Please see all notes, warnings, and disclaimers in Chapter 1.
Book Two: Chapter 5
The Centurion woke first, the earliest rays of the sun disturbing his heightened sense of sight. Instantaneously, he rolled off the couch, crouched, and made ready to kill what his combat skills said was an enemy.
He blinked thrice, then straightened slowly, running a hand over his cropped dark hair. It was no enemy he had sensed. It was his new slave, who had obviously gone to sleep at his post. The post was the head of the Centurion's couch, where the slave had been kneeling, coaxing the Centurion into sleep some time after midnight, using gentle hands and voice to quell the headache the ex-soldier had thought might kill him. Exhausted himself, Libra had fallen forward, his head pillowed on his elbow, next to the Centurion, while the soldier still slept.
Felix Elias Gregorius shook his head as he considered the younger man, enslaved to him for less than a day. Libra had been in pain, like the Centurion himself, who had forced a goblet of wine on him before the slave realized his owner's need and set himself the task of healing it. The ex-soldier had had no intention of the younger man remaining awake through the night; it was the Centurion himself who had caused his new slave the greater part of the aching in his back and who prescribed the beverage to alleviate the harm he had done.
Gregorius had instead expected Libra to return to his own couch, where indeed the slave had given his word that he would remain until his back healed from the slaver's whipping. The Centurion had aggravated the whip's damage by a much-regretted loss of temper and the use of his great strength on the smaller man. But the new slave was stubborn enough to do what he considered his duty, despite his owner's wishes and his own discomfort.
And the Centurion knew that, having given his word to return to his own bed, Libra would be more than remorseful at having broken it, even in the cause of aiding his new owner. What was he to do with such a slave? Felix Elias Gregorius asked his goddess.
As the Gregorius considered trying to get the younger man back into his own bed without waking him, the dawn answered his question. Libra woke, too, but slowly, coming reluctantly out of slumber, clearly finding himself lost in his new surroundings.
"Libra," the Centurion spoke briskly. "It's morning. You should be in your own bed still."
At that the slave came entirely to consciousness, and realized what he had done. Grasping the sides of the couch, rising on stiff legs and trying to spare his upper body, the brown-haired slave looked up at his tall owner. "I'm sorry," he said simply. There it was, the extreme repentance, darkening the sapphire eyes almost to midnight black.
"It doesn't matter."
"Yes, it does. I gave you..."
"Your word. I released you from it when I accepted your help last night."
"Don't tell me 'no'." The Centurion broke into a small smile. His slave was ever surprising and almost always entertaining - when he was not making his owner angry enough to kill him, that was. "I may not have said the words, but it was implied by my conduct."
The quondam tutor thought about that for a second. "So. You win this one." Then the eyes were sapphire again, laughing back at his owner. "You learned logic, too?"
"Of course. I am a well-educated Roman citizen. Not your quality, but good enough to take you on when you're still half-asleep, Magus."
And with a chuckle, the storm clouds passed. The Centurion thanked his goddess, Minerva, for the insight. He did not want a distressed new slave to deal with, and he was perfectly aware of how much the younger man prized the traditional virtues of honour, honesty and trustworthiness. Libra lived by them. Even though he was not free, and the virtues were traditionally not those of a slave. But it was those virtues that kept him there, where the Centurion had decided abruptly, the day before, that the slave belonged. Those, and the unique knowledge his new apothecary had, of which the Centurion found himself in great need.
"Your head?" the slave asked softly.
"Fine. Let me see your back."
The slave turned and the Centurion was startled. What had been severe tearing of the flesh on the slight body was now as closed and scabbed over as if it had been a week and not a night since the injuries were inflicted.
"Do you always heal this quickly, Magus?"
"I heal fast enough if I get the wounds cleaned and if I don't catch a fever. Fevers are my worst enemies. Why? Did you think it would take longer?"
The Centurion turned the younger man around to look at him. Even the bruises on his slave's face were fading quickly. More quickly than they should be, having been inflicted when the slave was backhanded with a whip, while manacled before sale.
The Centurion spoke in wonder. "I am a soldier. I have tended my men in the field, Libra. Men with lesser wounds than yours have taken a month to heal. By the look of it, your back should be fine within a couple of days. That is not usual. That is highly unusual."
"Oh. I didn't know. I wonder why? I've been beaten before, and it has not taken more than a few days ever, to heal, Centurion."
"Yes, but you were not only whipped. First you were flogged for running from the slave auction, then I dragged you uphill and forced the cuts to bleed again, and finally..."
"I understand." The gentle voice cut off the discussion of what had happened finally. Neither owner nor slave wanted to review the Centurion's loss of self-control and the brutality he had shown the younger man. "So this time was worse. But I'm healing at the same rate. That is odd, isn't it, Greg? I'll have to think about it. I cannot tell you why it's so. I didn't even know it was that bad, to be honest."
"You didn't?" The Centurion was incredulous.
"No." The sapphire eyes were untroubled; the slave was telling the truth. "It hurt. When I begged you to let me go at the end, it hurt badly enough that I thought I might pass out of consciousness. The cleansing stung, and I was aching last night, and still am this morning, but it is not so terribly different from any other beating I have taken. And no one else was troubled by my injuries like you. Is it you, do you think? Not me, but you? Are you seeing me differently?"
The answer was double-edged. The Centurion's sight had been enhanced by the gods to the purity of the eagle's eye. He might have seen worse traces of injuries in his slave because it was the first time he had looked at such damage with that heightened ability. But the Centurion realized that his immediate response, the response of his heart, was that he did see the new slave differently from the way he saw others. There had been a linking between them forged by their goddesses, Minerva and Bona Fortuna. The Centurion considered himself the new slave's protector, not merely his owner. He had been near to tears of remorse as he cleansed his slave's back after having hurt him so badly.
"Let's ask Capus," the ex-soldier suggested at last. "He saw you last night, didn't he?"
Now the dark blue eyes were disturbed. "He did. Let's ask him." The gaze dropped, but not before the Centurion had seen unrest in them.
Capus must have reacted badly, to make Libra upset at the idea of him seeing his back again. Was it because the cuts are ugly, or because it was I who inflicted them? Felix Elias Gregorius asked himself. Either way, they needed to know the answer to the slave's question.
"I want you back in your bed, Libra," the Centurion said quietly.
The slave opened his mouth to retort, but his owner put up a commanding hand. "Your back may be healing well, but you got too little sleep last night. My fault, but you have to pay for it. I'm sorry."
Libra stared at the serene, ice-blue eyes of his owner and sighed. What was a slave to do with an owner who apologized for taking care of the slave? He shook his head, asking his goddess if perhaps she had not been too kind to him, and walked stiffly to his new bedroom, previously the second visiting chamber off the Centurion's own bedchamber. He nestled face-down into the cushions on his couch with a small grunt of relief.
"You are going to Roma this morning?" he asked over his shoulder to his owner, who had followed him in and was fussing about with the bed linens, leaving his back free from the material.
"Yes. I won't forget your earrings. Capus can clip them off for you when he brings you breakfast."
"Thank you, Greg."
The Centurion came round the front of the couch and faced his slave directly. "That should do."
"Just how long am I supposed to keep to my bed now?"
"Lunch, I think."
"Whatever comes up. Look at the librarium. Anything in the Metamorphoses?"
Libra had been doing research, such as it was, into why the Centurion was experiencing the changes in his senses. "Philomela, Procne, Tereus, et cetera. Nothing you don't know, oh well-educated citizen of Roma. Nothing I didn't know. Only that the gods are always behind the changes. Always."
"Well, we had gathered that, hadn't we?"
"Yes, Greg, we had. Maybe they're healing me quickly, too, so that I can be of more help to you. I should offer something more to Bona Fortuna, but I haven't anything except the earrings right now." Libra grimaced briefly; he didn't like asking his goddess to wait for his thanks. "Well, if I am to be a better help to you, I think I will look over the librarium after lunch."
The Centurion knew he ought to offer something more to Minerva, too, if his slave was right about the healing. The soldier was as grateful for it as the slave. He only had to choose what to give. "Oh, did Capus tell you he would like you to tutor his son, Darius? He's fourteen."
"No, he didn't!" Libra was clearly delighted at the thought.
The Centurion smiled to himself as he dressed for riding. The newly caught interest of the born teacher would keep his slave occupied nicely, if he were late in returning. Odd, the Centurion noted to himself, why am I considering returning late today? He recollected himself and suggested, "Oh, and take a look at the kitchens, also."
"Can I cook?"
"If Capus is agreeable. What would you make?"
"Nothing peculiar. But if I can get my herbs and spices, perhaps I can make you a more interesting lunch or supper today."
"If they are not here yet, they soon should be. Petrus said he would send them, along with the rest of your belongings. From what he said yesterday, I gather your student learned much of his manners and dignity from you. You did an excellent job, Magus."
The slave smiled warmly. "My thanks, Greg, but Petrus was a fine boy always. If he said he will send my herbs and spices, but couldn't find them, I would lay you odds - if I had any money - that he would go out and replace them himself. I hope that's not what he's doing, though, of course. You know, I don't mean to complain, but you keep a very sparse table, Centurion."
"I do? I guess I'm used to army fare. Not very interesting, but filling."
"You're a very wealthy man, Centurion. You can afford better than army fare if you want it." The voice was intriguing: try my fine wares.
The Centurion weighed the situation, and decided to pick his battles elsewhere. "No nightingale's tongues. Do you understand me, Libra?" he demanded with false foreboding.
"Of course. No nightingale's tongues. Speaking of nightingales and Philomela and Procne, has your singing voice improved?" Equally false innocence sparked every word. The slave was having fun.
"What singing voice?" the Centurion asked, steel in his notes. He was having fun, too.
"Please, Centurion, I'm asking a serious question!" The slave was imperious. "I'm trying to determine if anything other than your direct senses is also changing."
"I haven't got a singing voice, Libra."
"'Magus'," the slave commanded. "When I am asking important research questions, you will address me as 'Magus'. Do you understand me, Felix Elias Gregorius?"
His words turned against him! The Centurion was reduced to begging. "Just go to sleep and get some rest. Please."
Then the outrageous. "Sing me a lullaby. I know you can do it. You really want to, you just wanted to be asked."
"That's it! That's the one step too far, Libra," the Centurion said through gritted teeth, brows lowered. "Now I am going to kill you. With my bare hands." He flexed his fingers menacingly. "And bury your body under the marble in the front hall. And walk over you for the next sixty years of my life."
"You're already doing a fine job of walking all over me, Centurion," his slave said drily. "Don't you have a date with Minerva to keep?"
Yes, he did, though he warned his slave of retribution to come; and Capus had to come up and agree with the Gregorius that the slave's healing rate was abnormally fast, and clip the blue cloisonne earrings from Libra's lobe as a sacrifice to Bona Fortuna in gratitude for the Centurion's purchase, and feed the slave, and learn not to let him up until lunch but to give him the run of the place thereafter. Then the Centurion left, Libra surprised himself by napping until noon, and all Hades broke loose thereafter.
It started with the arrival of a wagon. The cart had perhaps eleven trunks piled high upon it, with a variety of peculiarly shaped articles stuffed in at the sides.
"What in the name of the entire pantheon is that?" Capus roared.
"My things! Petrus sent my things, Capus; he said he would. Greg told you, didn't he?" The new slave was bouncing with pleasure.
Capus looked as if he were about to be stricken by a thunderbolt. "Herbs and spices were what he said, Libra. Not an entire household's worth of, of, whatever that is." The giant man gesticulated madly as they approached the cart with varying degrees of celerity, proportionate to their interest therein.
"My belongings. Petrus said he'd send everything, and it looks as if he has. Greg knows, Capus. Really, he does. He told me, as it happens." The eager answer was flung back with delight.
"Just where do you expect to put all that?" The question was definitely too soft.
The slightly built slave stopped dancing around the wagon and turned to the majord'omo. "I don't know yet. We'll find space. I don't know where anything is packed on the cart, so I can't just take out my apothecary supplies, or anything. It will all have to be unpacked. The villa is huge. I don't understand why this is a problem."
"This is not your villa! This is the Gregorius' villa! I am the majord'omo of the Gregorius' villa! That is my problem! No, you are my problem!" Capus flung an accusatory index finger out, at the new slave.
The slave surveyed the wrath of the gods before him and smoothly suggested, "You know, Capus, if you just want to store the things until Greg returns, we could put them in Carolina's suite for the time being. It's empty, and these won't fill even one of her old rooms."
"I don't want to store any of it. I want it out of this yard, now!" The Centurion's right-hand man could have been heard from downtown Roma. Libra idly wondered if Greg were listening.
Then with all seriousness, the new slave said, "But Capus, I am not sure Greg would want that, all my things gone. He told me all day yesterday 'Custodio, custodio, custodio.' 'I keep what is mine.' And kept saying that I was his. I belong to him. Everything I have is his. Even to my speech, he said. So I expect he meant my belongings, too, don't you?"
Good and gracious spirits, but the Centurion was being possessive of this young man. The majord'omo still had no idea why the new slave had come to mean as much to his owner as all this. But the ring of truth was there. Felix Elias Gregorius was obsessed with the new slave; the 'Custodio' maxim was the Gregorius' watchword.
"In Carolina's suite," Capus surrendered at long last. He turned to leave, but the new slave stopped him, excited again.
"Capus? Would Darius like this, do you think? For his wall, perhaps, if not to train with? Does he already have one?"
"What?" with annoyance. "What!" with astonishment. Then Capus found his tongue again. "Do you know what this is?" with passion.
Libra had fetched from the stack on the wagon a spear tasseled with feathers. "Of course I do. It's an assegai," the slave said mildly.
"Where did you get an assegai?" Capus asked, fingers itching to get hold of the weapon.
"In Africa, Capus. That's where they come from. You know this, right?" The new slave wore puzzlement at Capus' response. "Anyway, it's a good spear, good balance and heft. For me, that is. If Darius grows as large as you are, he won't be able to use it for long. But he's a teenager, isn't he? Greg said he would be my student. I thought he might like the assegai. I can teach him to throw it, if you haven't any spearmen on staff."
"You're not a spearman," Capus sputtered with indignation, "nor any kind of soldier! Why do you to have an assegai?"
"Because it was made for me, and given to me, by a friend in Africa, and I like it, and I use it for target practice. I don't fight, but I like sports, and I'm long-sighted, so I'm fairly accurate with thrown weapons, the bow, shot too. I have a good collection of weapons and sports equipment as well, from all around the world. Here, see."
The slightly built slave hefted the spear to his shoulder and looked around. "Do you think Greg would mind if I split that aspen?" He pointed to a sapling a good five hundred metres away.
Capus looked at Libra with utter disbelief. "No, I think the Centurion can spare one aspen sapling." In your drug-induced haze, little man, his eyes said.
But Libra just grinned with enthusiasm. "Good. I wouldn't want to kill a good tree, or get this badly stuck in one. They're a lot of work to get out of hard wood, you know."
Then the new slave lifted the assegai, sighted the tree, bounced to loosen up his muscles, took three running paces, and threw the spear straight through the sapling. Splitting it as promised.
Capus could not believe his eyes. "That did not happen. I did not see that. You can't do it again."
Libra's blue eyes took on a new light. "I can't? A challenge! What do you want to bet?"
"You can't," Capus declaimed. "And you haven't any money; everything that is yours belongs to Greg." He crossed his arms with that salvo.
"I have an assegai," wheedled the smaller man. "Do you think he would mind our betting it between ourselves? The only two men on Terra he allows to call him by his shortname? The Centurion? The warrior? Do you think he would mind a bet or a contest, Capus? Over the use of a weapon?"
Stung, Capus rose to the bait. "Ten sesterces."
"Not against the assegai. It's one of a kind and a gift to me. Not enough. One hundred sesterces."
Capus stared at the new slave with a darkening brow. "Fifty."
"Seventy-five, and you can pick the target, within five hundred metres or so."
"Done!" The concession that he be allowed to pick the target had swung the deal. Capus glanced around the villa's lush gardens and woodlands. "That aspen, there," he pointed the way.
He had played fair. It was another sapling of much the same girth as the first, and the same distance off.
Libra split it just as handily. "You owe me seventy-five sesterces."
"I did not see that. It did not happen." Capus was mouthing a chant to himself.
"Yes, it did," said the insistent slave. "It happened twice. You may never get around to liking me, Capus," he said with a touch of wistfulness, "but you have to admit, I am a pretty good shot with a spear."
"I owe you seventy-five sesterces," Capus admitted.
"Good! Here!" And Libra handed over the assegai.
Capus peered at it blankly. "Why are you giving it to me? You won the bet."
"I told you," the new slave answered patiently. "It's for Darius. If he wants it. I don't think Greg would mind that, either, do you? It's not as if it were going off the Gregorius' estate. And it's just a spear; you can probably buy spears new in the marketplace, cheap, if you don't want to make your own. Greg probably does have his made for him, doesn't he?" the slave was musing. "Assuming he's a spearman. This is too small for anyone larger than me anyway. It's only fit for Darius, then, and Greg can't want it... unless he has children of his own, but that's years off, of course. You know," he flitted to another topic, "you should just have taken it from me in the first place. It would have saved you seventy-five sesterces. But thank you. I needed another offering for my goddess, and now I have one. I know Greg won't mind that either. Thank you, Bona Fortuna."
The breathless slave had stolen Capus' breath away.
Then Libra started taking inventory of his cartload of things, muttering, "I really should send something to Petrus for a remembrance. I'll ask Greg first. It's going off the estate. Maybe the morning stars. No, Greg will probably want them for himself; he's a soldier, they're a good new weapon to learn. The throwing daggers from Sicilia? They might do..."
Capus walked off in shock. Who and what was this creature, which had lit down in Greg's (and his) orderly, well-managed estate, and turned it into chaos? He wasn't sure he would survive finding out. But the assegai was nice, however he had gotten it, and Darius would like it very much. He used it as a staff, chuckling when he reached the steps. "Heh-heh-heh."
TBC: Chapter 6 is not yet avaiable...
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