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Cursed at First, But Mended

Chapter Text

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.

— Rumi

 

1.

 

"Marcus, have you heard even one word I've said?"

His uncle's tone was more fond than reproachful, and when Marcus turned from his contemplation of the mist-covered lawns, Aquila's expression was patient. "Were I in your place, I would likely not listen to me, either," he said.

Marcus couldn't help but chuckle. "Sorry, Uncle. It's only that I would -"

"Rather not think about it, I know."

"I hope I have not worn out my welcome."

He had been at Aquila's going on four months now, recovering from the wound that had seen him discharged from Her Majesty's Service. His uncle had been more than hospitable, taking Marcus into his home, boarding a doctor the first few weeks, allowing Marcus to hobble around the grounds with his crutch, eat his food, and stare out the sitting room window for hours at a time.

"No," his uncle told him, "you must be assured by now that my welcome would know no end, if not for your father's will."

"To be honest, I have almost ceased to care about that," Marcus confessed. He turned back to the gloomy, autumn-shrouded view, knowing the look sure to be on Aquila's face. He didn't want to see it for the thousandth time.

"Come, now."

"No woman would have me, even in convenience." It was a fact Marcus had come to accept, as painful as it was. "I know you've made such inquiries on my behalf and I thank you for it, honestly."

"The doctors can't say for sure that there will be no children," Aquila said quietly. Marcus waved him off, and heard him stand. "Let me make one more inquiry of my solicitor for you, nephew. Perhaps we can solve this riddle yet."

"Fine," he ground out.

The door shut firmly behind Aquila, leaving Marcus alone with his contemplations - and his ever-present crutch - once more. He gave a moment's thought to heaving it through the window in anger, but the house was hard enough to keep warm without missing panes of glass.

Mrs. Sassticca brought him a cup of tea moments later, and a small plate with a scone. "You should eat something, dear."

"I'm fine."

She looked as though she wanted to press, but didn't. She made sure the tea and scone were within his reach, and left without another word. After a minute, Marcus picked up the cup, and was relieved to see his hand did not shake. The tremors had plagued him for months after the battle, and had only recently begun to subside. He hated it. The injury to his leg could not be helped, but the shaking had made him feel weak - and worse, useless.

He'd regained some strength, but his leg would never be as it had been. The wound from the musketball was twisted and gruesome, and smaller shrapnel scars radiated outward, down his thigh and up over his hip. He could walk without too much trouble, but often needed a cane, depending on the weather. He hated the damned cane.

There was a knock, and he turned in the chair. Aquila was lingering in the entrance to the sitting room, a sheaf of papers in his hand. "An unanticipated letter from my solicitor has arrived, addressing the very thing we were just discussing," he said. "He has perhaps a solution to your... problem."

Problem. Uncle Aquila had always tried to be delicate about Marcus' misfortune, even on the days when Marcus shouted at his uncle to leave him be. "And what's that?"

"A contract marriage. He says it is the sort of thing that is mostly in name; a business agreement between two parties. You would provide to the other party a home, and..." Aquila trailed off, flipping between pages.

"And?" he queried, dreading the answer he was sure would come, that he would have to provide children. But his uncle only gave a patient smile.

"There could be a stipulated end to the contract, and at the dissolution of the marriage, you would need to pay a sum to the other party."

Marcus turned it over in his mind. He was used to sharing quarters with people he barely knew, though that had always been men. "Such a thing would allow me to inherit fully?"

"He says yes. And you know you must hurry, the year anniversary of your father's death is the end of this month."

"I know, Uncle," Marcus replied. "How is this different than a marriage agreed upon on convenience?"

"With this, you may marry a person of either sex, and were it to be a woman, there would be absolutely no expectation of children unless agreed upon by both parties. It is less a marriage and more of a... business arrangement. A contract of joining, if you will." He looked down at the letter again, and said, "My solicitor writes that it is not all that common, but for the few cases he found referenced. They were situations such as yours, men returned home from long voyages to news of a death in the family, stipulations in various wills and the like."

"I honestly did not know of such a thing." Of course, most of Marcus' acquaintances were unmarried military men who hadn't wanted to burden a woman with widowhood, England being at war.

Aquila raised his eyebrows. "Thoughts, nephew?"

"I would be twice as likely to find someone," Marcus conceded. He broke a piece from the scone, and dipped it in the tea. "But I would still have to find someone, and someone willing."

"You're not all that terrible to put up with." Aquila smiled. "Surely there are others in the same situation as you. I will make some inquiries, again." His tone was teasing, and Marcus smiled in return.

"Thank you."

 

The following afternoon, Marcus was in the day room, composing a letter to his former commander when his uncle interrupted with a gentle knock on the doorframe. "Marcus, can I trouble you to ride over to Claudius Marcellus'?"

"No trouble, Uncle. I should like to get out into the fresh air for a while. The ink could stand to dry on this before I write any more, besides." Despite his best efforts, several words were smudged. He'd never been a proper student when it came to penmanship. "What message would you like me take?"

"Claudius is moving his household to America," Aquila said, "and he is looking to sell his horses before the trip."

"And you might purchase?"

"That, and I thought you might look into a horse or two of your own."

Marcus left his letter on the desk and took up his cane to walk to the stable. He saddled up the gray mare called Smoke by himself, and took a slow pace across the damp fields. The morning's fog had not lifted all that much, and the wetness clung to both Marcus and the mare as he let her amble through the long grass.

The maid who met him at the front door of the house directed him to the stables, saying, "You'll find Mr. Marcellus out with the horses, Mr. Marcus. I think he feels most terribly about leaving them."

Marcus thanked her, and urged Smoke towards Marcellus' stables. He found Marcellus on the path, halfway. "Marcus!" Marcellus said, smiling. "What brings you?"

"Uncle Aquila asked me to ride over and see about your horses."

"Certainly, certainly. Come, I'll show you to the stables, and introduce you to Mac, my horseman."

Marcus dismounted carefully and shook Marcellus' hand, then walked beside him towards the stables, cane in one hand and leading Smoke behind with the other.

"Mac!" Marcellus called as they approached, and a man who seemed to be not much younger than Marcus came out of the stable, with russet-colored hair above a guarded gaze. He had a serious but handsome face, and Marcus saw he could not - or would not - control the proud set of his jaw. As he was bare-chested beneath a rough apron, Marcus could see the man's arms and shoulders muscled like a whippet. He was slim and none too tall, but Marcus would wager that he was deadly quick in a fight. On his hands were thick gloves, and he was holding a pitchfork. He looked unlike any horseman that Marcus had ever met, and Marcus found himself immediately intrigued.

Marcellus gestured toward the man. "Mac is excellent with my horses; last year I had a new Arabian that I thought could not be broken, and he got her through it. I feel most awful that I cannot bring more than a few members of the staff to America with me, nor the horses. I don't suppose your uncle is interested? Or yourself, young Marcus?"

Marcus inclined his head. "It was why he sent me over."

"I will have Mac show you my best," Marcellus said, and gestured to the stablehand, who nodded and went back into the barn.

After a moment's wait, he returned with a dark and glossy Arabian, with a shining mane and tail. "Ruby Slippers, sir."

The Arabian swished her tail and seemed to regard Marcus. "She's beautiful," he murmured, reaching out to run a hand over her strong neck. Marcellus thanked him, but it was the horseman's face that flashed an expression of pride.

To be sure, Marcus asked of Marcellus, "You mean to sell all of your horses, even this mare?"

"I do. They cannot be brought on the ship, and I would much rather see them sold to an old friend than consigned to someone who might mistreat them, or worse."

He saw the groom wince at this, a flash in the man's grey eyes. "You have no other prospects?" Marcus asked him, and he shook his head.

"No, sir."

"What shall you do?"

"Look for work on foot, I suppose." He looked resigned to his fate, a bitter set to his mouth. Ruby Slippers whinnied and stomped as if she was displeased.

Marcus rubbed her soft nose. "I will talk to my uncle," he said, directing his statement to both of them. "I make no promises, but - I will speak with him. "

He started back to Aquila's, slowly, his mind turning over the question of the left-behind horses and the groomsman who looked at them with such pride, as though they were his and not belonging to Marcellus. Then a sudden strike of inspiration caused him to bring Smoke to a full halt halfway home. Marcus thought: Mac the horseman is in a much worse situation than I; perhaps I can help. Perhaps we can help each other.

He turned Smoke around again towards the Marcellus stables, and found the stableman outside, holding an apple for Ruby Slippers to crunch. He looked up as Marcus approached, his expression guarded. "Mr. Marcellus has gone back up to the main house," he said.

"I'm not looking for Claudius," Marcus replied, then asked, "Your name is Mac?"

The horseman huffed. A tiny shake of his proud head. "My name is Esca, sir, but Mac is the only name that any of my masters have chosen to learn."

"Esca. I am Marcus."

Esca simply looked at him, as if to say I was aware. Marcus steadied Smoke, and then dismounted with care. He saw Esca mark his limp.

"You truly have no other options than to look for work on foot, once Marcellus is gone?" he asked, and Esca nodded. "You have no family?"

"My parents have been dead seven years, and I have been in service since."

Marcus judged him to be at most twenty years of age. He could not fathom being alone and having to seek work at thirteen, with no assistance. "Have you any schooling?"

"The reading and writing I know have served me well enough." He regarded Marcus with a suddenly curious expression, almost keen. "Begging your pardon, sir, but is there a reason for your interest? You were not gone long enough to return to Sir Aquila's and discuss the horses with him."

It was a sharp observation. Smoke nudged at Marcus' shoulder, and he touched her soft nose. "I do not mean to bargain for the horses at this time."

"What, then?"

Were any other servant to speak to him in such a way, Marcus would rebuke them, and firmly. But he felt no such desire to put Esca in his apparent place. He met Esca's gaze. "I have a proposition - purely business, for certain. But it would allow you to... improve your station."

"I would hear it," Esca said, after a moment's thought.

"My father died while I was away, in the War. He left a clause in his will that I could not inherit the full estate without marrying. But I am a mess," he said ruefully, "and no woman I am aware of will have me, even in convenience."

"You do not look a mess, sir."

Marcus inclined his head in acceptance of the compliment, which seemed sincere. "My uncle's solicitors have informed me that I can arrange for a contractual marriage - with anyone, regardless of their sex - on paper only. It seems the situation to both our problems, am I correct?"

"A contract. For what length of time?"

Marcus did not recall there being any set length of time, so long as more than a full year passed, and so answered, "Let's say - two years. Upon the close, I would gift you with a lump sum, which you could do with as you pleased, and you would also take with you any items acquired during the contract period."

As marriage proposals went, Marcus knew this to be a terrible and completely improvised one. But it was business, not love, nor any desire for children, and this could better both their situations. He held Esca's gaze, so to assure him that this was no joke.

"You sincerely propose this - to me? I am merely a servant." But Esca did not sound convinced as he said it, and Marcus dared to hope that Esca had been waiting for a way out of his situation.

"At least come up to the Manor for supper," he urged. "So that we might talk before any decisions are made."

"I have duties -"

"I can arrange it with Marcellus."

"Very well. But I do not own much better, with regards to clothing."

Marcus assured him that anything was fine, so long as Esca was to wear a shirt, and not an apron. Esca looked at him a moment longer, his gaze searching, as though he was trying to find something in Marcus. Marcus felt his cheeks pink slightly. Esca saw his flush, and looked satisfied. He extended a hand.

Marcus clasped it, and firmly. "Uncle Aquila and I take supper at seven. I will go speak to Marcellus at once, since it is nearing four, and I am sure you have things to finish. And Esca - you must surely call me Marcus."

Esca squeezed his hand, and Marcus realized with a start that he was still holding on. "Seven," he repeated.

"I will be there," Esca replied, "Marcus."

Marcus left him to complete his duties, and arranged a night off with Marcellus, who seemed to think Marcus wanted to introduce Esca to his uncle as a prospective hire and did not press. But Marcus knew his Uncle Aquila needed no more horsemen, and that his uncle's household could afford no more help besides.

He guided Smoke back to the Manor, feeling both pleased and - if he was to admit - a bit apprehensive. He was sure Aquila would try to dissuade him from this, but Marcus was tired of his uncle's help, and of leaving his childhood home shut up empty, and likely rotting in places. He could not afford to send people for repairs until the money from his inheritance was released. He and Esca would have to stay with Aquila at least a month, while the house was opened and aired, and made livable again.

He admonished himself slightly for chafing at his uncle's charity, yet offering what was the same to Esca. But perhaps it was different enough. Marcus had always thought himself a relatively giving person; in the military he had enjoyed taking a few of the younger enlisted men under his wing and providing a bit of education. Until they had been sent to see combat in Spain he had with regularity pressed upon them treatises on warfare, for both the learning experience and as part of their military duty.

Not that it had mattered much in the end. None of them had survived.

But as much as he had hated the battles, Marcus still missed the Army, and cursed his wound under his breath as he steered Smoke towards Aquila's stables. He waved away Tomas' offer of assistance, telling the man instead to run up to the kitchens and inform Mrs. Stassticca there would be a third for dinner.

Once inside the house, he went up to his bedroom to change into fresh trousers - his were now streaked and dotted with mud from riding, damp to the knee. As he struggled with the fabric, his mind turned ahead, composing mental lists of things that would need to be done to ready the house, and the knowledge that Esca would have to acquire should he accept Marcus' offer. He would certainly need a new wardrobe, Marcus decided firmly.

"Marcus?" he heard his uncle call from down the stairs. "You have invited someone for supper?"

"Yes, Uncle," he replied. "I'll be down in a moment."

He set his worn trousers aside for the laundry and wiped clean his boots before pulling them back on. Then he limped down the stairs - they were much harder to descend than to climb up, thanks to the limited range of motion in his knee, and Marcus tried not to fret about the possibility of it collapsing underneath him, cane or no cane. Aquila stood with a querying expression at the bottom. "Surely not Marcellus," he said, with a hint of a smile.

"No," Marcus chuckled. Then he composed himself, clasping his hands carefully behind his back. "His horseman, Esca. I have asked him to marry me."

"You've - what?"

"He will be here at seven," Marcus replied firmly.

He brushed past a shocked-looking Aquila and returned to his letter in the day room. But he could not focus. After spending a quarter of an hour staring down at what he'd already written, he set it aside with a sigh. There would be plenty to mention in the coming weeks if Esca was to accept his offer.

At five to seven, Stephan opened the front door to admit Esca, in a plain shirt and trousers with his face scrubbed clean. He looked as nervous as Marcus, who had been lurking without apology near the staircase, was feeling. It was a strange emotion for Marcus, and it sat heavily on his lower ribs.

"You did come," he said, reaching out to shake Esca's hand, briefly this time.

"Yes. What choice did I have?"

Marcus was slightly taken aback, but then resolved to consider this from Esca's viewpoint. "I apologise," he said, and quickly. "I honestly did not -"

"You didn't consider?" Esca asked, but with a slight smile, as though he did not take offense. "Marcus, were you in my position, you'd take this offer as well. It is better than any of my alternatives."

"I do not wish for you to be nervous."

"Am I to try to impress your uncle?"

"What - no. Surely not."

Esca did not look convinced Instead, Marcus thought he might look even more apprehensive than before. "It will be fine," he said, as much to himself as Esca, trying to sound reassuring. "Come, I'll show you to the dining room."

Mrs. Stasticca had brought out the meal while Marcus was welcoming Esca into the house: sliced, roast chicken, boiled potatoes with butter, cooked apples from the orchard, and small bread rolls. Aquila stood by the fireplace with his pipe; he turned when they entered.

"Uncle, this is Esca," Marcus said, keeping his voice firm. He watched Aquila's gaze skim over Esca's clean but threadbare and mended clothes, his scuffed boots.

Then he reached to shake Esca's hand. "I am pleased to make your acquaintance. Shall we eat?"

After the serving dishes had been passed, Aquila asked Esca if Marcellus was selling his whole stable of horses. "Yes, sir," Esca answered, looking up from his plate.

"Even his prized Arabian?"

"Yes, Ruby Slippers. He is asking thirty guineas if you are interested."

"A salesman, are you?" Aquila chuckled, and Esca flushed.

"No, sir - I merely..." He trailed off, as if measuring his next words. "I could not bear to see her sold to a man who might mistreat her, or sell her for meat. I would buy her myself if I could."

He said the last part firmly, a defiant tilt to his head. Marcus resolved to buy Ruby Slippers at his earliest opportunity.

"And what can you offer my nephew should you accept his ridiculous offer?"

"Uncle," Marcus growled under his breath, but if Aquila heard, he ignored it.

"I'm a hard worker. My size belies my strength. As Mr. Marcellus told Marcus, I'm a good hand with horses."

"What do you know of manor life?"

"I can learn what I don't know."

Aquila's mouth twitched. "I should like to see you and Marcus attempt the waltz."

"I would not," Marcus interrupted before Aquila could make some joke about how Esca would fare through a season in London, or worse, "with my leg."

"What happened to your leg?" Esca asked, turning his attention to Marcus as though dismissing Aquila's concerns. Marcus felt a twinge of pride at that, and pushed it down.

"A musketball to the thigh, in the Spanish war. It shattered the bone, and then the ball was dug out by an inept surgeon."

Tomas came forward to refill the wine in Esca's cup. Esca thanked him, and Aquila's eyebrows rose nearly to his hair. It was all Marcus could do not to laugh at his expression. Tomas topped off Marcus' own cup. "Thank you, Tomas," Marcus murmured.

"Sir," Tomas replied, with amusement in his voice.

Esca looked Marcus again. "You were in the Army, then?"

"Yes."

"I should like to hear about it sometime."

Marcus, who did not much care to discuss the battle, looked at Esca's querying face and answered, "Certainly. I would be glad to tell you."

Esca did not know that the answer was directed as much towards Aquila's disapproval as it was towards Esca himself. "Would we share a room here?" Esca asked, and before Marcus had a moment to puzzle out what that could mean, Aquila was shaking his head.

"Of course not. This would be a business arrangement, and surely you would want it to be treated as such."

"Surely," Esca murmured. He continued to look skeptical. Marcus wondered what misfortune had befallen him in the past to make him look like that. Esca had the type of face that did not look well with that sort of expression; he would be more suited to a look of confidence, if not pride.

Esca's gaze met his suddenly and Marcus realized he'd been staring. He inclined his head slightly towards Esca, then spooned some apples onto his plate and ate them in small bites. His hands did not shake.

Esca did not linger after dinner, and promised to give Marcus his decision by week's end. "I should like to stay with the horses," he said, as Marcus walked him out to his mount, "if someone comes who would take both them and me."

"I am sorry my uncle will not," Marcus replied. "Although I daresay you addressed Tomas at dinner solely to see his reaction."

Esca chuckled, and then swung himself up onto the mousy-brown pony with an ease that made Marcus ache in jealousy. "Goodnight, Marcus."

"Goodnight."

Next morning, his leg was stiff and protesting the riding he'd done, and he grit his teeth in pain the entire way down the stairs to the day room, where Aquila sat at his desk with a stack of correspondence.

"Now that, I was not expecting," Aquila said as Marcus limped in, the heavy thud of the cane giving away his approach.

Confused, he asked, "You did not expect me to be out of bed?"

"I did not expect you to truly ask that servant to marry you."

"Well, I have." He felt cross with his uncle this morning, pain and hunger prodding at him from the inside, mixed with an anticipation he hadn't been expecting.

"He looks a little feral, that one."

"Marcellus Claudius had nothing but kind words for him," Marcus snapped. "He said Esca was the only one who could handle Ruby Slippers at first."

"Like I said. A wild horse knows another."

Marcus decided that this conversation was not worth continuing. "He has not given me an answer yet. Now, I am going to see about breakfast."

He turned, and Aquila called after him, "He may very well kill you, Marcus."

"Then I shall die, and I would have deserved it," Marcus replied, and stalked down the hallway towards the kitchens as fast as his leg would carry him. He had no fear of death, not any more. Not after watching so many of his friends die on the battlefield. He'd thought his own life over when the musketball exploded into his thigh, and had awoken surprised to find himself still alive, and with no more fear of the end.

Shortly before noon, Mrs. Stassticca called him to the kitchen door. Esca was there, on the same pony he'd ridden the day before. "Mr. Marcellus leaves for America sooner than expected, now in three weeks' time," he said to Marcus. "Therefore, I accept your offer."

"Very well." He let his tone show none of his internal relief. "I will have the solicitor draw up the papers; they should be ready well before Marcellus leaves. And tell him that I will buy Ruby Slippers, once the money is in my hands."

Esca seemed to brighten at this. He nodded. "When shall I... come to live with you?"

"I will call on you when the papers are ready. It will take some time before my own house is livable again, so we will have to stay here, perhaps a month or more. Is that alright?"

"Of course," he answered quickly, and Marcus figured he was not much used to having others ask his opinion. The pony took a few steps, as if she were bored, and Esca patted her neck, stroked gentle fingers over her ears. He flashed Marcus a tight, brief smile, and Marcus returned it. "I should be going."

The following Thursday, Marcus' solicitor arrived from London with a thick stack of carefully drawn papers: the marriage contract, the deed to Marcus' childhood home, and the investment statements detailing the amount of his inheritance. The weather was horribly damp and Marcus could hardly get around the house, much less onto a horse, so he had to send Tomas to fetch Esca. He left the solicitor in the parlor, then lingered in the kitchens until he could see Esca approach.

Marcus went out a few yards to meet him, so that they might speak without Aquila or the solicitor overhearing. Esca dismounted, then handed the reigns of his pony to Tomas. Marcus waited until the groom was out of earshot, then asked, "Are you confident in this decision?"

Esca gave him a hard stare. "Yes," he said, after a long and still silence lingered between them for near a minute. "Are you?"

With honesty, Marcus replied, "You are the last option I have."

Esca looked at him a moment longer, then said, "That's fair."

"The solicitor is inside. Shall we?"

Esca nodded. "I will need to return to Mr. Marcellus' afterward, to fetch my things."

"Should I accompany you?"

"If you so choose. I have told the other servants there I am coming to work for you and your uncle. They do not know of our arrangement. I feel it would make most of them uncomfortable."

Marcus could understand Esca's hesitance to share this turn of events with the other servants. "I have no quarrel if that's what you wish to tell people."

"I am not entirely sure what to tell people."

"Then perhaps for now we shall... not say anything at all," Marcus suggested.

Esca nodded, looking relieved. Then he asked, "Do you expect me to act as a wife?" and Marcus was caught off guard, and forced to ask what Esca meant.

"The keeping of the house - dusting, straightening, darning your stockings." There was no small amount of contempt in his voice.

Marcus struggled not to laugh. "No. We will have servants for those things. Do you honestly think me so rigid as to require you to take on the womanly tasks?"

"I do not know you very well at all."

"Anything you'd like to know, Esca, please ask. Truly, I do not wish us to be strangers."

Esca looked at him for a long while, with an expression that Marcus could not decipher, no matter how hard he tried. They went into the house, Esca pausing to scrub the mud quickly from his boots in the scullery. The solicitor looked disinterested as he pointed out where they should sign on the certificates, all formal-looking writing on unblemished parchment. Esca's signature was a long scribble, with the exception of a clear and defined 'E'. When everything was signed, they shook hands.

The solicitor withdrew a fat envelope from the breast pocket of his coat and handed it to Marcus. "Here is the return on your investments over the last few months, as I assume you will need to arrange for the house to be restored," he said. "I have taken out several newspaper ads on your behalf, for a housekeeper and the like."

"Thank you," Marcus replied.

Aquila cleared his throat. "Esca, a word in private, if I may?"

"Of course, sir." He shot Marcus a confused look, but followed Aquila from the room.

"I must say this arrangement is not one that most men choose," the solicitor said to Marcus as he gathered the now-dry papers and placed them carefully in his leather case. "But there was no way to know that your father would die while you were gone, or that such an injury would befall you."

Marcus felt cold, hating the look of pity on the solicitor's pale and whiskered face. He clutched hard at the envelope of money. "Indeed, one could not have forseen."

"I shall place the papers in your vault. Good luck, and good day, Sir."

Marcus waved him away, struggling against his temper, just as Esca and Aquila returned. He looked first at Esca but could find no discernible emotion on his face. "All finished, Marcus?" Aquila asked, as placid as ever.

"Yes. Esca and I will be going to Marcellus' to gather his belongings now; we should return well before supper."

"You're riding out? But earlier you could not -"

"I can mount my damn horse," Marcus snapped, cutting off his uncle mid-sentence. He wanted nothing more than to get out of the house, nevermind the weather. "Thank you."

His cane sank into the mud as they walked out to the stables, and Marcus was forced to bang it several times against the wall to knock off the muck. "I hate this bloody thing," he muttered. Esca did not answer, simply brought Smoke from her stall before fetching his own mount. Marcus kicked down the rough step-stool he had to use on occasion, and with the extra height, managed to swing himself up - bad leg first - onto his horse.

Again with no comment, Esca took up the step-stool and held it in front of him on his pony.

"I am not asking you to be my servant," Marcus said to him, feeling his anger slip away, only to be replaced by an ugly and unwanted feeling of helplessness.

"I know," Esca replied, and steered the pony towards Marcellus' without giving Marcus another glance.

Marcus went to find Marcellus first, and pay him for Ruby Slippers. Then he found Esca in the small room he had occupied with another groomsman in the stables. "What might I buy for you?" he asked, looking at Esca's meager belongings as they were bundled up into a worn and patched canvas bag.

"Nothing."

Marcus could hardly believe that. "Surely there are things you need. You truly have no requests?"

Esca rose from his crouch; his expression went carefully blank, and he shifted his weight from foot to foot for a moment before coming to some sort of decision, and looking Marcus straight in the eye as though he had decided to tell the truth. "Your uncle said I was to make no requests."

Inwardly, Marcus groaned. Uncle Aquila was at times a meddling old fool, and this was indeed one of those times. "You may ask for things, Esca; do not be hesitant."

"You have already agreed to provide me with more than I thought I should see in my lifetime," Esca replied. "And for that, I thank you."

"You have no reason to thank me. I should never have claimed my inheritance if you hadn't agreed to the marriage."

Esca looked at him. After a long silence, he said, "It seems we're at a draw, then."

"Another item on our list of things to avoid discussing."

The corner of Esca's mouth twitched in what might have been a smile. "Yes."