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A World Elsewhere

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One.

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The Victoria skimmed New Roma’s exosphere just as Sol tipped over the horizon.

Wincing, Martius glanced up from the report. For all Sol was saying goodbye for the season, he cast an orange glow through the wide port, snaking over the desk, making the shadows that lay behind the antique clock knife-sharp.

“Screen: Seventy percent,” he ordered. The port’s lumo coating thickened, muting the glow. He returned to the report.

It was the usual nonsense, he grumbled to himself as he stroked the air with his forefinger, scrolling image after image. Civil unrest, people clamoring for what they hadn’t earned, wanting the justice everyone but he had promised. Fools. If they had listened to him, they’d understand that things were as they should be. A country doesn’t come out of a war unscathed in one way or another and there were always sacrifices to be made.

He touched the newest scar on his forearm. He’d ducked Volsci laser fire just in time and it still stung. Some might say he’d been lucky but then some were idiots to even believe in luck.

“Sir?”

He activated the viewer. Titus’s image sprang to life. “Yes?”

“General Cominius and the senators have convened.”

He closed the report and the news images vanished in a haze of glittering light. “I’ll be there shortly.”

“Yes, sir.”

“How’s the knee?” Even though the hologram was near life-like, he couldn’t see the wound on Titus’s left leg.

“I’ll live to fight another day.”

“As well we all will. As only some of us have done.” A dig at the Volsces he’d left lifeless on the battlefield.

Titus smiled. “Yes, sir.”

Martius jerked his head. “Go.”

Titus saluted and the hologram dissolved, much as the news feed had.

*

The ship’s conference room was situated near the auxiliary galley, off the main corridor. Martius had wondered in the past, why such a large suite on a warship? It made no sense and the room hardly saw use. If he hadn’t been away for the three months during her inception, he would have had a hand in the design. He would have chosen a small room, suitable for a handful and leave it at that. The long table, the even wider window—what was the point? This was a warship not a party cruiser.

But this night, as he stepped through the threshold and the door closed smoothly behind him, the room seemed crowded. Titus was conferring with General Cominius in the corner. The senators were milling around, gesturing so quickly that the transmission had trouble keeping up, leaving ghostly trails of data about the room.

Martius cleared his throat.

They stopped talking and turned as one.

Cominius smiled and came forward. “Martius! It’s good to see you well.” He made an aborted gesture, holding his hand out for Martius to clasp. He always did that, forgetting that if they were to attempt a handshake, their hands would meet nothing but air. It was Cominius’s age—fighting fit though he was, he came from a time when virtual communications were nothing more than a gleam in an engineer’s eye.

Martius nodded. “You, as well. I see everyone is agitated; what is the matter?”

A senator came forward, his robes fluttering wing like, as if he were a duck.

“Our spies have it that the Volsces are landed on Corioles and are at this minute arming and readying their ships.” The senator stepped closer, forgetting the limits of the dimensional camera, his face filling the space in front of Martius. “They’re set to arrive at the Gate in the next forty-eight hours.”

“The Gate will hold,” someone said behind the senator.

With a scowl, Martius waved the senator back and waited until the screen cleared and he could see the distant senate comm room again. He glanced around, taking them all in, making sure all eyes were on him. “The Gate is simply a orbital ring of particle cannons. It is useful in keeping New Roma safe from bandits and thieves but it’s not infallible; like anything, it can be breeched.”

There were more stirring, more flutterings. Martius signaled to Titus. Titus nodded to Cominius, ushering him to the table. The general coughed loudly and the senators followed suit, still grumbling.

Martius waited until they were all seated, then said, “Vid: Play, time stamp three-six.” The screen materialized, floating above the table as the images formed.

The recording had been shot with an old-fashioned camera and the images were flat with no dimension. But the colors were clear, sharp. Martius had watched it many times, marked the video’s main attraction, his every easy movement, every bare-bent smile and shift of eyes.

Tullus Aufidius was a tall man, blue-eyed, fair of face. Fair, even with the half-moon scar on his cheek, fair even as he interrogated his New Roman POW in the dark cell of some subterranean prison.

Aufidius didn’t beat or terrorize—he used almost-gentle words, ‘What’s the news in Rome?’ and ‘Are the people happy?’ until the frightened young soldier calmed and answered his questions.

But then, when he had his answers, Aufidius pulled his pistol and shot the prisoner neatly through the temple and then turned to the camera. He looked straight into the lens, grim and fierce, as if looking into Martius’s soul.

Martius paused the recording.

“Who is this?” Senator Servillius asked.

“Tullus Aufidius,” Martius murmured, still holding Aufidius’s immobile stare.

Servillius leaned forward. “I take it you’ve fought?”

“Four times, so far. The last time he gave me this.” He raised his arm, showing the wound. He stroked it with his thumb, saying absently, “A month ago, on Caballus. Of all the men I’ve known, he might as well be me.”

“He’s the leader of a pack of junkyard dogs,” Servillius sneered.

Cominius frowned and opened his mouth, but Martius interrupted smoothly, “He is a lion. And one I am proud to hunt.”

The senators were silent a moment and Martius glanced aside. The ship had docked and New Roma sparkled and beckoned far below. “We’ll lure Aufidius to Latium and engage him at Corioles. And Titus,” he turned to his comrade, adding, “you’ll once again see me face to face with my sworn enemy.”

Titus smiled. “I look forward to it.”

Martius turned back to where the false Aufidius still watched and beyond that, to Cominius and the senators. “Gentlemen, I’ll contact you when we’ve made planetfall on Latium. Titus? I’d like to talk to you in private.”

He leaned back in his chair and waited while Titus transferred the transmission to the small booth near the comm room. He stroked the long thin ridge on his forearm; the scar didn’t hurt anymore but if he closed his eyes, he could feel it again, the searing pain, the even more searing—

“Sir?” Titus asked.

“Hmm?” He straightened. “Yes. If you haven’t finished the duty roster, complete it now. I want to review it tonight.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And make sure the Telum’s repairs have been completed.”

“Yes, sir.”

“That is all.”

“Sir?”

“Yes?”

“Do you need me for anything else? I can be there within the hour.”

He shook his head, not having to inquire what ‘anything else,’ entailed. After Caballus, Titus had offered to share his bed. Martius had considered it for a bare two seconds before saying no. It had been a mistake, those two seconds and it was time to nip any awkward hopes in the bud. “No. I have no need of you, now or ever.”

Titus made no fuss; he got up, saluted and cut the transmission.

Martius turned back the hologram of Aufidius for a long moment, then sighed and said, “Vid: News, block carousel.” Aufidius disappeared, replaced with image blocks, an array of New Roma’s many news feeds. He touched one and the image enlarged.

It was the usual tripe, a live broadcast of a Roman mob crowding the streets before the city’s granaries and processing plants. This time, they carried crude weapons, banners and placards. He wasn’t surprised to see several signs decorated with his own crude portrait obscured by a large red X. Typical.

Above the mob drones hovered, bobbing here and there while his own police force surrounded on foot. But his men weren’t controlling the mob—they were merely reacting. Every time the crowd shifted, so did they, stun rifles pointed uselessly to the ground.

Martius knew what they were thinking as if he had direct connection to their inner thoughts because he’d dealt with this before. His men—no matter their training—didn’t want to hurt the protesters, didn’t want to answer with force.

Force.

If he were down there he’d show them force. He’d show them that the people were cowards, wanting one thing and then another, each the polar opposite of the other.

“Comm: New Roma, operations.”

A young soldier by name of Lucius Caelius, answered. “Yes, sir?”

“Contact Captain Octavius Comillius and remind him of his duty.”

“Sir?”

“Tell him to disperse the rabble in front of the Imperial Granaries! At once!”

Cealius gulped—Martius could hear it over the comm.

“Yes, sir.”

He disconnected and watched. Within sixty seconds, a black-uniformed officer pushed through the crowd and waved his baton. The police followed and the crowd finally retreated, step by step until, finally, the street was clear.

Martius sighed and turned off the feed. As he was getting up, the comm beeped. He opened the connection and paused. His wife’s three-dimensional icon stared calmly up at him. The comm beeped again. Without hesitation, he cut the connection and left the room.

*

The streets of Corioles were empty except for the news and security drones as the first century landed with a mighty thud and a ringed wave of dust. Martius waited impatiently, Titus by his side, until the ramp locked in place and the tall doors opened with a whine of metal on metal.

He looked up as he strode down the ramp, watching as the Telum and the Aquila landed on the bluffs that circled the city. As per their plan, Martius would take the lead, guiding his men straight into the heart of the city. While they advanced, the Telum’s pulse cannon would shake the outlying areas of the city to rubble, followed by the Aquila’s troops, who would hold the perimeter.

The former not too hard a task because Corioles was a wreck, the product of years of war. Scattered about were the skeletons of vehicles, both modern airstream and older, fuel-based kind. The buildings had seen the same care—most were simply shells, long since ruined.

The only area he recognized from his youth was the main avenue that bisected the city. It still held a glimmer of its old beauty even though the decorative foliage was also long gone.

“Do you think Aufidius knows we are coming?” Titus murmured, nodding to the avenue.

Martius smiled. Some sixteen meters down, a stretch airbus lay askew across the avenue, blocking passage. It was cleverly done, if a little unimaginative. They’d go in and as soon as they cleared the entry point, they’d be trapped.

But who was he to deny such a familiar greeting? He raised his arm, gave the signal, then crept forward, wending his way around an overturned cart.

Titus saw it first, a bright arc of laser fire that streaked through the air. “Cover!” he yelled. “Take cover!”

Martius ran and found shelter in the doorway of an old bank. So, yes, it had been a trap, but an Aufidius kind of trap and he should have known better.

He peered around the corner of the doorway. There, two buildings down and three floors up he spied movement. He got out his scope and fixed it. Sure enough, behind a curtain made of beads and plastic garland stood a soldier pointing an old-fashioned rifle.

Martius pocketed the scope, nodded to his men, then darted out, firing upwards all the way.

They made it to the next stage, an entrance to an old movie theater, unscathed. A cannon sounded, first the whistle and then the boom; it was the Telum, making her first volley.

“Sir,” Titus whispered in his ear. “Maybe we should hold here. We can signal Quintus and the Telum can do the rest.”

Martius turned to him. “Hold here? So they can pick us off one by one? No…” He looked every man in the eye. “We move forward. Now!

He took off again, scuttling through sniper fire and smoke, finding momentary refuge behind the ruins of the airbus and then, with a leap and a jump, through the bus and into the building that housed his enemy. He met resistance as soon as he was over the threshold, a soldier wearing Volsci colors, knife held high. Martius shot him in the neck at close range, the soldier’s blood arcing up and out, dressing his face in red.

He shoved the soldier to the ground and kept on, outpacing his men as he raced up a short flight of stairs into a spacious, shadow-filled gallery. He paused and looked around.

It had once been an elegant lobby, its wide plate glass window looking out over the avenue below. Like the town, it had seen better days and he edged around a castoff chair, pitted marble cracking under his boots.

He stopped.

Across the lobby standing in the weak light cast by the window was the man he’d come for. He smiled as his racing heart jerked and steadied to a kind of waiting calm. He wanted to smile. “Here you are.”

The clatter of rubber on stone sounded at his rear—his men had finally joined him.

Aufidius’s gaze didn’t waver. He nodded and answered with his own snarled grin, “Here I am. Waiting for you with all my hate.”

“We hate alike.” Beside him, Titus shifted from foot to foot, and he added—a warning for Titus, a promise for Aufidius, “I’ll fight with none but you.” He tipped his head to Aufidius’s men, seen in his peripheral vision.

“They’ll not interfere.”

He gripped his rifle, preparing to leap, but Aufidius did something that sent a thrill through his breast—he held his rifle out and gave it to his lieutenant, then unsheathed a knife and placed it on the floor.

The thrill turned into a blaze and Martius did the same, never once allowing Aufidius’s gaze to stray from his.

As one, they removed their holsters and heavy flak jackets. When they were naked of arms, they held a moment and then, again as one, they leapt for their blades.

It was brutal, fighting as animals fought.

They met in the middle of the lobby, lunging as each tried to gain the upper hand. It was also euphoric and Martius felt it as he jabbed and danced, that sense that here was his match, equal to him in all things. It made his spirit soar, the knowledge, and he felt as if he could do this always, fight with Aufidius.

Aufidius responded, matching thrust for thrust, his blade drawing first blood just as Martius twisted out of reach.

They parted, then met again, this time coming together body to body, stumbling back to land against a pillar. Aufidius growled and pivoted, using his height and weight to advantage, pressing Martius against the stone, groin to groin, chest to chest.

He tried to find purchase but it was no use. They were too easily matched in strength and savagery and there they stayed, each holding the other’s knife at bay in a stalemate that was finally broken by the boom of cannon fire.

Aufidius startled and in an instant, Martius shoved him away, aiming to follow with a quick thrust. But he slipped on a trail of blood and Aufidius had him. With a growl that turned to a roar, Aufidius embraced him, rushing him and momentum did the rest. They lurched towards the window and were through it, flying like sun-scorched Icarus to the ground amid a shower of broken glass.

They hit, pain lancing through his head, clear and bright, dulling his senses and weakening his grip. All he could do was lay there with Aufidius on top.

Thankfully, Aufidius fared no better. He struggled weakly, growling under his breath, a continuous low moan broken only by gasps.

Later, when he was returned to the Victoria, Martius thought on that moment, Aufidius in his arms loose, pliant, panting breath warm on his cheek as he were lost in some great passion.

But that was later. At the time he was only aware of weight, heat, and the need to move. He grasped the fabric and flesh at Aufidius’s waist and was preparing to roll, when the cannons fired for a third time. This time the blast was much closer and rubble rained down on them, completing what the fall had not.

*

He came to. First realizing he was in a bed and that bed was in a makeshift hospital tent. “Is he gone? Where is he?” He turned his head, his neck stiff with pain.

A few beds down, a surgeon was working on a young soldier. He looked up at Martius’s call then jerked his head towards the front of the tent and went back to his labor.

Martius craned his head, following the surgeon’s gesture, and found Cominius walking towards him. When he got to Martius’s bedside he stopped, looked around, then dragged a stool closer.

“What is the news?” Martius asked. He examined his body—shoulder, chest, and—he frowned—his leg. His knee was swollen; he didn’t remember taking a blow to his thigh but there it was, neatly wrapped with gauze.

Cominius sat with a heavy sigh. “Only that I and all the senators and all of New Rome thank the gods that we have you in our corner.”

“The skirmish was successful?”

“To a point. Latium is taken, that much is assured.”

He began to rise, then paused as his vision swam. “To a point—is Aufidius dead?”

“No. He and his men managed to slip away. We fired on them as they lifted off, but we were too late.”

He sat up gingerly. He wasn’t sure what answer would have pleased him most—Aufidius dead, Aufidius alive? “How many New Romans were killed?”

“Thirty-six at least.” Cominius glanced around and lowered his voice. “Add a half dozen more by sundown.”

Martius grunted. Thirty-six mothers and fathers would curse his name tonight but he was satisfied. Thirty-six was a small price to pay for the fall of the Volscian home planet.

“Come,” Cominius said as he clasped Martius’s forearm. “Let’s return to your ship. Your doctor awaits to finish what he…” Cominius nodded towards the surgeon. “…has started.”

*

By the time his doctor had ceased her fussing, by the time he’d reviewed the reports of the wounded and the prisoners taken, it was near midnight.

The troops were already in quarters when Martius made his way to his own, his boot heels ringing less noisily on the steel plating than usual. He was tired. And—he touched the light bandage on his shoulder—his half-healed wound itched like the devil.

The doctor had urged a painkiller but he’d denied her, saying that war was never a time for fuzzy thinking. She didn’t argue; they were longtime associates, Doctor Flavia Novinus and he. It was she that had sealed the wound given by Aufidius during the Bovillae campaign. And then, on a small planet just outside of New Roma’s influence—Bola it was named—Novinus had reset the broken femur he’d suffered when he and Aufidius had tangled again. He hadn’t minded the pain—he’d done his own share of giving that day—Aufidius still carried the scar on his cheek.

A long line of messages waited, floating about his desk. When he crossed his threshold they lit up, some flashing red.

He glanced at his bedroom then continued to the desk and sat down. He chose the most urgent message, pulsing red so urgently it was as if it were jumping up and down, shouting, ‘Open me first!’

It was from Menenius and urgent indeed.

‘Martius, my boy, I know it’s late and you’re probably still with your advisors but I wanted to pass on some information I’ve just received.”

Menenius cleared his throat and leaned sideways. Behind, Martius could see Menenius’s elegant flat, the blood-dark draperies and gold-trimmed furniture.

Menenius straightened, bringing with him a glass of scotch. He chuckled. ‘Intrigue is thirsty business.’ He took a sip, then sat the glass down. ‘But to serious matters. You know how the people are up in arms about the city bringing in foreign grain? How the unrest is only increasing? Well, I think I’ve found the two scheming culprits behind the growing anger.’

Menenius reached and his own screen appeared, showing footage of two senators at the opening of a new retail mall. They moved in virtual space, smiling to the crowd, waving unctuously.

Martius nodded grimly. They were the people’s tribunes, Junius Brutus and Sicinius Velutus. Even though he’d never had much contact with them, he knew them—they’d made their careers out of false flattery and lies. “Those two,” Martius murmured.

‘I’d gone to the Fox and Hound to celebrate your victory…’ Menenius smiled and raised his glass, tipping it in Martius’s direction, ‘…and happened to overhear their conversation.’ Menenius’s face grew dark and he leaned forward, his eyeglasses shining white for a moment. ‘I fear we might have some trouble. They called you proud, lacking any care for the public and the public good. Now,’ Menenius cracked a brief smile before continuing, ‘You and I have had this conversation before and I know how you feel. But this was different, Martius. It won’t surprise you to hear that the Senate is thinking of making you consul. If that happens, our friends won’t be happy.’

Menenius drew a breath and relaxed back in his chair, his smile reappearing. ‘I suppose you’re rolling your eyes or already on to other things, bored with this old man’s prattle. Just know that I and General Cominius have your back, as always. If Sicinius and Brutus make a move against you, we’ll block them as best we can. I’

With a second tip of his drink, Menenius murmured, ‘I’ll see you on your arrival,’ and terminated the transmission.

Martius tapped the table, thinking on Menenius’s words. Yes, they’d had conversations about the people and their ceaseless, endless, needs. Menenius had always cautioned against harshness and counseled kindness, even though the former be Martius’s true feelings and the latter, false.

There was no point, Martius always shot back; you strive to please one and you anger the other. It was a perpetual treadmill and one he didn’t have time for. Especially now.

Moodily, he swiped the list, ignoring Virgilia’s and even his son’s messages, only stopping at his mother’s.

The message wasn’t a video but a wave.

‘Son, I trust this message finds you well. Our friend, Menenius told me all and I could not be more proud. I’ve been taking calls and messages all day long; our neighbors and the senate are very grateful, as well they should be. I am told this will mean a significant step up for you. But…’ Volumnia laughed, much as Menenius had. ‘I’m not supposed to say anything about that. It’s enough to tell you that I’m happy that you acquitted yourself so nobly.’

Martius touched his shoulder again. His mother would be happier if current medical technology wasn’t quite so efficient and thorough. The few deep scars he had, formed from the wounds that hadn’t seen immediate attention, were the most pleasing to her, a mark of continual honor.

‘And now,’ Volumnia added, ‘I’m off to say convince your son that one more video game is not to be. I’ll say hello to your wife for you.’

His mother’s overly formal words ceased. Martius hesitated, then saved it in the folder titled, Volumnia.

He ran through the remaining list, swiping them quickly. They could all wait—he was tired and wanted his bed.

*

Coriolanus.

They’d crowned him emperor of the moment and had given him the name, Coriolanus.

He watched his reflection in the glass of the door and whispered, “Coriolanus.” It sounded stiff and unwieldy on his lips and he tried it again, “Coriolanus.”

The ceremony itself had been a sham. The spectators smiled, his mother glowed and his wife trembled. Only Cominius and Menenius show any true sense of the occasion, the latter genuinely happy for him.

“Coriolanus,” he whispered again as he opened the door and stepped out onto the balcony.

It was almost full summer. The gardeners had been busy, as had his wife. She’d done something to the lower beds—the last time he’d visited, almost two years ago, a statue of Mercury stood amid the narcissi and roses. Now there was a great wall of foliage blocking his view.

“What do you think?”

He twisted, Volumnia’s voice catching him unawares.

“Of what?” he answered.

Volumnia came out to stand with him at the railing. She’d removed her jacket and her crisp white shirt shone in the night, like a mirror of the moon.

“Of the new garden.” She waved her hand, taking in the broad sweep of landscape. “Your wife had done a good job in the past but the plants had begun to have their way.” She laughed a little. “It was important to remind them who is in charge, so I stepped in.”

He nodded absently. His ancestral house was ancient, over five centuries old but as long as the gardens were orderly, he didn’t care.

“And you?” Volumnia turned to him. “How do you like your new name?”

“Well enough.”

“It suits you.” And then Volumnia whispered, the same as he’d done, “Coriolanus.”

Now, the name sounded better, not quite so awkward. “I’ve work to do.”

“Wait.” Volumnia patted his arm. “I want to see them.”

“There’s nothing to see.”

She shrugged. “Still…”

He stared at her in a moment of willful, unspoken struggle. Across the way, a night insect began to chitter, a soft, irritating screech. Martius listened, trying to use the sound as a distraction but it was no use. He gave in with a sigh and went into his room. He began to strip.

He piled his clothes on the bed, one by one, and when he was naked he held his arms up silently.

Volumnia sat on the bed and patted the quilt. Martius dropped to the edge.

“Let me see,” Volumnia murmured as she removed the bandage on his shoulder. The wound had closed hours ago and the salve the doctor had applied had smoothed the skin to a faint line. She examined the trace, peering at it as if she were a fortuneteller and he the crystal ball. “Doctor Novinus does good work.”

“Don’t sound so disappointed, Mother.”

She made a face and held the bandage up.

He shook his head.

She went onto the next wound, the one on his right forearm. “It’s not that, my son. But the people need evidence of your service and power; scars do that nicely. No need for protestations or…” She’d peered at the scar, same as before. This wound was dark, still bruised.

Volumnia sighed in disappointment and touched the healed skin. “Ah, well. Twenty-seven is not so bad. Even if the evidence is gone.”

“Next time, I’ll have the triage surgeon take a picture for your wall.”

His sarcasm was lost on her as she handed him his briefs. “Get dressed for bed.” She reached under the pillow for his pajamas. I hear you have a meeting with the senate tomorrow.”

He pulled on his briefs. “I do.” He took the pants and pulled them on. “I am.”

“We know what that means.”

He turned to her. “I know what you mean. For myself, I am not sure.”

“Not sure? They’re to offer you a consulship—how is there to be anything unsure about that.”

“I just meant,” he said, striving for patience, “that I would prefer to serve them in my own way, not theirs.”

His mother opened her mouth but before she could scold or cajole, the door opened.

They turned as one to see Virgilia, standing in the doorway. She stared at them both, then retreated, closing the door behind her.

His mother picked up the bandages and rose. “We’ll talk about it in the morning.” She kissed him on the cheek, then left.

Martius watched her go, then went to the glass doors and closed them tightly against the sound of the insects.

Any desire for work had deserted him and he wandered around the room, touching this and that. Here too, things had changed and unlike the alterations of the gardens, this change puzzled and disturbed him. His bedroom, when he’d last left it, had been bare of anything but the bed, the wardrobe and the desk. But now, it was filled with the childhood objects he’d put away years ago. His mother must have brought them out of storage—Virgilia would never have undertaken such a task without his explicit orders.

The small carving of a Jupiter-class warship, for example—Menenius had given it to him the week after his father had died on Pisae. He frowned, his fingers resting on the wooden ship.

He’d slept with it those first few days until his mother had found it and taken it away. The small theft had been like losing his father all over again and he’d cried hidden tears for almost a week. He’d forgotten that, forgotten that he’d loved the ship so.

He shook his head and moved on to the next mementos, commendations and medals. He’d received them with proud thanks and then had stuck them in a drawer. But now, here they were, hanging on his walls as if they’d always done so.

He went to stand before an oversized bronze medal, his name carved across the base. He’d received it after the Battle for Sabinium, his first encounter with Aufidius. It had been a close call, that one. Even now he could remember his surprise that a man so new to war had almost bested him.

Restless again, he turned from the award and went to his desk. When he’d left last time, he’d told his mother to upgrade the house and get rid of the old computer. That the systems not only posed a security risk, but were slow and plodding. She hadn’t listened to him, leaving intact the old CPUs and monitors.

He sat down and pushed a button under the desk. The monitor rose smoothly from its nest of wood. Martius tapped it awake, then leaned close and said, “Fidelis Network, file footage on the recent Corioles battle.”

It took a while for the computer to respond and when it did, popping up flat, two-dimensional images, there wasn’t much. Just blurry images of soldiers moving quickly across smoke-filled streets. When the camera drone did manage to focus, one of Aufidius’s men would shoot it down. They must’ve had orders and it was clever, really, and another thing he should have expected.

He was about to shut the computer off and go to bed when the scene before him shifted in a blur of grey and he found himself staring at a familiar figure. The angle was acute, taken from above, but yes, that was Aufidius. He was traveling with speed through the dead streets of Corioles, surrounded by his men. He carried no weapon, not even a knife and Martius realized he was seeing Aufidius after the battle, after they’d been parted by the cannons.

So this was how Aufidius looked in defeat, not cowed or beaten, but thrumming with anger. Every line of his body showed it, even the tilt of his head.

When he and his men came across a burned-out ground vehicle, its human contents spilled to the ground, Aufidius stopped and knelt. He gently turned a body over. It was a girl, young, not out of childhood. Aufidius glanced up over his shoulder, saying something to one of his men, his face dark with fury.

Martius leaned closer but the feed stuttered and skipped; the next thing he knew, he was watching a warship rising to meet the sky.

He swore under his breath and tabbed back to that moment where Aufidius looked up. The image wasn’t clear, but clear enough to see Aufidius’s rage, the clean line of his throat and the amulet he wore.

Martius touched the screen with his thumb. How would it be, to rest both thumbs in the hollow of that sweet, thick throat? To press—gently at first, feeling the smooth edge of the leather necklet—then harder, harder, until Aufidius’s life breath whistled out of parted lips and his face flushed pink?

Martius closed his eyes and breathed deep.

“My lord?”

A second time he’d been startled from his thoughts and he slammed down the monitor, almost snarling, “What?” There was no answer and he turned.

Virgilia was at the door, hair loose on her shoulders, dressed for bed.

“What,” he asked again, this time more softly.

“Your mother told me you were already asleep. I thought—”

Virgilia broke off and took a step back.

She was an apparatus, his wife, meant to bolster his power and position and even after all these years together, he didn’t really understand her, didn’t know how to treat her. But, that didn’t mean he needed to be consciously cruel.

He stood and went to the bed. It was awkward, this arranging of bodies, and he ended up on his back with Virgilia curled against his side.

He was almost asleep, eyes half closed when Virgilia laid her hand on his chest and whispered, “I missed you.”

He wanted to ask how she could possibly miss what she’d never had, but he sealed his lips, only nodding. After a tense moment, she sighed and withdrew her hand.

He waited until her breath had evened out, then he turned on his side, ignoring the pain in his shoulder, and closed his eyes.

*

If the commendation ceremony the day before had gone somewhat smoothly, this one did not.

Menenius arrived to pick him up at dawn, saying they should arrive in good time to beat the multitude. But when they got to the senate hall, they found the multitude had gotten there first—hundreds of people filled the square, milling about, clogging the streets.

The aircar hovered above the street for a moment and then Menenius said to the driver, “There won’t be room to land. Take us to the back.”

The situation inside, Martius was relieved to see, was not so frenetic. The senate was in full force, every seat filled with dark-suited men and women. They were quiet, almost somber. Which was reasonable—such an important event called for gravity, not hysteria.

It also needed—apparently—to be recorded and as he made his way to his place on the dais, the news cameras followed his every move.

When all were seated, Menenius stepped to the podium and began to speak; that’s when it all went sour.

Martius had thought it to be a simple ceremony, the same as before—a call for votes, some handclapping and then down to business.

But Cominius was called to the podium to give a listing Martius’s glorious feats and had they really expected him to sit and listen like some preening peacock?

He stood up and turned to the door but Menenius held him back.

“Stay,” Menenius urged. “Let the senate know what you have done.”

“Yes,” a senator said, reaching out as if to take Martius’s arm. “It’s not shameful to hear what you’ve done in the name of New Roma.”

He muttered, “I’d rather my wounds reopen than stand here and listen how I got them.”

Menenius tightened his grip, but Martius pulled free. He strode up the aisle and was out the door and in the corridor. He breathed a sigh of relief and loosened his collar—so much better.

He could hear the burble of words as Cominius continued his speech and even that was too much. He strode down the hall until he was some distance away. He rested there, leaning against the wall next to a bust of Marcus Aurelius. ‘Did you,’ he wanted to ask, ‘have to deal with this nonsense?’

Probably, but from what he knew of Marcus Aurelius, a man of the people, he probably relished the incessant attention. Men of the people always did.

He waited some moments longer until he heard the sound of clapping. He went back inside.

Cominius smiled and gestured to the podium. “Coriolanus, the Senate is pleased to nominate you Consul.” He waved to the microphone; dutifully, Martius leaned forward, murmuring, “I accept.”

And that was to be it but as he stepped away from the podium, Menenius stopped him with a smile and a hand on his arm.

“But what about the people?” Menenius said, glancing at the senate and nodding. “What about their vote?”

Martius hesitated, then covered the mic and murmured, “Can we ignore that part? I don’t see what they have to do with it.”

He thought he’d spoken quietly but Sicinius, that devil, jumped up and shouted, “Wait! The people need to be consulted! He needs to ask for their approval!”

Martius frowned. “It’s an outdated ritual.”

Menenius’s smile became strained. “Yes, but it’s an important outdated ritual. Show them what you’ve done. It will take but a moment.”

Martius leaned in close to Menenius’s ear. “Do you really expect me to go out there and ask their consent? As if I did any of that,” he gestured sharply, “for them?”

Brutus jumped up this time, but Menenius pushed Martius out of the way without making it seem so, speaking before anyone else, “To our newest Consul—we wish you joy and honor!” He began clapping and after a moment the senators followed.

All, except Sicinius and Brutus.

*

“This is ridiculous,” Martius growled as they flew over the city. “Do we even have an open marketplace anymore?” A small fleet of drone cameras dogged the car, jostling as they vied for position.

Martius shrugged. “One good enough for this purpose.”

“And what do you expect me to do and say? March up to some housewife shopping for tonight’s dinner and say, “Look at my wounds, ma’am. I got them specifically for you. Do I have your vote?”

Menenius rolled his eyes. “Say it like that and all is lost. No,” he clasped his hand over Martius’s. “You simply say that what you did, you did for New Roma, for all of New Roma. They can interpret that, as they will. Yes?” He dipped his head and gave Martius a piercing glance over the rim of his glasses.

Martius nodded. He’d do it, even if it killed him.

*

The ‘marketplace’ turned out to be a partially finished macro-mall in the center of Rome. It was one of those places that was part living quarters, part retail shops and government satellite offices, designed so that the inhabitants never had to set a foot outside the perimeter.

Due to the war shortages of both workers and materials, only a third of the complex was finished and as they set down in the middle of a big square near a dry fountain, Martius wanted to groan. What would his men say if they could see him now? Dressed as a commoner in his simple fake-silk suit, asking passersby if it were all right if he accepted a political appointment that was his natural right?

Ridiculous.

But, necessary, and he reminded himself of that several times as Menenius led him to the center of the square, the cameras following. The square was ringed by shops, most selling jewelry and clothing for teenagers. On the steps of the fountain a couple kids played some sort of game and beyond, a woman sat breast-feeding her baby.

He stood there, paralyzed, unsure as to what to do. The shoppers and shop-keeps had turned as soon as the aircar had landed and were watching curiously.

“Go to them,” Menenius breathed at his shoulder, placing a hand on the small of his back. “You need to approach them.”

He did.

Reluctantly at first, wandering over to a man with a Parmaland duffle bag in one hand and a Sony shopping bag in the other.

“Sir,” Martius said, “you know why I’m here, yes?”

The man nodded but didn’t speak and after a moment, Martius moved on. He walked up to an older citizen he recognized from the crowd about the senate hall. “Sir, do you know why I’m here?”

The man nodded. “I do, but do you know why you’re here?”

“Because I deserve it.”

“You deserve it, the Consulship?” a woman asked, shoving forward through the growing crowd.

He recognized her as well—she’d been among the leaders of the pack that had tried to storm the granaries, some days ago.

He bent his lips into a smile, murmuring, “Yes, but I don’t desire this…” He made a vague gesture, taking in the square, the people.

The woman frowned and stepped closer. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, it is not my wish to come begging among the poor. You have better things to do.” He smiled again, a smile as successful as the first.

“Do you expect anything in return for our good votes?” The man asked.

“What is your price?” It was an attempt at a joke and he didn’t have to turn to know that Menenius was frowning.

“The price is to simply ask if we approve,” came a new voice.

Martius turned. A few feet away stood a soldier. Or ex-, by the look of her tattered fatigues and beret. Her insignia showed that she’d served in the 6th Cohort under General Magnus during the conflict with the Rutuli. Martius had been a green lieutenant at the time, but he’d acquitted himself well and had even managed his first true battle injury.

He stepped closer. “Legionnaire, you know what I’ve done. You were there. Do I have your approval?”

The veteran glanced around at the crowd and then she nodded, her dark eyes narrowing. “You have it.”

Good. Now to shake a few more hands, kiss a few cheeks and he could leave, back to the senate so he could remove this ridiculous costume.

*

Entering the quiet senate was like entering sanctuary and he sighed as he passed through the doors. He changed his clothes in Menenius’s chamber, pulling on his uniform with another sigh of relief. Now that he was himself again, he could move on and get to work.

When he arrived at the common area, Menenius was chatting with the two Senators from Setia. He looked up as Martius came in and waved, then pointed to the comm desk.

Martius nodded and went to retrieve his messages.

There were three that weren’t important and one that was. He selected the message from Titus and murmured, “Reply.” The air above the comm unit coalesced into the solid form of Titus, hurrying up to the camera, wearing battle gear.

“Sir,” Titus said. “I heard the news. Congratulations.”

He waved Titus’s words away. “Where are you?”

“On Antium in the town of Atina.”

“And Aufidius?”

“He’s here.”

His pulse beat hard in his throat and he sat down. He scanned the background but only saw New Roman airships and soldiers. “You met with him?”

“Yes, this morning.”

“Did he speak of me?”

Titus nodded. “He did.”

“What did he say?”

“That he’d challenged you in battle more than a few times.”

“And?”

“And that he hated you from the bottom of his bottomless heart.”

He wouldn’t have expected anything less. “I wish—” he began, then pressed his lips together.

“Sir?” Titus said after a moment.

“Nothing. Let me know if anything comes of a treaty.”

“Aufidius is retreating to Antium Port in the morning but if we make any headway, you’ll be the first to know.”

“Very good.” He hesitated, then cut the transmission. He’d give anything to be with Titus on Antium. Making peace or not, it would suit his soul beyond measure.

Soon, he promised himself, standing up and straightening his jacket. Soon.

*

What was the saying? Plans go awry when there is no aim?

Well, he’d had an aim, all right. It was just that the people got in the way. As well as two very clever senators.

*

He slammed the door. It felt so good he did it again.

“Coriolanus!” his mother called out from the study. As if he were five and had just spilt his milk.

He glared in her direction even though she couldn’t see, then paced to the windows and back again, muttering in his rage, “The wretches called me a traitor! Me!” He turned on his heel and ran into Virgilia who’d been following him about the house like a scared puppy. She reached for him but he shrugged her off.

“First they say yes, then no,” he snarled to no one in particular. “Is there no end to their idiocy?”

“Senator Menenius said he would get to the bottom of it,” Virgilia murmured soothingly. “He said to be calm and wait for his word.”

“His word is worth nothing if he deals with them,” Martius fired back. “Did you hear them? Did you hear?” He didn’t wait for Virgilia’s reply but turned to the window again. “I tried to tell them. I tried to tell them that a country without balance would split apart. That Rome can’t have two masters, them and us! They have no knowledge of how to run anything beyond their own lives and if they try…” He turned again and jabbed his finger at Virgilia. “If they try, they’ll break Rome apart with their common ways and that will be the end of mighty New Roma!”

Virgilia had no answer, only more wordless entreating. Martius brushed her aside, falling silent for the first time since he’d learned that the people had turned on him and his Consulship had been denied.

He wearily removed his jacket and tossed it aside.

He’d never wanted it from the beginning, but now? Now, he’d be damned if anyone would take it away. Especially if that anyone was them.

Sounds of conflict interrupted his thoughts, that of people shouting, sirens blaring. He looked around—Virgilia had switched on the news. Unable to stop himself, he went to the living room to watch.

The people had gone crazy, running amok through the city, demanding his resignation. The senate and adjacent buildings were surrounded and Freedom Hall was burning. Scattered pockets of flames rose transparent to the sky from incendiary devices detonated across the city. Martius had happily pointed out to anyone would listen that the rioters had been waiting for such a chance—they’d hardly had time to set the bombs, otherwise.

“You do nothing by half, do you?” Volumnia said as she came to stand by his side. “At least you’re consistent in that.”

“It wasn’t my fault. It was always going to happen.”

“Hmm,” she said, clearly not agreeing with him. “Enough of that—Television: Off.” The thin pane of glass went dark and she took Martius by the shoulders. “Menenius just sent a wave. He and General Cominius are on their way with good news.”

“The rabble has fallen into the Tiber?”

Volumnia pursed her lips and shook her head. “Come, we’ll wait in your office.”

*

“You can’t be serious?” Martius asked. “You can’t seriously expect me to go out and beg their forgiveness?”

They’d all retired to his study. Volumnia sat at his desk, surrounded by Cominius, Menenius and Servillius. For hours, they’d been pouring over digital maps, conferring on the best plan of action and this was what they came up with?

Menenius nodded. “Their leaders—”

“Leaders,” spat Martius.

“Their leaders,” Menenius interrupted evenly, “have agreed to hear you again. In the meantime, they’ve quelled the rioters but it’s a cautious peace. You must do this.”

“And you,” Martius turned to Volumnia. “You ask me to be less than I am, knowing who I am.”

Volumnia rose and came around the desk. She gripped him by the shoulders and shook him. “I didn’t expect you to lose their newborn trust so quickly. You should have kept quiet and waited, consolidated your power before pushing them so hard.”

He stepped out of her reach but she came at him again.

“You should have let it be. In a few weeks, maybe, you could have met with them again.”

“Let them hang,” he muttered.

Volumnia’s mouth tightened to a thin line before pointing to the living room. “And burn, too? They’re tearing the city apart! It will be but a few short days before the riots spread to the rest of New Roma. Is that what you want?”

Menenius tried again. “All it will take is a few calm words from you and all will be mended.”

It was too much, being battered on all sides and Martius turned away. “What do you want me to do?” he said to the wall.

“The Tribunes are waiting,” Menenius said. “Go to them.”

He whipped around, fury burning his tongue once again. “To them? I don’t think so.”

“Tell them that you were wrong, that you didn’t mean it,” Menenius added.

“No.” And before Menenius could entreat further, Martius turned to Volumnia. “Why are you forcing me to do this?”

She gave him a long look and took him by the shoulders again, this time gently. “You are too absolute; everything is black and white with you.” She squeezed. “I know what I ask. I know it.”

“And what is that?”

“I ask that you realize that what a person says isn’t what they mean. Tell the people you’re sorry but know that in your heart you were right.”

“No.”

She tightened her grip. “If it were up to me and my family were at risk, I’d do it.”

There was a long moment of silence as her words fought with his will. From the time he was small, she’d taught him the opposite—that his words were him, his deeds the same. And now she asked him to forget all that and be what he wasn’t.

As if sensing some turn of feeling, she smiled up at him. “I know what you are thinking. I know you think this is a betrayal of all you’ve ever been. It is not.”

Against his will, he started to soften. “So you want me to play the whore and lie through my teeth, saying that I am theirs? That I have no will?”

If he’d thought to shock her, he’d forgotten who he was talking to. She nodded firmly. “Yes.”

He pictured it, standing before the cattle and smiling and saying he was wrong…. “No.” He shook his head sharply. “I can’t. I can’t!”

Volumnia was on him in a moment, her pale blue eyes sparking anger, her voice ringing out. “You choose to let our city burn because of your feelings? Did you ever think what it means to me to ask you to do this? But I do it happily, without qualm. If I were in your shoes, I’d do it. I wouldn’t lose a minute’s sleep over it!”

She stopped talking and the room echoed with leftover anger. Everyone, including Martius, was frozen in place as if her words had cast a spell. He could hear the bland, distant voice of a newscaster—Virgilia must have turned the television back on.

He sighed and bent a false smile across his lips—he might as well get used to it—and bowed, a gesture equally false. “Very well, mother, I am going.” Volumnia didn’t move and he repeated, this time heading towards the living room to get his jacket. “See? I am going.”

He stopped and turned back. Volumnia was smiling at him approvingly. She gave him a coy bow, as if she were in a play.

His smile dropped away and he called out, “Menenius? Are you coming?”

*

It was the Tribunes’ option, the place where he’d humiliate himself before the masses. If the scheme was to effect a complete annihilation of his spirit, it was an apt choice for they’d picked a football field outside of the city, built to hold thousands.

Volumnia insisted on traveling with them, saying she wanted to be with him during his moment of triumph. He kept his peace and didn’t say that he knew she wanted to be around to act as a buffer in case his temper got the better of him again.

They arrived, floating down in their aircar like gods—like the god he’d been accused of being.

A makeshift platform had been erected in the center of the field and upon the platform stood the podium. Behind the podium was a row of chairs; one was sitting apart from the others, almost as if it were the dock in a court of law.

The crew was still setting up the audio system and they scurried here and there, trying to work around the militia and barriers that Cominius had deployed.

Menenius ushered Martius to the single chair while Volumnia went to sit with Cominius, his officers and the few senators that had the nerve to attend. Martius wasn’t surprised to see Sicinius and Brutus—they stood at the edge of the platform, arms crossed.

If the macro-mall had been a joke, this was a farce. All the news agencies had come, including on-site reporters, a rarity these days. The advertisers were there as well and ads floated in rank around the stadium, changing sponsors every few seconds.

It was ridiculous but he refrained from commenting to Menenius as they waited for the show to begin—what was the use of complaining?

Finally, after it seemed the whole world had shuffled into the stadium, Menenius cleared his throat again and nodded to Martius.

He got up, feeling as if he were going to his own execution. He took the podium and cleared his throat. The mic picked up the small noise and fed it back to him, a thousand times more loud. The crowd tittered; some catcalled.

He strangled the resulting anger and spoke as calmly as possible, “The streets of Rome are burning tonight. If any of that was my doing, I ask your pardon. Let us be friends. Let us live in peace.”

Cominius said loudly, “Amen to that,” just as Menenius almost shouted, “A noble wish!”

He turned to Sicinius. “Are you satisfied?”

Sicinius moved closer, followed by his shadow, Brutus.

“There’s still the matter of the people,” Sicinius said into the microphone with an unctuous smile. “Are you content to be guided by them?”

“I am content.” The words burned his throat but at least they were out.

Menenius stepped closer, as if to come between Martius and Sicinius. “Friends, citizens? You heard his apology. Think on his service to his country, what he did for you.”

Martius glanced down; again with the false modesty—he hated this.

Menenius spoke again, louder this time, “What you see before is a soldier not used to public life. Remember that as you judge him, use your wisdom.”

Enough.

Martius turned to Menenius, trying to slow the flood of impatience, unable to stop the protesting, “Wisdom? The very day they vote me in, they vote me out!”

Sicinius jumped on that like a fox.

“Yes, and with good reason. You would send us back to the old days of tyranny and repression when all were ruled by one.” Sicinius paused for effect, an eye on the crowd. “And because of that, you are a traitor!”

Martius was long used to strategies and schemes—all military, yes, but he recognized manipulation when he saw it. Still, he was unable to not respond and he lunged forward, hissing, “Traitor? Again, you call me traitor?”

Menenius plucked at his sleeve. “Martius—”

He jerked free. “I’m not the traitor—they are! They betrayed Rome at every step!”

He tried to say more, but Sicinius rushed to the microphone. “Do you here that, friends? He has taken all your food, your goods, your freedoms and then he has the gall to put the blame on you!”

The crowd roared in response, surging onto the field only to be stopped by the wooden barriers.

Cominius signaled to his aide and then the captain of the militia.

“In the name of Rome, in the name of all of you, my friends…” Sicinius waved to the crowd. “We banish him from the city! In your name I say it is so!”

The crowd roared again and shoved, this time breaking through the barriers, rushing towards the stage.

It was like war and the flood he’d been holding back burst free. He shoved Sicinius away and roared to the night sky, “You curs!”

The mob stopped in their tracks.

“You hate me and think me a traitor?” He gripped the podium, his fingers like claws. “Well, I despise everything about you! You banish me? I banish you!” He was shaking now, trembling with fury. “I’ll go. And I’ll leave you here to rot. Leave you with the knowledge that every time an enemy is at the Gate, you’ll tremble in your shoes. That when another nation enslaves you—as they will—you’ll fall to them without a single blow returned!”

He took a breath and straightened up. “Yes, I’ll go. I’ll go tonight.”

The crowd began to cheer, the noise ten times what it had been.

He turned stiffly, as if made of wood. Menenius, Cominius and the senators were staring at him as if he were the devil. Sicinius was grinning, practically rubbing his greasy paws together.

And Volumnia? She was still seated, gripping the seat of her chair, her eyes wide. They stared at each other, he and she, and he realized with a sickening jolt that she was angry, yes, but that her anger was tempered by fear.

At long last, he was seeing what his mother looked like when she was afraid.

He bowed to her, then signaled for the driver.

Time to go.

*

He was allowed a change of clothes, a shaving kit and a bundle of food. He scornfully refused the clothing and the kit but took the water.

He was allowed to say goodbye to his family and friends and he scornfully refused that as well. As far as he was concerned, he had no mother, wife or child, never mind friends.

He was loaded into a prison transport then flown out past the Gate, to the partially terra-formed moon, Capraia. The transport landed and the gangway extended. Without a word, his guards gave him a mask and a tank of oxygen, then nodded to the open door. He fitted the mask, then strode out and jumped onto sand and rock.

He didn’t bother watching the transport take off again.

He made his way to a promontory and squinted into the distance. A glint of light flashed, catching the remote sun—it was the Luna Spaceport. No more than five leagues away, he had enough reserve oxygen that he could walk it easily if he kept his pace slow and steady.

He shouldered his bag and started off, a plan building as if it had been waiting in his subconscious all along.

Because of the war, Antium was a closed planet, barred to anyone but its citizens and black marketers. No one in the New Roman hegemony would fly him to the planet so he’d do the next best thing—he’d find the portmaster at Luna and inquire about the soonest departing freighter. Passage to Lavinium or Ostia would be best, but he’d go anywhere. Even if it took months, he’d wait.

And then he’d make his way, day by day, planet by planet, until he found his way to Tullus Aufidius.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Two.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

He nodded to the captain and waited until the Vitula had docked before standing.

“You’re sure this is where you want?” the captain asked, turning in his seat.

“I’m sure.”

“Because I can take you to the planet if you like.”

He cracked a smile. He never learned the captain’s name, just that he was on his way to the Norba satellite and didn’t mind a tagalong. The man was chatty, going on about everything under the sun and Coriolanus had spent the twenty-two hour trip not listening. “Thank you, I’ll be fine.”

The captain shrugged, then punched a button and the seal around the hatch released with a sigh.

The spaceport on Norba had been built as a way station and had few amenities, namely the portmaster’s office and a single bar that doubled as a hotel. The satellite was small than average—only a dozen ships could dock at one time. Today there were three, all black-market ships disguised as commercial freighters.

But, like a lot of spaceports, Norba did have one redeeming feature and he walked to a viewing kiosk, adjusted the scope and looked down.

He’d been to Antium a handful of times but always enclosed in metal and then, never to sightsee or visit.

The planet was a distance from Sol but even so, she was bright with red-gold landmasses and turquoise blue seas. Wispy clouds floated above the planet and there, on the horizon, a thin line of dark of thunderclouds were forming—no doubt the land below was shadowed from the threatening storm.

In the last hundred years, she’d been attacked three times—twice by New Roma and once by the Hernici. At each turn the Volsces fought back, successfully repelling the invaders. The last two such battles were thanks to Aufidius—he’d managed to drive away the New Romans with very little loss of life.

That had been before the sanctions, before New Roma had declared Antium off limits to the known world.

Coriolanus turned his eye from the bucolic scene and straightened up. He should go to the portmaster and inquire about a transport; instead, he made his way across the steel walkway to the bar.

Inside, the place was almost empty save for the barkeep and a few figures in the back. Behind the long counter was the usual assortment of glass bottles. Hanging from the ceiling, an old-fashioned television cast its grainy picture of a Roman news report.

Coriolanus ignored the jolt of anger at the sight of the familiar Fidelis logo and took a seat at the bar. “Wine,” he called out, “if you have it, whiskey if you don’t.”

The barkeep looked him up and down. “Can you pay? It’s coins or the door—we don’t take credit.”

Coriolanus brought out a rhodium coin. He’d found six stashed in a scan-proof tin, a sock wrapped around all. His benefactor had either been his mother or wife and while he hadn’t been grateful, the cash had eased his way.

As it did now—the barkeep took the coin and examined the rose hallmark with barely concealed awe before tucking it into his pocket.

Coriolanus watched calmly. “Is there someplace I can wash up?”

The barkeep jerked his head to the rear of the bar. “Don’t make a mess of it.”

He smirked and answered with all politeness, “Thank you.”

He’d been on the road for three months now, his journey taking longer than expected. Because of that, he’d seen every type of bathroom known to mankind and filth no longer caused him to wrinkle his nose in distaste.

But here was a surprise for the bathroom was indeed clean, almost spotless. He stood in the middle of the bright room, dazed. He pictured the barkeep cleaning it at the end of each day, taking care to scrub even the grouted tile.

It made him feel odd, the notion that the barkeep lavished such care on something used by people that would never appreciate it.

It was an odd thought, and he shook his head free of the unwanted sympathy and went to stand before the mirror.

Here was a surprise and no wonder the barkeep had given him such a scowl—he would have scowled, too, had he seen such a fright walk towards him.

His civilian clothing had turned to rags months ago. He’d replaced his trousers with common canvas pants, his shirt with a coarse sweater and his jacket with a rough woolen coat. He touched his chin, then ran his fingers over his head.

His hair and beard had gone the way of his clothing, both long and scraggly. For all that he’d known the changes were taking place, he’d never bothered to catch his reflection, not wanting to see the him he’d become.

No matter, he decided with a forced shrug as he turned to the urinal—his new appearance suited his soul and besides, it made for a good disguise.

When he got back to the bar, the barkeep was washing down a table and a glass of whiskey was waiting on the counter. Beside it was a gold and silver coin. So, not only a tidy barkeep but an honest one, as well. He pocketed the coins and took a sip.

The alcohol went down and he closed his eyes in pleasure. He’d never been much a drinker, preferring to keep a sober head while he was about his business of war. Strange to think he could drink all day and no one would care, no one would know.

“Hey, Nicanor!” one of the men in the back shouted. “I want to hear this—turn that thing up.”

Coriolanus glanced up. The news was still on, being read by a blond newscaster in a slick purple suit. In the corner of the screen was a tiny box showing some file footage of a tank.

“Nicanor!” the man shouted again.

The barkeep sighed as if being taken from some important labor and went to the television. He pushed a few buttons and the sound came on…

‘…has it that the Aequians are martialing strength in their capital of Carsoli on their home planet, Nersae. We don’t have anymore—’

The newscaster broke off and looked at his notes and then touched his ear.

Wait a moment—we’ve learned we have a source embedded on the planet. Let’s go there now.’

Coriolanus picked up his drink and found a chair in front of the television set, greedy anticipation filling his chest.

The feed jerked and bounced and then cleared to show the image of a journalist, dressed in camouflage. She began to talk but the sound wasn’t synced. Irritated, Coriolanus looked around for the barkeep, then heard:

‘…have been for the last week.’

He turned back to the set and watched avidly.

‘Even the citizens of Aequi were surprised by the speed with which the army has gathered. My sources tell me that Aequi has long wanted to return to Rome and the absence of…’

The image broke up again, then reappeared briefly.

Coriolanus waited, but when the picture cleared, he was looking at the Fedelis newscaster.

‘We seem to have lost Drucilla for the moment but to recap: the banishment of General Caius Martius Coriolanus has caused a vacuum in the New Roman military complex and neighboring planets seem to be preparing for conflict. We waved General Cominius for his response and he assured us that New Roma is capable of repulsing the Aequi and that all is under control. Now…’ The newscaster turned to another camera and donned a fake smile. ‘On to the weather…’

“None of that crap,” the man in the back called out. “Like we fucking care what the fucking weather is like on fucking New Roma!”

The other men laughed as did the barkeep—he turned the sound down on the television, still chuckling.

“This is good news,” the man added. “If the Aequi are going to war, that means the news is true­—Coriolanus is banished.”

“Did you doubt it?” said the barkeep. “It was in all the feeds.”

“Yeah, but you know how the New Romans like to spread misinformation. It could have been a trap to get us back out there.”

“Maybe he’s on a secret mission and they don’t want us to know about it,” another man muttered.

“Maybe he’s here right now,” the first man joked. “Hey, you there!”

It took Coriolanus a moment to realize they were talking to him. He turned around. “Yes?”

“You’re not Coriolanus, are you? Come to slit our throats in our sleep?”

He made himself smile. “Hardly. I’m seeking work down on the planet.”

“Don’t look at me,” the man said. “Look at them,” he nodded to the television where a weatherman was pointing out the trouble spots on a map of New Roma. “They’re gonna need help soon if Aufidius has anything to say about it.”

Coriolanus bent his lips in a smile again. “I’d rather cut off my own head than work for the New Romans.” He returned to what was left of his drink as the men began to laugh. He downed the whiskey in one gulp and got up to give the glass back to the barkeep.

The barkeep picked up the glass, then paused as he was turning towards the kitchen. “I’m going planetside to visit my sister after I close. I’ll take you.”

Coriolanus cocked his head. “For a price?”

“Aye, for a price.”

*

For his second-to-last rhodium, the barkeep gave him a lift to Antium Port. He didn’t ask where Coriolanus wanted to be dropped off—he just landed near a bridge and said, “Good luck.”

Coriolanus nodded and got out. He thought that’s all there would be, but just as he was shrugging his rucksack on, the bartender leaned over and said, “You’ve got thirty minutes before curfew. If you go into the city, you’ll want to be indoors by then. They have strict anti-vagrancy laws.”

Surprised, Coriolanus nodded his thanks and stepped back, out of reach of the airship’s blades as it rose to the night sky.

He crossed the bridged but once on the other side, he hesitated. It was dark, he couldn’t see more than ten meters in the gloom. And there was little chance, once he made it to town, that he’d find a room or even an inn in less than thirty minutes. Better to find shelter under a tree or in a barn. He’d done it before; he could do it again.

*

He rose before dawn and washed in a nearby stream. After debating the point, he left his pack behind, hiding it among the leaves of a stand of laurels. He took off towards the bridge at a quick march, nodding to anyone he met but not pausing for conversation. He arrived at the outskirts of the town by nine and the city center at ten-thirty.

There he stopped, unsure as to his next step.

His grand plan, made over the course of the three months, was to get to Antium Port and find Aufidius. A small refinement of the vague scheme was to approach Aufidius at night, reasoning that if anything went awry or if he were unable to track Aufidius down, he’d use the cover of dark to slip away so he could try again.

But now, standing on the cobbled streets, he realized he’d been a fool. He couldn’t walk up to Aufidius, whether by day or night, just as he couldn’t go around asking where Aufidius quartered. The best thing to do—the only thing he could do—was to wait until circumstance aided his quest.

So, he wandered the streets, surreptitiously marking the government buildings, the business district and finally, the garrison. A little after the noon hour, he found a seat in an outdoor cafe near the main city square, ordered a light lunch and settled in to wait.

Antium Port wasn’t a large town, nor was it a wealthy. The bulk of the inhabitants seemed to be young women, old men, old women and goats. The women were probably there for the soldiers and the old men and women? Well, maybe they were just too stubborn to leave.

For all the poverty of the townspeople, he spied traces of a once-prosperous center. The villas that bordered the square still retained some of their original beauty, surrounded as they were with decaying gardens and statuary; some even had their own landing pads.

If he had to guess, he’d estimate that the town had been at its height of glory around the turn of the century when space flight had become truly viable and commerce and corporations were expanding at unprecedented speed.

He rubbed his beard, remembering how, as a boy, he’d dreamed of living in such a time. He’d wanted to be an explorer and even though those exciting days were past, he’d planned on discovering far-off planets and star systems. He’d even organized the time and day of his escape, thinking to stow away on commercial airbus. His father’s death and his mother’s resulting widowhood had put an end to those dreams.

Dreams he’d forgotten in the march of time and—he reminded himself sharply, pushing away the inconvenient ache of emotion—something that was neither here nor there.

*

He was still sitting in the cafe, half asleep, when the smooth roar of a departing ship startled him. He looked up and watched as a garbage scow broke free of Antium’s gravity well, heading for space.

The town was waking from its siesta and there were children about, young boys, running to and fro. They were playing some sort of game with sticks and a ball. He watched dispassionately as he pondered his next move. He needed to find a place to stay soon or risk being picked up for loitering.

He stood and paid for his meal, then started off, thinking to try an inn he’d passed earlier in the day when shouts and calls caught his attention. The boys had ceased their playing and were dashing up the street, waving their arms.

Coriolanus followed with his eyes, then ducked back, taking refuge in the safety of a building. He gave it a moment, then peered around the corner and yes, finally

Down the street with his men at his side, strolling as if he were out for a walk along the beach, smiling at the children that danced at his knees came Aufidius.

Except for the sheathed knife at his waist, he carried no weapon. He was wearing camo, but almost casually, his shirt open at the throat, his sleeves rolled up. It was as if he’d forgotten he was the leader of a formidable army and it seemed as if the people forgot it, too—as Coriolanus watched, a family at a cafe called out to Aufidius, waving him over.

If anyone had tried that with him, he would have stared coldly and sent an aide to see what was the matter.

But not Aufidius. With a good-natured nod, he changed direction and went up to the family. He actually embraced one of the men and then the woman. He said something that made everyone laugh; even the baby gurgled and waved its chubby arms.

Aufidius took the adoration gracefully. He spoke again, then returned to his men and his path down the street.

As Aufidius came closer, Coriolanus retreated again and lowered his gaze. He watched from under his eyelashes as Aufidius passed by, a hand’s breath away. He was saying almost too low to hear, something about supper, about how hungry he was and then he smiled, his teeth white and even.

Coriolanus blinked, eyes burning as if caught staring at the sun and he felt it again, that strange ache. Not quite sadness, not quite melancholy; it bloomed in his chest for a moment. And then—as Aufidius strolled around the corner from view—it was gone.

*

He marked time impatiently until the sun fell behind the hills. It would be better to wait until absolute darkness but somehow he couldn’t. It had suddenly become important to go now and he set out, moving through the streets, hiding from the patrols, the word now echoing in his brain like a pulse.

The garrison was an ancient, sprawling, three-story affair. The entrance and side streets were guarded with both soldiers and sophisticated security keypads, so he made his way around to the back.

As expected, the back entrance offered various points of ingress and decided that his best option would be the scullery door. He took position behind a huge recycling bin, hunkered down like a dog. It didn’t take long, maybe ten minutes, for a soldier wearing an apron to come out with a load of trash.

Coriolanus was on him in a flash, grabbing him from behind, wrapping his arm around his throat and cutting off his oxygen until he fell limp to the ground. He searched the soldier’s pockets, finding a photograph of a woman and a key card. He tied the soldier up with his own apron strings, then hurried to the door and waved the key before the security screen.

The lock snicked and the door swung open.

After that it was easy.

He simply followed the voices and laughter. Up to the first floor, across an open gallery, then on to the far corridor. At the mouth of the corridor, he stopped and peered around the corner.

Here, finally, was more security, a simple checkpoint before a modern metal door. The guard was sitting at a small table, writing something down in notebook. He was young with dark curls, focused on the book, but balanced against the relative shortness of the hall, he’d have more than enough time to call out a warning or fire his pulsegun before Coriolanus could reach him.

The only thing for it was a tactic he’d used in the past to good effect.

He headed down the hall, teeth bared in a stopgap smile. When the guard looked up, he smiled back, a reaction that was pure human instinct.

Coriolanus leapt the remaining few feet and seized the guard’s throat and threw him against the wall. The guard gave him a wounded look before crumpling to the ground.

Coriolanus unarmed him and searched for a keycard and finding none. He would have to take the chance, that the cook’s key would work; if it didn’t, he’d have to get the guard to do it for him, using his cries of pain to draw them out. He waved the card and after a long moment, almost as if the lock was actually thinking, the tumblers engaged.

He gripped the handle, drew a deep breath, and pulled.

He didn’t have a chance to look around—the second he opened the door, two men jumped him. He took the first out with a blow to his solar plexus, the other by simply grabbing his face and pushing him into the room. It was a quick, two-step movement leaving him with another weapon.

He looped his fingers through the laser rifles’ finger guard to show he meant no harm. And then he raised his arms.

As he was disarmed by two nervous soldiers, he saw it all in a lightning-quick glance: the candlelit white stuccoed suite, another cook in the back near a pair of open doors that led to a balcony, the lieutenants and senators around the table, the soldiers that were aiming weapons at him, all shouting or talking.

Except Aufidius. He still sat at the end of a long table, a moment of calm in all the chaos, eyes burning blue. He’d been eating dinner; his plate was full, his glass—still held to his lips—half empty.

“Who are you?”

Coriolanus didn’t answer.

Aufidius set the glass down and rose, circling the table slowly. He stopped some ten feet away. “Do I know you?”

“Do you not?” Coriolanus answered and even to his own ears, his voice sounded husk dry. His rage, banked for three long months burned freshly new in his belly and he whispered it again, “Do you not?”

Aufidius shifted from foot to foot, his expression darkening. “Who are you?” he growled and yes, that was the tone Coriolanus knew so well.

He smiled cruelly. “My name is known by you. Hated by you.”

There was a scuffle behind him; it was the soldiers he’d taken out—they rushed through the door shouting, almost running into him.

Aufidius waved them off with a scowl. “And that name would be?”

It was a struggle, releasing the names he no longer used, but he did it. He took a step and another until he was standing within reach of the candles. “The name that was taken from me was Caius Martius.” He gave it a beat, mostly for drama’s sake because Aufidius’s eyes had widened until the dark pupil drowned the blue. “My new name is…” He hesitated, then ground out, “Coriolanus.”

The men, slower on the uptake, all gasped and murmured. Aufidius cut them off with a sharp gesture. “Was?” he asked.

“You know the tale. You know how they sent me from Rome with jeers and catcalls. Banished forever.” He took another step. “I would never have come but—”

“But?”

“I now hate them more than you.” One more step; they were almost a man’s length apart now. “And so I give you this choice: let me join in your fight against New Roma or…” he slowly lowered his arms and unbuttoned his jacket, then tipped his head to the side, offering his bare neck. “Or kill me now. I give you either.”

It was the same as before, back on Corioles where they’d stared at each other, paralyzed by a hate so strong it was as if they were in a self-sealed vacuum no outsider could shatter.

It seemed so long ago, he seemed so long ago, and he swallowed, not meaning to.

But it broke something, that accidental weakness.

Aufidius drew his knife and rushed forward, shoving him back until he was against the wall, blade to throat. But Aufidius didn’t thrust nor stab—he just murmured, his voice hushed with wondrous rapture, “Martius. Martius! In this one moment you’ve changed all. Let me welcome you properly.”

Aufidius pulled Coriolanus in and wrapped his arms around his chest and waist, embracing him fully.

“I cannot believe this,” Aufidius murmured into Coriolanus’s ear. “So many times I wondered on this, dreamed on this, and now…” He clasped Coriolanus tighter, his voice dropping to a rough whisper. “I loved my wife, but seeing you here makes me happier than when she crossed my threshold on our wedding night.”

Coriolanus’s heart jerked at the unadorned statement and he made a small movement. Aufidius released him, but just enough to allow space between their bodies.

Aufidius smiled and cupped Coriolanus’s cheeks. “We’ll do great things, you and I.” He stroked Coriolanus’s jaw with his thumb, adding, “My country is ready for war, every man and boy. But first…” He looked Coriolanus up and down. “First we need to return you to the conqueror that you once were. Come.”

Aufidius finally let go and gestured towards a room off to the side.

Coriolanus didn’t move.

Aufidius’s expression changed once more and he repeated gently, “Come.”

He went.

*

Aufidius led him the bedroom and beyond that, the bathroom.

The bathroom was simple by New Roman standards—a large walk-in shower, a wide sink and beyond a tiled partition, the toilet and bidet.

“You can use the dryer or if you’re old fashioned, there are clean towels in there,” Aufidius said, pointing to a tall cupboard.

He nodded.

“I imagine you’ll want that beard off in New Roman fashion. I’ll send the barber in a half hour or so.”

He nodded again, even though it was ridiculous, the idea that he’d need thirty minutes for a one-minute shower.

“Well.” Aufidius took a step back. “I’ll leave you to it.”

He watched Aufidius leave, thought about locking the door, then shrugged. He began to disrobe.

His clothes fell stiffly to lie on the clean floor—he’d burn them if it were not that he had no others—nakedness never bothered him, but there were limits.

He stepped into the shower, twisted the spigot and…

He’d never been a sybarite, had thought overindulgence a thing for the weak and spineless. But, the warm water felt so good spilling over his body. He closed his eyes and tipped his head to the gentle spray and just stood there…

Eventually he got down to business, using pine-scented soap to wash the grime off. He was thorough, as if he were washing away the days and months along with the dirt. When he was done, he turned off the water and sat on the tiled shelf and cleaned his feet, scrubbing until his soles and toenails were dirt-free and red.

Then he stood and turned on the spigot again.

Finally, after the water had grown cold, he got out. He ignored the full-body dryer and opened the cupboard and reached for a dark grey towel. The rough weave of the towel felt as good as the shower and he dried every centimeter of his body, down to his smallest toes.

He’d just finished when someone knocked on the door.

“Come in,” he called out.

A woman entered, holding a pair of scissors and an ancient electric shaver. She was older than he, poorly dressed and very unhappy.

She nodded grimly to the shower bench. After a moment, he went in and sat down.

She began with his beard, trimming first with scissors and then beard until his skin was cool and bare. She moved onto his hair and there they ran into a problem. She cut until his hair was about a finger-width long. When he gestured for her to continue, she shook her head.

“No,” he said, feeling the back of his head. “I want it all gone.”

She frowned, still holding the scissors.

“She’s from Aequi. She doesn’t understand you.”

He craned his head to look around the woman. Aufidius was standing in the open door, arms crossed around his chest.

“Tell her I want it all off. All of it.” He gestured vaguely.

“Her people think a man’s strength lies in his hair.”

He smiled thinly. “Then I must have been the weakest general to ever walk New Roma.”

Aufidius grinned and pushed away from the door. He came forward to stand behind the woman. “Weak, Martius? You?” He murmured something in Aequian, then gently took the scissors from the woman and nodded towards the door. She left without a backward glance.

Aufidius tossed the scissors down and picked up the shaver. He switched it on and stepped closer. “She is terrified of you; did you realize that?”

“No,” he said quietly, because he had to say something. Aufidius, for all intents and purposes, was the ruler of several planets—surely he wasn’t going to—

Apparently, he was. With a soft, “Hmm,” Aufidius stroked the top of his head and set the blades to his temple. He began to shave. Long, slow strokes, methodically as if he were polishing a knife or stroking a loved one.

“And, now you’re thinking I was once a barber,” Aufidius said, voice muffled as he bent over Coriolanus to reach the nape of his neck.

“No,” was all he managed, breath caught in his throat. Aufidius was surrounding him, curled over him, so close he could smell his scent, see the finely-drawn tattoo of a knife on the inside of his forearm. If he wanted to hurt Aufidius, all he’d have to do is reach out and wrap his arms around his hips or thighs and…

He cleared his throat and looked down at Aufidius’s feet. He’d taken his boots off, probably to avoid getting muck in the shower. Odd that he hadn’t noticed that small fact when he noticed every thing.

“There,” Aufidius murmured, turning off the shaver. He ran his warm palm over the crown of Coriolanus’s hair and tipped his head up. “Perfect.”

Coriolanus didn’t move, unable to meet Aufidius’s gaze and it was almost a relief when Aufidius stepped back. Out of reach.

“I’ve put some clothes out on my bed for you,” Aufidius said. “When you’re dressed, one of my men will bring you to the war room and you can meet my officers and the senators.”

He nodded, still silent.

*

The clothes were simple, clean military fatigues and he pulled them on, feeling as if he were stepping into himself again. Or rather—he thought as he stood before the small mirror over Aufidius’s tall chest of drawers and straightened his collar—the man he was intent on becoming. He ran his hand over his skull, remembering Aufidius’s warm touch, then left.

A young soldier was waiting for him in the now-empty living room. He jumped when Coriolanus came out and gestured towards the door.

The checkpoint table was once again manned, this time by an older soldier who gave him a sour look. Coriolanus returned the look calmly.

He was led down the stairs to the cellars. The war room was actually a bunker, protected by reinforced walls and doors. The soldier murmured, “He’s waiting for you in there,” then took position outside the door.

When Coriolanus entered, he found Aufidius leaning on a table, surrounded by his men and senators.

Aufidius glanced up and saw him. He straightened and came forward, taking Coriolanus by the hand. “Gentlemen, may I introduce you to Caius Martius Coriolanus.”

The extended name sounded ridiculous to Coriolanus’s ears, but he kept his grimace to himself and shook first the officers’ hands and then the senators’. The latter were a motley bunch with their worn black suits and dark scowls. They didn’t seem to think much of him, either; as he grasped each palm, they nodded but didn’t say much beyond, ‘welcome’ and ‘hello.’

When they were done, Aufidius led him to the table. Spread out on the surface was an old-fashioned duraproof map of New Rome and her protected planets.

“I was just telling our senators that we’ll be working together, you and I. With your knowledge of New Roma’s defenses, we’ll be through the Gate within the month.”

Aufidius rested both fists on the table and stared at Coriolanus, challenge in every line of his body.

Everything up to this point had been a surprise, but this, this he’d been expecting.

He nodded, meeting Aufidius’s challenge with his own and began speaking, “The Gate, while a nuisance, won’t be our biggest problem because of a hidden weakness. It’s made up of three hundred and twenty pods and in each pod is a very deadly particle cannon. The weakness lies not in the firepower, but in the software. You see…” He bent over the map and pointed to the northern-most satellite. “Unbeknownst to everyone but the New Roman command chain, this unit is the weak spot, vulnerable to even the most neophyte hacker. All we’ll have to do is…”

He began to explain his plan, his voice quickening with the knowledge that victory was within sight.

*

They discussed their options long into the night, breaking up sometime around twenty-three hundred. The senators and officers said goodnight to Coriolanus; he waved absently, still engrossed in the issue of where to land the legionnaires. The ideal spot would be ten miles south of Rome, but that area had see much unrest and martial law would undoubtedly still be in effect. Even those fools in the senate wouldn’t be so stupid as to encourage the reduction of the standing army so quickly.

“Martius?”

So it would either need to be north in Veii or possibly Cures.

“Martius.”

He picked up a notebook and began to write. “Hmm?” He wished he had his tablet—it was so much easier to record his thoughts digitally.

“It’s late.”

“Yes.”

“You’ve been sitting too long. You need rest.”

“Sitting is rest.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Soon.”

“No.” Aufidius reached over Coriolanus’s shoulder and took the pencil away. “Now.”

He looked up, objecting mildly, “I’m not tired.”

“Yes, you are and even if you’re not…” Aufidius straightened up and tossed the pencil on the table. “…I am.” He crooked his finger. “To bed.”

He really wasn’t tired. In fact, he’d never felt more awake. But Aufidius hadn’t budged so he stood up with a sigh. And then grabbed the table as his vision blackened and the room spun around him.

“See?” Aufidius said, already turning away. “You don’t know what’s best for you, but I do.”

*

Coriolanus expected to be taken to a barracks room, possibly a cell, but Aufidius led him upstairs to his own suite.

“What are we doing here?” he asked, looking around at the room. All evidence of the supper had been removed.

“Would you prefer to bunk with the other officers?”

“No.”

“Then, there…” Aufidius pointed to a door in the far right-hand corner that Coriolanus hadn’t noticed. “My study is through that door and beyond is a second bedroom. It has its own bathroom.” Aufidius began walking to his own bedroom. “I asked Adrian to retrieve your gear and get you another change of clothes. I don’t know if he managed it. He’s a little flighty, that one.”

He didn’t know who Adrian was, nor did he care. “Aufidius.” It was the first time he’d said Aufidius’s name out loud in months; strange that the word almost hurt his tongue. “Aufidius,” he tried again, this time softer.

Aufidius stopped and turned around.

“After all we’ve been to each other, aren’t you afraid I’ll come to you in the night and slit your throat?”

Aufidius gave him a piercing glance, then shook his head. “No, I am not afraid.”

It seemed impossible, this sudden shift from hate to trust. “Truly?”

“Truly.”

He hesitated, then nodded. “Very well.”

Aufidius turned to his room again, adding, “Besides, trying isn’t the same as doing and in this, I’m quicker than you. You come at me and I’ll have you before you know it.”

Bemused, he watched Aufidius go to his room and shut the door. He waited for the sound of a lock turning but heard nothing.

The first room, contrary to what Aufidius had said, was more of a map room than study. Yes, it housed a few chairs and a big trestle table, but upon that table and hanging on all four walls were maps of New Roma and her surrounding planets. Coriolanus touched one—it was a close-up of Rome. Old and outdated, someone had crossed out the Roman street names and re-written them in Volsci.

Interesting.

He continued on to the next room. It was indeed a bedroom, smaller than Aufidius’s own. It had a bed, a wardrobe and nightstand and a compact bathroom. The wardrobe was empty; Adrian—whoever he was—hadn’t completed his task.

But the room was clean and neat, and much better than his last accommodations. He stripped, carelessly piling his clothing on the foot of the bed and his wristwatch on the nightstand, then crawled under the covers.

“Light: Out,” he commanded. The light stayed on. He sighed and got out of bed and flicked the switch. He returned to the bed, slipped in and pulled up the covers. He closed his eyes.

Normally, he never slept well in an unfamiliar bed. Normally, it took him days to get used to a new mattress, new pillows, never mind the fact that he was unarmed.

But, he reminded himself as he turned on his side, facing the door, there was nothing normal about his situation and he was asleep within seconds.

*

He woke several times that night, startling at every creak, expecting Aufidius and his knife. Each time he closed his eyes again, too sleepy to do much about it. If Aufidius reneged on their unspoken contract, well, who was he to deny him? He’d offered his throat and he’d meant it.

He fell into a true sleep sometime around four, still waiting for the blade.

*

Sunlight on his face was the thing that woke him, finally. That and the noise of boots on tile.

He shot up in a flash, half out of bed.

In the doorway stood a Volscian boy dressed in ill-fitting camo, holding a pile of clothing. The boy gulped and held the clothing up, like an offering.

“General Aufidius, sir, asked me to bring you these. Sir.”

Coriolanus relaxed. “Are you Adrian?”

The boy nodded.

“Put them on the wardrobe.”

“Would you be wanting your old clothes cleaned? Sir?” the boy asked, his voice muffled by the wardrobe.

“No.”

The boy nodded and practically ran from the room, leaving the door open.

Coriolanus lay back and looked up at the ceiling. His heart was beating wildly. He never used to startle so easily.

“Are you getting up anytime soon?”

He didn’t raise his head. It was Aufidius, standing in the doorway. “Soon?” he asked absently then frowned. He craned his head to look at his wristwatch­. “What time is it?” He reached for the watch; the dial said fifteen hundred, but that couldn’t be.

“Yes,” Aufidius agreed pleasantly, as if hearing Coriolanus’s thoughts. “A lot of sleep for someone who wasn’t tired.”

Coriolanus frowned.

“Come on,” Aufidius said as he stepped back. “There’s much to do. I need to review the supplies for the next six months and I’d like your advice.”

Coriolanus nodded, still frowning at the watch.

***

The next month passed quickly, the days even quicker.

Aufidius had been right—there was much to do. Troop augmentation, war games, artillery upgrades, endless strategizing…

All these things Coriolanus plunged into with verve, wringing every minute from every hour.

The day generally began with a quick breakfast, followed by an update of current events. Then it was on to troop and weapons reviews. Later—when the sun was its most intense—they’d engage in war games. The senators objected at first, but Coriolanus told them with mock sweetness that one of the reasons New Roma always routed the Volsces was because they weren’t used to the close heat of the sun, Antium being so far from Sol.

It hadn’t been the first time they questioned his tactics but it had been the last. As they’d filed out of the war room like cowed children, Aufidius had caught his eye. Coriolanus waited for disagreement or censure but all he got was a fleeting grin.

After the war games were concluded for the day, still dirty and bloody on the mock battlefield, he and Aufidius would analyze the results with the men. Once done, they’d retire to Aufidius’s suite for the evening.

Like the days, his evenings settled into routine. He and Aufidius would take care of any last minute administration duties and then they’d discuss the next day’s agenda. Finally, after all work was done, they’d eat.

Supper was usually fish, bread and fruit, a simple meal that Coriolanus would have once snubbed but now enjoyed and even looked forward to.

They never talked much while they ate. The town was experiencing intermittent power outages and Aufidius lived by the example he set. He would order the candles to be lit and they’d eat in the half-light, silent.

Coriolanus preferred it that way, the quiet, the dark—supper was for digestion, not blathering.

Afterwards, they’d open the wide balcony doors and sit outside and talk. That first week, his conversation was stilted, confined to safe topics such as the local news and, the gods help him, the weather. Gradually, as he grew accustomed to Aufidius’s presence, he began to open up about politics and the private dealings of the New Roman military and government.

Sometimes, when the need for intel overcame the need for economy, Aufidius would turn on the old satellite player and they’d watch the news. It was there that they learned that New Roma had managed to drive the Aequi away, where they learned that the municipality’s granaries had been depleted two months early because the stores had been opened up to the populace.

He’d watched the latter with no small measure of satisfaction and maybe it was that self-righteousness that made him more chatty than normal, going on about the mistakes the government had made, how the people were going to starve because they didn’t understand the underlying need for food management.

When he caught himself being so long-winded, he’d close his mouth with a snap, as if reticence could make up for the chatter before.

Aufidius would say nothing—he’d just gave Coriolanus a dark, speculative look, leaving him to wonder if Aufidius thought him weak or a fool.

Or maybe he was simply wondering at what point would Coriolanus throw off the cloak of deception and reveal himself as the traitor he wasn’t.

It was a notion that began to eat at him during those companionable times after supper. Was Aufidius only showing him the courtesy of his ear as he waited for the betrayal to come?

Coriolanus couldn’t guess and wasn’t about to ask. He fretted on it, though, and would grow quiet, morose. The only cure was to excuse himself, saying he was tired and wanted his bed. He’d lay awake for a long while, eventually falling asleep. In the morning he’d wake and spring out of bed, worries gone for the moment.

But, as the weeks passed, so did the worries, leaving him with an atypical, but cautious, sense of well-being. He no longer safeguarded his tongue, no longer scrutinized Aufidius’s every word for slights and criticisms. The only time they had a true differing of opinion was when they discussed what they were going to do once they’d conquered New Roma, an argument that grew more heated at every passing turn…

“It will work, I tell you,” Coriolanus insisted, rising to go to the window. He turned the latch and sat on the ledge, pushing window open so the night air could cool his face.

The day had been hot, making the military exercises more uncomfortable than usual. He hadn’t minded but the troops had and they’d made their displeasure known from start to finish. The constant complaining had put him in a bad mood and he’d carried it with him all day.

Apparently, so had Aufidius.

“So you’ve been saying these past four weeks,” Aufidius grumbled under his breath.

He looked over his shoulder. The rooms were as hot as the day had been—he’d unbuttoned his shirt long ago; Aufidius had removed his altogether. “We don’t have the ships, the arms or the men. Decimation creates a well of fear that will last years. Plus, it will decrease the population. That will give them more food, at the very least.”

Aufidius ignored the bitter sarcasm. “It’s not just the present we need to worry about, Martius. When we’re in, I mean really in, we’ll need to live with these people and make them our neighbors.”

Coriolanus brushed a piece of bread off his trousers. He had no intention of making any of them his neighbor.

“And that fear you’re so enamored of?” Aufidius continued, leaning forward, making his chair creak. “It’s not as powerful or as long-lived as you think. The minute we loosen our grip, the second we turn our back, they’ll be gone, off to incite the next riot and it will start all over again.”

He frowned moodily at the faint memory of such a riot and turned to look out the window.

“Martius…”

He shook his head

Aufidius sighed and got up. He dragged his chair closer to Coriolanus and sat down. “Martius, I’m all for killing New Romans, you know that.”

Coriolanus watched a freighter take off from the field near the barracks—it was heading to Norba to retrieve the weapons they’d just purchased from the Arsolians.

“But wholesale violence never works,” Aufidius added, his voice softening. “Even twenty-five centuries ago when our ancestors tried it, it never worked.” Aufidius reached out and touched Coriolanus’s knee. “And I have no intention of risking my men’s lives if I’m to be back to square one in a year’s time.”

Coriolanus finally turned, his neck stiff. “Then what would you do? Kill them with kindness?”

Aufidius didn’t answer his sneer with anger. “Kindness, no; killing yes. Some will die—that’s inevitable. But once we oust the ruling government and install our own, once the people see that we are fair and just, they’ll fall in line—they’ll turn to us. They will.”

“The people,” he muttered. “I’m so sick of the people.”

“I know,” Aufidius agreed. “Another subject upon which you and I will continually disagree. You believe that you need to take in order to have. I believe I need to give in order to get.”

Coriolanus leaned forward, away from the cool window and into Aufidius’s heat. “And what have the people given you that you actually need, and don’t say love.”

“Well,” Aufidius mused, “it’s true. I need their love and faith because along with that, they give me their strength.” And before Coriolanus could scoff, he added with a wave of his hand, “But if you want an example more concrete, they gave me these rooms.”

Coriolanus frowned and looked around. “I thought—”

“You thought I’d taken them when we retreated here after the loss of Corioles? No, I was living in the bunker with the men. After I gifted you with that…” Aufidius pointed the faint scar on Coriolanus’s shoulder, “…they gave me this.” He nodded to the suite. “I didn’t want it, but they insisted.”

“A man of the people,” Coriolanus said with no small bitterness.

“They have their uses. As do you. But,” Aufidius added as he sighed and rose, “to get back to my original point, haven’t you heard the expression that you can catch more flies with honey?”

“Yes.”

“And?”

“It’s a truism,” he answered, his sneer back in force. “And I’ve found that most truism are not true.”

Aufidius took a deep breath, then hesitated. He went to the fireplace, saying over his shoulder, his voice was neutral, disinterested, “Are you done here? I’m going to bed.”

He looked over. Aufidius was blowing out the candles one by one and something in his actions, stiff and edgy, made Coriolanus feel unaccountably guilty, as if he’d just stepped on a puppy bounding at his heels.

Treading on other’s feelings—he’d never had to worry about such things before and—he quickly assured himself—there was no need to now.

But…

But, if he were honest with himself, he had to acknowledge the truth of Aufidius’s words.

Because he’d seen it for himself, the way Aufidius was with people.

During their post war game reviews, he’d take his turn, showing no mercy, hammering home his displeasure at a mistake or miscalculation.

Aufidius always took a more circuitous approach. He never lied or glossed over any faults, but he gave the positive along with the negative, in the end reminding the soldiers that they were all in it together, that small mistakes could have disastrous consequences for the whole.

At first, Coriolanus had observed with a jaded eye, waiting with an almost manic glee for the first signs of creeping scorn and disrespect. What he noticed, however, was the complete opposite. Instead of brash disdain and growing laziness, the men seemed to try harder the next time, taking Aufidius’s instruction more than to heart—they tried to live it.

“You are right,” he muttered, the words clumsy on his lips.

Aufidius froze. And then looked over his shoulder. “What?”

Coriolanus studied the ochre-colored tile beneath his feet. “You are right. I’ve seen you with the men. They respect you and never try to take advantage or challenge your authority. You’re good with them.”

Aufidius turned. After a long moment he said, “Thank you.”

“A commander has to be hard, has to be absolute.” An echo of a conversation tried to claw its way free but he shoved it away before it could find purchase. “At least, I used to think so.”

“Yes,” Aufidius whispered, this time coming closer.

“It seems, in this, I might be wrong.”

“And New Roma?”

Instant disagreement was on his lips but he pressed the words tight, strangling them before they slipped out. If what he’d just said had any merit, then what he said next had to, too. “I think your plan will be ineffective but —”

“But?”

He looked up. Aufidius was standing a few feet away, a shadow made darker by the weakness of the single candle. “But, I’ll consider it.” He waited for a crow of triumph; all he got was a slow nod.

As they stared at each other—Aufidius from his greater height, Coriolanus from his place by the window—it seemed to him as if the air between them had grown thick and unwieldy. He took a deep breath, expecting to choke, surprised when he didn’t.

“I was thinking,” he said, completely out of the blue.

“Yes?” Aufidius said, shifting his weight.

“Your household systems are archaic. I would like to upgrade them. Even the cheapest of solar convertors should give you a third more power.”

Aufidius cocked his head but said nothing.

“I’ll pay for the parts, of course.” He tried for awkward humor, a bulwark against the strange notion that he was at the crest of some steep hill and one wrong move would send him tumbling. “I can find the funds.”

Aufidius nodded.

Outside a noise started up, a slow thrum that turned into a rhythmic beat.

Aufidius glanced out the window, then came to stand by Coriolanus’s side. “The men are dancing,” he murmured. “They sometimes do that before we go to war.” He shifted his weight; his knee touched Coriolanus’s thigh.

Thick air thickened further and now came the strained breath, as if the clean sea breeze had turned foul. He slid his hands over the edge of the window ledge and curled his fingers. “Are we going to war?” he managed.

“Not yet,” Aufidius said, pushing the window open wider. His hand dropped to his side, knuckles brushing Coriolanus’s shoulder. “But, soon.”

The music grew louder and he could hear voices, laughter and shouts and he suddenly wanted to be at war, where all things were clear and known and there was no confusion—

“Stop.”

—anything to get back to the man he once…

“Stop.” Aufidius leaned down and slid his palm over the back of Coriolanus’s hand, loosening his grip. “You’re hurting yourself.” He turned Coriolanus’s hand over.

Yes, he’d hurt himself, the dull lip of the tile cutting a ragged gash across the meat of his palm. Blood welled, released from sealed flesh, creating a small, dark pool. “It’s nothing.”

Aufidius cradled Coriolanus’s hand and examined it. “You do know what a germ is, yes? A wound on the palm can get infected.”

He drew his hand to his chest and looked up. “It’s nothing.”

Aufidius’s lips tightened to a thin, straight line but he stepped back and nodded. “All right.”

Coriolanus clenched his hand, fingernails digging into the slight wound.

Aufidius turned and headed towards his room. “Take care of that. I need you well. And don’t forget—we leave for Corito tomorrow.”

He sat there for a long while holding his torn hand to his chest, staring at nothing. Finally, when the music below faded away and all grew quiet, he stood and went to clean the wound.

***

He shook his head, then growled into the comm, “Sestius! Watch your back!” He held his breath, squinting through the scope as Collidius’s unit swept across the battered roof, using the defunct air flues and the failing light as cover and damnit, there they went, over the edge to land almost on top of Sestius’s men. It was over in a five seconds.

He leaned on the ruins of the low wall and punched the comm again. “Sestius, when I tell you to watch your back I am not saying it to hear myself talk!”

“Sorry, sir,” came the panting reply.

He opened his mouth to add something scathing about Sestius’s ancestors but just then, a shadow fell over him. He released the comm with a sigh.

“He’s still having problem with ground maneuvers?” Aufidius asked, taking the scope and fixing it on the mock battlefield, a league away.

“He can’t seem to grasp the concept of looking up. He won’t live past the first battle.”

“He’s the best roof man we have. We need him.”

“We need him if he’s versatile. If he can do all things, not just one.” Coriolanus sighed with frustration and glanced at Aufidius—he’d removed his helmet and his hair was matted with sweat, shining in the hot Corito sun. “And you? How did your maneuvers go?”

Aufidius shrugged. “Pollius’s aim is still off but it’s getting better. He’s only missing by a foot instead of two.”

Coriolanus frowned. And then realized that Aufidius was joking. “Ha, ha,” he muttered, taking the scope back and training on the field far below. His men—the dead ones—had gotten up and were standing around, smoking. “I wish they wouldn’t do that.”

“What, forget that the enemy is everywhere?”

“No, smoke. I wish they wouldn’t smoke.”

Aufidius gave him a crooked smile. “Why?”

“Because it’s harmful,” Coriolanus said pointedly. “Because it decreases lung capacity which decreases ability which decreases effectiveness.”

“We can’t all be as high-minded as you, Martius.”

He frowned. “It’s not about high-mindedness. It’s about being intelligent and forward-thinking.” No one of any sense on New Roma used any type of dried leaf products anymore—that kind of thing was left for commoners.

“Well…” Aufidius took the scope again. “According to you, Sestius isn’t long for this world so why worry about his lungs?”

“That isn’t the—”

“Aufidius?”

They turned as one.

Aufidius’s lieutenant, Quintus, had joined them on the roof. He was carrying a water bottle and a rolled-up map.

“What is it?” Aufidius said.

“We’re having problems with that mapping unit. It’s giving us faulty data.” Quintus handed the bottle to Aufidius, ignoring Coriolanus completely.

Unsurprising, really. Quintus didn’t like him, or—as Aufidius had put it—had deep reservations about him. He never questioned Coriolanus’s commands but there was a sense that he was chalking up each supposed shortcoming on an invisible balance sheet and would one day present Aufidius with the sum total.

A case in point was the new mapping unit Coriolanus had bargained off a trader the week before. It wasn’t as sophisticated as those in the New Roman arsenal and was limited to mapping only ten meters below ground level. But at least it did that, at least they had a tool so they’d know what they were getting into when they landed on New Roma.

Aufidius took a long drink, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Did you install the software update that Martius gave you?”

“Young Bantius ran the upgrade this morning.”

“Did you make sure he plugged the unit into the dedicated generator?”

“I did.”

“Then you’re doing something wrong,” Coriolanus muttered because he couldn’t not.

Aufidius gave him a sour look; Quintus didn’t look at him at all.

“I’ll be there within the hour,” Aufidius said. “Maybe we can hook it up to the ship’s power system.”

“Bantius said that would fry the unit’s circuits. Something about the ship being so old and a lot of other tech babble that I didn’t understand.”

Aufidius sighed. “I’ll take a look when we’re done. Is the tent up?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t bother with a bath—I’ll pay a visit to the lake.”

Quintus nodded and turned to go.

“Quintus?” Aufidius called out. “Don’t worry about the about the unit—we’ve done well without it so far.”

Coriolanus fumed but waited until Quintus was gone before saying, “No, you haven’t done well without it. If you had known on Caballus that we’d laid in a subterranean network of focused mines, you would have never lost that battle.”

Aufidius smiled. “Why, Martius—are you saying that without your expensive technology I would have had you?”

Coriolanus dropped his jaw, then closed it again.

“Here.” Aufidius gave Coriolanus the water. “The men are waiting.”

*

He stewed the whole dusty walk to the battle site, worrying on Aufidius’s words.

It wasn’t true that Aufidius would have taken the day back on Caballus. There had been many other factors that had turned the tide of battle. Number one being himself, of course. Number two being the mines that had done their job with bloody effectiveness.

But what would have happened if they hadn’t arrived a week early and managed to install the explosives?

Coriolanus had long acknowledged, both privately and publicly, that Aufidius was his equal. But he’d never had it shoved in his face so easily, so thoroughly that without the financial backing of the corporations, advertisers and banks, New Roma might have fallen to Aufidius long ago.

It wasn’t a pleasant realization and he was still brooding when they reached the site.

Aufidius went first, commending the men on what they had done right, pointing out what they had done wrong. When it was Coriolanus’s turn, impulse made him shake his head and say nothing. Startled, the men turned to Aufidius but he was just as surprised. He told the men to return to the ship and get some sleep; the next round of exercises would get underway at dawn.

Coriolanus went as well, but waved away the offered transport, taking off across the rocky terrain, walking quickly towards camp.

*

Corito was a small, low-density planet about two-thirds the size of New Roma. It had once been a distant but thriving spoke in the New Roman wheel of commerce. Continual war, famine and the shifting tides of politics had long since driven the inhabitants off-planet. What was left was a dry, hot husk of a civilization both literally and figuratively.

For their base camp, Aufidius had chosen a location some two leagues from what had once been the largest city and nearly two hundred leagues from the only populated area. It was a good spot—near Lake Tresmenio with a clear line of sight in all directions.

When Coriolanus got to the camp, the troops and officers had already arrived. Instead of boarding the Proelius, though, and retiring to their berths, they were erecting tents around the ship and making fires.

He hesitated. Aufidius was standing by the largest tent conferring with Quintus. He looked up and caught Coriolanus’s eye, then nodded. Coriolanus returned the greeting and then went aboard.

Inside, the air was cool, quiet and comforting. He made his way through the Proelius’s barrel-shaped corridors and up two levels to his quarters. The room wasn’t anything much, just a narrow bed, a toilet and a washbasin that converted to a narrow shower.

Still, it was refuge and he disrobed and stepped into the shower. The limit was three-minute’s worth of accelerated steam; he managed in less than forty-five seconds, washing mindlessly. He got out, toweled off and dressed again, this time eschewing shirt for undershirt only.

He was buckling his belt, there in the middle of the small room, his shin pressed against the low pallet, when realization broke over him.

Thirty-three days.

It had been thirty-three days since he’d walked across that bridge into Antium Port. Thirty-three days since he’d joined with Aufidius.

And thirty-three nights since he’d slept alone.

Hardly that, he reminded himself with something approaching anger. For all that Aufidius had been in earshot for those thirty-three nights, they each kept their own company, neither stepping into the other’s bedroom save for that first day. It was what he had wanted, what he preferred.

He cinched the belt tight around his waist, as if that would make the nascent anger disappear and left his quarters.

*

He didn’t quite know where he was going as he made for the main deck. He should eat and then there was the data from the war games to review. But neither suited his mood and he passed the mess hall without a second glance

He was outside engineering when loud voices slowed him down. It was none of his business—most matters of discipline he left to Aufidius. Still, he stopped by the portal and looked in. Quintus and four other men were huddled around a nearby computer bank, looking down as a smooth-faced boy tapped away at an old-fashioned keyboard.

Like the ship itself, the engineering section was old, filled with archaic equipment. The crew had done what they could to upgrade the systems but there was a limit to what the machinery could take. After his first inspection of the ship, Coriolanus had silently shrugged his shoulders and hoped like hell she’d hold together long enough to make landfall on New Roma. Something which was looking increasingly doubtful.

The boy swore, leaned back in his chair and rubbed his hands over his head in frustration. Coriolanus finally recognized him—it was the boy from his first night, the one he’d taken by surprise outside Aufidius’s rooms. Why was so young a soldier working on such a sophisticated, albeit old, system?

“It’s no good, sir,” the boy said. “The ship’s system won’t recognize the new protocol. It’s too old.”

“Maybe it’s just you, Bantius,” one of the men said. “Maybe you fucked it up.”

“Shut it, Florius,” Quintus ordered. He leaned over Bantius’s shoulder. “You updated the software first, right?”

Bantius nodded. “As much as I could. Some of the hardware is too old to take a complete upgrade. Coriolanus asked about it, too. I heard him talking to Aufidius the other day.”

Nobody spoke for a minute and Coriolanus frowned, remembering the instance of which Bantius referred—he thought he and Aufidius had been alone as they’d worked late in the war room.

Finally, Quintus patted Bantius on the shoulder and said, “Don’t worry about it. When Collidius is finished with the propulsion system’s refit, he can help you. Like the General says, it would be useful, but we’ve survived without it this long.”

Ah. So they were talking about the mapping unit.

The men nodded. Bantius didn’t move, still slumped in his chair.

“Come on,” Quintus said, shaking Bantius gently. “Let’s get something to eat.”

“What about a kit?” Coriolanus asked abruptly from the doorway.

All the men—Quintus included—jumped and turned.

He held back a smirk. “Have you tried a kit?”

Only Bantius spoke. He leaned back in his chair, peering around Quintus to ask, “What’s a kit, sir?”

“A kit is a program that works underneath the main operating system. It draws on the system’s power and resources, but acts independently.” He put his hands on the doorframe and leaned into the room. “Our people used to use them a long time ago.”

“And how’s that supposed to help us?” Quintus asked with an edge of belligerence.

“No,” Bantius said before Coriolanus could answer. “I understand. We install this kit,” he looked to Coriolanus for confirmation, then continued eagerly, “and it tricks the computer into thinking it’s not there but it will still drive the mapper.” He frowned. “But what happens when the mapper needs to interface with the Proelius? Never mind,” he added, waving his hand as he swiveled to face his computer. “I’ll figure it out.”

Quintus cocked his head. “I suppose you don’t have the code in your pocket?”

“I’m sure the Roman archives will have a copy. They keep everything.”

No one spoke for a long moment and then all the men smiled, even Quintus. “I’m sure a little hack isn’t beneath us, is it, Bantius?”

Bantius nodded without looking up.

Coriolanus hesitated, and then, before he knew it, he’d stepped through the portal and into the room. “If you can get past their firewalls, I can help you find where it’s stored.”

*

“Well?”

Bantius sighed. “It took it. Do we have to let it propagate?”

Coriolanus shrugged. “I have no idea. I’m not a coder.” He rubbed his eyes. He’d been sitting, hunched next to Bantius for the better part of three hours and his eyes burned.

Everyone else had left hours ago, no doubt to eat or sleep. He’d stayed, fascinated by the quick movements of Bantius’s fingers, the way he’d hacked into the Roman archives with a clumsy sort of instinct. And then—when they’d found the snippets of code—how easily he’d implemented them, seeming to know just what code to keep, enhance or delete.

“You’re good at this, ” he murmured.

Bantius turned, dark eyes wide. After a moment he said “Thank you, sir.”

It was an awkward pause; he nodded and looked away.

“Sir?”

“Yes?”

“In New Roma—when you were there, I mean—do they have an experimental that can run itself? Fly by herself, I mean.”

He nodded. “The Neptune. She’s dry-docked now.” He shrugged stiffly, amending, “She was dry-docked. They were refitting her, the last I knew. I’m not sure where she is now.”

Bantius swiveled his chair. “Neptune?”

“She’s submersible.”

“Oh.”

Bantius swiveled back and forth nervously, reminding Coriolanus that he was essentially still a boy.

“Sir?”

He should get up; he had to eat at some point. “Yes?”

“When we take New Roma, do you think you could get me on her? The Neptune, I mean?”

“Why?”

Bantius shrugged, a bright excitement lighting his face. “I’d like to see her. I’ve never been on a ship like that before.”

He couldn’t help a brief smile. “She’s just a ship. And,” he added, looking around, measuring the Proelius with his mind’s eye, “smaller than you might think.”

Bantius nodded, some of his excitement fading away.

“But,” he amended, feeling that same odd sense of guilt that he had the other night with Aufidius, “when we take the planet, yes, if I can, I’ll get you on her.”

Bantius smiled again and he looked as if he wanted to whoop. He settled for a vigorous nod.

“Is it working?”

He turned.

Aufidius was standing in the portal, hands on either side, leaning in just as Coriolanus had. He was still dressed in camo and had a towel over his shoulder. “Quintus told me you found a way to fix the mapper.”

“We think so,” he said.

“It wasn’t the power source after all,” Bantius said eagerly. “We installed a code that will fool the computer into thinking the mapper isn’t there when it really is.”

Aufidius half-smiled. “You don’t say.”

“It was Coriolanus.” Bantius added with a nod. “He told us about it.”

He should berate the boy for the second casual use of his name but his admiration was startling. In the past, any admiration thrown his way had been tempered with fear and caution. There had been only one person that had given him respect and appreciation free of trepidation.

Well—he thought, startled anew, staring up at Aufidius—that wasn’t quite correct. There had been two, really.

“New Roma has the best of everything,” he murmured absently, watching Aufidius as if seeing him anew. He’d known, of course, that Aufidius held no fear of him, but the other…? “It was nothing.”

Aufidius nodded, then tapped the doorframe with his thumbs. “I’m going for a swim.”

It was a clear invitation, one he could answer with pretend ignorance or use the excuse of duty or even the truth that he’d already washed.

He stood up, saying over his shoulder, “Good work, Bantius. Let me know in the morning if it’s functioning.”

*

The sun had dropped while he was inside and its rim just touched the horizon, sending up streaks of faded blue. The heat of the day was fading as well—the air was pleasantly cool.

A few of the soldiers had made themselves comfortable around the bonfires; they waved as he and Aufidius strolled by.

“I was wondering,” he said even though he really hadn’t been and the notion had just occurred to him. Something he was doing a lot lately—speaking without thinking.

“Yes?”

“The Neptune, you know of her?”

“I do.”

“We could use a ship like her.”

“We could use any new ships,” Aufidius said dryly.

He shook his head. “She’s not just new. We need something that can get our equipment to Lavinium and Ostia without being intercepted or noticed.” He looked sideways at Aufidius. “Did you know we developed a way to cloak her?”

Aufidius jerked to a stop. “No.”

He nodded. “From all but the most sensitive of radar. Our engineers created a coating that bonds with the titanium alloy hull. I don’t know if it’s functional, but they were trying it out on the Neptune.”

“Why didn’t you tell me about it?”

He frowned. “Because I didn’t think of it.”

After a moment, Aufidius nodded and began walking again. “That kind of technology would be very useful.”

“Yes, it would.” It was one of their most critical obstacles—their tech was far less sophisticated than New Roma’s and if they went in by traditional means, the chances that they’d be successful weren’t good. He’d work with less favorable odds, but he wanted—no, he needed—to crush New Roma on the first blow. “It’s amazing, really,” he murmured.

“What is?”

“That you managed what you did with the ships and arms that you had.”

Aufidius stopped again, making Coriolanus stop as well. He was staring at Coriolanus with that same look—was it only the night before? One of an odd intensity that was too much, too intimate.

“What is it?” Coriolanus asked.

Aufidius shook his head. “Nothing.” He started walking once more. “It’s nothing.”

*

Ages ago, Corito’s coastal towns were known throughout the empire as some of the most beautiful and though the towns were gone, the beaches were still the same. The lake—large enough that some argued it was more ocean—still pushed against the shore with waters that ranged from a pale pink to a deep, transparent purple. The wide swath of fine black sand that guarded the coast was still soft and fragrant.

It was undeniably lovely and he stripped at the water’s edge, tossing his clothing into a pile, glancing at Aufidius as he did the same.

Aufidius’s body was the perfect counterpart for his mind—clean limbed and powerful, an expanse of skin and muscle refined by war. He was also covered with scars.

“Where did you get that one?” Coriolanus asked as Aufidius stepped out of his trousers.

“Which one?”

He pointed to the curved line on Aufidius’s ribs. “That one; it looks new.”

Aufidius twisted and craned his head to look down. He touched the jagged pink line. “That was thanks to you.”

“Corioles?”

Aufidius nodded and waded into the water. “During the knife fight.” He turned to look over his shoulder. “And you?”

Aufidius was standing in the thigh-high water, the falling sun burnishing his skin to copper. Coriolanus looked away, saying quietly, “Shoulder and forearm.”

“Let me see.”

He took a step, almost exclaiming as a cool wave crept up his ankles then shins. One more and then another until he was a meter away from Aufidius. He stopped, his legs suddenly not wanting to work, and turned slightly. “Here,” he muttered, pointing to his shoulder. “You cut me here.”

Aufidius came nearer and took Coriolanus’s arm, running his fingertips up forearm to bicep, peering closely. “I can hardly see it. Your surgeons are good.”

Aufidius was darker than he, the contrast highlighted by the angle of light. A shiver ran up his spine, skin breaking out into gooseflesh. He tugged, just barely. “They are. I would look a fright if it weren’t for them.” Water beaded on Aufidius’s thighs, mixing with hair.

“There would be no shame in it if you were, but I confess, I like you this way.”

Aufidius’s voice was honey-sweet, soothing, beguiling. Coriolanus tugged again but unlike the night before, Aufidius didn’t release him. He just ran his fingers along the curve of Coriolanus’s bicep.

“Aufidius?”

“Yes?”

“What happened to your wife?”

Aufidius looked up, meeting his gaze steadily. “She died in childbirth, many years ago.”

He frowned at the odd sensation that warmed his chest as much as the matter-of-fact tone in Aufidius’s voice. “I am sorry.”

“It was a long time ago when I was very young.” He took Coriolanus’s hand and pulled him deeper. “Come,” he said. “Let’s wash.”

They went in, waist deep, using sand and water to scrub away the dirt. Coriolanus played at it, pretending to clean what he’d already cleaned. When they were done, they waded to shore.

Coriolanus began to dress, but Aufidius gave him the towel.

“No. Use this or your clothes will get damp. The nights are cold here.”

He wanted to say he knew of Corito’s cold nights and that his cabin would be warm, but he took the towel without comment. He dried off, Aufidius watching his every move.

After he’d returned the towel, he dressed, trying and failing to keep his eyes to himself while Aufidius rubbed the water from his body.

“Ah, that feels good,” Aufidius said as soon as he’d finished scrubbing his hair. “I’ve been wanting that for the last hour.”

“You shouldn’t have waited for me.”

Aufidius began to dress. “You think much of yourself,” he said absently, pulling on his underwear. “I was going over tomorrow’s maneuvers with Quintus and Lucius.”

“I only meant—”

Aufidius grinned up at him. “I know. I was teasing. I was waiting for you.” He straightened up and touched Coriolanus’s arm. “Quintus and Brutus managed to catch a few paltry fish. We’ll eat well tonight.”

*

By the size of the crowd before the ship, most of the men had renounced their barracks in favor of the bonfires. When they saw Coriolanus and Aufidius, they began shouting and pointing to two campstools in front of the biggest fire.

Coriolanus hesitated but before he could make the usual excuses, Aufidius shook his head.

“No, you are not going to sit in your cabin and work. You need to eat.”

It was almost humorous, this new attitude Aufidius was affecting. Or maybe it wasn’t new? “You’re very presumptuous for a man I’ve trounced over and over again.” The words were haughty, cold.

But Aufidius just leaned close and whispered. “Yes, I am. And you love it; don’t try to tell me otherwise.”

“If it were not for the scent of the roasting fish, I would demonstrate what I think of that statement.”

Aufidius just snorted and led him to the stools.

It was his first real time eating among the troops and he cautiously accepted an equally cautiously proffered plate of fish and bread from a young recruit.

Aufidius took his plate with a muttered, “Thank you,” and then raised his voice, “Celatus! Where are you?”

A man, a centurion that Coriolanus had met only once, broke away from a group near the last fire. “Here!”

Aufidius cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Bring it here and don’t forget the cups!”

Celatus bent down, reaching for something at his feet, then straightened and jogged towards them. He was carrying a jug of wine and two cups.

“I hope it’s not all gone,” Aufidius said with a smile.

“Not by a long shot, sir,” Celatus answered as he bowed briefly to Coriolanus and gave the cups to Aufidius. He poured the wine. “I’ll leave the jug with you, though. It’s been hard keeping it from my men.”

“So I imagine.” Aufidius jerked his head. “Go, enjoy yourself.”

Celatus smiled and bobbed his head again. “I’ll try, sir.”

With certain ceremony, Aufidius gave a cup to Coriolanus. “Try that.”

He bent his head and sniffed. The bouquet was heady but more than that, it was familiar. He sipped it, just to make sure. “This is from Senator Servillius’s cellar.”

Aufidius grinned. “It is. One of my men liberated it on a fact-finding mission a few months ago.”

“‘Fact finding,’” Coriolanus said caustically. “Spying and stealing, you mean.”

“As if you never authorized or…” Aufidius tipped his cup to Coriolanus. “…did the same.”

He shrugged.

“Aren’t you pleased we did?”

He took another sip. The wine wasn’t watered and it went down smoothly. “I am.”

“I thought you would be.”

He couldn’t help a small smile.

After that, they finished their meal in silence. When they were done and the plates taken away Coriolanus looked around.

The men had long finished their supper. Some were standing around talking, some were playing cards, and some were mock wrestling, playful grappling that held a scrap of true violence.

In the past, when the New Roman legionnaires were done for the day, they’d retire to their bunks and sleep. On his orders, of course, developed from the belief that any manner of release would set them back, remove that fighting edge and resolve he so needed them to have.

But not always, he remembered with a start. In the beginning, after he’d been given his first command, Cominius would let the men go home if they were on-planet or relax in their barracks if they were in the middle of a conflict. When Coriolanus had questioned it, Cominius had said that a man couldn’t be a warrior every minute of the day—that they needed something to fight for and family and friends were the greatest motivators. Coriolanus had answered that New Roma should be enough and that the men spent most of that time gambling or whoring and where did ethical motivation factor into that?

He shifted from side to side.

“What is it?” Aufidius said quietly. “Are you still angry from earlier?

“Angry?” He frowned, then remembered. “No.”

“Then what is it?”

“Nothing.”

Aufidius leaned forward as if to push the conversation but Coriolanus forestalled him with a loud, “Sestius!”

Once again, he’d reacted without thinking but what was done was done. He shouted again, this time in the voice that carried across battlefields and cannon fire, “Sestius! I want to speak with you!”

The men had stilled and were watching him, Aufidius as well, every expression turned to stone. And then, like wheat bending before a breeze, the troops stepped aside as a very reluctant Sestius came forward.

Many of the new recruits were replacements for the troops lost during the Coriolian action. Sestius couldn’t be more than twenty-eight, short and stocky with a tight crop of curly black hair and large black eyes.

“Stand before me,” Coriolanus said, gesturing for Sestius to come closer. He waited until Sestius was a meter away, then asked, “Do you know why it’s important to be aware of every angle when you’re out in the field?”

Sestius looked at the ground and then back up again. “No, sir?”

He opened his mouth, the, ‘So, you won’t get attacked from the sky, you dolt!’ burning his tongue when a second impulse made him stop. He thought about it for a split second, then pointed to the rough patch of skin on his temple. “Do you know where I got this?”

Sestius shot a quick glance over to Aufidius, as if asking him for guidance. Evidently, he didn’t receive any because he shook his head. “No, sir?”

“It was on Bola. Do you know of it?”

Sestius shook his head.

He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “Bola is a small planet in the middle of the Latium Cluster and—as it is today—a vital point on the New Roman trade route. So much so that even though it’s sparsely populated, we kept a close watch on it. One day we got intel that the Volscian forces, you—” He acknowledged the soldiers with a nod of his head. “—had landed with the intent of sabotaging the processing plants, thereby disrupting the grain shipments meant for New Roma’s protected planets.”

He left out the part that their intel was thanks to the capture and torture of a Volscian officer. He glanced sideways. Aufidius had crossed his arms and was staring into the fire, brooding. An eye for an eye, Tullus, and if I can take it, then so can you.

He returned to his story. “I mustered a century of sixty and set out on a Juno-class warship. We arrived twenty-four hours later.”

He paused, remembering orbiting the small brown planet, so anxious to meet Aufidius in battle he hadn’t slept in two days.

“Twenty-four hours too late,” he continued to the troops that were now edging nearer, “because we didn’t know that you were equally aware of our coming. When we landed near Alternum, thinking to sneak up on you, we spread out and entered the city, stepping into a neat trap.”

“One you just as neatly escaped,” Aufidius muttered.

“You expected anything else?”

“By then, no.”

He wanted to smirk at Aufidius’s sour tone but didn’t. “We were trapped, hemmed in by mines, snipers and laser cannons. We weren’t outnumbered or outgunned, but were in a tight situation nonetheless. I sent out a recon team at dusk, hoping that your general had gotten lax and reduced the number of patrols.”

“He had not,” Aufidius said.

“No,” Coriolanus agreed, “he had not as I found when the recon returned. We could have stayed there for days; we had enough rations, enough ammo. What we didn’t have was time. You see, Bola is famous for two things: grain production and earthquakes, and our mapping tech told us that there was a measureable quake hitting within nineteen hours.”

Aufidius grunted softly.

Coriolanus looked over. “You didn’t know?”

Aufidius glanced at Coriolanus, then shook his head. “No. We only found out when our own sensors went offline. We thought you’d run out of water.”

An older soldier, Napius, grunted and nodded.

“We did not,” Coriolanus said pointedly, bringing an answering half-smile to Aufidius’s lips.

“So, there we were…” He turned back to the troops. “Surrounded by the enemy with an earthquake knocking on our door.”

“But, sir…” Sestius dropped to crouch in front of Coriolanus. “Why didn’t you just turn around and go back the way you came?”

“For the simple reason, Sestius, that we had a mission to finish, now more critical than ever. The granaries were built to withstand the hot summer months and the shifting earth. Conceivably, they could endure a proton bomb, but not a bomb and a massive earthquake. The two combined would tear the entire area apart, possibly the planet itself.” Sestius was staring up at him, confusion on his face. “If the saboteurs were successful, what would mean a minor setback in grain production would turn into a major disaster. It would take years to rebuild and whole planets would starve.”

He frowned. Whole planets once meant loss of profit and the dissolving of trade agreements.

Beside him, Aufidius snorted as if he knew what he was thinking. Or maybe he was just mourning the loss of such an opportunity? Even now, the destruction of Bola would be a blow to the empire—if they were unsuccessful in their run on New Roma, if the Gate held, maybe they could test the feasibility of another attack on Bola.

He tucked the idea away for later and went on.

“With no good options, only a desperate need, I sent out another recon at midnight with the same results. By then it didn’t matter—we had to move.” He clasped his hands together, remembering the tension of that moment when he realized their time was up. “Now, the granaries are four leagues from Alternum and are basically self-automated towers on pneumatic stilts. The buildings of Alternum, however, are short in height, single level, flat-topped, constructed to store equipment, house the occasional controller and not much else.”

The troops were now ten men deep, listening avidly.

“Our best chance to get to the granaries quickly was to take the eastern avenues, bypassing the main thoroughfares. We set out in groups of ten. The first leg of the mission went well; we met no one and had advanced almost a league before—”

“Before you ran into one of our land mines,” Aufidius interrupted softly, leaning forward to match position with Coriolanus.

He nodded. “A handful of my men died instantly and the rest scattered.” He’d been so furious, watching them fly into the dark, shouting to, ‘Come back, you fools!’

“What happened next?” Sestius asked eagerly.

“I rallied the men and we hurried on and that is when I got sloppy.” He looked Sestius straight in the eye. “And it’s the crux of this whole story. We were heading north again, running fast when laser fire began raining down. I’d been careless and forgot that, flat-topped and exposed though they were, the structures could still hide the enemy.”

His voice dropped as he remembered his anger at neglecting the skyward approach, “The first laser fire took twenty of my men in a heartbeat and I—”

“Ran into the open like a man possessed,” Napius interrupted boldly as he stepped forward.

Coriolanus looked up at Napius, as did Aufidius.

Napius came nearer. “You were all by yourself, out there in the dessert, but none of us could hit you.”

Coriolanus touched his thigh; under the cloth was the reminder of Bola. “You’re wrong about that.”

Napius shook his head. “You were spitting fire and your eyes burned like a dragon’s.”

“My eyes, I assure you, weren’t burning. It was probably the reflection of my night goggles.” Aufidius was still watching Napius intently and it came to Coriolanus that Aufidius was waiting for insults that would lead to revolt that would lead to—

“Like a dragon, I tell you,” Napius repeated with a grin. “It was something to see.”

There was a long moment where no one spoke. Coriolanus could hear the spark and hiss of the fires, the low hum of the Proelius’s generator.

“The point is,” Aufidius finally said, breaking the silence, “it’s not enough to be aware of your fore and aft, Sestius—your fellows depend on your ability to keep your own self safe in order to keep them safe. Do you understand?”

Sestius nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, sir. I do. Sir?” He turned to Coriolanus. “What happened?”

“I led my men on and we ensured the safety of the grain.” Meaning, they killed as many of Aufidius’s men as they could, then booby-trapped the entrances to the granaries with soft mines. “We took off soon after, just in case.”

“We, as well,” Aufidius added as he picked up the wine and his cup, and pushed to his feet. “Now, enough,” he raised his voice. “We’re up at daybreak. Do what you will, but lights out in two hours.” He turned to Coriolanus and after a moment, Coriolanus stood as well.

The men began to disperse, breaking up into smaller groups. They were still talking about Bola, though. Coriolanus could hear the low whispers as he and Aufidius strolled towards the ship.

“That was interesting,” Aufidius said as they skirted a bonfire.

“How so?”

“Napius lost his only brother at Bola.”

The air filled with soft music—someone was broadcasting from the ship. “Yes?” It was the tune from the other night or something close to it.

“He’s been vowing revenge ever since.”

“What did you think he would do? Attack me?” he asked absently. Some of the men were dancing now, swaying to and fro. When Aufidius didn’t answer, he added, “I’m his commander.”

“Yes.”

“I’m not afraid of him. I’m not afraid of anyone.”

“So I’ve seen.”

He stopped and turned to Aufidius. “I don’t care if they love me, I don’t care if they respect me. I have their fear and that’s enough.”

Aufidius frowned. “What are you talking about?”

He waved vaguely. “The men. I know what they think of me and I don’t care.”

Aufidius raised an eyebrow. “You can’t be serious.”

It wasn’t a question and after a moment, Aufidius murmured, “This way,” and gestured not to the ship but to his tent. When Coriolanus balked, Aufidius waved imperiously to follow.

The tent was of New Roman design, desert tan, large enough to sleep eight with a center pole and privacy flaps on all four walls. Two portable tables filled the right side and a cot, a small chest and a washstand took up the left.

On the tables were piles of duramaps, notebooks and paper. An antique electric lantern sat in the middle of one table, casting a feeble glow upon the maps.

Aufidius poured another cup of wine and drank deep. He wiped his mouth. “So, you think the men are afraid of you, is that it?”

“Of course they are.”

“And fear is all they feel for you?”

He frowned, confused as to where the conversation was heading.

“You know…” Aufidius poured another measure of wine, then brought it over to where Coriolanus stood by the doorway. “For such a brilliant man, the blinders on your eyes are a meter thick.” Aufidius handed him the cup.

“What do you mean?” he asked, stung.

“The men don’t fear you,” Aufidius said evenly. “They idolize you. And after tonight…” He nodded to the fires. “…after tonight they’d probably die for you. Did you not know that?”

There was a long moment where speech was not possible and he listened to the heavy beat of the music, feeling it creep its way into his soul.

“I assumed they hated me,” he finally said. “No, I didn’t know.”

“Their hate died the moment they were told you gave up the secrets to the Gate.” Aufidius shook his head. “They know of your past deeds; they think you’ll bring them luck. They even have a nickname for you.”

“They do?”

Aufidius nodded. “Draco. They call you Draco.”

Dragon. He remembered thinking as the prison transport struggled to breach New Roma’s atmosphere, that he was off to be on his own, a dragon with clipped wings and doused fire. “Dragon,” he whispered.

“Aye.”

He turned and stared out at the night. The soldiers were moving now, dancing around the bonfires, some with linked arms, some moving in solitary circles. Over to the right, partially hidden behind a tent, two men were wrapped in an embrace. Heat streaked up his spine. “I didn’t know,” he murmured again, suddenly finding it important to keep talking, to keep the surprises of the day at arm’s length until he could lock them away before curiosity and dread let him do something stupid, such as examine them too closely.

So he could go on as if nothing had happened.

“It’s an ancient thing, isn’t it?” Aufidius said, coming to stand a hand space behind. “When I see them dance, I feel as if I’ve been transported to the fields of Carthage or Syracuse.”

He made no move to either nod or shake his head. He could feel the heat of Aufidius’s body, could smell the low scent of dirt and sweat and smoke. “You know your history.”

“Do you feel it?” Aufidius murmured, ignoring Coriolanus’s words. “Do you feel the past?”

He didn’t and he did, and his head swam with the contradiction. He wanted to reach out for the canvas door but couldn’t quite make his arm move. He wanted to protest, ‘I feel nothing,’ and, ‘I need to get away from you,’ but his tongue was as useless as his arm and both protestations were villainous lies, in any case.

“Caius?”

“You have no right to call me by my given name.” So, yes, his tongue still worked.

There was a pause and then Aufidius muttered darkly, “I have rights. Ancient and weary, but rights they are.”

It was paralysis, that’s what it was. A strange lassitude brought on by the music and Aufidius’s hushed voice, his scent. “No.”

“Yes,” Aufidius answered. “All those times we fought, me on you, you on me…” He breathed a laugh that edged towards bitterness. “I know the weight and feel of you better than my own wife.”

And just like that, the memory of that first day bloomed, fresh as if had just happened—the arrival in Antium Port, Aufidius’s embrace, his joy

He managed to drop the cup on a side table. “I’ll be going.”

“No.”

He turned, head forward, rejoicing at the sudden sweep of fury because at least it was familiar, known. “No? You say no to me?”

Eagerly, he waited for the attack, body or words, but again, Aufidius surprised him—he tipped his head to the side and murmured, “That last time, standing before me like Mars himself, covered in blood and gore, you said, ‘I’ll fight with none but you.’ Do you remember?

He made no reply but it wouldn’t have mattered—Aufidius was watching him with blind eyes, wrapped in his own memories.

“You held me, so tight, so fierce,” Aufidius said, still in that rough whisper. He took a step forward.

“I held you because I hated you. As you hated me.”

One more step. “And that first time, on Sabinium…”

“I bested you on Sabinium,” he fired again, missing as completely as the first time.

“I’d heard about the great General Martius,” Aufidius, still speaking with that same quiet, absorbed voice, “and your presence did nothing to disappoint. You gave me this…” Aufidius touched the nape of his neck. “And I gave you that.” He nodded to the faded scar on Coriolanus’s chin. “I wanted to give you more but you ran.”

“I didn’t run.” Aufidius was on him now, pressing so close that Coriolanus could feel him from chest to groin to thigh. “I didn’t.” A weak protest made weaker by shrill, silent insistence that he was never weak, never.

Fearlessly, he’d faced hordes, heading into the conflict without a thought for mercy or personal safety, so lost to the moment of war that he’d become war.

This was nothing to that and it should be a little thing, a tiny thing, the achievement of motion, to the side or a step back, any movement would do.

But he was frozen, captured by Aufidius’s low-lidded gaze as if Aufidius were a charmer and he the snake.

“What are you doing?” he whispered suddenly, the unplanned words choking his throat.

Aufidius smiled and glanced down at Coriolanus’s mouth. “You know. You’ve always known.”

No.

Never. He’d never known.

Never on the battlefield, never even in private with no one watching except the inner eye that never slept…

…but…

But.

He closed his eyes briefly, a long blink as he remembered, reviewed, reassessed.

All those moments, short and long, a life spent on hold until he saw Aufidius again, anxious and wondering, Where is he? Is he dead? Has he given up?

That had been hate, yes?

Not lust or it’s dimwitted cousin, love. It had been hate when he’d grappled Aufidius close, hate, when he’d hurt him… “No,” he breathed.

“Yes,” Aufidius whispered. “Every blow, every strike—you remember. Here…” Aufidius leaned close and brushed his lips along the scar on Coriolanus’s jaw. “And here…”

It was nothing—just a kiss. Not the least bit erotic, a brush of mouth on mouth, the kind his wife would have given him or even his moth—

…his hands were up before he knew it, shoving Aufidius back. “No,” he said again, this time cold and certain. “I know nothing. I knew nothing.”

He was out in the night, striding quickly towards the ship with one purpose, one desire—

“Sir!”

It took him a moment to place the figure hurrying towards him. It was Bantius, carrying a sheaf of printouts, flourishing them as if they were a torch. He took a calming breath and then another. “Yes? What is it?”

“We did it, sir!” Bantius shook paper. “I just got the results, see…” He angled the papers toward the light, shuffling through them, muttering under his breath, “I know it’s here somewhere— Here it is.” He pulled a sheet out and held it up.

Coriolanus took it. The printer, like so many other Volscian things, wasn’t very good and he could barely make out the thin spidery lines.

“See.” Bantius leaned on Coriolanus’s arm and pointed. “About two meters below the surface is an old cistern and over there…” He traced a mass. “They must have buried a munitions cache. See the crates?”

He could see, now that he’d gathered his wits. It was indeed a munitions cache of neatly stacked boxes with a century-old New Roman logo. Inside the crates rested the ghostly images of rifles and boxes of ammunition. Off to one side in a much larger crate, there looked to be a small particle cannon, one of the first of its kind.

“Why would someone bury all that?” Bantius asked.

“To keep from marauders—do you see the pressure mines encircling the cache?” He pointed to the round objects. “Before Bola fell under New Roman protection, it was the focus of many attacks. They must have dug the pit and then covered it up. The sand would have done the rest.”

“Should we dig it up? We could use the ammunition.”

“We should, but…” He looked around. Ten meters away, Aufidius was staring at them from the threshold of his tent, arms folded over his chest. Their eyes met. He glanced away and returned the printout to Bantius. “Go to your commander. Get his advice.”

Bantius nodded slowly. “Yes, sir.”

He continued on without waiting to see if Bantius followed his orders, knowing that Aufidius watched his every move.

Like an automaton, he didn’t slow down until he got to his quarters and locked the door behind him.

He stripped, brushed his teeth, then washed his face, all done unheeding, his mind carefully blank.

It was only when he was in bed, turned toward the porthole showing nothing but black, when the night almost caught up with him. But he was long used to handling inconvenient feelings and he shoved them ruthlessly away and soon was asleep.

*

He woke up with a start in the small hours, sure he heard the door’s chime. He held his breath, half out of bed, but no, he decided, heart in his throat, head cocked. It was nothing.

He went back to sleep.

*

The next day, contrary to his expectations, Aufidius was business-like, direct, and made no reference to the night before. It was a little bewildering until he reminded himself that this was what he wanted—anything that blurred the focus of his revenge was a hindrance. It was better this way. A man could only be one thing, have only one purpose—all else was impossible and it didn’t matter, anyway.

 

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Three

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

“Sir?”

He looked up from the computer. Bantius was standing in the doorway, a smile on his face. “Yes? What is it?” he asked irritably. He’d been wrestling with the computer for an hour now, trying to get it to spit out the supply registry.

“The General is back. He sent me to ask if you’ll come to the airfield.” Bantius’s grin split wider, if that were possible. “He has something to show you.”

He wasn’t much in the mood to be shown anything, after such an afternoon. Besides, Aufidius had been gone six days now, three longer than he’d estimated when he’d announced to one and all during an operation’s meeting: ‘I’m taking a squad out for a recon mission. We’ll be back in three days.’

Coriolanus hadn’t worried. Recon missions rarely went to schedule and it meant nothing that Aufidius was overdue. They would have been notified if something had happened—Aufidius’s death or capture would be great news and New Roma would gloat in every possible way.

He’d told himself that every night before bed and every morning when he woke up. Aufidius was fine, an extra day meant nothing, all was well.

Which meant there was no reason to rush now.

But anything was better than trying to make this stubborn piece of machinery work. And a walk would do him good. He got up and nodded to Bantius. “After you.”

The sun was high above and hot—a reminder that summer was well on its way. It felt good, though, the heat; he’d been inside much too often this last week.

“What is it I’m to see?” he asked as they made their way down the cobbled avenue.

Bantius shook his head. “He told me not to say. It’s a surprise.”

“Well, it must have something to do with a ship.” They passed an open cafe; to his surprise, the diners smiled and waved. He nodded before he could think not to. “If we’re going to the airfield.”

“Not necessarily,” Bantius answered gleefully.

Coriolanus wanted to ask what that meant but just then he spied something on the back of Bantius’s neck. “What is that?” he asked, craning his head to look. “Is that a tattoo?”

Even though Bantius glanced away as if caught doing something illegal, he answered readily enough, “Yes, sir.”

“What is it of?”

Bantius hesitated, then pulled his collar down. “A dragon, sir.”

He drew another breath to ask why a dragon and then stopped in the middle of the street as awareness came. ‘Draco. They call you Draco.’ “I see,” he said after a moment. It was a dragon, paws firmly on the ground, wings furled.

“It didn’t hurt,” Bantius said as he touched the red mark. “Amatius did it.”

He nodded and began walking again, this time faster than before.

“Sir?” Bantius ran to catch up. “Are you angry?”

He shook his head; he didn’t know what he was feeling but it wasn’t anger. “No.”

“You’re sure?”

“Of course, I’m sure.” But the boy was treading glumly where before he’d almost danced. “Truly,” Coriolanus added, looking down with a forced smile. “I am not.”

That’s all it took for Bantius to brighten again; he was still smiling and chattering when they arrived at the airfield.

Airfield,’ Coriolanus had found, was a grand misnomer. Whereas New Roma had a dozen installations, the largest being in Rome itself, the Volsci people had this—a rough skim of land, two miles in diameter, give or take. The field had a control tower, a first aid station, a maintenance garage and not much else. Around the edge of the field, sitting among the greedy weeds, were the Volscian ships. Or what was left of them. Out of thirty-six of various makes, only a dozen were functional and those needed considerable maintenance.

Today, a coble-turned-jury-rigged battleship, inaptly named Vulcan, lay in the middle of the field, her innards exposed to the bright sun. But beyond, on the far side lay…

He stopped and shielded his eyes. “What is that?”

“Come see for yourself!” Bantius crowed as he grabbed Coriolanus’s hand and hurried him around the Vulcan’s portside until he could see…

She was on her belly, the spread of her graceful wings making all the other ships seem small. Her starboard side had taken a recent hit—her silvery hull was discolored blue from what looked to be a particle cannon and her antenna array was missing a panel. But other than that, she was in the same condition as when he last saw her.

“Sir?”

Her ground ramp was extended as if in greeting, as if to say, ‘Here I am. Did you miss me?’ “Yes?”

“Are you well?”

He nodded. He wasn’t sentimental. The fact that the Victoria had always been his favorite ship meant nothing. “I’m fine.” A few soldiers were standing about, looking up. As well they should—the Victoria was the finest ship in the Roman armata and well worth a stare or two.

“She’s big.”

He nodded again and began walking. “She is.”

“She’s a Jupiter-class, isn’t she?”

“The latest model, yes.”

Bantius hesitated. “This was yours? When you were with the New Romans?”

“She was, but I didn’t have exclusive rights. When I needed a warship, she was made available. When General Cominius—” He glanced sideways. “You know of him?” Bantius nodded. “When Cominius needed something as a show of strength, he’d take her. She’s quite impressive.”

“I’ll say.”

He turned to Bantius and smiled; he was still smiling when a small parade marched down the ramp. It was Aufidius, Quintus, Senator Arrius and a handful of men.

Still dressed in recon black, Aufidius had no visible injuries. He was saying something to the men surrounding him, his eyes and smile jubilant. As soon as he cleared the dock’s shadow, he looked around. His gaze met Coriolanus’s and he nodded.

But—Coriolanus realized with a sharp jolt as he observed the group—Aufidius and his men were was dressed for action but Senator Arrius was not.

His smile died.

Aufidius and the senator were countrymen, confidants. It was foolish, being this angry to find that Arrius had arrived before he, that Aufidius might have notified Arrius first.

Aufidius called out to Coriolanus, “You said we needed a ship.”

“I did.”

“I found this one…” Aufidius jerked his thumb towards the Victoria, “…gathering dust on the Secundus Satellite.”

“She’s famous; everyone knows where she berths. They have tours in peacetime.”

Aufidius grinned. “I know. I took one when I was a lad.”

He pressed his lips tight. “The Secundus Satellite is a ten-hour journey.”

The forthright criticism was not lost on Aufidius. He gestured to the soldier at the rear of the group. “Pollinius wanted to see what she could do. We took her to the Orion Nebula and back.”

“A precious waste of fuel,” Arrius grumbled.

At that, Coriolanus’s anger died away. It was one thing for him to criticize Aufidius’s actions and quite another for Arrius. “What would you have, Senator? Our attack relies on dispatch and accuracy. It was wise to have the navigator get a feel for the ship.”

Arrius glared; Coriolanus glared right back.

“It was my pleasure, sir,” Pollinius spoke up, coming forward. “Her systems are a bit more complicated than I’m used to, but I figured her out.”

Pollinius was his age or a bit older, grizzled with a deep scar that bisected his forehead. “Did the AM drive give you any problems?”

Pollinius shook his head. “Exiting the bubble was a little tricky given the speed we were going, but I managed to compensate.”

“My ex-navigator always said the same. If you look in her logs, you’ll no doubt find notes as to how she overcame the anomaly.” His anger was completely gone; his body and mind felt light, free. He realized he was pleased. He was pleased that Aufidius was back and not dead and never mind anything else.

But, it was no good being too pleased, so he turned to Aufidius and added, “Her hull has been in better shape.”

Aufidius shrugged. “We’ll give her a good wash when we rename her.”

He stilled. He didn’t believe in luck, good or otherwise. Nevertheless… “What did you have in mind?”

Aufidius cocked his head, challenging. “What do you think?”

He stared up at Aufidius and then it came to him. It wasn’t hard—he’d known for a very long time that they thought alike in many things. “It would save in paint if we kept the V and the I.”

Aufidius smiled, white teeth bared lion-like. “It would.”

“Then I think Vindictia would be more than appropriate.”

“Agreed.”

They shared a smile, oddly intense until he remembered where they were. He cleared his throat and pretended to examine the ship’s marred hull. “But that will have to wait. Now that we have her, our agenda must be accelerated.”

Aufidius joined him on the hard-baked earth. He looked up as well and tucked his thumbs in his belt, agreeing, “By now they know we have her.”

“Something I was just pointing out,” Arrius said harshly. “Now we have to act.”

Aufidius turned, his elbow brushing Coriolanus’s arm. “Something you knew from the beginning. Or was all this an exercise to see if I would?”

“The senate is not going to be happy that you forced our hands,” Arrius said with a quick glance at Coriolanus as if blaming him for the expedited schedule. “We should have waited until we had more troops and supplies.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Coriolanus answered smoothly before Aufidius could. “We’ll always need more—that’s the nature of war. But we have a unique advantage.”

“And what is that?” Arrius snapped.

“Him,” Aufidius said, taking his turn as he pointed to Coriolanus. “We have him.”

*

Arrius argued the whole way back to Antium Port. Saying that one man couldn’t possibly make a difference, even hinting that there had been a reason for Coriolanus’s banishment that might have had more to do with the inability to lead his army rather than discord with the people.

Coriolanus let him talk until Arrius brought up the last point and then he cut him short.

They were almost to the arched entrance in the wall that surrounded the city and he stopped in its shadow. “Senator,” he said smoothly. “I know New Roma’s thoughts as if they were my own. Right now, General Cominius is meeting with his staff to discuss the theft. They’ll sit there for hours, reviewing our possible strategies and ploys.”

Movement caught his eye—it was Collidius, hurrying down the long avenue, a small vid player in his hand. “They’ll meet with the senate tomorrow, perhaps the day after,” he continued. “Four or five days from now, if they decide to act, they’ll call the men to arms. In two weeks, maybe three, they’ll set their plan into action.”

Arrius frowned. “So we have ten or eleven days?”

Collidius gave the player to Aufidius as Coriolanus shook his head looking up at the sun, now making its dive towards the horizon. “No. We have maybe a day at best.”

Arrius’s eyes widened and he looked at Aufidius, now bent over the player. “One day? You can’t possibly be ready in one day.”

“We can,” Aufidius replied absently. “We’ve been training for this very thing for a month and a half. The stores and supplies have been in their crates this last week. Besides,” he added as he held the player so Coriolanus could see, “we have to be ready.”

It was a news feed, dated ten hours prior, announced by the same slick broadcaster that had given the news of the Aequi advance some months ago: ‘…confirmed that Aufidius has stolen the fleet’s finest ship, the Victoria. The report doesn’t say if there were any other items included in the theft but this is a blow to the empire. We go to the city of Rome for more information.’

The image flickered, switching to a chaotic scene. In the background was the many-columned Senate building and in front, a crowd of people. They were shouting and holding signs.

Coriolanus grunted and crossed his arms. “Always the same,” he muttered.

Aufidius gave him a sharp look but said nothing as a journalist came into view: ‘Here they come now, all the Senators, even Senator Servillius back from holiday.’

The video cut to the broadcaster and layered above, a hologram image of a journalist standing in front of the crowd. The broadcaster asked, his face grim, ‘Drusilla? Is there any word about Coriolanus? Does anyone know where he is?’

The journalist shook her head, then winced as the crowd surged forward. She pressed her hand to her ear and said something that was lost in the commotion. The hologram dissipated abruptly, leaving only the feed of the crowd.

Coriolanus leaned in close. The video had tightened focus and he could make out one of the signs—it was very familiar only this time instead of a red slash across his face, the word, ‘Salvator’ was scrawled across the bottom.

“It seems they want you back,” Aufidius murmured.

“They don’t know what they want. There they are…” He pointed as the camera followed the senators hurrying up the steps. “The frightened geese, running in to make their plans.” The video flickered again and the transmission was gone.

“That was all, sir.” Collidius put the player away. “I’ve tagged the feeds—I’ll be notified as soon as another comes through.”

“Thank you,” Aufidius said. “Quintus?”

Quintus stepped forward.

“Martius is right—consider our agenda expedited. I want the men onboard and the supplies in the cargo holds by sundown.”

Quintus nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“Bring the rest of my gear. I’m returning to the ship.”

Quintus nodded then turned to Coriolanus. “Sir? Would you like me to pack for you?”

Coriolanus shook his head. He’d been ready for weeks; everything he needed was in the duffle bag at the foot of his bed.

But—he glanced at Bantius—there was one thing he wanted to do, an impulsive desire he wasn’t going to scrutinize too closely. “I need something from my room. I’ll return in two hours.” That, for Aufidius, who nodded shortly.

Arrius stepped forward. “Wait—you’re truly leaving tonight?” He glanced from Coriolanus to Aufidius.They know we’re coming.”

“No,” Coriolanus said. “They know you’re coming. They have no idea I’m coming.”

Arrius opened his mouth, but Aufidius forestalled him with a decisive, “You’re not going, in any case. If we’re wrong, you’ll live long enough to dance on our graves.”

Arrius sputtered but he had no rejoinder.

Coriolanus shared a glance with Aufidius, then he turned and gestured to Bantius. He waited until they were some distance away before saying, “I want to do something and I need your help.”

*

He touched his neck only to have Amatius urge, “No, not yet, sir. It’s almost done.”

“I thought it was supposed to hurt.”

Bantius shook his head. “Maybe a hundred years ago, but now it just itches.” He was watching closely; his breath smelled of fish.

Coriolanus wanted to move away but Amatius would scold again and though it was like being barked at by a puppy, he held still. “It’s similar to Bantius’s?”

Amatius hesitated, then said, “Not exactly, sir. I looked it up. A dragon should have its front paws raised.”

“It looks amazing,” Bantius added. “Like it’s going to strike.”

“Segreant,” Coriolanus murmured.

“Seg- What?” Bantius asked.

Segreant—the pose is called segreant.”

“What’s that mean?”

He had to smile. “I have no idea.” The smell of laser-tinged flesh grew strong again, overpowering Amatius’s rather odorous barrack’s room and Bantius’s breath.

“How do you know what it is, then?”

“I read it in a book a long time ago.” He glanced at Bantius. “When I was younger than you.”

The boy squinted, as if trying to imagine Coriolanus as anything but an old man. “People don’t read books anymore,” he declared.

“More’s the pity,” Coriolanus answered acerbically, “or they’d know what the word segreant means.

Bantius thought on that for a moment, then said, “Do they still have books in Rome?”

“The city? Yes. I’m not sure about the planet as a whole. I imagine not.”

“Sir?” The low hum of the laser ceased. Amatius brushed something off Coriolanus’s neck. “Is it true that the Roman army has women, too?”

“It’s true.”

“Why don’t we?” Bantius asked.

“Because they can’t fight,” Amatius said before Coriolanus could speak. “At least, that’s what my uncle says.”

“Who’s your uncle?”

“Lucius Napius.”

He turned his head slightly. Like Bantius, Amatius was a thin boy with dark hair and eyes. “Your father is dead.”

“That’s right, sir—on Bola, just like Bantius’s.”

He turned around and asked Bantius, “Your father is dead?”

“They both are, sir.”

Two fathers. There were many male couples in the army, a surprising anomaly in the rather backward society. “They died well?”

The boy nodded again. “They did. They even saved the General’s life.” He glanced at Amatius and amended, “Well, they helped save the General’s life. My aunt has the tribute at home.” He shrugged again.

There was a long pause while Coriolanus struggled against the peculiar urge to offer comfort. What did it matter to him that Bantius had lost both parents on a distant planet in an action both knew well to be dangerous? Every soldier was aware that death waited around every corner and the only matter was how one died, not if one died. His own mother knew this—after every battle, before asking the outcome, she’d ask after his wounds, their number and severity. If he had died in battle, he knew she’d be inconsolable only if he had died a coward.

He turned away, the rote, familiar thoughts leaving him empty and unsettled.

“To answer your question, Bantius,” he said, forcing an even tone, “the reason why the New Roman army recruits and wants women is that they’re good fighters.”

“They are?” both boys asked as one.

“Yes,” he said, turning back around. “Some are better than men. And they’re generally better navigators.”

Neither Bantius nor Amatius said anything, as if lost in amazement.

“Is it done?”

“Oh.” Amatius started. “Yes, sir. All done. Here…” He brushed Coriolanus’s neck with a cloth and stood back. “If you wait, I’ll get a mirror so you can see…”

Amatius hurried to his locker and began rummaging through it, finally coming to air with a loud, “Ah-ha!” He held up a small mirror and asked, “Sir? If you just…” He pointed to the bigger mirror above the washbasin.

Coriolanus went to stand before the basin, turned his back and reached for the mirror.

It was, as Amatius had said, posed segreant, one taloned paw in the air, wings half unfurled, jaw opened as if to bite. It ran the width of his neck, a dull red, the color of drying blood. He touched his neck again and nodded. Perfect.

Bantius and Amatius were examining it as well. “It’s very good for your second try,” Bantius murmured.

Coriolanus met Bantius’s gaze in the mirror. “‘Second try?’”

Bantius straightened. “Oh. Didn’t I tell you?” His eyes darted, as if looking for the nearest escape route. “I’m sorry, sir. I thought you knew.”

He could roar, he could strike, but it was silly, to be angry over so minor a lapse. He gave the mirror back to Amatius and said calmly, “Very well. What do I owe you?”

*

He and Bantius made it back to the airfield with minutes to spare and he was happy to see that the ships were at the ready, arranged in a row: The Victoria, the Vulcan, the Bellum, the Lacertus and the Virtus.

But, though the ships were in neat order, the rest of the field was in chaos. Legion commanders barked orders, marshaling the arriving soldiers. Fuel and generator vehicles threaded their way around the ships and the large equipment transports. Families and townspeople were gathered here and there, watching as their men boarded. It was almost as if they were at the circus and he wouldn’t have been surprised to see some making a party of it.

A New Roman mustering was nothing like this. When New Romans departed for war, there was order and calm, each soldier and officer knowing exactly where and when to be. Any problems were handled quickly and efficiently and the general public remained at home.

“Sir?” Bantius asked.

He glanced to the side—Bantius was practically jumping up and down, his knapsack bouncing with him. “Yes?”

“I need to go. Collidius will be looking for me.”

“Run along.”

“I’m on the Vulcan, but I’ll see you? Later on?”

As if they had a supper date and he nodded, bemused. “Yes. Most likely.”

Bantius sprinted for the Vulcan, waving as he ran. Coriolanus watched, frowning.

He should sever whatever connection was growing between them. He wasn’t one for friends of any type and even if he were, it was foolish, especially given the age difference.

He sighed and hitched his duffle bag higher and began to make his way to the Victoria.

*

Inside the ship, it was as if he’d walked into a cocoon. Everything was quiet and orderly. He passed soldiers and officers, returning their calm salutations with equal composure.

The Victoria was much as when he’d last been aboard, but then, there hadn’t been time to make significant modifications—he’d been away from her less than two months, not two years.

He’d been given his old quarters and he entered, expecting to feel some sense of welcome. Instead, he looked around, unmoved. The room seemed not as he remembered but cold and grim, almost lifeless. Too large, as if making up in space what it lacked in charm. Nothing like Aufidius’s small set of rooms, with its white paint turned gold in candlelight and the broad doors always open to the bay.

“Here you are.”

He jerked, twisting so quickly he almost stumbled.

Aufidius was standing in the doorway, kit in one hand, duffle bag over his shoulder. He was wearing his fatigues and flak vest. “I was looking for you. I’m about the address the men.”

Coriolanus nodded. “I’ll be there in five minutes.”

Aufidius nodded, then asked abruptly, “How does it feel, being back?”

Coriolanus lied easily, “As if I never left.”

“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

He thought about that for a moment. “It’s a nothing thing.”

Aufidius nodded slowly as if he didn’t quite believe him. “I’m down the hall.”

“You should have taken this room,” he said stiffly. Even though Aufidius had given him shared leadership, it suddenly felt odd, that he’d been assigned this room and Aufidius was stuck in a much smaller cabin.

Aufidius looked around, saying with a smile, “It’s too big. I wouldn’t know what to do with all that space.”

“It has amenities that you’re not used to,” Coriolanus answered quickly, somehow stung even though he’d been thinking the same thing not a minute before.

“If you mean the comm and vid feed, yes, you’re right. My men are in heaven, Collidius namely. I doubt he’ll sleep, so excited was he by the soft systems.”

Coriolanus frowned. “I should have thought—” He glanced over to his desk. “Can you transfer Bantius to this ship?”

Aufidius’s smile dropped away. “Why?”

“No reason. He’s good with tech; most of your men aren’t.”

“Is that the only reason?”

“What do you mean?”

Aufidius stared at him, as if trying to decipher an old faded map. Then he sighed and said, “Nothing. I need to go. I’ll see you on the main deck.”

“Yes,” he said slowly.

“And by the way,” Aufidius answered over his shoulder as if the last thirty second’s conversation had never happened, “I don’t take. Remember?”

*

They’d set up the feed using the Victoria’s address system and her wide view screen. Coriolanus stood on the bridge, a step behind Aufidius, at attention. In a half circle surrounding them, Aufidius’s commanders, generals, and senators stood just as tall.

Aufidius’s speech was brief and to the point, but also—Coriolanus wasn’t surprised to find—impassioned and inspiring. Far different from his own addresses which had tended towards a few brusque words and an order to be true to the empire.

But then, he’d always hated public speaking. It had been his mother who’d forced elocution lessons on him at a young age, telling him that great men needed to learn to control the masses not just by strength alone, but also by words.

He’d despised every minute of those lessons.

But a moment later he was grateful for them when Aufidius concluded with a rousing, “May the Gods bless our endeavor. May the Gods bless Antium!” and turned and gestured for Coriolanus to come to the center of the bridge.

After a moment that felt longer than it probably was, he stepped forward and looked around. The screen showed the holographic image of the airfield, the ships, the flight crews and all the soldiers, looking up at him expectantly.

It came to him in a flash of perspective and insight, what they were about to undertake—no, what he was about to undertake and something shifted inside, a small shudder deep in his belly like the jolt brought on by a ship breaking free of gravity.

It had been his plan all along to retake his planet—his empire—no matter the cost. But now the plan took on new shape and meaning—he would take New Roma for the men looking up at him, yes, but more importantly, he would taking it for the man standing a bare foot behind. He would take it and lay it at Tullus Aufidius’s feet as a victory garland.

He nodded and began, the words flowing easily, “Men and women of Antium. I came to you a bare eight weeks ago, offering my life or my service. By the grace of the Gods, your leader, Tullus Aufidius, chose the latter.”

Aufidius drew a heavy breath and made some movement—whether in startlement at the admission or for another reason, Coriolanus didn’t know. “We leave tonight to retrieve what was once yours; what should have been yours all along.”

The virtual crowd broke out into cheers and it was a moment before he could continue. “For those of you on the front line, for those of you who lost loved ones during previous attempts to break the Gate, I ask that you trust me. I will not let you down.”

He hesitated, about to say something about glory and honor but the men were cheering again, chanting something unintelligible. He nodded, waved his hand, then stepped back to stand beside Aufidius.

“That was something to hear,” Aufidius confided softly.

“What were you expecting?”

“I heard your speech on Bovillae, so…” Aufidius shrugged.

Coriolanus tightened his lips.

“But, for someone who hates speaking in public,” Aufidius added, “you did well.”

It was a draw, whether he was more surprised how thoroughly Aufidius knew him or how the words of commendation made him feel. He was used to praise. He wasn’t used to selfless praise.

“Come,” Aufidius said, touching his elbow. “We leave in an hour. I need to go over the agenda with you in private.”

They’d gone over the agenda many times; he couldn’t think what more needed to be said. But the men were still cheering, still chanting—they were done here.

As they were leaving, Arrius—his fellow senators in tow—grabbed Aufidius’s arm. “I know it’s too late to urge caution, but are you quite sure this feed was secure?” He looked quickly at Coriolanus then back at Aufidius. “The last thing we need is for New Roma to get wind of our arrival.”

Aufidius sighed impatiently. “As the techs told you, Senator, the feed was not only encrypted at the outsource, the signal was dampened. Our own people, if they weren’t on that field…” He nodded towards the view screen. “…did not hear.”

“Still—”

“What’s done is done,” Coriolanus interrupted. “And you are wasting our time.”

The senators muttered and one, an older Senator by the name of Caedicius, spoke up, “It won’t change anything, Arrius. You worry too much.”

Arrius glanced at Caedicius. “I was just ensuring—”

Caedicius rolled his eyes. “Yes, we know. You were just ensuring that Aufidius, the man we’ve counted on all these years, has suddenly not become a fool. Come.” He gently shoved two other senators. “We need to depart before it’s too late. I doubt our generals would appreciate what few skills we have to offer.” He smiled and made a strange gesture with his hand as he ushered Arrius off the bridge. It took Coriolanus a moment to dredge up the memory of his ancestors and their sign of good luck.

*

He waited until they were alone, walking through the corridors before saying, “Norbanus and his crew have finished with the modifications to the particle cannons. He wants to test them before we put them to use.”

“We won’t have time,” Aufidius said. “And, we won’t need them, if your intel is correct.”

“It is.”

“Then we rely on stealth and after we’re through the gate, we’ll bring in the laser and particle cannons if we need them.”

“Quintus was looking for you earlier. He said something about the supplies of grain?” They got on the lift; he murmured, “Two.”

Aufidius grinned sourly. “Your fancy food maker isn’t to the men’s liking. They prefer real food.”

He had nothing to say to that—he’d never been fond of the same-tasting food produced by machinery. “Sestius has requested an amendment to his role in the attack. He had Bantius hack New Roma’s weather profiles. Apparently, there’s going to be a strong solar wind for the next seven days. He says descending from the leeward side won’t—in his words, ‘fuck everything up.’

The door opened with a muffled hiss and they got out.

“What do you think?” Aufidius asked.

“I told him it was a good idea. He’ll make the change once he gets your approval.”

Aufidius nodded.

Coriolanus frowned. “Is everything all right?” They’d arrived at his door; the comm light was blinking red—he had seventeen messages, one marked urgent. He tapped the security code and the door opened; he stepped inside. “What is it?”

The message list floated above his desk; the urgent message was from Sestius, probably a follow-up to their earlier conversation. He leaned across the desk, reaching to activate the note when he realized that Aufidius was standing at his heels.

He froze. “What are you doing?”

“Let me see it,” Aufidius answered, his voice deep and thick.

He straightened up. “What are you talking about?” Aufidius had trapped him against the table, no room to turn but he tried anyway. Aufidius stopped him, heavy hands on his shoulders, heavy breath on his neck.

“I want to see it.”

He elbowed Aufidius in the gut, a weak, ineffectual response given the angle. “Aufidius.”

It was like talking to stone because Aufidius didn’t move, only muttered, “Let me—” And then he pulled the back of Coriolanus’s collar down.

Oh.

Cool air washed over the nape of his neck and he shivered and then again when Aufidius leaned close and stroked the tattoo with a warm finger.

“When did you get this?”

“Today.”

Why did you get this?”

Because it was important. Because I’m nothing but a monster waiting to strike. Because, in a moment of weakness, I wanted a connection with a boy who foolishly idolizes me.

All those things he wanted to say but couldn’t because they were half-truths, meant to distance and distract. And he was tired of both, tired of himself. “You know why. You’ve always known.”

Match to tinder, the words sparked a flame. Aufidius took another quick breath and pushed closer, his groin against Coriolanus’s buttocks. “Caius,” he breathed.

Before, he would have shoved, but now he pressed, into Aufidius’s heat instead of away, arching with pleasure when Aufidius replaced finger with tongue, a long stroke along the length of the dragon and back.

“I told you—”

Aufidius licked him again. “I know what you told me.”

“We are ready to leave,” he gasped. It was a foolish protest but a necessary one—after all his protestations, his repudiation he needed to make a token effort at maintaining the ancient wall he’d built around his body and soul even if that effort lasted a fraction of a second, even if it was hopeless. “…in less than an hour.”

“We do, and the things I want to do to you,” Aufidius sighed, “ah, Caius, they can’t be completed in so short a time, so I’ll take what I can get.”

“I thought you weren’t a taker?”

Aufidius growled. And grabbed Coriolanus by the hips and turned him.

A moment where he met Aufidius’s gaze head-on without fear, denying the impulse to look away.

And then Aufidius was kissing him, true and right, taking his mouth in a kiss that wasn’t a kiss, at least not the kind that he was long familiar with—

Those had been heedful and tentative; these were hard, unruly, tasting of wine and war—

He grabbed Aufidius’s hair and forced him closer, urging him down to his eager neck. “Why now?” he whispered to the smooth grey ceiling.

Aufidius mouthed the length of his carotid, murmuring, “Because I’m tired of waiting. Because this time tomorrow, you’ll be theirs and tonight you’re still mine.”

There was nothing he could say to that, no words to match in strength. But then, words had never been his strong suit so he gave what he could, hands awkwardly searching, mouth fumbling across Aufidius’s cheek to his ear. He tongued the curve of cartilage and when Aufidius responded with a loud groan, he bit, hard.

Fuck,” Aufidius hissed and pushed Coriolanus back against the desk, kneeing his thighs apart, hunting for his belt buckle.

“Stop,” he said. “Here…” He pushed Aufidius’s hands out of the way and unfastened his belt, then his flies, fingers suddenly sluggish.

“Here,” he breathed again, taking Aufidius’s hand. “I’m here.” He looked down, watching with rapt attention as he guided their hands over his belly, a short journey made difficult by clothing, by the angle, by paralyzing lust, stifling a moan when they reached hard flesh.

Aufidius looked up, holding Coriolanus’s gaze. “I dreamed of this, so many times, you and me together,” he whispered. “You on your back beneath me. Me on my back to you.”

“Yes,” he whispered, even though he’d never been one for dreams and as far as he remembered, had never had one about Aufidius. “But not tonight. No dream tonight.” Still holding Aufidius’s gaze, he quickly undid his belt and let it drop unheeding to the ground then moved on to his zip. He hesitated for a brief moment—he wasn’t a master in this, in any of this. But experience didn’t have to dictate outcome and he slipped his hand in and down, palm sliding over crisp hair until his fingertips—

Caius,” Aufidius growled, eyelids half closed with lust.

“Yes,” he answered, unable to say more as he encircled Aufidius’s cock with his fingers and stroked down, then up.

Aufidius fell forward, bracing one hand on the desk, eagerly doing the same.

They brought each other off that way, Aufidius’s face buried in the space under his jaw, panting for air.

It had been this way back in Corioles, this sense of connection and his imagination fired—what would have happened if he’d given kisses instead of curses, his hand on Aufidius’s cock instead of at his throat? Would Aufidius have given in, responded in kind? Probably no, but maybe yes and just the idea of how it might have been, in the middle of that square, filthy with dust and blood sent him over the edge, vision black, gasping, “None but you,” into Aufidius’s ear.

*

“I need to leave,” Aufidius said into Coriolanus’s neck.

The point of Aufidius’s amulet was digging into his clavicle but he didn’t move. “Yes.”

“And you need to answer that message.”

The message was pinging now, a determined chime that was hard to ignore. “Yes.”

Aufidius sighed and pushed away. He glanced down at Coriolanus, smiling. “Are you all right?”

“I am fine. Why?” His fingers were covered with semen.

Aufidius shook his head, then ran the back of his fingers across Coriolanus’s belly. “No reason.” He looked around. “I should wash or the men will know something is up.” He pulled his shirt and undershirt off, then went over to the wash basin. “Basin: Tepid.”

Coriolanus didn’t move, still propped against the desk, the hard edge digging into his thighs. “And?” Aufidius’s trousers rode his hips, allowing a glimpse of his lower back. He was tattooed there, as well, but Coriolanus couldn’t make out the design. “Do you care what they think?”

“No,” Aufidius said between splashes. “But neither do I want them gossiping about it right before a major battle.”

That made sense—a soldier’s resolve and obedience needed to be maintained before conflict. In the past, he’d insisted his men sleep in their uniforms, just to keep them focused on the task to come.

He rose, then pulled up his underwear and fastened his flies. He’d change again when Aufidius left. Which was a strange notion—nudity was common in both the Roman and Volscian armies; he’d never fretted about being naked in front of Aufidius before.

“You’re sure you’re all right?”

He glanced up. Aufidius was drying off, rubbing his chest and shoulders, looking at him in the mirror. “I’m fine,” this time insistent, almost strident.

Aufidius nodded and pulled his shirt back on, matter-of-factly buttoning what he’d just unbuttoned. He looked around.

“It’s there,” Coriolanus said, pointing to the belt, half hidden behind the bed.

Aufidius grunted, then picked it up and fastened it around his waist. He went to the door and unlocked it with a wave of his hand. It opened and he took a step.

“Tullus?”

Aufidius stopped and looked over his shoulder. “Yes?”

He closed his lips against the weak, cowardly, ‘Was this a mistake?

But even in this Aufidius knew his mind—his eyes narrowed and he said, “It’s a little late for second thoughts, isn’t it?”

He nodded slowly; Aufidius’s tone was removed, calm, something to be expected, really. “I suppose.”

“I’ll see you on the bridge in forty minutes.”

And then he was gone without a backwards glance, leaving Coriolanus alone with his thoughts.

Such as they were because he found he didn’t want to think, didn’t want to review or plan. He wanted to take whatever he was feeling and nurse it, encourage its growth with silence, caution and mayhem. After that, well, then he would see…

He twisted, reaching a long arm to touch the floating message. It was indeed from Sestius, asking for confirmation on his suggestion. He replied with a brief, ‘Proceed,’ then began to disrobe. He took off his clothes slowly, feeling each drag of fabric as if his flesh had grown new nerve endings.

Ridiculous—he’d had sex before, many times in fact, but…

He’d never felt it before, this unhappy tightness in his chest and belly, as if his own body was preparing for mutiny and it only wanted the press of Aufidius’s hand to set the riot to motion.

He grunted and went to the shower, programing it to hot, shivering as the light mist enveloped his body.

He was running his hands over his chest, not wanting to remember Aufidius’s same touch, when he spied something on the basin. It was Aufidius’s undershirt, dark with sweat and water. Left to hang there, not by intent. Left, because Aufidius had simply forgotten it.

So—not matter-of-fact, not removed.

Somehow that one little point eased the tightness in Coriolanus’s chest and he began to wash, turning his mind to the problem of war.

*

They arrived at the Gate before the sun had yet risen on Rome. The Victoria took point, while the Bellum hovered portside and the Vulcan took starboard. They positioned the Lacertus and the Virtus far in the rear, ready to attack if need be.

The plan—as all good plans should be—was simple: send someone down to hack the lead satellite and all the others would fall. The only complexity lay in getting in and tricking the defense system into thinking it wasn’t being tampered with before it could engage.

Coriolanus stood by Aufidius’s command chair and watched as a holographic representation of the newly christened Lapillus flew from under the Victoria and dived to the Primus satellite. She needed to make the trip in less than eighty seconds—any slower and the satellite’s sensors would pick her up as something other than inert matter. The problem was the Lapillus was a Volscian craft—she was the best they had, which, unfortunately, wasn’t saying much.

“How is she doing?” Aufidius asked Quintus.

Quintus was off to the side, leaning on Pollinius’s console. He shook his head. “She’s straining. Her power output is off the charts.”

“Are the solar winds causing any damage?”

Quintus shook his head. “Not to the Lapillus but we might have a problem with communications between here and New Roma.”

Aufidius made a brushing motion with his fingers. “If everything goes as it should, we won’t need to worry about communicating with New Roma because—”

“They’ll communicate with us,” Coriolanus finished as he glanced at his watch. “Sixty-two seconds.”

Aufidius straightened up and leaned forward, clasping his hands together. It was the only sign of the stress he was under. “Hurry,” he murmured.

The Lapillus hurried, landing with three seconds to spare in a puff of dust on the satellite’s null side, her fore and aft hooks latching onto the honeycomb surface.

“Let’s hope we don’t have to do that again,” Quintus sighed.

Coriolanus met Aufidius’s glance. The worst was to come and everyone knew it. Sestius was about to make his approach.

As in all things, Antium was behind in technology and they’d had no time to purchase or make gravity boots. Aufidius’s engineers came up with the next best thing—tethered to the Lapillus, Sestius would use a modified grappling hook to tow himself to the hatch.

It worked, in a way. The lack of gravity was a boon and an obstacle, allowing Sestius to float above the convoluted surface but forcing him to fling the hook at an awkward angle.

“This is taking forever,” Aufidius said. He was tapping his fingers against the arm of the chair, now, a swift staccato on the polished titanium that grew louder, harder.

Coriolanus had to stop himself from reaching out and taking Aufidius’s hand. “Do you remember Sabinium?”

Aufidius glanced up. “Of course I do.”

“It took us seventy-two hours to plant those bombs. I lived each minute of those seventy-two hours, sure you would arrive early and disrupt my ruse.”

Aufidius shifted in his seat so that he was facing Coriolanus. “Are you telling me to calm down?”

He leaned over and murmured, “I’m telling you that it will take the time it will take. Other than being alert, there’s nothing you can do so why be nervous?”

Aufidius didn’t say anything for a long moment. And then he nodded and turned back to the screen, fingers still.

Satisfied, Coriolanus straightened—only to meet Quintus’s gaze over Aufidius’s head. A silent skirmish was waged over the span of two seconds, but whether he won or lost, Coriolanus wasn’t quite sure.

“There he is,” Aufidius said triumphantly, nodding towards the screen.

Sure enough, Sestius was at the hatch. He attached another tether, this time to the hatch itself, then typed in the code on the security keypad.

Aufidius nodded to the screen. “You’re sure they didn’t change it?”

“They never change anything,” Coriolanus answered smugly. “If they had their way, all the passwords and admin IDs would be the same.” And yes, even though the feed had started to flicker, he could see the keypad, could see the moment it lit up a bright green. The hatch door slowly swung open.

Quintus joined them on the dais. “How long did Collidius estimate the hack?”

“Three minutes, give or take,” Coriolanus said. “If Sestius can open the system within twenty seconds.” Sestius was in now, disappearing into the belly of the satellite.

“What will happen if that thing,” Quintus nodded to the satellite, “doesn’t like what he’s doing?”

“The kill switch will be activated, causing the door to seal shut and the codes to change. Effectively, Sestius will be locked in with no practical way to get out.” Far below Primus, several pinpoints of light cruised a lazy arc. They were New Roma’s junk satellites: news stations, entertainment relays, and small citizen-owned crafts.

“Can’t we just blast the door open?”

Coriolanus glanced down at Aufidius. They’d talked about the problematic satellite-approach weeks ago. Evidently, Aufidius hadn’t shared all the details with Quintus. Interesting. “Any type of charge, no matter how small, will alert the defense system. The satellite will read the situation as hopeless and a failsafe protocol will take over, sending out an electrical current. Everything within the walls will be fried and the other satellites will alter orbit to close the loop.”

“In other words, this is the only way,” Aufidius added, resting his chin on his fist. “We knew that going in. How much time is left?”

Visibly conceding the matter was closed, Quintus said, “One minute and two seconds.”

The screen chose that moment to flash, a brief scattering of the reflective photocells before returning to normal.

Aufidius looked up. “Is there any way to shield the screen from the solar winds?”

He shook his head. “None that I know of. We—”

The screen flickered once more, this time going completely dark.

“Damn it,” Aufidius muttered.

“Do you want to shift position, sir? Maybe that will help,” Pollinius said.

“No. We stay here until we know if—”

The screen flashed and they had visuals again.

Quintus sighed. “He made it.”

Sestius was out, pushing the hatch open. He glanced up at the Victoria and waved, a gesture made clumsy by his EVA suit.

Aufidius relaxed in his chair. “Comm: Collidius.”

There was a moment of silence, a burst of static and then Collidius answered, “We’re in, General. Give me a moment…” The comm was sensitive enough to pick up the sounds of his steady breath. “Bantius just unlocked the Gate. All units are responding and shutting down.”

Sestius closed the hatch and began pulling himself to the Lapillus.

Aufidius turned to look up at Coriolanus. “Immediately, yes?”

He nodded. “The downed network will signal the alarm and—” He glanced at the screen and pointed. “That was quick.”

One of the pinpoints of light had detached from orbit and was streaking toward them, its hull glowing a pale blue.

“Who is it?” Quintus asked.

“Probably the Fedelis network,” he muttered. “They’re like vultures—always on the hunt for the injured and dying.”

“Sir?” Collidius said.

Aufidius nodded, saying absently, “Yes?”

“I have the first reports. Do you want me to put them on the screen?”

“Yes,” Aufidius answered.

The image of Sestius crawling into the Lapillus shrank to the upper right corner and an image of a news feed took center stage. The report was being broadcast from the central Fidelis division, showing a set in chaos with people scurrying about.

“Focus on that woman and enlarge,” Aufidius murmured.

The image grew, zeroing in on the woman at the desk, enough to see the worry lines between her brows. Clearly, she’d been caught unawares—she still had a paper cosmetic’s ring tucked over the collar of her pink suit. She was reading off the prompter and it took a moment for the audio to sync. “…they’re urging the public not to panic and to stay indoors and avoid public transportation. But once again…’ She looked up, her eyes wide. ‘Once again, we have news that the Volsces are at the Gate.”

The camera panned to her left where her male counterpart had taken his sit, looking equally unprepared.

“We have an unconfirmed report that the army is once again headed by Tullus Aufidius and—” he swallowed, his hands clasped before him. “And not only that, but we’ve been told that Martius has joined with him.” He clasped his hands tighter, his knuckles turning white. “Martius has joined Aufidius. They lead a force of possibly fifteen legions and are stationed just outside the Gate. We don’t know—” The man paused and glanced off to the side. “Please hold, I’m getting a message from the Senate’s Information Officer…”

The transmission faltered, the screen freezing the image of the journalists craning their necks to see what was going on.

Aufidius looked up. “So, the broadcast wasn’t quite as secure as we thought. Arrius will be pleased.”

He shook his head. The Lapillus was gliding under the Victoria’s protective shadow. “No, they would have sent up a token force if they knew I was aboard. It must be something else.”

“Well,” Aufidius said, standing up. “It hardly matters; it will save us the trouble of sending the envoy.” He turned to Coriolanus and gave him a wolfish grin just as the screen cleared.

The woman was now talking to a New Roman soldier. The audio, however, was still out so they just watched as the two women talked.

“Livia Galla,” he murmured.

“And she is?” Aufidius asked.

“The Senate’s senior PR coordinator though she moonlights as Cominius’s chief negotiator. If they’ve brought her in, that means they’re worried.”

“They wouldn’t bother with negotiations if they were confident of their position,” Aufidius added with a pleased smile. “You were right.”

“Yes.”

“Sir?” Quintus asked from across the room. “The satellite is within range. They’re probably scanning us.”

Aufidius tucked his thumbs in his belt and asked Coriolanus, “What do you suggest?”

“Answer with force. Galla won’t respond to anything less.”

“Quintus?” Aufidius called out, not once dropping Coriolanus’s gaze. “Destroy the satellite out and while you’re at it, take out a couple of the Gate’s pods. When they know we mean business, we’ll assume position over the city.”

Aufidius’s eyes had never been bluer, never more challenging and Coriolanus bent his lips, wishing they were in his chambers or someplace private. “It has begun.”

*

It took twelve hours and twenty-three minutes for the first official response.

While Aufidius piloted the Lapillus from ship to ship, inspecting operations, Coriolanus spent the time on his feet. He traveled the corridors of the Victoria, making sure the men were ready for the assault, making sure the ground equipment was in top order. He spent a few minutes in engineering, discussing the hack with Collidius while Bantius watched, breathless. The latter, for some reason, had shaved off all his dark curls, leaving his skull bare. He sat in front of his computer, touching his temple every few minutes as if wondering where his hair had gone.

Aufidius found them thus, debating the wisdom of releasing the sluice into the Roman archives before or after the attack.

“How goes it?” Aufidius asked as he ducked the network of spider-thin cabling that Collidius and Bantius had used to hardlink the ship’s systems to their standalone.

Coriolanus, sitting on a console, turned. “They think we should wait to collect the data. Rome may be panicked, but they’ll surely notice a system-wide hack.” Aufidius was still wearing his flight suit; he must have come directly from the dock.

“Is it too late?”

He shrugged. “It’s doubtful. Besides, if they already have secured any sectors, it will be the ones relating with the government and the senate.”

Aufidius nodded. “And we want the data on the population.”

Coriolanus rose. “How are the men? Are they ready?”

“They’re ready,” Aufidius said. “They’re champing at the bit to be down on the planet.”

“It might not come to that,” he said regretfully. He had his own visions of storming Senate Hall but the reality was that most of the mission would take place thousands of meters above the planet.

Aufidius smiled suddenly, a closed, intimate smile. “I’ll see what I can do about getting you down there, as well. But…” his smile died. “I just got a wave. The New Roman council would like a word about our intentions.”

“I would think that was self-evident,” Coriolanus murmured sarcastically.

Bantius chose that moment to peer around Collidius and say, “We’re not advancing?”

Aufidius glanced at him, then stared, his expression muting to something hard and opaque. “The New Roman fleet outmans us ten-to-one. We need to be smart, not stupid.”

Bantius flushed at the rebuke. “Yes, sir.” He returned to his computer.

Coriolanus gestured to the door. “If we’re to have guests, I need to change my clothes.” He waited until Aufidius nodded shortly and followed.

He didn’t speak until they were out of earshot. “The boy is young, yes, but he’s eager. His eagerness sometimes makes him act foolishly.”

When Aufidius didn’t answer, Coriolanus stopped him with a hand on his arm. “You’re angry. What is it?”

“Nothing that won’t keep.”

He frowned but Aufidius pulled away and turned to go, saying without looking around, “We’ve twenty minutes. If you need to change into your uniform, now is the time.”

Coriolanus watched him walk away. Then put the problem away for another time and marched to his quarters.

*

Having little in the way of spare clothing, he was back in ten minutes wearing the fatigues borrowed from Aufidius.

The bridge was empty of everyone but Quintus, Pollinius and a security team. Among the team were a few young recruits unfamiliar to Coriolanus. They were imposing, big and tall. They were also sporting the same haircut as Bantius—shaved heads, no beards, and a tattoo of a dragon on the back of their necks.

In of itself, it wasn’t remarkable. Indeed, Coriolanus had always demanded that his soldiers follow standards. Sameness fostered unity and reduced envy. Aufidius, also, encouraged those same standards, if allowing a little looser enforcement.

He was still pondering the odd development when Aufidius joined them. He was dressed for battle, complete with flak jacket and thigh holsters. He nodded at Coriolanus and Quintus, paused when he saw the security team, then strode up to the command chair and sat. Coriolanus went to stand by his side.

“Comm: Engineering,” Aufidius said as he leaned back in the chair.

“Sir?” Collidius answered immediately.

“Collidius, our first gauntlet has been picked up. When they give it back, make sure it’s clean.”

“We’ll be scanning their transmission for viruses and hacks, you can be sure of that, sir,” Collidius answered with dark humor.

“Good.”

“It’s coming in now.”

Aufidius glanced around; the security team gathered at his back in a half circle, a formidable show of strength. “Send it.”

The screen activated, humming faintly as the image formed.

It wasn’t of—Coriolanus was surprised to note—Senate Hall or any government environ. It was of his old office in his home. Everything was as he’d left it—his collection of antique Romans flags, his great-grandfather’s desk and chair, even the thick carpet with its motif of a flying eagle that his mother had specially made after Sabinium.

“Where is this?” Aufidius asked.

“My villa in Felerii.”

“Presumptuous.”

“Yes.”

Before the desk stood Titus, wearing fatigues and a blank expression.

Titus cleared his throat. “Sir?”

Coriolanus nodded. “Titus Lartius.”

“It’s good to see you, sir.”

“You, as well.” A lie, but a necessary formality.

“You look well.” Titus shot a lightning-quick glance Aufidius’s way.

“What is your message, Titus?”

“Sir,” Titus began, straightening up, “I’m here to ask you to stand down.”

“Is that all?”

Titus frowned. “I’m here because of all the years we spent together, all the wars and battles we survived together. Those days must hold some pleasant recollection. I’m asking for your remembrance and your mercy.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that Aufidius was watching him but he had no time for that—the second Titus began speaking of years and battles, the black memories returned…

…of being persuaded, no, forced against his better nature to take on a role he didn’t want. And then—when he’d bowed to his mother’s steel-lined persuasion—of going out among those he hated, currying favor with a false show of humility only to be driven out like a beast—

The back of his neck turned cold and he welcomed it with open arms, allowing it to settle over his body like a sheath of ice.

“Sir?” Titus said again, this time giving Aufidius a longer look.

“You have your answer, boy,” Aufidius growled.

Titus stepped forward, one hand raised. “But, sir—”

Aufidius muttered, “Comm: Feed, off,” and the image of Titus begging disappeared.

“Well,” Aufidius said, breaking the heavy silence. “I wonder who they’ll send next?”

Coriolanus shrugged, his back and neck stiff. “It won’t matter. We will not yield.”

*

Immediately, word got out about the New Roman’s petition and the Volscian reply.

Coriolanus fended off the crew’s congratulations and bright looks absently, still in that cool state of numbness. He returned to engineering and tried to focus on Collidius’s report for New Roma had indeed attempted a hack. Collidius had rebuffed them, sending his own version as a rebuke, frying the government’s tier one server array.

He commended Collidius and Bantius and left to roam the halls, whishing for work, knowing that there was little to do at this stage but wait.

New Roma sent their next missive seven hours after the first, this time in the form of Menenius.

Like before, Aufidius gathered his men on the bridge, Coriolanus by his side.

Instead of an informal setting, they’d chosen something more official, that of Menenius’s office. Menenius was alone, relaxing in the room where he received guests, sitting near the fire. When the transmission was complete, he glanced around the bridge of the Victoria, then fixed his eyes on Coriolanus.

“After all this time…” Menenius drew a breath and smiled. “Martius, it’s good to see you alive.”

Coriolanus made no answer, fixing his gaze over Menenius’s shoulder.

Menenius tried again. “I told them—my fellow senators of whom you’re so fond—” Menenius chuckled softly. “That I had heard nothing from you, nor had your mother or wife.”

Still he said nothing. Aufidius crossed his legs, firing a quick glance his way.

“But,” Menenius glanced at Aufidius for the first time. “To the point—I who know you so well was asked to come plead for mercy. Forgive New Roma her transgressions and help me find a way out of this mess.”

As if it were a minor infraction, their treachery. “Go,” he said dully.

Menenius’s smile wavered. “Go?”

“Yes,” Coriolanus answered, gazing at Menenius directly. “You think you speak to an old friend? That friend is no more, has no more. No wife, mother, son, property—I’m no longer New Roma’s; I’m Antium’s.”

Menenius searched for words, his mouth opening and closing fruitlessly.

“No,” Coriolanus said coldly, then, “Comm: Off.”

This time when the hologram faded away, the ice didn’t settle—it slithered and wriggled like some black oil snake, filling his ears, his heart. “He was as a father to me,” he murmured.

Aufidius’s answer was just as low, “You’re angry.”

“Yes.”

Aufidius watched him a moment more, then called out, “Pollinius?”

“Sir?”

“Contact the Bellium. Tell Celatus to muster the men.” When Coriolanus frowned, asking silently, ‘What are you about?’ Aufidius answered softly, “Let’s remind them we’re here.”

Said as if giving Coriolanus a great gift, as if adding just as silently, ‘Forget them, forget their ploys—this is us. This is what we do.’

*

Aufidius waited until setting Sol had darkened Rome before sending out the Bellium. He had Pollinius drop orbit so the Victoria’s could record the attack. They watched as the Bellium streaked over the city, circling the seven hills twice. Celatus’s orders were simple: fire a barrage from the laser cannons on her second pass, avoiding any soft targets, if possible.

The assault lasted only a few minutes, but the sight of the city, her modern spires and ancient colonnades bound by a ring of fire melted some of the ice around Coriolanus’s heart. He went about his business with renewed vigor and even took a shuttle over to the Bellium to congratulate the crew in person when they rejoined the armata. They insisted he eat with them and so it was approaching midnight when he returned to his quarters.

He opened the door, then stopped just bestride the threshold.

He’d expected messages and waves but not this, not Aufidius, sprawled naked in his bed.

He glanced up and down the empty corridor as he tried to think of something intelligent to say, only managing, “How did you know it would be me?” A jug of wine and two cups sat on the bedside table.

Aufidius shrugged. “Quintus has been giving me regular reports. I knew when you docked on the Bellium, what you said to Celatus, when you went to dinner.” Aufidius leaned over and poured the wine. “I even know what you ate.”

Aufidius’s clothes were piled on the floor near the foot of the bed, his rings and bracelets, on the table. Coriolanus thought he should be angry about the mess, angry that Aufidius had spied on him.

But he wasn’t, not at all.

He entered, murmured, “Door: Lock,” and began to disrobe. When he was naked, he stated, “I’m filthy.” His words an obstruction, raised instinctively against the emotion that was thawing any remaining coldness. “Do I have time for a shower?”

“I like you filthy, but…” Aufidius put the cup down and got out of bed.

“It’s not big enough for us both,” Coriolanus objected.

“As if we’ll be washing.”

But that’s what they did, crowded into the too-small cubicle with little room to move.

Aufidius found a cloth, turned Coriolanus to the wall and began to scrub his back.

So familiar, the way Aufidius handled him. As he were an extension of himself—as if he were his.

He cleared his throat, trying for something to say, but just then, Aufidius spoke softly, “On Corito, do you remember?”

“What about it?”

“I wanted this, then. I wanted to pick up a handful of sand and run it over your back, like this.”

Aufidius moved on to his arms, taking them one at a time, stroking with his cloth-covered hand, down and under. “Turn,” he ordered softly, and without hesitation, Coriolanus turned.

They were maybe a palm-width apart, touching here and there, hip, cock, shoulder.

“Over all your faint scars, I wanted to mark you with sand and water. Do you remember?”

“I remember,” he murmured blankly, sight shuttered, only seeing Aufidius standing thigh-deep in the purple waters of Lake Tresmenio. As if his gaze had been a recorder, every detail was crystal clear, down to the ribbons of water that tracked the curves of Aufidius’s muscles, his blue tattoos.

Aufidius dropped the cloth at their feet and took his hand; he didn’t protest, didn’t falter. He let himself be led across the cool floor to the bed.

What did that say about him? That he, the great Caius Martius Coriolanus, scourge of New Roma, followed this man so readily, melting like wax in the sun the minute he was touched?

Shame whispered to him, but was staved off by Aufidius as he joined him on the bed, first kneeling, then stretching out on his side.

They stared at each other and it came to him—for the first time in his life he found himself wishing for something he rarely gave any consideration. Not war or conflict, but time. Time to explore, time to enjoy. He’d never taken the time to do any one thing but war and he felt it, the gulf between what he was and what he wanted.

But this was the life, his life and there was no use decrying at this point.

He stretched out his hand, steady and resolute, and grazed his fingertips across Aufidius’s throat to curl over the necklet. He pulled, guiding Aufidius closer until his mouth was in reach.

Different, yes, this kiss. Not any less rough, but somehow more. Or maybe it was just that he had changed because he found himself cataloging his feelings as they happened, open-eyed and aware:

Lust, when Aufidius teased with tongue and lips until he parted his mouth and let him in.

Surprise, when Aufidius bit his tongue, fire surging, enveloping like the wave blast from laser fire.

Satisfaction, as he in turn caught Aufidius by surprise when he pulled away and rolled to his belly and—

There, the inventory halted, stopped as Aufidius groaned and slipped on top. He settled, using his knee to part Coriolanus’s legs. His cock was hard, pressing insistently and without meaning to, Coriolanus stiffened.

“No,” Aufidius muttered, mouthing the dragon tattoo. “You think I would take what you haven’t offered?”

He swallowed, forcing a calmness he so obviously didn’t feel. “I thought I had.”

“No…” Aufidius wrapped his hands around Coriolanus’s wrists and tugged until Coriolanus’s was spread out, arms wide. “For you, any allowance is surrender; I know this.”

He tried to pull free but Aufidius’s grip was steel. He twisted to look over his shoulder. “What would you have me say?”

Aufidius was silent a moment, and then he whispered, “Tell me this isn’t rape. Tell me that you want me as much as I want you. That you’ve been waiting three days for me.”

‘Brave, indeed,’ he wanted to answer, but that would be giving too much, so he just nodded. “It isn’t. I do. I have. Even longer, if you want the truth.”

“Caius,” Aufidius whispered against his neck, his grip loosening, hands retreating to run up Coriolanus’s arms and shoulders.

He began to kiss Coriolanus’s back, mouth ranging like a lion on the hunt, taking special care over the quiet scars. When he got to the most violent, the one received long before they’d ever met, he paused. “Where did you get this?”

“You sound surprised. People have been trying to kill me since I was a boy.” Not an exaggeration—the weapon had been a mid-century rifle, the bullet landing near the base of his spine. He’d survived, but it had been touch and go. “It was on Florentia, my first campaign.”

Aufidius touched the scar. “The field commission.”

He half turned, almost unseating Aufidius. “Awarded truly, once we returned to New Roma. You know of this?”

Aufidius raised an eyebrow. “I know of everything.”

“I should find that disturbing.”

Holding his gaze, Aufidius smiled a strange smile and murmured, “You should.” He lowered his head and kissed the curve of Coriolanus’s hip. “Would you like me to stop?”

He frowned. But then he relaxed and rolled easily back to his stomach; he even spread his legs wider.

Aufidius groaned and was on him again, quick as quick, this time fitting his cock between Coriolanus’s thighs. He took hold of Coriolanus’s forearms and thrust once, demanding, “Tell me.”

His cock was imprisoned, trapped under his belly and what was he to answer? He couldn’t think, could barely breath. He moved his hips, trying for his own thrusts to no avail and he muttered the first thing that came to his tongue, “I want this. I do.”

With a groan that was more growl, Aufidius slipped a hand under his belly, making a place for his cock. “Again.”

He closed his eyes; it felt right—Aufidius felt right. “I want you.”

Aufidius squeezed. Coriolanus gasped aloud and thrust into his hand, then again, his fingers clawing the sheets.

Aufidius began to rock, mouthing the false dragon, muttering something in Volscian, too slurred for Coriolanus to decipher.

*

This time, after they’d both had their release, Aufidius merely rolled off, taking Coriolanus with him.

He lay there on his side, facing the port window, mind filled with a confusion of images and protests, each demanding their voice. After a moment, he closed his eyes and went to sleep.

*

He woke, unsure as to why. Until he heard it again, a soft throaty moan. He looked over his shoulder.

During the night, Aufidius had moved away and he lay on his back, hand over sternum. He was dreaming, his forehead knotted and his eyelids and jaw clenched as if he were in pain or very angry. He moaned again.

Coriolanus reached out, hand hovering at first, then letting his fingers lightly touch Aufidius’s shoulder.

The response was immediate.

Aufidius shot up, throwing Coriolanus to his back, forearm at his throat.

“It is I,” Coriolanus whispered after a moment. Aufidius’s expression was familiar though he hadn’t seen the like in months—eyes fixed with an animal-like rage, mouth thin and grim. “Are you ill?”

Aufidius took a deep, rasping breath, then drew away to fall back to the mattress. He covered his eyes with his arm.

“What is it?”

“It’s nothing,” Aufidius said. “And, no, I’m not ill.”

“Then what is it?” he asked again, this time impatiently.

Third time lucky—Aufidius uncovered his face and looked at him. “I had a dream.”

The words were simple and no reason to feel such dread. “And?” he asked, his impatience faltering.

Aufidius turned on his side and tucked his arm under his head. “You never dream? Truly?”

He relaxed into the pillow and shook his head. The bed wasn’t made for two and his legs, by necessity, were entangled with Aufidius’s. “Rarely.”

Aufidius sighed and closed his eyes briefly. “I dream all the time, almost every night.”

“And this one was about?” Because it must have been something horrific, to have caused such indirect anger and fear.

Aufidius opened his mouth. And then closed it again, his expression changing. He bent his lips in a smile and slipped his hand around Coriolanus’s waist, tugging him closer. “It’s still early; I don’t want to talk about dreams. It was nothing.” He leaned over and put his mouth to Coriolanus’s.

He took the kisses passively and when Aufidius pressed heavy, breath starting to quicken, he eased to his back, knowing that Aufidius—for the first time—had truly lied to him.

*

The second time he woke, it was due to habit, the learned sixth sense that told him the Victoria had shifted to starboard.

He slipped free from Aufidius’s embrace and swung his legs over the edge of the bed and sat up.

“What is it?”

He turned. Aufidius’s face was buried in the pillow, his arm empty. “The ship has altered orbit.”

Aufidius looked up. And then rolled to his feet.

They got dressed quickly and were almost finished when the comm chimed.

Coriolanus was sitting at the desk, pulling on his boots. “Comm: Answer, no visual.”

Quintus’s icon appeared, floating above the desk. “Sir, it’s Quintus. I’m trying to locate the General.”

Aufidius was by the door buckling his belt. He paused, then shook his head.

He nodded. “What is it, lieutenant?”

Quintus hesitated for a noticeable moment, then said, “A shuttle just launched from New Roma. We’ve turned starboard to meet her.”

He fastened his boots, one by one. “Is there any other show of force?”

“None. We’re scanning and have found no escalation of any power signatures or unusual activity in their airfields.”

He stood up. “Meet me on the bridge.” Not that he needed Quintus’s presence but if he were on the bridge, he wouldn’t be waiting outside Aufidius’s door.

“Yes, sir.”

“Comm: Off.” He had no time for the barber, so he splashed water over his face and gave his teeth a quick brush while Aufidius did the same.

When he was presentable, he went to the door. But, instead of opening it, he stopped. And turned.

Aufidius was watching silently, his expression dark and guarded.

“Are you worried about Quintus finding you here?”

Aufidius shook his head. “Of course not.” And, as if knowing that answer wouldn’t satisfy, he sighed, his mouth losing its tight line. “I’m wondering who they sent.”

Coriolanus unlocked the door. “There’s only one person they can send at this point.”

Aufidius followed him into the hall and fell into step, their hands touching. “General Cominius?”

“Yes,” Coriolanus nodded. “Cominius.”

*

But it wasn’t Cominius or any of his Generals. It was a woman, standing on the bridge, flanked by Aufidius’s security team and the deck crew. She was gazing at the view screen, watching the planet below. He halted, berating his own slumbering intellect because he really should have expected this. “Hello, Mother.”

She turned.

She was wearing New Roman silver and blue, her white hair tucked into a cap. Across her right breast ran a row of medals, gotten during her first year as lieutenant, before her pregnancy had forced retirement. It was as if she was on parade and he supposed, in a sense, she was.

Nearby, hiding in the shadows as always, stood his wife. She tugged, and yes, there was the third in this supplicant triad—his son, sullen and hangdog.

It had been almost two months since he’d seen them and they were much altered. Their clothing was tattered and stained, as if they’d been living on the streets. Even his mother’s and except for her same bright blue eyes and regal bearing, he might not have known her.

“What are you doing here?” He finally spoke, words for Volumnia alone. It was Virgilia who answered, hurrying up the short flight of stairs until she was before him. Without a word, she reached up and pulled his head down.

Before, he’d had no sample for comparison and he received the pale kiss unmoved. It wasn’t her fault that his mouth still retained the recent memory of Aufidius’s lips.

“Your kiss,” he murmured, “is as long as my exile.” Over her shoulder, he saw that Aufidius had taken position off to the side and was glaring, arms crossed over his chest. Quintus was at his shoulder, wearing the same stance, if not the same expression. “And as sweet as my revenge.”

Virgilia frowned and let go, retreating to Volumnia’s side. “What does that mean?” she asked.

“It means he’s not the same person as when he left,” Volumnia said slowly, examining him coolly. “It means he’s changed.” She reached out and took Virgilia’s hand and his son’s. Then with no ease, she knelt, pulling the others down.

He came closer, examining her. “What are you doing? Kneeling before your banished son? It should be I on my knees to you. That is what you expected, yes?”

“We kneel because we are begging you for mercy. Leave them and return to us, your natural family.”

“No,” he shook his head. “Do not ask me to give in or state how my actions are unnatural. New Roma made me so and no amount of your cold reason will sway my mind.”

Her eyes sparked and she pushed to her feet. “So!” She helped Virgilia up. “You tell us not to beg, but we have no choice. Look at your wife.” She shook Virgilia’s hand sharply. “Look at your son and your mother. Do you think we’ve had it easy with you gone?”

Coriolanus turned and sat in the command chair. He glanced to the side. Aufidius was still watching, his expression gone blank.

“Do you think I wanted to come to you this way?” she added forcefully. “Our reunion should bring us joy, not fear.” She released Virgilia and his son and jabbed her finger at him. “You are tearing us apart. You are tearing your country apart.”

He looked away. A pressure, faint but there, was building behind his eyes, his chest.

“I will not allow this,” she added softly. “If you continue your attack, you attack me and I will not allow that.”

“Nor I,” Virgilia added quietly.

“And me,” his son said, more boldly. “I’ll run away and wait until I’m grown and come at you.”

They were like flies buzzing around his head and he brushed them away, still mute.

Volumnia tried a different tact, coming forward with raised hands. “They will bless you, son, if you make this peace. They will welcome you home with open arms.”

He didn’t answer. His chest hurt; he wondered if he were having a heart attack like his father before him.

“Do you hear me? You can come home.”

He still made no reply, but his silence was hard won, battered by his mother’s soft voice, by the growing pounding in his ears.

Volumnia’s soft expression cracked and fell away, revealing the steal beneath. She lunged forward, leaning over him, hands gripping the chair’s arms.

“I always thought you loved me. Me, who raised you to win honor upon honor. You never loved me, I see it now. Why else would you let me prattle on like a fool?”

It was blood, he realized, drumming loudly in his ears as it did in war, confusing the situation and himself. He shifted in his seat, trying to draw away. She just leaned closer.

“So do it. Come at us with your ships and cannons. Destroy the planet, the city, us.”

She was weeping now, her face pale with anger and despair. She pushed away, but slowly as if turned ancient in the space of two minutes. She clawed at one of her medals, the winged eagle, and tore it off. “You are not Roman. You are Volsci and your son is a bastard.”

She dropped the medal at his feet and turned to go.

He’d learned long ago that some moments—moments fraught with extremes such as hate and rage—had their own time, their own agenda.

In the space of a heartbeat, maybe two, he remembered her taking him up after the death of his father and telling him not to mind so much, that he would have the greater life. Or, the time he’d come home from school during the long holiday, quiet and withdrawn because a friend had turned out to be not so. She’d sat down with him and they’d watch videos of famous battles and she’d said that the greatest generals always suffered the most and that soon his disappointment would be his triumph.

In all these things she’d been the wall at his back and before he could stop himself, the pain in his chest rose, forcing his hand to grip hers. “Mother!”

She stopped and looked down at their joined hands.

“Mother,” he said again, this time his voice breaking. “Yes, all right. I’ll make peace.”

She straightened, her red-rimmed eyes already dry. “Today?”

“Yes, today.” It was a relief, the words, and as the pain in his chest subsided, he said them again, “Today. I’ll make peace, today.”

She nodded. Then waved for Virgilia and the boy to come forward. “We’ll go on ahead and give the news.”

She withdrew her hand and walked up the steps, leading the others, giving Aufidius only a passing glance.

He waited until she was at the door when he called out, “Mother?”

She didn’t turn. “Yes?”

“You know what you’ve done, don’t you?”

She nodded, still facing the door. “I know.”

There was nothing more to be said. She passed her hand over the sensor and the door slid smoothly open. And then she was gone.

He watched dully as the door closed. As a young soldier scurried by to answer an insistent wave. No one said anything. He turned.

Aufidius hadn’t moved.

Coriolanus went to him on stiff legs. When he got close enough to touch, he murmured, “Did you hear?”

Aufidius nodded slowly. “I heard.”

“Do you understand?”

“I understand.”

He stepped closer, ignoring Quintus’s narrowed eyes. “I can’t make war, not on her. But I can broker peace.”

Aufidius nodded.

“Tell me you realize that.”

“I realize that.”

The monotonous replies were disturbing, but now was not the time for questions. “Then come.” He laid his hand on Aufidius’s arm. “Let us write the pact.”

“Sir—” Quintus began.

“No,” Aufidius said, backing away, arms finally uncurling. “Inform Arrius. We meet in thirty minutes to discuss the substance of the treaty.”

Coriolanus, hand still held uselessly up, watched as Aufidius strode out the door.

Quintus gave him a long look, then followed.

*

It took most of the next three days to draft the treaty. Arrius and his fellow senators advised from Antium Port and made much of the fact that they’d gone to war and were now calling for peace. Aufidius finally stopped their complaints by threatening to cut all communication until the deed was done.

It was a simple accord, allowing each side to save face, to keep their own lands and people. The usual codicils were placed—threats of action if either side breached the peace, and so on and so on.

Aufidius decided that Coriolanus should go alone while he kept watch for any suspicious movements of troops or deployment. Coriolanus hadn’t questioned the decision although he would have gladly switched roles.

Indeed, he left most of the decision-making to Aufidius and Arrius, adding his thoughts when required. He was in an odd mood, not quite jubilant, not quite angry. It was as if he’d just completed an exhaustive run under a hot sun and hadn’t yet recovered.

Aufidius, too, was in an odd mood. He gave his orders, face grim and watchful and kept to himself and his cabin. When, on the rare occasions that he spoke directly to Coriolanus, his words were calm, giving nothing away.

On the second day, tired of the strained relationship, Coriolanus sought to corner Aufidius in his quarters only to find that Aufidius had left, piloting the Lapillus over to the Vulcan to check her stores.

He waited until Aufidius was on his return, then went to the bay, only to find Quintus there before him. He didn’t loiter—what he needed to say to Aufidius couldn’t be said in front of relative strangers.

After that, he gave up, promising himself that once the treaty was signed, he’d find a way to break the stalemate.

On the third day, after receiving Arrius’s final amendments, they finished penning the treaty just as the ship’s address system chimed the supper hour.

Coriolanus rose, thinking he and Aufidius would eat together, but Aufidius stood, nodded to the distant Volscian senate and left with Quintus in tow.

“General?” Arrius asked, before Coriolanus could follow.

“Yes?”

“When will you deliver the document?”

“At sunrise.”

“You’ll inform us immediately of the outcome?”

“The outcome will be what I’ve outlined, but yes, I’ll contact you.”

Arrius gave Coriolanus a smile, the first ever. “Very good.”

He frowned but just acknowledged Arrius and company with a sour nod and turned off the feed.

Suddenly not hungry, he ended up in engineering. Most of the crew had already left for the mess hall but Bantius was still there, in front of his computer as usual. He also wasn’t alone.

“Amatius, aren’t you assigned to the Vulcan?

Both boys whipped around, Amatius almost falling over.

“Yes, sir,” he stuttered. “I am, but I was just helping Bantius out.”

In the past two days, Amatius had found time to shave his head and get his own dragon tattoo. “With what are you helping him?”

“Er,” Amatius began only to be overrided by Bantius.

“I snuck him on board, sir,” Bantius said frankly. “I don’t need him and, really.”

Coriolanus hesitated. He should send Amatius packing but, no matter that most of Aufidius’s men were under the age of thirty, the Victoria was staffed with elite, seasoned soldiers who had seen more than a few battles. It would be lonely for a boy under eighteen.

“What are you working on?” he said after a moment.

Bantius smiled and touched the edge of the transparent screen, turning it Coriolanus’s way.

The monitor’s pixels dissolved and then reappeared, showing a diagram. He leaned on the console, peering at it. “What is it?” Silvery blue chains of lines radiated from a central unit, almost like a spider’s web.

“It’s New Roman’s digital net, sir. We’re going to need a way to combine their system with ours.”

“And he found it,” Amatius cut in eagerly. “We’re going to have access to the empire’s system.”

“It will take a lot of hardware and upgrades on our part, but,” Bantius sighed, “finally.”

Amatius nodded. “Finally.”

It was not possible, telling them there was no reason for a new system, that things would essentially go back to how they had been before the attack. That the Volsces would return to their world as if nothing had happened. No more networks, no more unmanned ships.

He cleared his throat and straightened. “I’m for supper. You two should eat soon.”

Bantius smiled up at him. “We will, sir.”

He touched the boy’s shoulder and turned.

Aufidius was standing at the threshold, staring at them.

Coriolanus frowned. “I thought you were dining. Is everything in order?”

Aufidius nodded. “The Falco just docked in bay seven. Lucius Gavius will be your navigator.”

He glanced at the boys, then back at Aufidius. “Will you walk with me?”

Aufidius nodded shortly.

“Good luck, sir,” Bantius called out.

“Yes,” Amatius joined in. “Good luck!”

He smiled at them briefly.

Aufidius said nothing as they made their way. It was as if Coriolanus were walking alone and he remembered how it had been, treading the same steel floor, all alone in a ship built for thousands.

When he could stand it no more, he muttered, “What is it?”

“Nothing,” Aufidius answered.

“You’re lying.” They arrived at the bay marked with a big seven.

Aufidius waved his hand before the door’s sensor and it slid open with a soft hiss. “I am not.”

A small crowd awaited them and he slowed to a stop. He recognized Quintus and Pollinius but not the other soldiers. He looked around, at a loss. The bay was large, but not large enough to mute the angry accusations that were choking his throat. He began walking towards the ship; Aufidius stayed him with a cursory touch.

“Coriolanus?”

He cocked his head. It was a day of firsts, it seemed because as far as he could remember, Aufidius had never once called him by his new name. “Yes?”

“Do you know what the Volscians once did when their forests and fields caught fire?”

He frowned. “No, I do not.”

“They’d start a second fire, equally fierce but controlled. It would eat up the vegetation, leaving no food for the first fire. The second essentially drove the first out.”

He wanted to smile, but the lack of anything approaching humor in Aufidius’s demeanor stopped him. “And?”

“And, I just find it interesting that you can put out one fire with another.”

He stared at Aufidius, trying to penetrate the veil he’d drawn over his gaze but it was no use. “I need to leave if I’m to arrive by sunrise.”

Aufidius nodded. And then stepped back, saying, “Collidius has been monitoring the feeds. The people know you’re coming.”

“And how is their mood?”

“Do you care?”

A pointed question and yes, once he truly would not have cared, but now? “Yes, I care.”

“They’re in the streets, rejoicing.”

“That will make everything go smoothly.”

Aufidius took another step back and Coriolanus had to not reach out. He thought there’d be more, a brief embrace, each giving the other a silent message of encouragement, even though they at odds. But there was nothing, just that blank, expressionless contemplation.

He turned to the waiting soldiers. “Lucius Gavius?”

A man stepped forward. “Yes, sir?”

“Let’s be off.”

*

The trip took ten hours, the Falco having to catch up with Rome as she rotated slowly away from them. It was a quiet trip—beyond the occasional progress report, Lucius Gavius said nothing.

Which was fine by Coriolanus. He’d never felt less like making idle talk. He reviewed the treaty once, then spent the rest of the journey trying to sleep.

*

The day was well on its way by the time they landed at the Luna Spaceport.

Gavius guided the Falco through the hanger’s roof portal and set her down. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said for the third time.

“You could hardly avoid the solar flares, Gavius. It’s not your fault. And it doesn’t matter,” he added, glancing through the shuttle’s small windows. “As I said, it’s not like they can begin without me.”

Gavius disengaged the drive and the engine quieted to a soft hum. “Thank you, sir. Will that be all?”

“For the time being.”

“General Aufidius said you will be done by noon?”

“At the most. This a formality, really.”

Gavius released the hatch seal. “Very good, sir. If you need me, just call.”

“I will. Thank you, Gavius.”

A military detail was waiting for him at the hanger doors. With no ceremony, he was escorted to a ground car, part of a cortege of eight. The fore and rear vehicles were mounted with small pulse cannons and the glass of his car was tinted—he wasn’t sure if that was for the city’s protection or his but he thought it had to be the latter.

As soon as they reached the main thoroughfare, he saw that Aufidius had been correct—New Roma was rejoicing. Banners were flying, music was playing and holographic news reports floated about, assuring the populace that they needn’t flee, that their bank accounts and homes wouldn’t be ravaged by the invaders.

Their entrance into the city itself was rough, blocked by the happy citizenry and it was well past the agreed meeting time when he climbed out of the car.

He was once again led, this time along a familiar path, down the grand gallery to the seven-meter tall ornate doors that led to the reception chamber.

He’d expected a crowd, at least the full senate, but there were only a handful, making the room seem bigger than it actually was.

The group had gathered in the very center, clustered around a wide, gold-trimmed table and an empty chair. Volumnia and her entourage had taken attendance on the left while the right was occupied by Cominius and three senators. Sicinius and Brutus stood some distance away, the former not meeting Coriolanus’s glance—no doubt this truce was tearing at him, eating him up from the inside.

Good.

There was only one person missing and he craned his head to make sure. Yes, Menenius was nowhere to be found.

He came forward, his heavy boots thumping dully on the marble. When he got close enough to speak without shouting, he called out, “Where is Senator Menenius? I would have thought he would enjoy this.”

Volumnia glanced at Cominius before saying, “The good senator was found early this morning by the Tibur. He’d taken his own life.”

The words were few and said clearly and no reason he should hear them as if through a thick window. He took a step closer. “What?”

“Some workman came across his body,” Cominius spoke up. “We will do an autopsy but by his wounds, we know what we will find.”

It wasn’t possible and his eyes burned with sudden tears. He blinked them away.

“Shall we begin?” Volumnia said, gesturing stiffly to the empty chair and the sheaf of papers lying in the middle of the table. As if Menenius’s life deserved only that, a brief declaration of fact and nothing more.

He nodded, a quick jerk of his head. He sat down and pulled the contract closer.

It was a paper copy of the document sent down the night before, typed because no one onboard the Victoria had a neat enough hand for such an important document. The New Romans had embedded a chip in the center bottom, waiting for the principals’ authentication prints.

He stared at the ensures and the we shalls blankly, seeing instead Menenius’s face from just days ago, his stricken expression as the transmission faded, his mission spurned.

Menenius had only ever wanted the best for him, he remembered suddenly. He had always been on his side, even when it meant going against Volumnia’s wishes. There was the time that Volumnia had wanted to cut his schooling a year short so that he could take up his ancestral commission. He’d wanted to stay and finish the year and they’d had a terrible fight about it. Menenius had come to his aid, cajoling Volumnia until she agreed that another year wouldn’t do any harm.

And the time Menenius had given him the carving of the ship? Why hadn’t he seen the confiscation by his mother for what it was?

He’d kept all the small moments awarded by her so close to his heart—how had he managed to discount the ones given by Menenius?

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.

They would sign the accord and things would go back as they were. The death of so many was regrettable, yes, but war always brought death. The accord was supposed to prevent more death. It was suppose to fix things.

Only, it wasn’t fixed if a good man had died for nothing­—if good men had died for nothing, and this time his thoughts turned to Bantius’s fathers and Napius’s brother.

And then there was Aufidius’s lifelong dream of regaining his family’s ancient lands—what about that and why had he bartered those dreams so cheaply?

“Is there something amiss?” Cominius said cautiously. “This is the document you delivered last night, yes?”

He picked up the pen. And then put it down and looked Cominius straight in the eye. “Yes, and no,” he said steadily, “There are two sections that must be amended before we make peace.”

He ignored Volumnia’s indrawn breath, the senators muffled exclamations of anger and added firmly, “Call for the transcriber. We have work to do.”

*

It was done.

The New Romans weren’t happy, but it was done.

He marked the new document with his thumb, pressing firmly until the light turned green, then stood up. “I’ll wait for a copy.”

“It will be to you shortly,” Cominius said.

He held out his hand. He thought for a moment Cominius would balk. But Cominius was nothing if not a gentleman, and they clasped hands briefly.

He turned to his mother. After he’d relayed the new terms of the agreement, she hadn’t moved a muscle nor uttered a word. All well and good because he had no wish to speak to her, either.

He straightened his clothing, then stepped off the dais and began to walk away.

He got a few meters and stopped. And turned. His mother was still seated, still ramrod-straight.

“Mother,” he called out.

She looked at him.

“Without you, this peace accord wouldn’t have been possible,” he said sweetly. “Why aren’t you out there with them?” He nodded to the crowd outside. “They’re all you have, now.”

His aim was true as was his weapon of choice and he saw the minute the barb struck. But she was as good as he at hiding pain and she tipped her chin up, ever the soldier, and then turned from him.

He nodded, satisfied at last, and strode towards the side entrance, footsteps echoing loudly.

*

When he returned to the Falco, he found Gavius asleep in the small berth.

“Lucius Gavius,” he said softly. “Come, wake.”

Gavius woke with a jerk and sat up. He rubbed his eyes. “Are you done, sir?”

“Yes. I’m done.”

*

The plan was to return to the Victoria by midday but it was hours gone when the shuttle docked. Again, Gavius apologized and again, Coriolanus told him not to worry, this time a little more tersely. He was tired and wanted to talk with Aufidius before retiring for the night.

And, maybe more than just talk, the memory of Aufidius lying in his bed making his heart race and his skin burn.

He exited the shuttle, hoping that Aufidius would be waiting, but only a single figure loitered, leaning on a stack of goods meant for the mess hall.

“Quintus,” he said, looking around. “Where is your General?”

“He had business back home.”

He glanced around again, as if to find Aufidius hiding in the corners. “He’s gone? Returned to Antium?”

“Aye. He boarded the Bellium and left over eight hours ago.”

“What business could possibly be more important than this?” He raised the copy of the agreement.

Quintus straightened up. “Do you want dinner? The men are eager to get out of here.”

He cocked his head. The belligerence Quintus had always revealed in coy bits and pieces was now flagrant. “Quintus,” he said silkily. “I think it’s time you and I come to an agreement.”

“And what agreement would that be?”

“I know you dislike and distrust me but you’re still under my command.”

Quintus clenched his jaw and Coriolanus could practically see the words he wanted to throw. After a moment, though, he nodded shortly. “Would the General like dinner?”

“No, the General wants to return to Antium.” He turned to the door, adding over his shoulder. “I’ll take the Falco. You’ll remain here with the other ships. I’ll send my orders directly.”

*

It took but a moment to get his gear into his duffle bag. He was almost done when his door chimed.

“Enter.”

“Sir?”

It was Bantius, panting as if he’d run a league. “Yes?”

“Quintus says you’re leaving.”

He went to the washbasin and began to pack his kit. “I am.”

“Why?”

He frowned, exasperated. This kind of presumption was what came from being soft. “Because I need to.”

Bantius stepped into the room. “Can I come with you?”

He shook his head. The kit was packed, now on to his weapons. “No.”

“Sir?”

He knelt in front of his chest and examined his knives. There was no reason to bring more than one—it was going to be a very short journey. “Yes?” He tucked a knife into his side pocket and picked up a pulsegun. He looked up.

Bantius was still standing at the door, frowning.

“Bantius,” he said, striving for patience. “I’ll only be gone two or three days and then I’ll return.” He slipped the pulsegun into his duffle bag.

Bantius nodded.

“They need you here; I don’t.”

The wrong words, seemingly, because Bantius’s face reddened as if he might shout or cry.

Coriolanus sighed and pushed to his feet. He went over to Bantius and took him by the shoulders. “What is this? Is something wrong?”

Bantius shook his head. And then grabbed Coriolanus’s wrists and blurted out, “I want to go with you!”

He almost shook the boy, so frustrated was he. “But why?”

“Sir?”

They both jerked around. Quintus was standing in the door, a dark look on his face.

Coriolanus released Bantius. “Yes?”

“The Falco is ready. Lucius Gavius asked to be your navigator.”

He nodded and turned back to the chest. “I’ll be there in a moment. And,” he added resignedly, “make note that Bantius is coming with me.”

The boy actually cheered and then took off, almost bowling Quintus over as he hurried by.

It was somehow humorous and Coriolanus found himself smiling as he picked up his second-best laser revolver and placed it in the bag.

“Was that wise?” Quintus asked, still at the door.

He shrugged. “Probably not, but you won’t have much need of him here.”

“You’ve bewitched him,” Quintus muttered, as if to himself.

Coriolanus straightened. “What?”

Quintus swallowed but said evenly, “The men; you’ve bewitched them just as you’ve betrayed the General.”

Fury vied with outrage but he had no time for either. “Tell Gavius I’ll board shortly.”

Quintus didn’t move.

He looked around to see if he’d missed anything. There were a few things lying about but he’d be back so quickly, there was no point in packing them. He was securing the bag when he spied something on the floor, half-hidden by the coverlet. He bent and picked it up.

It was a news disk, the square kind that advertisers and publishers once sent out to promote a special product or news article tie-in. It was well worn, its sharp corners bent with use. He hesitated, then pressed his thumb in the center. An image sprang to life, that of a news feed, by the looks of it some two years old. It was a series of still images of him, captured from his last three campaigns. The newscaster was babbling something about his successes and how the patricians of New Roma would be looking to him to join the senate within a year or so.

He watched the feed repeat itself, then switched it off.

He didn’t move for a long moment, thinking about the disk and what it meant. Then he shouldered the bag and left, forcing Quintus to step back a few paces. He locked the door, very pointedly using a password to protect the lock then said, “Quintus?”

“Yes, sir.”

“For Aufidius’s sake, I’m going to forget what you said. But if you ever speak to me like that again, I’ll bring you up for court-martial.” He turned. “Is that understood?”

Fire lit Quintus’s eyes and then it was doused. He looked away, retreating a few steps. “Yes, sir. I understand.”

“Good.”

He watched Quintus until he was out of sight, then hitched his bag over his shoulder and followed.

*

Bantius and Gavius were waiting for him inside the shuttle. The latter was calmly checking his instruments while the former was opening this and that, so excited he was almost vibrating.

Coriolanus stowed his gear and sat down, choosing one of the aft seats. He activated the comm unit and the screen appeared; it began to boot up. “You might as well sit,” he murmured to Bantius. “It’s going to be a while before Lucius Gavius has finished his pre-flight.”

Bantius sat, perched on the bench like a bird. “I’ve never seen anything like her.”

Coriolanus looked around. The Falco was a long-range shuttle, used to ferry dignitaries and the like. But she was nothing special—there were many ships of the same size in the New Roman fleet, some better appointed. Still the boy’s enthusiasm was infectious and he found himself nodding. “She doesn’t have an AM drive, but she’s fast.”

“Faster than our shuttles, I’ll bet.”

“That wouldn’t be hard, considering,” he said dryly, but Bantius wasn’t listening. He’d found his own computer and had turned it on.

“Sir?”

“Yes.”

“When we get home, will you come to dinner with me? I told my mother and sister about you.”

Surprise caught his tongue and he glanced around. Lucius Gavius had heard and had turned, one eyebrow raised.

Coriolanus cleared his throat. “Does Aufidius eat with his soldiers?”

It was meant as a subtle chiding and correction, but the boy didn’t understand.

“Sometimes he eats with Lieutenant Quintus and the senators.”

“And you think it appropriate that I come to your house and eat with you?”

Bantius looked up, eyes wide. “Why not?”

He shared a glance with Gavius, then nodded solemnly. “Why not, indeed.”

Bantius smiled. “Then you’ll come? When we get home?”

“Yes, I’ll come. When we get home.”

*

Bantius fell asleep an hour into the trip.

Coriolanus busied himself with a review of the battle and a proposal as to their next steps. Their actions in the coming months would be crucial. Peace accord or not, they’d need to be vigilant against any uprisings or political ploys.

Three hours later, he put his work away and stretched out on the seat, hands crossed behind his head. He stared at the stars as they rushed by.

It would take a lot of work, his ideas. Work, and money, but the latter wasn’t so much of a worry, now that they had the Empire’s resources at their beck and call. The first thing needed would be an upgrade in all tech—ships, weapons, communications, infrastructure—everything would be overhauled. Then, they’d need to train the men and that would take some doing. He’d sit down with Aufidius and come up with the best plan to achieve the quickest, most efficient results.

He was still envisioning it when the comm beeped.

“Sir?” Gavius said. “I’ve got an incoming call from Rome for you.”

He sat up. “I’ll take it back here.”

“Very good.”

The comm beeped again, this time at his elbow. “Comm: Answer.”

It was a recorded message from Volumnia. She was seated at a desk, military by the look of it with New Roman flags on either side. Her back was straight and her hands were clasped before her.

“Caius Martius,” she began coolly, gaze not quite meeting the camera’s lens. “I’ve just received the most outrageous communiqué from your…” She hesitated, then continued, “…partner. Inform him immediately that any additional threats of such a personal nature will be dealt with accordingly, through official channels.”

She pressed her lips tight together, then turned her head, a bare millimeter and looked unblinkingly into the lens.

“I cannot believe this of you. But then, you’re no son of mine, are you?”

She smiled bitterly and leaned forward. The message ceased, leaving only a ghostly close-up that quickly dissolved into nothingness.

“Comm: Off,” he muttered. Her meaning was unclear even though there was only be one ‘partner’ to which she could be referring. But why had Aufidius sent a message to her? There was no reason.

Well, he thought as he lay back down, what point in worrying about it? By the configuration of the stars and the presence of Setia—a bright blue disk off in the distance—they’d be home in less than four hours; he’d find out then.

*

As if landing at sunrise and sunset were to be his lot for the rest of his life, they arrived at the airfield as Sol was setting behind a mass of thick, blue-black clouds. As he watched, a sliver of light broke free, illuminating the ground at his feet, a bright, garishly orange streak that ran to the east, towards Antium Port. He wasn’t one for omens but if he was, he’d read it as a good sign, that Antium herself was welcoming him home.

“I wish we had an car waiting for us like you did in Rome,” Gavius remarked casually as he pulled the hatch door closed, then tapped in the security code.

He grunted agreement, the thought of the long walk to the city suddenly more disagreeable that it should be. Mostly—he looked up at the clouds—because it was going to rain any moment.

He slung his bag over his shoulder. “No sense in wishing; let’s go. The faster we walk, the sooner we’ll be home.”

*

They didn’t quite make it.

They were loping up the cobbled street that led to the rear of the garrison when a mighty crack of lightning hit a building up the street and the clouds opened up.

Coriolanus shouted, “Run! Keep to the eaves!” and led them on as lighting struck again, this time hitting a nearby building. Chunks of brick and tile fell all around them and they raced the last few meters, slipping on the wet stone, tumbling through the back door to land in a pile.

They sorted themselves out and stood up.

Coriolanus wiped his face. “Are you all right?” And then, when he realized that Bantius was laughing. “What is so funny?”

“I don’t know,” Bantius said between hiccups. “It just is.”

“Battlefield stress,” Gavius said calmly, even though a smile tugged at his lips.

Coriolanus ran his hand over his head, silently conceding that laughter was a common reaction, but all he said was, “Go get something to eat, both of you. And don’t worry about morning roll call. I’ll give your excuses.”

He waved away their thanks and continued on. Through the door, down the long corridor that took him by the classrooms and the mess hall, then across an open, rain-drenched courtyard and back inside. He nodded to a soldier near the entrance to the main barracks, then again as he edged by a janitor, scrubbing the floor.

As he hurried, time shifted and rippled and he had the odd sense that he’d never been here before and he’d always been here. Almost as if he were two spirits sharing the same body. It didn’t make him happy, the sensation, and by the time he’d reached the stairway that led to the second floor, he was almost running.

There was no guard posted outside Aufidius’s chambers and he entered the keycode impatiently, waiting while the lock turned green, just as impatiently yanking door open.

Time slip-slided again as he came to a halt, just inside the room.

For Aufidius was sitting at the table, wine glass in hand, eating a late supper with his senators.

They stared at each other, Aufidius and he, and he wondered if Aufidius was recalling the evening, so long ago and not so long ago when they’d met each other truly.

“What are you doing here?” Aufidius said, taking in Coriolanus’s wet clothes and face

“I could ask you the same thing.”

Aufidius’s expression darkened and he gestured to the senators. “Leave us.”

Arrius started to complain and Aufidius turned on him, shouting without shouting, “I said leave.”

Coriolanus moved a bare centimeter out of the way as the senators shuffled by, ignoring the accusing glances they sent his way. What did he care that they had to cut their meal short?

When they were gone he tossed his bag on a chair and went to the sideboard. He poured a glass of wine, using the moment to check his first impulse—to stride across the room and kiss Aufidius until he could kiss no more, until Aufidius was gasping for breath.

He sipped the wine, then said to the wall, “Why did you leave?”

Aufidius didn’t answer.

Coriolanus turned. “Well?”

Aufidius shook his head. “The reason isn’t important.”

He smiled bitterly, a twin to the one Volumnia had given him not six hours before. All the confusion he’d been tamping down, all the questions and the budding anger made for his throat at the same time and he almost strangled on the words he’d been ignoring.

‘Not important,’” he mocked with an edge of cruelty, using the first argument that came to mind. “You remove a valuable ship from its strategic place in the armata and expect me to fine be with that?”

“I expect you to understand that you’re not privy to my every thought, that not everything concerns you.”

The glass was out of his hand before he knew it, crashing against the white stucco wall in a wave of red. “Really. I think in this case it does. Or have you decided that I don’t have any say in how things are run? I thought this was a partnership.”

Aufidius picked up his glass and finished off his wine in one swallow. He reached for the wine bottle but Coriolanus got there first. He grabbed it and sent it off to follow the glass, the crash of cheap crystal satisfyingly loud.

He leaned on the table and said through gritted teeth, “What is going on? First, Quintus accuses me of betraying you, of bewitching the men, and then my mother accuses you of threatening her. What is wrong?”

Aufidius didn’t speak.

He straightened up. And then drew a deep, deep breath, his quick anger already dying, seeping out slowly as if it were blood spilling onto a battlefield. He felt weak, tired. He shook his head and said, “How could you think I would betray you? I come home to you more yours than before.”

The mewling words were not from the great Caius Martius Coriolanus—they belonged to someone else entirely and he pressed his lips against more.

Too late, though—Aufidius’s eyes widened and his face flushed with anger. He half-rose, snarling, “Mine, are you? What is that to me when you give up so easily? To that…” He stabbed the air with his finger. “…woman. All she had to do was cry and you were hers.”

Coriolanus froze, the harsh words careening around the room like the ricochet of a bullet. In the muffled silence he could hear a bark of laughter some distance away and a door slamming.

“I know,” he finally conceded, quietly, evenly.

Aufidius froze as well, eyes still wide but now with amazement. “You know? That she was using you for her own advancement?”

He nodded, his neck stiff. “I know. I’ve always known.” I just never wanted to admit it.

“And you know you gave up our cause for theirs?”

“Yes.”

Aufidius thrust his head forward, fury darkening his gaze again. “I took you in, Martius. I gave you my house, my men, myself. And in turn, you handed us to New Roma as if we were nothing but the dirt beneath your feet.”

He drew back, indignation burning the back of his neck. “I did no such thing. Did Quintus not tell you?”

Aufidius frowned. “What are you talking about? Did Quintus not tell me what?”

He should have anticipated this; Quintus had long made it clear where his loyalties lay. His silence couldn’t be called outright disobedience but it had clearly been designed to obscure and mislead.

But, no matter—he’d deal with it later, when he time.

He went to his bag and rummaged through it until he found the calfskin-bound document. He handed it to Aufidius with no explanation or excuse. “The important parts are in amended articles twenty-three and four.”

Aufidius opened the cover, the digital crest rising to float above the paper, proving its authenticity. The proclamation began automatically: ‘Know all New Romans and Legal Protectorates, this treaty signed under agreement by…’

Coriolanus leaned over and paused the recitation, saying clearly: “Article Twenty-Three: Amendments.”

There was a faint whirring as the recorder found the right place and started anew: ‘Article Twenty-Three, addendum to original text. New Roma will lay down all arms against the Volscian people and submit to Volscian rule under Senate Leadership as guided by General Tullus Aufidius, in perpetuity. The New Roman people will cede all rights to the planet of New Roma, including her ancillary planets, to the Volscian Nation. New Roma will retain all rights to all trade routes except those that fall within the original Volscian trade boundaries, to be agreed upon at a date of the Volscian Nation’s choosing. All New Roman ships and those of her ancillary planets may pass within one hundred leagues of said boundaries upon payment of an excise fee to be dec—’

Aufidius turned the recitation off and placed his palms on the document. He stared down at it for a long moment, then looked up. “I thought you’d betrayed us.”

“I had not.”

“I thought you’d betrayed me.”

He swallowed, these words more difficult. “I had not.”

“When did you change the agreement?”

“When I realized that I cared nothing for New Roma or her people.” When I realized that Rome was no longer my city just as my mother and wife are no longer my family.

Aufidius’s gaze sharpened as if he heard the unspoken words. “What did they say?”

“When I told them I was giving New Roma to you for all time?” He smiled ruthlessly. “They weren’t pleased.”

Aufidius nodded and then he looked down at his hands, painted red by the floating digital lettering. “I was jealous.”

Coriolanus frowned at the muttered words. “Of whom?”

Aufidius clenched his fists. “The men, your mother.”

“Ah.” He nodded slowly. “‘Bewitched,’” he added in a whisper.

“The men…” Aufidius shrugged. “They took to you so quickly.”

“What does that matter?”

Aufidius stood up and went to the window and opened it.

“What does that matter?” Coriolanus asked again, this time more harshly.

“When you came to me,” Aufidius began, almost too low to hear, “I was so happy. Here, I thought, was one who would understand. Who could take his place beside me and ease my burden.” Aufidius shrugged his shoulders as if trying to throw off some heavy weight. “I thought, with you, I would achieve the glory I’d been seeking all my life. With you, I’d find my peace.” He looked at Coriolanus in the glass. “Do you understand?”

No.

And then, yes, as comprehension crashed like a wave, washing over him body and soul, leaving him with his breath stark in his chest.

It wasn’t about glory. It wasn’t about ancestral rights and trade boundaries. It was about a solitude so complete it was as if one was living under a glass. Always needing to be the one to make the right choice even when there were no right choices. Always on show, every minute of every hour of every day. And when that day was done and the battle won, returning home to a family that didn’t understand, that didn’t know.

No one to confide in, no one to rejoice with.

He knew that kind of loneliness even though he was only feeling its absence now and it seemed to have been a kind of hell, time served in a prison of his own making, more so when held up to the mirror of the life he’d shared with Aufidius.

But he wouldn’t have thought that Aufidius had occupied that same prison and then he remembered the news disk and its worn edges, as if someone had played the segment over and over and over—

And, of course, there was the more damning, ‘…seeing you here makes me happier than when she crossed my threshold on our wedding night…’

‘I’m sorry,’ he wanted to say, and, ‘I didn’t realize,’ weak, shameful excuses that he just couldn’t utter. He cleared his throat. “What were you going to do? Banish me again?”

Aufidius turned from the window and went back to the table. He picked up something near his plate and held it up. It was a knife, the one last seen at the battle of Corioles.

“I see,” Coriolanus said. He should be gibbering with rage, so furious that he lost all capacity for speech and violence was his only recourse.

But he wasn’t that man any longer. He knew what he wanted, who he wanted.

Under Aufidius’s watchful eyes, he slowly removed his jacket and let it fall to the floor. His buttons were next, one by one until the cold air stole over his neck and chest. He pulled his shirt open and tipped his chin up. “Nothing has changed. I’m still yours.”

Aufidius’s blue eyes fired and in a move too quick to follow, he sheathed the knife in the wooden surface and lunged.

They met by the table, a grappling of arms and mouths, each fighting for purchase.

Aufidius won out by advantage of his greater weight and height, simply pushing Coriolanus back until they hit the edge and were down.

Aufidius grunted into his mouth, muttering something about a bed but Coriolanus stopped him by blindly scattering glass and pottery, declaring over and over, “No, here; here…”

So on his back, on the table, something sharp digging into his spine, uncaring, his only concern how to unbutton Aufidius’s uniform with fingers that didn’t want to work, how to kiss a mouth that kept speaking about time and waiting and worry and all manner of things that were heard and immediately forgotten, dismissed under the sight of Aufidius’s skin, finally exposed.

It became quiet after that.

Coriolanus tracked the blue tattoos with his silent tongue as he pulled Aufidius’s shirt up and off. Remembering, here and this as he unfastened Aufidius’s belt and then flies, shoving his pants down his hips. Waiting impatiently, hands busy with warm skin while Aufidius removed his boots and then his own.

Arching his back so Aufidius could pull his clothing off, finally laying there naked amid the warm electric lights.

Aufidius stood there a long moment, examining Coriolanus’s body, head to toe. “Are you mine?” he whispered as he reached out and stroked Coriolanus’s thigh, knee to hip.

“I am yours.” And to seal the covenant, he raised one leg and rested his foot on the arm of a chair.

Aufidius narrowed his eyes and pulled Coriolanus towards him. “This would be easier in my bed,” he muttered, a warning that Coriolanus just smirked at.

“You think I want it easy? You think I want to make it easy on you? After all we’ve been to each other?”

Aufidius answered fire with fire, stepping between Coriolanus’s legs and dragging him close. He leaned over and stretched a long arm for something beyond Coriolanus’s line of sight, coming back, his fingers coated with oil.

‘Convenient,’ Coriolanus wanted to mock, but Aufidius was kissing him again, this time on target and direct, opening his mouth as his finger began a similar assault.

It felt like nothing, just a small pain when Aufidius exchanged one finger for two, propped up on one arm, breath turning ragged against the side Coriolanus’s face as if he were the one being penetrated. Such a disappointment and Coriolanus opened his mouth to remark when Aufidius added a third finger and twisted his hand.

Electric heat coiled at the base of his spine and he arched again, grappling Aufidius to him, driving him deeper. “That…”

“That?” Aufidius breathed, doing it again.

He nodded, speech gone, and he reached down, finding the place where their flesh joined, fumbling up to grip Aufidius’s wrist so he could take control, mutely demanding, ‘Again.’

Aufidius complied, only twice before withdrawing. Mindless, helpless, he watched as Aufidius reached for the oil again and stroked his cock, as he seated himself and pushed.

Ah—he thought as he arched once more, shoving forward instead of back—here was pain, familiar and true. He gritted his teeth, pleasure fleeing, beaten away by another streak as Aufidius bent over and grabbed the edge of the table, muscles in sharp relief as he thrust again and again…

…and again, and suddenly no pain as his body accepted defeat. He wanted to snarl with untested joy, but Aufidius chose that moment to bite the tender lobe of his ear.

Sharp pleasure returned and he could only gasp and wrap his legs around Aufidius’s hips in response, reeling him in.

*

The thunderstorm returned sometime between Aufidius’s release and his own and he listened as the storm ebbed and flowed.

“Am I too heavy?” Aufidius mumbled.

He ran his hand palm Aufidius’s back, a silent order not to move.

Lightning flashed, setting the lights aflicker.

“I thought you were going to fix that?”

“I was. I will.”

“When?”

He smiled at Aufidius’s peeved tone. “I have been busy, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

Aufidius smiled into his shoulder, then moved, carefully withdrawing. He placed a tender palm on Coriolanus’s hip and murmured, “Did that hurt?”

“No.”

Aufidius got to his feet and held his hand out.

He hardly needed help, but he took it all the same.

“I suppose you want a shower?”

“You suppose right.”

Aufidius led him, not to his borrowed room, but to the room he’d seen that first night.

They showered, paying more attention to each other than the actual process of getting clean and for the first time, Coriolanus let his eyes truly see Aufidius’s body, not just the bits he’d allowed himself before. He turned Aufidius around, marking the elegant line of his thighs, the smooth juncture where arm met shoulder. The tattoo that ran across the small of Aufidius’s back, he wasn’t surprised to see, was an eagle’s claw gripping a knife.

He wanted to get to his knees and run his tongue along the length from tip to claw, but settled for stroking it with his thumb, cheek pressed against Aufidius’s scapula.

Aufidius hummed and arched his back, then turned off the water and reached out.

They had sex again, settling on the shower ledge, Coriolanus in Aufidius’s lap, awkwardly impaling himself on Aufidius’s cock but carefully, so as not to slip.

Eventually, they made it to Aufidius’s bed, a twin of Coriolanus’s with only a few more luxuries, one, unfortunately, not being the size.

“It is too small,” he said, looking down at it.

Aufidius drew back the covers. “You are welcome to your own.”

“Very well.”

He made to leave, a tease only to have Aufidius snatch his hand and drag him down, muttering, “Oh, no, you don’t. I’m not done with you yet.”

They made room for each other in the too-small bed, face to face, legs entwined. Just as it had been, two nights before and he made a noise.

“What is it?” Aufidius asked.

He hesitated, then cupped Aufidius’s cheek, holding him tight. “Tullus?”

“Yes?”

“What did you dream? The other night?”

Aufidius stilled.

“You lied to me,” Coriolanus added. “Why?”

Aufidius wouldn’t meet his eyes. “It’s hard to explain.”

“Then try.”

Aufidius hesitated before saying, “I told you I have dreams, yes?”

“Yes.”

“Sometimes they’re of normal things—”

“Such as you and I trying to kill each other?”

Aufidius gave him a momentary smile, then continued. “Sometimes they’re not. I dreamt my mother died the week before she did. The night before you and I met, I dreamt I was hunting in the hills beyond the Liris river and I shot an eagle from the sky. It fell at my feet but lived long enough to look up and stare into my eyes.”

A little too much on point, but he just said, “Fantasies, that is all.”

Aufidius nodded. “Many times, that is all they are.” He didn’t speak for another long moment and then he said slowly, “The other night, that night, I had a dream. Many times I dream I’m here, in the Antium Port of my childhood, before the wars. That’s how this dream started. I was on the beach, watching a dolphin play in the shallows and I was so happy, and…”

Aufidius drew away and rolled to his back. “And then it changed.”

“How so?”

“Of a sudden, I was in a marketplace, the ancient kind encircled by white columns with a large central fountain. There were people all about and—” Aufidius stopped again and touched his chest, pressing his own flesh as if feeling for his heart.

“And?”

“And I wasn’t me. I…” Aufidius shook his head restlessly. “I knew I was myself but somehow I was another me. As if I’d changed worlds. Or maybe times.”

He had nothing to say to that, remembering his own recent thought of his one body housing two spirits. “Were the people wearing togas?” He expected Aufidius to laugh at his attempt at humor but he just frowned.

“I don’t remember. I do remember that they weren’t discussing philosophy.” He shot a bright white smile at Coriolanus, as false as the one the other night.

“What were they talking about?”

Aufidius’s false smile faded and he looked back up at the ceiling. “You. They were talking about you.”

“What did they say?”

“They told me that I had to kill you.”

He held his breath as the air thickened. “What did you say?” he finally managed.

Aufidius closed his eyes. “Nothing. I couldn’t speak.”

“What happened then?”

“Suddenly, you were there before me and I was so angry. You were angry as well, saying that I needed to stain your blood on my blade. I said something and then you smiled and looked down. My knife was in my hand.”

Aufidius’s voice was bland, passionless as if he were reciting a list of the week’s provisions. “You stabbed me.”

It wasn’t a question but Aufidius nodded. “Over and over. Here…” He touched Coriolanus’s belly. “And here…” Pressing a hand to his chest as he’d done to his own, probing for the organ sheltered by skin and bone. “I did the deed well; by the third blow you were dead at my feet.”

“And then? They made you emperor?”

His words were even, expressionless, but Aufidius drew back as if burned. He sat up and rested his elbows on his knees, hands clasped. “No,” he finally said. “The people turned into my senate and they began to berate me, telling me you were a great man and didn’t deserve such a death.”

“Was that the end of it?”

Aufidius shook his head. “No. I looked down at you and—I remember this clearly—I realized what I had done. I was filled with such grief…” Aufidius bowed his head, his hands working against each other.

Coriolanus swallowed. “It was just a dream.”

Aufidius’s head shot up; even in the low light his eyes were a bright, bright blue. “Was it?”

“Well? Did you do it? Kill me?”

“No, but I was furious at your capitulation and the more I thought about it, the angrier I grew. I think I could have even—” He broke off, turning to look down again.

“Ah,” he whispered, remembering Arrius’s surprising smile, finally seeing the whole of it as if it were a drama played out before his eyes: the growing doubts, the sly council, all expressed by a knife, driven deep in a table not seven meters away. He touched Aufidius’s hand. “If I hadn’t renegotiated the new treaty, would you have murdered me tonight?”

Aufidius answered immediately, “No.”

“Then what is the problem?”

“Doesn’t it give you pause? That I could have killed you?”

“You’ve tried so many times—what’s one more?”

Aufidius frowned. “You’re not taking this seriously.”

“True.” Because he wasn’t—a strange mood was stealing over him, filling his soul with something that felt like light.

He rested his palm against Aufidius’s back, directly over the eagle tattoo. “You told me once that trying isn’t the same as doing.” He leaned up and around and pressed his lips against the tattoo, then lay back down. “You also told me that you don’t take what is not given and in this—as in so many things—we are alike. Do you really think you could have killed me without me wishing it?”

“You trust me that much?”

“I do.”

Aufidius stared at him for a seemingly endless span of time. And then he drew a deep, deep breath and sighed. He slid down and lay on his side, pulling Coriolanus close. “We’re well matched, you and I.”

“We are.”

“Now we just have to decided how to divide our new duties.”

“Oh, no, we don’t,” Coriolanus said absently as he let his hand wander over Aufidius’s ribcage and hip. “My days as politician are over. I want no part of it.”

Aufidius stayed his hand. “Truly?”

“Truly. I’ll be your general and warmonger, but that is all. It’s in the contract.”

Aufidius kissed him, murmuring against Coriolanus’s mouth, “That should make your friends in the New Roman Senate happy.”

He took Aufidius’s kisses greedily, picturing the joy he would have in not having to answer to anyone in New Roma, ever again when one thought that led to another…

“Tullus?”

“Yes?”

“What did you say to my mother?”

Aufidius kissed the scar on his chin. “If I pretend ignorance will you let it go?”

He gripped Aufidius’s hair and pulled him up. “What did you say?”

“It was no matter,” Aufidius murmured, head tipped back, watching Coriolanus from under his eyelashes.

“It was some matter or she wouldn’t have been so incensed.”

“Incensed? All I did was inform her that she’d had you for forty-eight years and that you were mine for the next fifty.” Aufidius smiled and pulled free. “A fair deal to my mind.”

He frowned, striving for reproach, finding only a tangle of surprised humor and a sentiment so unfamiliar he couldn’t track it—if Aufidius had sent the wave the day he’d left for Antium, all his talk of murder and death was just that—talk.

He pushed Aufidius to his back and rolled on top, using his weight to pin Aufidius down. “Very well, but no more waves to my mother.”

Aufidius’s eyes had slipped closed again. “No more.”

“No more jealousy—I can’t imagine what you were thinking.” Aufidius tested his hold but he held him down easily; Aufidius’s smile only grew.

“No more.”

“And no more lies; do you think me soft, that you can’t tell me the truth?”

Aufidius’s smile dropped away, his expression growing somber. “No, I don’t think you soft, Caius Martius Coriolanus.”

He ran his palm over Aufidius’s shoulder to his bicep, watching his hand’s progress. “And no more of that. No more ‘Coriolanus.’ That man is dead, killed in some ancient Roman marketplace.”

The words were as much a surprise to himself as to Aufidius for he didn’t move, didn’t speak.

And then Aufidius nodded, his eyes shining. “Very well, Caius Martius. You’ll be Coriolanus no more.”

He tested it silently, ‘Caius Martius.’ Old, familiar, it felt right and honest as if he were returning to a hearth long awaiting his arrival.

He bent and kissed Aufidius solemnly, truce offered, accepted, sealed.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Coda.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Martius looked over Bantius’s shoulder. “What do you see?”

Bantius frowned, nose almost touching the scanner’s screen. “I think we got them all.”

“A man’s life can’t depend on ‘I think,’ Bantius. Did we get them all?”

“I don’t know, sir. Most of the mines detonated, but this area to the east?” Bantius pointed at a jumble of subterranean rocks two meters down. “It must be made of a different material.” He looked up. “I’m sorry.”

He patted the boy on the shoulder. “At least you owned up to it. Never let false modesty or fear of not knowing lead you astray.” A nod to the fact that Aufidius had caught Bantius in a lie about completing one of his field tests. His punishment had been the trip to Corito with Martius and the cleanup crew, something he’d been wordlessly bemoaning ever since.

Bantius nodded. “Yes, sir.”

Martius straightened up. “Comm: Quintus.”

The comm unit buzzed and squawked and then Quintus answered, “Did it work?”

“Everything but sector seven. Set another round of charges, increasing by two percent and another foot in depth.”

“Yes, sir.”

He squinted through the glass from his place on the hill, watching as Quintus tapped one of the engineers and pointed to the ordnance at their feet, then over towards the east side of roped-off area. “This one could do much more damage; tell Collidius to be very careful.”

“I will, sir.”

“Very good.”

He disconnected, then called out over his shoulder, “Varius?”

Varius stepped forward. “Yes, sir?”

“What’s the new engineer’s name again?”

Domitia,’ sir.”

“Thank you.” And then, into the mic, “Comm: Domitia.”

He had to wait a moment while she put down a map. “Yes, sir?”

“If it can’t be done, don’t push it. We can live without the weapons.”

“I won’t, sir.”

“Proceed.”

He watched as Collidius gathered up a focused particle charge, as they walked single file towards the small mound of earth. Domitia knelt and began to dig slowly. When she was finished, she took the charge and very delicately placed it in the hole and—just as delicately— covered it with sand.

She got up and there was a moment where she swayed, hands flying out for balance. Collidius caught her by the belt and they retreated to the portable bunker, walking faster this time.

When they reached the shelter, Quintus gave the signal then broadcasted on all comms: “Take cover. All troops take cover. This is not a drill.”

Martius and the men dropped behind the wall. After a breathless moment, the ground shook followed by a muffled roar.

He held his hand up, signaling patience. The first time around, Bantius had popped up like a goose and gotten a face full of sand. Nothing happened this time, possibly because of the depth of the charge or maybe because it was single unit and not ten.

“All clear, all clear,” Quintus broadcasted.

Martius rose and examined the area. The area didn’t look any different, but then, it wouldn’t. “Bantius?”

“On it, sir.”

This time the image was perfect—the mass had been destroyed, and with it, the pressure mine.

“Comm: Public.” He waited until he had everyone’s attention, including the men that were appearing from around all three bunkers. “The way has been cleared and you have your orders. Take your time; if you have any concerns or run into anything that hasn’t been mapped, contact Quintus or myself directly.”

The men signaled, including Quintus. He returned their signals, then cut the comm and turned to the men still with him. “Varius, please help Quintus with the inventory; Bantius, go with him. Faenius? I’m sure Collidius can use your help with the loader.”

The men nodded and left without a word, even Bantius, which was wasn’t a surprise, considering the boy’s mood.

He hesitated, then looked up for a long moment. The sky was calm, filled with a few clouds on the horizon, but other than that…

There was no point worrying—what was to happen would happen. He had no mastery of fate, if such a thing existed, so why worry?

Still, he found himself tapping the mic and saying, “Comm: Quintus.”

“Yes, sir?”

He rested his elbow on the wall. “Any word?”

“No, sir. I’m sorry.”

“Thank you. And Quintus…”

“Yes, sir?”

“Well done.”

There was a short pause and then Quintus replied. “Thank you, sir.”

He tapped the comm restlessly. Well, he thought, bending to pick up his knapsack, now that he’d made a fool of himself by announcing to Quintus that he was indeed worried, he could get back to the task at hand.

*

The small group of men worked quickly and cautiously. By late afternoon, they’d exposed the cache of weapons, including the particle cannon.

Martius knelt and examined the behemoth, running his hand along the barrel. “Can we do anything with it, do you think?”

Quintus handed a crate of shells to a young soldier. “Collidius was saying that the only difference between this and the newer models is the length of the barrel, the computer chip and the firing rig. So…” Quintus wrinkled his brow. “Maybe?”

He patted the barrel, pleased. “We’ll get it working and send it to Arsoli. As old as it is, it will hold off any ship in the Aequi armata.”

“I’ll inform Senator Arrius.”

“Do. That should keep him off our backs for a while.”

Quintus nodded and was about to speak when a muted hum that was more pressure than noise shook the air.

Martius jerked his head up, and then strangled the relieved sigh as a small ship broke atmosphere. “Finally,” he said, mustering every bit of disinterested tone in his arsenal.

Quintus shot him a look, but said nothing.

The men stopped their work and gathered to watch; Martius started to order them back to it and then didn’t. They might as well get their fill of gawking—the Neptune was heading back out for extended testing in two day’s time and wouldn’t be back for eight weeks.

She banked, making her approach and even from this distance he could feel the wave of heat displaced by her engines.

“The General must be flying her,” Quintus said, covering his eyes from the glare of the sun.

“Either that or Pollinius is dead drunk; he’d know better than to be so reckless.”

Quintus smiled. “True.”

The Neptune landed in the only place she could land—a flat of desert some six hundred meters away. A cloud of dirt concealed her touchdown and then the air cleared.

He got out his glass and trained it on the ship. “Quintus?” The lift descended, Aufidius and his crew of six descending with it.

“I’ll get the ATV.”

He hesitated, on the verge of saying he’d go instead, but forced a neutral, “Thank you.”

“Sir?”

He looked over. Bantius had been loading a palette stacked high with crates but now he was hopping up and down as if his feet were on fire. “Go,” he sighed.

Bantius ran to the ATV and climbed in.

He expected Aufidius to return immediately, but he didn’t. As soon as Quintus and Bantius arrived, the men began to wander around the Neptune, gesturing up at her. It was ridiculous; she was just a ship.

He went back to his inventory.

He was trying to decide if there was any point in transporting the fifty-millimeter missiles that were so old they no longer had a weapon to fit into when he heard the soft roar of an engine. He glanced around.

Aufidius drove up and braked the ATV, sending up a scattering of sand. He leaped out with a smile. “I’m back.” He reached inside the well and got his duffle bag.

“So I see.” Aufidius was dressed for combat, his shirt open at the neck, his sleeves rolled up. For once he wasn’t wearing his amulet and the skin around his neck and wrists was red. “You went outside the ship?”

Aufidius dropped his bag and took the tablet from Martius. He began thumbing through the list, answering absently, “Norbanus thought the problem with the aft relay might be an external sensor.”

“And was it?”

Aufidius looked up. And then smiled into Martius’s eyes. “It wasn’t dangerous; we were well away from the nebula by then. And yes, it was.” He returned the tablet. “Next time I go out, you’ll go with me. It was glorious.”

He hadn’t done an EVA in twenty years; there was no reason to break that record. “Next time you go out, I’ll make sure I’m busy with something else.”

Aufidius laughed and gave him a lightning-quick embrace, whispering in his ear, “I missed you.”

He didn’t return the embrace or the sentiments. He was still getting used to Aufidius’s casual advances, occurring when he least expected them.

“Come,” Aufidius said softly, watching his struggle. “I’m for a bath; Quintus can finish that up.” He took the tablet away again and tossed it to Quintus.

Quintus was trying to act as if he hadn’t seen; Bantius was grinning from ear to ear.

Martius hesitated, then nodded shortly. “Bantius? Find me a towel.”

*

They took the ATV, traveling along the rosy sand, not speaking over the engine’s growl.

He parked on a dune tufted by stubborn grass and brush and they strolled down to the place he thought of as theirs. They began to strip.

Aufidius had been gone four weeks this time. Time spent testing the Neptune’s deep-space issues because he was confident that they’d succeed where the New Romans had failed.

Martius hadn’t missed Aufidius. He’d just felt his absence in the morning, day and night, like a blunt ache that never quite made it to the surface of his mind but never quite went away. It was only now, after the weeks were over, that he realized how it had truly been.

“Can you help me?”

He looked up, thoughts of loneliness gone at the sight of Aufidius, naked, standing half turned, amulet in his outstretched hand.

Martius nodded and finished undressing, then took the charm. “Turn.” He stepped closer than necessary and hesitated, gazing at the new tattoo. He fastened the amulet, then let his fingers linger, grazing the nape of Aufidius’s neck. “When did you get this?”

Aufidius turned his head slightly. “Before we left.”

The dragon was a mirror image of his own, sitting on its heels, claws raised to the sky. “Why did you get this?”

Aufidius reached around and took his hand. “You know well.”

He swallowed and let Aufidius lead him down to the water.

They washed, a parallel to the first time, only now they touched while they talked.

“I received a wave a few weeks ago,” Aufidius said as he ran his hands down Martius’s chest.

“Yes?”

“It was from your old lieutenant, Titus Lartius.”

“What did he want?”

“He’s frustrated at the lack of progress under their new general and would like a permanent place in our army.”

He frowned. “Do you think it wise?”

Aufidius ran his hand down Martius’s belly, wiping away the water moodily. “In this circumstance, I’ll think whatever you think.”

He murmured, “Turn,” so he could start on Aufidius’s back.

“Well?”

He bent for a handful of fine sand and began to scrub Aufidius’s shoulders, lost in thought.

A week after the peace treaty had been signed, they commenced the arduous task of implementing it. Titus Lartius had volunteered to act as liaison, spending as much time on Antium as on New Roma.

Martius hadn’t thought much on it until Aufidius—one night as they prepared for bed—demanded Titus be stationed permanently to New Roma. They had an argument, the first ever, growing more and more fierce until Martius realized that the anger was out of proportion and very familiar. Aufidius was jealous.

He hadn’t tried to cajole or refute—in this case, Aufidius had been right. Titus had made it quite clear that whatever his feelings actually were, they hadn’t changed.

He recalled that night, the accusations and denials and the sex after—Aufidius on top, silent the entire time, his watchful eyes asking for fidelity and honor.

Honor. As important now as ever and he nodded to himself, stroking Aufidius’s back from shoulders to buttocks. He rinsed off the sand, then again to make sure it was all washed off. “If it’s up to me, then, I say no.”

Aufidius looked over his shoulder. “No?”

“Titus is well-suited to his current role, but we will keep him on New Roma. I will tell him tomorrow.”

Aufidius didn’t thank him verbally. Instead, he twisted around to give Martius such a kiss that he lost his balance and stumbled. They went down into the lazy surf together, each wrapped around the other.

*

Sex on the beach was a messy business and they were quick, efficient. When they were done and clean again, Martius went to the ragged edge of the tide and dropped. Aufidius came as well to sit between his legs.

Sighing, he wrapped his arms around Aufidius’s waist and rested his chin on his shoulder. “What’s the news?” Spring, such as it was, had come to Corito, turning the water more blue than purple.

“The New Roman Senate wants an answer on Arsoli.”

“Arrius gave them their answer.”

“Arrius is intimidated by the Senate.”

Aufidius didn’t say, ‘in most particular, your mother,’ but the meaning was quite clear. “Do you want me to pay them a visit?”

Aufidius nodded. “Remind them that our friends are now their friends and that includes a planet they have no use for. Frighten them a little.”

“I will do that.” He didn’t mind being the snarling beast at the end of Aufidius’s leash—it was what he did best.

“Arrius will probably send you a bottle of wine in thanks.”

He snorted softly. Arrius couldn’t do enough for him, these days. Not after Collidius had discovered that it was Arrius’s unsecured message to his sister on Sora, sent the day of the attack that had alerted New Roma to their imminent arrival. “I’m leaving when you do, by the way.”

Aufidius sighed again rubbed his beard against Martius’s cheek. “You could change your mind. We’ll be gone a long time.” He ran his hand down Martius right arm and turned it, stroking the blue tattoo of a lion rampant. He liked to do that at times, touch the mark, especially while they were having sex. “Eight weeks, maybe more.”

“It would be a mistake,” he said slowly. “The army needs us now.”

“Are they still having problems with the new recruits?”

He nodded. Part of his grand scheme of modernization was his insistence on the recruitment of female soldiers. It hadn’t gone smoothly but he had hope that the holdouts would come around. “What do you think?”

“I think Aemilia Domitia is the best engineer I’ve ever had so I think they better damn well get used to them.”

“They’re trying. It helps that many of the first year recruits are so young. Bantius has already made friends with several of the women.”

“He makes friends with everyone.”

Aufidius’s exasperated tone made Martius smile and he was grateful that his face was hidden. Life with Aufidius was one revelation after another, the last of which was that Aufidius’s rein on his jealousy was a tentative thing.

When he’d learned the reason behind Aufidius’s treatment of Bantius, Martius had cleared the air by an object lesson, inviting Aufidius along for his weekly meal at the boy’s house. He’d introduced him to Bantius’s aunt, a woman of about forty. She’d served them a plain meal of pasta and fish and they ate, Bantius chattering all the while. Martius was never sure when the epiphany took place but one moment Aufidius was glowering, the next he was smiling.

He kissed the curve of Aufidius’s shoulder and murmured, “He does, that.”

“Speaking of Bantius, I’ll bring him on this next run. Collidius wants to instruct him on how the neural interface works.”

“He’s probably still at the ship. I’m sure he knows how everything works by now.”

Aufidius shrugged, his scapula digging into Martius’s breastbone. “Still…”

“I’ll have Quintus change the duty roster.”

“Good.” Aufidius was silent for a long moment, then said, “I heard the news.”

“What news?”

“That Virgilia Cosmas divorced you.”

He nodded. “I signed the papers three weeks ago.”

Aufidius twisted around, craning his head to look at Martius. “And that’s all you have to say about it?”

“What would you have me say? Whatever our marriage once was, whatever she meant to me, those days are long over.”

“Truly?”

“Truly.” He half frowned, half smiled. “What do you think I’ve been doing all this time?”

“With you it’s hard to tell.”

He thought about that, thought that Aufidius was right and wrong. Yes, he wasn’t one to show his feelings but he was also a minimal man with minimal wants—dominion over the known world and Aufidius by his side and in his bed; that was all he wanted, nothing more.

He smiled, imagining it, the former an impossible dream, the latter, not as such. “Well, then, I’ll make it clear—I never loved Virgilia and if I did, it doesn’t compare to what I feel for you. I am content to go as we are, but if you ever want to formalize our partnership, be sure to let me know.”

Aufidius smiled, a slow, startled smile. “You’re saying you’ll marry me?”

“When the time is right, when the Antium and New Roma are one, yes, I’ll consider it. It is why I signed Virgilia’s papers.”

Aufidius kissed him, then pulled away. “I’d ask you to make good on that promise but I don’t want a ass full of sand.”

Martius stroked Aufidius’s thigh, brushing away fine black dust, and nodded. “We can’t have that; I have plans for that ass when we return home tonight.”

Surprised, Aufidius gave a bark of a laughter and Martius smiled in satisfaction. No, he’d never be as open as Aufidius but he did have his moments.

*

It was midnight and he was still unable to sleep. Aufidius had long since dropped off, flat on his belly and Martius could feel the rise and fall of Aufidius’s chest, hear his soft snores.

He pushed carefully off Aufidius, then rose and padded into the main room. The windows were open; he went to them and sat on the ledge.

The hot day had turned cool, releasing the mixed scents of seawater and the narcissi that grew wild in the hills. Across the roofs of the town, he could make out the curve of Port Cove and beyond that, the Tyrrhenian Sea.

There was no one about except for the watch and the drones that guarded the new airfield. Even the construction crews, working on opening up the north wall, were done for the day; he was almost able to imagine it was that first night, almost a year ago now.

A walking time bomb, a demon bent on revenge and destruction, he’d come to this small town to gift himself to a man more his equal than even he had known.

If Rome hadn’t banished him, if he hadn’t made the journey, where would he be? Stuck in some chamber, listening while elected officials talked at length about policy and procedure?

Half dead, completely numb, fire quenched.

“What are you doing?”

He jerked around to find Aufidius, cat-quiet, standing by the table. He was nude except for his amulet and the bright squares of moonlight that adorned his body. “I’m thinking.”

“On?”

“Fate, choices.”

“You don’t believe in fate.”

He nodded slowly because it was true—he once thought a man’s life was the product of decisions and consequences, not happenstance. “I’m reconsidering my opinion. In fact, tomorrow I’m going to order the grain harvesters that New Roma requested last month.”

Aufidius cocked his head. “The ones you said they didn’t need? Why?”

“I want to send the people my thanks and the harvesters will be more useful than a gift basket or a bouquet of flowers.”

Aufidius frowned and started to shake his head. And then his face cleared and his eyes widened. He came forward until he was by Martius’s side. He reached down and cupped Martius’s skull, running his palm over his head.

Again, so much like the first time, possessive and controlling with that glimmer of tenderness.

Only, at the time, he’d been unable to respond, hemmed in by his world that was.

But not now, and he reached up and covered Aufidius’s hand with his own as he stood up, murmuring, “Come. You leave at dawn; I don’t want to waste a moment.”

 

 

 

 

fin.