Imagine a dark movie theater, and a deep cheesy voice intoning “In a world where heroes were few . . .”
Yep, it's Preview of Coming Attractions time: one month till publication date of my third book “Empress of the Seven Hills” (or in the UK, “Empress of Rome”). As promised, I'm posting Chapter One as a sneak peek. This is the sequel to “Mistress of Rome,” and in the first chapter you'll see plenty of old friends from my first book: Marcus and Calpurnia, even a glimpse of Arius and Thea. But most of all, this is the story of the two resourceful children in “Mistress of Rome,” brash Vix and thoughtful Sabina, now all grown up and looking for trouble.
When I was thirteen, an astrologer told me I’d lead a legion someday, a legion that would call me Vercingetorix the Red. Astrologers are usually horseshit, but that funny little man was right about everything: I got the nickname, and I even got the legion, though it took longer than it should have. But why didn’t that astrologer tell me any of the important things? Why didn’t he tell me that Emperors can be loved, but Empresses are only to be feared? Why didn’t he tell me I’d have to kill the best friend I ever had—on the orders of the worst man I ever knew? And why the hell didn’t he tell me about the girl in the blue veil I met the same day I got all these predictions?
That bitch. Not that I guessed: we were just children, me a skinny slave boy, her a pretty girl in a blue veil, all bruised up (never mind why). The first girl I ever kissed, and she had a sweet mouth. I suppose that made me soft when I met her again later, after we’d both grown up. If that astrologer was so good, couldn’t he have warned me about her? “Girl in blue, beware.” What would that have cost him? She cost me
plenty over the years, I can tell you.
But that’s getting ahead of things. I’m Vercingetorix: “Vix” to my friends, “the Red” to my men, and “that pleb bastard” to my enemies. I’ve served four Emperors: killed one, loved one, befriended one, and maybe should have killed the other. I’m Vercingetorix, and I have a story to tell.
SPRING a.d. 102
I won’t bore you with my beginnings. They weren’t so illustrious anyway—my mother was a slave, and my father was a gladiator, and you can’t get much lower than that. If you follow the games in the Colosseum, then I can guarantee you’ve heard of my father, but I won’t tell you his name. The world thinks he’s dead, and that’s the way he likes it. He ended up on a mountaintop in the northern-most part of Britannia, torturing a patch of ground he calls a garden, and he’s happy. My mother’s happy too, singing at her work and producing babies to fill up the villa she got for doing an empress a favor (don’t ask what), but when I hit eighteen after nearly five years in Britannia, I got bored. It was better than what we’d come from, but I’d gotten used to excitement, and a mountaintop house filled with babies isn’t much excitement. Plus there was a girl in one of the neighboring houses who was starting to give me the eye, and we might have had some fun behind the barn once or twice but I didn’t want to marry her, and I didn’t think much of my chances if my father decided I should marry her. I was big at eighteen, but my father was bigger, and weapons might come easy to me but I didn’t stand a chance against him. So I lit out for Rome, the center of everything, and my father was dubious but he gave me an amulet to keep me safe and a purse to keep me fed. My mother cried, but that might have been the baby she was starting.
Not much use describing the journey. It was wet, it was long, I lost my purse to a bastard of an Armenian sailor who cheated at dice, and I lost my dinner countless times over the bow. I hated boats. Still do. But I got to Rome. My parents hate Rome with all their hearts, and maybe they should after what they lived through. But I took one step off that reeking shit-hole of a boat and took in a deep breath, and I knew I was home.
Everyone describes Rome. Everyone fails. It’s not like anything else on earth. I hitched my pack higher on my shoulder, turned a circle, and gawped. I’d been raised in Brundisium, back in the days when my mother was still a slave, and had come to the great city itself only later. I hadn’t been able to do much exploring back then, and I’d never gotten to know the city well. Nothing to keep me from drinking it all in now: the stink, the noise, the crush; the whores in their dark robes and the sailors in their brass earrings; the vendors waving wares under my nose and the urchins trying their best to get grimy fingers into my purse. It was life, raw and noisy life as fresh as blood flowing right out of the vein.
The dock swayed under my feet. I lurched my way up the wharf, keeping one hand on the knife at my belt. Plenty of people in Rome willing to stick a knife in you first and figure out second if you had anything worth stealing. “My kind of city,” I said aloud, and got a dirty look from a housewife with a basket on her arm. I kissed my fingers at her and she hurried along. I watched her hips in the rough dress—hips like barrels, but I’d been a month on that shit-hole boat without a woman in sight, and I wasn’t picky. Even more than food I wanted a girl, but I didn’t have enough coin in my purse even for a cheap one.
Girls would have to wait. “Where’s the Capitoline Hill from here?” I asked a passing sailor in rusty Latin, and was promptly told to go screw myself. But a vendor hawking brass pans was more helpful, and I slung my pack over my shoulder and set off whistling.
Strange how much of the city I remembered. I hadn’t seen it since I was thirteen, but I felt like I’d left only yesterday. The crowds thinned once I got past the Forum Romanum with its spicy smells of meat and bread, and I let my hand loosen on the knife hilt and my feet wander. I spent some time staring at the marbled expanse of palace that covered half the Palatine Hill, remembering a black-eyed madman and his games, until an irritable Praetorian guard in red and gold told me to move along. “All palace guards look as pretty as you?” I shot back. “Or have I been on a boat too long?”
“Move along,” he growled, and helped me down the street with his spear haft. Praetorians: no sense of humor.
I spent a little longer staring up at the vast marble roundness of the Colosseum. Not the first time I’d seen it by any means—but I’d forgotten the sheer looming menace of it. No place on earth looms like that one, with its arches and plinths and statues in niches that stare out with blind arrogant eyes. That stretch of sand inside held all my father’s nightmares, and a few of mine. I’d never told him that, but he knew. Anyone who’d ever fought for their life in that place knew.
It’s many years later now, and I’m well into middle age. I’ve been in more fights than I can count, but none of them come back to me in my sleep like the ones that happened in the Colosseum. I’d killed my first man on those sands, back when I was just a child. A big Gaul who hadn’t really wanted to kill me, and maybe it made him slow enough so I could kill him first. Not much of an initiation into manhood.
I stared up at the arena a while longer, fingering the little amulet my father had given me and wondering how men could build such fantastical places just for the purpose of mass killing—and then I shrugged and wandered on toward the Capitoline Hill. A quieter place, the streets smoothly paved, the women in silk rather than wool, the slaves wearing the badge of one illustrious family or another as they hurried about their errands. I passed the massive Capitoline Library, where a half-dozen senators in togas hurried in and out with distracted frowns, and I slowed my steps. My mother had said the house was somewhere around here . . .
“Yes?” A slave in a neat tunic looked me up and down dubiously. “Can I help you?”
“Is this the house of Senator Marcus Norbanus?”
“No beggars here—”
“I’m not a bloody beggar. Is this Senator Norbanus’s house or not?”
“Good. I’m here to see him.” The slave was big but I was bigger, and I shouldered past into a narrow hall where a dozen marble busts stared down at me in censorious disapproval. “Quit your squawking,” I told the slave, who had flapped after me. “The senator knows who I am.”
Ten minutes of arguing got me shown to a small atrium to wait. “It may be a while,” the slave sniffed. “The senator is very busy.” One last dubious look, as if the slave were wondering whether it was safe to leave me alone with the valuables, and he finally backed out.
I tipped my head back and surveyed the place. Sunlight poured through the open roof, the floor had a mosaic pattern of rippling vines, and a quiet blue-tiled pool was sunk in the middle of the room. A carved nymph looked over her shoulder at me from the corner, and I’d been long enough without a girl that even her marble breasts looked tempting. I slung my pack on a marble bench and dropped to one knee, plunging my hands into the pool and splashing my face. I looked up to find a pretty little girl gazing at me, clutching a carved wooden horse and sucking her thumb.
“Hello, sprat.” She looked four or five, the same age as my own little sister. “Who are you?”
She gazed at me solemnly through a fringe of blond hair.
“Don’t suppose you belong to Senator Norbanus?”
She inspected her little thumb for a moment, then went back to sucking on it.
“Could you get me in to see your father?”
“Could you at least tell me where the lavatorium
is? I could use a piss.”
“There’s one down the hall,” a voice said behind me.
I turned and saw another girl, this one about my own age. Thin, brown hair, blue dress. “I’m waiting for Senator Norbanus,” I said.
“There’s time.” She picked up the little girl, parting her gently from the thumb, and moved down the hall with that blind confidence all aristocrats seemed to have, not needing to look back to know that I would follow. I followed her to the lavatorium.
“There’s water if you want to wash,” she said, and I took the hint. Romans took a lot more baths than anyone in Britannia. I used a basinful of water and washed the shipboard grime off my face and neck.
“Better?” The patrician girl smiled as I came back into the hall.
“Much, Lady.” I tried my best bow, rusty since I hadn’t used it in a while. Not many baths in Britannia, but not many people to bow to either. “Thank you.”
She studied me a moment longer, then smiled suddenly. She had small teeth, a little crooked but nicely so. “Ah,” she said.
A sturdy blond woman in yellow silk came swooping down the hall, bearing a baby on her hip. “Sabina, have you seen—oh, there she is.” Swinging the little girl up onto her other hip. “Faustina, you’re supposed to be with your nurse! Who’s this?” The woman gave me a distracted glance, juggling the two round-eyed children.
“This is Vercingetorix,” the girl in blue said tranquilly, and didn’t that give me a jolt. “He’s waiting to see Father.”
“Well, don’t keep him long,” the woman advised me. “My husband works very hard. Faustina, Linus, it’s time for your bath—” She moved off in a bright spot of yellow, the children crowing over her shoulder.
“How did you know my name?” I demanded as the girl in blue moved back into the atrium.
She glanced back over her shoulder. “You don’t remember me?”
“Um . . .”
“Never mind.” She brushed that away. “Why are you waiting to see my father?”
“I’m just back to Rome from Britannia. My mother said he’d likely help me—look, how did you know—”
“You were right to come here. Father helps everybody.” She summoned the steward and spoke a few quiet words. “I’ll jump you to the front of the line.”
And just like that, I was in.
Senator Marcus Norbanus was the kind who puts you on your best behavior. My father had the same effect on people, but mostly because you knew he’d knock the head off your shoulders if you got on his bad side. Senator Norbanus didn’t look like the knocking type—he was nearly seventy, and he had gray hair and a crooked shoulder and ink stains on his fingers. But he had me sitting up straight and minding my language inside the first minute.
“Vercingetorix,” he mused. “I’ve often wondered how you and your family were faring.”
“Very well, Senator.”
“I’m glad to hear it. You’ve returned to Rome for good?”
“It’s the center of everything.”
“It is that.” He rotated a stylus between his fingers. His study was cheerfully cluttered, pens and parchment and slates on every surface. He had more scrolls than I’d ever seen in one place in my life. “What were you planning to do here in Rome?”
“Thought about the legions.” All I’d wanted once was to be a gladiator, but I got over that fast enough once I had a taste of it. Gladiating aside, there wasn’t much else for a boy with a talent for weapons except the legions. Besides, even a slave-born boy could rise in the Roman army . . .
“I wonder if you’re aware of the commitment one makes in joining the legions.” Senator Norbanus laid his stylus aside. “How old are you?”
“Twenty,” I said.
He looked at me.
“Nineteen,” I amended.
He looked at me some more.
“Nineteen! In a couple of months, anyway.”
“Eighteen, then. I assume you plan on advancement through the ranks?”
I snorted. “Didn’t plan on being a common soldier for life!”
“Plan on being a common soldier for the next twelve years, because you cannot even be made a centurion until you reach thirty.”
“Even then, it’s no guarantee. You will need patronage to make centurion, and I may not still be here in twelve years.” The senator ran a rueful hand through his gray hair.
“Well”—I tried to regroup—“I might not stay in the legions till I’m thirty. There’s other jobs.”
He looked at me, exasperated. “The term of service for a legionary is twenty-five years, Vercingetorix. Sign up now, and you will be forty-three by the time you are allowed to think of other jobs.”
“Didn’t you bother to learn anything about the legions before considering them as a career?”
“The young,” Senator Norbanus muttered. “I don’t suppose you know the pay rate either? Three hundred denarii a year, if you’re curious. Minus your weapons, armor, and rations, of course.”
“Hell’s gates,” I muttered. “You Romans are cheap.”
“I don’t suppose you know about the laws concerning legionaries and marriage, either. Soldiers cannot marry, at least until they make centurion. Even then, they cannot take their wives with them on march. Legion posts, I might add, can last many years far away from Rome.”
“Don’t want a wife,” I said, but my enthusiasm for the legions was definitely waning.
“Think on it,” said Senator Norbanus, his exasperation with me fading a trifle. “I don’t mean to discourage you from army life, but at least know what you’re getting into. There are other options.”
I was already thinking about them. “Like what?”
“Bodyguarding, perhaps? Good guards are always in demand, and I seem to remember you had a way with a sword even as a child.”
“Maybe.” Not much glory in bodyguarding . . .
“Do you have a place to live, Vercingetorix?”
“Just got off the boat.”
“A client of mine owns a small inn in the Subura. He’ll be willing to let rent slide for a week or two, until you find some work. I’ll write you a letter.”
The stylus scratched busily for a moment, and I contemplated the future with gloom. Twenty-five years. Who would sign up for that?
“Here.” The senator sealed the letter. “Stop for a meal in the kitchens before you go. And if you have further thoughts on your future, do come back. I owe your parents a debt, and it will easily encompass any help I can give to you.”
“Thank you, Senator.”
“And speaking of your parents—” His eyes met mine, suddenly cool. “I trust you are not stupid enough to mention their names to anyone? Or Emperor Domitian’s. They are all dead, or at least officially so, and it’s best they stay that way.”
“Yes, sir.” Damn him, I had
been planning to do a little modest trading on my father’s name. There were still some followers of the games who might remember him, maybe give me a job in his name—but the senator looked stern, and I did my best to look innocent.
“Fortuna’s luck to you, then.” He held out the scroll. I took it, bowed, and thumped out, wondering what in hell I was supposed to do if I didn’t join the legions. The only skill I had was fighting.
“Did you get what you wanted?” Sabina asked, looking up from her scroll when the tall boy came slouching back into the atrium. He was scowling blackly, running a rough hand through his shaggy hair.
“Not really.” He scuffed to a stop by the pool, toeing one foot along the blue-tiled edge. “Thought your father might get me into the legions, but now I’m not so sure I want that.”
“Don’t see why I should sell my soul just for a job.”
“Oh, Rome always wants your soul. Didn’t you know that?” Sabina marked her place in the scroll with one finger. “But most people seem to think it’s a fair bargain.”
“You could always be a gladiator,” she suggested.
He jumped, and looked at her again.
“You really don’t remember me, do you?” She’d known him at once, even after four or five years. He looked the same: russet hair and brown arms, big feet and big shoulders and a lot of loosely bolted limbs between them that hadn’t quite caught up. The same, just larger.
He was looking at her warily now. “Should I remember you?”
“Maybe not,” she said. “It was a memorable day, all told.”
“So who are you, Lady?”
She stood up, discarding her scroll, and stepped close against him, putting one hand on the back of his sunburned neck and standing on tiptoe. Inches away, she tilted her head and smiled. “Remember now?”
She could see the click in his eyes. “Sabina,” he said slowly. “Lady Sabina—right?”
“Didn’t know you without the bruises. Otherwise you haven’t changed much.” He looked her over. “First girl I ever kissed.”
“The Young Barbarian? I’m flattered.” Sabina felt his arms begin to sneak up around her waist, and stepped back. “All the little girls loved the Young Barbarian. The year you had your bouts in the Colosseum, your name was on schoolhouse doors inside hearts all over Rome. I told my friends I’d met you, and none of them believed me.”
“You tell them I kissed you?” He took another step toward her, a grin starting around the corners of his mouth.
“I think I was the one who kissed you, actually.” Sabina retrieved her scroll and sat down on the marble bench again. “What’s next for you, if not the legions?”
“Not a gladiator’s life, that’s for damned certain.” He leaned up against the pillar, folding his arms across his chest and cocking his head down at her. “I suppose you’re married now?”
“Gods, no.” On her seventeenth birthday last year, her father had given her a pearl necklace and promised her reasonably free rein in the choice of her husband. Sabina valued the promise more highly than the pearls.
“I thought that baby might be yours.”
“No, that’s little Linus. He and Faustina are Calpurnia’s—she’s my stepmother.”
Sabina went back to her book then, wanting to savor the last verses where Ulysses dealt with his wife’s suitors, wishing Homer might have written just a little more about Penelope in her husband’s absence. But the large sandaled feet in front of her didn’t move, and Sabina glanced back up at the russet-haired visitor who looked so out of place in the quiet vine-veiled atrium. Vix’s lurking grin flowered into something cheerful and lewd, and she laughed. “Fortuna be with you, Vercingetorix.”
“I make my own luck,” he bragged.
“Do you? That’s a nice trick, if one can manage it.” She wandered away, finding her place in the scroll again and reading as she walked. She didn’t have to glance over her shoulder to know that Vix was looking after her.
The inn Senator Norbanus had directed me to wasn’t bad. The innkeeper wasn’t happy to give me a week’s free rent, but he grunted at the senator’s seal. “Maybe you could help around the place,” he added. “I could use a big strong lad like you. Customers, it gets late, they like having someone with a knife see them home safe.”
“That pays well?”
“Not bad. Pays even better if they turn down the guard and you can hold ’em up in an alley.”
I quirked an eyebrow. “I want half.”
“Ten the first week, and thirty once I’m paying my own room.”
The room had lice, but at least it had a bed that didn’t rock back and forth like a river. As I flopped down I saw a serving maid creak down the stairs outside. Spotty skin, but breasts like melons, and she gave me a sidelong glance as she trudged by with a basket of blankets. Maybe the day wasn’t such a loss after all.
I didn’t think about Sabina. Why should I? Just a patrician girl I probably wouldn’t see again after she’d walked away from me in that atrium with her light brown hair swaying against her narrow back. Girls like her were off-limits, and anyway, she had small breasts. Figs, say, rather than apples. I liked apples. Or melons . . . I eyed the dank hall where the serving maid had gone.
If I’d known the trouble that small-breasted off-limits patrician girl would make for me, I might have choked her to death in the middle of that atrium rather than watch her walk away.
“[An] epic, sexy romp—the long-awaited sequel to Mistress of Rome ....Readers will delight in the depictions of historical figures like Hadrian and Trajan, as well as the engrossing and dramatic relationships that drive this entertaining story.”
-- Publishers Weekly (*Starred Review*)
“The lives of an ambitious soldier, a patrician heiress and a future emperor fatefully intersect.... Quinn handles Imperial Rome with panache.”
-- Kirkus Reviews