Author: Guede Mazaka
I always know what I’m doing.
No matter what anyone else says, that’s the truth. Besides, they can’t ever know for certain what goes on inside me when I do something, due to the simple fact that they aren’t me. Only I know, and I trust that I wouldn’t lie to myself. Arthur does enough of that for the both of us.
We’re sharing the narrow, hard, cramped slot that passes for a bed in the galley cabin, which is too short for me to even stretch out my leg to its full extent. I can sit up and clasp my other knee to my chest if I keep my chin pinned to said knee, though that position makes my muscles ache and whine after no more than five breaths. If I don’t brace myself like that, however, the rocking of the ship makes my stomach queasy as that of a pregnant woman’s in the morning. I have no idea how Arthur, his greater height and weight half-crowded and half-curled beside my hip, manages to sleep as soundly as he does.
His lashes fall over dark shadows that sag beneath each eye, but his breathing is even and his body more relaxed than I’ve ever seen it. I’ve never seen him even remotely this peaceful before, and for a moment, I’m offended. It’s few that can appreciate the beauty of Sarmatia, and Arthur certainly doesn’t number among that select elite. He hates my country with the lurching, feverish detestation of the near-mad.
Then he shifts, pulling out of the blanket enough for some of his scars to show, and it occurs to me that my country hasn’t been very forward to reveal her lovely side to him. That in truth, he hates the abstraction Sarmatia, which has driven him one-by-one from all his foundations and touchstones and refuges. I’ve seen other men break under that strain into fragments of sanity, but Arthur somehow finds new strength and grow in the midst of his disintegration.
More to the point, I can’t believe that I’m bothering to think about things from his point of view. One short tumble does not make a life. That’s not an excuse with me—it’s the truth. In war, there’s no time to bother with uncertainties and hesitations. Either the arrow misses or it doesn’t, either the one side wins or it loses, and everything else, everything just a little weaker than that, gets flushed away in the torrents of reddish black muck that battle brings.
Anyway, it wasn’t like he’s the best I’ve ever had. Objectively speaking, and thinking about it for only a few seconds, because after that I have to stop before my prick decides to make things even more uncomfortable. He’d fumbled things and hadn’t been gentle in his mistakes, but he’d learned fast. And he’d been so damned hungry, and careful all at once so I hadn’t known whether to scream or sigh.
Fuck. I’m embarrassing myself. After everything that I’ve seen and done, I should have lost the power to blush by now.
His tranquil rest suddenly shivers, then groans as some nightmare cracks it open, and he starts rubbing his face into the sheets as if trying to hide, while his hands restlessly reach for something that isn’t there. They hit my leg, but it takes a moment for me to shift that limb within reach of those seeking fingers. My hand actually went out before I even really recognized that he was stirring, but it paused just above his face to feel the heat coming off of it.
I take back my hand, and stare at my palm as if some useful advice was written there. Even if there was, I probably wouldn’t have followed it.
And that’s the point: I don’t follow. I hate being controlled or restricted in any way, and the man slowly wrapping himself around my leg did that to me for nearly a month. Admittedly, Arthur’s conception of slavery is rather weird, and I had it much, much better than almost everyone else in the same position, but that doesn’t matter. Easy strictures are still strictures.
Most of the time, I wanted to kill him. Thinking about how to rip revenge from him and every other damned Roman on earth was how I managed to make myself fall asleep when I had rope around my wrists, how I kept my calm whenever we passed some bastard Roman soldier beating a Sarmatian woman. He hates what he did—so do I. And I had the malicious benefit of being on the receiving end of that; it’s all well and good to slaughter and pillage and then repent, but what does that do for the dying and wounded and scarred? Nothing. Arthur’s a self-pitying, hypocritical, indecisive son of a bitch that gets selfishly wrapped up in his own damn guilt, and thinks that that guilt is all there is to wrongdoing.
Of course, this is why my fingers have somehow ended up in his hair. It’d be much easier if he merely followed his nature like the other Romans and raped the countryside without a second thought. For simplicity’s sake, I could have done without those reflexive acts of moronic kindness to which he’s prone; maybe his reining in for a Sarmatian boy any other Roman would’ve rode down without a second thought, or treating my wounds before his own, mean little in the larger scope of things, but…I can’t forget about them.
But how much has changed in each of us? Truly? He was blighting himself when I met him, and as far as I know, all he’s done about that is to remove himself from the supposed cause of his conflict. And before he did that, Arthur fought hard and long in the last Sarmatian-Roman battle, garnering his share of responsibility in its outcome. I doubt whether the effects of his sojourn in Sarmatia have finished with him, and knowing what I do of him, they’ve probably become causes in their own right.
And I…dreamed of my hands around his neck, and memorized the order in which he removed his armor, and went off to war with the scent of his blood in my nose and the salt of his sweat in my mouth. I did my share to make the Romans earn what they won many times over.
It was two months between the end of that battle and the moment when I chased Arthur onto this ship. In that time, I can cover a surprising amount of ground, and I did. I did my best to plunge back into Sarmatia and wipe away as much of the Romans as I could before their victory turned into concrete oppression. When I did find myself on the docks, I had my pick of ships; money and a set of good swords can get me through almost any situation, and certainly slipping out of the country under the nose of the Romans hadn’t been too difficult, given their rampant corruption.
So like an ass, I returned Arthur’s spare horse to him. And his saddlebags. And his damned slave, never mind that according to him, I’ve always been free and am free now.
He’s settling down, and even pressing his head against my stroking hand. Tiredness is weighing too heavily on my eyes and shoulders for even my irritated confusion to oppose, and I let it push me down till I can rest my head in the curve of his neck. When his palms slide to my waist and then my back, a warm lassitude soothes me into unknotting the tension from my muscles.
I never said I knew why I was doing something. I only said that I knew what I was doing. And now I know something else.
I’m an idiot.
* * *
The rocking of the ship eventually recedes into the balls of my feet, which slowly realize that it’s not that different from balancing in stirrups. The change in the coastline, however, is a little harder to get used to.
We’ve the wind with us, so the air’s always fresh and cold and thus familiar, but it smells of brine instead of earth. And the steppes are slowly sloping away to gentle hills that jar my sight every time I look over the railing. According to the others, we’ll pass Greece in a few days, and everything will be mountainous again for a while.
Sailors and soldiers, at the bottom they’re more or less the same. Simple, straightforward, unconcerned with the abstract. I have the impression that they’re curious about me, but that’s mostly died away now that we’re well on our way. The vagaries of the weather keep them busy while I pace the deck, occasionally drop down to sooth the horses, and then come back up to pester them in lieu of having anything else to do.
Arthur told me that my accent when I speak Latin is disappearing. He said that while facing the sea, so I couldn’t tell whether he was happy about it or not; his voice, I know by now, isn’t quite the key to his emotions like it is for everyone else. I suppose he’s spent too much time rewording other men’s speeches, reworking truth and lies and language, to put much trust in that. Only when he’s exceptionally tired or upset does the tone of his voice match with the darkness in his eyes. I find that annoying, and I probably needle him more than I really need to in order to hear his honesty come breaking out of the curbs he’s lashed across his tongue.
It’s strange how when awake, he can quell all the questions and objections seething within me—not by example, because Arthur is far from being a paragon of certainty, but by…I don’t know, the sheer weight of his presence. I almost feel like I float high up in self-defense, lest his gravity drag me down. And it still keeps me circling back anyway, but as long as I’m prying at his fractures and probing his fresh scars, I don’t notice my own. This is why I try to fall asleep before he does.
Well, that and the fact that it gives me the last word. The way I describe Arthur, anyone else would think him a dull, depressing sort—which is true—but he’s quite capable of stabbing melancholy into my blithe sarcasm and thus violently bringing me back to earth. Sometimes I think I’m frightened of his words.
That irks me as well. Actually, there’s not much about him that doesn’t irritate me, so I have to wonder why on earth I’m here, staring at the grey-green coast and wondering when he’s going to drag himself up on deck.
And we’re going to stop in Rome, too; he has to see to some kind of business before he can go to Britain. For the first time in my life, I start to question my loyalties.
* * *
Arthur does have a lovely smile, when he bothers to keep his brooding out of it. If I weren’t feeling completely ridiculous, I might even enjoy that.
He’s sitting on the bed, watching how the over-long sleeves of my clothes flap over my hands, and his polite restraint is visibly unraveling under the force of his amusement. “I’m sorry. You didn’t want to go ashore, and I’m not used to buying for anyone besides myself.”
“I noticed,” I dryly reply. As if wearing the style current in the main part of the Roman Empire wasn’t uncomfortable enough, now I have the disturbing impression that I’m twelve again and forced to wear cast-offs of the older boys. “Suppose next time I’ll have to put up with seeing Roman oppression, if I’m to keep from looking the complete fool.”
In a second, his good humor slips away into the shadows, and he rocks on his heels so his back slumps against the wall. Of course, now Arthur can’t meet my eyes. “Here they’ve adopted Roman ways,” he mutters, prelude to a long defense in which he doesn’t even pretend to believe now.
“And that means what? They haven’t rebelled in the past hundred years? I know without even stepping foot in the ports what I’ll see: beggars, starving children, and Roman businessmen squeezing the blood from the very stones.” I simply can’t understand why he still loves Rome so much, even after he’s taken so many steps to distance himself from it. What he does now, from the way he keeps up his armor to the way he still pauses before he eats, I think he does because he personally finds merit in it, and not only because it’s what some book or man or government says he should. “Tell me I’m wrong.”
When I walk up and put my hands on his knees, crowd him further into the bunk, he merely turns to show eyes like wet earth sinking beneath the pressure of a boot. Then he looks down and picks up my hand, twisting it around as if he’s never seen such a thing. “I can’t. I know Rome isn’t perfect.”
“No, it’s rotten enough to make you vomit in the middle of the night.” In all honesty, remembering that clenches my stomach with ice. “Why do you even bother with it anymore?”
His thumb presses into the side of my wrist as a flicker of anger travels from one eye to the other. “Lancelot, I can see the wrongs of it just as well as you can, but I can see the rights of it as well. Rome is a great empire, with many admirable aspects to it among all the—the—”
“Filth, massacre, brutality…they’re words you’re perfectly capable of saying. In Sarmatian, if you can’t bear to sully Latin with them.” My jab goes straight through the veils of his self-absorption and draws a healthy amount of aggravation into his eyes. And I’m pleased about that. After years of having to put up with Roman aggression, striking without ever feeling that I’ve done more than temporarily discomfort the Imperial beast, it’s amazingly satisfying to know that I can force one Roman to pay more attention than that.
Except Arthur’s not Roman, and it shows like gold in clear mountain water. Before him, I never used to second-guess myself like this. My first judgment was my last judgment.
His fingers slide around my wrist and hold it in place when I try to shift back and bask in my triumph, and he leans forward to bring the hardening glitter in his eyes into the open. The problem is, Arthur spends so much time being the disillusioned, trapped intellectual that it’s difficult to remember he’s a damn good soldier as well. He can fight.
“I respect your right to hate Rome, and I won’t try to make you like it. But it was a part of my life for a very long time, it helped me in many ways, and that’s unchangeable. I may not hold to its ways now, but I still admire its worthy aspects.” When he talks like that, voice rasping like steel on a whetstone, I stop hearing the meaning and get lost in the sound of it. Of all the things about Arthur that have somehow hooked into me, I think it’s the force of his sincerity that tugs hardest. That, he doesn’t ever try to hide beneath a veneer of civilization.
That isn’t Roman; they pride themselves on being pragmatic, cold sons of whores that aren’t swayed by pure emotion. When asked to defend themselves, they always resort to reason. On the other hand, Arthur’s first defense is always an appeal to the rightness of some ideal, and only after declaring that does he start using rationality to promote his argument. I can’t really understand it—all men are not equal, and just ask any beggar for confirmation—but I can’t seem to stay away from it, either. It’s oddly attractive, even if I don’t believe it.
“Just as long as you remember I hate everything you stand for,” I say, and I’m slightly more than annoyed to hear my breath come short.
He’s still frustrated enough to be touchy with me. “Do you even know what I stand for now?”
“Only what you tell me of it. And it still sounds the same.” My mind has lost control over my mouth, and I know that because I’m grinning to show my teeth. It’s most likely not the best expression for the situation, but I can’t help myself.
“Then what are you doing here?” Arthur growls, yanking me down and trying to tear off my smile with his teeth.
I do stop grinning. And I’m painfully reminded of how cramped this ship is when my back bangs into wood and my knee smacks something hard and sharp. Cursing doesn’t help because Arthur has his tongue scraping raw the nerves in the back of my throat and his hands inching too damned slow towards my rising cock. He does learn very quickly when it comes to this.
My fingers get stuck somewhere on his shoulders, one set sneaking beneath his clothes to knead a scar that stretches across the back of one broad shoulderblade, whereas my mouth does somewhat better in that it maps most of his chest before it ends up glued to his neck. I squeeze moan after moan into the skin there while he fucks me into a senseless mess, his harsh grunts suffocating themselves in my hair.
This is the least awkward we ever are with each other, and he still manages to elbow me twice. I admit to possibly kneeing him in the thigh, but it wasn’t nearly as hard.
Afterward, when we’re collapsed into mere breathless gasps, he props himself up on his arm and carefully looks me over. It makes me feel more like a piece of chattel than anything he did when I actually was his slave, and I desperately want to punch him. Fortunately for him, most of his weight is still pinning down my arms. “Why did you come after me?”
“Nice of you not to even consider the possibility that I just wanted to travel. Considering what’s going to happen to Sarmatia now that it’s a properly beaten-down Roman province, no one in their right mind would stay.” That is the truth. A truth. When I say it, my lip curls because I know damn well it’s just a stupid little excuse that wouldn’t fool a child. On the other hand, acknowledging the larger reason it follows would be an exercise in Arthur-scale self-scarification. And I’m not him.
He merely continues to watch me, only now it’s in the way someone would a piece of cloth that the wind had ripped from their hand.
If I wanted to pursue this line of conversation, I would have brought it up. As he was the one who did, I don’t see any problem in ending it by rolling over and pretending to go to sleep.
Arthur is silent a moment longer, and then a whisper of a sigh escapes him as he gets off the bed. Conscientious as usual, he does his best to clean everything up and straighten the sheets around me. Then he braces himself in the corner of the bunk and stares at the dark. I have the suspicion that formerly, he used to spend moments like this reading, but I haven’t seen him touch a book in weeks. In fact, I don’t remember seeing anything vaguely book-shaped in his baggage.
He can spend hours and hours in the same position, doing nothing but thinking. It’s nothing like the past few restless nights I’ve had, where I fidget and grumble through the thoughts that dare stick around past the time when they should’ve gone to rest.
It’s annoying. He’s annoying. He’s like a burr trapped under the saddle, and no matter how I kick and scratch and bite, I can’t get him out.
And no, I don’t sleep well when he’s awake.
* * *
I’m mostly used to the tumble-slide roll of the water now, but occasionally a bout of seasickness sneaks up and chops me in the gut. This time, it would have to be when I’m down with the horses; I’ve lived among the animals all my time, but the stench in the ship stalls is something else. No wonder my poor horse is glassy-eyed and weak-whinnied.
“Did you name him?”
There was a man I met once, Tristan, who could walk straight towards a person so their eyes never left him and still startle them into shitting themselves when he finally made it in front of them. When Arthur nearly surprises me into falling face-first into pungent horse-shit, I am reminded of that other experience. Which wasn’t pleasant, either.
His quick grab of my arm saves me, more or less, and then the sideways rise of the ship sends us both against a post. “Yes, but I’m thinking of renaming him. He looks a lot like you right now.”
Arthur’s not supposed to smile at that, tolerant and resigned as if he was expecting it. “Well, he’s yours. I can’t stop you.”
“And then I could hit Arthur whenever he’s misbehaving,” I add, pressing closer. In the background, his stallion sounds off with a derisive snort, while mine—previously his, and as it was a free gift I’m not going to pay any attention to that—impatiently stamps.
“You’re baiting me. Down here.” Eyebrow raised, Arthur takes a calm look around. Either he got out all his gloomy nonsense early today, or he’s getting used to me. The first option is theoretically possible, but I’ve never, ever seen him run out of things to guilt himself over. As for the second one, I’m fairly sure we haven’t known each other that long. I can list at least ten men whom I’ve known for years and whom I can still exasperate into near-murder within the first few moments of a conversation.
He’s better at balancing himself against the motion of the waves than I am, and I have no problem with taking advantage of that fact. What I do have a problem with is that I’m also comfortable that way. “Seems to be the only thing that works. Name one time when we weren’t angry at each other.”
When the aggravation starts to rise in his eyes, I confuse myself by tasting regret in my mouth and feeling the warmth of excitement spread from my chest downwards. If I ever figure out how Arthur can complicate things without even moving—
“I’d change that if I could. It’s not any more pleasant for me than it is for you,” he snaps, stepping back.
And my back goes up in hot fury while my front freezes from lack of him. “So why don’t you? Honestly, sometimes I have to wonder when was the last time you even had a long, civil conversation about nothing important. It’s like you don’t know how to—how to just talk.”
His lacerating gaze goes inward, and the pain comes to the forefront of his expression. “Before you? I can’t remember. I wasn’t very well-liked in the Roman army; aside from Aulus Hirtius and Aurelius, I can’t recall anyone who spoke to me when they didn’t have to. Though to be fair, I probably couldn’t have answered because I would’ve been too busy trying not to accuse them of all the wrongs I’d seen them do.”
The unique quality of Arthur’s hurt is that when he’s too upset to think, he can make someone else feel it just as deeply. I take a deep breath and my lungs scream as if they’ve been scraped raw. Pity doesn’t quite describe what is going through my mind right now, because that’s for the ones who’re too weak to keep their heads up. And Arthur’s chin is definitely holding his eyes level with the world, even if it’s plain for all to see what that’s cost him.
He stiffly pivots to go, and once again, I’m going after him. Hooking my fingers in his sleeve slows him down a little, but it takes grabbing his hand to make him come to a complete stop. With a sharp, tense breath, he turns to face me and waits with shoulders hunched against another blow.
I suddenly realize that it’s not entertaining or enjoyable to provoke him into this kind of state anymore. At least, not if I’m doing it to have some backwards revenge on Rome and Romans, because he’s not part of that. If he was, I wouldn’t be able to hurt him at all.
Arthur is the only man whose eyes I can’t meet sometimes, and this is one of those times. His right boot could use some attention; there’s a bad scrape along one side, and I think I can see one of the hobnails working its way out.
“I didn’t mean…” Words slip hesitantly past my ears as his hand curls up to rub a thumb against the pulse in my wrist. “I wasn’t referring to…”
“The fucking. We’re fucking, Arthur. You can say that.” And so can I, never mind that I find myself switching to Sarmatian to do it. In Latin, it sounds too cold and detached, like what happens with a whore when a man’s just drunk enough to want a few moments of soft company.
A trace of amusement returns to steady his voice. “Fine. I wasn’t talking about the fucking.” He still stutters it a little, and I think I hear us both holding back a chuckle. As expected, Arthur’s fast dies into seriousness that weighs heavy on the space between us, warping it. “When you showed up on the docks, choosing for yourself and never mind my objections, I thought…it felt like I’d done one thing right, in spite of everything else I’ve helped bring about. And you were—you looked content.”
Between his thumb and forefinger, tucked into the webbing, are some odd little marks. I have to crane my head and squint at them for several breaths before I understand what they are. Half a heartbeat later, I recollect that memory and trace its remains with my fingertip. “From when I bit you.”
“But you’re not, are you?” As he mouths the last word, the damned ship lurches again and the ensuing dance for balance makes me look up at him. Arthur hasn’t ever been judging me, I abruptly understand; he’s been searching me for signs of discontent. For an excuse to declare another failure on his part and go whip himself for it.
Actually, I should’ve had that realization days—no, weeks ago. “You really don’t know how this works, do you?”
“I don’t even know what this is,” Arthur shoots back, tone reviving some of its earlier irritation.
On the one hand, I don’t want to sound condescending now because where we are is fragile as glass filigree, and I desperately don’t want that to break. On the other hand, I’m still trying to figure out the why behind everything, so it’s not like I can explain it in the kind of high-flying language he’s used to. Besides, for all the time we’ve spent crammed against each other in various less-than-ideal situations, I still am not quite sure of myself around him. Which is evident by the fact that I’m admitting so. “Look…ah…when was the last time you had a woman? On some kind of regular basis?”
Arthur blinks, very slowly, and then gives a little shrug at himself. “I’ve been in Sarmatia on military campaign for nine years. Nearly all the camp whores were Sarmatian women. I couldn’t look at them without being reminded of someone I’d killed or helped negotiate into defeat.”
Fuck. Neither of us have a clue what we’re doing.
It’s debatable whether the sound of footsteps above saves me or just prolongs the tangled muddle. At any rate, we hurriedly slide apart and wait to hear the news from the sailor.
We’ve made final port. All that jouncing was from the pilot navigating his way around the sandbars and shoals, and now we’re docking on the coast of Italy.
* * *
After so long at sea, I’m a bit depressed to find that I’ve lost my riding edge. I’m a Sarmatian warrior, honed against the might of the Roman army, and now an easy few days’ ride leaves my ass sore in highly unpleasant ways. We’re traveling on actual roads as well, so there’s no trouble with mud or animal burrows in the ground that can break horse legs or—
--all right. Those impressed me. Long lines of perfect pavement, measured out according to strict invisible laws…it impressed me, but it disgusted me a little as well. Maybe they speed everything up, but only in certain ways; if it’s not on the road, it withers and falls into neglect. As we rode, Arthur pointed out where significant events like old battles and the occasional assassination had happened, and he mentioned a few road shifts as a result of some of those. I couldn’t help but notice ruins of old villages and towns where the road used to lie, and flourishing ones where its path now ran.
Not to mention it makes men think in predictable patterns, too. If anyone were to invade this country, I could point out to them a dozen places where the roads don’t go and the eyes consequently don’t watch, but where an army could slip into the land without much trouble.
I point that out to Arthur as we prepare for bed in some inn, which he picked and which thus is of decent, boring quality, at the last stop before we reach Rome. He gives me a long, pensive look before stepping over to his things and pulling out what I believe are his orders. “I’ve paid for the week, and told them you’re a friend of mine who’s just accompanying me on a business trip. If you want to stay here, no one will bother you.”
Bouncing on the bed reveals that if either of us have a bad night, we won’t be able to blame the surroundings. We’ve had a good dinner, the room is comfortably warm, and at the moment, there’s no distractions.
I could probably use a distraction. Frankly, I’m getting sick of arguing over something that by rights shouldn’t matter any more. Except the city is just over the horizon, and its stamp still shows on Arthur, and my stomach wants to heave its contents over his boots. My palms itch and my fingers curl around phantom hilts, while I can feel my nerves snaking too much energy through my muscles.
Two heartbeats later, I snap. And at first, it’s even better than before, hot and ferocious and brutal so the evidence of all the previous days’ exertions are wiped off me and replaced with a slow burn that lasts long past the time when we roll apart.
Usually it’s hard to get up in the morning because we’re so wound into each other. It won’t be tomorrow because Arthur gets up in the middle of the night to mull over his sins and falls asleep in the chair. I lie flat on my back, wide awake, and try not to think about what this arrangement recalls.
* * *
I can only ride around the countryside so many times. I can only practice my swordplay for so long. I can only do so many little chores, like rinsing the sheets before the maid gets to them, and I can wander around kicking at stones and swearing at nothing for only part of the day.
On the day I finally run out of other things to do, I go back to the room and flop on the bed, but it doesn’t seem so soft and relaxing now. So I move to the chair, and I’m immediately more at ease.
Because I can still smell Arthur’s presence lingering in it.
He’s not Roman. He’s not Sarmatian—at least, not in the way that truly counts in life. He may be Briton, but I won’t know until I see him breathing and feeling that country.
He killed my people. He helped defeat them. We fought on opposite sides in a war that didn’t bother with anything of the supposed civilized, honorable rules of conduct. Never mind that Arthur feels sorry about it, that he tried to mitigate the worst of it and follow a better way—he didn’t really accomplish that. And someday, he’ll have to answer for that to someone.
Thing is, I’m beginning to feel like that someone won’t be me, like I don’t want that for him. Make no mistake, I haven’t forgiven him for what he’s done wrong, but…damn it, when everyone, including me, didn’t bother to remember war is humanity, he never forgot. I’ve got my own list of dishonorable acts committed against Romans and the occasional traitorous Sarmatian because I didn’t feel as if they deserved to be considered men. Then, it never even crossed my mind to accord them any kind of rights, as Arthur always did.
It’s crossing my mind now because I’m thinking like him without even having to try to, and that’s because…shit and damn and fuck, what did he do to me?
Surprised me with kindness, first of all. Shocked me with guilt and shame, and then slipped in strength through the back way so I started to respect him. And that made me listen and look, like I almost never do. I’ve never met anyone like him, and that’s why it’s so hard to identify what Arthur is.
I’m slumping further and further into the chair as I go from one reluctant conclusion to the next, and I’ve just about drooped onto the floor when the door opens.
Arthur comes in and glances my way, then looks again and holds the stare, but doesn’t say anything. His face is drawn with exhaustion and it makes him look entirely too much like he did in Sarmatia, where his bones seemed to strain paper-thin, sick-white skin.
And I still want him, and fuck Rome, the Christian God and everything else. He would say that it’s not that easy, but why shouldn’t it be?
I missed him. I missed him and he was only an hour’s ride away. I missed him back in Sarmatia, when I was in the front lines of the last Sarmatian army, letting my fingers play over my saddle while I pretended I wasn’t scanning the Roman lines for something I recognized. I missed him when I was wandering around Sarmatia, telling myself I needed to memorize everything before the Romans changed it—again, a truth but not the truth—and I missed him when I was frantically tracking down rumors of one stupid, conflicted, impossibly principled Roman officer.
I missed him in a way that twisted my gut and cobwebbed my dreams and iced my blood, and it was stronger than any feeling I ever got from a mass of ill-defined, backbiting abstractions.
Wonder of wonders, he becomes tired of the staring contest. “Yes?”
“I’m going with you tomorrow.” That last inch of chair seat is quickly running out, and I have to snap down my heel into the floor in order to keep from an undignified tumble. “You can leave me on the steps outside or something along those lines, but I’m going.” And no, I can never help myself. “I promise not to destroy the city.”
The smile whips across Arthur’s face so fast it nearly slides off, but then it slowly swings back into place and fixes itself there. “Sometimes it almost sounds as if you’re jealous.”
“Of Rome?” I use my toes to shove me back in the chair as he walks all the way in and shuts the door, stalling while I think that over. That surprises him, but he should know better than to try and bait me the way I do him. “I probably am, a little. Like you keep telling me, it had you for a very long time.”
He comes up to stop a few inches from me, and then he turns things around by suddenly dropping down into a squat and laying his head in my lap. Arthur’s shoulders roll high and tight as if they’ve been knotted down for too long, and when he mumbles out an explanation, he slurs the ends of the words. “It had me. I…God. God in Heaven, it’s changed.”
Fingers suddenly close around my ankles, then grope up to dig hard into my calves as Arthur’s whole back shakes. A moment later, I feel hot wetness start to seep through my trousers, and only then do I understand. Not that that gives me much of a clue as to how to proceed, and the lack of that knowledge lashes deep inside me. “Arthur?”
“I had a teacher—no, he was more of a friend. A great soul, who was very generous to a young orphan.” He flinches when I hesitantly touch his shoulder, then tightens his grip on my legs till I can feel the blood stop. “His name was Pelagius…”
“You mentioned him once, I think. Something about how men were born with free will?” I quietly ask.
Arthur lifts his head to show death and grief rimming his eyes with red and wet. “He’s dead. Excommunicated by the Church, then executed. A year ago, and I didn’t even know.”
Then he lowers his head, and I run my hands over his head and neck and shoulders because that at least reminds him he’s not by himself. This just proves the ultimate worthlessness of words, because I can’t think of a single thing to say.
* * *
Rome is as dirty as it is beautiful. And it’s crammed so full of people I wonder that anyone manages to come out of here without losing chunks of themselves.
The sheer chaotic thunder of noise must be getting to me if I’m letting stupid thoughts like that float through my brain. Actually, this would explain a lot about Romans and the Roman Empire if everyone tries to emulate this one stacked-up, compressed clutter of a city.
That’s it: Rome is pressure. Weight of those monuments that are spoken of even in Sarmatia, weight of the people surging their way through life to death, weight of the crosses and the swords that appear everywhere and anywhere, it seems. It squeezes and clutches and threatens to crush me into yielding. Once again, I have to recognize that the streak of strength that runs even through Arthur’s unbelievable guilt is rather remarkable. Maybe I should start thinking less on how Rome’s marked him and more on how he’s kept it from molding more of him.
It’s his last day, so there’s only a few last errands for him to run. I’m glad of that, both because I want to get out of this suffocating place and because he still isn’t looking well. Overnight, the shadows have sunk into his face and drained the blood from around his lips. When he finally meets me after the last piece of business, I don’t waste any time. “I want to get out.”
“I can’t say that I disagree,” he replies, mounting his horse as if he were an old, bent man.
It’s past difficult to get anywhere in Rome very fast, but I’m determined to find some open space soon. Moreover, I hate the place, and I’m not terribly giving when it comes to right-of-way even when I’m in a good mood.
I’m needling us down a sidestreet near the edge of the city when Arthur finally decides to share the sum of his melancholy contemplation with me. “I thought that it was my fault. That the reason it didn’t work was because something was wrong with me, because I wasn’t up to the challenge of upholding the true spirit of Rome in the middle of a frontier war.”
“That’s because you’re an idiot. The Rome of your ideals never existed except in your head, and maybe the heads of a few other idiots. Your faults don’t lie there.” My words are somewhat sharper than I mean them to be because yet another street-food hawker has latched onto my horse’s reins. In the end, it takes a combination of hissing the worst Sarmatian curses I can think of and a few well-placed kicks to get him off. “I can’t understand why you think you need to lean on something else, because you never really are. You make up something for that out of yourself, and so you’re in truth independent. If you’d just stop overthinking and see what you actually do—”
Arthur laughing brings my tirade to a jagged stop just as we finally break free of the city. “So you criticize me in order to shore up my self-confidence? You sound like Aulus.”
“Well, you’re obviously not any good at it, and as far as I could tell, Aulus never went as far as he needed to—where are you going?” Puzzled, I turn my horse off the road and trail after Arthur as he abruptly plunges into the countryside.
Instead of answering, he leads me a hot chase for several minutes, till we finally stop in front of one of the many abandoned villas that dot the area around Rome. To be accurate, we halt by a garden gate, where Arthur dismounts and ties his horse to a tree, then waits for me to do the same before pushing aside the rusty door.
Inside is nothing terribly remarkable: an overgrown yard with some broken sculpture in the center and a scum-green pool to one side. But by the way Arthur’s eyes shine, there must be something else to it.
Peering around for another few moments convinces me to give up. “What is this?”
“Just an unkempt garden. I found it back when I was living in Rome, and used to spend afternoons here, planning imaginary campaigns in the branches of that tree. I can’t believe no one’s torn it down.” He shakes his head, grinning a bit foolishly, and drifts a little ahead of me so it’s no trouble at all to step up, press against him and lick at the back of his neck.
We’re half-dressed and rolling around in the grass, smudging green stains on each other as he sucks at my shoulder and I stroke down his sides to clutch at his thighs, cup his ass. And then he rolls his hips so my fingers slip up and back, and he rises just enough to give me a kiss that lingers like the sunbeams on our skin.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen Arthur’s eyes like they are now, lazy and soft and completely comfortable. He keeps busy taking little licks at my surprised expression while his hand gets the oil from somewhere and passes it to me. “What’s it like, living without anything to lean on?”
“Ah…” This is the only time in my life where I’ll ever be shocked speechless, because afterwards, nothing will ever surprise me again. Then my mind catches up to what he said, and I recover a little by getting irked. “I never said you shouldn’t live without anything to lean on. Arthur, what I meant was that if you’re going to do that, you should pick something that actually helps you, and not something that only makes demands of you.”
For some reason, my fingers have frozen where they are, so when he presses down on my one hand, the tip of my index finger rubs along the puckering around the hole. It crosses my mind that maybe Arthur’s snapped something and has gone mad, but then his face goes somber. He stops and looks down at me, still and quiet as the sky above. “So show me. I don’t know how this kind of living works, Lancelot. I don’t think there’s ever been a time when I didn’t have something like Rome in my life. When I didn’t have a belief in something better and larger than me that could make up for my flaws.”
And there are a thousand things I could say: I don’t know either, I’m far from perfect myself, I’m not a sage that can reveal the secrets to happiness, what the fuck does this really have to do with that? But I swallow all those words, hard as it is to force them down, and let the oil run over my fingers.
My hand is shaking when I lift it to him and slowly press in the first finger, and the trembling gets worse when his eyes squeeze shut and his breath catches on nothing. “This hurts,” I belatedly tell him.
“It’s…” Arthur willing himself to relax, to suddenly open up and engulf my finger, is a sight that nearly stops my heart. “…I’ve had worse.”
“That’s complimentary,” I mutter, trying to seek refuge in exasperation as usual. Though that trick doesn’t hold up when I work in the next finger and Arthur’s head goes back. And when I move the two inside him just a little and he stiffens into a long, rasping moan. “Oh, fuck…”
We’ve both lapsed back into Sarmatian, and once the third finger is in, Arthur groans out some language that I don’t recognize at all, though a tiny part of my mind insists that it’s Briton. I tell it to shut up till I don’t feel like I’m about to pass out, because I’ll be damned if I let that happen and thus I need all my concentration on staying conscious.
“Ah…right…back up some and sit--fuck.” I need to remember that Arthur’s been in the military for entirely too long and consequently is far too serious about even casual orders. When my vision isn’t in danger of disappearing.
I’ve jerked myself into an upright position and am gasping for air as if there weren’t plenty all around, while Arthur is staring straight up at the sky, apparently not breathing at all. Then his chin slowly comes down as he sucks in a breath that seems to go on forever. It does eventually end, and so does our unnatural stillness; the next moment, he’s devouring my mouth and my hands are grabbing for his cock, while the movements of our lower halves gradually match into one frenzied rhythm.
“I wondered why you liked this so much,” Arthur murmur-hisses along my neck as we tip so he goes on his back.
The better leverage in this position has the effect of almost shoving my eyes out of my head as my brain decides to swell in the sudden heat. “Now you know. And—actually, probably—say I love it. Really, really—shit. Oh—fuck, tight as—”
He’s garbling in Briton again, so I’m slightly less embarrassed about my rambling. And then Arthur clenches with his whole body and comes. For once he doesn’t have to muffle his voice, and his shout seems to ripple its way out of his body to go ricocheting off the horizon.
I hold on for a few more thrusts while he gradually slips back down to satiation, and then I can’t do anything for a few seconds except keen and whine through a white, white tunnel. There’s the thought that he’d better have gotten whatever he wanted to know, because doing this again would kill me, and then—black.
Fading in a moment later, the world is steaming and bright and good. And Arthur is gingerly inching himself out from under me in a way that makes me grin unashamedly, and his eyes are happy.
* * *
The journey from Rome to Britain seems to go by at an incredible pace compared to the long, tense haul between Sarmatia and Rome. We’re still going through lands that have been long-settled by Rome, but we’re moving away from that city, and with every step, Arthur regains a little color. I should be nearer to content than anything, but in fact, I’m in a mood to slaughter towns.
It’s hard to tell why. All I know is, when we’re riding, I twist and fidget till my horse threatens to put me in the nearest ditch. Arthur tries to distract me by talking about this and that, and I do want to know what happened to him when he was—impossible as it is to imagine—a wide-eyed youth—but I can’t concentrate even on him. The itch rises and my attention wanders.
When we’re off our horses and resting for the night? Well, I think I’ve been quite restrained for an unnaturally long time, and so I’ve earned a few drinks.
When I wake up, I’m in bed, he’s sitting beside me with a face like a winter blizzard, and my knuckles are screaming. My head isn’t quite its usual self, either. “Ow…”
“And you say I’m an idiot.” He passes me a glass of water, then picks up my hand and starts to nudge at the blood-crusted knuckles with a damp rag. Though that hurts, it’s his sigh that really grates on my nerves.
Irritation gives me enough energy to shove him away and slam my back against the wall, but no more than that. Also, now my head feels like I just drove a spike through it, and that shows when I open my mouth. “Damn it, leave me alone. You’re always…”
Arthur has frozen in place, one arm extended towards me. A moment later, he unbends and sits back in his chair, a dangerously blank expression on his face. “I’m always…?”
“Always asking,” I finally mutter, grudgingly wrenching the answer from my teeth. As I do, I slowly let myself slide down the wall in hopes that I can pretend to pass out; as much as Arthur might enjoy talks that torture him, I prefer to be on the giving end or not part of the conversation at all. “You do. You ask and you ask and you even do it when you’re trying not to.”
Unfortunately, we really are getting to know each other. Halfway down my fall to the bed, he leans forward and grabs my shoulders so I can’t go any further. “Are you trying to appeal to my temper, or is this something else?”
“See? Question?” I may…still be drunk—well, no. If I were drunk, I wouldn’t care whether or not anything hurt, and right now it does very much matter if my head throbs or my hand twinges or Arthur’s eyes flinch. “What, do you want to fuck?”
He winces, hard enough to transmit that to me through his grip on my shoulders. Then he lifts his head to pin me with his gaze, and says, “This might surprise you, but not particularly. I’d rather know what’s wrong with you.”
“That’s considerate of you. Really considerate.” I start to slump, then abruptly throw up my arms so his hold breaks and I can twist away. The roof of my mouth is crawling with some kind of disgusting coating, and my stomach is wrapping itself in knots that suddenly make it most important I find…and of course, Arthur’s got a bowl at the side of the bed. Sometimes his forethought just sickens me.
He lets me throw up by myself. When I’m done, my knees are wobbling and my head feels as if a bellows has been inserted into it and it’s been pumped full of wooziness. And the thoughts that have been snapping at my heels ever since I left Sarmatia have sunk their fangs in too deep to ignore.
Arthur isn’t going to move till he has an answer. Realizing that sours my anger into dejection, because I can already guess how he’s going to take what I have to say, and because somewhere in the middle of rediscovering dinner, I think I’ve figured out how I wish he would take it.
After I wipe off my face with a rag, I collapse on my side and half-bury my face in the bed, because some asinine part of me believes that if he can’t understand what I’m saying, he’ll leave it alone. “It’s you. You’ve completely turned my life upside-down and changed everything I think, and it’s…starving to death wasn’t this painful. Or complicated.”
His breathing pauses for two heartbeats, then resumes, but now it’s slower and heavier. “If you miss Sarmatia that much, I can pay for your return.”
That flips me over and has me glaring at him. “Do you want me to go?”
“No.” I think it surprises both of us how easily he says that, but after a moment’s reflection had passed over his face, Arthur makes no move to take that back. Instead he shrugs and reaches out to run his fingers through my hair. “No, but then, I don’t have any responsibility over what you choose to do.”
Smiling usually doesn’t hurt this much. “By now, you should know better than to listen to everything I say.”
His thumb moves down to stroke over my temple, and then he lies down on the bed in the opposite direction as me while ruffling my hair. “You’re a loose-tongued braggart, Lancelot, but a good deal of the time, you make more sense than anyone else.”
“Thanks,” I reply, dryness of my tone parching my mouth. “Then it’s a wonder it’s still so difficult to get you to listen to me.”
Arthur presses his nose into my cheek, my throat, and then he pushes himself up to brush his lips over mine. “Do you want to go back?”
For a long time, I have to stare past his head at the ceiling, which is cracked wood rafters with the occasional darting shadow that indicates the mice living up there.
Most of my life I’ve spent searching while laughing at other men for foolishly surrendering to this or that dependence: women, power, money, patriotism. I fought for Sarmatia, but it wasn’t because I thought I only existed as long as the land did; if my country were to fall off the side of the earth right now and vanish from everything else in the world, my knowing it was there is enough. I haven’t built my life on it.
I’m not good at sharing, either. And I think that’s what bothers me most about being around Arthur—he makes me want to. He reaches out and pulls me in and makes it look…not easy, not simple, but more desirable than anything else I’ve ever found.
“You know, when I was standing on that dock, staring at you, I was so nervous I didn’t know what I was saying. Or doing. Except that there, I didn’t have to feel your absence any more.” The words stick in my throat, thickening my voice, and raise the red heat in my cheeks, and twitch my fingers where they rest on the mattress. But they’re out now, and I can’t ever take them back. If I ever do want to.
Kissing him this time is both relief and prelude. One of his palms slips between me and the bed to follow the line of my back before yanking me up to match him, and I have to grin at how much of a backbone Arthur’s gotten. Odd as it is, I am good for him, and he’s…good for me as well. “So what’s Britain like? Aside from weather and women?”
“Green. Wet. Harsh and beautiful and I can barely remember, it’s been so long. I feel like I’m going to a foreign country instead of coming back to my birth land.” Arthur holds me above him, checking every inch of my face, before deciding that after all, he does want to fuck.
* * *
Crossing the channel between Britain and Gaul kept me retching without end, and I’m not afraid to admit that. I’m told the seas are rough on the best of days, but we decided to go over during what the captain and Arthur called a minor squall. Damned bastards who spent the entire time trading news without a trace of sickness, either of them. If I hadn’t seen Arthur riding, I’d have to doubt whether he really is a cavalryman.
Then again, that’s characteristic of him anyway: he has so many parts to him that if I attempt to assign him a category, some part always sticks out. I’ve more or less stopped trying.
In between our quarreling and bedding, he’d managed to teach me a little Briton, so when we stepped off the ship I could catch the odd word in the wash of chatter that instantly surrounds us. It’s still confusing, and I’m actually grateful for once that the Empire’s made all its lands learn Latin, else I’d never be able to go more than a foot from Arthur’s side.
And this place is green. Green like tender young leaves, green like the thick tarnish on copper, green like the glass in the windows of the great Roman churches. The color is something I can almost palpate with my hands, and I spend the first few days squinting at it till familiarity slowly burns my eyes wider. It’s not the wind-stripped, faded hues of Sarmatia, and it’s not the artificial, tamed tints of Rome. It’s something entirely different, which hums with a wild life of its own.
News has it that the Romans are slowly withdrawing from this province in order to shift their Britain garrisons to the eastern fronts. I’ve of two minds about that; on the one hand, it means I don’t have to put up with what I just left, but on the other, it means that Sarmatia’s going to suffer even more. Because last victory or not, my land’s far from crushed. If we’ve learned nothing else from fighting the Romans, we’ve learned the value of patient revenge.
I notice the Britons don’t seem to be nearly as cowed as they should be, given that they’ve been under Roman rule for a few centuries now. Some things aren’t so different, no matter where I go.
They don’t really know what to make of Arthur. Apparently, he spent a few years here in one of the garrisons, just started to make a reputation for himself and then was transferred to Sarmatia when that campaign began. Where, if you believe local gossip, he turned into some bizarre half-Roman, half-native warrior hero. The Britons aren’t anything approaching a peaceful people, and as long as they’re not the ones under the sword, they have a high appreciation for great exploits in war. But now that he’s back and they have to deal with him face-to-face, they’re not sure whether to treat him as one of the others, or as one of them.
And even the Briton-born Sarmatians are uneasy around me, most likely because I’m a very good reminder of the parts of Sarmatia they’ve inevitably lost to Britain. Not that I care, because that’s their problem, which really has everything to do with them and nothing at all with me. At least, me as a person. Me as anything else doesn’t overly concern me.
Though I do occasionally wonder what I am now: I’ve been a knight, a slave, a manservant and a foreign friend, in terms of names that people give to other people. None of those except the first strikes much of a chord in me, and even the title of knight means less now that I’m not fighting all the time.
I’m not comfortable here. Yet. When all’s said and done, this land suits Arthur better than any other that we’ve passed through, and if it can tolerate his quirks, then I can’t see why it wouldn’t accommodate my vastly less torturous ones.
* * *
Arthur never mentioned he had a family estate here; his father apparently did very well for himself. The villa’s gone downhill since the last time Arthur was here, but it’s a little better than expected because some old friend of his father’s had moved in for a while and seen to the upkeep till he died.
In the courtyard, a great oak spreads over one corner, dominating the whole space. When I look up at its broad branches, I can almost see a young boy hanging from the lowest one.
Footsteps come up from behind, but I don’t turn around until I can hear Arthur’s breath. Then it starts to rain. “You weren’t lying about the weather,” I snort.
“No. I did warn you about that.” He stands out against the grey of the wall and the green of the grass, solid and definite and undeniably real. And yet, the slight mist of the air and the dark brown of the earth seems to merge with him, softening the granite Rome’s put in him.
Arthur’s Arthur. Many things went into him, but the result is separate from all of that now. I’m Lancelot, and many things went into me as well, but in the end, I don’t rely on those to live.
When I raise my hands to his shoulders, tug him back, I’m touching all that matters.
He has me up against the tree, bark scraping my skin raw and twigs shaking into my hair, but if he wanted to have me anywhere else—against the front gate where any passersby could see—I’d let him. I’d let his mouth chase the water rolling down my neck and I’d wrap my legs around his waist, and I’d let the rest of the world go to his Christian hell.
A little later, he pushes his face against mine and traps fat raindrops between our lips. “Stay.”
“In this damp shithole?” I kiss him back and lick the water from his face, uncaring of whether it’s rain or sweat or even tears. “Do I look like I’m leaving? Though now I’m beginning to understand why you’re so damn depressing, coming from somewhere like this—”
And he quiets me, and I let him.