Buying Trouble

by Layna Ayre Andersen (

Rating: Ranges from PG13 to NC17
Summary: In ancient Rome, citizen Quiaius goes shopping for one thing and ends up buying something else.
Warnings: Vivid recollection of past violence and rape. Also, spoiler at end of this post.
Archive: MA, please! Please replace the original version in the archive with this one, dear Fox! Thanks!

It's an AU set in ancient Rome. Quiaius, a widower living alone with his cats and books, goes shopping for a housekeeper, and instead buys a starved, filthy and badly abused wild Celt who would otherwise have been sent to the Coliseum.


NOTES: I originally wrote this as a work in progress, inspired by a challenge from Master Ruth Gifford to put Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan into a different world. I had always meant to repost it all at once when I was finished, for the benefit of those who don't like to read a story spread out over weeks and months. This version is slightly different from the original, thanks to Fox's splendid beta -- she is the QUEEN of Lay and Lie!

Thanks to everyone who encouraged me to keep working on this story, and said kind things to me about it. I'm very glad you've enjoyed it. Thanks especially to my Master, Ruth, from whom praise means a great deal to me; to my husband Doug, who gave up a great deal of time with me as I worked on it; to James Cat and Kitten Rose and the late Ghost, for cat inspiration, and to Kais and Eab, who became very real to me as I wrote their story.

ZINE ANNOUNCEMENT: Now is as good a time as any to announce that there will be a Buying Trouble zine! It will include this story, AND -- I am SO PROUD to have this to announce -- BONUS TRACKS, by some of the very best writers in this fandom! These bonus tracks are stories surrounding the original story, written from the point of view of others involved, ranging from the goddess Diana to a migratory bird. I can hardly believe the beautiful work these writers have done, and I think you'll love it! I hope to have more to tell about this zine in a few weeks, as I gather everything together and get it ready for printing.

In the epilogue, taking place more than twenty years after the end of this story, a character has died of old age, peacefully in his sleep, being held by someone he loves. May we all be so lucky. I personally consider that a happy ending, but your mileage may vary.

The tall man walked into the slaver's, his white toga haphazardly draped, his long hair falling out of the stray bit of cord he'd tied it back with, his sandals in need of repair.

"Greetings, Wattovius," he called out, as the master of the establishment scurried up to meet him.

"Ah, Quiaius! What can I get for you today?"

"Just some help around the house. A nice quiet girl to run errands and things, maybe bring me some bread and cheese when I'm too far into my reading to remember to get it myself."

"And what happened to that nice quiet girl I sold you before last Lupercal? She came well recommended!"

"Ah, she fell in love with the candle-maker's son." A wry smile. "I freed her to marry."

"You're out of your mind! Don't tell me you gave her a dowry too..." Quiaius had a reputation throughout Rome for tender-heartedness, or for wasting money, depending on who you asked. Despite his careless appearance, he had money to waste; he was from an old family. He lived alone in a villa that was too big for him, and spent all his time buried in books. Eccentric type. Brought home stray cats.

"I won't tell you, then. But my house is a mess, and I can never remember my appointments, and surely you have another nice quiet girl..."

"Always. But maybe you need one who's not so quiet? Eh?" The weaselly slave-dealer gave a wink and a lascivious smile.

Quiaius shook his head. "No, not really. Since my wife passed five years ago, I haven't really... I think I'm past that at my age. Books, and philosophy, and my own company, and --" An enraged shriek split the air. "What was that?"

"Ugh. Barbarian captive. Sebulius unloaded it on me; part of a group deal with some dancers he knew I wanted. One of those wild Celts."

"A Celt, you say? I've never seen one..."

"Be my guest, have a look, over there in the last cell. Be warned, it's not a pretty sight."

Quiaius walked to the end of the corridor and looked through the small barred window in the heavy wooden door. In the far corner of the cell huddled the dirtiest youth he'd ever seen, wearing a few rags, with heavy chains on his slender wrists and ankles. His face was partly hidden by a tangled mass of light brown hair with hints of red. He was gaunt, bruised and battered, but there was a look of defiance in his startling blue eyes. He pulled at the chains that held him, and again screamed his outrage.

"What on earth... He looks as if he's been beaten!"

"Oh, he has, believe me. And starved too, not that it's made him any tamer. Attacks anyone who goes near him, shouts all day in that crazy barbarian tongue... Sebulius really pulled a fast one on me, had him drugged when he gave him to me so I wouldn't know what he was like. I'll never unload the little beast."

"What will you do with him?"

"Maybe the Coliseum'll want him, a little sword fodder for the games. He fights like a tiger, doesn't care what happens to him, all teeth and nails. Can't sell him to the brothel; he bites!"

Quiaius took another look into the cell. The barbarian slave stared back, then hissed at him like a mad cat, showing white teeth.

"I'll take him."

Early the next day, a loud and insistent knock alerted Quiaius that his impulse purchase was being delivered. As several cats fled, he opened the door to a big man with a shaved head -- probably a former wrestler; Wattovius hired a lot of them -- carrying a large canvas bag over his shoulder.

"So, where d'ya want it?

"Back here, servant's quarters." He led the way to a small, tidy room in the back of the villa; there was a trunk for clothes, and a pallet on the cool stone floor. The deliveryman dumped the bag on the floor, where it hit with a clank, then untied the top of the bag and dumped out the Celt in a heap by the bed. He lay, motionless, where he fell, the same heavy chains shackled to his wrists and ankles as when Quiaius had first seen him.

"Is he... alive?" Quiaius was a little stunned at the way his new slave had arrived.

"Oh, he's alive all right. We just had to pour some of that tincture of poppies down him to transport him. I wouldn't expect much noise out of him 'til sometime tomorrow, but he's breathing pretty good. It's not like Wattovius is gonna sell you a dead slave! Now, what do we hook these chains up to? This chest heavy enough?"

"Ah, yes, I think so..." He hadn't given any thought to it. It hadn't really occurred to him that he'd have to keep the slave chained here in his home. The deliveryman locked the chain to the iron handle on the side of the chest, and jerked it to be sure it was secure.

"Yeah, that'll hold him. Don't want him to get loose and gut you during the night or anything. We won't be responsible for it if he does, though."

"What do I owe you, for the delivery and everything?"

"Well, the slave's only a hundred denarii, Wattovius is basically giving him away, but you've got the delivery, you've got the chains, and the keys here, and damages--"


The deliveryman held up his arm with a grim smile; there was the unmistakable mark of a fairly fresh human bite on the bicep. "Damages. That's two-fifty total. Sign right here. And Wattovius wanted me to emphasize that this sale is absolutely final, as is, no refunds, no exchanges, no returns under any circumstances, he doesn't even want to see the dead BODY of this one again, you got it?"

"Understood." Quiaius pulled a few coins out of a small leather bag he wore around his waist, counted them, pulled out another. "For your trouble."

"Thank you, very generous. Look, I don't mean to be too curious, but what are you gonna do with this thing? I mean, you understand it's dangerous, right?"

"It -- he -- is human, or close to it. Even if he isn't human, he's alive. I've never seen such a miserable creature. I have to at least try to..."

"That's your own business, no problem. Just wondered. I'm surprised Wattovius managed to sell him; he's been stuck with him for a month, and Sebulius had him for a month before that."

"He's been... locked up like that... for two months?"

"Well, in Rome, sure. And then however many weeks it took the soldiers to get him back here from the barbarian lands. I'm sure glad I didn't have to haul him from there, I'll tell you that." The deliveryman picked up the canvas bag, walked toward the front door, and looked back at him. "Listen. Just be careful, all right? I'm sure it's the kind of thing you guys argue about in the Forum and all that, what's human and what isn't, but this is a Celt, worst kind of barbarian. He's gonna wake up ready to kill somebody. That's just how they are."

"I don't plan to be killed, thank you. But give Wattovius my thanks."

The deliveryman looked skeptical, nodded and walked out, leaving Quiaius to ponder his purchase.

After looking the Celt over for a while, Quiaius decided that no creature, no matter how wild and barbarous, could possibly be happy as dirty as his new slave was. Certainly no creature living in his house was going to stay that dirty. He wondered if the slave had been washed, or given any opportunity to bathe, since he was captured. Probably not, from the look -- and the smell. This was as good a time as any, and Quiaius was thankful that he had his own bath, even though it had seemed extravagant when he'd moved into the villa. He could only imagine what he'd have looked like hauling the captive to a public bath.

It didn't take long for the marble tub to fill. It took a little longer to heat the water, but it seemed heartless to dump anyone, even an unconscious barbarian slave, into a cold bath. Quiaius found a sponge, some soap, and the kitchen scissors, then headed back into the slave's room. He hesitated a moment, then carefully unlocked the shackles that bound the chains to the slave's wrists and ankles. The locks were hard to turn -- they hadn't been unlocked in a while -- and it was hard for Quiaius to look at the flesh under the shackles, bruised and scabbed as it was.

"Poor thing. You haven't been treated very gently, have you?" Using the scissors, he cut off the few dirty rags the slave wore, revealing more bruised flesh and a surprisingly large sex. Quiaius averted his eyes, feeling somehow as if he were invading the barbarian's privacy, then wrapped the oddly patterned rags in a bit of cloth; they might be all the slave had left to remember his homeland. He lifted the slave in his arms, surprised at how little he weighed; carried him to the bath; and set him down in the warm water. The slave's body slumped bonelessly in the water.

Quiaius worked slowly and carefully with the sponge and soap, revealing unexpectedly pale skin under the grime -- pale except for a patchwork of bruises, scratches and cuts, some faded, many new. An intricate design of interlocking loops, black and nearly two inches wide, circled the left upper arm; it didn't wash off, and Quiaius guessed that it must be some sort of permanent decoration. The slave was much too thin -- Quiaius wondered just how long it had been since he'd been fed -- but his slender limbs were well-formed. What little hair the slave had on his body was blond with a touch of red. As he washed the elegantly-shaped hands -- somehow he'd expected claws -- Quiaius noticed that some of the fingernails were torn to bleeding; the rest appeared to have been bitten down to the quick. The wrists were badly damaged, the skin torn and healed again and again -- the captive must never have stopped fighting the chains, Quiaius thought, and shuddered. He washed the hurt places there as gently as he could, making a mental note to put healing salve on them to keep them from getting infected. The ankles were nearly as bad. He had to stop for a moment and catch his breath when he turned the slave over and saw his back and shoulders, very obviously marked by whipping.

Quiaius hadn't seen whip-marks up close before. He considered himself lucky, or maybe he'd just managed to avoid that part of Roman life; he'd always hated to see anything hurt. Slaves needed to be disciplined sometimes, everyone knew that, but whipping... The marks on the captive's back were deep, and in various stages of healing, so that it was obvious that they were the result of a few different sessions. Some were quite recent, and he realized they'd undoubtedly been applied on Wattovius' orders, very likely by the same employee he'd just given a generous tip. He took a deep breath and went back to washing. At least the slave wasn't in any pain now.

The hair was the worst part; it was too badly matted to come clean, and too dirty to leave the way it was. Quiaius felt guilty doing it, but it had to be cut, and when he was finished with the scissors the slave had no more than half an inch or so of sandy-reddish hair. At least it was clean, and even, and surely it would grow back... there was no more than a moment to mourn the cut hair, though, before he noticed the slave's face, revealed now that the matted hair was gone. He hadn't expected such fine features, not on a barbarian captive.

He hurried to finish the bath, dry the slave, and carry him back to his quarters, shooing several cats off the bed-pallet to lay the boy down there. The slave was just a little too... disconcerting nude; Quiaius found an old cotton tunic of his, soft from countless washings, something he'd slept in on cool nights, and pulled it on over the Celt's head. Like dressing a doll, he thought, drawing the slender arms through the armholes. The tunic had fallen to Quiaius' knees; on the slave, it would have swept the floor, so he tore strips off the bottom until it was a more reasonable length. Bandages for the wrists, of course, and the ankles. He dressed the worst cuts and scratches, very glad the slave couldn't feel what might have been a painful process, and finally sat back to study his purchase.

The Celt was little more than a boy, that was obvious, and beautiful, genuinely beautiful. He'd look right in marble, Quiaius thought. This was a barbarian? Dark circles under the eyes didn't hide long, thick lashes; the nose was tilted up in a most unexpected way, exotic really; and even slightly bruised, the mouth was good enough to... What was he thinking? Quiaius hadn't been so surprised by himself in years, and still felt somewhat unsettled even after he'd convinced himself that what he was feeling was merely sympathy for a hurt creature. That this hurt creature happened to be almost unnaturally beautiful only made things a little more... well, different, anyway.

Quiaius reluctantly fastened the shackle to the sleeping boy's left ankle. The ankle was bandaged, and he'd padded the shackle as best he could with the remaining cotton strips, but still he hated to do it, less for the pain he knew it would cause than for the slave's anguish when he awoke and found it still there. There was no help for it; however harmless the Celt looked in his drugged state - and he looked very harmless indeed -- Quiaius had been warned enough; he didn't want to wake up with this boy strangling him, or stabbing him with scissors or anything else sharp he might find around the house. Surely just the ankles would be enough, though. Let the wrists heal, he thought, and resisted a completely unexpected urge to stroke the shorn head.

A knock on the door again, and Quiaius got up from -- what was he doing? Suddenly he had no idea -- to answer it. It was Macius, a tall, dark man with -- Quiaius had a sudden, absurd thought that this was the second man with a shaved head who'd been to his villa that day, and that this surely must mean something. Absurd thoughts seemed to be breeding like --

"Quiaius! I'm bringing back your book, that life of Caesar you loaned me last month. I'll never have time to read it." Macius laughed, clasped his friend's hand in greeting, and walked into the house.

"Oh, no, don't tell me."

"Don't tell you what?"

"You've got that look on your face. I've seen it a million times, since we were kids. Like you just fished a sack of kittens out of the Aqueduct, or something. I'm not taking another kitten, if that's what it is."

"I assure you, there isn't any kitten." Quiaius couldn't suppress a smile.

"But there's something, isn't there? A blind watchdog, maybe? A lame horse? Some other pathetic creature?"

"Come see." Quiaius walked back to the slave's room. Macius followed, then stopped short at the sight before him.

"I don't believe it. My old friend Quiaius, the least scandalous man in Rome, has got a... well obviously it's a boy. A little the worse for wear, and in... chains? Ah... there's got to be a story here. Did you win this in a charity raffle, or what?"

"Bought him from Wattovius, yesterday afternoon. Just delivered an hour or so ago. What do you think?"

"I think he's not from around here, for one thing. And I think if you suddenly decided you wanted a boy, you probably should have tried renting before you went out and bought."

"Macius, what are you implying? Gods, you're don't think I bought him for THAT?"

"Why would anyone buy a boy like that for anything ELSE? He doesn't really look like the housekeeper type, and it's kind of hard to cook when you're chained to... Why, exactly, is this boy chained to the chest here?"

"Dangerous, supposedly. Barbarian captive."

"Pretty quiet for a barbarian captive."

"Of course, he's drugged just now; they put him to sleep to deliver him. I'm beginning to think the barbarians are the ones who've done this -- you see these bruises? He's been beaten, and whipped, and starved, and gods only know what else, and Wattovius was ready to send him to the Coliseum, and I just couldn't leave him that way."

"Did Wattovius tell you anything about where this kid is from, how he got into this shape?"

"Well, according to Wattovius, he's a Celt."

"Of course. A Celt. That explains the... bracelet, there." Macius shook his head, grew serious. "Quiaius, do you know anything about the Celts?"

"Not really, no. I suppose you do?"

"My cousin Panakus, the one in the Army; a few years back, he was stationed in the Northern Lands. He told me stories about the Celts -- how the Roman Army once killed forty thousand in one battle, and yet they didn't surrender. They never do. To this day they refuse to send tribute to the Empire."

"And the Emperor allows that?"

"Not officially, but it would be impossible to force them. They don't have much to send but rain and cold; maybe that's why they're so fierce."

"Rain and cold, and apparently their children."

"They don't send them. What happens is that some of the soldiers stationed out there get tired of the rain and the cold, and resentful of the Celts' attitude, and bored the way soldiers do, and sooner or later they come across some pretty maiden or youth and... it isn't a very nice story. They usually share them around the camp; you know what soldiers are like, at least some of them. A lot of these Celts die -- they fight to the death, even the youngest ones, even the girls. They'll kill themselves rather than be taken, if they can. Eventually the soldiers get tired of them, or they find a prettier one or just a fresher one, or some kind soul among them lets them go; gods only know what becomes of them after that. And once in a while, they bring them back to Rome with them as captives."

A long silence. Quiaius looked at the slave lying asleep on the bed, chained, and tried very hard not to think about what his old friend was telling him -- not to picture it happening to this beautiful fierce boy -- not to think of where some of the scars that marked him had come from.

"These soldiers usually figure out pretty quickly that they aren't going to be able to keep them back home; then there are a few slave merchants who'll pay a little for them, usually for the Coliseum, sometimes for the brothels if they've gone the quiet sort of mad, although they usually don't live long. They don't -- I've never heard of anyone taming one."

"So what do you advise that I do?"

"Probably the kindest thing would be to kill him before he wakes, but I know you too well. You're going to treat him like one of your stray cats, and he'll either die or get loose and kill someone or tear the house down -- and you'll never learn, will you?" Macius smiled grimly, but fondly.

"I suppose not." The two walked back towards the front of the house; somehow neither of them had much heart for visiting.

"So, do you want me to send one of my girls over later with some broth or something? Maybe some bread?" A little bit of a smile. "You're not going to have much luck nursing him back to health with your own cooking, and seeing as you can't seem to buy a slave who can actually do anything useful..."

"I've bought quite a few useful slaves over the years."

"But you never keep them, do you? Half Rome is populated with your freedmen."

"Not everyone needs as many as you have." Macius was well known for being as extravagant as Quiaius was ascetic; they enjoyed arguing over the necessity of Macius' three nursemaids for a single, adored daughter, let alone his two cooks and the legion of housemaids and men-of-all-work who served him and his wife.

"You obviously need more than you have, since you have to borrow mine."

"Yes, and I thank you for that. I know you don't approve of this... project of mine, but I have to do it."

"I know you do, and perhaps the gods will give me a little bit of the credit if I help." Macius clasped his friend's shoulder and grew more serious. "Let me know if there's anything else you need, or anything you can't do yourself."

"I understand. I hope it won't come to that."

Quiaius saw his friend off, and stood a long while in the front hall, wondering what it would come to. Even deep in drugged sleep, the Celt was so very alive; Quiaius could not forget the spark of spirit he'd seen in the fiery blue eyes. Surely the slave could recover, somehow.

Finally he walked back to the room at the back of the house. He just wanted another look at the Celt, that was all. Maybe he should check if he had a fever; could the drug they'd given him do him any harm?

Argentum, a sleek gray tabby cat Quiaius had rescued from a group of boys as a scrawny kitten, was standing on the pillow beside the slave. One big paw held the boy's head firmly in place as the big cat methodically licked the slave's face, very much as if he were caring for a kitten.

Quiaius smiled wryly. "You're a good mother, aren't you, for a boy. Perhaps I should turn this kitten over to you." The cat glanced up, big green eyes flashing; then he resumed his work.

Quiaius sat on the cool marble floor, reading. Trying to read, anyway; why was it so hard to concentrate with that Celt lying there, still asleep? It was midday now, and the sun slanting through the window high on the wall opposite the bed shone down on the boy, turning his skin a golden color like honey. His lips, slightly parted, were rose in the sun; the one nipple that showed through a too-big armhole of the tunic was rose too, and Quiaius decided he should cover the boy up a little better. It would be no good for him to wake up exposed that way, Quiaius thought. Not when too many had already looked at him. He knelt beside the boy and gently pulled at the tunic, arranging it a little more modestly. Quiaius stroked the boy's shoulder, amazed at how warm and smooth the skin was. The slave stirred slightly, and Quiaius drew his hand back; was he waking up, or just moving from the drugged state to more natural sleep? A low murmur might have been words, or just sounds; either way, the voice was sleepy and gentle, dreaming, a world away from the screams he'd heard yesterday. The boy moved again, turned on his side, and slept on. Quiaius sat beside him, his book forgotten, and just simply looked at him for a long time, not quite sure what to think.

A knock on the front door, again. He stood, regretfully leaving the boy to himself as he went to answer the door. This time it was a woman, probably close to his own age, Quiaius thought; she was tall and somewhat plain, and had long black hair braided back carefully. She wore a slave's tunic, which appeared to be somewhat dusted with flour, and carried a large covered basket. She made an abbreviated bow, stepped into the house, and set the basket down in front of Quiaius.

"Courtesy of Master Macius, sir. For your boy."

"Thank him for me! And thank you, because I dare say he didn't prepare this. What have we got here?"

"The large jar there is broth, sir. I thought that would be best. And here's bread, and some cheese, because nearly anyone will eat that. And I just made these little cakes."

"What kind? They smell wonderful."

The slave beamed, and her plain features were transformed. "Honey cakes. When the master told me you had a boy, that he'd had a hard time, I thought that would be just the thing. Boys love them, don't they?"

Quiaius smiled. "You know something about boys, then?"

"I've got my own. He's only ten, of course, but he's enough trouble. I had a time keeping him out of these."

"Well, take a few home for him."

"And you have a few yourself, sir! Master Macius told me a little about your boy. A terrible thing, how he's been treated, and it's lovely that he's found a kind master. Just feed him a little at a time, at first, so he isn't sick. And don't... well, it isn't my place to tell you what to do, but if it were I'd say don't push him. He's probably less savage than he is afraid. Boys usually are, when it comes down to it."

Quiaius nodded. "I think you're right. I think most of us are. Do you want to see him?"

"No, thank you, sir. I don't like to see a boy who's been ill-treated; it makes me worry for my own, so much. Let me come see him when he's well, and I'll feel a lot better about it."

"I understand. I hope I can show him to you soon, then."

"It shouldn't take so long, sir. They recover quickly. Just feed him, that's all. I'll bring you some more tomorrow." Another quick bow, and she hurried off, and Quiaius carried the basket to his kitchen. He had just picked up one of the little cakes -- they were still warm -- when he heard a sound from the back room. He ran and found the slave sitting up, blinking sleepily and looking around him with eyes that appeared almost green in the afternoon light. One hand went to his scalp, as he felt his newly-shorn hair. When he saw Quiaius approaching, he startled visibly, jerked away, and backed up into the corner. He raised one hand as if to ward the older man off, and shouted something in a raw voice.

"No, no, don't be afraid, I'm not going to hurt you," Quiaius said quietly -- he knew very well the boy didn't understand a word he was saying, but perhaps the tone would help. "Here, I've got something for you --" He held out the cake.

The boy looked at Quiaius, and looked at the cake, then back at Quiaius, suspiciously. Clearly, hunger was battling fear in him. Quiaius set the cake down on the floor and backed away. The boy reached out and picked it up. He looked at it, turning it over. He sniffed it, and his eyes grew a little wider.

"It's all right. It's good." Encouraging.

The slave took the tiniest nibble from the edge of the cake, looked up at Quiaius suspiciously. Quiaius nodded. Then hunger won. The boy ate the cake in two bites, licked nonexistent crumbs from his fingers, hesitated, then looked up again. He looked as if he expected to be struck at any moment, or grabbed, or otherwise attacked -- but he also looked very hungry.

Quiaius smiled. "Just a moment." He went back to the kitchen, and returned with a small wooden tray with a mug of broth and another of water, a piece of bread, a little cheese and a few more of the cakes. He set it down on the floor, then stepped back and watched.

The boy was undoubtedly starving; he ate quickly, but neatly -- indeed, Quiaius had seen many of the well-loved free sons of Rome eat much less tidily. It was actually a wonderful thing to watch; the boy was so obviously glad of the food, Quiaius thought, and his mouth was so beautiful.

What was he thinking? It occurred to him that he was hungry too; possibly that was why the sight of this boy eating was having such an effect on him. Otherwise, it made no sense at all. He headed back to the kitchen, shaking his head.

The usual routine of Quiaius' days was simple: wake early, bathe, read, eat, and read. Late in the afternoon, the fish-seller, reaching the end of his route, would come by with those fish he hadn't been able to sell to the cooks; these, Quiaius would buy and feed to his cats. Then he'd read some more, and perhaps Macius would come by to argue some point of philosophy or to beat him at dice. Quiaius would retire early, usually with a book; most often, by the time he turned down his lamp, a few of the cats had joined him for sleep in a bed that had been too large since Claudia had died. To say he lived quietly would be an understatement; it wasn't unusual for him to spend several days without speaking to anyone, and frankly, it suited him.

Now Quiaius' routine was completely disrupted. It was nearly midnight, and he couldn't sleep at all; he couldn't concentrate to read; and he was fidgeting so much that the cats had abandoned his bed and glowered at him from the corners of the room. He couldn't remember fidgeting since he was a boy, and that had been quite some time ago. He wondered if his new slave was having the same problem -- he was probably having a worse time sleeping, really, since he was in a strange place. Then again, he might not be; he'd been napping on and off most of the day, probably from the after-effects of the drug. Napping, and eating -- the Celt seemed to be something of a bottomless pit, and Quiaius hoped he would soon realize that he wasn't going to be starved anymore. Maybe he was awake, and hungry? Quiaius decided that, since he was awake himself anyway, he might as well go in and check on the boy.

The polished stone floor was cool against his bare feet as he walked down the hall to the slave's room; it was dark, but his eyes adjusted to the moonlight. The boy was where he'd seen him last, curled up asleep on the bed, half a honey-cake clutched in one hand.

Quiaius made a mental note to tell Macius' cook how much the boy had liked her cakes. He knelt beside the sleeping Celt, and noticed that his tunic had ridden up a bit, exposing a scraped but well-shaped knee. Fearing that the boy might catch a chill, Quiaius reached out and pulled the tunic down.

He may as well have poked at a wasps' nest. The Celt came suddenly -- and violently -- awake, gasped, sat up, screamed, and leapt at Quiaius like a wild animal. Quiaius stood quickly and took a step back, but he wasn't fast enough; the boy gave him a surprisingly powerful shove that banged his head against the doorjamb and landed him hard on his ass in the doorway, then stood shouting at him, wild-eyed. Quiaius got up, painfully, and walked toward the boy, thinking to calm him. "I'm not going to hurt you, quiet now -- " he reached for the boy's shoulder. The Celt turned his head and bit him hard on the side of his hand, shoved him away again, then backed up against the wall, staring, breathing hard.

Quiaius, once again thrown to the floor, looked at his hand and saw blood. He slowly picked himself up, and saw that the slave was trembling slightly; his eyes were wide and gray-blue. It occurred to him that the Celt could not have taken his actions as anything but an advance, and that there was no way to explain to him that he hadn't meant it that way.

"I'm sorry." He hoped again that his tone of voice might convey something to the terrified boy. "I won't do that again." He backed away slowly. The slave stared after him, panic in his eyes.

Quiaius went to the kitchen and examined his hand; several teeth had pierced the skin, and the pain of it started to creep up as the shock wore off. He washed it off with cool water and winced at the sting. He found a bit of cloth and wrapped it up, awkwardly -- of course, it was his right hand. I am an idiot, he thought. Knowing what he's been through, I creep up on him in his sleep and touch him. Would've served me right if he'd brained me. As it was, his head hurt like Hades; he'd have some bruises tomorrow, that was obvious. Quiaius walked slowly back to his room, and settled in for a long night of not sleeping.

The day everything happened, I was wondering if I was truly meant to be pledged to the Trees. Now, I was marked to serve the Trees from the time I was very small -- my mother told me there were things at my birth that marked me out for that, the veil over my head, and my eyes open even as I came into the world. But there was marked, and there was truly permanently committed, pledged for life, and that was a decision I had to make for myself, and I was just getting to where I was old enough to make it, and I didn't know what I wanted to do. You see, if I were pledged, along with a great number of other important things, I'd be celibate for life, and while that had seemed like a perfectly good idea when I was a little boy, in the last couple of years it had started sounding a great deal less appealing. I'd done some growing up, you see, and suddenly there were a few of my friends who had done their growing up too and come out of it looking awfully good. Anyway, I'd done a little playing, with Maelchwn and with Eithne, and I hadn't gone very far but far enough to know that I'd like to go further, if I could. And I couldn't go any further -- in fact, I ought not to have gone as far as I had. It wasn't the only thing that made me wonder if I really ought to be making the vows, but it was the thing that I was thinking about that day, and I decided to go sit under my favorite tree and meditate about it, and that's where I was and what I was doing when they caught me. It's almost funny when you think about it; it'd make a great story: there's Eab sitting under the cherry tree deciding whether to lose his, and up come the Romans and he never did get to decide, did he? They did the deciding, and it was fourteen of them that night, and all in all Eab (that's me) would just as soon have made his pledge and stayed with the Trees.

It's very important that you understand I didn't go easily. There were four of them in the party that caught me, and I broke away from them in the woods twice and ran and they caught me anyway. I fought like mad every way I knew how, and I think two of them still have the scars, but they were stronger. I suppose even one of them would have been stronger than me; they were soldiers and grown men, after all. They laughed and they beat me and they hauled me back to the camp, where the other soldiers were. They stripped me like it was a game, and threw me down on my back, and three of them held me down so I couldn't fight, and gods, I never thought anything could hurt as much as what they did to me then. I can still see the first one's face, and smell his breath all nasty from bad wine. I screamed when he rammed his cock into me, and he laughed at that. The rest of them sort of blurred together after a while, but that first one's very clear in my mind. I have dreams about cutting him up into a lot of pieces, and seeing if he thinks that's so funny.

I was in the camp for a few weeks; it's hard to tell how much time's passing when you're mostly chained inside a tent being fucked by whoever's got nothing better to do. Fighting made it worse -- I could tell some of them loved it when I fought them -- but if I stopped fighting I knew I'd die, or at least not be myself anymore. I got hit a lot. I found out you have to get hit really, really hard before you're knocked out, and it hurts like hell when you wake up from it, but it's sort of worth it, because you don't remember a lot of what happened even a few hours before you got hit sometimes. I also found out that eventually the fucking doesn't hurt quite as badly as it did at first, but that it's actually worse then, because you know you're getting used to it, and even if it doesn't hurt as badly, it still hurts.

The main thing I found out is that I hate Romans. They've got to be the nastiest people in the world. I hate the way they talk -- I know it's a language, but it sounds all wrong, like animal noises or something. It can't be a proper language. I hate the way they smell, even though I probably didn't smell any better after I was with them for a while. I hate their food, or at least the kind of scraps they threw me. I hate the way they think it's funny when someone gets hurt, or screams, or bleeds. I hate the way they rode their horses when the camp broke up, and carried their things in wagons, but made me walk behind them in chains all the way to Rome. I hate the way, when we stopped at night, they just kept me chained to the back of their stupid wagon, and took me on my knees on the ground, and then made me walk all day afterwards just the same.

Once I got to Rome, they couldn't get rid of me fast enough; they passed me off to some kind of trader. I saw him give the soldier who caught me the first time a few coins, and I saw them argue about it -- I guess I didn't bring as much as he thought I would. The slaver's place was actually better than being with the soldiers; I got beaten almost as much, but hardly anyone fucked me. By then I was pretty well out of my mind. I'd been treated like an animal so much, I think I was turning into one. Maybe that would be easier than being what I actually was. Anyone who touched me got bitten. If I screamed at everyone who came to look at me, I got whipped, but then I didn't get bought either, so it was safer that way. Sometimes I wondered if Maelchwn and Eithne ever wondered what became of me, and I was glad they didn't know. I was there for a while; then some guards held me down and poured something nasty down my throat and I woke up in a different place, feeling sick and hurting in some familiar places -- I guess it was too tempting for somebody, seeing me all knocked out like that. That place wasn't much different from the first one, except that when they found out that whipping me didn't stop me from screaming, they stopped feeding me. That didn't stop me either, although I expect it would have eventually, wouldn't it? By that time I was so dirty and crazy and ruined that I don't think they hoped to sell me anymore; probably they hoped I'd die. I hoped so too. People would come and look at me, and I knew what they were seeing: some kind of creature. Horrible.

And then this man came, and I don't know what he saw, but I suppose it wasn't so horrible. He looked like he felt sorry for me. I tried to scare him away like the others, but I guess it didn't work on him, because a different bunch of guards poured a different nasty thing down my throat (not before I bit them, though) and I woke up where I am now, in this big empty house full of little animals.

It's the strangest thing. I woke up clean and dressed, in a clean bed! It doesn't really make any sense. Why would anyone bother to dress me? He looks at me all the time, but not the way the soldiers did -- more like you'd look at something that was interesting, something you liked. He keeps giving me good food, really good food, and he keeps not fucking me -- he tried to, last night, he touched me and scared the hell out of me, but I bit him, and I felt so much stronger from eating that I knocked him down a couple of times, too. He looked so upset I almost felt sorry for him.

Maybe it wouldn't be so bad. Or not as bad as the soldiers, anyway. At least he smells good. And he has beautiful blue eyes. I'm still going to knock him down if he tries it again, though.

When Quiaius finally fell into a troubled sleep, it was nearly morning; only a few hours later, he was awakened by the sun streaming in the window and an aching in his head. He put his hand out to steady himself as he got up, and was reminded by a fresh burst of pain that he'd been bitten the night before; standing, he remembered that he'd been knocked down not once but twice by the Celt. I'm too old to be getting knocked down, he thought ruefully as he limped out to start his day.

He put together a breakfast for the boy; there was still some bread left, and cheese. He scrambled a few eggs and cooked them over the hearth; it was a real challenge, with his right hand painful and feeling badly swollen, but he thought he should at least offer him something hot. He carried the tray, with a pitcher of water and a mug, to the slave's room, and hesitated at the door; peering in cautiously, he saw that the Celt was sleeping, sitting up, with his back to the wall. Several cats were sprawled around his feet; they seemed to take up more space than he did. Quiaius quietly placed the tray within the boy's reach, then stepped back through the doorway.

"Breakfast, before the cats get it," he called out gently; the boy stirred and opened his eyes. He glared at Quiaius for a moment before he smelled the food, then appeared almost to forget the man was there as he devoured the eggs.

Quiaius smiled. If he could cook nothing else, he could cook eggs; Claudia had loved to wake late and lie in bed while he made her breakfast. He didn't usually bother with much for himself, but apparently cooking eggs was a skill that came back after long neglect. He returned to the kitchen and picked up a piece of bread for himself, then took a quick bath. Any situation looked better after a bath.

Unfortunately, his hand looked worse; it was as swollen as it felt, and red around the bite marks. It hurt worse when he touched it, and felt hot. Brilliant, he thought. Now I've got myself infected. He found a clean toga, dressed, and set out for the healer's.

Yolada the healer's tiny clinic was a short walk from Quiaius' home. He was thankful for that, not only because his back hurt from the falls he'd taken the night before, but because those few people he passed on the street looked at him as if his hair were on fire. Of course. Bruises from the doorjamb. That had to look wonderful. He reached the house and stooped to knock, waited a few moments, knocked again.

"Coming!" the healer's shrill voice rang out. "When 90 years old you are, run to answer the door you will not!" She opened the door and laughed at the sight of him. "If fights you keep getting into, 90 years old you will never be!"

Although Quiaius had visited her before, the healer was always an arresting sight. She was no more than four feet tall, gnarled as an ancient tree, and almost entirely without hair except for a few white tufts at the sides of her head. The only things about her that were not undersized were her ears, which were not only quite large, but somewhat pointed. There was a great deal of speculation over whether she had been inspired to pursue the trade of healing because of her own deformity, or whether it was the constant exposure to powerful herbs and chemicals from an early age that had stunted and twisted her. There was also speculation over where exactly her odd accent and speech patterns had come from; some believed she was originally from Egypt, while others claimed that their grandparents remembered her growing up just outside Pompeii and speaking like any other native. Whatever her origin, she was an extraordinarily talented healer, if you didn't mind fitting yourself into the clinic she'd had built to her own personal scale. Quiaius had to stoop more than most as he entered the little front room.

Every inch of the walls was covered with hanging bundles of herbs, shelves with mysterious jars, and genuinely frightening medical apparatus hanging on hooks.

Quiaius smiled despite his annoyance. "It wasn't a fight, exactly. I... surprised a new slave."

"Surprised you must have been, when thrashed you he did!" she chuckled. "Not much for bruises can I do, except advise waiting. Sit down, now. Your hand you have hurt, hmmm?"

"Yes, I'm afraid he bit me." Quiaius folded himself into a tiny chair that put him just about at Yolada's eye level, and unwrapped the bandage. "It's quite painful, and it seems to be swelling."

The tiny woman inspected his hand, and prodded painfully at the bite, shaking her head. "Dirtier than any dog's, the human mouth is! To be bitten by a crocodile, better off you would be! Red streaks here do you see? Infection!"

"So I suspected. Is there anything you can do?"

She went to an old cabinet at the back of the room, opened a drawer, and pulled out a small jar, which she handed to him. "This you will put on it, three times a day."

He opened the jar to see what looked like some sort of goo, with a strong foul smell. "What is it?"

"Comes from mold. Takes away infection it does, but filthy it smells, hmmm? You must keep this hand wrapped and dry, and don't let any more slaves bite you! A problem with this one you have?"

"It's entirely my fault. I saw him at a slaver's and bought him because he obviously needed some care; he'd been beaten and starved half to death. He'd been a captive with the Army in the northern lands, and abused quite badly. I managed to wake him up and frighten him pretty badly when I was checking on him last night, and of course he thought he had to defend himself."

"Captive with the Army, hmm? Young and pretty he is?"

"I suppose... if my tastes ran that way, yes, very pretty. Certainly young. Doesn't speak a word of Latin, of course, and I don't know how I'm going to explain to him that I don't mean him any harm."

"Smart man you are. Teach him Latin you will. For now -- cats you have, hmm?"

"Why yes, I do. How did you know?"

"Hair on your clothes you have, quite a few different colors. Old I may be, but blind I am not. Cats did you all get when tame little kittens, or some strays?"

"Mostly strays, I suppose. I tend to accumulate them."

"When new cat you have in the house, wild one, pick it up do you? Play with it? Catch hold of its tail, hmmm?"

"Of course not, that's a good way to get... Ahh, I see. So, I should let him alone as much as possible?"

"Let him alone, feed him, and speak to him nicely, and in your lap he will be sitting!" The old healer laughed as Quiaius blushed.

"Well, that's not really what I'm trying for."

Yolada grew a little more serious. "Clothed the boy is? Not known for keeping boys well covered, are soldiers. Known for the opposite, in my experience."

"Yes, yes, I've given him one of my old tunics."

"Your tunic fits a starved young boy? Likely that is not. Buy him some clothes you should. Suitable for nice boys, students, not for the ones who hang around the baths. Come to me with the itch every moon, some of them do. Clothes fit for a good boy give him, and fit them he will."

"I don't really know what size he wears..."

"Loosely the boys' tunics fit these days, and looked at the boy enough to estimate I think you have. To Palpatinus you can afford to go, hmm? At the north end of the market?"

"Well, I suppose..."

"Suppose not, but do. Fifty denarii you will pay me now, and when less bruised you are looking, shopping you will go." The tiny woman held out her hand, a look of triumph on her wizened face.

"Shopping. Yes." Quiaius handed her a few coins, rose from the little chair (banging his head on the low ceiling in the process) and turned to go, dropping the jar she'd given him into the bag that hung at his belt. "Thank you, Yolada. I'll take your advice. You're a wise woman."

"When beautiful one is not, wise one must be. When beautiful one is, wisdom is only one of several options."

As he entered his front door, Quiaius heard an unfamiliar voice from the back of his home. He walked back cautiously, quietly, to discover a charming sight: the Celt was sitting cross-legged on the floor and speaking quietly and earnestly to Rosa. Rosa was the smallest of Quiaius' cats, a tortoiseshell he'd found sitting calmly in the middle of the market when she was a tiny kitten. She was grown now, but still behaved very much like a kitten. The Celt appeared to be telling the little cat a story, and while Quiaius couldn't understand a word the boy was saying, he was mesmerized by his voice, soft and lilting, and by his dramatic gestures, which the cat was watching, spellbound. Quiaius sat down quietly in the doorway and listened as the story reached its apparent climax; the boy showed no sign that he noticed him, until at the end of his tale he nodded in his direction and pointed him out to the cat who, of course, looked not at Quiaius but at the pointing finger. Wonder what he's telling her about me? Quiaius mused; then he smiled, suddenly struck by an idea.

He reached back and awkwardly, with his uninjured left hand, untied the leather cord that held his hair. As his hair fell around his shoulders, Quiaius tied the cord into a floppy bow, then tapped his fingers on the floor to get the cat's (and the boy's) attention. He gave the Celt a sidelong look and smiled, then tossed the cord across the room; Rosa bounded over to it, scooped it up with one white-socked paw, and picked it up in her mouth. She then trotted over to Quiaius and dropped it in his lap. "Very good!" He tossed the cord again, and she repeated her performance. The Celt watched, and for the first time since Quiaius had seen him, smiled, and although the smile was slightly tentative, he suddenly looked less battered than radiant. "Now you try it," and Quiaius tossed the cord to him as the cat watched intently.

The boy caught the knotted cord -- Quiaius was pleased to see how quick his reflexes were -- and threw it a few feet across the room. Rosa ran over and picked it up, then returned to drop it in the delighted boy's lap. He laughed -- a lovely, musical sound -- and tossed it again; the cat returned it again. With a slightly mischievous look -- and Quiaius wondered how long it had been since the boy had played -- he tossed the cord over near Quiaius. When the cat ran over to retrieve it, Quiaius scooped her up and she wriggled and purred in his arms.

"Cattus. See? Cattus," Quiaius said, holding Rosa up as an illustration.

"Cat-tis?" The Celt pointed to the cat.

Quiaius would later recall that he had never before been so pleased by someone saying "cat."

The impromptu lesson quickly advanced, with much laughter, to such subjects as manus (which reminded Quiaius to put the medicine Yolada had given him on his injured hand), pedis (for which the Celt stretched out a disconcertingly pretty foot, with attached chain), and nasus (it seemed to amuse the boy that the same word applied to his own small nose and Quiaius' somewhat crooked one), as well as cauda, illustrated by the waving tail of Rosa as she attempted to initiate another game of fetch. When Macius' cook Sima stopped by with more food, Quiaius was able to show the Celt panis and the obsonium that went with it (bread and fruit preserve, in this case), as well as crustulum, the little sweet cakes that the boy liked. Quiaius was attempting to demonstrate ius by pouring some of the hot, fragrant soup into mugs when Rosa began poking her head into one of the mugs, trying to get a share. "No, no."

The Celt, who had up to this point been more relaxed and happy than Quiaius had ever expected to see him, suddenly became quiet and thoughtful. "No?"

Quiaius nodded, and suddenly realized that to the boy, this was probably the most important word in the language.

They sat quietly for a few minutes, sharing food. The boy seemed less afraid, Quiaius thought; perhaps just being able to communicate, even about simple objects, made him feel more secure. The Celt was half-reclining on his low bed; Quiaius caught him looking at him a few times, curious. His eyes change. They were blue a moment ago, weren't they? Now green. Like the ocean. The more he looked at the boy, the less he saw the cruel bruises that marked his slender limbs; the more he saw... what? The sharp angle of a shoulder, the almost imperceptible curve of a hip, the unstudied grace of a hand not much more than half the size of his own. The boy looked up at him again, questioningly.

Of course. "Quiaius," he said, gesturing towards himself. "I'm Quiaius."

The Celt smiled shyly, trying the name. "Kais." Close enough. He sat up and pointed to his head, his heart. "Eab."

Before the boy learned some Latin, Quiaius reflected, it had been easy enough to treat him as a kind of pet. Now, that was impossible; he was Eab, a boy, a strange one in some respects but still a boy, and Quiaius hardly knew how to treat him at all.

Eab was clearly somewhat afraid -- less of him, as time went on, than of everything. Quiaius had tried to tell him that he was in no danger of being mistreated in his home, but even after three weeks of doing his best to teach the boy Latin, he couldn't be sure how much he understood. There were words Quiaius genuinely didn't know how to teach him, concepts that couldn't easily be pointed out in pictures or in life. Quiaius could only hope that Eab would eventually accept that he wasn't going to hurt him. Eab spoke little; Quiaius wondered if he had always been shy, or if his experiences in the past few months had driven him inward. While there were times when the boy seemed to allow himself to relax, they were brief, and most of the time he appeared to be very much on guard. When Macius visited, Eab had reacted with terror, backing into a corner and shuddering despite all Quiaius' reassurances, and the friends had agreed that perhaps it was best that they meet at Macius' home for the time being. Nearly any unexpected noise was enough to make the boy jump, and several times the sound of a group of men on horses in the street outside clearly inspired panic.

Physically, Eab had made a great deal of progress. The bruises that had covered him when he first came to Quiaius' home had faded, and all but the worst of the cuts and scrapes had healed. There were some scars -- mostly on his wrists and ankles, from the shackles, and on his back, from the whippings -- but Quiaius guessed that even these would eventually become less visible. While Eab was still thinner than Quiaius thought was healthy, he had filled out somewhat, and no longer looked gaunt. Twice Quiaius had watched silently from the hall while the boy performed a series of stretches; each time, he had felt faintly embarrassed at having done so, as if he were spying on a religious ritual or an act of love. The second time, Eab had turned and caught him looking; the boy simply stood and stared at him, his expression unreadable, until Quiaius felt so uncomfortable that he had to leave the house.

Quiaius walked, preoccupied, not particularly conscious of the sights and sounds of the market. He wondered whether Eab was angry with him for watching his exercise; then he wondered why he was spending so much time watching the boy; then he wondered how he'd occupied his time before Eab had been there to watch. This line of thinking distracted him so much that he nearly walked into a stand where an old woman was selling bags of salted nuts. Set much too far into the street, he thought irritably as she gave him a dirty look. I'm surprised half Rome hasn't run into it. I'm surprised it's standing...

He looked around and realized he was already at the north end of the market, with no real idea of where he'd been heading in the first place. Then it occurred to him that there was something he'd been meaning to do, and he headed into the tastefully lit and elaborately decorated shop where Palpatinus the clothier had his business.

"Ah, good afternoon, good Sir," the rather oily proprietor greeted him. "And what are you looking for today?"

Quiaius looked around; the shop, while full of mirrors and fancy benches and small pedestals, did not appear to contain any clothing. "Boys' tunics?"

"Splendid! I have a new line, truly lovely work." He clapped his hands. "Maulus! The new tunic, please?" There was a stirring in the back room of the shop, a sound that might have been discreet grumbling, and then a few moments later a most unusual creature parted the gilded curtain and entered the room.

Maulus, the shop's model, was not particularly tall; however, he was remarkably well-built. His jet-black hair was worn in short, gleaming curls, and he looked very much like an image on an old Greek vase. He would have been extremely attractive, Quiaius thought, if his face hadn't been marred by an arrogant expression. He walked silkily around the room, pointedly ignoring both Quiaius and his employer, then arranged himself on one of the benches in such as way as to emphasize the fact that the rather sheer tunic he wore was slit up the side to reveal a shapely leg nearly to the hip. He then looked up, fixed Quiaius with an intense look, and spoke in a sultry voice. "Boys' tunic in China silk. Seventy denarii."

"I don't think that's quite what I'm looking for. Something more... plain?"

"We don't do cheap, if that's what you want." Palpatinus gave him a nasty look. "We do good work here, in cotton, linen and silk. Don't you think your boy is worth it?"

"No, no, he isn't my boy. He's..." Quiaius searched for an explanation. "My nephew. A student. Studies languages. Yes, very scholarly boy."

"Aaaah, your nephew. You should have said so. You want something more... Maulus, the Egyptian cotton?"

The model rolled his eyes, then got up and slunk to the back room. There were a few sounds of frantic rummaging around, a moment's silence, and then he re-emerged in a longer, looser garment in opaque white cotton. He walked around the room, then leaned languidly on one of the pedestals. "Boy's tunic. Edging in red, green or black. Fifty-five denarii."

"Yes, that's the kind of thing... One in green, one in black, I suppose."

"And what size is your... nephew?"

"Well, he's a little taller than your model here, but thinner..."

"Size small, then. Two. Would you like Maulus here to deliver them? There's a small charge, then any tip you might work out..."

"Delivery is only a little extra," the model purred, fixing him with a seductive look. "Delivery is always worth it."

Quiaius wondered exactly what came with the delivery, then decided he'd be better off not knowing. "No, no. I'll take them with me." He paid, then waited as a sulky Maulus brought out the tunics and wrapped them; the model appeared to be working as slowly as he could without actually being accused of stopping.

By the time Quiaius left the shop, it was nearing time for dinner. He walked briskly towards home, thinking of Eab's surprise when he saw the new tunics -- he'd been wearing the same thing for weeks, after all. He smiled at the idea of Eab wearing something new. The green trim, he thought, would go well with the boy's eyes.

When he opened the door of his home, something seemed wrong. Things were too quiet, somehow, and the cats were milling around like leaves in a windstorm, mewing. The kitchen cupboard was open; Quiaius paused for a moment, thinking to see if anything was missing, then stopped and ran to the back bedroom.

Eab was gone.

I don't think he's actually a Roman.

He hasn't touched me since the first night, and the more I think about it, the less I think he meant me any harm that one time. If he meant to fuck me, he surely would have done so by now, wouldn't he? He hasn't even punished me for biting his hand, and it's practically healed now. A Roman would surely have beaten me for that. He hasn't hurt me, and he hasn't let anyone else hurt me, not even his friend, the one almost as tall as he is.

He's taller than any of the Romans I've seen, and quieter, too. I've never heard him shout yet. He's so quiet, I hardly know he's in the room sometimes until he offers me something to eat. He gives me the best food, too -- he takes the burnt cake and gives me the good one, every time, and it doesn't make any sense to me why he'd do that. He just looks at me with those kind blue eyes, and smiles, and sometimes there's nothing I can do but smile back at him. At times like that, I forget how afraid I am, if only for a moment.

He's teaching me Latin -- none of the other Romans, the soldiers, ever did that in all the time I was with them. What did I have to say to them, after all? I could have asked them not to fuck me any more, please, but they wouldn't have listened. I have trouble believing the language that sounded so crude and harsh in the mouths of those soldiers is the same one he speaks. From him, it sounds almost beautiful. The voices I hear in my nightmares aren't the same thing at all.

The other Romans had horses, and they did all kinds of work, carrying soldiers, pulling wagons, that kind of thing. If Kais has a horse, I haven't seen it -- all he has are these beasts like tiny bears with long tails. There must be a dozen of them, all colors and sizes, and they don't do anything at all but walk around and look beautiful and speak in peculiar voices like birds, and sleep wherever they like. They don't have any job at all. I wonder sometimes if the house belongs to them, and he just keeps it for them. It's funny to think of such a fine tall man being a servant to little beasts, but this is a strange land I've found myself in. They're lovely beasts, anyway. Kais strokes them with his big, gentle hands, and they rub their heads against his ankles, and make the most wonderful sounds. You could do much worse than to be a beast in this man's house.

The other Romans were a lot more watchful than he is, too. Not that he doesn't watch me -- he watches me all the time, and it makes me feel strange inside sometimes. I wonder what he's looking at, or what he's thinking when he looks at me. But the other Romans would never have left a hair clip within easy reach of a man in chains, would they?

I don't know where I'm going, but surely there must be some trees around here someplace.

"Quiaius, I think you may as well accept that he's gone." Macius sighed and sat down on his brocade-covered couch. "I told you from the beginning that you'd never be able to keep him."

"I didn't come over here for you to tell me that. I need your help."

"Help with what? We could ride around all night searching the streets for him. Do you think he'd be out in plain sight? And if we found him, what would you do? Take him home and chain him up again?"

"I don't know..." Quiaius paced nervously back and forth in the elegantly appointed room. "What do you do when a slave goes missing?"

"Depends on the situation. If, say, my cook's son ran off, he's a child -- I'd let her handle it, maybe ask around in the marketplace; he'd probably just be off doing boy things, and he'd come on back in a day or two, no harm done. When that new stablehand took off with my best horse, I reported it to the city guard and hired slave-catchers to go after him. Not that I wanted him after that -- I had him whipped and sold him -- but you know I wanted the horse back!"


"You don't want to do that, Quiaius. Trust me. They go after them with dogs, sometimes. Your boy..."

"I couldn't do that to him, no."

"Let him go, Quiaius. Who knows, maybe he's going back home to the northern lands. Finding his way back by the stars or whatever."

"Oh, I suppose you could do that, if you were dropped off half the world away..."

"Of course I couldn't. But maybe he can." Macius got up from his seat, stopped his friend's pacing. "Look, you should let this go -- you took care of him, you fed him, you probably showed him the only kindness he's seen in months. You've done a good deed. Wherever he is, he's certainly better off than he was when you found him with Wattovius."

"I don't know that. He could be... Someone could have taken him."

"Quiaius, who in his right mind is going to take a half-wild Celt slave with no skills and a tendency toward violence? Besides you, anyway. You told me you found your hair clip in one of the locks. That's pretty obvious, it seems to me. Was anything missing besides him?"

"Some food -- bread, cheese, that kind of thing. An old canvas bag. And one of my kitchen knives."

"Oh, so he's armed. Well, I should've known... I hate to ask you this, but have you... well, have you done anything that might make him want to kill you?"

"Not unless you count teaching him Latin."

"Then he probably won't come looking for you. And if you're lucky, he isn't going to go off and kill a few soldiers who look halfway familiar to him. You know, letting a potentially dangerous slave get loose could get you into a lot of trouble."

"I didn't let him get loose! I left the house for less than an hour. He was securely locked up." Quiaius sighed and sat down, his head in his hands. "I don't know what to do."

Macius sat down beside him. "Don't do anything. Quiaius, I'll ask around a little, see if anyone's seen him."

"Thank you. I think I'll head home now and -- "

"Go home. Take a bath. Get some sleep. Don't wear yourself out worrying over a slave. He isn't worth it."

He's worth it to me, Quiaius thought as he walked home through the night. Why is that? He's just a slave. I only paid a few denarii for him... He thought of the slaves he'd had before, the housekeepers he'd kept for a few months and set free for one reason or another. He'd been fond of all of them, but he'd always been happy for them when they left, and really a little relieved. However helpful they might have been, they had tended to buzz around the house with chores and duties he'd never thought needed to be done, and spoiled the quiet. Why was this boy so different?

When Quiaius got home, he stood and looked at the empty chains on the floor in the back room for a long time, wondering.

As it turns out, Rome is a much larger city than I thought. I should have remembered that I hadn't seen very much of it. The size of it was a help to me, though; there were so many people bustling around, no one seemed to notice one boy in the shadows. I just walked, in no particular direction, and when I came to a big river, I followed that upstream and out of the city. In a while, the buildings got farther apart and the people grew fewer; by then it was dark and I could go on my way unnoticed.

This sounds as if I were very casual about it. In fact, I was scared to death: every time someone looked at me, I thought surely he must be a soldier, ready to capture me again; then he'd look away, because I wasn't who he thought I was, I suppose. This happened again and again, and every time my heart beat like a bird in my chest. I did have a knife to defend myself with, but I've never fought with a knife in my life, and anyway I doubt it was sharp enough to cut anything but bread. I had no real idea where I was going, either, so I just followed what little intuition I had, going in whatever direction seemed tree-ish.

At the same time, though, I was practically spinning with joy over being out, walking free under the clear dark sky and the stars and the moon! It had been so long since I'd seen the sky, after all; those months with the slavers, and before that with the soldiers, when I'd been outside but hadn't looked up ever. I stopped twice to eat some of the food I'd brought with me, but I was too excited to have more than a few bites, just enough to keep me going.

When, after walking all night, I saw the sun coming up over a stand of trees, I actually jumped up and down with excitement -- I wasn't embarrassed, because there was no one to see me but the sky and the trees, and they knew how I felt. I ran the last half-mile, tired as I was.

This grove just felt right. It was wonderfully isolated; there was a small white building, a temple of some kind, but no one was there. A little stream ran through the grove, and made the beautiful sound of free water. Not all the trees looked familiar -- I was very far from the forests at home, after all -- but they were there, and there were so many of them, and I wanted to touch every one. I walked around for a long time, breathing the wonderful smell of them and just looking.

When I saw the great oak tree, I knew I'd found exactly what I was looking for. She was beautiful -- tall and broad, with branches reaching high in the air and great strong roots gripping the earth, the Mother of trees, with Her lover the mistletoe twined in Her arms. I leaned against Her, felt Her rough bark against my hands and face, and knew that She would care for me.

If I were at home, there were rituals I might have followed, ways of cleansing myself before approaching Her, but I was a long way from home, and I knew She would understand I was doing my best. I slipped off my tunic and walked to the stream; the air felt cool and strange and very right on my bare skin. The water was cold -- cold enough to make me gasp -- but I washed myself as thoroughly as I could, taking my time, scrubbing with a handful of grass, until I felt truly clean, as clean as I'd been since I was taken. I dried myself with my tunic, put it and the bag with my food and my knife under a bush to find later, then simply sat and breathed deeply until I felt completely calm.

Her trunk went straight up a good fifteen feet before branching out, but I've been climbing since I was very small. It's just a matter of finding the places where my toe can wedge in, or my hand can grip, and She was welcoming and cooperative. When a tree wants you to climb, it's almost impossible to fall, so I scrambled up in perfect confidence. About thirty feet up, there was a place, completely hidden from the ground in Her foliage, where four branches -- all of them thicker than I am -- came together and made a perfect seat. I settled there, leaning back on one of the branches, legs hanging down on either side of another, as comfortable as any baby in his mother's lap.

It was wonderful, sitting there, with the same gentle breeze that was rustling the leaves ruffling my hair; the ground was far away, and the sky was that much closer. I quieted my mind the way I'd been taught by the Trees back at home, and after a while I could feel Her leaves stretching up into the clean air, and Her roots burrowing into the good dark earth. I could feel Her strength as She revealed Herself to me, and that strength became a part of me as I became a part of Her, another branch bending gently in the breeze.

The sun rose higher, the breezes grew warmer, and I slept lightly in my nest there in the center of the great tree. I dreamed then, but instead of the nightmares of the past few months, I dreamed of the great Tree, and Her life: the droughts She had endured, the lightning that had scarred Her, the fire that had scorched Her but yet not consumed Her. I knew She showed me these things so that I would know that She, too, had suffered, and yet that She was not destroyed: that She had survived, and grown stronger than before, and that I would, too.

The dream changed, then, and I saw Kais in his house, sitting on the floor in the room where he'd kept me. He was holding my chains in his hands, and looking as sad as I've ever seen a man look, so that I felt sorry for him sitting there all alone. His little beasts walked around him and spoke to him and rubbed their heads against him, but he paid no attention to them, just looked at the chains. Then he put them on his own ankles, and lay down on my pallet there on the floor, curled up like a child, and I think he wept.

The dream changed again, and I was back in that house, wearing fine clothes and reclining on a great, soft bed. There were no chains on my wrists or ankles, no part of me hurt, and all my scars were gone, and I felt wonderfully safe and peaceful. I lay there a while, enjoying the warmth and softness of the bed and the way I felt, and then Kais came into the room carrying a little basket. I recognized the basket right away; it was one I had when I was quite small, that my mother made for me; some bigger boys took it from me one day and I never got it back. Well, here was Kais with this basket, and he sat down beside me on the great soft bed, and I saw that the basket was full of cherries. I realized just then that I was hungry, and that cherries were just what I wanted, and at that moment he picked one up and fed it to me with his own hand, as if I were a baby. After I ate that one, he gave me another, and another after that. Now, these were the kind of cherries that you only see in dreams, big and red and impossibly sweet, and they had no stones at all, so that I could just eat them without thinking, and that's what I did. Kais seemed very happy to lie with me and feed me cherries, and I was very happy to eat them. However many he fed me, the basket was never empty, and however many I ate, I wasn't full, but I did start feeling very warm.

I heard rain in my dream then, and wondered why it was raining in Kais' bedroom, and that was the end of it: I woke up in a downpour, soaked and, to my amazement, quite hard. Without thinking of anything at all, still half-dreaming, I touched myself for pleasure for the first time in months. The rain poured down on me, and slicked my hand and my cock, and when I came with a shout in a rush of heat and joy, the rain washed my seed from me and down into the ground, an offering to the tree who had given me Her gifts.

It took a little while for me to come completely to my senses, as I sat there thirty feet above the ground, leaning back on that broad branch. Tiny shocks ran through me as my body reminded me of the proof that it could still feel pleasure. The rain ran through my hair and down over my face, and I opened my mouth and tasted it, sweet, on my tongue; I raised my hands and let it run down my arms, extended my feet and let it wash them, too. Then I turned and stood and wrapped my arms around a thick branch, so that the rain came down on my back and washed it too; I looked up and let it pour straight into my face. The rain was Her blessing, given to clean me and prepare me for the rest of my journey.

When the rain slowed, I was ready to leave Her. The sun's light told me that it was morning again -- I was a little surprised, but then dreaming in Her arms might take any amount of time, and my mother had told me stories about Trees of ancient times who climbed Her and were not seen again for years. I climbed down much more slowly than I had gone up, thanking Her as I went for what She'd given me, and promising to consider Her dreams carefully. I stepped carefully onto the ground; it seemed to sway gently under me as I found my things, dressed, and bid Her farewell.

I had a long walk ahead of me, and quite a lot to think about on the journey.

Quiaius sat on his bed, picked up a book, tried to read; he found himself going over the same line again and again, unable to concentrate. He got up, walked to the kitchen, looked in the cupboard; nothing there appealed to him, and he couldn't decide whether he was hungry or not. He briefly considered going to visit Macius for a game of dice, then decided it was too late -- indeed, it was after midnight. A bath might have been a good idea, considering how keyed-up he felt, but he'd already had one an hour or so ago; instead of relaxing him, it had left him as tense as he'd been before he climbed into the hot water.

The bathtub reminded him of the day Eab had arrived, all bruises and bones and dirt, and how he'd bathed him and settled him in the bed in the back room. The kitchen reminded him of how Eab had seemed to love food, pretty much anything Quiaius had offered him, but particularly sweet things, fruit and cakes and honey. Reading reminded him of the times they had spent quietly together, Quiaius reading, Eab playing with the cats. As for Macius -- Macius had told him he wouldn't be able to keep the boy, and he'd been right. Macius had told him Eab was gone for good, and he was undoubtedly right again.

He walked into the back room and looked at the chains on the floor, still locked to the heavy wooden chest. He wondered whether, if he had released Eab from the chains, he would have stayed, or run off into the night as soon as he was freed. He'd never know now, would he? He'd kept the boy chained all along. What kind of man was he, to keep him that way... He sat heavily on the low bed, his head in his hands; he couldn't really tell, but he imagined the folds of the bedsheets still bore the impression of the boy's body. He lay down, and noticed a single short, golden hair on the pillow, and somehow that was too much. He felt hot tears sting his eyes for the first time in years. Why hadn't he realized how alone he was until Eab had come and gone?

I'm not sure why it took so much longer to get back to Rome than it took to find the Tree. I was wonderfully rested from the time I'd spent dreaming, and after the rain stopped the day was clear and warm enough that I regretted having to put my tunic back on. What little food was left in my bag had been spoiled by the rain, but I found some grapes growing wild, and they were sweet and tart and perfect. Along with some sweet, cold water from the stream, they were enough to start me on my way.

Walking back through the countryside along the river, I could see what I had missed in the dark on the way: gentle hills, deep green grass dotted with flowers, and occasionally small houses in the middle of lush fields. The grass felt good under my bare feet, and the sun warmed my shoulders as I walked.

It was quite dark by the time I got into the city, and I think that if I had known when I left that I was going back, I would have paid more attention to the way I had come. There are a thousand little streets in Rome, and as far as I could tell they all looked alike, so I wandered around, hoping a direction would strike me as the right one. There were so many houses, and while lamps and candles shone through a few windows, none of them was the house I was looking for.

At some point I realized two men were walking behind me. From the way they were talking to each other so loudly that they might have been a mile apart rather than a foot or two, I suppose they were drunk. I don't think they were much older than I am, but I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck standing up and my heart beating in my throat. I hurried on, hoping to go around a corner or two and leave them behind -- maybe they only happened to be going the same way as I was -- but they followed, and started laughing and calling to me -- I couldn't tell what they were saying. I started running then, scared as I was, and I'm not sure if what I heard then was them chasing me, or just my own footsteps echoing from the houses on all sides. I ran until I couldn't anymore, and hid shivering in a doorway to catch my breath. After a while, I looked over to a window in the same house that was lit up by a candle, and sitting on the windowsill very calmly watching me was Argentum, Kais' great gray cat.

Quiaius came slowly awake, slightly confused to find himself in the slave's empty bed where he had dozed off. He wasn't sure what had pulled him up out of sleep -- a sound? He heard it again, a frantic rapping at his front door, and realized it had been going on for some time. He got up out of the bed awkwardly, pulling his toga into some semblance of order and pushing his hair back out of his eyes; he tripped over at least two cats in the dark as he made his way to the door. The knocking continued, and he opened the door.

There, flushed, breathing hard, and slightly trembling, was Eab. The boy walked into the house, closed the door behind him, leaned back against it, and gazed up at Quiaius with a look of immense relief.


Quiaius fought an almost overwhelming urge to take the boy in his arms. He took a deep breath, smiled, and stepped back a little.

"Yes. Home, Eab."

The boy smiled a little shyly, looked up through long blond lashes. "I went to the Tree. She showed me."

Quiaius wondered what he could mean by that, and decided he didn't need to know. "I'm glad. I missed you."

"Good." More of a smile. "Hungry?"

Quiaius laughed, and they went to the kitchen together.

It was a great thing to see the boy sitting at the kitchen table, neatly eating an apple as Quiaius heated a pan to make hotcakes. Quiaius wondered where the boy had been, and what had happened while he was there -- he seemed happier, somehow easier within himself. Of course, that might have been because he was no longer in chains, Quiaius thought, and felt a stab of guilt.

While Quiaius cooked, a few of the cats drifted into the room and sniffed curiously at Eab, who, finished with his apple, leaned down and petted them and talked to them, both in Latin and his own odd, somewhat musical tongue. Rosa leapt up and claimed a place in his lap, purring noisily as he stroked her. Such beautiful hands, Quiaius thought absently. Eab kissed the cat on the top of her head, and she hopped down, mildly affronted, to wash herself in the corner.

"Smells good."

"Every civilized nation has some form of hotcakes," Quiaius informed him, as he brought a plate of them to the table. "Try them with a little honey." Not that he needed to tell Eab that; he had already picked one up and drizzled some honey on it from the small jar on the table, and was eating it hungrily.

"Very good," he pronounced between bites, smiling.

Quiaius took one himself, and they sat together at the table, sharing the plate. Quiaius thought of similar late-night feasts with Claudia, so long ago, when they had laughed and talked and held hands under the table, and chased each other to bed with sticky hands. He found himself trying not to stare as Eab quite unselfconsciously licked the last of the honey from his fingers, then glanced at him.

"Beautiful cakes. Thank you Kais. Now I have to sleep."

He walked ahead of the boy to the back room where his bed waited for him. Quiaius took the key from the bag at his belt and, while Eab watched intently, unlocked the chains from the chest and put them away inside it.

"No more chains for you. This is your home if you like, but I won't force you to stay."

"My home, and my bed," Eab said sleepily as he lay down, joined immediately by a few cats. "Thank you, Kais."

Quiaius turned out the lamp and walked to his own bed, and for the first time in several days, he fell immediately asleep.

If anything feels better than lying in a soft bed after a long day's walk, it is lying in that bed without chains, full of good cakes and honey. I think I was asleep before my head was on the pillow.

Maybe it was the men in the street who made me dream the way I did; or maybe it was just time for me to dream. I hadn't had many dreams in the last months, or not that I remembered -- not until my time with the great Tree. Maybe I was too afraid for dreams, and now I was ready for them, I don't know.

I was back in the soldiers' camp, chained in the tent, and it seemed to me then that my time with Kais had been all a dream itself. I was filthy again, and hungry, and the raw pain between my legs was back, and I could hear them laughing, and I understood what they said now.

"Such a pretty boy."

"Pretty when you caught him, you mean. Not so good to look at now, is he?"

"Still feels good, though." Rough hands touched me, spread my legs again, and a thick callused finger thrust up inside me as I screamed, it hurt, it hurt... "Not as tight as you used to be, are you, little whore," and he laughed when I tried to get away, the chains holding me down there in the dirt, and he pulled his cock out of his pants.

"Give it to him, he's begging you for it," and I was screaming again as he pushed up inside me, ramming up into my torn flesh, screaming and screaming...

And I was screaming still as I sat up in the morning light, in the little bed in Kais' house where I'd gone to sleep, and Kais was there with me, standing beside the bed, looking at me as if he didn't know what to do.

Quiaius woke up from vague dreams of warmth to the sound of screaming from the boy's room, and was there in the room before he was fully awake.

"Eab, Eab, you're dreaming, you're safe, I'm here..."

The boy was sitting up, still halfway caught in what Quiaius knew had to be a horrible dream; he had stopped screaming, but trembled violently, a look of terror on his face. "The soldiers..." he murmured.

"They aren't here. No one is here but me, and I won't let anyone hurt you."

Eab seemed to come awake then, blinking, still shivering, but no longer in the dream. "I need... Please," and the boy reached out a shaking hand to him.

Quiaius sat down on the bed and took both the boy's hands, held them between his. "Shhh. You're safe here. That's all over now, and you're safe at home."

Eab looked up at him, his eyes gray-green and full of tears, then crawled up and laid his head against Quiaius' chest. Quiaius held him there, felt him shiver against him, and stroked his hair as gently as he knew how. "You're safe. No one can hurt you here."

I think something broke inside me when Kais held me then. Strange, but in all the time the soldiers had me, I never cried -- I screamed, and I cursed them, and I fought them, and I tried to hurt them somehow; I was angry, but I never cried at all in the camp or on the road or in the slavers' places. I never let them see that. I never cried at all until that morning, when Kais held me, and then I couldn't stop, couldn't speak, couldn't breathe, couldn't do anything but sob against him while he held me and said comforting things I only half understood. Part of me felt ashamed, to cry that way like a child, soaking his tunic with rivers of tears, but the rest of me just cried until the tears subsided, while he held me to him and spoke softly and petted my hair the way my mother did when I was small. I did feel safe then, finally, and I relaxed against him and slept again, this time with no dreams at all, only the feeling of his hands stroking me gently.

Quiaius wasn't sure whether it was because Eab was no longer chained, or because of something the boy had experienced in the days he had been gone, but something in him seemed to have lightened somehow. A natural curiosity began to show itself as Eab explored the house, requested names for various objects he found, and followed Quiaius around watchfully. Quiaius showed Eab how the bath worked, and the boy seemed to enjoy the novelty of bathing indoors, although he appeared surprised that the cats couldn't be convinced to join him. When Eab emerged from the bathroom, slightly pink and smiling shyly, he was dressed in the new green-trimmed tunic Quiaius had bought him the day he had left.

"Thank you, very beautiful."

"Much better! I believe it actually fits you." He smiled back at the boy, and wondered why he'd waited so long to get him new clothes; he looked charming in the soft white cotton, and the green trim did show up the green in his eyes.

Eab grew more serious. "Kais, I found some other things, in the cupboard near the bath." He held up a long, pale blue tunic, creased from having been folded for a long time. "Who wears this?"

Quiaius sighed. "No one, now. But it was Claudia's."

"Where is she?"

"She died a few years ago. She was my wife. The love of my life, I suppose." Quiaius sat down; Eab sat beside him, looking sympathetic.

"Poor Kais. How did you meet her?"

Quiaius smiled wistfully. "Well, I grew up hearing stories about true love, wars fought over a woman's beauty, great passions... I had romantic ideas, you know. I didn't actually know any women, mind you -- women in good families here usually stay at home until they marry -- but I was sure someone would come along... And then when I was thirty, my father told me he was arranging a marriage for me, to my second cousin."


"Parents set up a marriage, match their children to who they think is best. My cousin was years younger than I, and I remembered her as a skinny little girl, always hiding behind her mother. I hadn't seen her in years. I was horrified, of course. I was still expecting to meet my true love, after all."

"What did you do?"

"I objected, of course. I argued, I pleaded, I raged, but there was little I could do, short of leaving the family. My father stood firm, and told me I had no choice; I would marry my cousin, like it or not."

"Did you run away, and meet Claudia in another land?"

"No. I wasn't brave enough for that. I did as my father said, and married my cousin. She wasn't very much taller than when I remembered her, to be honest, and she was rather plain, and she was still very shy. She cried all the way through our wedding, because she wasn't any happier about the arrangement than I was."

"And she left you, and you met Claudia?"

Quiaius grinned. "No. I got to know her. As it turned out, my little cousin had a marvelous sense of humor, and she was very pretty when she smiled. She glowed from inside. She even loved the cats. It didn't happen right away, but we fell in love. And that was Claudia."

"You loved her."

"I loved her more than I can say; she made me happy in a way I never thought was possible. We shared everything; for the first time, I felt I had someone who truly understood me."

"What happened to her?"

"She was expecting our first child. We hadn't thought we'd ever have a child, since we'd been married ten years and there hadn't been any so far; and then this happened, and we were overjoyed. Everything seemed to be going so well; she was happy, and healthy, and... She fell down in the kitchen one day. I ran for the midwife, but there was nothing she could do but give her herbs to ease the pain. Claudia died the next day. The midwife told me the child had grown in the wrong place somehow, and it killed her."

"Poor Kais. You miss her."

"Very badly, I'm afraid. Every day. I always thought we'd grow old together, and now I suppose I'm growing old alone."

Eab looked at him with eyes green as shallow water.

"Not alone, Kais. Not now."

Life is good here, with Kais. He teaches me more and more of his language, so that I feel I understand him better -- although there are some things I'm coming to know about him that I don't need words to understand.

He has been so lonely here; I didn't know it until the Tree showed me, but now I wonder how I missed it. He holds his solitary ways around him like a cloak, hiding behind them and imagining that he wants to be alone. One day I told him he wasn't alone, and he looked at me as if he weren't sure what I meant, and went off to the market. I don't know if he is afraid of what I might mean, or what I might not mean.

He tells me stories from his books, fantastic stories, and I can't tell if he believes them or not. At first I thought he was telling about some branch of his family, living up on a mountain somewhere out of town. Eventually I understood that they were gods and goddesses, but the way he described them, with their jealousies and rivalries and arguments, they sounded like anyone's relatives. Kais tells stories well, and I laughed at the way he spoke with different voices and gestured dramatically to show what was happening.

He was surprised to see that I can write. The Trees taught me when I was small, and I've always used it to remember things. I was in the kitchen, trying to remember how to make apple tarts, tracing letters with my finger in flour on the table. Kais came in and saw the letters and got very excited. He gave me a wax tablet and a stylus, and I showed him how to write my name and his; then he showed me the Latin writing for both. We sat at the table together and taught each other different things, and I forgot all about the apple tarts.

I still have the dreams at night, when I'm back in the camp with the soldiers, or at the slaver's, being whipped. The days are better -- I can forget about those things for hours at a time -- but almost every night they come into my dreams and take me again. Sometimes I scream out loud, and Kais comes to me and holds me, and I feel safe. Sometimes I wake up afraid, and I go to his bed. If Kais is awake when I get there, we talk for a little while, until I can rest and go back to my own bed; if he is asleep, I lie beside him until I can be alone again. A few times, I've fallen asleep there, and waking up beside him in the morning feels very good.

Quiaius woke up slowly, vaguely aware of a warm body nestled against him. Felt good; he threw an arm over and pulled himself closer. A soft sigh; the warmth snuggled closer against him, and he felt a head against his chest, one foot tangled between his, hot slow breath against his skin. He felt his body respond, harden as he rocked against the soft form pressed to him; a feeling long forgotten, a slowly unfolding throbbing heat.

He came fully awake, and realized with a sudden lurch of horror that the warm body beside him was Eab. He scrambled away from the boy entangled in his arms, who looked at him in sleepy confusion, struggling toward wakefulness.

"Kais?" Eab blinked in the morning sun and looked at him curiously as the older man backed frantically off the bed. Quiaius felt a moment's relief; the boy wasn't alarmed. Obviously Eab had been asleep when he... reacted. Quiaius hurried to the bathroom as cats scattered before him.

What kind of man am I? Quiaius brooded as he splashed his face and body with cold water. How could I possibly respond that way to the poor boy, after all he's been through? He comes to me for a little comfort, probably had another nightmare, and I react to him like some kind of animal in heat. What is wrong with me?

Quiaius threw his clothes on hurriedly and ran a comb through his damp hair, yanking at a tangle. He put on his sandals, stubbing a toe in the process, and headed out towards the front door. Eab stood in the hall looking puzzled.

"Kais, why..."

"Go back to sleep, Eab," Quiaius called over his shoulder as he hurried out the door, struggling to keep his voice calm. He closed the door in the boy's baffled face and rushed out into the street.

Walking briskly cooled him off a little, not much. He could only imagine how Eab would react if he knew... He felt sick. Eab had told him very little about his experiences with the soldiers; he hadn't had to. The fear and anger in the boy's eyes when he awakened from his nightmares told Quiaius more than he wanted to know.

A few more blocks and he reached Macius' house, where he was greeted by a sight that made him smile despite the morning's turmoil: Macius was in the front garden, with his little daughter Amidala. The plump toddler was accompanied by two servants, one of whom held a sunshade to protect her from the morning sun; she was dressed in bright silk frills, and wore several rather fussy bracelets which Quiaius knew better than to doubt were real gold. She ambled around the manicured garden sniffing (and occasionally kissing) the roses, under her father's beaming gaze.

"Ah, the lovely baby, I see."

Amidala drew herself up to her full almost three feet, and fixed Quiaius with an imperious glare. "NOT a baby. I am a PRINCESS."

Laughing would obviously not do; she'd probably order my execution, Quiaius mused.

"My mistake..."

"Quiaius! I haven't seen you in, what, weeks, isn't it? I hope you're not still brooding over that slave of yours..."

"I need to talk to you about that. Can we go inside, if... Her Majesty... will permit?"

Macius grinned. "Came up with that all by herself, isn't she precious? Ami, honey, daddy's going inside, you take care of your kingdom out here, OK?" The tiny girl nodded as if to dismiss them, then returned to reviewing her troops as the two men retreated to the house.

"What is it, Quiaius? Sit down. You're upset about something... Did someone find the boy?"

"Eab, his name is Eab. No, actually, he came back on his own after a couple of days."

"He came BACK?"

"Apparently he had some kind of a dream or a vision while he was out in the country -- something about trees -- I don't really understand what that was about, but he's back, he's living in my house."

"Not chained?"

"No, gods no. He seems... as far as I can tell, he's content to stay with me."

"Content." Macius laughed, clearly amazed. "You started out with a wild Celt, beaten half to death, basically ready to kill anyone who got within reach, had to be kept chained, and now... he's content to live in your house with you. What are you doing?"

"I have no idea. We talk -- he's learned quite a bit of Latin, he's very bright. We cook sometimes. We're... just quiet together, a lot. I suppose I've made him feel safe." He sighed. "And the problem is that now I'm not sure he is safe with me."

"You're going to have to explain this."

"He's recovered quite a bit since he's been back. He's calmer, he's happier, he even laughs. But at night... he's been having nightmares. You can imagine, the things he went through with the soldiers..."

Macius nodded. "Poor kid. I'd be surprised if he didn't."

"He wakes up sometimes, screaming. He thinks he's back with them. I... go to him and hold him until he goes back to sleep; it seems to help."

"He feels safe."

"He's... well, he's come to my bed a few times, I suppose for comfort."

"He comes to your bed? As in...?"

"To SLEEP. Gods, Macius... He's hardly going to be interested in sex, considering his history. Last night, when I was asleep, he came in and... well, went to sleep. It's been cool these last nights, so he was sleeping... very close to me."


"This morning I woke up, ah, pressed against him." Quiaius stared at the floor, took a deep breath. "Actively."

"Oh. OH. You didn't..."

"Macius! Certainly I didn't DO anything. Gods, it's bad enough that I had a..."

"A normal physical reaction. What did the boy do?"

"Nothing. He was asleep, as far as I can tell. I don't think he was even aware of it."

"So there isn't any harm done."

"That isn't the point. After the things that were done to him... I can hardly bring myself to think about it. It literally makes me sick to think of their hands on him, let alone... What kind of man am I?"

"Quiaius, you need to calm down. You're a good man, we both know that. What the soldiers did to your boy was horrible. That he's recovering so well, that he wants to stay with you, that he actually feels safer at night when he's lying in bed with you -- this tells me you've been treating him very well. It's your nature, to be kind to a stray. You're certainly not going to attack him."

"But I was aroused."

"Of course you were. You woke up with an extremely beautiful boy snuggled up against you in bed. You'd have had to have been dead not to have a reaction. He isn't just another stray, Quiaius. The look on your face when you talk about him... He isn't a pet to you."

"Certainly I'm fond of him."

Macius grinned. "Something like that. Forgive your body, Quiaius. You should be glad you're healthy, at your age --"

"My age! You know very well I'm no older than you are!"

"Misplaced guilt is going to age you before your time. Quiaius, if the boy's crawling into your bed... You know, he isn't dead, either. He was damaged, but he wasn't destroyed."

"You're not trying to tell me..."

"I'm not trying to tell you anything. But eventually... he could be trying to tell you something. And in the meantime, you should probably go home and make sure he doesn't think he's done something wrong, considering you probably ran out of the house like a bat out of hell."

And so Quiaius was back out in the sun, walking home and thinking.

Kais is disturbed, and I don't know why. One moment I was sleeping, dreaming, only very gradually waking with him warm against me; the next, he was tearing away as if I burned him.

I'm looking for reasons for him to have acted that way. He got up so suddenly, and left in such a hurry, that I couldn't ask him. Was he shocked to wake up and find me in his bed? Did he somehow know what I was dreaming?

It was no mystic dreaming from the Trees this time, and no nightmare either. It was only a dream of a kiss and really very little more than that, but it was Kais I was kissing, Kais whose strong arms held me so securely. And it was Kais who was running from me when I woke up, and I only wonder if he saw my face before he was away.

I wonder if he knows, and I wonder if he thinks his Claudia would want him to live solitary forever. It could be that is the custom, here in Rome.

I wonder if he thinks it would dishonor him, to kiss me.

I don't like thinking of that, but I have to accept that it could be. I'm healing now, almost every mark they was put on me is gone or faded, but he saw me when I was still torn and filthy. He knows how I was used. I wonder if he thinks of what use my mouth was put to, and the idea of kissing me sickens him.

All the knowledge of the Trees, all the things I've been taught, and none of it gives me any idea. I grew up hearing about those who died fighting and saved their virtue. In stories, you either escape or die bravely. I never heard anything at all about anyone who lived, and what they did then with all of life ahead.

I wish I could ask him, but I don't have the words, and even if I did, I'm afraid of the answer.

I think I'll wait.

Quiaius walked back home, more slowly, more calmly then he had left. Perhaps Eab did feel safe with him. Perhaps he could keep him safe.

He walked into the house; it seemed dark, compared to the bright morning sun outside. He looked around; no sign of Eab, and he had a moment's sinking sensation, imagining that the boy might have left again, thinking he was angry. The feeling passed when he heard a rhythmic thumping sound from the kitchen.

Eab stood at the table, working a large lump of dough, kneading it, squeezing it, and dropping it on the heavy dark wood. Several cats sat at the edges of the room, watching intently. The boy's hands and arms were covered with flour; there were splashes of white on his tunic. He looked up as Quiaius came in, and the older man noticed a smear of flour across his nose; this, combined with the very determined look on his face, made Quiaius smile. He reached out and brushed the flour off Eab's face, then sat on the bench by the table to watch.

"Kais." A shy smile. "Making bread."

"I'm sorry I left so... abruptly this morning."

"You were angry?"

"No. I... woke up badly. I was surprised..."

"Surprised that I was in bed." The boy looked down at his work. "You don't want me there."

"No, no, that's fine... I was just afraid that you'd wake up and be... frightened by me."

"Not you, Kais." An unreadable look in the sea-green eyes as they looked back up at him.

"I don't want you to be afraid of me. You know I would never harm you."

The boy nodded as he appeared to become absorbed in his work again. He shaped a pair of loaves on a baking stone, lifted it off the table and slid it into the oven, wiped his hands clean on a cloth set aside on the table. He looked up again. "Kais?"


"Your hair." Shyly, looking down. "Messy."

"I did leave in a hurry this morning." Quiaius reached back self-consciously and felt that, yes, there were tangles, and wild strands escaping the loose ponytail he'd tied back on his way out.

"Could I..." The boy reached for a comb on the kitchen counter, an old, deeply polished rosewood one Quiaius remembered having put away ages ago. What an odd request... he nodded.

Eab sat astride the bench; Quiaius turned and swung one leg over the bench to sit straight ahead of him. As he settled himself comfortably, he felt the boy's hands releasing the hair he had tied back and running lightly through it.

"Beautiful hair."

Quiaius chuckled. "Gray hair. I ought to cut it."

"Silver and brown. Mist in a forest." The boy gently but firmly pulled his head back; he relaxed and leaned back.

"That's a very pretty way to put it." He felt little need to say anything more as Eab pulled his fingers slowly down through his hair, gently working the tangles out of it. It felt very good indeed. He closed his eyes.

"Soft." He felt the small, strong hands pushing up from the back of his neck up through the thickness of hair; then Eab reached over and Quiaius felt the comb pulling gently through again and again, while one hand rested on his shoulder. "And it shines."

Quiaius felt as if he were shining himself, as the boy combed his hair thoroughly. The tension he had felt earlier was melting away, as the smell of baking bread filled the air. Eab gathered a thick handful of hair from the right front side, divided it into three, and braided it neatly, then repeated it on the left; he pulled the two braids back and tied them together in the center with the tie he'd removed earlier. The boy again rested one hand on his shoulder.

"Much better. Now it's out of your way. I can see your face." He could hear a smile in Eab's voice.

Quiaius reached back and felt the smooth braids. "Thank you." He turned and saw that Eab was blushing faintly. Before he had time to register what was happening, the boy took a deep breath, leaned forward the few inches left between them, closed his eyes and very lightly kissed him.

Something my mother taught me when I was small was that if you can't decide what to do, make bread. It gives you time to think, it keeps you in one place and out of trouble for a while, and even if you still don't know what to do when you're finished, you have some bread.

I probably should have made bread instead of sitting under the cherry tree, those months ago.

I know that if what happened to me then was part of a proper story, the kind I always heard at home, I would have either escaped or died. I didn't escape, and clearly I'm not dead, so this isn't that kind of story. The rest of the story, the part that comes after I'm not dead, must be my own story, and if it's mine, I might as well do whatever I like. It can't be any worse than what's already happened to me.

That's the way I was thinking when Kais came back and sat down at the table to watch me make bread. Thinking that way made me reckless.

All I really planned to do was braid his hair back. He has all this long, beautiful hair, and he pulls it back with a piece of old string as if it were nothing. I had been thinking for a while that it would look good braided, and once I put the bread in the oven to bake I thought that since I was doing whatever I liked, I might as well see if he'd let me do that.

He looked at me oddly, and I thought I might have made a mistake in asking, and was ready to run out of the room when he nodded. I sat down behind him and closed my eyes for a moment, mostly because sitting so close to him made it nearly impossible for me to be calm enough to do anything, and then I took down his hair.

It's beautiful, Kais' hair, but what I didn't know from looking at it is that it's soft, and wonderfully heavy. When I took it down it fell straight like water halfway to his waist, and it was all I could do not to bury my face in it and breathe the smell of it. It wasn't really very tangled, but I used the excuse of unsnarling it just so that I could play with it a while. There's something wonderful about the way that hair that looks simply brown has so many colors in it close up, colors of wood and night and bronze, and moonlight winding through it everywhere. Gray he said, and I have no idea what I said to him, because I was lost in it.

The more I combed his hair, the more aware I was of sitting close behind him, hearing him breathe, feeling the warmth of him, seeing his broad shoulders and fine column of a neck there before me. Kais is almost a foot taller than I am, and for all his gentleness there is a strength in him that takes my breath away sometimes, and I had to work very slowly on the braiding because my hands were fumbling with my nervousness over touching him this way, and over the fact that he was not objecting to it.

When I finished, and he turned and looked at me with his eyes that are so very blue, I was lost entirely. I was afraid, very much afraid, so that I am sure he could hear my heart beating its way out of my chest, and yet at the same time I was so full of joy I felt I might float away, because I knew exactly what I was going to do, as clearly as if I had already done it.

I kissed him. My lips brushed his, only the briefest touch, soft as a bee's wing, and he might put me out to die now, or sell me, or run me through with a sword for all I care, because I kissed him and my story is my own.

Quiaius sat frozen for several seconds that felt like hours, looking with disbelief at Eab, before he was able to speak.

"You... Eab, you realize... you don't have to do that?" He turned to sit facing the boy.

A shy smile bloomed on the boy's face as his blush deepened. "Yes. Is it good?"

"Is it... oh gods. It's..." A tiny part of Quiaius' brain registered that he was almost certainly blushing himself, at his age. "Yes. Yes, it's good. But why..."

Eab laughed, and it occurred to Quiaius that the boy had a truly beautiful laugh. "Because I want to."

"You... want to?" This beautiful boy was telling him that he wanted to kiss him. Quiaius felt stunned, as if he'd walked into a wall -- but painlessly. It couldn't be happening.

"I want to. I want to again, if you want me to."

"If I... Yes, but Eab, do you know what..."

"Quiet now." And Eab leaned forward again, and his arms were suddenly around Quiaius' neck, and Quiaius was aware of those lips soft as rose petals on his again, this time the slightest bit insistent, and this time he returned that kiss. The boy's lips felt warm against his, and Quiaius embraced him and felt his slender body deliciously warm against him and lost all ability to think anything except that this was what he had been wanting forever.

Eab sat back finally, flushed, lips parted and deeply pink, eyes dark and wide. He stood up, shaking slightly.

"Bread." He picked up a towel from the table, walked a little unsteadily to the oven, and pulled out the hot, fragrant loaves; he set them on the counter, then leaned back against it, looking at the floor, dazed. Quiaius got up, went to him, and put his hands on the Celt's shoulders. He could feel, through the thin tunic, that the boy was definitely trembling, and his heart ached.

"Eab, are you all right?" he asked, and the boy looked up at him, tears in his eyes.

"I..." A deep breath. "Doing what I want to do is not as easy as I thought."

"You don't have to do this. Eab, you don't have to do anything."

"I... I don't know the words. I want to -- what is it, what we did?" Quiaius could see frustration in the boy's eyes. He stroked Eab's shoulders gently, and felt him calming.

"To kiss?"

"Yes. To kiss. To kiss very much, and hold, and... and to do every other thing." He looked down again. "I want to, and I cannot. I'm afraid."

"Eab, I moved too fast for you. It was too much. We can go very slowly."

The boy nodded, then looked up through wet eyelashes. "Kais, I should tell you this. I don't know what I am to you, except that you bought me and that you've taken care of me so much. But you, to me..." Another deep breath, as the boy visibly gathered courage. "I love you."

As Eab stood before him, nervously biting his lower lip, Quiaius took the boy's hands in his and gently kissed them. They felt warm and strong. He looked down into the Celt's soft green eyes.

"I hadn't dared to imagine it." He put his arms around Eab, and the boy relaxed against him, his cheek warm against the older man's breastbone, for a moment, then looked up.

"So that is all right?"

Quiaius laughed. "Oh yes, that is certainly all right. More than all right. Wonderful."

Eab smiled shyly then. "That is good."

"Oh, Eab, I do love you." He leaned down to kiss the boy, who turned his head, abashed, then pulled away and sat down again at the table, tensely gathered.

"I don't know if I can..."

"I understand. My Eab, if you can only sit beside me, and let me hold your hand sometimes, and kiss you very softly once in a great while, that would be more than I ever dreamed of. Tell me what I can do, what you're comfortable with, and I'll follow that."

"It's very good when you hold me, sometimes, at night." The boy let out a soft breath. "It helps me very much."

"Your nightmares..."

"I don't have nightmares about you, Kais. You would have protected me."

"If I had been there..." He sat down a short distance from the boy. "You know I am no warrior, I haven't fought since I was a little boy, but Eab, I would have taken up a sword for you. How is it that you were taken? Did no one stand up for you?"

"I was alone that day." Eab stared down at the surface of the table as if his story were written in the dark wood, took a deep breath, and as calmly as he was able to, told that story to Quiaius: the signs of his being suited to the mystic path as a child, his studying with the Trees and his joy in that learning, his childish love-play with friends, his waiting under the cherry tree for a decision to come to him, and what had come instead.

Quiaius felt overwhelmed by the horror of it. It was one thing to have had an idea of what had happened to Eab, even to have seen the marks of it on him, and quite another to hear the slender youth describe the details of it in his kitchen. Quiaius wanted to stop the boy, tell him he had heard enough, beg him to bring the story to an end -- there were things he could hardly bear to know -- but he realized the telling of it was important to Eab, that it somehow released a pressure inside the boy and cleansed him, and that if Eab had stood what had happened, surely Quiaius could stand to know it. Sitting there beside him, he could not look at the boy's face as he told the story; instead he looked at Eab's hands, which told nearly as much, and which in the end reached for his own.

"And then I woke up here, in this house, with you." The boy's eyes, light gray in the late morning light, met his then. "Safe."

He knows now. I've told him everything, and it can't be taken back. He knows, and he can still look at me.

If I had planned on telling him that whole long story, I might have chosen another time and place. It seems it would be more fitting to tell a story like that in the dark than in a bright sweet-smelling kitchen the morning I first kissed him. If I had thought about it, I might not have told him at all. The marks on my body when he first saw me would have been enough to let him know. What I told him was, from the look in his eyes, a great deal more than enough for him.

He wanted to know how I was taken. Once I started explaining that, the story came out of me like poison from an old wound that had to be drained before it could heal.

I don't even know where the words came from, sometimes, for what I told him about the things they did to me. I know Kais didn't teach me those words.

He held my hand, and his strength was a great comfort to me; still I was sick and shaken when I came to the end of the telling. I wanted very badly to be held, and yet part of me knew I could not bear it at that moment. It was only late morning, and I felt as if I had been up for days; my mouth was dry and tasted of metal, and the air itself rubbed my skin raw. He looked at me then, his eyes so soft and blue and full of sadness; he squeezed my hand, then got up and brought me a mug of cool, sweet water. He watched me intently while I drank it down, then left the room silently. In a moment I heard water running.

After a little while he came back and took my hand; I stood and he led me into the bathroom. It was warm, and darker than the kitchen, since there were no windows; a small brazier heated the water in the great marble tub, and there was a sweet smell from some sort of oil he'd put in the water. A small silver lamp glowed in a corner.

"You'll feel better," he said kindly, and turned to leave the room, and I couldn't let him.

So he turned away -- I think he was more shy than I was -- while I took my tunic off and climbed into water that was almost too hot, and then he sat on the floor beside the tub while I settled into it.

Where I come from, bathing is mostly an outdoors thing -- a river, a pond, a deep crystal lake -- and nearly always cold. This Roman custom of melting into steaming water like a stewing rabbit is both very strange and extremely wonderful. Kais has told me about the great public baths, where men gather and talk and bathe all together, and while it is interesting to hear about it, I am glad he has this bath in his house.

The warm water seemed to draw all the tension out of me, and soften my very bones inside me. Kais sat beside the tub and stroked my hair and spoke quietly to me of nothing at all, and several of the cats drifted into the room and watched me with their great, round green and gold eyes as if I were doing something very strange indeed. Little Rosa perched on the edge of the tub by my feet and sang her odd music to me. After a while I felt whole and well again; and after a while I fell very gradually into a delicious, dreamless sleep; and after a while Kais lifted me out of the water and wrapped me in an enormous soft towel and laid me in his bed. When I woke up, we ate bread and honey there in the bed, and I kissed him again while he lay very still so as not to frighten me, and not all the honey in the world could have tasted as sweet as his mouth did.

Quiaius wondered, as he lay still, whether something necessarily had to be painful to be considered torture.

As he had hoped, the bath had calmed Eab, and relaxed him. In fact, it had sent the boy to sleep as the panic in his mind and tension in his body dissipated, dissolving into the hot scented water.

Unfortunately, supervising the boy's bath had not had the same effect on Quiaius. He had carefully turned away while Eab undressed, and when he heard the boy's tunic drop to the tiled floor, he had felt somewhat... warm, but knowing how distraught the boy was, and having heard his appalling story only a few minutes before, he was able to overcome the feeling quickly. As Eab relaxed, however, Quiaius grew more tense, and more aware that the boy was quite nude and very near at hand. The older man settled on the floor, alongside the tub, and while he did his best to keep his eyes averted, it was impossible not to catch occasional glimpses of pink and pale golden skin, so that he completely lost the sense of what he was saying to calm the boy. As he stroked Eab's hair, he noticed that it had finally grown long enough that it no longer stood in spikes, but lay instead in soft red-gold waves; it felt like silk under his hand. As the boy fell asleep, Quiaius found himself imagining joining him in the tub, which was easily large enough for both; he pushed the mental image away with a sigh.

Once the boy was wrapped deeply in sleep, Quiaius stood, turned, and looked down at the languid form splayed in the tub. So much had changed since the last time he had seen the boy there, lost in a less natural sleep. Eab was still too thin, he thought, but no longer frail; strength seemed to be returning to the slender limbs. There was a subtle curve to the narrow hips, and the ribs were no longer as prominent as they had been, and the sweet rose-colored nipples... Quiaius noticed then that the boy was erect, breathtakingly so, and he felt his own flesh stir in sympathy. He forced himself to look away; this was more advantage than he could justify taking.

After a few deep breaths to collect himself, Quiaius lifted Eab carefully out of the cooling water; the boy murmured something in his strangely musical native language, but remained asleep as the older man wrapped him in a large white cotton towel. Quiaius thought with some satisfaction that Eab certainly weighed more than he had when he'd come to his house, but that he could still carry him easily. This time, Quiaius carried the boy to his own bedroom, and laid him down very gently in his own bed.

The events of the morning must have exhausted Eab emotionally, Quiaius thought; he lay very still, lips barely parted, deeply asleep. He looked almost like a child in his sleep, quite small against the white pillows in Quiaius' very large bed, loosely wrapped in the towel. Innocent, Quiaius thought, and realized that for all that the boy had experienced, he was still quite innocent, because none of it had been his own choice. The older man sat there, leaning against the bed, for a long time, watching, silent.

It was well into afternoon before the boy stirred, lazily stretching, rather endangering the towel's coverage of him. He looked up at Quiaius with sleepy blue-green eyes and yawned like a cat.

"I slept?"

"You needed to."

"You watched over me." A shy half-smile.

"Of course."

"I'm glad." Eab sat up a little, leaning on one elbow. "And hungry, I think."

Quiaius laughed. "Hungry always. I'll see what I can find." He went to the kitchen, and brought back one of the loaves Eab had made that morning, and a jar of honey Sima had brought one day -- Macius' cook kept bees, as it turned out.

"Just what I wanted, Kais. You saw my heart." A brilliant smile.

"I see it everywhere I look, I think. And are you thirsty?"

"Oh, yes. Very much." And so Quiaius went back to the kitchen for a pitcher of water, and returned to find a sizable chunk of the bread vanished, and Eab blissfully licking honey from his fingers.

"Look at you, you've eaten half of it already! You're worse than the cats for eating quickly."

"No, better than the cats. Much larger, so I can eat more." Grinning, the boy tore off another large chunk of bread, and drizzled honey on it. Quiaius could see that if he didn't act fast, he'd be left with nothing, so he climbed into bed, and they shared the remaining bread and honey with much laughter and a great deal of talk about very little. As they quieted, one by one the cats joined them, a few stretching out individually, several curling up together in purring masses of fur.

"You see? They're drawn to you," Quiaius pointed out.

"As I am to you, Kais." Eab reached out and took Quiaius' much larger hand, looking more serious. "Could we -- I would like to try kissing you, again."

"Are you sure? I don't want to push you too far, again."

"But if we were very careful... I want to try."

Quiaius considered a moment. "This morning was too much for you. I was too... forceful." Eab nodded. "What if I... Suppose I didn't do anything at all? I could lie here, like this" -- the older man pushed a couple of pillows up against the head of the bed, and settled back on them, hands folded on his chest -- "very still, and you could --"

"I could do this." And Eab leaned over with an intent expression, eyes very green, and only at the very last instant did Quiaius remember that he really ought to close his own eyes as the boy's soft lips met his.

Once, tentative, very lightly, barely brushing his own. Again, nearly as lightly, but somehow there was something more behind that kiss, and the third time, Eab's lips were still soft but more insistent, asking entrance, and Quiaius found it more difficult than he had thought it would be not to respond in kind, not to simply embrace the boy and ravish his mouth, but yet he managed. In the fourth kiss, Eab asked entrance again, and Quiaius gave it to him, parting his own lips. Eab settled in then, warm against him, and Quiaius was astonished to feel the boy's tongue, inexpressibly sweet, stealing into his mouth, first the barest tip of it (and Quiaius recalled the boy licking honey from his hand), then more, a delicate exploration. Eab drew back after a few moments of that, and Quiaius opened his eyes to see the boy leaning over him, a little breathless, but unafraid and glowing.

"You see? I can do it." A shy smile.

"Oh, you can do it, all right. You are very, very good at it, actually." Quiaius took a deep breath, hoping to get his racing heart, and a few other things, under control; it did little good.

"Do you think so? I think I need more practice." A mischievous smile, and the boy leaned close again, and kissed him again, and again, and yet again, and Quiaius wondered for a moment how much of the sweetness was from the honey he'd been eating, and how much was just Eab, as he struggled to remain still. Mostly still.

Quiaius wondered, as he lay still, whether something necessarily had to be painful to be considered torture.

"Kais?" Eab leaned against the kitchen doorway, holding a knife. "We don't have any... round, white? With a smell?"

Quiaius looked up from his reading, thought for a moment. "Onions, Eab."

"Onions. Not any. Or carrots."

"I suppose you could make something else, for lunch?"

"I could see what the cats left." Was that a pout?

"Not a very pleasant thought. I suppose I should do some shopping..." And at that moment, it occurred to Quiaius that being indoors all the time might possibly be wearing on a boy who'd grown up running in the woods, even if being indoors included yesterday's excruciating (for Quiaius) kissing practice. "Eab, would you like to come to the market with me?"

The boy smiled, and put down the knife. "Yes. Anywhere with you."

"Well, nowhere very exciting, but I'm sure you could do with seeing a bit more of Rome. And I suppose you could use some shoes, too..."

"Let me fix your hair again."

An hour later, they were walking in the sun along the narrow streets that grew progressively wider as they neared the market. Eab looked wide-eyed at sights he hadn't noticed when he had last been outside; Quiaius looked at Eab, noticing how much redder the boy's hair looked in sunlight. An unusual color, but it fit well with Eab's slightly exotic looks. Quiaius felt a sudden surge of fondness for the boy, who edged nearer to him as the streets became more crowded.

They came first to the produce stalls, where Eab shyly asked Quiaius about those fruits and vegetables he wasn't familiar with. Quiaius gave Eab the net bag he'd brought with him. "Pick out what you think looks good," he instructed the boy, and soon Eab had a good selection in the bag slung over his shoulder. His shyness over the presence of strangers gradually seemed to dissolve in his excitement over the sights and smells of the market. As the boy inspected the wares of a pastry-stall -- "Kais, I could make that!" he whispered -- they were greeted by Sima, doing the shopping for Macius' household.

"Master Quiaius," the tall, dark-haired woman called, and bowed slightly. "And is this --"

"This is Eab, my... The boy you so kindly brought food for, when he was first staying with me. Eab, this is Sima, my friend Macius' cook."

She nodded, looking the boy over with a mother's assessing eye. "He's older than I thought; from what Master Macius told me I'd expected a child a year or two older than my son. He looks well, Master Quiaius. You must be treating him properly." She smiled at Eab. "You must be a great deal of help to your Master at home."

The boy blushed slightly. "I... I hope I am. I can cook, and things like that."

"Such a pretty accent. I thought Master Macius had said he didn't speak Latin?"

"He learns very quickly. He knew no Latin at all when I found him, and now he can carry on a conversation as well as half the boys in school here."

"I have the best teacher," Eab said, and smiled up at Quiaius as he leaned into the older man, draping an arm around his waist almost possessively.

As a look of dawning realization crept onto Sima's face, she smiled and put a hand on one of her broad hips. "Ah. I see. Well, I'm glad you've found such a good teacher, Eab. That's certainly the most important step towards learning. Of any kind." And, still smiling and shaking her head with a certain amount of amusement, she took her leave of them.

"Kais?" Eab whispered, once she was out of earshot. "Do you think she knows...?"

The older man laughed gently. "Well, she IS a mother, after all. I suppose she knows everything."

"Will there be a problem?"

"Only that Macius will tease me unmercifully the next time I see him. And he will, anyway. It may as well be about something good."

They came next to the sandal-maker's tent; shoes and belts hung from cords that reached from the top of the tent to the ground, showing off the man's wares. The old craftsman tutted over the state of Quiaius' sandals, which were quite old and scuffed; when he understood that he would not be selling the older man anything for himself, he gave his attention to Eab.

"For feet like these, you'll want something decorative, I think. I've got a few pairs like this, with a green leaf pattern worked into the leather, and an ankle strap... shall I measure him, and see if they'll fit?" Quiaius nodded, and Eab sat down on the low bench and tried not to fidget while the sandal-maker took measurements of the length and width of the boy's feet, the diameter of his ankles, and the spacing of his toes. Once he was measured, and it was determined that the leaf-patterned sandals would fit him, Quiaius noticed that Eab was looking rather wistfully at a booth selling fried dough on a stick, a little way down the market street.

"You're hungry?"

Eab nodded. Quiaius handed him a coin, and took the shopping bag from him.

"Go get yourself... whatever it is they have. I'll take care of paying here, and meet you down there in a moment." The boy smiled his thanks and sprinted in the direction of the food stand.

"Boys," laughed the sandal-maker. "Always want something to eat. And we always pay," he added, winking. "Now, there is a set of armbands that go with these sandals, and I think they might make a nice surprise..." Quiaius fell into bargaining with the sandal-maker -- noting wryly that the man knew he could deny Eab nothing -- and was just paying for the sandals, the armbands, and a headband when he heard a commotion from the direction where Eab had gone. He stepped out of the tent, leaving everything behind, and was horrified to see Eab backed up against the side of a building by three soldiers of the Empire, as a small crowd gathered to see what would happen.

"It's the same one, I tell you. The one we brought back."

"It can't be. That thing was all... Well, it didn't look like this."

"It's the same one! See, look at the thing on the arm--" and the brawny man poked at Eab's tattoo. Eab snarled, and the three laughed.

"See if he'll bite you, then we'll know for sure!"

"Yeah, see if --"

Quiaius was there in an instant, pushing between the spectators. He seized the man's shoulders and turned him around, drawing himself up to his full height.

"Excuse me, but that boy is NOT yours."

"We're just kidding around. Having fun." The soldier looked somewhat chastised, but still defiant; the other two had already started to walk away.

"You will keep your hands, and your eyes, OFF of what is MINE, or you will be very sorry," he growled. The soldier backed away, muttering a vague apology; Quiaius gathered a trembling Eab into his arms as the impromptu audience whistled and clapped in appreciation.

"Shhh, you're safe now," he said in a much gentler voice. "They're gone."

Eab, pressed tightly against the older man's chest, looked up at him, pale eyes wide. "You made them... They left!"

Quiaius smiled wryly. "I hadn't tried that on anyone but little boys tormenting kittens before. I'm glad it worked." Eab buried his face in Quiaius' cloak, and the two stood there a while as Quiaius stroked the boy's hair and calmed him.

"Now let's get your shoes and go home," he said quietly, and so they did, and Eab never let go of his hand until they were inside their front hall.

I didn't think I would ever have to see them again. Those weeks with the soldiers had started to feel like a dream -- what was real was being with Kais, here in this quiet house, clean and safe and loved. That was a different life and a different world, cruel men with rough hands and loud voices. I didn't think it would touch this world I live in now.

Only a few minutes and that was over. I thought I was almost a different person, somehow, but they saw me, they knew me, even with my new clothes and clean hair and new language and all, they could see through to the same filthy boy who screamed under them while they ground me into the dirt. They knew who I was. One moment I was walking free in the sun, then I recognized a face and felt a chill, and then they had me against the wall. I forgot every word Kais ever taught me, and I could feel every scar again, inside and out.

I thought they were going to take me with them. For the time I was standing there against that wall, I knew they were going to take me with them, and they were going to have me, and it was all going to start again, and all the water in the world would not clean me though it washed over me and through me until I drowned.

And then Kais was there, great tall beautiful Kais, like I had never seen him before, with such anger in his blue eyes, like lightning. Kais, who is so gentle with me and with every thing he touches, looked dangerous, and he was dangerous, and they saw that. He told them I was his and they just left. If they hadn't I think he would have torn them apart.

He held me while I shivered, there in the street, in front of anyone who cared to look, without shame. People had been watching, people had seen all of it, I'm sure they knew what I was, what I had been, and he didn't care, just held me until I could walk and took me home.

I didn't want to talk about it, didn't want to make it real that they had been there, that they had seen me, that Kais had seen some of the ones who had done the things to me. I tried to push it all away, pretend nothing had touched me. I put on the bracelets he'd bought me, and the sandals, soft dark brown leather with deep green leaves carved into it, and the headband too, although my hair was not nearly long enough to need holding back, not like before, at home, when it was almost to my shoulders and always in my eyes. I made a great show of being busy, putting away the things from the market, the fruit and the vegetables, everything where it belonged, while Kais watched quietly. I got the knife out, and a few carrots, to make a stew or something, and stood at the counter peeling them. I started to cut them up, bringing the knife down again and again, cutting the pieces smaller and smaller. Tears flooded my eyes and I started shaking again, hard, and Kais was behind me, his arms around me, taking the knife from me and laying it on the counter, and I struggled for a moment, until he pulled me back against him and held me gently but firmly.

"Now, Eab. My own, dear Eab. What can I do?" So quietly, almost whispering, breath soft against my ear, and I relaxed into his arms.

"Wash me. Where they touched me." Kais wouldn't have heard me if he hadn't been so close to me. He drew a sharp breath, then nodded. He stood a moment longer, holding me, then kissed the top of my head, and led me to the bathroom.

He sat me on a chair in the corner, kissed my hair again, and set about filling the tub and heating the water, finding soap and cloths. When it was ready he knelt before me and unbuckled my new sandals and put them aside, then the bracelets, then the headband, then his own shoes. He stood then, pulled me up to stand with him, closed his eyes for a moment.

"Tell me if I need to stop."

I nodded. He reached down then, and pulled up the hem of my tunic, and I raised my hands so that he could pull it off over my head. The cotton covered my eyes for a moment, then I saw him looking at me, his eyes so dark and blue, taking in all of me.

I wanted to be sure he understood. "You, with me."

He nodded, turned his back, pulled his own tunic off and laid it with mine. I climbed into the tub then, water so hot against my skin, and he followed me; he settled back against the tub wall, and I sat in front of him, facing away, not ready to look at him that way.

"Show me." His voice low, his breath, again, warm against my ear. I touched my upper arm, where the tattoo was that they had touched. He stroked the soap that smelled of roses gently over the place, then the wet cloth.

"More." He rubbed the cloth a little harder then, so I could feel the slightly rough texture of it leave my skin pink. It felt better. Clean.

"Where else?"

I showed him. My shoulders. My wrists, where they held me down. My neck, where some of them bit at me. My ears. First gently, then more firmly, Kais slowly and thoroughly cleaned each part I pointed out.

My back. My chest, where the whip wrapped around and left a deep scar under my right nipple. My belly. My knees, where gravel from the road ground into the flesh. My feet. My calves, where I could still feel rough hands holding me down, to stop me from kicking. He reached around me, scrubbed my thighs, front and back, smooth soap, rougher cloth, then hesitated.

I reached back, took his hand, guided it to my ass. "Please."

Around my hips, then, on each side, the cheeks, down the cleft, his hand so large and so gentle, rubbing the cloth firmly against my opening, pressing the tiniest bit inside. Clean. Yes. And then in between my legs, my balls, replacing every unclean touch with his own. My cock, and I was half surprised that I was hard, and his hand and the cloth cleaned me there, where no one else should ever have touched, and I gasped, and he stopped.

And I nestled back against him, and very quietly asked him, "Please." And he held me against him with one arm around my shoulders, and stroked me there, under the water, his hand so warm, so good around me, his breath hot against my neck, my head thrown back against his chest, and I moved with him, against him, as the heat built up inside me until it burst forth and shook me all the way through, and I lay limp and gasping in his arms while he looked down at me with the most inexpressible love in his eyes.


"Oh, yes."

Quiaius leaned back against the wall of the tub, not quite believing -- he would not have believed it, if not for the boy reclining in his lap, and the wail of that boy's release still echoing through the room. Once Eab had recovered his breath, he had half-turned, and now sat across Quiaius' thighs, resting his head on the older man's shoulder. Quiaius held him loosely, not wanting the boy to feel restrained; he gently stroked Eab's upper arm, tracing the loops of the tattooed bracelet, wondering for the first time how such a thing had been put there, and whether it had hurt. Quiaius looked at the boy's face, and warm sea-green eyes met his.

"Thank you." A shy smile.

"I... You realize I've never done such a thing before?"

Eab looked serious. "But with yourself, surely?"

"With myself. And with Claudia, but that isn't really the same thing." Quiaius found himself thinking back to times he and his wife had played in the same bathtub, sliding together like dolphins, laughing, dear Claudia so beautifully sated afterwards, and he worried that the boy would feel his arousal and be afraid.

"I never did that before, either, then. Only kissing, and holding, and wrestling. And then that with myself, after." Eab blushed and looked down. "The kissing was only a few times, really. I never touched another boy's... Not before the soldiers --"

"Shh. Then never." Quiaius kissed the boy's forehead gently. "You never chose that, so it isn't the same. It's only what you did that you wanted to do, that matters, love. Nothing else."

"What I wanted to do," Eab said very softly. The green eyes met Quiaius' again. "I do want to do things, with you."

The words made Quiaius shiver, and he took a deep breath. "In your own time."

They sat quietly for a while, then Eab looked at Quiaius once more. "I was thinking... when you lay in bed, and I kissed you?"

"Mmm. Yes. That was good."

"Could you go and lie that way, now?" And Eab moved out of his lap, to the other side of the large tub, and looked up at the ceiling.

Quiaius fairly leapt out of the bath, wet braid splashing, so that the several cats who had drifted in to watch them bathe scattered; he dried himself hurriedly, wrapped himself in a towel and picked up his tunic, then glanced back at Eab, who shyly looked away again. A moment later, Quiaius was in bed, a light sheet covering him; he lay against the pillows, waiting, eyes closed.

The bed dipped slightly as Eab sat down beside him. Quiaius opened his eyes and saw the boy looking down at him, with an intensely focused expression. His tunic clung to him damply.

"May I touch you, Kais?" Very quietly.

The older man nodded.

Eab leaned over him and slowly peeled back the sheet from his body, a few inches at a time, until it was at his waist. The boy reached out and touched his shoulder lightly, fingers barely brushing the skin. The touch was warm, and grew more sure as Eab explored his shoulder, his arm, his hand, his fingers. He turned Quiaius' hand over and traced the lines in the palm of his hand, and once more Quiaius was aware of how much smaller Eab's hands were, and how soft their touch. Then Eab leaned over him and repeated his actions on Quiaius' other arm and hand. The sensation, along with the fact that the boy was leaning across his chest, made it difficult for Quiaius to remain still, but he reminded himself that it was important to avoid frightening Eab, and managed. Then Eab shifted, and was looking into his eyes.

"May I kiss you, now?"

"Yes, please," the older man murmured, his mouth suddenly dry. He closed his eyes and felt Eab's hands on either side of his face, holding him.

A gentle kiss, seeking, and then a deep kiss, frankly passionate, as the boy devoured his mouth, tongue darting in when Quiaius gasped. Without thinking he responded, one hand going to the nape of Eab's neck, his tongue seeking the hot sweetness of Eab's mouth; the boy froze for an instant, then recovered, and his passion seemed increased. A low moan throbbed like an angry cat's warning in the boy's throat, and Quiaius felt himself harden at the sound.

Eab pulled back then, breathing fast, and his eyes met Quiaius', soft blue-green.

"More?" Almost hoarsely, and he could feel the boy's warm breath on his face.

"Yes, oh --" And the boy's hands were firmly on Quiaius' shoulders, moving down, down his sides and back up to his chest, and the older man thought he might explode when a thumb delicately circled his left nipple. Quiaius felt rather than saw Eab bending down to kiss him there, and when he felt those lips, and the hot, wet tongue, gripped the bedsheets at his sides, not trusting himself to touch anymore.

It seems to me sometimes that my life with Kais must be a dream. Certainly if I were awake, I would never think to convince a great beautiful man like Kais to lie down before me like a wedding banquet, for whatever I cared to do; and certainly in waking hours I would not take such advantage of him.

But there he was, and there I was, and there was nothing to stop me from kissing him, and so I did. I could tell he liked that, from the way he kissed me back, as if he were hungry. That frightened me, but only for a moment, because so much more than being afraid, I was amazed that I could do this to him -- make him gasp under me. For all that he is so much bigger than I am, I could feel that I was in control, and it made me reckless and dizzy and eager to see what more I could do to him.

I knew he was beautiful, so strong and tall, his face so noble and eyes so brilliant blue, but to see all of him was a revelation. His chest is broad and smooth, with a sprinkling of dark hair, and when I stroked him there he shuddered. That made me think it must have been too long since he'd been touched that way, and so I had to do more. His nipples stood out dark against his skin, looking hard as acorn caps, and I thought of the way I used to touch my own, what felt like years ago, and I thought he might like that too. Only a little touching and I could see that he did, and hear it in the way his breath changed and grew rougher. Touching led to kissing then, and licking, and his reaction to that was a wonder of shivering and moaning and gasping, so that I felt as if I had all the sky's power in me to do as I wished. It seemed wrong to only do those things to one nipple, like rain falling on one hill and not another, and so there was more touching to do, and more licking, and kissing, and the salty taste of his skin on my tongue, and then for a moment I sat back and looked at him, to think of what I should do next.

"Oh, gods, Eab, please..." My beautiful Kais, hands knotting themselves in the bedding, held himself back and begged me. I'd never felt so strong before, and I took advantage of that strength to go as slowly as I could, stroking down his flat belly to his navel, the deep center of his body, and I pressed my tongue inside there, tasted salt again, and felt him arch against me, whimpering.

I needed to see more of him, the rest of him, before this dream was over, and so I pulled the sheet away entirely. Long legs, I knew that already, strong from walking everywhere, and tan, fading lighter further up, and I went down and petted those long feet as if they were small animals twisting in my hands, kissed their tops, and ran my hands up his legs to where they met his body, and the root of him.

It made me gasp to see it, long and thick as a young tree, deeply pink, veined darker, and it seemed almost to be straining against its own skin. Of course I had noticed that Kais is very tall, and that his hands are much larger than mine, but somehow it hadn't occurred to me that along with that, his other parts must surely be as big as this. I felt a moment's fear then, and thought, this could hurt me, things like this have hurt me, and I wanted to run away out of the room and out of the house and out of Rome.

Then I closed my eyes and breathed slowly, and reminded myself that this was no cruel soldier, but my own gentle Kais, who would never hurt me. I looked at him again, all of him, and remembered that he was beautiful, all of him, and that I loved every part of him with every part of myself, and so I reached out my hand.

I ran my finger very lightly from the base to the tip, and he groaned then like a man in pain, and arched up from the bed, and his cock leapt up like a separate thing from the rest of him. I looked up and saw that his eyes were closed tightly, his head thrown back against the pillows, his mouth open as he breathed as if he had run for miles. Again I thought, what power I have, to do this to such a man, what power in my hand that is not so large. I touched again, but more firmly, and felt the way the skin was soft like a rose petal, and what was underneath the skin seemed hard as iron, and hot with pulsing blood. I closed my hand around it, or mostly around it, because it was too large for my hand to fully circle, and stroked that way, slowly, feeling the way the skin moved over it. He groaned at that, and his hips pressed up and pushed him more firmly into my hand, and he murmured something that could have been in any language, that I think meant "more."

Beautiful Kais, quiet as you are with your books and your cats and your lessons, oh, I have you frantic, you won't be quiet now.

I found his rhythm, slow first, then faster, and every sound he made told me what I must do, what I was doing, driving him on. The head of his cock was like an apple, a rose, with dew, and I leaned closer to taste, my tongue finding the salty bitter drops, and with that he screamed, and pulsed in my hand, and his hot seed was on his belly, and my lips, and my hands. He reached down for me then, hands groping, blind, and I came up to him, and held him a long time, all the strength gone out of him as he shuddered, and I kissed him and touched his hair and his beautiful face and called him "love" every way I knew how, and thanked him for giving me my own strength again.

Quiaius came to himself slowly, gradually, as if waking from a dream he hesitated to leave. Warmth against him; he moved, and several cats objected to his disturbing their rest; their chirping voices were echoed by a boy's laughter, and Quiaius looked up to see Eab in the doorway, smiling brightly as he looked down at him.

"I..." Quiaius felt at a loss as to what, exactly, to say, as vivid memories of the activities of the previous day -- and it was another day already, well into it, by the light -- came back to him.

"You slept." Eab laughed again, then flopped down on the bed; he was dressed in clean white cotton, and he smelled of cinnamon and flour. "For hours and hours and hours."

"And you?"

"Slept too, and then watched you sleep, and slept some more, and had another bath, and came back and watched you, and made apple tarts." Eab held one out to him, and Quiaius realized he must indeed have been asleep for quite a while, because he was incredibly hungry. He took a bite; it was hot and sweet and delicious.

"Wonderful." Quiaius wondered what he had done to deserve this; all of this, most particularly the boy at his side whose smiling gray eyes watched him devour the pastry. Eab looked relaxed and content, more comfortable in his body, somehow, than Quiaius had seen him before. The boy lay flat on his back, hands over his head, and stretched; there was nothing particularly sexual in it, only a natural enjoyment of muscles and skin that Quiaius found beautiful. He wondered if this was what Eab had been like at home, a boy with a boy's casual sensuality and lack of care. "Thank you."

"I ate the rest of them," Eab admitted cheerfully. "Seven." One hand went down to rub his belly, and Quiaius laughed, wishing for a moment that he'd been awake to watch that feat of breakfasting.

They lay together that way a while, in quiet contentment, until Quiaius felt the need to get up and seek the bath and its conveniences. Washing up and dressing, he felt slightly embarrassed; it had been years since he'd awakened quite so... sticky. A strange turn for his life to take at this stage, he thought.

He returned to find Eab sitting up, watching one of the cats -- Rosa again -- casually climbing out the back window.

"What's back there?"

"Come and I'll show you." They walked back through the house, and Quiaius unlatched a long-disused kitchen door that creaked open reluctantly. It had been a long time.

A yard, a little smaller than the house, enclosed by a high wall of weathered, mossy stone: Claudia's garden. It had been her joy, her refuge, and when she had gone, Quiaius had feared seeing her there too much to ever spend another moment in it.

Untended, it had grown into a kind of jungle of kitchen herbs gone wild; the older man felt sad at the neglect, until he noticed the look of delight, almost awe, in Eab's eyes.

"Ooh... Kais, this is so beautiful!" The boy gazed around as if he were in a treasure-house. "You'll tell me the plants, here? Please?"

As if he could refuse the boy anything; and for the remainder of the morning, Quiaius passed on what little he knew of the lore of herbs. Fragrant rosemary had grown into something almost like a bushy tree; Eab stroked the gnarled trunk reverently while Quiaius pointed out the tiny violet blossoms. There was a graceful pomegranate tree in a corner, and Quiaius told the boy the legend of Proserpina and Pluto; as he did he wondered whether perhaps the story cut too close to Eab's own, but there was only a quiet moment, and barely a cloud passed over the boy's face. Eab brightened as Quiaius pointed out the clumps of mint that rioted everywhere, escaped from the pot where Claudia had originally confined it, and vowed to learn to make tea from the hairy leaves; he crushed a few dried leaves of the abundant, silvery lavender between his fingers, and sighed happily at the clean scent. He told the account of the slave boy who'd been so horrified at dropping a pot of perfume meant for a king that he'd turned into a fragrant marjoram plant on the spot; the story tickled Eab for some reason, or possibly it was the thyme that made him sneeze. For a moment, Quiaius thought Eab might actually lie down to roll in the cat-mint; and he thought he might not mind joining him in doing so. The boy's joyful sensuality was that contagious. Eventually they sat down together in a shady spot, half hidden by a flowering myrtle bush, as Quiaius explained that it was sacred to Venus, who had been a goddess of vegetable gardens before she devoted herself to love.

"I have to admit to you, this isn't my best subject; I imagine Sima could tell you more practical things, about the uses of these plants..." And then he saw the boy looking up at him, with leaves and sweet white flowers of myrtle in his hair, and forgot everything he ever knew about practical things as he kissed him.

All this time I've been here with Kais, weeks and weeks, and I didn't know this place was here, not really. I'd smelled flowers, of course, and leafy things, but I hadn't even thought of it, and it was so close all along.

A secret place. A garden, he calls it. You can see that there was order here, once -- only these Romans would try to make plants stand in lines -- but the plants have long since broken out of their rows, and now they all dance together where they will, sweet and sharp. Some of them I recognize from home, and some of them are like nothing I've ever seen, and all of them are as beautiful as any growing thing. There is a stone wall, high enough to keep it safe from any danger passing by, but it is so covered with the tiny jewels that cover stone that it is like a plant itself. Every part of it lives.

I love the look on Kais' face when he explains things to me, the way the knowledge warms him from within. He gives me each truth like a gift, and it is a precious gift, from him. He could have been a wonderful teacher, and I am very thankful that he is mine, in so many ways.

Every thing that grows from the earth is of the gods, or so I've learned and felt all of my life, and I was surprised when he told me that some of these plants are sacred to the gods of the Romans, too. I had not thought they would recognize such things.

This garden was his wife's, his Claudia's, and I wonder if she first told him those stories of the flowers and plants that he told me. I like to imagine that, the way he would listen to such stories, the look in his blue eyes. I like to think of him loved, here.

Did he ever kiss her here, in this cool secret place, under the sweet spicy trees? I could never ask him that, but I can't imagine anyone resisting it, when every leaf and twig is singing that it is right. I put leaves and flowers of the plant he called myrtle, sacred to his goddess of love, in my hair, and She told him what I wanted. He bent down to me then and took my lips, and there was no fear in me, but only the joy of knowing perfect abandon, and I could feel the cool damp earth under my hands and between my fingers while we kissed there under Her tree.

He says this garden is mine now, and says he'll buy me any plant or seed I like to make it my own. What seed could I ever need, besides what is there already? This garden belongs to Love.

In the corner, where no one has seen it but me, is a cherry tree.

Quiaius stood at the window and watched Eab in the garden, and wondered what it was that the boy was so very absorbed in.

After all the hesitation before, all the fear he'd had of frightening the Celt with his touch, what had happened under the myrtle had flowed as easily as summer rain. Quiaius knew better than to push much further, he would continue to let things move slowly at Eab's own pace, but something had changed, and they had kissed tenderly and passionately and deliciously without uncertainty. Quiaius still had the taste of the boy in his mouth, the feel of him, the gentle questioning of his lips and tongue, the unreal softness of his skin. So beautiful he was, in every way, so sweet and strong. Kissing him was like swimming in a clear stream with deep currents.

Finally he'd gone in to find something to eat, sensing that the boy had some need to spend time in the garden alone. Soon after he'd been called to gather in the cats who inevitably seemed to follow Eab and watch whatever he happened to be doing -- Quiaius wondered that he had ever called them his cats -- whatever it was that Eab was going to do, he needed to be let alone at it.

Now he could see the boy kneeling on the ground under a small tree back in a corner, some stray sapling, probably from a seed a bird had dropped. Eab had reverently cleared a patch of bare earth under the little tree, and was now creating what appeared to be a kind of earthworks. He was shaping what might have been letters or symbols of some kind in the dark loam, some raised, some traced down into the soil. He stopped from time to time, sometimes speaking a few words, other times simply sitting quietly, as if waiting for a reply. His response gave Quiaius the impression that he was probably receiving one; each time, he shaped another line of text in the earth before him. When a large raven flew over and perched on the garden wall to watch him a while, the boy had looked up and smiled at it, then continued with his work as the bird flew off with a squawk.

It had the look of a ritual about it, and Quiaius thought about what the boy had told him about the plans that had been made for his future, before he was torn out of it. The boy had been marked to be some kind of a priest or mystic; he hadn't offered very much detail about it, and Quiaius had thought it might be best not to press him on it. Whatever he was doing now, it was almost certainly part of a very private spiritual practice.

Quiaius thought of the ritual he had improvised in the bath the day before, the cleansing the boy had needed so badly, and the intense sexual release. That it had succeeded was obvious; and now the older man wondered whether it had simply occurred to him as he did it, as it had seemed at the time, or whether it had come from somewhere else. He wondered, but to be honest its origin wasn't that important to him; what was important was the way Eab had collapsed against him when it was over, and how the boy had since become so much more sure of himself. Quiaius realized that, whether he knew it at the time or not, he had been part of a kind of healing.

Just as Eab seemed to be finished with the small plot in the garden, there was a crack of thunder, and to Quiaius' dismay, it began to rain, hard. The poor boy, he thought, all his work will be washed away.

Then he saw that Eab was looking up into the rain, with a look of joy on his face. The boy stood and stripped off his tunic, and stood still, his eyes closed, his expression ecstatic, as the rain washed over him, and melted and erased all the letters he had written in the earth.

When the rain stopped, there was no sign of what the boy had built there, and Quiaius was waiting inside with towels and a hot drink and a long embrace. Neither of them talked about what Eab had been doing in the garden.

I am so angry with Kais.

This day started out well. After yesterday's rain, the sky and the earth and every other thing was clean, and the air was just cool enough that it was very good to wake with Kais near and lie close to him for a long time. Kais is wonderfully warm when he sleeps, and very beautiful, although he would argue with me about that, since he has never seen any beauty in his own face. How a man with eyes like that can be that blind is beyond me.

We got up, finally, and I thought that hot bread would taste very good, and so I started on it, the mixing, the wonderful cool yield of the dough under my hands, and the shaping of loaves. All this time Kais was bathing and dressing. There are so many things I love to do with Kais, but baking bread is something I need to do alone.

After the bread was in the oven, there was a knock at the door. Why I went to get the door I am not sure; there is no one here who I would want to see, after all. Kais was dressed by then, and he went to the door too, but I was there ahead of him, and so I opened it.

It was a soldier, a Roman soldier, in more leather than I have seen their horses wear, with a sword at his side. He might have stepped out of my worst nightmare.

I don't know what I did then. Everything mixes together. I know that I wanted to run, but that I was afraid to turn my back, and I know that Kais tried to comfort me, and I know that I told him I did not want to see the soldier, and I know that Kais opened the door to that man and let him into the house that I have to live in.

Kais talked to him, in our front room, while I stood in the hall. I would not be in the room with that man, yet I would not trust him out of my sight either. I would rather a bear had come roaring into the house.

This soldier claimed to be a kind of master to the ones who took me. Certainly he looked like a master of some kind. He was not as tall as my Kais, but broader, with the kind of skin that comes from being in the sun a great deal, and the kind of muscles that come from working very hard. He had a great deal of curly black hair, although what I had thought was part of that hair turned out to be a tame young raven that sat on his shoulder and whispered in his ear.

I had thought ravens had better taste.

He spoke to me as if I were a child, and when I would not answer him, he spoke to Kais, thinking I could not possibly know enough Latin to tell him anything. He said that someone had told him that these soldiers had bothered me in the market, and that this was against their laws. Of course, to these Romans and their laws, I am Kais' property, and they would have punished a man who broke Kais' best chair the same as they would one who killed me, I think. He had these soldiers in his jail, he said, and wanted to punish them, and wanted to know if they were the ones who had taken me from my home.

Of course they were the same ones; they knew me, and I could not have forgotten them in many lives. What that matters I don't know, since they were only the first to have me among that pack of dogs. I suppose he is too busy to punish that many men.

He said he would chain them and drive them from their homes to some unpleasant place, and whip them too -- he thought I didn't understand what he meant by that. I think I know well enough what whipping means, well enough for ten men. He showed me then a mark on his own shoulder, I suppose so that I would know that he had felt a whip too; but it was only one mark. Let him come back with a few dozen marks and then I will talk with him about whipping.

I asked him if he would punish them in kind for the worst of what they did to me, and he turned white, and could not look at me. Good, because I hated the feel of his eyes on me. He held his pet raven in his hands then and petted it and looked at it as if it would give him an answer. Then he told me that he could not rape anyone, that it was wrong to him, against his code. I wonder what business he has being a soldier then, if that is his feeling. It never seemed to bother any of his fellow workers.

Kais told me then that my bread must be ready, and to go to the kitchen to see. As if Kais knows one thing about bread except that it is good to eat, and that he has a boy who can make it now and doesn't need to buy any. What he meant was, go Eab, little child, so we men can talk about you.

Kais will be very lucky to get any of this bread.

In retrospect, Quiaius realized, he should have noticed how very quietly Eab left the room, and recognized that this was not a good sign.

He had only wanted to spare the boy's feelings. Clearly Eab was upset by Praetor Cornix' presence, and the questions he was asking; it seemed better to let him retreat to the kitchen so that the man could speak more freely.

Cornix had a lot to say. Certainly the Army leader was intimidating, but Quiaius was touched by his concern for Eab. Once the boy was out of the room, the man had explained that Macius' cook Sima had witnessed the scene in the marketplace, and gone home shaken by it; she did not like seeing Eab harassed by soldiers in a place where she routinely sent her son on errands. Macius had asked her what was wrong, and she had told him; Macius had spoken to his cousin Panakus, and he had reported the matter to Cornix, who was investigating disorder in the Army. Not only had he been appalled that a distinguished citizen was reduced to defending his own slave in public from the city's own guard, but he had made the connection between this matter and a particularly disagreeable rumor he had heard, concerning the conduct of soldiers posted to the Northern Lands. He did not like what such behavior did to the good name of the Roman Army, and had decided to make an example of the miscreants before he ever came to Quiaius' home. It occurred to Quiaius that this was not a man to make angry, and that he was angry indeed with what he had found that the soldiers in his charge were doing.

Cornix had assured Quiaius that he was convinced enough by what few words Eab had said, and the way he had said it, that he would not hesitate to punish the three who had been in the marketplace that day.

Before he left, the commander had one last thing to say: he would be travelling to the Northern lands himself in a few weeks, to investigate the Army's outposts there, and that he thought that Eab, while legally Quiaius' property, should be free. He would expect to hear Quiaius' decision in the next few days. And with that the man had left, taking his raven with him.

Head near to bursting with what he'd heard in the short time Praetor Cornix had been in his home, Quiaius had gone back to the kitchen, which he privately thought of as the heart of his home, to tell Eab; he opened the kitchen door, was barely missed by a heavy earthenware mixing bowl, and found himself facing a very angry wild creature.

"Is that man gone?" Eab's usually soft voice was near to a shriek; Quiaius noticed, through his shock, that most of the breakable objects in the kitchen were now in pieces on the floor.

"Eab, what -- "

"Is he GONE." The Celt's eyes were blue ice.

"Yes, he just -- "

"Did you not understand that I did not want to see him?"

"Yes, but -- "

"Did you not UNDERSTAND?" There was, apparently, one last blue ceramic mug; Quiaius heard it burst against the wall by his head.

"Eab, I know you're very upset, perhaps we should talk about this when you -- "

"Is my Latin not good enough to make you understand that I cannot be in the house with a man in that uniform?"

"Eab, you know that your Latin is excellent." Was this a language problem?

"I'm glad I was able to learn it, considering you have never made any effort to learn my tongue."

What? It had never occurred to Quiaius; possibly this was a serious oversight. "But Eab, Latin is such an easy language to understand, and you learned so quickly, it hardly seemed necessary to -- "

"I will now give you a LESSON." Eab spat out a string of syllables. "That means that I will no longer be making bread to order, and that I hope that will not be too much of a PROBLEM -- " The boy stalked forward a few steps, and to his astonishment, Quiaius realized that he was afraid. He remembered, at that moment, that Eab had bitten him once. The older man backed up a step.

"Eab, the soldier was here to help you, to punish the ones who hurt you. I'm sorry I let him into the house."

Eab stopped, and took a deep breath. "It is your house, master." Ice, again.

Quiaius felt that ice at his heart. "No, Eab. Please. I don't think of it that way. This is your house, as much as mine."

"This is my house." Quietly, calmly.

"Yes, Eab. Your house. I thought you knew that."

"This house belongs to me?" A look of surprise.

"Yes, of course!"

Another deep breath, as Eab visibly struggled to calm himself. "Get out of my house."

"What?" There was no way he was understanding the boy correctly. A language problem, he thought, stunned. That was it.

"Get OUT of my HOUSE before I PUT you out!"

Ten minutes later, Quiaius, with nothing more than what he was wearing, was knocking, shame-faced, at Macius' door, still not exactly sure what he had done, but extremely sorry that he had done it.

I've broken everything that breaks now, I think. I'm sitting on the floor in the middle of the pieces. I'm thirsty and I don't have anything left to drink out of. My hands are shaking.

My mother threw men out of the house all the time. The best ones, she threw out several times. Handfast marriages are meant to last a year and a day, but sometimes they were lucky to last just the day. She was beautiful and terrifying, red hair flying around her head like flames, and they loved her. They all loved her.

If I'd known it hurt this much, this throwing men out of houses, I'd never have laughed all those times. How would I have known? She always laughed right along with me, while they pounded on the door and howled.

The cats have come back into the kitchen, now that there isn't anything left to break. They're looking at me very strangely. I don't think they expected me to do that. I don't think I did, either.

I have the oddest feeling in my chest. It's as if it would hurt, if there were anything inside to hurt, but it's hollow in there now. I can't tell if it's a relief, or if I'll die of it. I'll have to wait and see, I suppose. The one thing I know is that empty as I am, I'm not hungry. The bread's going to waste.

I wonder where Kais went. I wonder if I hurt him, too. I never meant to. I love him more than life, more than bread, more than every tree. I only -- He let that man in, that soldier. How could he not know? It's as if he never knew one thing about me, as if I had only just walked in, a stranger to him. I don't know if I can go into the front room again, even to wash the floor. I need to wash the floor.

I need to have the floor torn out, and a new floor put in.

Then I need to put something heavy in front of the door, to keep the wild animals out.

I need to lie here a while, though, first. I don't know how I got this tired. I suppose throwing things is hard work. No wonder my mother had such strong arms.

I'm lying here on the kitchen floor, amid the broken dishes, a brightly colored rock garden. Argentum, sweet old gray striped Argentum, is licking my face. It stings a little; his tongue is rough, and salt from tears gets into the scrapes. I hope Argentum doesn't mind a lot more salt.

Quiaius slumped back on the couch. His head hurt, and Macius was trying to be reasonable, which somehow made it that much worse.

"Well, I'm sure Eab was upset, but Cornix meant well."

"Meant well. Exactly. So did I. I never should have let Cornix into the house. I should have talked to him on the doorstep."

"Well, Quiaius, after all, it's your house..."

Quiaius answered his friend's unfortunate choice of words from between gritted teeth. "Not anymore, it's not."

Macius choked on his drink. Choked, surely, Quiaius thought; there was no way the man was laughing. "Oh, by all the gods, Quiaius, you're not telling me..." Oh. He WAS laughing. Wonderful. Quiaius waited a while until Macius had himself under control, and then repeated the exchange of hot words that had seen him chased out of his home.

"You... gave him the house."

"It seemed like the best way to handle the situation."

Macius was rocking back and forth, and appeared to be having trouble breathing. "Your slave was upset with you, so you gave him your HOUSE."

"He isn't my slave. Not really. I don't think of him that way. I've never thought of him that way, really. First he was sort of a pet, and then he was... well, Eab."

Macius looked thoughtful. "So you freed him?"

"Well, no, not officially. But surely he must know..." He heard himself speaking, suddenly, and realized that he had made a terrible mistake. At least one.

"Quiaius, by Pluto! You've freed every slave you ever had within six months, all those kitchen girls you hardly knew apart! And now you've gone and fallen in LOVE with one, and you're still holding the TITLE on him?" Macius looked, if anything, more incredulous than he had a moment before, but considerably more serious. "And he knows about your freeing all the kitchen girls, I assume."

"I think I told him about that..." Quiaius suddenly had a sick feeling. Another sick feeling. Another in today's seemingly endless series. "I'm sure I would have got around to it. I guess I felt as if he were safer, being under my ownership, my protection, as it were..."

"Damn, Quiaius. I'd have thrown a mug at you, myself. And I would have aimed better."

"If you have any helpful suggestions, I'd like to hear them. Otherwise, maybe you should just..."

"If I knew what to do in your situation, besides go buy another HOUSE, I'd set myself up in business as a seer. We'll think of something. In the meantime, I'll have Sima set up the spare bedroom for you. You look like you should be lying down."

"I feel like I should be dead. Macius, I've really hurt him. And he looked capable of killing me, to be honest. I'm actually afraid."

Macius sighed. "I told you when you got him, nobody can tame those Celts. They aren't the kind of things you can keep as pets. They belong in the Northern Lands, where they came from."

Quiaius groaned. He didn't want to think about that part. He really didn't want to think about that part. What he wanted made him feel selfish, and what he thought Eab would choose made him feel lost.

He looked over to see a young blond boy, maybe ten years old, standing in the doorway. He looked extremely serious, and he also looked as if he might possibly have been listening for a while. "My mother wanted me to see if you needed anything to drink."


"I haven't made any other good decisions today. What do you think?"

"Anakin, ask her to get the spare bedroom set up. I think Quiaius is going to be here a while."

Gods, Quiaius thought, but my head hurts.

I'm not sure how long she was knocking before I came to the door. It might have been a long time. I hadn't slept the night before, but instead sat up thinking about Kais and the things I'd said to him, and listening for noises that might have been someone trying to get in. This meant that as soon as the sun came up, I was dead asleep on the bathroom floor, and a procession of wild boars might have come through the house for all I knew.

The knocking eventually woke me up, though, and when I went to the door with the bread knife (in case the soldier had come back) and looked through the tiny window beside it, I was very relieved that it was only Sima, Macius' cook who I had met in the marketplace what seemed like years ago. She was carrying a basket, and looked as if being greeted at the door with a knife was nothing to her.

I welcomed her into the kitchen and watched while she pretended not to see the ruins of broken things everywhere, and settled herself on a chair. She looked a bit tired, but it was the kind of tired that comes from doing real work all day, not from sitting up all night in tears. Her kind of tired was much easier to look at than mine, I think.

She told me what I had already guessed, that Kais was staying with Macius, and that she had settled him in his room herself. I didn't ask her how he was, because if she told me he was unhappy, I would feel horrible, and if she told me he was fine, I would feel worse.

She had brought a few things, cakes and the like, and I thanked her for them, even though I doubted I would be able to eat them. She asked me if I was all right here, by myself, and I hardly knew how to answer: my heart was torn out and I thought I might die, but other than that, I was managing. I told her that the man had come with fish for the cats the night before, and that I had given him a coin, and he had looked at me strangely; she asked me to show her what kind of coin it had been, and then she laughed long and hard, because it was a coin that would feed a family for a week, instead of cats for a day. She showed me the proper coin to pay him with the next time, and assured me that both of our masters could well afford a mistake like that once in a while.

I told her that the problem was that I didn't want a master. I wanted Kais, but not to belong to him. She told me that with a good master, being a slave was not bad; for instance, Macius was having her son Anakin educated, so that he could help teach Macius' little daughter when she got older. She would never have been able to afford school for him if she had been free. She felt safe working for Macius, she said, and more secure knowing that he owned her, and that she was not simply an employee, who he would not have felt obligated to support. I told her that she might feel differently if she had been born free, and she had nothing to say to that.

She told me then that I was going to get my chance. The soldier who came here and destroyed my home had told Kais that he was going to be travelling to my homeland, and that he would take me back there if Kais wanted it. She said that Kais did want it, even though he looked near to crying when he talked about it. That was more than I could stand, and I was more than near to crying then; in fact, I cried in her arms, and wished very much at that moment that she were my mother, who I knew I would never see again in this world. At least she was some boy's mother, and that was enough just then.

"Don't you want to go home?"

"I can't."

"Of course you can. Your master would let you, this man would take you -- he even said that your master could come along, to be sure that he meant no harm to you, and to see you safely there."

"You don't understand." And I explained about what I had been raised for, the Trees, and the way I had been meant to be kept physically pure. I couldn't even play the same games as the other children, in case I should get a scar. If things had gone the way I had always thought they were meant to, in a year I would have been initiated, and afterwards walked through the village wearing only the sky, so that all could see that I was spotless and unmarked, fit to serve.

I showed her my wrists then, with their wide bands of scarring. Even in the dark, they would be impossible to miss, hard and ridged. No one could mistake me for anything unmarked.

Then it was her turn to cry, and then to grow very angry. She said that here in Rome, there were girls raised the way I had been, for service to the goddess Vesta. She told me that she would not be one of those soldiers for any amount of gold, because what they had done to me was not only cruelty, but a personal offense to the gods.

She hugged me then, fiercely, like a mother bear, and told me she had to go -- she had been on her way to the market, and couldn't stay any longer. She told me to be careful, and that if I was going to be answering the door with a knife, I should walk, not run. I laughed then, because she sounded so much like my own mother, and it was the first time in days that a laugh hadn't tasted bitter in my mouth.

She left then, before I could tell her how badly I missed my Kais.

Quiaius lay miserably in his borrowed bed, wishing he could just sleep a bit longer. Dreaming hurt, but wakefulness hurt worse; unfortunately, there was no sleep left in him. The sun was up, had been for a good while, and Macius' cook, Sima, had come in with a tray.

"Master Quiaius, I thought you might want some breakfast."

He sighed and sat up. It was embarrassing to be treated like a sick child at his age. He took the cakes she'd brought, mostly out of politeness; he had no desire to eat anything. "Thank you, Sima."

"May I speak with you?"

"Of course. You know I don't stand on ceremony with you." He liked the woman, with her sensible kindness; he had trouble thinking of her as a slave, sometimes, because of her frankness. "Sit down, if you like." She sat on the edge of the bed.

"I hope you won't think me meddlesome. I've visited your house this morning."

He sighed. "It isn't my house anymore. I'm tired of having to tell people that."

She ignored his scolding. "I saw Eab."

His heart leapt at the name, then fell as he recalled that the house was not the only thing that was no longer his. "Is he -- well?"

"As well as you are, I would say. I don't think he's slept, or not very well. His eyes were red. And he answered the door with a knife. He's afraid, I think."

"It's my fault, for bringing that soldier in. He wanted to help, and I wanted to help, and it's done nothing but hurt Eab."

"You could just as well say it's my fault, for telling Master Macius about what I saw in the market. If we're going to give faults here, we should give them to those that deserve it, the ones who hurt that child."

"I've hurt him. He trusted me, because he had to, I suppose. What have I done but taken advantage of a damaged boy, and put his feelings aside when he needed them protected?"

"Master Quiaius, you've done a great deal to help him. My master told me what he was like when you first had him at home, starved and terrified of everything. They made him into a wild animal, and you helped him turn back into a boy. A very sweet boy, who loves you."

"He told you that?"

"He didn't have to. His eyes change when he talks about you. It's as simple as that."

Quiaius swallowed; picturing those changeable eyes brought him dangerously close to tears, which he could not show this kind woman. "But I've been selfish, I've taken as much from him as he has from me. More. I hadn't any idea how lonely I was, until he came to me. He gave me someone to care for, someone to talk with, someone..."

"To love. After Claudia. No man is meant to be alone, or no good man."

"I'm not sure I am a good man. He's been given the chance to go home, and he belongs at home, and I know that. And I don't want to give him up. Even though that seems like a moot point just now."

Sima sighed. "Quiaius, you have no idea, do you? I talked to him about that, this morning. He can't go home."

"He can, and he should. As a mother, you should know that."

"Quiaius, he was raised for one thing, to be like a Vestal to his gods. That's been destroyed for him. The child he was at home was killed. The boy he is now can't bear what they'd think, back there, when they saw him. There are signs of what happened to him everywhere on his body." Anger burned in the woman's eyes. "How men can do such things, to children. It's beyond me. Anakin's my life, but when I see a thing like that, I wish I hadn't brought him into the world, with the danger of it." She looked at him. "Eab needs you, Quiaius. If he were my son, I'd want him to be with you."

"I don't deserve him. I've kept him a slave, when I could have freed him. I never bothered to learn a word of his language, while he's become better at Latin than half the natives. And I've... taken advantage." He felt ashamed to say any more to her.

She put her hand on his shoulder. "You've loved him, and given him comfort he needed. I dare say you haven't done anything beyond what he wants. He's always come to you, hasn't he?"

"He's come to me. Or we've come together. There hasn't been very much, really."

"I don't need to know what there's been; I've been in the world, after all. It's between you. If you want to fix this, I believe you can, and I believe you should."

"And what would you advise?"

"First of all, it certainly isn't too late to free him. As for the language, you're a bright enough man so far as books and study are concerned."

"There isn't a book for that. I'm not sure anyone in Rome knows that language, and Latin too, except Eab himself."

Sima smiled. "You don't know what everyone in Rome knows, do you? Anakin has a friend."

An hour later, Quiaius was clean and dressed, and walking in the sunny street, led by Anakin, who was chattering away.

"She's kind of weird, but she's been everywhere. She knows a bunch of languages. She's been teaching me some healing stuff, so if Ami, I dunno, falls down and bumps her knee, I can fix her up. Well, that's what she's supposed to be teaching me, but half the time she ends up telling me some crazy story or something. She's about a million years old, you know?" And with that, they came to the little clinic with its low door, which Quiaius noted was perfectly sized for Anakin.

"Wondered I did when get around to this you would."

"Teach you, I will, what you need to say now. Teach you the rest, your boy will later," Yolada, the tiny old healer, declared, while she stirred a large iron pot in which herbs floated in murky water.

"I hope so... I don't even know if he is my boy, now."

The crone laughed uproariously. "Yours, he is, without a doubt. Killed you the first week, he would have, if loved you he did not. Alive you are, standing before me. Loves you he does."

Quiaius could think of no answer to this, and so he sat meekly, awaiting his lesson.

"Start with this we will. Rachainn a criochan na h-urach nan dh'iarr thu orm."

"Ah. Ra --" He had never heard anything less pronounceable. It dawned on him that possibly learning Latin would not be so easy, after all, for someone for whom this was their mother tongue. "What does that mean, exactly?"

"I would go to the ends of the earth if you asked me to." A smile from the old woman. "Mean that you do, hmmm?"

"Yes. Yes, I do. Can I write that down?"

"Better it is if by heart you can say it, but notes you may make if you must. Not much time you have, hmm? Downtown you must go, papers you must register. Free him you must."

It was early evening, and I was sharpening my knife while Rosa tried to play with the whetstone, when I heard a knock at the front door. As I came closer, I could hear murmuring, as if two people were whispering together; then footsteps as one hurried away. I looked out the small window by the door and saw no one, and that made my blood run cold. I had already been imagining noises around the house, and fearing that someone might be trying to get in. Another knock, and I looked down; there was a small blond boy clutching a small scroll. He looked harmless, and so I opened the door a crack; he looked at the knife I was holding and spoke to me from the doorstep.

"You must be Eab. I'm Anakin, my mom's Sima? Macius' cook? I've got something for ya." He had that look of a boy under ten doing something of great importance, very serious. He held out the scroll to me. "So you're free and all now."

I looked at the scroll, with its seals and signs, and felt dizzy for a moment. Being granted my freedom by a young boy seemed strangely unreal. I would have thought I would be happier. He must have noticed my expression.

"It's from Quiaius. He's staying with us since you, well, since he gave you the house, right?" I nodded, dazed. I thought it interesting that this child took the whole thing so casually. "He's been a complete mess." And at that he rolled his eyes, and I had to smile, as torn as my heart was. "Look, I know you're mad at him, but could he come over and tell you something?"

I nodded, my head spinning. He looked over to his right and waved, then stepped back from the door, and there was Kais.

He looked terrible, and my heart went out to him. His hair was worse than I'd seen it before, and his clothes were not to be mentioned. He went down on his knees on the doorstep, then looked down at a page of scribbled notes, then looked up at me.

"A Eaib. Sann a h-uile rud a tha thu ag iarraidh, a tha mi fhin ag iarraidh. Tha mi a' gradhachadh tu. Am faodaidh mi a' tighinn a-steach?"

Eab. Whatever you want is what I want. I love you. May I come inside?

These were the first words of my own language, that I had learned from my mother, that I had heard since the soldiers took me. Badly pronounced, but beautiful, from such a man. "Tha thu ag ionnsachadh mo chanain-sa!"

You're learning my language! And at that he looked completely lost, and I knew that he had only learned those few words, but oh, that was enough.

"Tapadh leat. Thank you." And I took his hand, which was shaking, and helped him up, and wrapped my arms around him there on the doorstep -- and certainly there were people in the street watching, and surely neither of us cared at all -- and kissed him very thoroughly, and let him in.


I will not have a man after Kais. In these twenty-three years we were together, he was everything to me, lover and teacher and rescuer, but mostly lover, and no other man's hands will touch me.

He was strong nearly to the end, and beautiful to me always, his eyes always so blue, even as his hair grew entirely white. The last few weeks I took care of him as he had taken care of me in the first weeks we were together. I was holding him as he slept, the way I always did, when he slipped away, like a candle going out, peacefully, as it comes to its end. I wept then, and yet I was glad, knowing that when I saw him again we would both be young and strong.

We burned his body then, in the manner of his people. Most of him is in the garden now, under the cherry tree. I have a little of him with me, in the small leather bag that I keep on a cord around my neck. He is in my heart always.

The house, I've given to Anakin and Amidala. It is large enough for their children, and I no longer need it. Free people should have a house.

I've cut my hair, the braid like a rope that I grew because he loved it. It was well past my waist, the ends the fierce red of my last days as a boy, the top showing its first silver. I hung it in the tree, where the birds may take it for their nests.

I took only a few things with me, the wrist bands he gave me that day in the market, his comb, and a few coins. I needed nothing more, besides the small gray horse Kais gave me five years ago. I call her Argentum, after our cat.

I have heard that some of my people still live, back at home. I think I shall see what the Trees will think of me now.

In the chill of early morning, I turn my horse's head to the north, and we run.