Research done for this story: a year of Roman law and a Google search or two. In other words, this is about as accurate and faithful to the times as a trashy romance novel, and it is not recommended for those who have delicate historical sensibilities.
* * *
Now when the gods forsake us
* * *
They brought the new slave to her at daybreak. It was a Celt, fiery-haired and furious, with the marks of fast-quenched rebellion fresh on his face: the bruise trailing purple-green fingers across his temple was at least a few days old, but his lower lip was only beginning to swell, and his left eye had scarce turned blue.
He was no more than a boy. He squinted at her and spat something almost certainly obscene.
Rukia was not pleased.
"And how much did this trash go for at the market?" she said. Stichus had been with the Kuchiki family since his father, who was held an honourable man, had sold his sons to pay his debts. Stichus ruled the estate with an iron fist, never letting a slave misstep or an account unbalance, but he grovelled now at the tilt of Rukia's glossy dark head.
"Young mistress, you demanded a new boy for the horses ... "
"Our horses are the best in Rome," said the last and only daughter of the patrician house of the Kuchiki. "Swift as Mercury, unrivalled for either beauty or grace, prized by my brother above any other living being. And you would put this -- this barbarian child to them?"
"Mistress, the vendor said this boy had a way with animals the likes of which he had never seen," said Stichus. "You know, mistress, how these barbarians are closer to nature than civilised men, living as they do off what they can scrape from the earth. More like beasts than men, these Celts -- "
The slave had been silent until then, but now he made an extraordinary noise and lunged at Rukia. Rukia side-stepped him neatly, and before he had time to do more than yelp in indignation Stichus had him pinned.
"I see he kicks like a horse when provoked," said Rukia drily. She glided over to the prostrate slave and knelt by his head, putting a white hand under his chin.
"Good teeth," she said, while Stichus rolled his eyes in distress. "He looks strong enough, though thin. Striking hair .... At least he looks clean. Very well. I will let you try him at the horses for a week, Stichus. Your eye has never failed you before."
Stichus' eye had once picked out amongst the seething crowds in the public thoroughfares his dead mistress's face on a dirty young ragamuffin, but if he would have welcomed some consciousness of her debt to him on Rukia's part, he showed no sign of it. Relief showed palpably in his smile as he hoisted the boy up.
"I will start him immediately, young mistress, and if he fails to please, let the master know the fault is mine."
"If you continue in this vein you will begin to give offence, Stichus," said Rukia. She spoke mildly enough, but there was steel beneath the honey of her voice. "While my brother is away, our estate in town is my responsibility and mine alone. My brother would scarcely lower himself so far as to apportion blame to a slave. If the boy fails to fulfill the promise his vendor made, then on my head be it."
She swept a last indifferent glance over the boy. It was a mystery, when no tie of blood bound her to her adopted brother, but Rukia had the Kuchiki eyes, of which the family was so justly proud: great, heavy-lidded, thick-lashed eyes, which were violet or dark blue or grey as the whims of light and mood dictated. Though her brother considered her too young for marriage, she had already smitten more than a few men with a single look out of those eyes. Under them, magistrates had trembled and soldiers quivered.
The new slave absorbed the glance, then said, in perfect Latin,
"Have a statue sculpted, it'll take less time."
Stichus' jaw dropped. Rukia's eyes widened.
"Why, you -- " But she recollected herself, and turned to Stichus, ignoring the boy.
"You are certain, Stichus, that he is not a eunuch?" she said sweetly. "He has that look to him, and you know I think the horses do not take kindly to half-men -- they jib, so!"
"You bitch!" howled the boy.
"Young mistress!" pleaded Stichus. The boy was balking like a restive horse, and Stichus was beginning to look distinctly seasick.
Rukia skipped out of the way; she had forgotten herself so far as to be laughing, and in her white tunic she looked like a child, though she had turned fourteen her last birthday.
"A week, no more," she said, "then, perhaps, if we knock out his teeth, some brothel may consent to take him -- I am sure there is some dark room where they can hide him, and there are enough blind old men in the city that they might find him useful. I will leave you to it, Stichus. I have business in town."
* * *
Rukia had business enough, but she let her personal slave attend to it. Aerope had been Rukia's attendant since she had entered the Kuchiki house, and even Byakuya rated her highly; she had taught Rukia her letters, and she could be trusted to handle the affairs of the family. She was proud of the esteem in which she was held, and jealous of her position, so it was not disapproval of Rukia's leaving her business to her that made Aerope purse her mouth when Rukia said she would leave.
"I will meet you in the square when you are done," said Rukia.
"You will be late," said Aerope.
Rukia was affronted. "I am never late."
"You will be late," said Aerope doggedly. "And I will wait for you by the fountain; it will be pleasanter there, and if I am to spend an hour worrying ... "
"Old fool, there is no call for worry," said Rukia. "We have not much time. You had best be off."
"Age, age! If you had age, perhaps you would have discretion," said Aerope. She caught Rukia's arm before the girl could leave. "At least do not let him rip your tunic this time -- remember, a young woman's reputation is her most precious possession -- all these good families squabbling for your hand, and you will choose a nameless gutter rat with no prospects -- "
"Renji is an advocate," said Rukia, but she was not really listening; she tugged her sleeve away, already absent in spirit. "And if you thought my ripped tunic was bad, you should have seen him. Oh, let go, Aerope. One would think I was going to meet a lover."
"And you aren't?"
Rukia had got free, but she paused, and a glint lit her eyes. She had only been a Kuchiki for a few years.
"Renji is too ugly to fuck," she said matter-of-factly. "Rather that new slave than him -- at least the Celt seems to wash. Don't forget the fish, Aerope!"
"Mistress -- " said Aerope, but the girl was gone, fleet as falsehood.
* * *
Renji had only been an advocate for a few years, but his fame was already widespread amongst the more litigious of the populace. He did not draw upon any deep wells of rhetoric, in which he, a nameless orphan, had never been tutored; he had no great mastery over the law; and in the art of persuasion he was no more than a low scribbler.
His success lay down a path no other advocate before him thought to attempt -- that of simple, unadorned physical and moral intimidation. Renji scared the other side into losing. Resolute Romans and conscientious iudices alike quailed before him. His opponents called him the Wolf, a name invented by an unscrupulous playwright whom Renji had never been able to frighten, if only because his spoofs of Renji's appearances in court enjoyed an unfailing popularity amongst the masses.
Renji was conscious of his reputation, and rather proud of it than not, but he'd never tried to trade on it before. He had never really wanted to scare anybody.
Now, though ...
"If you're not going to do anything with that staff, Renji, you might as well put it away," said Rukia. She had, of course, got over her surprise in five seconds and was all Kuchiki ice again; if it were not for that insufferable orange-headed bastard gaping like a fish on the ground, Renji might almost have believed nothing out of the way had happened.
He knew it was hard for Rukia to get away from the house. He hadn't intended to pry, even when she had failed to show up for their weekly meeting for the third time in a row. But he knew for a fact that her brother was still somewhere around Carthage, that the Kuchiki's old procurator would slit himself open if Rukia wanted the next day's weather forecast from his entrails, and that that old bat Aerope couldn't have held her back without tying her down. Unless something had happened, Rukia would have found some way to see him.
In short, there was a fair chance, all told, that Rukia had got herself into serious trouble. Again.
As it turned out, he was right. It just wasn't the kind of trouble he'd been expecting.
"Uh," said the slave. Rukia stepped away from him, dusting herself off fastidiously as if she hadn't just been tangled up in a promiscuous heap of limbs with a stable boy.
"A Celt?" said Renji. "You were gonna do it with a fucking lowlife orange-headed freak like that?"
"Wait, this isn't what it looks like," said the slave. He spoke excellent Latin. This made Renji even madder, though this was not difficult under the circumstances. Under the circumstances, breathing made Renji madder.
"I don't remember asking your opinion, asshole!"
"Don't call Ichigo that!" snapped Rukia.
"Oh, 'Ichigo'! Is that your little boyfriend's name? Nice! Very aristocratic!"
"If you would just calm down, instead of making lunatic accusations -- " said Rukia.
"I'm not her boyfriend!"
"Sorry about that," snarled Renji. "I see 'slut' is the better word."
"What the hell do you -- take that back, or -- !"
"You don't like that name? Will 'manwhore' do instead? Here, I'll introduce my staff to your face -- "
"How about I introduce my foot to your ass?"
"How about we all calm down and stop being idiots?" Rukia began.
"You think you can take me? Bring it on, dipshit!"
"Were you Romans all dropped on your heads as babies, or are you just specially insane?"
"I'm not the fucking maniac who thought he could get away with this kinda shit!"
"That's rich, coming from you," yelled Ichigo. "If you want to sleep with Rukia that badly, you're clearly fucking deranged!"
After that, it was all over in three minutes. Rukia spent one of them disposing of Renji's staff -- now somewhat the worse for wear from being slammed into a couple of skulls -- in a leisurely fashion.
When she strolled back, Renji was beginning to stir. Rukia reacted to this with another kick in the head, and Ichigo hastily decided against showing any signs of life.
"Oh fuck ow," said Renji.
"As a matter of fact," said Rukia, "I was helping Ichigo brush the horses when he tripped over the barrel. He flailed around, caught my tunic, and -- in short, he took me down with him.
"Not that this is anyone's business but my own," she added. She ripped off a couple more well-aimed kicks, spent some time grinding their faces into the dirt with her foot, then stalked out.
"'Helping'," said Ichigo weakly.
"What was she doing?" muttered Renji.
"Intensive training programme," said Ichigo. "In how to look after the Kuchiki chariot horses."
Renji thought about this, though thinking was a process hampered by the fact that his head felt as if a herd of elephants had just stampeded through it.
"Rukia knows fuck all about horses," he said finally.
"I could tell."
"I'm a Celt, asshole. The name Epona mean anything to you?"
"I've seen sculptures. Not a religious man."
"Me too. Though," said Ichigo with feeling, "I wished I was, for a while there."
"That wasn't even her at her worst."
"You are fucking insane, you know that."
Renji shrugged. Then he whimpered.
"Dumbass," said Ichigo.
"She'll be back -- "
"Oh fuck no."
"-- with ointment and shit," said Renji. He lapsed back into contemplation of his various aches and pains.
"If we're lucky," he said thoughtfully, "she won't make us apply it on each other."
"Oh fuck no."
"Could be worse," said Renji.
"How the hell could this possibly be worse?"
"Her brother could be back."
"And her brother is?"
Sunlight flooded the stables. Ichigo turned his head to squint at the backlit figure standing in the entrance.
"Him," said Renji, and he closed his eyes.