Ashes Under Uricon

Chapter 7. Lucius (364)

By Mihangel

Hoc quod amare vocant misce aut dissolve, Cupido:
Aut neutrum flammis ure vel ure duos.

Cupid:this thing they call love -- either share it out or stop it! Set both of us on fire, or neither.

Ausonius, Epigrams

One morning soon afterwards Bran and I were setting out from home. Tad was away at Abonae, meeting his boatload of lead at the end of its journey down the Sabrina, and he had asked us to put in a day or two a week on the farm, helping Ulcagnus out and freeing the hands for other jobs. After the windy trip to Vindolocum, my relationship with Bran, if not quite back on its old footing, was markedly better, and the veil between us had partially lifted. I had not seen Amminus since, and I was more at peace with myself. On leaving the house, that morning, we stopped outside the goldsmith's -- the only one in town, for demand was not great -- our eye caught by the brooch he was working on. It was a large and truly beautiful thing, fully three inches long and shaped rather like a crossbow, of solid gold inlaid with curling black patterns. The price would be far beyond our contemplation, but we could admire it free of charge.

"Hey," I said reluctantly after a while, "we must go."

That sent us into an old routine, a game we had played in younger and more cheerful times.

"Hey, we must go, to bone-dry Africa," I recited. "At nos hinc alii sitientis ibimus Afros."

"Pars Scythiam et rapidum cretae veniemus Oaxen," Bran continued, "or Scythia, or Oaxes' chalky flood."

"Et penitus toto divisos orbe Britannos" -- this was chanted together -- "or Britain, wholly sundered from the world."

We looked at each other and laughed happily. And behind us another voice carried on where we had left off,

"En umquam patrios longo post tempore finis,
Pauperis et tuguri congestum caespite culmen,
Post aliquot, mea regna videns, mirabor aristas?

After so long, will I ever see my home,
My wretched hovel with its turf-thatched roof,
And marvel at my realm's few ears of corn?
"

It was a boy of about my age, grinning at us, and the sound of his Latin, though I had never heard the like of it before, instantly struck me as upper-class. My own Latin, I realised for the first time in my life, had a provincial twang.

The boy was drop-dead handsome, tall, mousy-haired, fair-skinned, hazel-eyed, and more smartly dressed than ever we were. His elegance and poise shouted status and wealth of a kind which simply did not exist in homely Viroconium. Or it had not existed hitherto. I put two and two together. There was a large town house towards the river which had been empty from as far back as I could remember, in the charge of a caretaker and permanently up for sale. Nobody local could afford it. But recently it had been opened up, repainted and refurbished throughout, to the delight of local tradesmen. It had obviously been sold, and the new owners could only be wealthy. Convoys of ox-waggons had been rolling in, these last few days, laden it seemed with personal possessions.

"Thank goodness," said the boy in Latin. "I was afraid I wasn't going to find any culture in this dump."

"Dump?" My hackles rose.

"Yes, dump. Full of bumpkins. No decent villas in the country, only ancient town houses. No decent stone defences, only shitty wooden palisades. No theatre. No amphitheatre. No circus. Nothing to do. A dump."

"Dump?" I repeated. "And I thought you came from a wretched hovel with a turf-thatched roof."

He grinned again, not in the least put out. "Hardly. We had a very nice place outside Camulodunum."

That explained it. Camulodunum was far away on the east coast. It was a stinking rich town, I had heard, the snob-capital of Britain to which high-ranking army officers and civil servants naturally gravitated, if they did not head for Corinium or Aquae Sulis.

"Why have you moved here, then?" I asked, in British to bring him down a notch.

He too switched to British, but a slightly stilted British. "Because the damned Saxons burned our villa. It was right by the sea. If we rebuilt it, they'd only burn it again. You'd think we deserve better protection. What are taxes for, if not to pay for the military?"

I was still placing him in my mind, and smelt a rat. "Do you pay taxes, then?" I asked nastily.

"Well, no. We're in the senatorial order, you see," he explained airily. "My great-great-grandfather was governor of Britannia Superior, a century ago."

I had never set eyes on people of such status, apart from the present governor and Deputy Prefect on their rare visits to Viroconium. But I knew that membership of the senatorial order was hereditary, and gave total exemption from taxes and civic duties. How sad -- all that wealth coming to our town, and the town would not benefit, except perhaps for the tradespeople. And how totally unfair.

"So why have you moved here?"

"My old man has a lot of land near Croucomailum." He gestured vaguely and in quite the wrong direction. "It's run by a bailiff. So we thought we'd head for a bit of peace, well away from the coasts and bloody barbarians."

I was still uncomfortable at hearing the word 'barbarians', and especially 'bloody barbarians', and Bran knew it. I glanced at him. He was listening impassively, but his eyes gave me permission to carry on.

"Then you've jumped out of the frying pan into the fire. Your bailiff can't have told you that the Irish often raid here, more than the Saxons do in the east."

That surprised him. "This far inland? But there's a whole legion at Deva. What do they do?"

"Virtually nothing. And it's not a legion. It's only a handful of run-down squaddies. Four years ago the Irish got right up to the town walls here."

He shrugged as if it were not his problem. "Oh well, I'm sure it'll be all right. My old man understands these things. What does your old man do?"

"He's Procurator of Mines. Supplying the money which the government's supposed to spend on defence."

"That's worth knowing. What's his name?"

"Senicianus."

"I mean, his full name."

"Just Senicianus."

He blinked. "Oh. How odd. What's yours?"

"Docco. Just Docco. Or Docco son of Senicianus, if there are other Doccos around."

"How do you do?" he said, holding out a formal hand which I rather reluctantly shook. "I'm Lucius. Lucius Martiannius Pulcher."

I might have guessed. The full rigmarole of three names was the sign of a Roman, a proper Roman. And Pulcher meant beautiful. That fitted, too. In the face of his assurance I was feeling rustic and uncultured. Our family were modest gentry. In Viroconium's hierarchy we might be near the top of the tree, but we were nobodies compared to these grandees. Yet my British was better than this boy's.

He turned to Bran, his hand out again. "And you are . . . ?"

Bran shook the hand. Knowing him, I could see mischief in his eyes which Lucius could not. "I'm Bran son of Tigernac."

Lucius blinked again. "That sounds Irish." His voice held suspicion.

"It is. I'm Irish." Bran was giving nothing away.

"So you're not a citizen? You're a resident, um, foreigner?"

"No. Neither." Bran sprang his trap. "I'm a slave. Docco's slave."

The boy automatically wiped his hand on his tunic. He looked from one of us to the other, for once bewildered. "An Irish slave who knows Vergil? Who jokes with his master? Are you pulling my leg?"

"Not in the least." I was amused, but also cross. "I don't know how you do things in Camulodunum, but it's obviously different from here. Here we muck in together. Which reminds me, Bran. We ought to go and muck out."

"Muck out?" Lucius was still at sea. "The stable?"

"No, the cowshed. The shit of four hundred cows. It'll take us most of the day."

Lucius gaped, now at a total loss. All very well for a slave, you could see him thinking, but for an educated free-born citizen who owned that many cattle . . .

His poise was slipping. "But I hope we'll meet again," he said almost desperately. "I don't know anyone here, and I'm mad about Vergil."

I might otherwise have put him off. But if he was mad about Vergil he was not a complete write-off, not yet. Give him a chance.

"Yes, let's. Anyone will tell you where we live."

When we were out of earshot I asked Bran what he thought of our new acquaintance. His answer was unembellished.

"He's a prick."

"He's certainly a prick right now. An arrogant prick, and as weird as anyone from, well, Scythia or the Oaxes. But I reckon it's the way he's been brought up -- he's not as sure of himself as he seems. I'm wondering if he can be converted to the right way of thinking. Our way. The British way. It might be worth trying, you know. It would be good to have someone else to talk Vergil with, wouldn't it?"

Bran snorted. "If you succeed, I'll eat all the shit in the cowshed. No, I take that back. It's too much of a risk. But I really can't see you doing it."

"Not just me. If I get Tad on board, he'll be brilliant at explaining what makes us tick, won't he?"

"True. Very true. Yes, that's a better bet." He laughed, more deeply than I had heard him laugh for months. "It's a challenge, isn't it? A game, if you like, but a serious game. Go for it, then. Would you like me to help?"

I would indeed. I had not dared ask, for Bran might very well have thought it unreasonable. And he might have suspected me of reverting to my old ways and planning to leap straight into bed with Lucius. In fact I had no such plans. Attractive though he was, that was not in my mind. Not then.

The conversion of Lucius -- the taming of Lucius, we called it at the time -- was another long story which must, in part, be abbreviated. Tad came back in much higher spirits than when he had left. While at Abonae he had heard that because of economic conditions in Spain -- which was Britain's great rival in the lead trade -- the price of lead in Gaul was rocketing. His latest consignment, he very much hoped, would bring in enough to cover our previous loss; and this time it was insured.

He listened with deep interest to what we told him about the new arrivals and, like me, with disgust that the richest would get away with paying the least. Still, he said, there was a sporting chance that the father might cough up money for public works, in return for the honour of being a patron and benefactor of the town. He would have to meet him -- not immediately, which would smack of boot-licking -- but after a decent interval. What was our friend's name? Right, then his father would be Something Martiannius Pulcher, to be addressed as Pulcher. Only youngsters like Lucius were called by their first name. So this Lucius was an arrogant Roman so-and-so, was he, but worth trying to redeem? Tad laughed out loud, relishing the challenge, and promised to do his best to help. And yes, I could by all means invite young Lucius in for dinner.

Young Lucius accepted with an unexpected eagerness, and his education began. He asked in advance, very properly, if there was anything he should know, to avoid giving offence. I told him of Mamma's recent death and the financial stringency, at both of which he commiserated. He also asked if he should wear a toga, at which I spluttered. I had never set eyes on such a garment. Apart from the Pulchers' there was probably not a single toga in the whole of Viroconium. So he arrived in a fancy tunic and a cloud of scent. Tad, who was in his best no-nonsense mode, shook his hand and said how glad he was to meet a young man so evidently brought up in, ah, traditional ways. Oh, er, yes, Lucius mumbled; they did try to follow the simple old Roman customs. At which Tad pointedly sniffed the air and wrinkled his nose.

Lucius paused politely by our little household shrine and asked who the images were. He knew the Mothers. The others were new to him and evidently, though he carefully did not say so, quaint. Did we not honour the Roman pantheon, then, especially the Capitoline triad of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva? No, we said. They were there in the Town Hall, but nobody really bothered about them.

Ah yes, said Lucius, resolutely on his best behaviour. The Town Hall, he had seen that -- it was almost as large as Camulodunum's. He was sure Viroconium must have great civic pride to have invested in so fine a building. No, Tad replied dryly, not really. It was second-hand, having begun life as the exercise hall for the baths, and was only converted after the Irish had torched the original Town Hall in the forum. The civitas had better things these days to spend its limited funds on. Lucius would have noticed that there was no theatre here, or amphitheatre, or circus. Spectator sports weren't our style. But we did have a fine arena for parading horses at the weekly fair, and an excellent cattle market complete with well-appointed slaughterhouses. That was what mattered to the Cornovii. Their whole economy revolved around horses and cattle.

We went in to dinner and lay down. Bran was waiting on us. The menu was deliberately simple. No larks' tongues or stuffed dormice or whatever proper Romans ate, but Roveta's speciality of braised beef with plenty of garlic and a rich gravy, onions, early greens, and her best poppy-seed bread. Lucius took one taste and seemed genuinely appreciative. He sipped his wine and his eyes widened.

"This is a fine vintage, sir. From Burdigala?"

"No. From half a mile down the road. And please don't call me sir. My name's Senicianus. Nobody calls me sir. Except Bran, when he wants to put me in my place."

That was stretching a point, considerably. But Bran smiled and Lucius looked shocked.

We asked how his household was settling in. Very well, he said. A stream of town dignitaries had called with, he implied, suspect motives; particularly the bishop, who had been sent away with a flea in his ear. And the house was good, though they would have to extend the slave quarters which were inadequate. How many slaves did they have, then? Seventeen, he thought, counting on his fingers -- no, nineteen -- looking after his parents, himself, and three younger sisters.

He accepted a second helping of beef.

Ah, said Tad. We had three slaves, looking after three of us before his wife died, and few people in Viroconium had more. Most had none. Lucius replied politely that he understood. Romans lived like Romans as best they could. How far they succeeded depended on their means. No blame if their means were limited; they still tried to live like Romans.

"Lucius," said Tad firmly. "We aren't Romans. Not in your sense. Nor is anyone in Viroconium. We're Britons, and we try to live like Britons. All right, we're Roman citizens and we owe allegiance to our noble emperor . . . um . . . Jovian." The hesitation was surely deliberate. "And we've adopted some Roman customs, like drinking wine rather than beer. But we're still Britons. And one characteristic of Britons is that we try to respect our fellow men. Other Britons, Gauls, Spaniards, Germans, Greeks, whoever. Yes, Romans too. And even Irish, if they behave themselves. Bran, would you care to join us?"

This was, needless to say, pre-arranged. We had finished the main course and Bran had cleared the dishes. He was now setting out the fruit -- apples from the winter store, wrinkled but sound, and dried figs and dates, the only imported part of the meal. And when he lay down with us, a cup of wine in his hand, Lucius' jaw almost hit the table.

"Bran," said Tad. "You're Irish, yes, but you're British by adoption, as it were. What does Britishness say to you?"

"Moderation," Bran replied at once. "Tolerance. Taking people as you find them. Being true to yourselves, not trying to ape other people too much. When in Rome, they say, do as the Romans do. When in Ireland, I suppose, do as the Irish do. And when in Britain do as the British do. That's the rule I work to, as a foreigner of a sort."

"Where," I asked Lucius, hoping to rub the point in, "did your family come from originally?"

"Er, Pannonia."

Point made. Not Rome, not even Italy, but Pannonia, way out by the Danube, as provincial as Britain. Lucius, like Bran, was also a foreigner of a sort.

It was the cue for Tad to expound his philosophy. I have already related much of it, and need not repeat it here. But one detail seemed to hit Lucius particularly hard. Tad asked if he had yet come of age. Not yet, was the answer, but when he turned sixteen this summer he would put on the toga virilis, the Roman symbol of manhood. He said it with pride, but Tad quickly deflated him. So he was still impubes, then? Lucius had to admit it, but with a great blush because it reflected on his manliness. The word meant, literally, not yet at puberty. Physically, he had obviously arrived there. But technically, in Roman law, he had not. Legally, he was prepubertal.

Hmmm, said Tad. Docco here had officially become a man on his fourteenth birthday, nearly two years ago, and it had freed him from all parental authority. Lucius' wistful face suggested that the parental authority under which he laboured, and would labour indefinitely, was a heavy one.

He left, full of polite thanks but very thoughtful, and we had a wry laugh together.

"I'm glad I took back that promise about the cow shit," said Bran. "I've a feeling this might work after all. He takes things on board. You can see that."

It was only a beginning, and I hoped we had not overdone it. But we needed to keep up the pressure, and Lucius had agreed readily enough to meet us again next day. We took him up Virocodunum and showed him the panorama of our territory, for he had no more idea of our local geography than I had of Camulodunum's. From the hill-fort we could see, if not the main roads themselves, at least how they ran. The north-south route, the way the Irish came in, came through relatively flat lands from Deva and the sea, and from us continued down the lower Sabrina valley to Glevum and Corinium. The east-west route from London and Ratae also came through easy terrain before plunging into the mountains and following the upper Sabrina by way of Levobrinta into the heartland of the Pagenses.

"Ah," said Lucius, gazing thoughtfully at the mountains. "I see. Viroconium's a frontier town, isn't it? And a crossroads. More strategic than I thought."

The day after, we took him to the Town Hall where we listened to the council debating whether it could afford a paltry sum for replacing a hundred paces of the palisade which were collapsing. Afterwards Lucius stopped in front of the town shrine, an alcove off the hall with several statues of Roman gods and one of Cernunnos the guardian of heads, and raised his hands in prayer. On leaving the Town Hall we passed the great column, three times as tall as us, with a scaly shaft and, on top, a figure of a bearded horseman riding down a snake-limbed monster. Lucius asked who it was. Taranis the sky-god, we told him, overcoming the forces of evil.

"Ah, rather like Jupiter?" he asked hopefully.

We agreed, kindly, because it seemed to make him feel more at home, and suggested moving on fast because the sky was black and lowering with storm-clouds. But Lucius insisted on going back into the Town Hall, where he laid a coin in front of Jupiter.

"Why?" we asked.

"Because Jupiter's obviously angry. And he's all-powerful. Do you want to be hit by a bolt of lightning?"

"We don't think any god's all-powerful. All right, nature is. But what nature does is beyond anyone to change, gods or men. If you get hit by lightning, it's by chance, not design."

"Oh."

It thundered on the way home and we got wet, but we were not hit by lightning.

On the third day, in the morning, we took him to a session of the magistrates' court which tried all lesser cases, and he was astonished that malefactors were sentenced not to a flogging or worse but to payment of compensation to their victims, either in money or in kind.

The afternoon he spent at his own home, because his father was sanctifying their new house. Lucius told us about it afterwards. Back at Camulodunum, Pulcher had been a civic priest: a part-time job but evidently, there, an important one, and the skills spilled over into his domestic role as head of the household. In front of the household shrine, which sounded much more elaborate than ours, he had sacrificed a sheep, a goat and a chicken. He had cut their throats, slit their bellies open, and examined their twitching entrails. Fortunately the hearts, lungs, livers and intestines had all been as they should.

Bran visibly shuddered, and put my own doubts into words.

"What happens if the entrails are wrong?"

"Oh, it all has to be done again, until they're right." Lucius was already becoming used to a slave as a companion.

"But what's the point? That if the gods don't like a human set-up they say so by giving a sheep a mis-shapen liver?"

"Um, well, yes, I suppose so. I've never really thought about it. Don't you inspect entrails?"

"No," I replied. "Some people here still sacrifice animals. They say that blood's essential to life and if you, um, transfer it ritually from animal to human it's a restoration of life-renewal. Or some such tosh. But people don't sacrifice nearly as much as they did once, Tad says. And we never do. We give the gods small things, to show our gratitude. Even meat, if we have any spare. But why should they want us to kill specifically for them? And inspecting entrails sounds totally weird. Did that take the whole afternoon?"

"Oh no. But my father had to sanctify the whole house, and that took time, what with all the gods involved."

"Uh? Such as?"

"Well, there's a god for virtually everything, isn't there? I mean, not just one god for doors, but Forculus for the doors themselves, and Limentius for the threshold, and Cardea for the hinges. And so on. All right, not major gods, but they all have to be placated. Don't you have them?"

"No. We do have a general -- Genius of the household, I suppose you'd call him. But mostly our gods deal with much wider things. The sky. The sun. The earth. Woods. Hunting. Cows. Horses. Music. Crafts. War. Not fiddly things like hinges."

"Oh."

The fourth day, our next working day, we took him to the farm and gave him a broom and shovel, and he helped muck out with great good will if little skill.

"Fortunatus et ille deos qui novit agrestis," he remarked ruefully, looking down at his shit-spattered tunic. "Fortunate too is the man who knows the gods of the countryside."

There was a sharp mind there, warm, witty, self-mocking once weaned from arrogance. I felt the first wrigglings of something I had never felt before.

We returned late that day, too late for the public baths, and Lucius balked at going to his own home in such a servile state. But it happened to be the day when our own bath was fired up, and on the spur of the moment I invited him to use it with us. Quick consultation with Roveta confirmed that there was enough food for an extra mouth at dinner. Tigernac offered off his own bat, should the gentleman wish to stay overnight, to take a message to his home. I suspected that Bran had let his parents in on the plot. Lucius accepted all these invitations, and the three of us went to the bath.

I had not seen Lucius naked, for hitherto he had always bathed at home. While Bran was throwing more wood into the stokehole, Lucius and I stripped. He wore a fascinum, a phallic good-luck charm, round his neck. His body was splendid and definitely not impubes. Desire began to stir. But he was still a relative stranger, I was still not entirely at ease with him, and my own body did not respond. Nor did his. Indeed, rather to my chagrin, he cast one quick glance at my nakedness and thereafter seemed to look carefully away. Bran came back and threw off his clothes, and now Lucius did stare. With reason, for Bran's figure was magnificent, his torso well-muscled and his legs already adorned with fair hair.

I poured oil into my hand and moved towards him.

"Is Bran bathing with us, then?" asked Lucius in astonishment. Slaves bathing with masters were evidently outside his experience.

"Of course. We do things together."

"Ah."

I oiled Bran, he oiled Lucius and me, and we moved on to the hot room. I sloshed water around to raise steam and, since there was room on the slab for only two, I told them to lie on it and nipped out in search of a stool for myself. Returning, I found them side by side, Bran as usual with arms behind his head and eyes closed, Lucius feasting his eyes on Bran's body and sporting a large erection.

"It always happens to me in the bath," he said unapologetically.

"To us too." Indeed Bran and I were already responding. "But we don't do anything about it. Not here."

I was under oath of silence regarding Bran's demonstration to me all those years ago, and no more was said as we relaxed in the steam. When we had a good sweat up I found the strigil and approached Lucius.

"Are you going to scrape me?" he said, astonished again.

"Why not? I always scrape Bran, and my other friends."

"Oh . . . I've never scraped anyone. Where I've been, there's always been a slave."

"And so there is here. But our relationship is different. Haven't you hoisted that in yet?"

"Yes. I'm beginning to."

Taking care not to trespass, I removed a good harvest of cow shit from Lucius, and was about to start on Bran when Lucius asked if he could try his hand. I was not wholly comfortable about it.

"It's up to Bran."

But Bran said yes, and Lucius set to work. Sometimes his hands seemed to stray deliberately and I had to warn him to respect Bran's body. He needed, too, a great deal of instruction in using the right curves of the strigil on the different curves of the body, and even in wiping the gunge off on the towel. Before long we were all giggling merrily, but finally and messily the job was finished. Then, as a demonstration, Bran scraped me rapidly and professionally, and we all rinsed off in the plunge bath. Bran had dug out a spare tunic and drawers of mine for Lucius to wear.

Dinner was pleasant. Tad regaled us with an amusing account of his day in the council offices, and remarked that he had bumped into old Nonius who had enquired after me. I explained to Lucius who Nonius was, and asked about his own schooling. The Pulchers employed their own tutor, it emerged, a Greek named Flavius Antigonus Papias. Lucius' tuition had ended when they moved, though his sisters were still having lessons. Papias' ambition to teach him Greek had been thwarted by Pulcher senior, to whom Greek ways were suspect. Why then, I asked, employ a Greek tutor? Lucius, already learning to recognise contradictions, smiled wryly. Because, he explained, possession of a Greek tutor imparted status. But since his father paid the piper, he called the tune, and his tune was Latin. Latin, in his eyes, and especially Vergil, was good enough for any Roman gentleman.

That led us naturally on to my scrolls, which Lucius begged to see, for even he did not have a copy of his own. That in turn led us on to epics, of which he knew only the Aeneid. It being Bran's evening off, Tigernac was waiting on us, and Tad got him to join us over the fruit and recite the tale of how ConCulainn was begotten; brokenly, because he had to translate from Irish to British in his head. Then Tad recited part of the British lay of Vedicondus, much more smoothly, and had Lucius almost in tears.

I saw Lucius to his room, brought him the scrolls, and left him poring over them in delight. An hour later, seeing lamplight still creeping past the door, I looked in to ask how he was getting on. He had Book V of the Aeneid unrolled at the description of the funeral games.

"I can't get that line out of my head," he said, pointing. It was about the young Euryalus, Gratior et pulchro veniens in corpore virtus. Lovely in the manly strength beginning to flower in his handsome body.

"It's a perfect description of Bran."

My discomfort returned. Lucius seemed to see himself in the role of Nisus, who had been Euryalus' boyfriend.

"If that's what you're thinking," I said quite sharply, "Bran's out of bounds."

"Yes, I do understand. Docco . . . Ummm . . ." He hesitated, and changed tack.

"Docco, I want to thank you." He became quite formal. "I've never enjoyed myself so much as these last few days. And you've given me so much to think about. Showed me so much to hoist in. And I am hoisting it in. Slowly, because it's all so new. And I'm liking it, much more than the life at home. At Camulodunum, I mean," he added hastily, loyally excluding his family home, though I suspected that was really included too. "They're selfish there. Artificial and -- what's the word? -- pompous. But here you're so laid-back. Down-to-earth. Honest. Friendly. You think of other people."

That was an astonishing accolade, and proof of an astonishing turnaround. He clearly meant it. I tried to say something, but he had not finished.

"And I want to apologise, for two things. You've been so hospitable to me, but I haven't been able to return it. You make me welcome here, and you'd be welcome at my place, Docco, as my very good friend. The problem is that Bran wouldn't. He's my good friend too. But my parents just couldn't understand a slave as a good friend. Or allow it. And I don't know how to persuade them. I'm sorry about that. But I can make some amends. Would you both like to come hunting tomorrow? I'm mad on hunting, and we've got a pack of wolfhounds."

I accepted warmly. It should be fun, and I felt sure that Bran would agree.

"The other thing I want to apologise for . . . When we first met, you must have thought me a frightful prick. And I was. I can see that. I'm sorry about that too. I hope I'm not such a prick now. Am I?"

That was the moment when I consciously realised that my liking for Lucius, abetted by a burgeoning physical desire, was ripening into love. He had a good mind as well as a good body. His arrogance was rapidly giving way to humility. He was beginning to fill my loneliness. I was already feeling an affinity with him. He had called me his very good friend. The trouble was that he showed no sign of deeper interest, not even in my body. His attention was all on Bran, which was a potential problem. But it was far too early to be defeatist. Could I deflect his attention? Perhaps I should try a little flirting.

So I grinned at him. "Yes, you were a prick. But you're getting less and less of a prick every day." I clapped him on the shoulders and looked him in the eye. "You're all right, Lucius Martiannius Pulcher. You're more than all right."

He smiled his relief, and when he smiled he was very beautiful. A bit of Vergil came into my head, and I adapted it, changing pulcher from adjective into noun.

"And," I said, "I'm looking forward to tomorrow when Pulcher insidiis cursuque feras agitabit . . . when Pulcher will be trapping and hunting wild beasts."

Lucius laughed out loud. "Clever! Very clever!"

"And Lucius. That line of yours about Euryalus -- Pulchro veniens in corpore virtus. Plenty of other people have lovely bodies, you know. Not just Bran. The way I read it, it means the manly strength beginning to flower in Pulcher's body."

He flushed as if I had said something offensive.

"Er, yes," he muttered. "Good night!"

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[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead