Actions

Work Header

It Happened One Night

Chapter Text

By the time Marcus walked out and away from Rome and into the late afternoon Eburacum sun, he had decided to leave everything that was part of his old life behind him (with the exception of Uncle Aquila, of course). The rescue and delivery of the Eagle, as well as the restoration of his father and family's honor signaled a new beginning. And Marcus was more than ready for that new beginning.

"So, what now?" Esca's voice was a welcome interruption of the moment.

"You decide," Marcus answered back, willing to go along with anything Esca had in mind. They were both weary, dirty, and tired from the long exhausting journey to and from the north, so Marcus was hoping somewhere in Esca's plan (if he had one) there was a trip to the baths and a nice cozy bed to lay their bones down on.

It was as though Esca had read Marcus' thoughts because his plan consisted of a quick visit to the baths, getting a room at the inn they had passed on their way to the administrative building to deliver the Eagle, but with the addition of something Marcus had not thought of: a meal. And that was how it all began.

By the time the two of them laid their heads down on the soft feather pillows, their bodies were clean, and their bellies full.

"I wish there would have been a room with two beds available."

"Why?" Esca asked as he made himself comfortable and covered them both with a large warm wool blanket that had been neatly placed over a corner chair.

"I do not wish to hog up all the bed and throw you to the floor while I sleep."
Esca laughed, "I will be fine, Marcus. I do not take up that much room while I sleep, and if you do throw me to the floor, I will take a blanket with me and sleep there. I can sleep standing I am so tired."

Marcus nodded rather than say a word for he was just as tired as Esca. Soon after that, Marcus and Esca drifted off to a deep and peaceful sleep until shortly before the sun rose the following morning, and then it happened.

Esca's head had found itself a resting place atop Marcus' chest. Marcus smiled in his sleep at the feel of the head resting directly over his heart. In his sleep, he moved his hand over and under Esca's now clean-shaven chin, lifted the face to meet his, and kissed the waiting lips. At first, Marcus was gentle, but the kiss turned urgent soon, and his strong hand went from under Esca's chin to caressing Esca's face and burying itself in Esca's hair. And Esca answered in return needy and with equal passion. And then.

Esca opened his eyes and pushed away from Marcus with such force that he fell off the bed. Marcus awakened and jumped out of bed and stood to one corner wide-eyed and red-faced looking at Esca on the floor.

"Esca apologies! I am so tired. My mind is tired. I thought you were; I thought you were a girl I left behind in Jerusalem."

Esca breathed deeply and smiled. "Do not worry yourself, Marcus. My reaction was more instinct than disgust. I had no idea who was kissing me."

Marcus apologized a few more times, but Esca waved it away uncaring. "Marcus, please, it was not as though I awakened to find your dick in my mouth. It was a kiss for Lugh's sake. It is of no concern." Both men laughed and agreed that they were hungry more than tired, and so they went downstairs to the dining room.

The dining area was nearly empty as Marcus and Esca found a table and sat to have the morning meal before sunrise.

"If you are up to it, perhaps we can begin our journey home after we have eaten," Marcus suggested, and Esca nodded.

The serving girl brought over warm bread, honey, boiled eggs, cheese, and water. As they ate, Esca could not help himself from asking Marcus who the girl was that he had left behind in Jerusalem.

"She was the daughter of the man who supplied our horses." And he stopped there, but that purposeful silence only made Esca more curious, "Did she have a name this girl?

Marcus finished drinking his water, and as he poured himself another cupful, he answered Esca. "Aziza. Her name was Aziza."
And more silence.

"Was she beautiful?" Esca smiled.

"Yes, yes, she was. Very beautiful."

"Was she Roman?"

Marcus shook his head as though he were tired of Esca's interrogation, but his smile said otherwise. "No, she was not Roman. She was Arab."

It was evident to Esca that Marcus was not comfortable talking about the girl who still drove his passion, so Esca tried to put his friend's mind at ease by sharing a confession of his own.

"I, too, left a girl behind. Her name was Etain, and she was the daughter of the Chief of the Carvetti. Had things remained as they were, we would have married."

Marcus nodded sympathetically, and a silence fell over the table. Wanting to lighten the moment, Marcus offered a bit of humor, "Then you must have been quite disappointed when you saw that it was I kissing you and not Etain."

Esca laughed heartily, "Oh, yes. Very disappointed. But then again, you must have been equally disappointed."

Marcus opened his eyes wide and nodded, "Very much so."

The journey home began shortly after the morning meal, and both Marcus and Esca could not wait to get back on the road. The sooner they arrived in Calleva, the happier they would both be. But there was a question that nagged at Marcus until he could not keep it to himself any longer.

"Esca, why instead of following me to Calleva, do you not go in search of Etain? I can accompany you if you wish, as you did me." But right after the words left Marcus' lips, he found himself regretting having asked Esca such an intrusive question. What if the girl had been killed during the raid that left Esca orphaned of his family and a slave. Esca, however, did not seem to take offense. He continued nibbling on a piece of dried meat, looked over at Marcus and answered honestly, "It has been seven years Marcus. I do not believe Etain has been waiting seven years for a man she believes dead."

"How do you know she believes you dead?"

"If my body was not found among the dead, she would know I was captured and put into slavery. If not dead, she would know there is no chance of escape; and if I were to try, I would probably be caught and put to death."

Marcus nodded, and they continued riding for a few more hours before Esca announced he was hungry, and Marcus, who's injured leg had been bothering him since they left Eburacum, did not oppose for he needed rest.

Esca went hunting for their evening meal while Marcus stayed behind. When he returned, Esca carried two rabbits with him and promptly sat to ready them for the fire. Marcus was lost in thought, that much was evident to Esca. He stared unflinchingly into the flames as though something substantial weighed on his mind, but

Esca did not know how to broach the subject, so he went around it. "Does your leg pain you Marcus?"

A startled Marcus shook his head, "No, it is much better. Thank you." The first thing Esca had done before heading out to hunt for their dinner, was clean, and bandage Marcus' thigh, and it had made all the difference.

"Marcus you asked me why I do not search for Etain, but I can ask the very same of you. Why do you not search for the Arab girl? That kiss, the passion behind it, would tell anyone you are still in love with her." Esca began skinning the rabbits.

Marcus laughed softly but shook his head as he raised his eyes to meet Esca. "Her father did not know about us, Esca. He would never have permitted his daughter to marry a Roman. The Arabs trade with us, but they do not need us and do not like us. Our love affair, Aziza and mine, happened in the shadows. Only one person knew of it, my commanding officer, and I have always believed one of the reasons he sent me here to Britannia was to put immeasurable distance between us."

"Why would he do that?"

"To save me from the impending heartache that awaited."

"I do not see where he accomplished there, Marcus."

"Had I stayed in Jerusalem I would have witnessed her being given in marriage to another. He saved me the heartache."

Esca drove the spit through the two rabbits and put them over the fire to roast. As the two men sat in front of the fire watching their dinner cook, there was little conversation and nothing that had anything to do with either Etain or Aziza. If Marcus' commanding officer had been considerate enough to take Marcus' feelings into account when he decided to send him to Britannia, Esca would do no different. It served no purpose anyway. They had both lost the women they cared for, and there was nothing that could be done about it.

When the rabbits were ready to eat Marcus and Esca smiled with great satisfaction for by then they were both starving. The topic of the women they had loved and lost was not brought up again. After eating dinner, they spoke while watching the flames. They talked about the look on Placidus' face when Marcus had told him Esca had more honor than he would ever know. And the look on the Legatus' face when Marcus dismissed his suggestion to reform the Ninth and give its command to Marcus, turned his back on him and walked away. Esca wondered what if anything they would or could do about it, but Marcus calmly reassured his friend that there was nothing that they could do. Marcus, after all, had restored Rome's honor, as well as his father's, with the restoration of the Eagle, and he was a hero. He had done what no legion could have done, with only a slave at his side. The Legatus had no other course of action but to ignore Marcus' afront and forget it ever happened.

Wanting to get an early start the following morning, Marcus and Esca turned in early.

"I am going to move my blankets on the other side of the fire in case you get an inkling to kiss Aziza, and instead you end up kissing me again." Esca joked, and Marcus appreciating the humor laughed as well.

"Ah, you would think I was the worst kisser."

"No, you are not the worst kisser. You are actually an excellent kisser, but nevertheless, I do not wish to be kissed by you."

Marcus moved his blankets to the other side of the fire opposite Esca and smiled widely. Before turning his back to him, since Marcus preferred sleeping on his right- hand side, he complimented Esca in return. "And you are a very pleasant kisser indeed, my friend."

When the sun finally rose, Esca had been awake for more than an hour. There was something bothering him, and although he knew it had to do with Marcus' kiss, he could not figure out why he could not take the memory of it from his mind. Of course, Esca knew of men who preferred to lay with men, but he had never had that inclination. But there was something about Marcus' kiss. It was the way he had caressed his face, the way he had urgently forced his tongue into Esca's mouth, the softness of his lips, the feel of his hand entwined in his hair. Esca finally decided he knew exactly what the problem was; he had been far too long without a woman. It had been seven years since anyone had kissed him in that way. It had been the night before the raid. He had visited Etain since they were soon to be married, and before leaving, they had kissed. An urgent kiss. A sweet kiss. A kiss that had stayed with him all those years later, and as a slave, it was the memory of Etain and that last kiss that had given Esca the will to work, to eat, to sleep, and to do anything that was ordered of him to do. Yes, Esca nodded to himself, he had been too long without a woman, and he made a mental note; As soon as he arrived in Calleva, he would search out the company of a woman.

Esca looked over at Marcus who was sound asleep, and he felt ashamed for he was sure Marcus did not even remember the kiss, nor was he losing sleep over it. Yet, here he was doing just that. But what Esca did not know was that as he slept, Marcus had also lost sleep thinking about the very same thing. Marcus, however, attributed the feelings he had experienced while kissing Esca, to the fact that he thought he was kissing Aziza instead. It had nothing to do with Esca. But unlike Esca who figured his feelings toward the kiss came from the lack of a woman, Marcus knew the emotions he was experiencing were a product of his missing the woman he loved, but there was nothing he could do to change that. Another woman would not fill the void, and even the thought of another woman made him cringe. There would be no other woman for Marcus. Never again.

Chapter Text

A month passed since Marcus and Esca’s return to Calleva, and there was not an evening that was not spent attending celebratory banquets in their honor. Well, those were indeed in honor of Marcus' heroic achievement since no Roman would celebrate a Briton even if that Briton was the reason Roman had reclaimed its lost Eagle. But Esca could not care less, and he made sure Marcus knew the purposeful slight did not faze him in the least.

In truth, the only reason Marcus attended the banquets was to please Uncle Aquila. Although the old man had not lost many of the friends’ he made during the years he served with the Eagles, he still carried the tarnished name of Aquila. But it felt good to have gone from being ignored by certain men who thought themselves better than he, to being envied by them. There was no father who could claim a son like Marcus, nor uncle with a nephew to equal him. Because of this Uncle Aquila did not wish to miss an opportunity to be seen with Marcus, head held pridefully high, and Marcus, however unwilling, would not let his uncle down.

Thankfully, that night, there were no invitations since there was not a Roman left in Calleva that had not held a banquet in Marcus’ honor, and Marcus could not be happier. Finally, an evening where he did not need to be surrounded by people, he cared nothing about and recounting a tale he would instead put behind him. For even if the Eagle had been rescued, and his family name restored, many good men had died in the trying; from both sides. And more than the men who had died, the death of young Rowan, who’s only sin was helping Marcus and Esca escape, even though poor Rowan did not know he was doing just that, was a tragedy both Marcus and Esca did not speak about.

“Esca!” Marcus called out as he entered Esca’s room and found him washing his face. “Would you like to join uncle and me for a game of calculi?” Marcus laughed, “Uncle believes you to be the most-worthy opponent he has faced to date.”

A smiling Esca looked over at Marcus as he raised the towel to dry his face, “Apologies, friend, but I am headed to town for the night.”

“Oh. Would you like company? Uncle will not care if he loses his game partners for tonight. He will replace us with Stephanos. Before I came to live here Stephanos use to be my uncle’s game partner. He is quite good at it from what uncle says. Never afraid of winning even if my uncle does not appreciate being beaten by him.” What Marcus meant was that his uncle did not appreciate being beaten by a slave, but Esca was too sharp not to pick up on the hidden meaning, still, he paid it no mind. Uncle Aquila was not Marcus. He did not see the equality between a master and a slave, as his nephew did, but he was a good man and that was what mattered to Esca.

Not wishing to offend Marcus, but also not wanting or needing his companionship, Esca explained that he would rather go alone since he was searching out the company of a woman that night. The nightly banquets had served to delay Esca’s plan of looking for a woman the moment they reached Calleva. Esca believed he had been too long without the passion and comfort that could only be found within a woman’s arms, and that was the reason the memory of Marcus’ kiss seemed unable to leave his mind. Esca intended on finding a remedy that evening and taking Marcus along with him was counterproductive.

Although he could not figure out why, and although Marcus tried his best to understand Esca's reason for seeking out a woman to share his bed with, even if for one night, the thought of Esca in the arms of a woman, any woman, bothered Marcus. Why would it bother him? After all, Esca was his friend, and he should want his friend to be happy but bother him it did.

“Well, then, I wish you good fortune in your search, my friend,” Marcus flashed Esca a happy grin, and Esca answered him with a bright, happy smile of his own, and he went on his way.

Marcus stood in the same spot for a few more minutes before joining his uncle in the study where Uncle Aquila sat waiting for both Marcus and Esca. “Where is Esca, my boy?”

"Esca will not be joining us, Uncle."

Uncle Aquila laughed as he pointed a finger at Marcus, "And I know why? Esca doubts his skills against a master at calculi such as myself.” Marcus, however, explained the real reason for Esca’s absence to Uncle Aquila who understood for he too had often longed for the presence of a woman in his life, but he was too much like Marcus. He had not had the heart nor the wish to replace his beloved Julia with anyone but the memories he had of her.

"The comfort a man finds at the side of a woman, especially a woman he loves, is close to impossible to duplicate with anything or anyone. However, loneliness will sometimes force the heart to relent, and we bend our will if only to appease it.”

And suddenly Marcus understood why the thought of Esca with another woman who was not his woman had bothered him so much; because, unlike Esca, there was nothing in Marcus that could ever force him to seek out anyone who was not Aziza. It seemed almost disloyal of Esca in Marcus’ mind. What if Esca was wrong? What if Etain had not married? What if she was still waiting for Esca even if she knew he would probably never come back home to her?

Marcus played a few games of calculi with Uncle Aquila until sleep forced the older man to bid him goodnight and retire to his bedchamber. Marcus did the same, and before long he had drifted off to sleep, and he dreamed.

He dreamed of the very first time he saw Aziza and how beautiful she had looked wearing a long black veil which was covered in gold coins. The smokiness of her eye make-up, the redness of her lips, and the soft cinnamon color of her skin. Marcus had never seen a woman that beautiful in all of his days, and he knew he never would again. Even then.

In his dream, Marcus found himself sharing Aziza's bed outlining her mouth with his finger, kissing her forehead, then the tip of her nose, and finally her lips. In his urgency to possess her, Marcus probed the inside of her mouth with his hungry tongue needing to feel every inch of her, as his hand fondled her breasts, slid down the flatness of her abdomen, and down into her womanhood where he touched and massaged it until she was moaning and begging him to take her. And as Marcus moved back from the kiss to look into her eyes, instead of looking into the deep darkness of Aziza's eyes, he looked into the gray-blue of Esca's. And Marcus awakened. He sat up in his bed, rubbing his eyes and looking at the emptiness of his bed where he did not lie.

Marcus got up from his bed, splashed his face with cold water, and forced himself to come fully awake. He looked out the open window to see the sky beginning to turn blue as it came out from the blackness of night. Soon daylight would be upon the world. Marcus suddenly remembered Esca having gone to town and wondered if he had returned. Had he realized that finding another woman was not going to be the solution he sought? But as Marcus’ knock remained unanswered, he opened the door enough to see if Esca was in bed, but he was not.

Chapter Text

A week had passed since Esca began visiting Calleva, but his visits to town were never something he discussed with Marcus. Marcus took it for granted that his friend must have come across what he so desired and thought it was none of Marcus’ business. Whatever the reason, and even though his curiosity was peaked, Marcus did not and could not broach the subject even in the most minute of ways. Esca would share whatever he had to share with Marcus when he wished to, and Marcus could do nothing more but accept it.

One morning Marcus was awakened by Esca, who was sitting at the edge of his bed wearing a huge and happy smile. "Marcus, how would you like to join me on a boar hunt? Sasstica practically chewed my ears off this morning complaining about how there is no meat for the week's meals."

Marcus rubbed his eyes and nodded without saying a word.

“Good. I will be in the stables readying the horses.” Esca patted Marcus' uninjured knee affectionately, got up, and left the room.

There was no doubt in Marcus’ mind. Esca was in love. There was something about him; inner happiness and peace of spirit Marcus could only remember. Marcus envied Esca his joy, but silently, somewhere within the deepest corners of his heart where no one but he knew.

The hunt went well. By the time they reached the villa, they had brought with them two boars, both caught by Marcus, three hares, and a deer which had the ill fortune to cross their path as they rode home.

“I am sure Sasstica will be more than satisfied with today's hunt," Esca said as he dismounted his horse. "And I will be more than glad not to hear her complaints for the next week."

Marcus laughed as he untied the boar and carried it into a small room off the kitchen where the meats were stored and dried. As Esca had predicted, Sasstica was overjoyed as she contemplated the meals’ she now had the meat to cook. Especially since an unannounced guest had arrived at the villa during Marcus and Esca's absence, Cassius Tiberius Gallio, an old and dear friend of Uncle Aquila.

The two men had met during their early days with the Eagles. They had marched, fought, and bled for the Second Legion Augusta for most of their lives. A feat they were both proud of. Cassius had returned to Italy when he retired, leaving behind Aquila, who had decided to remain in Britannia. Although no longer a young man, Cassius married a respectable widow and bought a farm in Etruria. Cassius had traveled to Calleva to congratulate Aquila on Marcus' heroic achievement, and Aquila was elated to see his friend again.

"Young Marcus, your uncle, asked that you join him and his guest the moment you returned," Sasstica announced as she motioned for Marcipor to begin cleaning one of the boars and the deer. When she noted Marcus' inquiring gaze, Sasstica explained that Uncle Aquila was giving a small banquet in honor of Cassius.

“Ah,” Esca gave a half-suppressed laugh, “then I will make myself scarce.”

Marcus was about to ask if Esca planned on going into town again that evening when he was thankfully interrupted by Uncle Aquila, who had heard Marcus' arrival and was wondering what was keeping him from doing as he had requested.

"I ask that you do not make yourself scarce, Esca, my boy, but do stay. There will be a small banquet in honor of an old friend. Besides, Kaeso is attending, and he has been asking after you."

It was evident to Marcus that Esca did not wish to attend the dinner that evening. His inner struggle was palpable, only to Marcus, but he could see how torn his friend was between not letting Uncle Aquila down nor the mystery woman in Calleva. But in the end, Esca gave his word to Uncle Aquila that he would attend the banquet.

"Very well." Uncle Aquila patted Esca on the shoulder and turned to Marcus. "Nephew, there is someone here. I would like you to meet."

Marcus glanced over at Esca just in time to see him walk out the door and head toward the stables, and he did not need to wonder where his friend was headed off to. A few minutes later, as Uncle Aquila introduced Marcus to Cassius, the sound of Esca's horse could be heard making its way up the cobblestone path.

And although Marcus sat with Uncle Aquila and Cassius and automatically recited the edited version of his adventure up north to the latter’s delight, his thoughts were on Esca. He wondered who this woman was that had won Esca’s heart in such a sweeping way. Was she of his blood? Could she be Greek or Roman? Was she a free woman or a slave whose freedom he would buy at whatever the price? The one thing Marcus knew for sure was that the woman who had captured Esca’s heart must be as special a woman as could be imagined for Esca deserved nothing less.

Marcus found himself feeling lonelier than he had felt in a very long time. He thought he was losing his friend, and there was nothing he could do about it. That night’s banquet would be a welcome distraction for Marcus, and he decided to make the best of it.

A few hours later, Esca had returned, and some of the guests were beginning to arrive. Kaeso was among the first, and he was happy to see Esca. The two started chatting over a cup of sweet wine since there was no mead to be had. Even if there had been mead, it was not served to guests in a Roman household, especially not at a Roman banquet.

“Salve Kaeso! How fare Valeria and Cottia?" Uncle Aquila walked over to his neighbor, the Romanized Iceni, who had reached the level of magistrate because of his respectability, honesty, and trustworthiness among his own kind, as well as the Romans. His wife, Valeria, had not only taken a Roman name, but she had discarded any part of herself that was reminiscent of who she used to be. Cottia, on the other hand, was very proud of her Iceni culture, to Valeria’s dismay, and was unwilling to follow her aunt's example. And although she received a Roman name, she rarely used it or introduced herself as anything other than Cottia.

As the evening progressed, the conversation never dulled, and then an unexpected guest made an appearance.

The Legatus, Claudius Marcellus, had arrived that very afternoon in Calleva, and after settling his affairs for the day had made his way to Uncle Aquila’s villa, for they too were dear friends.

“I heard Placidus was recalled to Rome.” Uncle Aquila volunteered.

"Yes. Senator Servius Placidus, the Elder, is looking to introduce him to the senatorial ranks. Besides, I do not believe he was delighted playing the part of my assistant, especially since his eyes were not on a career with the Eagles.” And as the Legatus entered the atrium, another figure followed.

Upon hearing the Legatus' familiar voice, Marcus made his way to where Uncle Aquila still stood to converse with the Legatus. Then his eyes fell on the welcome sight of his former commanding officer and good friend, Gaius Lucius Marcellus.

The two men embraced repeatedly. “I traveled with the Legatus when I heard he was coming to Calleva. I heard you live with your uncle, and I wished to surprise and congratulate you on achieving the impossible Marcus, my friend. I was quite troubled when I heard what happened to you at Isca Dumnoniorum. I came to blame myself for having recommended you be made fort commander, but when I heard you found and brought the Eagle of the Ninth back to Rome, I not only commended you but I commended myself."

The remainder of the evening, Marcus and Gaius spoke about the men Marcus had left behind when he had left Jerusalem for Britannia. Gaius made Marcus aware of the men that had died, some who had received debilitating injuries and had, like Marcus, been discharged from their military service. The conversation led from one subject to the next until Gaius finally mentioned the only thing Marcus wished to hear, "And she is still there, you know. Aziza. She is still in her father's house."

Marcus’ eyes widened in surprise, “Did she not marry?”

“No, she did not marry.”

“But why not, Gaius? The wedding had been set and was to take place a few days after my departure.”

Gaius shrugged his shoulders, for he did not have the answer as to why the girl Marcus loved had not married the man her father wanted her to marry. "Perhaps she found she could not be untrue to her heart."

And Marcus would have loved to believe that, above all else, but he knew something more serious must have occurred to stop the wedding from happening knowing her father as he did. "Is she well? Have you seen her, Gaius?"

Gaius shook his head before replying the same, “No, Marcus. Before I left Jerusalem, I had only seen her on rare occasions and in the company of her aunt, I believe. We never spoke, even though her eyes spoke loudly enough, and they spoke of you.”

Marcus smiled widely, and with happiness, Esca had not seen before.

It was long after midnight when Marcus and Gaius put their conversations to rest in favor of a good night's sleep. Esca had excused himself hours earlier, but the moment he heard Marcus' door open, he got up from his bed and went to Marcus' room. Esca found Marcus lying on his bed looking up at the wood beams that crossed the ceiling vertically lost in thought, but the moment Marcus felt the mattress dip, he focused his eyes on Esca's face.

Esca did not wear a smile, nor a frown, nor any visible emotion. He sat contemplating Marcus as if wondering what Marcus was planning on doing with the information Gaius had given him. Unwilling to wonder any longer, Esca asked Marcus, "Now that you know she is still free, what will you do, Marcus?"

Marcus stared at Esca as though not understanding what had just been asked of him. What would he do now? Now that he knew Aziza, the woman of his dreams, the love of his life, the sole owner of his heart and soul, was free? What would he do now that he knew she had not married another and that she was still his in every way? But Marcus had no answer for Esca, and he could not figure out why.

Noting that Marcus had not even blinked while he stared blankly into his eyes, Esca broke the silence, "This is your chance, Marcus. Your love is waiting for you, and if she were brave enough to go against her father's wishes, she would certainly be brave enough to leave with you."

There was something that held Marcus back from giving Esca an answer, and that was his confusion.

When he had thought Aziza had married and put him and their love behind her, his heart had broken, yet, now that he knew she was probably hoping and praying for him to come back to her, he felt nothing. All he could think of was leaving Esca to go to Aziza. All he could think of was the near-nightly dreams of him loving Esca, dreams of their first time together, and the sweet kisses from his lips. And then Marcus remembered a very crucial thing. Esca had found what he was searching for.

Esca had found a woman to love and love her he must since there was not a day he did not rush to her arms. Every time they sat together, Marcus expected Esca to say that he would be leaving the villa to be with her. But even if there had been no woman in Esca's life, the dreams Marcus had would never, could never, become a reality, especially since neither man had ever had an inclination toward their own sex. That was very clear during the journey back south when Marcus and Esca, being at their most relaxed, would satisfy their urges with their own hands. Marcus, as a soldier, knew that in particular circumstances, men would give in to otherwise unnatural desires when women were unavailable, but that had not happened between him and Esca.

And it never would.

So, putting all of that into consideration, knowing full well that any moment might be the moment Esca decided to leave and start his life, and with no wish to live out the rest of his life alone when the woman he had loved was still patiently waiting for him, Marcus found his answer.

“I will travel to Jerusalem.”

Esca's blood froze, but he forced a smile and nodded.

Chapter Text

Marcus spoke for a while longer, but Esca could not hear a word he said for the blood pumping in his ears made him deaf. Marcus seemed relaxed, and there was a hopeful twinkle in his eyes; Esca did not need to hear Marcus' words, and he was glad he could not. Esca had realized something that night as he sat watching Marcus speak his muted language; Esca had realized he was in love with his Roman friend. Perhaps Esca had known all along, and if he wished to be honest with himself, he had known for quite some time. Esca had known since it happened that night; that kiss Esca had received mistakenly from Marcus as the Roman dreamt of his love. However, that kiss had both excited and confused Esca, for he had never loved a man other than the love he felt for father and brothers.

Besides, Esca had hated Marcus because he did not allow him to die honorably that afternoon in the arena. He had hated Marcus because Marcus was Roman, so he did not know when that hate had turned into love? Was it while he watched Marcus toil and suffer indignities in the camp of the Seal People? Perhaps it was during their escape watching Marcus braving fever and pain? Or perhaps as he watched Marcus return the eagle and turn his back on Rome and everything it stood for? Wherever or whenever it happened, it happened, and Esca could do nothing about it but tuck his feelings for Marcus in some corner of his heart where they would never see the light of day.

But that night Esca allowed himself to mourn what he would never have.

The following morning Esca found Marcus and Gaius locked in conversation under the pergola.
Esca had been hoping to continue the conversation he and Marcus had the previous night; or better put, the conversation Marcus had with himself, but Marcus seemed enthralled with his Roman friend, and try as he could Esca could not grab his attention. Of course, Gaius could speak on a subject that Marcus was most interested in Aziza. And Esca? What subject could Marcus and Esca speak on that would find the Roman’s attention so undivided? Hunting? Horses? Farming?

However, to Esca's relief, shortly after the noontime hour, the Legatus announced his intention to leave and return to Eburacum. Gratefully so, Gaius would be going with him.

Esca watched as Gaius whispered another short conversation in Marcus' ear before the two men clasped hands and said their farewells. Marcus looked satisfied with whatever Gaius had said, and soon thereafter, Marcus disappeared into his uncle's study where the two men spent the better part of the afternoon speaking in private.

Not wanting to appear as though he was desperate to know Marcus' plans, Esca decided to distract himself and head to town. Marcus heard the sound of the horse's hooves as Esca rode off, and it helped to reaffirm his decision. A decision Uncle Aquila was most in favor of.

“You do not wish to grow old alone, my boy, with no one to keep you company while you’re awake, lie beside you while you sleep, and mourn you when you are gone.” The older man had reasoned.

Uncle Aquila went on to confess how there were times he wished he would have found a woman to spend his silver years alongside. Not for love, since for him there was, and would ever only be Julia, but for companionship.

"Stephanos is not only an excellent servant, but he is a good friend, although," Uncle Aquila looked around and lowered his voice to a near whisper, "I ask that remain between you and me." And then he laughed. Marcus smiled. "But even a good friend cannot take the place of a woman, Marcus."

Marcus nodded.

His uncle was right. And Esca was right. No matter how dear Esca's friendship was to Marcus or how strong Marcus' attachment to Esca, they could only be just so much to each other. Marcus could not expect Esca to spend the rest of his life at Marcus' side, rubbing his leg when it ached, or cleaning and salving his wound when needed. He could not expect Esca to give up the joy of becoming a father one day for his sake, as Esca would never expect such a sacrifice from him.

No.

Esca understood the importance of rebuilding his life at the side of a woman he loved, even if that woman was not Etain. Marcus was fortunate even in that for Aziza still awaited his return. But there was something, an invisible force that held Marcus back from boarding the next galley to Jerusalem. There was turmoil within his soul, and confusion within his mind that Marcus seemed unable to control, and it had everything to do with those dreams.

The dreams of he and Esca that tormented his sleep and snuck up on him unawares during his waking hours. Why was that happening to him?

No matter what, Esca was a man. Even if soldiers sometimes sought solace and comfort with each other, they did not fall in love with the men they lay with. They did not begin to think of them as one thinks of a woman. Marcus had never heard of such a thing; therefore, he concluded, it must not happen.

But there was one truth that Marcus acknowledged: his feelings for Esca, however unnatural. His heart would flutter when he heard Esca’s voice, and it would skip a beat when Esca walked into a room, and their eyes locked. Worst of all, Marcus had caught himself of late satisfying himself to thoughts of Esca. Esca's mouth on his dick sucking it dry of its milk, Esca riding Marcus while the Roman rammed him hard and deep. Marcus prodding Esca's mouth with his tongue while Esca moaned, moved, and melted under him lost in his passion.

Marcus nodded silently to himself, for there was only one way to put a stop to those illicit fantasies, and there was no need for further deliberation. Marcus would travel to Jerusalem and ask Aziza to return to Calleva with him. Then, as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders, Marcus felt relieved.

*****

That night Esca returned late from his venture into town, and Marcus pretended to be asleep when he heard the door to his bedroom open. It was Esca's routine to look in on Marcus before going to bed every night, and Marcus knew it well.

“Marcus?” Esca called out into the darkness of the room. “Marcus are you awake?”

Marcus thought to feign sleep but just as quickly decided against it. "No." He answered, turning onto his back and looking toward the door where Esca stood motionless as if waiting to be invited in. “Enter, my friend, why do you stand there?”

Esca stepped into the room and closed the door behind him, but he did not speak a word, nor did he sit at the edge of Marcus' bed as was his way. Marcus sat up, trying to study his friend's face in the streak of moonlight that crept in through the slightly open shutters. Esca obviously had something to say, but he said nothing.

“Is anything the matter, my friend? Are you unwell?”

Marcus felt as if his heart had suddenly stopped beating.

This was it! Esca had decided to leave, and he was about to tell Marcus.

This was the moment Marcus had feared would come before long. He suddenly found himself wishing he would have joined Gaius and the Legatus on their return trip to Eburacum. Marcus could have boarded a galley and set sail toward the new life that awaited him. Still, instead, he had allowed himself to delay his departure for only the gods knew what reason. Even though the gods were not the only ones who knew the reason for Marcus knew it all too well, the reason was Esca. Marcus did not know how to part ways with him. He did not know how to walk away from Esca, and because of that, he should have been happy that it was Esca walking away from him, but he was not.

Suddenly, there in the dark with a sliver of moonlight illuminating his face, Esca began to speak.

“Marcus. I have something to tell you, but... I do not how."

Marcus remained quiet, grinding his teeth and clenching his fist unworried since Esca could not see his reaction to the words being spoken aloud. There was one thing Marcus was sure of: he was certain, for he could not believe otherwise, Esca was able to hear the drum-like beating of Marcus' heart against his chest.

Esca stopped, sighed deeply, and then began again. “I will say this quickly.” He stopped looked at Marcus and continued, “Marcus, I am in love... with someone.”

And it was at that moment that Marcus’ hearing became impaired by the loud beating of his heart and the blood whooshing in his ears. There was a look in Esca's eyes that Marcus understood as fear or anxiety. But of course, Esca would feel that way; he was telling Marcus, whom Esca knew depended on him to a point, that he was leaving his side. That he would no longer be there when Marcus needed him, to tend his injured leg, or go hunting with. Marcus was losing his friend and right hand, of course, Esca would look anxious.

Marcus, however, thought quick.

He did not want his friend feeling bad about leaving, nor to carry a misconceived sense of responsibility, so he spoke, hoping to put Esca's mind at ease.

“Esca, we must all follow our hearts no matter the consequences, nor who, or what we put aside for the sake of love.”

Perhaps if Marcus knew how Esca truly felt, maybe...

He should have been more clear in his choice of words, but he did not know how to say what was in his heart. What if Marcus did not react as Esca could only wish he would?

On the bed, Marcus found himself envying the woman who had managed to make his friend gleam with such unabashed joy. He found himself wishing he could feel that same excitement, comfort, and anticipation about his eventual meeting with Aziza. Still, there was not one inch of Marcus that was able to feel anything but disappointment and hopelessness.

But then Marcus spoke, and Esca was stopped before he could utter another word.

“I, too, am deeply in love.”

The truth.

“My dreams are only of, of her.” Marcus looked away from Esca as he said that so that his friend would not see the lie behind what he spoke.

"Since I left her side, I have counted the hours of each day waiting for the moment when I can have... her... in my arms again, and soon, soon, my wish will come true, and all will be as I have dreamed."

A lie.

Esca thanked Lugh silently for having saved him from the humiliation he would have suffered had he opened his heart to Marcus and told him he was in love with him.

“I leave tomorrow," Esca announced.

Marcus swallowed hard. That was it then. He had been right; Esca was leaving. That was the very last night Esca would ever come to the room. The very last night, Marcus could dream of what might have been if the world was a different place, and a man's honor not so quickly judged and questioned by what he does, and whom he loves.

“Will I see you before I leave for Eburacum, my friend?" Marcus dreaded the answer.

“Of course. Good night, Marcus.”

“Good night, my friend, sleep well.”

That night sleep eluded Marcus. He paced the room countless times, not knowing what he could do and knowing there was nothing he could do. In the room next to his, Esca paced as well. He would have to leave the villa. There was no way, Esca would be able to live in the same home with Marcus and his woman. He could not bring himself to watch them retire to their room, knowing what took place behind closed doors. He could not be truly happy for Marcus' happiness, and if he could not be, he was no true friend.

Esca had told Marcus he would be there in the morning, but he decided against it. When Marcus awakened Esca would be long gone.

It would make no difference to Marcus, of that Esca was certain.

Suddenly, a light knock on the door made Esca stop and turn.

Chapter Text

"Marcus!" Esca called out as he slathered warm honey over that morning's bread as Marcus enjoyed. "Marcus, if you do not come soon, I will begin eating alone." A sound threat since Marcus hated eating alone.

“Stop your shouting! I am tying my sandals.”

Esca smiled. He was content with his life. No! He was more than content, he was happy. Happier than he had ever thought he could be, and he had often thought he could have been very happy had not the Romans stole his family and his life from him. But irony had played him, and where the Romans had taken everything from him, one Roman had given it all back. And although it was not something Esca would admit to anyone outside of Marcus, he could no longer imagine a life without the Roman.

Esca would sometimes find himself wondering what life would have been like had the Romans never raided their homestead, killed his family, and taken him into slavery? But that was not a place Esca cared to visit because he did not want to accept that there was a part of him that felt almost grateful for the path that had led him to Marcus despite the consequences.

Esca had been so lost in thought he had not noticed Marcus silently walk up behind him until the Roman had wrapped his arms around his waist.

"I hope you were thinking of me," Marcus whispered as he nuzzled his face against Esca's hair.

"No, I was thinking about whether or not we should build another hen house. You were the last thing on my mind." Esca tried to sound as believable as he could, but when Marcus slapped his bottom playfully, Esca let himself laugh.

Marcus went over to the long rectangular wooden table and took his seat at its head. “Actually, that might be a good idea. I was thinking of that myself.”

“Were you? When?”

"Last evening, as you were sucking on my cock, the thought crept into my...."

Esca threw the small towel he had over his shoulder at Marcus’ face as the Roman burst into laughter.

“Forgive me, my friend, but I could not help retaliating.”

“Do not worry, Roman, and do not complain should I decide to retaliate the next time you bed me.” Unlike Marcus, Esca tried keeping a straight face, although Marcus could detect a slight smile.

As they ate, Esca slyly watched as his Roman enjoyed the honeyed bread and cool wine placed before him. Esca knew Marcus must have been very hungry because he never looked up from his food when he was hungry. For Esca there was a certain satisfaction that came along with that thought since the previous night the two men had exerted themselves as they pleased and fed the fuel of each other's passion; the memory of which made Esca sit straighter.

There were times he could not believe the gods had been so gracious to him. He loved Marcus with every fiber of his being. With every breath he took and every beat of his heart he loved him. And there were times he dared not stir from bed fearing it had all been a dream, that he would awaken to find himself alone in his bed and Marcus nowhere to be found.

Marcus had surprised Esca when he had shown up unexpectedly at Esca's bedchamber that night, putting aside his plans to go in search of the Arab woman and finally accepting his feelings for his friend.

Esca had opened the door, and Marcus had pushed his way in. He had poured his heart out to Esca; Marcus had confessed his dreams to Esca. He had told him about how badly he wanted and needed him, and Esca had reciprocated confessing his own dreams and feelings to the Roman.

By the time the sun had risen their dreams had become a reality and the new day ushered in the beginning of a new life together.

“Esca!”

“Hmmm, yes, Marcus?”

"Where are you this morning?" Marcus sounded concerned for Esca was not one for daydreaming, and the Roman's worry was not lost on Esca. This time Esca did not attempt to deceive Marcus since he did not wish to foster his friend’s obvious but unwarranted concern.

“I was remembering.”

“Remembering what, my love?” Marcus stood up from his seat and walked over to Esca.

“That night. Our first time together.”

Marcus smiled warmly and nodded, “I thank the gods nightly that I followed my heart and went to you instead of following my mind and going to her.”

"Have you ever thought of what might have been? If instead, you would have left for Jerusalem that morning and..." Marcus silenced his lover with a gentle kiss on the lips.

"No, I never do for there would have been no other way, but this for me."

Esca sprang up, and the two men embraced tightly, letting their emotion speak for itself.

“Oh, Marcus,” Esca whispered into Marcus’ soft dark hair, “My Marcus... how I love you.”

“Esca.... my Esca,” Marcus whispered in return squeezing his embrace tightly so that Esca felt how very much he meant to Marcus.

 

“Esca! ESCA! Wake up! We must leave before sunlight if we wish to get the best the market has to offer.”

Esca jumped startled and shook his head to bring himself into the present; a present that did not include Marcus whispering his love to him, nights in each other's arms, or stolen kisses.

It had been a dream. What Esca feared most. A dream and nothing more.

The present Esca had awakened to, although without Marcus, was tolerable, but not where his heart wished to be.

That last night Esca had seen Marcus had also been the last night Esca spent at the Aquila villa.

Sasstica had come to the door to ask if he needed anything before she retired to her quarters, and shortly thereafter Esca had quietly slipped out of the villa and headed to town.

Shortly after arriving back from their Northern journey Esca had come across and befriended a Carvetti merchant who had settled in Calleva but was anxious to sell his business and return to Luguvalium where he had left behind a wife and five children. The man, whose name was Ayden MacKillyan, lived in a small room above his leather goods shop, which was quite successful and had made him a good amount of money. The sale of the business would add even more to his acquired wealth.

As he was not a very young man, Ayden knew and remembered the glory days and tragic fate of the great Cunoval, his wife, and sons. It was this that made him feel a duty to help and return Esca to his own.

Having befriended Ayden, when Marcus announced his intention to travel to Jerusalem, Esca decided to accept Ayden’s invitation and return home with him. Of course, it would not be back to the home he remembered, but he would be far from Calleva, and that was what Esca wished.

He was unsure as to whether that would help him remove Marcus from his thoughts, he did not believe it would, but he had to try nonetheless.

“Esca get yourself up, son. The sun will rise soon, and we shall arrive at a market overflowing with clients.”

Esca nodded silently, running his fingers through his hair, and got out of bed.

Ayden looked after the one-time Brigantes prince and shook his head but not with anger or frustration. Still, because he knew there was a weight on Esca's shoulders' he seemed unable to unload.

Perhaps it was the return to the lands his father had once ruled over, or maybe he missed his Roman friend. Esca had spoken many good things about the Roman's honor, courage, and honest character. Still, Ayden doubted that could be the reason for no matter how good the Roman had been to Esca, how noble and kind, he was a Roman, nonetheless, and a part of the same evil empire that had robbed Esca of everything he had.

No, thought Ayden, it has to be something else. It had crossed Ayden's mind that Esca may very well be lonely, after all, he had not had a woman all of seven years, or so Esca claimed. Ayden smiled with satisfaction.

Why had he not thought of it earlier? There were plenty of young women whose fancy had been caught by the handsome young prince, and perhaps there was one who had caught his eye, as well. Ayden would set a plan in motion to find Esca the perfect girl as soon as they returned from the market, and he knew just the girl.

Esca clapped Ayden on the back, announcing his readiness, and the two men mounted their horses and rode off.

 

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, Marcus stood by the open shutter window in his sleeping quarters, looking out over the still sleeping city. As a favor, Gaius had dispatched a letter to his cousin, the wife of the Roman commander Sextus Julius Severus, the man who had put to rest the uprisings in Jerusalem, to have her brother’s villa placed at the Roman hero’s disposal.

Marcus remembered those uprisings all too well, and the contrast stood out to him, but it was not the difference between war and peace that forced Marcus from his bed but the thought of Esca nearly every night after all those months passed.

Marcus wondered where his friend could be and why he had not waited till morning so that Marcus could see his face one last time?

It was a selfish thing, Marcus knew this, but he could not help feeling what he felt.

Waking up the following morning to find Esca gone had been a stab to the heart, and try as he might, Marcus found it impossible to get passed it.

He raised his eyes to the dawn and offered a silent prayer to whatever god might be listening, “Let me learn to love again, I beg you. Please let me rip Esca from my mind. Let me tear him from my heart and my soul. Let me find happiness with this woman, oh gods, let her love me still and let me learn to love her as well. To love her as I love him, I beg you oh gods, please, help me.”

Marcus wiped the tears that had involuntarily filled his soft green eyes and turned away from the approaching daylight.

That morning Marcus was to meet Aziza.

Her aunt, wishing to end her nieces suffering, had agreed to the secret meeting.

Marcus would come upon her unawares, and hopefully, she would fall into his arms as she once had, and it would all begin again.

And Esca would soon become nothing more than a memory and fade into the past where all memories go to die.

It was all Marcus could hope for, and if the god’s willed it that is how it would be.

Chapter Text

“Has he changed, Khalto Nafisa?”

“He is still very handsome, ya Binti.... from what I could see, of course.”

“Not suffered?”

“Why would he be suffered? You forget, ya Aziza, men do not suffer as we do... and certainly not for love.”

“You sound bitter, Khalto,” Aziza retorted, “men suffer no different than we do.”

“Ya, salam! But tell me, ya akhti, why should I not be bitter? I am most certainly bitter, but I speak the truth." The older woman wore the black of widowhood with her gray hair covered by a black veil covering her head and shoulders. “Remember, I am not bitter because my husband left me for another, I am bitter because he was a stupid man who thought too much of himself.”

Aziza burst out laughing but stopped herself out of respect for her dead uncle. Her aunt looked up from her embroidering and also laughed, "Do not stop yourself from laughing, ya Binti, it is sad, but it is comical. When Abu Hamza looked at himself in a mirror, he did not see the thin, frail man he was but Hercules.”

“Ya, haram, Khalto, poor Khalo. He was only trying to defend that poor woman’s honor.”

“What honor? She was a prostitute!”

“Prostitute or not, she was a woman who deserved respect. I am proud of him, and wallah, you should be too, Khalto. Your husband died an honorable death.”

“Yes, very honorable. Dead in the gutter with a sword in his back and his throat slit like that of a goat.”

“What matters is that he loved you, and when you were ill, he worried for you. Remember, when you traveled to visit Sit’ty in Antioch, and stayed longer than expected, Khalo was frantic. You even said he looked as though he aged twenty years. That is love, Khalto.”

The older woman looked back down at the black material in her hand, and although she had smirked and waved away her niece’s words, she knew Aziza spoke the truth. Abu Hamza had been a good man, a good husband, and a good friend. Aside from that, Nafisa did not know how to answer Aziza’s question; Did Marcus look suffered?

Nafisa had focused mainly on Marcus' handsome face and his tall, stately figure; those had not changed. What Nafisa had noticed was the new gait in his walk. Marcus walked with a slight limp, favoring his left leg, perhaps an injury he had suffered during a battle while in Briton or a fall from his horse.

 

Aziza sat on her bed, quiet, head lowered, hands clasped, and when she spoke, she said: “Khalto, will Marcus believe I have changed? I look in the mirror, and I no longer see the girl he first saw or worse yet, Khalto, what if he no longer loves me.”

Nafisa stood and moved to sit beside her niece, pulling back the silk veil that had fallen forward hiding Aziza's face from her aunt's eyes, "Why would he not love you, ya Binti? For Marcus, the sun rose and set within your eyes. Nothing or no one could come between the two of you, Aziza, and you are as beautiful to behold today as you were the very first day his eyes first looked upon you.”

And that moment, Nafisa remembered well.

It was summer, the uprisings were far behind them, and the days were long and hot. Aziza had accompanied Nafisa and Abu Hamza to a celebration at the home of a family member who had given birth to a son. The birth of daughters was never a celebrated event. Still, the birth of a son signaled the family name would live on, and that was worth celebrating.

Marcus was standing near the elegant villa conversing with a group of soldiers when Aziza first saw him. The Roman was tall, his frame defined as that of a soldier, his skin bronzed, his smile bright, and "as handsome as a god," or so Aziza thought. Aziza turned her eyes away before the soldiers noticed her staring, but from the windows high above, she kept a secret vigil.

Of course, Aziza did not dare tell Khalto Nafisa about the attraction she had developed toward the Roman soldier. Still, she did share it with her cousin, Basima, who, apart from being blood, was Aziza's dearest friend. It was Basima who set a plan to try and get the Roman to notice Aziza.

The plan was this: Aziza and Basima would go for walks every afternoon, near the market square not far from the villa where Roman soldiers would congregate. Basima was familiar with the Roman that had captured her cousin’s attention and had seen him there several times, so they did as planned. Every afternoon, at the same time of day, Aziza and Basima strolled through the marketplace sometimes. They would sit near the fountain, while other times, they would indulge conversation with other women familiar to them. The one thing that remained constant was the presence of Khalto Nafisa since it was unseemly for young single women to be seen without a chaperone. Their reputation depended on it. A young woman who took to the streets alone was a girl who needed to work to support her family, or girl who no longer had a reputation worth saving. Both girls stood no chance of ever marrying a man from a good family.

Nafisa was no fool! It did not take long for the woman to realize the reason behind her niece's daily walks. The handsome Roman's stature and good looks were enough to steal any woman's attention. However, Nafisa hoped her niece had not forgotten the way of things. Aziza would marry her uncle's son, whether she wanted to or not. Still, for the time being, Nafisa would play the fool and allow her niece to daydream if only for a little while.

The walks in the marketplace happened religiously for nearly a month, but there was no sign of the handsome Roman. Aziza sadly accepted perhaps the Roman had been sent back to Rome, and she would not see him again. Basima tried keeping Aziza optimistic. “My cousin, always the cynic! Perhaps the Roman is touring the Galilea or in Caesarea enjoying the cool sea breeze. They do these things.”

And perhaps Basima was right, but Aziza refused to accept false hope, it did not matter anyway. In the end, nothing would come of it since it was not as though the daughter of Sheikh Aziz ibn Adel ibn Sofyan, the richest horse breeder in all of Arabia, could marry a Roman, not were he Caesar himself! The Arabs were not blind to the fact that even if they were rich beyond any Roman’s imagination, Romans deemed themselves superior to them as they did to everyone. To Romans, Arabs were nothing more than wealthy barbarians, and no Arab man would hand their most prized possession to anyone who thought of them in that fashion. Besides, it was not as though Arabs considered Romans much better; to an Arab, a Roman was worth nothing.

"Romans are like pigs dressed in finery," was a joke Arabs enjoyed. Still, Aziza felt there was something different about the particular Roman who had caught her attention. There was something about his face, his eyes. He seemed kind, although a bit haughty, but then most Romans carried that trait. But she had seen him flash a smile at playing children and even throwback a ball that had accidentally rolled near where he stood. Many times' Roman soldiers would strike children or push them away from their path so hard that they fell and hurt themselves, but he was different. Aziza could feel it in her soul!

Several weeks passed with no sign of the Roman soldier, and by then, Aziza had come to accept that her assumption had been the correct one. The handsome Roman was gone back to Rome, perhaps never to return. Basima was to visit her uncle in Hegra with her mother and father. A match had been set between her cousin and herself, and they were to become betrothed. Basima was not overly pleased, for she, like Aziza, had often dreamed of falling in love, but marriage for love did not exist. "Love comes with time," was what old women said to the young, and that was all they could hope for.

Basima’s departure meant Aziza was alone. Of course, there was Khalto Nafisa, but Aziza would never have confessed her feelings toward the Roman to her aunt. By the end of summer, Basima and her family had left Jerusalem. Aziza spent her days sitting in the enclosed garden listening to the water flow in the grand marble fountain while reading or embroidering, and then it happened. Unexpectedly and much to her happy surprise.

Khalto Nafisa invited Aziza to accompany her to the home of the family member who had given birth earlier that summer. Aziza did not feel up to it, but it was far better than sitting in the garden listening to the fountain, so she went. As they walked toward the family member’s home, Khalto Nafisa tapped Aziza's arm, motioning for the girl to move aside as not to be in the way of the approaching soldiers. Aziza, who had been lost in thought as she walked alongside her aunt, looked up, and suddenly her feet stopped moving.

“Aziza!” Khalto Nafisa called to her niece, who was frozen in place. "Ya, Aziza, what is the matter with you?” Khalto Nafisa spoke in Arabic so as not to be understood by the soldiers for Romans in Judea understood Aramaic.

“Yallah, yakhti, walk, walk before these animals trample us!” But when Nafisa followed her niece’s line of sight, she understood the girl’s reaction.

The handsome Roman, walking on the outside of the group, looked up, and his eyes locked on Aziza's. He almost seemed to stop in his tracks. Still, he continued walking alongside the other soldiers, seeming to appear unobvious and unaffected, but his eyes betrayed him. They seemed to want nothing more than to look in the direction of the girl.

“Marcus? Did you hear what I just said?” The officer who walked beside him.

Marcus tore his eyes away from Aziza and looked back at his commanding officer, unsure of what to say since he had not heard a word the man had spoken. Not after having locked eyes on the most beautiful girl, he had ever seen: tall, slender, olive-skinned, and eyes like a dove, innocent, curious, and angelic. Even after walking passed the women, Marcus turned back for one final look only to find the girl had turned back to look at him.

They both smiled.