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!