“Tell me if I hurt you.”
“Yes, domine,” said Esca, in the mock submissive voice he knew Marcus loathed. But he was angry, and he wanted Marcus to be angry: it was only fury that gave Esca the dignity to sit still, gripping the edge of the chill stone bench with sweaty hands, and not bate like a frightened hawk at the sound of the shears singing on the whetstone.
But Marcus only set aside the whetstone. “Truly,” he said. “If I hurt you, squawk.”
“I’m not a bird,” Esca snapped.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” Marcus replied, and if his words were not an apology, his tone was. His leg dragged on the early fallen leaves as he came to stand behind Esca, tugging Esca’s left wing – his good wing – to see that it was fully open. Esca wished he would start with the right, because then at least the dreading would be over. But he forced himself to stretch his wings wide, so Marcus would not pull on them.
He hated this: sitting still, spreading his wings till the bad wing ached, and letting his masters cripple him. The good little slave. So obedient. Where now the chieftain’s son?
He had fought, the first time, until the soldiers threatened to pinion him. They held him down: they broke his right wing.
That badly healed wing grounded Esca as thoroughly as clipping could, but masters always insisted on clipping anyway. And Esca held still for it, though it was a degradation, because he was so afraid of pinioning. Coward.
Marcus smoothed Esca’s flight feathers. Esca dry-swallowed. The new-grown feathers were still tender: if Marcus cut them too short, they would bleed. “Have you ever clipped – ” Esca started, and stopped himself, because his voice was near to shaking.
“Yes,” Marcus replied. Esca hated the gentleness of his voice. He was going to clip Esca’s wings: he did not get to be kind about it.
The shears snicked. Esca clenched his eyes shut so he didn’t have to see his wingtips flutter onto the fallen leaves. “When?” he asked.
Snick. Another feather. Marcus did not reply, and Esca suddenly did not want to know: he did not want to learn that Marcus’s legion had defeated thus-and-such tribe, and clipped such of them as had wings, and sold them into slavery.
But at length Marcus said, “My uncle – my other uncle, who I lived with in Rome – had a winged slave.”
They were silent after that. The shears rasped through another feather. It brushed against Esca’s ankle as it fell. Esca gagged.
“Are you all right?”
Marcus was still behind him. “I could finish later?”
Esca laughed hollowly. “Did you make the same offer during crucifixions?”
Marcus was silent. Wounded. It depressed Esca that he could read Marcus’s silences so well. The shears amputated another feathertip. “A wing-clipping doesn’t hurt if it’s done properly,” Marcus said. “Your earlier masters: they did not know how to clip?”
“You saw my wings in the arena,” Esca said tersely. Esca’s last master before the arena had clipped Esca’s wings unevenly because it made him laugh to see Esca careen wildly when he tried to fly. A good party trick, it had been for him, and a pretty pile of sesterces it had made him when the circus master, roaring with laughter, bought Esca for his show.
Marcus finished clipping Esca’s left wing, and moved over to Esca’s right. Esca’s heartbeat roared in his ears. The once-broken wing did not open as fully as it ought to for proper clipping, and Romans always tried to force it, and it hurt –
But Marcus’s hand hesitated, gingerly feeling the wing’s swollen joint. “This was broken?” he said, half-asking.
“Yes.” Surely Marcus had seen in the arena that Esca’s wing was crippled?
But he had not seen Esca try to fly since then: and Esca’s wing did not look broken when folded.
“All right,” said Marcus. “I’ll clip it like this, then.” He released Esca’s wing, and Esca almost gasped in relief that Marcus was not going to try to force it to open fully.
But of course Marcus would be gentle of someone else’s scars.
(Of course nothing. The master who had misclipped Esca’s wings had been lame, even as Marcus was.)
The second wing went slowly. The shears tugged the feathers as they snipped, but the pain was so much less than Esca has expected that he felt grateful.
Grateful, because Marcus was crippling him gently.
But then Marcus smoothed his hand down Esca’s wing. Esca tensed at the shock of the touch, for since his leg had healed, Marcus avoided touching Esca as assiduously as if he thought Esca were cursed. Some Romans did, Esca knew: they did not grow wings, and thought any who did must be less than human.
And, growing no wings themselves, the Romans often did not seem to see Esca’s wings as a part of his body. Perhaps Marcus liked the feel of the feathers, and forgot that Esca could feel the touch?
Ah, the anger had burned away that shameful flicker of gratitude. That at least was good.
A gentle tug: Marcus pulled a feather loose. Preening me, Esca realized, “I can preen myself,” he snapped.
“Can you now?” said Marcus, a perfect mirror of Esca’s mild scorn when Marcus insisted he could walk on his bad leg much farther than both of them knew he could.
Of course Esca could not. Even if his wings were healthy, he could not preen it all himself: wingfolk were meant to be paired, like swans.
But that was a sacred thing: he could not say it to a Roman, anymore than he could say when you touch my wings I want to scream. “It isn’t fitting for you to do it,” he said instead.
But perhaps Marcus heard the other thoughts in Esca’s stony voice, because he stopped preening Esca. Instead he clipped the last feathers and stepped back, and asked, “How is that? Are they balanced?”
Esca flapped his wings, slowly. “Yes,” he said, and brought them forward, touching their clipped edges gently with his hand. Beautifully done. Do not feel grateful for this, either, he told his traitor self. “You could clip slaves’ wings. If you are still looking for work,” he added.
“Of course I am.” Marcus was rueful. He sat next to Esca, stretching out his leg: it ached when he stood still on it for so long. “I do not think there are enough winged slaves to make a living from it. And it would only pay once a year, after the molt.”
“You could make a deal more money pinioning,” Esca said, needling.
“I do not think I could cripple people for money,” Marcus said.
He sounded hurt, again, and it infuriated Esca. “What do you think you just did?” he snapped. “Not that I could fly, even with unclipped wings. But what do you think you just did?”
A long pause. Marcus did not look at him, but ran a finger down a carving on the edge of the bench. “But you can fly,” he said. “The first time I saw you, you flew into the arena.”
“That was not flying,” Esca said. “It was...” He searched for a comparison. “When I met you, you could walk, after a fashion, if it were not too far and had someone to lean on. And as you could walk, so I can fly.”
Marcus looked at him. “Rufrius Galarius might be able to reset your wing,” he said. “I will ask him.”
Esca went very still. He wanted to rage, or weep. He had thought he could not owe Marcus more than the life debt, but this, this. He had not wanted his life. But his wings –
They would be useless to him. He could hardly fly away, with such a debt weighing on him.
“No,” Esca said.
“What?” Marcus was stunned.
“I said no. Do not speak to him.” Esca faced Marcus, the two of them sitting side by side, and they stared at each other as they had not stared since the first day.
Marcus’s astonishment slipped into anger. “I didn’t realize you were a coward.”
“Yes!” said Marcus. “How can you say no to this, except from fear of pain?”
“It is not the pain!”
But of course Marcus thought it was so: Esca had just sat trembling under his hands for a simple wing-clipping. Sat still for his own crippling, because he was so afraid of pinioning. Coward. So he was: but not in this.
“It is not the pain,” Esca repeated, but he could not think how to explain. “I cannot – I cannot owe you this debt. It would be – ”
“There will be no debt,” Marcus protested.
“You will have to pay Rufrius Gal – ”
“And so? Uncle bought you, and I have not spent any of my back pay.”
“And someone would have to take care of –
“I would only be caring for you, as you cared for me, you would owe me no debt for – ”
“It is not the same!” Esca interrupted. “It would be a favor to me, as it was not to you: I cared for you because it was my duty, because I am – ” He had to swallow.
“My slave,” said Marcus. There was a bitter twist to his mouth. “And so I could order you to let Rufrius Galarius see to your wing.”
A dullness spread from Esca’s stomach through his body. “Why?”
“So he could heal you.” Marcus was angry again. “Do you want to remain crippled? Do you like being in pain? Does it not hurt to think you will never fly again?”
Esca gave a sort of laugh. “So Rufrius Galarius might heal my wing. So? I couldn’t fly with clipped wings.”
“I could leave them unclipped. And…” Marcus’s face wrinkled, thinking. “…and you could carry messages.”
“Oh? And you have so many friends you need messages carried to?” Esca asked bitterly.
“No,” said Marcus. “But others do. And I cannot rely forever on my uncle’s charity.”
Esca felt as if he had been hit in the stomach. “You would trust me? To fly away free in the air, and come back like a falcon to jess?”
Marcus didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”
And he would be right. The honor debt would keep Esca more surely than clipped wings. Damn him, damn him, damn him, he would own Esca’s soul and not just his body.
“You could earn money toward your freedom with it, at the same time,” Marcus said. So kind. So generous. So pleased with himself. “Keep your tips – part of the profits, even.”
“So I will speak to Rufrius Galarius,” Marcus said, standing. Esca shook his head, mute. “The pain will be worth it when your wings have healed.”
“It is not about the pain!” Esca shouted, and he was on his feet. “Listen to me, Marcus, I do not care about the pain: I was a warrior of the Brigantes, and took all my warrior markings and did not cry out the once. I do not want you to talk to Rufrius Galarius because I already owe you a life debt, and I cannot owe you for anything that – ” I actually want, he almost said, but it choked him on the way up. He swerved, and said instead. “Of course I want to fly again, but not if the only way is to bind myself to you!”
Marcus stared at him, eyes large, face bloodless. “Fine,” he said, and hurled the shears at the ground with such force that they bounced up again, and nearly sliced into Esca’s leg. “Stay a cripple, then.” And he stormed inside.
Esca remained in the courtyard, shaking. The wind blew up, swirling leaves and feather tips around his feet. He settled his wings around him. They were too short to keep out the cold.