Sneak Peek: Empress of the Seven Hills, Chapter One
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. “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?”
“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.
“[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