Iron and Scarlet

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Conor should have known better than to accompany Fronto to the baths…but he didn’t.

 

Chapter Four

 

The next morning before daybreak Conor helped Quentin into his armor. The night before he’d polished the greaves that Quentin now strapped on to each leg, sharpened the sword that he wore on his left side, and the pugio, or dagger, that he wore on his right—the opposite, Conor had noticed, of how the legionaries wore them. Finally, he handed Quentin his helmet, with the transverse plume of red horsehair that, on the battlefield, distinguished a centurion from the men under his command.

“Why are you wearing full armor, Centurion?” Conor asked. As little as he knew about the Roman army, he did know that in the ordinary course of events centurions did not go about their everyday business in such attire. Full armor was worn either on the battlefield or the parade ground.

“Two reasons, Conor,” Quentin said as he fastened his cloak. “One, to serve as a warning. Not many of your tribesmen would want to interfere with me—at least, those who’ve had experience of Roman fighting methods wouldn’t. And two, showing my rank will help me when I approach the officers in charge at the forts I’m going to visit.”

“Your rank isn’t going to help you when you question the Brigantes,” Conor said. “Or the Meatae, or any of the others. They’ll clam up at the sight of you.”

“That’s my problem, isn’t it? All right. Quentipor is in the stables, loading my gear onto Astra, so now I’m ready I’ll be off.”

Vale, Centurion. May your gods watch over you.”

“Thank you—may yours do the same for you. I’ll be back by the Ides of May.”

Quentin raised a hand in farewell, opened the door, and left in a swirl of warrior scarlet as his red cloak swung around him.

Conor wondered whether to take advantage of Quentin’s absence by going back to bed for another hour or two of sleep but decided against it. His absence from the stables would be noted and someone just might report him. That wouldn’t do. Sighing, he strapped on his sandals and reached for his cloak. He might as well get some food before he reported to work.

Strolling toward the stables a few minutes later with a wedge of loaf in one hand and a cup of cervesa, the strong Celtic beer brewed in the fort, in the other, Conor considered his activities for the next two weeks. With growing enthusiasm he realized that without Quentin’s brooding presence, he would be free to make plans concerning several interesting matters.

First of all, ever since he’d recovered enough to leave his hospital room and walk around the fort, he’d been planning his escape from Cilurnum. At the moment, escape hardly looked possible and Quentin had certainly warned him against it. But there had to be a way, if only he could think of it—and the obvious thing to do was to keep on finding out as much about the fort and its operations as he could. He’d already amassed a considerable amount of interesting knowledge about everything from Roman medical procedures to the mandatory daily weapons practice required of the troops. By the time he did escape, that knowledge would be a huge asset to future Brigantian battle plans. 

Second, there was the interesting matter of Quentin himself. Conor had no trouble admitting to himself that his interest in his Roman rescuer was more than platonic. With the return of health and vigor, he missed acutely the free and easy life he’d been accustomed to with his comrades. That freedom included sexual encounters, which in Conor’s tribe often occurred between male warriors even after they married the women their families had chosen for them. In the case of married men, however, sexual encounters tended to occur while they were away from the oppidum, or village, campaigning or raiding.

As Conor chewed the last of his bread and drained his cup, he reflected that if he and Centurion Quentin were comrades in arms rather than captor and hostage, he’d have been able to accompany Quentin on his expedition outside the fort, which would have greatly increased the possibility of seducing him. A Quentin roughing it in a tent every night in Brigantian territory, away from his comrades, would be more amenable to advances than a Quentin in residence at Cilurnum and preoccupied with military duties.

When he’d first regained consciousness in the hospital, Conor hated everyone and everything around him because they were Roman. Only Mairead’s soft insistent voice in his ear during her visit to his bedside had rallied his spirits to the point of wanting to live. But then as the weeks went by and he began to recover, he progressed from hating all and sundry to becoming quite fond of Quentin. Certainly, the man—for all his Roman arrogance—had gone out of his way to make Conor’s lot easier to bear.

Arriving at the stables, Conor greeted Aquila. “Ave, Aquila. Which horse would you like me to train today?”

Aquila jerked his head in the direction of a big three-year-old bay, so full of high spirits that he seemed to bounce in his stall. Recognizing Conor, the horse neighed happily and tossed his head, and Conor, aware that he’d have to work off the young animal’s excess energy before he could begin training him, led him out of the stall and waited while a slave saddled and bridled him.

Once on the bay’s back, Conor urged the horse into the gyrus, where he began trotting him round and round. Because this part was so automatic he did not even have to think about it, he resumed his speculations about Quentin.

Evidently the centurion had something weighing on his mind because he rarely smiled. Perhaps it was because of something that had happened in his past…or could it be simply that all Roman officers were solemn-faced and taciturn? In repose Quentin’s face looked thoughtful, even sad—but his rare smile transformed it. Even at his most serious, he was attractive: wide-shouldered, narrow-hipped, tall as a Brigantian. But when he smiled, one noticed the warmth of his brown eyes, and the little indentation in his chin, as if a baker had lightly pressed a bowl of dough with his thumb.

Not to mention, Conor thought, that dark hair, close-cropped in Roman army fashion, and the tiny brand-mark on his forehead showing that Quentin had passed the Raven degree of Mithras. As he continued trotting the horse around, Conor’s thoughts became more and more lascivious until finally he was forced to pay attention because the bay was beginning to break out in a sweat.

At the sixth hour Conor joined the other stable hands for prandium, the midday meal. “Ave, Quentipor,” he said, suddenly spotting the boy standing with the other slaves at the end of the line. “Come sit with me when you’ve got your food.”

“All right.”

A few minutes later Quentipor brought his bowl of lentil stew over to where Conor was now sitting, on a bench outside the stables. For once, it was a fine day, with only a few white clouds blowing across the pale blue spring sky.

Conor sniffed the air. “Ah…I can smell things growing. In the woods, all the animals will be awake from their winter sleep, and the wild boar will be looking for food…and looking to mate.” He grinned at the slave boy.  “Have you mated yet, Quentipor?”

The boy’s entire face, including the pimples on it, turned red. “No, sir.”

Conor took a spoonful of his own stew, swallowed it, and then said, “Tell me about the centurion. Has he got a girl back home?”

“No, sir. At least—not that he’s ever mentioned to me, and I’ve been with him three years.”

“Oh, really.” Conor thought about this for a moment. “Does the centurion have a lover among his comrades?”

Quentipor fixed his eyes on the ground and muttered, “He’s sworn to Mithras. He was initiated to the first degree when we were at Vetera, and since then, he’s never…ah…that I know of.”

Conor’s spirits lifted. Better and better. Prising Quentin away from his current lover would be possible, of course—no one had turned Conor down since he’d become a man at the age of fifteen—but it would have been a great deal of extra work. However, Quentipor was plainly uncomfortable with this line of conversation. Conor took another tack.

“How did you come to work for the centurion?”

Quentipor’s face lit up. “He won me in a dice game, sir. I belonged to one of the tribunes at Vetera, and one night at the bathhouse, when everyone had a lot to drink, there was a lot of gambling. So I went to work for him and he’s been a very kind master, sir.”

“That’s good. So you came to Britannia with him a few moons ago?”

“Yes. My mother and father are dead, and my brothers and sisters were sold away…I don’t know where.”

Conor shivered. He could sympathize with the slave boy, for although Quentin had seen to it that Conor’s life in Cilurnum was bearable, the fact remained that Conor was there against his will. He could see how hard life was for some of the humbler slaves in the fort, the ones like Quentipor. The better-educated slaves, employed as scribes or craftsmen, enjoyed a more comfortable life, but still one would not want to change places with them.

“I have brothers and sisters too,” Conor said, wanting to cheer the boy up. He was looking distressed. “I have three sisters, all married, and two brothers, both warriors. I’m the youngest.”

“Around the fort everyone says your father is a king.”

“He is,” Conor said. “A very brave one, too. He’s killed more enemies than any of the kings of the other tribes. Until I became a man myself, I was always a little frightened of him.”

“Is he a big man? Does he have a red beard?”

“No, he has a brown beard and brown moustaches that reach all the way down to his collarbone. My mother…” Conor sighed, thinking of Aife, his mother, who had spoiled him from the time he was born. “My mother is very tall, with golden-red hair that reaches her knees. She’s just as fierce as Father, although she’s never that way with me, of course. She’s pretty good with a sword and javelin, too.”

“The centurion’s mother is dead,” Quentipor volunteered. “And his father married again, and has another son.”

“But his father is not an important chief in Rome, is he?”

“I don’t think they have chiefs in Rome, sir. Centurion Quentin and his father belong to the equestrian order. I think that means they’re rich.”

“Interesting.” Conor filed away that titbit for future consideration. Noticing the position of the sun, he sighed, stood up, and stretched. “Well, back to work, Quentipor.”

________________________

The stables at Cilurnum had once held an entire ala quingenaria, a cavalry unit of 480 men; this was evident from the number of empty stalls in the stables. Through the casual gossip of the stable hands, Conor learned over the next few days that the last of the cavalry had departed Cilurnum just before he himself had been carried there on the back of Quentin’s pack mule.

Conor knew better than to question any Roman as to why the cavalry had left, but, choosing his moment carefully, he decided there was no risk in questioning one of the slaves.

It happened that he and Didius, one of the stable hands, were grooming a horse together, sharing the work and hurrying so as to finish by the hour of cena, the evening meal.

“Tell me,” Conor said, as he washed the left side of the horse, “wasn’t this fort all cavalry at one time? And now it’s infantry, with just the cohors equitata.

“It was, yes. This is a frontier fort, so the army kept cavalry here to ride out and crush any uprisings in the countryside.”

“H’mm,” Conor said. “And why did they replace the cavalry?”

“Don’t know, really,” came the voice on the other side of the horse. “Doesn’t make sense. It was all the order of the new emperor.”

“And this ala, or cavalry wing that left—did they go back to Rome?”

“Not at all. They were Asturians, from Spain. The army doesn’t put Roman legionaries at frontier forts, just auxiliary troops, made up of noncitizens from the provinces of the Empire. The nearest legionary force to us is at Eboracum.”

“Oh, yes, Eboracum of course,” Conor said, wanting to appear knowledgeable.

As they finished grooming the horse, Conor’s mind was busy digesting what he had just learned. Although he despised the Roman empire and everything it stood for, he could not but admire the cold logic that governed Rome’s actions: put the less valuable auxiliary troops in the frontier forts. If any were picked off in a skirmish, it hardly mattered because the real troops, the Roman soldiers, would be safe in a legionary fort well inside the border, ready to swing into action.

One day, Conor vowed to himself, one day my tribe will drive the cursed Romans from our country. And I’ll lead the charge.

His imagination stopped short of wondering what he would do if he had to face Quentin in battle. At the moment, he was still occupied with the question of how to entice the man to a quiet corner somewhere, preferably one with a comfortable ground covering. Perhaps Roman men approached each other differently from the blunt way he and his comrades-in-arms made their intentions known? By the light of Lugh, he’d already experienced culture shock in his two months here at the fort—everything from learning to read and write to how to manage visits to the latrine the Roman way.

In the hospital, when he’d been allowed to get out of bed to visit the latrine for the first time, an orderly had accompanied him. Conor, weak from the loss of blood, needed the strong arm of the miles medicus to support his hesitant steps. When the orderly helped him to sit down, and then presented him with what looked like a sponge on a stick, Conor gazed at it, mystified.

“What’s that?”

“That’s how you clean yourself after you do your business,” the orderly said, looking amused.  “Dip the sponge into this bowl of water first to wet it, see? Then use it on your ass, and afterwards put it into this channel of running water here to clean it.”

“Bel’s beard,” Conor said. “Don’t you use dried leaves, like we do?”

“Never,” the orderly said. “You must never put your hands anywhere near your ass when you’re answering the call of nature. That’s why the sponge is on a stick—so you won’t have to.”

“Why?”

The orderly shrugged. “If your body is dirty, or if you let your hands touch certain things, you’ll get sick. No one knows why, that’s just the way it is. That’s why we wash you every day, and all the dishes you use, and why we have slaves scrub the floor of your room at least every other day.”

Too weak to argue, Conor had gone along with the program. As time went on, he’d also come to appreciate the comforts of the daily bath, for all he mocked it in Quentin’s presence. As a matter of fact, it might be a good idea to visit the baths right after cena; he might be able to pick up a few tips there from listening to the conversation of the others, about how to woo a prospective lover, Roman-style.

__________________________

Despite his fears that he would be bored witless without the spice of Quentin’s presence in his life, Conor found that the days were passing pleasantly enough. On the third day after Quentin’s departure, Aquila called him over when Conor entered the stable block early one morning.

“Look, Conor, you’ve done a good job breaking in the horses I assigned to your training. The bay will make an excellent battle horse, now that you’ve worked on him. I’d like to make you the official rough rider for all the new horses coming in, from now on. Think you can handle that?”

“Of course, sir.” Conor felt gratified. Praise from Aquila was rare, which made it all the sweeter. “Is there a new lot coming in?”

“Yes. Governor Urbicus is coming up here next month, and we’ll be showing him how well trained our horses are.The men of the cohors equitata have already started training the broken horses to respond to battle commands and signals. While they’re doing that, you’ll be breaking in the new lot.”

Conor felt a quiver of excitement. Choosing his next words with care, he asked,  “Will I be permitted to help in any way with the cavalry training?”

Aquila laughed, his black eyes crinkling at the corners. “How could you? You’re a barb—I mean, a Brigantian, so you don’t even know the battle commands. Nor should you.” 

“Well, I could calm the horses down after their training sessions. I’m good at that. And I do know the toulutegon. You Romans stole, I mean, borrowed it, from us.”

“So we did.” Aquila’s tone was chilly. “You stick to your task, Conor, and let me worry about the cavalry.”

“Very well, sir.” Conor decided not to press the issue right now. “How many green horses are coming in?”

“We’ve bought fifty new ones, which will be arriving later today. Those who pass the training period will be put on probatio.

“Right. I’ll need some help, of course, with that many animals.”

“You’ll have it. You can use Severus, Marcus, and Geta for a half-day each most days. I’ll still need them to do their regular jobs as well.”

“Thank you, magister,” Conor said. “I’m honored to serve as your rough rider.”

This opportunity was not only due to his skills at horse-breaking, Conor knew; it also stemmed directly from Aquila’s constantly being short-handed. There were always at least three people out with inflammation of the eyes or some other ailment on any given day, which burdened the remaining stable crew with even more work. In a fully staffed stable, even Conor’s much-talked-about ability to get the cooperation of horses would not have won him the responsibility of being the official horsebreaker. 

Somehow, Conor thought, there must be an opportunity in this new job to do something to make Quentin notice him, see him as something other than a creature that he’d rescued—like a bird with a broken wing that he’d nursed back to health and now permitted to fly alone.

In the next few days he began to get the ghost of an idea. Others would train the horses to do their regular battle drill, but he’d find a way to train them to do even more. When Governor Urbicus came to inspect Cilurnum on his way to the north, he would be completely dazzled by the accomplishments of the fort’s horses. And the governor would not be the only one to be impressed: Conor intended Quentin to be equally dazzled by Conor’s skill in horse training and by the show he was going to arrange.

Full of enthusiasm and energy, Conor was up every morning before the cock crowed, arriving at the stables early and staying until the sun set in the long May evenings. He soon found that his best chance to train four of the most willing horses to do what he had in mind came during the times the cavalry riders as a group were engaged in duties that took them out of the stables for an hour or more, such as cleaning details and regular inspections. After ten days he felt much encouraged by the progress of his plans.

The evening before Quentin was due back at the fort, Conor decided to visit the slaves’ bathhouse. Because the bathhouses were outside the fort walls he had to wait in a light rainfall for an escort of soldiers, who supervised the slaves’ walk to the bathhouse and back. As he began to march through the gate with the other slaves, he suddenly heard his name called. 

“Conor mac Cailean! What do you think you’re doing?”

Irritated, Conor turned to face Centurion Fronto. “At your service, Centurion. Having worked all day in the stables, I smell like a horse myself, and I’d like to go to the baths for the usual reason.”

“But you don’t need to go to the slaves’ bathhouse,” Fronto said. His deep voice sounded full of concern, but to Conor’s ears the concern rang false. “Your father is a king. You should go to the soldiers’ bathhouse.”

Conor gave a short laugh. “And who would let me in, Centurion? I’m a hostage here. I have no rights.”

“Nonsense. Come with me, I’ll see to it that you’re treated well.”

Fronto smiled; the effect was so startling, like that of a dragon laughing at a joke, that Conor nearly blenched. It wasn’t like Fronto to smile. Nor was it like him to express concern for someone else’s welfare. Above all, it wasn’t like him to take an interest in someone as lowly as a hostage—for no matter what Fronto said, Conor’s position was little better than that of a slave. 

Although he had heard little about Fronto from his tight-lipped master—only that Fronto had wanted him for his personal slave—Conor had heard enough about Fronto’s disposition and proclivities from other people in the fort to regard his seeming affability with the utmost suspicion.

“That is most kind of you, Centurion,” he said. Having seen Fronto in action, breaking his vinewood stuff on the back of some luckless soldier and yelling “Give me another,” Conor felt it would be wise to couch his refusal in polite terms. “But it really isn’t necessary for you to trouble yourself about me.”

“Nonsense,” Fronto said again. “Come with me. I’ll even buy you a drink.”

As Conor still hesitated, Fronto became impatient. “If you’re concerned about being questioned pull the hood of your cloak forward to hide your face, but you’re worrying for no reason.”

The glint in his eye told Conor that it would be impolitic to refuse. Warily, he allowed Fronto to seize him by the arm and lead him in the direction of the main bathhouse. With part of his mind he wondered what Fronto was up to; with the other part, he was amazed to find that he was rather excited. Whatever was going to happen, it would make the time pass even more quickly until Quentin’s return, and the gods knew he needed some amusement after working so hard.

As they approached the bathhouse, Conor raised his eyes to marvel at the barrel-vaulted roofs covering part of the building; following the direction of his gaze, Fronto pointed to them.

“The curved roofs are made of tufa, imported from Rome. That’s to keep in the heat inside the warm rooms.”

“Oh,” Conor said, impressed. As they entered the apodyterium from the vestibule, he was even more impressed by the smoothly plastered walls, painted a cream color, and the floor, the colored tiles of which depicted a bridge—somewhere in Rome, he supposed. High up in the outside wall windows of colored glass made jewel-like spots of color on the opposite wall.

The changing room, where soldiers were taking off their clothes and hanging them up on hooks fixed to the wall, was full of men just coming off duty. There were exclamations as friends, separated by the day’s duties, greeted each other; oaths as men cursed their ill luck at dice or board games; and thuds and bumps as some of the soldiers threw a ball from one end of the room to the other, loosening muscles that were stiff from guard duty in the turrets and milecastles of the Wall. Conor, beginning to relax in the light-hearted atmosphere, accepted the cup of wine Fronto handed him.

“Try this, you’ll like it better than that native beer.”

“I hardly think so, seeing I am a native,” Conor said. “And I like our beer.” He tasted the wine, which was surprisingly good. “But I have to agree with you—I do like it,” he said, and drained his cup.

Almost immediately, Fronto beckoned to Vitalis to refill it.

Careful, Conor told himself. Better not to drink too much of this.

But Fronto, apparently eager to make a good impression, was almost charming. “Let’s go into the tepidarium and relax. And after we finish our baths, we’ll get Vitalis to give us a massage.”

“Very well,” Conor said. The strong wine was beginning to have affect him; he felt lighthearted and just a little fuzzy-headed. Perhaps Fronto was not such a bad fellow, after all.

Before they went to the warm room, however, the two men joined the others who were just beginning the bathing process in the cool room. Here the bathers sat around, some playing dice, others doing stretches, and some merely talking.

“I’ll just be a minute,” Fronto said, and left Conor to whisper in Vitalis’ ear. Vitalis nodded in agreement, and left the room. Fronto came back, looking genial.

“Come, let’s have a quick dip in the cold bath and then go into the warm room.”

Although Conor had ridiculed the Roman style of bathing to Quentin, he admitted to himself that it was highly agreeable. After they splashed cold water over themselves from head to foot, he and Fronto proceeded through the warm room and then to the caldarium, or hot room. There, they found all the attendants were occupied with other bathers at the moment.

“Look, let’s oil each other, rather than wait,” Fronto said. “I’ll oil you first.”

“All right.”

Feeling Fronto’s hands spreading oil on his back, buttocks, and legs, Conor became conscious that he was becoming aroused. It had been a long time since he’d felt any touch besides that of the briskly competent medical staff in the hospital. In the slaves’ bathhouse, everyone oiled himself. With an enormous effort, he willed his thoughts under control.

“All right, you can do my back now.” Fronto’s voice broke into Conor’s reverie and he felt Fronto slip the vial of olive oil into his hand. 

Conor oiled Fronto’s back, admiring the taut muscle and lean physique of his companion. One thing about these Romans, they were fit. No soft bellies, no flabby muscles.

“And now to the sweat room.”

“This is much better than the slaves’ bathhouse,” Conor blurted as they entered the sudatorium, where they would sit until they worked up a sweat.

Fronto raised an eyebrow and looked amused. “I should think so. Hasn’t Centurion Quentin ever brought you here?”

Conor shrugged. “No. Right after I got out of the hospital and went to live in his quarters, he had to abstain from the bath for seven days before his initiation. And the morning after he was initiated he went off on his mission.”

“Really,” Fronto said, in a tone that implied that anyone who took his religion as seriously as that was mentally off balance.

Conversation lagged as they scraped the sweat, oil, and dirt off their bodies with the curved metal strigils handed to them by one of the attendants. After they scraped the last bit of oil off into a pail half-filled with the yellowish leavings of previous bathers, Fronto turned to the attendant.

“Tell Vitalis we’re ready for him.”

“Yes, sir.”

Conor followed Fronto out of the room back into the warm room, where Vitalis and another attendant were waiting behind two waist-high couches.

“Lie down on your stomach,” Fronto said, proceeding to lie down himself on one of the couches.

Conor lay face down, with his head positioned so that he could still breathe, and luxuriated in the massage he was receiving. The man knew what he was doing: Conor had never felt so wonderful in his life. Giving himself completely to the joy of the experience, he uttered a huge sigh of contentment.

“Better than the slaves’ bathhouse, eh, Conor?” Fronto said, opening one eye.

“Much better, Centurion,” Conor agreed.

Unfortunately, this time his physical reaction to the masseur’s touch was all too real. Groaning inwardly, he made up his mind to take matters in hand later that night. He couldn’t stand much more of this.

However, by the time the masseur had finished, half an hour later, Conor was so relaxed he was almost asleep, and his body was once more under control by the time he and Fronto joined the other bathers in the cold pool. At first it was a shock to feel the coldness of the water hitting his newly scraped skin, but after a minute or two, when he’d adjusted to it, it felt stimulating.

“Ah, Centurion,” Conor said after he’d climbed out and taken a towel to dry himself, “that was truly refreshing. Thanks for bringing me here.”

“The evening is still young,” Fronto said. “Why don’t we have a glass of wine and a game or two?”

“Sounds good,” Conor said without thinking.

The wine went down just as easily as before, but when Fronto beckoned a slave to bring over the dice board and tessarae, Conor was not too drunk to be wary.

“Centurion…I hope this is a friendly game. I have no money—in fact, absolutely nothing to bet with. I own nothing but the tunic I’m wearing.”

The medics had removed his torque when he lay ill in the hospital and given it to the signifer, who locked it in the strongroom. It seemed futile to ask for it back, but all the same, Conor hoped to broach the subject with Quentin on his return.

“Well, now.” Fronto’s face was inscrutable. “Let’s see. I have something you might want, and you have something I might want.”

“What do you have that I might want?” Conor gave a short laugh. “I want my freedom. Can you give me that?”

“I can arrange for you to get your neck piece back, if you win.”

“Really? Very well. And if you win, what do I have that you might want?”

“Yourself, Conor.”

Conor was just opening his mouth to ask Fronto what he meant when he saw the expression on the man’s face. Fronto’s black eyes, half-hooded by his heavy eyelids, held an expression that left Conor in no doubt as to his intentions. Despite himself, he felt an inward flutter of excitement.

“All right.”

The tension as Conor, then Fronto threw the dice, was almost palpable, but at the end, the result was plain.

“My six beats your three.”

“Yes.”

Staring mesmerized into Fronto’s black eyes, Conor could hardly breathe.

“Are you going to pay up?”

A small silence; then Conor nodded. “Yes.”

Fronto smiled slightly, and jerked his head backwards. “There’s a place we can go.”

The place was a small dark room where the amphorae of olive oil were kept. Fronto’s collection of his debt was quick and efficient; and although Conor enjoyed it in the same spirit as he would have enjoyed wolfing down a chunk of meat or a hunk of bread when he was ravenous, he still felt strangely dissatisfied when it was over, and vowed that this time would be the last as well as the first.

Realizing that he’d need to clean up after their encounter, Conor followed Fronto back into the cold bath room, where once again, he plunged into the water, thankful that no one besides themselves was there.

Fronto stood waiting with a towel as Conor climbed out again.

“I’ll dry you.”

“Be my guest,” Conor said.

He stood patiently while Fronto, behind him, patted him dry and then moved around to face Conor.

“I like the way you pay your debts, Conor of the Brigantes,” Fronto said, and, dropping the towel to the floor, began to caress Conor’s buttocks. Conor glanced uneasily at the door, hoping no one would come in.

But he could hear the slight slap of bathing sandals against the tile floor and an instant later, the newcomer strode naked into the room. 

Belenus, let me die!

The newcomer was Centurion Quentin. His face lit up but almost immediately his smile faded as he took in the scene before him.

“Good evening, Centurion Quentin,” Fronto said, and Conor thought if ever someone’s tone of voice could be said to be dripping with satisfaction, it would be now.

“Good evening,” Quentin said, looking from Fronto to Conor. “I trust that I’m not interrupting anything.”

 

To be continued

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