"We're going to Rome."
At first I didn't understand what he meant. He had just said he wished I'd brought some wine that was safe to drink. I'd called the guard and told him to bring us some. The guard glared at me-he was in trouble with Proximo for dragging him out of his house and over here when we weren't really trying to kill each other-but he went. And then this, said quietly as he leaned back in the chair, rubbing his cheekbone where the cup had bruised it. It was confusing.
"For the games. The young emperor," there was another sneer, "wants plenty of fodder for the games. Proximo is taking us all to Rome."
"He didn't tell me that." I was stunned. I was sick. I would kill Proximo. Let him see if he could take anybody to Rome after I was done with him.
"I thought not." He looked away and I knew he had seen my feelings in my face.
The guard was back. The door was unlocked, the wine was brought in, and left on the table, the door was locked again.
"I assume we'll have matches along the way, for funds as well as to keep us in trim."
He was speaking as if he was planning on going. I held out my cup and he filled it. "I've never been to Rome," he went on. "It's an odd thing, I suppose, all my years in the army and with Marcus---" He stopped speaking suddenly. A sip of his wine, and a grimace; "Where did he get this? I haven't had wine this bad since….." again he hesitated, "…for a long time."
"I might be able to do something…to keep Proximo from going…."
"I'm going to Rome." It was said firmly, with authority, with an intent look directly at me, to make sure I understood. "There's something I have to do there."
And that was that. He didn't tell me why, and I didn't ask him. He said again that he could go back to his cell, and I shook my head. He didn't ask me to explain, either. We drank the sour wine and spoke little, both of us having our own thoughts to occupy us.
He fell asleep after a time; his head nodded, and his breathing changed. I was still numb from the emotions that had raged through me (and possibly the wine I had consumed), but not sleepy.
I went to him and shook him a little. "Spaniard-"
His hand was wrapped in my clothing and he had pulled me close before he opened his eyes. It took him a moment to recognize me. He exhaled and put the knife back down on the table.
"Go lie down. You can sleep here."
A wary expression passed across his features. "Yes, you'd better be careful," I said wryly, "I might overpower you."
That made him smile. He fell asleep again almost immediately after he lay down. I watched him for a long time.
I woke with a headache that could have made stones cry. I tried not to move any more than I had to. Even as groggy as I was, it still confounds me that I didn't realize at first what the warm solid thing pressed up against my back was.
I had lay down on the bed as well, later in the night, keeping well away from the Spaniard despite my terrible desire to sleep with my head on his chest, only because I was tired of behaving like a desperate adolescent. Waking up with his breath in my hair, and his arm around me was disorienting.
I'm not sure how long I stayed unmoving. My head improved somewhat, and I willed the cramps in my crooked leg to still. I kept my eyes closed and I savored every moment, and willed him never to wake, while expecting him to do so any minute.
When he did at last move restlessly against me, it wasn't what I expected. To judge by his breathing, he was still asleep. And it was very obvious what he was dreaming about.
Hope is a cruel thing. I told myself it might be just possible he was dreaming about me. When his hand closed over my breast, I let myself think he might oblige me out of pity if nothing else, as he had with the kiss. His breathing was slower, heavier, and a rumble from deep in his chest vibrated deep in my bones. I thought of turning to face him. His face was in my hair, my neck, and then he breathed a name in my ear that was not mine.
I didn't have to wait long after that for him to wake. I could tell right away; he was suddenly so still. I could almost feel him blinking in the dim light. To save us both embarrassment, I kept my breathing even and my eyes closed and pretended to be asleep.
Slowly, so as not to wake me, he removed his hand from where it had strayed. Carefully, he pushed himself away. I felt him turn onto his back; I heard him take a deep breath and let it out. I heard him swallow hard, and then say a single swear word under his breath.
He sat up and swung his legs over his side of the bed and sat there for a long time. His breathing was uneven; there was a catch in it once in a while. Then he whispered another curse, and cleared his throat.
I almost didn't hear the next whispered words.
"I miss you. I miss you."
Sometimes it comforts me to know there was someone else he loved, that it wasn't just that I was so unlovable; sometimes it doesn't help at all.
He cleared his throat again, and sniffed once, before he stood. I tried very hard to appear asleep. He pulled the blanket up over me again, and combed my hair back from my face with his fingers. "I'm sorry," he said.
He stood by the door until the guard came in answer to his shout. He didn't look at me again, but I watched him through my lashes until he was gone.
I didn't see him before he left. I thought of going to see Proximo, but I was afraid I'd hurt him if I did. And the Spaniard wouldn't thank me if I managed to prevent them from leaving for Rome. In the end I sent Proximo a short message. I let him know that if he didn't have the Spaniard with him and in good health, he'd better not even bother to return. And I told him I wanted a refund. I imagine he laughed when he read it.
It took about a week after they left for me to admit to myself that I wasn't going to be able to endure it here any longer, just waiting and nothing more. It took me another four days to make the arrangements and get my caravan on the road to Rome. We had the usual problems and delays on the way, a lame horse, a broken wheel, those kinds of things. There were days when I ached so badly from the bouncing on the rutted roads that we had to wait for me to recover somewhat. And so, of course, by the time I arrived in Rome, they were all gone. Everyone I cared about even a little, was gone.
I don't need to tell you about it. He is legend, now. Everyone knows the story of Maximus, the savior of Rome.
I had a distant cousin in Rome who took me in and sheltered me until I was less…shattered. She had seen every fight, told me all the details, and held me when I wept. I must be grateful to her for that. I have not seen her since I left Rome to come back to my home; I don't think I could bear it.
It's been 2 years since the Spaniard was in Zucchabar. His sweeping presence in the arena here, while spoken of in reminiscences of the heroes of the games, remains unconnected to the executioner of Commodus, a scandal that was greatly enjoyed for months.
My cousin told me, in an attempt to comfort me, that I must remember the hours in which he was mine, but he was never mine. It was a fiction I entertained, born out of a misery I wasn't even aware of. His loss is, to me, more a loss of hope than anything else. He was here only a short time, but he was the noblest thing in my little world, and, as everyone else did who ever knew him, from Marcus Aurelius down, I fixed my hopes and desires on him without a second thought. Now that he is gone, the man I let myself love more quickly and more fiercely than anyone before or since, I am at a loss. I suppose my life is no emptier now than it was before, but now I see it.
My fierce independence and belligerence, so necessary to me before, was a façade, a flimsy shield; it hid my true self, even from my own seeing. That is the thing he took from me so long ago, and paid for with a kiss, and I have never been able to deceive myself so since.
I can't forget him; I don't want to forget him, and yet….
I rise in the morning, I eat, I speak; I do all those things I am required to do, but it's all as ashes in my mouth. I feel as if, with the flame of his presence removed from the world, my own fire burns low….and I fade.
We shall have to see if Time heals…..
part 1 part 2 part3 part4 part 5 part 6
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