Ok, I am cheating again a wee bit. :) I did say that might happen. Today was a flurry of insanity and it has not let up. So... cheaty! And, it's not even a story. Sheesh. It is a rough, rough draft of a first chapter. From my most recent Nano project. I'm not in love with this project. I like bits of it and think a lot of work would make it awesome.
Just not sure I want to put all that work into it when there's so many other things. This was inspired by my recent rewatching of Person of Interest. Except, they're in Rome, and it's not a Machine, but a God. None of that really comes into play in this chapter. Tomorrow, I've something new cooking up for your pleasure!
Citizen of Interest
A thin layer of dust coated everything in sight including Floriana. It was better than the mud, which would be along shortly, but it did leave her throat too dry to curse her circumstances. The true crime, any who’d known her would point out, as she’d been legendary in the Legion for her ability to aptly describe any situation. The road, loose paving stones aside, was in decent shape and would lead her to where she needed to be, but not if she didn’t make better time. Hard to do alone when caution must prevail.
By the time the fall rains arrived there were sections that no matter their upkeep would be impossible for her to get through. Not by herself. The mark on the back of her neck itched and she found a curse. From the itching mark emanated the idea of how much easier it would be to turn around.
“Take your decrepit, whoreson, gangrenous mind and shove it up a leprous donkey’s ass.”
Not her best work, but Floriana felt the idea retreat. Just in time, as she heard the clop of hooves and creak of wagons approaching. Her uniform may have seen better days, but her sword was sharp and it was that she hoped to sell. Sandaled feet pushed off the rock she leaned against and she shaded her eyes with her hand to watch the caravan approach.
A few desultory looking guards eyed her warily, but she paid them no mind. Instead, hazel eyes sought out the man most likely to be the caravan master. She jogged over to a thin man riding a donkey near the lead wagon. He would be shorter than her on the ground, but she’d learned to be wary of small men. They were always looking to prove something.
“Hail,” she said as she jogged alongside the man.
“Well met,” he returned in a civilized accent. Thank the gods he was Roman! It would be an easier arrangement.
“Where are you heading?”
“The markets of Sirmium. You look to be a long way from home.”
“Not if I can help it. I’m headed to Sirmium as well. Are you needing extra hands? I am Floriana from the 18th.”
The man atop the donkey stared her over. Floriana was sure he noted the care she’d taken to keep up her armor even if it was beginning to show signs of wear. The fact it was a legionnaire’s armor should be good enough for him. None of the guards for his caravan inspired confidence in her and she wondered why a prosperous looking man resorted to such flotsam. Despite the travel dust, his robe was fine, and he had the groomed look of a well-off citizen. Not that the reason mattered so long as she found a position.
“I can pay you 2 d.c. a day if you’ve no food of your own.” His glance took in her personage again and his thin lips turned upwards a fraction.
“Everything I own I wear, but so long as we do nothing to attract the ire of the legion my sword is yours until we reach Sirmium.”
“Good enough. For now. We shall speak again once we make camp for the night. I am Aetius.”
Floriana, who saw no reason to converse again, still nodded before she slowed down her steps to let the caravan master draw ahead of her.
The day provided all of the tedium a long march provides. No creature or man stirred within her sight other than those she traveled with on the road. None of the guards spared more than a word for her, but she’d written them off from the start. What she witnessed did not change her mind. They were slovenly, stumbled as if still drunk from the day before, and more than one had rust on his sword.
What she could not figure out was how a man of obvious wealth had found himself with such a mess. Perhaps tonight he would fill her in on some of it. Why else would he want to speak with her? More importantly, what would she tell him?
That last thought niggled her brain more than any other worries. No oaths prevented her from saying what she would, but the job was necessary to make it back swiftly to the legion. If she sounded crazy he was not likely to retain her services. Floriana rubbed her forehead and stepped around the dung left in the road by the caravan.
They stopped sooner than she’d anticipated. The sun still had at least an hour of light and there were not so many to make setting up camp a long affair. In truth, she could admit to herself, it was only she loathed speaking to Aetius. She remained undecided on what to tell him.
“Boss is waiting in his tent.”
Floriana saw the tent in question. The only one. Well, she’d slept under the sky plenty and it would be no hardship in the cool, late summer weather. The sulking guard received the barest hint of a nod before she crossed the chaotic camp. An itch crept over her skin and it had nothing to do with the mark on her neck. The setup lacked any order and the urge to bark an order or two of her own was strong. Knowing the futility of it, she clamped her jaw shut and finished her walk to Aetius’ tent.
“Come in, Floriana.”
A small table had been set up, but Aetius did not sit at it. Instead, he lounged on a rug on the ground while a slave worked off his boot. She could not help but stare as the glimpse of a twisted foot visible before the slave covered it with a blanket.
“Surely not the first of such you’ve seen.” The smirk brought a shine to his brown eyes she hadn’t seen before. A wave of his hand dismissed the slave.
In response to his smirk, she shrugged. “I’ve seen all manner of injuries in my service to Rome. You appear to be wealthy enough to afford better guards. Why the flotsam?”
He did not expect the question. He did not know she asked only to forestall his own questions. Or, perhaps he did. The shrewd look he bestowed upon her nearly caused her feet to shift in the sand.
“Finding people willing to travel to the middle of nowhere is never easy. And to a lawless town like Sirmium? Almost impossible.”
Her laughter interrupted him. A rudeness she felt compelled to apologize for, true, but one she could not help. Aetius stared as she fell silent.
“I offer my most sincere apologies. Only, such a ridiculous thing to say. Lawless? Sirmium? It is incomprehensible. Why, it’s a jewel of the Empire.” Floriana’s head shook. “I cannot believe such nonsense.”
This time the look she received from the merchant was one of pity and it raised her ire immediately. A hand fell to her sword, but as swiftly it left. Flotsam, they may be, but he did have guards outside his tent. Alone, even such as they might be harmful to her.
“You have been away some time, yes?”
The question earned him a guarded nod.
“The Empire, it shifts with each new year. Two decades ago Sirmium was a great city, but now it rests on the edge, struggling to maintain any semblance of her former glory.”
Her knees threatened to give out, but she held herself up. The mark on her neck burned, but it was nothing compared to the bird wing flutters of her heart. She had not been gone so long. Had he engineered this meeting to convince her to turn back? A demand sprung to her lips, but she swallowed it down to give nothing away. If this were some trap she would make no indication of awareness. Better to let her former captor think her ignorant of his plans.
“I have not been away so very long.”
“How long? Judging by your weapon I’d say longer than appears possible. Your gear looks older than you. Was it your mother’s?”
“My mother was a potter.” Left by her father when his legion had been assigned a new garrison. Which had not stopped Floriana from seeking him out to follow his footsteps. Better a soldier than a soldier’s woman.
Her head whipped around and she watched the slave from before enter the tent.
“Unpack the mirror from the wagon.”
After the slave left, the merchant hefted a wineskin and offered it to her. “A drink while we wait?”
Again she considered a trap, but thirst overruled her. It would be no more dangerous than sleeping and she would have to do that tonight. Of course, with sleep she might mitigate the danger somewhat. Her hesitation lasted but a moment before she crossed the tent and took the offered drink.
Pleasant surprise warmed her as much as the wine. A fine vintage and so she had another swallow before handing it back. The thought of sitting occurred, but she set it aside. If he’d wished her to sit he would have asked.
From outside, she heard the grumblings of a camp being set up. The noise was almost familiar and she longed to be home. Her contubernium would be pleased to see her. At least, she told herself that they would. Surely they had made it back after her sacrifice.
Rufus returned, lugging a polished metal disc he set up against the center pole of the tent. He lingered, sunburned arms and wild red hair, taking up more space than one would expect. Floriana wondered at his relationship with his master.
“Take a look.”
There was no real reason to give into his fancy. Other than a wish to get back to the conversation. His words still whispered in her ears and she wanted to find some hole in his story to prove him wrong.
Floriana approached the mirror and crouched down to stare at an appearance she knew well.
“Fuck Mars’ ass with the spear of Quirinus.”