Sabinus pushes through the snow, automatically lifting one foot after the other. It was easy near the camp, where the snow was tamped firmly down by horses and men, and winter’s grasp did not yet have so firm a hold. He’s climbed steadily upwards since then, through sparse vegetation and across rocky slopes. The temperature has dropped as the level of the snow rose. He’s been walking for only a few hours but already it feels like he’s come a hundred miles from where he started.
Perhaps his mind is to blame for that, stretching the distance into something implausible; unable to grasp, even now, that he would set his feet towards the enemy’s camp, and turn his back on the brotherhood of Rome.
But that brotherhood was held in one person. That brotherhood was broken when-
Don’t think of that.
He hunches forward, pulling his cloak more tightly about himself as he walks. It’s made of flimsier stuff than the good, thick wool cloaks of the army, but he left his own behind along with his armour and his weapons. He is unworthy of them now. The clothes he wears were bought in the followers’ camp: rough linen shirt, buckskin trousers worn thin at the knees and seat. The boots leak, and the cloak does little to keep out the rising cold. Doubtlessly he cuts a graceless figure. Tiberius would mock and declare he’d not be seen with such a scarecrow, and dig into his own clothes chest with careless generosity. Tiberius would…
Don’t think of that.
He has some idea of the direction the rebels’ camp lies in, but covering the distance alone, on foot, in the snow, is very different from measuring it on a map, or marching with a troop, with a mission. Between the grey sky and the white snow, landmarks are few and far between. He supposes if he misses it entirely, it might be a blessing; only the gods know what his destination holds in store for him. He remembers all too well the gory reports about the slaughter of Sinuessa. There is no earthly reason why the same fate should not await him too.
If he’s entirely honest, that’s part of the appeal.
Don’t think of that.
Determined not to think of now, or later, he chooses, numbly, to remember.
Sabinus felt sad at having the magic of the coin’s disappearance so rudely interrupted by his friend, but on the day when Tiberius came running to meet him at the door, eyes sparkling, crowing, “I can do it, Sabinus! I can do it now!” he felt only joyful admiration. When Tiberius showed him the large gold coin disappearing from his small fingers without a trace, Sabinus gasped.
It looked a simple trick in its inscrutability, undeniable and unknowable. Sabinus never asked how it worked. He never wanted to know. He liked the magic.
Marcus Crassus frowned when he came across them later, Tiberius demonstrating it once again. “A Roman soldier needs no sleight of hand,” he told them solemnly, holding out his hand until Tiberius reluctantly dropped the coin into it. “The Republic needs honest swords to defend her, not the whispers and poisons of the occult. You wish to defend the Republic, boys, do you not?”
Tiberius nodded obediently. “Yes, father.”
Sabinus was too in awe for words. He echoed the nod, mutely, and mourned for the magic Crassus had confiscated.
Tiberius only shrugged. “It was merely illusion. A simple trick.”
Eventually, Sabinus let Tiberius pin him down, moaning as they rubbed together, cock on cock. On an impulse, he spread his legs and arched his back, seeking to draw Tiberius as close as he could against him, skin-close, closer, inside him.
“Wait,” Tiberius gasped, pushing himself back. “Wait, we cannot. You know it’s only done to slaves. I would not shame you so.”
Sabinus did know. The Lex Scantinia had been imparted as a hurried, but most serious lesson. A Roman does not take another Roman as he would a woman. He’d seen it done regardless: to slaves, of course, who had no choice in the matter, and to prisoners, but even among soldiers a few times, in camp or at celebrations late into the night. Those were rapes, though, all about power and nothing about passion, and when discovered were harshly punished; he recalled an officer who went to the arena for forcing his attentions on recruits. A freeborn male submitting to penetration exposes himself to shame and degradation, although Sabinus had trouble comprehending why. Surely it would be different, he thought, hazy with desire, with Tiberius.
But Tiberius’s brows had drawn together with worry and disapproval, so Sabinus shrugged and laughed and kissed him. “I care not what we do,” he whispered, “as long as we do it together,” and felt a warm rush of arousal and affection course through his veins when he saw that beloved face soften, those full lips curving into an indulgent smile. They left the shameful action alone and indulged in what any soldier on campaign might, in the absence of women. They strained and gasped and bucked together, spilling all over their joined hands, and rolled, breathless and laughing, on the scratchy grass.
“It’s the usual practice,” Tiberius assured them both, often, “for any young Roman who would rather not soil himself with the much-used flesh of whores. We shall grow out of it.”
Tiberius might, one day. Sabinus wasn’t sure he would, himself. When he closed his eyes at night, the face he saw was always, always Tiberius’s; the hands he imagined on his aching flesh were never any other’s but his friend’s.
He was resigned, if not content, to be the only one afflicted thus. Better him, he reasoned, who had no family left, no name of note to pass on, than Tiberius, son of Marcus Licinius Crassus, weighed down by duty to his father and the heavy hand of wealth beyond imagining.
Don’t think of that, he thinks again, desperately, but it’s too late; his traitorous mind is already tumbling upwards and racing back, following the leaden clouds into a sky like this.
The sky was purplish grey and ominous, the air deceptively warm against his bared skin. Decimation Day. They faced each other beneath the racing clouds and the impervious gaze of their Imperator. At his first glimpse of the white stone in his slowly opened palm, Sabinus was not the least surprised: some part of him knew all along that this would come to pass. Of the two of them, it has always been Tiberius who was born under Fortuna’s protection, meant for great things, safe under the indulgent hand of the goddess. A part of Sabinus is relieved, even, thinking, Yes, this is right; this is how it should be; anything for you.
A brief flash of white, only; then Tiberius’s hands closed suddenly over his, clasping tightly. Sabinus looked up, surprised. His friend’s face was white and stiff like a death mask, but his dark eyes were burning. Sabinus felt his fingers moving against his own, felt the smooth round shape of two stones shifting, slipping between them. It happened quickly, with the ease of long practice. He wanted to cry out, to say something, warn somebody, but Tiberius’s gaze held him spellbound and silent. It was only a moment; all around them, soldiers jostled and moved, breathing deep sighs of relief or crying out in anguish at the stones in their own hands, and Tiberius’s shoulders blocked their clasped hands from the iron gaze of Crassus.
Tiberius’s lips moved, then: the smallest, mocking twitch of a smile. He let go and stepped back in one breath, and when Sabinus looked down he saw the dull reality of the black stone sitting in his own palm. He raised his head in shock to meet Tiberius’s fervent, burning gaze, that small, desperate smile above the steady hand that held the white stone, and realised – too late – that he was, after all, not the only one in his affliction; Tiberius, truly his father’s son, had merely been better at deception.
He opened his mouth, but his shouts of protests were swallowed in those of the other doomed soldiers and their grieving friends; in the harsh screams that rose then, men trying to find courage in blustering noise, challenging to take the first blow; in the blunt impact of wood and rock on skin and bone, shockingly loud. The snap of bones. The spurts of blood. The howls of agony, unlike any human sound. The men doing the beating shouted hoarsely, trying to drown out those sounds of pain, of men who had been brothers, ten minutes ago, crumbling under their blows.
He did not partake. It took three men to hold him back from intervening. A shame to his legion, he’d be told later; was told at the time. He did not care. He kicked and writhed and shouted until his voice rasped and broke. But the face he saw later in his nightmares was not always the bloody shattered mask of Tiberius’s face when he finally crumpled to the ground. It was the patrician mien of Crassus: sharp bones and steely eyes and not a muscle twitching.
They let him go when it was done. They let him crawl across the bloodied ground and claw the white stone back from Tiberius’s broken fingers. They let him cry.
A quick word on homosexuality in ancient Rome:
Much as I enjoy the show's queer-embracing free-for-all approach, they kind of glossed over the fact that Romans in particular did have strict rules regarding homosexual conduct, which essentially boil down to "Roman citizens don't bottom." If you were a freeborn Roman male, you could fuck male slaves, prostitutes or captive enemy soldiers all you liked, but taking the passive role was considered shameful and unmanly and could result in loss of status and even legal persecution under the Lex Scantinia. (So for example, for Nasir's dominus, a Roman citizen of high standing, to have his slave fuck him and not vice versa would have been a big no-no.) In the military especially, subjecting other Roman soldiers to the passive role (especially if officers did it to younger soldiers under their command) could be harshly punished. Basically no one cared if you were gay as long as you didn't take it up the arse. #theseromansarecrazy
I'm going with this slightly more historically accurate approach for this story since it seemed to suit Sabinus's character.
There's a ton of reading on the subject out there, but just for some basic summaries:
Roman Law and the Banning of ‘Passive’ Homosexuality
Lex Scantinia: Roman law concerning homosexuality
Homosexuality in ancient Rome
Chapter 2: Rome Never Looks Where She Treads
(Title: A Pict Song, by Rudyard Kipling)
His own son. He’s truly made of iron, Crassus is.
The little shit was asking for it. Not a chance in the world.
It’s alright for Crassus, I suppose. He’s got a spare.
They couldn’t even take the boy’s death mask, did you hear? His face was smashed up too badly.
Sabinus wanted to rail and shout and kill them all; everyone who spoke Tiberius’s name in avid gossip, everyone who was alive when Tiberius was not. But there was nothing he could do. He lingered in the followers’ camp with the other disgraced soldiers, sitting out their sentence, clutching the white stone he pried back from Tiberius’s hand. Rolling it back and forth across his palms, endlessly, artlessly, because he’d never thought to learn the trick.
Most of all, it was a month in which he learned to hate: himself for his cowardice; Tiberius for leaving him; and Crassus, most of all, who rode through the camp with his face of iron and no proper sign of guilt. Crassus, who had somehow risen in his men’s esteem for holding true to his discipline, even at the cost of his son’s life. Crassus who was obeyed more swiftly than ever, idolised, revered.
It didn’t come easily to him, the art of hating. Mild-mannered by nature, he’d never understood the appeal of nursing grudges. Tiberius’s quick temper, his flaring outbursts and long, brooding periods of resentment over some slight or other, real or perceived, mystified Sabinus at best and reduced him to abject misery on those few occasions when they were directed at him. But usually his duty, when Tiberius fumed his loathing for this or that, was to temper him, to cool that glowering rage back down.
In the weeks after Decimation Day, he finally began to understand how hatred worked: how it could fill a place where something else had lived before, some glowing thing long treasured in secret, now quenched for good. He learned how hatred could still give you purpose when all other ambition was gone. He nursed the hatred carefully, like a vintner new to the profession, feeding it glimpses of Crassus and memories of Tiberius, ruthlessly trimming off sprouts of his former loyalty and remnant weeds of honour. The loyalty he’d held towards Crassus, the loyalty he’d once have said could not be shaken, had been smashed to bits of bone and gore with Tiberius on Decimation Day, nothing left after but twitching shreds. And as for honour… it seemed strange now to think that such a thing had ever held meaning to him. How could one hold to honour if honour demanded deeds like these? Honour had moved him to listen to Tiberius’s command to attack Spartacus and the pirates, even though he’d known it was dangerous and foolish. Honour had made him bring them both back to certain punishment. Honour had bade him refuse Tiberius’s offer to ask for clemency on Decimation Day.
Honour had placed the white stone in his hand, and everything had spun out from there, cause and effects tangling beyond repair. Now honour was a hollow thing just as was he, all feeling or lofty principle neatly burned away until he lay fallow, and the only thing that would take root in him now was hatred.
But Sinuessa fell. Of course it did, if Marcus Crassus willed it.
When their sentence was up, Crassus sent for Sabinus. You may reclaim armour, had been part of the summons, but Sabinus went as he was, in his stained linen shirt and rough-spun trousers. Inside his pocket, the white stone was a slight weight against his thigh.
Crassus was not alone. Sabinus ducked under the tent flap to find the imperator embracing his slave, Kore. His head was bowed against her shoulder and for a moment, half-buried in Kore’s dark cloud of hair, Sabinus saw grief etched into Crassus’s face, new lines that had not been there before, indelible. Then Crassus, seeing him, straightened up and sent Kore away with a private murmur. Sabinus noted, with no real curiosity, the utter absence of empathy inside him. Crassus’s feelings might be complex, his loss striated through him like silver through a vein; he might be privately drowning in the muck of his grief and guilt, but all Sabinus could think of was that this man’s lover lived, while his own by now was bits of charred bone rubble, not even a death mask left to preserve his features.
Kore’s great dark eyes lingered on him as she passed, shimmering with unshed tears. He flinched from the compassion in them, taking a step further into the tent.
“Sabinus.” Crassus was filling a cup with wine, then straightened out a map on his table, placing weights on the corners. He held his cup without drinking, studying the sketched landmarks and ivory troop markers. Silence stretched, until Sabinus could no longer bear it.
“You sent for me, Imperator.”
“I did.” Crassus faced him then, his gaze taking in Sabinus’s dishevelled, unwashed state, but he offered no comment. Instead, he gestured towards the map table, indicating a cluster of markers by the inked shape of the city by the sea. “We have reclaimed Sinuessa, but the rebels retreated and now make their lair upon Melia Ridge.” His finger travelled behind the city, into the silhouettes of craggy mountains there.
Sabinus followed his gestures and listened to him sum up events in short, precise sentences, but he found the words held no meaning. All he could take in was the idea of the man before him, once so much larger than life to him: economical movements, sharp observations, that hawk-keen gaze. For a moment, the fury that ran through him boiled so hot he had to turn away. He stared at the map instead, not seeing anything.
He did not notice Crassus had paused and turned to look at him. Again, the silence stretched, but this time he did not care; it took all his energy not to fling himself on Crassus.
“Tiberius.” Into the silence, Crassus spoke the name softly, almost reverently.
Sabinus could not help a flinch. For long moments, the name hung between them like an incantation. Then Crassus cleared his throat, swirling the wine in his cup, still not drinking. “He held you as dearest friend.”
Sabinus’s throat was so tight he could hardly speak. “And I him.” He hated the shakiness of his voice, when he wanted to rage and rant at Crassus, wanted to launch himself into the man and kill him with his bare hands. But all he could do was stand and watch, one hand clenched around the white stone in his pocket, as Crassus looked into his cup, a small frown on his face as if there were answers to be found in the dark liquid.
“When he ordered attack that day, against instructions,” he spoke abruptly, “I know it was your voice that counselled reason against his strike. He was ever… rash.”
“He was, Imperator.” Sabinus could taste blood inside his mouth where he had bitten his cheek. Rash. Yes. Rash and dazzling and impetuous and brave. Rash and generous. Rash and furious. Rash and dead for it.
Tiberius. The hidden stone dug into his palm. He wished he had a sling like the ones Tiberius and he had used as small boys. The white stone was the perfect projectile: smooth, oval, not too thick. He pictured it embedding itself in Crassus’s eye, slamming deep into his brain with the force of impact. He pictured it shattering his skull with the same dull crack that shattered Tiberius’s skull.
“I wish…” Sabinus could feel Crassus’s gaze on him but did not look up. He was too afraid of what Crassus might read in his face. “I wish it had been your cooler head that prevailed that day.”
He scrounged for an answer that would not give away the depth of his feeling. “I wish punishment had fallen on my shoulders instead.”
He did not see so much as sense Crassus tensing. His voice, when he replied, was tight. “Choice of the decimated was made by the gods. Their will not ours to question.”
For a moment, the words were on his lips, ready to fly: It was Tiberius’s will. His choice, my life over his. He tricked the fucking gods, and you, for the love he bore me.
But he didn’t speak. He knew the knowledge would hurt Crassus, would wound him terribly; but it would be slingshot prematurely spent. He didn’t want the man merely wounded. He wanted him crushed, defeated, all his ambition laid low for all of Rome to see. He surprised himself with the depth of this need for revenge, rushing hot like a river of lava.
“Imperator.” Before he knew it, he was holding out his hand, the white stone in his palm. So small a thing, a tiny death in his hand. He saw Crassus pale at the sight of it, and fought to keep from sneering. “I took it from his body, after. Something to remind me of most valuable lesson. Perhaps you wish to have it?”
Something dark flickered across Crassus’s features, almost like revulsion. He shook his head, a bit too firmly.
“Keep it, Sabinus. A meagre keepsake, for so great a loss.”
Perhaps it was a concession, as much of an olive branch as a man could offer who had killed his own son, and knew he could make no amends for it, to himself or any other. But no; it had been the gods’ will, he’d said. Sabinus wondered if Crassus believed it himself.
Crassus set down his cup of wine and circled back behind the desk. When he spoke, it was once again the voice of a commander, brisk and emptied of unseemly feeling.
“We must set our sights to future, and to task at hand. I have lifted ban of decimation, and the troop shall rejoin ranks of army. Before we left Rome, you assisted Tiberius with procurement of weapons and armour, and he spoke well of your aid. I called you here because I have similar task for you now. We await shipment of food and weapons at Sinuessa Harbour, a week from now. You are tasked with overseeing its unloading, and transport up the mountains as we move camp closer to our quarry. I give you leave to choose from long-shunned troop the men you trust to command in this. The access route…”
This time, as Crassus set out the details, Sabinus listened closely. He nodded. He accepted his tasks. He spoke his thanks.
He took the maps, the lists of figures, the planned troop movements, and he left that day.
The straps of his coarse pack chafe against his shoulders and he resettles the weight. There’s not much in there: some food, a water bag – now nearly empty – and the maps and lists. He did not dare bring weapons or armour, anything that would clearly mark him a Roman, and thus a target for hidden arrows long before he can make his purpose clear.
A bit later, he comes across a small spring, sheltered in a tiny grove of stunted trees. Ice coats the banks and a thin sheet has grown across the shallow edges, but in the centre, the water still rushes across tumbled rocks. He kneels by its edge, breaking the crust of ice with a loose rock, and crouches down to drink. The water cupped in his palm is fresh and icy cold, nearly painful as it slides down his throat. He drinks as much as his shrinking stomach will tolerate and refills his water bag.
When he picks his way out of the grove, he sees them, crossing the snowy slope ahead of him. A small group of rebels, their cloaks and furs no less tattered than his own. They carry small game slung beside their weapons, a few rabbits and birds.
They’ve seen him.
Briefly, ludicrously, it occurs to him to run. He almost laughs.
He stands his ground as they approach quickly, fanning out in a half-circle to cut off his escape if necessary. There are four of them. The way they move looks practised and familiar, borne out of long experience that no longer requires instruction. Apart from their discipline, they look a motley group, their fur-lined cloaks protecting what looks like little more than gladiator gear: leathers and vambraces, shin guards, a lonely breastplate, and bare skin showing everywhere, despite the icy cold.
Sabinus raises his hands, palms out, as they draw swiftly close. A tall man is slightly ahead of the others, his bald head uncovered against the cold, square features grim.
“I bring no harm,” Sabinus calls out, not quite as calmly as he’d hoped. “I wish to join with-“
The punch comes at him so fast and hard he half-spins before he drops, knocking his knee painfully on a hidden rock. Before he can manage to get his feet under him, a hand grips him by the hair, yanking back his head, and then there’s the kiss of steel, icy against his throat. Sabinus goes very still. The tall man’s face looms close, distorted in a grimace of hatred.
“Join with the afterlife, Roman scum!” he hisses into Sabinus’s face, filling his nostrils with a stink of onion and sour wine. The knife’s pressure increases, slicing skin. Sabinus can feel the warm trickle down his throat, and holds his breath.
This is it, then, he thinks, and part of him is almost – almost – glad. He doesn’t close his eyes. Tiberius, I shall see you soon.
“Brictius! Stay weapon, you mad fuck!”
The command rings out harshly in the crystal-clear air, like an icicle snapping. The pressure of the knife eases only slightly, but enough so Sabinus can draw a breath of air. The man who has him – Brictius – does not let go of Sabinus’s hair, but turns his head, with a ferocious scowl, to the other rebels who have caught up with him.
“You dare to order me to cease spilling Roman blood?”
The man who called out is short and honey-skinned, almost slender against the muscled bulk of Brictius. His long dark hair is blowing in the chill mountain breeze. He nods curtly, seemingly unperturbed by Brictius’s glower. “As is my purpose among us, set by Spartacus himself. To command you.”
Sneering, Brictius rises, dragging Sabinus roughly up with him. He bites his lips at the throb of pain through his knee, but manages not to make a sound. Standing, Brictius towers over the dark-haired man.
“I tire of tangling with you, little man,” he growls. “First you defend Cilician traitors” – he jerks his head briefly at one of the other two rebels silently flanking his opponent – “and now Roman fucks as well? Do you hope to preserve their lives to stick your tiny cock in them, or are you merely craven?”
Although he barely reaches Brictius’s shoulder, the young man stands his ground with no sign of alarm. Instead, he bares his teeth in a slow, menacing grin. “Castus stands no traitor, as you well know, Brictius. And you seem overly concerned with my cock. Were I you, I’d look to my own, lest someone mistake it for a maggot and twist it off.” He takes a step closer, invading Brictius’s space. “If you tire of tangling with me, cease your bluster,” he challenges, “or draw sword, and measure worth in honest contest.”
To Sabinus’s surprise, the taller man steps back. They stare at each other in silence for long moments, like mongrels circling in the streets.
It gives Sabinus a chance to straighten his aching leg and try to find his bearings. Brictius has transferred his grip from his hair to his upper arm. His fingers dig in brutally, so there’s no hope of breaking free even if he had anywhere to run. He takes the opportunity granted by the two men’s confrontation to try to gauge the threat of the two rebels who have not spoken yet.
The one Brictius called a Cilician traitor is not much taller than their leader, but more densely muscled, with broad shoulders and dark skin. He holds a wicked-looking curved sword with practised ease, though his stance is deceptively non-threatening. A leather headpiece adorned with strange symbols hides his hair, and he is covered in jewellery: a long piece of bone pierced through one ear, and a gold necklace with a large red stone set at his throat, with a half-moon torque beneath. Sabinus squints, trying to puzzle out the symbols on his wide belt, then notices, with a start, that the man has been watching him in turn. Under the outlandish hat, a pair of black eyes is trained on him, watchful and with a hint of amusement that seems to deepen at Sabinus’s discomfort. A flicker of a smile curves the man’s lips, baring very white teeth in his dark face.
Quickly, Sabinus jerks his gaze away and to the last rebel, who is, to his surprise, a woman: lean and fair-haired and as sparsely clad as the men. Sabinus knows, of course, that the rebel army includes women among their number, has seen them in that one ill-fated skirmish Tiberius had them charge into; but he has never been face to face with one like this. Like the Cilician, she is watching him closely, but there is no hint of amusement in her face. Her blue-eyed stare is wild as a hawk’s, and as blood-thirsty. She holds two long-tipped knives as if she longs to wield them.
Disconcerted, Sabinus looks away. What little hope of quarter he has clearly rests with their commander, who has apparently finally stared Brictius into surrender. With a muffled curse, the tall man turns his head and spits a glob of yellow into the snow, but he backs off.
“Very well, commander. What, then, do you propose to do with Roman shit?”
For the first time, the young rebel looks directly at Sabinus. His fine brows draw together thoughtfully as he ponders the question.
In the end, it is the dark-skinned one, Castus, who breaks the silence, taking a step forward. “We do not know he is Roman, Nasir,” he points out. His voice is pleasant, a deep, mellow timbre. “Look at him. He stands a mere boy, and unarmed. Perhaps a slave, escaped from bondage.”
It is a tempting bolthole he offers, but Sabinus has never been much of a liar, and has no desire now to learn. “No,” he croaks, then clears his throat, embarrassed, until his voice rings clear. “Your man is right. My name is Sabinus. I stand a Roman, though I seek to join with you. And I am no boy,” he adds, sourly, towards the Cilician.
The reactions are immediate. Brictius roars and kicks Sabinus between the shoulder blades, sending him sprawling to the ground a second time in short succession. “Would you still spare this fuck?!”
“I bring aid,” Sabinus manages, spitting snow. “Maps. Information.”
The woman hisses like a feral cat and lifts her knives. “Nasir – for once I agree with braying donkey’s ass. We must kill him. Remember Lysiscus and his treachery!” Castus’s face, too, has hardened, all hints of mercy gone from his black eyes.
The one they call Nasir is still regarding Sabinus with a small frown. “He made no attempt at hiding stinking roots, even when lie was presented for his use. We shall take him to camp, and let Spartacus decide.”
Brictius curses and spits again, and the woman growls, shaking her head, but neither further challenges Nasir as he issues short commands. “Brictius, Saxa – head east and check remaining snares. Collect game if there is any, and rejoin us at camp. Castus, take charge of prisoner.”
With a muttered oath, Brictius drags Sabinus up and gives him a hard shove towards Castus. Stumbling on the uneven ground, he would have promptly fallen again if not for Castus’s hands on his upper arms, steadying him.
“Gratitude,” he murmurs automatically, before he realises the absurdity of courtesy, under the circumstances.
The Cilician cocks a brow, a hint of his earlier amusement back in his voice as he observes, to no one in particular, “Our Roman is well-mannered.”
A snort right behind him makes Sabinus startle. The woman, Saxa, brushes past him, aggressively closely, and tosses Castus a length of coiled rope. “Tie his hands, at least. And do not hesitate to kill should he attempt escape.” Her fierce eyes pin Sabinus, cold as chips of blue ice. She grins slowly, more of a snarl than a display of humour. “I hope he does.”
Nasir interrupts them, peering at the lead-grey sky. “Storm will return soon. We must make haste.”
As Brictius and Saxa lope away across the snow, Castus binds Sabinus’s hands in front of him, looping and tying the knots with swift, efficient movements. Sabinus holds still for it, swallowing the impulse to tell them it’s not necessary, that he has no intention to flee. Why would they believe him? Easier not to resist. Their camp can’t be that far.
Castus tests the hold of his knots, tugging on the rope. Sabinus wriggles his chilly fingers slightly. The ties are tight, but not cruelly so; no more of a discomfort than his aching jaw or throbbing knee.
With a final tug, Castus straightens up. He’s shorter than Sabinus but not by much; this close up, Sabinus can see that the shapes on his leather gear are fish and other sea creatures, long-finned and strange. There are fine lines in the corners of his eyes, suggesting a fondness for laughter. As though to prove it, Castus grins at him suddenly: a threatening grin, but edged by genuine good humour. He picks up the end of the rope, winding it round his own hand like a leash to guide a dog.
“Keep pace, pretty boy, and attempt no tricks,” he suggests cheerfully, “or I shall finish what Brictius started.” He illustrates his meaning with a quick slashing motion across his throat. “You understand?”
Sabinus swallows, the motion waking the unpleasant tickle of drying blood on his throat. “Completely,” he assures Castus, who rewards him with another quick grin before turning to join his commander, rope in hand.
Sabinus hastens after them, making sure to keep up.
Chapter 3: He Who Has Lost Honour Can Lose Nothing More
(Title: Publilius Syrus)
Then it’s all he can do to focus on his breathing as the ground grows steeper. The sky has darkened and a light flurry of snow has started to drift down, adding to what’s already knee-high on the ground. They follow no track Sabinus can see; if anything, the route seems unfamiliar to the two men themselves, judging by their few stops and murmured consultations. Eventually, Nasir moves slightly ahead, to test the way, it seems. He and Castus move swiftly, though, and Sabinus stumbles along behind as fast as he can, having no wish to fall on his face if the rope between him and Castus grows too taut. With his hands bound before him, he has no way to warm them, and his fingers quickly start to ache with cold. He rubs them together futilely.
“Is it much farther?” he calls, at one point. They both ignore him. Sighing, he directs his attention back to dragging his feet through the snow. He has to lift them high enough to shake the crusting snow off every few steps, and it takes all his concentration.
Which is why he has no warning when the ground opens up.
It happens incredibly quickly: a shout, followed by a loud, ponderous cracking noise, and then a sudden brutal tug on the rope that sends him tumbling face down. The pull on the rope is terribly forceful. His arms feel as if they’re about to be ripped out of their sockets, and he screams when he realises he’s being dragged across the ground. He scrabbles for purchase, anything to halt the inexorable pull, and manages to throw himself behind a boulder, digging his feet in. There is more shouting just ahead. Blinking snow out of his face, Sabinus stares at the crevasse that has opened right in front of him. Snow and sheets of ice are still tumbling in, and on the far side, Nasir is on his knees in the snow, shouting as he gestures frantically at something down the pit.
Castus, Sabinus realises, even as he leans back to resist the weight threatening to drag him forward too, into that sudden, gaping slit of rock. The crevasse must have been hidden by the snow, its icy cover just solid enough to let Nasir cross safely, but giving in his wake. Castus has fallen, the rope he was holding the only thing breaking the fall. Sabinus’s wrists feel like they’re about to break from the weight.
“The rope!” Nasir is shouting at him across the sudden gap. It’s no wider than three metres, but that is plenty; too far to risk a leap on crumbling ice. Nasir is picking his way along the edge of the crevasse now, trying to find a point where it ends or narrows and where he can return to this side. “Roman! The rope is tearing!”
Sabinus squints at where he’s pointing, then groans. The rope is holding the Cilician, alright, but where it abruptly disappears into the crevasse, it’s stretched across a thick slab of jagged ice, the edge as sharp as a sword. The threads are giving fast, sliced by the pressure and the motion of the rope as the unseen man dangles below.
Leaning back to brace himself, Sabinus edges out from behind the protection of the boulder. Immediately the pull increases again, the tight hemp cutting into his wrists, and from down the crevasse, there is a muffled shout of alarm as his forward motion lets out the rope, dropping Castus farther down. He’ll have to haul as he approaches to keep the rope in place, Sabinus realises grimly, or risk slicing the rope all the way through. That, or the drag will pull them both over the edge.
He wraps his hands around the rope and gathers the slack as he inches forward, clenching his teeth and digging his feet into the ground. Briefly it occurs to him that he walked up here more or less resigned to being killed, but now that death looms so close, he wants nothing to do with it. Crouched low in the snow as his feet search for purchase against the frozen ground, he can’t see Nasir anymore. He hopes he’ll find a way back quickly.
The rope isn’t long but it feels like an eternity until he’s finally made it all the way to the edge, praying to all the gods that the ice beneath him won’t suddenly give and tumble him to his death along with the Cilician. His fingers are white-knuckled and nearly numb from the strain of hauling in the rough hemp, but at least he’s kept it taut. It’s still moving, though, slicing against the ice at the edge. He can feel the motion in his hands, chafing at his palms, trying to yank the rope from his trembling grip. Holding as tight as he can and shaking his snow-wet hair out of his eyes, Sabinus dares a peek across the edge. Castus is just below him, his own hands wrapped tightly around the rope, feet scrabbling against the side of the crevasse, desperate for a foothold. That doesn’t look a likely prospect; what Sabinus can see of the sides of the cleft is smooth and ice-coated, and Castus’s wild motions make the rope slide back and forth against that jagged edge, sawing him to ruin.
“Hold still,” Sabinus croaks, and then louder, “Hold still!”
The dangling man stops and turns a strained face towards Sabinus. His teeth are bared and his eyes wild, and Sabinus can see the knowledge of approaching death in them.
The gods fuck that.
Sucking in a lungful of icy air, he reaches over the edge. His hands throb dully with cold and constricted blood flow, but he manages to grab hold of the rope below the fraying point, and makes an effort to haul on it. He cries out with alarm as the motion nearly yanks him forward, and throws his weight back with all his might. It barely helps. Even without kicking wildly, Castus seems to weigh a ton, and this close to the edge, Sabinus doesn’t have enough purchase to get more leverage on the rope. Sweat pours down his forehead as he leans back, not pulling so much as barely keeping the rope from sliding from his grasp. It slips anyway, slowly, inexorably, through his clenching fingers. The cut part is just two hands’ widths from where he’s holding on, and he knows with cold certainty that when it slips that far, when those fraying strands pass through his hands and once again take all that weight, they’ll snap. He tries to tighten his grip. The rope is slippery, and he stares down at the man below him, suspended helplessly above dark nothingness. He is still looking up, gaze locked with Sabinus’s; Sabinus tries to say something comforting, but he has no air to spare, and everything is shifting: the rope through his aching fingers, his own weight towards the abyss.
Then Nasir is there, throwing himself on his belly beside Sabinus and grabbing the rope below Sabinus’s hands. Sabinus almost sobs with relief as some of the pressure eases off his wrists. He feels Nasir’s wiry body tense beside him as he leans back.
“Pull now,” he instructs breathlessly, and Sabinus throws himself back along with him, hauling as hard as he can. Slowly, agonisingly slowly, the weight shifts their way as they pull and dig in their heels. There’s a slight hitch when Castus reaches the edge and tries to find a handhold to pull himself over on the jagged ice. Teeth clenched, Sabinus waits it out with Nasir, holding onto his handful of rope for dear life. Then Castus manages to get his leg up; there’s one final jerk on the rope as he muscles his way over the edge, and then it’s done. Castus half-rolls, half-crawls away from the edge and collapses in the snow.
For a little while there is nothing but the sound of harsh breathing. On his back in the snow, Sabinus has his eyes closed, concentrating on the sweet painful flow of blood through his fingers. The snow is coming down more heavily now, and little crystals settle on his face.
A little to his right, he can hear the two rebels talking, Nasir’s voice brisk as he asks if Castus is injured. Castus’s reply is breathless still, but infused with a warmth that has Sabinus turning his head, blinking snow from his lashes to make out the two forms of the men, one bent over the other. Castus has grasped hold of Nasir’s hand. “If so, your touch would mend all hurt.” The tease is light but unmistakable.
Nasir huffs and withdraws his hand, sitting back on his haunches. “Clearly you hold no injury, if tongue can still deliver pointless flattery,” he replies curtly.
Castus’s smile widens. “Not pointless, surely, if it affects you so.”
“Cease.” The command is sharp, and this time Castus heeds it, but his eyes follow Nasir as he makes his way back to Sabinus. Something about the small exchange sets Sabinus’s heart to pounding heavily in his chest. He tucks the witnessed scene away to ponder later. There is a story there, and information is now the only currency he has.
Nasir kneels down, ostensibly to check Sabinus’s bonds, but his gaze is on Sabinus’s face. His eyes are light-brown and sharp, one accentuated by a vertical scar.
“You held the rope.”
Sabinus blinks at him, uncertain if it’s a question. “His ruin would have meant mine.” He lifts his still-tied wrists in demonstration.
“It was tearing. You could have left it to its course.” A flat observation. Sabinus wracks his brain for an answer – it didn’t occur to him, mostly – and comes up empty. He shrugs.
Nasir says nothing but his gaze lingers on Sabinus thoughtfully.
“Whatever spurred action, it is well received.” Castus has made his way over to them and is leaning down to help Sabinus up. He’s grinning as he brushes snow off Sabinus’s shoulders. “Our little Roman may yet be of value,” he says to Nasir, who is still watching Sabinus.
“To those among us clumsy enough to fall into unseen pits, perhaps,” he responds dryly. “As I said, Spartacus will decide his fate.”
Castus takes no visible offence at the jab. He nods good-naturedly, and hauls Sabinus along by the arm. “Then let us speed towards him, and cups of heated wine. I tire of fucking snow.”
He did not expect there to be so many who are not fighters at all – children running the narrow paths between the tents, old people and cripples huddled at cookfires. A group of youths both male and female are gathered in a cleared area, engaged in what he supposes is training, but although there are more seasoned fighters supervising, it all looks more like brawling than focused discipline to him. From what he can tell, the weapons are neither enough nor of good quality. He stares in passing at a woman throwing a much larger man over her shoulder, pinning him to the snow with her foot against his throat, to roaring cheers from onlookers. This is the force that has plagued and eluded Rome for the better part of two years? He thinks of Crassus’s drills, the cadence of a dozen cohorts marching in lock-step, shields raised into impenetrable barriers, and dismay rises up in his throat at the thought of what he is about to ally with. A rabble, doomed.
Deliberately, he swallows his misgivings. Even Crassus’s discipline, he reminds himself bitterly, has weak spots.
“You were missed,” the tall man murmurs, paying the rest of them no heed whatsoever.
Nasir snorts, but indulgently, and gives him a light shove against the chest. “I was not gone half a day, Agron.” Sabinus has heard the name in passing at the Roman camp. One of Spartacus’s generals, if such a disciplined term can be applied to such a barbarian.
“In poor company,” Agron grumbles, finally glaring towards Castus and Sabinus. “And you brought more of same.”
Sabinus can feel Castus tensing beside him, but before he can speak, a new voice cuts in. “Why is this Roman not dead?” Another man has stepped beside Agron, frowning at Sabinus. This one – dark-haired, bearded, impressively muscled – he recognises, at least by description. Crixus, the former champion of Capua. More people crowd around them, murmuring angrily. A dark-skinned woman next to Crixus looks as though she’d be more than happy to correct the oversight of his not being dead, possibly with her teeth.
Nasir stands his ground against them with no sign of alarm. “He says he came to join our cause.”
Among the scornful noises, the dark-skinned woman’s voice rings out with cold precision. “He stands a Roman. The only cause I’d see him join is that of the underworld.”
“Naevia speaks truth. Why did you not strike him from this world?” Crixus demands.
Nasir shrugs. “He bore no weapons. And we came across a hidden snow pit on our way. Castus was swallowed by it. The Roman saved his life.”
Beside him, Agron snorts and sends a quick glare towards Castus. “That does not speak overmuch in his favour.”
Nasir frowns at him, but before he can respond, another rebel speaks up, deceptively mildly. “And can this Roman speak for himself?”
The man who has appeared between the generals is shorter than Agron, less muscled than Crixus, and he bears no insignia, but somehow Sabinus knows who this is, even before the other rebels quiet to hear him speak.
“You’re… you’re Spartacus.”
“So people tell me,” the man confirms.
Sabinus can’t help staring. If the camp was a surprise, so is the man himself: younger than expected, for one thing, easily two decades Crassus’s junior, and hardly looking the fearsome beast his reputation makes him out to be. His hair is neatly trimmed, his reddish beard cropped short, and his red breastplate makes it almost possible to picture him a Roman.
Spartacus is inspecting him in turn. “Do you have a name, boy?”
He straightens his shoulders and feels Castus’s hand drop from his arm as he does so. “Sabinus Flavius Verres. Late of the command of Marcus Crassus.”
“Why would you seek to fall from it?”
Sabinus flounders, absurdly unprepared for the question, and Spartacus’s eyes narrow. “Speak,” he commands tersely.
“He… took the life of someone dear to me.” It sounds woefully inadequate in his own ears; craven. What a thing to complain of, for a Roman soldier.
Spartacus seems unimpressed as well. “A thing shared by many of us, to have beloved lives taken by Romans,” he says shortly. “Who?”
He has nothing to offer but the truth. “A friend, although I held him as more. Tiberius Licinius Crassus. His son.”
There are muttered exclamations at that, and Spartacus’s brow creases. “He killed his son? What drove him to such deed?”
Sabinus briefly closes his eyes and steels himself. He can’t look at that intent, suspicious face. Eyes on the ground in front of him, he gives the barest possible account of the facts, pretending he is reporting to a superior officer. He speaks of Tiberius’s forbidden attack and Crassus’s rage. The punishment ordained, and how it was delivered. The only thing he can’t bring himself to reveal is that moment under the cloud-darkened sky when Tiberius’s hand touched his, the two stones changing place. It’s not a lie, he thinks; omitting it changes nothing about the truth, which is that Tiberius fell to decimation while his father watched. These strangers do not need to know how Sabinus failed at the one task he had, to die.
The rebels listen to his tale mostly in silence, although there is the odd hiss or muttered oath. When he’s done, he lifts his head, to be faced with varying degrees of mistrust and outright loathing. Nasir alone has something like sympathy in his expression, but it’s remote, and Sabinus expects no further help from him.
Crixus takes a step forward, speaking to Spartacus, but with a sideways scowl at Sabinus. “Let us kill this treacherous fuck and be done with him. Why should we care about the dead son of Crassus and his boy?”
Spartacus is watching him still, expression unreadable. “If you held Crassus’s son to heart, you must know the man himself.”
“Since childhood. I can tell you of him. And of his troops. His strategy.” He is aware that he should feel outraged at what he’s doing, disgusted even; but there is nothing but the dull pull of loss and hatred inside him, the constant ache for vengeance.
“I can prove it. I brought maps, and details of plan to provision troops.” When he moves to take his pack off his shoulders, Castus’s arm shoots forward, snake-swift, to hold him immobile once again, but at a nod from Spartacus, the Cilician lets him go. Sabinus opens his pack to pull out the stolen maps, all too aware of a dozen weapons held ready to plunge into him. He unrolls the smooth vellum and points awkwardly while he explains about the supply ship and the planned route from Sinuessa.
“The shipment will be sizeable,” he finishes. “Grain, salted meat, fruit. And weapons too.”
There are murmurs at that but Spartacus’s face remains impassive. “And to what purpose would you have us put such wealth?”
“To intercept it, and use it for your own.”
Spartacus steps suddenly closer, until they’re face to face. “What makes you think I would take this risk on a traitor’s information?” His tone is mild still, but something thrums beneath the surface, something dangerous. From up this close, Sabinus can see that his eyes are green.
He swallows, and wills his voice to stay steady. “Your people’s need. Nothing grows on this ridge, and there cannot be enough rabbits to snare to feed an army such as yours. Your cookpots looked meagrely filled as I passed them, and too few in number.”
Spartacus’s gaze narrows. “You have sharp eyes.” It doesn’t sound a compliment. “I wonder what should dissuade me from thinking you plan to use them to take in all they can and carry knowledge back to Crassus upon earliest opportunity.”
“I have no guarantee to give except my word.”
“The word of a traitor.”
“I am that. But a traitor to Rome may yet be of aid to Rome’s enemies.”
Agron makes an impatient noise behind them. “Spartacus, we cannot trust him. Remember Lysiscus!”
“I do.” Spartacus takes a step back, his expression once more carefully blank. “I remember Lucius Caelius, also.” He steps away from Sabinus. “At present, we have more pressing concerns than what to do with this one. The storm gains force again, and we must keep our people safe. Castus.”
Castus steps forward from his position at Sabinus’s back. “Nasir says the Roman saved your life?”
“Then I charge you with his. I would yet learn whether he speaks truth, but for now, see that he is fed, and also that he has no means of escape.”
This time, Sabinus barely pays attention to the camp as Castus manoeuvres him between tents. Coming face to face with Spartacus has brought home to him the reality of where he is in a way that planning it never quite did. He stumbles along, shoulders hunched against the wind, which blows snowflakes into his face from all sides, including, somehow, from below. Castus is saying something about the storm, but the wind is tearing the words away from his mouth, and Sabinus doesn’t ask him to repeat it. Numbly, he follows the Cilician, who eventually stops to usher Sabinus into a shelter crammed with other people. He sits down where he is bidden, between two clusters of people who send him suspicious looks. Fear and worry have kept him from noticing till now how bone-tired he is. He draws his knees in close against his chest and threads his arms around them.
Castus has crouched down before him. “Stay here,” he instructs, voice raised slightly above the howling of the wind. “There are tasks I need to see to but I shall return later. Do not do anything foolish.”
Sabinus looks at him blearily. “More foolish than what I have done already?”
Castus’s mouth quirks slightly upwards. “If what you told Spartacus is true, many here would call your choice a wise one. If you spoke falsehoods, or plan double treason…” – his expression hardens – “…then appearing as a fool will be least among your concerns. You should know that the people in this camp are but recently scalded by treachery of the one they knew as Lysiscus. They would not hesitate to move swiftly and harshly against one who would follow in his footsteps.”
“Caesar. I know.” He shakes his head slowly. He is unbearably tired. “I plan no treachery.”
“Time will tell.” Castus moves away and Sabinus half-closes his eyes. It smells bad inside the tent, and it’s bitterly cold despite the many packed bodies.
A moment later he flinches when something heavy drops across his shoulders. Blinking up, he finds that Castus has thrown a blanket around him. It’s scratchy and smells none too subtly of goat, but it’s thick enough to keep the worst of the cold off. Clumsily, Sabinus gropes for its edges with his bound hands, pulling it tightly around him.
When Castus grabs his hands, Sabinus stiffens with alarm, especially when Castus pulls a short knife from his belt as well. A quick slice, and the snow-wet, tightened rope falls from his wrists. Sabinus sighs with half relief, half pain as warm blood floods back into his stiffened fingers. Castus turns his hands palms up, a slight frown on his face as he inspects the welts around Sabinus’s wrists and across his rope-chafed palms.
“I cannot leave you here untied,” he says, almost apologetically. “But this should yield more comfort.” He produces a length of linen bandage from under his cloak, winding it quickly around Sabinus’s wrists until they are thickly padded. He criss-crosses the ends between and over his wrists and ties them off, still firmly enough to keep his hands bound securely, but much more softly than the rope.
“Gratitude,” Sabinus murmurs.
Castus is looking down at him with his head cocked slightly to one side.
“You should also know that I keep close tally of the debts I owe. I am somewhat attached to my life, Roman boy. I shall not forget that you preserved it.”
It seems an absurd declaration, considering the man threatened him with a painful death just moments ago, and the mocking address does not help.
“My name is Sabinus,” he says, vaguely irritated, to the empty space before him. Castus has already disappeared into the snow.
The howling white emptiness leaves him too much space to think. His mind, overtired and frayed with jittery tension, keeps flooding him with the enormity of what he has done. Joined the enemy. Betrayed Rome. Betrayed the sacramentum he swore along with Tiberius, their heads full of lofty dreams of blood and glory. He tries to picture what Tiberius would say if he could see him like this, and shudders at the imagined revulsion on his face.
He tries to escape into sleep, but all he can manage is a restless doze.
He doesn’t know how much time has passed when something nudges against his ankle. Startling up, he finds a woman in a brown cloak looking down at him. She has a bowl in her hand and an expression of blatant distaste on her face.
“You are the Roman?”
“I… yes.” He supposes he’ll have to get used to being identified as that. The woman thrusts the bowl at him, along with a water skin.
“Castus sends me with food.”
He drains almost the entire skin, belatedly realising how parched he was. “Gratitude,” he says, sincerely, as he attacks the food. It’s only bland gruel and there is no spoon, but it’s warm, and he finishes every bite, using his fingers to scoop what he can’t sip. It’s slightly awkward with bound hands but he is hungry enough not to care.
The storm, he notices, has died down; it’s bitterly cold but the mad howling has stopped, at least temporarily. There’s chatter and movement in the tent as people share meals and rearrange themselves. Nearby, a group of small children huddles around a game of sticks and pebbles.
The woman has dropped into a cross-legged seated position, at a pointed distance. Sabinus sneaks glances at her every so often while he eats. Unlike many of the women he’s seen in camp, she doesn’t carry weapons. She has his own colouring – brown hair, blue eyes – but what he considers plain in himself looks startlingly beautiful on her. Her clothing is ragged like most of the rebels’ but her bearing is graceful, almost regal. He wonders how she came to be here, in this dismal place.
She traps one of his furtive glances with an unfriendly glare. “I would advise you to turn leering eyes elsewhere unless you wish to have them plucked from head.”
“I was not…” He stops and reminds himself how little reason any of these people have to assume any good of him. “Apologies. I meant no offence.” In an effort at conciliation, he lifts the bowl. “This is good.”
She merely stares at him, lip curling in a slight, incredulous sneer. Sabinus attempts a smile, acknowledging his blatant lie. “Well, it is warm and filling, and I appreciate your bringing it. May I know your name?”
The coolness of her expression does not alter. “Belesa. Now cease pointless talk and finish meal. I have not time to play prison guard all day.”
Sabinus bows his head over his meal and finishes in silence. But when he tries to hand the empty bowl back to her, Belesa scowls at him. “See it cleaned. There are no slaves here to do every task for you.”
“Apologies.” Sabinus holds the bowl uncertainly, wondering whether she wants him to use his leftover water to clean it, or a corner of his ripe blanket. It seems a humiliating sort of thing to ask.
At his hesitation, Belesa sighs impatiently. “Use snow. Have you no wits?”
Apparently not. “Apologies,” he says again, uselessly. The snow is cold against his already stiff fingers as he clumsily scours the bowl with it. Briefly he considers asking to be untied, but one glance at Belesa’s face convinces him it would be futile.
When he offers her the clean bowl, she rises in a fluid motion and steps closer. A sudden gust of wind tears at her hair and clothes, whipping up her long skirt just for a second; just long enough to expose the shiny, half-melted look of burn scars covering both legs from shin to thigh: not consistent, but applied in finger-long, deliberate patterns, dotting healthy skin in sickening multitudes.
Belesa slaps her skirts back down fast but not quite fast enough. “What happened?” Sabinus blurts, too shocked for discretion.
She leans down to snatch the bowl from his hand. Her colour is high, though that could be from the cold; her blue eyes blaze at him with obvious loathing. “I was a slave,” she says, in cold, measured tones, “and you a Roman. Need you truly ask?”
Sabinus stares at her, appalled. He opens his mouth but she cuts him off before a sound comes out. “Say apologies again, and I will tear out your eyes. Did you believe we’d grovel at your feet in gratitude for deigning to join us? Bearing your maps and petty tales from the house of Crassus, bent entirely on the wrongs done you?” She spits in the snow at his feet. “Welcome to the cause of the rebellion, Roman. It is made up of people who were once your property, and now are not. Not a soul here cares about the cruel blows the fates may have dealt the likes of you, who have no notion of what suffering truly means. You yet live by the grace of those with more generosity than sense, but make no mistake: no one here asked for or needs your aid, your apologies, or anything of yours. You are useless entirely.”
She stomps away into the snow, cloak billowing. Staring after her, heart in his throat, his stomach churning with the remembered glimpse of dozens of scars, Sabinus wonders, not for the first time, whether he hasn’t made the worst mistake of his life.
Chapter 4: Adrift
Despite the open hostility at his arrival, Sabinus finds himself largely ignored. The people sharing his tent seem to have enough to do to keep themselves warm and fed. He is not even openly guarded, probably for the simple reason that any attempt to escape in the middle of the storm would see him dead by morning.
The only people who pay him any attention at all are Castus and Belesa. The pirate comes to check on him every so often, sitting beside him and asking questions about Crassus and the Roman camp. Sabinus keeps his answers short but as truthful as he can, knowing they’ll doubtlessly be carried back to Spartacus. Castus seems not to notice his dark mood, or at least he takes it in stride. He talks more than anyone Sabinus has ever encountered: idle observations about people passing by; endless jokes about the awful weather and worse food; unlikely sailing anecdotes that Sabinus suspects to be mostly fabricated; disparaging remarks about certain lands east of the Rhine.
Sabinus is not sure what to make of the man. He walks with an easy swagger and seems to take nothing seriously, but his mere presence here is something of a puzzle. From his idle chatter, Sabinus has finally discovered that Castus was one of the men who met with Spartacus the night Tiberius attacked them outside Sinuessa. In the dark, during that fateful battle, there was every chance that he himself might have crossed swords with Castus, although he supposes even in the midst of that darkness and confusion he would have taken note of someone so outlandishly garbed. He knows from the news reaching the followers’ camp that the pirate captain Heracleo turned his coat and allied with Crassus in the end, and his men with him. But Castus alone is here, among the rebels, being trusted with vital tasks.
Sabinus wonders how much it has to do with any true alignment with Spartacus’s cause and how much with the way Castus’s dark eyes follow Nasir whenever he is nearby. But he doesn’t ask; despite his treason, there is still inside him a deep reluctance to share anything private with these people, let alone hold anything in common with a corsair.
If Castus keeps an eye on him with an almost benevolent matter-of-factness, as if he were a dog with whose care Castus unexpectedly found himself saddled, there is nothing indulgent about Belesa’s treatment of him. She still brings him food, but on the second day, when she came with Castus, declared loudly that the Roman should not sit idle like a pampered guest when there is work to do. Castus agreed easily enough to untie Sabinus, and ever since then she has put him to work. Under her direction, he tends fires, helps her carry and hand out wood and food rations, and fetches endless bucketfuls of snow for melting. Sometimes Castus accompanies them, and it becomes quickly evident to Sabinus that he and Belesa are friends, sharing in an easy banter that excludes Sabinus.
Not that he minds. He doesn’t mind the work, either, but if it were up to him he’d do it without supervision. There’s something about the carefree way they talk and pass a jug of water or some morsel of food that reminds him, too sharply, of what he has lost: not just Tiberius but the easy companionship of soldiers.
At night, surrounded by strangers and the never-ceasing fury of the blizzard, he curls up as small as he can make himself under his blanket and lets the misery take him. In the dark and cold, without the distraction of Belesa’s tasks and Castus’s endless talk, the sorrow rises swiftly, filling him until he thinks the morning will find him drowned on it. He clutches the white stone until his hand aches and bites the rancid blanket to keep from howling like an animal. A few times, when he finally drifts into an uneasy sleep, he dreams of Tiberius, pressed close against him, dark eyes tender and laughing, reaching to touch him. Whispering words he never said, promises he never would have made. Sabinus wakes from these dreams hard and trembling, biting his lip as he quickly jerks himself to completion, and then lies there empty and dry-eyed, until outside dark grey replaces black, announcing a new day.
On errands for Belesa, he catalogues what he sees, out of habit. His first impression of the camp was not wrong: everything is poorly organised, from the positioning of tents and the lack of latrines to the haphazard distribution of what little food there is. Seeing two adolescent boys run shouting after a skinny goat that has escaped a pen, he marvels at how Spartacus has managed to keep this rabble together at all. The only thing that seems to run smoothly is weapons training, but in the midst of the storm, training sessions have been suspended.
He mentions his observations to Castus, who seems amused. “Four days you’ve been here, and already you’d have us turn camp into effigy of Rome? You need to grow more subtle.”
But later that day, he comes to fetch Sabinus and takes him to Spartacus’s tent. Heart pounding, Sabinus enters in front of him, to find the rebels’ leader bent over the maps Sabinus brought. There are fewer people in attendance today: apart from Spartacus, there’s only Gannicus, another legend of Capua’s arena, lounging off to the side with a jug of wine in his hand, and Saxa, sharpening her knives in a disturbingly loving manner. Castus has come inside to stand with him just inside the tent’s entrance, and to his surprise, Sabinus feels a brief flash of relief at having him there. Whether because of the snow pit or because of his naturally affable manner, Castus seems to be the closest thing he has to an ally.
Spartacus looks up at their entrance, briefly inspecting Sabinus. Instinctively, Sabinus straightens. With little opportunity to wash, unshaven, in his worn clothes, he knows he must look a disgrace. He still feels almost naked without his armour, and absurdly shamed at appearing before the leader of an army in such poor condition.
Spartacus does not comment on his appearance (and of course not, why would he, Sabinus reminds himself – the rebels all look ragged, and many worse than him). Without preliminaries, he asks, “What rank did you hold under command of Crassus?”
Sabinus resists the urge to shift his weight nervously. “I was too young for a commission yet, though I was training towards tribunus militum.” He clears his throat. “Ultimately I’d hoped someday to hold rank of praefectus castrorum.” At Spartacus’s questioning look, he explains, “A prefect of the camp. One in charge of equipment and provisions, who sees to it that army is well supplied.”
Spartacus considers this. “Castus tells me you do not think this camp well supplied. ‘As poorly organised as starving foxes in crowded lair, he relayed your words.”
If a minute ago he was grateful for Castus’s presence, Sabinus would now dearly love to kick the man. “I… I merely meant-”
“I take no offence.” There is the hint of a smile in Spartacus’s voice, although his face remains impassive. “Tell me, Sabinus, if you held position of praefectus in this camp, how would you measure its current prospects?”
Sabinus hesitates. “If rations passed out now are indication of food supplies remaining, and gauging numbers of your people? From what I’ve seen among provisions, grain supply may be less than 150 librae. At current numbers, army’s survival may be measured in two weeks. Three, if rations are reduced by half.”
In his corner, Gannicus laughs, taking a large swig from his jug. “You let Roman traitor see store of our provisions? Well done, if goal was to give him ample information to carry back to Crassus.”
“He helped to see people fed,” Castus retorts. “A better use for him than eating without work.”
“If he is worried about food, why not let him go without?” Saxa asks, scowling as she whets her knives meaningfully.
Spartacus pays no heed to their interjections; he is still watching Sabinus. “You have a gift for numbers, it would seem.”
Sabinus shrugs. “They come easy to me. In Rome, when Crassus prepared his army, I aided his son with procuring weapons and armour for troops.” In truth, he did most of the work, as Tiberius had no patience for calculations and prices, but it feels disloyal to admit that.
“This shipment you spoke of.” Spartacus gestures at the map in front of him. “Tell me of it again. Numbers, route of delivery, how well it will be guarded.”
Warily, Sabinus steps up to the map table. Without instruction, the three others draw closer too, watching as he taps points upon the map.
“Ship is expected three days hence, as I told you before. It will be processed through the harbour at Sinuessa, supplies to be unloaded there and carried towards Crassus’s army outside the gates. Once it has been received, Crassus plans to move further up the mountain.”
“Crassus knows the boy knows this. They will be waiting for us, if we attempt to seize supplies,” Gannicus interjects.
Spartacus slowly shakes his head. “They will be waiting for us to attack as cargo is carried towards camp, outside the gates and at points close to access to Melia Ridge. Here, here, and here.” He taps the corresponding spots on the map. “He will have men waiting there, prepared for attack. But with Sinuessa in his hand, he would not expect us to attack inside the city, as the ship arrives. Would you agree?” He directs the last question at Sabinus.
Startled, he nods. “I don’t believe he would expect new attempt upon the city now. But it would take a large force, and the losses…”
Spartacus shakes his head, a small smile on his face. “I do not plan open attack. We would send small group, of no open threat, to pass through gates in disguise and meet the ship at harbour.”
“But how would you seize cargo off the ship and carry supplies back through city and gates with a force small enough to escape attention?” Sabinus asks, bewildered.
Instead of answering, Spartacus exchanges a glance with Castus, who steps forward, grinning. “We don’t, Roman boy. We take the ship herself.” His finger trails a line along the coast outside Sinuessa. “We sail her up the coast until we are well beyond reach, then go ashore and unload. Someone will need to meet us there, with horses.”
For the first time, Gannicus seems to have more interest in the discussion than in his wine jug. He leans forward, frowning. “We could give Crassus what he expects as well. Have a diversion force engage him at the gates, to draw suspicion off those who enter city.” He grins at each of them in turn. “I am too well known to sneak into Sinuessa, and well tired of that place, but I will gladly give them sport outside.”
“And I,” Saxa adds, in a tone that brooks no discussion. Spartacus nods at both of them before addressing Castus.
“You can take the ship?”
Castus grins widely. “Ship that I cannot take has not yet been built.”
“Good. Choose small group to accompany you – no more than you need for task,” Spartacus warns him. “And only those who will not be easily recognised within the city.”
“Take Belesa,” Saxa tells Castus, with a leer. “No Roman would notice a fire under his feet, as long as her tits were in his face.”
Into the chuckles following her suggestion, Castus speaks. “I wish to take the Roman, also.”
Shocked, Sabinus jerks his head around at the suggestion. Castus meets his gaze calmly, with only a twinkle in his eye registering his amusement. For a moment, even Spartacus looks surprised.
Castus shrugs. “He knows the plans, and Crassus. He may come in useful.”
“But…” Sabinus flounders as Spartacus looks at him shrewdly.
“Is there some reason you would not go, Sabinus?” He lifts a brow, keeping his tone mildly inquisitive, but the green eyes pierce Sabinus. “Some trap you have not spoken of, that you’d rather not be caught in?”
“No, I… no. I’ll go if you wish me to. I but stand… surprised.”
“That you’d be trusted?” Spartacus snorts. “Oh, you are not. Castus, I leave decision to you, but responsibility as well. He could pose risk to mission.”
Castus nods, lightly dropping a hand on Sabinus’s shoulder. “Do not fear. I shall keep him in hand.”
Saxa steps close to his other side, a knife lightly tickling his neck. “And if you cannot, I shall keep him in pieces,” she promises, sounding very cheered by the prospect indeed. Sabinus swallows the rest of his misgivings.
He waits until they leave the tent, walking back through the camp, to ask Castus, “Why me?”
Castus rolls his wide shoulders in a shrug. “Some men need purpose, or they wither like poisoned tree. Besides, you furnish entertainment.”
He disappears into the stormy gloom before Sabinus can decide whether to take offence.
Chapter 5: A Tale of Cinnamon
Startled, Sabinus slips the white stone into his pocket and looks up. Castus has an unsettling ability to appear suddenly out of nowhere, like the big desert cats Sabinus has sometimes seen in the arena. Sabinus blinks up at him from where he’s huddled against a tent post. It’s a draughty spot and far from the nearest fire, but at least the sturdy wood is something to lean against, and he’s draped a blanket over his cloak for extra protection against the never-ceasing wind. Besides, it’s uncomfortable enough to discourage anyone from joining him.
Anyone reasonable and capable of taking hints, that is.
Castus is watching him with his lips quirked, although the half-smile doesn’t reach his eyes. “I’ve watched you sitting here with mighty frown upon face. You think so hard I almost expected brain to leak from ears.”
“You’ve watched me? Had you no better task?”
Castus shrugs. “Not at the moment. And you?”
Sabinus bristles at that. “I’ve helped with tent repairs, and seen new rations handed out. I’ve piled wood as Belesa ordered, and fetched snow for melting. If she had other tasks for me, she should have told me so instead of-“
Castus holds up a hand, laughing. “Peace, Sabinus. Belesa was well satisfied with your aid, and I did not mean to accuse you of idleness. Merely to say it seems a shame to sit alone and scowl on so fine a day.”
Sabinus raises his brows at him. “So fine a day? Are storms upon the sea concocted in the very underworld, then, to make five days of this foul weather balmy in your eyes?”
Castus’s grin widens. “Indeed. A mere late autumn breeze, this, barely reason for a storm bird to give a single caw in warning. May I join you?”
Sabinus hesitates. “I… fear I will make poor company.”
Castus shrugs and lifts a jug from the folds of his cloak. “Perhaps it may be improved by wine.” He gracefully lowers himself to the ground beside Sabinus and hands him a cup. Sabinus makes a surprised noise when he pours and steam rises from the cup.
“Recently heated at fire. There are spices, too.”
Sabinus wraps his chilled fingers around the pleasant warmth and inhales deeply. “Cinnamon,” he says wonderingly. “Even in Rome, only the most affluent households can afford such a thing. I tasted it but once or twice at the house of Crassus. How came you by it?”
Again that grin flashes, quick and mischievous. “Pirate.”
Sabinus snorts. “A pirate who carries spices instead of treasure?”
Castus shrugs. “In chill mountains such as these, spiced wine is greater treasure than golden trinkets. Besides, I’ve long held a fondness for spices obtained from foreign lands. They can improve bland fare most wonderfully.”
“Obtained. You mean stolen from honest merchants, I presume,” Sabinus says sourly, but if he expected Castus to take offence, he is mistaken. Instead, the pirate clutches his heart in mock pain.
“You wound me! Why, for that pinch of cinnamon, I had to venture into the lair of an enchantress in a far desert land. She set most fearsome creatures upon me, scorpions and snakes as long as five men, and I fought for my life for three days and three nights there in her dusty palace built of the bones of those who had come before me.”
Castus illustrates his tale with elaborate gesticulation, and Sabinus has to laugh despite himself. “Oh how you lie!”
“Every word is truth.”
“Indeed,” Sabinus says dryly. Castus is looking at him with an outrageously exaggerated expression of mock innocence, and Sabinus quickly takes a sip of wine to hide his smile. He almost moans at the taste. The hot wine infused with sweet spiciness may be the most delicious thing he’s ever drunk, and he doesn’t even care if his freezing surroundings exaggerate its charm. “Gods, this is good. What happened then?” He probably shouldn’t encourage the man’s wild tale, but almost against his will, he finds himself amused.
Castus’s voice drops back into a theatrical storyteller’s cadence. “Well, at long last I defeated all her foul creatures, and stood before the enchantress to demand my prize – the famed cinnamon she hoarded, more precious than gold.”
He pauses dramatically. Sabinus rolls his eyes but indulges him by prompting, “And did she give you it?”
Castus nods grandly. “She did, on one condition. I’d have to collect it myself, she demanded, after she’d poured it…”
“…upon my cock.”
Sabinus just barely manages to swallow his new sip of wine without spitting. Even so, he coughs, half-choked on laughter.
“The thing that most improves its taste, yes,” Castus nods sagely and pounds him helpfully on the back.
Sabinus snorts. “That is vile, I meant to say.”
“And yet you drink,” Castus observes, a wicked glint in his eyes.
Sabinus rolls his eyes at him, although he is still chuckling. “Because your tale is all pirate’s lies, and this wine too excellent to waste.” He takes a large, defiant sip, and is rewarded with another wide, crinkling smile.
“Lie or no lie, it served its purpose well.”
“To make you laugh.”
Sabinus stiffens at that, feeling the lingering smile drop off his face as if blown away by a sudden gust of wind. The casual words make him feel tricked, ashamed even: as if Castus had exposed his mourning for a fickle mood, easily dispersed by some wine and a crude story. He hunches his shoulders under the blanket and curls inward, closer to the steam of the spiced wine. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Castus lean towards him, and silently curses the man’s apparent inability to recognise dismissal. He braces for another prodding jest, and grows even more rigid when Castus places a hand on his forearm.
But when he leans in to speak, Castus’s voice is gentle and, for once, serious.
“It’s not so bad to laugh, surely? It’s not the first time I’ve seen you sit like this – your face so dark as though it were your duty to never smile again.”
“Perhaps it is.”
He grits the words out and immediately regrets them. Another casual reveal of something too private too easily given away; something that a man like Castus, who seems to wake up and fall asleep laughing, could never understand.
The mocking comment he half-expects doesn’t come. For several long moments, Castus says nothing, though his hand is still on Sabinus’s arm. Sabinus studiously avoids looking at him. The wind has picked up and snow flurries everywhere. His spot by the tent pole feels a worse choice than ever, and he clutches his cup with both hands, focusing on the warmth it gives him.
Eventually Castus removes his hand and sits back. He clears his throat.
“The stone you carry. That white pebble. What meaning does it hold?”
Sabinus almost flinches. Reflexively, he shoves a hand into his pocket, reassuring himself the stone is still there. He clutches it, hand still in his trousers. His heart is pounding wildly.
“What do you mean?”
Castus is watching him with a casualness that feels deliberate, his face calm, dark eyes attentive. He shrugs. “I’ve seen you more than once with it clutched in hand, sitting and staring at it with stormclouds in your eyes. I merely wondered how so small a thing could move you to such torment.”
Sabinus swallows. He’s never been directly asked about it.
He takes a deep breath and pulls the stone from his pocket, opening his hand so Castus can see it there. “The day when Crassus put his men to decimation. When my… my friend died.”
He shivers, strangely elated to hear the name spoken by another. “Yes, Tiberius. When he died… it should have been me.”
He manages to tell it relatively calmly, although he keeps his gaze fixed on the stone, not Castus. It strikes him as funny how little time it takes. So little to tell, for something that weighs on him so crushingly.
When he’s done, there’s a long silence. The wind is still rising, the snow blowing fiercely. He’s finished his wine, and the warmth it gave him is spreading thin.
Eventually, Castus leans over and places one fingertip upon the white stone, lightly circling it. “You hold your own life in your hand, then,” he says, almost too softly to be heard above the storm. “A powerful thing to see given form.”
Sabinus stares down at his palm, at Castus’s circling finger. Whenever he thinks of the stone, he considers it his death, embodied: a gift, a curse, an escape rendered impossible by Tiberius’s sacrifice. Leave it to a man like Castus to see it as the opposite.
The grief comes on him suddenly, more powerfully than any storm. It bends him forward, over the stone, and would have sent him crumpling to the snow if Castus had not caught him by the shoulders.
“It should have been me,” he grinds out, through the rising choke of tears. “It should have been me.”
The wind howls, flinging icy flakes of snow into his face, as if in answer. He leans into it, eager for its stinging blows, but Castus pulls him back.
“Peace,” he says, cold lips near Sabinus’s ear. Sabinus tries to fight him, writhing in his grip as Castus half-drags him further into the tent. He shouts at him, tells him to let go, to leave him alone. He tries to calm himself, get his composure back, but he is drowning; the immensity of his loss, of the terrible unfairness of it all, is rising all around him, bursting out of him in great, choking sobs. As he rages and keens, the howling of the storm intensifies until it blessedly drowns out all sounds. He screams and cries and shakes himself apart, railing against Tiberius and his terrible, unwanted gift, against the gods for allowing it, against himself for taking it, for living, here, among all that used to be anathema to Tiberius and him.
Castus has pushed him down against a tent wall, the leather hide beating and flapping against his back, and has his arms wrapped around his back. At first Sabinus tries to push him off, shouting insults that the wind drowns out, but eventually his strength gives out and he is swept away by the inexorable tide of pain and loss pouring out of him. Castus doesn’t let go. He pulls him roughly close, inside the shelter of his cloak, and Sabinus doesn’t have the strength to shove him away. As great, wracking sobs shake his body, he is dimly aware that Castus is saying things, mouth close by his ear, but the only sound now is the wind, shrieking as it flings itself furiously against the camp. Castus’s voice is mere nonsense noise, a low, soothing counterpoint to the howling storm. But he keeps talking.
Chapter 6: Seawolves
They take a brief rest after the strenuous climb, on a small, sheltered plateau overlooking Sinuessa to the east, and beyond, the sea. To the far side, out on the plain, extends the Roman camp, a sprawling, massive beast already stirring to its morning chores.
From the cover of several large tumbled boulders, Sabinus gazes down at it, his heart beating faster at the familiar sight. Although the morning is crisp and bitingly cold, there is no snow down here to contend with, and the activity at the camp is orderly and brisk. Preparations to move camp are under way; he can see horses saddled and waiting, tents already dismantled, and the wagons ready to receive them. It’s too far to make out the details but even from afar, he can sense the rhythm of that great breathing colossus, moving ponderously to obey the will of one man.
“Do you miss it?”
The question comes out of nowhere, startling him badly. For a man so bedecked in loud adornments, Castus moves disconcertingly quietly. Leaning casually against a boulder as if he’s been there for hours, he peers past Sabinus, down at the camp.
In the days since it happened, he has not made any mention of Sabinus’s breakdown, although Sabinus fully expected to at least be teased about it. It seems like every time he thinks he has the man figured out, Castus surprises him in some new way. From embarrassment, Sabinus has moved on to an uneasy and unspoken gratitude, wondering whether Castus is just waiting to leverage his moment of weakness somehow, but so far, he seems to feel no inclination to even bring it up.
Pulling his attention back to the present, Sabinus considers Castus’s question. “No,” he says eventually, but that doesn’t sit quite right. “Not as a thing I would return to,” he amends. “Perhaps I miss what it used to be. The things it used to mean.”
“Honour. Fellowship. Purpose. Belonging.”
“Ah. And are those not things that could be found elsewhere also, to replace what you miss?” Castus’s tone is level, a hint of genuine interest in it. Among the rebels, he is unusual in not immediately responding to all things Roman with open scorn; a byproduct of his different background, perhaps, as someone who lacks the host of grievances most of the rebels hold from long years of abuse and slavery at the hands of Rome.
Sabinus shrugs. “Some of them, maybe, but honour?” He can’t help his mouth twisting, pulling his face into a grimace. “I broke my oath of fealty. I fear honour is removed from my grasp forever.”
“Perhaps.” There’s something almost comforting in that matter-of-fact concession. “Although,” Castus adds wryly, “it could be said that an oath sworn to a nation that would hold people as chattel is not worth keeping. And that the kind of honour that demands the sacrifice of one’s own kin is an abomination, merely cloaked in disguise of principle.”
Sabinus frowns, then shakes his head. “I take your meaning – believe me, I have told similar things to myself every day since I turned my back on Rome. But if you swear loyalty upon your word, you cannot then choose and pick, to say, In this case it applies, and In this case it does not. You cannot take what parts of honour suit you and leave the rest to rot.”
Castus’s gaze has shifted from the Roman camp to Sabinus. He can feel it on his face, palpable almost, like a curious touch. There’s a long silence before he speaks again. “A friend once told me that a man overweighed with too-noble ideals will find he sinks to the bottom of the sea faster than a stone.”
Sabinus snorts. “A pirate friend, I assume.”
“What gave it away?” A smile in his voice, but quiet.
Sabinus barks a laugh, but he is tense with restless irritation. It feels important, vital even, that he make himself understood, if not to Castus, then at least to himself. He shakes his head, frustrated with his inability to find the right words.
“I cannot help regretting its loss. To me, honour is not an idle thing bereft of true meaning and easy to discard. It is part of what makes a man, a core that cannot be removed without causing damage. You may think that priggish or, or simplistic, but-“
“I did not say I thought it a bad thing. Only that it must make life go harder for you, to be so…”
“Rigid?” Sabinus supplies unhappily. “Naïve?”
“Steadfast.” The word floats to him calmly on the cold morning air, surprising him enough to look around.
Castus is still looking at him, and though his mouth is quirked slightly, as ever poised for a grin, there is no mockery in his dark eyes.
Sabinus feels curiously loosened, as if something coiled too tightly inside him has unwound a little. He takes a deep breath.
“What do you believe in, then?” He makes his tone light, to shift away from the odd, serious mood between them. Although Castus’s lip curls in acknowledgement, he cocks his head and seems to consider the question seriously.
“I believe there is no set of rules that suits us all, under every circumstances. We are bendable things. I believe there are truths in a man’s heart and mind that are greater than whatever others may have ordained for him. I believe life is a gift to be enjoyed to the fullest, and that to do that, one must be foolish, often, and with great dedication.” He winks, and then his eyes shift to something behind Sabinus, and the grin that fills his face is a small sunrise of its own.
“And above all, I believe in luck, as all must who traverse the sea. Look.”
Still mulling Castus’s answer – and the fact that he got one, delivered with a ring of genuine conviction despite the flourish of his delivery – Sabinus follows his pointing finger, just as muted cheers rise from the rebels near them. Far on the horizon, something white has materialised, cutting quickly through the glittering waves.
Castus’s hands fall on his shoulders, warm and startling. “Apologies, that I can offer you no succour in your questioning,” he says, and if his tone is light, the comforting weight of his hands is not. “But let me show you something I do know, honourless pirate and all. I promise you’ll enjoy it.”
Certainly it would make no sense to suspect any real harm from their small group, Sabinus thinks glumly. Castus has exchanged his outlandish garb for a simple tunic and cloak. With his close-shorn head bare of his cocky hat, his eyes downcast and not a trace of his usual good humour showing in his face, he looks a different man entirely, not worthy of the guards’ attention at the gate. Half a dozen others of their group stand with him, all in the same simple garb of slaves.
Belesa and Sabinus alone are in Roman dress, and while it’s not his armour, Sabinus feels the worst kind of fraud in the modest toga proclaiming him to be a citizen of middle wealth. He is convinced that anyone who takes so much as one look at him must see the deception in his face. Heart pounding in his chest, he tries to look unconcerned and lets Belesa do the talking. She’s clearly born to the part. In her fine gold-trimmed green dress and with her hair swept high, she looks every inch the Roman lady as she commands the guard’s attention with a long and lamenting tale of the brother she has come to aid after the rebel scum defiled his home and lured away his slaves. She has a lot of choice things to say about the Roman army’s failure to protect the citizens of Sinuessa, and the guard, initially intrigued by her low neckline, grows visibly bored as she rants on.
“Are these slaves yours?” he interrupts her tirade, speaking to Sabinus instead, with a nod at Castus and the others.
Startled, Sabinus stands frozen for a second, unreasonably terrified that the man might recognise him. It’s a negligible risk, of course; Crassus’s army is vast, and the chances that he’ll run into anyone who knows him are slim. But face to face with this man who wears the armour he himself wore only a few short weeks ago, that knowledge seems to help little.
He finds his tongue when there’s a small nudge in his back; Castus, standing behind him, pressing a finger lightly into his ribs.
“Yes,” he tells the guard, doing his best to sound harassed and impatient. “As my wife says, her brother stands bereft in the city, his house befouled and his slaves deserted. We brought these to aid him in his need.”
“And great his need is indeed!” Belesa breaks in, gesturing wildly enough that one strap of her dress drops off her shoulder. “We do not have the time to stand here arguing like beggars. Will you do your duty and let us go aid those your army exposed to such degradation, or must my husband speak to your commander first? We have dined at the house of Crassus. He would not take kindly to this, this… interrogation!” The guard, gaze flickering every few seconds to her heaving breasts, waves her indignation away.
“Go on,” he tells them, and then they are through the gate and inside Sinuessa.
Once they are out of reach, Castus leans forward just enough to whisper, “Well played, Belesa. You have a talent for the stage.”
Belesa drops a mock-curtsey at him, then elbows Sabinus in the side under the pretext of taking his arm. “Same cannot be said for this one. You nearly gave us away, fool.”
“Apologies,” he mutters. “You should have chosen someone else for this part.”
“You look and sound Roman, that will have to do. And too many of our people would risk recognition here, after holding the city so long. Turn left here,” Castus adds. “The harbour lies beyond this street and the market.”
As they make their way down the neatly cobbled street, the skin of Sabinus’s neck crawls; he half-expects an arrow, or at the very least a shouted challenge, any moment. The city is awake and buzzing with activity, a lot of it geared towards repairs: charred beams being removed, new walls raised, workers hurrying here and there with tools and basketfuls of worked stone. The city has a raw, newly scrubbed look to it, but here and there Sabinus can still see faded bloodstains, soaked into wood or limestone. His stomach churns at the sight of a reeking body being hauled out of a well. These were Roman citizens, civilians, and here he is, in the company of their enemies, to rob their raped city of its supplies.
But no, he reminds himself, those supplies are for the army. He remembers the bitter cold and privation upon the mountain, reed-thin children in the snow.
They pass through the market, which is awash in the smells of fish and fresh baked goods, ringing with haggling voices and sellers crying out their wares. It’s a lively scene, and whatever stains and rubble there may be are well hidden by the crowded stands and fabric stretched between them. Here, it is harder to imagine that the city was recently the scene of so much bloodshed.
Casting his mind back, Sabinus remembers Caesar and his role in the retaking of Sinuessa. Even in the followers’ camp, the news of it was received promptly and discussed avidly. Word of the rebels’ savagery against the defenceless citizens was gruesomely descriptive, but after years spent at the house of Crassus, Sabinus knows a thing or two about Caesar, and he wonders. Wonders what price Crassus was willing to pay to regain the city, and just what Caesar’s sowing discord among the rebels may have entailed. He wonders, too, whether Caesar felt any guilt about sacrificing Roman lives for the greater gain, if that is what he did. A shiver of revulsion runs down his spine. How can it be that such an act was not treason, too?
They’re just past the last few market stalls when Sabinus happens to look up and spots the small group of people coming down a side road towards the marketplace. His heart skips a beat, then hammers on with double speed.
“What is it?” Belesa asks beside him, feeling his sudden tension. Sabinus grabs her and pushes her into a shaded doorway. Over his shoulder, he hisses at Castus and the others, “That woman knows me. Disperse!”
The rebels are quick, he has to give them that. Within seconds, some have returned to inspect wares at the market stalls while a few others walk briskly on, just faceless slaves on some errand for their masters. Bent over leather goods at the nearest stall, Castus shoots one quick glance at Sabinus and Belesa, then leans over to inspect a belt more closely.
Belesa, her back pressed into the doorway, peers past Sabinus’s shoulder. “Which one?”
“The one in front. In the yellow dress.” Sabinus has trouble breathing. He doesn’t dare to turn around, but he can hear approaching steps now, as the handful of slaves turns into the market lane, following the woman leading them.
Kore. He only caught a glimpse of her face but she’s not a woman to forget or mistake for anybody else. She was smiling, talking to a young girl walking beside her. He remembers the time he saw her last, in Crassus’s tent, lending her slender frame to the man’s hidden grief. He remembers the look she gave him as she passed him on her way out of the tent; remembers, too, the way he resented her for a second, to be alive and soothing Crassus while Tiberius lay dead.
Belesa’s hands dig into his shoulders, dragging him back to the present and the light slap of sandals on cobblestones behind them, voices raised in laughter.
“We cannot stand here frozen,” she murmurs. “Come here.” Without waiting for him to respond, she wraps an arm around Sabinus’s neck and pulls his face to hers. His noise of alarm is smothered against her lips.
Her mouth is warm and full and he can feel the softness of her breasts pressed against him, but there’s a tenseness in her body that reflects his own startled rigidity; they press together like two things that long to part. Belatedly realising what she’s doing, he kisses back, moving his mouth awkwardly against hers. It’s been a long time since he tried to kiss a woman. Clearly he hasn’t improved.
After a few endless-seeming moments, she pulls her mouth away and looks past him again. “We escape notice.”
Sabinus dares a quick look behind him and catches sight of the little group passing into the main lane between the market stalls. Kore is in her customary saffron dress, but her hair is piled high and the fur-lined short cloak she wears looks new and expensive. He remembers Tiberius telling him of Crassus’s plans to install her as vilica in Sinuessa. He must have seen it through. A place for him to seek refuge from the demands of Rome and his wife, to find solace in the arms of his lover.
Clenching his teeth, Sabinus looks away from her retreating figure and finds Castus approaching them, a brow cocked amusedly as he looks from Belesa to Sabinus and back. “Here we are in midst of danger and you two seek your pleasure. For shame.”
Belesa makes a rude noise. “You know I do not favour Romans, or cock if I can help it. It was for diversion.”
“Of course.” Castus’s mouth is twitching, although he makes a visible effort to quench his mirth as he asks Sabinus, “Who was she?”
“A slave from the house of Crassus. She would recognise me.” She’s more than that, of course, but there’s no time to explain now, and it hardly matters. “We should press on.”
“Yes.” Belesa puts her hands against Sabinus’s chest and pushes him away. The other rebels have drifted back, and together, they hurry down the road that leads to the harbour, Castus and Belesa in the lead. Still rattled by the near-miss, Sabinus speeds his steps, trying to calm his breathing. If Kore’s in the city, is Crassus, too?
“Is that the ship?” one of the rebels asks, and at Castus’s murmur of assent, Sabinus looks up. They’ve turned a corner and come upon the harbour, cupped neatly in the small bay. Here, too, signs of recent destruction are still evident. A warehouse lies reduced to charred rubble, not yet cleared away, and one of the docks has collapsed entirely, leaving just one access point for ships coming in.
The ship is small but trim, riding low in the water with the weight of her cargo. She must have just recently docked; mooring lines are still being secured, and a gangplank is just being lowered.
“They’ve not started unloading yet.” Castus’s voice is full of satisfaction. “That will make things easier for us.”
Counting the dockworkers and the soldiers supervising them, Sabinus can’t see how any of this will be easy.
“There are a lot of them,” one of the others grumbles, echoing his thoughts.
“They will be elsewhere shortly,” Castus replies. “Wait for Saxa.”
They stay out of sight while the men at the dock bustle about, sailors stepping off the ship and papers being exchanged with the officer in charge. With every passing second, Sabinus feels more exposed. Beside him, Belesa looks poised enough, but he can feel her nails digging into his arm. He does not dare to look at the others.
When shouts of alarm finally ring out from several streets away, the rebels breathe a collective sigh of relief. “Attack on the gate!” someone yells, not far away. “Rebels attacking! Secure the gate!”
The soldiers on the dock waste no time. In short order, a troop has formed and is heading for the gate, their sandals slapping the ground in unison. From the shelter of a half-burned warehouse, the rebels watch them, and as soon as they are out of sight, Castus leaps up and runs lightly down to the dock.
“Come on.” Belesa drags Sabinus with her as she follows.
The dock is all confusion, slaves milling fearfully around the few barrels they have unloaded. One of the sailors is arguing heatedly with the Roman soldiers left behind. No one pays Castus any heed as he jumps onto the dock, not until he shoulders his way right between the arguing men.
“Apologies,” Castus addresses the sailor. The man looks him up and down briefly, his weathered brow creasing.
“What do you want, slave?”
“I have need of your ship,” Castus informs him. Anyone who’s never met him could take the regret in his voice for sincerity.
The sailor gawks as Castus pats him apologetically on the shoulder, then whirls around. The Roman has only time for one shout of outrage before Castus pulls the short sword from the soldier’s own scabbard and sinks it into his chest.
Sabinus is pushed aside as the rebels rush the dock, roaring in challenge. They drown out the noise of fighting from the city gate, where Saxa, Gannicus, and their small troop of horsebound rebels are wreaking havoc and not, Sabinus hopes, getting slaughtered messily.
Around him, everything is chaos. The slaves and several of the sailors are scattering, trying to get out of the way of the Romans engaging the rebels. The rebels’ weapons fly out of hidden scabbards and sheaths, and within minutes the docks are slick with blood.
Castus is surrounded by several Romans, his stolen sword flashing in a deadly arc. A soldier drops near Sabinus, and instinctively Sabinus bends to grab the sword clattering from his lifeless fingers. Another Roman races past him, towards Castus’s unprotected back, and before Sabinus has even made a conscious decision, he swings low, cutting the man’s feet from under him, and then follows up with a swift thrust to his neck. The soldier drops with a gurgling cry. For a second, Sabinus stares down at him, the blood pounding in his ears. The man’s armour is newly polished, his cloak tucked neatly at the shoulders. Sabinus can almost feel the familiar weight of it, the slight chafing where the breastplate sits close against the ribs. For a moment, his throat tightens, panic threatening to overwhelm him. Then Castus shouts a warning, and he automatically raises his sword as another Roman comes running at him. From one second to the next, it’s no longer a former brother-in-arms that he faces, just a man with a weapon, intent on taking his life. He parries, counter-attacks, and when the soldier falls, he briefly catches sight of Castus’s face, blood-splattered and wild. Their eyes meet, and Castus nods at him once, baring his teeth in a fierce grin. Then Castus looks beyond him, and his eyes narrow.
“The ship!” he bellows. “Secure the ship!”
Sabinus’s head whips around. Several of the sailors have retreated towards the ship, hastily undoing mooring lines. Castus dispatches the last of his attackers and runs for the gangplank, shouting for the rebels to follow as he goes. Grabbing his blood-slick sword more firmly, Sabinus runs after him. He rams into one of the sailors, pushing him over the edge of the dock, and the man drops with a shout, cut short by the splash of the water. Ahead of him, there is a fierce, but brief scuffle at the gangplank, followed by further splashes.
Over the railing, Belesa’s head appears, her hair tumbled out of its elegant arrangement. “The cargo is intact,” she calls. “Food and weapons, all here.”
“Let us make sure it stays so!” Castus is ushering the rebels up the gangplank, undoing mooring lines with swift, practised motions. “On board, all on board! Move!”
There are new shouts from up the street. More soldiers, running towards them. Sabinus hauls himself over the railing and his feet hit the deck. Behind him, Castus pulls in the gangplank and turns to run for the tiller, shouting orders at the rebels.
“Untie that line and haul it! Raise sails! Somebody grab that pole and push off from dock!”
The soldiers are nearly at the dock as the ship moves slowly and ponderously away. Several of the rebels scramble to follow Castus’s commands; others, with no knowledge of boats, mill about uncertainly. Sabinus grabs one of the lines holding the mainsail and pulls, putting his back into it. Slowly, the canvas unfurls above.
The furious shouting from the docks grows fainter as the ship turns, her keel slicing the water. As they sail out of the harbour and past the walls of Sinuessa, Belesa shouts, hoarse with relief, “Look! Saxa returns!”
A small group of riders thunders up the coastal road, leaving behind them the bloody chaos they created at the gates of Sinuessa. Their leader lifts an arm to wave at the ship, her fair hair blowing behind her. The rebels raise a ragged cheer from the railing, waving wildly back. Belesa, tying a line off without even looking, follows the far-off rider with her eyes shining and lips slightly parted.
Above them, the mainsail billows, then snaps open as it catches the wind. The ship speeds as it leaves the harbour bay, rising and falling easily in the brisk morning breeze. Castus stands at the tiller. His muscles bulge as he steers, and the ship moves sweetly under his touch, hugging the coast at a distance.
Sabinus secures his own line and stares back at the receding city. “We did it. We stole a ship.”
Beside him, Belesa grins, dropping down onto a storage hatch with her legs crossing under her. “We did. You seem to know something of sailing.” She nods at the knot he has tied.
“My grandfather used to take me out on his fishing boat when I was younger. And you?” He points to her own line, flawlessly stowed.
She shrugs. “My dominus enjoyed his pleasure cruises. He showed me things, for his amusement.” She speaks lightly, but her jaw clenches and her shoulders tense. Sabinus struggles for something to say. Whether in the rebel camp or here on board a stolen ship, he has rarely seen a woman so confident in her demeanour, moving like she knows exactly who she is. He tries to picture her a slave, and fails.
“It seems impossible that someone claimed you as property.” He says it aloud without thinking. She turns her face to his then, grey-blue eyes staring hard. She doesn’t respond, and he can only stand there and endure her gaze. He wants to say something more, some apology or regret that will hold meaning, but he is all too aware that there is nothing real he can offer her.
He bows his head, feeling as if the guilt of all of Rome weighs on him. “Apologies.”
She snorts. “It wasn’t your doing.” She rises and smooths down her silk skirts. “I shall go below and take proper stock of our prize.”
She disappears down the hatch, leaving Sabinus to stare after her, full of useless regret for that moment of almost-ease between them, halted.
“Stop glowering into empty air, Roman boy, and come to taste salt upon lips!” Castus’s voice is full of laughter. Hesitantly, Sabinus steps up to the railing, leaning his elbows on the polished wood. The ship rides easily before the wind, despite her heavy belly. Sprays of saltwater splash up as they ride a wave down, and he plants his feet more firmly, knees softening instinctively into a sailor’s stance. Almost despite himself, he feels his spirits rise as the ship lifts again, sways for a moment on the swell of a wave, then dips again gracefully.
From the tiller, Castus shouts, “Ah, to have wind again upon face, and firm planks beneath feet!” He grins broadly at Sabinus. “Morning’s work was blessed by Poseidon. Can you feel how eagerly she flies beneath us, turning ass upon Romans?”
In the face of his blatant joy, it’s impossible to hold on to tension. Almost reluctantly, Sabinus smiles back. “How long until we rejoin Saxa and Gannicus?”
“Not long, alas. Another hour or so, once we find a place safe enough to haul her ashore and unload. I hope there’ll be enough horses to carry all the cargo.” Castus turns his face a bit, squinting towards the open sea, with the sunlight dazzling on the whitecaps. “Although it seems almost a shame to turn for shore on a day such as this. A man could wish he had the freedom to sail for the horizon, and beyond.”
The longing in his voice is clear, and Sabinus can feel the tug in him, the steady pull of the tide out into stranger currents. He can almost feel it himself, a mad impulse to throw himself into the wind and set his course for the open sea, leaving behind all his guilt and grief and treason.
“I too could wish it.”
“Could you?” Castus’s tone is light, but there’s a curiosity in it, a genuine question.
Sabinus shrugs, somewhat self-conscious. “Thought of flying before the wind, all obligations and regrets left at shore – it holds appeal.”
“You surprise me. I thought you too firmly moored to brooding weight of guilt and broken honour to be tempted thus.”
“The sea makes such things seem small,” Sabinus admits.
“It does that.” The affection in Castus’s voice is deep and warm, and the face he turns to the cool winter sun is relaxed in a rare moment of serenity. Long, dark lashes lower to rest on his high cheekbones as he closes his eyes for a moment. Sea spray glitters on his skin like a fine veil bedecked with tiny jewels. Sabinus catches himself staring, and quickly tears his gaze away. He clears his throat.
“You must miss the sea.”
Castus opens his eyes at that, but his gaze is still on the horizon. “I do.”
“How came you to be blown so far from it?”
Castus’s mouth twists wryly. “I gave my heart to the wrong person, and when I stayed to wrest it back or find equal return, I found I piled new loyalties upon myself.” His tone is still light, but Sabinus is well familiar with the signs of hidden longing.
The wrong person. “Nasir?” he ventures, remembering their brief exchange that first day in the snow.
Castus jerks his head in a nod, his eyes now on the coastline.
“Ah. He does not return feeling?”
“His heart lies with Agron. I thought it could be lured from course, but he does not seem inclined to sail away with me.” Another mocking grin, a little bitter, directed at himself. “And mine, meanwhile, flounders wide and far from the ocean, lost in the mountains and the doomed cause of Spartacus.”
Sabinus blinks, taken aback. “You think it doomed?”
Castus shrugs, pulling on the tiller slightly, to adjust their course. “Do you not think it so? You know the might of Crassus like few others.”
Castus nods. He doesn’t elaborate, and he doesn’t need to. If there is any challenge, military or otherwise, that Crassus has been unable to master with money or with might, Sabinus hasn’t heard of it. He stares down into the blue-green water flying away beneath their keel.
With a roll of his shoulders, Castus seems to shake off the brief mood of seriousness like water slipping off a seal. “Let us not dwell on future that we cannot know.” He turns to smile at Sabinus, warm and as dazzling as the sunlight on the waves. “You did well today, Roman boy.”
Sabinus glowers at him, though he is grateful for the change of topic. “Sabinus.”
“Sabinus, then.” Castus sketches him an exaggerated bow, full of ridiculous flourish. “We’ll make a pirate of you yet.”
“I doubt it very much,” Sabinus replies dryly, but he can’t help grinning back. Above him, the sails snap in the wind, the wood below his hands is warm, and the sea throws salty froth up into his face like tiny kisses. Leaning into the sun and wind, he closes his eyes and feels, despite everything and for the first time in a long while, almost happy.
Chapter 7: Not of A Mind for Solace
Castus refused to destroy the ship, insisting instead she be hidden away in a sheltered cove. They lost precious time securing her so she would neither be smashed on the rocks nor taken by the first tide out. The other rebels grumbled and Saxa heaped Castus with a volley of choice insults, but Castus held firm. “She served well, and may yet serve again,” he told them. “You do not leave a ship like this to ruin.”
As a result, it’s long past midnight when they arrive, many of them stumbling with exhaustion. Sabinus himself can hardly feel his fingers and toes, and the rough scarf wound about the lower half of his face has frozen with the moisture of his exhalations. Gratefully, he hands over the reins of the horse he’s leading and accepts the warm bowl someone shoves into his hands. The broth is thin, with only a few scraps of meat and greens floating in it, but it’s blissfully hot and Sabinus drinks it down greedily.
They are surrounded from all sides, cheers and questions flying to and fro. A hand slaps Sabinus’s back so hard that he stumbles, spitting broth as the bearded face of Crixus floats into view. “I see you’ve brought the Roman back instead of sending him flying down a cliff?”
Sabinus eyes him with some alarm. There may be a twinkle of dark amusement in the man’s eyes, but then again, it may just be plain lust for murder.
“Leave off him, Crixus.” Castus is suddenly beside him, a hand on Sabinus’s shoulder. His tone is relaxed, but the warning in it is real enough. “He kept his word.”
To Sabinus’s utter surprise, Saxa chimes in. “Little Roman boy led us true.” She gives Sabinus a friendly punch that has him wincing in real pain. “We return with much plunder, and drenched in Roman blood.” She has her other arm wrapped around Belesa, who looks a little dazed. Sabinus can hardly blame her. He’s noticed her looking at Saxa frequently, but he imagines having Saxa looking back must be a little like leaning too close to a fire.
Crixus laughs, a booming sound. “Have no fear, Cilician. I shall not harm the boy unless he gives cause.”
He stomps away, and Sabinus turns towards the laden horses with some relief, soldier’s instincts kicking in. “I should see supplies stowed away properly, and horses fed.”
Castus halts him with a hand on his arm. “It’s being seen to. Come, let us towards food and celebration. We have well earned it.”
Sabinus thinks wistfully of his pallet, but it doesn’t look like sleep is on anybody else’s mind. Amid much cheering, they’re ushered towards the centre of the camp, where a large bonfire keeps the cold at bay. Several smaller cooking fires are set up nearby, with steam rising from various kettles. A few small children eagerly turn a skinny deer on a spit.
Castus has disappeared, but Belesa nudges him suddenly, pushing a cup of wine into his hand. “Let us drink to our good success.” Her cheeks are warmed by the fire and her eyes are glowing. Sabinus doesn’t think he’s ever seen her truly smile at him. It makes her even more stunning.
Smiling back, he accepts the cup and lifts it to her. “It was not your only success today, I see.” He nods at where Saxa is regaling Agron and other tribesmen with the details of their mission. Belesa follows his gaze and smiles even wider.
“I am pleased for you,” he tells her, meaning it. When she clangs her cup against his and drinks, he adds, only half-joking, “Don’t tell her that we kissed. I wish to keep my cock attached.”
Belesa cackles. “Have no fear. I do not consider it a thing to brag about.” She gives him a little wave and makes her way back to Saxa. Sabinus watches her go, foolishly pleased with the exchange.
Nursing his cup of wine, he wanders among the fires, enjoying the blazing warmth. He’s still tired, but no longer miserable with it; with some food in him, wine in his hand and the cold slowly soaking from his bones, it’s almost pleasant to feel exhausted after the successful day.
It’s pleasant, too, to see people in easy good spirits. With the night for once clear and free from blizzards, with laughter and talk filling the air and wine flowing freely, it could be any celebration, not just a brief respite from a siege.
No one pays him any particular attention, although there’s the occasional jest thrown at him and, to his surprise, a few words of congratulations. Someone thrusts a skewer of seared meat at him; someone else refills his cup. Sabinus thanks them both and wanders on.
Then, as he skirts the bonfire, someone calls his name. A hand falls on his shoulder, and when he turns around, he finds himself face to face with Spartacus.
Startled, Sabinus stares at him. Spartacus is examining him with his disconcertingly sharp gaze, but his mouth is relaxed. He gives him a nod. “Saxa and Castus have delivered report of mission. You did well today, Sabinus. This food will make a great difference to our people.”
Sabinus doesn’t know what to say. “I am glad of it.”
“Come to my tent tomorrow morning. There is something I would discuss with you.” At Sabinus’s alarmed face, Spartacus’s mouth lifts imperceptibly. “Nothing bad. You need not fear. Return to well-deserved comforts.”
Sabinus is still staring after his retreating back when another voice speaks beside him. “What did Spartacus want?”
Castus carries his own cup of wine, and an amphora besides. He’s changed back into his usual garb, his hair once more covered by his leather headdress and his jewellery in place. At his neck, the red stone glows dully with reflected firelight.
“I am not certain. But he seemed pleased with our takings.”
“As well he should be. Come, let us sit, and see cup refilled.”
Sabinus lets Castus usher him closer to the bonfire, where rocks and shields and bedrolls serve as seats. For a while, they sit in companionable silence. Sabinus drinks slowly, enjoying the way the wine seems to spread warm tendrils of relaxation through his blood, loosening his weary muscles. The fire is warm on his face.
There are others nearby, everyone crowding close to the heat. Sabinus lets his gaze wander, idly fitting names to faces. By now, he knows the names of much of Spartacus’s inner circle, if not each person behind them. There is Gannicus, waving his own jug of wine about as he regales a group of women with some tale that has them giggling. Crixus and Naevia are just inside one of the tents by their own fire, their dark heads bent close as they talk. Saxa is with her own people, demonstrating some doubtlessly bloody manoeuvre while idly playing with Belesa’s hair. Close to the bonfire, not too far away, he spots Nasir, sprawled comfortably between Agron’s long legs with his back against his lover’s chest. He meets Sabinus’s gaze and lifts a cup in a salute, a small smile on his lips. Sabinus lifts his own in return. Agron pays them no heed whatsoever, his head lowered to Nasir’s neck and his arms draped over his shoulders. He murmurs something in his ear and Nasir laughs, swatting at his arm.
“Such good company for everyone tonight.”
The words pull Sabinus’s attention back to Castus, whose eyes rest on the two entwined men. His expressive face is shuttered, the dark eyes hooded.
There’s something oddly discomforting about seeing him in a dark mood. Sabinus casts about for something to distract him with. He leans over to refill Castus’s wine cup.
“Tell me how you came to be a pirate. Were you born in Cilicia?”
Castus shakes his head. “I hail from Numidia, I was told, but I have no memory of it. I was stolen when I was very young.”
“Stolen? By pirates?”
“No, by slavers, who were beset by pirates in the Tyrrhenian Sea. They freed the slaves in the cargo hold, and took some with them, including me.”
“This sounds a tragic and exciting tale. Are you certain you are not making it up?” Sabinus teases.
Castus gives him a brief smile, not nearly as dazzling as usual, but at least Sabinus seems to have managed to distract him. “It is truth I speak. I grew up on that ship. It was Heracleo’s uncle Peiros who raised me as his own.”
Sabinus tries to imagine a childhood like that – at sea, in foreign ports, without the laws of orderly society – and mostly fails. Then his attention is caught belatedly by a name.
“Heracleo – he was your captain, was he not?” he asks. “Before he betrayed Spartacus?”
Castus takes a long draught of wine. “More than a captain, or so I thought.”
Sabinus tilts his head, trying to parse the undertones of that bitterness, mixed with fond regret. “More than… you mean…”
“No.” Castus laughs at that, shaking his head in mock revulsion. “Gods, no. What a notion. I meant he stood a brother.”
“Oh.” Sabinus clears his throat, feeling stupid. “When I was still at Roman camp” – he hesitates, uncertain of how deep this wound goes, and whether he should prod it – “I heard of their betrayal. Your crew. It must have been… painful to be left behind.”
Castus shrugs. “I should not have been surprised by it. Heracleo was fond of me but he is fonder of gold, and fondest of himself.”
Sabinus silently curses himself. He seems to have unerringly picked the one topic as sore as that of Nasir. “Apologies. I did not mean to darken spirits.”
“No matter.” Castus lifts his amphora and refills both their cups. He’s smiling grimly. “Your turn.”
“My turn for what?” He lifts his cup in thanks. “Believe me, my childhood holds no tales to rival yours.”
“Tell me of the boy you loved. Tiberius.”
Hearing the name out loud still sends a shock of bittersweetness through Sabinus. He stares into his cup, where the wine swirls dark as night. “There is not much to tell. I’ve known him since we were but small boys. His house stood elevated far beyond mine, but we were as brothers.”
Castus nods. “What of your own family?”
“There isn’t much of one. My parents died of plague when I was very young. My grandparents raised me, until they passed themselves.”
“When was this?”
“Five years ago. I was fifteen by then – a man, and fit to have my own household. Not that I spent much time there. Most of the time I was to be found at the house of Crassus.”
“With Tiberius,” Castus supplies.
“Yes.” Unbidden, he remembers once again that coin trick, Tiberius’s fierce devotion to mastering it. His throat tightens; he drinks defiantly, swallowing the wash of grief.
“I see.” Castus is watching him with a certain care, his expression neutral, almost polite. “When did your feelings turn from brotherly?”
Sabinus hesitates. “I am not sure. They grew as seedlings do, hidden from discernment.”
There’s a long pause, during which they drink more wine. Then, quietly, Castus asks, “What was he like?”
His eyes are suddenly prickling with tears, hot and mortifying. He blinks rapidly, willing them away. “Hot-tempered. Quick to anger, but quick to mollify as well, and generous. Loyal and fond of laughter, and sweet with it, when he wished to be.”
His heart aches at the memory but there’s a curious sweetness to the pain, a hard, cold knot inside his chest uncoiling slightly at the chance of speaking of Tiberius. For years, it has been such a secret love, tacitly understood to be ultimately hopeless, despite their stolen moments. He’s groomed his heart to grow inwards, protective of its longings and its fears; never knowing what relief there could be in simply speaking of them to another.
“Well, we have set enough old wounds to bleeding, would you not agree?” The sharpness in Castus’s inflection is new, a humourless vehemence that takes Sabinus by surprise.
“Perhaps, but it was-”
Castus doesn’t let him finish. He leans towards him suddenly, and the harsh glitter in his eyes matches his tone. “Shall we find better diversion?”
His hand cups around Sabinus’s neck, and before he realises what is happening, Castus has yanked him forward, pressing his lips to his. Sabinus makes a choked noise that Castus swallows. His mouth, open with surprise, is invaded by firm lips and a demanding tongue, alive with the taste of wine and smoked meat. For a moment, the sudden rush of intimacy holds him still in the cupped grip of Castus’s hand, under the bold intrusion of that sensuous mouth. For a moment, he leans in instinctively, responding without thought. It is nothing like kissing Belesa. It’s a hot, rising thrill that blurs his thoughts and tightens his loins.
Then his mind catches up with what is happening. He jerks his head to the side, pulling his mouth away, and pushes against Castus’s chest, hard. “What are you doing?”
Castus sits back on his heels, his hand still on Sabinus’s neck, warm and rough. His face is very close. He’s smiling slightly, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “If you must ask, Roman boy, you have not been kissed enough.”
His eyes flicker past Sabinus, only for a heartbeat, but when Sabinus twists around to follow his gaze, understanding clenches heavy and cold in his gut. Across the fire, Nasir has turned in Agron’s arms, his dark hair spilling through Agron’s caressing hands. They are kissing languidly, melting into each other, lost to the world.
Sabinus swallows down the sudden surge of angry betrayal and shrugs out from under Castus’s arm. “You are mistaken.”
Castus cocks a brow. “Am I? You did not follow me with gaze upon ship? You did not invite attentions?” There’s a hard undertone in his voice that Sabinus has never heard from him, a taunt that is cynical rather than genuinely amused. The hurt of that is surprisingly strong. He didn’t realise until just now just how rarely Castus’s humour is actually at someone’s expense.
The hot sting of it brings his anger roiling back to the surface. “You overestimate your charms. I am not lust-fogged boy, nor lifeless puppet that you can use as replacement for your heart’s true desire.” He keeps his voice as calm and cold as he can, much as he longs to shout. “I would not settle for comfort as empty as this.” He feels a grim satisfaction when he sees the blow land. “And neither should you.”
“Sabinus-” The strange grim challenge is fading from Castus’s face and voice, replaced with a flicker of uncertainty. “I…”
“You’re soggy with drink, and not in your senses,” he interrupts. “Let us forget unfortunate moment.”
He rises and stalks away, tossing the last of his wine into the fire as he goes.
“Sabinus!” Castus is following him, grabbing at his arm. “We shared our hurts. I only sought to share solace, also. To ease pain of broken hearts.”
“I do not think such a thing is possible,” Sabinus tells him, before he can stop to consider his words. But seeing Castus’s utterly bewildered face, he finds he’s glad he said them. His anger has fled as if blown away by the colder air far from the fire. He feels only tired now, hollowed out and stupidly betrayed. The gap between them is as wide as the River Styx, and as unbridgeable; he was a fool to think there could be true understanding between them.
Castus is staring at him with a deep furrow between his brows, head tilted slightly. He looks… inquisitive, as if he’s discovered an entirely new thing, and doesn’t know what to do with it.
Sabinus turns and strides away, leaving him to ponder it alone.
Chapter 8: Three Days In Hell
“I would have you see to distribution of loot taken from the ship. It has been added to provisions tent. Take proper stock of all we have, and see food rationed to last as long as it can. As for the weapons, many of our less seasoned fighters have none, or what they hold is old and worn. Nasir oversees training of new recruits; work with him to see them to arms.”
If there is one thing Sabinus still shares with Crassus, it is persistent intrigue at the mystery that is Spartacus. Walking along behind him and Agron as they stride through the camp, it’s all Sabinus can do not to openly gape at the volley of instructions.
“You would have me see to provisioning of your army.” He repeats it haltingly, still not entirely sure he’s understood.
Spartacus looks at him over his shoulder. “Do you not feel equal to task? You seemed well suited to it when you told me all the ways this camp is flawed. You’re given chance to prove your words carried by action. Our people are ill-provided, you said. So provide them.”
Put in such terms, there’s little he can argue with. “Yes, Spartacus.”
Beside his leader, Agron has been scowling ever since Sabinus reported to Spartacus at his tent. “You risk too much, Spartacus. The boy should not be trusted.”
Sabinus is half-inclined to agree, but Spartacus only shrugs. “It is thanks to his information that we have only Crassus and the cold to overcome now, not starvation as well.”
“He stands a Roman!”
“He stands a tool. I’d have it put to purpose.”
Glancing sharply at Sabinus, he adds, “Besides, he will not go unobserved. Castus will yet accompany you on this task, lest you play some long game of deceit.”
Sabinus swallows the protest trying to rise up in his throat. Right now, Castus is the last person he wants to spend more time with, but he has not the slightest wish to explain why to Spartacus and his glowering general.
Agron mutters something rude about goats and Cilicians, then stomps off into the snow.
They’ve reached the edge of the camp, and the trench Crassus has carved there. Before them stretches only the wide emptiness of it, and on the other side, the fortified wall.
“Crassus has us trapped. Either through attack or retreat, we must soon move off the mountain. I would have us strong and ready for it.”
Sabinus stares at the vast gouge in the mountainside, bleak and unbridgeable. It’s either this or the teeth of Crassus’s army. “Move off the mountain. How?”
“I have not yet thought of it.”
It doesn’t look to Sabinus like there can possibly be a way. They’ll have to face Crassus instead, fighting on bad ground in worse weather against superior numbers.
Spartacus interrupts his gloomy thoughts. “One more matter. There is someone I wish to see assist you with food distributions. Laeta, the Roman woman from Sinuessa. She stood as aedile’s wife and is skilled with weights and quantities of grain.”
“I did not know there was another Roman in your camp,” Sabinus says, surprised.
“She was not blown here willingly. She was returned to Crassus with other hostages, but he sold her to the pirate Heracleo, who branded her as slave. She came here a fugitive, wounded and nursing her losses. Task will aid, I think, in making her see her life still holds purpose.” The glance he throws Sabinus is shrewd and uncomfortably perceptive. “A thing that may hold true for you as well. Go now.”
Halfway back to the camp, Sabinus stops and glances back. Spartacus has not moved. Shoulders squared, he faces the wintry trench, looking both unshakeable and terribly lonely, and Sabinus is reminded of the stories that fly before this man like dark clouds before a storm, the whispers of his victories: Theokoles. The arena of Capua. Vesuvius.
I have not yet thought of it, he said, as though it was only a matter of time and he had all the time in the world. As if there could be no doubt he’d find a way.
Sabinus shivers, and goes to figure out how to feed an army.
He expected things to be awkward with Castus and they are; all morning they avoid each other’s eye, the pirate’s back studiously turned, ostensibly to meet outward threat while Sabinus and the Roman woman go about their work.
He did not expect additional tension from Laeta, who at first seemed a welcome addition to his mission: bleary-eyed and unsociable, still pale from her healing wound, she nevertheless seems to regain some sort of animation when faced with the specifics of the task. She calculates grain with a practised eye and corrects his allotments sharply and accurately, stretching the rations easily a third more than he thought possible. Beyond that, she treats Sabinus with a cool indifference that feels welcome after the heated opinions of the camp; after a long, unreadable scrutiny at their first meeting, she seems to take him at face value, asking no questions and offering no answers, challenging him only when his figures don’t add up.
He did not reckon with the unintended history between her and Castus. The pirate captain who enslaved her was Castus’s friend of many years, and neither seems inclined to budge on the subject of his character: Laeta passionate and vocal on the subject of Heracleo’s crimes, and Castus sarcastic with insulting humour in defence of same. It makes the taking of inventory awkward, to say the least.
He expected to meet with resistance among the rebel camp, and he does; before noon, he’s been spat at by old women, had rocks thrown at him by children, and heard three dozen variations on the ways of Romans having congress with dogs, goats, and, improbably, their own assholes. It appears that the rebels were perfectly fine with the deprivations of reduced food in wartime when it was handed out haphazardly and came with worms and weevils; but when handed out in an orderly fashion, vermin-free, at the command of a Roman, all hell breaks loose.
As news of the new rations plan spreads through the camp, Sabinus gets almost immediately into a terrifying argument with Crixus, who seeks him out to make known, with a fine disregard for whether his voice can be heard throughout the camp, the Roman camp, and presumably Rome itself, Sicily, and beyond, that he takes umbrage with the adjustments Sabinus has made.
“Have you no sense, you Roman cur?” he growls. “Fighting warriors need more food than do the old and weak!”
Sabinus firmly banishes the urge to flinch. “And you are getting more,” he replies, as calmly as he can.
“Half again as much! We had twice as much, before!” Crixus shouts, leaning right into Sabinus’s face. They’re of a height, but Crixus’s shoulders are so wide they seem to drown out the very horizon.
Sabinus tells himself at worst he’ll get knocked down, and stands as tall as he can. “Spartacus bade me distribute food in ways most beneficial to our survival,” he tells the sneering Gaul. “The warriors’ rations will be increased when there is daily fighting, but at present we are at siege. The old and weak you so disparage fix the tents you sleep in, fetch the wood you burn, and melt the snow you drink. Those who don’t fight cook your meals or tend your wounds. Three times today the medicus went to see to the cut in Naevia’s leg, risking his life in snow and cold. Would you have him fed less for doing so?”
For a second, he’s certain Crixus will knock him down, or worse. Instead, he spits into the snow, then whirls and stomps away into the rising storm.
Turning, his knees weak as gruel, Sabinus finds Castus watching him, a bemused smile on his lips. Sabinus’s tension flows outwards, honing in on the nearest target.
“What?” he snaps, thrumming with the need for an outlet for his thwarted agitation.
But Castus only raises his hands in a by now familiar gesture; infuriatingly peaceful. “I but marvel at you, Roman boy,” he offers, smirking. “Bereft of allies and beset with tasks, but still rising to the challenge of the undefeated Gaul.”
Sabinus frowns. “Defeated a number of times, I hear, since he gained that title.”
“Perhaps,” Castus concedes easily, “but no less formidable for that.”
Laeta has gone to divvy out meagre medical supplies. Caught briefly in a moment of unwanted privacy, they face each other. Sabinus sees Castus’s features set with purpose, and turns away almost in time. “We should see fruit and greens handed out…”
“…before they freeze or go to rot.”
“What?” He turns in defiance of the cringing embarrassment and lingering anger inside him, and finds Castus facing him, his features calm, though his lips are pressed tight.
“Apologies,” he says.
Braced for mockery or recrimination, Sabinus blinks. “What?”
He can see the movement of Castus’s Adam’s apple as he swallows. “Apologies,” he repeats. “You had the right of it. I was drunk, and poorly balanced in my judgement.”
Sabinus lingers, taken aback by the concession, and absurdly clinging to offence. “Why did you do it?”
To his credit, Castus does not avoid his gaze. “Have you no notion?”
Sabinus feels his lips curl. “Oh, I do. I was there, and had a mouth.”
He takes a deep satisfaction in Castus’s flinch. “That was not my…” A deep breath. “Alright. I would offer regret for poor decision, if decision had been made. I moved on moment’s impulse.”
“Because you could not move on what you truly wanted.” Sabinus doesn’t know why he insists on poking his fingers deeper into what is clearly an open wound.
Castus’s lips compress briefly, but his gaze is frank. “Perhaps,” he concedes. “In part. It was ill done.” He drops his eyes briefly, fidgeting with the woven edge of the basket he carries. It’s a curiously awkward gesture for so graceful a man. “I… beg your forgiveness.”
Sabinus finds himself caught in the simple phrase, nudging around its edges for some hidden meaning. In the house of Crassus, even among friends, nothing was ever offered easily, without a concealed gambit spooling forward into a long game of move and counter-move. From childhood, it has gone against his nature, but he’s learned the patterns of it: the calculated manoeuvre of exchange and artifice, building always towards some ultimate goal.
But in the square-shouldered form and open face of Castus, there are no subtle signs, nothing he could interpret towards deception.
He sighs, taking a chance without the least bit of certainty that he should. “You have it.”
Castus blinks at him, obviously caught off-kilter. “I do?”
Sabinus takes a deep breath of too-cold air. “You do,” he confirms. “Truth told, you are the only one here who has met me with anything other than suspicion or outright loathing. I have no wish to lose your friendship. It has become valuable to me.”
Castus takes a slow step towards him. His smile blooms slowly but surely, like the sun rising through sullen clouds. “Truth told,” he mimics, lips twitching, “my friendship is not a thing to brag about. I once made vow of everlasting amity with a beached octopus.”
“I never said that I would brag of it,” Sabinus retorts, but at the twinkle in Castus’s eyes, he cannot, somehow, quite resist. “What octopus?”
Castus beams at him, puffing up his chest. “Well. It just so happened once upon a time, in the Aegean Sea…”
And for a short while, at least, things go more easily. They spend an hour taking stock, and when Laeta returns, Sabinus is only too happy to take on her suggestions, keen on keeping the air clear between her and Castus. A short while after that, still barely afternoon, the sky darkens, and before long, food has moved down everyone’s lists of priority, against the necessity of shelter.
The storm, playing coy with them for well over a week, waxing and waning, is at its worst that night. By this point, Sabinus is well used to the snow and the shrill howl of the wind, harsh as the blood song of the Dirae, who know no mercy and no end to vengeance. He’s also used to what he thought of as the cold, the dull ache of frozen fingertips, the shake and shiver of a body forced to maintain a constant tremor of movement to stay ahead of that which is the end of all motion.
But tonight, beneath the ceaseless fury of the wind, there is a new underlay of silence that Sabinus, Roman child of the green, wide plains shimmering with heat and the lush sleepy warmth of endless summer, has never known: a deep, soft lull that beckons with the absence of noise and struggle, wrapping all in quiescence that will last forever. And just below the pain of trembling, burning cold, there is a sly promise of peace: let go of your blankets, your prayers and your hope, and you will find release.
Sabinus spends this longest of his nights alone. There are others in the space nearby, fighting their own battles for survival, but they might as well be a thousand leagues away. Wrapped into a tight shaking knot under his blankets, he knows, instinctively, that this is a night of death; if ever he has longed for a chance to let go without blame or care, this is it. There is no shame in dying on a night like this.
Yet somehow, against all odds and the weight of Fortuna’s cards stacked against him, huddled into an insignificant lump and breathing air that sears his lungs with cold, Sabinus discovers, somewhat to his amazement, that he doesn’t want to die. Not now, not like this, not for a long time.
He has the white stone out, invisible in the screeching darkness, but placed against his lips, so he can feel its cool solid shape with every trembling intake of freezing air. His life, held in his hand, so Castus called it, and now he breathes it in, focusing on nothing else but this: a small, irregular shape, imbued with more meaning than it can possibly hold.
He closes his eyes and concentrates his full attention on it. Relearns the familiar smooth curves of it with his cracked lips, shrinking tongue, the moist cave of his aching mouth: a dip here, a protrusion here, innocuous and fateful at the same time: this shape is what saved your life. Hold to it.
His cold lips move, mouthing a litany he does not recognise, some primal pledge formed in a tongue not of his making. In the forge of the storm, held quiet at the centre of its raging fury, he clings to the core of himself. Ever placid in the shadow of another, he finds there is a shape left of him when all else is stripped away: a lean, tenacious thing, easy to wound and slow to heal, but stronger than he knew; believing in valour that outlasts conviction, and a sparse, staunch hope that persists beyond the bounds of reason.
There is no dawn on this longest of nights, but at some point in the still, deathly silence of no man’s time, Sabinus drops into a restless doze and dreams: Tiberius, frozen in the snow, ice crystals in his brows, and the dull ivory of bone protruding from the bluer white of the snow, edged in the crimson of bright blood. Scrambling on his knees, Sabinus screams with frozen lungs and shakes him wildly, abhorring the stiffness of the ice-crusted limbs under his grip.
At last, the frosted lashes lift, dark eyes seeking blindly in the absence of proper light. Sobbing with relief, Sabinus presses his mouth to ice-cold lips, willing life into the cold limbs beneath him.
A deep, shuddering breath, then lips twitch, and a cool tongue seeks his. Sabinus kisses him and kisses him, whispering soundless words of love into that cool, trembling mouth, pressing his warmth into that endless void of cold. A spark jumps over, and heat ignites, a flame kindled on nothing. They kiss. Time becomes meaningless.
When at last Sabinus lifts his head, tears brimming with gratitude that they have not lost each other, the dark eyes that meet his are those of Castus.
More than a thousand died in the storm. It is a number beyond comprehension, and Sabinus does not try to comprehend it. Then, in the late hours of morning, he is called, with countless others, to implement the plan Spartacus has conceived to get them off the mountain.
A bridge, made of the dead.
Even as his gut clenches in denial, Sabinus recognises the grim genius of it: taking the loss fate has thrown at them, and casting it forward, into a victory over their enemy. He remembers Spartacus at the edge of the trench, immovable, implacable. I have not yet thought of it.
Along with the rebels, he carries and stacks the dead. It’s too cold for rot to set in, which is a blessing and a curse: on the good side, there is no smell, none of the horrid, soft feel of putrescence to the bodies. They are stiff and cold, frozen into so many logs.
On the bad side, they are stiff and cold, frozen into so many logs.
In the crystal-sharp, frigid stillness following the storm, Sabinus fetches and throws, fetches and throws. Nearby, there is the occasional soft gag, the sounds of bile splattering upon the crust of snow, and otherwise, the sounds of breathing heavy with exertion, the odd quiet sob. He closes his ears and his heart to it, fetches and throws, fetches and throws, until the throwing turns to piling, because the bodies have reached the level of the ground.
The worst of all is the crossing over: the crunch of frozen limbs underneath, awful and unmistakable. Eyes, blue and brown and green, turned empty to the heavens, filling with snowflakes as the living stomp across.
On the far side, there is fighting on the wall. Sabinus, still not trusted with a weapon, lies low until it is over, his gaze drawn inexorably back towards Melia Ridge: empty now but trampled flat, signs of their passing swiftly obliterated beneath the drifting now. The trench is a thing invisible, but for one portion: a heap of dead, a thousand strong, snow settling softly on top. Another hour or three, and they will be a mound among mounds, all tales of Crassus’s cunning and Spartacus’s ruthlessness buried beneath a soft white blanket.
Hardly anyone has the stomach for food that day, so at least they save on rations. His heart and stomach are empty, but his mind still cranks on. Sabinus scribbles numbers on torn deer hide, measuring their stores against some future day he cannot now imagine.
Along with Laeta and Belesa, Sabinus moves back and forth along the endless trek to make sure everyone is provided for. Unexpectedly, he finds assistance from Nasir, who has set his new recruits to assist with supply runs.
Nasir waves away Sabinus’s expressions of gratitude. “You’ve seen us well furnished with new weapons, and food that does not consist of merely gruel. Aid in seeing it handed out is least that we can offer.”
“Still, such assistance is well received,” Sabinus tells him, and is rewarded with a smile. Unconsciously, Sabinus peers about for Castus, but he is nowhere to be seen. He breathes a little easier.
“How far behind are the Romans?” he asks.
Nasir shrugs. “A day perhaps, two at most. Crassus does not seem inclined to grant them much rest.”
“He wouldn’t.” At Nasir’s questioning glance, he elaborates. “As Spartacus did not waste his dead, so Crassus does not waste the living. As long as he has men left capable of fighting, he will drive them on, until his goal is reached. He will not make concessions to their comfort, or survival as long as the risk still plays out in his favour.”
Nasir merely nods, then straightens up. “The day draws thin. We should find place to camp soon, unless Spartacus wishes to follow Crassus’s example, and march us to the borders of exhaustion.” Yet they walk on for a while, talking of less immediate things: amusing camp gossip, and the progress with the new recruits, a thing forever on Nasir’s mind. As usual, Sabinus finds he enjoys their talks beyond the daily practicalities. Nasir, fierce in battle and uncompromising in defence of friends, nevertheless has an evenness of temper that Sabinus finds soothing to be around. By now, Sabinus has had from him some of the details of how he came to join the rebels. It’s strange to think, when he sees him training unblooded youths, that this fiery young warrior was himself a pampered house slave not two years ago.
Nasir laughs when he mentions it. “Indeed. It seems a very long time ago.”
Sabinus finds himself curious. “How long did it take, to grow… accustomed?”
Nasir considers, shrugging. “Not very long. I had persuasive aid.” He smiles, gazing along the long train of marching people. Agron is nowhere near them, but he doesn’t need to be; Sabinus recognises that smile, private and warm with pride and affection, not meant for anyone but its object. It sparks a yearning in his chest, long familiar but no less sore for it.
“It is an odd thing,” Nasir says abruptly, his gaze returning sharply to Sabinus, who startles, almost guiltily, out of his secret envy.
He waits, until it seems no elaboration will be forthcoming. “What is?”
Nasir grimaces. “Crassus’s son. Tiberius. The one you cared for.”
Sabinus tenses. “What of him?”
Nasir takes a deep breath in, then snorts, half laughter, half exasperation. “It used to be my name.”
“What do you mean?”
“When I was yet a slave, my master called me Tiberius. For nearly a dozen years, it was the name I went by – my own buried deep among foggy memories of childhood.”
“Oh.” He doesn’t know what to say. “Truly?”
Nasir nods. “I knew it only as the sound preceding orders. The sound that wiped clean who I was before. Who I might yet be.” He rolls his shoulders uncomfortably, as if to nudge a burden off them. Not for the first time, Sabinus finds himself compelled to notice how he draws the eye – that dusky skin, those soulful eyes. A mouth made for kissing, and that fierce spirit sparking from every fibre of him, making his beauty a challenge rather than a gift. No wonder Castus placed his heart there, and finds it impossible to shift. Sabinus notices he’s grinding his teeth, and forces himself to stop.
“But you rediscovered it. Reclaimed yourself.”
Nasir smiles at him, a thing of grim, narrowed focus. “I would not have, if not for Spartacus and Agron.”
“You were fortunate in such aid.”
The weight of Nasir’s hand on his shoulder surprises him: a slim hand, but hard, calloused by daily fighting. “So shall you be, Sabinus. The bonds forged in this brotherhood are forever, have no doubt of it. There is a place for you among us. I sensed it, that day I saw you waiting in the snow.”
Lost for words, he nevertheless feels the warmth of that fierce promise, seeping into the cracks of his parched soul. “Gratitude,” he manages, if a little hoarsely.
Even in the biting cold, the usual needs prevail. Sabinus weaves back and forth, carrying water from one end of the army to the other, until he finds it hard to place one foot in front of the other. Mindless with fatigue, he doesn’t notice the horse beside him until Castus leans down to grab him by the arm. “Sabinus. You need rest. Mount up.”
Feebly, Sabinus tries to push him off. “I am well. The medicus needs water. The wounded-”
“Will be seen to. You are as walking corpse. Mount up, unless you wish to ride face down, with arse towards sky.”
Sabinus glowers up. Castus’s smile is a tired shadow of its usual brightness. He’s clearly been fighting recently; there’s blood smeared on his chest and garments, although he looks uninjured himself.
“Just for a while,” he coaxes, hand stretched out, and Sabinus finds he doesn’t have the strength to argue. He grasps the offered hand and pulls himself up behind Castus. The horse snorts and sidesteps, displeased with the extra weight, and he has to grasp onto Castus’s waist to keep his balance. Castus leans forward to murmur soothing things to the mare.
They pass slowly along the rows of walking rebels, pausing frequently as Sabinus hands out water skins. When he runs out, Castus takes them out a little towards the flank, skirting the long trudging train.
Sabinus is bone-weary, but his head is oddly clear. He can smell Castus, sweat and dust and blood. He smells like they all smell. Sabinus can’t remember anything but this, the endless trek across a barren winter plain.
He settles into the rolling gait of the horse, the receding ache of his feet and calves, and the solid warmth of the man before him.
“Tell me a story,” he says, to the dust-smeared marble of Castus’s shoulder. “One of your outrageous lies.”
He hears, rather than sees, Castus’s smile. “No lie has ever passed my lips. But very well. Let me tell you of Aglaope, first among the sirens. Along with her sisters, she was called on by Demeter – her whom you Romans call Ceres, although her role is much diminished under rule of Rome – who set her the task of searching for Persephone, her daughter stolen by dark Hades. The sirens roamed the world in search of her, carried by their dark-feathered wings and casting far their song. But in all their flights they followed Aglaope, whose tether to the goddess’s daughter was stronger than duty, and louder than song; for since she had first seen Persephone, splitting pomegranates in her mother’s garden, and glancing up to smile at the bird woman soaring high, Aglaope had burned for her. Now every winter season Hades hid her cunningly, well aware that Demeter had sent her spies to bring her back. One year, he hid her on a barren rock, far in the northern sea, behind a tangled hedge of thorns. But far across the ocean, Aglaope heard her love’s heart beat, and flew through storms and cold to find her. She and her sisters cut through the thorn hedge, until bloodied and weary, Aglaope arrived inside. Persephone soothed her wounds, and nursed her back to health on kisses, wine, and honey, and almost all that winter they forgot the world of gods and demons, and the sirens’ song rang low and soothing-sweet. But eventually Hades returned, and burned with fury at the sight he found. The sirens flew before his wrath, but Aglaope would not leave her love, and faced the god. He could not kill her, for she was goddess-touched, an immortal herself; so he burned her wings and twisted her voice, until her song was as the rough caw of ravens, and he cast her out upon the sea, to drift like flotsam on the unforgiving waves. Her sisters came and carried her to an island far in the southern seas; there she dwells still, the harsh screech of her song carrying far across the waves, as she mourns her lost love.”
Sabinus becomes aware that his fingers are digging into Castus’s sides. The winter air feels dusty and scratchy in his lungs, and his heart beats a little too fast.
“That is not,” he says eventually, a little hoarse, “one of your usual tales.”
“No,” Castus says, and they ride on in silence.
He drinks obediently, then plucks at her ermine-lined woollen cloak. “You seem to have risen into better fortune,” he teases her, well aware that Saxa has been showering her with lavish gifts.
Belesa makes a face, poking him in the ribs. “You could do with better fortune yourself, rag boy.”
Sabinus squirms away, all too aware of his ragged garments and fast-growing hair. “Cease! We cannot all be as lucky as you.”
“Indeed.” She eyes him closely. “Castus has told me of his foolish venture.” At his questioning gaze, she purses her lips in a quick but unmistakable mimic of a kiss. Heat floods Sabinus’s cheeks, and Belesa cocks her head. “You do not… linger on it, do you?”
The frankness of her question, of the casual reveal, takes him off guard. “No. Of course not.”
Belesa lifts her brows, looking unconvinced. “He stands the best of friends, but I would caution anyone who looked to him for more. He follows his heart, which throws lures like a drunken fisherman: hauling in anything that glitters, and casting back what he does not care to keep. Pierced and bloody.”
Sabinus’s mouth twitches. “A most vivid description. Have no fear. My heart is safe from him.”
She nods. “A good thing,” she says, and as she turns away, he feels, too keenly, the sly heavy weight of knowing that what he told her is a lie.
Chapter 9: Three Lies
And now, this new secret: so similar, so different. A corsair, of all things – a man made of smiles and carefree fortitude, brash impulse and a fine disregard for notions of honour or permanence. If Sabinus deliberately set himself the task of choosing the most unsuitable object for his attentions, he could not think of any better fitted to the definition.
He watches Castus go about the camp, with his easy swagger and easier smile, and promises himself that he will, at least, do better with this secret than he did with Tiberius, to whom his foolish boy’s heart was splayed wide. This secret, he will either excise from his heart altogether, or if he cannot do that, he will keep it, till the day he dies.
This is the first lie.
The rest of the morning passes in a flurry of rigorous sparring during which Sabinus discovers painfully just how much difference a few weeks without daily drills can make. Despite spending much of the first few days spitting blood and dirt being sent sprawling to the ground, he finds that he enjoys himself.
There is an easy routine and camaraderie in weapons training that he has missed. It’s hard to hold onto grudges or prejudice when you are brought together in the simple task of bashing each other to bruised pieces, and although all his muscles ache and some part of him is always bleeding, Sabinus soaks up the simple rituals of this fighting brotherhood: the good-natured, crass insults, the yelled cheers and curses, the first time Agron pounds him on the back and, grinning, proclaims he did well, for a Roman shit. He enjoys the welcome routine the training sessions add to his day; enjoys, too, the stretch and burn of bringing his body back into shape, honing skills too long neglected.
Quickly, he discovers that much of his former training, although it gives him a decent advantage over new recruits without previous experience, will not stand him in good stead when paired with more seasoned rebel fighters, whose styles are unconventional and not bound by Roman standards of proper military conduct.
These people do not fight to some pre-conceived notion of order or honour; they fight to win. Sabinus fares especially poorly when paired with women. Nothing in his upbringing or previous training has prepared him for fighting a woman in combat. Instinctively, he holds back every time, and every time ends up thoroughly trounced.
The first time he actually manages to let go his inhibitions and engages Naevia with all he’s got, he still ends up face-first in the dirt. This time, however, he is rewarded with a rare laugh from Naevia, and the hard grip of her calloused hand as she pulls him to his feet. “Keep at it, Roman,” she encourages him. “I do believe this time you almost managed to forget I had a cunt.”
He blushes fiercely among the roars of laughter surrounding him, but smiles gamely when his next challenger steps up – Saxa, who destroys him more thoroughly than he thinks he’s ever been beaten before. Afterwards, Belesa helps him up and drags him to the sidelines – not before Saxa has placed a triumphant kiss on her lips and, to his terrified alarm, another on Sabinus.
But it is good to laugh. To share. To fight.
Slowly his groaning body adapts to the daily challenge. Muscles long drilled to specific manoeuvres learn new ways to move. He’s always been long and wiry rather than bulky, and between the wartime rations and the rigorous training, he loses what few ounces of spare fat he had, and his frame grows sinewy and hard with lean muscle. His thick, light-brown hair soon grows too long for practicality in combat, and Sabinus takes to tying it back in a short queue, a few long strands forever stubbornly escaping to hang around his face. His reflection in the water barrel shows him a stranger: long-faced and vigilant, a new discretion in his blue eyes.
Castus laughs when he first sees his new hairstyle. “Look at you,” he remarks, dark eyes glittering. “Who’d know the Roman in you now?” He reaches out to tuck an errand strand behind Sabinus’s ear.
Sabinus squirms away from the warm tease, the fond regard in those dark eyes.
Does he not know? he asks himself, furious with his body’s reactions. Can he not tell?
But Castus walks the world with the unconscious fortitude of those blessed with endless charm and beauty. It is as if he held no memory now of that ill-considered kiss on Melia Ridge; as if, the matter settled between men, it cannot possibly now hold consequence. He touches Sabinus constantly with the lack of consciousness possessed only by those to whom human touch comes easy: an arm around his shoulders, an embrace after a training bout, a quick ruffle of his hair.
Sabinus grits his teeth and bears it, telling himself that surely the more often it happens, the more inured he will grow to it. (He doesn’t.)
It’s hardest when they fight. Trained from a young age to become a soldier, and aware of his predilections since late boyhood, Sabinus is well aware of the danger of men’s bodies in a fight, the sly alchemy of sweat and musk and the need to dominate that distils into wanting. In the years of his training for the Roman army, sparring with dozens of men, to say nothing of his sweaty wrestles with Tiberius, Sabinus has honed himself to stave off reaction, or laugh with them when it sometimes does happen, just a natural rousing of young healthy male bodies. He wasn’t the only one it happened to, after all.
But this is different, a level far removed from boyhood urges, and much harder to ignore.
The first time he spars with Castus, shirtless in the dusty training ground, Sabinus is made useless by the proximity of Castus’s skin, the way his muscles seem to catch the pale winter sun and cast it back, enriched by the contact. The press of Castus’s forearm against his as their swords clash and quiver against each other is too much for him; when a foot hooks around his calf, he goes down too easily, and as Castus topples down on top of him, crowing victoriously, square-tipped sword against the soft underside of Sabinus’s jaw, it’s all he can do to will his body into rigid stillness.
Amid roaring cheers, Castus rises and pulls Sabinus to his feet. Turning away from the dazzle of his smile, Sabinus unexpectedly finds Nasir’s eyes trained on him with a puzzled, too-perceptive inquisitiveness. Hastily, he averts his gaze, and returns Castus’s laughing jest with a forced humour that he doesn’t feel.
I must do better at this, he grimly tells himself. I can do better.
That is the second lie.
With the same lack of ceremony that accompanied his initiation into the training grounds, he is recruited one day for a small scouting mission, a group of rebels dropping far behind the sluggish army to investigate the vanguard of Crassus’s moving moloch driving them ever northward. It was meant for reconnaissance only but when they unexpectedly come across one of Crassus’s troops out with similar intentions, they’re quickly enmeshed in a sudden, deathly skirmish.
Sabinus, faced for the first time in months with the familiar lock-step formation, the ubiquitousness of red-dyed wool and leather, surprises himself with an utter lack of hesitation. He was prepared for misgivings, tried to fortify himself against the tug of former loyalties. Instead, at the sight of the Romans moving towards them in that long-practised sameness of motion, he feels only a sudden resurgence of the hatred of his post-Decimation days, so carefully nurtured then, now rising from dormancy with a fury he could not have fathomed. Instead of former affiliation, the familiar ache of guilt and honour forever tangled within him, he senses in their unstoppable approach only the hand of Crassus: the might that does not consider complexity, bent unswervingly towards a pre-set goal, without hope of clemency or exception.
The motion of that troop is that of a beast that knows no compromise; and Sabinus, torn for longer than he cares to acknowledge by his elementary need for accommodation, the subtle shades between Wrong and Rome, finds he hates that easy denial of nuance more than he’s ever hated anything.
He charges with the rebels, roaring his fury, and when the battle ends, he’s covered in blood and gore as they are, hoarse with the shouts of victory.
When they return to camp, Castus is among the first to meet them. The others with him cheer and demand details of the battle fought, admiring wounds and prizes of weapons and armour.
But Castus ignores the Roman shield Sabinus raises at him in grinning salutation; instead, he grasps his shoulders, looking him over with an expression altogether too grim, Sabinus thinks, for the occasion.
“Are you hurt?” he demands, his voice tight. Sabinus swats his hands away before they can make further inroads upon his traitorous body.
“No. Do you see my shield?” he preens, lifting it in case Castus hasn’t seen it. In truth, he is a little drunk; the Romans carried with them quite the quantity of wine. “I have phalerae, also.” He gropes about his pockets for the troop leader’s insignia. Even beyond the wine, he feels happily intoxicated on the easy victory and the sweet absence of guilt. For once, he’d even welcome Castus’s easy touch, the warm reassurance of a warrior’s embrace, if for no other purpose than to prove his place of equality; to show he’s reached, at long last, and despite his awkward nature, some comfortable approximation of their carefree ways. Among the ranks of Spartacus, bringer of Rain, he, Sabinus Flavius Verres, once only the pallid shadow of Tiberius, has commandeered a ship, seized property of Marcus Crassus, defied Romans and the winter storms, and emerged someone raw and new, unfettered by Rome’s too-simple notions of merit, and he wants to revel in it.
Castus, annoyingly, doesn’t seem to share his elation. Again, he reaches out to touch Sabinus, but not in congratulations; his hands are inspecting him for injuries, infuriatingly familiar on his sweat-drenched flesh.
“You’re caked in blood,” he observes grimly. “Are you-”
“It isn’t mine. Stop touching me,” he flares, as Castus’s hand ventures too close to his tense stomach.
At Castus’s look of concerned surprise, he takes a step back.
“Do your ears not function as they should, or are you so convinced I could not hold my own in battle?” he demands, incensed.
Brow furrowed, Castus shakes his head. “I only meant…”
“You only meant to assure yourself this idiot boy did not unwittingly do himself some damage, or quivered shrivelling before the might of Rome. Well, you need not concern yourself, Castus. I am fine. Many Romans fell before my sword.”
As he makes to storm off, Castus grasps his arm.
“Sabinus! You stand mistaken. I did not mean offence. I only worried, as is my due, I should hope, as” – he hesitates, a tiny pause – “as your friend.”
The word, once coveted, now burns like benevolent acid on a hidden wound.
“I’m fine,” Sabinus repeats, yanking free his arm, and makes for the camp and the oblivion of wine. “I’m fine!” he flings over his shoulder, once more for good measure.
That is the third lie, but in truth, they’re all the same. One thing, cupped closely, threatening to spill.
Chapter 10: The Rule of Proserpine
When you are caught in a neat trap, and all the paths ahead of you point towards death, it’s comforting still, to know there’s no one else you’d rather die beside.
Castus meets Sabinus’s flat statement with a wry snort. “A thing many agree on. What act of cruelty burdens heart?”
“That we stand condemned to die in Roman baths,” Sabinus grumbles, “but without luxury of water.”
“Ah.” Soft laughter. “You wish to die scrubbed clean, anointed with fragrant oils?” Castus asks, lightly teasing.
Sabinus sighs, letting his head drop back against the crumbling stone behind him. “I’d settle for drink of water.”
“There is some wine left.”
“I know. I do not wish to fog mind. When they attack again, we will need to be sharp.”
Castus shrugs beside him. “They might not, for a while. They know we still have arrows left.”
Sabinus swallows past the dryness of his throat. “Do you think-”
“No.” Castus interrupts him sharply. “You cannot think that way, Roman boy. Keep heart. The day is not yet done, and nor are we.”
Sabinus and Castus are crouched together in the smallest pool that might once have been a caldarium, the hottest of the pools, and now is half collapsed, dry soil pouring down one broken wall.
“This mission was ill-conceived,” Castus mutters.
“It was bad luck,” Sabinus corrects. “We did not expect their numbers to be quite so high.”
Castus cocks his head at him, mouth twitching. “Is this the Roman in you still, always hurrying to defend decisions of those in command?”
Sabinus ducks his head, as ever ill at ease when reminded of the origins of his thinking. “Spartacus holds great talent at military strategy.”
“He does.” Castus nudges him with a shoulder, a light, warm touch that Sabinus has to struggle not to flinch from. Touch comes so easily to Castus. “Do not bristle so, Sabinus. I meant no offence, to him or you. Even a great strategist may make miscalculation upon a day, and there is no shame in having it recognised by those who fight for him. How else would they advise on future course? One man cannot decide it all, and never once misstep.”
“I suppose,” Sabinus says reluctantly, thinking back to Marcus Crassus, and a Roman soldier’s first lesson never to question your commander. He pictures Spartacus, by contrast: the piercing gaze of the man, his insistence that his advisors speak their minds, regardless of what rank they hold.
Having thought it over, Sabinus nods, decisively. “You’re right. I suppose command may be improved by acknowledging imperfections when they occur. It is not a thing we learn in the Roman army. A flaw, perhaps a dire one.”
His concession is met by a long silence, but he can see, from the corner of his eye, Castus turning his head to look at him. It makes him fidget with the worn seam of his tunic, until at last he can bear it no longer and turns his head to meet Castus’s curious gaze.
“What?” he challenges.
Castus shrugs, a small smile on his face, though his gaze is uncomfortably keen. “Most men hold on to a conviction, once formed, prepared to defend it until tedium. I find it a rare thing for someone to consider a thing plainly and embrace a different perspective openly if it appeals, like you do.”
Sabinus frowns, trying to figure out the implications of the observation. Does Castus mean he concedes too readily? That he lacks strength of conviction?
A frustrated huff of air is his only warning before Castus shoulder-bumps him again, hard enough this time to aggravate the shallow cut he sustained earlier during the fighting. “Jupiter’s cock, Sabinus, cease picking every word apart for insult. I merely meant you consider different viewpoints without prejudice. It is a strength, and a refreshing thing to see.”
“Oh.” Cheeks flaming, Sabinus ducks his head, unsure what to do with the exasperated compliment. “I… am glad you think it so.” He rolls his shoulder against the ache of the cut his fingers can’t quite reach.
Castus takes note immediately, his brows crinkling in concern. “How is your wound?”
“A mere scratch.”
“Let me see,” Castus demands. Sabinus wriggles away from his inquisitive fingers.
“Castus. It’s nothing.” The blood has mostly dried, the gash merely a slight burn across his shoulder blade.
“The smallest scrape may turn fatal if rot sets in,” Castus insists. “I could use wine to clean it.”
“Save the wine. We may yet have need of it.”
Castus frowns at him. “But you said…”
“I know. I meant… a final libation, perhaps.” He shrugs, adding, with a wry smile, “When we are sure it makes no difference.”
Castus’s lips compress in disapproval, although at least he’s stopped trying to tug at Sabinus’s shirt. “You are too bleak of mind about our prospects, Roman boy.”
Sabinus snorts. “And you too fucking hopeful. We are trapped.” He waves a hand at their meagre cover. “Like rabbits in a snare.”
“Spartacus will send aid,” Castus replies. He sounds infuriatingly calm.
“He might, if he knew our position. We were driven far by Roman pursuit.”
Castus settles down to wipe drying blood off his blade with the hem of his cloak. “Not all who fell in first assault will have perished. Some may have made it back to camp, to raise assistance.”
“It does not seem over-likely. The gods do not favour us today.”
Castus sighs, loudly. “Fuck the gods, Sabinus. Are you so keen to die?” There is a hint of anger there that takes Sabinus by surprise. He shrugs, and on a whim, decides to treat the exasperated exclamation as a genuine question.
“No. No longer.”
Castus glances up from his sword, cocking his head. “What do you mean?”
Avoiding his gaze, Sabinus pauses, thinking back. “I did long for it, when I first joined with Spartacus. It seemed that treason and the hope of some vengeance upon Crassus were all that I had left to offer. Once the means for it stood delivered… there seemed not much point to hold to life.”
“I see.” Castus’s voice betrays nothing but guarded attention, but when Sabinus casts a quick glance at him, there is something restless in his face, a hint of coiled emotion. “And now?”
“Now?” Sabinus laughs, gesturing at their surroundings: the broken pools, the waning sun, the waiting wounded, and the ominous stillness of the grounds, interrupted only by the occasional furtive clang of weapons. Under the spreading mantle of twilight, the enemy is drawing closer.
“Now I would cling to life, when chance of it seems least likely. The gods play games with us, as ever.”
“Fuck,” Castus says, with feeling, “your fucking gods. We make our own fortune. Do not give up yet.”
His hand grasps Sabinus’s, fingers clutching hard. Sabinus looks at him, the chiselled features cast in warm brown marble, mouth cracked, a smear of blood across his cheek. Eyes intent and serious. Without conscious thought, Sabinus reaches out to smooth the blood away.
Castus doesn’t move, and then he does: long fingers circling Sabinus’s wrist, just as he’s about to pull away, and gently holding tight.
Sabinus’s breath catches in his throat. Castus is looking at him, truly looking, and not smiling. Holding his wrist lightly, keeping his captured fingers suspended in the air between them, smeared with the gods know whose blood. He looks different, unpoised, caught in a bewildered expression that looks almost like uncertainty, if Sabinus thought him capable of such a thing. He doesn’t.
He yanks his hand back and scrambles to his feet, head ducked beneath the edge of the pool. “I should see to the others.”
He’s already clambering up the slide of earth and rocks, crouching low at the edge of the pool. Crawling to the other pools, he makes his rounds last as long as he can, but there is not much new to be learned. One of the badly wounded has died: a mere youth, crumpled among burst mosaics, where he bled out in silence so as not to give their location away. The others hold on, grimly.
Eventually, Sabinus drops back into the tiny caldarium, where Castus has drawn one arm about his knees, the other hand resting lightly on his sword grip, eyes trained on nothing. He tenses when Sabinus rolls gracelessly down the tumbled side.
“Not much,” Sabinus reports, breathing hard. “The boy with the stomach wound died. We’ve seven arrows left, and one woman with any hope of aim. She stands ready by the steps.”
Castus nods tensely. “The Romans?”
They sit in silence, waiting.
As twilight thickens, they dare a sortie: a mad dash down from the hillside, using the meagre advantage of the higher ground. But the Romans are ready for them. Arrows rain from the olive grove, and they are quickly driven back, forced once again to seek the sparse shelter of the dusty pools.
“Is your shoulder worse? Do you hold hurt?”
“Jupiter’s cock, Castus, quit asking,” he responds irritably. “I am fine.”
Castus observes him with raised eyebrows. “You do not seem it.”
Sabinus barks a laugh. “You do seem fine, and I still do not believe you for a moment. I suppose we are neither of us as good as we thought at deception.”
“Cease casting doomed expression, Roman boy. You dampen spirits.”
“Apologies,” he retorts sourly. “I would not wish to interfere with your good mood, deranged as it may be.”
Castus frowns. “Sabinus…”
“No, you are right,” Sabinus sighs, shifting into a more comfortable position against the crumbled tiles. “I am insufferable.”
“Horse shit,” Castus says succinctly. “There are few men I’d rather suffer at a time like this.”
“Cease.” Sabinus presses the word out through his teeth, his jaw clenched too tight to let loose.
Castus blinks at his tone. “Cease what?”
“Everything!” Sabinus blurts, his tension giving way. “Cease torment. Cease mocking me.”
“I do not mock,” Castus says, sounding bewildered.
“Yes, you do! You mock at everything, and I tire of it! Does nothing ever hold true meaning to you?”
“Yes.” The soft admission startles him, robs him of righteous ire. In the gathering dark, he hears Castus laugh, a low, rueful chuckle, not holding much mirth. “It is a habit,” Castus says slowly, “grown from experience. A thing you can laugh at holds no power over you.”
“And so you laugh at everything.”
“As you laugh at me.” He tries to say it without bitterness, and is surprised at Castus’s snort of amusement.
“I try. You prove, at times, vexingly hard to laugh at.” There’s something underneath the teasing tone, something more serious, and almost puzzled.
A painful ache contracts Sabinus’s chest. “You do not laugh at Nasir.”
“Nasir…” It is too dark to see his face now but Sabinus can almost hear the furrowing of his brow. “Nasir holds not the sway he used to.”
Sabinus forces a laugh, a rough, cawing sound that must have the Romans wondering. “Are your attentions so easy to shift, then?”
“No, not easy.” The words come slow, as if drawn from some uncomfortable depth. “Now it is you who mocks,” Castus adds, the rebuke mild but there.
Sabinus feels heat rise in his cheeks and is selfishly glad it’s too dark to see. “Apologies.”
“None needed. I deserved it.”
They don’t speak for a while. In the dark, Sabinus can hear the Romans creeping near. He recognises from long experience the sounds of stealthy approach – weapons held carefully to avoid contact noise, the occasional scrape of scabbard against armour.
He’s cold, and tired, and the cut on his shoulder burns; but above all that he is aching with a deeper pain, sick of always being the wrong person, always too proper and too rigidly braced for consequence to make known the longings of his starving heart.
“Did I tell you,” Castus’s voice drifts warmly, “about the time I escaped from the sea turtle’s lair? It was much more dire circumstance than this. You see, he turned into a lovely youth by day, and held me spellbound with his charms, but by night-”
“Not now,” Sabinus interrupts, too harshly, and in the startled silence that follows, he tries to gentle his tone. “Castus. Not now. I… I need to tell you something.” He breathes in, shakily. “Do you know the rule of Proserpine, her whom you call Persephone? Any thing you speak, in the moments between life and death, she will take to the realm of Pluto when she descends at season’s end, to plant in the dark soil of the underworld. She will keep your truths. Your secrets. Speak them before you die, and she will see them safe.”
“I do not like this rule,” Castus says, voice dark with foreboding, and Sabinus reaches out blindly, grasping by chance upon his hand.
“No, let me speak. When I told you on Melia Ridge that I was glad for your friendship… I meant it then but I have since twisted it into a lie. When you kissed me-”
“No. I hated it.” He feels the flinch in the hand he holds, and amends hastily, “That is not what I mean. I hated that you would do it while thinking of another. But if I thought for but a moment it was me you meant – Castus, I would not have asked you to stop. I would have asked you to do it again.”
He breathes harshly, astounded by the reckless freedom of his lungs. It’s dark; he is, despite Castus’s protestations, rather certain he is about to die, and he feels defiant, exultant with his revelation, and impossibly alive.
Castus’s fingers tighten painfully around his.
“I was a fool that day. The worst kind of fool.”
The pain of humiliation flows through him, a hot rush of mortification. Sabinus tries to wrench his hand back, but Castus holds it tight.
“I know.” He tries to keep his tone level. “You wished I was him.”
“Not that kind of fool. I mean, yes, that too, but I meant” – an exhalation, shaky in the dark. “I mean a fool because… I did not know then. Did not see.”
“That you deserve to be kissed for who you are.”
Sabinus blinks. “Who I am.”
A soft huff of laughter in the deadly dusk. “Brave. Stalwart. Beautiful.”
A long silence.
“What?” he asks dumbly, finally. His stupid heart is pounding. “What is your meaning?”
The silence in the broken pool is held closely like an impenetrable veil; a thin-meshed thing but dense with substance. He hears Castus make an impatient noise into the dark space between them. “My meaning, Roman boy, is surely amply clear by now.”
The blood rushes in his ears. He’s quivering with disbelief and a tentative, stunned, ill-timed joy. Beyond the half-hearted tease in those words, beyond the rush of his own pulse, he hears the clang of swords and the shouts of men, closer; closer. In his mind’s eye, he sees the Parcae, the way his grandmother used to describe them: three dark heads, shadow-wreathed, bent close over a shimmering life thread. It must be nearly Morta’s turn, he thinks: extending two lengths of thread between her withered hands, holding ready the gleaming scissors. He feared them, as a small boy, but never had a notion that the Fates might hold a sense of irony. Of course, when you are the one to preside over the lengths of time given to puny humans, you might find some dark humour in denying them the conclusion of their unimportant, fragile, time-bound pursuits.
Sabinus’s heart clenches, pulled tight by the aching certainty that it’s too late for something he hasn’t quite arrived at yet.
“Castus-” The oncoming din of battle drowns him out. Castus raises his voice. “They are nearly upon us. You’ve got your sword?”
Their fingers clutch. With his free hand, Sabinus grasps his sword. “I do.”
Castus’s breath, stale bread and wine, mingles suddenly with his, a mere whisper away from his lips. “Ask me to kiss you again,” he instructs, harshly, “after this.”
Then there’s only the roar of battle on the hillside. They stand, prepared to face it, and whirl as one at the dark silhouette leaning suddenly above them, looming implacably into the pitch-black pool.
“Cease fondling cocks, you lazy dogs,” Agron tells them, his voice hoarse with grim pleasure, “and come help finish Roman shits. Later, you may kiss my ass for timely rescue.”
Chapter 11: You Came to Me As the Ocean
It’s not until night comes again that they manage to catch a breath. They’re camped on barren winter ground, uncomfortably exposed, although at least their open position means the camp is impossible to sneak up on. The night is cold and clear, and Agron insists, with somewhat forced cheer, on celebrations.
Water is sparse, and wine is not, but on Spartacus’s instructions, Sabinus has personally curtailed rations for the latter. “We are too exposed to Romans,” Spartacus stated sombrely. “I would not have us more so because our fighting edge is slowed by wine.” Predictably, it sparks another argument, but Spartacus prevails, and as a result, the evening is less raucous than it might have been.
There is some entertainment furnished by Saxa and her people. Among a ring of campfires, they stage wrestling matches that seem conspicuously more designed towards a display of oiled bodies than any real competition.
Sabinus watches for a while, nursing a cup of wine stretched with water, but the exhibition does not keep his interest. After a night of little sleep and a long day of fighting, his body is tired, but his mind is strangely clear, a state enhanced by the crispness of the night air and the sharp pinpoint stars above. Several rebels approach him to talk about the Roman trap in the baths, and he obliges them with detailed accounts, placing his focus firmly on Agron’s heroic rescue.
In a rare moment when Agron is not surrounded, Sabinus approaches the man himself, to speak his gratitude; but despite his words the night before, Agron seems happy enough to let the matter go. One arm slung around Nasir, he clasps his other hand on Sabinus’s shoulder, grinning broadly as he waves his thanks away.
“Think nothing of it,” he slurs, clearly pleased with himself, the night, and the company. He appears to have gotten more than just his own meagre ration of drink. “Truth told, I would not have expected to risk life on rescuing a fucking Roman, but, well…” He waves magnanimously, an expansive gesture that nearly smacks the cup from Sabinus’s hand.
“Sabinus stands Roman no longer,” Nasir interjects, resting a hand subtly on Agron’s chest to steady him. He smiles at Sabinus. “He stands a man of our cause, do you not?”
Sabinus’s throat tightens unexpectedly. A man of the cause of rebellion. A traitor to Rome. What a strange thing to take pleasure in having acknowledged by another.
“I do.” He cannot say more, lest he embarrass himself in some way.
“Yes, yes.” Agron keeps waving his arm about, a hazard to everything near him until Nasir captures his hand. Agron twines their fingers together as if it was second nature, but his gaze stays on Sabinus, a certain gravity in his eyes despite his convivial mood. “I would have killed you when first I laid eyes on you,” he informs him, rather amiably.
Sabinus is not sure what to say, but again Nasir comes to the rescue. “You said the same thing about me once. Perhaps it is best you leave such decisions to cooler heads.”
There is a story there that Sabinus feels he’d quite like to ask about someday, but not right now. Instead, he nods at Agron, smiling. “Well, I am glad you did not get your way.”
“So do I,” beams Agron, hugging Nasir more closely against him. “I do not,” he explains, with the soulfulness of the deeply drunk, “trust easily.”
Nasir laughs up into his face. “No, you do not.”
They kiss with the long practice of being always wanted. As if they had not a care in the world; as if there was no war, no ever-looming threat of death. Sabinus watches them and knows, with a bone-deep ache of longing, how much he wants this; how far he’s come from the rules of Rome, that have already thwarted the desperate cravings of his youth and hold no sway over the man he is now; the man he has become, through snow and pain and treason, despite expectations and his own self-doubt.
He leaves them to their bliss, and goes to find his own.
He looks up when Sabinus approaches, and the smile that kindles on his face is wide and unselfconscious, if a little surprised.
Sabinus smiles back. “Greetings. I was surprised to find you not at celebration.”
Castus hesitates, then nods. “I was not in the mood for loud company. I know,” he adds, ruefully, at Sabinus’s expression. “But contrary to what you may think, I am not always game for drunken sport. Sit,” he invites, scooting over on the log of wood he sits on; then, when Sabinus lingers, he amends, a trifle stiffly, “if you wish.”
Seeing his face shutter, Sabinus sits down so hastily he almost loses his balance.
“You fought well today.” Castus does not seem to notice his clumsiness.
“As did you,” he responds.
Castus inclines his head to acknowledge his remark but offers no further easy talk, and Sabinus finds his hands clenched in front of him, his lungs feeling too small for air. This is stupid. It seemed easy to talk last night. He takes a deep breath.
“Castus, I wished...”
“You need not...”
They speak at the same time. Sabinus halts, uncertain. Castus laughs, grasping at his patch of chin beard, restlessly grooming it. He huffs an impatient sigh.
“Sabinus. Do not fret. I would not hold you to words spoken when you believed we were on Hades’s doorstep.”
Sabinus pauses at that, caught aback by the almost angry undertone in Castus’s voice. “You spoke them also,” he objects, bewildered.
In the glow of the firelight, he sees Castus’s jaw tighten. “Yes. But I did not believe it.”
Sabinus feels the log drop from beneath him, sending him adrift in emptiness. “Did not believe…” he repeats, hearing his words from faraway.
Castus’s hand has floated up to touch the red stone at his neck. His jaw is clenched, his eyes trained on the fire. “I did not believe that we would die,” he clarifies.
It takes Sabinus a moment to take in his words. “You mean-”
Castus’s eyes meet his, their expression flat. “I did not think. That we would die.” He snorts, a quick, humourless huff. “I was born lucky. I don’t believe in death, when other roads still beckon.” He looks beyond Sabinus, lips compressing briefly. “I spoke anyway. I would speak apologies, if I meant it.” He pauses. “But I do not.”
Sabinus is scooting down the log before he knows it, closer to the heat of the fire, and the man before it. “Nor do I.”
At his words and his motion, Castus glances up, sharply. His shoulders are tense. The flames flicker over him, limning him in golden silhouette against the darker shade of night.
“I have,” Sabinus says, dizzy with anticipation, “something to ask of you.”
He watches cognisance blooming in Castus’s face; watches the motion of those wide shoulders tilting ever so slightly towards him.
Having come here to speak, he finds that speaking is the one thing he cannot do. He rests, frozen, upon the fire-warmed log, his hands dangling between his knees, his gaze caught in the dark eyes trained on his.
When Castus leans toward him, the motion is measured, deliberate; slow enough that Sabinus has ample time to pull back, say something, make his refusal known, as he did once before. Instead, he sits motionlessly, watching reflected flames dance in those black, black eyes as they draw near. He feels the pounding of his heart all through him, loud enough to dim the crackle of the fire.
But the expected press of lips on lips doesn’t come. With less than a knife’s length between them, Castus halts, and his hands come up to frame Sabinus’s face, palms just barely brushing his cheeks. The heat of the fire and the close contact raises the fine down on Sabinus’s skin. It tingles, and he catches his breath. Castus’s hands are warm, a gentler heat than the fire’s blaze. His skin is rough with sword callus, the pads of his fingers scraping against Sabinus’s skin, but his touch is feather-light, a curious contrast.
His eyes are studying Sabinus. The mocking twinkle in them has quieted, replaced by that inquisitiveness Sabinus has seen in him before, as if Castus is trying to peer inside him, to read the essence of him. Caught in that penetrating gaze, Sabinus can only sit still and stare back. He has no idea what Castus is seeing in his face, but after endless moments, his hands move, one cupping more firmly around Sabinus’s cheek, the other stealing up to brush a strand of his hair back from his face. It’s a curiously awkward motion, almost shy.
Castus’s eyes have followed his hand, breaking the spell of their locked gazes. He makes a sound, half laughter, half cleared throat. “Your hair has grown much longer.”
Sabinus nods, aware of how the motion makes Castus’s hands shift against his face. “Too long. I should cut it.”
“Do not. It suits you.” The smile is back, but it, too, is a quieter version of the usual dazzle; warmer, more private somehow. Slowly, very deliberately, his long fingers move across Sabinus’s face, tracing his cheekbones, the arch of his brows. Thumbs pressing briefly between his eyes, then moving out, smoothing out a furrow between his brows, then sliding down his nose. His palms push close, into the hollows of Sabinus’s cheeks, scraping against his evening stubble. Fingertips, brushing his eyelashes, ever so lightly.
Spellbound, Sabinus holds still for it, not closing his eyes even when his eyelids twitch against the close contact. Castus’s gaze is no longer trained on his, instead following the motions of his hands, taking in every inch of skin as his fingers explore it. This leaves Sabinus to watch him instead: his high cheekbones, the elegant sweep of his brows beneath the worn leather of his hat. His strong, broad nose and the generous curve of his full mouth, a smile always dancing at the corners, ready to spread across his face. The firelight shifts on his dark skin, caressing it in golden highlights and darker shadows. He is beautiful.
“Pretty,” Castus murmurs, as though echoing Sabinus’s thought. His thumb traces Sabinus’s lower lip, making the thin skin tingle. The urge to open his mouth and suck that thumb inside comes on him suddenly, with surprising strength. Instead he laughs, a quick gust of breath against the rough pad. Castus immediately slides the thumb away, up his cheek instead, and Sabinus is surprised at his regret.
“I am not much to look at,” he says quickly, to cover his fluster. Not like you. He knows it to be true. He has no quarrel with his face, seen in polished bronze mirrors and reflective water: friendly and long-boned and well-used to smiling; an open sort of face, pleasant enough but certainly not what you’d call pretty.
But Castus’s brows have drawn together, a furrow between them, and his fingers spread, spanning warmly across Sabinus’s cheeks and the sides of his neck, thumbs tilting his chin. “Pretty,” he insists, thumbs stroking gently. “I do not flatter idly.” His eyes wander across Sabinus’s face again as he takes in each detail. Sabinus, not used to being looked at with such keen attention, struggles not to squirm.
Castus appears not to notice his discomfort. “Eyes like the waters of the northern sea,” he muses, “when a storm draws near, darker on the horizon. And your skin is finer than I’ve ever seen on a man. Pale as spindrift.”
Sabinus shivers. Without really noticing when, he’s placed a hand on Castus’s chest. The muscle there is lean and firmly toned; beneath the warm skin, he can feel the steady beat.
“Your heart,” he says. His voice comes out raspy and he clears his throat. He nods at Castus’s chest, trying to make light of his remark, but he suspects his grin is somewhat shaky. “I thought it was lost to you, but pounding beat speaks otherwise.”
Castus smiles too, but speaks without teasing. “I believed it so. Of late…” He hesitates, something flickering in his eyes as he looks at Sabinus. “Of late it seems to have ventured elsewhere.” His tone is measured and his gaze frank, although there is uncertainty there, too, a hint of vulnerability in the curve of his mouth.
Sabinus is surprised by the sudden warm wash of pleasure rushing through him. It stirs his loins, a slow, warm swelling against his leathers, but it spreads farther, too, a pleasant ache of feeling in a place tucked deep inside. He doesn’t know what to say. Instead, he slowly lifts his free hand to wrap it lightly around Castus’s wrist. When he tugs it gently away from his face, Castus tenses, his fingers curling inwards, preparing to draw back. Sabinus makes a wordless noise of protest; rejection was not what he meant to signal. He holds on, tugging Castus’s hand down until it rests, along with his own, upon his knee. Hesitantly, he threads his own fingers through Castus’s. In the glow of the fire’s light, the contrast between their hands, one pale, one dark, is bold and captivating.
A hitched breath makes him look up, to meet a new heat in Castus’s eyes. Something shifts there and leaps between them, a sudden, sharper awareness. It’s tense and palpable, like the sparks spitting in the fire, and Sabinus wants to do something to break it, and also wants to sit still like this, just basking in that focused regard.
Unbidden, his eyes drop to Castus’s mouth, the lush curve of his lips. He wants to close the distance, wants it with a deep, not altogether comfortable ache; but he can’t seem to bring himself to move. Beneath his hand, Castus’s chest rises and falls slowly, though his heartbeat is rapid, firing Sabinus’s courage. He looks back up to find Castus watching, intent but wary too, holding back.
He did ask him to ask.
“Kiss me,” he blurts, and feels the heat of a flush rise into his cheeks. He feels awkward, exposed, his layers of self-protection peeled back before that searching, keen gaze. He wants to look away. He can’t look away.
“I want to,” says Castus, his voice dropped to an intimate murmur. His eyes haven’t left Sabinus’s. “Do you want me to?” It’s not a tease. There is an urgency there, a genuine question riding the easy words. Sabinus considers it, as much as he is able between the slow throb of desire and the tangle of his feelings, which are far from clear, but he is certain that he wants this; the whole of him is aching with the need to touch, to give, to share.
Even then, Castus doesn’t pounce, as Sabinus half expected him to. He leans in slowly, the hand still on Sabinus’s face curling in a warmer caress, cupping his cheek, thumb brushing the thin skin beneath his eye. The dark eyes fill his field of vision, their blackness bottomless now that the fire is behind Castus. Gently, so gently, those full lips brush his own, a damp breath of air ghosting against his lips. A hint of wine and wood smoke. His breath stutters in his lungs. He can’t move, and then he can, tugging on their still-joined hands to bring Castus that crucial bit closer. His eyelids fall shut when Castus’s mouth slides slowly over his. Soft lips, so soft, but a heat behind them that he can almost taste. He opens his mouth and leans in. His other hand slides up from Castus’s chest, tracing the muscles to his neck and shoulder and finally curling around his nape.
Castus makes a pleased noise at the contact, and his tongue slides into Sabinus’s mouth, a slow, sensuous movement that pulls a noise from deep in Sabinus’s throat. He tilts his head for better access, breathes in and lets his jaw go soft, his mouth pliant. The kiss deepens, still slow, but weighted now with the promise of more as they taste each other, tongues twining together, licking, teasing. Unable to resist, Sabinus grabs onto the full swell of Castus’s bottom lip and sucks it into his mouth. Castus makes a low noise, almost a purr, and lets go of Sabinus’s hand. Before he can regret the loss, an arm wraps around his waist and then Castus shifts from his seat, forward onto his knees and between Sabinus’s spread thighs.
The sudden press of his heated body is a challenge to Sabinus’s balance. Without breaking the kiss, he reaches behind to brace himself as he leans back, lowering himself down from the log until he rests on one elbow, half-reclined, his legs still over the log. Castus follows, his arm still around Sabinus’s waist, fingers spreading against the small of his back under his shirt. Their kisses are more urgent now, made clumsy by their movement off the log, Castus’s tongue pushing greedily into his mouth. The ground is bare and cold beneath him and Sabinus squirms, shrinking away from the chill. Castus seems to understand; he pulls back briefly, tugging at Sabinus.
“Back there,” he murmurs, “blankets.” His eyes are heavy-lidded, nostrils flaring, lips wet and gasping. Lust races through Sabinus at the sight, a sweet rush of want. Castus swallows, eyes searching Sabinus’s face. “If you want…?” That querying tone again, as if he could possibly still have doubts his touch is welcome.
Sabinus sits up, capturing his mouth in another kiss, and hums his pleasure as their tongues meet. “Yes,” he says, breathlessly, into the damp space between their mouths, “yes.”
He doesn’t want to stop, doesn’t want their mouths to part, but he scrambles awkwardly backward under Castus’s guiding touch, until they’re beneath the single thick hide that serves as a roof of sorts, shielding the pile of blankets. Castus spreads them swiftly with less than his usual grace, then rolls below the topmost one and reaches out to grasp Sabinus’s hand, tugging.
The blankets are a mix of warm where they faced the fire and chilly where they pressed against the tent’s back, but they are thick against the frozen ground. Castus wriggles backward to make room on the narrow pallet, then pulls Sabinus in, close against him. The press of their bodies together is a sudden shock to his senses. Compared to some of the ex-gladiators, Castus’s garb is positively modest, but under his leather straps and jewellery, his chest and arms are still bare, muscles shifting under his smooth skin. His mouth has trailed from Sabinus’s lips along the line of his jaw, and is now nuzzling against the sensitive skin of his neck just below his ear. Sabinus shivers. The warm lips travel higher, tracing the shell of his ear.
“What do you want?”
“I…” It’s hard to think with the distraction of that mouth now on his earlobe, and anyway, he wants so much. He wants that mouth on him, anywhere, everywhere. He wants to touch. He wants bare skin. He wants to know how far he’ll be allowed, what will be expected, and most of all he wants, very much, not to look the fool. They’ve only kissed, but already he feels out of his depth: this slow, heated dance of lips already feels more intimate than anything he’s ever done. With Tiberius, kissing was rare, and more a playful grapple for dominance than anything else, clumsy and half-joking, a stepping stone towards the ultimate goal of a quick, satisfying spurt.
These kisses don’t feel like jokes, or a means to an end. Castus kisses as though kissing by itself holds meaning: unhurried, deliberate, infused with a languid sweetness that spreads through Sabinus’s limbs like warm honey, weighing them down.
Castus is leaning up on one elbow, looking down at him with a small frown. Sabinus belatedly realises that he’s probably been lying there stiff and silent as a vestal virgin. So much for not looking the fool. He feels heat rise to his cheeks and curses his pale skin that shows every blush.
But Castus only looks at him with concern and unmistakable desire. Start somewhere, Sabinus tells himself sternly. Anywhere. He clears his throat.
“I want to see your hair.” He ghosts his fingertips across Castus’s face, tracing the edge of the leather headpiece. “May I…?”
Castus’s frown clears and he nods with a smile, eyes crinkling. Sabinus carefully lifts off the hat and sets it down without taking his eyes off the man above him. His hair is black and wiry, cropped close to the skull; he’s seen it before, in Sinuessa, but not like this, revealed in a moment of deliberate intimacy. Sabinus allows his hands to roam across the curve of his head, enjoying the pleasant sensation of the tightly coiled curls and the firm roundness of the bone beneath. Castus holds still for it, eyes half-lidded; he looks like a great cat permitting itself to be petted.
As Sabinus’s fingers trail down onto Castus’s nape, he encounters the mingled leather thongs and metal chains of his jewellery. He traces the thin twisted gold strands that hold the red pendant in place.
“I like this. What sort of stone is it?”
“It’s coral, from the Ionian Sea.” Castus’s fingers close over Sabinus’s questing hand and pulls it to his lips. “I won it in a struggle with a fierce water demon. For days we fought, I with my sword and he with his claws and teeth the length of my arm. The water churned for miles as we struggled. Finally I subdued him, and he gave me this gem, formed from his blood, in exchange for his life spared.”
Sabinus bursts out in delighted laughter. “More pirate lies!”
Castus’s teeth flash white. “Much better tale than dull truth. I found it at a market. Seller most persuasively told me it was for protection – to grant safe passage through Poseidon’s realm. Neptune, you Romans call him.” He shrugs. “So far it has not steered me wrong.”
He leans over, kissing each of Sabinus’s fingertips. “But enough of jewels, when greater pleasures beckon.”
Sabinus’s heart is pounding so loudly he imagines Castus must hear it. But the laughter has helped to ground him. There is a strange comfort in the knowledge that Castus happily paused to spin some sailor’s yarn in the midst of their kissing and touching, as if there is no rush at all.
There could be some rush, parts of Sabinus’s body insist; the low throb in his loins is anything but leisurely.
His hands move restlessly across Castus’s chest, mapping the rippling muscles. Castus inhales sharply when Sabinus’s fingers brush his nipples. They peak, hardening under his fingertips, and Sabinus circles them, fascinated. Castus holds still for the caress, although his breathing has grown perhaps a bit more laboured. Emboldened, Sabinus lets his fingers roam, until he encounters the stiff leather of Castus’s wide belt. He runs a finger along the edge, dipping beneath.
“I wish to see more of you.”
Wordlessly, Castus reaches behind, undoing unseen knots and buckles, and the belt comes loose. He shimmies out of his wide-legged trousers along with it, bends down to work his feet out of his boots, and when he stretches out again beside Sabinus, he is naked except for the red pendant, all smooth skin and elegant muscles. Sabinus stares, holding the blanket high enough so he can watch his fill, entirely forgetting to worry about whether he seems rude, or shameless.
Castus is smooth almost all over, except for a thin trail of hair below his navel, leading to the dark nest of curls at his groin. There doesn’t seem to be a spare ounce of fat on him at all; he’s all lean muscle, defined to a sculptor’s perfection. Sabinus longs, with almost painful intensity, to touch every inch of him, trace every dip and swell, press his palms against that flawless skin, measure his thighs with the span of his hands. Castus’s cock is hard and pointing upright, beautifully proportioned like the rest of him. It’s not touching Sabinus but he imagines he can feel its heat, the dampness of the glistening tip. Flushing, he tears his gaze away, and finds Castus looking at him, a wariness in his eyes, and a question. Sabinus swallows, with some difficulty; his throat feels dry.
“You are beautiful.”
A smile rewards him, some of the caution dispelling. One of Castus’s hands rests on Sabinus’s abdomen, idly tracing the seam of his shirt. His voice is low, absurdly courteous. “May I see more of you, also?”
Sabinus nods. He tugs his shirt over his head, impatient with the necessity of disrobing. He wriggles gracelessly out of trousers and boots, and fights the urge to hold something back to cover himself with. He’s not without muscle, and never found particular fault with his wiry frame and long limbs, but against all that gleaming toned perfection, he feels gangly and plain.
Castus, gratifyingly, doesn’t seem to be cataloguing flaws as his gaze roams across Sabinus. Gaze filled with unmistakable admiration, he spans Sabinus’s shoulders with his hands, tracing their slope down his arms. One hand steals onto his chest, grazing his ribs lightly, spreading out across his belly. Sabinus shivers under the caress, heated but light.
“I wondered what you’d look like stripped bare,” Castus murmurs, hands roaming restlessly across him. “I would lie awake, wondering. I find imaginings pale shadow against reality.”
Sabinus feels jittery with the strong instinct to squirm at the compliment, but he can’t help basking in it at the same time, an uneasy, ridiculous warmth flushing him at Castus’s blatant pleasure in looking at him, at the thought that Castus imagined him naked.
The urge to distract that keen attention is strong, though, and he shifts closer, closing the small distance between them to escape that heated scrutiny. He makes an impatient noise and presses against Castus with a boldness he doesn’t truly feel. But as their bodies meet, the awkwardness of his move transmutes into something new. Castus’s skin is hot against his, the lines and curves of his body unfamiliar, but they come together with an ease that surprises Sabinus, their legs aligning, their arms a framework for the small, intimate cocoon of blankets.
Castus is rubbing his cheek against the side of Sabinus’s face, his soft patch of chin beard lightly scraping against Sabinus’s skin. It’s a playful gesture, oddly endearing, and once again Sabinus is reminded of a great cat seeking the pleasure of touch. He turns his head to meet Castus’s lips with his own, and gratefully closes his eyes as the kiss fills his senses, leisurely but sensual, too. Then Castus’s hips press into his own, and Sabinus can’t hold back a gasp at the sudden sensation of warm flesh against his own. Unconsciously, he arches into it, seeking after the jolt of pleasure. This time it’s Castus who makes a noise as their cocks slide against each other. He rocks his hips against Sabinus’s, and his tongue in Sabinus’s mouth pushes deeper, taking his mouth in a slow but unmistakable rhythm.
Sabinus is having trouble breathing, his mind gone hazy with the hot ache as they move together. He feels heavy, concupiscent; his cock swollen and exquisitely sensitive to the slow, sensual rut, made easier now by pre-slick coating them. The need to climax is already upon him, tensing his thighs, but he wants it to last, too; wants this dreamlike, erotic writhe to never stop.
Castus moves a hand between them, wrapping his fingers around their joined lengths. Sabinus sighs at the grip of his calloused palm, satisfyingly tight, and lifts his hips higher, trying to gain more leverage. Castus tears his mouth away at last. He, too, is breathing hard, and in the flickering light of the fire, his eyes glitter.
“Wait,” he says, a bit hoarsely. “I want to taste you.”
He looks at him, a question in his eyes, and Sabinus nods so hard it must look ridiculously eager. “Yes.”
Castus gives him a small, delighted smile, then ducks his head, kissing his way down his neck, his chest, and lower. He leaves small patches of damp skin in his wake that should be cool in the night air, but instead seem to burn. As Castus wriggles his way down below the blanket, Sabinus lifts his head to watch, irresistibly drawn by the light dancing on Castus’s skin.
The fire is burning lower but it’s still high enough that Sabinus can see: the shadows among the blankets, his own taut stomach, and Castus’s wide shoulders between his splayed thighs, mouth poised above his straining cock.
Castus’s tongue darts out, swiping the tip playfully, and Sabinus swallows a curse. Castus does it again, slower this time, tongue flattening. Sabinus feels a shudder travel through him from his scalp to his toes; he resists the urge to thrust his hips.
Then Castus presses his tongue into the slit in a slow, deliberate lick, and Sabinus forgets all about resisting anything. His hips jerk, and then he feels Castus’s hands on them, circling the joints of thigh and hip, and his tongue… gods, his tongue is moving, teasing, flicking again and again over his distended tip.
Wet heat surrounds him; tight suction, swirling tongue. He doesn’t know how to pretend this has happened to him before. Tiberius used his hand, at most, rutted against his thigh, his hip, into his fingers; a time or two his mouth but he never offered return. Always they were too conscious of what might happen if they were caught. There is no fear of discovery in this deliberate action, the firm, tight suck of Castus’s mouth. Sabinus bucks and swears, losing his breath; his hips lift upwards, yearning into that willing mouth.
The pressure builds. His hand scrabbles at Castus’s wiry curls, trying to pull him off.
“Castus,” he gasps. “I’m too… you’ll make me spend.”
Castus withdraws, and despite his warning, Sabinus nearly moans a protest at the loss. But Castus merely rubs his cheek against the inside of Sabinus’s thigh, looking up at him with a wicked, pleased spark in his eyes.
“Is that not desired outcome?” he asks, slightly breathless. He licks at the slit, just once, and Sabinus clutches at the blankets beneath him, teeth digging into his lower lip.
“Yes, but… I meant to… last.”
He blinks at the absurd question; gestures between them. “Well… you.”
Castus laughs at that, but softly. “Have you some true objection or are you merely being noble?”
“I…” He swears when Castus’s head lowers again and his tongue draws a broad, swirling circle on the head, swiping up the slickness he finds there. “Oh gods.”
“Besides,” Castus continues, a low croon that Sabinus can feel as a torturous, warm breath, “I want you to.” His lashes flicker up, eyes heated beneath them. “Spend in my mouth,” he murmurs, his open lips dipping down, then up again, parting briefly to speak. His words are hoarse, short bursts of intimate challenge between licks and wet caresses. “I wish to see you. Feel you. Taste you. I’ll have you hard again before long, never fear.” His lips descend again, tongue pressing broadly against the underside of Sabinus’s cock, a long, slow suck that swells his balls.
“Gods!” Sabinus swears, and gives up thinking altogether. His hips move, encouraged by Castus’s grip on his thighs as he pushes up, and Castus makes a contented humming noise that vibrates from the tip of his cock all the way into his aching balls.
He thrusts, rendered mindless by that blatant, generous offering. Castus is cupping his straining thighs in a tight, calloused grip, peeling him open, and Sabinus fucks his mouth, whimpering at the friction pulling at him, that wet tongue, that tight throat opening to his thrusts.
Even so, climax takes him by surprise, his broken cry of warning lost in the mind-numbing pleasure of release. Castus does not pull back even for a second. He swallows and keeps sucking greedily until Sabinus whimpers a wordless plea for pause when his empty cock throbs with sensation, his flesh too sensitive for close attention.
He shudders when Castus releases him; floats for long, endless moments under the cool breath of night air on his heated skin, and rolls bonelessly to the side, one thigh drawing high instinctively to protect his throbbing groin. Behind him, Castus shimmies up, smooth skin pressing against his back and legs. He’s warm and real, his cock a hard presence against the small of his back, and Sabinus murmurs, eyes closed, into the blankets, “Give me a moment.”
Castus’s laugh is a warm huff of air against his nape. “Have no fear. I can wait.” He kisses Sabinus’s shoulders, his neck; traces the top of his vertebrae with warm, damp lips. Sabinus smiles, his spine curving into the warm caress.
Too shattered yet for true engagement, he nevertheless finds himself thrusting slowly back into the furtive motion of Castus’s hips. He turns his head, blindly seeking Castus’s lips. “What do you want?”
Castus hesitates noticeably, mouth stilling against his own. He’s got an arm wrapped around Sabinus’s chest, his fingers restlessly caressing his collar bones. “Whatever you would grant.”
Sabinus snorts. “Oh, cease. I am not wilting virgin. Tell me your pleasure.” He thrusts his hips back wantonly, his lips curving in triumph at Castus’s aborted groan.
“Have you…” Castus clears his throat. His fingers spread on the curve of Sabinus’s arse, slow and deliberate, making his meaning unmistakable. “Have you done this?”
Limp with the pleasure of release, he still can’t help tensing slightly. “No.” He inhales and relaxes deliberately, palms spreading on the rough weave of the blankets. “It isn’t done, among Romans. Not without inviting punishment and loss of status.”
Castus hums against his neck, a soft breath of amusement. “I did not think overmuch of Roman custom before this, but…” he mouths at the top of his shoulder, warm and shivery, “this serves as final proof. Romans stand fools.”
Sabinus laughs, against his own tense expectation. “Yes. I suspected such.”
“Do you wish to do it to me, then?”
The question is quiet, a simple suggestion, and Sabinus lifts his head in surprise. “What?”
Castus’s voice is calm, despite the steady throb of his cock. “Do you wish to fuck me? I hold no preference, either way.”
Sabinus cranes his neck, lost for words. So easy an offer, of something Rome would condemn so thoroughly. “I… uh. I am not sure?”
If nothing else, he’s limp still, thoroughly sated by Castus’s clever mouth; but even if he wasn’t, he is not sure what his answer would be. He’s schooled himself for so long to be content with constraint. “I am not… I mean. Perhaps. Some other time?” he amends, feeling foolish. It’s too hard to admit he wouldn’t know what to do.
Castus exhales, a soft gust of warm air against his skin. “Then…” He thrusts furtively, but with clear need. “Like this?” He’s pushing between Sabinus’s thighs, and moans when Sabinus instinctively tightens them. “Yes?”
“Yes,” Sabinus confirms, tensing his thigh muscles around the hard length. They thrust and rut, and his cock swells again, not slowly. Sabinus exhales deliberately, his fingers clutching in the blanket by his face.
One of Castus’s hands is on his shoulder, holding him in place; the other is cupped around his arse, a thumb close to the tender curiosity of the cleft. Instinctively, Sabinus pushes back to ease it closer still, and hears Castus inhale sharply at the sudden contact.
“Touch me there,” he whispers, hot with tension, his swollen cock twitching against his belly. Castus mutters a breathless curse.
Fingers against his rim: hot, calloused, too dry. As if he heard his thoughts, Castus murmurs, “Wait,” against his nape, and shuffles away. He should feel mortified, abandoned beneath the blankets, but in truth the brief moment of absence is not enough to rally his unwelcome wits. Then Castus is back, and the press of his fingers is slippery and warm, coated with oil.
Sabinus utters a harsh groan at the sudden, intimate touch. Unconsciously, he pulls a knee high towards his hip, depriving Castus of the tight channel of his thighs but granting him more access at the same time. Hot fingers circle, then breach just briefly; he moans and raises his hips, seeking after the fleeting caress. A stretching invasion: brief, dizzying with promise.
Castus is breathing hard against his ear; he’s thrusting slowly, cock oiled and hard between his cheeks. “Sabinus…”
“Castus. Do it.” He breathes it harshly, thrusting back to illustrate his meaning, and forestalls the question he doesn’t want to hear. “Take me.”
He wants it with a sudden, shaky certainty. It’s an ache he doesn’t know how to justify in words, long sick of the rules of Rome. If this is shameful, he wants to wallow in the shame. He moves deliberately, spreading his thighs.
Castus, thankfully, asks no more questions. The nudge of his fingers disappears, and then he’s breached, slowly enough to make him gasp with sensation. It turns out a cock is much larger than two fingers.
He concentrates; breathes; pushes out when his body tells him to clench. Inch by slow inch, he is spread and filled, hot flesh easing deeper by small increments.
“Sabinus,” Castus murmurs, and Sabinus reaches back with one hand, grasping at Castus’s sweaty nape.
“Do not stop.”
Long moments pass: heat, fullness, a little pain. He moves his thighs experimentally, and a sudden shift of Castus’s hips has him gasping, moving the awkward pressure towards a white-hot point of heat and lust: a full, mind-stealing ache, sizzling along his skin. His wilting cock grows firm.
They move. Nothing else matters.
When he imagined this – and he did, often, with Tiberius – he pictured it rough and fast, the way he’s seen masters take their slaves: pleasure the goal only for the one who does the taking, while the other endures. He would have endured, for Tiberius, and gladly.
But this requires no endurance. Castus’s weight lowers slowly onto his back, a heated plane of contact. The motion inside of him is slow, too: partial withdrawal, fullness, a deliberate tilt and then, making him groan, another brush against that point of pleasure, brief and shallow. Castus repeats it several times at his reaction and then follows it up with a long, slow surge inside that’s not as focused but pleasurable in a different way, spreading him wide, filling him deeply.
Eyes clenched shut, he can’t help his mouth opening with a shuddering plea of joy. He hears an answering groan from Castus, feels the slow downward plunge of fullness. The pain has dissipated, leaving only pleasure.
They’re fucking, he realises, dizzy with the sensation of it: Castus hard inside him, his own cock taut and leaking as his hips thrust slowly, delighting in the deliberate, prolonged rut of being mounted and taken, not with any degree of violence but with a wordless, intense acknowledgement of mutual vulnerability: this is what fucking is like. No degradation, shame, or dominance, not any of what he was led to think. Just two bodies, giving. Joining. Sharing. This is what Rome would have denied him always.
Despite the open air and the dim knowledge that others nearby are going about their business, Sabinus feels as if they are utterly alone, cupped in their flimsy shelter between the fire and the sky. The noises of the camp are drowned out by the sounds of their heavy breathing and their sweaty bodies heaving together. They could be on an island somewhere, some foreign shore that no one knows but the stars gazing down on them as they move together, surging and ebbing like the tide.
Sabinus is drowning in sensation. Castus has one arm wrapped around his torso, fingers splaying wide across his chest. The other holds up his leg, easing the way for Castus to thrust into him, still slowly but deeper now, rolling his hips on every inward plunge to brush that white-hot place that makes Sabinus’s head swim and his breath stutter. There seems to be no place they aren’t touching. Sabinus revels in it, the slide of their sweat-slick bodies, the puffs of Castus’s strained breaths against his ear, the way his hands and arms anchor Sabinus, wrapping him tight, the delicious, heavy ache building inside him as he is slowly, steadily fucked to pieces.
He knows he’s close. His cock feels full to bursting, and when he looks down, he can see the flushed head leaking, glistening with the need to spill. The too-fleeting brush of the blanket on every thrust is frustratingly elusive, and he pushes down for more, whimpering at the contact with the scratchy wool. It’s almost painful against his over-sensitised flesh, but it’s the good kind of pain. He rubs against it until it’s too much, and still not enough.
“Castus,” he pleads, turning his head and desperately seeking Castus’s mouth with his. Their lips meet, open and wet, both now gasping for breath. “I need… touch me.”
Castus reaches higher around his hip, and his fingers close around Sabinus’s aching length. Sabinus almost sobs with relief as those long fingers work him, tight and slick with oil and his own pre-spill. They’re kissing still, though no longer leisurely. It’s uncoordinated and wet and Sabinus’s neck aches from the angle it’s bent at, and it is glorious. He sucks on Castus’s tongue and ruts shamelessly, all thoughts fraying into the bliss of fucking and being fucked, of having Castus inside him and against him and around him, driving him closer every second. He cries out hoarsely, against Castus’s panting lips, as his entire body coils and tightens and then he’s bucking up and spending so hard his vision blanks, in hot spurts of wetness against his belly, the blanket and all over Castus’s hand.
Castus’s hips stutter against his, his cock twitching inside as Sabinus clenches. Still spilling himself, he smiles, lost in bliss, and does it again, a slow, deliberate squeeze. “Come with me,” he urges, hoarsely, and sucks Castus’s lower lip into his mouth. Castus groans, low and broken, and comes apart, not violent but slow: a deep, shuddering swell that Sabinus can feel inside him as it crests and breaks, flooding him with heat. They collapse together, still twitching with aftershocks, still kissing, immersed in the taste of sweat and the tang of seed and the rush of pounding blood, all salty as the sea.
Castus, he discovers, is loud. Sabinus soaks him up, make weak by the wanton cries his lips and tongue elicit. Emboldened, he drags his loosened hair between Castus’s thighs, and smiles around his mouthful when Castus tightens his fingers around his skull, pleading hoarsely for release.
So this is that, he wonders, after, his mouth still salty with the taste of Castus, and has to laugh, foolishly, into the curve of Castus’s neck; it seems such a silly thing to realise, this late, that making love really is not more than a sharing of joy made physical, and that it needs no rules but those agreed by the people involved, in the moment. He’s glad that Castus asks no questions, merely strokes his hair; he isn’t sure he could have explained his giddy exultation. He falls asleep still smiling.
Some unseen tension eases from Castus’s features at his unselfconscious greeting. He lifts a hand to brush back Sabinus’s sleep-tangled hair. “So it does.”
Impulsively, Sabinus leans forward to kiss him. Castus exhales into his mouth, kissing back with a certain degree of care, and Sabinus pulls back, frowning. “What is the matter?”
With a soft sound of protest, Castus follows him, seeking his mouth again. “Nothing. I feared…”
They kiss, until Sabinus reluctantly tilts back his head. “You feared what?”
It takes him a moment to recognise the expression on Castus’s face: not, as he thought, standoffishness, but uncertainty. Castus clears morning roughness from his voice. “That you might change your mind, in light of day.”
He blinks and pauses to gather his wits. His heart clenches; half touched, and half, if he is honest, almost offended.
“My mind is not so easily changed,” he chides.
Castus’s brows draw tight, a flicker of dismay in his eyes. “I did not mean offence.”
“No, wait.” Instinctively leaning back, Sabinus finds his hands captured, the fingers drawn towards Castus’s face with an urgency that takes him off-guard. As he watches, uncertainly, Castus leans forward, kissing each fingertip in turn.
“Sabinus.” He exhales, a warm gust of air against his fingertips. “I know you have seen me as a man pursuing idle whims.” He lifts a hand, forestalling Sabinus’s automatic protest. “No, listen. It is true I follow where my heart leads, but… I would have you know I am not fickle as the sea. My course, once set, runs true.”
Sabinus’s heart is pounding loudly, but he tries to keep his voice level. “And on what current do you travel now?”
Castus’s eyes are dark, his mouth without a smile. “Do you not know?” he asks, steadily.
Sabinus swallows. “Perhaps I need to hear it spoken,” he admits. He’s well aware of how pathetic that must sound but at the same time he cannot help it; the need for certainty is a deep tug inside his belly.
Castus’s gaze, to his credit, does not waver. “My course,” he offers, quietly, “aligns with yours.”
Sabinus struggles hard not to grin like an utter fool, and fails completely. “Oh. That is good.”
Castus cocks an inquisitive brow at him, one corner of his own mouth curling. “Is it?”
Sabinus lunges at him. “Oh yes.”
Chapter 12: A Time Not Meant for Lovers
Half-guiltily, Sabinus realises that should include him. When he set out from Crassus’s camp, it was all that kept him upright. Avenge Tiberius. See Crassus fall.
It’s strange, the difference a few months can make. When he first saw the rebel army, it was a tool.
Now, he passes through rows of tents he’s insisted be set up that way for more efficiency, hands out skins of water and packages of food, the contents of which he’s calculated, squinting, over a late-night oil lamp on reused vellum, and all he sees is people: men, women, children, whose only wish is to live their own lives freely. When he fights now, it’s no longer to quench his thirst for Roman blood, but to keep safe those beside him.
It’s almost strange to care again, but it feels good as well: a sweet kind of ache at the knowledge that these people beside him are companions, friends, and, in one dazzling, unexpected case, a lover. It hurts to know he has once again something to lose, and it’s a pain he would not give up for the world.
When the tension finally breaks, it’s almost a relief. The news travels lightning-swift through the camp: Crixus and Naevia will head for Rome, and Spartacus for the Alps. In the absence of direct orders, the lines are drawn quickly, with a surprising lack of friction: nigh on thirty thousand – a good fifth of the army, and all warriors – to depart with Crixus, the rest to seek escape from Rome once and for all.
The decision made, the acrimony between the factions eases; it is as if, divided, their generals finally find some measure of lasting peace.
Set to working out the logistics of supplying a huge force in time for their departure, without depriving the majority staying behind, Sabinus finds himself swept up in numbers and frantic distributions, too busy to think.
By his side, Laeta calculates grimly, measuring out precious grain.
“Do you think,” he asks her, in a rare moment between tasks, “that they stand a chance?”
She looks at him, surprised; her shoulders hunch in instinctive defence. He cannot blame her. If he once thought their common origin might give them cause to bond, he’s learned since that it’s been the opposite – a margin of caution always remaining between them. He’s seen her glance at Spartacus of late, and in her blue eyes he recognises now a thing he’s seen in many of the man’s closest followers: the vortex around him, the pull of a force both sweet and devastating, too strong to withstand.
“Perhaps,” is all she says at first, but after a moment she adds, with surprising vehemence, “I wish it so.”
In the tired motion of her hand sweeping back her curls, the stretch of her aching back, he notices suddenly how young she is, not much older than himself. A sheltered daughter of Rome, thrown to the winds upon the storm of this rebellion.
She doesn’t look as if she regrets the blast.
Sabinus nods solemnly. “So do I.”
Sabinus can’t help smiling as he passes them, but there’s a tendril of uneasiness weaving through his happiness for her. It’s a feeling that has trailed on his heels all evening, infiltrating what should be a night of easy fun. Spirits are high among the rebels, but there is something desperate in this wild, reckless excess, something too frantic for carefreeness. Sabinus can’t stop thinking of the morning, not too far off, and the sundering it will bring.
Someone shoves a cup of wine into his hand; a pair of girls stumble into him, giggling and pawing as they try to get their hands inside his clothes. Sabinus laughs and disentangles himself with as much courtesy as he can muster. He comes away somewhat ruffled, a length of silk about his neck and his face flaming. There’s nowhere to put the wine, so he drains it, but more appears almost as if by magic; there always seems to be someone close by with an amphora, insisting that no cup should run dry.
It’s easier to drink than argue, and besides, he tells himself sternly, this is what this night is for. Drinking and feasting and fucking, and if it takes a generous share of each to shake this intolerably morose mood, Sabinus determines, he had best get on with it.
Several cups later, he does indeed feel a little less maudlin, and also rather less steady on his feet. He finds Castus in a corner of the atrium, engaged in some heated argument with Agron. Sabinus debates waiting it out, but conversations between these two have a tendency to end in fistfights, and he doesn’t feel like hovering politely until he is acknowledged, or needs to stem someone’s bleeding.
“Look to your own affairs,” he hears Agron growl as he approaches. Castus’s fists clench. They are so intent on their exchange that they don’t even notice Sabinus coming up from behind. He slings an arm around Castus with slightly more momentum than he had planned.
“Sabinus!” The ferocious scowl on Castus’s face clears somewhat, and Sabinus grins at him.
“I have been looking for you.” Impulsively, he leans in to kiss him, not caring whether Agron or anyone else sees. Castus’s mouth, grim just a moment before, softens under his own, welcoming him in. His hand settles on Sabinus’s hip, nudging him closer.
Agron makes an impatient noise. “Consider conversation closed, Castus. I tire of thinking ever of tomorrow, as should you.”
Castus sighs. “You are making a mistake.”
But Agron has already stalked away.
“What mistake?” Sabinus asks.
“He leaves with Crixus and Naevia on the morrow.”
“Do you stand surprised? He has been torn for weeks, desiring more action than Spartacus would condone.”
Castus shakes his head. “No, but… he leaves without Nasir.”
Sabinus’s mouth drops open. “What? Why?”
“Who knows why that ass does anything,” Castus grumbles. Grimly, he takes the cup from Sabinus and empties it in one long swig, wiping his mouth with a grimace when he’s done. “Apologies. I shall get you another.”
“No, I have had enough.” His head is spinning slightly, from the noise, the drink, and the puzzling news. “This noise muddles the senses. Will you come outside with me?”
Castus nods. “With pleasure. The air in here is too thick with desperation.”
There is an orchard tiered on the hillside behind the villa. The trees are still bare, but for the first time in what feels like ages, the night air is not biting cold; there is a whiff of fragrance in it, nothing so solid as a promise, but the faintest hope of spring. Sabinus breathes it in deeply, letting it clear his head.
“Better?” Castus asks beside him, a hand on his back.
Sabinus nods, then realises it’s too dark to see. “Yes. One could almost believe there’ll come a day when winter will be over.”
“Almost. I’ve never known such cold as these past months. Usually, in the winter season, we’d be far to the east and south, towards Cyprus and the coasts of Arabia.”
“To steal spices and wrestle sea creatures?” Sabinus teases, and Castus laughs.
“Yes, but mostly not to have cock freeze and drop from body.” He exaggerates a shiver and pulls Sabinus close, pushing his cold hands up under his shirt and cloak. Sabinus yelps and mock-struggles, but ends up sweeping the edges of his cloak up to cover them both.
“I see,” he comments dryly, breathless with laughter. “I serve but as convenient source of warmth.”
“Of course. Did you think you had other purpose?” He can hear the grin in Castus’s voice, even as he wriggles closer.
He growls. “Faithless pirate.”
“I am not,” he objects, “a Roman anymore.”
“Hmmm, is that so? What about the other part?”
“What other part?” he asks, then hisses when Castus reaches low, between his legs.
“Fucking,” he murmurs, unnecessarily, into his ear.
Sabinus squirms away from the exploring hand. “I thought you were cold.”
“I’m trying not to be!”
They grapple, laughing, until Sabinus grasps Castus’s hands to draw them to safer territory. His cloak has become dislodged during their tussle. He shakes it out to settle it once more around them both, this time making sure he gets the end bits and Castus the warmer inside. It has not escaped him that for all Castus’s posing, the gooseflesh pebbling his skin is real enough.
“You know what has been known to be of aid against the bite of cold?” he scolds, rubbing his palms over Castus’s bare arms.
“I do,” Castus leers, groping again.
Sabinus shoves his hands away with a laugh. “Not that, you satyr! I swear, your mind is dirtier than Agron’s curses.”
Castus pouts. “What, then?”
“Additional garments,” Sabinus tells him. “Layers, to keep out the wind. Wool, if one were to go crazy.”
Castus tilts his head at him. “You truly wish me to put on more clothes?” he asks, an impish glint in his eyes.
Sabinus considers this for a second, then sternly shakes his head. “No, you are right. Exposure to elements is good discipline. Hardens a man.”
“I thought it shrivelled him.”
“No, see, exactly, that happens only to those wrapped in excessive garb. In fact, you might be wearing too much. What are these, for example – trousers? Unnecessary extravagance. They should come off.”
This time it’s Castus who fights him, making undignified noises as he fends off Sabinus’s pretend attempts to disrobe him. They stumble a few steps, until Castus backs up against an apple tree, its thick branches still winter-bare. Sabinus takes the opportunity to shuffle closer, trapping Castus between his body and the tree.
In the spare light of the moon and the torches shining from the villa, Castus’s face is laughing and open, teeth gleaming in the dark. Sabinus, flushed with mirth, finds himself caught in those shining dark eyes. His pulse beats hard, and Castus’s chortling gasps of air seem to pull at him, tugging him straight to that wide mouth.
Seeing his expression, Castus quiets slightly, his laugh dimming to a soft smile. For a long moment, they are only looking, and then Sabinus can’t hold back anymore; cupping his hands around Castus’s jaw, he leans in to capture those smiling lips with his own.
Castus makes a pleased noise as Sabinus’s tongue meets his. He responds eagerly, though he lets Sabinus take the lead. Sabinus plunders his mouth hungrily, licking the smiling corners, thrusting his tongue deep until Castus moans and his head drops back against the trees. Spreading his fingers against the edges of his jaws, Sabinus tilts his face up and slides their mouths together at a different angle, feeling the heat of the kiss spread through him and set his body to tingling. Castus’s fingers dig into his back, pulling him closer. Sabinus sucks on his lower lip, using his teeth a little, in some barely defined desire to mark him, to make it plain to anyone who looks that Castus has been thoroughly kissed, and loved it.
They’re both breathing hard again when they finally pull apart. Castus is smiling at him, running his tongue experimentally along his lower lip. It makes Sabinus want to kiss him again.
“You enjoy kissing.”
Caught, Sabinus flushes, promptly aware of just how eager he must seem, how obviously new to this. “I do. Was it-”
Castus stops him with his fingertips against his lips. “Yes. Do not look like that – I did not mean it as a bad thing, on the contrary. It gladdens heart, to see you enjoying things. I’m glad you like to kiss. I do too. You’ve a mouth made for kissing.” As if to illustrate, he leans in to brush his lips against Sabinus’s, lightly this time.
Sabinus smiles, feeling a little foolish still. “I did not have much opportunity, before. I suppose it shows.”
“Another thing that puts Rome in disfavour,” Castus murmurs, thumb tracing his lower lip. “Imagine lips like that, and no opportunity for kissing.”
“Fault lay in me. I…”
Castus grasps him by the chin suddenly, forcing him to meet his eyes. “There is no fault in you, Sabinus. You were deprived by arbitrary laws of things that should be joyful. But you’re free from those laws now. Free to kiss, to fuck, to find love where your heart takes you, instead of where Rome decreed. So do it.”
A tingling thrill is running through Sabinus, spreading swiftly, until he thrums with pleasure. Love. He said love.
“I am,” he says hoarsely, “doing it.” He kisses Castus again, more slowly this time. Castus’s mouth is warm and welcoming, fitting against his.
Their lips and tongues mingle, for a while, without hurry. Castus was right: he loves kissing. Loves the intimacy of it, the exchange of breath, of trust; the way two tongues can say so much without ever forming a word.
When they come up for air, they lean for a while, heads close together, enjoying the warmth between their bodies. Sabinus is half-roused but enjoys, too, the knowledge that there is no rush; that they are on safe ground and can take their time.
At least until tomorrow.
He doesn’t realise he’s sighed until Castus leans back to peer at his face and pokes his nose with a thumb. “I see I’d have to kiss you from dusk till dawn and back again to stop your busy mind. What is it now?”
Sabinus hesitates, then blurts, “This sundering of the armies. You hold no wish to go the same way Agron does?”
Castus shakes his head and sighs, a long, drawn-out sound of frustration. “Despite appearances, I hold the rash fuck in high regard, but I know a wrong course when I see one. Crixus stands a living legend, but I do not believe even he can take Rome. Besides, my loyalties in this yet lie with Spartacus.”
Sabinus breathes a little easier, although the night air does feel cold again, or perhaps that is just the sickening belief in his heart that Castus is right. “As do mine. He has a gift for that, I think – making people follow him to whatever end.”
They stand quietly for a while, foreheads together in the dark. Castus’s hands have warmed against Sabinus’s bare skin; they cup his shoulder blades, fingers tracing idle patterns there. It’s strange, this close, to realise he stands the taller of the two. Castus always seems so much larger than he is, the warmth of his humour and generosity expanding the space his body inhabits. Sabinus lifts his head a fraction and traces the shape of his brows with his lips. Castus makes a pleased noise and wriggles closer still, pressing against him.
Sabinus thinks of what lies before them, in the best of circumstances, if they escape the reach of Rome: a long journey north, into the wild, across the unforgiving mountains. He shivers.
“I can still hear you spinning gloomy thoughts, Roman boy. Let go of them, or share.”
“It’s hard to picture you on trek across the Alps,” Sabinus says. “There will be snow there still, and more awaiting in the north, in the lands of Agron’s people.”
Castus shudders against his neck, and Sabinus smooths his hand over his back, easing the goose pimples there. “I wish…” he muses, then stops himself.
“You wish what?”
Sabinus shrugs, huffing a laugh to take the gravity out of his words. “I wish we could go south instead. To the lands that you said.” Cyprus. Arabia. He’s never sailed further than the islands off the coast of Napoli, but the names wake a longing that pull at the very core of him. He remembers the day they sailed away from Sinuessa, the salt spray on his lips and Castus smiling.
In his arms, Castus leans back a little, his body alert with some new attention. “Do you mean it?”
“I do not know. I wouldn’t make much of a pirate,” Sabinus admits ruefully.
Castus lifts a shoulder. “There are other ways to make a living on the sea. Plenty of merchants seek protection on their voyage, or honest ships capable of swift cargo runs.”
“You’d cease being a pirate?” He says it jokingly, but Castus’s reply comes swiftly, without the edge of teasing. “Yes.”
The simple word makes the breath stop briefly in Sabinus’s chest. “But… why?”
It’s too dark now to see expressions but the moonlight glimmers briefly in Castus’s eyes and Sabinus can hear the smile in his voice; that, and the exasperation. “You suspicious fool. I’d do whatever it took to keep you by my side.”
Sabinus’s response – and he isn’t sure he has one; he feels too much like a tree felled by lightning – is swallowed in the press of Castus’s mouth.
The longing rises up in him as they kiss, surprising him with its strength. To have this, under southern skies, far from the grasp of Rome. Wind-scoured planks beneath his feet, the horizon glittering with promise, and Castus, warm and solid in his arms.
He pulls back slightly, trying to gather his wits. “But it’s not possible.”
Castus stills against him, then exhales slowly, dipping his head to kiss his neck. “I suppose not. We are both of us held by obligations. Spartacus, valour, honour, and The Cause.”
The bitter undertone and mock emphasis raise Sabinus’s hackles. “Well, yes. I know you don’t believe in such, but-”
Castus holds tight when he would have untangled himself. “Don’t be unjust, Sabinus. I am here, am I not?” His hands capture Sabinus’s, entwining their fingers. “And would stay here, until the very end.”
“But you do not have faith in it.”
A long pause. “No. Must I, if outcome of my actions is the same as if I did?”
Sabinus shakes his head, helpless. He has no answer. He’s never lived a day without the weight of knowing precisely what honour demands of him; yet here is Castus, who knows no such shackles, and still follows in their wake, a playful dolphin trailing a ship weighted with cargo.
As if listening to his thoughts, Castus tugs at his hands, closing the small distance. “Let us not quarrel. I have faith in you,” he murmurs. “In us. In this. Does that not hold weight with you, also?”
Sabinus exhales, shakily. “It does.”
Their lips meet. The kiss is slow at first, but Sabinus soon feels the heat rise between them. Since that first, slow-building time, they’ve not had much opportunity for anything beyond a few hurried encounters late at night, both of them bone-tired from the day’s demands. He presses Castus back against the convenient support of the apple tree, hands eager on his skin.
Castus’s hands come up, pulling the leather thong from his hair and digging in. “I love your hair.”
“Speak one word of dismissal and I swear I shall kick you,” Castus warns, sliding a muscled thigh between Sabinus’s legs to back the threat. His fingers spread the mess of Sabinus’s hair until it tickles his shoulders. “So thick and smooth. Like richest silk.”
He groans involuntarily at the sensation, Castus’s hands slipping through his hair, cupping his skull. When those long fingers tighten, he lets his head drop easily into the firm tug, baring his throat to Castus’s lips and teeth. Castus kisses and nips a trail along the column of his throat, making him shiver when he latches onto the tender skin below his ear and sucks.
Briefly, a thought intrudes, the same one that has been pervading his thoughts all evening, twitchy and sobering amid the wild celebrations: This cannot last. It is the thought that rides all other thoughts these days, a sly layer of presentiment undermining every moment. He pushes it violently away. I do not care.
Castus gasps when Sabinus thrusts a hand down his trousers. He’s hard, and wet with it, the damp tip pushing eagerly into Sabinus’s hand. Pleased with the reaction, Sabinus tightens his grip and works him slowly, squeezing the length while his thumb flicks over the head. When his fingers dip down to tease the heavy weight of Castus’s balls, Castus throws back his head hard enough to impact on the tree bark. His low, pleading croon sends shivers of anticipation straight to Sabinus’s cock. “Careful,” he whispers, free hand cupping Castus’s skull, and drives his own hips forward.
They strain and buck together until Castus turns gracefully in his arms, loosening his belt with a quick motion. “Here.” He shoves something into Sabinus’s hands: a stoppered vial.
The breath stutters in Sabinus’s lungs. “Are you certain?”
Castus laughs with an air of desperation, arching back. “For fuck’s sake, Sabinus, have some mercy. Do you require me to beg?”
Heart pounding, Sabinus fumbles open the vial, oil trickling into his hand. Castus murmurs encouragement, spreading his legs and guiding his fingers. Sabinus forgets that he doesn’t know how to do this, forgets how to feel awkward or foolish with too much feeling. All he knows is that they are here, alone for precious moments, and that Castus told him with the rough urgency of truth that he’d do anything to keep him. All he knows is that he wants this to last, against all odds, wants it so much it hurts.
Castus makes a rough noise when Sabinus’s hips rock forward, easing inside. He forgets, for a moment, to breathe, then sucks in air with sudden need, hips stilling when there is no further to go. Someone makes a noise, a needy whimper. It might be him.
Castus rocks back against him, clutching his circling arm. “Yes. Move.”
Sabinus holds onto him for dear life as he moves, his mind blurry with sensation. It isn’t like he has not been waiting for this – he has been curious, aching with the need to know. But it isn’t the tight heat surrounding his cock that ultimately undoes him, but the hoarse cries Castus makes, the way his head drops back against Sabinus’s shoulder, gasping lips seeking his. He kisses him desperately, struggling for air and not caring, losing himself in the tangled intimacy of their tongues. He thrusts forward almost as an afterthought, and breathes in Castus’s noises; the sweet pull in his chest eclipsing the thrust of his hips.
They fuck under the waning moon, Sabinus biting Castus’s shoulder while Castus shouts his pleasure in short, hoarse cries; afterwards, slumped in the chilly, scratchy grass, Sabinus holds him tight and soothes the spots he’s bitten; refusing to think of the morning and the sundering it will bring.
Chapter 13: The Imperator’s Weakness
Until one day in mid-spring, when out of the southern hills of Latium trots a single rider, harbinger of death.
Sabinus is in the supplies tent, taking stock with Laeta, when one of the messenger boys sticks his head inside. “Naevia returns with news of Crixus’s demise! The army shattered near Rome’s very doorstep. Spartacus holds counsel! Come!”
Sabinus exchanges a glance with Laeta, who is white with tension. They dash outside, almost running over Castus, who grasps Sabinus’s hand, his gaze hard and alarmed. “Have you heard?”
“Yes. Is it true?”
Castus nods grimly, twining his fingers around Sabinus’s. “I saw them ride in. She carried something, wrapped in silk.” He averts his gaze, jaw clenching. “A head, they say.”
Beside him, Laeta utters a low, rough cry, and turns away. Sabinus swallows bile. “Crixus?”
Castus pulls him close, arms tense across his shoulders. “I think so.”
As they approach Spartacus’s tent, the entrance flap moves and Nasir steps out. Sabinus comes to a sudden halt, drawing back with dread at the expression on Nasir’s face. The non-expression, he should say: he knows that dead-eyed stare, the emptiness around him.
Castus, the fool, steps close. “Nasir. What news?”
Nasir barely glances at them. “Crixus is dead. Slain by Caesar’s hand. The army defeated. Five hundred taken prisoner, Naevia says.”
Castus sucks in a breath. “Agron?”
Nasir turns away abruptly, striding across the dusty ground, and when Castus would have followed, Sabinus grabs his arm. “Don’t.”
“But he needs-”
“What?” Hearing the harshness of his tone, Sabinus tries to gentle it. “What solace would we offer him? That life goes on? That he yet lives? That fault lies not with him? He will hear nothing now.”
Castus stares at him, for once looking at an utter loss. “Vengeance,” he says eventually, uncertainly.
Sabinus shakes his head. His mouth is sour with the knowledge of how empty vengeance seems, in the moments directly after loss. “Perhaps, as time goes by. Tomorrow, even. Not now.”
At the look of anguish in Castus’s face, he relents, and pulls him close. Castus clings to him, muttering a curse against his neck. “That bloody bastard. I was almost certain nothing could kill him.”
“I know.” Remembering Agron striding through the camp, belligerent and foul-mouthed, but laughing generously with his friends, or gentled into smitten affection with Nasir, it seems impossible to imagine him slain. How could that rude mouth, that restless spirit, ever cease to challenge?
But here they are. The tent flap lifts, revealing Gannicus, who looks tired in a way Sabinus has never seen him. “Sabinus. Castus. Come and join counsel.”
The tent is full of people. In the absence of his two most trusted generals, Spartacus has chosen, instead of solitary rule, to expand his circle of advisors. Apart from Naevia and Gannicus, there’s Saxa and Lugo and several other veterans. Laeta stands near Spartacus, straight-backed in her tattered Roman dress. She doesn’t touch or look at him but there’s a new privacy there, an unspoken awareness between the two of them.
Spartacus, who has turned at their entrance and nodded briefly, now turns back to Naevia. “The prisoners. Our people. Is there no way to regain them?”
Slouched on a stool near the back of the tent, Naevia looks physically less imposing than ever, worn thin by grief and hardship. At the same time, there is a chilling starkness about her face that makes her look dangerous: the air of one who has nothing left to lose. In response to Spartacus’s question, she slowly shakes her head. “I think it likely that he has killed them by now.”
“If that was his intention,” Gannicus interjects, “he would not have bothered to take them prisoner. Do we not have prisoners, also? We could make exchange.”
“A handful only, of middling rank. I do not believe he’d trade advantage for such. Perhaps if we had Caesar, or someone else he holds of value…”
Spartacus’s eyes find Sabinus, and he orders him closer with a jerk of his head. “Sabinus. You know the man. If we could capture Caesar, do you believe Crassus would trade for him?”
Sabinus licks his dry lips. “I am not certain.”
Spartacus’s brows draw close. “Attempt to be.”
He thinks about it, casting his mind back on what he knows of the bonds between the two men, mostly relayed in annoyed tones by Tiberius, who’s always disliked Caesar. “He might, if offer was made known among his troops and he were to lose face if he refused. Caesar holds ancient name and much value as political ally. But Crassus might as easily present Caesar’s loss as great tragedy, granting him honours of most valorous victim of war, and further kindle ire against rebel army and its atrocities.”
There are sighs and murmurs, and other suggestions.
“He has a wife and younger son, does he not?” Saxa says, meaningfully stroking her knives.
“Safe in Rome, yes. We stand no chance of seizing them.”
“If we could lure them somewhere…”
“Kore.” Sabinus murmurs it, at first, then, as the certainty spreads in him, he lifts his head. At his voice, the others stop arguing, and look at him with varying degrees of curiosity. “Kore. Crassus’s slave. He left her behind in Sinuessa, established as vilica with many honours.”
Spartacus is frowning at him. “A slave?”
He shakes his head. “In name only. He holds her to heart, more than… more than he does his wife, in truth.” He takes a deep breath. “If there is anything in this world Crassus truly treasures, it’s her.”
His revelation sparks another storm of discussion, and for several minutes the tent is abuzz with voices, proposals flying back and forth. In the midst of it, Sabinus stands stock-still, appalled at what he’s started – not at the thought of beating Crassus at his own game but at the memory of Kore, walking carefree and laughing through the market of Sinuessa. A kind and blameless woman, not deserving to be made a pawn in the game of war.
Then again, he recalls Crassus, finding solace with her after the murder of his son. His jaw clenches. He’s found, in recent months, that treason is not a single choice. Like any sort of affiliation, it requires commitment again and again at seemingly innocuous points. It’s not enough to change your course; you then still need to steer, and deal with hidden reefs when they appear.
Fingers slip into his hand, entwining with his own. Looking up, he finds Castus studying him with a worried frown. “Sabinus?”
He shrugs. “She stood a friend, for all her ties to Crassus. I would not see her come to harm.”
Before Castus can answer, Spartacus is there, having approached him quietly while his counsellors argue. “She will not come to harm, if Crassus prizes her as you said. Do you think it worth the risk?”
Sabinus nods, although he feels half-ill. Behind them, Gannicus’s voice rises above the others. “I’m telling you, we cannot take Sinuessa again, not by stealth or force. We’ve not the numbers, or the means to deceive them. Not when we’ve done it before, ensuring future vigilance.”
Sabinus exchanges a glance with Castus, who cocks an inquisitive brow at him. “Perhaps,” he offers hesitantly, “we may not have to.”
Castus was right, it turns out. The stolen ship proves useful. Two days’ hard ride sees them back to the cove where Castus left her; another two days’ sail sends them south more swiftly than Sabinus thought possible, on deceptively friendly spring tides.
Now, the city gleams before them in the moonlight in its sheltered bay. Sinuessa en Valle, pale jewel by the sea. Destined, it seems, to be pulled back and forth in this war, an unlikely pawn. It’s long after midnight, long before dawn: the hour of secrets and wolves, on land or on the sea. There’s only five of them in total: the two of them, Saxa, and Rabanus and Lydon, both veterans going back to the ludus days, Sabinus was told, and both holding some knowledge of sailing. Castus sent them below to catch some rest before the morning’s challenge, so right now it’s just the two of them, leaning side by side on the railing, gazing towards the night-dark shore. Only a few widely spaced torches on the walls proclaim the position of the town. Even without them, Sabinus thinks he’d know the place – the small bay, the ridge above, the looming cliffs to the south.
“A strange place,” Castus says by his side, echoing his thoughts, “to pull us back so, again and again.”
“It is. I am glad we had the ship. She carried us well.”
“She did.” Affection is rich in Castus’s voice as he runs his hand along the polished railing. “A fine vessel. Sleek as a sparrow, and as swift.”
Sabinus can’t help but smile at the sight. Castus looks like a boy with a new training sword, glowing with pleasure. “She needs a name.”
“She does. Do you have proposition?”
“The Siren.” It comes out as promptly as if it has lain in wait, although he could have sworn he had no notion of it a minute ago.
“The Siren.” Castus draws out the syllables, testing the sound. He flashes Sabinus a smile, sunny and pleased. “I like it.”
He does not – cannot, surely – know the full effect his face has when he smiles like that. Sabinus leans in without thinking, the breath nudged from his lungs, and cups his right hand around Castus’s cheek, his thumb tracing the devastating cleft of a dimple. He has but a fleeting impression of widening eyes and then their lips meet, slow at first. Sabinus can taste the smile, can feel the curve of it fitting, sweetly, against his mouth. He makes a small noise and chases after it, deepening the kiss. Castus opens to it, yielding his mouth with a pliancy that has Sabinus temporarily feeling as if the ship’s dropped into a trough, although the sea is so calm they’re barely swaying. Sighing, he presses close until they’re aligned fully, and tips Castus’s head back to kiss him more thoroughly, taking full advantage of his two inches of extra height.
Castus lets him have his way with his mouth, but his hands get quickly busy underneath Sabinus’s shirt, tracing his ribs, flicking his nipples. When his hands dips beneath his waist, Sabinus tears his mouth away, gasping.
“Wait?” Castus protests, palms spanning his hips.
“Are below, catching their rest. Don’t worry.” A swift, dancelike motion, and suddenly Sabinus is pressed up against the railing, that warm mouth against the back of his neck, the sensitive curve of his ear.
“Castus,” he warns, breath hitching. “We’re supposed to stand watch for the city guards.”
“Mhmmm.” Castus’s lips are nuzzling along his shoulders, eager and distracting. “Does it seem likely to you that they’ll raise alarm?”
“No, we’re too far out, but…” He catches his breath when Castus kisses his way down his spine, mouthing warmly along the vertebrae. Hands undo his belt, and his trousers drop to pool around his ankles, leaving his skin exposed to the chill bite of the sea air.
“You stand watch, then.” Castus’s breath blows warmly against his thighs, palms cupping his buttocks. “Make sure you let me know if anything is amiss.”
“And you think my attention will be on shore while you are – ah!”
Sabinus can’t help the undignified yelp when Castus’s tongue delves into his cleft and teases, briefly, against his rim.
“Gods,” he curses. He had no notion something like this was possible: the wet, slick caress of a tongue there, coaxing, seeking. He clenches his teeth, caught between flight and surrender, hands tightening painfully around the smooth wood of the railing. Before him, there is nothing but the timeless breath of the sea, salty and cool. Another lick, gently circling the curled rim where he’s quivering with tension. He bites his lip, but still a plaintive moan escapes, dissipating on the night waves, and at the next soft press of wetness, he relents, shoulders dropping down and his buttocks unclenching.
He feels the slight hum of appreciation against that secret flesh, then Castus’s tongue again, circling and licking, shamelessly. His throat is dry. At first he just lets it happen, deliberate, wet flicks of mobile flesh, lashing him softly; but when that eager tongue firms, the tip pressing insistently inside him, he cries out, leaning forward and pushing back almost unconsciously, into the slick, intimate caress.
Overly aware of the cries building in his throat, he chews his lower lip to chaffed shreds, hips lifting almost without his volition to meet that wet invasion. His cock is hard and throbbing, bumping against the hard wood of the hull with every furtive thrust of his hips, and before long he can feel wetness leaking down, his shaft pulsing with need. Castus points his tongue and licks him open, fucking him with it, wet and wanton and driving Sabinus to the brink with every slick stab. He feels the pressure building and wants to come like this, taken apart by the clever intrusion of Castus’s tongue, but he wants more, as well. He reaches back, breathing hard, and grasps Castus’s hand clenched on his hip.
“Castus. Gods. Please.”
He almost sobs when Castus’s tongue departs. A moment later Castus is pressing against him, his thighs tense and his cock taut between Sabinus’s spread thighs.
“Do you want this?” he asks, voice hoarse, and Sabinus bucks back against the throbbing hardness of his cock.
Castus leans over him, his muscled chest a warm pressure against Sabinus’s sweat-slicked back. “I dreamed of this,” he murmurs, hand guiding himself to where Sabinus is slick and quivering, so Sabinus can feel the blunt wetness of the head. “Dreamed of taking you over the railing of a ship, a deck swaying beneath our feet. I couldn’t stop thinking of it. The ocean moving under us as you spread your thighs for me. Taking me inside. Clenching so sweetly as I fucked you, breathing the salt air.” Sabinus almost sobs as Castus moves along with his words, pushing in slowly, almost without resistance, because he is so wet and open and so ready for it. He drops his elbows onto the smooth wood, hips lifting, and Castus curses breathlessly as he slides in the rest of the way, filling him completely.
Still leaning over his curved back, Castus grasps his hips, establishing a rhythm. Sabinus rises and falls with him, aware it won’t take long but at the same time wanting it to last. Starting out slowly, soon Castus’s thrusts take on a more urgent pace, and they heave together, trying to keep their noises beneath the volume of the water splashing against the hull. Voice pitched low, Castus keeps talking him through it, telling him how good he feels, to keep moving just so, to let go. He weaves a spell of words in his storyteller’s cadence, both lewd and lyrical, occasionally broken by the rawness of sensation. The low, intimate rasp of his voice in Sabinus’s ear – do you like it like this? how about this? gods, yes, move like that – seems to go straight to his groin, stringing words and movement into one experience.
When Castus reaches around him to grasp his pulsing cock, Sabinus drops his head down on his hands, whimpering with need. Castus’s hand tightens, pulling and caressing in time to his thrusts, thumb rubbing over and over against his slick tip. Sabinus ruts into his calloused palm, mindless with pleasure. When the soft, breathless voice urges him to climax, his body contorts, as if it’s waited only for the words. He releases with a strangled cry, hips pressed forward and back arched as he spills in several hot, mind-blanking spurts. Kissing his neck, Castus murmurs encouragement, then exclaims, low and hoarse, at the sensation of Sabinus clenching around him. Another few thrusts, without rhythm now, and Sabinus feels the prolonged shudder of Castus’s climax, heat and wetness inside him.
“Gods.” Castus mouths at the side of his neck, his mouth damp and gasping. He’s still inside him, but Sabinus can feel wetness dripping down, trickling from where they’re joined. He eases down a hand and swipes his own seed from his belly to mingle it with Castus’s, cooling on his thighs. It’s messy and sticky and he wants to never wash it off.
“All clear,” he gasps, with a shaky salute, “on the coast, captain.”
Castus’s body shakes with choked laughter against his. “Gods, I love you.”
His legs gone boneless, Sabinus topples slowly and inevitably towards the planks, taking Castus with him. He twists so they come to rest with their foreheads together. “You do?”
“That’s good,” he whispers, seeking Castus’s mouth with his. “Because I love you too, you madman.”
“No. Just a moment.” He gropes among their discarded clothing and uses his bunched-up shirt to clean their drying seed off his thighs and belly. Castus murmurs his appreciation when Sabinus wipes him down, too. Then he plucks the shirt from his fingers and tugs him back down against his side.
“I hope you carry spare shirt.”
“I do not. I shall have to go bare-chested like some barbaric corsair.”
A soft chuckle, as Castus’s fingers lazily card through Sabinus’s hair. “No hardship to those who’ll have to gaze on you.”
Sabinus makes a sceptical noise, closing his eyes to enjoy the indolent caress. He feels heavy and weightless at the same time, sated and pleasantly achy from their coupling. Aware of the danger of his languor, he forces his eyes back open. “We should rise.”
“Mhm. Soon. Not yet,” Castus repeats. He mouths at the top of Sabinus’s forehead, peppering kisses down his nose. Sabinus scrunches up his face against the tickle of his stubble, and smiles.
“What?” Castus asks, his own voice lazy with contentment.
Sabinus trails his fingers down his throat, following the lines of his tendons down to the skin-warmed gold of his jewellery, the shapes familiar by now. The red stone is smooth and warm beneath his fingertips, interrupted only by its thin gold band.
“You like to talk,” he states, tracing the elegant collarbones, and smiling like a fool, “during.”
“I like to talk at all times.”
Sabinus snorts. “Truth indisputable.”
Castus lifts his head, trying to get a look at Sabinus’s face. “Did you… not like it?”
“No, I did,” he asserts quickly, then turns his face to rub his cheek against Castus’s shoulder, unable – and, if he’s honest, not caring – to keep the smile from his voice. “I liked the other, also. The… you know. The other thing you did. With your mouth.”
Castus drops his head back down and hugs him close. “Good,” he declares, a trifle smugly. Sabinus pokes him sharply in the ribs.
“You are overly pleased with yourself!”
“Do I not have cause to be?” Castus retorts, grinning, and lets out an unmanly yelp when Sabinus retaliates with savage tickling. “Peace!” he pleads eventually, shaking with laughter, hands splayed beside his head, palms up. “I surrender.”
Sabinus grasps the proffered wrists and pins them down, shifting himself a little to let Castus feel his weight. “My own pirate captive. What ought I to do with such a prize?”
In the pre-dawn dark, barely illuminated by the hooded lantern, which only casts one carefully aimed beam of light across the deck, Castus’s smile is warm and private, full of fondness. “Keep him close,” he suggests, quietly. “He’s prone to stirring trouble.”
The offer of a lewd joke is obvious, and for a moment Sabinus is quite tempted – you stir other things, as well – but when he responds, it’s to the first thing, to that quiet, unconcealed supplication. “I shall,” he says simply, and leans down for a kiss. It’s slow and sweet, and dangerous as all kisses are when laced with promise.
He strokes Castus’s upper arm, the lines of ink he can barely see. “What meaning does this hold?” The fingers of his other hand spread wide on Castus’s abdomen and the larger inking there. “And this one? I meant to ask before.”
Castus’s fingers join his, outlining the silhouette on his arm. “This is a relic of Numidia. I don’t recall much of my years there but I wanted something in remembrance. It’s meant to be a horse – the people there are nomad tribes, travelling from the desert to the coastal lands and back. They’re famed for their horses – small, swift beasts, known for their stubbornness and prowess in battle.”
“That sounds familiar.”
A nip to his earlobe, swift and sharp. “I am not small.”
Sabinus chortles. “No, that is true. Sore arse can stand witness.”
Castus tries to smother his burst of laughter in Sabinus’s hair, unsuccessfully. “Apologies,” he offers ruefully, one hand stroking the arse in question. “Are you… I tried to-”
“You tried to split me open, and succeeded,” Sabinus cuts him off cheerfully, glad that the darkness hides his blush. “Do not feign remorse.”
“Not remorse, then, but sympathy. And offer to return offence, at next opportunity.”
“I took no offence, as you well know. But I shall take you up on offer.” He runs a finger down Castus’s stomach, dipping between the hard muscles there. “And this one? I have gazed on it before-”
“Oh, have you now?”
“Shut conceited mouth. I could not make out the shape of it.”
“It’s not a shape, as such. It stands a record, of a sort.” Castus grasps Sabinus’s hand, guiding his fingers lightly along the hidden ink. “These lines here are conquests of ships, the length determining my share in bounty taken. Shorter lines crossing them are kills.”
“And these round ones – what are they, pearls?”
“Seashells. Denoting conquests of a different nature.” It takes Sabinus a moment to take in the meaning of his tone – smiling still, but strangely awkward with it, almost embarrassed – and then he works it out.
“Oh. Oh.” He’s silent for a bit, fingering the small round shapes. He clears his throat. “There are… a lot of them.”
“Not that many. It was but daft habit of vainglorious youth.”
“I see.” A part of him – the old Sabinus, the prim Roman soldier who would have frowned at such a shameless display – tries to muster some semblance of disapproval or jealousy, but he finds his heart isn’t in it. It’s such a swaggering, smug, winsome, idiotic, Castus thing to do that he can’t help feeling charmed.
“So need I worry that I’ll find myself but one imprint among many on your skin?” he inquires instead, dryly. Castus captures his wandering fingers and pulls them to his lips.
“You are already imprinted elsewhere, Roman boy.”
“Speak one word of your cock and I shall throw you to the sharks,” Sabinus warns, although his heart beats faster at the soft caress of Castus’s lips against his palm. Castus’s chest heaves beneath him in soundless laughter. “I was not planning to,” is all he says, pulling Sabinus close.
They lie a while longer, breathing the same air, the ship swaying gently beneath them. This time, it’s Castus who murmurs, reluctantly, “We should rise. Dawn draws near.”
“I know,” Sabinus says, not moving except to turn his head into the warm column of Castus’s neck. Mouthing the hidden pulse there, he defies the dawn, trying to stretch the moment, knowing he can’t. It’s stolen sweetness, snatched from the hive of war, already dripping into nothing.
Castus shifts restlessly beside him. “What if she does not come?”
Sabinus, sorely tempted to fidget, schools himself to stillness. “She’ll come,” he states firmly, with a certainty he doesn’t feel.
They wait. The moments crawl like slow beetles, and as the sky gradually pales from grey purple to rose-gold, the rebels grow restless. Saxa paces between scattered rocks like a trapped tigress. “We should have set fucking town on fire, and dragged Crassus’s woman from the rubble,” she growls.
“As ashes?” Castus retorts, evenly enough but with an irritable undertone. “That would not leave us much to bargain with.”
“We may have nothing as it is, and every passing moment sees us closer to discovery!”
“A thing of certainty, if you do not stop drawing attention. The laziest guard will see you striding up and down!”
“Be quiet!” Sabinus hisses at both of them. “Look.”
There is movement, finally, at the gate: a brief sliver of torchlight, a slight figure stepping through. Sabinus holds his breath. “Is that her?” Castus asks from behind him.
It’s too far to tell for certain, but he thinks he sees a flash of saffron in the brief light of the torch. “I think so.”
“Thank the fucking gods,” one of the men grumbles. They wait in tense silence.
The figure moves down the coast road, walking quickly; even so, it seems to take an eternity until she draws close enough for Sabinus to step from his cover – taking pains to stay concealed from the city still – and raise an arm to signal to her. She halts, motionless for a heartbeat, then steps off the road, picking her way towards him between the scattered rocks.
“Stay back,” Sabinus warns the others over his shoulder. “Say nothing and take no action until I’ve spoken to her.” They’ve discussed it before, of course, but he thinks Saxa, in particular, might need a reminder.
The figure halts a few paces away, and pushes back her woollen cloak’s hood, revealing a cloud of dark hair framing a pale face, her eyes deep pools of shadow in the early morning light.
Sabinus slowly releases the air he didn’t realise he was holding. “Kore.” Relief warms his address. “I was not certain you would come.”
Kore’s eyes flicker nervously towards Castus and the other rebels, hanging back as instructed. “I was not either, until I set foot outside the city,” she states frankly. “As well you must have known, when you sent message in Tiberius’s name.”
“An unfair move,” he admits, “and one I am not proud of. I thought you might be more inclined to meet with me if reminded of one whom we both loved.”
The word hangs between them, innocuous enough to describe affection for a friend, but he has grown too accustomed to speaking freely of his feelings, so the word thrums with thoughtless, intimate warmth. Also, this is Kore. She studies him without responding, and the knowing compassion in her extraordinary eyes plucks at him, even now.
He takes a breath, refusing the urge to dissemble. “Surely you knew.”
Kore nods slowly. “I saw you both grow from boyhood. He was the son I could never claim. Of course I knew.”
Something tightens painfully in his chest. “His father didn’t.” Or his actual mother, his mind adds, but even as children, they never spoke to her of Tertulla, or vice versa, and he’s not about to break the unwritten rule now.
“No. Mar- his father raged and questioned, in the days after your desertion. He could not understand why you would set your mind to treason, and” – she looks away, jaw clenching – “I did not think it my duty to bring him greater pain of understanding. Not when his heart was already so heavy with grief.”
Sabinus opens his mouth to dispute that, then carefully closes it again. There is no point in challenging her on the validity of Crassus’s feelings, not when she probably knows them better than any other person living, and when he needs her, badly, as an ally.
Those great dark eyes are watching him warily, taking him in, missing nothing: his ragged cloak over his threadbare, hastily rinsed shirt, his leather-wrapped trousers held up by one of Castus’s belts (adorned with a fish with a long twisted horn protruding from its snout, a creature Castus ludicrously insists is real), his shaggy, tied-back hair.
“You’ve changed, Sabinus,” she observes, but mildly, without judgement. He nods, suddenly lost for words. He feels thrown off-kilter, unsteadied by this meeting of his old life and the new. All through his and Tiberius’s childhood and adolescence, Kore had been there, a constant presence of comfort and grace that he never thought to question, any more than it would have occurred to him to question the unspoken reality of Crassus’s love for her, and hers for him. It was fact immutable, one of the pillars on which all their lives were built. Yet looking at her now – strong, slender, patient – that truth collides harshly with other realities – Belesa’s scars, Nasir, renamed like a dog, the songs already written about Sura, whose enslavement and death drove Spartacus to challenge Rome itself. The feeling that rises in him then is a revulsion so strong it dizzies him: that any man could love a woman – deeply, sincerely – as Crassus loves this one, and have that love returned against all odds, and yet keep her as property. The profound wrongness of it twists his guts, strong enough that for a heartbeat he is afraid he might actually throw up.
Movement behind him pulls him back, Castus discreetly clearing his throat. “Sabinus. The tide will soon go out.” And we must go with it, he doesn’t need to add.
Kore’s eyes have followed, taking in the waiting rebels. Apprehension tightens her features. “I must return soon, Sabinus, before my absence is noted. Why have you called me here?”
He forces himself to breathe calmly and set aside the floundering spin of his moral compass. It isn’t like he can exactly judge Crassus’s actions, when he is about to leverage his affection for his property against him. Time grows short. Tell her.
So he does. She must be getting regular news of Crassus’s campaigns, of course, because she nods, listening but unsurprised, as he tells her of the army’s progress north, of Crixus’s defeat so near the gates of Rome. When he mentions Naevia’s return with her burden, Kore’s lips compress in sympathy, and at the revelation of five hundred prisoners, the expression deepens.
No help left for it now. He straightens his shoulders.
“So we must offer for exchange something Crassus will truly treasure,” he tells her, keeping his voice steady.
He watches his words sink in, realisation blossom in her face. It doesn’t take long. She has always been so perceptive.
Her dark eyes grow wide, her lips parting on a soundless gasp. “What are you saying?” Her gaze flickers towards his companions in sudden alarm. Somewhere behind him, weaponry clinks briefly, metal on metal. “Take her now!” one of the men – Lydon, he thinks – urges. Sabinus holds up a hand without looking back, and hopes Castus will hold them back if they ignore him.
“Kore…” he starts, but she interrupts him. “You mean to say that you have lured me here… invoking treasured name that you knew I would not ignore… to take me hostage?” Her eyes are still full of confusion – not because she doesn’t understand, he thinks, but because she doesn’t want to. Kore, always determined to believe the best of people until given no other choice. His heart aches.
“Sabinus, what are you doing? This is not your way.”
Sabinus sets his jaw against the pleading undertone. “I asked you to come so I could beg your help.”
Kore shakes her head, tense and bewildered. “My help?”
“To aid in saving five hundred lives.”
Her expression finally changes at that, puzzlement turning slowly into appalled awareness. “Oh, you are giving me a choice?” she asks, disbelievingly. “You mean to say if I decline, you will accept it and let me return to Sinuessa? Your companions there will not seize me and drag me with you regardless of my choice?” With each word, her voice hardens, until it’s flinty with accusation.
He says nothing, and feels keenly how his own silence condemns him. He cannot help the guilty flinch, the thick ooze of self-loathing. He is no stranger to shame, has been aware of it lurking all his life, sometimes justified, mostly not. Rome has done its best, slyly or openly, to shape him to its mould, tamping him down with shame: of his desires, of his thoughts, of what he’s longed the world to be in secret. He’s learning still to push free from all the ways he’s been conditioned to feel shame, when he now knows he need not.
But this shame is different – a sharp, hot-glowing ache of knowing, with perfect certainty, that what he’s doing now is shameful, even if the reason he does it is not. The shame he feels at what he’s doing to her is his own, and thoroughly earned. If there is any one thing that breaking faith with Rome has taught him, it is that nothing is ever simple.
The morning mist is burning off. Down the coast road, Sinuessa stretches like a woman roused from sleep, gates opening, guards changing on the walls. Saxa says something in her guttural tongue, urgent and low.
Guilt will have to wait for later. “Will you come with us?”
“Does it matter?” There is a terrible resignation in her face that hurts more than real outrage would.
He swallows. “Five hundred people, Kore,” he pleads with her, which isn’t fair, but then nothing about this is. Not Naevia, sent across the plains with her lover’s head in her arms, nor Nasir, who has not even that much. “Condemned to die on cross, for seeking to live their lives as their own. Not only warriors. Women, children. You can save them.”
“Cease,” she spits at him, her face twisting with emotion. “Cease painting picture of innocent victims, as if they did not choose this path!”
He lowers his eyes.
“You would have me become a traitor to him, as you have. Make myself a tool to use against him.”
“He need not know. We can tell him that we snatched you from Sinuessa against your will. It isn’t strictly false.”
“Convenient lie to hold me less blameless of complicity? That makes it worse!” She flings the accusation at him, eyes blazing with tears and fury. He cannot argue with her.
“We need to go,” he tells her. “Kore, I know you do not deserve this. I’d tell you I regret it but it makes no difference, does it? We need to go,” he repeats.
She stares at him with something very much like revulsion. “You have changed,” she says again, but where before the words were free of judgement, now they are not. Curiously, it frees something inside him. He straightens up.
“I have,” he acknowledges, and finds that, despite everything, despite this miserable encounter in the dawn, he cannot regret the change itself.
He does regret the disappointment in her eyes. He watches her steel herself; watches as shutters come down over her expressive eyes, leaving behind something cool and remote, icily composed.
“Let us go, then,” she says, loudly enough to be heard by his companions. “The sooner we depart, the sooner I shall be delivered from your company.”
Castus steps forward and bows to her, as courteous as a senator, and sincere with it. “Our ship lies that way, lady. You shall have every comfort, and our eternal gratitude.”
“The only thing I wish from you is your silence,” Kore retorts coldly. “Do not talk to me, any of you, unless it is to tell me your foul trade is done and I am returned to my dominus.” Her eyes find Sabinus, and her lips compress. “You, in particular, I would break no more words with.”
Throat tight, he can only nod. Kore sweeps past them like a queen, pulling her hood up as she goes.
Castus steps close to Sabinus, grasping his arm. “Sabinus. Are you alright?” His eyes are narrow with concern, and Sabinus resists the urge to pull away from the comfort he does not deserve. “I am fine.”
Castus keeps peering at him, unconvinced. “It’s done. You did well.”
“It’s done,” he agrees, then turns towards the cliff path. “Let us hope it was worth it.”
Chapter 14: Things Fall Apart; the Centre Cannot Hold
(Title from: The Second Coming, W. B. Yeats)
On their return, they are received with open cheers, Spartacus clasping shoulders and dispensing praise. Before they’ve even told the whole tale, a messenger gallops into the distance, riding hard for the Roman camp.
Emotions are high, a thrill of hope and fear running through the camp. Sabinus finds he can share little of it. The congratulations he keeps receiving on his plan and its execution make him feel worse, as there is no way to accept them honestly and no way to explain why he doesn’t want them. He tries to keep up a cheerful face for the sake of Castus, who happily tells the tale of their ship-borne mission to anyone who wants to hear it (and everybody does). Although Castus is not strictly embellishing – yet, Sabinus thinks, somewhat sourly – it does sound a lot more thrilling in the telling of it than Sabinus recalls living through.
But pretending is no good. The only thing that stands out vividly in his memory is the condemnation in Kore’s face, and the sick feeling in his chest at what he’s doing, what he has now done. The hours pile up while the camp waits for Crassus’s response, and that feeling only gets worse as it settles, solidifying inside him into a thick, coagulating mass of self-loathing. Of the two people he really wants to talk to about it, one is too oblivious, basking in the success of a scheme well plotted and in the attention it now gains him; the other is in a tent, refusing to speak to anyone. Laeta has taken it upon her to see to Kore’s needs; apart from her and one brief talk with Spartacus, whom even Kore could not refuse, no one has even seen her since she arrived.
Trying to avoid the cheery atmosphere of the camp, Sabinus spends his time with the one person whose mood is blacker than his own, and for a much better reason. Nasir is at the training grounds from sunrise until dusk, grimly beating recruits into shape and not seeming to care if he damages them in the process. He offers no comment when Sabinus joins him, only gives him a brief nod, and a training sword.
They split the group of recruits in two, and set to work, falling quickly into a rhythm: Sabinus teaching the recruits about Roman fighting styles, and Nasir showing them how to destroy them. More than one of these demonstrations requires him to go down hard under Nasir’s attack, and he is strangely glad to do it, revelling in the harsh impact of the weapons slamming down on him.
“How did I do what?”
Nasir is not looking at him; he barely looks at anyone these days, his eyes always seeming to focus on something invisible and displeasing in the middle distance.
“How did you go on, after you lost Tiberius?”
Ah. That. He watches Nasir’s rigid profile, that remote, desolate look in his eyes, the grim jaw, and wonders whether this is how he looked, in those early days: brittle, tense, and utterly alone. As though he had fracture lines running all over him and was merely waiting for them to shatter him to pieces.
“I did not, not for a long time,” he confesses quietly. “I was a thing of rage and sorrow, held together only by thoughts of vengeance.”
At his words, Nasir’s eyes do briefly flicker to his, searching his face. He gives a tiny nod. “And then?”
Despite the heat, Sabinus shivers at the memory of those days: the cold, the utter loneliness among his fellow soldiers; tending his garden of hatred.
“Then… time passed. Loss grew no less strong, but it no longer consumed every waking moment. I found new purpose.” It seems so trite a way to summarise the change that took months. He remembers huddling in snow, wishing he could die; somehow, at the same time, not wanting to. There was a time he could have sworn love and the will to live were interchangeable; now, he is less sure, but he does not think this is a lesson that can be learned simply by having it spoken by another.
Nasir looks unconvinced. “And new love.” His voice is blank, and Sabinus tells himself it is no judgement. He shrugs.
“Yes. I was not looking for it, but it found me nonetheless.” He aches for Castus suddenly, the reassurance of his presence. He should go find him, later, and attempt some explanation of his dark mood. He has not been fair, withdrawing.
Nasir shakes his head slightly. “I do not believe it possible, for me. There is no one like Agron.” His voice still catches on the name. Sabinus wishes he had a talent for gauging when people need to be touched; he can only guess, from Nasir’s rigid shoulders and tight jawline, that this is not a time for embraces.
“No,” he agrees instead. “There is not.” There was no one like Tiberius, either.
Nasir picks up his sword again. “Let us return to task.”
Sabinus follows him, and is glad that this, at least, is something he can offer: the pitch of strength against strength, a chance to work the body until physical exhaustion drowns out the clamours of the heart.
At the news, the camp erupts into spontaneous celebration; even the messenger’s report that many of the prisoners look injured barely dampens the overall mood. Preparations are made – tents cleared for the wounded, medical supplies laid out, the healers standing ready. Among the bustle of relief and joy, Sabinus forces himself to take a deep breath, telling himself sternly that all has gone as planned; that this is the best outcome; that he can stop feeling like scum now. But a glance at Kore’s tent undoes it all: she has stepped outside at the commotion, Spartacus himself giving her the news. She nods, once, and her eyes drift past Spartacus, meeting Sabinus’s. She gives him a long, cold look, then turns back inside the tent.
It does not matter, he insists to himself. It does not. But the guilt has risen up again, smothering him. He flees the high spirits of the rebels, escaping back to the training grounds, only to find he’s not the first to arrive. There, in the dusty circle, is Castus. His arms are wrapped around Nasir, who slumps in his embrace, head drooping, while Castus murmurs something in his ear.
Still unnoticed himself, Sabinus watches them: their faces close together, the exhausted surrender of Nasir’s body, the way Castus is holding him up. His heart is a hard, lumpy thing inside his chest, full of ugly feelings. It’s not even the casual intimacy of the scene that upsets him so much as the realisation that of course Castus would have known what to say, when his own comfort was bleak and stale, and of course Castus would know when a touch can convey what words cannot.
Swallowing, he turns and walks away before he is spotted.
They’re camped on the slope of a rocky hillside, with an ancient arena carved into the cliff about halfway up. Sabinus heard Gannicus mention once that Spartacus meant to use it to give their Roman prisoners a taste of what it feels like to have their lives hawked for cheap entertainment in the arena. He doesn’t know if Gannicus was serious, and in any case, those Romans are untouchable now, held ready to sweeten Crassus’s deal for the exchange of rebel prisoners.
Bereft of purpose, the ancient arena lies in the afternoon sun, gently crumbling. Sabinus has not reached its edge before he hears the slide of shale beneath hasty footsteps behind him.
“Sabinus!” Castus comes running up the slope, grinning and breathless when he catches up. “Slow steps, you stride like mountain goat! I was looking for you at training grounds but you were not there.”
“Oh, were you?” He can’t quite keep an acerbic note out of his voice. “Apologies. I found the camp too noisy.” He sits, abruptly, at the edge of a crudely carved row of seats, taking the one outermost. Not reading the hint, Castus sits in the row before him, twisted to face him. He gazes at him curiously.
“Sabinus, what ails you? You have been in dark spirits ever since we left Sinuessa. Has something new befallen?”
“Something new?” He laughs sharply. “No. There is no need of something new when the old has lost none of its sting.”
Castus leans closer, looking puzzled. He reaches out for Sabinus’s hand. Antsy with irritation and his roiling dark mood, he just barely stops himself from pulling it away. “Is this still over Crassus’s slave?” Castus asks. “But scheme has worked. Soon she will be returned to her master, and our people returned to us, gods willing.”
“Her name is Kore, and she is more than Crassus’s slave.”
Castus’s brow creases. “Apologies. I know you esteem the woman. But-”
“I more than esteem her!” Sabinus interrupts. “She stood as cherished figure since early childhood, never offering harm. And I betrayed her trust.”
“In exchange for many people’s lives,” Castus says.
Frustrated, Sabinus rakes his free hand through his hair. “Yes, but that changes nothing.”
“How can it not? We are at war. Some of the choices we must make are hard ones.”
“I know that. But just because a thing has no easy answer, that does not mean question is absent worth.”
Castus is peering at him, looking genuinely puzzled, and a little impatient. “What is your question, then?”
Sabinus struggles for patience himself. “She stood a friend, and an innocent in this war. I used her as a pawn. It may be the most dishonourable thing I’ve ever done.”
“Oh, the gods’ plague, not this again. I swear, sometimes I-” Castus clamps shut his lips, but there is no taking back his tone: more than exasperated, almost contemptuous. Sabinus glares at him.
“Sometimes you what?”
“Nothing,” Castus says mulishly, not looking at him. It makes Sabinus angry enough to pull his hand out of Castus’s grip after all. “You clearly held words at the ready. I would hear them. Sometimes you…?”
Castus glowers at him, then throws up his hands. “Sometimes I wonder how so smart a man can be so obtuse in certain things! You had a hard decision to make. You made it. There is no scenario in which you could have saved our people, and acted nobly towards Kore, too. She’ll live. She’ll be returned to her master, absent harm. What point can there possibly be in flogging your conscience over what cannot now be helped? Cannot you simply acknowledge it for what it is, and let it go?”
The fact that there is a kernel of truth in what Castus is saying, even while he is missing the point by a mile, does nothing to ease Sabinus’s frustration.
“Can you truly not grasp my meaning?” he flings back. “It is a different thing to betray an army, a commander, an idea, even – I have let go of Rome, as much as I can, believe it or not-”
“I know this!”
“-but it is different to betray a friend, a person who never offered harm. On the contrary! She knew about Tiberius and I – gods, she may have been the one person who did know, who did not condemn, who kept our secret, let us find happiness where we could… and how did I repay her? First by clinging to life when it was my turn to die, causing greater sorrow than if I’d kept Tiberius from taking my place, and now by using her as game piece in a war not of her choosing!”
Castus is staring at him, eyes wide. “I know, but… you had no choice!”
“There’s always choice,” Sabinus says bitterly. “I could have refrained from revealing her worth to Spartacus. I could have chosen not to betray her.”
“And then our people would have died, under torture, on the cross. How can you call that choice?”
Sabinus sighs. “This is leading nowhere. You cannot understand, and clearly I cannot make you. You should go find better company than I am able to provide just now. Nasir, for one,” he adds, against his better judgement, too annoyed to hold back.
Castus’s shoulders draw straight at that; he leans towards Sabinus. “What do you mean by that?”
Sabinus avoids his eyes, looking past him at the old arena. The view from up here is spectacular. Almost, he regrets that Spartacus was not able to hold his games. What a sight it must be, to see men pitch skill against skill, with the red sun sinking behind them.
“I saw you with him, earlier,” he explains, striving for an even tone, and not quite succeeding. It’s such a minor, petty thing to focus on, but compared to the alternative, the dissembling feels almost welcome. “Offering tender words and embrace.”
Castus frowns. “His heart is torn from chest. I was but offering comfort.”
“Oh, yes. You are most skilled at that.” Hearing the words out loud makes him cringe as soon as he has said them: their tone is ugly, and the sentiment uglier still. He opens his mouth to apologise immediately, to explain he did not mean them, to soothe the hurt he’s surely caused.
He is stopped short by the sound of Castus’s laughter. “Oh, Roman boy, you are not jealous? Not of Nasir. Surely not, after all this time!” The easy amusement, the utter dismissal of his words brings Sabinus’s hackles up. The reconciliatory words already on his tongue melt away, gleefully replaced by his darkest fears.
“Is that so laughable a notion?” he demands. “Circumstance has changed since last he spurned your affections. Now that Agron is removed-”
“I will forgive you for that,” Castus cuts him off, his voice and eyes suddenly flinty, “because your mood is befouled by darkness, and I do not think you truly mean it. But insult me like that again, and you may regret it.”
The challenge is almost welcome. If they can transmute this exchange of awful words into something more direct – a shouting match, or even physical altercation – perhaps it would sweep away the barrier of doubt and self-loathing he seems to have surrounded himself with.
“How can I insult you?” he sneers. “You’ve made it plain on more than one occasion that you consider notions of honour ridiculous, and my struggles with them a waste of time. If honour holds no influence on you, what then could I expect to stand in your way when opportunities beckon?”
“What could you expect…” Castus stares at him with a disgusted expression he’s not seen directed at him since the first day they met. He stands up, slowly, blocking the view of the arena, and the sudden drop beyond. “Opportunities? You mean what would stop me from sticking my cock in any willing hole besides yours?”
Flushing, Sabinus rises too, not liking being towered over. “I did not mean-”
Castus’s lip pulls back, baring his teeth. “You meant precisely that. Are you have fucking right of it – honour would not stop me. My feelings for you would, you self-righteous shit. Something worth a damn sight more than fucking honour. Honour,” he repeats, rolling the word around his mouth like a taste he does not care for. Furious a few heartbeats ago, he now stares at Sabinus with an expression of weary resignation. “Will you always place honour between us when it suits you to feel superior?”
The tone of voice is so unaccustomed from Castus that it takes Sabinus a moment to recognise it for what it is: bitterness. It’s in his face too – a grim set to his jaw, all trace of humour fled from the corners of his mouth.
Sabinus’s mouth drops open in surprise. “Superior? That was never my intention.” Almost he wants to laugh at how absurd that is – half the time he still feels stunned that someone like Castus would ever have looked twice at him – but the look on Castus’s face stops the laughter in his throat.
“Then why do I feel, whenever we speak of this, as though I am too far beneath your noble ideals to even bother offering explanation? You sigh and pat me indulgently as if I were a dog, incapable of comprehending.”
“I do not!”
“‘You cannot understand,’” Castus quotes, crisply, “‘and clearly I cannot make you.’”
At his own words, flung back at him with such precision, he flushes with shame, and no small amount of frustration. “Stop twisting my words into meaning they did not carry! I do not hold you as inferior. On contrary, I merely meant that our priorities in this clearly differ.”
“That much, we can agree on,” Castus says, flatly. He sighs, shoulders slumping. “I know what honour is, Sabinus. I might even flatter myself enough to say I am not, as a rule, entirely absent it. I simply do not share your view that it must always hold greater sway than other notions. There are a great many things I would place above honour in my estimation, including lives of comrades, and feelings for those I hold to heart.” His mouth twists a bit, attempting a smile but failing, a thing that looks profoundly wrong on his face. “But I know in this matter we stand upon different shores. I cross to yours whenever I can, to see your side of it. Will you not do the same for me?”
I thought I was, he thinks helplessly, but looking back, he realises that perhaps, after all, he hasn’t. For sure, it’s not the first time this has come up between them; but if he is honest with himself, he has never stopped to think that perhaps he is not the only one capable of change. He stares at Castus, struck dumb, bewildered at how they have arrived here, from a simple disagreement of principle.
But then, perhaps there was nothing simple about it. Perhaps this conflict has been lying in wait for them all along, coiled at the core of who they are, waiting to strike.
“Do you truly think I disrespect you? That I do not hold you as an equal?”
Castus’s eyes are narrowed at him. “That is my question, Sabinus. Do you?”
“Of course I do!”
“Hm.” The noise is not one of agreement. Slowly, Castus steps back. “Perhaps we ought to postpone this talk. I feel we stand on precipice.” He turns his head, lips quirking, towards the edge of the arena, but there is not much true humour in his smile. “I would not have either of us tumbling down before we have considered consequence.”
“Castus.” Sabinus takes a step after him, utterly dismayed, but Castus holds up his hand. “Let us talk later. When we are neither of us gripped by moment’s feeling… moved, perhaps, to say things we cannot take back.”
He walks away swiftly, shoulders straight. In the quiet of the dead arena, Sabinus is left behind, his head and heart a muddle, feeling worse equipped than ever to set matters right.
Spartacus and his diminished generals wait in front of the tent’s entrance. As Caesar’s gaze settles on Naevia, he smiles broadly. “I see you survived arduous journey back with precious burden,” he greets her, inclining his head. “I am glad.”
Naevia hisses, lips pulling back from her teeth. “I would kill you if my hands were free to follow heart’s desire.”
Caesar’s smile widens, sunny and impossibly sincere. “Then I thank the gods that they are not.”
“Enough.” Spartacus steps forward as Caesar dismounts, winding his horse’s bridle about one hand.
“I do not see her.” Caesar’s gaze sweeps the first row of spectators, looking bored. “Surely you will permit me to satisfy myself Crassus’s property has not been damaged?”
There are grumbles at that from the former slaves: a low, threatening hum. Caesar appears not to notice it.
Behind Spartacus, Kore steps outside the tent, flanked by Laeta and Castus. Taking in his lover’s rigid posture, ready to react to any challenge, Sabinus aches with the need to go and stand beside him, sharing the load. Kore nods at Caesar, but keeps her eyes cast down. “I am here, and well.”
Caesar looks her over. “So I see. A mighty feat you have wrought, Spartacus, to wrest a helpless woman from her household under cover of night.”
“You waste your words.” Spartacus speaks flatly, refusing the challenge. “Is Crassus prepared to make exchange?”
“He is.” An almost palpable sigh goes through the gathered ranks. His gaze trained on Caesar, Sabinus sees that charming smile stretch and lift into the snarling grimace of the wolf whose insignia he bears. “Five hundred captive rebels, against return of treasured slave, and other prisoners you hold. Oh, and one small addition.”
Spartacus frowns at that, his shoulders tensing. “What addition?”
But Sabinus knows already, knows before Caesar speaks and Belesa’s fingers clench painfully around his own. He knows the smile of Gaius Julius Caesar when he strikes: the savage joy of a predator tearing into a soft spot exposed, if only for a second.
“Crassus demands one more thing in exchange – gesture of your good will as a man of honour. The Roman traitor, Sabinus Flavius Verres.”
But he cannot look at him, cannot offer assurance of any kind; he is too far away, and there is only Caesar, his eyes resting casually on Sabinus as if he’d known all along where he was, as of course he did. Belesa drops his hand, with a soft hiss.
Caesar nods at Sabinus, in mock courtesy. “Crassus has much to discuss with you. He is most eager for opportunity.”
Spartacus takes a step forward, speaking sharply. “This is not a thing we discussed!”
Caesar’s tone is carefully modulated towards polite regret, although his eyes glitter harshly. “It is true, we were somewhat deprived of opportunity for civilised negotiations. But I cannot see what objection you might hold. Crassus has been most generous, offering lives of half a thousand prisoners, for a slave and a traitor. I should remind you that offer may not remain in force, if met with less courteous spirit.”
From where he stands, Sabinus can see the muscle jumping in Spartacus’s jaw and knows, with dreamlike clarity, that this is not a decision he can let this man make, not like this, not in front of all his army.
Slowly, he steps forward. His own voice sounds alien to his ears, eerily calm.
“Crassus’s request is most reasonable. I shall return with you.”
There is a scuffle near the entrance to the tent; he hears Castus’s voice again, spitting curses at whoever is physically restraining him. He dare not look.
Caesar nods, pleased. “I am glad you see reason. Aegeus, see to Kore’s comfort. Livius, Spurius, see the traitor to bound hands and horse.”
Too focused on looking only at Caesar and not towards Castus, he pays no attention to what happens right next to him until Belesa steps up and grabs him by the arm, hard.
“Was this your plan all along? Do you show your hand now, after months spent worming your way into our confidence?” Her voice is calm but her blue eyes are narrowed, and there’s a hardness to her mouth that he hasn’t seen in months.
“What…?” It takes him endless moments to even grasp her meaning, and when he does, his heart plummets, disbelief and hurt quickly adding to his initial realisation. Nearby, several rebels interject questions or protests, some as confused as he is, some already sharp with suspicion.
Naevia steps up beside Belesa, her hand tense-knuckled around the grip of her sword. “Belesa’s question holds merit,” she says loudly, addressing Spartacus and the inquisitive voices, though her gaze remains trained on Sabinus. “Is this the way you would carry vital information back to Romans, at hour of most urgent need?”
“Are you fucking mad?” Castus shouts from near the tent, but no one turns to look or listen. Looking into Naevia’s accusing eyes, Sabinus feels a touch of cold he has not known in many months, not since the frozen despair of Melia Ridge. He’s felt so comfortable in his new-found role, so grateful for this new companionship. It never even occurred to him to think he might still not be fully trusted. He looks from Naevia to Belesa, who stares at him with a conflicted suspicion that is both heartbreaking and surprisingly painful.
He shakes his head at her, helplessly. “Belesa, no. I am not…”
“A traitor?” This from Caesar, who is grinning more broadly than ever. “Oh, but you are, Sabinus. Nobody trusts a turncoat. Have you not learned that yet?”
“The Roman has been with us many months,” Naevia continues. “Trusted with much knowledge – supplies, numbers, plans. Who can say he is not playing a long game?”
“I can.” Nasir’s voice is calm but clear, raised to be heard among the murmurs and exclamations. “See sense, all of you! No amount of information would be worth labouring alongside us for months, bearing equal risk of death in battle or by cold or hunger, striving to preserve our lives, felling as many Romans as Sabinus has. What traitor would kill his own?”
“That one did!” Naevia shoots back, pointing at Caesar, who merely beams at her, looking vastly entertained.
“Nasir speaks truth,” Saxa speaks up, unexpectedly. Her gaze rests briefly on Sabinus, hawk-sharp as ever but without accusation. “Roman pup has fought hard beside us. Lent more aid than treason could undo. If he meant true harm, he would have delivered it by now.”
“That is exactly what he’d have you believe!”
“Enough.” Spartacus steps forward, the mere force of his physical movement enough to stop the buzzing murmurs. He ignores the crowd, looking only at Sabinus. “Sabinus. What am I to think of this?” His hand is half lifted, prepared perhaps to direct some attack – whether against him or in his defence, Sabinus does not know. But there is something grounding in that piercing green gaze, something that gives Sabinus the strength to straighten his shoulders and lift his chin.
“I told you who I am the day we met. There is no double play here.” He takes a deep breath. “I will see our people returned to you. And I wish you fortune in coming battles.”
For a long moment, Spartacus merely gazes at him, searching his face. Then he nods, slowly, and reaches out his hand to clasp Sabinus’s wrist. The rebels have fallen silent. His grip is firm and warm around Sabinus’s forearm. “I have seen many come into their own in this war,” he says, low but clear, “and I do not believe your journey was one of pretence. So I shall take you for the man I have come to value. Know that your courage shall always be remembered among those who defy Rome, as you have done.”
Throat tight, Sabinus nods abruptly, his mouth twisting around a shaky smile. “I doubt I shall live to see all qualms defeated. But gratitude, for all that you have done. Your cause gave meaning to a life already poised at the edge of Pluto’s realm.”
Spartacus nods, and Sabinus lets go of his arm, turning away. He looks briefly at Belesa, whose face is a struggle of mistrust and doubt. He longs to embrace her but contents himself with a nod. “I hold you as treasured friend,” he tells her softly, “whatever you may think of me.”
As the Roman soldiers step forward to take him into custody, someone pushes past them, grabbing Sabinus’s upper arms and pulling him close. “Sabinus!”
At the sight of Castus’s face, both furious and devastated, everything else loses all urgency. The rebels’ accusations, the soldiers’ looming presence, even Caesar’s knowing smirk and the prospect of Rome’s retribution, all drop away into insignificance at the sudden panicked thought that he may not, after all, have the strength to do this, not if it will hurt Castus.
Sabinus struggles to free himself, suddenly desperate, all too aware how tenuous his courage really is. It’s easy to be brave, even in the face of suspicion, as long as he does not have to look at Castus’s face, or remember the taste of his lips, the shape of his smile against his mouth. It seems impossible now that they quarrelled, only hours earlier. That quarrels mattered.
“Sabinus.” Hands grasp his jaw, forcing his face around. The black eyes fill his field of vision, liquid with anguish, and something darker underneath.
“Castus, I have to do this,” he croaks, trying to forestall him. “There are five hundred lives at stake. Do not ask me to stay.” Because if you did, I would.
“I know.” Castus bites out the two words as if they are a curse, choked with helpless rage. “You fucking virtuous shit, do you not think I know?”
Remorse floods him suddenly, twisting his insides; remorse that he would be so selfish as to throw himself in chains without a proper goodbye, just because the look in Castus’s eyes is like to shatter him and there is an army watching. He stops resisting and drags Castus close instead, hands cupped around his neck, bringing their foreheads together. Castus’s breath is harsh, the pulse in his tense neck pounding against Sabinus’s wrist. Sabinus wonders if it is terribly selfish to breathe more easily, knowing there is one person who does not suspect him of foul play.
“Castus. My heart, I am sorry. I should have foreseen this. Should have known Crassus would ask for this.”
“Fuck Crassus. He cannot have you.” Castus’s hands are on his shoulders, their grip almost painful. Sabinus’s eyes sting with tears that he is not ashamed of.
“I am so sorry.” He kisses him, heedless of who can see. “About what I spoke earlier. About everything. You are the world to me, do you not know that? The world. But I must do this. I am sorry.”
“Do not be sorry,” Castus growls when their lips part. “Be alive when I come after you.” The words are pitched low, for no one else to hear but him. Still, Sabinus tightens his grip, alarmed. “You cannot. Castus, don’t be foolish-”
A snort. “Roman boy, I was born foolish.” He moves suddenly, fumbling something around Sabinus’s throat. “Here. Take this, for luck. And this, for something else.” Lips against his, open-mouthed and frantic. Sabinus cannot breathe, and doesn’t care. He kisses back desperately, gasping when Castus’s mouth leaves his. Strong hands pull him into a painfully tight embrace.
“Remember, I give no fucks for honour,” Castus whispers in his ear. “I will come for you. Until then, live.” They kiss a third time, so hard Sabinus tastes blood in his mouth, an offering to seal a pact.
Then Castus is gone from his arms, and Sabinus only has a moment, before Caesar’s guards tie his wrists, to lift his fingers to the unexpected thing resting around his neck: a skin-warmed band of gold, weighted by a half-moon torque, and nestling at the base of his throat, the solid weight of the red coral stone.
Chapter 15: A Broken Mask
Crassus and Caesar have him alone in a tent; a small one, doubtlessly heavily guarded. No audience in the Imperator’s tent for a recaptured traitor. Not even the assembly for a court martial, as he half expected. Apparently the sentence is to be determined by Crassus alone.
No food or water for him either, which is not exactly surprising, but it does make holding his own against them somewhat harder, with his parched throat distracting him and his feet weak with hunger. He gives his head a little shake to clear the clamour for water, and tries to imagine what Castus would say. Something irreverent, probably, with an irritating smirk.
“Not overmuch.” He can’t manage a smirk, but he shrugs, trying for a nonchalance he doesn’t feel. “I assume you’ll see me nailed to cross.” The entire ride here, he’s tried to prepare himself for it, and so he manages not to shudder, but his stomach contracts in fear anyway. He knows the worst about the cross is not the nails or the agony of one’s hanging weight. It’s how long a body can live, enduring beyond deceptively small injuries. He’s seen a slave in the marketplace last almost a week once.
Crassus is shaking his head. “Do not be dramatic. You are still a Roman citizen, and a soldier under military law, unfit for the cross. As such, the penalty for desertion, treason and theft from your fellow soldiers shall be the fustuarium.” Seeing the impact of his words sink in, Crassus permits himself a thin smile. “Yes, death by cudgelling. Significance of choice is not lost upon me. The gods have returned you on circular path.”
“Have they?” Sabinus says, numbly. “I wonder.” Having braced himself for the wrong thing, he knows there is no hiding his feelings now. With just a few words, Crassus has him back under that grey-purple sky, tearing his lungs with screams at the sound of the blunt clubs mashing flesh and shattering bone.
As if he were reading his mind, Caesar casually extends an arm, dangling something from his fingertips: a fustis, the standard cudgel. The smooth length of wood cups a round, fist-sized rock at the thickened end, tied in place with grubby lengths of cloth. The cloth is stained grey and brown; it could be merely dirt, but there is only one thing that darkens to stiff brown like that.
Whatever his face gives away makes Crassus’s thin smile stretch minutely. “Of course, unlike those who fell at decimation, yours will be a lonely death, as was your treason. Only one man, seen to the afterlife by former brothers’ hands. It will be fitting punishment, do you not agree?”
“In more ways than one,” Caesar interjects, playfully tossing the fustis from one hand to the other.
Crassus glances at him. “What is your meaning?”
“In rebel camp, before we seized him, I saw him with a corsair who objected vigorously to his taking. They seemed most… intimate.” Caesar’s smile is as sharp as sunlight glinting on a knife edge.
Crassus’s face darkens. “A corsair?”
“A rough sea brigand, one of Spartacus’s men. An escaped slave, no doubt, like most of them.”
“He is no slave!” Sabinus bursts out, before he can stop himself. Crassus’s grey eyes pin him.
“Is this true, Sabinus? You have defiled your body with a common pirate?”
Sabinus can’t help the incredulous lift of his brow.
“A Roman soldier, to submit to acts of” – Crassus’s lips crinkle in distaste – “penetration, and to an enemy? Truly, your punishment is aptly chosen.”
“We should make it known to the soldiers handed fustes for his execution,” Caesar cuts in smoothly. “Perhaps they can make sure to aim first for parts used in such degradation.” He reaches out with studied carelessness, extending the cudgel towards Sabinus’s groin. It doesn’t touch, but he takes a hasty step backwards anyway. Something sour tries to rise in his throat; he swallows it, with some difficulty. What comes up instead is a short burst of laughter.
Crassus’s eyes narrow. “You find mirth in your shame?”
“Only in the senseless laws of Rome, that would concern themselves with what a man does with his cock.”
“You know that isn’t what the laws object to.”
“Oh, yes. Apologies. What a man does with his ass, then.” He laughs again, aware it may sound slightly unhinged. “Distinction makes all the difference.”
Caesar takes one quick step forward to backhand him across the face. “You will not stand before your Imperator and mock Rome’s laws, traitor.”
If nothing else, the blow stops the laughter. When Sabinus lifts his head again, ear ringing, he finds Crassus watching him with a different expression; disgust, chagrin, and a sort of bewildered sorrow all struggling for dominance over his austere features.
“How came you to such end, Sabinus? I have known you since you reached but knee-height, inseparable companion of treasured son. Not long ago, you stood a fine soldier of the Republic. A man of integrity, loyal and decent. I thought of you almost as fondly as own son. What changed?”
Despite everything, for a moment Sabinus feels the heat of tears behind his eyes, the ache of lost things in his chest. He wills them back and sets his jaw.
“The past you speak of is spectre of distant memory. I woke one day and saw Rome for what she truly is.”
Caesar lifts his hand again, but Crassus waves him back, his eyes never leaving Sabinus’s. “And what did you see?”
He swallows. “A tyrant. Climbing to heights of power on piles of shattered bodies, without mercy or care for what she crushes underneath. A monster.”
From some semblance of genuine interest, perhaps even regret, Crassus’s features harden once more into the mask of Imperator. Watching it happen, Sabinus thinks of Tiberius, who has no death mask, and feels the furious need, as he has so many times before, to see this mask shattered.
“Your execution will take place at dawn.” Shaking his head, Crassus turns towards Caesar, preparing to leave. “Much sorrow and disgrace could have been prevented, I believe, had the gods chosen you for decimation.”
He listens to the words as they echo away, irretrievable, even if he wished to call them back, which he does not.
Crassus looks back at him with a small furrow between his brows. “What?”
He can see now how Castus finds humour even in the darkest moments. This is exceedingly amusing. He can feel his lips stretching into a smile.
“I drew a white stone that day. This one.” He pulls it from his pocket where it has nestled for so many months, and holds it out for Crassus to see, as he did once before, in a tent much grander than this.
Crassus stares at it, not comprehending. “You told me that was Tiberius’s.”
“No. It was mine.”
Crassus’s jaw tightens in barely contained, dawning fury. “You mean to tell me that you betrayed Tiberius to his death… to preserve your own life? That you defied the gods’ will?”
“Not I. Tiberius did.” He feels his smile widen as he watches the anger in Crassus’s face grow into dark, awful awareness.
“What are you saying?”
“He drew the black stone, I the white. He swapped them between our hands. No one saw.” He remembers Tiberius at five, so determined to master the trick, and his mouth twists. “He was ever… resourceful.”
He’s longed for so long to see Crassus’s mask broken. It breaks now. The face that emerges underneath is a dark and twisted thing, a mosaic of disbelief, anguish and a frightful, all-consuming wrath he can see building like a storm. The pieces clash and move. Nothing fits together.
“Why?” Crassus asks. It comes out as a croak, quickly mounting to a shout. “Why would he do such a thing?”
“Because he loved me, and I him.” Strange, how easy it suddenly is to speak with utter calm, in the face of that terrible mounting rage. He smiles, a little sadly. “Whatever Rome would think of it.”
“I do not.”
“No.” It’s a mere whisper, choked with agony, as Crassus searches his face, eyes flickering. Sabinus holds his gaze. He feels calmer than he has for days; no, months. He was wrong, that long-ago day when Crassus first summoned him from the followers’ camp. If he had spent this truth then, let it fly to hit Crassus at his first opportunity, he might have saved himself a lot of quiet agony.
Of course, he might have died that day.
A minor twitch, a widening of those steel-grey eyes, is his only warning before Crassus launches himself at Sabinus with a rough, broken shout. Weakened by thirst and hunger as he is, the first punch would have thrown him to the ground if Crassus had not grabbed him by the shirtfront and hauled him high enough to hit again, and again. He hears, distinctly, a sickening crunch as his nose flares into pulsing agony. He feels his lip split open under Crassus’s fist, his cheek tear under the signet ring. Perhaps he’ll have a bull imprinted on his face. That would not do at all. He cackles at the image, then cries out when Crassus yanks his head back by his hair. Gushing blood from his nose fills his mouth, making him gag.
“You tell me this and then mock me? You worthless swine!” He shoves at Sabinus and half-turns towards Caesar, who exclaims in surprise. When Crassus faces him again, Sabinus, through a watery curtain of pain-induced tears, can see why: he’s wrested the cudgel from Caesar’s grasp, swinging it back in a wide arc.
He stumbles back just in time to avoid taking the blunt end between the eyes; instead, it deals a glancing blow to the side of his head. Pain explodes in Sabinus’s temple and for a moment or three, the world dims before his eyes, tilting nauseatingly. When it swims back into focus, he is on his hands and knees, the uncovered ground temptingly close before his eyes. More blows are raining down on him, on his back, his shoulders, his sides. Kicks, too, aimed at his ribs, almost lifting him off the ground with each forceful impact. His mouth is full of blood, and his vision keeps blurring in sickening waves of pain.
It’s too much for him, he thinks, almost triumphantly. He’ll kill me. No fustuarium for me, or at least not before his whole army. If nothing else, he is taking control of his own death. Hard on the heels of that thought comes another, full of regret. Castus will kill me if I die.
The nonsense of that logic strikes him as funny, too. He chortles, hisses at the sudden, sharp stab of pain that elicits in his ribs, and then grunts under the impact of another kick, this time in his stomach. Apologies, Castus. He gropes for the red coral at his throat, thinking that if ever he could use some luck, it is probably now. Its weight rests comfortably in his palm, smooth and warm.
Then Crassus’s hobnailed caliga connects with his temple, in the same place where the cudgel hit before, and Sabinus stops thinking anything at all. After a weightless moment of black nothingness, pain opens like a blossom to the sun, poison-bright with colour. It obliterates all else. Warm wetness flows down the side of his face. For a moment, he is certain his head must have caved right in; that this is what it feels like those last few seconds before the brain registers that it is leaking out of a shattered skull, and may now stop its function.
As if from far away, he hears someone shouting. Caesar, he remembers. The wolf is here, too. There is the sound of struggle, and the blows temporarily cease, leaving Sabinus to slump gratefully to the dirty ground. Caesar says something low-voiced and sharp, an urgent admonition. Something about public examples, and the law. Damn Caesar. He’s going to get him executed, after all.
A foot in his aching ribs, more nudge than kick this time. He doubles up anyway. Too much blood in his mouth; he’s going to choke on it. Spitting seems like a lot of effort. He turns his head to simply let it dribble out. At least one of his teeth is loose; he can feel it wobble in its socket, just one bright spear of pain among many. His nose feels like a swollen ball of agony.
Movement before his flickering vision makes him flinch. It’s the end of the fustis, swinging gently near his head, dripping with blood. He cringes away from it involuntarily.
Somewhere above him, there’s the sound of breathing, heavy with exertion. When Crassus leans close, he can feel it: moist gusts of air against his ear, unpleasantly hot. “I will see the life smashed from you in the morning. And no man shall be released from task until there is no piece left of you larger than that pebble.”
A final, agonising kick, and then retreating footsteps.
For an eternity, he only lies there, incapable of any movement that doesn’t trigger pain. He keeps his eyes shut to escape the sickening blur, but when he eventually cracks his eyes open – one eye, it turns out; the other is swiftly swelling shut – the dizziness seems to have receded somewhat. When he rolls cautiously from his stomach to his side, he can’t hold in a whimper.
He blinks, forcing his eye to focus and scan the ground before him. There, a little to his left. A spot of white on the packed dirt. He reaches out but it’s not close enough. Dragging himself the endless distance of two feet, he manages to close his fingers on the white stone, and promptly falls unconscious.
He can’t quite remember where he is or how he got here, but he is fairly certain he did not do this to himself.
“Here,” the voice says. Something cool presses against his throbbing lip, a hand cupping the back of his head to lift it up. Water dribbles into his mouth, and he swallows reflexively. Unfortunately, along with the water, he swallows a thick mouthful of his own blood, and something solid that he suspects to be a tooth. His gorge rises and he heaves. The convulsive motion wakes a host of other pains in his battered body.
The unseen person’s hands help turn him over with a practised competence that he is vaguely grateful for, even as his stomach tries to climb out of his throat. Hands hold back his hair while he retches, bringing up blood and bile and splattering it all across the ground. Inside his head some vile hellbeast is gleefully tolling a great bell, making his skull ring in horrid, nauseating waves. He shakes his head to dispel the awful sound, which turns out to be a mistake, he learns, when his stomach promptly heaves again, sending him spitting and gagging across the floor.
His unseen helper barely manages to keep him from dropping facedown in his own sick. He is eased gently onto his back, where he lies gasping, trying to draw a proper breath. Something is wrong with his chest: a stabbing pain on every breath. He pants, close to panic, until the soft hand drops, blessedly cool, onto his sweaty forehead.
“Shallow breaths,” the voice urges. “You have broken ribs. At least two. Breathe lightly, lest you want them to puncture lungs.”
He takes the advice, sucking in shallow breaths of air until he no longer feels on the verge of suffocation.
“Where am I?” he manages to croak.
It takes a moment for the voice to respond, with a note of alarm, “The camp of the Roman army, headed by Marcus Crassus. Do you not remember?”
Something stirs in his throbbing head at the mention of the name. “Crassus. He… he’s here?”
Something soft and wet touches his face, and he flinches instinctively, before he recognises it for a wet cloth, cool and soothing on his brow. “He did this to you,” the voice reminds him. “Do you recall?”
“I…. think so.” Something floats out of the agonised muddle of his memories and coalesces into something solid: a mask, cracking open. The face beneath a thing of agony and wrath. He shrinks, remembering the blows raining down on him, breaking him where they fell. “Yes.” He shudders, then blurts pathetically, “Where is Castus?”
He needs Castus. Needs him to mock this, needs him to run his long fingers through his hair while he chases away the pain with some ridiculous tale of battling a sea creature and coming away with injuries much worse than this.
There’s a long silence and when the voice speaks again, it’s even graver than before. “Not here. Sabinus, can you look at me?”
It takes a ludicrous amount of effort, due, in part, to the heavy, spongy weight pressing down on his right eye, resisting his brain’s commands to open. Only when the soft coolness of the soaked cloth comes down on the swollen bulge does he remember. Groaning, he finally manages to force open his other eye. Blurry light pulses, too bright, into his brain, so he has to shut and reopen his eye a few times, until finally a pale splotch focuses into a face, withdrawn and dark-eyed.
Her head bobs in a nod; then a hand floats into his field of vision, too many fingers wriggling nauseatingly. “How many fingers can you see?”
He tries to focus, fails, and grumbles, “I cannot tell, with you waving them about so. Cannot you hold them still?”
A pause, followed by a sigh. “I am holding them still. You’re addled by blow to head.”
“Oh.” That seems reasonable, though he wishes she would stop making his head wobble in demonstration. The cool cloth feels good, though. He turns his cheek into it, sighing his gratitude when she swipes it over his throbbing nose and lips as well. “How did I get here?”
Her hand stills; he can feel her leaning closer. “Can you not recall it?”
“Of course,” he murmurs, because it seems the thing to say. He does recall, a little. A ship, there was a ship, and Castus, smiling; telling some improbable story about pearls and horses. No, not a story. Tattoos? No, not a ship; that was before. Was it? Journeys come together and drift apart inside his swaying head, and it’s all too much. “Where’s Castus?” He should be here. Shouldn’t he? He promised something… no, that was not a promise Sabinus wanted kept, he remembers, although he’s not sure now why.
“My nose.” It’s just one throb among many, but it sits right in his face, pulsing sharply, so it seems a good place to start.
“It’s broken, but it will be fine. I set it while you lay unconscious. No, do not touch it,” she admonishes, too late. His fingers recoil from the swollen ache. “Ow.”
“Keep your hands off it. It will heal,” she says, then stops herself abruptly.
“It would heal,” she says, voice low with some cracked emotion that he can’t make out, “but it won’t have time to. Sabinus. Do you remember where you are?”
He does. She needn’t make such a dance of it. He’s with the Roman army. In a prison tent. It’s afternoon, and on the morrow-
His nose won’t have time to heal because on the morrow he will die, smashed into bony splinters by the soldiers’ cudgels, like Tiberius was. In fact, Kore needn’t have bothered setting his nose. He chuckles, then hisses in pain when her hand closes tightly on his shoulder.
“Sabinus, try to focus. Do you want more water?”
He nods vigorously and immediately regrets it. Kore cradles the back of his head again, holding it blessedly still. “Do you need to empty stomach again? No? Good. Do not move head. I will help you.”
The water that flows down his throat is barely cool, and it wakes other complaints in his mouth – mashed gums, split lips, that tooth still wobbling in its socket, so there must have been two knocked loose to start with – but it’s water, washing away the foul taste of blood and vomit in his mouth. He sucks it down gratefully, obeying meekly when she tells him to go slow.
Eventually he slumps down and shuts his eye until the vertiginous illusion of movement in his head has settled a bit. Along with the thirst and nausea, the water seems to have rinsed away a little bit of his confusion. He’s still not too sure of the sequence of events – a ship, Crassus, Kore, a tent, a blur of violent beating, he and Castus arguing, a promise of execution – so he pulls his senses close, taking stock of what immediately surrounds him: his battered body. He’s good at taking stock, he reminds himself. It’s easy, as long as you proceed logically, section by section. An inventory, then, starting at the bottom and going up. Legs, nothing much wrong there. A few bruises at most. The lingering ache of a kick high in his groin but it seems to have missed his genitals (the smirking gods, bestowing tiny favours). A few more in his hips and belly. The real damage only starts with his lower ribs, agony radiating into his chest from the broken ones, straining his breathing.
The worst is concentrated in his head: the loose teeth, the broken nose, and whatever woozy cloud is taking turns fraying and thickening about his brain, fogging his thoughts and agitating his stomach.
I have to think. Let me think.
He cracks his eye open and blinks until the interior of the tent swims back into focus. The light he thought blinding earlier, it turns out, is only a dim flickering lantern. Kore is still crouched over him, a worried frown between her brows. At the sight of her eyes, some of the last few days comes floating back to him: the tense ride here – no ship, after all; that was the Siren, earlier – their meeting at the cliffs. He tries to puzzle the events together, with limited success.
“Kore… why are you here?”
She has a jug and bowl standing beside her, some smell of pungent greens rising from it. She wrings the cloth in it, not looking at him, then resumes wiping the fragrant wetness over his throbbing face. He sighs, half in pain and half appreciation, at the wet, mossy chill of it, taking some of the blood and ache away.
“My dominus wishes to see you recovered for the morning,” she tells him, not meeting his eye. “He gave command for your wounds to be seen to.”
How very like Crassus, to make sure he is sufficiently recovered and cognisant to experience in full the far worse agony that lies in store for him. He cackles, then moans when the motion jars his ribs. Kore shakes her head in reproach. “Be still.”
He grasps the hand tracking his ribcage, a gesture that forces her eyes back to his face. “Why you, though?” he asks, tongue swiping over his split lip. “Surely he did not bid you come yourself?”
Her frown deepens as she looks at him, conflict flickering in her eyes. She bites her lip. “I never wished to see you come to such end,” she says bitterly. “Was it not enough that Tiberius…?” She breaks off and looks away, eyes dull with pain.
He swallows down remorse and a new mouthful of blood. He wishes that tooth would make up its mind and fall out already. “Apologies, Kore,” he tells her hoarsely, fingers tightening around hers.
“For what?” she asks thickly.
“For the way things have gone between us. For what I did to you.”
She looks back at him, and at the expression in her face he’s rather glad that he can’t see himself. “But if you could return to same place and hour, you’d do the same again, would you not?”
Sabinus takes a careful, shallow breath. “The prisoners – did he send them back?”
She gives a short, sharp nod. He slowly breathes out, tension flowing out of him with the air. “Then yes. If there was no other way to free them. But that does not mean that I don’t regret what it means for you… or how I went about it.”
Kore sighs and quickly brushes matted hair out of his eyes. “It does not matter now. Are you in much pain?”
“Thing of no consequence,” he tells her, although he’s not actually sure that’s true. The broken bones may not really matter but he hates feeling as if he has no control over his thoughts or memories. The rolling waves of pain in his head that seem to come and go are growing stronger again, that hateful bell tolling louder.
“Why is it so dark? Has evening fallen already?”
“Evening?” The cool fingers come down on his forehead, the back of her hand resting there briefly. After a pause, she speaks again, her voice low with concern and something else, something less composed. “Sabinus, the night is almost over. Morning draws near.”
Morning. Morning and something to happen then, something important. It’s so hard to think. He wants to ask but he has a feeling he’s asked before and he does not want to alarm her more. The bell tolls loudly until he’s sure it will split his head in two. The bell, and Kore talking, and a sound outside, pungent with smoke.
No, that is not what sounds do, it’s something else. A taste? A smell. That’s it. A smell of smoke and screaming. He breathes it in and drifts away.
Chapter 16: A Pirate’s Word
“By Neptune’s fucking beard, who did this to him?”
“Appearance is much worse than reality of injuries. He will be fine.”
“He is not fine now, and I will kill the swine. Was it Crassus?”
“He was sorely provoked-”
“Piss on provoked, woman, and piss on fucking Crassus.”
“Lower fucking voices, both of you. We will be heard.”
“Go distract them, then. We cannot have them take our horses.”
“From sound of it, you and your people already raised entire camp. It won’t be long before someone draws natural conclusion – that Spartacus’s rabble cannot be trusted to keep to a bargain, and that you’re here for him.”
The bitterness in her voice helps anchor him: Kore, still close enough to have a wet cloth on his eye. But it’s the other voice – vicious with fury and anguish – that sends his sluggish thoughts into a frantic spin. He must be dreaming.
“I am not here on Spartacus’s fucking orders. And I do not recall being asked to make any fucking bargain.”
Sabinus makes himself face the nauseating throb of his head and forces his lips open. “Castus?” he croaks.
Someone drops to their knees beside him, a warm hand cradling his cheek with excessive care. “I’m here. Sabinus, can you look at me?”
His eyelid is resistant to being lifted, but eventually he manages. Castus’s face is just above his own, his features tense with strong emotion. It recalls to Sabinus the last time he saw him, with an expression not unlike this one, and in a moment, memories rush into him like a spring flood, snapping his every fibre into rigid alarm. “Castus! You’re truly here!”
He struggles to get up into a sitting position, pushing aside Kore’s hands and cry of warning. His broken ribs shift with a stabbing, bright flash of pain, sending him crashing back with a hiss. Castus catches him, holding him half upright, and he manages some equilibrium half on one elbow, half clutching at Castus’s bracing arm. He stares wildly, still not quite believing it. His other hand gropes clumsily at Castus’s face, encountering familiar contours, smeared with dust and sweat, slightly scratchy with stubble, undeniably solid and real.
“Castus. Gods. What are you doing here?”
A brief smile, small and private, just for him. “Keeping my word. Oh, Roman boy. What have they done to you?” One arm curved around Sabinus’s shoulders, his other hand is still on Sabinus’s face, a cautious touch, tracing his injuries with fingers light as feathers.
“Your word!” Kore cries, still on Sabinus’s other side. “What word is that? Spartacus agreed to trade him and me for the prisoners, and Crassus kept to bargain! And here you are-”
“I kept it too.” Castus bares his teeth at her, a mere imitation of a grin, dark and angry. “I let Crassus take him. Nobody said I could not take him back.”
Kore shakes her head. “That is a base trickster’s argument.”
Castus shrugs, one-shouldered, his other arm shifting into a more secure position around Sabinus’s back. “Pirate,” he tells her without a trace of contrition, before turning his attention away from her entirely, focusing only on Sabinus. “Can you walk, do you think?”
Sabinus is still staring at him, trying to force his mind to cooperate. It’s infuriatingly difficult; his brain feels like a dead slug, bobbing slowly inside the cup of vinegar that is his aching skull. “How did you get in here?”
“We set the camp on fire. Well, some of it, anyway. Saxa has most admirable aim with flame-tipped arrows.”
Belatedly, he recalls the heat and the sounds outside – alarmed voices ringing through the night, raised above the ominous crackle of flames.
Castus grins at him, brief and fierce. “I told you I would come for you.” The touch of his lips to the corner of Sabinus’s mouth is quick and careful, but it still sets the broken tooth to rocking, and he winces. Castus pulls back immediately, but still the kiss sits there, a small, sweet tingle of warmth on his lip.
“I’m fine.” His thoughts are whirling madly, joy and terror warring in his chest. Castus and Saxa, here. Not just them, if the sounds of fighting outside are anything to go by. He wants to grab Castus and shake him for his recklessness. He wants to grab Castus and kiss him properly, never mind his broken mouth.
They’re interrupted by Saxa striding into the tent like a fair-haired goddess of war and wrath. “He is awake? Good. Ply tongues later. We haven’t time now.” Her face is grim, and sooty with ash. “We must leave, before we lose advantage of surprise. Now.”
“Yes,” Kore says, shoving something into a leather bag and dropping it unceremoniously over Castus’s shoulder. “Use the unguent for his wounds,” she instructs curtly. “He may remain confused for a few days. Let him rest when you can, and bind his ribs tightly, to stop them shifting.”
“Gratitude,” Castus says gravely.
Kore’s face twitches. “None required. I have no wish to see him die if I can help it. Now go.”
With Castus’s arm around him, Sabinus does his best to get his feet under him, but his body is shaky and off-balance. Saxa steps in to grab his other arm, hissing impatiently, “Must we carry you like swooning maiden? We have no time for this!”
“No,” says Marcus Crassus, coldly, “You do not.”
“I remember you from Sinuessa, wench. You’re vexingly hard to kill. Did you set the fires?”
“I did,” Saxa snarls, “and will use them to roast your cock before I make you eat it, traitor.”
“Oh, you object to traitors? Why then do I find you flying to this one’s rescue?”
Unarmed, Crassus still looks more dangerous than Caesar. “Drop weapons, now, and I promise I will have you killed quickly instead of seeing you to cross.”
Castus snorts, shifting his weight to a better fighting stance. “Amusing proposition. I have counter-proposal. You and your dog free our way, and you may live to see the dawn.”
Crassus surveys him, taking in the way he stands protectively over Sabinus, and his lip curls slightly. “I take it,” he says, to Caesar, “this is the man you spoke of.”
Crassus addresses Castus, seemingly undisturbed by the threat of the naked blade. “If you fight for Spartacus, you do disservice to the man’s honour. We had a bargain, he and I.”
“And as I told your woman, I give no fucks for Spartacus’s honour. We will not leave this camp without Sabinus.”
Caesar looks genuinely entertained. “Corsair,” he grins, “you will not leave this camp.”
In the tense silence, no one pays attention to Kore, still crouched on the ground beside Sabinus. Now, she stands, moving with fluid grace along the back of the tent – towards Crassus, Sabinus thinks at first, but to get there she will have to get past Saxa, and Saxa’s knives.
From his tilted position on the floor, Sabinus sees Saxa’s head turn and Kore pause. For a split second, the two women gaze at each other, some unspoken communication flickering between them. Then Kore steps closer.
Sabinus forces a loud, exaggerated groan past his split lips and rolls to his knees. The motion makes his stomach roil enough so he does not have to fake the gagging sound that escapes him. “Let them go,” he croaks, when he’s reasonably sure he’s not about to throw up, and that he’s drawn Crassus’s and Caesar’s attention. “You have me. Let them go free. You have no quarrel with them.”
“No quarrel? What do you think this war is?” Crassus demands, while Castus heatedly starts, “I told you, we are not-”
A breathy scream cuts them both off, and then Saxa says, low and lethal, “This is the woman you traded for, is she not? Shall we revisit terms of exchange?”
She has Kore by the hair, pulling her head back at what must be a painful angle, and one of her knives presses against the pale column of her throat. “We leave,” Saxa tells the men. “Now, all of us. We take the boy, and you can have your woman back.”
Kore stands still in Saxa’s grip, one hand curved lightly around the other woman’s wrist, but offering no resistance. Which is, of course, a smart move when at the point of Saxa’s knives, but smarter still would have been to go the long way around the tent, so as not to cross her path at all. Sabinus hopes Crassus will put it down to panic.
Crassus, thankfully, does not seem to be considering collusion. He takes a half-step towards Kore, then stops abruptly when Saxa yanks her head back further. He has gone pale. “Let her go.”
“If you let us go first.”
Castus has used the distraction to drop quickly to one knee beside Sabinus and pull his arm over his shoulder, easing him gently to his feet. “Can you walk?”
He nods, because that is the only acceptable answer, and wills his legs to stay upright. His balance feels off, and he leans heavily into Castus’s side. Castus wraps his arm tightly around his waist, sword in the other hand, and faces Crassus. “Move.”
Crassus’s jaw is tightly clenched, his eyes glittering with hatred. He says nothing, and does not move. Saxa shifts her blade against Kore’s throat.
“You traded five hundred men for her,” Castus reminds Crassus, quietly. “Will you not trade this one?”
“Marcus.” The word from Kore’s lips is only a whisper but it draws Crassus’s attention like a moth to flame, and in that brief flicker of revealed emotion he is lost.
He clenches his fists. “Let her go, slave. She is mine.”
Castus’s arm settles carefully around Sabinus’s hip, drawing him closer. “And this one is mine,” he declares, the warning clear in his voice. “Step aside.”
After what feels like an eternity, Crassus finally gives a tiny, jerky nod and motions to Caesar, who sheathes his sword, visibly displeased. Castus manoeuvres Sabinus towards the tent flap, keeping his sword high. Saxa follows close behind them, with her arm around Kore’s neck. Then they are running, or in Sabinus’s case, being dragged along.
Outside, the fires are being put out. There is alarm and frantic action, but commands are being shouted and obeyed, and the hiss of steam and burned canvas fills the air. Thunder rumbles in the air, drawing closer: close enough, if the Romans are in luck, to bring rain that will quench the lingering fires.
Nearby there is a skirmish in full swing: a dozen soldiers, engaged in a fierce struggle with a handful of Saxa’s tribesmen, while their tied horses prance and rear, wild-eyed with fear of the nearby fire. Saxa, still dragging Kore, runs towards them, shouting orders. Everyone is mounting up, the enemy retreating before the rearing hooves. Saxa leaps onto the horse one of the rebels holds ready for her. Leaning down at a precarious angle, she keeps her hold on Kore as she waits for the others. Kore stares past the milling rebels, never taking her eyes off Crassus, who stands with Caesar in the middle of the chaos, weapons out. Finally, when most of the rebels are mounted and ready to depart, Saxa lets go of Kore’s neck, nudging her between the shoulder blades as she straightens on her horse. Kore runs, stumbling, through the chaos towards Crassus.
“Can you ride?” Castus asks. Sabinus wants to say yes, but he is dizzy just from being on his feet, and the very thought of riding has him feeling sick. “I fear not.”
“You shall ride with me, then. Pretend the plains are ocean and the horse a ship.”
Sabinus cracks a smile, although it pulls in all the wrong places. “I may throw up on you.”
“Ah, the rewards of romance,” Castus grins, and pushes him towards a horse. “Up.”
Crassus’s voice halts him as he digs his hands into the horse’s mane, trying to haul himself up with Castus’s help. “Sabinus.”
Sabinus stops. Despite an impatient grumble, Castus does too, holding him carefully upright as he turns.
Among the chaos of the fire and the running soldiers surrounding them, with Kore by his side, Crassus looks as cool and composed as Sabinus has ever seen him, as if he were preparing oratory at the Senate. The mask is back in place. But it slipped, Sabinus remembers with a flash of perverse pride. I made it slip, and neither of us will forget it.
“You are stripped hereby of civis ius. What property and liberties you held as a Roman citizen are forfeit, as is your life, for the crimes you have committed. From this day forward, you stand no better than a slave branded fugitivus. You are a son of Rome no longer.”
It hurts terribly to smile, and Sabinus isn’t sure it looks any better, but he does anyway, inclining his head in the politest nod he can manage, under the circumstances. Then he rather spoils the effort by spitting his tooth, finally loosened, at Crassus’s feet, along with a glob of blood.
Thunder cracks as they ride away. Soon after, the rain starts to fall, and never stops.
Chapter 17: Vir Integer
Vir integer: a man of integrity; also, a whole man, complete.
He recalls vomiting more than he’d like to admit, the motion of the horse agitating his throbbing head, which in turn takes revenge on his stomach, until all that’s left to bring up is bile. He recalls slumping over the horse’s mane, glad that in the relentless downpour of rain, no one can hear his involuntary noises of utter misery. He recalls pain bleeding into pain – broken ribs jarred constantly by the endless up and down, although Castus bound them on their first brief stop; head bobbing in an endless, nauseating throb, a dozen smaller injuries adding to the tally – and waiting desperately for the intermittent intervals of blessed unconsciousness.
He recalls confusion: asking repeatedly where he is and where they are going, and Castus’s responses getting more concerned the more frequently he has to repeat them. He tries not to ask questions when he realises it’s worrying Castus, then promptly forgets, and has to ask again.
He recalls, through it all, Castus’s arms around him, holding him upright on the horse, urging him to drink water on their brief stops, wiping streaks of vomit from his mouth, telling him over and over again that they are still on a horse, still heading for the rebel camp, that he is still safe.
When they finally stop for a longer rest for the sake of the exhausted horses, he has no idea what time it is. They’ve pulled ahead of the rain, but everyone and everything is soaked, and the sky above them is a dull grey. Sabinus lies where he is dropped, accepts the drink of water Castus forces on him, and curls up on his side, thanking all the gods for the unmoving solidity of the ground.
He drifts off again, as he has done on and off throughout the interminable ride. When he wakes, it’s dark, but even the flicker of a nearby fire proves too much for his watering eyes, and he quickly closes them again. There is a blanket over him, and a warm body pressed against his back. He moves his head experimentally, relieved when it doesn’t seem to pound with pain quite so much.
At his stirring, Castus moves immediately, lifting up on one elbow. “Sabinus? Are you awake?”
“Nghnn.” Everything is damp, but under the thick wool blanket it’s at least somewhat warm. He lets Castus nudge him gently onto his back. “Where are we?”
“In a small valley, resting the horses.” The patient tone suggests he may have explained this before. “We will ride on in a few hours. Will you take food?” The mere thought makes his stomach heave. He mumbles a refusal but accepts the water skin Castus lifts to his lips. Castus supports his head while he drinks, his hand warm against his skull.
“Where is Crassus?” he asks, dropping back to the ground.
Castus moves half on top of him to tuck the damp blanket more securely around him.
“Not here. There was a troop that followed us for a while but we left them behind.”
“Oh.” He lies on his back with his eyes closed, trying to process. “He sentenced me to the fustuarium.” He shudders, remembering, and feels Castus press closer against him.
“I do not know the term.”
“Execution by cudgelling. Like decimation, almost.”
Castus says something coarse under his breath and strokes his cheek in the dark. “You are safe.”
“I tried to get him to kill me,” he confesses, eyes still closed, in a parched croak. “To make it faster, outside of army’s view. And so you would not risk life in needless rescue.”
Castus curses viciously and grasps his head between his hands, tight enough, in his current state, to hurt. “You fool, you arse-headed, noble, stupid fool,” he hisses. “If you had succeeded, I swear… you ass. I could hit you.”
Instead, he peppers him with kisses, furious little pecks that feel as much like an attack as they do a caress, all over his mouth and cheeks and eyes. “Ass,” he repeats, breath hot and angry against Sabinus’s ear. Something smears on his cheek, warm and wet. He’s fairly sure he stopped bleeding a while ago, and it’s no longer raining. Defying the throbbing pain of the muted light, he forces his gummy eyes open, the right still only opening to a reluctant sliver. Castus’s face is right above his, taut with feeling, the black eyes furious and wet. Clumsily, Sabinus reaches up to smooth a tear from his cheek.
“You came after me,” he says, wonderingly.
Castus glares at him through his tears. “Of course I fucking did. I’d come after you to the fucking underworld. I said I would. You boneheaded clod.”
His head aches abominably and Castus’s face keeps blurring alarmingly; his stomach heaves in sickening waves and his broken ribs hurt with every breath he draws. Despite all that, emotion floods him suddenly, remorse and happiness washing together in a dizzying rush of wobbly joy that might, quite frankly, have him throwing up again in short order.
He swallows, lifting his other hand to frame Castus’s face. “Castus. The words we spoke, before I left…”
Castus’s hands are on his own face, gripping hard. “They do not matter now.”
“No, please. They do.” He tightens his grip, forcing his blurring vision to take hold. “I do not know what honour means these days. I struggle. I shall continue to struggle, probably, and be a disagreeable cur about it at times. I do not reasonably know why you would tolerate it”-
“Because I love you, you pompous ass.”
“-but Castus, I do not regard you as lacking in principle. I never have. I am sorry I made you feel it. At times, this past year, you were the only principle that held, when all others had crumbled.” He forces his pounding head high enough to press his lips to Castus’s. “My mad, beautiful pirate. I do love you. I am so sorry.”
Castus makes an exasperated noise and nudges his head back down, his hands gentle despite his tone. “Do not,” he instructs fiercely, “be sorry. Be well.” His lips are soft against Sabinus’s, framed by scratchy stubble and salty wetness.
“I will be,” Sabinus murmurs into his mouth. He still tastes tears when he succumbs to sleep.
The camp has moved again; a patrol meets them long before they reach it, and they are escorted back among much back-pounding and excited exchange of news. No more secret valleys for this army, no more hidey-holes; no more running. They are poised, the sentries tell them, for one final sundering, and one final strike – the warriors to engage Crassus in open battle, and the rest to make their way towards the Alps and freedom.
Sabinus barely takes it in. His blurring vision has improved somewhat and the swelling of his eye is starting to recede, but exhaustion is heightening all his aches, and his head pulses with dull constant pain. As Castus helps him down off the horse, the campfires and excited faces and shouts of greeting all bleed together into a time-lapsed dance of impressions his brain is too slow and sore to put into any semblance of order.
A few faces do stand out: Belesa, running out of the dark and launching herself at him and Castus, wrapping them both in a tight embrace, laughing wildly even though her face is wet with tears. “You mad fuck!” she crows at Castus. “You’ve actually done it!” She kisses them both, then pulls back slightly to gaze at Sabinus, her face filling with dismay at the sight of his injuries. “Apologies,” she says, voice thick, “for doubting you. I saw the folly of it after they took you. It was ill done.”
He swallows and lifts a shoulder. “You had not much prior cause for trusting Romans.”
Her lips compress. “No, but I should have considered your actions, rather than your origin. I should have trusted that I knew you by now. Will you forgive me?”
Although her arms are too tight around Sabinus’s ribs, he smiles at her tiredly and returns her embrace, too raw and grateful to be back for grudges. “Consider it done.”
She breathes a sigh of relief next to his ear. “Gratitude. It lightens heart so, to see you returned. Castus, how did you do it? And where….” She blanches as her gaze moves past them, searching. “Where is Saxa? Is she…”
“Here.” Saxa pushes Castus aside, scowling. “Where is my greeting?” she demands. “I return victorious and you paw at useless men?”
Castus chuckles. “Useless men who are here thanks to you, I know. You would not stop mentioning the fact.”
Belesa lets out a deep, shaky breath and wraps her arms around Saxa. “The gods be blessed. I was in torment every hour. Are you hurt?”
Saxa grins, mock chagrin already forgotten, and kisses her wildly. “Yes. Cunt hurts from being bounced on horse for fucking days. You’ll need to see to it.”
Her hands tangled in Saxa’s windswept hair, Belesa laughs, pressing close against her lover. “My poor warrior queen. I shall, most thoroughly.” She glances back at Castus and Sabinus, frowning slightly as she takes in Sabinus’s sorry state. “He holds a score of injuries. Do you need…?”
Castus waves her away, smiling. “I’ll see to him. Go soothe Saxa’s” – he coughs – “pains.” He wraps his arm more tightly about Sabinus’s hips when he wavers on his feet. “Come. Let’s find you somewhere you can sleep.”
“Sleep,” he mumbles, letting his throbbing head drop against Castus’s neck. “You mean somewhere other than on an infernal horse?”
“I mean on a bed, or as close as we can manage, for as long you need.” Castus brushes a kiss against his brow.
Sabinus shakes his head woozily. “Liar. Such a thing does not exist.”
A soft laugh. “It does. Come and let me prove it.”
“There’s a tent made ready for you,” someone says behind them. Castus turns them both around to face Laeta, whose eyes widen slightly when she sees Sabinus. “Food and water, too. And I will find a healer.”
“Later,” Castus tells her, “he needs sleep, for now. But gratitude, for the shelter. It is much appreciated.”
She nods, smiling cautiously. “Camp runs much less smoothly without you,” she tells Sabinus. “I am glad to see you returned.”
“As am I.” Spartacus has stepped up behind her, looking dusty and grim, but smiling with genuine pleasure as he reaches out to clasp both of them on a shoulder. “I was not certain if we would see either one of you again.”
Sabinus feels Castus tense beside him, drawing himself slightly taller. “I know I broke the terms of your bargain with Crassus.”
Spartacus lifts a brow. “And here I thought you acted in pure innocence of ignorance.”
Castus’s voice is stiff. “If you have punishment in mind, see it done, but you shall have no pretensions of regret. I am content to fight your war with you, but I’d rather be fucked with a goat’s horn than stand by and let the Romans take what I hold to heart in the name of your fucking honour.”
The grim mouth twitches slightly; the hand on Castus’s shoulder tightens. “We shall not trouble any poor goats for their horns, or worry overmuch about my honour. I know I would have broken a thousand bargains to wrest my wife back from enemies’ hands.” He looks between them, gaze softening. “My heart is glad for you that you succeeded.”
Castus relaxes notably, looking slightly stunned. “Oh. That is good to hear. Kore said the prisoners had been returned?”
Spartacus’s smile widens. “Yes. Many of them sorely hurt, but back among our own. In fact…”
Laeta steps in, having noticed Sabinus swaying, and pulls his free arm over her shoulder. “There will be time for talk later,” she interrupts. “Let us see Sabinus to his rest.”
Gratefully, Sabinus lets his mind tune out of the rest of the talk and his eyes drift nearly shut as he is manoeuvred through the camp. A tent flap lifts, and then there is the blessed softness of blankets underneath him, stretched over a pallet made of hides and springy pine boughs. He moans and drops onto it like a sack of grain. Someone asks something, a hand brushing his face, but he is past his capacity. He dives into sleep as into a deep cool lake, letting it wash him clean.
On the second day, when Sabinus wakes up to the euphoric experience of no immediate pain, he wants to get up and about immediately, but Castus and the medicus force him back down, making annoying noises about rest and head injuries and full recovery.
Visitors arrive, in a seemingly endless stream: Spartacus, Gannicus, Saxa and Belesa, Laeta, even Naevia, whose gift of a full wine jug is promptly confiscated by Gannicus, who declares that good wine should not be wasted on people with damaged heads, lest it leak out of their broken skulls. Then, in late afternoon, a light touch rouses Sabinus from a shallow doze, and he blinks up into Nasir’s smiling face. On his other side is Castus, staring beyond Nasir with a wide grin.
“Sabinus. We thought you for the afterlife,” Nasir says. “Welcome back.”
He pushes up onto his elbows, genuinely pleased, and doesn’t even mind when Castus moves immediately to support him. “Nasir! How do you…”
The greeting dies on his lips when he sees someone shift forward next to Nasir, broad shoulders sloping as they tilt towards him. “Jupiter’s cock, your fucking pirate is lucky. I never thought he’d actually succeed in bringing you back.”
Sabinus stares, mouth gaping, at the apparition: Agron, face bruised, one eye still half-swollen in lurid shades of green and yellow, bandages everywhere, but here, alive, grinning like an idiot.
“Agron!” he blurts, sitting ramrod-straight despite his protesting ribs. “You live?”
The bruised face beams at him, although the eyes are hooded. “I am not that easy to kill. Nor, it appears, are you.”
“He returned with released prisoners,” Castus explains. “News was most welcome, although,” he admonishes, with a hard shove against Agron’s shoulder, “take more care next time, you foolish oaf. No one has time to weep for your questionable charms.”
Agron makes a face at him. “Speak for yourself, Cilician shit.”
“Restrain rude tongues, both of you,” Nasir interrupts sharply, “or I will remove you from this tent so Sabinus and I can converse in civilised manner.” He rolls his eyes at Sabinus, who can’t contain himself. At the best of times, it would be amusing to see Agron and Castus, both of whom easily overmatch Nasir in bulk and height, practically cower at his words; in the present circumstances, the image has Sabinus bursting out in delighted laughter.
“You are truly here! Some god must love you,” he exclaims, shifting himself into a more comfortable position and looking Agron over, still stupefied with wonder.
Castus snorts. “A god devoid of sense, perhaps,” he mutters under his breath. “Bacchus, in drunken jest.” Sabinus swats him against the upper arm and reaches out to grasp Agron’s hands. With a soft cry of dismay, Nasir sits forward to fend him off, too late.
Agron hisses and stiffens, hands twitching in Sabinus’s grasp. Belatedly, Sabinus notices the bandages around his hands. He sucks in a breath and transfers his grip, very gently, to Agron’s wrists, turning his hands palms up. Agron, surprisingly, lets him. A tell-tale rose of red blossoms in the centre of each palm, the fingers curving protectively inwards like thorns shielding vulnerable petals. Sabinus stares. He has seen wounds like these, often, though never on one who walks and breathes and makes rude jokes. The nausea that rises slowly from his stomach for a change has nothing to do with his healing head.
He states the obvious, stupidly. “They crucified you.”
Agron jerks his head in a single nod, lips pressed together.
“Your hands. Will they…?”
A shrug. “Caesar said… he said I would never again grasp sword.”
“The healer said otherwise,” Nasir interjects fiercely. “It is too soon to tell. At any rate, you live.”
“I live,” Agron acknowledges, somewhat bleakly.
Sabinus swallows; then does it again, because it would not do to throw up. Castus shifts beside him, placing a hand unobtrusively on his back. He’s grateful for its solid warmth. He still holds Agron’s wrists. Not too long ago, he knows, he would have felt referred guilt, the shame of Rome’s crimes pushing heavy on his shoulders. But such feelings are for Romans, which he would be no longer even if Crassus had not revoked his civis ius. Right now, he only feels a slow, controlled fury. He tightens his fingers slightly around Agron’s wrists and looks up into the man’s face. He knows the gashes and bruises there are a mirror of his own. Beside Agron, Nasir has leaned in close, a hand curving around Agron’s nape, his long hair brushing against his lover’s arm. His gaze is sharp as jagged gold topaz, a bulwark between Agron and the least attempt at pity.
Pity is not what Sabinus feels.
“We shall make them pay,” he says, to those damaged hands, to the bruised gaze of the broken warrior before him, to the private, protective tilt of Nasir’s body. It’s a strange thing, to discover affinity retroactively; to realise only now the strength of a bond of kinship that stretches back weeks, months, while he never noticed it building. Blown together from strange corners of the world, they are the same just now, the four of them: propelled by the same strange alchemy of love and defiance, perfectly aligned.
At his side, Castus moves, then stops, hesitating, until Nasir reaches out his free hand and clasps wrists with him. They all sit, for a suspended moment, touching, in a small circle of acknowledgement, four pairs of eyes moving, meeting one another’s.
“We shall make them pay,” Nasir echoes, his fierce gaze on Sabinus’s. Beside Sabinus, Castus nods, wordless for once, and Agron barks a grim laugh.
“The gods help Rome.”
“If they do, we shall bring them down too,” Sabinus says, meaning it.
His idle steps lead him to a river bank, lined with willows. In several places along the embankment, he can hear laughter and splashing noises: people taking a rare opportunity for a proper wash. He decides spontaneously to follow their example. After days on his sickbed, he feels not just grimy but rigid and sore with lingering aches. It would be heavenly to feel truly clean.
He wanders up the stream a ways until he finds an unclaimed spot where the water has carved into the bank so that it almost forms a pond there, deep enough to float. The branches of a willow dangle down, their ends drifting lazily in the moonlit water, providing a screen of sorts. Sabinus pauses for a moment, listening intently into the night. He’s well upstream of the camp, perhaps unwisely so. The rebels have moved several times and he has no idea how far Crassus’s army is.
But he hears nothing, and the temptation of the clean dark water is too much. He strips quickly and places his clothes in a neatly folded pile, with his unravelled bandages on top. Freed, his cracked ribs ache, but when he fingers the bruises gingerly, nothing seems to be poking out that ought not. He wades into the water, sighing when he sinks in to the neck. The water is spring-chilly, perhaps carrying ice-melt from the not too distant Alps, but it’s sheer bliss to be submerged. Briefly, it occurs to him how far a cry it is from a Roman bath, the neatly tiled square of a caldarium with its expertly heated water. He snorts to himself, then sinks below the surface, scooping up some coarse river sand to scrub his grimy scalp.
For a while, he is consumed with getting clean: skin, hair, even his teeth when he finds the good fortune of several mint plants at the water’s edge. Along with old sweat and dirt, days-old blood crusts loosen and sluice away, leaving him still sore but markedly improved. Ablutions done and warmed from the rigorous scrubbing, he floats idly on his back, gazing up into the soft crepuscule of the willow branches, which shift every now and then to reveal the sharper blackness of the night sky, dotted with fierce stars.
Between the soothing rustle of the willow and the murmur of the stream, he doesn’t hear the approaching footsteps; the raised voice of a greeting startles him badly enough that he flails in the water, spluttering when it gets up his nose.
Eventually he finds his feet and glares at Castus, who’s crouched on his haunches on the shore, laughing at him. “For a moment, I believed I’d glimpsed some rare river spirit glimmering in the moonlight, but alas. Closer inspection reveals but a grunting hog out for a wallow.”
Sabinus scoops up water to splash at him. “You startled me, you ass.”
More chortling laughter drifts to him. “A hog and an ass, out for a late-night tryst among concealing shadows. There is a tale in there.”
Sabinus rolls his eyes, although he’s grinning now too. “Not a tale worth the telling, from the sounds of it. How did you find me?”
“You were seen, heading upstream. Are you well enough to be splashing about so? Your ribs-”
“Are fine.” After almost a week of coddling, Sabinus is thoroughly tired of it. “Are you coming in?”
A horse nickers softly, unseen, and he tenses. Castus rises. “It’s mine; I rode here. Just a moment.” He disappears for a moment, then returns with a saddle bag which he drops on the ground. As his eyes adjust, Sabinus can just make out the horse now, a dark bulk by the willow’s trunk, shifting occasionally. Then his eyes are drawn back to Castus who is undressing swiftly before stepping up to the river’s edge and diving in, so smoothly he barely raises a ripple in the water’s surface.
Smiling, Sabinus waits for him to come up; waits, and waits some more. As the moments pass, he starts turning in the water, staring uneasily at the calm surface. “Castus?” The water’s deep right off the edge; surely he can’t have hit his head underwater. Can he? “Castus!”
He’s just sucked in a breath for diving when a hand grabs his ankle, yanking the river bottom out from under him. He goes under with a yelp and comes back up spluttering, grasping for the slippery shape that angles past him in the water. A sleek head comes up briefly, teeth gleaming in the darkness, before he is gone again. Sabinus throws himself after with a shout of challenge, but gets only the briefest grip on a bare leg before Castus slides out of his grasp. Again and again he tries to tackle him, and fails. From the smooth movement up and under the surface, you’d think there were half a dozen men in the pond with him, or maybe half a dozen eels. The chase goes on for some time, a splashing, noisy affair that must be audible for miles, but just now Sabinus does not care about the prudence of stealth; he’s having too much fun. In the end he gives up and laughs, breathless, as Castus swims circles around him.
“What are you, half sea-otter or some mer-creature out of Circe’s retinue?” he demands when eventually that sleek dark head bobs up again, up to his chin in water. “Must I make some infernal bargain with you to approach?”
A glint of smile, then Castus dives again, this time surfacing just in front of him. “No, river princeling. You, I shall come to willingly.” Arms slide around his waist, the skin still warm despite the chill river water. Sabinus smiles and presses close, enjoying the sensation of bare limbs drifting against his, soft water rippling between them. Castus walks his hands up his back to cup his shoulders, leaning in to kiss one. His lips move inwards along Sabinus’s collarbones until they brush against the gold chain of his necklace.
Sabinus reaches up. “I should return this to you,” he says, fingering the red stone at his neck. He has not taken it off since that desperate day when Castus thrust it on him. It’s strange how quickly it has become a familiar weight; when he lifts the pendant and the half-moon torque attached to it, the skin beneath feels naked.
Castus stops him with his fingertips atop his hand, stroking gently. “No. It was a gift. I want you to keep it.” His lip quirks in a half-smile. “It seems to have held you in good stead.”
“Indeed. Like all things to do with you.”
A breeze wafts aside the willow branches, revealing the gleam of Castus’s smile. Sabinus stares at his quirked mouth, the affection warm on his face. He leans in abruptly, pressing his lips into that dimpled smile, trying to catch it. He yanks Castus close; the feel of sleek skin and muscles beneath his hands sends his head into a giddy spin of want.
Castus shivers in his arms, burrowing closer. “This water is too fucking cold.” Despite the words, Sabinus can feel him hardening against his thigh. He grins, pulling him closer still, and starts to wade backwards, towards the shore. “That can be helped,” he murmurs, between kisses.
They topple to the soft shore grass, Sabinus on top. He can’t stop kissing Castus; it’s as if he is parched, and Castus’s mouth the only source of water. He thrusts greedily with his tongue, groaning when Castus’s mouth opens sweetly, tongue twining with his. Their lips slide over each other, inside each other. He’s not quite sure how he’s lived so many years without the constant joy of kissing.
Sabinus presses down into the cradle of Castus’s hips, and gasps when Castus opens his legs, inviting him in closer. From half-arousal, he swells to full hardness within seconds, his cock heavy and primed. He moans into Castus’s mouth and thrusts with tongue and hips, needing to be closer, closer.
“Sabinus.” Castus tears his mouth away, breathing heavily. His hands flex and relax on Sabinus’s hips in quick succession. “Are you sure? Your head-”
“Fuck my head,” Sabinus growls, latching onto the soft skin beneath Castus’s ear and sucking, hard. Castus gasps, laughter bubbling through.
“Fuck your head? I will if you want me to but” – he sucks in air sharply when Sabinus ruts against him – “it does seem like you had other plans.”
He whimpers, unable to stop the rocking motion of his hips. He’s close already, feeling the urge to come deep in his balls, a heavy ache, turgid with pleasure that he longs to spill. The night air is cool against his wet back but the skin is drying fast, and he is covering Castus head to toe, a bulwark between him and the breeze.
In the semi-dark beneath the willow branches, Castus’s eyes are black and bottomless, his body a thing of sinuous and eager beauty. Almost, Sabinus could believe them to be two spirits of the waters, one of the Tiber he’s grown up with, deep but freshwater and familiar, the other of the wide fathomless sea, salty and enchanting. And yet, he’s here, rising eagerly to Sabinus’s body, not fleeing like the spirits of the sea are wont to. Sabinus pushes down, anchoring him.
Castus bucks his hips. “The small brown vial,” he gasps, one hand flailing towards a saddle bag nearby. “Oil.”
Sabinus scrambles for it, not caring how desperate he looks. By the time he has dug out the small earthenware vial and returned to the pallet, Castus has sprawled on the grass, knees bent. Sabinus has to pause a moment to stare, eyes glued to the moon-kissed lines of Castus’s body. Naked, still gleaming with residual wetness, he is magnificent; a vision of smooth brown skin, stretched over bulging muscle. Legs spread, he palms his cock, a frustratingly elusive motion in the sparse light, barely a hint of knuckles and taut flesh, stretched and gleaming.
“Give me that,” he commands hoarsely, and Sabinus hurries to comply, pouring thick oil over Castus’s outstretched fingers. The scent of olive oil and musk rises between them. His mouth drops open as Castus reaches down, behind his balls, slick fingers seeking and probing. It’s too dark to truly see, yet Sabinus stares avidly, watching the long fingers disappear as Castus spreads himself.
Belatedly, it occurs to him that there are more useful things he could be doing, other than watching. He leans over Castus, pressing close. Not sure where to start, his gaze drops to Castus’s heaving chest, the thin sheen of sweat in the dip between his pectorals. He lowers his head to lick at it, enjoying the salty taste in his mouth; enjoying even more the hitch of breath in Castus’s chest. He drags his open mouth across Castus’s sternum, and closes his lips on a nipple. It tautens immediately beneath the wet caress, and Castus makes a sobbing noise. Encouraged, Sabinus tightens his mouth and sucks at the pebbled flesh, loving the way the small nub hardens further in his mouth. He transfers his attentions to the other nipple; feels Castus jerk beneath him, and eagerly gropes between his legs. The rush of heat when he encounters Castus’s pumping fingers is nearly too much; with one hand, he grasps the base of his own cock to forestall climax, while with the other he cups Castus’s balls, gently rolling them between his fingers.
He slithers hastily down Castus’s torso until his head is framed by those tense thighs. One hand still between Castus’s legs, he dips his head in the near-darkness until his searching lips encounter the stiffness of Castus’s shaft. Castus cries out, a soft, broken sound that encourages Sabinus to go deeper, sliding his mouth down until he’s nearly at the root. Castus is hot and firm inside his lips, tasting faintly of river water, and his own musk. Sabinus tightens his lips and sucks, relishing the jerks and mutters of reaction, the taut flesh filling his mouth.
He sneaks back his index finger, nudging at where Castus is plunging his fingers into himself. Castus makes room for him and he slips in a finger too, entranced at the sensation: Castus’s finger next to his, both of them inside tight, oiled heat, while Castus’s flavour sharpens in his mouth. He adds another finger and spreads them inside. Castus’s back arches beneath him, pushing himself deeper into his mouth. Sabinus obliges, sucking hard, breathing through his nose.
Castus curses, panting. “Sabinus. Gods. Stop, I want… Put it in me.”
He has been rutting, almost unconsciously, against the hard muscle of Castus’s calf, his cock leaking until the smooth skin is slippery with it; but at the breathless plea, he pushes up, bracing on one elbow while his other hand cradles his cock. He is so close he has to squeeze again, thinking desperately of cold baths, stock-taking, leprosy. When he is reasonably certain that he will not promptly burst like a green boy, he grasps for the vial, drizzling the leftover oil on his shaft with trembling fingers.
Castus helps guide him; at the first slick push, both of them moan, then sputter laughter at the unplanned coordination. Castus’s hand grasps at Sabinus’s neck, pulling his forehead down to his own. “I want to feel you,” he whispers, damp against Sabinus’s lips.
Groaning, Sabinus pushes, his head spinning at the sensation of slick heat, tight and soft at the same time. He has to pull back and nudge forward again a few times, sinking deeper each time; then finally he is rooted there, his balls resting heavily against the curves of Castus’s arse. Castus has tensed up, he realises. “Wait,” he grinds out, teeth digging into his lower lip. Small beads of sweat have broken out on his forehead. “Wait… no, do not pull out, just let me have a moment.”
Sabinus waits, braced on trembling arms, feeling Castus’s hand on his nape, the other on his arse, arresting him there. He feels like all of him is concentrated in his cock, his entire essence a tight, throbbing coil waiting for release.
Breathing harshly, Castus is watching him, bright moonlight on his face, gaze glittering under his thick lashes, pupils dilated. Tingling with tension, Sabinus stares back, suspended in the hold of those eyes, the tight grip of this body. He watches the flutter of Castus’s lashes as he breathes deeply, the movement of his Adam’s apple as he swallows, trying to adjust. Sabinus can’t look away; for a moment looking feels more naked than bare skin, more intimate than fucking. They are tangled up in each other: waiting, breathless, exposed.
Then Castus releases a tiny, controlled sigh and moves minutely, unclenching; slowly his toned thighs drop wide, a deliberate surrender that blurs Sabinus’s mind with dizzy, aching need. He hooks one leg around Sabinus’s hip. “Now. Fuck me,” he breathes into his mouth.
Sabinus fucks him, slowly at first, cautious of causing hurt, but soon Castus is panting beneath him, urging him with hands and stuttered words to go harder. Sabinus obeys, increasing his pace; his hips lift and slam down in a primal rhythm, each thrust a wet smack of flesh against sweaty flesh. His ribs ache but it’s a remote pain, irrelevant to the present moment. Castus is rising to meet him now, muttering obscenities as he presses closer on each thrust, demanding more. Sabinus holds onto his shoulders and angles his hips, grinning delightedly when Castus’s head drops back and a broken cry emerges from his lips; yes, there. He targets the spot, again and again, until he feels Castus’s body drawing taut as a bow beneath him, back arching, mouth going slack. Rubbing against his stomach, Castus’s cock jerks, hot slick spreading against Sabinus’s straining belly in several long spurts; his body tightens around him in a vice-like grip.
Sabinus digs his teeth into his lower lip as he waits out the convulsions, the almost unbearable stimulation of tight heat clenching; then he takes up the pace again, fucking fast and desperate, without rhythm now, until everything inside him coils and releases. He climaxes with a rough shout, shoving deep as he spills, the pleasure whitening out his vision for a moment: pearlescent light inside his clenched lids, like pulsing moonlight. From afar, he hears Castus encourage him, feels his hands on his buttocks, pulling him deep. He spurts so hard he can feel it escaping while he is still inside, a slow, slippery spill between their thighs.
He collapses on top of Castus, eyes closed, gasping for breath. He rises and falls gently with the movement of Castus’s chest and closes his eyes, enjoying the gentle rocking; enjoying, too, the sensation of Castus’s fingers leisurely stroking his wet hair.
A soft chuckle disturbs the soft rhythm of their breathing. “What?” he mumbles, eyes closed, smiling without knowing why.
Castus’s lips ghost against his temple, a warm, gentle press. “That was… energetic. How is your head?”
He chortles; his ribs are fiery with pain but he can’t quite bring himself to care. “My head is fine. I believe everything else is gone for good. I cannot feel my legs.”
Castus laughs soundlessly, another heave of his chest. “Give them time. Oof – move off, I cannot breathe.”
He slumps gracelessly to the side, reaching out to pull Castus close. He rolls easily towards him, head against the curve where Sabinus’s neck meets his shoulder. The wiry curls tickle Sabinus’s lips. He gives a mumble of contentment, and wraps his arms around the solid and yet boneless frame. Castus presses a kiss against his collarbone. “We should clean up.”
“Indeed. We’re using your shirt this time.”
Castus snorts. “Beloved fool. We have a river.”
As soon as he is able, he throws himself into his former tasks, working tirelessly with Laeta to keep the camp organised. Food is sparser now that they are back on the plains, and water sources need to be kept far from the latrines. On top of that, there’s the division of stores necessitated by the upcoming split of the vast army between those going north towards the Alps, and those preparing to face Crassus in open battle. Laeta, as one of the former, is in charge of gathering provisions for an arduous trek across the mountains.
Sabinus will be among the latter group. There has been no discussion of it, no moment of choice apart from that brief connection in their tent with Agron and Nasir. Castus and he never even speak of it, not even when they sharpen their weapons together, or spar; but the coming battle is a knowledge in his blood, rising like fever.
“I yet recall when first I saw you in that pose. Shivering in snow, face grim with frowning, and asking life’s questions of a pebble.”
Sabinus smiles weakly. “It seems a long time ago.”
“Indeed.” Castus comes to sit by him on their pallet. As ever, he looks younger without his headdress; there’s something endearing, almost vulnerable, about the curve of his dark bare skull, leaning close. “Share thoughts?” The words are soft, more offering than question. Sabinus leans into him a little, just the merest touch along their sides. He shrugs.
“They are the same old thoughts, really. Returning, every so often, like crows to old battlegrounds, to pick once again over the bones, no matter how well stripped of flesh. I would not be here if he had not died. Yet I am happy, here, now. Sometimes I wonder if I ought to be. What if it had been me who died, as I was meant to? He would have been in better position to change the course of this rebellion. Perhaps not so many would have died. Perhaps it would be over by now. What if by living instead of him, I tilted everything onto some course that was not meant to be?”
The words keep coming out, not rushing, but in a measured stream, unstoppable. Castus listens attentively and pauses for a while when Sabinus is done, in uncharacteristic silence. Eventually he lifts one shoulder, half shrug, half nudge against Sabinus’s own.
“It does not do to measure the world in stillborn possibilities, my love. You are here now, and he would not begrudge you happiness, would he?”
Tiberius’s face floats once again before his mind’s eye: the stubborn mouth, the dark eyes often hooded by a frown. But as he tries to recall each feature, the grim brows loosen and the eyes shine with remembered generosity, thoughtless and flashfire. The wide mouth shifts into a carefree smile.
He shakes his head, slowly. “He would not have understood it, at all. But no, I do not think he would begrudge it.”
He holds out his palm, feeling the small familiar weight on it. “You changed its meaning, you know.”
“Oh? How so?”
“When Tiberius took my death, this was all that was left of me. When Crassus killed him… he decimated me.” That word, so bleakly fitting, so bitter as it leaves his mouth. He tries to lighten it with a smile but it feels twisted on his face. He places a finger on the white stone cupped in his hand, delineating the rim.
“You brought me back, from this. Just a rock in the wrong place, but you made me fit. Made me wish to live again.”
Castus shakes his head. “You brought yourself back, Roman boy. I merely gave a nudge or two along the way.” His fingers close warmly over Sabinus’s, tucking the white stone out of sight. Sabinus lets him.
The day has been the length of two days, really. The camp moved early yesterday, then they were out on campaign in the north, overrunning a small fortified town. There was scattered fighting throughout the night, interspersed with an hour or two of sleep, then another skirmish in the morning, further north still, and then the long trek back to camp. Now it’s evening again, and they are grouped about a fire, sharing charred goat’s meat, olive bread and jugs of diluted wine: Gannicus, Nasir, Saxa, Castus, and Sabinus, all of them sprawling exhaustedly. They’re joined by Belesa, who brought the food and wine, and Agron, who is at his grumpiest because he was not allowed to ride out as well.
“I was,” Nasir responds to Belesa’s question, and Gannicus promptly cackles.
“I believe they were most confused,” he says, “to find the great Spartacus a tiny man of treacherous Syria, prettier than a girl. Fortunate thing that most of them were too busy dying to wonder.”
Agron sits up in automatic defence of his lover, face already dark, but Nasir forestalls him with a laugh of his own. “He stood not much taller when you played the man yourself, Gannicus. And do not discredit yourself,” he leans forward, patting Gannicus consolingly on the knee, “I am sure survivors will speak for generations of the night your Spartacus came to raid, felling men quick as lightning lest the exertion muss his glorious locks.”
They all laugh at that, Gannicus loudest of all.
Saxa glowers from where she’s sprawled across Belesa’s lap. “I do not get turn. Most unfair.”
Castus inclines his head to her, a gesture of genuine respect, although he’s smiling. “You would make most fearsome Spartacus of all. But it would stretch limits of credibility, I fear.”
“I take it you balanced scale of injustice by slaughtering more Romans than anyone,” Belesa says dryly. Saxa grins and tugs her down by the hair, kissing her thoroughly. Belesa makes a muffled sound when Saxa’s hand slips up her dress. Everyone else looks discreetly away.
“I could have been Spartacus,” Agron grumbles. “No fighting required for that, only looking as if bowels are blocked up with righteousness.” His bandaged hands are in splints to stretch out the fingers, twitching restlessly in his lap. Nasir places a hand on top of them. “The risk was too great. Someone who saw you when you stood prisoner might have recognised you. We spoke of this,” he adds firmly, nudging Agron with a shoulder. Agron makes a face, not looking particularly consoled.
Across the fire, Nasir meets Sabinus’s eyes and shrugs. “Sabinus,” he says loudly, making no effort to disguise his pointed change of topic. “This Pompey, bringing down the northern force. Have you met him?”
Sabinus clears his throat. “Only once, at one of Crassus’s functions in Rome. It seems a lifetime ago.” Yet he recalls the evening clearly: Tiberius and him, strutting in their new togae viriles, their heads nearly imploding with too much sweetened wine and their own sense of sudden importance; the grand house buzzing with important visitors, a heady flood of colours and perfumes; and in the peristylium, Tertulla’s pealing laugh as she and her husband entertained their illustrious guest.
Nasir is leaning forward. “What kind of man is he?”
“A peacock, aptly named,” Sabinus responds. “His toga was aquamarine and purple, with gilt embroidery and ermine lining, and his hair dyed gold.” He grins as he remembers how they giggled at the improbable stiff curls. “But that was long ago, and I don’t think anyone can discredit the man’s military accomplishments. He’s not called the hero of Hispania for idle flattery.”
“Will he swallow our fable of Spartacus being everywhere, do you think?” This from Agron, interested despite his foul mood.
Sabinus shrugs. “Your guess stands equal to my own, but I would call him easier target for such schemes than Crassus. He has shown prowess at strategy against enemies abroad, but I do not believe he would credit a force like ours – made up of slaves and rebels, on Rome’s own soil – with clever tactics. He will be confused by conflicting reports.”
“If we can keep him confused for long enough to deal with Crassus, it will be best outcome we can hope for,” Nasir states, idly drawing patterns in the soil with a stick.
Gannicus’s laugh rings with genuine pleasure. “We shall deal with Crassus, and wipe up Pompey on the way. Neither of them are properly prepared for what they’re dealing with.”
The casual confidence has Sabinus uneasy. Beside him, Castus shifts, leaning forward. “Where will you go, after?” he asks Gannicus. “If victory is as easy prospect as you think, you must have made plans, great God of the Arena.” He grins, mocking, although there’s no true heat to the tease.
Gannicus grins back, gesturing expansively with his wine jug. “Perhaps I shall return to Britannia. The greedy hand of Rome has not gripped hold there yet, although it certainly is trying. I should take great pleasure in chopping off grasping fingers. There is fine fighting at the ports, they say.” Across the fire, he winks at Saxa, whose attention has been caught by the mention of fighting. “You should come, too. I’ve often thought it just the land for you.”
Saxa sits up and leans forward with glinting eyes. Beside her, Belesa squares her shoulders, frowning. “Not all of us are mad enough to seek more fighting after this is over.”
Gannicus chortles into his wine, gesturing at Saxa. “That one will always seek more fighting. How can you share her bed and not have learned that much about her?”
From idle banter, the mood has somehow shifted towards more dangerous territory. Gannicus and Belesa stare at each other while Saxa gazes back and forth between them, not saying anything to break the tension. She looks like a great cat revelling in the attention.
Rescue from awkwardness comes from unexpected quarters: Spartacus, looming suddenly out of the dark. “Gannicus. I have been looking for you. I require you.”
Gannicus throws wide his arms in theatric ecstasy. “The gods be praised! You save me from languishing among happy pairs of lovers, the only one uncoupled. It is enough to make any man’s soul wither.”
Agron laughs at him, making no move to untangle from Nasir, who’s sprawled against his side. “Apologies. We thought you just as delightedly paired, from the way you clutch that wine jug. But I can go fetch you a goat, if you prefer.” He feints an attempts at getting up.
Gannicus makes a rude gesture. “Keep your goats for your own pleasure. I have the great man on the hill himself requiring my services.” He leers outrageously up at Spartacus, who despite the thought furrows on his brow looks mildly amused.
“Firstly, I require your head-”
“Oh yes, that’s what they all say.”
“…and then you may ply other parts,” Spartacus finishes dryly, bending to yank Gannicus up by the arm. “In truth, I doubt the experience shall live up to fabled rumours, but do feel free to prove me wrong.”
Gannicus wags his tongue. “Oh, I shall, mighty Spartacus. I shall.”
The laughter follows them as they disappear into the darkness.
“The battle is tomorrow.”
“I thought that after…”
Castus moves suddenly in front of him, grasping his arms. His mouth is tense with determination, the dark eyes glittering. “Remember when we were aboard Siren?”
Sabinus grins, knowing he’s blushing, and not truly caring. He runs his hands over Castus’s hips, then to the front, tracing the inked lines on his stomach. “How could I forget?”
Castus’s mouth quirks, but he shakes his head. “No, the first time. When first you said you, too, might wish you could sail away. Will you?”
“What do you mean?”
“When the fighting is done. Let’s do it. Come sail away with me.” Castus’s grip on him is tight, every inch of him fired by some inner passion that stirs Sabinus too, unfailingly, alarming him with its intensity. His heart pounds. “Where?”
Castus smiles, tense and fierce. “Wherever we wish to, Roman boy. Wherever the winds will take us. It needn’t be as pirates. I told you before I have no care for that. We can be as honest as you like, as long as you’ll come with me. Will you?”
He’s overwhelmed, for a second, by the sheer tenacity. He wants, almost, to ask how it’s possible for one man to hold no doubts that there will be a tomorrow, a future beyond this endless, savage, desperate war. He holds back the question only because he’s reasonably sure by now, that he knows this man a little, and that the appearance of certainty is nothing like the real thing. Castus may doubt, as he himself does endlessly, agonisingly; but for Castus the acknowledgement of doubt would only make it real in a way it was not before. It’s like a spell, some magic woven by favourable winds and sea nymphs. Believe, and it will happen.
His answer is taking too long; Castus’s smile has fallen, his expression shifting towards doubt, that fatal flaw. “Will you?” he asks, almost forlornly, a third time, and Sabinus drags him close wildly, sealing his lips with his own. “I will,” he murmurs between kisses. “Anywhere you want to go, I will. I will.”
Chapter 18: My Course Is Set for An Uncharted Sea
(Title: Dante Alighieri)
Sabinus watches, throat tight, as the rebels thank Spartacus, grateful hands brushing him in passing. He watches Spartacus walking among them, grasping each pair of hands in earnest appreciation. In the brisk morning light, he gleams like newly minted coins, impressing his own likeness onto their surface. He looks invincible, as Sabinus supposes leaders ought to; yet he can almost make out, just beneath the surface, the shape of a man, still young, bowed low with too much responsibility. Hercules went mad, he recalls, driven by the jealousy of a goddess.
Yet the man straightens before the army; shoulders tense but square, visibly equal to the challenge, with his strategies already placed. Sabinus breathes more easily. If ever he has known a man less dependent on the caprice of the gods, there he stands: the thorn in the side of mighty Rome, burrowing deep.
It’s not the worst device for Spartacus to assess his enemy’s character, he supposes.
Accompanied by grim-eyed Caesar and a sparse guard, Crassus is waiting for them. He almost passes the test: his steel-grey eyes take in Spartacus’s companions dispassionately, frowning minutely but passing over Naevia and Agron. Then his eyes snag on Sabinus, and for a tell-tale second his face ripples, sneering. He turns away abruptly, towards the man before him.
“Spartacus. Almost, I had you built up in my mind as a man of honour, yet now I see you surround yourself with traitors.”
Spartacus’s mouth moves faintly, not enough for a smile. “You have the wrong of it. I surround myself with men and women who make their own choices, free from the shackles of Rome.”
Crassus sighs, turning towards the vista before them: two armies, taking their positions. Sabinus remembers the Crassus of his youth just then, the smiling man who loved to place game pieces on a map before Tiberius and him, challenging them to predict their motions. How strange, that such games were permitted, while sleight of hand with coins was not.
“Have you ever witnessed such a thing?” Crassus asks Spartacus. “So many hearts, beating towards inevitable end?”
Spartacus seems disinclined towards sharing sentiments with his enemy. “Why did you call me here, Crassus?”
“The same reason you came. Curiosity.”
“Well, has it been satisfying?”
“We've vexed each other for many months,” Crassus acknowledges. “Both suffering grievous wound upon effort. Yet have never broken single word.”
“There are none that would hold difference,” Spartacus tells him, unimpressed.
“Perhaps. Yet I would still have them regardless.” Crassus turns sharply towards his escort. “Leave us.”
“Imperator,” Caesar objects. Crassus cuts him off curtly. “Fall to command.”
The Romans start to withdraw; half-turning, Spartacus gestures at his own escort to do the same. As they turn to leave, Sabinus lingers, compelled by he knows not what. The past, perhaps. He is not surprised to feel Crassus’s eyes on him. For a long moment, they measure each other. Sabinus registers, not for the first time, the echoes Tiberius’s face held of this one: the wide mouth, the determined brow. Eyes the wrong colour, but the same fierce focus in them.
“You have escaped your death too long, Sabinus,” Crassus tells him gravely but coolly, almost absent-minded. “I shall see it delivered on the field.”
Sabinus inclines his head. “And I hope yours finds you many years from now, peacefully in your bed.” He smiles, deliberately, at the small frown of confusion on Crassus’s face, the sharp spin of attention swivelling back to him. “When I first turned from Rome, it was my goal to see you dead, Imperator. To right the wrongs that you had done. But now – I wish only that you may live a long, long time. In full remembrance of past events.”
They sky is capricious above them today: clouds chasing sunshine, the threat of rain not far. It recalls to Sabinus the skies of another time, a day that hangs between him and Crassus almost palpably, a thick miasma of remembrance. Crassus’s command. The rattle of small pebbles, unseen in their rough pouches. A white stone, and a black. Sabinus watches the knowledge in Crassus’s eyes, a wound beyond healing, self-inflicted. He bows, with a flourish he learned from Castus.
“A long life, Imperator,” he says, and turns away.
It is the last time he sees Marcus Licinius Crassus.
How did I come to this?
From some distant shore of memory, Tiberius frowns at him, utterly puzzled. For years, they trained to be in a war just like this one: but the snarling enemy across the lines were wild barbarians, not the orderly ranks of red-dyed leather, square shields and polished steel. Briefly, before his mind’s eye, he sees Rome herself gleaming behind the neat ranks of her soldiers: white and shimmering on her seven hills, despite the overcast, throwing her own light. Why would you do this, treasured son?
Nothing specific draws him back. He blinks, the mirage dissolves, and he knows himself again: only a man, with loyalties too specific and too private for the vast mantle of Rome. She would cover him, even now, if he but promised to go down on his knees and recant. Oh, he would die, screaming under the justice of the civis ius; but he would die clean.
He finds he has no desire for the salvation she offers; his truths have grown too complex for the deceptively soothing order begot of Rhea Silvia’s daughter. His face ripples as he opens his mouth and roars, along with his companions, throwing himself into the fray.
But it’s not given to him, and so he sticks to the things he knows: focus, don’t lose your nerve, don’t expose your back, protect your comrades. It’s as much as he can do. Both armies are vast, and beyond the initial triumph of their attack, with hundreds of Romans dying in Spartacus’s cunning trench or on their stakes, he has no idea how their strategies are playing out. He hopes to the gods that Spartacus and Gannicus do.
Castus is by his side, swinging his square-tipped blade with deadly precision. Nearby he can sometimes make out Nasir’s lithe form, spinning and stabbing his long spear, and Agron’s roaring bulk as he smashes soldiers on his makeshift weapon. How the man is holding his own with recently crucified hands, never mind felling enemies by the dozens, Sabinus has no idea, but he’s very glad to be on the same side. The four of them fight in a loose circular formation, backs to each other, driving the Romans back. Sabinus’s sword arm is long tired, aggravated by his aching ribs, and his eyes sting with sweat and blood. The air is thick with dust and battle cries, the screams of horses and the moans of the dying. But that’s before the ballistae, before the air starts whistling with projectiles and the ground thuds with the impact of deadly balls of fire. That’s before the world turns into flame-wreathed butchery.
He’s unbearably hot, although his armour is light; the Romans must be boiling inside their helmets. Breathing heavily and almost gagging on the taste of blood and the smell of roasting flesh, Sabinus briefly wonders if this is what the underworld will be like: a vast, roaring cauldron of endless, churning death. He has no idea how long they’ve been fighting. There seems to be no lessening of strength among either force. There’s nothing for it but to keep on fighting, so he does, terrified but as clear-headed as he can be, until the rider heads for Castus.
He barely hears the warning cry from Nasir before he spins, sword raised, against the oncoming Roman soldier on horseback. All the man’s attention is focused on Castus, who has just dispatched two soldiers; he doesn’t even hear Sabinus’s outraged shout of challenge. Teeth set, Sabinus throws himself forward. The very world seems to slow before his gaze, reduced to the oncoming rider’s arm raised in attack, the slow, graceful spin of Castus’s torso as he is alerted, too late, to the gathering presence at his back. As the Roman’s sword slashes down, Sabinus shouts a wordless challenge and slams into him sideways, horse and all. He’s not quite fast enough to throw off the blade entirely, but enough to absorb the full weight of impact, which jolts his ribs into a bright throb of agony that briefly steals his breath. Somewhere off to his left, Sabinus hears Castus cry out in pain. The sound fires his blood to a boil: snarling, he hacks at the Roman’s leg, his free arm dragging the man off his mount. His blade rises and falls, rises and falls, until there isn’t more than a bloody pile left at his feet.
“Sabinus!” Castus’s voice, breathless. Blinking, Sabinus sees him hovering near, eyes intent, the enemy’s bridle wrapped about his fist. The horse tries to rear, wild-eyed, but Castus keeps it low. All Sabinus can see is the gash of red across Castus’s chest, a neat, diagonal line from shoulder to hip bone, bypassing the nipple his lips have caressed, the sculpted muscles his fingers have mapped so many nights. The primal offence at the notion that anyone tried to sever that treasured flesh roars up like wildfire: with a hoarse cry, he raises his sword again and stabs it into the red mess at his feet.
Nasir and Agron arrive before he’s even caught his breath: Agron standing wide-legged and snarling, holding off attackers, while Nasir clasps Castus’s shoulder.
Sabinus is still hacking at the still body at his feet; he doesn’t hear himself screaming until Nasir grasps his arm, pulling it back. “Sabinus! Cease efforts. The man is quite dead.”
He whirls around, staring madly into Nasir’s eyes: grim but calm, even beneath the splatter of blood on his face. Beyond him, Castus reaches out, eyes wide and alert. “Sabinus.”
Sabinus drops to his knees beside the dead soldier, gasping for breath as the pain in his chest catches up with him. Then Castus is there, warm hands on his shoulders. “Sabinus. Look at me.”
Sabinus raises his eyes, with difficulty. Just in front of them is the slow drip of blood down Castus’s chest. He makes a low, hoarse sound, reaching out. Nasir grasps for his wrist, but Castus stops him, pulling Sabinus’s palms close against the oozing slash. “It’s just a scratch, beloved,” he whispers, lips close and warm against Sabinus’s ear. “It’s alright. You stopped him. Breathe.”
Harsh gasps reverberate in Sabinus’s ear, distracting until he realises they are his own. It is just a slash: beneath his twitching fingers, the thin red line is neat and shallow, the oozing blood already clotting. Castus grasps his hand more tightly. His other hand still holds the frightened horse.
Sabinus looks up, blinking sweat out of his eyes. There is a momentary space in the fighting just around them, but beyond that, the battle rages as fiercely as before. Nasir is already on his feet again, following Agron, who is roaring at the three or four Romans he is holding off, as if he could simply terrify them into dying.
Behind Castus, the captured horse is prancing. He gives Sabinus’s hand one more squeeze, then rises to soothe the animal. It bows its head to him eventually, letting him work his fingers into the long mane. Sabinus wipes his blood-slick hand on his trousers and rises, grasping his sword. He is bone-tired; the sword seems to weigh a ton and his bound ribs are sending steady pulses of pain through his torso. He grits his teeth. “Who the fuck is winning?”
Castus looks back at Sabinus over his shoulder. “I do not know. Yet there are Romans still to kill, so that is what we shall do. Perhaps path of victory will be clearer from greater height!” He swings a leg up and slides onto the horse’s back with enviable grace.
“Stay close!” Sabinus calls after him, hating the way his voice betrays his fear, but unable to stop the words.
Castus’s grin flashes in his blood-smeared face, exhausted but indomitable. “Always.”
“Spartacus!” he shouts, struggling with reins he cannot properly grip. “He pursues Crassus towards the ridge, alone. Let us seize horses and fly to aid, lest he be met by treachery.”
He’s already galloping off. Sabinus stares wildly about him for a horse to liberate; at the sound of pounding hooves approaching, he automatically lifts his sword, until he recognises Castus, half-hanging off the side of the horse, one arm outstretched. He grasps it, leaping, and lets momentum carry him onto the horse’s back, ignoring the renewed stab of pain to his ribcage.
“Where?” Castus shouts over his shoulder. Sabinus repeats what Agron said, directing them towards the far-off ridge. He feels Castus tense, swearing under his breath and digging his heels in so the horse bolts forward. Sabinus wraps one arm tightly around his middle and hacks at attacking Romans with his other one, keeping their path as free as he can.
At first the distance seems unbridgeable, the number of enemies unending. From what little he can see of the greater battle, Sabinus is not reassured; wherever he looks the tide of red and metal and square shields is unending, the rebels beleaguered in small and ever smaller clusters. The ballistae fire with devastating unconcern for whether they hit friend or foe but the truth is the Romans can afford to lose the numbers, and the rebels cannot. Sabinus can sense Crassus’s cool mind behind that decision: ultimate victory the only thing that matters, regardless of cost.
When they burst out of the fray, it’s sudden: one moment they are in the thick of it, the next Sabinus cuts down a few straggling men and then they are on open ground, the horse struggling up a steep hill of loose gravel. Sabinus has time for one glance back at the writhing mess of the battle. Then they are at the top of the ridge, and all other concerns fall promptly away at the sight before them.
Spartacus, on the dusty ground, awash in blood. Three spears have gone all the way through him, sticking out of his flesh, a grotesque triptych. Agron and Nasir are beside him, Nasir’s hands hovering uselessly, unsure where to begin even attempting to soothe such irreversible hurts.
Beside him, Castus moans, “No,” a low, desperate noise. Sabinus’s own throat is closed so tightly he can barely breathe.
Time stands still. It’s dry and oddly quiet on the ridge, the roar of battle sounding far away and unimportant. It is unimportant, Sabinus realises. Here lies the soul of the rebellion; the massive struggle down below is fought by a body that has not yet realised that it is dying.
“Who did this?” Castus asks tonelessly. Agron rises, at last, and comes to stand at the edge of the ridge.
“Crassus and his soldiers.” He gestures without looking. There are three Romans lying nearby, dead.
“Crassus? Where is he?” Sabinus demands.
Agron nods towards the far side of the ridge. “He tumbled down, and his men saw him to rescue. I tried to follow but…” His bandaged hands clench, or try to.
For a mad moment, Sabinus feels the need to throw himself down that ridge, to hunt down Crassus and see him to his end. But when he strides to the edge, he cannot see all the way to the bottom, and behind him Nasir raises his voice, asking for help. Sabinus joins him, dropping to his knees beside the body. No, not a body yet; incredibly, the chest beneath his battered armour is moving in shallow breaths, although he is unconscious: a small favour.
Nasir’s hands are gripped around the spear that has pierced his leg. “Brace him,” he instructs Sabinus. He grasps for the leg, feels the sick give of splintered bone when Nasir pulls out the spear, slow and steady. “The others too,” he says, “while he is yet unconscious to the pain.”
Sabinus hesitates, staring at the other spears: one just above the heart, the other through the centre of the chest. “If we remove them, his life’s blood will follow.”
Nasir’s eyes briefly meet his, dark and bleak. “Yes. There is no way to save him. But we can yet remove him from enemy’s grasp.”
Sabinus says nothing more. He holds Spartacus’s torso while Nasir works out the spears. The blood gushes instantly. Sabinus goes to take the shirts off the dead Romans and tears them into strips. In grim silence, they shove wadded fabric into the wounds and tie it in place, well aware how useless it is. Spartacus’s coppery lashes rest on his cheeks; he breathes, somehow. There is no part of him that is not bloody. But he breathes.
Dimly, Sabinus becomes aware of Castus and Agron talking at the edge of the ridge.
“…pointless sacrifice. The tide has turned.”
“Fuck you, and fuck the fucking tide.” But Agron’s curses are without heat; Sabinus can hear nothing but ragged agony in his voice. “What of Gannicus? Did you see him?”
Castus hesitates before nodding once, sharply. “I did, in brief glimpse only. I saw Saxa fall” – his breath hitches, and Sabinus closes his eyes, fighting the hot threat of tears – “and Gannicus was with her. He leapt against encroaching Romans. I did not see what became of him, but.. there were many. Scores.” The conclusion goes unsaid.
“That leaves you,” Sabinus says, hoarsely. The two of them look towards him, Castus’s face full of grief, Agron’s tight with too many conflicting emotions. Sabinus struggles to his feet. He can feel Nasir’s gaze on him.
“Spartacus dying, and Gannicus probably gone,” he says. “Naevia?” he asks, but they both shake their heads. “That leaves you,” he repeats, to Agron. “The only general left. The only one to lead us. We’ve lost, have we not?” He doesn’t have to look at the battle to know, but he does anyway. The frenzied fighting has slowed to the methodical stamping out of small pockets of resistance; in many places it’s halted altogether, apart from the occasional stab into a dying body. In the small amount of time that has passed since they broke from the edge of battle, the pitching of force against near-equal force has become a clean-up operation, and he knows – oh, he knows so well – how good Rome is at cleaning up. At the very edges of the field, a few rebels – too few – are making their escape, scrambling for the surrounding hills. Some of them are headed for this very ridge.
“What do you wish us to do?” he asks Agron. “Do we go back?” For a mad, extended moment he wants to. Wants to chase after Crassus and die in the attempt at killing him, if that is what it takes. Wants to take as many of them with him as he can.
Agron spits a curse in his own language. “We are not kindling for the Romans’ fucking hearth fire. And we need to see Spartacus removed from this place before Crassus returns. Nasir, Sabinus, see if you can build something to carry him with. Castus, with me. Let us round up as many of our people as we can, and head north, before the fucking Romans get here. There has been enough death today.”
With wounds like these, there can be no thought of transporting him on horseback. They take turns carrying the travois on foot, as gently as they can while maintaining speed.
There is no shortage of hands taking their turn at the spear handles. The force of retreating rebels Agron and Castus have rallied is initially no larger than a hundred, but they grow as they hurry north, stragglers joining them on their flight through the rugged hills. About half of them have horses, and these survivors take it on themselves to draw away the troops of Rome that have started combing the hills for their quarry. They engage in small skirmishes, sometimes returning, sometimes not.
Much like the battle itself, the day is endless. The hilly country shifts briefly to greening plains, too exposed, which they cross in a hurry; then hills again, some forested, some bare. North, north. While moving, they oscillate in place as well, drawing their circles around the still figure carried in their midst, not dead yet – somehow, miraculously, not dead – and already a holy relic. They touch the spears, his armour, some – more daring than others – his blood-crusted skin. They weep. They murmur prayers. They keep moving.
Sabinus dozes sometimes, when he gets a horse for a bit, hanging in the saddle like a corpse himself. Sometimes he and Castus walk together, too tired for words, but finding strength in the occasional touch. Agron is everywhere, rounding up stragglers, giving orders, barking the occasional rough joke to lift someone’s spirits. Sabinus has no idea how he stays upright, never mind in control, but then they are all propelled forward now by something greater than the flagging resources of their tired bodies. Apart from those lost in diverting the Romans from pursuit, nobody drops behind.
It’s late afternoon, the shadows already long, when the hills begin to rise beneath them, and out of the rocky, boulder-strewn territory before them comes a shout. Not a warning; a welcome. Figures come out of hiding, dressed in ragged clothing and scavenged armour like themselves. It takes Sabinus a long, sluggish moment to start recognising faces. There’s Laeta, her copper hair flying behind her as she runs towards them. Another woman, taller and slower, just behind her. Beside him, Castus sucks in a breath, straightens his shoulders, and starts to walk towards Belesa. Spotting him, she picks up her pace, then slows again when she sees his expression. Sabinus sees the worry and hope in her face turn slowly, inexorably into a stony, awful knowledge. He stands behind Castus, feeling more useless than he ever has in his life, while Castus speaks to her, his voice low and weary. When Castus first embraces her, she fights him; a kick against his shin, a punch to his arm. A keening sound comes from her chest, wordless and terrible: a low, animal noise of pain. Castus keeps holding her, heedless of her blows, saying something in her ear. At last she slumps against him, hands digging into his shoulders. Before he knows what he’s doing, Sabinus steps in too, wrapping his arms around the both of them. Closing his eyes, he strokes her hair. She isn’t crying. It would be easier if she were.
Stories are swiftly exchanged. Sabinus thought he was beyond sorrow, but at their news that they were attacked by Pompey, who slaughtered half their force, he wants to scream and kill things, or fall unconscious and escape the torrent of grief and fury. A force composed mostly of women, children and the incapacitated, and the gleaming peacock of Hispania thought he’d make easy laurels of them.
They rest, though not for long. Laeta tells them that most of the others have made for the mountains and the pass already. She made this small force wait, hoping for survivors. If they wish to escape pursuit, they must soon follow. Food is passed around, and water. Most of them doze, while they can, gathering their strength.
Sabinus doesn’t. Some strange clarity is flowing into him with the clear sweet freshness of the water; while his aching limbs rest, his mind breaks through the dreamlike sluggishness of the long march, and finds a fresh reserve. Sitting still with Castus slumbering in his lap, he glances about, taking in their numbers, and confers in quiet tones with Laeta about supplies and water. The news is good; perversely, with the numbers killed, they’ll easily have enough to carry them beyond the Alps, if they can withstand the snows higher up.
Quietly, he asks Laeta how much they can spare. Quietly, he tells her why. She nods, unsurprised, and goes to make arrangements. Sabinus sits a little longer, gently running his fingers through Castus’s damp wiry curls, taking some comfort from the solid sleeping warmth of him.
Not long after Laeta has returned, Spartacus, impossibly, awakes. Nasir and Agron are the first at his side, leaning close, their faces full of agony and love. From his vantage point, Sabinus can just see those coppery lashes blinking slowly, the chapped lips moving as he speaks. Gently, Sabinus shakes Castus awake, waiting patiently while his sleep-drugged eyes blink at him, awareness slow to return. “Spartacus,” he says softly, and Castus’s eyes sharpen. Sabinus helps him up. They join the circle of rebels that draw near, close enough to see Spartacus but not crowd him.
Above them, the clouds that chased them north have drawn close, bulging with rain. At their feet, Spartacus sucks in air, the bloody lips trembling in a half-smile. “Do not shed tear,” he says, gently, to Agron, who is holding one of his hands. “There is no greater victory than to fall from this world a free man.”
Standing behind Agron, Sabinus can see his wide shoulders shaking slightly. Beside Agron, Laeta is straight-backed, tears streaking quietly down her face. Across the blood-spattered body, Nasir is still pressing his hands against the wounds. Castus’s hand clutches tightly around Sabinus’s; he squeezes back, his throat unbearably tight.
The pregnant clouds drift before the sun; the air chills from one second to the next. They all stand silent watch as the last ragged breaths lift Spartacus’s chest. At last he falls still, eyes open, that strange half-smile still on his lips.
Agron pulls the slackening fingers to his mouth. “One day Rome shall fade and crumble,” he says hoarsely, pressing a kiss to the knuckles, “yet you shall always be remembered, in the hearts of all who yearn for freedom.”
Except for the occasional broken sob, everything is quiet. Gently the rain begins to fall.
But it ends. The rain stops. Sunlight peeks cautiously, filling the red serpent on the shield with a brief, brilliant light. Almost, it seems to move, its sinuous coils twisting with pleasure in the sunshine’s warmth.
They stand, for a long moment, around the cairn. Apart from the shield, it’s unassuming, and that will fall to ruin soon, once the sun and wind erode the paint and eat into the metal. Sabinus takes a deep breath and takes a step closer. Crouching, he reaches out, his closed fist hovering above one of the rough rocks. Then, very gently, he opens his clenched fingers and places the white stone carefully on top.
No one asks questions. The pebble sits, a small pale tribute, atop the cairn. As it catches an errant ray of sun, it gleams briefly, brighter than the rainwashed rocks around it. Then the clouds race again before the sun, and it’s just one rock among many.
Sabinus feels lighter when he rises. So many months he’s carried it with him, anchoring him, sustaining him, but weighing him down as well. He no longer needs its reminder now; the things it stands for are a part of him. The only stone that matters now is the red one around his neck, and the promise it carries.
He steps back, and Castus moves to his side. Without looking, Sabinus reaches out, and their fingers slide into each other.
“You are not coming, are you.” It’s not a question. Sabinus shakes his head, feeling almost guilty, but it’s Castus who answers.
“We’ve the ship waiting, a little way down the coast. This time of year, the southern winds are favourable.” Despite the sorrow that still hangs thickly in the air, Sabinus can hear excitement thrumming, a low undertone in Castus’s voice. “I have been too long from the sea.”
Nasir looks unsurprised. “Where will you go?”
“Towards Malta, for now, and then further south. Then east, towards the Aegean Sea.”
Sabinus soaks up the names, foreign and powerful. Almost, he can taste salt upon his lips, the wind and sea foam washing away all pain.
“You’ll need a crew.” Belesa steps up. Her eyes are red but dry, and she carries her own pack. “Take no offence,” she says to Agron and Nasir, “but I am better suited to the sun and waves than snow and farming. I can chart a course, and work sails,” she adds, somewhat defiantly, to Castus.
He reaches out to take her hand. “I know,” he tells her, quietly. “I was coming to ask you. You will be most welcome.” Turning to the small group of waiting rebels, he raises his voice. “If anybody else wishes to come to the coast with us instead of turning towards the mountains, same welcome is extended to them.”
After some shuffling and muttered consultation, a few do: a grizzled older man, declaring himself a former sailor; a thin woman with a small boy of four or five who claims to hail from fishing folk on Sicily; and two half-grown siblings, dark-skinned and startlingly identical despite opposing genders, whose primary motivation seems to be a marked loathing for the cold. Supplies are quickly divvied up and then the small ragtag crew stands around Castus and Sabinus, some looking nervous, some elated.
Agron barks a laugh as he looks them up and down. “I can see it now. A motley pack of seawolves on the waters, blown to some far wild shore.” He shudders exaggeratedly. “Well, better you than me.”
“And you?” Sabinus asks, with a small smile. “Where will you head once you are past the mountains?”
Agron shrugs, exchanging a glance with Nasir. “East of the Rhine, for now. My homelands. There are forests there, and wide riverlands that can feed us comfortably. We shall attempt a taste of peace. Build settlements. Grow crops.” He grins. “Perhaps raise some goats.”
Castus cackles at that. “Better you than me,” he echoes. Agron snorts and reaches out for what is either a very elaborate punch or a very curt embrace; as ever, it’s hard to tell with those two.
Nasir exchanges a look with Sabinus that is, after many months, well familiar to them both: fond, exasperated, amused. It comes to Sabinus that it is very likely the last opportunity they have to exchange that look. The thought gives him a stab. Stepping forward, he embraces Nasir. “Thank you,” he murmurs. “For sparing life when first we met. And many other things.”
Nasir smiles up at him as they part. “Decision was well worth it. I hope we shall meet again someday. Take the horses,” he adds. “It will be rough going on the slopes, and we cannot bring them across the pass.”
While he and Castus embrace, Agron slings an arm around Sabinus and ruffles his hair. “Look after that preening fool,” he instructs, nodding at Castus. “The gods know he cannot do it himself.”
Sabinus laughs. “I shall, although I am sure that fool is even now giving same instruction to Nasir.” He grasps Agron’s forearm, careful to avoid the palm. “Good fortune to you.”
“And you,” Agron nods, then shakes his head, bemused. “Jupiter’s cock. I never thought I’d end this war by clasping hands with a fucking Roman.”
Sabinus almost corrects him, as he has grown used to doing, but lets it go. Perhaps, as time goes by, Rome will no longer be the smothering moloch from whose grasp he struggled free, but merely the place he hailed from, long ago: his beginning, as everyone has one.
His gaze has fallen once again on the small pile of rocks and the red serpent coiled on top. Even from ten steps away, the white stone is barely visible.
Agron’s gaze has followed his. Sabinus feels the hand still loosely wrapped about his forearm tighten, more strongly than he thought possible, with those ghastly wounds so recent.
“Make known his story,” Agron tells him, roughly. “Do not let Rome have the shaping of it. Carry it to every corner of the seas, and every shore you travel. Spread it to the four winds, and to realms of fucking legend.”
Sabinus smiles at him, spurred by the same fierceness; thinking, with a grim sort of joy, how Castus will delight in this challenge; the stories he will tell.
“We shall,” he promises, and gives Agron’s arm one final squeeze.
A few more goodbyes follow – he exchanges farewells with the rebels he knows, clasps hands with Lydon and Rabanus, and has a few words with Laeta, who looks fierce and capable despite her reddened eyes. She wishes him good luck while already glancing towards her charges, already focused on her tasks. He can read determination to make this new life work in every line of her, and has no doubt that she will succeed.
And then it’s over. Two small groups, parting on a rocky hill, leaving behind a rain-washed cairn. As they lead the horses down the stony path, Belesa walks beside Sabinus, her arm occasionally brushing his. They don’t talk. That may come later, he thinks; there is always room for sorrow, and the healing friendship and time may bring. The small boy is bouncing down the path, weaving in and out between the horses’ legs. Ahead of him, Castus glances back once, his eyes finding Sabinus’s; he looks, and smiles, and as ever, the sight of that smile calms Sabinus’s spirit, soothing his sore heart. He smiles back.
By sunset, they are once more upon the plains, bent low over the horses’ necks as dirt flies up from their pounding hooves. The rain is washing across the country in long, sweeping sheets, soaking them more than once, washing away remnants of blood and fatigue. They ride fast, under the last rays of the sun, towards the western coast; towards the Siren and the waiting sea.
~ fin ~