Chapter I

Another letter was waiting for Eucher when he arrived at his family’s mansion in Rome. He didn’t need to read it to know his father was angry. Stilicho was always angry.

Stilicho was preparing for a military expedition to the East, where he planned to steal back the throne from a boy. The curious thing to Eucher was not that Stilicho pursued a dream best left buried with Emperor Theodosius. That he wanted his son with him while he did it was odd. Stilicho had been Master General of the Western Empire for most of Eucher’s life, but Eucher didn’t hold a military post, nor even an important one. Stilicho had never had much use for his son.

Tossing the scroll aside, Eucher dismissed all but one slave. He grasped the arm of the beautiful Greek who remained and drew him down to the couch. The gold ring on Eucher’s finger ground against the knobby protrusion of his slave’s wrist.

Gallus pried at the grip, and Eucher smiled at the hands that were inarticulate, weak, warm for the nails.

“Another summons from my father,” Eucher said as he loosened his grip. “Seems the Patrician has grown impatient with his tribune.” He watched Gallus watching him. His slave’s caution was gratifying but not altogether acceptable.

“Another summons?” Gallus asked after freeing his hand. He rubbed his wrist.

“You know him. There’s no talking him out of anything. An expedition to Constantinople will leave Consistory unwatched. But he doesn’t bother with politics.” Eucher laughed. “He thinks fear will keep the Senate in line and gold will keep Alaric across the Rhine.”

Gallus nodded but seemed concerned less with the letter than with Eucher’s hand, which had moved to rest on his thigh. Eucher obliged his slave’s fear by pushing him onto his back. His stale breath blew hotly across Gallus’s bearded cheek. “What is the nature of men? You should know as well as anyone, my little Gallus. Tell me.”

“It depends on the man.”

“No. Men are all the same. It’s merely that some are good liars. For what is soft makes a man hard. What runs draws his chase.”

“Animals are like that,” Gallus said, pushing at Eucher’s shoulders. “Wolves.”

Eucher laughed again. “Rome is full of wolves.” He kissed the full lips and touched the damp beard that streaked Gallus’s cheek. His slave’s hair was dark as Egyptian granite, slick from days under the tortuous summer sun. They had yet to visit the baths since their return from Africa, so Eucher called for a wine girl and a fan to make the morning more pleasant, while Gallus took the opportunity to put some distance between them.

The anxiety haunting Eucher resolved itself in a moment of prurient clarity. “Throw the bones! We’ll see if the gods abide a contest of obscene gladiators this morning.”

Gallus removed three ivory dice from the silver box on the table. He let them tumble to the floor. Twenty.

Eucher gathered the dice and shook them a long time in his hands before dropping them at his feet. Sixteen.

Relief eased Gallus’s brow.

Eucher shrugged. “Never defy the gods.”

***

Gallus watched his master read and reread the Patrician’s summons. He knew how Eucher struggled with his father’s demands. Gallus had never had a father, or any family that he remembered. He had been a slave since he was a boy.

At fourteen he was purchased by the Patrician and given to Eucher. He was to be his body servant, but he was more of a companion, if only because Eucher had few friends. Even those he called friends were less friends than opportunists. Such was the life of an imperial son.

Eucher’s eyes flickered. He glanced sideways and caught Gallus watching. Gallus turned away quickly and awaited the inevitable anger, but silence followed. After a deep breath he glanced back. Eucher had returned to his contemplation.

Questions filled Gallus’s thoughts, but no answers were worth provoking his master’s anger. Anger invariably stimulated his master’s licentious disposition. Still, Gallus couldn’t refrain from staring and wondering. Eucher was not a worrier. He was prideful and abrasive but not timid. He enjoyed a good fight and had the wits to make any man appear a fool. So the twitching jaw and preoccupation gave Gallus a nervous stomach.

As much as he hated Eucher, he loved him, too. He loved him as Christ said to love all men.