Genre: m/m erotic romance
Length: ~150,000 words
Format: serial in 7 parts
The knot of friendship tying Lucius and Trio together has been an unbreakable bond—but it might not withstand all that Rome can throw against them.
Lucius Sentius, son of a well-to-do luxury-goods importer, assumes—along with most ordinary people in the city of Rome—that the debauched days of Nero are behind them. Rome has settled down under a sober new ruler, Vespasian, and old-fashioned values rule with him. Lucius may be only the son of a merchant, but his newly arranged marriage to an older widow will bring powerful connections and an enviable life. If he keeps himself on a respectable path. That seems impossible when he discovers that his heart lies somewhere not at all respectable: his lifelong friend Trio, the reserved and serious son of one of the most reserved and pious families in the city.
As Lucius is pushed along the course of duty to family, to his promised spouse, and to Rome itself, he begins to see under the surface of his city, into a net of intrigues and manipulation, of seduction and corruption, that can carry him upward in status and bring him what he most wants…or destroy both him and the people he loves.
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• • •
A little more about it: Lucius Sentius Camillus finds himself facing an arranged marriage to a wealthy widow seven years his senior. For a young man, the gap seems immense. The match seems even more impossible when he discovers that he and his friend Trio share romantic feelings for each other. As the adult sons of respectable families, there’s no decent way for them to be together, particularly in a city with a fear of any hint of the bad old days of Nero. Trio is reserved and serious, concerned with reputation and what he’s been taught by his pious family. Lucius is impetuous and poetic, and the city’s hidden side just might suit him. But once acknowledged, the attraction between them is all Lucius can think of; and in the same way that patrons rely on Lucius’s family to be “import and export experts” (as his father, Bassus, constantly reminds him), when Lucius wants something, he goes to an expert too. What he wants is to learn how to make a physical relationship work. This ever-broadening exploration may turn out to be too much for the man Lucius is in love with . . . but may be just the right thing for Lucius. The knot of friendship tying them together since childhood had seemed an unbreakable bond, but this might be one test too many.
Current status: It’s a book! Seven novellas, actually. The serial will be released biweekly starting August 24, 2014.
Download a sample: Chapters I-II
• • •
Preview excerpt: Chapter I
Armed with urgent news, with life-destroying news, Lucius marched through the narrow streets with the determination of a legionnaire. One of his father’s secretaries lagged behind him, a wan older man, with a wood-bound note tablet grasped in his hand and a stylus case bumping on his hip. Lucius glared back at the secretary, as annoyed by the unwanted attendant as he was by the oppressive heat. The secretary shrugged his thin shoulders.
“You should have an entourage now,” the old man said without a trace of sympathy or apology. “Your father insists. You can’t wander around like a low-class truant.”
Lucius brushed a flop of damp black hair off his forehead and sped up his pace in response. Summer had begun a full-out assault on the city of Rome. The stone pavement radiated a fierce heat back onto his legs and under his tunic. The sun had burned a ruddy cast to his arms, shins, and face. He was wearing one of his better tunics, a bright blue, heavy thing with multitudes of pleats, put on at his father’s insistence, the whole belted with a broad and expensive leather band. He could feel perspiration creeping down to pool at his waist. He would impress nobody if his clothing was a soggy mass of sweat. And he itched.
He turned off the Via Flora Albina onto the smaller Street of the Lampmakers. Tall buildings, apartment blocks four and five stories high, rose on either side above him. Citizens poured toward the law courts and the auction houses, the taverns and the temples, and he was pulled into the flow of pedestrians, surrounded by a clotted mass of the carefully coiffed and the belligerently unwashed. Perfumes mingled with armpit stink, with the smell of frying sausages in greasy waves from the recesses of food shops and, every now and then, the pungent fragrance of incense from an altar. A few streets later, he ducked onto the less crowded Old Temple Street and breathed a sigh of relief. When he caught sight of the secretary once again, a scowl returned to his face. “Pollux, you’re dutiful to the point of insolence,” he said. The secretary smiled.
With Pollux right at his heels, he reached a mansion showing an imposingly blank face to the outer world. Pollux pulled the knocker and the door swung open to reveal the face of a young boy. Lucius did not recognize him, but the household of Cnaeus Lucretius was always rotating slaves. After observing the elegance of Lucius’s clothing and casting a glance at the educated slave, the boy stepped aside and invited them into the house.
“The master is out visiting, sir,” the porter informed him in a well-trained accent as he helped them change from their street shoes to indoor slippers. “I’ll announce you to the young master.” He led them into the atrium and ambled off.
The atrium was almost as busy as the street, slaves and freedmen bustling to and from the small work spaces sprouting off either side of the room. Its colorfully frescoed walls were currently obscured by wooden racks holding huge supine amphorae of wine, crowding the atrium even more. The atrium was also almost as hot as the street. Neither its height nor its skylight relieved the dense air, and the small bronze figure of a flute-playing faun in the center stood in a bone-dry pool.
Lucius hoped the amphorae were empty, or the wine in them would be ruined by long, slow cooking right there—which would be a shame, considering that any wine in the Lucretius house would be of the very best quality. He knocked on one polished, decorated vessel, and the clay container gave a hollow, empty sound—a metaphor for how he was feeling. A vessel ringing empty at a tap. Lucius looked at the secretary speculatively, wondering if his father would tease him for using the man to record poetic inspirations. Probably. He let the idea go.
The porter returned with his young master in tow. Lucius caught the golden glint in Trio’s pale brown eyes all the way across the atrium. Lucius would have given anything to have eyes of that remarkable color, instead of his own ordinary, muddy brown hue. Despite his prayers and sacrifices, the gods did not love him the way they loved Trio. They had let Lucius fall down stairs face first, knocking askew his aquiline Roman nose and permanently marring his profile. Trio, on the other hand, gloried in the full lips, high cheekbones, and high-bridged nose of an elegant Athenian. A complexion of creamy marble and light hair with hints of honey made Trio seem exotic, while cities throughout the Empire teemed with black-haired and ruddy-complexioned men like Lucius. Altogether, Trio was beyond comparison.
Sometimes, Lucius almost hated him for the perfection of his appearance. Most times, however, he had to remind himself not to stare at his friend as if he were a statue to be assessed for auction.
Now, he had too much else on his mind to do either.
Trio had obviously had been at his usual perch adding up inventory lists and orders. His hair stood up in spikes from restlessly combing fingers. “I haven’t seen you in over a month,” Trio complained, “and you think you and that smile can walk in without an appointment?”
“Right. Right.” Lucius ignored the mock anger—he hoped it was only mock anger. His life was unraveling. “I have something to tell you—”
“Come to the back of the house and sit,” Trio interrupted, leading Lucius and the secretary abruptly through the reception room and into a portico, a private space around a verdant courtyard open to the sky.
Air breezed over them as they stepped into the colonnade. A clever arrangement of shading plants, open shutters, and unscreened doorways made the portico cool. Thank you, any nearby gods, he thought in a quick, silent prayer, heading to one of the couches, for at least giving me this. He sat heavily in a scattering of pale cushions and a bunching of tunic fabric. The secretary settled on a low bench in the corner without even waiting for a nod of permission. Maybe I want you at my elbow to tend to me, Lucius thought, glaring. Maybe I want you sitting at my feet. Or heading back home.
Trio grabbed a pair of silver cups from a side table. “I’ll get us chilled wine. Of course the servants are all invisible when you need—”
Lucius caught his wrist before he could sweep past. “Cnaeus Lucretius Trio, stand still and let me talk. I have news.” He frowned at the thought of it. “Important news.”
“Lucius Sentius Camillus, could it be marriage news?” Trio asked preemptively. Lucius stared, his big announcement stolen away. The way his friend was regarding him was very far from the surprise and sympathy he had expected to get. “I’m not saying your father told my father who then told everyone who came through here yesterday,” Trio went on. “but . . . people love to gossip.”
Trio set aside the cups and rested his hands on Lucius’s shoulders. Lucius sighed. It was hard to be irritated that half the city had known the deal was sealed before he himself had. On the next good-omened day, when a ceremony made the marriage officially public, everyone would know anyway.
Trio’s voice suddenly turned brightly pleased, which was irritating. “It’s an astounding match. You’ll be moving in higher circles than I ever will.”
Lucius gave a snort. “Astounding wealth, is what my father is thinking.”
“Even so.” His tone was full of optimism. “Your children will have ties to patrician families. Your grandchildren may be patricians.”
That would, Lucius conceded, be a fast climb for a family of merchants and procurers of foreign luxuries—import and export experts, his father would emphasize—mere tradesmen with no inherited importance. Rising to be fit, someday, to appear in imperial company. Of course, the imperial family was not what it used to be. Thank the irritating gods—there had been something clearly wrong with the first batch who took up residence in the mansions on the Palatine hill. But there was a catch in this bargain his father had made.
“If you know who she is,” Lucius answered, “you’ll know the only reason we managed this match is a faint family connection and the fact she’s barren. No one else wants her.”
“Well, your children will rise up in Rome,” Trio went on, voice still optimistic, “however you get them. It will still be a connection you can exploit for them. Think of the dinners you’ll be invited to. The positions you might get appointed to. Maybe dinner up on the Palatine some day,” he finished, echoing Lucius’s own thoughts of a moment before.
Lucius was still stuck on the beginning of what Trio had said. “You mean, have some children on a servant girl and adopt them.”
“Well, that’s how it works. Does your fancy wife have any half sisters in her father’s slave quarters?”
Lucius heaved a sigh and flopped backward onto the couch. Trio matched the sigh and called to a servant crossing the garden, “We need a lot of wine here, Callida. And some garlic-stuffed olives.” Trio patted Lucius’s thigh. The gesture warmed Lucius all over in spite of his despair. “It was bound to happen sooner or later,” Trio said sympathetically, “though I didn’t think your father would find such a good match for you so soon. That was fast.”
Lucius nodded. Three more months and he would be celebrating twenty-one years. Trio would be celebrating a day before Lucius. They had practically walked out of the womb together, had been named on the same day, by fathers who were trusted business associates, if not quite actual friends. Lucius’s bride-to-be was older than them both, by seven years. If she had been able to bear children, clearly she would have already, after nine years of marriage to a senator who had not been so old that he could have been completely derelict. The only wonder was why the man had kept her for so long but had never arranged for any proper heirs of his own. When he died, most of his wealth had passed on to the sons of cousins. Her family had made certain her personal wealth would go with her into her next marriage.
Hence, Lucius was acquiring a wife. A wealthy, wealthy wife.
He had met her only once. They had been seated apart, and she had not spoken a word, head bowed under a swath of veil, the very model of wrapped-up modesty. More meetings than that did not seem necessary. They would be seeing each other almost every day after the marriage.
Trio was saying, “Bassus—” Lucius’s father “—has to grab this while he can, before someone else decides her three city mansions, the villa in the country, that storehouse packed with antiques, and the sixty-eight slaves are worth taking on a barren girl with a terrible reputation.”
Lucius gaped at the catalogue. Even he had not heard the full tally of slaves, but the number made sense. There was a lot of property to manage—the woman needed staff. “How did you know . . . ?”
“Like I said, people gossip, especially the people who come here.” Who would include both the wine stewards of the fanciest houses and lowly tavern keepers—both of which were notorious gossips. “You’re moving up, from filthy merchants with too much money, to influential men of the town. I will remain a filthy merchant.”
Lucius grinned. Then he gave Trio a sharp look. “What terrible reputation?”
Trio gave him just as sharp a look in return. “You don’t know? Brought up in a fancy school in Alexandria, spent every day in student lectures until they married her off. But she was already seventeen years old when her husband got her,” Trio explained. “Too late to tame her. They say she has ideas, too many for a woman’s good. And can barely weave a dinner napkin.”
“I don’t care if she can weave,” Lucius said. “That’s what servants are for.”
“That and making babies,” Trio said.
• • •
It was late night and they were drunk—drunk from top to shit, by Lucius’s precise assessment—when Pollux the sober secretary once again made little noises, coughing and clearing his throat, to give Lucius the hint, once again, that it was time to leave. Trio’s parents had sent word that they were extending their visit across town into an overnight stay, and had not returned to put their house in order, or Lucius would have been packed off home long before sunset. Instead, he and Trio had proceeded to navigate their way through some of the best wines in a house that specialized in good wines. At some point they had decided that the normal course of mixing the wine with water was a waste of effort.
Now the evening was well into full dark, and Lucius and Pollux would need an escort, preferably secretly armed, to walk home safely. The streets of Rome at night were nothing to take lightly, especially if one was nicely dressed in one’s fancy blue tunic and clearly head-over-ass inebriated.
“We should stay the night,” Lucius suggested, having found his way to the conclusion that the streets were far too dangerous for him to traverse at all. Trio nodded magnanimously.
“Your father requested you be home by—” Pollux began.
Lucius grumbled wordlessly. Pollux quieted again.
Trio rolled over on the dining couch, perilously close to rolling right off it. “We can get you home before Bassus has fits. Scrape up some of the bigger servants,” he ordered the nearest slave, waving a hand in a general indication of size. “Rufo and . . . that other one, that Father’s always using at the warehouse, with the lopsided nose.” The slave nodded crisply and went off to comply.
“I need a piss,” Lucius decided. He sat up then tried to bend over to look under couch, but his head spun so badly all he could see were swaying shadows. “Where’s the pot?”
Trio waggled a finger. “You can make it to the toilet.”
“That’s what toilets are for,” Lucius replied, and found himself laughing uncontrollably.
Trio sighed. “I’ll go with you.”
Lucius leaned on his friend, who held him up with strong arms, even though he was wobbling too. They were a match in size and build—if he were being honest with himself, Lucius had to admit he had more weight on him, maybe was a little too soft in places, whereas Trio had been spending time on the exercise field and getting hands-on with his father’s business by hauling heavy wine jars and whatever else he had been up to for the past month. Lucius looped an arm around Trio’s waist. All muscle, hard and statue perfect. Lucius frowned. He supposed he could start exercising by weight-lifting imported antique lamps.
He gripped the waist more tightly, enjoying the solidness. He leaned against the pillar of muscle and felt . . . secure. Trio gave him a nudge to tilt him back the other way.
“There’s a thing I needed to tell you,” Trio began.
“Tell me anything,” Lucius graciously commanded him.
Trio began and started a few words before settling on a full sentence. “A rich wife is good for lots of things,” he finally said reassuringly, as they walked through the dark hallway and he kept Lucius more or less upright. “Country villa in Campania. I’d like a country villa in Campania to escape to.”
“You can visit.”
“Velleia Aeliana. Pretty name. What’s she look like?”
“Two eyes, two legs, two breasts, who knows?”
“Two, that’s good. Better than one big breast in the middle.”
“Does that happen?”
“I’ve seen it. In a drawing in a travel book. Wild southern tribes with their faces on their stomachs. Two breasts would get in the way of seeing.”
They caromed off one side of the hallway then the other, but eventually made it to their destination. The indoor toilet was barely more than an alcove, fitted with a door so no one passing by had to watch. Nothing like the grand public toilets with a whole row of seats, where everyone watched, gossiped, recited the latest verses from the walls.
They made use of the single toilet shoulder to shoulder. Lucius turned to smile at Trio. “. . . Is a two-breasted wife gonna carry me to a pissing hole, I think not . . .”
Trio took hold of his chin and turned him back to face the polished marble seat.
It really was a nice piece of marble, Lucius mused, with a smoothly carved indentation around the hole for comfortable buttocks at those times when one needed to sit.
“Am I going to have to aim you so you don’t piss on the walls?” Trio asked. “We just had them replastered.”
“You need some Priapuses in here,” Lucius suggested, leaning forward to study the geometric shapes painted on the walls. Yes, he decided—the Lucretius family should add a painting of the god, weighing his gigantically huge member on a scale for good luck in the business of selling and the pastime of pissing. “He could look like you.” He could have Trio’s perfect nose. Priapus was not usually depicted as young and handsome. It would be artistically daring to give him the face of a Narcissus.
He mused more about art as they emptied their bladders.
Trio, done, leaned against the wall, sighing, while Lucius finished. “Lucius . . .” he began slowly. “I do wish for the gods to give you what my parents have. The way the two of them have always . . .” His words trailed away. Now the only sound was the soft gurgling flow of water through the trough beneath the toilet hole.
Trio suddenly reached out. His hand wrapped around Lucius where he still held himself pointed more or less toward the marble hole.
Lucius’s head swirled. His first thought—is he trying to aim me in the right direction? I’m already done—slowly dissolved as the warmth of Trio’s hand began to feel comfortable, feel right, and as even more warmth began to flow to the spot. He struggled with the confusion. He said, carefully watching his friend’s light brown eyes, “We’re too old to play little boy games.”
Trio pulled his hand back, pure mortification on his face. If the most talented of artists wanted to portray a god stumbling into embarrassment, he could not have made it more movingly sympathetic. Do gods ever get embarrassed? Lucius fuzzily wondered. Whether they did or not, this was his fault. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he hurriedly said. His tongue felt ten times too thick, but—
What was there to stop them?
—he grabbed Trio and pulled him into a kiss. Kissing, that was one thing Lucius felt capable of figuring out, sober or drunk. At least, he thought he was capable. His mouth seemed to have trouble finding another one. It should have been easy—he knew he knew how to do this—but he aimed too high, then too far to one side, and he banged the back of his legs against the marble seat when he tried to pull Trio closer. They thudded against a wall, then the other; it was hard to maneuver in the narrow room.
Lips collided, warm, wine-tinged. Before Lucius had completely figured out the kiss or why he was even doing it other than that he could, Trio’s mouth was moving, speaking, against his. “Stop, wait,” ordered Trio sharply. He pressed both palms against Lucius’s chest, holding him off. “Grown men don’t do . . . things together. It’s obscene.”
Lucius tried to catch his breath. He considered the very likely possibility that he was too drunk to be obscene anyway. He always had trouble holding his wine, and now . . .
Before he could stop it, he was bent over the toilet, vomiting into the elegant marble. Beyond the sound of his own coughing and heaving into the burbling water, he could hear Trio behind him—muttering a strained “Oh, gods”—then the sound of him running out of the room.
Stomach completely purged, Lucius dropped down to the floor and sat with his back to the cool stone toilet bench. He drew his knees up and buried his face in his hands. Oh gods indeed. What had he just done? Made a spectacular mess. Oddly, his mind now felt clearer, clear enough to feel a horrible regret and embarrassment swiftly pulling him down again into chaos.
He kept up an act of being too drunk to speak to anyone at all, when the burly servants who had been roused to be his escorts came to lift him to his feet and help him shamble home.
• • •
Lucius stared at the shapeless mass on the glass platter in the middle of the table. “Roast eel in a honeyed vinegar sauce,” announced Cook as she served up generous portions to the two men at the table, Lucius and his father. Lucius’s stomach lurched. He sat on the edge of the dining couch instead of reclining, even though Cook was making their morning meal as grandiose as an evening banquet. He rested his fingertips on the square marble tabletop for balance and focused on the rim of his food dish. Surely he could swallow roast eel with the help of some wine. At the risk of upending his balance he reached for the cup.
Birds flitted in and out from the courtyard in search of crumbs on the floor, braving unenthusiastic swats from the half-somnolent dogs. Each sweet little expectant chirp hammered against his head like a tiny beak.
His father, Sentius Bassus, had not much cared that Lucius had been late to table, since Cook was taking longer than she anticipated to prepare their meal—eel apparently needing much more time to assemble than the cheese and bread and leftover cold sausage that usually got them and the birds started in the morning. Lucius crumbled a bit of bread under the table and scattered it out of sight of the dogs. His doubted his stomach could handle even that.
He had woken well past dawn, and one of the boys—Bellerophon, not Arpalycus, he was pretty sure, though it was hard to see which one it was through the fog packed around his head—brought him a basin of hot water from the kitchen. He had rummaged out a tunic from his clothes chest that smelled clean, was not too heavy with voluminous fabric, but would hopefully suit his father’s new requirements. It had a brown pattern woven around the neck and armholes. Surely that would be sufficiently elegant. He would look presentable. More than that, he could not promise.
Cook—a tall, imposing woman of about Lucius’s father’s age—had always shown a bit too much creativity, but Bassus had started giving her free rein not only in the regular food markets but at the exotic import markets too. He wanted to impress their in-laws-to-be and was sending her for lessons with a cook who had trained among Nero’s staff in the fabulous Golden House. For all Nero’s faults, everyone said the former emperor had put on a good party, right up until he killed himself, depriving many eager volunteers of the chance to do the honor for him. A decade on, the current emperor was building the largest arena Rome had ever seen on top of Nero’s lavish orgy grounds, and Lucius and his father were reaping the benefits at breakfast of cookery invented for an emperor.
Sentius Bassus rumbled on about the upcoming wedding, sprawled out and easily filling one of the little couches they kept in the morning dining room. His round face was still smooth of wrinkles, hair still shockingly thick and black, voice still shockingly deep and loud. Lucius was barely able to follow the monologue. The cloud in his mind was made more of misery than hangover.
What exactly had happened between him and Trio? They had climbed over each other like boys who had no way to get at girls yet—that was what. Then there had been vomiting. He could blame the wine, but maybe it was his own more sensible nature, properly horrified.
What did he want to happen between them?
He had certainly found out what Trio wanted. In spite of the protestation, the urgent grip of his hand had made it plain. But Lucius had not had quite enough time to figure out, for certain, if it was what he wanted too.
If only there had not been the vomiting.
His wine cup was snatched out of his hands, replaced by a steaming, sloshing bowl of something dark and thick. He looked down at it then up at Cook. “For what ails you,” she announced, and headed back to her pots with his kidnapped wine cup. The acrid smell of the bowl curdled his stomach.
Father, who lay propped up on a lion-hair pillow, was giving him a knowing smile. “We all noticed how much you celebrated your betrothal with Trio last night,” he said. “And about time you showed some enthusiasm. This match is an excellent milestone on the path of our fortunes.” He hastily added, “Good gods of our house protect us,” in case anything mischievous was listening.
“Sir . . . about . . . kissing . . .” Lucius began, and then had nowhere to go with the vague question trying to form on his tongue. Kissing between friends was harmless, a greeting or a farewell, yes? The night before had not been just a farewell. Or it had been more than a farewell, a farewell to everything. The night before, he had felt it all the way down his center. It had made part of him try to rise up and respond through the haze of wine. It had made his stomach heave.
“Kissing?” his father was repeating, his grin momentarily twisted into a curl of distaste. “If you must. Your new woman keeps herself healthy, so it should be fine.” He peered at Lucius, then waved a dismissive hand, smiling again. “If you want to know more, go read one of those poems you collect or get yourself some practice. Just try to be sober at least until you get into her property.” He laughed and repeated himself. “Into her property. Ha! I mean that two ways, you see.”
Lucius looked up blearily from slurping down the hangover concoction. It was full of slimy lumps, but he did feel a little better when the warm wine mixed into it hit him.
“Into her mansion, into her bed, you see.”
“Yes, sir,” Lucius said. “You’re a poet.”
• • •
Lucius waited for his father to set off across the city to his office, then crept into the library. He pulled the wooden screens closed to block the room’s view of the garden and to block the view of the room by any passing slaves.
A shipment of scrolls had been delivered only a few days before. They had been part of an estate, from which Bassus had already sold the furniture and spirited away the best of the wine to his own storeroom. Judging from the inventory list, anything in the literary collection would get a good price: every scroll was catalogued as “erotic.”
The scrolls stood in cylindrical leather cases on the marble floor in front of Bassus’s shelves of financial documents and shipping maps and all the sorts of histories, religious texts, bucolic elegies, and patriotic poetry that no good house should be without. Eventually, warehouse staff would carry off whichever of the new scrolls Bassus decided could be disposed of, in one large lot to a bookseller. In the meantime, Father was sorting out the best to keep for himself.
Lucius hoped they would prove educational.
He opened the nearest case and pulled out a few scrolls. The very first one he unrolled was a collection of poems by Valerius Martialis. Lucius had seen the man’s verse on multiple walls—he had been a popular poet years before, young and promising, before Nero’s court had lurched to a bloody collapse and taken all its sycophants with it. Lucius slid that scroll aside to keep for himself. A good poem was still a good poem.
The next scroll was an elegy on the charms of Venus. The case also contained several thick medical treatises that in no way fit the inventory label, with blood-chilling diagrams of things no one needed to know went on beneath the skin. He rolled those back up and tied them tight. No reason to tempt the local house-spirits or anything drifting around the roots in the garden with a glimpse of boils and pustules they could visit on the local house-mortals on a lark.
He undid the ties on a slender scroll and scanned quickly through its list of contents. How to Make Yourself at Home In Many Lands, the title declared, as if it would be a typical travelogue advising on safe inns, local customs, and how not to be cheated when weighing foreign coins. He skipped ahead to the illustrations. The first drawing showed two men in antique Egyptian garments, holding each other’s penises in typical Egyptian profile, reminding Lucius of Trio’s hasty grab over the toilet and looking just as awkward.
Egypt is a land of staid and ancient manners, declared the text.
Traveling Greek byways leads to scenic detours. Two Greek men in short, pleated tunics stood face to face, one man’s distended penis clasped between the thighs of the other. That seemed too much like what two boys would do.
He skipped through a long section of text until he reached the next image, of a man lying naked behind an equally naked boy, one hand wrapped around one of the boy’s thighs. Beyond that it was hard to see what they were doing. Abroad in the Roman Style, the text beneath it began, with a verse about the conquest of foreign kingdoms. His hands were a little unsteady as he moved further along in the scroll—Coming Home to Rome—two grown men, one on his knees straddling the other’s lap, the other man’s member rising upward and disappearing into the kneeling man’s . . .
Lucius shoved the scroll lopsidedly back into the case.
What the two men were doing looked impossibly awkward, but obviously it was done. People did it every day. Obviously those people wanted it done and wanted to do it and thought it was a very enjoyable thing to be doing.
“Good gods,” he muttered under his breath, a memory rising up of overheated, sticky summer nights in the countryside at the Lucretius vineyard, when the adults tucked the two youngsters into one bed at the villa and returned to their dinner guests and their entertaining and forgot about them. Some nights he and Trio abandoned the hot bed and sprawled on the cool floor, daring all manner of creeping things, plotting daytime treks up the mountainside until they fell asleep. Some nights they huddled in the same bed anyway, sweaty and uncertain. Sometimes there was kissing, because, they always said, that was how they would learn; he learned that kissing felt like a lightning storm rolling through the room, heavy and tingling through his chest and arms and legs. Sometimes they fought, fierce but quiet so a servant would not look in; and sometimes hands snaked into places they were not meant to be. I surrender, one or the other would have to say, because the loser was the one who had to stop it before anything wrong happened.
The forced-out, panicked words, I surrender, always ended it—before. Those were the rules.
But it was a game for children. A game they had stopped playing years before.
A panic enveloped him in the here and now. About those things in the scroll that people enjoyed doing to each other that made an excited twinge go through him. One man straddling another . . .
Everything around him and inside him suddenly felt wrong. I can’t get married, he thought, the panic boiling higher.
But he had to. He was going to. It was arranged, and it was his father’s decision to make, not his.
He sat a while, inhaling calming breaths, then retrieved the scroll, twisted it more neatly around its wooden roller, and shoved it into his tunic. His father did not even need to know that it existed.
• • •
Lucius put in a trip to the baths before returning to the Lucretius house—just looking at the scroll had made him feel mussed. Pollux trailed behind him. Lucius was groomed, tidy, and fragrant, fully presentable, on an errand from his father to collect updates on supplies for the wedding. He remembered to give a nod to the Lucretius family altar as he crossed the busy atrium.
“So polite,” said Trio’s mother, Laevina, who could see him from where she sat with her husband, catching breezes in the reception room at the opposite end of the atrium. He presented himself to her to be kissed on both cheeks, then to Trio’s father to be patted on the back in congratulations. If the house’s servants were not as gossipy as everyone else in Rome, maybe Trio’s parents did not know Lucius had to be carried home in drunken disgrace the evening before. He found he especially did not want to disappoint Trio’s mother, who had been so kind to him after his own mother, Camilla, had died giving birth to what should have been his younger sister.
Laevina was veiled to receive visitors, the sheer, fluttering mantle cascading down behind highly piled curls, a tall tiara of black-dyed hair that softened her age instead of contrasting with the lines that creased her face. Her veil was of a green-tinted iridescent silk, glittering like a beetle’s carapace, her dress a less showy, mossy green mostly covered by a matronly overdress tied at the shoulders. All the details aligned themselves in Lucius’s head like an auction-house checklist: quantity, quality, likely origin, craftsmanship of the golden pins and hair combs, preferred asking price for each piece, special bargain price if one takes the lot. Cnaeus Senior was more practically garbed in an undyed, greyish beige working tunic, but the wool was so finely woven, no one would mistake him for one of the freedmen or slaves in his warehouse. Unlike Lucius’s father, who had grown solidly plump with age, Cnaeus Senior’s thin form always gave Lucius the impression of nervous energy barely held in check.
They exchanged further politenesses. “Juno will surely watch over you as you take this step,” said the lady of the house. “What is more wonderful than a young man establishing himself?”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Lucius replied.
“I wish you luck,” Trio’s father said.
“Thank you, sir,” he replied.
“How fast they’ve grown into men,” said Laevina. “With your example, soon our Cnaeus Trio will be finding a wife, I’m sure.” She tilted her head to study Lucius. “Dear boy,” she said, taking his hands in hers. “Wherever your life carries you, always know I consider you a second son of our house.” Indeed she had no surviving children other than Trio—she had always treated Lucius as one of her own. “Should your wife need anything . . . should you need anything regarding your wife . . . I am here for you both.”
Cnaeus Senior waved his wife aside and started in on the update Lucius’s father had sent him there to collect. “The best vintages I could manage—amphorae culled from several large lots, not much of each type—but that rich family of hers will see for themselves that you tolerate nothing but the best. I’ve arranged for the baskets of nuts with gilt shells to toss to the crowd—”
“Gilt?” Lucius could not keep himself from tallying the cost of it, individually then in bulk measure. “Does my father know—”
“You father requested them.” Cnaeus Senior added as an aside: “It’s barely any gold at all. Enough to sparkle and impress the crowd. Leftover stock from a huge wedding down the coast. Came in with the last delivery of Falernian wine.”
Aha, thought Lucius. Both Bassus and Cnaeus Senior loved a good deal.
“Now that the word is out that we help supply the imperial household,” Cnaeus Senior explained, “we have access to all manner of interesting wine storerooms.”
That was a surprise. “You’re supplying the Palatine?”
“Thanks to Trio’s skillful negotiations all last month,” Cnaeus Senior said proudly.
Lucius had not known about that. Trio had never mentioned that he was moving up in the world too.
Cnaeus Senior gave him a brief but indulgent smile. “Leave the secretaries to go over the inventories if you want to visit with Trio.”
Laevina smiled as well. “Go on, then . . . run along,” she urged. Her tone was not much different than all the times she had invited him in to play with Trio as a child. Pollux headed at Cnaeus Senior’s direction to one of the side chambers where the Lucretius staff were busy at work. So Lucius stepped through the reception room into the more private spaces of the house. A youthful servant, a small scrap of a red-haired boy, escorted him to the sitting room where Trio was reading, then withdrew to give them privacy.
Lucius leaned in to give Trio a kiss on the cheek in greeting—
“Stop, wait,” warned Trio. “Before you do something insane.” Lucius drew back. He had not been about to do something insane. Probably. The illustrations from the scroll lurked at the back of his mind, making suggestions, until he felt feverish. Until he did feel like he was about to do something insane. Trio’s a regretful sigh cut through his thoughts. “If we had done more before, when it was acceptable . . . I would have loved for you to be the one who . . .” Trio looked him up and down, and Lucius would have sworn he could feel the sweep of those pale eyes like hands across his body. “But we didn’t. And now you’re just running away.”
“Running? From what?” If anyone was running, it was Trio. Lucius felt a sudden painful jealousy that a boy like the red-haired slave was free to play at anything he wanted. A grown man could play as he pleased with a boy servant, even have his way like the drawings in that scroll with a grown male servant if a man was discreet, though it seemed that someone always gossiped and reputations were dented.
But people said the emperor liked his up-and-comers to be spotless. That he ran a clean city . . . at least, a city less perverse than his predecessors. Gone were the days of incestuous emperors and senators’ wives sold in brothels and city officials corrupting well-bred boys, of orgies in gardens and flagrant affairs with well-muscled gladiators, or so people said. Emperor Vespasian ran his empire as he had run his army—efficient and sober. It was not so easy to play as it had been in the previous regime.
So why, when Lucius looked at Trio, did he find himself caring about nothing except the sun on Trio’s hair, the way his tunic stretched across his shoulders, the light wisps of hair on his cheek? Drunk as they had been the evening before, something had been lit in him like a lamp. He wanted to see what more it would illuminate.
Something twisted in his chest, as if his entire insides had turned over.
He tried a careful appeal, as much to himself as to Trio. “We were too timid as boys to do more than play.” Trio shifted uncomfortably. “We’re braver than that now. Aren’t we?” He hoped so. He could never be brave enough to lead the both of them. “We can . . .” He touched Trio’s face. It felt like such a strange thing to do. He caressed the high cheekbone, the curve of jaw. It felt like the most natural thing to do. “We can have more than games.”
“You don’t even know what you’re doing.” Trio laughed ruefully.
“I know.” No, he did not, not really. He did know what two people might do together. What it looked like in a drawing. He was lacking in practical knowledge of how. Other than the artwork, the borrowed scrolls had not proved very informative. He only knew he wanted to touch and be touched. He held Trio’s face between both his hands. Their eyes met and held each other.
Eye to eye, he saw it—he was sure—the same fire.
Without a tide of wine to carry him forward, he hesitated, wondering what was best to do next—stroke his hair, kiss him again—
Trio preempted his hesitation, pulled him closer, an embrace so tight it was crushing, his chin pressing into Lucius’s shoulder. “Lucius, I—” It turned into a strange, strained sigh, soft and low but familiar, as familiar as the hard warmth that pressed between them. Lucius wrapped his arms around him and held tight too. Just to be held . . . His thoughts raced away from him, and it moved beyond just being held. He wanted him completely, in the way of everything he had ever heard about two men together. He pushed against him, felt Trio move against him in return, hardness against hardness.
Only the noise of something dropping in the corridor alerted him that someone was near. They scrambled apart. Trio turned his back to the door just as the red-haired boy entered again. Trio caught Lucius’s gaze then looked down quickly and pointedly. Lucius grabbed a cushion and casually dropped it into his lap as he sat on the couch. He nervously ran a hand through his hair. The black waves were in a tangle.
The boy had returned bearing a tray with wine and honeyed bread, speaking rapidly and apologetically as he entered. “Sorry, sirs, I dropped the fruit dish, I’ll clean it up right away,” the boy said. Trio stared at him over his shoulder in horror, but the boy seemed genuinely too distracted by the spilled fruit to realize what he had interrupted.
They ushered the boy back out as quickly as they could. Lucius cast the pillow aside, stood and slid close, laid his hands on Trio’s narrow hips. But Trio had that mortified look again. “You have to get out,” Trio said, almost frantic.
“We can go to your bedroom,” Lucius suggested.
“I have work to do.”
“And I have to get back home. Later.”
“My parents are in the house.”
“And we’ll be quiet,” Lucius promised. Imagining how he would touch him again made his blood pound. He had always had a very good imagination. “I saw something,” he began, “in a scroll. Men together. We could try it.”
“By all the gods, Lucius,” Trio said firmly, not at all a sound of anticipated passion. “There’s nothing we can do that wouldn’t shame one of us. Believe me. This is wrong and we are not doing this.”
Lucius froze in place, wordless.
Trio stepped back, wringing his hands. “You have to go,” he muttered.
“How?” Lucius choked out in incredulous reply.
Trio looked away, and down at the floor. “Then take yourself to the toilet and take care of yourself and go.”
“We want each other.” It seemed so obvious to Lucius. Yet the words sounded foolish and weak in the long silence before Trio shook his head.
“We don’t even . . .” Trio trailed off and looked at Lucius with pleading amber eyes. “Please go.” His gaze traveled up and down and all across Lucius as if he could not decide where best to stop. He gave a short breath of a bitter laugh. “I’d strip you naked right now and . . .”
You would? Lucius held his breath, and he was sure his heart stopped beating in the stretching hesitation, too.
Then Trio shook his head again, emphatically. “Please. Just leave.”
• • •
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