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In the Blood of Others

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The sun was setting over the far-off hills of Rome, gilding the distant laurel leaves and throwing shadows across the eastern plains. In the last of the sunlight, while the evening's fire was just beginning to catch, Caius Martius sat still (or mostly still) and let his arm be stitched. Cominius had washed the wound clean with rough wine, but it was still bleeding freely, and the blood and the wine mixed and flowed down Martius's arm to make his tunic sleeve sticky. In the fire's heat, he was starting to sweat. "How much longer?" he asked, as the thin bone needle drove into his flesh again and again and again. It hurt only a little, compared to the pain of the wound, and anyway he'd had worse when they were fighting the Tarquins. He was seventeen years old, now, and he knew better than to flinch at a little pain.

"How much longer?" returned Cominius, with a low and indulgent laugh that Martius didn't like at all. "You've seen how many stitches I put in; you've seen how much of the wound is left; do your sums and guess it yourself." His thumb slid through the mix of blood and wine, leaving a clean, pale stripe where it had touched, and then he licked his thumb like a tailor and threaded the needle with gut again.

It was a dangerous thing to do, licking another man's blood, even if it was only off of your thumb and even if it was only to thread a needle. You could be reported if anyone saw you doing it, and especially if anyone saw you bothering corpses. On the battlefield, there weren't any tribunes to keep the people safe, so everyone had to watch everyone else just in case.

Martius had a hard time watching Cominius the way he was supposed to be watching, though. When they entered the fray, Cominius became a creature of blood and viscera, blade whirling in his rough hands and dealing death with every blow. Watching Cominius was like watching Mars take the field, and Martius wanted nothing more than to be like him.

The last stitch complete, Cominius tucked away needle and thread and then rubbed his hands clean on his tunic. The half-dried blood left rust-red stains there, and they gleamed dully in the firelight.

*

In Rome, Martius discovered on returning, the tribunes had put six senators to the pyre on suspicion of drinking blood. Their ashes had been scattered over the city from the top of the Tarpeian Rock.

"They were traitors to the Republic," said Volumnia, with her jaw clenched tight and her bony arms folded over her ribs. Martius understood that this meant they were people she hadn't liked.

That was all right, he supposed. The tribunes could kill anyone they wanted, so long as it wasn't anyone his mother liked.

*

The last of the Tarquin allies had gone to ground among the Hernicians, in the low, green foothills of the Appenines. The Roman troops lodged uneasily among the shepherds and the tillers of corn, quartering themselves in cottages and hovels while the country folk slaughtered hogs on the hillsides outside the village. "To feed the striges," said one man, his hands smeared to the wrists with pigs' blood.

The Romans ate no meat or cheese, while they quartered among the people of Hernici. They subsisted on beans and pulses, supping in the afternoon on rough bread and lentil soup while the sun heated the corpses of pigs to bursting. The stink rose to the heavens.

By morning, the bones of the pigs were white, as though they had been suckled clean of meat and marrow. No one spoke of the bones, but the Romans filed past the bare pig-skulls without looking at the ground. Martius kept his hand on his hilt as he marched, and twice he drew on a man who'd jostled him in the ranks. They were all watching one another, searching collars for new bloodstains and surreptitiously examining the beds of each other's nails.

If one of them had stripped the pigs clean, they were all too bloody and dirty to say which it had been.

Striges, the Hernician had said, and Cominius had tilted his head like a tawny owl at the word.

*

"Here," said Martius one evening, while he and Cominius huddled in a tent against the fierce, sudden winds from the sea. They had made their camp on the edge of Volscian lands, huddling in the scant shelter of a line of low hills, but still the wind slipped through the gaps in the tent fabric and lanced each man to the bones. Firelight filtered only faintly through the tent walls, and all around them, the mutter of encamped men rose in a low, head-aching hum.

"Where?" In the dimness, Martius could faintly see Cominius's eyes cracking open.

"Here." Martius pressed his wrist up against Cominius's lips, feeling hot breath against the pulsepoint. "That's what you need, isn't it? To be a good soldier -- you need this."

He felt a little huff of heated breath, not loud enough to be a laugh, and then Cominius clasped his hand. "I was a good soldier when you were a boy, Martius," said Cominius softly, pushing Martius's wrist away. "We fought the Tarquins together, didn't we? You remember how we crushed them -- I'm no enemy to the people --"

Martius could feel his heart pounding, but he didn't feel the least bit afraid. "I don't care about the people," he answered. "I don't care what the tribunes say. I care about killing our enemies, and you're good at that. So drink."

He felt Cominius following the tracks of thick veins, callused fingers pressing lightly where the veins snaked over cords of muscle. Those fingers could have flayed open the skin, stripped the arm to two white bones and cracked them to free the soft marrow inside; although Cominius handled him gently, Martius could feel the strength beneath every faint and searching touch.

He realised, in a dim and distant way, that he was hard beneath his tunic.

Having selected a vein, Cominius drew a talon-like fingernail across it and began to drink.

*

The cold evening along the Volscian coast gave way to a blood-warm morning and then a bitterly hot noon, and the Volscians stood in proud array along the crest of the hill. To Martius's dazed eyes, there seemed to be three of every man, and all of them glittered like golden fish beneath the merciless sun. Heat rose in thick, palpable waves from their armour.

It hurt to look at them. For the first time in his young life, Martius longed to curl up on the campus of battle and go straight to sleep. His right arm ached with an unfamiliar pain, radiating out from the thin scar like the rays of the sun.

Cominius stood at the head of the troop, though, as splendid as Mars himself, and Martius could not bring himself to regret the sacrifice of his own blood.

He couldn't have said whether the Volscians charged first, or whether the Romans did, but when the full-throated roar rose from the men around him, he let himself be swept toward the enemy as though on a titanic wave. His arm throbbed; his head throbbed; his feet pounded the rough seagrass into pulp beneath him.

The Volscian line struck the Roman like a thunderclap, and a shudder ran through the men at the joining-place. Martius found himself chest to chest with a burly Volscian with a bone ring in his ear; he hadn't a buckler, so he seized the ring in his free hand and yanked it out. The Volscian howled until Martius drove his sword through that gaping throat.

He could smell blood all around him, and the smell made him dizzy. He wanted to kneel by the Volscian and press his lips to those lips, draw gout after gout of blood from that broken throat until his stomach ached; he wanted to --

A swarthy Volscian boy landed a lucky blow to Martius's side, and he belled like a hunting hound at the delicious, searing agony of it. "You!" he shouted, and flung himself at the enemy's chest. "You, I'll tear to pieces --"

"Try your luck, Roman," the Volscian laughed, and he was still laughing when Martius carved a crescent on his cheek.

"Tell me your name," Martius snarled, as the Volscian's hilt locked with his and forced his blade away. "Tell me who I'm about to kill."

"Tullus Aufidius," said the Volscian, as low and intimate as a friend.

The press of men drove them apart then, but Martius heard the ring of the Volscian's laughter in his dreams.

*

The Volscians pressed the Romans hard, that summer, driving them back even to the walls of Rome. Blood-drinkers, they shouted; Bloody spawn of the Tarquins -- "They're right," muttered Brutus, his tribune's robes ash-stained. "Sixty men we've burned in Rome, hundreds more in the field, and we're no nearer to rousting them."

"And what would you have us do?" demanded old Menenius Agrippa. "At my time of life, I can't be lifting the lips on all of my acquaintances to see if they've got pointed teeth, or --"

"Claws," said Martius absently, and he felt the attention of the entire room turning to him.

He wished, suddenly, that he hadn't said anything. He'd been sitting with his cheek against the cool marble, pretending not to be there, and now he was aware that they were all expecting him to speak, the senators and tribunes and generals and everyone, and Cominius was looking at him with his brows raised from the consul's chair.

"Claws," said Martius, finally. "No wonder you haven't found any."

With that, he rose from his seat and stalked from the room. His mother would lecture him later about it, ask what he thought he was doing leaving all the influential men gaping like landed fish, but to hell with them, anyway. The Volscians were outside the walls, and Martius wanted to watch them parade.

He climbed to the wall overlooking the Capitoline Hill, where the ancient trees nestled against the sun-touched stones. This place, at least, was familiar; if he looked in on the city, he could watch the aediles flinging ashes from the Tarpeian rock, and if he looked outward, he could see the field on which the Volscians camped.

To the west, among a thousand other Volscians, Martius thought he caught sight of a familiar, swarthy face. At first, he rubbed his eyes against the tricks of the light -- but then the Volscian waved, and he felt a heat in his belly that had nothing to do with the sun.

*

The Romans pushed the Volscians back all the way to Antium by autumn, and with the short, cool days of the harvest season, neither had any time for war.

By autumn, Martius had earnt three new scars from his Volscian friend, and he'd dealt four in his turn.

*

When Martius was twenty-one, a married man with a young son whom he seldom saw and wife whom he seldom spoke to, the grain riots began. The starvation was quite bad enough, but rumours came up from the coast that starving men had taken to eating their dead, and of course that sent all of the plebeians into a panic.

"It's nothing, of course," said Volumnia, who sat at her weaving with her heavy-knuckled hands working warp and weft. "They'll burn a few bastards and feel better about themselves, and then a war will distract them."

Virgilia said nothing, but Valeria nodded as though she knew the faintest damn thing about politics. "And of course, when the wet weather ends, we'll have less grain-rot to contend with." If she'd been a soldier, too, she'd have been the son Volumnia had always wanted.

Martius couldn't bear them. He couldn't bear any of them -- not the politicians, women, not the plebeians, not the whole damn republic. If he could have changed his couch for a stony bed, his full belly for an empty one, he would have done it gladly; he would have accepted any privation, secure in the knowledge that he could suffer with honour. While the women wove and gossiped, he sat skinning a bergamot orange until the flesh fell apart in his hands.

Word came the next day of the Volscians massing at Corioli, and Volumnia didn't bother to hide her relief at seeing her son go out again.

*

"Make me like you," said Martius, his broad hands spread over a map in the tent that he and Cominius shared. Cominius was a general and a consul, and had no need to share his tent -- but Martius thought he had grown used to the warmth of Martius's skin against his, the taste of his blood and the cozy thrumming of heart against heart in the darkness. Now, with the other commanders gone to their tents and the map of Corioli lying between the two old comrades, Martius looked up to meet Cominius's eyes.

Cominius drew his brows together. "Like me," he answered, carefully. "You've thought about this, haven't you? You never think of these things, Martius --"

"What's there to think?" Martius asked. "I know what you're like, when you've got blood in you. I want that -- he'll be here, and this time, I want him."

The map still lay between them, but Cominius laid his hand over Martius's on the stained vellum. Martius could feel a pulse humming at the point of contact, but whether it was his or Cominius's, he couldn't have said; there was sweat wetting the cove beneath his hand, and that was his own. "You want his blood," whispered Cominius, in that low, coaxing register that he used to charm Hernicians into baring their throats.

Martius swallowed. He wanted Cominius to drag those talon-bright nails over the veins on the back of his hand, to slit open the slim, straight veins at his wrists and pour his own blood into the gashes. "I want him," he said, as though that answered anything at all. "I want to be the best damn soldier I can be, and I want that bastard Aufidius between my teeth."

On teeth, Cominius caught a sound like a sob behind his lips. "You'll be hungry," he whispered, and turned his own wrist over to bare the pale underside. Martius had always known that his own arms were sun-darkened above and soft beneath, but it had never occurred to him that Cominius's wrists were the same.

Cominius had a thick scar across his elbow; "I didn't choose it," he said, when he caught Martius eying the ridge of flesh. "It was done to me."

"I'm choosing it," Martius said. "Do it to me."

When Cominius touched a fingertip to that pale, vulnerable skin, his nail was long and hooked, like the claw of a bird. "You'll be hungry," he whispered. "You'll be hungrier than you've ever been in your life."

"I've got all of Corioli to feed me," said Martius -- and with a stifled sound of pain, Cominius carved himself open.

*

The gates of Corioli closed behind Martius's back. He could hear the low boom of heavy wood on stone as the doors fell closed against the frame; he could hear the bar slotting into place. He could hear what the Volscians were calling him under their breaths.

With a smile like a knife-blade, he turned to the massed Volscian soldiers.

*

Later, Martius wouldn't remember where he'd first met Aufidius -- whether they'd circled each other, snarling like dogs, in the forum, or whether they'd clashed briefly in the gatehouse, elbows crashing against the close walls. He would remember the taste of Aufidius's blood on his tongue, and how Aufidius had bared his throat for a long, perfect moment before turning to flee.

*

The people of Rome took Martius into their arms, garlanding him with bays and shouting, Coriolanus! Coriolanus! until the name resounded from the walls and stones. They begged him to stand for consul; they begged him to strip down and wear a white toga in the marketplace, and to ask for their voices like a supplicant rather than a conqueror.

They'd done the same when Cominius returned from war, and he had a consulship to show for it. Martius remembered how easily he'd slipped on that rough, chalk-white wrap and drawn it aside to show his wounds; every man in Rome had probably seen that long, thick scar at the crook of his elbow, where the Tarquins' man had cut him to turn him -- and for that scar, they hadn't burned him in the forum. No, they'd put their voices in those wounds and made them tell exactly the story that Cominius wanted them to tell.

That much, Martius knew, he could never do.

"I won't stand for consul," he told his mother, when she pressed him. "I don't want the damn plebeians pawing at my scars."

"You may never have the chance again," said Volumnia, with her narrow arms folded over her narrow chest. Martius looked nothing at all like her, with her neat patrician nose and her fine, slim shoulders; she was a creature hewn of stone.

"If I never have the chance again," said Martius, deliberately, "It will be too soon."

Beneath the lintel, Brutus stood awaiting their permission to enter. His wax-myrtle eyes flicked between mother and son, taking in their poses with every glance -- the angle of Martius's hand on his hip, the way Volumnia's smallest finger tapped an irritable tattoo on her forearm. "Am I interrupting?" he asked at last.

"Only a trivial conversation," Volumnia replied. Her voice was as smooth and as placid as oil, as tranquil as the calm summer seas. "What is your business, tribune?"

"It's your son," said Brutus, with a placatory tone that made the hair on Martius's arms stand on end.

"He won't stand for consul --"

"It's not that," said Brutus. "It's -- ah. I do hate to do this."

When Martius looked up, the aediles were beginning to file in. "Go, boy," said Volumnia, her smallest finger still tap-tap-tapping her arm. Waiting for her son to prove, for once in his life, that he was the kind of man she had wanted him to be.

He wasn't. He was the kind of man she had raised him to be.

The aediles were slow to draw, and it undid them.

*

Outside the walls of Antium, the Volsces had placed basins of blood; long abandonment had left the blood congealing against the sides of the pottery shells, but Martius dragged his fingertips through the thick, clotted liquid and licked them clean. The blood tasted uncomfortably old, like meat gone bad, and he spit it out and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

The Hernicians gave us pigs, he remembered, and drew a mud-plastered fold of his toga closer about his face. He had been walking many days, napping in ditches and waking rain-dewed, and his beard was thick and matted about his lips. Most of the matting was mud -- most of it.

Slipping through the still streets, bare feet ghosting over hard-packed dirt and patches of tile, Martius asked at every doorway, "Where is Aufidius?" Some laughed at him, and others drew the door closed at his Latin; some offered him scraps from the table, as though he were no more than a mad beggar.

Perhaps he was only a mad beggar, soliciting the name of his enemy from strangers, but he knew no other thing to be.

The house of Aufidius opened itself to him, granting him a place at the fireside and a bowl of watery soup with no salt in it. "The master's a charitable man," an old slave confided; "He's a regular tyrant!" snorted a younger slave, but she slipped Martius an overcooked leg of some gamy bird when no one was looking.

Aufidius himself looked well -- out of place, among his handsomely-dressed dinner guests, but Martius thought it suited him. He had always been brown as a nut from sun and wind, dark-haired and grey-eyed and laughing, and in a patrician's toga, it was only too clear that he ought to be in the field. Something of the soldier coloured his movements, and the manners of the campus touched his laughter; it was not a laugh suited for the couches and the courtyards.

Martius wanted to swallow that laugh whole.

"And who's this?" asked Aufidius in a carrying voice, once his guests had begun to disperse and the slaves had begun to clear the courtyard of debris.

"An old beggar," said the young slave; "A soldier, I should think," said the older slave.

Martius straightened, then, and drew back the fold of his toga that covered his face. "Caius Martius Coriolanus," he answered.

At once, Aufidius drew a long dagger and held it between them -- low, close; only a gesture of self-defence, to remind Martius that he, too, had claws. "You haven't killed me yet," he said, "And I don't think you're the type for subterfuge. Make your case, then."

"I want you to join me against Rome," said Martius. "They would have burned me alive and thrown my ashes from the Tarpeian rock -- and you know that."

"I do know it," replied Aufidius. "Because you're like the Tarquins."

"I am," said Martius. When he reached for Aufidius's wrist, the Volscian did not resist him, and when he plucked the dagger free, Aufidius let it go without a struggle. "And I'd like you to be the same."

Aufidius tilted his head at the prospect -- like a bird would, Martius thought. Like the striges do. His blood pulsed hot beneath his skin, and Martius longed to set it free.

*

The walls of Rome lay red-washed in the autumn sunlight, with the bald face of the Tarpeian rock stretching high above the parapets. "How do they look from the outside?" asked Aufidius, breath hot against Martius's ear.

"Like they look from the inside," said Martius. "Bloody."

When Aufidius laughed, his teeth flashed red in the sun.