Esca's first memory of the custom is this: he is five years old, and his father and the Roman tax-collector have just met. The tall Roman, glittering with arms and armor, clanking as he walks, holds out one of his arms, as if he is about to embrace Cunoval somewhat halfheartedly. As Esca watches, his father reaches forth and grasps the man's arm with his hand, and they shake their joined arms together. The Roman's arm is gleaming, gauntleted; his father's arm is inked to his shoulder. They are a strange pair.
The Roman's wary face changes to relief, and Esca is puzzled. Why did the Roman not kiss his father's breast, or at the very least embrace him as a fellow? He wants to ask, but his mother made him promise that he could stay and watch if only he is a good, quiet boy, and so he says nothing.
He nearly forgets his question when his father and the Roman start talking, a fast patter of Latin about coin for this and horses for that. Esca's Latin is not so very good yet, and all of his mind is consumed with trying to understand this.
Eventually his father and the Roman come to some sort of agreement, and now the Roman smiles broadly and holds out his hand again, and they do the same gesture once again, a little more vigorously.
When the Roman leaves, Cunoval sighs and puts his head in his hands, but he looks up when Esca tugs at the edge of his tunic. "Yes, Esca?"
"Father?" He has remembered his question now, and he bounces back and forth, animated with the curiosity of it.
"What is it?"
"That Roman... what was it you were doing with your hands?" He holds out his own thin arm and waves it up and down. It does not look so much like what they were doing when it is only one person doing it, but he hopes his father understands.
"The handshake?" His father smiles a little and takes Esca's hand in his own huge one, and now it is just like he did with the Roman. "It is a thing that the Romans like to do, when you meet them or make an agreement with them. It shows that you are peaceful and unarmed."
"Oh." Esca bites his lip. "Will I have to do that when I am chieftain?"
His father seems to consider this. "Perhaps," he says. "If we have not driven the Romans out, yes."
Esca wrinkles his nose. "But I don't like Romans, Father."
This makes his father laugh, but it is not a proper laugh, like the laugh he has for some of the bards' tales. This is a sad, sad sound, and Esca doesn't know why. "Neither do any of us."
He has a feeling that there is something here he doesn't understand, something that doesn't make sense, and then he remembers the ringing of the Roman's weapons. "But if moving your hand like that means you are unarmed... then why was the Roman wearing a sword when he did it?"
Cunoval's mustache moves a little; that is the only sign of the smile. "A good question. I think perhaps the handshake means only that they don't intend to kill you right now."
"Oh," Esca says again. "That isn't very nice."
"No," agrees his father. "It isn't."
He remembers that conversation, much later, when he is a slave, and he knows it now for just another form of Roman presumption. They put their hands on you because they can. Because they own you.
He hates when they touch him.
He knows it could be so much worse than it is, but he does not want even this much from them. His masters, or the overseers, shove him about, as if he were stupider than a dumb beast, as if he did not hear them.
Someday, he says to himself, someday when he is free he will run north, and he will live alone in a glen. He will see only his kind. No Roman faces. No Roman words. No one will ever lay hands on him, even as a friend, unless it is his wish that they do so.
He does not know if he ever wants anyone to touch him again, but he knows at least it will be his choice.
Then he meets Marcus Aquila.
Oh, he thinks, stupidly. As his mouth fills with brave words, his body sings with discordant desire. Closer, closer, his limbs demand, even as his horrified mind keeps him still while he tosses his only possession at his new master's feet.
In all his defiant fantasies about freedom, about owning his own lusts, he thought he would get to choose whom he wanted.
He did not think he would pick this.
Marcus picks up the knife. They are bound together now.
Marcus hardly touches him. No, no, it is he who touches Marcus.
He holds him down for the surgeon's knife. Afterward, he lifts Marcus' head up so that he might drink. Every morning he comes to help Marcus out of bed, to help him dress. He does not know if Marcus is merely reticent, or ashamed to need the help, but Marcus never touches him first. It is always Esca, draping Marcus' arm about his own shoulders. And Marcus lets him. Marcus says nothing.
It is a kindness, he finds himself thinking, that Marcus does not seem to regard him as a possession, as a convenient piece of furniture, as just another crutch. Marcus smiles at him, and jokes with him, and never touches him. Esca likes that about him.
It would be well if Marcus wanted to touch him, he thinks. He would permit that.
He would welcome that.
On the quest, Esca lies. He lies and yells and insults Marcus and Marcus does not even hit him, not until Esca hits him first.
They fall off their horses, sliding down the hill. Marcus' fists hammer against his ribs.
This isn't what he wanted.
Marcus' skin is cold under Esca's fingers when Esca reaches for him, grabs his head, forces it back for the Seal Prince. Marcus sags back and lets Esca support the weight of his skull. It's as if he's given up.
He has to know Esca's pretending. He has to know it's another lie.
"I thought I'd lost you," Marcus says, smiling.
Before Esca can think about it, he's offering Marcus a sword and his shoulder, just as he always has. Marcus slings his arm over him for balance, but it is different now. Something is different now. He has no time to ponder it. They run for the Eagle.
He can't hold on. Marcus is like ice. If Esca lets him go he will drown here. He has to hold on. They can do this. Only a little longer.
Close behind them, a hound bays.
Marcus holds out the dagger. Esca covers Marcus' hand with his own. He is free, and everything he thought he knew about Romans is wrong.
He has been free for three months now, and even in the tiny hut that is their only dwelling on the new farm, Marcus is scrupulously careful not to touch him, not to come anywhere near him. It is ridiculous.
Esca contrives to brush against him once, at dinner. They have not even so much as a table yet, and are sitting cross-legged on the bare floor. Esca unfolds himself, stretches, and slides his leg so it rests against Marcus' thigh. Marcus yelps and jumps back as if Esca's touch is fire itself.
"Sorry," he mutters. "I didn't mean to be in the way."
Esca smiles as sweetly as possible. "You weren't."
"I-- oh." Marcus' eyes widen. As he sits there, he is clenching and unclenching his hands, the way one does when there is a thing one wants to touch but one is trying to resist the impulse.
"Were you waiting for an invitation?"
"I was your master," says Marcus, faintly. "Just because I want you-- you can't want me to-- can you? Can you really?"
Esca waits for Marcus to work through it all himself, and when Marcus has finally shut his mouth and is staring at him helplessly, Esca grins and holds his arms out wide.
"Go on, then. Touch me."