Marcus is dreaming of his father, of his child-self laughing, reaching up to be lifted in the air. His father smiles back, leaning down—and then he’s fading, getting smaller. Marcus cries out, runs after him, but his father is falling into a void, being sucked backward into the blackness of space. He’s smaller, smaller—
Marcus comes awake suddenly, half-sitting up in the darkness of his cabin. Something has woken him, he is certain—but what? A noise? He listens, but the only thing he can hear is the hum of the ship’s engines.
Still, he gets up. It won’t take long to check and see if anything’s wrong.
He steps onto the bridge five minutes later and startles the helmsman. “Sir!” he says. “I was just about to call you.”
“What is it?” Marcus is grateful that he trusted his instincts.
“There’s some kind of problem with the engines.”
Esca is lying awake when the noise of the engines changes. He has lain awake for many nights already in the brig of the prison transport, waiting for his fate, hoping for a chance to attempt an escape, knowing it’s impossible.
When the engines stutter, and then start to whine, he rises from his cot, but doesn’t join in the rising hum of the other prisoners’ nervous speculation as to what could be wrong. It doesn’t matter, after all. Perhaps this ship has a known malfunction and there’s no real danger; perhaps they’ll have to stop for repairs and their inevitable sentences will be slightly delayed; perhaps the engine will explode and they’ll be killed. There’s nothing chattering about it will do.
When the whine increases, accompanied by a disturbing metallic clattering, the prisoners’ worrying rises to a shout. Esca is feeling a bit uneasy despite himself—if he’s killed in a fiery conflagration, he reminds himself, it will simply cut short the intolerable life of incarceration ahead of him.
A life surrounded by Romans, guarded by Romans, circumscribed by Romans. He was ready to die when he was captured, so why not now that he is facing life in prison?
“The starboard engine—” the helmsman is saying. “It’s going critical. I knew it was having some trouble but I was only worried it might give out, not overheat and—”
“And what?” Marcus asks, already sure in his bones of what the answer will be.
“It's possible,” the helmsman says in a low voice, “that there might be a small explosion.”
“Small,” Marcus says.
“Not enough to destroy the ship,” the helmsman says hurriedly. “But there could be a hull breach. We should seal off that area as soon as possible.”
“Starboard engine,” Marcus says. “The prisoners are directly on the other side of the bulkhead.”
The helmsman nods. “Thankfully, it’s nowhere near the crew quarters. Is it worth evacuating them? We don’t have much time.”
“Is it worth—” Marcus stares at him, then declines to address the question. “Can we fix the engine?” he asks instead.
The helmsman shakes his head firmly. “Too dangerous.”
“Thank you, Ensign.” Marcus turns toward the bridge entrance.
“Sir?” the helmsman asks. “Where are you going…?”
“Wake Lutorius and brief him on the situation,” Marcus calls over his shoulder, and the bridge doors hiss shut behind him.
He takes the turbolift down to the bottom level, and is almost to the brig doors when a deep cracking boom rolls through the ship, and the deck rocks and shivers just as he puts a foot down. His bad leg twists underneath him, and pain blossoms, but he pushes on.
Esca instinctively throws himself to the deck as the bulkhead bows inwards and bright flames shoot into the brig. The others are shrieking in pain and fear, and Esca lifts his head to see that the opposite row of cells was directly in line with the explosion, and at least three prisoners are already dead.
The flames die out quickly, but a hissing sound remains, and when Esca blinks away the afterimages, he can see the hull breach, the dark of space beyond it. It’s small, but it doesn’t have to be big to kill them.
This is it, then. The Romans will seal off the compartment, of course, and the prisoners will be exposed to vacuum and die.
He stands up slowly. He wishes he could have been one of the prisoners killed in the explosion, to have died immediately in a conflagration of flames. But if a cold death is his destiny, he will accept it much more readily than he could have accepted a cold, miserable life.
The door won’t open.
The red alarm message informs Marcus that there is a pressure differential, and for safety reasons, the vacuum-sealed lock has engaged. He wastes precious seconds overriding it, but finally it hisses open, revealing a cold, smoky compartment, lit only by residual flickering flames.
“Hello!” Marcus calls, and immediately starts to cough. “Is anyone alive in here?”
“Here!” cry weak voices, and Marcus stops at the emergency station to snatch as many breath masks as there are—three—and clap one over his own face before hurrying to the prisoners.
There are five in all still alive—those in the cells on the far side of the compartment from the engine. Four of them are pressed desperately against the transparent walls of their tiny cells. The fifth is not.
Prisoner 8502943, Esca Mac Cunoval, stands straight upright in the exact center, looking not at Marcus but at the hissing breach and the vacuum of space beyond.
Marcus is arrested for a bare moment, struck by his stillness in the face of death—but he doesn’t have time to wonder about one prisoner; he begins releasing the cell doors, handing one of the spare breath masks to the second prisoner, who is gray-faced and coughing. Each bolts for the door the second they are freed.
Marcus spares a moment to wonder what they will do, running about the ship, and then he hears, “Sir!” behind him and turns to see Lutorius in the doorway.
“Hold them!” he shouts, pointing to the prisoners. “I’ll be out in just a minute!”
“But sir—” Lutorius starts, but Marcus is already releasing the fourth door-catch. This prisoner is on his knees, hand pressed to his chest, and Marcus clasps the second breath mask to his face, levers him to his feet, and pushes him toward Lutorius; he stumbles away under his own power, and Marcus turns to the last cell.
Esca focuses on him at last, his brows coming together in a frown, lips parting in disbelief.
Marcus releases the door and says, “Come on!” through his mask.
Esca is still for a long, long second—
—and then the bulkhead shakes behind them with a second explosion.
Marcus throws himself forward, tackling Esca down to the deck, and feels the heat blast against his back, and then a sharp hot pain as some debris slices into his shoulder. Esca is motionless beneath him as the heat dissipates, and then starts to cough and choke.
Air. The air is thick with smoke, but growing thinner by the second. Marcus uses the cell wall to pull himself to his feet—his leg protests mightily—and hauls Esca up after him. Esca comes, but barely, too focused on his protesting lungs to stand fully upright. Marcus takes a deep breath, holds it, and pulls the breath mask over his head and places it onto Esca’s.
Just as he starts to limp towards the door, arm around Esca to support him and pull him along, Lutorius materializes in the smoke, wearing a breath mask as well, and supports Marcus’ weaker side. He makes to pull off his mask and give it to Marcus, but Marcus shakes his head firmly; one of them needs to be fully capable.
Esca gets his legs under him in the next moment, and the three of them make it to the door at a reasonable pace, despite Marcus’ pronounced limp. Lutorius closes and seals the door behind them, and then shepherds them further down toward the turbolift. The air in the corridor is still thin and smoky; Marcus’ chest is starting to burn from lack of air, and he slowly, slowly exhales to keep his lungs busy as they go.
It is only when the turbolift doors close that he allows himself to breathe in again, with great relief—he’d been seeing spots in front of his eyes there at the last. Esca and Lutorius are taking their breath masks off next to him.
“Sir,” Lutorius says, “are you all right?”
“I’m well, Lieutenant,” Marcus says. “Is the ship in danger?”
Lutorius shakes his head. “Now that we’ve sealed off the brig, no, sir. We’ll be a long time to the nearest station with only one engine, but that’s all.”
“We can’t repair it, I assume,” Marcus says.
“No, sir,” Lutorius says. “It’ll need to be replaced, I’m told.”
Marcus nods. “How are the prisoners?”
“Secured in the infirmary right now, sir, and we’re headed that way ourselves, I hope, so we can check on their status when we arrive.”
Marcus smiles a little. “Yes, Lieutenant,” he says. “Let us certainly go to the infirmary.”
As the turbolift doors open again, Marcus turns to Esca, who has made no sound since he took off his mask. “Are you injured?” he asks.
Esca only shakes his head, but follows Marcus and Lutorius down the corridor to the infirmary, where Marcus attempts to hand Esca over to the corpsman, but is hampered by Lutorius attempting to hand Marcus over to the corpsman.
“Sir,” Lutorius says, “sir, you’re bleeding.”
“What?” Marcus says, and then remembers the burning pain after the explosion. Now that he thinks about it, it’s fading back in, over his shoulder blade. “I’m not going to bleed to death in the next few minutes, Lutorius,” he says. “At least give the prisoner oxygen. That’s an order,” directed at the corpsman.
“Yes, sir,” says the corpsman, and seats Esca on a chair—the cots, Marcus notes, are already taken up by the two prisoners he’d given the other breath masks to, and the final two are seated back against the wall. Crewman Julius is standing guard over them.
Esca sits, and accepts the oxygen, but he keeps his eyes on Marcus the entire time. His face is solemn and his posture neat, but his eyes burn. Marcus doesn’t know what to make of him.
Once the oxygen is administered, Marcus consents to have his wounds looked at and treated. He refuses oxygen—“I had a breath mask on or was holding my breath the entire time, Corpsman”—but submits to a chest scan for Lutorius’ and the corpsman’s peace of mind.
He asks the corpsman to report on the prisoners’ status while he works, and the verdict is: two with mild smoke inhalation, two—probably three, with Esca—with more severe smoke inhalation, and some minor scrapes and abrasions. “They said the cell doors saved them from the worst of the explosion,” the corpsman says cheerfully. “Good thing they make ‘em strong, eh?”
“Thank you, Corpsman,” Marcus says. He turns to Lutorius. “I’ll need an official report on the state of the ship.”
“Yes, sir,” Lutorius says. “As soon as possible.”
“Good. Now, the prisoners.”
“Yes, sir,” says Lutorius. “They should all stay in the infirmary for now, under observation for smoke inhalation. After that…perhaps the ready room. It could be sealed off.”
Marcus nods. “Have the men get started on appropriate security measures in there first thing tomorrow.”
“Yes, sir,” says Lutorius. “I’ll go get started on that report.”
“I’ll join you as soon as Corpsman Maelius is finished with me,” Marcus says.
“Yes, sir.” Lutorius salutes and turns to go. Marcus sits back with a sigh, wishing he could go with him.
Instead, he submits to the corpsman’s treatment. Maelius sterilizes and seals the wound on his back and several other small cuts, and then looks at his leg. “I can’t do much for it, sir,” he says, “beyond managing the pain if you like.”
Marcus shakes his head. He won’t have his whole leg numbed, and he won’t have a fuzzy head, and beyond that, he has his own store of milder painkillers to take.
“It should improve with rest and time, however,” the corpsman says, examining his scans. “I don’t see any further permanent damage. Please refrain from walking excessively for the next week or so.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Marcus says noncommittally. Lutorius will no doubt help enforce the medical ruling.
The corpsman turns to Esca, and Marcus lingers until he’s finished and hears the report—smoke inhalation more severe than the other prisoners; Esca will likely need to remain in the infirmary for close observation for the next forty-eight hours.
“Understood,” says Marcus. “Carry on.”
“Yes, sir,” says the corpsman, and goes about his business, checking on the rest of the prisoners.
Esca is still looking only at Marcus. Unnerved, Marcus finally says to him, “What is it?”
“You saved my life,” Esca says, in a strong Rim accent. “Why?”
Marcus frowns. “I don’t understand. Why would I have let you die?”
“I’m a prisoner,” Esca says. “I’m not worth anything to you.”
“On the contrary,” Marcus says. “While you are on this ship, your life is my responsibility.” No less than the five lives lost in the explosion. Marcus will have to answer for them, and he will have no satisfying explanation. The engine should have been more closely inspected.
Esca frowns. “Not more important than your own life, surely. You put yourself between me and danger.”
“That is what ‘my responsibility’ means,” Marcus says.
Esca’s brows come down. Marcus cannot say whether he is angry, thoughtful, or bewildered. He lingers another moment to see if Esca has any more questions, but the man is silent, and Marcus has duties.
“Obey the corpsman and you will heal,” he tells him. “I’ll come back to check on all of you tomorrow.”
The next few hours are full of damage assessments and timetable revisions; Marcus sends a report to his commander and receives an acknowledgment and approval of their plan to reroute to the nearest station for repairs.
He catches a few hours of sleep and is up in time for alpha shift. Everything seems to be running smoothly, considering the situation, and he commends Lutorius.
“Thank you, sir, but I believe seeing the ship’s commander put his own life in danger to carry out the ship’s duty has been the primary motivation,” Lutorius says. “The men wish to demonstrate that they are not so inadequate as they might seem, in light of the facts.”
“I was the first to have all of the information, that is all,” says Marcus. “I only did what needed to be done. Has the ready room been prepared?”
Lutorius nods. “We’re transporting four of the five remaining prisoners to it now. The corpsman has released them with the recommendation that they be observed for any kind of respiratory distress. Esca Mac Cunoval is being kept under closer watch. The corpsman also requests that you come in for a checkup on your leg.”
“I’ll want to hear his report on the prisoners’ health in any case,” Marcus says, “so I suppose it is no hardship to allow him to scan me again. Thank you, Lutorius.”
In the infirmary, he allows the corpsman to scan his leg, repeat his injunction to rest it, and tell him that Esca is improving as much as might be expected but will still benefit from close attention for the next twenty-four hours.
“How long have you been on duty?” Marcus asks him.
The corpsman shrugs. “I slept a couple of hours earlier.”
“You’re relieved for the moment,” Marcus says. “I’ll stay here with Esca for a time, and I’ll call in a guard when I leave.”
“Thank you, sir,” says the corpsman. “Please call me immediately if this alarm goes off.” He touches the screen of the machine Esca’s hooked up to, monitoring his respiration.
“Of course,” Marcus says, and sees him off.
Then it is just him and Esca, alone in the infirmary. Esca’s gaze is fixed on him, once again, and it is difficult to look away.
“You asked why I saved your life,” Marcus says. “Now I have a question in return.”
“Ask,” says Esca.
“Did you wish me to? You looked as though you would welcome death.”
Esca looks away for the first time. “Death,” he says, “seems preferable to a life of confinement on a Roman prison ship.”
Marcus has little to say to that; he can easily imagine feeling the same, in Esca’s position. But, “How did you come to be a prisoner?” he asks. Surely the best way to avoid incarceration is to be a law-abiding citizen, and Esca doesn’t seem to have considered that.
Esca looks him in the eye again. “I killed a Roman,” he says.
Marcus is taken aback. He hadn’t thought he was conversing with a murderer. “Why?” he asks.
“The Roman killed my father,” Esca says. “Cunoval. Mayor of our town, on a world the Romans decided was not civilized enough. That it needed more garrisons, towns full of Roman citizens. That those of us who already lived there should submit or leave. My father objected, and—” he spreads his hands. “Once he was dead, the Romans had no trouble moving in. He had been well-loved.” His face is motionless.
Marcus shifts, uncomfortable. “You should have gone to the authorities,” he says.
Esca laughs once, short and sharp. “That man was the authorities,” he says. “I’m sure he had superiors, but I had no way of contacting them.”
Marcus is at a loss for words.
“But,” Esca says, and his stare is deep and penetrating, “now you have saved my life. And so I am bound to honor you, and protect your life in turn. But,” he shrugs, “I hate everything you are, and everything you stand for.”
“I don’t want your protection,” Marcus says in a low voice.
“I doubt I’ll have a chance to exercise it,” Esca says, “but it is yours nonetheless.”
Marcus doesn’t know what to make of this quiet, intense man with the burning gaze. His honor? His protection? Honor on Rim words is something savage, Marcus has heard, and he can imagine savagery coming from Esca Mac Cunoval. But the words he has spoken are not savage at all.
“Honor me by healing, and by staying where you are put,” he says finally. “I’ll send someone with food in a few minutes.”
Esca nods, and Marcus limps out of the infirmary, comming for a guard to come take his place.
In the corridor, he stands for a moment, thinking. His very own Rim-born murderer.
Well, they’ll be dropping the prisoners off as soon as possible—perhaps even passing them to another transport at the station, if one is available. Esca will pass out of sight, and be gone.
Still, the deep-set, burning eyes linger with him as he walks away.
Esca submits to any medical procedures the corpsman chooses to inflict on him, and wonders about the Roman captain. He’s a young man, but with an old injury. Seen combat already, perhaps.
Esca wonders where he fought—whom he killed. Which world his cog of the Roman machine churned through.
But he is nothing like the other Romans Esca has had the questionable fortune to meet. The legionnaire that he killed was a pig of a man, brutish and consumed by his appetites. No one deserved to die more than he did, even before what he did to Esca’s father.
And not all Roman citizens are like that, as truly as not all Rim inhabitants are models of leadership and morality like Esca’s father genuinely was. Esca knows that Romans can be better or worse.
But they are all Roman, and he would have thought that the better ones simply exchanged self-service for imperial service. Their ideals are to sacrifice themselves on the altar of civic duty, are they not? Surely Marcus Flavius Aquila should have considered that keeping himself alive to serve Rome for the rest of his days would be more valuable to the mother-world than Esca’s miserable life, which can only be a drain on Roman resources.
Apparently, though, Captain Aquila’s idea of duty and responsibility is…something else.
Curiosity, Esca knows, is useless in his situation; he will not be hijacking this ship with only four dubious possible allies against a couple dozen trained Roman soldiers, particularly not while suffering the aftereffects of smoke inhalation. Nothing will change because he knows a little more or a little less about one Roman soldier.
But he still wants to know.
Marcus goes about his duties for the rest of the shift without much distraction; there is, after all, a great deal to be done in the way of temporary repairs, if they want to be able to use the lower decks at all. Lutorius is severe in his insistence that Marcus not stress his leg too much, but even Lutorius cannot be around all the time, and even light duties are plentiful and demanding.
He does still keep thinking of Esca, however. That unbreakable stare—
He brings it up to Lutorius as they’re taking a break from inventory reports to eat a quick meal. He frames it vaguely; he does not, somehow, want to betray Esca’s confidences—confidences? He is not sure what makes him think that’s what they are—but Lutorius saw him save Esca’s life, after all.
“A debt?” Lutorius frowns, considering. “They have strange customs on the Rim, you know. No real laws, and so they have to depend on personal loyalty to one man.”
Marcus thinks of Esca’s father Cunoval. Well-loved. “You think Esca’s chosen me?”
“I don’t think anything,” says Lutorius. “If nothing else, I’ve been doing this job long enough to know that prisoners will lie about anything if they think it’ll get them a break. There’s no other resources available than their tongues, after all.”
Marcus nods mechanically, his thoughts elsewhere. Esca was not lying. He knows truth when he hears it, and that was the truth.
In any case, if he were trying to curry favor, why would he confess to murdering a Roman citizen? And why state that he hates Rome and all it stands for?
“—but it’ll all be out of our hands soon enough,” Lutorius finishes, scraping up the last of his soup. “We’re less than four days out from the station.”
“As you say,” Marcus says, finishing his bread. “Shall we get back to the inventory?”
That evening, there is a medical emergency in the infirmary.
“The corpsman said you’d asked to be apprised, sir—” says the guard, but Marcus is already past him and in the turbolift to deck two.
When he arrives, it’s already over. The corpsman is sterilizing his hands, and Esca is lying motionless in bed, clearly sedated, and hooked up to oxygen again.
“Is he all right?” Marcus asks, more fervently than he’d intended.
“He will be, sir,” says the corpsman confidently, turning to face him. “This is exactly why I wanted him under observation for forty-eight hours. He experienced respiratory distress, I treated him, and now he’s sedated and he’ll rest through the night. Believe me, sir, I don’t want another prisoner dead any more than you do. He’ll be all right. I’ll have someone with him through the night to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
“Thank you, Corpsman,” Marcus says thinly, watching Esca slumped bonelessly in the bed, his chest rising and falling the barest amount.
He has the strangest temptation to volunteer to sit with Esca tonight—Esca is, after all, perhaps doubly his responsibility, now that Marcus has saved his life. He restrains himself—it would certainly not be the best use of his resources, and a guard will perform the function just as well as he could.
But he lingers for a moment, watching the rise and fall of Esca’s chest, the hollows under his eyes where the lashes rest, and he thinks about how this is, apparently, his.
He comes back the next morning.
The corpsman is not yet on duty. The guard informs him that the night has been completely uneventful, and he has not had to fulfill his instructions to rouse the corpsman if any of a number of alarms began to beep.
“Thank you, centurion, I can assume that responsibility for the moment,” Marcus says. “Wait outside.”
“Yes, sir,” says the guard, and departs.
When Marcus turns back, Esca’s eyes are open, watching him. He is silent as Marcus sits down in a chair opposite him.
“How are you faring?” Marcus asks, after a long moment of silence.
“Better than last night.” Esca’s voice is hoarse and rasping, and there is an audible catch in his breathing.
“I’m glad to hear it,” Marcus says. “I was concerned.”
A flicker of expression on Esca’s face—a frown, perhaps?—but no answer.
“You may recall,” Marcus says, “that I instructed you to recover. I take this duty of yours very seriously.”
No flicker this time; his pale attempt at a joke has clearly fallen flat. Well, it’s not the first time; he keeps doggedly on. “I won’t stay and tire you further, but I will come back halfway through my shift to see if you’re better recovered.”
This gets him what is certainly a tiny frown. “Why?” Esca asks.
“Why not?” Marcus asks. “No prisoner has ever offered me his personal service before.”
Esca raises his eyebrows. “No?” His eyes flick over Marcus’ body, up and down.
Marcus feels his face heat. “Not so sincerely as you did,” he amends hastily. “Most of them are—transparent attempts at advancement. Favors in exchange for favors. Men in fear of their lives from their fellow prisoners. You are none of those things.”
“No,” Esca says.
“And,” Marcus continues, feeling himself flounder a bit and wondering if it might have been a mistake to come back and try to engage Esca in conversation, “as you said, it is unlikely that you’ll ever have the chance to follow through on your commitment. We’ll be docking at a station in four days’ time and if there’s an available transport in good repair, you’ll be moved there.”
“And thereby to a prison ship, there to live out the rest of my days,” Esca murmurs.
“Yes.” The thought makes Marcus uncomfortable, though he couldn’t say why. Esca murdered a Roman. Life in prison is a kind and just sentence; not very long ago, he would have been summarily executed in return.
“So you thought to gain what benefits you could while I’m trapped on your ship?” Esca’s expression is bland, his tone questioning rather than accusing, and it takes Marcus a moment to get the sense of his words.
“No!” Marcus protests immediately, then wonders why he’s being so defensive with a prisoner. “No,” he modulates his tone. “You are my responsibility while you are here; I wish to be sure that you are well. That is all. I will see you later today.” He withdraws, wishing he had not already said he would come back, but unable to take it back.
Esca spends the morning concentrating on breathing, on the slow painful rasp of his throat and lungs. It’s easier than thinking about Captain Aquila.
Inevitably, however, boredom sets in, and his thoughts drift to the strangest Roman he’s yet met.
It’s not simply that the man is a Roman. It’s that he’s a young Roman with a military background and a position that suggests that he’s done well for himself, since he’s been retained in service even with an injury like that. Esca might understand kindness from an old man, from one of the supposed pacifists that the Roman military caste is always arguing against in the newscasts, perhaps from a priest or priestess.
But from a young captain like Marcus Flavius Aquila, a man who’s dedicated his life to subjugating and slaughtering people like Esca in service of Rome—
He saved Esca’s life, and far from taking some kind of advantage of Esca’s binding service, he’s concerned for him. He was so taken aback at Esca’s insinuation of a sexual motive that he nearly fell over himself objecting.
It’s a conundrum. Esca finds himself, against his own will, looking forward to when Captain Aquila will come by again. It’s been a long time since he’s looked forward to anything.
When the man does arrive, Esca’s just finished eating lunch—uninspired prisoner rations, even in the infirmary, but he’s used to eating what he needs to keep himself fuelled—and welcomes the distraction from staring at the four walls of the infirmary some more.
“Hello again,” he says, and has the satisfaction of seeing Captain Aquila startle.
“You’re talkative this afternoon,” the captain says, after he’s dismissed the corpsman and the guard. “Hello. Are you feeling any better?”
“Yes,” says Esca. “Corpsman Maelius says he will likely release me tomorrow morning.”
“Good news,” Aquila says, smiling.
Esca doesn’t think it’s worth all that much to be able to sit in whatever makeshift jail cell the Romans have jury-rigged, rather than sitting in the infirmary. However, he is grateful to be able to breathe again.
“We’ve converted the ready room into—quarters, for you,” Aquila offers after a moment. “There’s…well, there’s just enough space.” He frowns at Esca, as though judging whether he’ll fit into what remains. Esca refrains from pointing out that he is not, comparatively, very large.
“I’ll fit,” he allows finally.
The corner of Aquila’s mouth lifts just a tiny bit, as though he’s not sure whether that was an attempt at humor or not. “We’ll work something out,” he says firmly. “And you can always stay in my quarters if the ready room is too small.”
Esca reminds himself of Aquila’s injured innocence when Esca had implied he had sexual motives for hanging around, and stays silent.
Aquila stays a bit longer, trying different pleasantries or empty queries about how Esca’s recovery is going. Esca, after looking forward to his arrival, finds himself unable or unwilling to respond to most of his statements—certainly, it’s a novelty that this one Roman commander appears to care what Esca thinks and feels, but what does it matter what he thinks or how he feels? It doesn’t matter; it cannot matter.
And the truth is that he thinks Aquila’s Rome is crushing the galaxy under its heel; and he feels furious with everything Aquila is and has been. And when it comes down to it, no one truly wants to hear that about themselves or their nation, and telling him will only make Esca’s life more difficult. So he stays quiet.
Eventually, Aquila gives up and leaves.
It turns out that the ready room is indeed too small for five prisoners.
“We can probably make it work, sir,” Lutorius says, surveying the makeshift bedrolls they’ve laid out on the floor. “There’s room there in the corner.”
Marcus pictures Esca, curled in the corner like an afterthought, with a single layer of coarse ship’s linens between him and the deck—“I thought you said the ratio of guards to prisoners was ideal as-is,” he points out. “Do we have more men to spare to take the shifts, what with the repairs?”
“Not really,” says Lutorius, “but we couldn’t really spare these, either. We’ve just had to accept that we’re not going to explode or fall dead in space, and allow for the handicaps the damage created. One more prisoner to take care of will only exacerbate the situation a small amount. Why, were you thinking of keeping him in the infirmary?”
“No,” Marcus says, “I thought I could keep him in my quarters.”
Lutorius’ eyebrows go up.
“I could easily seal the door,” Marcus explains. “He wouldn’t need a guard with him if he were alone. The computer requires a code to use. There’s a lavatory.”
“Sir, I can think of quite a few things he could hurt himself or you with in a standard officer’s cabin,” Lutorius says after a moment.
“He won’t,” Marcus says, and he is confident about this.
“Sir, I’m not sure—”
“No,” Marcus says, decided. “This is the best solution. You can maintain the ready room’s organization at its current ideal, and Esca can stay in my quarters. You’ve suggested a personal yeoman to me before, haven’t you?”
“A prisoner is hardly a yeoman,” Lutorius says stiffly. “He won’t be following you around taking notes.”
Lutorius had wanted someone around in case Marcus were to fall and injure himself, Marcus knows, not to take notes, so he simply stays silent, and raises his eyebrows.
“…If this is what you think best, sir, then of course,” Lutorius sighs after a moment. “When Corpsman Maelius releases the prisoner, he can be moved to your quarters.”
“Excellent,” Marcus says. He’s satisfied with this. Keeping Esca close seems the simplest arrangement for everyone.
When Esca is released from the infirmary—with an emergency comm, which has a button he should press if he experiences any kind of respiratory distress—he is expecting to be placed with the rest of the surviving prisoners, but not looking forward to it. They have all committed crimes of selfishness, murder or rape or grand theft, and are out only for their own personal gain. He heard them bragging to one another day after day down in the brig, and he is sure that sharing a single room with them will be even less palatable.
However, he is not brought to the Romans’ makeshift prison. Instead, he is put in a small cabin, neat and well-outfitted, with a single bunk, a desk, and a tiny lavatory all its own. He raises his eyebrows at the guard. “Am I being granted a stateroom?”
“You’re under the eye of Captain Aquila himself,” the guard says grimly. “I don’t know what you did that he thinks you need his personal supervision, but if you try to harm him, you won’t last a minute with us.”
Esca doesn’t bother to respond to that, his mind too occupied by this new information. Captain Aquila’s cabin? He had assumed the man was joking—it had seemed on par with his other jokes, only half-meant and not very funny. But apparently he had been serious.
The guard seals the door behind him with one last, “Behave yourself, prisoner!” that Esca doesn’t bother to pay attention to.
And then he’s alone in Marcus Flavius Aquila’s quarters.
He looks around. The bed is neatly made with ship-issued linens and pillow. The desk has only the computer console. Above the desk is a picture of the Emperor, and against the opposite wall is a small shrine to some Roman god.
Beyond that, there seems to be nothing of personal value. Esca tries the desk drawers, and they open easily, revealing only styli and other office tools. The closet contains uniforms. There is literally nothing to find from snooping. Nothing physical, at least, and he knows better than to try the computer console. It will be code-locked, and it might even record an authorized attempt to access it.
He returns to the desk, and as a last-ditch effort, looks underneath everything in the drawers. In the very bottom drawer on the left, he finds something.
It’s a photograph, printed physically on a sheet of paper, and it shows a man of about forty in a centurion’s uniform. There’s no information to suggest his name or the date the picture was taken, but if Esca squints, he thinks he can see some family resemblance.
After studying it closely enough to easily recognize the man if he ever meets him in person, Esca puts the picture back where he found it and restacks the office supplies on top. He closes the drawer, sits down on the bunk and thinks.
It’s no wonder the captain’s so awkward, he supposes. He doesn’t seem to know how to form connections with people—or if he does, they leave no trace of themselves behind. Except for one, and that one’s hidden in a bottom drawer beneath a pile of useless things.
Esca wonders what the problem is. Thus far, he hasn’t found Aquila to be that off-putting beyond the plain fact that he’s a Roman centurion, and he assumes that most Romans wouldn’t find that objectionable. Perhaps he can only speak easily with his inferiors. That would explain why the ship’s crew seems so loyal to him, and why he seems so open with Esca.
Not an attractive quality, if so. But of course, Esca reminds himself viciously, that doesn’t matter. None of this matters. In a few days, he’ll leave the ship and he’ll never see Marcus Flavius Aquila again.
Marcus is on-shift very late again, as the repairs hit a brief snag and there’s some panic over whether another hull breach is possible or not. Thankfully, the decision comes down on not, but it’s a long, stressful afternoon and evening figuring it out.
When he arrives at his quarters, Esca is seated on the floor, head tipped back against the wall. His head comes up and his eyes open as Marcus steps inside.
“Good evening,” Marcus says, coming out of a microsecond of startlement; he’d forgotten that Esca would be waiting for him today.
Esca, as Marcus is realizing is usual, does not respond, only keeps his gaze fixed on him. It’s the slightest bit unsettling.
“Did you get any dinner?” Marcus asks, mainly to fill the space and then realizing that he might not have.
“No,” says Esca. “No one has entered these quarters since I arrived this morning.”
No lunch or dinner, and it’s now 2100 hours. “You must be starving,” Marcus says, and immediately comms a yeoman to bring dinner for them both. “I apologize for my negligence.” Feeding Esca is his responsibility now, of course, and it was inexcusable of him to forget that.
Esca shrugs. “They feed us more here than I’m used to.”
The Roman prison system, Marcus knows, is not galaxy-renowned for its cushiness and generosity; Esca must be used to a certain amount of privation. “Was the world you grew up on short of food?” he asks.
Esca shakes his head. “There was plenty,” he says. “But I spent some time running from the Roman authorities before I was captured and tried. There were hard times.”
Marcus tries to picture it—living under the radar, avoiding Rome’s attention. No doubt its serious and focused attention, if he killed a prominent Roman officer. He has no idea what that kind of life would be like.
“At least that’s over now,” he offers.
“I would prefer it,” Esca says baldly, and Marcus is still trying to think up a response when the door chimes and he admits the yeoman with dinner.
Esca eats neatly, and without any indication of having been starving; Marcus watches him covertly and cannot find any fault with his table manners. No doubt the stories of Rimworlders capturing live animals and eating them raw are just propaganda—or, at the very least, they are about people from different Rim worlds than Esca’s.
He knows that some of the stories are true, at least, because he served in the Rim, and he has seen some wild-eyed and feral men.
Esca’s meal is much, much better than the food he’d been served in the brig and in the infirmary; there is an actual slice of bread that must have been frozen somewhere in the galley since they disembarked. It more than makes up for the lack of food earlier in the day, although he’d not been lying to Aquila when he said he was used to much worse.
Aquila finishes his meal and stands. “I’ll get your bedding set up,” he says, and picks up his comm. Esca has noted that often when Aquila does something, he is in fact ordering someone else to do it. He supposes that’s how it is when you’re the captain.
Aquila orders the obedient yeoman to lay a bedroll on the floor, thick enough to be comfortable. Esca watches in slight bemusement, wondering again why this Roman seems to think his state of comfort worth any attention at all, let alone solicitation.
He will not turn down a comfortable bed, but it is—odd. He was not expecting his obligatory profession of loyalty to lead to any attention at all—or, if any, for it to be unwelcome.
Instead, he is getting a dinner of soup and bread and a comfortable pallet on the floor. Should he be grateful? He cannot seem to quite muster gratitude, for being so generously allowed to eat his master’s food and sleep on the floor by his master’s bed. But it is more than he was expecting.
Marcus beds down in silence that night, with Esca silent beside him. He was not expecting anything else, and he should not be—disappointed. What, after all, does this prisoner’s confidence mean to him? None of the other prisoners has chosen to confide in him, and that has not left him wanting in any way.
It is only his responsibility to keep Esca safe and provided for—his professional responsibility as the captain of this ship, and Esca a prisoner under his supervision, and likewise his personal responsibility to someone who has sworn loyalty to him. Confidences do not enter into it.
As he lies in the dark, he listens to Esca’s breathing. There is still a rasp to it, but it is not nearly as labored as it was. That is enough, he tells himself firmly. He will see that Esca is well-rested and –fed, and that he recovers his respiratory health, and he will be able to hand him off to his justly-determined sentence with a clear conscience. That is all that is necessary.
Marcus wakes in the middle of his sleep shift to the beeping of his comm. “Aquila,” he answers.
“Sir,” says the helmsman. “I think we have a problem.”
Esca is awake in the dark, sitting up in his bedroll. Marcus is up and half into his uniform already, saying, “Be more specific,” to the helmsman.
“Sir, there’s a ship approaching. It won’t respond to our hails. We think it’s a pirate, sir.”
A pirate. And they have only one working engine, an obvious target. “Call the men to arms. Sound the alert.”
“Yes, sir,” says the helmsman, and the lights begin to flash as the alert sounds.
Marcus finishes dressing and makes for the door. “Stay in here,” he orders Esca as he leaves, only realizing once he’s outside what a nonsensical order it is, since he’s sealing the door behind him.
He hesitates for a moment, thinking about what might happen to Esca if he’s stuck in a sealed compartment during a firefight. But he can unseal it remotely if he needs to, and if they’re boarded or there’s some other emergency he can let Esca out. And Esca has an emergency comm, he remembers.
He lets Esca fall from his mind as he runs through the corridors to the bridge. The outcome of this fight is by no means assured, and will depend heavily on the size of the pirate ship in question.
When he arrives on the bridge, his stomach sinks. The ship is big.
Esca paces Aquila’s quarters after the man leaves. Port to starboard. Aft to stern. Starboard to port. Stern to aft. And again. And again.
There is nothing to inform him of what could be happening. He tries the computer on the off-chance he may be able to get in, but it is indeed code-locked and he has no training in breaking computer codes. If he knew the name of the man in the picture, he might have one stab at trying the password, but he does not.
And what would happen, if he did know what was happening outside of this cabin? Nothing. He would still not be able to affect the outcome of the battle, if there is a battle, one iota. He would still be locked inside Marcus Flavius Aquila’s quarters, and there would be nothing he could do about it.
And even if there were, of course, Aquila ordered him to stay here. Did he mean no matter what? Esca wonders. If the ship is invaded or if there is another hull breach, shall Esca remain here and die, in stubborn adherence to the most literal interpretation of his last command, rather than do what he is certain Aquila would wish, and save himself?
Even he is not that stubborn, he thinks, although he is wondering once again if this is to be his death. It will be all right if so, he thinks.
He is glad he did not die in the cells belowdecks, though. Odd and occasionally frustrating—and painful—though they have been, he has appreciated the last few days, and he would have been sorry to miss them.
For now, though, he paces. And waits.
After some uncountable length of time, the ship shudders. Esca stares at the door, but it does not open, and nothing sounds over the room’s comm.
Another shudder. Nothing he can do but wait.
He waits. And waits.
Eventually, he hears pounding feet in the corridors outside. A shout.
And suddenly, the door hisses open. A startled face regards him. “Who the hell are you?”
“Esca Mac Cunoval,” Esca says. “Who are you?”
“Mac Cunoval?” the man says, without answering. “What are you doing in here?” He stares suspiciously around the room. “These are the captain’s quarters.”
Esca doesn’t bother to respond to that.
The man isn’t paying any attention, in any case; he’s looking after someone else, down the hall. He glances back at Esca. “Come with me,” he says.
“Why?” Esca asks.
“Because we’re freeing you,” the man says. “We’ve taken control of the ship, and we’re freeing all of the prisoners.” He frowns. “Is there anyone else held privately in quarters, do you have any idea? Because we’ll have to do a sweep—”
Esca shakes his head. “No. Just me.”
“Good to hear,” the man says, although he doesn’t look convinced. “Come with me and I’ll introduce you to the Captain.”
That seems a good enough reason to go with him, particularly since it seems likely that the Captain will either be with Marcus, or will know where Marcus is. Esca follows his purported rescuer out into the corridor.
He’s led to the bridge, where a tall, pale man stands before the viewscreen, looking out at the stars. He turns when they come in. “Ah, Caratacus. Who do you bring us?”
“This is Esca Mac Cunoval, Captain Áed,” says Caratacus. “Another prisoner. In the captain’s personal cabin.”
Áed’s eyebrows have gone up. “Esca Mac Cunoval, indeed. I know your name and your face from the news broadcasts. You are very, very welcome. We are fortunate to have stumbled on this ship.”
“What are you going to do with it now that you have it?” Esca asks.
Áed shrugs. “Strip it, bring the prisoners and anyone suitable for resale along. We can’t steal the whole thing, unfortunately, since the Romans’ tracking technology becomes more subtle by the day, but we’ll turn a good profit…and gain some good satisfaction.” He eyes Esca. “You surely deserve something from this heap yourself. Is there any prize you would like to take with you, deserving of your name?”
It occurs to Esca that he could leave this ship a free man, with nothing tugging him down, and run far away to somewhere Rome could never bother him again. He could find a planet and touch down there, settle and farm and never see the inside of a ship again in his life. He could say, No, and that would be it.
He says, “The captain.”
Áed’s eyes flick left to Caratacus, and Esca knows he is remembering what was said. In the captain’s personal quarters. Well, let them assume what they assume; doubtless nothing Esca says will change their minds, and perhaps it will work out to his advantage.
“I think we can award you this prize, Esca Mac Cunoval,” says Áed. “We were going to sell him, for he’s pretty enough to fetch a good price, but there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s better to be yours.”
“Where is he now?” Esca asks.
Marcus cannot fault his crew for this loss. They were overwhelmed by superior numbers and firepower, and they fought well and took as many of the enemy with them as they could.
But they have lost. Marcus’ best hope at the moment is that they will not execute the entire crew. He has ordered Lutorius to keep quiet and anonymous; hopefully these pirates will focus their whole attention on Marcus, as the captain, and leave the rest of the crew alone.
They have certainly put some attention on him already. When he refused to drop his gaze in submission, several of the rabble knocked him to the ground and kicked him until he was forced to curl up. They have stripped him of his uniform coat and boots, and left him on the deck; they’re talking among themselves in some incomprehensible Rimworld language, but every now and then, one of them remembers he’s there and delivers another sharp kick.
He is bleeding, also; one of the pirates held a knife to his throat as they were rounding up the crew, and once the last of them had submitted to being locked up, the man had shoved Marcus to the deck and slashed at his arm without, it seemed, any direction or intent. The cut is not deep, but it is painful, and his blood is smeared all over the deck where he lies.
Marcus knows the bravest, most honorable action would be to force himself to his feet and defy them again, but he is conserving what health he has left. And he is nearly sure that his bad leg would give out under him when he stood up.
The door hisses open, and his gaze snaps to it. The pirate captain is standing there, tall and severe…and then he steps aside, and reveals who is behind him.
Esca. Of course these people would welcome Esca with open arms. A man who slew a Roman leader? He’s probably a hero to them.
Still, Marcus cannot help but believe—or at least hope, that Esca has not forgotten his promise of loyalty. He does not seem like someone who would abandon an oath so easily. Surely he will not just—
Esca says something in the same language the other pirates were using. It sounds derogatory. The pirate captain replies, and laughs. He strides over to where Marcus is curled on the deck and grips his arm, hauling him to his knees.
Esca comes and stands before him, looking arrogant and not much else. Marcus reminds himself that Esca rarely shows any kind of expression, and he could be feeling anything at all right now.
Then Esca lifts a hand and strikes Marcus across the face.
It’s hard enough to snap his head to one side, and over the ringing in his ears he can hear the pirate captain laughing in approval.
When his vision clears, he can see Esca glaring down at him, and his heart sinks. It was too much, he supposes, to expect a Rimworlder to have a sense of honor like a Roman. The temptation of freedom and a return to his own people was no doubt too much.
“You belong to Esca now, Roman,” the pirate leader says, in his thick accent. “I hope you will appreciate your situation now that the tables have turned.”
“My crew,” Marcus says. “Leave them unharmed. They’re not worth anything to you.”
“Don’t worry,” the captain says. “You’re the prettiest one here. We’re happy to take your prisoners, strip your ship, and leave your crew to send out a distress call and beg for rescue like children.”
Marcus suppresses a wince. Lutorius will not enjoy this, but it’s better that than he be dead.
The captain says something else in his own language, and two of the pirates haul Marcus’ hands behind him, and secure them with cuffs. He rolls his shoulders, adjusting—and then jerks as a shock of pain jolts through him.
The men laugh. Electro-stim cuffs, then. Marcus breathes through his nose and braces himself, but they just haul him to his feet—then shove him, and he falls again, sprawling on the deck. Pain shoots through his leg, and through his side, where he suspects they have cracked a rib.
The captain says something else, sounding weary—Marcus suspects it is, Enough games, let’s go—and they haul him up again. “Walk,” one of them says, in barely-intelligible Latin.
Marcus tries. The shameful truth is that he really cannot, not without at least some help. The two hulking pirates drag him along, as he stumbles and trips on his bad leg, and Esca and the captain follow behind.
At least his crew is safe. Marcus hangs onto that thought, and does not allow himself to dwell on Esca’s betrayal, or on his own fate, or on the shame that will fall upon his name when this incident becomes publicly known.
Surely it was inevitable, people will say. After all, those Aquilae…
And he cannot do anything about it.
As they reach the docking port, Esca comes into his view again, and Marcus clenches his teeth. Did Esca not realize that he could have earned himself a pardon today? If he had taken advantage of his position—if he had joined forces with Marcus, instead of betraying him—
One man might not have made much of a difference. But if the pirates thought he was trustworthy—if only Esca had tried, Marcus would have ensured he was rewarded. If his freedom could not be obtained, then at least a reduced sentence.
Instead, Marcus has received the sentence.
“Ready for your new life, Roman?” one of his hulking guards sneers in his thick accent. “You’ve been giving orders long enough. Time to take them for a change.” He laughs.
Marcus breathes evenly and doesn’t respond. He will not goad them into hurting him further; he needs to be in the best condition possible in case opportunity arises to escape.
Maybe they will ransom him. Although, to be realistic, there is hardly anyone out there to pay the ransom; his only living close relative is the uncle he has never met, who lives out on the Rim somewhere. He hopes they are not expecting a ransom, because if they try and fail, they will probably kill him the moment they realize it.
On the other hand, if they aren’t expecting a ransom, they will surely either enslave Marcus themselves, or sell him to someone else.
But, he reminds himself, the longer he lives, the more chance he will have to escape.
He is unceremoniously shoved through the airlock to the pirates’ ship, which has small, close corridors and stuffy, cheaply-filtered air. He just manages to catch himself on the bulkhead and not sprawl on the deck again, and then he is grabbed by his guards and muscled forward.
The captain brings him to a large room that would be a conference room on a Roman ship, but is outfitted with colorful fabrics and couches on this one, and looks instead like an outlaws’ den—which, Marcus supposes, it is.
Marcus is shoved down on the floor, and Esca is invited to sit in the chair immediately above him. Marcus takes the opportunity to hiss, “Esca, what have you done?”
The captain laughs, and Esca looks down at Marcus with fierce, unyielding eyes, and says, “You’re my slave.”
Aquila is hurt, it’s obvious—the men were no doubt having some sport with him before Esca and Áed arrived. Esca is overwhelmed by a mix of vindication and shame—let the Roman captain have a taste of his own brutal medicine, surely! But Esca has not witnessed Aquila doing anything brutal, nothing that would earn him brutal treatment in turn.
And the expression on his face when he saw Esca, and came to the obvious conclusion—
Esca does not fault him for thinking he has been betrayed. Esca has not, after all, done anything to prove his honor, and Romans are taught that no one has honor save themselves. He was surprised that Aquila had believed him at all, when he confessed the debt.
And now that Aquila is kneeling at Esca’s feet, looking up into what may be his death, for all he knows, as Áed takes up a stance in the middle of the room—well, Esca would be lying to himself if he thought he gained no satisfaction from the change in position. But he would also be lying if he dismissed his debt to Aquila from his mind. He wishes to prove to the Roman captain that Rimworld savages have honor the same as Romans.
Áed surveys his people and says, “Men, today we have had a great success!”
The men cheer, and Áed continues his speech, boasting of all the expensive technology they were able to strip from the Roman vessel, of the prisoners they freed, “and of course, the renowned hero, that slayer of Romans, Esca Mac Cunoval!”
Aquila, who of course has understood none of the speech so far, starts at this, and glances back at Esca. Esca does not stand, or acknowledge any particular status he might have, but the men cheer him anyway. Áed watches him approvingly—Esca has no doubt that he will be keeping a careful eye on Esca in case Esca should decide that pirate captain seems a desirable job for himself, and resolves anew to be entirely self-effacing—and continues.
“And we have secured ourselves a Roman captain, Marcus Flavius Aquila!”
The Roman name is perfectly pronounced and dripping with scorn; Aquila starts, and again looks back at Esca, craning his neck around to check for—what? It is a blatantly vulnerable position, and Esca looks back at him, keeping his expression clear but feeling somewhat unsettled.
Áed continues his speech for a few more minutes, finally finishing it off with an exhortation to go celebrate the victory, which the men are clearly more than happy to do. When he is done, he turns to Esca.
“I’ll show you to your quarters,” he says. “You’ll have your own, as our guest of honor. Your new slave can share with you, if you prefer—here’s the controller for the restraints; you can separate them and leave them on his wrists so you can shock him into submission.”
“I’ll take him,” Esca says firmly, taking the controller. “We have some—private business.”
“Of course, I’m sure the men would enjoy some sport with him, if you want to watch,” Áed adds.
Esca shakes his head. “No,” he says. “I’d prefer to have him to myself.”
Áed nods understandingly. “Of course,” he says. “Let’s get you set up, then.”
They put him in a tiny cabin—Esca is overwhelmed by his luck, although in fact the ship is larger than a crew of this size really requires, so it’s not so surprising as all that. Marcus is shoved in after him, and Áed says, “Join us in celebration if you like.”
Esca shakes his head. “Some other time, I will take you up on that,” he says. “For now, I could use some rest.”
Áed nods. “Enjoy your new slave,” he says, smiling lasciviously.
Esca closes the door behind him and turns to Aquila. To Marcus, he thinks—Esca can call him whatever he likes, now. After all, Marcus is not his captor anymore, but his slave.
His slave who is kneeling on the deck right now, glaring up at him. “Esca,” he says. “I know that you have no great love for Rome. But surely you can understand that this is the wrong choice. Choosing to be an outlaw—a man with no loyalties—”
“I have chosen to be an outlaw before,” Esca says sharply, and Marcus stops talking abruptly. “I would choose it again over prison without hesitation. You Romans always think that no one could want anything other than to be Roman.”
Marcus keeps his mouth shut, but Esca can see that he doesn’t understand what’s so wrong about that.
“But,” Esca continues, “as you may recall, I am not a man without loyalties.”
Marcus mouth drops open. Esca takes a moment to privately enjoy the stunned look on his face, and then uses his controller to release the handcuffs. They drop onto the deck with a clatter.
“Esca,” Marcus breathes. “I thought—I assumed—I apologize.” He rubs his wrists wonderingly.
Esca shrugs, hiding how much he appreciates this apology. “I hit you.”
“You were keeping up appearances,” Marcus says. “I understand now.” He shifts forward, and starts slowly pushing himself to his feet.
“Stop,” Esca says immediately, coming forward. “You’re too badly hurt.”
“I would not be on my knees any longer,” Marcus says quietly.
“Well,” says Esca, “sometimes one does not have a choice about how or where one sits.” And perhaps that comes out a little too bitterly, for Marcus gives him a sharp look. “You can sit on the bed,” he hurries to say. “How do you fare?”
Marcus shrugs one shoulder—the one that is not bleeding, Esca notes. “My leg is weak. One of my ribs is cracked, I think. The shoulder. Some bruising. It will all heal, except for the leg, of course.”
“What happened to it?” Esca asks; he’s been curious since he first noticed it, on the day Marcus rescued him from the brig.
“Nerve damage,” Marcus says. “An experimental energy weapon developed by one of the Rim worlds. It’ll never be whole again, but I can walk on it, and that’s more than they thought at first.”
One of the Rim worlds. Marcus was a combat soldier on a Rim world before being injured; Esca had known it must be true. And what does it matter? He already knows that Marcus is not like the Roman who killed his father. He already knew that Marcus was a combat veteran. Nothing has changed.
The only thing that has changed is that now Marcus is his responsibility, instead of the other way around.
“Let me do what I can for your wounds, at least,” Esca says; the room boasts a small first-aid kit, not very well outfitted, but enough to clean and bandage the shallow knife wound and encourage the cracked rib to knit a bit faster.
Marcus submits to his treatment without hesitation, stripping off his tunic and moving as Esca instructs to make it easier for him to access his wounds. He is well-muscled, Esca notes as he works, more so than one would expect of a ship-bound Roman captain, particularly one with an injury like his. He wonders again why Marcus seems to be so unattached, considering his looks and status, and it occurs to him that now there is a way to confirm that fact.
“You need to get off this ship,” he says quietly, wondering—too late—if Áed has listening devices in this cabin. Well, if he does, all is lost already, so there is no use watching his tongue now; they’ll be dead or enslaved both by morning. “Is there anyone who would pay ransom for you, if I pretended to want the money?”
Marcus tenses under his hands. “No,” he says. “Or—it’s possible. I have an uncle, on my father’s side. But I’ve never met him, and I don’t know how much family feeling he has.” A pause, as though he’s thinking that over, and then he adds, “Or how much money.”
“No other family?” Esca presses. “No wife, or fiancée?”
Marcus shakes his head. “No.” This seems to bother him less than discussing his blood relatives; he moves more easily under Esca’s hands as he finishes his first aid.
Esca sits back when he is done, watching Marcus carefully shift so that they are facing. “Did you become a soldier to get away from Roma, then? Since you had no one to keep you there?”
Marcus looks away. “No,” he says. “That is not why I became a soldier.”
Marcus is not indicating that he will welcome the obvious question, but Esca is feeling somewhat heady with freedom and the ability to speak as he chooses, so he asks, “Why, then?”
Marcus’ jaw tightens, then relaxes. “Why not?” he asks of no one in particular, and continues, “My father was commander of a great ship—named the Eagle, coincidentally enough; he joked when he left that he’d only been assigned there because his superior had a head for puns. But he was sent out to the Rim with a crew of five thousand, to expand Rome’s territory still further. It was a great honor.”
“And?” Esca asks, biting his tongue. He thinks he may have heard of—
“He never came back,” Marcus says bluntly. “He disappeared. There are those who think that there was some kind of navigation error, or they encountered some spaceborn disaster—it happens sometimes out in the unknown territories, ships disappearing and never coming back. But there are some—” he stops.
“Some think that he deserted,” Esca says, understanding.
“No one knows what he could have found out there,” Marcus says. “Perhaps he found a fertile planet and set himself up as king over his five thousand men, they say.”
“And you?” Esca says. “What do you think?”
Marcus is silent for a moment, and then he says, “I remember him leaving for that mission. I want to think that he would have done his utmost to come back. I want to think that all he wanted was to serve Rome.”
Esca nods, silently.
“But I was a small child,” Marcus finishes in almost a whisper. “All small children believe that of their parents. I cannot know for certain—and I never will.”
There is nothing much to say to that. Esca only nods, and says, “We should both rest. The bed is just big enough for us both.” It is no military-issue bunk, but it also no feather-filled monstrosity; they will have to stay close. It may not be good for Marcus’ injuries, but neither will sleeping on the floor, and Esca cannot risk one of their new shipmates coming in to see Marcus on the bed and Esca on the floor.
“Not going to make me sleep on the floor in revenge?” Marcus asks, and his smile is a new thing to Esca, not having seen it hardly at all before.
“No,” he says simply, eschewing explanations for now. “Lay yourself down as comfortably as you can, and I will lie down next to you when I am done disposing of these.” He collects the first-aid supplies.
When he turns back to the bed, Marcus has carefully taken up exactly one-half of the available room, which is ridiculous, since he is by far the larger of the two of them. Esca turns off the light, climbs in next to him and leaves space between, and says, “I’m a heavy sleeper. Don’t worry about waking me if you move during the night.” It’s a lie, but he does not want Marcus to hold himself tense all night and keep himself from resting.
“I am the same,” Marcus says, and in the dark, Esca cannot tell if it is truth or a lie. Truth, he hopes.
He closes his eyes. “Sleep well,” he says. “We’ll make plans for the future in the morning.”
“That seems best,” Marcus says fuzzily, and over the next few minutes seems to drift right off, relaxing enough to press up against Esca’s side.
Satisfied, Esca closes his own eyes and falls straight asleep.
Marcus half-wakes to a feeling of being too warm and a low, concerned voice. “Esca?” he murmurs, not sure if Esca is really there or Marcus was only dreaming about him.
“…still,” he hears. “It looks infected. That knife must have been filthy.”
He hurts all over, but it’s a distant pain. His arm is hot and throbbing, though, more immediate than the rest. “Need a doctor,” he mutters.
“I know,” Esca’s voice floats down to him. “I’ll see if there is one.”
That’s taken care of, then. Marcus lets himself drift back down into sleep.
When he wakes again, he’s being given pills. He turns his head in protest, but Esca says, “Take them, Marcus.”
He does, with cool water that he’s lifted up to drink. He can feel Esca’s hand on the back of his head. “What are they?” he thinks to ask.
“They’re for your infection,” Esca says. “I had a hell of a time convincing the surgeon that my slave deserved any treatment at all, so that dose is all you’re getting. You’ll have to stay strong.”
Marcus frowns. “Am I your slave?” That doesn’t seem quite right, although on reflection he remembers Esca saying something like that to him.
“Pretend for the moment that you are,” Esca says. “All right?”
Marcus feels as though he should be the one deciding what to do. But he is so tired, and he’s sure Esca will make a good decision, so what’s the harm in letting him? “All right,” he agrees, and closes his eyes again.
Esca had to make a strong argument that he couldn’t get any use out of his slave if he died of a fever, but eventually he convinced the ship’s surgeon—who, he suspects, has only on-the-job training—to give up a single dose of antibiotics.
Now, it’s up to Marcus’ native strength, which should at least be quite high, judging from his size, constitution, and patrician Roman background.
Esca, however, still contrives to spend the day in his quarters, pleading exhaustion to Áed, and works on getting Marcus to eat and drink as much as he can. His fever burns hot, and he is clearly unaware of exactly where he is and what is happening.
He does not, however, forget Esca; recognition is clear in his eyes whenever they open, and he continually asks Esca where they are and what is happening, and relaxes and accepts Esca’s reassurances when they come.
It is—disconcerting. Esca has been in this man’s power and accepted it, but that was first because he had no other choice, and then because he was obligated by honor to accept it. Given the option, he would never in his life have trusted a Roman to make his decisions for him, and he would have thought that no Roman would do the same for a barbarian.
But Marcus seems to have accepted Esca’s judgment as sound, or at least his dreaming subconscious has. Esca doesn’t quite know what to make of it.
But, he allows, as he tips Marcus’ head up and coaxes him to drink some more water, it is not as though Marcus’ trust is ill-placed. Esca will see him healed, and will get him off this ship, one way or another.
Marcus comes back to himself in short moments, over what feels like a long, slow period of time. It is hard to mark its passage, because things are constant: he is hot and in pain, and Esca is with him. Those two things seem always to be true—except once or twice he wakes and Esca is not there, even when he calls for him. And he wonders what has happened to him—surely he would not just go away and leave Marcus to wait here in this bed forever, but perhaps he has fallen victim to something or someone?
But then he wakes again and Esca is there, and he can relax again.
And slowly, slowly, he regains lucidity. His whole body still hurts, and particularly his arm is limp and useless, but he is able to remember the hijacking, remember thinking that Esca had betrayed him—assuming that Esca must have betrayed him—and learning otherwise so wholly and unimpeachably—
Esca could have left him to the pirates; he could have let him die of fever; even if he had a sense of obligation, he could probably have set up a ransom demand and disappeared with fond hopes that Marcus would live, probably.
Instead, he has stayed in this stuffy, sick-smelling cabin for the last—how many days?—and nursed Marcus back to health. Marcus has no idea what sort of lies he’s had to tell the pirate captain, no notion of what it took to get medicine—he remembers medicine—and enough food and bandages and all the rest.
Esca, it seems, was serious when he swore to honor and protect one Marcus Aquila. Marcus can only be ashamed of himself for doubting him.
Now, Esca lies beside him, asleep, breathing lightly and evenly. As Marcus shifts in place, trying to find and catalogue all of his hurts, Esca’s eyes immediately fly open, and he raises himself up on one elbow to look at Marcus. His eyebrows rise up when he finds Marcus looking back at him, no doubt surprised to see a clear and steady gaze.
“Thank you,” Marcus says, his voice clogged with sleep and disuse, “for watching over me, Esca.”
“It was my duty,” Esca says immediately. “I did not consider acting otherwise.”
Marcus nods, accepting this. “That doesn’t mean I can’t be grateful, however,” he says.
Esca chooses to ignore this, and only says, “How are you feeling this morning?”
“Is it morning? How long has it been?”
“Two days since you woke up ill,” Esca says. “You recovered quickly.”
Marcus supposes that is quickly, considering that they did not have access to a modern infirmary. “Another thing to be grateful for,” he says. “Yes, I am feeling much better. Being able to speak coherently is a great improvement.”
That makes Esca’s mouth twitch, which—Marcus thinks—is the first time he has ever seen anything like a smile on the man’s face. He counts it as a victory. “You look improved,” Esca says, “which is to say, you look very ill still. You should remain in bed today.”
“But—” Marcus objects, and then stops. And then thinks better of stopping; surely in two days this problem has arisen before, although he—perhaps mercifully—cannot remember. “I need to use the head.”
Esca nods. “All right. We’ll try it.”
Marcus starts to sit up, but his cracked ribs protest immediately, and when he falls back, he thoughtlessly tries to catch himself on his injured arm. There follows a moment where pain greys out his vision, and he has to concentrate on keeping his breathing at a pace slower than a pant.
“You’ll note,” says Esca in a dry voice, “that I said we would try it. When you’re recovered, we’ll begin again.”
This time, Marcus waits for Esca to help, and a strong arm is slipped under his back and he is carefully levered upright. It still hurts, but nothing like his solo attempt.
Standing up is a slow chore, and he has to stop once he’s up and wait for an intense dizziness to subside. But after a minute, the ringing in his ears quiets and the black spots disappear from his vision, and he is able, leaning on Esca, to take a slow, careful step forward.
His bad leg, he discovers, is still quite bad, and Esca has to bear nearly his entire weight when he steps with his left foot. He manages neatly, however, which is particularly impressive considering their relative sizes.
There is, fortunately, a head attached to the quarters, and everything is so tiny that it only takes a couple of steps to reach it. Esca keeps hold of Marcus through the process of relieving his bladder, and Marcus does not object; he is not sure he could remain standing if Esca were to step away, and he doesn’t want to test it, particularly.
By the time he’s finished, he’s exhausted, and the slow steps back to the bed leave him wavering and vague. He’s unconscious again before his head hits the pillow.
Esca watches Marcus sleep, an activity with which he’s quite familiar at this point, and thinks about the future.
He is now reasonably certain that Marcus will live, which is a stroke of good fortune that he wasn’t quite expecting. Apart from Marcus’ death meaning a failure to fulfill his oath, he found that while he was sitting by a feverish, delirious Marcus, he wanted him to live simply because…he wanted him to live.
Marcus is a rarity in the galaxy—a genuinely honest, honorable, well-meaning man. Roman or not, Esca has met few of his quality, and even fewer who were capable and intelligent as well. The universe would be poorer without him.
And now Esca is responsible for keeping him in it. If he truly is out of danger from sickness, the next step is to get him off this ship. Esca has considered ransom, but the length of time a message might take to reach the supposed uncle, who might not even get it, and if he got it might not care to pay, and if he cared might not be able to afford it—no.
No, Esca has considered it carefully, and the easiest apparent option is for them to wait until the ship stops to refuel or fence its goods and leave then. Ideally, Esca would wave goodbye to Áed, say thank you for the rescue and the gift of the slave, and walk off cheerfully on his own with Marcus in tow.
He is not, of course, convinced that it will be that easy. Áed would certainly benefit from someone as well-known in outlaw circles as Esca Mac Cunoval on his crew, and he will likely try to convince Esca to stay. If Esca successfully proves himself to be unsuitable for the crew—without making himself so much of a nuisance as to be disposed of—it might still seem profitable to Áed to keep Marcus for himself. He is only Esca’s through a gesture of goodwill on the captain’s part in any case.
Which means they may have to make their escape in secret. Which means they will need to wait until Marcus is recovered enough to do more than stumble to the lavatory and back to bed.
Esca does not know the ship’s schedule, and so it seems as though it is time to talk to Captain Áed.
“Oh, we’ll put in at Taurus in a week or so,” says Áed in the commissary where Esca finds him.
A week is plenty of time for Marcus to recover, Esca hopes. “Good,” he says. “I have some old contacts at Taurus, and I’d like to start making connections again now that I’m free.”
Áed nods sagely. “Best course of action. Got to get yourself set up again! Of course, you’re welcome to sign on as one of my crew, draw pay just like everyone else, until you’re back on your feet. Maybe once you’re set up we could work out some kind of mutually beneficial arrangement.”
Mentally, Esca translates: work for me for an ordinary man’s pittance wage so that your famous name will lend me notoriety; that way, if you ever gain any advantages, I can make them mine as well. “Sounds promising,” he murmurs.
“Got the best ship out here for what we do,” Áed boasts. “Big enough for this crew and then some. We even have a couple of shuttles for smaller jobs. One of them’s long-range, even—stole it from the Romans, you might have heard about that little job,” he confides.
Esca has, in fact, heard about “that little job”—an assassinated diplomat, a missing shuttle, and none of the Romans the wiser about who was the culprit. He’s not surprised it was Áed, though he is somewhat surprised the man has kept it reasonably quiet. There’s some incentive, there, though—the Romans would be on him like howling wolves if they knew.
“And let us know when you’re finished with that Roman, will you?” Áed adds, faux-casually. “Some of us would like a shot at him as well. I mean, no one’s questioning your right to him, considering, but it’s selfish to keep a Roman captain all to yourself. We don’t get a prize like him very often. Seems like everyone’s got a different idea of what they’d like to do. Someone suggested a gladiator fight.” He laughs.
Esca echoes the laugh as genuinely as he can, which isn’t very.
“Anyway, let us know. We’re going to have to have some kind of entertainment before planetfall next week, and your Roman is the only new kid in town.”
Esca musters up every bit of casual confidence he possesses, and says, “Sure. Give him a day or two to heal up, so he’ll have a fair shot against his gladiator, all right?”
“Sure, sure.” Áed waves a hand. “I have to get back to the bridge. See you around, Mac Cunoval.”
Esca watches him go, his heart pounding and his mouth dry. He breathes carefully for a few minutes after he’s gone, and then casually collects food for Marcus and departs.
So, it looks like he was wrong. They’re going to have to get out of here as soon as possible, whether Marcus is well enough or not, or he doesn’t know how much of Marcus will be left.
Esca explains the situation to Marcus when he wakes, as simply and straightforwardly as he can.
Marcus listens in silence, and nods, his lips pressed together until they turn white. He is sitting up in bed with the meal Esca brought him in his lap, but he is understandably showing no interest in the food at the moment. “Perhaps we could delay?” he suggests, without first expressing protests or disbelief. “I am clearly in no condition to provide an entertaining fight. We claim that I need more time to heal, that there will be some kind of—display, or whatever they want, after planetfall.”
Esca shakes his head. “Marcus, they don’t want a display of fighting,” he says quietly. “They want a display of your humiliation. If they decide you’re too weak to fight, they’ll think of something else.”
Marcus’ mouth firms. “Well, then, I can endure—”
“You can’t,” Esca interrupts. “Even if you survive, which you might well not—I do not think you would be the same.” The sorts of tortures a bored crew of pirates can come up with for their own entertainment—“Have you seen soldiers make sport with captives?”
Marcus is silent for a moment. “I take your meaning,” he says finally. “But what else is to be done? You can’t hide me in the head and pretend I’ve disappeared out an airlock. The ship isn’t big enough to hide, particularly considering they know it better than we ever will. I don’t see an alternative.”
“They have shuttles,” Esca says.
Marcus’ eyes go wide. “You think to steal one?” he says incredulously. “How will we get away? A shuttle can’t outdistance a ship like this.”
“Maybe not,” Esca says. “But I can think of a way.”
“Evening,” Esca says. “Do you mind?”
“Mac Cunoval?” says the gamma-shift helmsman, twisting in his seat to see Esca at the door to the bridge. “Not at all. It’s boring as shit up here all night.”
“Can’t be a plum shift,” Esca agrees, coming up to look out the viewport, as though he just came to admire the scenery of space.
“Punishment duty,” the helmsman shrugs. “I got it for a week. Brawling in the corridors.”
Esca laughs approvingly. “Got to pass the time somehow.”
“Yeah, except now I’m stuck here all night, passing the time with nothing.” The helmsman sighs. “I’ll probably even miss it when you declare open season on your Roman. See if you can make it beta shift for the gladiator fight, would you?”
“Is no one else around all gamma shift?” Esca asks.
The helmsman shrugs. “Just the guards, but they’re all drunk.” He sighs. “I wish I was drunk.”
Esca stores this information away. “You must have some magnificent stories, piloting a pirate ship,” he suggests.
The helmsman brightens. “Well,” he says, “there was this one time…”
Esca settles in to listen.
Marcus has spent most of the day sleeping, in an effort to regain as much of his strength as possible. He has heard Esca’s plan, and—well, it requires cunning, subversion, and extreme daring. If anyone can pull something like this off, surely it is Esca, who has an astonishing hidden native intelligence, the most magnetic gaze of anyone Marcus has laid eyes on, and who flinches from nothing, not even death.
Marcus’ training has all been toward the reliable, the tested, the power in numbers and strength. He knows that it is bad tactics to put all of your resources into a slim chance, that tricks and clever ploys are not reliable, and that a superior force with superior weapons and training will win the day.
At least they have Marcus’ training, he thinks with bleak humor. There are no Romans on board this vessel.
But the lion’s share of the plan is still to be carried out by Esca, who, as far as Marcus can tell, has no training in war whatsoever, beyond what he may have learned as an outlaw.
And yet—certainly, this is the only option that presented itself, but when Esca looked him in the eye and told him it could be done—
Marcus believes him. And maybe he is foolhardy, and maybe it is the fever talking, but he does. He believes Esca can do this, and perhaps even more astonishingly, he believes he will do it.
He has never been offered a thing of such value before. He does not know what to make of it, only that he cannot squander it, and he must think of what he has of equal value, that he could give back.
Esca finds Marcus asleep again when he gets back, and crawls into bed next to him, taking note of his temperature—not too hot—and his breathing—not labored. Esca’s own lungs have cleared up entirely sometime in the last couple of days; he had barely noticed that he wasn’t coughing any longer, preoccupied with other things.
The other things shift in bed as Esca gets comfortable, and press up against his side. Sleeping beside Marcus has been an aid to the nursing process, as Esca has been able to wake up in the middle of the night and discern, without opening his eyes, whether Marcus is still breathing easily and if his fever is unacceptably high. However, he has also been getting used to it
It has been a long, long time since Esca regularly slept beside anyone else, and he would never have anticipated that the next person to share his bed would be a big injured Roman, but—he is not looking forward to going back to sleeping alone.
For now, he closes his eyes with Marcus breathing easily next to his ear, and sleeps.
The next day is tense and quiet. Esca ventures out of the cabin only for food and drink, and carefully notes how easy it is to move undetected through the ship, and where the busiest areas reliably are. He had scouted the shuttle bay last night after bidding the helmsman goodnight, and he is beginning to have a sense of where everything is.
Inside the cabin, Marcus makes his painstaking way out of bed and walks, carefully, from one end to the other and back again. Then sits on the bed, head tilted back and eyes closed, until he can stand and do it again. And again. It takes all his energy, and so there is very little left over for talking, but by midafternoon, he has demonstrated that he can walk on his own for several minutes without needing Esca’s support. That will have to be enough.
Marcus beds down late in the afternoon, exhausted by his efforts and needing to be fresh for that night. Esca sits on the bed next to him and goes over the plan in his head, until he finds himself simply watching Marcus sleep, his lashes dark against the thin skin of the circles under his eyes.
He wakes Marcus at 2400, and leaves him to gather his strength while Esca carries out his part of the plan. He works to move without purpose, as though he were just out for an aimless stroll, until he comes to the bridge.
“Oh, it’s you,” says the helmsman when the doors open. “Bored again?”
“Yes,” says Esca, “but this time I remembered what you said, and brought my own entertainment.” He holds up the bottle.
The man stares longingly at the bottles, and then glances at his instruments. “I don’t know,” he says. “The captain is pretty harsh if you’re drunk at the helm.”
“How’s he going to find out?” Esca asks. “Look, we can pass it back and forth, and if he shows up, I’ll just say it’s mine.”
The helmsman brightens. “Good idea,” he says. “All right, hand it over.”
Esca opens it and does so. “So tell me more about the salvaged Roman freighter and the elephant spiders,” he says, picking up where they’d left off the previous night.
“Oh,” says the helmsman, “right. Let me tell you. Do you know what a job it is to get pest control onto an outlaw ship? Because we had no idea until we tried.”
Esca widens his eyes and drops into a chair, taking the bottle for an apparent swig—lips together—before handing it right back.
By the time the helmsman is drunk enough to be slumped back in his chair, it’s 0130 and Esca knows that Marcus must be climbing the cabin walls. But it only takes another few minutes for the helmsman to say, “I gotta hit the head,” and make his stumbling way out of his seat. “Watch the place for me,” he says, waving a hand.
“Sure,” says Esca, and waits until he’s gone before sliding into the helm station and opening the computer screen.
It takes him longer than he would like to grant launch authorization and unlock one of the shuttles, but it’s all networked, and labeled as simply and clearly as possible, and he manages it.
Then he sees the option to track either of the shuttles, and he has to scramble to disable theirs. Tracking is something Esca knows a bit about, at least, and he makes a note to find the signal on the shuttle and disable it from the other end as well.
By the time the helmsman stumbles back onto the bridge, Esca’s back in his own chair, dangling the bottle between his hands. He holds it out as the man sits down.
“My turn for the head,” he says, and the helmsman waves a limply acknowledging hand, taking another drink from the bottle as Esca saunters off the bridge.
He has one bad moment where he runs into a crew member in the hall, but the man is pulling a deck of cards from his pocket and coming up to someone else’s quarters’ door as they pass, and only gives Esca an absent nod. Esca carefully does not speed up, and presumably still looks entirely unsuspicious when he arrives at his own quarters.
“There you are,” Marcus says, rising from his bed. “I thought you’d been caught.”
“There’s nothing for me to have been caught at yet,” Esca points out. “All I’ve done is get the helmsman drunk. And that required very little persuasion on my part; Áed needs to keep a tighter leash on his crew.”
“You’ll get no argument from me,” Marcus mutters as Esca fixes the handcuffs on his wrists.
He keeps them separated, and Marcus holds his hands together as though they’ve been fused. The biggest danger is that someone else will get hold of the controller, and then they’ll have Marcus in their power, but Esca also does not want anyone stopping them and asking why the Roman is free. He tucks the controller into his sleeve and prays that if they are stopped, he’ll have time to hit the release button before anyone takes it.
Not that it will make much of a difference at that point, if he’s being realistic. They are so outnumbered that one of them in handcuffs or not will mean little, even if fully half the crew is dead drunk.
They set off through the corridors. They’re fortunate this isn’t a real military vessel, with shifts; the crew prefer to be on the same schedule, and the fact that night duty is a punishment makes it likely that the most incompetent—and drunk—personnel will be on duty.
The shuttle bay is one deck down and quite a ways aft; Esca stands possessively at Marcus’ side and takes his arm when they walk, as though he is chivvying him along.
As they near their goal, he can feel a fine tremor starting up in Marcus’ muscles. He won’t last much longer.
The shuttle bay doors are in sight. Esca breathes out a silent breath of relief.
Now, the next step. They go inside.
The guard in the bay is, unfortunately, not unconscious from drink. He is, however, more curious than alarmed at Esca’s appearance. “Mac Cunoval,” he says. “What’re you doing down here?”
“I’m getting tired of my Roman,” Esca says, jerking his head toward Marcus. “I thought I’d bring him around for some of the gamma shift boys to have sport with. Seems like a boring task, night duty.”
The guard has brightened. “You got that right,” he says. He stands up and gives Marcus a once-over. “He doesn’t look so good.”
“He’s fine,” Esca says dismissively.
“I don’t know,” the guard says, coming closer. “It’s no fun kicking around a man who’s half-dead already, even if he is a fucking Roman.” He peers at Marcus. “Look how big he is! I want to fight him when he’s recovered, I think—hey, did you hear about how some of us were thinking of a gladi—”
While he was talking, Esca has quietly retrieved a heavy chunk of scrap metal from one of the piles of perhaps-valuable debris spilling out of the area supposedly designated for maintenance materials. He swings it as hard as he can and the man’s eyes roll up and he drops.
Marcus takes a step back from him as he sprawls across the deck, and his leg nearly gives out from under him. Esca darts in to support him, and says, “Come on, who knows how much time we have.”
Marcus’ face is pale already, verging on gray—he’s not ready for even this much exercise and Esca knew it, but waiting another day could have been suicide. He supports Marcus on one side as he keys open the shuttle—thank all the gods, his hasty authorization on the bridge seems to have been in order: the door hisses open.
Marcus stumbles to the pilot’s seat as Esca closes the door. “It’s primed and ready,” he says. “You did a good job.”
“Or they keep it ready in case of emergency,” Esca says.
Marcus half-laughs. “I can imagine that emergencies are an immediate consideration on this ship,” he says, and readies the shuttle for launch—it is more quickly than Esca could do it, but he can see that Marcus’ hands are starting to shake.
He lets him get the ship hovering, and move it out of the hangar and through the magcon field into space, and he watches carefully as Marcus programs the flight path—keeping an eye on the readouts to see if they’ve been noticed, hailed or followed—and then once they’re moving and nothing Marcus can do will hurry them along any faster, says, “Marcus.”
Marcus turns to look at him, his breath coming shakily.
“Stop. Let me take over.”
Marcus hesitates for a long moment, and then nods, starting to stand from his seat. Esca comes quickly up to support him, and together they move him to the very small bunk in the rear compartment. “Get some rest,” Esca says firmly, and Marcus nods weakly.
Esca returns to the pilot’s chair and checks the readouts again. No pursuit yet. He sets about disabling the tracker, and double-checking for any extra tracers that might be in or on the ship.
Eventually satisfied, he sits back. It’s time to wait.
The shuttle is long-range, but just barely; it will take them far longer to travel anywhere useful than it would take Áed. Fortunately, their stealth tactics seem to have worked, and so they don’t have to go faster than Áed, just in a different direction.
It takes them an hour to get out of easy sensor range, and once they’ve reached that point, Esca changes course. Then he waits another three hours—to the point where alpha shift will be just starting to wake up, Áed presumably among them—until they’re well beyond even the strongest sensor’s range, and changes course again.
That’s it. They’re as hidden as Esca can make them, and he’s reasonably confident that it will be sufficient to keep Áed from finding them at all.
Whether they can keep themselves alive and whole is another question, of course, but the first step has been achieved. Esca settles back in the pilot’s chair and closes his eyes for a moment.
Marcus wakes up slowly, aware that he is cramped and uncomfortable, and his leg is jangling with pain.
Then he remembers where he is, and his eyes fly open. He’s still in the tiny bunk on the shuttle. And they haven’t been overrun by Áed’s Rimworlders yet, so that is promising.
He starts the slow process of levering himself out of the bunk, which hurts a great deal but is ultimately successful, and limps forward into the cockpit.
Esca is asleep, curled in the pilot’s chair, the sensors calm and green-lit in front of him.
Marcus is arrested for a moment by his face, relaxed and soft the way it never is when he’s awake, and by what Esca has done for him in the last days. Nursed him to health with his own hands and hardly any medical help, sacrificed a chance of a position on a Rimworld ship, risked his life to keep Marcus from suffering.
It’s too much. It feels like too much for Marcus to hold inside him, all of this that Esca has given.
He steps forward and lays his hand on Esca’s shoulder. “Esca.”
Esca comes awake with a start, focusing instantly on Marcus’ face and relaxing minutely. Still, he asks, “Any trouble?”
Marcus shakes his head. “All quiet.” He is trying to think about what to say to let Esca know how he feels, that he is more grateful than words can express, and more besides. Nothing is coming immediately to mind.
“Good.” Esca stretches like a cat, uncurling from his position in the chair, and stands up. “We should eat. I brought a bit of food, but there might be supplies already here.”
There are, as it turns out, emergency rations stored on the shuttle. Esca examines one of the bars, and Marcus says, “Only as a last resort.” He’s had them, and they are perfectly nutritionally balanced and absolutely tasteless.
“We’ll likely hit that last resort soon,” Esca says, “but for now we have a few things more.”
They breakfast on reconstituted bean and vegetable soup, eating out of the packets that Esca stole from Áed’s galley. “What now?” Marcus asks as they eat.
Esca looks at him. “That is up to you. Did you want to go all the way back to Rome? It will take a long time in this ship.”
Marcus blinks, surprised. “Well—no, I would go to the nearest provincial capital, which I suppose is on the moon of Licias Major, assuming we haven’t gone too far out of our way. But you must want to go somewhere else first.”
Esca looks at him steadily. “You’re not going to bring me to justice?”
The idea is—appalling. However much his duty might require it, his personal honor recoils. He says, deliberately, “No.”
Esca looks away, and they eat in silence for a moment. Finally, he says, “My oath means I cannot abandon you.” A long moment, and he continues, “Nor—do I want to.”
Marcus’ heart is beating in his ears as loud as a drum. “But you cannot want to go back to prison,” he says weakly.
Esca shakes his head. “It is a conundrum.”
“You could start a new life further out on the Rim,” Marcus persists. “You can’t give that up. It’s not worth it.”
Esca looks at him. “If the trade is that life for a life in prison, alone, you’re right. It’s not worth it. So if those are the only options, let us find a place for me somewhere out here, and you can go on alone. Are those the only two options?”
Are those the only two options?
A thought strikes Marcus. “This is a Roman shuttle,” he says.
“Oh, yes,” says Esca. “Áed was very proud. He stole it back when—I’ve forgotten his name, that politician who disappeared en route from wherever it was, a couple of years ago.”
“Primus Canius Servilius,” Marcus says in a low voice.
“That’s it. Áed killed him and stole his shuttle.” Esca glances around. “We’re going to have to be careful about where we put in, if we do go elsewhere on the Rim. He’s going to want it back.”
“We’re not going elsewhere on the Rim,” Marcus says.
Esca’s gaze snaps back to him. “No?”
“No,” says Marcus. “We’re going to report back to Rome. I believe there is a third option.”
“You believe,” Esca says slowly.
“You’re going to have to trust me,” Marcus says. “This will work.”
Esca holds his eyes, and nods once.
It takes them several long days to get to Licias Major, and by the time they get there, they are eating emergency rations.
Marcus, however, feels infinitely improved. His leg is still fairly bad—he fears he might have damaged it further, during all of the events—and he is still not as strong as he would like, but overall he is nearly recovered.
When they bring the shuttle in for landing, the startled voice on the comm makes Esca laugh, and Marcus cannot suppress a pleased smile, either. Coming back from the dead has its satisfactions.
They are met at the shuttle doors by guards, who have orders to escort them directly to the legate. They look askance at Esca, but he is included in the party without comment.
In the legate’s office, as it turns out, is waiting a pleasant surprise.
“Lutorius!” Marcus says.
Lutorius turns. “Sir!” he says. “I almost didn’t believe it when they said you were alive. How did you survive?” His eyes flick behind Marcus.
“Esca,” Marcus says. “It was all Esca.”
“Gentlemen,” says the legate pointedly. “I know you are pleased to see each other, but let us get right to business, shall we?”
Marcus and Lutorius come immediately to attention. Esca comes up next to them, looking around curiously.
“Now,” says the legate. “Lieutenant Salinator here has told us his version of the story of your hijacking by Rim pirates. Perhaps you could fill in the blanks for us.”
Lutorius, it seems has spun a tale of such bravery and self-sacrifice as has seldom been seen in the Roman legions—Marcus willingly throwing himself into the pirates’ clutches to save his men. Marcus protests that that is not quite how it was, but he is silenced by the legate until it is his turn to speak.
“Sir,” says Marcus, “let me begin by saying that there is no way I could have even survived, let alone escaped, if it were not for this man next to me, one of my own prisoners, Esca Mac Cunoval.”
The legate’s eyebrows go up in surprise. Marcus begins to relate what happened, leaving nothing out about his own injuries and weakness, about Esca’s careful attentions, about his masterminding the plan to escape.
“And,” he finishes, “Esca was also able to discover that the shuttle we flew in on, a Roman shuttle in the pirates’ possession, is the very shuttle that Primus Canius Servilius was flying when he disappeared.”
The legate’s eyebrows approach his hairline. “This can be easily checked,” he says.
“Do so,” Marcus says, and the legate nods to one of the guards at the door. “Captain Áed was the pirate who murdered Servilius, and we have brought you proof. You should not have trouble locating him—I know he was on his way to Taurus when we escaped, although he may have changed his plans to look for us.”
The legate nods, and makes a note.
“It is for all of these reasons—for saving my life, for preventing another humiliation, for bringing evidence of this crime to you—that I am requesting a pardon for Esca Mac Cunoval.”
There is a long moment of silence. Then the legate nods once. “That seems an appropriate reward for such exceptional service,” he says slowly. “Yes. Granted.”
Esca had not actually believed it would work.
During the long interval of paperwork that follows Marcus’ report and the legate’s decision, Esca signs where he is told to sign and spends the rest of the time wondering at Marcus’ success. Surely it cannot be that easy. Surely he cannot simply be—free.
But it seems as though he is. The forms are filled out and submitted, and perhaps even more convincingly, it has come from a legate’s own mouth.
Marcus, Esca sees, cannot stop smiling. The little quirk at the corner of his mouth remains throughout the entire afternoon of paperwork.
He smiles because Esca is free. And that, perhaps, is what finally convinces Esca that it is real, and the smile that breaks free then is strange and stiff on his face, broader than he remembers ever smiling since his father died.
He is free.
Eventually, they send Marcus to the doctor. He knew it was coming, and he was half-suspecting the results before he got there.
“Who let you keep serving with this?” the doctor frowns.
Marcus doesn’t say that it was a doctor at his last combat posting, who was used to patching soldiers up, sending in a report that they were combat-ready, and shoving them back out into the field without much compunction.
“You’ve damaged it further just recently, but this is nothing a serving officer should be suffering,” the doctor says firmly. “I’m sorry, Captain Aquila, but I’m going to have to recommend a medical discharge.”
“Sir—” says Lutorius, and then composes himself. “I am very sorry to hear that,” he says with appropriate decorum.
“I—am less sorry than I thought I would be,” says Marcus. “It will feel odd, not to be a soldier, but I think commanding a prison transport was never my true calling.” Indeed, he had felt much, much worse when he had learned of his transfer out of combat to command of the transport than he feels now.
“Well, you will be greatly missed, sir,” Lutorius says firmly.
Marcus smiles. “Thank you, Lutorius,” he says. “You as well.”
Esca has been put up in temporary military quarters alongside Marcus’, for lack of anything else to do with him. Marcus finds him when he is finished with his paperwork, and holds up the forms for Esca to see.
Esca takes them. “Medical discharge,” he reads. He looks up at Marcus. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Marcus says. “I will not be bringing any more men to prison. I am not sorry about that.”
Esca nods, understanding. “But what will you do now?”
Marcus takes the paperwork back and sets it aside. “That is not the question,” he says.
“No,” Marcus says. “What will you do now?”
Marcus, it turns out, is personally well-off enough to get them their own ship. Esca had not realized this before, and it is a bit off-putting to learn, but it is a stroke of good fortune that he will gladly accept.
It’s a small ship, though—the selection, apparently, was not very large—and has only the one sleeping cabin. Marcus explains this a bit awkwardly. “I know it’s several days to your home—we can sleep in shifts, or,” his mouth quirks, “perhaps it his my turn to take the floor.”
Esca surveys their new ship, and goes to investigate this single sleeping cabin. The bunk inside is of a relatively comfortable size, probably twice as large as a tiny military bunk. “I had not thought you minded sharing so much,” Esca says mildly.
Marcus trips over his own words insisting that this is not so. The smile that has been hovering behind Esca’s mouth continually for the last two days breaks through again. “All right,” he says, “so that is settled. No further problems?”
Marcus shakes his head. “No.”
They set off that evening. Esca is experiencing some trepidation about returning to his home and finding it surrounded by Romans, and he haltingly expresses this to Marcus.
“We don’t have to stay,” Marcus says. “We don’t have to go at all. Whatever you want.”
“I want to go,” says Esca. “I want to see what it is like. But—I may not want to stay. I cannot say yet.”
“Well,” says Marcus, “it is my turn to follow you wherever you go. If you want to stay, we stay, and if not, we can go—somewhere else.”
“I had a thought of somewhere else we could go,” Esca offers.
Marcus looks up. “Where?”
“You told me you had never met your uncle,” Esca says. This has bothered him since he heard it, the idea that Marcus has so little family, and has never even seen what is left. “Had you ever wanted to?”
Marcus blinks. “I—well, I never had much time, what with the military,” he says slowly. “It would be a long trip. Though I guess not so far from out here as it would have been from Rome.”
“Perhaps we could go visit him, sometime.”
Marcus nods slowly. “Yes,” he says. “Yes, that sounds like a fine idea.”
That night, they bed down together in their new bunk. Marcus seems self-conscious again, and leaves a space between them, but Esca closes it immediately, and Marcus is stiff for only a few seconds before he relaxes and presses close.
“I remember this,” he says into the dark between them. “From when I was ill.”
“A good memory?” Esca asks.
“Yes,” Marcus says in a low voice, and reaches for him. In a moment, they are wrapped up in each other.
Marcus’ mouth finds his in the dark, and Esca kisses him back, holding him tight. It is novel, he thinks, to finally be close enough.