the Scholar, but I don’t just study; I build things. So maybe I’ll build a shrine to the Engineer."
"But there is no Engineer."
"Well, how do we know? Maybe there is, but he has no worshippers. Or maybe I can just start worshipping him - or her, actually, then I can have some lovely shapely statuary." His hands outlined curves in the air. "A slide-rule in one hand, and a box of chalk in the other. Anyway, I can build the shrine, make offerings, hire some musicians to write hymns."
"But she’s not real," Steve rubbed his temple. "You’re making her up."
"Well, I might be divinely inspired. If we invent new things, don’t those things have Gods?"
"I have no idea. What happens to old things, then? To their Gods?"
"They retire to the mountain tops and drink too much while reminiscing about the glory days," Tony said promptly, and laughed. Then he picked up something small and white-powdered from the low table between their couches, and held it up to Steve’s lips. "Here, try this."
Steve hesitated, but opened his mouth and let it be popped in. It was sweet, sweeter than honey even, and oddly gooey. It stuck to his teeth; Tony laughed at his expression, and brushed a thumb over his lower lip.
"Don’t like it, Steve?"
"It’s…" he rolled it round his mouth, swallowed. It left his mouth feeling gummy, tasting sweet. "It’s all right."
"Such enthusiasm," Tony turned his attention back to the table. "Try this one?" This time Tony’s finger trailed across the soft inner curve of his lip, and Steve barely noticed the taste; something nutty and mild. Tony was looking at him from under his lashes, like a flirting girl. But he could still hear movement behind the curtains, and he wasn’t about to - not with people right there. They could be listening. They might not be able to help hearing, if Steve made noise.
"You’re going to move out of the city?" Steve said almost at random, and Tony shook his head.
"No, no. I like the city. And I’m not done with it; I have all sorts of ideas about getting clean water into the city, and I have some plans for a new bridge. It’s not convenient to boat all the time. But it’ll be nice to have this place, for when I don’t want to be penned up there. It’s nice to come out here, especially with pleasant company." The smile he directed at Steve left no doubt of what he meant, and it ached, oddly, to think of all the visits Tony would make to this place, with beautiful women and handsome men, while Steve was long forgotten. "What’s wrong?" Tony said gently, and Steve shrugged.
"Nothing. It’s going to be a nice villa."
"It is." Tony sat up, and swung his feet to the floor. "You should take a bath, you're muddy and sweaty."
"I should go," Steve looked towards the opening of the tent, but made no move, and Tony pouted at him.
"It's most unkind of you to waste my men’s efforts, Steve. I had them boil up a whole bathtub of water."
And that explained the noises, then. Steve hadn't had a proper bath, with really hot water, in years; and they hadn't been common back then. It was a very brief struggle before he nodded, and followed Tony through the curtains.
There was a copper bathtub, which was unreasonably huge; he could almost stretch his legs out straight when he got in. It also had clawed feet and a curved rim embossed with a sinuous, curving pattern. He traced it idly with his fingers while Tony fidgeted about the room, moving a table beside the tub and putting his goblet on it.
"Lean forward," Tony directed, and Steve expected to have his back scrubbed, but instead Tony slipped into the tub behind him, sliding his legs carefully around Steve's waist and pulling him back to rest in his embrace. No wonder the tub was so large; but Steve couldn't resent it at all. This was blissfully comfortable, with the water sapping the ache and stiffness from his body, his head resting in the crook of Tony’s neck, dark stubble scratching his cheek.
"All right?" Tony murmured, and drew the sponge gently over his chest. "Just relax." His touch was slow and gentle, firm hands soon finding their way between Steve's thighs, curving around his cock.
He shifted, and Steve grumbled as he was moved, as Tony worked his hand down Steve's spine, but then Tony's fingers rubbed between his buttocks and his breath shortened with eagerness. He lifted at Tony's urging, let himself be resettled astride his thighs, and fingers were soon followed by Tony’s cock, hard and hot in him.
He locked his hands round the edge of the tub and rode, carefully, conscious of the slopping of the water, because someone would have to clean that up and he didn't want – they all knew, of course, what he was doing here, but -
"Oh," Tony's hands on him, slowly rubbing at the place where their bodies joined, and for a moment Steve couldn't breathe, couldn't see. His hips jerked faster, greedy, and Tony murmured his name, soft urgent words, and when Steve came he lost his grip and sat down, hard, startling a curse from Tony, and a groan from himself as he was pierced deep.
"Stay there," Tony squirmed under him, sending aftershocks through Steve's body. "Tighten – squeeze for me, inside, yes – ah - "
Obediently, he worked his body as commanded, taking in deep breaths through his mouth, trying to replace the air that seemed to have been displaced by Tony in him.
"So good," Tony groaned, and stilled him with a squeeze to his hips. "That was good, love, you're so good at that."
Tony, of course, had plenty to compare him with. Steve stood up, abruptly, out of the cooling tub, and dashed water off himself before stepping out. Tony let out a sigh, and reached for his wine, and watched Steve dry himself off for all the world as if he were a dancer laid on for his entertainment.
"You’re beautiful," he said thoughtfully, and Steve glared. "What? You must have heard that before. Just the way your back curves, I could look for hours. It’s like the very best statuary." His smile turned lascivious. "I like touching better, though. Here, give me a hand up." He extended an arm imperiously, and Steve tugged him to his feet and was pulled into an embrace, Tony dripping all over him. It was hard to care, though, when Tony’s mouth fastened onto his. "Come to bed," he murmured against Steve’s lips, and Steve could only nod.
He woke up at dawn, and woke Tony up; and after that, while Tony was yawning and curling around him, told him he had to go back to the city. Tony let out a small sigh that turned into another yawn.
"Of course you do." He sat up, and rubbed at his eyes. Steve stroked a hand up his spine, and he made a pleased sound. "Stop that, or I’ll have to keep you." Flirting eyes, and Steve looked away before he could be fooled into staying a little bit longer.
"I, um, Thank you for - for letting me visit - "
"Did you get what you came for?" Tony’s mouth twisted in a wry grin.
No, Steve thought. "Yes," he said. "Um. Thank you - for that."
"Oh, it was my pleasure." Tony twisted round, planted a hand on the pillow and kissed him deep, tongue thrusting confidently into Steve’s mouth, sure of his welcome. Steve arched up against him and managed to hold back his whimper.
Tony walked down to the river with him, idly speculating on whether a smooth tiled path or stone steps would be better in place of the dirt track. Steve settled on a lookout point where he could easily flag down a boat in time for it to steer in to the shallow beach, and Tony crouched and dropped a kiss on his cheek.
"It was very, very good to see you, Steve."
Steve hesitated for a moment, looking at his heavy eyes and soft smile, then let it rush out. "You've only taken up with me to annoy Natasha, haven't you?"
"What?" Sated affability melted into confusion, then wariness. "That's... Gregorius told you, that she and I - "
"Yes. The day after the party I came to."
"That long? Then why - " he stopped, and rubbed his hand over the rough stubble on his jaw. "Well, now I understand you even less."
"I don't care," Steve said, not quite truthfully, because it did anger him, that Tony had kept that from him, had been friendly and even taken him to bed without telling him. "I don't care about your petty little political games. I just want my village to be safe, and - "
"It's hardly a game, is it? It's why your village is even in danger." Tony sat back on his heels, glaring.
"You don’t know? You think Natasha cares about your paltry little village? Your old prefect was a nonentity, she would never have looked at him; she doesn’t care about people." His face was pale and pinched. "She cares about ambition. The Emperor arranged for him to marry Natasha."
Steve stared at him blankly. That - that made sense, he should have thought of that, he should have realised when he saw Natasha’s fine domus and heard of her influence that she wouldn’t choose a man with only a small Northern prefecture to his name.
All this, and his home was only in danger because of him, because of the Emperor's anger. He rested his forehead on the heel of his hand, and breathed deeply.
"Steve?" Tony touched his knee. "Steve, I’m sorry. I thought you knew, or I would have told you."
"Thank you, Antonius," he said, not looking up. "You’d better go back. You have work to do."
Tony stayed a little longer, but Steve didn’t look at him. He turned his eyes to the river, and watched for a boat.
He caught a trader’s boat, which wasn’t as fast as a courier boat, but they were travelling downstream so it was fast enough. He walked from the docks to Janet’s villa, and found the villa in civilised uproar.
"Oh, thank goodness," Janet cried, and almost fell down the stairs into his arms. Steve could feel himself starting to blush, but Wanda just clasped her hands together and echoed Jan’s words. Bucky dashed in from the direction of the yard.
"You're back," he said with relief. "They said you'd fled."
"You knew I went – out to the country for a few days." He flushed deeper, and set Janet back on her feet. Fled? Had their case advanced? If being with Tony had cost him that -
"Yes, but. Because I didn't know exactly where, they said..." Bucky rubbed at the back of his neck, and looked beseechingly at Wanda.
"Who said?" Steve looked from one to the other. "What? Is there a problem with our witnesses?"
"There have been charges brought against you, Steve," Wanda touched his arm. "For threatening and intimidating witnesses. To speak for you in court."
"That's ridiculous," Steve glared at her. "I don't need to do that."
"I'm not bringing them, Steve, don't you look at me like that." She gave him stare for stare, and he dropped his eyes. "You'll have to go to the court to answer them; tomorrow. It's fortunate you've returned."
"I don’t understand this," Bucky clutched at his hair. "Why go to so much trouble? If she’s bribing witnesses - our village isn’t worth so much. She’s throwing money away."
"Because - " Steve swallowed, and couldn’t tell him that it was all Steve’s fault, that the Emperor was destroying their lives because Steve had angered him. "She’s holding a grudge, I suppose. For us causing her trouble."
"Maybe," Janet said. "I’m only acquainted with her, but she’s always seemed practical. And vendettas aren’t very practical, really."
"She must have some other reason, then," Wanda tapped a lacquered fingernail against her cheek. "We’ll have to look into it."
"There’s no need," Steve said brusquely. "They’ll bring a case, I’ll fight their champion."
"Corruption and bribery cases usually go to juries," Janet took his hand and squeezed it. "That must be why she’s doing this; she knows she hasn’t got a champion who can face you. Wanda, what do you have in mind?"
"Well," she began, and Steve raised his hand.
"No," he said firmly. "This isn’t your concern; we’ve already imposed too much on you. Bucky and I will deal with this. You shouldn’t have to be involved."
"All right," Wanda said softly. "Are you ready? Remember, any sign of trouble, we run. If we get caught, it will go badly for us."
"You don't have to - " Steve tried again, but she clicked her tongue at him in a way that suggested another scolding was imminent and turned towards the wall, shaking out a rope with a steel hook on the end.
"Just be careful," she tossed over her shoulder. She was wearing wrapped pants and vest in a dull dark crimson that blended with the shadows. Steve's own dark greys left him a shadow; he wore a hood to cover his bright hair, and his pale skin was mottled with dirt.
Wanda's grapple lodged atop the wall, and Steve climbed first. The wall was topped with sharp edges, rusty iron blades by the feel of it. Not at all normal security. He gripped the shaft of the hook, and pulled himself up until his chest was level with the top of the wall. He braced himself very carefully with fingers on the edge of the wall before tapping his foot against the wall.
Wanda climbed the rope and then climbed him, getting her feet onto his shoulders. Steve gritted his teeth, and lifted his balance hand, extended it, only his grip on the hook holding them both up. There was a gritty little sound that might have been wall crumbling; Wanda leaned forward and swung off his forearm like an acrobat, dropping down into the darkness.
Silence, and then a soft piping whistle that might have been birdsong but was the clear signal. He put his fingers back where they’d been, and vaulted, balanced for a second on the tips of his fingers before tumbling down into soft earth, crushing mint and thyme underfoot.
"Showy," Wanda murmured, and he grunted and shook out his hands.
"We should pick up a blanket inside to help us get over." They’d very likely be leaving in a hurry.
"We still have to get in." Wanda was lighter on her feet than Steve; he followed her through the narrow paved garden. No lights burned in the domus. "Will she have guards?"
"Maybe." Wanda sounded far too cheerful, considering the risks they were taking.
They trailed round the building to the window Wanda identified as the study; she’d been here to one or two parties, because Janet and Natasha knew each other to nod to at the Emperor’s court.
Wanda slipped a thin blade into the crack of the shutters, and after a moment the swung open. Wanda hopped up, and swung her legs over the sill before melting into the dimness. Steve followed, light and careful as he could manage.
It was a simple study, a low stool, a desk. Wanda’s hands passed over the desk, searching. Then she picked up the inkwell.
"Dry," she breathed. "Perhaps she doesn’t use this room; or she may keep no records. Safer."
"There must be some proof." Steve looked about him, helpless. What if she held it all in her head? Wanda and Janet were scholars, used to writing things down; but Natasha was not, she might not write easily.
"Her household accounts," Wanda turned towards the window. "We may be able to trace the money."
Out the window again, because around the domus was safer than through.
"Where did you learn this?" Steve peered over her shoulder as she slipped the shutter catch.
"I used to be a cat burglar," she said calmly. "It’s how I met Jan; I was robbing her domus." She left Steve gaping outside, and after a moment, she stuck her head back out. "Well, come on."
The steward’s room was small and pokey, but showed the signs of occupation missing from Natasha’s. There were ledgers stacked neatly on the shelf. Wanda half unrolled one, nodded, and shoved the whole stack at Steve.
"Put them in the sack," Wanda ordered. "No time to lose."
"We can’t just steal them. She’ll know - "
"She won’t," and there was a little spark in the dimness, cradled between Wanda’s hands. Another, and another, and then the smell of burning papyrus and Wanda’s grin was positively evil in the flickering light. "Looks like the steward was careless with his candle. I hope she’s not too angry with him."
Janet and Bucky were asleep when they returned, curled up on couches in the front room; Janet awoke when Wanda pressed a kiss to her cheek, and reached instantly for the scrolls Steve produced.
"All right," she said. "Let's see." She sat straight down on the floor, and spread them out around her. "Stylus, tablet," and Wanda hurried to fetch them. She brought an abacus, too, and a pen and three colours of ink, and then went back out for wine and nuts. Janet barely seemed to notice, lost in contemplation, her fingers moving over the narrow columns of tightly written numbers and names. She read with incredible speed; Steve felt lost just watching her. Occasionally she would write a note, a fast scribble, her stylus scoring deeply into the wax.
Steve dozed off at some point, waking up slumped against Bucky’s shoulder. He opened fuzzy eyes to see Janet and Wanda curled together, heads bent over scroll and tablet.
"There are sources I can't account for," she murmured. "Look, here - " Wanda leaned in to look.
"What could this be?"
"That's a lot of money."
"Look - here - she sold land in the East, before the battle. Could that - "
"She couldn't have known that was coming, but it might explain the sudden flow of capital if she sold out."
"What did she buy?"
"Jewellery, looks like." Jan sighed, and stretched her arms over her head. "She has so much land, scattered all over - there’s a lot of money coming in. She can afford to bribe people, but why does she care about Steve’s village? She has several villas." She bent over the papers again. "There’s not much detail here. A bill from a seamstress - hm, looks like she’s preparing for another wedding."
"How do you know?" Wanda peered curiously over her shoulder
"A golden silk toga, with bullion embroidery and a jewellery set to match? From the most expensive seamstress in the city?" Jan shrugged. "Gold is in for weddings, this season."
"She can’t marry yet; her last husband’s been dead only a few months. It would cause talk."
"You’d think people would look at her record." Janet tutted.
"She’s a very wealthy widow."
"Because she’s gone through three rich spouses in as many years."
"All accidents; there’s plenty of men and women who’ll be fooled by those pretty green eyes."
"Well, who can resist pretty green eyes." Janet fluttered her lashes at Wanda, who smiled back.
"How does that - " Steve shook his head, and they both looked up at him. "That doesn’t help. Does it? Could the Emperor be arranging a new marriage for her? Antonius - " he felt his cheeks heat just at the name, "Antonius seemed to think he arranged her last."
"That could be it," Wanda nodded. "In which case, not much help to us now, is it? I don’t see what it can have to do with your village. What’s this?" She pointed at a scroll.
"A gift, but from who? I suppose she didn’t tell her steward. Why is she paying wages to teams of masons? Goodness, her affairs are complicated."
"Perhaps she’s building a villa?" Wanda suggested. "They’re fashionable now, after all. Or she owns some city properties. Perhaps she’s doing them up."
"She’s got a whole troupe of archers she bought in her Eastern province. Let me see," she scrambled through the scrolls. "They must be the ones she’s lodging in the city, yes. At least, she seems to be lodging a lot of people in the city…"
"Why?" Wanda leaned over beside her. "They’ve been there a month. What’s the point?"
"I have no idea. Worried about her safety? Planning to sponsor an arena display?"
Steve could feel his eyelids dropping; he let himself be taken into sleep.
The dawn woke him; Wanda and Janet had fallen asleep, slumped against the couch. He didn’t have the heart to wake them.
He shuffled up to the roof, instead, and looked out blindly over the city. Dawn light made it beautiful and new; already he could hear the morning calls of the peddlers. The half-built apartment block lay still, though; he could see tools propped against walls, waiting to be collected. Perhaps they’d been given the day off; if the owner had a new child, or it was their birthday. Sudden holidays were not so rare, in the hot summer when workers grew sullen and irritable. And it was going to be a very hot day, the sky was blank of clouds and the air still.
"I would've told them where you were this morning, if you weren’t back," Bucky said behind him, and Steve jumped, and then nodded. Clearly, Bucky hadn’t compared notes with Janet. "Was... you're all right, then? It went..."
"As well as could be expected," Steve said shortly. He huddled down into the cushions. Enough to get it out of his system? He wasn't sure. He was, now, starting to doubt the effectiveness of that idea, the idea that once having had warmth and pleasure and the intense attention of a lover, he wouldn't want it anymore.
He already missed the feel of skin pressed against his, lean muscle under his hands, lips drifting the occasional touch over his shoulder. His cock twitched, hopefully, and he gritted his teeth.
"It doesn’t matter," he said. "We have to focus on the case, now. She’s making efforts to…" Had Tony been working for her, to seduce and distract him? He remembered Tony’s surprise, his broad grin - stay, Steve - but surely he hated Natasha. Or perhaps Gregorius had lied about that. He pressed his thumbs to his temples. It was foolish, how much he wanted to believe Tony had been sincere; but all that, all the tenderness and affection were surely easy enough to fake, with experience.
If you knew how, it must be easy to give kisses and kindness without caring at all.
Was he the man she planned to marry next? He pictured Tony’s face, the way his face had fallen into lines of hurt confusion when he talked about her. Could she coax forgiveness from him? And if so, would he be her next victim? Or if Gregorius were lying, perhaps they were all conspiring -
No, that was foolish, he would be seeing plotters behind every bush.
But the Emperor pulled all their strings, and if Tony was right about him - he rubbed at his eyes.
"You must be tired," Bucky said, touching his shoulder, and Steve’s cheeks flared with heat before he realised Bucky meant he’d been awake all night, breaking into villas.
"A little bit."
"You should sleep; you might have to fight, later."
"Yes," and Natasha would no doubt have spent lavishly to hire a quality gladiator. Weariness and distraction could cost him the fight. He rolled to his feet. "All right."
Bucky went for breakfast, and left him alone, which meant he had time to jerk off, furtively, indulging himself with thoughts of Tony’s body and hands and mouth, before washing himself in a bucket of cold water. He didn’t feel much better afterwards, but he dropped into sleep as if he’d been knocked out.
He still felt scratchy eyed at the court; Monica and Gregorius sat in judgement again. Astonishingly, Samuel was the third judge. He nodded, unsmiling, at Steve.
Wanda had accompanied them, apparently out of pure curiosity, or possibly Janet had sent her to stop Steve saying anything foolish.
Natasha arrived at court in a great hurry, her green eyes snapping with anger. Steve glared at her until Wanda pinched his arm. Gregorius sighed, pointedly, and Natasha placed her hand over her heart and bowed her head politely.
"I beg the court’s indulgence," she gritted out. "My home has been subject to indignity of fire-setting - and I suspect it to be no coincidence."
"Does the lady suggest that Steve has graduated from law-abiding citizen, to beating witnesses, and now to arson?" Wanda said coolly. "The city really is corrupting him. It’ll be high treason and piracy tomorrow."
"Did it burn down?" Gregorius raised his eyebrows, and she jerked her head in a nod.
"Ruined," she said tersely. Steve glanced at Wanda, who looked baffled, and amused.
"Well, these things do happen, you know." Monica sounded bored to death with the whole proceeding. "Can we move on? You have laid serious accusations against Stephanus. Please present your case."
"My witnesses have been harassed and threatened by him." She beckoned her clerk forward.
"He told me that if I did not speak up for him in court, and deny the truth, he'd beat me," the man said earnestly. "Well, I was very afraid - "
"That's a lie," Steve snapped. "I did no such thing."
"Surely, this witness is already in question?" Wanda said mildly. "Either Steve is lying, or he is. And if he is already lying - "
"I think more evidence is needed," Monica said, and Natasha smirked.
"I have a written statement from a clerk of the court stating that Steve put pressure on him to assign judges to his taste to this case. I also have evidence that Steve has sought out judges and attempted bribery. Isn’t that right, Gregorius?"
"I - " Gregorius’s face went blank. "What exactly are you referring to?"
"Was it not implied that if Steve won his case, he would come and work for you?"
Steve opened his mouth, and then shut it when Wanda pinched his arm.
"Some… discussion was had about the possibility of my employing him," Gregorius said finally.
"And he has had secret meeting with other judges, and been seen in deep conversation with them; he’s received gifts from them, too," Natasha said smugly. Her eyes flicked up to Samuel, who looked back, impassive. "All strangers to him before he came to the city. He’s worked steadily to try and corrupt the proceedings of the court."
"These are certainly very serious charges," Monica said. "And if Gregorius testifies that you spoke to him of the possibility that a favourable outcome to your trial would benefit him - "
"Indeed," Gregorius said tightly. "But I would not call it an attempted bribe."
"Still, the circumstances together are damning. I think we will need to refer this case to the Imperial court, and convene a full jury.
"Agreed," said Gregorius. Unsurprising; his reputation was at risk, now.
"Nay," and all eyes turned to Samuel, who gave back an imperturbable smile. "The Emperor is deeply concerned by these accusations, Monica."
"So they should be examined in depth," Gregorius put in.
"You know how devout he is." Samuel folded his hands. "The Emperor wishes this to go to trial by combat."
Gregorius' eyes narrowed.
"He's taken a personal interest in this?"
"Then of course we must obey his wish," Monica said. She turned her thoughtful dark gaze on Steve. "I think it would be best to place Steve in custody; we’d hate for anything to happen to the witnesses."
"He might set fire to them," said Wanda brightly. "There’s surely no end to his depravity. Where do you plan on putting him, precisely?"
"He might as well go straight to the amphitheatre," Samuel interjected. "He’ll be comfortable there."
"It’s all right," Steve touched her hand when she seemed about to argue. "I don’t mind."
"Well," Monica sighed. "I’m sure the Emperor will let us know when he wishes the trial to take place." She got to her feet and stamped out, every line in her body singing of irritation.
"The whole domus burned down?" Steve whispered, and Wanda shrugged.
"It shouldn’t have; perhaps there was a storeroom next to the study, with flammables. Never mind, she can’t prove a thing." She stood, and Steve and Bucky trailed her to the door.
Samuel beckoned to him as they exited, and led him a little way down the hall. Carolina was sitting on a bench, staring with rapt attention at a wall painting of three men battling a flock of strange winged beasts. She cast them only the briefest of glances as they moved up beside her.
"Carolina will escort you," Samuel patted her shoulder. "Please don’t try and escape her; I’m quite sure if you two fight, you’ll cause a terrible disturbance to the city’s business."
"Thanks," Steve held out his hand, and Samuel's mouth twisted as he clasped Steve’s forearm.
"Don't thank me yet. I don't think you'll enjoy this." Steve stared into his dark eyes, trying to decipher the expression. Samuel was, of course, the Emperor’s man, and his countryman. He’d come with Nicolas from the South when Nicolas was no more than a local Governor, and stayed by his side all through his meteoric rise. He wouldn’t betray him now for a stranger barbarian.
"Who will I fight?"
"Hawkeye." Samuel’s mouth twisted a little at Steve’s expression.
"But he's an archer," Bucky broke in. "Steve's - "
"I'm not skilled with a bow." Steve frowned. He was competent, but there was no way he could take on an archer of Hawkeye's calibre. "That's – not usual."
Archers were rarely employed in the justice system; only when the defendant's champion was an archer themselves. Archers were dangerous and damaging; they were falling out of favour. Gregorius had frowned when Carolina bid high for Hawkeye, for the Emperor could have little use for an archer.
Unless he had plans to set him against a hand-to-hand fighter, of course.
"This is open injustice," Wanda hissed, bristling like an angry cat. "There will be complaints."
"The Emperor favours our lady's case, then." Bucky turned his back. "We can't fight him."
"I don't think he cares," Samuel said. "I think this is personal. What did you say to the Emperor, to make him angry?"
"I told him no." Steve remembered the baffled irritation in Nicolas' single dark eye. He wasn’t a man used to being told no; certainly not at his coronation games, by the man he’d just awarded freedom to.
"That would do it." Samuel sighed. "You’ll fight in three days, in the arena before the Emperor himself; he plans to make something of a party of it, it seems. You’ll be the culmination of a day’s holy games in honour of the Judge."
"Of course." Steve set his jaw.
"Well, you should be off; I would accompany you, but I fear I have a prior appointment."
Steve watched him sail up to Natasha, who gave him a smug smile.
"I am so grateful for the Emperor’s offer of hospitality at this difficult time," she said sweetly and clearly, so they could not help but hear.
"We are delighted to play host to such a noble lady," Samuel said blandly, and offered his arm to her.
"Well, that’s encouraging," Bucky said sourly. "How can the consul say she’s not favoured by the Emperor, when she’s staying at the palace?"
"Are you ready?" Carolina looked up at them. "I can give you a little time, if you need it."
"No," Steve squeezed Bucky’s shoulder, and Bucky nodded unhappily. "Now is fine."
The cells were clean, but there was damp in the air. Steve hadn't spent long down here before; he'd been moved to better quarters after his first fight, after he'd showed his talents. As a prisoner, he would have to pay for better quarters, and he was disinclined. He was willing to pay the guards to allow him a visitor, though, so Bucky came each morning.
"I saw Hawkeye in the arena," Bucky said on the second day. "He was doing show-tricks. He's good; and they say he was a cavalry archer, too."
Used to moving, used to fighting, used to attack-retreat. Steve nodded, and then looked more closely at Bucky.
"You've been sleeping badly? Don't. I’ll be fine." Steve shook his head. "I’ll beat him, and - "
"He’s an archer."
"I can still beat him. I’ve got my shield." But archers were trouble, were risky, and he was still so rusty. "I’ll be fine."
"Of course," Bucky looked at his hands unhappily. "I had to appear at the court for the village’s case this morning, and plead a stay of judgement; if Antonius hadn't been sitting - "
"He's back?" Steve looked up. Bucky was staring at his hands, twisted in his lap. "I thought - "
"I - well, the lady Janet and I thought - we sent word to - "
"You didn’t." Steve jumped to his feet, and paced the short length of his cell.
"I thought he might have a voice with the Emperor," Bucky admitted. "But I spoke to him after the court today and he said not in this case."
"Of course." Steve rested his head against the cool stones of the wall. Tony surely wouldn’t have come back just for him; he’d already had Steve. Perhaps Janet had begged him, she had said they were friends.
"Did Janet and Wanda find anything more in Natasha’s accounts?"
"Not much. She bought a block of apartments, just off the court with the lion statues; Wanda thinks she might be rebuilding it, which explains the masons. She’d been making arrangements to sell her domus, Janey thinks; there was a note to someone about its value."
"Sell her domus?" That was… odd. According to Antonius, everyone needed a domus close to the palace. "I don’t see how it’s relevant."
"No. She buys a lot of jewellery, receives a lot of gifts. Holds parties. Equips quite a few soldiers in her lands, in several different parts of the Empire."
"None of that is at all unusual." Steve sighed, and settled back onto the narrow bench that was his bed. "Did you talk to the clerk of the court?"
"I couldn’t find him," Bucky said unhappily. "Perhaps Natasha is hiding him."
"Oh well," Steve patted his shoulder. "It makes no difference; they won’t cancel the combat now. The Emperor has his heart set on it."
If this were all the Emperor’s plot against Steve, after all, that was Natasha’s full motivation; he should tell Bucky, tell him it was all Steve’s fault that they might all lose their homes, that Janet and Wanda should stop searching for evidence.
He still couldn’t bring himself to.
It was little surprise, later, when he was removed from his cell and marched past smoking torches and damp walls to one of the larger apartments overlooking the river. Tony reclined on a fat upholstered couch, picking idly at a tray of food; there was a large bowl of steaming water, and a washcloth, and a clean tunic in a bright pure red set on a table. Steve swallowed irritation, stripped off his clothes and began to wash himself down.
It was ridiculous how much better he felt, clean and in clean clothes. He sat down opposite Tony and ate, silently.
"I take it you didn't know Bucky had sent to me?" Tony raised his eyebrows, and Steve shook his head. The food was delicious, of course, startlingly so after two days in the cell. "Of course. I didn't think you'd ask for my help, somehow."
"I didn’t thank you for the shield. And the armour," Steve said grudgingly, and Tony’s face lit into a smile.
"They took me forever to collect," he said with simple pride. "I had to outlive one man, and buy the helmet from his daughter."
Steve ducked his head, too embarrassed to speak further. The thought of Tony patiently collecting the relics of his former life -
"I'm sorry. If I lose, they'll belong to Hawkeye."
"Never mind that, they’re nothing." Nothing, when he’d just said they took him years; he was a strange man. "Will you lose?"
He saw the flights of arrows Hawkeye had unleashed, the unwavering stance, the accuracy.
"I don't know," he admitted. "And if I lose, I'm dead or badly injured. He won't be using blunted shafts."
"You could – " Tony squirmed over onto his back, to stare at the ceiling. "You could concede. Or throw the fight, take an arrow somewhere not too serious."
"And where will I end then? Either rotting in a cell, or more likely the Emperor will have me on the auction block to pay my fine." No doubt the Emperor knew exactly how much money he had; and he'd make sure Janet couldn't pay it, either.
"I’ll buy you," Tony said without hesitation, and Steve flicked him a glare that should have made him shrink.
"Gregorius will buy me." If he was healthy, of course, and then back into the ring. If not... probably Gregorius would buy him anyway, to train and assess, to teach young fighters his tricks. He’d live out his days at the arena, either way, blood and sand and heat. Nicolas would ensure he had no further chance at freedom.
"I’ll buy you," Tony sat up, shifted forward to the edge of the couch, and reached to touch his shoulder. Steve pulled away, and Tony gave him a wounded look. "You’ll go to open auction; there’ll be too much demand for Gregorius to manage a private sale."
"Gregorius expects to make money off me; you just want me for fun. I think he’ll be willing to outbid you." The thought of being anyone’s bed slave was not to be born, he’d - he’d flee, first, make himself outlaw.
"No - no, Steve, I’ll buy you and I’ll free you. You fool. I don’t want you as a slave. I’ll sell my villa if necessary, but I want you free and bad-tempered and just the way you are now."
Steve looked up at him; his blue eyes were bright and earnest. Steve remembered the glow in his eyes as he talked about his precious villa, and felt like a terrible, small person. He grabbed the shoulder of Tony’s tunic, dragged him into a rough kiss, almost upending the table.
"Hey," Tony’s hands smoothed through his hair, down his back. "Hey, now. It's all right."
"I don't want to do this," Steve whispered against his throat. "I don’t want to. I hate this."
"Throw the fight if you want. I'll buy you, and free you. You'll be safe." Tony kept stroking him, like he could rub all the tension out of Steve’s body if he just tried hard enough, and perhaps he could; the heat and smell of his was soothing, the salt taste of his skin against Steve’s lips.
Now he knew it wasn't going to happen, there was a strange appeal to the thought of belonging to Tony; nothing to worry about, no concerns, just doing as he was told and making Tony happy.
But that wasn't true, he still had responsibilities.
"No, I – our case. The village." If he lost this fight, his witnesses would be inadmissible, and the other case would be lost too.
"Oh yes," Tony gave a little sigh. "Of course, your dear friends and your true love. Can't forget them." He ran his fingers through Steve's hair, tipping his head back to meet Tony’s gaze. "I'd like it if we could. For a little while. We have several hours, which I have some plans for."
He probably shouldn't; gladiators weren't supposed to have sex before a fight, he’d heard. It wasn't something he'd ever had to worry about before, except that keeping celibate for the arena was a fine way to turn down advances where the girl back home might not be. If Tony turned him to limp weakness the way he had before -
Never mind, never mind any of it; he let Tony ease him back on to the couch and settle over him, warm lips touching against his temple, his cheekbone.
"Sh," a soft murmur against his skin, and Steve swallowed what might have been a moan or a plea. "Just let me."
It turned out Tony could work all Steve’s tension out; it was hard to worry about anything through the warm golden haze of afterglow, with Tony draped over him like a blanket. It was very nearly perfect, until Tony started to snore. Steve pinched his hip, and he slitted his eyes and glared.
"Talk to me. Is the villa going well?"
"Yes, we’re making good progress; the foundations were almost complete when I left. They’re probably laying the floor by now. Unfortunately it may be a little while before I can get back; as soon as the Emperor saw me he told me I had to oversee his building work. His overseer demolished half the palace wall and then lit out bankrupt." Tony yawned, and wrapped his arms tighter around Steve. "The old wall was crumbling on top - getting quite unsafe, but I don’t see why they couldn’t just repair rather than start from scratch - if they’d consulted me first- but they didn’t. So after this I have to go back and explain to them all how to put brick on brick, and then dear Nicky will come by every evening and ask why I haven’t rebuilt it yet, why am I so slow."
"You shouldn’t have gone to the palace, then," and Tony slanted a grin up at him.
"I needed to ask him for some help; a friend of mine has this troublesome court case, you know."
"Oh," Steve hugged him tighter, annoyance and pleasure warring. "You didn’t have to do that."
"I know. It was pure self-interest; I was hoping I could help, and then you’d flutter your eyelashes, and say my hero," and Steve had to chuckle at the breathy tones he affected. "You could do that anyway, of course."
"Thank you," Steve muttered instead, and pressed a kiss to his temple. Tony made a noise very like a purr, and stretched in his arms, skin sticking and peeling with dried sweat.
"Not a problem. Ugh, this is foul." He sat up, and went to splash himself down with the cooling water. "It’s too hot. Next summer, I’ll spend it all out at my villa."
"I’ll have it up by the harvest-time, and then I’ll have the winter for the mosaics and murals. You can help me choose the designs, if you like." He smiled, as if offering a treat; Steve shook his head.
"I’ll be gone by then."
"So you will; never mind, then." Tony turned his back, dabbling in the water again. "You only come to the city when forced, of course."
"That’s right." Steve watched the muscles move in Tony’s back, and wondered if it was too soon to ask for another round. "Maybe I could come and see your villa when it’s done…" He bit his lip, feeling like a fool; sex made him stupid, obviously.
"I’d like that." Tony sounded sincere enough. He sat back down on the edge of the couch. "I’d like it better if I thought you meant it."
"I do. We’ll see. I might not be able to, anyway. I still have a fight…"
"It’ll be fine. You’ll win your fight," he picked up Steve’s hand, and kissed the fingers. "I’m counting on you; I’ve made a large bet."
"You haven’t." Steve tried to sound disapproving, he really did; but Tony’s faith in him was warming.
"I’ve bet on every fight you’ve had, and you’ve never let me down. Maybe you’re my good luck token."
"Maybe you’re mine." He drew Tony’s hand to his lips, and Tony leaned down over him, snuggling close, skin cool and damp. Steve felt quite sure that if this continued, he was going to say unforgivably stupid things to Tony, possibly about the way he felt when Tony looked at him like that.
"Then it’s a good thing I bet on you. You’ll come to my party afterwards, won’t you? I always throw parties on holidays." He widened his eyes, pleading.
"No," Steve looked away. "I hate parties."
"But you like me, so you’ll come to my party to see me." Tony kissed his brow. "Won’t you?"
"I - " Steve swallowed. This would all be over soon, and he’d go home, and - "Oh, fine. All right. I won’t stay long, though."
Tony just kissed him again, grinning, as if he knew Steve would stay for as long as Tony wanted.
Hawkeye was no adherent of the Warrior, it seemed; Steve had the small shrine to himself. Carolina had escorted him down, and now lurked in the narrow passageway as Steve walked and hummed, trying to recapture a sense of direction, of conviction.
"What are your gods like?" he said suddenly.
She walked to the doorway and peered in at him.
"Private," a small smile took the sting out of her words. "Secret. They’re mysteries."
"Do they have power here?"
"They’re gods," her brow crinkled. "The have power wherever their people are."
"Oh." Was that how it worked? Steve looked at the dim etchings over the altar. Maybe that was the problem; Steve was doubting, and so he couldn’t feel a thing. "Is that why you’ve stayed?" There was silence, and he turned back to see Carolina staring, expression puzzled. "I mean, if your gods are here with you?"
"I stay because… because there, I was a berserker, always on campaign in the snow, and here I live in a palace with servants to make my breakfast. When my hair turns grey, maybe I’ll take my savings and go back and build myself a nice domus in the big town and marry a nice young husband." Her mouth quirked. "Maybe two. We’ll see how much I’ve saved."
Steve had to laugh, a chuckle that was absorbed by the crumbling brick walls.
"You’re close to the Emperor, aren’t you?" Her face closed, went blank. "If I win, what then? What next?"
"I don’t know what you mean." She turned, and drifted back up the tunnel a few steps; Steve sighed, and returned to his preparations. He couldn’t think about the future now; there might, after all, be no future. He had a brief macabre vision of himself bleeding out on the sands, luck or divine favour or skill finally run out.
He stripped down to skin, and began the process of oiling his skin, starting with the backs of his hands and working up his arms. Shoulders, chest, as much of his back as he could reach, belly and ass and thighs. Not that it was likely to come to grappling, not against an archer, but no sense in taking chances.
Loincloth, with blue scale and leather straps; there were two sheaths with short knives, for close combat. A scale sleeve for his right arm, that covered half his chest and strapped under the opposite arm; a longer sheath dropped down his spine there, with a long narrow dagger. He’d used that one primarily for slitting throats. Red sandals, securely laced - he bounced and danced and kicked, and then checked them again. A loose sandal at the wrong time could be a death sentence.
Red gloves, close-fitted, padded over the knuckles. He dropped the helmet over his head, but left the strap loose for now. And finally the shield, firmly on his left arm.
"It’s almost time," Carolina’s voice carried from the passageway. "Are you ready?"
"I don’t know," Steve turned to look at her, hair blazing gold in the torchlight. "Does it matter?"
"Not at all." She turned, and he paused to put out the candles before following her torch up the passageway.
He rubbed chalk into the palms of his gloves as he waited in the tunnel. Now, his tension was fading, draining out of him, leaving his breathing and heartbeat slow. This was familiar, he’d been here before a hundred times. Every fight was new, a hundred victories meant nothing, he’d never been here before.
He could see through the bright arch, across the sands to the opposite wall, and the dark pit that was the tunnel Hawkeye waited in.
Steve bounced on his toes, stepped from foot to foot. Sweat was already limning his skin, mixing with the oil.
Trumpets blew, and he jogged forward, not waiting for Carolina’s signal. He felt light, floating, as if he could kick against the sand and rise into flight.
The crowds were quiet, as quiet as a full house could ever be, the soft growl of thousands of men and women breathing and whispering and fidgeting and sighing. He and Hawkeye paced up before the Emperor, who looked down at them from his one eye. Natasha was seated at his right hand, her face framed in gold. She turned her head to murmur in the Emperor’s ear, eyes never leaving Steve, and he flashed a smile at her, teeth very white against his dark skin.
Hawkeye cast Steve a slow, assessing glance; no cockiness or over-confidence in evidence. Too bad.
Gregorius was sitting below the Imperial box, white robes standing out amid the richness of the court. His face was rigid. Tony was sitting next to him, face as close to serious as Steve had ever seen it; he smiled when he met Steve's eyes, an awkward, jerky thing.
No use searching the crowd for anyone else.
"Unless anyone would like to withdraw," the Emperor said, clearly enough to reach Steve's ears. Natasha raised her chin. Gregorius jerked, probably at a kick from Tony; but he showed no other sign. He didn't want this; didn't want Steve damaged, but he couldn't withdraw his evidence now; it would incriminate him, anyway. Tony was a fool to think it even possible.
The drop back, to their different sides of the arena; Hawkeye was sleek and powerful, moving like a dancer, sure footed. He bristled with arrows, and there were more lying about the arena. Hardly fair. Steve's lips curled in a grin. That answered the question of whether Nicolas Furious had been angry at him for rejecting his offer. It seemed amusing, now, to know that the Emperor could be so petty. He bent to examine one; a leaf-shaped blade, for hunting, that would draw easily from flesh. No sign of foulness on the edge, either.
He snapped off the arrowhead, and held it clamped between the fingers of his right hand as he moved around the curve of the arena wall. Dry sand, shifting, not too deep; the sun was still high, so no serious worries about getting it in the eyes.
Trumpets marked the start of the match.
He ran, fast, a burst of speed Hawkeye hadn't expected, from the way the arrows pattered behind him. Some big men were slow; Steve wasn't. He curled his path, leaned into the curve he made to present a smaller target, shield angled towards Hawkeye. He could throw the shield, of course, but that was a trick he'd used often; Hawkeye must know about it, would expect it. So. He changed direction, skidding, one hand coming up to the strap of his helmet, and then skidded again; he lost speed on the turns, of course, and an arrow passed so close he could feel the wind. But he was angled right now; his shadow falling just slightly towards Hawkeye, the sun was too high to be in his eyes now -
Steve threw his helmet, high and far, and while Hawkeye back-pedalled fast, eyes squinting up and then down, Steve ran, fast and hard, shield held up, defending his head and chest. If Hawkeye was willing to risk getting hit by three pounds of metal, he could brace position and shoot Steve down.
The arrows that glanced from his shield told Steve Hawkeye wasn't taking the risk. Even so, even backing away, Hawkeye was good, and then the helmet was clearly not going to hit him and Hawkeye skidded to a stop and lined up for a more accurate shot. Close enough Steve could make out his narrowing eyes; close enough, and he threw his balance back and skidded, feet ploughing through the sand, twisting, tumbling, sand billowing up around him.
A final roll, mark Hawkeye's place and shut his eyes; all guesswork from here.
His shield spun from his arm, and he plunged sideways, one palm to the ground with enough force to send pain jolting through his shoulder, enough to send the length of his body tumbling, feet kicking high in the air, more sand – the whistle of the bow string came at the same time as the crunch of shield on sand, and this was where he had to pray that Hawkeye wasn't willing to risk a hit from the shield any more than he was the helm.
A line of fire scored along his flank, not a solid enough hit to turn him off balance, and he slitted his eyes as his feet met the floor again to see Hawkeye ducking under the bounce of the shield. Steve ignored it, and threw all his weight towards Hawkeye, lunging out so far his muscles screamed; he saw Hawkeye's eyes widen as he realised his danger and tried to twist away.
A push off his toes that carried him the last inch; Hawkeye was out of reach, but his bow was not; Steve's fingers hooked into the space between bow and string. A sharp jerk, and the arrowhead held between his fingers sliced through the bowstring; Steve shut his eyes again as he dropped palms-first to the ground.
The whipping sound as the string lashed through the air almost drowned the faint crack of wood from the bow; the crunch of wood meeting flesh, followed by a rasping cry of pain. A strung longbow had enough leashed force to take down an ox. Steve bounced back up off the sand, gathering his feet under him, and one long step brought him close enough to apply his heel forcefully to the back of Hawkeye's head, smashing his face into the earth. Kick away the broken bow, strip off his quiver, his hands were empty, no sheathed weapons; down and out. Almost by instinct, Steve drew the long dagger at his spine and put one foot on the back of Hawkeye's neck. One sharp cut under the jaw -
The noise of the crowd seeped back in, hysterical yelling, he was aware of blood oozing down his side, his eyes burning with sweat. He felt suddenly heavier. His toes hurt, and his palms stung, and the sunlight was too bright. Slight pressure against the sole of his foot as the man struggled, feebly, to rise, hands pushing weakly at the sound. Steve felt sick, a little.
Win or die, they’d told him in the shrine beneath the arena; kill or be killed. It had never really been true, there had always been mercy there for the giving, but Steve had never hesitated. Not then.
He looked up, blinking away sweat. They were back in front of the Imperial box; there was Gregorius, face blank and empty, and Tony, pale and sweating and obviously relieved. Steve looked down, to make sure Hawkeye wasn't going anywhere, and then looked back to Tony and extended his empty hand, hefting the knife with the other. Tony went still, eyes widening comically.
"Well?" his throat was dry, voice a croak, but Tony wouldn't have heard him if he'd shouted. "Death or mercy?"
Tony shoved his hand out, palm open and down, no attempt at dignity or gravity. "Mercy," he mouthed, as if Steve might misunderstand him, and that might have been of course after it. Tony was a kind man. Soft, a fool, but kind.
Steve resheathed his dagger, and leaned to help Hawkeye up. He staggered against Steve, unstrung bow still gripped in his hand, and looked at him out of blurred and bloody eyes.
"Sorry," Steve told him, and Hawkeye shook his head. His knees were buckling; Steve carefully scooped him up, ignoring his sound of protest, and turned his back on the Imperial box to trudge towards the nearest tunnel, kicking his shield up into his hand on the way. Behind him, he heard trumpets, and the roaring crowd; they blurred out when he reached the cooler dimness of the tunnel.
Physicians were waiting. Steve let Hawkeye down gently, and helped him up to sit on the padded bench.
"I’m sorry," he said again, and Hawkeye rolled his eyes.
"So sorry you were going to finish me off?" he said in a muffled voice. At least his jaw wasn’t broken.
"No, I - " Steve shrugged. "That wasn’t going to happen." He’d known when he offered it to Tony what Tony would choose. He hopped up on a different bench at a physician’s urging, and submitted to being examined. The arrow score burned.
"Huh," Hawkeye looked away. "I don’t care. I’m not dead. Don’t care that you won; I’ve no investment in pleasing them."
"That bastard. The Emperor. And that bitch," he grinned, awkwardly. "Not much choice, really. Slavery’s like that."
"You’re from the Northern provinces?" Steve guessed, and Hawkeye nodded.
"Living out beyond the border, in the snowlands; got caught up in a bandit raid; family… " He shook his head. "Went after them. Got caught up in a skirmish and taken prisoner by this lot. Just my luck. Five weeks ago I was up to my ass in snow, now I’m melting away on the sands."
"You’re a soldier, though."
"Used to be. Retired. Said I was done with the killing life; going to settle down. And now they’ve got me back in harness again." He sighed. "Can’t win, sometimes."
"Hawkeye?" Carolina appeared in the doorway. "You look better than I expected."
"Thanks a lot," Hawkeye spat, good nature vanishing. "What do you want now?"
"You’re to be moved to the Palace." She walked over to survey him more closely. "The Emperor was pleased with your showing; you’ll be attended by his own physicians."
"Be still, my beating heart," Hawkeye tried to get up, and yelped when his knee started to give way; Steve started to slip down, but Carolina caught his arm and hefted him back onto the bench. The physician at Steve’s side grumbled at him, and began slathering on some cool ointment.
"Sit still, idiot," Carolina's irritation showed through her smooth mask. "There’s a stretcher coming."
"What if I don’t want to go to the palace?" Hawkeye settled back into place.
"I don’t remember giving you a choice. You don’t refuse the Emperor’s honours if you know what’s good for you." Her eyes flicked towards Steve, briefly, and Hawkeye snorted.
"Fine," he went silent, eyes on his hands. Steve shifted so he could be bandaged, and Carolina gave him a distant smile.
"An excellent fight, Steve. Very impressive."
"I think there’s a carriage waiting for you at the north gate; I had someone go to fetch your clothes from the shrine." She turned her attention back to Hawkeye, and Steve slipped down and past her, ignoring the offers of treatment for his scraped hands.
He hesitated at the gate, looking out; there were plenty of carriages, and he had no idea - then he saw Tony’s boatman, sitting on the box of a coach. Unsurprisingly, the two horses harnessed to it were the finest he’d ever seen. Of course, the party; Tony intended to ensure his attendance. He’d be cock-a-hoop about being asked for the mercy sign, Steve would have to think of some excuse -
As soon as he opened the carriage door, Tony’s strong dark hands grabbed his tunic and dragged him in.
"Steady," he muttered, wrapping his arms around Tony’s body, feeling a surge of pleasure at his presence. "I have injuries."
"Steve," Tony's mouth covered his. "Steve. Steve." He broke away to tug at Steve's belt, and Steve just let him, let him strip the light tunic over his head and survey him, naked but for his sandals and bandages. The coach rocked as it set off, but Tony didn't even seem to notice. "Not serious," he decided, and then pulled him back in for another kiss. "I was - " Another kiss, hot and sloppy. "I wasn’t worried, I knew you’d win. Lie down."
"What?" Steve pulled away, and Tony shrugged off his toga, threw it down and added the cushion from the coach seat.
"On your back. Come on." He ran his nails down Steve's chest, scratched gently over his thighs, and Steve made a low sound and let himself be pushed down, half-curled up in the cramped space, and shut his eyes when Tony settled between his thighs. His body opened for oiled fingers as Tony's mouth slid down over his cock, and soon he was rocking frantically between mouth and hand, trying not to thrash and arch as his flank burned.
"Please," he gasped as Tony pulled back, mouth gleaming wet in the dim light. "Don't stop."
"Lie still," and he put his hands down either side of Steve's head and slid into him. The rocking of the carriage drove him in deep, and Steve moaned loudly - no matter, the sound of the carriage would drown him out - and tangled his hands in Tony's tunic, tried to drag him down close, but his hands were clumsy and slipped on the fine linen.
"Mmm," Tony ground deep into him. "Oh, God. I - " he shivered. "Steve. Oh, that was - the fantasies I’ve had - I used to watch all your matches, and you never showed mercy and you never looked to anyone, you just stared through the crowds as if we were all invisible and I used to dream of your turning to me, seeing me, I would - oh, Steve." He dipped in fast for a kiss.
"Is that what this is?" Steve forced out, even as his back arched and he tried to drag Tony in deeper. "Some childish infatuation with a gladiator?"
"I suppose so," Tony cupped his face. "I wanted you so much, then, and you won all your fights and went home in glory. When I saw you again - " Another kiss, another, and Steve couldn’t think, could only feel, vision fracturing into white.
Steve drifted until Tony’s sandalled foot poked him in the ribs, on his unwounded side. He curled upwards and slumped comfortably into Tony's lap, arms around his waist, and Tony chuckled and ruffled his hair.
"I like you like this, and you can stay like this if you want, but I think you'll prefer clothes for the street." The carriage wasn't rocking any more; no sound of hoofbeats. But it was quiet, no raucous uproar, no singing or shouting. Steve staggered to his feet, wobbly as a newborn colt, and dragged his tunic back on. He couldn't find his belt, and he must look a dishevelled mess; perhaps he could say it was from the fight. Perhaps he could slip away, and find somewhere quiet to lie down.
He stepped out into an almost silent, dim street, and looked around him in confusion. This street wasn't lit, and the buildings were insulae, two and three floors high, small and packed close together.
"Where are we?"
"I have a little bolthole here," Tony explained, knocking on the door. "In case of emergency, like annoying the Emperor."
"But why - aren’t you having a party?" The door opened to reveal a modestly dressed young woman, who didn't speak as they passed, just bolted the door behind them. He heard the carriage pull away.
"Yes, but I decided not to go. They’ll manage without me. I thought you’d like something quieter." Tony led him up the stairs, and into a luxuriously appointed room, with a large window facing the river, and a huge bed. Steve eyed it covetously. Sleep. No, sex. No, sleep. But - they were expected.
"But if we’re both not at your party, people will - " Tony put a finger to his lips.
"Steve, I think - after the fight - " After he'd turned to Tony like a slave to a master, asking permission -
"They all know." Steve slumped. Idiot, idiot, he might as well have let Tony fuck him in the public square. All the city knew, now, that he was letting Tony have his way. Did it make a difference, really? He’d won his fight, he’d proved Natasha’s witnesses liars, that should carry his case at least back to the ring. It didn’t even matter that he was sleeping with a judge. And then he could go home, and it wouldn’t matter if they gossiped about him in the city.
"Never mind," Tony murmured, moving away, and Steve felt faint relief at the clink of ceramic on metal. He could really use a drink. Several drinks; Tony was a bad influence.
He threw the first straight down his throat, and held out the cup; Tony poured him another one.
"Don't make yourself sick," he said, and Steve snorted.
"That's rich, coming from you."
"From the expert." They settled on the bed together, leaning back against the pillows. There were piles of silver-grey clouds against the dark sky, lit by the moon somewhere out of sight. "What's wrong, Steve?"
"Nothing," Steve finished his drink, and then took Tony's out of his hand. Tony sighed, and poured himself another. "I don't know. No, nothing."
"You don't seem very happy."
"I... why should I be?"
Tony gave a self-deprecating laugh, ran a hand through his hair. "You know, you're good for my pride. Some people actually enjoy my company."
"I didn't mean that." Steve leaned up against him, and rubbed his cheek against his shoulder. It would be nice, to be able to explain the odd combination of nerves and contentment Tony made him feel.
"I don't make you happy. Surely, with... all you are, you could find someone who does?" Tony took his hand, and Steve shrugged. "Is it... you just hate the city that much? You're happy at home?"
"Not really," Steve took another drink. "My sweetheart married my best friend and I live next door to them. And they have children and they're very happy."
"They what?" Tony said indignantly, and Steve had to snicker at his expression. "That's - "
"They thought I was dead." He tried to push closer, but really, there was no closer unless he climbed into Tony’s lap. That thought had potential. "I don’t blame them, not a bit. I was here, though, and I dreamed for years about going home to her, but - "
"Steve, that was years ago," Tony sounded annoyed, now. Steve really hoped that wouldn’t affect his chances of sex. "Do you just live next to them and brood?"
"No. Yes. What else is there to do?"
"You're still in love with her?"
He shut his eyes, and pictured Gail's soft eyes and firm mouth, her cloud of red hair and her strong, capable hands. The familiar, distant ache in his gut at the thought of what he could never have. "I think I always will be."
"Well, that sounds like a lovely way to live." Tony’s hand slid into his hair. "So… you were faithful to Gail all those years?"
"Of course," Steve frowned at him. "I promised - "
"And you've been living chastely in your little village all this time?" Steve's frown deepened, and he could feel his cheeks burning.
"None of your business." There was no law saying a person had to have lovers; Steve had gotten along perfectly well without them. Tony shook his head, a half-smile lighting his face.
"What do you want from me, Steve?"
Steve leaned over, and put his face into the curve of Tony's neck, breathing in sweat and spice. When he shut his eyes, he could clearly see Tony’s wide-eyed, worried face; he’d been so very concerned for Steve.
"Don't you know?"
"Not really." Warm arms around him, hands petting through his hair, and wasn’t that all of it? Steve wanted this, all the time, wanted Tony’s kindness and his body and his voice.
"I hoped you would."
"I really do not understand you for a moment." Tony shook his head.
"Why do you need to? I won’t be here much longer. I just need to defeat Natasha’s champion, and I’m going home." He’d hoped that Tony would show some sign of sadness; he just nodded.
"I don’t know who her champion would be; she won’t be allowed to use her archers. I thought she’d sell them all off, but she only sold Hawkeye. Maybe they didn’t get on."
"What?" Steve frowned through the haze of wine. That bitch, Hawkeye had said; he’d assumed Carolina. "Hawkeye wasn’t one of hers?"
"She did. She sold him."
"Hawkeye’s not from the East. He’s from the North." Steve considered that. If she had a troupe of archers from her Eastern lands, why would she want a Northern archer? She wouldn’t. That was why she’d sold him.
Five weeks though. Hawkeye had been in the snowlands five weeks ago, why would Natasha by and resell him?
"I’m sure. I saw her clerk sign him over to the auctioneer; I was watching out for the archer. Why?"
"No reason. Just…" Steve tapped his cup against Tony’s, trying to think. It was probably nothing; she’d bought him on a whim, and then resold him. "Natasha keeps on doing strange things. I heard she was going to sell her domus."
"Maybe she thinks buying a new one will be easier than rebuilding? I should make an offer for the land before she realises. It’s not like she can stay in the palace forever; people will talk. It’s already raising eyebrows." Tony sounded bitter; Steve wriggled his arm around Tony’s waist, and squeezed. "I suppose I shouldn’t feel bad; she always had grander ambitions. I can hardly compete with an Emperor."
"I’m quite sure they’re sleeping together. They’ll be keeping it a secret; gossip, and talk, and dignity, and reputations. All those things." Tony snorted. "Never mind. If I’d married her I wouldn’t have you in my bed, and that would be a great pity."
"The walls you’re working on," Steve said. There was something, some idea forming, a plan taking shape. Masons. Archers. Inheritance. "Where’s the infirmary?"
"What?" Antonius gave him a puzzled look. "What’s going on?"
"If someone was in the palace infirmary, could they see the walls you’re working on?"
"I think she’s going to assassinate the Emperor," he said in mild surprise, and Antonius made an inquiring little noise. "She’s going to station an archer on top of her apartment block, and shoot him when he goes to inspect the walls."
"Of course; I’m not there, so he’ll take advantage to crawl all over the walls looking for problems. And the walls are in view of the infirmary, and Hawkeye goes nowhere without his bow." Tony nodded. "What then?"
"Palace coup, I suppose. Take out anyone who isn’t loyal to her. Oh. Oh." The Emperor in the chapel beneath the arena, gleaming gold in the torchlight… had that been a woman beyond him, dressed in matching gold? "They’re married."
"So she has an inheritance claim to the throne; which will put her in an excellent position to gain Senatorial confirmation, and then she’ll be the Empress in her own right." Tony nibbled his bottom lip, brow furrowing. "Yes, that makes sense. It even explains your court case; she’d want to ensure as many inheritance rights as possible. Wait, does that work?" He frowned. "No, because if the Emperor plotted that - "
"We should… we should do something about this." Steve sat up, and his head spun. Far too much to drink.
"If you want," Tony rolled to his feet. "I’ll get the carriage, I suppose."
"I - " Steve blinked, and shook his head to try and clear it. "Quickly, Tony!"
Tony took the reins, and drove them at an alarming pace through the city, urgency having somehow pierced the fog of wine. Steve held on tight as it swayed wildly on its wheels. Surely Nicolas would have gone out already - or perhaps not, by the time he had finished at the amphitheatre and greeted his guests, it would be much later. Perhaps even now he was headed for the walls, torches in the darkness lighting them up for the archer.
They should have gone for the archer, instead of going to the palace. But then there wouldn’t be any evidence; or would there? They could prove Natasha had bought the archers, they had her ledgers.
The palace gates were open wide; the guards made no move to stop the fine carriage with its gleaming horses. The broad courtyard was crowded with other carriages, with sedan chairs, and to the west there were boats at the landing stage. Too many people, scattered around. Steve opened the door and leapt out as Tony reined in the horses.
"Go to - " he hesitated. The walls would be dangerous, Tony could be hurt - and better his word, a Senator’s word, that Hawkeye had nothing to do with it. "Go and find Hawkeye."
Steve turned and ran toward the north wall, hurdled low walls and benched and storming straight through carefully laid out beds of herbs. He could make out the bulk of the wall, with the half-demolished chunk.
As he closed, he could see a dark figure in heavy robes mounting the wall; he lunged forward, bounding up the half-built scaffolding, heard shouts around him and the sound of weapons being drawn - too slow, too careless, and he collided solidly with the dark shape and tumbled them both down just as he stepped up to be silhouetted in the cleft of the wall.
The hissing sound of arrows overhead; cries of pain; Steve rolled them back down, tumbling over bricks and tools and down into cover.
Rough hands dragged them apart, and Steve was pinned back against the wall, hemmed in by shields. In the torchlight he could see two bodies lying on the ground, each with a blue-flighted arrow in them.
"Let him be," said - Samuel? Steve stared as Samuel sat up, carefully. "Looks like I owe you my thanks, Steve."
"What - " Steve stared, dumbly. "Where’s the Emperor?"
"Good question," Samuel made a face. "He sent me - "
"Murder!" shrieked a voice somewhere in the grounds, and Steve instinctively dropped into a crouch. "Murder! The Emperor is dead! The Emperor is dead!"
"Shit," Samuel said, and stumbled up and into a run, heading towards the clamour.
Had the archer on the walls been a diversion, then? But Sam had surely been mistaken for the Emperor in the half-light. Steve tried to arrange his thoughts. If Natasha had murdered the Emperor, she’d move to the next step, and take out his loyalists - or any witnesses -
Hawkeye? Hawkeye would surely be held to account for the shootings in the garden. Better he was dead than talking, and there might be witnesses who could attest to his innocence, so she had to kill them all -
And of course there was at least one witness, Steve had ensured it, he’d sent Tony in there unarmed like a lamb to the slaughter.
He ran towards the building, and elbowed his way through the panicking throng of partygoers. Up the main flight of stairs, and a turn - he tried to think, correlate the angle of the building from the outside - but then there was a deep sound like a bass drum so vast it shook the bones, and Steve ran towards it.
He heard the fight before he saw it; figures in armour, crowding in a blackened hallway, bodies being trampled underfoot. Hawkeye must be holding the door. Steve stripped sword and shield from a fallen body, and charged.
Nothing but slaughter, they didn’t see him coming and he cut them down like wheat. Falling bodies sent others stumbling, into range of the armoured figure in the door, gleaming golden with a red cloak, who cut them savagely down.
Steve backed off, holding up his hands, as the last fell and the sword swept up to point at him.
"Drop it," a familiar voice barked, and the visor came up to reveal Carolina’s blood-spattered face.
"Is Antonius here?" He tightened his grip on the sword hilt, assessing her.
"Present," Tony chirped from inside the room. "Carolina sweet, he sent me here to guard Hawkeye."
"And went to the Emperor, who’s dead," she said grimly.
"But - "
"He is indeed," a cool feminine voice sounded in the hallway, and Steve turned to see Natasha, wearing black, at the head of a group of armed men; no palace guard, but plain black tunics. "I am, tragically, a widow once again. Isn’t that right, Carolina?"
A pause, and then Carolina nodded, a quick unwilling jerk of her head. "Yes."
"And I hold the Empire until such time as the Senate confirms or denies my position?" she pressed, and Carolina nodded again.
"And my first step must be to take revenge on my husband’s murderer. Carolina, bring Hawkeye out."
"Hawkeye hasn’t murdered anyone," Carolina said. "I have not left him since the amphitheatre; he hasn’t even strung his bow."
"My dear Carolina, the Emperor was shot down in the garden by one of Hawkeye’s arrows. If you claim his innocence, I have no choice but to believe you a conspirator. Bring out Hawkeye, and you will continue to hold your honoured position in the Imperial household. If not…" she lifted her hand, and the soldiers behind her moved to the ready position. Carolina smacked her visor down into place; Steve raised his shield. Natasha made a little tutting sound. "If you must."
"Steve?" Tony’s voice floated out. "Get down." And he leaned past Carolina to throw something small, something with a small flame attached to it, before yanking Carolina into the room. Steve dived after them, and behind them the deep bass noise sounded again, and there was a bright light.
"What - " Steve’s voice rang oddly in his ears. "What was that?"
"The Emperor’s physicians dabble in alchemy," Tony explained in a far-off voice. "Go and finish them off, won’t you? Take Natasha alive."
Natasha was still alive; several of her soldiers were still afoot, weakly. She was bleeding and charred, but bared her teeth at them.
"This is treason," she rasped. "I am - "
"Here!" the clatter of feet in the passage behind Natasha; the celeres, this time, the Imperial guard under Carolina’s command. Natasha froze for a second, and then she turned and ran towards them, crying out.
"Help, help! They’re in there - the assassins! I tried to capture them, but they killed the guards - "
"Nonsense," Carolina pushed her visor back. "Celeres, arrest that woman; for suspected conspiracy to murder the Emperor."
"I am the Empress," Natasha hissed. "I am the Emperor’s widow, and you will obey me."
"I believe you run ahead of yourself, my darling," came an all too familiar voice, and Steve’s mouth dropped open. Emperor Nicolas pushed through his guards, dressed in identical armour and helm, and took Natasha’s chin in his hand. "It would appear some excitable person raised the alarm too early."
"Darling," she covered his hand with her own. "Oh, dear Nicolas, I feared you dead! It was my first thought to avenge you - "
"Lies," Carolina snapped. "She sought to pin the murder on Hawkeye."
"She’s lying," Natasha turned beseeching eyes up, and Nicolas smiled at her.
"I ordered Carolina to stay with Hawkeye until I came personally to relieve her of duty," he said, and Natasha tensed. "And, my love, I was watching when the arrows fell. They didn’t come from inside the palace."
"Then I was wrong," Natasha said. "And I’m sorry. I - " she hiccuped, and blood dripped down her chin. Her eyes widened, and she slumped sideways, and tumbled to the floor.
"Oh dear," the Emperor sheathed his dagger. "The lady appears to have taken poison. How upsetting."
"What?" Tony appeared in the door of the infirmary, clutching what appeared to be another lethal package. "Natasha?" His face was pale.
"Ah, excellent," the Emperor said. "An impeccable witness to Natasha’s actions."
"She’s dead?" Tony rushed forward, and the Emperor stepped forward to catch him by the arms.
"A tragedy. Give me that." And they wrestled briefly over what Tony held. "Take the body away."
"No, I - " Tony tried to sidestep, and then sagged against the Emperor. "Was that necessary?"
"She realised that she couldn’t be permitted to live after trying to murder me." The Emperor pushed Tony firmly towards Steve; Tony turned and grabbed a handful of Steve’s tunic, and Steve put an arm around his waist. Nicolas grinned, widely. "Poor judgement on my part, to marry her. Still, all’s well that end’s well. Carolina, is Hawkeye - "
"He’s well," she said. "Out cold; the physicians gave him something to make him sleep."
"I think you can leave him now. Escort Antonius and Stephanus out. Stephanus has a court date in the morning, I believe."
"What?" Steve said incredulously. "She’s a traitor. And - she’s dead."
"Justice marches on," his smile widened even further, mirthless. "As her husband, of course, I am heir to all her lands and positions. It’s funny how things work out, isn’t it Stephanus?"
"I," Steve shut his eyes. Carolina took him gently by the arm, and he let her lead him away, pulling Tony along with him. "I don’t believe this."
"It’ll be all right," Tony said tiredly, turning his head into Steve’s neck. "I’ll talk to Nicolas. He won’t have his heart set on some stupid vista."
"He will if that was why he sent Natasha there in the first place," Steve growled. "Why did I save - I didn’t even save his life." The great entry hall was empty, now; all the partygoers cleared out or fled. Carolina took them out a side exit, where the carriage had been tied up.
"You didn’t?" Tony peeled himself away.
"It was Samuel."
"Oh. Well, I’m glad you saved Sam." Tony turned to hug Carolina, rubbing his cheek against her armoured golden shoulder. "Good night, lovely."
"Go home, Tony." She pushed him gently towards the carriage.
Steve climbed in, and leaned back against the seat cushions. Then he frowned as Tony shut the carriage door without getting in. "Where are you going?"
"We left the coachman, remember? I have to drive." Tony gave him a tired smile.
"Oh," it seemed entirely unfair that Steve had to sit in the carriage on his own; but he didn’t have the energy to protest. He shut his eyes instead.
A night’s sleep, with Tony clinging, made things look better. Waking up to Tony’s mouth on his cock made everything look positively rosy. By the time he sat down on the bench outside the courtroom, he felt prepared to face the next volley the Emperor sent at him.
Samuel and Carolina sat down, one of either side of him. Steve looked from one to the other.
"It would appear the lady Natasha has long been in contact with destabilizing elements in the Empire," Sam said.
"She planned to replace him, and reorder the Empire to her liking and that of her allies," Carolina added. "The Emperor considers you have done him a service in exposing her perfidy."
"Will it make up for not taking his job?" Steve said tiredly. "I know he sent her out there after me."
"The Emperor doesn't hold petty grudges," Samuel said smoothly. He was a very accomplished liar. Had the Emperor intended for him to die on the wall? Did he realise?
"Did he know she was a traitor?" he asked instead.
"Why would he marry a traitor?" Carolina’s face was well-suited to innocence; you’d think she didn’t realise Nicolas had inherited a vast fortune from his wife. "The Emperor is grateful. What do you want?"
"My case resolved in my favour?"
"The Emperor would not dream of interfering with the course of justice," Sam said. "The next landlord will have to decide whether to pursue the case."
"The Emperor holds her lands now."
"And the Emperor is very grateful," Samuel said with a sigh in his voice, as if Steve were a slow student. "What would you like?"
"The village? I mean – I would like to be granted Natasha's lands."
"Not all of them, of course." Carolina smiled. "But the prefecture your village is in; yes, I believe the Emperor will agree to that."
"That does mean you'll owe him military duties," Sam added, and Steve shrugged.
"Better than being dragged into ridiculous legal cases that are thin excuses to get me shot full of arrows. Wait." He put out his hand as Samuel started to rise. "Can I - can I have the land where her domus was? As well?" He held his breath as they exchanged glances.
"Do you intend to move to the city, Steve?" Samuel sounded unsure for the first time.
"I don’t know yet. But I’d like that piece of land."
"Yes." Carolina rose to her feet. "Natasha’s prefecture, and the land her domus stood on."
"I think that will please him," Samuel added. "It's been lovely to meet you, Steve. I do hope you'll spend more time in the city in future." Samuel stood, and offered his arm to Carolina, who took it. They left Steve sitting alone on the bench, where he stayed until Bucky found him.
"The clerk told me our case has been cancelled," he said. "What – Steve, are you all right?"
"Yes. Yes, I'm fine. We're done; we can go home. We've won." He managed a smile.
Home, and the village was safe now, safe for as long as his life, at least. He could move into the villa if he wanted, and work the lands around it; rich and fertile, as if he cared. Perhaps he'd give it to Bucky and Gail. They'd love it, and fill it with their children and happiness.
And Steve would stay in his little cottage and hunt and farm and grow older while people whispered about him.
Janet flew into his arms when he walked in; then scolded him roundly for not returning to tell her all the excitement of the night.
"How do you know all this?" Steve let her press him down onto a couch, and rush to call the servants for food.
"Tony very kindly called on us after he left you at the courts," Wanda said. "He also said he'd promised you a ride on his barge."
"Yes, but – " It seemed forever ago, but of course it wasn’t so long, really. It was kind of Tony to remember.
"He's sending the carriage for you tomorrow morning." Wanda smiled at him. "And then we’ll hold a little dinner to say goodbye to you properly. Doesn’t that sound nice?"
"It does," Janet said firmly. "Don’t you argue, Steve."
"But - " he cast his eyes towards Bucky. "But Bucky has to get back to Gail."
"Gail won’t grudge one more day, not with the good news we’re bringing," Bucky said. "She’d tell you to be polite."
"All right," Steve surrendered without resentment. One more day, and he could spend it with Tony; it would be… nice. Perhaps they could find somewhere private for a more thorough farewell. He did, after all, have a gift for Tony. He anticipated a very thorough thank you.
"Did Natasha really take poison?" Wanda settled beside him. "It doesn’t seem like her."
"I think," Steve hesitated. "I don’t know."
"He killed her?" Wanda’s voice dropped softer, and he nodded. "He must have suspected."
"Suspected?" Steve throttled his voice low when it wanted to rise. "I think he planned it. It was never about me."
Wanda pursed her lips.
"Playing her at her own black widow game?"
"I was just the easiest way," he said bitterly. "He needed her to overreach herself, needed to give her opportunities to strike…"
"So they plotted against you together. Still, I suppose this means the Emperor doesn’t hold a grudge against you."
Steve glanced up; Bucky was engrossed in his breakfast, or maybe his lunch. Either way, he was paying no attention to Steve.
"It means it doesn’t matter whether he does or doesn’t; if I’m a useful tool, the Gods help me." And all those around him, too.
Tony’s pleasure barge was as impressive as promised; the dancing girls were all lovely, and they weren’t just beautiful, they were bright-eyed and contented-looking, flirting and laughing. They also played musical instruments, which was what they were doing now; harps and lutes and pipes, soft lyrical music.
"Nice, aren’t they?" Tony beamed at him. "I spoil them rotten, of course."
"Of course you do." Steve couldn’t think of seeing any man, woman, animal or vessel in Tony’s household that wasn’t well-kept and glossy. It was a marvel he’d let Carolina risk herself in the arena; the way he’d looked when Steve was in the ring had been worried enough. He tried to picture Carolina in fine silks, batting her lashes; he couldn't see it. Steve accepted a wine goblet from a particularly voluptuous lady, who beamed at him, and propped it on his knee, looking over at Tony.
"So," Tony inspected his nails. "I hear you're a landowner now. You’ll be going home? Gregorius is cursing his loss."
"I'm sure," Steve said dryly. "But..." He hesitated, searching for words.
"It’s a very nice city," Tony squinted sideways at him, a little hopeful smile quirking his lips. "You could still take his offer, you know. Stay?"
Or go away, and come back to find the person he – cared about – wrapped up in someone else. How many times did he have to make that mistake? If he could only have Tony for a little while, surely it was better to take that little while.
"I thought," Steve set the goblet down carefully. Words seemed full of complicated double meanings; so hard to be direct. "I thought I might. Get a better offer."
"I hate to break this to you, Steve, but Greg’s team really is the best; you won’t get a better offer."
Steve sighed, loudly enough to signal his irritation. Tony rolled onto his side, curling up his knees, unable to keep the dignified lounge of the aristocrat for long. His blue eyes were bright with interest.
"What better do you want?"
Steve watched Tony’s hands, wrapped round his goblet. One finger tapped restlessly at the rim.
"I want a villa," Steve said finally, and Tony’s fingers stilled. "With views and white walls; upriver, so I can sail to the city or up to the village when I need to. Um." He dared a look up; furrowed brow and quizzical mouth. "With a - with a pool, and a sunny atrium, and a - a hypocaust."
"A hypocaust?" Tony said in bewilderment. As if Steve were ever cold this far south. "Steve, hypocausts cost - " he tipped his head.
"I'm hoping someone will build it for me."
"Why would - you’re not planning to get set up as some man’s concubine, are you?" Voice almost indignant, eyes affronted. Steve’s cheeks began to burn. "If Gregorius - "
"Not just any man, Tony. And definitely not Gregorius." he snapped, and saw realisation dawn. He picked up his goblet, and took a sip, trying to regain his composure. There was the finest of tremors in his hand. "If I don’t get a better offer - I’ll just go home." Tony’s eyes were wide and bewildered, as if Steve had announced his intention to overthrow the Emperor.
"But you think I live an appalling life of debauchery. You don’t approve of concubines. You think - " he trailed off, visibly at a loss and Steve shrugged. Living a life of incontinent debauchery was... well, it was better than long nights alone on his farm. It wasn't as if the land wouldn't be there, waiting for him to go back to.
"I seem to be doing it anyway, though. I - would like to carry on doing it. I can live in the villa, and you can come out and see me, and carry on your life as normal in the city."
"You don’t even like me very much?" Tony said uncertainly. "I thought. I suppose not."
Tony drained his goblet, and waved it silently at the girls. One of them set aside her pipes and came forward with a jug; he plucked it from her hand, and waved her off. Steve was very conscious of the interested scrutiny of half a dozen pairs of made-up eyes.
He filled his goblet, and then silently offered it to Steve, who shook his head. Tony sipped more slowly at this one. Steve could almost see the fierce cogitation taking place; then Tony’s posture relaxed, and he turned to look at Steve again. He shook his head, and Steve felt a twisting pain, so intense it stunned him; he hadn't realised how much he was counting on Tony to want this, want him.
"I don’t want a concubine I have to sail half the day to see, Steve."
"Oh," Steve dropped his head. "Of course not." The offer to come live in the domus trembled on his tongue; surely Tony would say yes then, but - it was an embarrassment, to live like that.
And of course, perhaps Tony wouldn’t want him there anyway; for all Steve’s feeling, Tony was a man of loose morals and no fidelity. Steve had already humiliated himself enough.
Tony was still talking; Steve looked at him blankly.
"What?" Steve said a little hoarsely, and Tony scowled.
"I can’t believe you weren’t listening; I approached eloquence. I said, more or less, that I think it would be far better if you married me, and then I could have you with me all the time."
"What?" That was - married? If this was a joke, Steve was going to kill him. Snap his neck and toss him off the boat. This hurt too much.
"I know you don’t approve of me, and all, but I think, you know - " Tony blinked at him, awkwardness apparent in the way he twisted the stem of the goblet in his hands. "Steve, love, marry me? I seem to have been pining after you all my life, and I want to have some kind of hold on you."
"You do," Steve swallowed. "Tony, you do."
"Say yes, then, and come and live in my domus and glare at me when I make dirty jokes and take my goblet away when I drink too much and shout at me when I flirt desperately with lovely young things."
"You make it sound so much fun."
"I have no idea what makes you happy, darling. I've abandoned that as an impossible task, and I'm just going to be selfish." He dropped the goblet, sending wine spilling across the deck, and slid off his couch to kneel beside Steve. "Please?"
"That'll stain," Steve said blankly, and then he wrapped his arms around Tony's waist and pulled him in close. "I mean, yes, of course." That was - perfect, yes. He’d have Tony, all for himself, all the time.
"Good. We'll do it tomorrow, so you don't have a chance to change your mind." Tony put little kisses all over his face and neck, fast and urgent, as if he had a very short time and a lot of kissing to get done.
"But - "
"Sh," Tony tried to silence him with another kiss, and Steve pulled away.
"I love you." Tony gave him a confused look, which wasn’t quite what he’d hoped for.
"Of course I do," Steve said crossly. "Why else would I have offered - "
"I don’t know. I don’t understand you, remember? I love you, you love me, we’re going to be married, please the Gods it gets less complicated from this point."
"It must do," Steve said with feeling. He was just about to pull Tony into his embrace when he remembered something. "Can we go somewhere private? I have a present for you."
"I bet you do." Tony leered at him, and Steve smiled back, helplessly.
"I love you," he said again, just to see the softness in Tony’s eyes.
Even if it never got less complicated, at least he had that figured out.