Iron and Scarlet

Chapter 2

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Quentin wasn’t looking for trouble–but was trouble looking for him?

During his first week at Cilurnum, Quentin began to realize that Centurion Fronto was avoiding him. Despite his request that Quentin contact him later, every time Quentin tried to speak to him Fronto was either on the training ground drilling his centuria—the eighty men under his direct command—or occupied with the office of quartermaster.  Walking around the fort, Quentin could hardly stir without bumping into Fronto and his minions, busily writing down the amount, quality, and kind of all the supplies entering Cilurnum:  the hides, the tallow for soap, the imported oil, wheat, winter vegetables, the pigs that produced lard for axle grease and bacon for the troops’ meals, even the garum, or fish sauce, beloved by Romans at home and abroad as a seasoning for food.

Plinius Jovius was away visiting the legate of the Sixth at Eboracum—and that, according to Pomponius Bellator, one of the other centurions near Quentin’s age, could mean anything or nothing.  “He might be discussing a strategy with the legate for containment of the barbarians, or it might be nothing more than a social visit,” Bellator said.  “He took his wife and a few of their slaves with him, and they’re going to be away for at least a week, so I’d incline toward that explanation.”

 Which was fine, but it meant that he could not appeal again to Jovius for enlightenment as to the nature of his additional responsibilities. At last he gave up on the matter, and conferred with Arvina and Bellator on participating in the normal duty roster. With their help, he worked out a schedule for his men as to their various details, including the normal maintenance duties of fort life and even the punishment detail, which ranged from stone-cutting for building repairs to cleaning the latrines and baths. He himself took the midnight watch for the second week, which meant that Quentipor had to wake him up an hour before so that he could get into uniform. The watch meant that he had to tour the gates and turrets of the fort, using the day’s password, to inspect the men on sentry duty.

However, even with his watch duties, conducting daily weapons drill for his centuria, and resolving the innumerable disputes that always seemed to crop up in any organization where men lived in such close quarters—from fights over gambling debts to the alleged theft of personal belongings—there was still time for Quentin to visit the sick and wounded men of his century. Of the eight wounded in the skirmish with the Brigantians, four were still in the hospital, and since arriving at Cilurnum, two other soldiers had developed inflammation of the eyes. That ailment was commonly treated by the application of ointment and temporary suspension of duties. And of course, Conor was still in the hospital, recovering slowly.

Quentin took to visiting him every afternoon. For one thing, he still hoped to discover more about the Brigantes’ military and other assets; for another, it seemed a good idea to try to learn the Brigantian language.

As his health improved and he was able to sit up and then to walk around his room, Conor pronounced himself bored. “There’s nothing to do here,” he complained one day. Quentin noticed that his command of Latin was slowly improving from being in an environment where no other language was spoken, although Conor’s accent still left much to be desired.

Quentin leaned against the wall, arms folded, and raised his eyebrows. “You must be feeling better, then.”

“Why don’t you let me go home?  I’ve told you my tribe can’t pay ransom.”

“That’s not up to me to decide,” Quentin said. “That’s for my commanding officer to say, and he’s away for a while.”

Conor looked dejected. Now that he was ambulatory, someone had given him a tunic to wear. Made of the native woolen cloth and dyed blue with woad, it echoed the color of Conor’s eyes. On his feet he matched Quentin for height, although of course his illness had caused him to lose weight. But for all that, he was gaining strength every day, so that Quentin, imagining himself in Conor’s place, realized that he, too, would be in despair at losing his freedom and bored with enforced inactivity.

“If you were at home, how would you be spending your time?”

“Getting ready to kill people like you,” Conor said, and grinned.

“Aside from that,” Quentin said, determined not to let this barbarian get under his skin. “You can’t have been fighting all the time.”

Conor shrugged. “At this time of year?  I’d probably be training the horses, the one-year-old foals. Or I’d be hunting…going out in the woods, laying snares. Later in the year, it would be time to go fishing or boar hunting.” His eyes took on a dreamy quality, as if he were recalling the happiness of his life before being captured.

Quentin considered.  In a way, he and Conor were in the same boat; in his own case, he wasn’t altogether sure what he was supposed to be doing, and in his prisoner’s case, enforced inactivity was beginning to eat at him. Suddenly he had an idea. “Look, are you really good with horses? You know how to exercise them, train them to stand a certain way, or recognize when one is coming down with some kind of illness?”

Conor nodded.  “I’ve worked with horses for years, ever since my eleventh summer.”

“How old are you now?”

“I have seen one and twenty summers,” Conor said, drawing himself up as if proud of this fact.

“Look,” Quentin said, “suppose we make a bargain. You teach me your language, and I’ll see to it that you can work with horses while you’re here. What do you say?”

Conor’s expression of gloom gave way to a smile so beatific that it seemed to light up the room.  “Done!”

“All right. I’ll make some arrangements.  You can start as soon as you’re well enough.”

____________________

On his return to Cilurnum, Prefect Jovius summoned his officers to a meeting in the principia.

“When I was visiting the legate, we sent word to Londinium about the attack on our cohort,” he told them. “The governor is expected to reply by courier in a few days. In the meantime, we’ll go about our business and keep an eye out for any trouble. For a start, we can question any tribesmen coming through the gate to sell or trade.”

In addition to its other functions, Cilurnum served as a customs post. Trade occurred on both sides of the Wall, and those either entering Britannia or traveling to Caledonia were subject to payment of customs duties.

Some discussion followed about the nature of the precautions the cohort could take to defend the fort and its outposts, then Jovius dismissed the gathering. Quentin lingered in the meeting room as the others filed out, and approached the prefect.

“Sir, if I may ask permission to speak—”

“Speak, my dear Gaius Maximius, by all means.”

“Sir, with respect, I’ve been keeping a Brigantian prisoner here in the fort, as you know. The medicus tells me he’ll recover completely from his wound. My original idea was to hold him here for ransom, but he says his tribe has no money to pay it.”

“That could well be true,” Jovius said. “As you know, it’s been a bad couple of years for the tribes.”

“With respect, sir, he was wearing gold when I found him, so he can’t be as poor as he pretends. What I was thinking, sir, was that subject to your permission, I would keep him here in order to learn his language. It might be useful to know in case we–”

“Of course it would,” Jovius interrupted. “Excellent, Centurion. Do that, and report your progress to me by…oh, say by the Ides of May.”

“Thank you, sir.” Quentin bowed his head as Jovius swept past him out of the room. It was common knowledge around the fort that Jovius was henpecked: his wife, Aventina Severa, thought of little else but such society as frontier life afforded, and continually hatched plans for entertaining, or being entertained by, other senior officers and their wives. As she seemed to require her husband’s presence on the domestic scene a great deal of the time, Jovius was forever hurrying back to the praetorium, the very comfortable house in which he and his family lived.

_____________________

As the remaining weeks of March slipped by, Quentin began to feel more at home in his new environment. He found time to write a letter to his father, telling him of his tumultuous arrival at his new posting on the northern frontier of the Empire, and dispatched it with the other communications bound for the governor’s headquarters at Londinium. There, with the dispatches and letters from the other military installations in Britannia, his letter would travel by ship to Gaul and then by land to Etruria, where his father lived.

He sighed as he folded the two thin squares of wood, on which he had carefully written his letter in the local ink, and tied them together with a thin leather string. He hoped his father would be pleased with his victory against the Brigantes and his subsequent capture of one of them, but would he?

As a centurion stationed in Transalpine Gaul, his father had formed a liaison with one of the local girls in the vicus, or small village, that had sprung up outside the walls of the fort in Narbonensis. Although only Roman soldiers above the rank of centurion were permitted to marry before the end of their twenty-five years of service, the army tacitly acknowledged the existence of informal marriages. Soldiers in such relationships were permitted to will their belongings to their unofficial families if they died while in service.

By the time his father had finished his service, Quentin was eighteen. Titus Maximius Dannicus then married Gaela, Quentin’s mother, officially and took her to Italia. But the climate did not agree with her; after six months she fell ill of a quartan ague and died. Quentin grieved for three months, then joined the army. His mother’s dearest wish had been that her son should become a Roman citizen, and joining the army meant that such citizenship would be conferred.

To his son’s amazement, the elder Maximius’ period of mourning lasted less than a year. As a guest at a dinner party in Rome, he fell in love with the younger daughter of the house, a girl of only seventeen named Petronia Secunda, and married her. Their union had produced another son, Quentin’s half-brother Gaius Maximius Novius, now five years old. Twice in his seven years of army life Quentin had returned to the family estate for a visit, and both visits had been entirely unsatisfactory. The elder Maximius, seemingly completely besotted by his young wife and new son, paid only cursory attention to his first-born. 

Moreover, when Quentin achieved promotion to the rank of centurion, his father had promptly cut off his allowance, saying that he would no longer need it. Fair enough. Still…it meant that with only his army pay, Quentin had less money than other centurions, for his religion forbade him to do anything as unscrupulous as taking bribes.

Almost all soldiers who could afford it bribed their centurions to obtain release from such unpleasant details as latrine cleaning, road building, and stone cutting. Some even bribed their centurions to be granted leave. But as a worshipper of Mithras, Quentin was bound to truth and honor as well as to courage; he could not participate in such a practice. 

A few days after his arrival at Cilurnum, Quentin attended a service at the fort Mithraeum. The temple consisted of two small rooms at one corner of the fort, built so that half of the walls were underground. Worshippers approached the front door by descending a small flight of stairs. As the God himself had been born in a cave, the temples built by his followers were constructed, as far as possible, to resemble underground caves also.

As soon as he went down the steps, Quentin’s pulse quickened. Partaking of the mystery of Mithras, even as a mere first-degree initiate, filled him with awe. He knocked quietly on the door; it opened, and he found himself being greeted by a fellow Raven, or Corax, wearing the Raven mask and holding a small lamp. He followed his brother Raven into a small room where he undressed, washed himself in the ritual bath, put on his mask, and donned the ritual black cloak of his degree.

Inside the temple itself, the darkness was broken only by several small oil lamps burning in the niches cut into the walls. He sank down on to one of the benches that lined the small room, breathing in the scent of the pine cone incense burning on the altar. He could tell that others had come to sit beside him, but everyone was silent, waiting for the ritual to begin. 

Several of the Leos, wearing their lion masks, approached the altar. They would stand in attendance behind the Pater, who would lead the service. Also in attendance were six members of the Nymphus, or bridegroom degree. The Leos would lead the congregation in chanting, and the Nymphus initiates would furnish the chorus.

As he joined in the chanting, Quentin could feel the power of the God pervading his mind; it began as a sense of calmness that was very welcome after the tumultuous time he’d recently experienced with the battle against the Brigantians and in finding his feet in this new posting. 

After a while the chanting ceased and the Pater stepped up to the altar and began to speak. He reminded the congregation that it was Mithras’ slaying of the bull that had benefited humankind; that in fact, all life on earth had sprung from the blood of the bull. He exhorted them to remember their vows of chastity, truth, courage, and honor so that they would be taken up to heaven to join the God when they died, whether on the battlefield or of old age in bed. Then he reminded them that what went on in the Mithraeum was not only sacred but secret, and should be told to no one outside the brotherhood.

At last he turned to face the end wall; a moment later the scene depicted on it in sculpture and paint became illuminated and the worshippers drew their breath in a collective gasp. The young God was shown with one foot on the ground, and the other knee in the bull’s back, holding him down; his noble face with its far-seeing eyes was turned away as he plunged his sword into the bull’s neck. The other figures in the tableau—the dog, snake, and scorpion, and the small figures of the torchbearers Cautes and Cautopates—glowed with color; the stars in the night-blue cape of the God twinkled with light. It was a moment that never failed to move Quentin. The sense of calm became transmuted into deep joy and thankfulness: joy that he was dedicated to the service of the Light of the World, and thankfulness for the fellowship of his brother Mithraists.

In the days that followed that first service he sought the company of two of his fellow centurions, Trebellius Arvina and Pomponius Bellator, Mithraists like himself. Although inside the temple they were masked and cloaked, outside they were recognizable as initiates of the Corax degree because, like himself, they wore the brand of Mithras on their foreheads. Arvina professed himself deeply discontented with life at the frontier; he longed for the noise and bustle of Londinium. “There was a girl who kept a wine shop next door to the temple of Isis,” he would begin, and after the second time he recited this story, his fellow officers would join in his next remarks from memory. “Oh, she was beautiful! And so, ah, sympathetic to a lonely Army officer far from home. How I’d like to go back to Londinium and lay my heart at her feet.”

Pomponius Bellator, on the other hand, was more reserved. He was a serious man in his late twenties, sturdily built, with a dark beard that he barely managed to control by having his slave shave him twice a day. Although he talked little about himself, he seemed to know everything that was going on in the fort. It was he who pointed out that Arrius Fronto was conspicuously missing as a member of the congregation at the temple.

“Why?” Quentin asked. It was true that Fronto did not bear the brand-mark, like an upside-down “V,” on his forehead. He’d assumed that Fronto preferred other gods.

Bellator lifted one eyebrow and smiled faintly. “Consider the vows, my friend. Honor, truth, courage, chastity. Fronto can lay claim to only one of those four, and I leave it to you to guess which one.”

Quentin shrugged. He was too newly arrived at the fort to know much about Fronto, other than that the man seemed to have taken an instant dislike to him. However, shortly thereafter he had an opportunity to observe Fronto in action.

It happened that a friend of Plinius Jovius sent him several barrels of oysters from Rutupiae, the port on the Kent coast. They came up from Londinium, escorted in a baggage train by a detachment of the legionary force stationed at government headquarters, and as usual, it was Fronto who supervised the unloading of the goods.

One of the legionaries helping to unload the oysters was Dagwalus, a cheerful young fellow with a shock of dark hair and ears that stuck out, who hailed from the seacoast of Dalmatia. As he lifted one of the heavy barrels from its bed of straw out of the wagon, he staggered under its weight and it slipped out of his arms. It crashed onto the paved courtyard and broke, spilling water and oyster shells in all directions.

“Podex!” Fronto swore, and leaped at Dagwalus, brandishing the vinewood staff that all centurions carried. “Ass! Damn you to Hades!”

He laid about the shoulders and back of the man so savagely that blood appeared almost instantly and the staff broke. “Cedo alteram!” he yelled. “Give me another!” 

The men gathered around the baggage wagon did not move. Fronto cast a cold eye over them all and his gaze came to rest on Quentin. “Give me your staff, Centurion,” he ordered.

Quentin looked at the luckless Dagwalus, who had sunk to his knees on the ground and was hunched over with his arms wrapped around his chest. He could see by the trembling of the man’s shoulders that he was struggling for control so that he would not cry out and further disgrace himself. Then he looked back at Fronto. 

“No, Centurion. You’ve punished him enough. Any more, and you’ll kill him.” Quentin tucked his own staff beneath his arm, caught the eye of one of the other soldiers, and jerked his head toward Dagwalus. “Get him to the hospital and see that his back is treated.”

“Who do you think you are,” Fronto said, so softly that only Quentin heard him, “to interfere with my discipline?”

Quentin looked down at him, as coldly as he knew how. Not for the first time, he was grateful for the Gaulish blood that ran in his veins. Six inches taller than the average Roman male, he could look down on most of them and he could sense that Fronto loathed him for it.

“I rank equal to you, Centurion, and I will not let you put a good soldier out of action simply in order to satisfy your temper.”

He saluted, turned on his heel, and walked away. Like all Roman soldiers he was used to a hard life and harsh discipline, but the memory of Fronto’s expression when he was beating Dagwalus made him feel sick.

However, another matter pushed the incident to the back of his mind, for the detachment of soldiers from Londinium included a courier who carried a letter from the governor to Jovius.

An hour after his arrival the fort buzzed with rumors. These were put to rest when Jovius summoned all officers to a meeting to discuss the contents of the letter from Governor Lollius Urbicus. “It appears that, while we are to continue to receive intelligence from our spies in the surrounding countryside regarding the identity of the ringleaders of the attack on us three weeks ago—“ he nodded at Quentin, standing at attention like the other officers—“we are not to take normal punitive measures.”

The officers looked at each other, frowning. Punitive measures normally would have meant tracking down the ringleaders, arresting them, and either enslaving or executing them. Their families would be driven off the land, their villages and crops burned, and each acre sowed with salt so that nothing would grow for years. A tribe that had experienced the full wrath of Roman imperial policy with respect to its provinces would think twice before defying Rome again. And now the governor was refusing to implement the policy.

Jovius shrugged.  “Don’t ask me why the governor has given this order. Doubtless he has his reasons, and I’m sure we will be informed of them in due course. He plans a tour of inspection of the northern forts in June, which gives us a little more than two months to prepare. I want this fort and everything in it in perfect condition by the time he arrives.”

After Jovius dismissed them, Quentin, Bellator, and Arvina made their way to the officers’ mess for cena, the midday meal. “What do you think Urbicus has in mind?” Quentin murmured as they walked along.

Bellator shrugged. “If I had to guess, I’d say he wants the Brigantes’ normal farming activities to proceed as planned. If we punished them, that would naturally reduce the size of the harvest.”

“But what does he care? They’re natives! What’s it to Rome whether they starve or not?” Arvina demanded.

“Oh, come now, Arvina,” Quentin said. “We’re not going to make friends with them if we starve them. We’re here to civilize them, after all. And look what happened before when Rome was harsh. Do we really want another Boadicea to rise up and lead a rebellion against us?”

All three of them sniggered at the mention of the rebellion that had taken place eighty years before. To the Roman mind, the fact that the Celts allowed their women to fight as warriors and even rule tribal territories was incomprehensible: worse, it was ridiculous. No Roman worthy of the name would dream of taking orders from a woman, a sex so inferior that men sensibly confined its role in life to child-bearing and child-rearing.

“But after all, Cartimandua was a queen of the Brigantes, and she was friendly to Rome,” Arvina said.

“So?  That was almost a hundred years ago, and she was regarded as a traitor by most of the Brigantes. In all this time, they’ve still never been tamed. That’s why Emperor Hadrian ordered the Wall to be built.” 

Bellator shrugged.  “I think the governor has plans that he’s not telling us yet. What’s for dinner today? Oh, not wildfowl again!”

Quentin sniffed the air of the mess hall. “Yes, I’m afraid so.”

“Well, soon the fish will be running in the rivers. And we can go hunting for rabbit and boar in a few weeks. I for one will be glad to see the summer arrive.”

Bellator’s mention of hunting reminded Quentin that Conor’s convalescence was almost over, and it was time to speak to Valerius Aquila, the magister campi, who instructed the cavalry in its daily drills. That afternoon Quentin sought him out for a quiet word.

“If you could find something for the Brigantian to do—”   Quentin began.

Aquila looked thoughtful. “As a matter of fact, I’ve got three men out of commission right now. One with a broken ankle and two with inflammation of the eyes. I could use some help in the stables. What experience has he had?”

In short order Quentin and Aquila arranged that Conor would be able to spend a few hours each day working under the direction of the strator, the head stable lad.

When Quentin told him the good news, Conor at first was suspicious. “What will they make me do? Muck out the stalls?”

“No, no.” Quentin hastened to soothe Conor’s feelings. “There are slaves who do that. No, you’ll be trying out the new horses, getting them accustomed to having a human vault on to their backs, trotting them around the gyrus to see how they do and judge their concentration, things like that. You’ll be good at it.”

“Fine,” Conor said. He looked directly at Quentin, and said, awkwardly, “Thanks. I know I’d have no chance to do this if it weren’t for you.”

In mid-April, when Conor was ready for work, Quentin walked with him through the fort gates to the gyrus, the training ground for the horses. 

The gyrus was a round earthen area, carefully prepared to receive the impact of horses’ hooves, and enclosed by a high fence so that the horses training inside its perimeter would have no visual distractions. Conor watched the strator lead the “green” horses—recently acquired three-year-olds with no previous training—around the circle. “Some of them are beauties,” he said, looking more enthusiastic than Quentin had seen him since his arrival at Cilurnum. “But there are a few that will never make it as cavalry mounts. They haven’t the temperament for it.”

He pointed them out to Quentin: the colt who resisted all direction from the strator on his back, the filly who was so excitable that she kept dashing out of formation whenever a human called out or another horse whinnied, the lazy horse who stopped every other minute to pull at the grass growing through the cracks in the fence.

Listening to him, Quentin smiled inwardly. Conor spoke with the assurance of one who knew and loved horses. Working with them would absorb his energy and help him to forget the fact that he was a prisoner.

That Conor’s status at Cilurnum was questionable was rudely brought to Quentin’s attention two days later. Summoned to a private meeting with Jovius at his office in the principia, he was dismayed to see Fronto gazing at him cold-eyed as he entered the room.

“Good morning, Gaius Maximius,” Jovius greeted him as Quentin saluted. “Centurion Fronto here tells me that the barbarian is being released from the hospital today.”

“Sir, yes, he is. With respect, sir, I spoke to Aquila and asked if the Brigante could help with the horse-breaking. I understand that the cavalry has just acquired a number of horses from outside the fort.”

“That’s true, Centurion. However, Fronto here assures me that the barbarian’s tribe will never pay ransom, so we might as well forget about that.”

Quentin felt alarmed. What was coming? Why was Fronto interested in Conor all of a sudden? He kept his face impassive as he looked at his superior officer, but Jovius’ expression gave nothing away. “Sir? May I be permitted to ask what you have in mind for him?”

“Oh, it’s nothing to me one way or the other, Centurion. But Fronto thinks that the barbarian might as well earn his keep. He wants him for his personal slave.”

Merda! Shit! Not only would Conor’s proud spirit be crushed if he were enslaved, he would interpret it as a personal betrayal on his, Quentin’s, part if he were to be subjected to the indignities of slavery—the clipped ear, the long hours of work, the beatings. The gods alone knew what Fronto might do to Conor if the Brigantian were in his power. Having seen Fronto in action, Quentin did not doubt that Fronto would exercise all his ill temper on his new slave.

“Sir, if it’s a question of the Brigantian earning his keep, he’s already doing that,” Quentin said. He spoke carefully, unwilling to show how deeply he opposed Fronto’s plan. “He’s teaching me his language. You agreed yourself, sir, that such knowledge will be useful to us. And I know for a fact that Aquila has three stable hands out sick, and the Brigantian is an experienced horse breaker.”

Jovius appeared to consider Quentin’s point. “Very well,” he said. “I really don’t care what happens as long as I don’t have to think about it from now on. You can go to the bathhouse and dice about it—the winner decides the fate of the barbarian.”

“Sir,” Quentin said, and saluted again. Fronto did the same. Then Jovius swept out of the room. Watching him hurry off, Quentin guessed that he was making his way home; no doubt his wife had some dinner party or other planned.

“I’ll see you later,” Fronto said. His black eyes were cold, but a smile played around his lips. Was he so confident of winning, then? 

“At the ninth hour, then, at the baths,” Quentin agreed. Inwardly furious, he wanted to throw Fronto as much off-balance as Fronto had just thrown him, but could not think of a way to do it. He kept his face impassive, however, and his voice smooth; Fronto should not guess how worried he was.

Thinking it over as he made his way out of the principia, he decided that he didn’t like that little smile of Fronto’s. Was it possible that the other man was confident of winning at dice because he knew something that Quentin didn’t? Was it possible that Fronto could win by cheating, with dice that were somehow loaded?

So worried was he that he made his way to the baths immediately. The bathhouse, built of stone, was situated right outside the fort on land that sloped down to the river. It was a scenic spot: trees grew there, with branches that drooped to the ground. At this time of year the branches wore a fuzz of green. Between its banks, the river, fed by winter rains, rushed noisily over the rocks in the river bed.

Inside the building, he looked about for the balneator, the man who ran the bathhouse. Vitalis, an attractive man in his late twenties with a head full of dark curls, hailed from the port town of Ostia, just outside Rome. At this moment he was directing two slaves who were arranging large jars of olive oil in the store room. Catching sight of Quentin, he came forward.

“Centurion,” he said. “What may I offer you today? Would you like a glass of wine, a massage, a personal attendant for your time in the baths?”

Quentin restrained a smile. A “personal attendant” was known to do more for a patron than simply give him a massage and follow him around with a towel as he went through each room of the baths. “No, thank you, I haven’t come for a bath yet. I just want to talk to you.”

As tactfully as he knew how, he described the important game of dice that was to take place later in the day and the absolute importance of his winning it. 

Vitalis looked at him with interest. “I could, er, certainly arrange for you to win the game.”

“No, no, that’s not what I want,” Quentin said. “Thank you, but I simply want to make sure that it’s fair. I intend to play honestly and I would like to know that my opponent is playing honestly too.”

“And your opponent would be…?”

“Centurion Fronto.”

“Oh.” 

That single word conveyed everything that Quentin wanted to hear: that Vitalis knew Fronto’s reputation, recognized the strong possibility that Quentin would be going into a loaded situation, and would do everything he could to help. They exchanged smiles of understanding, and then Quentin left.

One thought on “Iron and Scarlet

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