Title: The Monsters We Defy
Pairings/Characters: Max. Crassus, Tavi, Magnus, Veradis and Dorotea, too, but mostly Max. Max/Veradis.
Rating: T because Max.
Notes: Kind of a companion to To Call Myself Beloved.
Every night, Max asks himself a single question: if today was the last day of my life, would I be satisfied?
More often than not, the answer is no.
The curtains are torn asunder. Crassus grins at him. "Found you."
Dismay washes through Max. "How did you find me, you brat?"
"Mother says you are not to call me that." Crassus tries to jump up on the window seat twice before finally wriggling his way onto the cushion. "What are you doing?"
"Nothing." Max slams his book shut and shoves it behind his back. "Don't you have lessons?"
"No." Crassus' eyes narrow. "Give it to me."
"I'll tell mother!"
"You don't even know what it is."
"Yes, I do! It's a book."
"What do you want a book for? You can't even read."
Already Max's fingers are loosening. Just give it to him, a voice in Max's head whispers. Just avoid the trouble. He can never bring himself to say what his stepmother does to him. It makes him want to curl up in a cold place and throw up and cry and never stop. He can't behave like that—it would just prove everyone who called him names behind his back right. So it's always just…trouble.
But...Just this one thing. It isn't much. A book and a hiding place and some afternoons of peace. If he gives this away, what will he have left? "You can't have it."
"Give it!" Crassus pouts, lunging forward. "I want it."
That's how it always is. Max feels tears gathering in his eyes. He wants...something. He wants to shove Crassus away. He wants his father to walk in, tall and strong and unbeatable, and give his stepmother a good kick and to take him away. He hates crying. He can't even remember what he's defending, but nothing, suddenly, seems more important than this. "I'm not giving it to you, it's mine! Go ahead and tell your mother, you big baby."
Crassus sets his face in a scowl, then lunges forward again, squirming like a snake and twisting over his shoulder.
Sudden fear fills Max's stomach. "Wait, Crassus, stop—"
But Crassus doesn't hear him, or doesn't want to; he twists again and knocks into the little shelf with the furylamp.
The lamp falls and smashes against the floor. The fury inside is old and hungry; flames lick up the nearest bookshelf.
Max acts without thinking, grabbing Crassus and jumping over the fire, running like mad for the door. He hits the corridor wall, coughing and wheezing, before he drops Crassus. Already there are shouts coming down the hallway; in moments, servants will be there. Dorotea will be with them. There's no point in running now, he realizes with cold dread. Half a dozen servants would know where his hiding place had been. One way or another, his stepmother would know.
Crassus whimpers. "I'm—I'm sorry—I didn't mean to—"
Max looks down at his little brother and feels his jaw firming even as his heart begins to race and his palms start to sweat. His lord father is a protector. Maybe this time...maybe this time, he would see that Max is, too.
He nudges his brother. "Go," he says. "Run."
"I'll take care of it." His throat is dry. "It was my lamp." Thinking quickly, he shoves the book, still miraculously in his hand, into Crassus'. "Take that."
Max glances behind him. Long shadows loom, and he hears her, voice booming in the passage. There's no time.
"Go," he snarls, giving Crassus a little push. "I'll read it to you later."
Max watches him for a moment. The fire crashes behind him, and fear fills his mouth with bile.
Then he firms his shoulders and turns to face the trouble.
Long nights make Max ache for his mother.
His memories of her are hazy, but he can remember, or imagines he remembers, a soft hand in his hair and her scent, like flowers and fresh bread, and her voice, humming a sweet lullaby—a light, melodious refrain that he'd gasp to himself sometimes when his stepmother would leave him bloody.
Some days Dorotea would order the entire household to leave him alone to suffer for hours before she'd condescend to let someone drag him inside, to a bed most of the time, a healing tub if she was feeling generous. In those dark aftermaths, he would half-sob that tune and try not to weep. His mother would not have wanted him to weep. She had called him her strong boy, her sweet, strong boy; for her, he would not cry. He would unwrap those memories then. Carefully, because they were fragile things, good things, their ends tattered and worn from use. His mother's scent to counter the smell of his own blood; his mother's hand to block out the memory of Dorotea's fingers like steel hooks dragging him by his hair; his mother's voice to replace Dorotea's derision and ridicule.
His mother, to remind himself that someone, somewhere had loved him once.
IV. Longevity, part one
He knows that Tavi and Ehren commend and condemn him by turns for his exploits. Max has to stop himself from snorting at them most of the time: what they mistake for confidence and bravado is no more than an awareness of death waiting to strike like a viper from the dark. Max isn't anything so mundane as brave; he just knows the value of taking with both hands experiences that everyone else had years to encounter. He's in a bit of a hurry, after all—for him, life is no limitless expanse where he has the luxury of being shy and self-conscious. He must take what he can while he can, and crows take the rest.
Calderon wonders at him more than most; while Ehren has part-way dismissed him as a feckless reprobate, Tavi knows there's more to the story than that. Tavi, after all, has seen the way Max's story is carved on his back.
"I don't understand why you do this to yourself," the boy mutters one night after having dumped Max into a cold bath half-a-dozen times. "You couldn't have caroused so ridiculously while you were serving in the Legions. There's nothing wrong with your head. So, why?"
There's everything wrong with his brain. With his guts. His blood, his very body, conceived outside of anything so secure as marriage. For a single moment, Max is tempted to tell Calderon everything, the whole bloody embarrassing truth of it. But his jaws lock. He forces a smile, a task made easier for all the practice he's had smoothing out its jagged edges.
"G-got to live while you can, Calderon," he says, climbing out of the bath, shivering. It's as close to the truth he's gotten in years.
And as close as he has any intention of getting because he will not have Calderon burn on a funeral pyre with him. Crows, but that clever little bastard has a future—Tavi could easily make it to Cursor Legate one day, furycraft or no. It's just too bad Max won't be around to see it.
V. Loyalty, part one
There are some days that all Max does is burn in anger. Those are the days he takes special pleasure teaching Brencis and his slives manners; those are the nights he spends wandering from gaming houses to willing women's beds and back again. Round and round in useless, ever-repeating patterns. Because what is the crow begotten point of this charade?
Then he reminds himself that living is the point: Dorotea will kill him one of these days, but he will not roll over and bare his throat to her.
He's got enough self-awareness to know, of course, what bothers him the most—that he would have been a worthy heir. He would have spent every second of every day, spilled every drop of his blood and directed every last shred of his furycraft at his lord father's bidding to protect his lord father's city had that crow-eaten bastard seen fit to bloody take responsibility for where he stuck his prick—for the life he'd ruined and the life he'd cut short. If he'd been brave enough to claim Maximus as his son, not an embarrassment best sent out of sight. If he'd realized that had he spared even a bit of affection for Max, if he'd stopped the beatings, Max would have laid his heart at his father's feet.
He snorts at himself for the maudlin direction his thoughts have taken, because hadn't Max done that already? He'd done it in a hundred million little ways. But his father had ground that heart beneath his heel and hadn't even known he'd done it.
His father does him a good turn or two—he keeps Dorotea away from Wintersend for the years Max spends at the Academy. As far as fatherly affection goes, it's quite a lot, but Max can't help but laugh at the futility of the gesture. His lord father would do better to concentrate on his real son and leave his bastard to try his luck on his own. It's shitty luck, anyway.
Perhaps that's why he's latched on to Calderon so tightly. Calderon is solid. Calderon has a future, furycraft or no. Max had sensed in the other boy a bone-deep sense of integrity, and he'd bet on it. His choice is vindicated when Calderon somehow appears inside the bloody Grey Tower, risking life and limb and patronage to break him out. Him. Antillar Maximus, who no one had seen fit to care for in a very, very long time.
(He'll smile to himself years later when Calderon's true parentage comes to light; no wonder swearing fealty to Princeps Gaius Octavian had been as easy as breathing: he'd already done it in his heart years and years ago.)
Max may have gotten long used to the idea that his life will be short and sweet, but something inside him wrenches when he hears Calderon order Ehren to leave the First Aleran to a doomed final stand on the bridge. He hands Calderon food, and doesn't even have to tie him down to rest (a worry in a category of its own, really, because Calderon doesn't rest inasmuch as he stays still). He knows Tavi, almost better than he knows himself, and knows after all the death and loss and desperation, someone would need to talk Calderon off the mountain of guilt he would have built for himself. Somewhere during the course of the conversation, he starts talking about Androcles, maybe because he hates hearing Calderon sound so defeated, maybe because seeing Crassus with a lion like that was, well, bloody unexpected.
He remembers some peaceful days when he'd manage to shake Crassus and sneak off to the library before they'd set it on fire. It had been a piteously small one with precious few books for a lonely boy, but he'd found the old book of stories, and, oh, how he'd loved it. How many afternoons had he spent in that padded window seat behind the curtains? He'd beg a bit of sweetbread from the kitchens and maybe a flagon of mulberry juice and hide there, blessedly alone. He had been free to daydream. Even better: he had been free to cry. Dorotea had loved it when he cried and even then he hadn't liked to give her that satisfaction.
Then Calderon's eyes start to burn furiously.
It would be the height of irony, Max thinks, to get that bitch off my back to only be killed by Canim the day after. Max feels a smile spread all over his face, feels his heart start to beat faster.
Here we go, he thinks, and races off to find his little shit of a brother.
VII. Longevity, part two
After the battle at the Elinarch, inside Max there is a slow unfurling. He spends a great many nights counting stars, or brushing his horse, just thinking, considering, weighing the possibilities. Marveling, really, at the fact that there are possibilities.
His reaction to Dorotea's disgrace is…decidedly mixed. Something wound impossibly tight inside him, an old, old tension in his gut, has come loose, but there's also a disquieting cloud of nervous energy boiling inside him with nowhere to go and nothing to do but drive him mad. It's strange; he should have expected to feel light as air, to see the world around him grow gravid with possibility, to feel new opportunity thrumming through him. Instead, he feels almost nervous. His head hurts most of the time now.
Crows. What did you do when you had the rest of your life to plan? It is enough to drive a body mad.
Magnus hands him a cup of hot tea one night. "A bull for your thoughts?"
Max glances at the old Cursor. "What's that?"
"An old Romanic saying. You've been quiet." He smiles, eyes twinkling. "I never thought I'd say this, but without your endless stream of complaints, there's something missing in the air."
"Always happy to oblige." Max smiles back. "Thinking about the future, mostly. Not something I've had much practice at, you see."
"I imagine not. Have you come to any decisions?"
"Just that...just that I don't have to decide anything yet. I have time." The words feel alien on his tongue. He says them again, just to get used to their weight. "I have time. If the Canim don't kill me and if the Captain doesn't hatch some mad scheme that gets us all blasted to smithereens and if I'm not stabbed in the back by some turncloak while sulking in some alley on Cursor business, that is."
"Ah," Magnus says, "such a luxury, youth."
"And such a luxury, old age. I'm Maximus ex Cursori now. And a Tribune, too. I'll let...I think I'll let it sit for now."
"Just so. I'm glad to see that you've got the right perspective about it. In my years, my boy, I've come to see that having the burden of choice is almost more difficult than not having a choice at all." Magnus' thin hand pats his shoulder. "Almost, but never more."
"I'm coming to see that now," Max says. "Strange, isn't it? I never loved her, not like Crassus does. But…" he rubs his chest. A foolish, sentimental weight has settled into his heart; Max knows what it's like to lose a mother, and he wouldn't wish that pain on anyone. "Something's missing here anyway."
"I suppose you couldn't spend your entire life hating a person and suddenly move on after their loss." Magnus settles himself more comfortably. "You've spent years and years despising her. All of that energy has lost its outlet."
"I thought as much." Max lets out a snort of humorless laughter. "She needed only look as far as the amount of thought and energy and hate I'd devoted to her over the years. Have you ever seen a more dutiful stepson, Magnus?" He squints up at the stars. "Crows, what a short-sighted idiot she was. I was five when my mother died. She could have molded me anyway she liked, you know—cultivated me with the smallest effort, gotten a general for Crassus and revenge on my father at the same time."
"Do you really think so?" Magnus shakes his head. "No, no, my boy. You are too much like your father. Obstinate asses until the end, both of you. She saw that, I believe, just like anyone around you can see it." He pauses for a moment. "I know that each of us comes to the game for his or her own reasons, but I always wanted to know. Why did you consent to Cursor training, lad?"
Max feels his mouth stretch in a smile. "I don't exactly have the temperament for it, do I?"
"I'd always assumed you'd go for a career in the Legions. We all did."
Max nods. "I always thought so, too. Truthfully, I consented because both my lord father and my stepmother despise Gaius. They hate him for completely different reasons, of course, but that's one thing they can agree on. By becoming a Cursor, I managed to spit in more than one eye in one move."
Magnus snorts. "An elegant solution, if inelegantly put."
"I thought so, too. Besides," Max goes on, smiling, "Scipio and Ehren needed someone to look after them. And I didn't expect to do it for very long, anyway."
"Will you be remaining in the Crown's service in that capacity?"
He thinks of the silver bull hanging around his neck, thinks of the weight of it. "For now," Max says. "At least until the end of this assignment."
"Think on it," Magnus says gravely, creaking to his feet. "After all, as you said, you've got time now, and I'm glad you've given thought to the future. I wanted to make sure you were all right."
"Fine," Max says, swallowing a lump in his throat. "Thank you, Maestro."
Max watches the old mad slip away and considers the possibilities.
VIII. Loyalty, part two
Veradis blinks her tea-drop eyes up at him, then looks back down to the too-bright silver bull in his hand. "Really? You're a Cursor?"
"You don't have to sound so surprised by it." He bounces the coin in his palm. "My preferred training has been in the military capabilities and dispositions of the various High Cities and their Lords. Something I know a thing or two about."
She shakes her head. "That isn't it. I'm just…well, I never thought you'd be very interested in political intrigue."
"That's why I've been serving as his highness's principle military adviser in my capacity as a Cursor and as Captain of the First." His smiles down at the coin, then at Veradis. "Though I suppose I'll have to give up both of those titles now."
She jerks a little. "Why?"
"Didn't you know? Cursors are not allowed to get married." He pauses, considering. "Well, it's a little bit like banning legionares from getting married, and everyone's known forever that that's the possible worst thing you could to prevent marriages in the first place."
"Lord and Lady Calderon did it," she says, frowning.
He wants to kiss the achingly familiar wrinkle between her eyebrows. He loves touching her, loves watching her lose the hard shine of regality and competence and composure during their lovemaking, but he absolutely adores this: watching her worry over some little incongruity, gnawing and gnawing away at it until she'd stripped it to its bones. He kisses her forehead; he's always been crap at containing his impulses anyway. "Yeah. That still surprises me."
"That they managed to be married for so long. How they stayed that way while she was—" he smiles a little "—skulking about assassinating people in the shadows and he was regulating steadholts in the hinterlands is a mystery, isn't it." But then maybe he shouldn't be so surprised. Calderon had told him once that he'd known he'd be marrying Kitai from the ripe old age of seventeen. The entire family is mad.
She intertwines their fingers, frowning all the more ferociously. He lets her sit in silence for a while. Another sign of growing up: long silences no longer bother him. Only a few years ago he would have been babbling some nonsense just to fill it; now it flows over and around him, and it helps nurture that seed in his heart, one that he's been calling such various names as peace and self-satisfaction.
Finally, she speaks. "But if marriage among the Cursors works in the same way as that between legionares and their common-law wives, then…" She looks up at him, grave and solemn and a balm. "Why should you give it up?"
"Because my personal loyalty will be to you now." He'd thought that would make her happy. Instead, she looks away, her jaw working. He reaches out, turns her face back towards him. "What's the matter?"
"I don't like this," she says quietly. "I don't like that you have to give up so much of yourself to marry me." Her voice roughens. "You're taking my father's name, my father's city. You're giving up so much to be with me, and I don't like that you have to make that sacrifice."
Perhaps this is what love is—not violent swells of desire, not reams of passionate poetry written by feverish minds late into the night, but this: to see the other's discomfort and distress and ache for them, the warmth of two hands holding tight, the compassion in a cup of tea shared at twilight after a long day. He shifts closer to her on settee, pulling her flush against him, and she fits into all his hollow places. "It's not a sacrifice," he says quietly. "Being a Cursor never sat very well with me to begin with. And I feel like I should thank you, Veradis, for a quite a lot of things, but especially this: you're giving me a name and a home."
She tilts her face and looks into his eyes. Max feels her gaze as he would a beam of bright sun on a cold winter morning. "Truly?"
He kisses her. Her lips, soft. Her skin, the finest silk. His life with her stretches out before him and he feels at peace. "Truly."
IX. Mother, part two
"There you are," a soft voice says from the door.
Max looks up. His wife stands in the doorway, wrapped in a robe. Even in the ghostly light from the dim furylamp, she still looks worn. "I thought I'd hold her off for a bit, let you get some rest."
She shakes her head, smiling. "That's very sweet of you, but she's not going to wait. Where's the nursemaid?"
"Dismissed her." As though on cue, Nephele stirs in his arms, mewling and waving a tiny fist. "Ah, well. It was worth a try."
Veradis crosses the room to him as she undoes the sash at her waist. "Off the chair, Maximus."
"Nope," Max says. "Here, take her."
Veradis takes Nephele from him. "That is my nursing chair, Maximus."
"I know," he says, and he pulls both of them down into his lap. Veradis lets out a slow, long breath as tension seeps out of her, and shifts Nephele about, opening her robe and the neck of her nightgown, popping her nipple into Nephele's mouth. He feels her stiffen a little bit, then relax.
He smooths a had down Veradis' back. "Still hurts?"
"I don't think it will ever stop hurting. All your children are ravenous." She slants him a glance from beneath her eyelashes. "I really should have expected it."
"We still could get a wet nurse."
"And I told you that I like doing this." She tsks. "It's what the female breast is made for, you know, not for your edification."
"Of course not," he says, smiling, "though the edification is a lovely side-effect." She gazes down at his wife and his child. From his vantage point, he only can see the white mound her Veradis' breast and Nephele's face, half-obscured. They had done this sort of thing often enough with the boys, when he'd watched how Veradis held and cared for them the way a man dying of thirst would drink water. Now it feels as natural as breathing.
She leans her head against his shoulder. "Why were you awake? Couldn't sleep?"
"Restless, I suppose."
"Pity." He can hear the smile in her voice. "I'm still hoping to come across some enterprising woman throwing herself at you. Again."
He rolls his eyes. "I don't think we're in danger of that ever happening again."
"I suppose I overdid it?"
"Not by much," he snorts. "She wasn't actually unconscious."
"Lady Casca leapt over the table, Maximus, for the express purpose of fainting in your arms while I was sitting right next to you. She sent me the most malicious little smile as she did it." She sniffs. "And to compound the sin, she didn't even faint convincingly." She shifts, moving Nephele to the other breast.
"Unforgivable." He kisses her cheek. "You surprised the crows out of me. At least you made Crassus laugh." He'd started to fear his little brother had forgotten how to do that.
"I surprised myself, I think. I'd never suspected that I would turn out to be such an authoritative slapper of unconvincing actresses. And do not swear around the children, if you please."
"My abject apologies," he says, and watches their daughter peek up at him with eyes as dark as her mother's. There's something about daughters after all; he loves his sons, of course, even if they seemed to be set on a single-minded course to give him white hair before he's reached his thirtieth year, but Max knows all too well the sort of depths to which a young man's mind might sink when looking upon young ladies. He would reduce to ashes any crow-eaten slive who even looked at his daughter the wrong way. Or looked at her at all. On general principle.
Veradis props Nephele on her shoulder for burping, then deposits the baby in the bassinet. "She hasn't even learned to walk yet, Maximus. Honestly. Leave your bloodthirsty thoughts and come to bed," she says.
Max looks down at the baby, the soft tuft of brown hair, the half-moons of her eyelashes, his heart so full it almost hurts. "In a moment."
His wife sighs and takes his hand. "Come along, Maximus."
"Yes, my lady," he says, and walks with her to their bedchamber.
Every night, Max asks himself a single question: if today was the last day of my life, would I be satisfied?
More often than not, the answer is yes.