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Taking Measure

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Hilarion already knew that Alexios Flavius Aquila was no Centurion Martyrius; he dealt out discipline when he had to, but took no joy in it. What he did not know, yet, was what kind of man Ducenarius Alexios was, this pretty youth with his serious eyes and the shadow of shame on him. He needed fire-hardening, like a good spear-haft, but Hilarion could not yet tell whether he was the kind of man who would shatter when tested.

He was still considering how best to take his new commander’s measure when opportunity presented itself in the lithe, sleek form of Bericus’s tame ferret, slipped free from her cage again. He kept the animal to hunt rats and mice; he had told Hilarion once that when he had been posted in Spain she’d been the finest rabbiter in the unit, and he was as proud of her as if she were his own child.

“Come here, my love,” murmured Hilarion, scooping her up. Her nose twitched as she glanced around with bright, curious eyes. “Let us see if we can find you a nice, warm place, shall we?”

“Centenarius?” Alexios ducked awkwardly through the door-curtain to Hilarion’s quarters--awkward, as it turned out, because both of his slim brown hands were quite occupied with a wriggling ferret that looked as though she would much prefer to be set down to run about. “Would you be so kind as to ask the quartermaster for some new blankets for me?” His voice sounded strained.

Hilarion kept his face carefully bland. “New pet, sir?”

Alexios held up the ferret and gave her a little quirk of a smile. “She’s rather tame, isn’t she? No, I expect she is already someone’s pet and he should like her back.”

The ferret had, with the suddenness of her kind, fallen fast asleep, and Alexios brought her to nestle against his breast, running a finger along the delicate ridge of her spine, very gently.

“I can ask among the men if one has lost him,” said Hilarion, thinking of Bericus spoiling her with scraps. She was the only living creature he had ever seen big, guileless-seeming Bericus--Bericus who made Hilarion look like an innocent babe--show honest tenderness to, and it rather amused him.

“Do you know,” said Alexios, still stroking the ferret’s short brown fur, “she reminds me a bit of you.”

Hilarion leaned back against the wall, raising an eyebrow; this conversation was becoming interesting. “What, evil-smelling and prone to biting?”

The tips of Alexios’s ears went darker--even more interesting!--but he said levelly, “No, I was thinking that you are busy one moment and lazy the next, as she is. And long,” he added, looking Hilarion up and down, again with that queer little smile.

Hilarion blinked. Had it been anyone else, anyone other than his very young ducenarius, still grass-green and puppyish, he might have wondered...but it was his wide-eyed, soft-faced ducenarius, and he wouldn’t even lay odds that the boy knew what sex was. “I will grant that, sir,” he said finally. “Do you give her over to me and I shall find out where she belongs.”

Alexios held out the sleeping animal, his hands warm where their fingers touched for a moment, and Hilarion’s pulse unaccountably jumped. Then the ferret stirred, wriggling out of Hilarion’s grasp in a flash to run up Hilarion’s arm to his shoulder, where she promptly thrust her pointed muzzle into his ear.

Hilarion yelped.

Alexios laughed, looking entirely different, and for a moment Hilarion forgot about the ferret now nibbling on his fingers. He stared at Alexios until the ferret gave his thumb a sharp nip. “I had best find your master soon!” he told her, adjusting his hold so she could not reach his skin with her sharp little teeth.

“And my fresh blankets,” said Alexios, still grinning. “My bed is rather evil-smelling at present.”

“Of course, sir.”

And as Alexios ducked out again, whistling an old marching-song of the legions, Hilarion thought to himself that the measure of a man was in the day-to-day, in how he dealt with the little frustrations and boredoms and annoyances of military life. “And you, my darling, are quite skilled at that,” he told the ferret seriously as she yawned, showing needle-sharp teeth. “May Bericus be well-pleased to have you back.”

The ferret, in answer, twisted around as if boneless and nipped Hilarion again, this time on the tender web between thumb and forefinger, hard enough to draw forth a drop of blood.

Hilarion cursed, fluently and at length, and set off to find Bericus. But he too was whistling as he went, and it was in his mind that his commander had a fine smile, and one he would like to see again.