“I always took you for a hellion bitch, but never before for a fool.”
Ilithyia winces, and not for the first time she thinks this is just about the most absurd thing she could have done. She is quickly discovering, though, that foolish choices are quite frequently the only ones available.
“I have explained my reasons,” she says, her voice wavering slightly. “I know not what else to say.”
A throaty grumble of anger escapes Spartacus as he pins her to a tree.
“Say who it is that sent you to follow me, and the reasoning for it.”
Gasping at the shock of the sudden force, Ilithyia quickly regains herself. She is getting used to being roughly handled like this, distressing as it may be. Composing herself as best she can, she snaps, “My father is dead. My husband has cast me aside. Without them, I have nothing. A woman has only as much power as the meshe wields it through.”
“Not among us,” he growls.
“No,” she concedes, “not among you. One of your women nearly took my life when I was your prisoner, and would have seen it claimed had it not been for your intervention.”
“Mira is a strong warrior,” says Spartacus, a hint of something deeper in his words. Not love, but a certain sad fondness, perhaps.
Ilithyia nods, and says, “I wield weapons of my own.”
“If you speak of the child that grows within you – “
“I do not.”
Her presence is not welcome in what passes for a council, and she does not blame them. She never expected this to be an easy fight, but her boast is no lie – she can be an invaluable asset, given opportunity.
“Gods be fucked,” says the tall one, the German, who she thinks she recognizes from once fighting in the arena alongside his brother, and Spartacus has to place a calming palm against Crixus’ shoulder to prevent him from lunging forward.
Biting her lip, Ilithyia looks to the floor. All morning her efforts have been spent attempting to gain what little confidence she can from Spartacus – she is exhausted, unready to take on more derision.
“What is the meaning of this?” the Gaul asks, his voice dangerous.
“She refuses to return to Glaber. She would join our cause,” says Spartacus, and Ilithyia waits for the laughter, the taunts and jeers of disdain.
They do not come.
Instead, a woman’s voice asks, “And what makes you think you have a place among us?”
Out of the shadows steps the warrior woman – Mira, he had called her – and Ilithyia takes a slight step backward. The last time she had seen the woman, her hands – strong, rough, no stranger to hard labor – had been tight about her neck, slowly draining away both her life and the one that grew within her womb.
Unsteadily, she regains composure, then begins to explain once more, “I have no place left in Capua. Without husband or father, I have little better position than a slave myself – “
“Spare us the tales of your misfortunes,” Mira says coolly. “I did not ask of them. I asked what gives you the right to stand as our equals, to fight for a cause greater than any one of us, when you stood not so long ago amongst those we were forced to bow to in servitude.”
Ilithyia is unprepared for such a question, yet she finds the answer quick upon her tongue anyway.
“To be a slave is to live in want and fear,” she says quietly. “That is what you told me only three nights past. All my life, I never realized that my life was just as precarious as yours, that any control I thought I had over it was a mere fleeting illusion. No woman is truly free, and it shames me to only understand that now. I have not suffered as any of you have, but I would claim liberty nonetheless, for myself and for all those like me.”
Mira looks to the floor, where Ilithyia cannot see the expression upon her face nor the thoughts that stir within her eyes. All she can do is watch and hope that she sees her words are the truth.
At long last, the dark woman elevates her eyes to meet Ilithyia’s gaze. Gravely, she nods.
“Pretty words from a treacherous snake,” he growls.
“A snake who may very well hold the key to your victory,” she snaps. She does not know what power suddenly makes her so bold, but she suspects that having both Spartacus and Mira’s blessings, begrudging though they may be, has something to do with it.
A humorless laugh, and then Crixus asks, “And how might that be, little snake?”
Ilithyia sets her jaw for battle.
“I admit, I have never before seen someone put Crixus so aptly in line,” says Mira, later, handing her a cup of water. “Aside from Naevia, of course.”
Warily, Ilithyia accepts the cup from her and drinks. All in all, she is satisfied with the council’s conclusion, and she knows she should not be surprised they have returned her to her cell, but it is a strange turn of events that her guard has chosen this time to partake in drink and conversation rather than attempt on her life.
“Naevia?” she asks. If she is to count herself as one of them, it is best to start learning names and the faces they belong to.
Mira nods, finishes her sip, then says, “Crixus’ woman. You would recognize her as Lucretia’s body slave.”
If you ever cared to take notice, is the unspoken addendum, but Ilithyia ignores it, because she does remember the girl – striking features, dark of skin, Mauretanian probably, or Phoenician – over whom Crixus and the Syrian rat had brawled the night Batiatus had secured her husband’s patronage.
“She is here, then?” she asks.
“It was for her we braved the mines,” says Mira, and Ilithyia can physically feel the calculating glance she sweeps over her as she does.
Ilithyia cares little for the Gaul, but she can’t help the small tug at the corners of her lips to think of the lengths he has gone for the woman of his heart. She and Gaius had been like that, once, willing to tear apart the stars to find one another’s embrace. Or so she had thought. Defying her father’s wishes now seems an utterly insignificant risk to undertake.
Suddenly she feels hot, and dirty, and unspeakably tired.
“Agron will be able to procure what we seek?” she asks suddenly, wishing to speak of anything else.
Mira frowns, but nods. “He has some skill in playacting, and is fair enough to pass as Roman. Likely you’ll spend much time with him planning in the coming weeks.”
“And that will be enough to prove my worth?”
“You have already proven your value to the cause. It is your trust that is yet untested.”
The temple yard goes quiet when she emerges into the sunlight, but Mira’s firm hand upon her arm is a strange comfort. Even after all these days, she is still a curiosity to these rebel slaves, one to be considered from afar but never approached. Spartacus and Agron speak to her in conference, and Crixus never spares a sharp word for her, but Mira is the only one among them whom she counts as friend, strange though it may be.
Ilithyia wonders if she deserves even that.
“Have you lost mind?” Ilithyia asks, amused, though she is not entirely joking. “Spirius Hirtius Aculeo is a city magistrate. He would never grant private audience to one he does not know.”
“You said some days past a messenger would be given immediate audience. If I were to say I come from Crassus – “
“The presence of three or four guards would yet be merited, either at his side or just beyond the chamber where they might hear all that occurs within.”
Agron huffs his annoyance and pushes away his empty bowl. Not for the first time, Ilithyia rolls her eyes. Impossible though the man is, they have found themselves too deep in discussion to break for evening meal.
She sets aside her own bowl and suddenly stumbles upon a thought.
“You would fare better seeking access through Appia,” she says, having barely registered the thought herself.
“Aculeo’s wife,” Ilithyia explains, mind racing, “of sickly demeanor and in constant presence of priestesses brought to tend her poor health.”
“A magistrate would allow a man audience with his wife if he were of the gods?” Agron asks.
“Of course not,” she says, batting the notion away with her hand as one would an irksome fly. Agron raises a brow, letting the unspoken question rest between them.
Ilithyia sighs. “Even if I had Spartacus’ confidence to leave the temple walls, my condition is too far gone to undertake such exertion. What is more, I have had acquaintance with Appia. My face would be known to her. Are there no women among you worthy to take on such an endeavor?”
“There are,” he says. “But how will this deliver me Aculeo?”
“Our priestess shall insist upon his presence, and none others. They will not dare defy a vessel of Sirona.”
Satisfied with her answer and the progress of their plans, Agron nods. “Mira is too easily recognized. Saxa will serve well as a mute if her temper keeps, and Mira will be her voice, arrayed in veils.”
“You might make their number three if attired similarly,” Ilithyia points out.
“A woman of unnatural height, would I not appear?” asks Agron, followed by a raised brow and a smile. To her surprise, Ilithyia lets a hint of laughter escape her own lips.
“A woman of the gods may be many things,” she replies, and raises her glass.
She demands to be taken to Spartacus the moment the party returns.
“The tree yielded fruit?” Ilithyia inquires, and Spartacus looks up from the map he is studying in surprise before nodding.
A relieved smile overtakes her, and she asks, “My value, then?”
“Was never in question,” he replies. “Your honesty, however, is a thing somewhat redeemed today. A magistrate in our custody and the keys to the city prison, securing the freedom of some scores. I admit it could not have been done were it not for you.”
Nodding, Ilithyia raises an eyebrow in silent question.
“You may move about the temple freely,” he concedes at long last. “Though you may find all quarters of comfort already occupied.”
Outside, an enormous grin stretching from ear to ear, she breathes the cool night air. Agron passes with his lover and stops to grip her shoulder, says, “We’ll make an honorable woman of you yet.”
Naevia and the Syrian boy sit on either side of her without cause or explanation. Mira has told her they often find distraction in each other’s company when their men undertake missions away from the temple, as Naevia is still untried with a blade and the boy has yet to fully heal. But Agron and Crixus have long-since returned, and it does nothing to explain their including her now.
She lets them talk around her, feet scuffing at the temple steps, wishing she had thought to ask Mira to liberate a scroll or two from the Aculeo villa. It’s not that Ilithyia’s ever been a particularly avid scholar, but she finds there is little else to do here absent the intrigues of friends.
“What say you, Ilithyia?”
Her head snaps up and on either side of her are two pairs of expectant brown eyes, not unfriendly.
“Um,” she says stupidly, then clears her throat and tries again. “I – apologies, my thoughts were elsewhere.”
The boy – Nasir, Nasir is his name – laughs and says, “None required. I only asked if you had yet chosen your child’s name.”
“Oh,” Ilithyia says, her heart sinking. “No. He was meant to be Aulus Claudius, but such a name no longer seems appropriate.” It is a weak attempt at humor, but Naevia and Nasir smile nonetheless, a kindness she appreciates.
“Perhaps Albinius, then, in memory of your father,” Naevia suggests.
“You know of my father?”
“I was body slave to Lucretia not so long ago.”
Ilithyia flushes at having forgotten, and looks down to where her nails absently scratch at the stone steps. A dark, gentle, unexpected hand finds hers, and Naevia says, “Let us leave unpleasant memory behind and talk of other things.”
After weeks of distant curious glances, she hardly knows what to do with such a prospect, especially coming from one such as Naevia. Speak to her as you would Mira, she tells herself, and draws in a short breath.
“What would you have us talk of?”
“Your time among us has been spent in much solitude,” says Naevia, an odd twinkle in her eye. “Let us instruct you who to count as friend, who to avoid, and who to make best attempt not to laugh at.”
Exhaustion overtakes her, but sleep will not come. Not when the tiny, precious life Ilithyia holds in her arms snuggles itself to her breast and she can still see the scar upon his abdomen where the chord that once connected them within her womb was severed not an hour before.
So this is what it is to be a mother, she thinks, and presses the child even closer to her body.
Spartacus has yet to visit his son, but to her shock she finds she does not care. Mira was there at her side the moment he was born, having toiled alongside Medicus and Naevia to bring him into this world. Agron and Nasir came to visit not long after, followed by a begrudging Crixus and what seems the entirety of the temple’s occupants.
No matter what ill feelings some still bear towards her, all are eager to lay eyes upon the heir of Spartacus.
The Thracian may have yet to acknowledge him, but Ilithyia is confident to know that her son has been born to an army of mothers and fathers.
“We have already struck two lethal blows to Neapolis,” says Spartacus, scratching at his chin. “To the port and to the jail.”
“Perhaps it is time to turn our efforts elsewhere,” Crixus suggests, pulling the map towards his end of the table. “Pompeii, perhaps.”
Mira and Agron murmur their agreement, but Spartacus frowns and Ilithyia, too, sees the problem he has spotted. “Would that not give away our position?” she asks, “Vesuvius is the clear midway point between the two cities.”
“We will have to move eventually,” Crixus snaps at her, but she stands her ground. She is used to this by now.
“But not yet,” she says, an idea suddenly taking form. “Besides, Neapolis may yet bear more fruit.”
Ilithyia finds Mira leaning against a pillar, tightening the string of her bow with careful, affectionate fingers. With some amount of maneuvering, she sets herself upon the ground beside her, shifting Marius in her arms to a more comfortable position so as not to wake the finally sleeping child.
“You could not find sleep?” Ilithyia asks quietly.
“I find my thought preoccupied, preventing it,” she responds. “And you?”
“New mothers of Rome have the luxury of slaves to tend their babes in the night. It is an extravagance I find myself strangely glad to go without.”
“He is a beautiful child.”
“And he will grow strong, like his father.”
“And his mother.”
Ilithyia laughs at that, but Mira lays a hand on hers and says, “It is no jest. You have your own strength. Otherwise you would not be here.”
For a moment all is still as she takes the time to consider this. Back in the forest, all those weeks past, she could have returned to Capua, to a cold life, to one bereft of power and love. Yet she chose this. She chose to follow Spartacus, to claim a life of worth. Though she still fights for it every moment, both within and outside of the rebellion’s ranks, it is a life of some power she has now, a power everyone knows belongs to her and her alone.
Love, she supposes, comes to her in Marius, but then Mira’s lips are very suddenly upon her own and gone just as quickly.
Eyes wide, Ilithyia draws in the sight of the woman who once tried to take her life, the woman she has by Fortuna’s humor come to count as trusted friend above all others. Briefly she recalls the feel of Lucretia’s kiss, the battle for dominance that lingered between their every touch, the longing for more and knowledge that it would never come. Somehow she knows this is nothing of the same.
When Mira speaks, however, it is not as she expects.
“You are a worthy strategist,” she says, and Ilithyia is pleased to see the blush upon her cheek.
Well, if that’s how she wants to play.
“I fight with what weapons I have. I am no warrior.”
“Perhaps you will find yourself one soon, armed now with cause and loved ones to fight for,” Mira says lightly, fingering her bow, a smile creeping upon her lovely face, and Ilithyia feels her heart turn on itself.