Marcus felt pleasantly drowsy, lying there in the furs with Esca and looking up at the roof-beams of Esca’s roundhouse. He had to fight it, though--too many nights gone from the villa after hunting trips with Esca and his uncle might grow suspicious that it was more than work that kept him away.
The striped native rug that hung between the bed and the rest of the house swayed a bit in a draft. “I will have to check for cracks in the walls before winter,” Esca said sleepily.
“I can help, if you like,” Marcus offered, coming up to rest on one elbow.
“You don’t have to,” said Esca, and then, “I know it is not--your home.” He was staring up into the roof-beams, and when he stopped speaking his lips tightening into a thin line, as if he wanted to say more and dared not.
“I wish it were.” They both knew that was impossible. It would be one thing if Marcus had his own farm, and were to hire Esca on. That was something folk would think they understood. For Marcus to live in the house of a British hunter was another thing entirely. There were already some in Calleva who looked at Marcus sidelong when he went to the market to sell furs with Esca, wondering why he was not some man’s secretary. “But I would like to help, all the same.”
Esca was silent for a long moment, and then he said, “I have been thinking of having something painted on the walls, like in your uncle’s dining room. Something with wolves.”
“And that will not invite talk?” asked Marcus, drily.
Esca rolled over and grinned at him. “Well, perhaps something that looks like your Roman she-wolf and her human cubs, then. Only we need know that they are not.”
“I have something to show you,” Esca said, the next time Marcus came by to go hunting. A grin threatened at the corners of his mouth, but he was fighting it back. “Come inside; I want to show you my new wall-painting.”
Once inside, Marcus stared, agape. It was certainly...unusual. Indeed, he did not think he had ever seen a painting of Romulus and Remus and the she-wolf quite like it. More accurately, of the she-wolf, for the twins were so small and pink they were hardly noticeable, especially once you saw the she-wolf’s face.
She must be the she-wolf, for there was nothing else she could be; but she was a she-wolf painted by someone who perhaps had once heard a wolf described by a man who read about a wolf in his youth. She wore a wide, ear-to-ear grin, like some fiendish creature in a story, and her very, very toothy mouth was outlined in red, like blood. Her eyes were huge and staring. Marcus would not have been at all surprised to find her eating Romulus and Remus instead of suckling them.
Esca was smiling and smiling next to him, clearly proud of his new walls, and Marcus hadn’t the heart to say anything against it. “I have never seen its like,” he said, because at least that was true.
“Esca, I can’t--I’m sorry. I feel like she’s staring at me.” Why, oh why, had Esca had the she-wolf painted over the bed, and not on the other side of the house? In the lamplight, the horrible painting nearly seemed to slaver.
Esca looked hurt, and he drew back into the furs. “You do not like her? She reminds me of my mother.”
“That does not exactly encourage me more,” Marcus said, gesturing at the area of his present difficulty, but he felt a little bit guilty.
“I was thinking of having the artist come back and put in a mosaic,” said Esca, looking hurt.
And just when Marcus was beginning to wonder if this was, in fact, an elaborate joke, Esca collapsed against the bed, laughing so hard he started to turn pink. “Oh, Marcus--your face--it was so amazing, I had to let you think--”
“That was not very nice,” Marcus said, rolling over and pinning Esca to the bed. Esca did not look contrite at all; and Marcus had to admit, now that he knew Esca did not like it either, that his look of horror had likely been quite amusing.
“It is truly awful, is it not?” Esca was still breathless with laughter. “No, no, I shall have the artist send a different apprentice to repaint.”
“I think that is a fine idea,” said Marcus, “and I would also like to suggest that we find somewhere else for this, if you have not decided laughing at me is a better pastime this evening.”
“Not at all,” Esca said, and gave him a remarkably predatory smile for someone presently being sat upon. “May I suggest the very sturdy table over by the door?”
A very pleasant time later, they were both sitting on a rug by the hearth, leaning against each other. Esca was absently stroking Marcus between his shoulders. “I was thinking--” he began, and then broke off. “No, it is a foolish thought.”
“I have never found your thoughts foolish.”
“You might help me choose the new painting,” Esca said, very softly. “If you like. I know you cannot sleep here every night, but I would like--I would like it to be your home, as much as it can be.”
Marcus found that he could not summon words around the sudden tightness in his throat, so instead he leaned over and kissed Esca. “I would as well,” he said, when they parted, “more than anything.”