They had been back in Calleva for nearly a month before Marcus started seeing the Seal chieftain’s son. At first it was just out of the corner of his eye, a glimpse of a soft-faced British boy with seal-dark hair and angry eyes, and he told himself it was only one of the local Atrebates. The prince was dead; Marcus had held him down in the stream with his own hands and watched him go still, watched the water wash away the war-paint and strip the mud from his hair. It was only some lingering feeling of guilt, he told himself, for taking a life, even the life of an enemy.
Then he got a good look at the boy, in the market, and at the bone necklace he wore tucked into the collar of his tunic. None of the Atrebates would wear such a thing. The boy glared at Marcus and then vanished into the crowd as if he had never been there.
“Marcus,” Esca said gently, later, “Cunomor is dead. You killed him.”
It was still strange to think of his tormentor, his enemy, as a man with a name like any other. “I know, but--I saw him.” Perhaps he was going mad. It happened sometimes to men who had survived too many battles; they saw the faces of the dead everywhere they looked. But Marcus only saw the chieftain’s son.
“All right.” Esca’s voice was soothing, the kind of voice you used when a young child had said something ridiculous but you did not wish to upset him by disagreeing. “I will watch and tell you if I see him as well.”
Marcus saw the prince nearly every day he went to town, never for more than a moment, just long enough to make him question his own eyes. He spoke no more of it to Esca, but he slept less and less, dreaming of cold and pain and the look in the prince’s eyes when Esca had made Marcus kneel before him. The prince still wanted to kill him, he was certain of it.
The next day Esca came back from a trip to the public baths pale and shaking. “He’s here. He’s alive, and he followed us. Why would he follow us so far?”
Marcus refrained from reminding Esca that he had been right. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “What can he do, alone here?”
Esca did not look very reassured.
“Marcus,” said Esca, not looking up from the chest he had opened. “Is this Cunomor’s sealskin coat?” His voice was so even and precise that Marcus could not tell whether he was angry or frightened.
He cleared his throat. “Yes?” Esca said nothing. “It is just a coat. It was cold.”
Esca turned around, holding up the coat. “Marcus, it is his skin. This is why he followed us here.” His voice was still even, and he did not actually roll his eyes, but it was clear exactly what he thought of Marcus taking the coat. Perhaps he had broken some strange British custom--but Esca could hardly expect him to know that! Esca himself could not possibly know all the customs of all the tribes. But even if Marcus had made a mistake in ignorance, it was his fault the prince was here now--he had taken the coat, and he had not done a good job of killing him.
But he still remembered the fight going out of the boy, how he had all at once gone still and limp under Marcus’s hands. How had he survived? “I swear I thought he had stopped breathing.”
Esca gave a little contemptuous huff. “Do you know how long a seal can hold his breath?”
Marcus blinked. What did that have to do with anything?
“I do not know if there is a Latin word--he and his people are ronoi, seals who can change into men,” Esca continued, more gently. “Without that, he cannot become a seal again.”
“Oh.” Marcus thought of his leg, and how angry he had been every time he found something he had once done without thought no longer came without effort and pain. No wonder the prince had hunted them this far; what Marcus had taken from him in his ignorance was even greater. “Like a skin-changer.” If the Seal People were in truth seal people, it did explain a number of things, like how curiously unafraid the seals near the village had been, despite the sealskin coats of all the men.
The corners of Esca’s mouth twitched, and then he laughed, a laugh with an edge to it. “Oh, Marcus, your face. I am sure he is nearly as baffled as you are, wondering what you intend to make him do. Ordinarily when a man steals the skin of a rona he hopes to make her his bride.”
Marcus felt his face grow hot at Esca’s mockery; surely the boy did not think that!
Esca shook his head, still smiling. “Here is what we must do.”
Cunomor found them rather quickly once Marcus went into town with the sealskin coat bundled up under his arm, so quickly that he must have been following them all along.
Marcus nearly dropped the coat when the boy slammed into him, knocking his breath from him and shoving him up against the wall of the alley, a wicked-sharp bone knife pressed to Marcus’s throat. But Marcus kept hold of it, remembering Esca’s firm instructions. He felt a sting at his neck, and tried not to jerk away and thus encourage the boy’s hand to slip. “I am sorry,” he said carefully in British, trying to remember how Esca had pronounced the words.
The knife eased back a little and the prince stared at him, eyes narrowed suspiciously. He peered at Marcus as if he had trouble seeing well, and up close his eyes were queerly dark, with hardly any white to them.
Esca was speaking quickly in British, his voice rising and falling in quiet urgency, and more than any other time since he came to Britain, Marcus wished he understood. Finally Cunomor stepped back, although he kept the knife out. Marcus wished desperately for his own knife, but Esca had insisted they leave all iron at the villa, in good faith. The ronoi hated iron.
Marcus held the coat out in both hands. “I did not know,” he said in Latin, hoping Cunomor would understand his tone.
Cunomor grabbed the coat, inhumanly fast. He clutched it to his chest, pressing it for a moment to his face, and sighed as if a part of his soul had been returned. “You...do not wish to marry me?” he asked in halting, heavily accented Latin.
“No!” It was a mad question; the boy was pretty enough, but Marcus had no desire for his enemy, only for Esca. And after this, Esca would likely think him too much of a fool even for friendship.
Cunomor’s eyebrows rose, and he turned and murmured something to Esca, who laughed and shrugged.
“Very well,” said Cunomor, drawing himself up; even in the ordinary clothes of a southern Briton, he stood like a prince. “You returned my pelt. I will let you live.”
Between one blink and the next he vanished into the shadows like all the other times, and Marcus let out a long, shaky breath.
“That was well done.” Esca rested a hand on Marcus’s shoulder. He smirked. “I am glad you did not wish to marry him.”
Something warm uncurled in Marcus’s chest, very like hope, but he kept his voice light as he said, “I should not like to eat nothing but fish for the rest of my life.”
Esca’s laugh warmed him more. “And he would probably knife you in your sleep. Come, I think we both need a drink.”