The twilight was gathering over the Chalk as the little party of travelers approached the farm. The wind had picked up and now bore sleet along with it, and Justin was very glad indeed to see a sudden glimmer of light up the track that led from the Regnum road.
"Halloo the farm!" called Lanatus, the former Legionary that Justin had hired to handle the horses and the heavier baggage on the journey from Aquae Sulis. The light bobbed and swung, apparently a lantern in someone's hand.
"Halloo yourselves!" someone called back. "Who comes?"
"The doctor Tiberius Lucius Justinianus and his party!" shouted Lanatus, and they could hear the news being passed onward to someone else. There was a distant shout, and then, "Come ahead, then! Welcome back home!"
Lanatus let Justin take the lead, and they were met halfway by Kyndylan, now the steward of the farm, like his father before him, and a taller, less burly figure that Justin did not recognize at first.
"It's the Commander!" Cullen said, behind him.
Justin blinked. "Flavius! Whatever are you doing here?" He swung down from his horse, staggering a bit with stiffness and weariness as he landed. Flavius flung an arm about his shoulders.
"Steady on! Are you sure you can walk up to the house?"
"Don't be foolish - a walk is exactly what I need. But ... you were in Thrace, weren't you?"
Lanatus and Cullen had also dismounted. Cullen took down Justin's saddlebags and followed the two cousins as they walked toward the house, while Kyndylan and Lanatus led the horses off to the stables.
"Well, the Dacian frontier, but close enough. I've been given some special leave to come back home for a bit of a visit."
"That's quite a bit of a visit, all the way from ... ?"
"Lower Moesia. But I had a good reason." Flavius flung open the door and waved Justin into the warm, homey-smelling space beyond. "Justin, I'm betrothed."
Justin found his mouth was gaping open. He shut it sharply. "Flavius, th-that's- " But he never got to finish the sentence. Cutha, completely grey-haired now, but spry and still very much mistress of the household, descended upon him.
"Ahh, look at you - thin as a rail and cold and wet as a frog! Do you smell that? I remember how much you loved those lamb cutlets with onions and wine. I know just what you need right now!"
"A bath," said Flavius, firmly. Cutha looked dismayed.
"But supper will be ready."
As you said, Cutha, he's cold and wet. A bit of a bath, and he'll be ready, too."
"Well ... all right, if that's what you want, Justin my dear. I daresay the lamb could cook a bit longer."
"A hot b-bath would be wonderful," said Justin, and it took no actor's skill for him to shiver. Cutha went back to her cookery, and Flavius led Justin off to one of the bedrooms, where Cullen was already unpacking his bags.
"You're looking well, Cullen," said Flavius.
"Thank you, my lord," said Cullen, and with a hint of a smile, ran one hand across his close-shorn head. When his front hair had started to recede, he had decided to follow the Roman fashion, and as a consequence, his eyes with their rings of tattoos looked even larger in his thin face. Flavius sighed.
"You don't need to call me that, you know."
"My lord the doctor says the same, but you are still my lords." He handed Justin a neatly folded stack of fresh clothing,
"I'm going to have a b-bath, Cullen. Don't wait for me - go g-get something to eat." Cullen smiled and slipped out of the room, heading for the kitchen.
"How is he working out as a manservant, with just the two of you?" asked Flavius, as they walked along the colonnade toward the bath house.
"Q-quite well, actually, and in t-truth, he is also my orderly."
"Really! I would not have thought he could do something like that."
"He c-can compound simple medications, and he has learned t-to read enough to follow formulas. You must not sell him short."
"Reading! Euge, Cullen!"
"Flavius - you said you're g-getting married?"
Flavius waved him into the warm, moist space of the little bath house and sat down on a bench within to take off his sandals. His red hair was going just a bit grey at the temples, and it suited him. "Indeed, I am. I have had permission to come back home and make arrangements. Then I will travel back to my posting, close out my business there, wed, and bring my wife back here. Then presently, I will take up a new posting at Eboracum."
"Who is she?"
"You recall my friend Marius?"
"Of c-course. You have written of him often."
"Well, it turn out he has a sister - a younger half-sister, actually. After his mother died, his father went to live out his retirement in Epirus, and he remarried. I went home with Marius on leave once, and there I met her. Justin, she is a pearl. I find myself saying the most love-sick things about her - it's embarrassing, except that I'm so happy to do it."
"What is she c-called?"
"Theocleia. She has such lovely dark eyes, and a sweet smile, and she's curved in all the right places." He smiled at Justin as they climbed down into the bath. Justin sighed as the soothing heat wrapped him all about, and he leaned his head back against the tiles and closed his eyes.
"She sounds b-beautiful."
"Oh, she is. I have wanted nothing more, since first I saw her, than to marry her and bring her back here, where I have been happiest. I want our children to grow up in this place."
"I'm not at all s-suprised. I'm very happy for you, Flavius."
Justin looked at him. His usually merry face was serious. "You approve? It doesn't sound like a bad idea?"
"Why d-do you ask? She sounds lovely, and you are p-plainly very much in love with her."
"People have been nay-saying the idea to me, telling me this is very far from her home, and that she knows nothing about running even a small estate like this one."
Justin was afraid that the people might be right, whoever they were, but there was no point in arguing. Flavius had looked so very happy when he spoke of this woman. "Well, C-cutha will help her. And the rest of them. They will love her, because you do."
Flavius clasped his shoulder. "I knew I could count on you! I have missed talking with you so much, Justin."
Justin felt something that had been cold within him, even in the heat of the bath, warm a little at his cousin's words. "Well, t-talk away. We have not spoken face to face for five years!"
As they dried off and dressed in their fresh clothes, they talked of little things: Justin's cat, and his patients in Aquae Sulis, and Cullen's belated education; Flavius' men, and the hunting along the Dacian frontier. As they were about to go in to supper, Flavius stopped Justin, his expression serious once more. "Justin - did you know Aunt Honoria was here?"
"Of c-course. I brought her down here, last summer, when she t-tired of living by herself at Aquae Sulis."
"She's become so very ... old."
Justin had to smile. "Flavius, she is almost eighty."
"But ... ."
"She is very well, for a woman of her years. She c-can get herself up from her b-bed and make her way to her chair. She c-comes out of her room for dinner most days. She enjoys t-teaching the children of the farm and having them read to her, and making much of the hound pup Kyndylan gave her. She c-could live another ten years, gods willing."
"I wanted her to live to see my children."
"And so she might. C-come, let's eat."
After supper was over, Justin went back to see Aunt Honoria. She was seated in her carved chair like a queen on her throne, wrapped about in a mantle of deep kingfisher blue, with her face badly and boldly painted and her young hound Aurea at her feet. "Well, you've come back to see me at last," she said, her voice still low and melodious, and held out her hands.
Justin took them in his and kissed her on the cheek. Aurea thumped her tail on the floor, looking up at him with liquid eyes. Aunt Honoria's pulse was still strong, and her color was good. "G-good evening, Aunt Honoria."
"Sit, don't hover. There's a stool right there. Or are your knees no longer so young that you care to sit on a stool?"
Justin smiled. "I'm no longer anything of a boy, but I c-can sit on a stool, Aunt."
"Well, it's only fair that I cluck at you - I saw you giving me a thorough looking-over. Here I still am."
"So you are. Flavius was worrying."
"He would. He has been serving with all those strapping fellows about him, most of them hardly more than boys. What would he know of the strength of an old woman?"
"As you say. I assured him that you would likely see his children t-to come."
She tilted her head at him. "This is not so easy for you, is it?"
"What d-do you mean?"
"Oh, don't put on the brave face with me, grand-nephew. You never stammer like that but when you have something resting uneasy on your mind. First Flavius is posted clear across the empire, then he befriends this ambitious fellow Marius, and now he's coming back to Britain, but he's marrying. When will he have time for his faithful cousin?"
"You know m-me all too well."
"So I should hope. We have had some very pleasant times together since you left the Eagles, you and I: very pleasant, and we have talked a great deal. Tell me: do you ever regret that you didn't re-enlist?"
"I would be lying if I said I never did. B-but I have my practice, my patients, Cullen. My lungs weren't going to take too much more of the military life, especially in winter. And it wasn't likely I'd be p-posted with Flavius again, not at this point in his career."
"Perhaps not. Well, that's all very sensible of you. How did you take the news, when Flavius told you?"
"I t-told him I was happy for him. He seemed to b-believe me. And I am, if that's what he wants."
"I am glad for that. He needed the reassurance, and you see how he still trusts you. His colleagues are right to worry that young Theocleia will have her difficulties adjusting to her new life, but I daresay that we will be able to keep her busy, Cutha and I. And you know, I imagine that we will all meet again here, at this farm, a number of times. That was not really possible while Flavius was posted in the east. He will be glad to see you, I am sure."
"I suppose so."
"Don't give me than grim, brave look, Tiberius Lucius Justinianus. Listen: love is not a gold coin that you must save and hide because if you spend it, you'll have no more. If you clutch it to yourself, you'll soon have none, but if you spend it wisely, you'll have enough to last you a lifetime. Flavius has enough of a heart for all three of you: his friend Marius, his wife to be, and his cousin. In truth, he even has enough to spare for his old aunt, and the folk of this farm, and all his children to come. Don't you keep your heart to yourself because you fear to lose it, grand-nephew."
Justin sighed. "You're right, of course. His generous heart is one of the things that has made me miss him."
"Well, you have him here for several days yet. I won't be such a selfish old woman as to scold you if you want to run back and talk to him now, although I am dying to ask you how all my old friends and neighbors are doing back in Aquae Sulis."
"I wouldn't be so mean as to leave you so soon, when you've spent all this time counseling me."
"Well, then, enough serious talk! How is my young friend Publia Cornelia getting on? Ah, I see that wary look in your eyes. Something has happened, hasn't it? Come, start at the beginning and tell me everything!"
Justin smiled and began.