Minerva’s Ink 1/?
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Notes: This is a casually historical story. Please don’t hope for super historical accuracy, but it’s likely to be more accurate than not. Also, this is a supernatural story. It might get scary.
When a man’s heart has gone dark, it isn’t like the dead of winter and one must just tide over the lean months until spring comes again, warming the ground and bringing ready smiles. No. When a man’s heart darkens the hope of returning light is often in vain. Felix Barbatius stared at the approaching shore, elbows on the railing of the ship, and saw no beauty in anything.
Around his neck hung a cylinder that protected a letter from the Emperor Vespasian, which at least was honor, if not light. An edge of military service still imprinted his posture, his movements, even though his hair had grown out a bit and now danced on the breeze as the ship rushed towards the town. The ocean and his eyes were a deep Mediterranean blue. A whip of a man, there was a touch of rabbit to him too, a wariness that took to open places rarely, that found home in the underbrush and back ways of the world.
His mother was a true daughter of Rome who had risked her life and honor to save his father. The width of her courage and resolve were shown both in his father’s saved life and in the fact that Felix had blue eyes. Neither had ever looked at him as anything less than proof of the gods’ approval. At ten he’d followed his father back to the army. At twelve he was an army scout, using those blue eyes, raven hair, and disarming smile to pass among the Gauls.
At twenty-two, he was sent to serve the Emperor Vespasian. It mattered not to Felix. The love his parents had had could not bloom in a winter heart such as his. Emperors do not truly love letter carriers, not outside the curtains of the bed. As the chill had grown in Vespasian’s fingers, a matching chill had grown in Felix’s being, such that he could never remember something other than soul winter.
“Felix!” Albius called, head sticking up from below. “We’re going to dice. Join us?”
He turned his back to Pompeii and the emperor’s blue eyed letter carrier felt the sharp nails of fate dance up the back of his neck. “Not now,” he said, smiling, friendly, casual. He’d known the men on this ship for several years. In the recent years, there had been more and more letters, less spring. “Thanks though.”
“As you will,” Albius said with a shrug. “Cook’s got food, if you want some.”
“Thanks,” Felix said, turning back to the growing town on the horizon. He told himself the cold chill down his back was just the ocean air, not the death of the emperor. Elbows on the railing, he knew that was coming though and no wishing it off would hold back that wind. He also told himself that the wet on his cheek was ocean water and nothing more.
The sun was higher in the sky and the ocean more domesticated by the time the ship was tied off and he strode down to the dock. Traveling light, he had only the emperor’s letter and a small sack over one shoulder, his sword, and enough coin to be comfortable.
In a moment of irritation, Vespasian had once said that Felix could be warmed enough by the amount of coin he’d been given. If coin warmed a man’s heart, then he should have been in an endless summer.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of something blue, blue as the ocean, but sharper. It took his eyes a moment to focus on the source. A man, slender and pale like a Gaul in the winter, with hair like a raven and eyes of startling blue stood there staring at him. It took the man a moment to realize he was being started at in return. Felix grinned at the look of surprise, the parting of soft pink lips.
On the most unexpected whim, Felix winked at him.
Color splashed on the man’s face.
Someone else getting off the ship jostled into Felix and he looked over, stepping out of the way. When he looked back, Blue Eyes was gone.
He smirked, reached up to his chin, stroking his goatee, smirking.
There was a moment of guilt. Less than a candle mark before he’d been crying over the lover he had, but there was a spring in his step as he went in search of some decent food to eat. Just as he was about to turn up the street, enticed by some delicious smelling seafood, he turned to look back out at the bay and unlike on his way in, now it seemed brilliantly beautiful. Maybe he would stay a week in Pompeii, see if that did not raise his spirits. If his own were raised, maybe that might lift Vespasian too.
He ducked into a shop whose sign promised bread and crab. The place wasn’t fancy. The cement counter had four different hot options, bubbling and thick, crab and garum, and it was enough to make his mouth water. He smiled at the woman behind the counter. Her one dark eye glared at him. “What’d’ya want?”
His smile faltered, but only because he was trying to be more polite and less unconventional. He pointed at the two he wanted and the warming thick bread, then hastily pulled out his bowl from his sack and held it out. She filled it up and held onto it while her hand was out for the coin. He dropped the right coin into her hand and she held out his bowl.
As he was pulling his bowl back, a smooth hand came from beside him and dropped a red poppy onto his bread. His eyes followed that arm up to the man with blue eyes. “What’s your name,” he asked.
Blue Eyes blinked back, smiling almost shyly.
The woman behind the counter’s breath caught and she smacked her ladle down on the counter, drawing Felix’s attention back. “You get out of my shop! You’re cursed, you hear me! You’ll be dead in a week and ain’t noone gonna find yer body ta bury ya. Get outta mah shop an’don’t come back!”
“You have a nice day too,” he said. When he looked back, the other man was gone, but the red poppy remained. He felt about as far from cursed as he’d ever felt.