Title: To the glory of Nova Roma
Genre: Angst, drama, AU
Summary: Marcus had taken his death from him; in return he would give him his life.
Marcus has lost his military career and his interest in life; an errand for his uncle brings complications when he meets a slave accused of killing his master
Warnings: References to past non-con
A/N: This fic is set in an alternate universe Roman Empire that follows the convention of Ancient Rome in relation to slavery and, hence, views expressed by characters may not necessarily be very nice and are certainly not mine.
It was already dark when the messenger came to the house of Marcus Flavius Aquila, the gas flares lighting up the distant horizon like the explosion of a thousand suns and the street outside crowded with people making the most of the hours of darkness to be about their business. It was only an hour after dusk and the air had not cooled much but the slight dip in temperature was still a relief after the searing heat of the day and Marcus had just flung open the window shutters when the messenger arrived.
Marcus read the message he had been brought, frowning at the words written in small, neat and very familiar script. The messenger waited silently, patiently, his face perfectly expressionless. If he was surprised by the meanness and disrepair of Marcus's small house and the squalor of the surrounding buildings it did not show. Marcus had stopped noticing any of it a long time ago. There was little more for him to lose.
"My uncle wants to see me now?"
The messenger inclined his head, a silent acquiescence. In common with most of the slaves who carried messages in the city, he could not have spoken even if he had wanted to; cutting out the tongue was usually the first order of business with such slaves.
There were worse things that could happen to a slave, of course. There was always something worse.
Marcus sighed. No one in their right mind would ignore a summons from Quintus Lucretius Gracchus but Marcus never felt comfortable in the company of his maternal uncle. The man was cunning and duplicitous, and Marcus suspected that he, Marcus, would be just as expendable as any other if Lucretius Gracchus considered it necessary.
Quickly he wrote a note to his uncle and gave it to the messenger to take back. The knot of apprehension in his stomach tightened as he dressed. A summons at this time of night did not bode well under any circumstances and Marcus wished, not for the first time, that he was still deployed at the outer edges of the territory, far away from Lucretius Gracchus and all his spies. He had had freedom there, for the year he had commanded a frontier fort. At the time the responsibility and the loneliness had seemed arduous but now … now Marcus missed it with all his heart.
With the house locked up safely, Marcus walked the two miles to his destination, judging that this would be quicker than taking one of the overloaded, ponderous trams that crawled along the crowded streets, stopping every yard or so when the crush of pedestrians became too great. By keeping to the very edge of the road, Marcus was able to make reasonable progress, even if doing so meant stepping over the unfortunates who crouched in the doorways of the buildings, hands and eyes raised imploringly to the citizen passing them by. At any other time Marcus would have handed out a coin or two but he knew from experience that if he stopped, if he acknowledged those he stepped over, then he would not move for some time, and that was delay he could not afford tonight.
It was a relief to finally emerge into the wide, open space in front of the forum. His still-new pass took him easily past the sentries at the gate and he deliberately slowed his pace once he was within the square, drawing in a deep breath of air untainted by the raw stench of humanity that always clung to the lower reaches of the town. The forum loomed ahead of him, its gleaming columns soaring into the night sky, a monument to the glory and power of Nova Roma, but it was not to the forum that Marcus hurried but rather to a small, non-descript house reached by a narrow alleyway at the side of the square. There was nothing to distinguish this house from its fellows; no guards outside, no plaque on the wall. Yet every man, woman, child, and slave in Calleva knew exactly who lived here, and what his function was.
Marcus knocked at the door.
It was a measure of the man that Lucretius Gracchus insisted on mutilating his household slaves so that they, too, could not speak his secrets. The slave who opened the door to Marcus, bowing so low Marcus's back ached in sympathy, was new and raw and the fading bruising around his swollen lips and the mute anguish in his eyes told their own story.
"My name is Marcus Flavius Aquila. I'm here to see Lucretius Gracchus."
The slave nodded and bowed again, and led Marcus down the ornately decorated hallway to his uncle's study at the rear of the house, discreetly slowing his pace to match Marcus's limping gait.
"Marcus, my boy, come in," Lucretius Gracchus said cheerfully as they entered the study, rising from his chair and coming to Marcus with every appearance of good humour. As ever, the illusion was destroyed if one took the time to notice the cold, unwavering stare. "I wasn't sure I'd find you at home."
Marcus smiled grimly to himself: so it was to be one of those meetings. He was under no illusions that Lucretius Gracchus knew everything there was to know about his nephew's pathetically lonely and limited existence. He forced a smile. "It's good to see you, sir."
"Sit down, sit down. Take the weight off your feet. How's the leg?"
"Better," Marcus lied, looking around for somewhere to sit. None of the chairs were particularly comfortable, aside from the one behind the desk. Knowing the man, Marcus was fairly certain this was deliberate. He settled on one by the window and tried to look at his as his uncle resumed his own seat.
A slave entered the study bearing wine, a skinny, awkward youth who scuttled across the room like a nervous cat. Marcus had no taste for wine; the thick, cloying wine his uncle preferred burned like acid and sat in his stomach with uncomfortable weight.
"That's good," Lucretius Gracchus said, waving the slave away. "Yes, that's very good."
"You wanted to see me, sir?"
"I did." Lucretius Gracchus shifted through some papers on his desk, apparently searching for something. "What do you know of the Lost Lands?"
Marcus blinked. The topic was unexpected. "As much as anyone else. Once it was said that no Roman could survive in those lands. Even now the risk is great."
Lucretius Gracchus gave him a hawkish look. "You've never been more curious? You served on the frontier."
"No, never.” Marcus discretely shifted the weight off his leg, which was aching. The wound that had ended his career as a soldier showed no sign of healing quickly. "What's there to be curious about?"
"Many are. Traders. Adventurers."
"Not me." An alarming thought occurred to Marcus. "You don't want me to-"
Lucretius Gracchus waved a hand. "No, no. I don't want you to go out there. Why would I want to lose you?"
Marcus thought it might have been more touching with some real emotion behind the words but it was still one of the nicest things Lucretius Gracchus had ever said to his sister's son, his only surviving relative. Marcus stared at his hands.
"These are uncertain times, difficult times," Lucretius Gracchus continued in his soft, clear voice. Marcus nodded. There was no need for his uncle to expand on his meaning. The queues were getting longer, the faces of those queuing thinner and tinged with desperation. When a man's belly was empty it was easy for his thoughts to turn to revolt. "And this is the last thing we need."
"What is, sir?"
Lucretius Gracchus wrote briefly on a piece of paper and held it out to Marcus. "Go to that address. A man is dead."
Marcus frowned at the address. He knew the street; it was an expensive area, considerably more salubrious than the street Marcus himself called home.
"Do you want me to make funeral arrangements?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Lucretius Gracchus snapped. "Licinius Cordus was a wealthy and influential man. Why would I ask a cohort commander to make his funeral arrangements?"
Flushing, Marcus looked away. Lucretius Gracchus had not bothered to hide his disdain. Marcus was not ashamed of his lowly command: it had been his, not gained through money or patronage but through his own effort and to hear it dismissed so casually cut him to the quick.
"No,” Lucretius Gracchus continued, choosing to ignore Marcus’s discomfort. “I have another job for you. The family can throw the body in the river for all I care, to rot with the other garbage."
"I don't understand, sir."
Lucretius Gracchus chuckled. "No, I don't expect you do. I had no love for Licinius Cordus in life but his death dishonours Nova Roma. And, politically, it makes things … difficult."
Marcus mentally filled in the details his uncle had omitted. Licinius Cordus had connections, and Lucretius Gracchus wished to have influence with those connections.
"I see, sir."
"I doubt that. The Empire has endured for two thousand years, Marcus. If we are to see another thousand then we must stand together, not bicker between ourselves. There must be no unanswered questions."
"Yes, sir," Marcus said, since that seemed to be the safest answer. "How did he die, sir?"
"Shot in the head," Lucretius Gracchus said bluntly, shifting the papers in front of him again. "I want you to find out who did it."
"Who do you want to have done it, sir?"
For a moment Marcus thought he had gone too far, but then Lucretius Gracchus threw back his head and laughed.
"That's good. That's very good. Who do I want, indeed. Do you know what kind of man Licinius Cordus was?"
"I don't think I ever met him."
"No, I doubt you moved in the same social circles," Lucretius Gracchus said dryly. "Don't think I want to send you in ignorant, my boy, but I want you to go without any expectations of what you might find in that house, understand?"
"Not really, sir."
"Good. I'll have a car brought round for you. Your leg must be hurting after that long walk." Lucretius Gracchus pressed the buzzer on his desk to summon a slave.
"What, exactly, do you expect me to do, sir?" Marcus asked desperately.
Lucretius Gracchus smiled thinly. "Find me the truth, my boy. Not what you think I want to hear. Bring me the truth and then-" he paused, and the smile widened. "And then, I'll decide what use to put the truth to. Go now. Perhaps you will find something you do not expect."
Feeling more bewildered than ever, Marcus somehow found himself in the atrium once again, where another slave solemnly handed him a document wallet that proved to contain a warrant signed by Lucretius Gracchus conferring on Marcus a range of powers so wide in their potential application that Marcus began to wonder what his uncle thought he would encounter. He was ushered outside, to where a low, squat official car waited in front of the forum, engine idling. The slave opened the door for him before Marcus could protest and waited for him to climb in before closing it behind him.
"Thank you," Marcus said automatically. He could never get out of the habit, however much disapproval it earned him from his fellow citizens. The slave looked startled. Possibly he had never been thanked before.
Marcus braced himself against the seat as the driver gunned the engine and the car leapt forward with a screech of tyres, scrabbling for a handhold as the gates at the end of the square loomed closer. It seemed the gates would never open in time but the sentries rushed from their posts to fling them open and the car shot through the gates with inches to spare.
Marcus had never ridden in an official car before - indeed, he had only travelled in a car twice before in his entire life - and he had never really appreciated how simple progress through the busy streets was when the crowds took one look at the oncoming car and simply parted before it. The pace they set through the narrow streets was alarming but the driver seemed calm and unworried and it seemed only minutes before they were drawing up before a large, imposing dwelling that, at this time of night, should have been respectably dark and quiet but was instead glowing with lights, the front door window shutters stood open, and a small crowd of onlookers standing as close as they dared under the stern gaze of the two soldiers at the door.
"Here we are, sir."
"Thank you." His leg had cramped even during the short journey and Marcus unwound himself painfully from the seat, not entirely trusting his leg to bear his weight. He emerged from the car with his dignity mostly intact, however, and the soldiers snapped to attention when Marcus flashed the warrant from Lucretius Gracchus.
"What's the situation here?" he asked the soldier closest to him.
The man looked startled, perhaps taken aback by the tone of authority from one dressed as a civilian.
"The body still here, sir. The surgeon's been but there was nothing to be done."
"When did he die?"
The soldier forgot himself long enough to shrug. "The surgeon says this afternoon. You know what they're like; he won't say any more than that."
"What about family? Is there anyone else in the house?"
"He lived alone, so the neighbour's cook says. Two house slaves but he'd sent them to his sister's house on an errand and they haven't returned yet. Oh," the soldier added by way of an afterthought. "He had a body slave. The boy found him."
Marcus still felt himself to be standing on shifting sands but he could see the beginnings of a path emerging. "I'll go and look at the body, then, and talk to the slave. How long has he been in service here?"
“Six months, no more.” Something crossed the soldier's face, something knowing and malicious. "It's said he had the use of him, sir."
There was no need for him to say any more and Marcus did not press. A slave was his master's property, to do with as he wished, and Licinius Cordus was hardly the first man to put a slave to such use. Still, it made Marcus uneasy to think of it.
“I’ll speak to him.”
He passed through into the atrium, a large, square room with a vaulted roof and a pool sunk into the marble floor. It screamed money and influence and privilege and all the other things Marcus had grown up without. A young man waited for him there, tall and arrogant-looking. Marcus tried to ignore the pointed look directed at his own comfortable, worn clothes, very much a contrast to the other man's exquisitely tailored garments. A rich man, born into wealth and with no expectation of ever having to struggle for anything he wanted.
“Marcus Flavius Aquila.” He held out the warrant but the man barely looked at it.
“I was told Lucretius Gracchus was sending someone, though I expected a more illustrious envoy.” His voice was soft and sibilant and Marcus would have disliked him without the sneering words. “I am Decimus Annaeus Scaevola.”
Marcus recognised the family name. A very rich man then. “You knew Licinius Cordus?”
“He was my cousin.” Annaeus Scaevola waited a heartbeat before adding, “He left his estate to me.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Marcus said formally, although Annaeus Scaevola showed no sign of mourning his deceased relative and indeed appeared to be positively gleeful at the prospect of assuming the role that had been thrust upon him.
"I expect Lucretius Gracchus explained the situation to you."
Marcus thought of the laughably scanty information he had been given by his uncle. "You could say that."
"I fear he may have sent you here on a futile mission. There's no mystery to what has occurred here."
Marcus frowned. "What do you mean?"
Annaeus Scaevola gave him a scathing look that said, quite clearly, that he considered Marcus a fool, and an impoverished fool at that. "My cousin was alone in this house from noon. There were no visitors. His body slave raised the alarm at dusk. What does that tell you?"
"That he was killed between noon and dusk?"
Annaeus Scaevola sighed theatrically. "That the slave killed him. Who else could have done it?"
Marcus was beginning to have an inkling of what his uncle had been driving at, underneath his weasel words. It would be convenient for everyone if the slave had, indeed, murdered his master. Perhaps a little too convenient.
"I'll talk to the slave shortly." Marcus hesitated, unsure of how to broach the question. "Someone summoned you to the house this evening?"
"No." For the first time Annaeus Scaevola seemed to lose a little of his composure. "I was to dine with my cousin this evening. I was not expecting … well, I was not expecting to find what I did." He shook his head. "The slave had probably forgotten my impending visit. When he remembered, he raised the alarm to cover his tracks."
"He would have done better to run," Marcus pointed out.
"He would never have escaped the city without a pass," Annaeus Scaevola said blithely, with all the assurance of one who never been a frontier soldier and who had never encountered the runaways who, against the odds, had indeed escaped. "And there are some who would loosen controls on the slaves! Look where such leniency gets us."
Marcus maintained a tactful silence in the face of a diatribe he had heard at other times, from other lips.
"Well," Annaeus Scaevola said abruptly. "I suppose you want to see the body."
Somewhat taken aback by the man's curtness, Marcus followed him from the atrium. The house, as he had surmised, was large and well-furnished. No expense has been spared in its decoration but there was a strange impersonality about the decoration, as if the man himself had left no imprint.
"He was found in his study."
The door to the study was locked. Annaeus Scaevola produced a key and held it out to Marcus. The key was heavy and ornate, but Marcus had already seen that the lock was substantial and not just for show. He fitted the key into the lock; the mechanism was awkward and he had to change hands before he managed to turn it.
"It was locked when the body was found?"
"So the slave says."
Marcus pushed open the door and stepped into the study of the late Licinius Cordus.
Marcus had seen death before; there was no mercy for the unwary in the frontier lands. Yet somehow what lay before him in that small, neat study was more shocking than any violent death he had seen before, perhaps because the slumped, untidy body was so incongruous in such a setting. Licinius Cordus had been seated at his desk when he was shot. His upper body had fallen forward across it. His left hand rested on an ink blotter; the right was outflung across the desk. A brief examination told Marcus that the pistol had been held close against the left side of his head, for there were powder burns on the face.
"He knew his attacker."
"It was the slave, as I told you," Annaeus Scaevola said testily.
Marcus nodded. "How do you think he got the pistol?"
Annaeus Scaevola shrugged. "My cousin collected weapons; pistols, rifles. He usually kept one or two of them in here, depending on his mood. It was something of an obsession with him."
"An unfortunate obsession."
"You could say that."
Marcus looked around the study. The only window was narrow and barred. No one had entered that way.
"I'll talk to the slave now. There's no need for you to accompany me."
Annaeus Scaevola looks ready to argue for a moment. Perhaps he remembered the warrant, for he said nothing and only nodded.
"I took the precaution of locking him in the grain store. Just in case it occurred to him to run."
Marcus locked the study door behind him and pocketed the key. Annaeus Scaevola gave him a malevolent look but kept silent until they were once again in the atrium, when he said abruptly:
"Do you wish to see my cousin's collection of weapons?"
"Yes, thank you." Marcus realised belatedly he had not asked after the murder weapon and he quickly corrected his mistake.
"It was found in his hand," Annaeus Scaevola answered shortly. "A clumsy attempt to make it look like suicide. The surgeon was not fooled for an instant."
"The pistol is still here?"
"Yes, indeed." Annaeus Scaevola showed him through into a small room lined with display cases. Marcus gasped as the gas lamps flared and the scale of the dead man's collection became clear.
"There must be close to fifty pieces in here."
"Forty-seven. And this," Annaeus Scaevola indicated to a side table. "Is the weapon he was killed with."
Marcus examined the pistol with interest. The model was at least fifty years old, to Marcus's limited knowledge, and ornately decorated. No less deadly for that.
"So he was killed with his own pistol."
"Perhaps he tried to defend himself."
Marcus shook his head. "No, whoever it was, it was someone he trusted to stand at his side with a pistol in their hand. No stranger killed him."
He turned the pistol this way and that. In the glow of the lamp light, something caught his eye. He extracted a fine, blond hair, trapped between the trigger and the body of the pistol. Too short to be a woman's hair, and both the dead man and Annaeus Scaevola were as dark-haired as Marcus himself. He showed the hair to Annaeus Scaevola.
"I'll kill him myself," the man hissed, for the first time appearing affected by his cousin's death.
"You must let the investigation be completed," Marcus told him. Annaeus Scaevola snorted derisively.
"Investigation? There's no need for an investigation. As I told you, the matter is clear. And he's a slave; the law does not apply to him."
"No," Marcus said firmly. He did not know why he defended an unknown slave so strongly: the case did seemed clear and the slave would be strung up soon enough anyway. Yet something in his soul rebelled at the idea of such summary justice. There was no honour in it, and without honour they were nothing better than the barbarian slaves themselves. To be a citizen of Nova Roma was to act with honour. "I'll speak with him now."
The grain store was at the very rear of the house, across the courtyard. Marcus shivered in the cold night air. The key Annaeus Scaevola had given him weighed as heavily in his hand as thoughts of what, exactly, his uncle had sent him here to find weighed on his mind.
The grain store was dark and Marcus was glad he had brought a lamp with him. He unlocked the door with no small amount of trepidation, not knowing what he would find on the other side. He had grown up in a household without slaves and the army did not send slaves to the frontier and so Marcus had had little interaction with them aside from the most casual contact. He had seen them fight in the arena, though. They fought hard for their lives, despite the futility of it. Marcus fingered the dagger at his belt and wondered if he would have a chance to use it.
The door creaked open, as loud as thunder in the stillness of the night. Marcus held his ground for a moment, waiting for an attack that never came.
He stepped forward, raising the alarm to cast its glow upon the store.
The boy sat on a sack of grain at the rear of the store, hugging his knees to his chest. Marcus took in the pale, exhausted eyes, the thin, ripped tunic, the grim set of the jaw. And that damning hair, golden as a wheat field in summer.
The boy stood up. He was short in stature, as most of his brethren were, but he was no weakling. A warrior's tattoo encircled his upper arm. Marcus frowned. The boy was not uncomely but there was a wiry toughness to him that Marcus knew was considered unbecoming to a body slave used for the reasons Licinius Cordus had apparently acquired him.
"My name is Marcus Flavius Aquila. I'm here to investigate the death of your master."
The boy stared at the floor, rigid and unmoving.
"What is your name?"
The boy's eyes flickered to him for the briefest instant before he again looked away. "What does it matter?"
Marcus took another step towards him. His wounded leg dragged and he saw the boy’s appraising eyes note the infirmity. "I asked you your name,” he said, embarrassment colouring his words with anger.
"Esca." It came unwillingly, with a sullen twist of the boy's lips.
"Well then, Esca," Marcus said with forced cheer. "Do you tell me what happened to your master."
Esca flinched as if he had been struck and then he drew himself up, meeting Marcus's eyes defiantly.
"I killed him."
"Just like that, as if it meant nothing to him," Marcus said slowly, glancing across the table to gauge his uncle's reaction as he repeated Esca’s words.
"Perhaps it didn't," Uncle Aquila said wryly. "If the tales the house slaves told you are true, then the slave had no reason to feel affection for Licinius Cordus and every reason to set him free of this world. Why do you care so much?"
Marcus had spent two days asking himself that very question. He had done his duty; the investigation was done and the slave Esca was locked away in the cells beneath the forum, waiting for execution. It was done … and yet Marcus was left with a lingering sense of unease he could not articulate, an unsettling restlessness not eased even by the company of his paternal uncle.
"I don't know," he admitted. "It just doesn't feel right."
Aquila sipped at his wine. “You always did take the side of the underdog, Marcus. Even as a child.”
“You didn’t know me as a child,” Marcus said defensively.
“Your father could use a pen and ink,” Aquila replied mildly. “He wrote to me often. He said that you could never stand by while an injustice was being done. He was proud of you, for that.”
Marcus looked away.
"Lucretius Gracchus must be pleased with you,” Aquila continued, his tone becoming more meditative.
"I don't know if he is or not," Marcus said bitterly. "He hasn't summoned me or sent me a message since I sent him my report."
"Count that as a good thing," Aquila advised. "No good ever comes out of association with Lucretius Gracchus."
"Like my father?"
"Like your father," Aquila agreed. "Don't think he helps you because you're his sister's son; he has his own reasons for using you."
Marcus nodded and took a sip of wine. His uncle had simple tastes; the household wine was a coarse red from the eastern territories. Red like blood. Marcus set the glass down and looked up to find his uncle watching him closely.
“Marcus, you lived in my house for many months when you were recovering from your injuries. I know you well enough to know that you won’t rest until you set this to rest. Tell me again what you found in that house. Perhaps between us we can find what troubles you so."
So Marcus did tell him again, from the very beginning of the tale. His conversation with the soldier, with Annaeus Scaevola, with Esca, with the house slaves. There was nothing, nothing, and Marcus wanted to beat his fists against the table in frustration.
"Why was Annaeus Scaevola so certain that his cousin had been shot by the slave?"
Marcus frowned. "He was the only person in the house with Licinius Cordus. There was no one else. He had tried to make it look like suicide, putting the pistol in his master's hand."
"But that was not believed?"
"No. He left it too long, for one. Rigor mortis had started to set in and he could not wrap the fingers around the pistol. And Licinius Cordus could not possibly have reached around to shoot himself in the left side of-"
Marcus stopped. Aquila smiled encouragingly.
"Scaevola,” Marcus said slowly. “I should have guessed. It must run in the family. I should have known when I saw the ink blotter. But why-"
Aquila raised his wine glass and smiled archly. "Why don't you ask him?"
Marcus glanced at the clock. It was late, but his uncle slept little. "Perhaps I will. The sooner the better."
"You're fond of him." It was not a question.
"He-" Marcus stopped. He did not know how to describe the feelings Esca aroused in him, and certainly not while his uncle's coolly amused eyes rested on him. "He is brave. And honourable, I think. That's to be admired in anyone, don't you agree?"
He was halfway to the door when Aquila spoke again, halting him.
"Marcus. It is good to see you take an interest in life again but do not forget what this boy is. He's still a slave."
Marcus forced a smile, biting back the words that sprang to his lips. "You don't have to worry," he said simply. "I won't forget."
Esca looked smaller than Marcus remembered, thinner and paler but every bit as defiant. He rose to his feet when he saw Marcus at the door of the dank, gloomy cell, glaring at the jailer who had unlocked the door as if he wished to tear him limb from limb.
"You can go," Marcus told the jailer.
“Can’t leave you alone with the prisoner,” the man grunted. “Orders.”
“I’m here on the orders of Lucretius Gracchus. Leave us.”
Marcus waited until the man had locked the door behind him before he turned back to face Esca. It was a miserable place that Esca had been kept in. Marcus wondered how must it have felt to sit here, hour after hour, chained to the wall by chains that cut deep into his wrists, staring up at the barred aperture set high in the wall, listening to the sounds of the gallows in the courtyard outside, knowing that it was only a matter of time before he was taken out to meet the same miserable fate as those unfortunates. Yet Esca stared back at him as proudly as he had in the grain store and something deep within Marcus rejoiced at that.
Marcus had lain awake all night thinking of how best to begin this conversation but in the end he settled for the simplest approach.
"I know you didn't kill him."
Esca did not move.
"I know that you found him dead, and that you put the pistol in his hand."
"The pistol was in his hand already," Esca said quietly.
Marcus nodded. "Yes, it was. In his left hand. Because he was left-handed, wasn't he?"
For a moment he thought that Esca would deny it, continue to accept the blame that he was not due, but then Esca reluctantly nodded, still unwilling, still resenting the interference.
"He killed himself, and you made it look as if someone else had killed him. As if you'd killed him."
"He deserved to die,” Esca said furiously. “He was a monster.”
"I know what he did to you," Marcus said, as neutrally as he could. Esca shot him a furious glare.
"And you think there was nothing wrong to what he did. I know what you are. You invaded these lands and took it for your own. My people are slaves, we are nothing to you. Why should you care what he did?”
Marcus swallowed. What Esca said was true; but made it no easier to hear. No easier to accept that the glory of Nova Roma was nothing but gilding on a rotten core. “How did you come to be a slave?”
“Seven years ago he came to my village with soldiers … they murdered anyone who stood against them. I wish I had died that night. Instead I lived, and once his soldiers had done with me he passed me on to one of his friends. He was cut from the same cloth. He intended for me to die in the arena, for his amusement."
"How did you come to be living with Licinius Cordus again, if he gave you away?"
Esca’s face, briefly animated by memory, went still again. "He won me in a game of dice. He meant to kill me, eventually. When he had entertained himself enough." He hesitated for a moment, and then added, “That day, the day he died … I brought him food at noon and he told me to kneel down on the floor of his study. He put the barrel of the pistol in my mouth and told me he was going to kill me. And then he laughed and sent me away.”
“That was cruel of him.”
Esca’s mouth twisted. “That was not the worst of what he did to me. So you see, I am not sorry he is dead.”
The space between them was heavy with ghosts and there were no words Marcus could think to say that would banish them. He had been foolish enough to think that Esca might be grateful to be saved from the noose but he saw now that he had only done what every other of his kind had ever done to Esca: he had denied Esca his will just as Licinius Cordus had done, just as all the others who had surely used Esca for their own entertainment had done.
“Why did he kill himself?” he asked, simply to break the silence. “That was the one question I could not answer to myself.”
Esca laughed, a short, barking laugh. “I’m not sure you would believe me if I told you.”
Esca’s bitter laughter subsided as quickly as it had come, and his expression became intent. “You know what he was,” he said slowly, as if gathering his thoughts. “A trader … a kind way of putting it! He stole and he murdered and he enslaved and he grew rich on the profits, but still-"
“Still?” Marcus prompted.
“He thought himself cursed,” Esca continued. “And so he drank to forget, and he drank so much he saw ghosts in the shadows, and in the end … in the end, perhaps he was sorry. Though not sorry enough,” he added, with a flash of the old fire in his eyes.
“No,” Marcus agreed. "Not sorry enough."
The silence returned. Marcus eyed the chains and wished he had thought to ask the jailer to remove them. Esca would not have been fed well during his imprisonment and it was clearly costing him effort to stand for so long with the weight of the chains pulling him down.
"What will you do?" Esca asked, startling Marcus out of his reverie. “Now that you know the truth.”
"It is out of my hands," Marcus said, back on comfortable territory. "I've already informed Lucretius Gracchus of the truth of what happened to your master and on his orders you're to be released today."
He did not burden Esca with the details of his meeting with Lucretius Gracchus. There was no need for Esca to know that Esca’s freedom had been bought at a price. Yet it was a price that Marcus had paid gladly, for he had known in the instant that Lucretius Gracchus had offered him monetary reward that Esca’s life was worth that and more.
"No man should ever beg for his life," Esca said mulishly and, yes, Marcus could see the attraction for a man like Licinius Cordus, a man amused by the suffering of others. He would have found it entertaining to try to break his proud, stubborn slave. The thought of Esca ending up like one of the listlessly subservient body slaves Marcus had seen displayed by their owners at his uncle's social functions made Marcus feel ill, and negated any sympathy he might have been inclined to feel for the dead man.
"You didn't; I did, on your behalf, and I meant nothing by it except that an innocent man should not hang for murder, even if he chooses to take the guilt upon himself."
Esca was still staring at him, still defiant, but there was something else there now. Marcus did not dare try to put a name to it, did not dare hope that Esca might ever see him as anything other than a mortal foe.
"Am I to go to Annaeus Scaevola then, with the rest of my master’s possessions?"
"Is that what you wish?" Marcus hoped not; he had not planned for such a thing.
Esca shook his head emphatically. "No, he was cast in the same mould as his cousin."
The tension in Marcus's breast eased a little. "Good, because he's already sold you."
Esca frowned. "To who?"
"To me," Marcus said simply. In time he would tell Esca the truth but it was enough that he could walk from this place with Esca at his side. Marcus had taken his death from him; in return he would give him his life.
Endnote: Scaevola means lefthanded