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Because the World Was Flawed, Not Me

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~~~

Spartacus drags her with him up the narrow path to the top of Vesuvius, with all the stinking rest of them. A safeguard, he calls her; a trinket of assurance, even long after it’s become appallingly obvious that Gaius gives no fucks for the wife lost to him, or the child she carries.

Ilithyia doesn’t know why Spartacus doesn’t kill her then. She suspects most of the rebels don’t know either.

She doesn’t care. She curls on her side on the hard ground and wallows in misery, uncaring of the rebels’ taunts or the occasional soft hand upon her shoulder, trying to coax her into eating.

Sometimes, she cries for Lucretia, until the moment Naevia ducks into her flimsy shelter and calmly shows her a knife. “Speak that bitch’s name again,” the slave whispers, close to Ilithyia’s ear, “and I will carve it into your body.”

The night that any residual excuse of her usefulness runs out – the night that the man who impregnated her kills the man she married, although she does not learn about this until the morning – Ilithyia is too busy to care, because that is the night her water breaks.

Two elderly slaves assist her, and Mira. Mira who knows little about childbirth, who just stands there the entire time with eyes of obsidian, staring at Ilithyia as if she wishes to kill her still. But there is a moment, somewhere in the mad red haze of pain, when Ilithyia lies howling and broken, determined to just let go and be free of this endless nightmare, and just then Mira grabs her by the shoulders and snarls into her face, “Push now, or die. I care not which.”

Something about her contemptuous tone makes Ilithyia rally. She grabs Mira’s callous-hardened hands, and screams as she pushes, hard.

Some indeterminate time later, Mira puts a squirming bit of heavy warmth into her arms. “A boy,” she says, her voice steady though her hands are a little shaky. Then she leans close to Ilithyia’s ear. “You do not deserve this.”

Ilithyia agrees, though hardly, she thinks, the way that Mira means it. She should be reclining on soft cushions, coddled by slaves and showered in gifts by an adoring husband, not trapped in a filthy tent surrounded by people who hate her. Her son should be swaddled in silk, not threadbare linen grudgingly offered by a rebel slave.

~~~

She names him Remus because he’ll be raised among wolves. The rebels don’t appreciate the honour as they should, but then most of them are ignorant of the founding myth of Rome. Spartacus seems troubled when she tells it, but he holds the child with a look of stunned, agonised joy.

~~~

She doesn’t know what happened to Lucretia. If any of the rebels know, they will not tell her. At night, Ilithyia tosses and turns, her breasts heavy and aching with overflowing milk. She dreams of Lucretia slipping under the blanket with her, lifting up her soaked shirt. She whispers soft, soothing words to her as she cups Ilithyia’s breasts, closes her lips around a swollen nipple and sucks; gently, so gently, completely different from the baby’s eager pull. The relief is so great that Ilithyia arches awake wet and moaning, with clenching shudders rippling down her belly.

~~~

She does know what happened to Gaius. Spartacus tells her himself, stone-faced and even-voiced. Ilithyia listens and nods and refuses to give him the satisfaction of a reaction. For the briefest moment, she tries to find within herself the horrified outrage she is surely meant to feel, the sobbing accusations. But there is nothing. Even before he abandoned her to her abductors for a tactical advantage, her love for Gaius was a thing long gone dry and flimsy, scattering like ashes at the smallest further slight; and the slights they heaped upon each other were so many.

“What will happen to me now?” she wonders, mostly to herself, as she looks down at the small soft face cupped against her breast. The rebels moved her down from Vesuvius after they won their battle; the camp is once again set up in the woods, while Spartacus and his generals plan where to go from here.

Spartacus takes her question as addressed to himself. He steps behind her, leaning over her to gaze at Remus too. “A thing not yet certain,” he admits.

Ilithyia looks up at him. “I hold less value now as hostage than I ever did. You killed my husband.”

He nods without the smallest trace of contrition and crouches next to her, his finger gently tracing the curve of Remus’s downy head. “Do you yet have family?” he asks casually, not meeting her eyes. “Anyone who would welcome you – and the child?”

Ilithyia looks at him, startled. “You would let us go?” she asks sharply. He makes no answer, and after a moment, she sighs.

“I do not. It used to be just my father and I, and then just I and Gaius.” Daughter to wife, she was handed down, and now she is a mother, thrust into yet another role designed for the benefit of men. At least the power has finally shifted somewhat: this child depends on her for everything, rather than the other way around.

Spartacus nods and stands abruptly. “Then I shall think on this.” He strides out, leaving her alone with Remus.


~~~

He’s a mild-mannered infant, much easier than she expected. He looks upon the world around him, made up of blood and chaos, with mildly curious dark blue eyes, and barely ever cries.

Ilithyia never meant to love him. She won’t know, later, when exactly she began to.

~~~

As the camp moves, Ilithyia moves with it, having little choice. For a while, she is still under guard, though where they think she might flee to now, Ilithyia doesn’t know. At least for her guards Spartacus seems to choose rebels who hold no personal grudge against her. Usually he sends the Syrian, Nasir – by himself, for which Ilithyia is reluctantly grateful. She wouldn’t wish to spend her days under the baleful glare of his lover, Agron.

(She resolves very firmly to never tell him that she nearly chose Agron as her personal recruit before she saw Segovax’s endowment.)

For his part, Nasir seems to have no intention of simply standing by her tent entrance all day. He goes about the camp on various missions and insists that she come with him, heedless of her protests.

“It is not good to sit all day and brood upon your fate,” he tells her shortly. “Not even for you.” Angrily, she scoops up Remus and follows Nasir, sweeping through the camp with as haughty an expression as she can muster. It rankles when barely anyone seems to glance her way.

When Nasir starts to help with training new recruits, Ilithyia gets into the habit of sitting nearby in the shade and watching. It’s entertainment, of a sort, and in a way it’s not too different from visiting Lucretia at the ludus and watching the gladiators train. The atmosphere varies somewhat: though the drills are merciless, there is more laughter, and no one swings a whip.

And the women fight as well. Ilithyia watches them with half fascination, half disdain as they roll in the dust, throwing punches and clashing swords as fiercely as the men do. Mira takes groups into the nearby woods every day to practise archery. Crixus himself trains Naevia. Some of the older women come to sit with Ilithyia sometimes, making coarse jests and placing bets upon who will win. They share their wine with her and coo over Remus, who has recently discovered his toes and spends hours trying to cram them into his mouth. Ilithyia takes the wine and gives them tight-lipped smiles. At times like this, she desperately misses Lucretia, whom she once thought coarse, but compared to these women she seems the height of sophistication. Ilithyia misses the games they’d play, sharp barbs exchanged underneath the sleek masks of their smiles. She misses the scent of her, her soft hands playing with Ilithyia’s hair.

Instead of the women’s chatter, she focuses on the training, watching the sharp blades slice hissing through the air. The sun burns down and everyone is dripping with sweat. Nasir is everywhere, giving instructions, correcting stances, demanding the recruits repeat a move until they get it right. He seems well-versed in the art of battle, and Ilithyia wonders idly if he’s from a ludus himself, although he doesn’t have the gladiator build. She’s never thought to ask.

Eventually, he sends the recruits off for a meal and comes over to where she’s sitting in the shade, Remus on her knees. Nasir is damp with sweat and breathing hard but he smiles at her, as he rarely does.

“I see you pay close attention.”

“What else would I do?” she asks crossly. “You would not let me leave.”

He ignores her sour tone and extends the blade he holds, offering it to her hilt first. “Would you care to try?”

Ilithyia stares first at the weapon, then at him. “Try what?” she asks, almost startled into a laugh.

He nods towards the churned training ground, the battered wooden posts. “The sands. A sword. Your hands.”

She does laugh at that. “I could not!” She’s wearing her rose and white silk dress, much-mended now and worse for wear, but still finer than what most of the women in the camp own.

Nasir does not lower the proffered sword, but his expression sharpens, some of the good humour draining away. “Agron told me you used a sword without qualms upon a man strung up to die for Roman pleasure. Do you fear opponents not so shackled?”

Ilithyia bares her teeth at him and clutches Remus, who lazily kicks his bare legs on her knee. “I have a child!”

Nasir snorts. “If you need to hide behind him, perhaps you are more cowardly than I thought.”

The sting to her pride works, as the damned boy surely knew it would. With a contemptuous snort, Ilithyia clambers to her feet and grasps for the sword. “You take him, then,” she demands, shoving Remus at Nasir. He looks bemused, but holds the boy easily enough in one arm, following her across the training ground. Remus gurgles and pats at the leather of his shoulder guard.

The sword is heavier than Ilithyia remembered, a blunt, battered weapon, not an elegant ceremonial blade. She lifts it high and brings it down upon the wooden post. The impact travels harshly up her arm. She grits her teeth and tries again.

Nasir watches her without comment for a while, before he steps beside her. “Do not lean forward quite so much – it would expose you to enemy’s retaliation. And use it to defend when you pull back, don’t let it drag to ground.”

He corrects her grip with swift, impersonal touches, still balancing Remus in his other arm. The boy crows with delight at the reflection of sunlight on the blade and leans over, chubby hands chasing the errant light.

Nasir and Ilithyia both move to stop him.

“Not yet, dearest,” Ilithyia tells him, and Nasir laughs. “He’s eager, that one.” Despite herself, Ilithyia smiles back at him; it’s hard not to when Remus’s clumsy hands are grasping for her sword.

“What is this?”

Agron moves disconcertingly quietly for a man of his proportions. He just appears beside Nasir, frowning confusedly at the child in his lover’s arms, and then more darkly at the sword in Ilithyia’s hands.

“Is not this harpy dangerous enough, without you placing weapon in devious hands?”

Ilithyia lets the sword tip drag to the ground, taking a step back. It’s odd to realise she was almost in a good mood, battering the post, although her dress is drenched with sweat now, itching uncomfortably on her back.

Nasir shrugs, unperturbed. “She has good stance, and firm grip upon sword.”

“That she would happily turn against us, given opportunity,” Agron complains, before turning to Ilithyia. “Or have you decided suddenly to join rebel cause against your people?”

Her hackles rise immediately at his derisive tone. “Nothing farther from my mind,” she sneers back and drops the sword in the sand. “The very thought turns stomach.”

Ilithyia snatches her gurgling son out of Nasir’s arms and turns to leave. Brimming with resentment, she clutches Remus too tightly, until he squirms and starts to complain. She’s only halfway across the training ground when she hears Nasir call after her.

“Ilithyia!”

Being called by her name surprises her enough to slow her steps. He catches up with her easily, a frown line between his dark brows. Agron waits by the posts, still glowering.

“You could, you know,” Nasir tells her. He gestures towards the sand, the camp around them. “I have watched you. You do not stand empty of skill or resilience. You could find a purpose here.”

Ilithyia smiles bitterly. “As if I held a choice in such.”

“We all hold a choice,” he states bluntly. “I stood a slave once. No longer. You do not need to stand a Roman. Different path lies at your feet, if you but care to set your steps upon it.”

She wants to slap him for believing the world so simple. “You’ve clearly never been a woman,” she tells him bitterly.

He refuses to back down. “The women fight. You have seen them.”

“They’re not like me.”

“And what lofty trait do you possess that they lack?” He tries to make it teasing, but his voice has gone sharper and less kind. Almost, she’s glad for it; it helps re-establish the barrier between them that was almost lowered, for a little while. She hoists her grumbling son higher up on her hip.

“Standards,” Ilithyia tells him, with her sweetest, most poisonous smile. She’s viciously pleased as she watches his friendly eyes harden. He walks away without a word.

As she storms off towards her tent, she fights a sudden, stupid impulse to cry. Her victory with barbed words feels empty compared to the memory of the sword in her hands. It felt good in her palm. It made her feel like she still mattered.

“Never mind,” she murmurs furiously into Remus’s downy hair. “A foolish notion only.”

 ~~~

Strangely, nobody guards her after that. Left to her own devices, she avoids the training ground, though she keeps up the habit of going for walks.

The army is growing; enough new people flood in every day that soon not everybody knows who she is. Often now, when she walks the narrow paths between the tents, she’s hailed with kind smiles, a blessing on her child, an extra hunk of cheese or jug of wine offered to her.

“It lifts fighting spirits,” an old man covered in long-healed brands tells her, “to see new life blossom in the heart of the rebellion.”

Ilithyia flees from his gap-toothed smile and his kind meaning. She’s not the heart of anything. She wouldn’t want to be.

~~~

She feels lonelier, in her self-imposed exile from the training grounds; she misses the spectacles of the fighting, and even the slaves’ rough banter.

Removed from that, there’s only her and Spartacus, who comes every day to see the child. On some level, Ilithyia resents it; on another, she’s uncomfortably aware that even Gaius – pleased though he was at her news of pregnancy – would likely not have been interested in the small squirming bundle until it was of an age to offer better entertainment.

Spartacus, though, seems endlessly fascinated with the boy, tickling his feet and grinning like a fool when Remus grabs after his fingers.

Towards Ilithyia, he’s cool and polite, but she has not forgotten the heat of the rage that burned in him when she was his prisoner at the temple. Sometimes, when she watches him fuss over the child, she almost wishes she could have that back: some honest loathing rather than this tempered, neutral mask that reminds her of Apollo’s stern visage while he fucked her, the night they begot Remus.

At night, she tosses and turns, missing the spark of passion. After their early days of frenzied rutting, Gaius made their marital relations a dutiful affair, but there were always slaves who would place their hands upon her at a moment’s beckoning. There is no one and nothing now to spur her desire but her own restless fingers and her imagination. More often than not, she places Lucretia’s face upon the lustful spectre of her mind: her friend’s ample curves, clever words and clever fingers set just so upon Ilithyia’s flesh. She strains and shudders to Lucretia’s imagined touches, and refuses to feel guilty for it.

One day, Spartacus wakes her before dawn, carrying a cloak, a large bundle of provisions, and a determined expression.

“Prepare to ride,” he tells her, as he picks up Remus from his small pallet. The boy squirms and kicks, squawking loudly at having his routine disrupted. Spartacus cradles him close, making shushing noises and settling the babe with annoying competence.

Ilithyia scrambles out of bed, the blankets pulled around her. “Where would you send me?” she demands, still sluggish with sleep.

“Somewhere removed from war and strife,” he says, then pauses, looking at her sharply. “Unless you prefer it here?”

The words might be taken for mockery, but his tone is sincere, and for a moment Ilithyia pauses, flustered by the realisation that if she spoke right now – if she said, “I do,” or “If you will let me fight” – he would listen.

In the end, habit takes over, and she arranges her face into a careful mask of disdain. “Take me to the dark realms of Pluto,” she tells him, “and I would welcome it more than this.”

~~~

It’s not what she expected.

It’s a green valley, almost a day’s ride away: a small, white-washed cottage, with gardens and an olive grove, and vines upon the hill.

Spartacus takes the child while Ilithyia walks up the stone-lined path, frowning. “I am to live here?” She looks inside. It’s tidy and well-appointed, but the floors are terracotta slabs instead of marble, the cushions in the triclinium look faded, and the kitchen is in plain view.

Spartacus has followed her inside. He shrugs, then turns the motion into rocking because Remus is fussing, not pleased with being bounced for hours on a horse. “Until you find better fortune.” He smiles wryly. “I have a feeling it will not take you long.”

Ilithyia wanders down the cool corridor, exploring. A bedroom, a small bath; that sorry excuse for a triclinium, the walls in dire need of a new coat of paint.

“There’s a village nearby, and a freedman’s farm beyond the hill road – a friend of Gannicus’s. He’ll send some women to help you with tasks you are unsuited to.” He makes it sound like there is something wrong with not knowing how to cook or plant or be a country drudge. Ilithyia glares at him.

“Slaves?”

His face darkens. “No. I’ve seen them well supplied with coin for their service.”

Ilithyia takes the fussing child from him, clutching him close as if for protection. “You’d imprison me here, at the ass end of the dullest province, as if I were some dirty harlot you’d grown tired of.”

He sighs in exasperation. “What would you have me do?” he demands angrily. “Send you to Rome with knowledge of exactly where our army has been moving? Drag you along into a war that isn’t yours, with a babe at your breast?” He pauses, takes a step closer. “Kill you?”

He looks thoroughly frustrated, which is always enjoyable. Ilithyia gives him her most conspiratorial smile, tossing her head so her curls will fall just so upon her collar bones.

“If you would kill me, you’d have done so already. And if I wished to set my steps towards Rome, you could not stop me.”

“No, I could not,” he acknowledges. “And would you hurry towards Marcus Crassus, who even now is setting his legions in motion against me? Would you step before him, the richest man in the Republic, in tattered silks and with his enemy’s child clutched in your arms, and claim yourself his ally in this war?”

Ilithyia shudders, though not with the shame he probably wishes her to feel. It’s Licinia that she remembers, cousin to Crassus, and the sound her head made when it burst open under Ilithyia’s hands like a ripe melon. That, and Lucretia’s soothing whispers as she held Ilithyia close, wrapping her tightly in her arms and the nets of their shared secret.

“No,” she murmurs, her lips gone dry. She has no wish to face Marcus Crassus. “Not yet,” she adds, just to maintain the illusion of a threat.

Spartacus takes a deep breath. “Ilithyia,” he says, and like every time someone in the rebel camp has actually bothered to address her by her name, it makes her startle. He steps close and cups her chin in his hand before she can evade him. “This is not a prison,” he tells her, his gaze uncomfortably intent. “It is the best a man like me can offer, under the circumstances. It’s freedom, of a sort.”

Ilithyia stares at him, the man who killed her husband and fathered her son. She’s tasted his blood and seen him fight and felt him move inside her, and she doesn’t understand the first thing about him.

“Freedom? I’m not a slave,” she scoffs.

He holds her gaze, studying her closely. “Are you not?” he asks her softly.

She wrenches away from him, and barely refrains from spitting at his face. “Go, then,” she tells him coldly. “Abandon your child, and a woman you robbed of husband, fortune, and life. Go fight your fucking pointless war.”

Spartacus shakes his head, refusing to pity her. “If you would place blame, set it at your dead husband’s feet. You yet draw breath – a lifetime more than what my wife was granted.”

~~~

It’s not so bad. She grows her own wine, or at least the freedman’s daughters do on her behalf; it fetches a good price at the market, and she revels in the novel experience of earning her own coin.

She watches her son grow, scampering across the worn tiles on chubby hands and knees, and feels oddly moved when he laughs at her and rolls on his back like a beetle, grasping for her hair. It still feels odd to love anything this fiercely or unconditionally. One day he gets stung by a bee, and she goes out herself and burns all the hives, sneering with satisfaction at the sight of the smoke and panicked, dying bees.

Still, she yearns for proper company: the whisper of silks and the bright peals of the laughter of her peers, now so far removed. She misses the challenge of setting her wits against other women – proper women, who would appreciate ruthlessness and swift repartee, who would not gaze at her with frank, disapproving honesty as her neighbour’s daughters do.

It comes down, always, to missing Lucretia.

Spartacus comes to visit when he can: frequently, at first. She wonders sometimes how he makes the time; even out here in the country, there’s news about the war, of Crassus’ triumphs and setbacks and the cunning of the rebel leader.

But somehow he manages. Ilithyia watches, bemused despite herself, at the bane of the Republic lying on his back and grinning foolishly as he dandles a crowing infant on his chest.

He brings her small sacks of coin or jewels – to set aside for their son’s future, he says. Ilithyia eyes them with a mixture of distaste and ill-concealed hunger, all too aware they’re coming from ransacked Roman homes, but she sets them aside, promising herself that one day the growing pile will come in useful.

~~~

She did not mean to lie with him again. She did not mean to walk out into the garden and find him sitting there, crumbling dandelion seeds between his hands while he stares out across the valley, lost in thought. She did not mean to notice his stubble glinting copper in the sun, the width of his shoulders or the odd expression on his face when he looks up and catches sight of her, dressed in flimsy silks against the oppressing heat. She did not mean to let him grasp her hand as she passes, drawing it to his lips.

Certainly she did not mean to end up breathless in the summer grass, kissing him frantically and digging her nails into his skin when she rolls on top of him. Desire, so long denied opportunity, sweeps her up in a ferocious rush of sensation. He’s all fire and need beneath her, cupping her hips and filling her with hard, eager flesh.

They crush the fragrant mint leaves beneath them as they rock together, and their gasps are the only noise in the glimmer of the noonday air.

It becomes a frequent occurrence, after that. Ilithyia is sure she could blame her own weakness, or him for taking advantage. But even now, she does not feel weak, and he is not the kind of man to force himself on any woman.

As if by tacit agreement, they don’t speak about it. For her part, Ilithyia is glad for it; even these days, their words are usually at odds. By contrast, their bodies fit together almost too perfectly, need matching need, as if some trickster god of rut and mayhem were having a joke at their expense.

He never does tell her his name.

~~~

When they do speak about anything of import, it seems, like always, as if they did not even share a language.

“I wish, of a day, that things were different,” she says during one of his visits, when they lie next to each other in her silk-draped bed, both of them sweat-drenched and breathing hard.

He hums softly, tracing the veins in her arms with his fingers. His skin looks very tanned next to hers. It’s a late afternoon in autumn, sweet-smelling with hay and the grapes ripe upon the vines. Remus lies in his bed under the window, fast asleep, and it seems like no human under the sun should have a single care. How odd to think there is a war on, and she lies here with the man who started it. Even here, she is aware that things are changing. The news in the market has grown tense, with whispers of Crassus’ armies moving west to recapture the city Spartacus has taken: Sinuessa en Valle, beleaguered jewel of the sea.

“Different how?” he asks, lifting her hand to his mouth. His voice in moments like this is too soft, rich like dark honey, sounding too much like he cares. It draws her in until she wants nothing but to curl towards him and listen to him calling her nonsense endearments all day long in that burred dark lovely voice.

He has never called her any endearments.

She clears her throat in self-defence, and hardens her own voice into her teasing drawl of old.

“How do you think? I wish that I stood yet at Gaius’s side as treasured wife. That I could walk beneath the sun obeyed and worshipped, never questioning why. That foul things happened because the world was flawed, not me.”

“Foul things?” His voice has sharpened, thank the gods; as ever, he refuses to let her get away with claims of injury. “You yet live.”

“Foul things. Your rebellion that has tainted me and the bloodlines of my son.”

He looks disgusted, and lets her arm drop from his fingers. “Have you not yet learned that role of victim does not suit you? Remus’s bloodlines are those of the house of Glaber, if you but declared it so. Your own endurance to be lauded by the whole of the Republic.”

Ilithyia turns her head away. “You and your rebels. You always speak as if there are two sides to the world, and that is that.” She sits up, yanking her discarded dress back on, fastening the ties with trembling fingers. If nothing else, she’s learned to dress herself quite well. “Damn you,” she tells him fiercely, though she keeps her voice pitched low. “You do not know Rome, or understand her. The strength it takes to build a web that reaches quite as far. The strain of maintaining a civilisation, against four corners of barbarian threat.”

He growls low in his throat as he reaches for his discarded armour. “You blind, stubborn fool. The altar you worship stands an empire of tyranny, built on foundation of oppression. Can you think, even now, that any man or woman’s life holds more or less worth in the eyes of the gods?”

Ilithyia swallows, remembering Mira on the mountain, offering her death or the promise of new life. Remembering Nasir handing her a sword, and the old women’s cheerful gossip, not so different from the whispers in her triclinium of old.

“You stole my world from me,” she tells him, keeping her voice as even as she can, despite the hot threat of furious tears.

He shakes his head, as if he were honestly confused. “As I have learned harshly these several years – the world is what you make of it.” She keeps her back turned on him, so she can only hear him sigh.

“The flaw you spoke of. Do not take it upon your shoulders. It does lie in this world, that would allow one people to rise up above another and claim them as no more than animals, no more than chattel.”

She shrugs. “Yet that was a world I stood part of, and would stand so again. Part of the corruption mine, then, if not the whole.”

“A small part, if all the people of Rome were to shoulder equal shares,” he says dryly. Then, after a pause, he adds, almost reluctantly, “It may be a while until I can return. The war…”

“Come or do not come,” she tells him coolly. “A thing of small concern to me.”

Silence fills the small room, thick and condemning. He leans over Remus’s cot and murmurs things she cannot hear, then leaves without another word to her.

It’s the last time she sees him.

~~~

As the war gains momentum, he sends others, those he thinks can handle it. Some of the women, though never Mira. Usually they’re strangers, rebels who’re happy enough to go on a mission for the great Spartacus, but hold no personal connection. A few times it’s Gannicus, whose charm is up to the challenge, even now: he dandles Remus on his knee and flirts with Ilithyia or brings her tales of the war, depending on her mood.

One day, close to the end – although she does not recognise it as such, not then – Spartacus sends Agron and a woman Ilithyia doesn’t know. Ilithyia tenses when she sees them riding up the road, well aware of Agron’s hatred for her. True enough, he frowns at her grimly as they approach, and Ilithyia focuses on the woman instead. To her surprise, she’s dressed in Roman style, although her dress is well-worn, the gold embroidery threadbare. Her copper hair is piled atop her head, arranged in simple but elegant curls. She eyes Ilithyia with an open curiosity that matches her own.

“Greetings,” she says eventually. “My name is Laeta.” She offers a guarded smile. “I have heard much about you.”

Ilithyia smiles too, instinctively and lethally. “I have not heard a single thing of you.”

Having tethered the horses, Agron steps up to fill the awkward silence of affront. “Spartacus sends us,” he offers, needlessly. “Does the boy yet live?”

Ilithyia glares at him. “Of course he does. Why would he not?”

Remus toddles past her before more words are exchanged, delighted by new company. He’s reached that phase, to Ilithyia’s displeasure: crowing with joy at every new face, whether it be a donkey or the merchant selling it. He makes straight for Agron’s legs, toppling against his shin guards and gurgling happily at his accomplishment.

Looking bemused, Agron leans down and accepts the child’s extended, grasping hands. A smile twitches fleetingly at his grim lips. “He looks thriving.”

“Of course,” Ilithyia repeats stiffly, offended at the note of surprise. “Come in and refresh yourselves.” She sweeps away from Laeta’s halting smile. She’s on her own today, Aegilus’s girls busy at home with the late harvest. She pours wine and arranges refreshments with swift motions, her shoulders stiffened by resentment. Behind her, Agron and Laeta laugh and coo over Remus as he stomps determinedly across the kitchen.

Over wine, cheese and olives, Laeta speaks haltingly of the war while Ilithyia and Agron gaze off in opposite directions. Ilithyia is not surprised to hear the woman name herself a Roman, although she cannot fathom why an aedile’s wife would throw in her fate with a bunch of hopeless rebels. She wonders whether Spartacus wishes her to sympathise with this simple-minded girl, who evidently shrugged off the death of her husband and her loss of status without much consequence at all.

“Your husband,” she asks, less out of real interest than a desire to rattle the woman. “How did he meet his end?”

Laeta swallows hard but does not evade her gaze. “Spartacus killed him.”

Ilithyia laughs at that, pleased when Laeta flinches. “He does have a habit, does he not, of making women widows and then thinking he can charm them.”

There’s not much hope for the conversation, after that. Ilithyia gives bored responses to Laeta’s questions about her harvest and hopes of future income. It’s evident the woman holds far too many numbers and business schemes in her head than is seemly. Ilithyia does not plan to be here for long enough that her return on crops will matter, so her answers are brief. She watches Laeta’s open face darken with no small degree of satisfaction.

Agron makes no attempt to join the conversation. He stands rigidly by the window, pretending to guard against whatever threat he fancies might have followed them. When Remus stomps determinedly across the room towards him, Ilithyia half-rises, but Agron bends down and swoops the boy up, grinning as he perches him on his hip. “Greetings, little man. Where do you march towards with such purpose?”

Remus beams brightly, launching himself towards the shiny buckle high on Agron’s chest. Ilithyia sits back down, although she keeps half an eye on the two of them.

“How fares Spartacus?” she asks bluntly while Laeta is still prattling on about the price of grain. “Is the Bringer of Rain as adept at bringing bread to his hungry hordes of rebels, and hope to their poor misled minds?”

A slight frown mars Laeta’s perfect skin. “He knows and speaks his purpose as he ever has.” She pauses for a sip of wine. “And those who love him find his words fire their minds and hands.”

Ilithyia feels her lips tighten, even though she struggles for an expression of blank boredom. “Do they now.”

Instead of cowering, Laeta stares at her frankly, her shoulders straight. Ilithyia is not sure of the expression on her face, but she thinks it might hold a hint of pity. She somehow manages not to stand and throw the contents of her wine cup into the woman’s face.

“You’ve given him great comfort,” Agron interjects pointedly, addressing Laeta only, as if the scene called for even more discomfort. Laeta has the grace to blush. Ilithyia would strangle the oaf, if she could climb that high. She doesn’t give half a fig for whether this pretty round-cheeked girl has lain with Spartacus. It is her life she envies, abruptly and bitterly, even knowing that it would never suit her. She cannot bend so far as this stranger has bent, untethering herself from everything she’s known, moving outside of the grace of Rome. What rankles is the realisation that even in her tattered dress and with a slave brand on her arm this girl walks tall with pride, her eyes bright with purpose. Somehow, she has gone beyond outcast. She is self-made.

Ilithyia rises abruptly. “Apologies. My son grows tired, and I have things to do.”

Laeta nods quickly, clearly relieved to be going. “I will go ready the horses. Thank you for your hospitality,” she says politely to Ilithyia, although they both know it’s a joke. The rebel camp must be days’ ride away, but they don’t ask to spend the night, and Ilithyia extends no invitation.

Agron sets Remus down upon his wobbly feet, holding his hands with surprising patience until the boy has gained his balance. Then he straightens up and actually looks at Ilithyia for the first time since they arrived.

“He sends you this,” he says brusquely, pulling a small ivory case from his travel bag. It’s beautifully carved, inlaid with silver filigree, and filled to the brim with jewellery. Fine pieces, of great quality.

“They ought to fetch a good price,” Agron says. “I tried to convince him to trade them in for more weapons, but he wanted you to have them. For the boy.”

Ilithyia fingers a ruby necklace with half admiration, half distaste. “How many Romans died for this?”

Agron’s lip curls in a sneer. “Do you care?”

Ilithyia meets his stare straight on, though she has to crane her head. “No.” She closes the case and sets it aside as though it were no more than a trinket.

“You may go now,” she starts, but Agron interrupts her.

“He sends you a message, as well.”

Ilithyia sighs, and waits.

Agron clears his throat. “There is always a reason to live.

“Is that all?” He nods. He’s watching her closely, with a small frown, as though he’s waiting to see if it means anything to her.

She almost laughs. “If the great Bringer of Rain is afraid I may kill myself for lack of his company, he vastly overestimates his own importance. He need have no fear.”

“I do not think such is what he meant,” Agron says slowly, but he looks uncertain himself and Ilithyia is out of patience, both for him and for his leader.

“Empty words,” she tells him disgustedly. “I am no moon-eyed slave, to be swayed by his pretty speeches.” She’s sorely tempted to thrust the jewellery case back at him and reject that too, but cold pragmatism holds her back. They will fetch a good price.

Agron’s jaw has hardened. He gives her the curtest nod, brushes Remus’s hair in passing, and strides outside to where Laeta waits with the horses.

~~~

And then, one day – she’ll never know exactly when – the rebellion ends. No one comes to bring her the news, because there is no one left. She hears the facts and rumours along with everybody else as news travels through the countryside: a crushing defeat of the vastly outnumbered rebel army, a triumph for Crassus and Pompey. Six thousand rebels crucified along the Appian Way. A splinter group escaped across the Alps, beyond the reach of the Republic. Ilithyia wonders if any of the people she knew are among those escaped. Whether the women who helped Remus into the world yet live, or Nasir, or even that bitch Mira.

And Spartacus is dead. No one seems to know how or by whose hands, and there is no body to parade before the gates of Rome. He has disappeared as suddenly as he appeared upon the sands of the arena one day, defying the order of the world and the death ordained for him. Already he is becoming a legend.

Ilithyia goes to the small village market every day to hear the news, until it’s clear that there will be nothing new to discover.

“I am not crying, darling,” she tells Remus when his little hands pat at her face, his face scrunched up in comical concern. “It’s just a bit of rain.”

It is raining, steadily and softly. She pulls her hood over her hair and goes inside to count her fortune. She’s young and untethered, and Rome waits for no one.

~~~

But she finds Rome different, and cold of comfort, after almost three years of absence. She has the coin to buy herself position and protection, but not the respect her passage once commanded. The gazes that follow her lectica are furtive and scandalized, and her invitations to visit are declined with impeccable politeness.

Ilithyia grits her teeth and keeps her chin up. “What weak-spirited cows,” she tells Remus exasperatedly, but in public she smiles and perseveres. Eventually curiosity wins out over propriety, as it always does: a furtive visitor at first, then that one’s friends and relatives, and Ilithyia starts, slowly, to re-cultivate a social circle.

Even so, the triumph stands empty. She finds herself bored by their tame gossip, the titters of excitement when they unsubtly prod her for details of her capture. She goes from one invitation to the other and struggles not to yawn, or roll her eyes. One single time, she attends the games, and finds herself appalled at how much they have altered. Instead of an afternoon’s amusing blood sport, she watches a man take another man’s life, watches the shudder as the loser’s chest stills, the slight grimace upon the victor’s face. Without wishing to, she finds herself wondering whether they knew each other, whether they were friends. All around her, the crowd cheers madly. Ilithyia grits her teeth and sits through it, but all the titillating thrill of the games that she remembers from her girlhood is gone, stolen from her while she did not care to look. She feels resentful and half-ill.

She wanders home on foot instead of calling for a litter, and realises as she walks the dusty streets that she has changed too much to find comfort in her old life, and not enough to fashion herself a new one.

She wonders idly how she would have fared, dressed in pragmatic leathers, with a sword in hand. She wonders how she would have met her death, and whether she would have welcomed it.

~~~

Now that she has the means and the connections, she can finally make inquiries about Lucretia. It takes an appalling amount of time – everyone remembers that the House of Batiatus saw the spark of Spartacus’s rebellion kindle, but no one cares that much about the long-dead lanista or his wife.

When she finally gets answers, they are bleak. She perished where she lived, during the battle of Vesuvius, goes the news, no longer new at all. A late-night plummet from the cliff wall of the ludus, when her madness finally took her. They say she was dressed in her finest, clutching an empty bundle of rags to chest as though it stood treasured heir.

Ilithyia tries to make herself imagine it: a pathetic pile of blood and bones at the bottom of the cliffs; but all she can picture is Lucretia’s secretive smile, her sharp blue eyes, the softness of her hands. The loss is years old, but it takes her afresh that night, shaking her bones with sobbing until her voice is raw. She did not realise that against all common sense, some part of her has held on to hope, until tonight. Another piece of her life, now irretrievably gone.

~~~

She marries. It seems the thing to do. His name is Laelius Octavius Corullus. He’s long in years, a senator already, and delighted with having a young, beautiful wife of good name, even if she comes with a previous child attached, and the unsubtle reek of scandal.

Ilithyia has some initial trouble to secure Remus’s inheritance from Gaius’s remaining family, but his surviving relatives are far removed, with weaker claims that are squashed easily. No cousin thrice removed will put a finger on the smallest coin belonging to her son.

Laelius has a son of his own, close to Ilithyia in age, but he is rarely home. He falls in Hispania two years after the marriage, leaving Remus as sole heir not only to Glaber’s fortune, but Corullus’s as well.

For her part, Ilithyia is relieved not to have to push and manoeuvre her husband up the career ladder, although sometimes she misses the challenge. Gaius would bristle at her subtle nudges, and make her ambitions his own. Spartacus would stare at her with his eyes narrowed, challenging her every statement. Lucretia…

She doesn’t want to think about what Lucretia would do. It has been such a long time since she felt anyone her equal in the challenges she offers.

~~~

Her world changes in small ways only, but ones that cannot escape her notice. It’s odd to have slaves again, for one thing. One day, a new girl tugs her hair too hard in brushing. Ilithyia turns her head with a snarl, one hand raised for a slap, but at the sight of the slave’s terrified dark eyes, she halts. The girl is barely more than a child, but her hooded eyes remind Ilithyia of Mira’s, leaning close to her, saying Push now, or die. I care not which.

She recoils, not clearly knowing why. “Have a care,” she says, her voice shaking, instead of having the girl whipped.

After that, she acquires a disdain for the practice. It becomes known in the marketplace that the wife of Laelius Corullus is a good domina to have; that she’ll be strict but fair, and that she will not permit any male within her household to lay lustful hands upon a slave.

Ilithyia herself feels vaguely affronted when such rumours reach her ears, but she does not know how to refute them. It’s hard, after living at the rebel camp, and then all on her own, to not see them as human.

The dark-eyed girl’s name is Phoebe. She becomes Ilithyia’s shadow. The other senators’ wives whisper at the liberties Ilithyia grants her, but she is well past caring about such things. These days, she makes her own rules.

~~~

At her insistence, Laelius buys them a villa by the sea, although he isn’t pleased with lithyia’s choice of venue.

“Why Sinuessa en Valle?” he complains while Ilithyia rubs his shoulders. “The place is bloated with its own importance. Prices are twice what we could get elsewhere, simply because the rebel Spartacus held the city hostage for a few scant months. Is not your reputation tainted enough by the man?”

Ilithyia’s jaw tightens; her fingers dig into his shoulders. “Tainted?”

He has never asked her questions about Spartacus; as far as he knows, she was a hostage for a brief time only, then lived quietly with relatives in the country until she returned to Rome.

“Apologies, my dear,” he murmurs. “You may have whatever you desire, of course. We do not lack for coin.”

Sinuessa is beautiful, girdled by turquoise waters and snow-capped peaks. The streets are narrow but clean, and the houses gleam white and tranquil in the sun. There is no trace left of the enemy’s bloody occupation. Remus loves diving for sponges with the local boys, and sometimes he brings her oysters with small, misshapen pearls. Ilithyia strolls near the harbour walls, Phoebe at her side with a parasol, and tries to picture Spartacus here, defending his doomed cause.

She isn’t sure why she still traces his steps, all these years later. Surely the living should not haunt the dead.

~~~

Laelius dies peacefully in his sleep when Remus is six. Ilithyia is free again, and this time does not need the protection of a husband. Her son holds two fortunes now, with no one else to manage them but her. She’s richer than ever, with no need to cater to the judgement of society.

She keeps the villa in Rome, but elevates Phoebe to vilica, and leaves management of it in her hands. Ilithyia remains in Sinuessa, enjoying the freedom of the harbour town. She hires costly tutors from Rome for Remus but refuses to return except for the most illustrious of occasions. Rome has grown dull, a smug matron resting on past accomplishments, and offering nothing new. By contrast, Sinuessa is raw and thriving, bursting with fashions and novelties from faraway shores. Ilithyia buys silks and trinkets lavishly, and sells her purchases on to Rome at exorbitant prices, unconcerned with the scandalised whispers at a senator’s wife indulging in base commerce.

~~~

When he is ten, Remus starts to ask questions. He is small and serious for his age and favours her in looks (a blessing, Ilithyia supposes): pale hair and skin, a greenish tint to his blue eyes perhaps, in certain lights, but that could come from anywhere. His cheeks are child-soft yet, but she recognises the chin, stubborn and firm.

“They say my father was a coward,” he tells her grimly, that chin raised high with indignation. “Livius and Caelinus; and the others agree to everything they say. They say he was afraid to face Spartacus in open battle, and too feeble of wits to outmanoeuvre him. Is it true?”

Ilithyia remembers: not Gaius’s complaints of the hardships of campaign, his disloyal followers and his enemy’s low cunning, but the battles she herself went through. The endless wind atop Vesuvius, the rapid flight from one camp to another; clutching her child to her breast while she sat wide awake, listening to the too-close whistle and smash of the ballistae.

“Of course not,” she states, with the full fervour of indignation. “No man could have fought in those battles and not earned the full admiration of those present to witness. The enemy was full of cunning, and never afraid of the lowest betrayal.”

She remembers Spartacus’s face as he told her, without the faintest hint of sympathy, He gave you up. A wagon full of weapons and the last word held over an enemy: such was the price he placed upon your life, and that of your child.

Remus frowns and nods, absorbing this information. “But you were not there, mother. How would you know?”

Ilithyia smiles grimly. “I trust the man’s word, and those who gave account of him.”

Her son’s brow wrinkles. “But you loved him. Marcellus, our tutor, says love clouds anybody’s judgement.”

For a moment, the world draws close around her, stifling her in memories. The breath she sucks in burns its way down to her lungs.

“I loved your father,” she tells him eventually. It’s not a lie as far as she’s concerned; she has been married to two politicians, and knows first-hand there is no narrow definition for any term. Not even father or love. Perhaps especially not those. “But I have loved others, too, and my judgement has ever stood clearer than I might have wished it. Come here.”

Remus sits by her feet, fingering the embroidery on her costly dress’s seam. She watches the line of his shoulders, scrawny still, but with the promise of width, and sighs.

“Love is a skittish beast, my darling,” she murmurs, smoothing her fingers through his wild curls. “Fogging your wits is the least it can do. You had best try and steer clear of it.”

He nods but he is ten years old, a treasured son of the Republic, and she doubts he remotely understands. She hopes he will never have reason to.

“Your father was a good man,” she tells him fiercely, “misguided perhaps, and born outside of his time, but a good man in every way that counted, no matter his end. Do not let anybody tell you differently.”

Remus blinks, unnerved as he always seems to be when she speaks to him with passion. “What am I to tell them if they disagree?”

Ilithyia presses her lips together and digs her nails into his shoulders. “Don’t tell them anything, sweetling. Just make them bleed.”

She might have feared that he would cringe from such a crass proposal, her quiet, bookish son; but instead Remus lifts his chin and nods, the barest hint of a cool smile curving his lips. “Yes, mother.”

~~~

She’s young still as her son embarks on his path to manhood. Young, rich, and desirable. There are offers of marriage, despite her scandalous ways, but Ilithyia rejects them all; she finds she’s lost her patience for the role of demure wife. What needs she has are just as easily satisfied by casual affairs.

She returns to wine-growing, upon the hills behind the city. Somewhere high up on the ridge lies the site of Spartacus’s months-long resistance against Crassus. She brands her wine The Blood of Melia Ridge, and charges twice its worth.

~~~

One morning, she takes Remus to the market, indulges him with purchases of maps and rare scrolls. Ilithyia buys him a set of knives as well. He thanks her very properly and tucks them carefully into his belt, but it’s the scrolls he clutches greedily, his eyes sparking with eagerness. Thirteen years old, and all he cares about is dead men’s words.

Ilithyia sighs, and turns down another alley, pausing on a whim at a wigmaker’s stall. She runs her hands over the soft silky strands of other women’s hair.

One of them catches her eye: long, loose curls, soft and healthy despite the ample amounts of dye. “It will lend itself to any style,” the wigmaker says, smelling a purchase. “See how softly it curls? You can have your slaves pile it high or braid it any way you desire, or have it fall loose for your husband’s pleasure. Feel the wealth of it.”

The loss, lying dormant all these years, hits her hard and sudden, filling her eyes with tears. “Lucretia,” she whispers.

Remus is suddenly by her side, wide-eyed and concerned. “Mother?”

The wigmaker misunderstands. “A present for a friend instead? I can make you a special bargain-“

“Shut up,” Remus says, sharp and hard-voiced, going from mild-mannered shy boy to fierce-eyed warrior so quickly that Ilithyia startles out of her reverie and stares at him.

“We’ll buy it, at half-price,” Remus goes on, staring the merchant down. “Since that colour is out of season, and your unseemly familiarity upset Senator Corullus’s wife.”

The wigmaker scrapes and bows, and Ilithyia walks away from the stall with a red wig and the disconcerting awareness that her son is growing up.

~~~

The wig looks splendid. Remus stares when he sees her in it.

“Mother, you look beautiful!”

Ilithyia smiles and cocks a brow. “Even though it’s out of season?”

The boy grins. “You have no need for seasons when you wear the face of the sun.”

Delighted, Ilithyia grabs his hands and spins him around. “And who taught you to flatter so?”

Remus shrugs, abruptly self-conscious. Ilithyia laughs and kisses him. “Go to your studies,” she tells him fondly.

She dresses carefully, in rich blue silks that match her eyes and set off the colour of the wig, and walks the short but steep road to her vineyards. There’s much to do, this late in autumn: they’ll be bringing in the last harvest for the sweeter wines, and Ilithyia likes to inspect the quality of the grapes herself.

At the top of the hill, she pauses to catch her breath and appreciate the view: above her, the thick yellow-green rows of her grape-vines; below, the white walls of Sinuessa and the dark-blue glimmer of the sea.

She takes a deep breath, surprised to find herself almost content. There’s still the old sense of not quite belonging – this is no longer the world she’s known, and not the place she once would have envisioned for herself – but it no longer bothers her that much. The restlessness that still courses through her veins is less of a curse now, and more a sense of self-determination: the knowledge that she can still go anywhere, do anything.

She remembers the message he sent her, so many years ago. There is always a reason to live.

She thinks, after all, she will keep seeking new ones.