Without a word, Gracus stepped to the leather box and extricated Kezia. He removed the bracelet roughly and dropped it onto the commander's chair. He cast only one look at Polla from under his eyebrows as he turned to leave the room, a drooping Kezia under his arm, but was startled by her composure and her beauty.
“Thank you,” he said awkwardly, unsure as to her motive for such an actionâand such a lie. For he knew she was not telling the truth. He stalked out of the room, inexplicably angry with himself and with Polla.
Surely she will be beaten. Why did she tell such a lie? Was she attempting to protect the cat, or me? She is so very beautifulâperhapsâperhaps if the commander tires of her, as he has tired of so many other women before, I may purchase her. Her speech is untutored and harsh to the ears. But Citus could easily remedy that. And it would be pleasant to return to my tent when we are on a campaign and have her waiting there.
WEEK LATER, Gracus went to the stables to see about his chariot horse. It was still early in the morning, and Polla stood in the doorway to the commander's quarters. She looked at the centurion and dropped her head, watching him from under her lashes. He stopped and waited until she raised her head again.
“My servant related to me a most amazing tale,” he began and stepped a few paces closer.
She is beautiful; only see her eyes. I wonder how much the legatus paid for her. Would she go with me willingly?
“My foolish cat was punished for her theft, for she nearly drowned in the stream while wearing your beautiful bracelet. My servant rescued her by plucking her from the current. But what renders the story amazingâhe swore to me her sister cat was trying to keep the tabby from being swept downstream.”
She drew her eyebrows together, concentrating on his words. “I understand you. That one cat tried to hold fast the other?”
“So Citus insists.”
She smiled at him. “They isâareâremarkable creatures, cats. I think they much kinder than humans eventimes.”
He was a little puzzled. “Do you mean sometimes?”
“That must be the word, yes.” She turned to go inside, and Gracus's eyes narrowed as he saw thin scabs from the whipping she had received still evident upon the backs of her arms.
The skin on her back must be torn to shreds. The legatus was too harsh with her.
She cleared her throat. “Is it you will permit me to enjoy your catsâsometimes?”
“Do you mean you wish to play with them?”
“Certainly you may do so. I would gladly give you one of them, but they are seldom apart. And as I dreamed of them traveling together, I fear the gods might be angry if I separated them.”
She nodded and left the doorway. Gracus resumed walking toward the stables, his mind no longer on his horse.
A few weeks later, the summer days and nights differed only by a few degrees' temperature from one another, and the cats sought the shade of the trees. Polla whiled away the hot hours by playing with the young cats.
Abishag lay a little apart from the others in the shade. Washing a front paw, she was trying not to think about how overly warm she was when she heard a voice call her name.
“Abishag, my young feline,” the voice began. She lifted her nose and sniffed, then scowled.
“Asmodeusâphew! It has to be youâno one else stinks as badly as you do. What do you want?”
“No need to be rude, my dear cat,” Asmodeus cautioned and moved toward her slightly. “I merely wanted to inquire as to your future plans.”
“Well, you seem to be dallying here at the garrison quarters such a long time. Are you not supposed to be traveling in search of the Messiah?”
Abishag's eyes grew round as she gasped, “What do you know of our mission to find the Messiah?”
The rat sat upon his haunches and picked up his tail with one paw, smoothing and caressing it with the other.
“I know everything, my kitten. You must remember I heard you and the old cat, whispering and planning secretly while the others slept, unknowing and unworried.”
“What do you mean? We had no secret plans.”
Asmodeus snickered. “No? You did not tell them of the hunger, the bad weather, and the dangers they would be facing, did you? Nor did you tell them they might not ever eturn home.”
The small black cat shivered. His tone of voice was insinuating, evil. It made her fur feel as if something had brushed it the wrong way. She drew a breath and deliberately began washing her paw again to give herself time to think.
I am sure my foster sister and brother knew of the terrible dangers we would all face as we traveled. Ptolemy did not try to hide anything from us. We felt we were indeed chosen by a greater power than we to make this journey.
“Isn't it peculiar the old cat, that devout religious scholar, did not come with you? Did he know the odds of three unsophisticated catsâsuch young, naive onesâsucceeding, especially without a wiser head to guide you? I would assume his paws would be first upon the path; that is, if he believed his own words about the prophecies.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Ptolemy could not accompany us because he has to care for the old astronomer. He would gladly have come with us otherwise.”
Asmodeus draped his ugly, broken tail over his forepaw as if it were a toga. He looked at it instead of at Abishag, continuing, “Such loyalty is touching. It warms my heart to hear you speak so highly of the old cat. He will be gratified when I speak to him of your steadfastness.”
Abishag snorted. “Ptolemy won't listen to anything you have to say. Now leave before I pounce on you.”
With a smile that merely stretched the corners of his mouth, Asmodeus edged close to the cat and leaned toward her ear. “He
hear what I have to say to him if I am the only one who returns.” The rat slipped into the shadows under the trees once again.
Rising to her feet, Abishag stretched and yawned, doing her best to appear unconcerned in case the wily rat was still watching. Her tail up and her head high, she calmly walked back to Gracus's quarters. The other two cats would not know of the worries the rat's whispers had caused to reappear, nor how fast her little heart was beating.
NOTHER TWO WEEKS passed. Gracus purchased Polla and then moved them all into larger quarters, stolidly enduring the good-natured ribbing of his men.
They had been at the garrison headquarters now for seven weeks. Ira's leg was healed and strong once again even though the long bone was crooked. “As long as it doesn't keep me from marching with the men, I don't care,” he told his foster sisters. Kezia rolled her eyes.
“I don't think anyone would mistake you for a Roman soldier, Ira,” she told him, cuffing him lightly with her paw. She settled herself in their basket again and yawned.
Gracus suddenly appeared in the doorway. Polla looked up from laboriously stitching a
for him and smiled.
“You have received your new orders, master,” she stated, judging circumstances from the look upon his face.
“I have, and we go to the harbor in two days, to sail for Tyre. From there I shall proceed to Zeugma, to assist in training men for the legions in Anatolia. That may assist my career exceedingly, for those eight legions are responsible for guarding the trade routes to the far lands and protecting our eastern borders.”
“What is this Tyre?” Polla asked. “And what do you mean, that you shall train the men? You do not go alone, forgetting us!”
“Your command of the language is surely increasing.” Gracus grinned at her. “Most especially if you now can argue in Latin instead of your mother tongue.”
The three cats sat up abruptly from dozing in their basket. A chilly breeze that morning had sent them indoors instead of outside under the trees as usual.
“What is he talking about?” Kezia whispered.
“Shhh!” Ira hissed. “I want to hear our new orders!”
new orders,” Abishag corrected the other black cat. “Remember, we're supposed to be with him only to find the Messiah.”
Gracus was explaining to Polla their upcoming travels.
“Tyre is the biggest port in all of the Roman Empire. You will see galleons, huge warships, and many other ships and boats. Every soldier going to war or to serve in farther lands must pass through Tyre. And Zeugma! What I hear from other commanders is that my pay will suffice to purchase us a fine house upon the hillside and enjoy some of the best things the gods choose to share with us.”
Polla threw her arms about his neck. “You do intend to take us with you! You do not mean to forget us and depart us here!”
Gracus laughed. “My favored one, your mastery of Latin deserts you when you grow excited. I will not leave you nor forget you, for I cannot leave behind my heart.”
Kezia sighed. “He loves her! Isn't that wonderful? Now we have a real home, with two people to love us and a servant to look after us.”
Abishag shook her head. “We travel with them only to find the Christ child. Yes, they have been very good to us. But we must fulfill the prophecy.”
Kezia yawned. “Oh, quit worrying so about the prophecies. You're beginning to sound like Ptolemy.”
“I wish he were with us,” Abishag murmured, watching Citus as the servant moved about the room, already beginning to sort things for the trip.
Finally, we have a way to the harbor and passage. And I will not believe the awful things Asmodeus whispered about Ptolemy. He would not have sent us on this journey if he did not believe we would return to him.
The next day Gracus went alone to the harbor, to arrange passage for three humans, his chariot and horse, and the cats, for neither he nor Polla wished to leave them behind.
Striding along amid the ships being loaded and unloaded, bundles and amphorae cradled in nets pulled up by men sweating in the humid air of the harbor, Gracus hoped to find a good ship with an honest captain. Shouts and curses in strange languages sounded in his ears, and odd creatures shrieked from cages sitting on the docks; once, something pursued by a seaman scuttled past his feet in their leather
as he continued his search.
So far the ships and captains he recognized he did not wish to sail with; as a veteran soldier in the service of the emperor, he had some experience already with travel upon the Mediterranean Sea.
Suddenly a heavy hand that lacked half of three fingers fell upon his shoulder, and he turned abruptly to face whoever had accosted him.
“Seeking passage, are you?” the man demanded, craning his neck closer to Gracus so that the man's one functioning eye could see him clearly. A hideous scar that ran the length of his face brought attention to his milk-white left eye. His scowl revealed a front tooth banded in gold, and he kept his hand upon Gracus's shoulder.
“Alexos!” Gracus exclaimed and pulled the captain's remnant of a hand from his shoulder into a warm handshake with both his own. “I am blessed by the gods yet again, for I would dare sail with you in pursuit of Poseidon's treasure, should you desire that golden hoard!”
The captain abruptly dropped the handshake and spat into the dirty waters of the harbor. “Take no offense, great Poseidon,” he said to counter Gracus's compliment to his skill in sailing. “This land dweller knows nothing of the powers of your seas. Do not vent your anger at his ignorance upon myself and my poor ship.”
The two men took their midday meal together in a tavern, and Gracus regaled his friend with tales of life in the barracks with his oddly assorted family.
“So you wish to bring your cats along with us,” Alexos remarked as Gracus finished his cup of wine.