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A Long Way to Go

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Part 1/4
 
 
There. It was official now. Steven Rogers, captain of the Avengers Company, was the proud owner of a 18 hands, black haired man of five and twenty years. He put the quill back in its inkwell, looking around Fury’s tent. The off white cloth walls, the small cot and the bigger table used for war meetings. Tony wasn’t there of course, he was working in the camp’s smithy, but Steven couldn’t help but think he should have been. It was his life after all, that had been exchanged.
 
“Here you go Rogers,” Captain Fury said, rising from behind his desk. He handed him first the papers then a small circular amulet he removed from under the layers of his under tunic, padded tunic and chainmail. Fury was one of the only people Steven knew that was mad enough to wear full armor when he didn’t have to.  “As of now he is your headache.” He spoke in Hangle, Fury always spoke Hangle if his interlocutor knew even a little bit of the language. Steven knew more than a bit and had never managed to make him address him in the Lingua Franca.
 
 He took the items with great hesitation and a little bit of distaste. The concept of slavery made him uncomfortable. He could never forget that there but for the grace of the gods, it would have been him and maybe even his mother too, who would have been sold to pay off his dead father’s debts. If his mother had been little less clever or a little less strong-willed he would be the one wearing the metal collar. Now, he thought as he put the papers in his belt pouch, he owned one. What had he gotten himself into? Against his breast, the amulet seemed to be triple its actual weight. If slavery in general was making him uneasy, the very concept of the amulet seemed downright wicked in his eyes.
 
“Just one thing…” Fury said as Steven was taking his leave. “Treat him as you wish. But don’t come crying to me when he runs all over you. You won‘t find any sympathy.”
 
“I won’t.” Steven said, suddenly reminded of the reason he had thought it a good idea to buy a fellow man.
 
“And if he screws up my campaign,” Fury yelled to the closing flap of the tent, “I’ll roast the both of you.” Steven decided it was wiser not to answer that, lest they had a repeat of the previous night‘s argument.
 
 Outside Steven was greeted by a familiar sea of tents and wagons, bustling with activity, folks and animals coming and going like a big open anthill. Shouts and conversation in various languages, mostly the Lingua Franca but a good bit of Hangle too, it being the mother tongue of a lot the Shield’s soldiers and snatches of others, clamored over each other until they became almost indistinguishable. Fury’s tent had been set on one of the camp’s main pathway, or rather one of the camp’s main pathway had been organized around his tent and some of the other key features of the army.
 
He set off for the smithy thinking he should tell Tony he had a new master. Tony, that was the name written on his papers. It sounded more like a pet name than a proper name but then no one cared much when naming slaves. A few tents down the way he saw Clinton Hawkeye, the best archer in the avenger company, coming out from the camp’s makeshift tavern.
 
“Clint.” he nodded. The man was playing with a generous handful of coins, flipping them and walking them over his hands. “Don’t you have anything better to do than to fleece some poor soul at throwing games?”
 
“The new recruits the Shield picked up in the last town just got their first pay. You have to love them.” He said cheerfully’ referring to the boys and occasional girl who joined their force whenever they passed their village, deciding that getting your limbs chopped off as a foot soldier was better than breaking your back working the earth. “They heard about me, and they’ll still play me.”
 
Steven shook his head and smiled despite himself. It was certainly unsporting of him to play those games for money, but in his defense no one knowing him ever let him take part in the various competitions that cropped up in the army and it was a mistake that the youngsters would not make a second time.
 
“Oh, and speaking of people who should know better,” Clinton continued. “Did you go through with it?”
 
“Go through with what?”
 
“Don’t play innocent, captain. You know very well what I’m talking about.” The smithy had come into view. If Steven did not shake Clinton soon he would have to talk to Tony with him in tow and he was far from the ideal audience for that conversation.
 
“If you mean did I buy Tony then the answer is yes.”
 
“I can’t believe you bought a slave.” Despite his proffered surprise Clinton‘s tone was more gleeful than anything else. “And I can’t believe that of all the slaves here you bought him.”
 
“He’s not that bad.” Steven said defensively.
 
“Not that bad? Captain, he disobeyed a direct order, a direct order from Fury.”
 
“That was Fury’s own damned fault. Why buy a skilled slave if you are not going to use him? And why tell him to improve the trebuchets if you are not going to take full advantage of their new range, I ask you?”
 
“I don’t know. But I do know some grizzled old sergeants who have been with him since the beginning of time who would not dream of moving a single piece of war engine against Fury’s approval. Little bastard didn’t even have the decency of looking guilty from what I heard.” Clinton, who liked to think of himself as a maverick, sounded grudgingly impressed.
 
“Well it’s not like it impeded his precious campaign now, did it?” Steven replied thinking of Fury’s parting shot. “To the contrary, it won him that battle. The three trebuchets he managed to have pushed back all pelted the enemy while way out of their range and the one he didn’t get to ended up a smoking ruin.”
 
“It’s still flagrant disobedience, and it was not an isolated incident. The master smith, for example, says he’s uncontrollable.”
 
Steven muttered something uncharitable about the master smith.
 
“I did not hear that.”
 
“So he is a bit willful. It’s mostly when it comes to his craft. To beat him for it is both a waste of resource and unfair.”
 
Clinton smirked indulgently at him and patted him on the shoulder. “Well you are the one responsible for him now. Don’t worry. If he proves to be too much for you to handle I promise we won’t laugh too much.” On those words he turned right and left, disappearing behind somebody’s drying laundry, probably to go croon about his winnings to the others.
 
The smithy was housed in a tent like the majority of the camp accommodations. Its main distinctive feature was the thick smoke that came out of various opening in the ceiling and the fact that the flap tended to stay open even in the winter to ward off the heat from the fires. They were in the beginning of august and the temperature inside assaulted Steven like a fist to the chest when he stepped in.
 
He found Tony quickly, busy at the anvil, pounding a piece of metal into shape. His back was turned, his tunic and his hair plastered to his back and head by sweat. Steven could see the muscles in his shoulders move. He almost looked like a normal smith that way. It was not uncommon for soldiers to wear their hair cropped short so it wouldn’t catch in their helmets, like Steven did himself, he wore boots when he worked and while his clothes were plain they were not in so poor a shape that they stood out. Then the light of the fire glimmered off the iron collar welded to his neck and Steven stopped, suddenly unsure of what he was going to say. 
 
Before he could gather his courage one of the apprentices saw him. “Captain Steven.” the boy said loudly and Steven cursed under his breath as every single person in the smithy stopped what they were doing to look at him. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Tony turn his head for a brief moment and go back to his work. Harold, the master smith, rose to meet him.
 
“Good morning, captain. What can I do for you?”
 
“Ah, I came to speak to Tony, actually.”
 
The smith frowned.
 
“Of course, of course. Tony, come here. The captain wants to talk to you.”
 
Tony plunged the piece he was working on in a bucket of water, set his hammer and his thongs on the anvil, yanked  his gloves off and hastily whipped the sweat off his forehead. “Sir.” He nodded as he came up to them. He cocked his head. “Or should I say master?”
 
Steven blinked in surprise, then felt his cheeks redden. “You have heard.”
 
“Of course I have heard,” Tony answered,  amused. “Sir, you should know by now that soldiers make better gossipers than old matrons, especially when the gossip involves the “general” of the head company and the captain of the most successful having a very public…” Loud was left unspoken. “…argument followed by a very public dare.”
 
“Well, if you think you can do better, why don’t you put your money where your mouth is?” Steven could hear Fury’s voice ringing in his ears, like an echo of the preceding night. He wondered if those words had gotten back to Tony and  came to the unfortunate conclusion that  they probably had. It was not the way he would have chosen to break the news.
 
 Tony was smiling but his eyes seemed to be waiting for something. Steven realized with a start that he had left the man hanging.
 
“Yes, you probably should.” 
 
Tony’s reaction was not overtly noticeable but Steven thought he saw him let out a breath. Of relief? Then he bowed so deeply he was almost kneeling. “Master.” he said. His voice was warm. Steven had seen him act this way before and hadn’t been able to tell if the interlocutor was been showed the proper deference due from a man of Tony’s station or played for a fool. He wasn’t any more certain now.
 
“He looks meek like that, doesn’t he?” Master Harold said pleasantly, watching Tony with his arms crossed and looking unimpressed. “I have to warn you it is only skin deep though. The moment he gets it in his pretty little head that he knows better than you do…”
 
“He will say ‘yes sir’ to my face and go do whatever it is he wanted to do as soon as my back is turned. Yes. I know.” Steve said, exasperation bleeding into his voice.
 
He could take it from Fury, because he had little choice in the matter, and from Clinton, who was very much like a younger brother sometimes, but he didn’t have to take it from Master Harold. He does know better than you, he wanted to say but didn’t. The man was a master of his craft, known for the quality of his blades, and it would be petty to humiliate him.
 
 “Do you need him today? I should get him situated in our part of the camp.”
 
The smith scoffed. “He’s making horseshoes. Go ahead.”
 
Tony darted back to his station, removing his leather apron, he hung it on a nail and stood in his tunic and breeches looking at his boots then looking at Steven.
 
“The boots, he can keep.” Harold said to Steven. “You should probably check with the quarter master to be sure but they’re old and mostly so he doesn’t injure himself in here. You’ll probably need to get him new ones when winter comes anyway.” 
 
Steven thanked him and they left, Tony toeing the boots off once they stepped out and walking two steps behind Steven holding them in one hand.
 
“Do you have anything else you want to pick up?” Steven asked, as he twisted  his torso to watch him. Slaves did not, in the strictest sense of the law, own anything, but most of them collected a few possessions along the way anyway. Steven knew that masters sometime allowed them to keep them when they exchanged hands. If Tony had things he was attached to Steven would swing by the Shield’s quartermaster’s tent to arrange it. But he only shook his head.
 
“No master.”
 
“Nothing?”
 
Tony shrugged. “All of the tools I use are part of the resources that are shared by all the companies.”
 
“I meant… personal effects.”
 
Tony shook his head again decisively. “No, nothing.”
 
“Really?” Steven said, a little taken aback, but unsure of the reason. “A troublemaker like you doesn’t have a stash somewhere?” 
 
He got a grin in response. “It’s secure enough were it is, and it’s better if I don’t move it to much.”
 
Steven turned front again, thinking that if he had been unsure before, now Tony was certainly mocking him. Whether he actually had a bundle stashed somewhere or not.
 
Any army camp that stays put for most than a week becomes something of a small city, complete with markets. Here, each of the companies formed their own little neighborhoods, the biggest organizing themselves in smaller neighborhoods by profession. The avengers were on the edge of the camp next to another mercenary company everyone called Xavier’s men even though Xavier himself had been crippled long before he could lead them in battle and women had been in their rank from its creation. They were organized in a rough circle save for Henry’s alchemy laboratory which was set farther away than the rest and a large canopy in the middle serving as both an open kitchen and a common living area.
 
Steven’s tent was small, as he lived alone and most meetings were held under the canopy. It had always served him well although now that another man was going to be living in it with him it suddenly got smaller. The blankets he had scourged up with Mary Jane that morning were folded in a corner but when spread out they would occupy the space left by Steven’s cot and desk.
 
He sunk into his chair, tugging at the collar of his padded under armor tunic in an effort to cool himself. Tony was standing in front of him with his hand behind his back. He looked even worse off than Steven, with sweat still clinging to his hair and staining his clothes. Another downside to the tent being so small was that the sun baked it easily, giving the impression of a furnace. They would have been more comfortable out at one of the tables where the air could circulate but Steven wanted to examine him and talk to him in private so his tent would have to do.
 
“Sit.” He said, indicating the bed. “Are you thirsty?” He grabbed the pitcher resting on his desk and poured water into his goblet, waving Tony’s attempt at taking his place away. “Sit.” He repeated. Tony sat and accepted the goblet after a brief hesitation, Drinking from it in a manner more subdued than Steven would have expected.
 
“Thank you, master.” He said, giving the goblet back. Steven filled it again and drank deeply.
 
“You’re welcome. I figured you needed it more than I did, working over open fires.”
 
 He looked Tony up and down. Sitting with his hands on his laps the collar of his shirt gaped enough for Steven to see one of the welts left by his last whipping and through the lacing of the front he could see the faint glow of the magical artefact stuck to his chest. His eyes went up to his face, over his scruffy beard and their eyes met for a brief moment. His were very blue, and alive with intelligence.
 
“What did you think; when you heard I might be buying you?”
 
Tony shrugged. “What is there for me to think?”
 
“Were you happy, unhappy?” Steven pushed. He wanted to know what Tony thought of belonging to him.
 
“It made me very happy, master.” Tony said, voice dripping sincerity and conviction and Steven couldn’t tell if he was lying or not. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. What had he expected exactly? Steven had maybe spoken to him three or four times prior to the sale. It had been a stupid question.
 
Well, Tony knew he belonged to him, knew how it had come about in probably more detail than Steven would have wanted him to and with any luck would trust that he would be treated fairly. That was that he supposed. Now what was he going to do with him? Perhaps he should have planned this beyond where Tony was going to sleep.
 
“Come, I will show you around.”
 
They got out and went first to the kitchen, where May Parquer was already preparing dinner. Jessica Jewel, off the fighter’s rooster for the duration of her pregnancy was rounding up the children to do some laundry by the river with Mary Jane. Clinton was fletching arrows with his feet on the table, carefully binding the glued feathers with thread to ensure they would stay in place. The avengers, fine gossipers that they were, were all delighted to see him and gawked at him with varying degree of subtlety, from aunt May’s kind welcoming smile lingering a bit longer than usual to little Cassie staring at him unblinkingly. They had seen him around, on the few occasions that he had worked alongside with Henry, but mainly knew him from his reputation, and so were dying to know more about him now that he was part of the company. It would get worst when the rest of the fighters came back from the training yard, Steven knew.  Donald at least could claim a physician’s concerns when he dragged them to his tent to examine him.
 
He tsked when Tony removed his tunic and the welts were exposed to the light of the lamp and the open flap. He took Tony lightly by one arm, turning him so he could see better.
 
“Well, it’s ugly.” he said in a disgusted voice, examining the welts with expert hands, mindful of Tony‘s small flinches and hisses. “But not as bad as it could have been considering the offence.” Steven standing in a corner had to agree. His back was covered in angry purple welts but they looked like they would heal cleanly, however painful they were at the moment.
 
“I’m expensive.” Tony said, hissing as Donald pressed on a particularly sensitive spot. “People are careful with expensive propriety.”
 
Donald turned him again and Steven got a good view of the artefact protruding from his chest. The sight made him acutely aware of the presence of the matching amulet hanging from his neck that he had almost managed to forget.
 
“Now this I don’t much care for,” Donald was saying, gesturing to Tony’s back. “But it’s a fact of life. That on the other hand...” he almost poked the device angrily. “…If the rumors are to be believed, is gratuitous cruelty.”
 
“They are.” Steven said, removing the amulet, and holding it so that Donald could see it. “If I break this it will kill him. If I twist it, it will cause him pain.”
 
Donald muttered under his breath; the words death, trap and cowardly being the only intelligible ones words. He placed on hand on Tony’s chest, next to the device. “Can I touch it? Or is it dangerous?”
 
“Go ahead.” Tony shrugged. “It never reacted to outside stimuli. It’s not a death trap, you know.
 
“No?”
 
“It is keeping me alive. I was…” He hesitated, searching for his words. “… Wounded. My heart is too damaged to beat on its own. Breaking the amulet doesn’t activate the device, it makes it stop working.”  He looked at Steven. “So if you could go easy on the punishment feature, I don’t really know how much strain my heart can take.” He gave Steven a winning smile.
 
Steven exchanged a look with Donald. He wasn’t sure it was any better. Especially since Fury had told him that Tony touching the amulet would have the same effect as breaking it. The whole thing was making his skin crawl.
 
“How does it work?” Donald asked.
 
Tony shrugged showing something like frustration for the first time. “I don’t know. It’s magic.” He made the word sound like a curse. “It has never been my strength.”
 
Donald shook his head. “Nor is it mine. Maybe Henry or Wanda will be able to tell us something. I’ll put some salve on your back, for now that’s all I can do.”
 
He was putting the cork back on the jar after applying it and telling Tony he could get dressed again when a deafening noise shattered the relative calm of the camp. Steven tore out of the tent, running toward Henry’s laboratory. Sure enough, thick black smoke was coming out of it, the tent was half blown off  its support and a vial of something crashed mere feet away from Steven, propelled by the blast. He stopped a few yards from it eyeing it warily.
 
“It’s fine.” Henry yelled, coming out of the mostly intact part of the tent. He waved the cluster of avengers holding blankets, shovel and water buckets away. “It’s fine. It was only the one blast. Didn’t light that big a fire either.” He noted absentmindedly, looking at the little flames that licked one side of the tent and were starting to spread to the grass. Jessica, who had been holding her pregnant belly with a protective hand, rolled her eyes and threw her bucket of soapy water at the wall extinguishing most of the fire in one splash.
 
“I’m sorry.” Henry said to Steven. His face was covered with sooth and his hair was blown straight on his head. “I put too much saltpeter.”
 
“Didn’t that happen last week, already?” Donald asked, Tony and him finally catching up to Steven. “You should leave that oriental powder alone, it obviously is a mere myth and not anything real.”
 
“No.” Henry said sheepishly. “That time it was too little charcoal. And it is not a myth. I have seen it with my own eyes. I know the main ingredient, I only need to figure out the rest. Oh, Tony! I heard Steven was buying you. Welcome to the Avengers.”
 
“Well, you have been figuring it out the rest for months and this is the most result you have had.” Donald replied.
 
Steven eyed what was left of the laboratory. Most of it would be put to rights in a few hours. In fact Henry seemed to have already enlisted Tony’s help, chattering in what seemed like a foreign language to Steven’s uneducated ears. Probably about his encounter with the merchant from the far east who had shown him his latest obsession. As far as Henry’s accidents went, this one was barely counted as a disruption in the avengers’ day and the crowd dispersed when it became apparent nothing was burning down.
 
Steven shook his head. From the look of the sun it was almost time for the captains’ war meeting, time for him to change out of the training clothes he was still wearing from the morning practice and refresh himself. Tony was busy with Henry, talking animatedly as they checked the tent and its contents for damage. They had worked together before, being two of the best craftsmen in the army, and they seemed to enjoy each other’s company. Steven called out to him, signaling him to stay with the alchemist, then he turned, readying himself for a few hours of intense debate as the army leaders came to a cohesive plan.
 
***
 
“We can’t march straight on, Fury.” Two hours into the meetings, Susan Richards, the co-captain of the mighty four gestured wearily at the map spread across the table. “Our spies tell us they have near two thousands men baring our way to Carmina, that’s almost double our forces.”
 
“If you don’t have the balls to fight, Richard, you better change trade, I hear they need laundresses in Captain Giovanni’s company.” Fury snarled, interrupting his pacing to glare at her. Susan rolled her eyes.
 
“I don’t see what’s cowardly about not wishing to walk into a trap when outnumbered.” Steven interjected. “Especially not when they are other options.”
 
“You want the other option?” Fury stopped pacing to put his hands on the table and lean in front of Steven. “Let’s talk about the other option. Passing through the mountains.”
 
“It would allow us to circle them and hit them from where they don’t expect us.” Susan said.
 
“Which would be perfect.” Fury said, his voice dripping sarcasm. “Except for one little detail: passing the cursed mountain. Am I the only one here capable of seeing the problem with hauling more than a thousand men along with equipment over tiny mountain roads? And what’s stopping them from shifting their line when they don’t see us coming from the plain? It’s not like they are going to wonder where we’ve gone. How else are we going to go, by boat?”
 
“It is feasible, general.” Captain Giovanni said, speaking for what seemed like the first time. A noble of the city they were on their way to liberate he was the man in charge of what was left of its army.  He was the man who knew the region the best, but he stayed quiet a lot of the time, as if having lost his city to the invading northern barbarians had sapped his spirit. “The mountains aren’t that high, the passes are more than practicable in the summer, my men know this country. We could cross them in two or three days.”
 
“Or we gather the courage we are all supposed to have and march straight. Last I heard I was still in charge here.”
 
“Because you nominated yourself.” Scott Summers, the captain of Xavier’s men reminded him.
 
“It’s not only their numbers who are worrying.” Captain Julian said, the leader of the army of the duchy of Savoe, the duchy currently paying the salary of all the mercenaries. He would have been the one in charge had his lord hired anyone else. “Their weapons are too.”
 
Susan nodded. “My husband spoke about it. They are better armed than we expected, with weapons we have never seen before.”
 
“Have the spies learned where they are getting them?” Captain Julian asked.
 
Steven straightened at that. His own spy, Natasha, hadn’t reported in yet, and he was eager for any new Intel. Fury sighed deeply, massaging one temple.
 
“They have heard rumors that a man from one of the first captured cities, Arma or Ilyria, joined their side in exchange for a place of power. It’s said that he gifted them with the new weapons as a proof of good faith. What is the name they heard?”
 
“Stane. The Wesi soldiers think his name is Stane.” Lieutenant Alyosius Dugan answered from where he was standing against one wall.
 
“Right. And they have confirmed that there was a southerner in one of the Wesi delegation that visited Carmina after it first fell.”
 
“So it has a good chance of being true.” Captain Giovanni said between clenched teeth.
 
Steven felt a twinge of sympathy. It didn’t really matter to him and the other mercenaries where the weapons came from, other than maybe eliminating the source, but to lord Julian and lord Giovanni it was treason. For all that the southerners liked to think of themselves as separate city-state and duchies they were still one people and to learn that a compatriot was working against them must be a hard blow.
 
Fury must have felt it too because his voice was slightly less antagonistic when he replied, “From what we know, yes.”  
 
“Lest go back to the mountain road.” Scott said gently. “If we can let them think we are marching forward it would put us in a better position.”
 
Steven looked at the map and the markers on it, willing a solution to jump at him. The avengers didn’t have the most elaborate chain of command and really outside of the battlefield most of their decisions were taken by hand vote, so he had plenty of experience with rowdy arguments, but the war councils of this particular army always exhausted him. The energy was simply different when the room was full of people used to being obeyed.
 
On his left, Scott got up sudently. “Do we have to all cross the mountain?” He asked in a startled voice.
 
Across the table they all blinked. Steven could see it unfold in his head and he didn’t doubt the other were going through the same process. They could split, one part of their force going through the mountain the other spreading out to simulate their complete number going the expected way. A two pronged attack. It had its drawbacks, it would leave the marching unit more vulnerable and it would make coordinating their attack difficult but Steven could see it unfolding. It would give them the edge they were looking for. Even Fury was stepping down from his high horse and making plans in his head.
 
***
 
Steven left Fury’s tent a few hours later with the satisfaction of a job well done and feeling optimistic. He waved goodnight to Scott when they reached their respective camps and strolled through the gates of his section. Everyone was clustered under the canopy and aunt May was preparing to serve dinner, everyone setting their table wares on one of the three long tables.  He almost ran into Jana ducking under the tarp, her cropped hair still wet from refreshing herself after training.
 
“Here is our lazy captain. Who let us sweat under the sun all day while he was cozy inside.”
 
“Now Janette, do you want to take my place? We could organize a vote.” Steven replied with a smile.
 
“Oh hell no, captain.” Jana laughed. “I am not stepping into that viper’s nest of my own free will. By the way how did that go?”
 
Steven stepped aside to let Luke and Daniel pass. By the cooking pit aunt May had drafted Tony and Carol into giving out loaves of bread.
 
“I’ll tell everyone over the meal.”
 
In short order they were all sited and served, eating with enthusiasm. Tony, who apparently hadn’t eaten yet had been given a bowl of stew and a slice of bread and been left to his own devices. He chose to sit cross legged against one of the support pole, within hearing distance of Steven’s table. Steven started to recount the salient point of the council in between bites. He was discussing the rumors of the southerner traitor supplying new weapons when he happened to look at Tony and saw him not eating but listening intently, his eyes fierce. Then he noticed Steven was watching him and went back to his bowl.
 
After the meals someone asked Mary Jane for a song. She accepted with good grace and got off her fiancé Peter’s lap to get her harp. Her voice rang clear in the evening air, a courtly ballade of a knight in love with his lord’s bride. It was a pretty song, the plot classic enough that everyone was able to follow the story even through it was sung in Oc, the tongue of the minstrels. Steven smiled into his ale. The songs would get livelier and rowdier as time went on until they were all but falling asleep on their feet. Tonight he was one of the first to retire. They were moving out in the day after tomorrow and as captain he would have to be one of the first up to make sure they would be ready to go on time.
 
Shouts rang out as he got up.
 
“Good night, Steven.”
 
“Have a good night, captain.”
 
“Just don’t wake us up!”
 
Steven stopped at that, a bit mystified. Wanda was punching her brother Pietro in the arm. Next to them, Guenifer winked at him. He turned back, wondering what it had been about. Tony caught up to him on the path to his tent.
 
“You could stay, you know,” Steven told him. “If you want.”
 
Tony blinked. “Er… No master. It’s fine.” They walked a few steps in silence. “The girl… Mary Jane?” Tony said a bit tentatively. “She is very good.”
 
Steven smiled at him. “Yes, she is. She used to travel from castle to castle, entertaining the nobles, then she met Peter and she’s been with us ever since.”
 
“And Peter is Mistress Parquer’s nephew?”
 
“Yes. He got most of the company calling her aunt,” Steven opened his tent flap and ducked inside. “They joined when their village was burned down and aunt May’ husband was killed.”
 
Now that the sun was no longer heating the walls of the tent the temperature inside was livable again. Steven sat on his cot to tug his boots off. Tony knelt at his feet to help him.
 
“It’s fine.” Steven said. “Take those blankets in the corner instead, they’re for you. Lay them down wherever you want, not that there is much space here but you could always sleep outside if you prefer.”
 
He finished with his boots and set them under the cot. When he looked up Tony was standing with the blankets unfolded in front of him and a confused expression on his face.
 
“Outside?”
 
“Yes.” Steven answered. “If you wish, the sky is clear. Or you can put it here.” He shrugged to show that it was really up to Tony and started to unbuckle his belt.
 
Tony still watched him strangely from under his lashes. It was starting to give Steven the impression that there was something he was missing. Then Tony shook his head and laid the blankets on the floor.
 
Things got a bit awkward when it was time to undress as there was little space and even less privacy, or at least awkward for Steven. Tony stripped down without any hint of self-consciousness. But then, the slave markets, if he had been auctioned there, would have left him with little modesty. Steven slid under the covers and closed his eyes. The familiar noises from the singing lulling him into sleep.