Lucius tugged in vain at his manacled wrists, cursing the irony of it all. He’d liked chains once, back when he’d visited the taverns for a bit of wine and fun. It had been a game then, pretending to be helpless when he knew he was free.
Now he wasn’t free and would never be free again. There was no rescue coming—his home city of Rome was young and small and far away, nothing compared to the mighty states of Greece. Besides, what would Lucius’ king care for a single ship or an orphaned sailor with no one to pay his ransom? Perhaps it would have been better to drown when the pirates had come and rammed his ship to splinters, rather than be reduced to this.
“Next, number twenty-seven!” the auctioneer shouted, and Lucius was dragged up onto the block. The courtyard below him bristled with men, all staring up at him with cold, assessing eyes. He wanted to bow his head, to curl in on himself, but he set his jaw and raised his chin in defiance. He would not show weakness in front of these Athenian dogs.
Of course he was showing everything else. His body had been stripped bare, exposing every inch of skin to the crowd. He’d been nude in public before, at sports and games and communal baths, but this sent a hot surge of shame through Lucius’ gut. The men below him didn’t see him as a person, just a piece of property for sale.
“Look at this strong, hardy Latin barbarian!” the auctioneer called, gesturing for Lucius to turn and show the crowd his body. “Such exotic fair hair, such bewitching gray eyes! He may be too old for the whorehouse, but he’s still got fine lips and an ass made for the bedchamber!”
A smack on the rump made Lucius’ hackles rise. He clenched his jaw—an outburst would not help him here. He had to keep a cool head.
“Or if you want to put those muscles to work,” the auctioneer continued, grabbing a biceps and squeezing, “he’s a perfect fit for the farm, the oars or the mines! You may even use him for crafting or the household, if you have the patience to teach him civilized speech—”
“I speak Greek, you arrogant—” Lucius snapped, then stopped dead. The whole plaza had fallen silent with shock, and he realized he had made a serious mistake.
No, he could use this, turn his blunder into a gamble. He had no way to back down, so instead he stepped forward.
“I also speak the tongues of Egypt, Phoenicia and Babylon!” he cried, as though over the noise of raging seas. “I can sail and navigate by the stars. I can read and write, do arithmetic and be an asset to any house or business!”
The men in the crowd remained speechless for a long moment, while Lucius kept his head up. If he could prove his worth, get a position as a secretary or bookkeeper or translator, he might live a relatively comfortable life—
A kick landed between Lucius’ shoulder blades, sending him crashing to his knees. He bit down a cry of pain, and the crowd began to laugh.
“I stand corrected,” the auctioneer said with an audible sneer. “We have a scholarly savage here! What am I bid for the pleasure of breaking this educated boy to bridle?”
“Two hundred drachmas,” shouted a voice from the crowd, and Lucius raised his head to see a man with a face like a rat, accompanied by a whip-wielding overseer.
“Two hundred to slave-breaker Stolos!” the auctioneer replied. “Do I hear two hundred and ten?”
“Two-ten!” another voice cried.
“Two-ten to slave-breaker Brygos! Do I hear two-twenty?”
Oh no, oh nonononono… The gamble had failed and failed hard. Lucius stared at the wooden floor beneath him with unseeing eyes as the two men went back and forth, fighting over the profit they’d get from the Roman’s mind once they’d broken his will. It was all he could do to keep from shaking.
Through his pounding ears, he heard the bidding slow to a stop, and the auctioneer’s voice calling out one last time.
“Two hundred and ninety to slave-breaker Stolos! Two-ninety going once, going twice—”
Lucius’ head snapped up, his eyes wide. The voice had been clear and resonant, cutting through all other sound like a knife through mist. Everyone turned to stare at the speaker, who…had he always been there? Lucius would surely have noticed him.
He was young, handsome and clean-shaven, with light brown hair and sun-bronzed skin, lounging against a column like he owned the whole street. His crossed arms bulged with corded muscle, and his legs below his short tunic were long and shapely. His left eye was covered by a patch, but the dark brown right eye glinted with mischief.
“One…” The auctioneer gaped like a landed sea bass. “One thousand?”
“One thousand,” the speaker confirmed, a faint Spartan accent to his Greek. He strode forward with an easy grace, pulling a bulging coin purse from his belt and tossing it at the auctioneer’s feet.
The auctioneer didn’t bother to ask whether anyone else would match the obscene price, just snatched up the purse and shoved it into an attendant’s hands.
“Sold, for one thousand drachmas to the one-eyed stranger!” he cried, then whispered to his assistant, “Make sure you count those coins twice! No, three times!”
It must have all been in order, because the next thing Lucius knew, he was being wrapped in a simple loincloth and having a leash tied to his collar before being handed off to the handsome stranger. The man gave him a lopsided smile, his single eye raking his prize up and down, before he turned to the slave seller.
“Come on,” he said, “I paid a thousand—the least you can do is throw in some sandals! Don’t want him stepping on a pot-shard in the street, now do I?”
Sandals were quickly produced, as well as a cape to settle around Lucius’ shoulders. The gestures were oddly comforting, even though the manacles stayed on his wrists. At last his new owner was satisfied, and took up the leash with a firm hand.
“Let’s go, cutie,” he said, smirking wickedly. “Time to get you home.”
A shiver went down Lucius’ spine, and he wasn’t sure if it was fear or something else. He’d already had horrible visions of being sold as a bed-slave, but something about this man made it seem less frightening and more tempting. That single laughing brown eye promised trouble, and that lopsided smile promised far, far more.
When Lucius saw his new master’s horse, he gasped out loud. The sailor was no judge of horseflesh, but he had no need to be—the animal was clearly tall and strong, snowy-white and glossy without a single mark or blemish. Lucius had known the stranger was wealthy, but this stallion was fit for a king.
“Here you go,” the man said, grabbing his slave by the waist and hoisting him up as though he weighed nothing at all. “Get comfortable—it’s a long ride.”
The animal stayed perfectly still while Lucius settled onto its bare back, unconcerned by his clumsy seat or the way their mutual master hopped up behind him. The one-eyed man took up the reins in a relaxed hand, wrapping the other arm around his new slave’s waist. The heat of the stranger’s body behind him made Lucius shudder, and hot breath ghosted across his cheek as the man peered over his shoulder.
“Who are you?” Lucius asked, forgetting to be polite in his confusion.
“Your master,” the stranger replied with a soft chuckle in his new slave’s ear. “That is all you need to know.”
Then he clicked his tongue, urging the horse into a steady, rolling gait that carried them along with the grace and speed of wind.