It’s barely dawn when Castus walks through the camp; the horizon is a soft yellowish-purple, not exactly pretty, but somehow soothing all the same, like a fading bruise. He feels more than tired: scooped hollow, his core turned inside out; but at the same time, he feels like he can finally see clearly, fired by an odd clarity of mind: Thus stands the matter. I have done all I can. There’s something almost freeing in the thought, in knowing he has reached the fullest measure of what he can do to gain his purpose, and losing anyway. At least it was not for lack of trying.
The night stretches oddly behind him, distorted already, although his senses cling to the things that remain clear: Nasir’s eyes on him, tender but wary. His hair tangling loosely between Castus’s fingers. The way the flavours of them mingled on his tongue. The way he felt Agron holding back, even at the cusp of passion, some measure of ultimate abandon that stayed ever out of reach.
The way they looked, completely absorbed in each other, no room between them, in the end.
Castus swallows, and walks on.
The early morning mist dusts his skin with tiny kisses of moisture that the sun will soon burn away, even in mid-winter. It reminds him, despite the dust and grit, of how he misses the sea. Since he was twelve years old, he has never spent much time from it, first by his brothers’ side and later by Heracleo’s. It was Heracleo who taught him the knowledge of every place upon a ship, working him up through the ranks. It was Heracleo who helped him learn the ropes and tides and currents, who told him the legends of the sea nymphs and the patterns of Neptune’s slumber. It was Heracleo who taught him his place upon the shifting seas, and thus, upon the world.
It occurs to him that it may well be time to move on. Find the coast, find a ship, feel the burn of ropes sliding through his hands again, the spray of salt on his lips. Not in bitterness or even defeat, but because sometimes the only thing you can do is sail away.
A battered heart is not the worst thing. Someday, he thinks, he’ll stand upon some distant shore and remember them with more fondness than pain: the man he could not have, and the one that would not have him. He will remember that they tried. He will remember Agron’s hands upon him, unsure but determined. He will remember Nasir’s smile and how it lights up the space around him, and eventually, the memory will be enough.
But if there is anything he has learned among Spartacus’s rebellion, it is that anything can be a choice, even pain. Even love. He doesn’t like the thought of fate, doesn’t believe in inevitable paths. It comes with being a sailor: On the open sea, any course is possible, and it is easy to steer away from underwater rocks.
He misses his friends. Traitorous fucks that they may have turned out to be, they were his kin, every bit as close to him as Spartacus claims to stand with Crixus and Agron. It still cuts deep to think that after the years Heracleo spent trusting Castus to defend his back, he could turn from him so easily: one night spent nodding in commiseration to Castus’s slurred complaints about dark-eyed flirting smiles, the next leaving him slumped upon some cruddy tavern’s table, his own course turned smoothly upon betrayal and the prospect of Roman gold.
Pirates, he tries to console himself, but it does not quite work. They were more than that. They were his brothers, now forever gone.
Belesa stops by his tent when the sun is barely rising, jerking him from the tempting lure of self-pity with the reminder that he has made new friends since then. She’s laden with bags, on her way to the wagons being prepared for the trek to the mountains.
She shares her breakfast, hard-boiled squab eggs and jerky. She watches him from the side as they eat. “You seem much occupied.”
He shrugs, for once unwilling to share. “Coming battle tasks mind,” he says instead, idly turning his blade upon his knees. The edge needs honing.
Belesa seems to take his distraction for truth. She has tensed slightly beside him. “Many will die today.”
Castus reaches out to put a hand on her shoulder. “Saxa not to be among them,” he says firmly, seeking to reassure her. Belesa smiles briefly at him, but her eyes stay hooded.
“I know.” She takes his hand, gripping it tightly. “Be not among them, either.”
Castus grins at her, and feels his heart lift. It’s good to have friends again. For days and weeks, he floundered, after Heracleo’s betrayal. Truth be told, he’s never done well apart from the companionship of others. “I do not plan to be.”
Belesa nods at him solemnly as if at a binding covenant struck, then rises and strides away. Her back is straight with determination. Castus takes his cue from it, and turns towards sharpening his weapons.
Yes, he thinks, suddenly renewed with purpose. After this, the sea.