Part 1

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Aurelius glanced once again at the striking man in uniform, standing tall under the hot Alexandria sun. The square was empty now, most people having gone to lunch, rest or simply hide from the merciless heat. Yet, he stood next to the table, unwavering, seemingly unaffected by the burning rays.

It was not the first time Aurelius had seen him. The Roman army devoted time and effort on recruitment, hoping to attract the younger generation into a glorious service. And they even use their best men for the job, Aurelius thought, sending another furtive glance to the fair centurion dressed in a tunic and heavy high-strapped sandals. Ruggedly handsome with dazzling blue eyes set in a carved face, he had not escaped Aurelius’s hungry gaze, holding it tight with his heavy nose, thick lips and especially the short light-brown hair that turned golden under the sunlight.

Probably Greek origins, Aurelius mused, rather than classical Roman. Being a mixed race himself—Egyptian mother and Roman father—he sympathized with the man for half-breeds seldom had a place of their own in Roman society. Luckily, the army welcomed them warmly and more than one had made their fortunes.

This particular man did not seem to need it. Aurelius perceived his open disposition even at a distance, feeling the yearning again. He would have liked to walk to him, shamefacedly asking to know him better, though he did not intend to join the army. Or rather, the thought had crossed his mind every time his father insisted on his marrying a nice woman and settling down to continue the family business. But Aurelius was not sure he could fulfill his wishes.

Being a Roman citizen, his father had traveled the Empire’s vast expanse, in search of adventure. And money, it seemed to Aurelius. A trader at heart, Aurelius Ladeo Arianus had tried his hand on anything worth selling or buying, finally settling with the perfumed oil business in Egypt. All my mother’s fault, Aurelius, his son, asserted. And Arianus had stayed for her, blending in perfectly. Despite his nickname, he was as dark skinned as his son, black hair and eyes a family trait that the Romans made fun of, using the Northerners notorious whiteness as an ironic appellative. This was often the only distinction between a father’s and a son’s name, Aurelius knew. Despite the physical resemblance, his nickname was—

“Hey, Pullus, aren’t you tired of looking me over at a distance?” the deep voice speaking in the local dialect cut through his thoughts.

Startled, Aurelius looked around, hoping the centurion had addressed someone else. But he had no such luck.

“Come here!” the soldier ordered, still speaking the local tongue, gesturing to get closer.

Swallowing hard, Aurelius obeyed.

“Attilio Metrono Tacitus to serve you,” the fair man nodded curtly. “And you are?”

“Aurelius Ladeo—“

“Pullus,” Attilio concluded, switching to a perfect Latin. “A Roman citizen, right?”

“I…yes, my father is a Roman citizen.”

“And are you interested in becoming a legionary as well?” His sparkling blue gaze mocked him. “Or is there some other reason why you passed me by at least…” he creased his forehead as if mentally counting, “oh, I’d say a hundred times in the past three days.”

Aurelius blushed violently. “I—“

“Whatever your interest,” the centurion moved closer, his powerful frame shadowing Aurelius, “I could tell you all about army life before I sign you up.”

Heart pounding in his throat and ears, Aurelius tried to focus on the words rather than the man. “I don’t want to join the army,” he confessed. “Besides, I have to get to the harbor or my father will kill me if I don’t tend to his latest shipment.”

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