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The Clay Hound

Chapter Text

The Pilus Prior looked more tired than usual that evening, a weary set to his brow as he pressed his stylus into the wax tablet. Not that Annius would ever say as much to the Old Man. Instead, he made sure there was plenty of lamplight to see by and then continued organizing the day’s reports.

“It is a hard thing, to be a father,” the Pilus Prior said suddenly, and Annius looked up, startled.

“Sir?”

The Pilus Prior smiled, leaning back in his chair. “You’re just about the age I was when I first laid eyes on my Livia. What say you, Centurion—is there a girl you’ve set your heart after?”

He thought of Gieva, sitting under the apple tree at her father’s villa, and flushed. But thankfully, the Pilus Prior did not seem to expect him to actually say anything, for he continued, “If I had known when I married Livia what would come, I…well, I suppose there is a reason why the gods do not grant us such knowledge.”

Annius shifted awkwardly, never sure what to say on the subject of the Old Man’s family. Livia had died in childbirth, and his son, Lucian, had lost the use of his legs when he contracted a disease as a small child. Annius knew that for a long time, it had been feared Lucian would die. His predecessor, centurion Flavius Martinus, vowed to commission an altar to Jupiter should the child live. The stone now sat in the shade of an oak tree, dappled by the shadow of its leaves on hot summer afternoons.

But to lose the use of his legs was a heavy affliction, and the Pilus Prior, who had counted on a son to follow in his footsteps, felt it keenly. A few months ago, the Pilus Prior’s nephew Milus had arrived from Rome. Milus was a tribune and eager to accept his uncle’s tutelage and patronage. Annius had thought that might ease the Old Man’s mind, although he could not imagine Lucian had greeted the arrival of his cousin with any enthusiasm.

“Ah, but it is a trial for me.” The Pilus Prior shook his head, sighing. “That boy—well, he is a young man now—insists that I allow him to go to Camulodunum so he may better his skill as a sculptor under the tutelage of one of the local potters. I intended to send him back to Rome this coming fall or perhaps next spring to study with a Greek tutor that one of my acquaintances in the Senate recommended. And instead he wants to go to Camulodunum! I do not say that this potter—what is his name, now, ah—Maccis, I believe—I do not say he is not a fine man in his own way, with his small ambitions. Apparently he has started making red samian ware, trying to compete with our imports from Gallia. Still, he is but a tradesman at heart.”

“I recall your son has some skill with sculpting,” Annius said, thinking of a day many years ago and the rough beginnings of a dog clutched in a small boy’s hands.

“You say it truly, Centurion. And I do not begrudge it to him as a pastime. But in Rome he would have the opportunity to make connections, to think of politics, perhaps, or to join my sister’s family to help manage our estate. But no, that will not please him. He has set his mind upon this and will not be moved.” The Pilus Prior tossed his stylus onto the table and released another deep sigh.

“He is young yet, sir,” Annius said. “He cannot clearly see the advantages. I am sure once he is in Rome, he would come to like it.” In truth, Annius was not so sure of it at all. To him, Rome sounded so very far away—a huge city, filled with people. Were it him, he would not want to go to Rome either.

“As you say, as you say. And yet I…do not feel I can refuse him.” The Pilus Prior kept his eyes on the wick of the lamp, watching as it wavered in the light breeze coming through the door. “He has little enough to cause him joy in this life, after all.” Then he glanced up at Annius and smiled again. “It will put the whole house in an uproar, of course, to see him off on such a journey. He will be accompanied by his body slave, but I must think of a good man from our own ranks to join them for protection on the road.”

Perhaps it was remembering Lucian’s clay hound that put the thought in his mind. For the memory made him think of Catus—Catus, who had jumped over the bathhouse wall that long ago morning and hared off, intending to desert the legions. In the end, Catus had turned himself in, suffered through his punishment, and remained in Annius’s cohort of auxiliaries. Catus, who spent too much time in the wine shops. Catus, who was overly fond of spending his coin on whores and games of chance. Catus, who might have accepted the yoke of the legions but wore it resentfully, always a sullen glimmer in his grey eyes.

“I think I know just the man for the job, sir,” Annius said.

*

Well, well, Catus thought to himself, hiding a grin as he looked at Lucian’s sharp chin, currently lifted in the air in a gesture of defiance. You turned into quite the pompous little brat, didn’t you?

He remembered him of course—how could he forget? Lucian had helped him evade capture, after all, and inspired Catus to surrender himself rather than chance a life on the run. He remembered a boy with wide brown eyes in a pale face and dark curls clustered in a tangled mop on his head. He remembered a boy trying to hide the trembling of his hands as he confronted Catus, who had been dusty and wild-looking after climbing through the hedge, holding his dagger to the boy’s throat in an empty, desperate threat.

The brown eyes and tangled curls remained, but the child had lengthened and narrowed into a bony, spare young man, all pointed edges and tense gestures. Catus could tell his upper body was strong, though, the muscles in his shoulders and arms well-developed from hauling himself about. Lucian kept his lower half covered with a blanket, but Catus hadn’t heard of any miracles visiting the Pilus Prior’s domicile lately, so he assumed Lucian’s legs remained wasted and useless.

Why his centurion had recommended him as an escort for Lucian on his trip to—where was it again? Camulodunum?—Catus didn’t know. But he wasn’t about to complain or raise a fuss. A chance to get away from the fort and the stern eye of the decurion? Who in his right mind would turn that down? Looking after Lucian wouldn’t take much effort, and he could enjoy the rest of the time eating good food and employing the services of a few pretty whores.

At the moment, Lucian was insisting he could ride a horse while an old slave tried to convince him to get in the cart that had been prepared instead. Another slave—younger, strong, stared passively into the distance, letting the argument wash over him.

The cart was already packed full of chests and amphorae. Catus hoped there might be a wine jar or two amongst them. At this rate, though, they wouldn’t get on the road before dark.

Catus could guess well enough why Lucian didn’t want to ride in the cart. It would be humiliating, bundled up like a woman or an old man. How much better to ride down the road proudly as you set off on an adventure. He remembered the day he left the tribe, how his heart had beat so strongly, words of luck and farewell falling on his ears. But surely Lucian must be used to this sort of thing by now.

Then the Pilus Prior appeared, a tall young man one step behind him. Eisu, who was always assigned to latrine duty with Catus, had pointed him out during the inspection the other day, whispering that he was the Pilus Prior’s nephew, a tribune from Rome.

The Pilus Prior took in the scene with a glance. “Help Lucian into the cart, Marcipor,” he said. “You must be off if you’re to make Spinis by this evening.”

Lucian pressed his mouth tight against a protest and let Marcipor and the other slave lift him into the cart. Marcipor tucked the blanket around him and put two soft pillows behind his back.

“I am fine, Marcipor,” Lucian said, his voice softening a little. “Look after Father for me. And cousin Milus.” Here he shot a bitter glance at the tribune, who only bowed, an impassive expression fixed on his face.

“I still mislike this course of action,” the Pilus Prior said, frowning at his son. “But as we have gone too far down this road to halt now, you must see it through to the end, Lucian.”

Lucian stuck his sharp chin into the air again. “I will, father.”

The Pilus Prior made a considering noise. “Well, well, you’d best be off then. Write to me once you are settled.” He turned to Catus. “I am entrusting him to your care, young fellow. Centurion Annius assured me you were capable of looking after him.”

“Yes, sir,” Catus said, saluting and hiding another grin at Lucian’s outraged expression.

He took the reins of the cart, and Lucian’s body slave sat beside him. As they drove out of the courtyard, Lucian raised a hand in farewell, and Catus noted the Pilus Prior did not turn inside until they were a good distance down the road.

*

“Not today, Eutuches,” Lucian said, pushing away the bowl his slave tried to give him. They had stopped at the side of the road to give the horse a rest and to eat something. Catus was chewing some sweet bread, a piece of cheese in his other hand.

“But you are supposed to drink it every day, master,” Eutuches protested.

“What is it?” Catus asked, leaning over and peering into the bowl.

“A medicinal preparation. Father brought a physician in to see me last month, and he said I should drink it every day and pour a libation to Apollo. But it tastes foul, and I don’t need it. I am strong; it is only my legs that don’t work.”

Catus sniffed it. “Smells like shit. Pour it out,” he ordered Eutuches, who surrendered the fight much more easily than Marcipor had when he refused to give in to Lucian on the matter of the horse.

Lucian’s eyes had grown wide. “You won’t make me drink it?”

“Do I look like your nursemaid?” He ate another piece of bread. Good stuff this—a sight better than what they got at the fort.

“Your name is Catus, right?” Lucian asked after a pause. “You should address me more respectfully.”

“Are you going to complain to someone if I don’t?” Catus asked, curious, wondering how far he could push this.

Another pause. “No, I suppose not,” Lucian said at last.

“Well, then.” Catus stretched, leaning back to rest against the tree he had settled beside.

"Father spares no expense to bring in physicians to see me," Lucian said, tearing up a tuft of grass and shredding the thin blades with his fingers.

Catus shut his eyes, enjoying the warmth of the sun. It was humid, though, and still—hardly a breath of wind. They might see rain later.

“If you fall asleep, who’s to protect us from bandits?” Lucian continued. “That’s your job, after all. You should do it properly.”

Annoyed, Catus opened his eyes, squinting at Lucian. “We aren’t going to be attacked on the high road to Londinium. This isn’t the north country.”

Lucian flushed. “Still. It’s your duty.”

Brat. Catus stood up. “I’m going to water the horse. We’ll press on when I return.”

Lucian seemed very subdued when he got back and wouldn’t meet his eyes as Catus and Eutuches lifted him into the cart again.

It did start raining as evening drew on. They were almost to Spinis, but Catus stopped the cart so Eutuches could fetch a cloak from one of the chests to give to Lucian. Catus leaned over and tugged the hood farther over his forehead. “Stay dry—we’ll be there soon.”

Lucian nodded. “I know. I’ve been to Londinium before, and to Aquae Sulis. Where…” He paused and then continued, “Where are you from, Catus?”

“My father is a chieftain among the Silures, to the west.”

“Do you miss it there?”

Catus shrugged. “My father and I didn’t see eye to eye on most things. And I was the fifth son. I was never going to be chieftain in his stead or my grandfather’s, and I didn’t have any special skills to distinguish myself.”

Lucian didn’t say anything, but Catus figured he understood well enough the feeling of knowing no one held any particular expectations of you, and the frustration of trying to find your place in such a world.

*

They shared a room at an inn that night. Separate beds because Lucian’s family was not lacking in money. The room even smelled freshly aired, and a slave brought them cups of wine. Catus drained his, too tired to contemplate heading out and finding a wine shop. Besides, he was supposed to be looking after Lucian and Eutuches.

He had assumed Lucian didn’t remember him from their meeting years ago, but when he stripped off his tunic, Lucian sucked in a breath, and Catus realized he could see the scars from the whip.

“So it is you,” Lucian said. “I thought I recognized you.”

"You remember, then?" Catus wet a cloth in the wash bowl and rubbed it over his shoulders and under his arms.

“It is hard to forget someone who holds a knife to your throat.”

“I would not have harmed you.”

“I knew that well enough, even then,” Lucian reminded him, sounding a bit irritated.

“Oh, yes? I seem to recall you were quite convinced I was carrying secret dispatches from Caesar.” Catus threw that last over his shoulder with a grin.

Lucian scowled, the tips of his ears turning red. “I was but a boy. And that is not important. I want to know why you did not run, especially after all my trouble to keep them from finding you.”

Why hadn’t he run—ah, that was the heart of it. In truth, it had been Lucian’s words that changed his mind, the courage of the boy in accepting his lot in life and putting aside any dream of walking ever again. How determined Catus had felt that day, a determination to bear his punishment and do his best in the auxiliaries and turn his back on the shame of desertion. But in the years since…well, it was easy enough to think such things when your blood was up and it was not at all certain whether you would live to make it past the wall gate. Soon enough he was once more chafing against the oppressive discipline and dull, grinding routine. All of his resolve melted away like fat in a fire. Now he was known as an idle, good-for-nothing who did enough to avoid punishment but would never rise in the ranks or earn any honor at all.

“I couldn’t keep running with my ankle twisted like that,” he said aloud. “I’d have been a fool to try.”

Lucian did not reply and remained silent as Catus finished washing and stretched out on the bed. It was a pleasant evening, and so he did not bother with his tunic, letting the warm summer air waft over his skin.

He looked over at Lucian. “I am liking this second meeting of ours far better than the first. Certainly this is more comfortable than crouching under that bench with your blanket in my face trying not to get a cramp in my leg.”

A faint smile appeared on Lucian’s face.

“I was never able to tell if Centurion Annius was pleased or disappointed when I turned myself in,” he continued. “But I am not so easy to get rid of—like the smell of fish in the market that lingers in the noonday sun.”

A definite smile this time. “Surely you flatter yourself with such a comparison.”

Catus barked a laugh.

By the time Eutuches came to help Lucian prepare for bed a few minutes later, though, Lucian’s smile had faded, his brows drawn together in a solemn arch once more.

Lucian waved Eutuches away. “Go and see if they have any dried olives or figs in the kitchen. I am hungry yet.”

Catus had not eaten a dried fig since Jupiter threw Saturn into Tartarus.

Eutuches departed on his errand, and as soon as he disappeared down the corridor, Lucian sucked in a breath and said quickly, “My father thinks me a fool for going to Camulodunum.”

“Oh? That does not seem to be preventing you from going.”

“Of course not!” Lucian plucked fitfully at his blanket. “I do not see why Father cares anyway. He has Milus now. What does it matter where I go or what I do?”

Now what the fuck was Catus supposed to say to that? For that matter, why was Lucian telling him all of this in the first place? He craned his neck, glancing at Lucian, who was staring down at his lap, brow furrowed, his thin mouth cramped into a frown. It occurred to Catus that Lucian probably had few, if any, friends his own age. As the son of the Pilus Prior it wouldn’t do to let him play with the children the legionaries begot on the women in the town and there were few families of stature in the surrounding countryside. Besides, he wouldn’t have been able to join in with the games and rough play of any boys that did come to visit him. He’d have had to sit by, quiet, like a Roman girl.

“You’re going to Camulodunum to learn how to make pottery, aren’t you?” he asked.

“Statues,” Lucian corrected. “Terra cotta statues—not boring, ordinary things.”

“You were making something that day, weren’t you? In the garden, when I came through the hedge.”

“A dog,” Lucian said, and then he pushed himself to the edge of the bed, reaching out to grab the leather bag he had carried with him all day. He just managed to reach the strap, dragging it over. He took out a cloth-wrapped bundle, opening it to reveal the statue of a hound. It was not a particularly good hound—the proportions were all wrong for starters—but it possessed a certain charm nonetheless.

Catus quirked his mouth in a half-smile. “It reminds me of the hunting hound I used to have as a boy, and how he would lay his head on my knee.”

Lucian raised his sharp chin a little at that, pleased. “I’m better at it now. And I want to improve and learn—to make statues as fine as any they sell in Rome.”

Catus grunted, shutting his eyes. “What do you care for some tight-assed tribune, then or your father’s approval? You think you need that to make your statues?”

“No,” Lucian said, sounding shocked and thrilled to hear someone speak of his cousin Milus in such a way. “I suppose I don’t, at that.”

Eutuches appeared then, dried olives in hand—no figs available, sadly. Lucian instructed the slave to give Catus a generous portion, and Catus took them as his just due in getting out of that conversation without sending Lucian into a passion of anger or despair. Although he found it odd that Lucian should have kept that hound statue—why keep that one, out of all the ones he must have sculpted over the years?

*

They entered Camulodunum through the Balkerne Gate, the wall stretching thick and solid to either side. It had been built in the hopes of keeping pesky barbarians out and preventing another queen of the Iceni from burning down the town. The pottery of Sextius Maccis was in the northeastern section, but Catus was far more interested in the location of the Circus, the only place in Britain where one could see chariot races. Nepos, who often enticed Catus into a dice game, had an uncle who had been to Constantinople and seen the Blues and Greens thundering around the arena, and then got a tooth knocked out in the street brawl afterward. Catus wanted to see a chariot race. He had a good eye for horses and figured he could do well enough on his betting to afford the services of a lusty woman for an hour or two.

“What say you, young master,” he said aloud. “Shall we go see a chariot race at the…” He trailed off, for when he glanced over his shoulder at Lucian, he was met with blank eyes in a tense face. Obviously Lucian hadn’t heard a word he was saying, too nervous over his impending meeting with Maccis to pay attention.

“Never mind,” Catus said, chivvying the reins to encourage the horse to move a bit faster.

“Catus,” Lucian said, and his voice trembled. “What shall I do if Maccis doesn’t know about my…condition? Father wrote to him, of course, but I do not know if he told him about my legs. What if he says that I cannot work with him? What if he turns us away?”

Catus snorted. “Jupiter’s Balls—you’re the son of a Pilus Prior—he’d never offend a patron like that.”

As soon as the words passed his lips, he knew it had been the wrong thing to say. Lucian flinched, and his mouth wobbled, but then he drew up his bony shoulders. “If that is the only reason he agreed to teach me, then I shall tell him I will go elsewhere and find someone who cares about his craft, not the favor of rich men.”

Catus laughed. “Ahh—there you are! Just show him that attitude, and he won’t turn you away.”

Maccis proved to be a tall man with a shock of startling red hair shot through with silver. He evinced no surprise at Lucian’s inability to walk, greeting them calmly and then showing them into his home to meet his wife, Cunovinna.

“I’ve prepared our son’s old rooms for you,” Cunovinna said. “You must let me know if there is anything you need.”

Lucian thanked her and then asked Maccis if he might see the workshop.

“Of course,” Maccis replied with a smile. “I suspected you would not want to wait.”

Lucian ordered Eutuches to begin unpacking, and so it was Catus who got Lucian settled in the wheeled cart they had brought and pulled it to the workshop. The cart was heavy and awkward, and he got it stuck on cobblestones a few times, but Maccis helped to free the wheels and lift it over the threshold into the workshop.

“I am sorry for the trouble,” Lucian said.

“It is no trouble,” Maccis said. “I am glad to welcome one such as yourself who is so eager to learn my trade.”

The workshop was busy. Maccis employed two other craftsmen besides himself and also used several slaves for the heavier work of chopping and feeding fuel into the kilns, preparing the clay, and using molds to create items like lamps or mortaria. They wandered through the workshop, observing two men throwing pots on wheels, another applying the slip that would create the distinctive red color one usually found in Gaulish pots, and another hand crafting a plaster mold for a bowl with a decorative vine circling the edge.

Lucian drank it all in, asking questions, touching things, and gazing around with wide eyes.

“I’ll have you start tomorrow with making an oil lamp,” Maccis said when they had completed the tour and were standing in a patch of shade in the yard behind the shop, next to the kilns.

Lucian looked slightly disappointed he would be making something so mundane, but he nodded and said he would look forward to it. Then it was back to the house so Eutuches could help Lucian with a bath before the evening meal. Catus was not invited to dine with the family, of course, but he was content to take his meat and bread outside and watch the traffic passing by on the street.

“So, how do you find things?” he asked Lucian later when the lamps were out, and they were both bedded down for the night, Eutuches already snoring gently in the corner.

“I think it quite wonderful,” Lucian said. “I thought perhaps I might miss Corinium, but I do not at all.”

“Sa, that is good then. Well, while you are busy with your lamps tomorrow, I suppose I will go see what Camulodunum has to offer. Shall I wager a sesterce on a chariot race for you?”

“Oh.” Lucian sounded startled, and he continued slowly, “Of course you would not want to linger around the workshop, and I will have Eutuches to help me get around.”

“A sesterce, then?”

“Father wouldn’t like me gambling.” A pause. “But he is not here, is he? Yes,” Lucian concluded firmly. “Wager on a chariot race but make it three sestertii.”

*

It was late when Catus returned the next evening, half-drunk and stuffed full of sausages and honeyed dates. He’d had little luck with betting at the Circus and ended up spending most of his remaining coin to enjoy the pleasures of the town.

Lucian was sitting up in bed reading when Catus stumbled through the door. He frowned. “I was beginning to think you took the chance again and ran for it.”

Catus chuckled and sat down on the edge of Lucian’s bed, stretching out his legs. “Run? Why would I run now, with no decurion breathing down my neck? Besides, where the fuck would I go?”

“You don’t have to be coarse, Catus,” Lucian said, that sharp chin of his sticking in the air again.

“Come now, young master—don’t you want to hear about the woman I bedded?” Catus teased. “There’s no use in telling if I have to pretty up my language.”

Lucian flushed and shifted uncomfortably. “Did you really?”

“Of course.” Catus rolled his shoulders, enjoying the memory. “She wasn’t half-bad for a cheap whore.”

A long pause. “What is it like?” Lucian finally asked in a low voice.

Catus looked at him. So the brat had never had a woman. It didn’t surprise him. There was no chance the Pilus Prior would have condoned a visit to the local brothel, and he didn’t seem the type to procure a young slave for his son’s use either. Probably those stuffy physicians who told Lucian to pray harder and pretended their herbs would make him walk again convinced the Pilus Prior his son should not recklessly release his seed or expend his energy in sex.

He wasn’t sure what possessed him—some combination of a simmering lust that hadn’t faded from fucking earlier in the day, the way Lucian’s dark eyes shone in the lamplight, and that sharp, proud little chin of his—but suddenly he was moving to sit at Lucian’s side and cupping his face in one hand.

“Catus—what—” Lucian began, inhaling a startled breath.

“Don’t make a habit of kissing whores,” Catus said, leaning in. “But if you find a sweet boy, then it’s all right to taste him.”

Lucian made a muffled noise into his mouth, bringing up his hands to grab Catus's shoulders. He looked deliciously rumpled and dazed when Catus finally broke off the kiss and drew back to catch his breath.

“I’m sure you can guess the rest,” he said, drawing away again, standing up, and stretching his arms over his head with a grin.

Lucian stared up at him for a moment, dazed, and then anger clouded his eyes, and he struggled into a sitting position, yanking the blanket over his lap. “I’m not a child!”

“You’re the one who asked,” Catus reminded him.

“Not so you could make fun of me or tease me like that,” Lucian muttered, looking miserable.

“I wasn’t teasing you,” Catus said, resting a hand on his head. He gripped Lucian’s hair and gave it a little shake. “Well, maybe a bit. But I’d kiss you again. And more besides.”

Ah, damn—he probably shouldn’t have said that last, but the wine loosened his tongue. Besides, it made Lucian go wide-eyed again, a flush spreading over his cheekbones.

“You’re drunk,” Lucian finally said, pushing Catus’s hand away. “And annoying. I’m going to sleep.”

*

No one had ever said precisely how long Catus was supposed to remain in Camulodunum with Lucian, but as the days passed, neither Lucian nor Maccis commented on his continued presence. Catus certainly wasn’t going to bring it up himself.

Lucian hadn’t said anything about that kiss either. Just as well that he should pass it off as a drunken jest, even though the next day Catus found his eyes lingering on Lucian’s mouth and remembering the soft glow of his skin in the lamplight.

He went out carousing again that night and returned quite late. He found Lucian slumped against the wall, the blanket falling off his shoulders, as though he had been sitting up and waiting for Catus to come back. Eutuches was nowhere to be seen, but Catus had spotted him earlier in the day making eyes at one of the kitchen slaves and guessed he might be spending the night in more favorable company than his master’s.

“You’ll take a cold,” he murmured, guiding Lucian’s pliant limbs down onto the mattress.

“Eutuches?” Lucian mumbled.

“No, ‘tis Catus.”

“Should have known.” Lucian burrowed into his pillow. “Your breath stinks of wine.”

“Such a sweet tongue you have,” Catus returned, drawing the blankets up around him.

But the next day, when his head had recovered, he made his way to the workshop. Lucian brightened upon seeing him. “Catus! Come and see my lamp. I should be done soon, and then Master Maccis has promised to let me try the glazes.”

“Sa, sa—a fine lamp.” Catus sat down on the bench next to him and reached over to touch the wet clay, earning a slap on the wrist from Lucian.

“You’ll ruin it—play with this lump of clay over here if you want.”

Catus did want, intrigued, and set about making a rough bowl, pressing down with his thumb and pinching the sides.

“I suppose you will be visiting wine shops again tonight,” Lucian said after a while.

Catus grunted an agreement. The sides of his bowl were terribly uneven—he’d have to start from scratch.

“Master Maccis has a latrunculi board he will let me borrow, if you should like to play.”

Latrunculi?” Catus laughed. “We’ve no cause to be playing that in the auxiliaries. We play with dice, the lot of us.”

“Oh.” Lucian sounded abashed and disappointed.

Catus looked at him a moment. “But perhaps I might come to like it, should you teach it to me.”

That earned a smile. “Of course! Father says I am passable, although I have never managed to beat him.”

And so that evening he settled down at the latrunculi board with Lucian and proceeded to lose every game they played.

“But if you put it there, Catus, I can move my piece here—see?—and then you’ll be blocked.”

Lucian had taken to helping him, claiming it would get far too boring otherwise.

Catus scowled at the little black and white pieces. “I see that now. Of course I see it with you pointing it out to me. I’ll do better tomorrow night, when I’ve had a chance to think about the rules more.” He wouldn’t go down without a few fair fights, and he could see a potential strategy in the back of his mind, still hazy and uncertain.

Lucian glanced up, surprised, and then smiled again.

The next morning Maccis asked Catus if he would mind lending a hand with a shipment of clay that had arrived, and it wasn’t until later that he got to the workshop to see Lucian. When he did, he found Lucian glaring at the lamp he had made yesterday.

“Doesn’t this look like a serviceable lamp to you?” Lucian demanded. “Do you see anything wrong with it?”

“I’m hardly a good judge of—” Catus began, but Lucian cut him off.

“Master Maccis says it is not good enough and that I must make another one. But when I asked him what was wrong, he only said a potter must learn to judge these things for himself. It does not seem very helpful. I came here so he could teach me!”

“At least he isn’t whacking you with a vitis and yelling in your ear,” Catus said, not feeling particularly sympathetic.

Lucian finally made another lamp—and Maccis told him it was not good enough either. This pattern repeated itself over the next few days until Lucian threw one of the lamps onto the floor in a fit of temper. Maccis did not berate him, only held his gaze until Lucian wavered and bowed his head, apologizing. But that evening he sullenly refused to play latrunculi and bade Eutuches take him to his chamber where he curled up on his bed, facing the wall.

“Why are you sulking like this?” said Catus, who had trailed after him. “Are you afraid I’ll beat you? I came close yesterday.”

“I’m not upset about that!” Lucian shot him a glare. “I’m upset because I came here to learn to make beautiful things—statues of beasts and gods and fine, glazed bowls—and Maccis will not let me make anything besides those stupid lamps.”

Catus watched him for a moment and then walked over to the alcove, where Eutuches had left an oil lamp burning and picked it up. He went and sat down next to Lucian. “Sit up, now—come closer—there we go.”

“What are you doing?” Lucian shifted restlessly against him.

“It’s pretty, isn’t it? The soft, bright flame—and see how warm the clay looks in its glow.”

“Yes, but—”

“We couldn’t play our latrunculi games in the evenings without a lamp.”

“No,” Lucian allowed. He relaxed a little, leaning into Catus’s shoulder. “Still…”

“Make one for me, then—to light our games. The better so I can see to beat you.”

“You are improving faster than I thought you would,” Lucian muttered, slightly aggrieved.

Catus snorted and knocked their shoulders together.

But Lucian did make the lamp, and it sat next to the board, its light shining on the white and black pebbles, and a few days later, Maccis allowed him to start on the glazes.

*

“Maccis wants me to take all those damn lamps I made and sell them,” Lucian said and then leaned forward, pointing. “That’s the team that will win! Look how the horse on the right tosses his head, ready for the fight.”

“You think so?” Catus eyed the chariot team. “The same driver lost last week.”

“But I like him—see the bright sash he has tied around his waist?”

Catus scoffed. “Showmanship—nothing to do with his ability to run horses.”

Lucian had finally agreed to accompany Catus to the Circus. Catus had carried him up into the stands while Lucian wrapped his arms around Catus’s neck and raised his chin in the air, ignoring the stares of those around them.

“And what is this about selling your lamps?” he asked, waving to a man walking up and down the stairs with a tray of honey cakes.

Lucian grimaced. “I suppose you want me to buy one of those for you too.” He had already bought them a cup of mulsum to share, the spiced wine lingering thick on Catus’s tongue.

“I wouldn’t say no.”

Lucian huffed but bought two of the cakes, handing one to Catus. “Maccis said I must go to the forum and sell my lamps and then buy my own clay with the proceeds. And then he’ll finally let me work on a statue with it. Except I won’t be able to sell the lamps, and so I’ll never get the clay, and I still won’t be able to make what I want. I’ll probably have to do mortaria instead.”

“You shouldn’t be so pessimistic.”

“But who will want to buy my lamps? I’m not an established potter, and they’re just…lamps. No decorations or anything.”

“You have to convince people to buy them. Half the people who come to the forum leave with things they never intended to buy because the merchant talked them into it.”

Lucian made a face. “I expect I shall be awful at that.”

“I’ll come with you,” Catus offered, “and we’ll have the lot sold by sundown.”

*

To his credit, Lucian kept a straight face when Catus told the plump matron with eyes heavily painted in kohl and malachite, that their lamps held much more oil than those sold by the potter three stalls down.

“You think they appear plain and simple,” he said, holding the lamp up and tilting it this way and that. “But that is the very secret to their magic. Perhaps you have observed the wares of the good gentleman to our right. Oh, his lamps look fine, I grant—such fancy handles, those flowers decorating the spout, even the one shaped in the likeness of a bird. But such adornments decrease the size of the bowl significantly. Buy one of his lamps, and your slaves will be refilling it on the hour! Ours are made to be the most economical and efficient lamp you could wish for.”

Catus laid a hand on Lucian’s shoulder. “This young man—this very one right here at my side—made all the lamps himself. He didn’t entrust them to the dubious expertise of a slave. Look at his open face, his capable hands—can you imagine he does not have the customer’s best interests at heart?”

“And she believed you!” Lucian levered himself onto the couch, laughing, and then drew out the bag of coins, the evidence of their successes at the forum that day. “But next time, my wares will be of a quality that does not need lies to find buyers.”

“And yet we sold all but three of the lamps—not bad for an afternoon’s work.”

You sold them,” Lucian corrected. “All I did was sit there and smile and nod.”

“That open, innocent expression of yours helped me spin the tale.” He leaned down, brushing back Lucian’s curls. “Look at those eyes—I’d have been bewitched myself.”

Lucian smiled, and Catus paused, his hand still cupping Lucian’s face. Then he bent closer, lips parting, watching as Lucian’s eyes widened before slipping shut just before Catus kissed him.

A moment later, Lucian pushed him away. Catus stumbled backward, an unexpected pain lancing through his heart.

“Don’t toy with me again,” Lucian said, staring at the floor. “Please. I…couldn’t bear it.”

Catus drew a sharp breath. “And if I’m not toying with you this time?”

“Then…then I would ask that you take me to our room so as not to make a spectacle in front of Mistress Cunovinna.”

So Catus did as he bid and kissed him properly in the comfort of his own bed, teased sweet sounds from him, and watched his brow furrow as he spilled into Catus’s hand.

“Catus,” Lucian mumbled, curled up sleepily in his arms afterward, “I am glad you did not run that day.”

“Sa, but I would have done had I not stumbled upon your garden.”

Lucian yawned, closing his eyes. “Then I am glad I was there to catch you.”

*

Annius tapped his stylus against the table, peering down at the report from the quartermaster. An entire coleus of fish oil in a month! What were the men doing—bathing in it?

“Sir,” an optio said, pausing on the threshold until Annius beckoned for him to enter. “A message from the Pilus Prior, sir.”

Annius took it, glad for any respite from the accounting. He scanned the contents—Gaius Aelius Catus, auxiliary, fourth cohort…to remain in Camulodunum…indefinite leave….

Smiling, he let the parchment roll closed and tucked it into a corner of the desk. So Catus had finally found a place for himself. It seemed his instincts had been right in sending him along with Lucian. Now if only he might divine the direction of Gieva’s affections and if he had any hope of competing with that wealthy wool merchant from Glevum. Then he should call himself an oracle indeed!