Marcus Brutus the Younger had taken the road out of Rome to his country house many times since he’d had it built. Early in the day, the entourage would leave his house in the city, silent and sullen in the hot summer morning, the horses coughing in the dusty streets until they’d left Rome’s gates behind them. It was a little less than two days’ ride, and the servants and guards he brought with him knew the journey well enough by now; they began to cheer up around mid-day, knowing they’d be stopping soon at the isolated well that marked the halfway point of the first day’s ride.
Aristus, riding at the head of the train with Brutus, laughed when the sad little well appeared. “I see now why they were restless.”
“Lazy bastards. Don’t even want to sit on a horse for half a day,” Brutus grumbled, dismounting.
“You’ll feel better once you eat,” Aristus replied, well-used to Brutus’s tempers, less frequent now than when he’d been a student under Aristus in Greece. Brutus waved him off, searching out the anonymous weatherworn god of the place, clearing dead leaves from it and making a quick offering while the guards spat in the dust and joked with each other, and the servants settled in the shade of the lone tree to fan themselves.
Aristus dunked his head in a bucket of water from the well and came up dripping, laughing, his pale white teeth gleaming in his tanned face, the darkness of it proof that he was no Rome-born patrician. Brutus took a moment to admire him: hair plastered to his head, moisture running down the thick column of his neck, his white tunic clinging to his shoulders. His dark hair was beginning to show silver in it, and in deference to Roman custom, he’d cropped it short in the patrician style, the fashion set by Caesar. Caesar himself wore it with a few long locks in front to remind them all that Gaius Julius was the new Alexander, the man who would see Rome made queen of the world. Brutus couldn’t help but admire the arrogance of it, though he knew Caesar too well to hold him in awe. At least he thought he did. Lately he wasn’t sure if he knew the man at all.
And this wasn’t Caesar, at any rate. This was Aristus, once his stern teacher, now his friend. Brutus had long since learned more than Aristus could ever have taught him, but he still respected him—and he was still a fine man to look at.
Aristus caught him looking and flicked water at his face.
“Porcia would have made this a proper party,” he said as they settled in to eat. “A litter for her, some maids, a few slaves . . .”
“We have enough,” Brutus grunted. “Besides, she likes the city.”
“Your honorable wife could do to like her husband a little more and the city a little less.”
Brutus laughed. “My honorable wife has the same lover I do.”
Aristus glanced at him, raising a dark eyebrow. Brutus raised one back.
“Rome, Aristus. The city is our love; the people of Rome are our concern.”
“So why are we leaving?”
Brutus angled his head from side to side, listening to the bones pop in his neck and shoulders. They still had far to go, and he hadn’t slept well the night before. Rome unsettled him these days. There was a smell in the air he didn’t like, though Porcia teased that it was just the way Rome smelled in the heat of summer.
“It’s cooler at the villa,” he said with a shrug.
“Hardly much of a reason, Brutus. I don’t mind a jaunt in the country, but surely it’s not leisure. It never is with you, and you’ve been moody for days. It’s not Caesar, is it?”
“No,” Brutus answered flatly.
“He’s given you plenty to thank him for.”
“I’m a patrician. Much of it was mine by right to start with.”
“I thought you and he got along. Despite the . . . unpleasantness of the last war.”
“We do, to a point. I’ve known him since I was a child. But you can’t let family interfere with politics. No, it’s just . . . I love the city, but sometimes to see it properly you have to look at it from the outside. I learned that when I came to study with you. Rome is the beginning and end of the world, but there are other worlds.”
“Is that what you think you’ll get at the villa rustica? Perspective?”
“Well,” Brutus said, thinking over conversations he’d had recently—hints fellow senators had dropped, seditious sentiments a few loose-tongued men had expressed. Caesar was a threat, but there were also threats against him. “That’s part of it.”
Aristus smiled at him, clearly aware he was treading close to danger, and changed the subject. “Now, the important question is this: is there anywhere to swim?”
Brutus laughed. “There’s a river on the estate. You’ll be able to do more of that than I will; I have some local politics to see to.”
“Dealing with the country bumpkins?”
“Shouldn’t be unpleasant; most of them are old soldiers. Foreigners who earned their citizenship and land grants from service.”
“Well, that won’t be so bad.”
“It’ll be easy, after the city. All right, on we go,” he called, and the servants began to pick themselves up from the ground, dusting down their clothes. The house guard remounted efficiently. Aristus shook himself like a dog and wiped his face with the collar of his tunic before mounting.
They had three servants and four guards when they left the well, Brutus knew that. People passed on the road sometimes, both mounted and walking, but he paid them little mind until he called a halt for the night, wheeling his horse, and counted eight in the party, not including Aristus and himself. The servants were fussing angrily at an interloper near the back of the train, and Brutus rode back through the guards to investigate.
“Get on your way,” one of the servants said, swinging an arm wide. “Go on, we don’t need beggars or horse-boys.”
“Senator, the boy won’t go,” another one implored, and the boy they were trying to shoo away ducked another well-aimed punch. His horse danced aside daintily, a nimble beast but big—too big for the slight figure riding him.
“Senator Marcus Brutus,” the boy called, holding the creature steady. “You should teach your servants some manners.”
“I’ll teach you some manners,” one of them replied, and Brutus grabbed the servant’s horse’s bridle to keep him from chasing after the boy, now pacing the large, powerful charger back and forth at a safe distance. He handled the big animal well, but Brutus saw the muscles in his arms knotting with the effort. One of the guards wheeled his horse and rode back to investigate, giving Brutus a questioning look. Troublesome boys were generally beneath their notice.
“Go tend the horses and make a camp,” Brutus ordered. “Go on, I don’t need you defending me.”
“But Senator—” one of the servants began.
“I said go, or I’ll have you flogged on your ass and make you walk tomorrow.”
He waited until they turned off the road and began to make camp, watching the guards build a fire and the servants unpack their bedrolls. When he was certain everyone was preoccupied with other matters, he addressed the boy again.
“Fine horse you have there,” he said, taking in the boy’s threadbare clothing and the old, worn leather of the saddle.
“It was my father’s,” the boy said, and then after a pause he added, “He was a cavalryman in the war.”
“Caesar’s side?” Brutus guessed from the way the boy hesitated.
“Yes, Senator.” A defiant look; even in the country they knew Brutus had fought for Pompey, though few still remembered Caesar’s edict that Brutus should not be killed in battle.
“A citizen,” the boy said firmly. “He taught me Marcus Brutus was a friend of Roman citizens.”
“Those who earn it,” Brutus agreed, eyeing him. He couldn’t be more than sixteen, snub-nosed, pretty enough in the way of young men. “What business do you have with my servants?”
“None,” the boy replied. “My business is with you.”
It was sheer insolence, but this bold child on a war horse interested him. “And what would that be?”
“I have no family, and my father’s farm was sold off to pay his funeral debts. I heard you were coming through on the way to your great villa,” the boy said.
“Are you charging a toll on the road?” Brutus asked with a grin.
“No sir, but a man like you with so many fine animals needs a horse-boy. Your servants are lazy and your guards are tired.”
“I’m not interested in hiring a strange boy to look after my horses.”
“See for yourself,” the boy said, trotting his horse in a circle around him. Brutus watched him warily. The horse was brushed to gleaming, even with the dust on the road; his eyes were bright, legs stepping high, and he seemed well-fed. If he was the boy’s, and if the boy could control him, then that was certainly proof of skill.
Brutus considered him. “Do you know what happens to children who are insolent to senators?”
“Whip me if you can catch me,” the boy replied.
“Why aren’t you in the army?”
“Why won’t you hire me as your horse-boy?”
“Why should I?”
“Because I’m the best there is.”
The boy gave him a small smile and the barest flicker of a wink, and Brutus wondered if he was promising him favors as well as good service. Either way, he was amusing at least.
He reached into the pack slung on his saddle and dug into his purse for an assarius, tossing the small coin across to the boy.
“Ride ahead tonight,” he said. “I’ll expect the stables prepared when I arrive.”
The boy nodded, tucking the coin into the belt of his tunic, and wheeled his horse around.
“What’s your name?” Brutus inquired.
“Tiresias,” the boy replied.
“Not me, only my name.” Tiresias tossed him a salute before Brutus could react to the eccentricity of a Roman boy with a foreign name. “I’ll see you tomorrow at your villa, Senator!”
Brutus watched in amusement as the boy went. Then he returned to the camp, leaving his horse for the servants to feed and curry with a stern admonition to make sure it was done well. If a farmer’s son from the countryside had noticed his servants neglecting his horses, perhaps it was so.
Aristus was waiting for him by the fire, chewing on a lump of bread. “What did the beggar want?” he asked, offering Brutus half.
“A job, of all things,” Brutus replied, accepting it. “Son of a veteran. Had a good horse. Wants to be a groom in the stables of a senator. Gave me a lot of cheek, too.”
“And you hired him,” Aristus surmised. Brutus shot him a grin. “You always were a sucker for someone who isn’t afraid of you, Marcus Brutus.”
“I find courage and plain talk well near irresistible,” Brutus replied. “Pass me that jug of wine, and let’s enjoy the evening, shall we?”
# # #
The guards stood watch or slept back to back that night, and the servants curled up together for warmth as the heat of the day ebbed. Brutus lay by the fire, his head resting on his saddlebag. Aristus lay nearby, his head near Brutus’s, face turned up to study the stars.
“Do you remember your astronomy lessons, back in Athens?” Aristus asked, voice soft enough that the guards wouldn’t hear.
“Are you going to give me a test?” Brutus asked sleepily.
Did he remember nights spent on the cold plains outside the city, learning the movements of the stars and the shapes of the constellations? Did he remember the stories Aristus had told him, obscure old myths about heroes who were only remembered because the gods had placed them in the sky?
Did he remember Aristus taking him at the age of fifteen, the way Greek teachers took their students—out in the empty countryside, lying on blankets in the dust, Aristus’s hands on his face, his arms, his hips? He remembered kisses and bites along his shoulders, the slick slide of a cock tight between his thighs, his own pressed against Aristus’s belly. It was better than the whores in Rome or the slave girls other men told him to enjoy: his fingers curling against the firm muscle of Aristus’s chest, his pure joy at being taken by another man.
That first time, overwhelmed at being accepted into his teacher’s embrace and with all the virility of early manhood, he’d come messily and too soon. He’d spilled over at the first touch of Aristus’s hand, shame and climax mingling as he pressed his face into the older man’s throat. Aristus had just laughed softly and shifted, climbing over him to take him from behind, Brutus drowsy and easy, willing to let his teacher do as he wished. Always willing to let Aristus guide him, at least until he was recalled from his studies to Rome to become a soldier.
Aristus had never touched him since. If his old teacher wanted a claim on him now it would be too late, but Brutus felt an ache for the simplicity of what he’d had then. When he’d been a student, it was permitted.
“I remember,” he said.
Aristus exhaled softly.
“Do you miss it?”
“It wouldn’t be appropriate now,” Aristus replied.
Brutus felt his body stir a little at his tone, regardless. He shifted, but the rough rub of his clothing and the weight of the blanket didn’t help.
“You were such a lithe young man,” Aristus continued, and Brutus huffed. “All legs and slim arms, like a colt. Now you’re a soldier—too broad and solid to my mind.”
“I’m a senator.”
“Once a soldier, always a soldier. Besides, you have your decorum to think of. The great and powerful Brutus.”
Brutus gave up, turning a little more, one hand sliding down his hip under the blanket, hitching up his tunic.
“A senator doesn’t lie still to please his old teacher,” Aristus continued, and Brutus muffled a groan as he grasped his own cock, already half-hard and willing. “Besides, it’s indecent, a strong man like yourself, taking it between the thighs. People would talk. But you were so sweet, Marcus, so eager to learn.”
Brutus didn’t quite manage to muffle the moan this time, his hand jerking along his cock, fingers skittering up the soft, hot skin and thick veins. He remembered lying passively, forcing himself to be still until he broke and had to move, thrusting against Aristus’s hard stomach while his teacher had sweated and moaned over him. He remembered lessons discarded in the little alcove of a schoolroom while Aristus pulled him into his lap and touched him, white teeth flashing, low voice urging him on like . . .
“Of all my students you were the best,” Aristus said, and Brutus choked and came over his hand, onto himself and into the dust under him. He panted through the orgasm, then wiped his hand in the dirt and rolled away, the familiar mix of shame and triumph burning his cheeks. He heard Aristus breathing heavily, and wondered if he was touching himself too. Perhaps he was engaging in some form of torment for Brutus alone.
“Why now?” Brutus asked, after his own breathing had calmed. “Why here, Aristus?”
“You’re forgetting your lessons, Marcus,” Aristus said softly. “We stand in a gateway. In Rome you belong to Porcia. God knows who you belong to at the villa, though I can take a guess. There aren’t simply worlds and other worlds. Each has a passage between, where things are less clear. This one is mine. And this was the only way I could have you, here.”
“It’s only custom. If you wanted, you could—”
“You could, perhaps,” Aristus corrected, but it was gentle. “I could not, Marcus. Let it be what it is.”
Brutus closed his eyes, unwilling to stare anymore at the stars. “Yes, Aristus.”
# # #
Brutus had expected to reach the villa rustica before anyone else, but Cassius must have set out early. He’d already been in the country at his own villa when he’d sent Brutus the note to meet him, so it wasn’t a complete surprise. At any rate, the next afternoon they trotted past the guardian phalluses on the gate of the Villa Rustica Bruti and into the outer yard to find two occupants already in place: Tiresias, who was running from the stable to see to the horses, and Cassius, standing in the entryway of the house, senatorial tunic gleaming white and crimson.
“Brutus!” Cassius called, laughing, as Brutus dismounted and tossed his reins to Tiresias with a narrow, warning look. “Good to see you.”
“Is he supposed to be here?” Aristus asked in an undertone. Brutus, who hadn’t mentioned Cassius would be in attendance, gave him a guilty look, and Aristus shook his head disapprovingly. Cassius was coming down the steps from the vestibulum, his hands spread in greeting.
“Senator,” Brutus said, embracing Cassius with an honest smile. “I see you’ve made yourself at home.”
“Only so that I could make you at home, Senator,” Cassius replied low in his ear, leaning back from the embrace and flexing his fingers on Brutus’s shoulders. He gave Brutus a look he couldn’t interpret—wary, almost devious—before turning to his companion. “Aristus—pleasant to see you again.”
“Senator,” Aristus said blandly.
“Come, you must be tired,” Cassius said. “There’s a meal laid on. I thought you might get here today.”
Brutus sent the servants off to help with the meal in the kitchen, and the guards to rest. Cassius led them through the vestibulum like he was the dominus of the villa, guiding them out into the airy open atrium. As soon as they entered, the air was cooler: moist but not humid, and much more pleasant.
“Well, that’s a relief,” Aristus said, pausing by the fountain in the atrium, turning his face to the spray. “Feels like I haven’t been cool since I came to Rome.”
The architect of the villa rustica had told Brutus the house would be well-situated, near the river and with plenty of fountains and pools throughout. Water, he’d explained, remembered being cold and wanted to be cold again, which was why it struggled and bubbled when you boiled it. Brutus didn’t concern himself overmuch with natural philosophy, but he had to admit that the sun didn’t seem quite so unfriendly in the atrium as it had on the ride.
“Gentlemen!” Cassius called, and Brutus grasped Aristus’s shoulder, pulling him along.
Inside the triclinium, the eating couches had been aired and dusted and food laid out, a simple meal after the journey: fruit, some smoked meats, and watered honey flavored with pepper and wine, an old traveler’s drink. They sat upright on the formal couches like boys, and the servants left them alone.
“We’ll have a feast tonight,” Cassius said, biting into a fig. His eyes had barely left Brutus since they’d arrived, but Brutus wasn’t wrong: there was something hooded in them, shadowed, and it made him curious. “I’ve brought my cook and she’s brought plenty of food, and I’ve been inspecting your wine casks; quality drink you have there, Brutus.”
“You’re a bit free with my wine,” Brutus said, laughing.
“Might as well drink while we can,” Cassius replied, licking a finger, watching Brutus’s reaction. Aristus gave him a sharp look, but Brutus ignored it. “How’s Porcia?”
“Happy to stay in Rome,” Brutus said.
“She generally is.”
“And my sister? You’re treating her well, I hope.”
“You know Junia,” Cassius said with a dry smile. “Shrewd and sharp-witted as ever. I’ve a letter from her to give to you.”
“I’ll see to it later this afternoon,” Brutus replied. He flicked a crumb of bread onto the floor, watching it tumble between the slats.
“Have you met Brutus’s new horse-boy?” Aristus asked, with a slight glimmer of malice on his face.
“The one who showed up yesterday? I noticed him running around, but I didn’t think much of it. Is that new charger yours?” Cassius asked.
“Belongs to the boy. He’s an orphan, says the horse was his father’s.”
Cassius and Aristus were not friends, precisely, but the look they exchanged made Brutus a little impatient.
“Has he seen to your mounts?” Brutus asked Cassius.
“Well enough,” Cassius said indifferently.
“Then the two of you can stop pitying me for falling prey to a sad story. I don’t normally, you know.”
“Is that what you fell prey to,” Cassius asked under his breath. Brutus shot him an amused look and levered himself up off the couch.
“I have a few letters to send, and I’ll rest before the evening meal. You stay out of trouble,” he told Cassius. “And you, the servants will show you the river if you’d like to swim,” he added to Aristus.
“Have a mind, I’ve seen snakes near the river,” Brutus overheard Cassius say to Aristus as he left the triclinium.
“Snakes everywhere these days, it seems,” Aristus replied, and Cassius laughed mirthlessly as they faded out of earshot.