Ante diem tertium Nonas Julias, 827 Ab Urbe Condita
(The fifth of July, 74 A.D.)
The slope is wet and uneven with hoof prints and sandal prints. It isn't a place he would have picked for any engagement; years of experience tell him that as easily and naturally as breathing. Easier, even, because there have been times when merely breathing was the hardest battle. It would have been slippery anyway, muddy from rain, but it is more perilous still as the dirt mixes with rivulets of blood, too much blood, too many of his men dead or dying.
He isn't sure where he is, or when. It isn't any battle in particular he can identify, and the grey countryside could be anywhere. Who is he fighting? Celts? Germani? The faces of his opponents shift and blur. There have been so many.
He must have been unhorsed before now, he knows. He is cavalry, an officer. He shouldn't be on the ground in the fight at all. But here he is, ankle deep in muck, every nerve twitching as he tries to separate the dead from the threats. There is no line to hold, only chaos. He has no shield like the pedites; he is ridiculously bare, exposed in the light armour of the horsemen, his honour and his downfall in one.
His feet slip in the mud, and as he catches himself -- slow, too slow, he is too old for this -- a barbarian leaps forward. Metal flashes in the grey light of day, rage shines in green eyes. Time slows again as he reaches for his sword, and as his hand presses against the hilt, slides on it, he hears more than feels the blade against his throat and knows that now, now he is going to die--
Gaius Cornelius Bellonus awakens suddenly, his hand driven painfully into his bare hip, reaching for the short sword that isn't there. His heart hammers in his chest, thunderously loud, in counterpoint to his ragged breathing. He is covered in sweat, short hair plastered to his scalp.
In the courtyard, birds chirp at each other. He steadies himself, breathes slower, deeper. He is safe. Wherever that was, he is no longer there, if he ever was to begin with. He opens one eye first, slowly, and then the other. A cubiculum. The walls are adorned with painted scenes of birds, much like the birds outside. The tiny window high above him lets in early-morning light and a taste of the day's heat that is to come. He is lying rigidly on a straw mattress, soft enough, and he has soaked the summer-weight blanket through with sweat.
Memory comes back to Bellonus. This is his cousin's house in Pompeii, in the heart of the city. Last night was his first night here. He was welcomed as a guest, an honoured soldier on leave, reclining in the favoured spot on the best couch in the triclinium over dinner. His plan is to settle down, relax. Let the fighting go. He hoped the dreams would cease the farther he rode from the frontier, but they did not, or at least, they have not yet. It seems that even in the heart of the empire, far from the provincial skirmishes, he does not know how not to be a soldier.
It is early yet, but not so early that the slaves are not awake, and soon there is a rustling of the curtain as Felix enters, carrying his tunic and toga. For one mad instant Felix's pleasant Germanic face shifts, and in Bellonus' eyes he becomes savage, warlike, an attacker. Strike, strike now, his mind says. An instant later and it is gone, replaced by the smiling face of his slave. Bellonus exhales in relief.
"Greetings, domine," Felix says, politely. He is always so. "Did you sleep well?"
Bellonus grimaces and waves a hand. The gesture, he is appalled to see, is almost spasmodic. "I was having--"
"Ah." The man nods, and Bellonus is spared having to finish the sentence. He's owned the man since almost the beginning of his posting to Germania Inferior, five years ago, and Felix has been woken by his screams in the night more than once. He hopes, belatedly, that he was silent this time. It was one thing on campaign -- he knows he was never the only one -- but quite another for his nightmares to wake his cousin, a merchant whom Bellonus wouldn't suspect of even knowing which end of a sword to hold. He isn't sure whether he pities him for it, or envies him.
He stands wordlessly, kicking the blanket off, taking the tunic, sliding it over his head. He belts it as tightly as it will go. It is a silly gesture, as it will hardly be visible under the toga, but Bellonus knows what they say about men with loose-belted tunics. He nods, satisfied with the feel of the wool tight against his skin, and bends to lace his sandals. When he stands up, Felix is holding out his toga, and wraps it around and over him, just as he always does. The narrow purple stripe of the tunic stands out against the whiteness, the mark of his rank. He is a tribunus angusticlavius, junior officer of a legion, one of five. After fourteen years in the army, he has more than earned it.
He takes breakfast, bread and water. His cousin Marcus Cornelius is nowhere to be seen -- probably in his office already, working on his accounts, to judge by the grumbling coming from that direction. It was a surprise to Bellonus that the man extended him an invitation at all, given his relationship with the family, but he welcomes the solitude.
He stretches lazily, walking into the sunlight of the atrium, and he smiles as he looks at the sun shining on the water of the impluvium. He is on leave, and it is his first full day in Pompeii. He could do a thousand things. He could go to the markets and shops with Felix and spend every denarius of his pay on useless fripperies. He could go to the harbour and watch the ships come in. It is a pleasant town, not like the crush and crowding of the capital, though admittedly he never saw Rome at its best. He knows some of his old comrades have settled here; he could visit them. He could give up the soldiering life, buy a farm, and retire to the country. He almost laughs as he thinks of it. He couldn't, really. What would he do without war?
"May your morning be pleasant," he says to Felix, who has followed him. He tries always to be kind to Felix. One always hears the stories of the clever, lazy slaves, but Bellonus knows the tellers are the same men beating them for the slightest indiscretion, real or perceived, constantly calling them furciferes or vapulones as reminders of their fate. Those same men would call him soft, but as an officer, he knows men perform their worst under fear.
The man's face shines. "Thank you, domine. Will you be going to the baths?"
"I will, later," he says, deciding the rest as he is saying it, "and thence to visit my old comrades. You need not attend me until evening."
A free half-day, then, and Felix grins even more brightly at the prospect. Bellonus has offered to manumit him -- more than once, even -- and every time Felix has refused. He is not ill-treated, he says, his tasks are pleasant enough, and his food is assured him, and that is more than he could say for life as a freedman.
Bellonus' mouth twitches in response, as emotion is as ever unseemly, and he raises a hand in farewell as Felix steps out of the house onto the streets of Pompeii.
He spends the morning reading in the atrium; his cousin has quite a collection. He is particularly fond of Seneca, and he loses himself in the writing. It is better, to be distracted thus.
The sun outside looks to be just past noon; the baths will probably have opened. The forum baths, he decides, will be best; he has hardly seen any of Pompeii, and is the forum not the best place to start?
Once out of the house, he picks his way nimbly across the raised stepping stones of the road and surveys the crowd, choosing a short Gaulish-looking man in a worn tunic, at a whim.
"Excuse me, but can you direct me to the forum baths?" he asks, and the man turns to look at him. His eyes widen as he takes in the stripe of his tunic. Surely they are used to men of higher class than his, even, here in this city?
"It's -- it's quite easy to find, sir," the man stammers in passable Latin. "You only go down this street a bit until you come to the street of the Stabian baths. It's wide; you'll know it. There is a tavern on that corner with grapes on its sign. You'll turn left there, walk down that street, then right on the corner where the Stabian baths are, and then you follow that street all the way to the forum, and there you are."
"Excellent." Bellonus smiles. "And the baths?"
"Oh!" the man says, sounding abashed to have forgotten that detail. "They will be at the very end of the forum, past Eumachia's cloth-workers hall and the markets and all the temples. It's crowded there, sir, but you can't miss the baths."
"I thank you," Bellonus says, and the man nods politely as they go their separate ways.
On the way down the street, he sees the familiar sign of a barber, and pauses, considering. He ought to, and it is early yet to go to the baths, but -- a knife at his throat, considering his dream, could end badly, at least for the poor barber. He is well-shaven enough. Perhaps later.
The directions are accurate, and in a short time Bellonus finds himself in the bustling centre of activity that is Pompeii's forum, buying a quick meal from one of the sausage-sellers as he heads to the baths. The forum is crowded with people from all parts of the empire, speaking languages Bellonus doesn't even recognise.
He pays his fee to the doorkeeper and makes his way to the palaestra. Even so early, the courtyard is already crowded. There are men around the edges, talking under the walkway, a few groups of wrestlers, some men sparring with wooden swords, and a heavy-set youth throwing a discus in one of the few clear areas, with his slave fetching it back for him. Bellonus watches as the boy narrowly avoids hitting a statue and tries not to snicker. Amateur.
Amid the chatter, a familiar voice booms out from somewhere behind him: "O Philippe!"
Bellonus can't quite place it, but he knows as he turns that only a few men in Pompeii would know his speaking-name and thus is not particularly surprised when he sees the man in a plain toga at his left. "Murena!"
Quintus Licinius Murena breaks away from the group of men he was standing with, and he and Bellonus run toward each other, embracing as brothers. Comrades in arms, even, which to Bellonus means more than anything his real brothers might feel for him.
Murena grins broadly at him, his bright eyes sparkling. As he shakes his head in wonderment Bellonus is amused to note that the man's brown hair is still a little longer than strict propriety demands.
"I haven't seen you in -- how many years has it been?" Murena laughs.
Bellonus thinks about it. "You left VIIII Hispana six years after I got there, so that would make it eight, eh?"
"Eight." Murena looks impressed. "You haven't changed. Except, of course--" he nods to the stripe on Bellonus' tunic. "Well done."
He shrugs, modest. "I only followed Cerialis and let his glory shower upon me."
Another amazed grin. "You and Cerialis, Philippos. I'll never understand what you see in him. You could have held much higher rank by now."
Bellonus shakes his head. Murena served under him too, but he never understood and clearly still does not. "It was worth it. And besides, I was fond of Britannia."
Murena gives him a look of disbelief. "You can't mean to say you've spent your whole career there?"
"No," Bellonus laughs, "just most of it. With a few side excursions here and there," he says modestly. If Murena's clever enough, he'll figure out what he was up to in the Year of the Four Emperors. "You?"
"Germania Inferior," he says, pulling a face, and Bellonus winces in sympathy, remembering the most recent rebellion. "Lousy business, but it pays well, eh?"
"That it does," Bellonus agrees, and he is spared from having to say more by the arrival of Murena's two friends, men he doesn't know.
Murena handles the introductions adroitly. "Philippos, this is Lucius Barbatus and Gnaeus Vetus, comrades of mine from Germania. Friends, this is Gaius Bellonus, but he is called Philippos."
Barbatus peers intently at him, and Bellonus knows exactly what he's going to say, as the man takes in the paleness of his skin, his dark blue eyes. "You don't look Greek."
If he had an as for everyone who told him that, he'd be a rich man by now. He sighs and opens his mouth to answer. Luckily, Murena rescues him.
"Philippos is Greek as Greek can be, believe you me. And, as you see, an equestrian." Unusual in so many ways, a nice way of putting it. Bellonus is proud of his heritage if not his family, and in a world where most would take him for a Celt, with his pale skin, it's better to be clear on his origins. Besides, he takes a certain thrill in being called something different.
Barbatus nods, satisfied, but still looking a little suspicious.
"Well, then," Vetus says, clearly more trusting than the other, bouncing impatiently on his feet. "We are, as you can see, ready for the baths, and a friend of Murena must be a good man. Do you care for a friendly challenge, some wrestling, perhaps?"
Bellonus looks over at the circles and then back at the man. He pictures, too easily, pinning the man, arms against his throat, pressing too hard. "I fear I must decline. I have only recently come back from campaign, and I worry that a friendly challenge would not be quite so friendly on my part."
The man claps him on the shoulder and even that makes him jump and twitch. "No matter. Will you join us in the baths, then?"
"Gladly," Bellonus says, and they go.
They disrobe in the apodyterium and spend only a handful of minutes in the tepidarium before moving on. Bellonus sinks into the hot, hot water of the caldarium and feels all his muscles relax, languid. He hadn't the time for a proper bath when he got in last night, and there was of course no opportunity on the road to do so; all he had time to do last night was deposit his drawn pay with a banker recommended by his cousin, for he could not very well keep that amount lying around.
He's almost forgotten how pleasant it is, the benefits of proper civilisation. He lets his eyes fall shut and for once no visions of battle assail him.
The peace lasts only an instant as Murena's friends crowd onto the bench beside him, and Bellonus opens his eyes in annoyance. The room is practically full, even at this time of day -- no wonder they are so tightly packed. He takes a few breaths, quick, tight in his chest, trying not to panic in the crowd. He's not in battle. The feeling subsides, an eternity later, and he tries desperately to act as a normal man would.
"What is all this?" Bellonus calls across the men to Murena, on his far side. "I've never seen any baths this crowded so early in the afternoon!"
Murena laughs as if he's enjoying that he knows something Bellonus doesn't. "Welcome to Pompeii in the summer, Philippos."
This is uninformative, and the shorter one of his friends, the trusting one -- Vetus, Bellonus thinks -- continues. "Everyone who's anyone comes here for the summer, to escape the capital. It is always thus in the summer."
"Even Cerialis is here," Murena says, and he laughs again as Bellonus looks wildly around the caldarium. "No, not here. In Pompeii. He has a villa in the countryside, didn't you know?"
Bellonus shakes his head helplessly. "I didn't know."
His comrade frowns suddenly, and slides over to sit closer, lowering his voice. "Say, then, he didn't offer you a fine position, now that Vespasianus has made him suffect consul? I'm sure that with all the help you gave him and Vespasianus five years ago--"
So Murena does know what he did. Well, no one ever accused him of being stupid. Bellonus sighs.
"I think he would have offered me one," he says carefully, "if I'd wanted it." He has no head for politics, and he knows Cerialis knows it. Bellonus can lead a legion, or part of one, in battle, but in the forum of Rome he'd be dead for sure. Swords, yes, but the art of combat with words is one that has eluded him. "He doesn't need soldiers anymore, where he is."
A friendly smile. "Probably true enough. So if you can't follow Cerialis, now what will you do?"
It's a fair question from a friend, and it's the question Bellonus has been asking himself ever since his former commander took the post. What will he do? He only knows how to be a soldier, but he's no longer sure that's what he wants. It's beginning to get to him, he thinks.
"Oh, you know," Bellonus starts, trying to sound offhand, casual. "I was thinking about taking my earnings and buying some land in the countryside here. Retiring to a farm." He is young, but he certainly has enough money for it, after all he's done.
There is a moment of silence, and then Murena laughs raucously, so loudly that some of the other bathers turn to stare in disapproval.
Bellonus feels his jaw twitch. "It wasn't that funny."
Murena snorts a little. "Sure, I retired early, but I had family money and the army was never for me. But you? The consummate soldier? With your family? At your age? You have to be joking. You'd never--" He stops, suddenly, seeing the look on Bellonus' face. "You're serious, aren't you?"
He nods, and Murena's expression becomes more kindly.
"If you're serious -- well, I know people who are interested in selling. I'm having a dinner party at my home tomorrow night, and you're more than welcome to come."
"You need a ninth guest, eh?" Bellonus teases.
"Not just that. You're new in town, you can meet people, see if they know anyone -- you know how it works."
Bellonus nods, still uneasy about having admitted the desire. "I don't even know if that's what I want. I need to think about it first. Maybe I should go back to the army."
"All right, then," Murena says, standing up. "But you're still invited tomorrow."
He and his friends rise and head immediately to the frigidarium, while Bellonus, after a time, makes his way to the slaves with their oils and strigils. He is in need of more cleansing than water, but he thinks, lying there as the strigil scrapes along his back, that somehow nothing they can do will cleanse him. He tries to keep his eyes open. It's better than the horrors he sees when he closes them.
Bellonus must have taken a wrong turn coming out of the baths, leaving the forum. He could have sworn he knew which way to go, but he must have done something wrong, for here he is, alone, in a section of Pompeii he doesn't know. For that matter, he hardly knows Pompeii at all. And now what will he do for the rest of the afternoon, if he isn't seeing Murena until tomorrow? Where can he go? Can he even find his cousin's home from here?
The streets are narrow, one very much like the other. He tries a few turnings, but cannot even spy one of the city's three main roads from where he is now. He is well and truly lost. The fact does not alarm him. He is more than capable of guaranteeing his own safety. It is only that he feels -- alone. Not lost. Just lonely.
The sense of loneliness is both unusual and pervasive. There is no reason, Bellonus tells himself, that he should feel this way. He hasn't seen his family, nearby in Neapolis, since the day he joined the army, but that shouldn't affect him now. Besides, he has friends, comrades even, in the city -- Murena, for example. He knows from exchanging hurried letters that Annalis and Macula are both visiting the city for the summer as well. Any of these men would welcome him with open arms; they spent years risking their lives for each other every day. They are friends, and oughtn't that satisfy him?
It doesn't. Friendship isn't what he wants, isn't all of what he wants. His desires are suspended nebulously somewhere beyond it, with no words even to describe them. It isn't exactly lust, either, though his body tells him it certainly wouldn't mind that need being met. He of course has the use of his cousin's slaves; only last night Marcus was telling him lasciviously about his new purchase, a very pretty slave-girl, only just learning Latin. He usually prefers the boys, given a choice, but she did sound intriguing. But she isn't what he wants, either.
It is as if he can have the one desire or the other -- friendship here, baser needs there -- but there is no way to have them met both in one person. Bellonus wishes briefly that he were truly from Greece itself and could hire a hetaera -- to be an intelligent conversationalist at a dinner party, to tell entertaining stories, in all respects to behave as a friend might, and then, as is discreetly understood, to be bedded at the end of the night as a courtesan. But the idea has never worked in the rest of the empire, and besides, Bellonus has never been overfond of the company of women. Not for much beyond the purely physical, at least.
Is it love he wants? The thought makes him stop in the street. He isn't sure he knows what it is; how should he know whether he wants it? He is not old enough, settled enough, yet to take a wife. Would he be one of those men who loves his wife? He doesn't know. Although there was one close call, Bellonus doesn't think he's ever truly been in love, but suddenly a memory assails him, one he can't place -- a masked face in the firelight, legs moving to slide between his -- and one he can -- a laughing, dark-eyed man, an archer whose fingers, callused from the bow, are steady and sure on him. He shoves both of the thoughts away. He may not have known the first man's name, but he knows what happened to the second.
Love is not a wish worth entertaining, he knows; those whom he would love, he cannot. It is not a thing permitted to him, this taboo. But he channels the thoughts as he can, beds slave youths as the closest thing allowed him. Older slaves, not quite acceptable; maybe for a full-blooded Roman they would be, but he is already suspect.
So, boys, he can have. Not men. And never a free man. As a citizen, to love a man his equal -- it is simply not done. A perversion that even the filthiest men do not indulge in. It is asking to be lowered, debased -- to say nothing of what he desires to do with them, more perverted still.
He knows he cannot want this, and as he keeps walking, lost in his thoughts, he almost laughs to see where he has ended up. Even if he couldn't read the sign, he'd know a brothel for sure, as very few buildings have quite that much writing on them. That, and the statue of Priapus.
He stops, stares at the price list, and notes with some amusement that they offer men as well as women, for, well, everything. Pompeii must be more cosmopolitan than he had thought; he can't recall the last time he's seen a brothel advertising men too. Down the list it gets a little more expensive, but nothing he couldn't afford if he did want, say, four nubile virgins at once. Or "virgins," he supposes.
The rest of the building's facade is covered with the usual scribbles -- complaints, recommendations, exhortations not to urinate on it. More recommendations than complaints, which is a point in the place's favour. Hic ego bene futui, one says, prominently, and he chuckles a little to see it. Good to know. Bellonus stares at it some more, then shakes his head, wondering at his own thoughts. He can't seriously be considering going to a prostitute, can he?
He's never had to pay for sex. And as an equestrian, he shouldn't ever have to. Even had he never found willing partners among the camp followers -- and there always had been -- slaves are available. Always. His cousin's offered him one, even. Whores are for the poorer classes.
But there is something appealing about the idea to him. They're all slaves at the brothel too, of course, but it would be -- different. Someone anonymous, someone he wouldn't see later in the camp or around the house. Someone he'd never have to see again. His threatening, treacherous desires tell him yes, yes -- maybe now it would be safe to indulge in them. No one would know. He doesn't even know where he is; how could anyone here know him? It is perfect, in that respect.
Very well; he will do it. Once.
Bellonus takes a deep breath and enters. Past the doorkeeper, he is mildly surprised to see an older woman seated at a desk. Her hair is streaked with grey, and she doesn't even look up as Bellonus, to his astonishment, stammers out the words he didn't know he couldn't say.
"I'd like to hire a, a--"
"Prices outside are a suggestion," the woman says, sounding bored, delivering a prepared speech without even looking up from her accounts. "Price depends on acts and particular participants. We also offer a per-hour rate." She still hasn't even bothered to look up. "What'll it be?"
He takes a few sharp, shallow breaths. He can't just say it here, he can't, he can't--
"I want a blow job," he manages, and hates himself for being too cowardly even to admit to his desires. It's not the truth, but, well, it'll get him off, won't it? Besides, the request is probably common enough here that it will draw no attention; it is the sort of thing one goes to prostitutes for, after all.
The woman makes a small hmm noise to herself as she scribbles something on her tablet. "Men or women?"
This one he can admit. "Men, please."
She opens her mouth, looks up at him finally, seeing the trim of his tunic, and quotes a price range three times higher than what was on the sign. Bellonus knows he is paying for discretion and sets down an amount of coins at the high end of that range on the woman's desk. Fourteen asses. Almost a sestertius. He'd better be worth it. And, of course, for that money, none will mention his visit. An equestrian should never come here, and they will not tell.
The woman smiles a mostly-toothless smile, writes something in the ledger, and sweeps the coins into her palm. "Pleasure doing business with you, sir. If you come this way--" she pauses to rise slowly from her chair-- "you can make a selection. Certain boys may require slightly more money if you'd like them."
Still half-believing that he is doing this at all, Bellonus follows her through a curtain into hall, all full of, well, prostitutes, standing at the doors of their cells.
As he is the only customer in this hall, most of the boys -- for they are barely men -- turn, at their doors, to give him their best seductive smiles. They probably get a percentage of the fee. They are beardless youths, all of them, which is exactly the sort of thing he ought to have expected, he thinks. Which is not to say that they are not pretty -- his cock stirs a little in anticipation -- but he feels somehow dissatisfied with the choices.
The woman, sensing his disappointment, nudges his arm. "If none of these boys please you, sir, there is another hallway."
"Perhaps I would like to see that," Bellonus says, then-- "Wait. What about that one?"
There is one more man in the hall, in the far corner, at the farthest possible end. He is hidden in the shadows, seated on the floor at the edge of his cell, and did not even raise his head at their approach. In the dimness of the corner, Bellonus can make out very little about him -- he looks full-grown, unlike most of these boys.
The woman frowns, then smiles. "Him? That's Britannicus." She says the name with a certain amount of fondness. A Celt, then, surely, if they've called him that. "But, sir, truly, there are many more fine boys in the next corridor." Boys they can charge more for, no doubt.
Bellonus feels a vague weakness, an emotion he can't quite place. Something is important. "No," he says, "I'd like to see him."
She shrugs, looking disappointed on behalf of the owners. Britannicus probably does not command high prices. "Very well. Britannicus!" she calls. "On your feet."
The man in the corner rises slowly, leaving his cell, and as he comes toward them Bellonus finally gets a good look at him. He is thin, probably underfed, and his tunic, belted loose, is dingy and threadbare. But somehow he -- he is beautiful. There is no other word for it. His hair, curled like that of a cinaedus should be, is a pleasing auburn colour, and his eyes, bright green, stunning in their intensity, could only belong to a Celt. The man's face is exotic, a combination of features half-delicate and half-rough that intrigues him. They've rouged and painted him to better play the part of the cinaedus, but even makeup cannot cover the broken cheekbone that the man turns toward them, and Bellonus almost winces in sympathy.
They've probably singed and plucked him, of course, to try to make him into an eromenos, or what passes for the beloved youth in the rest of the empire, but the man looks to be almost Bellonus' age; he cannot play this part for much longer. He moves with the exaggerated, showy gestures of the cinaedus, probably trained into him, but there is a true grace under the artifice, a power. They may have beaten him, but they haven't broken him. Bellonus wants this one. Hungers for him, and all the desires that he couldn't say come welling back into him. There's something real there, or could be.
"Why not call him Rufus?" Bellonus whispers discreetly to the woman, still out of earshot of the Celt.
She smiles, half-reminiscent. "He was so dirty when we got him we didn't know he was a redhead, and we had to call him something. He wasn't in any mood to tell us a better name then. It's been five years, so it might as well be his name now."
The man finally comes close enough to see them face to face. Green eyes meet Bellonus' blue ones, and he feels -- something. Recognition? Does he know this man? He cannot possibly. How would he? He's never met him before. Besides, if this Britannicus recognises him, he's doing a good job covering it. Those eyes are cold. The man does not know him and clearly feels nothing for him.
"Yes," Bellonus hears himself saying, to his shock. "I'd like him."
"What is required of me?" Britannicus asks, heavily accented, in the high, musical voice of a cinaedus that Bellonus knows, somehow, is a fake. As he speaks the edge of one chipped tooth gleams, an appealing imperfection.
"This man has requested your mouth," she says, kindly enough, and it is then that the slave deigns to glance at him again, another cold stare concealed under politeness. Bellonus doesn't know what the man thinks of him. Not that it should matter.
Britannicus shrugs an assent and walks off toward his cell. The lady motions, and Bellonus understands that he is to follow, so off they go through the corridor, illustrated with all sorts of lurid scenes. As the man walks in front of him Bellonus admires the view. He is very well-put together, legs elegantly muscled, and Bellonus' cock rises even more at the thought of what lies underneath his tunic.
They come to his small cell, like a cubiculum, and the man motions him to enter. The man's name and price -- much less than Bellonus paid -- is chalked onto the wall outside above a sign; the man flips the sign over to read "occupata." There is a bed built into one wall, and the other walls are decorated with more lurid murals. Britannicus pulls the curtain shut and regards him almost with distaste, then crafts a clearly-fake smile for him.
Bellonus wonders what the etiquette is in these situations, but the man does the talking for him.
"You want to fuck me in the mouth?" the man asks, slowly, thickly, in his Celtic-accented voice, using the crudest possible word Bellonus can imagine for the activity. Me vis irrumare? He makes it sound like rape. Perhaps it's the only word he knows for it in Latin.
Numbly, Bellonus nods. Somehow, this wasn't how it was supposed to go, but he doesn't know what to say. This is seeming less and less like a good idea.
"Sitting, standing, or lying on the bed?" the man asks, the next question not any better than the first. Well, he has paid for a prostitute, what did he expect? He didn't pay for the man to act like he loved him.
"Sitting, I suppose," Bellonus says, slowly, in case the man doesn't understand Latin all that well.
Britannicus raises both his eyebrows at him, a look Bellonus would almost call amused. Or annoyed. "Sit, then."
Bellonus backs to the bed, perches on the edge, and waits. He's barely hard at this point, to his shame, when he knows he ought to be enjoying this more.
The man nods, businesslike. Bellonus waits for the man to take off his tunic, but he doesn't even bother -- he just kneels, fully clothed, right there on the floor.
Britannicus pushes his legs apart a little, slides forward between them, and with a bit of difficulty pulls the heavy toga and tunic upward and sideways, out of the way, revealing Bellonus' half-hard cock. He's about to apologise, say something about it being his first time here, when the man shrugs and leans forward anyway.
When the man puts his mouth on him, it all changes -- suddenly Bellonus is as hard as he can ever remember being. The man's mouth is skilled, so skilled, warm and wet, and he groans as he feels the man's hands reach up and caress him as well. It is as if he knows exactly where to touch him, even though he's never touched him before. Bellonus isn't going to last long at all, he knows, as he feels the man's clever tongue lick along his length, which is probably part of the plan -- get him off quickly, get him out of here. He groans again, strokes his fingers through the man's curled hair, not that he needs any more encouragement. He can't help arching his hips forward, but Britannicus doesn't complain, only sucks harder.
He looks down, admiring the view of his cock sliding in and out of the man's mouth, pretending for just a minute that he is there because he wants to be. Britannicus looks up at him, and there's something about his eyes, something he can't quite place, but whatever it is it makes him feel a sudden rush of happiness, a tightening of his chest. Then the man licks a few more times, squeezes tighter, and it's all over -- Bellonus is coming, helplessly, into his warm mouth.
Briskly, Britannicus sits back on his heels, spits into a tin cup next to the bed, then rinses his mouth out with a different cup and spits again. He stands up, brushes his knees off, then starts to move back to the curtain. Bellonus watches, dazed, the afterglow melting away. And here it is again, just business. The man probably hates him.
But still, he feels he has to say something. "I thank you," he says carefully, sincerely, very formally, and for an instant the icy stillness of Britannicus' face melts a little into something almost like happiness. Has no one ever thanked him before? "I am very grateful."
The happiness lasts only an instant, before the man's face changes again, back to coldness. His voice is still accented, a little, but his Latin is better than Bellonus had suspected. "Here's some advice for you, Roman--" he says it like an insult-- "since you're clearly new to this: you don't need to thank whores."
"You did well; I wanted to thank you," Bellonus responds, for he truly did, and the man's face shifts once more, to a cast approaching sadness. Regret. Something within Bellonus twinges in empathy; why should he feel so for a mere prostitute?
"There's no point in it," Britannicus says, flatly. "We do it anyway." He turns away, shoves aside the curtain and leaves.
That went well. Or not.
The rest of the day passes in a daze for Bellonus. He gets directions home somehow, attends dinner with half his mind on the food and the other half on the way Britannicus' eyes looked up at him and stumbles into his cubiculum early for rest.
That night the dreams are violent as usual. He dreams of skirmishing against the Celts -- and he knows exactly why -- hours of sitting and waiting, pouncing on the first motion he sees. The man he kills is thin, redheaded, green eyes rapidly dulling in death, and as he stares at the cooling corpse he can feel the rush of air behind him, someone else poised to attack.
He wakes, yelling, sitting bolt-upright and shoving his arms out to ward off invaders. Felix, who was only trying to wake him, has stepped back and is holding his hand to a newly-forming bruise. Bellonus grimaces an apology.
After that awakening, the rest of the day isn't much better. He reads some in the morning, staying far away from military texts and picking up instead some Herodotus. He wonders if Egypt is really as fantastical as the man describes, then decides not.
In the afternoon he goes to the baths by himself, plays handball against two men whose names he does not learn, and then, in the sequence of rooms, waits a long time in the frigidarium until his skin is chilled. It doesn't help.
He runs his hands over his face. If he is to attend this party of Murena's after all, he needs a shave. He can do this.
"A shave," he says, curtly, at the nearest barber shop, and the old man grins at his appalling stubble. Bellonus manages only a faint smile in return as he hands over the money. He really ought to have brought Felix to handle the money, but he worries that if he does anything -- shameful -- it will somehow be reported back to his cousin. To someone.
The barber motions him to sit, and he does, conscious of crafting his movements just as a normal man would. When the man brings the knife near his face, he feels himself tense, sees blood everywhere. His fingers clench into his palms.
The barber chuckles. "Easy there, sir," he says, and Bellonus feels cool metal touch his cheek.
He prepares for the visions, the terror -- but when he shuts his eyes he sees the face of the Celt from yesterday, Britannicus, smiling at him in a way the actual man never did and probably never would. Something within him uncurls, and he breathes out, pleased but bewildered. What is this magic the man has worked on him? He is only a prostitute. He's only met the man once, and the man probably hates him just for being a Roman. He needs to think normally. He must stop all this madness.
Bellonus is the ninth and final guest to arrive at Murena's home that night, and every one of the others is a soldier or former soldier. They introduce themselves by their legions as well as their names. Most of the rest have but one to their name, and Bellonus feels a little odd reciting the litany of legions he's joined, following Cerialis across the empire -- VIIII Hispana in Britannia for eight years, XIIII Gemina in Germania Inferior for three years, and then back to Britannia with II Adiutrix for the past three.
He knew Murena from VIIII Hispana, of course, but it somehow happened that two of Murena's old friends from Germania were none other than Annalis and Macula, with whom he was so recently serving in Britannia. Bellonus laughs, glad to see them, as they all are poured cups of wine, and soon the conversation turns, as always, to the glories of the past, their victories in this battle and that.
"So," Decimus Annalis asks Murena, next to him on the couch of the triclinium, "how is it that you know Philippos here? I served with him in Britannia, but you--"
Murena grins that irrepressible grin of his and grabs a piece of fish. "I did as well, only when I did it was his first posting, wasn't it?"
Bellonus pretends to cover his face with the arm he's not propped up on, from the far couch. "I was so young."
"Going to tell us you shamed yourself in your first proper battle?" one of the new men, an older man, Atellus, says, lying next to him. It is an odd remark to make to a near-stranger, but Bellonus decides to answer it after all.
"I will say that," Bellonus says carefully, "if only because my first proper battle was against Boudicca and her Iceni, who sacked Camulodunum."
The man turns his head, eyes widening in shock. "Surely you are jesting? That battle--"
"Ten thousand screaming Celts," says Murena, grim. He was there too, after all. "Iceni and Trinovantes together. And us with a quarter of their number. And they already had the city by the time we got there. It was a slaughter, friend, and I shouldn't blame Philippos for having been afraid."
Atellus whistles in admiration. "I fear my career was not as distinguished."
"That was a loss, not a distinction. And, believe me, there are times I would trade distinction for a lack of it, if it meant not living through that." Bellonus shrugs in a way that he hopes is companionable, trying to shake off the images, and trying to do it in a way that doesn't involve thinking of that Celt yesterday. In his head Britannicus smiles again, and he gives up, giving into it. What is wrong with him?
It turns out later, after another hour or so of discussion, another round of wine, that this Atellus is the very man Murena had meant him to talk to.
"Yes, I have land to sell, not too far out. You have a horse stabled here, I assume?"
Bellonus thinks fondly of his stallion. "Of course. I can ride out and look at your property with you."
The man smiles. "Excellent. And if mine is not to your taste, well, I have friends who are also selling. How shall I find you?"
"I am staying with my cousin, Marcus Cornelius, the cloth merchant, and can be reached there."
"Excellent," Atellus says again, and gestures toward the wine bowl. "More wine?"
It is unseemly to drink too much -- all things in moderation, after all -- but Bellonus accepts cup after cup of the watered Falernian wine, as it dulls some of the past. And the present, which appears to need dulling as well.
The next morning, he can't remember what he dreamt at all, which may be the only good side of the whole affair. It's been years since he's been quite that drunk. Bellonus shields his eyes from the light, turning back into the mattress, and he spends a few minutes wondering how it is he managed to get home when he can't quite remember the rest of the evening.
Felix opens the curtain and steps to the edge of the bed, removing the bowl that Bellonus seems to have been sick in at some point that night.
"Too much wine, domine?"
"Too much," Bellonus agrees, arm over his face. "And somehow not enough." He says things often that he knows Felix cannot know how to respond to, and he hears rustling as the man leaves, returning shortly with his toga and tunic, thankfully clean. At least he didn't disgrace himself that much.
He takes bread and water for breakfast, and more water, and more water, and sits in the atrium glaring at nothing in particular until the pounding in his head subsides enough for him to consider distracting himself from it with some light reading. More Herodotus, perhaps. His cousin is still with his accounts in his office.
His head pounds again, and Bellonus squints his eyes half in pain before realising that the pounding wasn't in his head. Footsteps. Someone else here. A guest. He turns his head and winces at the sudden motion. Probably one of Marcus' clients. He can't do his cousin any credit in this state.
"Oh," Bellonus says weakly, relieved. "You won't be wanting any cloth from my cousin, then."
Murena shakes his head. "You look wretched, Philippos."
He doesn't have to try too hard to produce a sour expression. "We can't all have your stunning good looks."
Murena laughs and hits him companionably on the shoulder, and he is so miserable that he can't even flinch at that.
"I just wanted to check on you. You were a mess when I walked you home."
Murena... walked him home? What in the world happened last night? "I don't remember that."
"Didn't think you did," the man says, quieter now. "I don't think you remembered Latin; you started speaking Greek halfway through, and then something that sounded like one of those barbarian languages."
Bellonus frowns. "I learned a little Celtic in Britannia. I can't imagine why it would have occurred to me to speak it." Except he can imagine it, of course, and an awful thought occurs to him. "Did I say anything... inappropriate?"
"No, no!" Murena assures him, too quickly for it to be true. "Not in front of the guests, anyway. You were very charming with Atellus, who left early enough that you wouldn't have had time to say anything inappropriate anyway."
Bellonus gives brief thanks that the older man had decided to retire early for the night. "So I hope he'll still consider me for his land."
"I think so," Murena says, sounding confident.
He nods in time to the pounding in his head, and then his mind finally catches up with the beginning of the sentence. "What -- what do you mean, 'not in front of the guests?'"
Murena shrugs. "As I was walking you home, you kept telling me about the charms of some Celt you'd met--"
Oh no. He must have gone even whiter, because Murena looks at him in concern. "Hey, friend. It's all right. We all have the slave-boys, occasionally."
So Murena thinks he was with a boy, then. All right. Bellonus exhales in relief. Nothing shameful about that. But Britannicus there is a man, is probably his own age. And Bellonus wants nothing more than to see him again. And that, of course, is inappropriate. That's when someone might start suspecting. He has been so careful; he knows Romans are quick to think a Greek man effeminate as is, and they cannot know, they must not--
He forces a smile. "Oh, is that all I was saying?"
"As much as I could follow." The tension defused, Murena retreats a little. "Next time I'll water the wine more, eh?" All wine is watered at a party, of course, but usually Bellonus can keep his head better than that. "You'll be drinking grape-flavoured water."
"Or you'll serve me the worst, and save the best for your other guests?" Bellonus laughs, knowing it to be a horrible gaffe.
"Or maybe both, eh, Philippos?" Murena says, laughing, walking back toward the entrance. "Perhaps I'll see you at the baths later?"
"Perhaps so," Bellonus agrees, waving a hand and slumping back onto his seat. That was too close.
That afternoon he brings Felix with him to the forum baths. As before, he edges away from the wrestling circles and the swordsmen and anything that might bring back the sudden memories.
He's borrowed a discus from his cousin. It was never one of his favourite athletic activities, but it's better than the alternatives. He moves to one of the open spots in the palaestra dedicated to this purpose, and throws, noting happily that even with his lack of practice he came nowhere near hitting any of the statues on the far side. It has been known to happen. Felix gives him an approving look and trots out to fetch the discus back for him.
On the third pass, Felix looks concerned as he hands over the discus. "Domine," he says, brows furrowed, "there's a man behind you on the walkway. He's been watching you all this time."
Bellonus feels a familiar calm spread over him, the absolute calm he usually only feels in battle. It is good to know that even with his upsetting dreams and visions, he still has a soldier's spirit in him. "Describe him," he says quietly and throws the discus out. This shot goes wild. Damn.
When he returns with the discus Felix lingers while walking, deliberately. Bellonus understands and contrives to look upset. "Well?"
"He's wearing a senator's toga, domine," Felix says, hurriedly, as if he's been scolded and is making excuses. "He's quite short, slightly overweight, dark-haired, dark-eyed, and is going bald."
Bellonus hisses through his teeth. It can't be. It can't be Crassus. No, his mind tells him, reasonably, it perfectly well could be Crassus. He was only in the army as part of the cursus honorum, after all, and he made it very clear he was to be a senator and cared nothing for the army, so he could be out of it and have been in the senate for a long time; he's old enough now to have been a quaestor first, and he probably had the money for it anyway even without being a quaestor. And everyone's in Pompeii for the summer. Damn it all.
He contrives to turn, as if preparing for another throw, and looks behind him. Ten years older now, but it is Crassus, no doubt. Crassus has a fatuous half-smile on his face, and he raises his hand in salutation. So, they do recognise each other.
Bellonus forces a smile that's more like a grimace, waves back. Crassus, satisfied, nods to himself and disappears within the baths. Bellonus flings the discus so hard he fears it will break when it lands, then drops his head into his hands.
Felix comes back, panting from the exertion, holding the discus. "You know that senator, domine?"
He sighs. "I made an enemy of him ten years ago." And to think he'd almost forgotten.
Bellonus knows poor Felix must be tired, but he keeps throwing the discus until he's sure Crassus is deep enough within the baths that they won't run into each other. He doesn't know what he'd say to the man, and he doesn't particularly wish to find out.
That night, Crassus, of course, has to figure in his nightmares, as if they weren't horrible enough. Bellonus is young and only an equestrian, so naturally Crassus outranks him. Mercifully, it is the night before a battle in his dream, not the day of one, and they are in Cerialis' tent, all the officers, discussing tactics.
Crassus points to the map, wants to move a few auxiliaries just so. It is an untenable position, and Bellonus doesn't know if the man is stupid or merely foolhardy, but cannot help giving him a look that suggests this.
"Sir," Bellonus says, as politely as possible, which for him is always an effort. "They'll die holding that." He thinks of the men he knows in that unit, imagines their corpses on the wet British ground. The man has to know this.
Crassus shrugs, and Bellonus realises, horrified, that the man just doesn't care. He will be safe behind the lines; this is all a game, played on maps. Nothing real. Caring about the men is beyond him.
Bellonus sits bolt upright in bed, breathing hard in the darkness, and he can't even console himself with the knowledge that it was only a dream, because he remembers it now, waking. He was the one who went to the field, walked among their bodies afterward. Crassus had only glared at him and told him they'd held the position long enough, hadn't they? And he'd have no more complaints from the likes of him. Bellonus knew what he meant, of course -- scion of an old and noble Roman family, Crassus' views about Greeks as officers were all too obvious. And that was only the smallest part of the disagreement.
He leans over, forehead pressed against his drawn-up knees, shaking. Perhaps Pompeii is proving less relaxing than he thought.
The next day is bad for him -- twitching, jumping at shadows, snapping even at poor Felix. He can't concentrate enough to read. He hopes the baths will relax him, in the afternoon, but even tiring himself to exhaustion in the palaestra first, his mind won't stop. It has to be seeing Crassus again that's done it, he thinks. He really could have done without ever being reminded of the man's existence. And not just because he's an ass, because -- because -- he's just not going to let himself think about Athanasios. No.
And on the way back, without really thinking about it, Bellonus has found that brothel again, and part of him unknots. Is this -- can this really be what he wants again? He could just have had slaves, he knows, but no, he wants that particular one again. Britannicus. Thinking the name makes him relax a little more. It is as if there is magic in it. It's not even really a proper name. This is mad.
He stands in front of the brothel door, reads the new graffiti, and thinks. Except he's not really thinking, because if he were thinking he wouldn't be here, would he?
Well, he tells himself, surely there's no harm in going again. Maybe then it'll get the man out of his head, so that he can move on.
The inside of the brothel is much the same as it was the other day. The doorkeeper glowers at him, and this time the old woman at the desk actually looks up as he approaches.
"What a pleasure to see you again," she says, sounding as if she means it. Bellonus suspects he may have overpaid. "What may we help you with today, sir? There are new boys, and girls too, just arrived from faraway lands, if you're interested--"
"No, thank you," he says, politely. "I wish to see Britannicus again." A thought occurs to him. "If he is free, of course."
"Him?" The woman smiles, a fond, if slightly puzzled, smile. "He is available." The Celt is probably too old to be of interest to most of the men who visit. Shame, with his talent. "Are you sure you wouldn't rather...?"
"No, he will be fine, thank you," Bellonus says, and he reaches to his belt for his purse. He drops two sesterces on the table, over double what he paid last time. The brass glints dully in the light of day, and the owner's eyes widen just a little. "What can I have for that?"
"For that much? For him?" She half-smiles. "You can have Britannicus for whatever you want as long as it doesn't leave him in a condition unfit to serve other clients. No marks, sir. We like him very much," she adds, almost defensively.
They probably all think he's mad. Maybe he is. But as long as word of this doesn't get back to anyone who would know, what is the harm in indulging the madness? Bellonus feels himself smile broadly.
"That will be excellent; thank you."
"Very well," she says. "If you remember the room where you were with him the other day--"
The one with the especially intriguing drawings. He thinks, now, it may have had VIII over the door, in addition to the man's name. "Eight?"
She nods. "If you will wait a few minutes, I will have him sent there." She calls over her shoulder in Oscan, and a slave behind her heads upstairs, to what are presumably the prostitutes' quarters when they are not working.
A few minutes later, the slave returns and beckons at Bellonus to follow, though he could have found the way by himself. More quickly than he expected, he is at the room, and he pushes back the curtain to find Britannicus already there. His heart leaps and pounds alarmingly in his chest at the sight of him.
The Celt's face, at first neutral, changes upon seeing him to a false happiness, and he gestures at him airily, as a cinaedus does. And even so, he is beautiful; the smile, fake as it is, still takes Bellonus' breath away. He is gorgeous, the very image that poets write about, Bellonus thinks, with his curled hair framing his face just so, the sparkle in his eyes. Britannicus moves elegantly as he stands, putting his hands out alluringly. Bellonus imagines those hands on him and smiles.
"It is a pleasure to see you again," the man says, his accented voice high and fluted, in the tones of the cinaedus, and all of it fake. "I am most pleased to perform whatever services you require."
What does he want? That's a good question. He knows what he really wants, of course, but he can't ask, can't possibly ask, even though he's already daring so much just by being here with the man. He shrugs helplessly. "Whatever you would like. What is it you want to do?"
A sudden crack in the mask, as the man regards him with bewilderment, and Bellonus suspects he's trying very hard not to call him an idiot. "Sir," the Celt says after a long pause, "my desire is to serve you."
"You're lying," Bellonus says quietly. He wants some reaction, some sign, something. He doesn't even know what he's looking for.
The mask slips a little more, and green eyes glimmer in something like anger. Bellonus watches the man's chest heave under the threadbare tunic.
"My desire right now," the man says, voice rougher, more real, "is to serve you. Anything else I might want is irrelevant." That's probably true enough, Bellonus supposes. He shouldn't push it. The man won't answer.
"Very well," Bellonus says. He has to come up with something to ask for. "As you were so skilled with your mouth the other day..."
Britannicus half-smiles and pats the bed next to him. Bellonus sits, and then lies back onto the straw mattress. Already he is hard, and he becomes harder still as the Celt's practiced hands move over him, pulling his toga and tunic aside. He realises, suddenly, that the tension of the past few days is gone. He needed this. He needs this man; he doesn't know why, but he does.
Determined fingers stroke along the length of his cock, and he groans. "It would be better," he manages, "if you could take your time a little." He hardly wants to come already; it would all be over so soon.
He looks down his body and sees Britannicus, regarding him intently, give a small nod. Then, ever so slowly, the man leans down, and licks one long slow stripe of warmth along him. Bellonus groans and throws his head back into the mattress, arching up into the heat denied him.
It is a slow tease, a dance, the man's mouth on his cock one minute, gone the next. It is agonising and wonderful both, and he raises his head with some effort to see Britannicus looking down at his cock, achingly hard now, with a measure of satisfaction, or so it looks. The look itself almost undoes him.
"You're wonderful," he pants, hardly knowing or caring about the words that come out of his mouth. "So good. Please."
Britannicus looks down at him, gives another strange half-smile, and there's something in it, there's got to be. He hasn't even come yet and he feels like he's floating, lighter than air. Maybe this was what the man wanted after all, he tells himself, pretends for a minute that the situation is other than it is.
He smiles back, weakly, and then Britannicus' mouth covers him, no teasing, no taunting. He thrusts deep, harder, and the man does not pull away, only slides his lips down further until Bellonus' cock is surrounded. No one has done this to him before, he thinks in a haze, no one has done anything like it. He thrusts once, twice into the man's mouth, and then he is coming. And for one perfect moment he is happy, the horrors that plague him driven away.
Bellonus' heartbeat thunders in his ears and he tries to remember how to breathe again. "That was -- you're excellent," he manages, and looks over at Britannicus, which is, unfortunately, a mistake.
The man is swallowing still -- clearly, he had no choice -- and the face he is making is far from happy. Resigned, almost. It had all been in Bellonus' mind. Of course he didn't like it. He has no choice in any of it. At all.
"I'm sorry," he pants, and Britannicus' face changes. "You hadn't wanted to after all."
"I told you before," the man says, quietly, his real voice. "I'm a whore. You're buying my services. I do what you want. What I want is irrelevant." A hint of anger.
"What do you want?"
The man shuts his eyes, turns his head away. "It doesn't matter."
"What's your name, then?"
The question is out of Bellonus' mouth before he's even thought to ask it. And it's a stupid question, of course, he thinks as he rises to his feet, still a little shaky. It's not as if he'll give a true answer; why should he?
"My owners," the Celt says carefully, almost icily, eyes open now, glaring, "have chosen to call me Britannicus."
"But you must have had a name before that." He doesn't know why he's pressing; the man won't answer him.
Real anger, then, as the man's face twists, mocking. "Yes, my parents thought, oh, here's a lovely name, we'll name our son after our homeland. In the language of the invaders. As far as anyone in this land is concerned, I have no other name."
This is going all wrong somehow. "I served in Britannia," Bellonus says, hoping to put him at ease. "Twice. It was a beautiful country, or so I found it. In fact, I was only just posted there, at Eboracum, dealing with the uprising from Venutius and his Brigantes."
The man's face twists even more, and whatever facade of pleasantry there was has been shattered. His eyes are cruel, hard, and Britannicus bares his teeth. "And you didn't have enough of raping my people there, eh, Roman? Had to come back and do it here too, did you? Couldn't get enough of fucking us, could you? Found a taste for the Brigantes?"
He's one of the Brigantes? Here? Oh no. No, no, no. Caught off-guard, Bellonus stammers, "It's not -- it's not like that--"
"So I'll suck your cock if I've got to," Britannicus says, dangerously quiet. "Since you're paying enough, aren't you, Roman? And since it matters so desperately to you to know what I want, I want to be at home, in Isurium Brigantum, with my friends and family, where I will never have to get on my knees for anyone ever again, but my family is long dead, and thanks to your no doubt excellent prowess as a soldier, there soon won't be any of my friends alive there either. Not that I'll ever be free. So, you see, I can never have what I want. You'll kill us all, sooner or later, damn you." His voice has risen by the end of it, all trace of artifice gone, a flame of pure anger.
He can't form words. "I -- I didn't -- I wouldn't--"
They stare at each other. Britannicus is wild-eyed. His chest heaves, and Bellonus knows, now, that this man hates everything about him, and worse, is right to. It isn't as if his hands are free of blood.
"Report me to my owners," the man says quietly, after a long silence. "Tell them I spoke thus to you. They'll have me beaten for my insolence. I'm sure you'll enjoy that, as that's why you've picked me, isn't it? To know that I suffer? To find another Celt to shame?"
Bellonus looks at him for a long time. "No, it wasn't why. And I don't believe I will tell them." He owes the man that much at least, for being brave enough to speak his mind. And he still isn't sure why he picked him in the first place. "I've hurt enough people."
Britannicus looks at him, bewildered, and this time it is Bellonus who pushes aside the curtain and leaves.
After barely eating dinner, he lies awake in his cubiculum for hours past darkness that night. Having partaken as little as possible of the wine this night, Bellonus has no wish to know what his dreams will bring him. He's already angered the one man, who, for whatever reason, somehow made any of it better. His heart twists strangely as he thinks of Britannicus. The man shouldn't affect him like this, is the last thing he thinks of as he falls asleep. He knows with an awful certainty what his dream will be about, given the events of the day: that which he avoids.
He is holding Athanasios' body in his arms and trying so hard not to cry. The light flickers within the tent. The physicians could do nothing for the infection that raged within him, and even now, in death, the man's body is still warm.
He traces the slight curl of black hair along the man's forehead, his dark Syrian features, runs his fingers along his face, along his lips, over his eyes that will never open again. Immortal, his name means, for like the rest of the Syrians, the man had a good Greek name. Undying. It isn't true.
"Athanasios, O Athanasios!" he cries. "Speak to me. Athanasios, I never told you how much I cared. I care too late. Speak to me," he says again, as if through sheer force of will he could revive a dead man as Aesculapius could. But he is only a man, not a god, not the son of a god.
Athanasios opens his eyes, shot through with blood, and his voice, hellish, like nothing he possessed in life, is that of the shades of the underworld.
"Philippos, why did you let him kill me? Why did you let him?"
The dead man's hands lock on his throat, painfully tight.
"I couldn't stop him," he rasps. "I didn't know what he would do, Athanasios. Believe me. Forgive me--"
But Athanasios' hands grow tighter, and he can feel it, see his vision starting to grey out. He can't breathe. He can't breathe.
"I was a coward," he forces out, with his last breath. "I could have stopped him. I was afraid to speak up, afraid of what he would do to me."
"Then it's you who killed me, Philippos." The fingers, grey and dead on his throat, tighten more--
Bellonus scrambles upright, fingers tearing at his throat, which is, of course, bare.
"I'm sorry," he whispers. Then, even quieter: "I loved you, Athanasios." Words he never spoke while the man was alive, certainly.
It is still the middle of the night, but he sits awake in the dark until dawn, silently. He does not cry. A good Roman man does not.
In the morning Felix brings him his toga, frowning at the bleary-eyed glare his master gives him. "A bad night, domine?"
"They're all bad nights," Bellonus responds, dully.
Felix frowns. "I am sorry to hear that," he says and works in silence for a few minutes, draping Bellonus' toga just so. It is then that Bellonus remembers the day before, and his mood, such as it is, becomes exponentially worse.
"Felix?" Bellonus asks, appalled to hear his voice quavering with fatigue.
"Do you think I'm a good person?" A ridiculous question to be asking one's slave, certainly, but Bellonus has never been one for normality.
"Of course," Felix says. An instant response.
The man frowns again, this time deeply in thought, as if this is a test of some sort. "You are a kind man and a generous one. I am well-fed and well-cared for. You do not beat or ill-use me, and you treat other men's slaves, too, as if they were your own valued possessions. You are not callous, or petty, or cruel. If someone asked me to describe you, domine, that's what I'd tell him."
Bellonus scrubs at his face. "What if someone's made up his mind already? That I'm not a good man. Then what?"
Felix looks at him, confused, and shrugs.
Bellonus doesn't know, either.
A messenger comes that morning, from Atellus, asking if Bellonus would be willing to see his property today, which he gratefully accepts. A ride outside of the city would do him some good, even if he doesn't end up buying it.
He goes to the stables where his stallion, Boukephalos, is stabled. Boukephalos is a big dapple-grey, head nothing like an ox, nothing at all like the jet-black stallion it is said that ho Alexandros ho Megas owned, but Bellonus always felt he would be a poor Greek not naming his horse after the great man's, no matter what the horse looked like.
Why don't you just call him Hippios? Or Equulus? he remembers Athanasios asking the day he got him, the horse barely past colthood, and at that size, certainly deserving of either of those names. He'd laughed, kissed Athanasios, and-- no. He can't think about that, either.
Boukephalos is happy to see him, nickering and nosing his palm for a treat, the greedy thing. Bellonus can't help but smile as he saddles his horse. Horses are so much simpler than people.
He meets Atellus as agreed on the road out of the city. Atellus reins his gelding expertly around, and they head out to his property, chatting of this and that inconsequential thing. The trip is much shorter than Bellonus had thought it would be, as the land is much closer to the city than he'd thought.
It is a fine enough estate, and he smiles pleasantly as Atellus shows him around the empty villa, the farm, and yet -- somehow it is not for him. He could afford it, of course, but it is larger than he pictured. He would be lost in it, and it is closer than he wanted to live to the city. He cannot picture himself retiring here.
Atellus eyes him as they walk back through the land toward their horses. "No, eh?"
Bellonus grimaces. "Is it that obvious?"
The man grins and taps at his own face. "It's in your eyes, friend. This isn't the place you wanted."
"I'm sorry to have wasted your time."
"Oh, not at all!" Atellus says. "An old man like me can do with some good riding now and again. "I'm not offended. And, as I said, I've friends -- maybe you can tell me what you're looking for?"
"Something smaller," Bellonus says, picturing it. "Not such a large place that it would take a huge staff to run. Something more in the countryside. Quieter." Where he could retire, in peace, with a friend nearby -- a pair of green eyes stare at him, in his mind, and he shakes the image off. Madness. Stop thinking about him. He's a stranger who hates him. He doesn't even know his real name.
Atellus scratches his chin in thought. "I'll ask around. And if you find anyone else looking, keep me in mind, eh?"
"I will," he promises.
That night there is another dinner party at Murena's, with the same set of guests. Bellonus resolves to drink less, and Murena grins companionably as he passes the krater. This one tastes more watered, anyway. At least Murena's looking out for him.
Macula, across the room, eyes one of the shapelier slave-girls, reaching out to fondle her. Maybe his wine wasn't watered enough.
Annalis, on the couch lying just in front of Bellonus, laughs as he watches the scene. "Chase after women enough, Titus, and you know what they'll say about you--"
The assembled guests laugh uproariously at Titus Macula. Bellonus doesn't. It's the same thing they'd say about him, if they knew. Unmanly. Effeminate. Consumed by passions. Things a good Roman citizen, a man, an equestrian, should never be. Hastily, he joins in the laughter.
"So, Philippos," Annalis says. "Atellus over there says you weren't interested in his property."
Bellonus inclines his head. It seems word has spread, and why shouldn't it? It isn't a secret. "I don't think it was what I was looking for, Decimus."
"Listen, Philippos, I don't know if you're interested," Annalis says quickly, as if he's waiting for a denial, "but if you haven't committed to retiring, there are a lot of good people who could use you. The new commander of II Adiutrix is in town as well, for the summer. And if you want to come back, there'd probably be a promotion in it."
Another choice. He freezes a little, momentarily, as the thought of the name of the legion even calls up memories of the dead. He can't. He could. He doesn't know.
"I'm not sure yet what my plans are," he says carefully. "But I'll keep that in mind, thank you."
Annalis nods, grins, and reaches out for more wine.
Bellonus is pleasantly surprised the next morning to find he doesn't remember his dreams. And with no hangover, this is definitely an improvement over the day after the last party.
He is even able to relax enough to enjoy reading the Herodotus his cousin owns, sounding out the words to himself and pausing every so often to chuckle at the bizarre things described therein. It's a good thing the man never visited Britannia, otherwise he'd find himself thinking about -- damn. There it is again. What is he going to do about Britannicus?
Nothing, of course, his mind tells him. He's just a whore, who hates him. There are better men to sleep with, surely, even if it's the perversion of adult men he wants to indulge in. He's not going to change the man's mind about Romans, and certainly not about him specifically.
That would be the rational, reasonable answer. But it doesn't please him. He wants this man to like him, for some mad reason even he doesn't know, and he has set himself an impossible task. And he is no Herakles.
He frowns and rolls up the scroll. Early afternoon, time for the baths. Perhaps he'll see his friends there.
Unfortunately, it isn't his friends he sees. He is alone -- or rather, friendless -- in the crowded palaestra, when he hears the one voice he would rather never hear again.
"Bellonus!" Crassus calls to him, with false cheer. "I thought I saw you here the other day."
The man's never called him Philippos as he'd asked; one more thing to dislike about him. He turns to see Crassus coming toward him, in his senatorial toga, surrounded by a group of hangers-on that Bellonus doesn't know. He knows, just by that, that the man is exactly as he remembers.
"Senator," he says politely, neutrally. "It is good to see you again." A lie, of course, but he cannot very well insult a senator. Even this man.
"It's been a long time, hasn't it?" Crassus says, smiling.
Bellonus nods. "It has."
"Friends," Crassus says, to his sycophantic followers, "this is Bellonus, a Greek I served with in Britannia in my army days," and they all nod.
Bellonus can see some of their eyes narrowing already. Introducing him as the Greek certainly does little for his status in their eyes. Not a true Roman. Just the sort of backhanded move he'd expect from the man.
"Say, Bellonus," the man says, in a tone that indicates an order more than a request, "how about some sparring?" He indicates, with a jerk of his head, the men and their wooden swords, over in the corner -- an activity Bellonus has scrupulously avoided thus far at the baths. The man's coterie murmurs approvingly, and Bellonus remembers now that Crassus has always fancied himself a great swordsman. Probably wants to show off for his onlookers, and neatly put him down, all in one.
"Your request does me honour," Bellonus says. He knows it was meant as an order, but maybe, just maybe, he can decline. He feels his muscles beginning to tense, ready for battle. "But I fear, senator, that I would not be a good opponent."
"Come now," one of the onlookers says. "Do you fear you would lose? How unsporting of you to refuse the senator's challenge!"
Just as an unmanly Greek would, he supposes. He has to accept now. But he doesn't fear he will lose. In fact, he fears he will win. Crassus may fancy himself a swordsman, but Bellonus is still a honed blade himself, taut with tension, ready to fight. Ready to kill. He does not know what he will do with a sword in his hand, even a practice one. And Crassus, still an idiot, clearly has no idea of any of it, and has left him no honourable way of refusing.
"Very well," Bellonus says. "If you insist." Please, no. Please, let this go well.
They remove their togas -- one of Crassus' slaves takes his for him -- and move to the practice area, clad only in tunics. The area clears to make room for them. He is aware of a small crowd gathering -- not just Crassus' followers, but others who want to see the spectacle, want to see the senator show his prowess with a blade.
He has to keep control of himself, Bellonus begins to tell himself, already panicking. He has to put up a decent performance and then lose, let the man show off. He has to stay cool.
Crassus picks up a practice sword. A wooden sword is pressed into Bellonus' hand, and Bellonus closes his fingers tightly on the grip. Stay cool, stay calm, stay controlled. He is hanging onto sanity, just barely.
They circle each other. Crassus darts in, feints, and suddenly something within Bellonus' mind breaks. Reality shatters. He is in a battle. This is the enemy. He has to fight. He is ruthless, efficient, as trained as ever. A heavy blow to the wrist easily makes the invader's hand fly open, sword falling from his nerveless grip. Good.
He presses his advantage, rushing, shoving the man, who turns and falls badly, face in the dirt. This one will be easy to kill. He kneels, shoving his knee into his opponent's back, grabbing him by the hair, yanking his head back, pressing the blade against the exposed throat--
"What are you doing, idiot?" a voice yells. A stranger's voice. He doesn't recognise it. Where--
The palaestra. He's in the palaestra, and he has Crassus, great and noble senator, pinned to the ground in some grotesque parody of a tauroctony. All he needs is a Phrygian cap to complete the scene.
No. His mind, his broken soldier's mind has betrayed him. He drops the practice sword into the dirt and stands up, shaking, unsteady. What can he say? He is mad? He didn't mean to? The hangers-on titter to themselves. He's made their senator look bad, all right.
Crassus brushes himself off and glares at him, anger worse than anything he's ever seen. "You--" the man splutters, purpling. "How dare you! You are even more wretched than I remember! I won't forget this, Greek!"
Crassus retreats as quickly as he came, into the baths, shamed now among his followers. This is precisely what Bellonus should not have done. All the onlookers have left; the last slave flings his toga back at him, and he clutches it, white-knuckled.
Pale, sweating, shaking, Bellonus drops to his knees and vomits into the dust of the practice ground.
He had better go back to the army, all right; there's no place for this as a civilian. He had already made an enemy of the man before; what will Crassus do now to him?
Bellonus spends the evening in almost a state of panic, has horrible, blood-filled dreams in the night, and in the morning, after breakfast, screams at Felix for something that wasn't his fault.
Felix cringes as if he thinks now that Bellonus will surely beat him, and that, for some reason, snaps him out just enough.
"Felix!" he says, appalled by his own behaviour. "I'm sorry; I am not myself." He drops his head in his hands. And the one man who made any of it feel better is gone, or might as well be; he's gone as far as he's concerned. He can't do this.
Felix is looking at him with concern.
It is at that moment that Annalis walks in, followed shortly by Macula. Bellonus looks up, and covers his face with his hands again. He knows what this must mean.
"Is it the talk of the whole city already?"
"Not the whole city," Annalis says. Oh, that's encouraging. "It'll probably spread more at the baths today as well."
He looks up to see Macula nudge Annalis heavily. "He can't do anything to you, Philippos."
The words are comforting, but he can't quite believe them. "What?"
"What could he do?" Macula clarifies. "If you come back to the army, no one cares whether you've made an enemy of the man; you haven't done anything, really, so how could he hurt your career? You have such a fine reputation, and you know it. And even the stupidest commander won't hold it against you because you embarrassed a senator."
"And if you retire," Annalis says, "well, then there's really nothing he can do to you then, if you've no career. We just wanted to tell you that."
They have good points, both of them, and Bellonus half-smiles in relief at his friends. "Thank you. I'll see you later, I suppose."
After the men leave, Felix stares at him in consternation. "Domine, if I may ask, what did you do yesterday?"
"You remember that senator watching me at the baths a few days ago?"
Felix nods. "The one you say you made an enemy of?"
"Yes, well, yesterday he challenged me to practice sparring and in front of all his friends I nearly managed to slit his throat with a wooden sword."
Felix frowns, considering. "That was probably unwise, domine."
Bellonus sighs and covers his face with his hands again, seeing blood even with his eyes closed. "Don't I know it."
At the baths that afternoon -- he carefully goes so early that he knows Crassus will not be there -- he meets Murena in the palaestra.
"I won't challenge you to swordplay," Murena says, laughing, and Bellonus sighs.
"No, you'd better not," he says, and the man stops laughing.
He works up a good sweat in the exercise, lost in the mindless return of the ball, and he can almost forget what's happened. It almost makes it go away. But, his mind insists, not like being with--
He frowns, and Murena looks over at his face and misses the return.
"Well, that was probably enough of that," the man says, jovially, in a tone that suggests he's trying hard not to upset him, and together they proceed into the apodyterium.
"So," Murena asks, when they are comfortable in the tepidarium. "Why did you--?"
"I don't know," Bellonus says, angrily, helplessly. "I just -- Crassus had a sword. It's as if I'm in a battle all the time, and I couldn't control myself. I dream every night about battles, and sometimes in the streets I freeze and am lost in one."
"Oh, I didn't mean that," Murena says, and Bellonus starts in surprise. "That happens to soldiers all the time. Few want to talk about it, of course."
He is still startled. "It does?"
A light grin. "Philippos, why do you think I left the army?"
That piece of knowledge startles him into silence until they reach the caldarium.
Murena tries again. "What I meant to ask was, why have you and the dear senator always been at odds with each other? I've seen it, but I've never known--"
He can't tell him about Athanasios. He can't. "It is a long tale, Quintus," he says, "but the short of it is that he was only in the army to bide time in his cursus honorum and did not care about the welfare of the men, and he took objection to the fact that I did, and that I was Greek. And from there, it is as you see it."
There, that is true enough. And even about Athanasios, in a way.
Murena moves as if to clap him companionably again, then thinks better of it, and Bellonus is profoundly, pathetically grateful. "That is poor luck, Philippos."
"It is, indeed," Bellonus agrees.
"Say," he says, "what helped with me, if you don't mind the advice, was trying to relax."
Bellonus has to grin at that. "Why do you think I came to Pompeii?"
"No," Murena says, "I mean truly relax. Engage yourself in pursuits. All that Pompeii has to offer." Somehow the phrase makes him think of Britannicus, and he winces. Murena, thankfully, takes it for something else. "No, I wouldn't recommend the arena for you, friend, but how about a play?"
"A play?" Murena's right; the thought never would have occurred to him.
Murena nods. "In three days there is a troupe coming to town, putting on Curculio, and some other pantomimes and comedies, but they seem to be proudest of that. Have you not heard the herald crying it? Or read the notice in the forum?"
"No, and I've never seen it," Bellonus says. He has the vague notion it's a comedy. "Is it good?"
Murena shrugs. "I have never, either. But I hear it is good, and quite funny. It's by Plautus, and his were always good. We could all go together?"
It sounds excellent, but a crowd of people at the theatre? All day? Not for him. He could have another one of his fits. Despite himself, Bellonus feels himself nodding. "I would like that."
A grin from Murena. "Most excellent."
They move, then, to the slaves with their strigils, and Bellonus begins to feel a little better as the slave works the oil into him, then scrapes it off. If he can't have -- if he can't have Britannicus, at least he will have the company of his friends.
He manages to relax enough at dinner to enjoy himself, or at least he would if his cousin were not so staid. Oh, well, it is no matter.
That night he doesn't quite remember his dream, even better, but he wakes in the morning with the vague impression of firelight, cool night air, and a warm body against his. Perhaps he would have liked to have remembered that one.
He smiles pleasantly at Felix, trying as hard as he can to be normal, and Felix looks pleased with this. "I am glad you are in higher spirits, domine," Felix says as he helps him wrap his toga.
"I am as well," Bellonus says. "I think today I would wish to go to the barber--" he is getting a little scruffy again -- "and thence to the forum, if you would care to join me?"
"Of course, domine," Felix says.
At the barber's, Felix handles the money, as is proper for a slave, and Bellonus breathes deeply as the man brings a blade to his face. It is close -- there is one frozen moment at the beginning where the light touches the blade just so, and he worries he will have a fit of madness -- but he breathes again, pictures something calming, and it passes. He tells himself he doesn't know what he was picturing. It certainly wasn't anyone's face.
They go together to the crowded forum, Felix trailing behind him, looking speculatively at all the sellers hawking their wares. "What was it you wanted here, domine?"
Bellonus smiles a little to himself and makes a beeline for the food-sellers. "Honey cakes. And don't tell me it's not a proper meal." He's always loved honey cakes more than is strictly good for him, although lately, of course, he hasn't felt like eating them.
Felix looks relieved to see signs of his appetite. "I wouldn't dream of it, domine."
Felix hands over the money, and Bellonus buys two honey cakes. He hands one to Felix and bites into his. It is just as delicious as he remembered, and he is glad he felt like doing this after all.
"Thank you, domine," Felix says, mouth full of honey cake.
"Mmph," Bellonus manages, taking another bite, stepping backwards away from the vendor. Which turns out to be a mistake.
He bumps into someone behind him in the crowd, and the panic flares up again -- an attack, his mind tells him -- as he turns, falls, shoves, pinning the unlucky person to the ground.
A few instants of terror, and he's come back to himself. Beneath him is a frightened-looking man in a tunic, who, it appears, had been carrying quite an elegant new stola. No longer elegant, it has fallen onto the ground, its whiteness now covered in dust and grime. And, of course, Bellonus' honey cake is smashed into it. That will hardly come out. He's ruined it. And from the looks of it, it was expensive, too. Furthermore, he seems to have gathered a crowd. It is, after all, unusual to tackle someone in the forum. And just when he thought he was getting better.
"I'm terribly sorry," Bellonus says, hastily, ashamed. "I bumped into you, and knocked you down, and now I've ruined your wife's stola. Allow me to pay you its cost," he says, motioning Felix forward. "Again, I apologise."
The man looks even more terrified, eyes downcast. "It isn't me you need to apologise to. My master will be so angry with me that I've ruined this present for his wife; it is all my fault for being so clumsy." His voice is accented, something vaguely familiar.
He's a slave? Well, it is often hard to tell. Although, come to think of it, his hair and eyes are awfully light for a Roman, and his skin pale too -- he could be from one of the provinces. Of course, that's what they say about Bellonus too, so he usually tries not to assume anything.
The onlookers around them part as a huge man, face already reddening in rage, stomps toward them. "Clemens!"
The slave cowers. "Yes, domine?"
The man takes in the scene. "Clumsy oaf of a Celt! You've ruined the stola!"
"I tripped," Clemens babbles, which is only half-true. He falls to the man's feet, grovelling. "Domine, please, it's not my fault, I was bumped into--"
"It's true," Bellonus says, suddenly, trying to stop this -- the rest of the crowd certainly isn't -- and the man barely deigns to glance at him.
"Clemens here is lazy and a liar," the man says. "I wouldn't believe anything he says, if I were you. He deserves to be beaten. Clemens!" he snaps at the cowering man. "Take off your tunic!"
He reaches for a heavy stick -- the man's going to beat him here, in public? In the forum? -- and as poor Clemens slips his tunic over his head Bellonus can see the man's back is covered with a layer of multicoloured bruises in various stages of healing, bruise on top of bruise. No.
Bellonus steps forward, grabs the owner's upraised arm. "I bumped into your slave. The whole crowd will witness it. Do not beat him unfairly, I beg you. It is in no way his fault. I will pay for the cost of the stola."
A voice, a familiar voice he can't quite place, calls out from behind him, but he daren't turn now. "It's true; I saw it."
The man looks at him, first in anger, then in dawning comprehension as he takes in the stripe of Bellonus' clothing. "I -- very well," he says, and lowers his arm as Bellonus releases it. "Clemens!" he calls. "Put your tunic back on."
Felix presses money into his palm, and he hands the coins over to the man. Probably more than the stola cost, to judge by the unflattering avaricious gleam in the man's eyes, but he doesn't care.
"Here you go, and I am very sorry to have caused you this trouble."
The man nods, curtly, and turns, probably heading back to the clothing shop to replace it. "Clemens!"
Clemens lingers, meeting Bellonus' eyes in unfeigned pure gratitude. "Thank you so much for saving me. You didn't need to speak up for me. Thank you."
"It was the truth," Bellonus says, "and I hate to see a man unfairly hurt."
"Clemens!" comes the man's roar again, from farther away, and Clemens scurries to follow.
"Wait." Bellonus presses a sestertius into the slave's palm. "Keep this one for yourself, eh, for the trouble I've caused you." It is much more than anyone would give a strange slave just for this, but somehow it is still not enough.
The man looks as if he's about to cry. "Thank you," he murmurs, again, and disappears.
The crowd of onlookers melts away quickly, back to their daily tasks now that the excitement is over, and as Bellonus turns he sees a familiar face, a shock of reddish curls, brilliant green eyes -- he would stand out anywhere. Britannicus has seen the whole thing. Bellonus feels his heart start to pound.
Britannicus' eyes widen, and as he sees Bellonus is watching him, his face shutters, unreadable, and he mouths across the crowded forum words Bellonus can't quite make out, but wishes he could. Before Bellonus can run to him, Britannicus gives a crooked half-smile and disappears into the crowd.
It was Britannicus who called out to support him, he realises suddenly. Bellonus' heart leaps. Perhaps it isn't too late after all. Perhaps trust can be earned.
The only thing that stops him from dismissing Felix and heading to the brothel after the baths is that he knows that if he's seen Britannicus in the forum, he must have a free day or half-day today and will surely be nowhere to be found. Tomorrow, then.
The thought of seeing the man again makes him ridiculously happy, and he's stopped asking himself why this should be so, when he's only ever met the man twice. Why should he care what a prostitute thinks of him? But somehow, he does.
Dinner with Marcus Cornelius is a strange affair. He cannot stop from smiling the whole time, and his cousin looks suspicious at first, but then relaxes.
"Ah," Marcus says, with a knowing grin. "You must have been enjoying the charms of Melissa, eh? Is she not wonderful?"
He grins and tries to dissemble. "Not her, cousin, but I have found other companionship."
Marcus nods. "Well, as I said, all my slaves are yours for the using."
"And as I said, you are quite generous." He likes his cousin -- the only member of the family who can at least stand him, so that's saying something -- though he certainly has no intention of letting his... proclivities... be known.
"You've found Pompeii agreeable, then, Philippos?"
Bellonus nods, helping himself to more food. "Some of my army companions and I are going to see the day of theatre, the day after tomorrow. I've been thinking about settling here, in the countryside, if I decide to retire early."
Marcus laughs, clearly thinking he's making a joke of it -- him, retire? "Well, cousin, I recommend it. It is a fine place to live."
His dreams are mercifully absent, and Bellonus wakes to find that the next morning he is smiling. He can't remember the last time he woke up smiling.
After breakfast, he shrugs off Felix's company to take the now-familiar path to the brothel. He hopes it's open.
It is, and the woman hardly looks surprised when he pays for another hour with Britannicus. She asks no questions about what he might want to do, this time; she merely takes the money. "I'm glad to see you're fond of him, sir; he is not so popular with the clients."
"I like him," Bellonus says, and it's true enough.
The woman smiles back at him. Was he smiling? "He's well-liked here," she says, with a sort of motherly possessiveness. He can imagine the man being charming; the allure he has as a cinaedus must be building on something real.
"If you're going to send him to the same room as before," Bellonus offers, "I can go myself and wait there. It'll save your slave the trouble of fetching me back."
The woman smiles an assent, and calls out to a slave -- in Latin this time, thankfully -- to have Britannicus sent to his own room.
"Thank you," he says, politely, making his way to the room.
He sits on the bed and doesn't have long to wait until the curtain is pulled back and the now-familiar Celt walks in. He is acting as a cinaedus does, of course, sashaying this way and that, calling out, "What may I do for you today?" in high musical tones. Even so false, he is still beautiful.
Then Britannicus looks up, sees Bellonus waiting, and most of the colour drains from his face.
"I came to talk," Bellonus offers, and sadly, that's actually true. More than anything, he wanted to see the man again.
There is a real smile on Britannicus' face, a flash of one. "You paid for an hour with me to talk?" he asks, incredulous, half-suggesting Bellonus is insane for having done it. "After I finished up last time by telling you that you were here to rape me and all my people. You came back. And paid. To talk."
Bellonus nods, briskly, half-smiling. This must be what madness feels like. "Yes."
"I--" The Celt stops, starts again. "If we're here to talk, then. I owe you an apology. I saw you in the forum the other day. You're not the man I thought you were, Roman," and this time when he says it it almost doesn't sound insulting.
Bellonus can feel himself smiling. "I'm rarely the man I'm thought to be. Also, I'm not Roman."
Britannicus gestures in confusion at his toga. "I thought only native Romans rose that high."
He's still smiling. "Not exactly." He pats the bed next to him. "Sit."
Bewildered, the Celt sits. "Then who are you?"
A good question. "Gaius Cornelius Bellonus," he says, then adds, "ho kai Philippos."
Britannicus blinks a few times in surprise. "You're Greek."
"Nai." He grins and waits for the usual question, and is surprised when it doesn't come.
"You're from Greece?" He's hardly ever been asked that one.
Bellonus shakes his head. "Neapolis. My family are equestrians; we've been citizens for generations longer than anyone there, thanks to a Scipio a long time ago. And so I joined the army as an officer, which is how I eventually became a narrow-striped tribune," he gestures at the clothing, "as you see me. So I know a little of how it is to be here in the empire and not be Roman."
Britannicus draws his knees up to his chest, sitting on the bed. He has beautiful long legs. Bellonus swallows and tries to keep his mind on the conversation.
"So how is it to be Greek and in the army?" the man asks, as if he's honestly curious.
Bellonus shrugs. "Complicated. On the one hand, they know Alexander Magnus conquered the world. On the other, I'm an effeminate unmanly Easterner. And so I have to try to be -- Roman. I know it's nothing like what they think of your people, of course."
A rueful smile, showing that cracked tooth. "I thought you shared their opinion of me."
"Never," Bellonus says, fervently. "I served twice among the Brigantes, which is what I was trying to tell you. The first, when I entered the army, at sixteen, when Cartimandua was still queen -- I was there for almost two years, peacefully, on a trading mission. I lived among your people. And I suppose I picked you because you remind me of that time, when I was happy there. I learned some of your language, even." And I picked you because you make the madness go away, he thinks but does not say.
The man looks joyous, and says something Bellonus can barely follow, though he picks out the word "understand" in the last sentence.
"I understand you," he says back, in Celtic, smiling. He can almost piece together the rest of the sentence he wants, and tries it anyway. "And you don't have to tell me your name."
"I haven't spoken my language to any but another slave in five years," the man says, dropping back to Latin, with a wondrous, glorious expression on his face. Bellonus is seized with the desire to hold him -- to kiss him, even, but he knows that would not be permitted, and restrains himself. "Thank you."
Bellonus only smiles at him, and the man smiles back, a real smile, radiant, transforming.
"Philippos," the man says, thoughtfully, testing out the name, giving it a Greek accent rather than a Latin one.
"You can call me it," Bellonus says. Please, his mind says. Please call me it. I want you to. But he can't very well say any of that, and yet the man seems to divine his wishes anyway.
"Well, Philippos," Britannicus says, and he's smiling again now, "you've paid for me for an hour; is there something else you want to do?"
His cock stirs, hopefully, at the idea. "I paid to talk to you. I can do without," he says firmly.
Britannicus leans over, slides his hand firmly into Bellonus' lap, and Bellonus groans and arches into the touch. "That's what I thought," he says. "You don't have to do without. You were kind, and you've paid anyway, and I'm offering."
He looks into Britannicus' eyes, and the man really is sincere. He shouldn't -- he shouldn't give into it. He was here to be noble, not commanded by base emotions. It doesn't make him a good Roman. Or a good Greek, for that matter.
The man's grin turns knowing. "Would you like my arse?"
Bellonus mouths a few broken syllables. So much for not surrendering to lust. He suspects Britannicus is happy to have reduced him to this.
Britannicus pulls off his tunic and helps get Bellonus out of his toga and tunic, a slightly more complicated ordeal. They stand in the small room, staring at each other. And Britannicus is just as gorgeous as he thought he'd be -- thin, but strongly-built for all that, all golden skin and muscle. His hair looks redder, even, against all that skin, and his eyes greener. They've singed and plucked all the hair off his body, of course, as he'd suspected. He wishes they hadn't, but, well, no one caters to that perversion.
"You're -- beautiful," he manages, an inadequate word to describe it, but the best he has. He's getting harder just looking at him. But Britannicus isn't, and he gestures at him in confusion. "Aren't you...?"
Britannicus looks down at himself, flaccid, and shrugs. "I don't, anymore. Haven't had an erection in years. The sort of clients we get just want the use of my mouth, or my arse, so it hardly matters for business, most of the time. They charge a little less for me, to compensate for it, and I make up for it by being -- skilled. It's nothing personal," he says, hastily. "Believe me, I would if I could."
He probably doesn't even fancy men, then, Bellonus thinks. The thought, which somehow never occurred to him before, should bother him, but then Britannicus kneels on the bed, arse in the air, and he thinks he might come just from looking at him. So beautiful.
Britannicus seems to be regarding his state with some amusement. "There's a pot of oil down there. You don't need to loosen me up first; I do this every day, remember?"
All right. He grabs the oil with shaking fingers, slicks himself up, and climbs on the narrow bed behind him. Slippery hands on his hips, he pushes in, and oh -- it's wonderful, so tight. He groans and thrusts once.
If he hadn't been listening for a response, he might not have heard the sound Britannicus made, the quietest of whimpers. He realises that all of the muscles in the man's back are taut. Something is wrong. He's hurting him. He pulls out, and Britannicus gives another hiss.
Britannicus turns to look at him, and his face is grey with pain. "You stopped."
"I'm hurting you," Bellonus says, and barely stops himself from tacking on an insult. How could he-- "Why didn't you say?"
Britannicus shrugs. "It hurts every time. I can make it quick enough that it'll be done sooner. If anyone notices, he doesn't care."
And the man was just going to let him do this? "It doesn't have to hurt," he offers. "You've tried fingers first, I assume."
"Fingers hurt less," Britannicus says, "or sometimes not at all, but it doesn't make a difference later."
A thought occurs to him. "How about only fingers?"
The man looks as him as if he is mentally deficient. "No one pays to put just their fingers in a whore's arse, Philippos."
"I will," he says. "Just tell me if it hurts and I'll stop."
"You're a madman," Britannicus says, but rolls back over, pushes up onto his hands and knees.
Bellonus slicks up his fingers until they're practically dripping with oil. With his free hand he strokes along the man's back, his buttocks, in one smooth line, until Britannicus makes a noise that sounds much happier, a pleased, relaxed exhalation. Good.
Still keeping one hand stroking his back, Bellonus probes with his oiled finger, gently, and -- "You're scarred," he says, feeling rough tissue under his fingertips. It probably doesn't stretch enough to make it at all pleasant, never mind the friction against the scar. "No wonder it hurts. And you do this every day?"
Britannicus' voice is cutting, acidic. "I don't have much of a choice about it. If you'd like to complain, you can tell it to the guards who fucked me every night before I was sold to the slave-dealer."
And Bellonus thinks his life has been bad, sometimes. His nightmares have nothing on this man's daily existence. "Does it hurt if I just brush like so?" He slides one finger along the opening, and Britannicus wriggles in something that might be pleasure.
"No," comes the voice, sounding amazed. "It doesn't hurt. Keep -- please keep doing that. If it would please you."
Bellonus smiles. "It pleases me." So he slides one finger gently, back and forth. The noises Britannicus makes under him are real, and wonderful, and startled, like someone who's forgotten what pleasure is. This is not fake. It is arousing, to say the least, but to think Britannicus has forgotten how to feel this way is a sad thought. He should feel like this every day.
"You could," Britannicus pants, "put a finger in." He groans, and Bellonus' cock twitches in response.
He slides a finger in slowly, ever so gently, and Britannicus only whimpers and writhes. "Good?"
"Good," the Celt breathes out, barely a whisper.
Bellonus pushes his finger deeper, searching, brushing up against -- there.
Britannicus groans, louder this time, and says something in Celtic he can't make out. "No one's done that to me in years," the man says in Latin now, rapid, practically babbling. "It's never felt like that with a man since before--"
Before he was a slave, probably. So he did sleep with men of his own accord. Something about this makes Bellonus happy. He continues the slow slide of his finger. "Surely the men you're with have an easier time doing this with their cocks."
"Hurts too much then for anything to feel good," Britannicus says, panting. "Not like this. I -- I thank you. So much, Philippos."
"Is that enough for now, then?" Say my name again, a small part of him demands.
Britannicus nods and he gingerly pulls his finger out. As the man sits up Bellonus looks down at him, amazed that he's still not even hard. Maybe he did something wrong after all?
"No, no, it's all right," Britannicus assures him, seeing his face. "You-- I'll never forget it, believe me. I just -- I can't anymore. Not for anyone, not even myself. I'm sorry." He looks over to Bellonus' achingly hard cock and grins. "You can, though."
"I certainly can," Bellonus says, colouring, ashamed at the evidence of his lust when this man has none.
Britannicus smiles. "You flatter me. Here," he says, laughing, standing up, back against the wall, "we can do as Greeks do, eh?" Well, why not? He's never actually tried it like this, though he's seen it in drawings, of course.
"And a lovely eromenos you make," Bellonus says, moving to cover him, sliding his cock between Britannicus' thighs, which lock tight around him. "Even if you are -- oh! -- a little on the old side for that role."
"Me? Never!" Britannicus laughs, thrusts his hips forward, squeezes his thighs still tighter. "I am but a beardless youth."
Bellonus chuckles. "Liar."
"Yes, well. That's what I'm sold as." Britannicus laughs and tries a twist of his hips, the friction against Bellonus' cock so delicious that he can hardly stay upright.
Bellonus staggers, and feels the man's arms go around him, holding him. He has to stretch forward to rest his chin on Britannicus' shoulder, the pose he is supposed to take, which is difficult as they're more or less the same height and he has bent himself already to fit. Some erastes he is.
"It's good," he gasps in the man's ear, rocking forward. "So good. And I'm so glad you're -- mmm -- a man grown. It's -- you're exactly what I wanted." He ought not to have said that, ought not to have admitted to even the smallest part of his perversion, but, oh--
Britannicus' thighs grasp him tighter still, almost, almost, and Bellonus slides, thrusts a few more times, yes, please, just like that, and comes between the other man's thighs. He can barely keep his balance and ends up clinging to Britannicus, cheek pressed against his shoulder, gasping.
They fall back onto the bed, undignified, and Britannicus grins at him, beautiful, face flushed, even though he wasn't the one getting off here. Bellonus looks over at him, worried. He should have pretended he only wanted him to play the youth, the beloved -- he shouldn't let himself say these things --
The man seems to sense his worry. "Among my people," Britannicus says, "it is not shameful to desire a man your own age." He runs his fingers lightly along Bellonus' sweat-dampened hair, petting it. "I find no shame in this. Although now, I fear, our hour is up."
"Would you like me to return another time?" Bellonus asks, hesitant. What if he says no? He is still, after all, Roman enough, and the man may trust him more now, but that's hardly proof of anything.
"I -- yes."
There is a little bit of fear in the man's eyes, as if by admitting it he's given Bellonus power over him. They are hardly friends, only strangers growing less strange.
Bellonus' heart feels gloriously light. "I shall, then."
They collect and don their discarded tunics, Britannicus helps him into his toga, and then they stand at the curtain, staring goodbyes at each other. Bellonus doesn't know what to say.
"Be well, Britannicus," he says, for lack of anything better.
"Be well, Philippos." Britannicus says. There's a long pause, and then he leans forward, quickly.
His breath against Bellonus' ear is warm, like a kiss.
"My name," he whispers, "is Deomiorix."
And then, just like that, Britannicus -- Deomiorix -- is gone.
Bellonus floats in a daze through the rest of the day. He told him his name. Deomiorix. Sounds like a good Celtic name to him, of course. It doesn't sound familiar, though. It's not likely he ever met the man, then, he thinks as he sits in the baths, even if he has been to Isurium Brigantum, the times they, as an envoy, met the queen. It was a long time ago.
He is distracted all the way through dinner. Deomiorix. He knows, somehow, that this is a gift, an extended hand, a show of trust, even a tentative one. Deomiorix must not have much else to give of himself, but he gave him his name.
He falls asleep smiling.