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A Tribute from Imruk

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"I received a letter from your father. He is coming back."

 

His mother, sitting primly at her place next to his father's empty seat, announced. Aleci ignored the squeal of excitement from his younger sister, and pulled his face into a smile. 

 

"I assume Imruk surrendered?" said Aleci. 

 

"It would seem so." said his mother, "He wrote that he expects you to meet him when he arrives." a stern pause, "Properly dressed."

 

"Proper?" said Aleci, "What do you mean?"

 

"Don't play ignorant, Aleci," said his mother, "You and I both know of your-" she frowns severely, "relations. If you come dressed like you just came from one, I won't save you from your father."

 

Aleci wanted to say, she had never stepped in to save him from his father's sermons, but he decided against it. 

 

"But why only me? Won't you be there?" he asked. 

 

"I would." said his mother, "But these are his instructions to you. Specifically." she turned to his younger sister, "Now, Laria, are you supposed to be at your lessons or eavesdropping?"

 

He decided to excuse himself along with his sister before his mother turned her ire on him. A part of him wasn't sure what to make of her words. His father rarely wanted to see him, probably because, unlike the other men of the Tusirios family, he had never been adept at any martial field. From the age of seven, the look of constant disappointment was on his father's face every time he looked at Aleci, his only son. Obviously Laria couldn't serve alongside his father or he would have wanted to train her instead. Aleci thinks that his father had been mourning the lost of a continued military tradition in the family for the last fifteen years. Which, if you asked him, was too long. 

 

"Are you quite done ranting?"

 

He blinked, staring into the unimpressed eyes of Emos. The hetairikos sighed deeply, "You've told me this story half a dozen times. I'd love to hear more, but I have other clients as well. More amicable ones than you've been, at the very least."

 

"Sorry-" he meant to say, but Emos waved his apologies aside. 

 

"You've paid me for my time. It's enough." said Emos, "I'm still here if you want to have an actual good time instead of talking."

 

Aleci deposited the coins into Emos's outstretched hands as he left the lupanar, making sure to stop by the bathhouse before making the trip back to his father's house. He thought he had washed away the smell and adjusted his clothes adequately, but the look on his mother's face when she saw him, and the smirk on Laria's face told him otherwise. 

 

"You're in trouble!" Laria singsonged, twirling a ribbon in her hand, a strangely dressed doll in her other, "Double trouble."

 

"Hush, child!" chided his mother, she gave him an irritated look, "Your father's in the courtyard. You've kept him waiting."

 

It was short and to the point, and she turned to lead Laria away. Aleci made his way to the marbled courtyard, heart in his throat. He could hear voices as he approached, speaking in a foreign tongue. 

 

"I hope to make your son happy, Praefect."

   

"Oh, you would, you would ." the laugh, and Aleci shuddered upon recognition, was his father's, " I enjoyed your company, Finne."

 

"Thank you, Praefect Galer. I am honored. "

 

His father was sitting on the recliner, drinking deeply from a glass. Standing next to him was a curly haired man about the same age as he, dressed in the same clothes as Laria's doll. They both looked dusty from the road, his father's traveling cloak was streaked with mud, his beard unkempt. The other man had spotted such beard, and had, presumably access to a razor or he was a carrier, though why a carrier was doing in his father's house he had no idea.  When he entered, his father gave him an appraising look. 

 

"Late as usual." said his father, in lieu of a greeting, "Well then, Aleci, this is Finne-" he gestured towards the man standing by his side, "Your new wife."

 

Finne made a move to greet him, but Aleci brushed him aside, "Father what is the meaning of this?"

 

"Your mother and I have grown tired of your reputation for trysts and various-" Galer wrinkled his nose in disgust, "activities. I am being more than generous. I have accepted your preference for the company of men, but your various dalliances with the hetairikos would not result in any grandchild, and if it does, none I am willing to claim. I give you a compromise with Finne." here he gestured to the younger man again, "He's an intelligent lad, I've seen to it. You'll marry him, bed him, and give me a grandchild." he looked longingly into the distant, "It's about time I pass down my skills."

 

Aleci scowled deeply, shooting Finne an angry glare. There was nothing but confusion in the green eyes that stared back. 

 

"You want me to marry him?" Aleci snarled, stalking towards Finne who flinched away.

 

"Praefect Galer?" said Finne, a pleading note in his voice. 

 

Galer raised a hand, grey eyes stormy, "You will." he said, in a voice that gave no room for argument, "He was the best of the tributes from Imruk and I won't stand for his maltreatment. I've turned a blind eye towards your ways, but no more. Our family tradition must be continued. You should be happy-" he stared at Aleci in distaste, "I'm not asking you to exercise any skill you don't possess."

Chapter Text

When his father got it into his head to do something, there was no persuading him otherwise. His mother had said as much, reminiscing fondly over how Galer had charmed her over all other suitors. When he stormed out of the courtyard and into the family's dining hall, she was, unsurprisingly, there to see him.

 

"Did you know of this?" Aleci demanded.

 

She gave him a wry smile, "I expected it. I assumed you didn't make a good first impression?"

 

"I never said I wanted a bride." said Aleci.

 

"Most of your peers have wives." replied his mother, "Most of them arranged, in fact. I don't see why you act so surprised."

 

"Your marriage to father wasn't arranged." said Aleci.

 

"No, but your aunts were already married by then, and your grandfather trusted me to make the selection." Your father doesn't trust you, she seemed to imply, "I met the lad earlier, he was very courteous. Intelligent even, I'm surprised how he hadn't been taken by your father's Magisters. Goodness knows they like to have their share of concubines. I have to admit, it would be nice to have some company-"

 

"But you don't speak Imrukian." said Aleci.

 

Another smile flickered across her face, she reached forward to ruffle his blond hair, "Oh, I did not find it difficult to talk to him."

 

So his mother found another daughter, how delightful. He opened his mouth, a cutting remark on his tongue, but his mother cut in.

 

"Your father told me has consulted with the Oracles, and what with June being a favorable month, I assume the wedding would be soon. And you've always wanted your own independence, he told me he's willing to have you establish your new household in our summer home."

 

That was one relief, but not much, all things considered, the summer villa was at least three days' ride away from the capital and boasted nothing but olive trees and grapevines.

 

He found himself avoiding Finne over the days, which was a hard task, as his bride-to-be was constantly in his mother's company. It confused him, how Finne managed to communicate with his mother, he barely heard five words from the man's mouth. Every time he entered the room with Finne in it he would be greeted with a hesitant smile and a polite greeting. He would pretend not to hear, ignoring the scowl his mother sent his way. Eventually the smiles stopped, and there was nothing more than a polite nod of acknowledgement, when Aleci glanced Finne's way.

 

The day of the wedding came soon enough, and they were soon bundled off towards the summer villa. Not many came with them, his mother stayed behind in the city, while the witnesses that came were mainly his father's friends, decorated warriors and commanders. It was probably for the best, as the roads to the villa were occasionally, especially at this time of the year, roamed by bandits.

 

He sleepwalked through the day, finding himself standing with Finne at the altar, waiting for the priest to walk laboriously towards them. The old and aging priest nearly stumbled over the altar, only stopped by Finne reaching out a hand to steady him. Aleci was surprised at the reaction, up until now Finne stood as still as a statue. It was an apt comparison, he was dressed in the bridal white and its accompanying veil.

 

"Thank you, my child." said the priest, and Finne gave him a blank, polite smile in return.

 

The priest reached forward, indicating Aleci and Finne to hold hands. It was the first time he'd willingly touch the other man, and he was taken aback by the odd calluses on Finne's palms.

 

"Repeat after me." said the priest to Finne, "Quando tu Gaius, ego Gaia."

 

Aleci thinks he could see Finne visibly swallowing before reciting the vow. It wasn't a bad recitation, he managed the pronunciation quite well, and Aleci suspected his mother must have helped. When the priest indicated to Aleci, he nodded and said the vows, giving his father a brief glance. For once in his life, his father looked pleased.

 

"Quando tu Gaius, ego Gaia." said Aleci, briefly pulling one hand away to reach for the gold and iron ring to slide onto Finne's ring finger, his ring own feeling heavy on his.

 

Finne reflexively flinched, pulling his hand into a fist before relaxing them. At the priest's miniscule frown Finne immediately relaxed his hands, giving Aleci's, what Aleci presumed to be an affectionate squeeze. The old man gestured for them to step to the side, as he came forward with the cake, an offering to the altar. The man mumbled a prayer, before pulling out a knife and cutting two equal pieces from the cake. He offered the pieces to them, Aleci took it gingerly, the sweetness of the cake did nothing to wash away the sourness he felt. He felt a vindictive sort of amusement when Finne struggled with eating his piece.

 

He thinks his father did him a favor by hosting the dinner party at their summer villa. The procession that would escort the bride to her new house was always accompanied by lewd suggestions on what the new couple should do on their wedding night. The last thing he wanted was advice, friendly or not. So it was he found himself seated next to Finne at the head of the table in the courtyard while his father and his friends were seated slightly lower. The wine from the vineyard was flowing freely and he took it upon himself to drink every time someone tried asking him a question. His short responses seemed to redirect the attention of his father's guests, so they turned their attention to Finne, like sharks. Their attention there was short lived however, when they realized Finne couldn't understand them. All except Praefect Cimul, who could speak Imrukian. Finne had taken off his veil for the dinner, and even when Cimul and Galer laughed boisterously, Finne's responses were short and polite. There was only one time he smiled, and it was a response after, Aleci guessed, was an amusing joke told Cimul.

 

"How did you come across your new son-in-law?" said Cimul, "I did not think the Imrukians would be willing to be part with their flowers. Is it not tradition for father to offer mercy to their daughters upon defeat of a city?"

 

"The old man was too frail to hold a sword." replied his father, "So he offered tributes willingly. I thought they all looked like lambs to slaughter, but this one here-" he gestured at Finne, "managed to stab me. A very good aim I'd say, nearly got himself killed before I applauded his skill."

 

"You must be well trained, to earn such a compliment." said Cimul.

 

"Not well enough." said Finne, "I missed."

 

This last remark lead to even more laughter from his father. "It is a shame, Cimul, I had not meet this one earlier, instead of my darling Lica, what sons I would have had."

 

Aleci saw Finne's hands tensed momentarily on his wine glass, but as quickly as it came it was gone, and his bride gave his father a half smile.

 

"May the Gods see to it that you will have grandchildren, in due time." said Finne.

 

The rest of the dinner passed in a blur as he drank more and more wine. As the festivities came to a halt and a hush came to the party, he staggered up to his feet. The guests would stay overnight at the villa, but they were all waiting for him to carry his bride over the threshold from the courtyard.

 

"Get up," he said to Finne, gesturing for him to stand and taking his hand into a firm grip when he did.

 

He lead him to the threshold, pass the guests. "I'm going to carry you-" he gestured towards the entrance and made a motion as if to pick something up.

 

Finne blinked, but made no motion of understanding, and Aleci gave an exasperated sigh as he stepped forward taking Finne into his arms. He was not as slight as Aleci expected, and he staggered for a moment before nearly stumbling, carrying Finne, past the threshold. There were cheers when he did, and when they were safely out of sight of the guests, Aleci was more than happy to let go.

 

"Follow me." he said, motioning at Finne. He tsks impatiently when there was no response, and reached forward to grab his hand. "Come."

 

The villa had separate wings for his father and mother, but for the night, they would share a bed. Aleci scowled at the thought, head foggy from the effects of the wine. The oak doors swung open to the bedroom, helpfully lighted with scented candles. Aleci flopped into the bed without a second glance, staring dourly at the silk canopy. When Finne didn't follow he sat up, seeing that the other man was still at the door, biting his lip.

 

"Well? Aren't you coming?" he patted the bed next to him.

 

The dress Finne was wearing was belted, tied by, he knew, a knot of Hercules. It was customary for the husband to untie the knot, and when Finne hesitantly sat down next to him, he made a move to untie it. Finne made an aborted move to slap his hand away, and he scowled.

 

"Fine then." said Aleci, "If you don't want it, feel free to embarrass us both tomorrow when they parade the bed sheets."

 

He thinks he should care whether or not he was embarrassed. After all, what kind of man couldn't perform on his wedding night. But his head was very foggy, and when he closed his eyes he soon drifted off to sleep.

 

The loud crows of a rooster woke him the next day, and he sat up, groggily rubbing sleep from his eyes. Finne was gone, and he glanced around wildly until he saw the balcony door opened and a white clad figure sitting on the balustrade. There came a series of knocks on the door and he swallowed harshly, the events of last night came into his mind. The doors flung open before he could say otherwise and one of the maids came in, making a move towards the wedding sheets.

 

"Wait- stop!" said Aleci, trying to pull the covers over the sheets.

 

She ignored him, yanking the covers down to reveal spots of dark brown on the white linen. The maid motioned for him to move off the bed before pulling off the sheets and walking away with it. Aleci could hear the cheers rang out when it was shown to the courtyard.

 

"Finne?" he said, and when there was no answer, "Finne?" he repeated, louder.

 

His wife turned to look at him, an inscrutable look in his green eyes, the wedding belt loose around his waist.

 

"Did you do… that?" said Aleci, pointing to the bed, "How did you-"

 

There was no response, and Finne turned away from him, looking at the vast greenery that one can see from his perch on the balcony.

Chapter Text

Aleci knew his father was the naturally skeptical type, so when he made his way down to greet the guests and bid them goodbye, he wasn't surprised that his father motioned him towards a corner away from the others. To his surprise, the first words that came out was a warm, "Congratulations on your marriage."

 

"Thank you." he said, hoping his face didn't betray the raging headache he had.

 

"Usually I'd have the servants move Finne to his quarters, but..." Galer shrugged, waving away what he was trying to say, "In any case, it would be better for you two to get to know each other and-" a wide smile, "hasten the arrival of my grandchild."

 

Aleci nods, hoping his father would leave quickly with the others. He was spared from the unpleasantries when his father's attention was caught by Finne, now divested of the wedding attire. He was wearing a pale blue stola, the dress of a married woman, though his hair was not elaborated braided or adorned as Aleci's mother. It wasn't as if he could braid it, his hair was too short, thought Aleci.

 

"Good morning, my dear. I hope your wedding night went well." said his father.

 

Finne gave Galer another one of his, Aleci now realized, polite smiles, "It was lovely, Praefect Galer, I liked the view from the window."

 

"I have been talking to Cimul, and he mentioned, his household has a Imrukian maid. They don't live too far from us. Would you like him to send for her?"

 

There was a long slow blink at this, before Finne ducked his head, "I would be very grateful, Praefect Galer."

 

"That settles it." said his father, "If you need anything, feel free to ask the steward. I have told him to sleep outside the bedroom."

 

"Of course, Praefect Galer, you are very gracious."

 

There was only so much of this nauseating display Aleci could stand, and he was relieved when the conversation ended, and his father turned to him, translating, "I told Finne that I would send for an Imrukian maid, so you should expect her arrival. Cimul told me she has some understanding of our tongue, and I expect you to have a decent conversation with Finne," a pause, "or vice versa, though I expect you should pick up the tongue quick enough. You are not dull after all." Galer stepped towards Finne, who hesitated, before holding out his hand. Pressing a kiss to it, his father smiled, "Blessings on your new marriage."

 

Then he was gone with the rest of the wedding guests, leaving Aleci and Finne standing awkwardly in the courtyard. They weren't precisely alone, the summer villa had servants to tend to the field and house, but he hadn't been lord of the house, his father was. Now, he expects the steward to come to him asking for instructions. He made a move to walk to the study, and Finne followed him. Aleci scowled, spinning around on his heels, "No." he said, "Don't follow me." he pointed towards the bedroom, "Go there."

 

When there was no response, he grabbed Finne's hand to physically lead him to the bedroom. "Stay." he said, not caring if he was understood, before shutting the door.

 

He pushed the matter away when he stalked into the study. What was there to talk about with his new wife anyway? Besides there was matters to attend to, the harvesting needed to be scheduled, repairs needed to be made to parts of the villa…

 

It was dark when he finally looked up from the desk, sighing deeply at the thought of a nearly silent dinner with his wife. His father had not told him of the full conversation he had with Finne, Aleci clearly recalled him mentioning the steward, who, in Aleci's limited experience of him, was loyal to a fault. To his father of course, the man ignored Aleci entirely when he stayed there during the summer.

 

Muffled sounds of laughter could be heard from the bedroom door when he approached it. Usually any laughter from the house would come from his younger sister, and he half expected it was Laria as he pushed the oak doors open.

 

The maid from that morning jumped from her place looking over Finne's shoulder as he sat on the bed, drawing something on a wax tablet that she'd undoubtedly gotten for him.

 

"Sorry, master Aleci, I didn't expect-" she babbled, and he waved her apologies away.

 

"What is this?" said Aleci, snatching the tablet away, half expecting some ugly caricature of himself or his father. He would have drawn that, if he was in Finne's place.

 

It wasn't caricatures, instead, it seemed to be a a series of drawings. The first was of an elderly looking mouse, beard and all, pointing at a board where there was a childish drawing of a cat. His student mice looked among themselves, and one of them drags in a bell on a ribbon, drawing on the board a bell tied around the cat. The elderly mice claps his hands, then pointed at the other mice, with the final drawing was all of them shaking their little heads.

 

Aleci blinked, a smile pulling at the corners of his mouth despite himself. "It's good." he said to Finne, who gave him a blank look.

 

"Master Aleci likes it." repeats the maid, brightly.

 

"He doesn't understand you girl." said Aleci, and she frowns, before bowing her head and taking a customary stance by the door.

 

He was left holding the tablet awkwardly. From his seat at the bed, Finne raised an eyebrow.

 

"Sorry." said Aleci, hoping that it was one of the words Finne understood.

 

Finne's mouth twitched, as if to say something, then he sighed, motioning for Aleci to give him back the tablet.

 

"Would you like to have dinner?" said Aleci, and made a motion to eat.

 

This was understood, Finne got up from the bed, putting the tablet on the side table before opening the door and walking away, leaving Aleci staring after him.

 

"Did he talk to you?" demanded Aleci, turning to the maid, "He hasn't spoken more than five words to me."

 

The maid gave him a puzzled look, "I don't understand what you mean, Master Aleci. He asked for a tablet. Should I have not given him one?"

 

The poor girl was about as bright as coal, thought Aleci. "No, no, just tell me next time." he glanced at the fading wax on the tablet, "You're excused."

 

After a minute's consideration, he took the tablet with him to dinner.

 

Finne was waiting for him, the food sitting untouched on the table. Aleci swallowed an incredulous laugh. Must he now give commands for his wife to eat? He sat down, putting the tablet out in front of them, Finne's pictures freshly scratched out with his drawings on them. The brunet gave him and then the tablet, a look of polite interest, to which, Aleci realized that it was particularly hard, to convey a conversation only through his limited drawing skills. Finne's drawings had told a simple story. Aleci's clumsy attempts would only resulted in more blank looks.

 

"This is my FAMILY." said Aleci, stressing the word, and pointing towards the admittedly crude depictions of his father, mother and sister.

 

Finne glanced at the tablet, bit his lips, and said, sounding very confused, "Family?"

 

Aleci jerked the tablet away, scrawling a figure of himself alongside the others, "See? This is me-" he indicated towards himself, "Aleci, and this is my FAMILY."

 

The brunet stared at the tablet, then back up at him. "Family." he repeated.

 

Aleci gave a sigh of relief, reaching over to scrape his picture away from the tablet's wax surface. "Your family?" he said, handing it to Finne and making a motion for him to draw.

 

The tablet was taken away from his hands, and Finne began to draw on its surface, in practiced movements. He hesitated before giving it back to Aleci. There was an old man, sitting on a carved chair, Finne by his side. Aleci swallowed.

 

At their feet were seven graves.

Chapter Text

He knew what usually happened when a city was sacked, his father was a Praefect after all. But to see the results of it was jarring. Was he supposed to apologize? Would it even be appreciated? He wasn't sure what to say after that, so the tablet was left to the side while he picked at the meal. 

 

The meat and fowl were leftovers from their wedding party, but the bread was freshly baked. Finne was breaking off the bread pieces and dipping them in the sauce, daintily and practiced, like one of the well bred aristocratic girls living in the summer villas around theirs- now his. For the first time, Aleci wished he had the words to ask Finne if he was a willing participant in this farcical marriage. But then he remembered how much Finne had fawned over his father and his mood soured. 

 

It didn't improve when he walked with Finne towards their shared bedroom and found his father's steward sitting on a chair outside of it. 

 

"Of course he told you." Aleci groused, angry. 

 

"Your lord father wanted to confirm that you are fulfilling your duty." said the steward drily ignoring the ire sent his way. 

 

Finne visibly swallowed before walking towards the bed without a glance at Aleci. He began pulling off the cloak wrap, tossing it to the floor before pulling off his stola. Aleci sighed deeply, and made to undress himself. The door, he noticed remained slightly opened. Enough for both privacy and confirmation. 

 

He wasn't unfamiliar with carrier biology, he'd fucked carriers before at the lupanar. Emos was one of them, though most hetairikos were men. Carriers were a prized trophy to be won and those that aren't married would be taken as the concubines of the wealthy men. Everyone of the hetairikos he'd taken seemed to enjoy it. Finne was near silent throughout the entire act, his face was unreadable in the candlelight. The only sound he made was a gasp when Aleci's oiled fingers entered him, and again when Aleci replaced them with his cock. It was unnerving to say the least, fucking into the pliant and silent form underneath him. He couldn't even hurry it up either, there was no encouraging moans of pleasure or heels digging into his back. For the first time he was more than relieved to finish. He rolled off Finne, reaching for a washcloth. He offered one to Finne who took it with another blank expression. Aleci half wondered if the man was part marble. 

 

He was feeling apologetic, but why should he? Finne was his wife, and until his father got the grandchild he wanted, Finne couldn't move into his own quarters and they would still be eavesdropped by Galer's steward outside the door. He didn't want to dwell on his parents'... affairs more than necessary, but they did love each other, he couldn't remember his mother rejecting his father's affection. But then, that was in presence of him and sister, maybe she did? But she told him herself that she was allowed to chose his father as a suitor over all others so maybe that made the difference?

 

The thought of laying with an unresponsive partner for the rest of his life filled him with apprehension and dread. He wasn't sure what Finne thought of the matter either, all he could tell from his uneven breaths that he wasn't asleep. If Finne was one of his bedpartners, he'd pulled him closer, but he suspects that might be strongly unwelcomed. At the very least he could retreat to the study tomorrow. 

 

Which was what he did the next day, telling the maid to bring Finne his breakfast. At noon he got up from his chair, wincing at the sore muscles. He made his way to the courtyard tripping over a blur of black that brushed pass his legs. Rubbing at his knees, he stared into one angry yellow eye. 

 

"You don't die do you?" he said, to the villa's long lived tom cat. 

 

The cat gave him a meow of distaste, twitching his tail irritably in the air before clambering up the pillar and darting away. If the cats hadn't kept the population of vermin around the vineyard and villa under control Aleci thinks that his father would have gotten rid of them years ago, irritable creatures. The tom was the worst of the lot, Aleci vividly remembers his claws breaking skin when his younger self had the generosity to offer him food. The black cat had both of his eyes then, and the soft fur of a kitten, but his foul temper had never changed. The tom seemed to take a passionate dislike to him ever since that day, and every summer that he came to the villa, it was still there, seeming to live on pure spite and to steal food off his plate specifically, delighting his younger sister when it did.

 

The next few days found him nearly out of his mind with boredom. His father kept a bare bones record of the family properties, which he was grateful for, but and there was only so many things Aleci could fix one season before there was nothing more for him to do until the next. The nights were spent in the same awkward and tense manner. Aleci had half the mind to fetch another wax tablet and attempt a conversation but the chagrin from the previous one kept him from that idea. 

 

He didn't tell Finne what to do, certainly he didn't forbid his wife from leaving their bedroom. The maid, when pressed, said that she went with him around the vineyard. She didn't say much beside that, and Aleci gave up questioning her. Finne was back in the bedroom at night and that was the only thing that was required. 

 

After the first week of being locked in doors he threw down his pen and stalked off towards the bedroom. He was going off riding, and Finne was going with him. That was not against the rules now was it? The doors to the bedroom was slightly open and he made to knock, before he heard Finne's voice. 

 

"Aren't you a handsome one. Here kitty. "

 

It the first time he heard Finne sound relaxed, maybe even genuinely happy, not the formal stiffness when he spoke with Galer and Cimul. He peered in to see Finne crouching on the balcony, one hand extended towards the one eyed cat, the other running one finger down the length of the cat's back. The animal was eating something from Finne's hand, before pulling away and, to Aleci's surprised, rubbing his back against Finne's legs. It was purring coming from the beast, if his ears weren't deceiving him. 

 

"Finne?" he said, deciding to announce his presence. 

 

The cat hissed when he stepped through the door, jumping on the banister and disappearing in a blur of black fur. There was an irritated look on Finne's face for a brief moment before it smoothed over into a polite smile. 

 

"Aleci." he acknowledged. 

 

Aleci walked over to the small bedside table to fetch the wax tablet. Drawing what he hoped was a saddled horse, he offered it to Finne. 


"Would you like to go..  Riding?" he said, indicating towards the tablet. 

 

Finne stared at the picture with a frown, turning it from side to side as if trying to decipher what the drawing represented. Aleci sighed deeply. "Come with me?" he said, hoping the inflection in his voice sounded like a suggestion and not a command. He extended a hand towards Finne. The other man took it, after some hesitation, tablet still clutched in one hand, and Aleci lead him towards the stables. His father's steward, in all his omnipresence, was there when they entered.

 

"Your father-" he began before Aleci cut him off irritably.

 

"My father wanted me to get to know my wife." said Aleci, "I can't do that locked in the villa. We're going for a ride. If you want, you can climb up on the villa roof and make sure we don't leave its boundaries."

 

He shoved past the steward, pulling Finne behind him. Finne seemed to understood. "Riding." he said brightly, gesturing towards the horses. 

 

Aleci chuckled, "No-" he paused at Finne's confused frown, and indicated to the horse, "horse." He motioned for the tablet in Finne's hand and pointed to the drawn horse, then the horse in front of him. "Horse."

 

This caused a burst of uncontrollable laughter from Finne. "Horse?" he repeated, in disbelief, glancing at the tablet drawing then at the animal in front of them, "Horse?"

 

"Fine, fine, laugh at the horse." muttered Aleci, vaguely relieved that Finne was capable of laughing.

 

He moved towards the saddles, picking one up and walking towards the first horse. From the corner of his eye he saw Finne drawing something on the tablet. Fixing his drawing more like it. He was still drawing when Aleci finished saddling the two horses. 

 

"Riding?" said Finne, offering the table up to Aleci. 

 

It was a significantly better drawing than Aleci's, depicting a man riding a horse. To the side, scowling, was the villa's steward. Aleci bit back a laugh. 

 

"Riding." he agreed, motioning for Finne to follow him with the horses outside.  

 

Finne's horse was an older gelding, too old to run any faster than a trot. Maybe that was why he chose it, the steward would know no one could ride off the villa's borders on that horse. Not to mention the gelding would undoubtedly balk at leaving their villa's borders. He reached to help Finne up on his saddle, like his father had on the ride here but Finne had already swung himself up, gently patting the gelding's neck.

 

He decided to lead them to where the olive trees grew. It was on one of the few hills on the property, and the sandy ground around it would at least provide a big canvas. They tied their horses to the trunk of an olive tree and sat down. Aleci reached for a stick and cleared the dirt around them. When that was done, he drew a cat onto the ground, adding its pointy ears and whiskers. After some consideration, he decided to scratch out one eye.

 

"Cat." he said, then gestured towards Finne, "What is it in Imrukian?"

 

Finne looked amused at the drawing. "Cat." he said. 

 

The word sounded foreign on his tongue when he repeated it back, though he wasn't sure if that was what Finne called the cat or if that was the word for a cat Imrukian. He drew the horse again, then a figure riding it. 

 

"I like riding." he said, pointing to himself, and then the picture. "I like-" he paused, gesturing towards Finne to do the same.

 

Finne paused, staring at the drawing and then Aleci, before drawing on the sand. It was a figure reading a scroll. 

 

"I like reading." said Finne. 

 

"Reding." repeated Aleci, and Finne shakes his head, " Rading? "

 

"Reading." said Finne.

 

"I like reading." said Aleci, giving up and offering the verb. 

 

"I like reading." said Finne, effortlessly.

 

Finne picked up the tongue, or at least the pronunciation, faster than he did, to his embarrassment. Perhaps he had experience, or learned a different tongue before? He wasn't sure if he could communicate that question through pictures. They traded pictures back and forth until sunset, during which Aleci understood that Finne liked reading, cats, and pomegranates. The latter prompted an entire series of drawings, which consisted more of Aleci watching Finne than him drawing, as his fruits were indistinguishable from each other. Finne looked more relaxed when they rode back a soft smile on his face. 

 

A part of Aleci dreaded the night, and like the other nights, Finne was stiff and unmoving under him. Even when Aleci ran his hand down his Finne's back, gently nibbling at his nipples with his mouth, Finne was unresponsive. Aleci resigned himself after that, deciding to just finish the whole sorry affair. It was different when Aleci handed Finne the washcloth though, Finne paused, grabbing his hand to pull him down in an unexpected strong grasp. There was a deep uncertainty in his eyes before Finne pulled Aleci towards him, gently pressing a kiss on his lips.

Chapter Text

He thought he had imagined the kiss the next day. From the way Finne acted, it certainly felt that way. Was it just because he was Imurkian? Maybe they were just that way, but Aleci had no way of knowing otherwise. It wasn't as if his father, or scholars in general, kept extensive records of Imrukian culture. So he was relieved when a messenger came with a note from the lady Dulcia, saying that she would pay him a visit, bringing with her the maid and her daughters. Aleci groaned, Vivia and Cina, both unmarried, have been increasingly desperate to do so. They had eyed him several summers now, and Aleci was glad that they would no longer be interested in him as a partner. But their mother, lady Dulcia was a different matter altogether. She liked sowing discord, and watching it flourish. Aleci was glad that Finne wouldn't be able to understand her, no doubt the woman would have her opinions heard about carriers.

 

When the day came and their carriage rolled up the to the villa, Aleci was more than ready to have it done and over with. He smiled politely at lady Dulcia when she swept into the courtyard, bangles chiming softly. She held up a hand for him to kiss, before sitting herself on the cushioned seats, waving a hand for her daughters to follow her. The Imrukian maid that followed them, Maera, as lady Dulcia had written, was a middle aged woman, graying hairs escaping from the bun severely pinned on her head.

 

She gave Aleci a deep bow, "Master Aleci," she said, in an accented voice, notably different from Finne's near perfect imitation. When she saw Finne, standing by Aleci's side, her eyes widened slightly, and instead of giving him the same bow, she placed two hands on her heart and nodded her head once before lifting it. 

 

"Lord Finne, you are far from home. "

 

Finne gave her an impassive look, "As far from home as you are madam-"

 

The old woman gave a soft chuckle, "Maera my lord, I am no madam. Just a cook. "

 

Finne half smiled, saying, "I am no lord, Maera. Though I expect my husband would prefer you call me Mistress Finne ."

 

"Perhaps your wife can talk to his maid in the corner?" said lady Dulcia, "I would like very much to hear of your newly married life, Aleci."

 

From the corner of his eye he saw Maera gave a long suffering sigh at lady Dulcia's comment, but she lead Finne away, before Aleci could respond, saying something in Imrukian to him. Aleci resigned himself to sitting across from the lady and her daughters, smiling and nodding as she began to talk, not of his life, but of her own. He knew how to entertain guests, but, Dulcia and her daughters were incessant gossipers. As the topics dwindled, it was more the case that the girls listened to their mother and nodded along, occasionally adding their own opinions. He half suspected that was the reason why they were still unmarried. No man wanted to be talked out of house and home. 

 

"You know, I did not expect your father to marry you to a carrier, Aleci." said Dulcia, "Especially a noble one from Imruk-" at Aleci's surprise, she added, "Don't you know that all tributes come from the noble families? Anyway, every time he visited us, Praefect Galer would go on and on about having a grandchild, and his despair that you don't seem to take to women. I suppose he thought this was a good solution, giving you a carrier, though he ran into the problem that it's difficult to find one here that's not selling their bodies in the lupanars or hanging off some noble's arm." she clicks her tongue, "The only reason the barbarians have such an abundance of them, especially among the higher ranks, is incest."

 

"Sorry?" said Aleci, frowning. 

 

"Oh, you know," said Dulcia, "They have a ritual and everything. If there's one carrier in a royal-" here she scoffs, "family, they have this ritual where the other male relatives, excuse my language, fuck them. The closer the relation the better."

 

Aleci scowled, glancing at Finne and Maera seated in the far corner of the courtyard, "How do you know? There is no written texts of this."

 

"Tell Maera to ask your wife." said Dulcia, "He looks old enough to have undergone several rituals himself." she sniffs, "I would never tolerate a daughter-in-law so… used."

 

Vivia, the more intelligent of the three, must have seen his clenched fist and sensed that their company was now unwelcomed. 

 

"I think we should go mother, while the sun's still up." said the blonde, "Thank you for hosting us, Aleci."

 

Her sister Cina muttered an apology to him as she swept pass. He told the steward to see them off, ignoring the indignant scoff from Dulcia. It suddenly made sense, in a horrible sort of way, Finne's behavior. But how does one even go about asking him if that was true? He swallowed, approaching the place where Finne sat with Maera. The older woman made to get up but he waved her down, sitting himself next to them. 

 

"Maera," he said, "Your Mistress Dulcia told me somethings about the Imrukian culture. Is it true?"

 

"Depends on what she said, Master Aleci." said Maera.

 

"She said that carriers from Imrukian nobles are a result of incestuous relations." said Aleci, in a rush. 

 

The woman frowned, "It is the way it is." she said, "Similar to how commoners cannot wear purple in your lands. Does anyone question that?"

 

She looked as if he'd asked her why the sky was blue. 

 

"Can you ask Finne if he'd..." he paused, "been forced to do this… ritual?"

 

Maera huffs a breath, "No one is forced." she said, but turned to Finne anyway. A rapid conversation ensued, Aleci suddenly realizing that the Imurkian he'd heard before was stilted to their non native speakers. Or it could be that men spoke slower than women, Maera's conversation with Finne was certainly more fast and animated, the older woman gesturing with both hands whenever it seemed she wanted to make a point. In return, Finne spoke with the same rapid cadence, though his hands remained clenched in his lap.

 

"Your husband seems to be horrified at your family's treatment of you. What should I tell him? " said Maera, gesturing at Aleci. 

 

"Tell him it only started when I came of age instead of younger." said Finne, looking pensive, "Is that why he's so uncomfortable every night? I was told the husbands here liked their wives to be compliant."

 

"Oh, that depends. Some of them like their married wives to be compliant and their spares to be passionate." said Maera with a smile.

 

"Should I have been… passionate? I don't know how such things go. "

 

"Why don't you ask him yourself my lord? You have made your life much harder by playing dumb." Maera looked slightly exasperated.

 

"From experience, it's always better to be underestimated." there was a pause, "Or draw attention to myself."

 

"If you don't mind my advice... I don't think your ruse is in anyway useful, but if that is the way you want it my lord, I won't question you." said Maera, finally giving Aleci her attention.

 

"Your wife tells me that there is no force in the ritual. It has happened ever since he came of age."

 

That did not explain their prolonged conversation, but Aleci waved it away, jumping to his next question, "Ask him how old he is."

 

"If my memory has not failed me, you are twenty two summers? "

 

"Twenty three." said Aleci.

 

There was a pause, "I left Imruk three years ago, but I did hear whispers of the Lord having a grandson. He is yours? "

 

"You are quite correct, Maera. "

 

"Was he smuggled out of Imruk? "

 

"Yes.

 

"Ah. Hm. In that case… Let us talk about this later. "

 

He wasn't sure why it took so long to ask for someone's age, and he suspected the conversation diverged to a different topic altogether. 

 

"He is twenty three." said Maera. 

 

That was over six years of the ritual, or more, "Can you tell him, I… well.. I don't want the ritual replicated in my house? He can say no."

 

"Hmm. Excuse my question, my lord, but have you ever enjoyed sex? It is known that conceiving a child is easier if the mother is relaxed. "

 

"I had my son without enjoying it."

 

"Yes, but, unless I'm mistaken, you hadn't had a child since. It is known that the palace healers keep the herbs under lock and key, you didn't have access to them, did you? Believe me, stress makes things harder. " she gave Finne's body a critical look, " Not to mention, you look like you haven't been eating well for a pregnancy to happen. Nothing that my meals won't fix of course. Who on earth was the healer that supervised you? "

 

"A fool who got it because he paid enough coin," said Finne, and Maera shook her head in disgust, "I don't know how to enjoy it. I never have."

 

"Should I tell your husband you'd like to? "

 

"I think he tried. It does nothing."

 

"Maybe a different position? With you sitting on top? "

 

"That doesn't sound appealing ."

 

"I will tell him you'd like to think about it. We can talk about this later. " she clicks her tongue, "It was a shame your Lady mother passed. She would have taught you about such things. I guess your father's second wife was not fond of you? "

 

"Yes, she was jealous. Her children would always be before me. That is, until they found out what I was."

 

"Hm. Perhaps it is fortunate that your husband seems willing to try. "

 

"He's not willing himself, he only does it because there's a stew- steward by the door. His father's orders."

 

"It doesn't help you either, does it? I'll tell the man to stop. "

 

"And how do you plan to go about it? "

 

"I have my ways. And I've met Ga- your husband's father enough times to know he'll forgive anyone that gives him a grandson capable of wielding a sword. Spoke to him a couple of times. An interesting man with peculiar ideas."

 

It was the longest conversation they had so far, and it was mostly one-sided, Maera talking more and Finne giving short, clipped responses. The older woman looked concerned several times throughout the conversation, and when it added, she turned to look at Aleci. 

 

"He tells me he would like to think about it. He also tells me, your father has someone by the door? If you cannot order him to leave his position, please give me permission to do so."

 

He liked Maera more and more. "And how would you do that?" he said.

 

"I believe I am partly responsible for cooking in your household now, am I not Master Aleci? I will see to it that your steward leaves you be."

 

So that was what Finne told Maera. He hesitated, then said, "Can you tell him if… I had hurt him.. that I'm sorry."

 

Out of the entire exchange, that was one the shortest responses. 

 

"He says you don't have to apologize. You've done nothing worst to him that hasn't already been done." 

 

Chapter Text

For a woman who just walked through his door, Maera somehow managed to elbow her way into the kitchen. At least, that was what he could tell, as the meals that came out was not something that his cook would normally serve. His cook had been notoriously stingy with using honey, but all the dishes Maera served was covered in it. Or more correctly, she served the honeyed dishes to Finne. He couldn't tell if Finne enjoyed it or not from the way he was eating, slowly, methodologically, he same as he's always done, but it was the first time he reached for seconds. There was a proud smile on Maera's face from her place as she stood beside Finne's seat. His wife was still scraping at the last of the honeyed eggs when he finished, but, when he placed his utensils to the side, Finne stopped. 

 

"No, you go ahead, I'll wait." said Aleci, looking to Maera for a translation. 

 

"I'm glad you enjoy the meal, my lord. I didn't realize you like honey that much ."

 

"My father never served it. Said it reminded him of my mother. "

 

"Hm. "

 

Maera glanced furtively at the door that lead to the servants quarters. When the steward appeared to make his way up to their bedroom, and safely out of earshot, she said in bright tones, "There is a mild sleeping draught in his wine. He'll leave you two be for tonight." she paused, addressing Finne, " Why don't you get to know your husband, now that there's no stress to ah… perform? "

 

Seeing Finne's hesitation, Aleci added, "Can you tell him he can say no?"

 

He made to stand up, and when Finne made to copy, he gestured for him to sit down, "I'm fetching another wax tablet from the study. I'll come to the bedroom soon."

 

"Seems like he's making an effort. Why are you so insistent on playing at not understanding him? "

 

"Why not?" said Finne in response. 

 

As he made his way to the bedroom, the wax table tablet in one hand and a poetry booklet and map in the other the steward barely gave him a nod of acknowledgement. The man looked as if he was barely keeping himself seated on the stool. Aleci bit back a smile. Finne gave him a curious look at the things he carried from his place on the bed. He was drawing something on the tablet, and unlike the other nights he was in his nightclothes. He gave Aleci a half wary look when he unclasped his toga, but relaxed when he didn't go further. 

 

"I.. uh.. I want to read you a story. Reading." he said, indicating to the book. 

 

There was a half folded map of the Empire and surrounding lands on it, the very same he used when he was a child learning geography. The story he wanted to read was simple enough, and it was illustrated as well, small pictures of the heroes and their satyr mentor at the bottom of the page.

 

"This is a story of-" the heroes of the free cities, he wanted to say, but it was too long of a sentence, "the heroes Thyllausos, Tinosid, Maiandrato and Allinos and their satyr teacher."

 

He pointed to each illustration, though he had to admit it was hard to tell which hero was which, they all looked alike. "They wanted to train to be soldiers, so they came to ask the satyr to teach them, "and the satyr laughed and showed them to an empty cave. He asked them fill the room with only one item they could carry up to his cave, and laughed when they all failed. But he trained them anyway, because the Goddess Cione came to him and ordered him to."

 

At least what he was reading now was illustrated. Finne's finger hovered over Cione, pointing a finger at the cowering satyr, and he half wondered if Imruk had the same Goddess as well.

 

"So he did, he trained Thyllausos in the spear, Tinosid in the sword, and Maiandrato in the bow. But to Allinos he threw up his hands and said, 'even on the orders of Cione, I cannot train one so weak, go home.' Allinos refused to be discouraged, and as he sat watching his friends train, it occurred to him, how to solve the problem the satyr had put forth to them all along. 'Teacher,' he said, respectfully, 'may I fulfill one final task before you dismiss me?'. The satyr frowned but followed him to the cave, where Allinos proceeded to light a torch. Then the satyr laughed, and shook his head, 'well perhaps I was wrong... perhaps you do have something I can train.' And that was how Allinos came to be one of the best strategists of the Empire."

 

The conclusion left much to be desired, but that was how most of his childhood stories went, 'and he became a great person for the Empire and did great things'. Finne was very interested in the map and the illustrations. Hopefully he understood the story.

 

"What does your home look like?" said Aleci, indicating Imruk on the map. 

 

There was an unreadable look on Finne's face as he looked at the dot and the land surrounding it. Then he laughed, chuckling softly. 

 

"They really did rely on Imrukian accounts then. "

 

Maybe the map was very wrong? Aleci paused, deciding to change the topic. "Did you have a dog?" he said, drawing a picture of himself and the late Myia. Finne gave his drawing a glance then shook his head. His wax tablet, when he handed it to Aleci depicted a young girl with several fluffy cats. 

 

"Your sister? Family ?" Aleci said, trying to remember the words they'd exchanged the other day. 

 

It was definitely a sore topic, Finne clenched his lips and Aleci winced even as the words left his mouth. 

 

"Why don't we sleep?" said Aleci, rolling up the map, and putting it to the side table, along with the poetry book and his tablet. He gestured for Finne to do the same.

 

He wasn't sure who fell asleep first but when he startled awake some time later, Finne wasn't sleeping next to him. The bedroom door was slightly ajar and he could see the candlelight shining through it along with a hushed conversation. He heard enough Imrukian by now to recognize the language when it was spoken, but a part of him was curious to see if he could discern what Finne and Maera was saying. 

 

Finne and Maera were sitting cross legged next to each other, leaning against the wall. The steward was fast asleep, having fallen off the chair he was sitting on. Someone had tucked a pillow under his head. Finne had rolled up the sleeve of his nightshirt and Maera was painting something on the upper half with a paintbrush, an odd looking inkpot to the side of her. 

 

"A fertility charm, really Maera, I think your cooking is enough. "

 

"I did it for all my expecting children." said the woman, sounding mock-affronted, "They all had children of their own, so I gathered it works." she seemed to critically look at something on Finne's arm, " Did you really get yourself into so many training accidents? You were the first born, I expected they'll be slightly more careful, even before your carrier status was known. "

 

Finne made to flinch away, then look vaguely ashamed, rubbing at the back of his neck with his free hand, "Sometimes I was careless."

 

"Hm. Is there anything particularly you like to do that is safe? The last time my Brisa was expecting I told him to lay off the horseriding, and play some Latrunculi or something less taxing. On the body, mind you, I doubt I'd still be alive now if I told Brisa to lock himself in a room."

 

"You had a carrier son?"

 

"That's why we left Imruk."

 

Finne looked contemplative. "I can't exactly read books in his study if I'm supposed to not understand the tongue." said Finne.

 

"Tsk, tsk. Was this not how you got into this predicament? You told me earlier you read some of the Empire's works and got it into your head that Imruk should learn from how it governs. " Maera sounded amused. 

 

"It is certainly better than gambling on whether or not the next lord is an inbred tyrant ."

 

"I wouldn't say that the Empire will not produce tyrants. But yes, many fled, me included, from Imruk fearing your brother's ascension. I apologize if that offends you, my lord. "

 

"No offense taken, he's better off dead. Maybe one of the Empire's spears pierced him, I don't know. I don't care to know. "

 

"May I ask how you came to this place? Many thought you died. "

 

"I was his to… dispatch… not my fathers', and like I mentioned, I already provided a grandson... " a long pause, and Finne continued in a monotone, "he ran his sword through everyone... he was angry when he stormed into my rooms and Edon was not there. He was more than willing to give me as tribute then... "

 

There was several hitching breaths, and Finne fell silent. Maera had placed the brush to the side, now holding both of Finne's hands in hers. 

 

"Where did you hide the boy? "

 

"With some merchants fleeing Imruk days before. They said they were heading to the empire's capital, so I was… more than willing to go with Praefect Galer and play sweet. I don't think he fell for the act though, even if Aleci did. I didn't realize I would be living so far away from the capital, and well, I didn't have the time to leave the house when I was there ."

 

"You wouldn't be able to keep that act for long ." said Maera, "You would have to play the part of an empire citizen even if you'd managed to sneak out and I bet when they find you Praefect Galer would realize you spoke the tongue. And I don't know what you would have done had you found your son, smuggle him back under your clothes? "

 

"I did not think about that... " Finne trails off, "I know this is a hard task, the capital is massive, but do you know where to find a merchant from Imruk? "

 

Maera laughed, "It is possible, but quite difficult, as they have a spawning merchant district. Do you know what the merchant was selling? "

 

"Metalwork. He sold me my sword ."

 

"This is a basis for trust, I see. " said Maera, sounding amused, "I can ask around. Do you know what he looks like, this merchant? If he is intelligent he would not say he came from Imruk. "

 

"He has a scar running down the side of his cheek and greasy black hair, and he's braided several silver beads into his beard. He calls himself Maelma the Bold if you talk to him long enough."

 

"Hm. I suppose... I suppose I can ask your husband to allow me to visit my ailing daughter. I can bring your son back, as my orphaned grandson. How would I go about convince this Maelma the Bold to release Edon into my care? "

 

"You would do this for me? "

 

"I would have done it for any mother, and it is well within my ability to do so. "

 

Finne pulled her into a hug, and she gave a startled squawk of surprise, before hugging him back. He was the first to pull away but gave her a faltering smile.

 

"So, how would I convince him? "

 

"Tell him you're looking for someone to bell your cat. "

 

"Bell my cat. Like the children's story? Alright. And how would I convince Edon to go with me- what does he even look like by the way, in case this Maelma gives me a different boy? "

 

"When he asks you what the ribbon color is say that it is white and blue. He looks like me. Has my eyes, and there is a half-circle birthmark on his ankle. "

 

"Looks like you, eh? I hope your husband is as dull as you think… I suppose... we can dye his hair but you are counting on your husband to miss the duck for the swan. Eventually a blind man figures it out. "

 

"He is… not the sharpest. I would have thought he'd figured out I understood more than I let on. But he hasn't. Even when I was being obvious. It could be worst. He's not my brother. "

 

"Well he's facing the Gods now. They'll judge his sins. "

 

"I pray so ."

 

The two sat in silent for a while before Maera said, "You are quite different from what I'd expected. "

 

"What did you expect? "

 

"I saw you briefly at the festivals. You were kind to that girl who fell during her dance. Everyone was suspicious of the Lord's family then, and half suspected it was an act on your part. I wasn't sure what to think. "

 

"And what do you think now, Maera? "

 

"Juno should be kinder to you ." said Maera, and Finne laughed. 

 

"You pray to the new Gods? "

 

"The Old Gods never answered when I did. " she reached out to pat Finne's cheek, "You should go before your husband wonders where you've been." 

 

She glanced at the doorway, meeting Aleci's eyes and he ducked away, embarrassed.

Chapter Text

He was never a good actor anyway, so he didn't feign sleep when Finne came through the doors. There was an unreadable expression on his face, a sort of half-expectant look. Aleci pat the space on the bed next to him. 

 

"Come back to bed." he said, "Please."

 

Finne raised a half eyebrow, gave him a hesitant smile and came to the bed, keeping several hands' distance between them. 

 

"Can I ask what that was?" said Aleci, motioning to the place on his own arm and pointing to where Maera had painted Finne's. 

 

Finne scoffed, then motioned towards the bed table towards the wax tablets. The drawing he made when Aleci handed him the tablet was of a woman holding a cornucopia. Aleci noticed that the image of the little girl with her cats on the left side of the tablet was not scratched out. 

 

"A… fertility Goddess?" said Aleci, frowning, making a gesture towards his stomach. That made sense, Maera did strike him as the religious sort.

 

"Yes." said Finne, "I like sleeping now, thank the Gods he can't read Imrukian." he made a motion towards the pillows. 

 

"Sleeping?" said Aleci, offering the word.

 

"Sleeping. Sleeping ." repeated Finne, he pulled the covers over his head and turned away. 

 

Aleci thought he wouldn't have fallen asleep that quickly, but Finne's breaths evened out after a few moments, leaving Aleci to dwell on the conversation. He couldn't exactly understand the conversation, but he could make out his father's name, and his. And there were the times Finne's face broke from the emotionless mask, and that was when Edon was mentioned. There was also Maelma and something that went after the word. From the way Maera repeated it, she seemed to want to commit it to her memory. It could be any number of things really. Finne could have talked about the little girl in the picture, or… the ritual. It was probably Maera changing the subject to something more pleasant, like what he'd liked her to cook and her making sure she remembered the dish. That was something his mother would have done. It was good then, at least Finne could talk to someone. Reassured by his thoughts, he moved himself to the other side of the bed and fell asleep soon after. 

 

At breakfast the next day Maera and Finne had another rapid conversation, Maera gesturing at Aleci several times while she talked. Finne scowled at that, shaking his head, and she finally turned, exasperated to Aleci.

 

"I am trying to tell him that there is nothing wrong with asking for things." said Maera, "You tell him that, Master Aleci, he won't listen to me otherwise."

 

Finne rolled his eyes behind Maera's back, and Aleci bit back an amused laugh. 

 

"Within reason." he said, "What does he want?"

 

There was a pause at this as Maera relayed his response. Finne looked contemplative then said something that made Maera scoff, but she dutifully translated, "He says he wants to see your household guards." said Maera, shooting daggers at Finne, " This is not the activity I want you to find. "

 

"I'm cooped up here long enough. Besides these guards aren't equipped with anything more than a spear. It's perfectly safe to throw spears, as long as you're not the target. "

 

"If you were my son I'd lock you in the bedroom myself. "

 

"I'm also an adept climber, and I've been told I'm a good escape artist. It is a shame I didn't join the circus."

 

The calm, if not, amused tones that Finne spoke with was in contrast to the angry splutters that came from Maera's mouth at his responses. 

 

"If he wants to see them, I'll show him where they are." said Aleci, "Why does he want to see the guards?"

 

Finne looks up with interest at his interjection, saying, "It was even easier than I'd thought. Tell him I'm interested in throwing the spears. " looking expectantly at Maera. 

 

Maera narrowed her eyes at Finne, but her tones were dulcet and sweet when she spoke, "He said he has seen your guards practicing and would like to watch in person."

 

"Why not?" said Aleci, "You would like to go?" he gestured in the general direction of the guards' quarters. 

 

"Yes, I want to." said Finne, and Aleci blinked, surprised at the longest non-Imrukian sentence he'd ever heard from Finne. 

 

Beside Finne, Maera looked as if she swallowed a lemon. Aleci wasn't sure why that was, it seemed a perfectly innocent request, if not odd. Maybe Maera believed that all expecting mothers should avoid iron weapons or blood or something along those lines, the list, he knew could be long and extensive. He wouldn't know what precisely was on there, he barely remembered his mother's pregnancy with his sister, and women tend to keep to their quarters with close friends and female relatives when they were with child. He hadn't met these guards before, preferring to avoid them altogether. He knew they must whisper among themselves of his lack of skill compared to his father's. Some of them, he knew, was only there to curry favor with his father the seldom times he visited. So he wasn't surprised when he was greeted with ambivalence, though some of them peered curiously at Finne. The more polite of them gave him the same greeting they would give Aleci's mother.

 

The head of the guards, Oppius, bowed politely to them. 

 

"Please to meet you, Mistress Finne." he said. 

 

"Thank you." Finne replied, polite, hands clasped in front of him. 

 

Oppius looked expectantly at them, and Aleci said, "My wife would like to watch your men practice."

 

There was a visible snigger from one of the younger guards, and Oppius shot the offender an irritated look. 

 

"Of course." said Oppius to Finne, "You are more than welcomed. Please stay a safe distance away."

 

Aleci wasn't sure why Oppius spoke as if Finne could understand him, but when he glanced at Finne, there was an undeniable look of… excitement on his face. Eagerness even. He half wondered if this is what Finne did in Imruk. Maybe they had an amphitheater, and watching the events were one of the activities carriers were allowed to do.

 

They stood behind Oppius and his men, waiting, while one of them ran off to fetch the spears. The practice was boring enough, Aleci knew, first they would take turns throwing the spears at a target, and then they would take turns sparing. It used to bore him to tears. The guards, being watched, were showing off more than usual. It resulted in missed targets, and Finne laughed softly whenever a spear flew disastrously off course. The guards did improve though, as the practice went on, but one guard missed so badly it resulted in gales of laughter from the others watching him. He stalked towards it, pulling the spear from the ground and made to throw it his fellow guards. It missed, flying towards them instead, and Aleci felt his heart in his throat for a moment before Finne stepped in front of him, catching the spear deftly in his right hand and threw it back. It struck the red target hard, still thrumming from the energy. 

 

Oppius blinked, staring at the spear, then at Finne, then at the offending guard who threw it in the first place. 

 

"My apologies, Mistress, you-" he pointed at the chagrined guard, who had his skin been paler would have turned red from embarrassment, "Mercus, come here and apologize, you damned idiot."

 

Finne ignored Oppius, turning towards him, "I like to..." he paused gesturing at the spear he'd embedded in the target, a pause, "please?"

 

"You want to throw spears." said Aleci, half wondering if it was a fevered dream, "I.. uhm.."

 

"Throw spears. Yes." said Finne, nodding, "I liked to throw spears."

 

"He's damned good at it," said Oppius, "Where did you learn?"

 

Finne didn't reply to that, waving aside Mercus's apologies. "Aleci? Please?" he said.

 

It was again, the first time Finne seemed willing to engage in conversation with him on some level, aside from the poetry last night, that wasn't merely a show of polite interest. Aleci glanced at the guards, some of whom were clustered around the target, looking appreciatively at Finne's skill. Well.. it was certainly unconventional, but, his father did marry him to an Imrukian, maybe this was acceptable there. And they weren't in the Capital where gossip would undoubtedly ruin the family reputation, or name. 

 

"Why not." he said, "If you would be willing, Oppius."

 

"If Master Aleci commands it." said Oppius, "Would you like to try again, Mistress?"

 

Finne was, Aleci realized, definitely practiced with a spear, maybe even trained. There was a steadiness to his stance that came with practice, the curve of his throw, and the targets that were hit proved that his first hit was not pure luck. Oppius stood next to him, whistling in amazement every time a target was hit. 

 

"Are all Imrukian carriers like this?" said the older man, running a hand through his greying hair, "If so, why did they not have an army of them?"

 

Aleci wasn't sure himself. He would ask Finne, when he had the words to do so. When Oppius called for sparing partners, Finne walked up to him, spear in hand. "Lunch?" he said, pointing towards the courtyard. 

 

"Oh, yes, lunch." said Aleci, noticing the sun at its zenith. 

 

"Goodbye, Oppius." said Finne, giving the guard a polite bow. 

 

"Oh, you don't have to do that Mistress, I'm only a guard." said the man, sounding flattered, "You are welcomed back tomorrow, if you wish."

 

"Do you like throwing spears in Imruk?" said Aleci as they walked back, hoping Finne would understand this new question."

 

"No." said Finne surprising him. 

 

"Why?" said Aleci curiously, before he could stop himself. 

 

Finne opened his mouth to reply, and shook his head, "Imruk no." he paused, pointing at the training yard they'd left, "Yes."

 

That left him with more questions than answers and Aleci sighed deeply, hoping that Maera wouldn't in too foul of a temper to translate. It then occurred to him he never explained what why meant or introduced Finne to Oppius, and he was silently impressed with how quick Finne was at picking up the tongue. It would only be fair of him to do the same. 



Chapter Text

Maera looked Finne up and down when they returned, wrinkling her nose at, presumably the sweat on Finne's body. She must have seen something on Finne's face, because she looked slightly pleased when she addressed him. Aleci made to walk to the courtyard but she waved a hand for him to stay. 

 

"May I suggest something, my lord? " she said, "Would you be amenable to your husband joined you in the bath? "

 

Finne's mouth was opened, he spluttered the next words, "What? "

 

"It occurred to me that sex, with you, is always done in the dark? Perhaps a change would make the difference? "

 

Finne swallowed, glancing at Aleci, "I don't know how it would... " he trails off, "Why not. But what if it's the same as all the other times? "

 

The older woman sighed deeply, patting Finne on the back, "I'm sure he would respect your wishes if you said no. You can say it yourself you know. Go to the baths, I'll tell him to join you. "

 

"I don't think it would work ." said Finne, but he walked away from them, and to Aleci's confusion, away from the courtyard.

 

"I suggested that a bath would be appropriate." said Maera, "And I suggested that you join him." 

 

She looked amused at whatever expression she saw on Aleci's face, "I had thought about it while you two were away. Perhaps a change in scenery is what's needed."

 

"I don't see how." said Aleci, but his thoughts did jump to seeing Finne's body in the light of the bathhouse instead of their darkened bedroom.

 

"May I ask, Master Aleci, and forgive my forwardness, what precisely happened during your nights together?" said Maera.

 

He flushed, giving her a brief, stammering explanation, and she nodded, face unreadable. 

 

"May I suggest something?" said Maera, and when he nodded for her to continue, she said, "Have you tried pleasuring him here?" she gestured downwards, "I have heard that this is not a common thing."

 

He thinks his face had gone several shades of red, "I… well.. No." It was the weaker partner that did such things, and he had never done it at the lupanars. Emos had been the one to get on his knees. 

 

"Perhaps you can have him riding you?" offered Maera, unabashedly, "It is enjoyable for both parties, I am told." she smirked. 

 

Aleci wasn't sure how Maera managed to be a maid for so long with the forwardness she as showing. 

 

"I… will think about it." he said. 

 

"Try something different." she said, suddenly serious, "You want him to reciprocate your affections, give him a different memory to associate the act to."

 

Dulcia's malicious glee as she gossiped about the Imrukian rituals came back to him and he nodded, "Thank you for your words, Maera." he said. 

 

"I will make sure the meal is kept warm." said Maera, "Now go before your wife loses his nerve."

 

Aleci half smiled at her words, but doubts that it was true. Most likely, Finne would just grit his teeth through it. 

 

The bathhouse was steaming when he entered, the fire lite with sweet smelling sandalwood. Finne looked up from the recessed tub at the center of the room. His cheeks was flushed from the heat, his face relaxed as he ran a soap bar up and down one arm. Aleci swallowed. In the light of the bathhouse, it was clear that Finne did not have the soft bodies of the hetairikos, he was all wiry, defined muscle. Aleci licked his suddenly dry lips. 

 

"May I join you?" he said, walking towards the tub.

 

There was no frown from Finne, so he took as a good sign. Finne had taken off his clothes and folded them neatly to the side, and Aleci's clothes soon joined his. Finne scooted to the side as Aleci stepped in, the water sloshing over to the floor of the bathhouse. There were bottles of oil placed near the tub, and Aleci reached for one. 

 

"Wait." he said, when Finne flinched away, struggling to explain his intentions, "I want to do something different. Please?"

 

The last word made Finne pause, but he kept that now recognizable, stiffness in his posture when Aleci moved towards him. "I'm going to rub this over your shoulders. A massage." said Aleci, slowing the words as he moved to sit behind Finne. It was probably a waste massaging someone inside a bath, but the pleased sigh Finne made when he rubbed Finne's oiled shoulders sent a pleasant jolt to the lower part of his body. 

 

"Do you like it?" said Aleci, "Massaging?"

 

As a response, Finne reached back to direct his hands to a different part of his shoulders. Aleci smiled, now here was something he learned well from his failed training. It continued for several moments until Finne pulled away, turning to look at him. He was breathing heavily, the pupils of his eyes, Aleci saw, was dilated. He glanced downward at Aleci's crotch and, if possible flushed harder.

 

"Do you want to?" said Aleci. 

 

He saw Finne visibly swallow, one hand reaching the rim of the tub, clutching it in a white knuckled grip. 

 

"Can I try something?" said Aleci, Maera's advice fresh on his mind, "Come."

 

He could visibility see the tenseness in Finne's body when he reached towards him, he gave Aleci a puzzled look when Aleci lifted him out of the water to sit on the edge of the tub. All the other times Aleci had fucked him, Finne's cock was soft and limp, but now it was hard, clear fluid leaking from its head. Aleci bent his head and gave it a hesitant lick. 

 

And was summarily pushed back into water, Finne staring at him with a vaguely scandalized expression.

 

"Yes?" said Aleci, spluttering out water from his mouth, "Or no?"

 

Finne licked his lips, staring downwards, as if surprised by his body's reaction. "Yes?" he said, more confusion than question. 

 

"Don't push me again." said Aleci, before moving his head between Finne's, hesitantly, spread legs. 

 

If he was being honest, he had not considered doing this simply because he didn't think of doing it. It wasn't something he asked of Emon, and the man had been perfunctory when he had done the act. But from the soft gaps and whimpers that came from Finne's mouth when he licked and sucked at his cock gave him an odd sort of pleasure. He paused, pulling away to reach for the bottle of oil again and cover his fingers in it. Finne tensed visibly, staring at Aleci's fingers with trepidation.

 

"Let me try something. Relax." he said, gently parting Finne's legs with his other hand. 

 

It was, predictably, not understood. He thinks Finne made a half aborted attempt to close his legs, but kept them open out of obligation. The tenseness in his legs faded away, when he mouthed at Finne's cock. 

 

"Aleci." Finne said, breathlessly, reaching down to grip his hair, "Oh."

 

That definitely interested his cock. Aleci paused momentarily in his ministrations, parting the soft folds under Finne's testicles, the ones that marked him as a carrier with his fingers. He could feel the hand in his hair tense again, but it relaxed when Aleci began sucking at Finne's cock in earnest, thrusting his fingers in and out of Finne. 

 

"Aleci. Fuck . That feels… fuck ."

 

There was wetness on his fingers now, not from the oil or the water, Aleci pulled his head, with some regret, away. He pulled himself out from the tub to sit next to Finne, who looked at him with, what he hoped was desire. At the very least it wasn't resignation. Let him ride you, Maera had said. He stared around, deciding on one corner with some cushions. 

 

"Come?" he said, gesturing towards the corner. 

 

He sat down first on the cushions, waiting for Finne, who gave him another hesitant look. He thinks Finne must understand what he wanted to do, but his wife hovered uncertain, in front of him. After a few moments, Finne folded his legs to sit, almost, but not quite, on Aleci's lap, giving Aleci's cock a hesitant look. 

 

"Would you like to-" said Aleci, and a sudden mirth coming to him, "Ride me?"

 

Finne burst into a laugh, and said, "Yes...".

 

His yes faded away to what Aleci now realized, was uncertainty. "I can wait." said Aleci, "Whenever you're ready."

 

He hoped it was soon. Finne bit his lips, reaching down to grip Aleci's cock. He looked amused at Aleci's gasp when he did so, but the amusement faded to concentration. Aleci gasps again when he felt his cock inside Finne, and closed his eyes, struggling to keep himself from gripping Finne's hips directing his wife to ride him. From Finne's soft moans as he fucked himself on Aleci's cock, that direction, perhaps, was not needed. 

 

"Aleci." said Finne, and Aleci couldn't control himself any longer. 

 

He pulled Finne down towards him, capturing his lips in a kiss that was enthusiastically reciprocated. 

 

"Finne." he gasps, thrusting upwards, his orgasm taking him by surprise.

 

Finne made to get up from the position, his cock still hard and leaking. 

 

"Wait." said Aleci, pulling him back, "Go on." he smiled, "Ride me."

 

He thinks Finne stayed, again, out of obligation, but he gave a soft, "Oh." of surprise when Aleci reached down to grip Finne's cock and stroke it. Finne had closed his eyes, pressing both hands firmly on Aleci's chest, an unspoken request, Aleci thinks of him to, stay down. There was a look of surprise on his face when he came over Aleci's hands, as if he didn't expect to, and Aleci felt a surge of irritation that Finne had never seemed to enjoy sex until now. Maybe that could be remedied. He let Finne go when he pulled away.

 

"Would you like to ride me again?" he offered, jokingly. 

 

Finne stared at him, then laughed, shaking his head, before, saying, "Yes."

 

The food was stone cold when they made their way back to the courtyard, dressed in fresh clothes that someone had left outside the bathhouse for them. Maera looked pleased. 

 

"Did it work? " said Maera. 

 

"No." said Finne shortly.

 

"You're a clever liar, my lord. " said Maera. 

 

"Thank you, Maera." said Aleci. 

 

"No need to thank me, Master Aleci." said Maera, "One less miserable marriage is always a blessing."

Chapter Text

There was a pot of tea and accompanying cups placed on their bedside table when Aleci and Finne entered. Finne made an appreciative noise, going to pour himself a cup, he paused, looking at Aleci. 

 

"No, thank you."said Aleci. 

 

It was most likely Maera that placed it there, and the older woman probably meant for Finne to drink it. The steward was at their door, as usual, but he closed the door after they entered. 

 

"What did Maera even say to him?" wondered Aleci as the door swung shut. 

 

He didn't expect Finne to respond, and was taken aback when Finne made a motion of stabbing someone's groin, pointing at the door. 

 

"Did she?" said Aleci, laughing. 

 

Finne didn't respond to that, his eyes were closed, a contented smile on his lips as he drank whatever tea Maera had brewed. As he stepped closer Aleci could smell lavender, and some sort of flower. So it was one of those women's brews. He picked up the book next to the teapot, careful not to jostle it. 

 

"Would you like me to read?" he asked. 

 

Finne waved a hand for him to continue, and he opened a page at random, and immediately regretted the first words. 

 

Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,

 

"A thousand kisses?" said Finne, staring at the page, then at him "Thousand?"

 

"Alot." said Aleci, and at Finne's blank look, reached for the tablet, making ten marks on it, "Ten," he paused, wondering if the Imurkians used the same notation for multiplication, "Ten and ten is a hundred. One hundred and ten is a thousand." He stressed the later word, and Finne nodded seemingly satisfied.

 

There was an odd look on Finne's face, Aleci half wondered if it was mischief, before he asked him, "Kiss?" 

 

Aleci flushed, "It's a kiss." he paused, seeing Finne bite back a laugh, "You know the word, why are you asking me?"

 

"Give me a thousand kisses." recited Finne, looking at him. 

 

"That might take a while." said Aleci, realizing Finne was leaning towards him, "Oh? You do want it?"

 

Finne responded by leaning towards him. He smelled like lavender and there was a lingering taste of honey on his lips. Aleci pulled him closer, pressing their bodies together. They fell back on the bed, Finne pinned underneath him. He was still kissing Finne, and he thought that it was appreciated, until Finne turned his head aside. His body had gone stiff and still against Aleci's, and Aleci winced, scrambling off him. There was a far away look in Finne's eyes, he was blinking rapidly, his breaths coming in hitches. 

 

"Sorry. Sorry." said Aleci, holding up his hands. 

 

There was no response, Finne pulled himself up to a sitting position, his knees to his chest. He closed his eyes, muttering something under his breath and after a few moments his eyes met Aleci's. 

 

"Sorry." he said, seemingly not hearing Aleci's earlier apologies. 

 

"No, I'm sorry, I should have know you wouldn't like it. Maera said…." Aleci trailed off, looking at the book, "Should I read?"

 

"Yes." said Finne. 

 

"From where I left off?" said Aleci, and continued reading. 

 

...then another thousand, then a second hundred,

then yet another thousand, then a hundred;

then, when we have performed many thousands,

we shall shake them into confusion, in order for us to lose the count,

and in order not to let any evil person envy us,

as no one will be aware of how many kisses have there been. 

 

When the poem ended there was no question from Finne, Aleci bit his lip, thinking. 

 

"Would you show me your alphabet, Finne?" he said, and at the direct question Finne glanced at him, "You know, the alphabet?"

 

He reached for the wax tablet, writing down each letter of the alphabet on it. "What is the Imrukian alphabet?" he said, motioning for Finne to write his alphabet on the other side. 

Finne stared at it, then picked up the stylus and began copying Aleci's letters. 

 

"No." said Aleci, "I mean, your alphabet." at the blank look he was given, "Here," he moved closer to Finne, the second tablet in hand, keeping two hands' distance between them, "This is my alphabet," he gestured towards himself, "What is the Imrukian alphabet?"

 

Finne stared at the tablet, scratched away what he had written on the wax and began writing something on them. Aleci glanced at the tablet he had in his hand, the drawing of the little girl and her cats from last night still on its surface. It was quite hard to guess her age from the tablet's picture, she looked to be five or six, with a gap tooth smile and long curly hair. If she was Finne's sister he probably had the same brown hair, possibly green eyes as well. 

 

"Aleci?" said Finne, questioning, and he looked away rom the picture to where FInne was holding out the tablet, now inscribed with oddly swirling script. 

 

He hoped Finne had written the alphabet in the precise order of his, but, obviously, he couldn't tell. They had four less letters, though, looking at it, it seemed the Imurkians joined two letters together instead of having one. 

 

"How do you write your name, Finne?" said Aleci, writing down his beside his own alphabet. 

 

Finne stared at the words Aleci for a few moments, before writing down his own. Aleci stared at what he thought was Finne's name for long minutes. The Imrukian script had an elegant symmetry to it, like flowing water. 

 

"Aleci?" he said, "How do you write Aleci?"

 

The tablet was taken from Aleci and handed back a few moments later. It was a copy of Aleci's own handwriting on the other side. The same look of mischief was on Finne's face. 

 

"No," said Aleci, amused, "How do you-" he pointed to Finne, "write Aleci with your letters" he motioned towards the Imrukian letters. 

 

Finne scratched out the previous letters, writing a new word before handing it back to Aleci. 

 

"Aleci." said Finne. 

 

Aleci stared at the script, picking up his own stylus to attempt a copy. His attempt, when he handed to Finne earned him a headshake of disbelief. 

 

"Is it that bad?' said Aleci, adding, "Not good?"

 

"Not good." agreed Finne. 

 

Aleci thought he wanted to say more, but Finne made to put the tablet away, pouring himself a final cup of tea and downing it in one gulp. "Do you want to sleep?" said Aleci.

 

"Yes." said Finne. 

 

He placed the tablet on the side, blowing out the candles. He thought that Finne would keep his distance, like all the other nights, but he was pleasantly surprised when Finne moved to lie closer to him. 

 

"Good night." he said. 

 

There was no response from Finne. He was asleep, or maybe pretending to, Aleci realized turning to look at Finne. He half wondered if Finne would have another midnight talk with Maera. A part of him wanted to stay awake for it, but, he thought as he moved to pull the blankets over himself, perhaps he shouldn't.

Chapter Text

He wasn't surprised to walk in on another conversation between Maera and his wife the next morning, though from the tones of their voice, he hesitated to interrupt.

 

"Is there something wrong with me? "

 

"I don't see anything wrong with you, my lord. Unless you meant something else? "

 

"I wanted him to kiss me last night. And I don't know why I just… froze. I enjoyed it in the bathhouse. Why did I not like it then? "

 

"Maybe it reminded you of something unpleasant? " said Maera, placing a hand on his shoulder, "Did it? "

 

"No. I mean… yes.. But I'm not in Imruk. I know I'm not in Imruk. Why would it matter?"

 

"You can't forget several years' memories in a month." Maera paused, "Your hands remembered how to throw a spear, does it not? It probably remembered what happened every night as well. "

 

"I wasn't… I did what I had to do. He didn't force me." Finne scowled, seeming to ramble on, "I'm not a woman, he didn't take what I didn't give to him ."

 

"You did your best with the circumstances. " said Maera, sounding reassuring, "You were supposed to be our lord, not a wife. It would have been a shock to anyone I'm sure. You did what you had to do. "

 

Finne's lips twitched, heated words flying out of his mouth,"I hated it. I hated him. I wanted him dead. I wanted all of them dead. I told the guards to desert their posts. Imruk fell because I wanted it to burn. I allowed this to happen… am I a terrible person? I watched Imruk fall to the invaders and was… am glad of it. "

 

"Imruk, my lord, would have fallen anyway. " said Maera, " Whether under your brother or father. "

 

The look on Finne's face reminded him of his mother's friend, the one who always spent her time at their house. The one who was always crying, whenever he happened to see her. His mother was reassuring, holding out handkerchief after handkerchief as the other woman sobbed into them. He wasn't sure if Finne would appreciate, or tolerate him seeing that. Aleci hesitated, clearing his throat from where he stood at the top of the stairway. Finne jumped, jerking Maera's hand from his shoulder. 

 

"Sorry." said Aleci, "May I pass?"

 

There was that polite mask again, Finne composing himself and giving Aleci a smile, moving aside for him. They ate in silence, Finne picking at his food. Maera frowned at this, excusing herself partway through the meal. She was back when they finished a basket in hand. 

 

"May I inquire if you are done with your work, Master Aleci?" she said, and not waiting for his answer, continued, "The weather seems pleasant today. I have convinced your dour steward to let us leave. I told him an old woman such as myself would be a sufficient chaperon. Corcius's markets are opened today, and I thought it would make for a nice new change in scenery." she glanced meaningfully at Finne, "I will ask around for this Maelma at the village. You should enjoy yourself. Flutter your eyes at him and tell him you want him to buy you a replacement for that dagger you told me you used to carry. It'll make you feel bett- safer. "

 

He recognized that word Maelma, and half wondered if Maera wanted to buy a particular ingredient there. The thought of an outing, no matter how brief, was appealing, and he nodded. 

 

"I can saddle the horses. Would you like to come with me Finne?"

 

Finne shot Maera an irritated look before he left with Aleci. He wasn't sure what transpired between the two, as Finne gave short, one word answers to Maera. She merely shrugged when he looked at her. The weather was pleasant for quiet enjoyment, so he left it as it. Corcius's marketplace was small, but bustling. Their horses were left with a stableboy who perked up at the copper coin Maera offered him for the task. Maera bid them farewell at the entrance, telling them to meet her at the stables when they were done. There were merchants selling dried meats and fishes, assortment of sweet smelling herbs, household wares among many other things. They didn't all speak the same tongues there, Aleci could pick out the odd regional dialects and foreign tongues. 

 

"Aleci?" said Finne, reaching forward to hold his hand. 

 

There was that same excitement in his eyes, the look he'd given Aleci before he'd gone and thrown several spears into the targets. 

 

"Please don't throw any spears here," said Aleci, allowing himself to be lead away. 

 

The merchant smiled brightly upon seeing them, his eyes roaming over the two of them, and probably guessing their purses to full. 

 

"One moment," he said ducking down, and coming back up with a wooden box. He opens it with a flourish, "Something shiny for your wife?" he said brightly. 

 

Finne ignored the box, and the merchant's slightly faded smile as he glanced away, moving to look at the plainer looking brooches. He stared at them for a while, before his eyes lit up, "This one," he said to the merchant. 

 

"Ah." the merchant looked, again, quite disappointed, "Are you sure, Mistress? That one… the craftsmanship is not too good, and you see it is quite clunky and very awkward. Barbarian craftsmen, you know, they don't make the best..."

 

"Barbarian craftsman?" said Aleci, interested.

 

It was rectangular shaped, and looked oddly thicker than a normal brooch would be, about two fingers' width. Poor craftsman ship, the merchant had said, and he agreed, the pin itself looked fragile. He could understand why the merchant thought it was poorly made, certainly no noblewoman in the Capital would be caught wearing such, he doubted it would properly pin back any fabric for long. The swirling Imrukian script, he could see, was what caught Finne's attention. 

 

"We'll take that one." said Aleci. 

 

"Of course, of course." said the merchant, his glance fell to the box, "But surely, Master, you would like something more? A surprise?" he lowered his voice, "Your wife isn't looking. He would be pleased with this, I am sure." 

 

"Fine." said Aleci, noticing Finne in conversation with another merchant, one selling dried fruits, "Show me. And quickly."

 

"Of course." said the merchant, quickly shutting the box only to open another one, this one filled with carved wooden figures. "Is your wife Imrukian? He looks to be… I think he would like one of these, I bought them from-"

 

He would like one of the figures, Aleci thinks wryly, looking at little wooden cat rolling a ball. The woodcarver had captured the same thick, fluffy coat in wood as Finne's drawing. "That one," he said, interrupting the merchant. 

 

"He likes cats huh?" guessed the merchant, "You know the Imrukians have very big cats. I heard their skins make great scarves," he paused, looking slyly at Aleci, "Would your wife like one of them? I have a friend who can procure such animals, a breeding pair, even."

 

"I will think about it." said Aleci, shuddering at the thought of more of the black tom's descendants roaming his property.

 

He paid the merchant, tucking the wooden carving into his coin purse, before walking over to the fruit stand. The merchant woman smiled when she saw him, switching an accented Capital's tongue. "Would you like to buy my wares, good sir?"

 

"Here's your brooch." said Aleci, handing it to Finne, who took it with barely hidden glee, "Do you have pomegranates?" said Aleci, remembering their earlier conversation. 

 

He paid for that as well, and the two of them made their way back to the village entrance, but not before he stopped to buy two skewers of meat. Finne wrinkled his nose at the oil dripping from them, and Aleci rolled his eyes. 

 

"You had pomegranates. Leave me be." he said, his mouthful of the spiced meat. 

 

Finne took a tentative bite and shook his head, holding it to the side while Aleci finished his. Maera was waiting for them, horses' lead in hand. 

 

"Did you hear of Maelma? " said Finne, upon seeing her. 

 

"Maybe. It sounds promising." said Maera, "I will ask my daughter to ask in the Capital, before I go." she said.

 

Finne grinned widely, "Thank you." he made to embrace her and Maera waved him away, "Give your husband that greasy stick before you get it all over me." she chastised. "Did you have a good outing, my lord?"

 

"Yes." said Aleci. 

 

Their ride back was similarly done in silence. He thought that would be it, but Finne caught his arm as they made their way from the stables.  

 

"I want… to..." he seemed to look anywhere except Aleci, "bathhouse." he said finally, in a rush. 

 

Aleci stared at him, then glanced at Maera who seemed to make herself busy all of a sudden. "Sure. Go." said Aleci. 

 

"No." said Finne, shaking his head, "You..." he paused again, "Come… with me. Please."

 

He felt a bubbling sort of happiness. "I will come. But… " he hesitated, looking at Maera, "He knows he can say no, right?"

 

Maera nodded, "He does. Don't push yourself. If you don't feel comfortable. Tell him to stop."

 

Finne scoffs at that, reaching for Aleci's hand. 

 

"Come." he said.

Chapter Text

Aleci wasn't sure what it was about the bathhouses that put Finne at ease, but he wasn't one to object. He was eager, kissing Aleci with an enthusiasm that was in contrast to the stiffness last night. He sinks down into Aleci's cock, his gasps of pleasure echoing off the walls of the bathhouse. Finne, as usual, pulled away first, and they took their time enjoying the hot water of the bathhouse. Aleci presented him with the little cat carving as they made to toss their clothes into the basket for the maids, and instead of the pleased smile he expected, Finne blinked, owl-like, then laughed uproariously. 

 

"Is it that easy to swindle merchants into buying junk? I should've gone into woodcarving. " he smiled, consolingly, at Aleci's disappointed confusion, "I like the cat." he said. 

 

He offered to towel off Aleci, the calluses on his hands apparent when he dressed him. 

 

"Thank you." said Aleci, trying, and failing, to help Finne with his own dress. 


Finne shrugged him off, dressing himself with a practiced efficiency. He didn't use the new pin, Aleci noticed, instead tucking it away somewhere under his smallclothes. Perhaps he liked whatever was written on there, Aleci thought. He wouldn't fault his wife if he wanted something that reminded him of home. 

 

They fell into an easy routine. Aleci would go work in his study, Finne to the train with the household guards. If he was finished early Aleci would wander down to the training grounds and watch. His household guards seemed to take to Finne well enough, even if they kept a polite distance. Finne didn't spar or wrestle with them, and he doubts that any of the guards would offer to, even the rule-breaking Mercus. He wasn't sure if any of the guards disapproved of his wife's presence among them, certainly not Oppius. The old man had spent too many years with his father, and probably believed, through listening to his father's many monologues, theorizing and examples, that a child would inherit whatever talents its parents had. In this particular case, Aleci suspects the man, like his father, would prefer the child took after Finne. It was a stupid theory, if it was true, then wouldn't he have made a good warrior?

 

Finne wasn't pregnant, that much he gathered from the furious hissed conversations Maera had with Finne and her numerous attempts to ply him with food. 

 

"You don't have to-" he said to Finne once one night, struggling to find the words for it. 

 

Finne had seemingly acquire an endless number of words for how to throw things, kill people (and the various body parts one could target to do so), names for various weapons, curses and other eloquent ways to express himself from the guards along with hand gestures to match. Aleci doubted they would talk about pregnancy. At his long pause Finne had sighed impatiently, before motioning for Aleci to read again. Reading as also one thing that Finne enjoyed. The simple poems and stories that Aleci offered him from the study was read rapidly and ravenously, though he stopped reading every so often to ask Aleci what a word meant. Aleci wasn't sure if he understood his translations, there were more confused looks given to him than understanding ones.

 

"If you have questions ask." he said, deciding to let Finne into his study. 

 

It was nice to have company. Finne would sit in the corner, reading whatever book has taken his fancy that day. Maera would come in from time to time with that lavender tea and sweet cakes. No messages came from the Capital, except letters from his mother inquiring about the state of his marriage. So it came as a shock one morning when he was handed a letter from the steward. From the look of the seal, it was from his father. No doubt it would inquire on whether or not he would be expecting a grandchild soon. Galer was obsessive that way. It came as a surprise then, when he opened the letter and it said nothing of the sort. It also included a short message in the swirling Imrukian script. 

 

Praefect Doman is headed to Imruk to deal with the upheaval. He wishes to make a stop at your villa before continuing. Please welcome him, as a favor to me. 

 

Of course his father would offer up his house and time for the Praefect before asking for his willingness in the whole matter. He scowled irritably, reading the promises and praise that followed. 

 

...make me proud...Keep Finne away from him. 

 

He blinked at the last sentence, and looked down at the script below, struggling to make out the words. It could be possible that Galer had an even worst command on the Imrukian script than he did. All he could make out, and it could be wrong, Finne had given him many a pitying look at his attempts at reading and replicating Finne's tongue after all, were the words man, takes, he, and wants .  

 

He handed the letter to Finne, and waited for his wife's response. Finne stared at the letter for a long while, mouth in a thin line. 

 

"What does it say?" said Aleci.

 

Finne ignored him, muttering something under his breath. When he met Aleci's eyes he said, "Praefect Galer… warns me Praefect Doman likes…. Carriers. Unmarried ones and married ones."  

 

"Warns?" said Aleci, irritated at the phrasing, the context of Finne's sentence giving it meaning, "He gets mad if I invite what he calls scoundrels and thieves into his house, but he's kind to warn me about inviting a lecher into my house." he stared at Finne's raised eyebrow, and tried to simplify his words, "My father is hypocrisy itself, tells me not to do this, he does this. Tells me to do this, and he does not to this."

 

"Hypocrisy." agreed Finne. 

 

"If he touches you stab him." said Aleci, making the movement, and Finne laughed. 

 

"Your father.. Angry?" there was a hesitancy in the last words and Aleci shakes his head. 

 

"Maybe, but it is my house, he can't-" he paused, trying to find the words, "you defend yourself, understand? I don't care what my father says or writes." he added, "If Praefect Damon can't keep his hands to himself, maybe someone should cut it off."

 

"... someone should cut it off." echoed Finne. 

 

"Don't really do it." said Aleci, "I'm only joking."

 

At dinner that night Finne had another conversation with Maera.

 

"They are sending the Butcher to Imruk ." said Finne, "Why? Had my father failed so completely? "

 

"I can't tell you that my lord. " said Maera, looking distressed, "It certainly bodes ill."

 

"I didn't… I don't want anyone to suffer. " said Finne, "I wanted.. "

 

"You can't fault yourself for the actions of others. I would think the people would have suffered under your brother as well. It is only by a margin of how much. " said Maera, "Do you think you can stand his company? Do not draw attention to yourself. "

 

"Are you leaving?" Finne frowns, "You sound like you're planning to leave. "

 

"If I'm being honest, from the rumors of him, I would not sleep well with that man in my house. I am only asking you, because I have heard back from my daughter, and I will make my way to the Capital, with one of the traveling merchants in Corcius. But I would not leave you alone if you tell me otherwise ."

 

"I'm not alone, Aleci told me I'm free to defend myself ."

 

"Every man says that until a woman does so. Lock your doors, I'll tell the maids to stay with you when you are not with your husband. "

 

"I want my son back, Maera. I can defend myself. Go to the Capital. "

 

"If you are sure."

 

Aleci waited patiently until the conversation ended, wondering why they mentioned his name in relation to the Capital, but not his father's. 

 

"Master Aleci." said Maera, finally, "I am sorry to ask, but would it be possible for you to let me visit my daughter in the Capital? She has taken ill."

 

"Oh." said Aleci, understanding, "Well, of course. If you don't need her services Finne for the time?" he looked at Finne, who shook his head, "Well I don't see why you shouldn't, I hope she gets better."

 

Finne exchanged a look with Maera at that, "I told you he's not the brightest." said Finne, raising an eyebrow.

 

"Let us see, my lord, your Edon hasn't even arrived yet."

 

 

Chapter Text

He wasn't sure if it was Maera's company, her cooking, or her teas that calmed Finne. A part of he regretted not caring what his wife did before Maera came, but he suspects it was pacing in relentless circles around their bedroom. That was what jolted him out of sleep, the back-and-forth, back-and-forth pads of feet on stone. He groaned, blinking blearily at the early morning light barely piercing through the curtains. 


"Finne. What are you doing?" he said, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He wasn't expecting an answer. 


Finne glanced at him, "Good morning." he said, coolly, before resuming his pacing. He had pulled a sleeveless under-tunic over his sleep clothes, and as he walked in his dizzying circles around the room and passed their bed, Aleci could see fresh bleeding gouges on his arm. 


"Finne, stop." said Aleci, alarmed. 


He jumped out of the bed, moving to grab at Finne's forearm. The reaction from Finne was instantaneous. His hand closed around Finne's arm, he felt himself being thrown backwards, his own arm twisted around his back. Finne was on top of him, snarling. 


"Don't touch me. Don't touch me."


There was a feral cat on the villa once, foaming at the mouth, its eyes blood shot and raging. One of the guards, he didn't remember who, probably Oppius, had put it out of its misery with a spear. Finne's eyes weren't quite as terrifying, but Aleci suspects that had there been a knife in the room it would have been buried in his gut. 


"Finne. Finne, it's me." he said, choking out the words. 


For several terrifying moments there was no response, before Finne's weight lifted from his body. 


"No." snapped Finne, green eyes livid with anger, "Don't touch me."


"I don't touch." said Aleci, sitting up gingerly, hoping the switch to Imrukian would calm him. 


If it had a noticable effect on Finne, it didn't show on his face. Finne spun away and resume his earlier pacing, giving Aleci a wide berth. Before he'd failed his training, he had sat by the fire with all the other guards-to-be and veterans and listened to their stories and banter. Odysseus had feigned insanity by walking in circles with his plow. Aleci doubted that was the case here, whatever boiled under Finne's skin was not insanity. What did his father write in that damned letter? He thinks about the thin line of Finne's lips, his echoed "someone should cut it off". Was Praefect Damon one of the men that sacked Imruk? If so… Aleci paused, perhaps the mad energy made sense. He didn't know of any way to deal with such energy, he'd never experience it. The veterans on the other hand… what had they advised? 


He hadn't wielded a sword or a spear in years, and he doubts any of the guards would dare to duel Finne, the impropriety of it. To be fair, it was also improper to have one's wife train with the household guards. He glanced at the window, it was still early, they still had time before witnesses would arrive to see him fail repeatedly. Mind made up, he reached for his own clothes. He approached Finne hesitantly, Finne's longer tunic held in hand.


"Finne?" he said, "Come, please?"


Finne paused, taking in his dress and the tunic held out to him. After some hesitation, he took the tunic from Aleci's outstretched hand. Aleci was relieved to see that the bleeding looked superficial, like deep scratches done again and again.


"Where?" said Finne, tonelessly.


"The training grounds." said Aleci, "You can spar with me."


This seemed to garner a reaction from Finne.


"Spar?" he said, staring at Aleci in disbelief, "You?"


"What?" said Aleci, mock affronted, "I can spar."


"Can." repeated Finne, sounding skeptical.


He kept a wide berth from Aleci, silent a stone as they made their way to the training grounds. Aleci selected one of the sparing staffs and handed it to Finne. He took another for himself before closing the armory door. Finne was going through the motions when he walked into the training circle. As expected, there was a practiced grace to his movements, speaking of years of, most likely, continuous training. Years of training that Aleci himself had neglected.


"Are you ready?" said Aleci, holding his staff with both hands.


Finne was more than ready, and Aleci nearly dropped his staff at the strike that was directed his way.


"Shit." he cursed, barely blocking the next one.


The blows came fast and quick from Finne. None of his even came close to striking Finn, the other man seemed to know where a blow would fall even before Aleci raised his staff to strike. Who was Finne? He barely had time to contemplate this question before, for the second time that day he found himself flat on his back, staff flying out of his hand, staring at the blue skies. Finne offered him a hand, pulling him up. There was a fierce grin on Finne's face as he held Aleci's staff and his, in his other hand.


"You enjoy this?" said Aleci in disbelief, staring at his empty hand, where only a moment ago had held the staff.


Finne stared at him, "No." he said brazenly, a pleased smile on his face. He paused, then added, "Sorry."


"For beating me? You're not sorry." said Aleci, rubbing at the spots where Finne's staff had hit him. They felt like fresh bruises. "What are you looking at?" he said, directing the question to the gawking Mercus.


"Are all Imrukians like you?" said Mercus to Finne, fascinated.


Finne looked amused. "Go to Imruk and see."


Mercus surprised him with his response, in broken and heavily accented Imrukian, "I go and see." catching Aleci's eyes, the young guard looked abashed, "He's offered to teach us some words Master Aleci. You understood me did you? I only said I would be curious to go."


Finne rolled his eyes, motioning that he would return the staff to the armory.


"Wait." said Aleci, seeing Mercus's appreciative look, "Why don't you spar with him Mercus?"


"Me?" said Mercus, sounding scandalized, "I mean, yes, but, well... it would be..." he stared at Finne, who smirked.


"Scared, little boy?" said Finne.


"No!" Mercus scowled, in response, "Are you sure?" he looked at Aleci uncertainly, "It's not a test, Master Aleci is it? I can't lose my position."


"Go ahead." said Aleci, gesturing for Finne to hand Mercus the staff.


The young guard had a more muscular built than Aleci, undoubtedly due to the training. He was a head taller than Finne, though as he approached the other man with his staff in hand there was a coltish awkwardness to his movements. It vanished when Finne struck him with the staff, replaced with a gritted-teeth determination. He landed more hits than Aleci did, though, for every blow he landed, he flinched and moved clumsily away from three of Finne's. Finne was simply faster on his feet, dancing in circles around Mercus. The guard was left panting, beads of sweat running visibly down his dark brown hair and soaking his tunic.


"I yield, I yield." he wheezed, dropping the staff and holding up both hands in surrender.


"You yield... Aleci?" said Finne, glancing at Aleci.


Mercus shakes his head, still panting, "No, no, not because of him-" he gave Aleci and apologetic glance, "sorry Master Aleci, you're good. You're very good."


Finne grinned, triumphant. "I know." he said.


"You... little shit." said Mercus, smiling, "I want another round-" he glanced at Aleci, "If you allow it, Master Aleci."


"If you wake up early enough to spar with him." said Aleci, wondering how it was that Finne seemed more at ease exchanging words Mercus, "Breakfast?" he said to Finne.


"Breakfast." Finne agreed, holding out his staff for Mercus to put away.

Chapter Text

A part of him regretted introducing himself as a possible sparring partner to Finne. He could feel every place where the staff had hit him. What woke him wasn't the soreness of unused muscle, but the sound of meowing in his ear and sunlight shining through the opened curtains.

 

"Fuck." he yelped, staring into the doleful eye of the tom.

 

The cat sniffed the air disdainfully then settled down on top of Finne's pillow. Aleci groaned, trying to pull his own pillow over his face.

 

"Aleci, come." said Finne, and Aleci glanced over to see Finne already dressed, practically vibrating with energy.

 

"No." said Aleci, and the cat on his right hissed, "Fine. Fine. Claim my bed too then you foul beast."

 

He rolled out of the bed, wincing at the sore muscles from yesterday. "Can't you spar with Mercus? That boy really wants a beating from you."

 

"No." said Finne, then looked vaguely contemplative, "Come to bathhouse... later?"


Aleci stared at him, "You can't bribe me with sex." he said, half-accusingly.

 

"Bribe?" said Finne.

 

"You know." said Aleci, "You give me something for me to do something with you. Or give something to you."

 

Finne looked amused, "I like this... bribing."

 

His forearm had scabbed over from the yesterday, Aleci noticed. "Fine. I'll come with you." he said, pulling on his own tunic.

 

They had an audience. Mercus was sitting on the fence, a half apple in one hand. Oppius was there as well, looking interested. Aleci made a valiant attempt, but he mistimed a strike, giving an opening, and like yesterday, found himself flat on his back.

 

"You have improved since the last time I saw you fight, Master Aleci." said Oppius brightly, when Aleci conceded defeat and plopped himself down on the ground waving at Finne to duel whoever he pleased.

 

The old man was first, and bested Finne in their first round. Finne was a fast learner, and Oppius's weak spot, his left ankle was a target. Oppius fell to the ground with a thud.

 

"Hm." said the old man, dusting off himself and shaking away Finne's offer to pull him up, "You should've bested me sooner, Mistress. Did you think you'll save my pride or something?"

 

Finne gave the man a half smile, and said nothing. When Aleci suggested breakfast, like yesterday, he nodded and followed him.

 

"You can train with them." said Aleci, "Don't wait for my permission." he hesitated, "But if you want, I'll come with you."

 

Finne nodded, then as Aleci made to go to his study, shook his head, taking his hand and pulling him towards the bathhouse.

 

"You were serious?" said Aleci, clarifying, "You want this?"

 

The look Finne gave him then could easily be translated. When they reached the bathhouse Finne made to pour oil on his hands, and Aleci was pleasantly surprised that Finne knew how to massage as well.

 

The next few days passed in a blur, whatever troubled Finne seemed to have fade away as he found a new outlet for it. Mainly, winning most duels against his household guards, and all duels against him. He thinks it should wound his pride, losing to one's wife would probably sour any man's mood, but it wasn't as if he was a skilled fighter anyway. The guards accepted Finne easily enough, and while the maids seemed to titter over the odd relationship they had, their villa was isolated enough that no reputation-tarnishing gossip could spread.

 

Until the day Praefect Damon announced himself by riding up from a distance with his cohort in tow. Aleci sighed deeply at the sight, praying that the vineyards were not trampled and their storage could at least feed their guests. To his relief, only two of them strode up to the house, Praefect Damon, and an older man that Aleci realized as Praefect Quintus. He thought Finne would be dressed in his customary married stola, but to his surprise, he'd added a veil as well, similar to the one he'd worn at their wedding ceremony. Praefect Damon sauntered up towards them like he owned the place.

 

"He's been with you for this long and not pregnant yet, Aleci?" said Praefect Damon, disregarding all politeness and pleasantries, he gave Finne's body a once over, before turning his attention back to Aleci, "Have you thought of castrating him? It seems to increase their fertility." he pauses, "Oh right. I forgot, you're one of those types." he smirks at Finne, "Does your husband lie down and let you fuck him? Is that why you're still barren?"

 

Finne said nothing, Aleci couldn't see through the veil what his emotion was, and he strongly suspected that was the whole point.

 

"If you don't get him pregnant, you should consider it." said Praefect Damon, pulling off his helm to reveal dirty blond hair, "Does wonders for their tempers too from what I've seen."

 

"You talk a lot for one who has never been granted a marriage." said Aleci coolly.

 

"I don't care for a marriage." said Praefect Damon, "I've plenty of bastards to choose from, unlike you, I've no family line to preserve." he smiled, again at Finne, "If you want a child, come to me and spread your legs. I'll put one in you before your husband even manages to get his cock up."

 

"I am happy in my marriage, thank you, kindly." said Finne, finally, "I wouldn't want to catch whatever disease you have, to speak so impertinently to your host."

 

Praefect Damon looked as if he had been slapped, he recovered quickly enough, laughing harshly, "Did your father pick you this one to teach you discipline?"

 

"Praefect Damon." interrupted Praefect Quintus looking harried, "Please. I would very much like to relax before our travels resume tomorrow."

 

Finne pulled him into a corner away from their guests as they walked into the courtyard. "Please." he said, "I... don't like this man. I don't want..." his eyes flickered towards their guests.

 

"Of course." said Aleci, mouth sour from Praefect Damon's remarks, and his father's written warning coming back fresh and clear to his mind, "I'll eat with you later, or, would you have the maids bring food up?" he gestured towards their bedroom.

 

"You." said Finne, and Aleci nodded.

 

"I'll be very drunk." he said, miming drinking, "Forgive me."

 

"Of course." said Finne before darting up the flight of stairs.

 

He wasn't wrong, he had to be drunk to sit through the dinner with Praefect Damon. This was probably why his father never entertained the man in his home, Praefect Damon was a disgusting pig. It wasn't just his ravenous eating, it was the endless lurid stories that the man told. He had much to say about carriers and women, and many a comment on the difference between fucking the two. Aleci downed wine cup after wine cup, praying for the night to be over. It wasn't until he talked about his campaign in Imruk that he paused in his drinking.

 

"You know, I would've managed to sample the tributes." said Praefect Damon, "What with them all been damaged and all, the incestuous lot. I was fucking stabbed-" he flicked his sleeve up to reveal a deep gash, the scar ugly and an angry red on his arm, "By this son-of-a-whore before your father stepped in. The little bitch tried to stab him too, but your father was faster. He's always been a good warrior. Your little wife might've been spared a night with me."

 

It was probably Finne that tried to stab him, Aleci thought wryly, and what a shame that he missed cutting the vein.

 

"But you should consider it," Praefect Damon continued, "what I said earlier, if you're having trouble getting him pregnant, cutting his balls might help. It's not like he'll need it. And it also keeps them nice and hairless too, I mean, down there-" he gestured lewdly, "they can't grow a beard anyway. I'm speaking from experience that it makes fucking them easier too, they don't get in the way. And well, I've never seen a birth, but I imagined it's a whole lot easier when the hole isn't covered."

 

Finne would probably get a knife and cut off my testicles, Aleci thought, clenching his legs, if I ever suggested such a thing. He wasn't sure if Finne had a child, Maera had implied he had always been too thin to conceive. He wasn't sure how births go with carriers, and he hopes, for Finne's sake, that it wasn't any more painful than his mother's.

 

The stories continued, Praefect going on and on about how wet and desperate carriers were in his bed, and how he made them moan and cry. They probably cried in relief that it was over, though Aleci. It itched at his skin, wondering if this was how he treated Finne in the earlier days of their marriage. Finne didn't cry, Aleci doubted he would ever see his wife cry, but he didn't seem to enjoy it either. Even now, sometimes it felt like Finne only did it out of some form of marital obligation. He was relieved when Praefect Damon stood up, declaring the meal to be adequate, and begrudgingly thanked him for hosting. His friend looked apologetic, and Aleci waved them goodnight. He sighed deeply, waving the maids over and asking them to bring whatever remained in the kitchen, and uneaten on his plate up to their bedroom.

 

Finne had taken off the stola and the veil, and, surprisingly, wasn't pacing around the room. The black cat on his lap was purring, and he was stroking it with one hand, Aleci's poetry book in the other.

 

"He... is rude?" said Finne, glancing up from the book.

 

"More than rude." said Aleci, gesturing to the floor next to him, "Come eat."

 

Finne got up from the bed, earning an irritated meow from the cat. He looked at the spread, selecting what Aleci thought was the plainest slice of meat and cutting the bread roll to put the meat between the pieces. At the creature's blinking eyes, Finne handed it a piece of meat as well.

 

"You'll make it fat and lazy." Aleci pointed out, "What were you reading?"

 

"A poem." said Finne.

 

"Yes." said Aleci, rolling his eyes, "A poem. Which poem?"

 

"Give me a thousand kisses," said Finne, and proceeded to recite the entire poem that Aleci was sure he only read, at most, three times to him.

 

"That's... you remembered?" said Aleci.

 

"Yes?" said Finne, looking confused as to why Aleci asked.

 

"Hm." said Aleci, "Would you like me to give you a thousand kisses?"

 

Finne paused, licking his lips. He placed the bread roll down to climb into Aleci's lap. When he was settled, and Aleci's cock twitched in interest, he smiled, triumphant, "Yes."

Chapter Text

He awoke to hissing, and death's grip on his wrist.

 

"Fin-" he made to say, confused, and his wife's finger was on his lips.

 

"Shh!" Finne hissed.

 

There moonlight shined through from the open balcony. The balcony door was usually left open, it wasn't as if thieves was a concern in the countryside. He blinked, making out the tom's arched back, the snarls rippling through his body. He could hear scrambling, scratching sounds, like someone trying to climb up the stone walls outside.

 

"The Butcher." muttered Finne.

 

His hand was released, and he could make out Finne reaching for something under his sleep clothes. There was a tremor running through Finne's body, the familiar undercurrent of anxiety-anger that he'd displayed days before. There were only two guests at the villa, and only one that would be climbing walls at this late hour.

 

"Finne," he said softly, "Finne, it's fine, let me handle this."

 

He got up from the bed and casually made his way to the balcony. Finne made a move to grab his hand, and Aleci shakes his head, "Trust me." he said.

 

"Praefect Damon." said Aleci, forcing a nonchalance into his voice that he didn't feel, as he stared into the eyes of Praefect Damon who'd swung himself up on the balcony, "What are you doing at this late hour? I thought the guest rooms were on the first floor?"

 

"My apologies." said Praefect Damon, sounding not at all sorry, "I was merely out for a late night stroll. My house in the Capital is so similar to yours, it must have been habit."

 

"You climb balconies on a regular basis?" said Aleci, sweetly, "I did not know, Praefect Damon. Shall I call for my steward to show you to the guestroom?"

 

"No need, no need." said Praefect Damon, and to Aleci's disgust, walked across their bedroom, pausing to stare at Finne's bare chest. "If you were married to me you would have a whelp on your tits by now. Do you want one? I bet your husband would like to see it done-"

 

Finne snarled something in reply, but whatever he meant to say was cut short by a yelp of pain from Damon as the tom launched himself at the Praefect, clawing at the man's neck. Damon snarled, throwing the cat aside, where it darted under the bed.

 

"Get out." said Aleci moving to push the other man through the door.

 

Praefect Damon smirked unpleasantly at him, managing to say, "Your wife agreed to this." before the door closed in his face.

 

It was such a ludicrous lie that there was no reason to ask Finne about it. He half had the mind to write an angry letter to his father asking why he was forced to open his house in the first place. The balcony doors were closed when he turned back to the bed, and Finne was pacing again, clutching something in his hand. Aleci knew better to reach for him.

 

"Finne. Please come to bed." said Aleci, gesturing towards the bed.

 

Finne shot him a glance, scowling. "No."

 

"Why don't I read to you?" said Aleci, lighting the candles and reaching for the poetry book. They haven't used the wax tablets in a while, he noticed, half wondering if the drawing of the little girl and her cats were still on Finne's tablet.

 

He was halfway through the poem when the bed dipped as Finne sat down.

 

"Stop." said Finne, pushing Aleci down on the bed with both hands, his right hand clasped around something, and as the candlelight hit it, Aleci realized it was the wooden brooch. He curled up next to Aleci, pillowing his head with his left hand, his right still curled around the brooch. "Sleep." said Finne.

 

He was asleep soon after, leaving Aleci to wonder how on earth he did so.

Chapter Text

Finne was gone when he woke up the next day, and Aleci swallowed a vague sense of unease. He knew that Praefect Damon's cohort would keep their distance from the training grounds, but he wasn't sure about the other man. He hoped the drink kept Praefect Damon sleeping until noon. The man deserved a vicious hangover he thought, pulling on his tunic for the day. After a look at the unfinished dinner (all the meats were picked clean by the cat), he took the remaining sweet bread rolls.

 

Faint sounds of wood on wood could be heard when he arrived at the training grounds. It was Oppius and Finne, the two sparring with wooden training swords. Aleci blinked in surprise at this, it was the first time he'd seen Finne used anything more than the spears and training staffs. He supposes he shouldn't have been surprised, watching Finne it was apparent he was trained. Oppius wasn't holding back either, unlike slow, exaggerated movements and choreographed hits the older man would use with the younger guards, there was force behind every one of his strikes. Finne's jaw was clenched hard, he parried and danced around Oppius, using his smaller size to his advantage.

 

Seeing Aleci, Oppius signaled a halt to Finne and they stopped, the older man bowing politely to Aleci.

 

"Here, eat." said Aleci, offering Finne one of the rolls.

 

Finne took it, pulling himself up on top of the fence to sit, legs dangling.

 

"How was Praefect Damon?" said Oppius, "Unpleasant as ever?"

 

"Unpleasant. Maybe worst." said Aleci, and Oppius hummed an agreement.

 

Some of the other household guards had gotten up and were milling about the training yard, doing stretches. The domesticity was disrupted by a laugh from, and Aleci sighed, hesitating to turn his head, Praefect Damon.

 

"Do my eyes deceive me?" said Praefect Damon, "Aleci, near the training yards?"

 

Aleci opened his mouth to reply, but before he could, Praefect Damon's attention fell to Finne.

 

"You... you..." stuttered Praefect Damon.

 

"Me." said Finne, innocently, wiping his hands clean of the bread crumbs.

 

"You foul bitch!" said Praefect Damon, ignoring the hush that followed and stalking towards Finne, pulling out his sword, "Galer said you were hanged for daring to attack a man."

 

"You were stupid to believe him. Galer values those who defend the honor of others. Unlike you. I don't know why he tolerates you." Finne jumped off from the fence, taking the wooden sword into his hand.

 

"I'll kill you-" snarled Damon, and raised his sword to strike.

 

It all happened in a matter of seconds. Finne tossed his wooden sword aside, side stepping the blow, before grabbing Damon's sword hand in his and the hilt of the sword in the other. There was a choked sound of surprise from the other man as he was spun around in a circle by his grip on his own sword. The Praefect's arm was twisted upwards, the sword falling from his slacken grip. He falls with a sickening sort of thud on the dirt and Finne reaches for the wooden sword and placed its blade on the other man's throat, his knee on Damon's back keeping him firmly in place.

 

"Keep your cock to yourself in Imruk, Praefect, or I'll cut off your head next time I see you," Finne snarls, spitting rage, "I will know of this, I will find you, I will put you down like the beast you are."

 

He gets up, dusting himself off, and picking Praefect Damon's sword from the ground.

 

"Winners, keepers." he said, smiling sweetly at Praefect Damon.

 

The silence was broken by Mercus who started clapping. "Good sport!" he said.

 

The others followed, and Praefect Damon, picking himself up from the ground, made to stalk away.

 

"Are you leaving, Praefect Damon?" said Aleci.

 

He took the silence as a yes, and not a while later, the tents set up by Praefect Damon's cohort was pulled down and they rode away as if spurred on by Hermes. Finne looked... smug as they watched, cradling the sword with the same maternal pride as he'd seen in his own mother holding his newborn sister.

 

"Name?" he said, brightly, looking at Aleci and holding it up to the guards, their training completely abandoned to watch the spectacle.

 

Names were immediately shouted out by the guards, and Finne shook his head, laughing at the more ridiculous suggestions. "Aleci?" he said, questioningly, "Name?"

 

Aleci stared at the sword and Damon's name etched into its blade. He wondered if Finne could read the words.

 

"Damon-slayer." he offered, amused at his pun.

 

Finne stared at him, he swallowed visibly, "Damon-slayer." he repeated, then louder, to the guards, "Damon-slayer!"

 

Oppius audibly groaned at the name, but it was enthusiastically chanted by Mercus, followed by the other guards.

 

"You are good." said Finne, shaking his head, but smiling.

 

Aleci wasn't sure, in that moment, if Finne meant he was good at naming or if he meant anything... else.

Chapter Text

Finne leaned the sword against the right side of their bed, the side he slept. There was a glint in his eye whenever he looked at it before going to bed. Their conversations were still short clipped sentences. Aleci wasn't sure if Finne didn't like talking or if the words he spoke were not understood. He knew that Finne had struck up friendship of sorts with Mercus, the guard joined them more often than not for their morning sparring sessions. He usually conceded to Finne, and this earned him many a frown.

 

"I'm not good." he protested, and Mercus dared to scoff at the statement.



"You were good with Finne." said Mercus, "Why do you think so Master Aleci?"

 

"Well." said Aleci, squashing a half remembered memory like a gnat, "I just know."

 

"Just know?" said Finne, questioning.

 

"He's.. uhm.. he's not cocky." said Mercus, gesturing wildly as he tried to find the word, "Hmm.. he needs... uhm.."

 

"Bravery? Confidence?" said Finne, making motions with each word, and Mercus shook his head at each suggestion.

 

"A thing..." Mercus suddenly looked as if a revelation hit him, "You, a... thing to fight for."

 

"I'm not a thing." snapped Finne, and Mercus looked chastised.

 

"Sorry, Mistress.. I really don't know the word I should say. Can you tell me?"

 

Finne sniffed irritably and refused to talk further. Mercus shook his head when Aleci asked, confused as to what had transpired, saying apologetically, "It was a misunderstanding Master Aleci, you don't need to hear of this."

 

"Alright." said Aleci, mystified.

 

Later at breakfast Finne picked at his food, wrinkling his nose at the honeyed eggs that he usually enjoyed. "Is it... sour?" he said to Aleci, pushing the plate at him.

 

"No?" said Aleci, taking a bite into his mouth.

 

"Hm." said Finne, staring at the food on the table as if the dishes personally offended him.

 

He watched Aleci eat with barely concealed nausea. "Are you alright?" said Aleci, "Should I call for a..." he paused, making sure Finne understood the next word, "doctor?"

 

"No!" Finne said, sounding irritated, "No doctor."

 

"Fine." said Aleci, "Please drink something at least."

 

He pushed the lavender tea toward Finne who drank it and shuddered. Aleci found himself wishing for Maera's return. It had been two weeks, surely something did not happen to the woman as she made her way back from the Capital?

 

Finne followed him to the study. He'd been revising the maps in Aleci's study, the ones hanging on the walls, adding more details to the mountain ranges that bordered Imruk. He'd taken them off the walls to do so, laying them out on the table Aleci helped him pull next to the window. Aleci couldn't tell if it was accurate or not, he'd never been to Imruk himself. If his wife's knowledge of the mountain ranges were true, then he didn't live quite the sequestered life that Aleci imagined. But then again, he didn't know what Finne's life was like prior to their marriage. The one time he'd asked he had been shown drawn graves after all, and the second was that drawing of the little girl and her cats. He didn't think he would be third time lucky, especially with his middling understanding of Imrukian and Finne's reluctance to talk about anything beyond the present.

 

Aleci was halfway through calculations of the villa's summer yield when he heard a clatter of the ink pot.

 

"Sorry." said Finne, looking distractedly at him, the window and the ink pot now on the floor, "Maera, I see her."

 

"Oh?" said Aleci, he glanced at the inkpot, "It's fine, you didn't get it on the map-"

 

Finne was gone before he finished speaking, the door nearly catching on the fabric of his stola as he left. Aleci glanced over at the window, where he could see Maera, recognizable with her colorful scarf waving to a merchant's wagon rolling away. He would have gone back to his calculations had he not caught sight of the small figure next to her. Maera was too old to be a mother to this child. A grandchild? It could be, the boy had the odd brownish-red color hair as Maera. The age seemed right as well, and didn't Maera say her daughter was feeling unwell? But then, wouldn’t the child be living with Maera's son-in-law, why would she need to take him in? He hesitated, deciding to watch the reunion.

 

Finne met the pair not two moments later. He crouched before the child, holding out his arms. The boy, most likely, from his clothes, made to step towards Finne, then something made him pause before the boy turned to Maera. Whatever he said to Maera, and he must've said something, it caused the older woman to reach forward and take the boy's arm firmly, shaking him. She pointed at Finne, then pointed at herself. The boy shakes his head, arms crossed. Finne had lowered his arms at this point, standing up to look at Maera, who shakes her head. Finne's back was to him, and Aleci could see Maera reached out to pat his back as he rushed away. The older woman crouches down to take the boy's hands into hers and he turned his head away. There was exasperation, the same kind he'd seen in Maera's interactions with Finne when Maera stood, taking the boy's hand, the other holding her belongings. When the boy didn't follow her, Maera turned to, in all likeliness, snap a command. This got his attention, and he allowed himself, from the looks of things, to be dragged in the general direction of the servants' quarters.

 

Well, that was... unexpected. He wasn't sure what exactly transpired between Finne and the child. Maybe Finne naturally liked children and was unaccustomed to being rejected? It occurred to him that he didn't know, there's never been a time where he'd seen Finne interact with a child. There were no children around the villa, all the servants were either too old or too young, that is to say, unmarried, to have any. He thought he would ask Maera, and decision made, closed the door to his study to walk to the servants' quarters.

 

Maera met him long before he even left the villa. "Good afternoon, Master Aleci." said Maera, "Do you know where Finne went? He told me he'll be in his- well, your bedroom and I can't find him."

 

"He's not there?" said Aleci, puzzled, "Did you check the training yards?"

 

"He's training?" Maera exclaimed, looking scandalized, "I just... I have no words." she frowned, "You know what, I do know where he is now that you've told me he's been training. Do you know where the steward is?"

 

"Why?" said Aleci.

 

"I'm going to ask him to fetch the ladder."

 

"Sorry?" said Aleci, confused, as to how a ladder factored in to all of this.

 

"He's climbed up the roofs, or something equally stupid. Maybe from your balcony." said Maera, "He knows I can't climb," she gave Aleci a speculative look, "But can you, Master Aleci?"

 

"Sure." said Aleci, wondering if his body still remembered how to climb.


They walked back towards the bedroom, and Aleci asked, curious, "Does Finne like children? He looked upset when your boy rejected him. Who is the boy you've bought with you anyway?"

 

Maera paused, frowning, "I wouldn't know Master Aleci, he's never told me if he liked children."

 

She continued walking and Aleci held out a hand to stop her, "Yes, but, who is the boy?"

 

Maera paused, breathing heavily before she turned to look at him, "I am sorry if I sound short-tempered Master Aleci, but I was not expecting to raise more children at my age."

 

That was a rather blunt way of explaining it but Maera was always made her answers short.

 

"Is he your grandson?" said Aleci.

 

"When Hell itself freezes over." muttered Maera, before nodding, "Yes. Unfortunate though it is. He is a lovely child when he wants to be."

 

"Ah." said Aleci.

 

It didn't explain Finne's reaction. Aleci pushed the bedroom door open and walk towards the balcony. It was possible for him to climb up to the roof. He'd done it before as a child, but that was years and years ago. Maera looked at him expectantly. Aleci sighed deeply, staring up at the tiles and wondering if he should just jump and pull himself up or trust that he could find the handhelds in the stone that he used to rely on.

Chapter Text

He was right to be concerned. His fingers slipped on the tiles of the roof as he scrambled for a handhold, his heart in his throat. He reached up wildly, trying to find anything to keep himself from falling, and his grasping fingers were caught in a callused hand. He was pulled up, and when his heart finally stopped trying to leap from his throat, he met Finne's eyes.


"Why?" said Finne, looking irritated,"Why you come? Maera?"


"Were you up here before?" said Aleci, curious.


The villa's chimney cap was an ornate thing, serving as both decoration and keeping birds and the weather out of the chimney. As a child it served as a perfect place to hide away from his father, the shade from the cap kept the afternoon sun of his head. The little collection of stones he'd placed around the cap was there, but the two small pots placed under the cap were new.


Finne stared at him, and said nothing. Aleci sighed, deciding to drop the topic, he made his way to the chimney, arms held out for balance.


"Is this yours?" said Aleci, pointing to the pots, "What is it?"


He looked at the pots' contents, confused at what was in them. At first, he assumed it was some sort of plant Finne wanted to grow, if he did, he could've just told him, they had plenty of room for whatever garden FInne wanted. But it wasn't filled with dirt. There were two linen cloth bags filled with seeds in each pot. One of them, the rightmost one, looked to be sprouting, a peek of faint green through the half opened bag.


"You like children?" said Finne, looking at the sprouting pot with an odd expression on his face.


Aleci frowns at the question, "You mean, Maera's boy?" he said, hoping he could talk about the odd scene he'd witness, "I don't mind. He can live here, were you concerned about that?"


Finne let out a long breath. "Yes... no." he said, confusing Aleci further by gesturing towards the pots, "Wheat," he said pointing to the left pot, and to the right, "Barley."


Aleci stared between the two, uncertain as to why the pots had anything to do with Maera's grandson, "I don't understand."


Finne's mouth twitched, he crossed his arms, tapping his foot in an agitated rhythm. "Do you know?"


"No!" exclaimed Aleci, "What is this?"


"Barley," said Finne again, slowing his voice as if he was talking to a small child, "is boy. Wheat is girl. It-" he indicated to his stomach, "is boy. Praefect Galer wants one. Yes?"


"Oh." said Aleci, a strange ringing in his ears, he licked his lips, mouth suddenly dry, "You're pregnant?"


"Yes. Pregnant." said Finne, rolling his eyes, as if this whole explanation made sense.


He wasn't sure if Finne looked pleased or not with the news. Aleci approached him hesitantly, holding out both arms. For a moment he thought Finne would turn away but he returned the hug. As usual, he pulled away first.


"How?" said Aleci, looking at the pots with a frown, "How do you know?"


"Write your mother." said Finne, with a scoff, "It is known."


"I've never hear of this." said Aleci.


"You, " said Finne, "never pregnant. Never need knowing."


Finne sat down on the roof, pulling his knees to his chest as he looked over the sprawling vineyard. "If it is not a boy..." he said, seemingly half-talking to himself, "Praefect Galer will not..." he stared at Aleci, trailing off, a troubled look on his face.


"Don't worry." said Aleci, reaching out to take Finne's hand, and sitting alongside him, "It's my child as well. He can be angry all he wants."


Finne didn't look reassured. Aleci could sense that undercurrent of nervous pacing energy again.


"Quando tu Gaius, ego Gaia." he recited, "I promised you before. Trust me."


"Quando tu Gaius, ego Gaia." repeated Finne, looking unconvinced.


"Please trust me," said Aleci, "I won't let anything happen to the child. I promise."


He wasn't sure if Finne understood him completely, and he supposed he'll ask Maera to make sure he did. They sat there in silence for a while watching wind blowing in the distant vineyards before Finne stood up dusting off his clothes. There was a mischievous look on his face when he said, "Need help?" gesturing towards the balcony below.


It occurred to him much later, as Maera was taken aback by the news, and her exclamations of congratulations were long and she and Finne predictably spent the entire dinner in deep discussion, probably having midnight talks as well, that he never managed to ask Finne about his odd reaction to Maera's grandson.

Chapter Text

Mercus was talking to Maera's grandson when they approached the training yard the next day. The little boy, sitting on the fence, was showing Mercus something he was holding out, and as Aleci and Finne approached the pair, he could make out the shape of a small sword. Mercus snapped into attention when he saw them, greeting both Aleci and Finne. The boy looked at Mercus, then at the two of them, and looking as if it physically pained him, said, "Good morning Master Aleci." a long pause, "Mistress Finne."

 

He spoke in the same accented tones as Maera, though it wasn't as obvious. Maybe he grew up in Imruk, thought Aleci.

 

"Good morning." said Aleci, "What's your name?"

 

The boy glanced at Finne, then at the sky before sighing deeply, "Olus." he said, then adding, a stubborn tilt of his chin, "Master Aleci." Olus sniffed, "Father wouldn't let you wear that."

 

"Father," said Finne, sweetly, "Isn't here. I thought Maera told you to stay in her rooms."

 

"She's asleep and she snores." said Olus, sheathing the sword on his belt, swinging his legs back and forth, "You sleep in the same room with her. You'll be dying to leave too."

 

Mercus frowns.

 

"I won't train with you." said Finne, turning away, "Go back before Maeara finds out you've left."

 

This got a reaction from Olus, who jumped off from the fence, running to stand in front of Finne, "But that's not fair, we always do this! Every morning!" he scowled, stomping his feet, "You promised!"

 

"I promised you I'd find you, and I did. But Maera's right. You need rules and structure. Go back to her rooms."

 

"That's not fair! You promised we'd go home!" as he spoke the boy's voice became shriller and shriller, there was an angry glint in his green eyes.

 

"This is my home now, Ed-Olus, and you have accept this." Finne breathed deeply, crouching down to look at the boy, putting a hand on Olus's shoulder, "Look, we can be together, and happy, or together and unhappy. You choose."

 

"You're a cheating adult-ter-ess!" screamed Olus, shaking off Finne's hand before storming away.

 

Finne watched him go, teeth clenched. "No." he said when Mercus stepped up, "I... not today."

 

He stalked off, back to the villa.

 

"Did you understand what they said?" said Aleci, hopeful that Mercus at least understood the furious exchange.

 

It sounded different from the exchanges Finne had with his father and the conversations Finne had with Maeara. With Maera it was fast and flowing, and with his father, and Damon, there was the awkwardness slowness of talking to someone who was not fluent in the tongue. This just sounded... different.

 

"I don't know, Master Aleci." said Mercus, frowning, "Whenever we spoke it was in common Imrukian. Finne said it was easier, and I gathered the nobles have their own way of talking. Maybe that's what we heard? I didn't know Maera's daughter married well."

 

Well, that just lead to more unanswered questions. The old woman never was forthcoming. Then a thought came to Aleci. "What did you and Olus talk about?" said Aleci.

 

"Oh?" said Mercus, "His sword. He says he's better with throwing knives, and I said I'd like to see it, I'm quite good. He says he can beat me." Mercus shook his head in amusement, "I used to be that confident in my skills." he paused, "Maybe he'd challenged Finne to duel with that sword of his and got told no. I wouldn't duel a child with a sharpened sword. No one in their right mind would."

 

Olus, Aleci thought wryly, was precisely the son his father wanted. And his father was precisely the type of man to duel a child with sharpened swords, he knew from personal experience.

Chapter Text

He had never paid close attention to Imrukian conversations between Maera and Finne, mostly because he could barely keep up with the exchange, only catching a few names here and there. Listening to the conversations Finne had between Mercus didn't help his knowledge of the tongue either, it seemed to consist mainly of friendly jabs, relating to one's prowess and skill. There were a few words here and there that Finne had taught him, notably, don't touch me, and some basic words here and there. He relied on Finne more to understand him than he did for Finne, he thought, perhaps Finne resented this? He wasn't sure, and there wasn't anyone to ask. His friends had brides from the Capital, and his parents both shared a common tongue.

 

Maybe Finne would appreciated it if he tried? Perhaps he should at least attempt to understand the conversations between Maera and Finne. It wasn't as if they spoke about philosophy or anything particularly complicated. He humored Mercus for a few practice rounds while he thought over the matter, and decision made, he bid a farewell to Mercus and walked back towards the villa.

 

It was probably not the best time to attempt try his new plan. The conversation he walked into couldn't be classified as a fight, but from the agitated motions of Maera's arms and Finne's firmly crossed ones, it was close to it.

 

"He's as stubborn as you are my lord." said Maera, "You have to stand firm on this. He needs to learn that you're not a servant he can bully." a pause, "I'm not saying you let yourself be bullied, I'm saying, he's treating you the same way he's seen your brother- oh alright, fine, you weren't bullied, happy? Listen, from one mother to another, none of my children would even dare say that to me. He needs to learn that his words have consequences. It would have been better he learned it sooner-"

 

"Why are you implying I was terrible at raising him?"

 

There was a lot of the word you being said. So it was a lecture. Aleci made a note to ask what the word was for pregnancy in Imrukian.

 

"I'm not! You are putting words into my mouth. You were young, you had no mother or grandmother to guide you and you made mistakes. I am saying, you should stand your ground on this. He should learn when to say sorry to you, and mean it."

 

"He won't say sorry. His father never did."

 

"That's the whole point. He said sorry when we were travelling, he knows what the word means. I doubt if he was sincere each time he said it, but I'm not his mother, and he doesn't know how to hurt-"

 

"He didn't HURT anything!"

 

"Begging your pardon my lord but I have been listening to you and watching you pace back and forth over this issue. It's alright to admit he hurt you with his words and you'd like an apology."

 

"He's a child. He says things all the time." Finne sighed, "Maybe we should go home."

 

"Why? You looked happy when I saw you. Why would you want to go back- oh did Edon tell you he wanted to go back? Listen, you have to take care of yourself, you've got a nice life here. How would you even find work in Imruk? Where would you even live?"

 

"I'll manage."

 

"I thought you said you liked Aleci. He's decent to you. Why are you suddenly wanting to go back to Imruk?" Finne made to move away and she grabbed his hand, "No, tell me, and not because of Edon. Why do you suddenly want to go back?"

 

"Because," said Finne, wrenching his arm from her, "Unlike you, I never came here willingly in the first place! Praefect Galer said he'd spare my life if I gave him a grandchild-" he gestured to his stomach, "And it seems like I will be soon, a life for a life. You know what happened when you were away? The Butcher tried to climb into my bedroom and rape me. And that's the one they have sent to stomp the rebellion in Imruk. Imruk has never surrendered to the Empire, and they'll keep sending more men like him until there is no one left."

 

He caught the mention of his name, his father's, and Imruk. He hesitated, thinking back to their rooftop conversation. Was Finne concerned about the possibility of having a girl? Did the nobles in Imruk not care for girls?

 

"And what do you expect to do about it? You are a carrier, Imruk has never had a carrier leader. How will you tell the chiefs to listen to you?"

 

"I don't know."

 

"Exactly. Focus on the first problem. You want an apology from Edon. Stand your ground until he does. He does miss you. Eventually he'll come around." Maera looked contemplative, "I understand your concern, I really do. I love Imruk too, but sometimes you must let go of things. Move on, like I did. You have a husband who seems to treat you well enough, and I've bought back your boy. With the blessing of Juno maybe you'll find peace with your life."

 

The word Edon sounded familiar, but he couldn't quite place where. Aleci hesitated, deciding to speak up on the whole matter, at the very least it would reassure Finne wouldn't it?

 

"Good morning, Maera." he said, and the older woman nearly jumped a foot. "Can you please tell Finne, I tried telling him yesterday but I'm not sure if he understood that if the child's a girl I wouldn't let any harm come to it? My father won't do anything either, even if he really wishes for a boy."

 

Maera looked exasperated when she translated, and Aleci took it as a victory.

 

"Can you please speak to your husband and not play games? Look, you have very real concerns, your husband's father is a Praefect, and knowing Galer, he'd have educated his son in the art of war maybe you two can figure out what you can do about Imruk."

 

"Galer is the person who sent the Butcher. He speaks our tongue and knows nothing more. He doesn't want to know more."


"
Aleci is not his father. Didn't you tell me he made an effort to understand you. Tell your husband. Tell him soon or I'll stop playing along."

 

"You wouldn't."

 

"I would, my lord."

 

His victory was short-lived, the smile Finne gave him after his conversation with Maera ended was the same one that he's given to Olus when he rejected the boy's request to duel. Aleci sighed, internally wondering who he would find to teach him Imrukian that wasn't Maera - she didn't seem to have the patience, or the less than enthusiastic Finne. He nearly slapped himself on the face a moment later, furious at his stupidity. Why didn't he think of Olus?

Chapter Text

He meant to go to the servants' quarters after breakfast, but then remembered that he ought to at least inform his father of the news. Perhaps even ask his mother what she thought he should do. She wasn't a carrier, but she did move from a small village to the Capital and maybe finding herself in an unfamiliar place was something she could sympathize with. Pulling out parchment from a drawer he began the letter, deciding to make it short and precise to his father. He was contemplating what to write to his mother when he heard the sound of gagging, followed by a window opening and the unmistakable sound of vomiting.

 

"Are you alright?" he said, rushing to his feet to where Finne was standing head out the window.

 

Finne glowered, wiping at the spit on the corners of his mouth.

 

"Sorry, stupid question." he mumbled, "Do you want me to call Maera? Do you want-"

 

"No." said Finne, irritably, going off toward the map table again, "No Maera, no tea. No."

 

"Well. What do you like?" said Aleci, remembering the odd combinations of foods his mother has requested when she was pregnant, "Here," he offered a spare parchment to Finne, "What do you want to eat? We can go to Corcius," he said, recalling how Finne had enjoyed the outing.

 

Finne took the quill that was offered and began drawing. Aleci raised his eyebrows at the parchment when it was handed back.

 

"You know fresh salmon is hard to find right?" said Aleci, rhetorically.

 

"You asked." said Finne.

 

Aleci blinked, the response surprising him, "Well, draw something easier to find." said Aleci.

 

"No." said Finne, going back to his maps again.

 

He did say to himself he would try Imrukian, and Finne didn't seem too busy, he'd even responded to Aleci's question. Aleci stared at the unfinished letters, indecisive, then walked towards Finne. He stared at the map on the table.

 

"You go..." he said, pointing at random to one of the mountain ranges, "here?"


"No-" said Finne then stopped himself, giving Aleci an odd look, "Why?"

 

"Why what?" said Aleci.

 

"You-" Finne gestured at him, "Why do you speak Imrukian?"

 

"I want?" said Aleci, struggling to sound out the word.

 

"Why?" said Finne, staring at the map and the Aleci.

 

"I want..." said Aleci, "To learn."

 

"Hm." said Finne, sounding doubtful, he stared to where Aleci pointed, and shook his head, "No. It's too high. Too cold."

 

The words were deliberately spoken slowly, Finne miming each new word with an exaggerated slowness.

 

"Here?" said Aleci, pointing to a new mountain on the map, "How do you say here?"

 

Finne looked irritated again, "Mountain name? Why do you ask?"

 

"No." said Aleci, "I mean to ask, have you gone here-" he pointed again, "How do you say this in Imrukian?"

 

"Have you gone here." said Finne.

 

That was a mouthful, and from Finne's unimpressed look, his recital of the phrase was badly blundered.

 

"Have you gone here?" he repeated again, pointing towards the map.

 

"No." Finne said shortly.

 

"Why?" said Aleci.

 

"There are wolves. Big ones." said Finne, drawing a wolf's head on the map.

 

"Ah," said Aleci, "Where have you gone?"

 

"Why do you ask?" Finne said, looking as if he wanted the conversation to be over.

 

It seemed to be a sore topic, like asking about Finne's family. "I just... want to talk to you. In Imrukian." said Aleci.

 

This earned him an incredulous laugh from Finne.

 

"What about poetry?" said Aleci, "Imrukian poetry?"

 

At this Finne paused. "Imrukian poetry." he said. "You want this Imrukian poetry?"

 

"Yes." said Aleci, "Do you remember any? You can write them down. I'll get you parchment."

 

There was a tilt of Finne's head and a look of interest at this. "You want to read? Read Imrukian poetry?"

 

He recognized the words read and Imrukian.

 

"Yes." said Aleci, nodding, adding, "Please."

 

Finne nodded, "I will write this Imrukian poetry."

 

He looked happier than Aleci had seen him since Maera's arrival, and he took this as a good sign. "Here," said Aleci, holding out a parchment, "Go ahead and write it."

 

He should have known, from Finne's relationship with Mercus that the first poem Finne chose to write down for him had a bawdy nature. Well, it wasn't exactly bawdy, it was... flirtatious? No, that was the wrong word, playful? Finne helpfully illustrated the poem, it began with a man, Tor o'Gelle and his wife Lané walking side by side with their manservant, Caoilto. Lané pointed to a pear tree and Caoilto made to climb the tree to fetch the fruit.

 

"Can you read it to me?" said Aleci, "Read? Please?"

 

Finne obliged, but started reading later in the poem, an amused smile on his lips. From the way he read it, Imrukian poetry sounded more like a tavern song. Or it could be Finne liked this one particularly because it was a tavern song turned poem, or poem turned tavern song, sometimes it was hard to say.

 

When the noble pair below were seated on the ground
From up above young Caoilto made a show of looking shyly down
"My lord I cannot blame you, but it seems to me unwise
To kiss your wife so boldly here and right before a servant's eyes!"

Lord Tor o'Gelle was taken aback, "My boy what's that you say?
My wife and I are sitting here and not entwined in Venus's play."
Said Caoilto soul of innocence, "My eyes cannot agree,
But here come up and take my place my lord, perhaps it is the tree."

 

At that last line, not the last stanza, Aleci realized the poem went on for a while after that, Finne started laughing, uncontrollably.

 

"So, the lord thought the tree was magic." said Aleci, half smiling, despite himself, certainly none of his friends' wives would ever read such a poem, or know of such poetry.

 

"No, he was stupid." said Finne, still amused.

 

Stupid. He definitely heard that word before. "Do you think I'm stupid?" said Aleci.

 

Finne raised an eyebrow, "Are you like Tor o'Gelle?"

 

"No." said Aleci, "I mean," he struggled to think of a response, the only comparison of Caoilto he had was Mercus, and he wasn't sure how he would feel if Finne were to kiss him, but he wasn't foolish enough to think a tree would give one false visions about the people below it, "if I am stupid, enough to think that a tree would lead to false visions, I probably should just let you kiss anyone you want." he paused, hoping that the inclusion of the Imrukian words would make Finne understand that he was trying, "But I well, I would rather you didn't."

 

"Fine." said Finne, nodding sagely, "No kissing under trees, Aleci isn't stupid."

Chapter Text

Finne's good cheer didn't last. He vomited at lunch, then whatever he managed to eat at dinner. Maera waved away Aleci's concerns, saying "It takes more time for a carrier's body to adjust."

 

From the sour smell hanging around their bed when he woke up the next morning he suspected Finne got up in the night to vomit up whatever tea he drank. Contrary to every other morning he was still asleep when Aleci woke up. Aleci decided it was best to let him sleep, tip toeing to his study to finish sending off the letters to his parents. He made sure that the letter to his mother was significantly longer than the one to his father. His mother was always zealous about her privacy in reading and corresponding to letters and he sat back on the chair, smug in the knowledge that she wouldn't just let Galer read over her shoulder. There was really nothing left for him to do, Finne still hadn't join him, so he presumed he was still feeling out-of-sorts. Maera would probably be with him. He should, Aleci thought, go see little Olus and figure out the intricacies of the Imrukian court language. It was odd that the little boy knew it, but, like Mercus said, maybe Maera's daughter married well and Olus spent some years in the court. It didn't all add up though, the boy was seven or eight at most and surely a child that age was raised by nursemaids. Most nursemaids, regardless of where they came from wouldn't speak a noble court's tongue.

 

He could ask the boy himself, he decided, making his way to the servants' quarters. Most villas didn't actually have servants' quarters, the servants sleep where they work, but their family's infrequent visits to this one, and his father's hands-off approach to managing his properties, Galer's philosophy being "if the job's done it doesn't matter what happens during it", the steward had converted and renovated an unused part of their villa into the servants' quarters. Galer had even approved of the decision, saying that it kept the vermin at bay. It was similar to his approval of the steward's decision to introduce the cats.

 

Maera being his wife's maid and cook, had the pick of the nicer rooms, and hung a peculiar wooden carving on her door.

 

"Go away Maera, I don't want your breakfast!" said a petulant voice when he knocked.

 

He recognized the word breakfast, and from Olus's tone his rejection of the whole concept was clear.

 

"It's Master Aleci, Olus, open the door."

 

There was a long silence, "Maera said I'm not to talk to you. Much." and a hastily added, "Master Aleci."

 

"Well I don't think you like being cooped up in there all day." said Aleci, "Don't you want to come out and play?"

 

The door creaked open, and Olus's messy head of curls peeked through it.

 

"I'm fine here." a scowl, "I don't play. I'm not a child."

 

The statement was so ludicrous he bit back a laugh.

 

"Oh, is that so?" he said, moving to look into Maera's room.

 

It was as neat as he'd expected it to look, blankets folded, her basket to the corner, neat and tidy. Even small hearth looked immaculate. But he sees where Olus had swept in and disrupted the older woman's tidiness. The blanket the boy slept with was folded, either deliberately or carelessly into a ball. Maera had one of the few rooms with a hearth. There were scratches on its dirt floor and pebbles of varying sizes placed on what he realized was a drawn grid.

 

"Latrunculi's a game." he said, pointing to the hearth.

 

Olus followed his finger, scowling. "It's not-" the boy seemed to struggle for words, then spat out, "It's not for childs."

 

"I see." said Aleci, Mercus's earlier remark coming to mind, "Do you like winning, Olus?"

 

Olus stared at him as if he'd declared the sky was green. "You don't?"

 

"How about this," said Aleci, "I play a game with you and if you win, I'll-" he thought about the earlier interaction Finne had with Olus, "I'll let you practice with my guards- no sharp weapons!" he added.

 

"What if you wins?" said the boy, looking suspicious, "You won't, but what if you wins?"

 

"Teach me that Imrukian you were speaking with Finne." said Aleci.

 

Olus stared at him for a long moment, and Aleci wondered if the boy understood. Then he started laughing, peals of laughter coming from his mouth, he doubled over, holding his stomach.

 

"No." said the boy, when he recovered.

 

"Why not?" said Aleci.

 

"You're not..." a pause, an angry glint in the boy's eyes, "my family. I won't-" here the boy closed his mouth, then shook his head, hands on the door to push it close, "No. Good day Master Aleci."

 

"Wait," said Aleci, holding the door closed with his foot. There were several seconds where he thought the boy contemplated closing the door, but to his relief decided against it.

 

"Just Imrukian then?" he said, "Please?"

 

This gave the boy some pause, his gaze, oddly flickering to Aleci's hand. "Please?" he repeated in Imrukian, and scoffed. "Fine. You won't wins anyway. I always wins."

 

"It's win." corrected Aleci, and the boy shrugged.

 

"Win, wins," said the boy, "Doesn't even sound different." he looked at Aleci in an strangely familiar contemplative manner, then turned away.

 

Aleci followed him, sitting down on part of the stone floor, Olus sitting across from him. It didn't take ten rounds for him to realize the boy was good. He took more of Aleci's stones than Aleci took of his. The boy's smile was wider and wider every time he won a stone. There was a pause in the game, as Aleci thought about his next move, and Olus spoke up, pointing at Aleci's ring.

 

"When did you marry?"

 

"When?" said Aleci, "It was... " he struggled to pin point the time, was it really three months ago or two? "Three months ago, after my father came back from sacking Imruk."

 

The last words had an impact on Olus. His lips trembled.

 

"Sacking?" he repeated, then again, eyes wide, "Sacking?"

 

"Yes. Imruk surrendered." said Aleci, hesitant, surely the boy knew why his family fled to the Capital months before the event. "Didn't you know?"

 

Olus's lower lip trembled, eyes bright, he pushed himself up from the ground, before rushing out the door.

Chapter Text

He made to run after Olus, but the boy was a fast runner and was gone even before Aleci was outside the door. He frowned, making his way from one corner of the villa to the other, half wondering if he should check his childhood hideouts. But Olus wasn't there long enough to find them. It suddenly occurred to him Olus probably ran to his grandmother, and Maera... was probably in his bedroom. When he made his way there he saw Maera standing outside the bedroom, unfinished tray of cold food in hand, her eyes on the half open door.

 

"It's probably-" started Maera when he saw her.

 

He hesitated, wanting to hear her out, but the sounds of someone crying coming from his half opened bedroom door was more concerning. Peeking through the door he was half relieved to see it was Olus. The boy was sobbing in Finne's arms, burying his head in Finne's chest. Finne was rocking him, murmuring something to the boy under his breath. When he met Aleci's eyes he gave him a tired half-smile. Aleci hesitated, then mimed himself walking out and closing the door. Finne nodded.

 

"Eh." he said, struggling to find the words to say to Maera, "Did I say something wrong? I didn't mean to make your grandson cry."

 

"It's got nothing to do with you Master Aleci." Maera said, reassuringly.

 

"Did your grandson know Finne from before?" said Aleci, blurting out the only explanation that made sense.

 

Maera's eyes flickered to the door and then back again to him. "I believe so, Master Aleci. I... Well... you see..." she paused, looking contemplative, "It is bad luck to speak ill of the dead. My daughter was the only one of my children who fled Imruk so late. I told her to, but she didn't listen."

 

"Who was Finne's father?" said Aleci, "If he'd surrendered no harm would have-"

 

Here Maera held out a hand to stop him, "Begging your pardon, Master Aleci, but you haven't been on a campaign in five years. Many things change over five years. The Empire's policy is now to sweep in, kill all men capable of wielding a sword and install a leader loyal to it. Imruk kept its leader, but well-" she twitched her lips, "it seems doubtful that peace will last."

 

"But who was Finne's father?" said Aleci, wondering if the initial coldness Finne showed to him was both from his behavior and from whatever he'd seen as Imruk burned.

 

"Why don't you ask him yourself, Master Aleci?" suggested Maera, "He has never been talked much to me about his family."

 

"How did your grandson know Finne then?" said Aleci.

 

Maera's response was through gritted teeth, "I told you Master Aleci, of my daughter. We had a falling out, and reconciled only very recently. She may have had raised him with the other noble children."

 

"I still don't understand how he would know Finne." said Aleci.

 

"The carriers care for children." said Maera, "That's how it is done in Imruk."

 

Her explanation made sense. Another nagging question was on his mind, "What did he say to Finne when you came back with him?" said Aleci, "You weren't happy with what he said."

 

"Oh you know," said Maera, "The boy has... well.. he held Finne in high regard. He said Finne was a coward and loser for running away."

 

That sounded like Olus, from Aleci's limited experience of the boy. "Did Finne tell you if he ever had children?" said Aleci, thinking of the tablet drawing, "He drew a little girl once, on the wax tablet."

 

"I don't know." said Maera, quickly, glancing at the door, she lowered her voice, "I did not say this to him, but well, there does come a problem with marrying relatives. If he's pregnant so quickly, I wonder if it's been the case that..." here she trails off.

 

"Case that?" prompted Aleci.

 

"Men don't like to hear it." said Maera, "I am glad that you seem to not have this problem. But well, sometimes it is the case that the problem lies not, shall I say, with the mare but with the stallion."

 

"Oh." said Aleci, flushing.

 

"Well, you don't have this problem, so I don't see why you should be embarrassed." offered Maera kindly, "I will fetch Finne something else eat, if he can stomach it." she paused, "I presumed you talked with my grandson for awhile. He's stubborn. I would convince him to leave your bedroom after I've bought Finne his meal, but... I would very much beg a favor of you to allow him to stay a bit longer. It took him this long to apologize for his sharp-tongued remark, and I'm trying to wean him off his ill-gotten habit."

 

He could refuse. Olus wasn't his child after all, there was no reason to tolerate the boy's presence in his room. But if the child was fond of Finne, and Finne was of him, as it was evident, he doubted Finne would take kindly to him tearing the child away. Maybe he'd ask the steward and maids to clean out his mother's wing, and his old bedroom. The boy could stay there. His father did promise Finne his own set of rooms after all, maybe Finne didn't know how to ask.

 

"He can stay." said Aleci, and Maera looked relieved.

 

She made to leave but Aleci held out his hand, "Wait, is it customary in Imruk for husbands and wives to share a bedroom? I have done so because my father ordered it, and Finne hasn't said anything otherwise. Does Finne want his own rooms?"

 

"The common folk, yes, the nobles I don't know." confessed Maera, "And I doubt you'll get anything from Finne if you asked him. He hasn't said anything about moving hmm? He must like whatever it is you two do together. If you liked it this way, say that you do when you ask him." here she gave an amused smile.

 

"Nothing like that." said Aleci, took quickly, and Maera visibly bit back a laugh, "I read him poetry, and he's read me one Imrukian poem."

 

"Oh, an Imrukian poem is it?" said Maera, cheerfully, "Well, I'm glad that your marriage is going well, Master Aleci. Now, if everything's the matter, I'd best be off. Would you like me to fetch you anything as well?"

 

"Whatever you can carry." said Aleci, "I'm not that hungry."

 

"Understood, Master Aleci." said Maera, humming something under her breath as she walked away towards the kitchen.

Chapter Text

Olus was wiping at his eyes when Aleci politely knocked and entered again. Aleci decided it was probably best, for the boy's pride at least, to ignore his red face and puffy eyes. "Do you want to finish the game?" he said, brightly, "You ran off before we could see who was the winner."

 

"I am." sniffed Olus, "You wouldn't have win anyway."

 

"Why don't we try again hmm?" said Aleci, "I have a game here, how about a rematch?"

 

He glanced at Finne discretely and saw, what he thought was surprise followed by a soft smile. There was a wooden Latrunculi board folded up at the bottom of his clothes chest. He pulled it out, opening the copper clasps to take out the colored stones.

 

"Do you want to set the board?" he asked, and Olus nodded eagerly.

 

With Olus otherwise distracted he turned to Finne, "Do you feel better?" he said gesturing, "You were sick last night?"

 

"Yes... and no." said Finne, "It... happens."

 

He looked curiously at the board and then and Aleci, "You played Latrunculi with Olus?" Finne shakes his head, "He likes winning. I warn you now."

 

It was one of the longer conversations Finne had ever had with him. All it took was a child Finne was fond of, apparently.

 

"I was going to win-"


"No!" exclaimed Olus, angrily, "I was!"

 

"That's why we're playing again." said Aleci, patiently.

 

Finne shook his head, "He will play until he wins." he said.

 

"I always wins." said Olus.

 

"Win." corrected Aleci.

 

The spectacular tantrum Olus threw when he lost to Aleci could be heard by the deaf.

 

"I told you." said Finne smugly to Aleci, gingerly eating the honeyed oatmeal Maera bought up earlier, "Olus, pull yourself together, you know you'd lose eventually."

 

"No!" shrieked Olus, "No, no, no, no, no, no! I want a rematch!"

 

"He doesn't understand your Imrukian, son."

 

"I want a rematch!" demanded Olus, breathing in angry huffs.

 

"Please." said Finne.

 

"I want a rematch, please, Master Aleci." said Olus, smiling too brightly.

 

The boy won the next round, but barely, and that was enough for him to demand a new game. Aleci obliged, seeing the amusement it bought Finne to watch them play.

 

"Do you play?" he asked Finne, while waiting for Olus to put the pieces into place.

 

"No." said Finne, making a move to cover his ears, and nodding pointedly at Olus.

 

Aleci laughed softly under his breath. He hadn't played the game in a while, and tolerated the many repeated requests of a rematch by Olus. It seemed that keeping Finne amused and distracted kept the nausea at bay. At the very least, he hoped so. His games with Olus continued until Maera bought up their dinner. The boy was a quick study, after three games he figured out Aleci's pattern of moving his pieces. Olus pronounced himself, prematurely as the better player upon this win. The joke's on the boy, thought Aleci, privately amused, he had played this game one two many times to only have one strategy.

 

The older woman made to take Olus's hand into hers, but Olus pulled away, "May I eat with you Master Aleci? For winning?"

 

From the corner of his eye he could see Finne rolling his eyes at Maera, who shook her head in amusement.

 

"Why not." he said, and the boy grinned, sitting himself by Finne's side.

 

There was the spiced meats he liked, bread rolls, and plate of fried cheese on top of green vegetables. Maera placed a soup bowl in front of Finne alongside his usual cup of tea. Finne looked at the bowl with a vague sort of distaste but not outright nausea. Olus, on the other hand, looked curiously at the spread before him, he was polite enough to wait for Aleci to start first before taking his portion. Olus made a face at the meat.

 

"It tastes wrong." he said.

 

"Don't spit it out." said Finne.

 

The boy didn't touch the meat after that, leaving Aleci to wonder how the Imrukians prepared their meat. Salted maybe? He wasn't sure if Finne was just unique in his odd tastes, judging by Olus's enjoyment of the fried cheese, maybe Finne was. Maera cleared up after their dinner, and when she came back to their bedroom to take Olus's hand, telling the boy that it was time for bed, the boy shook his head.

 

"Does he hurt you?" Olus demanded, angrily, pulling his hand from Maera's, scowling at the older woman when she tried to reach for his hand, "I'm not going- I'm not leaving if he-"

 

Finne sighed deeply, crouching down to pat Olus's cheek, "I have the sword by the bed if he does. Go with Maera, I'll see you tomorrow."

 

Olus looked deeply skeptical at this, he glared at Aleci, earning him a stern admonishment from Maera.

 

"Fine!" said Olus, stomping his feet, "Fine, I'll leave. You don't want me anyway!"

 

Whatever he said there earned him another veiled warning from from Maera.

 

"Olus!" snapped Maera, sounding scandalized.

 

"I'm sorry." mumbled Olus, sounding not at all sorry.

 

"Goodnight Master Aleci, Mistress Finne." said Maera.

 

The older woman tried to elicit the same farewell from Olus, who scowled, before giving a forced wide-tooth smile, "Good night Master Aleci."

 

He held out his arms expectantly to Finne, still couched down next to him, and Finne obliged, hugging him. "Goodnight mamaí, can I please train you tomorrow, if you feel better? Please?"

 

"If you behave." said Finne.

 

Olus had repeatedly called Finne mamaí the entire day. Was it a title or a child's mispronunciation? To him Finne didn't sound like mamaí at all, but well, maybe to a child's ear it did? The first time Olus called him so Finne looked like he wanted to admonish him, Aleci could see him throwing a concerned glance towards Aleci. He wasn't sure why that was, and decided it was best to ignore it and keep Finne at ease. He had kept lunch and dinner down for a couple of hours after all, there was no need to watch him miserably throw it back up.

 

"Shall we go to bed?" said Aleci, and when they were both comfortable he said, "Do carriers write poetry? I... know the Capital women write poetry."

 

"Why do you ask?" said Finne, raising an eyebrow.

 

"Well," said Aleci, struggling to put his limited Imrukian into a sentence and giving up partway, "You write poetry. Do the others write as well?"

 

"Yes." said Finne shortly.

 

"I like.. to hear it." said Aleci.

 

Finne frowns, "They are not... happy poems." he said finally, "Not like Tor o'Gelle and Lané."

 

"Why?" said Aleci, that word he knew well enough.

 

"The poets weren't happy." said Finne.

 

"Oh." said Aleci, glancing at the wax tablets on his lap.

 

"You still want to hear it?" said Finne, looking at him curiously, repeating, "You want to hear it?"

 

"Yes." said Aleci, hurriedly adding, "Yes. I would like to-" he struggled to say the word, "understand."

 

"Understand?" repeated Finne in disbelief. He stared at the wax tablet then at Aleci and shrugged, reaching for the stylus next to it, "It is not happy." he said again, beginning to write and draw on its surface.

 

Not happy was an understatement. It started innocently enough, Finne drew a picture of a travelling man, a merchant or medicine man, and another standing by a well. Like the other poem Finne had recited to him, this sounded like a song turned poem, though this one did not have the same boisterous cheer.

 

Wind blows on Llandy-o

Right 'tween the valley-o

A noble man was passing by

He stopped for a drink as he was dry

At the village of Llandy-o

Right 'tween the valley-o

"If your husband was passing by

You'd sate his thirst if he was dry

At the village of Llandy-o

Right 'tween the valley-o"

 

 

He swore by Ceres, he swore by Juno

A husband's hand he had never known

At the village of Llandy-o

Right 'tween the valley-o

 

He said, "Bearer, you're swearing wrong,

For three fine children you've had born

At the village of Llandy-o

Right 'tween the valley-o"

 

"If you're a man of such wise esteem

Pray tell to me what did happen to them

At the village of Llandy-o

Right 'tween the valley-o"

 

"Your uncle's child lies beneath the willow tree

At the village of Llandy-o

Your brother's child-"

 

Finne paused, he must have seen something on Aleci's face, "I told you it was not happy." said Finne shortly, staring at him with an I-told-you-so expression.

 

There was a knot in Aleci's throat. "It sounded nice." he said flatly, staring at Finne's illustrations, tracing the smile of the merchant that before looked kind, now seemed more sinister. He could guess at what came next in the poem, three unmarked graves for three unwanted children.

 

Finne scoffed, "Nice?" he repeated, disbelieving.

 

"Did you have children?" said Aleci, reaching out to hold Finne's hand.

 

Finne's hand clenched into fists, and he shook his head.

 

 

Chapter Text

Finne didn't speak to him for the rest of the night, turning away to face the side of the bed with the sword. It was probably a bad time to apologize, thought Aleci, wondering how close to reality the poem was to Finne's life. His mother had two stillborn sons between having his sister. Her birth bought his mother dangerously close to death's door and his parents did not have any children since. Something his father, on some level, lamented. But it was easier to mourn the potential talent of a child than come to terms with your son's middling abilities, Aleci thought sourly. His mother never spoke of the matter, and it was best to not bring it up in his letters to her.

 

He had never spent much time with children since the failure of a campaign he went on with his father. The interactions Finne had with Olus seemed closer than a caretaker to a child, but how would he know? It could be that Finne simply bonded with Olus in Imruk somehow, and the boy to him. They looked similar enough to be related, especially when both scowled or laughed. But then again, perhaps the boy's father was a relative of Finne somehow?

 

"Sleep." said Finne, suddenly, gripping his arm to quiet his restless tossing, "I am not mad. Not at you. Sleep."

 

"I can't just sleep on command, " protested Aleci, "like you."

 

"What do I do? To help you?" said Finne.

 

They've put out the candles, the darkness of the room made it difficult to read Finne's face.

 

"Come closer." said Aleci, extending out his arm to Finne, "Please?"

 

Finne moved closer with the cautious hesitation of one approaching a lion. "Like this?" he said, resting half his head on the pillow, half on Finne's upper arm. His face was turned away, but Aleci could feel his soft, rapid breaths against his skin.

 

"Yes." said Aleci, moving himself closer to Finne, his chest almost flushed against Finne's back.

 

Finne stiffened, and Aleci said, reassuring, "I don't want anything from you." he paused, "Should I move away?"

 

"No." said Finne, and Aleci could feel the rustling of bed sheets as Finne curled in upon himself. His breath hitched when Aleci put his arm across his stomach but calmed after some moments.

 

"Good night, Finne." said Aleci.

 

"Go to sleep." Finne replied, only half-annoyed.

Chapter Text

"Do you want to have your own rooms?" Aleci asked him the next morning.

 

Two proper meals seemed to have put color back into Finne's cheeks. "What?" said Finne, confused.

 

"Room." repeated Aleci, reaching for the tablet to scrawl a brief outline of the villa, and pointing to their current bedroom, "My father said you would have your own rooms-" here he gestured towards his mother's wing of the house, "do you want it?" he added, hastily, "I like this-" he waved vaguely around their current bedroom, "But do you want your own rooms? Olus can stay with you."

 

Finne blinked at him, "You sleep here?" he said, indicating to their bed, "You want me to le-"

 

"No." interjected Aleci, "I mean-" he struggled to find the words, half wondering if he should call Maera, and deciding he would if Finne still didn't understand him, "You like Olus, I thought it... would be simpler, to have him close by. So I don't have to bribe him to go away."

 

The corners of Finne's mouth twitched, "You want to play more Latrunculi? With Olus?"

 

"I don't mind." said Aleci, "It makes you happy, does it?"

 

Finne flushed and turned away.

 

"Well?" said Aleci, "Do you want the rooms?"

 

"I want you to spar with me." a pause, and a half smile, "And win. I'm not Olus, I can lose."

 

"You want me to win?" said Aleci, incredulously. He rather thought Finne enjoyed beating him.

 

"Yes." said Finne, "You win."

 

"Alright. It's a bit difficult task, you know, you are good." said Aleci.

 

"I know." said Finne.

 

He hadn't really thought about beating Finne. Which, well, was odd in itself, wasn't a man supposed to teach his wife what their place was? He strongly suspects beating, physically beating Finne, would do anything to teach Finne his place as a wife. Finne had easily pinned him weeks before, and before that there was the gritted teeth acceptance of his role. They weren't happy in the earlier days of their marriage, and Aleci strongly suspected the pent up anger-frustration Finne had shown would be targeted with deadly precision to him eventually, if that was how things continued. Maybe his father was a good matchmaker after all, when he'd paired both of them together. Galer knew he wasn't the type to enjoy dominance, and he'd given him a bride that...

 

But he was going off track from the topic at hand, he had never thought about beating Finne in their duels, victory in battle never bought him the sweet joy that it did to his father. How would he actually beat Finne? From what he'd seen of his wife, Finne was much too fast and agile, there was no way he could catch him off balance with what he'd been taught. It was possible, but he'll leave an opening, and he'd seen what happened when Finne saw an opening in an opponent. There was that move Finne had done to Praefect Damon, grabbing his sword and pinning him to the ground, but Aleci doubts he could perform the move against Finne. Never beat a master with his own sword, as they say. Well, there was one thing he could try, matching Finne's moves and wait for an opening. It would be difficult, he'd seen Oppius try it once before the old man gave up and resorted to his earlier experience. He doubts his feet was nimble enough to keep up, but, he only needed to be lucky once, that was the thing with duels, if you're not the talented one, rely on your luck. And it wasn't as if he was fighting for his life, if he failed, the worst Finne could do was laugh at him.

 

"Are you.. done?" said Finne, miming thinking, he had Aleci's tunic in his hand.

 

"Yes." said Aleci, surprised when Finne made to dress him, "Thank you." he said.

 

Finne grinned, and, to Aleci's surprise, leaned forward to kiss his cheek. He made to pull away, but Aleci stopped him, "Wait." said Aleci, mirroring the grin, "If I beat you, come to the bathhouse with me."

 

"A bribe?" said Finne, brightly.

 

"Yes." said Aleci, holding out his hand.

 

Finne stared at his hand, confused.

 

"Do you not do handshakes in Imruk?" said Aleci.

 

"Yes... but." said Finne, "I'm not-"

 

"Don't be stupid." said Aleci, noticing the twitch of Finne's lips when he said the word, "I want to shake your hand Finne, will you do the same?"

 

He thinks he sees conflicting emotions dancing across Finne's face before his hand was seized in the familiar callused grip.

 

"Win." said Finne, "Properly."

Chapter Text

He shouldn't have been surprised to see Olus awake and waiting for them at the training grounds. The boy wasn't carrying his sword, though he'd somehow gotten the shed open and was twirling a training staff with both hands.

 

"Good morning Master Aleci," he smiled at Finne, "Can we train, please, mamaí?"

 

"Only the forms. You can't hit me."

 

"Oh." Olus's eyes flickered towards Finne's stomach, "Are you going to have-"

 

"Yes."

 

"With him?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Hmph. He plays Latrunculi with me. I like that. Do you like him?"

 

"I don't know."

 

"Then why-"

 

"Are you here to practice or are you here to ask questions?"

 

"Practice!"

 

"You'd have to wait. I am going to duel with Aleci."

 

"Are you going to win?"

 

"You don't have to win every duel."

 

Olus gave Aleci a speculative look, "Should I bring you a staff Master Aleci?" he said.

 

"Go ahead." said Aleci.

 

The conversation was beyond his understanding. It was both too fast and unlike the Imrukian Finne spoke with Maera, it had odd emphasizes, most likely on the vowels, but he couldn't tell.

 

"What did you talk about?" he asked Finne, "You talk with Olus? It sounds different. Not Imrukian."

 

It was Finne's turn to look speculative, "It is Imrukian." he said, finally, "But well, not common Imurkian. High Imrukian." he indicated the latter by spreading out his hands.

 

"Oh." said Aleci, now curious if it was exclusive to the noble families, "I see."

 

"You want to learn this too?" said Finne, raising an eyebrow.

 

"Yes?" said Aleci.

 

"Learn Imrukian." said Finne, "High Imrukian is... different. Very different."

 

"I see." said Aleci.

 

He made to say more, but Olus came back with the training staff. The boy held it out to him expectantly.

 

"Are you going to win?" said Olus, looking expectant.

 

"I don't know." he replied, and Olus's eyes grew wide at the statement.

 

"He doesn't want to win." Olus said, to Finne, "He's so... strange."

 

"Well aren't you stranger for wanting to win all the time?"

 

"But I'm good!" exclaimed Olus, "I always win!"

 

"You can't be good at everything."

 

Olus huffed loudly at the last statement, crossing his arms, he turned his back to them, before climbing the fence to watch.

 

"Is he talking about winning again?" said Aleci, struggling with the last words.

 

Finne nodded, and shrugged, "I liked winning when I was his age."

 

"His age?" asked Aleci.

 

"Seven." said Finne, and then, seeing the confusion on Aleci's face, "Oh, his age, his age, you asked me his age."

 

"Did you know him when he was a baby?" said Aleci, blurting out the question that came to mind.

 

Finne spun around staff in hand, "Stop talking. Spar with me."

 

"F-"

 

He barely said an acknowledgement before Finne's staff met his. As he predicted, Finne was fast on his feet. And, as he predicted, he couldn't possibly match the dizzying pace. It was better to side step his attacks. So he did, concentrating on keeping his balance and his staff in hand than blocking Finne's hits. It was painful, obviously, Finne didn't exactly temper his hits, but after several thuds on his ankles and arms, he figured out the pattern. Side step, side step, stab, block and side step. It wasn't done in precisely that order, but he did promise to win did he?

 

They were close enough that he could see Finne's eyes widened when he realized Aleci was matching his movements. Finne made to stab him and he ducked out of the way, and there was that opening. There was no way he could disarm Finne gracefully, so he settled for putting his weight behind the blow. He thought Finne would flinch at least, or cry out, but the only sound came from the thud of the staff as it fell from his grip.

 

"You won." said Finne, looking impressed, "Huh."

 

"Didn't that hurt?" said Aleci, moving to take a look at where he'd hit Finne's wrist.

 

"No?" said Finne, puzzled, when Aleci took his wrist to feel for any damage.

 

It was the first time he'd properly looked at Finne's arms. The one time he'd grabbed at Finne's hands didn't end quite well. There were fine white lines on his fingers, and the top of his arms also had the same white fading lines.

 

"You win!" exclaimed Olus, running up to them, "How?"

 

"Because he's patient, and you're not-"

 

"I am patient. I'm the most patient person."

 

Finne laughed softly, shaking his head. Olus scoffed, stomping his feet, "I am!"

 

"Why don't you prove it to me then?"

 

"I will!"

 

"Bell the one eyed black cat, you know, the one you saw in my bedroom, and bring him back to me. Alive. Then you'll be the most patient person in this villa."

 

"Fine!" there was a long pause, "Where do I get a bell?"

 

"Ask Maera."

 

"I'll bring him back," said Olus, "you'll see."

 

Before he could blink, Olus had already vaulted off the fence and ran off.

"What did you say?" said Aleci, "To Olus?"

 

Finne shook his head, grinning. He picked up a stick on the ground and drew the black tom. "I told him-" he added a bell on the animal's neck, "to bell the cat. Then he can win at sparring."

 

"Bell the cat." repeated Aleci, "Are you sure... the cat is safe? That beast hates everyone."

 

"He likes me." said Finne shrugging, "Olus is always... fast. He loses because he's fast."

 

"You mean, impulsive?" said Aleci, "He does things without thinking?" he added, clarifying.

 

"Yes. Impulsive." agreed Finne, pulling Aleci closer, "Bathhouse?"

 

Aleci made to say something, but he was interrupted by a wry, "It must be nice to be married." from Mercus, he waved to Aleci and Finne from his perch on the fence, "Good morning, Mistress Finne. I see you're feeling better." said the young guard, looking privately amused at the whole affair, "And I must say, Master Aleci, you're quite good with your staff."

 

His raised eyebrow suggested that there was more to the statement, and Finne's laughter only confirmed it.

 

"We're leaving." said Aleci, shortly, taking Finne's hand into his.

 

"Enjoy the bathhouse!" Mercus called after them, "I cut all the wood to heat that up."

 

"Is this... what you were talking with him?" said Aleci, to Finne.

 

"He's funny." said Finne, then frowned, "Do you want me to stop?"

 

"No." said Aleci, recalling the earlier poem Finne had recited, "Just... well... I'm not Tor o'Gelle. I want you to be happy. With me."

 

He bit his lip at the time it took for Finne to reply.

 

"Mercus is not you." said Finne, finally, "He would not have.. won."

 

"Is that it?" said Aleci, feeling very out of his depth, "Winning?"

 

"No." said Finne, "You won, because..." there was a long pause, "You understand."

 

"I don't understand." said Aleci, pulling open the doors to the bathhouse.

 

Finne gave him a once over, he closed his eyes, and when he opened them, he said, "Aleci, I don't want Mercus to fuck me. I want you to fuck me."

 

"Oh." said Aleci, he'd heard that word before, whispered and moaned from Finne's lips. He stepped forward to help Finne pull off his tunic, "I can do that."

Chapter Text

Finne hovered uncertainly when Aleci pulled off his tunic. There was a softness to his chest that wasn't there before, Aleci thinks, his nipples looked darker against his pale skin. He wasn't sure if they were breasts, the hetairikos didn't have children, and the carriers in the Capital that did certainly didn't nurse them. They were a barrier to having more. From the way Finne gasped when he cupped them, and the soft whimper when he sucked at them with his mouth, they were definitely sensitive.

 

"Oh, Aleci!" gasped Finne, digging one hand into Aleci's hair, pulling him close with the other.

 

Aleci made short work of undressing Finne, tossing the smallclothes aside, mouthing at Finne's nipples as he did so. When he reached between Finne's legs, gently probing under his balls, his fingers came back wet and dripping. The few experimental thrusts he made with his fingers elicit more cries of pleasure from Finne, Aleci could feel his wife's rising cock against his body.

 

"Take it off." said Finne, pulling at Aleci's clothes.

 

"As you wish." said Aleci, pulling away to undo his belt and pulling off his tunic and tossing it aside. His smallclothes soon followed.

 

Finne looked at him with hooded eyes, cheeks pink. His gaze flickers to Aleci's face, then lower. Aleci smiled and stepped towards him again, backing Finne against the wall. Finne's gaze flickers from him to the door, then back again, his hands clenched into fists.

 

"Shh..." said Aleci, "I won't pin you, relax," he reached out to place one of Finne's arm over his shoulder, "Hold on."

 

Finne looked deeply skeptical at his suggestion, but put his other arm around Aleci's shoulder, interlacing his fingers.

 

"Your leg-" said Aleci, reaching to pull Finne's leg to his own hip.

 

Finne caught on to what he wanted, and soon he could feel both of Finne's heels digging into his back. It was an... athletic position, to say the least, he'd only ever did it a handful of times, and, well, perhaps Finne would enjoy it. He cupped the back of Finne's head with his left arm, reaching down with his right to direct his own cock into Finne's wet folds. Finne hissed softly when his cock entered him, though it soon turned into gasps of pleasure when Aleci reached down with his now free hand to stroke Finne's cock alongside the thrust of his hips. He could feel beads of sweat running down his fore head, from the heat of the bathhouse or from effort, he couldn't say. Finne dropped his head on Aleci's right shoulder, murmuring broken words and pleas into his skin. He could feel Finne's teeth graze his shoulder, and then pull away.

 

"Go ahead," panted Aleci, "Bite me. You want to, don't you?", he felt several hitching breaths against his skin, and he said again, encouragingly, "Go ahead, bite me, let me feel how much you enjoy this-" It was his turn to hiss, feeling the pain-pleasure of the burn on his shoulder and the tightness of Finne's body around his cock. "Oh, fuck, Finne." He thinks he could smell the metallic tang of blood, and the warmth of it trailing down his shoulder as he shuddered and came inside Finne's body. Breathless from the orgasm, he barely registered Finne's hand reaching down along his to pull at his own cock. He could feel Finne's soft gasps as he came, splattering Aleci's stomach with his come.

 

"Were you a cat, before?" said Aleci, after he recovered, lowering Finne's feet back to the ground, and turning his head to look at the still bleeding wound.

 

"Sorry." said Finne, looking embarassed, "Sorry, I didn't-"

 

"It's fine-" said Aleci, waving his apologies aside, and reaching for a towel to staunch the bleeding, "I asked."

 

Finne looked uncertainly at him, his hands seemed caught between wanting to help him with the bite wound and twisting nervously into fists at his side.

 

"You... like this?" said Finne, uncertainly, his gaze flickering from Aleci's shoulder to his face, as if looking for some unknown emotion.

 

"Why wouldn't I?" said Aleci, "You enjoyed it, didn't you? You liked it, biting me?"

 

Finne bit his lips, looking oddly vulnerable and didn't answer.

 

"Come bathe with me," said Aleci, "Aren't you cold standing there?"

 

He flinched when the water hit the bite, it had stopped bleeding but he could feel the sting. There was a soft splash as Finne lowered himself beside him.

 

"Come closer." said Aleci, gesturing for Finne to settle in front of him, between his legs.

 

Finne's hair was shoulder length now, longer than it had been when they married. He reached for the soap, gently running it through Finne's hair. It wasn't as curly in its wet state, and even when it was not it was hard to tell, Finne had taken to tying it well out way.

 

"Do you want me to braid your hair tomorrow?" said Aleci, asking the question out of the blue, and he demonstrated, separating three strands together when Finne half turned his head to look.

 

"How." said Finne, raising an eyebrow at him.

 

"How do I know?" said Aleci, guessing at the question, "You met Laria. My sister." said Aleci, "I braided it for her, like this," he piled Finne's hair into a messy crown into his head.

 

At Finne's bemused look at his blurry reflection in the water he rolled his eyes, "Your hair's wet. I can't do it properly when it's wet."

 

"Hm." Finne's gaze flickered to his shoulder again.

 

"It doesn't hurt," said Aleci, "Don't worry about it. Do you want me to braid your hair?"

 

"You can braid." said Finne, every word dripping with skepticism.

 

"I can. I'll show you tomorrow." said Aleci, "In your new rooms?" he saw Finne open his mouth to say, most likely ask something and he added, "I'll sleep with you, is that what you want?"

 

"Yes." said Finne nodding.

 

If only winning duels and war always resulted in such pleasant affairs, Aleci thought wryly, he would probably have won more of them.

Chapter Text

Aleci wasn't sure if the steward was more surprised at his decision to stay with Finne his mother's rooms or his request to clear up his childhood bedroom for Olus. The man's eyes had widened, but he simply shrugged his shoulders and got to work. They moved to the quarters not a day after he asked the steward. His mother's rooms were significantly bigger than the guest room that they had been staying in. She had a ornate vanity, which was a wedding gift from his grandfather, and a sizable collection of pins and jewelry to fill its drawers. Her clothes weren't kept there, she never liked leaving clothes in trunks, something about moths and smells, she'd said. There was a door on the right side wall leading to the nursery. The room next to the nursery was his childhood bedroom, still equipped with his wooden toys and clothes. When he was shown the room, Olus sniffed disdainfully at the wooden hoop and toy horse, but his attention was quickly caught by the collection of army soldiers. He made to reach for them then pulled his hand away, crossing it firmly on his chest.

 

"You can play with it you know." said Aleci, watching Olus's indecision with amusement, he continued in a mock whisper, "It's not childish if no one sees you playing with them."

 

From what he'd seen of Olus's arms, and the scab on his cheek, the boy's current mission to bell the tom was more failure than success.

 

"Isn't it... mean of you?" he said to Finne who shook his head.

 

"He wants things done quickly." said Finne, "Such things happen."

 

Olus interjected, "I have belled cats before. This one's harder to catch."

 

"Have you tried... being nice?" said Finne.

 

The two spoke in Imrukian when he was with them, and he found it was easier to understand Finne than it was to comprehend mix of High Imrukian and Imrukian that Olus spoke. Olus scoffed at Finne's suggestion before running off to his new bedroom.

 

"Sit." he said, directing Finne to the chair beside the vanity. Aleci stood behind him, frowning in concentration. His first attempt at braiding Finne's hair  resulted in a long silence. He thought Finne was offended at the plaited braids he'd pinned together, with one of his mother's silver pins, in a half crown. Finne touched it gingerly, staring at his reflection for a long moment.

 

"I don't know." he said finally, "Do you like it?"

 

"It looks ... better than tying it up." said Aleci.

 

"Do I look like a Capital woman?"

 

He wasn't sure if it was uncertainty in Finne's voice. Finne had gradually stopped wearing the stola altogether, opting for the same tunics that Aleci wore. At first Aleci thought it was more for convenience, it was impractical to train in a stola after all, what with its silky fabric wrapping around the wearer. He suspects Finne preferred to dress as a man, though he couldn't be certain. His wife's daily activities certainly didn't make wearing women's clothing practical. He could simply ask Finne, his Imrukian was improving after all, but he noticed that Finne would pointedly questions. He could press Finne, but, he didn't want to, their conversations were significantly less one-sided, now that he made an effort.

 

"If you look like a Capital woman," he said, deciding to finish in a tongue he was familiar with, "I wouldn't have married you."

 

"No?" said Finne.

 

"I don't like women." said Aleci, deciding to switch to Imrukian for emphasis, "Unfortunately, most men can't have children, so," he shrugged, "there have been no promised grandchildren, and well..."

 

He trailed off deciding it was better not to refer to when Galer bought Finne to meet him.

 

"Oh." said Finne, he looked contemplative, "Your father wants grandchildren?"

 

"As many as possible." said Aleci, and he caught the flinch on Finne's face, "Listen, the old man can talk all he wants, if you want to have less, or more, I won't force you."

 

"Why?" said Finne, pausing, "You could."

 

"I like your company." said Aleci, struggling to guess at Finne's expression, "I have... seen how childbirth can go... wrong. I ... like you over a child you may have."

 

It hadn't occurred to him until then, but now that he tried to answer Finne's question, he found that he was perfectly at peace with not losing sleep over a potential child's life than the married life he had. That was what Galer did, and he wasn't his father.

 

"Finne?" he said, when the silence stretched between them, Finne's face inscrutable in the mirror.

 

"You are strange." said Finne flatly, turning to look at him.

 

"Strange?" echoed Aleci, the word unfamiliar to him, "Is this... good or bad?"

 

"Come spar with me." said Finne, ignoring his question, he stood up and made to leave the bedroom.

 

He taps his foot impatiently when Aleci didn't follow him immediately. It was another instant where he didn't answer a question, thought Aleci, but maybe he wasn't sure what to make of Aleci's question in the first place. He made a note to ask Olus what strange meant.

Chapter Text

It was hard to find Olus during the day, the boy seemed spend his mornings and afternoons roaming around the villa in search of the black cat. Olus had tried catching it while it was sitting in Finne's lap one day and gotten another series of scratches for his troubles. It didn't seem to daunt him, if possible, it made him even more determined. Aleci could hear the soft jingling of the bell as the boy stalked around the villa with it clenched in his fist. At night he was with Finne, curled up around his wife as Finne read one of Aleci's books to him. Finne occasionally stopped reading to draw pictures, as it was a long running complaint of Olus that, as Aleci understood it, "what kind of story book doesn't have pictures".

 

The benefit to listening in to his wife's stories was that Finne told it in Imrukian and he caught on quickly to the words. After the stories Finne would carry the boy back to his room. Since moving to his new room Olus didn't give the slightest bit of attention to Maera, except for the polite responses he would give to her. The same polite response and distance Finne used to show him. But then again, Maera didn't raise Olus, Finne did, and was it not usual for a child to act like their... parent?

 

He frowns at that. Finne would have told him, wouldn't he, that Olus was his child? Finne had always been evasive whenever he asked about Finne's past. It was like walking on an icy lake, any unwanted question would break the fragile serenity they had between them. Olus called Finne mamaí and, while it was in High Imrukian, it sounded like the Imrukian word for mother. He should ask Olus, he thought, light, innocent questions out of earshot of Finne that would at least reveal whether or not the boy was really Finne's son.

 

The chance came to ask Olus one rainy day when Finne felt unwell again, the vomiting keeping him up all night and leading to him sleeping well into the day.

 

"Sleep," he said, running a hand through Finne's sweat soaked hair, "I'll go see to things."

 

He pulled the blankets over Finne's body, making sure that the empty basin was well within reach. When he entered Olus's room, he found the boy had built an elaborate fort out of rocks and sticks he'd found throughout the villa, placing half of the wooden army men onto one side and half onto the other side. The boy was doing a running commentary, Aleci thinks, about how a battle was fought and which side was the winner.

 

"Good afternoon, Olus."

                                                    

Olus glanced at him, then turned back to the wooden soldier he had in his hand, "Good afternoon, Master Aleci."

 

"No luck in finding the cat?" said Aleci.

 

"It's raining." said Olus, pointing out the window, looking miffed, "All cats go off and hide when it rains. It's stupid to go looking."

 

"Do you want to play Latrunculi with me?"

 

The boy placed the wooden soldier to the side, to look at him curiously, "And what do I get, if I win?" said Olus, "You know Imrukian, why should I teach you?"

 

"Well, how about this? If I take a piece, I ask you a question, and if you take a piece, you ask me a question."

 

"I don't like that. It's boring."

 

"How about I ask Maera to cook you anything you like, for a week if you win? Within reason?"

 

Olus perked his head at this, nodding, "Deal."

 

His face immediately fell when Aleci took one of his pieces not a moment before starting the game.

 

"Where did you live in Imruk?"

 

"In the big house. Obviously." Olus took two of Aleci's pieces and scowled when he lost a piece to Aleci.

 

"What does strange mean?"

 

"I thought you knew Imrukian." said Olus matter-of-factly, "It means not normal, you know, like a woman with snakes in her hair. That's not normal."

 

So he found Finne's drawing of Medusa fascinating rather than creepy. Aleci filed the fact under things he would never understand about children. "What's your favorite food?" he asked, moving another piece on the board.

 

"Are you asking so you can tell Maera when I win? It's the fried cheese. I like those."

 

"What was your mother's favorite food?" he said, taking another piece of Olus's.

 

Olus paused at this, frowning at him, "Why do you ask?"

 

"My mother's favorite food was dried dates. You can tell a lot about a person by what their mother likes."

 

"That doesn't make sense at all." Olus squints suspiciously at him, then shrugged, and said, "But if you really want to know, it's iced sugar berries."

 

"Iced sugar berries?"

 

"You have snow," said the boy, patiently, "And you have berries, and you mix it with honey and cream, and you beat this into the ice."

 

"I've never had it." he glanced at the board, realizing he'd made a mistake earlier and the next turn would make Olus the winner.

 

"You haven't gone to Imruk in the winter. It's the best. Not as much as the fried cheese, it's the best-est." the boy looks at the board, moving to capture Aleci's pieces, and gleefully proclaiming, "I win! Ha!"

 

"So you did." said Aleci.

 

"I want to play again." said Olus, "I'm asking the questions this time."

 

"Isn't that what I said earlier?"

 

"Yes, and your questions are stupid." Olus sniffed, repeating "They really are. How can you even tell what a person is like from what food their mother likes?"

 

"It's true." lied Aleci, setting the board again.

 

He let his first token be taken, curious as to what question Olus would ask of him.

 

"You're married." said Olus, and then bluntly, "Don't married men beat their wives?"

 

"Why do you ask that?" said Aleci, shocked.

 

"I'm the one asking questions here. That's the rules. You said so." said Olus, crossing his arms, "Is it true? That all men beat their wives?"

 

"I don't." said Aleci, "So it's not true."

 

"But why?" said Olus, pushing the board away to stare at Aleci, "Why don't you?"

 

"Because..." Aleci stared at Olus's earnest expression, struggling to find an explanation the boy would easily accept. His gaze fell to the board. "You see this board right?", he set up the board, making sure to put the pieces into the familiar set up of the first game he bested Olus with.

 

"Right." said Olus, staring at the board with a renewed scowl.

 

So he remembered his loss. "If you saw the pieces like this again, would you make the same move as you did before?"

 

"No." said Olus, "Because I'll lose." he frowns, "I don't know what you are saying. What does this-" he gestured to the board, "have anything to do with my question?"

 

"But if you kept on making the same move over and over again-"

 

"Then I'm stupid." said Olus irritably, "And a loser. What does this have to do with my question?"

 

"That's what happens when you beat your wife." said Aleci, deciding to target the boy's penchant for victory as the basis for his explanation, "You're not a winner."

 

"But-" Olus's frown deepens so much his forehead was wrinkled, "I don't understand." he said finally, "You don't make sense."

 

"Do you think I'm a good Latrunculi player?" said Aleci.

 

"No." said Olus, adding, calculatingly, "Master Aleci."

 

"Are you a good Latrunculi player then?"

 

"Yes." said Olus.

 

"What do you think makes a good player?"

 

"They win."

 

"Yes, and how do they win?"

 

"They... know the moves?"

 

"Well, yes, but, they learn from their mistakes. They don't do the- " he paused, adding Olus's second favorite word, "loser move over and over again and expect to win."

 

"I don't understand." said Olus, looking frustrated now.

 

"What happens when you hit someone?" said Aleci forgoing the connection to Latrunculi altogether.

 

"They get hurt if you hit them hard enough." said Olus.

 

"Yes, and how does that make them feel?"

 

"They... are...." a long pause, "scared? Of you?"

 

"Exactly."

 

"So?"

 

"Olus, what is the point in making someone, that you live in the same house with, that you vow to protect, scared of you?"

 

"Then why do men do it?"

 

"I'm a man, I don't do it." he hesitated, wondering if the boy's father was who he thought he was, "Do you think you would do it?"

 

"... No." said Olus.

 

"Did I answer your question?"

 

"Does it make you a loser if you do?"

 

"Do you think it makes someone a loser?"

 

"You are terrible at answering questions." said Olus, standing up, and stomping his foot, "I'm leaving."

 

Olus stood, and made to go out the door to the adjourning courtyard and only stopped when he realized it was still raining. Olus scowled, turning back to him, "May I ask you to leave, Master Aleci? Is that rude? I don't care. I want you to leave."

 

"It's your room." said Aleci, his questions answered, "I'll see you at dinner then."

 

There was no answer and the door clicked firmly shut behind him.

Chapter Text

His father had declared, after they came back from his first campaign, that he would most likely die on the second, his incompetence was legendary. It spared him from other further lectures and sermons, though now, he wished he'd paid more attention to them, they were, in hindsight, actually helpful. Not the lectures on militia and leading armies, that ship had sailed for him, but the ones on resolving a conflict prior to declaring war. It wasn't a conflict he had with Finne, that was ludicrous, it was more along the lines, a confrontation about his suspicions would not be a wise course. Was there a specific lecture he can recall now to avoid such a thing?

 

The only one that came to mind was the story of how the Sun won a victory over the North Wind. It wasn't even a lecture of his father's now that he thinks of it. It was one of those traveling wise men that lectured on the streets of the Capital every so often. It went something along the lines of, the Sun and the Wind competed on who could force a traveler to remove his cloak. The Wind went about it by attempting to blow the cloak off the traveler, but that only made the man clutch it closer to his chest. The Sun won their competition by warming the man and causing him to discard his cloak altogether. "This is the way wives act with their jewelry and baubles", said the wise man, "Husbands, do not forcibly remove your wives of their luxury and extravagance, for your wives would only cling to them like the traveler did with his cloak. Instead, reason with them to be moderate with finery, and they will peaceably put them aside."

 

He remembered laughing at the speech, mainly because he'd seen his own father given up on swaying his mother not to buy certain things, and his father was even guilty of buying her things to apologize. The men in the crowd didn't seem to share his opinion, they all had nodded agreeably, clapping at the wise man's words, but their wives in the Capital were still decked in jewels the next day, and the days after that, and to this day in fact. Though, now that he thought on the matter, maybe the wise man's comparison was wrong, but the gist of it was true. Finne kept his secrets, and a confrontation would not lead to anything good. It was better to figure out why he'd kept it in the first place. He wasn't quite sure why. Finne wasn't a virgin, was it unreasonable that he had a child before their marriage? It wasn't as if the Empire had any qualms about widows remarrying, men go off to war, they die, and it would be ludicrous to expect their widows to support themselves and their children alone. Even the Emperor married a widow, he had concerns about fertility and she had proven herself to be fertile in her previous marriage. Finne could have told him the boy's identity, he wouldn't have treated the boy any differently. Could it be an Imrukian tradition, the children of a previous father should not be tolerated?

 

Of course, he doubts he could stride into their bedroom and ask Finne what the Imrukian customs were. There was one person who could tell him, and that was Maera, though if she was loyally keeping Finne's secret it was doubtful he could outright ask her. She wasn't a child, the old woman would see right through it. He'd have to go the round about way of asking and hope she didn't catch on.

 

It was hard to catch Maera alone, she was in his wife's rooms all day coaxing whatever food and water she could into Finne's mouth. He decided to pay her a visit at night, a scandalous thing if Maera was younger, and if he liked women. The servants would probably assume he wanted to fetch her for some task or another.

 

Maera didn't seem to look too surprised when she opened her door and saw him.

 

"It's normal, Master Aleci." said the woman, "Please, go back to bed. If it wasn't, I would have been by your wife's side now."

 

"No, no, I just... want to ask some questions."

 

"Questions?" said the older woman, sounding incredulous, "At this hour? They must be truly bothering you." she sighed deeply, "And I was thinking about enjoying my evening... are there many questions?"

 

She made to leave her room, wrapping her shawl tighter around herself but Aleci shook his head, "No, don't trouble yourself, I can come in."

 

"How scandalous." said the woman, wryly. Maera offered him a blanket as a cushion, sitting on one herself, she said, "Go on, then, Master Aleci, what do you wish to ask?"

 

It was maybe better to first engage Maera with her past instead of jumping to the present. "I don't think you're just a cook, are you?" said Aleci, "Maybe I should have asked sooner, but well, I didn't think about it until now."

 

"Well yes, us old women tend to pick up a thing or two." said Maera, "Why did this thought trouble you so much you came to me at this hour?"

 

"You figured out why Finne was uncomfortable and... suggested something that fixed it. How did you know?"

 

"Of course it's about sex." muttered Maera under her breath, "Well, before I came here, I was what you call in the Capital a wise woman."

 

"Wise woman?" said Aleci, "What do they do?"

 

"They don't stand in squares and give speeches, or lecture to students." said Maera, "They do many tasks, though, coincidentally enough, they all start with the letter m in your tongue, mediating, medicine, midwifery. I was better at the first of the three."

 

"What did you do as a mediator?"

 

"Oh, you know, when a young couple, or old, but usually a young couple, comes to me with problems, I try to resolve them before either one petitions for a divorce."

 

"Either one?" said Aleci, surprised.

 

"Yes. The wife can petition for a divorce on many grounds in Imruk. Well, when I lived there at least, that was years and years ago. The most common one is impotence of the husband, and as it is a rather humiliating series of events to confirm such, it is usually the men that seek out my advice."

 

"You can petition for this?" said Aleci, flushing.

 

"Yes," said Maera, "Obviously there are other reasons why one gives such a petition, but impotence is quite, I shall say, a clever reason. Adultery is quite hard to prove, you need witnesses and they often recant if the offending party bribes them enough. Impotence on the other hand... well. The trial for impotence is usually slanted in favor of the wife."

 

"How so?" said Aleci, fascinated.

 

"After a series of examinations, the husband would be asked to perform in front of witnesses. To see if he could, as they say, do the deed. Usually the audience hinders the performance."

 

"Oh." said Aleci, "I... well.. that's interesting. Is that still a practice in Imruk?"

 

"No." said Maera, "I have only been witness one such trial, the wise women had gone underground, so to speak, when I took my apprenticeship. I daresay they and their practices are gone from Imruk altogether now."

 

"I see." said Aleci, "So what happened if the divorce petition was approved? What happens then?"

 

"Nothing much for the common folk, though obviously one cannot be too eager to remarry, it is the same when one's husband or wife passes, an acceptable period of time must have passed." said Maera, "But the nobles always have their own set of rules. Violent, the lot of them, but what can you do?"

 

"Violent?" said Aleci, raising an eyebrow.

 

"Oh yes." said Maera, pausing to pour herself a cup of tea, she offered him a cup and he took it politely, it smelled herbal, it was probably chamomile and some other plant, "A divorce doesn't work the same with nobles. I mean, the men have several wives so what's their incentive for asking for one, they'll just take another. The last time such a divorce happened it was because one of their wives ran off with her lover and both were bought back. The results were quite bloody. They treat it like how they hand over power to new rulers. A duel to the death between the two men, no weapons. In this particular case, the runaway wife's husband won, and he took over the dead husband's house. And so it goes, the dead man's children are killed, and as per tradition, the Imrukian nobles go step above the Empire and put the losing man's wives to sword as well, when they are usually sent off in exile on some island upon their Emperor husband's death here, I'm told." she shrugged, "I maybe unfair, the Empire's conquest of territories is quite ruthless too, what with crucifixion of rebel leaders- the Empire does love its crucifixion, not a clean sword cut, no, no, two planks of wood and nails should bring proper fear and compliance to the populace. Not to mention, the ages of those who can, as they say, wield a sword has gotten lower and lower too."

 

"What do you mean?" said Aleci.

 

"Shouldn't you ask your father this instead of me? He's one of the men that voted on such matters. I know, because he talked about it Praefect Cimul when I was in his house. Depending on how much resistance the populace puts up, it can be as young as seven."

 

Aleci fiddled with his cup, suddenly very uncomfortable. "I wrote a letter to my mother." he said, "About Finne's pregnancy, I think, she would send for a doctor. That's probably why it's taking her so long to reply. Should I send him away? I didn't know you were a midwife, I would've mentioned it to her and save her the trouble. Finne trusts you, wouldn't it be better to have you at the birth than whoever my mother sends?"

 

Maera blinks, "Oh. Well. I did not think you would consider sending the doctor away. Hm. I don't know, to be honest with you, Master Aleci, I cannot speak highly of my midwifery skills, I delivered my grandchildren and those of my friends, but I told you before I was a better mediator. Capital doctors come in all sorts of colors. Let us see how this one acts before you decide hm?"

 

"Right." said Aleci, "And another question."

 

"Sure. What is it?" said Maera.

 

"If Finne likes sweets so much, why don't you cook him some? My mother liked eating things from her childhood. Maybe he'd like to eat sweet things, in general, from Imruk.", and now to ask the question, he thought, "What would sweets would your children like to eat, when they were pregnant?"

 

"I..." Maera looked thoughtfully, "It has been some years. I don't quite recall. To be honest, none of them liked sweets, even as children. They were more fond of pickled vegetables and the like. Pickling is easier than the finicky times one needs for whipping and churning. But I suppose I'll give it a try."

 

Well, that was a lot easier than he'd thought, he didn't even have to ask further. How convenient, it was, that Maera's children didn't like sweets. Praise Juno. He might as well as the other question that was on his mind.

 

"Do carriers have a more difficult time giving birth?" he blurted out.

 

"First time father concerns?" said Maera, looking sympathetic, "Well, honestly, I can't say for you to not worry, sometimes things go badly during the birth and there's really nothing one can do but pray. I know I've been less than enthusiastic about whatever you two do in the courtyards, but as long as he's active, and, well you are smart enough to avoid hitting him anywhere here-" she indicated her stomach, "it might make the birth easier. You are using muscles when giving birth, and it helps to keep the body active." she said when he opened his mouth to ask how it was so, "And it does-" She paused, shaking her head, "Ah here I go, lecturing, you're not my apprentice. I doubt you'd like to hear more."

 

"I'd like to." he said, adding, "Do you have the midwifery tools? I don't recall you do. Should I give you the funds to get them?"

 

She raised an eyebrow at this, "That is very generous of you, Master Aleci."

 

"I would be paying the doctor anyway, and I doubt he'll be staying long." said Aleci, "I don't think the doctor would speak Imrukian anyway. Doesn't that make it a barrier in administering to a patient?"

 

"It does, now that you mentioned it." said Maera, biting her lip, "How is your Imrukian coming along then, Master Aleci? I heard from Olus that you were learning. That you were a terrible at it, actually, but the boy labels every non-native attempt as terrible."

 

"Of course he would." said Aleci.

 

"Do you want me to slow down when I'm talking to your wife? I can talk to you sometimes, if you'd like." said Maera, "I don't know how much you understand me at my usual speed."

 

"I would appreciate that, yes." said Aleci.

 

"Alright." said Maera, "Now, is that all, Master Aleci?"

 

"Yes." he hesitated, "Oh, right, yes, that is all I have questions."

 

"All the questions I have." corrected Maera.

 

"All the questions I have." repeated Aleci, "Thank you. Good night Maera."

 

"Good night, Master Aleci." said Maera.

Chapter Text

The doctor that Aleci expected his mother would send for showed up later than week. He looked like other doctors though slightly dusty from the travel and introduced himself as Naeuso. He handed Aleci his mother's letters as proof.

 

"He looks... clean." said Maera, eyeing the man, "His tools look well-cared for."

 

Finne looked distastefully at the man, as Aleci expected, but the odd smelling potion Naeuso gave him seemed to have calmed his stomach in a way that Maera's tea didn't. Naeuso smiled triumphantly at this, saying that while he would like to have a full examination of the patient tomorrow when he's had a full night's rest.

 

The next day, Finne was anxiously twirling the pin around one hand as they waited for the doctor to prepared the room with his equipment.

 

"Don't worry." said Aleci, reassuringly, "He can't be that bad."

 

"He can't be that bad if his potion worked." said Maera, smelling the contents of the potion earlier.

 

The two of them waited outside the door, and jumped when a yelp of pain came from the room. The door flew, hinges screaming and Finne darted out, trying to wrap his stola around himself as he did so.

 

"Your bitch wife tried to killed me," yelled Naeuso, running out the room, waving around his bloodied hand, and pointing the other at Finne, "you horrible wench, your husband should have beaten you within an inch of your life."

 

"You tied me down and said you wanted to cut everything off!", screamed Finne, red faced, "You should be happy I didn't stab lower you cantankerous bastard!"

 

His green eyes met Aleci's, and widened, seeing Aleci's dawning recognition. His gaze then flickered to Maera, and then he stormed away.

 

"I'll... go after him Master Aleci." said Maera, also wide eyed.

 

"What did you do?" demanded Aleci.

 

"The usual," snapped Naeuso, "pregnant carriers can't have testicles. It fouls the humors in the body. Cause them to miscarry and all sorts of maladies. You said it yourself that he wasn't doing well, I treated the cause."

 

"How could that possibly be the cause?" said Aleci, furious, "If a woman showed the same symptoms would you lop off her breasts?"

 

Naeuso ignored him, "He's ill tempered as well. That always lead to an imbalance in the humors and an uneasy pregnancy. If you want him to carry your child to term you let me tie him down and finish the operation. "

 

"No." snarled Aleci.

 

"Then pay me for my troubles. You wasted my time coming here." said Naeuso.

 

"You already took money from my mother to come here," snapped Aleci, "leave, and take your incompetency with you."

 

"I'll have you know I am the one they call for in the Capital." said the man, getting up to Aleci's face, "All the babies I delivered lived."

 

"And no doubt you killed their mothers in the process. You hack." snapped Aleci, "Go. Before I run you off myself."

 

"I was paid to deliver a healthy child, not to ensure the mother's happiness." said the doctor, "But fine, if both of them die, have that on your conscience."

 

"Leave!" Aleci shouted.

 

The man shot Aleci a murderous look, storming into the room to pack up his medicine kit. Aleci didn't wait to watch him go, he swallowed deeply. Finne had understood him the entire time. He wanted to pull out entire clumps of his hair in frustration, a confrontation was the last thing he wanted. What was he supposed to even say now?

Chapter Text

Though, thinking on it as he walked to their room, he felt like the that the confrontation he was trying to avoid so far was going to happen. Though he never expected Finne to understand the tongue the entire length of their marriage. Why did his wife want to complicate their marriage? If Finne had told him what he wanted, he would have been more than willing to make him happy. But a part of him whispered that he initially resented Finne because he came with his father, and all the strings attached.

 

"Good luck, master Aleci." said Maera at the door, her face a mixture of pity-sympathy, "I expected this would happen." she shook her head, "Ah well. At least it's not unfixable. Go and talk to him. Properly."

 

Finne was sitting on their bed, clutching the pin from Corcius in one hand. Aleci sighed deeply.

 

"I didn't know you spoke my tongue. You-" don't say should, don't say should, he thought, pausing to think of his next words, "it would have been easier for us both if I had known."

 

"You didn't want to know." said Finne, "I tried earlier. In the Capital. Did you not remember? I tried and you ignored me. I thought you wanted compliancy and I gave it to you. Why are you angry about it?"

 

"I'm not." said Aleci.

 

"You are." said Finne, shooting him a fearful glance, "You want to hit me. I can tell. You resented your father and you took your resentment on me."

 

"I don't want to hit you, and I'm not going to," said Aleci, holding out his hands placating, "yes, you're right, I do resent my father, but, I'm not him. I have tried to not be him-"

 

"You have always done what your father told you to do." interrupted Finne, snarling, "You married me because he said so. You fucked me because he put his steward to watch, you are having a child with me because he wishes for one. Why should I believe you? What is stopping you from going with his wishes if he wants Edon dead?"

 

"Edon?" said Aleci, confused at the foreign name and the sudden change in topic, "Olus? You mean Olus?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Why would he want Olus dead?" said Aleci, "Edon," he clarified, figuring that was the boy's real name, "He is a child in the Capital, what harm can he do?" he paused, "Who is Edon's father?"

 

Finne refused to answer. Aleci stepped closer to the bed, deciding against sitting down for the time being.

 

"Look, as far as my father is concerned Edon's father is a man from Imruk, one of your relatives, if he knows more about the customs." said Aleci, "Which, let me tell you, he doesn't really care to learn. So what? He is a child, what harm is he going to do? And why would he want Edon harmed?"

 

"Your father had no qualms ordering such in Imruk."

 

"We're not in Imruk! My father can't harm a child here without reason."

 

"He has a reason!"

 

"What is it?"

 

"What is stopping him? You? Why would I trust you?"

 

"We don't resolve our disputes with bloodshed in the Empire. Hypocritical I know, but such is the state of things. What do you want me to do to prove this to you?" Aleci paused breathing deeply when he realized Finne was physically cringing away from him, he continued in softer tones, "I apologize, truly, for what I did to you earlier in our marriage, but, I can't change what I did, and you gave no indication you understood what I was saying. I am trying Finne, I can't fix what I did earlier, what do you want me to do?"

 

There was more silence from Finne. Aleci stared at the wall, struggling to find a solution, an acceptable solution, "Do you want me to claim Edon as my own child? Would that reassure you of my intentions?"

 

Finne blinked at him, incredulous, "How?"

 

"I send for paperwork from the Capital, fill it out with my declarations of Edon's inclusion into my family and have them authorized the Capital."

 

"I don't understand."

 

"The Empire has fought enough wars that adoption is a common practice. This is easily done. I can show you the forms if you want to read them yourself."

 

"Your father-"

 

"My father respects laws and rules and such. He won't harm another man's child," he clarified, "another man's child from the Empire."

 

It was very likely distrust he saw from Finne now, and he shouldn't have been surprised.

 

"Look, all my father knows, if he wishes to know, which, let me say from experience, he doesn't, he's not the bookish type, is that Edon is your son from Imruk, and that the father is likely one of your..." he rolled the word around his tongue before saying, "relatives. I will take him as one of my own. Why would he want harm to come to his grandson, in such case? And Edon is more proficient martially than even I was at that age, he would actually be more happy to have such a grandson."

 

There was more silence from Finne. Aleci ran a hand through his hair, frustrated. At the very least this time it wasn't because he thought Finne couldn't understood him.

 

"Whatever you're thinking, you don't have to tell me. If I show you this paper, and give my declaration on it, will this suffice as a sign of trust in my intentions?" he breathed in deeply, trying hard not to raise his voice, "Quando tu Gaius, ego Gaia." he said, softly, "I won't deny I was terrible to you earlier. I would like our marriage to work. I enjoy your company, the sparring, and your poems. Please Finne."

 

Finne's hands twisted in his lap, he'd let go of the pin. He hadn't look at Aleci the entire length of their conversation, "I don't understand why you treat me like this."

 

"What do you mean?" said Aleci, deciding it was safe to sit down next to him.

 

"You let me spar with your guards. You let me win. You let me wear men's clothing. You sleep in the same bed with me and ask for nothing. You want me to enjoy-" Finne trails off, before spitting out, "Why?" there was open bafflement in every word Finne spoke.

 

"You win because you're good." said Aleci, matter-of-factly, " And I like having a bed partner, someone that enjoys my company. I assume you do enjoy it, now, otherwise you'd wanted me to leave. As for the other things you said, what harm does it do?"

 

"And what of your reputation? Your honor? Do you not care for that? Do you not care what other men would say?" Finne grits his teeth, "When another Praefect visits, and he makes suggestions as to which parts of my body you should have cut off, will you just sit through it all and smile?"

 

"I didn't smile, I drank. That's how I deal with guests I must host out of obligation." said Aleci, "I didn't know you understood Praefect Damon said, and I couldn't understand what he said to you. Look, you are capable of defending yourself with your words and your sword. Do so next time." he added, "Like you did just now."

 

"Your honor then?"

 

"If I cared for my honor I would've continued campaigning with my father. He must have told you of my various failures since then, he tells everyone."

 

"What of visits to the capital? You have friends there, don't you? Will you want me to behave as the carriers do there? I cannot just stay in their wives' company while you do so. They would want me to be cut."

 

"Can I please repeat myself, again, that if you looked like a woman below," he gestured to his own crotch, figuring that any attempt to touch or reach out to Finne would be unwanted, "I wouldn't be interested? My friends know of my proclivities. You needn't be concerned. Look, you can stay by my side, if you wish. Or stay here. I won't force you to visit the Capital. And I won't have you mutilated."

 

"Mutilated." repeated Finne, scoffing, disbelieving.

 

"It isn't natural."

 

This gave Finne some pause. He stared at Aleci, then demanded, "How many children do you want from me?"

 

"How many do you want?"

 

"... I don't know."

 

"One problem at a time. If you want more after this one," he paused, trying to find the right words and settling on, "Tell me. Now. if I show you these papers, and my declaration on them, would this suffice you?"

 

There was another long silence, and Finne finally said, ".. Yes."

 

"Thank Juno." said Aleci, raising both arms in the air, "Our first long conversation and it sounded like a courthouse."

 

"Sorry." said Finne, not sounding sorry at all.

 

"You should've just told me from the start. But I should've been kinder as well, so, we're equally as guilty. Possibly me more than you." he let out a breath, trying to meet Finne's eyes, "Do you want this marriage to work?"

 

"Yes." said Finne sounding uncertain, looking away. Aleci supposed he shouldn't blame him.

 

"You understand me completely yet you insist on one worded sentences." he remarked.

 

"Maybe." Finne looked amused when his eyes met Aleci's.

 

"Alright." said Aleci, relieved. Perhaps he should change the topic, "Why don't you tell me another poem. An Imrukian one."

 

"You want to continue learning?" said Finne, sounding surprised.

 

"Yes? You're Imrukian, you're my wife, why should I not? Also, it's useful if you are uncomfortable in others' company, you can tell me. I doubt everyone in the Capital speaks Imrukian."

 

"You assume I would want to visit the Capital."

 

"I think you would like it. I won't force you to go if you don't. I am sorry I did not show you its sights earlier." he paused, wondering if he should say more and continued, "I'm sorry for my earlier behavior. I don't expect you to forgive me..." he trails off.

 

The silence that followed was even longer than the others before it. He made to leave, standing up from the bed.

 

"Wait." said Finne, reaching to pull him back, Finne didn't meet his eyes, and there was a wavering tone in his voice when he said, "I don't know what to say... I've... never had anyone apologize to me."

 

"Didn't Olus-" Aleci corrected himself, "Edon do so?"

 

"He... never apologized." said Finne shortly, he made to move away from Aleci, pressing his hands over his eyes as his breath stuttered. The pin fell with a clatter to the floor, metal and wood on stone.

 

Aleci moved forward, hovering just beyond touching Finne, indecisive as to whether or not it would be welcomed. He decided to do so, wrapping his arms around him. Finne stiffens against him, Aleci thought he would pull away, it certainly felt like he wanted to until his body fell against Aleci's. He felt the wetness of Finne's tears soak his tunic, the hitching of Finne's shoulders and he pressed his cheek against Finne's mess of curls, tightening his grip around Finne.

 

"I'm sorry." Aleci whispered, not knowing what else to say.

Chapter Text

Maera looked relieved when they stepped through the door. She exchanged a look with Finne, who gave a half shake of his head. At this Maera sighed deeply, though she gave Aleci a smile. "I daresay you did quite well, Master Aleci." said the older woman, "I thought I would have to step in. I'm glad my services were not needed."

 

She gave him a pointed look at the word services, and Aleci looked away, embarrassed she saw through his attempted subtlety.

 

"You didn't see Edon did you?" said Finne, and glancing at Aleci, repeated, "Did you see Edon, Maera?"

 

"No." said Maera, "But I suspect he'll be back soon. I told him when he sneaked into the kitchens earlier I'll prepare the cheese dish again." she looked at Finne, "Where do you want to have dinner?"

 

"The bedroom." said Finne.

 

"Master Aleci?" questioned Maera.

 

"Do you want me to eat with you?" said Aleci, and Finne nodded.

 

"I'll take my leave then, unless you need anything else from me?" said Maera.

 

"No, thank you." said Finne, and he turned to walk back into the bedroom.

 

Maera watched him go, and said, quietly, "Well, you didn't talk about everything, did you?"

 

"No." said Aleci.

 

"You'll have to wait until he tells you." said Maera, "He doesn't really tell me much about... whatever happened in Imruk. I suppose I can tell you what I've gathered, but, begging your pardon, it would break his trust in me. If you insist I will tell you what I've gathered, but, I think, it is best you figure it out yourself."

 

"Of course. I understand." said Aleci.

 

She bowed and left for the kitchens, leaving Aleci to stand by the door for a moment before knocking and stepping in. Finne was sitting on the bed, idly twirling the pin in his right hand, his gaze on the wall.

 

"What does it say?" said Aleci, sitting next to him and gesturing towards the pin.

 

"What?" said Finne, looking distracted, "Oh, this?" he stared at the markings, then said, "Blessed are the wives who accept their wedded duty."

 

"You specifically chose this one?" said Aleci, wondering why Finne had picked that particular pin.

 

"Well, yes. It does sound..." Finne cocked his head to the side, staring at Aleci, "Domineering? Dominating?"

 

"Dominating." agreed Aleci.

 

"The woodcarver was having a laugh at the poor husband bought it." said Finne, faintly amused, adding, "Not you, you didn't read it. But, if you know what poem it comes from you'd know it's the complete opposite."

 

"Oh?" said Aleci.

 

"You asked for a poem." said Finne, "Do you want to hear this one?"

 

"In Imrukian?" said Aleci.

 

"No. I translated while you were talking with Maera. It's not that difficult, if you don't care for rhyming."

 

"What is it about?" said Aleci, curious.

 

He suspects it was one of the poems written by the Imrukian carriers, but he couldn't be sure.

 

"You spoke to Maera didn't you?" said Finne, "She told me so, she said she told you what she did before. She was what we call a Seanmháthair, a wise woman. They usually resolve conflicts, and this is one such time."

 

The poem when Finne translated it for him, and it rhymed, how did he manage to do so in so short a time, Aleci wondered, was about a dispute between who would marry a bride, the uncle or the bride's lover.

 

 

Seanmháthair, with rooted wisdom, like the holly and the ivy —

Said, “Lovers’ hearts will cling like vines no matter what they do.

But blessed are those who accepts their wedded duty

like the strong and supple branches of the bending yew.”

 

So the uncle cast his gaze amid the holly and the ivy,

And greedily appraised the bride said to be his due.

Seanmháthair, I’ll marry when the trees have bared their branches,

And the nights are at their longest, and the virgins few.”

 

So Seanmháthair sat smiling, ‘midst the holly and the ivy,

As maid and lover clung at what they thought was dreadful news.

“My dear, you have your answer – you are free to wed your lover

For this man has loosed the bonds that you could not undo.

 

“For here where we are sitting, ‘neath the holly and the ivy,

Is much the same in winter when the holly berries bloom.

So go, and have my blessing ‘til the holly goes unclothed,

and the creepers of the ivy, and the bending boughs of yew…

These greenest boughs of holly, and of ivy, and of yew.”

 

"An escape clause." said Aleci, impressed, "Are the Seanmháthair jurisconsults as well?"

 

Finne stared at him, opened his mouth, and closed it again before saying, "Are you... joking?"

 

"No?" said Aleci, "It's clever. I wouldn't think of it."

 

Finne gave him the same baffled look as Olus, no Edon, the boy was called Edon wasn't he, had when he attempted to answer the boy's question.

 

"You are so strange." said Finne, finally.

 

"If you say so." said Aleci, and Finne turned away, smiling.

Chapter Text

 

When Olus, no Edon stepped into the room he gave both of them a look, the same as when he'd smiled and told Aleci he thought Aleci was a bad Latrunculi player.


"What are the rules now?" he said to Finne, with a glance at Aleci, "Maera said you wanted to talk to me. With him. What are the rules now?"

 

Finne looked at a loss for words, then he said, "He wants to adopt you-"

 

Edon interrupted him, "I told you, mamaí that's how they do things here and you didn't believe me." Edon glanced at Aleci again from the corner of his eye, "He is REALLY bad at asking questions. He should've just asked me and I would've told him," the boy shrugged, "but you told me not to and I guess wouldn't have. Whatever." Edon scoffed, "You can both play your funny game together. I don't understand your rules at all... First call him this, then call him that, then don't talk to him, then play Latrunculi with him, then don't play with him..." It seemed like a long list, Edon, gesturing with one hand to the next, seemingly building a tower in the air.

 

Finne gaped at Edon, before saying, "How did you know-"

 

"I was in the Capital with Sir Smelly and his horses, I'm not stupid. I listen." Edon tsks, "They do things differently here, don't you know?"

 

"No." said Finne.

 

"Now you do." said Edon, he glanced at the bed, where they were both sitting, "Can I please sleep with you, please? I don't like my room. I want to stay here with you. I don't care that you smell bad in the mornings and read your stupid no-picture books with him. I. Want. To. Stay. Here." The latter was said through gritted teeth and crossed arms.

 

"I don't know..."

 

"Ask him!" said Edon, pointing to Aleci, "He won't hit you, he said so."

 

"What are you saying Edon?" said Aleci, mystified at their interaction.

 

Edon gave him a calculating look, he raised an eyebrow at Finne,"Am I Edon or Olus now?" not waiting for Finne's answer he said, to Aleci, "Mamaí won't ask because he thinks you'll hit him. You said you won't. So, I'll ask." Edon crossed his arms, "I want to sleep here. I don't like your room. I don't care if you said it's mine, I want to sleep here."

 

Finne had an unreadable look on his face when Aleci turned to look at him. A mask, Aleci thinks, though this one was different than the polite one Finne wore earlier in their marriage.

 

"One rule then." said Aleci, "Don't follow us to the bathhouse."

 

"Why?" said Edon, immediately countering with, "No, I don't care, it's one of your dumb games. Grown ups have such stupid rules, it doesn't make sense at all." he stared at Finne, biting his lip, eyes wide, head to one side, "Do you want me here?"

 

It was such a clear attempt at manipulation there was no need for a translation. Finne still looked blank face and Aleci thought perhaps he should step in. "Why don't you fetch your blanket and pillow then, Edon?" said Aleci, "And come back?"

 

Edon grinned, gap tooth and happy, "Yes."

 

When he ran off Finne turned to him, confusion in his face, "Why?" he said.

 

Aleci shrugged, "It's not like we have-" he glanced at the open door, "sex in the bed. You don't seem to like it. If you want me to fuck you in the bathhouse, and you do, then what does it matter?"

 

"But..." Finne stared at everywhere except him.

 

"He'll grow out of it." said Aleci trying to guess at Finne's hesitation, "He'll eventually want his own room again." The boy probably missed Finne. He didn't think he shared a bed with his mother at Edon's age, but then, his younger sister did for a time, and he wasn't the best judge of how children behaved.

 

"Why are you saying yes to everything?" Finne demanded, "I don't understand why you don't say no."

 

"Because you ask for things within reason." said Aleci, "You don't ask me to say, sell the villa and buy a cart house. You don't even like buying or wearing jewelry, that's what all my friends complain to me about their wives. I don't see why I should say no to what you," he stared at the door, Edon hadn't come back, the boy seemed to take his sweet time, "or Edon request."

 

"You won't say yes and then change your mind?" said Finne.

 

"No?" said Aleci, "I mean, depends. If Edon keeps screaming like he did when he lost-"

 

"I did NOT lose!" Edon yelled from the door, carrying a handful of wooden soldiers in his hand, he proceeded to line them up on the vanity. He didn't carry any blankets or pillow with him.

 

"Would it make you feel better if I said you didn't?" said Aleci.

 

"I did not lose." Edon repeated, nose wrinkled, adjusting a wooden soldier, "You remembered wrong, Master-" the boy blinked, frowning, saying to Finne, "What do you want me to call him? You've changed the rules."

 

"I can't understand you, Edon." said Aleci, when Finne's silence stretched again, "What did you say?"

 

"What," said Edon, turning to him, "Do you want me to call you? You're not Imrukian. I'm not calling you dadaí. Or," he spat out the word distastefully, "athair."

 

"Pater." offered Aleci, impressed at the boy's boldness.

 

"Pater." said Edon, rolling the word in his mouth, "Pater." he frowned at Finne, "Why did you tell me Olus was wrong? He said his mamaí remarried and everything was fine. You said he was wrong."

 

"Who is Olus?" said Finne, deliberately switching to the dialect Aleci understood.

 

"Oh, you want to talk in Common now? He's a boy I met. Maelma told me to pick a name and I liked the sound of his." he stared at Aleci, slowing his speech to a turtle's crawl, "Do you understand?"

 

"I do." said Aleci, only catching the gist of the conversation. Something about how a boy called Olus, who was probably the inspiration for Edon's name.

 

"I want to hug you." Edon declared, and before either Finne or Aleci could react, threw his arms around Aleci, throwing them both into the bed. "I'm glad you didn't hit him." said Edon, and Aleci felt a twinge of sadness that Edon needed to say so. The sadness quickly vanished when the boy whispered in his ear, "If I don't win next time we play, I won't call you Pater."

Chapter Text

“What did he say to you?” whispered Finne when it was clear that Edon was fast asleep, hand fisted in Finne’s sleepclothes.

 

“His usual threat about winning and losing.” said Aleci.

 

The boy had a remarkably good memory, Aleci had been the one to read that night and Edon had interjected a correction at his misread word.

 

“Are children like this?” said Aleci, “I didn’t expect him to just agree.” his sister, he remembered, was fastidious and picky, she had particular things she wanted to be right, a spoon, a hair-ribbon, and Gods help you if they were misplaced. He assumed if she were placed in the same situation she would not have reacted in the same agreeable manner as Edon did.

 

“He’s always… followed my lead.” said Finne, there was a tightness in his face, a reining in of emotions, “I told him life’s a great game and… I know the rules.”

 

“Right.” said Aleci, he thinks he saw Finne opened his mouth to say something more and closed it again, “Is that bad? You are right that there are rules in life,” he frowned, “maybe that explains his fascination with winning.”

 

“No. It’s not that.” said Finne, twisting his hands in his lap.

 

“Well what is it?”

 

“Because he knows what happens to… losers.” said Finne spitting out the last word.

 

There were unsaid things behind the last words. They sounded familiar to him, pressing insistently up his head until he sank them with wine and sex. “You know,” said Aleci, slowly, “He’s called me a loser several times. Either that or he’s thought it-” Finne opened his mouth and he shook his head, “wait let me finish, I don’t think he’s called you a loser before has he? And he wouldn’t have thought it either because why would he want to sleep here if he did?"

 

“That’s… not what I meant.” said Finne, it sounded like a dawning recognition when he agreed, “… but you’re… right.”

 

“What did you mean?” said Aleci.

 

“Never mind.” said Finne, settling down on his pillow and placing a hand under Edon’s neck moved the boy down next to him. Edon murmured sleepily, curling his hand tighter into Finne’s sleepclothes.

 

“Did you have your own rooms before?” said Aleci.

 

“Yes.” said Finne shortly.

 

“Did Edon stay with you?” said Aleci, lying down next to him.

 

They were face to face, and Finne looked vaguely conflicted before he answered, “Where else?”

 

“I just thought there would be a nursery. Nursemaids, that sort of thing. I don’t know any carriers who had children. The ones that do don’t…” he pause, struggling to find a word that fit, “they had others raise their children.”

 

“I don’t know which carriers you knew.” said Finne, “I didn’t tr- I didn’t want anyone to have him.”

 

Finne must have been very desperate then, to send the boy away. “Why?” said Aleci, gently, “He’s a child. Why would anyone in your house want to harm him?”

 

“No one.” said Finne flatly, “He leaves me alone, for the most part, when Edon is with me.” he sighed deeply, reaching forward to touch Aleci’s hand, “I don’t want to talk about it… I don’t see the point in talking over it.”

 

“I can’t keep making guesses on whether or not your reactions are a result of my actions or your experiences.”

 

“It’s your house. Do as you wish.”

 

“It’s your house as well.” said Aleci, “There’s no need for us to walk on eggshells around each other.”

 

“Why are you like this?” said Finne.

 

“Like what?” said Aleci.

 

Finne’s mouth opened, then closed, and after a while he said, finally, “Are you not the head of this household? Am I not to submit to you?”

 

“If you thought you were, you haven’t been doing a good job of it.” said Aleci, and when Finne’s eyes widened, added, “I thought that was the way of Imrukians. Is it not?”

 

“No.” said Finne, flatly, “I don’t understand why you don’t insist on it. You are a man, it is well within your rights to do so.”

 

“And you are not?” said Aleci.

 

Finne gaped at him, “I…don’t… I’m a carrier. I don’t-”

 

“Blessed are those who accepts their wedded duty?” recited Aleci, adding skeptically, “You want that? Did you- did we not have that earlier in our marriage and it nearly drove you mad?”

 

“Did you not enjoy fucking me?” said Finne, “Before? You came every time.”

 

“I thought… wrongly, that if I got you pregnant faster you won’t have to endure it.” said Aleci.

 

“But you liked it.”said Finne, sounding very confused, “Didn’t you not?”

 

It was a very confusing series of questions, “What makes you think I enjoy it more with you before than now? I liked it when you responded to me.”

 

“… It was proper. Before.” said Finne, looking as if he was trying to make sense of what he was saying, “You took what was yours by rights. I gave it to you. What you did… in the bathhouse-” he flushed, “you are no hetairikos. Why would you… Why would you put your mouth on me? Why would you… pleasure me?”

 

“Did you not like it?” said Aleci.

 

“You’re not supposed to do it!” protested Finne, “You are not supposed to-”

 

Finne kept his voice down the entire time, but now there was a slight edge of hysteria in it. He sounded like one of those vestal virgins at the temples.

 

“You weren’t supposed to train either. Or beat me. Yet you did.” said Aleci.

 

“I wasn’t a carrier before.” said Finne.

 

“Oh?”

 

“I… I never showed the signs. I wasn’t raised as one.”

 

That explained most of Finne’s behavior. He wasn't sure how he'd react in such a position.

 

“Why did you not tell me before?” said Aleci, and shook his head, “Never mind, that doesn’t matter. Look, I hate bringing my father into the bedroom, but whatever God guided his hand, or I don't know, maybe a Goddess, he may have been desperate enough to have offered them prayers, whoever that was, they convinced him to marry you to me, and they were wise enough to know I wouldn’t like submission. Was I not cold and distant to you earlier?”

 

“But why?”

 

It was the first time he’d had to convince a bed partner that mutual pleasure was equally enjoyable.

 

“Did you not enjoy it when I pleasured you? I did recall you pushing me away but you seemed to like it.”

 

“I… never did.” confessed Finne, “I mean, I never did enjoy it… well, anything to be honest.”

 

“Except your training?” suggested Aleci, trying hard not to ask further, as requested, how Finne’s life was before they married.

 

“No.” said Finne, “I told you as much, when you let me throw that spear.”

 

“What’s the harm in enjoying it now?” said Aleci, “Is… there an Imrukian God or Goddess that frowns on taking part in earthly pleasures?”

 

If there was a cause, it was in Aleci's experience that one can find a God or Goddess to stand behind it. Bacchus after all, had been the one he'd made offerings to for years.

 

“… No.” said Finne.

 

“So let me pleasure you then.”

 

“But isn’t easier for you to fuck me on my back? Isn’t that how things are?”

 

“You didn’t like it.”

 

“I don’t have to like it. I didn’t before.”

 

“You had an inconsiderate…. Partner.” said Aleci, settling on the word, “You gritted your teeth through it, like you did with me earlier, did you not? Look, Finne, you enjoyed what we did in the bathhouse. You insist on coming -” he smirked at his terrible pun, “back. You don’t have a God that frowns on such activities. It’s not doing any harm to your pregnancy, I assume Maera would have the bathhouse doors locked if it did. I don’t see why it shouldn’t continue.” he paused, “Or do you not want to?”

 

Perhaps Finne was a prude, there were plenty of those, they became vestal virgins, or philosophers, it was truly hard to tell in certain cases.

 

“I do. I just-” Finne grinds his teeth, “I don’t know-”

 

“Why I like doing it?” guessed Aleci, “Can you accept that I’m strange? We can have at this conversation all night, and I don’t think I will convince you.”

 

“Fine,” said Finne, “You’re strange.”

 

He turned away from Aleci, curling up to Edon. Aleci thought that was all and leaned over to blow out the candle, deciding to move to his side of the bed. He was pleasantly surprised when Finne requested, softly, “Move closer.” a pause, “I liked your arm around me.”

 

Chapter Text

It was raining again when he woke up the next morning. Though it wasn’t the rain falling in heavy platters that woke him, it was excited chatter of Edon and the calm dulcet tones of Finne’s.

 

Are you going to draw for me? I want you to draw the ocean. I never passed it on the way to the Capital.”

 

You’ve seen me draw it a half-dozen times.”

 

Yes, but the pictures aren’t here are they? I want to hang them up. I don’t understand why they keep the walls bare here, it’s so boring.”

 

They have glass murals.”

 

Not here. Not in the Capital either.”

 

You weren’t in the right part to see them, then. But fine, do you want me to put them in a book so you can look at them?”

 

You already draw on the tablets, I want one to hang it here. Like in Imruk. You don’t have to draw the ocean. Or me, or the cat. Whatever you want. I really want to hang a picture.”

 

You just like guessing what I’m going to draw.”

 

“I’m never wrong.”

 

“What are you talking about?” said Aleci, too groggy to discern their conversation.

 

“Oh.” said Edon, “Good morning. Pater.” he leaned over Finne’s body, all elbows and kneews and none too gently from the wince on Finne's face, “Have you ever seen mamaí draw? He’s the best.”

 

“I have, yes,” said Aleci, “on the tablets.”

 

“No, not on those.” scoffed Edon, “They’re not real pictures. Real pictures have color.”

 

“I suppose you’re right.” said Aleci, deciding to humor the boy, “You painted?” he asked Finne.

 

“Yes.” said Finne, shortly.

 

“Do you want me to buy you some vermillion?” he offered.

 

“No.” said Finne, “I don’t like the smell.”

 

“I mix the colors.” declared Edon, “I’m the best at doing it. I made one with apple seeds and pomegranate that was really pretty. It would’ve smelled good too, but egg and vinegar doesn’t really smell nice.”

 

Why don’t you ask Maera, hm?” said Finne, “She’ll give you whatever you need if you promise to stop snatching food from the kitchens.”

 

I did no such thing!” protested Edon, frowning, “I don’t think she has pots though. The ones she had are too big.”

 

“Edon, he can’t understand you.” Finne reminded him patiently, “You’re not talking in Common.”

 

So?”

 

I want him to understand you.”

 

You don’t want us speaking in Imrukian?”

 

He understands Common, Edon, speak it so he can understand.”

 

So when he’s with us speak slowly?” said Edon, “Fine.” The boy rolled his eyes, then said, “I told mamaí Maera doesn’t have any pots. The ones she does are too big.” He frowns, turning to Finne, “Also, you don’t have brushes. You want to paint with your hands?”

 

He barely understood the interaction. Finne sounded… different when he spoke the High Imrukian. Aleci couldn’t quite explain it, it sounded softer, more melodic. Maybe even womanly? Like one of those young theater actors playing a female role.

 

He’s saying,” said Finne, “Maera doesn’t have the pots, and I don’t have the brushes to paint with. It’s fine, I can use the brushes from fixing your maps.”

 

They’re not real brushes.” said Edon, “Real brushes are from cat fur. The one from their tails are good.”

 

Really.” said Aleci, wondering if that was the fate of the cats that Edon had belled, “I wouldn’t have known. If you want pots, you can use the empty ones in my study.”

 

I can?” said Edon brightly, “Can I bring the things to the study then? I like pouring it right after mixing it.”

 

Edon sounded a bit too eager, and Aleci could half imagined things falling of the table. “You should move the maps from the table.” he said to Finne.

 

I know.” said Finne half-smiling over Edon’s head.

 

Do you want to use my mother’s brushes? They’re in the vanity. I doubt she’ll miss them.”

 

I want to see.” said Edon, bounding off the bed towards the vanity and pulling out the drawers.


Whatever he found there kept him occupied for Aleci to turn to Finne, curious, “Did he ask you to draw him something in particular?”

 

The usual,” said Finne, “the ocean.”

 

Really?” said Aleci, “Why?”

 

Because,” said Edon, patiently, “I want to know what it sounds like.”

 

That was a rather strange thing to fixate on, but then again, children tend to have their fancies didn’t they?

 

Do you want to see it?” said Aleci.

 

What, here?” said Edon, “You’re very funny.”

 

No.” said Aleci, “Not here, unless you want to pretend the grape vines are waves.” he glanced at Finne, “My friend Aulius usually hosts some elaborate summer festival. He has a villa by the ocean. Do you care to go?”

 

Oh… say yes!” said Edon, eyes wide, he bounded towards the bed, grabbing at Finne’s hand and shaking it.

 

I-” said Finne, caught between Edon’s enthusiasm and hesitancy, “Is it far?” he said.

 

The roads are well-traveled.” said Aleci, “It is… far but safe.”

 

Maera wouldn’t like it…” said Finne, “She’ll say…”

 

What would I say, my lord?” said Maera.

 

Edon perked up at what she carried with her. “Oh, I like those-” he said making to grab at the bread smothered in jam.

 

Not on the bed, please.” said Maera, placing it on the dining table and chairs that was recently moved into their room, Edon pouted at the statement before sliding off the bed.

 

What were you considering doing?” said Maera.

 

Is it safe for him to travel?” said Aleci, “I said my friend normally hosts a celebration when summer ends, I’m not sure if it is safe for him to make the journey.”

 

And where would you be going?” said Maera.

 

A week’s ride from here.” said Aleci, “A week and some days if you don’t care for speed. It’s a villa by the sea.”

 

I want-” Edon said through a mouthful of food before swallowing it at Finne’s look, “to go.”

 

Hm.” said Maera, “Summer is two months away. How long do you plan to stay there?”

 

Whenever we wish to leave.” said Aleci, and added at Finne’s disbelieving face, “I’m serious, Aulius would host year round if he’s allowed to do so.”

 

How about we see how you are feeling?” said Maera, “The last thing one wishes to do is to birth a child on the road.” she paused, looking thoughtful, “Where exactly does your friend live, Master Aleci?”

 

Losium.” said Aleci, and Maera looked interested at that.

 

Losium.” repeated Maera, “You know, maybe that is a good idea.”

 

Really?” said Aleci.

 

There is a good doctor’s school nearby. I had a look at your… hired doctor’s books. He may be a hack, but what’s in there isn’t.” she turned to Finne, “It may be wise for me to review what I’ve learned, if you still wish for me to be your midwife.”

 

And how would you go in?” said Aleci, puzzled, “They don’t let women go in.”

 

Of course they won’t.” agreed Maera, “But when have anyone suspected an old woman when she’s cleaning and cooking?”

 

Who is this friend of yours?” said Finne, cautiously.

 

Is he like Praefect Damon, was probably the hidden meaning. “Aulius?” said Aleci, “Well, you know the God Bacchus, right? The one of wine and ecstasy? Yes? Well, dear Aulius had decided that the best way to offer his respects and prayers is to become his very image on earth.” he winced as the memories of many hangovers came back to him, “I haven’t seen him much since his marriage, and he’s always busy with either partying or working on something or another in the Senate.”

 

He… sounds interesting.” said Finne.

 

The worst he can do is offer you too much wine.” said Aleci, “And the worst you can do is reject his hospitality.”

 

He wasn’t sure if Aulius had felt personally slighted all these years, but if he still knew the man, a couple of barrels of wine from his villa would be enough to remedy any and all ill-will.

 

I’ll… think about it.” said Finne, getting up and walking towards the table, "Will you come and eat with us?"

Chapter Text

He was accompanied to his study by Finne, and for the first time, Edon. He thought that Edon would dart in as soon as the door opened and explore the place with the same open curiosity as he did when he was shown Aleci’s old bedroom. He was wrong, the boy stuck to Finne, taking a seat by a chair near Finne’s table of maps, his small legs dangling.

 

You’ve got the river wrong.” said Edon, pointing to something on the map.

 

Oh, did I?” said Finne, sounded sarcastic, moving Edon's hand out of the way to roll up the map.

 

There’s a village that it-” Edon swerves his hand in the air, “curves around, you’ve got it wrong.

 

Finne noticed him watching from his desk, and said, “Do you want me to tell him to speak low Imrukian?”

 

“If it’s important, tell me.” Aleci paused, adding his observation, “You sound different. When you speak High Imrukian.”

 

“No he doesn’t.” said Edon, immediately, “Wait, do you?”

 

“Maybe?” said Finne, “There is well, a differences in word uses between men and women High Imrukian. Perhaps that’s what you heard.”

 

“There is?” said Aleci, reaching for his letter knife to open his mother’s letters.

 

“The noble men and women don’t share quarters. I suppose it’s only fair the tongue diverge somewhat.” said Finne.

 

“But wouldn’t you speak as-” Aleci said, then stopped himself, “I’ve never heard of such.”

 

He doesn’t know much at all.” said Edon, amused.

 

Finne covered a smile with his hand, holding out an admonishing finger to Edon, “I haven’t… well, there was no need for me to talk as a man.”

 

He gave Aleci one of those faraway looks again, and Aleci decided it was better not to ask further. It was certainly interesting. It wouldn’t surprise him that the women in the Capital had their own words and euphemisms for some… womanly problems or whatnot, but an entire dialect was news to him. Finne had carried up what materials Maera bought from the kitchen, frowning suspiciously as she did so, and was supervising Edon’s attempts with a pestle. Aleci sighed deeply and opened the letters. His father’s message was short and curt, as always, saying that, of course, he had been the one to send the doctor, and a short thank you on hosting Praefect Damon. Aleci scowled, crumbling the note and tossing it aside. His mother's letter, on the other hand, was in her usual maternal tones, though warmer than usual.

 

... your father's friends sent their unmarried daughters and wives to keep me company, music, talk, gossip, that sort of thing. They all wished to curry favor with your father and I must say I was very pampered. I suppose you can do the same for Finne, though, I must be blunt, it would be difficult for you to find any man willing to send their wives and daughters as your wife is uncut. In such case, I suggest asking your friends if they are willing, or, as your father wishes to point out over my shoulder, you have a loyal guard by the name of Mercus who seemed to have a talent for instruments. See if he is really skilled as your father says and ask him to keep your wife company. If you do ask Mercus, insist that any meeting between him and Finne take place in the courtyard not in private rooms.

 

Finne is quite a singer, I think he would enjoy this. If he wishes for anything I can obtain for him from the Capital please tell him he is also free to write to me-

 

At this last sentence he blinked. He stared at the letter for a long time, willing for his eyes to misread the words. When he was sure he didn’t misread them, he stood up, striding out the door to yell for his steward to fetch Mercus.

 

A breathless Mercus appeared some minutes later. “You asked for me, Master Aleci?” said the younger man, shaking water from his hair.

 

The study door was closed, and Aleci was leaning up against a wall.

 

“Master Aleci?” prompted Mercus, looking concerned.

 

"Did you… know Finne spoke our tongue?”

 

“Eh.” Mercus cocked his head to one side, “No? Not when I first met him, Master Aleci.”

 

“Then when did you find out?”

 

Still looking confused, though Aleci could see the slowly dawning understanding on the other man’s face, “Begging your pardon, Master Aleci, but… didn’t Mistress Finne understand you when you first came with him to the training yards?”

 

Aleci closed his eyes, breathing deeply through his nose, hand on his forehead. That poem about Tor o'Gelle and his wife Lané now took on a different meaning altogether. “Did you know about Edon before I did?"

 

"You mean Olus?" said Mercus with a frown, lips twitching, "The boy said he wanted to be called Olus. What do you mean, precisely, Master Aleci?”

 

“I mean-” snapped Aleci, “he’s Finne’s son!”

 

“Oh.” said Mercus, “Well, yes, I did, the boy said so when I first met him. But the steward knew. And so did your wife’s maid, and when she talks everyone knows, you know how it goes." Mercus paused, “Did… did you not know, Master Aleci?”

 

"Why didn't-" he really wanted to tear his hair out now.

 

"We assumed you knew." said Mercus, "At least I knew, what with that-" he looked like he was trying to hold back a laugh, "fool's task Finne gave Olus. Ha! My parents sent me on the same errand, except it was to get some hen's teeth." he rolled his eyes, "Once I figured that out I made sure to not come home for at least five hours. Took me a good three or four years, Gods I was an idiot."

 

"I don't know of this." said Aleci.

 

Mercus shrugged, "Love puts blinders over one's eyes, as they say.”

 

"Oh." said Aleci, face red.

 

"What did you call me in for, Master Aleci?" said Mercus, grinning.

 

"Well..." said Aleci, distracted, "My mother suggested I sent for entertainers. She wrote that it was supposed to be calming on the nerves, and my father said you had some musical skill."

 

"Calming on your nerves or on your wife's, Master Aleci?" said Mercus, raising an eyebrow.

 

"My wife's." said Aleci.

 

"Begging your pardon then, Master Aleci, but you are certain you want me to play for your wife? You are not concerned about-" Mercus gestured vaguely, "you could just hire entertainers. There's plenty that flock around Corcius."

 

"Finne likes your company." said Aleci, "And I trust you know your boundaries."

 

Mercus looked taken aback at his statement but he said, agreebly, "Is there a particular place you'd like me to play for him Master Aleci?"

 

"The courtyard." said Aleci, adding, "If it rains, tell the steward to set up the awning, though I doubt it'll rain next week, looking at the patterns I've noted."

 

"Understood." said Mercus, "Is your wife occupied? I'd like to ask him what instrument he'd like me to play."

 

"You play more than one?" said Aleci, impressed.

 

"Well, I have middling talent with the lyre. I'm better with pipes but I'm not good enough at any to make it my living."

 

“Wait, before you go in-” Aleci said, “What did you two talk about?”

 

“Us?” said Mercus, and then it was his turn to flush, “Nothing! I mean, well, I was embarrassingly bad with the spear that time and well…” he rubbed his neck, “there are many ways one can rhyme such a feat. He asked me if I knew any such rhymes, after everyone laughed, I told him that his was exceptionally uninspired. Then he told me if I was so good, give him a proper rhyme.” he looked concernedly at Aleci, “Nothing happened beyond that. I appreciate a wordsmith when I see one, I would think he does the same."

 

"Go ahead then," said Aleci, opening the door and gesturing him inside, "Ask him."

 

He went in as well, curious as to Finne's reaction. He hadn't seen Finne show any interest in instruments, but to be fair, there were no instruments in the villa. Finne looked up in interest when Mercus spoke of Aleci's proposal, shooting Aleci a bemused smile. He whispered something to Edon, who stared in wide eyed betrayal.

 

"No! I'm not playing anything! I hate playing! You know that!"

 

"I thought, Olus, you said you were the best." said Mercus.

 

This gave Edon some pause. "Well, yes." said the boy puffing up his chest, "But..."

 

"But?" prompted Mercus.

 

Edon squints at him, mouth opening and closing, then he said, "I bet I can play better than you."

 

Mercus exchanged a glance with Finne who covered a smile with his hand. "I'll see you tomorrow, Mistress Finne." said Mercus, shortly, reaching out to ruffle Edon's hair, "Master Olus." He gave a short bow to Aleci, and made to leave, opening the door. Aleci held out his hand before the door closed.

 

"Would you like to be paid for your time?" said Aleci.

 

Mercus looked taken aback, his eyes widened, "That... is very generous of you, Master Aleci. Thank you." He bowed again and left.

 

When he came back into the room, Finne stared at him expectantly.

 

“Did… did everyone knew you spoke to them? My mother-” he gestured towards the opened letters, “Mercus, Oppius…. Everyone?”

 

“Not your mother,” said Finne, “I told her I would learn, and she liked my singing. And for the others,” he shrugged, “I didn’t speak much with them. Same as with you. They probably thought I didn’t like talking. A proper wife.”

 

“You talked about spears-” Aleci glanced at Edon who stared at them as one would as a spectator in the Colosseum.

 

“Spears are a perfectly innocent topic.” said Finne, his eyes flickered to Edon before he returned Aleci’s gaze “So is riding. It is up to the listener to understand.”

 

“You never told me!” Aleci blurted.

 

“You never asked.” said Finne, seemingly able to make the connection.

 

“Fine.” said Aleci, going back to his desk, “I’ll give you this one.”

 

Edon, shaking one of the newly poured paint bottles with glee, said “Did that mean you won, mamaí?”

Chapter Text

Finne excused himself after lunch, saying that he felt, again, nauseous. Edon shook his head when Finne asked if he wanted to come with him, saying he wanted to paint. Finne shrugged, reminding him to be careful of the pot lids and to behave.

 

“I’ll keep an eye on him.” said Aleci.

 

“Thank you,” said Finne, “I’ll see you at dinner.”

 

He left, leaving Aleci and Edon along in the room. Edon was preoccupied for awhile with the paints and the spare parchment Finne had given him, Aleci could hear him humming something under his breath. He couldn’t understand the words, and he assumed whatever tune it was, was in High Imrukian. He turned back to his work, and nearly jumped out of his skin when, deep in numbers a voice spoke up;

 

“How are you doing it?” said Edon.

 

“Sorry?” said Aleci, nearly breaking the quill.

 

The boy was squinting at his multiplication.

 

“You don’t use an… an abacus. The thing… the thing with beads on wood.”

 

Oh.” said Aleci, “You mean, an abacus?”

 

Yes.” said Edon, “How?” he looks at the numbers, “They’re... very big. I…” the boy looked as if he was to confess something then he shook his head, “I can probably do it. Maybe.”

 

“Do you want to know how?” said Aleci, trying to hold back a smile at the boy’s frustration, “It’s just rules. You liked rules, don’t you?”

 

“Yes.” said Edon, “But there’s… there’s no rules for multiplication. You just… know them.”

 

“How did you think I did it without an abacus?”

 

Edon blinked, “I dunno, you know how to do them.”

 

“What multiplication tables do you know, Edon?”

 

“All of them.” said Edon.

 

“Right.” said Aleci, internally rolling his eyes, “Of course you do. But, if someone asked you to, say-” he paused, pulling out a new sheet of parchment, to write down and said as he did so, “what four hundred and ninety-two times three is, would you be able to tell them?”

 

“No, why would someone ask me such a dumb question?” said Edon.

 

“Well, what about those fairs where you get prizes for answering questions?” said Aleci, “They have them in Imruk, don’t they?”

 

“They don’t ask multiplication questions.” said Edon, but Aleci saw there was an interest in his eyes.

 

“Multiplication is just rules. You’re good at them, aren’t you?” said Aleci.

 

“I am.” said Edon, “But I don’t…” it looked like he was forced to swallow a lemon, “I don’t know how to do this.”

 

“How about I show you?” offered Aleci, putting aside his other calculations, “It’s only five rules for multiplications of three. It’s very easy.”

 

“There’s more than one?” said Edon, looking crestfallen, “Fine, show me.” a pause, a grin, “Pater.”

 

“Alright.” said Aleci, “You can add and subtract right?” at Edon’s affronted look he added, “Of course you do, now you go from number to number we have, four, nine and two. We always start at the number at the end. That’s two. The first rule is, you subtract the number that’s the most on your right by ten, so here, what’s ten minus two?”

 

“Eight.”

 

“Then you double the result.”

 

“Six… sixteen?” said Edon.

 

“Right, now is sixteen even or odd?”

 

“Even. Because six is even.”

 

“The third rule is, you add half of the neighboring number and five if the number is odd, but, since two is the last number, and not odd we don’t add anything. So the current answer is sixteen, but we write down six and carry the one to the next number, nine.”

 

“Where’s the other two rules?”

 

“I’m getting there.” said Aleci.

 

“The fourth rule is, for numbers after the one at the end, so here that’s nine and four, you subtract them by nine not ten. Then you-”

 

“Double it and add half its neighbor…. Uhm… plus five if it’s odd.” said Edon, “I want to do this next one.”

 

“Here-” said Aleci holding out the quill.

 

“Nine minus nine is zero.” said Edon, “Then you have half of, uh, two, and nine is odd so you add five. That’s six, for this one.”

 

“You forgot to add one from the previous.” said Aleci.

 

“Seven then.”

 

“Right, for the next one, seeing as it’s the leading number, the last rule is, you subtract half from it.” at Edon’s confusion, Aleci offered, “Do you want me to do it?” when Edon reluctantly passed him the quill, “So, nine minus four is?”

 

“Five.”

 

“Five times two is?”

 

“… ten?”

 

“Half of nine is?”

 

“Nine’s odd you can’t make it half.”

 

“The nearest number is?”

 

“Four.”

 

“So ten plus four is?”

 

“Fourteen, and you put the one to that column.”

 

“Right, and we resolve the last column, and the fifth rule, subtract two from the left most number, what is half of four?”

 

“Two.”

 

“Subtract by two?”

 

“Zero.”

 

“So you only have one. The final answer is one thousand, four hundred and seventy-six.”

 

“Why don’t you just…” Edon stared at the paper, “Just use an abacus? Your way is so long.”

 

“Oh, but, what happens when you don’t have an abacus?” said Aleci.

 

“You buy another one.”

 

“Yes, and what if the merchants aren’t selling any?”

 

Edon looked taken aback at this, “They must be!” he frowns at the paper, “How do I know you’re right?”

 

“Fine, I’ll show you then.” he got up from his desk, going over to the shelves and moving back various parchment and other items to pull out a dusty abacus.

 

Edon gaped at him when the abacus showed the correct answer.

 

“How about this,” he said, handing the abacus over to Edon, “You use the abacus, I’ll use my rules, we’ll see who’s faster.”

 

He wrote down three multiplications of three at random, and allowed Edon a head start. It was a rigged competition, Aleci doubts that Edon would be an adept at using the abacus, the boy wasn't a trained steward. Edon gave a valiant attempt before looking sour faced and admitting defeat when he saw that Aleci had completed all of them before he'd even finished the first.

 

“How do you do it in your head?” said Edon.

 

“Practice.” said Aleci.

 

“Is this.. is this a grown up thing?” said Edon.

 

“Using your head, no.” said Aleci, “I’m sure you can do it as well.”

 

“It looks…” Edon stared at their earlier work, “Hard.”

 

“Tell you what,” said Aleci, lowering his voice in conspiracy, “I bet your mamaí doesn’t know these rules. If you ask him, he’ll probably ask for an abacus too.”

 

Something he doesn’t know?” said Edon, looking bemused, “Huh.”

 

It’ll be a nice surprise for him, don’t you think?” said Aleci.

 

Why would he like it when I know things that he doesn’t?” said Edon, “He didn’t like it before.”

 

Didn’t like what?” said Aleci, seizing the opportunity.

 

Edon narrowed his eyes, “Are you going to tell him? I know you two talk at night. I’m not stupid.”

 

I won’t tell him if you don’t tell him my rules.”

 

Edon thought ponderously for several minutes then said, “ Mamaí was pregnant before. More than once. I ask him one time and he didn’t like it so I never said it again.”

 

How did you know?” said Aleci, adding softly, “Did you hear others talking?”

 

No.” said Edon shaking his head, and looking away, “He said it. He said it was his fault. They… they died because he wasn’t careful.”

 

Do you know what he meant by careful?” said Aleci, noticing the boy had started to sniffle. Why someone needed, or wanted to be so needlessly cruel he could never understand.

 

I don’t know!” said Edon, “He said I’ll die if mamaí doesn’t win. He says it all the time.”

 

He’s not here now is he?” said Aleci, hesitantly reaching out a hand towards Edon, “You’re fine. You’re safe.”

 

Mamaí’s been wrong since we came here. First what Olus said, then what you would do…” the boy’s voice trails off, "Is he really dead?

 

He couldn’t quite understand the boy’s last words. “Sometimes adults are wrong.” he offered, deciding to open that dangerous gate, it was certainly dangerous when he did it, at least, “Sometimes… they are busy thinking of other things.”

 

Edon gave him a skeptical look, “Really?”

 

Well, if you are busy doing multiplication and I ask you how many eggs I’m holding in my hand and refuse to let you look would you be able to give me a correct answer?”

 

No.” said Edon, looking bemused, “But why would you ask that stupid question? You can count for yourself.”

 

Exactly.” said Aleci, “Sometimes, you should think for yourself. Sometimes you should ask for help.”

 

Edon stared at him for a long moment, then said pointing to the parchment, “I want you to show me more of your rules.” a pause, “Pater.”

Chapter Text

“What’s got you giggling?” said Finne as they ate dinner.


“I know something you don’t.” said Edon.


“Oh, really?” said Finne.


“Yes. Really.” said Edon glancing at Aleci, “Pater told me how to do multiplication.”


“Oh,” said Finne, raising an eyebrow at Aleci, “How did you do it? I barely taught him how to multiply by two.”


“That’s because you said I had to remember it and it was boring, there’s-” Edon pauses, “Pater has a better way to do it. I’m not saying what.”


“Alright.” agreed Finne, “You two can keep your secrets.”


“Did you think on it?” said Edon, looking slightly miffed Finne didn't ask further,  “Going to the ocean? I want to go.”


“Maybe.” said Finne, “If I feel better. I think I would by then, I can’t promise you.”


“Alright…” said Edon, “But I want you to finish the picture, you aren’t done with it yet.”


“I’ll do that.” said Finne.


Pacified, Edon continued to eat, and pushed his plate aside when he finished, “I’m done.” he said, “Can I go now?”


They watched him play with the wooden soldiers for awhile, making use of the various bottles as terrain, before Finne told the by it was time for bed. He wasn’t sure how Finne did it, but Edon went willingly to scrub his teeth and dress himself for bed. When he fell asleep after a second reading, leaning against Finne, his wife carefully eased the child back into bed, turning to look at him.


“You know, your father didn’t say much about you, to me.” said Finne, “He only said you had odd interests and tastes and he thinks you would like me as a wife.”


“Odd interests and tastes huh?” so the old man really did mellow with age, Galer used to talk anyone’s ear off about his life’s disappointment, “What did you think that was?”


“I wasn’t sure.” said Finne, “I didn’t ask him.”


Finne was shifting restlessly, wincing as he touched something under the blankets.


“Are you… sore?” said Aleci, and when Finne said nothing, suggested, “Do you want me to help?”


“Now?” said Finne, disbelieving.


“Why not?” said Aleci, moving to get out the bed, and gesturing for Finne to follow him to the nursery.


He saw Finne place a pillow to where Edon clutched at him, slowly inching away before he stepped out of the bed and followed Aleci. He closed the door after them. The nursery was as he’d remembered it. There was more natural light here, from the bigger windows. His mother had insisted, she said she wasn’t fond of candles around newborns, and she would like light anyway during the day when she sewed. The crib had been packed away long ago, but the cushions that his mother sat on to do her various embroidery projects were still there. As it were, they didn’t really need the candle.


“Sit down.” said Aleci, motioning to the cushions on the ground.


He lifted Finne’s sleepshirt, pulling it up and feeling any stiffness. From the gasp Finne made when he gently pressed down and ran his hands in circles around the area it concentrated on Finne’s lower back. He continues at it for awhile, the sounds of Finne’s pleased sighs filling the room. Aleci pauses when he feels Finne shifting from one side to another.


“Do you want me to stop?”


“No. I mean…” Finne trails off sounding embarrassed, “I think, I…”


“Oh,” said Aleci, trying to keep the amusement from his voice and failing, “Should I help with that too?”


“I don’t know-” said Finne sounding uncertain, “do you really want to-”


“The answer’s usually yes.” said Aleci, “Do you want to take off your shirt? Or should I?”


There was an intake of breath before Finne down and pulled off the shirt in a smooth motion, throwing it to the floor. He turns around, and Aleci spreads his own legs, motioning for Finne to sit between them.


He wasn’t sure if Finne was blushing, there wasn’t enough light for that, there was enough, however, for him to appreciate the clear swellings of budding breasts on Finne’s chest. He reached out to gently cup one, running his thumb over Finne’s nipple. The soft whimper that came from Finne’s lips when he did so went straight to his cock.


“Do they get bigger?” said Aleci, fascinated at Finne’s sensitivity.


“No?” said Finne, breathing heavily, “I don’t know. I don’t remember.” he gripped Aleci’s hand, pulling it away, “Do you… do you like them? I thought… I thought you didn’t like women.”


“I don’t. But you’re not one.”


Finne narrows his eyes at him, “I have the parts of one.”


“It’s not particularly a strong defense,” said Aleci, “But I wouldn’t found you attractive if you were.”


“Do you,” said Finne slowly, sitting back on Aleci’s lap, pulling off his loincloth as he did so, “let your cock decide for you on such matters?”


“Well yes,” said Aleci, “a personal failing, I’d admit, but-” he reached forward to run his hand up and down Finne’s cock, “you like it.”


Finne did like it, reaching to pull Aleci’s sleepshirt off and then lower to pull his cock from his loincloth. His hands were truly blessed, thought Aleci, as Finne’s hand gripped his cock. There was a please look on Finne’s face when he came first, gasping Finne’s name. Finne inhales softly when he reached out to lick his come off Finne’s hand, and his cock twitches in Aleci’s before he came in Aleci’s fist.


“Do you want to try something else?” said Aleci, when he cleaned both of them with a towel he found.


“What?” said Finne.


“Are you interested in fucking me?”


Finne, he thought, did quite a good impression of a stranded fish.


“What?” said Finne again, “I… no.”


“Oh, is it, not proper?” said Aleci, smirking, putting on the soft high voice of what he thought a vestal virgin sounded like, “It is not proper for a man to feel the pleasure of his wife fucking him!”



“Why, why would you-”



“If you don’t want to, I won’t force you.” said Aleci, “I’ll say, though, I enjoy it.”



“Why…” said Finne again trailing off.



“I did it before,” said Aleci, deciding, for once, he ought to at least tell Finne what he’d done before their marriage, considering his father didn’t sour Finne’s perception of him, “It was a friend of mine, a close friend.” he said, softly, at the memory, “It was a long time ago.” he half smiled, “You needn’t worry, he’s off hunting with Diana.”



“Oh.” said Finne, fidgeting with the hem of the shirt he’d pulled back over himself, “Do you, do you really want me to?”



“I thought you weren’t interested.” said Aleci.



“I was…” said Finne, “I was taught I shouldn’t use my-” he gestured vaguely below, “male parts. The lessons were… quite effective. I don’t know if I can... fuck you.”



“You don’t have to.” said Aleci, cringing inwardly at whatever lessons Finne was taught, “Just a thought. If you’re interested.”



“Why- ah never mind.” said Finne, reaching forward to run his hand down Aleci’s chest.



“If you’re ever interested, tell me before hand.” said Aleci, “It is quite different, with men, I’d like to prepare beforehand.”



“What- no, I don’t want to know.” said Finne, standing up and reaching for his loincloth, “Come back to bed with me.” he said, tying back his loincloth.



“As you wish.” said Aleci, also pulling on his discarded tunic.

Chapter Text

Mercus showed up the next morning after their breakfast, his lute in hand and what other instruments he had presumably was around the satchel on his shoulder. Finne greeted him warmly, and looked especially interested at the pipes Mercus pulled out of the satchel. Aleci decided to leave them to it, though going up to his study now felt like a rather lonely affair now. Even Edon didn’t go up with him, saying that he was now confident in belling the black cat. Aleci suspected the boy intended to bribe the creature, Edon didn’t exactly hide his attempt to roll two sausages from the breakfast table into a handkerchief which he tucked his pouch.

 

It was quite silent without Finne’s scratching quill and Edon’s soft chatter. Too silent, actually, he stood up, deciding to walk over to the window that overlooked the courtyard. He threw it open, and, from experience, knew that one could catch brief snatches of conversation below.

 

“...not… sounds sad.” that was Mercus’s voice, “… entertaining... not...cry… different tune.”

 

“...don’t know.” Finne sounded uncertain.

 

“What… in Imruk? … Mourn?… celebrate...something…” said Mercus, encouragingly.

 

“… wait.”

 

There was indistinct chatter, and when Mercus started playing his pipe again, it was decidedly more merry.

 

Mamaí said you shouldn’t eavesdrop.

 

Eavesdrop?” said Aleci, silently impressed at Edon’s silent approach.

 

“You shouldn’t listen to other people talking. It’s not polite.”

 

“I was curious.”

 

“It’s very boring.” said Edon, “Do you really want to know what they sing about? I’ll tell you-” the boy grinned, “if you show me more of your rules. I like them. They make sense.”

 

“Why don’t you show me what you remembered from yesterday first?”

 

“But I want to know the other ones-”

 

“You’ll confuse them if I tell you all of them at once.”

 

“But you will show me? Promise?”

 

“Of course.”

 

Edon squints at him, then seemingly happy at what he saw, said, “Alright,” he glanced at open window, and said, in a rush, “Mercus is maybe playing, no, maybe trying to play the song they always play to the champions. He’s got it all wrong. He’s trying though… I guess-”

 

“What about the champions?” said Aleci.

 

“Oh, you know. There’s a big event every year. Not this year. Probably not next year either-” Edon looked crestfallen, and trails off.

 

“What is the event?”

 

“Don’t you know? Don’t they have it here as well? You have, uh, I forgot how many, you have some men, and they race to the Rhyry islands, and the winner’s the champion. That’s the song they sing to him.”

 

“A race?” said Aleci, and Edon rolled his eyes at the apparent lack of enthusiasm.

 

“It’s not just a race.” said Edon, “You have to, you have to carry this torch, that’s on fire with you, and you have to run and then you swim, to the island, and then you climb up the island. And there’s a big pit there, and you have to light it.”

 

“How do you swim with a torch to the island?” said Aleci, curiously.

 

“I dunno. Why do you ask me? Ask, mamaí, he did it. He really liked it. But he doesn’t talk about it much, I can’t ask him everyday, he gets mad and tells me I should be doing this or that,” Edon shrugged, “Maybe it’s a magic torch?” he glanced out the window, “I never went to Rhyry. Mamaí said there’s nothing to see there but rocks. But it’s supposed to be very high rocks. Maybe like a small mountain?” he frowned, “Are you sure you don’t know about this race?”

 

“No.” said Aleci.

 

“Huh.” said Edon, “If I tell you why the race happens every year, will you show me the rest of the rules you have?”

 

“How about you tell me, and I’ll see how many rules it’s worth?”

 

Edon pouts, “Fine.” he taps his head, “Uh.. let me remember…

 

The story Edon told him went something like this,

 

The Vicingi came in their ships, scores and scores of them descended upon Llandy, and raze the land and took whatever they liked. So it came to be that lord Eosvenn came forward, to reunite the other lords and their men to sail out and fight the Vicingi. While they were away, the Vicingi came again, and as it was winter, decided to stay and wait for the lords to come back, to surprise and kill them. And they would have as well, if not for the actions of Imruk-

 

“Imruk?” said Aleci.

 

“It’s rude to interrupt.” said Edon, irritably, "Do you want me to stop?"

 

“Sorry, sorry.” said Aleci, "Go ahead, please."

 

Imruk had seven children, though four of his sons had sailed with his husband to fight the Vicingi. Only three them remained, Iodhen bold and fierce, sweet Seare with her red hair and Eamern, the youngest. So he took them to his room, and bid them to take a torch to the island of Rhyry, and light a great fire, to warn their father that something was amiss. He would stay behind, to keep an eye on the Vicingi. So Imruk’s three children set forth. Iodhen, the fastest runner, ran ahead with the torch towards the beach to avoid the Vicingi seeing him, and his siblings followed in the dark, Seare carrying Eamern on her back. But when Iodhen came to the shore he collapsed. His sister Seare took up his torch, setting her hair alight to keep the flame alive as she swam to Rhyry’s shores, but she was not able to climb up its cliffs. So it was that Imruk’s youngest child, Eamern, the slowest of the three, the last to reach his sister on the shores of Rhyry, made the climb up the cliffs. And when the torch was lighted, the men on the ships realized that the Vicingi were waiting for them and they sailed home to ambush the Vicingi instead. And the Vicingi never came back again.

 

"-and that's why the race is ran every year. To remember how the Vicingi were driven away and never returned.” said Edon, triumphantly, “That’s worth at least more than one rule right?” he frowns, “I don’t know how Seare swam with her hair on fire, it doesn’t make sense to me.”

 

That was probably the least interesting element of the story, that detail was probably confused through the years, Seare had red hair, she didn't light it on fire, “I think…” said Aleci, “they may have taken a boat.”

 

“No.” sneered Edon, “Who leaves a boat lying around?”

 

“Imruk was a carrier?” said Aleci.

 

“Obviously.” said Edon, “Weren’t you listening? Mamaí said he was, but well, I dunno, maybe people tell it differently. They always switch the names around, grownups love confusing things.”

 

Edon was right, in a way, ‘grownups’ did love confusing things. He wasn’t sure how Imruk, named after its carrier savior and his children had now devolved into, well, whatever it is now.

 

“Aren’t you supposed to bell the cat?” said Aleci, when Edon didn’t leave, but waited expectantly at his side.

 

“I am.” said Edon, “But he’s going to come to me. You just wait.”

 

“I expect you want me to teach you now?” guessed Aleci.

 

“Yes.” said Edon, grinning cheerfully.

Chapter Text

He thought to ask Finne about the race later at dinner, and was about to do so when he caught Edon shaking his head and making a hushing gesture with his finger from behind Finne’s back.

 

“Did you meant to say something?” said Finne.

 

“Mercus’s tune sounded nice.”

 

Edon rolled his eyes and shook his head, hand to his face.

 

“Oh?” said Finne, “Did you like it?”

 

“What is it about?” said Aleci.

 

You are so stupid, mouthed Edon. Aleci ignored him. It was the first vaguely positive memory Finne had of Imruk, and he’d like to know more.

 

“It’s about a race,” said Finne, “that happens every fall.” there was a half-smile on Finne’s face, “I won, once.”

 

“A race,” said Aleci, “what type of race?”

 

“A triathlon.” said Finne, “There are three parts, running, swimming and climbing, though if you are quick enough on the running part you don’t need to swim.”

 

“How so?” said Aleci.

 

“You hold a lite torch throughout the entire race. You’re disqualified if the fire goes out. That’s why most stop before the swim, they’ve taken too long to run the distance and the tide’s in, so any attempts to cross would put out the fire. It is possible to swim… I’ve heard of one successful winner who held the torch aloft, but then again, he was very tall.”

 

“How do you climb with a lite torch?” said Aleci, fascinated.

 

Finne laughed wryly, “Very carefully.” he paused, “It’s not what you think, I didn’t climb one handed. There’s several ways to go about it, you can hold the flame in a lantern attached to your belt, or light the bushes on the cliffs before you climb, and keep lighting them until you reach the top. It’s not advised to do the latter, it’s considered bad sportsmanship.”

 

Why didn’t you tell me this?” demanded Edon.

 

Because you’ll be tempted to do it, in our house.”

 

“Sounds fun.” said Aleci, “What did you win?”

 

“The adoration of women,” said Finne, “and a crown of laurels dipped in gold or silver.”

 

Where’s your crown? I never saw it.” said Edon, then stopped himself, seeing something on Finne’s face Aleci didn’t, “Never mind, forget I ask.”

 

He took it. He didn’t like that I had it.” said Finne, softly.

 

"Pater would have let you keep it.” said Edon, stabbing viciously at the meat on his plate, enough to rattle the table.

 

“What did you say?” said Aleci, even now it was hard to understand the boy, Edon seemingly unable to make the difference of when he was speaking Imrukian and High Imrukian.

 

“Nothing.” said Finne.

 

“Oh, you should ask me a multiplication, any number, but, only threes, please.”

 

“Oh?” said Finne, momentarily distracted, “Three times seven.”

 

“Twenty one,” said Edon, “That’s too low, go higher.”

 

Finne raised an eyebrow, “Three times thirteen.”

 

“Thirty nine. I said higher.” said Edon.

 

“Are you sure?” said Finne, “Three times forty five.”

 

“One-” Edon glanced at Aleci, who nodded encouragingly, “one hundred and thirty five. Go higher.”

 

“How much higher.”

 

“As high as you want.” said Edon, confidently, holding his hand out above the table.

 

Finne shot Aleci a bemused look, “Three times… two hundred and sixty seven? Can you do that?”

 

Edon licked his lips, staring hard at the white wall to his left, “Uh…” Finne made to turn back to his soup and Edon blurted, “No wait, I know it. I do. It’s one, one and eight, eight hundred and one!”

 

Now it was Finne’s turn to pause. He frowned, drawing the numbers on the wooden table with his finger. There was a longer paused as he calculated. “Huh.” he said, sounding bemused, “You’re right.”

 

“I’m always right.” said Edon, adding hurriedly, “Only with threes, you can’t ask higher, that’s not fair.”

 

“Of course, I won’t.” agreed Finne.

 

“But you can, later. Only when I say so.” said Edon.

 

“What will you do,” said Finne, directing his question at Aleci, “when you’re done teaching him multiplication?”

 

“I’ll find something else.” said Aleci, “There must be more rules that interest you, Edon.”

 

“I want you to call me Olus.” said Edon.

 

“Olus?” said Aleci, taken aback.

 

“Edon doesn’t sound like a name here.” said Edon, “I want-” he glanced uncertainly at Finne, “he can call me Edon with you but not with others, I want to sound normal.”

 

I don’t have a normal name either.”

 

Yes, but, everyone knows you’re Pater’s wife. How do they know I’m his son if my name sounds different?”

 

“… I see.” said Finne.

 

He gave Aleci’s bemused look a contemplative look of his own, “Edon says he sounds more like…” Edon nods encouragingly, “your son if you call him Olus.”

 

“Oh.” said Aleci, a soft warmth filling his chest, “Don’t worry,” he said to Edon, “They’ll know you’re my son when they ban you from gambling in every part of the Capital,” he adds in Edon’s favorite word, “because you win too much.”

 

“How?” said Edon, fascinated, “How did you win?”

 

“I’ll teach you that later hm?” said Aleci.

 

Even Finne looked interested, Alcei thought he’d frowned on his mention of gambling, “How did you get yourself banned?”

 

Aleci shrugged, “Like I said, I won too much and that discourages customers from playing.” he pops a grape into his mouth, “They did me a favor, I guess, I did spend too much time there.” he smiled at Edon, "You'll get tired of winning too."

 

They both laughed at Edon's fervent denials that he ever would.

 

Chapter Text

Finne’s spot on the bed was empty when he woke up, blinking at the still dark sky outside. The nursery door was half opened, and Aleci made a guess that Finne would be in there. He was, when Aleci made to look. There were some changes made to the room, Aleci had asked the steward to fetch his sister’s cradle from wherever it was stored. He thinks there was a birthing chair as well, though he wasn’t sure if it was in their villa or in his parents’ house at the Capital.

 

“Did your mother have many children?” said Finne, idly rocking the cradle with his foot, sitting on one of the cushions.

 

“Only me and my sister.” said Aleci, taking a seat next to him, “She did have others… but they didn’t live long.”

 

“I see.” said Finne, not looking surprised, “Was your father upset about this? He does seem the type… to want a big family.”

 

“If he was, I didn’t see it.” said Aleci, “For all his… well, I suppose you know we’re not on the best of terms, my father is very loyal.”

 

“I see.” said Finne, he stared at the cradle for longer, watching it sway, “Would you be… upset if… I were to miscarry? I… never had any luck after Edon.”

 

That did confirm Edon's account of Finne having more than one pregnancy after Edon. “… How old were you when you had him?”

 

“Sixteen. Why do you ask?”

 

“Sometimes… well, my mother is adamant my sister not marry until she’s at least fifteen. She said younger mothers tend to… not do well.” Aleci licked his dry lips, that was one of the few times his mother and father disagreed violently, and she refused to be swayed or capitulated, “I wouldn’t be angry, Finne, why, ah, never mind, I wouldn’t be angry.” he repeated, “I would be if you died.”

 

“How thoughtful of you.” said Finne wryly, though he looked relieved, “Were you serious? That you would claim Edon as your own?”

 

“Why wouldn’t I be?” said Aleci, “It does take sometime to get paperwork, if you're thinking about that, but as I'd like to remind every optimist, efficiency in minor bureaucracy is not something the Capital is known for.”

 

“But, wouldn’t, wouldn’t you favor your own child?” said Finne.

 

“I don’t know what you mean, every parent has a child they favor.” said Aleci, “I’ve accepted that truth, unless you think I’ll treat Edon differently? No, I wouldn’t, why would I go to the trouble of teaching him?”

 

“What exactly did you teach him?” said Finne, frowning, “It is not rote memorization.”

 

“No.” said Aleci, deciding to let slip a note of pride, “I made it up. It’s very clever of me, if I say so myself.”

 

“… made it up.” repeated Finne, disbelieving, “made up what?”

 

“Well, you see, Finne, when you’re sitting cushy in a jail cell you have plenty of time in your hands to see all sorts of patterns in numbers that would have you normally reach for an abacus. I was very, very bored.”

 

“Why were you in jail?”

 

Aleci paused, deciding on his next words, “I was stupid drunk and fought someone I shouldn’t have.” he left out the part that he killed the man, that was a box he’ll open another day. Or not, he’ll prefer not to.

 

“Oh.” said Finne.

 

“I don’t go out drinking anymore, if you’re wondering.” said Aleci, “I did switch it for gambling for a while, and then when I got tired of it, or as I said, I was thrown out of all the gambling places, I took up accounting. It is very tedious and dull, but I don’t wake up in random streets now.”

 

It was one of those rare times Finne talked about his past and perhaps he should see if he could learn more, “Did you name Edon?” said Aleci, “Or did-”

 

“I did.” said Finne, softly, “And in any case he wasn’t there. He never really cared. I suppose he wouldn't have been bothered to name him either when that time comes. Probably named him after himself, he's very creative.” the latter sentence was dripping with sarcasm.

 

It was odd, Aleci thought, how Finne avoided naming Edon's father, but then again, who was he to judge, he never liked naming ghosts either. “I thought you already named Edon?” said Aleci.

 

“I did, yes.” said Finne, “In Imruk, you’re given two names, one by your mother when you’ve… lived for a year, and then by your father when you’re ten. It just is, I don’t know why. You do get to chose which name you go by, most tend to chose their father’s choice.”

 

“And you?”

 

“My mother’s,” said Finne, “she was so briefly here and gone, I thought she might have liked something of hers to be remembered.”

 

“You’re… not a thing.” said Aleci.

 

“I never said I was.” said Finne, “I meant, she never really made any choices in her life. She married my father because that’s what she was told to do, and she had me and, do you see what I mean now? If that’s a choice she made I’d like it respected.”

 

“That was kind of you.” said Aleci.

 

Finne looked and him, then away. They sat in silence for awhile, but it wasn’t as before, tense and angry. It was… companionable, the same kind of silence he’d sat around the fire with his friends.

 

“Do you want to sleep here?” said Aleci, “Because if you do, tell me, my legs are getting stiff.”

 

“No.” said Finne, shortly, “I’d like to go back to bed.” he hesitated, visibly swallowing, “Thank you, Aleci. You don’t… you don’t need to wake up every time I do. I don’t… I don’t sleep well when I’m…” he trails off.

 

“Pregnant?” suggested Aleci, “I don’t mind.” he said, “I’m not on the senate. As it is, I don’t have pressing obligations. It doesn’t cost me anything to stay up with you. Does it make you feel more comfortable?”

 

“… it does.” said Finne finally.

 

He cast another indiscernible look at the still swaying cradle before he went back to their bedroom, Aleci following after him.

 

Chapter Text

“Do you want to go to Corcius?” Aleci suggested, one day as he stared up at the clear blue morning sky outside their window.

 

“Today?” said Finne.

 

“Why not?” said Aleci.

 

“Where is Corcius?” said Edon, “Is it near the sea?”

 

“No.” said Finne and Edon looked disappointed.

 

“If you want more wooden soldiers, they probably sell them there.” said Aleci.

 

Edon perked up, but looked suspicious, “Are they like that wooden cat in mamaí’s dresser. It’s ugly.”

 

“Edon.” said Finne, warningly.

 

“What?” said Edon, “Maera said you’re supposed to be honest.”

 

“Is that why you laughed when you saw it?” said Aleci.

 

“No.” said Finne, lips twitching, “But you haven’t seen proper Imrukian woodwork. It’s an apprentice’s attempt at best.”

 

“What does proper woodwork look like?” said Aleci, curious.

 

“There’s a sheen to it.” said Finne, “The woodcarvers have a special recipe that they coat every creation of theirs with.”

 

“Have you ever tried woodcarving?” said Aleci.

 

“No.” said Finne shortly, mirth gone, “I wasn’t allowed to handle sharp knives.”

 

“Well, would you like to go?” said Aleci, smoothly, “I can saddle up the horses. It’s always better to come early.”

 

Mamaí, please?” said Edon.

 

Promise me not to beg him to buy you things Edon it’s not polite.”

 

Why can’t you buy things for me then?”

 

I don’t have money, Edon.”

 

You bought me things before!” Finne’s lips thinned and Edon paused, looking contrite, “Forget I ask.” said Edon, adding, “Sorry.”

 

Out of their entire exchange, he recognized the word sorry.

 

“What did you want, Edon?” he said, guessing.

 

“I want-” Edon began before seeing something in Finne’s face and shaking his head, “Forget it.”

 

“Is it about the toys I mentioned earlier?” said Aleci, “You want one?”

 

It was more likely that the boy wanted more than one, but one must always start with the lower number when negotiating with children. At least, that’s how his mother did with both him and his sister. He thought Edon would look enthusiastic at this proposal but the boy shook his head and turned away.

 

“Why don’t we go,” he said, “and you can see if you like any once you get there?” he suggested.

 

Edon glanced at Finne, “Alright.” said Edon, bouncing on the balls of his feet, “Can I meet you at the stables? I want to give Hazel a carrot-”

 

He ran off as soon as Finne nodded, nearly forgetting his sandals as he did so.

 

“Something the matter?” said Aleci, moving to help Finne dress.

 

“You really don’t have to buy him anything.” said Finne, quietly.

 

“Why not?” said Aleci, “I’m not buying him a stall’s worth of toys. If he wants one or two, what’s the harm?”

 

“I can’t… I can’t keep paying for them!”

 

Aleci blinked, “I’m perfectly capable of paying. I paid the last time. Why would you think you need to pay-”

 

Finne looked suddenly very embarrassed, there were two red spots of color on his cheeks, “Never mind.” he said, shaking his head, “Never mind.”

 

“Finne,” said Aleci, a stone in his gut, their earlier trip to Corcius now having a different meaning altogether, “you know, you don’t need to pay me… with sex if I buy you things. If you want something, or if Edon wants something, just ask. You’ve never-” he meant to say, ask for something extravagant, but he realized, that was probably the reason, “listen, you don’t need to repay me with sex.” he reached out to touch Finne’s cheek, “You’re my wife, Finne, I want you to fuck me when you want to not because you feel obliged to do so.”

 

He thinks he can see the pulse jumping on Finne’s neck. His wife let out a soft exhale, then said, “So, you were serious, you really want me to fuck you.”

 

There was a tentative smile on Finne’s face and he returned it with a grin, before kissing Finne’s cheek. “Should we go before Edon takes it upon himself to saddle the horses?”

 

Edon, was in fact, trying to saddle the horses when they entered the stables, and Aleci made a quick move to grab the saddle from his hands.


“Edon, you need to be a bit taller to do that.” he said.

 

The saddle was relinquished into his hands, and Edon stepped back pouting. It was not quite a long ride, but perhaps it was best to take the more energetic mares for the trip. He lead Hazel out of the stable first, offering a hand to Finne to mount the horse. Finne smoothed out the folds of his stola as he sat down.

 

Why do you ride like that? ” said Edon, pointing to Finne’s saddle.

 

Because it’s proper.” said Finne from his seat.

 

Why? You can ride that one as well,” Edon pointed to Sage, as Aleci lead her out, "I’ve seen you do it-”

 

Because I’m a wife, Edon.”


“So?”

 

It’s proper.”

 

Is this-” Edon narrowed his eyes, “Your… rules or someone else’s?”

 

Someone else’s.”

 

Edon huffed, “The only rules that makes sense are Pater’s, I can see what happens when I follow them.

 

“What are you two talking about?” said Aleci, indicating to Edon to raise his arms so he can lift the boy up onto Sage’s back.

 

“Why does mamaí ride this saddle?”

 

Aleci paused, staring at the side saddle in question. He could easily guessed as to Finne’s answer, it was probably something about propriety.

 

“We’re going to the market, right?” he said.

 

“Right.” said Edon, nodding.

 

“We’re going to put our horses with the stable boys there,” said Aleci, “and, the merchants pay the boys to tell who’ll a good customer. They won’t sell you nice shiny things if the stable boy thinks you’re poor.”

 

“So?”

 

“They’ll think I’m poor if your mamaí rides in on a saddle exactly like mine. They won’t show you all the wooden soldiers you like so much.”

 

“Really?” said Edon, and Finne gave him an incredulous look.

 

“Yes, really.” said Aleci, “Anyone can make my saddle, your mamaí’s one is different… it’s more expensive.”

 

He wasn’t lying, all the merchants look over potential buyers, not in Corcius, it wasn't worth the coin to do so, but in the bigger towns. As for the saddle, his father had bought it as a gift for his mother. He'd hidden the price in the books so she couldn’t figure out how much he’d spent, it never did occur to him that Aleci knew perfectly well how to read books. 

 

“Does… does that mean I can have another one?” said Edon, looking cautiously at Finne, who nodded. Edon grinned, “I’m happy you married him.”

 

Finne smiled softly, and didn’t reply. It was still in the day that there was a cool chill in the air as they rode out, but, they would make it in time for the market’s noon opening. Their ride to Corcius was as uneventful as the time they had gone with Maera, Edon somehow managing to stay still for the entire ride, more fascinated with the surroundings to ask questions. Finne was cheerful as well, he talked at length with Aleci about Imrukian woodworking. Not about the craft, just about the carvings and what each woodcarving family specified in, and there were apparently an extensive list of families that did so. As they came over the hill he spotted a small retinue of soldiers in front of the gates and a line of wagons waiting.

 

“That’s odd.” he said, half to himself.

 

“What’s odd?” said Edon.

 

“They’re checking for paperwork.” said Aleci, frowning, “Why would they at such a small place like this?”

 

“Paperwork?” said Finne, looking concerned.

 

“Hm.” said Aleci, “Stay on the horse, Edon.” he dismounted, taking Sage’s reins in one hand, and gesturing for Finne to hand him Hazel’s reins in the other.

 

He walked the horses to the soldiers, and as he approached, one of the soldiers not currently occupied came up to them.

 

“Where’s your papers?” he said.

 

His uniform was crisp and clean. A new recruit, thought Aleci, with the commitment and tenacity that could only be found in the naive. He held out his hand, the one with his marriage band and the family’s signet ring.

 

“No papers no entry-” the soldier started to say, until he was roughly cuffed on the head by his supervisor.

 

“That’s a signet ring you fool.” said the older man, more grey haired, he gave Aleci an apologetic look, “Apologies-” he squints at the ring, trying to read the letters carved on it, “Master Tus-ir-ios, my deepest apologies. You may come in.” he frowns, “You needn't take the advice of a common soldier, but, I would strongly urge you to take your household guards with you on your next journey. It’s not safe to be riding about with your wife and child at this time. “

 

“Not safe?” said Aleci, “May I ask why, soldier?”

 

“I don’t know the details specifically, Master Tusirios.” said the man, “Just that there be outlaws roaming about. More than usual, more armed. I don’t know how far you’ve travelled, but, it maybe wise to leave earlier than you planned.”

 

“I thank you for your advice, soldier.” said Aleci, nodding politely.

 

The two soldiers saluted him, and Aleci handed Finne back his reins, swinging back onto his saddle. When they were out of earshot, Finne turned to him.

 

What do they mean, more armed outlaws?”

 

Perhaps some defectors from the army ran away to avoid justice.” Aleci offered.

 

Finne looked unconvinced, but nodded. As before, they stabled their horses and made their way to the marketplace. Edon made to run, but Finne kept a firm grip on his hand.

 

I don’t want to hold your hand.” said Edon.

 

If you stay with us, I won’t hold it.” replied Finne.

 

Edon pouted dramatically, but stayed close to them.

Chapter Text

The smell of the spiced meats was the first one that caught his attention, and he lead Finne and Edon to it. Both looked disgusted when he offered to buy them a skewer though after his first bite, Finne looked as if it pained him to ask, “Can I try… that?” he said pointing to Aleci’s meat skewer.

 

“Of course,” said Aleci, holding out his skewer. He blinked when it was nearly inhaled by Finne, “Are you… do you want another one?”

 

Finne licked his lips, looking slightly disgusted as he wiped at his mouth with his fingers and it came back greasy. “… Yes.” he said, finally.

 

“How many do you want?” said Aleci.

 

“One.” said Finne.

 

“Edon?” said Aleci and was given a firm head-shake of no.

 

“Alright.” he turned to the vendor, “Three then.”

 

At Finne’s curious look he said, with a shrug, “If you don’t want a third one I’ll have it.”

 

Finne, did, indeed want a third one and Aleci handed him the stick as soon as his wife’s gaze fell on it.

 

“If you like it so much I could just ask the cook.” said Aleci, and Finne shook his head no.

 

“I don’t like the smell of it cooking.” he said, flatly.

 

That was the more confounding things he’d heard all day, “Why?” he said, puzzled.

 

“Because-” said Edon, pulling him down to whisper in his ear, when Finne was momentarily distracted, “they make it for him.”

 

“I see.” he said, Edon certainly wasn't referring to Finne. He frowned, remembering back to their meals and how it was Edon that ate meat and not Finne. He'd shrugged it off as something Maera suggested but now that he thought of it, even before he was pregnant Finne avoided eating meat. “Does your mamaí not normally eat meat?”

 

“I dunno.” said Edon, “Ask him, wait he’s looking.”

 

Edon smiled brightly at Finne when his wife gave them both puzzled looks, “What were you two talking about?”

 

“What wooden soldiers he wanted to get.” said Aleci and Finne huffed.

 

“Oh, yes, where are they?” said Edon, always a quick study, reaching for Aleci’s hand, “Show me.”

 

It was a different set of merchants altogether in Corcius than when he visited with Finne last time, and they had to meander through the various stalls to find a new one that sold carvings. Edon tugged on his hand as they passed by a stall selling travelers’ bags and wares.

 

“Wait, wait-” said Edon, pulling back, “Can I, can I have a bag to put them in?”

 

“Edon-” Finne started.

 

“No, no, he has a point.” said Aleci, “However-” he stared speculatively at the smiling merchant and his wares before crouching down to Edon, “I’ll buy you one that fits you if you tell me how many that man is selling. Without counting them.”

 

“How many?” said Edon, crestfallen, staring at the stand, “Without counting?” he repeated.

 

“Yes.”

 

“But how?” said Edon, looking lost.

 

“Use your head.” said Aleci, “The man’s so kindly put his wares in four rows.”

 

Edon stared at him, mouth open, before a grin came onto his face, “I got it. Give me, give me a minute.” he squints, mouthing numbers under his breath, “Forty eight.” he said.

 

“It’s actually forty three.” said the merchant, looking entertained by the whole affair, “But mayhap your father is kind enough to buy you one for getting close?”

 

“I don’t want it.” said Edon, crestfallen, when Aleci made to reach for his pouch, “I didn’t win it.”

 

“No, but you did remember your four times table.” said Aleci, “Consider this a reward, hm? But don’t expect one for every other table you do remember.”

 

“Oh, yes.” said Edon, looking relieved, and smiling, “Yes, I did remember, and yes, I want one, that one-” he pointed.

 

The bag he chose was slightly too big for him, but Aleci figured the boy would grow into it anyway.

 

“Have you ever thought-” said Finne, silent throughout the whole affair, “of teaching?”

 

“Gods no!” said Aleci, “The way I treated my teacher? No.” he shuddered.

 

Edon spotted the merchant, an easy enough thing, in hindsight, his was the only one that was surrounded by hoards of excited children. The next stall over was a fruit stall.

 

“Here,” he said, handing Finne several copper pieces, “Go get something you want, I’ll keep an eye on him.”

 

Edon selected a mounted soldier, possibly because they had been riding to Corcius and the boy was inspired.

 

“Not another one?” said Aleci and Edon shook his head no.

 

“You…” the boy paused, corrected himself, “Pater, can you get me another one next time?”

 

This gave him pause, Aleci blinked, for the first time it didn’t sound like a tacked on title Edon said out of politeness. “We’ll see.” he said, “I might get you one if we travel to my friend’s house. There’s bigger markets on the way there.”

 

“Oh?” said Edon, “Like the one in the Capital?”

 

“Smaller than that, but bigger than this one.” said Aleci, “Shall we go see if-” he hesitated, “mamaí is done as well?”

 

Edon grinned, slipping his hand into Aleci’s, the other clutching the wooden figurine. Aleci thought that Finne would be done, but as they walked around the crowd of children Finne was in deep discussion with the seller, the woman sounding insistent.

 

“This one’s stronger!” said the woman, pushing something into Finne’s hand, “That one won’t work!”

 

“I’m not… I’m not looking for it!” said Finne, sounding frustrated, clutching the pomegranate in his hand.

 

The woman lowered her voice when she saw Aleci approached, “It won’t work!” she said, before giving Aleci a polite smile, “What can I do for you, sir?”

 

“Is something wrong with my wife’s coin?” said Aleci.

 

The woman’s eyes widened, she gave Finne a concerned look, again, and said to Aleci, “Nothing, nothing, sir, I be saying he should pick the fruit’s the reddest.”

 

“Finne?” said Aleci, and Finne nodded.

 

“I’ll take the pomegranates, miss.” said Finne, “Thank you.” he handed her the coins, and as he did so she leaned in to whisper in his ear.

 

“… silver coin.” said the woman, and Finne nodded.

 

“Thank you.” said Finne, “I’ll… I’ll keep that in mind.”

 

Mamaí, mamaí look, look!” said Edon, pulling his hand away from Aleci’s to shove the wooden carving into Finne’s face.

 

“Yes, yes.” said Finne, hands still holding the fruit, “It’s very nice, Edon, can I put these in your bag, please?”

 

“Can I use them to make paints?” said Edon, opening his bag.

 

“When I’m done eating them.” said Finne, “Shall we go home?” he said to Aleci.

 

There was a tension in the way he held himself, as they walked back to the stables, Finne holding Edon’s hand, despite protests, the entire way.

 

Later.” he said to Aleci, when he opened his mouth, “I’ll tell you later.”

 

He wasn’t sure how a fruit merchant would cause another midnight conversation but he decided it was best not to press further. He checked the saddles, helping Finne up on Hazel before hoisting Edon up on Sage and taking the reins of the two horses in his hand to walk them out of the town.

 

Finne’s hands were clenched tight around the reins of his horse, a tremor in the way he held himself. He still smiled and nodded at Edon’s narration of his new toy’s journey, but the smiles were painfully forced. It wasn’t until Edon nodded off, when they were close to the villa, hand still clenching his horse that Aleci spoke up.

 

“Is something the matter?” said Aleci.

 

“What did you hear, precisely?” said Finne.

 

“Strange woman,” said Aleci, “she said that something was stronger and that won’t work. You said you’re not looking for it. What is it?”

 

“Do you know what you can do with a pomegranate, besides eating or cooking it?” said Finne.

 

He shook his head no, and Finne sighed in relief or dismay, he couldn’t say.

 

“Pomegranate seeds,” said Finne, “mixed with other… things, are well, spermacaedere. She thought I wanted to… not have a child.”

 

“An abortion?” said Aleci, and a morbid thought crossed his mind, was that why Finne liked the fruit?

 

“No. No.” said Finne shaking his head, looking embarrassed himself, “You make the mixture, soak it in a sponge and, insert it-” he made a gesture, “inside. It prevents pregnancy.”

 

“Oh.” said Aleci, “I didn’t know- yes, obviously, I didn’t know this.”

 

“It’s fine you didn’t know.” said Finne, still looking troubled, “It’s not… fine, how she thought I wanted one when she saw me.”

 

“Well, perhaps-”

 

“No, Aleci!” snapped Finne, uncharacteristically harsh, “She saw enough… enough carriers that looked like me, that wanted it, to think I was lying to her when you came over! She recommended that I buy something even stronger!”

 

“I’m sor-”

 

“What are you sorry for, you’re not the one that invaded Imruk!” snapped Finne, then his voice softened, “I… can I speak with Maera please, when we get back? It’s not about you. I need to ask her-” Finne’s face fell, “I need to ask her advice.”

Chapter Text

Edon stirred briefly when they came back to eat but was asleep as soon as Aleci proposed the idea to him. Finne didn’t join them for dinner, it was served to them by a maid. That gave him plenty of time to think, sitting on their bed, and he came to a decision before Finne came back.

 

“Maera said I should think things over before rushing headlong into the next.” Finne tapped his foot, irritated, “She says it with such confidence.”

 

“Age does that to you.” said Aleci, “What things?”

 

“She said, you were right, I am walking on eggshells. She said to just tell you. I told her I don’t want to. She suggested,” Finne twitched his lips, irritated, “she suggested I ask you as well. Something like, you ask me something, I ask you something.”

 

“That sounds agreeable,” said Aleci, “Do you not like it?”

 

“You never shared much. Until recently.” it wasn't an accusatory note in Finne's voice but it was close to one.

 

"I never like thinking about the past."

 

"Neither do I! Yet you insist on asking." said Finne sitting down next to him on the bed.

 

"I drank to forget my problems. Not that I expect you too, or even suggest the solution, but you see, that’s why the past no longer troubles me."

 

"Because you forgot?"

 

"Because the pain’s gone yes. I also think, well, that your problems aren’t easily forgettable. I can easily run away from whatever troubled me, or lock it up, and I did, but you can’t easily ignore carrier status can you?" 

 

"No."

 

"Exactly." A pause, "Can I ask you something?"

 

"What?"

 

"The pomegranates. You bought them before in Corcius, did you-" he breathed deeply, wondering if he wanted to know the answer.

 

"Aleci, you would know if I used them. There’s a noticeable smell."

 

"How would I even know what it’s for?" Aleci said, frowning.

 

“You’ll smell it when you fuck me.”

 

“Is that why you liked the fruit? Because you could use it-”

 

“No.” said Finne, bemused, cutting into his question, “What a stupid reason. I liked it before I knew what it was. It was… not suspicious to ask for it when I realize what it could be used for but I couldn’t even use it.”

 

“Why?”

 

Finne let out a breath, “Because he had his doctor check. That weaselly little shit paid to play doctor.”

 

“I see why you don’t like doctors.” Not that Finne's experience with one in their house was anything positive either.

 

“I don’t. I won’t have them delivering any child of mine either.” Finne took a breath, staring at Aleci with a challenge in his eyes, “I don’t care what you want.”

 

“That’s not a problem. You have Maera." said Aleci. "And, well maybe me as well, I’m interested in learning.”

 

“I’m sorry?” said Finne, looking shocked.

 

“It is my… experience, that one always must have two plans. Plan for the worst, hope for the best. Maera is your first plan. If, Gods forbid, something were to happen to her, I’d hope you trust me to deliver our child. That’s the second plan." he did have a head for books after all, when he applied himself, and he couldn't see why he couldn't learn.

 

“I’m… sorry?”

 

“You’ve already delivered a child safely. I don’t see why you can’t safely deliver another. I’m a quick learner when I put my mind to it, I don’t see why I can’t substitute for Maera if she can’t be there.”

 

“Why do you think Maera can’t be there?”

 

“I always like to have at least two plans when going into a battle.”

 

“Giving birth-” Finne began, then frowned, and said, “I don’t think you’ll be needed. Why do you even want to see, it’s all manners of blood and gore. Is it even normal for men to be with their wives when they give birth here?”

 

“No, it’s not. But when have I ever been normal? You said I was strange. Would it make you feel better if I was with you? “

 

“I don’t know. Maybe? Yes? If I change my mind will you leave?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Why would you go through the effort if I could refuse?"

 

“What’s the harm in knowing things?"

 

“But why do you need to know?"

 

“Because I have a curiosity." because he'd spent the last however long it took for Maera to convince Finne to come back to their bedroom thinking on the matter.

 

“I’m telling you, it’s not worth knowing all the things that could go wrong."

 

“Alright, fine, I’ll tell you, because, it makes me feel better if I know things."

 

“How?"

 

“Midwives shout all manner of things while they help a laboring mother. Even if I’m not in the same room with you, I’d like to know if this is something I should be concerned about.”

 

"Why?"

 

“Because it makes me feel better. The same way as massaging you makes me feel better.”

 

"Why are you so strange."

 

That was more statement than question.

 

"You don’t have objections to me understanding your anatomy? Being in the birthing room with you?"

 

"No. You understood my anatomy… perfectly well when you… fucked me. I don’t see why you want to be with me while I’m… delivering, but if you want to, I won’t stop you." Finne paused, "I want to ask questions now."

 

"What do you want to ask?"

 

"Why do you hate your father?"

 

Well, didn't everyone at one point? Even philosophers must contemplate on such things. But that wasn't why Finne was asking.

 

"Do you want the long answer or the short one?" said Aleci.

 

"Whichever you want."

 

"I don’t hate him. I resent him. I have always strive to be what he wanted, and even then that wasn’t enough. You know so-and-so’s son can fight with a sword now? A real one? You know so-and-so’s son is training with proper weapons? It’s even worst, when he compares me to what my brothers could have done, my brothers who barely lived." Aleci breathed in deeply, "So I never was quite the son he wanted. Always second best, or third, never the best. That is, until the Empire wanted code-breakers."

 

"Code-breakers?"

 

“I don’t know if you have been in a major war, have you?”

 

“No.”

 

“Each side has codes. The winning side often has the bigger army, but usually it’s down to breaking whatever code they use to send out orders to their troops. The Empire was not winning that front with Caesium, I don't know if you know, they've been at each other for years, ever since I was born, I think, so they sent out for code breakers. Anyone who can solve an assigned code. They gave a puzzle to all the teachers and told them to give it to any child they were teaching. I was fourteen when I solved the test puzzle, and the pride on my father’s face when they gave me a position at fifteen with the others who did so was… was worth it.”

 

He grinds his teeth, the unwanted anger and memories resurfacing.

 

“Or so I thought. You see, a trick to code breaking is to find a pattern, and well, the Caesiums were clever enough to never send the same message twice. It was frustrating, very frustrating, I spent weeks and weeks with-” his throat closed, “months and months. Even learned the damned tongue, do you know how difficult it is to spell things in Caesiumian? No rhyme or reason whatsoever. Months and weeks of nothing, until, as it happens, some idiot took to signing his name, his rank, the weather, and the salutations on every single message. When I broke the code I told my father, and he was ecstatic. Breaking out the wine, cheese, the whole hog. It wasn’t until celebrations ended, when I took a look at the map that I realize there would be an attack-” his swallowed harshly, “I told you before. I loved him. He wasn’t a carrier. Probably wouldn’t even have met him if he hadn’t also solved the test puzzle as well. But I was convinced we’ll be together. Well. My father told me not to warn him or the retinue he was stationed with. Said that it was an acceptable sacrifice. If we warned them, the enemy would figure out we’ve broken their code and we’ll be back to the starting line, wouldn’t we?” Aleci let out a breath, “I can tell you more, but, I suppose you know what happened. It wasn’t even a victory, but a truce, did you know where they fought there’s no greenery there but poppies because of all the blood spilled? They’ve only recently surrender, right before the Empire turned its eye to Imruk.” he smiled bitterly, “They wanted to recruit me, again, but I said I wasn't going to learn Imrukian and don't even bother. They stopped asking after awhile. The Empire's big enough, they probably dragged out another code-breaker from somewhere." he paused, and muttered, "What is the point of being intelligent if all you’re good for is assisting in how best to kill people?”

 

Finne was silent for awhile then said, softly, “Is this related to why you were in prison?”

 

“Yes.” said Aleci, “I was… upset.”

 

Upset was an understatement, but he wasn’t sure how Finne would react to knowing he’d been capable of beating a man to death. He'd already flinched when Aleci raised his voice and that wasn't even intentional.

 

“They charged me with treason to the Empire, because I said some rather treasonous things before I beat the man, but my father had it waived. Not after I'd sat in jail for awhile mind you. His defense was that I was suffering from battle fatigue. Probably also reminded them I helped broke the Caesium’s code. Probably helped that he recently got a promotion and the courts are easily swayed with a purse under the table. No one's passing up a bribe from a Praefect.” it didn't help, incidentally, that the man he'd killed held the position that Galer was then promoted to, he closed his eyes before opening them to look at Finne, “Anything else you’d like to ask?”

 

“Your father mentioned to me that he wanted to apologize.” said Finne, quietly, he made to reach for Aleci's hand but pulled away, “I don’t know why he thought a marriage would serve as an apology, but he did say he wanted you to be happy. Repeated it multiple times, actually.”

“He’s got a funny way of showing it.” said Aleci.

 

“Maera said…” Finne began, “She said I should unburden myself, said it would make me feel better. More relaxed. I don’t know.” Finne’s hands twitched in his lap, “How much do you want to know?”

 

“You don’t have to tell me everything.” said Aleci, “You’ve notice, I haven’t told you everything either. I suppose, Edon would say, that wouldn’t be fair of me. Tell me whenever you want. Can I ask you something now, though?”

 

“What do you want to know?”

 

“Do you not like eating meat? I only noticed today.” he paused, rubbing his neck self consciously, “I thought it was your nausea or pregnancy that had you avoiding it. And I didn’t pay attention before.”

 

“He smelled and… tasted like it.” said Finne, “He always did like holding feasts and hunts. There would be grease on his fingers and on the sheets when he was… done.”

 

“I see.” said Aleci.

 

“You don’t have to stop on my account.” said Finne, “You don’t have an aversion to baths.”

 

“Is that why you were more relaxed in the bathhouse?”

 

“Yes...he never really bothered me there.” said Finne, reaching to tug at an errant strand on his stola, then hesitantly, “I wasn’t… repaying you that day, I really did, really do enjoy sex with you.”

 

“What will you do..." said Aleci, deciding that he should move on to lighter matters for the evening, "when Edon’s caught that cat?” said Aleci, “What task will you send him on now?”

 

“I don’t know what feud you have with it, he’s a lovely cat.” Finne laughs softly at Aleci’s incredulous look, “You’re paying Mercus to entertain me.” said Finne, “I doubt he’ll mind watching Edon.”

 

“In that case, do you mind keeping him waiting tomorrow?”

 

“Oh?” said Finne, raising an eyebrow.

 

“You’ll be saying more than oh tomorrow morning.” said Aleci, and watched in amusement Finne blushed.

Chapter Text

It was a ritual now, their late night talks, so he wasn’t surprise to find Finne was in the nursery again when he woke up to Finne’s side of the bed empty.


“You know,” said Aleci, “We can move to cradle into the bedroom.”


Finne startled, nearly kicking the cradle over as he scrambled away. “Oh,” he said, “It’s you.”


Aleci took a seat on the cushion next to him, “What were you thinking?”


“Nothing,” Finne said, biting his lips, he reached out to stop the rocking cradle, “I… don’t know if you want to know?”


“If you’d like to tell me.” said Aleci.


“I was… I was thinking…” Finne trails off, “I could’ve ran away before. I didn’t in the end. Is that… cowardly?”


There was a brief flicker of desperation in Finne’s voice before it was gone, quick as a flame in the wind.


“Well,” said Aleci, struggling on which tone he should use and deciding on the same jovial voice he used with his friends, “You’ve come to the right person. I’m somewhat of an expert in determining cowardliness myself.” he paused, struggling to see the expression on Finne’s face and finding the same mask, “Not me, actually, I learned this from my father, he used to lead, he’s not as quick as he was so he’s now mostly in charge of strategizing. When you lead any group of men into battle, and you retreat, you have to justify why you did so. They used to call him a coward, Galer the Goose, something along those lines. Those nitwits clearly never met geese, and they stopped calling him so when they started losing more battles than he did, in training and on the field.”


“I don’t understand.” said Finne, “What does this have to do-”


“Wait, I’m getting there.” said Aleci, “The most simple explanation, for retreating, is that you’re a coward. The more complicated ones aren’t often clear until you sit down and write a report to the Capital as to why you did so. He wrote many many reports, and read them all to me. His way of teaching, mind you, was very boring, I didn’t care much for it, but it did help me later when I figured out which gambling table to sit at and when to drop my hand. You asked me if you were a coward, well, perhaps it’s not the case when you sit and-”


“Write a report on it?” said Finne, sounding bemused.


“No, you run through reasons as to why it wasn’t so.” said Aleci, “I suppose some decisions are cowardly, but not all of them. No one can be expected to show a hero’s bravery. Every story told loves to tell about their brave deeds but, they often fail to mention their bravery often lead to their deaths. Glorious deaths, no doubt, but deaths nonetheless. Sometimes being a hero isn’t worth it. Sometimes all one wants is to be left alone. You aren’t trying to emulate a hero are you?”


“No.” said Finne.


“Well, going back to your question. You wanted to run away, how old were you at the time?”


“Why does it matter?”


“It is different, running away when you’re younger. How would you have paid for your fare? Your tavern room? That sort of thing.”


“Sixteen.” said Finne, and Aleci nodded, unsurprised.


“Where would you have gone?”


“I… don’t know. A friend’s house maybe.”


“Was this friend the same age as you?”


“Yes.”


“Would they have been able to help?” said Aleci, “Given you room? Given you money? Would they hesitate, and ask their parents? Would you their parent return you back to your house?”


“I… don’t know.” said Finne, “Probably. I think, yes.” he looked crestfallen.


“Right, if you didn’t ask for help from a friend, and say, ask a stranger, maybe one of the merchants, if you wished to leave Imruk would they have helped you? You-” Aleci paused, “You were young, and a carrier. Your family would have wanted you back. Would the merchant risk his own livelihood, maybe his family, for the wrath of a noble?”


“No.” said Finne, “And… I wouldn’t expect them to.”


“That is if you came across a kind-hearted one.” said Aleci, and Finne frowned, “There are plenty of carriers in the Capital. Many of them ran away from one situation to find themselves in another situation altogether. Are you certain you wouldn’t be one of them?”


“Lupanars?” said Finne his voice sounding very small, “I would have been in one?”


“Maybe.” said Aleci, softly, “Or some Magister would have bought you. I don’t know if you would have fared well there either.”


“I was pregnant… with Edon, when I thought about it again.” said Finne, “I… decided not to. I suppose, it wouldn’t have gone well either, had I done it.”


“No.” said Aleci, “I don’t think… I don’t think you would have been allowed to keep him.”


He didn’t want to add that there were worst things that could happen to a pregnant carrier.


“I could’ve ran away with Edon, when he was older.” said Finne.


“It is harder to travel with a child.” Aleci pointed out, “How long could he have walked? How would you have fed him?” He wasn’t sure if Finne was referring to him sending Edon away with the merchant fleeing the city, but added, “How long would you have been gone before you were missed, if you had fled with him?”


“You’re right.” said Finne softly, “Not far. It wouldn’t have worked anyway.”


“No.” said Aleci, uncertain as to which scenario Finne was referring to but deciding to reassure him anyway.


“He would have raged.” said Finne in a whisper, “Raged and thrown things. I guess… I guess it was a bad idea after all.”


“You weren’t a coward for not running.” said Aleci, “It… it would have relied on too many variables turning in your favor. Too many lucky rolls. You would have… rolled badly eventually.” it was probably better to say that than to detail what he thought might have happen had Finne decided to run away.


“I know. You’re right.” said Finne resigned, “I just, I just thought… I thought…” he looked to Aleci, and Aleci nodded encouragingly, “I thought, perhaps if I’d left they would have… they would have lived.” his gaze fell to the cradle again and Aleci swallowed.


“Finne, you wouldn’t have known that.” he said, softly, “You wouldn’t have known whether or not you would have more children after Edon. More children that lived.”


“How would you know?” said Finne, voice shaky.


“My father was away for a large majority of my mother’s pregnancies.” said Aleci, “He tried to come back around the same time she was due, but well, you can’t exactly ride back from a battle can you? I was with her. She… didn’t take it well when he came back with a present and there was no child. My father would have wanted to stay longer but he was usually called away again and I was left with her. ”


She didn’t take it well when the midwives told her of his brothers’ deaths either. That was the hardest part, her joy-turned-sorrow. He’d often jolt up in the middle of the night sometimes, her wails of despair still echoing in whatever room he’d been sleeping in.


“I didn’t know.” said Finne, “I’m sorry… to hear that.” Finne blinks, “Is, is this why you wanted to be with me? In the birthing room?”


“I would, yes.” said Aleci, adding, “If you wanted me to be. I just.” he sighed deeply, “I don’t think I can take pacing up and down corridors any more. Or peeking through doors opening and closing. I would rather be with you.”


“It’s not pleasant.” said Finne, after some time, “You wouldn’t like it. Everything smells. I hate it. I still smell it sometimes.”


“You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who enjoys the ordeal.” offered Aleci.


“I don’t know. I never talked to many carriers. The ones that I did seemed to think it was a wondrous thing.”


“Is it not?” said Aleci, “You’re having a child. You can also father one, I think, and not many can say they are capable of both.”


“It’s not a blessing.” said Finne, frowning, “You say it like it is.”


“I think it is. You don’t have to believe me.” said Aleci, he reached for a cushion to put under his head, lying down on the floor.


“What are you doing?” Finne demanded.


“I don’t know how long you want this conversation.” said Aleci, yawning, “I’m making myself comfortable.”


“Not long.” said Finne, standing up and offering him a hand, “Not that long. I’d like to go back to bed now.”


Aleci groaned as he got up, “Why do you do this? I was comfortable.” Finne gave him a hesitant smile and he decided to take it in stride, “Come closer,” he said, giving Finne’s hand a gentle pull, “you prankster. Promise me you’d wake me up if you want to talk, hm? I never really like playing hide-and-seek.”


He thinks Finne blushes when he kissed his cheek, and there was a definite note of amusement in Finne’s voice when he whispered, “No.” in Aleci’s ear.

Chapter Text

They didn’t go to the bathhouse after all. Mercus showed up with an odd looking tambourine, though, when he pulled out an accompanying carved stick, Aleci figured it must be a drum of some sort. Finne’s eyes lite up.

 

“Mercus.” he said, in awe, “How did you find this?”

 

Even Edon looked impressed, “A bodhrán.” he said, “I didn’t know they have bodhráns here.”

 

“The skin isn’t quite perfect…” said Finne, running his hand across the bodhán’s surface, “Very close. How did you find it, Mercus?”

 

“I described it to my father,” said Mercus, “And he said it sounded familiar, so we had some materials around the house and made it.” he held it out to Finne, “It’s for you, Mistress Finne.”

 

“Why?” said Finne, softly, surprised, “You didn’t need to.”

 

“Well,” said Mercus, shooting Aleci a look before turning to Finne, “We’ve always had an audience when I play, I figured, it’s only fair they get to hear you as well. And, you’ve always said you wanted to see which one of us plays better. It’s only fair we play on instruments we are familiar with.”

 

“Oh, fair is it?” said Finne, himself looking amused, “Thank you, Mercus. I appreciate it.” he smiled at Aleci, “Would you mind going another time? I haven’t… haven’t played in a while.”

 

“Going where?” said Edon.

 

“To the study,” said Aleci, “and no, I don’t mind, enjoy yourselves.” at this Finne smiled, walking forward to kiss him, and pulled back, grinning at the shock on Aleci’s face.

 

Edon wrinkled his nose in disgust, “Are you going to do that all the time now?” he said.

 

“I think so.” Mercus said, consolingly, patting Edon's head. 

 

Aleci left the three to it, and as he walked away he could hear the faint sounds of notes being played on Mercus’s lute and the hesitant drumbeats of Finne’s bodhrán.

 

He decided against going to the study after all, making his way to the kitchen where he found Maera rolling pastry dough.

 

“Can I ask you something, Maera?”

 

The woman paused, wiping her hands on a nearby cloth, “Depends, Maser Aleci, on how long your request is. Should I step away from the kitchen?”

 

“I think so.” said Aleci, and Maera nodded, motioning for the other cook to take over her work.

 

“What is it then, Master Aleci?” said Maera, pulling off her apron and hanging it on a hook.

 

“Finne said he would be willing to have me in the room with him, when the birth happens. I’d like to know what you know about it. I talked about it with you before.”

 

Her eyebrows went up and up as he talked and nearly disappeared when he finished. “Absolutely n-” she started to say, then frowned thoughtfully, “Perhaps, it’s not a bad idea. Finne doesn’t have any relations here. Perhaps it would be reassuring, make it smoother, Seanmháthair did say first and foremost the mother must be made comfortable, and to adapt as necessary...” she mumbled something else under her breath, then gave him a long look, “Are you certain, Master Aleci? Childbirth does not smell of roses or look as pretty.”

 

“I’m certain.”

 

“Well.” said Maera, “Should I bring what I have up to your study? It’s not proper for you to go into my quarters.”

 

“Of course.” agreed Aleci.

 

The older woman knocked on his study some time later. He’d cleared his desk for her, and placed a chair next to him. Maera eyed his quill and paper with some disdain, before placing small iron basin in front of him. It contained a bottle of clear liquid, a pair of scissors, some washing cloths, and, Aleci stared in horrified fascination, a sort of anatomical doll made of cloth.

 

“If you’re feeling queasy looking at the doll, Master Aleci, perhaps we shouldn’t go further.” said Maera.

 

“No, no.” said Aleci, “I just, I’ve never seen one of them before.”

 

“I won’t get awards for mine.” said Maera, eyeing her creation, “But as long as it does the job eh?”

 

“Right.” said Aleci, skeptically.

 

“Before the birth begins, or shall I say, before the midwife steps into the room, her and her assistants must cleanse themselves.” said Maera, “We offer a prayer to Seare, and ask her for assistance in the birth that follows. This is done as follows.”

 

She removed the doll and the scissors from the basin, and placed it on the table before taking the bottle into her hands. She spoke slowly, Aleci thought, probably for his understanding.

 

Seare, Imruk’s daughter, hear me, o wise one, and grant me your healer’s hands.

 

Maera poured the clear liquid, smelling very much like alcohol, into the basin, about two finger's deep of the liquid, and plunged her hands into it, washing her hands up to her elbows and scrubbing viciously.

 

Seare, Imruk’s daughter, hear me, o wise one, and bless my tools of work.

 

At this second verse she took the scissors and placed them into the liquid.

 

Seare, Imruk’s daughter, hear me, o wise one, and bless this mother.

 

She then took the cloth, dipped it into the liquid and glancing at Aleci meaningfully, rubbed it across the doll’s stomach and below it.

 

“Is that… is that alcohol?” said Aleci, the smell very familiar to him.

 

“I highly, highly advise against drinking it." said Maera, not answering his question but confirming his suspicions, "It’ll knock out a grown man out with only a finger’s worth and kill him if he drank this basin. Poetic, some may say.”

 

“Why is this done?” said Aleci, curious.

 

Maera looked taken aback, “You know… I never thought about that. I was taught to do it this way, wait are you writing this down?”

 

“I want to remember.” said Aleci, “You can’t expect me to remember the prayer after only listening once.”

 

“You never write it down!” said Maera, looking scandalized, “It’s not the way things are done.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because… because it’s unwise to have everything stored in one place. Makes one complacent and soft.”

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

Maera shook her head, “I don’t think I can explain this to you further, Master Aleci.”

 

“Right.” said Aleci, deciding that this was one stone he wouldn’t be able to budge, “The doll then, what is it for?”

 

It was a rhetorical question, he knew what it was for, but he was more than surprised that Maera had given the doll organs as well. It wasn’t just a small baby inside the doll as he thought. She looked vaguely concerned at his green face as she demonstrated how the organs shifted to accompany the pregnancy.

 

“How do you know all this?” said Aleci.

 

“Well,” said Maera, “In cases where the mother and child does not survive, we have to cut-” she indicated making an incision, “here, to take out the child. They should be allowed their own passing, you see, so they can make their way back to earth if they wish to. They shouldn’t be inside the mother when both passes.”

 

“Right.” said Aleci, even though it didn’t make sense to him at all, “Is that, is that how you understand how-” he gestured vaguely at the doll, “how everything looks like?”

 

“Yes.” said Maera, “I’ve only been in three births that resulted in the death both mother and child, it’s very unpleasant, but, as things are, the living must learn from the dead.”

 

“I see.” said Aleci.

 

Maera glanced over at his notes, and hide a smile, “I suppose.” said the woman, “It doesn’t matter if you write it down after all, I don’t know how one can understand your pictures.”

 

“I’m not talented in the area.” agreed Aleci.

 

“Shall we continue?” said Maera, and he nodded.

 

It was only a normal birth, not even breech she told him, what she was showing him, and already he felt uncomfortable.

 

“I don’t know why one wants more.” he said after awhile, not certain what his reaction was when she spoke of stretching and tearing.

 

“One forgets the pain.” offered Maera, “I did, as with my friends. The others simply wanted more, so they had more.” she laughs, “As for my children, as their mother, I’ve taught them plenty on how not have more, and I’ve left it to them.”

 

“I see.” said Aleci, “Can I ask you something else, Maera? I think, I think I’ve learned plenty today.”

 

“Of course.” agreed Maera, “I felt the same too, when I first learned.”

 

He wanted to ask her of the poem Finne first recited to him when he asked. When he finished telling her what he remembered, Maera frowned. “Well.” said the old woman, finally, “That’s not how I know the song. But I’m not a carrier, they have their own songs. Perhaps my memory isn’t as it used to be.”

 

“What do you mean, I thought it was a poem?”

 

“Poems, songs,” shrugged Maera, “does their name matter, so long as their meaning is understood?” at his confused look she said, “Don’t men have them as well? Fishermen’s shanties? Road songs of merchants? Ah, never mind, you lot write your knowledge down.” she tsks disapprovingly, “You can’t convince me otherwise, Master Aleci, I don’t believe in such things.”

 

“But you’re going to read things as well,” said Aleci, “At Losium, if we were to go, aren’t you?”

 

“I am.” said Maera, “Which proves my point exactly. If knowledge is sacred, like these Losium scholars say, and they keep it in their books to keep it safe, what’s stopping a fire from turning it into ash? No. It’s best to pass such things down through memory and songs.”

 

“I see.” said Aleci, he doubted he could convince her otherwise, “So, what’s the difference?”

 

“The original song?” said Maera, “Oh, it’s been years and years, I can’t remember precisely the words. I think… I think it does refer to a well, though, the carrier was not speaking to a noble man. He was making an offering to Imruk.”

 

“Oh?” said Aleci, “A God?”

 

“No. Imruk was Imruk’s founder.” said Maera, “As the Empire named itself after its founder, so did Imruk. I’m not sure what precisely the carrier asked for,” she frowns, tapping her chin, “maybe the usual, healthy children, a warm hearth, a good harvest. Or it could be a husband, I don’t remember. What follows, is advice, and that varies depends on what is asked. There’s several versions of the song, actually, now that I think of it.”

 

“Then what does the uncle have to do with it?” said Aleci, wondering if Maera would confirm his suspicions.

 

“I don’t know the whole song, Master Aleci,” said Maera, “You should ask your wife, though, I suspect he won’t say, the messages are secret to the people who sing them and those that listen.” she must’ve seen disappointment on his face because she hesitated, “But, well, maybe I could give you my thoughts on the song?”

 

“Yes,” said Aleci, “please.”

 

“I have mentioned to you that sometimes it is men that cannot impregnate their wives.” said Maera, “I suspect… this is a song advising other carriers to seek other men, if they have had miscarriages. If it goes the way as you said, then it would sing of various burials. Or perhaps, the place of the burials hold some meaning. A plant that prevents pregnancy, for example. Finne said he told you of this, pomegranates is one of them though they are not native to Imruk.”

 

“I see.” said Aleci, thinking over his next words, “He told me that he had children before Edon. He said they died. I think this keeps him awake at night. I told him sometimes you can’t tell for certain how such things go. My mother… I don’t want him to blame himself-”

“Master Aleci,” said Maera, cutting him off, her voice kind, “You cannot dictate this. Such things heal with time. I think… I think it is good that he told you, he’d never told me. It does bring up an interesting hypothesis, though I don’t know if you wish to talk more about such matters.”

 

“What?” said Aleci.

 

“Imruk has more carriers than the rest of the Empire, especially among the nobility, but ever since I’ve left this number has gone down. I wonder if this has to do with the marriages the nobles do amongst themselves to consolidate power.”

 

“Oh?” said Aleci.

 

“It is my observation, from talking to the many that left Imruk, that marriages between close members of the same family, for an extended period of time, seemed to have an effect on the fertility and health of the offspring that results. I cannot promise that everything will go well with your child, I pray that it does, but the scales have been balanced, so to speak, tipped more in Finne’s favor.”

 

She left him with more questions than answers when she bid him goodbye, taking her tools with her.

Chapter Text

The study window was open. While he and Maera talked there were occasional notes from the lute and the drum, now there definitely was the sound of singing. Finne, he thinks, and he sounded the same as when he spoke High Imrukian, he would dare say, more feminine. Aleci walked towards the window and leaned out. He couldn’t see Edon, his son most likely ran off to look for the black cat. There was a distance between Finne and Mercus as they sat face to face on the bench, it was too far away to see their faces.

 

Look at the carts in the town

the merchants are in Llandy now

Tonight I’ll don my fair dress

I’m off on the road to Llandy now

 

It was in High Imrukian, he realized, with some dismay, he wasn’t quite sure of what he was listening to, only making out the name of Llandy. There was a definite cheer to the beat of the song, but, then again, that could be as misleading as last time. To his surprise, Mercus joined in. Perhaps it was a love song? Or a dance invitation, the ones with one person inviting the other and the other rejecting until finally saying yes.

 

Look, how he’s off on the town

He’s off on a search for a groom though

There’s find lads here to be found

He’s never been one to stay at home

 

Finne then sang, in slightly lower tones,

 

Home you’ll go and there you’ll stay

Your groom's knockin’ come morning

Give up your dream of dancing away

Forget your merchants in Llandy.

 

The stanza ended and he resumed the higher voice Aleci heard earlier,

 

Off with joy in my steps

The men in Llandy are searching for

A cheery dancer such as myself

For whirls and twirls and maybe more



Then it was Mercus’s turn to sing,

 

Stay here and never you mind

The dreams of youth are blinding you

These merchants they come and they go-

 

“His Imrukian sounds like a dying raven.” said Edon, again somehow entering the room without Aleci noticing.

 

“Oh does it?”

 

“Caw, caw, caw.” mocked Edon, flapping his arms, “I don’t know why mamaí insisted. Mercus sounds terrible. Can't even say the words right. At least you sound a little better. Not by much. But better than Mercus.” Edon gave him a speculative look, “Why don’t you sing with mamaí, he likes that. Mercus'll stop hurting my ears.”

 

“I can’t sing either.” offered Aleci, wondering what Edon would compare his singing too, another dying bird probably, hopefully not a yowling cat, “What is the song about?"

 

"It's very boring." said Edon, "You're supposed to dance while you sing it, not sit around. It's a dance song, obviously."

 

"Right." said Aleci, "What are they singing about?"

 

"I told you." said Edon, "It's about dancing, the girl wants to go dancing and her mother and father says no and she says she's going anyway. But mamaí always sings it as a carrier and not a girl."

 

"I see." said Aleci, now curious as to why Edon was there, "Are you not going to bell the cat?”

 

“Oh, I can do that later, I saw you looking at them from the window.” said Edon, then said in a rush, “Are you going to call him an adulteress?”

 

“Sorry?” said Aleci, “I don’t know the word.”

 

Edon looked uncomfortable. “I don’t know it either.” he said after awhile, “He said it, all the time.” he shuffles his feet looking at the floor, “Maera said I shouldn’t have said that, but she never told me what it meant.”

 

Adulteress,” said Aleci, trying to find a word that sounded familiar and coming up with nothing, “When did he say this?”

 

“I dunno.” said Edon, “All the time. Wait, no, I mean, more when when mamaí was with other men. So not a lot of times, but he said it a lot.”

 

Well, that was a rather complicated word to explain, “He… he may have thought mamaí was… cheating.” offered Aleci, and seeing Edon’s confused look, decided to ask, “What do you think it means?”

 

“Cheating?” said Edon, “I know what cheating means, it means you’re not following the rules because you want to win.”

 

“No,” said Aleci, “Adulteress, what do you think it means?”

 

“You said cheating.” Edon pointed out, “Why would mamaí cheat? It’s not like he plays fair anyway. You can’t cheat someone who’s also cheating.”

 

That was either words of wisdom or the convoluted logic of a child, “Do you know what adulteress means now?” said Aleci.

 

“Someone who cheats.” said Edon, “But why didn’t he just call mamaí a cheater?”

 

Ah, well, that was an acceptable definition, thought Aleci, deciding he wasn’t a dictionary, “Because,” he said, “it’s a word for people who cheat when they’re married.”

 

Mamaí wasn’t married to him.” said Edon.

 

“Oh?”

 

“He wasn’t wearing a ring until he came here.” said Edon, indicating to his hand, “Married people wear rings. You wear one. Maera’s got one as well, but she has it on a necklace.”

 

“Perhaps he didn’t buy him one?” offered Aleci.

 

He half expected Edon to argue that point as well but his son seemed to be happy with this explanation.

 

“I want to know how to do the five times table.” said Edon.

 

“Studious are you?” said Aleci.

 

“Well,” said Edon, grinning mischievously, “Mercus told me I couldn’t do it, not all the tables, and I told him I could and he bet me, oh, I forgot what, but it was good, whatever it was, and so I want to win it.”

 

“Do you want some advice?” said Aleci, “Before we start?”

 

“What advice?” said Edon.

 

“Before you bet,” said Aleci, “Write down and sign what it is you’re betting, and have whoever you’re betting it with sign it as well.”

 

“Why?” said Edon, “Mercus wouldn’t lie.”

 

“Yes,” said Aleci, “But, someone else would. And perhaps Mercus has forgotten as well.”

 

“He wouldn’t!” said Edon, horrified, “He wouldn’t do that. He told me how I should catch the cat, no Smudge, he told me how to catch Smudge.”

 

“Smudge?” said Aleci, “You’ve called him Smudge?”

 

“Well, yes, Mercus said that I was going about it wrong. He said I treated Smudge like any other boy would treat a cat, and that’s why Smudge treated me like I was any other boy that’s mean and cruel. So Mercus told me I should make him feel special, give him a name, so he’s not just any cat to me, and if I call him Smudge every time I see him, and give him something, then I won’t be like any other boy to him. So he’ll come into my bag, the one you got me, and I’ll show mamaí I got him.”

 

“I thought you were supposed to bell him.” said Aleci, struggling to make sense of Edon’s logic. He thinks there must have been several steps in the story that Edon did not tell him.

 

“I am.” said Edon, looking as if he’d been asked a very stupid question, “There’s a bell inside the bag.”

 

Chapter Text

Later that night, Finne shook him awake, “I want to go outside.”

 

“Why?” groaned Aleci as he rolled out of the bed, then, “Where?”

 

“Outside the villa.” said Finne, “I want to sit outside. Not in the courtyard, I want a breeze.”

 

They settled just outside the entrance to the villa, Finne sitting on one of the reclining chairs Aleci carried out with them. Aleci sat in the other. After some silence, Finne said, “You never said whether or not you thought I was a coward.”

 

He thought he'd told Finne he wasn't, but perhaps Finne was looking for reassurance, “You made the best out of your situation.” said Aleci, “That’s not cowardly.” he decided to add, “That’s how those letters usually ended, I made the best out of such-and-such situation.”

 

Finne laughs softly. “I see.”

 

“Can I ask,” said Aleci, “how you didn’t know you were a carrier? I thought it was very clear when a child is born what they are.”

 

“I apparently looked like a boy.” said Finne, slowly, “As for when I was older, how often do you examine under your own testicles?”


“… not often.” said Aleci.

 

“Exactly.” said Finne, “I didn’t know until the bleeding started.” at Aleci’s puzzled look, he gestured towards his crotch.

 

“Bleeding?” said Aleci, feeling as horrified as when Maera described tearing and stretching.

 

“Ask Maera.” said Finne, amused, “The gist of it is, carriers and women, if they are well fed and healthy, usually bleed once a month. Like the waxing and waning of the moon, if you want to be poetic. There’s nothing poetic about the whole affair, but I avoided the mess as best I could.”

 

“Really?” said Aleci.

 

“If I tell you,” said Finne, “Will you not mention this to Maera? I’ve had enough of her hovering over me when I eat.”

 

“Of course.” agreed Aleci.

 

“She’s right.” said Finne, “When she mentioned I probably didn’t eat enough to get pregnant. Most carriers have this, this look about them, you can’t easily see muscle on their bodies. You can with mine can’t you?”

 

“Yes.” said Aleci.

 

“I figured this out, early on. I think I heard it from someone.” said Finne, “When they, and by they I mean the other carriers who like to lord it over the others that they had the honor of holding ceremonies, and preparing others for the ceremony. I’d like to curse their names now, but it drove them batty when I refused to call them by their proper titles or names back then, so why waste my breath now? They wanted to schedule the ceremonies every month before, you know, before I bleed. When I didn’t it drives them up the wall with irritation. Always the muttering and lecturing about me not knowing my place and being improper. Do they not know, it doesn’t matter really, he’ll do it regardless, and he said so himself, but I felt, I felt so happy taking this away from them.”

 

“But you starved yourself!” protested Aleci faintly shocked.

 

“No, I didn’t.” snapped Finne, “I just didn’t eat what they thought would tempt me. All those honeyed fruits, sweets and meats, they’ll piled them high on a plate and wait for me to eat them, like I’m a child that can be bribed, did they forget I used to do border patrols? I wasn't raised to be swayed by delicacies. Maybe it worked with the others. Certainly the carriers I saw in Imruk looked like they were well fed. They forgot I never I liked meat in the first place, it reminded me of him. And I kept up the exercises, that helped.” Finne sneered, “They gave up eventually. Those harpies were always muttering about my unnaturalness. I was always too tall, too thin, too muscular, too stubborn and too hairy for their liking. I kicked one in the face once, when they tried to shave me.” Finne grits his teeth, “That one convinced me I should just go with the first ceremony, that it wasn’t that bad.” he puts on a higher voice, “One just lies there and it’s over. You won’t get any leverage in your life unless you have a child.” Finne pulled the familiar wooden pin out from somewhere under his clothes and was twirling the pin around in his hand, “What tripe. He treated me worst when I was pregnant.”

 

“I’m sorry.” said Aleci.

 

“I don’t see why you apologize. You didn’t convince me it was a good idea. Did you know it took them over four months to convince me? I think it was four months, it could’ve been shorter. And they had to convince me, it was some sort of ritual one has to complete. Agreeing is very important, but only once mind you. They had me in a room, and they controlled when it was light, and when it was dark. I couldn’t even sleep, the minute I did they’ll somehow barge in ringing their damned bells, asking if I wanted the ceremony now. I took great pleasure in stealing all their bells later and putting them on the feral cats. I hope it drove them mad, chasing the cats around to retrieve their precious bells.” Finne’s grip on his knife was white knuckled, “I started seeing things, walking back and forth in that room. Hearing things as well. That’s when I said yes, do the ceremony. I couldn’t take it anymore.”

 

“I don’t think I would have fared better in your place.” offered Aleci, “At least I was allowed to sleep in the jail.”

 

“You created a series of mathematical rules while in jail.” said Finne, “I paced and saw things. I don’t think that’s the same at all.”

 

“I’m sure the difference was that I was allowed to sleep.”said Aleci, “You don’t have to talk about… about the ceremony, anymore if you don’t want to.”

 

“It’s exactly as that lady said, a while back. She wasn’t wrong. It was only my half-brother though-" he clarified, "the son of my father's first wife. My uncles were too old and nephews too young. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. I think he scared them off. He’s always been jealous.”

 

“Do you not name him in the same way as you don’t name the carriers that jailed you?”

 

Finne looked taken aback by the question. “Maybe?” he said, sounding surprised at his answer, “But no, it’s more, more because he likes to have me fawn over him while he fucked me. I could never fake desire and that must’ve displeased him, so he switched to demanding that I beg instead. I don’t see a difference, but he liked the latter.”

 

“That sounds horrific.” said Aleci.

 

“Maybe to you.” said Finne, “It was became quite normal. Predictable. I don’t like guessing what mood he would be in.”

 

“I didn’t treat you like this, did I?”

 

“No.” said Finne, softly.

 

Chapter Text

“But were you not afraid of me?” said Aleci, recalling the flinches when he raised his voice, “Earlier, every time I’d raise my voice you’d flinch away.”

 

“I didn’t.” said Finne refusing to look at him.

 

It sounded like a denial, “Are you still afraid of me?”

 

This time Finne met his eyes, “No.” he said, “I’m perfectly capable of defending myself.”

 

“I won’t hit you.” said Aleci, “I swear.”

 

“Don’t make such promises.” said Finne.

 

“Finne,” said Aleic, reaching out to grab his wife’s hand, “Finne look at me. Please.” he waited for Finne’s eyes to meet him before continuing, “You have a good memory, don’t you? In the time you’ve known me, have you ever seen me angry? Not irritated or exasperated. Have you seen me genuinely angry?”

 

“… No.” said Finne after awhile, he looked like he wanted to say more and Aleci decided to cut in.

 

“Finne, you haven’t seen me angry. You won’t ever see me angry, and I won’t ever hit you.” he knew what happened, very well, the last time he was genuinely angry.

 

“It is well within your rights to do so.” said Finne.

 

“Finne, you’ve told me how the other carriers said you were unnatural and didn’t know your place. If they haven’t made you known your place, with whatever methods they used, what makes you think I can by beating you?”

 

“I don’t believe you.” said Finne flatly, “Everyone loses their temper eventually.”

 

“Yes, I’m aware of that.” said Aleci, “And perhaps I would lose my temper, but I won’t hurt you. Why would I do that?”

 

“Everyone does it.” said Finne.

 

“I don’t see Maera’s husband beating her.” Aleci pointed out, “He’ll probably be thrown out of the house.”

 

He could very well imagined it, he doubted Maera was the sort to tolerate such things.

 

“Her husband is dead!” snapped Finne, “And she can very well leave him, can’t she?” he turned away from Aleci, shaking.

 

“You want to leave?” said Aleci, feeling his heart sink, “You want to leave?” he repeated.

 

“I don’t have the choice do I?” said Finne, refusing to look at him, “If you want to move to the Capital I’d have to go with you. If you want to move anywhere I’m obliged to smile and go. You can praise my skills, let me win and hire anyone you want to entertain me, but that doesn’t make me your equal. You loved this other friend of yours because you both met on equal grounds. There will never be equality between us.” he stood up, looking down at Aleci with a resigned acceptance, “I may not be a glorified songbird sweetly singing away but where is the freedom if you hold the jesses?”

 

There was a wild look on Finne’s face that Aleci recognized from before. “Are you,” said Aleci, “comparing yourself to a falcon?” he paused, “I… I can’t see myself leashing you. I doubt you’ll allow it.” or the numerous other things that one must do to tame a falcon, “Are you,” he hesitated, throwing out a suspicion, “are you homesick? We can visit, if you’d like. And well, if it makes you happy, I’ll move to Imruk. I wouldn’t mind.”

 

Finne stared at him, speechless before saying, “I don’t understand.”

 

He thinks he must have hit the bullseye then, Finne was homesick. “You said you wanted this freedom to leave, you said you didn’t want to be under my whims. Well, if you want to live in Imruk, I don’t see why that isn’t possible. Probably not now, not with things as they are, but when things have been smoothed over, I’ll see what I can do.”

 

“Why would you do this?” Finne demanded, “I don’t understand why-”

 

“Why I don’t treat you like the nobles treat their wives in Imruk or here? Because I don’t see our marriage, and you, as an instrument to produce children.”

 

“Most people have children. Most marriages produce children. Your father wanted a continuation of your family line.” said Finne, “I don’t understand what you are trying to say.”

 

“Nobles, see their wives as an instrument to produce children.” said Aleci, “And they also see that other instruments they own, say, servants, plows, mines, are also use at their whim to produce things to enrich them. So they conclude that this is also the lot of their wives, and treat them as such, as they also produce things that enrich them.” he hesitated, deciding he might as well commit treason, “I suspect it’s why they are so decadent in the Capital, they’ve tired of abusing their own wives, and those of their servants so they’ve now taken great joy in seducing each others’ wives. If we’re ever in the company of a Magister feel free to excuse yourself.” he paused, emphasizing, "You don't have to have more children on my account."

 

”So you’re a philosopher as well.” said Finne, “Just my luck.”

 

“No.” said Aleci, not certain what Finne said at the end, “I hate those stuffy academics. They sit around high on each other's superior intellect. I’ve only made observations.”

 

“How did you make them?” said Finne, “And other men didn’t?”

 

He sat down next to Aleci again, and Aleci swallowed a pleased smile, “There are courtesans in the Capital,” he said, “carrier courtesans who have enough money to support themselves. They’re very rare, mind you, and their time is not cheap, but they are quite fascinating to talk to.”

 

“Is that why you didn’t… didn’t look surprised when I could read and write?”

 

“You’re from a noble house, are you not?” said Aleci, “I thought you would, considering you weren’t raised as a carrier. There’s not much of a difference between carriers and men, in intelligence.”

 

“From your experience?” said Finne.

 

“From my experience.” said Aleci.

 

"Then why did you treat me like a witless fool earlier?"

 

"I let my resentment get the better of me. I hate my father's whims. I'm sorry."

 

“I see.” said Finne quietly, then, “You were right, I want to go home. I don’t feel… right here. But it’s the wrong time, as you said. Will you promise that I will go home? If a visit isn’t possible… then I want my burial there.”

 

“Morbid, aren’t you?” said Aleci, but he supposes expecting mothers would maybe dwell on such matters, he reached for Finne’s hand again and wasn’t rejected, “I promise. How would you like your burial?”

 

Finne looked taken aback by the question, but smiled, “Not in the ground.” he said, “I don’t want that.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Why would you entomb your spirit?”

 

“And how would you normally conduct your funerals?”

 

“The body is cremated,” said Finne, “the ashes gathered by their family members, then they sail to an open sea and lower a small wooden boat with the ashes and light it on fire.”

 

“That seems overly complicated.” said Aleci.

 

“So are your burials.” Finne pointed out, “Why would you hire stonemasons and haul so much marble around?”

 

“You make a fair point.” said Aleci.

 

Convincing him otherwise might be the same as convincing Maera that it was worth it to write down her knowledge. It was a rather strange custom, but as Finne pointed out, their marbled tombstones could also be considered just as strange.

 

“I want you to kiss me.” said Finne, getting up from his seat to plop himself down on Aleci’s lap, “Kiss me.” he insisted.

 

Finne tasted like pomegranates, and his lips were soft and pliant at first, though when Aleci deepened the kiss, pushing his tongue into Finne’s mouth Finne responded by gripping his hair, wrapping his legs around Aleci’s waist. It was heavenly, thought Aleci, pressing Finne against him and feeling his hips jerk involuntarily upwards. Their kiss ended rather abruptly when the chair broke with a crack underneath them.

 

“Ow.” said Aleci, hoping his tunic put enough of a barrier between him and any splinters, “Are you alright?” he said, getting up and gingerly feeling himself over.

 

“Sorry.” said Finne, not sounding remotely sorry.

 

“Next time you ask me to kiss you, I’ll make sure the chair actually holds.” said Aleci.

Chapter Text

Finne wanted to spar, as they usually did before, the next day and Aleci didn’t bother to try to best him. He could, obviously, and he did once before, but Finne was the more adept fighter between the two of them. He was faster than Aleci, and since their last sparring session, he’d figured out how Aleci bested him that first time. In any case Finne’s smile when he won warmed his heart. Mercus came to watch them as well, though he was soon busy showing Edon how best to use the sword Aleci saw earlier. Edon soon ran off to search for Smudge, bag filled with whatever morsels he thought the cat might like and and left the sword in Finne's hands.

 

He thought Mercus would follow them into the villa but the younger man bowed politely to them both before leaving. Well, that wasn’t all, he leaned in to whisper something in Finne’s ear that earned him an eye roll and a half hearted, “Maybe.”

 

When he asked Finne what Mercus said to him his wife shook his head, saying it was nothing.

 

“Did Mercus want to make you another drum or something?” said Aleci.

 

Finne raised an eyebrow at his question then shook his head, “No. You don’t need to know, it’s nothing, really.”

 

“What is it?” said Aleci, curious now.

 

“I told him about Losium and he said it might be fun to go. He said I’ll enjoy the competitions there.”

 

“Competitions?” said Aleci, Mercus didn’t strike him as the sort interested in sports.

 

“Wordsmiths.” said Finne, “He said, you’ll be given a topic and you have so-and-so time to prepare your poem or song or whatever and you’re judged. I told him I don’t think they’ll let a pregnant carrier compete but he said I clearly haven’t been to many such competitions, he said there was one for wives.”

 

He wasn't sure if Finne was enthusiastic about the idea, the only times he'd ever seen Finne show interest was at the training grounds. But maybe there was a carefully controlled enthusiasm there, it wouldn't hurt to see if he was right. “Are you interested in going now?” said Aleci, “I’ll write to Aulius.”

 

Privately he thought he was being too stingy with paying Mercus, the young man truly had hidden depths. He wouldn’t be surprised if Finne did want a change in scenery but never wanted to request it, come to think of it Finne never really asked him for any physical item, besides that pin.

 

“Is it safe?” said Finne, “The last time we traveled, the soldiers said there was trouble.”

 

“We’ll take the guards.” said Aleci, “Why else would I be paying them? And don’t worry there are ways to make us look inconspicuous.”

 

“I don’t understand.” said Finne.

 

“It’s the same idea as when I told Edon why you were riding sidesaddle.” said Aleci, “We’ll take a traveling coach, like those the merchants use, instead of whatever gilded thing they ride around in the Capital. I hope you don’t mind, it’s clean inside but doesn’t look the best outside. I guess Edon would be disappointed on the way there, I did promise him we’ll buy something, but I swear that wagon rolls into town and every merchant shuts their stalls. I’m sure he can get his choice of whatever the merchants are hawking at Aulius’s villa, he doesn’t go to the merchants anymore they come to him.”

 

“Is he a Magister?”

 

“No, he doesn’t want to.” said Aleci, “Not right now, at least.”

 

“Why?” said Finne.

 

“The very same way my father’s always stayed a Praefect.” said Aleci, “Too many promotions and you lose the freedom to do the things you want. Aulius’s already in the Senate, and he complains about it plenty, I don’t think he wants the additional headache of Magister as well.”

 

“Hm.” said Finne, “Can I ride with you if possible? I hate coaches.”

 

“I don’t see why not.” said Aleci, “I don’t know why you’d want to, wouldn’t you be more-” he struggled to find the word, “pregnant then?”

 

“That is the logical progression of things.” said Finne, “I hate enclosed spaces.”

 

“The coach’s not entirely covered.” said Aleci, reassuringly, “Or you can sit in the driver’s seat, though I doubt it’s comfortable I’ve always hated the wind there. Is that why you didn’t want to go?”

 

Finne stared at him for a long while then said, “I don’t like traveling in a wooden box.”

 

“I can have a window put in.” said Aleci, “On both sides, but I don’t recommend taking off the roof, that won’t keep the rain off you.”

 

“You’ll do that?”said Finne.

 

“I won’t do that, I’ll pay someone to do that.” clarified Aleci, “It’s nothing much, don’t worry.”

 

There was a long pause from Finne. Another question, Aleci thought, though he had no idea what, Finne’s questions seemed to flow erratically.

 

“If I was… different.” said Finne, “Would you have been as kind?”

 

“Different how?” said Aleci.

 

“Like the carriers in the Capital.” said Finne, “I only ever saw a handful, but they wouldn’t be the type to want to spar, or whatever-” he waved a hand, “whatever we do together.”

 

“I won’t lie to you.” said Aleci, seeing Finne watch his reaction with guarded intensity, “I would sulk. I’m told I’m good at that. But I’ll find something eventually. You would have been pregnant, I would have tried to make you happy.”

 

“And what if I wanted you to buy things?” said Finne, “Like what you said, your friends complained about their wives.”

 

“Then I’ll finally be able to commiserate with them.” said Aleci, “They’ll finally be happy I can join in their circle of marital misery.” he grinned at Finne’s shocked face, “Look, it’s always been the case with my parents, my father does something wrong, he goes and buys my mother a gift to please her, and so on and so forth. She seemed happy enough, and she did refuse him a few times.” they weren’t happy times, but it was amusing to watch Galer curse and swear, “I would guess it would be like that with us. But I don’t think my father would have chosen you. I’ll give the man that much.”

 

“How did he get to chose me?” said Finne, “I didn’t understand what he said to the others. He said something about talent and favors and just took me to his tent. I thought… I thought he meant something else at the time.” Finne bit his lip, "What favors?”

 

“Oh, that.” said Aleci, “Some Praefect wishes to buy his son the honor of fighting in a war but the son’s not the spare, or maybe he likes the lad, so he asks my father to make certain that his son isn’t put in a dangerous situation. Of course, my father, being the overly cautious man that he is, is the perfect man to ask for the job, so he’s gotten more and more favors he can call in over the years.”

 

“I thought it was something else.” said Finne, trailing off, “Never mind. Can we go to your study? I want to finish that painting I promised Edon.”

 

“Can I watch?” said Aleci.

 

Finne stopped in his tracks, “Why?” he said, “It’s boring.”

 

“I’m not Edon.” Aleci pointed out, “I’d like to see. Sit next to me. I’ll clear up some room for you.”

 

Finne gave him another inscrutable look and nodded, “I want to sit next to the window.”

 

They were halfway up the stairs before Finne said, “Did I really win against you earlier?”

 

“Yes?” said Aleci, turning to look at him, “Why do you ask?”

 

“Are you not… upset?”

 

“Why would I be?”

 

“Shouldn’t you be better than me?”

 

“Finne,” said Aleci, faintly amused, “If one wants to be good at everything one will be good at nothing. Besides, one is never a good commander of anything, a legion, a household, if one insists on besting everyone under him. Waste of time and waste of talent for both parties, if you trust people to do right they normally do so.”

 

“You know…” said Finne slowly, “for someone who resents their father’s teachings and listening to him you really do take them to heart. You sound almost like Praefect Galer for a moment there.” he added, with a quirk of his lips as Aleci spluttered incoherently, “Are you going to clear the desk for me?”

Chapter Text

He heard Finne close and lock the door when they entered, but was busy shuffling the papers into a pile and shoving them to one side of his desk to think on the matter. Finne cleared his throat and he looked up to see Finne staring at him.

 

“I want,” Finne said, twisting his hands around on the hilt of Edon’s sword, “I want you to-”

 

“To what?” said Aleci.

 

Finne fidgeted where he stood, “I want you to-never-see-this-room-the-same-way-again.” he said in a rush, “I want you to, to think of me when you’re working, here.”

 

Aleci blinked, “I… don’t understand-” he said, struggling to think.

 

Finne scowled, walking to the table of paints and dropping the sword on it with a clatter, "Well that was a stupid idea, thanks Mercus, you idiot.”

 

“Wait, wait!” said Aleci, only catching the words, idea, Mercus and idiot, the locked door and what Finne was trying to do was suddenly clear, “Were you, were you trying to seduce me?” he grinned, looking at the desk and then at Finne, “You were, weren’t you? You should’ve just told me.” he paused, striking an exaggerating swooning pose, “Oh, Aleci, I want you to fuck me on the table.”

 

I tried to say that.” said Finne, looking torn between laughing and embarrassment, “Did it… did it not work?’ he sounded vaguely disappointed.

 

"I don’t think you need to seduce me.” said Aleci, “Although, you should’ve just told me, I would’ve prepared something…”

 

He caught the flying bottle of olive oil Finne threw at him.

 

“You’re lucky I have a good hand.” said Aleci, “I would’ve dropped that and what would I have used then?”

 

Your mouth.” said Finne, stepping towards him and half-sitting on the desk, Aleci bites back a laugh.

 

Where?” he asked, innocently.

 

Finne shook his head, “You know where!” he snapped, sounding frustrated, his hands twitched as if torn on whether or not to disrobe.

 

No, I don’t.” said Aleci, feigning confusion, “Where should I put my mouth, hm? Here?” he said, reaching over to pull of Finne’s tunic and cup his breasts. He had taken to wearing a breast band, Aleci had seen Finne wrap it around himself that morning, pinning it with the wooden pin. Aleci undid it, letting the band of cloth slide to the floor and the pin along with it, “Or lower?’ he said, reaching downwards to cup Finne’s privates and reveling at the gasps it elicited.

 

You pick.” said Finne, breathlessly, “There’s only three, I don’t think that’s too mathematically hard for you.”

 

Mathematically?’

 

“Mathematically.” Finne clarified.

 

Mathematically, there’s more than ten ways we can fuck on this table.” said Aleci, “But, let’s go with this hm?  Lie back and put your legs around me.”

 

Finne hesitated, but did what he suggested. There was that undercurrent of nervous energy again and Aleci added, reassuringly, “Don’t worry. I’m not pinning you down. I’m taking this off now,” he tugged gently at Finne’s loincloth, “or do you want to do it yourself?”

 

Finne’s response was to undo his loincloth and toss it aside, he blinks at Aleci, slowly, before parting his legs. “Oh, Aleci, I want you to fuck me on the table.” he said, putting a hand to his face as if feigning a swoon.

 

“Oh, is that how you wanted it?” said Aleci, tossing his own clothes aside to join Finne’s. He reaches for the bottle of oil and drizzles it over his fingers, reaching down to probe at Finne’s opening.

 

It was tight, and Aleci paused, reaching to stroke Finne’s cock. “Relax.” he murmured, “Relax.”

 

He wasn’t sure what worked, but when he tried again his first finger breached Finne easily enough. He added two more, thrusting them in and out of Finne, relishing in Finne’s moans and how he wrapped his legs around Aleci, digging his heels into Aleci’s back. “Do you want me to fuck you now?” said Aleci.

 

Finne moaned brokenly, reaching up to pull Aleci into a kiss, “Fuck me, Aleci.” he said, after pulling away.

 

“As you wish.” said Aleci, pushing his cock into Finne’s slick heat.

 

Finne came, shuddering against him not soon after, his legs falling away from Aleci’s body. He wrinkled his nose at the mess between them, but it soon turned into a surprise gasp of pleasure when Aleci licked the come off both of them, lavishing Finne’s nipples in the process and ducked down to clean Finne below as well.

 

“Why did you do that?” said Finne, his cheeks still flushed and his hair completely out of the braid Aleci had done earlier for him.

 

“Do what?” said Aleci.

 

“You didn’t need to, you know, use…” Finne stammered, “use your mouth to clean me. I would’ve been fine with bathing later.”

 

“I saved you from bathing.” offered Aleci, brightly, “You did say you wanted to paint, didn’t you? And I did say I wanted to see you paint. Bathe later.”

 

Finne turned away from him, hiding a laugh, Aleci thinks, in his hand, “I don’t understand your logic.” said Finne finally, “But yes, you’re right.” his gaze fell on the desk and he covered his mouth again. He reached for the discarded clothing to dress himself.

 

“What is so amusing about the desk?” said Aleci, pulling on his own clothes as well, “Did it try to seduce you?”

 

“I’m leaving if you don’t stop.” said Finne, but there was no malice in his voice, and he walked to the other side of the room, returning with the unfinished drawing and paints.

 

“That’s an interesting way to draw.” Aleci remarked, seeing the black and white sketch.

 

It was a drawing of the ocean, but it was fragmented, like Finne had drawn individual mosaic pieces, or maybe what one sees when looking at the ocean through a glass window.

 

“Oh?” said Finne, “I just like using many paint colors. I could do more realistic waves, obviously, but before I’d never had the proper range of colors. And Edon’s always wanted to help me paint, it’s easier if he just paints in the individual blocks.” he smiles, “I think Edon would be disappointed that the ocean isn’t like what I’ve painted. He’ll feel betrayed.”

 

“I thought he was more interested in what it sounds like?” said Aleci.

 

“That too.” said Finne, “I don’t think the ocean would sing to him. He may have misunderstood the lyrics.”

 

“Well, at the very least you didn’t tell him tales of beating back the sea.” offered Aleci, “It would have been entertaining to watch.”

 

“Aleci, I’m not-" Finne paused, hesitated, then corrected himself, "we're not raising a tyrannical fool.” said Finne finally, reaching for a brush to start a series of paint-strokes on the parchment.

Chapter Text

He watched Finne paint for awhile, until he was asked to fetch a new color from the table. His gaze fell on the sword, for the first time he was looking at it closely enough to see the Imrukian on it, and the words, that he could read at least, spelled out Finne’s name.

 

“Is that your sword?” he asked.

 

“Yes. I was given it on my tenth birthday. A present bought from a merchant.” said Finne glancing briefly up at him and back to the painting.

 

“Did you always liked cats?” he said, noticing the ring of three cats chasing each other around the sword’s wooden handle. Three very heavily furred cats by the looks of things, and there was that sheen on the wood Finne mentioned. The merchant in Corcius was right.

 

“Oh that?” said Finne, “Cats are lucky.” there was an amused smile on his lips, “Black ones in particular.”

 

“Of course they are.” said Aleci, the irony not lost on him.

 

“You gave it to Edon?” said Aleci.

 

“It was…” Finne paused, putting down the brush, “it was the only way he would agree to leave.”

 

“With a merchant?” said Aleci.

 

“Yes.” said Finne, “With a merchant.”

 

“Can I ask,” said Aleci, the question had been on his mind for a while but he never could figure out how to ask it, “how you trusted this man?”

 

There was a long pause from Finne, then he said, “Do you want the long story or the short story?”

 

“Whichever you would like to tell.” said Aleci.

 

“Maybe you should sit down then.” said Finne.

 

When he sat down on the chair next to Finne, his wife turned to him and said, “You know the poem I told you, the one about the well?”

 

“Yes.” said Aleci.

 

“It’s a meeting place and a shrine, of sorts.” said Finne, “It is quite out of the ways, you would have to know it to find it, and I suspect some carriers use it to liaison with people they weren’t allowed to. Others come to to it, pray and make an offering and hope their prayers are answered. But you can’t make prayers more than three times, mind you, otherwise you’ll be cursed.” Finne laughs hollowly, “Not that a carrier’s life isn’t already cursed, but fine, only three times. I came there three times. I think. I don’t know if I really came there the third time.”

 

“Go on,” said Aleci, deciding he’d probably ask later why Finne thought his life was cursed, or maybe not, it was probably best not to, “the first time?”

 

“Edon was sick.” said Aleci, “Children often do in their first winter. That’s why we don’t name them…” he trails off, “I didn’t make any friends there, so I couldn’t ask anyone what to do, and they-” he sneered, “they told me to pray, so that was useless as well. He wouldn’t care less. And they all thought I’d poison myself if I had access to herbs so I couldn’t even make something to calm the fever. I was desperate. I came to the well and I prayed. There was nothing I could take to offer it, no gold, no jewelry, no nothing. So I took the sword.” Finne trails off again, staring out the window, “It was cold, very cold. I don’t know how long I sat there praying. I think my knees were bleeding. I think… I think I may have fallen asleep or something, by the well, because I remember someone shaking me. Maelma.” Finne said, chuckling softly, “What a coincidence, the man who sold me the sword. I begged him to help me and he said, 'well, I wasn’t expecting to see you here, my boy, but I don’t see why I can’t.’ He looked ridiculous when I first saw him, those silver beads in that beard of his, but it was something of a miracle. I offered to give him the sword as my thanks for the medicine and he refused, saying he thought I might need it in the future. I told him I very well couldn’t have the luck to smuggle it back again, so he suggested hiding it in the well wall. It turned out I wasn’t the only one who had that idea. There were so many trinkets and letters in there. Dozens and dozens, I don’t know how the mortar even held up. That was the first time.”

 

“I see.” said Aleci, “And the second?”

 

“The second time I came with Edon.” said Finne, “And he wasn’t cooperative. You were right… I don’t think I would have been able to flee with him. He didn’t like my prayers. He begged to stay. He wanted to protect me.” Finne shook his head, “And well, who to show up again but Maelma. I didn’t believe it when I saw him, I thought his hair would have turn grey but I swear it didn’t. And he bent down and whispered something in Edon’s ear and Edon agreed to go. I don’t know what he even said to Edon, he’d never told me or Maera.” Finne turned to look at Aleci, “Are you wondering why I didn’t leave with Maelma?”

 

“No.” said Aleci, though he was curious.

 

“No one really notices Edon.” said Finne, “You don’t really notice sons until they’re ten or so, when they start training with their fathers. They would have noticed me missing soon enough. It was earlier in the war that they would have the spare men to send a search party. Maelma even told me as such. Told me to stay and ‘trust my instincts’. Maybe he was right.”

 

“And the third?” said Aleci.

 

“The day after he left.” said Finne, not looking at Aleci, “He was in a foul mood. Seeing defeat on the horizon does that to someone I guess, he wasn’t stupid in that front. I was… I was bleeding so… so much when he was done, and he had the gall to say it was like the first time he’d had me. Then he rode off and I went to the well and stared very hard at the bottom. It’s very deep. I don’t think it’s natural. I threw a stone in it and couldn’t hear when it landed. I sat on the edge of the well and wondered there’d be a sound as well, if I jumped.” Finne paused, swallowing, “It felt like a fever-dream, I was at the well one moment, and back in my bed the next and there were-” he stared at Aleci, unseeing, “there were voices. They whispered and promised and I don’t know what else they said, I don’t even remember what they said to me. I don’t even know if I actually went to the well. It… it feels like a dream. I wasn’t in pain anymore, that’s the only thing I could feel. As for the rest-” Finne shrugged, “Imruk fell and I was bought here.”

 

“It sounds like you’ve met a God.” said Aleci, reaching out to take Finne’s hand in his and running his thumb down it, adding, “Or a Goddess. They seem to have that effect on people.”

 

“Me?” said Finne scoffing, making a move to pull his hand away and deciding not to, “Why?”

 

“Who knows?” said Aleci, “They’re capricious and bored on their mountain. Perhaps one took a liking to you.” he thought he should lighten the mood in the room, slightly, “You’re lucky you weren’t asked to pick which Goddess was the most beautiful. They did that once and a thousand ships were launched for Helen of Sparta.”

 

This distracted Finne, “Helen of Sparta?” he said, puzzled, “Who is Helen of Sparta?”

 

“The world’s most beautiful woman, apparently,” said Aleci, “not that I’d be persuaded go to war over her, I’m not interested.”

 

That made Finne laugh, a genuine one this time, “Helen of Sparta,” he said, still sounding amused, “I suppose, there’s no need for me to be jealous of her.”

Chapter Text

Maera gave them an imperceptive look when Aleci opened the door to her polite knocks some time later.


“Mercus is waiting for you downstairs. Said something about a lady in her tower. Is that a new song you’ve been working on?


Finne looked faintly amused, “No, but I’ll go see what he wants.” he said, turning to Aleci, “If Edon comes up here, tell him not to touch the painting it’s not properly dried.”


He placed the painting on the table, opening the window to let sunlight in, and, before he made to leave, weighing it down on four corners with the pots of paint. “Enjoy your lesson. I’m not smelling that-” he said, wrinkling his nose in distaste at the bottle in Maera’s tub, “I never thought I’d smell those spirits again Maera.”


“It’s a common enough recipe.” said Maera, cheerfully, “I can brew it in my sleep.”


“I hope you don’t drink it as well.” said Finne, “I’m leaving, I’m not breathing that in unless I need to.”


He glanced at Aleci, looking as if he wanted to say something more but decided to say, “I’ll see you later.”


They both heard the sounds of a lute tuning a few minutes later from the window, and what Aleci thought to be a rather merry song.


“I almost feel like joining in.” said Maera, looking approving, she was laying out various herbs on their table.


“Are they not use for cooking?” said Aleci.


Maera glanced at him briefly, paused, swallowed, and said, “There are more use to herbs than cooking. But I’m glad you recognize them as such.”


He wasn’t sure if that was a compliment, but he dutifully wrote down what she told him, much, again, to her chagrin.


“Maera,” said Aleci, after they’ve gone through most of the herbs and his mind started wandering at pennyroyal, “Can I ask you something?”


“You seemed to have something on your mind, yes.” said Maera, “What is it, Master Aleci?”


“If one of your children,” said Aleci, “tells you that their husband makes unwanted advances, how would you advise them?”


Maera raised an eyebrow, “I don’t think that would be the case with my children.” she said, “I made certain both parties knew what their marital duties were to each other.”


“What do you mean?” said Aleci.


“As they say in Imruk, blessed are the wives who accepts their wedded duty.” said Maera, “I don’t remember what is said here. But you see, it goes both ways. Eosvenn was an archer, and the Imrukian noblemen always love their little analogies, comparisons with archery and whatever subject they wish to lecture about. I’m sure they’ve bastardized the original verse. I do recall the vows now go something along the lines of ‘blessed are the men who have a quiver full of them’. Quiver full referring to children and wives. Probably how they justify taking more than one wife, even though they don’t grant this particular blessing to commoners. I remember the true verse and it was very much more poetic that whatever tripe they say these days.”


“What was the original verse? And who is Eosvenn?”


“May Eosvenn guide and bless your steps to the ship of infinity, let your heart be filled with gladness. For even as Eosvenn loves the flight of arrows, he also loves the stable bow that sends it to flight.” she looked slightly teary-eyed, “I remember that said at my wedding. Eosvenn is Imruk’s husband.”


“I see.” said Aleci, deciding to ask her, “Is Imruk a woman or a man?”


“Depends on who you ask.” said Maera, “The men in Imruk would say Imruk is a woman, so would some women in Imruk. The carriers say Imruk is one of them.”


“And what about you?”


“Does it matter?” said Maera, “Whatever their teachings were or whatever Imruk stood for, it’s gone now. Gone like Eosvenn’s ships.” she sniffed, then said to him, “Whatever bought this question on, Master Aleci, if I may ask?”


“I said that Finne could refuse me when you came.” said Aleci, “He seemed willing before and I wasn’t… sure so I did what was to be expected. Did he not know that he could say no?”


There was a long pause from Maera, “You would have to ask him yourself, Master Aleci.” said the older woman, carefully, “I can’t say what it is here in the Empire. Can a wife say no?”


“Well..” said Aleci, uncomfortable, “I don’t know to tell you.”


“Do you want,” said Maera, “me to tell you the sweet lie or the bitter truth?”


“The truth.” he said and saw her breathe, what he thinks to be a sigh of relief.


“You know that wives can’t reject their husbands.” said Maera, “You didn’t need me to tell you.”


“But your children are married in the Empire.” said Aleci, “How-”


“A commoner is less burdened by the desire to maintain their noble line.” said Maera, “They do, of course, want to continue their family, but they don’t contend with forces that wish to throw them off whatever seat they’re sitting on. A commoner’s marriage, while not always smooth- why else would I have my job before?- does not have such imbalance. A common man works with his wife to maintain their household. There must be an understanding between the two, for how else would their ship sail peacefully? A nobleman has no such balance, if you excuse me for saying so, he can always call on his servants, his money or his other dalliances. This is why he treats his wife with such abandon, he can always buy another ship.”


“So the women like their ship analogies in Imruk then?” said Aleci.


“No, my seanmháthair loved them.” said Maera, “We made a boat for her ourselves when she left us. I thought she’d live forever, she’d taught so many of us.” she looked wistful, and for a moment Aleci thought he saw a younger, grieving Maera.


“Is there a reason,” said Aleci, “why all the wise women left Imruk? More than one reason I mean, I know you have your own reasons.”


“Well,” said Maera, “I did tell you we help a wives end their marriage. The nobles were fine with this, it didn’t concern them what the petty commoners did. It did however, when my seanmháthair and others like her helped noblewoman end her marriage. That caught their ire. They wanted to root us all out and replace us with their own approved counsel. Is that all, Master Aleci?”


“No,” said Aleci, staring at the assortment of plants on the table before looking at her, “Finne never refused me. I don’t want to-”


“May I speak frankly, Master Aleci?” said Maera, interrupting him, and when he nodded yes, she said, “Why do you want him to be able to say no? Is it more because of what you don’t want to do, or more because of what he doesn’t want to do?”


“I don’t understand what you mean.” said Aleci.


“Some men,” said Maera slowly, “make their life choices based on something they don’t want to be, rather than a genuine choice they are making. It is like tossing a coin to a beggar to appear kinder. Are you one of these men?”


Aleci swallowed, “No.” he said.


“If I may be so bold to say again, Master Aleci. You’ve only treated Finne differently once you’ve heard of the ceremonies. If you haven’t heard of them, would you have treated him the same as you would?”


“I don’t know.” said Aleci, feeling as if she was peeling him apart like an apple.


“I am not accusing you of anything.” said Maera, kindly, “You needn’t sound so apologetic to me, and I doubt Finne would tolerate groveling. What I suggest, is to examine your actions, and see if your choices are self serving or are they those of a good man?”


“That’s… a difficult question, Maera.” Aleci said, finally.


She shrugged, “Some spend their years thinking on what makes a good man. I think it is a waste. It is quite simple, I think, a good man, a good person isn’t self serving. Take me, if I may be so bold, for example, I could’ve enjoyed traveling between all my children’s houses and playing with my grandchildren, but that would only be pleasing to me, parents never really like meddling grandparents. Besides, I've always enjoyed cooking.”


“How did you ever come to work at Praefect Cimul's house?” said Aleci, Maera didn't look like she would tolerate gossipers. 


Maera gave a half smile, “It wasn’t for Lady Dulcia.”


“Oh?” said Aleci.


“Praefect Cimul has a carrier son, did you know? From one of his mistresses. His favorite child, actually, and he paid me to educate the boy.” she looked contemplative, “I am only speculating, of course, but I think if your father hadn’t married you to Finne he would’ve wanted a match with Malthea. I understood Praefect Cimul was rather disappointed when he told me.”


“How wonderful.” said Aleci, sarcastically, his father never seemed to stop meddling in his life.


“Not quite.” said Maera, seemingly not catching his derision, “Malthea wouldn’t have appreciated your…” she paused, settling on, “charms as much as Finne does.”

Chapter Text

Mercus and Finne were chattering when Aleci went down to the courtyards. He recognized some of the Imrukian though from the sound of Finne’s voice, he could very well be wrong.

 

Look, your lady has come down from the tower.”

 

He was wrong, it was in High Imrukian, and Mercus looked pleased at whatever he’d said.

 

Finne tossed the drumstick half-heartedly at Mercus, “He’s not a lady.”

 

The opposite of a lord is a lady.said Mercus, seriously, catching the stick deftly throwing it back to Fine.

 

Get bent, Mercus.” said Finne.

 

Did you two just do that, my lord?”

 

I-” Finne spluttered, staring at Mercus and then glancing at Aleci, “No thanks to you.”

 

I am leaving then.” said Mercus, grinning, “I know when I’m unwanted. How terrible. How tragic.”

 

The latter two sentences were punctuated with exaggerated shrugs and sighs.

 

“Mercus, leave.” said Finne, lips twitching, “Go and peacock somewhere else.”

 

As my lord commands. I am your humble servant.” said Mercus, hand on his heart, slinging his lute over his shoulder.

 

I’ve seen pies more humble than you.” said Finne.

 

Mercus opened his mouth, frowned, then said, “I don’t understand what that means. It’s quite unfair of you.”

 

“I’ll tell you tomorrow.” said Finne, “Goodbye Mercus.”

 

My lord.” said Mercus, “Master Aleci.” he bowed to Aleci, and looked meaningfully between Finne and the bodhrán before leaving.

 

“Mercus speaks High Imrukian now?” said Aleci, taking a seat next to Finne.

 

“He wanted to sing with me.” said Finne, hesitantly, “Do you mind?”

 

Perhaps he would mind, it felt like he was again a stranger to Finne watching his friendliness with Mercus. Jealousy, he thinks, the same jealousy he once had when he’d seen… but never mind that. His mother had a life outside being married, didn’t she, she went off with her other married friends to the market and such. It would be difficult for Finne to find such company, he didn't even have his mother's luxury of friends and places to go. Who was he to deny Finne keeping his own friends?

 

“Aleci?” said Finne, concerned.

 

“No, I don’t mind. I could’ve learned more but I didn’t.” said Aleci, “Can I ask what you were talking about? It sounded like fun.”

 

“Nothing.” said Finne immediately, then, “I mean,” he hesitated, “I don’t know, do you want to know? It’s nothing important.”

 

“Alright.” said Aleci, deciding to guess, “Was it about how he suggested you fuck me on the desk? I understood that.” he watched in amusement as Finne blushed.

 

“No.” said Finne.

 

“Sounds like denial.” said Aleci, teasingly.

 

“You… don’t mind?” said Finne, sounding faintly surprised.

 

“Finne, I’ve always wanted to defile that desk.” said Aleci, “It hasn’t seen anything exciting on it since its creation. And,” he smirked, “I’m not punishing anyone who encourages you to be so … bold.” he breathed the last word into the shell of Finne’s ear.

 

“I’m not fucking you here.” said Finne flatly, pushing him away, but moving forward to whisper in Aleci’s ear, “Fuck me in the bathhouse.”

Chapter Text

The last time his thoughts kept him up at night, Aleci had gone to the nearest popina and drank himself into a stupor. Then the owner had recognized him and had him thrown out after he’d just won back his money for the wine. He’d staggered home with a blinding headache, struggling to make out where precisely his house was. Usually he could tell, there were several amusing graffiti on the walls. But not this time, he stumbled and fell, landing with a splash in something unpleasant. Aleci groaned, coughing and rolling onto his back.

 

“Well aren’t you a sorry sight.” He could see the blurry figure of Emos staring down at him, flanked by his two guards. “Aleci, the mathematician, drowning in piss.”

 

He wasn’t quite sure what happened next. Most likely Emos had the guards dragged him back and dumped him into the bathtub. He did remember coughing and spitting out water.

 

“You know wine rots the head right?” Emos had said, idly fanning himself as he watched Aleci scrub the filth from his skin and hair, “That’s why I ply everyone who comes here with it.”

 

“So?” Aleci had said, petulantly.

 

“I never offered you wine.” Emos had pointed out, “You’re quite more amicable that way, did you know?” he smirked when Aleci made a half motion to throw a towel at him and missed, “Why are you drinking?”

 

“Because I like it.” Aleci had said, pulling on a tunic Emos offered him, most likely left behind by one of Emos’s clients.

 

“No.” Emos had said, “Why are you drinking?” at his blank look Emos continued, “Are you ashamed?”

 

“Of what?” Aleci had said, coolly, “I’m not ashamed!”

 

“Sounds like denial.” Emos had said, cheerfully, “Look, Aleci, I had you thrown out some months ago because one of my rules is not taking money from drunks. I’m not a popina. If you want to spend time with me, or the others here, stop drinking.”

 

“You just said you ply everyone with drinks and then you said you don’t serve drunks!” Aleci had snapped, “Where’s your logic there?”

 

“I can’t exactly refuse a Magister now, can I?” Emos had said, “Give them some drinks and they’re not so forceful. It feels wrong watching you plummet. Not that your perch was particularly high mind you, but it is a shame nonetheless.”

 

“What do you care?” Aleci had said.

 

“You pay well.” Emos had said with a shrug, “It’s an investment.”

 

Aleci had stared at Emos’s impassive face and said, “What do you mean, I’m ashamed?”

 

“The drink makes people forget.” Emos had said, “Or sex. It’s either one of those two. And weren’t you a soldier? Your type likes to drink and forget things. Or am I wrong?”

 

He hadn’t been wrong.

 

“Look, Aleci.” Emos had said, sounding kind for the first time, “How about this? You stop your little drunken gambles and I’ll let you come back. Surely you’d like to talk maths again with your little club here, you’ve always been clever at it. And you can pay me.”

 

Aleci had given him a skeptical look and Emos had smiled innocently, “So it’s more beneficial to you than me?”

 

“Your purse is always full.” Emos had said, “I liked our agreement before you decided to spending your coin on your nightly drinks.”

 

It was a rather… unconventional way for him to stop drinking, but he was able to think more clearly without the constant hangover. They certainly weren’t friends, and never would be, Emos never opened up to anyone, not accepting any of the numerous Magisters who clamored to sponsor him. Almost like Finne from before, if he thought about it.

 

“Will you stop tossing and turning?” said Finne, tugging at the blankets, irritably.

 

“Well,” said Aleci, “I thought you’d be awake, and I expected to wake up, but you’re not, so here I am.”

 

“I am now.” said Finne, “I’m not getting up.” there was a note of amusement in Finne’s voice.

 

Aleci rolled over to face him, though it was hard to see precisely Finne’s face in the dark, “Would you have said no to me, before?”

 

There was a long pause from Finne, “Did Maera speak to you?”

 

“No, I asked her.”

 

“Right.” said Finne, “And she went on to talk something about ships and fires and putting it out…” he trails off, “did she?”

 

“I don’t know remember her mentioning fires.” said Aleci, “She did mention ships.”

 

“She told me something along the lines of, your ship’s on fire, and half of your sail’s missing, why are you in a hurry to fix someone else’s. If she liked sailing so much, why didn’t she just take a position near the sea?”

 

“What did you ask her to get to that comparison?” said Aleci.

 

“Did you forget?” said Finne, “It was after we went to Corcius. I was upset, and Maera was… well. Correct.”

 

“What did she say?” said Aleci, “Before the ships and fires."

 

“She asked me if I cared now because I saw what… how I should be treated, and I didn’t before because I was in some sort of, as she said ‘misery competition’. Then she told me that my ship’s still on fire and to put it out before I start advertising myself as a shipwright.”

 

“Misery competition huh?” said Aleci.

 

“She’s not wrong.” said Finne and didn’t say elaborate, “What did you ask her?”

 

“I asked…” said Aleci, “I thought I asked her if what I was doing to you earlier-” he swallowed, then said in a rush, “what I did to you earlier was…” say it, “rape, and she then asked me if I thought I was a good person because I only started to care when I realize I was treating you the same-”

 

“No.” said Finne, interrupting him, “You weren’t. Stop apologizing.”

 

Finne wouldn’t tolerate groveling, Maera had said.

 

“Aleci, you could’ve not cared.” said Finne, “You could’ve sent Edon away. You could’ve done any number of things to me. But you didn’t. I think Maera was testing you. Typical seanmháthair, they never give a straight answer.” he rolled onto his side, facing away from Aleci, “If you’re a good person you’d let me sleep now. Put your arm around me.” the latter sounded like a command.

 

“As you wish.” said Aleci.

 

Finne’s breaths evened out quickly, and he was soon very much asleep. He should ask Finne sometime, he thought now truly jealous, how his wife managed such a feat.

Chapter Text

Whatever pleasant dream he may or may not have had, he wouldn’t know, as he woke up to an elbow in his ribs and a knee to his back.

 

Mamaí said we’re going to the ocean! We are, right? You promise?”

 

It was nearly shouted into his ear, Aleci groaned. “Edon, please, no-”

 

“Oh, can you draw the house, he said you said the house was big and I want to-”

 

He tried to give Finne a betrayed look but Finne had covered his head with a spare pillow was facing away from them. Traitor, he thought.

 

“I can’t draw, Edon.” he said.

 

“Everyone can draw a house.” said Edon, “How hard is it?”

 

His son made to reach for the wax tablets on the table over his body and Aleci reached out to grab Edon’s hand, “Stop, I’ll get it. And please, your elbows are sharp-”

 

“I don’t believe you.” said Edon, “My elbows are not- ow! Why did you do that? I didn’t do that I did this-”

 

He made to jab the point of his elbow into the meat of Aleci’s thigh but Aleci made to grab at his hand before he could do so. “If you want me to draw.” said Aleci, “Stop trying to spear me.”

 

Edon grinned, innocently, “I wasn’t trying to spear you. If I was, wouldn’t I be holding a spear?”

 

“That’s very clever of you, but you know what I mean.” said Aleci, reaching for the tablets.

 

They haven’t been using it of late, he took his own tablet, sitting up on the bed and scratching away at the older writings on the wax. He bit back a yelp of pain when Edon clambered over his lap, again, he seemed to want to use only his elbows and knees, to reach for Finne’s tablet.

 

“Oh, that’s me.” said Edon, looking pleasantly surprised when he flipped it open.

 

“Really?” said Aleci.

 

He’d noticed that Finne didn’t erase the picture of the little girl, now little boy, he supposed, and his cats, but now looking at it, he did see the resemblance. Facial features didn’t translate too well on the wax surface, but the slightly crooked grin that Edon sported was there, as well as the slight head tilt when he did so.

 

“Maelma said I should cut off my hair.” said Edon, “Cause he told me the boys didn’t have long hair in the Capital, but he didn’t cut off his beard and no one has a beard here. Well some, I saw some with beards but you don’t have a beard, why don’t you have a beard?”

 

“Because it’s slovenly to have one. And I’m not in mourning.” said Aleci.

 

“Slo-ven-ly?”

 

“It means you’re untidy and it’s not proper.” said Aleci, defaulting to Finne’s explanation.

 

“Then why do you have one when you mourn?”

 

“Because it’s… proper.” said Aleci at a loss for an explanation.

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

“I don’t either. It just is.” confessed Aleci.

 

“What does your friend’s house look like then?” said Edon, putting the tablet aside. He was slightly more careful of where his limbs were when he leaned into Aleci’s lap to watch. The resulting drawing elicited a less than enthusiastic sigh.

 

“Is the house crooked because you draw houses crooked or because it really is crooked?”

 

“I told you I can’t draw.” said Aleci.

 

Edon narrowed his eyes at Finne’s back, then shrugged, “It looks very big. Is it bigger than ours?”

 

“Very much bigger.” said Aleci and Edon’s eyes widened.

 

“How big?”

 

“How long does it take for you to run from one side of this villa to the other?”

 

“I dunno. I never thought about that.” said Edon.

 

“Take that time and times five.” said Aleci, “Or six, if you are really slow.”

 

“It is that big? But why?”

 

“Aulius likes it that way.”

 

“Why would he like it that way?”

 

“Well..” said Aleci, “You see, he likes… he likes collecting things, like you do with your little soldiers. Only the things he collects are very big, and he likes to put them in rooms to look at them.”

 

Edon’s eyes widened, “He has a room only to put things to look at?”

 

“Many rooms. Not just one.” said Aleci.

 

“What does he collect?”

 

“Will you promise to be careful when we get there?”

 

“Why?”

 

“Aulius collects all sorts of weapons. And when they’re not weapons they’re animals. Tigers, lions, hyenas-”

 

He regretted his words as soon as they left his mouth. If Finne could sleep through that shriek, he must be either deaf or dead.

 

Mamaí, I want you to draw me a tiger, for the wall, I want you to draw me one today, I want-

 

Finne groaned, pulling the pillow from his face and turning to glare at Aleci, “You draw it for him, I’m going back to sleep.” he smiled sweetly at Edon, “If you keep screaming every morning I’ll draw as terrible as your pater.”

 

“You’ll have to try really, really hard then.” sneered Edon, crossing his arms, “I draw better than him.”

Chapter Text

His rendition of a tiger was met with resounding disappointment.

 

“It looks like a cat.” said Edon squinting at the wax picture, “A very ugly one with stripes. Is it also big like his house, wait, no, it can't be, you said his house was very big.”

 

"It's big.” said Aleci, "But you're right, not as big as Aulius's house."

 

“How big?” said Edon.

 

“Depends,” said Aleci, “on how old they are. The smaller cubs are like house cats the bigger ones are almost to Sage’s chest.”

 

Aulius never kept them past a certain age. Too dangerous too keep around, his friend had explained, though Aleci suspected it was more along the lines of, drunken guests and sharp fangs do not mix well.

 

“Can we go riding?” said Edon, glancing at Finne’s turned back and lowering his voice, “I don’t think mamaí will join us today. Whenever he sleeps he always does it the entire day.”

 

“Where would you like to go?” said Aleci.

 

“Around the villa.” said Edon.

 

“Are you riding with me or on your own?”

 

Edon’s eyes widened, “I can ride on my own?”

 

“Yes.” said Aleci, “As long as you stay close, agree?”

 

“How close?”

 

“If your horse bolts, I should be able to catch up.”

 

Edon frowns at this, “She won’t, she’s a nice horse.”

 

“Sometimes horses spook.” said Aleci, “Promise?”

 

“That doesn’t make sense.” said Edon, “But fine, I will.”

 

The sun was still rising when he glanced out the window. At least Edon didn’t want to start every morning this way, Aleci thought with some relief.

 

“Why don’t we go to the kitchen,” said Aleci, “And get some food for ourselves? You can get carrots for the horses, and I’ll tell Maera to bring breakfast to- if you do that again I swear-”

 

Edon had the grace to look sorry from where he was now standing, sandals in hand, and bag already slung over his shoulder. “Sorry. I can’t help that my elbows hurt you.”

 

“You’re not sorry.” said Aleci, grimacing, and rubbing at his ribs, “You can’t just apologize and then follow it with a non-apology.”

 

“What is a non-apology?” said Edon.

 

It was Aleci’s turn to smile sweetly at Edon, as he dressed himself as well, “Sorry I broke your wooden horse. It was right under my foot.”

 

“No!” said Edon, narrowing his eyes, his gaze flickering to where the little figurines were still on the vanity and breathing a visible sigh of relief when they were all there.

 

“Exactly.” said Aleci.

 

“Fine.” said Edon, “I’m sorry, pater, I promise not to stab you on purpose again.”

 

He slipped his hand into Aleci’s as they made their way to the kitchen. Maera was there, unsurprisingly, but she nearly jumped when they walked in.

 

“He’s sleeping?” said Maera, when he explained, “I see. Nothing too much to be concerned about. It’s a bit tiring, that’s to be expected. I’ll bring him his breakfast. Have a nice ride Master Aleci, Edon.”

 

The latter was directed to Edon in a warning tone, but Aleci didn’t fail to notice she slipped four or five of Edon’s favorite pies into his backpack. They made their way down to the stables, where they ran into Mercus.

 

“Why don’t you go give the carrots to the horses, hm? I’ll join you before you start trying to saddle the horses again.”

 

Mercus smiled at this, “Does Mistress Finne want my company latter?” said Mercus.

 

“Maybe.” said Aleci, “He’s sleeping right now.” Mercus nodded agreeably at this, and Aleci continued, “I have a question, Mercus.”

 

“What is it, Master Aleci?” said Mercus, giving him an expectant look.

 

“How do you do it?” said Aleci, “How did you make Finne so relaxed?”

 

“You asked me to, Master Aleci.” said Mercus, “And you paid me as well, but it’s not that hard, I quite enjoy Mistress Finne’s company- not in that way!” he added hastily.

 

“How do you do it?” said Aleci.

 

The brow of Mercus’s head winkled as he struggled to make sense of Aleci’s question, “He wanted to be treated a certain way, and that’s how I treated him. Is that wrong?”

 

“In what way?” said Aleci, mystified.

 

“Have you- oh, I see.” said Mercus, “ Maybe you don’t remember how your lady mother was entertained. Well, I did the opposite for Finne, and he appreciated that.”

 

“What is the opposite?” said Aleci, still confused.

 

“Do you know what women talk about when one of them’s pregnant besides asking for songs to be played?" said Mercus and seeing his head shake continued, “The usual, actually, but they talk about the impending child as well. Names, prior experience of each woman, charms to use, that sort of thing. Finne didn’t want that, so I talked about what I thought would interest him.”

 

“What?” said Aleci, Mercus didn’t look the type to paint, and what can one actually talk about songs?

 

“He wanted me to sing some mourner’s tune, one after another and I told him no.” said Mercus, “And when he suggested another song, it was quite clear to me what he liked, was like before.” he continued, “I don’t know how many carriers you know, Master Aleci, the ones in the Capital are not the norm. I’ve met a few, they’re from my father’s old troupe. I suspected Finne didn’t know his carrier status until later, and that’s something one of them told me. He traveled dressed as a man but he’d often change clothes when he was staying at our house. It never made sense to me but, he was a lovely singer, and he’s always been kind to everyone, sometimes things don’t make sense and there’s no point wondering.” Mercus shrugged, “When I saw your wife wearing your clothes I said to myself that he’s one of those carriers. I figured he wanted to have a male friend, like what he’d had before.” Mercus paused, staring at Aleci, expectantly, “If you don’t want that, Master Aleci, I’ll stop.”

 

“A male friend?” repeated Aleci, “No, I don’t mind, I just… how did you know he wanted one?”

 

“Begging your pardon, Master Aleci, but he was quick to point out my failures with a spear and other things. Quite cleverly, and he’s not using the verse a woman would use.” said Mercus, “So I caught on quickly. The others were quite uncomfortable about the whole matter, they’ve never met a carrier and Oppius’s always been old fashioned... I figured there’s no harm, and well, I got a raise and they didn’t, unless you want to dismiss me?” Mercus bit his lip, “Are you?”

 

“No.” said Aleci, shaking his head, “I’m glad that you make him happy. If you want another raise,” he gave Mercus a half smile, “tell me how much.”

 

Mercus’s eyes widened, “How much?” he said, sounding quite speechless.

 

“I’ll let you think on it.” said Aleci, patting the younger man’s shoulder as he walked into the stables.

 

He saddled the horses and took Edon to the same place he’d taken Finne months ago. As soon as the horses were properly tied, Edon found a spot and kicked off his sandals. Sitting down on them, he began pulling out food from his bag and handed Aleci a bread roll and cheese.

 

“Did you do this with your pater?” said Edon, after he swallowed his own, rather massive bite.

 

“Sometimes.” said Aleci.

 

“What else did you do with your pater?” said Edon, eyeing the contents of a bread roll before disregarding for a pie instead.

 

“Sparring. He read to me in the study. We went to Corcius.” Those were the fonder memories.

 

Mamaí said the baby’s a boy.” said Edon, “But he said you can’t tell if a baby’s like him or not. He said he’s sure that I’m not like him. Is… is it a bad thing to be like him?”

 

“I don’t think it is.” said Aleci, softly, “Do you?”

 

“He said it was.” said Edon, glumly, “He said I was lucky I’m a man. But then he said if I’m bad I’ll be one. I don’t know why he always says that. He said it so many times I asked mamaí to check and he told me I don’t have a vulva so I can’t be like him. ”

 

There must have been something on his face because Edon frowned, “It’s not a bad word. I know because mamaí told me you have to say proper words. He has lots of rules for that.” Edon imitated Finne’s voice, “you shouldn’t let people touch you there. Or touch people there either." Edon shrugged, "I don’t know why you’d want to, but whatever. Do you want a sweet pie?”

 

“Yes, thank you.” said Aleci, accepting Edon’s offer, “Do you miss Imruk?”

 

“There’s no snow here.” said Edon, “Mamaí said there won’t be. I want to go sledding. I didn’t go last year. Everyone was indoors. I don’t know why, I didn't remember a blizzard.” he looked wistfully at Aleci, “Have you gone sledding?”

 

“I don’t know what that is.” said Aleci.

 

“You have a sled and you sit on it and slide down a hill. The taller the better, but you might run into a bush and scratch your face.” he grinned, “I never scratched my face, I’m good. There’s also ice skating but it’s not as fun as sledding.”

 

“You know, if you say a word without telling me what it is, I can’t understand you, right?” said Aleci.

 

“Then you should try harder.” said Edon, “Maelma told me to try harder. I hated him but he was right.”

 

“Can I ask,” said Aleci, deciding to seize on the opportunity, “what Maelma said to you, before you left with him?”

 

“Oh, you want to know as well?” said Edon, unimpressed, “Maera asked me for days and days. Mamaí too but he gave up sooner than Maera. If I tell you-” he grinned, cheekily, “do you own me something? Like a bet?”

 

“Don’t tell me then.” said Aleci, and Edon looked shocked at his feigned disinterest.

 

“You’re lying!” he accused cheerfully, “You do want to know!” there was a pause, “Maybe I should tell you, you shouldn’t keep secrets from a person if the secret’s about them.”

 

“What about me?”

 

“Maelma,” said Edon, patiently, “He said I wanted a good father, a better one, didn’t I? And I said yes, and he said, well, you won’t have one if you stay here. He was smelly as his horses, maybe worst, I think, he smelled really bad, but he’s always right. It must be nice to be old and right.”

 

“Is he right then?” said Aleci, quietly impressed with whoever Maelma was.

 

“I already told you he’s right, didn’t you hear that?” said Edon, “I do miss Imruk. But you’re not in Imruk are you? You’re here.”

 

“Come here.” said Aleci, and when Edon gave him a confused look, Aleci held out his arms and watching the dawning comprehension on Edon’s face.

 

For a child barely half Aleci’s height, Edon’s enthusiasm in returning the hug was enough to knock them both into the trunk of the olive tree.

 

“We’ll see Imruk someday.” said Aleci, into Edon’s head of curls, “And I’ll go sledding with you.”

Chapter Text

There was a commotion outside the villa when he rode back with Edon at noon. Two wagons were outside, some men waiting alongside them. Edon gaped at their contents.

 

“Is that what a pomegranate tree looks like?” said Edon.

 

The steward gave Aleci a relieved sigh when he saw him approach, waving at him to talk to the head of the party, probably a merchant by the looks of him, waiting in front of the wagons, and offering to take the horses back to the stable when Aleci and Edon dismounted. Finne gave Aleci a bemused look when he saw him, a letter with what looked like his father’s seal in his hand. Mercus, by Finne’s side was gazing at the wagons' contents with awe. He could hear Edon peppering Finne with questions as he went to talk to the merchant.

 

“Good day.” said Aleci to the merchant, holding out his signet ring, “Are you waiting for me? I apologize.”

 

“No problem, no problem at all.” said the merchant, glancing at the ring for confirmation, “I was told my bonus is only when these letters-” he pulled out a letter from his bag, “be in your hands.”

 

They were in his mother’s handwriting, surprisingly. Aleci glanced at the pomegranate trees in the wagon, and, now closer he could see what the others were rose bushes still budding.

 

“There were two chests, but I had my men move the chests into your house.” said the merchant, “ Your wife told me you’d know best where to plant these-” he gestured vaguely at the greenery on the wagons.

 

“The pomegranates can go into the courtyard, there’s a place for them there,” said Aleci, “do you have the tools to clear out the roots from the other trees?”

 

“Paid plenty to have them.” said the man, “What about the roses?”

 

“I’ll have the steward show you where, there’s trellises near my mother- my wife’s wing of the house.” said Aleci, half wondering how his mother managed such a feat.

 

He opened his mother’s letter in the courtyard as he watched the men move the trees and bushes into the villa. He blinks, surprised, his mother had forgo her usual salutations, and her script was sharper than usual. Rushed and angry, if he had to name the emotion.

 

You and your father are both obtuse fools. I thought I taught you better Aleci. Why did you not notice that Finne did not have a wedding chest?

I promised him that when he left the Capital. Is that why he hadn’t written to me? I came across as the worst kind of liar.

What has he been wearing since then, your clothes?

 

The horror, she seemed to say through the letter, the absolute horror.

 

Your fool father cared more to send a doctor (even though he told me you had a wise woman that understood Finne at your house)

than my expressed wishes. I sent your father running, like the headless chicken he is, for a gift suitable of an apology.

 

Aleci bit back a laugh, ridiculously pleased that she was the only person that could send Galer into such a state. That explained the pomegranate trees and rose bushes. He wasn’t quite sure how Galer knew of Finne’s tastes in fruits, perhaps they’d talked on the way to the Capital. The roses were new, he didn’t know they grew in Imruk or that Finne liked the well enough to mention it to his father. He chuckled at the last sentence.

 

I also told him I will personally prevent him from seeing his grandchild if the gift is found unsuitable.

 

So that’s how she sent him into such a frenzy, that threat hit close to Galer’s heart after all. He smirked, imagining the scene in his head, it probably involved pleading on Galer’s part and immovable rage on his mother’s, and read on.

 

I do not know how much progress Finne had made in understanding our tongue, but perhaps your wise woman can translate if necessary.

I want you to read this out to him in full, and I will know if you don’t.

 

“Finne,” he called out, and Finne looked up in interest from where he was watching the trees being planted with Edon and Mercus, “Do you want me to read this to you, or do you want me to read it yourself?”

 

“Hm?” said Finne, making his way towards him, “What is it?”

 

Finne leaned closer to him, reading the rest of the letter as Aleci held it out to him. He smelled roses.

 

“You smell nice.” he said, and Finne startled, giving him a shy smile.

 

“It’s the perfume, from the chests. ” said Finne, “I told Mercus to try it on himself if he was so curious but he’s… fast when he wants to be.”

 

“I like it.” said Aleci.

 

“Put it on yourself then.” said Finne, grinning.

 

“I’m not bringing on my mother’s wrath by touching her gifts to you.” said Aleci.

 

Reading the letter that she specifically wrote for Finne, he was probably right.

 

My dear Finne, my deepest apologies for my husband and son’s ineptitude.

I have told him repeatedly I wanted the chests sent sometime ago but my dear husband must have forgotten.

Clearly he is more interested in a grandchild than you, but rest assured, he will not make this mistake again.

If his gift to you is unacceptable, write to me, a yes or no will do, and I will personally make certain that he suffers the consequences.

Please also find my gifts to you in the chest, I did my best with what you drew for me, I hope you will think of me fondly when you wear them.

 

“She did that?” said Finne, looking pleasantly surprised, “I only drew it because she insisted.”

 

“Drew what?” said Aleci.

 

“Your mother asked me to draw something for her, she made it clear she wanted me to draw something I’d like. I assumed she must have embroidered it on whatever it is. A stola, probably, I’ve only opened the one chest of the two.” he looked vaguely amused, “Your father’s apologies are… expensive.”

 

“That is how it goes, yes.” said Aleci, “That’s why they’re so infrequent. And never to me mind you.”

 

“How did your mother managed this?” said Finne waving a hand at the activity.

 

“You see that-” said Aleci, pointing to where the merchant and his men were pulling out the roots of the old apple tree, “She cut that down herself. All four planted on the corners of this courtyard.”

 

“Why?” said Finne.

 

“’What are you doing, you crazy woman?’ ‘I swear, Galer you come any closer and I’ll take this axe to your manhood.’” said Aleci, recalling the conversation and shaking his head, “She was convinced that his absence is what lead to, well, you know.” he trailed off, swallowing, “In any case she’d left them like that and he hadn’t the guts to suggest otherwise. I suppose he’s wanting a fresh start.”

 

“He’s not the only one, I think.” Finne remarked and pretended not to hear when Aleci asked him to elaborate.

Chapter Text

The two chests, much to Edon’s dismay and pleas, remained unopened.

 

“It’s nothing you’d like inside.” said Finne, “It’s all very boring.”

 

Edon pouted but was quickly distracted when Finne mentioned he could pick some of the ripen pomegranates. He then wanted to make paints again, and that, along with deciding where to hang up Finne’s painting occupied him for the rest of the day. Aleci thought it strange Finne didn’t want to open the chests, but shrugged it off, maybe Finne didn’t like opening his mother’s gifts with him around. Maybe there was some wifey secrets his mother had in there, recipes or some sort. Women passed those kind of things to their daughters after all, and it was likely his mother wanted to see what Finne liked and didn't like, as experience, before she did the same with his sister. He didn't see why she should, she had several sisters and presumably could write to them and ask, but it could be she wanted each chest she prepared to be unique to the person she gifted it to. He hoped she was happy with the letter Finne sent off with the merchant. It was a short thank you from and an apology that he’d forgotten to write to her as he was simply settling down. He made to write the same to Galer, and asked Aleci if he thought it was a good idea but Aleci shook his head, saying that his mother liked keeping his father on a short string, if she could, and who were they to deny her such a simple pleasure? That had made Finne laugh.

 

They were in bed later that night, Edon having decided to hang the picture on the wall opposite to his side of the bed, when he was awakened by a whispered, “ Aleci.”

 

Aleci groaned softly, “What?”

 

“Do you want to feel?”

 

“Hm?” said Aleci, still groggy, his eyes struggling to adjust to the darkness, “Feel what?”

 

“The baby.” said Finne, dispassionately, “It’s the quickening. If you don’t want to-” Finne made to turn away.

 

“Wait, wait, I’m not awake yet.” said Aleci, “I didn’t hear what you said, the what?”

 

“I don’t know the word for it.” said Finne, “Is there a word for when you feel a baby move for the first time?”

 

It was said in the same tones as when Finne mentioned about his past in Imruk, and often in their late night conversations, a cold detachment. He hesitated, uncertain as to what Finne expected of him, and it was too dark to try reading Finne’s face for clues.

 

“Quickening.” he said, cautiously, “Do you want me to? Has this been going on for awhile? ”

 

Maera had made it clear to him that no one pregnancy a mother experienced was identical and that he shouldn't presumed every touch was welcomed. He thought she directed it to him because of Finne, all the women he'd seen had basked in the attention when they were pregnant. This observation earned him a scowl from Maera and muttered something about men under her breath. He quickly understood she did so when he made an obtuse comment and decided it was best to remove 'I think' or 'I saw' from his questions in the future.

 

“I felt it awhile ago.” said Finne, in the same cool tones, “You get a… feeling for it once you know what you’re looking for. But it’s not like… they lasted long after that, so I’ve always ignored it. Maera said you’d like to know. Said you’d like to feel it yourself, what with all your questions to her.”

 

“I would yes, very much so.” said Aleci softly, repeating, “Do you want me to?”

 

“If you want.” said Finne, “ Give me your hand.”

 

Finne’s skin was warm against his palm, his shirt pulled up slightly as he moved Aleci’s hand up and down his toned stomach.

 

“Here.” he said, “Press down, softly.”

 

He thought to ask if he should move his hand, but, after several moments he felt a soft taping against his palm.

 

“Oh,” said Aleci, “that’s marvelous.” he pressed down gently, again, and was rewarded by another series of taps, he found himself grinning, giddily. He wasn't sure he'd felt the same when his mother had allowed him to do so. It was more of an excited anticipation, not happiness.

 

“You sound like one of those drunk poets they throw out at the festivals. Marvelous. Really.” said Finne, sneering, “That’s how you describe it?”

 

“How would you describe it?” said Aleci.

 

“Eating something unpleasant.” replied Finne, “Except there’s no relief after going to the privy.”

 

It was rather brusque way of putting it, though, thinking on the matter Finne had never spoke glowingly of pregnancy. Perhaps it was soured by his past experiences. If it was, Aleci wouldn’t be surprised, he wasn’t sure if, or whether he should, bring it up. Somethings are best left buried. He made to pull his hand away and Finne breathed out an audible sigh of relief.

 

“How did my father know you like roses?” said Aleci, changing the topic, reaching out to run one finger down Finne’s cheek.

 

His father had, to him at least, never been the sentimental sort. It was like Finne was describing a different man than from the one Aleci thought he knew. Then again, Galer was sentimental with his mother and sister. To his mother, the presents Galer gave her seemed to connect to something they shared together that he wasn't privy to. To Laria, he'd made up for his absences with whatever she fancied at the time, it was wooden animals once, now it was dolls dressed in various costumes. Maybe it was good then, that his father treated Finne like he would a female member of his household. Acceptance was better than the detachment he was so familiar with.

 

“Your father asked me if I wanted anything before we left.” said Finne, “Any memento, he said. A dress, a picture, a pet, something like that. I told him no, but he kept on insisting I should take one.” they were close enough that he could feel Finne’s breaths against his face, “I suggested a rose from my mother’s garden. I thought he’d give up. But he insisted on accompanying me anyway. He said I should take a plant.” there was another long breath again, “She had a lovely garden, I used to come there with... him when we were younger. He’d climb up the walls first and hold out his hand to pull me up. It’s poetic, I guess that all the roses were gone. Whatever fondness, love, I had for him is gone as well.”

 

“He was your brother, wasn’t he?” said Aleci, putting the word love in the long running list of untranslated words in his head, “Why would you not, before?” he made certain to add the last word.

 

“He’d always bought me roses." said Finne, rambling, "Whenever something good was going to happen. Anticipation, or something like that. When we’d go to the lodge high up in the mountains during the summer, he’d bring me roses before the trip. The same whenever there was some festival. Not in the winter, the roses don’t bloom then, but always something I’d like. Then we’d go off and be a happy family with the other nobles for however long it was. I didn’t like it at first, the acting and the smiling and the clinging to his arm like some jessed bird, but he was nice. And everyone else was happy as well, so it felt… wrong, why I didn’t feel the same.” Finne breathed in deeply again, letting his breath whoosh out in a warm gust, “Everyone said I was so talented. First it was falconry, then it was the bodhrán, then it was singing, and so on and so on. He didn’t like that mine was a better huntress, so he started calling me his sweet little huntress. The irony wasn’t lost on me, and whatever… joy I found in the sport was gone. I let her go sometime after that. She didn’t want to leave. I threw several stones at her before she flew off. I sometimes think I see her, but I doubt she’d fly this far south. Anyway it's been years, she's probably too old to fly that far. If she's still alive. I did let a tamed falcon go on a whim, I don't know if she even knew what freedom was. I... let go of many things. I gave up on being anything else but his, it wasn't... worth it. Some more years and I would also have been as sweet and tamed.”

 

“I see.” said Aleci, softly. He thought he should stop stroking Finne’s face, he felt the wetness of tears on Finne’s cheeks, but when he made to pull his hand away, Finne leaned into his touch, “Did you not find any plants that were still alive?”

 

“I’m not a gardener.” said Finne, “I couldn’t tell. And it would have taken too long anyway, to search each individual bush there. There’s wild roses around Imruk during the summer, I thought he’d taken them from there to give to me. I never imagined he’d taken a sword to hack away the roses until then, what had they ever done to him?”

 

“Perhaps he didn’t know better.” said Aleci, but the explanation was sour in his mouth.

 

“You asked me if you were a good man.” said Finne, “I’d ask you the same. I was happy Imruk burned and however many people died, because he did as well. Am I a good man for being happy at so many others’ misery when one of my own is gone?”

 

“It was beyond your control.” said Aleci, “You made the best of your situation. You didn’t contribute to any misery or revel in the misery of others. How can you think yourself a bad man if this was the case?”

 

Finne laughs softly, “Are you, Aleci, using the same logic as when you determined that I wasn’t a coward?”

 

“Am I not wrong?” said Aleci.

 

“I don’t think you’re completely right.” said Finne, “But it does make me feel better, if that’s what you’re concerned about.”

 

“I try.” offered Aleci, running his hand up and down his wife's back and pressing down when he came to the small of it, something he found that Finne liked.

 

“I’ll take that.” said Finne softly.

Chapter Text

Edon, Aleci thought, clearly woke Finne everyday with his elbows and knees. Maybe he didn’t notice before, but he couldn’t ignore it now. At least Edon understood the importance of whispering.

 

“Pater, can we go riding?” said Edon.

 

His groan and pulling of the pillow over his head apparently constituted as a yes.

 

“I’ll get myself ready.” said Edon, “I’ll race you.”

 

He barely had time to answer before he heard the pitter patter of running feet, Edon had already ran off. Probably barefoot by the sounds of things, Edon never wore shoes.

 

“Are you going after him?” said Finne, barely audible with his face in the pillows.


“I did agree to the first ride.” said Aleci, leaning to kiss Finne’s cheek, “ Will you come have lunch with us later?”

 

“Maybe.” said Finne, returning the kiss, albeit clumsily before dropping his head back into the pillow, “Go.”

 

Their ride was uneventful. He took Edon to the vineyard, riding between the rows of vines. They had a long pause as Edon wanted to know why the vines were planted a certain way, and how it was harvested and made into wine.


“Why not something else?” said Edon.

 

“Wine makes more money.” offered Aleci.

 

“I don’t like it.” said Edon, wrinkling his nose.

 

“You don’t. A lot of people do.”

 

“Do you do something with the leaves?” said Edon.

 

Aleci was taken aback, “Why do you ask?”

 

“I dunno. I thought you’d do something. They use leaves for all sorts in Imruk. Tea?” offered Edon.

 

“You can’t drink grape leaf tea Edon, I don’t think it tastes good.” said Aleci, “Though… now that you mentioned it, would you like to try dolma? I’ll ask the cook to make it for you.”

 

“Dol-ma.” repeated Edon, “What is it?”

 

“It has your favorite cheese. It’s not fried though.” said Aleci, “You wrap rice, cheese and some other things in the grape leaves and boil them. You can also coat them in honey, but I like them better without.”

 

“I want it.” said Edon, “Will you tell the cook? Or I can tell her, I come to the kitchen all the time.”

 

“I know.” said Aleci.

 

He paused, squinting at the horizon, “Do you see that?” he said pointing.

 

It looked like the Capital’s messenger on horseback, they always wore that particular helm, ridiculous, he always thought, but at least they were easy to spot from afar. Unlike the other times his presence was requested in the villa, he was accompanied by two soldiers, also on horseback.

 

“Keep close to me.” said Aleci.

 

His friendly wave was returned by the messenger.

 

“I have the forms you requested.” said the man, after confirming Aleci’s identity, “And some other letters as well.”

 

One of them was stamped with that familiar triangle, the other looked like it could be Aulius’s from the delicate handwriting.

 

“Many thanks.” said Aleci, reaching for the coin purse discretely hidden on the back of Sage’s saddle, “Was the journey unpleasant?”

 

The messenger huffed, “Not particularly,” he eyed Aleci’s coin in his palm with interest and added, "Did you hear? They had bandits wandering around. Armed bandits.”

 

“What kind?” said Aleci, prompting the man, “Should I be concerned?”

 

“You should be fine, Master Tusirios, your household is too far away.” said the messenger, “Unless you’re traveling on the main roads. Best be careful,” the messenger leaned in and said in a conspiratorial whisper, “I heard these bandits are taken to beheading. Barbaric, right?”

 

“Right.” said Aleci, nodding in agreement, “Thank you, gentlemen. Have a safe trip.”

 

The three offered him a salute and rode off. Edon stared after them.

 

“Why did you pay him-” said Edon, “with the half-silver coin? Isn’t that too much?”

 

Aleci glanced up from checking the letters, from the thickness of the envelope that must be the forms he requested. What a waste of time, copying everything by hand, but everything must be done properly in the Empire.

 

“Sometimes, Edon, when you pay people more they let you know more things.” said Aleci, “Did you see? He answered my question. If I underpaid, he wouldn’t have. And he would tell others, and they won't do their jobs properly next time I ask them to come here.”

 

“I see.” said Edon, glancing at the letters, “What are those?” Edon frowned, looking miffed, when he showed him the one he thought Edon would be interested in, “I can’t read it.” he confessed, looking as if it pained him.

 

“That’s alright.” said Aleci, glancing at the eagle seal, “It’s a form. No one really understands forms.”

 

“No, you don’t understand.” said Edon, gesturing at the letters in his hand, “I can’t read it. I can read Imrukian. This isn’t Imrukian.”

 

“Oh.” said Aleci, “I didn’t realized.” Edon looked even more put off at his statement, “You understood the maths and the poems so I thought…”

 

It was a misstep on his part, he did begin his studies around Edon’s age, shouldn’t he have hired a tutor? He could ask Aulius for suggestions, his friend’s three (or was it four?) sons have ran off one tutor after another. If there was a list of available, terrified tutors, who would jump at the chance to teach the one child instead of a howling pack, no doubt Aulius had them. It could wait, Edon was quite intelligent in his own right, he can teach his own son.

 

“Numbers are the same in Imruk and here.” said Edon, “Not the letters. They’re different. And I'm good at remembering poems. Aren't you?”

 

He ignored the bait. “Don’t worry, if you know how to read in one language it shouldn’t be too hard to do in another.” offered Aleci, “It’s… like a new set of rules. You don’t have any troubles with rules, do you?”

 

Edon still look put off at the concept of reading, but there was a twinkle of mischief in Edon’s eyes when he said, “Some rules.”

 

“I see.” said Aleci, nodding, “And which rules do you like to break?”

 

This garnered a surprised, innocent look from Edon, “What do you mean? I never break rules.”

 

“You know perfectly well what I mean.” said Aleci, “Why else would Maera ban you from the kitchen?”

 

“I ask now. She said I could come as long as I said please. That’s not breaking the rules. Now." Edon said, matter-of-factly.

 

“Then why did you say that it depends on the rules?”

 

This gave Edon pause, “Some rules don’t make sense.” said Edon, “Mamaí wasn’t supposed to teach me sparring but he did. He told me it didn’t make sense that he couldn’t. He said as long as I didn’t tell anyone in Imruk it was fine. He said that a lot about things.”

 

“I see.” said Aleci.

 

“Do you break rules?” said Edon, “I heard mamaí talking with Maera. Whenever he says it’s not proper it’s about breaking rules. Or not breaking rules. Something like that.”

 

“Depends on the rules.” said Aleci, elaborating, “If it doesn’t harm anyone, or myself I’d break the rule.”

 

Finne would probably skewer him for saying so, and putting said idea in Edon's head, he thought wryly. Probably while saying something about proper-ness, or improper-ness. That seemed to be a crutch he relied on, was that drummed into his head in Imruk?

 

“You were sparring with mamaí. Did that harm anyone?” he said.

 

“No.” said Edon, “Well, he hit me sometimes with the stick but I also hit him so I dunno.”

 

“But you both agreed to do it.” said Aleci, “That’s important. Consent of both parties.”

 

“What is con-sent of both parties?” said Edon, struggling to string the phrase together.

 

“It’s something you’ll see on the letter.” offered Aleci, “It means, we,” he indicated between himself and his son, “both agreed on a certain matter.”

 

“Hm.” said Edon, “Why can’t you say, we agree? Why is it consent of both parties? It has nothing to do with parties.”

 

“No it doesn’t. Law has its own… tongue, so to speak.”

 

“Why?”

 

“So when you sign a contract with someone, you both know you understand each other.”

 

“How? You just said they have their own tongue.”

 

“That’s why you hire a jurisconsult.” said Aleci, “They read these contracts all day long and make sure you understand it.”


“It sounds boring.” said Edon.

 

“It is. That’s why I never wanted to be one.” said Aleci.

 

Chapter Text

When they rode back, Finne and Mercus were already eating lunch in the courtyard. Edon bounded over, chatting excitedly about the letters Aleci received and the meal from the grapes he’d like from the cook. Finne smiled distractedly at Edon, and Aleci saw Mercus glance between his wife and son before saying to Edon, “Why don’t you go down to the kitchens with me, and I’ll ask cook to let you make some dolma for yourself?”

 

“Really?” said Edon.

 

“Sure.” said Mercus, “We could go get the grape leaves ourselves before going to cook. You might see Smudge, how about that? You can give him the sausage here, I think he’ll like it.”

 

“Yes, I want to go.” said Edon, jumping off Finne’s lap to tug at Mercus’s hand, “I want to go, let’s go.”

 

“I’ll see you later, my lord, Master Aleci.” said Mercus giving him a short bow and a nod to Finne, “Alright then, Olus, stop pulling so hard, I’ll go with you.”

 

“Can we go to your study?” said Finne, when Edon left with Mercus.

 

“Something the matter?” said Aleci, sensing that nervous energy again.

 

Finne said nothing to him until they reached his study and entered it where he pulled out and placed Galer’s letter on Aleci’s table.

 

“I was reading this…”

 

Aleci sighed deeply, wishing he had told Finne to write that the gifts were not appreciated, “What has my father written now, wait, I don’t care, here, look-” he showed Finne the forms and smiled brightly, “look what came from the Capital?”

 

Finne blinked, and reached for the letter containing the forms, “What?” he said suspiciously.

 

“It’s the papers I asked a while back. I promised to adopt Edon, didn’t I? These are the forms to do so. Go ahead and read it.” said Aleci, “The only important parts are the pages where there’s a space for you, or me to write our names. Otherwise it is overly verbose language to confirm minor things.”

 

He would have guessed Finne was the type to read an entire contract, as he retreated to his own table to read them. Aleci shrugged, reaching to open Aulius’s letter and the message from Emos. The letter, as he suspected from first seeing the script, was written by Aulius’s wife Fonta, not Aulius. His friend never really cared for answering letters unless forced to, his explanation being he did enough as a senator, and ‘you lot are my friends, come speak to me personally, writing letters are bollocks’. So he gave the task to his wife, and signed the letters when she was done writing them. It was probably for the best, Aulius was blunt and abrasive. Aleci half wondered if many came to his villa because it was Fonta’s charming letters that convinced them. In any case, her letter to him on her husband’s behalf was polite, congratulating him on his new marriage, and welcoming him to their villa in the summer. Just like the woman herself, and if Aleci could discern any emotion besides that of a polite hostess, it was curiosity on who exactly he married.

 

Emos’s message was similarly as short. It likewise congratulated him on his marriage, and, Aleci bit back a laugh, said Emos was happy that he hadn’t visited in a while, clearly married life suited him. That was it, except for the silver coin that fell out. It had a triangle on both sides, a Nautilus shell in the middle.

 

“You sly vixen.” said Aleci under his breath.

 

“Aleci?” said Finne looking up, and Aleci shook his head.

 

“Not you,” said Aleci, “Well, maybe you, but I wasn’t talking to you.” he gestured towards the letters. He did a double take when he saw Finne was clenching that wooden pin again, “Is something the matter?”

 

“I don’t understand.” said Finne, gesturing to the letters in front of him, “I don’t…”

 

“What don’t you understand?” said Aleci, walking towards him.

 

Finne gestured towards the passage, and Aleci looked down to see that it was a passage on inheritance. “Inheritance.” he said, guessing, “Do you need me to explain the word?”

 

“No.” said Finne, still twirling the pin in his hand.

 

Aleci wondered if he had another to pin together his breast band, unless he tied it that tightly, wouldn’t it be uncomfortable?

 

“So what’s the matter?” said Aleci, “It says here-” he skims through the text, “Edon will inherit the same as any child of mine, and that I can’t arbitrarily take it away-”

 

“But why?” said Finne.

 

Aleci stared at his wife’s face, struggling to find the emotion there, and came up with nothing, maybe Finne was really confused on the matter, “Because he’s my child now, wouldn’t he inherit as one?”

 

“But he’s not yours. His father isn’t you, why would-” Finne looked as if he wanted to pace again, Aleci saw his legs twitched as if to get off the seat.

 

“Finne, I said I would claim him as mine. This is the way of things here.”

 

“But-”

 

“Is it not the same in Imruk?”

 

“But you’re not his father.” said Finne, “You don’t need to… give him anything.”

 

“I’m adopting him, Finne, as his father now, I would be expected, no, obligated to provide for him.”

 

Finne still looked confused, maybe even shocked, if his wide eyes were to be any indication. It was oddly sweet, Finn’s innocence if it wasn’t for the sad way he thought things were to go.

 

“Finne, I’m not a Caesar, what is there to fight amongst our children-” he gestured towards Finne’s stomach but decided against touching him, “except grapes, olive trees and a villa? I suppose the aged wines are worthy of a fight, but not much to spill blood over. Besides, if I teach Edon properly he won’t need money. If he does, I expect there’s plenty to go around, I don’t think you want seven or more children. There maybe trouble if we have more than four. I may have to take up gambling again.” he added as a joke.

 

“Really?” said Finne faintly.

 

“Yes.” said Aleci, disappointed his joke was not appreciated, he decided to pull a seat next to Finne, “Is there anything else you’d like to ask? I can fill out my part now, if you want.”

 

Finne handed him the respective papers and he picked up a quill to start writing his name.

 

“He wants to be called Olus on the papers right?” said Aleci, and when Finne nodded, Aleci wrote in Olus as the name of the child in question, “Edon is seven, right?” he said, and waited for Finne to nod a yes, “Here,” he said handing the paper back to Finne, “check it over and then write your name as well.” he gestured towards the paper Finne had in front of him.


He thought that was simple, all Finne had to do was write down his name, but even this sent Finne into a fit of anxiety, if his clenching of the pin and twitching fingers were a sign of them.

 

“I… I don’t know.” Finne said faintly, “What am I supposed to write?”

 

“Your name?” said Aleci, puzzled, “Just your name.”

 

“But, you signed yours with your family name also.” said Finne, “What am I supposed to write? Just Finne?” he repeated, looking lost.

 

“You’re my wife.” said Aleci, “You can write down my family name as well. Use my seal too at the end, if you want to.”

 

He thinks Finne did so, and as if to distract himself, asked, “Are those letters from your friends?”

 

“One yes.” said Aleci, “The other I’ll tell you another time.”

 

Emos and his establishment was always a contentious issue.

 

“Did he say yes?” said Finne, carefully writing out his name.

 

“His wife said yes, that’s probably enough.”

 

“… his wife?” said Finne.

 

“Well, yes, Aulius’s wife Fonta does his regular correspondence. He likes it that way, Aulius isn’t… the best with letters.”

 

Finne placed down the quill to stare at Aleci, “She… can do that?”

 

“I don’t see why not?” said Aleci, “She’s a better writer than Aulius. Quite conversational, but I’m not one to talk fashion or gossip so I don’t write to her.”

 

Perhaps Finne would like to write to Fonta, though Aleci wasn’t sure if he’d appreciate Fonta’s many disparaging comments on the fashion and character of others. Undoubtedly the woman had things to say about him as well.

 

“What do you want me to do?” said Finne, hesitantly, surprising Aleci with the jump in topics, “Besides having and raising your children?”

 

“Our children.” said Aleci, gently, “I don’t know Finne, whatever you please. I trust your judgement.”

 

“I… don’t know what to do.” said Finne, quietly, sounding like a confession, “I haven’t done… much of anything since I was sixteen.”

 

Now that was a depressing thought, Finne was wrong though, he was quite talented overall. Aleci bit his lip, trying to find the right words, “You could draw maps?” he suggested, “Or paint. There’s plenty that would like what you draw.”

 

Finne scoffed at his latter suggestion, but said, “I only know the places in Imruk, why would that matter? Wouldn’t your father have it already mapped out?”

 

“Maybe, but they’re generally reserved for his eyes and the other Praefects.” said Aleci, “Some merchants would pay well to have them. If you want to draw one up, I’ll find someone willing to buy. As soon as the situation improves in Imruk, I’m sure caravans will come. It’s always been the way of things.”

 

“What happens when they already have the maps? What then?”

 

“You,” said Aleci, narrowing his eyes, “think too much into the future.” he shrugged, “You could work as a translator. Not every merchant has the time to learn a new tongue. Write a phrasebook for them to work with and charge them a fee to buy it from you.”

 

The last statement got a look of interest from Finne, “You would let me work?” said Finne, “Isn’t that… im-” he made to say the word improper and at Aleci’s eye roll, scowled and said, “Unnatural to others?"

 

“Finne, many already think of me as unnatural.” said Aleci, faintly amused at the thought of himself with horns that the word unnatural conjured up, “I like fucking men, and being fucked. Literally.” he added, smirking, “It’s not massive stretch of their limited imaginations that I’d let you work. “

 

“But what will you say-”

 

“Don’t worry, I can speak their tongue.” said Aleci, putting on the air of a Magister he knew all too well, “Unlike you bumbling fools, I got my money’s worth. My wife fills my coffers as well as warm my bed.” Aleci grinned, reaching to stroke Finne’s cheek, “Does that flow off the tongue? Don’t worry, you can keep whatever you make. We can even draw a contract if you’re concerned, I know a jurisconsult who likes drawing up and enforcing unusual contracts. He usually does gambling contracts, but I think he’s amicable to anything as long as he’s paid for his time.”

 

“You would do this for me?” said Finne, faintly.

 

“Why wouldn’t I?” said Aleci, “It’s all within reason. I think it’ll make you happy.”

 

“I don’t think it is.” Finne said, again sounding faint, blinking rapidly.

 

“Are you going to faint?” said Aleci, concerned, he made to get up and move to Finne.

 

“No, sit down.” said Finne, he stood up and walked over to Aleci. His lips quirk in a half smile before he straddled Aleci’s lap. “Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred-” he began, though he skipped some lines in the verse to conclude,

 

we shall shake them into confusion, in order for us to lose the count,

and in order not to let any evil person envy us,

as no one will be aware of how many kisses have there been.

 

“Of course you’d remember that one.” said Aleci, before pulling him into a kiss, “Your memory is as flawless as always, my dulcissime.”

 

“Dulcissime?” said Finne, “Really?”

 

“You’ve always tasted-” said Aleci, kissing Finne again, “sweet.”

 

The chair very much protested their activities after that, and Galer’s letter was left forgotten on his desk.

 

Chapter Text

“Was the contract that long?” said Edon, when they came down, “Mercus said I can’t sign it because I’m not old enough to.”

 

“Do you want to sign one?” said Aleci, seizing on the opportunity.


Edon narrowed his eyes at him, “I don’t understand. I’m not allowed to sign contracts. Mercus said I can’t. Shouldn’t.” he added.

 

Mercus looked very pleased with himself,Are you feeling better?” he said to Finne.

 

You must wish to be a sparrow in every courtyard.” said Finne.

 

Surely a canary? I’m a good singer .” said Mercus, to Aleci he said, “Would you like to try Olus’s dolma, Master Aleci?”

 

The dolmas on several plates, faintly steaming away, on the small table moved to the courtyard. Someone had placed a stack of cushions next to the table. From the looks of the dolmas, Aleci guessed the ones that were straining, or bursting from their wrappings must be Edon’s creations.

 

“Join us.” said Edon, placing four cushions on the ground, “I want to know if I’ve won.”

 

“But you’ve always won, Olus.” said Mercus, half glancing at Aleci.

 

“Join us, Mercus.” said Aleci.

 

Mercus nodded, “Of course, Master Aleci.”

 

He waited until Aleci and Finne sat down before taking a seat on the other side of the table, across from Finne and next to Edon. Finne eyed the dolmas with a frown, but picked up the more elegantly wrapped one. It was doused in honey, Aleci could tell, Finne wiped his hands discretely afterwards. He should just lick them, Aleci thought.

 

“What did you say,” said Edon, “about the contract?”

 

“Well,” said Aleci, shaking himself from his momentarily distraction, “you’re smart, you know how contracts work. I’ll teach you how to write one, in my tongue, and I’ll let you write one between us, and mamaí can be the juriconsult.”

 

“A dangerous proposition.” said Mercus, trying, and failing to eat Edon’s dolma gracefully.

 

“I like it.” said Edon, frowning at Mercus, “Why is it dangerous, I’m not climbing a roof.”

 

“The same way that my mother never sent me to the market with more coins than necessary to buy things.” said Mercus cheerfully.

 

“I don’t understand.” said Edon, “If it’s a joke it’s not funny. You’re not funny.” he glared at Mercus who smiled.

 

“You want to teach him?” said Finne, looking at Aleci, “His letters in this tongue? It’s like pulling teeth.”

 

“Is not!” said Edon, “I pulled my own teeth out and it’s fine!”

 

“I helped you.” said Finne, with a barely concealed sigh, “You weren’t happy, I remembered.”

 

“Did you get a coin for them?” said Mercus.

 

This caught Edon’s interest, “What coin?” he glanced at Finne, “You never told me I could get coins.”

 

“For your milk teeth.” said Mercus, “Not the ones that come after.” he added, “So don’t go pulling them out.”

 

“Who gave you the money?” said Edon with a frown.

 

“I don’t know.” said Mercus shrugging, “I left it out on the table and-” he waved his hands, “the next day I had the coin for sweets at the market.”

 

“You didn’t notice someone leaving coins on your table?” said Edon, disbelieving.

 

“I sleep like the dead.” said Mercus, seriously.

 

“Does that only happen here?” said Edon, “It didn’t happen in Imruk.”

 

“Why don’t you wait and see then?” suggested Mercus.

 

Edon narrowed his eyes, “You’re not joking are you?”

 

“I’m serious. I swear.” said Mercus.

 

This was enough for Edon, who picked up a dolma himself, and scowled when it fell apart in his hands.

 

“Don’t worry.” said Mercus, “They’re good for your first time making them.”

 

Edon’s hands twitched, as if to throw the dolma at Mercus, but he changed his mind halfway, “Mine are better.” he said to Finne, and then Aleci, eyes very wide, “Aren’t they?”

 

Aleci saw Mercus’s lips twitched, “They are.” he agreed.

 

“Then why haven’t you two eaten them?” Edon demanded.

 

“We’re saving them for later.” said Finne smoothly, “I think they taste better when soaked longer in this honey.”

 

Edon grinned toothily at this, and Mercus coughed loudly. Finne narrowed his eyes, “Do you need wine?”

 

“No.” said Mercus, “I think it’s sweet. My family never had such mealtimes, we’re too busy talking over each other.”

 

“Why?” said Edon.

 

“I have nine siblings.” said Mercus, “And the table was very, very long, have you tried asking someone to pass you bread from four seats away?”

 

“Nine?” said Edon, disbelieving, he turned to look at Aleci, and then Finne, “Nine? You’re not having nine are you? I won’t let you.”

 

At this last proclamation, Mercus doubled over, laughing hysterically, “Put that in the contract, Olus.”

 

Even Finne failed to keep himself from laughing at this, “Are you going to agree?” he said, leaning into Aleci’s with another one of his half smiles, “To such unreasonable demands?”

 

“I’ll give you unreasonable demands later.” whispered Aleci, and Finne blushed.

 

Aleci reached for one of Edon’s dolmas, forgoing all courtesy altogether to stuff it into his mouth, there was no way to eat Edon’s dolmas gracefully.

 

“That’s not proper.” said Edon, staring.

 

“It’s also not proper to stare.” said Aleci, after he swallowed, “Is it?”

 

Edon opened his mouth, then closed it again, “Can you teach me,” he said to Finne, “later, from the books you have? I want to write this-” he sniffed, “contract.”

 

Finne looked pleased with this and nodded. His wife and son left after the meal finished, going to their bedroom to fetch the books and wax tablets. Mercus made to leave, but Aleci reached out a hand to stop him.

 

“Mercus, can I speak with you?”

 

The younger man frowned, then, as if repeating a play’s script said, “If it’s about the bonus, Master Aleci, I don’t want it.”

 

“Sorry?” said Aleci, surprised.

 

“Finne, your wife,” Mercus paused, then stammered, “he’s a friend. My friend. It’s not right to take money for a friendship.”

 

“Oh.” said Aleci, then shook his head, “No, that’s not what I meant.” Mercus looked relieved, “I was wondering-” he glanced backwards, Finne and Edon had long gone out of earshot, “I was wondering if Finne ever told you about what happened to him, before?”

 

This gave Mercus some pause, and he gave Aleci a guarded look, “It depends… he doesn’t want to talk about it much.”

 

“Mercus, I appreciate your loyalty to Finne.” said Aleci, “I do,” he reiterated, “I would like Finne to have… confidants, and if he wishes to tell you things, you are not obliged to tell me. I just want to know-” he swallowed, lowering his voice, “if he tells you his brother’s name. That’s all I want to know.”

 

“May I ask why, Master Aleci?” said Mercus, in careful tones.

 

“Well.” said Aleci, clenching his left hand into a fist and relaxing it along with his breath, “I think… I think the thought of him keeps Finne up at night. The Empire keeps track of… important people in foreign territories. Dead or living. I would like to reassure Finne that he really is dead.”

 

“I see.” said Mercus nodding, “I don’t know how much a name on a list would reassure him, he seems the sort to want to see a body, but, I will tell you. If he does tell me. I don’t think he would.” he gave Aleci a grin, “You know, it really is a shame, Master Aleci.”

 

“What’s a shame?” said Aleci.

 

“Your father came to our house to ask if my father knew any carriers, some time ago. They do tend to travel in performing troupes after all, and former troupers usually have one or two in their families but my father said the ones he knew were too old for you.” Mercus laughs softly, “Your father asked if I was one, he saw me practicing, I don’t know what gave him the thought that only carriers could sing and play, and my father said, ‘unfortunately no, and unfortunately Praefect Galer he would not enjoy any activities with your son.’ I like women,” said Mercus, unabashed, “but I supposed, if things were to be different, I think I would have been happy with you. Finne’s quite lucky to have you.” said Mercus, offering Aleci a smile.

 

“I… don’t know what to say.” said Aleci, weakly. A part of him was torn with amusement and frustration over Galer trying to find him a bride, that many times behind his back, and a part of him was touched by Mercus’s words.

 

“Perhaps you can find your tongue to excuse me, then, Master Aleci.” said Mercus, grinning.

 

He gave Aleci a short bow, and jauntily walked off, leaving Aleci to mull over what he had said.

Chapter Text

It’s not real. It’s not real. You’re not real.”

 

“Finne?” whispered Aleci, barely registering the Imrukian, “Finne?”

 

His spot on the bed was empty, Aleci jerked upright looking wildly around. He saw a flicker of a candle outside their bedroom, and extracting himself from Edon and walking cautiously towards the light. It was about a month, maybe two that he had woken to Finne’s frantic pacing, and while he couldn’t hear anything besides what sounds like agitated whispers. The candle by the table side was gone, but he thinks he can see Finne’s wooden pin lying on it. Aleci hesitated then took it in his hand before making his way to the door.

 

“It’s not real, it’s not real, it’s NOT REAL.”

 

The last words sounded like a muffled scream.

 

“Finne?”

 

Finne was sitting curled up on himself, knees to his chest, the candle dropped on the floor, burning out of sheer determination. He knew better to grab him, he could feel his heart thumping in his chest at the blood on Finne’s forearms from the candlelight where he’d repeatedly scratched himself.

 

“Finne?” he repeated, and when there was no response again, decided instinctively to right the candle holder, the candlelight threatening to put itself out, and move it to his right, away from Finne.

 

You’re with me.” he said, “I’m here. I’m real. You’re real.” he repeated, moving to crouch in front of his wife, “Can you hear me?

 

He held out the pin to Finne, and when it wasn’t taken, moved it closer to his hand where, to his relief, Finne stopped gouging at his arms to take the pin. He reflexively clenched it, twirling it distractedly in his right hand. Finne gave no notion that he heard Aleci at all. Aleci sighed deeply, sitting down across from him.

 

“Do you want to sit in your garden ?” he suggested, holding out both hands, “With the roses? Will you come with me?”

 

He thought there would be no response from Finne, but Finne clasped both of his hands after letting out several steadying breaths. They rose together, Finne more shakily than him.

 

“Do you want me to carry you?” Aleci suggested, trying a jovial tone.

 

“I can walk.” said Finne, sounding affronted, and like himself for the first time.

 

The iron clad grip on his hands didn’t ease, though Finne let go of his right hand to walk with him to the outdoor garden. Aleci couldn’t quite remember what flowers had been there before, his mother wasn’t the gardening type, but the roses seemed to take well to their trellises. Some of them had even began to bloom, and by the looks of things, the very air would be scented with them in some weeks.

 

“What,” said Aleci gently, when he sat down with Finne on the stone benches, “was in my father’s letter?”

 

Finne swallowed, gripping Aleci’s hand, if possible, even tighter.

 

“He asked… he asked… he asked for a translation.” said Finne shakily.

 

“Of? ” said Aleci.

 

The sons of the Empire will bleed until Imruk’s wives are returned.” said Finne in a rush.

 

“I don’t understand.” said Aleci, struggling to make out the words, “What did you say?”

 

“The sons… the sons of the Empire will bleed until-” Finne swallowed, “Imruk’s wives are returned.” he was clenching and unclenching his hand on the wooden pin. It was a miracle the wood hadn’t cracked.

 

“Huh.” said Aleci, internally scoffing, of course nothing from Galer came without an accompanying whiplash, his father could've just asked one of the translators in the Capital, did they ran out of them? Or did Galer temporarily found himself short on funds? “Is that what kept you up? That someone would find you?” he figured it was best not to mention who he suspected the someone was, and dearly prayed that Mercus would somehow find out soon, “Do you… do you know something called conditional probability?” it was a wild suggestion that came to mind, perhaps it would work.

 

“No.” said Finne, looking off into the distant.

 

That didn’t answer his question, but it was his fault to ask so many at once. “There are,” said Aleci, “fifteen rose plants around this garden right?” there was no response from Finne so he continued, “I think there are three colors of roses right?”

 

“Eight.” said Finne.

 

“Right, eight.” agreed Aleci, “But I’ve only ever seen three. Now, if I wanted to pick one bush, out of the fifteen here, what are the chances of me picking a red one, if, say, we have six reds, four yellows and five oranges?”


“I don’t know.” said Finne, “What you are trying to say.”

 

“Please be patient, I’m getting somewhere, I promise.” said Aleci, “Six out of fifteen. Forty percent.”

 

“I don’t understand.” said Finne, now looking at him, “What you are trying, what is even a percent?”

 

“The root word of cent is one hundred.” said Aleci, “Have you taken a test before-” he nearly slapped himself, of course Finne hadn’t taken any examinations.

 

“Yes.” said Finne, surprising him.

 

“Were you graded?” said Aleci, “The highest score is getting all of the answers correct, one hundred percent, and obviously the lower the percentage the less you scored. You also calculate percentages to determine whether or not something will happen. The lower the percentage the lower the chances of something happening. I've used it before to determine if it’s going to rain this week. I look at previous patterns and figure out the probability.”

 

“Really?” said Finne.

 

“Yes, really.” said Aleci, “I can show you later, if you want, it’s quite boring, but, going back to the rose bushes. Forty percent. So, let’s say you’ve removed the red rose bush, you’ve changed the number of rose bushes in the garden. What if you want to try to take another red rose bush?”

 

This gave Finne pause, “There’s five now, aren’t there? Five out of fourteen?”

 

“Exactly.” said Aleci, “It’s… about thirty five, thirty six percent.”

 

“So? I still don’t understand what you are trying to say.”

 

“Please be patient.” said Aleci, “Individually, you would think that you have somewhat high chances right? But, what are the chances that you select two rose bushes, one after another, from this garden? You would multiply the percentages you and I have mentioned before, six over fifteen times five over fourteen. It would be… fourteen percent. That’s not very likely at all, even if the individual percentages are high.”

 

“I… don’t understand.” said Finne, “What are you even trying to say?”

 

“Look, Finne, if someone is trying to find you, they’ll have to first find who the Praefects are that came to Imruk. I think there were at least thirty, maybe even more. So to find my father, it would be one out of thirty that they find the right man. And even then, they would have to find where he lives, there are numerous cities in the Empire, twenty something, I think, I’m not the best at geography. So what, one in twenty chances they go to the right city? Then they’ll have to find the right household as well, my family name is quite common in bigger cities. The percentage gets lower and lower, do you see? It was already low for just the fifteen roses here and I only suggested picking two red roses in a row. To find you-” he said, taking Finne’s hands in his less bruised left hand, “would they not have to have all the above correct? Or at least some, I didn’t account for blind luck, but look, do you see that it is quite hard?”

 

Finne took a shaky breath, a soft huff of laughter, “Is this also from experience?”

 

“Yes.” said Aleci, trying to keep the bitterness from his voice, “ It works for gambling.”

 

“I don’t think you’re talking about gambling.” said Finne quietly, meeting Aleci’s eyes for the first time, “Are you? It’s about your friend, isn’t it? The one you loved?”

 

“Yes.” said Aleci, deciding it was safe to run his hand up Finne’s forearm. It came back wet with the still drying blood, “You shouldn’t use probability for, well, for everything. I wanted to know if my father was wrong and whatever I thought up with, he was right.” he breathed in a heavy, shaky sigh, “So I started drinking.”

 

“I think,” said Finne, “you would have done it regardless of what your numbers say.”

 

“Sorry?”said Aleci, startled.

 

“You were desperate. You loved him.” said Finne, “I don’t think that can be numbered and counted. How do you even figure a percentage of love? It’s impossible. Your math would not have made sense anyway, you’ve left one important figure out.”

 

Aleci swallowed harshly, “Have you,” he said, bumping his forehead playfully to Finne’s, “considered becoming a philosopher?”

 

“You wouldn’t like it.” said Finne, “You said you hated philosophers.”

 

“I wouldn’t hate you.” said Aleci, “Why would I? Where’s the logic in that?”

 

“Don’t tell me.” said Finne, amusement in his voice, “I’ve given you the idea to try to quantify love. Mathematically.”

 

“Why not?” said Aleci, jokingly, though now that he thought about it, that was a rather interesting proposal.

Chapter Text

Finne

Finne - As it turns out green eyes are quite rare in the general population. I may or may not change his eye color later, probably to brown. I'm pretty impressed by the AI's ability to make a rather adrogenous portrait. Kudos.

Aleci

Here's our oblivious mathematician Aleci. I really like his smirk here, a true classic.

Edon

 

So the AI isn't very good with children, I think it blurs cheeks and features to make a 'younger' portrait. Edon's curls are accurate though.

Maera

The AI isn't good with older people also. I think, there is some uncanny valley going on here, and Maera isn't the type to wear makeup but whatever, she looks like a counselor huh?

Mercus

This is our bard Mercus, whom I think I didn't actually think to describe until recently. I was on and off about how he looked, his looks will be commented on by another character later.

Ilos

Ilos

Chapter Text

The next morning as Maera walked him to making a poultice, it occurred to Aleci that now was the time to ask all the definitions he wanted.

 

What does love mean, Maera?”

 

Maera paused in her crushing of the herbs, a paste, she’d explained to Aleci. “Did Edon say that to you?” she said, “That’s sweet of him, I didn’t expect that so soon.” mistaking his confusion, she continued, “You know it’s one thing I like about your tongue, you seem to have many words to explain love. We only have the one.”

 

“You mean, storge?” said Aleci.

 

Yes.” said Maera nodding.

 

“I see.” said Aleci, uncomfortable at the possible interpretations of Finne’s usage, “What about tame?”

 

“It’s about that cat of his, isn’t it?” sighed Maera, “He’s going to carry that cat around with him everywhere, I can see it. What a smart fellow, to swindle treats from a child.”

 

“I still don’t understand what the word tame means.” said Aleci, musing if cats could even think of things such as retirement. Retire from what? A comfortable existence stealing food off his plate and roaming around the grape fields?

 

“In the context of Edon and his cat? He’s trying to befriend it, tame it gently. I’m sure you know it can be done cruelly as well.”

 

“Right.” said Aleci, listening to the thud, thud, thud of Maera’s pestle, “That’s odd.” he remarked, glancing out the window, “I don’t hear music.”

 

Maera glanced up as well, “Hm.” said the older woman, “Strange.”

 

As if to answer their questions, there came knocks on the study door and when he went to open it, he found Finne waiting outside.

 

“I want your company.” said Finne, “Please.”

 

Maera raised an eyebrow at this, no doubt his wife and Maera would be talking about this declaration later.

 

“We can continue another day.” said Maera, “I’ll clear up.” she gave Finne a curious look, “Enjoy your conversation, my lord.”

 

Finne ignored her, only giving Maera a polite goodbye as she left with her herbs and pestle. He moved to Aleci’s desk, giving Galer’s letter on the right side of the desk an inscrutable look.

 

“Do you want me to toss it into the fire?” offered Aleci and Finne shook his head no.

 

“I should write back…” he said.

 

“Make him wait.” said Aleci with a shrug, picking up the letter and moving it out of sight, “He took his sweet time apologizing for that quack he sent and withholding my mother’s gifts to you, why should you be in a hurry to- and don’t tell me it’s proper,” Aleci rolled his eyes, “he can wait, he’s been waiting so many years for a child, I’m sure he’d have the patience to wait for a translation. If he really wanted one, he’d have it done.”

 

Finne didn’t look convince, moving to Aleci’s right to pick up Emos’s coin, “What’s this?” he said.

 

“Oh, that.” said Aleci, accepting the change in topic, “That’s Emos’s little entry fee. Emos is a carrier I know in the Capital.”

 

“Sounds like a story.” said Finne, sitting down on the side of the desk.

 

“What do you want to know?” said Aleci, “How I met Emos?”

 

“Is he a friend?” said Finne, a curious head tilt.

 

“Emos doesn’t have friends.” said Aleci, “Doesn’t want to have any, and he’ll be insulted if I said I was his friend. I met him when I was,” he scoffed, “doing service for my crime. I copied forms for juriconsults. I should have done it while drunk, actually, it might have been better, more entertaining at least, but anyway, Emos offered me some money to copy him a hetairikos contract.” at Finne’s puzzled look he explained, “Some hetairikos are independent of any owner, they get sponsored by Magisters and depending on how honest the Magister, their contract can be unusually exploitative. You wanted to ask why?” he said, seeing Finne open his mouth, “So you have a regular contract, and addendums to the contract, usually one line additions to clarify certain things, but sometimes the addendum can be quite long. Some Magisters like to play sly by putting in something like, ‘the hetairikos must pay rent for the duration of contract, with interest’. The interest being triple or even quadruple what one can reasonably earn in the time.”

 

“You agreed to this?” said Finne, “I thought you didn’t like copying forms, you said so yourself earlier.”

 

“No hetairikos knows the normal contract, some of them can’t even read, let alone know how to have a copy of it.” said Aleci, “So they couldn’t argue that the addendums were unfair. I thought it was clever of him, so I did it for half the price, and he then invited me to his-” he paused, struggling to see if Finne would object to this, and seeing nothing, decided to say, “Lupanar.”

 

“Right.” said Finne, “And what of the coin?”

 

“Emos calls it a lupanar, but it also has a society.” he picked up the abandoned coin to run his hand through the Nautilus, “A mathematics society, so to speak.”


At this Finne laughed, clutching at the desk to stop himself from falling, “So what is the difference between your math friends, I don’t know the word, and your hatred of philosophers?” he giggled, “The place where you lot think?”

 

“Mathematicians.” said Aleci, “Besides, all philosophers do in their marble schools is sit around and inhale each other’s superior intellect.” Aleci scoffed, “How to define justice, how to define mercy. Like it’s not something that changes base on who you ask. You can see maths. Show me, physically, what justice looks like, what mercy looks like. You can’t. It’s not natural. It’s…” he paused, wondering if he should continue, and at the intrigued look on Finne’s face corrected, “they’re all lies, an invention to make people feel better about their lot in life. That they deserve to be an exalted Magister or condemned peasant.”

 

“You’re telling me,” said Finne, raising both eyebrows, lips twitching, “that you can show me the very small percentages you mentioned last night? You were asking me to imagine them. What’s the difference between that and philosophy?”

 

“It’s different.” Aleci insisted, while Finne kept grinning, “I, I mean, we don’t sit around thinking seriously.” he felt his cheeks heating up, “We do something before that.” he said refusing to let Finne laugh at this too.

 

“No.” said Finne, leaning in closer to him, searching his face, “No!” he exclaimed gleefully, pulling away, “Are you telling me, the difference, that is, your difference between mathema- maths and philosophy is that you lot fuck before you think about said topics and the other just sit around.”

 

“If you fuck me,” said Aleci, “you’d see what I mean, there’s a clarity that comes after-”

 

“Right, right.” said Finne waving away his explanation, “Just say you found a bunch of like minded individuals and were very-” he licked his lips, holding back a smile, “creatively minded afterwards.”

 

“I’ll have you know that my rules were nothing compared to what we came up with!” said Aleci.

 

“Undoubtedly.” said Finne, “Your rules were so inferior to whatever post… orgy revelations you had.”

 

“I’ll have you know we had complete control over the gambling halls in the Capital.” said Aleci, crossing his arms, “When has a philosopher rolled around in gold and then put it to good use?”

 

“I thought you were thrown out.” said Finne.

 

“I was.” said Aleci, “There’s nothing so clever as getting a reputation, being thrown out and then having an accomplice sweep the table after you.” he shrugged, “Also, some Magisters wanted to play with me and they’re all loose with their money. Overconfident, the lot of them. Not that they needed more in the first place.”

 

“That sounds like fun.” said Finne, amused, “Why did you stop?”

 

“Gambling’s illegal in the Capital.” said Aleci, “I maybe a gambler, but I know when the stake are too high.”

 

Finne raised his eyebrows, “Sorry? It is?”

 

“Yes. There are ways to hide the activity, and no one would drag a Magister for gambling, but they have done it to lesser men.” said Aleci, “So I only do it every so often. I think Emos likes to have high stakes, probably thrives on it, but I know when to throw in my hand.”

Chapter Text

Mercus didn’t return the next day, or the day after that. Finne didn’t comment on the matter, and when they saw Mercus at the training grounds, he didn’t acknowledge Mercus beyond the usual niceties. He hoped it wasn’t his pressing Mercus to ask Finne on his brother’s name that cause their quarrel, and decided perhaps he should first ask Mercus if that really was the case.

 

“Did you have a falling out with Finne?” said Aleci, casually as he sat down on top of the fence next to Mercus.

 

Mercus fidgeted with his tunic, “Maybe?” he said, “I mean, my mother said I ran my mouth all the time, so I suppose I did.” he pulled on a piece of splinter sticking out from the fence, I told him his love songs weren’t love songs if the woman wasn’t willing. He then said what would I know, troupers do bride kidnapping. But I swear, it is not like that. I don’t know why everyone thinks the bride is kidnapped. We don’t call it bride kidnapping, we call it stealing the wagon.”

 

“Stealing the wagon huh?” said Aleci.

 

“Yes.” said Mercus, “So, what happens is, a groom sneaks up on his bride’s caravan, usually there’s like five wagons traveling together. It usually happens during the daytime. The bride is so conveniently in the wagon at the time, he spurs the horses, conveniently hitched to the wagon, and she screams something along the lines of ‘ Oh no, he’s taking me! He’s taking me to Corcius! The bride’s family gives them a head start, and then the bride’s father, mother and eldest sibling ride off, followed by their other caravans. Then they reach the groom’s caravans, where, what luck, the is their daughter dressed splendidly in a dress cut to fit her, and a party waiting.”

 

Mercus looked vaguely amused, “I remember when it happened with my elder sister. It was before we came here. I rode off with father and mother and when we got there we were greeted with her in quite a splendid dress. It’s not over though. The groom still has to prove to the bride’s family that he’s the one for her, and the bride has to confirm that she really did want to go with him. That’s why I told you, I know the difference between a complicated sort of love song and an abduction… or rape. I know it because I’ve been to several of these weddings and there’s been a couple where the bride said no through a song and you can imagine, it was quite a messy affair after that.”

 

“How did the groom prove it to the bride’s family?” said Aleci, intrigued. Mercus’s traditions seemed overly complicated.

 

“It’s simple.” said Mercus, “The first three to reach the groom’s caravans, so, the bride’s closest relations, give the groom three challenges. When it was my father, he told my good-brother that he should play him a song on the lute. Right this instant, and what did you know, he managed it just fine. Then my mother wanted him to bake her a loaf of bread, and she wanted to see him do it, and he did so. I-” Mercus grinned, “I told him I wanted him to tell a new story, a good one. I wasn’t a very creative child. He did that as well. Every time he’d finish a task my sister would sing, three songs she’s written herself. And we’d listen to see that she really did want to marry. It's quite a long series of tasks. I think the longest wedding was over a week.” Mercus glanced at him, “You see, it is quite impossible for the groom and the bride to not want to marry each other, considering how many hoops they had to jump through. And well, if she wants to leave him, she always could. I don’t think it is the case here, is it?”

 

“Is that why you haven’t married, Mercus?”

 

“I do, but it’s… exhausting. Besides, I’d have to support a wife and I’m the eldest in the family, I’m to support my parents as well as siblings. I suppose I could cheat, I mean, I could say, drink something to calm my nerves on the day. But they check your breath and there’s always something that gives it away. Your eyes are bigger, I heard, and if you're caught no trouper woman would want you after.” said Mercus looked contemplative, “I think he’s also mad at me because I mentioned that.”

 

“Mentioned what? Why you’re not married?”

 

“No, no.” said Mercus, “I mean, I said to him, his friends weren’t really his friends if all they did was ply him with the drink before… you know… before the ceremony. I told him if I was his friend I would’ve slipped a poison in his lord brother’s cup or something like that. Not stand outside and listen like a half wit. He told me to leave. He didn’t say anything more...” Mercus sighed deeply, “No wonder the only happy songs he knew were the songs I’d sing, hunting and dancing. I mean, they’re good, what he remembered, but he couldn’t come up with a happier song.” he glanced at Aleci, “Are you going to tell him I told you? I don’t think he would like that.”

 

“I won’t.” promised Aleci.

 

His face was seemingly easy to read, because when he saw his wife later that day in their bedroom Finne scowled.

 

“Was Mercus talking to you?” said Finne.

 

“Yes.” said Aleci and was taken aback by the flash of anger in Finne’s eyes.

 

“Please leave.” said Finne, and when he didn’t respond, Finne pointed at the door, “Please. Leave.”

 

That was that, and Aleci thought it was wise to retreat to his study for the time being. Edon was roaming around the villa, and it was, suddenly, quite lonely in his study. After staring at the numbers, unseeingly, for a while, he decided to stop for the day, figuring enough time had passed that Finne would want to see him. The problem came when he found their bedroom empty. Asking the servants didn’t yield any answers, and the steward simply shrugged, telling him that he had been busy. None of the maids knew either. It then struck him Finne could have climbed the roof again, which was where Maera found him, half way up climbing the ladder.


She called out, “Have you considered, Master Aleci, that it’s not about you?”

 

“I don’t understand what you mean.” said Aleci, climbing back down to where she stood, arms crossed, in the courtyard.

 

Men.” muttered Maera, “Emotional constipation I swear. Look, Master Aleci, I don’t think Finne is mad at you. He’s gone off, I think, to punch Mercus. Or yell. Probably both, if I’m being honest.”

 

“How did you know-” he began and sighed, of course she would know, the servants knew everything, except for where Finne was, “I thought he was mad at me for asking Mercus- ”

 

“No.” said Maera, cutting in, “He’s mad at Mercus for blabbering you. I suppose he forgot that you are the master of the house and can question whoever on whatever, but you didn’t ask and he started talking. If I understood you correctly that is. It’s a good thing.”

 

“Why?” said Aleci.

 

“Because, Master Aleci, you haven’t seen him mad before, have you? I don’t think you will, not for a long time, not that he doesn’t trust you-” she added, hastily, “just that, it is, shall I quote your wife, ‘improper’ to do so. He’s mad at Mercus because he feels safe to do so, because he knows, on some level, that Mercus wouldn’t strike back, and yes, I know you said wouldn’t hit him-” she gave Aleci a long look, “but for many years, he wasn’t allowed to be angry, because it’s a privilege he wasn’t granted. He’s probably gone off to Mercus’s house. I hope that boy’s feet are as quick as his wits. ”

 

Aleci grits his teeth at her implications and said nothing, he sat down on the stone bench, next to her, “Should I ride to Mercus’s house?”

 

“If you want my advice, I would say no.” said Maera, “Because, he hasn’t seen what a normal family looks like, ever, I think, and it’s time he sees one.” she saw something on his face and continued, “Yes, I know you two are a family, with Edon and all, but that’s not it. That’s him giving you what he thinks you want, because for the past how many years he’s always done that for the men in his life. Let him see how a normal couple interacts tonight, I’ve met Mercus’s parents, they’re lovely people, and make his own conclusions on the matter, he thinks I’m some abnormality. You as well, probably. He'll be back tomorrow.”

 

“How would I know when he’s come to a conclusion on his own accord?” said Aleci.

 

“He hasn’t opened your lady mother’s gifts has he?” said Maera, and when he nodded, surprised, she pursed her lips, “I thought as much. He’s always been wearing your clothes and what your mother left here.”

 

“Why doesn’t he just open the chests?” said Aleci, “They’re his, and he said Mercus opened one, I don’t see why he wouldn’t.”

 

“Right.” said Maera sighing, “This… this may take some time to explain. Do you mind if I smoke while we talk about this, Master Aleci?”

 

“You smoke?” said Aleci, surprised.

 

“Sometimes, when the time calls for it.” said Maera, and when he nodded his assent she stood up, “I’ll be back in a moment.”

 

She returned with a wooden pipe, with the shame sheen as he noticed on Finne’s sword. It smelled herbal, whatever it was, and he shook his head when she offered him the first puff.

 

“I have taught you some basics of midwifery. Would you like me to teach you mediating as well?” when he nodded, she continued, “Let us pretend, for a moment, that you are watching me with a woman who’s come to me for advice. Before we start, I’d like to pose to you a question, is abuse chaotic or orderly?” Seeing his blank look she sighed, inhaling from her pipe she breathed out the smoke then continued, “I’ve heard you gamble. There is a trick to gambling isn’t there?”

 

“There are many.” said Aleci, “I don’t know what trick you mean though.”

 

“An abuser works by distracting you with tricks. They depend on their partner being confused, distracted, and not looking at his hand. They spin a tale, point into the distant, so their partner’s eyes are not actually looking at them. A relationship with this person is like being lead blindfolded through briars, the partner desperately wants to find the end of this maze, this confusion, but they never would. Because that’s the whole point, the abuser doesn’t want their partner to notice that there is logic behind the madness. It is about control, and glorying in said control.”

 

“That’s… ” Aleci trails off, struggling to make sense of it all.

 

“Back to the woman who came to me for advice, hm?” said Maera, taking pity on him, “I would start off with asking her to list the things she liked about her husband. It can be quite a long list sometimes. If it’s a short list I ask her gently why she needed my permission to leave in the first place. For a long list,” Maera clicks her tongue, “I wait for the ‘but’ or something along those lines. He is kind, he loves me, he gives me flowers, he fixes the house, but-” and when the but comes, and it usually does, eventually, this is when I wait. I’ll make a guess as to why Finne hasn’t opened the chests. But would you like to make your own guess first?”

 

“He expects he has to pay for it.” said Aleci, swallowing, “With… with sex, but they’re from my mother why would he-”

 

“I think,” said Maera, “he doesn’t want to have things because of what happened before with them. I’ve heard this from many women, something like ‘he breaks things, he throws things, and, he always say sorry afterwards, he’s only got a temper’. I then ask them, ‘what things did he break, yours or his?’” she sighed, chewing on the pipe, “It’s quite sad, most of them take a long time to answer, and then they say it’s their things he breaks. That’s because their husbands aren’t really frenzied as it would seem, and when I ask them, ‘did he help you clean up afterwards?’ the response is usually no. Then I tell them, he’s not sorry at all, he knows how to rein in his rage and spur it on and off like one does a horse. And then when it dawns to them, I get to the point of the whole matter, I tell them your husband has never lost control of his rage, he has always been in control, that is the way abusers are.”

 

“Is that what happened, with Finne?” said Aleci.

 

“I suspect so.” said Maera, “He’d only asked you for the one thing, did he? And the others were fruits that you offered him and they don’t last long .”

 

“Have… men ever come to you with their problems?” said Aleci.

 

“Yes, but…” her lips tightened, “wives, in general, do not hit their husbands. I am not saying it never does, it’s just as rare as seeing a black swan. I am sure, for a man, it is emasculating to sit and admit this to an old woman and her apprentice, I have witnessed a few as one, but is it not equally humiliating to confess that one’s husband is abusive? In any case the men I saw don’t ask me for advice on how to stop their wives hitting them, but how to stop themselves from hitting their wives.”

 

“What would you tell them?” said Aleci.

 

“Depends on what they ask.” said Maera, “Sometimes I don’t bother, and I then pay the wife a visit afterwards, but if there is genuine effort on their part, I ask them, why they are here. They all say the same, ‘I don’t want to be angry at her, I don’t want to fly into a rage’. They’re wrong, but I don’t say that to them, what I say is, ‘you do not have a problem with your own rage, you have a problem with control. If you want to not be angry at your wife, you need to let go of your dominion over her’.” Maera laughs wryly, “ You can sum it up something along the lines of, the abusive man who doesn’t wish to change, looks at himself in the morning, sees his unkempt beard and sets about shaving the mirror.”

 

“Do… do you think I was,” Aleci swallowed, “am abusive?”

 

Maera raised an eyebrow, “I don’t know, Master Aleci. I don’t sit in on every night time conversation with you and Finne. Are you?”

 

“I don’t know!” said Aleci, running his hands through his hair, “Wasn’t I? Earlier?”

 

“Considering Finne has decided to forgive you for this, and he himself wasn’t forthcoming, I would say, let us focus on the future hm?” said Maera, “Do you respect him? Or do you idolize him?”

 

“Idolize? Why do you say this?”

 

“Idolizing someone is disrespecting them,” said Maera, “Because you, I’m not saying you, but you in general sense, you do not see the person as real, but as an object of worship, a fantasy, and when this person proves to be human after all, your devotion turns sour. Even violent. If you respect Finne then you cannot abuse him because you don’t respect someone you abuse, and you don’t abuse someone you respect. They’re complete opposites, night and day.”

 

When he sat silent for awhile, she gave him a broad smile, “Was this too much? I felt the same when I first hear it.”

 

“Yes.” said Aleci, “It’s… a lot to take in.”

 

“Look on the brighter side of things, I don’t think I’ll need to talk to you more about this.” said Maera, “You seem to have an intuitive grasp of such things now even if you fumbled them earlier. In any case, I think I shouldn’t reprimand you, I’m not your mother, and you’ve got quite a long night ahead of you.”

 

“Why?” said Aleci, and Maera laughed uproariously.

 

“Finne didn’t take Edon with him.” said the older woman, “Do you have any experience with a child’s tantrum?”

 

“No.” said Aleci, and Maera shook her head, amused.

 

“If he screams and yells at you.” she said, “It’s because he trusts you. You’re not one of those nobles who trot their children out in a line like obedient hounds are you? I have full confidence you will manage. If you don’t, you can come and fetch me, but I’m very certain of your abilities, Master Aleci.”

Chapter Text

It started well enough. Edon didn’t question why Finne wasn’t there at dinner, he was happy chatting away about the kittens Smudge apparently fathered. The little beast even allowed Edon to touched them. Age must have softened the cat's foul temper or perhaps he was bribed, Edon never went anywhere with his bag of food and trinkets.


“Where’s mamaí?” said Edon, when their dinner was bought by a serving girl, “Is he with Maera?” the question was directed at the girl.


“I dunno, Master Olus.” said the girl, “Maera only told me to bring you dinner.” at Aleci’s questioning look she added, “She said she’s not feeling well.”


Edon shrugged, pacified at the pie that Maera, bless her soul, prepared for him. He only looked up when he noticed Aleci watching him.


“Why aren’t you eating?” said Edon, pointing to Aleci’s untouched plate.


“I’m not hungry.” said Aleci.


It was getting late, and Aleci could see the very familiar sort of anxiety in Edon’s posture, “Where is mamaí?” said Edon, “He’s not with Maera is he? He should be back by now.”


“He’s at Mercus’s house.” said Aleci, deciding to pull off the scab.


This had the chaotic result he expected, Edon jumped from his chair, pointing an accusatory finger at Aleci.


“Why? Why did he go with Mercus?”


“He wanted to talk to him-” said Aleci.


“Why did he leave me with you?”


That did sting, but Aleci swallowed said, “He’ll be back-”


“I want him! Not you! I want my mamaí!”


Edon backed away from him, going to the bed and flinging all the objects on the side table to the floor with a clatter.


“He’ll be back tomorrow-”


“I don’t care! I want him now!”


“Edon, you were fine without him-”


“He said- he promised he'll be back the last time. He didn’t say anything this time. I want him now!”


The bed screamed a protest when Edon jumped on it, throwing a pillow on the floor.


“Why don’t I read you something hm?” Aleci suggested, trying a diversion, “Have you heard of-”


“You can’t read because you can’t draw!”


“Sorry?” said Aleci, at a loss for words at the sentence, torn between laughing at the absurdity and confusion.


“You-” said Edon, angrily, “can’t draw! I don’t want you to read to me because you can’t draw!”


“You could just imagine-” Aleci began.


“No! Go away! I want mamaí, I want him now! GO GET HIM!”


“Edon, do you think he maybe wants some time to himself?” said Aleci, “He has-” it occurred to Aleci Edon didn’t actually have friends his age, there were no children living with them.


“SO?” Edon screamed, red-faced, “HE HAS YOU.” he threw the next pillow at Aleci’s feet.


“Maybe he wants to talk to more people?” Aleci offered.


“I don’t care. I want him. I want him now!”


Edon dissolved into tears, pulling the blanket from the bed and over his head. Aleci approached the bed, trying to maybe lift the blanket, and it was yanked away. For one moment it occurred to Aleci to laugh hysterically at the situation, the mess of blankets resembled one of those cocooned butterflies. “Edon, why don’t you come out and finish your meal hm?” he suggested, “It’s your favorite, isn’t it?”


He couldn’t make out the muffled words, but it was a clear no. Aleci sighed, staring wistfully at the wine glass he left untouched. He stared at the shaking mass of blankets on the bed, then at the wine and made up his mind. The wine didn’t taste as well as he thought it would have, and he grinds his teeth, scowling at the wax tablet broken in two on the floor. He stood to pick it up, staring at the two separate pieces, Edon’s rather messy, though legible side and the passage from Finne he was trying to copy. Edon’s m’s were indistinguishable from his n’s, Aleci thought. Almost like… the unfinished pie on Edon’s plate caught his eye, and he looked at it, an idea coming into his head.


“Edon.” he said, loudly enough, he hoped to penetrate the blanket shield, “You like pies right? What if I told you, there’s a π in math as well?”


He heard snuffling, and then an irritated, “How? You’re not going to ask me how many five pies costs if they were seven copper each are you?”


“No.” said Aleci, reaching for a stylus on the bedside table and walking over to sit on the bed, “I’m talking about π.” he scratched away Finne’s passage to write down the symbol.


“What is π?” said Edon, wiping at his face with his sleeves, “It looks like an n.”


“It does.” agreed Aleci, “But you’ll know it’s not an n. It’s a very special number. It never ends. It’s infinite.”


This got Edon’s attention, “Infinite. Really?” he repeated, “How?”


“Why don’t we clean your face, hm?” suggested Aleci, “Then I’ll show you.”


He took a washcloth from the dresser, dipping it into the basin to wipe at Edon’s face.


“Did you look in the chests in your bedroom?” said Aleci.


“No, why?” said Edon.


“Come,” said Aleci, holding out his hand and taking the candle in the other.


Edon took it and he lead them out the bedroom and down the hall. Someone must have cleaned the room recently, Edon’s collection of sticks were gone. Aleci placed the candle on the shelf as he rummaged through his chest to find his old school supplies, the books he used to write in, then rulers, an abacus and the wooden embroidery hoop studded with nails he ‘borrowed’ from his mother. Edon stared curiously at the last one.


“Why do you have that?” said Edon.


“You’ll see.” said Aleci, pulling out a ball of string he used for his kites as well.


He wasn’t surprised to see Edon had picked up the hoop and was eyeing the placement of the nails.


“You know how to measure your height, right? Or the distance from us to the door?” he said, and Edon nodded, pointing to the ruler, “How do you measure this-” he held out the hoop, “the distance around this hoop? Can you do it with a ruler?”


He held out the wooden ruler to Edon who took it, eyed the embroidery hoop and the ruler hesitantly and shook his head, “Maybe… maybe you can cut the wood and then measure the pieces?”


“Imagine it’s a lake then,” said Aleci, “a circular lake. How would you measure it?”


“I dunno.” said Edon, “Is this with the π you mentioned?”


“Yes.” said Aleci, thinking for a moment before deciding to say, “The length of a circle is π.” he quickly snapped out three, hopefully identical pieces of string and held out the string to Edon and motioned to the hoop, “Imagine they are all the same length, I know they’re not. So, how would you measure the circle, if you have these strings?”


Edon stared at the three nails on the hoop, taking the pieces of string into his hand, “Isn’t that, a triangle? I mean…” he took the pieces string and tied it to the nails, “It’s a triangle, isn’t it? I don’t…”


It was amusing to watch the dawning comprehension on Edon’s face, that was certainly better than when he’d tried to explain the concept to his friends.


“Is that why there are more holes in the hoop? You tried to measure it with more nails?”


“Yes.” said Aleci, “But you’ll never get there, can you? It would never be exactly the length of the circle.”


Edon furrowed his brow at the hoop he held in his hand, then said, “So what about π then?”


“π is the ratio-” he paused, “a ratio, is a comparison between two numbers. Let's say... I am twice as tall as you, then the ratio of our heights would be one to two.”


“Right.” said Edon, nodding, though Aleci wasn’t sure if that was a nod of confidence or politeness.


“π is the ratio of the circumference- that’s the distance around the circle – to the diameter – that’s a line from one side of a circle to another.” he said, demonstrating diameter with a string, “So, back to my question, the distance around the hoop, the circumference, you would find it by-”


He opened his notebooks, flipping to the formula he’s written down years ago. Edon stared at the page.


“Why,” he said, “is there only one number?”


“Oh, well, when you’re,” Aleci grinned, “when you’re very smart you don’t need numbers anymore.”


“You use letters?” said Edon.


“The letters can stand for any number.” explained Aleci, deciding not to explain too many concepts in a day, “Here, it means-”


“What is r?”


“It stands for radius. It is half of the circle.” he frowns, “Did I teach you division?”


“No, but I know what half is.” said Edon.


“Right.” said Aleci, “So, the rule, the circumference of a circle is equal to two times the radius of the circle and π.”


“But how do you get the final number? You can’t multiply a letter.” said Edon


Poor child, thought Aleci, he wasn’t sure what Edon would react to his later notebooks.


“π is usually multiplied as three point one four.” said Aleci, “But you can cheat by using three, all the engineers do.”


“Why is it point one four?” said Edon.


“It’s…” Aleci began.


He ended up explaining the concept of division to Edon and the infinity of π well into the night. It was as the sun was rising over the horizon, soft rays coming through the window of the bedroom when Edon decided he wanted to do it himself. He was more than fascinated by the concept.


“How far can you go?” said Edon, not at all tired.


“As far as you want.” said Aleci, struggling not to yawn, and envying Edon's infinite energy, “I did it for-” he attempted to show Edon the punishment his math tutor attempted to give to him.


“I want to do it.” said Edon, “Let me see.”


If this was how Edon took to a ‘punishment’, Aleci was amused to ponder how much enjoyment Edon would find in whatever task the poor soul in Losium would assign to his son.

Chapter Text

“Good-” began Mercus, when he saw Aleci and Edon, but it was cut off by a yelp of pain when Edon’s foot met his ankle, “Ow! What did I do Olus?”

 

“Go sleep with your mother!” Edon snapped, making a move to kick him again, but was stopped by Finne.

 

Mercus, recovered, looked as if he was torn between making a jest or giving an explanation worthy of such an accusation.

 

“I think your father wouldn’t like that Olus.” said Mercus, finally, “He’ll probably hit me before you do, I think.”

 

“Don’t do that again!” said Edon, only held back by Finne, “Why didn’t you tell me you were going, I wanted to see his house too.”

 

Aleci stared, his head, still sluggishly churning along from the sleepless night managed to make sense of that sentence.

 

“Are you serious?” he said, throwing up his hands, “Are you serious?” he repeated, “You had me up all night because you were jealous?

 

I wanted to go. snapped Edon, surly, “I wanted to see how long the table was!”

 

“Please excuse me, I can’t listen to this anymore-” said Mercus, struggling with his hold on the bag of instruments, one hand firmly over his mouth, “I’ll fetch breakfast, and come back?” he suggested to Finne, who waved him off.

 

“I’m not done with you, Mercus!” said Edon, squirming out of Finne’s grasp, and running off after him, “I won the last time, you owe me-”

 

That left him alone with Finne, who looked at him, expectantly, even calmly, which was a first.

 

“How was your visit?” said Aleci, gesturing for him to sit down on the bench next to him.

 

“It was… nice.” said Finne, “I didn’t realize Mercus’s younger sisters ran the house. One of them overheard us and berated him for being an-” he smirked, “ass.” he cocked his head at Aleci, “I guess… your night was quite sleepless?”

 

“Edon didn’t take well to jealousy I guess.” said Aleci, “I thought he was upset that you left. Seems like I was wrong.”

 

“I did forget to tell him.” said Finne, “I don’t understand why he’s not mad at me. I assume he’s forgotten and he’ll probably be mad later.”

 

“That’s alright, you can distract him with π.” said Aleci.

 

“It’s not the food, is it?” said Finne and Aleci shook his head.

 

He opened his mouth, meaning to say something, anything, but no words came out.


“Did you talk to Maera?” said Finne, and when Aleci nodded, Finne sighed deeply, “Why is it,” Finne gave him a bemused look, “that you go to Maera every time you have some sort of crisis over your self worth? You know the seanmháthair loves giving puzzles and never actually answering questions. It’s why she offered you that pipe. They’re like your hated philosophers, except they really do get intoxicated while thinking of-” Finne rolled his eyes, attempting an imitation of Maera’s voice, “deep and unmeasurable things.”

 

“Hers make more sense.” said Aleci, defensively.

 

“You could have asked me.” said Finne, “What I felt about you, but you skirt around the topic like I’m some virginal maiden. Or is it vestal virgins?”

 

“You weren’t willing to talk.” said Aleci.

 

“No one really wanted to hear what I said.” said Finne, flippantly, “How should I know what you wanted me to say? I’m not a seer.”

 

“Are you with me because you want to?” said Aleci, “Or are you-”

 

“You,” said Finne, interrupting him, “need to stop your obsession with being a good man. Are you trying to measure it? Are you trying to put a specific number on it? Is this a thing with being good at math, you like to count and formulate things?” he stared at Aleci, unblinking, “If you are only good because you don’t want to be bad, or, I suppose, Maera mentioned, abusive, then are you really a good man?”

 

“She did mention that.” Aleci admitted, “I want to hear it from you. I want your honest opinion.”

 

“You do know,” said Finne, “that my opinion is biased right? You won’t get your proper mathematical answer from asking me.”

 

“There are things in math that are undefined.” said Aleci, eliciting a surprised laugh from Finne, “I would get a proper mathematical answer.”

 

“Alright.” said Finne, “I’ll give you your mathematical proof.” he was holding the wooden pin again, twirling it around and around in his right hand before saying, “I wanted to leave.” said Finne, not looking at him, “I thought about leaving. Many, many times. To me you were like all the others that came before. You wanted the same thing from me as every other man. And you were burdened by the same… duty that they all used to justify their treatment of me. And I don’t care, or need that kind of man. You probably thought the same, I was an obligation you needed to fulfill, and after that, you have no need of me. So I paced and paced and thought to leave. You told me of a list of why someone is not a coward, I had a list of why I wanted to leave.”

 

He stared at Aleci, unblinkingly, again, as if assessing him for something. Aleci decided it was best to stay silent, and as if this was the confirmation he was looking for Finne continued.

 

“It was easier to think of leaving when I pretended not to understand, it was easier to think of riding off when you were going to welcome that… that beast into our house.” Finne let out a breath, then laughed softly, “I said our didn’t I? Edon liked it here, Edon liked you, after a while, and well, who am I to take that away from him? He deserves a father that doesn’t see him as a prize, a conquest.”

 

He stares at Aleci, there was that wild look from months ago when he’d pinned him to the ground and snarled the order of don’t touch me, but this time it was different. Aleci was not a falconer, he was never talented with animals at the best of times, but he thinks, this is what it must look like when a falcon your hand-

 

“The list was shorter and shorter the longer I spent time with you. I wanted to obsess over the reasons for leaving, I wanted to run and keep on running. I think of him and he is always there, always in the dark, always when I wake up at night, and nothing I could say to myself would stop my thoughts from going back to him. To what he did to me.” Finne trails off, “You didn’t have to listen to me. Or apologize for what happened. I have no use for apologies. I don’t want them from you and I doubt I would get any from him.”

 

Finne had placed the pin down next to him with a metallic clunk, moving closer to Aleci, he continued.

 

“I used to sit at night and think on how I’d leave, and my reasons for doing so. The list became shorter and shorter. And you always were willing to sit beside me. I’ve… never had that before. You have a distinct way of walking, did you know? You favor your right side. There was no need for me to distinguish between the steps of one person from another before. They were there to check I was in my room and nothing more. Yours is different. I wanted you to sit next to me. I wanted us to continue talking. I don’t think about leaving now. Does this reassure you, of whatever doubts you had of yourself?”

 

- and decided to stay, thought Aleci. But, he had to be sure. He had to know.

 

“You’ve never said no to me-” he began.

 

“Aleci.” said Finne, leaning forward to bump his forehead against Aleci’s, “Husband. You would know if I wanted to stop.” he hesitated, picking up the pin next to him and holding it out to Aleci as an offering, “Look at it.” said Finne, “Closely.”

 

It was the same wooden pin, Aleci thought, with some confusion. The clasp at the back was as flimsy as when he’d first seen it, and he turned it around and around in his hand, trying to make out what he was supposed to do with it. He opened his mouth, meaning to ask Finne what it was his wife wanted him to see when he heard a metallic click and flinched, nearly dropping the hidden blade.

 

“It’s a knife.” he said, stupidly, his bewildered refection staring back at him from blade, “You were carrying a knife?”

 

“You are… quite oblivious sometimes aren’t you?” Finne remarked, “Did you not hear the sound it made every time I dropped it?” he bit back a grin, “I suppose you wouldn’t have, you were occupied at the time.”

 

“Well, now that I know it does add a certain exciting element to it.” said Aleci, watching Finne splutter incoherently at his remark.

Chapter Text

“Would you like to help me open the chests, Edon?” said Finne casually that evening.


Maera still hadn’t made an appearance, and Aleci was slightly concerned if she was suffering the ill effects from whatever she was smoking or was giving them space to talk. He hoped it was the latter.

 

“You want to open them?” said Edon, brightly, “I thought you forgot.”

 

His wife’s prediction was wrong, Edon had seemingly forgotten being angry. Or it could be Mercus had distracted him, Edon’s newest favorite seemed to be small black candies shaped in various animal forms.

 

“It’s licorice!” said Edon, “Mercus said his sisters make them, or is it sister? I dunno he has so many, I like them, if you go to his house again,” this was directed at Finne, "can you bring me back more?”

 

“You don’t want to come with me?” said Finne.

 

“Well yes, but-” Edon glanced at Aleci, “You can go. I don’t mind.”

 

“Right.” scoffed Aleci under his breath, “Don’t mind. Bullshit.”

 

“What did you say?” said Edon, “Bull-”

 

“Bullshit.” said Aleci, narrowing his eyes at Edon, “It’s a shorter way to say, you are lying and I don’t believe you. It’s not a word Maera approves of so don’t go yelling it in her ear, hm?”

 

“Oh, but I wasn’t lying.” said Edon, “Mamaí can go. I had fun with you last night. I want to do it again-”

 

“No.” said Aleci and Edon pouted, “Not every night.” he decided to amend the statement, “Unlike you I actually like sleeping.”

 

“But I do like sleeping,” insisted Edon, “I just like math more-”

 

“Don’t you dare take him to Emos’s lupanar.” said Finne, looking amused at the interaction.

 

“What’s a lupanar?” said Edon, “Who’s Emos?”

 

“Aulius’s tutor would be delighted to teach you no doubt.” said Aleci, amused at the idea.

 

“What are you talking about?” Edon demanded, “You didn’t answer my question.”

 

“Aulius has several sons.” said Aleci, distracting him, “I think there must be one your age, he’s got so many of them,” legitimate and illegitimate, Fonta didn’t seem to mind, Aulius hadn’t had an affair or mistress in years, “and they’ve all ran off their tutors. I bet he’ll be delighted to teach you when you get there.”

 

“I don’t want a tutor.” said Edon, shaking his head, “I want you to teach me.”

 

“I don’t know everything.” said Aleci, and Edon looked taken aback at his statement, “Why are you so surprised? You told me yourself I can’t draw multiple times last night. I believe you said ‘you can’t read because you can’t draw?’”

 

Finne laughed, “Really?”

 

“Well he said he wanted to read to me,” said Edon, miffed, “But he can’t draw, so what’s the point?”

 

“Your logic is impeccable.” said Aleci, sarcastically.

 

“What’s imp-ec-able?” said Edon.

 

“It’s a fancy word you can use instead of bullshit.” offered Aleci, “You can learn them with the tutor in Losium.”

 

“I don’t-” Edon began, then his gaze flickered to where Finne had gotten up from the chair to kneel before the chest, “wait, I want to help you.”

 

Edon looked put off by the first chest’s contents when it was opened.

 

“Are these for the baby?” he said, holding out the swaddling cloths, “Does he need that many things?”

 

“Well he’s got nothing of his right now, does he?” said Aleci, moving to sit cross legged with them.

 

“I can share.” said Edon, then in contradiction, “Not my wooden figures, they’re mine.”

 

“I don’t think he’ll like them.” Finne reassured him, opening a container of salve and smelling its contents, “There’s toys for him here.”

 

Edon took the wooden rattle and shook it experimentally, “The ones in Imruk are better.” he concluded, then looking hopeful, “Would avia send me a chest as well?”

 

From the corner of his eye he could see Finne stiffen, “I’ll see what she says.” he said, “Why don’t you write her a letter yourself?”

 

“I don’t like writing.” said Edon, stubbornly.

 

“If you don’t write to her, why would she send you anything?” said Aleci, “It’s polite.”

 

“I don’t like this rule.” said Edon, crossing his arms.

 

“Your mother-” Finne began.

 

“Is not my father.” said Aleci smoothly, "I was waiting for the confirmation but if Edon wants presents I don’t see why,” he smiled at Edon, “why you can’t write to her and ask for them yourself.”

 

“But I don’t want to!” Edon exclaimed, “They’re boring. They’re not-”

 

“If you want one, you have to write to her and ask.” said Aleci, patiently.

 

Edon scowled at this, “Can I open the second chest now?”

 

“Go on.” said Finne motioning for him to open the wedding chest, “Be careful, there’s some glass bottles in there.” he gave Finne a bemused look, holding out a sleep shirt, “Your mother seems to think carriers carry their children the same way as women do.”

 

“What do you mean?” said Aleci.

 

“You know, they get this wide-” Finne indicated a distance from his stomach, “around the middle. It’s not the case. I’m not an abnormality either. Even later in the pregnancy I didn’t need… this.” he indicated to the shirt.

 

“Hm.” said Aleci, “Is that why I never see pregnant carriers?” he muttered, more to himself than Finne, “Why? I thought carriers have the same anatomy as women.”

 

“I don’t know, ask Maera.” said Finne, “She would know, what with her anatomy lessons to you.”

 

“Wouldn’t it make it harder to determine when you’re due?” Aleci persisted, “There’s no way to measure-”

 

“Aleci, I never thought I’d say this, but I am sure I am the one expected-” Finne looked amused at his word choice, “to be worried about this. Stop worrying.”

 

Mamaí, look, is this the falcon you had? You told me-” Edon held out a tunic embroidered along its hem a series of a falcon in flight, “It’s beautiful. Can you make me one as well? With cats? With black cats?”

 

Finne took the tunic from Edon, looking pleasantly surprised, “I didn’t think your mother would make me a tunic.” he said.

 

“There’s the stola as well.” said Edon, looking into the chest, “And there’s the sewing kit, and thread, and can you please, please make me one?”

 

“You can sew?” said Aleci.

 

“Can’t you?” replied Finne, “I don’t see why not.” he said to Edon, “I won’t promise it’ll look like Smudge.”

 

“I can mend a shirt. But not whatever my mother does.” said Aleci.

 

“It’s very relaxing.” said Finne, a sort of dreamy smile on his face, “It’s like stabbing someone hundreds of times.” he laughed at Aleci’s reaction, “What? Don’t tell me you haven’t beaten a training dummy.”

 

“Well, yes, now that you put it that way.” said Aleci, “I suppose you’ve a point.”

 

“What’s this?” said Edon, pulling out something wrapped in parchment and holding it out to Finne.

 

Aleci froze, watching Finne unwrap it and lay out the map on the floor before them. A very familiar map, with very familiar straight lines leading from one city to another. Finne picked up what was revealed, a small onyx panther with its jade green eyes, dangling from a leather cord. Ilos’s necklace. Ilos’s map. Ilos.

 

“It’s very beautiful.” said Finne.

 

“It looks like Smudge.” said Edon, “Can I have it, mamaí, please? I want to wear it-” he trails off, “What’s so interesting?”

 

Sorrel, ivy, marjoram and myrtle.” said Finne softly, tracing the map’s key, he glanced at Aleci, “Is something the matter?” said Finne, concerned, “Aleci?”

 

“It’s from… from him.” said Aleci, staring at the map and hearing a ghostly laugh, he could almost hear Ilos’s voice. Parallel lines, he thought wildly, parallel lines.

 

“Edon,” said Finne softly, “Can you please put the necklace back?”

 

“No, no.” said Aleci, tracing the lines from one city to another, “If you want to have it Edon, you can.”

 

“Do you want to talk about this later?” said Finne.


Aleci swallowed harshly and nodded. Edon looked between the two of them and said, “Are you sure pater? That I can have it?” holding out the necklace.

 

“I’m sure.” said Aleci, “If you want him to have it, Finne.”



“What is it?” said Finne, “What is its significance?”

 

“It was confiscated by my math tutor and I broke into his study to steal it back.” said Aleci, the fond memory coming back to surface, “I should’ve spilled all the ink pots on his desk as well. Insufferable fool. Hated the man.”

 

“You did that?” said Finne, amused, “Really?”

 

“He shouldn’t have taken it then.” said Aleci.

 

He dared to look at Finne’s face now, and, for someone who was sprung a gift from a former lover in their wedding chest Finne didn’t look resentful.

 

“We can talk about it later.” said Finne, “If you want.”

Chapter Text

Edon was more than delighted with the panther.

 

“It’s not a cat, is it?” he said squinting as he held the little figure up to his face, he had decided to wear it as a necklace, “Its claws are too big. It’s got sharp teeth too. Very sharp.”

 

“It’s a panther.” said Aleci, “It’s a much bigger cat.”

 

“Would Aulius have it?” said Edon.

 

“Maybe.” said Aleci, praying that if he did, the animal was secured in its pen, he doubted panthers would be as easily bribed as Edon's favorite, much smaller cat.

 

“I haven’t seen a map like that before.” said Finne, curiously, “Is it self drafted? It doesn’t look geographically consistent.”

 

“Yes.” said Aleci, “It was… it was a problem he posed to me. A mathematical problem.”

 

“Of course it was.” said Finne, looking amused.

 

Aleci wondered why he wasn’t annoyed, or angry. There wasn’t that mask on, Finne looked earnest in his curiosity and amusement.

 

“We can talk later.” Finne repeated, then to Edon he said, “Why don’t you tell me what you did last night-”

 

“Don’t.” Aleci interrupted.

 

“Oh, it was good. He showed me what π is. And I did the division, and I did it up to fifty numbers, well, I did it after his notes, so it was twenty five something, and did you know after point one four it is-”

 

It was the first time Aleci found himself cursing someone for their good memory as Edon started listing out the numbers he remembered calculating with a murderous rage. He groaned, letting himself fall on the bed, beside him Finne simply looked bemused.

 

“I’m glad you enjoy that.” said his wife, “Would you like me to read you something?”

 

“You have to read two stories.” said Edon, “You weren’t here yesterday, it’s only fair.”

 

“It’s only fair now?” said Finne, chuckling, “Only fair. Of course.”

 

“Tell him about the cats in Imruk.” said Edon, when Finne made to reach for Aleci’s book, “You’ve already read to me from that one, I want one from Imruk this time.”

 

"The cats have their own stories now?" said Aleci.

 

"Yes." said Edon, "They're really smart, and there's so many stories of them. And everyone's got a cat in their house, you can't not have a cat. It's why I liked this house."

 

"Right." said Aleci, "Are they worshiped?"

 

"Worshiped?" said Finne, in disbelief, "No, why do you think so?" he looked contemplative, "Though the locals are known to get violent if one is harmed. It's a good way to get a man convicted by a crowd, say he's harmed a cat." he turned to Edon, “Which cat story do you want?”


“I dunno, you already told me of the ship cat. The banner cat.” said Edon, “I want you to tell me about the banner cat.”

 

“The banner cat.” said Finne, as if the titles of Edon's requests made sense, “Of course.”

 

Aleci sat up, interested. Finne’s story was mostly told through the wax tablet illustrations, with him only narrating when it was the characters speaking. The story, as Aleci understood, went something like this;

 

Chief Cynrio o’Penca had a beautiful daughter called Finda who was very clever but not so skilled with the needle. One day, as her father and the men were away hunting, the Vicingi descended upon their holding. You shall serve me, wench, said one of the men, and he took her as his prize and jailed her mother and the women. The Vicingi feasted and drank, and dirtied the chief’s halls and she was made to serve them. That night Finda retreated to her father’s study and cried, because she knew her father would not know of the Vicingi and their planned ambush and there was no way to tell him before he came back from the hunt. So it was as she sat there crying, she saw the hold’s cat, and it stared at her, in a cat-like way -

 

What is a cat-like way?” interrupted Edon.

 

Do you want me to stop?” said Finne, “You’ve seen enough cats. You know how they are.

 

Yes but-” began Edon, “Fine. Fine. A cat-like way.

 

-in a cat-like way before taking off with a letter on her father’s desk towards the halls. What is this beast doing here? said the leader of the Vicingi, get it out. He threw the opened letter and the cat at her feet. The cat stared at her, and she stared back. The next day she took her needle and her linen and began sewing. The Vicingi paid her no mind, for they were still busy drinking and feasting. The leader gazed at her work and then walked away for women’s work didn’t interest him. She sewed and sewed and sewed until her fingers bled, right in front of the Vicingi, and when she was done, she silently crept out of her rooms and made towards the tower. She hoisted the banner and watched it fly gaily, before making her way back to her room. The next day she heard the sounds of metal on metal, of screaming and cries, and her heart beat wildly as her door was flung open, it was her father, smiling widely. My daughter, he said, that was the finest banner I have ever seen in my life! Vicingi! I could see the letters, as bright as the sun from miles and miles away. Oh my dear! cried her mother, rushing up to her and kissing her cheeks, how could you do it right under their noses? Oh, you see mother, said Finda laughing, these Vicingis can’t read.

 

Is this what chief Penca’s banner was supposed to say?” said Edon, frowning when the story ended, “It didn’t read like any letters to me.

 

That’s because his daughter can’t read.” said Finne, “So she couldn’t have embroidered the banner properly.”

 

“Why did she bother then?” said Edon, seeing Aleci listening in, decided to spare him the headache and switched.

 

“Because it’s tradition to.” said Finne.

 

“Yes, but Finda could read.” said Edon, “Why couldn’t she?”

 

“Maybe… she thought she couldn’t read.” said Finne.

 

“Well that’s stupid.” Edon said bluntly, “Finda, hm.” he looked at Finne, “Wait, wait, is that who you were named after? I never thought about it.”

 

Finne looked taken aback by this, “I don’t know.” he said finally.

 

“I want another story.” said Edon, “Another one.”

 

Finne looked distracted as he told the next story, one about a man and his rose garden, and Edon sighed as the words were fumbled and the drawings were progressively less clear.

 

“It’s alright, mamaí, you can tell it to me next time.” he said, yawning, “I like it when you don’t draw like pater.”

 

His hand was firmly clenched around Finne’s sleep shirt when he fell asleep, Finne stroking his head.



“You’re silent.” Finne remarked, “Did you not like the story?”

 

“Can the women not read in Imruk?” said Aleci.

 

“I don’t know.” said Finne, “I tried teaching some of the carriers there but they insisted they couldn’t. So I stopped.”

 

“But Maera could.” said Aleci.

 

“Well yes, she was probably one of the last generation to do so.” said Finne, “I think. I can’t say for certain for women. I know that they randomly search my rooms for books and letters. I thought I was hallucinating when I came here. Your Capital’s walls are quite… creatively decorated.”

 

“The drunks are usually creative.” said Aleci, quietly appalled that Finne's first introduction to words after such a long time were the ramblings of drunks and pissants, “If they’re not angry.”

 

He stared at the panther on Edon’s neck.

 

“Is it a crest?” said Finne, curiously, “Some cities have animal crests. It’s quite decorated for just a regular trinket.”

 

“It is.” said Aleci, even though Ilos had stopped wearing the necklace years before his- he swallowed.

 

He blinked rapidly. His memories of Ilos must be warped by time, Ilos never laughed, Ilos had hated him with a fury the last time they met-

 

“Shh.." said Finne, in a reversal of their roles, "It's alright, you're alright."

 

It was like hearing the ocean’s echo through a seashell. ‘We got the same score again. Hah.’ Ilos had said before turning to him, ‘I’m clearly losing my touch.’

 

'Always in parallel, the two of you, maybe they should just reserve a space for both your names.’ Kaeso had said rolling his eyes at the board.

 

‘Parallel lines’, Aleci had said, pleased with his revelation ‘we’re parallel lines.’

 

Ilos had raised a dark eyebrow, saying 'parallel lines? Seriously, Aleci.’

 

Distantly Aleci recognized the sobs to be coming from him, and it was Finne running a soothing hand up and down his back.

 

“You don’t have to comfort me.” said Aleci, shakily, “Why should you-”

 

“He is very dear to you.” said Finne, “Why should I resent you for loving someone else, before?”

 

Aleci registered the use of present tense, and it didn’t help him stop the wave of emotion that followed.

 

“I don’t know why he would… he would do that.” Aleci sobbed, gesturing to the map folded on the table, “It would-”

 

It would have to be before they left for that campaign, Ilos hated the Capital. What had Ilos told his mother for her to hold on to the wrapped present for so long? Did Ilos die still hating him?

 

“Aleci,” said Finne, “I think, Ilos doesn't hate you." Aleci must have been speaking his thoughts out loud again, "Otherwise, why would he wish you, and your bride happiness and love in a marriage. He wouldn’t have hated you if he said he still hold your friendship, your love of him, with great affection, and wish you luck.”

 

“How do you know-” said Aleci, taking the face cloth Finne offered him.

 

“He said so himself.” said Finne, “The flowers on the map. Very optimistic of him to assume you’d marry someone who understood flowers.” he ran a hand through Aleci’s hair, “Lucky for him there are many songs which reference flowers.”

 

“I didn’t know he even liked flowers.” said Aleci miserably.

 

“Perhaps he told you, and you forgot?” suggested Finne.

 

Oh, he may have forgotten that conversation with flowers, but their last conversation he could never put out of his mind, no matter how much he drank.

 

'I will never be a part of the-’ Ilos spat the word, pointing his cane at Aleci, “thing that destroyed my people. Crippled me. Did you think I was born like this? All the boys in Priene now want to die under its boot and all the girls throw themselves at any visiting Magister. I will never be its citizen, and I will never marry anyone who swears to it. They wouldn’t even recognize our union anyway, neither you or I could have a child. Unless you want us to pretend I’m a carrier and play a farce? I would hate it, and then you. Besides you care too much for what your father thinks. You would hate me, eventually.”

 

‘But Ilos we’re-’

 

Ilos laughed, harsh and cold, ‘Parallel lines?’ he said, disbelieving, and mocking, ‘Aleci, parallel lines never intersect.’

 

You and I would never be together were the unspoken words, and Ilos had stormed out of the tent.

 

He pulled himself out of Finne’s arms, going to the table and pouring himself a cup of wine.

“Wait.” said Finne, coming after him to grip his hand after extracting himself from Edon, “Wait.”

 

“Why?” said Aleci, “I want to-”

 

“He left you a map.” said Finne, “Ilos did. It’s not a normal map at all. You said it was a mathematical problem. Is this a gift to you or to me? I can’t understand it.” Finne spread out the map, gesturing at the cities, “Why are there straight lines through mountains? Why is there a one through an ocean?”

 

Aleci blinked, putting down the cup, “Oh.” he said faintly. He felt himself smiling. “I didn’t… I forgot I told you.”

 

“So it is a math problem?” said Finne.

 

“The traveling merchant.” said Aleci, “I never say unsolvable but this might be the one.”

 

“What?” said Finne, puzzled.

 

“We were drunk trying to solve it. He said I should marry the person who would help me solve it,” said Aleci, tracing with his finger one city to another, “because he says it’s impossible to solve.”

 

It had prompted the disastrous proposal, and the last conversation between the two of them.

 

“Well.” said Finne, tilting his head to one side, an amused look on his face, he whispered, “Perhaps… perhaps you’d like to fuck me and have the revelation to do it yourself?”

 

“It doesn’t work like that.” said Aleci, defensively, shaken from his thoughts, “But… yes, if you want me to, we can go find a room.”

 

“I do.” said Finne, and to Aleci’s surprise, folded the map and took it with them when they left.

 

Chapter Text

“Wait,” he said when Finne took the candle and lead them to the study, “Why are we going there? And you don’t, you don’t have to-”

 

Finne shot him an exasperated look, “All the maps are in your study. I want to compare them with this-” he waved Ilos’s map in Aleci’s face, “do you know maps? This is nothing I’ve seen before.”

 

“I can read one.” said Aleci, “But I don’t want you to fuck me because-”

 

Finne held a hand to his lips, “Aleci,” he said, “Do you want me to be honest? I am not good at comforting anyone. I thought I’d distract you, as I did with Edon, that is the extent of comforting I know. It came off badly, didn’t it?” when Aleci didn’t respond, he continued, “But I’ll admit, I’ve never heard the word unsolvable from you and I’m curious why you would say so.”

 

“Finne, I said you don’t have to fuck me because-”



“What if I told you I did want to?” said Finne, “Unless you don’t?”

 

“I can explain it to you without us fucking.” said Aleci, “Fucking isn’t-”

 

He meant to say a solution, but his words went unheard as Finne ran off with the candle. By the time he caught up with Finne, careful of the stairs to the study, his wife had already cleared the table, pulling several maps off the shelves and laying them down next to Ilos’s open one.

 

Fascinating.” Finne said, as he unrolled one map and placed it next to Ilos’s.

 

“What did you say?” said Aleci.

 

“I said it’s fascinating.” said Finne, “I’ve never seen a map like this before. Is this-” he pointed one city and then another, the shortest possible route? I didn’t recognize it before but now that you look at this one-” he gestured towards the unrolled map and then Ilos’s, “it’s very clear. Every city he’s drawn is like this. But it’s not the actual scale is it?”

 

“No.” said Aleci, “That’s theoretical.”

 

“What is the problem then?” said Finne.

 

“Well,” said Aleci, “I told you, there’s at least twenty cities in the Empire, not to mention, the ones beyond it. What is the best way to visit all the cities and come back to the Capital?”

 

“By best you mean shortest?” said Finne.

 

“Yes. One could also consider cost, but I’m not an expert in how much it takes to maintain a merchant’s caravan.” said Aleci, “So I don’t take that into consideration.”

 

“I see.” said Finne, staring at the map, “I guess… it is the opposite of the probability you explained to me before?”

 

“Yes.” said Aleci, “I’ve only tried it for ten cities, the ones he’d drawn here, and there’s at least one hundred and eighty thousand combinations.” he smiled at Finne’s shock, “I tried putting the problem forward with the others and we’re equally stumped. I don’t think it can be solved, because we can’t think in unison.”

 

“So you fuck.” said Finne.

 

“Well, that is one way to relieve the frustration.” said Aleci, wryly.

 

There had indeed been much frustration and things thrown about when he’d put forth the idea. He thinks they would have thrown him out, if not for the fact that the problem itself was so intriguing.

 

“Is it important to solve this?” said Finne.

 

“Well, yes.” said Aleci, “There are formulas to everything, if one-” he gestures wildly at the map, “finds a way to solve this problem, then they’ll be rich beyond reason. Everyone would use the formula to find the shortest route to any number of cities, whether it be merchants, explorers or armies.” he thinks he saw Finne’s face fell at armies, “Don’t worry.” he assured him, “The Magisters haven’t heard of this one, they’re too busy consulting their oracles to think of asking mathematicians. I rue the day when they do.”

 

“Really.” said Finne, unimpressed.

 

“What do you think engineers are? They’re second rate mathematicians.” at Finne's bemused look he said, “How do you build a catapult with first calculating its reach?”

 

“I don’t know.” said Finne, “There’s never been catapults in Imruk, you can’t move them pass the mountains.”

 

It was clearly a sore subject, Finne’s hands were twitching on the table again. Deciding it was better to not wait for the knife’s appearance, Aleci said, “What would you like to do?”

 

“What?” said Finne.

 

“You know.” said Aleci, winking and moving closer, “You said you wanted to fuck. How would you like to do it?”

 

“I don’t know.” said Finne, blinking rapidly.

 

“How about I suck your cock?” said Aleci, relishing in the flush that came on Finne’s face at the offer.

 

“No, I mean.” said Finne, “You want to-”

 

“You’d have to take off your loincloth first.” said Aleci.

 

“How-” said Finne, looking indecisively at Aleci.

 

“Do you want to sit or stand?” said Aleci, and Finne sat himself down on the chair, untying his loincloth and letting it fall to the ground as he did so. He made to pull off his night shirt as well but decided against it, pulling it up slightly over his hips.

 

“You’re going to kneel?” said Finne, in disbelief.

 

“Well, I can be more acrobatic, but I don’t think I'll be happy with breaking my neck.” said Aleci, and Finne gave an aborted laugh.

 

He could hear Finne’s heavy breaths as he took him into his mouth, Finn’s hands coming to pull at his hair. His lips jerked as Aleci sucked particularly hard and Finne made an abortive measure to stop.

 

“If you want to thrust, you can do it.” said Aleci pulling his head away from Finne’s crotch, “I don’t mind.”

 

“But, aren’t you choking?” said Finne.

 

“Not particularly, no.” said Aleci, “You’re not thrusting very deep. Do you want to?”

 

“No!” said Finne quickly, too quickly.

 

“Don’t worry,” said Aleci patting Finne’s leg, “I’ve done this plenty of times, I’ll forgive you if you do.”

 

He knew some men thought that carriers had tiny cocks. Which was clearly a lie they told themselves to feel superior, carriers had cocks like any other man. Finne’s was no different than his, and it filled up rapidly in his mouth. He pressed his tongue against the head of Finne’s cock and was rewarded by a soft moan of pleasure, Finne’s hands tightened on his head.


“Aleci!” gasped Finne, abandoning his previous control and thrusting with abandon.

 

He tried to pull away when he came in hot salty bursts in Aleci’s mouth but Aleci gripped his legs and swallowed.

 

“Why-” said Finne breathlessly, finally when Aleci rose to kiss his lips, “Why do you swallow it?”

 

“Why not?” said Aleci, “Saves me trying to find a cloth.”

 

“I… want to,” Finne began then looked away.

 

“You want to fuck me?” Aleci said with pretend ignorance.

 

“No!” said Finne, “I want, I want to suck your cock but-”

 

“You don’t have to do it now.” said Aleci, “Any time you want.” he waved a hand vaguely in the air.

 

“Do I have to take it all in?” said Finne, looking down Aleci’s crotch “I don’t want to.”

 

“Then don’t.” said Aleci, trying to ignore the implications of the question, “You could put your mouth on the head of my cock-” he indicated to Finne’s, “and wrap your fist around the rest. It works fine, if you don’t want to take me completely into your mouth.”

 

“But don’t you-” Finne amended the question, “Don’t men like it? When your cock is inside my throat? Don’t you- men like it when it’s… tight?”

 

What hellish experience did Finne had before, Aleci thought, then said, “Well, the first question, if you don’t want to do it I won’t insist. Some like it when they’re been choked or choking their partner but I’ve seen you vomiting enough to know it’s an unpleasant experience for us both, you more than me, if I did that. As for… tightness. I don’t know what to tell you. Tightness with what? Your throat?”

 

“No.” said Finne, looking as if he’s been fed a prophet’s revelations, “When you’re inside me. Don’t you like it when it’s tight? I thought… I thought men liked it when it’s tight.”

 

For someone who insisted his child knew the proper words for their own anatomy Finne seemed to stutter and stammer when naming his own.

 

“You’re asking the wrong person. I’ve never fucked a woman.” said Aleci, trying to guess at what Finne was saying, “I’ve only ever fucked you and Emos. He was very forceful in telling me when he didn’t like what I was doing.”

 

“But I have,” Finne looked torn to say it, “I have the parts of one, and you have a cock. Wouldn’t it be the same?”

 

“I don’t know.” said Aleci, “How to explain this…” without you having the experience, he wanted to say, but Finne seemed beyond put off by the suggestion, he frowned, “How about this, come off the chair and sit with your back to me, and I’ll show you?”

 

Finne did so, settling between Aleci’s spread legs. "I’m going to stroke you,” said Aleci, “Unless you don’t want me to?”

 

In response Finne fell back against Aleci's chest, he was still half hard from his earlier orgasm when Aleci began stroking his cock.

 

“So,” said Aleci, “When you’re tight, it feels like this, tell me if I’m hurting you.” said Aleci, and squeezed, first lightly, and then as hard as he thought he would be able to handle it.

 

Finne flinched, “Yes. Stop.” he said.

 

“That’s what I feel.” said Aleci, “I don’t particularly enjoy that, and I don’t think you do either. I don’t know where you-” he knew but decided not to comment, “made this generalization. Your muscles contract when I’m inside you, yes, but there’s a difference, you’ll know if-”

 

“If I fuck you, yes.” said Finne, “That seems to be your explanation for things. When you have these revelations of yours were you also being fucked?”

 

“Well yes.” said Aleci, matter-of-factly, “You surrender your control and your mind is very clear afterwards. It is to me at least. I suppose I could have such revelations after fucking you, but I can’t really focus-” he smiled, “on anything else.”

 

Finne gaped at him, then burst into laughter, head falling back on Aleci’s chest.

Chapter Text

They sat there for awhile until Aleci could feel the sensation of pins and needles dance across his thighs.

 

“Finne, can you get off me please?” he said.

 

“Sorry,” said Finne quickly, concerned, “What-”

 

“It’s nothing,” said Aleci, rubbing at the spot, “I’ll be up as soon as my leg cooperates.”

 

Finne stood up, reaching for the loincloth to dress himself. Something in the window caught his eye, the one facing the vineyard.

 

“Hm.” said Finne, “Who would have thought?”

 

“What?” said Aleci, pulling himself up with assistance from the chair, “What is it?”

 

He came to the window where Finne was standing, his wife pointed at the flicker of a light in the distant and two figures.

 

“I knew I was right. Mercus owes me.”


Aleci squinted, “I can’t see who it is-” he began, before he saw the figures move closer to the villa and Maera’s distinct shadow.

 

“Maera?” he said, surprised, “Who’s with her?”

 

“Oppius.” said Finne, “What?” he said when Aleci gave him a bewildered look, “You believed it when he said he was mourning a tenth sister? He only had four.”

 

“I never really noticed.” said Aleci.

 

“That’s alright.” said Finne, “It must be so hard for anything else in your head after all your numbers.” he grinned.

 

“Well that’s nice.” said Aleci, watching the pair come closer, “I’m glad she’s happy.”

 

“Oh she’s happy alright.” said Finne, “Probably the after effects of the blue lotus. If she does offer it to you next time, do take it.”

 

“Sorry?” said Aleci.

 

“It’s very relaxing.” said Finne, “Too relaxing actually, it lets you speak and act what’s on your mind. I always suspected she likes men with beards. You don’t see them here much.”

 

“Do you like men with beards?” said Aleci.

 

Finne looked him up and down, pretending to think, “I don’t know. I thought you said it wasn’t proper." he glanced at the door, "I want to go back now, you’ve reintroduced Edon to the concept of staying up all night and I don't want him running around in the dark.”

 

“He’s never woken up in the night.” said Aleci, rolling his eyes, “What makes you think he will now?”

 

“How about we make a bet?” said Finne, “I’ll go back to sleep, and you stay up until he falls asleep if he is awake?”

 

“You didn’t give the condition for me being right.” said Aleci.

 

“That’s because, Aleci, you’re wrong.” said Finne, tapping Aleci’s nose.

 

“No, no, you have to say what happens when I’m right.” said Aleci, reaching out to grab his hand, “It’s only fair.” he said quoting Edon.

 

“I’ll sing something.” said Finne, “I haven’t thought of what. You don’t know any songs do you?”

 

Aleci shook his head, following Finne down the stairs and back to their bedroom, “No, but I think I’ll like anything you sang.”

 

“Even the song about the pear tree?”

 

“I thought that was a poem!” Aleci protested, then dawning realization, “No, you didn’t sing that with Mercus did you?”

 

“I’m tempted.” said Finne.

 

“Fine, you’re right then.” said Aleci, muttering, “I can’t keep giving him more problems to solve. I don’t like staying up late thinking. Reminds me too much of the academy.”

 

“What’s the difference between our talks and whatever you did at the academy?” said Finne curious.

 

“Your company is more pleasant than numbers.” said Aleci, “As much as I do love the logic of them, they don’t smile.”

 

“Do you… like me smiling?” said Finne a tentative look on his face.

 

“Don’t you like smiling?” said Aleci.

 

“I want a proper answer.” said Finne, and grinned when Aleci refused to say more.

 

The warm feeling in his chest vanished when they walked into their bedroom. Edon had fished out a spare candle and flint from somewhere, the vanity maybe, and managed to light it. He was busy scrawling on the two wax tablets, one was for the calculations and one was for the numbers, it would seem.

 

“Where were you?” said Edon, “I’m on the eighty ninth number. Were you-” he narrowed his eyes, “Were you two in the bathhouse?”

 

“No.” said Finne, giving Aleci a pleased look of triumph, “We were looking at maps.”

 

“Alright.” said Edon, shrugging, “Come lie down next to me then.” he patted the bed.

 

To Aleci’s surprise Edon crawled over Finne to flop down next to him, “Can you check?” he said, nearly bashing Aleci’s nose as he waved the wax tablet in front of Aleci’s face, “Can you check if I’m right?”

 

Aleci shot Finne an irritated look but it was all for naught as Finne covered his face with the pillow, shoulders shaking.

 

“What’s so funny?” said Edon, puzzled, following his gaze “It’s just numbers. I want pater to know I’m right.”

 

“Oh, mamaí is just very happy he’s right as well.” said Aleci ignoring Edon’s repeated questioning of ‘why’ and looking over Edon’s calculations. He also pointedly ignored the choked laughter from Finne that followed the remark.

Chapter Text

Maera looked remarkably cheerful the next morning.

 

“Are you going to sing again?” said Edon, eyeing her with suspicion over his bowl of porridge.

 

“You sing?” said Finne, sounding surprised.

 

“Of course I sing, what do I look like, some Empire scholar?” said Maera disdainfully, swiftly catching a bread roll before it fell from the table.

 

“She’s got a lot of funny songs.” said Edon, seeing his confusion and deciding to switch tongues, “There’s one about the girl and the bear and there’s also the one about- oh! You should sing the one about the farmer and his wife, that was funny, sing that one.”

 

“Tell you what, Edon, I’ll sing if someone plays the tune.” said Maera.

 

Edon turned his eyes on Finne, big and pleading, “Please?”

 

Several moments passed while Finne stared and Edon and Edon stared back, then Finne sighed, “Fine. Fine. I’ll play.”

 

They went to the courtyard after finishing breakfast, Finne taking his bodhrán with him, from the chest, Aleci noted, pleased. Edon gave Maera an excited look, “Can you show me the dance? I forgot.”

 

“Of course.” said Maera, holding out her right hand to Edon, who took it with his left.

 

Aleci sat down next to Finne on the bench, and tried his best to understand Maera’s song. It wasn’t too difficult, he was more distracted by the fluidity of her moves. It reminded him of something he’d seen before. But what?

 

There was an old farmer, lived o'er the hill

If he ain't moved on, he's living there still

Fie fie diddle aye, fie fie diddle aye

The Vicingis came to him one day, their chief said

"One of your kin, I'm taking away"

 

At this Edon started singing along.


Fie fie diddle aye, fie fie diddle aye

 

 

“You should sing too, mamaí.” said Edon.


“You can have my nagging wife

I swear to all Gods, she's the bane of my life"


“Do you understand the song?” said Finne to Aleci, who nodded, none to confidently.

 

“The Vicingi and some farmer?” he said, and Finne smiled.


So they marched her down to their boats on the shore

His son said, "You won’t see your home anymore.”

Fie fie diddle aye, fie fie diddle aye

But when he took out his spit and chain-

 

“Dance with me!” Edon demanded, taking Finne’s hand in his, “You know how to, don’t sit there like pater.”

 

It was a group dance, well, almost a group dance, Aleci was no dancer. It was one of those dances where the dancers would join hands temporarily and then break away, do some spins or pivots and then clasp hands again.


She upped with her foot and she knocked out his brain

Singing

Fie fie diddle aye, Fie fie diddle day

So all those Vicingi went scrambling up the sails

"Take her back, chief, she'll murder us all" they wail

Fie fie diddle aye, fie fie diddle aye


It suddenly occurred to him why the moves were familiar. They were almost the same as Finne’s movements in the training yard. The same fluidity, not the same steps but similar. Like an unsimplified equation. Aleci sat back, impressed.


So the farmer woke up and he looked out the crack

And he saw the chief himself bringing her back

Fie fie diddle aye, fie fie diddle aye

"Here's your wife both sound and well

If I kept her any longer she'd've sunk my boat as well"

Fie fie diddle aye, fie fie diddle aye


The song ended and Edon made an elaborate bow. Maera laughed. Finne smirked at Mercus when he saw the other man watching from the other side of the courtyard.

 

“So you can dance too?” said Mercus, “Good to know.”

 

This stumped Finne, who opened his mouth to respond then closed it again, scowling. Aleci thought better to laugh at the interaction. When he felt, his company was no longer welcomed, Mercus and Finne were deep in discussion about musical chords, and Edon distracted by the licorice, Aleci went to his study and was shortly joined by Maera.

 

“How was your evening last night Maera?” said Aleci.

 

“Which inquiring minds want to know, Master Aleci?” said Maera.

 

“We saw you from the study last night.” said Aleci.

 

“The study huh?” said Maera, raising an eyebrow, “Not the bathhouse?”

 

She was in a very cheerful mood. Almost too cheerful, it was a little bit unsettling. What had Finne said about the blue lotus? It allowed the speaker to be more honest, did it? He hesitated, of all the questions to ask, he wanted to know what she thought of this one.

 

“Do you miss Imruk?” said Aleci.

 

“Like one does a fond memory.” said Maera, “Or if you wish for me to be personal, my marriage.”

 

“I didn’t mean to pry-” said Aleci.

 

Maera shrugged, “It is, how should I say, a personal failing of all adepts. You,” she waved a hand in his general direction, “probably have one problem that no matter how hard you look at you can’t solve. It is the same for me. I have helped many others with their own marriages, but can’t help myself.” she stared moodily at the herbs on the table, saying more to herself than Aleci,“He’s probably dead. It would be for the best.”

 

“Would you ever want to come back?” said Aleci, “Finne does.”

 

“He told you eh?” said Maera, “Well. That’s news to me. I thought he forgot about it.”

 

“If there is change in Imruk,” said Aleci, “would you come back? Perhaps the restoration of your former position?”

Maera stared at him for a long moment, blinking, before she threw back her head and laughed. “Sorry,” she said, wiping at her eyes, “I’m not laughing at you, I think, this is the most ridiculous idea I’ve ever heard in awhile. Restore the seanmháthair, with who?”

 

“Are they not still in Imruk?” said Aleci, “Underground?”

 

“It won’t solve the problem. You are being quite optimistic if you think it would.” said Maera.

 

“I don’t understand.” said Aleci, “Were you not counselors before? Healers? Can you and your sisters take back your roles?”

 

“Who would restore us? The Empire?” Maera laughs again, “The nobles? They were the ones who drove us out in the first place” said Maera, “Besides, all seanmháthair are as dust to wind, I haven’t seen any of my sisters since we buried my Seanmháthair.” she raised an eyebrow, “Even if, by a miracle of the Gods they are restored, the ones that are in Imruk wouldn’t be anyone I trust.”

 

“Why?” said Aleci, puzzled, “Are they not your own sisters?”

 

“Master Aleci,” said Maera, gently, “When a pack is run by feral dogs one does not tame them by putting a bitch at the head. You can ask your wife if he likes the thought of any of his teachers, and I use that word loosely, holding the same power they had before as a seanmháthairs, appeals greatly to him.”


“You allow carriers to be seanmháthairs as well?” said Aleci and said quickly upon seeing Maera’s face, “Never mind. Forget I ask.”

 

“When the lords have made a throne to sit upon and a mountain to climb to get to said throne, you don’t solve the problem by having a woman on said throne. Or a carrier.” Maera smiled at him, “Do you want me to tell you why?” when he nodded, she said, “The woman that ascends to said throne would either die climbing the mountain, or she’ll trample over everyone else to there. Hells, she could even be worst than a man, because there are many men who do not wish to see a woman held even a scrap of what they think power is. She’ll have to destroy them all in her ascension, and you must know what happens when you stare into the abyss.”


“The abyss stares back.” said Aleci, softly.

 

“Exactly.”

 

“Isn’t Finne a noble himself?” said Aleci, “he’s not one of them.”

 

“Finne would never hold any throne successfully.” said Maera, after a while, “He’s what you call here, a pacifist. And not that kind of pacifist.” she rolls her eyes, “He’s like my husband, they both believe that a pacifist, as they would say,” putting on a voice, she quoted, “‘are capable of destroying their enemy but do not’.” when he gave her a confused look she said, “Didn’t you see your wife fighting that Praefect earlier? Oppius told me he could’ve cut the man’s throat but chose not to. That’s his definition of pacifism. It doesn’t work when you’re fighting an army.”

 

“Isn’t that rather biased of you?” said Aleci, “You’ve never fought.”

 

“That’s true.” said Maera, shrugging, “But I know when the winds change. Imruk was founded by outcasts. It has forgotten its roots and established the very same ladder that their founders fought to dismantle. My sisters and I know when to leave. My husband and your wife are too sentimental to do so as well.” she laughs again, derisively, “Sentimentality, a thing which the weaker sex is accused of.”

 

The lesson continued in a noticeably more subdued manner after that. Aleci’s head was spinning afterwards, he barely caught Finne calling his name at lunch.


“Sorry,” he said, “did you say something?”

 

“You know you’re supposed to be euphoric for at least a fortnight after smoking the blue lotus right?” said Finne, offering Aleci a bread roll, “Whatever did you say to Maera?”

Chapter Text

Maera had told him to ask Finne if he liked the thought of any of his teachers holding the power they had before as seanmháthairs. The last time Finne spoke of them he refused to name who they were. Aleci glanced around the table, Edon had invited Mercus again, and he strongly suspected that the three of them were having a merry time before Finne noticed he was silent. It was probably best to ask him later. Their silence must have caught Mercus’s attention, he seemed to be gifted with ability to break an awkward silence.

 

“Master Aleci,” said Mercus, “Finne,” Mercus no longer called Finne Mistress when they were in Aleci’s company, “says he’s interested in going to Losium. I know Oppius said he’d accompany you with your household guards but they’re boring company. Would you care to go with some troupers? It might take longer to get there, but I think Finne would appreciate the company in the wagon, seeing as Maera’ll probably pull him off any horse he tries to ride by then.” he grinned at Finne’s affronted expression, “I’m not wrong, am I?”

 

“Troupers come here?” said Aleci, puzzled, “Really?”

 

“They don’t come to your villa.” said Mercus, “They meet in the crossroads, but one wagon usually comes to our house to ask if we’re joining them. My sister’s going this year.” Mercus groaned, looking displeased at the idea, “She desperately wants her wagon to be stolen.” he said, hand over his heart.

 

“Why would she want that?” said Edon.

 

“Well, you see,” said Mercus, very seriously, looking at Edon, “a trouper woman spends plenty of time decorating and protecting her wagon, and she wants a man who’s willing to risk life and limb to seize it.”

 

“I don’t understand.” said Edon blinking, “He could ask nicely.”

 

“Yes, but where’s the fun in that?” said Mercus.

 

Edon scoffed, crossing his arms, “I don’t understand you. It makes no sense. He could buy it off her.”

 

“That would make her cheap.” said Mercus.

 

“Then why does he take it?” Edon demanded.

 

“Because, Olus, the point is for him to take the wagon.”

 

Edon sniffed, turning back to his plate, “I’m glad I’m not a trouper. Your rules don't make sense.”

 

Mercus grinned, turning back to Aleci, “Would you be interested, Master Aleci?” he said, “I know it is not the most conventional way to travel. You could always bring Oppius and your guards with you. I think it’s safer.” he raised an eyebrow meaningfully at the last sentence.

 

“The carrier your father mentioned,” said Finne, “would he be there?”

 

“It’s likely.” said Mercus, “Probably more of them, I think, Losium isn’t the only summer festival.”

 

“I would like to go with them.” said Finne to Aleci, looking hopeful.

 

Aleci glanced between his wife and Mercus, wondering if this was planned between them all along, “I don’t see why not.” he said.

 

He’d never personally travelled with any troupers. It wasn’t taboo, but it wasn’t, he had to use Finne’s word, proper, to be cavorting troupers. If one was a woman there would be whispers about being a strumpet and unusual sexual appetites. It was the opposite if one was a man, funnily enough, the gossipers would think that the man had tastes like his. The horror.

 

“Should I tell Hilia you want to sit with her on the driver’s seat?”

 

“She wants me to sit with her?” said Finne, brightly.

 

“If you want to,” said Mercus, “she’s got a second cushion all prepared. But I’m warning you she’s one for collecting all sorts of strange brews inside that wagon of hers so you should still take your own wagon.”

 

“Why?” said Edon, curiously.

 

“Hilia has people pay her to make love potions.” said Mercus with a laugh, “They never work of course, but sometimes a lad or lass smells so bad that any improvement in their smell is enough to have someone wanting their company.”

 

“That’s stupid.” said Edon, “Why pay her when they could just take a bath?”

 

“I don’t know, Olus, maybe they’re as busy as you are?”

 

Edon narrowed his eyes at this. “Bathing doesn’t take that long.”

 

Mercus shrugged, throwing up his hands, “I don’t know. I’m not a seer. How should I know why they listen to my sister? I don’t.”

 

“I want to go to the bathhouse after dinner.” said Edon announced to Finne, who nearly choked.

 

Finne waited until Edon ran off again after lunch was over, before turning to Mercus, an accusatory tone in his voice, “How did you do that? I tried to tell him so many times.”

 

“Ah.” said Mercus, tapping the side of his head, “The trick is to make them think it’s their idea.”

 

“And which God blessed you with this arcane wisdom?” said Finne, dripping with sarcasm.

 

“No God or Goddess.” said Mercus, “Experience. Didn’t I tell you how many siblings I had?”

 

He couldn't quite put a finger on the relationship Finne had with Mercus. It was certainly a friendship of sorts, but there was none of the roughhousing he did with his friends. They seemed to enjoy a kind of back and forth banter of wits that he had trouble following, sometimes it was in Imrukian, sometimes it was in his tongue. Mercus didn't seem to have trouble understanding the dialects, Aleci supposed it must be because he was a trouper and troupers never seemed to have trouble with languages. In any case he was happy Finne had a friend, and he silently left them to it when lunch was over. Edon took over the conversation when dinner came, talking at length about his attempts to teach Smudge to count and how sweet the kittens were. Then he willingly went with Finne to the bathhouse and came back smelling of olive soap. Finne looked pleased. He thought Finne had forgotten about their earlier conversation when the three of them were in bed for the night, until Finne bought it up later when Edon had fallen asleep.

 

“What did you ask Maera?” said Finne, “She was very polite tonight.”

 

“The Empire’s taken Imruk.” said Aleci, then quickly adding, “I thought, perhaps, if Maera’s order was reestablished, perhaps-”

Like Maera, Finne began laughing, jostling Edon.

 

“Shh! It’s alright. Go back to sleep.” said Finne, hastily, running a hand through Edon’s hair, “That,” he said raising an eyebrow, “won’t work. In my entire life the chiefs have only agreed on two things, one, Imruk is the graveyard of empires and we will always unite to make it so, and two, no women shall rule, that is unnatural. That extends to carriers as well, but it doesn’t flow off the tongue.”

 

“Graveyard of empires?” said Aleci, “I’ve never heard of that, well, to be fair, I don’t pay much attention to history…” he'd always made up for it with his math scores at the academy.

 

“Imruk as a whole will never surrender, it’s a scattered collection of, what do you call it here-" Finne furrowed his brow, then said, "states that operate together. They disagree on damn near everything, trade, tongue, customs, everything! Except that line." Finne put on an air of importance, saluting the air, "Imruk is the graveyard of Empires. That line they like, that line they like a lot. They chant that and drum that before every battle. It helps that the passage through the Imrukian mountains will close in the winter. Are the Empire’s soldiers prepared to wait it out? Winter is cruel mistress and every Imrukian knows how to court her. Have you ever heard of planned avalanches?”

 

“Planned what?” said Aleci, “You can plan an avalanche?” he struggled to understand the concept.

 

Finne ignored him continuing, “There are massive lakes, your Empire soldiers like to wear their heavy plate armor. That won’t help them, they’ll sink like a rock. Some fool Praefect will think it's a good idea march his men on what he thinks is a field when it's a beautiful lake, covered with a few inches of snow. No one will notice it's ice until they hear the first crack.”

 

“Then why did Imruk surrender?” said Aleci.

 

“The capital did, Llandy.” said Finne, “And didn’t surrender because it was incapable,” he was running his right thumb up and down the length of his scarred fingers, “I saw the maps you had of Imruk, if that’s what the Empire thinks it looks like it’s wrong. Llandy fell because the people wanted its ruler to be deposed. Many nobles have tried challenged him, none has succeeded. So they looked to a greater power and opened Pandora's box, you would say. Men like your father and his Praefects didn't learn the language because they lived there, they learned from Imrukian double agents. I doubt they learned from people like Maera. Maybe your father did, but the others didn't. Whoever or whichever parties that participated must be feeling overjoyed," said Finne wryly, "now the nobles and peasants alike have one cause to unite under and they’ll be at it until they win.”

 

“Until they win.” Aleci repeated, deciding not to question whether or not that was true, it could be, snow was not a familiar terrain that soldiers trained in, “Wouldn’t that take a long time? Don’t you want to go back home?”

 

The corners of Finne’s mouth twitched, he looked as if he wanted to say something more. There were several beats of silence, until he said, “Blow out the candle. I’d rather not talk about this anymore. Please.”

 

The last word seemed tacked on more for politeness’s sake than anything else. He suspected Finne wouldn’t react well now if he apologized for asking. Was this how Maera felt?

 

“You have this habit of talking aloud to yourself, do you know?” said Finne, “I’m not mad, don’t bother apologizing. If you really care, lie down next to me.”

 

Aleci put his arm around Finne’s middle, guessing that was where Finne wanted it, and was surprised when Finne took his hand, adjusting it to a different position on his stomach.

 

“There,” said Finne, “if you stop talking you’re probably feel something in a bit.”

Chapter Text

Edon had asked if he wanted help with his calculations one day, and Aleci, after some consideration, allowed him to do it. The rain pitter pattered softly outside, and Edon had soon tired of jumping through puddles. Which was why he was currently sitting on Aleci’s lap, calculating the yield of grapes. Aleci had made certain that the mud was wiped off, a suggestion which Edon took issue with saying something along the lines of, 'you're wasting your time, why can't I do it in the bathhouse later?'. He only cooperated when Aleci told him he wouldn't be allowed to sit with him if he didn't. It didn't take long for Aleci to explain the calculations, and Edon took to it with the same furrowed concentration as the calculations he made on the wax tablet. He soon tired of the exercise, Aleci was privately impressed how long it took him to do so, and turned to look at Aleci.

 

“Can you stop eating that spiced meat?” said Edon.

 

“Why?” said Aleci.

 

Mamaí’s too nice to tell you.” Edon remarked, “It smells bad.”

 

The combination of rosemary and sage smelled bad, that was news to him.

 

“Why does it smell bad?” said Aleci.

 

“Because,” Edon said patiently, as if this should be obvious, “they burn dead people with it. It’s the same smell.” Edon wrinkled his nose, “I don’t know if it would taste the same. You’re not supposed to eat people.”

 

Perhaps it was lucky he wasn’t eating, Aleci thought feeling bile rise up in his throat.

 

“Right.” he said, remembering the early conversation he had with Finne about the Imrukian death rites.

 

“They don’t do that here do they?” Edon remarked, “What do you do with dead people?”

 

“Bury them.” said Aleci and Edon looked horrified.

 

“You’re not supposed to do that!” he exclaimed.

 

Aleci doubted that you were supposed to roast someone as if they were a pig, but then again weren’t rules and traditions quite arbitrary?


“How do you know they use rosemary and sage?” said Aleci. Edon looked puzzled at his remark and he clarified, “That’s the herbs you’ve been smelling.”

 

“Oh.” said Edon, lowering his voice, “Is that what you called it? I got it for mamaí. He wanted it for you know,” Edon looked as if he was struggling to find the words, and Aleci motioned for him to continue regardless, “miscarriages..”

 

“I see.” said Aleci, the context of the sentence made the meaning clear to him. Maera may have even mentioned the word once or twice, but she seemed to think it was taboo to say it under an expecting mother's roof.

 

"Do you like your sister?" said Edon, suddenly, breaking the silence, "Mamaí said you had one, you didn't speak about her much. You don't like her?"

 

"There's quite a gap in our ages." said Aleci, deciding it was the better explanation, "I didn't quite know what to talk to her about. She has different interests."

 

"Is eight years too big of a gap?" said Edon.

 

"I thought you were seven?" said Aleci.

 

"I'll be eight in two months." Edon pointed out, "So there would be eight years between me and him."

 

"Your birthday." said Aleci, it suddenly occurring to him to ask, "What do you want to do?"

 

"What I want to do?" repeated Edon, puzzled, "What do you mean?"

 

"You know," said Aleci, "presents. Don't you get presents on your birthday?"

 

"No?" Edon looked confused, then understanding came to him, "Oh, it's a thing that you do here. No, it's not done in Imruk. Everyone gets presents on the new year. That makes more sense. Everyone's a year older then."

 

"You don't want any presents?" said Aleci, faintly amused.

 

"Yes, but what's the difference?" said Edon, "I can just ask you." he looked contemplative, “It’s going to work this time right?” said Edon, “He’s not going to miscarry is he?”

 

“Maera said he’s doing fine.” said Aleci, still wondering if he should ask Finne if this birthday concept was unique to Finne's family, “I trust her.”

 

“But are you sure?” said Edon.

 

“You can’t ever know for certain.” said Aleci, “That’s one of the laws of probability.”

 

“Prob-ability.” said Edon, hopefully, “Is that math? They have,” Edon looked excited, "laws?"

 

Whatever Maera was preparing for their lunch, Aleci hoped it could be eaten cold. He recognize that glint in Edon’s eye, and that gleam meant they won’t be leaving the study any time soon.

Chapter Text

“Talk to me.” said Finne that night turning to look at him.

 

He could feel the child, their son, move during the night, and a part of him was optimistic that it was his touch that soothed them. Finne didn’t carry like a normal woman did, Maera had explained as much with those dolls of hers. Something about the position of the uterus and hips, the older woman had said, and sighed deeply when Aleci wrote it down.

 

“About what?” said Aleci.

 

“I can’t sleep.” said Finne, “Make me think about something else. Edon told me he asked about Laria. You’ve never talked about her. Are you two not close?”

 

“Laria’s going through one of those phases.” said Aleci, deciding to use his mother’s words, “Where she hates everyone and everything. It doesn’t help that I was also drunk for most of the time she remembered me.”

 

“I see.” said Finne.

 

“You had siblings didn’t you?” said Aleci, then suddenly realizing it was a sore topic, the tombstones Finne had drawn made clear, even though it was at odds with what both Edon and Finne told him about Imrukian funeral rites, “Never mind.”

 

“My father’s wife never wanted me to play with her children when I was younger.” said Finne, “She didn’t like that she was the first wife but was designated a second wife because she wasn’t the favorite. I didn’t understand her at all before all this,” he waved vaguely at himself, “I didn’t understand why she acted so, but it makes sense now. I don’t hold any grudge towards her. I never said as much to her, but I wished I did.”

 

“Do all nobles have many wives?” said Aleci, “I don’t know much about Imrukian traditions, Maera mentioned that nobles take more than one. Do all the wives’ children inherit the same? Were her children less favored for inheritance?”

 

“No.” said Finne, “The father usually has a favorite wife whose son would inherit. In theory, yes, everyone inherits the same, but in practice, no.” Finne fiddled with a stray thread on his sleeve, “She was happy when her firstborn inherited… when everyone knew what I was.” he rolled on his back to look at the ceiling, “I don’t know if she realized her jealousy poisoned him.” he breathed out a sigh, “She was kind once, in all the years I knew her, the only time she showed me the slightest morsel of sympathy was when Edon was born and she threw his-" Finne hissed the word, "doctor out of the birthing room.”

 

“Perhaps she understood you, because she’s gone through the same.” said Aleci deciding to break the tense silence.

 

“Do you like women?” said Finne suddenly, “The only woman you’ve ever spoke fondly about was your mother. And Aulius’s wife Fonta, but I don’t think you two are close.”

 

“Like women?” said Aleci, “No. There was a time when my parents were convinced that if they introduced me to a proper woman then I’d stop my… proclivities. I think it soured me towards women my age, I think, I can’t say for sure. All the conversations I’d had with them were set up by my parents. I was rather blunt in telling them whatever my parents told them I was, I was probably worst and they shouldn’t bother with me. Do you like women?” he said, the question suddenly coming to his mind.

 

He thought Finne would stammer out the answer, as he usually did when Aleci mentioned anything about sex, but there was a clear dismissal in Finne's voice when he answered, "Why does it matter? It's not as if I ever had the chance to be with one." in a clear change of topic, Finne asked, “Your mother went along with this?”

 

“Well, yes.” said Aleci, deciding that was one topic he may or may not revisit in the future with his wife, “What mother doesn’t want her child happy? It was short sighted of her, but I don’t hold it against her.”

 

“But?” said Finne.

 

“Am I that obvious?” said Aleci.

 

“You always hold a breath when you want to go on a rant.” said Finne.

 

“She,” said Aleci, “stood by and watch my father tell me that-” he breathed in shakily, “if I wanted to fuck a man I could just go to a lupanar, what’s the difference between a hetairikos and Ilos?” he grinds his teeth, “And that’s what I did, didn’t I? HE-” Aleci lowered his voice glancing at Edon sleeping on the other side of the bed, “told me to go fuck men and I did.”

 

“You did math also.” said Finne, and Aleci bit back a hysterical laugh, “Has she ever apologized?” said Finne, and took Aleci’s silence as a no, “Perhaps that’s why she kept the map. It was her way to say she was sorry, even if she couldn’t quite bring herself to say so.”

 

Aleci blinked, taken aback by the statement. “But she’s kept that for years!” he said.

 

“So?” said Finne, “It’s… not an easy thing to spring on you is it? If she’s done it any sooner would you react less… explosively?”

 

“No.” Aleci admitted.

 

“Why don’t you tell me about the laws you mentioned to Edon?” said Finne, “You two took so long Maera took the food back to the kitchen.”

 

“You want to listen?” said Aleci, “Are you sure?”

 

“I want to sleep.” said Finne, “There’s a high probability that listening to your recital of these laws would aid in this attempt.”

Chapter Text

They both trained together in the morning, though Finne spent more time teaching Edon than sparring with Aleci. It was very different from how his father had taught him, Aleci thought, observing the two. Galer usually started their mornings with a run around the villa and its surrounding vineyards. His wife started Edon on a series of complicated stretches, notably involving the hands and neck. Mercus didn’t join them this morning, but Oppius did. He’d trimmed his beard, Aleci noticed, but kept it.

 

“Mercus told me that you’d like to travel with troupers to Praefect Aulius’s house, Master Aleci.” said Oppius, “Is this true or is it one of his flights of fancy?”

 

“It’s true.” said Aleci, “I thought Finne would like to hear their songs.”

 

“Oh.” said Oppius, a thoughtful look coming to his face, “I suppose he wants to participate in the summer festival?”

 

“Yes.” said Aleci, nodding.

“Well, in that case, perhaps I should tell the men to stop jesting at the idea.” said Oppius, adding, “Traveling with the troupers I mean, not your wife singing. He does have a lovely voice.”

 

“Would you have trouble asking anyone to accompany us?” said Aleci.

 

Oppius shook his head, “I don’t expect to. I suppose the unmarried guards are more enthusiastic to go, but I did warn them that trouper women aren’t easy.” he laughed, then gave Aleci a serious look, “May I request something of you, Master Aleci?”

 

“What is it then?” said Aleci, though he had a sneaking suspicion of what it was.

 

“I’d like to accompany Maera to the academy she’s visiting.” said Oppius, slowly, “It would be safe travel from the academy to the Praefect’s house, the road’s patrolled.”

 

“Of course.” said Aleci, and he saw the surprise in the other man’s eyes at his quick response, “I think you’re missing out on the festival, but,” he grinned, “Maera must be something hm?”

 

“Well, yes.” said Oppius rubbing his neck, “I suppose she really is something.”

 

Oppius must have offered to train Edon with his men, because Edon was going through the movements with one of the guards. Finne must have left while they were talking, he was gone when their conversation was finished. The older man reassured him that Edon was in safe hands, and even Edon waved him off. Aleci took it as a clear dismissal and made his way back to the villa.

 

He could, theoretically, eavesdrop on every conversation Finne had with Mercus. But it wasn’t much, if he was being honest with himself, all that Mercus did with Finne these days were lute chords, over and over again. There was not a bone of music in Aleci’s body and he could only guess that Mercus was trying to teach Finne the lute. So it was somewhat of a surprise when he came back from talking to Oppius that he heard Mercus singing. Aleci was no judge of singing, there were only two scales that he could discern, the slurring of drunks and the street performances of troupers he’d seen. He’d never gone to the more elaborate parties by the Magisters, they paid for the best, from what Emos had told him. ‘I really can’t tell the difference.’ Aleci had replied, and Emos shrugged saying, ‘You really are deaf.’.

 

Every rose blooms sweetly with time

I met a fair lass and asked for her name

and mayhap she’ll be a sweet lover of mine

you must make me a cambric shirt

every rose blooms sweetly with time-

 

Finne was sitting with his back to the courtyard entrance, idly twirling Mercus’s flute in his hand. They didn’t notice him, or if Mercus did he gave no indication.

 

“You do realize it’s better to have your sweetheart's name in the song, right?” said Finne interrupting Mercus's song.

 

Mercus shrugged, “It’s a placeholder. I’ll put in any name later.”

 

“I suppose her name has to be less than two syllables?”

 

“Then I’ll change the verses, or the beat, it’s not that hard. Why don’t you try then?”

 

The lute was passed over to Finne who looked conflicted before picking it up. He strummed one or two strings before settling on a rhythm and tune. Finne sang in two voices sometimes, Aleci noticed, the more feminine one, high and soft and the more masculine one, though he didn’t have Mercus’s low timbre. Sometimes his voice was a mixture of both, and it seemed like this was one of those times.

 

Let me tell you that I love you, that I think about you all the time

Your siren song’s a-calling, now I’m going home

But if you find a stranger, know that it would make me more than sad

 

The song cuts off abruptly, the lute twanging in discordant notes before Finne sang the last words,

 

… been everything I've ever had

 

“You’re not singing about a woman are you?” said Mercus, his remark confusing Aleci, was it not a love song he just heard?

 

“No.” said Finne.

 

“Well, perhaps they won’t ask for songs about women.” said Mercus, “Writing about,” Mercus paused as if trying to find the right word then settled for, “them isn’t your forte is it?”

 

“I guess not.” said Finne.

 

“Don’t worry about it.” said Mercus, “There’s plenty of things to choose from. War’s always a favorite. Heroes too, they love their heroes. You don’t have to win all seven days to be crowned winner.”

 

“You think I want to win?” said Finne, disbelieving.

 

“Well, yes. You do want to win.” said Mercus, he caught Aleci’s eye but glanced quickly away, “Why would you ask me to help you with the lute?”

 

“But it’s not a singular competition is it?” said Finne, “You could also join me.”

 

“Yes, but,” said Mercus patiently, “the last two days are normally one man performances. It’s easier to make one laurel dip in gold than ten. Besides people like crowning one person, a crowded stage never looks good.” he leaned in, grinning, and Aleci struggled to hear his next words, “Besides, I think you’d look good in gold.”

 

“And you don’t?” said Finne, laughing, shoving him away.

 

“No trouper woman wants a man more adorned than them.” said Mercus, holding his hand to his forehead, dramatically, “Humility and all that, it’s a virtue, I’m told.”

 

“You are the Caesar of humility, truly.” said Finne, “Let me sing a song of the Modest Mercus.”

 

“Modest Mercus huh? How thoughtful of you.” said Mercus, “You’re a bit late in giving me fancy titles I’m afraid, my sisters call me Meek Mercus.”

 

“Will you please fetch Olus from the training yards Mercus?” said Aleci, deciding it was best to speak up now.

 

Finne didn’t look surprised to see him, he gave Aleci a hesitant smile. Mercus nodded, “Of course, Master Aleci. Should I suggest that he wash as well?”

 

“That would be appreciated.” said Aleci and Mercus left to fetch Edon.


“Did you like it?” said Finne, looking at him, “I haven’t tried singing like that in awhile.”

 

“It’s good.” said Aleci, “But I can’t really say. I can’t sing. Or play anything really.”

 

It was a woman’s pastime, his father had said. Aleci would have tried his hand at playing out of spite but the numerous polite suggestions, requests, and finally demands by his mother that he 'stop killing songbirds' had put an end to that. He thought Finne looked disappointed, but it was quickly replaced by a bright smile.

 

"So I was right, wasn't I? About Oppius and Maera?"

 

"Yes." said Aleci nodding, "I heard it from the man himself."

Chapter Text

His lessons with Maera didn’t happen that day, the elder woman said something about getting materials. Finne wrinkled his nose at that, but refused to elaborate why.

 

“The study’s empty.” said Maera, “You two can make use of it.”

 

Mercus choked at this statement and Finne patted his back none too gently.

 

“You reap what you sow.” said Finne.

 

“Perhaps I ought to change professions.” said Mercus, “Clearly I am also talented in-” he smirked when Finne spluttered incoherently at this statement.

 

“Why don’t you go practice said talents then?” said Finne finally, “I’m done with playing your lute for the day.”

 

After Mercus dismissed himself, still looking pleased, Finne and Edon accompanied him to his study. Finne was painting again, Edon leaning over his shoulder to correct whatever details he thought was wrong. They’ve moved the table so it was closer to his desk. From where he sat he could see what Finne was drawing, Edon’s favorite cat, though from the criticisms Edon kept making it was a poor rendition.

 

“Smudge’s eyes aren’t that yellow.” said Edon.

 

“Oh, well, you try then.” said Finne, holding out the brush to him and Edon shook his head.

 

“You do it better.” Edon insisted shoving the brush back to Finne and also sending a pot of paint flying into the air.

 

It was quite impressive, Aleci thought, wiping the paint off his face and blinking back tears from the mixture of vinegar and fruit, Edon should consider trying to throw a discus if that was how far he unintentionally sent things flying.

 

“Sorry, sorry-” said Edon shakily, “I didn’t mean to-”

 

Finne was the first to hand him a cloth, “Did it get into your eyes?” he asked, concerned, “Edon, I told you-”

 

The corners of Edon’s lips were twitching, he was blinking rapidly.

 

“It’s alright, Edon.” said Aleci, deciding he was in no mood to handle another crying fit, “It’s just paint.”

 

“But-” said Edon, “your papers-”

 

“They’re calculations you did before.” said Aleci gently, crouching down to Edon’s height, “If you want to do them again, you can do that.”

 

It was hard to place the emotion on Edon’s face when he refused to look at Aleci’s eyes. So he reached out and gently turned Edon’s head to meet his gaze. Aleci swallowed.

 

“Why are you scared, Edon?”

 

“I’m not!” Edon replied, quickly, but he looked to Finne.

 

“You haven’t taken a torch to the study.” said Aleci, soothingly, “Unless it’s my tunic? That can be washed.”

 

He could see Edon still trembled, glancing at Finne from the corner of his eyes. Finne didn’t say anything, which… was odd, but perhaps it was a test. He wanted to see how Aleci would respond to a child’s fear.

 

“Why don’t you sit with me, Edon?” Aleci suggested, “You can help me redo the calculations.”

 

Edon looked less enthusiastic than he had the day before, there was a stiffness when he climbed on Aleci’s lap. He was quickly distracted by another stack of papers on Aleci’s desk.

 

“What are these boxes?” said Edon pointing.

 

Aleci breathed in deeply, regretting not hiding them, “They’re matrixes.”

 

“Matrixes.” said Edon, “Like… like mazes?”

 

“More like… puzzles.” said Aleci, “You can use them to solve linear equations.”

 

“I don’t understand.” said Edon.

 

“Linear equations,” Aleci repeated, struggling to simplify the concept, “I told you before you can have letters to represent things in math, right?”

 

“Yes.” said Edon.

 

“So, let’s say… you want to race me by foot while I ride Sage. You can run two miles every minute, while the Sage runs ten, but it takes me six minutes to saddle her. How far can you run before I catch up?”

 

“That’s math?” said Edon, fascinated.

 

“You have two equations to solve,” said Aleci, writing them on a spare piece of parchment. He kept quite a few spare pieces of parchment on his desk these days, “let’s say, d is the distance both of us would cover, and t is the time it takes you to run, your equation would be d equals two times t.”

 

“You didn’t use the times letter.” Edon pointed.

 

“When you write things close together in equations, it is assumed to be multiplication.” said Aleci, deciding it was best to be general with his explanations, “I would cover d equals ten times t minus six. This is put in brackets, because you would do this calculation first.”

 

“It’s a rule.” said Edon nodding.

 

“Precisely.” said Aleci, “So you see, we have two equations. You can draw it out to find where t meets, this is where I would catch up with you.”

 

Aleci took a ruler and stretched the rudimentary graph.

 

“Tell me if you don’t understand what I’m doing.” said Aleci.

 

“Go slowly.” said Edon, when he began mapping out the points and putting a line through them.

 

He suspects that if this was shown to his old math tutor the man would have an aneurysm at its uneven scale but it would serve its purpose.

 

“You can do that, which takes a while,” said Aleci, “you can put the two equations equal to each other, to find when the distance I’ve ridden is equal to the distance you’ve ran.”

 

“I see.” said Edon, “I like it. It has letters as well.”

 

Finne coughed loudly at that and ducked under the table.

 

“Then what about matrixes?” said Edon, “Is it…” he tilted his head to one side, looking at Aleci, “For three equations?”

 

“Yes.” said Aleci, proudly, “Precisely.”

 

“I want-” Edon began.

 

“Tomorrow.” said Aleci, “You’ve only seen equations. I want you to understand them first.”

 

“Why don’t we go to the bathhouse?” Finne said, speaking up for the first time since Aleci began lecturing.

 

He thought Edon would protest loudly at this but Edon merely shrugged, “Fine.”

 

Aleci wasn’t sure if there was some sort of battle between his wife and son to get the latter cleaned, but perhaps there was. Whatever Mercus said about bathing must have made the whole affair easier, Finne took Edon to the bathhouse after dinner on most days.

 

When they went in Edon was first to pull off his clothes.

 

“Where’d you get that-” said Edon, pointing to the jagged scars on his abdomen when Aleci took off his tunic.

 

“Edon-” said Finne, warningly, glancing at Aleci.

 

“Oh, this?” said Aleci.

 

It was from a broken bottle from that night and nearly killed him from the infection but there was no need to tell Edon that particular story. Not right now.

 

“My father took me hunting and you know, deep in the forests there are these giant bears, and it charged at us and-” Aleci swiped dramatically with his hand, “did that to me, and I nearly died.”

 

He glanced at Finne to see that he looked faintly ill but Edon looked more than fascinated.

 

“Really? How old were you?”

 

“Edon-” said Finne warningly.

 

“Three.” said Aleci, and Finne stared at him, open mouthed and wide-eyed.

 

“You’re lying!” Finne exclaimed, after several moments.

 

“But they do all sorts of strange things here, mamaí.” said Edon, “They fight animals for fun.” Edon crossed his arms, “I don’t like it.” he muttered before frowning at Aleci, “Then what really happened?”

 

“Fell off a chariot and I got impaled on the spikes.” said Aleci.

 

“That’s a lie.” said Edon, “I ride better than you. You can’t handle a chariot.”

 

“That’s why I fell off.” said Aleci.

 

“Then what IS it?” said Edon, “I want to know!”

 

“I fell off the roof and impaled myself.” offered Aleci, deciding to throw in a life lesson as well, “That’s why I told you not to go climbing the roof.”

 

Edon looked disappointed, “Is that all?”

 

“The truth is quite boring.” said Aleci.

 

It was also violent, but perhaps this wasn’t the time to be telling Edon that. In any case Edon’s attention was diverted. He made to jump into the bath but Finne stayed his hand. Pouting, Edon slunk in, Finne and Aleci stepping in after him.

 

“How do you get bubbles?” said Edon, when they were in the bath, “Mercus said one of his sisters worked for a lady and that lady had bubbles in her bath.”

 

“She probably live near a hot spring.” said Aleci, reaching for the soap, “There’s heat from the earth that causes the water to boil.”

 

“She didn’t add anything?” said Edon, disappointed.

 

“If you want a bath that elaborate you’ll have to wait until we reach Losium.” said Aleci, “They have the spare salt and sea sponges for it. Scent too, but I doubt you like that.”

 

“Salt?” said Edon, “Why salt?”

 

“It scrubs at your skin.” said Aleci, now lathering his hair, “Makes it smoother.”

 

“I don’t understand.” said Edon.

 

“Don’t try stealing it from the kitchen.” said Aleci, doubtful if Maera would forgive such a transgression.

 

Edon still look mystified, but took the soap Finne offered him and began lathering up his arms. He rolled his eyes when Finne took the soap away from him and made to fix his efforts.

 

“Why do you care what I smell like?” said Edon.

 

“I like it when you don’t smell like dirt.” said Finne flatly, “And cats.”

 

“Cats don’t smell.” said Edon crossly.

 

“Have you notice,” said Finne, sweetly, “how often they cleaned themselves?”

 

This stumped Edon, who pouted dramatically, “I’m not that flexible.”

 

And that’s why I help you.” said Finne.

 

Edon narrowed his eyes at the two of them. “Is this why you two take so long?”

 

“Yes.” said Finne confidently, to Aleci’s surprise.

 

“You do have longer hair.” Edon observed, then shrugged, “Alright. But I want to leave when I’m done. How long do I have to wait?”

 

“Not too long.” Finne promised, as Edon rinsed off the soap suds.

 

“I’m affronted.” said Aleci when Edon had dressed and left, “Not too long?”

 

He supposed he shouldn’t be surprised at the smile Finne gave him, certainly that was a thing Finne did more often these days, but he had always stammered and blushed at innuendos.

 

“It’s been awhile.” Finne remarked, “Isn’t that the case?”

 

“I am wounded.” said Aleci, grinning, “Wounded that you think I can’t manage.”

 

There was no answer to that as Finne pulled himself out of the bath, making sure the door was securely locked. It was a nice view, Aleci thought, appreciatively, idly stroking himself. Finne blushed when he saw what Aleci was doing. Now that wasn’t a surprise.

 

“What do you want me to do?” said Aleci, quirking an eyebrow.

 

“I want,” said Finne, chewing his lip, “I want to suck your cock.”

 

“Underwater?” said Aleci, deciding a joke was best in the circumstances.

 

“No!” Finne said, “I want-” he gestured vaguely, and Aleci waited for the words to come, “I want you to sit on the edge.”

 

“Alright.” said Aleci, pulling himself up to sit as Finne had requested. It occurred to him it was a reversal of the first time they’ve fucked in the bathhouse.

 

Finne glanced at his cock then at Aleci, “Can you,” said Finne, “tell me what you want me to do?”

 

“Of course.” said Aleci, “Though I doubt that you need telling, don’t you have one yourself you know how to-” he cuts of gasping and Finne took the head of his cock into his mouth, “That’s good.” he said, “Like that.”

 

Finne had done what he suggested, and was alternating between squeezing Aleci’s cock in his hand and licking at its head with his tongue.

 

“Why…” said Aleci, struggling to put his thoughts into words, “why don’t you do both?”

 

There were different calluses on Finne’s hands now, and he fancied he could feel every single one of them. He thinks he sees flashes behind his eyes, dots and stars of shining cities, all connected in a grid that he couldn’t comprehend. No matter how hard he tried, there were too many of them and he was only one man, how could he even think of counting all the stars, all the cities and possible amalgamation-

 

“Are you this… verbose when you orgasm?” said Finne wiping at his mouth with a towel, grimacing.

 

“What-” said Aleci struggling to understand if he was being spoken to in Imrukian.

 

“What on earth is an amalgamation?” said Finne, “A math word?”

 

“No, it’s… a fancy word for combination.”

 

Finne gave him an incredulous look. “And why didn’t you just say combination?”

 

“Because you’re right?” said Aleci, deciding it was a rather clever observation of Finne, “I am very verbose when someone so talented has his way with me.”

 

It wasn’t the heat that caused Finne’s blush, Aleci decided, grinning proudly at this observation.

Chapter Text

“You know,” said Aleci, “I’m perfectly willing to sit up with you, just shake me awake.”

 

Finne had taken out his knife and was cutting open a pomegranate. He met Aleci’s eyes from his seat on the courtyard bench and shrugged, “I went to the privy and then wanted this-” he held out the pomegranate to Aleci, “do you want to be awake every time I wake up at night?”

 

“I’m a light sleeper.” said Aleci, “I like having others around.”

 

It was one of those things he’d enjoyed while serving, the camaraderie of friends. Aulius cooked most nights, refusing to join them in risking the wrath of their supervising Praefect as they played cards. The loser had his face smeared with coal from the fire, which always made for a tense session of frantic scrubbing to get rid of the evidence before morning inspections. Not that Aleci ever lost, much to the dismay of his coal-smeared friends.

 

“Won’t you run out of math eventually?” said Finne, moving to one side of the bench and glancing expectantly at Aleci, “To calm him?”

 

“I haven’t introduced him to the concept of creating his own mathematical rules yet.” said Aleci, sitting down next to him, “That’ll keep him busy. It certainly has for me.”

 

“Creating your own rules?” said Finne, thoughtfully, “I suppose… it does suit you. Is the traveling merchant one of yours?”

 

“It started as a joke, actually.” said Aleci. Ilos had always wanted to leave after serving, in retrospect, Aleci should’ve recognize it, “Ilos wanted to travel and I asked if he wanted to set up a caravan and travel the world and if so, what route would he like taking? It… it doesn’t sound funny now that I tell it to you.” he ran a hand through his hair, embarrassed. Ilos had laughed and laughed over that statement.

 

“Did your father ever hit you?” said Finne.

 

One of these days Aleci would ask Finne how exactly he came up with the changes in topic, there was no connection between the questions he asked.

 

“Maybe?” said Aleci, “If he did hit me then I don’t remember it. He liked talking. Lectures, I suppose, he would lecture on and on for hours until he felt like I had understood why it was stupid.”

 

Galer had called his actions, though not him, now that Aleci thought of it, more colorful words than stupid, he suspected his father’s talents for varied descriptions came from writing his many letters.

 

“He only ever hit Edon once. I don’t even remember exactly why. I think Edon ran into his study and knocked something down, that’s what I understood. I begged him to stop and he told me that rules must be followed. There is a natural order to this world and I’m teaching him because you’re too soft to do so.” said Finne, “Mercus was right. My friends-” Finne spat the words “were oblivious fools to believe that I’d fallen down the stairs. With Edon even, did they think I was that clumsy? The stairs aren’t even that high.”

 

It was a confused ramble, and Aleci thought it best not to interrupt. The Imrukian was said as if quoting someone, slurred and angry and not in Finne's usual tones. Perhaps it made Finne feel better to talk about it even if Aleci didn't quite know what to say. An acknowledgement of how he felt about his experience was perhaps something Finne never sat down to think about. Like how he never shown anger, Maera had said.

 

“I think… perhaps that’s where the preoccupation with rules came from.” Finne twirled the knife idly in his hand, the blade spinning, “You must think that he’s some sort of monster, from what I’ve told you. But he could be kind when he wanted to be. A controlled kindness, Maera would say. He made sure that when we behaved as he wanted everything was roses. The thorns came out later.”

 

“I never thought about it.” said Aleci, and Finne looked surprised, “I am listening to you, not making a judgement on him.”

 

“It would be better if he looked like a monster.” said Finne, “But he’s like all the heroes Mercus sings about. Flowing hair, stormy grey eyes, a handsome smile…” Finne trails off, “I suppose he thinks himself as a hero too.”

 

“Most people do.” said Aleci, “Why would anyone think themselves a villain?”

 

“Maybe I’m being too harsh.” said Finne, as if he didn’t hear Aleci’s remark, “No one really wants to doubt a handsome, charming man’s words. He told them I had trouble adjusting to my new life. He told them I was finicky and anxious and that’s why I miscarried.”

 

He half wondered if Finne’s apathetic approach to pregnancy was a response to the remarks and if the manic pacing was as an act natural to Finne at all. It was one of those questions the philosophers loved to pour over, whether or not it was nature or nurture that directed someone’s behavior. Clearly it wasn’t nature, Galer’s prowess in martial was clearly not hereditary. The knife was still spinning in Finne’s right hand. Perhaps, he thought, it would be best to change the topic now.

 

“Do you want another pomegranate?” said Aleci, glancing at the empty shell next to Finne.

 

He decided he might as well take the initiative, standing up and picking what he judged to be the ripest one from one of the pomegranate trees.

 

“What else do you like besides pomegranates?” said Aleci, as he sat down next to Finne, thinking of the fish Finne mentioned awhile back and the iced dessert Edon had told him about.

 

Finne frowned at the question, but took the pomegranate Aleci offered him. “It’s food, Aleci, I don’t play favorites.”

 

“Yes, but,” said Aleci, “you eat everyday. Surely there’s something you’d like to eat more often.”

 

“I’m not fussed.” said Finne, “I told you I used to go scouting. You can’t be picky about what you eat in the woods.” a pause, and a grin, “I suppose you should, there are some mushrooms you can only eat once.”

 

Aleci returned the smile, “I wouldn’t know. I was never put in charge of cooking.”

 

“What do you like?” said Finne, “You enjoyed those meat skewers.”

 

“Yes.” said Aleci, “My father would get them for me whenever we visited Corcius.”

 

There was no food vendors in the Capital, it was taboo to eat in public. It was the first time he’d ever seen his father sneer at Capital politeness. 'Those Magisters stuff themselves bloated everyday but Gods forbid one enjoy a meal outside one’s own house.’ he had said. ‘But the commoners don’t do it either.’ Aleci had replied. ‘Where else do they learn what to do and not what to do?’ Galer had questioned, and Aleci couldn’t respond to that.

 

“I would cook for you.” said Finne, “If we were in Imruk.”

 

“Oh?” said Aleci.

 

“What else do wives do?” said Finne, “The ones with more servants obviously planned their meals, but I’m told-” he scoffed, “I’m told it’s sweeter if one cooks. A personal touch or something along those lines. I suspected I was never asked because I could tamper with the final product.” he gave Aleci a half smile, “Do you trust me to cook for you?”

 

“What would you cook?” said Aleci, and Finne grinned.

 

“The same as how I used to do it.” he pulled open the pomegranate and popped a handful of seeds into his mouth, “You dig a pit, cover it with stones, line it with wood, place the meat and vegetables in and come back in half a day. It’s quite nice. I’ve done it with salmon. There’s a smoky taste to it.”

 

“It’s an oven in the ground?” said Aleci.

 

“Something like that.” said Finne.

 

Aleci took the handful of seeds Finne offered him, “Do you want to do it? I’m sure Edon would love the prospect of digging a hole. Or watching me dig one.”

 

He highly suspected Edon’s capability for patience at things that wasn't math, or cats. Smudge didn't make an appearance in awhile, but Aleci suspected the tom would eventually find himself in their bed. And good luck to the beast, perhaps it would survive being smothered, lovingly of course.

 

“You would want to dig a hole?” said Finne, looking amused, “Am I not the one cooking?”

 

“I think,” said Aleci, “it would give the wrong idea to Mercus of me to see you digging a hole by yourself.”

 

“What is he going to do about it?” said Finne, “Smack you with his lute? His aim is terrible. Possibly the safest place to stand near Mercus and a spear is the target that he’s aiming at.”

 

“No.” said Aleci, “He’d most likely offer you a hand in digging the hole.”

 

Finne laughed softly, bumping his forehead against Aleci’s. “I didn’t realize you approve of murder.”

 

“Isn’t that what friends do for each other?” said Aleci.

Chapter Text

Maera’s supplies, as it turned out, was a slab of pork, more skin than meat.

 

“Maera?” said Aleci, taken aback, “What is-” he gestured at what she’d placed on his desk. Everything else was cleared off thankfully.

 

“I thought,” said Maera, “you’d like to know how to stitches are done.”

 

“Stitches.” said Aleci faintly, remembering what she’d said about tearing, “Stitches. Won’t you do that?”

 

“Perhaps I’m busy.” said Maera, “There’s usually two people that need care in a birth, the child and the mother. You seem to be the hands on type. Did they teach you how to stitch a wound in the army?”

 

“Yes.” said Aleci, crossing his legs instinctively, “But not-”

 

“You can learn now.” said Maera, and she must have seen the look on his face because she continued, threading the needle expertly, “I have to admit, you’re the first man I taught how to do this. Most of them don’t think of it.” she scoffs, “I highly doubt the doctors in that academy have thought of anything better than what I’ve been taught. They probably think adding a husband stitch is doing everyone a favor.”

 

“A… a what?” said Aleci, taking the needle she offered him.

 

“Remember to bless it when you actually do it. If you actually do it.” said Maera, “It’s in bad taste to do it while demonstrating, you’re wasting Seare’s time.”

 

“You didn’t answer my question,” said Aleci, watching her demonstrate on the pig skin, “What is a husband stitch?”

 

Here she paused, “Someone got it into their empty heads that adding an extra stitch makes the whole experience better for the father. Because it’s tighter.” she sneered derisively, “Spread like wildfire around Imruk that one, it came from abroad apparently and, every oaf attending a birth wanted a hand at doing it.”

 

“How did you know that?” said Aleci.

 

Maera paused for a long moment, then said, “I asked Finne if he needed stitches with Edon. He told me how his father’s wife threw the doctor out.” Maera wrinkled her nose in distaste, “This is what happens when women are considered incomplete copies of men, every doctor is biased.”

 

“What do you mean?” said Aleci, struggling to place her last sentence, “Incomplete how?”

 

“Women are the second sex, the weaker vessel, a badly-made man.” said Maera, “I don’t know how these deep thinkers factor carriers into this, but their lectures on women were enough to put me off reading anymore of their-” she rolled her eyes, “pondering. One probably has more revelations sitting on the privy.”

 

“How did you come across it?” said Aleci, his time with philosophers did not include talking about men and women.

 

“I had a patron. He offered to support me and my children while we settled down in return for my knowledge of plants. He was a botanist.”

 

He probably taught her the tongue as well, no wonder Maera possessed an academic’s tongue.

 

Maera glanced at his work an approving look in her eyes, “You’re a quick study.” she said.

 

“Thank you.” said Aleci.

 

“You want to ask me something else?” said Maera, cutting another jagged line on the pig skin and indicating for him to practice again. “You have this look on your face.”

 

“Yes.” said Aleci, “Do you know who was Finne’s brother?”

 

“A noble like all the rest.” said Maera, raising an eyebrow, “I don’t consort with them.” she looked up and down his face, “You look disappointed.” she remarked.

 

“I want to know if he’s truly dead.” Aleci confessed, “I want to look up his name in the records.”

 

“May I ask, Master Aleci, what use is this information? If he’s dead, then great. If he’s not-” she sighed deeply, “I don’t want to sedate Finne, do you understand? I offered him a mild sedative in the teas before but he doesn’t like giving up control, and I don’t want to give him a higher dose.” she patted his back, “If it’s any consolation, I think he’s dead. Men like him like to take risks. Probably tried to fight someone he shouldn’t have.”

 

“But what am I supposed to do to reassure him?” said Aleci, “He talks about his brother every night. I listen, like you suggested, but I don’t want to hear about-” he waved his hands, “about the man and his abuse of Finne anymore. I want to-” kill him, he thought, but perhaps he should stop there.

 

“To kill him?” said Maera, “Hm.” she gave him another one of her inscrutable looks, then said, “Have you offered to just talk?”

 

“I do talk.” Aleci protested.

 

“No, you should lead the conversation,” said Maera, “when you notice when he’s agitated. If he wants to talk, let him, but stop when you feel like you can’t take it anymore. You should think about yourself as well. You can’t be a support if you’re also crumbling. Change the topic. Talk about whatever, like Mercus does. The lad’s got a talent for running his mouth, and I’ll begrudgingly say it works in this case.” seeing his face she continue, “Talk about your friends. Losium. Whatever you want.”

 

“Is there a reason why Finne doesn’t just name him?” said Aleci trying to wrap his head around what she’d just told him.

 

“Yes.” said Maera, “It’s one of the things Imruk shares with the Empire. I thought you’d figure it out by now.” seeing his puzzled look, she continued, “What do you do to punish someone forever? You don’t name them, even in death.” she frowned, “I suppose you entomb them in nameless graves here, but unless I’m mistaken, didn’t the last Caesar had this done to his uncle?”

 

“Oh, right!” said Aleci, and it occurred to him to ask her, “How is it done in Imruk in remembrance then, if you don’t have a grave to visit?”

 

“That’s rather contested. I suppose you're asking me how I would do it?” said Maera and when he nodded continued, “My friends and I could never come up with a proper response to that when my Seanmháthair died. We were quite young. Young and hopeful as all girls were. I remember one suggesting to write what she’d taught us down, but that was sweetly naive of her, anyone caught with the written knowledge of one in Imruk is severely punished.”

 

“How did you do it then?” said Aleci.

 

“I took her name.” said Maera, “You only truly die when your name is last uttered.” she smiled, “You may not have met her, Master Aleci, but you have met her through me, and the countless others that I’ve taught. I take her name in remembrance, and in remembering her teachings and mine, is that not a kind of immortality?”

Chapter Text

It was hard to tell the progress of Finne’s pregnancy without outright touching him, which Finne was reticent to allow. The baby was bigger, he was certain of that, five or so months in, he could feel his movements under Finne’s skin, and hear his heart beating with the odd instrument Maera provided.

 

“If you smile anymore your face would break.” Finne remarked, before pushing Aleci away and pulling down his shirt.

 

There was no hostility in his voice, or force in the push, but he knew by now when Finne had had enough. It was hard to pinpoint why, probably from whatever happened before. Or it could be just the way he was.

 

“You’ve only ever been around your mother.” Maera told him, reassuringly when he asked her during their lesson, “Trust me, not everyone likes being touched or fawned over.”

 

“How did you feel about it?” said Aleci, “If you want to tell me?”

 

She shrugged, “I like my children more when they were able to talk. Maybe Finne’s the same.” at his shocked look she raised an eyebrow, “You think all mothers love their children immediately upon seeing them? One’s bleeding and exhausted and there’s a squalling being that needs you forever now. Sometimes all one wants to do is enter a room and lock the door. I encourage my own children to take time to themselves when they had their children.” she gestured to herself, “I’m a mother but I’m not just a mother. It’s unhealthy to be playing just one role.”

 

“I see.” said Aleci.

 

Maera’s lessons with him seemed to progress at a rapidly furious pace. Perhaps she thought he could keep up. They weren’t even practicing on real bodies. Maera had insisted that she had it more difficult than he did and when she saw the disbelieving look on his face, Aleci had to swallow down bile at the more graphic explanations she started to throw his way.

 

“You want me to practice this?”

 

“You said you wanted to know,” said Maera, airily, “so here we are.”

 

The burlap sack she’d shown looked nothing like a baby, and the other burlap sack, representing the afterbirth, also looked nothing like its real counterpart.

 

“There’s a way to hold the baby after birth?” Aleci asked, feeling stupid, he thought they came out and that was it.

 

“Well yes,” said Maera, “There’s a cord attached, you think it’s a good idea to just cut the cord?”

 

He shook his head no, and that was the right answer, apparently one doesn’t cut the cord right away.

 

“Wait.” he said when she went on to show him how to check to see if the child was breathing, “The baby doesn’t breathe right away?”

 

“No.” said Maera, “It takes some moments. Very crucial moments mind you. This is why I never excelled at midwifery.”

 

“But… but...how-what if-”

 

“Don’t worry about it.” she squeezed his arm comfortingly, “You’ve checked with Finne haven’t you. Your son seems to be moving and active. He should be find breathing on his own.”

 

“But what if-”

 

“Then you use a reed and try to clear his airway. Like a sucking through a straw. I don’t advise anyone to try. Babies are delicate. I’ve only seen it done once or twice. But like I mentioned before, I never excelled at midwifery, the expectations are high. But I can see why some of my friends were.” she smiled softly, “For a moment you are the conduit of life. You are a Goddess.”

 

He half wondered, when their lesson was over if Maera rehearsed her lessons to him beforehand. He doubted it was just midwifery she was teaching him but he couldn’t quite figure out what else it was. His distraction carried over when he tried teaching Edon later that evening, and he thought it was best to do something that required less of him. Aleci doubted Edon would let him forget that he’d taught his son the wrong rules. Which was why he suggested Lantrunculi. This resulted in protests, as he expected.

 

“You do realize why I win right?” said Aleci.

 

"Because you’re good,” said Edon, begrudgingly, “at the game.”

 

“I’m flattered.” said Aleci, pleased at this new response, “But no. It’s math. There’s only so many moves you can make with this,” he held out the circular Lantrunculi piece, “you have to look at the board and think what’s the best move. Mathematically.”

 

“What.” said Edon disbelievingly, staring at him and then the board.

 

“Think of the board,” said Aleci, “as a grid, and look at the placement of your pieces and your opponent’s. How many possible combinations can he make? How many can you make?” he moved the pieces, “For example, right here, you can imagine that I have thirty five different possible moves. But I won’t take thirteen of them, because it’s giving you an advantage, and five of them would mean I am sacrificing my pieces for nothing.”

 

“What about the rest? That’s still seventeen you haven’t told me about.” said Edon.

 

“I thought you wanted to win fairly.” said Aleci and Edon scowled at him.

 

“I’m fetching Smudge!” Edon declared and stalked out.

 

Finne watching them earlier, said afterwards while they were getting ready for bed, “Did you figure this out yourself as well?”

 

“No.” said Aleci, “Lantrunculi is like war gaming.” it was a thing he excelled at, ironies upon ironies.

 

Finne gave him a curious look at this and Aleci bit his lip before saying, “If you want I'll explain another day.” He glanced at the opened door where Edon still hadn’t returned from fetching the tom. Whatever Edon had fed him had added more muscle, not fat, Edon had snapped irritably when he commented on the cat’s sudden rotundness. And it wasn’t his cat, Edon insisted Smudge didn’t belong to anyone even though the cat slept curled up next to Edon. “I don’t want Edon playing it.”

 

“Can I ask why?” said Finne.

 

“Because I don’t like thinking of people as numbers.” said Aleci.

 

That was what he was taught, and that was why Ilos died.

 

“I see.” said Finne softly, then as to distract him, smiled and said, “Do you want to see what your mother sent me?”

 

“She sent you something?” said Aleci and Finne nodded, going to one of his chests to pull out a package.

 

“She told me to show it to you,” he said and Aleci sighed deeply, making to undo the burlap cloth wrapped around it.

 

It was a short message, he supposed the longer one was for Finne and whatever she’d written he didn’t want to share with Aleci. Fine enough, it was probably chastising Aleci for being a cad.

 

Your father’s away sorting out problems.

 

He suspected she meant problems in Imruk but wrote it so if Finne was reading over his shoulder it wouldn’t trouble him. That was a thing she liked doing, writing in vague terms so as not to upset people. He would know, it started when he sat with her while she wrote her letters to his father.

 

I am upset you didn’t tell me about your son.

I had to read it from Finne.

Tell Olus he can have this.

 

“No.” said Aleci, dismayed, recognizing the familiar cover under her letter, “No.”

 

He tossed her letter to the side to flip open the notebooks she, undoubtedly, had taken great pleasure saving for future extortion purposes.

 

“What is that?” said Edon, now returned with Smudge, who, as expected, ignored Aleci and settled into Finne’s lap, purring.

 

Aleci’s fingers twitched, but he sighed, relinquishing the books to Edon. The last one he kept. He personally wanted to burn his attempt at poetry and there was no reason to subject Edon to such nonsense.

 

Edon crowed upon flipping them open and seeing the disparaging comments, “You weren’t good at math? Wait,” he frowns, “are these actual numbers?”

 

“Yes.” said Aleci, “And they’re stupid. I don’t use them.”

 

He saw Edon’s brow furrow, “But the numbers you use are different?”

 

“Because the Empire doesn’t possess a good numerical system.” said Aleci, “They borrowed it from others.”

 

Forcibly took their scholars was a better explanation but Edon seemed to accept this well enough.

“I saw they had these marks in the market.” said Edon, “I thought they were letters.”

 

“No they’re not.” said Aleci.

 

“Your lines aren’t very straight either.” Edon observed, tracing one of the triangles, “What were you doing here that your tutor marked you down for?”

 

“I took a shortcut.” said Aleci, “He’s unimaginative and boring so he took points off for that. I’ll show you tomorrow, how about that?”

 

It was one of the few times he was grateful for the beast’s presence, Edon seemed more than willing to sleep with it curled up next to him. Maybe it was for the best that Aleci or Finne ever hosted company, he doubted their guests would appreciate the appalling amount of cat fur that clung to Edon and spread like weeds wherever he went these days.

 

“Please don’t ask her to send any more of my things from the academy.” said Aleci when Edon was asleep.

 

“What things?” said Finne, innocently.

 

“My schoolbooks. My poetry. I swore I burnt them all but she must have squirreled them away somehow.”

 

“Your poetry.” said Finne, swallowing visibly and raising an eyebrow.

 

“Yes. Poetry is just-”

“Math.” said Finne, doubling up laughing, he gestured out towards the night sky, “The sky is also math.” he said, dramatically, in the same way as Mercus would have done it, Aleci thought.

 

“But it’s true!” Aleci protested, rolling his eyes at the absurd comparison, “Poetry has meters!”

 

“Stop! Stop!” said Finne clutching at his stomach, still laughing, “I can’t, I can’t! Stop talking!”

 

Aleci sniffed, crossing his hands while he waited, for Finne’s laughter at his own, rather stupid joke to stop. He glared enviously at the sleeping Edon. Next to his son, Smudge’s one eye was glaring back in equal irritation.

 

"Claw me." he said in mock challenge, and the cat's eye blinked, the tom yawned extravagantly, then closed his eye.

 

“Did you try writing about women?” Finne said, wiping at his eyes.

 

“Why?” said Aleci.

 

“I want to know.” said Finne boldly.

 

“Well, I never found them interesting, so no.” said Aleci, wondering where the line of inquiry was supposed to go.

 

“Yes, but, if you were to write about them, how would you go about doing it?” Finne persisted.

 

“I don’t know. Something we would have in common I guess. Admiring a handsome man. A happy marriage.” Finne smiled softly at his later statements and he took the opportunity to take Finne’s hands into his own running his right thumb over them, “Something they would relate to with me.”

 

“Hm. I see.” said Finne resting his head against Aleci’s shoulder.

 

“Did I answer your question?”

 

“No. But yes.” said Finne, “I think… I think I’m looking forward to going to Losium.” he sounded surprised at his own words and Aleci grinned.

 

“I think you’ll love the competition.” said Aleci, “They’ll love you.” he swallowed, “As I do, dulcissime.”

 

“I hope,” said Finne after a silence so long Aleci began regretting his confession, “they are better judges at musical talent than you, husband.”

 

Aleci laughs softly at his words, and he thinks Finne smiled in the dark. He half expected Finne to turn his back to Aleci afterwards, as he normally did when he wanted to sleep. Finne didn't, and Aleci could feel Finne's soft breaths against his bicep. It was the first night actually, Aleci thought, that Finne slept facing him.

Chapter Text

The Journey

“I don’t know,” said Finne staring at the wooden chests Aleci pulled from underneath the newly renovated wagon’s storage nook, “what do you pack for a trip?”

 

Aleci blinked at him, “Clothes?” he said, “Didn’t you travel before?”

 

“I did.” said Finne, “But I never packed my things.”

 

“Well we’ve got plenty of space.” said Aleci, noticing Finne’s nervousness, “I’ll put in my mother’s chest to you for the baby-” it was likely Finne would give birth in Losium or near the doctors’ academy and Aleci thought it was best to come prepared, “and you can put in whatever you want in this one?”

 

It was better, he found out, to suggest to Finne what his choices were and let him make his decision.

 

“Whatever I want.” Finne repeated, and Aleci sighed internally.

 

“Why don’t you copy what I pack?” he suggested, “And if you need anything we can always buy it later?”

 

“You pack your own things?” said Finne, sounding surprised.

 

“Why not?” said Aleci, “I like finding things afterwards.” not that he didn’t trust the maids, it was just easier for him to find where things were and he’d always done it himself as a child, “Did you not pack for yourself on one of your scouting parties?”

 

“Well.. yes.” said Finne, “But I wasn’t-”

 

“I’m sure,” said Aleci, gently, “everyone needs the same set of clothes for traveling. Pack what you think fits. I doubt it would be very cold, but pack cloaks as well.”

 

Edon took well to the idea of packing his things than Finne did, “How many of your books should I bring?” he said, grinning at Aleci, who narrowed his eyes.

 

“None.” said Aleci, “They’re all wrong, bring a blank book and I’ll teach you.”

 

He thought the argument he’d had with Edon was how many of the wooden figures Edon wanted to bring with them, not how many books he wanted to put in the chest, but Edon seemed content to bring five. The one Aleci could recognize was the one he bought for him, the rider from Corcius. The others he couldn’t recall, though they all seem to have an animal with them. He strongly suspected Edon would be interested in keeping more than just cats. But if he wanted to keep more they couldn’t help him, Aleci knew nothing of animals, and Finne only ever had a hawk and cats. Perhaps it was good that Losium didn’t have that kind of Colosseum, he doubted Edon would take well to the spectacle.

 

“But that’s boring.” said Edon, “I reading your tutor’s-” he looked as if he was holding back giggles, “notes.”

 

“Edon haven’t met the man,” Aleci said irritably to Finne when Edon ran off to fetch the book from his study, “he likes caning boys. I would dare guess he likes it too much. I wasn’t sorry when his office burnt down.”

 

“You burnt it yourself?” said Finne, guessing, “Is this when you stole back Ilos’s panther?”

 

“It was an accident.” said Aleci shrugging, “Like I mentioned, torches and dry paper don’t mix well. I just want you to know that before you wonder why my friends call me Incendiarius.” he grinned, “It’s a bit of a mouthful. Never stuck but they love addressing me as such.”

 

“Incendiarius.” said Finne, “I don’t understand.”

 

“Aleci Incendiarius Tusirios.” said Aleci, “You usually get a fancy title in the middle of your first and family name in these parts. It’s given to you. My father’s Moderatus, suits him well enough. Don’t you have that in Imruk?”

 

“No.” said Finne, then, carefully, “You are just called your first name and your father’s name and son or daughter at the end.”

 

“I see.” said Aleci, “Well, maybe you’ll get one in Losium. They love crowning their winners with something. I don’t remember what they named the last winner, I was too drunk to care, songs are really all the same to me.”

 

Out of all the distractions he thought to bring up this was the one Finne showed most interest in.

 

“Is it just to men?” said Finne.

 

“Men and women.” said Aleci, “But yes, more men than women. But then again they write the books and name themselves so who’s to say?”

 

“Do you want a girl?” said Finne suddenly.

 

Aleci was well versed in Finne’s meandering thought now not to be too surprised. “Well, don’t you want one? From my experience it’s the mother that really wants a daughter, though Mulius told me his father spoiled his youngest sister.”

 

“Would you teach her?” said Finne.

 

“I don’t see why not?” said Aleci, “My mother taught me my letters.” at Finne’s shock he laughed, “What, you think my father had the patience?”

 

“I know your mother could read.” said Finne, “I meant, are you going to teach her as you did Edon?”

 

“We’re not having twins are we? I didn’t hear twins. You and Maera aren’t-” Aleci said, blinking, and when Finne shook his head no, bemused at the reaction, he breathed out a sigh of relief, “Right, you mean, if we had a daughter. Why not? The merchants’ wives help them, and that doesn’t just include loading carts.”

 

“You would?” said Finne.

 

“Do you know why I never met another Magister after my first when I was in the army?” said Aleci, “And wait, let me finish, I follow your meanderings often enough, wait, I’m making a point here.” he grinned at the memory, “So I told you they had the challenge to find talented students right? Well, the thing is, they had another one, and it was behind a curtain, so the Magister couldn’t see who we were, and we couldn’t see we were in the presence of one until the curtain came down.”

 

“What were you doing?”

 

“It was a war game. There was a board everyone watching could see in the middle, but both sides couldn't see it, only our pieces. You write down instructions to an observer who then move the pieces.” said Aleci, “And well, I won. I don’t remember what the man said to me, something like, oh talent after all this time. He thought it was a great compliment, but,” his smile at the memory and his impudence was starting to hurt, “I told him, if he really wanted to find talent he’ll find it faster if he would look for both boys and girls. He didn’t like that and turned red even more when I pointed out that the pattern I used was based on my mother’s knitting.”

 

“Your father was with you?” said Finne, returning his smile.

 

“Yes, and I was never in the presence of a Magister again unsupervised.”

 

“I didn’t realize you thought this way.” said Finne.

 

“I don’t see why you are surprised.” said Aleci, “I told you, if you are looking for someone wouldn’t you want to search in a bigger population than deliberately narrowing down the search? It’s-” he rolled his eyes at Finne’s mouthed word of math, “probability.”

 

“What would you like to name him?” said Finne.

 

“I don’t know.” said Aleci, “If you want, I’ll name him after seven, or was it ten years? You can name him.”

 

“You would?” said Finne.

 

That seemed to be the phrase of the day, you would, thought Aleci and decided it was best to be nonchalant, “Why not? He could just get another name as I did. Though I would hope it’s not the arsonist.”

 

“Incendiarius.” said Finne, looking as if he was holding back gales of laughter, “What are you, a dragon?”

 

“That’s not funny.” said Aleci in mock offense, “And don’t you dare mention this to them. They already think I actually roll in the piles of gold I won.” he sniffed disdainfully, "It's a figure of speech." there was no need for Finne to know the experience was rather bruising.

 

"From the way you told me I think you really did." said Finne, slyly, "Perhaps that's what they thought?"

 

He narrowed his eyes at Finne who stared unblinkingly back at him until his wife turned away, shoulders shaking as he started laughing.

 

"I'm not picking you up from the floor again." said Aleci, and that only made him laugh harder.

Chapter Text

There was nothing much to guard in the villa, so it was only six guards that came with Oppius on the day of their departure. Aleci recognized Domerc, with his distinct dark hair tied severely back, Edon talked about him often, he apparently taught Edon how to properly use a slingshot. The other he remembered by name was Tuso, burly and broad shouldered, who trained with Finne every so often. Their sessions hadn’t been as intensive now that Finne had progressed in the pregnancy.

 

The villa had two draft horses, which was hitched to the wagon, and four horses which would be split between the guards and Aleci. The men were loading some of their things in the wagon when he could see another wagon in the distance, with Mercus driving. Aleci has never met Hilia before, but he could see the resemblance between her and Mercus soon enough. Next to him Finne waved, grinning. He’d visited their house a handful of times, though the one time Edon went with Finne he was bought back by Mercus. ‘I want to sleep in my own bed.’ Edon had said, but Aleci strongly suspected his son wanted to repeat the incident with π. He wasn't wrong, there were less tears, which he was relieved, but he found himself fast asleep while Edon stayed awake half the night.

 

Hilia bounded over to Finne, kissing both his cheeks before he could respond.

 

“How are you, Finne?” she said brightly, before curtsying to Aleci, “Master Aleci.” she turned to Finne, “Are you ready to go? Did you eat something? I don’t know when you’ve last been on a wagon, if you’re anything like my-”

 

“Hilia.” Mercus cut in, exasperated, “He’s fine, he’s traveled before. Let’s go before you talk the sun down.”

 

Hilia sneered at Mercus, “That’s fair rich isn’t it, coming from you brother?” she smiled, leaning down to look at Edon, “Hello Olus, tell me did you really enjoy the sweets or was Mercus swiping them from under my nose?”

 

Aleci could see Edon taking in Hilia’s appearance, her patchwork dress, her headscarf and the flyaway hairs that managed to escape from it.

 

“Uh.” said Edon, blinking “I didn’t know you could wear quilts.”

 

“Do you like it?” said Hilia, “It’s my travel dress.” she offered him her hand and he took it, hesitantly. Hilia glanced at Finne and motioned for him to finish packing.

 

“You have a travel dress?” said Edon, fascinated.

 

Aleci watched the two walk off to Hilia’s wagon.

 

“I thought you said your sister has strange potions in that wagon of hers.” said Aleci to Mercus, “She’s alright with bringing Olus into it?”

 

“Oh, Hilia believes that it’s better to show children what’s in it before they go through the wagon themselves.” said Mercus with a shrug, coming to Aleci’s side to help him with a chest, and heaving it up with him into the wagon, “I believe she makes it really boring.”

 

“I see.” said Aleci.

 

When they were outside again, Maera was waiting.

 

“Your sister’s wagon is impressive.” said the older woman, “Interesting herbs. I’m impressed. I don’t think Olus is, though, there’s no licorice.” she laughed.

 

Edon indeed did not look impressed when Aleci saw him.

 

“Can I ride with you?” said Edon holding out his arms, and Aleci nodded, lifting him up onto the saddle, “Are you going to keep your hair long?” said Edon, stroking Sage’s mane.

 

He rode with Edon in the front of the party, Oppius next to them, the older man being experienced with the roads in these parts. The rest of the guards took turns walking and riding on the horses. Mercus was driving their other wagon with Maera in it, and Finne, as promised was sitting next to Hilia. Aleci could hear brief snatches of their conversation as he rode with Edon. It was something to do with songs again and he gathered a guess it was Hilia’s plans regarding the theft of her wagon.

 

“My hair?” said Aleci, when Edon prodded him for a reply, “I don’t know. Why do you ask?”

 

“You braid mamaí’s hair.” said Edon, “It’s not good,” he shrugged, “I don’t know why he lets you. He did it for me when I had my hair long but he always say I fidget too much. Maybe he’d like to braid your hair?”

 

“I didn’t see him braid his hair.” said Aleci.

 

Finne did keep his hair long but he tied it back.

 

“He says it takes too long,” said Edon, “when I asked him. I think he likes you braiding his hair. I don’t know why he lets you do it, he doesn’t like it when I do it and I do a better job.”

 

He wasn’t sure if he could counter that, Edon had scoffed at his attempt to brush the Sage’s mane and tail after one of their rides and had shown Aleci to ‘properly braid a horse’s mane’. The result has been quite impressive.

 

They made a short stop for lunch and to rest the horses before heading off for the crossroads to Corcius. Aleci sat himself down next to Finne, offering him his choice of a sweet or savory pie. He wasn’t surprised when Finne took the former.

 

“Do you want to braid my hair?” Aleci said, conversationally.

 

“Hm?” said Finne through a mouthful of food before he swallowed, “You want me to braid your hair? Isn’t it short?”

 

“If I let it grow out, would you want to?” said Aleci, “We’ll be away for some months, I think, it might be possible. Edon mentioned something about beads.”

 

“They go on your beard.” said Finne, “Only wives put beads in their hair.”

 

“Is there a specific rule for that?” said Aleci and Finne gave him a thoughtful look.

 

“No, but I’ve never seen a man with beads in his hair. In Imruk.” he added, “You want me to?”

 

“Well, you like me braiding your hair, don't you?” said Aleci, “I thought you’d like to do the same.”

 

Finne smiled, eating the rest of his pie and shaking the crumbs from his clothes and hands.

 

Are you lovebirds done?” said Mercus, coming up to them, Sage’s reins in his hand and Edon on the horse’s back.

 

I thought you want to save your energy for whatever dance you’re doing tonight.”

 

“Sit with me while I drive your wagon.” said Mercus, “ We can practice a trouper song.”

 

Finne’s eyes brightened at this, “Really?’

 

Really, you can play while I dance.” Mercus turned to Aleci, “Did you understand us, Master Aleci? Sometimes I can’t tell if you do.”

 

“Something about practicing a song?” said Aleci, and Finne nodded.

 

It was the first time he’d ever traveled accompanied by the music of a lute. War drums, he remembered well enough, but never a merry jig. Before now he wasn’t even sure if it was possible to play a jig on a lute. He was riding with Edon in front of the two wagons and his son glanced back quickly before turning his head to look at him.

 

“You’re not having anymore are you?” said Edon, concerned.

 

“Anymore what?” said Aleci.

 

“I don’t want a sister.” said Edon firmly, “If you have another and it’s a girl I don’t want one like Hilia. She talks too much. I don’t want one like Mercus either.”

 

Oppius, riding next to them, wheezed.

 

That was hypocrisy, coming from Edon and his never ending questions.

 

“What about this one now?” said Aleci.

 

Edon glared at him, “It’s too late for that. You don’t have to have more.”

 

Aleci caught Oppius’s eyes who made a motion that he would drop back, his face was red with suppressed laughter.

 

“Shouldn’t you ask your mamaí that?” said Aleci.

 

“I want you to not have anymore.” Edon insisted.

 

“Why don’t you wait then, hm?” said Aleci, trying hard not to laugh himself, he could hear Oppius’s full belly guffaw from somewhere behind them, “See if you like this one first.”

 

“He shouldn’t be like you either.” said Edon, ignoring him, a thing he probably learned from Finne, “I want you to teach him. I don’t want him to teach us.”

 

“I don’t think babies are born knowing math Edon.” said Aleci, giving up and chuckling, much to Edon’s disdain.

Chapter Text

They had only ridden for an hour after lunch when they came across two other wagons in front of them. Mercus handed the reins to Finne before jumping off and running with surprising speed to catch up to the wagons ahead of them. Aleci saw the back door of the wagon swung open and a hand pull Mercus into the wagon. He couldn’t quite make out who it was, but the person looked young enough. Mercus didn’t stay long, the door was opened again and Mercus came jogging back towards them. He waved away Finne’s offer to pull him up to the driver’s seat.

 

“Who’s that then?” said Finne.

 

“Not anyone Hilia’s interested in. Or me.” said Mercus, “They’re troupers but they’re not singers. They’re acrobats.”

 

“Do you only marry singers?” said Finne.

 

“No, but I’m not going around swallowing swords to impress Joce’s father.” said Mercus, and Finne gave a startled laugh at the statement, “I’m not joking, that’s a genuine request!”

 

“What, the groom to disembowel himself?” said Finne.

 

“If he doesn’t know how to do it properly, then he doesn’t deserve my Joce’s hand!” said Mercus in an older man’s voice.

 

“What about Hilia?” said Finne, “Maybe she can do that?”

 

“No,” said Mercus, waving a dismissive hand, “she loves her hair too much to try her hand at juggling flames.”

 

“Flames?” said Edon, jerking himself awake from his sleepy stupor, “What’s juggling flames?”

 

“You have many balls and you toss them one by one into the air without dropping any,” said Mercus, “but Joce and her brothers do it while they’re on fire. I don’t know how they do it, don’t ask me.”

 

“Can I see them do it?” said Edon eagerly.

 

“If you ask nicely.” said Mercus, “But I don’t think you need to, Plyculo always like showing off.”

 

They followed the two other wagons until the sun was setting, into which they pulled away from the main road and into the woods. Finne followed Aleci, giving him a puzzled look when he walked back to the road and placed a copper coin under the little stone figurine of Mytea by the side of it.

 

“Why do you do that?” said Finne.

 

“It’s customary to make an offering for a safe travel.” said Aleci, “But it’s also, I guess, a kind gesture to anyone who may need the coin later.”

 

“Oh.” said Finne, “I like that.”

 

“Are you going to sing with Mercus?” said Aleci, and Finne smiled, nodding.

 

The eleven or so troupers were all around Mercus’s or Hilia’s age. They were supervised, it seemed, by a much older man. Possibly their grandfather, if Aleci understood the introductions properly. Troupers seem to have their own tongue for things.

 

“Oh, you have a dog!” said Edon, smitten with the sheepdog that bounded over and licked his hands, “Is he fine with cats?” he said to the dog’s presumed owner, "I bought-”

 

“You bought Smudge?” said Finne.

 

Edon look vaguely guilty, “I asked Maera.”

 

“You didn’t ask me.” said Maera, walking up to them, Edon’s bag in her hand, “I nearly sat on him.”

 

The bag in her hand shook in rage, Aleci thought.

 

The trouper laughed at this exchange, “I’m sure she won’t mind your cat, lad. Just keep the two apart during meals. Nothing starts a fight more between beasts than food.”

 

Aleci, peering into the irate eye of Smudge as he was pulled unceremoniously out of the bag and carried around like a sack of potatoes by Edon, suspected the cat has now regretted his life choices. Well, he deserved it.

 

The troupers, as a rule, shared their food when they were traveling, so Aleci’s household was treated to an assortment of dried meats and pickled vegetables. The wine from his vineyard, when he asked one of his guards to fetch a small barrel, was appreciated with cheers and Aleci was privately happy he remembered the fact. He thinks they didn’t treat him any differently, but it was clear that, while Finne’s musical talents were appreciated, and his household mingled easily with the troupers, he was very much not their sort.

 

So he found himself sitting uncomfortably by the fire with Smudge for company, occasionally tossing the tom some dried meats, watching Finne play the tune he was practicing with Mercus while the other man started a dance that the others soon joined in. Plyculo, unless he remembered wrong, had been convinced to take out his juggling balls and before long there were claps of appreciation and eager shouts from Edon as the balls flew through the air, all set alight.

 

“Why the long face?” said Maera, plopping down next to him, her face red from exertion, “You should join, if an old woman like me can, what’s stopping you, Master Aleci?”

 

“I can’t dance.” said Aleci, recalling the awkward fumbles and steps from the times Ilos had tried teaching him.

 

“You only need to join hands.” said Maera, “But very well, no one’s forcing you.”

 

She left him after recovering her breath, joining the merry circle again, and taking up a drum for herself. Perhaps she said something to Finne, because Mercus was now playing the lute and his wife sat down next to him.

 

“How are you and our little stowaway?” said Finne, scratching Smudge under his chin and eliciting several purrs from the beast.

 

“I don’t know why he tolerates my company.” said Aleci, offering Finne a handful of roasted chestnuts.

 

“He doesn’t like crowds.” said Finne, taking the chestnuts with an appreciative nod, “Probably regretting his life choices.”

 

“He’s not married.” said Aleci, deciding to play along, and the cat hissed at him, “I like to see you happy.”

 

Finne smiled, “I am. Thank you.”

 

Tuso and Domerc joined them soon after, both men slightly tipsy. They didn't have to stand watch for the night, and had indulged.

 

“Finne,” said Tuso, abandoning the title, as Aleci noticed most of the household did when addressing his wife, “I’ve been meaning to ask. How do you disarm someone like you did-” he trailed off, “like you did.” he finished.

 

“Oh, you mean like Praefect Damon.” said Finne, “You want to know?”

 

“Yes.” said Tuso, holding out his arm towards Finne, “I’ve been trying to figure it out like you said, but I can’t understand what it is you did.” seemingly realizing Aleci’s presence he said, “Are you alright with him demonstrating?”

 

“Why not?” said Aleci, sitting up, curious, “What is it that you asked him to do, Finne?”

 

“Here,” said Finne, handing Tuso one of the blunt knives they used to eat, “He wanted to know how I made Praefect Damon drop his sword.”

 

Tuso took it in his hand, and the two of them stood facing each other.

 

“I’ll show you first, very slow, alright?” said Finne, “If something hurts, tell me to stop, I don’t want to snap your wrist. And if you can’t hold on to the knife let it go.”

 

Tuso nodded.

 

“So, come at me with the knife, slowly,” Finne stepped to the right, “I step out of the way, and I grab your wrist here. Do you feel it-” he said as Tuso winced, “and then I take my other hand and grab here and-”

 

It was the same spinning movement Finne did before and Tuso, like Praefect Damon before, was flat on his front, Finne pulling the knife from his limp grasp.

 

“How did you do it? Break his grip on the knife I mean?” said Domerc, when Tuso dusted himself off from the ground and they both came to sit down next to him and Aleci.

 

“It’s the same as when you’re-” Finne held out his wrist, “here, if you grip my wrist.”

 

Domerc glanced at Aleci who nodded, very interested now.

 

“If you grip my wrist, see that I can’t pull away if I pull against you. But if I were to flip my wrist like so, can you hold on then?”

 

“No.” said Domerc, fascinated, “How did you do that?’

 

“Your grip on my wrist is weakest at your thumb.” said Finne, “And flipping it this way breaks it. Even if you hold both my wrist, I’ll break your grip on it by flipping my palm upwards. Try now.”

 

“That is very clever.” said Domerc, finally, “So your technique involve finding various weak points.”

 

“Well yes, but I also redirect your energy against you.” said Finne, “Grip my wrists again and I'll show you,” he said and Domerc winced as it was demonstrated, “The harder you try to hold on the harder it’ll hurt. It’s the same thing with the knife, I let Tuso’s hold on his knife fall naturally. But you shouldn’t try disarming every knife attack this way. If you don’t do it right you’ll cut yourself, or I suppose get gutted. And don't focus too much on the knife, your opponent can punch or kick you as well, that's why I stepped behind Tuso and broke his balance.” said Finne conversationally and Tuso and Domerc nodded.

 

Later that night, as they were lying in their own wagon, Edon next to Finne and the cat curled up next to his son, he asked, as he ran his hand up and down the small of Finne’s back, “Is that how you got the scar?

 

Scars.” Finne corrected, “And yes.

 

I’m impressed. I didn’t think you could do that. I saw you do it, but I didn’t realize that was your… reasoning behind it.” said Aleci, “It looks like dancing.”

 

Don’t do it, I only did it with Damon because I’ve seen him hacking and slashing. He always leaves an opening, he relies on fear more than anything else. You should never try it with an unknown opponent.”

 

Why not?”

 

Any fool can be lucky and gut you with a knife. Or cut an artery. It’s too risky. I would never tell Edon to do something like this.”

 

But you would me?” said Aleci.

 

I trust you resolve your conflicts other ways.” said Finne, and he added, “With your tongue.”

 

Aleci chuckled and kissed him, “My tongue? I don’t think everyone would appreciate me kissing them.”

 

Finne returned the kiss but refused to laugh at his joke.

Chapter Text

There were more wagons that joined them the next day. Short introductions were made, and Mercus, grinning, introduced Finne to Rinart and his family. Finne had beamed at whatever Rinart said to him, and accepted Rinart’s invitation to sit with him and his children in their wagon. Edon had joined them, dragging a reluctant Smudge along. Which left Aleci riding alone until Maera, taking pity on him, he guessed, switched places with Oppius so she could ride with him.


“What did your children do?” said Aleci, “When they grew up?”


Maera followed his gaze to where Finne and Edon was sitting in Rinart’s wagon.


“Don’t worry, Master Aleci,” said Maera, “I doubt Edon would want to be a trouper, he likes sleeping on a real bed.”


“I wasn’t thinking of Edon.” said Aleci, “I’m asking about your children. If you want to talk about them.”


“Well one of them’s a merchant in the Capital.” said Maera, “There’s a carpenter, a midwife, a scribe and the last’s studying to be a doctor. Not in Losium, she’s a bit too far away for me to write to her.”


She looked expectantly at him with this last sentence and Aleci said, “Is she in Nabaeum? That’s where my mother’s family lives. How did she even get in? I thought women were only allowed if their fathers had attended.”


“Her husband’s a doctor.” said Maera, “I suppose they’ve been lenient with the rules.”


That prompted another thought to come into his mind, “Are there not wisemen?” said Aleci, “In Imruk?”


Seanáthair?” said Maera, laughing, “Isn’t that an oxymoron?”


“Why not?” said Aleci, “You taught me. I would think you’d stopped by now if you think I wasn’t able to learn.” when she was silent he continued, “Why is it not possible for men to do so as well? I don’t think men are incapable of talking, mediating, like you did. They talk plenty in the academy about philosophy, I’m certain they can mediate as well.”


She was still silent next to him. “Maera?” he said, hesitantly and she waved for him to continue, “Do you think men are not capable of this?” he prodded, “Don’t you have sons as well? Why would you think-”


Maera interrupted him saying, “But it is not done. It is only for-”


“But traditions are bastardized as long as it suits someone’s purpose.” said Aleci, “You said it yourself. By the nobles in Imruk, they’ve twisted it, so why can it not be changed again?”


“You talk too much,” said Maera, “Master Aleci.” he could see her hands tightening on the horse’s reins, “I don’t know, I’m not in the position to change anything.”


“But what if you were?” said Aleci, “What would you do?”


“I’m not!” Maera snapped, sounding frustrated for the first time, it was swiftly tempered, “But let me think about this.” she sighed, staring at Rinart’s wagon, “And here I am thinking you wanted to talk about something else.”


“What do you mean?” said Aleci, “Finne wanted to talk to a carrier, Rinart’s a carrier, I’m not blind, why would I be jealous?”


She huffed and let her horse fall behind Aleci, ending their conversation.


“Why is Maera smoking again?” said Finne, frowning, over their dinner that night, “Did she speak to you earlier?”


“I have that effect on her, yes.” said Aleci.


Finne seemed taken by the pickled vegetables the troupers shared with them, and Aleci swapped their tin plates when he saw Finne eyeing his. Even Edon enjoyed them, and Aleci guessed it must be similar to Imrukian cuisine, though he knew nothing of pickling. In any case Edon ran off after eating, apparently he was promised another fire juggling show from Plyculo.


“What were you two talking about?” said Finne.


“Introspective stuff, clearly.” said Aleci, “Introspective enough for her to reach for a pipe afterwards. I’m miffed she hasn’t offered me any since that first time.”


“She,” said Finne, scoffing, “clearly doesn’t want to open that Pandora’s box.”


“Pandora’s box, hm?” said Aleci, “Would you-” he cupped Finne’s chin with his right hand, leaning in closer, “like to open my Pandora’s box?”


“I thought I already did.” said Finne, stony faced, “It was uninspiring. Numbers came out.”


“You’re wrong,” said Aleci, mimicking Finne’s solemness, “It was math not numbers. You can have math without numbers as well.”


He was shoved off his seat on the fallen log for that remark, but he was chuckling too hard to care.


"How did you find Rinart?" he said, after Finne pulled him up, "Did Edon like it?"


"Rinart gave him a puzzle." said Finne, "Something called a hedgehog in a cage. He's quite taken with it. He'll probably show it to you tomorrow."


"It's not math, is it?" said Aleci and Finne shook his head, grinning. 


"I don't know what to make of him." said Finne, "He's so relaxed... at ease with himself. I don't know how to put it."


"Well he's older isn't he?" said Aleci, recalling the streaks of white on the man's head, "Older than both of us, I should think eventually one finds oneself?"


Finne eyed him skeptically, his hand going to rub his stomach in soothing circles. "I don't think I'll ever like... this." said Finne.


"No one says you had to." said Aleci, reassuringly, "May I?"


Finne scoffed at the face he made when he ran his hand up and down Finne's stomach until he felt their child's movements. It didn't take long these days, he knew where to feel and there was a certain roundness to Finne's abdomen that was very prominent. At least it was to him, or perhaps ones that knew carrier pregnancies, like Finne mentioned months ago, he didn't show like women did when they were pregnant. "Maera said she didn't like her children until they talked." said Aleci, running his hands in circles as Finne did, his other hand going to massage the small of Finne's back, "I don't see why you doubt yourself for not liking pregnancy. I wouldn't know what to make of it either."


"It's not only that." said Finne, glancing around before continuing, "I'm not a woman."


"You're not one." said Aleci, "And I know I said I wouldn't find you attractive if you were one, but that's me saying it. You're a man-"


"I don't have the rights of one." said Finne, "Not here, not in Imruk."


"I can't help what others see you as here." said Aleci, giving up and switching to his tongue, "But perhaps there might be something we can do about Imruk."


"What?" said Finne, disbelieving, "What can we," he amended, "you, do about Imruk?"


"They always put someone in charge," said Aleci, "usually someone who respects the Empire. Perhaps it is possible to petition them to change the laws of Imruk. Bring back the seanmháthair, for example." he saw Finne open his mouth making to say the word 'Praefect' and interrupted, "They sent Praefect Damon to quell protests. He won't be there long. He's not the type to be in charge during peacetime. I'll see who they send and I'll, we'll see-"


"Why would they listen to you?" said Finne.


It was a fair point, "There is nothing the Empire loves more than productivity and coin." said Aleci, "You can't have productive citizens if there's resentment regarding the nobles having more than one wife and the nobles themselves are busy fucking and arguing among themselves." It was true within the Empire itself, but everyone's a hypocrite in some way.


"What would the seanmháthair do about this?" said Finne.


"That's what I'll ask Maera." said Aleci, "It's just a thought."  he continued, "The same idea as I told the Magister he can't find talent if he's already narrowed down the pool of potential candidates. I remember the maps you drew. Imruk isn't particularly known for... fertile fields or mines. It's at a crossroad for trade. Aside from that, perhaps the resource Imruk may have is its people, the tenacity of them, you said. If that's what Imruk has in its future, then it's deliberately crippling not to include everyone." he stared at Finne, "Am I right?"


"How will you make this unknown man listen to you?" Finne pointed out.


"It's not just one man, it's a council and one of them's my father." said Aleci, and Finne blinked at him, speechless, "Why did you think Galer speaks Imrukian? He speaks other tongues as well. When he isn't meddling in my life he's actually competent in meddling in the affairs of hundreds of others. Of course he only sees them as numbers but he's better at smoothing things over and putting in a competent leader after the blood's been washed off the walls."


"Why would you do this?" Finne demanded suddenly pulling away from Aleci and standing up.


"You want to go back. As much as you like my villa, I don't think you actually like living there. I'm guessing you want to raise them," he glanced towards where Edon was talking animatedly with one of the troupers and then at Finne's stomach, he reached out a hand to Finne who took it, "in Imruk? Am I wrong?"


"No." said Finne, "How, how did you know?"


"My mother's family is in Nabaeum." said Aleci, remembering his earlier conversation with Maera, and a memory, "She's wanted to raise my sister there, and me as well, but she never really committed. She'll pack and then unpack and then cry over a room of open chests." Finne had sat down next to him and Aleci reached out to hold his hands again, deciding to lighten the mood, "She's always said I wouldn't have such bent tastes if I grew up in Nabaeum. Joke's on her. I think I would like men regardless of where I grew up in."


"Why would you do this?" Finne said again, as if he was trying to figure out a puzzle.


"Because I love you, dulcissime." It was a ghostly echo of Ilos's voice that came to him, 'I will never be its citizen' Ilos had said, 'I would hate it, and then you. You would hate me, eventually.' Aleci had let him go then, shocked, and he would never make the mistake again. "It is within my ability to do so. Why wouldn't I at least try?"


"I don't know what... what to say." said Finne, shakily, "You would do this? You would leave your-"


"The villa's not exactly mine." said Aleci with a shrug, "And yes, I would."


"But you would be a stranger in Imruk. You wouldn't have any friends or money, or-"


"Oh, Finne," said Aleci grinning, "I told you I'm great at gambling. Any gambling game, there must be one in Imruk, and there must be enough nobles willing to play. You needn't worry on that front."


"But your friends-" said Finne, "You won't have any-"


Aleci pulled out the Nautilus coin, holding it out to Finne, "If I wanted the company of mathematicians I know where to look for them, even in Imruk." said Aleci, "Besides, the friends I have all meet at Aulius's villa, it's sort of tradition. You haven't seen me carousing so far because I am trying not to start my drinking sprees. I'm told I'm an eloquent drunk, some even say depressive one. Once we arrive in Losium, tell me if you think I've had enough of wine. I trust you'll hold me back."


"From what?" said Finne, looking more relaxed, he returned Aleci's gesture, running his hand through Aleci's hair instead of his hands. 


"From betting Mulius that I can out drink him. Mulius isn't Aulius, there's no relation, though they may be twins. He's Fonta's brother," he said, clarifying when he saw Finne's confused look, "He always manage to persuade me into doing whatever foolish thing comes into mind. I think one year we drank a keg upside down."


"Do you also receive revelations while drunk?" said Finne and when Aleci shook his head said, as if resigned, "Fine, I'll step in when I think you've had enough." his smile betrayed his amusement.


"No, unfortunately not." said Aleci.


As he laid down next to Finne in their wagon, he thinks, he hopes, he must have addressed whatever Finne was concerned about. His wife didn't stir at all that night, and lulled by the quiet and sound of the crackling flames from a campfire outside their wagon, he was content to fall asleep.

Chapter Text

They stopped early the next day near lake Petia. The previous two days they didn’t stop for lunch, eating on the road, but after the rain and the mud from yesterday, it was a relief to stop and clean off. There were excited chatter among the younger troupers as the wagons halted and lots were drawn as to who would get to jump in first.

 

“Oh, that’s beautiful.” Edon remarked, his eyes reflecting the shimmer of the lake, “Can we go in?”

 

“Can you swim?” said Aleci, and when Edon bit his lip he sighed, “It’s fine if you don’t know Edon, I don’t want you to drown.”

 

“But I’ll tell you-” Edon insisted.

 

Aleci shook his head, dismounting and helping Edon to the ground, “People don’t yell when they’re drowning Edon. It’s very silent. I’ll go with you now, but, you must promise me not to go by yourself until you can swim.” he crouched down to Edon’s height, “Do you promise?”

 

“Yes.” said Edon, nodding solemnly, “I promise.”

 

Galer for all his faults, did make sure Aleci could swim. Not competitively, as his father would say, ‘you won’t drown in a flood’. That was what he found himself doing with Edon now, even though Edon was much older than he when he started learning. He decided to stop their lessons after Edon managed to float on his own but his responses became more lethargic.

 

“Why don’t you show me your hedgehog puzzle?” said Aleci when he saw Edon’s frustration.

 

Edon grinned, nodding excitedly and allowed Aleci to carry him on his back as Aleci waded to the shore. The hedgehog puzzle turned out to be a spiked metal ball inside a cage, and by turning the ball in various ways it can be removed from its prison. He suspected the name appealed more to Edon than the puzzle’s complexity.

 

“Why don’t I show you math without numbers Edon.” said Aleci, scrawling out the quadratic equation on the blank notebook before asking Edon, “Do you know what quad means?”

 

“Square?” said Edon, hesitantly.

 

“Yes, you’re correct.” said Aleci, holding out the book to Edon, “This is a quadratic equation.”

 

“Why do you have it?” said Edon.

 

“Engineers use it.” said Aleci, “To build bridges, but I’ll show you one of their problems later. I never really liked engineering math. But architects use it as well.”

 

To be fair engineering and architecture were almost the same. Almost. If Edon didn’t call him out on the lie he won’t correct himself. He drew a diagram of their room in the villa.

 

“So, let’s say we want to remodel this room. I want the room to be as twice as long as it is wide. I also want-” he clicks his tongue, thinking, “a veranda here,” he pointed, “that’s four meters wide. I bought sixty five square meters of marble to tile the new room. What would the length of the room be? How do I calculate it?”

 

“Is it…” Edon stared at the diagram, “using letters again? For the length and the width?” he traced the edges of the diagram with his finger, “You said it was twice as long? So the width is half of the length, like that equation with the circle, and you also find the area of a rectangle, you said, I don’t know when, by multiplying the width and the length?”

 

“Exactly.” said Aleci nodding.

 

“I don’t…” said Edon, “So you have the letter W for width? And A for area? Then what?” he took the stylus into his hand. “I don’t understand.”

 

“What is W here then?” said Aleci, tapping at Edon’s writing, and when Edon gave him another confused look said, “What do you know that I want? The width of the room, which is half its length. The total area is the room’s width, add four, like I mentioned, the veranda adds four meters to the width.” he took the stylus from Edon and wrote;

 

W = ½ L

A = (W+4) x L = 65

 

“Then, you substitute the first equation into the second, because we’re solving for the length.”

 

“I want to do it.” said Edon, and Aleci handed him the stylus.

 

Edon stared at it, biting at the stylus before writing;

 

(½ L + 4) x L = 65

 

He stared at Aleci expectantly, “You said you can letters right, by putting squares on them? Is this what you meant earlier?” he pointed to the earlier quadratic equation Aleci had written.

 

“Yes.” said Aleci, smiling, “I’m glad you understand.”

 

“Then what?” said Edon, “How do you solve-” he pointed to his new equation.

 

½ L2+ 4L = 65

 

“Get rid of the fraction.” said Aleci, “I told you, you could get rid of fractions by multiplying them by their denominator.”

 

“Two?” said Edon, and Aleci nodded.

 

“For all of the numbers. Don’t forget that.”

 

“Oh,” said Edon, when he saw the final equation, “I see. And you also subtract one hundred and thirty right? The other side should equal zero?”

 

“Yes, and now, you can use an equation to solve for L.” said Aleci, “I don’t, which is why I got those marks. I factor my answers, but let’s say, you use the equations.”

 

“Why do you factor them?” said Edon.

 

“It… can be faster.” said Aleci, “But I’ll show you another day, how about that?”

 

“Why did he mark you down for being faster?” said Edon, “Isn’t it a better way?”

 

“Because, math isn’t a race.” said Aleci, unable to keep the sarcasm from his voice as he quoted his tutor.

 

“You don’t think so?” said Edon.

 

“Well,” said Aleci, “If I’m trying to build something I’d want it built as soon as possible. A bridge, let’s say. I wouldn’t want to wait three years, would I?”

 

“You said you didn’t like engineers.” said Edon and giggled at Aleci’s scowl.

 

His smile vanished briefly when Aleci drew up more problems for him to solve.

 

“At least it’s not merchants and fruit.” said Edon and pulled the book to his chest, brow furrowing at the problems before him.

 

That was a lull in him teaching Edon, and he could now hear the sounds of a lute and Finne singing, sitting in the shade of Rinart’s wagon. Aleci motioned for Edon to be quiet, straining his ears to hear what it was that Finne sang.

 

Will you take the high road and I'll take the low,
And Charon’ll ferry me before you,
For me and my true love will never meet again
On the fair, fair banks of Acheron.

 

He could see Rinart patting Finne on the back when the song ended, “That’s brilliant!” the older man said.

 

Aleci gestured to Edon that he wanted to walk over to them and his son nodded. As they came closer he could hear Finne and Rinart’s conversation.

 

“Is it?” said Finne, “Do you think they’ll sing that?”

 

“Death?” said Rinart, “Probably. But not that one, they all sing of glory and the Elysium fields.” he inclined his head deeply, acknowledging Aleci, “Master Tusirios.”

 

That was what all the troupers called him, along with the usual polite bows and curtsies.

 

“It’s Aleci.” said Aleci, “I’m not a Magister. You don’t have to treat me as one.”

 

He thinks he must have broken whatever spell Finne was weaving by his presence. Aleci hovered hesitantly, before saying, “Did you want to swim? Now’s the chance.”

 

Rinart glanced between the two of them and said, “Hilia and I will watch Olus, if you’d like to.”

 

“You haven’t gone swimming?” said Aleci, surprised, to Hilia, she looked as if she did jumped in the lake, the shoulders of her dress were wet.

 

“I did, before everyone got excited.” she raised an eyebrow knowingly, “I’m trying, Master Aleci, to get a lad’s interest.” said Hilia, “One doesn’t do so by hawking off all the goods.”

 

“I wouldn’t know.” said Aleci, “I’ve never tried to court a woman.”

 

She laughs at this, turning her gaze to Edon, “Alright then, Olus, show me whatever you’re working on.”

 

Edon frowns, “It’s a problem,” he said, “do you know math problems?”

 

“Why don’t you explain it to me? Sometimes a problem’s made easier through explaining to someone.” said Hilia

 

His son gave Hilia a deeply skeptical look, but sat down next to her, holding out his book to her. “You see-” said Edon.

 

“Would you like to go?” said Aleci.

 

Finne nodded, holding out his hand to Aleci. Rinart gave them a friendly wave, and the two of them walked off towards the lake.

 

“I haven’t gone swimming in a while.” said Finne when they reached the edge of the lake. It was quite secluded from the rest of the crowds, but still within eyesight of them.

 

“When was the last time?” said Aleci.

 

“I don’t remember.” said Finne, waiting for Aleci to disrobe before doing so himself, “Maybe when we went to the mountains… two years ago?”

 

“Are you a good swimmer?” said Aleci, distracting him, “Why don’t we race to that log over there?” he pointed to a log floating in the distance.

 

“Don’t you have an advantage?” said Finne, folding up his own clothes and putting them down next to Aleci’s messy pile, “You’re not carrying any extra weight.”

 

“I’ll give you a head start.” said Aleci, “How about that?”

 

He strongly suspected Finne would have beaten him nonetheless, and he was correct when he pulled himself halfway up the log panting while Finne gave him a bemused smile.

 

“What sports are you good at?” said Finne, perplexed, “I thought… you know, with your father, you would be good,” he mistook Aleci’s irritation and hastily said, “sorry, I didn’t mean...”

 

“No, don’t apologize.” said Aleci, swiping his wet hair from his forehead, “My father was happy I was good at war games. He didn’t exactly force me into any sport after he saw I had skill in that. He’s good at wrestling. He taught me, but I can’t say for sure I’m good at it.”

 

“Wrestling.” said Finne, raising an eyebrow “Is it true that you cover yourselves in oil-”

 

He laughed when Aleci splashed his face, “No. My father calls that vanity.”

 

“Vanity?” said Finne, “That’s vanity, but wearing plumes and feathers isn’t?”

 

“That’s another kind of vanity.” said Aleci, “I don’t know if you recall, he never did wear medals or plumes. He says it gets in the way, before, when he was leading men but he’s in the tents now, if he wanted he could wear all the medals he’s earned.”

 

They began making their way back to shore, Finne doing a slow backstroke while Aleci floated alongside him until his feet touched the lake bed.

 

“Really?” said Finne, frowning, standing up and shaking the water from his hair, “No, I didn’t notice. I had-”

 

“Other things on your mind, yes.” said Aleci, “Anyway, I think, he just likes keeping everyone on their toes. Nothing makes his day more than meeting some fool who thinks he’s addressing a common man who’s in the wrong tent.”

 

“Hm.” said Finne, “Are you like that as well?”

 

“What?” said Aleci, shocked to his core, “What?”

 

“No, I mean,” Finne tilted his head from side to side, then said, “you could have said you wanted to be called Master Tusirios, or Master Aleci. You never really insisted. “

 

“Does it really matter?” said Aleci, “You don’t either.”

 

Finne flushed at this, and said, “I’m not a Mistress. Or whatever title Mercus likes to call me as. It feels wrong. I’m not a woman.”

 

“If I refer to you as my wife, would you not like it?” said Aleci.

 

He saw Finne glance away for the first time, and when Finne met his eyes again he said, “It’s the way things are. What else would I be to you?”

 

“My partner.” said Aleci, impulsively, “Well?” he said, when Finne didn’t respond, “Would you like that? I can’t really say what others would think of you. Most of them would say you are my wife. But if you don’t want me to think of you as one, I don’t see why I-”

 

“I’m not trading with you. You’re not a merchant.” said Finne, “Why would I be your partner?” he began dressing himself erratically.

 

“My husband?” said Aleci, suggesting, also pulling on his tunic and underclothes, “Is that what you’d like me to think of you as? I’ve never called you wife, have I?”

 

“No.” said Finne, “You haven’t. But I know you think of me as one.”

 

“I didn’t know it troubled you.” said Aleci, “I suppose… I suppose I’ll be affronted as well.” the last serious relationship he’d had was with Ilos, he doubted he shared anything with Emos besides mutual pleasure. Ilos would probably have cuffed him around the head if he ever called him a wife, “I wasn’t sure, to be honest, I can’t tell if you do things because it’s proper and you’re taught so or if it’s you.”

 

“I don’t know either.” said Finne, fidgeting with the hem of his tunic, “I… thank you. I don’t like being called a woman. Or their titles.”

 

“What about their clothes?” said Aleci.

 

“There’s no difference.” said Finne, shrugging, “It’s only the length. Even in Imruk there’s only the lengths in the tunics that are different between men and women. The fabric’s finer for women here, I’ll say as much.”

 

“What about hair?” said Aleci, curious.

 

“All the men and women had long hair.” said Finne, “Your father’ll call them vain, for all the time spent on them. I used to-” he sighed, “there’s different styles for men and women. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

 

“That’s fine,” said Aleci, glancing at the lake slowly emptying of people, “why don’t we come back, hm? I think they’re ready to move on now.”

 

They walked back in companionable silence, Finne reaching out to hold his hand. When he took it Finne smiled and lightly squeezed it.

Chapter Text

He didn’t expect to speak to Maera again so soon after driving her to smoke, but the older woman sat down next to him during dinner. Finne had wandered off to sit next to Mercus and some of the other troupers. From the looks of things, Mercus’s wringing hands, Hilia’s bursts of laughter, and the twanging of many instruments they were debating one another’s talents. He couldn’t tell what was said, there were too many conversations going all at once to directly pin point what was being discussed.

 

“Your question caught me by surprise, Master Aleci.” said Maera.

 

“I know. I’m told I have that talent.” said Aleci and she pursed her lips.

 

“I’ve never thought about it.” she said, “When I learnt, it was in secret and we never really wrote things down. I still don’t think it should be written down but… perhaps it was wrong not to include men. I certainly taught all of my children, like you said.”

 

“Well? Is it a bad idea?” said Aleci.

 

“Education can be used for all sorts of things.” said Maera, “You can stripped it down to the bones and all you get is one of your Capital scribes who knows how to copy letters and understand each word but don’t know why they’re doing it.”

 

“But, you can read.” said Aleci, “Isn’t that the whole point?”

 

“Yes,” said Maera, “but what books? You can read, but if you only read certain books, or if you only have access to only this and that, you might as well not know how to read. The noble boys and men in Imruk know how to read. That doesn’t make them kinder or nobler.”

 

“That’s why you have a library with other books as well.” said Aleci.

 

“And it only takes one angry torch to light it all up.” said Maera.

 

“So an academy then? For everyone?”

 

It was a testament, Aleci thought of how Maera entertained his wild ideas or agreed with them privately that it wasn’t the idea she questioned but, “Who’s to head it?” Maera spluttered.

 

“Why not you? Are you not a Seanmháthair? Would teaching tens and hundreds better than just teaching one student at a time?”

 

And why,” said Maera, scowling, “would anyone want me as head of an academy?”

 

“You’re good at teaching.” said Aleci.

 

“Why would any man tolerate being taught by me?”

 

“You taught me.” said Aleci, “You taught Edon. Finne I think, I can’t say for sure. You would be a good teacher.”

 

I’m only mortal. How do I know that whoever takes up my mantle after me truly believes in what I’ve taught them?”

 

How do you know your children are upstanding citizens?” Aleci pointed out, and she huffed indignantly, “You just have to trust them.”

 

Children are not academies.” snapped Maera.

 

Academies are made of children.” said Aleci.

 

For the second time since he’d known her, he’s rendered Maera speechless. There was no horse to pull back this time, so she simply stood up and walked away. She didn’t bother to dismiss herself either, which spoke to either the road taking away the presumed formality of their villa life or he really did drive her to smoke again. Whatever she was smoking, he didn’t want it if he could still refute her while sober.

 

He decided to join Finne and wandered over to where his wife, no, his husband sat with his friends. He caught a brief snippet of Mercus’s conversation with Finne.

 

“There’s only four types of songs a trouper needs to master.” Mercus held out his palm ticking off his fingers with his other hand, “I had too much to drink, I met a fair lass and she was fair, I have left home and will never be happy again,” he grinned at the last one, “and if you’re being particularly blasphemous, you can sing about those damned Gods.”

 

“Don’t you have a working song as well?” said Finne, “Like a threshing or-”

 

Hilia interrupted, giggling, “That falls under I had too much to drink, because you’ve worked too hard, you see.”

 

“Ah.” said Finne, nodding sagely, “I had worked all day and am now drunk. Or the relative of it, I am working while drunk.”

 

“Exactly!” said Mercus and they all laughed.

 

Finne caught his eye and motioned for Aleci to sit down next to him.

 

“Do you have any songs?” said Hilia, there was a look in her eyes that meant she wouldn’t take no as an answer, “Everyone has something. I’m sure.”

 

“Well.” said Aleci, seeing many interested eyes turn to him, “I can’t sing-”

 

“But you must know a song.” said Rinart, speaking up, “You’ve traveled with us for a while, it’s only fair to see something from you.”

 

“Something that’s not math.” Finne clarified.

 

“I can’t play anything either.” said Aleci, throwing up his hands, “Would you be alright with that?”

 

“As long as it’s a song.” said Hilia.

 

“Terribly sung.” Aleci muttered.

 

There was only one song he clearly remembered and that was what his mother sang to him. He ran his hand through his head, struggling to remember what the words to the lullaby was.

 

“My mother’s family lives in Nabaeum.” said Aleci, as a way of introduction, every song sung seemed to start with an introduction, “It’s a custom in Nabaeum to send their sons sailing, sometimes they don’t return home to the same city or at all…” he trails off, ending the introduction abruptly with, “This is a lullaby my mother used to sing to me.”

 

Sail through the world with care, my child

And sing the things you see

Watch new names spring up roots and-

 

He fumbled the words, his memory failing him. He was staring into the fire, struggling to come up with the words, and when nothing came to him, went on to the next lyrics he remembered her singing;

 

And even as you stumble through marble palaces corroding

Let the oak shield your grieving, let the mountain calm your breathing

Even as the hour grows darker, be the dreamer and the thinker

And in city and in forest, hear the sparrow sing your chorus

And if every hope is gone, may the raven call you home

 

 

“Sounds reassuring.” said Mercus, “Ravens are smart. Ow! What was that for?” he scowled at Hilia.

 

“It’s a beautiful.” said Hilia, “There’s more to it, isn’t there?”

 

“I can’t recall what else.” said Aleci, “I only ever remembered the sparrows and raven part because I’ve never met a reassuring raven.”

 

“They’re clever birds.” said Rinart, “They speak sometimes. I’m told they’re messengers from the dead.”

 

“You don’t believe that?” said Finne.

 

“No.” said Rinart, poking at the fire with a stick to stir it, “I’d like to think there’s nothing after death. More reassuring than lingering on.”

 

“Is it?” said Finne.

 

“Yes.” said Rinart, “I wouldn’t want to sit and watch the world go by for eons and eons.”



“Yes, but what about Elysium?” said Mercus.

 

Rinart shrugged, “There’s plenty of assholes that claimed to be there. Why would I want to spend eternity there as well? Besides,” he pointed his stick at Mercus, “Drinking and running through fields? Wouldn’t you be tired of that eventually?”

 

“I don’t believe I will.” said Mercus, he turned to Finne, “What do you think then, Finne?”

 

“I don’t know.” said Finne, tapping his fork against his tin plate, “I don't know what I think about that... We were speaking of messengers of the dead weren't we? Cats are messengers of the dead in Imruk.”

 

“Oh, you don’t say.” said Hilia.

 

“It does make sense, they seem to just… appear and disappear.” Finne pointed out, “Where do they go?”

 

“Mating and eating.” offered Mercus and yelped when he was elbowed by Hilia.

 

“There’s no taboo about keeping them around?” said Rinart, curiously.

 

“No, why would there be?” said Finne, “They’re messengers, not omens. A raven’s an omen. A cat just… is.”

 

“That sums up cats.” Aleci concluded, he saw Finne smirked as his gaze flickered to where Maera sat with Oppius.

 

“I think she’s given up on the pipe altogether tonight.” Finne remarked, “Whatever did you tell her this time?”

Chapter Text

He waited until they were in their own wagon that night, Edon asleep next to Finne, before answering Finne’s question, “I suggested Maera be the head of an academy.”

 

Finne blinked at him, eyes wide, “What.” said Finne.

 

“I don’t see why not?” said Aleci, “It’s unusual, I’ll grant you that, but I’ve seen those vestal virgins in their blessed temples, they’re headed by women. I won’t even try to understand their celibacy but in some ways, I suppose I like them better than the philosophers.”

 

“You met with them?” said Finne, “Really?”

 

“With philosophers as well,” said Aleci, “I’m a good scribe... I had plenty of time on my hands. The philosophers never had the answer I wanted to my question. The head priestess, they call her Vestalium Maxima told me to leave. When I didn’t she said I was a stubborn prick but sat down to listen to what I wanted to ask her.”

 

Stubborn prick?” said Finne, sounding amused, “What did you ask her?”

 

All sorts of questions.” said Aleci, they mostly considered of Ilos and death but he didn’t feel like delving into the subject tonight, “Enough for her to be tired of my presence. She advised me to take up math again, I think, more to get rid of me than anything else.”

 

You stopped?” said Finne, a note of surprise in his voice, “When?”

 


“It…” Aleci sucked in a breath, “It reminded me of Ilos. I know it sounds odd to you… So I stopped. Vestalium Maxima pointed out that I might as well take it up again. A shared memory she said, something along those lines. They speak in worst riddles and analogies than Maera.”

 

Hm.” said Finne.

 

That’s why I told Maera.” said Aleci, referring to their earlier conversation, “When the women at the temple realized I wasn’t there to, you know, seduce them but to pester their Vestalium Maxima with questions they were more welcoming. Not that it was a particularly warm welcome, but they’re not as cloistered as you’d think. They’re quite educated. So why not have an academy that doesn’t consist of frigid virgins?”

 

Have you considered that they’re not frigid?” said Finne, “Maybe they’re not interested in the company of men.”

 

No.” said Aleci, the thought didn’t occur to him, “No! You can’t have sex and be vestal virgin, they’ll toss you out the door.”

 

Finne shrugged, “Not penetrative sex.” Finne offered, “It’s what you said a while back… a loophole?”

 

The thought of the wrinkled Vestalium Maxima in some sort of torrid embrace with another one of the priestesses was disturbing. “I don’t believe you.” said Aleci, flatly, “In any case, Maera didn’t say no. She just thinks she won’t be able to head such an institution.”

 

I can see her heading it.” said Finne.

 

Can I ask you something?” said Aleci, and before his nerves got the better of him, continued, “What am I to you?”

 

There was a soft intake of breath, “What do you mean?”

 

You said I thought of you as my wife.” said Aleci, “I didn’t think you’d find a problem with it, but well, you said you did and I’ll try my best to think of you as my husband. What am I to you then?” he reiterated.

 

Didn’t I call you husband earlier?” said Finne, “Isn’t that-”

 

No, Finne, I know that’s proper.” said Aleci, “But what am I to you?”

 

A…” there was a long silent, “A friend. A very good one. I wouldn’t just tell anyone what… happened.” he trails off, “I don’t know how to answer your question, Aleci.”

 

No, no, that’s fine,” said Aleci, grinning despite himself, “we’re very good friends. Clearly.”

 

I don’t understand.” said Finne.

 

Don’t worry about it.” said Aleci chuckling under his breath.

 

Can I ask,” said Finne, “why you are like this,” he held a finger to Aleci’s lips when Aleci made to open his mouth, “why are you so tolerant… of people and ideas? You didn’t have to listen to me. You didn’t have to travel with troupers. Why?”

 

Well.” said Aleci, “When you propose a new theorem in math, there is always skepticism. When it’s proven you accept it, but there is a time where the theorem just floats around, unclaimed. There’s always some stubborn fart that doesn’t like it and goes around doing it in the old ways, wasting his and everybody’s time. I never liked them, they’re never really welcomed when I was with the other mathematicians and so I never really liked clinging to the old ways if there’s one better. The same philosophy-” Aleci scoffed, “applies for other things as well.”

 

I never thought of it that way.” said Finne, “It makes sense… why you acted this.”

 

It’s not for all mathematicians, mind you.” said Aleci, “Some of them are open minded to new theorems but don’t care about anything besides that. Personal failings.” Aleci rolled his eyes, a memory of an argument he had at Emos’s lupanar coming to his mind, “If they claim that everything in life can be boiled down to math and numbers, then why not approach life the same way as they do their beloved theorems?”

 

I’m wrong then.” said Finne, “You’re not strange.” he leaned in closer to Aleci, his breath warm on Aleci’s cheek, “You’re a mathematician.”

 

Is that,” said Aleci, kissing his cheek, “an insult or a compliment?”

 

Finne laughed softly and refused to answer.

Chapter Text

Galer

Galer - Aleci's father, or as Freud would say, the spring of Aleci's daddy issues.

Lica - Aleci's mother, note Aleci's never referred to her as Lica. Guess who's Aleci's favorite parent?

Laria

Laria - Aleci's younger sister. I haven't written anything much about her, she's in her early teens, say 13-14.

Oppius

Oppius - The subject of Maera's affections, the head of Aleci's household guard.

Hilia

Hilia, Mercus's younger sister who's out looking for a husband.

Emos

Emos/Emon- I have butchered the spelling of his name in multiple chapters. I'm going to go with Emos from now on, apologies for the inconsistency. There's no feelings between him and Aleci, or is there?

Rinart

Rinart - the carrier that's currently traveling with Finne and Aleci.

Aulius

Aulius - Aleci's friend with the exotic menagerie and museum.

Fonta

Fonta - Aulius's wife, she who writes the letters rules the roost.

Mulius

Mulius - Fonta's brother, always ready for a game or two.

 

Chapter Text

There was a light drizzle the next day, and for the first time he was invited to Rinart’s wagon. The older man had three children with him, all around Laria’s age, a boy and two girls. One of the girls introduced Edon to weaving, and he was sitting with her, fascinated at the colored threads. The other two were using tools to shape metal, probably making copies of the hedgehog puzzle Edon was so fond of. When Aleci entered the boy muttered something about ‘sitters’ and looked vaguely guilty when Rinart chastised him.

 

It left the three of them alone to talk, Rinart proved to be quite an adept storyteller, the man had apparently gone as far as Liaochou. Finne fell asleep halfway through one of the stories, his head cushioned on Aleci’s lap.

 

“What is a sitter?” Aleci asked Rinart, puzzled.

 

“It comes from the word citizen. Same as how troubadour became trouper, but I’m told within the Empire, troupers got their names from them being in troupes.”

 

“I see.” said Aleci, struggling to fill the silence, “The driver, is he your husband?”

 

At this Rinart blinked at him, grey eyes wide, then he let out a bark of laughter.

 

“No, he’s my son. From my first, you would say, marriage. It didn’t work out. We were too young.”

 

“So you are married?”

 

“We don’t marry like you do, but yes. We’ll see my spouse tomorrow. He’s supposed to be witnessing a wedding and he’s helping with a harvest.”

 

“Your spouse.” said Aleci.

 

Rinart let out a breath, “You two make it so complicated.” he remarked, glancing at the sleeping Finne and then at Aleci, “You do realize that you can use spouse, if one of you thinks husband’s too masculine and wife’s too feminine.”

 

“I did not think of that.” said Aleci, and then as the silence fell again, said, “Do you always go to Losium?”

 

“Not every year. I like Losium, it doesn’t keep slaves.”

 

“No, they don’t. Why do you mention it?”

 

"Finne tells me your family employs servants. Mercus also confirms it.”

 

“My family does not keep slaves.” Aleci confirmed, confused at the course of the conversation.

 

Both his mother and father came from the free cities.

 

“Yours doesn’t. The Empire keeps slaves and tracks down those who ran away without paying their debts. Of course, they sometimes drag someone back who already did.” Rinart leaned back on the wall of the wagon, “It’s not like slave catchers are particularly honest individuals.”

 

“I see.” Rinart spoke as if from experience. Aleci decided it was best not to pry.

 

“I’m not making you uncomfortable am I?”

 

“No. I mean.” Aleci fumbled his words, “I guess, I am used to people doing things for me, in the house at least. I don’t think much of things being done.”

 

“Makes you soft, doesn’t it, living in one place?” Rinart jested.

 

“I guess so. I never really noticed the slaves in the Capital.” Aleci confessed.

 

“Most don’t. I’ve never gone there. The troupers that do come well armed and well contracted.”

 

“I see.” he wasn’t sure why arms were necessary, but it wouldn’t surprise him why weapons were needed in the seedier parts of the Capital.

 

“Finne tells me you’ve had your doubts about being a good man.” Rinart remarked.

 

“Yes.” said Aleci, curious as to what it was Finne talked about with Rinart then deciding perhaps, it best not to pry.

 

“I disagreed with his definition. What I’ll say to you is, you can tell much from a man by how he treats those beneath him. How would you treat a slave, Aleci?”

 

“I don’t know. I’ve never had one.” said Aleci, “I wouldn’t keep one in the first place.”

 

Even if one was offered. His parents would not tolerate a slave in their household.

 

“A slaver then?”

 

“I’m no friends with any.”

 

“Do you know why slavery is cruel?”

 

“No. I mean... I never thought about it.”

 

“Finne tells me you’ve had your fair share of tutors. Something about you disagreeing with how they want you to do things. But you could always leave after their lessons couldn’t you?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“You can’t, if you’re a slave. Few can buy their freedom, and perhaps some have, as they-” Rinart scoffed, “call themselves, a kind master. But at the end of the day, they can never leave. The worst tutor you’ve ever had, you can always go home, or,” he smiled, “burn down his office. You can never leave your owner, your life isn't your own.” he sat up, meeting Aleci’s eyes, “I played for a Magister once, in his halls. He showed me how he trains his slave. He called one in, bid him do this and that, and dismissed him. He then waited for the slave to return to the kitchens to call him back up again to fix a napkin. It went on like this three or four times.”

 

“That is cruel.” Aleci said, he could imagine said Magister, he thought, no, he knew he’s met some that acted the same.

 

“But it is not abuse, is it?” said Rinart raising an eyebrow.

 

“It is petty then.”

 

“Even pettiness adds up, as you’d say.”

 

“It does.” said Aleci, agreeing.

 

Finne stirred, “Did I miss something?” said Finne, covering his yawn with his hand.

 

“I can start on a new story.” offered Rinart, “Silkworms, have you ever heard of them?”

 

Finne sat up, fascinated, and Rinart began his tale. It was interesting, but Aleci’s mind was on other matters, the earlier conversation he had with Rinart still running through his mind.

 

Chapter Text

The rain stopped and they made camp next to a river. Finne made to take their soiled clothing to wash but Aleci stopped him.

 

“I can do it.” said Aleci.

 

“Really?” said Finne.

 

“If I don’t do it, I’ll be up all night massaging your back.” said Aleci.

 

“But you’re already up all night anyway.” Finne pointed out, but he relented, handing the clothes to Aleci.

 

He was halfway through washing them when Edon wandered over curiously.

 

“You know how to wash?” said Edon, incredulously.

 

“You don’t?”

 

Edon frowns, “Isn’t it what girls do?”

 

“There’s no girls or women when you’re in the legion.” said Aleci, “Do you think everyone goes about unwashed?”

 

“I dunno. I thought they’ll carry all the tunics they needed.”

 

“No.” said Aleci shaking his head in silent laughter.

 

“Are you really going to be with mamaí when the baby’s coming?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Edon wrinkled his nose, “Verrin told me she was there went her aunt gave birth. It sounds... messy. I don’t want to see it.” Edon shifted from foot to foot, “Were you there when avia had your sister?”

 

“No, I was outside the door.” said Aleci.

 

He had rushed headlong back from the academy, and had paced anxiously outside his mother’s closed bedroom, but he had been there. Galer hadn’t.

 

“Is it messy?” said Edon.

 

“It is.” said Aleci, scrubbing at a stubborn stain on Edon’s tunic, “I don’t think there’s a clean birth.”

 

“I’ve seen a horse give birth.” said Edon, “It didn’t look that messy. There was blood. The baby horse walked right after.” Edon squatted down next to Aleci, “Why can’t babies also do that?”

 

“I don’t know.” said Aleci.

 

“It’s stupid.” said Edon, then it looked like an idea came to him, he grinned toothily, “What do you call them, a half man and half horse?”

 

“Centaur.” said Aleci.

 

“Right.” Edon tilted his head, “Do they walk right away then? Baby centaurs?”

 

He truly curse Finne and how everyone around Finne seemed to make leaps in logic and topics.

 

“I don’t know.” said Aleci, “What do you think?”

 

“I asked you!” said Edon, cheerfully, “I dunno, I think they would walk. How do centaurs even carry a baby with four feet?”

 

“Hooves.” offered Aleci and Edon scoffed, then look thoughtful.

 

“Can I help you?” said Edon.

 

He handed Edon his own tunic and Edon pouted.

 

“Maybe you shouldn’t get them so dirty then.” said Aleci.

 

Edon made a half hearted attempt to scrub at the tunic before handing it back to Aleci.

 

“Did mamaí want you to be with him?” said Edon.

 

“I think so.” said Aleci, “I hope so. I asked him and he said yes.”

 

“Why do you want to be there?” said Edon.

 

“Have you ever broken your arm?” said Aleci and Edon shook his head, he decided to refer to what Finne had told him and Mercus months ago, “Got a tooth pull?” Edon nodded and he continued, “It hurts doesn’t it?” he ran the words through his mind before saying, “You wanted someone to say it was alright, and I think, mamaí wants someone to do so as well. Even if he doesn’t like saying it. You don’t have to be there if you don’t want to, it was very... scary for me to see my mother screaming. But I would be there, because it’s the right thing to do.”

 

“You were scared?” said Edon.

 

“Yes.” said Aleci.

 

“I didn’t know you were scared.” said Edon.

 

“Why not?” said Aleci.

 

“I dunno…” Edon trails off, “It’s not true, is it, that only women are scared?”

 

Aleci laughed softly, “Edon, anyone can be afraid. If they’re not they’re either lying to you or they’re broken in some way.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Some people don’t feel at all.” said Aleci, “They’re like… a house with all the doors shut.”

 

“You can be like that?” said Edon, “Really?”

 

“I hope you never meet someone like that.” said Aleci, though he strongly suspected Edon did.

 

“Why?” said Edon.

 

“Because… because you know when I told you Aulius collects things? Well, they’re things, not people. A person who doesn’t feel would also treat you like a thing as well.”

 

“I don’t like that.” said Edon biting his lip.

 

“No one does.” Aleci agreed.

 

Chapter Text

“What did you talk about with Rinart?” said Finne as he helped Aleci saddle Sage the next morning.

 

“Nothing much.” said Aleci.

 

“He didn’t tell you what-” Finne began and Aleci shook his head.

 

“Don’t worry, Rinart kept your confidence.” said Aleci.

 

Not that he wanted to pry, he did have a strong curiosity, but, he suspected it was more whatever Finne wanted to know about being a parent than the content of his character. Finne had wanted to meet a sane carrier after all and Rinart, while strange himself, his opinions on death was certainly controversial, was definitely not, as Finne would put it proper.

 

“He said we’ll stop for awhile.” Finne remarked, “I’ll take a nap in his wagon until then, if you don’t mind.”

 

“Why would I?” said Aleci, “I don’t see how you can sleep with the racket from Verrin and her siblings with their little metal puzzles but go ahead.” Perhaps this was where Edon inherited his talent to sleep through anything, “Should I save you lunch?”

 

“No. I’ll be awake by then.” said Finne. He leaned in to kiss Aleci before walking off towards Rinart’s wagon.

 

The next stop they made, as Rinart said, was near a sprawling orchard of fruit trees. Edon gave an excited squeal at the baskets upon baskets of fruit that was picked, the troupers, it would seem, kept a certain amount for themselves.

 

“Now your math problems make sense.” said Edon.

 

Rinart’s husband was a swarthy man called Darosi. He wore a scarf around his neck and half of his lower face was covered. It was odd, in the summer heat, that someone would do so. The trouper women covered their hair, to keep out the dust, Hilia claimed, but not their faces, and the men wore no face covering. He greeted Rinart warmly enough, and gave a courteous bow to Finne, as well as Aleci when he rode towards them.

 

“That’s a nice scarf.” said Edon, then to the man, “Are you cold?”

 

Darosi shook his head, dark brown eyes twinkling with amusement, “No, child.”

 

“But then aren’t you hot?” Edon continued.

 

“I’m told I’m very handsome.” said Darosi, and Edon turned to Aleci, confused.

 

“He probably likes wearing scarves Olus.” said Aleci, though up close he could hazard a guess why Darosi chose such attire.

 

He wasn’t sure if it would trouble Edon, and perhaps it was better to ask Finne if when was best, and how, to broach the topic.

 

There was another line of soldiers checking the wagons again. Aleci’s wagon was waved through quickly enough, but there was a rowdiness to the soldiers that unnerved Aleci. He exchanged a glance with Oppius pulling his horse to the side to watch the inspection and the older man nodded silently. Oppius never looked concerned, and Aleci followed his gaze to where there the line stopped.

 

“We’re going to ride back quickly, alright?” he told Edon, “Hold on to me, and promise you’ll do as I say. Please.”

 

“Alright.” said Edon, nodding when he saw the serious look on Aleci’s face.

 

Riding closer he could hear the man, and see the baskets of fruit being carried out by the soldiers he commanded, “You’re lying.” said the man pointing an accusatory finger Rinart, “You were filchin’ these off of Praefect Vibius’s villa, you lot don’t do no honest day’s work in your lives.”

 

He thinks he saw the man raise a hand to Rinart, and Darosi stepped in his way. This was the wrong move, as the soldier yanked roughly at his scarf, half choking him and pulling it away from his face.

 

“You’re a galley slave.” said the man, a cruel note coming to his voice when he saw the tattoo on Darosi’s cheek, “Whatever are you doing out here in the sun? Tie him up.”

 

Rinart’s eyes widened, he made to step towards Darosi and as he did the soldiers unsheathed their swords and pointed it at him. They weren’t very well made swords, Aleci noted, swallowing as the seriousness of the situation dawned on him.

 

“They are traveling with me.” said Aleci.

 

He saw Finne from the corner of his eye and shook his head, motioning for him to duck back into the wagon.

 

The man scoffed at Aleci’s ring. “And who’re you then? I didn’t know troupers took to dying their hair blond. Not male ones that is.” he sneered again.

 

There went Galer’s normal method of dealing with insubordination. These damned idiots couldn’t read, how desperate was the Praefect Vibius to fill his ranks? There was one other trick Aleci knew, and he schooled his face to his mother’s polite smile.

 

“Well then, gentlemen, I’m sure you’ll all enjoy your new posts in Caesium. I’ll tell Praefect Vibius personally, Olus, hand me the stylus-” he took the notebook and stylus from a bewildered Edon who dismounted to do so, and made to write down letters, “What did you say your names were?”

 

Some of the soldiers must have picked up on the ruse, they can't all be that stupid, but their leader was still cocky and brash, “Lucus.” said the man.

 

“Well, Lucus, I’m sure you’ll love the various poisonous animals there, did you know they put rattlesnakes in wine? It’s a delicacy.” Aleci grinned, tapping the stylus against the notebook, “I’m sure you’ll love it. Nothing more bracing than finding a scorpion under your pillow in the morning.”

 

He knew fear when he saw it, and decided to turn away, holding out his arms to Edon indicate that he wanted to put him back on the saddle. Aleci made to mount as well when Edon was seated, and he smiled, fleet and fast when he heard, “Wait, stop!”

 

Lucus now had the grace to look vaguely abashed. “Please do not tell Praefect Vibius of this.”

 

“Oh?” said Aleci, feigning to think, and stepping away from his horse, “I suppose I wouldn’t then. I’ll tell him you confiscated the goods quite illicitly. It would be a terrible sin to lie, and they were his payment to the troupers, were they not? Are you-” Aleci smiled again, leaning up to stare into the man’s face, “stealing from your employer?”

 

“No! Of course not!” said Lucus, and gestured towards his men, “What are you lot doing, return them!”

 

“Let him go as well.” said Aleci, pointing to Darosi, “You’re soldiers not slavers. Or should I tell Praefect Vibius you wish to have this ambition as well? Praefect Vibius, unless you’ve been living under a rock, has a particular view on slavers.”

 

“No.” said Lucus, and it was with great reluctance that they untied Darosi.

 

“Have a nice day.” said Aleci, smiling. He gave them a perfunctory salute and mounted his horse, and it was with great relish that he saw Lucus reflexively give one back.

 

Their trek was resumed and made in considerable silence compared to the other days. Even Edon kept himself still on the horse, tight-lipped. He only spoke in a hush whisper, asking when they would next stop.

 

“Soon.” said Aleci.

 

“Alright.” said Edon.

Chapter Text

“Why did he say your hair was dying?” said Edon, reaching out to tentatively touch Aleci’s hair, “It’s not falling off is it?”

 

Out of all the questions Edon could have asked him, that was the more tame and unexpected ones.

 

“He thinks my hair’s supposed to be dark, like the troupers.” said Aleci, holding out his arms to help Edon from Sage, “I dyed it, dyed is a word for putting colors in your hair.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Cause he hasn’t met any blond troupers.” said Aleci flippantly.

 

Riding in the sun always manage to bleach the color from his hair. That was a thing he found out when he was stationed in that cursed desert and an experience he tried with Laria when she commented on it upon his return. The resulting wails of ‘you’ve given her a tan!’ from his mother had been most amusing. 

 

“Why was he so mean?” said Edon, frowning, “I don’t understand…” Edon trails off.

 

“Some people think troupers aren’t honest.” said Aleci.

 

They were stopping more for the horses than anything, Aleci could see Oppius talking with one of the troupers and Darosi from the corner of his eye. The older man was probably suggesting they continue until they reach a forest, far away from a villa.

 

“But why?”

 

“Because… because there maybe dishonest troupers-” that was a wrong line of explanation and Aleci bit his lip struggling to come up with the next words, “but let’s say… let’s say you’ve never seen them before, and the one time they came to your city you heard that they’ve stolen something. So you tell everyone you know that they’re thieves, because you’re concerned your friends might get their pockets emptied as well.”

 

“But that’s a lie.” said Edon.

 

“It doesn’t matter.” said Aleci, “If the lie is believable.”

 

“But I don’t understand.” said Edon, “Rinart’s honest!”

 

“Well, yes, but, you see, his… his way of living isn’t normal.” said Aleci, “He travels with his family in a wagon. Most people don’t live in wagons, most people live in houses. So it’s easier to think that troupers are… all sorts of things if you already see that they’re not normal.”

 

“It doesn’t make sense.” said Edon.

 

“Sometimes what people think is true doesn’t make sense.” said Aleci.

 

There was a pause as Edon tried to understand this, “Why did he say you’re not a man?” said Edon.

 

“He thinks I’m a carrier.” said Aleci.

 

“Why?”

“Because he thinks accusing me of not being a man is supposed to upset me.”

 

“It didn’t?”

 

“No, because the only people whose opinions of me I really care about are you and your mamaí. You can’t please everyone. It's like that story with the man, his son and the donkey.” said Aleci, "Everyone's got an opinion on how they should've ridden the donkey and in the end they didn't please anyone did they? Same with what people think about you." he met Edon's eyes, "You have to decide whose opinions matter to you."

 

“That sounds hard." said Edon, then, "Why did he stop when you started writing?”

 

“Because… there is a certain type of person that is afraid when you start showing them you’re smart.” said Aleci, “It doesn’t work all the time, sometimes you need to throw a punch or two, but I gambled that he was the first type. I wouldn’t start a fight if there’s a chance you’ll get hurt, do you understand?”

 

Now that the thought did come to his mind he realized he may have to start his evening with apologies to Finne. He should have handed Edon off to Oppius before riding off.

 

“Is real gambling that hard?” said Edon.

 

“With cards no.” said Aleci, “With dice and humans, yes.”

 

“Are they going to hurt Darosi the next time the wagon’s stopped?”

 

“I’ll see what I can do about that.” said Aleci.

 

“What are you going to do about it?” said Edon.

 

“The soldiers can’t read but they must recognize a seal.” said Aleci, “You’ve seen it before, it looks like a two headed eagle on my notebooks. I’ll see if I can get my hands on one.”

 

It was usually a Magister that had one of those seals, Praefect Vibius wouldn’t have one. Perhaps Praefect Flucus would have one, he lived close by, he was always a fawning sycophant. Aleci’s stomach curdled at the thought of visiting any of his academy teachers, or asking any of them for a Gods forbid, favor. ‘You never ask a doormat for a favor’, Galer had told him, ‘they always have a habit of calling it in at the worst times.’

 

“Are you two alright?” said Finne.

 

Aleci blinked, “Oh,” he said, jerking himself from his thoughts, Finne and Edon must have exchanged something, a look probably, because his son ran off to join the other children, “I’m sorry.”

 

“For?” said Finne, confused.

 

“I should’ve handed Edon off to Oppius. I didn’t realize they’ll all draw their swords.”

 

“Oh, right.” said Finne, to Aleci’s surprise, he shrugged, “I don’t think anyone expected that, to be honest, you did what you thought was best. It would have gone badly if you didn’t come as soon as you did. Besides, Edon would have ran off after you and who knows what would happen?”

 

There was an odd note in his voice, and stepping up close, Aleci could see his pupils widened.

 

You liked it.” said Aleci, grinning, putting a stress on the word like.

 

Finne flushed and turned away.

 

“Oh, please, you liked seeing me giving someone a… a tongue lashing? Using my tongue?” said Aleci, beyond amused, reaching forward to tilt Finne’s head toward him, “Why didn’t you say sooner? I didn’t think you like to bring a theater into the bedroom.”

 

Gods no!” exclaimed Finne, a little too quickly.

 

Gods, yes!” said Aleci, and he smirked when Finne pushed him away half heartedly. “But, I’ll be serious now, I don’t like what’s going on with the soldiers. I didn’t know they’re so desperate as to recruit illiterates as commanders. Soldiers yes, you’ve seen them in Corcius, but not their commanders, how on earth are you supposed to send messages?” Aleci frowned, “Praefect Vibius’s coffers can’t be that empty.”

 

“What do you think is the reason?” said Finne, “Praefect Vibius hired the troupers. If he didn’t want them there why…” Finne trails off.

 

“Let me think on that.” said Aleci, “It’s odd that they’re not even properly equipped.” he muttered thinking of the men’s swords, then to Finne, “Let’s talk to the troupers, see what route they suggest now hm?”

Chapter Text

There was no clear leader with the troupers. From what Aleci observed of them, they simply determined a leader for a particular route based on whoever had the most experience. Which meant most of the time it was the eldest troupers, but on the occasion of bad weather, it was the sharpest eyes among them. They didn’t have any bad weather so far, but he was regaled the tale of a snow passage by Rinart’s sons.


So it didn’t surprise him when he approached the group of troupers huddled around a fire that there was no clear consensus on what they ought to do. They made a space for him when he approached them and he motioned for them to continue discussing from where they left off.


“We’re not moving off the roads.” said one older woman firmly, “I heard about them bandits.”


“We can take bandits, Hansa.” said Plyculo.


“Not with children!” Rinart snapped, and Plycolo looked abashed.


“We could pool our money.” offered Plycolo’s grandfather, Teowy, “Everyone can be bribed.”


“They’ll tell each other and the next bribe’ll be impossible to pay.” interjected Darosi, irritated.


“We could split the fruit between our wagons.” said Hilia, “It’ll look less suspicious.”


“Why don’t we split up then?” said Joce, mouth pursed in a frown.


“No.” said Hansa firmly, shaking her head, “No one’s splitting up.”


“I think Hilia’s suggestion works.” said Aleci, “May I suggest something?” he waited for their attention before continuing, “The soldiers can’t read, but they must see the Empire’s seal everyday. They should recognize it.” he paused, “That man back there, Lucas or whatever he said his name was, saw authority and let us pass, it’s probably the same for the others as well.”


“A seal?” said Rinart, frowning, “You mean, one on a letter? Like an invitation? Who would even grant us one?”


“Praefect Flucus’s villa’s around here,” said Aleci, “there’s a village that surrounds his villa as well. If everyone thinks it’s a good idea, I say, we go there, perhaps buy some food and-” he internally sighed, “I could ask him to grant us a letter with a seal. Or if there are merchants going to Losium, they’ll probably have letters granting free passage and maybe they’ll be willing to join.”


“Merchants.” said Hansa, nodding, “I like the merchant idea better.”


“How far is Praefect Flucus’s villa?” said Plycolo.


“Not far.” said Oppius, speaking up for the first time, “If you all don’t mind, I’ll take the lead.”


“Hm.” said Teowy, stroking his beard, “You shouldn’t be driving then, Darosi.”


“Perhaps we should wear our weapons openly?” said Domerc, turning to Aleci.


“No.” said Aleci, “If we meet the same sort as the ones from today, they’ll accuse you of stealing them. Their weapons were shoddy workmanship, I’ll say they’ll jump at a chance for better ones.”


“I don’t want to go to the villa.” said Teowy, “But if you’re correct and there’s a village, perhaps it is worth buying new supplies.”


“It’s best that we all go.” said Hansa.


“We can clear out our wagon.” offered Joce to Darosi, “If there’s trouble ahead, you can always come inside, we’ve got built in section at the bottom. No one thinks to check there."


“I appreciate your offer Joce.” said Darosi.


That seemed to be that, and the troupers began to move back to their own wagons, more tightly circled that evening than the previous days. Aleci hoped that there would be no reason for him to ask Praefect Flucus, if they could find merchants willing to travel with them.


He turned to ask Finne what he thought of the idea but Finne must have quietly left. Finne was in their wagon though, when he went looking for him.


“Where’s Edon?” said Aleci, frowning.


“I’ll fetch him in a bit.” said Finne, “He’s with the other children, I think he’s taken a liking to Verrin.” there was a note of amusement in Finne’s voice, “I suppose, perhaps if he’s older and still interested she can always challenge him to solve her puzzles. But I didn’t ask him to stay away for anything.” his lips twitched, “You said I liked it. Well I do. I want,” his nerves seemingly failed him, Finne continued in a whisper Aleci had to strain to hear, “I want you to fuck me.”


I can do that.” said Aleci, nodding in mock seriousness, “How do you want me?”


He made to lock the door of the wagon, as privacy seemed to reassure Finne, even if every one knew what was going on. Mercus was subjected to a round of applause from the younger men when he, blushing furiously tried to sneak out of a wagon, and was caught, one morning.


Did my sister like what she sampled?” one had said to Mercus.


Mercus had thrown a hazelnut at the offending youth who had laughed.


She didn’t like my singing.” Aleci had overheard Mercus commiserating with Finne, “Said it was too crotchety, like an old man telling off the children from jumping on his wagon.”


He had seen Finne hide a smirk, but patted Mercus’s back, “I’m sure you’ll meet someone soon.”


I don’t know.” said Finne to him now, adding, “Whatever doesn’t shake the wagon too much.”


What do you want?” said Aleci again, “How about, you decide while I oil you?”


They laid down facing each other, having both discarded their loincloths.


Does it hurt?” said Finne, when he oiled his fingers and slowly worked them into him, “What you did with other men?”


Anal sex?” said Aleci, not hiding his smile of amusement at the blush he knew was on Finne’s face, “Not really. But I liked it well enough. Do you want to try?”


There was an apprehensive look on Finne’s face when he met Aleci’s eyes, “Not now.” he said, “Maybe… maybe in Losium? I don’t want-”


Don’t worry.” said Aleci, kissing him, “We can do it whenever you want to, or-”


You want me to fuck you, yes, I know.” said Finne and gasped when Aleci added a second finger.


Do you want to ride me?” Aleci suggested again, “It’s up to you how much the wagon shakes.”


Finne scowled at him, and Aleci chuckled when he was flipped onto his back and Finne clambered on to straddle him.


Like this?” said Finne, slowly sinking himself onto Aleci’s cock.


He gave a yelp of surprise when Aleci thrust his lips upwards experimentally and gave Aleci an irritated look.


Why don’t you bite me again?” said Aleci grinning, “You won’t be letting out any sounds if you did-”


It was his turn to moan then, as Finne sank his teeth into his shoulder. He smells blood, and felt a wild, delighted pleasure well up inside him. It was like that one time he jumped off a cliff with Mulius, heart pounding in his chest all the while, like how-


Did you see your blessed numbers?” said Finne, when Aleci didn’t make a move to clean them up as he usually did.



“No.” said Aleci, trying to catch his breath, sitting up to gingerly touch the bites on his shoulders. They were shallow as far as he could discern, “Did you like it?”


I like the sounds you make.” said Finne, “I think you would be concerned if I said I liked the taste.”


"Well do you?" said Aleci, lips twitching.


"Doesn't taste at all like blood pudding." said Finne with a flippant shrug, and laughed at Aleci's dumbstruck face.


Finne tossed the loincloth he used to clean them into the basket where they kept all their soiled clothes and went to fetch Edon.


Mercus looked smugly pleased the next morning when he saw them, and Aleci suspected, his men must have exchanged amused looks as well, though not as openly as Mercus’s.


I didn’t know you like giving out rubies.” said Mercus to Finne, eyebrows waggling and laughed uproariously when he was roughly shoved off the driver’s seat.

Chapter Text

Edon was in awe of the villa as they rolled up to it.

 

“Is it really that white?” said Edon.

 

“Waste of money.” Aleci muttered, but to Edon he nodded, “It’s marble, yes.”

 

He hated the opulence of Praefect Flucus’s villa, it was all for show. The outside of his villa was marble, but as he heard from an architect that worked on the monstrosity, it was only a thin layer on the outside. Praefect Flucus’s villa was made of brick like everyone else’s. At least he hired decent gardeners, unless those blooming trellises were fake as well. Everything about Praefect Flucus was fake, including his credentials.

 

To his surprise the troupers were welcomed quite warmly. The surrounding village and its inhabitants of Praefect Flucus’s villa seemed to have the coin and the curiosity to see whatever show Joce and her brothers could put on. So it was that there was much hustling and shouts as the troupers ready themselves for a show. There were even some merchants milling about the wagons in curiosity, much to Aleci’s relief. It was quickly dashed when a servant hailing from Praefect Flucus’s villa asked the newcomers what they were doing there.

 

“They’re with me.” said Aleci, and the man frowned at the ring he was presented, writing it down on a wax tablet.

 

“I will see what Praefect Flucus says.” said the man.

 

The response from Praefect Flucus came as an invitation to his house. He must have heard of Aleci’s marriage because he also extended the invitation to Finne, though his name was not mentioned.

 

“Curse the man.” Aleci muttered, thinking of a fat spider and flies. “Do you want to go?” said Aleci, “I won’t force you.”

 

“You do need a seal.” said Finne, “I heard the others say that. You might as well go. The merchants may not be as generous, and, well, there’s always a probability they won’t be going to Losium.”

 

“How dare you use my logic against me.” said Aleci, dryly.

 

“I want to go with you.” said Edon, peering over both their shoulders at the invitation.

 

“I think you’ll like it better here with Verrin and the others.” said Aleci, and when Edon pouted, he added, “I’ll give you ten coppers, hm? You can buy something for her,” Edon perked up at this, “and yourself?”



“But why can’t I come with you?”

 

There was no way he would let the Praefect wheedle him into enrolling his son at whatever distinguished academy he was the head of now.

 

“It’s very boring. They’re all old.” said Aleci.

 

“Can you bring me back something?” said Edon, “Like… I dunno, a cake? I heard they eat fancy cakes.”

 

Fancier than Maera’s Edon seemed to imply, but he couldn’t bring himself to say it.

 

“Of course.” said Aleci, “I promise.”

 

Finne was dressing in that elaborate stola Aleci’s mother had given him.

 

“Should I pretend not to speak your tongue?” said Finne.

 

“Well, if the Gods bless us, we will not be here long.” said Aleci, “Do as you wish, I don’t mind.”

 

“I’d… rather not be noticed.” said Finne, holding out Aleci’s toga and helping him put it on.

 

“Alright.” said Aleci, “If you want to leave, please tell me so.”

 

Finne nodded, and they waved farewell to the troupers now busy entertaining the villagers.

 

“I’ll keep an eye on Olus, if there’s trouble I’ll come fetch you. Or if there’s trouble in the villa I’ll come with the others as well.” said Oppius and Aleci nodded his thanks.

 

“I wish. But Praefect Flucus’s villa, I’m told, is quite fireproof.” that remark earned him a choked laugh from Finne.

 

Praefect Flucus wasn’t there to greet them when they came to the gates, but that was to be expected, Aleci could hear the sounds of drunken merriment even as they stood outside the door. They were waved in by the Praefect's steward.

 

Aleci sighed deeply at the assault on the senses as he stepped in with Finne on his arm. It wasn’t as if he was unfamiliar with lavish parties, Emos certainly threw his fair share, but there was a difference between lavish and pretentious. There were twenty something dishes spread all over the tables and wine being carried and served to the already drunken guests.

 

“How… wonderful.” said Aleci, more for any potential eavesdroppers than what he really thought of the gaudy purple throws on the sofas. That particular shade of purple he knew well enough, “He’s invited a Magister.” he muttered to Finne, then, “I told you about Magisters. Stay close to me.”

 

Not that Finne, or him, for that matter, could refuse if a Magister outrightly proclaimed he wanted Finne’s company.

 

A servant approached them, Aleci sighed deeply as he took in the man’s garb. They didn’t even get to touch the feast and a Magister had expressed an interest.

 

“Magister Lerius wishes to speak to you.” said the man and Aleci nodded.

 

“Please lead us to him then.” said Aleci

 

The room that they were lead to were even more garishly decorated than the ones that they came through. The door opened to reveal a broad shoulder man clad in the purples of a Magister. He was being fanned and fawned upon by a dozen meretrixes all clad in colorful silks as he reclined upon a sofa. One woman, probably their mistress, her hair and clothes were the most elaborate, was busy pouring wine for him, while the rest were in various state of undress. A dance, probably, thought Aleci, that he and Finne interrupted.

 

“Moderatus’s boy!” exclaimed the Magister, rising from his seat, like a lion shaking off butterflies.

 

“Magister.” said Aleci, bowing deeply, “Magister Lerius.”

 

On his right he saw Finne gather back his stola in a curtsey.

 

“That’s enough of that,” said the Magister and when Aleci raised his eyes to meet the man Magister Lerius looked pleased, “I suppose I should’ve known. You dress like Moderatus. Never had someone live up to such a name as he does.” his pale grey eyes turned to Finne, then Aleci, “Is this who he chose for you? Hm. I thought he’d wanted someone younger, what with all his pining for grandsons.”

 

He made to step toward Finne and Finne stepped closer to Aleci, winding his right arm around Aleci’s left.

 

“How do you find your husband?” said the Magister to Finne slowly and exaggerating all the words.

 

“I… find?” Finne stammered, “I… not understand. Magister.” he inclined his head in apology.

 

How you find him?” said the Magister, his accent heavy.

 

He is kind.” said Finne, and this elicited a full belly laugh from the Magister.

 

“Kind.” said Magister Lerius, wiping at his eyes, “Truly your father’s son then. But why someone so meek? I thought Moderatus wanted fire in his lineage.” his gaze flickered to Finne’s stomach, then to Aleci’s, “When would we hear of the news? I would hazard a guess that Moderatus won’t be so moderate in his celebration if it’s a grandson.”

 

“Soon, Magister Lerius.” said Aleci.

 

“Aren’t you witty with your tongue?” said Magister Lerius, “Or did Moderatus beat it out of you?” he laughed at his own joke, “But I remember you, you were the boy that knocked Magister Tiochius down a peg or two. Insufferable bastard.” he gestured for Aleci to take the single sofa across from the Magister’s own, “You must be tired from the journey.”

 

Finne glanced uncertainly at Aleci, the couch that clearly could only sit one person, and the meretrixes crowding around the Magister, “Sit on my lap.” said Aleci, in a hushed whisper, “Please.”

 

Finne did as Aleci suggested, perching on the side of Aleci’s left leg. His right hand tangled in the fabric of Aleci’s toga and all the lines in his body tense. One of the meretrixes made to walk over to them.

 

“Oh, he’s not interested in you.” said the Magister to the woman, shaking his head, “It won’t relax you, would it, looking at them?” the smirk at the end meant so much more, but Aleci decided to play ignorant.

 

“I am quite happy in my marriage, Magister.” said Aleci.

 

“Send in Lewyn.” said the Magister to the head meretrix, “You girls go have fun now, I’m sure the guests would love to shower you with coin as well.”

 

They giggled and left, not before giving Aleci and Finne curious looks. Finne was even still and stiffer sitting on his lap, if that was possible. It didn’t take long for him to figure out why, the door opened again and Lewyn came sweeping in, clad in silks and jewels.

 

The carrier was younger than Finne, that was certain. A haughty beauty, his mother would have said, those don’t last long in the Capital. His red hair was in elaborate braids, and he had the ruby necklaces, earrings and bracelets to match. If the Magister wanted to display his wealth, Aleci thought wryly, then he did so with Lewyn. Aleci swallowed when he came closer. The silks left little to the imagination. He could see the piercings glinting on the younger man’s nipples, a golden chain connecting them. There was another one, going lower.

 

He could feel Finne’s full body shudder.

 

“Isn’t he exquisite?” said Magister Lerius, pulling Lewyn closer to sit on his lap, a warped contrast to Finne and Aleci, “He’s better than a meretrix, he doesn’t gossip or-” he squeezed a nipple, “understand.”

 

It was a compliment one would give to a vase, thought Aleci.

 

“Is he not from a noble family?” said Aleci.

 

“They all were.” said Magister Lerius with a shrug, “But it’s not like they teach their carriers anything in Imruk. Empty headed the lot of them, at least this one can write his own name when I asked him what it was.” he turned his gaze to Finne, and addressed Aleci, “What of your wife? Are you teaching him numbers?”

 

The grip Finne had on Aleci’s toga was vice-like, his knuckles white.

 

“We enjoy each others’ company.” said Aleci, shortly.

 

“Enjoy eh?” said Magister Lerius, lecherously “I couldn’t understand why Moderatus chose him for you.” said the Magister, “There were so many others. I’ve never seen more red heads in one place” his hands tugged on the golden chain, “Imruk does have beauty after all.”

 

Aleci tried very hard not to look at Lewyn’s face, or whatever the Magister was doing with his hands as they traveled lower down Lewyn’s body, “How is Praefect Damon?” he said, taking full advantage of the man’s drunkenness, “My father sent him there sometime ago.”

 

“I wouldn’t know.” said Magister Lerius, “Wrong man for the job, if you ask me, but they’re not really interested in Imruk being free city.”

 

“Who are they, Magister Lerius?” said Aleci, a sinking feeling in his stomach.

 

“The senate, my boy. I think Moderatus compromised by sending Damon even though there’s several others he could’ve sent. Can’t be helpful that they have such barbaric customs there,” the Magister gave a disdainful scoff, “anyone can challenge a ruler. They could’ve just have Colosseums, if they like watching death fights.” he mistook Aleci’s slowly dawning comprehension with confusion, “It’s like this, anyone can challenge a ruler anytime in Imruk, insofar that he can defeat the ruler in a trial by combat. Unarmed mind you. It’s not even interesting. But their aged ruler hasn’t fought any challenges in years, no idea where his sons are, apparently he went unhinged and killed them all. That’s what we’re told and that’s why we sent Damon.” he rolled his eyes, exaggeratedly, “The problem with sending such a brute is that there won’t ever be peace. Damon won’t do peace, I won’t be surprise if the rumors are true and he really does like bathing in blood. The senate aren’t the most patient. If Imruk doesn’t concede as a free city then they’ll be assimilated as a slave one.”

 

“Ah.” said Aleci, swallowing, glad that the wine loosen the Magister’s tongue, “I understand.” then, “Do you think there’s a way that it won’t be assimilated?”

 

“A divine intervention.” said Magister Lerius, taking a deep drink from the cup Lewyn offered him, “They’re so backwards. Their roads are shit, their food is shit. I don’t even know how they live as it is. I won’t say it’s a mercy, I prefer freemen, they have more coin than a slave, but as it is,” he shrugged, “they’ll continue paying their tributes. Probably more, everyone wants those mines emptied as fast as possible.” he smiled widely at Aleci, drunkenly, “But enough of that, what were you doing at Flucus’s house? I heard Moderatus had a massive quarrel with the man when he failed you.”

 

“I didn’t understand the way he taught math.” said Aleci, and Magister Lerius threw back his head to laugh, downing another glass of wine. Aleci was privately impressed at how capable the Magister was at drinking while talking.

 

“Well, you did understand it now don’t you?” said Magister Lerius, “It’s a damn shame you don’t use it, but I suppose Moderatus has you working that whatever hare brained scheme of his-” here Magister Lerius gave an elaborate wink.

 

Aleci had a faint idea of what Magister Lerius meant, but seeing the flush on the man’s face and neck, it could be anything.

 

“I wanted to ask him for a seal.” said Aleci, “It would seem that there’s illiterates checking papers now.”

 

“Unsurprising.” scoffed Magister Lerius, “They want to bankrupt us all and force us to hire mercenaries.”

 

His words were getting more and more slurred, and Aleci struggled to comprehend them. He could see the Magister eying Finne, his eyes roaming up and down Finne’s body. The Magister licked his lips and Aleci resisted the urge to forcibly restrain him.

 

“Why have a pretty wife if you don’t adorn him as well?”


Aleci stood up as the Magister did, putting himself firmly between him and Finne.

 

“I would appreciate it greatly, Magister Lerius.” said Aleci, loudly, hoping it could pierce the drunken fog, “If you would grant me a seal of travel.”

 

This seemed to jolt the Magister out of whatever rakish thoughts running through his mind. What was with Magisters and their obsession with fucking other men’s wives- spouses?

 

“Ah, of course!” said Magister Lerius, “I suppose I should pay back Moderatus, he has done me-” a loud burp, “many a favor throughout the years.” he stumbled drunkenly towards the desk in the corner, unlocked a small chest on it and pulled out paper, seal and red wax.

 

Perhaps it was good that these letters were prewritten, the Magister’s signature was barely legible. The paper smelled like wine. Whatever gutter his father pulled Lerius out of through out the years, it now have been paid in full. At least the seal on its red wax was properly done.

 

“Thank you, Magister Lerius.” said Aleci, bowing, and lying through his teeth, “I appreciate it.”

 

Even a blind man would see the Magister’s gaze lingering on Finne as they took their leave. The door didn’t even close properly and they could hear Magister Lerius calling for the meretrixes and before they even arrived in a colorful cloud of silks Aleci could already hear the grunts and the slapping of flesh on flesh.

 

I don’t know what’s wrong with them.” said Aleci, “I’m sorry, I would never-”

 

“Lewyn said I was a whore.” Finne muttered.



Sorry?” said Aleci, taken aback, he didn’t hear a single word from Finne or Lewyn the entire time he talked with the Magister.

 

He signed it.” said Finne, making a series of movements with his hand to demonstrate, “He said I should’ve killed myself than carry some barbarian’s child.”

 

What did you say back?”

 

Nothing.” said Finne, “I wished him luck.”

 

There was a deeply morose look on Finne’s face, and Aleci hesitated, not knowing what precisely he should say. It was already dark and Aleci’s stomach grumbled angrily at the smells of food that he didn’t even get to taste.

 

“Why don’t-” he said, as they entered the terrace room and made to step over various drunken guests, “Why don’t you hold this?” he shoved the sealed paper in Finne’s hand, his eye on the elaborately carved ivory horn on the floor next to Praefect Flucus.

 

“What.” said Finne, “What are you doing?”

 

“I promised Edon I’ll bring him something.” said Aleci before he stalked towards his former teacher, scowling at the unconscious Praefect, “I think it’s a long time coming. You fucking cretin.” he whispered, crouching over the man.

 

At least Galer believed him when he claimed he wasn’t stupid, or deliberately failing himself. There was always the possibility that Galer did believe Flucus’s claim that Aleci was a dunce. There was a childish sort of glee running through his veins when he took the carved vessel, running his fingers through the geometric shapes and animals carved on its surface.

 

Finne shook his head in disbelief when he returned with the tusk tucked into the folds of his toga.

 

“But why?” said Finne, mouth open.

 

“Why not?” said Aleci, grinning. 

 

The delighted squeal from Edon when he showed him the carved tusk, cleaned of residue wine, did bring a smile on Finne's face.

 

"What animal is this?" said Edon, ignoring the other savanna animals and pointing to the elephants.

 

"An elephant." said Aleci.

 

To his relief Maera thought to save them some food, the stew and meat still warm. "Thank you." he said to Maera, and from the look she gave him, they were due for another long discussion.

Chapter Text

Two of the merchants, as it turned out were headed towards Losium. The others were headed in the general direction, going back towards their ships, Aleci would guess. The merchants had their own guards, which made traveling with them safer, yet slower.

 

Edon had bought a series of wooden rods and string from one of the merchants, and tied Verrin’s doll to it, a marionette, Edon said that was what Rinart called it. Verrin was pleased with the gift, though from what Aleci observed, she was more amused by how Edon attempted it on a sleeping Smudge first.

 

Maera rode up next to him after lunch, and before he could open his mouth, the older woman said, “You’re right.” then, “You can’t just rely on me though.”

 

“Then find your sisters. Write to them.” said Aleci.

 

“They won’t come back.” said Maera, “Not with proof of Imruk’s change.”

 

“Well perhaps Imruk can be changed.”

 

“Who can change it?” said Maera, “And as I told you before, installing a carrier or woman isn’t change.”

 

“I don’t know.” said Aleci.

 

He thinks she looked triumphant in her smile, though it wasn’t because she won, “Answer that question, Aleci, and then get back to me.” said Maera, patting his shoulder before dropping back to ride with Oppius.

 

She had called him Aleci. He wasn’t sure what that meant. His confusion was apparent, as Finne asked him later that night with an eye roll before he started, “What happened with you and Maera now?”

 

They were sitting cross legged in their wagon, slicing and peeling the apples that were picked. They would be placed inside flat wicker baskets on top of the wagons, secured by ropes to dry or pressed into juice for a cider. Some of them had already been made into jam, Edon was rather delighted to be included the whole process, from the stickiness of his hands and tunic afterwards. Finne offered to help the troupers peel the rest, which was why Finne was presently using his pocket knife, and Aleci using a borrowed one from the troupers’.

 

“She asked me a question that I can’t answer. Yet.” said Aleci.

 

“Do you hold grudges?” said Finne, his eye fixed on the apple he was peeling.

 

“Why do you ask?” said Aleci, surprised.

 

“You were pretty miffed at Praefect Flucus.” said Finne, meeting his eyes.

 

“He failed me even though I told him I didn’t understand his numbers.”

 

“It’s a pretty long time to hold a grudge.” Finne pointed out.

 

“I don’t like being made a fool, most of all in front of everyone.” said Aleci, tossing the core of the apple into a separate basket.

 

Praefect Flucus took great delight in that, and Aleci had hated the man ever since.

 

“What about lying?” said Finne.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Your father must’ve lied to you. The Magister mentioned something about hare brained projects, he must have had many.”

 

“Oh that, yes, well he did, probably still do. It’s not lying, he just doesn’t like telling the whole truth.”

 

“Isn’t that lying?” said Finne, taking up another apple to peel.

 

“Well yes, but he doesn’t trust me and I don’t trust him.”

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

“Look, my mother, lied to me didn’t she? She kept Ilos’s package all these years. I asked her… I asked her if he left anything here, he visited us before, and she never said. But well, you said I’d reacted explosively and yes, you’re right when you said I would.”

 

“I don’t understand.” said Finne, softly.

 

“I’ll forgive my mother more easily than my father.” Aleci concluded.

 

“Why?”

 

“Because it’s clear to me why she did so. I hate how I have to read through everyone of my father’s intentions. He treats me like his letters to the Capital. Reasons and logic and more reasons.”

 

“Do you think… do you think he does it because he doesn’t want to hurt your feelings?”

 

If he laughed as hard as he wanted to laugh he would wake up Edon. It must have confused Finne, seeing his reaction, but then he recognized the gloomy look from yesterday.

 

“Are you alright? After yesterday, you know…”

 

“I’m fine. What do you want to ask?” said Finne, tilting his head to one side.

 

“Did you know Lewyn?”

 

“From before? Not really.” said Finne, rather evasively.

 

“You didn’t like-” Aleci began.

 

“I have piercings. Ear piercings.” Finne dropped his knife and motioned towards his ears, they were pierced but Aleci never saw him wearing earrings, “I don’t care how many piercings someone has. I don’t like being coerced. Or threatened.”

 

There were more meaning to his words than what Aleci could discern and he thought it was probably best to move on to another topic.

 

“Do you know what I thought about the last time we fucked?”

 

“No.” said Finne blinking and shaking his head.

 

“There’s a great big cliff an hour’s ride from Aulius’s house. Mulius dared me to jumped off it with him.”

 

“No.” said Finne, but this time it was in disbelief.

 

“It was great.” he had inhaled more sea water than air, but that was worth the boast when they climbed up again and saw the pallor on Aulius’s face who refused to join them.

 

“Well I’m glad you didn’t impale yourself.” Finne sniffed when he saw Aleci bit back a laugh. “Don’t put this idea to Edon.” he said, pointing his knife in Aleci’s general direction.

 

“Don’t worry, I won’t.” said Aleci, holding up his hands in surrender.

 

They sat in silence for awhile, the only sounds were their knives slicing through the apples, the soft chatter of troupers outside their wagon and the crackling of the campfire outside.

 

“I had a nice day, one of the merchants told me what theme they’re planning in Losium.” said Finne.

 

“Oh?”

 

“Yes, it’s what Mercus said, the epic.” Finne waved the hand holding the knife vaguely, “The long one.”

 

“Did you plan already what you’re going to sing?”

 

“Not about the heroes. It seems everyone sings about them… do you think I’m handsome?”

 

Aleci sighed, reminding himself to ask Finne to tell him something along the lines of ‘I’m changing the topic to this’ before his spouse did so and said, “Why do you ask?”

 

“It’s one of the songs. You know, the types of songs, as Mercus said, I met a fair lass and she was fair.”

 

“Oh. Well, yes, I do.”

 

Finne looked taken aback by his response, “But?” said Finne.

 

“But. I just… hm. How to say? Can you be patient?” when Finne nodded, he continued, “So, I told you, I went to the Vestalium Maxima and talked to her, well, more like she listened to me. I was the one talking. And she said to me something afterwards, something along the lines of ‘I have heard you say so much about how handsome Ilos is and how beautiful’, and she handed me a dead pigeon, one of those sacrificial ones they use in the temples and told me to look at it and come back to her when all what’s left of it is bones. I told her she was mad, and she laughed, so I did as she said.”

 

It was a confusing exercise. Certainly he was glad he was given the task in the winter, the smell of a decaying pigeon in the summer mixed with various other smells of the Capital streets would be unbearable.

 

“When I came back to her, she asked me what I thought of it, and I don’t remember what I said to her, but she said, ‘look, everyone’s beauty fades, you go on and on about his eyes and his hair and his hands but what is it that you share with him, that would last more than beauty that say, if he was blinded or crippled’,” Aleci swallowed, “‘that you still would be in love him?’ I didn’t know what to say to her.”

 

He twisted the corner of his tunic, the same as he’d done when the old woman had questioned him.

 

“She said there was no sin in loving someone, but a love that’s based on beauty would decay. That isn’t to say… I don’t find you beautiful I just…” Aleci laughed, disbelievingly, “I stared at a pigeon getting eaten by rats and worms and ants and well, I don’t imagine that with people now but for awhile, I couldn’t go without thinking about it. It would be the same, wouldn’t it, with people? And she’s right, I don’t want to love someone simply because they’re pleasing to my eye. Which you are pleasing to me, you are handsome, but, do you understand what I mean?”

 

“She’s worst than Maera.” said Finne, sounding faint, whether from shock or disbelief, Aleci couldn’t say, “Don’t worry. I don’t find you handsome.” Finne’s lips were in a straight line, but the amused glint in his eyes betrayed him, “This explains everything.”

 

He shook his head, laughing when Aleci pressed for an answer.

Chapter Text

It didn’t take long for the merchants to realize that he possessed the most coin out of all the other travelers. The first one, selling various pots and pans was overly optimistic in his asking prices of Aleci and was quickly waved away. Several others approach him as well, but none of them thought to peddle him anything Edon was interested in. The last one, Guelfo was headed to Losium as they were, and from the cut of his clothes and the metal on his sandals, he was the richest of the lot.

 

“Your wife’s a good singer.” said the man, beaming widely at Aleci, “Is he competing in Losium? Would you