Please see all notes, warnings, and disclaimers in Chapter 1.


The Centurion
Book One: Chapter 4
by
Ismaro

ligela@sympatico.ca

 

The slave was lying on his stomach, breathing hard, as the Centurion carefully wiped down the bloodied back with heavy spirits. His feet had already been attended to, with soap and wine and salve, but those cuts and bruises were insignificant in all ways to what the slave owner was treating then. Every now and again, a tremor would inform the soldier that his slave had felt the sting particularly deeply, and he knew that the young man's head was buried in his arms so that the tears would not show. He had been brutalized twice that day, once at the Centurion's own hands. The Centurion himself was glad the slave's eyes had been turned away; Libra might have seen the waters in the Centurion's own; hurting this slave was something the slave owner might never quite forgive himself for.

"There, done." The soldierly tones were brisk, but the hands that drew up the sides of the slave's tunica—the second garment ruined with blood that day—were gentle, almost tender.

Clear sapphire eyes turned to look at their owner. The slave knew the guilt his owner felt for causing him pain, reopening the wounds on his back from the morning's flogging at the slave auction. The first time was accidental, but later, the Centurion had deliberately torn open the wounds on the slave's back, manhandling him mercilessly.

The slave also knew it was not the fault of either of them that his owner had so lost control of his temper. He wanted his owner to understand that, too. Having the ex-soldier cleanse his wounds was better than taking a sickness from the air and having his owner watch him suffer that, too. "Thank you, Centurion. I have a tendency to fever. I would not have asked you..."

"I know," the big man cut in quietly. "And I know you were saving me embarrassment by asking that I do this." Light blue eyes met deeper ones calmly. "You were keeping the other staff >from knowing how badly I lost control of myself. Thank you, Libra."

The younger man was speechless. Slave owners did not thank their slaves for their services. Nor for tact. Libra had been owned by this man for fewer than six horae. Who was this Felix Elias Gregorius, and why had their personal goddesses, Minerva and Bona Fortuna, bound them together despite their own wishes?

The Centurion pulled together the draperies surrounding the new bedroom off his own, leaving the young man alone. Libra now had the second visiting lounge to himself, separated >from his owner's quarters by the curtains. It was a very large space indeed, especially for a slave, but it was intended to become both bedroom and apothecary's shop as long as the Centurion needed the young man's special medical knowledge.

"I think you might just want to stay in bed until tomorrow, Libra," came a mild suggestion through the draperies.

"Is that an order, Centurion?" The gemstone eyes had turned mutinous, the tone of his voice also. Lying bed throughout a summer evening in Roma, not rising until morning, was not a particularly interesting pastime to the twenty-four-year old. Libra started to life himself on his elbows and fell flat with a gasp, hit with pain and dizziness.

"No, it was a premonition, Magus," the Gregorius smiled slightly, from the other side of the fabric barrier, as he heard the minor collapse. "I can see what your back looks like. You can't. You've lost more blood than you realize. Trust me. You are better off here than trying to help in the kitchen."

"Well, just so you know, I didn't cook your dinner tonight. The other cook did that."

The tones were so sarcastic that the former soldier nearly laughed out loud. Needing a new cook was the excuse he had used to buy this particular slave. What he had gotten for a pittance was a treasure, although it was not necessarily good slave management to let the slave know that.

"What if I have Capus bring up a tray with your dinner... and a few scrolls to read?" The Centurion had to stifle a chuckle when he heard himself bargaining with his own slave for the slave's enjoyment. Then he realized that he hardly even knew how to laugh any longer. When had he laughed last? When had he wanted to laugh last? Other then a moment before or so? He could not remember.

"Capus! We have to tell him, Centurion." The slave ignored the bribe and went straight to the heart of the matter. The slave and his owner shared a secret larger than a momentary lapse of control on the big man's part. It was necessary to bring the Centurion's best friend and major-domo into the knowledge the two alone kept.

The Centurion swept back the drapes. "Not today. Not while you're in need of rest, which may mean not tomorrow. But when we can both tell him together, we will."

"'Not tomorrow'?" echoed an outraged squawk. "Does that mean you're gong to force me to keep to these quarters not only this evening, but all day tomorrow as well?" The slave was not amused at all.

"Did I tell you we have a librarium?" The Centurion turned away so that the slave might not see the mirth in his eyes.

"No, though I think you might have done so at least three horae ago."

The Centurion looked at his slave's face, expecting annoyance, and surprised a smile in the dark blue eyes instead. "What was happening three horae ago, Libra? Do you remember? I don't."

"Very likely, someone was either trying to thrash me or buy me. Probably you. What a confusing day this has been." A heartfelt sigh issued on the breeze.

"I entirely agree," the Centurion said with a sigh of his own. "Now, what about some reading matter?"

"I thought looking over Ovid might be a place to start. I feel relatively certain you haven't anything actually labelled 'Watchmen and their Watchers' in the librarium, have you?"

"I've never had it catalogued. I have no idea what's in there," the Centurion said with false innocence.

No one ever catalogued the librarium? The horrified slave started to rise again, only to find his owner's hands resting on the sides of his shoulders, holding him safely down without hurt. The slave caught the glint in his owner's eyes and decided to have a little fun of his own. "Oh, so now you're going to hamstring me for trying to run, I suppose? Or will manacles do for tonight?" He pursed his lips and batted his lashes. "Have you perhaps decided you do want a bed partner with long brown curls and blue eyes, after all?"

This time the Centurion actually laughed out loud.

The change that wrought in his slave was a wonderful thing, though the owner did not see it. Libra felt as if he had finally found some measure of peace of his own as he watched his owner's mood lighten. The young man had been saved from those fates just that morning by his owner, and his comments were thrown out purely for their entertainment value. He had begun to believe that nothing he ever said or did again would allow his owner to relax enough to laugh, and the man needed to laugh badly. Joy had been missing from his life for much too long, however long it had been; only two minutes' acquaintance had convinced the slave of that. The last six horae had proved it beyond all doubt.

"I will take your word of honour, Libra." Gregorius ignored the startled gasp Libra gave, choosing to elaborate on his vow's terms. "Not to get up except for emergencies or to use the water room. You can have Ovid's Metamorphoses and as many candles as you like."

"Tonight only. Tomorrow, we'll see." Libra was noncommittal from sheer disbelief.

"Well then."

And the Centurion held out his arm for the slave to grasp, as if a deal had been made between equals.

The slave clasped the muscular forearm firmly, marvelling at the moment: slave owners do not make pacts with new slaves. Nor take their new slaves' word of honour for anything. It felt almost like freedom. The wish of his heart, apparently stopped cold by the dictates of his goddess, Bona Fortuna. Well, he might have been crippled if it had not been for this man, and sold for his good looks to a gladiator, and now he was an apothecary to a man who called him 'Magus' and took his word of honour when it was given. Bona fortuna, indeed. Thank you, goddess. Even if I would have liked my freedom for real, the young man thought. Then, "Centurion?"

"Yes?"

"Is anyone going into Roma tomorrow?"

"I will be."

"Is there anyone on staff with a small metal file or a pair of pliers?"

"Of course."

"Would it be possible for him to cut my earrings off?" the slave asked hopefully. "The gold was welded together so that I wouldn't lose them. Then could you deliver them to my goddess' temple?" The slave was almost begging. "I promised them to her. For your catching me before the slaver could. You remember?"

"Yes, I remember." The Centurion smiled down. "I am going to Roma to make my donation to Minerva for buying you. You remember?" he echoed.

"Surely, though I still don't see what kind of benefit you get out of me. Now I'm laid up in bed and no use to you at all!" The slave's hands flew out to the sides of his couch, almost catching his owner in the midriff.

The Centurion moved slightly to avoid an unintended smack, and gazed at the slave, such a forgiving soul. He pondered and said, "Well you've just done half a dozen things that I find very useful."

The slave was truly mystified. "What?"

The Centurion counted on his fingers. "You forgave me for hurting you. I did not have to ask and I did not have to thank you. You just did it. And a part of me healed within." He closed over a finger.

The sapphire eyes watching him were enormous.

"Two, you made me laugh when I had no idea I would ever laugh again. And something else within me healed."

The slave was holding his breath.

"Third, you gave me your word of honour to stay in bed for the night, and reminded me that slaves can be men of principle as much as aristocrats can be traitorous. That was a lesson I once knew, but I had entirely forgotten it by the time I was done with battle."

The slave nearly choked. There is salt in my throat, he thought absent-mindedly.

"Fourth, you intend to spend the night trying to find something help us both understand what is happening to me, when you don't want to do any such thing, nor did you make me order you to do so.

"Furthermore, if you didn't just promise yourself to catalogue my librarium for the sheer pleasure of it, I will be the most surprised man in Roman, and the librarium does need cataloguing. I am glad of the intent." The first hand was done.

The Centurion ended with the opposite index finger. "Last, but not least, you have proven to me that you are thankful to your goddess for my being a part of your life. I am grateful to mine for you. We think alike on that, Libra. I know you want your freedom from slavery as much as I want to be free from this change in my senses. Yet while you are my slave, you are grateful for my ownership, and while I am Minerva's slave, I am grateful for you and your vow to watch my back while I become her Watchman. Neither of us has the innermost wish of our hearts, but we have made commitments to each other because—"

"We each owe something to the other," the slave interrupted. "And we each trust each other to fulfill those commitments." He was weeping outright by then. "Centurion—" He was cut off in turn.

"I asked you to call me Greg." It was the smallname he allowed only Capus and, now, Libra to use, and the reminder of that grant of permission to his slave was made as a quiet request.

"Greg," the slave whispered back, "you almost make me feel free tonight. When you accept my word of honour, when you thank me, when you..." But the young man could not continue for the sobbing.

"Libra, I told Capus much earlier today that whatever you are, you are not a slave, no matter what the legalities. I did not let the Vidalos family buy you back because I keep my own. You lost a good friend in your student Petrus Magnus Vidalos, someone like a younger brother to you. You let him go and take your promised freedom with him, so that you could stand by me as my healer. We are bound together by something far greater than legalities of slave ownership. Something inside us, something in our selves." The Centurion stopped, having grasped at all the straws he could. "Do you not feel it too?" he asked hopefully.

"Of course!" Libra was brought back to near calm by the Centurion's appeal to his intellect.

"Well, then. I have never called a slave 'friend' before. But that is what you are to me. You are my friend. I have only two. Capus, my right-hand man on the battlefield, who watched my back when I fought for Julius. And you, who will watch my back as their goddesses bring to life their plans for us. I am a soldier, combat trained, more deadly than you can imagine, and, as you keep reminding me, a war hero. You are a gentle man, younger, smaller than most, too good-looking for your own good. Being owned by a strong man with much prestige may be your best protection, Libra, far better than being free, but young Petrus is not the man to own you."

Libra's brow furrowed as he puzzled over his owner's point, sight trained unseeing on his folded hands. He had been to virtually all the known lands of Terra without incident. Why would the Centurion think him in need of protection?

But the Gregorius was bidding for the tutor's attention again, this time with a light touch on the slave's wrist. The next words were to be the Centurion's response to his slave's vows, too important to both to be missed by the younger man. The owner waited until the tutor looked up again and locked gazes with him. "I promise to protect you as best I know how from any harm that might befall you. 'Custodio.' I keep my own. You are my own in mundane ways that matter to Roma, whatever our goddesses think of her. But you are entirely your own in your spirit, and in your relationship to Bona Fortuna. Your goddess seems to play a little rough with you at times, though. If I can, I will help you through any trouble you are in. Will you have me for a friend, too, on these terms?"

The slave looked wordlessly at his owner, and held out his own arm. The Centurion clasped it, then used his free hand to brush away the new, wild tears from the younger man's face. He stroked back the rebellious brown curls and leaned down to whisper in his slave's ear, "Thank you, Libra," then held the shaking body at head and forearm, never letting go until his newfound friend's passion was spent and the Centurion released to go about his business. That morning, neither man thought any such pledge between a slave and his owner could ever be possible. Both were proven wrong in one short day.

But it was not what the goddesses had in mind.

By the time Capus arrived with the dinner tray (well stocked with wine for the rebuilding of the slave's blood supply, but otherwise laden with boring food), he found the new slave dead asleep. The huge black man grunted and set the tray down on a table by the bed in case Libra woke again, then glanced around the slave's facilities. It was so very generous that it nearly dwarfed Capus' own pair of rooms.

The major-domo did not know what to make of the whole thing. He had bought a cook the day before, only to have this newcomer foisted on the domestic staff without any real place that he could see. The Centurion, who was not given to boys, as Capus well knew, had installed the attractive young man in the master's bedchambers. The slave, who was unlike any slave Capus had ever known before, stubborn, disobedient, and very near insolence at times, having no idea of his true place in the scheme of things, had calmly told Capus to keep his voice down for the sake of the Centurion's headache. That the black man had not known of the severity of his friend's headache bothered him; that he had had to learn it from a new and unwanted slave, rankled.

But Felix Elias Gregorius would do as he pleased, and it pleased him to keep this troublesome young man for some reason. Capus sighed. There was no doubt that the two, as opposite as Nyx and Hespera, had somehow discovered a connection that was already brightening his jaded, ex-military friend, since the hardships of war had hardened his soul. Greg had smiled more often in that one day than in all the years since the fighting was over. It was both a good sign to Capus, and a trifle disappointing that he himself had not been able to win his battle-mate's spirit back to joy.

Now, if Capus could only do something to bring this slave into line, to teach him etiquette for a brand new slave in the Gregorius household, perhaps the future would be a happier one for all. The huge major-domo took a very good look at the slave's back, lit by the late Roman sunset. Whatever lesson Greg had been teaching the young man when he had marched him out into the olive grove for the sake of privacy, had been well taught. Libra, the slave, could not forget this soon. There would be scarring to remind him.

Greg had not told Capus why he had punished the slave so severely, merely promising an explanation later when Libra was present. The major-domo suspected it was to be another lesson for the slave; he thought the concept of whip rights would be explained to the un-housebroken young pup, and that a discussion of matters of discipline in general would ensue. Capus knew the slave's prior owner had actually tried to buy him back, claiming the sale was a mistake; Libra seemed to have been overindulged and papered by his old owners in a way Felix Elias Gregorius simply would not tolerate, in his best friend's opinion. The Centurion was used to unquestioning obedience on the field; this slave argued about everything. Why the two seemed to like each other was beyond Capus.

The Centurion did not use physical punishment often on his slaves, and never before by his own hand, but once he embarked on a strategy, he would keep it up until it worked. The young slave would have to learn fast whatever it was the Centurion was teaching him, or suffer again and again that kind of pain. Capus sighed. He had his own teenaged son to raise, and would never have allowed Darius to invoke anything like the wrath Libra must have brought on in the Centurion for him to turn to such brutal measures as correction for misbehaviour. Capus wondered how he could help the new slave avoid Greg's ire before incurring such a savaging again.

He was still musing when the new slave awakened, perhaps from the sighing, or perhaps from the smell of food.

"Capus?" a sleepy voice asked.

"Yes," the free man confirmed. "Here is dinner, and I have some scrolls for you, too. Ovid."

"Thank you. Will you thank the Centurion for me, also, please?"

"Of course." So at least this new slave had some concept of manners, the major-domo noted. "He wants you to drink the wine especially," he commented, as if passing on the orders of a superior officer to a spear bearer.

"But I'm not hungry, and I don't want to pay Dionysus' debt come dawn."

Being in pain clearly did nothing for Libra's appetite, or his tractability. Capus scowled at having to use reason, but tried. "Just one goblet then. You need to replace the blood you've lost." A moment's hesitation, and then an unrestrainable outburst followed. "By the gods, Libra, you must have pushed Gregorius near insanity to have deserved this!"

The gentian eyes snapped with indignation. "I didn't... No, I can't tell you," he muttered in lower tones. "It's not my story to tell, and Greg will have to "

"GREG?" Capus roared at the new slave. He clenched his fists to keep from striking the slave himself. "You call the Centurion, the Gregorius, by his shortname, slave? No wonder he took the hide from your back!" The man's hands flexed as he tried to master the degree of insult he felt on his friend's behalf.

But the next line struck him motionless.

"He asked me to, Capus. He truly did, twice." The deep, gentle voice sounded tired. "I know it doesn't sound likely, but he all but ordered me to call him 'Greg'."

Capus ogled the slave, who had reached out to take a cup of wine in a trembling hand. A wave of sympathy washed away the anger and left utter incomprehension behind. "He nearly ordered you to use his shortname," he repeated. "Why?" He reached out to steady the goblet. "What is the bond between you? I've never known him to choose a man for his, uh." He broke off, looking for the very inapplicable applicable word.

"Catamite? Plaything? Pleasure slave?" The blue eyes were almost amused behind the fatigue. "No, we aren't lovers. I, too, love women. I don't know how you manage in this all-male household without female companionship, Capus, really I don't."

"We go into town, son, and spend the nights there." The words were dry and Capus never noticed the paternal term he used.

The slave gave a small laugh, and the major-domo felt his lips lift a trifle too.

But Capus was determined to find answers to his questions, and so he kept on. "You don't like the pain, do you?" he queried, mystified.

"Gods, no!" The answer was quick, fervent and utterly convincing. "Neither does the Centurion like causing pain. You must know that, Capus!"

Of course he did, but being reminded of how well the new slave knew his own best friend, almost better than he did himself, was close to making Capus frantic.

"Then what is it?" he thundered back. "Why two so different people? He likes you. You like him. You want to be free, but his buying you prevents you gaining your freedom. He punishes you like, like this,"  again, he could not find a word for the barbarity of the whipping he knew to be beneath the Centurion  "for whatever cause you gave him, and yet still you like him and are as argumentative and annoying and insolent as ever!" The major-domo turned a circle in disgust.

"Argumentative? Annoying? And insolent?" Libra was astonished in his own turn. "I actually try not to be those things. I'm sorry if I have offended you, Capus. It wasn't intentional. But, honestly, I cannot tell you anything more until Greg permits it. That should be tomorrow, after he has been to Roma, but he said it would have to wait until I am strong enough for it, so it may be a day or two." He stifled a yawn, worn to the bone. "We will tell you together, though, you can be sure of it. We need you to know as much as you want to know, Capus. He needs you to know."

The black man stood stock still, trying to put the dribs and drabs of information he had to make some kind of sense. Then he threw out in a dreadful whisper, "Is it about the headaches?"

Sapphire eyes stared closely at the frightened concern in the warm brown ones, and closed in thought. The slave drank a little wine before answering. "It is about the headaches. He is not going to die, and he is not going mad. But he has a serious problem. All of that you already know, except my assurances about his health. I have not lied to you, but there is much more to this than I can tell you, maybe more than Greg and I know together, either. But he is safer than in warfare, and you both survived that. Moreover, he is safer today than he was yesterday." The slave's head nodded decisively.

"Safer because he bought you? You make him safe?" The soldier could not quite credit that the slightly made young man could make his big, muscular friend any safer than he already was in the precincts of his own estate.

'I think Greg should tell you, Capus. I may have said more than ought already, and actually earned myself a beating this time. Please don't press me for more." The blue eyes were pleading, then turned very gentle. "But don't worry about him, he really is going to be all right."

"Was it the headaches that made him do this to you?" Capus guessed at last.

The young slave was silent.

"It was, then," the major-domo concluded. "So you stay as apothecary, young as you are, wishing to find your willow bark to fight his pain. Even though you want to be free. Even though he has hurt you so badly, and you don't like pain."

The slave stretched out his hand to his questioner's shoulder, flinching a bit as he did. "I don't like anyone's pain, Capus. Including yours. It is not so bleak. Drink a little wine yourself, and sleep a good night's rest. Greg will need you to listen as his friend, with an open mind and heart, to what we tell you tomorrow. But, if you follow any gods or goddesses of your own, perhaps you would say a prayer for us?"

The slave's earnestness nearly convinced the agnostic Capus to reconsider whether he should believe in gods or goddesses. He made the only response he could. "Well, then, read your scrolls, and sleep when you can, Libra. If I must wait until you are strong enough for the two of you to tell me, I want you well-rested tonight." He gave an encouraging pat to the hand on his arm.

"Good night, Capus." The slave picked up a scroll, ignoring the yawn that would not be contained.

The large black man left, and the new slave was alone. Libra opened the scroll case and began to read about men changing into animals.

When the Centurion finally came up to his bedchamber, he parted the curtains and found his new slave engrossed in the scrolls. It was close to midnight, and the quondam soldier was not pleased to see his new friend awake and at work.

"Still reading?" Perhaps I should take the stories away from you."

The response was snappish and impatient and loud in complaint. "You said I could have all the candles I wanted. I slept earlier. I cannot sleep now."

The Centurion recognized the irritation in the usually sweet voice for what it truly meant. "You're hurting too much to sleep, aren't you?" He got no reply. Libra's back must hurt like greekfire.

Gregorius swung back the draperies and intercepted the cross look his slave speared back. Then he picked up the bottle of wine on the tray, refilled the cup and handed it to the younger man. "Drink it." It was a command.

The slave glared at him, but had no energy left in him for long debate. He took the goblet, drank the wine in a gulp, and shoved the cup somewhere in his owner's direction. "There. Satisfied? Only if I am the one with the headache tomorrow, Centurion, it will be your fault."

The Centurion gave a tight grin at that, and snatched at the cup, dropping it on the tray before leaving his slave to his reading. Then he closed the curtaining and sought his own couch.

Perhaps half a hora later, Gregorius asked, "Do you intend to read all night, Libra?"

"If I have to," was the weary answer. "Actually, I need to read for months, if I expect to find what we need."

"Try to get some sleep anyway." The Centurion said nothing more.

It took about five secunda for the slave to grasp the situation. He immediately rolled up the scroll, dropped it, blew out the candle, and rose unsteadily from his bed, groping at the drapery. A stray shaft of moonlight lit his way to close the shutters in his owner's chamber, and he crossed back to the other man's side. "I'm sorry, Greg. I forgot my candle must bother you. Do you have the headache now?"

Gregorius groaned in exhaustion. "Yes. It feels as if I were going to die from it, Magus."

"Well, then," the slave knelt at his owner's head, reached out with long fingers and started to massage the pain the Centurion was suffering from his temples, "listen to me and I will tell you more of how the healers of the East control their pain."

The Centurion listened to the soft voice and the softer heartbeat within his new slave's chest, and the pain began to evaporate. Eventually, the man slept and the slave, who had given his word to stay in his own bed all night, kept kneeling at his place before the couch, watching the Watchman. But his fatigue and the wine caught up with him, too, and at last the young slave dropped forward onto the pillow at the top of the couch, his face turned to the side of the Centurion's, his hair spilling over his elbow.

Both men slept, when each had thought to stay awake all night in pain.

Continue on to Chapter 5


E-Mail Ismaro at ligela@sympatico.ca
Return to Major Crime's Most Wanted


Problems with the page? Contact the Pagemaster.
Page last updated 8/15/03.