The boy's name then was Avizina. It was a good name for a prince. In his people's language, the language of the Dacians, it meant strong. It was a blessing; it was an aspiration. He would be strong. He would lead his clan, the Appuli, one day. He was clever already. He was so clever, his mother said. Not clever enough yet, his father said, with scorn in his eyes and unmixed wine on his breath.
Avizina was in his eighth summer, and he did not know then that he was watching his entire life change before him.
It was a bright day, and the stone walls of the fortress of Sarmizegethusa towered above and beyond him on the mountain in the distance, the entire citadel crouching in readiness, like a perching hawk that waited to strike. Avizina, for his part, lived with the rest of the nobility below the city, with all the grandeur that life had to offer. He was a chieftain's son, after all. He never went hungry, and as for water, why, that came from the pipes! (His father had caught him trying to take apart the plumbing once. He had only wanted to see how it all worked.)
Today was the day that the Romans had come to make peace.
They gathered to watch, standing on the edges of the path up the mountain, as the Romans marched past them. Even though Avizina was too big now to be held like a babe in arms, his mother carried him nonetheless, holding him up so he could see over the heads of the crowd.
There were men marching with standards, more ornate than the dragon standards he knew: some were banners, and one was a great gilt eagle on a pole. The men who held the banners wore the hides of snarling animals. The men's faces themselves snarled. It was frightening, and Avizina shoved his fist in his mouth; he was brave and he would not cry. He had promised his father so.
After the standard-bearers came the Roman chiefs, the generals. Avizina was sure they were chiefs, because their armor, worked with more gold and silver, gleamed bright in the sunshine, and they wore cloaks of rich red-purple. Their feathered helms ruffled, just a little, in the slight breeze, and their matched bay horses—a lovely pair—danced under them. He knew that this was meant to show what fine things the Romans had, maybe finer than what King Decebalus himself had. The Dacians were supposed to be awed. But Avizina had already seen many fine things in his life, and even as a child he was impressed but not awed. Not yet.
After the chiefs came men, columns and columns of them—the engineers the king had asked for, and cavalry to accompany them. The ordered ranks were vast, stretching on as far as Avizina could see; he knew that the numbers, too, were impressive. His father had explained this to him as well, before he had left this morning for the king's court, since Avizina would be chief in his father's place one day, and a chieftain must know these things.
And then the first riders of the cavalry were close enough to see, and Avizina gasped and stared, wide-eyed, because he understood the glory of Rome in a way that a thousand shining eagles could never have shown him.
The very first man with the horsemen... was not a man at all.
He was half-horse, half-man: a man to the waist, and then the rest of him a stallion. He was pale-skinned, golden-haired, and his hide was golden to match, golden like a new-minted coin, more marvelous than any of the eagles. All four feet were socked, pale as cream. For a horse he was tall, strong, powerful. There was a grace to him, a dancing elegance, and perfect conformation that would have made any horse-breeder in Avizina's clan weep for joy. Avizina was Dacian; of course he knew what beauty was, in a horse. As a man, too, the creature was noble, handsome: his bare arms were muscled, and he clearly had the strength of a soldier in him, for he carried himself like the rest of the campaigners.
Whoever he was, the Romans clearly thought well of him; on his human half, he wore polished mail—not as fine as the generals' but still of good quality. He wore a bright red cloak, brilliantly dyed, nearly as excellent as what the generals had worn. A round parma shield was slung across his back, half under the cloak, and a spatha lay in its scabbard at his side. On the horse-half he wore no tack, but instead more armor, even more shining mail. His pale tail was braided neatly, looped up on itself, and tied with another red ribbon. Atop his head was a crested helm—horsehair, but not his own—that shaded his eyes. Blond hair was just barely visible at the helm's edges. He was the most amazing thing Avizina had ever seen in his life.
Avizina could not see the being's—the man's?—face properly with the helm in the way. His head did not turn, and his gaze did not shift as he passed them. And then he was gone, further up the mountain.
If this was Rome, if Romans could command such creatures... Avizina wanted that. He hungered for it, with all of his heart. He wanted to live in a world where these wondrous beasts marched the streets. He wondered how many there were. He wondered if they lived in Rome, if there they lived in houses like men, if cities were full of them.
"Mama," Avizina asked, excited, "what is that?"
He was looking at the retreating creature's back, at the easy way he walked, more nimble than any plodding horse.
"A marvel," she said. "A Roman miracle, and may we be spared them."
She made the sign against the evil eye with her free hand, the one that was not holding him to her hip, but Avizina didn't care. How could Rome be evil when it had such creatures in it?
The next summer, Avizina learned that wanting a thing and doing a thing were indeed very different. He had wanted to see Rome, but it was not until now, with the wagon waiting for him, that his eyes brimmed with tears, that he realized that living in Rome would mean not living in Sarmizegethusa, that it would mean living without his family, living without even his old slave Zinnas.
It was a thing the Romans had asked of them, his father told him: they would send young princes to live in Rome. It was because his father was so important in Decebalus' court. The Romans had given them citizenship—a thing that mattered a great deal to his father—and they had told them to send Avizina to Rome. There would be boys his own age. He would have friends there, his mother said. It was his mother who cared about those things.
He shut his eyes, and his father looked down, towering over him. He wondered if his father would kneel and hug him. Zinnas had hugged him this morning, when he'd helped him tie his boots.
His father stayed standing.
"Now, Avizina," he said, "you won't cry?"
He nodded firmly. "I won't, Father. I will be a man. I am your son, Father."
He would be good enough to please his father, wouldn't he?
His father smiled under the mustaches; it was the right answer. "And what will you do in Rome?"
"I will learn," he recited. "I will learn the ways of the Romans. I will learn to be an engineer for the king, so that he need not have Romans for it, and I will learn the things I need to know to lead our people after you."
His father still stared. He took a breath. "And?" It seemed that Avizina had not said enough.
"I will do honor to you and your name, Father," he said, in a great rush, and then his father smiled. That, Avizina knew, was the most important part.
"Good. Never forget that you are Dacian, boy. You are Dacian first, and you are my son."
And then his mother knelt and hugged him, tightly, and whispered in his ear. "I love you," she said, and her voice caught like she wanted to weep.
Avizina thought he might cry as well, hearing that.
"Zia!" his father snapped. "Don't coddle the boy! Avizina, get along! You have a long journey ahead of you."
It was how he would remember his parents, in the years to come, but for now he only turned to the wagon, turned west, turned toward the heart of the empire.
Rome. He was going to Rome.
Rome was like nothing he had ever seen. It was like nothing he could ever have imagined.
It was vast—even the journey to the city showed that much. There were aqueducts. Would he learn to build those himself? There were the acres of fields that fed the city-dwellers. There were the huge ragged cemetery plots along the roads as they drew closer to the city. Some of the graves were nicer than others, all covered in letters Avizina could not read. They would teach him that soon, he knew. He was not to be ignorant forever.
Eventually they were in Rome itself. Inside the city, the journey continued—up hills, down hills, past the press of people, past temples with their brightly-painted statues—and then there was a door, and a door-opener, and a house. And in the atrium of the house there was a man standing in front of Avizina.
Avizina looked up. And up.
The man looked as he had imagined Romans to look: of middling age, with a lined face and graying hair. He wore a fine toga, and under it a tunic with a great red stripe down the middle. He did not quite scowl, but nor did he look particularly pleased.
"So!" the man said. His Latin was thick with the accent of Italy, nothing like the way Latin was spoken at Avizina's home. His old home. "You are the Dacian prince, eh?"
Avizina nodded bravely. He had promised to be brave. "Sir, I am Avizina, son of Tarbus."
But the man clucked his tongue, a sad noise. "No, that is not your name."
"Do you know nothing, child?" There was disapproval in the man's eyes. "You are a citizen of my gens, the gens Antonia. I am Quintus Antonius Cenaeus, and that is your name too: Antonius. Quintus Antonius. Avizina, I suppose you may keep, if you must have a barbarian cognomen."
The condemnation was distracted, airy, backhanded, but it was a condemnation even so. Avizina hated to think that he had only just gotten here and already done something wrong just by saying his name. He was Avizina.
His new name. He was a Roman now. He swallowed hard. His eyes were hot, but he would not cry. He would not.
"Come, Antonius," Cenaeus said. "The slaves will bring your things in. I will show you my house, for surely it is finer than what you have seen in the provinces, and you can meet Tiberius."
He wondered who Tiberius was.
Cenaeus drew him past bright murals of gods and men, past the water-filled impluvium, and showed him the little bedroom off the atrium that would be his. It was, he had to admit, a nicer room than he had had in Dacia; it was small, but the straw mattress was clean and the whitewashed walls were painted with colorful birds and twining vines. Then Cenaeus kept leading him—past the office, past the dining room, past the kitchen, to the garden. On the other side of the garden, he said, were the slave-quarters and the summer dining room, but he stopped here in the garden.
There was another boy in the garden, a boy of Avizina's own age. His hair was blond—as fair as Avizina was dark—and he sat and frowned in intense concentration at a wax tablet. He was copying out some symbols of some sort; Avizina did not know them.
"This is my cousin's son, Tiberius Antonius Lapidator," Cenaeus said. "He is being fostered here as well. Tiberius!" he said, more sharply, and the boy raised his head. "Here, this is Quintus Antonius, visiting from Dacia. He will live with us."
Tiberius' eyes narrowed, and then he smiled widely. It was a friendly smile, and Avizina smiled back; he liked the thought of having a friend. "Yes, Uncle," Tiberius said, very politely, and then to Avizina: "I am pleased to meet you."
"I am pleased to meet you as well," Avizina said.
Cenaeus gave a fatherly sort of chuckle and retreated to his office. "I will leave you two to become acquainted," he said. Past the archway, curtain tied back, Avizina could see a slave waiting for him—a secretary, no doubt, missives in hand. "Tiberius, why don't you show Antonius what you have been learning?" He smiled a little and drew the curtain shut.
Avizina leaned forward. Perhaps if this Tiberius liked him, it would be all right to tell him the truth, to tell him his name. "My name is not Antonius, though."
"Oh?" Tiberius raised blond eyebrows.
Avizina nodded. "It's Avizina. My proper name, that my father gave me."
Tiberius wrinkled his nose. "Oh, but that is so barbarian!" he said, and Avizina's heart sank. "Antonius is a good name, a noble name. It is my name too, you see, even though Uncle will not call me by it alone yet, for he says we are both Antonii and in this house it would be too confusing." He looked more than a little jealous, mouth twisting, and Avizina wanted to tell him he was welcome to the name. "But you have the name too, and here in Rome you should use it, if you want people to think well of you. I will tell you what to do."
"Will you?" Avizina asked, smiling, hope rekindling in him. Here, perhaps, was a friend who could help him.
Tiberius nodded eagerly. And then he smiled back, and looked abruptly thoughtful. "I like you," he said, and he put an arm around Avizina's thin shoulders. "You will be mine."
The words were matter-of-fact, dripping possession: mine. As one might own a hound, or a horse, or a slave, and Avizina was none of the three. Still, Tiberius would be his friend. This was how friends were, surely?
It was good to have a friend. Perhaps he would like Rome after all. Perhaps it would be as wonderful as his imaginings.
He did not think of himself as Roman as easily as that, but it wore upon him, as water wears upon the stones of a river, and one day he awoke and found that he was Antonius after all, and it no longer seemed strange to answer to the name. Avizina had been left behind; all that was in the past, with a language he no longer spoke, with a fortress he no longer lived under, with the horse-herds he no longer saw every day.
Tiberius became his friend quickly enough; they were forever playing together, and now that they were old enough to be taught by a grammaticus, they took lessons together as well.
Antonius was a clever student, but cleverness did not save him from the lashings of the grammaticus' ferula; in fact, it only made him more subject to it. Still, for a boy who could neither read nor write Latin or Greek when he had come to Rome, he had learned to do both with great speed, such that he was now ready for the grammaticus. He hungered for mathematics, for geography, for engineering lessons, but this particular teacher taught them none of those things: he only wished to fill their heads with poetry, long passages of the Aeneid or the Iliad or the Odyssey that they must set down exactly lest they be beaten again. It was not what Antonius wished to learn, not at all.
At least today they were learning different stories.
"You see," the grammaticus was saying, "the Lapiths were a tribe who lived in Thessaly long ago, and they had many great kings; Ixion and Pirithous are the two best known. You know the story of Pirithous' wedding, do you not?"
Tiberius blew air out his mouth, bored; for him the answer was yes. But Antonius sat up. This was something new. The grammaticus even smiled a little, the expression bizarre on his stern face, at Antonius' happiness. Antonius so rarely pleased the grammaticus.
"Very well, then," he said, and he turned to Antonius. "This was a generation before the fall of Ilium, you understand. Pirithous was son of both Ixion and Zeus; his mother was Dia, but Zeus took on the form of a stallion and covered her. He was a great hero, a friend to Theseus, and together they hunted the Calydonian Boar." Antonius nodded; he had heard those names before. "At any rate, he was set to be married to a woman named Hippodameia. They invited centaurs to their wedding, because the centaurs were also Ixion's children, by Nephele."
Antonius caught his breath. "Centaurs?"
He knew what they were now, for he had learned the name in his lessons last month; he knew the name for the miracle he had seen. He remembered the centaur he had glimpsed last year, resplendent in armor, marching down the streets. Perhaps that very creature had been to Pirithous' wedding. They were immortal, were they not? They were undying. That one could have been there, a millennium ago. He might even have seen the walls of Troy himself.
"Exactly so," the grammaticus said, smiling. "But the centaurs—well, they were wild things, and they handled their wine poorly, so that when it came time to present the bride, they tried to abduct her and the rest of the women, and so force themselves upon the guests. But by good fortune, Theseus was also present, and he and Pirithous fought them off together. They call this battle the Centauromachy."
Tiberius swung his legs back and forth and squirmed a little, but at least he was silent.
Antonius' mouth was hanging open. He tried to imagine the centaur he'd seen, to place him there, at that wedding, drunk and raging like his father on the worst nights, and he could not. "I saw a centaur once," he said instead, finally, presenting the fact like the treasure it was. His secret.
This got Tiberius' attention; Tiberius scoffed. "You did not."
"I did!" Antonius said, indignant. "I wouldn't lie! I saw him in Sarmizegethusa!"
Tiberius turned around, and his face was frozen in perfect derision; Antonius could feel himself starting to shake, inside, where no one could see. He wanted Tiberius to like him, and Tiberius did, he was sure Tiberius did, but sometimes Tiberius was so cruel, cruel when he had no call to be.
"Why would a centaur have come to Dacia?" His tone oozed scorn, as if he thought Antonius did not deserve to have seen a centaur.
"He was with the mounted troops," Antonius said, importantly, because he knew a true thing Tiberius did not, and so there. "He was a soldier. He came when the Romans came to make a treaty." And then he turned to the grammaticus, imploring. "Do you think he was at that wedding too? Do you think he's real?"
"Oh, he's certainly real," the grammaticus said. "Centaurs are quite real. But I am also certain that he was never at that wedding."
"How?" Antonius cried out, forgetting his place, and only after he said it did he wonder if the grammaticus would strike him for his impertinence.
Luckily, the grammaticus took the question as the opportunity for a further lesson. "There are two kinds of centaurs in the world," he began, and when Antonius looked over he saw Tiberius' eyes were wide and enthralled, though he was sure that Tiberius would deny it later; Tiberius didn't know this either. "There are born-centaurs and made-centaurs. Born-centaurs, the kind in the stories, are the children of Ixion, as I have told you."
"And made-centaurs?" Antonius asked, breathless.
The grammaticus chuckled. "Made-centaurs... well, they used to be men. No one living knows quite how they did it. It is said that the Divine Julius had a gift for horses; the horse he himself rode was a prodigy that had hooves cloven like the feet of men, and so the idea came to him that if the gods could provide him a horse with the likeness of a man in that respect, then perhaps they could also give him a man fashioned in the image of a horse, with the strength to match. It is said that he rounded up volunteers from among his soldiers, that there was fasting and secret rites to Apollo and Aesculapius, and there in the temples they fashioned centaurs to fight for him. But the secret of their making died with him. No one now even knows how many he made; we only know that there are made-centaurs among us. So the one you saw, Antonius, the soldier—he was one of Caesar's. Older than any man alive, yes, but not as old as the stories."
Antonius still stared in amazement. No, it was not a story, but it was better than a story, because it was real. He had seen a centaur who had known the Divine Julius, and that was true. Rome was full of marvelous things, indeed.
If he saw the centaur again—because surely soldiers must return to Rome eventually—he would talk to him, he decided. He would greet him. It would be well, to have spoken to him.
"I would pluck his tail for luck," Tiberius drawled.
"I wouldn't!" Antonius said, reflexively. "He wouldn't like it. Horses don't. He wouldn't like it at all."
"All you know about, eh, Dacian? Horseflesh?" Tiberius retorted, rolling his eyes. "And what do you care, anyway?"
Antonius found he could not answer.
Even as Rome strove to remake Antonius into one of hers, she would never quite let him forget that he had never been a true Roman, a native-born citizen.
Tiberius never let him forget it, certainly.
Oh, there was no way in which he was treated differently, at least not in any way he could describe exactly. He received the same instruction as Tiberius. He learned poetry, rhetoric, oratory. He learned the basics of swordsmanship, gladius and buckler. He learned horsemanship, not that he'd needed it; he'd been riding since he could walk, but he did enjoy reading Xenophon's essays on horses. And there was his beloved engineering, for which he had been given a special tutor; Cenaeus had muttered something about it being the wishes of King Decebalus, to whom Rome was already sending engineers. He read Vitruvius and Pliny; he learned about the building of roads and mines and aqueducts. He learned of military engineering as well as civil—forts and ditches, bridges and walls, sappers and rams and siegeworks. He went to sleep dreaming of battles, of fortresses besieged, of the best angles for ballistae.
When he was fourteen, he became a man in the eyes of Rome, as Tiberius did: he put on the toga virilis for the first time.
He learned to be charming. His Greek was impeccable, and even then, as a youth, he could hold forth on a great number of topics. Everyone who met him knew that he was brilliant.
But he was not one of them. He was eighteen, and he had been in Rome for a decade, and still he was not one of them.
When he was not dreaming up grand ideas, as he liked to do, Cenaeus also liked to host grand dinner-parties—enough guests to make up the auspicious nine—and they were all Romans of similarly noble birth: no novi homines, no jumped-up freedmen's sons, and especially no fostered foreign princes. None except him, at least. He felt as if he were a performing animal, taught tricks, asked to parrot back how Roman he was—or sometimes, how Roman he wasn't.
On this particular evening, Tiberius, lying in the place next to him, face flushed with wine, rolled over. "Say something in Dacian, Antonius, do!"
Antonius sighed. "I hate when you do this," he said, in Dacian, and Tiberius beamed, entirely unknowing.
"There!" Tiberius said, to the man on the other side of him. "And you would hardly know he was not Roman, to listen to him."
Antonius shut his eyes. He had given up his own people—his own father had given him to this!—and he had gotten nothing. He was not Roman. He was hardly Dacian; he was painfully conscious of how childish his own Dacian sounded, when he tried speaking it to himself—how sometimes he only knew a boy's foolish words or did not know the right words at all and had to say them in Latin or Greek.
"Excuse me," he said. "I think the meal has disagreed with me," he added, and he summoned a slave for his house-sandals and slipped off the couch.
That night he lay in his bed, sleepless; he could not bring himself to douse the oil-lamp and instead watched the shadows flicker across the walls. He tried to remember what it had been like to sleep in Sarmizegethusa; if he closed his eyes, Antonius thought he could imagine it. He had not had his own room then, and he could have heard the breaths and the soft sleeping sounds of his family, of the entire household. He imagined that it was still there waiting for him, a moment trapped in amber; he imagined that if he mounted a horse and headed east, everything would be exactly thus, as he had left it.
Then the curtain was drawn back, and Tiberius stepped into the room.
"What?" Antonius asked, confused, pushing himself up.
Tiberius staggered forward to sit at the edge of the bed. He was drunker than he had been when Antonius had left; he reeked of wine. "I want to apologize," he slurred. "I was unkind."
And then he put a hand on Antonius' thigh, sliding it high under the edge of his tunic.
Antonius stilled, frozen, and he looked down at where Tiberius' hand lay. It was not a question of whether he wanted Tiberius; that much was clear. It was a question of power, a move on a game-board where half of Antonius' pieces were gone from the beginning. If Tiberius had merely wanted companionship, he could have had one of the slaves. He ought to have done so. If he was here wanting the same thing from Antonius, it was not because he truly wanted him.
He knew that good Roman men did not do these things, not with other good Roman men. Antonius himself did not give a tuft of wool for what good Romans did as it applied to his own desires, but the important thing now was that Tiberius did care. In the morning Tiberius would look at him and think him lesser, and treat him lesser, as he had at dinner, if he let Tiberius do what he wanted. He would be lesser, not truly Roman. He would be a man to whom it would be all right to do such things.
It did not matter that Antonius did like it, either way. That was not the point.
"I thank you for the apology," Antonius said, very formally, and he plucked Tiberius' hand away. "You should sleep. It's late."
Tiberius stared at him for a long while. Then his eyes went hard, cold as ice.
He rose and left.
Antonius fell back onto the bed and did not sleep.
In the morning, Tiberius pretended it had never happened.
It was not all bad; not all the Romans were as Tiberius. Unfortunately for Antonius' social standing, those who liked him best were probably not the sort whose friendships he should have been cultivating. His two closest friends were Quintus Antonius Felix, one of Cenaeus' freedmen—as if the name hadn't given away his status—and Felix' wife, called Rufilla for her red hair. When Felix had been a slave, he'd been one of the grooms, and then the drivers, but since he'd bought his freedom he'd taken up a more lucrative profession: slave-catcher.
Antonius had expressed some surprise. It was not that strange that a freedman should be a slave-catcher, no, but it was strange that Felix should want to be.
"Eh," Felix said, grinning, as he pushed himself out of the tepidarium pool, shook himself off, and followed Antonius to the next room of the baths. "It pays."
Antonius took a sharp, pained breath, as always, on the threshold; the heated air of the caldarium was always a bit of a shock.
"How did you decide to become that?" Antonius asked, as he handed his towel to his slave and then lay down on one of the benches. "Mmm." He sighed and pillowed his head on his arms as the bath-slaves came forth with the oil and the strigil. Romans took pride in their baths for good reason, and, like every other Roman, Antonius had come to love the daily ritual of it. He stretched luxuriantly as the slave massaged the perfumed oil into his back and shoulders.
Felix made an ambivalent noise; when Antonius glanced over he saw a slave working at Felix' much more scarred back with oil. "Well," he said, "it was Rufilla's idea to start."
He nodded. "She's clever, my Rufilla," he said, and he was beaming with pride. "She knew I did not love horses—no offense meant," he added. He was one of the few people who knew that Antonius was horse-mad and did not mock him for it; he gave him all the racing news, tales of which faction had won however many races. (They both favored the Reds.) "So she thought that, since I knew so many men, from my days as Cenaeus' slave, that I would be trusted by them. That, and if they fight—" his mouth creased in a smile— "well, I do not so much mind fighting."
Felix was built like a brawler and by the look of him his nose had been broken at least once; he had taught Antonius a few moves, less polite than what he should have been learning as a young man of good breeding. In return Antonius had not asked where Felix had learned them.
Antonius considered it. "That makes sense."
He shut his eyes, pleased, as the slave scraped him clean with the strigil. He loved the scratch of it, the metal against his skin. It was perhaps a little odd, but he knew he was already odd. For all that he had been raised Roman, he had not quite absorbed all of her morals, especially as regarded his bed partners; he did not see why he was only supposed to want someone who was lesser than himself, a slave.
And here he was with a friend who caught slaves, being scraped by slaves. The one use, he supposed, bothered him more than the others.
"Rufilla helps, too," Felix added. "Sometimes there are those who will talk to her and not me." He stretched. "It is a good life, better than being in one of those damnably cold provinces. Can you imagine living in, say, Britain?" He shuddered.
Antonius found that he could imagine it: a wild land, untamed and beautiful. And it could not be much colder than Tomis in winter! But this was not what Felix needed to hear.
They passed the rest of the bath together in companionable silence.
"To the barber's, then?" Felix asked, as they stepped outside.
Antonius ran two fingers over his stubbled chin and shook his head. "Not for me," he said. "I have been thinking about mustaches. A beard, perhaps."
Felix gave him a look he couldn't read. "That's very... Dacian of you, Antonius."
"Yes," he said firmly. "It is."
He was in his twenty-second summer when the news came; he knew that it was news of home from the very beginning of the letter, for a Roman would have given him his proper Roman name. To Avizina, son of Tarbus, from Zinnas, freedman of Tarbus, it said, and he knew then what the news was, without reading further.
His father would only have freed Zinnas in his will; Zinnas had refused before.
You are chieftain of the Appuli now, the letter read, in Zinnas' neat Greek script. Your father and mother both took ill and died. Come home. You are needed.
Antonius crumpled the papyrus in his fist, and his tears marred the ink.
He had thought that it was bad to be Dacian in Rome, and he had dreamed—the dreams of a foolish child, naturally—that he would come home, that he would be where he belonged, that he would feel perfectly right. At ease.
Antonius had not, perhaps, considered that a decade in Rome might have changed him—him, and how others saw him.
Zinnas alone came to embrace him in greeting as he arrived at the settlement of Sarmizegethusa. They turned west together onto the road that led to his family's home. His home. He was to pay his respects at Decebalus' court, of course, in the citadel proper, but that could wait until he had cleaned himself up from the journey. He had traveled most of the way up a mountain, after all.
"How was Rome?" Zinnas asked, in a kindly manner, as if Antonius had been away ten days and not ten years, as if Antonius had ever written, as if his family had ever written to him.
Antonius shut his eyes and trembled, tilting his head down onto Zinnas' shoulder. He was taller than Zinnas, and something about that was strange; part of him had expected the man to be forever the same height, forever the same age. He was older now. Well, and so? They both were.
"Different," he said, finally, and Zinnas' arms tightened around him briefly. "Large."
"So they say," Zinnas said, and then released him.
Antonius looked down and smiled at him. "And what of you? You are freed now, yes?"
Zinnas nodded, smiling back, as he led them up the terraces; Antonius knew well enough that his own family's house sat on the highest of the terraces, but he did not want to think about what it meant that he did not know the way well enough, that he had forgotten the precise turnings. He had been a child; everything had looked different then. It was still his home, though. Of course it was.
"I am free," Zinnas said, but he sounded uncertain.
"I will feed and house you," Antonius said instantly. "Of course I will. You must know I would do that for you." But that did not seem to make Zinnas' anxiety lessen. He thought about it. "Or is it some woman you have your eye on, now that you are a free man and can marry her? Is that what plagues your thoughts?"
Zinnas shook his head. "Nothing of the sort. I will tell you when we are inside."
They began to pass by the houses: little log cabins, on stone foundations, the wooden doors bound with iron. It was a Dacian style, nothing like what they had in Rome. As they stepped up to the higher terrace, the nearby walls were Dacian too, worked in that particular style with wood running through them, something else that Antonius had never seen at Rome either.
Eventually they stopped, and Antonius blinked at the building in front of him in familiarity and surprise. It was another cabin, like the rest of them: logs on the outside, the inside clay-walled. He could see by the flickering of the torches inside that the walls were painted, as he had remembered them. The paint was fresh, newly-renewed; the artist was crudely aping Greek styles.
He had remembered the place as larger. No, his mind corrected him, he remembered it as better. It was cramped and dark, nothing like fine airy Roman homes. And then he wanted to recoil, for how could he be thinking of Cenaeus' home on the Caelian, or his Baiae summer villa... how could he think that those things were better than this, his family home?
"So," Antonius began, "what did you wish to tell me?"
Zinnas looked around. The room was empty, but he stepped close, furtive, like one of the emperor's spies.
"It's about your father," Zinnas said, very quietly, and something in Antonius' gut roiled. "Your father and the king."
"What of them?" His voice was hoarse.
Zinnas' words were careful. "You know that, with your father dead, many of the oaths men swore to him fall on you."
"I know," Antonius said, tightly. Of course he knew. His time with the Romans had not robbed him of the ability to know his own honor.
"Then you should know," Zinnas said, still low, quiet, "that he was the king's ally. Your people will expect you to act as he acted. You know of the engineers?"
Why did Zinnas continue to tell him things he already knew? "Yes, certainly," Antonius said, impatient to get on with it. "My father asked me to go to Rome and become an engineer for the king, to replace the Roman ones. I have done that. I am here." And he had loved the learning, too; if it had been up to him he would have joined the army, for they needed engineers, and Roman military engineering was a feat unmatched in all the world. "So now I suppose I shall get on with planning aqueducts or whatever it is the king will have me do."
Zinnas began to chuckle, slow and weary; his lined eyes fell shut, and when he opened them, his gaze was piercing. "Ah, Avizina, you were a child, and he told you a child's story." Antonius thought perhaps that was the first time he had heard that name in ten years, and something about it settled into his bones; it felt right. "Think! What do you think the king wants his own engineers for? Why do you think he wants Dacians and not Romans?"
"He wants loyal men," Antonius said, quickly, because that answer was a reflex. "He wants them to— oh." And then he saw the rest of the answer, all at once, swooping down on him, like archers launching volleys from the fortress above them. "He wants siege engineers. He's... preparing for a fight."
Antonius breathed in sharply, a knife-stab of surprise, betrayal. Why had they sent him to Rome, schooled him with Romans, only to bring him back and have him bear arms against his adopted home? He would lose his Roman citizenship. He would lose it all. He would be a barbarian. Rome would sneer at him.
But he would have his true home. He would be Dacian. His people. His blood. How could he have forgotten them?
But his name was Antonius, he thought, and everything swirled together, confused, like blood dripping away from a sacrifice.
"They say Decebalus is using the money Rome pays him—you know about that, yes? They say he's using it to hire mercenaries. Soldiers. Roman deserters, they say."
"Is he?" Antonius' voice went sharp; it seemed suddenly very important to him that he know whether it was true. That he give up the past decade of his life for the truth, and the truth alone.
Zinnas shrugged. "That, your father never told me. I only know that there are many new men, at the citadel and in town. They wear long tunics, and the sleeves hide their hands."
"Soldiers' tattoos." Romans marked the hands of soldiers thus, and for this very reason: to mark the deserters. "He's violating the treaty. The king is. And he wants me to— I am bound to help—"
His vision swam with tears; he could not finish the sentence. It was not that he wanted to be disloyal. He wanted to serve the king. But he loved Rome now, too, and he felt that betrayal keenly. It was a wretched thing, to be torn.
"The treaty is worthless," Zinnas said, very slowly, as if Antonius were a child once again and he was imparting a lesson. "They would always have come. They want our gold, our silver. The treaty only lets them bleed us slowly."
Zinnas lay a hand on Antonius' shoulder. "Rome was a large city, you said?"
He nodded, not knowing what Zinnas meant by it, but it was true. "She was a fine city indeed."
"Rome grows large," Zinnas said, "on the backs of her enemies. She breaks them, like the cruelest of horse-tamers. She will break us, if we do not stop her."
Antonius shut his eyes. "I will do what I must," he said, and he knew it was right, but he still struggled not to cry.
He became Avizina again.
He knew, to the instant, the moment when it happened: he went to the fortress that night. He knelt before the king. No—Antonius had knelt, had bowed his head to the ground, but it was Avizina who rose.
"You will serve me," Decebalus asked, "as your father served me?"
He was an older man now; he had been king twenty years since he had taken the name Decebalus, since they had beaten back the Romans the first time. But there was still a bright fire in his eyes. This was a man who led men to fight, who rallied all of Dacia around him. He was a man worth following.
"Your majesty," said Avizina, "I will."
Smiles went all around the room at that—the king, his court, the strange soldiers that Zinnas had spoken of—but Avizina found that the smile did not come true to his face. He felt, still, as if he were betraying Rome.
It was only a feeling; it would pass. He made his obeisance and walked out, past the light of the torches, staring down the mountain.
A sign, he thought, looking down to the town below and then up into the heavens. Give me a sign that I do the right thing.
Just as he thought it, there was a bright streak across the night sky, angling down into the east. It was an omen, and almost before Avizina knew what he was doing, he was off following it, picking his way back down the mountain, down to where the turning in the west was for the town. East of the road was the sacred precinct, the ring of stones, the calendar, and Avizina hesitated. That was where the sign he had seen had led him, and yet even he was not so bold as to step there himself. He was no priest.
Nonetheless, he took a few steps off the road, in the direction of the precinct, and he knew it was enough. He knew here was right, and then his shoe scuffed at a stone and he tumbled into the ditch at the roadside, arms outstretched—
A little scraped-up, Avizina opened his eyes, looked down at himself, and found that he was clutching a stone in his fist, likely the very same one he had tripped on. He lifted his hand to throw it away, and then it caught the moonlight. Something in it sparked blue, bright, like a gem.
Here was the sign.
Since he had no torch, he had to walk home before there was enough light to see what it was, and it was glorious. The stone was a brilliant blue, like the blue-green stone the Greeks called kalaïs; to his shame, he realized he did not know the word in Dacian. But it was flat and huge, nearly the size of his fist, and where kalaïs was opaque, this was translucent, the light shining on it making it reflect burning blue fire, as if the stone itself glowed.
And the heavens had pointed him to it.
This was his path: to raise arms against Rome.
He pictured Romans mocking him; he pictured Tiberius laughing and dismissing him. Rome breaks backs, Zinnas had said. No, no, he did not want that. He did not want them. They trained him—and what if they had? They trained him to fight them.
When the war came, he would fight.
The Romans came that autumn.
They would hold them off at Tapae, at the Iron Gates, in a pass very near to the river gorge itself. It was the same place they had held fifteen years ago. Decebalus had hardly needed to say so. The strategy, too, that was easy, for how hard could it be to hold one's own mountain pass? The Romans would come, expecting to fight them in the pass—but Decebalus had a trick prepared: a second force, sweeping around behind the unprepared Romans. They would merely assemble forces on either side of the pass, and then crush the Romans within the pass, between them, like the press of a vise.
Avizina led the Appuli, as his honor demanded. He had spent the night before the battle praying, kneeling in the dirt, raising his hands to the heavens, and making promises. To Sabazios the horseman's god, he thought, he would give even the blue sky-stone that had fallen, if the god gave him this victory. He thought about praying, too, to Roman gods; he wondered how many men in the Roman camp were even now promising rings and gems, daggers and swords to Mars Ultor, Mars the Avenger, in hopes of the very same thing.
In the morning he woke up, so nervous that he wanted to vomit. Without opening his eyes he knew the sounds of the marching-camp: the wash of noise that was men chattering all around him, the scrape of swords being sharpened, the stamping and snorting of horses at the picket lines. Even surrounded by so many men, he was alone. Here he was, commanding men twice his age, with no experience of his own save Roman sword-drills and Felix having taught him how to fight dirty against angry drunkards. Avizina opened his eyes to gray, clouded skies, swore, and got up anyway.
They assembled under Avizina's father's banner—his banner now—a version of the king's familiar dragon standard. They were part of the main force, with the king, the troops that would engage the Romans first and hold them in the pass while the trap was sprung.
Avizina watched the banner ripple in the wind, watched horses nervously toss their heads and snort, watched the men without horses pass out weapons. This was not just any weapon: it was the falx. The falx was the Dacian weapon—a two-handed sickle, sharpened on the inside. It was vicious to even shielded enemies, for a man with a falx could simply reach past the shield, hook the edge of the falx over a leg or arm or even a neck, and pull. It was deadly.
Avizina had grown up in Rome. He had never learned the falx.
One man, tattooed and bare-chested—as most of the men were, for the battle—approached Avizina, holding out a falx and then reversing it, for him to take the handle. "Sir," the man said, "here. A weapon."
Avizina shook his head, and his face was hot with shame. "I cannot," he said. "I do not know the way of it. I will have a sword and shield."
He tried not to tell himself that they were Roman weapons. Just because Rome had taught him the use of them did not mean he was any less Dacian. And at any rate he would have a long sword, like the horsemen did, and perhaps that reach would get him past the Romans and their short-swords. He knew how Romans were trained to fight, after all; he had trained as one.
It was almost time.
He stripped off his tunic, leaving his trousers on. The Romans wanted to fight screaming bearded half-naked barbarians? He could give them that, he thought, grinning a little, running his hand over his chin. He left the blue stone settled in its thong about his chest. He would give the Romans something to be afraid of—they would never have seen its like. Besides, in battle his men would know him by it.
He hefted the sword, left-handed, tested its balance. Being a left-handed fighter was unusual; that, too, was to his advantage. He picked up his shield, a round buckler, and slid it onto his other arm. The shield, painted bright with another dragon, was not quite as heavy as what he had learned with in Rome, but he knew that they gave novices heavier practice arms so that the lightness of the real ones would be a relief.
All was in readiness.
The trumpets sounded. From the Roman side of the pass came a similar sound.
They raised their weapons and ran.
After that Avizina could not focus much beyond the rhythm of the fighting: he was fast, and so he stepped in past a soldier's guard and brought his sword down, stabbing as he had been taught to. Metal slid in between the gap between his foe's armor and neck padding, and the man went down. His first kill. The Romans were wearing greaves and armguards now, and some of them had their helmet-straps reinforced with iron. The Romans would be harder targets for the falx, now that they were not bare-limbed, but judging by the deadly swing of the man to his right, Avizina knew the blades were still finding their marks.
Breathing hard, he ducked a clumsy swing and came up, knocking the sword out of an unbalanced Roman's hand, kicking him down.
He heard a second call, the trumpet heralding Decebalus' other force, coming up on the other side, pinning the Romans in the pass. The trap needed to be sprung quickly, so the Romans could not escape: they'd saved most of the horsemen for this. Avizina looked up and grinned a bloody grin at the sight, a wedge of cavalry stretching across the pass, thundering down on the Romans like the gods themselves.
The Romans did not break; they were too disciplined for that. But they started to fall. They turned and ran from the horses, ran up against Avizina and his men, practically ran against their swords.
"For the king!" Avizina cried out, raising his sword, and he heard the cheer echoed, as blood dripped down his arm.
He killed another, and another. There was no fear in him now; it was all a matter of training. Stab, like he'd been taught—it was a matter of stabbing rather than slashing, which would have been the instinctive move. Two inches in the right place; that was how the saying went for the Romans. Stab, stab, block, stab. It was easy.
It was too easy.
Something was wrong here.
It was as if the Romans had been holding back. It was as if these were not the best of their men.
Why in the world would they have been holding back?
Then came another trumpet call.
It was only that he was aware of the wrongness of the situation that he was listening for it, and it was chance that he heard it at all: it was a Roman call.
The Roman soldiers that remained knew the call, though Avizina did not. Those who were near each other knelt upon the ground, pulling their shields over themselves and their comrades: the testudo formation. Those who were alone merely dropped and covered themselves, slightly less efficiently.
Avizina knew then that he had to do the same. He was one of the few Dacians with a shield at all, and his little round parma was nothing compared to Roman military shields, rectangles that covered them from neck to knee. But he dropped onto the blood-soaked earth and curled up on his side, all of him tucked under the shield as best as he could.
Then came the first volley of arrows, and the screams of the wounded and dying.
It had been a trap. The Romans were on the slopes. The Romans were on the sides of the mountain. They had pinned the Dacians, as the Dacians had tried to pin them.
The Dacians had been wrong, they had been arrogant, and there was nothing to do but die.
And then the arrows ceased, and that was worse, because Avizina knew what that meant: the rest of the Romans were coming down. They were running down the slopes to finish the Dacians off.
He sprang to his feet, sword slipping in his sweat-slick hand, and he brought his head up to see a huge soldier bearing down on him. These were the real troops, kept in reserve. The Roman grinned at him and swung at him, hitting aside his shield with such force that it was as if he had not carried it at all.
Avizina could see the blow heading toward his chest and twisted; it did not sink in, but caught and rent the skin over his breastbone, sliding under the blue amulet, opening him up in a line of bloody fire. He gasped at the shock, stepped back, fumbled the landing, and the Roman pressed forward, but not with the blade's edge. The soldier's fist flashed out—
Avizina was falling, and his head snapped back, back hard, as the punch connected with his face. The sky was above him and his head hit the ground, and then there was nothing but heavy, bloody darkness.
He did not open his eyes when he awoke; he did not want to know where he was, as if seeing it would make the nightmare complete. His chest burned like fire, and he thought perhaps it was his death coming to him.
He had gone through all that, to die so senselessly, crushed by Rome. He should have realized before that Romans were the enemy. He should not have tasted the sweet lie. He had been seduced by Rome's finery, her power, her marble and gilt brilliance. He should have known that he was never one of them. He should have known that Rome only ever wanted him for this.
He was upright, sitting on a hard wooden seat that jostled under him. It was the movement of a horse-cart. There was the press of men on either side of him, holding him in place, and the reek of sweat and filth. His wrists and ankles felt heavy, weighted, raw: they had cuffed and fettered him. With every bounce of the cart, someone swore softly in Greek or Dacian, or groaned out their agony.
He opened his eyes, looked down, and saw the chains.
They had left him his amulet, as unbelievable as that was; it dangled lightly about his neck, glinting in the sunlight, as if this one pure thing of his people could remain free from the horror that his life was now becoming. Under it was pale linen, crusted brown with drying blood, soaked in it.
They had lost. Had he not prayed enough? He must not have. If only he had been a good man, properly pious, the gods would have favored him and his people. He had not given the sky-stone to Sabazios, as he had promised, and there would be no temple to Sabazios where he was going. Perhaps Sabazios had refused the gift. Perhaps he had made a mistake in refusing to name the gods by their Roman names too, in his prayers, for the Romans would have said a prayer was only made rightly when a god was called by all his names.
Perhaps if he had said the Roman names the gods would have listened.
He had done it wrong, and it was his fault, and now he was here. There could be no argument that he was not deserving of his fate. The gods had chosen this for him. He deserved this.
The wagon was full of men. Dacians. Warriors. The road was filled with dozens—hundreds!—of carts, just like this one, stretching before and behind him. They were prisoners.
"Ah," said the man on his left. A stranger. A fellow captive. "You're awake."
He licked dry lips; at first, no sound came from him. "Wh—"
"You were out a long time," the man said, in a kindly voice. "A great many days. You've been awake but drifting for the past two or three days. Didn't think you were going to make it."
He wanted to say that he wished he had not, but he knew as he thought it that he did not mean it, not like that. He would not die a slave. He would die free, as he had been born; he would live for that.
"Where are we?"
The man huffed out a dry chuckle. "About a day from Rome."
Rome. The city. The one he had dreamed of for so long. The one he had lived in for half his life. And here he would be again, a Roman, but living in thrall to another. There would be no finery for him. He would be property—owned, kept, even given a name of his owner's choosing.
He would not abide it.
Whatever they did to him, he would win free. He was better than this. He wanted to be better than this.
He spat, and he tasted blood.
The slave-dealer looked down at him, and he did not move to push himself up from the dirt of the slave-pens, because he had the feeling that the man wanted him there, abased. He was already almost naked. He had only a loincloth and his pendant, which dangled over the raw, healing wounds. They would scar badly, he knew.
"Eh?" The man leaned down and ran a finger over the blue sky-stone. "And who are you, to have such a thing, boy?"
"I am Antonius," he said, in Latin, the name falling imperiously from his lips, as his own foster-father Cenaeus would have said it.
He realized that that was his name now, again: Antonius. It was the name he would let them have, the name that belonged to Rome. His name, his Dacian name, was his. His own. Not to be shared, not until he was a free man. He would be free again.
The man threw his head back and laughed. "Is that so? A fine senator, are you? How old are you, boy? What skills do you have?"
His slaves stood behind him, boards at the ready, to fill out the sign he would hold at auction. One held the chalk for his bare feet, the custom that would show that he was a new slave. It was morning; the auction would be at the seventh hour, or so he had heard whispered.
"Twenty-one," he said, "and I am an engineer."
The slave-dealer raised an eyebrow; it was an unimpressed, vacuous stare. "And I am the first citizen."
"Believe me, or don't," Antonius said. It did not matter to him; there was no point in lying, anyway. He wanted them to know the truth. "I have learned engineering and mathematics. I can read and write Greek and Latin. I can fight with sword and buckler. I am skilled with horses." And all of these things, save the last, Rome had taught him. And here he was, on his knees. For Rome.
The man waved a beefy hand at the entire pen. "You lot are all horsemen. What good does that do me? You're all for the arena, anyway."
Antonius let himself smile, just a little. "You're going to tell someone, aren't you?"
"You're going to tell someone," he repeated. "You're going to finish your rounds, and you're going to say that it was the strangest thing, but one of the Dacian slaves only answers to a fine Roman name and says he can read and write and figure. He says he can build a siege engine or an aqueduct. And you're going to wonder what kind of man does that. And then Rumor herself will fly." He let his hand, scraped and muddied, flutter in the air like a bird's wing.
"And who will come to buy you, little senator?" The man was still chuckling. He still did not believe him, Antonius knew.
"Well," Antonius said. "You'll find out, won't you?"
One of the dealer's slaves handed him his board—chalked with the information Antonius had given—and then the group walked off, leaving him sitting alone, shivering in the autumn chill.
Perhaps Cenaeus would hear of it, in the baths, and recognize him. Perhaps Cenaeus would buy him. He had always been kind. Perhaps Felix and Rufilla would hear; as a slave-catcher, did Felix not hear all the gossip of slaves? Perhaps they would buy him.
He sat half-dreaming, in a daze, and was jolted unpleasantly out of it as a pair of booted feet stopped in front of him. They were new boots, clean, well-made. It was a rich man, then. Antonius looked up.
Tiberius smiled down at him, hair gone dazzling and golden in the sun. One would think—if one did not know him—that he was beautiful. That this was kindness.
No, Antonius thought, stupidly. I never meant this.
"Antonius," Tiberius purred.
Tiberius ad Tiberim, he thought, and he knew why the slaves had whispered that about him, the old political chant, when they thought he could not hear. To the Tiber with Tiberius.
"I had not expected to see you," Antonius said, finally.
"No?" Tiberius' voice was arch. "You certainly had your name put about. Clever of you, but, then, you always were. But not, I think, clever enough in the end. Not so clever now, are you?"
He crouched, so that they were on a level, and he ran one hand over the dull iron of the cuff at Antonius' wrist, then up past the metal and over his skin. Antonius shivered at the touch.
"Don't touch me," Antonius said. His voice sounded very quiet in his own ears.
Tiberius only smiled wider. "You're a slave," he said, his voice barely more than breath. It was a observation made with pleasure, and that was when Antonius knew that there was something mad in Tiberius, that there had been all along, for what man would be pleased to do this to a friend? "Your body is not yours, and it is not for you to say who may touch it."
"It isn't yours either," Antonius pointed out. "I have not been sold. I am meant for the arena."
The slave-dealer had said so. That meant that one of the ludi, the gladiator schools, would buy him. The sands of the arena would be better than Tiberius. Even the mines would be better than Tiberius. Tiberius would break him for the joy of breaking him, because it pleased him—worse, Tiberius would turn him on himself, make him think that he liked this, make him live and breathe for his approval.
Tiberius scoffed. "You are one among hundreds. If I wish to purchase one of the Dacian captives for myself—why, that is hardly worth noticing! The men of the ludus will not mind, not in the slightest. There is no one who will stop me. And then, then you will be mine."
He ran two soft fingers along Antonius' stubbled jaw, a shockingly intimate slide of flesh.
Before Antonius could think about what he was doing, he brought up his bound hands and slammed them against Tiberius' chest. Tiberius wobbled, tangled in his toga, and fell backwards into the dirt.
"Go die on a bad cross," Antonius snarled. "Furcifer."
Tiberius was on his feet, and Antonius could not stand, not without enough chain. Tiberius kicked out, catching him under the chin, sending him sprawling onto his back.
Tiberius planted a boot in the middle of Antonius' chest, grinding the amulet down into the still-raw wounds, and Antonius gasped and struggled to breathe.
"You," Tiberius said, cold and precise, "are going to regret that."
And then he was gone.
The sky cleared, the day warmed, and the sun moved higher; it had to be at least the sixth hour. The auction was approaching. Antonius was beginning to—if not regret his actions, exactly—wonder about the life he had just let himself in for. He deserved this, he thought, this miserable life with Tiberius. If he had been better, stronger, more clever, more pious—he would not have found himself here. It was his fault. He was weak. He had failed his kin, his people.
There was another man walking toward him, eyes fixed on him. A stranger. He was a man of middling age, dark hair gone to white at his temples, and he had an eyepatch over his left eye. He wore a plain tunic without a toga, but that did not mean he was not a citizen; it only meant he was not as showy about it—or as rich—as Tiberius. And he was walking alone, without slaves; he had an air of confidence about him. He was a man who expected to be obeyed.
Antonius clenched and unclenched his fists.
"So," the man began, in a voice that was meant to sound casual, "I heard that Tiberius Lapidator came to visit one of the Dacian captives. I heard that this captive struck Lapidator and called him a cross-bearer." He crouched, as Tiberius had, to look Antonius in the eyes. "Is that a thing you would know about?"
Antonius' smile was fey. "I'd think that would be Lapidator's business."
"Not entirely," the man said. "It is also mine." He held out a hand. "Furius, of the Ludus Dacicus. We are a new gladiator school, built mainly for you Dacians, but we are not picky, not in the slightest. And you are Antonius."
Antonius did not shake his hand. Either this Furius knew who he was, and he had not given Antonius' full Roman name—the name he no longer deserved—to shame him; or he did not, and there was no need to give him information for free. "Well, then," Antonius said. "Now we know each other."
"And we both know Tiberius Lapidator." Furius' tone was idle. "A dangerous man to know, hmm? Although more for you than for me. He came to me asking to buy a certain Dacian at the auction, a man with—" he gestured— "a blue gem about his neck. The ludus has right of refusal for all the Dacian captives. So I come to you, Antonius." The name was very slightly stressed. "I come to you because you have made yourself a very interesting man, this morning, and I wanted to see you for myself. I wanted you to know that your fate was in my hands."
Antonius smiled again, though he felt nothing like happiness. "And? I am a slave now; I know that I lost my freedom when I fell at the Iron Gates. If you want to tell me I belong to you, that I do not say where I go now, you may save your breath, for I am well aware." He bit out the last two words.
But this seemed to please Furius, for he smiled back. "Mmm," he said. "Good. There is fire in you. I thought there might be." He nodded. "I think you would do well, on the sands. The crowd will see that spark; they will know you yearn for your freedom. They will cheer you on as you strive for the wooden sword that frees you. Do you hate Rome?" The abrupt question was also idle, almost laconic.
Antonius swallowed. "I hate what Rome has done to me. To my people."
"That will sustain you, then," Furius said. "I don't particularly care, myself, why you burn, only that you do. But if you do not fight willingly with that fire, you are a waste to me, and I might as well not have you at all. So I am here to ask you a question, Antonius: will you fight? Or should I let Lapidator have you?"
Anything, anything but Tiberius.
Antonius stared up at Furius, and he knew that this was another crossroads, like the moment when he was young and had seen the centaur and—however wrongly—picked Rome, or when he had found his sky-stone and been set on the right path again. He did not deserve this choice, but he was being given it, and now he needed to choose rightly.
"I will fight." The words rang out of his mouth like a battle-cry. "Buy me, and I will fight."
Furius smiled. "I thought you might say that. See you at the auction."
They stripped him naked. They chalked his feet. They handed him the board listing his skills. They led him to the auction block.
The day now was hot and bright, and the crowd was huge; it was almost too much to take, dizzying in its immensity. Tiberius of course was visible, and near him was... Felix. Distantly, Antonius thought perhaps he ought to be shamed, standing here with his friend watching him be auctioned, but he felt nothing of the sort: he felt armored. Nothing could touch him. Not the crowd, not Tiberius. He knew where he was going.
Felix' eyes were hooded; from afar, Antonius could not make out the words he mouthed, but his face was downcast in apology. He had heard and come to bid after all, Antonius thought, but Felix knew he could not bid against Tiberius and win. Hence the sorrow.
Tiberius smirked up at him.
And there, near the auctioneer but still on the ground, was Furius, squinting up at him with his one good eye; he had the look of a general plotting out a battle plan. He had brought a slave with him after all, to judge from how closely the man behind him stood in the press of the crowd, and that was just bizarre. The man standing behind Furius was blond and pale, like a Gaul, and he must have been standing on a box or some such thing, because he was huge, inhumanly so; Furius' head came a little more than halfway up his chest. If that was one of the gladiators, well, Antonius would have quite a challenge ahead of him on the sands. Perhaps this was Furius' attempt at subtlety; he should not so much as think about escaping, because Furius' giant would stop him in an instant. He couldn't really be that tall, though; nobody could be. He probably really was standing on a box, for some strange reason.
The huge blond man looked over the heads of the crowd at Antonius, and pale blue eyes met his. The man's face was still, almost resigned. Antonius wondered if the man was trying to tell him something.
"One Dacian," the auctioneer said, holding a hand out to Antonius. "Twenty-one years of age, literate in Greek and Latin, trained as an engineer, also conversant in weaponry." The auctioneer's eyes flicked over to Furius. "If the ludus expresses no interest, bidding will begin at three hundred sesterces."
The price was, frankly, an insult. The auctioneer's glance at Furius was dismissive, as it should have been; with the skills Antonius had listed, there was no reason the ludus should want him. They did not need an engineer, and they likely already had lettered men to serve as secretaries. The auctioneer expected Furius to say no.
Tiberius raised a hand, a triumphant grin on his face.
In the crowd, Felix shut his eyes, his expression twisted in misery.
Antonius realized he was holding his breath.
"The ludus will buy him," Furius said. "Three hundred."
The crowd broke into astonished murmurs.
"Sold," the auctioneer said, voice high in bewilderment. "Enjoy your engineer."
Antonius shut his eyes and sagged in relief in his bonds, stepping blindly forward off the block. He did not care that he was naked; he did not care that he was collared, cuffed and fettered, as one of the auctioneer's slaves tugged him off by the chain he had been bound with, as one might bring a hound to heel. Everything seemed blurry, his thoughts slow to come. He found he had sagged so low as to be sitting in the dirt, and he did not care.
Furius handed a heavy coin-purse to the auctioneer and looked up; the slave offered him Antonius' lead. He waved it off. "No," he said. "Stephanos will hold him."
He stepped aside, and the tall blond man stepped forward, and Antonius stared and wondered if he was dreaming.
Stephanos was not a man at all. He was a centaur.
He was the very centaur Antonius had seen as a child; he would swear to it. There could be none other with that golden coat, just barely visible on his legs, for he wore a horse-blanket over the rest of him. Antonius was sure his mouth had fallen open. What was the centaur doing here?
And Stephanos was staring down at him, his gaze unreadable; he had judged him, and Antonius did not know what he had found. Stephanos seemed to be waiting for him to comment.
"Hail," Antonius said, weakly.
Stephanos smiled down. "Hail," he repeated. His Latin had a Greek accent, which was not out of place for his name, but every slave had a Greek name these days, and so it was more than a little surprising to think that he'd come by it honestly. But centaurs were Greek, weren't they?
The smile was kindly, and there was something earnest in it, something real. For all that he had something of Tiberius, in general appearance—and Antonius could certainly admit to himself a preference for blond men, for it was not that Tiberius had looked bad—he had nothing of the cruelty. If he was to be in this man's power, perhaps it would not be such a nightmare.
"This is Stephanos," Furius said. "He is a slave, but he acts as my lanista, and sometimes fights on the sands himself. We are... a slightly unusual school."
How had Stephanos come to be a slave? He had been a soldier; Antonius had seen that. What in the world had happened? Why would anyone take such a noble creature and enslave him?
The centaur's gaze darted over to Furius. "This is the one you were telling me about? The one you thought had such promise?"
Furius nodded. "Can you work with him?"
"I'll have to see," Stephanos said, levelly, evenly, and Antonius concentrated on breathing, on trying to comprehend, truly, that the centaur he had seen a glimpse of as a child was a real thing, that he stood here with him. "He hasn't fainted at the sight of me; that's a good sign, eh?" His gaze fell on Antonius again, and now there was something inviting in it, the hint of a further smile, and he held out one hand.
Antonius almost reached out his hand for a handclasp, but he was a slave now, and instead the auctioneer's slave settled the end of Antonius' lead across the centaur's callused palm.
"Maria will bid for the rest of the lot, as they interest her," Furius said; Antonius supposed he was not expected to know who that was. "I've asked her to come back with thirty more, so that we can start readying them for the Saturnalia games. I want you to take this one back to the ludus. I charge you with him, especially."
Stephanos nodded. "Very good, sir."
Stephanos looked at him again and pulled on the lead, and Antonius, still not quite believing that this could be his life, stood and followed the centaur away.
The ludus was on the Caelian, a little to the east of the Flavian Amphitheater itself. Stephanos led him all the way; Antonius kept his head down and tried not to mind the stares of the passers-by, though in truth there were not so many. He supposed that the sight of shackled men heading to the ludus was not so uncommon. And surely Stephanos was a familiar sight, walking along, hooves resounding off the stones of the street, because no one stopped to gawk at him.
Antonius wondered why he'd never seen him in the city before.
Stephanos' hand was tight on the end of the lead. Out of the corner of his eye, Antonius could see that Stephanos had a soldier's brand seared into the flesh of the back of his hand. If he had not known from the look of him—socked feet and that brilliant gold hide—that Stephanos was the same centaur he had seen in Sarmizegethusa, that would have convinced him: this one had been a soldier.
"You were in the army," he said, very quietly.
Stephanos tilted his head down at him—he was really quite tall—and made a noise that could have been agreement.
"I mean—" Antonius corrected himself— "I mean to say that I saw you in the army. In Dacia. You came to Sarmizegethusa with the rest of the Romans who signed the treaty. I was a child then."
He had been so young, and yet he would swear Stephanos looked just the same. Well, he thought, a little dazed, surely that was to be expected, if centaurs were immortal beasts.
There was a long silence as they walked further down the street.
"I was in Dacia then," Stephanos said, his tone reluctant, as if he hated to give away even this much of himself. The words were clipped, and his Greek accent was heavier, but it was not a kind of speech Antonius had heard: it sounded old-fashioned.
"I could speak Greek, if you would rather," he offered, in that language.
Stephanos shrugged, a ripple of movement that started with his shoulders and ended with a shake of his pale, bound-up tail. "As it would please you," he returned, in the same language. "I will understand you either way, but I do not think we will have a great deal to say to each other."
Antonius could not deny the sense of loss that swept through him at that statement. It seemed that he had been waiting his entire life to see Stephanos again, and now, well—it was a disappointment. Stephanos was his own man. Centaur. Whichever. He had his own life, and it was plain that he did not want Antonius in it.
"But you will train me?" he asked.
Stephanos nodded. "I will instruct you. Furius has taken an interest in you; he believes you'll show well, to the crowd."
"Dacian," Stephanos said, "I do not know you, not in the slightest. We will have to see."
And that, Antonius thought as they came to the ludus, was really all that could be said on the matter.
The Ludus Dacicus, for all that it was the newest of the state-owned ludi, was already beginning to show its age. A bare, sandy arena was in the center of the complex, and the whole thing was ringed by barracks and more barracks. His new home. Antonius swallowed hard.
Stephanos stopped, turned back, and gave Antonius a long, thorough look, up and down, the kind of look that made Antonius very conscious of the fact that he was still completely naked. He pushed it aside. Stephanos was handsome enough, but this was really not the time. Besides, everyone knew about centaurs, lusty beasts that they were. He was sure there'd be propositioning later.
"I don't have the time to put you through your paces properly until tomorrow," Stephanos said, voice curt, "but I think we can assume that with that build you're not a heavy fighter, hmm?"
He felt as if he'd been found lacking; his cheeks went hot. Really, there was nothing to be done for it; he could not be expected to apologize for not being one of the great burly soldiers.
"Don't 'sir' me," the centaur said. His voice was a little annoyed, but still kind about the edges. "You're not mine. Here, you can stay with Rhodios and his friends. We board by size around here, and he's about yours. They'll show you around." Another look, this one a little more significant. "They'll get you some clothing, too." But before Antonius could comment further, Stephanos raised his voice. "Hey, Rhodios, new roommate for you!"
The man who came out of the nearest barracks door was not anyone Antonius would have expected to merit that name; he was an Aethiops if he was anything, teeth flashing white in his dark face when he smiled. Not the usual sort of man from Rhodes, but then, a centaur was not the usual sort of man from anywhere in Achaea either, so perhaps it was a day for unusual Greeks.
Stephanos passed the end of the lead to the man whom Antonius supposed was Rhodios.
"I'll want him tomorrow morning," Stephanos said, "and it seemed to me that you have had a spare pallet since the last death-fight."
Rhodios nodded attentively. "We'll take care of him." He had a good Greek accent too, as if it were his first language.
Stephanos did not bid either of them farewell, but instead he turned toward one of the larger buildings and began walking off, carving hoofprints behind him into the edges of the sand. He had a good gait, Antonius thought, or he would have if he had been a true horse: he moved gracefully, smoothly. He would have been a pleasure to ride.
Antonius supposed that men did not ride centaurs.
He turned back, and Rhodios shrugged and held out the lead, so that Antonius was now holding his own chains, as strange as that seemed to him.
"You wouldn't be able to run," Rhodios said, "and so we don't insult you by assuming you'll try. Come on, we'll get these off you, get you some clothes, and you can have whatever bread is left from breakfast."
Definitely Greek. Antonius opened his mouth to ask—
"And before you say anything," Rhodios said, "I won't ask you why a Dacian slave has a fine senator's name and a stone like that." He nodded at the stone that still hung about Antonius' neck. "I won't ask you that if you don't ask me how it is I came from Greece. In this place we do not talk about who we were. We do not talk about before."
"Do we talk about after?"
Rhodios' face furrowed. "After?"
"When we win our freedom. When we win the wooden sword."
Rhodios laughed. "You dream grand dreams, Dacian. I like you."
The little barracks-room was empty, shaded and dim, and it was dimmer still when Rhodios let the doorway's leather apron fall behind them. Straw pallets were pushed against the walls, each with their own meager bundle of possessions next to them. Rhodios gestured to an empty one.
"Here," he said. "It's not much, but it's yours."
At that moment light fell upon the room as another figure pushed his way in. This man was blond, blond like Stephanos had been, but about Antonius' size.
"I went to get the key when I saw that Stephanos had called for you," the stranger said, holding up a little glint of iron and then kneeling down at Antonius' feet to work at the fetters. His hands came away chalky.
"This is Henricus," Rhodios said. "He's not too bad. A physician, of a sort, though we have Thorus too; he was skilled in healing in his homeland. Him, you won't be able to miss." He snorted. "He lives with the heavy fighters, in the same barracks as Brutus. You'll meet all of them later. Henricus here usually goes up against the beasts."
"They let me fight with my wife," said Henricus, absent-mindedly, as he stood and began to work at the cuffs at Antonius' wrist. Slaves could not marry, not in the eyes of the law, but Antonius was certainly willing to honor a man's heart. "Ioanna, her name is," he said, beaming, "but on the sands they call her Vespa, for she is fast and stings like a wasp herself."
"You'll have to introduce me."
"We will," Rhodios promised, and as Henricus moved up and finally lifted the collar away, everything fell with a great rattle of chains, and Rhodios shrugged and handed him a ball of wool—a ragged tunic, wrapped around a pair of boots.
Gratefully, Antonius pulled on the clothing, covering the stone that still hung about his throat, and then he realized that he was very probably wearing a dead man's tunic. "The man who owned this before me...?"
"Was unlucky," Henricus said, shortly, and Antonius figured that was all he was getting, so he sat and slid the boots on, lacing them up. They were in good repair, too; none of the leather was broken.
He would be lucky. He would live. He would win. He had to.
"Come on." Rhodios said. He was standing back by the door now. "We'll show you around."
The ludus was a strange mix of familiar and unfamiliar. Oh, as a set of buildings, certainly, it was novel: it was a huge sprawl of barracks set about the center arena. There was something like a headquarters behind them; Antonius supposed that was where Furius and perhaps the woman Maria he had mentioned did their work. He wondered if Stephanos lived there; he had not seen anything like a stables, and the arena's beasts, he knew, had their own quarters elsewhere. All this was unfamiliar.
But so many of the men were Dacians.
He heard his own language spoken, as he never had before in Rome, spoken by so many hollow-eyed men, some with fugitives' brands on their faces. He had lived here a decade, and he had never seen Rome like this. He had thought himself alone.
Many of the men looked as lost and confused as he himself felt; they were likely new too. So many captured men. So many fallen. A few men recognized Antonius, or seemed to, by the light in their eyes, but none so much as held up a hand in greeting. There was a kind of political reckoning here, Antonius thought, and having been a chieftain in Dacia did not earn him respect here; in fact, it might well earn him the opposite.
"And this is the arena," Rhodios said, stopping at the very edge of it, where sand spilled over into cracked dry mud. He scuffed at the ground, idly, with one foot. They were not the only watchers; there was a small crowd gathered, ringing the arena.
On the sands there were two men, fighting with swords and bucklers, but they did not fight with iron, rather with the wood and wicker practice weapons that Antonius himself had learned on. The smaller of the two men was clearly used to fighting, but unused to the heavier practice gear; as he held the shield it was shaking on his arm, and the larger man—a huge blond man, big like a Gaul—easily pushed him down to the dirt and tapped the blunted end of the stick-sword against the man's throat.
With that, Antonius was reminded that this was not a game. It was a deadly life. If that had been iron the other man would have been dead. Soon he would see it for real. Soon he would fight for real. This could kill him faster than the mines would have. Faster than Tiberius would have—at least in body. If he had gone to Tiberius, his soul would have been long-dead, killed first.
Henricus laughed. "Another victory for Thorus!"
"The one with a physician's skills?" Antonius wondered. They had mentioned that name. He had not thought a physician would have been so commanding on the sands.
"The very same." Henricus shrugged, as if it all made sense. "He is only sometimes needed as a healer. For the most part he is a fighter."
At some signal the men in the arena rose, the one—Thorus—pulling the other man up with a friendly handclasp, and the men at the edges of the sands broke away, heading as one into a long low building near the main building that Antonius had not noticed before.
Rhodios rubbed his hands together and grinned. "Dinner!"
Even though he had not dined in the Roman manner in Dacia, Antonius' mind had come to expect it from Rome, so that hearing the word in Latin conjured up for him all the trappings of a Roman dinner: the couches, the reclining, entertainment, with wine glasses always refilled. This was not such a meal. The room was dark, lamp-lit, and great wooden benches stretched the length of the room. At one end it was open to a kitchen, and there were huge pots of some kind of bean and barley stew. Antonius fell into line after Rhodios, picked up a bowl, and received a ladleful of stew. It was a more generous portion than he had imagined it might be.
"There's no meat for us," Henricus said, from behind him. "But we eat well nonetheless. We need our strength to fight." He nudged Antonius with an elbow. "Here, we sit over here; you should join us."
He followed the two of them to the corner, the farthest corner, half in shadows. Thorus sat there already, as well as a dark-haired man Antonius did not know, and then, in the blackest corner, a slender figure, so hidden by shadows that Antonius could not even make out the man's face. Man? At that size he could be no more than a boy.
"Fellows, this is Antonius. Antonius, this is Brutus," Rhodios said, and the dark-haired man turned around and grinned. "And over in the corner there—"
Henricus was already striding to the corner. The slim figure there rose, laughing a high-pitched, distinctly feminine laugh. A woman.
"This is Ioanna," Henricus said, and he was smiling wide. "My wife."
Antonius stared. A gladiatrix was one thing, but— she was housed here? "You live here?"
Ioanna looked over at him and grinned, a bright-eyed, friendly smile. "They house us separately. They're supposed to feed us separately, too, but the owner makes an exception for me. He thought we were sweet. So I come here as I can. I like the food better here."
She beamed again, and Antonius decided that he liked her immediately.
Still, he had only met Furius twice, but he already found it difficult to imagine that such a man would find any tale of love so appealing; he seemed hard-hearted. "Furius did?"
Ioanna shook her head and gestured him to a seat. "Sit down, sit down! No, Stephanos did, of course! Furius leaves all the details to him."
Antonius nearly spilled his stew in surprise as he sat. "Stephanos? The centaur?"
"Oh!" Ioanna said, as Henricus reached across the table and steadied his bowl for him. "Do not say you are frightened of him because he is a centaur! Even though he may look strange, like a creature out of the myths, he has a kind heart."
"I am not frightened," Antonius began, feeling rather obstinate, and he paused to collect himself and lift his bowl to his mouth. The stew was very good. "It is only that he did not seem friendly at all, when I met him."
"He is, though," Ioanna insisted. "Perhaps it is just that you must know him longer."
"Perhaps it is only that he is touched by your story because it is a story of passion," Antonius said, the idea coming to him as he spoke, "because centaurs are. Uh." He stopped. He could not very well say because centaurs are as lustful as satyrs, as any child knows, and no doubt he is consumed with his own passions, immoderately, as a man should not be. He could not simply say that to a woman, a matron—well, a matron of a sort.
But Ioanna seemed to know what he was thinking, because she laughed again, the sound ringing joyfully. "Oh, it is not that either!"
"He is not that sort of centaur," Henricus added, as if there were any other sort of centaur. "I have not known him to take lovers, and he has been here since I have, nearly five years. Maybe longer for him—he was already here when I came."
Something in Antonius clenched up, twisted, scattered apart. He could not have said why that news weighed upon him. It was an odd thing to picture, anyway, a centaur with a human. How would they go about it, exactly? How would they even so much as kiss? Stephanos was so much taller than everyone; he would have to lift them, enfold them in his strong arms. It was all strange, and it did not bear thinking about. Antonius shook his head.
"Come now," Rhodios said. "You cannot want to talk about Stephanos all night; you'll see enough of him tomorrow."
"Special training!" Brutus said, with a laugh. "We've all been there. The best of luck to you."
"I got a hit in on him once," Ioanna put in, jutting her chin forth with pride. "That was when he said I should be called the Wasp, for I stung him like one!"
"Like a horse-fly!" Henricus said, just as proud.
"A centaur-fly!" Ioanna corrected, laughing.
"I drew blood against him on the sands," Thorus rumbled.
Antonius was impressed, but Brutus gave him a look. "When they let Stephanos fight," Brutus said, in a confidential tone, "it is rare, and it always has a script to it, like actors and their plays. He was only doing as he was bid."
Around him the table was chattering, tales of this fight or that, and Antonius ate his dinner and let the noise wash over him, soaking in the fellowship. He reached for the sky-stone; he pressed the hard lump of it through his tunic, and he could not say what relief he thought it might provide, but he felt a little better for it. He would have to see what he would make of the centaur—a slave himself, but a master in all but name—when he faced him tomorrow.
He wondered if Stephanos was thinking the same thing about him.
When Antonius arrived at the practice ground the next morning, Stephanos was already there, stamping one hoof into the sand next to the wood and wicker weaponry laid out before him. There was a set for each of them, Antonius supposed. As he walked closer still, he squinted in confusion, for Stephanos was more dressed than he would have expected: on his human half he wore the usual tunic, but on his horse half he was blanketed as well. It was a light blanket, but an actual horse would likely not have worn it for running or jumping or any comparable physical activity. He wondered if Stephanos was going to take it off.
"Good morning," Stephanos said, and he gestured vaguely downward. "If you could hand me a sword and shield first."
Oh. Antonius supposed he could do so, as a courtesy to his new trainer. Just as horses could bend their necks to the ground, so too could Stephanos lean down—he must be able to. But it would be kind not to make him do it. So Antonius bent over and picked up the wicker shield and wooden sword; Stephanos took them, briskly.
"Now yours," Stephanos prompted.
Antonius stared. "You're going to fight me while wearing a horse-blanket?"
"I am going to fight you while wearing clothes," Stephanos said. He brought his sword-hand up to rub the back of his arm across his eyes; his voice was infused with a sort of weary dignity.
"In the arena men do not wear so much clothing," Antonius replied, letting his voice go sly. Something about Stephanos made him want to tempt him, to see if he was in truth as well-mannered as the others had promised, or if he was as the lustful centaurs of the tales, ruled by baser emotion.
That, and, well... as a man, he was certainly handsome. So Antonius smirked and laid a hand on the buckle of his own belt, ostentatiously so.
Stephanos merely shrugged. "Fight naked if you like; I have seen all of you already. No one would dispute that you are a man. But I am not quite one anymore, and if I do not wish to be thought a dumb beast I must have more care with my appearance than an ordinary man does. I cannot simply walk about half-naked."
His words were elegant, but his fair skin betrayed him; the color had risen in his cheeks at Antonius' gesture. A shy centaur? Perhaps the others had been right. Antonius let his hand linger an instant longer at his belt, then let it fall. "As you say."
When he knelt down to pick up his own weapons, he was surprised to see Stephanos looking back at him with just as much surprise.
"You are left-handed," he said, and only then did Antonius realize how he had arranged his wooden sword and buckler.
Stephanos' face furrowed. "Interesting." But that was all he had to say on the matter, for he raised his own sword and shield—in the right-handed fashion, of course. "Well? Come at me. I want to see what you can do."
The fight began.
Antonius stepped in, ducked, and tried to strike low, above Stephanos' front legs, but his plan was quickly countered by Stephanos rearing back, spinning to the side, moving away faster than any man could move. He did not lash out with his hooves, but he could have; Antonius was bare-legged, vulnerable. He had not planned for that. He had not quite thought through what fighting a centaur would entail.
Several more passes later, he had not come anywhere close to touching Stephanos, and his arms were beginning to shake from the weight of the practice gear.
The worst indignity was that he knew Stephanos was holding back on him. He could imagine even now how Stephanos would fight at full force, with all of his strength, darting in and taking advantage of the speed no human could hope to match, rearing and kicking like a warhorse, one whose rider could never be unseated.
"Come on," Antonius panted, lifting his shield again. "Come on! You want to test me, then test me! Do not bleed me slowly! Fight me!" He gritted his teeth. There was an ache all down his side, shoulder through hip, for he'd blocked a blow badly. But he could not stop, not now, not when he had hardly been given the chance to prove himself in a fair fight. How was he to win his freedom if the lanista would treat him as someone not even worthy of a real fight?
Unexpectedly, Stephanos grinned down at him; he did not even seem to be sweating, damn him. "Oh," he breathed. "So that's why Furius wanted you. I see it."
Antonius shook his head, a little dazed, and readied his stance. "See what?"
But Stephanos was still smiling. "Brace yourself," he said.
There was really no other word for it; Antonius had been standing, prepared for an attack, but there was no way he could withstand a blow from a centaur running headlong at him, and hastily he threw himself to the side, rolled, and came up again as Stephanos wheeled himself around for another pass, gathering up all the strength in his hind legs.
He jumped to the side again when Stephanos ran at him the second time, but this time at least Antonius was prepared for the charge. Stephanos kicked out with his back hooves, a blow that could have broken Antonius' arm if it had connected, and Antonius slid out of the way, stumbled, and went down, not quite under his hooves.
Stephanos stilled and looked down at him. Antonius squinted up into the sun, sweat stinging his eyes; he thought perhaps Stephanos was grinning. "Yield?" Stephanos asked.
Antonius laughed—and raised the wooden sword he held, nudging Stephanos' belly, just under the flapping edge of the blanket. "First touch," he said, and he was smiling back.
Stephanos seemed to startle at the touch; he quivered. He stamped one hoof and lifted his tail a little. "So it is."
Even as Stephanos stepped back, Antonius did not move to get up. He lay on the ground for long moments, the strength drained from him. And then, finally, he rolled and pushed himself to his knees, then his feet. "Your verdict, lanista?"
Stephanos had dropped his practice sword; his hand was rubbing at his chin, in thought. "There are a few things I could do with you," he began, and Antonius absently noted that the words were entirely free of innuendo; he could not quite say why that was a disappointment. "Because you are a Dacian, the expectation is that you should be a thraex, of course."
"I am not a Thracian," Antonius said, with some asperity. "And there are too many Dacians here for all of us to be that, aren't there?"
But Stephanos raised his hand. "The other common choice, because you are left-handed, is an ordinary gladiator, with the short-sword and shield. You have just proved you have the use of it, and those are always good fights, a left-handed man against a right-handed one. But for you, I think, no." There was a faint smile on his face. "You, I think, would do best with something more... special."
The thought was in Antonius' mind then that this was the cusp of something, that here the gods stood close and unwound the fated string of his life; it was the way he had felt the first time he had seen Stephanos and known he would go to Rome. The time he had captured the sky-stone. The way he had felt yesterday when he told Furius he would fight. But this, unlike the others, was not his doing: it was Stephanos'. Perhaps, then, the gods braided their fates together.
"For you," Stephanos said, "I want you to be a retiarius."
A retiarius. A net-fighter. They were armed only with trident, net, and dagger, and were lightly-armored, wearing an arm-guard at most; they fought almost entirely bare. They tripped and tangled their opponents; they pricked at them from afar; they went in quickly with the dagger. They were fast and deadly, but for all that they were incredibly vulnerable, and for this reason a retiarius almost always fought a secutor, a cutter, a man who was his opposite: heavily-armored, shielded, helmeted, with a sword easily capable of piercing unprotected flesh.
The retiarii were also the lowest of the low, the most humiliated of the gladiators, the ones who would not stand and fight like men. Antonius did not think Stephanos meant it to be an insult; if Antonius had been Roman-born perhaps he would have taken it badly, but for him there was no such complaint. He himself had no objection to being quick.
"I see," Antonius said, because it seemed that Stephanos was waiting for him to say something.
And then Stephanos seemed to realize how his suggestion—the choice of retiarius—could be taken, because he winced. His face flushed, and he brought one hand up to his cheek as if to cover it. "It is because you are fast," he said, hastily, "and nimble, and it seems to me a shame to burden you in armor and waste that, when instead you could fly about the arena. It is not that I think you unmanly—"
"Oh," Antonius asked, lightly, "you think me manly? It is that you want to show me off to the crowds in a loincloth, is it not?"
Between his cupped fingers, Stephanos' face went redder, and Antonius forwent the other half of the remark, the half about how perhaps Stephanos wanted him to be a retiarius in a tunic. The rest of that joke was clearly somehow too crass for him, the part of the joke that worked because everyone knew what the retiarii who wore tunics did with other men.
He could not say why he kept pushing Stephanos; part of him merely wanted to see what Stephanos would do, when he would begin to behave as a centaur did. The other part of him—well, he was not sure he could put a name to that.
"It isn't," Stephanos said, voice much higher than normal, "but if it bothers you to be a retiarius—"
"It doesn't," Antonius said, taking pity on him. "But I do wonder if I could stay in the barracks you put me in, and not house me with the retiarii; I have taken a liking to them."
Stephanos waved his hand tersely, clearly wanting the conversation to be over. "Fine."
"I also wonder," Antonius added, "how you have never once heard a coarse joke in your life, soldier. Decurion." The rank was a stab in the darkness, but he had to have been at least the sub-commander of an ala, a cavalry wing.
And then Stephanos' face hardened, and his eyes went pale, ice-pale, like mountain snow. He pulled himself up to his full height—and as a centaur, that was exceedingly tall—and his front legs quivered with tension. "I have heard them," he said, and his voice was awful, just this side of hateful. "But I did not like my men to say them to me. And it's not—it was not—decurion. It was prefect of the wing."
He turned tail—quite literally—and was gone, moving out of the practice ground at a fast, high-stepping trot, as Antonius stood there in astonishment and wondered what he'd said wrong.
"He wants me for a retiarius," Antonius said, as he ducked into the barracks-room. "And— and I think I've mortally offended him."
Rhodios' eyes flicked up briefly, but then went back to his work; he was sitting cross-legged on his pallet, mending a broken sandal strap. "Did you call him a horse?" A distant part of Antonius' mind noted that Rhodios did not even need to ask who he was talking about.
"Did you call him a horse?" Rhodios repeated. "Did you joke about riding him, or hitching him to a wagon, or anything that suggests you think of him as a beast?"
Antonius wrinkled his nose in distaste, and all at once he was put in mind of the sadness on Stephanos' face when he explained that he must wear more clothes than a man would to be thought capable. "No," he said, half-horrified. "Of course not." He could not quite bring himself to voice his true mistake: that he had somehow slandered Stephanos on more personal grounds.
"Then you're fine," Rhodios said, as if that was all there was to it. He huffed out a sigh and turned back to mending his sandals. "He'll come around. There is no use worrying about it."
"He is not easy to know," Thorus rumbled, from the corner. Antonius hadn't even realized Thorus was here; he supposed Thorus was visiting.
"He likes Ioanna." This, of course, was from Henricus, who was also visiting.
Rhodios was grinning a broad grin. "Friend, everyone likes Ioanna." Antonius could certainly see how that could be true; she had seemed a very friendly sort of person.
Still unsettled, Antonius dropped down onto his own pallet and curled up on himself. His thoughts chased each other in circles, like the snake that ate its tail, and he wished for wine rather than the sour posca that they had; he needed to be somewhere other than his mind. It disturbed him far more than it should have, that he had perhaps made an enemy of the lanista; it disturbed him, too, that he did not understand why he kept wanting to joke with him, to go so far as to flirt with him, when obviously nothing could come of it. Not that he would mind, if it could, but he got the impression that Stephanos might.
He did not see Stephanos for the rest of the day.
In the morning, another Aethiops who had the look of a hostler, to judge from the fur clinging to his tunic, came bearing a message that, once he had eaten, he was to meet Stephanos on the practice ground.
The morning's bread, which until that moment had actually tasted quite good, was suddenly dry and tasteless in his mouth.
"Thank you," he managed, choking down the bread. "That was kind of you...?"
"Samuel," the man supplied. "I fight as a murmillo, and I aid Stephanos as a groom."
"Samuel," Antonius repeated. "Well met. Tell me, do you think he seemed cross with me, when you saw him?"
Samuel stared at him for a few moments, as if he thought this a strange question to ask, but then shook his head. "I have seen him in many moods, but I do not think so."
Well, at least he likely had not made an enemy of Stephanos. Yet.
When he reached the practice ground, Stephanos was already there, and for long moments Antonius did not look up at him, fearing what he might see on his face. Instead, he looked at the ground, judging the weapons laid out. There was a cratis and clava—the practice sword and shield—for Stephanos, the same as there had been the day before, but for Antonius there was a great woven net, and a long wooden pole, nearly his height, that he supposed was meant to serve as a practice trident.
"I'm not giving you a practice dagger yet," Stephanos said. His voice was dry, unamused. "I'll assume you can figure that one out."
When Antonius looked up, tilting his head back and back—for Stephanos was that tall—he saw that Stephanos had his arms crossed defensively across his chest. His face was unreadable.
"Stephanos," Antonius began, and the name was strange in his mouth—he thought maybe he had not called him by it. "I wish to apologize, if I have offended you—"
The reply was too quick to be true. "You have not," Stephanos said, "but let us not speak of it again. Here, give me my weapons, and take yours."
So Antonius knelt, as he had yesterday, and picked the sword and shield off the ground, passing them over, before picking up his own weapons. He did not even know how to hold them; the net was bunched in his right hand, knotted in on itself.
"You'll want to switch hands, if you're left-handed," Stephanos said, so Antonius did. "This is how your part of the battle goes." His voice took on a more abstract tone, like a lecture from Antonius' old grammaticus. "You are a siege engineer, yes?"
How had Stephanos known that about him? Had he asked someone? Who would have told him?
"I had that training," he admitted, warily, mindful of what Rhodios had told him, that no one spoke of the past.
Stephanos nodded; the reply confirmed a thing he had known. Then Antonius was too lost in the explanation to be surprised any further. "Think of the fisher's net like a catapult. In war they are slow to load; if you are lucky you will get off one throw, during the initial volley. But when they are aimed correctly, they are devastating. The net is a tool like that. You move fast, you evade your opponent, you wait for the opening. There will be only one chance to throw the net, but you will only need one. You will run, and duck away, and then you will make your move. Do you take my meaning?"
"I do." Antonius frowned, then, picturing the fights he had seen: the retiarii had always thrown the nets over the heads of their opponents, and Stephanos was far too tall for that to be a possibility. "But I cannot fit all of you under the net."
There came a faint smile, curling about the edges of Stephanos' mouth, so faint that he might have missed it. "I will have you train with others, for that. But you can also throw the net over your opponent's hands, and pull a man's sword out of his hand, and that works just as well on me."
"And then there is the trident, whether or not you miss. That is deadly. The dagger you will have as a last resort, if you have lost the net and trident and your opponent has come within your guard. It is a hard thing to take a secutor in a wrestling match, with the weight of his armor, but you... you might manage it." He gave Antonius another look, long and considering, lingering over him.
Maybe I could wrestle you. Antonius bit back the joke. Stephanos clearly found it unwelcome, and besides, a centaur? It would not work. One likely could not even be... close to one, in the normal way of things. But there had to be a way, if one were determined enough. Centaurs surely did not have their reputation for nothing, even if Stephanos just as clearly wanted nothing to do with that very reputation.
Why was he thinking about such things again?
"All right," Antonius said. "So shall we fight?"
But Stephanos shook his head. "No," he said, "you will practice throwing the net and trying to disarm me with it, and I will stand still. Just until you have the hang of the net. Then we will fight."
Antonius could feel himself smiling. "I will do my best," he said, and when he threw the net it tangled over Stephanos' shield.
"Good!" Stephanos said, and he was smiling back, bright with approval, and something went warm in Antonius' chest. "Do it again."
Maybe they could be friends after all.
There was another thing about centaurs, he remembered now: in the stories they were great teachers, as Chiron had taught Achilles. Antonius did not think Chiron himself could have made a pupil feel more pleased than he felt today, at this moment, as he untangled the net and threw it again, drawing them closer still. Oh, Antonius had always been clever, but his cleverness was not the sort that had taken much practice, and he had always resented being so ill at those tasks that he had needed to bend to and learn properly. He had never done this before, but he did not mind the effort; it only made him feel warmer, brighter, to do the thing rightly, to please Stephanos.
He had not felt a feeling the like of this.
Antonius trained through the rest of autumn, and on into December. It was not always Stephanos he was paired with: he learned to face off against the secutores, of course, and he managed credibly in practice. He set aside the nets and sparred with Rhodios, Henricus, and Thorus—and Ioanna, especially, who taught him so much more about how to fight with daggers than he could ever have hoped to learn from anyone else. But it was Stephanos to whom he kept returning, like a loyal hound set free from its leash. He found that he did not mind the comparison.
Even though fighting Stephanos was likely to be near useless in terms of training for the sands—after all, it was not as if he would be set to fight a centaur there—he quickly became Antonius' favorite to practice with. It was not only that he was one of the best fighters at the ludus—privately Antonius thought that he must be the very best—but also that he and Antonius meshed well together, always countering each other's moves, as if nature had intended them to be on the same side. Stephanos would kick out with a foreleg and Antonius would jump back almost before he had moved; Antonius would press in and Stephanos would rear up on his hind legs, making his own belly into a trap of a target, but then bringing his sword down. It was almost as a dance, and it was with this wonderful ease that they fought together, as often as they could.
"So," Antonius said, hopefully, as Stephanos slung his shield over his back—the human half of his back—and looked down at him, practice over. "Will I be fit for the Saturnalia games?"
Stephanos bit his lip, stamped one hoof ever so slightly, and his bound-up tail twitched in a motion Antonius had come to identify as anxious. "No."
"What do you mean, no?"
How could he hope to win his freedom if Stephanos, as lanista, would not let him fight? He needed to be on the sands. He needed to prove himself.
"Do not take this as a slight." Stephanos sighed. "You are good. You are one of the best men I have ever trained—"
Stephanos held up a hand, cutting him off. "But you can be more than good. You can be great. And I want you to be great, from the first moment that you step onto the sands. I want you to be the best fighter the crowd has ever seen, the one they'll tell their children about. They'll say, I saw Antonius' first fight, and no one will ever be his equal. The crowd will weep and shout your name. In another month, two months, if you work with me every day, you will be great. I want to give you that. Your greatness." His gaze was piercing. "Call it a gift, if you like."
Antonius' throat closed up; he did not quite know what to do with the feeling that welled up with him, a kind of gratitude and ambition and self-conscious pride. Stephanos wanted to do this for him. "Oh."
"In the meantime," Stephanos said, with a smile that was a little crooked, "you can watch me fight in the games."
The grin was wider. "Me, indeed. You might enjoy it."
So it was that Antonius went to the Flavian Amphitheater on the day of the games; those men who were not in the games were given the half-day free, for the holiday, because Saturnalia was the time of year when the natural order of the world reversed. They had all dined well the night before, which—as Rhodios told him—was a tradition, before the day of the games. The fighters would be allowed to put their affairs in order. Men he had come to know, come to see about the ludus, would die.
Not Stephanos, he told himself. That much was arranged. But he still felt an unaccountable tension at the thought. He had never cared much for the games when he had been a citizen—preferring always the circus—but to him then the gladiators had not truly seemed like people, men with friends who would mourn them. He knew better now.
Antonius did not, of course, get a fine seat with the richest members of the crowd, the senators with their cushions and fabric awnings; he and Rhodios were instead in the poorer, rougher section. Well. At least they could see, and at least they had not told anyone at the ticketing gate that they were gladiators; they would have been forbidden to come here at all. Rhodios clutched his money-purse tightly under his arm. Antonius had no tips yet himself, so his own purse was empty. He thought perhaps Furius might gift them some coin for the holiday after the games concluded.
There were a few beast-fights, to which Antonius only halfway paid attention. He had not seen the program or the advertisements, but he was sure that Stephanos would be up soon, with the rest of the staged combats, before the actual fights.
Sure enough, Rhodios nudged him as men were dragging what looked like dining couches and a wine bowl onto the middle of the sands, as well as swords and shields, discreetly placed to the side. "Here we are," he said, and his voice was bright with eagerness. "The Centauromachy, beginning with Pirithous' wedding feast. Henricus is our Pirithous, and Ioanna is his bride Hippodameia—it amuses Stephanos to pair them thus, I think. Thorus is our Theseus and, well, we have only the one centaur, so Stephanos is Eurytion."
Antonius swallowed uneasily and remembered how the story went. "They cut off Eurytion's ears and nose at the end, don't they? Theseus kills him?"
Rhodios slung a steadying arm over Antonius' shoulders, and Antonius let himself lean in. "In the story, yes, that happens, but we have only one centaur, and we cannot afford to lose him as easily as that. They will play it all very nicely for the crowd, and Stephanos will surrender nobly to Thorus. I have seen it before. You'll like it. It's very exciting."
Then the trumpeters played a note, the gate opened, and in walked Henricus, Ioanna, and Thorus. Henricus and Thorus were dressed in the Greek fashion, chiton and himation. Ioanna—presumably to signal to the crowd that it was a wedding—was dressed as a Roman bride, with a veil, the orange-red flammeum covering her face.
As the musicians continued to play, Henricus and Ioanna lay side-by-side on one of the couches, miming sips of wine from their winecups. Thorus stood off to the side, invisible by the conventions of the play.
Then the music swelled, and Henricus and Ioanna stood up from the couch. They held hands, right hands clasped, but their free hands were held high for the crowd, who cheered back. Even despite his strange nervousness, Antonius smiled; it was sweet to think that Henricus and Ioanna could be married for the crowd, that Stephanos would care enough to arrange it in this manner.
Antonius remembered the story, now: the bride had been presented to the guests when the fight started. And indeed Thorus—playing Theseus, the great hero—stood up and held out his hands in greeting, a broad gesture for the crowd, as Henricus showed off Ioanna, who put her veil back.
The musicians struck a discordant note, and there was someone moving forward from the gate.
Stephanos stepped forward, out of the shadows, and stood there, motionless, at the edge of the sands.
Antonius caught his breath, because this was Stephanos as he had never seen him, and Stephanos was beautiful.
Save for the sword belted about his hips and the shield across his back, Stephanos was entirely nude. His human half was physical perfection, like a statue of a god now given breath; his chest gleamed with smooth, defined musculature. Antonius' mouth went dry at the sight of him—Stephanos had been hiding this body under his tunics? If Stephanos were anyone who would have welcomed it, Antonius would have touched him, would have run his hands over Stephanos' chest, down past his hips where bare skin gave way to golden hide, shining like the sun. His coat was the most striking color Antonius had ever seen, like an aureus coin, seeming to sparkle in the sunshine. As a horse he was perfectly built, tall and strong, but not misshapenly heavy. His legs were elegant, his hindquarters powerful, and his tail was—at last—unbound, rippling gently in the wind. He was a force of nature. He was gorgeous. Antonius thought perhaps his mouth was hanging open.
Stephanos was here as part of the spectacle, here to be admired, and though Antonius knew Stephanos hated to be seen thus, he could not stop staring. This was everything he had felt the first time he had seen Stephanos, only more, because, well... Antonius was not a child now, and he wanted Stephanos. A low, aching heat began, as the poets would have had it, in the marrows of his bones. He did not know what they could do, how they could be together, but he wanted to touch him, to feel warm skin and soft hide under his palms, to see him smile, to see him turn that bright-eyed gaze on him. They could work out the details of it somehow. If they wanted it.
Ah, but Stephanos did not want that. He remembered how Stephanos had reddened at his flirting, had claimed to hate his jokes.
Antonius sighed, shut his mouth, and watched.
Some of the crowd, never having seen a centaur, were transfixed—though likely not as much as he was, nor for the same reason, he reflected. And then someone—clearly someone who had seen this tale enacted before—started to boo.
Stephanos sprang into motion.
He was not as Antonius had seen him before. There was no grace here, no commanding power. He listed to one side and wobbled; he took a few unsteady steps, forelegs and hind legs crossing over each other as he staggered forward. He was, Antonius realized, pretending at being drunk.
Someone a few rows down pointed and laughed.
Stephanos stumbled forward, bent down to the table where the wine-bowl was resting, and picked up the huge bowl with both hands. He lifted it high, like some prize of war, then tilted his head back, opened his mouth, and tipped the whole bowl over his head, as if he had been trying to set it to his lips but was so drunk that he failed even at that.
Red wine gushed over his face, down his chest, down his back, running in rivulets over his skin, soaking his gorgeous coat, dripping onto the sand like blood. Stephanos licked his lips once, his pink tongue swiping away a few last droplets—Antonius went hotter, even so—and then Stephanos' eyes narrowed. His fingers tapped at his head in confusion, a broadly unsubtle gesture, as if he couldn't figure out where the wine had gone. He dropped the wine-bowl to the sands.
The crowd was jeering now.
It was a disgrace.
Ioanna turned to him, smiling, holding out her hands—
Stephanos likewise held out his hands, his arms wobbling, still dripping with wine—
And then Stephanos lunged forward and grabbed Ioanna, fast, the same way he moved in fights, snatching her up. His hands spanned her waist; she was that small. He held her high above his head, the way he had held the wine-bowl: another prize. Ioanna struggled ineffectually in his grasp. Antonius knew it was all staged, because Ioanna was waving her arms about in huge obvious gestures; if it had been real she would have kicked him in the throat, she would have flipped back and out of the hold when his grip had slackened, and she would very possibly have drawn his own sword on him.
Something went cold and hard in Antonius' belly. He knew it was a game, but he did not like this, not at all.
Stephanos shifted his hold and lowered Ioanna in his arms. He dipped her until she was almost horizontal in midair and he kissed her. It was just as practiced as everything else: Ioanna was waving one arm around frantically, as if she were in distress, but Antonius could see that she had one leg wrapped around Stephanos' waist so that she might not fall as she arched back, the muscles of her thigh shaking with the strain of it. Stephanos had an arm braced under her back, supporting her, and he was bent over her, still plundering her mouth.
Heat gathered in Antonius' belly even as he hated himself for enjoying the sight of it. So, he thought, this is how you kiss a centaur. He could imagine himself doing that, easily; he could put himself in Ioanna's position. But this too was an act; he knew that the true Stephanos could not even abide his flirting. This was a performance, nothing more. Stephanos wasn't even blushing.
He wondered if Stephanos was good at kissing.
He watched as Stephanos tore his mouth away from Ioanna's and reared up to his full height before staggering back, still mock-drunk, still carrying her.
Thorus and Henricus reached for their swords and threw their tangling himatia off to show that they were each clad in a short chiton, ready to fight. In what was clearly a prepared move, Henricus reached out, got a hand around Ioanna's wrist, and yanked her out of Stephanos' arms. It was meant to seem to be rough, but Antonius could see Stephanos carefully putting her down; as he did so, Ioanna arched up again, flailed, and her wild fist struck Stephanos in the face.
That was real. Stephanos' head snapped back with the force of the blow, and there was blood trickling from his nose. An accident. Antonius' fists clenched.
As Henricus set Ioanna down behind him Thorus leaped up onto one of the couches, and Stephanos, Antonius saw, gave him the tiniest of nods as he drew his own sword and unslung his shield. He was ready.
The fight was a mess.
Stephanos did not fight with any of his skill, any of his intelligence; he was weaving drunkenly, in and out of range, taking a few swings—swings! not even stabs!—here and there seemingly as the whim occurred to him. At one point Henricus' blade slid down Stephanos' side, a swing that had been misjudged, and as the crowd cheered Antonius sucked in a breath, watching blood ooze out on Stephanos' hide. It might have been a fake fight, but the swords were sharp.
The match came to a showy conclusion, as Thorus, still playing the great hero, swept low with his sword, and Stephanos jumped up, all four legs in the air—and then fumbled the landing, intentionally, tripping and kneeling, forelegs doubled over and pressed to the sand. His weapons flew out of his hands. He rolled to his back—Antonius had not known he could do that—showing his pale belly, hooves kicking helplessly in the air, hands scrabbling at the sand. His face and coat were still winestained. Blood trickled from his nose. It was horrible. He'd been beautiful, and they'd turned him into this. An ungainly mess. A mockery. A ruined beast, to laugh at.
Thorus put his sword to Stephanos' throat, and it felt in that moment as if something died in Antonius' chest.
Stephanos made the hand-sign for a surrender. He seemed slow, reluctant, his fingers shaking.
"Kill him!" one of the spectators yelled, and it was only Rhodios' arm over Antonius' shoulders that kept him from leaping down and punching the spectator himself.
Stephanos' eyes were wide, searching the arena, looking for the man who would spare him. The magistrate. The editor of the games.
"Mercy!" Antonius called.
He could not have said what possessed him to cry out, but he did, his own voice hoarse in his ears. And it seemed to him that Stephanos looked at him when he said it, but that could not be right; they were too far apart, and the amphitheater far too crowded.
"Mercy," the magistrate said, after an excruciating pause, and the crowd sighed disconsolately as Stephanos rolled over and then stood.
Stephanos walked slowly off the sands, covered in blood, wine, and dirt, as behind him the crowd applauded Henricus, Ioanna, and Thorus. Antonius shut his eyes and wanted to weep.
Antonius started moving toward the exit almost as soon as Stephanos left the sands. He had not been aware of deciding to do it; he had not even been aware of doing it, until Rhodios caught him by the shoulder.
"Where are you going? Don't you want to see the next match?"
He shrugged off Rhodios' hand. "I have to— do you think they'll let me see Stephanos?"
Rhodios said nothing for a few moments, and when Antonius turned back, Rhodios was squinting at him in confusion. "Well, of course. You can tell the guards that Samuel or Stephanos has sent for you, but why would you want to miss the—"
Antonius did not hear the rest of what he said, for he was already gone.
The guards were a little less receptive than he had hoped.
"Who?" one of them asked.
"Stephanos," Antonius repeated. "The centaur. Furius himself charged me with his welfare—" it had been the other way around, but that was close enough— "and I have a message to relay to him."
"Fine," the man said, and he moved back from the stairs.
The stairs led to an underground passage, a tunnel connecting the Ludus Magnus and the amphitheater. The ludus today was where the fighters from other ludi had come to prepare. Antonius had never been to that ludus, but as it turned out, one was very much like another, and after a few questions someone eventually pointed him in the right direction: they'd seen Stephanos and his groom heading toward the trough and stableyard behind one of the outbuildings.
"Maybe he wanted some hay, eh?" the man asked, and Antonius just stared at him. How could you meet Stephanos and then treat him like a horse?
Curtly, he thanked the man and left.
He heard Stephanos and Samuel talking before he rounded the corner of the last building, their voices occasionally muffled by an intermittent sloshing and splashing.
"You didn't have to pour out the whole wine-bowl!" Samuel was saying, chastising Stephanos, but with good humor in his voice. "Do you have any idea how long this takes to scrub out of your hide? Immortal gods, you smell like a drunkard, and now Ioanna probably smells like a drunkard, and you've ruined her new tunic. No wonder she hit you in the face on the way down!"
Stephanos' voice was just as light. "What she did was an accident!"
"Oh, by all means, friend, you can tell yourself that—"
He turned the corner. Samuel looked up, head barely visible on the other side of Stephanos' withers. Stephanos turned. He was thoroughly soaked in water, head to hooves, and a bucket was dangling from one of his hands. Water pooled and ran over him, far more elegant than the wine had been, though the wine still dripped off him, for the water was reddish. The slash across his side—over his horse-half's midsection—was still oozing blood, but his nose had stopped bleeding. His hair was plastered to his head, and he looked up at Antonius, bright-eyed, starting to smile.
The smile faded when he saw Antonius' face.
"Antonius?" he asked. "What's the matter? Why aren't you still at the games with Rhodios?"
"I—" he began, and had to stop, for he was shaking with impotent rage; Stephanos had put on this play and wanted him to be pleased. Stephanos thought he would like the travesty he had just witnessed. "Can I— I wanted to—"
All that wanted to come out of him was a frustrated cry.
Stephanos turned around to Samuel. "Can you excuse us for a moment?"
Samuel nodded and quickly left.
Alone, Stephanos looked down at him and reached out a tentative hand, nowhere near close enough to touch Antonius, but the movement itself was enough of a suggestion of comfort. He was upsetting Stephanos with his ire, he realized, but he felt numb within the fury of it.
"You are cross with me about... the performance?" Stephanos ventured, finally letting his hand drop, when Antonius did not move to take it.
He did not know when he had moved, but he was aware suddenly that he flung his arms high into the air, as if he were praying. He stepped forward. "How in the world could you do that?" Antonius said, and all of his rage came out of him in a vicious snarl: rage at Rome, at the world, at those who had made him a slave, at those who had made them both slaves, at the men who had reduced Stephanos to this.
Stephanos blinked. "It is acting," he said, very carefully, as if he were the kind of centaur who was a tutor, speaking to a youth who did not understand the way of the world. "It is exactly like actors upon a stage, but with more swords. We are gladiators. It's a show. It's what we do."
"The crowd hated you," Antonius said. His voice was low and awful, and he knew Stephanos did not understand why it mattered, for he only looked more confused.
"They were supposed to." He shrugged. "Eurytion doesn't win."
"It doesn't bother you?"
The bucket fell to the dirt as Stephanos opened his hand. "You speak as if you feel it should bother me." He tilted his head. "You're angry. You're angry because the crowd mocked me." His voice went high, wondering. As if he had not expected that Antonius could feel thus for him.
Antonius clenched and unclenched his fists. "Of course I'm angry!"
"Why?" The question sounded almost idle. A curious inquiry, nothing more.
"Because— because—" Antonius looked away. It was almost too much for words. He took a deep, shaking breath. "Because when the crowd looks at you, you make them see a foolish beast. A curiosity. Something to point and laugh at. It is as you said, when you told me why you dressed better than men do, to show them you are more than a beast." Of course, Stephanos was still naked. He tried not to think about that. "Doing this makes them think ill of you. They do not see you as you are, underneath the actor's mask. They know that the men in the ring are still human, for they know men, but they do not know you, and so they will never know that. And you are— you are wondrous and they will never see that. They will never see you as I see you."
"Wondrous?" Stephanos' voice cracked in surprise. "You think I am wondrous?" Something softened in his face then; he looked vulnerable, in an entirely different way than he had on the sands. His eyes widened; his jaw dropped; he swished and lifted his still-dripping tail. He crossed one hoof behind another, as if he wanted to hide. Antonius wondered if anyone had ever complimented him before.
Antonius went hot. "I— yes— but that was not my point. I meant that you should think yourself wondrous, and so it angers me that you let them treat you in that manner."
Stephanos sighed. He scraped his hand across his face, pawed at the ground, and was silent for long moments. Then he looked down at Antonius and half-smiled. "You have so much fire in you. So much pride. So much honor. It amazes me." He sighed. "I was a man of honor once. Like you. There was a time when I would never have done this. I can almost remember what that felt like."
The question came to his lips so naturally that he asked it before he had the thought that he should not. He knew Stephanos would not answer. He knew Stephanos would not talk about his past.
But Stephanos looked down at him, and for an instant his even gaze was marred, his true feelings revealed; in his eyes Antonius could see years of pain, years of suffering, all borne in silence. "Rome," he said, very softly. "Rome happened."
Antonius had the curse common to those with clever minds: he was always thinking, even when he should not, and sometimes a remark would set off the strangest memory or new idea. But now, now, he was minded of his old grammaticus, who had set them to learn Homer. The Achaeans and Trojans were forever being called hippodamoi. Breakers of horses. That, too, had been the bride's name in the Centauromachy, Hippodameia; in his mind's eye he saw Stephanos again rolling over on the sand, surrendering, giving in. And he remembered, distantly, as if it had been a lifetime ago, the day he had come back to Dacia, when Zinnas had welcomed him home and told him of Rome's plans for invasion. She will break us, he had said, and Antonius wanted to weep, remembering it. He wondered if Zinnas had died that day at the Iron Gates, and he hated himself for not having wondered it before.
Hôs hoi g' amphiepon taphon Hektoros hippodamoio. And so they buried Hector, breaker of horses.
"Mmm?" Stephanos asked. "You sing the Iliad at me?"
Antonius had not realized that he had spoken aloud until that moment; like any good Greek, Stephanos knew the famous final line.
"It is only—" he began, and then he stopped, trying to think of how best to put it. "It is that when I was a child, learning my lessons, I always thought that it was a fine thing to be called a breaker of horses. That in the poem it was a mark of how civilized these men were, how clever they were to be able to gentle horses, to tame them to the will of men. That it was a reminder of what they might have done in life, had there been no war, for in my homeland the horsemen knew that these occupations were for peacetime. It was a good thing. That was what I used to think."
"Now," Antonius said, "I realize that I never thought about how the horses felt."
Over dinner that night, Ioanna grinned at Antonius from across the table and passed him another cup of posca. The vinegar stung at his throat.
"Did you see us perform the Centauromachy?" she asked, eyes bright with excitement. "Did you think we were good?"
Antonius swallowed all the objections he had made to Stephanos; he did not need to burden her with them. "Yes," he said, grinning back. "Yes, to both. You were excellent!" And then the most perverse image occurred to him: he remembered watching Stephanos embrace her. "But you had to kiss Stephanos! Did you not mind?"
He would not have minded, the smallest voice whispered in his mind. He would not have minded at all, if it were him, and he had to.
That was the only way they would kiss. If they had to, for they would not do it on their own, for it was certain that Stephanos had not responded to him as if he were at all interested.
Ioanna giggled. "Oh, that! It is only acting, and it is better than the time we were practicing it and he dropped me by accident. No, I do not mind, and Henricus does not either." Her voice lowered. "I think he might mind, if Stephanos were not clearly so ill at kissing."
"He's... bad at it?" This, Antonius had not pictured. Stephanos was so skilled on the sands that Antonius had naturally imagined that anything he did with his body would be equally practiced, equally wonderful.
Ioanna made a face. "The worst. There is no passion in it, and Stephanos is so uncomfortable that you can tell how much he hates to do it, the poor thing. The crowd doesn't notice because they're too far away, thankfully, and he poses so he's bending over me. It is mostly mime, you see." Her voice was brisk now, matter-of-fact, a professional describing the inner workings of her trade.
"Oh," he said, faintly shocked. "I would not have known, from the acting."
If he were to be honest with himself, he was more than a little disappointed. He had pictured— well, there was no sense in picturing anything else.
"He's a very good actor," she agreed, as she finished the last of her stew. "I don't think he wants anyone to know how he feels."
"Ever," Antonius added. "About anything."
She raised her mug of posca, and Antonius clinked his against hers. "To centaurs," she declared, still grinning.
"To centaurs," Antonius echoed.
But for the rest of the dinner, nonetheless, he could not stop himself from thinking about how it must feel to be kissed by Stephanos. Would it be different, he wondered, if it were real?
Antonius came to train with Stephanos again after breakfast the next morning. He had gone first to the storage sheds to retrieve his practice gear, net and mock-trident, and when he came to the practice ground he found Stephanos—once again dressed and blanketed—staring down at him, arms crossed. His face was blank and gave away nothing, as if none of the conversation yesterday had happened.
It pained him that Stephanos would pretend that. He supposed that this was the way it was to be. He had overstepped some boundary, when he had come to see Stephanos after the fight. They were not friends; it was only Antonius who thought they should be, who imposed himself on Stephanos.
The only sign of unrest in Stephanos was the slightest twitch of his bound tail, the stamp of one of his hooves. He wore a shield on his back, but did not move to unsheathe the practice sword.
"So," Stephanos said, "as I told you, you are good. I have taught you all I know. But the trick to being great, as a gladiator—that all lies in the stagecraft." His mouth twisted. "I know you have said you were uncomfortable with the idea of acting on the sands—"
Ah, so that was where the problem lay.
"Not at all," Antonius said, interrupting him. "I will do what I must."
Stephanos stopped and squinted. "But you were so angry—"
I was angry because it was you who had to do it, he did not say.
"I have been a chieftain among my people," Antonius said, and only then did he realize that it was the first time he had truly spoken of his past since he had come here. "I grew up knowing that men would look to me, and knowing that I would have to learn to use that, that I would have to learn to put on masks. I am not averse to using it to win my freedom."
Stephanos was silent for long moments; Antonius did not know if he had divined his hidden reason. "As you say."
"Then what must I do?"
A smile flickered across Stephanos' face. "You have passion. We will use it. The crowd expects to think you cowardly, because you will be fighting fast, running, evading every blow. And you will do exactly that, but you will make them think it is the finest of virtues. Taunt your opponent. Dance out of his way. Tumble like an acrobat, if you can. Be... showy. Make it look easy. It won't be easy, of course, but for the crowd it must seem effortless, so effortless that you outclass any man on the sands against you. Do you take my meaning?"
"I do." He could picture it, as Stephanos described it. It would be hard to make the fight seem so easy; he already knew that the better a move looked, the more difficult it generally was to perform. "You think you can teach me that? Teach me how to make the crowd adore me?"
Stephanos smiled again. "They will love you. They will love you for the Quinquatria games. My word as lanista. As I have said, you have fire in you. You only need to shape it."
The Quinquatria began five days after the Ides of March; they had over two months. He would be as metal in a crucible. He would be formed anew.
Therefore they trained.
He did not train only with Stephanos. He moved to the main practice ground, and he trained with anyone who would take him on, the fast net-fighters and the heavy brawlers, both. He became adept at dancing out of the way of Thorus' or Brutus' swings, laughing and tumbling like an acrobat. Even against net-fighters he was fast; when he sparred with Rhodios they usually had an audience as they wove around the sands, in and out of range of each other. Ioanna and Henricus taught him to fall, to roll, to leap.
It was another fast match, with him and Rhodios stripped to loincloths and showing off for the gathering crowd. Rhodios grinned and swung low with the pole that represented his trident, and Antonius leaped in the air and cleared it with ease, and then again on the swing back.
"Is that your only trick, friend?" he called out, panting, and Rhodios held the pole in front of him and charged.
The move was practiced, now; it was easy to disarm him. Antonius wrested the haft out of Rhodios' hands, reversed it, and brought the butt of the pole into the dirt. His hands were still wrapped about the haft. The motion of his charge still carried Rhodios forward, and Antonius braced his weight, then levered himself up, feet in the air, as if he meant to vault himself up—and slammed into Rhodios, his knees driving into the other man's chest. They went over in a great tangle of limbs, Antonius sitting astride his torso.
"I surrender," Rhodios said, laughing, out of breath. "What— how did you even do that—?"
"Practice," Antonius said, grinning back, pushing himself to his feet, and looking around—
Stephanos was one of the onlookers. He was standing behind the line of men, but of course he was so tall that he could see over their heads with ease. Antonius' stomach clenched up, half nerves and half something that might have been pleasant; had he impressed Stephanos? Had Stephanos enjoyed watching him? Had he liked, perhaps, the look of him? No, no, that last was too much to hope for.
Then Stephanos pushed forward to the edge of the practice ground, hooves coming up even against the men in their worn boots, the line of onlookers at the sands. Antonius looked up, and up. Stephanos was smiling, warm and approving, and there was an echoing warmth in Antonius.
"You are ready," Stephanos said. "The crowd will adore you."
After that it was all arranged very quickly. He would be one of the featured matches for the games, paired of course with a secutor, a fellow Dacian whom Antonius did not know very well: the dark-haired man had given his name as Hiezechihel, which was odd for a Dacian, but Antonius supposed that he could give whatever name he liked. Antonius thought it was good, perhaps, that he did not know the man much beyond his name; it would make fighting him easier.
The night before the games, they held a banquet once again, and every man ate well and arranged his affairs with his friends, for of course they did not know which were about to die on the morrow—or even if any would die at all. Not all fights were death-fights from the outset, and even so, sometimes the fallen were given mercy.
He knew how to die a noble death. He was not afraid of that. It was only that his affairs were not quite settled, and he felt he should speak to Stephanos once on this night—if not to confess his feelings, then at least to let him know of the acclaim he held him in, and to thank him for the training.
He had a vague notion Stephanos lived in one of the outbuildings—he had never seen Stephanos' stables, if stable was indeed the right word for centaurs—and he was bidding his friends a good evening and was out of the barracks, making his way across the ludus to where he thought the stables might be, when a familiar huge pale shape moved toward him.
Stephanos stopped. In the moonlit night he was nothing but pale; his tunic and blanket shone white, and his golden hair and the similarly golden hide of his long legs were almost bleached to silver, the color drained out of them. He wore his tail free, brushed out, another breathtaking sweep of unearthly beauty. Seeing him this way, Antonius was conscious, suddenly, of how much more than human Stephanos was, and then he wondered how he dared presume that his base, flawed human feelings were even worthy of such a being.
"Antonius!" Stephanos' smile flashed white. "There you are! I was just looking for you!"
He nodded. "It is the night before your first fight, after all, and I wanted to talk to you, because I—" His breath caught, and Antonius had the impression that he had changed his mind about what to say, although he could not have said why. "Well, I thought perhaps we should see each other."
Antonius grinned up at him. "Any last pieces of advice?"
"Not that I know of." Stephanos reached out and laid his hand on Antonius' shoulder; his touch was hot. Not hot like a brand, but like a ray of sunlight against his face on a cold day, an unexpected and welcome presence. "Fight well. I would have told you to make me proud, but you already do."
Antonius' throat went tight. "I do?"
"You do." Stephanos smiled again and let his hand fall away. "So it will be well. Do not fear."
"I was more afraid," he said, "fighting the Romans in Dacia."
He remembered it once again: his last day as a free man. The feeling that flowed through him now was not the hot, powerless rage of captivity, but a cool determination.
"Hold to that." Stephanos' gaze was intent.
"I will." Antonius looked back up at him. They were so close, they could— well, they could have kissed, had Antonius' head not come up to the middle of Stephanos' chest. It would have needed Stephanos' active participation, and Antonius did not think he would have agreed. "I wanted to thank you. For what you have done for me."
When he won. When he won and truly made him proud, perhaps then he would tell Stephanos how he felt.
"You do not need to thank me." Stephanos' grin went sharp. "Only win for me."
Win for me, he thought as he clutched at the sky-stone under his tunic, as he settled into his pallet. Win for me.
He could do that.
On the sands it all fell apart.
The net was the same between Antonius' fingers, but the real trident was lighter than the practice pole, and it slipped and rolled in his sweaty palm as he stood in the shadows behind the gate, waiting to be called. The dagger was an unfamiliar weight at his hip, and the arm- and shoulder-guards dragged down his arm—though at least he had practiced with those. These were finer versions of the practiced gear. They were gilded, that they might gleam in the sun.
It was a cold morning, and he wore only a loincloth and his sky-stone about his neck; he was barefoot, as retiarii always were. He shivered.
Hiezechihel, the secutor, stood at his side. He got boots, of course. He was similarly clad in a loincloth, but at least he had armor. He had a rectangular shield, as soldiers carried. He had a real sword. His helmet was tucked under one arm; he would not wear it until the fight began, for—or so Antonius was given to understand—it was hard to breathe in, because it had only eye-holes. Anything more would have left his face vulnerable to Antonius' trident. He did not smile; he only stared out at the sands, blankly, as if his mind were a thousand miles from his gaze.
There were echoing steps behind him, the ringing of hooves on stone, and he did not need to turn to know that Stephanos had joined them at the gate.
"Fight well," Stephanos said.
He could have been saying it to both of them.
"Yes, lanista," Hiezechihel said.
"I will," Antonius said, and he allowed himself a very small smile.
Then the trumpet-players sounded for them and the men raised the gate. Hiezechihel shrugged, glanced over at him, and slid the helmet on his face. Antonius did not look back.
On the sands they took their places. Hiezechihel unsheathed his sword. Antonius clenched the net in his fist. He glanced left and right, to the referees, and then up to where the magistrates sat, to the editor in charge of the games. The rest of the crowd was a blur of motion and noise, too far away to take in. He still did not look back, but he knew Stephanos was watching.
Everything within him settled into a calm stillness; he was present in his body, more than he had ever been. He dug his toes into the sand.
The trumpets sounded again, and Hiezechihel lifted his sword and charged.
The secutor is a contradiction, he remembered Stephanos telling him once. He could hear Stephanos' voice in his head even now. He is burdened by his armor, and yet he needs to finish the fight fast, before his burdens tire him. You will be faster. That is how you will be victorious.
It was easy to step aside.
Hiezechihel tried a second lumbering charge, a third, and each time Antonius jumped back.
After the third he laughed and yelled, "Can't you move faster?"
Hiezechihel only pushed forward, and Antonius danced away again. He was not about to let him close.
"Are you wearing too much armor?" Antonius offered, feeling his mouth part in a grin. He called out loudly enough that he hoped the front rows could hear him. "Am I wearing too much? Here, let me fix that."
The spectators who could hear him started to laugh, but the sound was almost bewildered, as if they did not know whether they should find him funny.
With the net still balled up in his fist, he was barely able to free his thumb and forefinger, but nonetheless he worked at the leather straps of the arm- and shoulder-guard until the bright metal fell onto the sand next to him.
Behind the mask, he could see Hiezechihel's eyes widen. Hiezechihel was probably wondering if he had gone mad.
"There!" Antonius said, as cheerfully as he could. "I could also take the loincloth off—but, honestly, I do not have quite that much affection for you."
The crowd was laughing now. That was good. That was what Stephanos wanted for him. He was entertaining. They wanted him to win.
Another pass. Another. Another. Antonius dodged each of them. He knew that each move he made was slower than the last, but he knew too, as Hiezechihel's blade flashed by him, that Hiezechihel needed to end this quickly.
One more pass, and then an opening: Hiezechihel was slow to bring the shield up, and his sword-arm shook. Antonius gritted his teeth, leaned forward, threw out the net—
It was a perfect throw.
The net fluttered over Hiezechihel's head, over his weapons, tangling him. Antonius brought up the trident, butted him in the breastplate hard, and watched as Hiezechihel went down, sprawling on his back in the sands. Antonius had done it right, as he had been taught; he had done it exactly right.
The crowd was cheering his name now.
Feeling as if someone else's hands were making these motions, Antonius reversed the trident, so that its deadly points sat at Hiezechihel's throat, just under the edge of the helmet, where he was vulnerable.
Behind the mask, Hiezechihel shut his eyes. His hand flailed out and made the sign for surrender.
"Kill him!" the crowd roared, amidst their laughter.
Antonius looked up to the magistrates. The editor glanced about at the crowd, then held out his hand, thumb out of his fist like the blade of a sword. Death.
Antonius looked back at Hiezechihel, who lay motionless.
None of this was a game.
The fact occurred to Antonius, abruptly, in that very moment, in a way that it had never occurred to him before. He was performing for the crowd, entertaining. He was being ordered to take a man's life for a joke. Because it pleased them. He had fought before; he had even killed before, at the Iron Gates. But he had been fighting for his family, his people, his way of life, and he had only slain men in the thick of fighting, men who were trying to kill him.
Hiezechihel was Dacian, as he was; perhaps they had even fought at that very battle together. Perhaps they had once raised swords against Rome. And now Rome wanted, on a whim, a man's death, just to make the sands a little redder, to make the crowd whisper in horror and delight.
It was awful. It was awful and he wanted none of it.
His hands shook on the trident.
His eyes stung, and he could not say whether it was with sweat or tears.
He stepped back and cast the trident away, and then he held out his hand.
Hiezechihel opened his eyes and blinked up at him. "What are you doing?" he asked. His voice was harsh, angry; he was a man who had been preparing for his death, only to find it stolen from him.
"I can't," Antonius said, and his voice cracked on the word. "I can't do it."
As the crowd's approval lowered and fell into angry jeers, Antonius stepped over Hiezechihel and ran for the gate, which opened to admit him.
Stephanos was still standing there, in the shadows, where he had been. Antonius could not make himself look up to see Stephanos' face, but Stephanos said nothing, and that was more than enough.
Antonius stood, eyes averted, hands behind his back, as Furius' diatribe washed over him. Furius was missing the next match; he had come down through the tunnels to where the fighters were specifically to berate him.
And why shouldn't he? Antonius deserved it.
Stephanos was there too, a few paces behind Antonius. He still had not spoken.
"I bought you on the understanding that you would fight in the arena!" Furius snarled. "Is that not what you swore to me?"
He looked up. Furius' eye was narrowed; his face was reddened in ire. "Sir," he said, mouth dry, "that is what I swore."
"Was it not made clear to you that fighting includes following the decisions of the editor? I paid for you. I made an enemy of Tiberius Lapidator for you, Dacian," he said, and despite himself Antonius flinched at the mention of Tiberius' name. "My best trainer has invested a great deal of time in you on my orders, and he promised to me that you were one of the best he had seen. And now, now, you are on the sands and you completely fail to do what is asked of you? Have you no spine? Do you know what I should do to you?"
"Sir, this is my fault," Stephanos said, interrupting, and Antonius turned back to stare at him in horror and denial, for of course it was not Stephanos' fault. Stephanos' face was still impassive; he did not look once at Antonius. "I pledged my word to you that I would train him well, and obviously I did not properly express to Antonius the seriousness of a match. I beg you, sir, that any punishment you desire to mete out should fall on me and not him, for it was my failing as a teacher that led to this disgraceful outcome."
No. No, that was wrong! Furius could not punish Stephanos for this, he could not!
Before he quite knew what he was doing, Antonius had stepped between Furius and Stephanos, holding out his hands, as if he could keep Stephanos from punishment that way, as if he could protect him with his body.
"No, sir, please," Antonius said, desperately, the words falling out of him in a rush, "it was my error and mine alone. He deserves none of it."
And Furius seemed to come to a halt then, drawing himself up and looking first at Antonius, then at Stephanos. "Well," he said quietly, to himself, "this is a loyalty I had not thought to find." His face went stern again. "Well, Antonius, so that you know you have done wrong, you know what I will ask of you."
Antonius straightened, chin up. "I know."
"The overseer will not be too harsh," said Furius. "We'll want more fighting out of you. Now, go. Stephanos, do a better job next time."
Stephanos snapped to attention, a chastened soldier given orders. "Sir."
His back was on fire. It did not feel like it was bleeding so much—in that respect the overseer had been gentle with the club—although he had to admit he could not see it properly. And he had not cried out, not once. Truly, Antonius told himself, it was no worse than he had been after some of the practices.
There was the shame of it, though. He hoped none of his friends or barracks-mates had seen him; he did not want to go to Thorus or Henricus and ask for a salve, because that would meant explaining what he had done to merit it, and he could not, for how could he explain any of it without sounding like he had been some coward?
At least he was alone now, in his pallet in the barracks; everyone else was at the amphitheater. He curled up on his side and winced as the mattress brushed the edge of one of the burning weals.
Then a huge shadow fell across the doorway, and he looked up to see Stephanos, the very last face he would ever have wanted to see. He would have turned away, but he did not think he could roll onto his back.
"I am not cross with you," Stephanos said, softly, "but you know you will need to have your back seen to. I say this as a veteran of many more campaigns than you could dream of. Come with me."
Antonius shut his eyes in misery. "I have failed you. I— I cannot speak of it."
"Then I will not ask you to speak of it," Stephanos replied. "But I would like you to come with me. Here, can you stand?"
He should have refused. He should have said no. But he found he was pushing himself to his feet, taking Stephanos' offered hand, leaning ever so briefly on the scratchy wool of the blanket that covered Stephanos' high shoulder.
He wobbled and rested an arm over Stephanos' withers as they took a few steps into the sunlight. "Where— where are we going?"
"My quarters," Stephanos said, briskly, as if this were an entirely ordinary thing to say, when Antonius had never so much as glimpsed the building where Stephanos lived. "A little more privacy, and a few things already prepared. And I have more pillows than you."
He could not think of a thing to say, other than sheer bewilderment that Stephanos would care enough to do this for him, so he kept his mouth shut.
Stephanos led him to a building that had clearly once been a stable, but the large stall at the end was like no horse-stall he had ever seen. Half the stall was swept bare, and there was a table in one corner with an oil-lamp, a pile of wax tablets, a stylus, a cloth, a pitcher and a few clay mugs. The other end was more like a horse-stall, in that it was straw-floored, but there were a great many pillows scattered about, of various and odd sizes; some were large and wedge-shaped, others small and head-sized, with some blankets folded atop them. Antonius supposed that Stephanos slept lying down for longer periods than horses did or could; it must not have been deadly to him. The stall did not have the smell of manure, and the usual spaces for fodder were missing.
"It's not much," Stephanos said, and he shuffled his weight from hoof to hoof, as if he were embarrassed, even though it was far nicer than Antonius had.
While Antonius was still looking around, Stephanos walked to the table, picked up one of the mugs, and handed it to Antonius. Antonius lifted it, smelled an astringent scent, and raised a quizzical eyebrow.
"Willow bark," Stephanos said. "It will ease the pain."
It was convenient, Antonius thought, that he had it ready, but then the truth occurred to him. "You prepared this beforehand. For me."
There was a little color in Stephanos' cheeks, and he tossed his bound tail. "I had thought you might need it. I admit I had not thought of this particular outcome."
Antonius shut his eyes and drank the bitter draft. "I—" He coughed, and tried again. "I'm sorry."
Stephanos looked at him for a long while. "If you arrange the pillows, you ought to be able to lie on them. I want to get a look at your back."
It did not occur to him that he could have refused until he had already piled them one atop the other, until they were at least the height of a dining-couch. When he lay down he sank into them, feeling a little trapped. It was awkward, but at least Stephanos was here. Stephanos would not hurt him. He hoped. He shut his eyes.
"I'm going to get some of the blood off," Stephanos murmured, and then there was the ringing of his hooves against the floor, and then the coolness of wet cloth against Antonius' back. It stung worse, the touching, and Antonius hissed under his breath, but something about it was nice as well.
"Is that good?" Stephanos asked.
"It's better," he said, surprised to find that it was true.
For a while there were no sounds but the sloshing of water as Stephanos moistened the cloth again and again, dabbing at the wounds on his back, and then gently adding a salve.
"You fought well, you know," Stephanos said, and Antonius only shut his eyes harder, as if that act could prevent him from hearing the inevitable disappointment to come. "I am proud of you."
Antonius opened his eyes and raised his head, ignoring the burning pain, and stared at Stephanos, who was looking down at him as if he had said nothing out of the ordinary.
"I failed you," Antonius said, the words twisting in his mouth, filling him with wretched disgust at his own behavior. "I... I cannot even say why. When the editor called for death, I realized I would have to kill this man, and nothing about it was noble. It was for sport. It meant nothing." He sighed. "When I was a child I thought Rome was glorious, and I would have given anything to be Roman. And now, I suppose, I have, and I have found that it is nothing but a screaming mob calling for a man's blood. That is what I have taken oath to now, isn't it? I loved Rome, and then I hated her, and now she is nothing but rotten."
Stephanos looked down at him, and suddenly his eyes were unaccountably sad. "Ah, Antonius," he whispered. "Do not become like me."
"How— what do you mean?"
Stephanos sighed. "Would you like to hear a story? It is not one I have told many people, but I think you might understand, when you hear it."
Before he could answer, Stephanos lowered himself to the floor, at the edges of the straw, folding his legs underneath him. Their heads were on a level now. The human half of him was pressed up against one of the pillows Antonius had not used in his pile; Antonius supposed it looked comfortable enough. They were close enough to touch, if— if Stephanos had wanted that of him.
"I was born in Athens," Stephanos said, quietly. "As Romans reckon the year, it was the consulship of Octavius and Cotta." At Antonius' look of incomprehension—because he did not know the names except to have the vague idea that they were old—Stephanos clarified further. "They would also say it was year six hundred seventy-nine, since the founding of the city."
Antonius stared, dumbfounded. "You're one hundred seventy-six years old?" It ought not to have surprised him, since his old grammaticus had said that the Divine Julius had made the centaurs, but knowing the fact was very different from hearing it. Here was an immortal, right here, in front of him.
He felt, suddenly, a wash of shame, that he could have dared to— to have feelings for Stephanos, as if he were any ordinary person. That he had lain here and let an immortal being wipe the blood from his back, a task that even the lowest slave could have done.
Stephanos nodded. "I am. Though I was just as human as anyone, at the beginning. But you must have known that," he said, when Antonius evinced no surprise at that.
"You are one of the made-centaurs." Antonius was certain of that point.
Stephanos sighed, and the sound was a lifetime of weariness. "I am the only made-centaur. I am the only one there ever was, and likely the only one there ever will be."
Dimly, Antonius was aware that his mouth had fallen open in shock. "But the stories— the centaurs seen throughout the empire—"
"Are all me," Stephanos said. "You know how easy it is for rumors to spread in the telling, especially when the whole affair was so secret to begin with that only Gaius Caesar and his closest men knew about the making before it had happened. It was easy enough for some wag to say, oh, he made twenty centaurs, fifty, a hundred—and he was not about to contradict them."
He was stuck on the way Stephanos had said Gaius Caesar, so offhandedly, as if the man had been a friend. "You knew the Divine Julius?"
"What was he like?"
"Oh, you know," Stephanos said, and briefly his eyes sparkled sapphire-bright. He held up a hand far above his head, motioning upward, indicating the height of a tall man. "About yea tall. Dark eyes. Balding, by the time I knew him, but he looked like the sort of man who had been pretty in his youth—"
Antonius glared. "You know what I meant."
Stephanos' gaze focused somewhere beyond Antonius, as if he were looking back into the past. "Have you ever met a man," he began, "who had such presence about him, that looking at him, you knew you would do whatever he commanded, in an instant? A man whom you would follow, wherever he led, without so much as asking where?" He shut his eyes. "I met him and I knew my life was his, and when he asked if any man would volunteer for these trials, to become a new kind of soldier for him, I raised my hand. I do not know if I would have done it without him, but he was there and he— he molded the world around himself. I cannot describe it."
I met you, Antonius wanted to say. I met you and I wanted to come to Rome, because you were the best thing I had seen in my life. But he could not say that.
"You were in the army, then, when you volunteered?"
He nodded again. "I was a sickly youth, and both my parents died when I was young. It was that or starve. And— I had a high opinion of Rome." His mouth twisted. "I know it seems strange for a Greek to say so, knowing that Rome loves our art, our language, our culture, and yet holds us subservient. But I was young and foolish, and I suppose I only saw the glory of it, not the chains. So I enlisted in the auxiliaries, and I thought I would do my twenty-five years, win my citizenship, and be a proper Roman." He snorted. "To this day I don't know what the recruiting centurion saw in me; I could barely carry a marching-pack, to say nothing of actually marching with it. That is how weak I was."
Antonius could not help his gaze roving over Stephanos' muscular body; no one would call any part of him weak, he thought, with more than a little admiration.
Stephanos caught his gaze and laughed gently. "Ah, yes. My strength. That was one of the consequences. At any rate, I was twenty when I joined, and I did not know it, but Caesar was about to invade Britain. That was when he had the idea to make centaurs."
"I thought you said you were the only one?"
"The only one who lived," Stephanos said, and for an instant it seemed that grief choked his throat. "There were several of us, and I think it was a joke that I was picked at all. I expected to die, actually." His voice was cold, remote, as if he were talking about a thing that had happened to someone else. "I wonder sometimes if that was what made the difference, if it was like a soldier's act of devotio in battle. I wish I could know. I cannot even say what happened. There were priests, to Aesculapius and Apollo, and chanting and sweet incense, and the last thing I remember is kneeling with my arms raised to the heavens and thinking that if I died I would die for Rome and then—" He stopped talking and waved his hand down at the rest of himself, where his long golden-furred legs were tucked under him. "I awoke, and I was as you see me."
Antonius' eyes followed the motion; he could not help but think, once again, how finely-built Stephanos was, in all respects. "You must have been shocked."
"Oh, I was," Stephanos agreed. "It took me so long to even begin to stand up. I was worse than a newborn foal. It was a month or so before I could even begin to move properly, with all of my strength, but once I did, well. The general was very pleased with my progress. Transferred me to his own legion, the Tenth Equestris." He smiled a little, presumably at the irony. "But being as I was the only success, he did not want to chance more deaths when he did not understand why it worked at all."
"Yes." Stephanos' lips pursed. "And then we invaded Britain."
He thought he could see the shape of the tale now. "And you did not like war when you truly saw it?"
But Stephanos shook his head. "No, that was not it. It was brutal, and I— I expected that. I had made a friend in the legion, a youth barely old enough to have enlisted; we survived the first invasion together, and in the second, well— I never saw him again after the soldiers went ashore. I lost him in the first attack. It was sad, but, no... I knew I had volunteered for war. For the glory of Rome. War itself was not the problem. The problem was the things that were... for other purposes."
"How do you mean?"
"You don't remember the civil war." Stephanos sighed. "That's not fair of me to say, I suppose; no one alive remembers the civil war. The people were terrified. There had been unrest for years. Decades. They flung themselves behind anyone who promised any hope of peace, and it was the Optimates and the Populares, and well... Caesar, he had the support of the people. But it was a bitter thing to bear arms against Romans. Against my fellow soldiers."
"That was what turned you from Rome?" Antonius wondered. "That was so long ago."
Stephanos shook his head again. "Not then," he said. "But it might have started when I watched Caesar begin to lose the favor of the people. I was there when he refused the crown." His mouth quirked, a bitter smile. "One of your ancestors was involved there, eh, Antonius?" He stressed the name.
"Not mine by blood," Antonius said, fiercely. "I was adopted in. You think a Dacian was born with this name?"
Stephanos reached out and laid a hand on Antonius' arm, and it felt as if everything within him inclined to that touch. "Is there a name you would rather I call you?"
It was the promise he had made to himself. "When I am free I will tell you." But the words felt hollow, not as they had when he had sworn them, as if something within Antonius knew that they would not truly let him have this. He took a breath. "But you were telling me of Caesar?"
"He died," Stephanos said, and in his voice was the bleakest sorrow, grief for a man who was more than half myth to men, by now. "When I had been in this form ten years—" he gestured to his equine body— "they killed him, and then, I think, then it started to occur to me that I would not march my twenty-five years and be free. That I would not die, unless I was killed. I am not saying that what came after him was bad. The Divine Augustus brought peace, and that was sorely needed, but some of the men after him—well, Rome is not now as it once was, but I am her soldier forever, as I was made. But I do not think that that Rome exists, the one I swore to serve."
"You were a soldier when I saw you," Antonius said, trying to comprehend that Stephanos had marched under the Eagles for at least a century.
Stephanos' tail flicked back and forth, restlessly. "In Dacia. That was the end of it. I went for the treaty, and I knew, looking at the faces of the men—at my fellow Romans—who had come to negotiate, that the treaty was a lie. That it was worthless. That they never intended to keep it. And I realized that I could not soldier any longer for a Rome that would allow that."
Antonius lifted his head as much as he dared, with his wounds, and he looked around the stall, at the rest of the ludus beyond them. "That does not explain how you ended up here."
Stephanos' fingers, still on Antonius' arm, tightened a little. "I told Domitian what I thought of him."
"And you're still alive?" Antonius gaped at him.
"I am a symbol as much as I am a being." Stephanos shrugged. "Rome's centaur. It would have been ill luck to kill me. He knew he could not; he was not as mad as that. He only said that if I hated life so much that I wanted to spill my blood in Rome's service, I should sell myself to the arena. So I did." He gave another shrug, as if this did not bother him, though surely it must have. "So I am here, and I have been here—well, since you were a child in Sarmizegethusa."
"I am hardly a child now," Antonius said, and he could not have said what made him say that, for surely they both knew that.
Stephanos tilted his head back to look him in the face. His eyes were the bluest of blues, and it seemed that where once he had been sad he was now smiling faintly. His hand on Antonius' arm had lightened; the pressure was almost a caress. "So, that is true." And then he seemed to stutter, somehow, inside of himself, and seek to change the subject. "Is your back any better? You should go shirtless if you can today; perhaps Thorus will salve it again for you later." His gaze focused then on the sky-stone, which Antonius still wore, even though the thong it hung on chafed his skin. "You might want to take that off, as well."
"No," Antonius said, quietly. "It is a thing of my people. I found it, the night I took my oath against the Romans."
Stephanos' eyes met his in a kind of recognition, as if with that knowledge they had become shield-brothers, fellow soldiers in a desperate and quiet war. "Then you should keep it."
And then Antonius was pushing himself hurriedly off the pile of pillows, even though there was nothing he would rather have done but stay. At the same time, it felt as if there was a tension between them, growing, and he did not know what to make of it, for surely the only thing that could happen if he said anything would be an end to their friendship.
"I am feeling much better. I thank you."
"It is nothing," Stephanos said, and he still lay on the floor of his stall so that Antonius was taller than him, and oh, that was more than passing strange. "I only wished to help you, as I could."
Antonius knew, then, that he meant more than the help he had given him with his back.
"You have helped," he said. "And I will remember what you have told me, and I will hope that telling me has brought it to your mind as well, for nothing you have said should be forgotten. I will not forget who I am truly fighting."
And then he turned and left, before he could see Stephanos' face in response, because he would only think of things Stephanos did not—could not—want from him.
Antonius began to heal; slowly he worked himself back into the practices, springing about the practice grounds and evading the blows of Thorus or Brutus. Stephanos watched him often; it seemed he watched him more than others, although that might have been only Antonius' wishful imagination.
On one fine spring evening, the Nones of April, he was alone in the barracks just after dinner; he had excused himself early. His fingers itched for a stylus, a tablet, to map out plans, to build, but that was denied him—and his friends, who knew nothing of how his life had been, would not understand. So, not wishing to burden them with his cares, he went to his pallet and lay there, alone.
And then Stephanos was there, as he had been not so long ago, and Antonius blinked and pushed himself up on his elbows. Stephanos' face was hopeful but a little sheepish, downcast, the color high in his cheeks, and he stamped one hoof and swished his tail, as if he were nervous about how whatever he had to say would be received. This was a far cry from the last time he had visited.
"I was wondering," Stephanos said quietly, still looking abashed, "if you were free now and might assist me with a matter."
Antonius smiled. "Certainly," he said, and only after he said it did he realize that he had agreed before he had even asked what it was. "What can I do?"
"Samuel has the day free and is visiting friends," Stephanos said, "and I— I cannot groom myself, not entirely. It is in my heart that you help me."
Antonius pushed himself to his feet. "Of course I will."
As he walked to join Stephanos, as they walked out the door together and back toward Stephanos' quarters, nervousness began to rattle Antonius' bones. This was, he realized, a very different proposition from grooming horses; this was grooming Stephanos, whom he considered his friend. Whom, if he was honest with himself, he would like to consider as something more than just a friend. Oh, certainly, one might have been scrubbed and scraped by bath-slaves with just the same impartiality as a horse-groom. It was not as though he himself had never undergone comparable experiences. The act by itself was not necessarily intimate, unless the intent made it so.
And Antonius, well... Antonius was beginning to see that he himself had rather a lot in the way of intent.
Stephanos glanced over at him as they approached the building. "Are you well with this?" He frowned. "You do know how grooming goes?"
Antonius started to chuckle. "I am Dacian, as you like to remind me. My father would have disinherited me if I could not groom a horse. Not that I think you're a horse," he added, once he realized what he had said. "I mean. I know you're not a horse." He could not think of anything to say; he hoped he had not offended Stephanos.
He realized it was the first time he had mentioned his family to Stephanos, and the old angry sadness twisted up in him.
"You do not have to do this if you don't want—"
"No, no," Antonius said, quickly. "I want to. Truly."
That was the problem, wasn't it?
Stephanos led the way to his quarters again; Antonius briefly wondered why he had not stopped outside the stall, but then realized, shamefully, that Stephanos was not a horse and there was no need to tie him up anywhere to groom him, and they might as well brush him in his stall, which was as clean as anywhere else was.
In the stall, Stephanos gestured to the usual array of brushes over by his table, before his hands went to his waist and he began working at his belt. "Could you take the blanket off and fold it, please?" he asked, a perfectly ordinary request that nonetheless made Antonius shiver a little.
So Antonius bent and undid the tie at the front of the blanket, and then slid the whole thing off, folding it and setting it aside without looking up, for fear that even a glance would betray him.
"Here," Stephanos said, handing him a similarly folded tunic and coiled belt. "Put that with the blanket, please."
Keeping his eyes averted, Antonius took the tunic from him; their hands brushed briefly. "Like so?" he asked, and he hoped Stephanos did not note the sudden tremor in his voice.
Oh, he could make lewd jokes, he could flirt to provoke a blush—but when it was real, Antonius found himself unaccountably shy.
When he looked up again, Stephanos was unclothed, as he had been that day in the arena, and every bit as glorious—more so, because he was his true self and not acting the drunkard. The human half of him was all rippling muscle down his torso, shading into golden hide that shone even more in the lamp-light. He was still just as muscled as a horse, in a manner that fit the rest of him: not overly lean, but not excessive either. If the Divine Julius had wanted to make a perfect specimen of horse and human, he could not have done better than this. From this close it was hard to resist the urge to just touch Stephanos, to make sure he was real, and to see if that touch pleased him as much as Antonius hoped it might.
"Right." Antonius cleared his throat, though that did nothing to dispel the awkwardness. "Hooves first?"
"Hooves," Stephanos agreed, and Antonius tried to tell himself that the fondness on Stephanos' face was only some trick of the light.
Therefore he retrieved the hoof-pick and went to stand at Stephanos' left shoulder, facing toward his tail in a lifetime of habit. He bent, and finally, finally put a palm to Stephanos' warm golden hide, wrapping his hand around the top of Stephanos' leg, or as much of it as he could manage. It seemed that Stephanos twitched a little, but then was still, and Antonius marveled at how wonderfully soft his hide was, how lovely it felt under his fingertips. He bent further, sliding his hand down past the knee, down the cannon bone to the pastern, to the white-socked fetlock just above the hoof, savoring the warmth and the feel and finally the opportunity to touch Stephanos, for even as fleeting a touch as this.
But before he could tug upwards, Stephanos shifted his weight and raised his foot of his own accord, setting his huge hoof in Antonius' hand, simple and utterly trusting.
It was then that Antonius realized that the particular habit of accustoming by touches was for horses. He could simply have asked Stephanos to lift his hoof for him. He had touched him because he wanted to, and surely Stephanos would know that now, would realize how he felt about him, and certainly that was not a thing that Stephanos wanted. It was not even a thing that was possible, Antonius told himself; and anyway, if he had wanted it he would have responded, surely, to Antonius' earlier, cruder flirtations.
"Sorry," Antonius muttered, feeling his face heat. "I forgot I could have asked you for your hoof."
"It is no matter," came the easy reply. "You have gentle hands; I do not mind in the slightest."
Antonius had not done this in a long time, but his body remembered the way of it. There was not much that could be picked out with the hoof-pick, but instead he had to work at the frog of the hoof gently, with his fingertips, dislodging and brushing away the dirt. Stephanos, true to his word, did not seem to mind. Something about the fastidiousness of the work was relaxing, and it seemed too soon by the time he finally admitted that the hoof was clean and set it down.
Stephanos promptly picked up his rear hoof, waving it a little, like a banner on the field of war, and Antonius chuckled.
"Don't worry," he said, "I see it." Even as he said it he wondered if that meant that Stephanos had known what he'd been about and had misliked him touching his legs.
"Wouldn't want you to miss it," Stephanos retorted, and Antonius bent to his task without looking back at Stephanos' face, but it had sounded like Stephanos had smiled as he spoke.
When he had finished that one and had come around to Stephanos' far side, both times Stephanos waited for Antonius to run his hand down his leg, as he had the first time. Perhaps he found the touch calming; he could not have found the pleasure that Antonius found in it.
With that done, he picked up the curry comb and began to brush, but as soon as he set it to Stephanos' back he felt a shudder pass through Stephanos' huge body.
It had been years since he'd actually groomed a horse, after all; perhaps he was doing a poor job of it. "Is this too harsh for you?" Antonius asked, pausing after making a few tentative circles with the brush to dislodge dirt.
Stephanos shook his head, glancing back at him. He was smiling a little, Antonius noted. That could only be a good thing.
"No, it is well," he said, and there was a lazy, indolent note in his voice. "That feels lovely. Satisfying, you know? Like a good morning at the baths."
"You go to the baths?" Antonius asked, to distract himself from the thought that pounded in him like a drumbeat, the idea that this pleased Stephanos, that this was how he sounded when someone touched him in a way that he enjoyed, for they certainly could not be having any of that. It wouldn't even be possible. It couldn't be. He swallowed hard. "How do you manage that? Isn't the oil bad for your hide?"
Stephanos chuckled, a low thrum that Antonius could feel under his hands. "No, I don't go these days—Samuel usually brings water and will help scrape me so the oil doesn't get on my hide—but I do remember what baths were like. I assume they are much the same."
"Oh, probably," Antonius said. "Still, it is sad that you cannot go."
"Mmm," Stephanos said, another pleased-sounding hum that made Antonius' skin prickle hot all over with strange desire. "This is nice enough. Ah, yes, just there, please."
Antonius rubbed at the spot indicated, brushing the beautiful golden fur back against the grain, and Stephanos kept up the noise, an encouraging groan of relief. Antonius told himself that he was not thinking about how much he enjoyed this.
He took a few breaths to calm himself, combed one side of Stephanos, then worked his way down the other, and then picked up the hard brush; Stephanos shuddered again when Antonius set it against him.
"Easy there," he said, low and soothing, without thinking, and then he wanted to hit himself, because Stephanos wasn't a horse—
"I'm easy," Stephanos said, and though the words came readily enough the tone was unsure, as if there was something about this he could not quite believe or understand. "I only— I wanted to thank you. I know this is an imposition."
"Not at all," Antonius said. "It pleases me." He wanted to bite his tongue, hearing the words, because if there were any plainer way to say I have feelings for you... well, he was rapidly approaching accidentally saying them, and Stephanos clearly did not want that. He cleared his throat. "Well. So. Do you mind the hard brush on your legs, or would you prefer only the soft brush?" Some horses were picky, and you could not very well ask horses which one they would rather have, but there was a distinct difference here.
"I can take it," said Stephanos, a quick answer, given by rote.
Antonius frowned. "Yes, but... which do you like?"
Stephanos had half-turned around to stare at him, his eyes gone a little wide, as if he had been honestly surprised that Antonius—or anyone—would care which he liked.
"It's all right," Antonius said, and he realized his voice had dropped back into soothing, and his hand was absently stroking Stephanos' furred shoulder. "It's well to want gentle things. To not want to hurt."
"The soft brush," Stephanos said quietly, and then he did not say anything else as Antonius worked him over with the hard brush, brushing the stirred-up hair back into place; he only shivered a little when Antonius did his flanks.
Antonius switched to the soft brush, and Stephanos' coat began to gleam under his hands, the last of the dirt swept away. He was so beautiful, Antonius thought, and all at once it seemed the bitterest thing that Stephanos should be reduced to this, toiling in a gladiatorial school because everything he had once thought to serve was dead. They should be free, he thought, and he could nearly taste the longing.
Of course, it was all mixed up with the rest of the longing in him.
He knelt to run the brush over Stephanos' legs, and Stephanos sighed, another pleased sound.
"Good," Stephanos echoed, and something in Antonius glowed. He wanted this. He wanted this again, always. He wanted them to be free. Together. He wanted them to be free together. He did not even know what together would be, but they could figure something out.
When Antonius stood again, Stephanos was looking down at him, a little awkward once more.
"Can you brush my tail?" he asked.
As if Antonius would say no. "I don't know as many fancy braids as Samuel does," he said, already moving to Stephanos' hindquarters, bracing one hand on him so Stephanos would know where he was, "but I can even braid it back up afterwards."
"No, I only want it brushed," Stephanos said, and as Antonius nodded and began to unpick the braid, he added, "You can stand directly behind me if you want—I won't kick you."
Oh. Another habit from horses. He grimaced. "Sorry."
And then he finally had it all unbraided. Stephanos' tail was spread out before him, and, like the rest of him, it was gorgeous, a striking pale color against his golden hide.
"When I was a child I told one of my friends I'd seen you," he murmured, as he combed out Stephanos' tail. "He said if he'd seen you, he'd have plucked your tail for luck." He did not quite know what his own mouth was doing—why was he speaking of Tiberius? He grimaced again.
Stephanos' reply was even, level. "From the sound of it, you disagreed?"
"I—" he began, and he paused, thinking about it. "I told him I wouldn't have wanted to hurt you."
"Even then, you were kind to me," Stephanos said, in a strange tone whose meaning he could not discern.
And soon enough they were done, and Stephanos turned to face him.
"Well," Antonius said. "It's late. I'd— I'd best go."
Stephanos gave another awkward shift of his weight, picking up one hoof, swishing his tail back against his flanks. His mouth was wavering, a little unsure. "Thank you. And I know Samuel will be back tomorrow, but maybe, if you did not mind, I could ask you again...?"
"Any time," Antonius said, too eager, too nervous, his words running into the end of Stephanos' sentence. "Anything. Any time. I will see you tomorrow?"
He left before Stephanos could even have said yes (or no, for he could have said no) and all the way back to the barracks he was cursing himself for the things he said, for the things he didn't say, for the things he said only awkwardly. He remembered the way Stephanos had felt under his hands and shivered. Lying in his pallet, he imagined Stephanos lifting him up, the way he had lifted Ioanna in the arena and then— and then what? Would Stephanos kiss him? Would Stephanos even want to kiss him? Did he desire men? Would he desire Antonius? Antonius' heated blood gave him one answer, of course, but that was all longing. And how would they— what could they even do?
In the morning he woke late, so late that he had to go over to Thorus' barracks and beg breakfast from them; when he came back, Rhodios handed him a wax tablet, folded in half.
"Samuel brought this," he said. "You just missed him."
When Antonius opened it, several strands of pale hair fell into his palm, and reflexively he closed his fingers over the curled length of it before he could drop it.
The tablet was imprinted with a message, in a hand Antonius did not know, but he knew whose it must have been. Stephanos had been an officer in the army, a praefectus alae; he had to have been lettered. Res secundae, the tablet said, in a laborious, careful hand.
He braided the hair into a little loop and hung it next to his sky-stone, under his tunic, next to his heart.
The rest of the day was normal: he trained, he trained more, and his back was now healed to the point where Stephanos seemed to think he would be well enough landing on it, to judge by the number of times he fell in the first match he was set for.
"Not going easy on me now, eh?" he called out to Rhodios.
"Who says I was before?" Rhodios called back, and swung out again, and Antonius dropped to the ground, rolled under the swing, and kicked Rhodios' legs out from underneath him.
He disarmed Rhodios efficiently. "I think perhaps the lanista asked you to."
Rhodios' gaze focused somewhere beyond Antonius.
"I might have," Stephanos said, sounding amused.
He was a golden blur at the edge of Antonius' vision, and when Antonius turned his head to look, Rhodios pushed up and tackled him.
Antonius gave a few experimental and fruitless pushes back, and then sank into the dirt. "I yield."
Stephanos clicked his tongue. "Eyes on your enemy," he said, and then he paced on to the next pair of fighters, his tail flicking behind him.
Antonius could almost have thought the previous night had not happened at all, except for the twist of hair that now hung next to the sky-stone; he did not know if Stephanos had noticed that, while he was watching him fight.
Then that evening Stephanos intercepted again after he had finished dinner.
Stephanos' gait, his manner, his face—all were once again tense with nerves. "I was hoping you might help me again tonight."
It was on the tip of Antonius' tongue to ask if something was wrong with Samuel, if Samuel—for he was also a gladiator—had been hurt in one of the day's practice fights, but he feared that if he did, Stephanos would take it for refusal. "Of course," he said, and Stephanos' face brightened, like sunlight reflected from metal.
With the complication that Antonius' feelings about the matter had become substantially more intense since the previous night, now that circumstances had afforded him the opportunity to be so close to Stephanos, it was the same as the previous night. He folded the blanket, he picked Stephanos' hooves clean—and again Stephanos let him run his hands over his body to do so—and he bit his tongue and tried not to think, or speak, about how much he enjoyed this exquisite torture.
"You're quiet," Stephanos said, softly, as Antonius fetched the curry comb.
"I am thinking, I suppose," Antonius replied, and clamped his mouth shut before he should groan in frustration at his own idiotic answer, for now Stephanos was bound to ask him what he was thinking, and he could not very well confess to his desire to put all the brushes down and press up against him, to ask Stephanos to kneel down so he could kiss him—
"I am thinking about... about freedom," he blurted out, that being the second thing that came to mind.
When Stephanos was silent for a long time, he wondered if perhaps it had been an even worse answer than the truth.
"You are young still," Stephanos said, finally, and he sounded tired, sad. "I expect you remember how it feels."
"And you don't?" he asked, dismayed. It was awful to think that Stephanos could not remember freedom, except perhaps as worn memories, so old that perhaps he could not even tell whether he was remembering the thing itself or only remembering the memory.
Stephanos sighed. "I was born free, but for me it has been so long that I think it might not have been real at all. I was reborn for Rome, in this body, and sometimes I think it is like I am a verna, a slave born to slaves, for they crafted me to serve. There was never another choice, since I took my oath."
"But you must think about it," Antonius pressed him, more distraught. To know that he didn't even dream— to know that if even somehow he might return Antonius' feelings, that it would not make him happy, because this sadness lingered in him— it was intolerable.
"There wouldn't be a point," Stephanos said, and his face was set, somehow stubborn, as if he was determined to keep feeling this way. "I am not free."
The curry comb clattered to the floor. Stephanos did not startle at the sound, but he drew breath, sharply, when Antonius put a hand lightly against his arm.
"If you were, where would you go?" Antonius asked.
Stephanos blinked, looking honestly confused, as if the question had never occurred to him. "Where would I go?"
"Where would you go?" he repeated. "Think about it. For me?"
Stephanos sighed again. He bit his lip. He flicked his tail. When he did speak, his words were quiet, as if it were an act of rebellion even to admit to the desire. "Britain."
Now Antonius was the startled one. "Britain? I thought certainly you would say Greece—"
He shook his head. "No, it would be different now, and I would be sad to find that it was nothing like my home. But the shores of Britain were beautiful, when I saw them. And in the north, Rome is not there; they say it is still wild. Even in the south you can live in the countryside and only see Romans if you wish it; the land is not bent to their will. I would live there."
"I would go with you," Antonius murmured, "if you would have me there."
Dacia too would be gone, broken, crushed to Roman rule. If he went back it would not be the same.
"You would?" Stephanos jerked his head, eyes widened in surprise.
"You need someone to brush your tail," Antonius replied, and he made himself smile.
Part of him hoped Stephanos would think it only a joke. The rest of him fervently hoped it could be true, all of it.
Time passed, further and further into April, and then it was two days before Parilia. Parilia was Rome's birthday, and there were all sorts of arrangements to be made for the games; naturally, Stephanos had been very busy and Antonius had not seen him much at all. He tried to tell himself it was not personal, that he had not somehow offended Stephanos with his questions, his hopes, his desires—at least that last, he was certain Stephanos did not know. He wouldn't have wanted to talk to him if he had.
Stephanos pulled him aside, after training had ended for the evening, one hand on his arm. Antonius tried not to focus on the touch. It meant nothing.
"I was wondering if I might talk to you in my quarters, after dinner," Stephanos said. "It is nothing ill; do not worry." This, he added hastily. "It is only a few... minor matters." He looked away, past Antonius, somehow nervous.
Perhaps it was about Parilia. Perhaps he was loath to tell Antonius that he had struck him from the list of gladiators for the festival's games, after his disgraceful performance at the Quinquatria games. Yes, perhaps that was it.
Antonius hooked his thumbs in his belt and tried to seem easy, carefree. "Very well," he said, voice deliberately light, though he hated to think of revisiting that shame, with Stephanos, once again. "I will see you shortly."
During the meal that followed, he could hardly taste his dinner; he was eating it so quickly, wanting to be done with it and face whatever Stephanos had to say to him. At the same time he did not want to face him, of course, but he knew that the best course of action would be to get it over soon.
"You're eating fast," Ioanna observed.
"He's off to see his lover," Rhodios said, and Antonius choked on the stew.
"You don't have a girl? A boy?" Rhodios asked, leaning back, staring at him, amazed. "You're always leaving early, coming back to the barracks late. I thought— no?"
"No," Antonius managed, spluttering. "No lover. Stephanos wanted to talk to me."
"Ah," Thorus said, from where he sat on the other side of Rhodios. "You have a centaur, then."
Antonius chuckled and reached for more bread. "I don't think that's how it works."
He wondered, though, as he finished eating, as he walked the now-familiar path to Stephanos' quarters, what they had seen. Had everyone seen it in him?
Stephanos was standing in the corner of his stall, by his desk, writing something on a tablet, which he set down when he saw Antonius. He smiled. "You came."
"You asked," Antonius returned, stepping into the stall. He leaned back against the wall. "I assume you wished to speak to me about the Parilia games?" He would pretend as if he did not know the answer.
"Oh!" Stephanos sounded a little distracted. "Yes. Of course. I am sorry about the short notice, but I wanted to know if you would be amenable to fighting Henricus for Parilia. It would be one of the staged matches. Not a death-fight. I thought you might... prefer that. It took me until today to convince Furius of it, so I hope you will say yes."
Something lightened in his chest. Stephanos had done this for him; he still thought that Antonius could fight. He believed in him. He wanted him to do well, to have a chance of someday winning his freedom. Antonius did not know what he had done to deserve that trust, but it was a lovely thing, bright and warm within him.
"There is only tomorrow to rehearse it," Stephanos added, when Antonius hesitated, "and if you do not think that is enough time—"
"No, no," Antonius said hastily. "That is fine. More than fine. Thank you. For the opportunity."
"It is my pleasure."
Stephanos took a few halting steps toward him, hooves striking dully on the ground. He bit his lip; he curled his hands into fists and uncurled them; he held his hands at his sides and then lifted them up. Altogether he gave the impression of someone with something else entirely on his mind, something weighty and perhaps troublesome.
"Was that all?" Antonius asked, wondering if Stephanos would give voice to whatever thoughts lay so heavily on him.
Stephanos took a deep breath, the sort of breath that seemed to be meant to steady himself, and he stared down, wide-eyed. He was close now, close enough to touch Antonius, but his fingers were knotted nervously. "It— it isn't all," he said, his voice so quiet at first that Antonius barely heard him.
"Stephanos," he asked, "what is the matter?"
Stephanos' face was pale, like he might be ill. "I may be a fool for thinking this, and a still greater fool for saying it. But I must know." He licked his lips, his tongue pink against the awful whiteness of his face. "It seemed to me that you might have feelings. That you might feel something for me akin to what I have come to feel for you. And if I am wrong, then I am wrong, and we shall speak no more of it—"
O immortal gods.
Stephanos knew. He knew and he felt the same way. Antonius could never have imagined this.
Antonius' hands were shaking, but he reached out and captured one of Stephanos' hands, freeing it from the nervous grasp of his other hand, and Stephanos cut off his sentence sharply, with an indrawn breath. His hand was cool, likely from the nervousness, and a good deal larger than Antonius' own. Slowly, so slowly, slow enough for Stephanos to have pulled away if he disagreed, Antonius raised Stephanos' hand and pressed it to his lips.
Stephanos exhaled a trembling breath, the only noise in the room, and said nothing.
"Yes," Antonius said, breathing out against Stephanos' fingers.
He moved Stephanos' hand to his jaw; Stephanos finally moved his hand himself, unfolding his fingers and setting his palm against Antonius' cheek, fingers to his cheekbone, thumb just brushing the corner of his lips in a movement that was tentative but no less purposeful for all that. Antonius shivered.
Stephanos' eyes were wet with something that might have been tears, and he was smiling, wide and uncertain, as if this were everything he had dreamed of but never thought to actually have, and so had been entirely overwhelmed with the reality of it.
"I've never," Stephanos whispered, and he left the sentence there, unfinished. He could have meant anything. He could have meant everything. "I'm not— I'm not even human. I don't know how this works, how we can—"
"It doesn't matter," Antonius said fiercely, because it didn't. They would find a way to do anything. And what Stephanos had done or not done was his own business. "We can make this work. We can if we want to."
"I want to," Stephanos said, his throat tightening around the words—
At the far end of the building, a door swung open, hard, hitting the wall. Stephanos dropped his hand as if he'd been pierced with an arrow.
"Stephanos?" It was Samuel's voice.
"Furius wants to talk to you about the Parilia games."
"Now?" Stephanos' mouth shaped an obscenity that he was too polite to utter. "Again? This late? I just talked to him."
"He said now."
"All right," Stephanos called back. "I'm coming." His face was a study in regret, and he reached out and brushed Antonius' cheek again. "You'll stay here, yes? I don't know how long I'll be—"
"Believe me," Antonius said, "I will be more than happy to sleep here."
He stressed the verb, and watched, amused, as color flooded Stephanos' cheeks.
"Later," Stephanos said, firmly. "We will address this when I get back. I promise."
Then he was moving at a quick clip, out of the building, leaving Antonius alone with his thoughts and his even more ardent desires.
Antonius sat down on one of the larger pillows at the end of the room—for Stephanos, of course, kept no chairs—because if he had to stand up any longer his legs would give out. Feeling like some breathless maiden, like Dido burned by her love in the poem, he ran his own fingers over his face, over his mouth where Stephanos had touched him.
Oh, he had had lovers, men and women both. Of course he'd sampled all the pleasures of the flesh—perhaps too immoderately for a good Roman, but, well, he had never really been one of those, had he? And he'd enjoyed them all, every lover. He'd slaked his passions in their bodies, he'd thought he'd found ecstasy in their arms... but not one of them had ever made him feel like this, undone with the merest touch.
All he could think of was Stephanos.
It was true that Stephanos was not human; they would figure out what they could do, what Stephanos wanted to do, what Antonius could do to make him happy. The stories of lustful centaurs had to mean that something was possible between them, surely. They would discover it together, and the discovery would be a joy.
He had never felt like this about anyone.
Antonius stayed seated there for a long while; he could not have said how much time had passed, only that the watches of the night were well-begun by the time he heard hoofbeats.
He stood, ready to greet Stephanos with all of his happiness, when his mind registered the rhythm of the gait: a full-out gallop. He had never seen Stephanos run, but when he turned, there Stephanos was, hooves extended, practically flying as he entered the open door of the building, slowing down by the time he reached the stall door. His face was sallow, sweat beading on his skin, lather on his fur, and his eyes were wide and too dark; he looked as if he had been dealt some grievous battle-wound.
"Stephanos?" Antonius asked, and he held out his hand.
Stephanos made a choking noise, somewhere between a laugh and a sob, and then Antonius found himself being pressed to Stephanos, head against his chest, feet tangled between Stephanos' hooves. Stephanos' arms were shaking as he held him close, so tightly that he almost could not draw breath.
"I— I—" Stephanos stammered. "I— I don't know how to say this." He took a breath, looked down at Antonius, and his face was the purest agony. "I can't."
"Tell me," Antonius said, and he locked his arms around Stephanos in return. "Tell me, and whatever it is, we can talk about it. Surely it cannot be that awful."
"They're changing the program," Stephanos whispered, and his gaze was raw, piercing, a spear to the heart. "They're changing the program, and we're fighting."
"What?" Antonius' voice was hollow in his own ears. "What do you mean, we're fighting?"
"You and me," Stephanos said, low and broken and desolate. "Sine missione."
Sine missione. Without mercy.
Antonius staggered, leaning hard into Stephanos. Stephanos' huge body was the only thing holding him up. "No," he said, weakly. It couldn't be true. "They said— they said that you only fought staged fights, when you fought at all, because Furius would not risk his only centaur—"
"The orders are from higher than Furius," Stephanos said; looking up, Antonius saw his mouth twist into a wretched grimace. "The editor for the Parilia games was very particular. And threatening, it seems. He is a new magistrate. Tiberius Lapidator."
Antonius went cold all over. Tiberius.
You are going to regret that, Tiberius had said to him, when Antonius had refused him at the slave market.
This was his revenge. Antonius' death. His death, or the pain of causing Stephanos'. Tiberius could not have known anything about him and Stephanos. It was a coincidence. Perhaps he had remembered that Antonius had thought highly of centaurs once. Perhaps he had seen Stephanos fighting for Saturnalia. Perhaps he had decided that it would amuse him to see a centaur stave in Antonius' skull.
But if Tiberius had known he was causing him this agony, he would have treasured it.
"He means to have me killed," Antonius said, dully. It seemed that he had no use for feelings any longer; his mind was refusing to register them. Everything seemed so remote.
"I think so." Stephanos' voice was tight, on the verge of tears. "If I— if I fight without holding back, I will certainly win. You are good, Antonius, do not mistake me, but I have been a soldier for centuries. I am meant to win, and you are meant to lose. To die." His voice shook and broke on the last word; he gave the smallest of sobs, forcing the rest back.
"And if we refuse to fight?"
"Ah." Stephanos started to tremble again, and there were tears in his eyes now, Antonius saw. "There is an enticement and a punishment in it. For the winner, a wooden sword." His freedom. The one thing that surely anyone would fight for. A thing that Antonius would have killed for, before he had come to know Stephanos. It seemed so bitter now.
"And the punishment?"
Stephanos shut his eyes. "I did not meet the man myself, but it seems that Lapidator strongly implied that if we refused to fight, his death-sentence would be imposed on you outside the arena. Likely involving men with knives, in dark alleys." He grimaced. "I think he imagined that only you might refuse, but I am not willing to chance your life to it by trying."
"So either way I die," Antonius said, working through it in his mind, "but one means your freedom."
"I don't want it," Stephanos said, miserable, still trembling, and he held him tighter. "Not bought with your life."
The words made something in him twist and catch fire with an awful resolute ire. "I'm dying anyway," Antonius said, and the finality of it settled hard and cold in the pit of his belly. "Let my death mean something. Let me die for you. For your freedom."
"I have to kill you." Stephanos' voice was drained of all emotion.
"You've killed men before. You cannot say you have not."
"None of them were men I—" Stephanos broke off. "That does not mean it is easy."
"No." Antonius breathed in sharply; everything he had wanted to say, how he felt about Stephanos... everything was all ruined now. They could have none of it. They had no future together. "I suppose it is not."
The words they could not say hung between them, a weight in the silence.
"It is clever of this Lapidator," Stephanos said. "In an awful way."
"He was always clever," Antonius said, bitterly, and then realized that Stephanos did not even know the half of it. "I was from a family of some import, in Dacia, and as a youth I was fostered in Rome. Hence my fine name. Tiberius was fostered with me, and I think— I could never tell whether he loved or hated me. Maybe both. He is perhaps not in his right mind. He always hated, I think, that he could not make me do what he wanted. So he will make me do this. He will make me die."
Stephanos sighed, a long jagged exhalation. "I don't want it to be like this."
"There are no other choices." But there was still one last possibility for fleeting happiness. "Do you— do you still want me to stay? For the night?"
Slowly, Stephanos shook his head, and something in Antonius frayed, ripped, and tore apart.
Antonius dropped his arms, then, he and moved away. He stood alone.
"It is not that I do not want you to. I only think it will be easier to do what— what we must," Stephanos said, very quietly. "It will only hurt more."
It already hurts, Antonius wanted to say.
What if this is what I want for myself before I die? he wanted to ask.
But it would hurt Stephanos, so he said nothing of the sort.
"Good night, then," Antonius said, and he walked away into the darkness.
Only when he was far enough away that Stephanos could not hear him did he begin to weep.
There was a day left before the games. It was a day for the gladiators to finish their rehearsals, to prepare their gear for the fight, to once again hold a banquet so that they might all celebrate what could be the last night of their lives. To make their farewells.
Antonius almost wished he had not had this day. He did not want to think about it, to dwell upon the path of his life. All he could think was that he had almost finally found happiness, found a way to make the chains of his slavery not gall so harshly—and now it was taken away, and he was to die.
He should have remembered that he never deserved any better. He had known this, once, when Rome had first enslaved him, but clearly he had nearly made himself forget.
Whether by coincidence or Stephanos' design—though he was willing to bet the latter—he did not see Stephanos all day. He supposed that was part of what Stephanos had meant about making it easier. Antonius' gear was in good repair, and it was not as if further practice would save him from his fate.
And if by the favor of the gods it did—well, that outcome would be unbearable.
The food at that night's banquet was fine indeed, but Antonius had no appetite.
"We heard about the match," Henricus said, awkwardly, and then he fell silent.
No one else seemed to know what to say to him either. It was one thing, Antonius gathered, to have this banquet when there was still hope that one might live; it was another thing entirely to deal with an assured death, a fight whose outcome had been fixed from the beginning.
Abruptly Ioanna leaned over and hugged him tight. "Oh," she whispered. "Oh, Antonius, I am sorry."
Rhodios cleared his throat. "I wanted to tell you that— we know you have not been here among us long enough to have collected much in the way of peculium." Peculium was the money given by one's masters, as tips; Antonius suspected that he would have had some of his own already had he not had such a disgraceful Quinquatria fight. "And so we know you have not subscribed to a collegium. We just wanted to say that we have all put in money, so that— so that you might have a good burial, and a gravestone."
Now Antonius was speechless; he had been here but a few months, and he had not expected that they would want to do any such thing for him. They cared for him. He had friends. Well, he would have friends until shortly after the sixth hour tomorrow, he thought, and it all turned bitter.
"Thank you," he managed to say. "Truly, you are kind."
That night—the last night of his life—he prayed in Dacian, to Sabazios the horseman's god, the one he had been loyal to once. He prayed for a clean death, an honorable death. He would not pray for victory.
He dreamed about Sarmizegethusa, as it had been when he was a child. In his dream Stephanos was there, but bare, unarmored; then in his mind Stephanos stood at his bedside and smiled down at him, and when Antonius stretched out his hand he woke, not knowing if he had reached him.
Once again Antonius stood in the shadows of the gate to the sands. Once again he carried his net in his left hand, his trident in his right, and his dagger at his belt. He wore his gilt arm-guard and shoulder-guard, the metal cold and heavy on his skin, and he swore that this time he would not remove them. He was barefoot; he wore a loincloth. His sky-stone still hung about his neck. The only difference about his appearance to be observed—and the observer would have had to be very sharp-eyed indeed—was that next to the blue stone hung a little loop of braided horsehair, of the palest whitened gold. Antonius reached up to twine it between his fingers. Even knowing that he was to face Stephanos on the sands, he could not bring himself to remove it. He would go to the underworld marked thus, with this sign upon him. Someone had cared for him once. The gods would see it, and they would know.
He was alone.
Stephanos was not waiting at his side; he was below the arena in the sublevels, on a lift, waiting to be hoisted up to the arena, as was sometimes done for particularly showy fights. Those were usually beast-fights, but at this point Antonius supposed that the indignity of that was nothing compared to what was about to come. This was what Rhodios had told him of Stephanos' whereabouts, at any rate. He had not seen Stephanos since two days ago, since that night in Stephanos' quarters. Perhaps it was better not to have seen him. Antonius wondered if he could have borne it.
They had almost found happiness then; now they had only this.
From the sands came the call of trumpets, and the gate lifted.
Antonius hefted his weapons and stepped into the sunlight. The crowd was roaring, and obligingly he walked to the center of the sands and raised his arms to them; light glinted off the spearpoints of his trident. He was not fool enough to think they cheered for him, to think they cared a whit for his victory; they were here because they lusted to see his blood across the sands.
Still he greeted them, because it was the done thing, and he turned to the magistrates' box, knowing whom he would see there.
Tiberius smiled down at him—triumphant, cold, and terrible. It was the face of a man who knew he had already won.
Antonius lifted his weapons in salute, gritted his teeth, and imagined plunging his dagger into Tiberius' heart. The thought gave him no pleasure. Nothing did, not any longer.
Behind him came the grinding, clanking noise of machinery and another trumpet-call. The roar of the crowd increased and Antonius did not have to turn to know who it was there, either. But he turned anyway, pulled inexorably, as iron to a lodestone.
Stephanos stood on the sands.
He was fully armored, both on his human half and his horse half. Stephanos' armor gleamed brightly in the sun, blindingly so, sparkling in the few places it was not painted. For the most part Stephanos' armor shone in dazzling blue, with fluttering red and white pteruges. A pointed star adorned his breastplate. His tail was bound-up, as that of a warhorse would have been. On his head he wore a winged helm, of such fine work that it could have belonged to Mercury himself. A long sword, a spatha such as cavalrymen carried, was belted in a sheath about his waist. In one hand he held a parma, the round shield, painted blue and red to match the armor, with the raised shield-boss in the middle of it fashioned as the center of another painted white star. In his other hand he wielded a long spear, as any soldier might. His face when Antonius first gazed upon him was impassive, bearing the grim, determined expression of a warrior.
Then their gazes met, and for an instant the mask cracked, and Stephanos' face twisted in despair. Then it was gone, and he was a soldier again.
Stephanos curled one of his front hooves back and slid the other one forward, lowering his front half toward the ground: a bow, in obeisance, for the magistrate. The crowd's roars grew louder. Stephanos straightened up and lifted his spear in Antonius' direction: a salute.
Antonius lifted his trident in reply. His hands were shaking.
The trumpets sounded again.
Stephanos sprang into motion.
Into Antonius' mind there came a sudden calmness. This was a battle. He was a fighter now. He had been trained for this. He began to run through strategy and tactics, in a half-conscious way that had been drilled into him over these many months. If he was to die, he would die bravely. He would put up a fight.
Here, then, was his strategy. The calm voice in the back of his head telling him this sounded very much like Stephanos', but that was natural, for Stephanos had trained him. Stephanos was stronger, faster, better-armored, and had greater reach, especially with the pilum, the soldier's spear. But unlike Antonius' trident, the spear was a thrown-weapon. Stephanos would have one throw, and Antonius would have his throw of the net—with Stephanos' speed, Antonius would never be able to retrieve it for a second try—and then they would have to close with each other. The dagger was useless to him, for he could not grapple with a centaur as he could have with a man. His only hope lay in the trident, which, though it would not pierce Stephanos' armor, would keep him out of range of the sword.
He took a deep breath and gripped his weapons, spinning about to keep Stephanos in sight.
And Stephanos was— backing away. He'd leaped into a fast and easy trot, legs flashing out in front of him in diagonally-paired motion. He was circling out in a wide spiral, seeming to take in the arena, the space he had to move around in.
Then Stephanos hefted his spear, and all at once Antonius realized that Stephanos knew the strategy he had come up with; after all, he had taught Antonius how to pace a fight, how to take the battle into various distances. Stephanos knew how this would go. He knew what Antonius was planning.
Stephanos turned, drew his arm back, and reared up to his full height, pawing the air in front of him. The crowd roared, and Antonius was briefly so lost in the sight of him, the majesty of him, fierce and noble as he must once have been as a soldier, that for an instant it did not entirely register to Antonius what Stephanos was intending to do. He was rearing up for a better throw.
With one powerful movement, Stephanos launched the spear from his hand.
Antonius was lucky he had not been trained these months as a sword-and-buckler man; if he had been, his instinct might have been to reach for a shield he didn't have. Instead he dove, rolled forward, and came up on his feet, dragging himself up with the butt of his trident next to the fallen spear.
The spear had just barely missed him.
Antonius wondered if Stephanos had meant to miss.
He could not think about that, or anything past what was happening right now; if his mind wandered, he would certainly die immediately. He lifted his trident and began to move, trying to find an opening. It was time for him to cast his net. He need not be hasty—after all, he had only one chance—but he did have to come relatively close, closer than Stephanos had needed to in order to cast a spear at him.
He watched as Stephanos unsheathed his sword, drawing the long blade out and across his body, swordpoint angled at Antonius. The tip, unlike most cavalry swords, was sharp. His stance was sure and steady.
Antonius had to trap Stephanos' sword for the net to be of any use.
They circled, and when they were almost close enough for Antonius to be within range of Stephanos' sword, he threw the net.
It fluttered through the air—and missed, settling into the sand in an unusable tangle. He would not get another chance.
He brought up the trident now in both hands, waiting for Stephanos to attack. But Stephanos was still circling him slowly, reticent. Of course he was hesitating. Of course he did not want this. But they were here nonetheless, and prolonging it would not make Antonius' fate any less inevitable.
Stephanos raised his sword and moved in for an attack, so slowly that it was easy enough to avoid him. He wheeled about and made another pass, then another, both of which Antonius neatly sidestepped.
And then on the third pass, Antonius lowered his trident and slashed out at Stephanos' unprotected legs as he leaped.
Blood welled on golden fur, and instantly Antonius wanted to take it all back.
They had fought each other before—oh, they had spent months fighting each other—but never with real weapons, never with edged iron. This was real, and Antonius wished, heartsick, that this was the end of it, that they could only have fought until first blood and called it.
This was deadly, and there was no stopping.
Blood was dripping down one of Stephanos' forelegs, staining his hide, staining the sand. It was not grave; he was not limping. But it was messy. Antonius could not stop staring.
"Eyes up!" Stephanos called, over the shouts of the crowd. "Head up! Stay with me!" His voice was hoarse, gruff with some suppressed emotion.
It was very like something he would have said during training, but none of that was a comfort. Antonius' thoughts twisted together, bleakly, and he could not focus, not even when Stephanos attacked.
Stephanos stabbed forth, and at the last second Antonius, moving too slowly, brought up the haft of the trident to block it, as if they had been fighting with staves. It was the only move he could make. It might have even been a good move, had Stephanos not had a sword. As it was, Antonius blocked the stab, but the momentum still carried, and the blade slid down the pole, flashing out at Antonius' unprotected fingers where they gripped it. If it hit him, it would cut to the bone.
There was nothing else to do but drop the trident.
It fell onto the sand next to him.
Antonius' chances of living longer than the next few minutes were rapidly dwindling. This will be my death, he thought. O Stephanos, I am sorry that this was all we had between us.
He had to get out of range and come up with a new plan. He dodged and slipped along Stephanos' side, just behind his forelegs, where Stephanos could not quite reach him.
The idea was half-formed in his mind, but Antonius was already acting on it. He put his hands on Stephanos' back, just behind his withers. His palms slipped on the metal, once, but then held.
And then Antonius was in the air, vaulting, settling astride Stephanos with all the reflexes of a Dacian trained from birth to sit a fractious horse. He leaned up, taking his weight on his thighs and knees, legs curving around the unyielding sides of the armor. Everything around him seemed to slow. He knew he only had a few more moments to brace himself before Stephanos acted. He could feel Stephanos' powerful muscles bunch and gather underneath him. Had he been a horse, he would have been the strongest Antonius had ever ridden.
He had wondered what it might be like to ride Stephanos, to feel the hot strength of him between his thighs. He had never wanted to find out like this.
The crowd roared more loudly; they had not expected this move either.
A horse would have had a mane to grip, so instead Antonius did the only thing he could: he leaned forward and wrapped his arms around Stephanos' sides, above his fluttering belt, pressing himself as near as he dared to the armored spine of Stephanos' human half.
Then Stephanos reared up, and it was all Antonius could do to hold on. He clung tight as they tilted wildly back, and no sooner had Stephanos landed than he tensed again, leaped, and bucked, still trying to throw Antonius off. If he fell now he would land under Stephanos' pounding hooves, but he had been born to this and there was not a horse alive that could throw him.
Of course, Stephanos was not a horse, and even as he surged up and reared again Antonius kept waiting for him to do the things that would guarantee Antonius' fall. He could have dropped and rolled, and crushed Antonius under him in a heartbeat, before Antonius could have jumped clear. He could have hacked away at Antonius' grip with his sword. These things had to have occurred to him; he was very possibly the cleverest strategist Antonius had known.
It might have fooled the mob. It might in fact have fooled anyone who had not trained with Stephanos. But Antonius knew Stephanos was not fighting. He did not want to win, and he was not fighting.
This wasn't going to work. This wasn't going to be the way of things.
Stephanos landed heavily again, all four feet planted in the sands.
Antonius was out of everything: out of plans, out of luck, out of hope. Feeling as if some other spirit was animating his body he leaned up, pressing himself against Stephanos' back.
He unsheathed his dagger, his last weapon. He wrapped his arm around Stephanos' unprotected neck and set the blade to Stephanos' throat, just against the skin.
There were no choices left, no choices but this, and he hated Rome for doing this to him.
All at once Stephanos stilled. He lowered his hands, and underneath him Antonius could feel all the tension go out of Stephanos in a great rush. He had stopped.
Stephanos' sword fell from his hand.
"Go on, Antonius," Stephanos whispered, barely loud enough to be heard above the crowd. "If you win, you will have your freedom. Go on. Take it."
No. No. He had not thought of this. Perhaps Stephanos had planned this all along, to throw the match. He had not wanted to see Stephanos so beaten that he would rather die. It was awful. It was terrifying.
When Antonius did not move, Stephanos kept talking, low and weary, infinitely weary. "I am an old soldier, Antonius. I do not fear death. I have lived longer than anyone should." His throat worked, pressing the skin more tightly against the blade of the dagger. "I always knew I would die by the sword."
The roar of the crowd seemed to have grown faint now, and Stephanos' words rang in his ears like thunder. This was it. Their fate lay here, balanced on a knife-edge, and it was for Antonius to decide.
He remembered Stephanos smiling at him. He remembered how he had felt when Stephanos had laid his hands on his face, warm and gentle and loving.
"No," Antonius whispered. "No. It will not be my sword. I cannot."
His vision swam; his eyes were blurred with tears.
He let his eyes fall shut, and his hand sagged away from Stephanos' neck.
After that, he could not quite say what had happened. Somehow the dagger was out of his hand and then he was tumbling, sliding off and forward over Stephanos' horse-shoulder and down, tumbling onto the sands.
When he opened his eyes, he was flat on his back in the sands and Stephanos was standing over him.
Stephanos had his left front hoof resting on Antonius' chest, atop his sky-stone; he stood very carefully, bracing himself so that none of his weight was on Antonius' chest whatsoever, but Antonius knew that the slightest shift in stance was more than capable of breaking bone. Higher than that—Antonius squinted and refocused, looking up all along the length of Stephanos' foreleg—Stephanos had cast aside his shield and had picked up his sword again while Antonius had fallen. Now Stephanos had both hands on his sword-hilt, blade pointed down at Antonius.
The crowd cheered.
Stephanos was not looking at him; he had his head raised, and Antonius followed his gaze to see he was looking at where the magistrates sat. He was waiting for Tiberius' sign.
Tiberius stood, smiling broadly, and held up a fist, thumb raised. Death.
He could imagine Stephanos crushing him, kicking in his ribs, his spine, his skull. Perhaps— perhaps if Stephanos were kind, he would crush his skull first and spare him the rest of the agony.
Either way, he would die bravely. He would not beg for mercy. There was none.
Stephanos met his eyes in one brief, harrowed glance—
He reared up, hooves flashing out in the air—
The crowd's roar was louder, deafening—
And Stephanos twisted in midair and came down, landing hard next to him, front hooves next to Antonius' head. His arms flexed, and then he threw his sword away, flinging it across the sands.
And he bent down and extended a hand to Antonius.
Antonius blinked at him. "What? What's going on?"
What was happening? He had been set to die, and now— and now—
Stephanos gave him a tight smile. "Here. Stand up. Shh, there you go." He pulled Antonius to his feet.
Antonius wavered unsteadily and leaned against Stephanos' high shoulder; he threw an arm over his back for support. Stephanos reached back and put an arm around Antonius' shoulder.
As one, they raised their free arms for the crowd. The arena roared back, mostly in approval. Tiberius' face was twisted, awful.
"He's going to hurt you," Antonius said, as they turned toward the gate, still touching. Antonius never wanted to let him go again. "He's going to get Furius to hurt you."
The idea of punishment seemed so remote. Everything seemed unbelievable. They lived. They both lived. He found that his mind could not think past that.
"I don't care," Stephanos said, fiercely. "Furius won't let him kill me, and I don't care what he does to me as long as you're alive."
Together they stepped off the sands, each still leaning on the other.
They headed down the tunnel and out, through to the Ludus Magnus. No one stopped them; those watching the games were still enraptured, and those in the ludus preparing to fight were so busy with the preparations that most of them could not be bothered even to spare a glance for two more exhausted fighters struggling in from the sands.
Somehow in the walk, which they had made in silence, Antonius had slipped forward, so that now he might take Stephanos' hand. Not knowing what he himself was planning, but only knowing that they needed a quiet place to talk, he led Stephanos through the press of people, back behind one of the unoccupied barracks. It felt as if every feeling he had wanted to pour out of him all at once in a great commingled rush, and he did not know what he would say when he opened his mouth.
It was therefore as much a surprise to him as it was to Stephanos when he turned, came up in front of Stephanos, grabbed his other hand as well, and said, "You could have died!"
"I?" Stephanos echoed. "I could have died? What about you? Which of us was on his back in the sand, eh?"
The retort was quick and light, but Stephanos' eyes were wide, making it plain that he had feared that very thing. He dropped Antonius' handclasp, sliding his hands up Antonius' arms—though Antonius of course could not feel his touch on the armored one—to his shoulders, his neck, and his head, finally cradling his face. The gesture was tender, so tender, that it was almost frightening how easy it was to forget that they had been set to kill each other, that not long ago Stephanos had been ready to strike a death-blow.
Except he hadn't been ready to. Because he hadn't.
"I was safe," Antonius said, fiercely. "You did not harm me, and I was safe. But I— I could have killed you!"
Stephanos rubbed his thumb along Antonius' jaw, a soothing motion. "And the same for me. I knew you would not."
Even as he spoke, there was tension in his body; his hands tightened on Antonius' face, as if he needed to hold Antonius in order to be certain that he was still there, that this was real.
"We're alive," Antonius murmured, dazed. "We're both alive." They were not safe, true, but they lived, and Antonius did not intend to let this opportunity slip through his fingers.
His own hands were skimming up Stephanos' strong arms, up to his shoulders where the feathered edges of his armor's padded tunic dangled. And then all at once Stephanos' hands were sliding down Antonius' shoulders, down his bare sides, settling at his waist.
"Can I—?" Stephanos began, hesitantly.
Antonius smiled. "You can do anything you want."
Stephanos' hands tightened about him, and then he was lifting him up in the air with hardly any effort, lifting him until their heads were level. Antonius wrapped his legs around Stephanos' waist as best as he could manage; with the armor on there was not a great deal of traction against the shining metal, and he was already tired from the fight; he could feel his legs shaking. But he held on, and he put his arms over Stephanos' shoulders too, hands interlaced behind Stephanos' head.
"Hail," he said cheerfully, favoring Stephanos with a grin. "Nice view you've got from up here."
Stephanos blinked at him, wide-eyed, as if he was not quite sure what to do with Antonius now that he'd lifted him. "You think so?" His gaze, flatteringly enough, had settled on Antonius' lips, and Antonius felt a warm shiver of desire ripple through him.
"Mmm," Antonius said, and he leaned forward. "You know, I've been thinking about kissing you since I saw you in the arena."
Of course, Ioanna had told him that Stephanos hadn't been any good, but, well, he liked him so much that surely that hardly mattered now? It wasn't the important part.
This was when Antonius realized he had long since given his heart over.
They had each other. They would live.
Then slowly, slowly, Stephanos leaned in, and their lips met. He did not, as Antonius had expected, immediately seek to ravish him, to plunder his mouth, as Antonius had seen him do on the sands, as Antonius would have once thought that any centaur would do. Instead he was trembling, and he was pressing sweet kisses against Antonius' lips, mouth closed, one after another.
Antonius let one of his hands slip up, to the back of Stephanos' head. The helmet was cool and unyielding, but even so he pulled them closer together. Stephanos made a quiet noise of surprise and opened his mouth against Antonius', tongue sliding out and tasting him, softly and gently. There was something so wonderful in the contrast of it, the strength Stephanos was using to hold him combined with the absolute tenderness of his kiss, that went through him like fire, setting his heart racing, his blood burning. He wrapped his legs tighter about Stephanos and wished more than anything that he weren't armored, that he could feel him properly against his skin.
And Stephanos kept kissing him. He was thorough, certainly, his tongue pressing into Antonius' mouth, but he was neither harsh nor rough about it; he kissed as though he wanted to learn every inch of him, methodically, determined. Antonius pressed forward, returning the kiss, and Stephanos' noise at that was a quiet little moan, a surprised sound, as if he had not expected that, and then it was Stephanos gasping, the tiniest breathy moans, the sound of someone who had not been kissed, truly kissed, in a great while, and was enjoying it with all of his heart. There was a desperation there, too; a rhythm Antonius could feel in the pounding of blood through his body. He knew how fragile their bodies were. They could have died; they had to have this time while they could. But for now they were alive, alive when they had not thought to be, and they were together; the kisses turned heavier, and Antonius gloried in the sheer physicality of it. He was not about to let Stephanos go, not for anything in the world.
Eventually they parted, and Antonius chuckled and tipped his head against Stephanos' cheek, though there was barely any room with the helmet-strap.
Clearly Ioanna had been wrong, and Stephanos was quite good at kissing when it was a thing he wanted to do.
"Well," Antonius murmured, drawing his head back to look at him properly. "I'd like to try that again sometime with less armor in the way."
Stephanos' gaze was still focused on his mouth, and he looked as if he had not entirely registered the sentence. Then he blinked and seemed to take stock of the situation: they were in a ludus, in public, still armored, gritty with the dirt and sweat and blood of the fight... and Antonius was still wrapped around him in midair, clinging to him with all the strength left in his arms and legs.
"You liked it?" Stephanos asked, and his voice was a small thing, almost shy, as if he truly did not know.
Antonius smiled. "Yes, of course." He had favored many lovers with smiles over the years, a long string of dazzling seductions, but the smile that curved across his lips now was nothing planned, all awkwardness, and he felt almost as vulnerable as if he were on the sands again. "I enjoyed it very much."
Behind them, someone coughed, and Stephanos hastily let Antonius to the ground. When Antonius turned, Samuel was standing there wide-eyed, but smiling.
"What's the matter? You look as if you've never seen a man kissing a centaur before," Antonius drawled.
"Edepol!" Stephanos said, the oath delivered in a tone somewhere between fondness and annoyance—or possibly both.
Samuel chuckled. "I haven't, but— Furius wants to see the both of you."
Antonius sighed, all humor gone. It was time to pay the penalty.
"You're expecting me to punish you," Furius said, as he paced back and forth in front of them, in the room he had borrowed from this ludus. It would have been an easy fit for three men, but Stephanos' sheer size had made it close quarters, and the commanding presence Furius had likely hoped to have was diminished. "And by all rights I ought to. I recall having a discussion not too long ago, with both of you, on matters of this nature."
But? Antonius wanted to ask, and he dared a sidelong glance at Stephanos, who only stared stonily forward, unblinking. He kept his mouth shut for once in his life; it sounded as if asking might ruin his good fortune.
"As you know, Antonius," Furius continued, "Tiberius Lapidator is no friend of mine." His good eye narrowed; his gaze moved from Antonius to Stephanos. "And as you know, Stephanos, the idea for this fight was no doing of mine either. I confess to some measure of joy in the fact that all did not proceed according to Lapidator's whims." He snorted. "Besides, if I have Stephanos beaten to a degree of severity that Lapidator would consider appropriate, who will drill the new gladiators while he recovers? And if I have you, Antonius, beaten, what should that teach either of you? From the look of both of you, you would do the same thing again in a heartbeat."
He certainly spoke the truth.
Antonius stared. "You're... you're not doing anything to us?"
Furius shook his head. "Consider yourselves lucky."
When Antonius looked over again, Stephanos was smiling.
They were alive, and they had each other, and even better, they were unharmed. He had not even dared to dream for as much as the first of those things. They would still have to weather Tiberius' vengeance, and that thought cast a shadow on the brightness, but for today, they had each other.
Tonight he would drink burranica, for the festival day, and then he would pray, he would give thanks to the gods—not to the Roman gods, but to his gods, to his old gods, to Sabazios the god of horsemen.
The thought did not come to Antonius then. It did not come on the long walk back to the Ludus Dacicus as they dodged people heading in the opposite direction, gone to see more of the festival procession. No, it came, finally, as he was following Stephanos to his quarters, as he had just swung the door shut behind them. The sound echoed down the otherwise-empty halls with a ring of finality, as if he had closed the door to a cage. It was a fine cage, certainly—Stephanos was perhaps the best-treated slave he had ever met, as befitted a highly unusual auctoratus—but it was still a cage.
"We will have to do this again," Antonius said, and he took a sharp breath at the thought; it felt like another stab, by the uncaring cruelty of the world.
Stephanos' face was fierce. "We will not have to fight each other. Furius will have ensured that."
"No, but—" Antonius took another breath to compose himself— "we will still have to fight. This is the way our lives are set to go now, one match after another, do you see?"
Stephanos looked down at him, uncomprehending, as if there were no point in questioning any of it.
"And so? We are gladiators."
"It is not the life of other men," Antonius shot back, a lone arrow's volley in a vast battle. "Other men do not live like this. They do not wonder every morning if today they will die, if today they will be told to murder their friends."
"We are not as other men," Stephanos said, and his eyes were dark, a sad hope dwelling in them, as if he could no longer dare to wish for anything better. "You cannot tell me I am the same as any other man who has lived." One hand fell limply at his side, and then swung back and forth, a listless gesture at his own equine body. "Why should my life be kind? I am not owed that. I was favored with one miracle already."
"Other men are free," Antonius breathed, and the idea blossomed wild and bright in his mind.
Stephanos gave a sad laugh. "You will earn your freedom soon enough, and it is well and good that you should wish for it, but I will never be free. You have seen the price set for it."
Antonius reached out to grasp Stephanos' hand, and he stroked his thumb lightly across the soldier's brand on it, knowing how much Stephanos had been marked by that one service oath. He had given his body, his life entire. "Ah, Stephanos," Antonius said, and he allowed himself a smile, one that he hoped would put Stephanos at ease. "What if I said I knew how to pay a fairer price?"
The only way to win their freedom was to take it.
Stephanos tilted his head. "What do you mean?"
"How much peculium do you have saved?"
There came another sad chuckle. "Enough to buy your freedom, if that is what you want. I can make you a gift of yourself."
Antonius' hand tightened about Stephanos'. "I would not go without you."
Stephanos gave him a weary sigh and a look that was mostly incredulous, as if he thought Antonius did not understand the way the world worked. "I do not have enough money to buy my own freedom; I am too valuable to Furius, to the ludus, to be sold so easily. If I were an ordinary man, perhaps I could afford the price for both of us, but Furius will demand more for me."
Antonius smiled. "What if you were being bought on speculation? That, I think, would have to lower your price to something even you could afford."
Stephanos' eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"
Surely Stephanos knew of this. He could not be nearly two centuries old and have missed the practice entirely.
"You must know how it goes," Antonius said.
Stephanos regarded him blankly.
Antonius swallowed, dry-mouthed. It was a difficult thing to actually say. "We run away."
The words fell from his lips and it almost seemed that they lingered after he said them, that surely anyone who walked in at this moment would know that he had just breathed these words, a statement of ultimate defiance.
"We run away?" Stephanos repeated. His voice shook, and that tentative hope rose in his eyes again, then dimmed. "How— you can't imagine we could just run! With me as I am? We'd never make it out of Italy. We'd never even make it out of Rome. We would be seen. We would be missed. It is a lovely dream, but that is all it is."
"No, we don't leave Rome," Antonius said, and Stephanos just stared in confusion. "You really don't know how this works, do you?" He smiled. "We flee, but we flee to a slave-catcher."
Stephanos was still staring. "That doesn't even— and so then he returns us to the ludus. I don't understand."
"Here's the trick of it: the slave-catcher doesn't return us." Antonius squeezed Stephanos' hand, and Stephanos squeezed his fingers back, weakly. "We pay him not to. We hide, with him. And he takes the money, and he goes to Furius. Since we will both be missing, and Furius will not be able to find us, the slave-catcher will buy us on speculation, in hopes of finding us—or so he will tell Furius—for a fraction of what we are worth to Furius. It will be cheap enough for our purposes. And Furius will sell us, because if he cannot have us he may as well have money. And then the slave-catcher owns us, and he will manumit us, because that is what we will have paid him to do. And then we will be free and may go where we like."
There was silence between them, then, as Stephanos looked down at him, as Stephanos clung fast to his hands as if he were an anchor in a current. Stephanos was wide-eyed, fear and elation mixed in his eyes like wine and water at a party. Antonius knew then that he had never truly considered freedom as a thing that he might have for himself until right now, and now it was all the more bitter because he knew he might have wrested it away and have had it after all, and he had not.
Stephanos licked his lips. "It is a risky thing," he said, finally. His voice was hoarse.
"Men do it all the time," Antonius said, even though that did not precisely answer Stephanos' objection.
"We would still have to flee across Rome."
"Any plan will involve that," Antonius said. "But this at least is a shorter distance than attempting to flee Italy. I may have grown up near Thracia but I am no Spartacus; I can learn from his failure. We cannot get out of Italy unless we are free in the eyes of the world. And we must leave Rome, anyway; if we do not, Tiberius will find us. He will find me. I do not think he will be kind."
The final objection came in a low, even, measured tone, as if Stephanos thought it so reasonable that there could be no counter. "It requires absolute trust between us and the slave-catcher."
Antonius remembered Felix the slave-catcher, Felix and his wife Rufilla. He remembered how they had always been kind to him, how Felix had taught him to fight. He remembered with exquisite clarity a day when he was thirteen and out-of-sorts with the rest of the world, a day when Tiberius had alternately smiled and raged at him, and when Antonius had run off looking for the solace that Cenaeus' home would not have given him, he had found it with Felix and Rufilla. Felix had taken him to the circus and they had watched all the races and bet on the Reds and cheered madly. At the time Antonius had thought maybe other men had more days such as that one, days where everything was happy.
He had not thought about that day in years.
"Luckily," Antonius said, "I know a very good one."
They would leave tonight.
Antonius was sitting on his pallet, just before dinner—they would wait until after dinner, for there was no point in them leaving on empty stomachs—and looking about the empty barracks-room. He had nothing he needed to pack, for he wore all he needed. But still he could not make himself leave; he looked about the room again to fix it in his mind.
He would remember this, he thought. A year from now, five years, a decade—he would be a free man again, and he would remember this very moment, what it felt like to be on the cusp of freedom, and, too, on the cusp of what promised to be the best—and certainly the most interesting—relationship he had ever had. He and Stephanos would be free together. And from there, they would figure everything else out.
At that moment, Rhodios pushed the door-flap aside and walked in, followed by Henricus, Ioanna, and Thorus. And as one, the four of them looked at him, each with a bright, intent, gaze.
They knew. They knew what he was about. Somehow they knew.
"Earlier today," Rhodios said, "I passed by Stephanos' quarters, and I found him gathering up his money. It is curious to me, because he so rarely spends it."
"We thought you should know," Ioanna added, "because if he is planning something—" she seemed unwilling to say an actual word, but they all knew what this was about— "then perhaps you should go see him before— before—"
"Before he becomes harder to find," Henricus finished, smoothly.
Oh. They didn't know what he was about, after all.
Antonius sighed. "I have seen him." He picked his words carefully, as carefully as if he were stepping across a river seeded with caltrops. "I... might see more of him, in the future."
Thorus blinked in confusion; Ioanna began to smile, and that got Henricus smiling, and then Antonius could not repress his own grin. It twitched at the edge of his mouth before bursting full force.
He was happy, he realized. Even though this was dangerous—just the thought of it made him happy. He would have a chance at freedom.
"Don't tell Furius," he added, although he knew by now that he was far too late; they knew. He knew also that if they had wanted to, they could have gone to Furius first. "Please."
"He was never meant to be here," Rhodios said. "An immortal? In chains? We all know it. We have all known it. Even Furius knows it."
"And it's good that you're going with him," Ioanna put in, still grinning. "He'll appreciate the company. From you, especially."
Would they be cross with him, that only he was accompanying Stephanos? "I would take you all if I could," Antonius said. It was unfair that only he should go, after all. "We only have enough money for two, and—"
Ioanna nodded. "Why would we want to deprive you of him, or him of you? Go on."
"We will meet when we are free men," Thorus added.
"Maybe when I am free I will earn a fortune," Antonius said, and he was suddenly taken by the idea. "And I will come back, and free you all."
"I'd like that," Henricus said, and next to him Ioanna held her hand forth, as if it had been an oath to swear to.
Henricus covered her hand, and then Thorus, and then Rhodios, and finally Antonius, his breath held.
"When we are free," Antonius repeated, and for a moment they held tight.
Dinner passed faster than any meal had in Antonius' life, and afterwards there was no time for more farewells; he slipped behind one of the outbuildings to where Stephanos was waiting. Stephanos was clad in his usual tunic and thin blanket. He looked for all the world as if he were just going on a walk, which was exactly the best impression. There were so many slaves on the streets of Rome that no one would wonder at them walking about if they looked purposeful enough. Of course, when Furius came asking afterward, even the drunkest passer-by would remember having seen a centaur.
Antonius leaned up and wrapped his arms around Stephanos, a quick embrace. They were truly doing this.
"Ready?" Stephanos asked.
Antonius nodded, and they walked side-by-side out of the ludus, unquestioned.
They were runaways.
"North," Antonius said, under his breath, and obligingly they both turned. "My friend—he lives on the Viminal. The far side of the hill."
Stephanos made a hissing, displeased noise. "That is far."
It was, but there was nothing to be done about it. Antonius tried to keep his gaze ahead as he walked, to walk normally, to act as if he were only about ordinary business; it was not as though they had never let him out of the ludus, after all, and on a festival day, which this still was, he might even be expected to have free time. But people were staring.
Quiet, he told himself. They're staring at Stephanos, and not because they think you're up to something. They've never seen a centaur, or maybe not this close.
But he could sense Stephanos growing nervous next to him; Stephanos was walking easily enough, but when Antonius glanced back his tail, unbound, was twitching in wary little motions. Stephanos was afraid too. This was the most dangerous part; they were at their most vulnerable from here until Felix and Rufilla's house. Now, now, they might be caught.
"We should go faster," Stephanos breathed, softly enough that no one else would hear.
"We can't go faster," Antonius replied. "Not and stay together."
For of course they could run, and it was not even that the act of running was in itself amiss; there were always messengers dashing to and fro. No, it was the fact that their speeds were vastly different; Stephanos would outpace him, and he had more stamina than ordinary horses did. And Stephanos could not get there first, because he did not know Felix, and Felix would have no reason to aid him without Antonius' word.
This assumed that Antonius' word would do all the good that he had promised Stephanos it would, but there was no point in dwelling on it now.
Stephanos turned his head, and the glance he shot in Antonius' direction had a kind of amusement in it, even as it was rimed with tension. "Come now," he said. "A genius like you, and you can think of no way for us to travel together?"
"What do you mean?"
Stephanos stretched a hand back behind his hip to where his horse-shoulder was, and he set his palm to his side. "Ride me."
He must have misheard. "What?"
"Ride me," Stephanos repeated, and his grin was a dare. "Come now, Dacian. Don't tell me you can't sit a horse."
He couldn't think of a single thing to say. That Stephanos would trust him with this was... overwhelming. "I— yes, but—"
"Then mount up." Stephanos' voice was brisk. "We can talk about it later all you like, but we have to move, right now."
He paused, and Antonius stepped back and came around to Stephanos' near side, then vaulted up as he had in the arena. It was easier than it had been in the arena, without the armor in the way. The blanket slipped a little but not much; it was light, an exercise sheet, so Stephanos would not overheat as they ran. Antonius fancied he could feel the heat of him through the blanket. It would have been better without it, of course; then he would be pressed up to him, skin against hide, as close as they could be.
Stephanos made a small noise in the back of his throat. It might have been surprise, or sadness.
"Are you well?"
"I will tell you later," Stephanos said. "When we are free."
And then he tensed up under Antonius, and Antonius gripped tight with his legs and leaned forward to wrap his arms around Stephanos' waist.
The little house on the Viminal was as he remembered, and when Antonius knocked, it was Rufilla who opened the door. She looked at him and smiled, and then looked up at Stephanos, and her smile was perfectly calm, as if this were not the strangest thing she had ever seen him do. Antonius' youth had perhaps been on the wild side, but he could not think of anything he could have done that was more shocking than this.
"Antonius," she said, and she tucked a lock of red hair behind her ear. "It is good to see you again. Are you well? Who have you brought with you?" Her expression gave no hint that it was at all unusual for a centaur to show up at her door.
He smiled back. "I have been better. This is Stephanos. Is Felix here? There is... a matter of some urgency I wish to discuss with him. With both of you, I suppose."
She nodded. "Of course. He's here. Come in."
Antonius' hobnailed boots clattered on the floor as they came into the atrium—he had no house-sandals—and Stephanos' hooves rang behind him.
The door was shut. This was sanctuary, however temporary.
"We haven't seen you for a while," Rufilla said, with the same warm cheer as always. "Not since you left for Dacia. I had not heard you came back. How was it?"
Had she not heard? Maybe Felix had not told her of his auction in the slave-markets.
"I am a gladiator," he said, and Rufilla's mouth shaped into a small round "o," for that was the shape of his circumstances in one word: free men were not gladiators. "Though I have made some friends."
Stephanos smiled a friendly, approachable smile. "I am pleased to meet you."
And then the office curtain was pushed back, and Felix stepped out, looking just as Antonius remembered him. He looked up, and stopped, and stared at Stephanos. "Well," he said, impressed. "You won't fit in my office, will you?"
Stephanos grinned. "Probably not."
Felix looked between the two of them. "I knew you were horse-mad, Antonius, but this is something new."
"He's not a horse." Antonius cut in before Stephanos could say anything, but he did not think Stephanos would have; he would merely have let the unthinking slight bounce off him.
"I suppose not. My apologies." Felix paused. "So, what can we do for you?"
Antonius smiled his best and most charming smile. "I was wondering if you'd like to buy a pair of slaves. On speculation."
Felix was silent for a long moment; he bit his lip. He looked back at Antonius, and then he looked up at Stephanos, for an even longer, searching moment. Antonius wondered what he sought, and he hoped that whatever it was, Stephanos' face showed it.
When Felix spoke, he addressed Stephanos. "You, centaur."
"If I do this," he asked, "will Antonius be well with you? I am fond of him, and I do not like to think of him coming to harm in some foreign land."
Stephanos drew himself up straight, with all of his imposing height. "If I hurt him," he said, fiercely, "may I endure being burned, bound, beaten, and slain by the sword."
Antonius stared, half at the intensity and the other half at... well, that was the gladiator's oath. "It seems to me you might have sworn that before, for another reason."
"Mmm." Stephanos reached out and clasped Antonius' hand, there, as they stood in the atrium, before his friends, his allies in this new battle. "This is a better reason."
Felix looked at their joined hands and grinned. "Very well," he said. "I will do this."
The next few days were some of the most harrowing of Antonius' life. Though he had certainly endured worse, knowing that he was so close to freedom made the possibility of losing it even more agonizing. It was even worse because they were trapped in Felix and Rufilla's home; they could not very well go out, now that they were runaways, and the home was not exactly sized for a centaur. Stephanos could not fit in any of the bedrooms, so they dragged the straw mattresses out to the floor of the atrium and pillowed them up as best they could.
The one comfort of the days was that Antonius slept next to Stephanos, for he certainly was not going to sleep anywhere else. He spent the nights pressed up against Stephanos' warm side, feeling his huge chest swell as he breathed, the rhythm lulling him to sleep.
On the fourth day of their enforced captivity, Felix judged this long enough and he stepped out at the second hour.
"Off to talk to your master," he said, a shadow outlined in the brightness of the doorway. "Wish me luck."
There was a lararium at the other end of the house, by the kitchen hearth, and Antonius went and prayed.
He offered food; he offered the promise of money, if they had any left. He could not bear to offer his sky-stone—and, besides, the Roman gods would not want that. It had been a thing of Dacia.
He only hoped it would be enough.
He hardly felt ready by the time he heard the tread of footsteps, but he rushed into the atrium, where Stephanos was standing, where Felix was entering. Stephanos stamped one nervous hoof.
"Did he say yes?" Antonius asked, when Felix did not speak. "Do you own us? Did he say yes?"
"He said yes," Felix said, and Antonius let out the breath he was holding. Felix' face, however, was still tight and tense. "He said yes, but—"
He stepped aside, and Furius stepped in behind him. He was wearing a plain tunic, no toga, and he held a bag on his back.
"But I wanted to see you first," Furius said, and Antonius went cold.
Stephanos took a few steps to come up next to him, halfway in front of him, as if he meant to shield Antonius from harm with his body.
Furius chuckled. "Relax," he said. "Do you think I did not know where you went? I only wish to bid you farewell."
Stephanos' face twisted. "Why—?"
"You should never have been a gladiator," Furius said, quietly. "Our late emperor may have thought so, and so I bought you, but the current one does not. And you know that to be true, as well as I do. You are an immortal being; do you think I wanted to keep you caged? Do you think that was how you were meant to live? Do you think the Divine Julius meant that for you?"
"He meant for me to serve Rome," Stephanos said, just as quietly.
"And you have," Furius replied. "You have served as well as Cincinnatus, and in the end he put down his sword and came home. Your life is yours as well as Rome's. Take it. Use it."
"You did not free me before."
Furius gave Antonius a significant look. "Before, I do not think it would have mattered to you."
"Probably not," Stephanos admitted. "But what of Antonius?"
"What of him?"
Antonius cleared his throat. "You cannot think I am destined for freedom. I am not him."
Furius squinted his good eye at Antonius. "I do not need engineers to brawl on the sands, and I've gotten the best fight out of you that I could have expected from anyone. I would have freed you for that alone if Lapidator hadn't been shadowing me. You have earned it."
Antonius could feel himself smiling. "Thank you, sir."
"So." Furius dropped the huge bag from his shoulder onto the floor. It clanked. He opened it up to reveal a glint of bright metal, and behind that, blue and red painted leather. "We will go to the magistrate and free you, but first, Stephanos, your arms and armor." He frowned. "I hope you are not planning to stay in Rome; Lapidator may try to make things uncomfortable for you."
"Sir," Stephanos said, grinning wide, "we aren't planning to stay in Italy."
"Even better," Furius said. "Gaul? Greece? I would not recommend Dacia."
And now Furius smiled ever so faintly. "I have friends there; I will give you their names, and you may give them mine, should you need the support of a patron."
"You don't have to do this," Stephanos said, "but thank you, thank you so much—"
"Oh, Furius said, "but I have to do this. This is the best thing I have done all year. Can you imagine Lapidator's face?"
Antonius could. He imagined, too, never seeing him again. He would be free of him, free of everything that bound him, and he and Stephanos would have a life together. It was better than he had dreamed.
They were free.
Antonius stood with Stephanos at his side as they looked along the great stone arches of the Pons Aemilius that spanned the Tiber; on its other side was the Aurelian Way, the road that would take them north.
Their journey was about to begin.
"It's a long road to Britain," Stephanos observed, in a tone that suggested perhaps there was some hidden meaning to his words; it was very like his voice when he had talked about how the Viminal was far from the Caelian.
"It is," Antonius returned.
A stolid bay horse—one Stephanos had acquired earlier this morning—stood behind them, its lead in Stephanos' hand, with a pack next to it on the ground. The horse eyed Stephanos almost suspiciously, as if it did not know what to make of a centaur. Avizina supposed he had better get the pack fastened behind the saddle, before he mounted up. He stepped close to do so, and then he frowned. There was no saddle. Bareback it was. Well, he would just have to attach it somehow behind him anyway. He would mount the horse, and maybe Stephanos could then help him arrange the pack.
Stephanos looked at him in confusion as he braced to mount up. "What are you doing? That's the pack horse."
"A pack horse," Stephanos repeated. "We needed one."
Antonius sighed and started to fasten the bundle on the pack horse. Stephanos' armor was there, the gear Furius had given him; he had said that the gear from the arena had been a gift of parade armor from the Divine Julius himself for Stephanos. Of course they were bringing it.
It made sense, he realized, to have a pack horse. They needed one; it was not right to have Stephanos carry everything as if he were a beast of burden. Antonius had been foolish to assume the horse was for him. And, well, if Stephanos had to walk the entire journey, it was only fair that Antonius walked next to him, wasn't it?
When he was done securing the pack he turned again to the road.
And then Stephanos smiled. "Did you think you were going to walk the whole way? Well? Mount up." He gestured to his own back.
They had not talked about this. Antonius felt guilt descend on him; he had not wanted to take Stephanos for a horse, to put him in the position of having to offer, and here he had already ridden him once, as they had fled the ludus, not to mention what he had done to him in the arena. They had not talked about any of that either.
"I could get another horse," Antonius offered, and he could not meet Stephanos' eyes. "I know that you would not want people to ride you, and I do not wish to demean you—"
Stephanos reached out and caught at his face, laying his palm against Antonius' cheek; Antonius shivered at the touch. "Nothing you could do would demean me."
"We spoke once of breaking horses," Antonius began, "and I would not—"
"You aren't," Stephanos insisted, and his thumb smoothed out the edge of Antonius' beard. "You are not breaking me. I am letting you. I— I give myself to you, and it makes the both of us stronger. I want this."
The two of them. Together. Free.
Antonius nodded, and breathed, and stepped, and jumped—and then Stephanos was under him, solid and powerful.
He was about to reply, to agree, when a nearly-forgotten memory drifted past him. "That's not my name."
Stephanos turned his head. "What do you mean, that's not your name?"
"I swore that I would use my own name when I was free," he said, and swallowed hard. He put a hand flat to Stephanos furred shoulder for balance. "My name is Avizina."
"Avizina," Stephanos said, with a finality to it, as if it were being carved in stone, and he knew then that it was the name he was always meant to have. He wanted to hear it on Stephanos' lips forever. "It has a good sound to it. Does it mean something in Dacian?"
Avizina smiled. "It means strong," he said.
Stephanos laughed, clear and ringing. "Then it is perfect for you. Hold tight, strong one, and let us fly together."