Actions

Work Header

Murder in Barbarikon

Work Text:

The ship docked as the sun was setting on Barbarikon.

It was the furthest east Marcus had ever been; a busy city on the coast of Scythia, many days’ sail from Arabia, and Arabia a long distance from Rome. The stone walls of the city were stained with orange light. Stone and clay buildings stacked haphazardly up the hillside, outlined in the far distance by a shadowy, jungly ridge. Lights speckled the city and more sprang to life as Marcus watched.

“It’s beautiful,” said Esca, his shoulder pressed to Marcus’s.

The port itself was a long series of jagged stone docks slapped by dark waves. Dozens of small fishing ships jostled for space and sailors called to each other across the water in their native languages. Following a cry in Latin and a report on the drums, their own Roman vessel shipped its oars and slid closer to the long dock that could accommodate them.

The other passengers on the ship started jostling toward gangplank before it was even lowered. Marcus and Esca drew back, toward the prow of the ship, and Esca turned back to watch the glimmering spread of the city. Marcus just looked at Esca under cover of the lowering dusk.

Esca caught him looking anyway. He smiled. “I must look so wide-eyed,” he said. “But although we’ve seen so many places since we set sail from Portus Dubris, each city is more remarkable than the last.” He turned back and pointed up the hillside into the fading light. “See the top on that house? I never saw curls like that in Rome, or even Arabia.”

Marcus looked away from Esca’s freckles and said, “I’m glad to be sharing these remarkable sights with you, my friend.”

“You’re not even looking,” said Esca, smiling still. He pointed back across the water. “And see that villa. See how the walls glitter in the light.”

Marcus finally looked; the setting sun was glinting off of a pattern set into the upper walls of the house. It was surely beautiful. Esca kept turning to look at it curiously as they finally climbed down from the ship and waited for their trunks and their companions at the edge of the stone docks.

Marcus and Esca were accompanying two Roman traders on a business venture in Barbarikon. Appius Volaginius Saenus and Tertius Caecius Decianus had personally requested Marcus’s presence, hoping his celebrity would impress the other parties involved; Marcus personally doubted this, and after weeks of travel together, Appius and Tertius doubted it as well. Nonetheless, Appius greeted Marcus and Esca with a smile as he disembarked, and Tertius merely said, “We’re hours late for the lunch our host promised us.”

“All the guests are arriving by sea,” Marcus pointed out. “Our host will be understanding.”

“It’s my stomach that’s not understanding,” muttered Tertius.

Appius and Tertius’s servants loaded their trunks onto a wagon at the far end of the stone dock, and before they were done tying them down, a trim young man in a Greek-style toga appeared and started talking to them. Marcus craned to hear their conversation and was surprised when one of the servants, Camillus, trotted back and asked Marcus, “Don’t you speak Greek? Sir?”

The young man bowed as Marcus approached, Esca following him in step. “Good afternoon, I am Sujanbir, a servant of the house of Piteras,” said the young man in excellent Greek. He was as brown as all the Barbarikan fisherman and had not a bit of Greek in his look, but the world was wide, and Marcus was hardly surprised. Piteras was a Greek name; clearly his master had taught him the language and dress. “Are you the traders from Rome who have come to visit my master?”

Marcus introduced them all in Greek, making Tertius frown at his inflection, and Sujanbir smiled. “Then please follow me to my master’s house,” he said. “It’s a short walk up the hill.”

Marcus’s knee was almost back to its old strength, but even a short walk up such uneven streets could cause a little pain. He kept his head down and concentrated on walking and exchanging pleasantries with Sujanbir. He didn’t look up at the buildings around them until Esca exclaimed softly, “Are we going to that villa?” Marcus glanced up and saw another glimpse of those gleaming walls through a gap in the alley ahead.

Marcus repeated the question to Sujanbir, who smiled again and said, “You noticed my master’s house from the water! He’ll be very pleased.”

The streets widened as they ascended the hill and sweet-smelling trees spilled out over garden walls. “My master tends his own gardens with a devotion unlike any in Barbarikon, and that’s why his home is the most beautiful in the city,” said Sujanbir.

Marcus and Esca had heard such praise frequently on their travels, but this time it seemed entirely deserved. The villa’s encircling wall was set with an intricate mosaic of glass, causing the beautiful reflections they’d seen from the port. Statues were tucked into symmetrical nooks in the wall. A wide gate onto the street was made of iron, twisted in a clever filigree that Marcus thought the blacksmith in Calleva would be very interested to see; it almost looked like flowers.

Through the gate was a wide, flat courtyard encircled with flowering bushes. Sujanbir led them to the front entrance, which let into a wide entry hall with a tiled floor. Another servant met them here, bowed, and said in Greek-accented Latin, “Our master apologizes for his delay in receiving you; he is meeting with his Chera guests, whose ship arrived only recently.”

“Of course,” said Appius. “We await our host’s convenience.”

The other servant bowed again. “Allow me to show you to your rooms in the meantime. Your luggage has already been sent there. My master will be pleased to meet you shortly.”

The guest quarters were down a long hall to the right of the entryway. Appius and Tertius’s rooms were first on the hall, then Marcus and Esca’s facing each other further down; their servants would be housed in the servant quarters. At the far end of the hall was a little door with window in it, through which Marcus could hear birdsong.

Their chambers were clay-walled and hung with little banners in blue and green. Marcus looked around at his accommodations; he had been given a wood-framed bed with a thick mattress, a little table with a water pitcher, and his trunk was already waiting on a table in the corner. He could hear Esca’s approving words to the servant through the open door to the hall.

On the voyage across the Erythraean Sea Marcus had wished for a bed, but at least in their hammocks below decks he and Esca had been side by side. When the sea had been choppy Marcus had reached out and anchored the edge of Esca’s hammock to his own and slept soundly that way. In this sweetly perfumed chamber, safe from weather and nosy sailors, Marcus keenly felt the distance between them.

“Is everything to your liking?” said the servant, startling Marcus. Esca stood behind him in the doorway, smiling.

“Yes, of course,” said Marcus automatically, smiling back at Esca. Then, remembering a question he’d had earlier, he added, “Your Greek is very good, and Sujanbir’s as well; my mother was Greek and I’m always pleased to hear the language. How did you come to speak it so well?”

“My master’s father was Greek, and he requires all his servants to speak it,” said the man. “He takes great pride in our ability to speak to our guests from far away.”

“Your master must be a remarkable man,” said Marcus.

“He’s heard the same about you,” said the servant. “Now, if you please, I must prepare the table for dinner tonight. Please rest; my master won’t keep you waiting long.”

 

Marcus sat with a sigh once the man had gone. He squeezed his aching knee without thinking and in a moment, Esca was kneeling before him, pushing aside the edge of his tunic and gently probing Marcus’s scar.

“Ouch,” said Marcus, and pushed his hand away. “Esca, you don’t have to. It’s no worse than usual.”

“I thought a sea voyage wouldn’t be good for it,” said Esca grimly. He got up and sat next to Marcus on the bed instead, but kept frowning at Marcus’s knee like it had offended him.

“I’ll have the next few days to do nothing but rest my knee,” soothed Marcus. “Weeks, maybe. It will be fine. But thank you, my friend,” added Marcus sincerely. “You don’t have to care for me by yourself anymore, you know.”

“With no doctor I trust nearby, I certainly do,” said Esca, but there was no fire in it. He was already looking around Marcus’s room with interest, a true smile on his face; he was practically beaming. “The further we get from Rome, the more beautiful things are,” Esca said. “Have you ever noticed that?”

“I have,” said Marcus. He had still never seen anything as beautiful as Esca in his native Caledonia.

Marcus had been sure that Esca would want to leave Calleva, so Marcus himself took them to Rome; then Marcus thought Esca would want to leave Rome, so Marcus accepted a trip out here. Esca seemed as happy here as he had in Arabia and Rome and Calleva, which was to say, Marcus felt that there was still something missing. Marcus couldn’t find it if Esca never told him what it was, but he could certainly keep searching until maybe he found it by accident.

 

Marcus, Esca, Appius and Tertius were summoned after a short wait for dinner with their host. The meal was held in a long, fine hall with a low sort of table and padded benches. The other guests were already seated and sipping from little painted bowls of soup, conversing quietly.

Their host rose from his seat at the end of the table and embraced each of them. He was a short, heavyset man with dark, curly hair and friendly features, middle-aged or older, and he wore a Greek-style tunic like his staff. “I am Didar Piteras,” he said grandly in Latin. “I welcome you to my home. And which of you is Greek?” he said.

“I am,” said Marcus, and received a hearty pat on the shoulder. “On my mother’s side, sir.”

“And I on my father’s,” said Didar, beaming. “You and I will have much to discuss. But come, let me introduce my other guests.”

He walked them around the table and introduced them. “Mr. Navyan and Mr. Rakshayan from the Chera Kingdom, to the south,” he said, and the two men who rose smiled perfunctorily and seated themselves again. They had dark skin and very fine embroidered clothing. The Chera kingdom was far to the south, in the Deccan, Marcus knew, and these men must be very valuable envoys of their kingdom to be dressed so finely.

Beside them were, “Mr. Geng Minsheng, Miss Pan Mani and Lord Fai of the Yuezhi,” who also rose and bowed deeply. Both the men had long black hair, half up in a tight bun, and the woman between them had her hair intricately arranged around a flower-shaped ornament. She gave Marcus a little half smile as she bowed, and he smiled too, hoping that boded well for the negotiations.

They circled the table and their host gestured for the Romans to sit across from the Yuezhi. Didar Piteras himself sat beside his wife, introduced as Gul Mina Nizamani, across from the Chera envoys.

As Marcus had expected, the conversation turned immediately to business. The Chera had the potential to bring many ships from their kingdom loaded with spices and rare metals. The Yuezhi controlled safe trade routes over land through Scythia and Thys and access to precious fabrics and gemstones. Appius and Tertius traded largely in wine and Libyan fabrics, and they had trade connections throughout the Mediterranean and Erythraean Seas, and their ships could carry the good provided by the Chera and the Yuezhi if this negotiation was successful.

Their dinner conversation was conducted mostly in Latin, with Pan Mani translating much of it for the benefit of her companions, but Lord Fai and the Chera had a more precise grasp of the language than Marcus had expected. Marcus helped translate requests between the guests and the servants, who seemed to only speak Greek and a variety of local languages. Didar Piteras beamed at Marcus each time he heard him speaking Greek.

Despite the unusual challenge of translation, the business talk was all very dry to Marcus. The food, however, was delicious.

Lord Fai and Navyan seemed to have bonded over a joke about the fabric trade, and Lord Fai laughed and bumped Navyan’s shoulder jovially. This caused Pan Mani to cast a look at him, but the goodwill with which Navyan took this gesture did not escape her notice; she left Lord Fai to his high spirits and smiled down into her second course.

Esca had been fairly quiet, taking in the scene with pleasant attentiveness, and at this he leaned slightly across the table and said to Geng Minsheng in Latin, “I can see your Lord takes easily to this type of function.”

Geng Minsheng smiled politely and glanced at Mani, who set down her bowl and replied, in accented Latin, “Minsheng’s study of your language is very poor.” She turned to Minsheng and repeated Esca’s question in their own language. The man looked very serious until he realized what she was saying, and then his face broke into a handsome smile which won an answering grin from Esca.

“Yes,” said Minsheng, in Latin, and then translated by Mani: “Dinner is his favorite part of our engagements, and jokes are his favorite part of dinner.”

Esca and Marcus laughed appreciatively. “Latin posed difficulty for me, too,” said Esca. “I was no longer a child and had to learn in a great hurry. But as Marcus says, Latin is forever adopting words from other languages. When I make a mistake I say it is merely a new word.”

Minsheng and Mani were so charmed by this that they caught Lord Fai’s attention to repeat it to him. He laughed delightedly, passed it along to the Chera on his other side, and soon the whole table was chuckling and tipping their cups to Esca. Even Appius and Tertius toasted him.

This led Minsheng to ask Esca his mother tongue, which in turn led to Esca tracing a map on the glossy wooden table with a wine-dipped finger, upon which each guest marked out their relative birthplace. By the time dinner was over, Marcus was comfortably drunk and full of Barbarikan food and listening to Esca talk about the best parts of his homeland. Esca left out the darkness and pain that had dogged him, almost always at the hands of the Roman Empire; they were here on a Roman mission, after all. But when he described his meeting with Marcus, his eyes danced.

 

After dinner Marcus was accustomed to lying down and perhaps napping off the drink, but tonight their host stood up and announced, “And now a reviving walk. There is a garden by the harbor belonging to a close friend of mine, and he has invited me to bring you there and show you the beauty of our city along the way.” As his guests, they couldn’t possibly decline, so the Romans stifled their groans as they got up and put their sandals back on.

The sun had fully set when they stepped outside, but despite the heavy darkness the air had barely cooled. A strong, warm breeze blew up the hill from the harbor. The Yuezhi followed their host closely, listening to him expound in mixed Latin and Greek about the flora of Barbarikon, and Marcus could hear Fai translating to the others from the Greek. Marcus saw Esca’s interest in their conversation; he nudged Esca’s shoulder and nodded for him to go join them. A dinner, friendly company and endless smiles from Esca; Marcus felt like the richest man in Barbarikon.

Marcus fell in step with Appius, Tertius and the Chera traders, who chatted as they walked about how Barbarikon compared to other cities they’d visited, a friendly competition to see who could describe the most exotic place. Marcus only half-listened. Half of the places they described he had been during his service, and half he would visit someday with Esca; ranking them seemed to be beside the point. Instead, he drank in the night air, the gardens and rooftops overflowing with flowers, and the gentle rhythm of the waves as they walked closer to the harbor.

Didar had been modest in describing his friend’s beautiful garden. It was half the size of Uncle Aquila’s villa and sat right at the edge of the busiest market, with a high wall to keep out the common folk. There were tiers of planters set into the wall and a beautiful pattern of flowering bushes and trees, some of which still bore fruit, even this late in the season. Marcus eased down onto a stone bench and stretched his leg a little.

Didar clearly enjoyed talking about plants much more than he enjoyed talking about trading. Marcus wasn’t surprised that he’d decided to continue his father’s lucrative business, but now that he had a fortune, couldn’t he devote his time to gardening, instead? Marcus had never had to choose to end his career as a centurion, since that choice had been made for him the wheels of a chariot, but since his journey with Esca he’d realized that he couldn’t have done it forever. And now he was traveling with Esca and he had everything he wanted. Well, nearly everything. His feelings for Esca were another matter; he couldn’t bring himself to be selfish in that way, to impose his desires upon Esca, when Esca was fully happy for the first time since he was a child. But even if Marcus couldn’t indulge himself completely, he wished others even a measure of his happiness.

Esca saw Marcus sitting and came to join him on the bench. “Didar is a very enthusiastic gardener,” said Esca, amused. “If you were impressed by my knowledge of herbs in Caledonia, merely ask Didar about local varieties of irises.”

“I have a feeling we’ll be hearing more about many kinds of plants,” said Marcus. “But I admit,” he said, lowering his voice, “I expected him to be more unpleasant. Most of the merchants and procurers of Rome only talk about two things: themselves and money.”

“I haven’t heard Didar mention money once,” said Esca. “Except as regards to the price of seeds.”

“I think our Roman friends will soon wish he would talk more about their businesses,” said Marcus. He glanced over at Tertius, who was sulking under a drooping tree of staggering beauty. Didar was patting a tree trunk across the garden and explaining something to Navyan.

“Let them deal with business,” said Esca, rolling his shoulders. “We’re here to enjoy ourselves.” Marcus felt himself flushing just looking at him; he was so beautiful. Marcus was grateful for the low lantern light to hide his face.

“Yes, we are,” agreed Marcus. “Well, and we’re supposed to help secure this deal,” he added belatedly. “We’re on commission, after all. Senator Scipio gave very specific instructions.”

“Yes, we’re to impress them with our adventure to find the Eagle,” said Esca, skeptically. “This far from Hadrian’s Wall, I think they’ll find our struggles rather insignificant. The Yuezhi traveled for months over land just to reach Barbarikon, you know.”

“Even Mani?” asked Marcus, curious. She was so carefully put-together, and all three of them looked like they’d just been taken down from a shelf.

“They’re nomads,” said Esca, smiling. He found some of Marcus’s Roman expectations quaint. “She has had a different life than most centurion’s wives. Or even mistresses.”

Marcus blushed even deeper under Esca’s amused gaze. He said defensively, “I’ve met more women than just wives and mistresses, you know. I was merely impressed; that would be a hard journey for anyone.”

Esca just smiled fondly and pressed their shoulders together, looking out at the garden. Appius had pulled Tertius into conversation with Rakshayan, who was nodding intently.

“Do you think our journey was insignificant?” said Marcus, before he could stop himself.

“Of course not,” said Esca immediately. He turned and looked closely at Marcus now, and Marcus tried to put on an unconcerned smile, but it failed as it always did when Esca was searching his face.

“We fought together and nearly died,” Esca said. “And we swore to stay together. That oath means more to me than anything, you know that.”

“And to me as well,” said Marcus quietly.

“Good,” said Esca. “I merely think that the only way anyone else could understand would be to go on such a journey with us. And while I like our fellow guests well enough, I don’t like them enough to share a horse with them over two hundred miles of hills and hollows. While running for our lives.”

Marcus had to laugh. “I’m not sure you even like me enough to do that again,” he said.

“Of course I do,” said Esca without hesitation.

When Esca said things like that, and looked at Marcus with unreserved affection, Marcus occasionally felt misplaced hope despite his better judgment. He had to look away. “I thank you, my friend,” he said simply, looking blindly into the flowerbed across the path. “I hope we can travel together a long time without anyone trying to kill us again.”

Esca sighed softly. “I hope so too, my friend.”

 

Marcus was exhausted by the time they finished their hike back up to the villa. He declined to be attended for the night, even by Esca, who came to squeeze his arm, wish him good dreams, and frown at his knee before retiring himself.

But despite Marcus’s weariness he could not fall asleep. He lay on his soft bed, in a quiet house with no rowdy sailors and no choppy waves, and thought only of Esca lying only a few walls away.

Marcus got out of bed, paced once the length of the room, and suddenly needed the fresh breeze on his face. Taking his candlestick from the stand by the bed, he opened the door and stepped out into the quiet hallway. The hall to the left led back to the entry hall and kitchens, but to the right Marcus had seen another of their host’s beloved gardens through the grate in the door. It unlocked with a simple clasp and Marcus’s mind felt calmer as soon as he closed the door behind him.

The grass was soft and dry under his sandaled feet, the sky was stained with stars, and he could no longer hear the quiet sounds of a busy villa at night, only his own breathing. There was a stone seat carved in the shape of a crouching owl and Marcus sat, resting his candle beside him.

Esca loved him; even in his moments of greatest self-pity Marcus never doubted that.

But Marcus had no reason to believe that Esca liked men. Even more importantly, Esca deserved better than to be pined after by his shield-mate, his friend, his patron. Marcus knew that some of Esca’s previous masters had wanted him, although they hadn’t discussed it with any specificity. Marcus wouldn’t allow himself to be like them.

Marcus kept coming back to the thought that if he set Esca free, not just from his patronage but from his friendship, then Esca would be able to go where he liked with who he liked. He wouldn’t be limited by Marcus’s limp or Roman features or by his persistent, concealed desire for Esca.

Marcus had had these thoughts since they’d left the Seal People’s battlefield, weary but victorious, and they’d followed him all the way to Barbarikon. He hadn’t fully voiced them to Esca. When he suggested in a casual manner that Esca might like to travel ahead on some occasion or other, and enjoy himself a little without Marcus, Esca immediately dismissed the idea every time. Marcus knew he could go on forever without a change, traveling with Esca, grateful for everything he had. But should they?

And yet asked this simple question, the question of separating from Esca forever, Marcus couldn’t face it. He loved Esca, and Esca loved him. He felt disloyal even thinking such a thing. No, they would go on this way together, and it would be good enough. Better than Marcus had ever hoped or expected, certainly. And a better life than Esca probably expected since the murder of his family.

A bird called in the distance and Marcus closed his eyes a moment. It called again, and he suddenly realized it wasn’t a bird, but a woman, crying out from somewhere inside the house. Marcus snatched up his candle, now burnt down almost to the base, and hurried through the dark garden and back to the side door, seeking the source of the sound.

As soon as he opened the door the screaming grew much louder. It must have been going on for some time, as every door on the hall was thrown open and every room empty, including Marcus and Esca’s. Marcus followed the noise to the entry hall then took a wrong turn due to the echo on the stone. He found himself at the door to the empty, darkened dining hall, growing more and more anxious with the sound of the woman’s grief, when Esca appeared at his left and grabbed Marcus’s arm.

“Marcus, where have you been?” said Esca urgently.

“I was out in the garden,” said Marcus. “I couldn’t sleep. What’s happened?”

“Someone’s been killed,” said Esca. Marcus’s heart dropped. “Come on.” Esca pulled him onward, toward the kitchen.

The kitchen was crowded with guests of the house, all of them dressed in their nightclothes and huddled, looking drawn, around one corner of the kitchen. The wails filled the kitchen and reverberated off the stone floors. Esca shouldered through the crowd unapologetically and Marcus followed.

Gul Mina was draped across a slumped figure on the floor. It was Didar Piteras, her husband, lying in a congealing pool of blood. He was wearing dark robes, but Marcus thought he could see three or four knife wounds, all to the lower back, and no injuries to the hands or what he could see of his face: a sneak attack, quickly executed, but not quite professional. Someone with more experience killing could have done it in one stroke.

Marcus glanced over at Esca and found him looking with shadowed eyes around at the other guests. Several of them, in particular Pan Mani and Navyan, were giving Marcus and Esca hard looks back.

Ah. They were all suspects, of course.

“So who did this?” demanded Tertius in Latin, sending Gul Mina into another cascade of wails.

Marcus looked around for a servant to help her, and when he didn’t see one, he knelt down at her side with a little effort and rubbed her back, murmuring in Greek. There was a lot of blood soaking into her silk robe and smearing on her hands. He gently eased her off of Didar’s corpse, coaxing her to sit upright so he could begin wiping the blood from her hands with a rag from the counter.

“I didn’t do it,” said Rakshayan stiffly. “I had no quarrel with the man.”

“Not I,” said Navyan. He held up his hands, and his right hand was folded in on itself and had a slight tremor. Of course; Marcus had noticed that he’d kept that hand tucked in his sleeve.

“Navyan has a weak hand,” explained Rakshayan. “He can’t hold a knife.”

This seemed to be good enough for Tertius, who turned toward the Yuezhi for their excuses.

“None of my party,” said Pan Mani. “We three were having a conference in Lord Fai’s chamber when we heard Gul Mina’s scream.”

“All three of you?” asked Tertius, highly dubious.

“Yes,” said Mani crisply.

Appius held up his hands a said loudly, “Tertius, you saw me come out of my room at the same time you did. And one of the female servants of this house can vouch for me before that. She was kind enough to keep me company.” He pointed at the Yuezhi. “But as for this conference-”

“And you, Marcus Flavius Aquila?” interrupted Pan Mani. Her tone was perfectly neutral, but all eyes turned to Marcus, who suddenly realized he’d been out of his bed and unaccounted for most of the night. “When companions and I stopped by your room after we heard the screams, we found it sitting empty.”

Marcus’s hand stilled on Gul Mina’s back. That had been why his door was open; he’d shut it after himself when he left. A murmur rose in the room.

Before Marcus could compose a good lie or sufficiently explain the truth, Esca interrupted. “He was with me all night,” he said. “In my bed.”

Shocked, Marcus nearly protested, but the only appalled faces in the assemblage were Appius and Tertius’s. The others merely looked relieved or disappointed that Marcus had an alibi. Esca’s own face was unreadable, and he looked away when Marcus met his eyes.

“You seem surprised that he said that,” Lord Fai said to Marcus.

“Wh- where I come from, it’s not spoken of,” said Marcus honestly. “Two men, in that way.”

“How curious,” said Lord Fai. Marcus gave him a fraction of a smile, which he returned.

“Perhaps one of the servants killed him, then,” said Tertius.

“How do we know it wasn’t you?” said Rakshayan, with a friendly smile but hard eyes.

“Because I stood to benefit too much from this trade deal, of course,” snapped Tertius. “As for my alibi, I have none; I was sleeping, as you all should have been.” He gave Marcus a dirty look, which Marcus returned coldly from where he knelt on the floor; as if Marcus’s imagined bedroom habits mattered when there was a man dead.

Gul Mina choked back a few sobs and said something quietly to Marcus. He listened carefully, but she was speaking her own language; when he gently prompted her in Greek, she replied in that tongue, “Send a slave to the doctor, to see if he can be saved.”

Esca seemed to have understood enough of her statement for it to make his face fall in sympathy. Marcus translated for the benefit of the others. Tertius told Gul Mina, “Someone’s already been sent; it was the boy with the blue eyes, I saw him leave myself.” Marcus told her this and resumed stroking her back.

Pan Mani spoke and broke the quiet. “Let us retire to the dining room,” she said. “A servant can bring us tea and we can talk more comfortably about what happens now.”

One by one the guests filed out. Esca waited behind but Marcus shook his head gently; he needed to be in the dining room hearing what the others were saying. Esca nodded, understanding, and left. Now only Marcus, Gul Mina, and a cold corpse remained.

“Ma’am, your husband’s dead,” said Marcus gently, in Greek.

“He can’t be,” she said, but all the rage and grief had gone out of her voice, and she sagged against Marcus’s shoulder. She knew the truth already.

“The doctor will see him, like you said,” said Marcus, “but ma’am, I know what death looks like.”

A servant appeared in the doorway. She was young and pretty; Marcus wondered if she was the one who had kept Appius company. She rushed to Gul Mina’s side and embraced her. Marcus got up from the floor. He wondered if he could ask the servant about Appius without insulting her, but he couldn’t bother her now, anyway; she was caring for her grieving mistress. Instead he let himself out of the kitchen and joined the rest of the guests in the dining room. They sat in the same seats that they had before, but everyone looked far more tired and suspicious. Marcus took his seat next to Esca.

“A servant is seeing to our hostess,” he told the group.

“About time,” said Tertius.

“We’ve been discussing the future of the trade deal,” Esca told Marcus, in Latin. Quietly, he added in British, “and pretending not to point fingers.”

“I’m also for continuing the negotiations,” Rakshayan said. “Too much is at stake. Our host cared about the success of our deal, too; he would have wanted us to continue.”

“We may be asked to leave,” said Esca. “The household will be grieving.”

“We may not be allowed to leave,” Mani pointed out. “Someone in this house killed him. His family will want to know who.”

“We don’t know that it was someone staying here,” said Tertius. “It could have been an intruder from outside.”

“It could have, but it wasn’t,” said Esca. “He didn’t defend himself. He knew the one who did this and didn’t expect the attack.”

A servant appeared in the doorway and announced that the doctor and the city guards had arrived. Everyone at the table tensed, even Marcus, who had nothing to hide, but the guards were calm and respectful, asking for the names of the guests and permission to search their rooms. They were escorted back towards the guest quarters by an elderly male servant whom they seemed to hold in high regard. The guests waited anxiously, discussing trade routes and flinching at sudden sounds.

Suddenly a group of guardsmen pushed through the doors at the end of the hall and three of them walked directly toward Geng Minsheng. Eyes wide, he made to get up from his seat, but Mani said something sharp to him in their language, and he froze as the guards pushed him forward onto the table, tied his hands tightly, and hauled him up from his chair. Lord Fai exclaimed in Latin, “Why are you doing this?” When this got no response, he tried again in broken Greek and then in his own language, but the guards ignored him, dragging Minsheng out of the hall as fast as he could stumble. Two guards remained at the door, stone-faced.

The remaining guests looked around the table at each other, shocked. “Do they think he killed our host?” blurted Rakshayan.

The head guard reemerged through the door, holding up a dagger smeared with blood. A gasp went around the table. The guard announced something in the local tongue, which the servant Sujanbir translated into Greek: “This was found in that man’s bedroom. It was hidden in a drawer. The rest of his party will come with us tonight to be questioned.”

Marcus and Esca’s eyes met; this wasn’t right. No man as smart as Minsheng would be so stupid as to keep the bloody weapon in his room. Mani and Lord Fai rose stiffly from the table and met the approaching guards, who escorted them out, unsmiling.

“Say nothing,” murmured Esca to Marcus in British, masked by the shocked chatter immediately after. “See what they say first.”

“Doesn’t anyone else think that’s suspicious?” said Rakshayan immediately, voicing Marcus’s very thoughts.

“As suspicious as their ‘late night conference’?” said Tertius.

“And you saw how calm they were when they saw the body,” Navyan pointed out.

“I wonder why he did it,” said Appius. “They barely knew each other.”

“Perhaps something went wrong with the business deal,” said Navyan slowly. “Perhaps an aspect we were unaware of.”

“You think they were dealing privately?” said Esca, leading, watching the faces at the table.

“I knew they were up to something, and it’s clear that I was right,” said Tertius. He thumped his hands on the table and pushed his chair back. “That’s a shame; Didar seemed like a pretty good man, for a Greek. I think we should all get some sleep and then talk business in the morning. Good night.”

The others stood and said their good nights one by one. They were already much more relaxed - so sure, despite their brief curiosity, that the Yuezhi contingent had assassinated their host, and that was that. Business would be done in the morning as usual. Esca said something to Marcus in British, but Marcus didn’t understand all of it, so he shook his head apologetically. Esca reached out and covered Marcus’s hand with his own. “Come join me in my room,” he said in Latin. Navyan, who must have heard but barely reacted, gave a friendly goodnight wave and let himself out the dining room door.

Marcus felt himself blushing, but said steadily, “Of course,” and followed Esca back down their hallway.

Esca’s room was in disarray, of course; Marcus frowned and immediately reached to set upright Esca’s trunk by the door. Esca spoke as soon as the door swung shut behind them. “I hope you don’t mind the presumption,” he said, with unusual formality. “I just thought we needed a quick and certain explanation for your whereabouts at the time Didar was killed.”

“Of course,” said Marcus. “Esca, I fully understand.” He gave Esca what he hoped was a reassuring smile, then bent and starting collecting clothes from the floor. He knew he was making this uncomfortable for Esca.

“Where were you, though?” said Esca quietly, in British. Marcus supposed someone could be listening at the door and they couldn’t be too careful. “Marcus, did you kill Didar?”

“What? No!” said Marcus, immediately forgetting to speak British. He stood up straight. “Why would I?”

“I don’t know,” said Esca, persisting in British. “I’m sure you would have a good reason.”

Marcus switched to British to exclaim, “A good reason to kill our host?! Under whose roof we sleep? Esca!”

Esca glared at him. “If you did, I would stand by you,” he said stubbornly. “I make no apologies for that. Wouldn’t you do the same for me? But where were you?”

There was an edge to Esca’s voice, something slightly more than concern, although Marcus could find no explanation for it. “I was in the garden,” said Marcus finally. “The little one at the end of the hall. I couldn’t sleep.”

Esca relaxed. He sighed, “Of course it was something like that,” apparently to himself, then turned to straighten his bedsheets. “Was anyone there with you?” he asked, with studied carelessness.

“Of course not,” said Marcus, suddenly amused with this ridiculous situation. “Your tale about me being with you would have been exposed right away, if so.”

Esca gave a bitter laugh. “I suppose you’re right.” He sat on the newly smoothed bed and rubbed his head with his hands. “I didn’t think it through. I put us both at risk.”

“You saved me,” said Marcus, coming to sit next to him. “I’m indebted to you as always.”

“At the cost of pretending to be my lover,” Esca pointed out, with a self-deprecating smile.

“It’s no hardship to spend time in your room at night, my friend,” said Marcus easily.

Perhaps that had been too honest - but Esca didn’t seem alarmed, just said ruefully, “If they question your alibi, we may need to be more demonstrative to satisfy their concerns.”

Marcus blushed again and cursed himself for it. “Do as you feel as necessary,” he managed. “I won’t protest.”

Esca gave another sad-sounding laugh. “Noble Marcus,” he said. Then he stood again and resumed tidying his room. “You’d better get back to your own bed,” he said. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

Marcus felt that same tug he’d felt earlier in the evening, the great, unnecessary distance between himself and Esca. But why should he have to feel so lonely, especially since they were intentionally spending time alone tonight? He stalled for time, saying, “Do you think the Yuezhi did it?”

“No, I don’t,” said Esca immediately, lowering his voice again. “Minsheng in particular is a kind man, almost too kind for the work he’s doing. I struggle to see him killing anyone, let alone a harmless man like Didar.”

“Perhaps if Didar attacked him . . . ?” said Marcus dubiously.

Esca shook his head. He was right; Didar had no reason at all to harm anyone, and Minsheng was at least half a head taller and decades younger. Esca said, “Didar attacked Minsheng, so Minsheng stabbed him in the back? Then returned to his friends without telling them and pretended to be surprised when his body was found? . . . I don’t think so.”

“Do you think the guards hid the knife in Minsheng’s room?” said Marcus. “Or did another guest kill him and hide the knife? I suppose this could be about the trade deal somehow. Maybe before we arrived Didar told the other guests something they didn’t like to hear.”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” said Esca. “But if anyone is being falsely accused of murder, I think we’d best swiftly discover who. It could just as easily happen to us, my Marcus, and we have no allies here but each other.”

Esca was right; neither Tertius nor Appius felt any countryman’s loyalty toward Marcus, let alone Esca, a freedman. And while their introductions to the other guests of the Piteras house had been full of friendliness and wine, Marcus had no illusions about the bonds they’d forged. This gathering was about business, not war or peace or even simple hospitality. Any of their alliances might be broken over a few denarii.

Yet this reality didn’t chill Marcus. He looked up and found Esca smiling at him already, looking as brave as he had when they ranged the Caledonian mountains together.

“It’s no worse than when we were among the Seal People,” said Esca.

“Better, I’d say,” said Marcus. “There’s much more meat on the table here, for one thing, and many fewer soldiers.”

Esca laughed, a beautiful sight. “Go to bed, Marcus,” he said. “If anyone comes for you, kill them, and I’ll help you tidy up in the morning.”

Marcus rose, giving Esca a brief, close embrace, and then let himself quietly into the hallway. He saw a door sitting open a crack down the hall; Tertius’s. Esca had been right; someone had been listening to Marcus and Esca’s late night meeting. Marcus made a little more noise as he let himself back into his own room. Let them all make a note of it, and know without a doubt where Marcus had spent his time.

 

Marcus was roused for breakfast by a slave boy with a drawn, pale face, and that was how Marcus remembered the events of the night before.

Breakfast was served in one of the larger gardens in back of the villa because the viewing of the body was taking place in the main hall. Marcus paid his respects on his way in, saying a blessing over the body and murmuring condolences to the women wailing in the Greek fashion. It reminded him of the rites performed for his mother’s father when he was a boy. There would be family visiting from out of town, and friends from around the city would call; the house would be bustling for days, even after the burial.

The garden behind the villa was hung with flowering vines, visited by bright flashing birds, and almost free of the sound of wailing from inside, but none of the guests could muster much of a smile anyway.

Marcus sat next to Esca at the table. He saw Tertius casting them an evaluating glance, so Marcus pressed his shoulder to Esca’s, leaning in to murmur, “Good morning.” He saw Esca smile out of the corner of his eye.

“Good morning, sweetheart,” replied Esca in British, which Tertius couldn’t understand anyway. Marcus laughed quietly into his plate, blushing despite the silliness of it all, and Tertius looked away again, visibly uncomfortable.

“You’re in a good mood,” said Rakshayan in Latin, raising an eyebrow across the table at Marcus.

“After the tragic death of our host, I’m glad once again for my companion,” said Marcus. “My grief is not diminished, but neither is our friendship.”

Rakshayan actually looked touched. “Well said,” he said.

“Don’t encourage him,” said Tertius. “He’s this earnest all the time.” He took a long drink of his wine.

Navyan, sitting at the end of the table, said pleasantly, “Perhaps your own business practices could benefit from such honesty.”

“You can go fuck yourself,” retorted Tertius immediately.

Well, that hadn’t taken long. Marcus and Esca, shoulders still pressed together, started eating a little faster in case breakfast was ended abruptly.

Navyan merely laughed, though, and Tertius granted him a rare, sour smile, and they both returned their attention to their plates. Perhaps some of their number had become friends in this short time after all.

Appius wandered in late, having avoided the viewing of the body by cutting through a side garden. Appius sat on Marcus’s other side and reached for a dish of fruit, asking Marcus, “Is any of it good?”

“It’s wonderful,” said Marcus. Truly, he was sure he’d never had sweeter fruit.

Appius leaned around him and said to Esca, “Is it really? This one is too polite.”

“Bitter,” said Esca, deadpan. “Try the bread.”

Marcus had found the bread dry, and a private smirk from Esca told him that he had, too.

A servant appeared with a new bowl, this one containing small honeyed pastries. As she sat it down next to Esca, Marcus asked her in Greek, “Have the Yuezhi guests returned from being questioned?”

The others perked up to listen. She bowed stiffly and said, “The guards released them but our mistress denied them at the gate. Meher and Fajaal are cleaning out their rooms now and they will leave with their luggage.”

“Where will they go?” asked Marcus, concerned.

“I do not know, sir,” said the girl. “It is not my mistress’s concern.”

Esca took a last bite of his fruit and said to Marcus in British, “Say I’d like to help them clean. Say I’m a servant. Oh, and see what you can find out about the Piteras family.”

Marcus relayed Esca’s message to the girl, politely offering Esca’s services. “They might appreciate the help,” she said dubiously, “since they have so little time. Please, follow me.” Esca got up, made his excuses to the other guests in Latin, and followed the servant girl back into the house through one of the small servants’ doorways. Marcus turned back to the breakfast table, already wishing Esca could return to him and tell him everything.

Some of Marcus’s disquiet must have shown on his face, because Navyan said, “Your man, is he a servant? I thought he was a friend.”

“He’s my freedman,” said Marcus. “He was once a slave in my uncle’s household.”

“And a freedman is . . . ?” said Navyan.

“He works for the Aquila family,” said Appius. “He is paid, but he’s not a full citizen.”

“But he and I are friends,” said Marcus quickly. “And he’s free to come and go. He’s on this trip as a guest of the Piteras house, not to serve me.”

“But you are lovers,” said Navyan. “Does he not serve you that way?”

Marcus felt himself redden. “Er, he does, I suppose,” said Marcus. “But, uh.”

“Those are not typical duties of a freedman,” said Appius, with a smirk at Marcus.

“In the Chera Kingdom, those who are slaves are always slaves, and those who are masters are always masters,” explained Rakshayan. “Is it better, to serve another, knowing that you could be free, but are not? It seems it might drive a man mad. I think it is better for men to know what their place will always be.”

Marcus had to think a moment. “Esca didn’t enjoy being a slave,” he said. “But you would have to ask him yourself.”

Tertius probed, “Then why does he help clean like a slave? Does he miss it that much?”

It certainly wouldn’t benefit them for the others to know their suspicions, so Marcus merely said, with all honesty, “Since he spent so long in service to others, he feels sympathy for servants. Their master has been killed and their mistress is grieving; Esca wants to ease their pain by lifting their burdens however he can.”

“Your freedman is a good man, then,” said Rakshayan. “This reflects upon you, does it not? You should be proud.”

“I am,” said Marcus, and smiled.

 

Marcus couldn’t help his curiosity; on the way back to his room after breakfast, he walked down the hall where the Yuezhi party had been staying. All three of their chamber doors were open and servants were moving in and out. Marcus couldn’t see Esca but he thought he could hear the murmur of his voice from down the hall. Geng Minsheng’s room was first on the hall and was already empty, so Marcus slipped in.

He was hoping so find some obvious clue, like a letter explaining everything, or another bloodied weapon, or perhaps the real murderer waiting there with bloodied robes. There was nothing of the sort; it was merely an empty room, with even the bed linens stripped off and every spot of dust swept away.

In his many years in the military Marcus had had to learn to hide things from his fellow soldiers. Nothing Minsheng had brought with him remained in this room, but there was still a wooden stand by the bed and the bed frame itself. Marcus glanced back at the half-open door before easing himself to his knees behind the bed and peering under the nightstand. Nothing was tucked into the join of the wood there, and nothing was hidden in the bed frame; that had been unlikely anyway, since the servants had stripped the mattress and shaken it out for the next guest.

Marcus got back up. Before leaving, he tried the window. It was a square shape cut out of the clay wall with a wooden shutter that was propped half-open with a metal rod. Marcus pushed it the rest of the way open, flooding the room with late morning light, and felt around the edge of the window outside the frame.

His fingers caught on a shape wedged into a crack in the clay. He worked it loose carefully and pulled it back in.

It was a golden ring with a deep blue stone set in it. Tilting it in the light, Marcus could see something etched in it, a symbol he couldn’t decipher. What did it mean? It seemed an unusually fine thing to be owned by a diplomat, especially since Minsheng wore no other jewelry except for the silver clasp in his hair. Could it be a gift from Lord Fai? Or perhaps stolen from him?

Marcus slid the ring into the pouch at his belt, did another quick sweep of the window frame, and then drew the shutter half-closed again, covering his tracks in case anyone came back in the room. He waited until he heard no one in the corridor and hurried back to the entry hall.

Right now, with his family and friends performing funerary rites and his servants packing the Yuezhi luggage, would be an ideal time to explore Didar’s private quarters. Marcus turned away from the guest quarters and let himself into the first room he passed, which turned out to be Didar’s own study.

The desk was spread with scrolls and scraps of parchment written in a variety of languages; Marcus could only read the ones in Latin and Greek, but fortunately, Didar Piteras seemed most proud to conduct his business in Greek. Shifting gently through the documents, Marcus found a little folded page full of notes in Greek about his house guests and their business assets. Marcus and Esca were described only as “Companions from Rome, no trading power; celebrated travelers among the Romans, can describe Gaul, Britannia,” and a word that might have meant Caledonia. The other guests were accompanied by little tables of numbers and material goods. 400 bales per trip, 1200 per year. Next to each was a longer paragraph denoting their countries of origin and their travels. The Yuezhi contingent had such an impressive traveling resume that Marcus scratched out a copy for himself on a ragged piece of parchment. Then went back and copied the other tables, just in case.

Marcus and Esca had considered Didar’s potential business deals as a primary motive for his murder; if he couldn’t be convinced to do what a certain person wanted, it might be quicker to kill him and make the same deal through someone else. But flipping through this book, Marcus could tell that Didar barely cared about the trade deal at all. He was more of a facilitator, and his interest lay in his guests as people, not as moneymakers. Marcus found a little page of notes about what the Piteras trade business stood to lose or gain from any outcome of this deal - next to nothing. More trade would pass through the port of Barbarikon, but Didar wouldn’t make a profit off of that. He would, however, have an even greater variety of traders staying in the city, meaning more house guests, more conversation, and possibly more exotic plants for his garden. His fortune had already been made, and he wasn’t going to stand in the way of anyone trying to make their own.

Marcus finished copying out the most useful numbers and was blowing gently on the ink when he heard someone open the door to the study. Marcus turned, slipping Minsheng’s ring and the sheet of figures into the pouch at his waist, but it was only Esca, who closed the door swiftly behind him.

“Thank Mithras, it’s you,” said Marcus. “I thought you were a servant; I’m running out of excuses for my snooping.”

“Geng Minsheng didn’t do this,” said Esca, walking swiftly to his side.

Marcus leaned a little on the edge of Didar’s heavy wooden desk and straightened his leg, taking a little pressure off his knee. “I think so, too,” said Marcus, rubbing his thigh absently. “What did you find?”

“They really did have a meeting last night while the murder took place,” said Esca. “In Mani’s room. There were three cups, three plates, and three chairs, brought by servants from different rooms of the house. The servants even said they remember waiting on them there. They just think Minsheng killed their master anyway, because they don’t trust him because he doesn’t speak Punjabi or Greek.”

“Could he have gotten away without a servant seeing?” asked Marcus.

“Probably,” said Esca, frustrated. “But I don’t think he did. The Yuezhi, and Minsheng in particular, have only suffered since Didar’s death. There’s no possible benefit to them.”

“I wonder what they were meeting about,” said Marcus.

“Business, it seems,” said Esca. “They apparently asked the servants about the other guests, including us. And I found sheets of writing in Mani’s room, although of course I can’t read any of it. It’s all squarish scribbles to me.”

Marcus said, in clumsy British, “It seems wise to speak languages others do not know, here.”

Esca gave him a little smile. “Your accent gets better and better,” he replied in kind.

“Thank you,” said Marcus, a British phrase he knew well. Esca looked so fond that Marcus wanted to keep reciting phrases to please him, but before he could embarrass himself, Esca looked away at the cluttered desk and said, “So, what did you find?”

“Not much,” said Marcus. “And yet it makes me more sure than ever.” He showed Esca the parchment first, translating its contents into Latin and British, pointing out the lack of financial motive for any of the Yuezhi to kill Didar Piteras. Then he pulled out the ring and held it out to Esca. “I found this ring as well, hidden in Minsheng’s room. It’s certainly Yuezhi, but I think it may be Lord Fai’s.”

Esca slid the ring off Marcus’s outstretched palm and tried it on; it fit on his slim fingers much better than on Marcus’s. “It’s beautiful,” said Esca. “And this is Lord Fai’s sign, certainly; it was on his wooden chest as well. A love token, I expect.”

“I thought so too,” Marcus confessed. “I, I didn’t know if I was right, though.”

“Mani didn’t have one in her room or on her hand,” Esca pointed out, watching the ring glint as he turned it. Then he cast a smile up at Marcus. “And we both saw how they were together at dinner.”

“We did?” said Marcus.

Esca laughed. “You Romans,” he said quietly. “Do you never see love between men?”

“I don’t know how it is among the Yuezhi,” protested Marcus.

“It doesn’t matter how it is,” said Esca. “It happens anyway.” He looked up at Marcus, his face patient, kind, and challenging.

“I know it happens anyway,” said Marcus. It felt like an admission of guilt, but he drew in a breath and didn’t break Esca’s gaze; he did know it, and so did Esca, and so did the Yuezhi, apparently; what was there to feel guilty about?

Suddenly there was a clatter at the door; someone was entering, and this time it certainly wasn’t Esca. Marcus froze, but Esca said quietly in British, “Sorry,” and slid his hands around Marcus’s waist, tucked himself up against Marcus’s chest, and pressed their mouths together.

Marcus couldn’t breathe at first, but this was Esca; Esca kissing him, moving his mouth softly against Marcus’s. Talking about it was difficult, but this wasn’t. Marcus relaxed and pulled Esca tightly against him and kissed him back. He opened his mouth, sucking gently on Esca’s lower lip, and when Esca sighed and nipped him, Marcus lifted a hand to Esca’s cheek to stroke his jaw. Esca slid one hand up between Marcus’s shoulders and one hand down to his lower back and Marcus arched into his touch.

Someone cleared their throat. Marcus jolted in Esca’s arms and broke away from the kiss. One of the elderly servants was there - Meher? - and she bowed apology, her wizened face unreadable. “I’m sorry, sirs,” she said in very good Greek. “My mistress sent me for her writing tools.”

“Our apologies. We merely sought privacy,” said Esca in Latin, and Marcus stammered a translation in Greek.

She raised her hands in acceptance and moved to circle the desk, looking for supplies. Marcus scrambled out of her way and belatedly realized Esca had never taken off Lord Fai’s ring. When he glanced at Esca’s hand, though, it was gone. He felt a stab of panic; where was it?

“We’ll take our leave,” said Esca, which Marcus obediently translated, and Esca slid an arm into Marcus’s and led him toward the door. Esca said in perfectly audible British, in a tone as if he was talking about the weather, “I put the ring in your pouch as I kissed you.”

“Oh,” was all Marcus could say.

He and Esca walked back to their rooms arm in arm. Marcus’s head spun with thoughts: Esca had only kissed him to hide their snooping. He’d only touched him to hide the ring. It would be shamefully presumptuous to make anything of it. The woman had seen them; would she tell anyone? He supposed it would be best if she did, to support their alibi for the night before. Esca was a wonderful kisser. Marcus was blushing so hard his face hurt and everyone who saw him would definitely know.

They only passed a few disinterested servants, though, and then they were at their opposite chamber doors in their empty hallway. “Marcus,” said Esca, looking uncertain, possibly about to explain again that it was all a ruse.

Marcus interrupted.

“Esca, can I . . . ?” he said, forgetting the rest of the words in British, Latin, Greek, and every other language, and took Esca’s face in his hands and kissed him.

It was just as good as before, and Esca didn’t push him away, which made Marcus brave enough to slide a hand up through Esca’s short hair and gently lick his mouth.

Esca cursed softly against Marcus’s lips, something in British that Marcus would definitely ask about sometime. “Marcus, we’re in the hallway,” he muttered, but his hands were already gripping Marcus’s hips again.

“I don’t care,” said Marcus, pulling away just enough to read Esca’s expression. “Do I have to care?”

“No,” Esca admitted, “Not here in Barbarikon, apparently,” and then yelped when Marcus bent and licked the side of Esca’s throat. He’d always wanted to do that and Esca liked it. What else did Esca like?

“All right, now we have to go inside,” said Esca, and hauled Marcus forward by his tunic and into Esca’s chamber.

 

Marcus stumbled after him, shut the door and dropped the latch, and then immediately resumed kissing Esca. Esca kissed him back, over and over, sending Marcus into a daze. Esca tugged loose Marcus’s belt and tossed it onto the bed, slid his hands under Marcus’s tunic, and scraped his nails lightly down Marcus’s back, and all the while Marcus could only gasp and kiss and pet Esca, his fingers clutched uselessly in Esca’s tunic.

It was Esca who pushed Marcus down onto his back on the bed and climbed on, Esca who slid Marcus’s tunic up and lined their cocks up together. Marcus started stroking them and Esca gasped. Marcus tilted his head back for Esca to kiss, his spare hand smoothing up and down Esca’s side, unable to touch enough skin at once.

Esca’s kisses got clumsier and he started making little sounds in his throat, his hands clutching the bedsheets on either side of Marcus’s head. Esca came with a shudder and slowly lowered his head to Marcus’s chest, shivering in place long enough for Marcus to speed up his hand and come all over his stomach.

Both of them gasping, Esca pushed himself into the circle of Marcus’s arm, rested his head on Marcus’s chest, and fell soundly asleep.

Marcus drowsed under Esca’s weight for some minutes, but eventually his mind roused itself, and a question began to circle: if Didar didn’t benefit from the outcome of a trade bargain, then who did?

Esca was fully asleep, his face mashed almost into Marcus’s armpit; Marcus felt an absurd surge of joy. With his spare arm, he carefully reached for his discarded belt and pouch, thankfully hanging off the end of Esca’s bed. Once he tugged it closer and worked the parchment scrap out of the bag, he held it up and reread the numbers.

Now that he was looking for it, it was immediately clear that Appius and Tertius had far less to bring to the negotiations than the Yuezhi, the Chera, or the local traders of Barbarikon. They only traded three hundred cases of wine per year, worth less than a third of the spices traded by the Chera. They stood to gain more than anyone from a deal like this, since trading with the Chera, the Yuezhi, and the Barbarikans would open their own trading companies up to much more material.

Marcus frowned. Could they accommodate such an increase in business? Appius had three ships, he’d bragged often on their voyage over. And Tertius had five, but they were small enough that he’d complained about their capacity. They wouldn’t raise enough money right away to buy new ones, even with an influx of new cargo. What would happen with such a demand for shipping?

“Esca, have the traders been talking about loaning each other ships?” he asked, ruffling Esca’s hair slightly.

“Mmmnh,” said Esca. He made a face and squirmed a little, getting more comfortable. Marcus’s skin shivered pleasurably everywhere Esca touched it. “No,” he said eventually. “Each trader brings his own ships. The Yuezhi will hire some here in Barbarikon.”

“Brings his own?” said Marcus in surprise. “So the Chera and the Yuezhi will be sailing back and forth from Rome?”

“Yes,” said Esca, disgruntled. “Why?” He swung his legs around sideways on the bed, resting the back of his head on Marcus’s breast, and Marcus immediately started stroking his free hand through Esca’s hair. Esca sighed and said, more charitably, “You think Didar was murdered over boats?”

“Well,” said Marcus, feeling it out, “I think Tertius and Appius aren’t equipped to trade at this level; Senator Scipio said that they were chosen based on nepotism and favoritism.”

“Everyone in Rome says that,” said Esca tiredly. “And they’re always right.”

“Yes, and so I didn’t think of it at the time,” said Marcus. “But looking at the figures Didar kept, they really are competing against their betters. And if this negotiation succeeds, the traders back in Rome will benefit, and the people here will, and the Yuezhi and the Chera will, and the only ones who will suffer are Appius and Tertius. They won’t have the capacity to trade new material yet, and they can’t share ships, and the Yuezhi and the Chera will be competing with their business with their own trading on their own ships.”

“I see,” said Esca. “So it benefits Tertius and Appius to disrupt the negotiation.”

“But not to cancel it outright,” said Marcus. “If they bowed out honestly, and Senator Scipio found out, they would be ruined.” He frowned, his hand on Esca’s head stilling. “But to kill someone over a business deal? A stranger, and our host? I can hardly imagine it.”

“That I easily believe,” said Esca. “Men do crueler things to each other all the time for less incentive. Appius and Tertius . . . I could see either of them killing one man to save their livelihoods."

Marcus sighed. "I suppose we have to look into it."

"Mmm," said Esca, closing his eyes again. "Not if it means getting up yet."

Marcus made a face and said reluctantly, "Mani and Lord Fai are waiting for their man back."

"Ugh," said Esca. "You're right." He sat up, gave Marcus a gentlemanly assist to his feet, and helped Marcus get back into his tunic. It was almost like the old days in Calleva for a moment, until Esca gave him a quick kiss as he straightened his collar.

"You have a mark on your neck, Esca," said Marcus, reaching out to touch it.

"Good," said Esca, giving him a quick smile through his lashes. "Lest they forget your alibi."

 

They parted ways at the door; Esca to distract Appius and Tertius at their negotiations, Marcus to do some quick searching of their rooms. Marcus opened the door to Appius's room and found Meher inside, brushing dust into a pan with a little broom. "Meher," he said in Greek, as if he had been looking for her all along. "I, I had a question for you."

"Yes, sir," she said simply, still brushing.

Marcus thought quickly. "Appius said- ma'am, do you know if any of the servants spend nights with the guests? Not for myself," he added quickly, turning red.

She straightened up and tapped the dust out of her broom on the edge of the pan, unfazed. "No, sir," she said. "Not without our master's approval. And he gave no instructions to any of the servants before your visit."

That was curious. Appius had been quick to answer that he was with a servant girl at the time of Didar's murder. "This concerns your master's death," said Marcus, chancing it, and he was rewarded by the gleam of interest in her expression. "The guest who stays in this room, Appius, said he was with a female servant of this house all night that night."

"Impossible," said Meher crisply. "We share a room. I sleep by the door. No one left that night." She returned to her brushing.

So Appius had been lying about his alibi. "Did you happen to find any blood on Appius's clothes?" Marcus asked.

"If I had, sir," she said, "I would have called the guards on him."

"Of course, ma'am," said Marcus. "Do you mind if I check his things myself?"

"Of course not, sir," she said stiffly. A Roman slave would certainly have had the authority to warn a guest off another guest's belongings, but Marcus apologized anyway and helped himself to Appius's trunk.

It only took a moment, now that Marcus knew what he was looking for: not the neatly folded tunics on top or the bracchae beneath that, but a tightly twisted bundle shoved into the bottom-most corner of the trunk. Marcus pulled it free and untwisted it to find a thin night garment, speckled with dark brown spots, wrapped around the remains of two thin sandals, broken in half to better conceal them. They were stained dark with what could only be blood.

Marcus held up his findings to Meher, whose expression grew grave. "Please have someone sent for the guards," said Marcus. "I'll go stop Appius from going anywhere."

Marcus ran from the guest quarters to the kitchen. He startled the other servants by grabbing a knife from the cutting block. He ordered them, “One of you run to bring the guards here, quickly,” and ran back out, skirting the mourners in the dining hall by dodging down an empty hall that led to the back gardens.

He tucked the knife into his belt behind his back before pushing the garden door open. There were Navyan and Rakshayan at the long table, eating dates from a bowl and talking to Appius, Tertius, and Esca, whose backs were to Marcus. Esca had managed so seat himself between Appius and Tertius and his posture was relaxed. Marcus could see the impatient tapping of his foot under the table, though. Esca knew one of the men next to him was guilty.

“Appius,” said Marcus in a friendly tone. Appius turned and saw Marcus’s face. He sprang up from his seat, jostling the table, which clattered the dishes together and made the Chera and Tertius shout in confusion. Appius disentangled himself from his chair and turned toward the side gate, trying to run.

Esca tackled him easily to the ground. Appius went down with a pained shout. Marcus walked over, drawing the knife, but Esca didn’t need one; he simply knelt on Appius’s back and wrenched his arm back as far as it would go. Appius went limp with fear and gasped for air.

“What is the meaning of this?” snapped Tertius. “Esca, let him go!” Navyan and Rakshayan looked shocked.

“He killed Didar Piteras,” said Marcus. “Geng Minsheng is innocent. We’re holding Appius here until the guards arrive.”

“I . . . I don’t understand,” said Tertius, looking between Marcus’s face and the knife in his hand.

Marcus explained all that he and Esca had discovered while Appius wheezed on the ground under Esca’s knee. Tertius grew more and more gray as Marcus talked.

“See,” said Navyan. “You were lying about your capacity.” He wasn’t pretending to smile this time.

“Yes, but I didn’t kill anyone!” protested Tertius. “And I didn’t know Appius did, either! I thought he was with a girl that night, like he said! I swear it!”

“Is this true?” Rakshayan asked Marcus.

“As far as I know, he’s telling the truth,” said Marcus.

“He had nothing to do with it,” whined Appius.

“See?!” exclaimed Tertius.

Esca snapped, “Tertius, nobody is twisting your arm, so shut up.”

Appius said through gritted teeth, “I didn’t mean to kill him. It was an accident.”

“Oh?” said Navyan. “You only wanted to stab him a little?”

“No,” said Appius, with a bitter laugh. “I meant to kill Marcus.”

They all paused in shock, and then Marcus lunged forward, grabbing Esca’s hands as he reached for Appius’s throat. “No, no, no,” Marcus said urgently. “We need him to get Minsheng released. You can’t kill him, Esca.”

Esca let Marcus still his hands, but his face was savage as he said, “What do you mean by that?” He shoved Appius’s face into the grass. “Tell me!”

Appius kept laughing, a horrible sound. His explanation was almost dispassionate. “I thought if Marcus was killed here in Barbarikon that Rome would pull us all back. We wouldn’t have to end the deal ourselves because the Senator would do it for us. Marcus such a special hero to them, you know. He’s as much a mascot as that golden eagle was. So I went to kill him our first night here.”

“But I wasn’t in my room,” said Marcus. It wasn’t his nearest brush with death, but it was chilling nonetheless, to think that in this safe, cozy house, Marcus had been so close to someone who wanted him dead.

“Your room was empty. You were with your lover,” spat Appius. “I didn’t know, though. I thought you might have gone to the kitchen so I went looking there. I saw you getting a cup of wine in the dark. I stabbed you. But it wasn’t you.”

Tertius said, disgusted, “You killed our host.”

“He didn’t deserve it, and for that I’m sorry,” said Appius. “But then I had to pretend someone else did it. It would all be for nothing if the trade deal went on as planned. I was going to put the knife in your room, Marcus, but Didar’s wife found his body before I could. Her screaming woke up everyone. So I hid it in the Yuezhi’s room when they all rushed out, then went to meet you in the hall.”

“You coward,” snarled Esca, twisting his arm harder. Appius whimpered into silence.

Thankfully, the guards arrived only a moment later, and Esca climbed off Appius and let them lock him into wooden shackles. Appius kept his head down and didn’t respond to anyone after that. He was passive as they led him back into the house, and Marcus never saw him again.

Esca was wild-eyed but Marcus couldn’t comfort him. They had to sit in the garden for nearly an hour, explaining everything to a pair of guards, providing what evidence they had, and swearing before a scribe that everything they said was true.

The mourners kept coming to the windows to watch. Marcus had wanted to tell Gul Mina himself, to spare her a hectic scene, but he was too late; by the time the guards released them she had already been told.

The servant Sujanbir led Marcus and Esca to Didar’s study, where Gul Mina Nizamani sat in her husband’s chair. When she had grieved over her husband’s body, she had wailed and cried like one possessed, but now, in private, she was dry-eyed and still. She looked up at them over her husband’s cluttered desk. “So the guards imprisoned the wrong man?” she said in Greek.

“Yes, ma’am,” said Marcus. “I’m afraid so.”

“The knife was in his room,” she said.

Marcus nodded. “Appius admitted to placing it there. He wanted Geng Minsheng to seem guilty. Ma’am.”

“Then his actions not only killed my husband, but forced me to be falsely inhospitable to a guest,” she said. “Barbaric man.” She spat this with such venom that Sujanbir jumped. She told him, “Send Tekjeet to the keep to meet our guest when he is released. Go yourself to the inn where his companions are. Please give them my personal invitation to come back.”

Sujanbir hurried out, and Marcus was about to excuse himself and Esca and follow him, but Gul Mina held up a hand. “Please, a moment,” she said, and Marcus stilled.

“Your countryman did this,” she said, “but you righted it. I’m glad to have you as a guest, Marcus Aquila. And to you, Esca mac Cunoval, as well.”

“We thank you, ma’am,” said Marcus.

“Thank you,” said Esca. He bowed.

Gul Mina nodded. “Now you may speak for your companion Tertius. Did he conspire with Appius, the killer?” Her gaze on Marcus’s face was heavy.

“No, ma’am,” said Marcus quickly. “I don’t think he was involved at all. But I also don’t think he’ll stay long. He’ll need to return to Rome soon to answer to his sponsors. But of course, we can ask him on your behalf.”

“Please do,” she said. “I don’t speak any Latin.”

“Of course.” Marcus and Esca nodded to her and left, leaving Gul Mina sinking back into her husband’s chair in the quiet study.

 

Marcus and Esca walked back to the guest quarters but they didn’t stop at Tertius’s room. Instead, by unspoken agreement, they went into Esca’s room and closed the door.

“That son of a whore,” said Esca as soon as they had privacy. Then he grabbed Marcus’s face and kissed him desperately.

Startled, Marcus gathered Esca into his arms, kissed him back, and started smoothing his hands down his sides, as though he was soothing a war horse. “Esca, I’m all right,” he said.

“He would have stabbed you in your sleep,” snapped Esca.

“He would have tried,” said Marcus. “Appius is no warrior. I don’t think he could have harmed me.”

“He certainly harmed Didar Piteras,” said Esca. He cursed and threw his arms around Marcus’s neck, hiding his face so Marcus couldn’t see him. “Oh, Marcus.”

Marcus had never seen Esca so overcome. “Esca, what is it?” he asked quietly.

Esca raised his head and glared.“What is it?” he repeated. “What it is is I love you! And I thought we would die side by side, in battle or in our sickbeds, not that you would be stabbed by someone who called you friend! While I slept and didn’t do anything about it!”

Marcus was shocked speechless. “What?” demanded Esca.

“You love me?” said Marcus.

A variety of emotions crossed Esca’s face. “You must be joking,” said Esca finally.

“I love you too,” said Marcus.

“I know,” said Esca. “Marcus, why do you think I followed you halfway around the world?”

“I thought you wanted to travel abroad,” said Marcus uncertainly.

Esca groaned in exasperation, but at least he was losing that frightened gleam in his eye. Marcus never wanted to see Esca scared again. “I do want to travel, but Marcus, if you had said you wanted to plant turnips in Calleva all your life, I would have been there too,” said Esca. “I’d plant turnips with you. I would live on the bottom of the ocean with you. And Marcus, you would do the same for me. Don’t you see it?”

“I see it,” said Marcus, scarcely believing it. “I always thought I was deceiving myself.”

Esca was fighting a smile. “Marcus, I told everyone we were lovers,” he said.

Marcus grinned helplessly. “And then you kissed me,” he said.

Esca laughed and kissed him again. This time it was slow, not bruising, and Esca looked fully restored when they broke apart; finally persuaded that Marcus was alive and healthy in his arms. For his part, Marcus was so dazed with happiness he thought he must look very foolish. He dipped back in to kiss Esca’s cheek, because he could.

“We should settle things with Tertius,” said Esca. “And meet with the Yuezhi. Geng Minsheng needs his ring back.”

“Tonight I’d like to come to your room again,” said Marcus, feeling very daring.

Esca laughed. “Yes, Marcus,” he said. “And any night we like, no matter where we go next.”

 

Tertius wasn’t in his room but his belongings were still there. Marcus and Esca tried the kitchen, where they found servants carrying trays of food out to the garden, and followed them to the well-appointed table. There was to be an afternoon meal in honor of the arrest of the real killer. The servants were talking animatedly as they arranged the food.

Esca said, “The Yuezhi will be here soon.”

Impressed, Marcus asked, “Do you understand that much of their language now?”

Esca laughed. “No,” he said. “I saw their chests being carried past the kitchen as we walked.”

They sat when the table-setting was done and had only been served the first of the bread when Geng Minsheng came into the garden. Marcus stood immediately and went to clasp arms with him, a gesture which seemed to bemuse Minsheng, but he grasped back gamely enough. There were shadows under his eyes.

He said something grave in his language and bowed deeply before Marcus, then bowed to Esca too, who raised his eyebrows from his seat at the table.

Mani and Lord Fai emerged a moment later. “They say we have you to thank,” said Mani upon seeing Marcus and Esca. Minsheng turned and said something to her, and she replied impatiently in their language, then said in Latin, “He offers many thanks. Many.”

“Please tell him he owes us nothing, we couldn’t let such an injustice come to pass,” said Marcus.

“And we accept his thanks and are grateful,” added Esca, rolling his eyes a little at Marcus. “Whichever gives the most honor to Minsheng, Mani. Please tell him that.”

She gave Esca a genuine smile and explained this at length to Minsheng while they all seated themselves. Minsheng nodded gravely, listening, then began to smile, and by the time their meat was served, he was relaxed and chatting back and forth through Mani and Lord Fai.

He and Lord Fai were sitting next to each other but not touching, but since Esca had pointed it out, Marcus couldn’t miss the closeness of their body language, the patter of their voices together, and the way they glanced at each other in little moments. They had been lovers a long time, Marcus was sure. He hoped suddenly, fiercely, that he and Esca could be that way too. He felt he was owed that from the world. Not a career or children or a healthy body, but a lifetime with Esca, that would be more than enough.

He pressed his knee to Esca’s under the table. Esca gave him a sideways, questioning look, and when Marcus blushed and looked away, Esca hooked his ankle around Marcus’s foot and stayed that way, a constant touch.

“Our tavern was bad,” said Mani. She said a word in Yuezhi, distastefully, then said in Latin, “Dirty. The tents our animals sleep in are not so dirty. But we wanted to be near Minsheng.”

“He was in a chamber with many strangers,” said Lord Fai. “And they were only fed once.”

“It is much better to be favored by the rich in Barbarikon than to live among the poor,” observed Mani. “As it is in many places. When we return here, we’ll be sure to travel the right way,” she gestured around at the beautiful garden, “and to make sure all the killings happen somewhere else.”

Esca laughed. Marcus automatically smiled at him, and then he said to Mani, “When you return? Aren’t you going to develop your trade route across the Erythraean Sea? Navyan and Rakshayan were very impressed with you, once they learned of your innocence.”

“We had originally planned to do so,” said Lord Fai. “But after this. . . misunderstanding, the three of us are going back to see my uncle, the king. Traders are already on their way to take our place; there’s no need for us to stay and inconvenience our hostess.”

“Gul Mina feels deeply apologetic about what transpired,” Marcus assured him.

“That is why we can’t stay,” said Lord Fai, as if he was kindly explaining this to a child, although he could barely be older than Marcus. “She’s grieving her husband and grieving for us, as well. It is kinder of us to leave.”

“And we’re eager to return to our people,” said Mani. “That cannot be denied.”

“The food here,” said Minsheng, startling Marcus.

Mani smiled. “There is so much seafood,” she said. “We miss real meat.” Marcus had to laugh at that.

“We have something of yours,” said Esca. “A ring we found in Minsheng’s room.” He held it out to Minsheng, who took it, looking surprised.

“My seal,” said Lord Fai. “We were afraid it was stolen by a servant.”

“Just by me,” said Marcus apologetically.

Minsheng slid the ring back on his finger and beamed. “Thank you,” he said in Latin.

“What does it mean?” asked Marcus, shocking even himself.

“It is a sign of special favor from me,” said Lord Fai. “I’m surprised; I thought you and Esca understood.”

“We do,” said Marcus, embarrassed. “Thank you for telling me. It’s beautiful.”

Rakshayan and Navyan entered the garden, led by a servant, and Tertius followed them, looking uncomfortable. “Tertius,” said Marcus. “I had hoped to speak with you.” He gestured to the empty seat on his other side. The Chera sat on the opposite side of the Yuezhi.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” said Tertius miserably. He looked at the Yuezhi and repeated the same, but louder and slower.

“We thank you,” said Mani cordially.

Tertius sat and sighed heavily over his plate, but didn’t hesitate to eat. “I’m glad you caught him,” said Tertius grimly. “I was too blind to see it. That son of a whore deserves whatever the guards give him before they kill him.”

“Indeed,” said Lord Fai, raising a glass.

Marcus said, “Tertius, our hostess was wondering your plans after this; our Yuezhi friends aren’t staying.”

“Me?” said Tertius. “I’m on the next boat out. You know that this trading venture was dead from the beginning. On our end, anyway.” After all his and Appius’s obfuscation, this honesty didn’t seem to pain him; none of it mattered now, Marcus supposed. “And I can’t stay here and make something of it after what my trading partner has done. I’m lucky they didn’t arrest me with him, just to be careful.” He shuddered. He gestured to Marcus with his fork and said, “The next ship is tomorrow. It stops at Barygaza and Supara and will take an extra fortnight to get across to Aden, but it was the quickest way out. There were more than enough berths for you two, when Camillus asked at the docks today.”

Somehow in all the talk of the future, Marcus had never considered whether he and Esca would leave, too. Lord Fai was right that they couldn’t take advantage of Gul Mina’s hospitality forever. But Marcus couldn’t imagine just getting on a ship back to Rome, even a slow-moving one that toured the Deccan coast first. He and Esca had only just gotten this far. He glanced over at Esca, whose leg was still pressed to his, and saw a similar startlement on his face.

Lord Fai watched their faces with interest. “Are you welcome back in Rome?” he asked.

“Very welcome,” said Marcus.

“Marcus is a war hero,” said Esca.

“Only of a sort,” said Marcus defensively.

“And now you’ve saved an innocent man,” said Lord Fai grandly. “Surely they will honor you even more.”

“Well,” said Marcus.

Esca said, “The way they will see it is: he ruined a Roman trade deal by turning a Roman in for murder.” Then he smirked at Marcus. “But Marcus always seems to come out with honors anyway. He will probably be given a reprimand and a golden laurel.”

“If the laurel doesn’t suit you,” said Lord Fai, “My uncle, the king, would be very interested to meet a Roman and a Briton. Especially after your service to his nephew and favorite page.” He smiled at his own apparent joke and repeated part of this to Minsheng, who groaned into his soup.

“He was a page as a small boy,” Mani explained to Esca and Marcus.

“I guessed,” said Esca.

Tertius was staring at Marcus. “Are you considering going off into Scythia?”

“Through the country you call Scythia,” said Mani, “and across the desert and into Thys. It’s beautiful country; the most beautiful in the world. Our host would have envied the gardens of Thys.”

It was an incredible offer. Marcus dared a look at Esca, whose eyes were shining, and he impulsively grasped his hand under the table.

Marcus said in British, “Do you want to? Travel to the gardens of his uncle?”

“With you,” said Esca immediately. “Only with you.”

“Of course,” said Marcus, squeezing hard.

Esca replied to the Yuezhi, “We’ll do it.”

 

And Marcus and Esca traveled the world the rest of their lives and never went back for their laurels.

THE END