by Graham B.
A man leaves a life of wealth and privilege to follow his heart.
Lucius resisted the temptation to look back as he pulled Nubiah out the door. There was no going back now, and the sight of his empty house would only weaken his resolve.
Behind him, Nubiah bore her sparse possessions, including a small wooden cage from which flashes of blue erupted whenever the sun intruded on its residents.
Blue tiger butterflies, Lucius thought. Tullia often said they were like my own eyes.
“Dominus, will everything be as you said?”
Nubiah’s voice caressed his ears.
“I’ve never been more sure, my love. We make for the docks. Our ship awaits.”
Lucius faced Nubiah and the sight he would never tire of – her cropped black hair, her olive skin, and most of all, her opalescent eyes, so close he could see his own blue eyes reflected therein.
“Where we are going, no one can ever tear us apart.”
The two hurried through the streets, looking no different from any other citizen accompanied by a slave. Late in the morning, the streets of Rome pulsed with its lifeblood of citizens, foreign merchants, visitors, and slaves, their sounds combining into the city’s song. Lucius quickened his pace, and his heart almost stopped.
A tall, red-headed woman crossed the Porticus Maximae. Next to her was a distinguished-looking gentleman with silver hair and wearing a maroon tunic. Tullia and her father, Senator Titus!
Lucius grabbed Nubiah’s arm and pulled her into an alley so narrow the two of them crushed together.
Lucius put his finger to her lips and watched his wife from the shadows. In these close quarters, Nubiah’s scent entered his nostrils, so different from Tullia’s fragrant oils, and pushed the smells of the street away. He felt Nubiah’s breath against his neck, almost intoxicating him. But he continued to watch Tullia and her father as they passed.
What could he say to her? Everything had been laid out from the very beginning of their arranged marriage. Every contingency had been provided for. Tullia had played the part of the dutiful wife, but no feelings of passion had ever blossomed. Lucius had never felt his blood quicken at the sight of her as it did with Nubiah, the first time Tullia had brought her slaves to join his household. Neither did his own presence ever inflame Tullia’s heart. Their marriage was a house both lived in, yet empty. And now he had left it all behind – for a slave. How could they possibly understand?
Tullia and Titus passed from sight, and Lucius emerged from the alley with his paramour and continued toward the docks.
Gods, how he hated the sound of that word on her lips! But until they arrived safely in Alexandria, they had to keep up appearances.
“What is it, my love?”
“I am afraid!”
Lucius pulled Nubiah close, looked into her eyes and saw her fear for both of them.
“As am I, my love. But you must be brave. The trip to Aksum will be long.”
“Yes. We must leave the influence of Rome behind. Even Alexandria is not beyond the reach of Titus’s wrath. He will not so easily ignore the insult that I have perpetrated against him.”
“But, what will we do there?”
“We will trade treasures of the continent with merchants from beyond the empire. I have left my fortune and my property behind, but with you at my side, I shall build a new one!”
The two passed into another alley, and Lucius eagerly quickened his pace. They emerged into the bustle of the docks, and Lucius spotted the ship – the Eyes of Mercury. The ship’s master was sitting on a trunk which Lucius recognized as one of his own. The man’s swarthy face beamed.
“You are here, friend!”
“Yes, and I’m afraid we are in a hurry, Linos.”
The man stood and turned his gaze to Nubiah, a gaze which lingered a bit too long.
“My slave,” said Lucius. “She will accompany me.”
“Nothing like a little warmth for a long journey, eh?” he snickered.
Lucius held back a sharp reply.
Linos waved his passengers on board.
“Is all as we agreed?” asked Lucius.
“Of course! I couldn’t have made so much coin if I had packed my holds to the gunwales with the usual riffraff. This way.”
Lucius smelled naked scrubbed wood and fresh tar. Satisfied that the boat wouldn’t sink during their crossing, Lucius opened the door to the cabin. After looking around in wonder, Nubiah reluctantly followed.
“Dominus! I wish to see the shore as we sail away!”
“We could still be spotted.”
Nubiah went to the porthole and looked pleadingly at Lucius.
“All right, my love. But stay in shadow.”
Nubiah pulled off the cover and watched, enthralled.
Lucius flopped down on the single bed and sighed. It had been a trying day, which he felt in his bones. A toll of deep emotions tore him in many directions. The guilt at the humiliation he would bring to Tullia, the fear at Titus’s fury, the passion which threatened to overwhelm him every time he looked at Nubiah as he did now, watching her slender form as she watched the ship preparing to get underway with wide eyes.
Lucius rolled over and buried his face in the silk pillow. As he lay there, he felt the ship shudder as it left the dock. Then the press of weight on the bed. Nubiah’s hands tenderly grasped his shoulders and began rubbing the tension out of them. He felt her thighs as she straddled his back and the knot of conflicting emotions washed away.
“Dominus, will the gods smile upon us?”
“How can the gods be angry with two so much in love? Surely even their hearts swell with joy at our union.”
Lucius rolled over and pulled Nubiah into a gentle embrace. She kissed him, and he tasted on her full lips, saltiness and sweetness, a forbidden yet irresistible fruit. Nearby, the faint fluttering of the butterflies reached their ears.
Distantly he heard the shouts of the crew setting sail, and the ship rocked gently as it made its way down the Tiberis to the sea.
The voyage to the cool, dry skies of Syracuse was only a day’s sail. Lucius stood above decks while Linos directed the loading of cargo, taking moments to smirk at Lucius. Lucius admonished Nubiah not to go ashore. Syracuse was still within the empire, and he was taking no chances.
They were underway the next day, and the waters became rough. Nubiah tended to Lucius’s seasickness and eased his misery, while spending her free time above decks enjoying the sea air. Lucius tried not to think about the crew looking at her beauty while she stood above decks in the sun. One misery joined another.
On the third day of their voyage, the ship’s movement changed. Lucius steeled himself and stepped out of his cabin.
Outside, Nubiah stood next to Linos near the rail. Both had their hands to their eyes, looking at the horizon. Nubiah saw Lucius and hastened to him.
“Dominus! There is a ship!”
“She is not familiar,” said Linos. “All I know is that she is not Roman. We’ve heard reports of pirates. I am attempting to give them wide berth, but they gain on us. I think they mean to meet with us, whether we wish to or not.”
Nubiah suddenly rushed to the cabin. She emerged carrying the butterfly cage. She favored Lucius with a sad smile.
“It’s something I must do, Dominus.”
She opened the cage.
The butterflies sprang forth and erupted into the light. Even on this cloudy day, they were a brilliant blue. They circled the ship once, then fluttered away to the south until they could no longer be seen.
“Whatever happens, they will be free,” said Nubiah.
The other ship, a battered trireme, drew near, and Lucius’s heart sank when he saw their crew. A motley bunch, from all over the empire, and armed, they could be nothing but pirates. They outnumbered Mercury’s crew by nearly threefold.
Linos turned to Lucius and shrugged.
“If we are lucky, they will take our cargo and let us live. But there are no guarantees.”
Grappling hooks flew through the air and snared the Mercury. Strong arms hauled the two ships together. Twenty men swarmed over the rail, led by a tall Egyptian.
“Good morning!” he boomed, a grin on his handsome face. “Who is the master of this fine vessel?”
Linos stepped forward.
“I am captain.”
In the blink of an eye, a sword appeared from beneath the pirate’s cloak, fetching up near Linos’s throat.
“Er…you are the captain!” Linos coughed.
The pirate grinned, and sheathed his blade.
“I am Amasis, son of Arkameis, and I command the Pharaoh’s Curse!”
His eyes lighted on Lucius, and in an instant, the sword was out again.
“Roman!” he spat. “I would have your blood…”
Behind Lucius, the voice of Nubiah pierced the tension.
“Amasis? Is it really you?”
The grin fell from Amasis’s face and he gaped at Nubiah. Once again, the sword hid itself beneath the cloak. Amasis strode straight past Lucius and lifted Nubiah into the air.
“Nubiah! Alive! I thought the Romans had killed you!”
“Did you think of me, Amasis?”
“I mourned for months! How could I forget my favorite wife?”
He set her down and kissed her long and hard. Lucius looked at the sea, and a ball of lead formed in his stomach. Seasickness seemed like bliss by comparison.
“You have this man to thank for restoring me to you,” said Nubiah. “He set me free!”
Amasis gave Lucius a guarded look.
“I would kill you, Roman, but the gods restoring one of my wives to me has put me in a grand mood. We shall ransom you!”
Lucius didn’t answer.
“Don’t feel like talking? No matter. We’ll have you back to your family soon, at the right price!”
Amasis’s men took Lucius back to his cabin and shackled him to the bulkhead. Through the open door, he saw Amasis talking to Nubiah, with Nubiah smiling and nodding. Then she looked at Lucius. Her expression didn’t change, but something in her eyes seemed to plead. What had he seen? The men shut the door before he could see any more, but he could still hear.
“You must tell me everything!” said Amasis. “But later. I have business to conduct.”
The pirate’s voice boomed.
“Your ship now belongs to me! You may join my crew! All who accept will continue to man this ship, under the command of one of my trusted men, of course. The rest will take their chances in your skiff! The choice is yours.”
Hours passed. As the sun set, engulfing the cabin in darkness, Lucius pondered how the gods could be so cruel. He was sure Titus would pay his ransom ten times over just to see him crucified.
He heard the door open, and peered into the gloom.
“Who is it?”
A finger pressed against his mouth, silencing him. It pulled away, to be replaced by soft lips. He heard the clink of metal, and moments later the manacles fell away.
Nubiah grasped his hand and pulled him through the door into a starless night.
“We must hurry,” she whispered.
She was leading him toward the skiff! Nubiah untied the small craft, and it made a gentle splash as it hit the water. An agonizing pause, but no one on board had noticed.
She stepped inside and looked at Lucius expectantly. In the dim light, he could see her eyes, wide and searching.
“Hurry, Dominus! I would not be returned to Amasis’s harem.”
Lucius stepped into the skiff.
“You must never call me that again, my love,” he said.
The skiff drifted free, and Nubiah expertly set the sail, surprising Lucius.
They flew before the wind, away from the pirates, away from Rome, and on to Alexandria.
Word count: 1996