"We can make the crossing if we ride without break for another two hours," Darius said once they were well clear of the way station. "We'll rest there. I don't want to miss the dawn Path, if there is one. We need to get back, I need to talk to- to some people and find out what the hell is going on."

"We really are going to Aksum, aren't we," Ryou guessed.

Darius hesitated, looking down at his pommel, then he grimaced. "Yeah. Assyria would be safer, I'd rather not ride through a warzone with just the two of us, but I really do need to get back to my post, preferably without alerting my enemies or making too much of a fuss."

"You said you needed to talk to Terentius, on our first night in the Broken Lands."

Darius gave him a surprised look. "You and your memory. Yeah, I do. Terentius Varro is one of the many Romans who went native in the Free Cities, years ago. He's been the leader of the Alliance forces for the last eight years. I've got some information he needs to know. Besides, I want to be there when Essin falls. I owe it to a lot of people, starting with my king."

"King Leyam, right?" said Ryou, thinking about the term 'Bitch King' he'd heard twice now.

"King Leyam Sirrianus, yes- Sirrian. Sirrian," repeated Darius with an air of self-directed annoyance. "Sirrianus is the Roman form," he explained when he caught Ryou's questioning look. "With half the world being Roman for twelvescore years or more, anyone who travels can speak a little Latin and introduce themselves the Roman way. Our forefathers didn't question it. It didn't seem harmful, and it made it easier to talk in other countries. Avestan, the language of the blessed one who led us all to the Outlands, is a bit, um, cumbersome when you're trying to talk about new ideas. Zaratusra forgive me, but it’s true,” Darius added in a defensive mutter directed at the sky above as if a venerable ancient prophet was scowling disapprovingly down from one of the grey clouds hanging there.

"But we're trying to rid ourselves of that way of thinking now. I'm damned if we're going to beat those bloody Romans on the battlefield and then take them home with us, like we did with the Persians and the Ionians. We conquered the Empires of Persia and Babylon thousands of years ago and they became our own people as a result. My name is Persian, in case you didn't know. It’s a very common name in Assyria. Half the gods in our pantheon are Persian. Same with the Ionians and their writings and phalanx deployments. But the Romans are different. And when this war’s over, I hope we can bloody well be Assyrian again," Darius finished in a grumble.

Sure, the Romans were different, especially while at war with them, but when the Assyrians did get rid of them, they would quite likely keep the theaters and baths and aqueducts, as well as the convenience of being able to easily talk to other countries with a mix of Avestan and Latin... but Ryou wisely kept that thought to himself.

"Anyway, that's why he is no longer Leyam Sirrianus, the name those jackal-tongued courtiers who tried to turn him into some Roman gave him, but Sirrian, the name the kings of his line have borne for centuries, directly descended from Paxalmetes-Sirrian the Great. And that’s the name that’ll be imprinted into Emperor Galeo's ass when we kick him out from the Protectorates."

Ryou digested that for awhile, before concluding, "So is your last name Poleni?"

Darius gave him a puzzled look. "What?"

"You told me your name was Darius Bher Polenius."

"...Man, you really do have a good memory. No, my name is truly Polenius. My mother was Roman. The Bher in my name means child of my mother. Par would mean child of my father, followed by his name. Assyrian girls are traditionally named Bher, and there's a few instances where a man marries up and his sons are better off wearing their mother's name. But in most cases, a man with a Bher in his name is a bastard like me," said Darius with a wolfish grin, eyes on Ryou's face.

If he expected some kind of reaction, he was yet again disappointed. Ryou was certainly startled, but he was much too controlled to show it. It would be the height of incivility for anyone in his walk of life to react to that particular statement anyway. "I see," was all he said.

"You're no fun to tease."

"Oh, you were joking."

"Hell no," said Darius with the same expression. "I'm illegitimate, that's for sure. My mother was some tart who got sold out when her family lost its holdings to debt in conquered territory at the edges of the Imperium. She was lucky enough to be extremely pretty, which meant she got sold to a Tribune and moved to one of the Protectorates next to Assyria. When his outpost fell to Alliance forces, she was part of the distributed shares, and she caught the eye of my father. He was never one to take women as prizes during a campaign, he always said he had enough trouble with the ones at home, but he told me many times that you'd have to be Tiresias to not put a woman like that in your bed. She lived in luxury for a couple of years, which was more than most women in her position can say. But she died in childbed with me, so the only thing I’ve ever known of her is the cognomen we share."

"I'm sorry."

"Why?" Darius looked honestly puzzled. "It happens. Women die in childbirth all the time, despite the intervention of Hygiea. Besides, if she'd lived, my father would have made arrangements for us both, and he wouldn't have-"

Darius interrupted himself as if he'd said more than he'd intended. His frown suggested an internal argument, maybe over the way of getting out of this conversation without insult. Ryou felt a prickle of regret as he watched the détente between them hit a snag.

"It's okay, you don't have to tell me anything if you don’t want to," Ryou said, which was perfectly true and should have immediately banished his feelings of disappointment. Oddly enough, it didn't.

Darius was silent for a minute and then carried on as if Ryou hadn't said a word. "He couldn't acknowledge me because of circumstances, but since I was alone, he raised me anyway, and he treated me and his legitimate children with no distinction whatsoever. He was a great man. And a great father." Darius's smile was one Ryou hadn't seen before, both amused and begrudgingly affectionate. Ryou had the sudden intuition that even if he was only hearing one side of the story, this was a side Darius had not told many people before him..."Inder, did he raise me hard at times, but I acted like the little deva of Ur when I was young. He probably should have taken a stick to me more often. Always did it himself, too, instead of asking a tutor or a slave. Said that was a father's duty, and no other man was going to lay hands on one of his boys."

Deep, deep inside, Ryou felt a tiny flinch around a shard of memory lodged there back when he was thirteen, the first and last time the president had ever come close to striking him, except he hadn't, which had made it worse. Ryou shook his head, irritated at himself, and spoke louder than he usually did to be heard over the clop of hooves and the unnecessary reminder of angry words. "So where is your father now? Can you send him a message? He'll be worried about you. You've been gone without a trace for days, he doesn't know where you are."

Darius looked surprised. "What? He died years ago, when I was a whelp of eight. Didn't I mention that?"

"Oh, sorry," Ryou said once more. Darius hadn't actually stated it, but there had been something in his tone that'd half implied it, and Ryou now wasn't sure where his own question had come from or who it had really been about...

Darius shrugged off Ryou's apology. "I wish he was still here, to see me come back with a Roman's eagle standard to honor him, but that's not what the Gods put in their tablets, so there it is. But maybe you'll meet my brother when we get back," he added and burst into raucous laughter.

"What's so funny?"

"No, no, nothing. My brother is twice as tough as I am and considerably meaner. I hope I get the chance to see you two meet. I bet he'll like you. Come on, I want to get home." Still laughing, he kicked his horse into a trot. Ryou’s beast immediately matched pace, leaving him to concentrate on not falling off, which was a good distraction from wondering what a man twice as tough as Darius and considerably meaner would be like.

A note from Mal Chants

A note on Roman names: before I get corrected by fans of ancient Rome, yes, I know it should be Q. Varro or Q. Terentius or some other form depending on who is talking about him, in what context, etc. And later, he should be addressed directly as 'Terenti', rather than Terentius. But keep in mind that poor Terentius has voluntarily exiled himself for nigh on two decades in the 'barbarian' lands of the Pariya region, where people are used to addressing each other by their first name (eg Darius) or their two last names, (eg 'Behr Polenius') for more formality. Imperial lackeys would get it right, but the Free City populations would - almost-kinda-on-purpose as not wanting to adopt Roman nomenclature - mix up poor Varro's name until he gave up and let everyone call him General Terentius Varro, liberator of the Free Cities. After a decade, he even found he liked it. (This note brought to you by a writer who thinks waaaaay too much about background characters who barely appear at all in their fic)

About the author

Mal Chants


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