Esca stumbled, blinking owlishly in the late afternoon sunlight with the expression of a man who was going to have a very sore head in the morning. Marcus’s own head was swimming, muzzy with wine, and he felt over-hot despite the cool spring day. He should not have let Esca talk him into going to a tavern so early, much less into some ridiculous contest which had been won by someone else entirely, a little townsman with a seemingly infinite capacity for the sour swill the tavern-keeper called wine, as well as for the local barley beer.
They were not quite friends, although since Caledonia, they were not enemies either. The building-stones of friendship sat ill and unsteady on a foundation of slavery and betrayal, mutual distrust and desperation, and finally the shared danger and unwanted loyalty that had drawn them together into something that could not be broken. But Marcus wanted them to be friends, with a kind of urgency he did not fully understand, and so when Esca had said he was bored and would like to go into town, Marcus had set aside his work and gone.
Beside him Esca swore in British, leaning against the wall of the alleyway. “You Romans,” he said, with a grin, gesturing broadly at the wall of the tavern, scrawled all over with whatever thoughts the local drunks wished to share with the world. “you’ll write on anything. Words everywhere. What is so important, that someone thought they must cover a perfectly good building with them?”
Marcus squinted at the wall, which seemed to waver in front of him. “Mostly the usual--Aulus loves Iris the innkeeper’s slave girl and If anyone reads this, let him see Attice for a good fuck, that kind of thing.”
Esca snorted. “I should think if one was going to go to all that effort it should be poetry, or words of wisdom.”
“Well, here’s something a more more poetic,” said Marcus. “I would I could hold thee to me and shower on your tender lips a thousand kisses, my Libanotis; believe me, light is the nature of men.” There was something a bit odd about the way that one was written--why would a man make such a declaration and then disavow his faithfulness?--but it eluded his grasp.
He glanced over at Esca, who looked rather more interested now, although he still swayed as if about to fall. “That is much better. Find another one!”
Marcus searched the wall for another long declaration. “Ah, here: If you are willing, why do you put off our joy and keep your silence? You force me to die since you force me to live without you.”
“Oh,” said Esca, very quietly. “That is rather sad.” And then, his face changing with the mercurial speed of the drunk, he pointed at three words scrawled in bold letters. “Es-ca! Is this one someone’s bill from the tavern?”
“Esca--” Marcus broke off, his face suddenly hot with mingled embarrassment and outrage, and coughed. “Yes, someone’s bill.” He could not think why someone would write such a dishonorable thing about Esca, who hardly even knew anyone in Calleva, and he did not want to think that it might be true, for that was too close to all the things he tried very hard not to think about.
Esca’s eyes narrowed with suspicion and he wobbled over to Marcus, stabbing a surprisingly pointy finger into Marcus’s ribs. “I think,” he said slowly and with great dignity, “you are a liar, Marcus Aquila.”
Marcus swallowed, resisting the urge to avoid Esca’s accusatory stare. “It says Esca sucks cock well.” He was surely the color of his old centurion’s cloak by now. “I only thought--you might not wish to know people said such low things about you.”
To his surprise, Esca began laughing. It was a loud, full-body laugh that doubled him over and left him gasping, and then Esca said, “Well, that is very kind of you, Marcus, but I do not think it can possibly be about me. I am sure there are others named Esca in town, and I have not sucked the cock of anyone in Calleva that they should know I did it well!”
Marcus gaped at him. Esca said it with neither shame nor pride, only amusement.
“You would know,” said Esca, the laughter gone from his face in an instant and his voice suddenly hard. “You would know, had you been an ordinary master.”
Stung and unable to make sense of why Esca would say such a thing, Marcus said the first thing that came into his head, and then cursed himself for a fool. “Do you wish I had been?”
“At first I did,” Esca said lowly, his eyes downcast. “I kept waiting, waiting for you to beat me or use me or sell me to someone worse. I would have understood you better. It would have been easier to hate you.”
It was more truth than Marcus had heard from Esca since their first meeting, and now that he had it he found he did not like it. It felt like a knife, like he had expected the knife to feel when Esca first held it out with hatred in his eyes, but he also remembered Caledonia and the horrible tangle of fear and hope when he did not know whether Esca had truly betrayed him or was only biding his time, and he thought he understood.
After a moment Esca looked up at him, his face nearly its usual unreadable blankness, but perhaps the wine had brought him down to earth where mortals could touch him as well as loosened his tongue, for Marcus almost thought he could see a flicker of fear there.
“I--I would never ask that of you,” he said, fumbling for words. “You are free, and I would never wish to shame you.”
At that Esca drew himself up, a little unsteadily. “Romans,” he spat. “You will force it from a slave, but if a man is free and can say yes or no as he pleases, oh, then you speak of shame and honor, as if that signified in what a man chooses to do with his mouth, and will not even ask it.” He turned to the side and spat on the ground, and then glared at Marcus. “I am certain you can find your own way back to your uncle's," he said, and then stalked off down the alley, leaving Marcus befuddled and feeling as if he was about to be sick.
Later, lying in the dimness of his room with a cold cloth over his eyes and feeling both more sober and quite a bit sicker, Marcus wondered when Esca would return. Sometimes he disappeared for days at a time, and this time--this time he was terribly afraid he would disappear into the Tribes forever. Esca had not shown him anger like this since Caledonia, and Cunoval's son still had friends, even this far south.
It was past sunset outside when Esca came back; the rest of the villa had settled into blessed quiet some time ago and Marcus was nearly asleep when the curtain at his doorway moved and Esca crept in. Or rather, he was trying to creep, but he was still clumsy and the clatter of his sandals on the tile made Marcus wince with pain.
"Marcus?" he whispered, leaning over the bed. His breath reeked of wine. "Are you awake?"
Before Marcus could say anything--his throat was painfully dry, his water-cup long empty--Esca said quietly but with a kind of rawness to his voice, "If you are willing, why do you keep your silence?"
A breath passed, and then another, and Esca's footsteps receded out of the room as Marcus's heart threatened to pound its way out of his chest. He was dreaming. He had to be dreaming. But his head ached and his throat hurt too much for a dream, and in a proper dream of course the next thing they would have both been naked, or perhaps suddenly fleeing from wolves.
But the way Esca had sounded, as if there was a wound in his heart that he needed Marcus to heal, as if he had wanted to ask Marcus that for months--
He would ask later, Marcus decided as he grew sleepy again and the pain in his head began to recede. He would ask, and Esca could say yes or no as he pleased, for he was a free man. It all made perfect sense. Why keep silence?
In the painfully clear morning light, as Marcus dragged himself out of bed and into his clothing and went to find Sassticca and beg one of her vile hangover cures, it did not make nearly so much sense. What if he had misunderstood? What if he had dreamed Esca’s visit? What if he so offended Esca that he ruined all hope of friendship between them, much less anything else?
Esca had gone on a hunting trip with one of the local men. “Snarled at me before he left, like one of those mangy curs always hanging around the forum,” Sassticca grumbled as she fussed over Marcus and pressed a cup of honeyed water into his hand to take away the bitter aftertaste of the brew he’d just downed. Sassticca treated Esca no differently now that he was free; she had not liked him before and did not like him now.
Perhaps Esca would be gone for some days, Marcus thought, unsure whether the churning in his belly was from the thought of stewing over this for days or simply the aftereffects of the wine. He busied himself with the horses all day, shoveling out their stalls, exercising them, and brushing them all until their coats gleamed. His uncle raised an eyebrow when he saw, but said nothing, only smiled, shook his head, and disappeared into his study.
He had to ask, Marcus decided, patting the black stallion absently. He had to give Esca the choice and live with the answer.
And so, when Esca slipped off down to the river after the evening meal, he followed him into the dusk. The apples in the orchard were in flower, the petals drifting and swirling like snow around Marcus’s steps, and Esca looked as sly and secretive as a spirit, a gray whisper between the trees.
Marcus found him sitting by the water, his knees drawn up to his chest. In profile he looked like the face on a coin, serious and stern and untouchable. “Marcus,” he said as Marcus sank down to the damp riverbank beside him. “I fear I was rather rude last night, and I am sorry for it.”
“I think,” said Marcus carefully, “that I gave you offense, where I meant none.”
Esca shot him a quick glance, but it was rapidly growing darker, too dark to see his expression. “Perhaps.” He sighed. “But I expect nothing else; you are Roman and I am Brigantes, and there will always be things we see differently.”
Marcus swallowed hard; the distant, almost wistful coolness of Esca’s voice gave him no encouragement. “I might learn to see things differently.” He shifted, chilled. His braccae were soaked through already with damp, and the night breeze had turned cold. It had to be now, tonight, he knew suddenly, or he would never again have the courage. “Esca, you are a free man and can say yes or no as you please,” he said formally, and beside him he felt more than saw Esca tense. Esca’s eyes gleamed in the light of the rising moon. “I would like--that is, if you would like--”
“Yes,” said Esca, and then his hard, warm hand was in Marcus’s, squeezing. “I am willing.”