The Son of Rome
“Ego desoptron een, opos aee vlepis mi,” called an oarsman who was heaving at the sea.
“If only I could be a mirror, so that you would always look at me,” Griffon sang, his voice smooth and sweet as honey. Nine more voices rose in nearly as many languages, belting out their foreign tongues in the same cadence.
“Ego heeton genimin, opos aee foris mae!”
“If only I could be a robe, so that you would always wear me!”
Griffon sat upon his throne of piled benches, somehow translating a Thracian sea song in such a way that every man on board could parse it regardless of their primary language. Including me. The oarsmen stood and pulled rhythmically, working with the practiced ease of men that had been forced to endure far more punishing paces for vastly longer periods of time.
“Idor thelo genesthe, opos se hrota looso.”
“If only I could be water, so that I could wash your skin.”
“Opos, opos, opos se hrota looso!”
“So that, so that, so that I could wash your skin!” Griffon leered at me across the ship while our new oarsmen echoed him in song. When I’d asked him why he wasn’t manning the oars with his pankration arms anymore, he’d shrugged and asked why he should do such a thing now that there were proper sailors on the deck. Since then he’d simply lounged in the sun, bare above his waist but for a golden necklace with a scarlet pendant and a pair of laurel crowns that he was still, for some reason, wearing around his biceps.
“Are you not singing because you don’t understand, or because you don’t care to?” I asked the boy pirate beside me. Bundled up by rigging lines as he was, he couldn’t do much but growl and spit in reply. “I see.”
The boy was exactly what I’d imagined a pirate to be, only smaller in scale. My boyhood mentor had described red-heads as foxes and thieves, bereft of virtue and most often consigned to life at sea- because, of course, civilized society would not have them. My great-uncle had described pirates as irreverent vagrants, cheaters and sneaks.
The boy was certainly guilty of all charges. Even after the thrashing Griffon had given him for his surprise attack, he’d still struggled like a demon to escape overboard until long after his slave galley had disappeared behind us. Eventually he’d switched tactics to mutiny. Unfortunately for him, all he got for his troubles were a few more slaps and a swaddle of rigging rope. Since then, he’d settled for sulking and making a nuisance of himself.
I wasn’t sure what had possessed Griffon to take him with us, but the former Young Aristocrat seemed content to smack the pirate around when he got out of line and otherwise let him stew. For now I’d let it be.
There were more pressing things, after all. Olympia loomed in the distance.
The city was hardly more than a lash of color on the horizon, now, but we’d be upon it soon enough. Then the journey would begin in full. My days had been numbered since that day a year ago, but looking at the far shore it felt all too real. My fingers drummed along the rail of the Eos. I was leaning beside the ship’s figurehead, a woman clad in flowing wood-carved robes, with both hands cupping her own cheeks. We both contemplated the landmass of Greece proper as we approached.
“Why don’t you work those lungs of yours instead of brooding?” Griffon asked, leaning next to me on the rail. The red-haired pirate boy swore in a language I didn’t know and lurched sideways, snapping at his ankles. Griffon kicked him across the deck. “We could use another baritone.”
“I don’t sing.”
“Like fuck you don’t sing. What kind of man knows how to play the lyre but doesn’t sing?”
“The kind with a voice ill-suited to it,” I said wryly.
“It would mean a lot to Khabur,” Griffon prodded. He tilted his head at the Thracian, who was currently in the midst of belting out another verse. The rest of the oarsmen sang along, but without Griffon to translate they were just mimicking his words as best they could. “Just look at him. His heart might well break if you, his father, don’t join him for a verse.”
“Ke sandalon genimin monon posin pati mae!”
Griffon snorted a laugh. I glanced at him, but he only shook his head. “Deviant old bastard,” he muttered, chuckling.
“How do you understand them all?” I asked, unable to contain my curiosity any longer. I immediately regretted it. Griffon smirked at me, joyous at knowing something I didn’t. “Never mind, I don’t care.”
“None of that,” he chided. “No man knows everything, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
I rolled my eyes. “You’re relaying lines a Thracian is saying, and somehow every man on this ship understands you well enough to repeat them back in their own language. I know for a fact it isn’t Alikon, and I don’t know any other tongues beside Latin.”
“How do you know I’m not speaking Alikon?” Griffon asked, curious.
“I’ve been trying to talk to the boy. He doesn’t speak it. He’s following along with what you’re saying anyway.”
Griffon glanced back over his shoulder at the bound pirate, currently struggling to stand up on the rocking deck with his limbs all bound together. The oarsmen watched him with varying degrees of vicious amusement. None of them had tried to strike the boy as of yet, but that was likely because we were present more than anything else.
“Maybe the little asshole just didn’t want to talk,” he offered.
“And maybe you’re a liar,” I said.
“My virtuous heart won’t tolerate accusations like that.”
“Your virtuous heart can pound sand. Keep your secrets- it doesn’t matter to me.”
Griffon ran a hand through windswept hair, scarlet eyes intent on the far shores of Olympia. “What do you really know of Greece, Sol?” he eventually asked. “You had a mentor of some kind that spoke Alikon, but what did they teach you about this world you’re about to strike out into? You say you’ll split from me as if it’s really so simple, when you can’t speak the tongues and have no idea of where you’re going. For someone who cultivates virtue to defy the Fates, you’re trusting an awful lot to them.”
For a long moment I didn’t respond. It was easy to become complacent around the former Young Aristocrat, to fall into his irreverent rhythm and forget that behind the veil of casual arrogance was something resembling an astute mind.
“My mentor was from Olympia,” I finally said. “He taught me what he could in the time he had, but my father took me to the legions before he could finish the work. I know… enough. But if I can find him here-”
“- you can fill in the empty spaces,” Griffon said, nodding. “And after that? Was your mentor so great a man that his full teachings will give you the strength to wipe out all of Carthage?”
My silence was answer enough.
“Assuming this man still lives here, or is even still alive, what makes you think he’ll have the time to tutor you as he once did? I assume he wasn’t doing it for free back then.”
I frowned. My fists clenched and unclenched.
“What will you do if he won’t teach you, or you never find him? Join another mystery cult and leech off them for cultivation resources? Wander the free Mediterranean alone until you’re miraculously strong enough to defy the heavens and strike down all your enemies? Join the local boy house, maybe?”
“And how are you any different?” I asked sharply. “How is wandering in search of freedom any better? We’re both vagrants at the end of the day.”
“Absolutely,” Griffon agreed. “But I’m a vagrant that’s having a good time.”
“I asked you if you wanted to see the world back then,” he said. I remembered starlit pools, draining them with spoons and then dumping the water back in so we’d have an excuse to keep talking about the lands we’d never seen. “Now that you have the opportunity to, now that you have the chance to be free, you’re throwing it away for duty to a city that no longer exists.”
He glanced at me. “Ho? I’m wrong?”
“Not to Rome.” Rome had been the responsibility of men like Gaius, the tyrants of the Republic. Mine had been far smaller in scope. “Duty to my wife, and to three thousand legionnaires.”
Griffon blinked. “You have a wife?”
“I had a wife.”
Salt and ash.
A tanned and muscled arm settled across my shoulders. I tensed, but didn’t throw it off. My teeth grit, fists clenching and unclenching. Griffon didn’t make any smart comments, no allusions to freedom from a different sort of slavery as I’d half expected him to. I think I’d have torn the ship apart if he had.
“I’ve been thinking about it since that day.” When I spoke, my voice was raw. How pitiful. The Greek lifestyle was getting to me, it seemed. “Even in chains I was thinking about it. What I would do and how I would do it. But I’m so weak.” I slammed a fist to the rail, the wood groaning even without the weight of my pneuma behind it.
“I have no family, no resources, no comrades in arms. My city is gone. I have one connection to this nation, and he may not want anything to do with me if I can even find him at all. I am alone in this world. I am lost!”
“No?” I snarled, rounding on him.
“You were lost,” Griffon said simply. “But I found you.”
I stared at him, at three thousand different faces imposed over his own. Men that had trusted me, that I had failed. I couldn’t do it again. I couldn’t let another one down.
I pushed his arm off, but Griffon only threw arms of pankration intent across my shoulders, bearing me down to the rail. My eyes narrowed, gravitas gathering in my hand.
“There’s an entire world to the East,” Griffon said, scarlet eyes bright and intent as we drew ever closer to Olympia. Details were slowly emerging on the horizon. A mountain, and what looked like an oncoming storm. “And just because I have nowhere I must go doesn’t mean I have nowhere I plan to go. I have a thousand thousand things I want to see, Sol. I want to learn everything I don’t know, and once I’ve done that I want to learn everything I never knew I didn’t know.
“It’s only natural that I’ll become powerful in the process. It’s simply justice that I’ll gain unprecedented renown over the course of my life. And you’ll be the same.”
Griffon grinned boyishly at me. “Son of Rome, your future is hopelessly grim. Why not enjoy your life before it comes calling?”
“Monon, monon, monon posin pati!”