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That Which Defines

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Kemet is Hellas's closest friend who endures. This is a bond severed and resown time and again, never weakened by the natural fluctuations that bring them apart and together. They have always exchanged knowledge, a common currency between them. Others come and go, relationships formed and faded, mortal and not, but she and Kemet have not yet parted ways.

There enters another after Etruria, who did not last. He is called Rome. Neither she nor Kemet can ignore him. Hellas views him from afar, at first, listens as she always had.

Hellas meets Rome at Corinth. This is not a first meeting, but comparatively the rest have seemed ephemeral. It is on a day she would rather forget and knew was a long time in coming. The disappointment isn’t the fall itself, but the events which have preceded it. This is not forged from legends; this is simple weakness. She does not have the same flair for the dramatic she had in the beginning, though neither has she left it completely behind.

Corinth, once one of her shining jewels, is in complete ruin. Blood flows through naked streets, crimson staining the hem of her chiton. She would have once donned her own arms, would have struck terror into all who beheld her, but she is tired. On street corners soldiers conduct auctions of beauty, art sold at once as trifles and at times used for the mundane, paintings turned into dice tables. She wants this to be over. Burn the city to the ground rather than this continued defacement.

Rome is in battle raiment, broad shoulders and untrimmed hair, helmet nowhere to be seen but a sword at his side. He could pass as merely another centurion among his ranks, if not for his bearing, the wild, confident grin and too-knowing eyes.

“I have been looking for you,” Rome says.

“Then your search is over, for here I am.”

“You’re still beautiful.”

“How bold,” Hellas responds, a wry twist to her lips.

“I’ve loved you since I first saw you.”

“Your method of expression leaves something to be desired.”

Rome cocks his head to one side. His grin widens, a caricature of an expression. “What I love is mine. If not already, it will be.”

“Do you destroy that which you wish to be yours?” Hellas asks, her earlier thought fulfilled, as smoke rises from the walls.

“Mummius has a point to make,” Rome says. He shrugs, unconcerned. “It is the will of the people.”

Part of Hellas cannot resist the urge to nettle, even if only a little. “That is what you follow?”

The way his arm lashes out brings the memory of a thunderbolt. His fingers close around her neck, pressed against her throat in the threat, but not actually tightly enough to stop the flow of air. “I follow no one,” Rome says, voice gone cold, “And in this place I have been given insult enough already.”

Hellas does not raise a hand against him and speaks no more until he releases her. Her chin nods upward. She will still not bow to him, in this way, at least, but she understands his burst of anger. “Then for now, we have nothing more to say.”

Ire vanishes, and Rome seems dangerously innocuous once more. “We shall meet again,” he says, and turns to go.

Hellas turns from Rome to what is left of Corinth and watches.

“He was there today,” Hellas says when she returns. “As you postulated, he declared his love for me.”

“He plays the fool for a pretty face,” Kemet says, laying on her stomach, draped over the kline. “I wouldn’t put too much thought into it.”

“I’m not,” Hellas says. “He acts this way, but–”

“–it’s clearly an act,” Kemet finishes.

Rome, as company, delights in wine and revelry, always boisterous and rarely serious. He comes and goes as he pleases, but there are no sudden, drastic changes as one might expect. His presence isn’t entirely unwelcome, for he is entertaining, if rougher around the edges than she or Kemet. They tell him stories, especially Kemet.

“They’re natural enemies, of course,” Kemet says. “The elephant and the rhinoceros.”

Rome laughs, amused, but disbelieving. “I’ve never seen them exhibit such behavior.”

“I have had ample time to observe.” Kemet smiles. “They are not always openly antagonistic.”

“You should tell him next about the tragic existence of the hedgehog,” Hellas says. “Then we shall play a game.”

Hellas teaches kottabos to Rome.

“Why waste wine?” Rome asks, though he’s teasing, Hellas thinks.

“In a game of skill, nothing is a waste,” Hellas says.

Rome snorts, neither disagrees nor agrees. “Show it to me, then.”

From where she reclines Hellas holds the base of the kylix in her right hand and flings the dregs towards a small bronze statue in a prefect arc, little of the wine lost along the way. The statue falls from its perch onto a larger disk beneath it, a clarion resonance as metal meets metal. She rises to replace the figurine.

“That’s all?” Rome asks, smiling and overconfident.

“Yes. There are sometimes prizes, but not this first time,” Hellas says.

“My turn,” Kemet says, “To give you another demonstration.”

The toss is one of the poorer ones that Kemet has ever made, wine spattering to the floor in a disconcerting rain, far from hitting the mark. She shrugs elegantly and picks up a fig, laying back down entirely. Briefly, her expression clouds, gaze gone far off and the start of a frown; she turns her features from troubled to petulant, something Rome doesn’t discern, but Hellas does.

Rome takes his turn, far worse because he has not done it before. They drink more wine and try again until the floor is stained and slick with the dark liquid. Rome progresses rapidly until he hits the mark more often than not. The evening winds down, but Hellas throws, one more time, after Kemet and Rome have retired.

This time she misses, too.

Pharsalus leaves Rome vexed. It is not a matter of understanding – none of them is a stranger to civil war. Hellas meets these times with aplomb, accepts the changes as they come, never really knowing anything else from her first recollection. Perhaps Rome has done that in the past, but now his agitation grows. This builds for a while. His words become louder when he is around and his grins tighter.

“This is utterly senseless,” Rome says in a rare moment of gravity.

“You have always seemed to enjoy the thrill of battle,” Kemet says.

“I do, and it’s not that to which I refer. I feel...” he trails off, the thought unfinished.

“Changed,” Hellas says, because in an indefinable way, she perceives that he is.

“Yes,” Rome says. He shakes his head, clearing his mind of the matter. “And no. It is of little relevance.”

Except, Hellas is certain, that it is.

Antonius and Octavius are each points of contention with Rome. He rants about the personal character flaws of each, at times vacillating in one conversation from favoring the former to the latter and back again, though there isn’t yet a real division. The question has shifted from ‘if’ to ‘when’, however.

Hellas remains indifferent on the subject.

Kemet doesn’t, despite her best efforts. Mostly this is because of the girl, Kleopatra. Kemet has always been more sentimental over her favorites than Hellas, this time being no exception. She does not try to outright advise Rome, but she nudges him in subtle ways towards Antonius. Hellas isn’t sure whether or not Rome perceives this; if he does, he makes no indication, and instead accepts another drink.

Ultimately, Rome sides with the one who does not, in his eyes, run.

“He is a cruel and heartless child,” Kemet spits the words.

Rome is unmoved. “In other words, brilliant.”

“Have your people forgotten their sense of decorum?”

“Of course not. They will hate Octavius, but they will hate Antonius far more.”

Kemet leaves. Hellas follows and intercepts her before she gets too far, but there are no words to offer.

From memory, Hellas can tell the battle is lost when it is barely underway. She doesn’t understand why they chose to stand at sea, but it is not her place to interfere, nor is it Kemet’s. They watch together, but once it is over Kemet insists on solitude.

Rome turns up, bright-eyed and victorious. It isn’t the same as Corinth – it is a level beyond that. Kemet emerges and Hellas gravitates to the two of them. She has a prescient unease, the kind that has always inspired the people of her land to heed oracles.

Kemet does not let Rome have the first word. “I believe we have reached an end.”

“Absurd. There is no reason we cannot still be friends,” Rome says.

“To be friends, we must be equals,” Hellas points out, not unkindly.

Rome stares at her, because she has, in her own indirect way, asked for that which he will not give to either of them. He has reached another split in the path that started with Sulla, maybe even before that, only this time the division is clearer. Going back is impossible; they all know this. Without a word, Rome leaves – storms out, really, with a sharp order that places guards in front of Kemet's room. The measure would have once been laughable, but now has the weight of inevitability.

They will meet again.

But this is still a goodbye.

Once, Rome didn’t care she always thought herself Hellas.

Achaea, Rome calls her now, without fail and adamant, though she is more than that. Aegyptus, he calls Kemet.