(Insert high-pitched, squealing voice <here>.) I got my Editor's comments returned from Austin Macauley this week for that young adult novel they chose to publish for me! And a proof of the cover for the same novel! I don't know which one was more exciting! Lol - you can stop reading this like I'm a hamster now.
I know some authors dread the comments from the Editors, but it really is something I look forward to. I always want to know: 1. What did I do right?? 2. What did I do wrong?? 3. What did they change?? I've become a much better writer in the past two years from the help, suggestions, corrections, and advice from the Editors I've been lucky enough to work with.
As for the cover design on this one, I can only say WOW. I'm so guilty of opening the file randomly over the past couple of days just to look at it. This new book will be called An'ji, and this week I've decided I'm allowed to start being really excited about bringing it out.
4. Too Old and Too Angry
The fight was occurring in the next chamber. This Verus was a skilled fighter, but had obviously only trained with the Legions and hadn’t yet seen enough wars to develop his own skill set for singles combat. Alex left her relation at the entrance and darted forward to balance out the odds in his favor. Two of the enemies were killed before any of the fighters noticed she was there, and the final two joined them on the ground only moments later; one sliding off of the sword Verus was holding, and the other sliding off of Alex’s jian.
“Is that all of them?” Alex asked quietly, keeping her voice well below a volume that would carry throughout the tunnels.
“Yes,” Verus struggled to swallow his pride that an elderly woman had just surpassed his own skill as he looked at the bodies. Alex knelt down and used one of the men’s tunics to clean her blade and then sheathed the jian as she stood. She felt a small smile pull at her lips that he was reluctant to give back the sword and also obviously feeling too inadequate to ask to keep the beautiful blade. Adellexia seemed about to say something encouraging, but instead tucked her bottom lip between her teeth and looked at the ground just in front of her feet.
“Clean the blade before the blood dries and polishing becomes a chore,” Alex nodded to her sword, making the decision for him, and then turned to face Adellexia. Before she could ask the young woman what was going on and who had just been killed, what sounded like a small battle clanged and yelled through the tunnels from the cave entrance. Alex frowned sharply at Verus. “You said this was all of them,” she accused.
“All that were in here, yes,” he replied, quickly coming to his feet and tightening his grip on the sword he’d just been wiping off. Alex scoffed at him and drew her jian again.
“Come along, girl,” she growled.
“But, the torches,” Adellexia hesitantly replied. Alex glanced at the few that were burning, either having been dropped or sitting up in the proper holders. All the things that were visible in this chamber, aside from the three of them, were stone, dirt, or dead.
“And what, exactly, are you expecting they’ll damage?” Alex asked with a glare.
“Mind how you speak to –”
Alex interrupted his reprimand with a backhanded slap across his face with her free hand. His good eye was wide and startled when he straightened and looked at her again.
“Do not take that tone with me, boy,” she threatened.
His anger rose, and then was buried under a dropped glare and shoulders hunching from… subservience? That was something she’d never expected, not from someone who looked so much like her brother. She shook her head, reminding herself that this wasn’t her Verus, not his child or grandchild. This Verus was three hundred years removed from anyone she knew. She frowned at him. The bowed head and shoulders didn’t suit him at all. She was going to have to see about fixing that later.
“Respectful apologies,” he stated, his teeth obviously clamped together, the words smooth only because of practice.
“Come along, both of you,” Alex stated, turning on her heel and stalking out of the chamber. They followed, with Adellexia in the middle so that Verus was protecting her from behind.
The sounds of the fighting had reduced to scuffles when Alex rounded the final turning and could clearly see the overcast daylight outside. She’d left a sunny day behind. The rain of the now was just starting, and would have suited the funeral better. The people outside were just as busy as her own family would be, but the men here were all either fighting, surrendering, or being forced into submission, whereas her family would be setting up for the feast. Alex stopped and glanced back over her shoulder to where Adellexia was trying to walk and figure out something to say to Verus, and he was trying to not stare at her walking in front of him.
Alex let them catch up and took the torch from Adellexia. The flame snuffed out easily in the nearest sand pot, keeping those inside the cave from being visible to anyone outside.
“Why did you –”
“Is anyone outside on your side?” Alex interrupted Adellexia, whispering, while watching to see if anyone outside noticed the loudly spoken start to the young woman’s question.
“I suppose, well, that …” her whisper trailed off.
“Yes,” Verus answered firmly, also whispering, after a couple of heartbeats. Alex looked between the two of them and their similar expressions of disappointment.
“My uncle,” Adellexia said as if ashamed of the admission. Verus shifted closer to her, concern masking all of his features before being completely replaced with restraint prior to actually touching her. “Calleous was a friend to him,” she said, oblivious that her rescuer was just as infatuated with her as she was with him.
“That’s unfortunate,” Alex stated under her breath, turning back to watch the fighting end outside.
“That’s him,” Verus whispered as a man with similar family resemblances to Adellexia strode to the cave entrance and stopped. He squinted at the dark, not able to see the trio watching him.
“Calleous! Callsenius!” he yelled into the tomb. “Where is my niece?” the demand was full of authority, and more than a little protectiveness. One of the men who’d been forced to his knees nearby prattled off a smart-mouth reply that Alex couldn’t hear. The uncle punched him hard enough to send the man sprawling, and when he was hauled back to his knees Alex could see his nose was now flattened. “Bring torches,” the uncle ordered and at least a half-dozen men scrambled to comply.
“Come along,” Alex said with a sigh. “Let’s get this over with so someone can tell me what’s going on.”
She sheathed her jian and started toward the entrance, their footsteps starting a second later and following together.
“Adellexia!” the uncle’s call was relieved and reprimanding as soon as he saw a female shape walking toward him out of the tomb.
“No,” Alex corrected him. “But she’s right here,” she added.
He appeared confused that an old woman was there, but nodded politely and made a quickly respectful greeting before turning to his niece. Adellexia was dusty and dirt-smeared, and at some point had gotten splattered with blood, but appeared otherwise unharmed. Her uncle stared at her as though she’d walked out of the tomb carrying her own arm.
“All you all right?” his voice was a rushed as his strides to get to her. “Who are you?” he snarled at Verus. Swords were drawn and pointed at the battered younger man.
Everyone was suddenly speaking or shouting at once, Adellexia’s explanation of Verus lost in the multiple demands for him to identify and disarm himself. Alex set her fingers between her lips and whistled shrilly, startling everyone into silence.
“He’s with her,” Alex stated to the group in general. To emphasize the point that Verus was not a foe, she held out her hand and he passed the borrowed sword to her hilt first. She sheathed the blade, ignoring the stares at her armor, and let her cloak fall closed again.
“That’s Marcus’s shield,” the man with the broken nose stated. Verus looked at and then tossed away the shield he’d been carrying. The man attempted to rise to his feet and was forced back to his knees. “That’s Marcus’s shield!” he yelled this time.
“Apparently the shield didn’t work very well for him,” Alex glared down at the struggling fellow, her statement shocking him into stillness.
“That still doesn’t answer my question,” the uncle glared at Verus and wrapped a protective arm around his niece, standing so that his body was shielding her from the man who’d just tried to rescue her.
“I’m Verus Celsus,” Verus replied, his posture the same subservient pose as when he’d apologized to Alex inside. The uncle stared down at the younger man, almost recognizing the name. One of the fighters with him tapped his shoulder and whispered quickly.
“Oh,” the uncle replied to the whisper. “Yes,” he stated, looking and sounding as though Verus was something unpleasant that he’d stepped in.
“Uncle Magnus, he –”
“Go find Calleous and Callsenius,” the uncle stated to the men just returning with torches, completely ignoring that his niece had been talking to him.
“Uncle Magnus, I –”
“Come on, little lamb, you’re terrified,” Magnus started walking as he interrupted her and pulled Adellexia along with him onto a path that had Alex in the middle of it.
“Please, Uncle Magnus, if –”
“Excuse us,” he interrupted her a third time, this time to address Alex. He jerked to a stop, only a few inches from bumping into her, when he realized that she wasn’t moving. Alex looked up at him, scoffed at his confusion, and held open her cloak while making eye contact with Adellexia. The younger woman folded on herself and ducked from under Magnus’s arm to under Alex’s, shocking her uncle to stammering as Alex led the girl a short distance away to sit on a stone bench under a few trees.
“Now, what’s going on?” Alex asked.
So, as part of my week, I learned how to use publishing software to make an eBook. Then I learned how to open and manage an Etsy shop. I know, I know, it's not exactly high-end technological advancements that I'm talking about, but it was new to me and I'm glad I learned.
Also, check out the rest of my website for info about When it's Not Perfect, the little novel which is the reason I learned eBook-wizarding software and how to use Etsy.
I feel like I didn't get much accomplished this week. However, anxiety only destroyed two of my days, grief only ripped me up to tears a couple times, laundry is as caught up as it can get with two kids, and the house is as clean as it gets with the same two kids. It was actually a really good week (I just screamed that at, and in, my own mind - sometimes I just have to be louder than the anxiety). And I'm getting a blog post out! Yay!
3. Meeting the Bloodline
Alex stopped face to face with the talkative one, inches apart. His arm was still lifted for the strike, his sword above his head and taking advantage of the high-ceilinged chamber. He sputtered as his blind rage turned to confusion. Her reflexes hadn’t diminished over the years. Alex stepped back and planted a foot against the bronze plate covering his chest and stomach as leverage, pulling her sword back slowly so that the steel of the blade scraped loudly against the new holes in his armor. He collapsed to his knees slowly, finally crumpling slightly backwards once his brain registered that his body was dead.
The remaining two attacked her blindly, throwing down their torches and charging, too enraged to think. Sixty years of training sliced through their mad lunges in moments, the scuffle so short that only one sword clang echoed into the tunnel to be answered by a single shout asking what had happened. Alex ignored the call and wiped off the blade of her jian on one of the corpses’ cloaks as she retrieved the torch that was still burning.
The woman, Adellexia, was peering over the top of the casket that Alex assumed held her eldest daughter – her oldest child. Alex held the torch high as she stood and turned to look over at … eyes the same blue as Ixor’s under hair that was a slightly darker blonde than their youngest son’s. As Adellexia stood, Alex could see she was only slightly shorter than Alex – very tall for a woman in these times – and her figure was painfully similar to all the women that Alex shared her bloodlines with. Brasus’s chin, Rishima’s hands, and Tanaquilla’s poise rounded out the familiarity that Alex could see on this young woman. The rest of her features belonged to strangers.
“Calleous?” the voice that had just called a moment ago yelled again. Adellexia winced out of fear, but stayed standing.
“Xia?” the voice belonging to the man who’d been punched earlier called out, the tone nearly panicked. Alex silenced the returned yell she could see forming on Adellexia’s face with a warning glare.
“Calleous!” the question turned to defensive alarm.
“Adellexia!” his voice dropped fully into panic and the sounds of a bare-fisted scuffle began.
Alex gestured with her sword for Adellexia to duck back down and then snuffed out the torch in the pot of sand set by the entrance for that purpose. Without the light in the immediate area, Alex could now see the approaching glow of more torches. She pressed her back to the wall beside the entry and hoped her relative was smart enough to follow simple orders. Heavy footsteps accelerated to a run and four men, all dressed just as finely as the newly made corpses, burst into the room. Their swords were drawn as they raced past where Alex was hidden, two men holding torches and two with shields. Adellexia was out of sight.
“Calleous, brother,” one of the men with a shield dropped beside the first corpse Alex had just made. In the torch light, and with the one who was kneeling showing his face in profile to Alex, he and the dead man could have been twins. A glimpse of movement caught Alex’s eye, down low and between the caskets. The men didn’t notice Adellexia sneaking closer to where Alex was standing.
Alex waited, motionless, until her great-grand-whatever was well past where the men would easily see her. They were much too absorbed in the three bodies to notice almost anything outside of their small group. Alex scoffed condescendingly at them and they all spun to stare at her.
“All of you, standing there like fools, staring at the bodies,” she scolded them quietly. “And none of you looking for what created the corpses. The Legions have degraded significantly.”
“Who are you?” the brother demanded, surging up to his feet to square off with her rather than crouching.
“Callsenius? What happened?” someone further up the tunnel grunted, managing to form words through the effort of still struggling with, likely, the man who was more worried about Adellexia.
“What occurred here?” Callsenius, the brother, leveled his sword at Alex as he spit the question toward her. She smiled widely at him with a grin she knew was better suited to a nightmare.
“Me,” she stated.
Alex lunged at the men with torches first. As expected, they’d forgotten the second items they were holding were not protective. The other two locked shoulders – like well-trained Legionnaires should – and attempted to progress through a standard attack. Alex created an advantage out of moving quicker than they expected and, instead of outright attacking, she maneuvered them to turn so their backs were toward the caskets. That done, she drew her second sword and pounded them backwards.
Callsenius tripped on one of the raised platforms and fell between two caskets. His friend, however, remained alone with his back pressed to the end of a casket. Alex feinted a low strike, getting him to drop his shield the needed two inches, her second sword following a split second later just above the top of his lowered shield. His head separated from his body cleanly and thumped off the top of the casket to bump and bounce off of Callsenius’s shield. The idiot still hadn’t stood up. Alex simply sliced at his exposed legs, opening one of his arteries on the third strike, and then left him there to bleed out as she cleaned her second sword.
She was picking up one of the dropped torches when she heard him scrambling for purchase. Both had stayed lit this time so she chose the nearest one, then turned back to watch Callsenius try to stand on wounded legs while he was already staggering from blood loss. She had to remind herself that her life had been filled with elite fighters and minds that well surpassed average as she shook her head that this fool was trying to stand up now rather than when being upright could have made a difference.
The fight in the tunnel ended with a wordless yell, a few heavy thumps and surprised grunts, and then footfalls running the short distance into the chamber. He’d been beaten bloody, one green eye was swollen shut, and his hands were tied in front of him with rough ropes, but he was scanning the whole room and just the bodies as he skidded to a stop. He had a thicker build than Verus, something his genetics had picked up along the way, but the similarities to Alex’s brother took her breath away. He was younger than Verus had been when she’d met him, but the arrogance born of confidence was already settled. Verus would be pleased to know his blood ran so strong so many years later, Alex thought.
“Verus!” Adellexia gasped. The wary confusion that was just blossoming in his expression was swept aside by relief as she darted the short distance to throw her arms around him. He shifted slightly as she wrapped him, neatly placing her behind his left shoulder to protect her from the rest of the room, and still keeping both his arms free to move, in one easy motion. Her exuberance snuffed like a candle that he didn’t return the hug and she stepped away from him seconds after running to him.
“How many more are there?” Alex asked before he could start with his own questions.
“Four,” he replied quickly. Alex walked to them and handed the torch to Adellexia.
“I assume you’re with the Legions,” she said as she pulled out her knife and offered the blade for him to cut the ropes on.
“I … am,” he hesitated. There was more to his answer than he was currently willing to say while he was trying to focus on cutting his bonds and not to stare at her armor, collar, and face. The direct view of the mosaic covering the wall opposite where they were standing made that task difficult, but he mostly succeeded. He stooped to pick up a fallen sword and shield once his hands were freed, both made of bronze.
Alex cleared her throat to draw his attention from testing the balance of both. He blinked in surprise, his good eye widening, as his gaze landed on the sword she was offering him. Victoria had made one for each Alex, Ixor, Brasus, and Ennius a few years after she and Verus had started having children. There were only four in existence. The swords had been forged from folded, hardened steel using the same methods Victoria knew for making jians, but had been fabricated to mimic the same style as typical Roman weapons. Ixor, Brasus, and Ennius had all been buried with theirs.
This Verus tossed the bronze weapon and wrapped his hand around the hilt of Alex’s sword. He smiled involuntarily at the blade when Alex released the full weight to him.
“I’ll return in a moment,” he said, his words and gaze aimed at Adellexia.
“Yes, of course,” she replied, not looking up. He swallowed the next words he wanted to say to the woman he was rescuing, bowed formally to Alex as he seemed unable to speak to her easily – or simply didn’t yet know what to say or how to address her – and then turned and jogged into the tunnel. Alex hooked her free hand into Adellexia’s elbow and pulled the younger woman toward the entry.
“Verus said to wait,” Xia protested.
“I’m quite old and quite angry,” Alex retorted, not slowing her strides as Adellexia stumbled to keep up. “Waiting is not something I am currently going to waste time doing.”
I know, right?? Two posts in one month. Please don't fall over. :)
In other things .... as with so many other people in 2017, my personal life got nuked. The bad news out of the fallout comes from no longer having full-time work, but still having kids and a mortgage, and not being able to work (wooo-hooo .... stress breakdown ....) at a time when there's no work for my stay-at-home-dad husband to look for. The good news out of the fallout comes from the industry my husband is trained for now starting to show signs of coming opportunities, and that I'm suddenly (and luckily) able to focus full-time on writing as both a recovery tactic and as a life-long love that I might be able to get some steam into.
This "dreams into reality" thing is too good a chance to pass up.
2. 300 Years Later
The darkness was complete once everything solidified again. Alex’s stomach was churning in that old, familiar way that meant something in the timeline was breaking, her old memories shifting and shadows running across them that were horrific: barren world, dead seas, her own life and whole family fading into nothing … The tomb felt closer now, but was too dark to see anything after the brightness of the torches. She reached out where open space had been and encountered cold stone. Another rock casket. The stumbling steps and choked off whimpers were constant now, and getting closer, the owner of both obviously feeling her way forward.
Alex crawled in the only direction available that was likely to get her closer to the tunnel entrance and spied around the end of the new casket. The dim, yellow light of torches was barely bright enough to be seen, but was moving in a way that could only be of someone approaching. That explained the rough voices of men that she could hear.
They were all speaking Latin smoothly, at least the ones who were talking, although the accent they all had wasn’t one she recognized. They were also definitely looking for the woman that Alex could hear stumbling deeper into the tomb, calling out to each other as they looked around caskets and into crevices, their own noise hiding her retreat and slowing their search.
Alex gritted her teeth and glared at the approaching glow. Her husband, her family, her brother … all stripped away on the first day of Ixor’s funeral. She’d literally been ripped out of Verus’s arms and dropped into only the gods knew when, to discover a gang of men chasing a stumbling and crying woman into her family’s tomb. Alex felt her lip curl back into a snarl as the anger solidified into something that was soon going to have a flavor if allowed to get any stronger. The timeline steadied into familiar the moment Alex decided to defend the woman, and her snarl curled into a grin as her hands wrapped the hilt of her jian. She hadn’t realized just how much she’d needed this kind of emotional outlet until the pending fight was shouting and striding toward her.
Shadows shifted nearby in perfect unison with the heard stumble and gasped whimper. The woman ducked into the gap just on the other side of the new casket from where Alex was rising into a crouch.
“Ancestors, Grandmother, hear me praying, please!”
The whisper was pleading, the woman still trying to stay quiet even though volume wouldn’t matter soon. Why she would’ve thought to corner herself down here … didn’t really matter. She had, and now Alex was tied up in whatever mess this woman had gotten herself into.
“Please, Old Grandmother, if you can hear me, please, please help me,” the woman begged between terrified and choked-off sobs. Her accent was the same as the men who were chasing her.
The words hit Alex hard. She’d buried her gigno back in Rome, in his family’s tomb. Ixor had been adopted by her gigno, but they’d decided to start their own family tomb here in Illyria, where they’d built their life together and raised their family after the revolt had been put down. But this woman had called for her ancestors, and specifically her ‘old grandmother,’ as she cowered beside the stone casket placed right next to where Ixor had been buried only hours before. Long enough ago now that he was an ancestor … and so was his wife. Alex was crouching behind her own casket.
The old memories came up with a shock that almost made her vomit. Her mother’s research, long forgotten, that detailed every inch of this tomb. The discounted carbon dating that had been recorded as tainted samples and finally as a … what had been the word? Verbiage didn’t matter. Ixor’s stone casket was full, and Alex’s was currently empty. The strange gap in their carbon dating of nearly three hundred years was glossed over because of the huge amount of undeniable evidence carved into both caskets that she was his wife … and the collar around her neck. The clothing and the body had provided results incorrectly, but the armor, collar and sparse jewelry had all carbon dated correctly. And she assumed that Verus had dated her death, carved into her own casket, as the day she’d disappeared from him.
Alex felt the anger bubble back up and solidify again. She wasn’t even going to get to see him again, her dearest friend, protector, and brother. She wouldn’t get to see her children again, or hug her grandchildren. She wouldn’t meet her youngest son’s first child, who was still just a bump in her daughter-in-law’s tunic. She wouldn’t get to train the new colt from Max’s bloodline, and she wouldn’t be there for Verus’s oldest granddaughter’s wedding in a month. Her whole life had just been ripped away.
History that hadn’t happened yet surged through Alex’s memories in a blink. A three hundred year gap put her death around the same time as the Illyrian rebellion that resulted in the eviction of the Roman Empire and the establishment of Illyria as a separate country. Not just a revolt, like the one she’d marched to after first coming to this now. If this hiding woman was truly one of Alex’s relations, she was living in an area that was – or soon would be – ripped apart by civil war.
And instead of fighting or training, she was hiding in a cave.
Alex stood up slowly, facing off with the torches and nearby voices that would soon be rounding the final corner in the turnings of the tunnel down to this deepest chamber. She settled her cloak so that she was covered completely from neck to toes, forcing her hands to release her jian for the moment. Every woman in her family that she’d just been torn away from could fight. Every one of them had been trained, the same as the men, from a very young age. When the Emperor banned women from the Legions, Alex’s family – and all the other women they’d trained who’d chosen to be warriors – simply nodded politely in respect to the Empire and then formed into mercenary ranks and continued fighting as Auxiliary. The fires of the first two torches came into view just ahead of the men carrying them.
Both men had swords drawn, and their attention snapped to Alex as she stepped around the end of her own casket into the main walkway. The grins that had immediately sprung up on their faces faltered almost as swiftly. A third man shoved between them, cursing at them for blocking the entrance, his reaction identical to theirs as his progress forward halted with a jolt. All three of them were dark haired, olive skinned, and richly dressed. They carried themselves straight and were similar enough in looks to be brothers or close cousins. Nothing in their faces or postures was familiar looking.
“What are you supposed to be?” the third on into the chamber condescended to demand of her.
Alex glanced over her shoulder at the mosaic that Verus had said he was going to commission. Her children had all instantly agreed the moment he’d mentioned hiring a Tiler during dinner last night, and they’d stayed up late plotting who to hire and what scenes to include. The finished work was beautiful. The tiles very closely resembled Alex and Ixor at different times throughout their lives, a few scenes of importance captured to keep the memories for what turned out to be the next two thousand years. The resemblance of Alex to her oldest, tiled self was similar enough that when she faced forward again, the two men who’d been first into the chamber visibly paled. The man who’d spoken scoffed.
“Trespassing old bitch,” he accused. “Where’s my wife?” he demanded.
“She’s not your –” the yell from further down the tunnel was interrupted with the thump of a punch landing. Alex ignored the gasping whimper nearby, but the man grinned cruelly as he looked around the chamber.
“I can hear you, Adellexia,” he taunted.
“That’s far enough,” Alex commanded as the talkative one took a single step forward. He reared back to his full height, barely taller than Alex, and glared down his nose at her.
“How dare you –”
“Shut up,” she snapped at him. He inhaled to return some kind of comment and choked instead as Alex drew her jian to hum through a spin before pausing in an attack position facing him. He blinked at her armor and the second sword on her hip now that her cloak had been thrown open. He charged unexpectedly, the advance swift in the small space.
I wanted to start the year off the right way (for me) and wrote a short story that's been bugging me. I'd finished writing The Centurion's Woman a while ago, but there was a bit hanging out at the end that still needed to be told. No big spoilers, so don't worry if you've already started the trilogy. (There's another short at the beginning, before the trilogy, but that has to wait - I have steampunk to work on!)
Without further ado, Part 1 of 6:
1. That Nagging Feeling
Alex knelt down and rested her forehead between her hands on the cold stone. Her son’s larger hand was replaced with Verus’s smaller one. The retreating footsteps of the younger generations, leaving the self-proclaimed siblings in peace, quietly filed out of the tomb. There was still the celebration feast to be seen to, and assurances for the guests to have adequate sleeping arrangements … the same as years before when Alex had buried her gigno, and the time so many years gone when she’d helped him bury his own father.
The same as so many times over the years. Her gigno and grandfather, Verus and Brasus’s fathers, then Mikayla, Gabinius, Ennius, Victoria, Rishima, and Brasus … so many funeral feasts. All the same.
Alex ran her hands over the edge of the stone. Verus shifted and turned so that he was sitting beside her instead of standing behind her, his back to the rock casket, and pulled her into the waiting hug. Alex clung to her brother’s chest and sobbed as he cried quietly into her hair.
The time passed had been long since anyone had remembered that they weren’t actually related. Which, in current circumstances, meant that nobody remembered the social incorrectness of them being alone together as they both deeply mourned the loss of her husband.
“I feel terrible, you know,” Verus stated quietly once they were both too numb to cry anymore. “I mourn him deeply, but I can’t help but be grateful that you’re still here with me.”
“That’s because you’re a selfish dick,” she answered easily. He kissed the top of her head.
“Of course,” he replied with a shrug. “But I expected you to …” his voice trailed off and she felt one of his arms move. His common gesture of waving his hand as if knocking words out of the air showed up in the shift of shadows that were in her line of sight before he hugged her tightly again.
An echo of a choked sob came down to where they were nestled, one of the daughters or granddaughters beginning the wailing earlier than expected. Alex sighed and knotted her fists into Verus’s toga and tunic. She didn’t want to face that yet: the public displays of mourning and loss. The screaming and crying would just be a storm passing, a few days of tears like heavy rain coming from all directions, carried on screams that would shake the walls of the house, and then she’d be alone with the aftermath.
Alex glanced over her shoulder to see who was coming when another quiet sob was followed with a tripping footstep in the dark of the cave tunnel leading to the tomb. At least she knew whoever was crying wasn’t one of her relations; they were all smart enough to pick up a torch before walking into a cave. Alex sat up straight, Verus’s arms falling away from her, and starting winding her braided hair up into the high bun she always wore when facing any type of fight. She was going to have to get through this next week, be the Alexandria Avilia Augusta that everyone expected her to be, and then once everyone left she could just be herself.
Verus smiled at her, his face old and tear stained, and his green eyes still sharp. His dark hair had faded to grey years ago, adding softness to the sags and wrinkles of his features, but Alex still saw him as she’d always seen him: ridiculously beautiful. Age had done little to his features aside from add years, and he’d honed that perception of seeming aged into a weapon that allowed him to still maintain the position with the current Emperor that her gigno had granted him under Augustus. Alex had always found him amazing, a man so talented with deceit yet overflowing with love and loyalty.
Alex tied her bun, weaving the leather straps holding the braid securely. Her hands were old and calloused, some of the fingers starting to twist from arthritis. Her hair had been white for years, the thick braid she’d once had likely only half as thick as when she’d first come here, and her face had aged so many years over the past week since Verus had arrived to make his final respects to his oldest friend.
They had both gotten so old.
Verus reached over and straightened her clothes, as he did whenever they were preparing for going into public together. Alex held his hands for a moment and kissed his fingers. He kissed her forehead while she was leaning forward, and then slipped his hands away from her and patted through his pockets as if uncertain of where he needed to look. Alex smirked that his false habits of playing slightly senile were now so ingrained, and he caught her grinning at him when he looked up. A flash of his perfect smile lit his face for a moment and he winked. The gift in his hand jingled quietly.
“Where did you …?” Alex couldn’t even finish the question as she stared at the old collar, lost so many years ago that she’d lost count.
“In Ixor’s hand, thirty-two years ago, when he asked me to dispose of – in his words – the wretched thing,” Verus admitted.
Alex took the collar gingerly, expecting the leather to feel old. The band was just as heavy as she remembered, and just as smooth, the brass plate with Ixor’s birth name was gleaming. Verus had taken exceptionally good care of the collar over the years, and there was little evidence of the age. She smiled gently, tears rolling down her cheeks as she saw the small lock and key tied on with a length of cord through one of the punched holes.
Distant memories from before the now flickered through her mind. The far-away future where she’d been born and grown up with gasoline cars and electronic computers and phones that let you immediately talk to anyone in the world. All that had been displaced when she’d woken up in this now over forty years ago. She’d almost died her first month in this now, and then Ixor had found her. Back then he’d still been Ixillius Traversi, just a Centurion, and he’d claimed her as his slave and given her this collar. Protecting her from being added to the other slaves by keeping her for himself when she was too sick and wounded to protect herself.
Alex snugged the collar around her neck, ignoring the quiet stumble she heard echoing down the tunnel. Whoever was coming wasn’t close enough to cast a shadow in the torches around the tomb so she didn’t have to acknowledge that they were there yet. She could keep ignoring that there was still a feast to get through now that the burial was over.
“This still fits perfectly,” she whispered, half to herself, smiling sadly at her brother. “How do I look?” she asked him.
“Like a barbarian whore-slave,” he replied earnestly, blinking back tears. His greatest fear, losing his sister, was being realized. He saw that she didn’t see herself fading a bit more each time she looked over to the entrance. He didn’t know what she kept hearing, but the sounds weren’t ones she welcomed. He couldn’t even hear them and he loathed them.
“I see you haven’t lost your ability to drown a lady in compliments,” she noted. He snorted a laugh and pulled her cloak open so that he could confirm all her fastenings were well done and tight on her armor. He’d been the only one not shocked this morning when she’d emerged from her rooms dressed for marching. Verus expected her to leave today, and just found he was grateful she’d waited so long.
“If I see a lady today, I’ll be certain to compliment her,” he answered. “You have my word.”
Alex sighed and glanced toward the tunnel. The next stumble was close now, followed up with another little choked off sob.
“Apparently we’ll be seeing one soon,” Alex muttered as Verus checked that her knives and both her swords drew smoothly. Verus sat back and cupped his hand to her cheek. Alex closed her eyes and tilted her head so she could kiss his palm.
“I love you very much, dear one,” he stated, his voice fighting through emotions that threatened to strangle him. His touch against her cheek grew lighter, although she knew he hadn’t moved.
Alex’s eyes flew open and she curled her fists into his toga. NO! her mind screamed. But the torchlight was still fading, and so was the tomb. Her brother was disappearing out of her grip.
“I love you, big brother!” she yelled, his beautiful smile in response the last clear thing she saw before everything faded out.
A weekly blog updating on Saturdays with quick personal blurbs about me, as in what's going on during my life as an Author and mom, and that doles out my short stories and novellas in bite-sized parts for everyone to read for free!